Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column revisits a question from last week's column, addresses the topic of reduced opportunities due to ethnic casting, and offers advice to an actor who is currently stage managing.
I invite actors of all ages to continue write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!
A critical letter was forwarded to me regarding the third answer in last week's column, Nov. 26- Dec. 6 regarding tools for dealing with long runs. A New York actor thought the advice I offered was "dreck," and among other things insisted that I did not really answer the question and avoided the "nuts and bolts" response that the actor needed. The letter was not addressed to me so I cannot post it in the column (at least the parts that were publishable) but I would still like to respond for anyone who had a similar response.
Reading over the column, I understood how he might perceive the nuts and bolts section to be a little shallow. I did not, as I have in some columns, give a "how to" list. This is because I have known actors in these circumstances to work "too hard" at making their performance fresh, which in effect makes them duller. I didn't want to overwhelm the actor, and I also see the critic's point. When I asked him to contribute some "nuts and bolts" answers of his own to add to the answer, he suggested reading Uta Hagen's book Respect for Acting.
First, I want to thank him for giving me the opportunity to once again recommend Hagen's book, which is one of the classic books all actors should familiarize themselves with, along with An Actor Prepares by Stanislavsky, Meisner's On Acting, and many more (that I may include in a subsequent column about must-have theatre books). Although to me, his answer better fits the question "What good books can I read about how to act?" Nevertheless, I did find a paragraph in the book, about the same length and with some similarities to my column answer, on the topic of 'how to stay fresh in long runs.' I would like to include this quote from her, which is a great addition to my answer and includes a factor I did not.
Hagen loves the challenge of long runs and the opportunity they give her to truly become the character for three or so hours each night. She says, "I have found something gets stale or dries up only when I become aware of outer effects or of watching my actions rather than staying involved and truly executing them."
Isolating what it is you want, what you are doing to get it in the scenes you are in on stage, and simply doing it, is essential to staying connected. An example: You want to get a woman to fall in love with you, and you want to hide it. So, you will tease her, spar with her, feign attraction to another, etc. Becoming absorbed in the actions will help keep you feeling "fresh."
I also believe that if you simply intend to keep learning and bring more focus to your performances, you will find new things each time. This is not "hokey magic" or avoiding-the-question-advice, I believe it is the power of the creative impulse.
The critic also detested my use of terms such as "grounding" and "ritual" in an answer like this. I really did not intend for the answer to sound New Age-y and I can understand his reaction. However, I think Ms. Buckley is a wonderful performer and I had attended the event at which she gave this "ritual" reply (so it was a handy quote), plus the advice-seeker was in a musical, so I stand by that example as a good selection.
As for "grounding" -- I think whatever word you use to describe it -- becoming centered, focused, "getting out of your head" -- I have heard and used all of these -- I think this is an important state for an actor to achieve before an doing a piece of work. Tune up your ears. Loosen up your physical and emotional body. Get your energy flowing through your limbs, instead of all tied up in an anxiety knot in your shoulders and temples. . .I am inclined to think the critic and I are disagreeing about language, not principle. Surely the critic knows that great teachers such as Hagen have strongly recommended similar tasks.
Many actors in long runs drop the task of warming up or focusing oneself before a performance, which is why I brought it up. I used to think that forming a hand-holding circle with all the cast members before a show was corny until I realized how much connecting as a team really helped, like a football team huddle. Many casts tend to do this only on big nights and then they stop. Alone, in groups, or both, actors need to do something, unless they prefer to go onstage uncentered, or ungrounded, "in their heads," or however the critic would define that state. If the circle works for them, then it's one less thing to do on their own. I want to make clear that I was reiterating what I have seen actors do to become quiet.
I encourage people to write if they feel an answer is incorrect, misleading, or vague. I thank the writer for his time and contribution to this column.
What do you think of the current trend in "ethnic" casting? Do you think that actor's with that "all-American" look still have a chance? Why is it that so many directors are wanting to go against the traditional casting look? I am all for equal opportunities, but shouldn't talent be the primary factor? Also, does Equity ever keep track of what performers in what races are being used? And if so, do they ever notice that your average Caucasian (I assume the majority, fractionally speaking) has maybe less opportunities these days? And if so, is any effort made for equal opportunities in that direction?
from, just curious
Hey Just Curious,
I support "ethnic" casting. I am refreshed by watching actors of many different cultural persuasions in one play. It reminds me that the basic issue we are dealing with is humanity--which transcends racial differences.
Although it happens sometimes, I don't think people are generally cast in non-traditionally ethnic simply parts because they are ethnic. I think they are cast because they are talented, and producers and directors are trying to open up the canon of plays, which is largely a Caucasian body of work, to actors of all races.
I believe there is still plenty of "traditional" casting going on, and there will always be a need for an "all-American" type. You can always call Equity and find out if they offer that information (see second column for phone number). But honestly I am doubtful that "color-blind" casting has gotten to a point where all-American actors are being denied casting due to their "all-Americanness."
You know, the pendulum may feel as though its swinging a bit in the opposite direction. I think it's a good thing. Change is happening. It'll even itself out.
If you are feeling cheated of opportunity, well, I have to ask, isn't that part of being an actor? Ethnic actors feel cheated because there are no parts for them, or no parts that aren't stereotypical; heavier people feel excluded from opportunities that belong to thin people, women in their 40's are "old hags" in Hollywood, lyric sopranos feel they are being done away with altogether...the list goes on. The challenge here is to keep going in the face of the perceived obstacles.
Take care, Curious.
These days it seems like getting parts in shows means doing everything except simply auditioning and riding on talent. People like previous models, comedians, TV stars, etc. Other lead roles are cast through a small group. What breakthroughs do you suggest might help you be noticed?
Your question picks up where Mr. Curious' left off.
What you said is true. Names keep getting rehired. In the minds of most producers, recognizable talent equals money. Never forget the "business" part of Show Business, in which the goal is to make money.
You just have to keep going. In time you very well may be cast again and again because of your reputation, whether it's on a small scale or big. You need to keep auditioning for things, and remember, you never know what can happen.
Unknowns get noticed in a variety of ways. Some work in small scale, little-to-no pay shows or films that get good reviews, have unexpected success, and then are extended or transferred. Actors in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago made quite a name for themselves (John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise) by forming their theatre company. Others are fortunate to work with great directors when they are just starting out. When the directors make it, they hire the actors they like, bringing them into high profile projects.
One thing to consider when trying to build a name for yourself is behaving like a professional. Directors and producers respect actors who are responsible, dependable, committed and efficient. One Broadway star was promoted from chorus to lead and now continually works because she has this kind of reputation.
Rose Shulman, in her essay "The Art of Acting," says that as actors, "Our friends are good common sense, an affectionate consideration for material objects [props,scenery, etc.] realizing that blood, sweat and tears were used at the source of their creation; a respect for time in its most realistic sense (that is, a call at 7:25 PM). A great director (I forgot who) once said that is was well for an actor to be 10 minutes early for any appointment. A respect for space; also in its most realistic sense: "Am I leaving an area just a little bit better than I found it"?, and above all, an affectionate consideration for mankind."
I like that. Best of luck.
Last week was the try outs for our school musical. I LOVE the theatre and would have been happy with any part or just being involved in any aspect. I did try out and was not cast on the basis that I did not look the part. I took my "rejection" gracefully and applied for stage manager. However, some people felt it was their true calling to perform and when not cast, fitfully complained to the director. He gave them a call back and finally gave them small parts.
How should I handle this situation? I don't feel I am in any position to question the director but this is unfair to the rest of us. I really wanted a part but I trusted his casting judgement. Some of these people don't even deserve a role, they just want to be in the spotlight. Now I, as stage manager, have to deal with these divas. How should I handle this?
-- Feeling Left Out
I thank you for sharing your dilemma with me and I think there is a very valuable lesson here for many actors.
First, you need to examine your choices. You chose to act "gracefully" , to trust and not challenge the authority, and to offer your services in another position. There is nothing wrong with this -- IF it's what you really wanted to do.
But I have a hunch that if you completely "would have been happy with any part or just being involved " you would not have been so disappointed by the other students' actions.
The other students chose to follow their faith in their talent and fight for what they felt they deserved. They liked themselves and performing enough to challenge the director, and they won! That is empowered behavior. It may not be polite, but it is effective.
This experience may not be pleasant, but it can be a gift. You learned early on that being the "good actor"--accepting, graceful, trusting, in this business is not always rewarding. It can leave one feeling left out. Certainly I do not advocate being unconsciously self-centered or inconsiderately aggressive. But those students are happier than you right now because they didn't just accept the circumstances-- they found courage, took a big risk , and took action to turn an unfavorable situation around to their advantage.
Stick it out as the stage manager, and do the best job you can. See what you can learn about performing from watching backstage. You may not like the attitudes of some of the "divas", but you can respect them for modeling a valuable lesson about self-empowerment for actors.