NY vs L.A.; What is Talent?

NY vs L.A.; What is Talent? Happy Thanksgiving to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column addresses the issues of talent, NY vs. L.A., and offers advice to a young actress in Tennessee. 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--or for this issue I should say, "creativity." Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Happy Thanksgiving to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column addresses the issues of talent, NY vs. L.A., and offers advice to a young actress in Tennessee. 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--or for this issue I should say, "creativity." Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Question
What do you think talent is and how do you know you have it?

Dear ?,

I just finished reading David Mamet's book True and False, subtitled Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, and I'm inclined to borrow from Mamet's answer. He says, "I don't know what talent is, and, frankly, I don't care."

It may be blunt, but I have to agree that talent is not only difficult to describe, it is also somewhat irrelevant. "Talent" is something someone else says you have, as a result of their feeling moved by your performance, which in turn allows you to feel gifted and somehow entitled to your profession. Mamet goes on to say, "An actor's concern with talent is like a gambler's concern with luck. Luck, if there is such a thing, is either going to favor everyone equally or going to exhibit a preference for the prepared."

What does he mean by this? At a certain time and place, some actors may have an easier time dazzling the audience than others, an easier time falling into their creativity than others. Nevertheless, acting is a skill that can be learned, and everyone can cultivate "talent" if they work hard. And everyone, talented or not, can get work if they work at it. I cannot honestly say any one has MORE "talent" or creativity than another, I would say instead that some have a greater proclivity for performing and access their creativity more easily than others.

When I began teaching, I quickly realized that it is the will of the student to improve that really matters. There are gifted people who do not really want to go further, they just want someone to mirror how talented they believe themselves to be. And then there are students may not "blow me away" off the bat, but who later end up astounding me, moving me with their "talent" -- which was usually born out of hard work.

I was once in class and after a scene I knew I was prepared for, the teacher gave me and my scene partner feedback. She said to my partner "Now you don't smell like talent." (I had thought my partner was great and didn't get what she was getting at) Then she pointed at me and said, "She smells of talent" (I started sniffing myself). And then back to him, "You want to smell like talent." Now at first I thought. . .'I must be special, emitting this odor of talent . . what perfume did I put on before class?' However, I knew I was no more talented than my scene partner. The teacher was pointing to our attitudes. My partner had done the work, but having had a successful career in another field, he'd adopted this "I don't really care" tude. As a result he wasn't radiating a "talentful" odor.

I think the "odor" comes from confidence. It's knowing within oneself that you are a creative being. And carrying that knowing, that confidence into the world. To "smell of talent" doesn't mean you have to be loud or pushy or try to prove yourself. You can be very quiet, in fact, and "reek" of talent.

So if you are wondering whether or not you have talent, forget it. The questions I recommend you ask yourself instead are -- how much do I enjoy the process of performing and does it make me feel alive? Do I have LOTS of courage? Do I have perseverance?

Then go for it.

Question
Hi Blair,
I've been reading many of the questions previously posted, but haven't come across mine yet. So, here goes. . . I am a 28-year-old, recent graduate of William Esper Studio (two-year program) in NYC, and have done some (very) small roles in movies, etc. I don't have an agent yet, but have some friends with reputable representation. My ultimate goal is to do film work.
Should I stay in NY and take advantage of those connections, or should I move to L.A. now, and begin building my career there? I'm getting mixed responses about moving to L.A. without a packed reel or many theater credits.
And, yes, one more question. . . I get a copy of the FILM GUIDE by Ross Reports on a regular basis, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of casting out of NY. Is there really a substantial amount of film work in NY, or is it mostly theater?
Sincerely,
L.A. bound-To be, or not to be. . .

Dear L.A. bound-To be, or not to be. .. ,
To NY or to L.A.? This has become the question.

It's true -- L.A. is the feature film capital of the world. But before exchanging coastlines, I would seriously question your motives for moving.

Now of course, anything can happen. You can pack up your life, plop down on the plane right next to a big producer and fly into a sunset of success. But let's examine the odds of that happening: Possibility factor -- high, probability factor -- low. It is more possible and probable that you would spend the next few years in L.A. rebuilding and getting to the point at which you are currently at in NY.

Before moving, really consider if you secretly hope that L.A. will be the magic wand that will bestow your career with the jump start you desire. Again, it might. And you could be setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment.

If you need a move to get things flowing in your life and not just your career, if you sincerely desire to be in warmer weather, if you have the funds to buy a car and have good place to stay for a while as you look for a place of your own, if you are good looking or have a look that really works on film and are certain that film is ultimately all you want to do, then move.

Otherwise, it may make more sense to move to L.A. in stages. Build up your reel and resume in NY and go to L.A. for pilot season. Stay with a friend and set up a few meetings. See if you actually like living in L.A. (I lived there for a year. Nice place to live, actually -- but I'm just a New Yorker).

Now, yes, it is true, way fewer feature films are cast in NYC. But this is changing. I would build up your reel before you go. You can do this through student films (which there are a ton of opportunities every week in Back Stage as I'm sure you know), and also independent films. Many, many "indies" are shot in NYC. New York actress Connie Britton got a fabulous agent in L.A. because of a little film she made called The Brothers McMullen, which as you probably know became a big hit. Connie moved to L.A. because L.A. called her. Now that, in my opinion, is a great way to go.

In my experience, it was easier to get cast without connections in NYC. It was easier to make connections in NY-- in the theatre, anyway. I also recommend that you purchase a copy of Robert Cohen's Acting Professionally. Cohen gives one of the best essays I have come across to date on how to choose which big town is the one for you.

Good luck making your decision!

Question
Hi Blair,
I was reading recently -- I don't remember if it was American Theatre or maybe Dramalogue or perhaps NY Times, but anyhow it was an article about this conference of theatre instructors. One of the guest speakers was Tony Kushner and he suggested theatre majors should be eliminated. As far as he was concerned (and I'm sure he's right) there are too many actors coming to work in theatre, film and television without enough knowledge, without enough education. He feels that actors should not be worried about classes in movement and vocal skills and should pay more attention to literature, lang. arts and the sciences. Something that will make a person much more well-rounded and ready to REALLY understand the work of playwright, director or composer.
I don't agree with him there. I mean, I agree with him partially. I think that only training a person in acting skills alone is not enough. . .a liberal arts education is more than beneficial in helping sculpt a person as an artist. I don't agree that theatre departments & majors in colleges should be eliminated altogether. . .that seems ridiculous to me.
Wondering what your thoughts are.
Can you tell my mind's on college?
Yours,
Nasli

Dear Nasli,
Hey, old friend. I wouldn't say it's overwhelmingly obvious that you're a late high school actor and your mind's on college ; >.

It's natural to want theatre professionals to support your choices for completing your education, and it can be hard when they don't -- especially because actors generally want to do the right thing so badly because they believe it increases their odds for getting jobs.

What's great about your e-mail is that you used Mr. Kushner's opinion to formulate and become clear about your own. Everyone has a different opinion about acting and actors and the way things are in the biz. My thoughts are, if you want a college degree, then go to college. And if you want to major in theatre, then do that. Kushner said what he did and universities are not closing down their theatre programs. They are open to those who want to walk that path. And they will stay that way.

I also believe there are plenty of working actors who do not have high levels of education. The smarts that are needed to be an actor, such as a keen awareness of humanity and the ability to read and interpret a script from that perspective, don't necessitate a liberal arts degree.

Feel free to go to college, major in theatre and take courses in other things to "sculpt yourself." Whatever you do, remember when you can, to have fun.

Question
Dear Blair,
I read your column whenever I can, and I find you answers helpful.
Now I'm hoping you can help me out. I'm 17 years old, and have been doing community theatre for a few years. What I'm wondering is what comes after this? I would love to get into acting professionally, but I realize that to do this I will most likely need to relocate to a metropolitan area (I live in Tennessee), and it still not very realistic
. Are New York and L.A. the only places to go, or would it be possible to go to a smaller area such as Atlanta? And do I need to get an agent now, or is it too soon?
Thank You,
Melissa

Hi, Melissa!
Thanks for your question. To NY, or to L.A.? The question again. . . No, NY and L.A. are not the only places to go. It depends on what you want to do and how far you want to go. If you eventually want to make it on Broadway, then you are eventually going to have to go to New York. If you want to be on TV or in film, then you're most likely going to have to get to L.A. at some point.

But you can get there gradually. Atlanta has a booming theatre scene. I think both Atlanta and Chicago are great places to have an acting career. Most people in those cities also need another job to support their careers, unless they have a trust fund or are a member of the few highly successful companies. This is also true of many actors in NY and L.A., where life can be more expensive and harsh than in those other cities.

I recommend as a first step, to try to work the regional circuit in Tennessee. I know of Tennessee Rep and the Clarence Brown Theatre (see Playbill On-Line regional theatre listings for more theatres there). Being 17 years old, with all those community theatre credits, you should have a good chance at getting cast. Invite agents to see you when you do. Don't worry too much about agents yet -- get a few regional theatre credits under your belt first. Then refer to previous Ask Blairs about Getting an Agent and proceed from there.

Talk to theatre artists in Atlanta. Use the Playbill On-Line Connections database in Theatre Central to see if you can locate other actors and theatre people in Atlanta -- actors LOVE to talk.

Best of luck to you!