Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sport is Competitive, Acting is Not.

So, I'm eavesdropping on some actors in Santa Monica. Not intentionally, mind, but I'm always drawn to actors and their musings about what it takes to "make it" in the business. I find it rather comforting that the conversations haven't changed at all in the 30 years since I left acting school. Only the slang is different. [First, let me just go an a little mini-rant: Since when can out of work actors afford to eat at the Broadway Deli? I mean, come on, 12 bucks for breakfast? Whatever happened to the starving artist thing? What happened to endless coffee refills at Denny's? Charming the waitress at Dupar's for an extra egg? Instant oatmeal (that you swiped from your ex-who-is-still-your-roommate-cuz-you-can't-afford-to-move) and Folger's coffee? Okay, I'm done.]

Handsome Leading Man is talking to Quirky Character Guy about his latest audition. After a few common pleasantries - they obviously are best friends and see each other often - the chat starts something like this:

Handsome:    "Dude, I nailed it!" (Of course you did.)
Quirky:          "Maybe they already have someone in mind." (Of course they do.)
Handsome:    "Dude, I'm perfect for it. Gotta call [the agent] to see if she got any feedback." (She didn't.)
Quirky:          "What did the competition look like?" (This is where my ears got all tingly)
Handsome:    "Dude, it was insane! There were, like, 20 of me and another 20 of me only shorter."
Quirky:          "Dude."
Handsome:    "I know, right?"
Waiter:          "Okay, who's got the corned beef hash?"

In nature, there is competition galore. Competition for food, for water, for mates, for shelter. The winner in this primal contest is always measured by something tangible -- measurable. The strongest, the fastest, the biggest. In business, competition is defined in terms of price, quality, value. And in sport, competition is defined in even more specific and measurable terms: points, speed, strength, accuracy. Acting, indeed all of the arts, is not measurable by any real standard. In all acting, whether or not you are cast in a role has very little to do with how good an actor you are. It has very little to do with your training or your resume.When you go "head-to-head" with other actors for the same role, the best actor doesn't always win the part. The arts are defined by like-ability not talent. That is not measurable. (Please do not get me started on the latest catastrophe on Dancing With the Stars. That would totally prove my point, but I'm still too upset to talk about it. Brandy got robbed. It also seems that in a show called "Dancing With the Stars" one would have to do the former and be the latter. Bristol Palin doesn't and isn't. There. I feel better. For now.)

Casting people will deny this. The good ones will anyway. But it is true.

Poor actors. We spend so much of our lives auditioning and preparing to audition. While it's part of the job, it is not part of the craft. The pressure to do well at an audition is huge. Our very livelihood depends on it, to say nothing of our self-esteem. But after we spend years training, after we prepare countless monologues and songs, after we walk through those studio doors to face whoever is doing the casting -- none of that matters.In a matter of seconds and certainly before you open your mouth, the casting people have already come to some conclusions about you. Height, weight, skin color, demeanor, posture, too handsome, not pretty enough, boobs to small, feet too big, freckles, pasty, blond, brunette, glasses, the list goes on.

Imagine if American football were played like this: Both teams arrive at the stadium. Everyone warms up. Then the offense takes the field alone and runs a play that they feel would score a touchdown if they were actually playing a game. Then the other team comes out and does the same thing. The officials then confer and decide who they think would win the game. That's casting.

Some of the best actors I know have never made a movie or played on Broadway. They have banged around regional theatres, produced their own stuff in 35 seat member companies and mounted 5 person Shakespeare in bars. Some have thrown in the towel and left acting altogether. Not because they weren't talented. Not because they weren't well trained. Not because audiences didn't appreciate them.

Competing for a role. It's a common phrase. We use it all the time. Hell, I've used it before. If you Google it, I'm sure the media uses it all the time. And let's face it, the career of acting is beyond challenging, especially given the fact that, at any given moment, there are a finite number of roles available and hundreds (strike that, thousands) of actors out there vying for them. But the idea of competing for a role is a little misleading. To be honest, it's also unfair for any actor to believe that by shear quality of their audition they will win the "competition" for a part.

What all young actors must grapple with throughout there careers is that their life as an working actor is not entirely up to them. Sure, there's a bunch of things actors can do to increase their odds of being cast, but at the end of the day other people decide our fate. However, an actor's life as an artist IS in their control. Pursue your craft, study, learn, read, stay engaged...TRY. Be persistent and dedicated to what it is you have chosen to do with your life. Understand that. Nobody told you it would be easy.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"What do you do?"

My wife is an actress and an author, but like so many others she has a day job. She works for a university.

Academics are a strange lot. I'm not talking about the erstwhile fellow or part-time professor, I'm talking about the university MBA/PHD/EDD/BFD with tenure, a pension, and a office with an "Emeritus" name plate already engraved for them -- for when their colleagues deem them too old to stand up in class anymore. I'm talking the theatre professor who hasn't been on stage since the 60s and still directs his majors in the same plays year in and year out. The history prof who hasn't changed text books in twenty years. The communications prof who still believes everything can be explained by a pie chart. They think of the world -- no they live in a world totally devoid of the kinds of things regular people must involve themselves in. Change, for example. Risk and danger. Fear of failure. They define things. Pigeon-hole people. Believe that you believe the way they do without any discussion. (Yes, I'm generalizing. No letters, please.)

Recently, while at a campus event with my wife, I was introduced to a former "department chair." Dr. Somebody-or-Other." Very dapper older gentleman. Tweedy. Stereotypical Mr. Chips type -- only mean looking. He extended his hand, introduced himself and his credentials. I took his hand and replied with a, "Pleased to meet you, Dr. Blah-Blah-Blah. I'm Wayne Watkins." [Quick aside: Whenever I introduce myself, I always flash on the scene from Holiday Inn when Bing Crosby as Jim Hardy meets Marjorie Reynolds as struggling actress Linda Mason for the first time. Her line reading of, "I'm Linda Mason" is priceless.] His response was, "Uhm, yes, what do you do?"

But something in Dr. Whose-Its tone of voice offended me. Made me prickly. I was in a perfectly fine mood until then. It was as if no matter what my answer was going to be, it wasn't going to be as important or as meaningful as what he did. What did he mean "What do you do?" And what exactly does he do anyway? I do lots of shit! What's it too you? Oh, and by the way, bow-ties only look cool on Dr. Who and George Will! Crap. I fell for it hook line and sinker.
What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? I've heard and, indeed, been asked that question a thousand times in my life. No, two thousand. Invariably, I have always answered it with whatever it is that is occupying the majority of my time at that moment. "I'm an actor" or "I'm in the music industry" or "I'm an Artistic Director" or "I'm between engagements at the moment." No biggie? No, biggie!

When I was a young actor, Don Richardson made us read all kinds of non-acting related books. [I really should say "non-theatre related" books. As it turned out, everything is related to acting. Everything.] A series of books by Robert Audrey were particularly important to me as both a young actor and as a 20-something entering the real world of work and money and survival. One book, The Territorial Imperative, remains on my suggested reading list for my acting students. The book begins, "A territory is an area of space, whether of water or earth or air, which an animal or group of animals defends as an exclusive preserve. The word is also used to describe the inward compulsion in animate beings to possess and defend such a space. A territorial species of animals, therefore, is one in which all males, and sometimes females too, bear an inherent drive to gain and defend an exclusive property."

My new friend, this "academic," guards his territory with a vengeance. Unlike most regular folks who shuck and jive and bob and weave through life, the academic has a very well defined world laid out before him. teaches the same classes to different faces. Does one thing and defines his existence by the letters after his name and tries to do the same to give order to the rest of the world. But my world and his are light-years apart. Same planet, different universes. In my world, there is no line in the sand dividing my experiences with my knowledge. To paraphrase a line from Mamet's "A Life In the Theatre," Everything you do is a part of your life. From grocery shopping to scraping gum of your shoe. From the mundane to the dangerous. Your whole life is made up of everything and everyone you have ever seen, touched, felt, known, experienced. So to be asked, "What do you do," is no less than an invitation to tell your life story.

Now, I feel confident Dr. Doo-Dad didn't really want to know my life story. I was in his building, he was the Alpha Dog and he simply wanted me to know that. He didn't care all that much about me either way -- he was just being "polite." Perhaps he really wanted to know where I worked. As in, "What do you do for money?" Guess I should cut Dr. Bow Tie a little slack.

But, I must say, I think my answer will change now and forever. What do I do? I do lots of shit...and so do you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Emmys. Yes, I do love my awards shows.

Well, the big ones anyway. I watch four awards shows religiously. (Can I say that in reference to watching awards shows? That I watch them "religiously?" Good thing no one reads these little rants as I'm sure that would offend someone.) Yes, now where was I? Four and four only: Oscars, Tonys, Grammys and the Emmys. (The Grammys are on the bubble for me next year. Too rude, too weird, too...just too fucking bizarre. "I know, let's cram every possible style of music into a a three hour show, throw in a bunch of  lasers during some country songs, a ton of smoke and special effects during, well, everything and make sure people accepting the awards are either drunk, ludicrously arrogant or completely incomprehensible. Wow! What a night!")

In every case, I've often thought that TV needs some theatre producers to figure out how to really put on a show that makes sense. Then of course, in the case of the Tony's, SOMEBODY needs to figure out how to present a representation of the "plays" that are nominated. Don't get me wrong, I love musicals, but straight plays need to be showcased too and the Tony productions have never been able to get that piece right. And can someone please hire a sound crew? For the last several years there has been miscues, microphone problems, bad mixing...I mean, if that were to happen during an actual Broadway play as often someone would get fired. People, PLEASE!

Generally, I enjoy the big four. Oh, sure, I complain after they are over. They are always uneven, someone goes on too long, someone doesn't go on long enough, something I think is shitty wins over things I think are awesome. Hey, it's an awards show, I'm okay with that and it's part of the fun.

But there's one thing that get me ranting every single time. Every time. When, let's say, a show wins for best drama series -- Does every single person even remotely affiliated with the show have to come up on stage? Really? REALLY? These televised awards shows, like the comedies and dramas and TV movies they honor, are television productions themselves. And pretty expensive ones. They have a sets and costumes and commercial breaks.  They have performers and lights and cameras. They have a time limit and and they have a budget they have a director. It is a big production. If a similar thing happened during the filming of "Mad Men" there would be all hell to pay! If John Hamm let his manager and agent and lawyer and make-up artist appear in every seen with him, they'd never get the show finished.

Oh and here's another thing: You guys all know how cameras work right? The camera is on the guy at the mic! Most of you aren't even making it onto our TV screens. It's ridiculous, it's selfish and it takes up too much time. Time that maybe we could give who have something to say. Time for another Jimmy Fallon bit. Time for a another clip or something. But, no, we have to sit at home, behind our TV trays, and watch 57 people we wold never recognize on the subway (or in a Subway) stumble, kiss, shake hands, and play grab ass on the way to a MCU of the producer giving a shitty thank you speech. Can it already. Let the producer get up there, accept the award, give his shitty speech alone and revel in the fact that you were part of something really special. My mother would have said, "Have some class."

It's not that I begrudge people the opportunity to take a bow for their work. That's what all the red carpet BS and the press conferences are for. The fans at home love to see their favorite shows and favorite actors win stuff. They just love to see their favorites get nominated. So don't waste their time -- give them the celebs, put a lid on the brass. Hey, producers, we ain't watching to hear you blather on. We wanna see George Clooney. Claire Danes. Like the TV shows and movies and theatre (okay, and music) you are supposed to be celebrating, end on a high note. Leave us wanting more. Don't leave us with the image of a bunch of people we don't know and then a quick cut to the host saying, "Goodnight, everybody."

This is, after all, Hollywood.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lynn Redgrave (1943-2010)

This past year, perhaps 18 months, I have known many people who have passed away. An aunt (cancer), an uncle (cancers - plural), a voice coach/friend (ALS), a close friend/actress (breast cancer), a friend/teacher/mentor (accident). All people I knew and loved and held close in my heart. People I did not see enough. I did not spend enough time with them or call them on the phone enough. I didn't remember their birthdays as often as I should have. I didn't have lunch or cocktails with them enough. I didn't know I could miss them this much.

Then there were those musical artists I came to known and befriend as a result of my days at Capitol Records. Jo Stafford, Al Martino and Les Paul, to name only a few of the more recent deaths. I had the pleasure to work with them and come to know them a little. Certainly, I was appreciative of their place in the world of recorded music and their monumental talent.

Then comes the list of actors and performers to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their inspiration. Didn't know them, per se, but felt their presence in the way I approached my own acting. Occasionally, I'd steal an idea, a tick, a glance or (on more than one occasion) a whole line reading. Robert Culp, John Forsythe, Karl Malden (in my mind the most under-rated actor of his generation), Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons, Kathryn Grayson. Like many others, whenever I hear of a famous person's death, I immediately start thinking about who the next two might be. They always go in threes, you know. I get sad, think about their work and their lives, watch the TCM tribute days, secretly toast them with my wife.

Death is an inevitability we all know, but that doesn't make it any easier. Even when those who die are giant faces on a screen.

Upon hearing of the passing of Lynn Redgrave, however, my reaction was odd. More personal. More like the way I felt when my Aunt Jackie and Uncle Garrold died. When ALS took Katrinka and breast cancer finally swept Kim up in its finality. With them, a light that had burned so brightly for so long, had suddenly just gone off. The room was dark. Suddenly. I knew it was coming for all of them, but the actual event was -- well, wrong. Like Death had been crying wolf with them for so long. So too, with the knowledge of Lynn Redgrave's death.

Perhaps it was her youth. I mean, let's face it, 67 is not all that old anymore. I am only a decade and a half away from that number myself. Hardly "old."

Perhaps the horrible years she has recently faced. Seven years with breast cancer and chemo. Brother Corin, dead just one month. Niece Natasha Richardson, dead just over a year. So much for any family, let alone such an important and talented theatrical one.

Or, perhaps it was the fact that Lynn seemed to embody what it truly meant to be an actor. In a career that spanned from Tom Jones and Georgy Girl to Shine and Gods and Monsters (and some 21 other movies after her Oscar nominated performance in the latter) she did every kind of acting in every kind of way. Her films made her a star, but her stage career was immense. She was invited to join The National Theatre for its inaugural season in the Old Vic. Her directors there? Olivier, Zeffirelli, Coward. In the 60s and 70s she appeared numerous times on Broadway in casts that any actor would give their eye teeth just to say, "I got to see ___________ on stage."

She was on the West End, did voice overs, took a long running series of Weight Watchers commercials and was triumphant on TV with sister Vanessa in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And, here's the hard part, she was always great. She had the career that we all dream of having. The career we feel is in our bones as we are berated by a rehearsal instructors in acting school. The career our college acting teachers have no idea is inside of us because, well, they are college acting teachers and not really actors themselves. The career we are at once envious of and revel in. When the actor is genuine and talented we are happy for their success and  truly inspired by their work and heir legacy. It's only when the success comes because of a pop culture hiccup or as a result of a reality show's incessant  and inconceivably unearthly ratings that we get a little testy at success.

Lynn Redgrave was the real deal. Sounds too simple, really. Maybe it even sounds a little disrespectful. "The Real Deal." We all should make it a point to learn from her life's example: Have dignity and class, be kind and generous, love friends and family, work hard and honestly. Be a complete human being.

Lynn Redgrave was one of us -- an actor. Honest and true.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Standing Ovations

"The Subject Was Roses" is playing here in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Form. The play was written in 1964 by Frank Gilroy, won the Pulitzer, was on Broadway where it won a Tony Award for Best Play and was made into a film.This particular mounting was put in motion by it's star, Martin Sheen. Sheen was in the original Broadway production and nominated for  Tony and Jack Albertson won the Tony for his portrayal as the father -- the role Sheen inhabits today. It's a homecoming of sorts for Sheen.

Two things need to be said right off the bat: I'm a huge fan of both the Taper (It's great space and I am rarely disappointing in the productions) and of Martin Sheen. Pound for pound he is one of My favorite actors of all time. Missiles of October, Apocalypse Now, The Execution of Private Slovak, Da, That Championship Season. Those films alone put Sheen in my books as one of our best actors. Then, of course, there's The West Wing. Not just a masterpiece of television drama by Aaron Sorkin, but a brilliant cast lead by Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet. Sheen's President Bartlet spoiled me for any other President in my lifetime. But I digress....

Liz and I always love going to the Taper. We'll usually have dinner and drinks al fresco at the Pinot Grill just outside the Taper doors. We'll saunter in with the other patrons, take our seats and let the play wash over us. All of this we certainly did on this evening. The play was good enough. Just good, not great. Most people probably came to see Martin Sheen live and in person on stage. fair enough. And Sheen was fine. Frances Conroy as the wife and mother was fine. Brian Geraghty (from the Hurt Locker) was obviously green and needed a firmer hand from the director, but serviceable enough considering his relative lack of theatrical chops. The set was fabulous! Later, our ride home would be filled with an intense discussion about why this play was chosen, how we would have addressed some of the problems we saw, etc. You know, the kind of stuff all theatre folk tear apart and chew on when we go see a play. But, all in all, a pleasant enough evening at the theatre. We enjoyed it.

Then the play ended. The applause started and everyone stood up. Not to leave, but to applaud. A standing ovation.

Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have been in the midst and a willing participant in a true heartfelt standing ovation. A performance so enthralling or so fabulously moving no one present would have even known they were rocketed to their feet by some unseen force of the theatre. Antony Sher as Richard III at the RSC in 1984. Kenneth Branagh as Henry V that same year, same place. Ian McKellan in his one-man show Acting Shakespeare at the Westwood Playhouse (now the Gefffen). No question: Standing O. Brilliant, moving, tours de force, passionate, exquisite, nonpareil. Whole theatres on their feet in a flash, knowing they had seen something truly special.

Since then, however, and particularly over the past ten or fifteen years, I've noticed that audiences will bestow a standing O on anything they pay money to see. Liz and I have been the only one's seated at some of the most mediocre plays and performances of the last millennium. We have seen dreadful celebrity performances bring the house down. We have witnessed $100 a seat musicals receive standing ovations, yet not a single tune was whistled fondly on the street afterward. What gives?

Has the sheer price of tickets made us believe that what we are seeing is spectacular? Have we become so enthralled by celebrity that we will always stand for star because he or she is in the movies? Do we just not go to enough theatre to know good from bad? Are our expectations just so low that we are simply amazed that poeple can learn that many lines?

I'm worried. The standing ovation at the Taper could not have been for the performance that evening. It was fine. It wasn't fabulous. It was journeyman work. It wasn't transcendent. The only explanation must be that Martin Sheen is famous. So we should stand for the famous guy. 

I rarely agree with reviews. But for once I agree with a review in the Hollywood Reporter. It is a fair assessment of this production. Some of it is the fault of a dated play that just doesn't mean what it once did. Gilroy's play has become a period piece. Some of the fault should fall at the feet of the director for not doing more to address the play itself and for not guiding a young actor better through the minefield that is live theatre. But most of the fault lies in the clapping hands and standing bodies of audiences that demands nothing more than a nice evening out.

I hope to see a play soon that will force me to my feet without a second thought. Indeed, I long for the rush that fills my head and face as I stand in awe of a massive display of talent and words and collaboration to powerful that my very being is catapulted from my comfort. Until that show comes around, however,I will continue to enjoy my play going with my wife and friends. I will continue to work in and support the theatre and the artists who work in it. I'll just do it from the comfort of my seat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Award Shows: They're Kinda Like Crack -- Only With Commercials

I watch all the awards shows. Well, not ALL the awards shows. The big ones that have to do with movies and theatre. Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, SAG Awards (my new favorite), Golden Globes. I'll also tune into the Grammys for a few minutes here and there. Awards shows are the ultimate guilty pleasure. Oh, sure, I could be watching a great re-run of Law & Order: SVU or trying to catch up on Burn Notice or making sure that the episode of Bones isn't the One that my wife keeps telling me about but I can NEVER find..., but awards shows are just too much for me to miss. The drama, the beauty, the ego, the BS, the ridiculous clothing, the bad hair, the unshaven masses, the terrible local coverage. I love it.

Things never work out the way I think they should. Of course, the movie I thought was heads and tails above the rest is always slighted somehow. The one film I didn't see always wins something huge. The actor I thought just sucked out loud is guaranteed a trophy of some kind. Someone will always say something rude and stupid. And, thankfully, something nice and good and kind and maybe even inspiring will eventually occur. At least once. Maybe twice.

I'm still amazed, though, at how an industry who's sole purpose is to entertain us can't put together a better 3 hours of entertainment. With few exceptions, the opening numbers are labored. Getting presenters on and off stage takes forever. They have to walk FAR! The writing is a little heavy handed at times. Oh, and why does everyone have to be announced in? Don't we know who these people are? They are famous after all. If we know Kate Gosslin and Chloe Kardasian, sure we know who Matt Damon and Charlise Theron? Don't we?

Someone or something is always forgotten or flubbed. Leaving Bea Arthur and Farah Fawcett out of the "In Memorial" piece really was inexcusable. I sit through the end credits of every film I go see and I'll bet they don't forget anybody. How does that happen? You remember to put in Michael Jackson AS AN ACTOR but NOT Bea Arthur or Farah Fawcett? Hum. Don't get it.

Then there are the speeches. I have a love/hate relationship with the speeches. I so want them to be inspired oratories on art and dreams. Usually, they are frantic attempts to be sure to thank an agent or publicist. Vapid lists of names no one watching has ever heard of. So you just won an Oscar. What's your agent gonna do, drop you if you don't thank him? Thank your agent at the party. Thanks your manager at the hotel bar or in the limo on the way home. This is YOUR award. YOU did the work. Inspire us with your dreams, fill us with the journey of creating the role, regale us with exotic locations. Don't thank the valet for parking your car close to entrance.

Oh, and for the sake of film and theatre people not as fortunate as you, show some class. Don't cop major attitude when accepting the award as if it actually means something to the rotation of the Earth. More than likely, you weren't the only one considered for the role. More than likely, you don't have the body of work that other more talented nominees in the category have. More than likely, you don't have the training or the experience that your colleagues have. More than likely, your performance struck a cord in the culture and wasn't all that terrific anyway but the the film you were in made an impact that couldn't be ignored. So really, your award is less about YOU and more about the ROLE you played. I'm just saying....

Every year on every show there's gonna be one. At least. One moment that makes you squirm in your La-Z-Boy. One out of place political statement (Oscars/Remember the Brando and Sasheen Littlefeather affair?), one amazing display of ego (VMAs/Can you say "Kanye?"), or one moment of total grandstanding (Oscars/Michael Moore). Hey, it happens. We can't control ourselves.

We show biz folk do have large egos, but most of us also realize that we don't do what we do all by ourselves. Sandra Bullock certainly didn't NEED to be self-effacing and funny. She could have been bitchy and arrogant. She could have told us how awesome she was in the The Blind Side and how all the other nominees were there by the sheer fact that their schedules allowed them to go on talk shows. But she didn't.

See, this why I love awards shows. Other than waiting for Brett Favre to retire and un-retire again, when does a fella really get a chance to this worked up? Now, what's playing at The Bridge tonight?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Robert Prosky

You might not know the name, but you certainly know the actor. Robert Prosky is one of those actors whose career I have always respected... and coveted. First of all, he was a gifted actor. Second, most people would not recognize him if they bumped into him in the produce aisle. Some might do a double take thinking he was a distant uncle or former school teacher. If you were to ask me to "type" him, I guess I would say he is like a softer version of Ed Asner. He generates the same power with less bombast. 

Prosky died in 2008 at the age of 77. He was an actor that did everything: Stage, films, television. "Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light." I had the pleasure of seeing him in A Walk in the Woods. Sometime ago Actors' Equity sent the following Robert Prosky missive in the mail to all its members. (I came across it while catching up on some filing I promised my wife I would get around to back in 2009.) I have shared it just as Equity had sent. I'll bet the capital "A' in Actor was Prosky's.

"I love Actors and by extension, the theater. I love the minutia that surrounds them both. I love listening and telling Green Room war stories. I love the onstage triumphs and yes, I love even the disasters. I love the adrenaline that shoots thru every Actor onstage when something goes wrong, and the relief that sweeps thru when some heroic Actor saves the day. I love performance. That time when the human beings on stage interact with the human beings in the audience and together they create the event of performance. It's one of life's most civilized experiences.

It has been said that an Actor must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the courage and audacity of a lion, and most importantly, the fragile vulnerability of an egg. It also has been said, and I'm not sure by whom, that the moment of not knowing is the moment that has the greatest potential for creativity. The professional and private lives of most Actors are filled to the brim with moments of not knowing. Actors are survivors and will continue to strive because they have the need to celebrate, in performance, that sacred communion between Actor and audience."


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I am NOT a writer.

Just needed to make that perfectly clear. Occasionally, I write things down but that doesn't make me a writer. My grammar is horrendous, I rarely complete a thought and I wouldn't know pronoun from an adverb.

Most of the time I just need to log a thought or make sure that some genius idea that just flashed in my brain gets captured in a way I can take credit for later. But a writer? No.

Writers are special. My wife is a writer. She can take a concept or a story or an idea and translate it through the written word that is engaging and funny and exciting and clever and thought-provoking. She can tell a story. I can tell a story, too, but I actually have to TELL it. Can't WRITE it. If I tried, it would come out like a really long nonsensical limerick.

Here in Hollywood there are about 187,295 writers. There are probably only around 2500 actual writers. The others are just like me, but can't face the fact that they suck. Me? I can face that fact very well. There are other things I am very good at, so the fact that writing is not once of them bothers me not in the least.

Just because I cannot write myself, however, does not mean I do not recognize good writing when I see it. I do. Kind of a dick about it, too. Nothing bothers me more than when I see a movie or a read book where the writing is worse than anything I could produce. I can fume for days. Just won't let it go. "How did that get made?" "Who publishes this drek?" "What knucklehead executive green-lighted that POS?"

Blame the internet, blame education, blame Congress. I know, blame Hollywood. That's it. Maybe if the popular culture that Hollywood creates would be a little more discriminating about what it churns out, there might actually be more reason to expect good writing.

The End.*

*What did you expect?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Acting Coach Prepares

A student recently asked me why I don't "write more about acting" in this blog. I sighed. I have failed. [Hanging head in shame.] Apparently, my sessions are not hitting home. At least for this young thespian.

As if the art and craft of acting is like learning your times tables, young actors continually look to people like me for secrety secrets that will make them famous. Coded formulas that will make them "good actors." Let's just memorize some lines, the rest will just manifest itself once in front of the camera or on stage. As if there are little pills they can take that will transform them into theatrical superheroes able to leap tall verse in a single soliloquy. Agents, seeing their new found prowess will sign them, send them on the perfect audition for the next big time and -- viola -- they are living in Beverly Hills with a chihuahua and a Bentley convertible. Or at the very least, a black lab and a Lexus SUV. Sigh.

Young man, you gotta do the work. What is the work? Life. Life is the work. There. I said it. Save your money, quit your acting classes. You now have the knowledge that all great actors throughout time have known before you.

As a young actor, I too, wanted a fast track to fame. Impatient. Ambitious. Arrogant. "I was PERFECT for that role, I nailed the audition, whatdya mean I didn't get a call back?" The fact is, not everyone can do this acting thing. Not everyone has the patience or the intestinal fortitude (never used that phrase in a written sentence before!) to study acting. Study, I said. Actually, you don't really "study acting." If you did that you might more readily be considered a critic. Actors study life. By applying their observations they become actors.

Like some cosmic soap box derby, most humans coast through life. For some the road is steep with treacherous turns and uneven surfaces. For most, the journey is straight, even and flat with hedges and soft shoulders lining the way. Maybe the occasional bump or pothole. The actor's job is not just to coast on whatever his path may be, but to constantly stop and start. Survey the landscape, test the wind, smell the flowers, change cars, crash, steer into the ditch.

Even more, the actor's job is to pay attention. To everything. One of my most important mentors when a gentleman named Don Richardson. When studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Don would always assign the most ludicrous reading assignments. Articles on social anthropology, biographies of Nazi war criminals, psychology, weird shit that had nothing to do with ACTING. Or so thought a young impatient, ambitious, arrogant acting student who had yet to really pay attention in class.

While I certainly am still rather full of myself, I do know (or rather have come to know) that teaching the art and craft of acting is more than creating a stable of young people who hang on my every word. It's not about becoming a guru. It certainly isn't about the money -- at least for me. It is more than tweaking a line reading or cleaning up a goofy double gesticulation that could seriously poke someone's eye out. It's about trying to lead human beings through their lives with their eyes open. It's about helping to sift through the chatter of the insignificant and realize when it's not. It's about getting them involved in the world, in history, in culture, in art, in politics, in food, in sport, others.

I can't "write more about acting" any more than I can teach more about acting. I think acting coaches should be like psychiatrists. We should be in the business of putting ourselves OUT of business. We should prepare our charges for the day when they will boldly and bravely leave us. Armed with with the tools we have given them and taught them how to use.

I wonder if this will count as "writing more about acting."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Americans Have Become Lazy and Self-Righteous

Okay, well, maybe not all Americans. Maybe just me. I suspect there are many like me, but I should really just use myself and hope others will get the message.

I've been watching "Faces of America With Henry Louis Gates, Jr." on PBS. By tracing the ancestry of specific famous individuals, Gates illuminates some larger and very truths about American assimilation. He also makes me feel bad. Gates doesn't make me feel bad, but the stories do. Not bad, really, but certainly guilty. And lazy.

We all have stories in our family, some apocryphal some true, that make us realize that our ancestors we a unique bunch of humans. The adventures, the journeys, the dangers they faced are romanticized in mind and in movie. The fact of the matter, though, is that life was hard for them almost across the board. Unbearably hard by the standards of the 21st Century. The stories that Gates uncover are just a small sampling of the countless immigrant tales that we all have somewhere long ago.

When I hear about Kristi Yamaguchi's ancestors, their arduous journey to America, 12 hour days - 6 days a week of backbreaking labor in the sugar plantations of Hawaii for 12 bucks a month, interment in a concentration camp during WWII in the Arizona desert, the death of an entire young family due to disease, the resilience of the once successful patriarch of the family to go back to work in the fields of California when he was close to 70 years old...well, it makes me feel almost unworthy or their legacy. And I'm not even related!

Bigotry and racism aside, poverty and famine not-withstanding, most Americans have no idea what it truly means to "work hard." No, I mean WORK HARD. No unions to safeguard the work place, no regulations to protect the laborer, no laws to get in the way of productivity. Granted, time and progress should make conditions improve. Indeed, they have. Yet, through those filters, I sometimes think we have come to take their sacrifices for granted. Rather than learning from the lessons of history, we as a people tend to repeat them. Skin color and country of origin change, but the hardships for the people on the bottom persist.

From the Irish and Asians in my ancestors time, to the African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in my youth, to Arabs of today. If you don't share my skin color or my religion, you must be, somehow, less than me. How does that happen given the fact that we are all here because of somewhere else? How does it happen that in a country so proud of our diversity, so proud of our heritage, so proud of our accomplishments -- that we still segregate, isolate, stereotype and hate? We hate those who were just like our ancestors.

Nothing new here in this post, I know. Others have been far more eloquent about the subject. Hell, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. just made some shows about it. Maybe I need to write a letter to a Congressman or a Senator. Maybe a phone call to make sure my representatives watch PBS. Or maybe I should take the "Think Globally, Act Locally" idea to heart on a micro level. Maybe it will be enough if I try to be the person my ancestors would be proud of. Someone who will get back on the horse time and time again, broken and bloody, and not blame someone else for my getting bucked off. Someone who's not afraid to work hard, be tolerant of others, keep on open mind and an adventurous spirit.

May be harder that it sounds.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Girl Scout Cookies and the Fall of Western Civilation

There always someone to blame. Or some company. Lately, we've been blaming Wall Street for everything bad about America. I blame the Girl Scouts.

There was a time when the whole idea behind the selling of Girl Scout Cookies was admirable and maybe even valuable. The Girl Scouts even have a little explanation on their website that talks about all the good things that can come about through the selling of over-priced cookies. 

The problem is, the program doesn't work that way any more. I cannot tell you the last time I actually bought Girl Scout Cookies from a Girl Scout. For over 15 years or so I have only purchased my delicious Samoas  from the PARENTS of said Girl Scouts. The parents bring the paperwork to their place of employment and, literally, just pass it around for their co-workers to commit to purchasing the cookies. Occasionally, (on rare occasion, I might add) the young ladies will deliver the purchases. More often than not, however, the moms or dads will just bring the boxes in to work and leave them on the appropriate desks.

How do these girls "practice useful life skills like planning, decision-making, and customer service" when Mom and Dad do all the work? The past few years or so, organizations like the Girls Scouts have been in  trouble. They, along with the Boy Scouts and other like minded youth organizations are fighting to remain relevant in a world. In fact, many youth based organizations are struggling to survive in the 21st century. From sports stalwarts like AYSO to the venerable scouting programs, membership numbers are plummeting.

Of course, I know the reason why. I also know the solution. Let me share the secret. Now, realize, the people running these programs will blame the membership retreat on technology, drugs, globalization, the media, and a host of other plaques that the world is facing now. You have head that video games and MySpace are the enemy. Complaints that cell phones and PDAs are contributing to the de-socialization of our children. Bull shit. 

The reason for the decline is two-fold: First, parents are doing all the work. Second, parent volunteers run the organizations and refuse to evolve with their children.

Proof is in the pudding to the first point by way of the cookie example. How can a young Girl Scout possibly benefit from the lessons, indeed the MISSION, of selling cookies if they don't actually do the work. Parents, listen up. You are not helping. In fact you are cutting the legs out of the program.  You are teaching your children that they don't have to actually in order to meet their quota. "If Mom and Dad sell enough cookies for me, I'll get my badge." (Don't even get me started on the whole every-child-should-get-a-prize-just-for-participating thing!)

The second part is the hardest to address because the volunteers will deny it. If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you got. Parents, volunteers, administrators listen up: YOU must change the way you view the organization. YOU must allow it to grow beyond your historic perception of it. YOU must be the ones to let go of age old, tired, worn out ways and traditions. YOU must be willing to let the brand evolve with the times -- and yes, maybe even change the logo or the uniform or the rules to reflect that evolution. Remember, your logo is NOT your brand. YOU are not the organization. You may run the organization, but you are not the reason for it, the mission of it, the essence of it.

The solution? Give these all of these organizations back to the kids that define them. Allow the kids (the actual members in the title) the power to be mentors and teachers. Let them be the ones who are the ambassadors for the good things done, the events, the games, the lessons, the fun. The only way you do that is to give them ownership of the organization.

AYSO has been struggling with this for years. The volunteers who run the programs, from the National Board of Directors down, actually view themselves as the most important piece of the puzzle. All company communications are directed at the volunteers. All training is focused on the volunteers. The rules and regulations are so complicated and convoluted that growth cannot occur organically because there is some worn out belief that "the way we've always done it" is sacrosanct and cannot be tampered with. The result? Kids stop signing up. Oh, sure, there's a lot of smoke and mirrors as these volunteer groups dance around problems and run-in-place while they try to convince other volunteers they are trying to do something. but the results are obvious, your membership numbers are declining.

On the AYSO front, I speak as someone with some specific knowledge as I was it's director of marketing for several years. I've seen first hand the stagnation that comes from very well-intentioned adults failing to let go of traditions and policies that just don't work any more. Not because they are bad, but because the world has evolved and the organization has failed to change the way it pursues its mission. A mission statement isn't an end point. A mission is something you must always be in pursuit. You must always be trying to figure out new ways to fulfill it. Because it is always in front of you, you must adapt with the road. If it's bumpy, either fill the bumps or steer around them. If it's hilly, know when to accelerate and when to take your foot off the pedal.

As a consultant that deals with local chapters of many of these other youth-based organizations, I can also tell you, they all are facing these same troublesome times. The causes and solutions are the same. Give the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts back to the girls and the boys. Give your local soccer and baseball leagues back to the kids. Let them have a say in how things are run, what the company looks like, what they want to hear and who they want to hear it from. You will be surprised at how smart, savvy and adaptable kids are. You'll also be surprised at how fast the membership slide will stop. You still have to help run the programs as volunteers. Just get your egos out of the way and understand that you volunteer for the kids not for your own personal and social satisfaction. Although, if you do your job right, with selflessness and humility, those will come. Empower the kids and thrust their judgement and your organization will grow. Yes, you may have to change a  logo, or a uniform, or an attitude. But the brand will remain stronger for it.

So, until I actually have a Girl Scout approach me to buy some cookies -- I'm just gonna have to learn to live without my Samoas.

The image is from

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Shakespeare v. Doyle

So, prior to Xmas I was reading reviews of the new Robert Downey, Jr. movie, Sherlock Holmes. (As a dyed-in-the-wool Holmes fan, of course, I had to see it. First showing on opening day. Loved it.) In almost every single case, these movie critics (fodder for another post, for sure) were very quick to insert that "true Holmes fans won't like it."

Hum. That's odd, don't you think? The theatre world has been re-imagining Shakespeare for centuries and this same fraternity of critics would shout "Daring!," "Imaginative," Brilliantly accessible." But make Sherlock a little bit more fit and Watson a little more svelte and somehow you've stepped on someone's literary dog.

I also, take historical umbrage at the comments by reviewers of the Holmes/Watson apparent man-crush in the Downey film. I would respectfully remind our learned critics that this was Victorian England. True, there was an emerging femist movement, but let's face it -- men and women were not exactly on equal terms. Men went to "gentlemen's clubs" for companionship. They didn't stay home and chat with the missus. Women were little more that property. So under the filter of the times, perhaps that relationship between Mr. H & Mr. W. is not so far removed from reality.

In my humble opinion "real" Holmes fans will absolutely enjoy this new take on the sleuth. I still enjoy Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett is forever my personal favorite Holmes. But now we have a version that dares to do something different. This film dares to be contemporary. It's a good action movie, is beautiful to look at as a film, pays attention to detail, is wonderfully costumed and has excellent actors giving excellent performances. I'll spend 12 bucks on that -- and Look forward to the sequel.