Being able to say “no” honestly  without burning a bridge

It’s a crappy feeling when we’ve asked someone a direct question and encouraged them to feel free to say ‘no’ and then we get no response at all in return.  I’ve heard people say silence is an acceptable answer.  I don’t think so.  I think it’s cowardly and embarrassing.  Because if you had enough confidence to be silent you have enough confidence to respectfully communicate with the person doing the asking.

Silence is fear-based.  It’s actually not self-respectful.  It still says no but makes for an awkwardness between the parties.  It shows no sense of healthy ego.

Being able to politely say no is an art form.  I know people who can fire people and make the person being fired feel just fine.  Being able to say no and not burn your bridges is really necessary for this industry.  Learn how to do it well.  Stop avoiding it.  When you can be honest with someone and simply say no the other person can retain their respect for you and feel that you have respected them. When you just try to act like you weren’t approached to begin with, it makes you look very, very amateurish and weak.

Now other people, in an effort not to feel guilty I think, say no in an extremely aggressive style that just makes them seem – excuse my French – bitchy.  It always seems to me that response also shows no sense of healthy ego.  If someone has to be aggressive in saying no, it’s as if they need to use that heavy attitude as a shield.

So when you need to decline, find a way to respectfully say no and retain respect on both sides.  It will serve you well and get easier the more you do it.

Preparation time

One of the biggest mistakes actors make is not taking the time they need to prepare.  While it is true that in an audition setting you will feel the pressure to be “there” on a dime, you’ve got to prepare or you will cut corners and just project your acting on your voice.

The more you spend solid time in rehearsal first particularizing your text and then fully preparing (emotionally) before you act it, the more you will be able to get to the depth of the material when you are forced to begin in a shortened time frame.

It is crazy that no one expects a violinist to walk out on stage and play without warming up her instrument but an actor rushes into talking her circumstance rather than finding a way into the depth of the circumstance.

If you don’t take the time to fully prepare and to be prepared at your rehearsals, the more you will short cut to your great disadvantage in performance and auditions.

Actors with challenges

It ultimately is your humanity, your soul – if you like that word – that will move people about your performances.  It’s nonsense to think that actors with dyslexia, learning disabilities, social disabilities, etc. can’t become professional actors.  Do not let other people make you think that you can’t do great work.  I have graduates making six-figure salaries now solely as actors who had lots of challenges that other actors didn’t have.  Maybe that’s why they have become so successful.  They didn’t make excuses or feel sorry for themselves; they put their shoulder to the grindstone, mastered their work and are now in demand.

Theater is simply harder than film

Have been musing today that the real reason that most young actors today want to do on-camera work is not because they want to make more money or be celebrities (although that is surely true for a majority of them) but because the simple fact is theater is just harder.  It’s harder to be extraordinary on stage, in real time, with one take.  It’s hard, really hard to go through an excellent Meisner program.  It’s meant to create extraordinary artists.  It can do that. It also does a wonderful job of weeding out the folks that really don’t have the talent or work ethic or passion to become great.  And that’s a good thing.

There’s a reason why my friend Ernie Losso used to say about his many years of work in LA as a producer and director, “The only thing an actor needs to be good on camera is a great Meisner class.”

And there’s a reason that LA casting directors, directors and writers STILL want New York trained actors.  They know that these people will have chops.

Of course there’s a lot of old-fashioned academic stage training that doesn’t get people where they ultimately want to be.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

The devaluation of teachers

The single most irritating thing about being a teacher is that our wider culture has an idea that teachers are “givers,” and we’re expected to give of ourselves for free.

I am constantly asked to read a script, find someone a monologue, give them some advice, watch their reel and give them feedback and put in hours coaching them for performances FOR FREE.  People actually are surprised when I say there is a fee for what I do.

I think about our public school teachers who are also expected to teach for low wages from the generosity of their hearts without regard to the fact that good teachers are professionals.  That their jobs are important.  And when you devalue them or want cheaply paid teachers, you get what you pay for.

The devaluation of teachers has been going on for a long, long time and it has doomed America.  Teachers have come to be known as mediocre at their craft – we’re seen as nice people who are willing to take a low wage because we love our students so much.

Nonsense.  The best among us have worked hard for decades to become experts in what we do.  Our salaries should match that.

So if you’re an actor know this.  You really offend your teachers, your directors - anyone who has something that you expect them to do for free.  You don’t expect doctors to look at your xrays for free.  You don’t expect lawyers to give you advice for free. 

And while I’m on my virtual soapbox, if you require a reference letter please behave professionally.  The person writing the letter should not be expected to figure out where to send it.  They should not be expected to pay for the stamp much less international expedited mailing services to get it to the institution on time.  You should be offering to reimburse them for that upfront.  And you MUST ALWAYS acknowledge the favor with something more than a one-line email that says “Thx.”  I have even had an actress who I did all of that for who didn’t even send that 3-letter email to me at the end.

Teachers are not surrogate mothers who do all of this for you simply for the joy it brings them.  Learn this now!

Why you complete training, why you repeat training

I recently watched a monologue a former student put up on Facebook.  I was crestfallen.  It was completely projected.  The use of time was completely fake.  There was nothing that wasn’t pre-rehearsed, hadn’t had the good stuff completely consciously  rehearsed out of it.  It was not connected to something deeper – although I believe the actor believed that it was.  It makes me sad.  And it’s a cautionary tale that actors lose the ability to know sometimes whether their work is good or not.  And their friends, unfortunately, will encourage the bad work because they are laymen that don’t know better.  

This is why you go back to your training.  Why you go back to your coach, instructor, mentor.  To make sure that the forces that be do not seduce you back into superficial and mediocre versions of yourself.  And this is why you finish your training and you keep working with a coach until both of you are satisfied that your skills truly are skills that you cannot be seduced away from and that they will last a lifetime.

Use of the word "exciting"

Young artists a warning for you.

If you believe that using the word “exciting” is going to make audiences want to see your production, you probably need to re-think your marketing strategy.

What I see all the time are generic phrases describing locations as being exciting, productions as being exciting, directors as being exciting, scripts as being exciting but I almost NEVER see those entities described in a way that is SPECIFIC to them and therefore interesting to me.

Pay attention to what you write.  And try to give us details that help us understand what it REALLY is that might make us feel excited to come see you or your work.

It’s not your job to change the negative atmosphere around you. It is your responsibility to manage your own feelings and know that where you are is not forever.  There are people who are dream killers. Don’t try to convince them of anything. Don’t waste your time trying to change them.  My advice – stay away from them as much as you can and keep your eye on your long-term goals.

Lesson from Pilates

I was working with my Pilates instructor on a very bad flare-up of my sciatica. 

I did not want to do any back bend work – I was afraid of it.

My instructor guided me through back bend work because she felt it was what I needed.

Boy was she right! 

Sometimes it’s what we’re afraid to do that we need to do most.

   Google “NC Pilates."  Amy Michaels and Marie Sherr – wonderful teachers.

Don’t understand why you’re not enthused about shooting your new webseries?  Wondering why you don’t feel like going out and auditioning?  Everyone goes through those down times when we can’t figure out why we aren’t more excited about the stuff we could be doing for our careers.  Wendy discusses this and has a new resource that may help.

What Acting Isn't

A few nights ago I went to a theatrical performance where nearly everyone was very ineffective.

This is because everyone was so busy pretending (and many not pretending very well) to be a character.  The result was that it was uncomfortable to watch and that no matter what the script was about, completely unmoving to watch.

The next morning I attended a church service.  A young woman got up to read the scripture lessons.  Now I’ve also seen many people in church feel the need to “read expressively” or something like that where their phoney voices made it very difficult to actual hear what they were saying.

This young woman just read clearly.  She understood what she was saying and delivered it simply; she was connected to herself and her text.  And it was very easy to listen and very moving to hear.

I thought ‘if the actors from the previous evening were in this room and I had the opportunity to speak to them, it would be easy to help them understand that if they gave up all the pretending their theatrical performances would be impressive instead of embarrassing.’

Alas, I do not that have that opportunity.

Acting is not pretending.  If you can find a class that will teach you how to do what the characters do, actually feel what the character might feel because you are the one in the situation not the character, if you can find your way to a director who won’t let you step outside of yourself and act sort of ridiculous, you can change from being an amateur to being a real actor whose work is not just worth seeing but hiring.

Breaking the 4th Wall

When a reviewer suggests that a young theater company is doing something “new” by breaking the fourth wall, I LMAO and also feel a bit of anger rise.

Darlings (she said in a patronizing tone) people have done this for decades if not centuries.  Please know your history.  You believe you are making “contemporary” theater or that your work is “edgy” because you have some nudity in it or that your ideas are “brilliant” because you are under 30.

The truth is that none of that is true and when reviewers buy your press (where you’re sure to use words like “exciting” and “amazing” when that is also not true) they show their own lack of knowledge, experience and just – well, good sense.

Breaking the 4th wall is not a new concept.  It’s not exciting.  It’s not amazing.  Whether the show has any merit at all will be determined not by these externals (which quite frankly to some of us are boring as hell we’ve seen them so many times) but by how affective your story/reality really is, whether you really have something to say and how connected your actors/performers are to that message.

Sure, go ahead.  Try a “new” form.  But best to be really thoughtful about how you describe it and not become too arrogant until you can be really sure you’ve created something breathtaking. 

Cheap talk and hyperbole

If you wish to be taken seriously, you must be a person of your word.  I’m not referring to being trustworthy or doing what you say you will do.  Obviously those are important character traits to have.

I’m speaking about not stating things without giving them some thought first.

I really wonder about my students and what they actually know when they make statements like “the film is amazing” or “I’ve got a brilliant idea” or “so and so is a tremendous artist” when the truth is that none of that is true.

The proof is in the pudding and if you tell us the pudding is awesome and then it’s not you’re the one that looks bad.

It’s great to be supportive but when you make statements about the quality of something you should be thoughtful because that statement tells us about your ability to see clearly.  It tells us about your own standards and whether or not you have seen enough to even make a judgment about these things.  And it reflects poorly on you accept the 5 stars someone gave you without really wondering if you deserved it. 

I’m embarrassed when I see young actors engage in hyperbole like this.  They look dumb.  They have no idea – simply no idea how they really come across.  They don’t take the time to reflect on “do I really believe what I say?”  "Did I really deserve the praise being offered?“

Best not to put too much stock in the reviews you get either way; better to just keep doing the work.  And best not to throw around grandiose reviews of others’ work – sometimes when you haven’t even seen it – just to make and keep friends.

Actors:  Be a person of your word.  Be thoughtful.  Mean what you say.  Otherwise, your words just stop counting.

"Vote for my project! I know you haven't seen it but who cares!"

Many years ago a young actress wanted coaching on an audition for a very “in vogue” theater company.  I said to her, “Well, they’re going to interview you too so what is it about their work you like?"   Response:  "Oh, I’ve never seen their work but everyone says they are THE company to get into.”

I hate this. She hadn’t even seen their productions. How could she expect to appeal to them?

No wonder a less talented actress got the callback – one who actually knew all about them and who had seen their last three productions.

Now what I see a lot of – especially on Fbook – is “vote for my project” in this contest or that one or for this festival or that one without our being able to actually view what we’re voting for.  Because we’re virtual friends we’re just supposed to vote for them.

I’m sorry.  I try very hard to be a woman of my word.

What happened to EARNING it for Christ’s sake?!  More and more the internet becomes a numbers game rather than helping the real cream get to the surface.  (Well, we all already know this, I suppose.)

I’m not talking about Kickstarter campaigns or things of that nature.  I admire and am happy for folks that secure financial support this way.  But this other thing – nope.  At least on the The Voice, as much as the masses are frequently poor at differentiating mediocrity from true talent, you get to hear the people sing and compare them before you vote.

The true danger is when an actor wins the numbers game and then believes it has to do with the quality of their work rather than their capacity to drum up oblivious “Sure, I’ll click on anything” voters.  It just can’t last.  At some point your mediocrity catches up to you. 

At least this is what I have seen.