Be Exceptional

Spend just a few minutes searching the internet for actor job prospects, salary, or employment rates and the news isn’t great, but it isn’t awful either. On the surface, the average actor makes about $50,000 a year. That seems like a good salary, no?

These figures, however, only count those who list acting as their full time career. If a Williamsburg waiter gets a gig two or three times a year, he isn’t counted in those figures. There may be a few, also, who list their job as “actor” but really supplement their income with other jobs.

It is only the top 10% of actors who make $100,000 a year or more. Those are the exceptions. They have worked hard, prepared, studied, and had maybe more than a little bit of luck. No one becomes exceptional by waiting for it to happen.

As an actor, you are your own business. You have to treat your career as your business. Your character, your work ethic, your talent, and your attitude are your calling cards. Let your reputation work for you. Exceptional work doesn’t just happen and no one will do it for you. If you want to be the exception, be exceptional.

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Learn Your Lines

UGH! One of the most frustrating utterances a director, stage manager, or fellow cast member can hear is “LINE!” just weeks before opening night.
Get off book as soon as you can – before rehearsals starts if possible. It is simply unacceptable and unprofessional to not be off-book by the date assigned. Yes, everyone needs to call for a line eventually, but if you are calling for help so much that rehearsals are going nowhere, you may need to be removed from the role.
When you audition, you are agreeing to pull your weight in the show so that everyone succeeds. Holding up the progress of the show is selfish and will come back to haunt you. Learn this lesson now. Your behavior as a person and an artist will affect your ability to get a job. Theater is a small world, you may not get many chances.
Professionalism aside, there is an artistic obstacle inherent with not learning your lines. Not knowing your lines means that you have not spent very much time with the script getting to know your character and their world. Nothing can be done if you are still struggling with lines. You can’t experiment, adjust, create if you are thinking, “what am I supposed to be saying here?”

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Physical Tactics / Actable Verbs

The definition of the word “act” is “to do something.” Often times we hear the phrase “acting is doing” thrown about the stage. While that is true, that is really only half – maybe even only a third – of the story.
When it comes to “doing something” we turn to verbs. We ask actors to come of with verbs for what their character is doing. The problem is, that kind of direction is incomplete. There are a lot of verbs that could be perfectly legitimate: He is thinking, he is feeling, she is loving, etc. The audience, the ones paying, can’t actually see these types of verbs. Verbs need to be actable. Not only do verbs need be actable, but they need to be directed towards the other person.
In the examples listed above, it is extremely difficult to involve someone in your thinking, feeling, and loving (yes, I can hear your justifications on that last one, but “to love” someone is a feeling inside you and has very little to actually do with them. If you do something TO them to show how you feel… well, that is different AND actable). All of these are incredibly boring to watch.
To take it one step further, I ask my students to make their tactics physical. If, for example, your character couldn’t say anything to the other character in the scene and could only use their body, what would they do to the other person to convey their feelings? Examples would be verbs such as to block, to flick, to stroke, to hold, to slap, to caress, to clutch, to hit, and many others. As you can see, all of these verbs can be done to the other character. IMPORTANT NOTE: this does not mean you must physically do them in the performance, but they are incredibly useful as a rehearsal technique.
Physical tactics allow you to actually do something that affects you and the other person, which makes for the most interesting theater – theater of action and reaction. In rehearsal, I might actually have an actor do (or simulate) some of these actions to the other actor so that each of them can feel what is happening. Human beings are very connected to the physical experience. Physical occurrences affect our emotional state. Basically, what happens to our bodies changes the way we feel. Constantin Stanislavski was a proponent of an outside-in approach when he realized that emotion memory was not accessible for some actors and even dangerous for a few. Following this realization, he wrote the sequel to his original work “An Actor Prepares” by looking at the physical nature of acting in his book “Building a Character.”
Physical tactics are also very easy to imagine. It is easy to picture yourself doing these actions to another person and allowing the physical act to influence the emotional impact of your line. Best of all, you don’t have to imagine – you can act them out.
The internet if full of verb lists. Remember, however, that not all verbs are created equal. Seek out the verbs that are physical and actable.
As a post-script, I have seen several lists of verbs that are negative in nature; to NOT do something. Never, never, NEVER choose a verb that involves not doing anything. Barring a character’s emotional struggle to not leave someone, not kill someone, or not jump out of a window, few audience members want to spend their money to watch you NOT do something.

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Read The Play

What? Read the what?
“I don’t have time to read a play.”
“I usually just get to know it through rehearsals.”
“I don’t like to know too much about the story before rehearsals. It stifles me.”

These are just a few of the things I have heard regarding reading the play and I just want to say…

You are wrong. All of you are wrong. There is absolutely no excuse for not reading the play. Nothing of value to the production can be done before everyone has read it – and usually more than once. There can be no discussion. There can be no choices. There can’t be anything, nada, zilch, cero,
Without knowing the story, the desires of characters, the circumstances of the play, and about, oh, a BILLION other things, you are just guessing.
If I gave you a box containing the most complicated piece of Ikea furniture to assemble (and let’s face it, they are all complicated), but i didn’t provide the directions, you might get a few pieces correctly assembled, but I would bet your birch colored håssendørf won’t be doing much in the way of helping you sleep at night. It’s the same with a script.
You might be able to make a few correct guesses, but guessing rarely lands you the part.
As a young actor, I was at an audition in Chicago. I had prepared my monologue over a period of weeks and maybe over a few months. I was solid. I made choices. I had master gestures, by goodness, I had a vocal variety. When I was finished, I said “Thank you” as if I was ready to receive my Tony. As I started to gather my things, the director looked at me and said, “That was very good, but that is not who that character is.” He said nothing else and I, of course, never heard from him again.
I hadn’t read the play. It was something completely in my control and I flaked on it. As good as my audition was, I basically told him that I was lazy. You will be up against hundreds, if not thousands, of actors who will be more talented, better looking, better singers, and related to the casting director. Do the things you have control over. Why would you put yourself at a disadvantage before you even slate for your monologue? If you’re an actor who doesn’t read plays, much less the one for which you are auditioning, I’m going to guess you won’t be an actor for long.
Sheesh, I shouldn’t even have to write on this topic, but history has proven otherwise.

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Make A Choice

“Oh, I prefer to just experience the moment. I don’t like to be so rigid in my approach. I don’t like to be pinned down. It feels so mechanical.”

Acting teachers are never one size fits all. Actors will learn a little something from me, a little something from another, until eventually you form your personalized approach to acting. Yes, there is plenty of room for organic acting, however, I teach technique for a reason. Think of technique as a safety net. When your organic approach fails you, technique will save you. For those who are not organically gifted, technique is your bread & butter.
Having said (er… typed) that, I am a firm believer that the strongest acting is based on choices; repeatable, strong, script-based choices. Flying by the seat of your pants is exciting for you and may lead to some amazing discoveries, but when the show opens it is a nightmare for your director, fellow cast members, crew and stage manager not knowing what your performance will bring. Yes, you can rehearse organically, but at some point you need to narrow all of those choices and put on a consistent performance. Take all of your experimentation in rehearsal and CHOOSE what will appear on stage. Not only will it keep you consistent, your fellow actors and crew will know what to expect and they can be consistent as well. They will also stop gossiping about your lack of professionalism back stage (hopefully). I’ll discuss fighting boredom and burnout in a role later. It is simply not fair to throw curve balls all the time. Make your actions and delivery deliberate choices.
Choices should be based on a complete understanding of the playwright’s intention, the director’s vision, and homework.
That addresses the argument of “but I prefer to just let it happen.” The other side of this post is the ineffective or artistically paralyzed actor. Making choices is your job. When you show up to rehearsal on the very first day, you should bring choices with you. Don’t waste a single rehearsal where you are not experimenting with different choices based on your homework. A director has a hard time directing nothing. The only “wrong” choice is no choice. I can work with an actor who brings ideas. These are things we can build on. Coming to rehearsal, standing there, reading lines as yourself – that’s just a waste of time.
Don’t edit yourself. Make the bold choices. Make the weak choices. Just make a choice. Study the play, do some actual thinking about who this person is and what she thinks, and be creative. Show me something. It’s your job.

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Be Brave

When I was training as an actor, a professor with whom I was catching up (having tossed down a few too many adult beverages) looked at me and, unsolicited, asked me, “you know what your problem is?” I was caught by surprised. Picture a deer caught in the headlights… of a 747 landing on a back county road at midnight. I didn’t say anything. I just blinked… maybe.
“I’ll tell you,” she went on, “you’re afraid of looking stupid.”
I was silently indignant. No, I wasn’t. I was getting work. I just finished the run of a large musical. My equity card was on it’s way. But she was right.
As long as the character was cool, sang really pretty ballads with super high notes, and was “normal”, I could pretty much land the part. It was the characters who were different, the ones that were gross or ugly or “not smart” I had a problem finding. Granted, I didn’t really go for those parts, but the problem was bigger than just what jobs I was, or wasn’t getting.
The real issue was that I couldn’t make the bold choices. I didn’t want the audience to confuse the things the character did on stage for me as the actor. Isn’t that the point though? Don’t we, as artists, want the audience to believe who we are on stage?
Fear reaches into every aspect of our craft if we allow it. To be a successful, marketable, and wide-ranging artist, one has to be brave. At some point you have to stop worrying about what people will think of you and just do it. The fact is, the bolder the choice, the more the audience loves you. Small choices, choices well within our comfort zone, project a level of discomfort with being on stage that an audience can feel.
Be brave. Don’t worry about what people will think. The truth is, they like you more when you’re willing to open up and share the raw parts of yourself.
Life in the theater is only kind to the courageous and the passionate. It is terribly cruel to the timid.

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Want Something

Everyone wants something. I want a million dollars. I want french fries to not have any calories. I want my dog to stop shedding so much hair that I can knit a sweater every week. We don’t always get what we want; sometimes we do.
Characters are the same. There is something they want in every scene. It is your job to decide what that is. You find this want (this OBJECTIVE) by studying the script, knowing your character, talking to the director, doing your homework. Your character may get what he wants in the end or he might not, but the audience comes to see him try.
The Objective is also the most important thing in the world to your character at that moment. Everything that he does on stage (words, actions, thoughts) is in the service of getting what he wants. Figure out how they all fit together and go for it. Not only is it more interesting to watch, it helps you focus as an actor and stay in the moment. It effects how you listen to the other characters. Are you getting closer to what you want or getting further away? Does your character need to change his approach to getting it?
The Objective is what drives the dramatic machine of the play. If no one on stage wants anything, what are audience members paying their hard-earned money to watch, a bunch of people being satisfied with life as it is and chatting about it? I’d ask for a refund.

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This seems like the most basic of all acting tips. You might be surprised how many times I have to yell this particular direction to an actor.
Your job as an actor is to illuminate the words of the playwright. If the audience can’t hear the words, the words aren’t very illuminated are they?
While I could (and I probably will) write an entire chapter on vocal production and how to project, the purpose here is to reinforce the point of projection. Normal speech should be loud to you on stage, whispers should sound like normal speech, and shouts… well, shouts should sound like you’re trying to talk over a passing subway train.
Don’t wuss out on the projection. Start early on in your career learning how to project in a healthy manner. It’s another (basic, yet important) tool in your acting kit.
Don’t ever make a director tell you to project when that is something you have complete control over.

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Fight The Cry

For those of you who have taken my class, this doesn’t mean try not to cry in front of me (There’s no crying in theater!). The advice is for your character.
Giving away too much too soon is the best way to lose the audience. Think about it. When we, as human beings, are hurt by someone or by events, we typically try NOT to cry in front of someone – unless of course we are using the tears to get what we want, but that is another topic.
Think about the last time you watched an interview on TV where someone started to get really emotional. They know they are being recorded and that there is an audience present. Their lips tremble, their voice cracks, but we witness them trying to hold it back. So often the apologize for the display of emotion or ask for the camera to be turned off. This is human nature. That is what we want to see on stage – characters we identify with.
If your character finds him or herself in an emotional state, fight the urge to let it all go at once. Hold it in. The audience will be on the edge of their seat – either rooting for you, or waiting to see you fall apart. The moment you let it go though, they can relax. Bring them to the emotional edge with you and let them feel it before you let it all go.
The advice goes for most extreme emotion such as intense anger or frustration. Let it build. Let us witness the struggle. That is where you will have them in the palm of your figurative hand.

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Don’t Look Down

Ugh! This habit of actors is the worst. It is so frustrating as an audience member (and a director) to be watching a character on stage, really trying to connect, and they stare at the stage. Why is that a choice at all?
I get it, your character is insecure, or shy, or distracted, or a little gassy… whatever. My point is, there are so many more interesting choices than taking one of your most important acting tools (your expressive little face), pointing it at the ground, and showing the audience the top of your head. You may have a lovely head of hair, but it doesn’t usually make us feel for you – unless we can see your roots, then we REALLY feel for you.
Characters feel all of the things mentioned above and more, but make sure you are using your tools to their fullest extent. Look almost anywhere other than down. The audience wants to connect with what your character is thinking and feeling. They have to see your face. Shy characters might not want to look directly at another character, but try looking up, look to the side, simply avert your eyes. Better yet, allow your character to struggle with where to look. Almost anything is better than looking down.

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