(Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/magic-if-for-the-audience/)
As an actor, there are many tools from many different schools of acting for us to utilize, play with, keep in our toolbox or leave alone if that tool doesn’t resonate with us. These tools help us to discover deeper aspects of the character, to tap into emotions needed to play the scenes, relate in appropriate ways with the other characters, to play the period of the piece, to find the physical characteristics of our character and much more.
One of the grandfathers of acting who’s tools and methods still are referred to and used widely today is Stanislavski. His “Magic If” was a simple, elegant way to discover or create nuances for the character based on possible past experiences and more. We analyze a script first to find all the detail about our character that we can, but the script only gives us so much. We need to fill in more detail based on clues, or simply out of our own imagination.
Example: I’m playing a working class man in the 1930’s who is deciding to leave his family.
What if… Our character was abused as a child. How might that past affect his present relations and his decision?
What if… His father died before he was born, so he never knew him. How might that lack of a father example cause him to struggle in the role of father himself?
By imagining these possible back stories and history, it can color the performance I give providing depth, layers, nuances to the struggle he feels. Things the audience is not directly aware of, but will greatly enrich the performance.
As an audience member, the work being done by the actors and the production team is intended to draw you into this story so you might feel the struggles, empathize with the characters, consider the dilemmas they face and wonder how you might handle the same situation. This is the work of the audience when watching a performance.
In order to really feel the impact of a story, we need to be able to imagine ourselves in their situation. No we don’t live in the 1930’s. Maybe you’re a woman instead of our a working class man like our character, so your situation and choices in his dilemma would be different. But you can consider the “Magic If” of it. What if you were faced with the same challenges he is? Or what would you feel if you were his wife witnessing his emotional breakdown and wondering what to do. By considering how you might feel or what choices you might make given yourself in a similar situation, we more deeply enjoy the experience of the performance. This hopefully will lead to further consideration and discussions afterward. It helps us all to be able to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes to relate to them better.
As a society, I think we currently struggle with a crippling lack of this ability. Many people don’t know how, or don’t try to imagine what life is like for others. It’s easier to dismiss them, to blame them, to label them as “bad”. We also have powerful people trying to convince us that certain groups of people are the enemy in order to forward political or other agendas. If we could better imagine and empathize with the struggles of others it can help us all to be kinder, to be more generous, to try to help uplift others who need help.
Imagine if this was something we actively taught in our schools. I remember as a child going to live theatre performances as a “field trip”. We were taught how to behave in a theatre, how to show our appreciation, etc. Sometimes we did followup assignments analyzing the play we’d seen or sharing our experience watching it. If this work regularly included discussion about the “Magic If” of empathy; of imagining ourselves in their lives, just think how powerful this could be in developing our children’s ability to see past differences of color, gender, orientation, religion, nationality and more.
The arts can teach us so much and expose us to lives and situations we might never be part of otherwise. Perhaps we could be using them as a platform for teaching empathy as well as a great form of entertainment.
(Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/aact-town-hall/)
Last Saturday I attended the AACT (American Association of Community Theatres) Town Hall held here in Portland. Arts People has been a sponsor of a number of AACT events over the years and we consider ourselves a partner to them as well as a deep connection to community theatres all over the country and in Canada. The Arts People system has always been a great fit for these organizations who have big goals and complex needs, but often small staffs with little time to accomplish tasks.
It was great to hear these groups sharing so openly their stories of successes and challenges so that other organizations might benefit from their experiences. The performing arts are a small voice in our culture, it seems, struggling to be heard, to find support, to advocate for the importance of what they do, and to even survive. I’ve unfortunately seen this struggle too often divide organizations and individuals from each other in what can often be seen as a competitive atmosphere, instead of supporting and uplifting each other. This discussion was clearly the opposite. With AACT bringing together these organizations toward sharing (and it was a great turnout), they can glean valuable insight into how different organizations are benefitting from presenting different types of programs such as staged readings, educational offerings, new types of social marketing and more.
The meeting was held just down the street from our Arts People offices at Twilight Theatre, one of our clients. I was able to introduce myself and see a number of our clients in attendance, which is always a pleasure. Arts People was founded on a goal of working with and assisting performing arts organizations to succeed and thrive. We’ve worked very hard over the years to maintain close relationships with our clients on a first name basis, so whenever we get the chance to get face to face we take it. To see the generous sharing going on at this meeting was a complete pleasure.
I started my own career in theatre in high school, and then went immediately to community theatre. I learned SO much from performing, directing, and design, to what it means to serve on a board of directors, what level of professionalism in the work I came to expect in myself and others, and how I wanted to work in the creation of theatre, including my own personal style and voice. It is a place for joy, creativity, learning, sharing, collaboration, teamwork, accomplishment and self worth. I’ve carried all that experience and knowledge forward into my work in professional theatres and sometimes returned to guest direct in community theatres I have a connection with.
Thank you AACT for all you do to bring these theatres together in meetings like this, to the theatres who generously share their knowledge and experiences to help others, and to the individuals who keep these organizations alive in your communities.
(Written originally for the Arts People blog. See original post at https://www.arts-people.com/ephemeral-performing-arts/)
In my work in theatre, I've often considered and discussed with colleagues the fundamental nature of live performing arts... the fact that it is so temporary. It is live, in the moment, often different from performance to performance; either by design, spontaneity, inspiration or accident.
So unlike film or audio recordings produced as a product that will last potentially forever, is the fixed lasting quality of those a benefit over live performances that exist only in the moment? Or is that live aspect, the fragility of the performance have its own intrinsic value that is preferred over the recording?
When discussing their work creating a film, directors and actors speak about their preference to rehearse or not. The fact that you can leap into shooting a moment of the story without knowing exactly what the actors will do in front of the lens means that you can sometimes capture pure magic that may never happen again. That true spontaneity might be more true, or genuine, than a scene on a stage that was rehearsed for weeks and now is trying to appear to be happening only in the moment, relying on the talents of the actors to re-enact it night after night for new audiences trying to make it fresh every time. This skill is not something that film actors need rely on in most cases. Out of as many takes of shooting a scene, the magic only needs to happen once, recorded by the camera, then onto the next moment of the story. Now you have that one ephemeral
moment, a moment of pure magic between actors, captured forever, to be enjoyed by countless people the world over. But, while it was live at the moment it was captured, it now is fixed. Every person sees that exact same performance. There is no energy passed from the audience to the actors and back as they watch it.
With theatre and other live performances, the magic is immediate. I
t's happening right now, in front of you, and can take your breath away, when it works. But it likely won't be as powerful every night. It may not hold up over weeks and months of performances. The actors must work very hard to make it seems brand new each time, and an off night means that an audience, likely seeing it for the first and only time, may not see your best performance.
So which is better? Or is it merely a difference? Do you have a preference?
I've personally worked for many years creating theatre, and I've also done some work in films. I enjoy both. The energy of embodying a character, creating emotions in front of an appreciative audience and telling a wonderful story is powerful, electric, exhilarating and unlike any other experience. However, I am often sad for that to end. A show runs for a limited time. Some people see it, others don't and never will, and when that show ends all that hard creative work you did is gone to soon be forgotten. With film friends and family anywhere can see it, now or in the future.
Here and gone. For the appreciative audience members out there. Keep this in mind the next time you see a live performance. Weeks, even months of preparation went into creating the work you'll see. Sets were built, costumes sewn and fitted, countless hours of rehearsals have happened and more, all leading to this moment when you'll see the show. It's monumental. It's sometimes magical. It's the work of many passionate individuals expressing themselves, telling a story, for you to enjoy. When the show ends and the cast steps out for a bow... they are thanking you for coming and enjoying their hard work, as much as you are thanking them for presenting it to you.
Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liason, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration. www.arts-people.com
I live near Portland, OR. I have been hired to direct a production of 'Chicago' in northern California at Ferndale Repertory Theatre where I've worked several times. For a few past productions with this company I've worked remotely via video recordings and Skype sessions to view auditions and callbacks and production meetings. Then after music rehearsals I've gone down and joined the production to begin staging and choreography through to opening.
This time is different.
This is a dance show, where I want to pay homage to Bob Fosse's brilliant choreography style that has contributed so much to to the worlds of dance, theatre and film during his lifetime and beyond. The theatre was having difficulty finding a choreographer and with my past experience I offered to do that work myself as well.
In the past I spent about 8 weeks in California with the theatre working on the show, but then I was living solo in my RV which made it easy to just drive down and live and work from there. But now I have a house, a husband, and 2 months of time away was too much. So we decided that the first month would be spent on music and early choreography teaching via my dance captain who has Fosse dance experience and is also playing Velma. The challenge, however, was how to relay my choreography to her in a way that she can understand and communicate to the cast in these early rehearsals.
I considered trying to write it out as notation in the script, but that wasn't precise enough to the music. I tried writing it out within the piano score, but that didn't have enough room on the page and my not so great hand writing would be a problem in trying to scan every page and make the pencil notation readable. As a third method I decided to type out the notation into documents with each line referring to measure numbers. It's tedious, a bit cumbersome and clinical, but seems to be working so far.
What we've done is have me send down the document for a specific dance, and then when she's nearly ready to start teaching it we get on a Skype session and review through it line by line with the score in front of us so she can ask questions, see me demonstrate a specific move if needed, and take her own notes as well. Again, tedious and time consuming, but seems to work.
It remains to be seen how this all plays out in practice. I've not yet seen any video of the cast actually doing any of the dances, so it could be that from my head to her mind to theirs it may be significantly lost in the telephone-game of communication. But once I'm there, I can tidy things up and clarify pieces as needed. We've also planned to start off fairly generally and basically in the choreography, getting the framework and blocking of the piece, and then depending on the success of the cast in adapting to the style, we can hopefully add more detail to bring out even more of the Fosse aspects of each move.
Crossed fingers and toes, and a tip of the bowler, we'll have it all fall into place beautifully!
Unfortunately, actors are often the members of a production from whom the most is expected, and yet are often the ones who are least respected. Do I have your attention? Let me explain.
Actors have a burning desire to perform. It's something they are drawn to in an emotional, intellectual and some might even say spiritual way. It's a need to create, to share who they are through an ages old form of expression that gives a voice to their own creativity, and also to characters and stories that they often are passionate about telling. While this desire is commendable and helps perpetuate the art form in the face of all kinds of adversity, it also means that performers can be easily led or driven to undervalue their own abilities, craft, dedication, time, knowledge and experience. Of all the groups involved in the company that makes a show finally end up on the boards before a paying audience, it is often the actors that can be the ones paid the least, or not at all, where all others working on the production are paid better. It's sometimes said that "actors are a dime a dozen" since there's always more actors ready to participate if others are not. This same undervaluing translates down into how their time is respected, how their work is appreciated, how their skills are commended and more.
So as a performer, what should I do? What should I expect? What should I demand?
First, if you want to change things for yourself or for others as well, you have to be willing to accept nothing less that what you decide is right for you. This will mean passing on acting opportunities. This will mean that you may gain enemies in your artistic community. It may mean that you don't work at all, or rarely. So it's truly up to you what you want to create as your minimum acceptable agreement and standards. I, for example, decided many years ago that I was no longer going to work in theatre for free, among other expectations. I've now made it a standard to expect to be paid on par or better than the average being paid in that region. I take my skills and my 30+ years of experience into account with this consideration, as well as the time and energy I'll be devoting to that project.
So let's talk about items of consideration:
1) Pay - as above, until you demand to be paid and pass on jobs unless you are paid, it's likely you won't be paid. In a nice way, you need to communicate to those who would like to hire you as a performer that you have skills, and a lot of time involved, and homework time and more that goes into a thoughtful and skillful performance. That is worth something, like any job. Period. If the answer you get back is "we don't have the money", you can ask them "do you have the money to pay musicians? Director? For the set, costumes, building utilities, insurance, etc? Of course they do. If they make it a priority and adjust budget to do so, they can make it happen. I've seen it happen.
2) Time - A big piece for actors who are performing in addition to a full time job especially, is expectations of their time. Time is money, as the old adage goes. Respect of and careful use of your time as a performer is something every performer should expect. Now if you're lucky enough to work as a performer full time, then your daily job is performing and if they want to have you sit at a rehearsal for 3 hours without doing anything, then at least you're still getting paid. But if your pay is minimal and not based on hours worked, then by all means you can request and expect that the rehearsal schedule be structured as much as possible to utilize your time efficiently, with a minimum of wasted time and travel time. Also, if other people are arriving late, creating wasted time for all others involved, you should expect that problem to be dealt with professionally and swiftly.
3) Preparedness and efficiency in the process - I've heard stories of weeks of rehearsal being scheduled during which sheet music was never provided, where director or choreographer consistently showed up with no preparation, where hours of time was spent with no one in charge knowing what was supposed to be happening, or where no tangible work was accomplished. This is unacceptable. This again is a waste of your time and a disrespect shown to you and your work. All rehearsals should begin on time, with all members present (in lieu of some emergency) and with preparation ready so that work can proceed efficiently.
So, what to do?
First, make sure that things are clear up front. What is the rehearsal schedule, including what days/times you'll be called personally? What is the exact expectations for what you are doing in the show, how much you'll be paid and when will you be paid, what are the rules of the organization, the spaces you'll be working in, and the production itself, and what happens if those rules are broken? Knowing all these things up front and asking any clarifying questions goes a long way toward everyone working from the same set of expectations with accountability when those rules are not followed.
Next, if expectations are not met, a professional level discussion should be had between you and those in charge to discuss how things can be resolved to get back to a mutual level of expectation. If a mutual agreement can not be met then you may need to consider discussing severing your agreement with the production based on the fact that people are not meeting their side of that agreement. Hopefully all can agree to get things back on track with a check in process included to make sure things progress ahead properly for all concerned.
One thing I've learned and been reminded of over the years many times, is that if someone breaks the rules and isn't held accountable, then that incorrect behavior is reinforced as acceptable and they will do it again even worse. You are NOT doing anyone any favors by allowing it to seem to go un-noticed. If you want to work in an environment with people who share a high-standard so that the work can be excellent and the experience can be enjoyable for all, then the rules must be upheld and the standards must not be allowed to waiver.
Actors not doing their homework on character and lines is not ok. Directors arriving without preparation or ideas for rehearsal. People arriving late and assuming it's no big deal, despite the fact that all others just wasted their time waiting. These are the things that will drive the best people away from your organization. They already knew that they deserved better. As the best people leave, the quality of your productions goes down, audiences start going elsewhere, and your organization is doomed. I've seen it happen.
Instead, strive to be the best place for people to work, with respect and high standards. Soon you'll be the theatre where everyone wants to work, and where audiences want to see shows.
I have the benefit of being both an actor, and also a director. So I work on theatre performance and production development from both sides.
As a director, I'm looking to my actors to build their characters based on analysis and evidence in the script, combined with research about the period and history, the location, the social stratus, the culture and more. Those pieces of evidence then combine with a back story of the character that might be historic or invented that gives the actor a palette to work from. The palette frames and narrows your choices to play the character's intentions, the delivery of their lines, the interactions with others, and even down to the most minute of things such as emphasis on words, gestures, the way the character carries him/herself, etc.
As an actor, I'm working on all the above to give me a framework inside which I can make those choices while still remaining true to the character and story, to tell it purely and toward the end goal of relaying the writer's vision and themes to the audience.
When I say "making bold choices" I mean that as an actor, I always want to look to the possibilities. If I only make the expected choices of how to play my character, the performance will likely be flat, dull, lifeless. I try to always remember that a play or book is not written about the ordinary times in these character's lives. It's a story about a peak moment... a critical or pivotal time in their lives when things came to a cathartic pinnacle, and then resolved in some satisfying way. So as I make every choice, moment to moment, I want that choice to be interesting, possibly unusual, while it always ALWAYS supports the overall story we are telling.
Here's an example. I'm currently playing Phoebe Reece in the crazy, ridiculous comedy 'The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of Murder at Checkmate Manor'. (See show page here) As you can guess from the title, this is an over the top farce, poking fun at the conventions of community theatre and all the horrible things that can go wrong. These women think they are brilliant artists, while actually they are truly, devastatingly, bad. As I was developing the voice for Phoebe, this crazy British dame who is the leader of the troupe, I looked for every opportunity to display her sense of self importance, her ostentatious approach to the work and her audience. So I scoured through the lines to find words like Venetian, confession, profession, and purposefully over pronounced the ending with additional syllables, such as Venesc-i-o-n, confes-s-i-o-n, etc. Additionally, she often emphasizes the incorrect syllable for comedic effect. I have a line about how the other character "stole my Reggie, turned me into an alcoholic, and melted all my tupperware." Obviously the humor comes on the final of the 3, being a silly thing to emphasize. So I purposefully break the final word and emphasize the wrong syllable... "tupper WARE". It gives a punch to the line, gives more to the unexpected, which comedy is largely based on, and it plays into the choice of playing this particular scene as Bette Davis... see below.
When working on the 6 different characters that Phoebe then plays within the play within the play... yes it's confusing... I looked at the lines and found a pattern wherein most of the characters had qualities that I could tie to famous Hollywood characters or actresses. I knew that Phoebe probably wrote her own characters in the play, so it's not at all surprising to assume she'd look to write characters that mimicked famous people that she'd always wanted to be. So one character I played as Kate Hepburn, with cheese poses and poorly done mid-Atlantic dialect. Another was Bette Davis complete with cigarette. Another was Scarlet Ohara. I then went to work researching how they looked, how they tended to move and pose, how they spoke, and tried to find bold, broad brush strokes I could apply to the brief character appearances that audiences would recognize quickly and clearly, and doing them so poorly that they also fit the over the top comedy of the style of this play.
These are just a couple examples, but hopefully you can get the idea.
I rely on the director to tell me if something is too big, or too bold, or out of bounds. That's their job looking from the outside in. But as a director also, I can tell you it's always much easier and preferred for me to have to tone an actor down, than have to try to eek a performance out of them, or get them to be bolder.
Acting is not a business for the shy or meek. It's the work of those who are not afraid to be watched, not shy in front of a crowd, and not timid in making choices. Go for it. Rehearsal is a safe place to make mistakes, and to find moments of unexpected excitement. You'll never find them if you don't try. Do your homework, think creatively and from a place of knowledge within the character and material, and be bold!
Performing arts organizations wrestle with this question frequently, or they just try to get away with hiring people as contractors and unfortunately may be putting themselves at risk for consequences from the IRS, and even jeopardy of their non-profit status. BTW, if the IRS finds you in breach of the rules, they can go back through historic years and require you to pay back taxes on those you formerly labeled as contractors as well! A scary prospect...
Forbes Article: IRS Inspector Urges Crackdown on Mislabeling 'Independent Contractors'
Hiring someone as a contractor is certainly infinitely simpler and cheaper for the organization, as you don't have to handle payroll details such as taxes, social security, unemployment, etc. You just issue them a 1099 at the end of the year, and that's only if they earn over a certain level. But the IRS is very particular about who can be considered for this arrangement, based on the work they are doing for you, and how that arrangement is managed.
Quicken Article: IRS Cracking Down on Misclassified Employees
There's some simple litmus tests to guide you to know if the person you're hiring should be considered an Employee vs a Contractor:
When Is A Worker Considered A Contractor?
When Is A Worker Considered An Employee?
For most performing arts organizations hiring actors, crew members, musicians, the first 3 qualifications for Contractor seem to be met. It's the fourth detail that gets sticky. When you're working on a performance project, the rehearsals are very much scheduled and required times for the people to be present, prepared, and to work with the others of the team. This is the area the IRS has been getting more and more particular about in terms of arts groups hiring contractors, and is likely why I would recommend that you move to an employment model sooner rather than later. I've heard of many theatres and other groups being forced by the IRS to change their hiring status of these individuals due to this rule. They are definitely cracking down.
Thompson Greenspon Article: Independent Contractor vs Employee: Worker Classification Matters
Some organizations have moved from calling their payment a "stipend" or "fee" to calling it a "travel reimbursement" instead, in the hopes of avoiding the employee status, but that's fudging the system at best. Consider carefully how you handle these details. Better to be completely legal in the eyes of the IRS as they become stricter with non-profit organizations, and avoid them looking into the details of your organization even more deeply due to this detail. When in doubt, consult an lawyer or accountant knowledgeable in this area.
As an actor, you likely at some point will look to do extra work on a film or tv series. This can be a fun introduction to the world of on screen acting, can be a way to make some extra money, and maybe even a foot in the door to more work in the industry. It's important to note though the specific needs from an extra on a shoot, and what is correct behavior and professionalism expected of you in this type of work.
What is an extra?
First of all, an extra is a background actor on the shoot. They are typically not credited on the film or series (no mention of your name in the end credits), do not have any character name or reference, and have no lines. In fact you cannot be recorded speaking anything understandable in the final cut, or the producers would need to handle your role differently.
Your goal as an extra
Extras can be considered living scenery. It's your job to create a visual context in the background for the scene that is happening in the foreground of the shot. Maybe it's a wedding and the shot is about the bride and groom speaking. In the background extras provide the context of the wedding as guests, caterers, planners, family members and more. Or maybe it's a school setting in the cafeteria where the scene is at a table with characters talking. In the background extras provide the other students, teachers, janitors, lunch workers and more.
As an extra it is your job to provide this visual context, without pulling focus or drawing attention. You should be present, engaged, alive, but not especially interesting or memorable. You are part of the overall scenic elements that support the scene being shot in the foreground. You should not attract the viewer's eye away from the primary scene.
How do you find extra work?
If you know of a film or series being shot in your area, look to casting agency websites, even social media for the title of the film or series being worked on. Often a casting agency is contracted to find and hire the extras for the shoot days. You can usually submit photos and resume online or via email.
Extras are often hired very regularly for these projects and in a very short term timeline. You might apply today and be called a few days later for the shoot. In between you might need to go in for a fitting of wardrobe. If you want to do this type of work you need to be readily available for these fast calls. I've been notified in email in the morning that I should come in that afternoon during a specific 3 hour window to get fitted and then the shoot will happen over a few days the next week, of which I might be called for one, two or all days. Having a job that you cannot be flexible with, or heavy family commitments or other things that demand your time is not very compatible with extra work.
It's good to note here too, that when applying for extra work, follow all instructions, no matter how detailed, EXACTLY. Remember that the casting team is dealing with an enormous amount of details. They need you to provide what they ask and be efficient in your communications with them. If you go outside the bounds of what they need and how they need it, you likely won't be hired. As a general rule, work to make their jobs easier! The more you can do that, the more valuable you are to them and the more likely to get hired, and hired back.
What to expect?
First, understand that you are likely one of MANY extras the production team is working with, costuming, scheduling, booking, filming, paying. You need to be easy to communicate with, responding in a very timely fashion, and with no complications to their work. Be prepared, arrive early, behave professionally, follow instructions completely, don't ask for special treatment or allowances. They don't have time to deal with variations.
On the day of the shoot, expect to be there for 12+ hours. If you're released early, great. But often they will keep you in a holding area sometimes for long periods until they know you're needed, or are sure they won't need you any longer.
What NOT to do
Some things that are absolute no no's for an extra:
What you should do
While it may seem obvious, these can't be stated enough:
One of the key tools for any actor is their headshot. It's your calling card, your primary marketing material along with your resume, and it's your surrogate that you leave behind to represent you to the organization sometimes long into the future. Bottom line, it's extremely important. It doesn't matter if you're going for stage, film, tv, commercial or industrial work, every actor wanting to work in the entertainment industry needs photos, regularly, and they better be good.
Ultimately you should have a variety of high quality current photos ready to go as needed, but let's start with the headshot itself. It's referred to as a "headshot" because for a long long time it was just that... it was a photo of your head, typically with you looking at the camera. Strong eye contact, an idea behind the eyes, a great representation of how you look, and a hint of how dynamic you can be as an actor. For a long time, these were always in black and white.
The headshot has changed though in recent years. It's much more common now to have a color shot instead of black and white. In fact, it's almost expected. It's also ok to have a shot that is 3/4 length instead of only your head. This shows some of your body to give the viewer a better idea of your overall look.
The headshot is the big one, absolutely. But it's also a very good idea to have other shots at the ready in case a casting director might want more, or if you sometimes change your look.
For film and tv work you'll want to get signed with an agent. An agent very likely will ask for a few different shots. A headshot for their primary use, then also 3/4 shot, full body shot, maybe smiling versus serious expression. For women, hair down and full versus hair up. For men beard, no beard, and variations between, since the shoot or project might require you to change your current look. For example, the other day I did a shoot on a new Netflix series that is set in 1996. They considered changing my beard or shaving it off for my role as a teacher, but ultimately decided to keep it as is. So if possible, have a variety of looks in your photo archive that show you in different moods, full body in some, different looks to your hair, etc.
It's gotta look like YOU
Here's a big one.... Your photos MUST be up to date! I can't tell you how many photos of actors I see that are 10+ years old. I've had some with clothing that was so dated it looked like they were in a period film in the shot. As an actor, you will not be taken seriously if you try to use old outdated photos. A casting director I know has a "wall of shame" in her office of the worst of the worst of headshots. They're a great source of amusement for many.
Your photo must look like you! If you change your hair drastically, you need a new shot. If you had facial hair in your headshot then don't now, you need a new shot. If you lose or gain weight, you need a new shot. Let me repeat, your photo must look like you! I've known actors to be thrown out of an audition or even from a shoot when they walked in looking nothing like their photo. The company called in the person in the photo, not the person that walked in. So make sure you update your photos if you significantly change your look, and that means sending out new ones to your agent, casting directors, etc. You will want to try to get old photos out in the wild replaced with your new one. Along with it, send an updated resume on the back.
This is a subtle thing. As an actor on stage or screen you need to draw the viewer in to you, your character, their journey, their emotions. That's your job. The same is true of you in your photos. It's far too easy in a photo to look static, still... frankly, dead. There needs to be a dynamic feel to the photo. You need the viewer to want to lean in to look at more detail, to want to know you, to want to work with you. This involves your eyes, your mouth, your body position... If you work with a good photographer, they'll know to look for this and to try to capture it. In fact when you are shopping for a photographer, you can ask them questions like "What do you do when working with an actor to capture them dynamically?" or "I need to be sure my photos really draw in the viewer and don't come off frozen or dull. What can you do to help me with that?" When I shoot actors I sometimes will prompt them with some instruction such as "There's a door in front of you and when I say go your best friend walks in and you have great secret to share with them... Go!" and I watch for the expression to follow, and try to capture it. Or "When I say go, one of your favorite people you've not seen in ages walks in... go!" These prompts are designed to spark a realistic reaction that plays well in a static image.
Your job in the shoot is to create the expressions, follow the instruction, play the reactions to prompts such as the above, but do it in a way that the photographer can capture. Let it develop over a few seconds. Think of it almost as a bit of slow motion. If you react too fast the photographer can't catch it. In general, you want to move from expression to expression, pose to pose, eye position to eye position like you're moving through water. Make it a bit fluid and slower than normal so the photographer can capture it at the ideal point, and if he sees something between poses he can stop you to say "wait, right there..." snap! Got it.
Don't over style
Go for a neutral appearance in your photos. Your photo is of YOU, not your fancy hair style, your impressive jewelry collection or that trendy outfit you just bought. The casting people are looking at you! Layering on too much style only hides you and can limit how they might see you for roles they are trying to fill. For example, if they are casting a piece set in France in the 1800's, a photo with big hoop earrings and a turned up polo shirt collar might distract them from how you might appear in period costume. What I generally recommend is minimal jewelry if any at all. Natural looking makeup with little color. Fairly neutral clothing, not too bright in color. Hair worn down and natural. Look nice, professional, well put together, but let YOU shine through. Don't let the styling overpower you in the picture.
Don't retouch! This one can be taken a bit loosely, but the bottom line is, you have to look like that picture when you walk in the door. If you retouch and remove all your wrinkles, smooth your skin coloring, whiten your teeth, etc etc, the picture is no longer a representation of you... and think of this. They may have called you in FOR those attributes! They may love the details on your face that show years of life, wisdom, your age and more. The things that make you unique are strengths for an actor... not detriments. Let the real you show through, while still looking like the best possible you, of course.
It's not a bad idea to have some shots in your file of you in character. So if you play an interesting character with a well designed costume, you might want to get a photographer to take some pics of you if you have the opportunity. Capture it for your portfolio. You can consider creating these from scratch as well. If you have a costumer friend with access to wardrobe, see if you could spend a day putting together some different character looks of things you might readily be hired for... Are you a teacher type? More blue collar worker type? Grumpy old man work well for you? Put a look together, do your hair and make up and get some shots. Never a bad idea.
Finding the photographer
As you can see from the above... these shots are super important for any actor. You must take it seriously, and consider it an investment in your career. If you find a good photographer that you work well with, maintain that relationship. If you're seeking out a photographer, talk to actors who's shots you like for a referral, or reach out to an online list or forum of actors in your area to get recommendations. Then check out their work and talk to them. You'll be paying for these shots, so you have the right to interview them carefully. Lastly, don't assume that your buddy who has a cool looking Instagram account has any idea how to shoot actors. Headshots and actor shots like these take a good eye, as well as a keen understanding of lighting and photography. Also, the right equipment makes a huge difference. Treat this process professionally, like the rest of your acting career.
So once you've chosen the perfect song (see former blog post), now you've got to nail the audition with your performance.
As a director, I can't tell you how many times, in fact more often than not, I have performers audition without really performing their song. They sing it, but they don't perform it. Let me tell you, when a performer walks up and performs the song in character, it's a joy for me. I want to see what you can do! I want to enjoy your performance. I want you to be the perfect fit for the roles I have. I want to see you perform! I want to encourage this in all performers out there. So let's get to it.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. I can't stress this enough! Singing along with a cd in your car is NOT enough. You must plan your performance. Practice your full audition from entrance to exit of the room including your introduction and thank you. You want to be so prepared that you don't have to think about it. When nerves kick in, as they will, you want to be confident in your material and every aspect of your performance.
Consider if the auditors want to chat with you, what might be a couple questions you have for them? Maybe you'd like to know what period they are setting the show in, or if they will be having a full orchestra or a small combo, a large ensemble/chorus or smaller cast size. What about their company appeals to you? What other shows has the director done that you've seen and can compliment them on? It's good to have a couple things ready to chat about.
Think ahead of what you're going to wear, how you'll do your hair and makeup. As with modeling, clean and simple attire is generally best. You want to be a fairly neutral canvas so the auditors can imagine you various characters. If you have long hair, I'd suggest wearing it down, styled nicely but not covering your face, and bring a tie or clip in your pocket so you can quickly put it back if they ask or for a different look for a second monologue or song. Avoid heavy jewelry if you wear any at all. It can be distracting. Makeup also should look clean and fairly neutral. Above all, don't dress as a character... either what you're performing or auditioning for. Just no to that.
Lastly, if you are called back to audition a second time, I recommend wearing the same clothes and hair style as you wore to begin with. You want to look like the person they saw before and called back. If you walk in looking like someone different it could turn them off to you completely. On a related note, make sure your headshot is up to date and looks like you as you go to audition.
Your entrance and introduction
When you're brought in, you can say hello to the auditors as you walk to the piano. Greet the pianist with a quick smile, hello with your name, and then open your sheet music, already prepared for them, show them where you want to begin and end (clearly marked) and give them a clear count of the tempo you're wanting. Let them know if you want them to lead you in with music, or just give you a pitch then follow you as you begin. This entire process should take 10-20 seconds.
Now, walk to the audition area, to a mark if there is one, or to a comfortable distance from the auditors. Don't get to close so they feel you're on top of them. Remember they want to see you head to toe. If you need a chair for your number you can grab one or ask for one, but have a backup plan in case they don't want you to use one.
Now with a smile and friendly attitude and confidence, state your name, the song you'll be performing and the show title. If you were asked to do more than one you can give both in order that you'll be performing them. Take a beat to center and get into character (having rehearsed extensively this should take only a short beat), then motion to the pianist for your queue.
The Performance begins...
In any solo performance (monologue, song, etc) using an unseen and imaginary "other" can be an amazing tool. This takes some practice in your rehearsals, but if you can clearly imagine a person you're talking to, with their own point of view on what you're saying and even their reactions, movements, judgements... this all can make YOUR performance appear natural and organic. Think of it as a scene partner that's only in your head. As you begin your performance, you will want to pick a spot in the back wall where you will place the "other" that you are talking (singing) to. This is the person your character is telling the story to, or appealing to, or remembering, etc. You do not want to look into the faces of the auditors, unless in some rare case you're doing a piece where the fourth wall is intentionally broken. This generally makes auditors uncomfortable, since they will need to look down to take notes and they want to watch you without feeling like they need to express support for you at the same time. Focus beyond them. Try to really connect with this "other". Imagine their expressions back to you... what if they start crying? What if they look angry? What if they turn away and you have to get their attention back? These choices can make your performance more dynamic. Use the text of the song as a guide along with the overall story the song is from. As if there is another person there with you, the other is a person with whom you interact. It's a subtle thing. Don't overdo it, but let that energy influence your performance.
Generally you don't want to do too much movement around the space, even if you are playing a piece that is energetic or a character that is frenetic. The auditors still need to have good eyes on you. So how can you use the space, be adaptable to smaller or larger spaces, and convey the performance? Also, if you are given the luxury of singing the full song, or a longer segment, how can you portray beginning, middle and end?
One simple tip is the side, center, forward method. In your performance preparation, place the "other" out front and center. Starting with your focus on them, you stand at center. Then at a moment in the song of introspection, or conflict, or aside, you take a few steps to one side and change the focal point. The energy adjusts for this change. Then with maybe a discovery the character makes, or a point of strong emphasis, they shift focus back to the other and move back to center. Lastly, with the final idea being presented, or final build of the song and story, you take a couple steps forward to build and end there.
What to do with my arms?
It's amazing how often I hear performers ask this, or talk about wrestling with it. What to do with your arms as you're performing? Well first, your arm stance, movement, gesture should ideally come organically from the character you create. Is the character nervous and fidgety? Are the aggressive? Shy? Do some work on this type of discover and try to work from there. But technically you want them arms to support your performance, not distract from it. So keep that in mind. In general keeping your arms above your waste, not hanging at your sides, gives more energy to your performance. Arms at your sides generally convey's the performance is over.
Gestures should come from the energy of the moment of the story, out from your core. If you are working well imagining the interactions with the "other" you're playing to, this can be very helpful. If you imagine the other turns to walk away, might you reach out spontaneously toward them along with a vocal emphasis to try to get them to turn back? If you imagine the "other" is leaning in and hanging on your every word, might you naturally want to reach up to touch their face? If you're frustrated and can't make a decision for yourself, where do your arms want to go? Working from the character, story and interactions with your "other" will help lead the way.
Variations and getting creative
For a song audition, you really have very little to work with. You have your body, your clothes, the empty space, often you have access to a chair. These few things can be used creatively and very effectively, as long as they don't become some strange novelty act. Never let these details distract from the performance itself. They should only enhance it subtly.
First of all, avoid elaborate props. You might use a bracelet on your wrist to convey a gift or memory of a loved one. You might pull a handkerchief out of your pocket to use. The chair itself could be used to place the other in a location that you move around, as long as it doesn't focus your face away from the auditors too much. Just be careful of going too far. If it's not something you would normally have on your body walking around in public, I'd generally say to avoid it. Pulling an egg beater out of your pocket, for example, just looks gimmicky and risks distracting the auditors from your performance ability.
The chair can be useful. I once directed an actor in an audition piece that started out with her watching a movie in a theatre next to her boyfriend, to turn the chair upstage away from the auditors and start with her back to them (after introduction of course). She played looking to her side to him before she got up and then addressed the other she was speaking to out front. She could relate in the scene then to both the other AND to the imaginary boyfriend. It worked beautifully.
Using the space effectively is also important. Again, don't get too close to the auditors, but you can sit on the floor, start to the side and move in, cross the space... These variations can make you more memorable if used well. Always focus on the performance itself first. These choices are there to support it. Be prepared to adapt also. If you planned to start on the floor but realize that doing so will make some or all the auditors have difficulty seeing or hearing you, adapt and do it in an alternate way you've already prepared.
Once you've completely your piece(s), you should come out of character back to your smiling friendly self, repeat your name in case they are video taping or recording and thank them. You can then proceed to the piano to pick up your music and exit, unless they ask you to do anything additional.
Some may ask you to step over to the piano and run some scales to test your range, ensure that you can match pitch, or even harmonize. This generally happens if they need to make sure you can sing the range of a particular character, or if they weren't satisfied in your audition song to give them a complete picture of your abilities. Just smile and do what they ask. The fact that they are asking means they're interested. If they weren't, they wouldn't bother.
Some auditors will want to chat with you a bit. Asking questions about your experience, or just to get a sense of your personality. It is very important that you come off as personable, friendly, professionally, and that you can take direction easily. When a director doesn't know you, they will be taking a gamble in casting you. You need to understand that this is a risk to the production and to the theatre. Your ability to show them that you will be someone they will enjoy working with and not have any problems is very important.
By this same token, your reputation is a critical piece of your performance career. If you get a bad reputation for being hard to work with, obstinate, laking in professional work ethic or attitude, you will simply not get hired any more. Theatres DO check references and talk to each other. Don't be one of those performers.
A number of times I personally have planned to hire one actor, but after the theatre called on their references and got bad reports we went to a 2nd or 3rd choice for the role. It's simply too risky with all the work and time and money that goes into a production to have one troublesome performer ruin the show, or ruin everyone else's enjoyment of the experience. One bad report on an actor and generally I move on to cast someone else.
It's notable here too that I've worked in some remote locations where actors bad behavior is unfortunately reinforced because the talent pool is so small that they continue to get hired despite their bad behavior. This is extremely unfortunate. It's not good for the theatres, for the audiences, for the rest of the people involved in the productions and certainly not for the actor with the bad behavior. At some point they might move away from that area and be completely ill prepared to behave in an acceptable way in the area to which they relocate. I say again... don't be one of "those" performers.
Audition with a professional attitude, even if it's community theatre you're auditioning for. Undergo thorough preparation, with skill, confidence and creativity. Remember, the director WANTS to like you, and the only thing you're competing with in an audition is the director's vision of the roles in the show. Support your fellow actors in their process at the same time. That's the professional way as well.
Spike, as his friends call him, has 30 years in the performing arts world as an actor, director, administrator, marketer, fundraiser. He has consulted with numerous theatres and other performing arts organizations and loves to help such groups and individual artists to achieve their success!