Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Birth of a notion

It's amazing how a change of venue or anything that gets you out of your normal situation and routine can spark your creativity. I started writing over Thanksgiving and think I'm on to something that will be really fun and interesting -- a screenplay. I actually had a screenplay treatment I did for my Second City film course, but I'm not as interested in pursuing that story right now. This will be good.

I should be writing every day anyway, but I don't. At least not in a focused way -- I'm always writing bits and pieces of stuff here and there, but don't really buckle down unless it's for a specific project, like One-Eyed Cat. It's hard, though, when your regular job is writing. I've found I only have 3-4 hours of good writing in me on any given day. I've gone longer when I had to -- because of a client deadline, for instance. But the quality really does go down after a few hours. So when I'm caught up in client work, churning out brochure or web copy and other stuff, I don't really have a lot left to give.

I hope with the holidays to be able to devote some serious time to this. I've got the first act pretty well scoped out. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

I'm a literary vampire

Not sure if that's quite the right term for it. But I'm constantly evaluating everyday situations bits of conversation as potential fodder for future projects. Maybe I'm more like a prospecter. Or a miner or a harvester.

Anyway, like tonight, my sister was making some kind of point about something (who knows what it was? I was busy thinking about how I could use it for my own career gain) -- I think the point she was making was that she wasn't a snob who thinks she's better than others. And I chimed in, "Of course not, you put your $1,000 imported silk designer pants on one leg at a time like everyone else!" Heh. Well, like my mom said, it's funny but it needs work. In fact, I've already re-worked it from the original, which went something like "silk-lined, fur-trimmed pants," but anyway, the point is ... not sure what the point is.

I guess it's that I have all these ideas and bits and pieces of stuff floating around, along with some bigger Concepts and Frameworks and things, and the important thing is to just get writing. Not to worry so much about "This is going to be a two-act play about Topic or Theme X" but instead to just write about what excites you and see where that takes you. That's kind of how the other stuff I've produced came about.

The biggest obstacle some writers have is that they think they need to have it all mapped out and logical before setting out, when really you just need to get to it and everything will eventually fall into place. So I've got ideas. For plays, screenplays. Who knows? And it's times like these that I get excited about plunging back in. I'm so pleased with the plays and other things I've written and produced so far. But if that's all there is, then it's just a hobby.

On the other hand, I just received this book I ordered -- sort of a playwright's resource, with long lists of places where I can get my plays produced, published and in competition for awards. And it would be so like me to invest a lot of time trying to get recognition and awards for the plays I've already written instead of creating something new. Hmmm. Hey, here's an idea: maybe I can do a bit of both? What's that called again? Balance?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Steppenwon't

Get it? Clever, huh?

So I didn't get a callback audition from Steppenwolf. I'm not super-surprised. It was definitely a longshot -- but still, a disappointment. Yeah, yeah, it's an honor just to be asked. Still, it's an even better honor to be cast.

It's hard to measure "success" in this business. Especially when my peers -- people just starting out in acting -- are half my age. By some measures I've done pretty well. Lots of shows, lots of audition opportunities (including with some of the premier theatre groups in the city, if not the nation -- Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, The Goodman), some decent commercial work ...

I'm taking this a year at a time. If I can say each year that I've grown more as an actor and had better, richer opportunties (bigger roles, better venues, etc.) than the year before, I will consider it a success. And so far I've been able to say that. If things stall out, and stay stalled for an extended period, then that is the time to consider quitting. I love performing, but it won't be worth the sacrifice if I'm at the same level in a few years as I am now.

Fortunately, I have a backup. I can always go back into the corporate world, make more money than I can imagine having now, and get my fulfillment from other things -- travel, photography, writing.

They say a lot of people quit just short of success. And, of course, the successful ones all endured their share of failures along the way. Perspective is difficult. When you've got your head down and you're pushing through all the day-to-day stuff, it's hard to tell a bump in the road from a truly insurmountable obstacle. Or "insurmountains" as I used to call them. That's why it's good to lift your head up and take stock now and then, which I guess is what I'm doing. I don't know. I've always believed that if you focus on the essentials -- the stuff right in front of you that you can control -- then the bigger things will inevitably come to you. I'm kind of rambling now, so I'll just sign off with a quote that I used to have on the wall of my office: "The world was made round so you wouldn't see too far down the road."

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Let it bleed

I always read the theatre reviews -- to keep up with what's going on and also to sort of study what critics are looking for (if that's really possible). In my darkest of hearts, though, I confess to feeling a wee bit of schadenfreude when I see particularly negative reviews. It's human nature, I suppose.

As an actor I'm supposed to hate and dismiss critics. It's true that they can sometimes be excessively cruel or unfair. Like when they called two of the actors in my first show "fatties." But I've performed in shows that have been panned, and the people running it excuse it away -- "Oh, that paper/critic hates everything!" But I think there's always some kernel of truth beneath the vitriol. That review of my first show had good ("brainier than most") and ... less good ... things to say about it, and though I didn't necessarily agree with everything, I heeded some of the points. For instance, part of my goal for the second show was to write more strong woman characters, which I felt I did. So that was helpful.

But I don't know what I'd do if I got a review like these here, culled from this week's Chicago Reader:
  • "Despite a cityful of excellent actors begging for work, [the director] has assembled a cast of astonishing mediocrity."
  • "This is yet another sloppy, unoriginal attempt at sketch comedy that relies on easy targets, with predictably dull results."
  • "Two hours of self-absorbed diatribes punctuated by occasional Hallmark moments of tenderness."
Ouch. So that is why I was so worked up waiting for the review of One-Eyed Cat. The Chicago Reader can be merciless. But they kinda have to be. They review tons and tons of shows -- it's the most comprehensive theatre coverage in the city. It is so ridiculously easy to put up a show in this city that they obviously must sit through a good deal of crap, and it has to be frustrating.

Still, I'd kill myself if I had a review like that. You're supposed to be thick-skinned in this business and I would say my skin is certainly thicker than that of the average person for whom "frequent rejection" isn't written into the job description. But less thick I think than those who have been doing this for a long time. But I wonder if anyone is really that thick-skinned. Some of the cavalier attitudes I see ("Oh, this thing? I dashed it off in an afternoon!") are probably more of a defense mechanism than anything else.

Anyway, here I go again writing about stuff instead of actually doing. I've got lines to memorize and audition notices to respond to. Blogs are the tool of the devil.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Derailed: Must Miss!

Yeah, I stole that line from Seinfeld. But 99.7% of the nation's critics were right. The movie bit. Worse yet, I'm not even in it! They cut my scene. No doubt it's something I did. Like taping my resume to the back of my coat. Oh well, it's probably for the best -- I risked getting overexposed anyway with the back-to-back releases of this and Weather Man. {/sarcasm}

Tonight we finally start rehearsals for Throwing Smoke, which is good since it opens in less than 3 weeks (yikes!). And because things have been a little too ... unbusy lately.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

These dudes are awesome

I went to see Competitive Awesome last weekend. These guys are hilarious. They're off to L.A. in February, so go see them now before they get big. You can say you knew them when.

I've been diligently working my way through all the shows I need to see -- shows by friends and fellow actors and writers and directors. (Aaron from Competitive Awesome was in my graduation sketch show at Second City). It's a constant battle, though. As soon as you whittle your list down, three or four more get added.

But going to see other peoples' shows is a big part of being in this business. You do it to offer support to friends, to assuage the guilt for spamming the universe with your own show news, and for general karmic purposes -- hopefully you get what you give. Sometimes the last thing you want to do after being stuck in a theatre or rehearsal space all week is go to another theatre and see a show. And sometimes you do end up seeing some real stinkers. But I've seen a lot of great stuff, too. And I really, really enjoy seeing people I know on stage, particularly if they're doing something different from what I've seen them do in the past.

In fact, of the 50+ performances I saw last year, all but two of them involved someone I knew as either an actor, writer or director. There are other shows around town I'd like to see, but I feel like I have to use my limited show-going time to support friends.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Another ending

Another show ended. Number 11 for the year. We had a great closing, with our biggest audience yet. And a fun wrap party -- from what I remember of it. I will miss some of these people a lot.

But chances are good I will see or work with many of them again soon. There's maybe one degree of separation among the members of the Chicago acting community. I could go see any of the 150+ shows playing right now in town and if I don't know someone in the cast or crew I could flip through their bios and make a connection to another actor or director we have in common. That after less than 3 years of performing. It's a nice, close-knit community that stops just short of being overly incestuous.


I didn't make it out to Derailed yet. It was a hard-drinking weekend with the cast party Saturday, and a late-night show I saw on Friday, after which we adjourned to the bar with the cast. Work is a little calm -- maybe I'll sneak out to a matinee this afternoon ...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Grand Rapids is neither grand nor rapid ... discuss

I had what would have been a very simple, well-paying commercial gig yesterday. If only it wasn't 3+ hours from Chicago.

The nutrition/vitamin supplement company that did this photo shoot in September wanted me on tape for this in-house video they're doing. It was very easy work, just a couple of shots, and they were very organized and had me in and out of there in less than 3 hours. Plus they were really nice people, which is almost universally the rule -- unlike those assholes from Minnesota a few weeks back.

But, oy, the driving! People in the Midwest have a completely different conception of acceptable travel times than people from the East Coast (from which I hail). On the East Coast, you can get to other major cities within an hour or two. Or the mountains, or the beach. I remember when I first came to Ohio somebody bragged about all the incredible things that are within JUST a six-hour drive from Columbus! And when I chose to fly home for Thanksgiving (instead of the 6.5-hour car trip), they thought I was some kind of diva. So anyway, where I come from, 3+ hours is considered a long drive. Out here it's half a day trip.

So Derailed is getting some pretty crappy reviews! It really doesn't look that good, but I'll still go see it to see if I'm in it. Probably not 'til Sunday, though.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Derailed

Derailed opens this Friday and I have another small extra role. Again, I have no idea how much of me or even whether I'll appear on screen. At least this one looks like it's got a pretty big marketing budget behind it -- the trailers are on TV every five minutes.

Look for me at the crime scene -- should be lots of police cars, emergency vehicles and flashing lights. I enter the building and pass Clive Owen as he's exiting. Then later I follow a body bag on a stretcher out of the building. I'm wearing a blue sweater and black leather jacket.

These little parts are cool and all, but I need to start getting actual roles in these movies. Roles with lines. Of course, as I read over the casting round-ups, a lot of those parts go to more experienced actors, Second City people, etc. One of my agents got me an audition a while back for a small speaking part in Ocean's 12, and I actually made what's called the "Director's Reel", meaning it was me and two other actors being looked at by the film's director.

I don't know. Most of the casting directors working on these films know me or know of me -- I'm at their places doing commercial auditions all the time. Still, I sent a mailing out to them a few weeks ago just to make sure they know of my background and interest.

Anyway, I'll be checking this movie out this weekend and reporting back. In the meantime, you can read here about my night on the set.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Moments

Two very good shows this weekend. Bigger audiences, and actual kids in attendance, which is a good thing when you're doing a kids' show. They seemed to be really into it. (The older kids mostly -- some of the stuff is a little over the heads of the very young ones.) And the adults, too. I got some really nice feedback from friends and strangers alike. I was kind of tired and hungover (another unforeseen danger of doing a daytime show) but managed it like a trouper (i.e., I didn't barf on anyone).

One of my favorite things about performing is challenging myself to make every performance a little different, even if it's as basic as changing or adding a gesture or movement or delivering a line in a different way. Some shows are more flexible than others, in terms of your freedom and ability to improvise. In sketch comedy, especially, it's fun to surprise the other actors by bringing out a new prop or changing up the costume some. It's a fine line -- you don't want to pimp your scene partners or subvert the director's vision of things, but even in the most structured show you can make small, subtle changes around the margins to keep things fresh and create some really special moments. And, of course, the best of these moments are the ones that aren't planned at all.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Blue Man

I like this photo. It's from a print shoot I did a couple of months back. That's another pretend wife there with me.

The photographer did a great job, especially in matching us up -- there's a real harmony to our expressions and poses. It's like we actually knew each other's last names.

It reminds me that I should get new headshots done. A lot of people are doing color now. And when I got mine done, I hadn't done a lot of acting. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. You can't get acting jobs without headshots and it helps to know a thing or two about acting to sit for good headshots. Like making your eyes more expressive.

I also like the blue. In an insurance commercial that's going up on national cable soon I play "blue man" -- not like Blue Man Group, I'm just blue about my current insurance coverage. Should be interesting. Or embarrassing as hell.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Can I do smarmy?

So I had a commercial audition this morning and my agent said I needed to be really cheesy and smarmy. Hmmm, smarmy ... yes, I believe if I reach really deeply into the remote, untapped recesses of my psyche I can perhaps summon up smarmy.

Unfortunately, the instructions were vague. I do a sort of Phil Hartmanesque smarmy. Think Phil Hartman with 1/100th of the talent. But when I got there they said they were looking for a more greasy, seedy kind of cheesy/smarmy. That I'm not so good at. I can't help it -- I'm neat as a pin. I tried and put on this weasly, south-side, used-car salesman kind of accent, and I did stuff like picking at my teeth, but I don't know ... I think I have a limited range. Or maybe it's just my range, and I shouldn't judge it.

When you see interviews with the great comic actors, they're always asked where they got a certain character. And they always have colorful stories like "There was this crusty old guy who used to hang out in front of the OTB on 2nd Avenue" or "there was this chain-smoking lady who sold tamales on the corner." I don't seem to run into people like that. Or, more likely, I don't do enough observing and interacting. Usually when I'm out I've got a sort of tunnel vision. Friends will walk by and wave a hand in my face to get my attention. I need to look outward more.

So when I do "wacky" characters for shows or commercial stuff, usually I draw on a comic or actor I admire. When I think weasly, I think Jon Lovitz. When I think huckster, I think Dan Aykroyd. When I think effete foreign guy, I think of Martin Short's Franck in Father of the Bride. When I think of effete non-foreign guy, I get the Niles Crane character. Luckily I'm not good enough at doing them that it comes across as a ripoff. But I take little pieces of other peoples' characters. In the second show I did, someone noted that I was doing my legs like Ed Grimley. That was inadvertent. So even when I don't mean to, I steal other peoples' stuff.

I don't have a snappy conclusion at this time.