Monday, January 30, 2006

Lines

I think the single biggest waste of time is the shower. Sure, you get clean, but what else? Listen to music, maybe, if you turn the stereo up high enough? That's why I'm glad I have lines to practice again. I picked up the script for Back of the Throat on Friday. We don't start rehearsals until the end of February, but since I have two characters to learn I wanted to get a jump on things.

Some people are really good at getting "off book." I've worked with people who read over the script once then toss it on the floor and go. I'm not one of those people. I think because I feel compelled to get it down precisely, word for word, without paraphrasing.

People have different methods for learning their lines. Some people sit and read. Others dragoon their poor girlfriend or boyfriend into practicing with them. I've always used a tape recorder -- actually, a digital recorder now. I read the other characters' lines into the recorder, leaving gaps for my own and I just run, run, run them all the time -- at the gym, on the train, while cleaning the apartment and, my favorite, in the shower. Which makes the whole enterprise completely worthwhile.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Booked

I just got cast in a February reading. So after a slow start to the year I am now pretty much booked through June, which is good. I think it's important to always be in rehearsals or performances of something. I've used the time well -- getting the festival submissions going, starting on the screenplay, seeing other peoples' shows -- but I will be glad to get back into the theatre after (wow!) two months, I guess.

The first project is a staged reading with Chicago Scriptworks, who I've worked with before. They're cool. They do readings of screenplays -- as opposed to stage plays -- in development. It should be interesting given the work I'm doing on my own.

The next two projects are with Silk Road Theatre. They've been getting some really good press, especially for such a young theatre group. They've got a brand new theatre space under construction in the loop and a great relationship with a pretty hot playwright, Yussef El Guindi. I'll be understudying, which will be a very different experience, but a good one. That pays. I'm actually understudying two roles, so have about 80 pages of dialogue to get down.

The other Silk Road project is a staged reading in March of a new play that they're putting into full production this fall -- so that's another potential opportunity later in the year.

I've never been booked so far in advance before. It's odd, but I guess that's the way it's supposed to work ...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fox News backwards ...

Amazing. Watching 6 hours of Fox News backwards and without sound and it's still remarkably unfair and unbalanced. And so amazingly trivial. Hours and hours of coverage of brush fires and boat fires and other minor local events that will not even get a footnote in tomorrow's papers.

The only good thing is that it takes just a half-hour to go through six hours worth of footage backwards. To hell with Tivo -- rewind is the way to go.

1 down, 18 to go ...

Today I sent off my first festival submission. It feels good to be making some progress there. I may not enter all 19 of the contests I found. For one thing, it usually costs money to submit -- not a lot, but it would add up fast.

Anyway, I submitted The Ledge, Dusk Comes Early and The Analogy Butler to this theatre group in Los Angeles that appears legitimate. They've won a bunch of awards and their One-Act Competition gets several hundred entries a year. So we'll see. The next competition's deadline is in a couple of weeks. They allow only one submission, but the prize is actually pretty nice -- $1,000.

Apparently the Assurant Health spot is still running. It seems everyone has seen it "live" but me. Yesterday I got an e-mail from an old co-worker I hadn't talked to in few years. He had no idea I started acting, so he says he just about fell out of his chair when I showed up on his CNBC program at 7 in the morning.

I'm determined to get this thing on tape. I've started leaving the VCR on all day on selected stations where it's supposed to be running. Then in my "down time" I play it in reverse, hoping to catch it. I really do need to get that intern ...

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Plagiarist

This weekend I watched Adaptation, which I loved but hadn't seen since it was in theaters several years ago. That was before I started acting and writing seriously. I really liked it then and thought it might be even more interesting this time around, what with all the inside-Hollywood stuff and the whole Robert McKee thing I've been struggling with.

Anyway, I guess I really internalized the messages from the movie. Here is what I wrote the other day:

"People don't change much over their lifetimes, and life rarely presents dramatic, all-or-nothing, black-and-white turning points. So my first instinct has always been to write characters and situations that inhabit a narrow plane."

And here is what Charlie Kaufman says in the movie when he confronts McKee:

"What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is really resolved. More a reflection of the real world."

Kaufman said it much better than I ever could. And McKee's answer? Straight out of the book:

"The real world? The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: nothing much happens in the real world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There's genocide and war and corruption, etc."

So. I've got a lot of work ahead of me.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

I like my stakes medium

So it's happening, just the way Robert McKee said it would. I started writing scenes before I fully outlined my story and now that I've thought some more and read some more, I realize my story needs to change. But I'm weighed down by my attachment to the scenes already written.

I've always had a problem with low stakes. When I was writing the plays for The One-Eyed Cat, the director pushed me toward raising the stakes (the risks, rewards, challenges, opportunities, etc.) for the characters. Same with my other show. People don't change much over their lifetimes, and life rarely presents dramatic, all-or-nothing, black-and-white turning points. So my first instinct has always been to write characters and situations that inhabit a narrow plane.

But that's apparently not what people want to see. (Except for a small audience of avant garde types who flock to obscure French films where nothing much happens.) And that's why reality is usually a lot less interesting than fiction. And that's why I guess I need to re-work things. But I'm just not sure I'm as interested in writing that kind of story.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Eyes on the prize

I've spent hours poring over my now-heavily dog-eared copy of the Dramatists Sourcebook, sifting through 500+ playwriting festivals, competitions and production opportunities. And after some additional verification via the Internet and e-mail, I have come up with a list of 19 places to submit my plays.

The problem is, several of the most prestigious opportunities have just recently passed. November and December, it seems, are popular months for competition deadlines. Complicating matters is the fact that most of these festivals carry some kind of restriction over prior use -- they want your play to be unpublished or not produced elsewhere, or not produced "professionally," etc. So a win in one festival (where it would be produced) could shut me out of future competitions.

I suppose what I need to do is figure out a strategy, submitting certain of the five plays only to certain festivals. Damn. Nothing's simple.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ha!

So the morning after the great audition, I received this e-mail:

Thank you all for taking the time to come out and audition for the lead role in _______. Although there were many of you who had great reads, we didn't find any of you to fit the part of our lead character.

We appreciate your time and effort and hope to see all of you in the future.

Hilarious! And that's the way it often goes. Well, it's not often that all the rejected actors' e-mails appear in the address line, instead of being bcc'd, but it's kinda typical.

Anyway, I'm not majorly disappointed. As I said before, just the positive audition experience itself was more than worthwhile. But it occurred to me that sometimes when you have these really great, really comfortable auditions, it might be because they've already decided you're not right for the part, so they relax, causing you to relax, and everyone just has fun.

Onward!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The best auditions ...

... are those from which you expect the least. It may involve an organization or people you've never heard of, or maybe its a strange location or time, but for whatever reason, you have kind of an iffy vibe and you're contemplating calling to cancel. And inevitably it turns out to be the best audition experience you've had in weeks.

That was today. Good people, some real opportunity to talk and to show who you are. A smart script. And, just as important, a good selection of audition sides from that script. A relaxed atmosphere. A director who first wants to see what you can do with the script but then also gives you some sharp, incisive direction to guide you in a second reading. Positive feedback. Courtesy and graciousness. And, of course, one of those fits-like-a-glove roles: a work-obsessed artistic type.

For the second time in a month they remarked positively on the amount of work I've done. And, as it turns out, the director recalled from my resume having seen me in a show a couple of year ago. Again, working a lot is good.

Even if nothing comes of it, it's good to have these, if for no other reason than the ego boost. And they always seem to come at a time when you need that most.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Screenplay -- Inside Out or Outside In?

So I've been alternating between drafting the screenplay and reading Robert McKee's Story, one of the leading bibles on screenwriting which, like the actual Bible, should not necessarily be taken literally at all times, as illustrated in the outstanding film Adaptation.

Still, it's useful, if a little (sometimes a lot) discouraging. McKee says you should write from the inside out. Meaning, the majority of your time should be spent meticulously detailing every step of the action from start-to-finish, figuring out the story, tinkering, revising, cutting and adding until you've produced a solid, 60-page treatment. Then, and only then, do you start writing the dialogue and the actual script.

With the reverse approach -- outside in -- the writer starts prematurely on the script. Not only is it less efficient, but as the story develops you become overly-wedded to certain scenes and bits of dialogue that no longer serve the story.

The thing is, most of my writing has been outside in. I hardly ever sit down and think, "Now I am going to write something that explores the theme of mortality" or "this will be a sketch about a bank robbery gone awry." The catalyst usually comes from something quite small and minor and I mull it over and just start writing.

Examples. Once, on a vacation, I noticed how it got dark so much earlier in valleys and how the mountaintops get so much extra daylight. (I know, really groundbreaking discoveries here.) And the phrase occurred to me, "Dusk Come Early to the Valley." I thought for years that would make a good title for something, I didn't know what. Eventually I turned it into the play Dusk Comes Early (excising the prepositional phrase, which I thought made it sound really pretentious and melodramatic -- or soap-operatic), about a woman dealing with her father's dementia. I wrote a sketch using as its departure point three lines of conversation overheard in a bookstore and another based on a news story. I didn't really know, until I got into the actual writing that they would be about our fascination with violence or about faith and loyalty.

Sure, a screenplay's different. It's longer, for one thing. Anyway, no way I'm creating a 60-page treatment before I start. I guess I'm trying a hybrid approach. Still, I run the risk of creating what the author says is just a collection of nice moments that don't come together to form an actual story.

Oh, also I've learned that my concept has almost zero commercial potential. But that's a story for another day ...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"You're gonna feel a little sting ..."

As Marcellus Wallace said in Pulp Fiction, you can't let pride [mess] with you. (Trying to keep this work-friendly.)

So I got a call this morning at 10:20 asking if I could make an 11 am audition. I'm accustomed to not getting a lot of notice for commercial auditions. By not a lot, I mean they'll usually call you in the afternoon for the next day. But at least that's something. I've learned to be flexible enough to accommodate the unexpected. But 40 minutes notice? For an audition that's at least 30 minutes away?

My instinct is to say no. Who do they think they are? And what do they think of me that they feel I've got so little going on I can be over there within the hour?

But you never know. The way it works is, the client wants to shoot a commercial or print ad. The client contacts the casting agency for actors. The casting agency then sends notices out to the talent agencies. The talent agencies respond with actors on their roster that fit the bill. The casting agency picks the actors they like, and tells the talent agencies, which then call their actors and tell them they've booked an audition.

This whole process from start to finish can occur in as little as 24 hours. So there's lots of opportunities for miscommunication. I get the sense I was supposed to be told yesterday afternoon about this but an error or delay occurred somewhere up the chain.

So that's the story of how I went to an audition this morning (a half-hour late) unshowered and unshaven. Too bad it wasn't the Marlboro Man gig ...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Things to do and not think about in an audition

When you're doing a reading in an audition, you need to: figure out who your character is, what his relationship is to the other characters in the scene (not just father/brother/customer, etc., but how he feels about the others, their history together, etc.), what's at stake in the scene and what he wants, specifically, from the other characters (not just how he feels, but what he wants), and what obstacles are in the way of his achieving those wants.

You have to think about the environment, where you are and how that might affect the scene and how you could physicalize that. You have to think about what happened in the moments before the scene started and figure out the arc of the scene so you can give it momentum and really hit the climax.

You have to give your reading some texture, so you're not playing a single note the whole time. To get what you want, you might threaten at one point, seduce at another or cajole, tease, negotiate, surrender, beg or accuse. You need to look for opportunities to play opposites -- so if your character says "I'm leaving" you might want to stay planted; or if he says "I hate you" you might want to kiss the other character.

You have to give energy to the performance and not let up. You need to move around and use your whole body, not just the upper half. You need to project and articulate clearly. You need to make eye contact with your scene partner and create a genuine connection. When they read you need to look them in the eyes and listen and not have your head buried in the script, but then you need to recognize your cue line and be able to quickly find your place in the script for your own lines.

You have to let go and allow surprises to happen and play off the tone and volume and energy and movements of your scene partner. And you have to actually feel what you're playing, so you're not acting sad, but you are sad, not acting angry, but are angry.

And if it looks for one second like you're consciously thinking about any of these things, that you're not actually there and present in the moment, then you're dead.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Marlboro Man

When one of my agents called with an audition opportunity for Big Tobacco, I had some very weighty moral questions to consider. First and foremost, what's it pay?

I told the agent that I really didn't picture myself as the Marlboro Man type, but she assured me they weren't looking for the traditional roughneck of legend. Still, the dress was "rugged casual." Hmmm. So I passed over the men's capris, and the few things in my wardrobe that contain actual color and settled on jeans and a grey t-shirt.

From what I gather, about 3.2 million guys were called in for this. We had a fun time in the waiting room. A couple of the guys were actual smokers and were doling out tips on how to hold a cigarette with credibility. I'm a little self conscious since my brother once called me out for my very bad fake smoking on stage (see photo).

As for the moral questions, I don't have a big problem with it. I'm no fan of smoking or smokers, but tobacco is still a legal product in these here United States. And it's not like I've got the celebrity status to drive legions of children into the arms of mother tobacco. Of course the best justification is the fact that it's all academic at this point ...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Do the Right Thing

One of my favorite scenes in this movie is when Ossie Davis' character stops Mookie on the sidewalk in order to deliver this critically important life lesson. He tells him, "Always do the right thing." Mookie just says, "'That's it?" and Ossie replies, "That's it."

I love it because it's so stupidly simple that it's actually deeply profound. And it's what I always, always try to do in approaching this business. For the first show I was ever cast in I read the director's bio. It turns out he had a small part in an even smaller film. I made it a point to find the video and watch it. Of course, I also made it a point to let him know I watched it. He was thrilled.

Then there was this director I'd auditioned for at least a half-dozen times and he never cast me. But I always went to see those shows anyway. It was helpful to me to see what he was looking for and, of course, I think he liked that I made the effort.

I pitch in with props and sets when needed and go to see my former teachers' shows and attend theatre fundraisers and I do all those other things you're supposed to do. The Right Things.

I'm not saying this to toot my own horn. Because I have a favorite line from another movie, Hamburger Hill: "It don't mean nothin', not a thing."

And it's true that none of this extra effort means a damned thing. The only thing that matters is talent. Actors can be disruptive and late and have bad work habits and be strung out on drugs -- but if they've got the gift, all of that stuff is excused. Chris Farley once walked into a roomful of people at SNL with a golf club in his ass.

That director who rejected me all those times eventually did cast me in a show. But not because I did The Right Thing. Only because a show and a part came along that were right for me.

I like to think I've approached things this way strictly because it's the right thing to do. But very likely I've done it because I thought it would help my career out, give me an edge, set me apart. And what I've found is, it doesn't. At the most, I think it just helps me keep up. Because so many others have been doing this longer and have more training and are more gifted. I shudder to think where I'd be if I didn't do these things.

Maybe I'd be thought of as someone who focuses on his craft instead of politics. Disturbing thought.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lazy Sunday

And Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. Things have been a little ... unbusy.

Just for fun I went back through my electronic calendar and in the past 18 months (that's as far back as it goes) I have had only three weeks with no rehearsals, shows or auditions. Two of those three weeks were last week and the week before. And while I've been doing other things -- sending out resumes, scheduling auditions, writing -- it feels weird not having specific commitments. Places and times that I'm expected to show up and work. For much of this year I'd have 6, 8 or 10 of these per week.

I've forgotten how to schedule leisure time. I'm so accustomed to not being able to commit to things like concerts or museums or movies. So I end up watching a lot of bad TV. If I weren't performing, I'd be 25 lbs. heavier. And probably drunk every night.

Anyway, I've got shows and things lined up from March through June, but a pretty big January-February gap facing me. Though there are a couple of festivals and things coming up -- one-acts and such. I've done a lot of those things in the past couple of years, so something will probably present itself.

A couple of years ago an actor friend of mine said he tried to be in a show every month and, of course, I liked the quantifiable sound of that and adopted it as my own goal. And I've been on track for the most part, averaging a show per month at least, with 12 last year and 14 the year before.

I'm not worried about it or anything. Mostly. Just anxious to get busy.

By the by, if you are one of the three people in North America not to have seen the
Lazy Sunday video, get with it, damnit! Funniest thing on SNL since I can't even remember.