Monday, August 28, 2006

Unexpecting the expected

Maybe I was playing down this Goodman thing too much. I did okay, but right afterwards I thought I was going to throw up in my mouth a little. I was on the freaking mainstage! Last year (as is customary with lots of auditions around town) we weren't in the actual theatre, just a nondescript room. I mean, the stage itself was bigger than whole theatres I normally perform in. It didn't freak me out at the time -- it was actually kind of cool to work on filling that big a space. But afterwards it really hit me.

I think because I didn't have a lot of time to get nervous. I got there early and they were actually running ahead of schedule. So I filled out my stuff and was up in less than 10 minutes. I did okay.
But I knew going in I wasn’t getting cast anytime soon at the Goodman. So my goals were to show him something different from last time and, ideally, to demonstrate some progress since then. I got a little inside my head on the Shakespeare one (one of the two monologues had to be classical), but I think my first one was pretty good. It was pretty intimate, though. As I think about it, was it big enough for the space? Oh, well. Like last year, they were exceptionally nice and supportive (as most people are).

Anyway, expectations. Since almost everything in this business is beyond your control, I have been trying to loosen up and let go of things. But there I went, envisioning auditioning in a room. Like this commerical audition this morning. There was no advance script, which isn't unusual. When I got there they said it would just be an on-camera interview. So they're a health care company and I immediately start thinking of anything positive I could possibly say about the state of healthcare in this country or in my life.

And when I get in there, the questions are these: 1) Where are you from? 2) What are the places where you like to hang out in town? 3) What’s on your iPod? Okay. Obviously, it’s not what you say, but how you answer. I tried to be friendly and open and genial and articulate and smiley and toothy and natural and casual and fun and trustworthy and warm.

And spontaneous.

We hate it when our friends become successful

Not really. That's just the title of a funny Morrissey song. Sure, there are those people that everyone knows, in whatever walk of life, but definitely including acting, where you go, "What did he/she do to deserve that? Who did they blow?"

But for people you really like and respect, it's good to hear of their success. Nevertheless, it does set off a slight twinge -- "What are they doing that I'm not? Am I working hard enough? Am I good enough? Do I have the right agent? Should I get reconstructive surgery? Who should I be blowing?"

This came up this weekend when I went to a theatre fundraiser and ran into this guy who's really, really great. Lately, he's been all over the TV, in a lunchmeat commercial and another one for shaving gel. And now I guess an upcoming beer spot. Crap! I mean, it's great for him and he deserves it. He's a funny guy and he's got a great "regular dude/guy next door" look that's perfect for consumer product spots right now.

I remind myself that I don't have that look. That when I started I made a deliberate decision to present myself as I am and see what happens. But it's times like these where I think, maybe I should shave and get a haircut and contacts. I don't know -- I think I'm one of those people where the more stuff I have on my face and body the better I look.

Anyway, I think he's the first truly happy actor I've ever met. I asked him how he was and he said that he was great, really great, that he couldn't be happier with the way things are going right now. I've had times like that, but it was only because I didn't know any better.

Still, it's all perspective. He asked what I was up to and I gave the spiel -- I was just in this one-act festival where they also produced a new play of mine, and I'm doing an industrial next week and shooting a short film in September. Otherwise, just lots of auditioning -- I'm going to the Goodman on Monday.

See now, that was impressive to him -- "The Goodman? Wow!" But that's because he's less in the theatre world than the improv scene. If he was, he'd be auditioning there too. Last year at this time I remember several other friends were all going to the Goodman, too, and I imagine I'll run into a person or two there today.

Today. Oof. See, if I was really serious I would have hired a coach at $50 an hour to coach me for this, but ...

Which brings me to another Morrissey line: "Somebody stop me, oh stop me, from thinking all the time, about everything ..."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More Ups & Downs

I'm repeating a lot of my headings now, which probably means I'm repeating myself.

Anyway, on the UP front, I got offered a part in a film. A small part in a small film, but what the hell. True to my word ("I will not reject the next project I'm offered") I'll take it. So, good. Something to do. Still have lots of auditions ahead -- small things and bigger things -- but this is something. Not that auditioning is nothing. I've read three or four scripts in three weeks now, just for auditions.

On the DOWN side, my play did not win the Speaking Ring festival. This is not entirely new news, but it's news I am now comfortable enough to share. For three reasons. First, the plays that won (there was a jury prize and an audience prize) were the two I felt were as good or better than mine.

Second, I was told that in the final judging, as they were narrowing the 20 semi-finalists (out of, again, the original 141 submitted) down to 9, mine was one of only three plays that were unanimously voted in by the judges. So I have a feeling if there was a third prize, it would be mine.

Third ... how do I put this? I wrote the play, and that is, more or less, one third of the contribution to the final product that goes on stage. The other two parts being the acting and the directing, over which I had little control. Let's just say I am confident in my writing. And Shimmering Souldust will likely be produced again, by me this time, as part of another evening of one-acts I'm putting together. A second one is written, a third one is being drafted and the fourth is tumbling around in my head. So look for that show, coming to a stage near you in, oh, 2007 sometime.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Auditions Redux

In trying to understand what this acting thing is about, people often ask funny questions. Like with writing -- where do you get your ideas? How long did it take to write that? One of the big ones is, Where do you find out about these shows? So here is a rundown of the process that will surely put you to sleep. Sorry, most of what I am doing right now is auditioning and responding to audition notices (14 scheduled so far this month).

The process is actually pretty easy, if a bit time-consuming. There's this online site that's pretty comprehensive -- it posts probably 90-95% of the theatrical and film auditions that happen in this town. They do updates twice a week and for a dollar-a-look you go through them and figure out which ones are for you.

Some days there are four or five, other days 20. To keep it manageable, you start by throwing out those that don't apply. First, the role. If they're looking for 12-year-old girls or Hispanic men, then that's an easy one right there. I personally don't do jobs in the suburbs since I don't have a car, so I cut those. Other people without cars bum rides and stuff, but this is just what I've decided.

The next thing you look at is, who's putting on the show. Sometimes you recognize the theatre, a lot of the time you don't. There are easily more than 200 theatre groups operating at any one time in Chicago, many of them less than a couple of years old. So if you don't know them, you google them. Ideally, they have a website. So you go there and look around, see if there's anyone in the ensemble you know, see what productions they've done in the past and where and just try to get a sense whether these people know what they're doing.

Often they don't have a site. So you google. Sometimes you get bunches of references to them -- old calendar listings on entertainment sites, or credits on peoples' resumes and bios. Anyway, you find out what you can.

Finally, you look at the show itself. Sometimes it's a well-known play, other times it's an original work. If it's original, you have no idea what it's about or if it's any good. So then you might look up the playwright. Also, the venue where they plan on putting it up. If it's a good, established theatre space, then you know they're investing some thought and money, so that adds a whiff of legitimacy.

Now you've got a handful of notices left to respond to. About every week or so I plow through them. Some just require a phone call for an appointment. Others you e-mail your headshot and resume. Many still require you to mail the stuff to them. Which requires a personalized cover letter and professional-looking labels and all that stuff. So that's how it gets time-consuming.

And then you wait for them to call. Personally, I like it when they ask for your headshot/resume in advance. Let them decide first if you have at least the look and the experience for the part. When you're phoning in for an appointment sight-unseen, it's a total crapshoot and, I think, can be a waste of everyone's time.

Of course, nobody really told me all this when I first started three years ago. I just had to pick it up as I went. I still remember the first time I submitted to Steppenwolf -- instead of a cover letter, I slapped a handwritten post-it note to my headshot. Eeesh.

That's the process for beginners. Ultimately, if you're good, you get to a point where people are calling you, inviting you to audition (or even outright offering you the part) because they know you or know of your work. That's happened sometimes with me, but not nearly enough that I afford to ignore the seven notices I responded to this week.

It's all verrrrry glamorous.

Friday, August 18, 2006


More auditions coming up. I am determined that I will not reject the next project I'm offered. Whatever it is. I counted up and in the past 4-5 months I have turned down two plays (not my thing), a short film and a staged reading (scheduling conflicts). Plus I conflicted myself out of another show and talked my way out of another (the one with the small part recently).

Anyway, the Goodman called today, so I'll be going back there again for a second year. It means nothing. Just season non-equity generals. (For, like, the most prestigious theatre in Chicago.) But I guess it's good to get back in front of them. I think I've got new/better stuff to show them.

On Sunday are auditions for a short film and then this play that I just finished reading. The part I'm reading for is that of a "very sexy" and "very charming" jazz singer. Not being a great singer is, I think, the least of my problems here. I don't consider myself bad looking by any means. But I'm not exactly what you'd call "model handsome." I don't have "chiseled features" or "good skin" or "a man's physique." But I do have a good voice. I will do my best to work it.

It's about time ...

I finally got another commercial booking. It's been ... I don't even want to count up how long. It's an industrial, and the client happens to be an old client of mine from my consulting business. I've written tons of speeches for their CEO and other execs. I doubt the people who cast me saw the connection. But maybe they did. Anyway, should be interesting.

The money's just okay -- and it's up in Milwaukee, so when you factor in travel time plus a full day shoot , well ... whatever. It'll be a good name to have on my resume. My other resume, that is.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How Not to Act

I've learned -- or at least reinforced -- some valuable lessons about acting by watching some people lately who aren't very good at it.

Like smaller is better. It's one thing in an audition, where it's good to start big, since directors generally say it's easier to pull an actor back than the reverse. But on the stage, it's good to keep in mind that not everyone who is angry screams at the top of their lungs. People who are nervous don't necessarily fidget and dart their eyes. Someone who has power doesn't always feel the need to demonstrate it with threats and bullying.

And the difference between character and caricature. This is an especially bad habit among some improvisers -- they put on a Scottish or Russian accent and effect a limp and, presto, they think they've built a character. Most psychiatrists don't talk with an Austrian accent, and not all butlers are British. They go broad, and not deep. They've created a couple of exterior quirks, but haven't paid any attention to how this person would feel, act and react in the real world.

And honesty. For chrissakes, when you can see the wheels turning in an actor's head (this is the part where I stand and gesture forcefully to demonstrate my character's resolve), you are completely taken out of the story and reminded you are watching people on a stage. In this last show I did there were some times when Emily and I completely dissolved the line between the characters and ourselves, between the performance and how we, as actual people, would behave. That's why, I think, our interactions and relationship seemed so natural to people. When something unexpected happened, I was genuinely surprised, and just let that show, or amused, so I laughed. People thought it was acting, but it was really just honest reacting. Which is, of course, good acting.

Anyway, I need to get cast in another show like Back of the Throat so I can get thrown off my high-horse and realize how far I have to go instead of snuggling comfortably in the knowledge of how far I've come.

PS: Note to Hilary: if you're reading this and flipping out because you think it's about you, it's not! You were outstanding last night.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

All You Need is Love

Or, at least, the appearance of it. On stage, that is.

In the last few roles I've had I've realized just how important it is to have genuine chemistry with your scene partner. When you don't, when you're watching two people on stage who you can't imagine getting along in real life, then the performance is dead in the water.

Conversely, when you're dealing with a ... let's say ... less-than-perfect script, on-stage chemistry between the actors can make up for a whole host of other flaws. When it's there, it's unmistakable. It's like a ballet -- the two of you are moving in unison, and you start unconsciously mirroring and complementing each other physically, emotionally, vocally. Maybe it's more like a great basketball team. When your teammate is driving down the lane and suddenly throws you a no-look pass, it may be spontaneous, but not at all surprising, because you're completely in sync.

Audiences really enjoy watching two people who are clearly having fun and enjoying being with other. You can't fake that. It surprises me that some actors don't seem to get that. Even more surprising, I suppose, is that I do. Not being super-open and effusive in real life, I somehow manage it on stage. Or, more accurately, I manage to find it in the hours and hours of rehearsal time leading up to that point. Maybe I've just been lucky to get cast with cool people.

So I guess the first step in being a good actor is being a good human.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Decisions are easy ...

... when they're made for you.

To follow up on the small supporting role I was offered the other day, I called the director to ask more about the role, noting that in the original 3.5-hour version of the play, the character had only a few lines. So I was wondering how much would be left in the 1.5-hour version he whittled it down to. The answer: not a lot. In fact, the director thanked me, said he had been looking at narrative flow and not individual characters and that my call made him realize that the role he offered was really too small for me to want to consider. So he cut it and folded the lines into other characters.

That's cool. He was very nice, and understood that I'm not a primadonna or anything. I'm always happy to pitch in and take on a supporting role, but it really is very tough when you've got a really tiny part. I had two lines in a play last year and it was overall a good experience for a number of reasons, but not something I want to do again. I like to work. I like to feel involved and central to things. And I've seen other people with small walk-on parts ingratiate themselves to the rest of the cast and become an integral member of the ensemble, but I just don't have that kind of personality. I'm just not ... I don't know.

A client in my jobby-job once said that my interactions are transactional, and not relationship-based. I guess that's true. Especially in work, I just want to get the job done, well and efficiently. I'm no good at schmoozing, or golf outings or remembering peoples' kids' names. I'm not awkward by any means (though I feel it sometimes). I'm not one of those creative types you stick in a room and hide from the client. I clean up nice and present myself well and make a good impression in meetings, often with very high-level execs. But I am known mainly for doing very good work, for being conscientious and responsible. I wish that were enough, but it usually isn't. And it's the same in acting. I can talk until the sun comes up about the show, but when it comes to forming deep, lasting relationships, well that only happens with a very few people.

Which probably means I'm more suited for writing than acting.

Anyway, back to the point. In the past 3 weeks I have talked my way out of 3 different productions. Which means a glaringly open calendar ahead. But I'm going to take it easy and assume new opportunities will present themselves, as they usually do.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ups & Downs

Today I went to this callback for what would be a very sweet voiceover gig -- long-term, good client, lucrative, etc. When I went to sign in I noticed that just about everyone was there for their first audition, not their second. Then I saw their names -- Tim Kazurinsky, plus a bunch of people that most people wouldn't know but Chicago actors and improvisers would recognize as Second City instructors and former mainstage players and such. So I was in some pretty rare company.

When I went in to read they told me I was one of just a few people called back from the initial rounds, out of hundreds who auditioned. (The A-list people didn't have to go through the first round.) They said I had a distinctive voice and they could tell I was "smart," but that I was a bit too "actory." So we worked on making it more conversational, and doing some ad-libbing. I hope I gave them close to what they're looking for.

* * * * *

TimeOut Chicago reviewed the Vitality Fest, including the play I wrote: "Rob Biesenbach's The Shimmering Souldust of Matotanea imagines a terminal cancer patient who's tied up his loose ends so tightly he doesn't know what to do with his second chance, but the director ruins the rhythm with one thudding blackout after another." I don't agree with what they said about the director, but at least they didn't say it was written poorly. They had similarly mixed things to say about each of the plays so I got off relatively easily.

* * * * *

I went to a theatre callback last night (2 hours!) and got offered a role today. They're great people, but the problem is, it's a really small supporting role (as far as I can tell). So, I've got a decision to make. I'd just love to get a slam-dunk sometime. Something that didn't require a lot of weighing of the pros and cons.


My ipod may be trying to tell me something. On the last two auditions I went to the songs that came up on shuffle included "Loser" and "Running to Stand Still."

I've gone through an interesting arc with my confidence level. In the very beginning, it was confidence born of ignorance. I remember one of my very first theatrical auditions. Afterwards I was talking to an actor friend, telling him I was concerned that if I get this part it would conflict with a sketch show I was in. He actually gave me some very good advice that I'll never forget: if you're already counting on it and planning your life around it you won't get the job. Turns out he was right. I didn't even get a callback, which really shocked me at the time.

When you're just starting out you have no idea how fierce the competition is and how many very, very good actors you're up against. During my early classes at Second City I really truly believed that SNL was in my future. It really hadn't occurred to me that many, many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people all wanted that same thing. And most of them were more talented and more experienced than I.

So the next phase was underconfidence. I would beat myelf up after auditions, going over all the things I did wrong or could have done better, and knowing for sure I would never be called back.

After a while came the third phase. I accepted the fact that it's very much a crapshoot. They see tons of talented people and sometimes the thing that makes one person stand out (for better or worse) is completely random and beyond your control. This is a very freeing feeling. You just never count on getting a job, so you go in, do your thing and forget about it.

That's a healthy attitude, but I wonder if it leads to carelessness? Lately I've come full circle. I go in and really fully expect to get the fucking gig and am surprised (if I feel I've done well) when I don't get called back. I don't beat myself up for doing a bad job or bemoan my fate, but I am like, what the hell? I don't know why this is. I think I'm just preparing better and doing better. Maybe I'm being called in to things now that are a closer match for me. Who knows?

I do know it's been too long since I booked a commercial job. This is the first time in a couple of years actually that I don't have any outstanding checks out there from jobs I've done. So even if I book something tomorrow, with the way things work, it will be several months before I get paid. Fortunately I don't depend on this income. But last fall I booked a commercial and an industrial in the span of two weeks and I recall thinking that if this happened once a month I'd make enough money on acting to not even bother with my "real" job. Anyway, I recognize there are a lot of ups and downs to this. I'm not really down about it or even worried too much. Just ... curious?

As a sidenote, it's funny when I hear the people who, for whatever reason (they have a crappy agent or they're not really effectively managing their careers) only rarely get called to auditions, like once in six months. It's all they talk about and they plan for it and vest so much in it, and it just goes back to what this guy said. You're not going to get it. Especially when you're auditioning so rarely. It really is a numbers game. I don't know what the standard audition-to-gig ratio is. 20-1? Someone said it's like 50- or 100-to-1 in LA. I don't know, but I do know if you're auditioning 2 or 3 times a year your odds are beyond slim -- they're microf'ingscopic.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A bird in the hand ...

... should be crushed dead. That seems to be my philosophy lately. I've turned down two projects in the last week, without anything else really lurking in the nearby bush.

One was a character and script that just weren't for me. I'm trying to learn to trust my instincts. The other play was a series of related monologues. I like being part of an ensemble and working off of other actors, so I don't think that would be a lot of fun.

I also feel like I'm at the point where working for brand new and untested theatre companies isn't going to help me much. The experience alone isn't necessarily better than not working at all. I mean, sometimes you can get in on the ground floor of something big. More likely, though, you risk toiling in frustration and anonymity.

I just have to trust that other stuff will come up. And keep auditioning and sending out headshots. In fact, there's a handful I've got to send out now.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Awesome opening

Last night's opening turned out to be a great success. We were totally on fire, the audience was with us all the way, laughing and gasping and, most of all, I got all my lines right! I've never been so ridiculously behind in learning my lines. But with the Oil Lamp show and class going on, I just couldn't get to them as early as I normally would. Things looked a little bleak at the beginning of the week, but I put in a lot of hours and managed to pull it out. Whew!

And the production of the play I wrote went really well, too. We had a "talkback" session Thursday night with a couple of the other playwrights and me answering audience questions and we were asked what we thought. I told them what I felt, which was that it's a very, very difficult process (for me, at least) watching the words being performed in a way that is inevitably different than they sound in my head. Not worse, just different. During the final rehearsal I was so tense that I actually broke a pen in my mouth.

But that's what you have a director for -- to bring an objective voice to the work and to bring his vision to the process. So it played a little more comically than I imagined, and a bit bigger than I anticipated, but the audience seemed to respond well to it. So I'm happy with the end product. I mean, as happy as I can be. It's just the process for getting there is so torturous.

Every night the order of the show changes, because they're rotating the 9 plays, showing 6 per night. So tonight, instead of going on third, we're last. I really, really hate waiting to get on stage. I'm not nervous, but anxious. I just want to get out there and do it. Too much waiting means too many things to go wrong -- overthinking it or losing your energy, etc.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The (lesser) "N" Word

It's important to have a variety of monologues to use depending on the audition situation. (I have 7 or 8.) Common categories include comic, dramatic, contemporary and classical. But mostly they fall into two camps: ones you can't stand to do anymore and ones you still enjoy.

My favorite comic monologue has one small issue. It has the word "Negro" in it. Several times. And this throws me off terribly on the rare occasions when the people doing the casting happen to be black.

In context, of course, it's not really offensive. It's from a great play I've talked about called The Problem, by A.R. Gurney. The character in the monologue is a prototypical middle-class, suburban white guy. Even when the play was written, in the mid-'70s, the term "Negro" was out of date. So the joke is really on him. Basically he believes he has fooled his wife into having sex with him while he's disguised as black man. Hence the line, "So I am your Negro visitor, and have been, all along! Oh, I know it sounds implausible, but remember, I played Othello in high school. Somehow I was able to pass."

I actually kind of freaked out at a film audition a few months ago. I was all prepped to do The Problem and even announced it to the room, but then the presence of one unexpected black person somehow forced me to call an audible. I did a totally different monologue, which was very clearly not Gurney, very clearly not even comedy. I didn't get the part.

But today (and a couple of other times in the past) I pressed forward and the piece went fine. On top of that, today's audition required two monologues and the other one I just invented based on the scene we worked on in our acting class. I've used it twice now and it seems to work pretty well. Anyway, I think the lesson is, it's a funny monologue and black people won't think I'm a racist for using the word "Negro." In this context. And I'm really hung up with white liberal guilt.

The other lesson today is not to schedule auditions right after you see the eye doctor. They were just about to dilate my pupils (which leaves me blind for several hours), when I realized I wouldn't be able to read the script in the voiceover audition that came next. So they used half-strength on me, which seemed to make my retinas perfectly visible to the doctor, so I don't know why we can't always use them.

It's not the heat ...

... oh wait, it is the heat. It's totally the heat. About the stupidest thing you can do is complain about the weather, but I've really had it. What bugs me is, I seem to be the only one sweating. Everyone around me looks cool and dry, and I have a nonstop oily film clinging to me. Part of it, I think, is that I just walk very, very fast. I can't help it. I tell myself to go slow, but anytime I come upon someone in front of me I have to pass them. And when I get into heavy pedestrian traffic, forget it. I'm like Arie Luyendyk out there, darting and weaving.

Tomorrow I think I'm actually going to pass on an audition, because I have a doctor's appt at 8:45, then I have to get to a voiceover audition by 11 am and a theatre audition at 3:45 pm. Between the 11 and 3:45 I'd have to bus and walk it way the freak out to the West side for this print audition. All of these photographers have their studios 3 miles west of downtown and it's a really huge pain in the ass. By public transport you can easily burn 2-3 hours for a 2-minute audition. So forget it. I'm going to use the time to go home and shower and prep for the theatre audition.

Then tomorrow night is dress rehearsal for the show, which will likely go until well past midnight. Bitch, bitch, bitch. Go to bed, dummy.