Monday, November 30, 2009

I <3 NY

I was in NY for Thanksgiving -- the first time in seven years. Which is ridiculous, given the fact that I've got a sister living there.

There was a period from 1999 to 2001 when I spent maybe 75 to 100 days a year there. I felt less like a visitor than a resident. So the city -- or the memory of it, at least -- has long had a magical sort of hold on me.

This visit, though, wasn't quite the same. I don't know why, but it just didn't blow me away like it used to do. It didn't feel ... magical, for some reason. Maybe it was the neighborhood. Tribeca is great in many ways, but a little more rough-edged than some other areas. A little less "neighborhoody," maybe.

Or maybe it was because my time was crowded with family obligations. (Though I did pack a lot in -- Brooklyn Bridge, WTC site, High Line, Guggenheim, Central Park, Upper West Side ...)

Maybe it's just funny tricks your memories play on you. I would hate to think I'm losing my ability to be awed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mr. Fussy

The department store commercial we shot in Iowa turned out really well! As expected, it's lots and lots (and lots) of quick cuts. So much so that, well ... of course I'd like to see a little more of ME in it. But I suppose, looking at it objectively, that's not necessarily the point.

Next week it'll go live on their website and they usually include lots of extras there -- additional scenes and shots, different takes and versions, etc. So I'll be interested to see the stuff from the cutting room floor.

In the meantime, this starts airing Monday in 20 markets, including Des Moines, Kansas City, Memphis, Omaha and St. Louis. I don't think I really know anybody in any of the towns where it's running, but I guess that's what Facebook is for.

And, in fact, I like what one friend there said -- it reminds her of me following her around in my apartment, making sure she didn't break any of the family antiques.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

And the money kept rollin' in

Or trickling, I guess. Flowing maybe.

I assumed since the Harris spot stopped running that the gravy train was over. And the checks did stop for a bit when the commercial stopped airing.

But now they're starting up again. It's not a ton. Not nearly a gravy train. A gravy sidecar maybe. These are holding fees, as I understand it. For as long as they want to preserve the right to run it, until the term expires next May, they send me these little checks. Middling checks. Decent checks.

I'm not complaining. In fact, I think I should switch over my banking to them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Dead

The father of my high school girlfriend died yesterday. I hadn't seen him since college, but he was a big part of my life at a crucial time of my life, and my memories of him are vivid and lasting.

Like with my mom's husband, Ed. He's been gone since 1995, but the memories are rock solid. I can see and hear him clearly in my head, he appears in my dreams, and I readily conjure him and imagine his reactions to everyday events.

It's odd and striking how clear it is. Like a movie you've seen 30 times on TBS, it just doesn't seem to fade. He's perfectly preserved in my memories, as if in amber, forever the age he was when I last saw him. But at the same time, completely contemporary. Not at all ancient or dated. In full color, not sepia-toned or hazy.

I don't know why that is. Why others who are alive and well and just out of my life and living somewhere else aren't as clear to me. Maybe it's love or maybe it's ghosts or it's simply wanting the impossible. Whatever it is, the dead really are always with us. You don't have to believe in spirits or heaven or an afterlife to know that and feel it.

Maybe that makes it easier for the living to go on. I'm always struck by the human capacity for resilience. My friend's father lost his wife 27 years ago. And yet, he went on, for a whole other generation's time, remarrying, meeting his grandchildren and even his grandchildren's children. When you try to imagine it, it sounds impossible. But it just happens.

Like with everything. Like a cancer patient gradually adjusting and accepting each new reality -- here's a chance to live, an opportunity to live a few good years, a chance to live a while without pain, a way to go out with dignity and on your own terms, a month, a week, a time to finally go home to your own bed. You adapt and you go on.

It makes anything seem endurable, nothing impossible.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The road not open

I've talked a lot about the shift in focus over the past couple years away from theater and toward the commercial side of things, and how that's paid off for me with more and better paying gigs.

It all started with this sort of epiphany I had a couple of years ago when I was curled up in the emergency room, alone and sick as a dog, realizing that perhaps the sacrifice of time and the toll on personal relationships involved in pursuing theater were too great compared with the slim prospects for "success."

That was definitely part of it. But it was also because I took a realistic and pragmatic look at the situation. When I did, I concluded that, well ... I'm just not very good at it. I mean, I'm decent, yes, but I wasn't (and wouldn't soon be) burning up the stageboards across Chicago.

Yes, I've only been doing this for a few years, and yes some of my contemporaries have two or three decades of experience under their belts. But I don't have that kind of time. I can't wait until I'm 70 to "blossom." And as I thought about it, several factors, over time, sort of came together in my consciousness and helped propel my decision-making.

First, I didn't seem to be "advancing" -- I was being offered the same kinds of roles by the same kinds of theater companies, and not quite "breaking through" to some of the others I wanted to work with. I see friends who seem to glide almost effortlessly from company to company, production to production, while I'm playing a small supporting role somewhere or starring in a short-run one-act festival. I felt like I was just scuttling sideways instead of moving forward.

Second, I'd be in shows and see other actors receiving invitations to join the ensemble. Sometimes because of the hard "extra" work they were putting in, sometimes because of their talent and, let's face it, sometimes because they just sort of "clicked" with the group. I have no problem with that. In business and in other areas of life, all other things being equal, you hire people who you like and enjoy spending time with. Nobody wants to spend 20, 30, 40, 50 hours a week with an asshole.

I guess I did receive a couple of invites, but they were for start-up companies. And while I've always enjoyed being in on the ground floor and building things, I just felt that with my starting this career so late, it would make more sense to be part of an established group.

Third is recognition. When reviews of shows I was in would call out certain actors, I was less often among those recognized. And when I was I was called a "journeyman," or my skills were labeled "workmanlike." Sometimes I'd have nice things said about me, but usually from the less established, less influential reviewers.

The final, and maybe most important thing, was my experience with a couple of instructors. In classes I would work my ass off, go the extra mile, do whatever it takes. I always thought that my work ethic and discipline could maybe make up for my inexperience. But with a couple of teachers I got a strong sense of ... what? Let's call it "benign neglect." Like I was okay, but not someone whose talents were especially prized and worthy of nurturing.

That was a bit of a kick in the head. In one class it seemed I didn't get nearly the amount of constructive feedback the others received. It definitely was not because my performance was relatively flawless. I'm certain that was not the case. It felt a little like, in the words of an unlamented former president of ours, the "soft bigotry of low expectations." A sense that my limited potential didn't merit a lot of serious attention and effort on the teacher's part.

And what sealed the deal was when I had all these questions in my head about the direction of my career and its potential and I asked one of these instructors if I could buy him a beer and pick his brain sometime about where I was going and what I should be doing. He readily agreed in the moment, but it never happened. I made a couple of polite follow-ups, but it became clear that, well, I wasn't worth the time.

So I never really had a mentor. For the whole time, other than support from friends and family, I really felt I was all alone. Like in that hospital room.

At least I feel I've given it a fair shot. And though I can talk about it pretty analytically, I can still remember that when it all sort of dawned on me that, you know, I just wasn't very good ... it was actually fairly heartbreaking.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Back in Ohio, I played on two softball teams. On one team I was a starter, playing 5 or 6 innings every time. I did great -- lots of runs, lots of hits, etc.

On the other team (coached, perhaps not so coincidentally, by my boss), I never started, playing, at most, two innings per game. That's just one at-bat -- sometimes none at all, if the team's doing poorly. I hardly ever got a hit or got on base.

Same thing in Chicago. For my team in the PR League, I played a lot (again, not so coincidentally, I was one of only a couple of VPs who participated). In the Advertising League, once again, I was a late-game substitute. Same poor results.

That's how I've been feeling with these random, scatter-shot auditions lately. I'm not doing enough of them, or enough good ones, to really hit a stride and do well. Like this morning, I had the dreaded first audition of the day -- 9:10 am, which is crazy early for acting. That's a tough spot because they're not even sure always what they're looking for until they've seen a few people and at least know what they're not looking for.

That's always the worst, after you've left the room and are gathering your things and chatting with people and the casting director comes out and says, "Okay, everybody, I know it's early, but we need to see a LOT of energy!" or "Hey, everyone, we're looking for SUBTLE here -- don't go so big!" I seriously had that energy note after a first-of-the-day audition and the casting guy actually turned to me and said, "No offense -- not talking about you!" Yeah.

Anyway, this morning was just eh. Two takes, not a ton of instruction or notes or adjustments. In and out by 9:12. This is another good reason to do theater -- so you're always working and "in the zone."

I don't know how major league pinch hitters do it. Or relievers. I need to be IN the game, constantly to really perform.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back on the train

Auditions have sort of picked up, after an almost two-week drought. Three in the past four days.

Not the greatest opportunities, though. One extremely last-minute, day-of opportunity. As the other guys waiting said, they apparently weren't satisfied with the first 75 guys they looked at and decided for the callbacks to bring in another 50 or so. Didn't get it.

Next was a print audition for a modest-paying job. Probably don't have to worry about that one. It's a "dad" role for a big consumer products company and I'm guessing they're looking for a pretty traditional dad type.

And then today, an industrial role where I'm supposed to be slightly overweight and balding, with a combover and bad mustache. For realsies. That's the one I'll get.

Yup, that's what we're down to. And fortunately work has picked up, too -- several projects unlogjammed. All coming at once, of course ...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Waiting on a Friend

Friday night I attended an opening and caught up with some old theater friends. And I guess "theater friends" means just that -- we pretty much only see each other at theater-related events.

I always come away from these gatherings with a mix of emotions -- pride, joy, shame, wistfulness, belonging and not belonging at the same time. I run into people I really like but hardly ever see, and have awkward interactions with people I can't quite seem to click with or break through to, carrying on conversations and wondering in the back of my head if they're looking over my shoulder seeking an escape or are genuinely engaged in the moment.

In some ways it makes me miss doing shows. It's been a year since Bustin.' I miss the camaraderie, the sense of purpose and action, making new friends -- even if they're just "theater friends," who I never manage to really convert to IRL friends. I think making new "friend-friends" at this stage of life doesn't happen much. Especially for men, who are generally less social.

The main places and times in which you generally make lasting friendships are childhood, high school, college, first job. After that it becomes more of a challenge. There are softball teams and clubs and neighbors and things but, for the most part, once you get into the age where everyone is pretty established -- in relationships or marriages, with or without kids, and heavy into their careers and their existing circles, you make fewer and fewer friendships of the fast and lasting variety.

And, in fact, even with old friends it becomes more and more difficult to get together. I've never been one to have tons and tons of close friends. I've usually had one or two "best friends" at a time and found any more than that difficult to juggle. Others you see at parties and things but it's not like you're getting together really frequently.

For me, it doesn't help that I've been kind of nomadic. I live 800 miles from where I grew up and went to school and college and had my first jobs. So I left behind friends in Virginia and DC and Ohio. And then friends here have moved on to other places and left me behind.

So what I'm left with is the people I'm closest to in the world I hardly ever see. None of my really closest, oldest friends are even on (or active much) on Facebook. The rest? A bunch of acquaintances, "industry" friends and actually a number of people I really like and would love to spend more time with, but it never seems to happen (which I know is partly my responsibility).

I guess I really am, at heart, an introvert. Because I'm not necessarily lonely. I feel busy enough. I go out, see people. I'm not a hermit. But I don't really have many people (other than dates) who I can just call up and say, "What are you doing right now? Let's go to a movie/grab dinner/etc." Everything's planned way far in advance. Again, to an extent, that's just adulthood for you, and I know real life's not like Friends or Seinfeld with people just "popping in."

But I think one of the things theater did for me was having that automatic social network. A lot of times I can just go to shows and events alone and count on running into bunches of people I know.

Of course, it's kind of a double-edged sword. Just like the other night, I can have a ton of fun, but am left the next day with a lingering feeling of ... not quite emptiness. Incompleteness? A sort of self-conscious feeling of being "in" the group but not quite "of" it.

I headlined this post after one of my favorite songs and tried to embed the video but they're not allowing it. Which is too bad. That's one cheesy video.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Net Work

I'm not big on networking events. They always feel like work to me. But I went to an event last night with a new group I joined -- commercial and film actors -- and it was actually a lot of fun.

It really helps a lot when you know people, and I knew at least 10% of the people there. I should be doing more of this for the business side of my life, but the groups aren't as focused. They're a lot harder to get your arms around.

The main event was a panel discussion of casting directors. One of them was pretty well known and casts quality stuff, but she's not among the Big 3. I've auditioned for her once -- twice, actually, because she called me back -- and it was a long time ago.

In fact it was one of my first callbacks ever. An Illinois Lottery commercial. I had to dance like a fool in the style of various eras. Yup, just about my worst nightmare -- dancing sober.

Anyway, I'd assumed that she wouldn't remember me at all and I planned on shaking her hand and telling the story and re-introducing myself. But before I knew it, she came up to me and addressed me by name. Weird! She indicated that my glasses made me distinctive and memorable.

Interesting. I've been needing new glasses and I was actually a little concerned about preserving the "look" I'd invested so much in, with headshots and comp cards and web stuff. I guess that wasn't such a crazy thought.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A few good men (and women)

Today got me thinking a bit about some veterans I have known.

When I was a kid in Texas, 6 or 7 years old, I would go over to a friend's house two doors down, and right there in the foyer was a great big framed photo of his father in military uniform. It looked, already at that point, old-fashioned. Maybe it was black-and-white or fake sepia-toned.

Anyway, I never met his father, just saw him in that photo. He was a helicopter pilot who was shot down somewhere in (or around) Vietnam and classified MIA. His wife, my friend's mom, became an activist in the POW/MIA movement and never stopped looking for answers. They never found him and he was ultimately classified KIA. She's a minister now.

On the other side of our house, and just next door, was a little old British lady. I remember there was some obscure holiday we observed and prepared for in my elementary school class wherein you would leave a bouquet of flowers on someone's doorstep anonymously. As a class project we made little construction-paper containers for the flowers -- a big cone, with a handle to go over the doorknob.

I left the flowers at her door, rang the bell and ran. Somehow (I'm sure it didn't take a lot of detective work -- I was never too good with secrets), she discovered it was me, gave me a kiss on the cheek and promised to buy me "a big sucker." A lollipop, that is. And it was very big.

Not sure why I picked her, but I had learned at some point that back in Britain she had served as a block warden during the Blitz, helping make sure her neighbors were safe during the nightly air raids. I love the idea of everyone pitching in and getting involved in the war effort. Very few of us are directly, or even indirectly, involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that seems to be very bad policy. Not enough people are hurt or impacted by these wars and, as a result, they just sort of go on without a lot of guidance or input or protest from us.

Finally, there's Lt. Col. Donald E. Biesenbach (Ret.), who served 20 years in the Army, moving his family all around the country and the globe. He served a tour in Korea (post-truce) and Vietnam (right in the middle of "the shit," as they say).

The military gave him a college education and a career and in return he got some experiences that he could never bring himself to talk about and, possibly, prostate cancer. (A solid link between cancer and the Agent Orange that was generously dropped on friend and foe alike hasn't been established, but the Army did give him disability pay for it, so there was probably something there.)

I don't remember too much from his year in Vietnam -- I was three-and-a-half when he left. I do remember sending reel-to-reel audiotape "letters" back and forth, and the little sausages and cheeses we would pick out at the commissary to send in care packages to him.

Apparently when he returned, I urged my mom to check and make sure it was "really him." I guess I've always had a strangely conspiratorial mind. (When the British lady once offered me a ride home from the local convenience store, I declined, on the chance that she was actually a kidnapper disguised as my neighbor. I watched a LOT of TV.)

Mom says he was never the same when he came back, and I don't know if that had anything to do with their divorce a few years later.

There's a lot I don't know. And much I'll never have a chance to know now. But I think about him and the 20-year-olds today and the unbelievable horrors we put them through and wonder how anyone in that situation has a chance of ever again living a happy, "normal" life.

And it's times like this I'm reminded that in some very twisted way, Alzheimer's does bring a rare blessing or two.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Out and about

I've been going out lately on WEEKNIGHTS, which is absolutely CRAZY.

No? Okay, not crazy at all. Completely normal. But that's the way it was for a couple of years. I gradually became so accustomed to multiple, multiple conditions on, um ... just about EVERYTHING. After a while you just sort of give up, because it's not worth the fight. You sort of get used to it.

It was like Stockholm Syndrome. Crazy.

But now I'm playing pool and seeing movies and eating out and ... going to trivia night. It's a brand new crazy world.

I tell myself I'll never be an idiot again. But I probably will. It's amazing, the capacity we have to fill in the gaps between what we want and what we have with a great big dollop of unfounded hope.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The end of something

Last night the Drapers dropped the divorce bomb on poor Sally and Bobby and, holy crap, it all came back. Or some of it came back. It's funny what does and doesn't. For instance, I haven't known for a long time whether I was in fourth or fifth grade when my parents separated. That seems like a pretty big and important fact.

But the little things? They're all there.

Just as Bobby wondered what they were doing gathered in the living room, I wondered why Dad had called us together before his trip out of town. (He was doing a lot of traveling then.) I assumed he was going to tell the four of us to behave and not make it hard on mom.

But then he said -- and I remember the awkward construction made an impression on me -- "When I come back, I'm not coming back." And it spooled out from there. Mom said they didn't want to be one of those couples that "stayed together for the kids" -- they thought this was more honest and better for us.

Dad said we'd probably be happier with him gone, and my big brother, who doesn't talk a lot, very assertively said, "That's not true!" But it kinda was true. There had been lots of arguing and shouting for what seemed like a long time.

Like Sally and Bobby, one sister cried and clung and the other cried and stormed off to her room.

I mostly didn't say anything. I do remember the scissors, though. I was on the couch and next to me on the cushion was a newspaper with some scissors atop it -- the old-fashioned, all-metal kind. I was just fiddling with them, with a finger looped in the round "thumb" handle, and just spinning them around and around on top of the newspaper and staring at them. I was always a fiddler. Still am. To this day I make complete messes out of napkins, beer labels, coffee sleeves, candle wax ... anything in front of me.

And I think my very first thought about it all was, "What would other people think?" There was only one kid in our school whose parents were divorced. I think it was sometime around college where I got to the point where I could just say my parents were divorced without hesitation.

And I was also very conscious of all the divorce-related cliches from TV -- anger at the parents, resenting anyone they ended up dating, rebelling and acting out, etc. -- and was determined not to feel or enact any of them. And I did see the logic of it all. Things would be more peaceful around the house.

Then that afternoon, my Mom and I worked on my Halloween hobo costume. And that was that.

Of course, it wasn't just that, as last night proved.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Facebook Citizenship

A year ago, right-thinking people made history by electing Obama. A big part of the story was the young and first-time voters getting energized and entering the political process with enthusiasm. It was all very exciting.

Then it got really boring and anti-climatic and disappointing for a lot of these people. Obama didn't change the world overnight as they expected, and their enthusiasm and involvement dwindled to the occasional Facebook posting supporting health care reform or objecting to anti-gay rights initiatives.

Until finally on Tuesday we reached the absolute nadir, where many couldn't be bothered even to exercise their most minimal civic responsibility -- to go out to the polls and vote. In Virginia and New Jersey, the under-30 share of the electorate dropped by HALF. The share of voters over 65 actually increased. Ridiculous.

I can hear the arguments of people I know. That their choices in those states sucked. Which they kinda did. Or that Obama's been too moderate, too slow, too much of a compromiser. If he wants to sustain their interest, he needs to do more, they might say.

Nothing moves as fast as we'd like, but it's no reason to opt out of the process. If people are disappointed that the public option has been watered down or that DOMA hasn't been overturned, then get out DO something about it. Write your representative, sign up to man phone banks, attend a rally, organize a house party.

And for chrissakes, VOTE. If you don't, and can't be trusted to come out again, why should the parties even bother to take your concerns into account in the future?

I'm going to start a Facebook group: "Rob became a fan of People Actually Working for the Change They Want Instead of Sitting Around and Complaining About the Process."

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Slow week

Sunset, Magnolia & Dickens

Wow, everything seemed to come crashing to a halt this week. No auditions at all (and it looks like the time has passed for the last few auditions to amount to something concrete). And work projects mostly concluded or on hold or at a stopping point.

I wish I was better at turning times like these into opportunities to maybe get ahead on things or even to just do fun stuff I almost never do, like go to the movies or lunch in the middle of the day. I need to do that more. I might find myself down the road in a place where I don't have those kinds of options.

I did have a couple of new business/marketing meetings -- just talking to some people at some companies that I may or may not do work with at some point. That's something at least.

It's odd for the two sides of my life to kind of "trough out" at once. Usually there's something going on with one or the other. Maybe I need a third thing. I guess theater was sort of that third thing. It needs to be marketing, so these lulls are fewer and far between.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

End in site

I keep saying the website is finally done, but then I keep thinking of more stuff to put up there.

I added several industrials to the video page (see page 2). Some of these are kind of long, but I had the experience a few weeks ago of a potential booking where my agent thought it would be helpful for the client to see some of the host/narrator work I've done. Right now, those are probably underrepresented on my reel, so I had to cobble together various youtube and website links for them.

And I've updated the news page with, um, actual news.

The final thing before the end of the year is to update my reel. I'm waiting to see how the spot from the Des Moines shoot turned out. I should get that in the next week or two. And there continue to be a couple of more industrials that I need to get. (One has been "in production" for a year-and-a-half. Lawyers!) With those, I expect to cut out some of the weaker and older clips.

I'm thinking what I need to do is more formally divide up the reel into the host/narrator stuff and the comedy stuff.

And then I will be finally, finally done. For a while.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Super-scary fake ex-girlfriends

Not sure what it is, but it seems 3 out of 10 Chicago women are near dead-ringers for my most recent ex. I guess she was kind of "with it," fashion-wise, so there are just tons and tons of little dark-haired women wearing the same style dresses, hairstyles and sunglasses.

At one point I was thinking of starting a photo blog documenting all the lookalikes of her I see. But then I thought that would be pretty weird. And difficult to explain to the women whose pictures I would be taking.

But the scariest moment came in Pilates class a few weeks ago. This woman walked in and I didn't just do a double-take. I did a triple-take ending in a long, hard stare. I seriously couldn't believe it wasn't her. Same hair, same glasses, same facial structure, same general body type, same voice, same mannerisms. It was scary.

And, of course, I suppose in response to the goofy look I was giving her, she gave me a great big happy smile back just like she knew me. That compounded my momentary confusion, but in retrospect I should have realized that the ex hadn't looked at me like that since about month four of an almost two-year relationship.

In fact, I was so spellbound by her, it wasn't until the third class together that I noticed one little difference between the two. Pilates girl has only one arm.

If only they all had some such telltale sign to distinguish them, my days would be a lot less eventful.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Three for the bucket list

This year I've seen whales, my 45th state and a corn maze. I am three steps closer to a peaceful death.