Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!
I created it so that I could share acting tips with you; things I've learned over the years, working on set, teaching classes, coaching actors, auditioning actors, etc.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Buck and Believing...

Warning: This is a very different kind of a blog post for me. It's not my usual "Actor Tip" post.  But that's okay, it contains a profound acting truth and it's a very special post to me.  Curious what you think. Feel free to comment and, if you enjoy it, please share it

Buck's acting head shot
George "Buck" Ashford came to train with me in about 2002. My guess is that he was around 65 years old – but that’s just a guess. He had no acting experience and he never had an acting class in his life. He was a very successful attorney with his own firm, in Honolulu. I couldn't help smiling at him. Perhaps it was because he was smiling at me or perhaps it was because he looked kind of like an impish little leprechaun with a flash of mischief behind his eyes.  He said he wanted to act in a movie.
I asked him why he was starting this acting business so late in life. He said “you want the truth?” I said “always”. So he told me that he had a form of lung cancer and his doctor had given him "no more than four or five years" to live.
He looked perfectly healthy and in fact seemed to have a real joy of life. I think if my doctor had given me that kind of news I would have wasted three years feeling sorry for myself. 
But that’s not Buck.
I asked how he had come to call on me. He said when his doctor gave him the news the first thing he did was to sit down and make a list of all the things he had always wanted to do, but hadn’t. Then he started doing them. One of them was to act in a film. That’s why he tracked me down. Incidentally, this was several years before the movie “The Bucket List”.
In the nearly eight years that Buck was my student I never once heard him mention his 'death sentence' to anyone. Nor did I ever hear any complaints from him. 

He’s now done two or three plays and a short film or two. 
L. to R.  Blade Rogers, Buck Ashford, Shane Thomas, Tabitha Jade in "The Lt. of Inishmore"
He argued with me in class constantly– but never about HIS work, always about others and always saying that I was being too negative and that he really liked their work. His hearing sucked and he would bleed very easily but when we did physical exercises he was often the first to volunteer and always one of the most committed and physical participants. He told long, sloooow stories that – if you’re patient enough – always payed off with a great big laugh. He threw a hell of a wrap party and although I learn from my students on a daily basis, he taught me more about life than any student I’ve ever had.
So, what’s the point? Why am I sharing all this? What does this have to do with acting? 
Admittedly, not much. 
But I honestly believe that if Buck had gone into acting instead of law he would have made it. Big. I honed his skills and taught him the craft of acting but he already possessed that rare child-like ability of being able to immerse himself in a role; To believe, to some extent, in the imaginary circumstances. Or as Sanford Meisner summed up the art of acting, "To live truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances."  He also, at let’s say 65+ years old, never gave a damn what people thought about him (a great trait for an actor) and he could learn lines better than my twenty or thirty year old students. 
It's been my experience that most actors attach less importance to using their imagination than they should and instead, pay more attention to memorizing lines (than they should).  To illustrate the value of imagination in your work, I'll share part of a critique of Buck's work in one of his early classes with me.
One word of caution. Buck sometimes used rather “colorful" language so if you are easily offended by what I have to call his 'Straight Talk', stop reading. I just wouldn’t feel right changing his words.
BUCK - Monologue

SCOTT: Good job. I only have one note but I think it will affect a number of things. First, what was your objective - and I want you to say it in 5 words or less.
BUCK: (Thinks for a minute) They’re assholes. I’m not.
SCOTT: Okaaaay…, that may be true, but that’s just 2 facts, not an objective. I want to know what you want. And preferably what you want from the person you’re talking to.
BUCK: I want to be treated with respect if our children get married. I’m not such a burn out after all.
SCOTT: OK, So three words – “I want respect”.
SCOTT: Ok, so what’s the obstacle to that? What's getting in the way?
BUCK: They’re assholes.
SCOTT: Okay, and how did it make you feel when they disrespected you?
BUCK: Like shit.
SCOTT: I’m looking for an emotion…

SCOTT: Good. Exactly right...except you didn’t actually feel mad in the scene, did you? (He thinks about it, smiles and shakes his head, sheepishly, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.) I think that would have helped you. If you are really trying to get respect and the people disrespect you – THAT causes you to actually feel an emotion, in this case mad. You see if you can’t state your objective clearly and concisely, it's more difficult to actually go after it and that is what drives your scene. That drive was the only thing missing from your work tonight. But I’ll bet it won’t be missing next time.
(To the class) Did you notice, just past the middle of his monologue, he messed up his lines? I would almost call it severe. He kept talking so it wasn’t easy to spot. I always look at the eyes because often, when something unexpected happens- that’s where the actor comes out. But I didn’t see that in Buck's eyes. I simply saw his character deciding what to say next. Some actors have to work years to be able to do that seamlessly; Buck just does it naturally. But that’s exactly what you want to do—react as the character and stay in the scene. Good work, Buck.

In 2007 Buck bought a boat in Portugal. He began to sail it home to Hawaii (another item on his 'bucket list'). He was injured in a fall in the Canary Islands (I mentioned earlier, he's a bleeder). He continued sailing to Antigua where he was airlifted to a Florida hospital. But that didn’t deter Buck. He met the boat on the Island of Hawai´i and sailed it back to Honolulu. 

Buck, as I'll always remember him
In 2010 Buck passed away. He lived almost twice as long as they had said he would. He went to work every day and took me to lunch every couple of weeks. Speaking to me from the hospital, two days before he died, he told me he was planning his next voyage—to Tahiti…
Everybody dies. But not everybody lives. 

Buck Ashford Lived.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Actor Preparation vs Actor Planning

One theme that keeps coming up in my classes is the difference between Preparing and Planning. I always say, “Preparation is good but Planning is bad”. 

Simply put:
Preparation: is all the research and imagination work you do on your character and their relationships. Knowing your character inside out is important if you want to really feel what they would feel under the given circumstances.

Planning: is deciding what you should feel or express and when. For example, deciding to cry at a certain point in the script or deciding to get angry at a certain point or even deciding to drop your head, roll your eyes, sigh… These things should happen because they are triggered and not because you have decided they should happen.

This is very important when you work in TV. Unlike acting on stage, when you act on TV (and in many movies) there is effectively NO rehearsal. You see, as an actor, until you are on set and ready to shoot, you never know what the director is going to want, how the scene will be staged, what the set looks like, or how the other actor will be saying his lines. The more you plan, the more you will be thrown when things don’t go the way you planned – and they WON’T. The scene you rehearsed so diligently in your trailer, which takes place on a park bench, in the script, may be shot as a walk-and-talk (a scene shot while the characters are walking and talking). Or the scene you rehearsed as a confrontation in a bar could easily be shot as a scene at a horse race or at the beach.  You just don't know until you're there, "on the day".

This isn't to say there is absolutely no planning that takes place.  Naturally, there is.  You will have to hit your marks, violence must be staged,
the director may even want you to cry on a specific line.  Your job is to make these planned moments appear completely spontaneous and triggered. That's difficult enough without adding planned moments of your own into the mix! Also, all of your plans are made without taking the other actor into account.  The choices they make will (ideally) change your own choices and plans.  Or, more likely, they will throw you, since you weren't expecting their choice.  If this happens you will find that you will avoid listening to the other actor because it throws you!  Now you're acting in a vacuum and that is never a good thing.  You won't be REACTING to them at all.

Think of your preparation as building a foundation from which to soar. You are building a platform 50 feet high. The stronger you make it, the more it will support you when the time comes to push off from it and fly. At some point you will have to take a leap of faith and trust that you will fly.   

If however, you try to plan out every step you will take when you leave the platform, that’s akin to building a path to walk on, instead of flying. When you do this, you end up spending all your energy trying to stay on the path (you don’t want to FALL!). Well, when the director or the other actors do things that you don’t expect it’s like they’re throwing unexpected turns in your path. All your focus ends up on staying on the path and the more you try to stay on it, the harder it becomes. Instead of flying with abandon you are struggling to stay on a rickety track that is falling apart as you take each step.

That's no way to act! this forces you to actually avoid listening to the other actors because they are liable to throw you and instead causes you to focus on yourself so your performance will go as you planned no matter what the other actors say or do. I call this "acting in a vacuum" and it isn't a good thing!  So instead, Prepare like crazy: Do imagination work on your character and their relationships, do research, study the pathology of your character and, of course, learn your lines!!  Once you have done all that, you've built yourself a platform from which to soar.  It's time to let go of everything (your safety net is strong!) and take that giant leap of faith!  It's the only way to fly.

And would you want to act any other way?

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Playing "Cover"

Here's a "trick" I use on set when coaching an actor who is playing cover. I call it a "trick" because it isn't really technique. But it's a way to get a great performance out of an actor in a specific situation, quickly.  And it works, so I want to teach it to you.

There are always scenes wherein your character must hide or "cover" their true feelings and show something else, to whoever they are talking to in the scene. For example, suppose your character is secretly in love with a guy who likes you as a sister. He starts telling you about this girl he really likes which makes you feel sad and hurt, desperately so. Now, you don’t want him to see that hurt so you must cover it with something, let’s say happiness. 

The common mistake is either to play too much of the surface emotion (happiness) or to play too much of the underlying emotion (sadness). Some actors will try to play both and we see neither because the two emotions have cancelled each other out. So, what to do? 

I’ve used this trick for actors playing cover many, many times, (especially when the actor’s work is a little obvious). I take them aside and do this exercise right before they shoot the close-ups. Literally a few moments before "action". They end up doing a much deeper and more multi-leveled performance, and everyone on set thinks I am a brilliant coach. Truth is, they only have to do this simple trick!

First the actor must trigger and really feel the underlying emotion – right before you shoot and then, really cover it, just as you would in real life. Here's what I tell the actor on set - and I try to do this right before they're ready to shoot the close-ups:

"Let's read this one time together.  I want you to focus only on the underlying emotion. Don’t cover it at all; just let it all out as you say the lines. Don’t worry, you aren’t going to perform it this way but it’s important that you truly feel that underlying emotion so really let it out as you speak."

So, in the example from above, the actress would play the hurt and possibly the anger of having to listen to him talk about this girl he likes while she's secretly in love with him.  She would focus completely on feeling that pain and anger as she says all of her lines for me, without trying to hide it at all.  

Then, right away, we shoot the scene, while she's still feeling the emotions from a moment ago. and I tell her:

"This time play only the cover.  Simply, truthfully try to hide the pain and anger from him. Don't let him see it!" 

What ends up happening is that the actress ends up feeling real pain and, actually covering it!  Just like she would in real life. It creates a layered, nuanced performance that is truthful and powerful at the same time. We see the pain behind her eyes but she looks like she's really hiding it from him. 

Damn that actress is good! ;)

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Smart Actors Get Better

“Teachers open the door. You enter on your own.”
-Chinese Proverb
          There are so many bad teachers out there that the odds of finding a good one to train with, are stacked against you. Acting classes are one of the most scam-filled areas of the entertainment business. 
Literally anyone can call himself or herself an acting teacher, take out an ad, and get students.  Anyone.

Nowadays, I see acting teachers everywhere espousing that they teach “Acting On-Camera”.  Problem is that many of these “teachers” have never really WORKED on camera, or even on set or, in many cases, they've never even trained at all! Where do they get their knowledge? (Or their nerve for that matter!) 

I remember one guy who worked as an extra on a TV show that I was the acting coach for.  He worked three days and got union vouchers for each day (someone did him a "favor") and he got his SAG card. Three weeks later he took out an ad proclaiming he taught "on-camera acting technique".  
And. He. Got. Students!  
Don't be a sucker. Really check out any teacher you are considering training with.

  Your goal should be to find an insightful teacher that doesn’t abuse or direct you but instead, uncovers your walls and helps you to focus so you can break through them; a teacher that tells you where to look but not what to see. Your teacher doesn’t get you jobs or “manage your career”. They are not your agent or your psychiatrist. I would be very wary of teachers who claim to do these things. 

Often these "teachers" offer to do other things to "help you in your career" if you take their classes. Sometimes they offer head shots or career advice.  Sometimes they offer to cast you in a movie or create a "reel" for you.  (Please see my Blog post aboutwhat Reel really is!)  One should wonder why they offer these things. Are you paying to learn or to get (poor-quality) head shots and a (worthless) reel? And if you are paying to learn, what qualifies this person to teach you?


First, I’d want to know the teacher's professional work background. This means projects they were hired to work on, not movies they shot themselves, in their back-yard. You can find their professional work background on IMDB - BUT look closely at their credits.  Are they mostly professional jobs they were hired to work on or are they all short films and "features" that they produced & wrote & directed & did camera/editing/props for? 
Even if they’ve been teaching in college for the last 20 years, they might be very knowledgeable about theory and the history of drama but they might not have the practical knowledge about the industry that you may want. Or, perhaps they only know about “stage acting” and don't have any on-camera knowledge. 

 Second, are their students getting (paid) work and can you ask them about their classes? Will the teacher supply you with references? 

Third, are you allowed to audit a class? Many teachers allow you to watch a class to decide if you like it. Now I have to admit, I don’t allow audits of my classes—ever. In fact, many teachers don’t. But if they do, I would highly recommend auditing a class before you pay your money. 

You may be wondering why a legitimate teacher wouldn’t allow you to sit in and watch a class? At my studios, new students must sign-up for a minimum of two-months. How can I ask you to commit to two-months without having watched the class? Fair questions. I, like many teachers, don’t allow audits because everyone in the class is taking risks, everyone is “up on the tightrope”. And if people—even just one person—are watching, the atmosphere in class goes from being a safe place where everyone is taking chances and risking together, to a “performance”. You’re not all in the same boat. Someone is watching. You become self-conscious. Constricted. Tense. This hurts the whole class. So, I simply offer a money-back guarantee for the first class. If the person doesn’t like their first class they get their money back, no charge and no questions asked. But, when they are trying the class out, they are a student. They do all the exercises with everyone, get up on the same tightrope—and risk falling. (And incidentally, they get a much better idea of what the class is like than would someone that was just watching).

Fourth, does the teacher require you to do something that crosses any moral boundaries you may have?  I know of one teacher in L.A. that has worked with many recognizable actors and even wrote a fairly popular book on acting.  As a part of his training he asks the actor (more often the actress) to sit on stage and "explore and express their sensuality". Yes, this means what you think it couldn't possibly mean. In front of the entire class.  And to succeed in his class, you have to "succeed" in this exercise. I had two students of mine, that moved to L.A., call me in tears to ask if I thought they should continue in his class (I said no and gave them a list of reputable teachers in L.A.). But the thing is, they were not stupid girls.  One had a masters degree in theatre. Yet, they still considered staying in the class! 

Bottom line is, do a little digging on the teacher. Check out IMDB for film and TV work experience (keep in mind that  the word "Uncredited" next to an IMDB credit means they were most likely an Extra). You can check university records, check with other actors, and (shameless self-promotion alert) read books that the teachers have written to see if you agree with what they teach. But the most important litmus test will be; are you really learning from themevery class. If you are, then stick with them!

 You see, I don’t believe, as some do, that you should train with a lot of different teachers. You end up leaving one teacher as soon as you feel a little stagnant, as though you’ve reached a wall. Then you start all over with another teacher and take several months to reach that same wall – and the process repeats. You never get past that wall. 

About "Walls"
I tell my students that Walls are the boundaries of your "Comfort Zone". To expand your comfort zone (and get better) you must break through these walls.

The way to break through a wall is to lower your shoulder, focus, re-double your efforts and keep pushing ahead. I had a client we’ll call “June”, who got some acting work and boasted that she had studied acting with 12 different teachers. Her resume had over half a page of “Training” listed. After watching her do a scene in class, I told her she was a very good technician but lacked heart. At first, she was mortified. But upon discussing her work more, she admitted that, although she appeared to be devastated in the scene, she actually felt almost nothing. In other words she “showed us” devastated but didn’t really feel that way inside. (Be wary of teachers that want to teach you how to "show emotions"). I gave her some exercises to do and told her to bring the scene back in a few weeks. 

 A few weeks passed and she came to me after class one day and said she was frustrated and and confused and needed to take some time off. I asked why and she said she had been working on the scene at home and it felt like she wasn’t getting it and it was driving her crazy. I asked how long she had been feeling this frustration and she said “about a week”. I asked if she had felt this frustration before and she said she had in other classes. (In fact, this was what she felt just before she left each of her twelve acting teachers.) 

I told her that I would not allow her to take time off! She laughed and I explained that this was her underlying problem. Every time she felt stagnant or frustrated, she changed teachers and started the process all over again. I told her the only way she would succeed as an actor would be for her to stay in class, focus on this scene, and stick with it no matter what. I also told her it would most likely take another two to three weeks of work and then I was confident she would break through this wall. And that’s exactly what she did. When she put that scene up again it was truly remarkable. She finished the scene and sat there, on stage, sobbing. When she finally stopped crying she continued to shake but she said she had never felt anything like that before in her life. She had become so good at indicating the emotion—such a good technician—that she was able to get by (and get some day-player jobs) by just doing that. She told me later that that had been the most thrilling moment in her life as an actress. She's gone on to book quite a few co-star roles and two series-regular jobs.
I’ve found that when an actor feels the most stagnant, it typically takes about two to four weeks before they have a breakthrough. It’s like clockwork. This is the process. And once you have that breakthrough you feel great and you love acting – you finally “get it”! But be warned—down the road there will be another wall (and another after that). It never stops as long as you continue to grow as an actor.

The thing to keep in mind is this: Walls are actually good things. If you weren’t learning, improving, and having these breakthroughs, you would never have reached this wall that you’re at now! 

Your entire career/life as an actor should be spent reaching new barriers and breaking through them.

So find the teacher that really helps you get better and then, 
as Shakespeare wrote, “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”.

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