Even your agent rejected you? That could mean you’re on your way

OK, so here’s the thing about rejection. We all get rejected and some rejections are worse than others. We get picked last for the volleyball team in phys. ed. Big deal, since we could care less about sports, but we feel the sting anyway.

We don’t get picked for the lead in the school play. Bigger deal, but we understand that there were other kids with more experience.

A boy or girl you like asks someone else to the Prom. Bigger deal still, since you had dated and you had every reason to think it was working out.

You are the experienced kid who everyone thought was a shoe-in for the lead in the high school play, but you ended up in the chorus. You are devastated. Bigger and bigger is this deal, and more painful the sting.

The love of your life leaves you. Biggest deal yet. You are heartbroken. Recovery time is gonna be long and painful. It is way past a mere sting.

Your agent no longer wants to represent you. Devastating, like falling off a cliff. And while you are in free-fall, you here those damned voices again, your Furies forcing you to agonize over all sorts of awful things. What did I do wrong? What is it about me? Am I not talented at all? Will I never have a career in theatre? Will I really have to get a full time job in some stuffy office where I’ll never be able to laugh or cry or be at all real?

Well, yeah. Sometimes life sucks. But here’s the thing I promised that could make it easier: WE ALL DEAL WITH REJECTION. If we didn’t experience rejection, we wouldn’t know the joy of being picked.

The other thing is: Don’t look around for something or someone to blame. Blame has nothing to do with it. Blame only keeps the downward spiral going and you and those damned Furies hounding you into the bowels of Hell!

So what do you do now?

You hurt. You experience the hurt, but without blaming yourself or your agent. Your agent needs to make a living and you, by not landing any audition he sent you to, are not helping his career.

The other side of that is, you need to make a living and by not landing any audition he sent you to, you got to see that maybe he isn’t the right agent for you.

So what do you do now?

Allow yourself to feel as bad as you can. That’s right. Scrunch up your eyes, make fists, and bring up all those bad feelings. Got it? How long can you keep your focus on that bad black hole? Not long.

It is too hard to keep that level of intensity going. All you can keep going is to make up stuff, letting your Furies think all sorts of made-up thoughts about the incident. These Furies would like to keep you thinking all sorts of things–true and not true–about the rejection, anything to keep it going, and sure enough, you can conjure up even more terrible feelings just by thinking more terrible thoughts.

Or.

  1. Take a deep breath. Take another. Dismiss the very next Furies thought and clear your mind of everything.
  2. Next, take this rejection and see what you can do with it. Look at it to understand how it wasn’t working.

You can only move on when you recognize this is a crossroads, and that there is no going back to business as usual. You need to do some things differently. Your job is to find out what you can tweak or change outright. For instance, if you were going on auditions for cute-young-thing parts and you were showing up with torn tee-shirts or bad makeup, try dressing for the part you are trying out for.

Maybe the material you are working with (scripts, monologues, special acting/workshop appearances) isn’t right for you. See if someone you trust can give you an honest assessment and change the material.

Maybe if you get who you are and what you are going for, you will realize the agent you had was not right for your goals. Find one who is. Do your research. Ask around.

Maybe this rejection is telling you what you have already glimpsed about yourself, deep down away from the blinding light of reason. Now is the time to bring it up. Should you be working in regional theatre instead of trying for a Broadway role? Do you need more acting classes?

Maybe you should consider that acting isn’t right for you and that you could, with a little more experience and education, be a stage manager and then aim for directing? Maybe your talent and interest really lay in design?

This is your golden opportunity to find other ways of breaking in. Talk to people who have done it. Read Martha Beck’s Finding your own North Star. Get a new direction to go in.

Oh, yeah. And wipe those tears. They are clouding your vision.

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Bully-Girl strikes again

I laughed out loud at Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. I have to confess that even a mere fleeting thought about Melissa McCarthy gets me smiling. I laugh at her even in the most feeble of movies or television shows. I howl at the mere idea of Melissa McCarthy.

So that full disclosure out of the way, I was rolling in the aisles at her take-down of Sean Spicer, newly appointed White House Press Secretary. What she did was more than a satirical response to the madness let loose on our nation. It was also an embodiment of comic skills at their very best.

She also builds a character that is based on a bully-girl thing. It comes about, not from anger or hating, but from putting on a strong front for her vulnerability. Attack them before they attack you. That vulnerability always shows up and is what makes me want to laugh and be part of the mischief she is making.

Melissa McCarthy used her “bully girl” persona to push through a coded reality that many people pick up on, the sort of stuff that you read between the lines. The reality in this case is that some see Sean Spicer as a bully in his own right. He uses that “push” to get in front of the press and push them before they have a chance to do some pushing of their own, as if asking pointed questions is a form of bullying. As if they are all, to a man and woman, out to “get” the president. As if the press are spoiled children who need a time-out from abusive parents who act from whim rather than bothering with facts. They need reminding of the consequences that come from freedom of the press.

McCarthy captured the disdain Spicer and his boss have for the press by doing some pushing of her own. She is aggressively funny. Spicer is aggressively non-funny: a perfect target for McCarthy’s keen sense of bully-comedy.

Forget the politics. It is timing that is at play. Not political timing, but comic timing. Timing makes everything she says and does just plain funny. And McCarthy’s timing is exquisite. It is almost a living force. You feel the joke coming. You wait a beat and WHAM! She delivers. Sometimes the setup is so good, you don’t even care whether the joke is funny. You laugh because McCarthy won’t let you do anything else.

Take the way she handles props. She uses props like they are her playthings. But she uses them, doesn’t just give them a cursory touch. There is always a follow-through when she’s finished with them. She throws them around like they may actually be in her way, but it is a joyous thing to see her toss a paper representing the Constitution over her shoulder without a second glance (don’t get mad – this is part of the satire) and move right on to the next toss. Her timing and follow-through tips you off that this is funny.

Need a visual joke? She pulls a rope with a large knot in it across her body as she is saying something, the point of which, is the word “not.” There’s barely time to laugh because McCarthy is already out in front of the next joke.

Also amazing is what she does physically and emotionally to the words themselves. She tosses out words like she invented them and wants everyone to see how clever she is to use them.

But the best thing about McCarthy’s art comes when she is done with the bullying of comic ideas. After all the funny nonsense and push-back she indulges in, out comes this smile. A beatific smile. As if to let us know that all is right with the world after all.

Rock on, Bully-girl!

Next: Part Six of the Readers Theatre series: “6  Using Movement.”

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When acting isn’t

I saw the Golden Globes the other night, one of the many award shows this season that will have me glued to the tube. I was sitting there, spellbound, even though I never believe art ought to be a contest. Who is the best is not only impossible to decide, it is pointless. How can you say Casey Affleck had a better performance than Denzel Washington? You can’t. It is only a different performance, each affective in different ways.  The point is, I was affected by both performances, which is what they were supposed to do. Affect me.

So how does a group of people decide on the “best?” Much depends on who is doing the watching and the voting. It could have all come down to: which character and story you liked better, whose career needs a boost, what the temper of the times is, how to divide the awards among the artists so they will want to do more, and so on. In other words, there is no “best” performance. There are only performances that are noteworthy and effective.

So if you were going to assess an acting performance, what do you base it on? There lots of answers, and many of them have to do with emotional range and how technique is used to bring the character to emotional life. In other words, what did they do to bring life to the performance?

This year’s Golden Globes had many great acting performances. I could go on about all the things, the techniques, the raw emotions displayed by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, playing off each other, etc. Marvelous performances, enriched by how movement, bodily attitudes, gestures, facial expressions, etc. were used. The performances amounted to a master class in ensemble acting. Anyone could benefit seeing what these two were able to do.

Yet two other performances also stood out for me, not by what the actors did, but by what they didn’t do.

Casey Affleck, I suppose an actor whose time has come, won for the movie, Manchester by the Sea. Claire Foy won for her performance in the Netflix series, The Crown, playing a young Queen Elizabeth II.

They are marvelous, Affleck and Foy, in completely different vehicles, but their performances are hard to talk about. In both cases, we need to see and understand just how profoundly both characters, in different ways, are affected by what happens to them. In both cases, that something goes way beyond drawing on what acting classes taught. Both actors show profound emotion and thought processes without a lot of externals. Changes are happening internally and that makes it almost scary to watch. We see what these characters are made of and who they really are, not by what they do, but by what they don’t do.

Both actors internalized their characters and because there is a camera involved, an instrument that can pick up the tiniest movements. Even an eye flicker becomes a subtle way to let us know the character has just been dinged by circumstances. So Affleck can let us know by just looking away for a moment, that his character, a man already destroyed beyond any redemption, can still feel and that he can feel, puzzles him.

And Foy, by taking a deeper breath but keeping her body and eyes steady, shows us a monumental moment in which Elizabeth is no longer a proper wife and mother, but in that moment, had become queen of England.

Queen. She keeps steady, a little straightening of her shoulders, her eyes flick away for an instant in a glimmer of fear, and then eyes back and steady. This woman had changed in seconds and in ways us regular folk can only guess at. Yet we didn’t have to imagine, because Foy held us spellbound as we vividly knew, through that breath, that flicker of the eyes, just how much this young woman had changed. Just moments ago, she had to take in the loss of her dear father. He was king. And now, she must be queen. No breaking down, not for Foy’s Elizabeth. No flying out of control, no screaming about how it is not fair to ask her to give up her life. With a slightly elevated breath, her eyes open a little wider, she lets us know that henceforth, she will do her duty bravely and elegantly, and do it because this is what she was meant to do. It is no longer about Elizabeth the young woman and mother. It is about Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, and her duty to her people. There is no winning here. No grabbing at the gold ring. No Tweeting. There is only duty and breeding, qualities that manifest themselves quietly.

What Claire Foy didn’t do, in her pivotal moment, is to shudder, grab hold of her husband’s hand to steady herself, sit because she was so overwhelmed she had to keep from falling over. She didn’t reach for a handkerchief and dab her eyes to show her grief at the loss of her father or twist it to show her apprehension at suddenly being the queen of England.

What she did do, by not doing anything big, was to let us in on Elizabeth’s secret strength and her dedication to duty. We understood the woman and the queen in that, and so many other, moments of non-acting, and Claire Foy will forever be associated with this remarkable woman, Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Yep, sometimes less is more.

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Podcasting for the arts

We all know what it’s like to want to talk about your current passion with someone who shares the same, or nearly the same likes and points of view. Naturally, you won’t always be able to find that perfect audience. And so it is with me. I know you’re out there, those of you who love the theatre and want some kind of in depth discussions and not necessarily the same old stuff about “How to Act” or “How to be a Stage Manager.” Maybe you want some kind of variety. I know I want to talk about all sorts of things having to do with the performing arts and thought of podcasting.

So here I am, looking for someone to talk to, and guess what? It’s going to be you. This reading may be the start of future podcasts about the technique and pure joy of reading aloud. Oral interpretation of literature, it’s called more formally.

First on the oral interpretation list, is a reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, read by an accomplished reader, Pauline Rodick, and me, Mary Turner. We tried to come up with a good, educational reason why we decided to record it, but in the end, it boiled down to:

  1. We both like the piece very much.
  2. We like how the words flow when read aloud.
  3. This is the sort of thing we want to hear during the Holidays.Childstree1

See what you think.

Happy Holidays!

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Modeling can be a form of acting

I watch ANTM. Yes, I do, and though I fast forward through all the tiffs and angst brought about by so many young women living in the same house, vying for the distinction of becoming America’s Next Top Model, I learn a lot about what it takes to rise above all that and become a performing artist.

I do think modeling can be a performing art and one that draws from other arts: a vision of what the art director sees, of how a costume enhances your character, and how a performing artist brings a sense of self to fulfill that in his or her own unique way. There are other arts brought in, movement, posing to show the costume and the model in the best light. How it looks on a body like yours, how to convey meaning through your voice and body.

It’s acting, in other words. Acting on many stages: runways, commercials, editorial attitudes, and meeting the right people at go-sees – all performing art.

I was watching the first episode of reruns of an early cycle of ANTM to see how people were chosen from what seemed like hoards of would-be models. I noticed a familiar face: Jaslene. I remembered her, how she grew into a real model with coaching from Tyra and her guests, turning into a model week after week before our very eyes. I remembered that she overcome all the obstacles, that she stuck with it and learned and grew as an artist.  She won.

I almost turned off the episode I was watching because I had already seen this cycle. I had spotted a contestant, Jaslene, who I remembered, but I continued to watch anyway. I wanted to see how so many girls would be eliminated and why.

I got a surprise. Jaslene was one of those eliminated and I saw her determined goodbye to Tyra when she was sent home. “I am not giving up,” she said or words to that effect. “I will be back.” Indeed, she did come back to a later cycle and went all the way to the top and won the competition and got modeling contracts and the whole bit.

I got it. The lesson of ANTM and life. You have talent. You and a whole lot of other people. But you know that only gets you so far. As does hard work. You need both, of course, but that is not all you need. To me, the most important thing is the growing part and that means growing into the person you were meant to be and not staying stuck in that holding pattern that keeps you in that “poor me!” mode. You have ambition, talent, and you acquire skills and technique. Then you let it go – the “wanting it soooo bad!” It will happen if you stick with it and grow and get the skills and mentoring you need and just let it happen.

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Carrie Underwood takes on Julie Andrews? What are they talking about?

I don’t know Carrie Underwood, the brand. I don’t listen to country music (only because I never think to) nor do I follow American Idol. I do know that some of those Idol winners and losers (if you can call Jennifer Hudson a “loser”) have gone on to good and diverse careers.

So I swore I wouldn’t watch The Sound of Music Live!, especially with someone I don’t know as the lead. Apparently, I’m the only one in America who doesn’t know Carrie Underwood.  But my real reason for not wanting to watch it is that I am full to the brim with The Sound of Music overload. I cannot bear to see it one more time.

It would have been my loss.

I came to my senses at the last minute when I found out that the incomparable Audra McDonald was in it and she, alone, is worth watching and listening to. It also featured other theatre actors and singers:  the beautiful and expressive Laura Benanti and Christian Borle who turned Max into a force to be reckoned with.

But Carrie Underwood as Maria?

I watched. Then I read reviews and snarky comments on Facebook. Then I realized I was in a completely different place about what I saw.

I LIKED Carrie Underwood. Only person in America, apparently. Here’s why and here’s what I saw.

With Audra McDonald to open the show and that most excellent women’s (nun’s) choir, that warm, candle-lit monastic set, I knew I was in for a very different experience.

But from her first appearance, I knew Underwood didn’t have the acting chops for this gig, but I liked her immediately, especially with McDonald, who generously brought her into the scene. And when she sang, I knew there was something going on worth watching.  I was expecting a country singer trying her best to hide the twang, but she was singing straight on. Maybe too straight on if you want to quibble, but she sounded like she had worked hard with a voice coach to get it right. And she did. My only problem was that it sounded flawless (pre-recorded?) and that there were so little dynamics. Like I said: she was singing straight on, full voice.

She went through all her scenes giving it her best and I liked her for working hard enough not to be terrible, even though terrible was what I expected. Instead, I got a sincerity about what she was doing that I found likeable an endearing, even a tad feisty, and isn’t that what Maria is? A sweet girl, if somewhat rough around the edges?

I expected to read reviews that would call her acting a little wooden. I wasn’t expecting the amount of vitriol being thrown around the cyber world because Underwood dared, DARED! to usurp what the misbegotten think of as Julie Andrews’ role.

Like, what? We should retire the role the way beloved sports heroes’ numbers are retired? Please.

You can’t talk about Carrie Underwood and Julie Andrews in the same sentence, but I have to wonder why you would even want to. This is the theatre: open-minded; idea-driven; heck it’s Art. Move on, People!

“But she (Underwood) isn’t Julie Andrews!” you still protest. “But, Dearie,” I reply, “Who is?” and I, for one actually enjoyed a little fresh air thrown into that role and into that old chestnut of a musical. Something new. Something surprising. Doing it with this cast, staged on gorgeous and expressive sets and lighted beautifully, was something new and with Carrie Underwood, it was also something surprising.

Julie Andrews doesn’t own the role. I would bet she doesn’t even want to. Why should any one actor “own” the role of Maria? If America’s musical theatre were to retire roles, I never would have seen the great Patti LuPone as Rose in Gypsy, which was a highlight of my theatre-going life. Ethel Merman owned that role, but face it. There are others equally worthy, and LuPone is one of many greats who did the part each in her own way. I give this to Underwood. She may not have owned the part, but she gave it a new, hardworking sincerity.

Maria is a good role for Carrrie Underwood to start out in musical theatre with. The Sound of Music is based on a story about a woman and a family we can relate to. The music and lyrics are some of the best in the musical theatre business. The role has a built-in likeableness. Maria has spirit, wants to do the right thing and does, is smart, funny, tender, and usually nice-looking. This role is a very good place to start building a musical theatre career. Underwood got to do her first major musical role with a part that is completely sympathetic and, unless she played Maria as a Nazi sympathizer, she should have to have some success with the audience.

I picked up on her sincerity: she didn’t walk through this. She wanted to do well with Maria and so I want her to do well in future roles, if she has the fortitude, after the Nasty Cyber People move on to their next victim, to take on other musical roles. It would be so interesting to see what she’d do next and what improvements she makes, how she builds on this experience, and to watch how she develops as an actor.  That has to be the coach in me. I want to see everyone reach their potential – their potential, not Julie Andrews’ potential.

Others saw “she can’t act worth a damned.” I saw a work in progress. I believe each performance is based on what the individual and the surrounding collaborators bring to it. Each performance is its own reward. Julie Andrews might agree.

I liked her. No, she’s not Julie Andrews’ equal, but that wasn’t her job, to be anyone’s equal. She did her job and I’d like to see what she does next.

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Wanting a career in the performing arts

Just wanting it isn’t enough. There is wishful thinking and there is intention. You may see yourself getting curtain call after curtain call, getting your due for the talent you possess.

And what happens when you don’t get cast in the Fall musical? Some people think this is a wake-up call to give up these silly dreams and go do something practical. Like study quantum mechanics.

I got news for you. It is a wakeup call but it has nothing to do with talent or sex appeal or even wishful thinking. If you want a career in the arts, you must be willing to turn that dreaming into practical intention.

There is a big difference between thinking about doing something and your intent to do it. Just look at the law. You can go to jail for planning to harm someone. They call it “intent.” You won’t go to jail for having a random thought about how life would be without that annoying someone around you. The “intent” is only wishful thinking.

This brings up that pesky word “planning.” This is a word right out of a business model where if a company wants to make better and cheaper widgets and corner a market on them, they have to do some “planning” that takes it out of the wishful stage and puts it squarely on a course to succeed. What happens between the wishful – gee, I “wish” I could be in the movies – to taking an acting class? You have thought about the steps it takes to be an actor and turned dreaming into practical intent.

I had a discussion with my hairdresser – a talented person if ever there was one – about why she was not cutting hair in Hollywood for the movies, something she has wanted to do forever. It all boiled down to not wanting to take seriously the business end of creativity. She didn’t like having to “marketing” herself. She is a creative person and “marketing” is something she thinks she couldn’t possibly be good at. It was all about business. Like working in a salon isn’t business? And she said this after handing me her business card, something she had designed herself.

Here’s the thing about performance art and marketing. I have a friend who acts in Chicago. She relentlessly sends out postcards to producers and casting directors that has a head shot on the front and what role she is doing or has done recently. She asks them to come and see her in whatever the current thing is. I got more news for you. That is marketing and my friend has worked almost non-stop in professional theatre – with awards and everything – for almost 30 years.

I think the reason my hairdresser doesn’t like the business end is because she was told or tells herself that business is directly opposite to what is artistic. What we aren’t taught – in high school, anyway – is that business and art go hand in hand.  Just watch Nashville if you want to get up close and personal with the business end of show business, in this case the country music industry.

So I guess the question for you is, “What are you doing today that is on your plan for a career in the performing arts?”

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Acting… or is it?

Quick. Name your three favorite actors. Got them? Now tell me are they actors or are they interesting personalities who act for a living?

I’ll give you my three: Jessica Chastain (The Help among other recent movies), Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time), and Sandra Bullock (lots and lots of movies).

Let me first say that there is nothing wrong, bad, incorrect, or anything else negative about being a popular personality. Nathan Lane is one and he’s made a good living doing it. (Note: If you don’t know any of these people I’m talking about, take the time to Google them.) Nathan Lane is hilarious; he has a good musical comedy style that delivers that wow factor. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry – (well, maybe not real tears.) You’ll be enthralled. You’ll say he was worth the exorbitant price you paid for that theater ticket. That’s his shtick and you have to love it.

But. Is that acting? Or is it his enormous personality? The answer to that is the answer to this: What is acting and how is it different from a popular, likeable personality?

There are lots of definitions of what acting is and you’ll see and hear many in your theatre career. One that has caught my eye was in a review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als about Goodman Theatre’s (Chicago) exciting production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The review mentions not only Nathan Lane, but addresses the what-is-acting question much better than I could. Als wrote, “…he [Nathan Lane] is not an actor, at least not one who transforms himself for a role or allows his overwhelming personality to be subsumed in a character.”

The key is internalizing the character. Jessica Chastain did that in The Help. She disappeared into Celia Foote. I can’t tell you the first thing about what Chastain must be like in person but I know so much about Celia. She came alive for me in a way that has nothing to do with the person Chastain is but everything to do with what she dug out of the script and brought to light. What was essentially a stereotyped blonde bombshell marrying up and out of her class, became a person whose back story was evident in every brave reaction she had to the cruelty of the other women.  I felt something so true about Celia, what was  good and bad, her need for acceptance and her almost painful vulnerability seemed alive to me. The depth Chastain brought to the part, combined with technique – she has to have gobs of technique or how else would she be cast in Shakespeare (Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes?) – became a transformation from a person playing a part into a scripted character. So yeah, I’d say she’s an actor.

Robert Carlyle disappears in two distinct characters in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Yes, yes, the rap about him is that he is shy and wants nothing to do with stardom and fame so of course he has no overbearing personality to flaunt at us and make us eager to know him or at least hang with him. But every time I’ve seen him act, he is someone new.

And Sandra Bullock. What’s not to like? I still remember my first reaction to her in Demolition Man, that she was an absolutely delightful personality and how I’d never seen anything quite like her on the screen. She was so much fun to watch and I couldn’t wait for her next line. I still have that same reaction, but since then she has also done some remarkable work where she was still delightful (that personality can’t help but peep through) but let the character she was playing come through (especially in some of her lesser known films like Practical Magic.) She’s a personality and yes, she can act, but it is hard for that personality to take a back seat and completely disappear?  So I need someone else to make the call. Sandra Bullock: Personality or actor?

Now it’s your turn. Can you pick out someone working as an actor and then identify whether you think they are actors or personalities? Can you tell me why you think that? (Please, feel free to leave comments so we all can dissect your choices. You know we will. Also know there are no right or wrong answers.)

Note:  If you don’t know who Eugene O’Neill is, you need to get started with a summer reading program. See my upcoming blog on “What to do with your Summer Vacation.”

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