Downshifting: Add Meaning

This post references the Acting Metaphors: The Stickshift post.

“Downshifting” is what I call the process of going from a highly personal and deeply behavioral repetition, to one that is more on the surface. If you are going to downshift, which is certainly something that can happen, then know that it generally means that you are losing the inherent meaning in the words (“you’re scratching your face” being less inherently meaningful than “you’re lonely”, for example). Downshifting can be a result of the actor needing to create space to let off steam or to give their partner a break (both of these are not necessary and don’t lead towards the partner). If it happens, then one way to keep the energy level of the repetition at a consistent level would be to increase how personally you take whatever the behavior that you’re downshifting to: if the face scratching in the previous example is in response to the partner being lonely, then it might take on extra meaning.

If you’re downshifting to give everyone a break from the intensity, then I recommend acknowledging that truth somehow in the repetition. Get that need to cool off out on the table and then start again moving towards the partner. It could be that by recognizing the need to cool off, you learn something personal about your partner that will lead you closer together.

Acting Metaphors: The Spacecraft

I’m starting a new series of posts: Metaphors which I use during class. Hopefully you’ll find them useful!

The Spacecraft

One of the ways scientists get information about the composition of the other planets and moons in our solar system is by crashing spacecraft into them and then studying the debris that gets kicked up. The metaphor here is that we want to use our attention and the power of our personal observations about our partner to crash into their surface (although the impact doesn’t necessarily have to be violent). But the real information about who they are comes from how they respond to the repetition (the debris that gets kicked up). Their response to you is going to tell you a whole lot more about themselves than how they behave at the surface.

The Lesson:

Don’t hold your opinions back from your partner. Make an impact on them and you’ll come to a deeper understanding of who they are!

Acting Metaphors: The Stickshift

The idea of the stickshift is that you might start out in first gear: some surface truth (you’re wearing a blue shirt). By adding energy (stepping on the gas), the tachometer starts to go up. At the moment of highest energy, some new behavior, a response to what is going on in the moment, will emerge. Now the repetition shifts to that new observation of behavior, which is probably deeper (a higher gear) than the surface truth. The RPM might go down, but the energy level is maintained because of the increased inherent meaning in focusing on the behavioral response (instead of on a new surface behavior). Adding more energy to the repetition brings the partners into the red again, which leads to another shift change. The process continues until the partners reach an end point (hello or goodbye) or one of them downshifts. As one of my teachers put it: Always trade up in terms of meaning. Always go for the more meaningful behavior.

Building Your Network. Do It!

Networking, or building up your network of contacts, is something that gets a bad rap. It can be viewed as a phoney or a fake way of making friends. And if you do it badly, it is. But even if you do it badly, you’re still going to be ahead of those actors who don’t do it at all.

I learned about networking from this post over at Manager Tools. They are some fantastic coaches of managers and their podcasts and advice on how to get along in the business world is fantastic. Definitely listen to their post and see what you get out of it but I’ll outline the basics here.

  1. Building your network is much more about maintaining contact rather than going out and being social.
  2. Start a list of people that you want to stay in contact with. This can and should be anyone: casting directors, ADs, production assistants, agents assistants (today’s assistants are tomorrow’s real deal!), directors, actors, costumers, drivers, whatever. Anyone that you come into contact with through your work can go on the list.
  3. Put the list into a system where you will get a reminder to contact that person every 3-4 months or so. I made a special calendar in google calendar where each person was an event that recurred every 3 months. But you can use any system you want!
  4. When that person’s day comes up, send them an email or letter, or call them or tweet at them. It’s best if you contact them to mention something that they are involved in, rather than just saying what you’re up to. But you can also mention what you are up to.
  5. Don’t expect an answer back and don’t require one in your contact with them. All you need to do is keep the contact alive.
  6. Over time, add details to who they are: what projects are they associated with, what are their kids names, when are their birthdays (and their kids birthdays!). You may or may not use that information in your contact, but its good to have it handy if you need it.
  7. Also over time, add/remove people as necessary. You can easily keep in active contact with 200 – 500 people this way. If someone is not responding or asks you not to contact them anymore, then take them off your list! If you meet someone cool on a set or a class, put them on!

As Manager Tools states: having a strong network means one where the contacts are alive and where you aren’t only contacting these people when you need something. If the only time a casting director hears from you is when you want them to cast you in something, they are far less likely to think well of you than if you write to them on their birthday or when you congratulate them on a show they cast that you really enjoyed.

And remember, this is a marathon. There are contacts that I have kept up (because I like the people, not because I think I can get something from them) that have been able to help me directly as an actor only after 5 or 6 years! So keep it up! It will be incredebly rewarding when you do!

Also see the Backstage article on where to go to meet new people in the industry!

Where Does Fulfillment In Your Acting Come From?

It’s come up recently that it’s possible for us as actors (as people, really), to never be quite satisfied with where we are. At what point are we fulfilled as actors? I’ve certainly felt that “if I only had this part in a series, then I’d be happy” or “All I want is to get the chance to audition. Is that too much to ask” feeling many times myself. But I also know that there are many actors, who have “made it” who are still not happy with where they are. The series regular part that leads to type casting, where you don’t have enough scenes or too much work or not working with the right people or you’re away from home too much or you’re not making the kind of money that you should be making. As we look for what fulfills us, if you’re looking to something outside of yourself, you’re probably looking in the wrong place.

In our discussion in class the other night, many students brought up that just being in the moment, at the moment of creation, is fulfilling for them. That’s a wonderful feeling. Sometimes you hear it referred to as being in the “zone”. If that is where you get your fulfillment as an actor and an artist, then you’re putting yourself in a position to be fulfilled quite a bit. Because being in the zone, or being in the moment is something that is within your direct control. There is no casting director, director, producer or other acting partner who can prevent you from being in the moment. Maybe a certain project that you’re on is shitty. It happens. But the experience of the moment can and does transcend any over-arching shittiness. And by taking your fulfillment from the moment, you side-step the potential disappointment that results from external forces: money, production difficulties, personal issues, etc.

You also set yourself up to get fulfillment from every experience of acting: rehearsing, auditioning, sharpening your craft, performing, and even working on the “business” of acting (networking, marketing, etc). You can be in the moment for all of that. And it is in your complete control.

5 Things You Can Do To Support Your Acting

A lot of times, especially here in Prague, it’s easy to get lazy about working on your art. You may attend an acting class, you may sit down and watch a movie, but often the question of “What are you doing to support your art?” goes unanswered.

Here are some things that you can do to augment your active attendance of class or rehearsals in a play to support your acting habit:

  1. Reading. Especially today, reading often gets overlooked. Reading for pleasure is one thing, but actively choosing books (autobiographies, histories, technique books, etc) which point the way other people have solved the problem of acting can do wonders to help you overcome your current position. Remember to read actively: put yourself in the situation, think about what you would do if you were faced with the same problem or opportunity. How did the writers choice different from yours and how did it turn out for them. Try writing a short book report about what you read. Writing (see later) often helps to codify your thoughts and impressions.
  2. Watching People. Actors are creatures of behavior. We eat it up, live it and breathe it. Actively watch your surroundings: how are the people around you treating each other? Put yourself in their shoes. What would you do in their shoes, what would make you feel the way that they are behaving? What is their story that could bring them to this point? Make it up, have fun with it. But turn yourself on to the world around you and welcome the differences between people. You never know when you will need to call upon a behavior or situation that you witnessed! Again, write it down! Codify it!
  3. Watching Films. When you do watch a film or other video, watch critically. Watch the editing and the angles. Watch the camera movements. Why did the director choose to be in a closeup there? Why did the scene end with that moment and move to that next scene instead of another one? What are the actors doing? Are they listening to each other and responding or are they just going through the motions. Can you see them acting or does it feel real to you?
  4. Building Your Network. This is a topic that deserves it’s own post. The business of acting is nothing if not having a strong network, not only of casting directors and people who can give you work, but actors, crew members, back office people, drivers, etc. There is a fantastic podcast called Manager Tools and their advice on building your network is absolutely golden!
  5. Listen. Listening to interviews with artists and people in the business of acting provides an amazing array of information. My favorite places to get interviews is through podcasting (an audio show that updates on a regular basis that a podcasting app downloads to your phone or computer). Some of the best interview podcasts are: Industry Standard with Barry Katz, WTF with Marc Maron, Nerdist Writers Panel, and Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show. Good podcasts for show business news are The Business and The Spin-off.

Again, with all of these things: do them critically and actively. If you’re just going through the motions, then you won’t get a lot out of them…

Move Towards Your Partner, Not Away

In everyday life, our tendency is to protect ourselves from potential hurt. So if someone is behaving in a way that we feel threatened by (too open, too angry, too whatever), it’s perfectly reasonable to move away from them. Creating space is a much more innocuous way of creating a barrier than simply throwing up a defensive wall.

But in acting, the actor wants to use any of the partner’s behavior to move towards the partner and not away from. This means that if your partner is laughing a lot, laugh towards your partner. Step into that laughter. If your partner is crying, step towards that sadness. Reach out for it, participate in it: take it in. This is not to say that you should make yourself sad as well, although that may well happen. By stepping in, you accept whatever your partner gives you. By accepting it, you allow it to impact you. What your response is can be anything (that’s part of the wonderful thing of this: there is no wrong response).

Maybe part of the reason we move away from extreme or potentially “harmful” behavior is that we want to protect the other person. If my partner is crying, I don’t want to seem insensitive by getting angry about their sadness. But in our world, the response to get angry is welcome. It is what is. Disengagement is the only thing that isn’t the best option.

And if you do find yourself disengaging, fine! Be honest about that. By being honest about the disengagement, you will bring yourself back into moving toward the interaction with the partner. What is the disengagement about? What is the partner doing that is threatening? What do you think will happen if you engage? By being honest about these things and getting them out on the table, you can move beyond them, and towards a deeper connection with your partner.

Auditions: Prepare More!

It’s easy, especially in a market like Prague, to get complacent about auditions. There isn’t a ton of local competition, a lot of the competition there is is based on look rather than experience and talent. Sometimes it is enough to just show up and go through the motions.

But if you do more work going into your auditions, you will have a much better chance of booking the job you’re going for AND building a great reputation as a prepared, professional actor with the casting director, producers and directors you read for.

Here are some things that you should have going into an audition:

  • Know the text. This is a huge mistake that people make going into an audition. You want to know the text as well as you possibly can. Knowing the words you have to say gives you an incredible amount of flexibility and security in how the audition will go.
  • Know the stakes. Stakes are what is important in the scene. Even if you only have one line, what are the stakes? What are the consequences of getting or not getting what you want in the scene. Authors don’t write scenes about everyday nothing situations. Scenes are there to put the characters in them through something. So don’t assume that the answer why you say something or do something in the scene is “just because”. Know why you are there! If your part in the scene is very simple, maybe the stakes won’t need to be played (generally they shouldn’t be anyway), but doing the work to know what is important in the scene is always time well spent.
  • Know the given circumstances. These will inform the stakes. Generally the given circumstances are Who, Where, What, When types of questions: Who is in the scene and what are their relationships? Where and When (both time of day, time period AND when in the script/story ie. how far into the story) does the scene take place? What is the physical behavior in the scene (what are the characters physically doing)? What happened just prior to this scene in the story (often this is not the previous scene in the script, but something inferred by the dialogue)? Answering as many of these types of questions will not only allow you to know more what the stakes are, but to know what the tone of the scene might be.
  • Rehearse! Find a friend and go through the scene beforehand. Try to remain flexible in how you do the scene as the casting director may give you a note that is different than how you rehearse. But the knowledge that you have gone through the scene several times before you get in the casting room, will be very valuable!
  • Let go! Once you’ve done all this work, let go of all of it. Don’t focus on any of the work when you are in the audition. Just go through the scene and listen to any instructions the casting director might give you. Trust that you have done the work and that the most meaningful parts of it have stayed with you. Try to listen and respond truthfully to the person who is reading opposite you.

Doing all of this work doesn’t guarantee you will get any role. But it will make casting directors sit up and take notice of you. Especially in a market where most people are not doing that much work on their auditions. Remember: In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. Or something to that effect.

Focus on the Moment, Not the Text

It often comes up in class that the words will pull you away from the moment and focusing on your partner and their behavior will pull you back into the moment. Ideally, you want to be saying the words the author wrote for you to say, but having them come out in response to what is happening around you in the moment (and not because they were the next things written for you to say). It’s really difficult to do this because when we have that text in front of us, it’s hard to think about anything else. So when you have some text to say, spend some time focusing on what is going on around you instead of what you have to say. Then say what you need to say, but in response to what’s happening in the moment. You’ll get better at it!

Letting Go

glenn-beck-cryingIn our relentless quest for deeper, truer, more personal meaning, something that often gets in the way is remembering to let go. We look so hard for these elusive feelings and opinions that when we find them, we want to hold them up and say “Aha! I feel something! Isn’t this wonderful!” We want to luxuriate in the feeling, even if it is a “negative” one. Sometimes I call that wallowing in the feeling (wallowing is what a pig does in mud). We like to roll around in it and get all dirty.

But holding on to any particular emotion can cause a pressure which isn’t the most helpful in following the true moment. By holding on, we stop really responding to what is going on around us. We say: “No, no. I don’t want that to happen now. I’m still working on this!” Unfortunately for us, this is the new moment, not that. It is analogous to what happens when a student goes for a particular result (“I want to make my partner jealous” or “I want to help my partner not be so upset” or “I want to make my partner to like me”). We turn off to the rest of the subtle behavioral clues and only focus on those that support our goal. And sometimes, we “see” behavior in our partner that isn’t there simply to give credence to  the interaction we wanted to have.

When emotions are high, letting go is extremely important. The pressure of maintaining and holding onto an emotion gets in the way of whatever’s coming next and makes us less flexible and less responsive. We need to trust in ourselves that if we let go of whatever emotion or meaning is happening now, that something else will come along to take its place.

The behavior resulting from an actor who is letting go of emotion instead of holding onto it (and remember, I don’t mean expressing and not expressing. In both cases, the emotion is expressed!) is light and nimble. It feels like it can go in any direction at any time. The behavior resulting from an actor who is holding onto emotion is heavy and consistant. No matter what the partner does, the response is going to be in a similar direction to what the previous moment was. The heaviness and sameness of the interaction can be a sure sign that someone is holding on to something.

The solution, of course, is to focus outside of ourselves. Whatever the partner is doing is going to be more interesting than whatever we are feeling at any given moment. The willingness to throw away what we are feeling in deference to the partner’s behavior (and their behavior NOW in this moment) creates the letting go. The two simply can’t exist together: Either you are focused on your partner or you are focused on yourself. And for our purposes, letting go — of yourself — is going to lead to much more interesting places than not!