More Light From the Tunnel

Sarah on the set of Elementary

Sarah on the set of Elementary

The following is from a blog written by my friend, former student and working actor – Sarah Dacey Charles. I knew Sarah in San Francisco and she was on hand to greet Marsha and me when we moved to New York. Her work has inspired me on numerous occasions and her spirit is a constant reminder that “Yes, anything can happen if you put your mind and heart to it.”
There is always a lull, or mild disappointment, after I do a show or have any kind of peak experience.  Reentry to my “old life” again can be hard.  In anticipation of a post show let down,  I decided to buoy my spirits by consuming positive quotes, videos, and books. That’s when I stumbled across a 1-minute video that completely rocked my world. In it,  Emmy award winning, Bryan Cranston’s gives some amazing words of wisdom. If you have a minute right now, take a look: Bryan Cranston’s advice to aspiring actors (1 min 22 sec)


Bryan Cranston said that his life changed when he realized what his real job was. 656b7912-1149-4578-8c6d-61b95698f668When he reads for a role at an audition, his job is NOT to win the role or even get a callback. His job is ONLY to present a compelling character with a strong need, responding under a very specific set of circumstances.  I swear to God, after watching this video, something clicked. A voice inside me said:  “SARAH–YOU MUST STOP AUDITIONING!”. “What?”, I thought, “How is that going to solve my current unemployment problem?” Then, the voice came in again and said.  “FROM THIS TIME FORWARD, DO NOT AUDITION–ONLY ACT!”.

It’s time to stop auditioning for my place at the table.  To audition is to second guess yourself and anticipate what someone else wants. To audition is to please others instead of serving them and great artists never aim to please. They aim to serve.

I was pumped. I mentally drew my line in the sand. I was ready. I was going to be different, and then an audition appointment for a hit TV series  landed in my inbox. Shit!  Could I really put this into practice? For a job I’d love to have?  Do I dare NOT care what the casting people and creatives want?

Well, the answer is Yes!  Yes I can, and yes I did.  Instead of trying to please the casting director, I showed up prepared and did the work, no apologies, and I booked it! I’m pleased to announce that I will be on the second episode of the upcoming season of Elementary as the killer’s power lawyer  (air date TBA)

I like this not auditioning!

Great advice. Wish I had that information earlier in my career. To read more about Sarah’s journey Click here to follow her blog.

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It’s A Wrap…

…for now! I don’t know about you but it’s hard to believe that the 2014-2015 class year is over. Wow! Talk about time flying by!! Except for the winter. That just sort of crept by. But we got to spring and now it’s summer.



And we’re finishing up with a bang! On Wednesday the 29th of July, Ann Kelly, an agent with the Judy Boals Agency, will be the guest at our final Industry Workshop. As you know these are a series of workshops designed to give actors a chance to showcase their work for some of the leaders in our industry…for free.

Ann brings her experience as an actress, casting director and talent manger to her role of Agent. Her clients have appeared on Broadway, on Television and in Feature Films. Ann travels extensively to see clients in regional theatres including: CenterStage, The Geffen Playhouse, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Studio Theatre, Yale Rep, ACT, Triad Stage, The Huntington Theatre, The Wilma and The Philadelphia Theatre Company. Her TV and Film clients can be seen on House of Cards, The Good Wife,th Alpha House, The Mysteries of Laura, Forever, Flesh & Bone, VEEP, Boardwalk Empire, Elementary, Person of Interest, Madam Secretary, Law & Order SVU, Black List, A Most Violent Year, The Americans, Criminal Minds, Mozart in The Jungle, Grace & Frankie, and Orange Is The New Black. Ann holds a BA in Theatre from Temple University. She is Meisner trained and is on honorable withdrawal from AEA & SAG-AFTRA. She resides in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, 2 dogs and a cat.

The workshop will be from 6:30 – 9:30 PM on the 29th of July. Invitations will go out on Monday the 27th of July at 11:55 AM. Space is limited. If you want to attend I suggest you hang out very close to your computer at zero hour on the 27th.

Who is eligible? If you’re reading this, you are.The workshop is open to former and th-2current students and to people that follow this blog. Yes, even you guys in California. If you know you’re going to be in town, go for it.

All and all it’s been a great year. The actors I’ve had the privilege of working with have all made great strides in their work and lots and lots of jobs have been booked. Hope to see you at the workshop on the 29th as we close out this season.

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th-6Signing or freelancing is a dilemma many actors will face at some point in their career. There are pluses and minuses to both sides.

First of all, what’s the difference between signing and freelancing? The simplistic answer is freelancing is like dating and signing is like getting married. If you’re still looking for the right “mate” then freelancing is probably the best thing for you. If you think you’ve found the right “person” and want to settle down then you should sign.

So what are the benefits? If you freelance you’ll probably have more exposure because you’ll have more auditions. If you’re signed you may not have as many auditions — initially. Every casting director has his/her favorite agents. So unless you are signed with one of the top five talent agencies — the ones that get all the audition calls — you will only be seen by casting directors your agency has a relationship with.

th-8A plus of being signed is that your agency will be focused on the big picture of your career. (And yes, there are some jobs you shouldn’t do.) If you freelance those agents will only have the short game in mind — they’re simply trying to get you “this” job and aren’t concerned about your long-term goals.

If you freelance you have to constantly update the agencies you’re working with so they’ll know what your current commercial conflicts are and/or what network shows you’ve th-3already done this season. If you’re signed your agents will already have that information. There is nothing more disheartening for a freelance agent, after hustling to get you an audition, to discover you already have a commercial running for a competing product. You have wasted their time and they won’t be happy.

If you’re signed your agent has a vested interest in your career so when you’re doing that “experimental showcase” in a not-so-nice theatre in the East Village they will go see it. If you’re freelancing, probably not.

If you’re signed and your agent is bi-coastal and you want to “try out the scene” in LA (or NYC) you’ll already have representation. And if your agency isn’t bi-coastal they will help you find representation wherever it is you’re headed. If you’re freelancing it is unlikely that those agents will extend themselves for you.

Another perk of being signed is your agency will negotiate for you. Freelancers won’t. It’s th-10the big picture thing again. And let me tell you the only thing sweeter than getting paid for doing what we do is getting paid double scale with double scale residuals. Oh, yeah, that’ll put a smile on your face.

So, do you sign or do you freelance?

That was a quandary I faced early in my career. Here’s how it went down. Shortly after arriving in New York I had a meeting with J. Michael Bloom. At the time he owned the biggest commercial agency in New York.

My initial interview didn’t go well but shortly afterward I had the good fortune to meet Barbara Blomberg. Some friends of hers were producing an off-Broadway show I had been cast in and she was helping out by selling cookies at intermission. What I didn’t know, what none of the actors knew, was that Barbara was the head of casting for the advertising giant B.B.D. & O. And no, I’m not making this up.

After the play opened Barbara called several of the agents she worked with and told them, “There are three guys in this show I think you should see,” All the agents came and they started sending me out. I booked the first two jobs I went out on. Then I booked a couple more and a couple more after that.

Once the word got out that I was booking, other agencies called wanting to work with me. They sent me out and I booked even more work. Several of these agencies asked me to sign and while I felt they are all good I had made up my mind to sign with J. Michael Bloom. But, and probably arrogantly, I had also decided I wasn’t going to call him, I wanted him to call me.

I freelanced for the next two years and because eight different agencies were sending me out I got a lot of exposure. Often (I learned this through the grapevine) a freelancer would call to  submit me and the casting director would tell them, “Oh, John’s already been submitted.”

This worked to my advantage in two ways: it prompted the agent who tried to submit toth-4 get my name in sooner and if by chance the casting director didn’t know me he was likely to hear my name two or three or more times that day. This would pique his curiosity. If I had a good audition then, when that casting director put out the calls for his next job, he would tell the first agent he called, “I want to see John Swain on this.” And when casting directors are requesting you…well, what could be sweeter than that?

So, to sign or not to sign? That is the question…you may have to answer one day. Whichever way you go, I hope it works out for you.

PS —  J. Michael did call and I signed and we worked together for many years.

Coming up – May 28th, our next free industry workshop featuring Brette Goldstein. Invitations will go out at 12 noon on Tuesday May 26th. Hope to see you there.

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WHAT’S THE POINT…of taking an acting class?

thThe obvious answer is to become a better actor, to hone your skills. And while that’s all well and good I’ve always felt there should be an additional component. Yes, getting better is one of the goals but I think actors should also have the opportunity to put those skills to the test.

The commercial class I teach at the Schreiber Studios in New York is designed so the actors have an opportunity to showcase their work for either an agent and/or a casting director. The actors work with me for six weeks using a technique I developed over my many years as a commercial actor and then on the last week of class they present their work to a casting director and/or an agent. CD’s like Donna Grossman and Kyle Coker have been guests. David Elliott, the senior commercial agent at Buchwald, has also been a guest and next week Amanda Nyman from Stewart Talent will be there.

The point is the actors aren’t working in a vacuum. There is an endgame. They will have an outlet for their newly honed skills. After they’ve presented their work, and gotten feedback, there is a Q & A. It’s a win-win situation — the actors get exposure and the casting directors/agents get a chance to see talent they might not have otherwise known about.

I do the same thing with the on-camera scene study class I teach. In the spirit of full disclosure I do not teach this class at the Schreiber Studios but rather own my own. Click here for more info. The actors in my scene study class have had the opportunity to showcase their work for a wide range of top industry leaders: directors Matthew Penn and Tony Glazer; producer Summer Crockett Moore; talent agent Jamie Harris and casting directors Judy Bowman, David Cady, Donna McKenna;  — just to name a few.

When I had my school in San Francisco I did something similar. Except there because we were exclusively a film/TV acting school, in addition to having agents and casting directors th-6come in to teach classes we also produced four films. We did this so our students would have the “real-life” experience of being on a set. During shooting they discovered the demands of shooting out of sequence, how to develop a character arc that spanned breadth of a full-length film instead of just a short scene in a class. They also learned they had to be Uber-prepared; that they could be called upon to work with little or no rehearsal. It was a great experience for everyone involved.

th-2So, what is the point of an acting class? For me, as a teacher, it’s all about going the extra mile so the actors have a vehicle to use their newly honed skills. It’s about having an endgame.

Class Notes:  New Commercial Level One Class starts 4 May. Click here for details. Or call 212-741-0209.

Coming Soon:  May 28th the casting director Brette Goldstein will be the guest instructor for our next Free Industry Workshop. More details to follow.



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th-2I had just finished reading for Barbara Claman. It was a great supporting role for a feature film and she was a casting director with a long history of casting top quality projects. When I was done she said, “You do a lot of commercials, don’t you?” As soon as I heard those words I knew I was screwed.

It had taken me years to get into see Ms. Claman and now, in less than five minutes, all the efforts my agents and I had put into getting an appointment with her were dashed. I slinked out of her office like a beaten dog, upset I had blown the audition.

And now because I teach acting, and because I teach two very different types of acting — a commercial acting class and a film acting class, I feel compelled to remind my students to remember what they’re auditioning for — every time they go out.

You can’t audition for a film the same way you audition for a commercial. They are two different animals. Both involve storytelling and while the stories told in commercial scripts may not be as engaging as those told in a film script, they are stories nonetheless.

Commercials are all about finding resolution; solving a problem. Films, on the other hand, are thdriven by tension and conflict and in order for those stories to be successful problems need to be created — not solved. In a commercial, your job is to do everything you can to help another person get what he needs. In a film, your job is to make sure your character get what he wants regardless of the havoc it may cause.

This in-and-of-itself is huge and should have a major influence on the way you approach your auditions.

Another factor you need to consider is the emotional underpinning of the audition. Because commercials are about resolution the go-to emotion is joy. Madison Avenue figured out a long time ago the best way to sell their clients’ products was to create stories infused with happiness. Nobody wants to buy anything that is fraught with anger or fear or sadness.

th-4Ad agencies want to show their product in a “good light.” And while a “problem” may be mentioned in the copy it is quickly solved once the “hero” product is introduced. The knees of Jimmy’s jeans are dirty; Tide is there to take care of it. Your house smells from your husband’s cigar smoke; one spray of an Air Freshener and the problem is gone.

With film (and theatre) scripts you get to use the juicier emotions — anger, fear, sadness, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy. Because instead of helping someone else get what they need your job is to make sure you get what you want. It is possible your character may not get what he wants in the end but it is the struggle of watching you try that engages the audience and makes this brand of storytelling so effective.

I know first hand what can happen to an actor if he/she doesn’t make the proper adjustment before going into an audition. I’ve also witnessed the same thing numerous times as a director/producer. Recently while producing Scrambled Eggs the casting director brought in an actor who I recognized immediately; he had several spots running on TV. But when he read, he read as if he was auditioning for a commercial. Needless to say we didn’t call him back.

Actors need to how to audition for every type of media – you could have a theatre, film and a commercial audition all on the same day. Are you ready for that? Do you know how to switch gears? What to do at a commercial audition? What not to do at a film audition?

th-3I never got into to see Ms. Claman again. Ever. It may sound harsh but it wasn’t her fault. I was the one who failed to make the adjustment. My hope is that you can avoid those bumps in your career.

Coming Soon:  May 28th the casting director Brette Goldstein will be the guest instructor for our next Free Industry Workshop. More details to follow.

Class Notes:  New Commercial Level One Class starts 4 May. Click here for details.

“I never thought about being a commercial actor until I took John’s class. Now I’m booking jobs left and right. My last two were Jack Black cosmetics and Fisher-Price toys.” Robert Ballard

“I wanted to tell you you I booked my first national commercial today! For Brisk Iced Tea. Thanks so much for everything you taught me. You’re a wonderful teacher.” Divya Sethi 

Want to audit my film class? Shoot me an email.

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Only Eight Emotions!? Really?

0185300 First things first. The Industry Workshop with guest instructor Donna Grossman went extremely well. Twenty-seven actors got to showcase their work for Donna and her assistant Sara Bernstein.

But instead of me prattling on telling you how wonderful it was, here’s what two of the actors who participated had to say: “John, you are giving SUCH a gift to actors with these workshops. Donna was a terrific guest and the two of you worked well together to give insightful and constructive direction while being completely supportive of the actor. You both created a relaxed and fun atmosphere that allowed everyone to feel free to do his or her best work.” Kate Konigisor

John, I just wanted to tell you I think last night’s workshop was one of the best ones yet!  I can’t believe how honest Donna was with each actor – she was really trying to get the best out of everyone.  I go to many casting director workshops and often hear generic feedback that sounds scripted, but Donna is clearly so passionate about acting and actors as was evident in her thoroughness. I am so grateful you offer these free workshops.  Thank you.” Laura Chaneski

For anyone reading this who didn’t know we offer these workshops – with some the top images-2leaders in the industry – we do. And for FREE. Yep, free. If you are a current or former student of mine or you follow this blog then you’re eligible for the workshops. The next one will be on the 28th of May. Hope to see you there.

Okay, up next. Had some provocative feedback re: my last post. A few people were shocked when I said actors should only use a pool of eight emotions when orchestrating their character’s emotional journey. “Why just eight,” they wanted to know,“when there are so many more to choose from?” 

Here’s the answer in a nutshell. It’s about clarity and simplicity. How well an audience connects to the character – in theatre as well as in film – is determined by the emotional life the imagesactor creates for his/her character. If you aren’t clear when you set up this emotional journey then it won’t be clear to the audience and they will be confused about what and how they’re supposed to feel.  A WORD OF CAUTION before we go any further. Your job isn’t to dictate how audience SHOULD FEEL. Your job to is to guide them up to but not completely through the experience — by using the emotions you chose to develop your character. The final part of that journey is up to each individual member of the audience.

Your job is to suggest how they should feel based on how successfully you’ve developed your character, on the story the writer has written, and through the direction (toward both of those goals) the director has laid out for you.

That’s why the emotional work you do for your character(s) should be limited to these eight emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, betrayal, embarrassment and confusion. And yes, I know confusion isn’t really an emotion but it covers so much territory we use it as one.

By using these eight emotions alone or in combination with each other you will achieve images-1clarity and simplicity. Things get muddled when you try to put too fine a point on what it is you’re trying to convey. “My character should be feeling shame here.” Okay, what is shame? Sadness and embarrassment.

“My character should be feeling guilty here.” Okay, what is guilt? Sadness or anger and fear. “My character is feeling excited.” What is excitement? Joy. Or maybe joy tinged with a dash of confusion. All the other emotions you want to convey are rooted in these eight. By restricting yourself to just these eight you actually open up the character because you make his emotional journey so much clearer. And isn’t that what we all want – to be clear so the audience can understand and then feel what our characters are going through?

Try this. I guarantee it will improve your work.

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628x471I’ve had a lot of inquires regarding my last post—actors wanting to know more about orchestrating a scene. In order to orchestrate a scene you first have to know what the sequences of events are. Every scene is constructed around a series of events: this happens, then that happens, then this and then that and so on. Each event produces a consequence and each consequence generates an emotion. Once you know what the emotions are then you can orchestrate the scene.

However, many actors have a difficult time figuring out the events in a scene because of their single mindedness in pursuing their character’s objectives. But, and for that very reason, it is imperative you do find the events to have a truly successful scene.

How do I do that? The best way is to look at the scene with a different set of eyes.images

Okay, but whose eyes do I use? Well, the obvious set of eyes would be your scene partner(s). But the problem with that is, if you are truly successful in looking at the scene from another character’s point of view, you run the risk of being as myopic as you were in the first place. Only now you’re predisposed from another character’s POV.

Who’s POV should I use then? The ideal way is to look at the scene from the director’s images-3POV. He too is concerned about where the scene is going but he sees it from an entirely different angle. He is both connected to the actor’s journey but at the same time separate from it. This unique position provides you with the ideal vantage point to, first, to find the events, and then to orchestrate the scene.

Now, wearing the director’s hat, write a paragraph or two that would explain the scene to your actors highlighting the events as you go. Do this from the beginning to the conclusion of the scene.

Once you’ve done that put your actor’s hat back on and using the summary you just wrote, create an outline of the events. After you’ve done that assign an emotion to each event. This happens and I feel this, that happens and I feel that. Do yourself a favor and limit your emotional choices to these eight basic emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, embarrassment, betrayal and/or confusion. (Why just those eight? That’s a whole separate post – just trust me for right now.)

images-2That’s it. You have orchestrated the scene. Now you have a “musical score” and all that’s left now is to play it. And playing it will be much easier because you’ll know where it’s going and you’ll know how you’re supposed to feel when you get there.

That’s a thumbnail of how to orchestrate the events in your scenes. For a more detailed example click here.

Don’t forget Donna Grossman’s workshop is on the 2nd of April. If you’re following this blog but not getting invitations from Constant Contact to the join the workshop be sure to contact me so I can make sure you are on the right mailing list.

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