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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Avoid Jumping to the Conclusion

ist2_9231241-cartoon-flu-bugNot sure how many of you were cursed with the flu that is going around but it laid me low for almost a month. Hence the lag time between posts. I was down in the bed for two weeks and only got up to attend Matt Penn’s workshop (see previous post) and to teach one class. Better now, much better, but still not a hundred percent.

I am happy to report however that Matt’s workshop was an unqualified success. Twenty-five actors got to present their work to one of television’s more prolific directors: Law & Order, Damages, The Closer, Pan Am, Private Practice, Royal Pains, House, In Plain Sight, Detroit 187, Blue Bloods, NYPD Blue,  Third Watch, Gossip Girl, Orange Is the New Black, The Sopranos, etc., etc.) It was, as one of the actors said, “A you-should-have-been-there-event.”

Up next on April 2nd is the incredible casting director, Donna Grossman. Just a quick reminder — these workshops are free to the people that follow this blog, or to actors who have studied with me. The invitation for Donna’s workshop will be going out soon so keep an eye out for it.

A thing I’ve been noticing with many of the actors who come to study with me is how quickly they want to jump to the end of the piece they’re performing without taking the time to fully investigate the journey. They know the piece starts at Point A and goes to, say, imagesPoint F but instead of looking for all the twists and turns along the way they make a bee-line for the end.

Knowing the final result is important but if you jump to the final conclusion it causes a lot of problems. First, if you play the end too close to the beginning you don’t have anywhere to go. Second, by jumping straight to the “end” of the piece you forego the opportunity to orchestrate the scene and orchestrating the scene is the key to engaging the audience.

Going after something, then almost losing it, then getting back on track only to fall off the rails again and repeating some variation of that until you finally achieve what you want is a much more interesting journey then grabbing the brass ring the moment you get on the merry-go-round.

Every script…well, I can’t really say every script because there are some bad ones out there, but almost every script has these elements built into it but it takes a conscientious actor to find them and then a disciplined actor play them. Why? Because Point A and Point F are so much clearer, but not necessarily more important, than the plot points from B and E.

If you will look for and play the “almost-got-it-and-then-lost-it-moments” not only will you be more involved in the scene but the audience will be more engaged as well. So, when you break down your next scene you don’t jump to the end but rather take the time to discover the whole journey — see what points B, C, D and E have to offer you. We, the viewing audience, your scene partner, the rest of the company, we will all thank you for it.

Sidebar: In rehearsals now for a show I’m directing. A one-act titled “Broken,” it is part of the T. Schreiber Fest that opens the 18th of March. More details later. 


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Here it is, short and sweet.

Unfortunately Donna Grossman is not able to attend the Free industry workshop on the 28th of Jan.

However, we are very pleased to announce that the immensely talented director Matthew Penn will be stepping in for her.

thFor those of you who may have been living under a rock, Matt is one of the busiest directors around. He is the co-artistic director of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab and a member of the renown Ensemble Studio Theatre. But Matt is best known as the Emmy nominated director of Law & Order. In addition to directing multiple episodes of the show he also served as Executive Producer of Law & Order for 4 seasons. Other TV directing credits include: Damages, The Closer, Pan Am, Private Practice, Royal Pains, House, In Plain Sight, Detroit 187, Blue Bloods, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Third Watch, Gossip Girl, Rizzoli and Isles, Cashmere Mafia and The Education of Max Bickford.

We’re excited to have Matt join us and are looking forward to another dynamite workshop.images

These workshops are free to the followers this blog and/or the actors who study with John Howard Swain.

The invitations to the workshop will go out as scheduled at 12 noon on the 22nd of Jan. Space is limited. Hope to see you there.

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Free-Workshop-logoOkay, Donna is already in New York. What’s different though is that she’s helping us kick-off our Free Industry Workshops Series for 2015. And in a few days you could have the chance to showcase your work for her.

If you’ve been living under a rock you might not know but Donna is one of the busiest commercial casting directors in New York. She casts hundreds of projects every year. But starting in 2015 she is expanding the scope of her office and will be casting for film/TV and theatre as well.

This is an incredible opportunity to meet her and show her your work.

What do I need to do? If you’re following my blog or if you’ve ever studied with me then you’re automatically eligible for the workshop. However, the invitations for the workshops go out through Constant Contact. So, if you aren’t getting the emails I send out via Constant Contact then you need to make sure I have your right email address. I’ll be sending out a brief notice on Constant Contact later today. If you don’t get it, let me know.

What else? When you get the invitation you need to respond to it RIGHT AWAY. These workshops fill up very quickly.

When is the workshop? January 28th from 6:30 to 9:30 PM.

When to the invitations go out? At 12 noon on the 22nd of January. Make sure you imagesnear your computer. Did I mention—these workshops fill up quickly.

What does it cost? Nothing. That’s what free means.

Why aren’t you charging for this? It’s our way of giving something back to an industry that’s been very good to us.

How does it work? The first thirty people to respond to the invitation get a spot. On the night of the workshop names are drawn out of a hat and each actor gets to present a two-minute contemporary monologue. Donna and I will give you feedback and if any adjustments need to be made you’ll get a chance to do your piece a second time.

Donna (center) and her crew

Donna (center) and her crew

Where will the workshop be held? If you are one of the first thirty people you’ll receive an information sheet with all the details. You will however need to be on time, be ready to work and commit to staying until the workshop is over.

Nothing else? Oh, yeah. Make sure you bring two headshots and resumes.

Okay, hope to see you on the 28th.

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les-miserables-musical-posterWhen I was writing last month’s post I was reminded of a story about my lovely bride, Marsha Mercant, and her audition for the sit-down company of Les Miserables in Los Angeles a number of years ago.

A little history first. Five years before the Les Mis audition Marsha auditioned for Cats—also in Los Angeles. She didn’t know any of the players – Cameron Mackintosh (producer), or Trevor Nunn (director), or Vinnie Liff or Andy Zerman (the casting directors). She sang and danced for them and they liked her. She then had not one, not two, not three but six callbacks before being cast in the role of Jenny anydots. During those auditions Marsha did something very clever — at each callback she wore something cat like: a T-shirt with a picture of a cat on it, leopard tights, something with a cat theme each time she went in.

Marsha and Jenny anydots

Marsha and Jenny anydots

The show, also a sit-down company, ran for two years at the Shubert Theatre in Century City. But that’s a different story.

Flash forward two and a half years. Cats has closed but Les Mis is getting ready to come to LA. This time, because Marsha had done Cats, she knew all the players and they all knew her. She also knew she wasn’t going to get called in for the initial auditions but only for the final, final callback. Which meant she was only going to get one shot in the room to show her stuff, one shot at getting the role she wanted — Mme. Thenardier.

So, she hired the Emmy Award winning composer John Kavanaugh to arrange a specialty number she would sing and she got Barbara Epstein (an internationally renowned musical theatre director) to help her create the “characters” for the songs she would sing. The three of them worked many hours, rehearsing to make sure each moment, each note, each nuance was perfect.

Marsha as Mme. T.

Marsha as Mme. T.

Marsha also had the foresight to find out who was going to be in the room. This time JohnCaird and Trevor Nunn were co-directing. Richard Jay- Alexander was putting the company together and the casting directors Vinnie Liff and Andy Zerman were back to cast the show. Once she knew who the players were she made it a point to find out something interesting about each person, either something personal or professional, so she could banter with them in case the opportunity came up.

She nailed the audition and even though Kay Cole ended up getting the role of Mme. Thenardier, Marsha was her understudy and got to play the role scores of times during the year long run.

What’s important to remember in all of this is that Marsha knew she was only going to have one shot and she did everything she could to make sure that shot paid off.

My question to you is: how are you prepping for your auditions? As actors, so much of what happens in show business is out of your control. But how you audition, how you prepare, is something that is in your control. You may not be in a position to hire award winning coaches but make sure you’ve done everything in your power so when the opportunities do come your way you can take advantage of them.

PS Here’s what Marsha looks like most of the time!!MarshaMercant5834_LowRes_Final

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What Are You Doing To “Wow!” An Agent?

_44522490_crowd416The number one question I get from actors is, “How can I get an agent?” And my reply is, “What are you doing to separate yourself from the five hundred other people who approached that agent that day?”

The answer I usually get is, “Huh?” as if suddenly I was speaking Swahili.


First of all, do you need an agent? If you want to be taken seriously in this business the answer is…YES. Why? Because having an agent is a signal to the hiring world (casting directors, directors, producers) that you are a professional. It also elevates your status separating you from the hordes of actors that don’t have representation and are self-submitting. There is nothing wrong with self-submitting it’s just that the odds are stacked against you.

Do you have to have an agent to be a working actor? No. But if you want to do something with your talent other than preform in community theatre the answer again is…yes.

So what can you do to “Wow!” an agent? The first thing is to have not a good but rather an outstanding headshot. One that is current, one that looks like you, one that will open doors for you and one that will represent you when you can’t be there in person. Do you have one of those?

Next, what sort of shape is your resume in? How current is it? Are you still using credits from high school? How is the resume laid out? Is it easy to read? Hard to read? And the information that’s on there, is it true? Please don’t lie. If you’re new to the business don’t try to hide that fact with a bunch of false credits. The agent’s wife/brotherimages-1/sister/father/mother/girlfriend/boyfriend may have directed “that” production of “that” show on your resume. And if the agent liked you before but then finds out you’re lying…there goes that relationship.

Next, let’s say you had a meeting with an agent. He/she likes you and wants you to come in to audition for the rest of the agency. Are you ready? If you aren’t in a show, what are you doing to keep your craft in shape? In our business, if you’re not using your skills you’re losing them. So, what are you doing to keep them honed?

131158-849x565r1-workout-tipsI always felt being an actor was akin to being a professional athlete. And I always felt part of my job, a huge part of my job, was to make sure I was in shape. Not just physically but also to make sure my acting chops were in top form too. So, whenever I wasn’t working I was in class.

If an agent is considering taking you on, he’ll want to know what you’re doing to keep yourself, your skill set, in top form so you can book the auditions he’s busting his ass to get for you. If you’re not in a show, what are you doing to keep your skills in shape?

What about other supporting material? Is your IMBD page up to date? Do you have a reel? A VO demo? Are they current?

In a way getting an agent is like dating. First impressions are important. You need to do everything in your power to create a package that is as attractive and prepared as it can be. Make sure you have a great headshot, your resume and reel are up to date, and that you’re at the top of your game when it comes to your craft. Wow-20110531Do everything you can so when that agent opens the metaphorical door they take one look at you and say, “Wow!”

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