SEEING WITH NEW EYES

images-1“I didn’t see that in the scene. How did you see that?” is a question I often hear after critiquing an actor’s work. They’re even more astonished when they discover I’m not familiar with the scene. “Yes, I see it now,” they say, “but I’ve been working on that scene for two weeks and I didn’t see it before. How do you do that?”

The answer is quite simple. You have to look at the material with new eyes. There are certain elements that govern the success of every scene. Once you know what those elements are, once you develop this new way of looking,  it’s easy to see what’s working or not working in a scene.

First, you need to figure out what type of scene it is. The choices are: power scenes, love scenes, bonding scenes and two-people-meeting-for-the-first-time-scenes. Almost every scene you’ll ever work on will fall into one or a combination of those categories.

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Second, no matter whether it’s drama or comedy, the key components of every scene are tension and conflict. They are the building blocks of good storytelling. What does this means to the actor? One person in the scene wants something and the other person is going to say “no” to that desire.

 

For our purposes let’s say Character A wants to sleep with Character B. Once Character B spurns Character A’s first attempt at seduction, Character A has to come up with another way of trying to get what he wants. When Character B rejects the second attempt Character A is forced to come up with yet another way and so on and so on until either: Character A gives up, Character B gives in or the scene is interrupted. In which case the scene, or a version of the scene, will play itself out later in the story.

The third element is competition. If Character A isn’t doing his very best to get Character images-11B into bed the scene falls flat and ultimately proves to be unsatisfying for the actors as well as the audience. Even if at the end of the scene Character A fails in his attempt to bed Character B, he still has to fight like crazy to try to make it happen.

Character A’s fate—all of our fates—is in the hands of the writer but that doesn’t mean Character A doesn’t fight to get what he wants. If he does anything less than go all out in his attempts it comes across as indifference and indifference is not only difficult to play it is tedious to watch. A way to make sure your work doesn’t slip into the trap of indifference is to know you are right. Not think you’re right but know, with all of your heart, that you are right and play the scene with that conviction.

A fourth element, which is tied to the third, is keeping score. There are two possibilities in every scene: you’re either getting closer to what you want OR you’re moving further away from it. With each beat of the scene you need to assess, “Given what just happened am I getting closer or moving further away from what I want.” Knowing this will help you determine how much vigor you need to pursue your goal.

“Okay, I get that if it’s a power scene but what’s if it’s a love scene?” The same rules apply. images-5Even in love scenes there has to be conflict. There may be wonderful moments in the scene where two lovers proclaim or consummate their love but there is also conflict and/or tension building up to and often following those moments. Even in a love scene where the two characters both seemingly want the same thing, if you look hard enough you will see they are competing, they each want it their way. Each wants, figuratively and often literally, to be on top.

The last element is status. Too often actors aren’t aware of their status in a scene or how to portray it. One of the ways of determining status is eye contact. Actors have a tendency to either “lock eyes” on the other character thereby claiming a “power” that may be inappropriate for their character or they avoid looking at the other actor altogether. Just knowing when to make eye contact and when to avoid it is important. Both convey a message and you need to make sure you’re sending the right message at the right time. If you don’t your performance will suffer.

A simple rule of thumb is: people with high status make eye contact; people with low status avoid it. There is a lot more to the “status” element when in comes to developing a character but simply knowing when to look at someone and when to look away is incredibly important for you and incredibly revealing for the audience.images-10

Looking at the scene with new eyes will help you explore your character in new and different ways and will enable you to see things in the scene you may have missed. All of which will help maximize the effectiveness of your work. And isn’t that what we all want?

Questions? Let me know.

 

And don’t forget, for those of you in the New York area, Kimberly Graham from Judy Henderson Casting will be our industry guest on May 20th. Stay tuned for details of how to sign up for this free workshop.

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WHAT ARE YOU TELLING THE UNIVERSE?

imagesReader alert. There’s a spiritual aspect to this post. If that stuff bothers you, if you don’t believe in it, then stop reading now.

Okay, for the rest of us. What are you telling the universe? What messages are you sending about your career? Have you been spinning your wheels for the past year? Two years? Three years? Hoping the Universe will magically figure out what you want?

My experience is what you put out is what you get back. So, what are you putting out into the universe? If you don’t have an agent, what are you doing to get one? If the casting directors aren’t calling you in to audition, what can you do to make that happen?

When I returned to New York after a twenty-four year hiatus I didn’t have any trouble getting a commercial agent. Enough people remembered me. Plus I had been working with a bi-coastal agency in California so when I decided to move back to New York I let the New York branch know I was coming and they signed me immediately.

Getting legit representation however, was a different story. My old New York agency had folded and none of those agents were in the business any more. So, I put a monologue together, got some coaching and did a few “pay-to-be-seen” workshops.

I’m not endorsing those workshops but they do serve a purpose.I didn’t go after any of the big agencies; I wanted to be with a smaller agency with the hopes we would grow together.images-3 With that in mind I picked a few of what I thought were up and coming agencies. Very soon, I think it was at my fourth workshop, I met Jamie Harris from Clear Talent Group. He liked my work, told me they didn’t have anyone like me on their client list and asked me if I would like to work with them. I said yes. In very short order I had booked both Law & Order SVU and Criminal Intent plus I landed a starring role in the off-Broadway play Pied a Terre.

How did that happen? I saw what I needed to do, told the universe what I wanted, took action (which included going to a bunch of EPA’s) and the universe did what the universe always does, it responded.

Telling the universe what you want works both ways. By not doing anything you’re also sending a message. If your headshots aren’t current, you’re sending the message “It’s not important how I represent myself.” By not staying in touch with casting directors, whether you’re working or not, you’re sending the message, “That’s all right, they know who I am.” Send the postcard, it’s okay. Even if they don’t have time to read it, at least they’ll know you’re still in the hunt, still serious about being in the business.

Shortly after arriving in New York I was invited to join a play reading group. It was made up of a bunch of actors who wanted to keep their skills in shape, plus all of us held the intention of wanting to work. We got together, read a couple of plays but couldn’t schedule a third reading because so many of us were…guess what…working.

images-4What actions are you taking to insure that the universe is clear about your message? When was the last time you talked to your agent? Are you in a class? When was the last time you contacted a casting director? When was the last time you went on an audition? Is your resume up to date? Every action you take or each action you don’t take, sends a message.

The universe is listening. What are you telling it?

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The Joy of Summer.

Summer Crockett Moore

Summer Crockett Moore

Our latest industry workshop featuring indie producer Summer Crockett Moore was a huge success. She met thirty actors and those actors got to showcase their work for her.

Summer’s latest film, Junction, has been nominated for the prestigious Prism Award. Other nominees are August, Osage County, The Spectacular Now, and Lee Daniels, The Butler.

It was a very special evening! Here are some comments from the actors that attended: “The workshop was well run, informative and fun and a good learning experience. If you’re an actor in New York and you aren’t taking advantage of John’s give back workshops you are missing an incredible opportunity. Meet a casting director, or a producer, or an agent, perform your monologue, and get valuable feedback. And it’s free.” Mary L

I see these workshops as an opportunity to get invaluable critiques from the professionals John brings in. It’s also a great opportunity to build connections and expand my network.” Annemarie A.

“Great direction and great advice from John and Summer. I thought people did great work… until they got direction from John. Once they made those adjustments they really brought the goods. Thanks John and Summer!” Tom D.

John & Summer watch Barbara Haag (r) draw the next actor's name.

John & Summer watch Barbara Haag (r) draw the next actor’s name.

“Summer, I just wanted to say it was a pleasure to meet you and to thank you for lending your expertise and experience to the workshop. It’s always a privilege to be in a room with people with track records like yours and John’s.” Patrick H.

“John’s workshops are a wonderful opportunity for an actor at any level to learn and grow in a safe, supportive place with insightful input from both John and his industry guests. Together Summer and John walked me through my piece in such a way that I was able to get a fresh perspective on a tried-and-true monologue that had become almost routine for me.” Kate K.

The students were impressed with Summer’s openness and generosity and she was blown away by the caliber of their work. Not only is she keeping everyone’s information for her files, she also handed several of their pictures and resumes to her husband, Tony Glazer, to consider for the TV series he is directing.

Here’s how the workshops work. We invite leaders in the industry to come and share their expertise with a group of thirty actors. Eligible actors are current or former students of mine – either from New York or San Francisco – and those who follow this blog. The workshops are free.

A few days before the workshop, invitations are sent out via Constant Contact (if you aren’t getting these notices from Constant Contact please let us know right away). The first thirty actors to respond to the invitation get a spot in the workshop.

Actors come prepared with a two-minute contemporary monologue. Their names go in a hat (sometimes it’s a bag) at the beginning of the workshop and when their names are drawn they perform their monologue. The invited guest and I critique the work suggesting adjustments and if necessary offering the actors the opportunity to do the monologue a second time. We see as many actors as we can in the three hours allotted to the workshop. Last time we saw everyone! We end with a brief Q & A.

That’s it!

Really free? Really! It’s our way of giving something back to the acting community.

We are currently doing a workshop every two months. Our goal is to do one every month. Want to help? Here’s what you can do:

SPREAD THE WORD. TELL PEOPLE ABOUT THIS BLOG. THE MORE PEOPLE WHO KNOW ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING,  THE MORE WORKSHOPS WE CAN HAVE.

Kimberly Graham from Judy Henderson Casting (Homeland, Avatar, Before Midnight, Second Sight) will be our next guest – May 20th.  Hope to see you there.

Cheers,

John

 

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Tools of the Trade

images-5It’s a lot of fun getting back in the game. So far I’ve worked with two legends (see post 2/11/14), plus I’m enjoying getting my instrument back in shape, I’m seeing friends I haven’t seen in a long time and I’m making new friends—always a bonus.

Being back in the game also requires work and responsibility. Your craft has to be in good shape, you have be punctual about getting to your auditions and your bookings, and you have to be patient while you’re there. Plus you need good and current headshots.

Getting my craft in shape wasn’t a problem. Because I teach acting I’m in the fortunate position of advising actors on how to do that very thing. It would be extremely hypocritical to tell my students to do one thing if I wasn’t doing it myself. As far as being on time – I’m a nut about being punctual. But the third thing, the having good and current headshots, that was a different story. I had good headshots; the problem was they were nine years old. And a lot had changed in nine years – mainly me.

Nine years ago!

Nine years ago!

This issue became clear about six weeks ago when I went on an audition. The agent who sent me was new to the agency and we hadn’t met yet. All he had to go on was my old headshot.

At the audition I noticed most of the actors in the lobby were younger. I didn’t think too much about it, figuring the other guys were auditioning for a different role. You already know where this is going, right? Yeah, we were all there for the same part.

When I went into the studio the Casting Director did a double take. I thought (and this is how egotistical I can be), “Oh, she recognizes me from when I did a lot of TV back in the 90′s.” Later, after doing the math, I realized she was probably ten in the 90′s. The double take was because my agent sent her my old headshot and the                                                           casting director was looking for my younger brother.

But the problem was fixable and I did what I tell my students to do—I starting researching photographers. I looked around for people who shot my type well and I set up some interviews. Why an interview? You’re going to be spending some serious cash and you need to make sure you and your photographer hit it off. So, set up a meeting—it doesn’t have to be long—and see if it’s a good fit. If the photographer hasn’t got the time to meet with you then you probably don’t want to shoot with that person.

I found three photographers whose work I liked. One couldn’t meet with me—too busy. Scratched her. The second one—we didn’t hit it off. Scratched him. But the third person, Rick Stockwell, was terrific. We met at his live/work space and talked for an hour…about everything: my old acting career, my new acting career, what kinds of shots I wanted, his acting career (it was a bonus he used to be an actor), my classes, what I should wear, what

The new me. Love the lighting.

The new me. Love the lighting.

kind of music I liked. For my lawyer/CEO shot I wanted something different, something that would stand out. I wanted that old 1940’s movie star lighting and I asked if Rick could do it. He assured me he could.

We made an appointment for the following Friday. It was the most relaxed photo session I’ve ever had. When I walked in the door the first thing Rick asked me was, “Where’s your music?” We had talked about what music I wanted to play to get me in the “mood” and I had forgotten to bring it. Fortunately he has an extensive CD collection and we quickly discovered he had several of the albums I intended to bring.

Soon Eric Clapton was blasting on the stereo and we were shooting. We shot for three hours and I got some of the best photos I’ve ever had taken.

Needless to say, my agents are thrilled with the new shots, shots that really represent me, shots that won’t have casting directors doing double takes (for the wrong reasons).

Yes, it’s nice to be back in the game and it’s so much easier when you’re working with the right tools.

Rick’s contact info: www.stockwellphotography.com                                                                   Is he the photographer for you? Only you can answer that. But whomever you choose, check them out, interview them, make sure you he/she gets you.

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Summer is coming! Early!!

imagesSummer is coming. But not for months yet. However, Summer Crockett Moore is coming to do one of our FREE INDUSTRY WORKSHOPS on March 20th.

Summer is one of the busiest independent producers in New York. She, with her company Choice Theatricals, has produced a variety of projects. Off-Broadway: Reading Under the Influence, Stain, In the Daylight and American Stare (which has being optioned as a movie). Films: the multi-award winning short A Younger Man and the feature Junction (17 major film festival awards). Her current film (line producer) Trust Me, I’m a Lifeguard will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring.  And her upcoming project Containing Charlie to be directed by Katie White and cast by Leah Daniels (Precious, The Butler) is in the final stages of development.

Summer Crockett Moore

Summer Crockett Moore

Summer is active on the other side of the camera too. She won Best Supporting Actress in 2013 at both the Long Island Film Expo and the IndieFest in Los Angeles and was the Best Actress in the revival of Last Summer in Bluefish Cove in 2006. She has numerous TV credits including guest starring roles in Law & Order, Criminal Intent and Kings and can be seen and heard in television and radio commercials (over 650 to date.)

Here’s how it works – an announcement  for the workshop will be posted on the 17th of March at 12 noon. The first 30 actors to respond will get a spot. The best way to ensure you receive the notice in a timely manner is to be on my constant contact list. If you’re not, let me know.

Those actors will then meet on the 20th of March. Once they arrive at the studio their names will go into a hat and as many actors as can will work in the time alloted.

Cost to the actors - zero. It’s our way of giving something back.

Actors need to bring a two-minute contemporary monologue and 2 headshots and resumes.

This is a great opportunity to have your work seen by one of the brightest new lights in the biz. Summer’s husband, Tony Glazer, is directing a new TV series and I am sure she’ll be doing some scouting for him.

Hope to see you there.

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Working With Legends

Eric Stoltz and Ed Herrmann

Eric Stoltz and Ed Herrmann

One of the great things about being back in the game is you never know who you’re going to run into. Or who you’re going to get to work with. On Black Box a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of working with two extraordinary actors. Black Box is a new medical drama that stars Vanessa Redgrave and a slew of other great actors. No, my scenes weren’t with her but I did get to work with Ed Herrmann and Eric Stoltz.

Ed is the consummate actor who, if you watch TV, is everywhere. For years he was a regular on The Gilmore Girls and lately, although not a regular, he is on The Good Wife so much he could be. I played Ed’s older brother (not sure about the logic behind that since I’m several years younger – but hey, that’s show business). In the show Ed is sick and takes some medicine that causes him to hallucinate. While hallucinating he sees me even though I’m dead. Don’t want to reveal more than this because it might ruin the episode for the readers who want to watch it.

Working with Ed was a dream experience. From the first moment we sat down to run lines and we looked at each other, boom, we were in a relationship. I felt there was a bond; even though we had never met each other I felt we had history. And again not wanting to reveal too much (you can read about it on Ed’s Facebook page) but Ed had had a serious emergency operation four weeks before and there were plenty of reasons why he could have been distracted. One of those reasons being the full-time nurse who was on the set just to monitor how he was doing. Plus his lovely wife Starr was also on set for the same reason. Ed had shot earlier scenes of the episode a few days before his surgery and was back to finish his work. Talk about a pro.

But as I said from the moment we started rehearsing he was focused. He had a lot of scenes to shoot that day besides the ones we were in. It was indeed a privilege to look into his eyes and feel everything he was bringing to our relationship.

Eric, me and Ed voting on the food

Eric, me and Ed voting on the food

Eric Stoltz, who is also a great actor—if you’ve seen any of his work you know what I mean. The two films that leap to mind are Mask and Pulp Fiction. Whenever I’m channel surfing and I come across Pulp Fiction I wait until one of Eric’s scenes comes on and I watch it before moving on. Great, great work. On Black Box though, Eric was directing.

He was at the callback and after reading my scenes with me (yes, he read with me – don’t see many directors doing that) he said, “Let’s try something else.” He gave me a direction that took the scenes in an entirely different direction. It was so great to have his input and his energy as we went exploring. I loved what we did in the callback and when I got home I told my wife, “You know, even if I don’t get this part, I already had a win today.” When my agent called to book me that was the icing on the cake.

Being on the set with him was a treat. When a director is working his attention is being pulled in a thousand different directions at the same time. But regardless of that when Eric needed to give Ed or me a direction it was as if we were the only two people there. After rehearsing Eric gave me a note that we hadn’t explored in the callback, something that he thought of on the set, and it had a huge and wonderful impact on the scene. Again, I don’t want to reveal too much but trust me when I tell you it made a difference in how I played that scene.

Ed and me walking off into a blue screen. Watch to find out what that's all about

Ed and me walking off into a blue screen. Watch to find out what that’s all about

It’s crazy how our business works. Here were two guys I have always admired and I got to work with them. Will I ever get another chance to work with them again? I don’t know but I hope so. But I do know I’m richer for it. Maybe next time I’ll be directing and they’ll be acting. Crazier things have happened.

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BACK IN THE GAME

imagesLast month the acting bug struck once again and after a long hiatus I started to audition. In the process I was reminded how important character relationships are. I wrote about it in this blog not too long ago but it bears repeating.

All too often actors, myself included, gloss over the very thing we need to pay close attention to. We get sidetracked memorizing the script, figuring out our objectives, or any one of a dozen other things but don’t give enough attention to the most important work we need to do…creating rich relationships.

Often troublesome in real life, relationships in “reel life” can be just as elusive. The good news is when we’re acting, we have a formula to help us figure them out.  The first aspect we need to focus on is the fact of the relationship. Is the other character a sibling, a parent, a friend, an enemy, a stranger? A boss, an employee, a teacher,  a student?

Once you know the “facts” the next thing you have to figure out is how you “feel” about the other person in the scene. This usually breaks down to one of six possibilities. Do you love him, or do you hate him? Do you admire her or do you resent her? Do you want to help him, or do you want to get in his way?  One of these six things cover nearly every relationship we’re ever going to have with anyone in our reel lives as well as our real lives.  How you handle your relationships in your real life is up to you but it is imperative that you incorporate these aspects in your reel lives.

The audience, and this includes casting directors and directors, connect to our work on an images-3emotional level. If our emotions aren’t engaged, if we aren’t feeling something, it is unlikely they will either. And guess what? If they don’t “feel it” you probably aren’t going to get the job.

“Feeling it” isn’t a license to overact. Feeling it means you have an honest emotional connection to what is going on in the scene. Once you’ve identified what you’re feeling, you then need to express it at the right time, in an appropriate manner.

If the scene is long enough and you can express the opposite feeling, so much the better. This keeps the scene from being static. If the character is your brother and you admire him, is there a place in the scene where you might also resent him? This is advanced acting work but worth exploring. It will enrich the scene, add texture and make you a much sought after actor.

images-2My first audition back in the game was for the lead in a film. Doing the work on the relationships, I knew who the other character I was reading with was and how I felt about him. I also knew how I felt about the other character mentioned in the scene, my daughter who had been killed in a car accident. After my first take the casting director said, “John, that was beautiful. I don’t want to touch that.”

Now, sometimes you hear that and it means, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out,” but since the comment was followed by a twenty-minute conversation with the casting director, I knew that wasn’t the case. I haven’t heard anything but I know the casting director was pleased with my work and she will have me back.

My next audition, for the co-star in a TV series, I wasn’t as well connected. And while the audition went okay the relationships weren’t there and I knew I wouldn’t be booking that job!

My third audition, another co-starring role on another television series, I recommitted to the work and created rich and textured relationships. I got a call back. Students often ask, “What can I do to make my callbacks stand out?” My answer? “Make the relationships stronger. Make sure how you feel about the other character(s) is clear.”

At the callback we read two scenes. I knew I loved my brother, the other character in the scene, and wanted to help him. The director liked my choices but then asked me to take it in a different direction. I was able to make the adjustment without losing how I felt about my brother because I had done my relationship work. I left the callback not knowing if I would get the job but knowing I had done what I wanted to do – create a rich and honest relationship.images-1

The next day my agent called to book me. The difference? I nailed the relationships.

Getting a job is like being invited to sit at the big table on Thanksgiving. Make sure you aren’t shortchanging the relationship aspect of your work because sitting at the big table is fun!!

If you’re interested in seeing what this technique is all about I have two new classes starting soon. Check out the Classes page for more info.

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