What I want is you.

On the set preparing to shoot.

On the set preparing to shoot.

One of the best pieces of acting advice I ever received happened in an agent’s office. I had been in New York just a few months when I managed to get an appointment with J. Michael Bloom. At the time, although I didn’t know it when his office called to arrange the appointment, he ran the biggest commercial agency in New York.

Prior to seeing him I had been in one other agent’s office – five, people, three decks crowded into a ten by twelve foot room – so I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me. His office was at 400 Madison Avenue. In the elevator on the way up to see him I noticed the Bloom Agency took up the entire 19th floor. And the 20th as well.

I checked in with the receptionist certain that my appointment must be with some underling. After waiting a few minutes I was ushered into J. Michael’s office. We barely had a chance to say hello when people began bursting into the room. “I’ve got Gray advertising on the line. They’re offering $50,000. Should I ask for $75,000.00?” “The Dove spot is up for renewal. I think we should ask for a $10,000 holding fee and double scale on the residuals.” “The Tide people really like her. I’m going to ask for $60,000.00. That okay?”

The intimidation factor grew exponentially; I was working off-Broadway making $137.50 a week.images-7 In-between interruptions J. Michael tried to engage me by asking long leading questions. I was so freaked out all I could do was nod or shake my head. We talked, or rather he talked, for an hour. I realized I was blowing my opportunity so I asked him if I could come back next week and read copy for him. Waiting in the lobby I had seen some other actors preparing to read copy. He graciously said yes and I made an appointment to come back.

One thing led to another – he had schedule conflicts, the show I was in closed. I got cast in another show – an English play, The Winslow Boy, playing John Wathersone – and it was a couple months before I got back in to see J. Michael.

I was a little less intimidated this time but only slightly. Again, a slew of agents barged into his office to get advice on various issues, most of them involving sums of money I could only dream of. When things finally settled down I did my reading. Or, rather I started to do my reading. Three lines into the copy he stopped me. “John,” he said. “If I want an Englishman, I’ll get an Englishman.” In my defense, I had been rehearsing The Winslow Boy for three weeks.

“Start over.”

So I re-grouped and did what I thought (at the time) a good actor should do. I read the same piece of copy as if I was a Brooklyn cab driver. I only got two lines out this time before he stopped me. “John, if I want a Brooklyn cab driver, I’ll get a Brooklyn cab driver. What I want is you.”

images-8Terror shot through me and I thought, “Oh, god. Anything but that.” Because up to that point I thought acting was about escaping and becoming someone else. I didn’t realize acting was about reaching deep inside yourself and discovering the aspects of the character that already exist in you. I thought acting was working from the outside in, not the inside out.

I’m not sure what J. Michael saw in me but he gave me the name of a commercial acting coach and told me to check in with him after I worked with her. I was grateful but when I left that day I vowed I would not step foot back in his office unless I was invited.

Two years later, after booking a lot of jobs his clients had been up for, he called.

I’ve had a rich and rewarding career and it all started that day in J. Michael’s office.
“What I want is you.” That’s what every agent, what every casting director, what every director wants – they want you. And the sooner you can give them YOU the sooner you go to work.

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Staying in the Game

You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything new on my blog for the past couple of months. It’s been a glorious summer and I’ve working exclusively on my 2nd novel. The following post came from a former student of mine and I feel it is well worth reading.

 

To be an actor is to be a hunter. You are constantly in pursuit of the next job and the next b0b0df23-2e8d-405d-a03c-bac4329f5703one after that. When your hair starts turning silver (like mine), hunting gets old.  You start wondering if it’s time to leave the business, move upstate, and open that dress shop you’ve always dreamed of. You have a choice to make: stay in or get out!  
 
For me– I’ve opted to stay in– ALL IN. Why? Because within the pursuit of acting work are thousands of  life lessons that feed my soul. Searching for learning within the highs and lows of my career has been a complete game changer. I’m not just a huntress anymore. I’m a spiritual warrior on a quest for joy and meaning.
 
So…here is what I learned this month in the acting trenches… MAKE THE ASK. It’s scary. You don’t feel worthy. There is no guarantee you’ll receive what you’ve asked for. But just asking increases your self esteem AND you just might realize a dream.
83a77906-e49b-426e-a636-9558ba8de930An exciting new musical, The Circus in Winter, came on my radar recently. It is being produced by The Goodspeed Opera House, written by Hunter Foster and Ben Clark, and directed by Joe Calarco, (a director I’ve admired greatly for years and have slowly been getting to know, but not yet worked with). Just thinking about project, the creatives, and the theatre thrilled me! Great, right? No–not great. The audition was coming and I didn’t have an appointment.
 
So, choice time–I could sit at home and stew about how unfair the industry was, or I could put on my big girl pants, write the director and ask for an audition. Which is what I did. Within minutes he wrote back and said I’m right for one of the roles and he’d put my name into casting…. And I’m here to tell you–after an audition and callback–I booked it!
 
So the lesson I learned: Honor your desires. Even if you feel scared, even if putting yourself out there makes you feel vulnerable, ASK for what you want. You have nothing to lose and you just might make your dreams come true!

Thank you, Sarah. Inspirational words!! Enjoy the rest of your summer. I’ll be posting again in a couple of weeks.

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Casting Director Shout-Outs

Last week actors who follow this blog had the opportunity to participate in one of two casting directors’ workshops. A few got to do both.

donna-grossman-donna-grossman-castingThe first shout-out goes to Donna Grossman. She is a critical and vital component of the on-camera commercial class I teach. She is the instructor for the seventh week and does an outstanding job. Here are a few comments from the class she taught on July 14th:

Having the ability to get feedback from someone on the casting side and be given adjustments/constructive criticism is so important; we as actors rarely get that! It 10151165_722348337815425_2679753837388749358_nboosted my confidence knowing that I was able to take her adjustments and give her what she asked for. John’s class definitely prepared me for that. IH

Donna was extremely approachable, gave great feedback and really had a great way of looking at copy. It is important to have that “real world” experience in a classroom.  And very rare too. SE

Donna was very honest when it came to giving feedback.  She and John both instilled a knowledge about commercial acting that I had never learned before. SH

Getting Donna’s feedback was very constructive. Having her there was a lovely way to wrap up John’s class. BL

 

IMG_6599.JPG - Version 2The second shout-out goes to David Cady. David’s workshop on July 16th was the latest in the series of free industry workshops we offer in New York. David did a great job. Here’s what a few of the actors who attended had to say:

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Walking into the room I was a bit nervous, but David and John set a wonderful tone for the evening that was positive and encouraged growth. LB

Actors listening to David's critique

Actors listening to David’s critique

Pragmatic, succinct, and extremely clear, David certainly has his finger on the pulse of the industry – I learned how important naturalism and honesty is, and how crucial NOT-selling is to a commercial performance today. Totally excellent workshop – thanks David, and John!!! AH

The concise criticism offered by both John and David helped set the tone for the evening. David’s guidance helped to clarify what the expectations would be in a professional audition scenario.  LM

John and David watching an actor's work

John and David watching an actor’s work

 

What a joy it is to meet casting directors in such an open and supportive environment! IS

I love how respectful David and John were. It felt like they really were collaborating with us to get the best results. MC

 

We’ve just finished our first full year of hosting these free industry workshops. So far we’ve had casting directors Judy Bowman, Donna McKenna, Kimberly Graham, and David Cady plus indie film producer Summer Crockett Moore and agent Jamie Harris as our guests. Almost 200 actors have been able to showcase their work.

Our goal is to do one of these workshops per month. In order for that to happen we need to increase the number of people following this blog. If you’d like to have more of these workshops, help us spread the word. Let your friends know what we are doing and ask them to sign up.

Okay, we’re on hiatus until September. I’ll be posting a blog every now and then but the rest of the time I’ll be working on my latest novel. Have a great summer!

Ciao,

John

 

 

 

 

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Correction to last post

My bad! The last post should have read: “the invitations will go out at 12 noon on the 14th of July. ” Everything else is correct. commercials

 

 

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David Cady’s Workshop

images Okay, only six days left until David Cady brings his expertise to our FREE industry workshops. This is the first time we’ve had a commercial casting director as a guest instructor so dust off your commercial skills and get ready. The invitations will go out on Monday the 14th of July at 12 noon. If you check your email at precisely 12 and the invitation hasn’t posted yet check again (this a Constant Contact issue). There are a limited number of spaces available so don’t dawdle.

 

If you are one of the people who get a spot – you will receive a notice. Part of that notice will include a link to a page containing a number of commercials. Those commercials will be divided into gender and age. You need to pick a spot that is appropriate for your age and gender (obviously) and prepare that copy for the workshop. David and I both will critique your work.

David works with Donna DeSeta and has been  a casting director for over 20 years. images-1He has worked with such notable directors as Joe Pytka, Spike Lee and Barry Levinson and has cast over a thousand commercials.

 

Don’t miss this opportunity to showcase your work for David. Hope to see you there.

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Finding the Humor in Our Roles, The Sequel

This concludes the previous post: Finding the Humor in Our Roles. If you haven’t read it I suggest you do before you read this.

There are four elements to finding the humor in a scene. The first is absurdity. What does your character find absurd, despite the seriousness of the moment, either about himself or the other character(s) or the situation? What makes him think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” or, “I can’t believe she just said that,” or, “I can’t believe this is happening?” Once you’ve identified what’s absurd, then your ability to laugh at it, regardless of how serious or sacred it may be, becomes easier.

The second thing to look for is escalating tension. Tension is a good thing and in our work oftentimes we want to escalate it to the max. There are other times, however, when there’s a need to ease the tension. When things start to get too intense in our real lives, most of us have an automatic release valve, like a pressure gauge, that allows us to blow off steam. We may laugh, often in an inappropriate place, or do any number of other things all designed to discharge some of the mounting pressure. If we do that in real life, then it is only logical our characters would do it, too.

The third way our characters can exhibit a sense of humor is in their desire to express irony. We respond to another character with a glib or sarcastic remark. We repeat what another character says under our breath or twist the verbiage to emphasize our character’s point of view. It’s important to point out that expressing a sense of humor isn’t merely just about laughing at what’s going on around us. Sometimes your character can’t laugh—he may not even be able to speak—but it doesn’t stop him from expressing his sense of humor. A raised eyebrow can speak volumes.images-1

The fourth way our characters express a sense of humor is through self-deprecation. We mock ourselves in order to divert attention away from ourselves, or we point out to the world for whatever reason, real or imagined, we think we’re less than what we really are.

All of these examples are the things we do in our real lives. Actors, however, for some reason, have trouble incorporating these truths in their work. If the scene is a tragedy then we want to wring every bit of tragedy out of it possible. The problem,when we do this, is we end up beating the audience over the head with the message. The screenwriter has already written a tragic scene, i.e., your friend is dead. If you play it tragically, heaping calamity upon calamity, then the audience, in order to protect itself, will start tuning out; it becomes too damaging to their psyche to stay engaged. If you won’t do anything to relieve the mounting pressure, they will—they’ll check out.

When I first moved to New York City I had the opportunity to study with Herbert Berghof, the founder of HB Studios. For my second scene I played Creon in Antigone. When I finished, he said to me (in his very thick Hungarian accent), “John, what is it? When you’re sitting out here”—he pointed to the classroom—“you are so interesting. But, when you get up on stage, what happens to you?”

What happened was I wasn’t incorporating a sense of humor in my work. In wanting to deliver the essence of the scene, I left out my character’s humanity; I failed to find his sense of humor. What I ended up with was a stiff, unrealistic character who was boring the hell out of everyone.

If you want your work to be real you need to learn how to develop a sense of humor for your character(s). You have to train yourself to find the humor and insert it into the scene. Often times the writer is smart enough to write the scene in such a way that the character’s sense of humor is obvious. But if he hasn’t, then you need to make sure you create a sense of humor. If not, you’re setting yourself up for an unpleasant ride. A character without a sense of humor is tedious and uninteresting to watch. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to spend an evening with someone who takes life so seriously that he can’t laugh at himself.

QUICK REMINDER

David Cady from Donna DeSeta’s Casting will be the guest instructor at our next free industry workshop. This workshop will be held on the 16th of July. More details soon.

At least five actors who attended the workshop with Summer Crockett Moore have been called in on various projects. Yahoo! That’s why we’re doing these workshops.

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Finding the Humor in Our Roles

imagesWhat is one of the biggest obstacles that prevents us from discovering the truth about our characters? There are several answers to that question but the one we’re going to focus on for the next two articles is about finding the humor in our roles.

It wasn’t until I studied with Michael Shurtleff that I understood what humor really was and the importance of using it in my work. In life I was funny; I could make people laugh. I knew how to find the jokes in a script, how to set them up and pay them off, but the concept of “humor” was foreign to me.

For the uninitiated, humor isn’t about being funny. It is the attitude toward life without which we all would have thrown ourselves off a bridge long ago. Humor is not jokes. It is the coin of expression between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day.[1]

images-1In life, we try to insert humor wherever and whenever possible. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to bear the burdens of our everyday existence. Humor is the first thing human beings inject into a tense or emotionally charged situation. If you’ve ever been to a friend’s funeral, you know what I’m talking about. A dear companion is dead. It’s a solemn occasion. You’re there to pay your respects, but before you know it, you and several friends are telling funny stories about the deceased, reliving fond childhood memories, laughing about the pranks you pulled together. We engage in this behavior to alleviate the seriousness of the situation. That’s what we do in real life.

Most actors, however, do just the opposite. They’ll get a script that has a funeral scene in it and then proceed to suck the life out of the scene. Why? Because they read the circumstances and leap to the cliché. They forget one of the most important aspects of theimages-4 scene: that their characters, while they may be sad, while they may be in pain, are also human beings. And if their characters don’t find the humor in a scene, even in a scene where they have come to mourn the death of a dear friend, then they’ll be behaving in an unrealistic manner. If you don’t know how to look for and play the humor, your performance will be stilted and unreal.

Humor is not reserved for comedies. The heavier the situation, the more humor we need to endure it. Humor is more important in a drama than in a comedy. Think of Romeo and Juliet or A Streetcar Named Desire. Both of these classics are tragedies, yet the actors performing in them, in order to deliver the full impact of that tragedy, must employ a tremendous amount of humor in their work.

Actors often confuse humor with jokes. The jokes are where the audience laughs. Humor is where the characters laugh at themselves. Rarely will those two things happen at the same time. If the audience is laughing and your character starts to laugh, the audience will stop laughing for fear they’ll miss something.

If you don’t instinctively have the gift of “humor” then you need to develop some tools so you can recognize “it” when you see it. If you’re one of those lucky actors whose sense of humor is firmly in place — Great! However, instinct enhanced with skill will make your work even better.

Regardless of which of these two categories you fall into the information in the next post will either help you develop a “sense” of humor or it will greatly enhance what you already instinctively know.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Before I sign off — two HUGE SHOUT OUTS to Donna Grossman (Donna Grossman Casting) and Kimberly Graham (Judy Henderson Casting).

Donna helped launch our new commercial class (see Classes page). Her added expertise made the class a major success. Here’s what a few of the students had to say: Having Donna there put the finishing touches on the technique John teaches. Invaluable.” “She gave us insight into how the process works from the CD’s prospective. So, so helpful. Thank you, Donna!”

Kimberly Graham was the guest instructor for our free industry workshops. Here’s what a couple of the actors said: “Kim’s workshop was not only a wonderful opportunity to showcase our work but also a way to benefit from invaluable feedback. Thanks for having these workshops.”  “The team of Kimberly Graham and John Swain together critiquing your work, nothing could be better. 2 pros honestly helping actors reach their potential.”

Both Donna and Kim rocked the joint!

Up next — David Cady (Donna DeSeta Casting). David will be the guest instructor at our next free industry workshop — 16 July. More details to follow.

[1] Michael Shurtleff, Audition (Bantam Books)

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