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!







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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.


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.



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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Kimberly Graham is coming!!

One of these sits in Kim's office.

One of these sits in Kim’s office.

Kimberly is going to be our next guest instructor. The invitations to her workshop will go out on the 15th of May at 12 noon. To be eligible to these workshops you need to either be a current or former student of mine or be a follower of this blog (if you reading this now, you are).

The invitations go out via Constant Contact. If you are not on our CC mailing list shot me an email and I will make sure you get added to it.

The workshops are free. Our goal is to give something back to the acting community — I’m an actor and I know how expensive it is to maintain a career. This is my way of saying, “I get what you’re doing. Here’s a chance to showcase your work to one of the leaders in our industry. Come, show ‘em what you can do.”

Kimberly is part of the team at Judy Henderson casting.  She has been an Associate there since 2003. She and Judy cast for TV, film, theater and commercials. Recent projects include the pilot: “Babylon Fields” for NBC. Films: “Air Disturbance”, “I Dream Too Much”, “Entering the Sea” and “Grace” among others. Recent Theater projects include “And Baby Makes Seven” by Paula Vogel at The New Ohio Theater and “Intimacy” by Thomas Bradshaw for The New Group. They recently won an Emmy Award for casting “Homeland” for Showtime.

The workshop goes from 7 – 10 PM. Actors will perform a two minute contemporary monologue and Kimberly and I will provide critiques. We will see as many actors as times permits saving the last few minutes for a Q & A.

Don’t miss out on this great chance to meet and showcase your work for Kimberly Graham.


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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.


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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