One of the ways an actor gets better at his craft is to stretch his instrument. To take on roles he or she isn’t right for; roles that go against type; roles that require playing older or younger characters; roles that present physical challenges, etc. If we don’t stretch ourselves every now and then our skill set remains limited. However, while it is important to “stretch,” it is equally important to know when to do the stretching. The best time to do it is in a classroom or in a coaching session, a not so good time is in an audition situation.
In our recent workshop with Jamie Harris from Clear Talent Group’s New York office (see previous post) at least four actors – male and female –did monologues that didn’t serve them. It wasn’t that the actors did a bad job, quite the opposite – all of them performed well. The problem was they picked monologues that didn’t showcase who they were – the image they projected.
Why is this a problem? If you’re doing a monologue, or have picked a scene to perform, in a professional audition situation and you chose a piece that doesn’t showcase you properly you’re sending the message, “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know type of characters I should be playing.”
If you have a certain look and you perform something that projects a different image, the person you’re auditioning for gets confused. If you have leading man looks but choose to do one of Big Daddy’s monologues from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the casting director/agent thinks, “Is that who this guy thinks he is? What’s he going to do if I have him in or if I send him out on an audition?”
Why do actors do this? I think we do it – and I was guilty of doing it for a long time – because we’re afraid. We’re afraid to be ourselves, not realizing that who we are, who we really are, is our most valuable asset. In nearly forty years in the business the one sure thing I’ve learned “is that you being you is a lot more interesting than you trying to be someone else.”
When I first came to New York I was convinced I could play everything from a thirteen-year-old girl to a ninety-year-old man. But none of those were even close to the image I projected. I quickly learned if I wanted to work in this business I needed to figure out who I was and what image I did project.
If you’re with an agent, they signed you because they thought you were talented and they had a sense of how to market you. But if you’re out there auditioning and the material you picked to showcase your work presents a different image then there’s a conflict. When you sign ask them, “How do you see me?” And make sure you’re both on the same page.
If you don’t have an agent, ask three or four of your best friends, not the ones who will only tell you what you want to hear, but your real friends, the ones who will tell you the truth. Ask them, “What image to I project?” And then pick material that supports that image.
Does this mean you will never get to work against type, that you will forever be boxed in? No, of course not. But when you’re first starting out you need to be very clear about who you are and how other people see you. When you get to be a star and you have a lot of clout then you can pick those projects that allow you to “stretch” your instrument while getting paid to do it. In the meantime do your stretching in an environment where it’s safe to experiment and when you’re going out looking for work make sure you’re doing a good job of representing yourself.