Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Something New

First, this is me acknowledging how long it's been since my last post: "Wow, five years."

OK, enough histrionics…

I've also changed the default design here simply because my eyes cross anymore when I look at white characters on a black background for anything longer than 10 seconds. Tip for bloggers: don't make it hard for people to read your blog.

So I've been around, doing stuff, even getting paid for it, although nothing like what I had going on 10-15 years ago. I'm sure it's because I've deliberately not applied myself like I used to, but it's also because I've entered a different casting classification with age. Perhaps because of that, I recently entered a brand new world in the performing arts.

Imagine a world where there are multiple Broadways all over the globe -- not just NYC and London's West End -- and they all pay Equity Principal or better for nearly every role. The only catch is they only do Rogers & Hammerstein musicals, and only left-handed actors are allowed to be cast.

Such is the world of opera to me, at first impression. (Yes, that's right, I've been cast in an opera. Go figure.) Substitute "left-handed actors" for those rare few who were born with the pipes, breathing, and acting chops to execute operatic roles, and replace "Rogers & Hammerstein musicals" with the comparatively limited catalog of operatic works worth performing, and you've got opera in a nutshell.

As a public service to any actors who may some day find themselves crossing the line between "The Theatre" -- for which they trained and about whose vagaries they are already familiar -- and the World of Opera, here are some tips:

  • The cast is well stratified. Not that Broadway isn't (one always knows the difference between cast and chorus), but opera bumps that up a notch. The principals occupy one space in rehearsals, the understudies another, supernumeraries are separate from dancers, and there's both a stage band and an orchestra.
  • Because of this, there are multiple professionals whose sole responsibilities are to manage rehearsal logistics -- it's not just a Stage Manager and their overworked assistant.
  • The maestro and director co-conduct rehearsals. This sounds like it could be a "direction by committee" train wreck (and for all I know sometimes it is), but in my experience it works somehow.
  • The cast is not from around these here parts. It may seem obvious that some cast members would not be American, but it's entirely possible for Americans to be in a minority even in an American production. I'm not offering this observation in order to express a sense of nationalism so much as to say it explains the extremely cosmopolitan nature of rehearsals and support services. The first day of rehearsals, for instance, it was announced that "this is a 9-1-1 area" (most of Europe uses 9-9-9 for an emergency number) and we were treated to what I think of as a particularly British habit of detailing in advance the escape route and assembly point in case of a fire.
  • Because of this, there will be rehearsal on your American holiday. Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving -- call the folks and tell 'em you won't be home… you've got rehearsal.
  • Most of the cast speak multiple languages because the works they perform are written in different languages. If you don't know one or more of Italian, German or French, you will miss a lot of what's being said as even native English speakers will pepper their speech with turns of phrase from other languages that more accurately express what they're trying to say. Remember, this isn't rude, any more than your piano teacher was being rude by asking you to practice your arpeggios.
  • Performances may not be miked. The modern age has brought us the modern phenomenon of amplification, and in many American venues it helps because many spaces used for touring musical productions were built for something other than ordinary people doing their best to project their voice to the back. Most traditional opera venues, however, were built with acoustics in mind, so there's simply no need to artificially amplify anything.
  • Everyone knows the script better than you. This is not just because casting happened over a year ago (something amazing to me; I even received a copy of the libretto 10 months ago). It's probably because, again, there are a comparatively limited number of roles in the opera universe and, because they're so demanding, it's not unusual to hire someone who has done the role before. One would think there would be more of this within the world of Shakespeare, but there's a… um… specificity that comes with opera roles that does not lend itself to interpretation. So while we look forward to seeing a particular actor's take on Hamlet or Ophelia, for instance, opera divas are admired for hitting their glissandos and high notes while also bringing as much character as they can to Brunhild.

I think it would be fair to say that I felt out of my element the first day of rehearsals, but past a certain point one just realizes it's a Bizarro World version of the top-notch theatre one has always hoped to do -- just with a performance standard and basic talent pool that is through the roof.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Got sick this week, but managed to strategically place it so it didn't affect my ability to earn an income. Okay, that's not true; I was just lucky.

Did my first on-camera commercial audition in a long while and felt good about it, which was like the scent of a former lover.

I recorded a radio spot for a dot-com. No idea what the usage will be.

I've basically washed my hands of union politics over the past two years for my own mental health; but I noticed with some smug satisfaction that, after succeeding in basically killing the Phase I agreement with AFTRA (after years of hard campaigning by that crabby segment of the membership whom I tactfully call The Stupid Idiots), SAG suddenly reversed itself by an 86%-13% vote. Welcome to pragmatism, my friends.

I saw on the news that Hillary Clinton ran a spot that some thought was reminiscent of Johnson's "Daisies" spot of long ago. I don't know if I'd go that far; I was more interested that, when they ran the spot during a news story, I recognized the voiceover as an old friend of mine. For those who wonder if actors used in political spots simply whore their talents out to whoever will pay scale, that certainly may be true in some cases, but in this particular instance I know that the guy has been a Clinton supporter (and maximum campaign contributor) for many years. I gotta love the consistency...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Next stop... basket weaving

Cherokee thinks I'm wrestling with clinical depression. She has wrestled with it herself for over a decade, so I guess she should know, up to a point. She lives with me, hears my confidences and confessions and knows me better than anyone else I suppose.

That said, I don't think she's right.

What I am — what I have been for the past two years — is stressed out of my freakin' skull. I haven't fully figured out the degree to which any given factor(s) might be considered "the cause", and I know I have yet to spill my guts here about everything that's been happening to me over the past two years, but the fact is I feel... well... "raw", in a word. (This is a word Cherokee used during the depths of her depression to describe herself, so it's no doubt one reason she thinks I should have a similar diagnosis.)

To put it bluntly, I can't stand to have virtually any new input or stimulation in my life, unless I recognize it immediately as something that is beneficial to me — and by "beneficial" I mean almost all upside and no downside (demands on my time and energy being a major downside). Winning the lottery? Beneficial. Having a simple conversation with a friend? Not beneficial (unless they're informing me I won the lottery.) I literally have so much that occupies my thoughts during the day, that anything new is simply a detrimental distraction. Perhaps I will later look back and recognize this as a particular delusion that went with the condition I had/have, but my belief is it's imperative for me to keep everything that does currently occupy my thoughts close to the front of my brain, and if I don't, really bad things will happen.

Again, without going into full details, I think I have some basis for feeling this way, because I have NOT minded all my various Ps and Qs during the past couple of years, and bad things HAVE happened. Imagine you see some hair gathered over your shower drain, but because you're running late you leave it there and tell yourself you'll clean it out when you get back. When you get back, though, you find that the cat somehow managed to turn on the faucet in the tub, the drain clogged, the tub overflowed, half your pets are dead, all your wiring has shorted out, and the flood in the basement ruined the furnace. Now, instead of a clogged drain, you've got animals to bury, water to pump out, an entire house that needs rewired, and — above all that — there's no heat in your house and it's the dead of winter.

Then the next morning, after shivering through a freezing night with only a propane heater in your bedroom, your mother-in-law shows up from out of state for a surprise visit..

Maybe it's not the absolute best analogy, but for all intents and purposes, yeah — my last two years have been like that. After feeling bad about taking people's heads off a few times, simply not showing up for scheduled appointments and generally letting people down, I finally decided to be honest with myself and admit that I was in some sort of Crisis Mode. Consequently, I disconnected our doorbell, stopped answering our phone, and jiggered both my email and my cell phone so that only those types of stimulus I thought I could handle would get through. I have lived like this for 4-5 months now. I have snail mail from family members I have yet to open. I hope no one's died.

Are things better? In a way, yes. I no longer have the sensation that every time I open the door I'll get my face slapped. I also feel like my brain power is just large enough to encompass what does land immediately in front of me demanding my attention and, for the most part, I am able to deal with those things effectively. I do feel like I'm walking a fine line, though. Two Fridays ago, I was given a last-minute audition for an upcoming feature film starring Johnny Depp. Not a large role, but one that was unlikely to end up on the cutting room floor, and one that would have had me working directly with Mr. Depp for all my scenes. I shoe-horned the audition into my day. I prepared as best I could. There wasn't enough time to dress as well for the character as I would've liked, but I had a fairly pleasing (to myself) backup on hand. I had no cash in my pocket (literally, none) so i went to an ATM and was charged $3 to take out the maximum I could ($20). It cost me $10 cab fare to get to the production office. I signed in. Then, before I was even able to take off my coat...

...an assistant came out to say they were cancelling the remaining auditions for the day; the director had to take a conference call with the producer.

So I then I spent another $10 for the return cab trip, during which I thought endlessly about the fact that I had made an exception, I had opened up a hole in my wall... and I had done it for a casting director who hasn't cast me in anything since I started pursuing this kind of work in 1995. (I've railed about them before — they're the ones who, I swear, seem to go out of their way to make auditions an unpleasant or difficult experience. I'd think it was just the "whine of sour grapes" from the unemployable if it weren't for my SAG pension informing me otherwise.) All things considered, I would have rather had my $23 back, plus the wasted hour. I felt no thrill from being "in the game". I wasn't able to simply shrug.

All of which tells me, again, that I've got to change my situation as soon as possible, and I'm right to be concentrating solely on that task to the exclusion of all else. Otherwise, I'll just be one of those actors I hate — the waste of space who doesn't value the opportunities that do come his/her way, and who make it harder for all other actors by being part of the background noise they have to cut through in order to get recognized.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I'm back — kind of.

In looking back over my previous ramblings, I'm struck by a number of recurring themes. One of them was attrition. I suspect it was largely my own fear of becoming "just another casualty" that probably had me ruminating on it time and again. And now I find myself standing at the precipice.

I can't say that I've lost my love of acting. Far from it. I've just had a certain amount of Life (and/or the pain that comes with it) during the past couple of years that has me thinking — perhaps for the first time ever — that I want some things more than an acting career.

What's really peculiar is that the "career" I had at the time I left off with my last blog entry hasn't diminished substantially in the intervening time. Check that: actually it has diminished substantially — everyone's has (the market in Chicago sucks right now). But I can't say it's diminished any more than it would have had the events of the last couple of years not happened. I'm still exclusively represented by the same agents, I still land as many union jobs per year as I guess most of my peers do, I finally qualified for a pension from the Screen Actors Guild when I retire, and I'm not on bad terms with any of my old friends and acquaintances. So it's not like it's a matter of not being able to "cut it". Strangely, my thoughts have very little to do with disappointment or anger or whatever over my level of accomplishment.

But I'm literally overwhelmed at the moment with describing what it's been like to have moved, during the past two years, so far afield from the focus my life used to have.

I know already this is going to be the suckiest blog entry I've ever made, but hey, it beats silence (if ever so slightly).

I forget at the moment whether I've mentioned this before, but I remember my first fairly long theatre contract following graduate school. It was a repertory situation, and each show ran for 6-7 weeks. I remember thinking during graduate school that I couldn't conceive why people asked any of our "visiting artists" — Broadway actors, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Mabou Mines, etc. — the recurring question "How do you keep a show fresh when you've been doing it for months/years/as long as you have?" (I mean, it's the most exciting, rewarding thing in the world to do with your time, right? So why waste time asking questions about keeping it fresh?) Well, after doing rep for a year, I began to understand.

I'd never before experienced weariness at the end of a run. I'd never before experienced a show growing stale, or doing a role by rote. I hadn't ever experienced a lot of things I discovered that year. And it just royally pissed me off to discover I wasn't so exceptional that I wasn't prone to the same dynamics as everyone else. Not only that, so full of impatient hubris was I back at the Conservatory that I hadn't been listening to our many visiting professionals, so I actually found myself wondering at times how I was ever going to keep this show I was in fresh.

So now I find myself dealing with a dynamic I've never experienced before, and I guess I am, once again, just royally pissed. I never thought this would happen to me. Ever.

More later.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Damn Phone!

Believe it or not, I've actually been doing a fearsome amount of blogging since my last entry here. Only problem is it's all been on my phone. I discovered one day in May that my overly fancy new phone has a dumbed-down version of MS Word on it, so anytime I'm stuck on the 'L', sitting in the waiting room at the dentist, lying prostrate on a saloon floor, etc., I just whip out the little bugger and add to the single loooong, undoubtedly boring, entry I've been writing about...

...well, I guess I'll just have to post it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More on Casting Directors

Thanks to Anonymous and OhioProf for their comments on my last post. I'm inspired to throw a few reactionary tidbits together here.

First, about Casting Directors...

I hate saying it, but yeah — sometimes I do wonder whether they really know what's "good." The problem to a certain extent, I think, is that casting is indeed rather parochial — it's easy to think that the talent you call in, and the results you get from the particular way in which you run your auditions, are representative of the larger talent pool (or the best that can be wrung from the talent pool) if you constantly draw your actors from one place and/or you don't provide an environment where the talent can surprise the end-client. And I would even dispute that some casting directors really know what their clients want. If they did, I'm not sure they would do so much directing during auditions. Unless the client is a real dick, the norm by far is to provide a variety of reads within the parameters of the casting specs. Directors, for instance, want to know that an actor's not a "Single-Note Sally" — that they'll be able to go in different directions if need be — so why some CDs practically give line readings to actors is beyond me (especially in a town known for its pool of improvisers). Of course, I can't fault CDs for wanting to follow what's worked best for them in the past, but if, for instance, you only ever pull your talent from edgy, provocative theatres, then you shouldn't be surprised if your client wonders why few people on your casting tape don't seem to have a great deal of comic timing (not to mention camera technique).

Oh and secondly, thanks for the encouragement to go into writing, but the fact is that I decided a while back not to be one of those actors who tries to be a "hyphenate" — a la actor-director, actor-writer, etc. No disrespect towards Sam Shephard, William H. Macy, et alia who can do it (and do it well), but I have enough distractions in my life, and what I really need to do is focus my creative energies more so I can excel in one area, rather than dissipate those energies by dabbling in lots of different things. 'Sides, I generally think one should have a passion for what one does, and while I enjoy writing, my real passion lies in front of the footlights, so thence I go.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Peanut Butter and Chocolate

There's this adage that applies to bite-and-smile commercials — "don't act so suprised." Bite-and-smiles are those spots where the talent bites into a food product and reacts (favorably, one presumes — though come to think of it I once bit into a club sandwich where the food dressers had encouraged the bacon strips to glisten under the lights by brushing Pine-Sol on them; I think the clients saved my "hideous revulsion" reaction for their gag reel).

Anyway, a common mistake many actors make when taking a bite/sip/lick of a food product during an audition is to act surprised. Unless it's written into the copy that the character is outright skeptical about the taste of this thing in front of them (the only example I can think of being those old Reese's commercials, "Hey! You got peanut butter on my chocolate!"), acting surprised that it tastes good is basically tantamount to saying the product looks like sh**, or the Brand Name doesn't inspire confidence, or that this product stands out because it DOESN'T kill you. In other words, if it's that good, what sort of vomit-inducing experience were you expecting and why? (So what you typically see instead during a good bite-and-smile is a look of pleasant expectation before the bite, then a reaction afterwards that says the expectation was happily confirmed or, perhaps, even exceeded because they'd forgotten just how gosh-darned good this stuff really is.)

How this all relates is that this week was, as predicted by a realtor friend of mine, much busier than last week (they predicted that the upcoming Easter holiday would combine with Tax Day to dramatically slow down a lot of different industries), so I actually had quite a few auditions, both on-camera and voiceover. And one of those on-camera auditions was for a casting firm that rarely calls me in and, as I think I've written before, when they DO call me in they always act surprised when I don't fall on my face. Well, that's exactly what happened once again. I came in, the casting director was very business-like and doing annoying things (more on that later), then I did my bit, and afterwards the first words out of their mouth were, "Evan, that was GOOD!"

Gee, don't act so suprised.

Y'know what was different this time though? I think I figured out that it's just the way they are. For whatever reason, they're either cursed with a condescending way of expressing themselves to other people or, more likely, they really DON'T expect a lot from actors. I think it's more of the latter, simply because of those other annoying things they do. For instance, they'll call an actor into the room, then say, "Wait until the camera's rolling before beginning." (Isn't that a bit obvious?) Or, "Stand on the mark to say your slate." (Why? Do most actors slate themselves off-camera?)

But what do I know? Perhaps I just haven't walked in their shoes enough to see the endless parade of actors who can't face forward, find their light, or know where the camera is. Perhaps most of the actors they call in don't know what a "slate" is and respond with an entirely appropriate, "Huh?" (A slate is simply looking into the camera and saying your name — don't say no one ever told you.) All I can say is, it's odd that other casting directors don't act this way.

Still, knowing that it just seems to be part of their nature is comforting somehow. I guess it's easier knowing ahead of time that, no matter how many times they see me, they're always going to find it refreshingly novel when I smear peanut butter on their chocolate.