Annual Summer Reading Round-Up
Because it just wouldn’t be summer without summer reading!
If you’re like me (or me back when I was acting full-time), you probably eat, drink, and sleep material about acting. And while I love a good book about technique, not to mention curling up with a great play or screenplay, I think that reading outside of your core area of interest can be even more richly rewarding.
Last year, we took a spin down the graphic novel aisle, sub-section: memoir, because reverse-engineering a real life for where it worked (and didn’t) beats self-help anytime. (And because everything is more fun with illustrations.)
Along those same lines, for your edification and enjoyment this summer, I’m going to suggest the radical notion of revisiting some of your favorite children’s books. In the best ones, the characters are well drawn and the situations intensely dramatic; they most closely mirror the good-vs.-evil, Joseph-Campbell-esque storytelling structure of classic mythology that is so fruitful for actors to study, but because they go down so smooth and easy on a hot summer’s day, it feels more like play than work. Plus (many times, anyway) there are pictures!
Here are my favorite classics, a few of which I read once per year. But feel free to return to the favorites of your own childhood: you may be pleasantly surprised by the way they speak to you now.
5 Steps for Finding the Work You Want as an Actor
There are many books out there to help you on your way to becoming the actor of your dreams, i.e. a professional one who gets paid. Sometimes, though, you’ll find true gems for making your dreams come true from the business world—or at least the business-adjacent world.
Author/entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau, about whom I’ve written many times in this column (and, full disclosure, someone who has become a good friend), lives in and reports from that world. He made his own dreams come true by following an unconventional path, and has gone on to help many others find and pave their own unique way to happiness and solvency. His latest book, Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do, goes into nuts-and-bolts detail on how to turn your dreams into reality with the practical application of tested knowledge, fueled by a steady supply of hard work (and hopefully, a good attitude).
Lessons from halfway through
Over the almost-10 years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve accomplished several outward-facing creative projects: a two-person show with four actors (and music! and dance!), a massive crowdfunding project for a local non-profit, and a series of 21, 30, and 100-day projects. What I’ve not done is a lot of documenting of them along the way, so at just over the midpoint of a yearlong thing-a-day project, I thought I’d step back and share what I’ve learned thus far. Hopefully, it will serve some purpose for creating, adjusting, or surviving your own long-term project, regardless of what form yours takes.
1. The perfect is the enemy of the good. This applies across the board, from inception through execution. I have finessed to the point of exhaustion ideas for scripts, books, classes I could teach, and pretty much any other writerly thing one can generate; inevitably, either someone beat me to shipping—or worse, I wore out my own interest in it. If you wait for perfect, you’ll be waiting forever, when you could be learning and growing by actually making something. So yes, a little noodling and meandering is fine, but then commit, and adapt as you go.read more
Getting yourself in the right place to be plucked up.
Recently, I was invited to a first read-through of a brand new play by a renowned Los Angeles playwright. Aside from being a rollicking good time, the afternoon was instructive on many levels, from what it takes to make a story read like a house afire to the delicate nature of playing a character by letting him become you to the importance of refreshments. (Never, ever underestimate the buoying quality of excellent snacks.) So here, in no particular importance, are the things that struck me and will stick with me—and, hopefully, you—as we move through this crazy maze called making entertainment.read more
Every smart actor knows that one of the best tools for a great audition is having a lot of familiarity with the material—either knowing it cold, or having some familiarity and a technique that lets you kill it cold. But there are many other components that go into a smart actor’s preparation, both for the audition and the job. Here are a few key tools to keep sharp and handy.
Know who’s in the room
I’m guilty of grab-and-go auditioning myself, and it rarely goes well. It’s so easy to do a little due diligence ahead of time and dig up some useful background on your auditioners, the producers, the writers, and so forth. You will NOT necessarily use this in a chummy-slash-brown-nose-y way; most likely, it will just be intel that helps you make better choices in the room. Even if it just gets a little ground under your feet, that’s a help. Because that gives you confidence, and confidence helps provide ballast against the horrid anxiety that can arise in a room where there’s a line of people who seem to be the gatekeepers of your dreams. (They aren’t, but in the heat of the moment, they can seem to be.)
Know where the room is (and what you need to get to it)
This is a basic I’ve covered here more than once, but as someone who continues to struggle with the fixed givens of time and space, I find it bears repeating: find out exactly where you’re going, exactly what to do and whom to see when you get there, and allow ample time for traffic (or transit delays), parking (holy mackerel, parking!), and other incidentals. Have quarters, have your map routed (real-time mapping that Waze provides is a godsend to drivers), have contingency plans. You can’t prepare for everything, but you can knock off all the things you know you need to be prepared for, which will allow you sanity and room to better handle the unpredictable stuff.
Back in December, I was privileged to give a seminar for Casting Networks at the SAG Conservatory. I say “privileged” because not only is being asked to share my experience always an honor, but because the surest way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else. I won’t give a recap (I think Lindsay has that covered), but in the spirit of passing things on, I do want to share the essence of what I talked about in the context of what I took from 2015, and what I’m taking forward into 2016.
1. Doing more of what works
In my talk, I shared 12 things that helped me stay on track over the past 12 months:
- Make bed daily
- Get to bed early
- Measure what matters
- Write down every penny
- Create more time awareness
- Thing-a-day projects
- Committing to 10 minutes per day for dreaded tasks/new habits
- Saying “yes” to excursions with friends
- Dressing up
- Getting support around changes
“We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” —
American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey
Early on in life, I bought into the old saw about those not learning history being doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, I did not think to apply this to my own personal history until much, much later. And as soon as I did, things got better.
But, much as with acting, my best results always come when I (1) apply the tools of reflection with (2) good intent and (3) total honesty. So let’s break down what we mean by each of these three things.read more
Just as my regular teachers taught me things that later applied to acting, my acting teachers have taught me things that applied to my “real” life. (As well as teaching me acting, of course—I mean, that’s what we pay them for, right?)
Without further ado, here are the gems that have stuck with me through the years, and have helped me as much in my day-to-day doings as they have on any set or stage.
1. Watch who you watch.
September was quite a busy month. In addition to the regular-usual, I rescued two stray dogs, spent a morning counting bikes and pedestrians on Western & Wilshire, turned 54, paid my biggest tax bill in 10 years, attended my second read-through of a friend’s play, attended my first EDM concert ever, and did over half of it in temperatures over 95ºF. While that’s a lot of stuff (especially taking into account the volume of “regular-usual” I have in a month), what struck me was how much I learned from it, and how much of what I learned is applicable to acting. Let’s dive in, shall we?
A few months ago, I embarked on a 100-day journey of creating, with several thousand other souls around the world. A few days ago (and with apologies in advance to Willie Shakes for the reference) I screwed my courage to the sticking place, left my actual apartment, and met a handful of them in a local Los Angeles park.
I showed up with nothing but a boatload of social anxiety and a small sketchbook housing a sampling of the 100 days’ work. (Note to self: the next time you are invited somewhere to mingle with other humans, please read the ALL the instructions on what to bring!) But as I began flipping through other people’s sketchbooks and art pieces, I felt my anxiety melt away, replaced by excitement and wonder. Here were all of these people just like me, only different, taking a plunge into the unknown and committing to creating and publicly sharing one piece of a personal project every day for 100 consecutive days; not to mention the work, which was amazing!
There was a collage project, several drawing projects, and a batch of photography projects. The parameters of the projects were random; some following no rules, others tightly orchestrated. They were made from years-old swipe and from state-of-the-art Japanese gel pens. They were hand-drawn, digitized, cut from pieces of paper, or done completely on iPhones. They were created to reinvigorate a professional practice by infusing it with new life or to reawaken artistic habits sacrificed, as they too often are, on the altars of demanding day jobs.