Category Archives Acting Advice

Stage, Film and Television: Differences for the Beginning Actor

Theater vs. Set for actors
Stages and Sets: Very Different Working Environments

There are three major platforms for actors: stage, film and television. Decades ago, it was relatively rare for actors to successfully crossover between these mediums. Instead, most actors would establish themselves on the boards or before cameras and largely stay in their lanes for the rest of their careers. However, those days are long gone, and many actors move freely between mediums, enjoying the unique artistic experiences each one provides.

That said, every actor needs to begin somewhere, so here is a guide to help new actors understand the major differences between working in stage, film and TV and which medium, or mediums, might appeal to them most.

Location

New York and Los Angeles are the two main acting meccas in the U.S., but they have little in common other than their thriving entertainment industries. The weather, culture, rent prices, transportation systems and professional opportunities in each city are very different, and actors should consider which location fits their personality and career aspirations before booking a plane ticket and signing a lease.

Stage
The Big Apple is the unrivaled king of stage, with more than 40 theatres on Broadway alone. While there are plenty of stage opportunities in L.A., New York’s storied theater scene still isn’t rivaled on the West Coast.

Film
The City of Angels is the center of the film universe, and actors who aspire to a film career will find the most opportunities there by far. However, New York is a good secondary location for film hopefuls who prefer the vibe of the East Coast.

Television
Again, L.A. is the most desirable location for actors who dream of breaking into television, but many TV dramas film in New York as well. Also, cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta have strong television production industries, and actors may feel more at home in these locations than L.A. depending on proximity to their family, work and more. However, L.A.’s pilot season will draw most TV hopefuls to the the city at least once a year due to the volume of casting that takes place.

Audience

Stage
Theatre actors play in front of a live audience, which greatly impacts their performance. Patrons in the back row cannot hear quietly read lines or see subtle expressions or gestures, meaning an actor must put on a performance large enough to fill the space (often larger than life). Stage audiences also give live feedback, which actors can feed off of, both for the good and for the bad.

Film
Cinemas have massive screens and top-notch sound systems, which means the slightest facial expressions and softest whispers can be seen and heard by film audiences. As a result, film acting offers a platform for very nuanced performances – the smallest bit of overacting is difficult to overlook when amplified by cameras, microphones, lighting (not to mention the score and digital effects). Actors also have to wait months, or sometimes years, to see an audience’s reaction to their work, which can look much different than they expected due to editing and other post-production additions.

Television
Over the past couple of decades, television has become much more like film in terms of its acting requirements. Movie-quality production values paired with big screen TVs mean that many television projects need the same less-is-more approach to acting that film requires. Unless a show is filmed before a live audience, which is increasingly rare, TV actors also typically wait months to experience an audience’s reaction to their work, which can feel isolating.

Schedule and Pace

Stage
Actors working in theatre productions usually go through substantial rehearsal periods that allow them to familiarize themselves with their character, thoroughly learn their lines and bond with other cast members. Once the production goes live, they get the chance to perform their role multiple times, growing and learning with each performance.

Film
Although dependent on a movie’s budget, production schedule and director, most film actors may get little or no dedicated rehearsal time with the rest of the cast. They also work notoriously long hours that can start at odd times and be filled with lengthy periods of downtime between scenes. Some movie productions can also require actors to go on location for weeks or months, which can be exciting but can also cause lifestyle disruptions.

Television
TV actors tend to work at a much quicker pace than film actors do, with several pages of script going before cameras each day. They also generally work fewer, and more regular, hours than their film counterparts. Sitcoms, in particular, are known for having comfortable shooting schedules that allow actors more personal time.

Material

Stage
Because of theatre’s repetitive nature, stage actors get extremely familiar with their characters and the script as a whole. The most successful plays and musicals require acting companies to put on hundreds of performances each year, and audiences can become attached to certain portions of the dialogue, meaning that mistakes aren’t easy to hide and improvisation is impossible. Some actors love this familiarity, while others may become bored after a while.

Film
In general, film allows actors much more creative freedom than stage productions. Depending on the goals of the script and the personality of its director, a film role could demand that an actor stick strictly to the written page or improvise huge parts of the script. However, in general, there will be limited changes to a film script once production begins and actors will usually have ample time to prepare for each day’s shoot.

Television
Unlike film actors, TV actors get to spend several episodes, and sometimes several seasons, exploring their characters. While the director is king in film, TV is a writer’s medium, and an actor’s ability to influence the direction of his or her character varies greatly depending on the needs and personality of the showrunner, who is often the head writer. TV scripts also tend to be written fairly close to an episode’s filming dates, so it’s common for actors to be presented with line changes on the day a scene is shot.

 

Each actor is different and may enjoy different acting platforms. However, the only way for an artist to truly know what he or she likes, and understand where his or her greatest talents lie, is to embrace new opportunities and give every acting medium a try.

On-Set Terminology

Like any professional field, the acting industry has its own terminology, commonly-used abbreviations, and slang. Below is a quick cheat sheet for the working actor that introduces some of the common terms used by agents, directors, producers and actors themselves.

ACTION:
The term that is used when you are to begin the scene or copy. It usually indicates the camera is rolling

ACTOR’S EQUITY ASSOCIATION (aka EQUITY):
Founded in 1913 it is the labor union that represents more than 45,000 Stage Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

A.D.:
The Assistant Director in a film or theater production.

ADR :
Automated Dialogue Replacement. Dialogue added to a scene in post production. Also called “looping”.

AFTRA:
Also known as The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It is a national labor union representing over 70,000 performers, journalists and other artists working in the entertainment and news media. AFTRA’s covers broadcast, public and cable television (news, sports and weather; drama and comedy, soaps, talk and variety shows, documentaries, children’s programming, reality and game shows); radio (news, commercials, hosted programs); sound recordings (“non-broadcast” and industrial material as well as Internet and digital programming.

AGENT:
An individual whose job is to represent an actor’s work to various casting directors, producers, and directors; and set up audition appointments. A big part of their job is negotiating contracts for their clients. The usual commission is 10%. Agents receive their payment as a percentage of the jobs booked.

AUDITION
An audition is where you will go to try out to get a part in a film, television or theater project. Actors read from the script or side, sing, dance, or do a monologue. The director or casting director considers if they match up with a character in the project.

AVAIL:
As in “On Avail”. It means available. A courtesy situation extended by performer or agent to a producer indicating availability to work a certain job. Avails have no legal or contractual status.

BACKGROUND:
Another term for Extras. Background actors have no speaking lines and are found filling in the background of a scene. There are different pay rates for Background actors in both SAG and AFTRA.

BOOKING:
When an actor accepts a booking, it is a legally binding verbal commitment that the actor will show up and perform.

BREAKDOWNS:
A character description of all the roles being cast in that particular project. Agents receive these breakdowns and then submit their actors on projects.

BUY- OUT:
This is a one- time payment or flat fee for a project that will not provide residuals. Buy outs are a standard agreement in all non union commercial work.

CALL TIME:
This is the time you are required to be on set. DO NOT BE LATE or it may be your last call time for that production.

CALLBACK:
A callback is when they ask back specific people from the first audition to audition again, to make a decision to cast them for a part in their project.

CASTING DIRECTOR (CD):
The Casting Director is hired by the producer or director. They audition and help choose all the speaking role actors in movies, television shows, and musicals/plays. They also serve as the liaison between directors, actors, and their agents, and they are responsible for negotiating deals with agents and for obtaining contracts for each hired actor. However, they rarely hire actors directly, but make suggestions to the producer/director.

CLOSE UP:
A tight shot of the face. Be aware of how the camera is framing you.

COLD READING:
Unrehearsed reading of a scene, usually at an audition.

COMMISSION:
When an agent or manager gets you in for a project and you book the role, that agent is entitled to a percentage of your pay. This is their commission on the project.

COPY 
The script for a commercial or voice over.

COVERAGE 
All camera shots other than the master shot; coverage might include two-shots and close-ups.

COVER SHOT : 
An additional or extra shot of a scene, shot in addition to the master shot. Shot from a different angle, lighting, etc., and used to enhance the master shot, or to better establish a scene, setting, etc.

CUT! 
The verbal cue for the action of the scene to stop. At no time, may an actor call, “cut!”

DAY PLAYER:
This is a performer hired on a daily basis for television, industrial and films. This term is used in SAG and AFTRA contracts and both unions have different pay scales. Traditionally speaking a day player will have more than 5 lines.

DEMO REEL:
This is a sample of your work on film or TV. There are also audio demo reels for voice-overs.

DIRECTOR:
The coordinator of all artistic and technical aspects of any production.

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY (D.P.) – 
Supervises all decisions regarding lighting, camera lenses, color and filters, camera angle set-ups, camera crew and film processing.

DOLLY:
A piece of equipment that the camera sits on to allow mobility of the camera.

DOLLY GRIP (Grip)
The crew member who moves the dolly.

DOUBLE:
A performer who appears in place of another performer, i.e., as in a stunt.

EXTRA:
Background performer, used only in non-principal roles.

FIRST A.D. 
First Assistant Director; person responsible for the running of the set. Gives instructions to crew and talent, including calling for “first team,” “quiet,” “rehearsal,” and “take five.”

FREELANCING:
Working with more than one agent at the same time. An actor has not signed any contracts. This is more common in New York, and not allowed in Los Angeles.

HEADSHOT:
This is an 8×10 color photo which is needed to submit with a resume to get into an audition or casting call.

HOLDING FEE:
A fee paid by the advertiser to the talent, in order to hold the commercial for broadcast at a later date.

HONEY WAGON:
A towed vehicle containing one or more dressing rooms, as well as crew bathrooms.

INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR
For most non-union commercials and jobs where a stipend is offered, not a contractual rate, you will be known as an independent contractor. An independent contractor is responsible for paying their own taxes on that particular job; it is not taken out of the negotiated fee.

INDUSTRIAL:
Non-broadcast film or video, usually of an educational nature.

INSERTS :
Shots, usually close -ups of hands or close business, inserted into previously shot footage.

INT. (Interior):
The abbreviation for Interior – In a script it means a scene shot indoors.

“IN” TIME:
The actual call time or start time; also, return time from a break.

LINE PRODUCER
The producer responsible for keeping the director on time and budget; generally the most visible producer actually on the set.

LONG SHOT (LS): 
A camera shot which captures the performer’s full body.

LOOPING: (aka ADR) 
An in-studio technique used to fix dialogue already performed during principal photography by matching voice to picture.

MANAGER:
Similar to agents but they typically assist with career development and advise their clients on business and artistic decisions, as well as assisting in finding an agent. They usually take 15% commission. For more established actors Managers help with finances, publicity and other business matters.

MARK;
The exact position(s) given to an actor on a set to insure that he/she is in the proper light and camera angle; generally marked on the ground with tape or chalk.

MASTER SHOT
A camera shot that includes the principal actors and relevant background activity; generally used as a reference shot to record the scene from beginning to end before shooting close-ups, over-the-shoulders, etc.

OFF-CAMERA (OC or OS)
Dialogue delivered without being on screen.

ON HOLD:
Also known as First Refusal. When a producer likes you for a certain project you get put On Hold. It is a courtesy to let you know of a possible booking for that project and to let you know what dates to “hold” in case it leads to a booking.

OPEN CALL:
This is an audition where anyone who fits the requirements for the project can attend regardless if they have agent representation. Please be smart and only attend open calls you are right for.

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (PA):
The Production Assistant on a particular project who is in charge of many different areas. Usually they will be the point person for the talent on set.

PER DIEM
Literally means “per day”. It is used in agreements as a daily allowance, usually for living expenses while traveling in connection with one’s work or being employed at a distance from one’s home. For example, if touring there usually is a daily per diem for food.

PILOT
A test run of a first episode of a television series idea. A pilot is an idea for a show. Actors are assembled, a pilot is shot and then the process of testing and selling the project begin.

PRINCIPAL
This is a major character in a particular project. They are at a higher pay scale than a day player and the part tends to be larger.

PRODUCER
This is someone who finds financing for and supervises the day-to-day decision making in regards to budget, equipment, location, etc of a play, film, or TV project.

RESIDUALS:
Fees paid to the actor each time a union project is re-aired. Usually pertains, to commercials, voice-overs, TV programs, and Film.

RESUME:
A list of your acting credits, training, and any other talents you think might be worth mentioning. This is a one page document, typed out and attached to the back of your headshot.

SAG:
Also known as the Screen Actors Guild is the nation’s largest labor union representing working actors. The Guild exists to enhance actors’ working conditions, compensation and benefits and to be a powerful, unified voice on behalf of artists’ rights. With 20 branches nationwide, SAG represents nearly 120,000 actors who work in motion pictures, television, commercials, industrials, video games, Internet and all new media formats.

SCALE:
Refers to the minimum amount which must be paid for a defined job. It is established in the union contracts for particular types of jobs, and can be found on all the union websites.

SCREEN TEST:
This is a filmed scene to show an actor’s ability for a specific project. It is done far along in the casting process on the actual set and with other actual cast members, usually at the producer’s request.

SESSION FEE
This is payment for the amount of time put in on set or in the recording studio for voice-overs, usually calculated in days. Residuals will come later.

SIDES:
Pages or scenes from a script, used in auditions or (if on a film set) those scenes being shot that day. Sides can be anywhere in length from a few lines to a number of pages depending on the part that is being cast.

SLATE
For on camera auditions and voice-over auditions you will be asked to slate. This is simply an introduction of who you are where you state your name and sometimes your agency. Make sure to relate directly to camera. Keep it simple and charming.

SPOT:
A commercial is often referred to as a spot.

SPEED! :
A verbal cue that the audiotape is up to speed for recording.

SPEC (Speculative): 
Used most often to describe a speculative piece being pitched to others, ie Spec Short (film),.

STORYBOARD:
Usually done in commercials and animation and is actually a sequence of pictures that reflect the action taking place in a scene.

SUBMISSION:
It is the submitting of particular actors headshots and resumes for particular jobs. Submissions are done by agents and by the actor themselves

TAFT-HARTLEY:
A federal statute, which allows 30 days after first union employment before being required to join a Union.

TAKE:
The clapboard indication of a shot “taken” or printed.

TELEPROMPTER:
The brand name of a device that enables a broadcaster to read a script while looking into the camera lens.

THEATRICAL:
TV shows or feature film work, as opposed to commercials.

THREE BELLS!:
An audible warning for QUIET because a scene is about to be filmed.

TIGHT SHOT :
Framing of a shot with little or no space around the central figure(s) of feature(s); usually a close-up.

TRACKING SHOT:
A shot taken while the camera is moving, either on a dolly or a mounted on a moving vehicle.

TRADES:
Short for “trade papers” – The newspapers and periodicals such as the Hollywood Reporter and Variety that specifically feature information on the entertainment industry.

TREATMENT:
Longer version of a Synopsis of a story for a film. More detailed outline of the plot, characters, high points of a film.

TURNAROUND:
The number of hours between dismissal one day and call time the next day..

TWO-SHOT:
A camera framing two persons.

UNDER FIVE (U/5):
This is a performer hired on a per project basis for television, industrial and films. An U/5 characterizes someone who has 5 or less speaking lines.

UPGRADE:
The promotion of an extra performer in a scene to the category of principal performer.

VOICE OVER
This is the recording of a narrative to accompany a filmed commercial or TV spot. There are also voice-overs used on the radio known as radio commercials. Voice-overs are also used in the dubbing of foreign films.

WAIVER
This is when a union gives special consideration to certain cases and allows a production to deviate from standard union contract, so that the production can continue successfully.

WRAP:
The conclusion of the production. The end.

ZOOM:
A camera technique with a special lens to adjust the depth of a shot, accomplished without moving the camera.

An Actor’s Audition Checklist

MG_0062

There are actually 2 phases of audition preparation.  The first is what you do BEFORE you get to the audition and the 2nd is what you do in the waiting room once you are AT the audition.

When Emmy winning Casting director April Webster is asked what tips she has for actors auditioning for her, her first response is “Have your preparation done.”  What does that mean?  If you don’t know… then you might not be ready to be out there auditioning with the big boys. Get into a class and develop a technique and a process.  But if you need a reminder – a process or ritual to follow for each audition – here’s a little checklist:

PHASE 1

When you get the script:

  • Read the audition sides multiple times.
  • Research the show (read the entire script (if film or theater) if possible, watch episodes of the show (if for TV) to understand the tone and genre.
  • Make any character choices that are necessary – however, most of the time the character will be pretty close to who you are – that’s why they are bringing you in. .. make sure you honor any physical, vocal or psychological differences to your own natural state.  Practice with those from the beginning! (ie: if the character is drunk – rehearse her drunk from the get-go)
  • All the basics – where are you, what’s your relationship, where are you emotionally at the top of the scene etc. This is really your opportunity to do a short performance for the Casting Director – I found that thinking of it as a performance helped with nerves.
  • Memorize as best you can, and get comfortable auditioning with the script in hand.

Night before:

  • Decide what you are going to wear – make sure it fits, it’s ironed, that you can move in it etc. Do NOT dress as the character but make sure you dress appropriately for the character.  For example, do not audition for a prisoner in a tie.
  • Find out how to get to the audition (don’t rely only on your GPS the day of – they aren’t always correct), where to park etc…
  • Pack easy snacks and plenty of water. Auditions infamously run late – and you want to sustain your energy.
  • Pack your script and extra headshots and resumes.
  • Schedule something to do right after the audition – so you can move on and not ruminate on what you could have done differently.

PHASE 2

At the Audition

      • Before you leave your home, make sure you have warmed up physically and vocally.
      • DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. Once you are in the waiting room – don’t look at it – turn it completely off.  Screen time takes you away from being present.  There are studies that show that the auditory receptors in the brain start to disengage when all the information is being brought in through the eyes and that it can take up to 30 minutes for your listening abilities to return to normal.
      • Don’t change your crafting in the waiting room. This isn’t the time to second guess what you have worked on –  it’s the time to commit fully to your choices.
      • Don’t “chit chat” with the other actors. Be friendly but stay away from small talk.  It may be disruptive to other actors and might hurt your focus.
      • Stay loose and be present. Mindfulness is really helpful at these times!
      • While waiting, use your imagination to build the world and environment of the scene. Get emotionally available to the triggers of the scene. This is more important than running the lines in your head another 10 times. The CD wants to know that you can act – not that you can memorize.
      • If the audition is for something small– treat it as such, stay light, and relaxed – no CD wants to see someone brooding over an audition for a one liner. Just be yourself.
      • Smile and show ‘em what you got!

Elizabeth MestnikElizabeth Mestnik is an award winning, actress, director and teacher. Elizabeth founded EMAS to bring her New York style of professional actor training to the west coast. -She received her MFA in Acting from Rutgers University under the tutelage of William Esper, Sandy Meisner’s associate at the Neighborhood Playhouse for over 17 years, and New York’s leading Meisner teacher.

Guest Post: What I have learned from Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Guest Post by Laura Blackburn

 

0704
People sometimes laugh at me when I tell them that I have learned more about acting from a cult television show than an Academy Award winning motion picture. However, I have found that studying the techniques of actors who must convey a sense of realism in spite of fantastic subject matter has made me a better actor in every sense. This is why I use the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as my inspiration when taking on a new role.

Anyone who has watched or even heard of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” knows that the meat of the series is the writing and directing from Joss Whedon and his team. Likewise, any screenwriter knows that excellent acting is required from all involved to make a script come alive. A good actor can make a superbly written script enjoyable. A great actor can create a series that continues to awe and inspire decades after its inception.

Supporting Actors

Supporting characters are often mean to give the lead a sense of purpose. They also often offer a chance for exposition, serving as the audience’s stand-in. These characters ask the important questions, helping to further the plot of a story. Excellent actors take these roles and turn them into something more than a plot device. This was the case for much of the supporting cast on “Buffy.”

One of the most difficult supporting roles on the series was that of Xander Harris, portrayed by the underrated Nicholas Brendon. In a series that was filled with witches, werewolves, demons and, of course, vampires, Brendon was the everyman who had to hold his own in an other-worldly atmosphere. The actor was given lines that were largely meant to serve as comic relief. However, his ability to add depth and meaning to simple one-liners made his character an integral part of the show. Watching Brendon, I have learned not to take any lines for granted.

Some actors were so adept at their roles on “Buffy” that their bit parts were expanded into multiple episodes, some even becoming mainstays on the series. Seth Green, who portrayed the werewolf Oz, was meant to depart in the same season that he appeared. Treating his character with unexpected sensitivity, he made the viewing audience fall in love with both the man and the monster. As an actor, Green could convey more in an eyebrow raise than some other, lesser actors might be able to do with an entire page of dialog. Green has taught me to try new angles with my characters; to explore the unknown.

Julie Benz’s character, Darla, was originally meant to be killed during the second the episode in the series. Instead, her presence was thought to add a needed layer to the romance between Buffy and her vampire boyfriend, Angel. Benz’s approach to her portrayal as a vampire was a combination of old-school horror and girl next door. She was at times soft spoken and sensual, and at other times terrifying. Benz would go on to appear in many more episodes of “Buffy” while also playing a crucial role in the spin-off series “Angel.” What she has taught me is to remember that every role can and should be multidimensional.

Big Bads

For the uninitiated, “Buffy” ran for seven seasons. Each season had an over-arching story that appeared throughout the series, culminating with an ultimate face-off with the Big Bad. Buffy and her gang fought many other monsters along the way. Some of the most memorable of these lesser monsters include The Gentleman, a gang of mute, heart-stealing demons who communicated through gestures rather than language; Gnarl, a parasitic flesh-eater with a sing-songy style of speech; and the Turok-Han, the ultimate vampire. Interestingly, all of these monsters were played by the same actor: Camden Toy.

Toy’s movements can be considered their own form of art. He is able to convey any type of emotion he wishes with or without a script. His episodes can be studied by anyone who wishes to be more physical with a performance. Acting is much more than the spoken word. Toy encompasses this in each of his roles.

It can be extremely difficult to visibly portray emotion when covered in prosthetics, which are required for many of the monsters on the show. The Master, played by Mark Metcalf, was a creepy vampire who was adored and feared by other under worldly creatures. With a face completely disguised throughout his run on “Buffy,” Metcalf used his gestures and voice alone to give viewers an almost sensual fright. Considering the versatility needed for these roles, the Big Bads of “Buffy” have taught me to never rely on one facet of my craft. Rather, I should hone all aspects of my acting ability to create a truly meaningful character.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Playing a superhero is never a simple task, but it was one that was made for Sarah Michelle Gellar. She chose to play Buffy Summers as a typical girl who just happened to also have super powers. Anyone could relate to Buffy’s daily struggles. She had boy problems. She worried about her hair and clothes. She had difficulty relating to her mother and studying for her SATs. Because Gellar was so able to encompass these everyday traits of her character, she was able to show the viewer a superhero that could almost be real. She was as adept at displaying physical power when fighting a monster twice her size as she was at showing extreme grief when handling the death of her mother. Gellar could play funny, frightened, determined and even bored, all in the same scene. She has taught me to never give up.

Elements of a Great Script for Actors

what_makes_up_good_story
One of the most vital components to crafting your art as an actor is working with an excellent story. Even the best actors may struggle with films that have mundane, confusing or poorly developed plots. Reading script after script may leave you scratching your head, wondering which movie stories are the best to hone your craft and reach an audience.

Regardless of the genre, elements of a good movie story remain the same. Learning these elements can help determine which scripts offer the best use of your time. If you wish to lead your own project you should also ensure your story follows these basic rules.

An Opening Hook

The first thing a good movie story does is grab the viewer’s attention. A movie’s opening act sets the tone for the rest of the film. This does not necessarily mean that a movie must start with an exciting event or surprising twist. Screenwriters must simply pay as much attention to the beginning of the story as they do to the plot and characterization.

Excellent Character Development

A screenwriter should know his or her characters inside and out. Fully developed characters have motivations for their actions. They have genuine emotion, backstories and personalities that ring true.

Character development should not be confused with excessive or unnecessary exposition. A well-fleshed does not always need overly apparent details. Indeed, some of the most intriguing characters on film are those that are the most mysterious.

An example of excellent character development in film is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. There is little to no backstory available for each of the lead characters, yet their motivations and actions ring true. Tarantino took time and care with each role, even going so far as to give the anonymous criminals real names and backstories that are not necessarily revealed over the course of the film.

A New Way to Tell Stories

Storytelling is an art form that few can master. A story that is too simplistic may work well for young children, but will leave most viewers feeling empty. Using complexity to tell a story makes even a somewhat common plot seem refreshing and new. A good example of complex storytelling is seen in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. At its heart, the story is one of a struggling actress seeking revenge after heartbreak and rejection. Using a unique storytelling device, one that introduces the actress’s fantasy to the viewer before eventually revealing reality, turns what could be a common love story into a deeply moving film.

Christopher Nolan has made a career out of using complex storytelling techniques. A prime example is Memento, a simple, noirish revenge story. It is told using backward chronology. This was a technique that was seldom explored prior to the film’s 2001 release date.

Plotting and Subplotting

Complimenting a complex storytelling technique is the importance of a clear plot. Movies with muddled plots are difficult for actors and viewers alike. Most successful films have single plots that drive the story and subplots to keep the story interesting. A prime example of this is James Cameron’s Titanic. The plot of the story is seemingly the sinking of the Titanic, but in actuality the focus is on the love affair between the two protagonists. Subplots of a jealous fiance, a needy mother and a greedy treasure hunter only serve to highlight the main story.

A good movie story can, and in most cases should, be told in a linear fashion if it has a unique plot. This may be particularly important for fantasies and science fiction. Movies that already pull a viewer away from his or her own reality may create more problems if told in a way that is outside of the norm. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of using unique plots and characterization to drive stories with plots that pushed the viewer outside of their comfort zones.

The Importance of Believability

A good story is believable to the viewer. Characters should specifically behave in ways that would seem fitting for whatever situation they are in. This is as important for films with fantastical settings as it is for movies that take place in our world.

Movie stories set in the real world can take advantage of viewers already knowing the environment in which we live. That can be a downside to a storyteller who may wish to take liberties with reality. There are often problems with historical films that don’t portray past events in a realistic way.

Stories that take place outside of our world must build credibility, which can be difficult except for the greatest of screenwriters. An actor must sell the humanity behind situations that take place in outer space or in a world in which monsters exist. However, an actor can only be adept at this if the story is written in a way that allows viewers to accept this alternate reality.

Good movie stories are as varied as the people behind them. While the plots may greatly differ, the basics of an intriguing story told in an interesting way always remain the same.

It’s not just about Acting.

Oliver

I want to share with you how important this work is that we do. As many of you know we had a very difficult day in our family yesterday. Our beloved dog, Oliver passed away. He was almost 15, and I had had him since he was three months old. My children have never known a world without him. We are all grieving, and it is hitting my daughter very hard. I am so grateful that I know how important it is to honor whatever feelings happen in times like this, to allow it, to accept it, to work with it, to work through it.

Many people try to avoid it, to repress it, and even though it meant that I sat in the bathroom of my sons school with him while he cried for 20 minutes …that was OK. I did not tell him to suck it up, or that it was OK, we just sat there on the tiny toilet and were sad and cried. He shared at the end of the day that he cried in class a couple times, and his classmates also cried about their own losses and he seems to be processing it really well. (thank God for Montessori school that is keyed into the emotional life of children as well as the academic)

My daughter, unfortunately, is in the throes of middle school. I think you all remember those years where you’re unbelievably self-conscious. She did not allow herself sadness at school. She just stuffed it down and stuffed it down all day until she got home at 6:30 last night and it all overwhelmed her and she’s not processing , she does not want these feelings. Before bed, it all came up again, and she balled for over an hour. It’s almost as though her inability to release emotions when it happened compounded them. But I just sat there with her and Hugged her and honored her feelings and cried with her too.

It’s not easy, to let these emotions roam free. But for my children’s sake, I am so glad that I am comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m glad I could sit there and not try to fix it. Meisner training taught me that. Sometimes this training is for more than acting.

~ Elizabeth

APPROACHING THE CHARACTER – AN ACTORS PERSPECTIVE

Post by Michael Yurchak

Developing characters is a much-debated topic and something that comes up again and again with students, coaches, professionals and newbies. My own approach is one I have found useful, and I am happy to share with you all here! To be sure, there are many ways to skin a cat (sorry cat), so if there are any comments or suggestions, I am more than happy to hear them! For now, though, here’s the way I see it:

1. POV

Assuming you have already handled script analysis and know what kind of project you’re reading for, one of the first things I like to consider when working on a project (either for a gig or an audition) is the character’s point of view (POV). A character’s POV is the way they see the world they live in. It involves status, and shapes the way the character will interact with the other people he or she comes into contact with. It also forms an opinion about the way the character sees things (“Life’s a bowl of cherries!” or “Everything is so unfair!” etc.). This part matters a lot because it will affect the disposition (or mood) of the character. Moods can change, of course, but if the character is a known sour-puss, that may show through even when they’re happy (think Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh).

2. Size and Shape of Character

With POV and status in mind, I start to consider the size and shape of the character. There are different vocal placements one might choose for large characters with high status and a sunny disposition, for example, than one might for a small, high-status character with a chip on his shoulder. A great example of this is the difference between Sully and Randal in the Pixar classic “Monsters Inc.” Both characters are arguably high-status, but their POVs are so vastly different, that even without the superlative vocal stylings of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, we would hear a clear vocal difference in our heads before giving it a shot ourselves.

Deciding where the voice comes from inside our own bodies and the placement of the voice inside the mouth to derive dialect and tone is sometimes known as “vocal posture” (this is an idea coined by Dudley Knight and Phil Thompson). Kermit the Frog has a guttural placement with a mid- to high-range pitch, for example.

3. Cadence or Rhythm of Speech

This is another important thing to consider. Just as the walk of a physical character will affect the way they are seen by the world, the cadence of a character voice makes a huge difference in how the world takes in the information shared by that character (see Christopher Walken as an example here).

4. Physicality

All of the above will have an impact on how the character moves through space. He or she will have developed a way of moving that works for them (just as we all have). The posture, gate, fluidity, speed, and purpose of motion will be affected by their status and POV. They may also bring a specific animal to mind (remember Jordana’s Rasa workshop?). Getting up and moving with the script, feeling the words come out and how they change with a new posture and movement pattern is an important part of finding the character and adds the last piece of bringing that character to life.
So, now we’re really starting to build something. We’ve considered the character’s POV (including status and disposition). We’ve taken size and shape into consideration, which will affect sound. We’ve played with vocal posture and cadence. Finally, we’ve explored physicality to really put the finishing touches on this guy! During all this pre-work, I always make adjustments to be sure the voice feels comfortable coming out and the body moves as I need it to. I need to be able to breathe, and I have to be able to enunciate clearly (even if the character has a speech impediment, the audience needs to understand the words, unless you are specifically told otherwise). Likewise, I need to be able to move and repeat the movement without causing stress or strain when the gig is finished—no good to twist your body up in a knot if you can’t untie it after the show! In other words, it doesn’t do me any good to create a voice I can only use for a sentence or two or a physical structure that is unsustainable. If I can’t recreate those elements, no matter how cool they look or sound for short bursts, they’re no good to me in the long run (or the folks that want to pay me)!

The Three Cs

The last piece of quality control I always run for myself in terms of delivery is what I call the three Cs: Clarity, Commitment, and Consistency.

Have I made CLEAR choices that are coming from an informed place as far as the character and script are concerned (the “givens” that are learned by reading the script or audition sides carefully)? Am I jumping in with both feet and really COMMITTING to those choices (a sheepish read is not gonna get the job–even if you’re reading for a sheep!)? And, is the character CONSISTENT from beginning to end of the piece, and can I maintain that consistency for the duration of the gig when I get it?

If I can honestly answer yes to these questions, and I like what I hear and see… I go for it and hope for the best, letting it all go as I do and trusting that the work I did in the rehearsal room will be enough to allow me to be present on the actual day without having to effort my vocal and physical moves. Do your best, be proud of the work you create–care about it. If you like what you’re doing, keep working at it. This is an art form. There is no mathematical equation or specific blueprint to solve the question of what a character sounds and looks like. In the end, tell the truth and lead with your heart. Who could ask for anything more?
Thoughts? Comments? Let me hear ’em!


Michael Yurchak: Press Photo Michael Yurchak is an award winning actor, voice over artist and educator. In addition to his work with EMAS, Michael works as a Lead Teaching Artist in many theaters throughout the country. Teaching students–of any level–is his genuine passion. To read more about Michael click here, or check out his IMDB page.

What is… EMASLA in a Jeopardy Question!

Well, you’ve got to take pleasure in life’s little surprises and, last night, we had an excellent little surprise: Seeing the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio pop up in the answer to a Jeopardy question!

A list of all of last night’s Jeopardy Questions: (hint) “Take the ‘A’ Training” for $600, Alex”

Here’s the clip in all of it’s glory:

 

If YOU’d like to “Take the ‘A’ Training” at the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio, view more here.

 

Studying Shakespeare: the Broccoli of Acting or Something More – Why Study Shakespeare in LA?

Guest Post by Diana Jellinek

I get it.

This is L.A. The pressure is on to get going with your acting career. Living here can make you feel like you’re in a race to “make it” before you get too old, too broke, or too cynical. You’ve got to be at the top of your game at all times: trained, represented, available, confident. And so, to keep all these balls in the air, you go to the gym, you keep your wardrobe spiffy, you network, and you keep training – all while finding myriad ways to pay your exorbitant rent and keep your car running so you can get to the audition to book the job to pay your rent and pay for more classes to get you to the next audition. It’s exhausting. And difficult. And expensive.

So why, with the long list of classes we can and should take as actors, would we take a class on acting Shakespeare?
Two words: mad skills.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Beyond
Classically-Trained: Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan

Granted, playing Shakespeare may seem like the broccoli of acting; do your Shakespeare so you have a nice balanced diet of contemporary and classical roles in your repertoire. And let’s face it, most of our English teachers did us a disservice by asking us to drudge through reading one of the plays in the canon – a process sure to discourage even the most enthusiastic among us into any further study. And then there’s the prospect for employment – it’s not like Shakespearean actors are in high demand for high paying roles.

 

Or aren’t they?

 

When you think about really great actors that you admire in contemporary film and television, chances are they’ve done some Shakespeare. In fact, more and more, casting directors rely on those British thespians with a background in the Bard for coveted roles. Here are a few you may have heard of:

  • Ben Whishaw (Q in Skyfall)
  • Jeremy Irons (Alfred in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
  • Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers and Thor)
  • James McAvory ( Steve McBride in Shameless, X-Men)
  • Alan Rickman (Harry Potter)
  • Emily Blunt (Girl on a Train)
  • Clémence Poesy (Fleur in the Harry Potter films)
  • Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier in X-Men films, formerly Jean-Luc Picard)
  • Felicity Jones (Theory of Everything)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in Star Trek Beyond – sorry, spoiler)
  • Judi Dench (former M in the James Bond franchise)
  • John Hurt (Harry Potter films, Hellboy II, the last Indiana Jones)
  • Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter)
  • Anthony Hopkins (Odin in Thor)
  • Ian McKellen (Magneto in X-Men)
  • Helen Mirren (RED & RED 2)
  • Kenneth Branagh (director, Thor)

So what are these “mad skills” I am suggesting you develop by learning to play Shakespeare? Without launching into a tome, here are the three biggest:

DECODING AND DELIVERING HEIGHTENED LANGUAGE

We are becoming increasingly accustomed to language short hand – as if texting has seeped into our verbal communication and renders us unable to articulate a full, complex, and emotionally-rich thought. ICYMI. OMG. WTF? ROTFLMAO! Just getting my students to fully embody the interjection “OH!” can be incredibly challenging.
Fact is, we just don’t have a rich tradition of rhetoric in America. The seeming inability of our current political leaders to deliver inspirational addresses is yet another example of our shift away from practicing and honoring the deliciousness of language.

Acting Shakespeare demands that an actor operate at the highest capacity of intellect, emotion, and vocal and physical expressiveness. His characters are intelligent and complex, his themes cover the breadth of humanity’s extremes, his words are evocative, colorful, descriptive and alive in their mere vibration. It’s our job as actors to reach out with those words and grab the audience and, as the great Shakespearean director and co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare company John Barton reminds us in the brilliant series Playing Shakespeare, we must MAKE them listen.

BRINGING YOUR IMAGINATION TO A FULL AND RICH LIFE

Most actors have heard Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting: to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. And there is no greater playground of imaginary circumstances than Shakespeare’s plots. They are jumbo blockbuster movies, colossal melodramas full of heroes and villains, intrigue, danger, deceit, love, hate, clowning, slapstick, twists, monsters, and magic. Learning to give yourself over to, and splash around in these extreme circumstances and bring them to life is one of the true joys of being an actor.

Patrick Stewart once explained how Shakespeare prepared him for his career: “I think that the experience that we get in making a 400-year-old text work is exactly what you need for giving credibility and believability to fantasy, science fiction, and the like.”1 It’s quite an artistic stretch to get related to a circumstance, like Titania’s in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she, the queen of the fairies, falls madly in love with a “rude mechanical” (laborer), Bottom, who has the head of a donkey. Or Lavinia’s predicament in Titus Andronicus, where she is violently raped and butchered (tongue cut out and hands cut off) after her lover is murdered. We must “live truthfully” under these circumstances if we are to bring these characters to life for our audience. It’s a tall order indeed.
Let’s remember, too, that Shakespeare’s plays during his time were created upon a bare stage, with minimal props and only functional set pieces. Creating an island, or a majestic throne room of a palace had much more to do with the actors use of their vivid imaginations and language to bring the audience into the setting with them. This skill serves an actor well today when an increasing amount of film work will be acted in front of a green-screen, with digital effects added long after the acting has been captured. An actor’s ability to bring to life what does not exist in reality is vital to a compelling performance.

CONNECTING US TO OUR HUMANITY

As fantastical and outrageous some of Shakespeare’s plots and characters may be, the reason they still resonate 400 years later has to do with their deep understanding and reflection of the human condition. Famed Shakespearean director Trevor Nunn, in an interview with The Telegraph, even argues that the Bard’s themes resonate more than religion: “Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the Bible.”2

Certainly today, any theatergoer experiencing Henry V can feel the reverberation of the consequences and cost of going to war. At the same time, the play Julius Caesar reminds us how the fears of the masses can be exploited and manipulated by unprincipled leaders (presidential politics). Even our teenagers, whose first foray into Shakespeare is most likely Romeo and Juliet, recognize the fatal consequences of feuds and unwarranted hatred between and among human beings (immigrants and refugees).
An actor’s journey, though very personally enlightening, is also demanding in a more universal way. We are the harbingers of humanity’s empathy. We must be willing to explore, discover, and understand the depths of the human condition if we are to invite our audiences to open their eyes with us. If our profession is to be anything more than vanity, we must embrace our role in opening their hearts and minds.

For more information on Shakespeare classes for Hollywood-minded actors, see EMAS’s Playing Shakespeare workshop.


Footnotes

1. “Patrick Stewart Explains How Shakespeare Prepares You For Science Fiction Acting,” Charlie Jane Anders, Gizmodo, 29 Apr 2010
2. “Trevor Nunn: Shakespeare is 100 times more relevant than the Bible,” Hannah Furness, The Telegraph, 17 Mar 2014

diana jellinek, shakespearean actors and coachNow based in LA, Diana Jellinek is an actress and an acting coach with extensive experience on stage and screen. Learn more at:
Diana Jellinek’s Website
Diana Jelinek’s IMDB Page

What to do with a Spark? An Actor’s take on the Importance of Training

Post by Jordana Oberman


I’ve been teaching for about 15 years and I recently got into a conversation with someone who asked, “Why bother training? Isn’t that what instincts are for?”

To me that‘s like asking a spark why it needs kindling to create a fire. Training is your fuel as an actor. The genius of being an artist is that different fuels create very different fires – you the artist must know what the moment demands and then serve it.

The only way to know how different fuels affect you is to try them on for size. This is where I believe the foundation of acting technique is a must for any actor to explore. As new actors begin their journey into their craft how can they tell if they want to study Meisner, Stanislavsky, Stella Adler, Strasberg, etc? Well, they can read about each and every technique out there. Okay, but that’s book smarts. How will you know which affects your fire and sends you soaring? The only way is to try the techniques on for size.

This is why Elizabeth, Michael Yurchak and I created a curriculum developed for this exact exploration. We want to give students a chance to test drive different techniques to see how they work. In our Foundations classes we explore Strasberg, Stanislavsky, Improvisation, Fitzmaurice Voice Technique and Rasa Aesthetics – just to name a few. We ask students to try them on, work within them and then move onto the next. This is a class specifically about trial rather than mastery. We teach individual exercises created to employ aspects of each technique, which allows our actors to actively apply them to scene work. We wouldn’t ever expect a new painter to jump into the Sistine Chapel – but rather to explore their mediums: oils, watercolor, acrylic…are you into realism, pointillism, abstraction?

In this exploration we hope that every actor feels like this is a place where it is safe to fail and to fail brilliantly. They need that safety net where one misstep won’t lose them a job or affect the next moment in their career. They need a place to spread their wings and make mistakes. I truly believe that every mistake or failure is a beautiful opportunity for growth. Mistakes are our greatest teachers. We fix those mistakes through repeat practice. Most of the time when everything clicks into place for an actor and you ask them, “What happened?” Their response will undoubtedly be “I don’t know.” So we have to create a muscle memory in the studio of what works vs. what doesn’t. Our class is where student actors can rehearse techniques over and over again. That way when the lights are on and the camera is rolling our artist instincts can click in and we can surrender to the ride.

Once a student has experienced all the different exercises and techniques we teach, then they can decide if there is one they would like to explore in more depth. In the end all the techniques work on each actor differently. We are all artists with our own points of view and this uniqueness is what makes each of us extremely castable. We just need to develop our tool-box to call upon whatever the moment demands. And the only way to build those tools is to train. Training is the kindling that lights the flame.


jordana oberman acting instructorAn alumnus of EMAS LA, Jordana Oberman currently teaches the Meisner Technique at the studio. Jordana’s career as a working actor has taken her back and forth between New York and Los Angeles working in Theatre, Television, and Film. See her staff bio here, or see more on IMDB