You get what you pay for

There’s a massive campaign by Equity to ensure that actors are properly paid. For a lot of actors, if a producer or director isn’t willing to pay then they cannot expect to get good quality actors. I agree with them that actors deserve to be properly paid, as it’s their time, training and expertise that the producers and directors are getting.

However, I’ve often seen the same actors who are rightly asking for fair pay asking where they can get a website “cheap” or “free”. I have actors asking for advice about what content to put on their websites; where to get cheap headshots; how to get a web designer who’ll work cheaply; and lots of other questions, usually about getting things at a reduced rate or for free.

I’ve worked in web development for 8 years. In that time I’ve worked with dedicated professionals in design, coding, SEO, web accessibility, online marketing, photography, video and sound editing, and dozens of other disciplines. Actors often say that it’s disrespectful for an actor to be asked to work for low or no pay. The argument is that the actor has spent a lot of time and effort training and that they spend a lot of time away from the rehearsal room and set creating the character and doing their preparation.

To all actors, I say that the same is true for others.

Take designing a website. A web designer has been trained, or spent hundreds of hours learning how to design a layout, understand colour theory, placement, etc. If they design a website for you they need to understand your brand and image so they can create something that fits with how you want to be seen. A content specialist knows how to create strong, original content; they’ve spent a long time looking at research, learning how to write and craft different pieces of content. An SEO specialist is able to quickly work out the right keywords to target to improve your search position, and they keep up-to-date with the ever-changing algorithms of Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search providers. If you want photographs for your website, either a designer finds them, knowing what will work with the design, or a photographer will use their training to get you the best shots, whether they’re stills on set, headshots, or general images. Then, a web developer has to know at least 2 web languages (3 if you include javascript) just to create the front end of a website; any content management solution needs a whole different skill set. All of those specialists will make it look easy.

The same way great actors do.

I recently moved from a hand-coded site to using WordPress. I did it myself as I know how to write HTML and CSS, and was willing to learn enough about WordPress to make my own templates. It still took several hours of work. I’ve learnt SEO, content marketing, and e-marketing. If I’d charged all the hours I spent working on the site, ignoring my training, I would have spent £500 before buying a domain or web hosting. I’ve still got some work to go, so the total will rise, and I will be talking to specialists knowing that I will have to pay them a fair rate if I want good work from them.

I know that as actors money can be tight, but if we want to be treated professionally we have to treat others professionally.

There are free website builders out there, and WordPress has thousands of free themes which you can reskin to brand yourself. However, if you want to contact a web designer or developer, be prepared to pay. They’ve spent a lot of time learning their craft, as have we as actors. They’re the professionals and experts, and deserve to be treated with the same respect as we deserve.

An actor… improvises

The most important lesson I’ve learnt is how to improvise. I know a lot of directors hear “improvise” and “improv” and they immediately start to panic, but improvisation is a skill that every actor needs to have, and to be able to do well.

First, to the fear some directors have about improv. I don’t mean people moving off script. A great actor can deliver the lines, and will work with you to make sure the performance is the best. If they feel the script needs altering, they should talk to you and get your opinion after doing it how it’s written first. What I mean by improvisation is the ability to act totally naturally in the reality of the script, off the cuff, so that if a cup falls when it’s not meant to, or a real taxi almost runs them over, it doesn’t become a distraction but part of the scene.

Some actors say that improv is difficult, and others say it’s easy. I’m somewhere in between. There was a moment when I was part of MissImp when it clicked, thanks to the wonderful people I learnt from and played with. Before that point I’d had moments where things were natural, and others where I felt I was forcing it. The difficulty isn’t in thinking quickly and coming up with a funny line or smart quip, the difficulty is stopping yourself from thinking quickly and just reacting.

For me, improvisation is reacting. I had some scenes which weren’t funny, which is odd for an improv comedy troupe, but the scenes worked because my scene partner and I came up with strong characters and created a scene. When either of us (usually me) tried to force a joke or a point, the scene dipped. Once you lose that mindset of having to improvise, once you get out of your head, you start to live in the imagined circumstances of the scene. It may be a scene that you’ve only had a one word suggestion to use as the starting point, rather than a whole script, but you could say the same thing about life. Life doesn’t come with a script, and neither should your performance on stage or on a set.

When we’re working, we create our own worlds. The writer has given us the words to say and characters with real lives, and the reality of the world of the script might not be rooted in what we as people experience day to day. What doesn’t change is that our characters are living those lives in that reality, and they’re experiencing everything for the first time. I credit my love of improv to watching the extras on an anime DVD (whose name I forget), when Monica Rial said to go out and learn improv. I urge you to do the same. It’ll help you loosen up, be more natural when you’re acting, and will get you out of your head.

Improv will smack you out of your head, and it might lead to you having a coffee mug with your moment of improv brilliance immortalised.

An actor… has fun

The Muppets doing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody

The Muppets are absolutely classic. It’s difficult not to feel your mood lifted watching them, and grown men have been known to go weak at the knees just sharing a stage with them.

Although it’s 5 years old, their version of Bohemian Rhapsody contains a very strong lesson for everyone. Life, and acting, are about having fun.

Think about what actors do. We don’t do a role. We play a role. And what is play if it isn’t fun?

Stanislavski spoke about being in the moment. Who is more in the moment, an actor rehearsing for a show, or a child at home playing with their toys or their friends? If you watch the two, you’ll see the actor is working hard to try and get into the moment, while the child will grab a kitchen roll tube and make-believe that it’s the mighty Excalibur, or they’re a Power Ranger fighting a monster. A child is just having fun, but they are so in the moment that it’s hard not to see them as what they are playing; whereas with the actor, especially during rehearsals, shows us that they’re working. They’re trying various psycho-techniques and games to do what the child has no trouble doing.

By having fun, the child is in the moment, and is believable.

The Muppets, by having fun, are in the moment and are believable.

As actors we need to capture that fun, that joy, even when the scene demands deep sadness or anger. We need to capture that four letter word, play. We need to play, and in playing, believe as easily as a child that we aren’t on a stage, but are in the world of the scene.

It’s not a coincidence that when children are on stage in a Nativity scene, many struggle. Because it’s not natural for them to play like that. On stage we see them playing as adults expect them to play the Nativity, not how children would. When they start to play as children should, we see much better performances, and I always find myself enjoying the show a lot more. That’s why children can be so great on set, despite the old advice never to work with them or animals. They see it as fun and they go on playing.

If you want your performances to go to the next level, play. If something jumps out at you to try, don’t ask, do it. Believe in the world you’re inhabiting totally, be there, don’t force anything, and you’ll loosen up and become much more believable.

And who knows? Maybe one day you’ll have the Swedish Chef giving you his spoon.

Need to do something? DO IT!

I was catching up on Voice Coaches Radio and listened back to episode 269, Getting Started Getting Started!, which had Warren and Chris reading an email from a listener. I’d forgotten, in amongst all the other things that go on in life, that it was my email, and they once again reminded me that one of the biggest pieces of advice you need to follow is to just do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re in web development, voice over, acting, modelling, or anything else (which I seem to be all of at the moment!), you just need to do it.

Think of it this way. You can talk about it. Set up meetings about it. Have those meetings and decide on something. All of that is wasted effort if you don’t actually do it.

We’ve all been guilty of procrastination. Life gets in the way sometimes, or that thing that we need to do, we really don’t want to do, so we put it off. I’ve been very guilty of that, as I know I need to get a showreel scene filmed, but I’ve put it off because it’s a lot of money to get it filmed that I could be putting to other uses. It might be that you mean to go to the gym in the morning, but you feel sore that morning so you’ll go tomorrow.

Stop procrastinating. Not just as an actor, but as a person, you need to grab life with both hands. And in your acting life, whether on-camera, on the stage, or as a voice over, you need to make sure that you do what you need to do in order to get ahead.

It could be that marketing yourself is something you struggle with, or you don’t think you have time to do, so you put it off. That’s harming you and your career.

Imagine that you’re told by someone that in order to break into the video game market, you first need a commercial showreel. You could complain, say you only want to do character voices, and wind up not getting work because people are casting for an advert for the game, too, or you could get the training you need and get a commercial reel done.* If you want to work on TV, you could think about contacting casting directors, or getting a showreel, or you could actually do it. If you need more training, go and get it. If you need new headshots, get them done. If you need to chase up an invoice, do it.

I would say that the biggest stumbling block to forging a successful career in anything isn’t a lack of skills or knowledge. It’s a lack of drive to put your plans into action.

As The Pink Fairies sang in 1971, Don’t think about it, all you’ve got to do is, do it!.

The Pink Fairies, Do It

And as they also say, Don’t sing about it if you ain’t gonna DO IT!; so, my promise to everyone, is that I am going to join you in this call, and I’m going to do more. So, tomorrow, off to the gym again I go!

Thanks again to Warren and Chris for always giving great advice. Check out Voice Coaches Radio on iTunes.

* Kristine Oller uses this example when talking to Pat Fraley in Pat’s voice over marketing home study course

In the moment

In both instances, you who were playing, and we who were watching, gave ourselves up completely to what was happening on the stage. Such successful moments, by themselves, we can recognize as belonging to the art of living a part.
Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares

Acting is about living in the imagined circumstances of the script. We’ve all seen bad acting; where it’s clear that the actor is just saying lines, going through the motions, not connecting with the audience and really just not inspiring you to keep watching. We’ve also all seen good acting, where we completely forget that we’re watching a film or a play and we really believe we’re there, watching real life.

As actors we want to have every performance we give be that good. The question is, how do we do it?

Stanislavski talks about inhabiting the character so we are living truthfully in the imagined circumstances, which sounds fantastic. It’s called “the method” and is a really useful starting point, although some actors do take it too far. But say you’re working on a script or a character that you’ve only just seen; you’ve had the script for a few minutes and need to give a full performance for the camera or in a voice over session. How can you fulfil the detailed analysis called for by Stanislavski or Uta Hagen?

We need to remember that acting is about being in the moment. In the test at the beginning of An Actor Prepares we are told of 2 individual moments when Maria and Kostya managed to utterly convince themselves and the audience of the moment. Kostya, when asked, says he can’t remember how he felt when he said “Blood, Iago! Blood!” because he was subconciously in the moment. The trick is to bring that subconcious brilliance to being part of the concious process. If you’ve only had a script for a few moments then it’s almost impossible to do a full analysis, like so many actors try to do. It might even be impossible to answer all of Uta Hagen’s questions to get into character. This is why actors need a varied selection of tools, and there are 2 which I think are the best for creating strong choices which keep you in the moment. Both take some practice and preparation, but this should be done ahead of time and tucked away for when you need them.

The first is to study improvisation, especially improvised theatre or improvised comedy. As well as playing games like “Yes, and” and the word at a time story (which are just plain fun!), it gives you practice in running with an idea and having a scene coming from it. if you’re in front of a live audience, you’ll get seconds between hearing the suggestion and having to start the scene. You’ll need to give yourself fully to the choices that you and your scene partners make. The more practice you get, the more you’ll be able to trust your instincts, and the more you’ll find it easier to follow the scene through.

The second tool I think every actor should work on is having a cast of characters or archetypes you can fulfil. If you go into a voice over session, you’re likely to be seeing the script for the first time and will need to work quickly. I have a few character types that I keep on hand, so if I go through a script I can choose which of them best fits the needs of the script. Because I already know those characters well I can start to mould them to the specific scenarios, knowing full well that they will react in character.

There is a reason, I feel, why the first of Stanislavski’s texts is An Actor Prepares; preparation is key to any scene, to any character, and to any performance, but it’s not always necessary to prepare the script. Sometimes it isn’t timely to prepare the script. It’s important to have the training and knowledge of your characters ahead of time, to prepare your tool kit so that you can reach for the right one, knowing it’s in the best condition and ready for action.