“Always.”

I think my first exposure to Alan Rickman was the superb 1995 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility penned by and starring his best friend (and one of my biggest heroes), Emma Thompson.  His character, Colonel Brandon, is meant to be this aging, semi-severe bachelor who suffers from unrequited love for the blossoming, beautiful Marianne Dashwood played to youthful perfection by Kate Winslet.  rickman 1Naturally, she sets her sights on the young, dashing, too-charming-to-be-real cad Willoughby and rebuffs Brandon’s advances, thinking him incapable of feeling love or inspiring it in another. And even though Brandon knows what Willoughby is capable of, that he has less-than-honorable intentions, he doesn’t interfere.  Instead, he quietly, humbly goes on loving and supporting Marianne through all her worst moments even when it aches him to do so.  He is unfailingly kind and chivalrous to the last.  And when Willoughby has left Marianne inconsolable with a broken heart as Brandon knew he would, Brandon does not revel in being proven right.  He does not gloat or chastise Marianne for having chosen such an undeserving man to receive her love over himself.  Instead, he goes on loving her and caring for her without hope or expectations until one day, she realizes she has fallen in love with him and they marry.rickman 4

At one point, Willoughby says, “Brandon is just the kind of man whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.”  But for me, Brandon is the best part of Sense & Sensibility.  Beyond our heroine, Elinor, he is the one whose quiet, lovelorn suffering stings most true.  Brandon is the emotional and moral center of the story for me; he’s the one who does what is right above all things, sometimes at the expense of his own heart.  Brandon shows us that love often doesn’t come in the form of charm and sizzling passion, but that it often looks far more like tenderness and compassion.  rickman 2Marianne’s assertion that love must be “inspiring” and loud is met by Brandon’s subtler acts of love, and she realizes he is far worthier of her heart than a man like Willoughby could ever be.  While Austen illuminates this quite well in her book, it didn’t really sink in fully until I saw Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Brandon.  I saw the pain in his gaze, the love in his every action.  He made us all fall in love with Brandon, but I also fell in love with Rickman himself.  And I learned a lot about how to love as a direct result of his performance in the film.

When they announced the cast for the first Harry Potter film, my heart leapt with joy at hearing Rickman’s name announced as another long-suffering lovelorn character: potions-master Severus Snape.  Most people today are going to be talking about how great Rickman was at playing the villain (and in all fairness, Hans Gruber and the Sherriff of Nottingham are both thrilling and sexy performances and steal the show of their respective films), but I’d argue that Rickman was actually better at romance, and more specifically, showing us the trickier, more painful aspects of love.  Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility.  Snape, who is villainous at times, but has carried the pain of love for so long, it has eaten away at him.  Harry in Love Actually, who doesn’t realize his foolishness is wrecking his wife.

rickman 5

With the brilliant Juliet Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)

And especially Jamie in Truly Madly Deeply, who must try to let his former love go while helping her learn to let him go.  These roles aren’t quite as showy as the villains, but they pack more of an emotional wallop.

It is only in mourning Alan Rickman’s death today I realized I have treated him a bit like Marianne Dashwood: accepting he would always be there for emotional support but never fully giving him the attention he truly deserves.  I was blind sighted by the news of his passing, because I had come to love him far more deeply than I ever realized; his presence was always a welcome one onscreen or onstage.  And don’t get me started on that marvelous, iconic speaking-voice.  He gave us everything selflessly with the deepest of love and greatest care for his craft, collaborators, and those of us who sat in darkened rooms watching him.  He deserved far more, but he made the absolute most of what he got.

All I can offer in return is my deepest affection and gratitude for the many gifts he gave me as I’ve grown up watching his films.  Rickman IS Brandon: the kind of man everyone speaks well of and whom all are delighted to see, but damned if he’s not also somebody we ALL deeply care about.

Thank you, Alan.

rickman 6

1946-2016.

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The Content of Our Character(s): On Female Characters in Theatre & Film

I received this casting notice in my email today:  casting notice 1

Let’s talk about this for a second.  There are six roles in this one-act and of those, only two are for women.  This play is also written and directed by men so that’s two more men.  So women make up a measly 25% of this entire creative project.

Now let’s look at the characters and their descriptions.  First, let us consider the length of each description.  Obviously, Noah is our main character, not only because he is referenced in every other character’s description, but also because his description is the lengthiest.  Our two female characters have barely a sentence.  The one exception here is that of our drug dealer, who has the shortest of all descriptions at just three words.  So in case you’re wondering, by description-length alone, women are only slightly more interesting than a drug dealer.

Now let’s get to the actual content of these descriptions.  It is obvious this writer has spent a LOT of time creating the character of Noah and even Sammy, his best friend.  As an actor, I can read Noah’s description and get an understanding of where he is emotionally and physically in his life before I read one word of dialogue.  I can identify with being a recent college grad stuck in an endless cycle of part-time jobs, being worried about success, and even struggling with the idea of committing to something or someone.  He sounds like an actual person with actual feelings.

And then there are the two female characters; our 25% of the play, whose descriptions also make them out to be about 25% of an actual person.  And this is what I REALLY want to talk about, because I want you to understand just how much gender disparity there is in the entertainment industry.  It’s not just about HOW MANY roles and jobs there are for women, it is also about the QUALITY of the roles and jobs available to women.  I read character breakdowns every day for a variety of projects, and the majority look something like this one.

In this play, I have a choice: either I am Noah’s current love interest who “also happens to be a stripper” (Go figure!  Probably with a “heart of gold” too!) OR I can be Noah’s ex-girlfriend who is a lawyer (read: probably a “bitch”).  Either way, the female character is there solely to be tied to our male protagonist.  Their relationship to our male protagonist, Noah, is their whole character description. And while that’s true for all the other characters in this play, this is the case with 90% of the female character breakdowns I read every day.  Almost every single one is about how that woman relates to another man in the project as if her having her own life and personality is impossible to imagine or write.  Who are these women?  What do we know about them other than their relationship to our main male protagonist?  In this particular example, we know nothing except that one is a stripper and the other is a lawyer, which brings me to my next point…

Women are frequently written as stereotypes and/or labels, not people.  This ties in to how society often sees and labels women.  Almost every female character breakdown I read is mainly physical (“curvy but skinny…” is always my favorite…which is NOT a real thing, dudes) and/or panders to a very specific stereotype: whore, stripper, virgin, mother, bitch, nerdy best friend, girl next door, manic pixie dream girl.  Not only does this reduce half the population to being one-dimensional, purely physical beings, it’s also incredibly lazy writing.  Instead of doing the harder job of writing a real woman with real flaws, the writer reduces her to a “flawed” stereotype like a stripper as if that fills in all the missing character development the writer should have written in the first place.  And for the record, there are plenty of women who are strippers who aren’t solely that one thing and are probably lovely individuals who AREN’T doing it as a “cry for help” or are in need of a male savior figure (even Jesus Christ).  Maybe the problem is that even the word “woman” carries with it so much baggage and so many assumptions that some writers have a hard time sifting through that to see that women are people first and “women” second.  We have hopes and fears and struggles and triumphs and they are not so different from the men around us.  Conflict resolution and emotional development are universal; women and men experience these things every day regardless of gender, so why is it easier for so many writers to develop and write real male characters but not real female ones?  Is it any wonder that actresses like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, AND Emily Blunt are all starring in films this fall (Secret in Their Eyes, Our Brand is Crisis, and Sicario, respectively) where their roles were originally written for men?

This one example is far and away not the worst, but it shows how far we still have to go for women in this business.  If we are to take the old adage, “write what you know” seriously, then not only do we need more female writers writing projects for women, we also need to hold male writers accountable for the KINDS of female characters they write.  Unless these men exclusively hang out with hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and virginal cheerleaders (and honestly, if they do, they have some deep psychological issues that probably need working out), then why can’t they write a woman as a real person beyond a label?  Even their mothers and wives are more than their mothers and wives, if they have the chutzpah to actually try to write it.

There are so many talented male writers and directors out there that I want to work with who create and tell wonderful stories.  Is it so much to ask that more of them feature women as actual people?  Is it so much to ask more of them are about women, period? We can do better than 25%.  We can do better than stereotypical labels.  Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Emily Blunt shouldn’t have to re-write male parts, and if these women at the top of their game are being forced to do that, then those of us in the earlier phases of our acting careers have it pretty bleak indeed.

2015 Oscar Nominees Viewing Guide

5:30 am has literally NEVER looked sexier

5:30 am has literally NEVER looked sexier

Happy Oscar Nominations Day!

Lots and lots of surprises today from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (that Chris Pine can still look so sexy and beautiful reading nominations at 5:30 am his time is NOT one of them). If you’ve been following the race at all this year, you likely were as surprised as me by some of the inclusions and omissions in the larger races like Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture. But fret not, children, because I think many of our favorites like Boyhood, Birdman, and J.K. Simmons are all still quite safe. I have many thoughts on the nominations themselves and what it all means, but instead, let’s talk about the important stuff…and I don’t just mean the fact Oscar night means more dreamy Brits in beautiful suits (Hi Eddie and Benedict!).

Let’s talk about what YOU beautiful people need to see before the big show on February 22. Depending on your schedule and bank account (and frankly, stamina), here’s my handy-dandy viewing guide. Start with the First Tier and as you have time, see the films in each successive tier.  BAM!


First Tier: THE ESSENTIALS

Boyhood

Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

grand_budapest_hotelboyhood poster birdman

These three films are the ones you’re hearing the most about right now and likely to be the ones picking up a lot of gold come Oscar night. Birdman is guaranteed a lot of wins in the technical categories (especially cinematography) and potentially Best Actor for Michael Keaton (plus solid supporting performances from nominees Edward Norton and Emma Stone). Boyhood is the front-runner for Best Picture and honestly, Best Director, and Patricia Arquette has won pretty much every single Best Supporting Actress award this season (plus a fine supporting performance from nominee Ethan Hawke). Grand Budapest Hotel came out in March but has really picked up steam thanks to the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. It has a good shot at Original Screenplay, Costumes, Production Design, and Hair/Makeup. It’s also just really fun and original.


Second Tier: TORTURED GENIUSES (+ the Essentials)

The Imitation Game

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

whiplash-poster the theory of everything Imitation-Game-Poster

These three films also picked up several nominations and in big categories. The Imitation Game is a very fine British drama with two great performances by Best Actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch and Best Supporting Actress nominee Keira Knightley. I’d say it has a good shot at Score, Adapted Screenplay, and Production Design. The Theory of Everything’s best shot is certainly Best Actor for Eddie Redmayne, who has been splitting the award with Michael Keaton all season. Best Actor is the most unpredictable, competitive category this year. It also features a lovely performance by Best Actress nominee Felicity Jones and a beautiful score. Whiplash is one of my favorite films of 2014, and J.K. Simmons has won every single Best Supporting Actor award this season. He will, unless something crazy happens, win the Oscar. No question. I’d also say the film has a great shot at the Sound Mixing category as well.


Third Tier: THE LADIES (+ The Essentials + Tortured Geniuses)

Wild

Still Alice

Ida

ida_ver2 still alice poster WILD_movie_poster

While Julianne Moore is most likely going to take home Best Actress (FINALLY) for Still Alice, the ladies of Wild, Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon and Best Supporting Actress nominee Laura Dern, do some of their very best work. Ida is the front-runner at this point for Best Foreign Film and has been an art-house mainstay for its story about a young woman about to take her vows as a nun when she learns she is actually Jewish.


Fourth Tier: RULE-BREAKERS (+ The Essentials + Tortured Geniuses + The Ladies)

Citizenfour

Selma

Foxcatcher

American Sniper

selma

Unfortunately, Selma all but got shut out of the Academy Awards this year other than Picture and Original Song, but it’s well-made, and Ava DuVernay is going to be a major player now in the directing field. Citizenfour is definitely the documentary to beat at the Oscars especially given its subject matter: Edward Snowden. After strong showings and buzz at all the major festivals, Foxcatcher lost some steam but Best Director nominee Bennett Miller pulls great performances out of Best Actor nominee Steve Carrell and Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo. American Sniper is late to the awards race but has gotten a recent boost of support. It’s Bradley Cooper’s third consecutive Best Actor nomination, and many feel one of Clint Eastwood’s best films in recent years. I don’t think it will pick up a ton of awards, but you never know.


Fifth Tier: EXTRAS (+ The Essentials + Tortured Geniuses + The Ladies + Rule-Breakers)

Mr. Turner

Interstellar

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Nightcrawler

Unbroken

nightcrawler

I’m actually a little disappointed Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t pick up a Best Actor nomination this morning, but that race is so crowded with contenders, someone was going to get bumped. The film is weird and chilling, but Gyllenhaal is fantastic as is Rene Russo. Mr. Turner did very well at Cannes and picked up four nominations, but production or costume design seem like its best shots. How To Train Your Dragon 2 just won Best Animated Feature at the Globes, so I’d say it’s most likely the front-runner in that category. As for Interstellar, it’s visually stunning with a great score, so I’d look for it to be a real contender in those categories. And while Unbroken wasn’t quite the awards-magnet many hoped, its Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is beloved by the industry.

Has your brain exploded yet? If you’d rather watch the films with the most nominations, here’s the breakdown:

  • 9 nominations – Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • 8 nominations – The Imitation Game
  • 6 nominations – American Sniper, Boyhood
  • 5 nominations – Foxcatcher, Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
  • 4 nominations – Mr. Turner
  • 3 nominations – Into the Woods, Unbroken
  • 2 nominations – Guardians of the Galaxy, Ida, Inherent Vice, Selma, Wild

Remember to drink plenty of water to offset the salt intake from all the popcorn you’re about to chow down on and be sure to give your eyes a rest once in a while. Otherwise, good luck, godspeed, and see all of you on Oscar night!

Proper movie-viewing attitude

Proper movie-viewing attitude

Oh and I’ll be live-tweeting the awards, so be sure to follow me @emmylanepotter on Twitter!

An Addendum to My Last Post

First off, thank you to all of you who have responded so enthusiastically to the essay I wrote today.  It’s been a little overwhelming, but touching nonetheless, to see it shared so many times.  That being said, I want to clarify a few things:

1) I really DO love musical theatre.  I will always love musical theatre. I still want to do musical theatre when it’s right for me.  So I am certainly not condemning the genre or the people who work within it, but I think all of us can use a refresher course in constructive criticism in this internet age where everyone and anyone can be a critic.  I believe criticism is a necessary tool to help an artist grow when it is offered in a way that is constructive and provides positive feedback and tips on how to improve on “problem areas.”  Positive energy is far, FAR more powerful than negative energy.  Always.

2) I have other personal reasons beyond the one mentioned for pursuing other artistic goals outside of musical theatre.  We’re all more than one thing, and I am more than just someone who does musical theatre, so I’m taking time to pursue those things because I feel it’s time to do that right now.  I didn’t leave only because of what’s in my essay and some awful things people I don’t even know said or wrote on the internet.  As an artist, we frequently go where the wind takes us.  My wind is taking me elsewhere for right now.

3) Lots of wonderful, terrifically nice and supportive people DO work in musical theatre from the top down, and having met mostly those kinds of people, I can say they are the ones who keep my love for musical theatre alive.  It is overall a fabulous industry in which to work, and I still see it that way despite some of the behavior that has been displayed.  I am so proud of all of those I know who are treading the boards of the Great White Way and beyond and doing it with humility, grace, and a great respect for the art.

Again, thank you for all the discussion, enthusiasm, and appropriately enough, constructive criticism of what I wrote.  Keep spreading the love and joy to those around you, because we need more of that in the world!  🙂

Let It Go or Why I’ve Quit Musical Theatre (For Now, Anyway)

I love musical theatre.  When I was a kid, I used to relish dressing up and singing at the top of my lungs to Gypsy or Sound of Music around my house.  I was obsessed with the ’96 revival of Chicago with Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, listening to it over and over again.  Fosse was like a god to me; Sondheim even more so.  While I originally wanted to be a ballerina, by the age of twelve, it became pretty apparent I was destined for a career as an actor, specifically one in musical theatre as I not only would get to sing and act but also dance too.  I used to check out tons of old movie musicals from my library and video store like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (that barn dance still gets me every time) or Streisand’s version of Hello Dolly!  The first show I saw on Broadway was the revival of 42nd Street, and when the curtain lifted at the beginning of the show only revealing a line of tap dancing feet, I started to cry.  Meeting Angela Lansbury once outside a theatre is still one of the great highlights of my life.

I worked hard in college as a musical theatre major at a school with a very good reputation in the industry.  It was competitive to be sure, but that competition fueled my own efforts to grow, learn, and further my own individual talents.  I studied voice with a wonderful teacher, performed in several musicals including the lead my senior year in The Light in the Piazza, and while I didn’t make our school’s agent showcase, I graduated feeling pretty confident about my own skills as a performer and ready to at last move to the Big Apple to begin my career as an actor.

I did not move expecting to land a Broadway show right off the bat or my Actors Equity Card.  I have always assumed I would have to work hard and pay my dues.  I have never done summer stock though I have auditioned many times.  I have barely performed much at all since moving here nearly two and a half years ago.  While it can be hard and you feel as though you’re behind everyone else (especially when one of your classmates is doing her third Broadway show, your best friend has been on a national tour for the last two years, and far more are leaving to do regional work all the time), it’s important to remember that, as cliché as it sounds, everyone has their own artistic journey to make and perhaps mine is going to be far, far different from my peers.  I don’t worry too much anymore about how often I am or am not getting cast because I know it’s not reflective of who I am or the value of my artistic talents.  I’ve always kind of done my own thing anyway.

For a while after I first moved, I was going to lots of musical auditions: cattle calls, EPAs, ECCs, tours, etc.  Any young woman currently in the industry will tell you we have always had it much rougher than the men, but with economic setbacks, it’s even worse these days.  400 women will show up to audition for about 8-10 roles whereas 180 men will show up for about 10-15 roles.  You do the math; it’s bleak.  I could get into a whole discussion about the lack of equal representation for women in the entertainment industry, but that is a much lengthier topic that deserves its own time.  ANYWAY, the thing about auditioning with 399 other women on a regular basis is having to squeeze into a holding room for hours on end while we’re all waiting to audition and listen to them all try to one up each other about their resume credits, the famous people they’ve worked with/know, etc.  I’m sure this happens at the male audition calls too.  I’m not one for audition chitchat, personally.  I like to come in, do my thing, and get out and on with my day, so I got used to bringing my iPod or a book to drown everyone else out, but it’s hard.  And it’s not everyone doing it, but you can feel the negative animosity buzzing around you, and it was starting to make me dread going to musical auditions.  In fact, the more musical auditions I went to, the more miserable I felt.

To clarify, I could give two shits about what’s on your resume (because if I wanted to know, I’d just read it) or who you know/worked with, because on the day of the audition it only matters what you can do NOW, but the negativity being thrown around is unsettling.  Everyone around town uses a website called Audition Update to check the progress of various auditions throughout the day, whether callbacks are being given out, etc.  It’s a great resource.  But I’m dismayed by one particular aspect of the website called the Bitching Post where you can literally bitch via web comments about how auditions are run, various theatres, even people you may have worked with.  After reading through diatribe after diatribe each more hateful and venomous than the last, I realized this was the same crap I was hearing at auditions, and not only was it hurtful to those on the receiving end of these comments, but totally unprofessional conduct from people I consider colleagues.

And it doesn’t stop there.  Too often over the course of my 2+ years in this city, I have been at gatherings with musical theatre industry people and when the topic is turned to a fellow artist’s singing performance on a national or international stage, that artist is completely ripped to shreds with no redeeming qualities mentioned whatsoever (a lot of it online, which is the breeding ground for a lot of bad juju).  Apparently, according to some, this is acceptable simply because we all have fancy advanced degrees in singing so we have more knowledge and it’s “constructive criticism.”  I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to believe saying someone sounds like they’re dying and should stop singing forever or just “raped my ears” is “constructive.”  It’s actually just vitriolic, petty, and mean.  I find myself wincing at the words coming from some of my colleagues’ mouths or computer keyboards every time someone sings on national television or a YouTube clip or even just a cast recording.  I understand we’re all educated, trained artists with differing opinions, but when you’re watching the Oscars or the Sound of Music Live Broadcast JUST HOPING to see Idina or Carrie crash and burn vocally instead of in support of fellow artists doing something exciting and challenging, it says a lot more about what kind of artist and person YOU are than what kind of artist and person these women are.  Remember when your mother said “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?”  Well, I do, and this whole mentality that it’s okay to rip a person (and one you don’t even know personally) apart simply because you’re “educated,” actually doesn’t make you look educated at all.  It doesn’t take an education to spew icky words.  There is a big difference between being passionate and being poisonous and too many, I fear, are confusing one for the other and veering more into the latter category where this industry is concerned.  It’s becoming an epidemic, unfortunately, and not just in musical theatre.  It’s everywhere: just look at Twitter. Look at comment boards.

I have left musical theatre (for the time being though I occasionally go to an audition or two for something I’m really interested in) in part because I do not wish to have this kind of negativity in my life.  I don’t enjoy it.  I don’t want to be part of a group of people who so eagerly (and at times, gleefully) turn their back on one of their own just for cracking on a note or having an off night instead of tightening ranks around that person, giving them the encouragement to shake it off and hit the stage or audition room the next day or offering REAL constructive feedback to help them improve.  It’s a hard thing to choose to be an artist in an increasingly money-obsessed world, but I can’t help thinking that it’s that much harder when you don’t even have your own artistic community really supporting you the way they should.  I’m a tough girl, always have been, and a little criticism never bothered me, but when it’s so inhumane and malicious, I have to take action.  I have always been one to look for the best in others and especially in art, and I am so disheartened by what I have experienced firsthand and read online.  What I loved about musical theatre is that it always felt like a little happy community, but it doesn’t feel very much that way to me lately, and so I made a decision a little over a year ago to walk away for awhile; to focus my time and talents on other artistic ventures.  And guess what?  I’m a lot happier.  I’ve found people who are genuinely supportive and encouraging, and with more positivity in my life, I feel my own talents have started blossoming in ways they never would have.  I have turned my eyes to writing, to acting, to producing, and discovered that I am equally as passionate about these things and the film and television industry.  It’s amazing what positive energy can do.

I ask that we all look at ourselves as artists and human beings and really evaluate why we are saying these things.  Is it because we are envious of those who have found success in our field?  Is it because we are not secure enough in our own gifts we must attack those of another?  Our first job as artists is to be good human beings and show the world what humanity can be, and it is an ongoing, challenging process; believe me.  The work is never done.  And we all have lots of work to do because no one is perfect, but what a beautiful thing that is.

One of my very favorite recordings of my hero Judy Garland is a number from her Carnegie Hall Concert.  During “You Go to My Head” she completely flubs a lyric.  At Carnegie Hall.  During the biggest concert of her career.  And she’s literally singing nonsense lyrics on the album but she laughs, keeps going, and gets back on track.  That a performer so polished, so revered as Judy, made a mistake we’ve all made a million times is a reminder that she was human just like all of us.  Flaws are reminders of humanity.  I’m glad to know Judy isn’t perfect, because it gives me hope I can someday be as inspirational to someone as she has been to me even with my own flaws.

And since I really DO look for the best in others, I want everyone to prove me wrong.  I hope that if I decide to fully return sometime in the future to musical theatre, I will find a loving, supportive community like the one I first fell in love with.  The one full of awkward kids belting show tunes in their mother’s old clothing because they just love the lights and the music and the magic of theatre.  My mother also used to say, “Play nice,” and I ask that we all try to do that from now on.  Please?

*For an addendum to this essay, please see this.

Just Kidding Around

I love Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan so much I could cry...IF there was crying in baseball.

I love Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan so much I could cry…IF there was crying in baseball.

I started training for a new job recently.  In a bout of financial exasperation a little while ago, I combed through the job pages on Craigslist, and on a whim, applied for a job assisting with youth baseball classes on the Upper East Side.  The ad said they were looking for twenty and thirty-something actors who loved baseball and liked kids and wanted some extra money.  I haven’t played baseball in a team setting since about second grade, but I’ve always loved watching the game; not to mention A League of Their Own is one of my favorite movies of all time (For the record, I still get mad that Geena Davis’ Dottie Henson chooses to drop the ball so her sister can win at the end).  For two months, I’ll be helping kids aged 3-6 learn how to play baseball in the sunshine and urban oasis of Central Park.  It’ll be a nice break from office buildings and audition rooms; a return to the simpler days of recess and moms telling their kids to “go outside and play.”

In starting to interact with these kids during my training sessions, it’s gotten me thinking a lot about barriers and inhibitions; the process of covering up our true identities in order to be more socially accepted or “cool.”  We care so much about it that from our teen years on, we never stop trying to be part of the “in crowd” or at least get their nod of approval.  Music, fashion, technology, movies; these things are all built around the here and now, the new, the “it factor.”  They are, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous would say, an “industry of cool.”

"...an industry of cool." Philip Seymour Hoffman doling out sage advice in Almost Famous

“…an industry of cool.” Philip Seymour Hoffman doling out sage advice in Almost Famous

The kids I’ve been working with fall anywhere from three to six, and most of them are boys.  When they come in to class, they all want to tell you about their pets or the crazy thing they did at recess.  Several of them do very impressive (and accurate) impersonations of Spongebob Squarepants and Phineas & Ferb.  They’re willing to try anything and everything you suggest (for the most part), laughing when you make a silly face or do a weird accent.  They have vibrant, vast imaginations.  These kids run on raw instinct, energy, and emotion; every action or feeling is big and bold, no hesitations.  For them, “cool” doesn’t exist yet nor do these layers and masks we pile on as adults to keep people from seeing our weird, wonderful inner-selves.  Kids are beautifully unfiltered creatures, feeling and exploring every nook and cranny of the world without fear or rules.  It’s all play and no work.

What happens to us?  What is the trigger for this gradual switch from uninhibited and thoughtless expression to secrets and suppressed instincts and feelings?  Somewhere in our formation as human beings, we forget how to do things because we want to or express our thoughts because we must.  We become self-conscious about every word, every outfit, and every action because we’re looking to be accepted by everyone else instead of accepting ourselves first.  Kids don’t understand that, but somewhere, somehow they learn this behavior.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is Mad Men.  The very core of the show is about Don Draper struggling between who he was and who he’s become.  Much of Don’s struggle with identity stems from his childhood; in many ways, it’s always the thing against which he battles the most.  He is a self-made man, crafting a new, slick identity to cover up his past as an unhappy nobody.  But the kicker is that the more Don tries to convince himself that is happy with his “new” life – whether that be landing a huge ad account, wedding a young secretary, or ordering around his creative team – the unhappier he ultimately becomes, because he’s spent most of his life pretending to be something and somebody he’s really not.

Who IS Don Draper?

Who IS Don Draper?  I wish I could say an Emmy winner (at least for Jon Hamm).

Don Draper is an enigma; he’s a master of disguise.  He’s the perfect example of the suppression of desires, because he proves the more you squash those instincts, the unhappier and more unfulfilled you become.  As a result, when he DOES give in to his raw instincts, the outcomes are often explosive.  That’s part of what makes Mad Men such a delight to watch (other than the fact the acting and writing are superb; SOMEONE PLEASE GIVE JON HAMM AN EMMY ALREADY).

I took my very first meditation class yesterday, and at risk of sounding like a total cliché, it was a fairly eye-opening experience.  My fabulous acting teacher, Robyn Lee, put together what she calls the “Color Spa,” which is an interactive meditation class using colored lights and principles of the light spectrum to re-calibrate the mind, body, and spirit (to find out more about this event or her upcoming NYC acting classes, hop on over to HERE).  It may sound New Age-y, but instead of judging how weird I may or may not have looked, I let myself succumb to the experience, using my imagination and body without limitations.  In allowing myself to act without restraints, I felt fresh and stripped bare of all the clutter I’ve accumulated for so long in my body and mind and even heart.  It was almost out-of-body; I felt like I was seeing myself in a different light (no pun intended).  I realized how much I personally judge and edit my words and actions before I put them out into the world.  Why do I spend so much time editing myself for the world?  What happened to really, truly being yourself?

I think most of us take that whole “look before you leap” thing too seriously: we spend so much time on the looking that we often don’t leap at all.  Kids, on the other hand, usually leap first and deal with the consequences later.  What we should strive for is something in between: being flexible enough to know when to just leap and have faith we’ll land on solid ground and when we should look first to see whether the leap will be worth it.  We can all learn something from these kids who so lovingly and willingly give themselves over to their rambunctious spirit.  We can all choose to let go and just be like kids do every day, taking the ins and outs of every day life with aplomb.

So I’m looking forward to returning to my youth as I work with these kids, running around and doing silly voices.  No judgments or editing.  No Don Draper emotional layering or looking before I leap.  After all, if you never leap, how can you know whether or not you can soar?

“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,

Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,

Listening to others and considering well what they say,

Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,

Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.” – Walt Whitman

How Being a Temp(orary Receptionist) Has Helped My Acting

I spend, on average, 20+ hours a week answering phones, sending emails, delivering packages, and re-stocking fridges in office buildings all around the great City of New York.  I have worked for Barnes & Noble Headquarters, NASCAR, Grey advertising, Patek Philippe, and tons of fairly prestigious financial investment firms.  And while I haven’t had say, an actual professional acting gig yet, I consider many of my temp jobs as an opportunity to hone my acting skills and use them on a day-to-day basis.

You might say then that I do, in fact, act 20+ hours a week as well.

So how exactly has being a temp helped my acting (other than padding my bank account and keeping a roof over my head)?  Let’s take a look.

The receptionist is the first point of contact for all guests, which means it’s vitally important to make a good first impression so every guest feels welcome throughout the duration of their visit to the office (and also doesn’t think ill of the company).  That means offering a smile, a seat, something to drink, and taking their coat.  Above all, the receptionist offers respect.  Most days, I am perfectly friendly and have no trouble greeting people, but like any normal person, I occasionally have days when I would prefer to be anywhere but the office and not have to interact with anyone.  As an actor, it’s important to be respectful of everyone around you from your fellow actors to the crew to the director to the audience, much like being a receptionist.  And even if you aren’t feeling up to the part (at least emotionally; sickness is a different issue), you still have to perform at one-hundred percent no matter what else is going on in your life.  You owe that to everyone around you, especially when they’ve brought their A-game.

Answering and transferring phone calls is a big portion of any reception job.  Again, it’s important to be friendly, but it’s even more important to speak clearly and to listen well.  So much weight in acting training is put upon all the complexities of various methods from Stanislavsky to Meisner, etc, that many actors forget the simplest, most significant part of acting: listening and responding with clarity.  What’s the point of living in the woods with nothing but prospecting tools from the 1880s and the clothes on your back as “Method research” for your character if you don’t bother to really listen to those around you and speak clearly and accurately?  When I answer the phone, I really attempt to listen hard to what the person on the other end is saying and then do my best to speak as clearly as I can so they know what’s going on or get the answer they’re looking for.  In turn, I’ve learned to be an even better listener (and have proper diction when speaking!), which is not only good for my acting, but just in life in general.

Being a temp is basically being a substitute teacher for offices.  I’m very lucky to often be asked back to offices in which I’ve previously worked, but I frequently am going to new places, which means I have to jump right into things quickly and often learn on the job.  Having to leap without looking can be scary, but it forces you to be confident with your choices and think on your feet.  It goes without saying that acting sometimes requires improvisation and always requires confidence and a commitment to making bold choices.  Because of temp-ing I have learned how to adapt myself quickly to new work environments and protocols and be more confident with my choices.  If I make a mistake, I don’t beat myself up, I just learn how to fix it and move on with my day, without anguishing over the fact I didn’t do everything perfect.  The goal is always to make as few mistakes as possible and make everyone else’s day go as smoothly as if the real receptionist were there.  Being confident also means not being afraid of asking questions.  If you don’t know the answer to something, just ask.  I’m a big proponent of asking questions, because I feel it’s part of my job to try to understand as much as I can about what’s going on around me (also highly important in acting).  I’m always surprised by how many people are too proud to admit they don’t know everything, so they never ask questions, fearing it will make them look unconfident or stupid or assuming people don’t want to help them.  This is totally wrong.  I’ve yet to meet a single person in one of my workplaces who doesn’t want to help my day go smoother by answering a few questions.  Ask and ye shall receive, kids.

So to re-cap, these things apply to both Temp Work AND Acting: 

  1. Show respect to those around you by being friendly and giving 100% at all times.
  2. Really listen to people and respond clearly.
  3. Be confident and make strong choices.
  4. Don’t agonize over making mistakes; fix them and move on.
  5. Be adaptable.
  6. Ask questions!
  7. Learn as much as you can about your role and what’s going on around you.

Apply these to your life (and acting if applicable), and I promise you’ll see instant, positive results!