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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How Smart Actors Get Better...and Cold Reading Tips from Scott Rogers

How Smart Actors Get Better

“Teachers open the door. You enter on your own.”
-Chinese Proverb
          There are so many bad teachers out there that the odds of finding a good one to train with, are stacked against you. Acting classes are one of the most scam-filled areas of the entertainment business. 
Literally anyone can call himself or herself an acting teacher, take out an ad, and get students.  Anyone.

Nowadays, I see acting teachers everywhere espousing that they teach “Acting On-Camera”.  Problem is that many of these “teachers” have never really WORKED on camera, or even on set or, in many cases, they've never even trained at all! Where do they get their knowledge? (Or their nerve for that matter!) 

I remember one guy who worked as an extra on a TV show that I was the acting coach for.  He worked three days and got union vouchers for each day (someone did him a "favor") and he got his SAG card. Three weeks later he took out an ad proclaiming he taught "on-camera acting technique".  
And. He. Got. Students!  
Don't be a sucker. Really check out any teacher you are considering training with.


  Your goal should be to find an insightful teacher that doesn’t abuse or direct you but instead, uncovers your walls and helps you to focus so you can break through them; a teacher that tells you where to look but not what to see. Your teacher doesn’t get you jobs or “manage your career”. They are not your agent or your psychiatrist. I would be very wary of teachers who claim to do these things. 

Often these "teachers" offer to do other things to "help you in your career" if you take their classes. Sometimes they offer head shots or career advice.  Sometimes they offer to cast you in a movie or create a "reel" for you.  (Please see my Blog post aboutwhat Reel really is!)  One should wonder why they offer these things. Are you paying to learn or to get (poor-quality) head shots and a (worthless) reel? And if you are paying to learn, what qualifies this person to teach you?

It helps to ASK A FEW QUESTIONS:

First, I’d want to know the teacher's professional work background. This means projects they were hired to work on, not movies they shot themselves, in their back-yard. You can find their professional work background on IMDB - BUT look closely at their credits.  Are they mostly professional jobs they were hired to work on or are they all short films and "features" that they produced & wrote & directed & did camera/editing/props for? 
Even if they’ve been teaching in college for the last 20 years, they might be very knowledgeable about theory and the history of drama but they might not have the practical knowledge about the industry that you may want. Or, perhaps they only know about “stage acting” and don't have any on-camera knowledge. 

 Second, are their students getting (paid) work and can you ask them about their classes? Will the teacher supply you with references? 

Third, are you allowed to audit a class? Many teachers allow you to watch a class to decide if you like it. Now I have to admit, I don’t allow audits of my classes—ever. In fact, many teachers don’t. But if they do, I would highly recommend auditing a class before you pay your money. 

You may be wondering why a legitimate teacher wouldn’t allow you to sit in and watch a class? At my studios, new students must sign-up for a minimum of two-months. How can I ask you to commit to two-months without having watched the class? Fair questions. I, like many teachers, don’t allow audits because everyone in the class is taking risks, everyone is “up on the tightrope”. And if people—even just one person—are watching, the atmosphere in class goes from being a safe place where everyone is taking chances and risking together, to a “performance”. You’re not all in the same boat. Someone is watching. You become self-conscious. Constricted. Tense. This hurts the whole class. So, I simply offer a money-back guarantee for the first class. If the person doesn’t like their first class they get their money back, no charge and no questions asked. But, when they are trying the class out, they are a student. They do all the exercises with everyone, get up on the same tightrope—and risk falling. (And incidentally, they get a much better idea of what the class is like than would someone that was just watching).

Fourth, does the teacher require you to do something that crosses any moral boundaries you may have?  I know of one teacher in L.A. that has worked with many recognizable actors and even wrote a fairly popular book on acting.  As a part of his training he asks the actor (more often the actress) to sit on stage and "explore and express their sensuality". Yes, this means what you think it couldn't possibly mean. In front of the entire class.  And to succeed in his class, you have to "succeed" in this exercise. I had two students of mine, that moved to L.A., call me in tears to ask if I thought they should continue in his class (I said no and gave them a list of reputable teachers in L.A.). But the thing is, they were not stupid girls.  One had a masters degree in theatre. Yet, they still considered staying in the class! 

Bottom line is, do a little digging on the teacher. Check outIMDB for film and TV work experience (keep in mind that  the word "Uncredited" next to an IMDB credit means they were most likely an Extra). You can check university records, check with other actors, and (shameless self-promotion alert) read books that the teachers have written to see if you agree with what they teach. But the most important litmus test will be; are you really learning from them – every class. If you are, then stick with them!

 You see, I don’t believe, as some do, that you should train with a lot of different teachers. You end up leaving one teacher as soon as you feel a little stagnant, as though you’ve reached a wall. Then you start all over with another teacher and take several months to reach that same wall – and the process repeats. You never get past that wall. 

About "Walls"
I tell my students that Walls are the boundaries of your "Comfort Zone". To expand your comfort zone (and get better) you must break through these walls.

The way to break through a wall is to lower your shoulder, focus, re-double your efforts and keep pushing ahead. I had a client we’ll call “June”, who got some acting work and boasted that she had studied acting with 12 different teachers. Her resume had over half a page of “Training” listed. After watching her do a scene in class, I told her she was a very good technician but lacked heart. At first, she was mortified. But upon discussing her work more, she admitted that, although she appeared to be devastated in the scene, she actually felt almost nothing. In other words she “showed us” devastated but didn’t really feel that way inside. (Be wary of teachers that want to teach you how to "show emotions"). I gave her some exercises to do and told her to bring the scene back in a few weeks. 

 A few weeks passed and she came to me after class one day and said she was frustrated and and confused and needed to take some time off. I asked why and she said she had been working on the scene at home and it felt like she wasn’t getting it and it was driving her crazy. I asked how long she had been feeling this frustration and she said “about a week”. I asked if she had felt this frustration before and she said she had in other classes. (In fact, this was what she felt just before she left each of her twelve acting teachers.) 

I told her that I would not allow her to take time off! She laughed and I explained that this was her underlying problem. Every time she felt stagnant or frustrated, she changed teachers and started the process all over again. I told her the only way she would succeed as an actor would be for her to stay in class, focus on this scene, and stick with it no matter what. I also told her it would most likely take another two to three weeks of work and then I was confident she would break through this wall. And that’s exactly what she did. When she put that scene up again it was truly remarkable. She finished the scene and sat there, on stage, sobbing. When she finally stopped crying she continued to shake but she said she had never felt anything like that before in her life. She had become so good at indicating the emotion—such a good technician—that she was able to get by (and get some day-player jobs) by just doing that. She told me later that that had been the most thrilling moment in her life as an actress. She's gone on to book quite a few co-star roles and two series-regular jobs.
I’ve found that when an actor feels the most stagnant, it typically takes about two to four weeks before they have a breakthrough. It’s like clockwork. This is the process. And once you have that breakthrough you feel great and you love acting – you finally “get it”! But be warned—down the road there will be another wall (and another after that). It never stops as long as you continue to grow as an actor.

The thing to keep in mind is this: Walls are actually good things. If you weren’t learning, improving, and having these breakthroughs, you would never have reached this wall that you’re at now! 

Your entire career/life as an actor should be spent reaching new barriers and breaking through them.

So find the teacher that really helps you get better and then, 
as Shakespeare wrote, “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”.



Changing Your Dialogue

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Have you ever noticed that, often times, the first line of a scene sounds a little awkward or forced? After you’ve broken down the script the first question you should ask yourself is “what happened the moment-before?” meaning, what happened rightbefore you entered or right before the dialogue started? Not the previous scene or day, I'm not even talking about the "minute-before". I'm talking about the 10 – 20 seconds before the director says "Action". This is a question many actors neglect to ask or, if they do, they tend to minimize the answer.  That's why, especially in television, the first line of a scene often sounds forced or out of place.  

The fix for this (and many other problems) is to construct a moment-before that propels you into the imaginary circumstances with drive and purpose.  Here's how.

A good moment-before is made of two parts.

Part 1.  Fill up with emotion.  Determine what emotion your character feels at the top of the scene - not what they feel at the climax of the scene but at the top - and fill up with that emotion.  This is where technique comes in! Method actors might useAffective Memory. Meisner actors would use Emotional Preparation.  Use whatever works for you. 

Part 2.  Increase the Obstacle.  Imagine something happening that makes it harder for you to get your Objective. This causes you to focus on the given circumstances and fight for what you want. I'll give a real-life example, in the story below.

This is where my on-camera technique differs from techniques like Meisner and Method. In these techniques, filling up with emotion is all that is required.  But in my technique I require something more. I require Step 2, which grounds the actor in the given-circumstances, no matter what technique he or she uses.  I've found that, when done properly, this "two-step moment-before", solves the often problematic openings of scenes, especially in television scripts.

Unfortunately however, because actors in television (especially series-regulars) have so much clout, the "solution" to an awkward opening of a scene is usually to simply change the line. Actors do this all the time - always to their detriment. I have fought against it for years. I've found that 9 out of 10 times (if not 10 out of 10 times!), it's not the line that needs work, it's the acting.  And it's not so much a problem as it is anopportunity...

I remember one instance on-set, as we were shooting a very popular TV series. One of the series-regulars, a very experienced actor, approached me saying he was having a problem with the beginning of the scene. He had the first line of the scene and wanted to change it. His first line read:

“S--- is so generous. I’ll bet he makes his budget this month.”

He felt awkward starting the scene with this line and asked what I thought about changing it to:

“S--- really makes me mad. He probably suspended me just so he could make his budget.”


Now, at first this may seem like a minor change (especially in television, where actors change lines like dirty socks and some producers think that the more writers you have on a show… the better it’s written). I asked him what happened the moment before the scene starts and he said (and I quote!) “oh, that stuff never works for me”.  He wanted to change the line and that was that. I said… “No”. He looked at me as though I had spoken some mysterious foreign language. 

This was television after all and he was a series-regular.

I explained that I thought it would be a big mistake to change it because he would be "Saying" he was mad and "Playing" he was mad, which is REDUNDANT!  Why give it to them twice?!  But he was adamant, so I told him that he would have to go over my head. He smiled at me and grabbed a set phone from a passing P.A. and called the executive producer (who, lucky for me, was also the head-writer). Fortunately, the executive producer backed me up. He asked the actor, "What did Scott say?"  The actor told him I said not to change the line.  There was a pause and then the actor looked at me (oh, if looks could kill!) and hung up the phone.  


The executive producer had told the actor to say the line "exactly as written" (unusual for TV but not unusual for this particular executive producer). 

The actor’s problem was that his first line of the scene “felt awkward”.  He knew his character was angry with “S---” so he wanted to insert the line “S--- makes me so mad” instead of simply being mad when he said, “It sure was generous of S--- to suspend me”.  He was effectively eliminating the opportunity to act an emotion because he was going to state it. He was obviously pissed off at me that he had to say the line as written (very obviously), so I said, since he had to say the line anyway, that we might as well make him more comfortable with it. I suggested that we increase the obstacle in the moment before. I told the actor that right before the director said "action" he should imagine S--- walking through the room and giving everyone a box of donuts and leaving. Since the actor's objective in the scene was to win the other employees from S--- over to his side, we were increasing the obstacle (making it harder for him to get what he wants in the scene). This should immediately anchor the actor in the imaginary circumstances of the scene, as he must deal with this obstacle and try to win them over.

When he imagined the moment before, taking place right before his first line, he got angry. Real anger. (Probably some of it still directed at me!). But suddenly the line was not awkward anymore. He said "S--- is so generous…" with such real anger that it became clear to him (on the first take) that saying he was angry was pointless. He came up to me after we shot the scene and thanked me. He also said that the line we worked had become his favorite line in the scene(!). He said it like he thought it was the most unusual thing in the world, to have a line you wanted to rewrite become your favorite line in the scene.  Funny thing is…it usually happens that way. So, the next time you want to change a line - even just a little bit - try changing the way you say it instead.  I bet you'll find a real gem. 

In my experience, almost every single time an actor has the urge to change a line, it's because your instinct is GOOD! That's right. You want to change it because you recognize that it's awkward and not working.  You want to get something more across; the line doesn't say what you want it to. So, instead of changing the line,change the acting! Ask yourself what would you want to change the line to? And then, try acting that, without changing the line. As I said to this actor - if you put this much work into every line, they'd ALL be your favorite!


Postscript: In fairness to the actor described above, I should mention that, at the end of the season, he very graciously took my wife and me out to a very nice restaurant as a "thank you" for my work with him that season, but in fact we both knew, it was really for that one day when I wouldn't let him change a line...

OK, I’ll try not to rant but this is one of my biggest pet peeves!

It's the one part of the business that, after 30+ years, I still don't really understand. Maybe you can help me with it. First, let’s define the term. A “cold-reading” is when you are asked to read out-loud from a script and you have not had a chance to prepare, so that someone can judge your ability to act. So, for example, you’re auditioning for a movie or TV show and the sides are not available on Showfax. At the audition, the casting director hands you a scene and says, “Here, try this”.  You ask for a few minutes to prepare (15 minutes of prep and I would call it a "warm-read") and they say "No, we need you to read it now."  Ok, now for the million-dollar question: 

Why, on God’s green earth, would a casting director need to see you do a cold-reading? Go ahead and come up with a reason, I’ll wait…
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Come up with anything? NO! Because there IS no reason that a casting director needs to see you do a cold-reading (unless the job actually requires this skill, such as a newscaster reading from a tele-prompter). When casting people use cold-readings to audition actors, it tends to be because either:
  1. They are too lazy to print up sides before the audition.
  2. They are new to casting, have heard the term “cold-reading”, thought it sounded "cool", and they want to look like they know what they are doing.
  3. They are totally ignorant.

Think about it. When they audition with cold-readings they are going to find the best reader not necessarily the best actor. If an actor has a vision problem or they happen to be dyslexic or they just aren’t very good at reading out-loud, they won’t get the part – even if they are, by far, the best actor! How crazy is that?! What does the act of reading out-loud really have to do with acting?! 


They won’t be reading on the day they shoot,so what difference does their ability to read out-loud make?! Am I all alone in not understanding this?!

I remember once, while I was directing a show, we were holding auditions for the male lead and this actor came in to read and he was absolutely terrible. In fact, he was so bad that it was obvious he couldn’t read beyond about a third grade level. It turns out he was a good actor who happened to be dyslexic.  He'd just heard about the audition and decided to try to crash it (he succeeded but he only got the sides a few minutes before he entered the room). Now honestly, if he had read a little better I would have sent him on his way. But because he couldn’t read at all, I asked him to learn two scenes and come to the call-backs. Everyone in the room (producers, casting director, etc.) thought I was crazy. Was I deaf? He was terrible! Well, I’m sure you know how this story ends. He not only got the job (after the call-backs, he was everyone's first-choice), but to this day, he’s one of the better actors I have worked with. Although I did tell him to be sure he NEVER cold-reads for anyone again!

Now, I know there are still casting directors that haven’t figured this out yet and the bottom line is – CD's are the ones doing the hiring, not me. So I'm including some tips that I use to help actors improve their cold-reading skills. I still recommend that when you are asked to do a cold-reading for a role, you ask the person for a few minutes to look it over – suggest that perhaps they can see someone else in the meantime so they don’t fall behind… If they won’t give it to you, (usually they will - good casting directors want you to be good) and you aren’t very good at reading out loud, I would say something like, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were looking for a reader, I thought you were looking for an actor."  And before you write me, I know that won't help you get cast - but neither will giving a bad audition! 

Cold-Reading Tips
Ok, so after reading this far, you might be asking yourself why you should bother with these tips. The fact is, some casting directors still use cold-readings. Right or wrong, doing well at cold reading can still get you the job. So:

1. This one is rather simple. First, shoot some video of yourself doing a cold reading. Then, analyze the mechanics – Look for these common mistakes: burying your head in the script, waving the script around, shaking the script (nerves), rushing, rocking back and forth, leaning out of frame, holding script in frame or to one side, looking at the script while you're speaking…etc. Most of these are easy to identify and to fix. 

2. Here's another one: You should never speak to the page.

If your mouth is moving your eyes should be on the other person. Always look at the line(s) and then look up at the other actor (or casting director) before you begin to speak. It may slow the pace a little but that's okay because everything you say will be believable—and that’s what gets you the job!  

3. Another thing I watch for is what I call “hiding-in-the-page”.  I see this a lot. Often an actor looks down more than he needs to or they look down two or three times to get one sentence. Often, when we play back the tape, you can tell that the actor isn’t even reading on many of the looks down at the page. Nobody thinks they do this until I point it out, so watch for it

4. If you need to wear glasses, I suggest you either remove them when you are speaking and only look through them when you're looking down at the page.  If this is too difficult then I suggest you place the glasses at the end of your nose and look over them at the person you are reading with.  Only look through them when you are actually reading and not while you are speaking (see the tips above). 

Your eyes are all that you have with which to communicate emotion and by covering them with glasses you shade them at best and, depending on the reflections of the lights in the room, completely hide them at worst.

Many years ago, I worked with a wonderful character actress named Pat Crawford Brown, a little old lady who you've probably seen a hundred times in various roles. Pat used to have a pair of glasses she called her "auditioning-glasses" and she only used them at auditions.  They consisted of a pair of glasses with the stems broken off.  They were duct-taped to a chopstick and she held them up to read and lowered them to speak her lines.  I remember her fondly as adorable, talented, and old (and this was 25 years ago!). And I see by her 173 IMDB credits that she is still working (and that doesn't include all her Equity credits!).
Bottom line: if you're good at reading out-loud then follow these tips.  If you're bad at reading out-loud, for whatever reasons, following these tips won't help you enough to make a difference, so don't cold-read!  Why humiliate yourself?!  You won't get the job anyway, so have some self-respect. Thank them and, with a smile, say "No thanks. But please call me when you need an actor".  Remember, "No" is the most powerful word in Hollywood.  When you say it (and mean it) they often come running to make you a better offer...
As always, I share these tips for free.  If you like what you read, please share this blog and follow me on Twitter - @SRSactors - so you get all the latest posts!

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