By Joseph Pearlman
As one of the most competitive acting season approaches, you spend your days preparing mentally, physically, and emotionally. Here are six signs you’re ready for pilot season.
1. You don’t buy into the myth of representation. You’re not lulled into a false sense of security that your agent or manager will pitch you for every role you’re right for. The responsibility of getting into the room is your burden alone. You know how to pitch yourself for every role you’re right for and you don’t blame your overwhelmed reps with their often overly full rosters for not getting you into the room.
2. You’re a worthy opponent. This is the Olympic level of the game. You must be at your absolute best before going into major casting offices, otherwise you risk closing more doors than you open. To stay competitive, you must get a vigorous acting workout every week. I cannot stress the importance of a small class where you work every week! At my studio, every student leaves every class having experienced an undeniable acting breakthrough, or they don’t sit down!
3. You don’t fight your personality, you embrace it. You’ve long stopped trying to guess what “they” are looking for. You know that it’s your job to assume you are what they are looking for. You’ve done the work and have brought yourself to the piece with fun and impactful choices.
4. You’ve got a backbone of steel. This business is so tough, it’s practically a war zone. If you’re really, truly ready for pilot season, you’re able to shrug off the near-misses, almost-bookings, and toxic industry members with grace and aplomb. Being pinned or put on hold for a major role and then not booking it happens to actors in this business every goddamn day. The real professionals shake it off and resume their place in the chain-gang. Nor does some poisonous casting director rattle you or some eye-rolling producer who yawns through your audition. You don’t take any of the garbage seriously or personally because you know your survival in this business depends on it.
5. You’re a walking encyclopedia. You realize that part of your responsibility as a professional actor means being acquainted with the style, tone, and expectations of the different networks. You understand that you could take a single scene and do it 12 different ways for 12 different networks. You know which networks prefer actor performances that are more grounded, and which prefer more character-y reads. You know which networks like comedic performances that are more “up” and which like those that are more “thrown away.” You have this knowledge hardwired to your brain like the last four digits of your social security and you are able to adapt at the snap of one’s fingers.
6. You’ve got a sense of perspective. At the end of the day, the cards are going to fall where they’re going to fall. You understand that as professional, talented, and deserving as you may be, you might not end up attached to a pilot when all is said and done. And even if you are one of the lucky few who books a pilot, you understand that its success and longevity is largely out of your hands. Whatever happens, you get that there is only a finite amount of what you can control, and you’re at peace with that.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson