Make your own Hollywood
by Nancy Bishop
Don’t be an actor who sits and waits by the phone for your agent to call. This is a miserable way to live. If the phone isn’t ringing, staring at it won’t help. Actors need to be proactive. One of my teachers used to say, ‘It’s a poor dog who can’t wag his own tail.' So get out there and wag your tail.
Feeling ignored?Once an actor complained to me that he wasn’t succeeding because casting directors ignored him. He said, ‘The casting directors have control over my career and whether I make it or not.' This is absolutely not true. Take the power back. You are the only one who is in charge of whether you succeed or not.
This is the most valuable advice that I can give actors. Make your own work. If no one is casting you, if there is no one making a film or play with a role that is right for you, then make one for yourself. Write a play about you, directed by you, produced by you, with you in mind. Create the perfect role for yourself. If you don’t like to write, then find material. There are plenty of good plays out there. When you are doing theatre, ‘push yourself and work with good people’, advises casting director Meg Liberman. You will learn from your co-stars. Not only are you attracting possible agents and casters, you are also honing your skills and getting better with each performance.
Take to the fringeMany cities have fringe festivals. If yours doesn’t, then start one. Fringe festivals are full of that sizzling energy created by hundreds of talented actors who are desperate to work. These actors are seizing the moment, practicing their craft. As the nineteenth century playwright, Friedrich Schiller said, ‘he who has lived the best of his own age will live for many ages to come.' It is these performances that will burn themselves into the minds of viewers, not just the big blockbuster films. Stars who got their start at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for example, include Jude Law, Gerard Butler, Hugh Grant, Ricky Gervais and Rachel Weisz. There was a time when these actors weren’t famous but they didn’t get noticed by sitting at home.
Write your own rolesSteven Berkoff confesses that he composed his now famous adaptation of Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosiswhen he was out of work and sick of waiting for the phone to ring. Metamorphosis was nothing more than a talent vehicle for Berkoff — playing a cockroach of all things. Now Berkoff can languidly wait by the phone. This time, in addition to getting acting offers, he’s waiting for his agent to call and report on the royalties he earns when the play is produced as a star vehicle for other actors, like, for example, Mikhail Baryshnikov. If you create a good role, other actors will want to play it too.
If your phone isn’t ringing with film offers, then take the reins into your own hands, and make a film yourself. You don’t need millions to make a film — all you need is a camera (a simple digital video camera will do), a computer with an editing program, and a lot of ideas, energy and enthusiasm. Choose something that matters to you and find your voice to express it through film.
There are independent film festivals bursting out of every city. If no one accepts your film, then you can pop it on YouTube. There are even online film festivals. The internet bars no one from promoting their work. Unknown actors are able to attract agents and auditions for top notch roles when they produce good online work.
• The film Good Will Hunting launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and it was written by . . . guess who? Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Some of the world’s best drama has come from actors who wrote material for themselves to perform; don’t forget William Shakespeare was an actor.
• Vin Diesel didn’t know that he was on course for action hero superstardom when he made his own film, Multi-Facial in 1994. The film, about multiculturalism and identity, was close to his heart. He made the film because he had a passion to express himself. That $3,000 film was accepted for the Cannes Film Festival in 1995, eventually catching the attention of Steven Spielberg, who offered him a role in Saving Private Ryan.
• Other actors who started by writing their own material include Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, and Emma Thompson.
Team upIf you feel that producing or writing aren’t for you, then team up with someone else. Actor and producer Colleen Camp advises actors to ‘align with people you think are talented, and be an entrepreneur. Write for yourself, write for someone else and get them to write for you’. Colleen is an excellent example. After many years as a jobbing actor, she started her own production company
and has produced nine films.
If you’re out there doing it, you might not even have time to answer the phone when we call you. When I was casting Everything is Illuminated, we needed an actor to play a comic Hitler. Pip Utton was touring a one-man show called Adolph. Utton had written the play and was playing the title role. He caught my attention from his good reviews of playing the Führer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Ironically, he wasn’t available because he was too busy touring his show.
Make the first moveWhen you’re doing a play, you’ve got a product that you can invite casting directors and agents to come see. Collect reviews from your play and you’ve got material to send out and post on your website. If it’s a short film, you can send the whole film, or edited scenes of your best work can go on a show reel and can be uploaded to your website as well.
Take David Mamet’s advice: ‘If you have character, your work will have character. The character to do exercises every day over the years creates the strength of character to form your own theatre rather than go to Hollywood.' You heard Mr. Mamet; make your own Hollywood!
From Secrets from the Casting Couch, Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury)
""""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