There’s one theory of human nature that says most people tend to remember the good things that happen to them and blot out the bad.
And then there are Actors.
Except for the stereotypical raving egomaniac of the breed (and if you are one, I’ve little worry about offending you, since you probably only read your own blog), most of us creative types are prone to fixate on all the things that are/have been/or/will be/ going wrong in our performing career, whether it’s on stage, on camera, or behind the microphone.
I say to you, sweet brothers and sisters, it is an unnecessary burden! But, like Alice in Wonderland, I also give myself very good advice but rarely ever follow it.
Case in point.
Recently, I was chosen (without audition, I have to keep reminding myself) for a comic bit in an internal video for IBM. It was part of a fake “biography” segment on a fictional super-sales type, filled with the people who “knew him when”.
My character was a former Camping Club member, still in scout-like uniform, relating his childhood buddy’s qualities for the camera while on the backyard patio trying to light his charcoal grill. The script called for me to be constantly lighting matches, one after another, all the time I was telling my story. The humour in the piece was that I never looked down…the matches would always go out without lighting the charcoal. I would instictively know it didn’t work and immediately strike another…never looking down, always knowing the outcome, and co-incidentally, never burning my fingers. At the end of the scene, the camera would tilt down from the cold grill to show a huge pile of spent matches on the ground.
The director, one Peter Orton, was an actor’s dream. He insisted on the lines being memorized, so that we could work on the timing of the bit. But he knew exactly what he wanted, and was very patient in guiding me until he got it. The patience came in handy when, in the first few takes, I would involuntarily look down at the match, throw it away and light another, notice it go out, calmly draw out another and repeat the action under my dialogue. I don’t know why I had so much trouble doing the scene as written. Maybe I just imagined my hero, Buster Keaton, doing it and instictively mimicked what he might have done. I don’t know.
Actually, after a few takes, I finally did give several complete reads without looking down at all. My director pronounced he was happy…had gotten what he wanted and some extra takes for safety besides. He gave me the standard line about sending me a copy of the finished DVD, and everyone left…satisfied with a morning’s work well done.
At least that’s what I thought until I got the DVD.
Let me first add to my director’s praises. If you’re a performer, you know how difficult it is to get a copy of finished work for your demo reel. Even producers with the best intentions can get immediately caught up in their next project and let it slip. Sometimes the client will not allow material out of house. There are any number of reasons why the phrase “I’ll get you a copy” is usually afforded the same level of import as “I had a great time, I’ll call you,” after a first date.
But praise be to Mr. Orton, he made good on his word. And he made me wonder if I’d really made good on mine when I said I had understood the comedy moment he was after.
There I was…in full video glory…talking calmly about my camping buddy…looking appropriately ridiculous in my slightly-snug scout-style uniform. I saw myself light the first match and hold it to the charcoal where the flame immediately went out. To my horror, I also saw myself look down vacantly at it, casually toss it over my shoulder with a shrug and continue talking without missing a beat. In all, I looked down at the matches several times…all with that same understated “hmm…imagine that” look, but never breaking from the dialogue.
What had happened? Had I gotten drunk off the sulphur from striking too many matches over the course of the morning? Or…and here the mental gremlins pounced…had I really been unable to take direction, forcing Mr. Orton to settle for what I could manage instead of what he had wanted?
For several days I worried about it. Finally, figuring I owed the man a “thank you” for actually delivering the promised DVD, I sent an email…and also ever-so-casually commented on my onscreen persona’s distinct lack of staring straight ahead during the striking of matches.
He wrote back within minutes, “I loved your performance — looking at the matches —
they made me laugh. And they did with other
audiences as well. You were wonderful!”
So, kiddies, the moral of the story – yes, by all means do whatever you can to give the director what he/or/she is asking for. Yes, do everything possible to trust the material and the overall vision of the piece. Absolutely do not just assume you know your own talents better than those who are watching and/or listening.
But…don’t completely discount the notion that ALSO…maybe…MAYBE you are actually good at what you do, and you should trust your instincts more when the situation allows.
[Aha! I just heard a raving egomaniac who sneaked a look at this whole story shouting, “Big Deal, I already knew that!!!” What’re you doing down here? Go read your own blog.]
Epilogue: By the way, as part of Peter Orton’s email signature is this quote, which seems a great way to wrap this up.
“Listen with your full attention, look for the good in others, have a sense of humor, and say thank you for a job well done.” -Smuckers Code of Conduct
— over and out —