Michael Laskin Studio

“Michael is an excellent acting teacher and coach, and has helped me grow exponentially as an actor.” RJ Mitte, Star of "Breaking Bad"
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Driving the train.

In a recent career counseling session with a wonderful actor, we had a breakthrough.

Specifically I was working with an actor I’ve come to know and greatly respect, who is at a crossroads. This actor, after years of rigorous training and hard work, has become a steadily working professional actor – no small accomplishment.  Many would consider this victory enough, against such difficult odds. But good actors, smart actors, ambitious actors want more – as they should. They have earned the right to that hunger after so much hard training and work.

This actor prided herself on being able to do most anything; possessing the flexibility of range to be broadly comedic, serious, “professional” (doctor, lawyer, detective) etc. She embodies ALL of that. And as actors I think it’s natural to want to have a wide range – it’s fun to be able to play more than one thing, one type, one emotion. That is, after all, what we are trained to do. After a lot of probing back and forth we got down to the fact that she didn’t know what was next, or how to get there. She did know, however, that she had plateaued and needed to forge a new road ahead.

I asked her a series of questions based on this premise:  Imagine you are the star of your own show.  Every week.

  • What world is that show in?
  • Where do you live?
  • Who are you married to?
  • ARE you married?
  • What is your profession?
  • What makes you laugh?  Or cry?
  • Do you have children?
  • What drives you?
  • What does your house or apartment look like?
  • Who are your friends?
  • What style of clothing do you wear?
  • Etc……you get the idea.

In short – who are YOU?  And why should we watch you every week?

For an actor who had always considered herself versatile and creatively flexible….this was not something she’d asked herself before: who are YOU, and why should we watch you every week? She has been happy to fit in where needed, rather than be “driving the train.”

I told her, “You’re the lead in a series, not the supporting player”. I don’t have a habit if saying things like that unless I totally believe them.  In this case, I do.

From the standpoint of gaining artistic primacy, these are questions we should always ask. Consider this: stars often only do one thing; basically they can be very much the same from role to role. They exhibit a narrow range inside of which there is room to play. Not everyone is a Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, or Christian Bale – or is allowed to be. Even actors of real range can be reduced to their core essence (their type) based often simply on looks – the “optics” they project as people, and (by extension) as artists.

So – what kind of actor are YOU?  Do you “serve” the material? Or do you drive and dominate the material by virtue of your “personal DNA” – your creative fingerprint?

No matter where on the food chain you are, these are the important questions. These are the questions that, when asked, move you to the next level.

Do you want to “drive the train” or be a passenger?

My thing with the British

I’ve alway had a thing with the British….

I recently had the chance to teach my approach to acting at The Actors Centre in London. A bit of background: I had worked in the UK many years ago as an actor, and was also lucky enough to have had the great Michael Langham (and by extension Chris Langham, Ken Campbell, and Helen Burns) as mentors of mine early on in my career. So, I’d already had an appreciation for, and some understanding of the English approach to acting – both the traditional (Michael Langham and Helen Burns) and the madcap (Chris Langham and Ken Campbell).

And what is that approach exactly? Well, the generalization is that their process is more technical, more “outside-in” than ours. And to some extent there is truth in that. Their training is certainly more technically oriented, and my experience with actors trained in the UK is that they are far more skilled in their vocal and physical work than their American counterparts. This goes a long way with me, and I think we Americans can take a lesson there. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but in general they can be less enmeshed (and sometimes ensnared) in the psychological inner approach to the work than American actors are.

Regarding we Americans: the “Mount Rushmore” of American acting teachers (Strasberg, Adler, Meisner) have left a deep legacy, all of it in service to a search for psychological realism. This was a watershed contribution to the training of actors. But much of it has been co-opted over the decades and bears little resemblance to its origins. Additionally, as ideas that germinated in the 1930’s their relevance and applicability to today’s world of acting have greatly diminished – in my opinion.

Conversely, English actors seem to possess (either by acquisition, osmosis, or heritage) an essential command of all the technical tools needed to make their work memorable. The common ground between these two approaches was what I was aiming to explore in my work with The Actors Centre. I was hoping to learn from them, and they from me….and I can quite clearly say that happened!

I gave a 3 hour afternoon workshop. I had a large group and it was understood, and stated to the participants, that I was not able to personally work with everyone there in the time allowed on that day. After I did an initial presentation of the tenets of my book, “THE AUTHENTIC ACTOR – the Art and Business of Being Yourself”, followed by a Q & A session, I got down to actual one-on-one work with them.

One after another I was extremely impressed with the work they brought in. A side-note: members of the Actors Centre have to meet certain standards of training and/or professional work – so I was working with people already firmly on the path; not beginners. To a person their work was smart, engaging, and possessed very strong and distinct points of view.

Mick: One guy in the back, “Mick”, was unfortunately not able to get up and work due to time constraints. But I observed him to be keenly engaged from the beginning. Mick was clearly a character actor: shaved head, heavyset, working class. He’d be right at home as a tough guy in some gritty British crime thriller. He came up to me as we were winding up and profusely thanked me for the class. I then noticed his wonderfully thick working-class English accent. I have no idea if Mick was trained at RADA or the “school of hard knocks”, but he had a robust sense of self and presence. He thrust a copy of my book at me and said

“I read your book, mate. Really liked it. Mind signing it for me?”

“No problem.” I said. I was very flattered, and as I was signing it I asked him,

“Just curious, what did you learn from the book?”

He looked me straight in the eye and said,

“Well, mate…I learned I was doing it right!”

I learned I was doing it right.  All along. That meant a great deal to be.  I suspect Mick is an outlier. Maybe not a drama school grad (although I don’t know that for sure).  But he is one of those guys you always want in your play or film; solid, real, feet on the ground, and a bit dangerous to boot.

My approach, the approach I was trying to impart, is the “marriage” of hard-won skills, with a strong and fully examined personal point of view: technique welded to your “blink-of-an-eye-factor”. Technique is the “house” in which your artistry must live, and establishes a level below which your work will not fall. Because sound technique also builds confidence, it leaves the door open for inspiration, re-direction, and personal indelibility.

Mick, I suspect, has all of that. The fact that my book illuminated his understanding that he was already “doing it right” made the trip, the jet-lag, everything all worthwhile.

Sometime we actors all think we may be doing it wrong – hence the often perpetual search for that teacher, that class, that one approach that clicks. We all go on this search at times, but your ultimate answer is looking back at you in the mirror every morning. YOU are the answer to this quandary.  You and a lot of hard work

As I say often in my classes, “I’m not interested in perfect. We are interested in the imperfect; all your imperfections framed and supported by great technique.” The YOU that infuses your work has to be fully examined, self-curated, indelible.

Mick seemed to be a great example of that: wonderfully imperfect and absolutely memorable.

An Authentic Actor to be sure.

To read more about Michael Langham and Ken Campbell:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/feb/24/michael-langham-obituary

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Campbell

Conducting, without waving

When my wife Emily worked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 15 years, we got to know the musical director at that time:  Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was (and is) a world class conductor and composer.  But a conductor, no matter how talented and inspired, can only do so much with an orchestra that is uninspired, pedestrian, uninterested, etc. As Salonen got more enmeshed with this (already fine) orchestra, their playing got better and better. Soon they were considered among the world’s elite. And when they finally reached that level of skill and passion, there were a few times that I observed when Salonen would stop actively conducting in the middle of a piece, and stand there for a brief while, arms at his side, and let the orchestra play – their music washing over him. It was understood that for that brief while, they were flying without his wings. Listening to each other deeply. He then resumed his conducting with renewed passion.

That’s how I felt in my regular weekly class last week.  It was an extraordinary class, and I just let the superb work wash over me. It was our final class before a summer break, and for some reason everything fell into place perfectly. Not every class is like that – we’re human and sometimes things are just off. Not last night.  It was ON. The level of work I saw would be at home anyplace, anywhere. That’s not hyperbole. Everyone who was there could confirm that……

But before I go too far, I have to remind myself and those who were there to not strain our arms by patting ourselves on the back too hard!  Be very mindful of that. Remain humble, remain focused. It’s a short journey from excellence to self-worship. That’s how cults begin, and cult-ish behavior has a habit of creeping into the world of acting classes. It’s toxic, and that’s when you loose site of the mission.

Teaching, nurturing, and convening artists is an honor and a heavy responsibility that I take seriously. On Wednesday nights at 7:30 we remain true to the mission.  It becomes our “magnetic north” and every once in a while I have the pleasure of simply watching it happen and letting it wash over me.

“It’s all about the work” – and other cliches.

There are cliches among actors and those who teach acting. Let’s call it “actor-talk”. They are not meant to harm, but they have that potential. Here are two mantras for actors (and teachers of acting) that I find to be essentially useless:

  • “It’s all about the work.”  This is often intoned as if floating down to earth from the artistic gods on high. To me, saying “it’s all about the work” is a little like saying – “the air…it’s all about the oxygen”. C’mon, of course it’s all about the work. Isn’t that self-evident? Delving a little deeper I also find that this mind-set creates a place where actors can “hide”. If an actor is not getting results in the real-world marketplace, they are free to say….”hey, that’s ok, I’m all about the work.” It creates a safe place where lack of success cannot be addressed. It’s tough to get real with the actor because good intentions are difficult to criticize. Yes, it is all about the work – AND? That should just be the baseline of an actor’s career intentions. What else is it about? The harsh reality is that we are (and must be) process-oriented creatures in a results oriented world. This is the age-old battle between art and commerce. My advice? Don’t hide behind “it’s all about the work.” Yes, it absolutely is that, but it’s also about much more: strategy, determination, a sense of fun, drive, networking, and laser-like focus. “It’s all about the work” is a very good place to start, but there is so much more. Don’t accept that purity of intentions is enough – it’s not. One must move on  and up from there.
  • “The stakes aren’t high enough.” Taken on it’s own, this is another fairly useless, and commonly heard commentary. In my nearly 40 years of professional work on stage, features, and TV, I’ve never heard this phrase uttered in a professional setting. Ever. Let’s be clear, this is “acting-class-talk”. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with acting-class-talk…..if it’s useful. As an acting teacher myself I recognize that it’s very easy to say something like this because, frankly, it gets you off the hook! Saying this buys the teacher some “thinking time” as he tries to come up with something cogent or actually useful while the actor in front of him is waiting for some commentary on their work (assuming that the teacher even possesses that skill). It’s an all-encompassing phrase that means little on its own, and can actually do harm because it can create a narrative in the actor’s head where he or she is never enough. Unless it’s life or death….it’s never enough! It’s a no-win place for the actor. Then comes a stream of disappointments in one’s self because the “stakes are never high enough”. I’ve had very good actors do excellent work, and then beat themselves up thinking it wasn’t enough….the stakes weren’t high enough….THEY were not enough. Bottom line: if an actor is fully in the scene, playing the real circumstances with depth and understanding, listening, receiving, and responding in kind – most of the time the stakes are high enough. And if they’re not, specific notes on specific moments (“change moments”) in the scene are helpful along with making sure the actor is asking the proper questions in the first place. Building that process with excellent foundational training insures that the stakes will always be appropriate. I’ve seen actors beat themselves up first, as soon as a scene is finished, as a defense mechanism against criticism. Part of the teacher’s job is to try and break this toxic habit.  It improves nothing.

From the teacher’s perspective……

The stakes aren’t high enough” can be “code” for:

  • I can’t think of anything useful to say….so I’m saying this.  For now.
  • I want you to take you down a peg so that I can then build you up and proclaim “look what I just did!”
  • I don’t fully believe you, and can’t really zero in on what’s wrong….but I have to say something!
  • The actor is not prepared, training-wise and technique-wise, to attempt deeper work

Teachers:  My advice? Take time to think before you offer up a general and all-encompassing critique that’s short on really useful specifics. Let it settle in.  Jeffrey Tambor, long-time friend and wonderful acting teacher would sometimes take an enormous amount of time before he commented on a scene.  He just sat in silence, and didn’t speak until he had something useful to say. I have tried to emulate his thoughtfulness.

Actors:  Lead a fully examined life. If you marry that with highly developed skills – the stakes will take care of themselves. Strive to be more than someone who hides behind a commitment to “the work.” Take no shortcuts to acquiring the technical skills that an actor needs: deep text analysis, strong vocal work, and fully integrated physicality appropriate to the role, and the world of the scene. And….remember, it should be FUN, even in its intensity.

Actors need:

  • To be treated with empathy
  • To be treated like adults, not children
  • To have real expectations placed on them
  • High standards
  • Discipline
  • Laser-like focus
  • Dedication to the work and to their life as artists
  • Real foundational training
  • To retain their sense of play
  • Multiple strategies (within the scene, the career, and the life)
  • Strong technique vocally and physically
  • FULL understanding and exploration of the text

When I began to teach, someone I respect quite a bit offered up this advice:  “Be brutal.  Be tough with them.  Take no prisoners”.  This was well-intentioned, but off the mark – at least for me.

The world will be brutal enough with most artists – real success being an ever-changing challenge. I have gotten far better results with kindness, real specificity, humor, technical adjustments, encouragement….all wrapped in a package of high expectations and high standards.

“It’s all about the work” – that’s true if the work is aligned with dedication, real skill, humor, drive, focus, and a template for success.  Actors and teachers (of which I am both) – beware the platitudes, the generalities, and the happy feel-good psycho-babble. It doesn’t help.

It’s like building a house:  it takes time, planning, a great foundation, patience, and artistry – never forget that.

Onward!

Actors as content creators: formerly radical – now a cliche? What’s next?

The cliche used to be that every actor had a screenplay.  Now the prevailing cliche is that every actor is creating content. All cliches often contain a grain of truth….that’s how they become cliches!

To be clear, I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of actors becoming more:

  • Actor-director
  • Actor-writer
  • Actor-producer
  • Actor-craft services!

In the “old days” (not that many years ago) actors were not really expected to be more in the way they are today. Actors who became great at their craft, got noticed because agents, managers, and casting directors often went out and saw many of them onstage. They then acquired an agent, got pitched by their representatives, had general meetings with casting directors (a quaint old concept – pretty much extinct), went on auditions, and sometimes booked jobs – each job (in theory) adding to an upward trajectory in their career-building phase: co-star, guest-star, recurring, series regular, etc. Although not always a linear path, that was the gist of it. And it still happens that way today, to some extent. But there have been sea-changes in the professional actors’ world, and it continues…..

  • New (not always great) contracts
  • More work, less money
  • Non-union buy-outs
  • 10 page auditions with less than 24 hours notice (“can you be off-book?”)
  • Coaching – strongly suggested by managers who are not the ones paying for it
  • Your number of Twitter followers becomes the new “currency”
  • The expectation is that you will be creating content
  • Casting-director paid workshops (poison in my opinion)
  • Social media dominates:  your own website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
  • Working with YouTube stars who are not trained actors
  • Improv training to supplement your scene-study class
  • Self-taping….etc.

There is less and less time to somehow do more and more. It’s just expected. And actors almost always oblige because we are dedicated and dogged in our determination “They don’t want it right, they just want it by Tuesday at 11 am” – no matter what.

When I began my teaching journey seven years ago I enthusiastically encouraged actors to write, direct, produce, in short to create their own content. It was, and still is not about merely creating content, but creating opportunity from whole cloth – not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. While that concept was beginning to take root at the time, it was still somewhat radical and not many fully embraced the task. Now seven years later when I interview actors to either be in my class or coach with me I almost always hear, “Yeah….I’m working on my own stuff too.  Just created a new short.”  Or a web-series, or a screenplay.  Actors have taken that “note” and run with it. This is good.

But being great at your craft is not now (nor ever) all that’s required. Actors are expected to be stand-alone businesses, in effect….brands.  For the true artist, this is a challenge.  For those brilliant at promoting their career (and sometimes little else) – it’s can be a boom time.

Are you frustrated yet?  Are you “keeping score”? It’s frankly harder than it’s ever been, there are simply more people chasing this dream, yet there is also more opportunity than there has ever been. We are running faster and faster on the treadmill – sometimes remaining in one place. It tests us deeply.

Look, not every artist can be a good business person, and not every good business person can be an artist.  You will find yourself someplace on that spectrum between art and commerce – we all have to make peace with that as best we can.

Creating content is so “2017”.  Cool.  But the big question is:  what’s next?

Keep you eyes on the horizon and your ears to the ground.  No one really knows what’s next, except we will be expected to embrace it, dominate it, and incorporate it into our artistry, which above all things must remain our touchstone in the midst of the creative hurricane that an actor’s life can be.

Hang on!