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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We desire the Beginning, the Middle, and the End. Even with auditions – Especially with auditions.

Aside from the untold number of auditions I’ve personally experienced in a 40 year career as an actor, I’ve coached thousands of auditions for film and TV over the past several years.  And I’ve had the opportunity to gain perspective; to observe the process from “10,000 feet up” as well as often being in the trenches myself.

What I’ve learned could fill a book – which might be forthcoming! But in the meantime I want to speak to just one aspect of this maddening transaction that I think is not immediately evident but is omni-present, vital, and ignored at your peril.

In preparing an audition, out of necessity we become immersed in learning lines, calming nerves, showing up on time (or turning in the self-tape on time) deciding on what we will wear, etc.  These days we seem to be given less time; sometimes only one day with a 3 scene audition (10 pages long) where we are expected to be off-book. It’s madness, and in this mad rush we sometimes forget one overarching thing:

As a species we crave a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I think it is encoded in our collective imaginations.  There’s a reason all stories since the beginning of time more or less adhere to this structure.  We crave it. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Aristotle. I rest my case…..

  • ALL auditions need to honor this.
  • ALL auditions need a dynamic beginning – something that puts us in the flow of the scene rather than starting from a dead-stop.  Something that acknowledges the pre-life of the scene we are about to bring to life.  What just happened? How did that effect us?  Where are we now, and where were we prior to the start of the scene – literally and emotionally
  • ALL auditions need a “change moment”. Humans crave change.  Even a simple “walk and talk” TV scene has to have a change moment.  If it’s not there in the text, it’s our job to insert it and make it feel organically true.
  • ALL auditions need a memorable ending.  Sometimes it’s how we deliver the last line. Sometimes it’s creating a moment after the last line – like a bell that rings and stays in our thoughts even after the reverberation has ended.  Like the final clarion note in a symphony.
  • Additionally, I believe in giving each scene a title – a definition of the scene’s purpose so that in our challenging preparation timeframe, the tone of each scene does not blend into one general over-wash.  Multiple scenes are given to us for a reason.

How do we accomplish all this when the audition material we sometimes get is – to put it politely – pedestrian? There is a lot of what I like to call “B-minus-weekly-factory-television”.  We’ve all seen it….I don’t need to name names. As intelligent smart actors, we sometimes look down our noses at material that might be from a show we’d never personally choose to watch. Guilty as charged. This judgement is dangerous and wrong. It’s our job to understand the world, the “dramatic or comedic ecosystem”, that each show inhabits whether we personally gravitate to it or not.

Make it a point to occasionally watch shows that are successful but that are perhaps not to your taste. I’m not suggesting you will like them simply by being exposed to them, but it’s instructive to try and de-code what it is that makes them successful.  There is a continuing and constant epidemic of “creative bankruptcy” in our industry. And one of the reasons that older franchises are revived is that they already have a known structure and an established “world” that has been proven; that has been successful. However shows that create new narratives and innovative new formats – of which there are many great examples at the moment – have a harder task proving that they can sustain weekly viewing and interest. Not to mention the ongoing challenge to continue to innovate and not lose their edge.

TV and film acting is, in significant part, about two elements: worlds and faces.  Talent is secondary only because in the professional ranks it is simply assumed. Talent is like the ante in a poker game: you have to have that on the table before you can even participate in the game.

  • “Silicon Valley” is a world.
  • “S.W.A.T.” is a world.
  • “The Crown” is a world, as is “Westworld”.
  • “Big Little Lies” and “NCIS” are also worlds.

As actors we must know and honor the worlds we are entering into – all the while understanding that we naturally fit quite nicely in some worlds and not in others.  My advice: don’t judge the world because it may not be to your taste – simply be a full-fledged part of it for the brief time you are auditioning.  Embrace that, and you might be a part of it for real.

Beginnings.  Middles.  And Ends.  They are a part of ALL storytelling, even a six page two-scene audition. In the heat of battle, don’t lose sight of that.

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!