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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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!

No – I didn’t study with Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, or Lee Strasberg

I didn’t study with any of these giants.

It wasn’t by design, it was simply by happenstance. I went straight from my collegiate training (B.S. Northwestern University, and M.A. The University of Minnesota) into 12 straight years of regional theatre, off-Broadway, followed by many years of film and TV work.  While some of my friends and peers were immersed in classes in New York and LA, I was working onstage, sometimes forty – fifty weeks in a year, eight shows a week. I take nothing away from what they were learning.  It’s not about that. They were immersed in theory. And I was immersed in the profession as it is practiced – in front of paying customers every night – twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays. My failures (and I had them) were in public, not in class.

It’s the difference between hitting golf balls on the driving range – and actually playing the game of golf.

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By the way, I have also not studied with Milton Katselas, Larry Moss, William Esper, The Atlantic Acting School, Wyn Handman, Jeff Corey, or any of the other very well-known iconic acting teachers.  As an acting teacher myself I am neither proud nor embarrassed by this – it’s not good or bad….it just is.

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Unburdened by theories, dogma, or gurus – I had the “gift” of high pressure on-the-job training.

I learned my craft onstage and in front of the camera from Michael Langham, Michael Blakemore, John Sayles, Paul Mazursky, Charles Nolte, Bob Rafelson, Jack Warden, Haskell Wexler, Kevin Spacey, Roy Dotrice, James Bridges, Delbert Mann, Barry Levenson, Robert Duvall, Jeffrey Tambor (who I did study with), Charlie Haid, and a whole host of others.

I raise the subject of training and methods because as a teacher I am frequently asked this important question: “What method do you teach? My answer? I teach the method that works for you; the working method you organically gravitate to. My job is to help you discover (or rediscover) the way of working that you instinctively favor.

Actors will learn a great deal from all of these approaches – including finding the approach that absolutely does not work for them. That also has real value. By trial and error we find our way – either in a class or in from the camera or audience.

And sometimes there can be a bit of “deprogramming” involved in trying to help a actor regain his or her creative footing, after going too deeply into one particular methodology that may not be working.

So, by design and intent I do NOT teach a one-size-fits-all approach. I do not have a dog in the dogma fight over acting methodologies. Everyone learns in different ways – how can one approach fit everyone and benefit everyone? I am 100% agnostic when it comes to these many different approaches. They are like diets; they ALL work – for a time. And, like diets, it comes own to what you can live with every day.

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It is the artist’s responsibility (as well as the artist’s teacher) to discover what works for him or her every day – a working method they can live with, rely upon, and that feels right to them. They need to discover and curate that technique so that there is a level below which their work does not fall.  Let’s be real: we are all not inspired 8 shows a week, or during all 28 takes of a scene from 4 angles. However, the technique we acquire by discovering our authentic working method allows each of these takes, each of these shows, to feel fresh and new. Every time.

Acting is (and has to be) a repeatable act:  8 shows a week, dozens of takes at a time on a particular scene. Creating the freshness and spontaneity required of each creative thrust is the result of having built a solid working technique.

Technique is the portal to artistry – it’s the house in which art lives:

  • Stradivarius violins are considered works of art. When he designed and built them I am sure he considered himself a craftsman first and foremost. His craft became elevated to such an extent that it transcended craft and became art.
  • Fred Astaire was a craftsman first.  His technique as a dancer was so extraordinary that it transformed into art.  But without the sweat and work of building his technique, the artistry would not have a place to live.
  • Picasso famously said: “The more technique you have, the less you have to worry about it. The more technique there is, the less there is.”

Many of these famous acting teachers deserve to be on the “Mount Rushmore of Acting Teachers” (if such a thing existed) with their heads carved into stone, staring out to the horizon with wisdom etched in their features. But as important as they were, we worship them at our peril. Yes, they all formulated seminal ideas about the craft and art of acting. They were absolutely relevant 70-80 ago, when these schools of thought germinated. But in many important ways much of this is not relevant to the profession as it is practiced today. We’ve simply moved beyond it. The concept of realistic acting and behavior is like software that comes pre-loaded in the brains and hearts of young artists.  Sixty years of realistic film and TV acting permeating the culture has resulted in that becoming part of the creative DNA of todays actors. So, it’s often not realism that’s the challenge. It’s passion and imagination that’s sometimes lacking in today’s young artists, as they occasionally confuse realistic behavior with acting.

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Our profession (on the film and TV side of the equation) is an identity-based art form, yet many of these older training modes are about convincingly becoming someone else. But in today’s world they are, for the  most part, interested in YOU as the filter for the character. Your life walks into the room with you, so get acquainted with yourself in a dynamic way so that becomes part of your work. Identity often trumps talent. That’s not right or wrong…it just is. Fully developed talent is simply expected and assumed in the professional ranks.

I’m absolutely certain that studying with these legendary acting teachers might have taught me a great deal. No doubt, I missed out on some amazing experiences. But I learned on the job, by the seat of my pants sometimes, and it gave me a practical clear approach to the work.

For me it’s about strategy:  in the scene, the play (or film), the career, and the life.

Acting is first and foremost a craft. And….if the craft is sturdy and sound, it becomes the house in which your art can live.

Then, it’s about the marriage of that with YOU. The fully examined you.

Be a disruptive artist – if you dare.

I was recently stopped in my tracks by a Miles Davis quote, simple in its brilliance:

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”

Miles was a disruptive artist. Coming originally from a traditional music and jazz background, Miles became part of the cadre of artists who changed the “architecture” of jazz. He was a major part of the birth of be-bop.  Miles, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others were in the vanguard of this new experimental music. Some of it succeeded, some did not. Some was fun to listen to, some maddeningly disconnected to the melody that we are hard-wired to crave. No matter, it took hold and changed what came after it. It disrupted the norm.

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The nature of deep artistic exploration is one where potential failure and lack of acceptance is ever-present.  But disruptive artists, by definition, do not accept the prevailing dogma – in fact they continually try to re-invent, and recreate something new, original, unheard of or unseen before.  This is heavy lifting and not for the faint of heart. It’s also territory where major shifts, sometimes important shifts, take place.  Artistic flying without a net.

This concept applies to actors as well – very much so. Actors plan. We plan how it’s going to go. We create a roadmap for how our work will play out. We plan in an effort to satisfy what “they” want (the mythical “they”).  In all this planning,  many times we lose sight of what we want. One of the reasons I see real value for today’s actors studying improvisation at some point in their training is that improv, when it’s good, allows you to change the wrong note; to craft what comes after the wrong note into a new note, a dynamic note that propels the scene forward, the right note.

In the theatre this planning is normal and accepted. It’s called rehearsal! You have significant rehearsal time, and many opportunities to “lock it down.” In film and TV work you might meet the person you are to have a highly emotional scene with (and a life history together that has to be conveyed) for the first time in the make-up trailer at 6:30 am. Pretty soon you are off to the races together. There is scant rehearsal, little time to build a relationship with your cast mate – in short, little time to plan. It’s all quite fresh, sometimes terrifyingly so. Just remember:

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”

Perfection is rare in our world, and frankly not inherently interesting.  It’s the imperfect that draws us in, that makes film acting all the more visceral in it’s small detailed humanity. There are few wrong notes, if you remember Miles’ advice – only what I call “happy accidents”.

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Disruptive artists are the breakers of rules, destroyers of dogma….innovators. They reshape the form. They reshape the norm.

Pablo Picasso – a traditionally trained artist who ended up seeing things in a totally unique way

Samuel Beckett – who reordered the molecular structure of how a play might be imagined

Louis Armstrong – jazz’s first important soloist, and creator of scat singing.

Anna Deveare Smith – created a unique new form of theatre that is rooted in the concept of documentary.

Orson Welles – writing, directing, and starring in “Citizen Kane” (as your first film) can only been seen as wildly disruptive

Richard Pryor –  known for uncompromising examinations of racism that reflected the times he lived in and his own rough and raw upbringing.

Salvador Dali – a major surrealist who combined superb traditional painting skills with visions and imagery from the subconscious.

Go ahead….make trouble.  Disrupt.  Give yourself permission to imagine what you do without parameters, without limits, and without worrying too much about the mythical “they”.

As the great Anna Deveare Smith says, “Be new. Be you.”

Reclaiming my artistic primacy

I just did something extremely foolish.  And smart. I committed myself to a very ambitious project – a one-person play, ALTMAN’S LAST STAND.  I spent 3 years pushing it away for any number of reasons:

  • It’s too much to learn, I will never get the role in my head (and heart)
  • I’m not really old enough
  • I may not good enough
  • I’m scared of both the potential success or failure of this very ambitious effort

After I realized it was now or never and that this role was truly a “gift” that may never come around again, I committed. I spent 5 months of daily work learning the 90 minute, two-act, monologue. I spent at least an equal amount of time generating resources (human and financial) to help bring this wonderful play to fruition. In other words, I declared myself. I said, “I’m an artist and I want to reclaim my artistic primacy as an actor.” I want to give myself the chance to be great again. Oh, did I mention that the character is a 90 year old Viennese holocaust survivor? Might as well take a real “moonshot” and give myself as gigantic a challenge as possible!

What was the best thing, as an actor, that you ever did?  Have you ever been that great again?   How often do you get a role that allows you to be great? Franz Altman is such a role in our play, ALTMAN’S LAST STAND.  And it terrified me on many levels, as these things do.  It was a HUGE bite to take.

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Jeffrey Tambor who just came and saw the play was full of praise for all aspects of the production. And he said to me, “You didn’t need to do this, you know. You could very easily just sit back.” And my response was, “Actually, I did need to do this. I was compelled to reclaim something of myself and my original purpose as an actor and artist. I absolutely did need to do this”.  Being the artist he is he completely understood – and I think was hoping that’d be my answer!

It is our responsibility as artists to reacquaint ourselves to whatever greatness we may have possessed in the past. As you get on in life, it becomes more of a challenge to do so. As “they” say, the reward for something like ALTMAN’S LAST STAND is only artistic, it is rarely financial.  By saying “only artistic” we reveal the jaundiced view we sometimes adopt, as being an actor inevitably becomes more of a commoditized profession and less of a passion. It is up to us to reclaim that passion periodically, the marketplace be damned.  It is up to us to reclaim our artistic primacy.

Most of us spend a lot of time working in what I call “short form” acting:

  • 3 page TV audition scenes
  • Short films
  • Cold reading (whatever the hell that is…..)
  • Workshops
  • Taped auditions

We involve ourselves less and less with “long form” acting – most of which is found in the theatre. Great roles, meaty roles, done several times a week in front of live people who, by their interaction with you, tell you so much about what it is you are trying to do.  They teach you every night.  This is an artistic luxury….and a necessity!

This all happened because Charles Dennis presented me with a “gift” – the role of Franz Altman.  I had to accept that gift. And our director Charlie Haid was with me every step of the way with true leadership, vision, and the ability to inspire and challenge me without breaking me.

Be brave.  Be smart.  Reclaim what is yours.  It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but also the best thing…..in a very long time.

Perspective. A humbling. Gained wisdom

I had a very interesting experience recently. I reconnected with a coaching client from about three years back – he called me to coach on some material. I vaguely remembered him, but it had been three years with no contact. He came into focus for me when he arrived at my door.  He was a smart cocky kid, and a recent graduate of a very prestigious university acting training program. He seemed to be going somewhere. He carried himself with a sense of destiny, inevitability, and confidence.  One of the young “invincibles”. He was also represented by a very good manager at the time, who often refers folks to me. I hadn’t seen him in 3 years and he reached out to coach.

When he arrived we chatted – prior to getting to work on the material he wanted to coach on. I asked what he’d been up to since I saw him last. He began to tell a very familiar tale. He came out here from an excellent (and highly regarded) college training program for actors, got hooked up immediately with a very good manager and started to get up for some top projects. And…nothing happened. He did not catch fire immediately, as I believe he thought was his due. So he started shopping around for other representation (thinking that was the issue) – and got it. He was sent out a lot, again, and once again didn’t really book anything significant. His new agent put him “on the shelf” after a few months of his not booking, and eventually dropped him. He’s been in the “wilderness” for 3 years with no representation, and is fighting his way back. In fact, he was coaching with me to audition for his old manager (who he dropped), hoping that she will take him back. He’s been working on her to get this face-to-face meeting for….ONE YEAR. I give her credit for giving him another chance. And I give him credit for his persistence. He has no Plan B if she doesn’t take him back.

This young man, who was so cocky and sure of himself when I met him, had been humbled. What he saw as his destiny ended up not coming to pass – yet. He is now older (26), wiser, a bit sadder, but still quite talented and somehow changed by the humbling he experienced.  He got A LOT of good opportunities early on that did not pan out. This happens. This kind of thing happens to all actors – the not-so-great, the good, and the excellent. It is a capricious business and his cockiness made him believe that this was all his manager’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It. Just. Is. This is sometimes the way it goes for people – even very talented ones.

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He gained perspective. He gained wisdom. He’s a much fuller human being than he was three years ago when I originally met him. He’s not bitter. He’s smart, dedicated, humble, and hopeful.  I wish him all the luck in the world.

The lesson: Sometimes the grass is greener. Sometimes it’s not. And when there’s a drought, it’s hard to know why the grass is not green.