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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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.

“It’s all about the work”. Yes. And?

“It’s all about the work.”  This mantra is reverentially put forth by many actors, teachers of acting, directors, etc, as if that should alone be enough. This self-effacing statement is only half true – possibly less than half true. Yes, of course it’s about the work.  Duh. That’s a given. Yes…and? What else is it about?

“The work” is what you do. Your work is just the ante in the poker game that is your career. You have to put up the ante to be in the game at all.  So, simply put, “the work” is what you do with your innate talent, training, intelligence, and artistic judgement.

Again, what else is it about?  Simply stated it’s about you, it’s about who you are; your “personal fingerprint”. It’s literally about your DNA. It’s chemical.

Acting (and auditioning) on camera is an identity-based art form. I’ve been to many auditions where they could clearly have cast a particular role many times over if talent alone was the sole determinant of success. Those waiting rooms are often filled with significant talent. They are filled with “good work”. I’ve taught classes with superb talent in abundance.  Yet, only a small percentage of us succeed to any great degree.  Why?

First of all, there is this huge factor called luck. Let’s all acknowledge that. Again, if you’re in the hunt long enough, you will get lucky – at some level. Again, that’s a given.

Here’s the “emmes” (the Yiddish word for truth):  With talent in abundance, who you are often trumps what you can do (i.e. “the work”). It’s not right or wrong. It just is. People who personally resonate often win the day. I’ve used this extreme example in my class: how else can you explain an actor like Seth Rogen? I really like Seth Rogen. A lot. But he clearly is a triumph of identity over traditional actor skills. He probably can’t play Hamlet (or if he did…it’d be a VERY different “Hamlet”)! But he’s the absolutely best most indelible Seth Rogen on the planet. His worldview, his sense of self is immediately evident because he has disabused himself of the notion that he has to play someone other than himself. Seth Rogen’s “work” is 100% personal and identity-based. But for every Seth Rogen there’s also a Daniel Day-Lewis. For every Will Ferrell there’s a Javier Bardem.  For every Melissa McCarthy there’s an Emily Blunt. The actor’s impactful identity is always “dancing” with the work, the skill, the ability to transform.

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The fact that film acting is in part an identity-based art form in no way negates the importance of great acting, talent, or skill. It does not negate “the work”. However, it’s part of the landscape of the world we’ve signed up for – a very important part, perhaps the crucial part. Understand this: “the work” is not enough. In fact it’s the bare minimum, at the professional level. Ultimately it’s luck, fate, hard work, and the dominant and fully-developed you that you present to the world which makes the difference. If you can become a great actor and cultivate real personal resonance, that’s the “creative home run.”

The lesson?  If you’re experiencing a lack of success, yet you’re all about “the work”….. get on the path to marrying that great work with your authentic and fully-explored self. Don’t use your hard-won artistry as a reason for failing. “They just don’t get me.”  The “emmes”? They will get you, only when you get you.

Go get acquainted with yourself.

“The Whiplash Syndrome”: Fear vs. Love

I recently received a comment from someone auditing my class about how he observed this uncommon rapport among us all in my class.  And he was surprised that students were actually treated as equals, collaborators, and were asked for any pertinent notes they may have on work that was presented. To be sure, this happens after I comment on and critique a scene. I do sometimes open it up to the class. However, I’m not interested in their opinions. Opinions aren’t helpful; they can be divisive, in fact. I am only interested in additive criticism that helps the actor have the work reflected back to him or her in a clear, smart, useful way. I treat my students like adults, and they respond in kind.  Sometimes my students have tremendous insight; I learn from them all the time….

So much human activity comes from either Fear or Love.  Acting class is no different. I have been in many acting classes where Fear definitely is the thing:

  • Fear that the teacher will not be pleased – (the end-product of the “Guru-teacher”, where it becomes more about pleasing the teacher than about real growth for the student)
  • Fear that you will not measure up – (When a student “keeps score” and pathologically compares herself to others. “Why does she get all the glory, the roles, the attention?”)
  • Fear that the others in class will exclude you – (Will I be accepted into the clique? Who’s “in” and who’s “out”?)
  • Fear of failure – The Big One; the cumulative result of all of these.  It culminates in a defensive approach based upon trying hard not to suck rather than trying to achieve real excellence “What do I want?” is toxically replaced by “What do they want?”

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I tell prospective students that I don’t yell, I don’t belittle, and I don’t make students cry. If you want that kind of teacher, I’m not your guy. That kind of teaching style is far more common than people realize.  And it’s a complete waste of time and energy. The unhealthy co-dependant relationship that can develop when a teacher abuses his or her position of power is the stuff of legend.  Call it the “Whiplash-syndrome” – reflecting the highly abusive teacher/student relationship showcased in the recent film “Whiplash”.

It begs the question: can consistent excellence be attained from Love or Fear?  I believe it can be attained from both, actually.  A willing, talented and driven student can learn in almost any environment. But the lasting blowback from a toxic fear-based student/teacher relationship reverberates long past the time when that student and that teacher have parted ways.

This same auditor of my class added, “It’s like a love fest in here.”  My answer is a resounding YES. Yes it is, absolutely! That’s the way I like it. That’s what I’m aiming for. I’m not in the….

  • Discouragement business
  • Belittling of the student business
  • Or making the student cry business.

For an artist the world will be tough enough. It will discourage you, belittle you, and make you cry with no additional help from me. This all becomes like a very contagious virus, if you let it flourish. I also don’t buy into the theory that tearing you apart in class on a regular basis prepares you for the tough journey ahead. There are teachers who like to tear down the student, then help to rebuild that same student, and then proclaim “Look what I created!”. Yes, one can learn that way – the same way a beaten animal learns to not provoke his master, and has great residual anger for others around him. The negative effects of that are real and ultimately quite limiting.  Who hasn’t been around and observed the “theatrical-monster-diva-sociopath” – someone whose every breath is devoted completely to the furtherance of the self and who is incomplete and unbalanced as a human being? Never forget, as actors and artists we are in a love-based endeavor:  love of storytelling, love of the work, love for our fellow travelers, and love of being engaged in an artistic life.  The joy can be easily taken away in an instant if we are not careful in how we calibrate the student/teacher dynamic.

I have seen enough improbable success stories that I am in the the business of providing a safe place where actors can come and be an artist at least one night a week. A place, a space, an environment for experimentation, risk, and fun.  Fun is highly underrated! This does not mean we don’t get very real about the work, true progress, taking risks, etc.  We definitely do.  I am a firm believer in sound technique and cannot abide laziness or sloppy work.

Results: the bottom line is that I have seen extraordinary results using my approach.  My students have achieved an inordinate amount of success in the real world – off the charts in fact.  And I firmly believe that (besides their sometimes prodigious talent) the environment of artistic freedom, safety, collaboration, and Love (as opposed to Fear) makes all the difference. I am interested in helping to nurture complete human beings who also happen to be artists.

Talent cannot be taught,  Hunger for this pursuit cannot be taught.  But strategy can be taught: within the scene, the play (or film), the career, and the life.

Fear strikes out, as they say.