About ten years ago, shortly after I’d decided to give up the uncertain and (for me) unsatisfying waters of advertising for a sensible career in acting, I thought it might be a good idea to take a class or two, since I had no idea of what I was doing.
Of course, being hopelessly goal-oriented and a perennial skipper-of-steps (a whole nuther post), instead of taking, say, a good scene study course or a class in text analysis, I elected to take a seminar in cold reading, which, for the uninitiated, is the dubious-but-necessary practice of to picking up “sides” (a chunk of a full script) and giving a decent audition at the drop of a casting director’s hat. (Because as a 33-year-old actress who was not particularly good-looking and had zero training and experience, I was for sure going to be highly sought after for many parts in film and television. Uh-huh.)
There are various teachers of cold reading technique in Los Angeles, hotbed of auditioning activity, but I had the great good fortune of landing at Margie Haber’s studio, and, after being vetted and prepped by her excellent associate, I got to study with Margie herself. Who hated me. Hated me. Wait, did I mention she hated me? Because she did.
Okay, she didn’t hate me, personally. How could she? She didn’t know me from Adam. She hated my acting. Excuse me, my hackting (hack + acting = hackting®). All the other boys and girls seemed to be able to just…be. I was acting up a storm, and it was almost unbearable to watch. But we had to watch, since the classes were all taped. That was part of the deal: see your shame; get motivated to fix it.
Many, many years (and classes and rehearsals and bad performances in worse plays) later, I finally “get” a lot of what Margie was trying to teach. Like any other kind of knowledge, good acting technique, and by extension, good acting, is born of many, many days/weeks/months/years of effort. And, frankly, just logging the miles. Getting the lessons off the page and into your bones. And as the lessons worked their way into my acting, they also affected my life. Understanding character made me a much better theatrical writer. Learning to really listen created a heretofore unrealized depth and richness in all my relationships.
And Margie’s technique for successfully playing characters different from oneself, as in, with nuance and depth rather than broad strokes and caricature, got me through this last election.
It’s gorgeously simple, really, although not at all easy. Let’s say a quick skimming of the sides reveals that the character you’re being asked to play is a Murdering Vampire Prostitute. You have neither spilt blood (on purpose), sucked blood (with malice aforethought) nor traded sex for goods or services (not going to get into the traditional marriage paradigm here, you know what I mean). How do you relate? By scanning your mental Rolodex® for previous stage-‘n’-screen examples (read: stereotypes) of undead bloodthirsty whores? Or, perhaps, by finding the similarities between you and these ladies you were so quick to judge?
A caveat: any examples should either be lifted straight from the script or ever-so-c a r e f u l l y extrapolated. In other words, if the character is yelling in the scene…well, you ask yourself, have I ever yelled? Do I live in a city/smoke/swear/use contractions/scratch where it itches?
Does this person maybe feel passionately about a cause…just like I do? Does this person perhaps feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the situation at hand and scared for the future…just like little old liberal/conservative, pro-choice/pro-life, anti-war, pro-sports, antidisestablishmentarian me?
My own personal bias for years was, you guessed it, against actors. Years of exposure to the Stupid Flaky Self-Absorbed Artist myth was probably mostly to blame, although ten years of screening commercial audition tapes didn’t help. I was incapable of putting myself in these poor schlubs’ shoes. I was an overworked, underappreciated, universally loathed copywriter and so I ate my sandwich and took calls and all the rest of the careless, insensitive, self-absorbed agency behavior I now hear commercial actors complaining about at auditions. I was wrong (and I’m sorry).
It’s funny: if I’d had a little Margie Haber Technique back when I was a copywriter, maybe I wouldn’t have had to become an actor. And if actors could see the hideous process by which excellent copy gets beaten into shapeless wads of marketing goo, maybe they’d be kinder. Maybe they’d try harder to make that hack copy sound good.
Maybe if we could all see each other, the world would be a little bit nicer place to play in.
At the very least, the ads would be better.