The tall, lanky, actor walks into my studio, the dark cloud of his energy filling the room. He barely says hello.
He throws down his backpack & throws himself onto my couch. He pulls out his sides & with a grand gesture tosses them to the floor. He is practically spitting disgust & contempt.
"It's a piece of shit! Did you read it?" You guessed it, he’s referring to the the role he's auditioning for.
"Well?" he says.
I suggest holding off for a minute about how I feel. "You really hate it?" I ask him.
"Are you kidding?" he says. He launches into a tirade & (rightly) points out everything wrong with the role, the dialogue, the story.
I wait until he finishes. "So, call your agent and cancel. Why waste your time?” He looks at me sideways. Not what he expected to hear. “And I won’t charge you for the session, either,” I say. He also didn’t expect that. I shrug. “Happens sometimes. Not your fault.” People often book time with me before seeing the material. I don't want him to feel obligated to go to the audition just because he committed to a session. My words let him off the hook, & I can see his feelings dissipate. He sighs, frustrated. Not sure what to do next.
An impasse actors often face. We need to work, we want to work, we want the job that leads to the next one, we want to meet a new casting director, we want others to get to know our work -- even if we don’t get the job. Even if we don’t want the job. Yet sometimes every fiber of our artistic-integrity-being feels violated by some of the stuff we have to do to get there.
What usually happens? The actor goes into the audition half-hearted & ambivalent -- and it shows. Either we don't do the work, or we don't find a way to connect, or we feel so self-conscious saying lines so out of the realm of any kind of human reality, that we blow it big time. & actually do ourselves a disservice: only a sliver of our talent makes it into the room.
What to do? As I suggested to my client, let’s call him Leo, one really good option is to say "no" out of the gate. & truly we should take that option if we cannot remotely imagine ever finding our way into the role. We should always take that option if anything seems questionable about the legitimacy of the job itself -- lousy material sometimes (but not always!) comes with questionable credentials.
& of course we should walk away if anything in the material is offensive to our core values. This goes without saying. Although when it comes to stuff like nudity or violence we all have a slightly different threshold for what we can tolerate, it's important to honor that threshold. But harder to figure out what to do when something is highly offensive to our aesthetic sensibilities.
(flashback: When I was studying at NYU, the entire acting school came together one afternoon for a seminar with the great Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. I will never forget something he said. I don’t have the exact words, but it went something like this: “Promise yourself that you will never compromise. Because in this field, no matter what you vow, you will end up compromising 50 per cent of the time anyway. So, if you start at 50 per cent, you don’t stand a chance.”)
Anyway. Good choice = walking away. But, if you decide to read, you must also decide to put away all your problems with the material. & then: find one thing you love about the role / the character / the script. I don't care what it is: could be that it takes place in a state / era / spaceship that you've always longed for. Or could be that you always wanted a brother & this gives you one. Or you want to prove that a good actor can transform a bad role. Whatever, doesn't matter. Find the thing that belongs to you, drop an anchor down into that, hook in & forget about everything else.
Why am I doing this? = the most important question in acting. If you look at the task from the perspective of a piece rather than the whole, usually you can find something you can elevate & own & turn into your life-line.
But one step at a time. The first step, which Leo was well in the thick of, is fully acknowledging your initial, gut response to the material. Articulate to yourself, your coach, your wife (if she can stand it) every aspect of how & why it is ludicrous, dull, unfunny, ungrammatical, out of touch, asinine & beneath you. Own all this, too -- acknowledge every bit of it. Acknowledgment of what is true & real to you is a formidable tool for growing your craft, from the audition to “action.” It all starts here: what is your honest response to the material? Wring this out -- & then decide how to move on.
As a coach, I must do the same thing. Acknowledge my own feelings about the client's material. Articulate them. Decide if, under the circumstances, I can still be helpful. Is there something, anything, for me to hook into? Usually, yes. (Still, there have been 3 or 4 times when I felt I had no choice but to decline, due to the utter hopelessness of the writing.)
Come to think of it, bad material isn’t a crime, now, is it? Really, what is painful is not that the material is lousy. What is painful is that we had an expectation, when our agent called, of an opportunity for something wonderful. Of sinking our teeth into the role of a lifetime. Of course we want it to be a brilliant piece of writing. Great material = the potential for great work. Lousy material (usually) = -- exactly.
Once we get past the “what-fresh-hell-is-this?” feeling that Dorothy Parker so aptly described, we can treat it as just a different kind of acting challenge. Do this with respect & interest. (& please -- I mean for ourselves, not the material!) i.e. "What skills do I have to make this work?" & "How can I raise this to the level of my talent?" Then, it just might still be possible to have the experience we long for. Sure, this role won't win anyone an Academy Award. But the anger, disgust, disappointment -- all the things Leo walked into my studio with -- once owned & acknowledged -- go up in a puff of smoke as we find our own personal, compelling reason to attend to the task at hand.
So, here's my prescription for having a great audition with bad material:
1. Fully acknowledge everything you feel about the material. Same goes for when you think it’s the best thing ever written, or when you feel neutral, or bored, etc. Be in touch with & clearly articulate everything about your first, gut response.
2. Move on. Either:
- call your agent & decline the appointment, or
- own & elevate to stardom that one thing in the material that activates your creative juices.
Along the way, rule out the old “Why me?” question. Instead of: “Why do I keep getting shitty material?" "Why doesn't my agent get me out for better things?” -- ask yourself instead: "What is this experience for?"
Good answer = by surmounting this challenge, I grow my talent. If I can find a way to make this character / words / scene seem real & dimensional, that makes me a bloody genius. As Leo said at the end of our session, “What the hell, if I can make this work, I can make anything work!”
Oh -- and, end of story: he got the job & had to pass. He had already booked something better.
QUESTION: Can you think of a time when you were able to turn lousy material into an artistic victory? I'd love to hear more about how you did it.