Behind every leading man or woman, there are the supporting actors. There is all the people who literally stand behind the person supporting them in the scenes in a show. Often it is their job to fill the space and create the scene.
I’ve noticed some of the best actors who fill the empty space behind the leading roles. Audience members focus on the leads because the supporting characters know when to draw focus on themselves and when to focus on the main performers. Hopefully this is so seamless to the audience that they are unaware.
What is difficult, at times, is being able to fill the space without a clear line of dialogue or action. Look busy but don’t steal the scene. React to the action but do it in such a way that keeps the momentum of the scene. This ability in the supporting actors is often unnoticed by the viewing audience.
To think we are alone in our imperfections is a falsehood. I can only speak for myself, however, that the conflicts I deal with are somehow unique. The real problem is many of us, including myself, seem to think by delaying the conflict will somehow make it go away.
Just because performers work in drama, doesn’t mean they’re always good at dealing with it; I suppose that is true of most professions. When there is a conflicting schedule, or a double-booking, it’s difficult to break the news. Scheduling conflicts are all too common. How we deal with them is our choice.
I find myself distracted and unable to focus, when there is a problem looming over my head. The feeling forces me to deal with the issue, and often times, I resort to taking it head-on. It’s better to rip the band-aid off fast, than slowly peel it away. Deal with the conflict sooner than later; you’re not alone in having them.
The rehearsal process can be exciting; it can also be grueling and laborious. I find it to generally be the former. Often times we are stuck in the trenches, working out the kinks, the problem spots, and all the while adjusting as we go. Certain musical sections are harder than expected, others are easier. No matter the situation it is important, I think, to trust the process.
What the audience doesn’t always know, is that the rehearsal process is a patch-work quilt of the songs and scenes in a musical. Rarely if ever does the order of the rehearsal process reflect the order of the show. We might rehearse the finale long before we rehearse the opening number. Much of Act Two might get precedent over Act One; however the process, the show must come together, linking the patch-work together.
With the rehearsals working on the scenes out-of-order, performers are expected to recall the material, and put it in order when there is a work-through, or a stumble through. Sometimes more stumble than not. But as the performers trust the creative team to create the rehearsal schedule that utilizes the time efficiently, so must the creatives trust the performers to come together and realize the show in order, regardless of how it was rehearsed.
Overnight successes are usually years in the making. Likewise, talent and skills take years to acquire. Simply taking one piano lesson does not a pianist make. We can’t waltz through one dance class, or one lecture in physics, and think that somehow we are in control of the content. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I work with a variety of performers as a vocal coach. I get the phone call late at night, “I have an audition tomorrow, can you help me?” Of course I’m not only glad for the work, but I enjoy working with all kinds of performers. Every once in a while there’s a performer who comes in for one coaching, expecting to conquer all the problems that are before them; frustration ensues.
What do you mean I have to practice? I can read the facial expressions; some people think that learning to sing, learning the notes, being able to sing the very high and the very low either happens or it doesn’t. True, there are ranges to the voice, but if you don’t use it everyday, you lose it. Discipline and patience are key elements in success. After years of training, it may take one ‘overnight success’ to hit; but it won’t happen overnight without preparation. It happens from a little practice everyday.
Many of us have a hard time accepting our own accomplishments. You might hear, “Congratulations!” And the knee jerk reaction might be, “oh well, I wasn’t so great.” The ability to achieve greets things is matched by the ability to knock ourselves down.
Which is why on this day of pride it’s a good reminder to own your success. We shouldn’t have to apologize for being fabulous, or succeeding. Achieving our goals is hard; and when we do, apologizing for actually following through on our plans is unnecessary.
People in our lives can make us think we are boastful or too proud; that is possible. Thanks be to our trusted friends who keep us humble when we need to be. But for the rest of the time, be proud of your work and be proud of yourself.
Somehow we equate the amount of time we’ve been doing something to the quality with which we do it. Longevity does not equal competence. I am confident we could all think of someone who has been doing their job for a very long time, and might not be the best at it.
I worked with an actor recently and we discussed the routine of practicing the craft. We talked about singing, and acting; and then the discussion turned to actors who have been working for a very long time, but some didn’t seem to develop past a certain point. Simply performing for decades doesn’t grant mastery over the craft if there is no discipline and routine.
I could practice a piece of music for three hours with focused determination on solving the areas where I am having difficulty. Or I could simply play through the piece for six hours, and keep struggling over the same spots, but never bother to focus on them. Likewise simply singing through the full song, or running the full scene doesn’t address the problems in the performance.
Just because we put in the time does not mean we are using the time effectively. And when was the last time we had time to waste? Knowing how to effectively diagnose the areas you need to work on will not only save you time, but the hours spent practicing will actually count toward a better result.
As an actor it’s wise to be self-aware, knowing what roles you’re right for, and what roles you are not right for. Even in the chorus of shows, knowing if you ‘fit’ this show or that. But sometimes being too self-aware can stop actors in their tracks.
I spoke with a colleague recently about a situation where this actor did not feel right for a particular production. Having worked on the production, I felt confident in saying that this actor could have auditioned for it. Was it the actor’s height, or voice-type, or sense of self that they didn’t see themselves in the production? Sometimes we ca be hyper-critical of ourselves.
While this actor explained why they were not right for that production, I wanted to say, “but you were, and you are!” Why not simply audition? Let the casting director and the team of creatives behind the casting table decide that? As much as we express the need to know our types, and looks, it’s also important not to preemptively judge ourselves out of a job.
We go through cycles in work and in our progress. I recognize it for myself, and when I talk to colleagues and friends, there is a feeling of going to and from better to struggling, to feeling better again. We grow from experiences and sometimes we are not feeling like any progress is being made. The important thing is making time for the progress to take place.
I spoke with a colleague recently about this; as freelance performers, taking time to practice is just as valuable as looking for work. We can’t do the job proficiently if we are not prepared. Being prepared comes from dedicating the time to the practicing, even when it feels the progress is at a snail’s pace.
Not only do we need to make time to practice and prepare, but we also need to recognize when we need to make the time. Sometimes it’s the difference of taking every gig that comes our way, and being able to set aside the time to shed the technique in the practice room. It’s nice to be asked to play every gig imaginable, but if we are not prepared, what good does all that work do? There is a tendency to burn out and crash from the amount of performing and lack of practicing.
It’s not personal, it’s strictly business. It was said best in The Godfather. We repeat the mantra, thinking that our business and personal lives do not intersect. To a certain extent that is true; be professional, and leave the personal baggage at the door. But sometimes they do intersect, no matter how hard we try to keep them apart.
I was involved with a show, in fact several shows come to think of it, where the personal matters of the professional performers came into the life of the work. A family member was taken ill, or there was a death in the family. As I think on the number of life events that occur while working with a company of performers, it’s difficult to think of only one; with each person comes a life affected by all types of events.
While we need to work, and often in light of tragic events work is a wonderful distraction, sometimes the question of importance is asked: does the personal needs outweigh the professional ones? Sometimes we need to walk away from certain professional gigs, to be present for the events in our personal lives that may never happen again: births, sicknesses, deaths, anniversaries. I have been told, and think that there will always be another job, another show. But time with people in our personal life is finite.
When it rains it pours. Sometimes freelancers can go months without a significant gig, and then a dozen come along at the same time. How do you schedule the work when it is all happening at the same time? If only it could be evenly spaced throughout the year.
For performers, that is rarely the case. There are times when the phone never rings, and then there are times when all the work you’ve ever wanted seems to be ringing the phone off the hook. I’ve experienced the feeling of telling one job I’m unavailable because of another gig; those are sometimes the hardest choices.
But the best people, and the ones who we sometimes don’t get to work with; they understand the conflicting schedules. Often when I’ve turned down a gig, or looked to reschedule, I make every effort to make sure the gig and the people involved are covered.
In these situations, it’s helpful to follow through as the freelancer, even if we cannot take the gig. On the flip side, it’s helpful for the party hiring to trust the freelancer to follow through, and not be overwhelming disappointed that they cannot do the gig.