Thursday, March 31, 2005

I need help I watched The Starlet again the other night. Thankfully, the judges didn't say "the Starlet" once.

What was interesting, though, was that the category, or lesson, or whatever for the week's show was comedy; that is, for their "screen test", the actresses (or actors, if you're one of the people who prefer the all-inclusive term for both male and female performers) took a class in comedic acting and then had to perform a scene from Friends, in front of a live studio audience and the judges.

First of all, I question the validity of teaching comedic acting. Part of my reasoning for this stems from the fact that I believe that to a large extent, comedic acting cannot be taught. You can't really teach someone to "be funny" because a big part of being funny is timing and delivery. Comic timing involves knowing the pace of a joke - knowing when barrelling through lines full speed will make it funny and knowing when a big pause can be used for comic effect. To a certain extent, you find that in rehearsals, but since in tv or movies you don't get too many of those, if you want to be successful in a comedy you have to have a certain knowledge of that. Delivery, meanwhile, is completely unique to every performer. Take standup comics, for example. Comics spend a lot of time working on their delivery as they develop, because your delivery is as much a part of the performance as the material. Every comic develops his or her own style, one that works for them and for the material they perform. Imagine Chris Rock's delivery and Jerry Seinfeld's material, or vice versa. How bizarre would that be? And chances are it wouldn't work; or at the very least, it wouldn't be as funny.

The one point that the teacher for the episode made that was valid was that comic acting is about taking risks, and about not being afraid of looking stupid. But then, I would argue that that applies to dramatic acting as well. Any time that you act, if you're thinking about how you look you're going to look stupid, and your actions will not be as effective as they can be if you simply lose yourself in the moment, which is the goal of any actor.

Second, I think it's a crying shame that they gave them scripts from Friends. The scene was a little bit between Rachel and Phoebe talking about Chandler and Monica getting married, and how they weren't jealous at all, but then Rachel said she was maybe 2% jealous and that was like nothing, and then she says maybe 80-20 and then they talk about having a friend that you agree to get married to if you hit a certain age and you're still single and Phoebe says she has that with Joey and ha ha ha.

Honestly, it's not very funny. I suppose you could make the argument that scripts like that are probably the high end of network comedies that you could realistically expect people to perform with relatively little preparation time (not to mention involving 2 women), but any time you perform, the script plays a huge role in how well you will do. Michael Caine said, (and I paraphrase, cause I don't feel like pulling out his book) "You can have the hardest days of your life acting out a bad script and the movie will still look like crap, and you can breeze through shooting a great script and win awards for it." The more work I do, the more I realize just how many factors go into an actor's performance. It starts with the script - is it a good script? Are there fake moments there? How good is the dialogue? Then, the other people in the scene - are they talented? Have they done their work? Do they listen? Do they react? Director - what kind of blocking are they giving actors? How do they interpret the scene, and does that differ from what the actor things? Not to mention all the technical on-set worries - being on marks (positions set in advance so you'll be in the camera's frame - onscreen - when you're supposed to be and where you're supposed to be), lighting worries, special effects, etc. And even after all that, after you've shot the scene and it's all forgotten about, the editor comes into play, cutting and splicing different angles of the scene to make it into a narrative whole. I don't believe editing can turn bad acting into great acting, but it can make decent performances very good - but then, the reverse is also true.

Comedy, of course, always gets knocked for somehow being "less" than drama. In my opinion, like the differences between stage and screen acting, they are simply different, with pros and cons for each. I do think comedy is more difficult, though, and here's why: drama is often inherent in a scene - people get drama because everyone has events in their lives that are dramatic, that they can relate to a scene through. Comedy is harder to write and harder to perform, ESPECIALLY for a live audience because there's nothing more excruciating to watch or perform than a comedy where no-one is laughing. If you've never experienced it, trust me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I feel so dirty...

So I watched an episode of The Starlet yesterday, which is the WB's new reality series where they look for an actress who (I think) gets a recurring, if not regular, role (I think) on a WB series as her reward. A couple thoughts.

First of, a series on the WB. I saw a magazine at the iaTV offices the other day that had a big cover montage of WB shows, because of its 10th anniversary. Am I the only one who is both shocked and surprised that the WB has lasted that long? Is there another network out there with a crappier assortment of shows? How many souls did they have to sell? Seriously. If nothing else, that goes to show you that you can have crappy ratings as long as you market to the right demographic and advertisers want to reach that demographic.

Second, I never want to hear the words "the Starlet" again. They had this panel of three judges who decide who stays and goes and whatnot; one guy who I didn't know, a girl I think was Vivica A. Fox and Faye Dunaway. And (probably because they were told to use the words whenever referring to the eventual winner of the competition) they kept saying "the Starlet has to have this" or "If you want to be the Starlet"...WTF DOES THAT MEAN? THAT'S NOT A WORD, GODDAMMIT.

Lastly, I kind of have issues with what the show chooses to air and make public. Like the audition process of American Idol (which is somewhat similar to the audition process for a play, movie or musical), acting classes and the process of learning the craft of acting are an extremely difficult process; not because it's difficult to understand what the teacher wants you to do necessarily, but because acting deals with all the emotions and all the baggage that you as a person and as a performer bring. If you're taking "Method" classes - the Method referring to Stanislavski's beliefs regarding acting and sense-memory - which is what they seem to be teaching the girls on the show, the process is bound to be extremely emotional and leave the performer very vulnerable. This is, of course, understandable in terms of the show - emotional vulnerability and the situations it causes are gold for ratings. But I have an issue with the show choosing to air these moments, which most actors would (I think) be horrified to have shown to a general audience. It's true that hopefully the performer will hit those same notes in a performance, but I feel there is a difference between that and the process that an actor goes through to be able to recreate the emotions in a performance.

On that note, I've read a couple of interesting interviews recently with two actors I wasn't really too sure what to think about; Russell Crowe and Daniel Day Lewis. The first I've never really liked, the second I've never really seen in things. Both are Oscar winners (though I don't think Crowe really deserved his), and both have negative reputations in Hollywood. Anyways, what brought those to mind (aside from the fact that they were pretty good interviews) was that Daniel Day Lewis was asked about his process - one of the reasons he has a reputation for being kind of weird is that he's notorious for doing a ton of background research for his characters and always staying in character on set. He mentions that one thing he hates are the "roving press kits" or something of that kind - basically this group of people that catches up with you after you've finished a scene and asks about the scene and where it fits in, the character's motivations and all that, to which he replies that he never really knows because he's still in the middle of his own process, still trying to figure those things out for himself. I find that interesting because it's actually much more of a stage training view than film; typically on a film shoot you're expected to come to the set/shoot location with all your character work done; setups and filming are so time consuming that there is no time to work on character on set. For a stage production though, there are several weeks of rehearsal in which you can explore characters, explore choices and select the one you like best. The more you rehearse, the more the character tends to grow; the more levels you find and the more subtleties you can add to a character. I find the film actors who I appreciate the most are the ones who can bring this to a film role - Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp to name 3. Anyways, I have to go because a friend is harassing me to go watch the latest episode of Red vs Blue. I think that's more than enough for now anyways.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Do the Hustle!

Nothing too interesting going on; just finished shooting two more episodes of Morty's yesterday. Well, the live action stuff. Typically when we're making an episode we'll shoot all the live stuff one day, all the bar stuff another day and then all the dubbing on a third day. This time around we only did two (as opposed to last time, when we did 3 and it was HORRIBLE), so it was pretty chill.

Anyways, what I wanted to mention was Kung Fu Hustle, which will be out in NY/LA April 8th and wider release April 22nd. Honestly, it's AWESOME. It's funny, there's some great fight scenes and some incredible shots. I haven't watched much of his other stuff, but Stephen Chow just shot close to the top of my "guys-whose-stuff-I-need-to-watch-more-of" list (Woody Allen and Wong Kar Wai are pretty much the only two other people on there right now).

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Snow, snow, snow, snow!

It's snowing, but it doesn't look like a happy snow. You know, the kind with the big fat flakes that drift down and settle on your face like a kiss from the sky. The kind of snow where you step outside and you can feel the quietness in the air, that blankets the world in white and makes it look like the world is clean and new.

Yeah, not that kind.

It's a wet, drifting snow that's swirled around by the wind and always seems to get under your collar or scarf. Worst of all, there's no accumulation, and if there's no accumulation that means there will be class, and if there's class that means that theoretically I should be going to it. I keep refreshing the New School's website and looking for a cancellation notice, but I'm not seeing one yet.

The thing is, I don't even mind my classes. Tonight it's Kierkegaard, whose writings I've enjoyed quite a bit so far. To a certain extent, I feel my reluctance to go to classes stems from intellectual snobbery. Honestly, in discussions in class I don't hear much that I haven't already thought of upon reading the text. Part of the problem is inherent in studying philosophy; you see, there are 3 or 4 types of people who take philosophy. One is the older student, frequently talkative in class and just as frequently with little of note to say. A part of it, I think, stems from the fact that they are more of a contemporary to the professor, and so assume a relationship closer to friendship than that of student-prof is more appropriate. At times, with an older student in the class, it can degenerate into a private conversation held with 10 other people in the room listening.

The next type is the slacker. These are the people who take philosophy because it sounds cool, but don't ever do the readings. Inevitably they come into class and share their opinions, which are useless because they have little or no bearing on the question, or because if they'd done the reading and understood the reading, they might have found the philosopher's answer to their opinion and might have been able to present a more cogent argument against it. These are the people who raise their hands and say, "I don't know if I agree with that, because this one time I was out with my friends at the mall, and's like when you....I don't you know what I mean?" NO, I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, YOU PRETENTIOUS FUCK, BECAUSE YOU CAN'T EXPRESS YOURSELF IN A COHERENT SENTENCE. STOP WASTING MY TIME AND MONEY.

The third type is the majority of philosphy classes - the average student. They may or may not get the readings, but they don't raise their hands in class to ask about things.

The fourth type is the know-it-all. Typically you'll have one and only one of these in each class, but you'll know exactly who they are the first day of class. They're the ones who come into philosophy thinking they know all the answers, who judge writings and their validity without really understanding what the writer is trying to say. It's like the zen concept of the teacup. If you are not going into a philosophy class with the intention of understanding (or doing your best to understand, in some cases) the arguments of a philosopher, what's the goddamn point? Yes, you can disagree with a philosopher's conclusions, but in order to do so and not be a complete dumbass, you must first understand said conclusions and their reasons. Chances are most of them were smarter than any of us; you're not going to waltz into your first class on Kant and tear apart his whole philosophy, so don't try.

If I sound bitter and angry about some of that, it's because I am. I'm really ok with that - living in New York does quite a bit to put you in touch with your anger. I don't appreciate people wasting my money because they haven't done their work. At the very least, if you haven't done the reading or can't remember exactly what your point is, shut the hell up and hope the professor doesn't ask you any questions directly. If you don't understand something, by all means ask, but don't make assumptions based on a faulty reading and then launch into some huge diatribe about how the philospher in question is totally wrong, because chances are you'll end up looking stupid. And then you look stupid and I hate you with all the passion of one too many classes on Plato's Republic. And that's just not a happy place to be.

So you wanna be an actor

Musical theater will always be my first love. It is ostensibly what I trained for - for 2 years I ate, lived and breathed musical theater.

Then I graduated.

And then I didn't get cast in any musicals.

I did get cast in plays. I did get cast in movies. Eventually I got cast in a tv show. More on that later, if I feel like it. Generally I'm uncomfortable tooting my own horn, but one thing I've learned is that at this stage in my career, there isn't many other people who will do it for me.

But musical theater didn't happen, and not for lack of trying (for once). I went to every Miss Saigon and every Flower Drum Song call there was. I went to Rent calls, I went to Grease calls, I crashed Equity calls, etc etc etc. I got callbacks, but never cast.

This led me to a realization that I think everyone comes to at some point: my teachers lied. To be sure, there were many aspects they were brutally honest about. The best teacher I had at AMDA (an acting teacher), used to talk for 5 to 10 minutes before starting class about something. Sometimes it would be articles from the New York Times - I remember one article about Robert Caro's biography on LBJ where there was a picture showing LBJ talking to another member of the Senate - and his physicality (LBJ was very tall), using his size and crowding the man, pressing forward and jabbing a finger into his chest, was what Ray (my teacher) emphasized. I actually picked up that part (there are 3 so far, and Caro is only up to LBJ's time in the Senate) of the biography and it's a fascinating look at a man who was probably the greatest politician of his generation, with Nixon a close second. That comment, of course, is deliberately neutral - to be a good politician does not mean that one is a good person. Anyways, back to Ray. One day - it might even have been the first day - Ray said to us all that out of say, 100,000 actors who are in SAG, 10,000 actually get work in a given year. He himself had gone to acting school when he was starting, and out of his class, he was the only one at that time still acting. He told us to look around the room (our class was 20 people) and think about the fact that in 10 years time, all but one or two of us would have stopped acting.

It's now three years later. To my knowledge, 2 other people that were in that class with me continue to pursue acting here in New York.

But back to the lies. Teachers (well, my teachers) all said that having a great voice was fine and all, but after 5 seconds an audience member has made a decision if they like your voice or not. And after those 5 seconds, you'd damn well better have something else to keep them interested or they'd get bored, and possibly irritated. This, of course, was said with the express intention of pushing their take on musical theater - acting through a song. But then, the people who became the favorites in class inevitably were the ones who had great voices, sometimes able to match it with acting talent but frequently not.

Part of the problem stems from the very fact that music is inherently emotional. It's right there in the music itself. I read a story in the Times once where a theater had put on an experiment; it took the same show, but gave it to two different companies - one a musical theater company, the other an opera company. They then housed both productions in the same theater, giving viewers the opportunity to see the two different approaches. In the article, the difference was summed up as this: opera takes its acting cues from the music; the composer, through dynamics and keys (in other words, technical means) has already set the tone, and all that is required of the performer is to fulfill those technicalities. Musical theater, however, seeks justification for the musicality in the lyric. But, as in opera, in musical theater an incredible voice can emote even if the performer isn't doing anything other than singing. Or at least give the impression of emotion.

This is not to bash opera; it is a perfectly valid art form and I can appreciate it as well, but to me it always feels highly technical. There are few things as thrilling as a human voice that has been trained so perfectly that it can soar to notes that hit you on an instinctive level. There are also few things as disappointing as a technically perfect voice that lacks any emotive quality whatsoever other than the music itself - Josh Groban comes to mind. When you listen to good musical theater (and there isn't much of it out there - I mean the REALLY good stuff) you can see exactly what the performer is doing at any given time, because it's all there in their inflections - the way they sing the lyric. Bad musical theater, of course, makes you wish for an automatic weapon of some kind. I had a teacher that always used to say, the reason why people hate musical theater is because they've only seen bad musical theater. I can't really argue with that. I've seen a lot of bad musical theater.

But back to acting. As it went in school, so it went in auditions. You come to the realization very quickly that your look is important. You don't have to be beautiful (as long as you don't try to audition for beautiful roles). You just need to have a look that producers and directors can define. Being asian, I was immediately disqualified for many roles. That's just the way it is. Even if people might be open to (as it's referred to) non-traditional casting, most producers will not or can not take that risk.

It does, though, work both ways. Being asian, there were some roles I could audition for that I could not have otherwise. Pretty much everything I have been cast in, the casting notice stated that they were looking for an asian.

This post is already pretty long, and I haven't even gotten into the nuts and bolts of acting (well, what I think about acting). That's because the casting process is the most time-consuming portion of being an actor. You can think of it this way: actors are self-employed, and their company is themselves. You can be the best actor in the world, but if you can't promote yourself; if you don't have the strength or the will to mail out your information, to go to auditions and to keep going to auditions, to mail things to agents and to continually hound them until you get the one that you want, and then to keep pushing with your agent to get the parts that you want, you won't be able to make a living as an actor.

For those who don't know, the casting process for an starting actor goes like this. In New York, there are several weekly publications that list notices from productions looking for actors. Backstage is the main one for stage, and as New York is mainly a stage (musicals and straight plays) town, that's the main one here. Directors or producers will either be asking you to mail in your headshot and resume, or simply give a time and location for an audition, as well as the pertinent details - character breakdowns, whether they want to hear a prepared monologue or will be providing sides, that sort of thing. If it's a mail in, you send in your stuff and if it's an audition you go to the audition, and then you wait.

Typically (for me), out of every 10 things you mail you might get two to three calls. Some weeks you'll get more, some weeks you'll get nothing. Out of every 10 auditions you go to, you'll probably get a few call backs (that's when you back, to see you again. It's the next level, when they're trying to decide between a few people which is the one they really want). The bigger the production is, the more call backs they'll hold - to get into the big Disney productions here in a lead role you usually have to be seen by them at least 4-5 times.

In my experience, it's rarely predictable. You have months where you go to auditions, you get call backs and you never get roles. Then you have a month where 2 or 3 productions all call you and want you. Then it's back to nothing. When I started I would be overjoyed to get a call back - after a few months it was a good thing but nothing to be excited about. You learn to even out the peaks and valleys or you get a therapist or you quit. Or maybe both of those last two options.

It's this business side that, I think, pushes a lot of people out of the profession. Everyone who goes to acting school might enjoy it, they might be talented at it, but if they're not willing to work for it, they won't stick around. Look at the people who are Hollywood stars - many of them are worse actors than people you can see in high school productions (not many, but some). But what made those people stars (aside from the beautiful people who come and go with their looks and lucky people who happen to know the right people), above and beyond whatever talent they might have had, was an inner drive that would not stop pushing, would not stop working until they had made it to a certain professional level.

I'm still not tired, but I think that's about all I have to say about this for now. Hopefully it's somewhat coherent.

SO not tired

So, a bit more about me. I grew up mostly in Mississauga, Ontario. Went to Appleby College, which is a private school in Oakville, Ontario. When I was younger, I was skipped ahead a grade. For those of you wondering which, as near as I can figure it was first grade. See, I was in Kindergarden, and doing the whole half-day thing, when one day they had me take an IQ test (which are, I believe, considered pretty unreliable for kids, a fact which is exacerbated by to cultural bias. There are ones which are supposed to be less biased now, but I'm pretty sure back in 1980-whatever they weren't really thinking about that. That also didn't seem to affect me, being brought up in North American society, since I did well enough that they, I'm getting ahead of the story outside the brackets). Soon after, I was told that I would continue going to Kindergarden in the mornings, and then in the afternoon I would walk my happy self down the hall to the grade one classroom, where I would stay for the rest of the day. I assume they talked it over with my parents, who were more than happy to have me skipped ahead - I was, after all, following in my older brother's footsteps, who had also skipped a grade.

Appleby also did high school in 4 years at a time when the rest of the province did it in 5, meaning I finished high school at 16 and went to college at 17, having had a birthday in the summer. Queen's University it was, Commerce - sort of a pre-MBA program. Macro- and microeconomics, accounting, that sort of thing.

And then I failed out.

It was never a question of difficulty, I just didn't go to class. I'm not particularly (a word I used to pronounce particular-I-ly as recently as 3 years ago for some odd reason I've never been able to figure out) proud of that, nor am I of what happened next, but it happened and I suppose it's one of the things that's made me what and who I am today, so I'm not too upset about it. I did manage to pass one class - macroeconomics - based on the the midterm and final, but that was it.

So, I was done at Queen's. My dad pulled some strings and managed to get me into York University (back in Toronto) for the next year. Unfortunately (fortunately?), the same thing happened. Didn't go to class, passed one - Social Philosophy, with an actual good grade - failed everything else.

It is not, as I said, something I look back on with pride. But it led me to the conclusion that if I was failing out of college because I couldn't motivate myself to go to class, perhaps I should be doing something I actually wanted to go do. Like every kid, I grew up with the aspirations of my parents yoked on my shoulders. And like every kid, I had come to a point where I had to honestly evaluate whether or not those expectations were for me.

While I was at Queen's, I auditioned for and was cast in their production of Guys and Dolls (Harry the Horse). If you watch the movie he's played as a straight man, pretty boring. I remember in the audition, the director (after I'd read the first time) asked for an angrier reading. I ended up doing an odd Gilbert Gottfried-esque reading, which they loved. ANYways, I was cast in that, and I ended up playing computer games until 3-4 am, sleeping through my morning classes, plain old not going to my afternoon classes and then going to rehearsals later in the evenings, which I never missed.

That's sort of where I stopped. Classes didn't interest me. At York I would wake up, drive all the way to the university (about 30-45 minutes) and then sleep in my car because I didn't feel like going to class. But I could always get myself to rehearsals. So why not give that a shot? I found out about Sheridan and Ryerson, both in the Toronto area, and also had a friend from Queen's who'd had a friend who'd gone to this school in New York, AMDA. So those were the three options I settled on.

Again, laziness. I completely screwed myself out of Sheridan and Ryerson, messing up those auditions. With a lot of help from my girl at the time I managed to put it together for the AMDA audition and got in, bringing me here. 2 years later I finished up at AMDA (Feb, 2003) and started auditioning. Did that for a year, then found out my visa was going to expire and there was nothing I could do, short of getting married, because I hadn't gotten a Bachelor's in the States. Luckily, AMDA had an arrangement with The New School University (here in NY) where your time at AMDA was fully credited to you, towards a BFA. So now I'm going there, with a chance to finish up what I started way back in 1998.

I don't know if I believe that you can learn from your mistakes. The way I see it, when you make a big mistake - well, first of all you don't usually recognize it as a mistake until some time has passed. But when you realize, in hindsight, that you've made a mistake, that mistake is typically because of a personal failing. To a large degree, the person that you are going to be is fully formed by the time you finish high school. That's why all the future social interactions you have are just like high school - because few, if any people, ever get away from that mentality. Once you get into college and beyond, you can try your best to avoid it and succeed to a certain extent, but if you work in an office; if you go to a church; if you have almost any interaction with groups of people the same relationships will emerge.

What I do believe about mistakes, though, is that they and the situtations they place you in help to define you as a person. Everyone has their own personal issues to deal with, and it is these issues and how we respond to them that create our personalities. Would I be here in New York if I hadn't failed out of Queen's? No. Would I be here in New York if I hadn't failed out of York after failing out of Queen's? No. I suppose you could argue that being in New York is more of a situation, and has little to do with my personality and its change. But I would respond that you've never lived in New York.

This is really long, but I'm still not tired. Going to wrap this up and start another.


gogo blog!

As the title suggests, I am an actor. And no, I'm probably not in anything you've seen. I suppose a cynic would say that makes me an aspiring actor, which I'm ok with too. Currently, I'm living in New York City - moved here from Mississauga, Ontario (Canada) in 2001 for theater school (AMDA - the American Musical and Dramatic Academy).

The title of the blog (for those wondering) is shamelessly stolen from a Douglas Coupland book, Microserfs. I recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting read; he's one of my favorite authors because a) he has a great ear for dialogue, and b) he speaks for a lot of Generation X (which is actually a little bit older than me, I think) - specifically, the loss of direction that typifies many of the people who grew up in that generation and in the years since then. But where an author like Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke) turns those feelings into dark commentary, Coupland's tends to be more on the reflective side, with a lighter ultimate message. That's not to say Palahniuk isn't good in his own right; his writing is excellent as well, but I'm a bit more familiar with Coupland's.

Plus, Actor Club sounds like either a bad high school drama group or a John Hughes spoof.