This post is a must-read for actors, improvisers, and anyone who’s ever struggled with self-esteem. Reproduced with permission from Jimmy Carrane‘s blog.
I recently had an audition for NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” A security guard, a couple of lines. Pretty easy… or so I thought.
But, whenever I have an audition, I put so much pressure on myself that it’s no longer about getting the job, it’s about my self-worth. The sad thing is I have been going to audition after audition for more than 20 years — for commercials and industrials and bit parts in movies and TV shows — and 70 percent of the time when I leave an audition I sink down into a terrible pit, asking myself why I am even trying to be an actor.
At home, my wife, Lauren, ran the lines with me. It gets frustrating running the lines with her since she can memorize them after four or five readings, but I feel like I am back in high school cramming for a World History test.
We kept going over the script and each time, I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from her, so I kept losing confidence. Lately, I have been so needy in my acting and performing, looking for that outside validation from my wife, and when I don’t get it, I am more than willing to blow every opportunity that comes my way. They call that self-sabotage. I left the house feeling like I sucked.
When I walked into the room for the audition, the director and producer sat comfortably in the back on a leather sofa. I tried to find the girl who was going to read with me as someone handed me a tiny microphone to clip onto my shirt. Then I nervously began to read the script.
They let me read it three times, normally a good sign.
The second time, they said: “Don’t bend down when you deliver the lines.” The third time, they said: “This guy is business as usual.”
When I was finished, I felt like I might have a shot. I took direction pretty well and they had asked me to do it three times, which meant they must have seen something they liked.
As I was leaving the room, the casting director, whom I have known for years, followed me out and pulled me into vacant room and said in a very supportive tone:
“Do you know you are reading the first line?”
“Um… um…. No, I didn’t,” I said, feeling like a brick hit me in the head.
“I wanted you to know that. That is how you lost the last job.”
“Is that what I did in there?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. Obviously, if I had to ask her, I was doing it in there.
“What can I do next time?” I asked, still seeing stars from the brick.
“You know the script. Memorize the first line. Say it to yourself five times in the waiting room before you go in.”
Immediately, my brain went to three places:
1. Oh god, they will never call me in again.
2. I suck.
3. I want to kill myself.
But after a few minutes I realized that her feedback was actually incredibly helpful, and I felt hopefully that she’d taken the time to give me some constructive notes. Maybe it meant she thought I had potential.
The next night I went to couples therapy with Lauren, and I still had a bit of an emotional whiplash from the day before.
At the end of the session I said: “Maybe I am projecting this onto Lauren, but I don’t think Lauren thinks I am a good actor.”
There was a long pause, and I heard her squirm on the couch next to me.
“I have to be honest with you. I don’t think you are a good actor.”
Another brick. Then I went to those three places again. (Refer to above)
I felt angry. She was telling me this now, after we just got married?! She is my wife, she is supposed to support me. I was devastated. What was I supposed to do with this?
Later, I talked to my friend, Dan, who said, “I don’t know what this all means, but I bet it makes you a better actor.” Though I still felt angry about this, I had to agree with Dan.
After a week of wanting to kill my wife for saying this, I started realizing something: What I hated wasn’t her opinion about my acting, it was my opinion about my acting. I was the one who didn’t think I was very good. And though in a perfect world your partner should think everything you do is Oscar-worthy, I would rather have her be honest with me than blow smoke up my ass.
And I started thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned from other improvisers over the years. Jon Favreau used to be an improviser here in Chicago before he went on to become a hugely successful writer, director and actor. He wasn’t known as a great improviser, and he got lost at iO and couldn’t get any recognition at Second City or The Annoyance Theater. It was safe to say Jon wasn’t getting much validation from the improv community he wanted to to be part of, but he didn’t let that stop him. Favreau believed in himself. He believed he had talent. And he especially didn’t care what other people said. After he got a co-starring role in the film “Rudy,” he went out to LA and made things happen for himself, starting with writing and starring in “Swingers.” He surprised everyone, except himself.
When it comes to confidence, I am a work in progress. The one thing I am clear about is no one is going to have confidence in you, if you don’t have confidence in you. If you believe you are good, they will believe you are good. Any TV and film jobs I have booked over the years all had the same thing in common: I went into the audition ready to play with confidence.
I am going to be blunt. Working on my confidence takes work. Constant work, hard work, and sometimes I will be able to get help form the people I am closest to and sometimes not. And the more confidence I get, the less I look for outside validation. Even from my wife.
At the risk of sounding like the old man standing on his porch shouting “Get off my lawn, you kids,” I need to kvetch.
One of the reasons many see improvisers as the 19th century public saw actors (“No Dogs or Actors Allowed!”) is that we don’t carry ourselves in a professional manner. We aren’t acting professionally nor are we treating each other professionally.
In the past month I’ve had three groups who’ve hired me to coach them cancel at the last minute. It’s unprofessional and it’s a bad precedent. I’ve lost work, time and money. I and many of the other teachers and coaches and directors that are hired spend a great deal of time preparing for these sessions, thinking about how to help individual casts find their voice, finesse their shows, further their careers, and, perhaps, make money. Yes, make money.
If you’re doing this for the art, cool, I get it. But there’s also a few shekels to be made from some of this work. The more of us who see the possibilities in that, the more the public will respond to the strong work being presented. The more we work on our craft with focused professionals the better we look. The better we look the more the public will see how great this art form can be. Should you blow off rehearsals when you’ve hired someone to come and work with you, you’re not just diluting the power of your work, you’re also continuing this idea that theatrical improvisation is merely a parlor game, or a series of easy jokes, or an evening of sloppy work delivered by shitty actors. I know that’s not who we are. I know we are able to do better.
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. By the same token, you are the one that’s ultimately responsible for you being treated respectfully and honorably. If I say, “Hey, it’s okay that we scheduled a rehearsal and no one showed up,” that doesn’t serve any of us.
I allow you to treat me the way you do. Should I stand up and say, “No, we can all do better,” that doesn’t just make me stronger, it makes all of us see this work with professional eyes and hearts.
Honor me and my time. In the end that will serve us all.
Jeremy Birrell is an actor, improviser, musician, and avid Beatles fan. Canadians know him as “that funny guy” from a variety of commercials. He is also the star of the long-running improvised spectacle, coincidentally named The Jeremy Birrell Show.
Ahh the beauty of improv. So fresh, so raw, so unpredictable – yet so scary, so harsh, so unorganized. What better tool for an actor to use when entering an audition with the hope of winning some friends, but possibly losing them before he or she can exit the casting room with an awkward “Thanks again guys. Do you want me to leave the door open or…?”
In my experience, being an actor and an improviser go hand in hand. Both are about taking risks.
When I first started out in the biz, I was a young pup: naïve, possibly better looking (?), desperately trying to leave a mark and/or trademark on the vast, gargantuan, evil Dark Lord that was and maybe still is the acting industry.
Whether it was horrible one-liner auditions like, “Hey man, you goin’ to eat that?” or even more horrific commercial auditions like, “Hey man, you goin’ to eat that?” I was constantly trying to add a little extra JB charm. (That’s Jeremy Birrell, not Justin Bieber.)
One time my agent sent me out for a non-union gig. It was your classic cattle call with people wedged in, random sweaty skin, not to mention the whiff of insecurity in the room; either that, or a lack of ventilation and deodorant combined.
When I finally got called in, I found out it was a group audition. People were lined up against the wall like they just murdered someone. Meanwhile the casting table of 10 or so people immediately sized us up, looking confused, semi-pissed off, or both. As I was trying to figure out who the director was, he finally spoke without making eye contact.
“OK guys, I don’t want to spend too much time on this.”
Awesome. So the director is the guy who looks pissed off the most. As we took our group direction (“Dance monkey, shut up monkey, start talking monkey”), one of the actors delivered a line to another actor. This is where the actor decided to improvise a line or two.
It’s a valid choice; we’re all trying to add a little extra to our current “nobody” status. The problem was, his current audience was in no way forgiving or patient. It’s good to try something new, fresh and out of the ordinary, but when something clearly isn’t working, move on. Or even better, find an ending.
With the director already shifting in his seat, the actor chose to riff a few extra lines in French. Everyone at the casting table shook their heads while he continued his show-off French.
When he finally exited the scene (foreshadowing his no-opportunity with this gig), I decided what better time in my SOC status than to toss in an ad lib myself. I leaned in to the girl beside me and said, “Wow, that guy can speak French?”
There was actual laughter from the other side of the table. The director gave a smirk, like, “You weren’t supposed to say an f’ing word, but that was sort of OK.” Needless to say, I won me some friends that day, as well as a semi-principal role in a three-day commercial shoot. I also had the pleasure of working with that same director, who might I add, liked to scream “FUCK!” after every time he said “CUT!” It never got old.
Cut to a year later. I have a really nice director congratulating me on getting a commercial during the wardrobe fitting, and telling me basically why I got the part.
“We liked that thing you did with your hands,” he said, like I should remember instantly.
“Oh yeah, right…the hands thing.”
What the fuck is he talking about? Then, like a fly hitting a windshield: holy shit, he’s talking about a little gesture I did with my hands, insinuating a catfight that was about to take place in a boardroom. (Yes, it was a beer commercial.) Something so simple, so little, had once again won me some friends, and this time a principal role.
Well actually no, it didn’t. The next day, after a second wardrobe fitting, the client decided he just didn’t like the way I looked, mainly in the facial region.
Fast forward a few years later. I suddenly start booking a lot of commercials. All the directors sort of know my name – or at least recognize my teeth. The receptionists at the casting houses actually say Hi, with full eye contact. And they don’t point out to everyone in the waiting room that I’m horribly late. Instead they just say, “So Jeremy, you’ll be going in next…” And every actor in the room hates me. OK, so maybe that doesn’t always happen. Every actor in the room usually loves me when I come in late.
I think what shifted was that I had to work at it. The more rooms I got in, the better I got. I took more risks, which enabled me to be more intuitive with what the director was trying to get across in his or her (very brief) description of a scene.
Don’t get me wrong. I still go in every now and then, completely bomb, and shit all over the audition unintentionally with no clue if I have a serious case of IBS. The point is, when having a bad audition, whatever I brought into it, it’s not working. We performers all know that feeling, and know what we can learn and take from that.
In conclusion, I think that with acting and improv, you’re never going to fully win over everyone. Some will be pleased, and some not so pleased. But in the midst of all that, it’s important to keep going. Keep moving forward. Take all the experiences, all the wisdom you’ve stored so preciously in your head like an owl and f’ing use it. (I said “f’ing” because I don’t want you to think I’m yelling at you.)
We as actors, improvisers, and performers must constantly remind ourselves to dust off any remnants of a possible “chipped shoulder.” If all we see is a jaded industry, then that’s what will continue to suck our souls dry. And before you know it people start asking if you’re a vampire. Or even worse, “Were you in any of those Twilight films?”
As an improviser, you know the importance of play. If you’re not having fun and being silly, if you’re not in a playful state on stage or in rehearsal – the dreaded “in your head” zone – it’s really hard to have a great scene.
As John Cleese discussed in his brilliant speech on creativity (click here to watch), play is vital not just in the arts, but in every endeavour that requires creative thinking, from engineering to brain surgery.
The problem, according to Ken Robinson, is that creativity is systematically driven out of us by the time most of us are adults. The main reason? Fear of making mistakes; of somehow getting it wrong. And that’s an issue not only for improvisers, but for everyone. Because creativity isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s a must if we’re to evolve as a civilization.
Of all the TED Talks I’ve seen, this one resonates the most. I’ve probably watched it a dozen times, and will watch it dozens more. Click below to view.
If you enjoyed this video, check out his RSA Animate talk here, and his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.