12 Steps to Consistently Brilliant Performances, Part 3

Concluding from last two weeks’ Part 1 & Part 2:

Step 8: Create the Environment and Place Everyone and Everything
When you’re on set, you won’t need to do this step because you will be told or know or see where everyone and everything is, but for an audition, you need to intentionally place everyone and everything you’ll need for the scene.

Let’s choose your average police interrogation scene as an example. Let’s say that in the scene, you are being interrogated by two officers, there is a file folder on the table in front of you with all the evidence, and there’s a two-way mirror behind which others are presumably observing your interrogation.

You need to split your points of focus for each of the officers, choosing where they are, as well as the folder and mirror. You might choose to place the mirror directly to your left at the wall and the point of focus for the folder of evidence at the knees of the reader.

As for the officers, the general rule of thumb is to make the reader whoever you have the most dialogue with. From there, for each other person you see or interact with in the scene, pick a separate point of focus, ideally fanning out from the camera as the center point.

Also, choose specific objects to focus on, instead of general areas. When, in your real life, do you just look in a person’s general direction when talking to them instead of their eyes? Pick something you can focus on, like a lamp or object on their desk, etc. Do not use other non-actors/readers in the room as points of focus, unless so directed. When you’ve got a bunch of people in the room watching you, like in a producer session, they are there to observe, not participate in the scene with you. 

The point of all this is to immerse you and us into the story, and make it clear to those watching you and your tape later what is going on and what your choices are. There’s nothing wrong, per se, about making the reader everyone, but, at the highest level, acting is a game of inches and, all other things being equal, we’ll probably go with the actor who went the extra mile to immerse us and make the story that much more clear.

Also, you do not want to be using up critical brain bandwidth deciding that stuff in the audition, when your full attention should be on having the experience. Choose, and rehearse, knowing where everything lives and take the two seconds in the room at your audition to choose specific objects for your points of focus.

Step 9: Memorize Lines
At this point, if you have time to do so, get off book. Don’t memorize how to say the lines. Just memorize the words. Once you’re off-book, the lines will say themselves based on all the work and choices and thoughts and feelings you have as you have your acting experience. Not everyone memorizes lines the same way, so experiment and find what works best for you. It helps me to do this with a friend, in person or via phone or Skype/FaceTime. You’ll know you’re off-book when you can do an activity while saying your lines flawlessly and effortlessly.

Make sure you’re word-perfect. Not close, but totally, word-for-word perfect. It’s not your place to rephrase the dialogue in your own words unless so directed. It’s the writer’s job to write the words and good writing deserves to be heard. It’s your job to take whatever the writer has written and bring it to life.

If you don’t have time to get off-book, you’ll need to use good cold-reading technique— knowing how to have a great experience and give a great performance while using the sides. Many actors, even experienced ones, have poor cold-reading skills and have an angsty relationship with sides. It takes practice and a specific technique to do it in a way that doesn’t work against you. The basic concept goes like this, though you’ll need to practice it with guidance to get it just right: Connect at the end of every thought or sentence. Stay connected when it isn’t your line.

These next two steps are the ones that are going to get the most pushback from different schools of thought. I want you to know that I fully respect those other approaches and I would never say that my way is the only right way. I will, however, say that my opinion and these steps are based on what I know works consistently for the actors and students I’ve helped book jobs every day for seven years of on-camera casting and teaching, as well as what works for me.

Step 10: Perform Top Choices on Camera and Critique
Let me give you some background: I got into casting within six months of being in L.A. Every day I audition 100 or more actors for on-camera projects. Obviously, when they’re here in the studio, they’re right in front of me, but I’m never watching them in the flesh. I’m watching their performance on my monitors or through the eye of the camera. When we watch the actors’ performances later, we’re watching what they left behind on tape. That is their product that we are now reviewing for our casting purposes to make our decisions.

You need to know what is showing up there and be accountable for it. You need to know that you did what you wanted to do in the room, and that your work showed up as intended. It’s funny; actors always want feedback and lament the lack of it from auditions and yet don’t put themselves on tape and develop their own ability to give themselves feedback. You know what good acting is, for Pete’s sake! You can critique yourself! 

I believe whole-heartedly that you should put yourself on tape for everything. I do an average of 25–50 takes for every single audition of my own. It is one of the most important parts of prep that most of the actors I know don’t do. I simply would not be shooting my eighth network show in four months without it.

I believe that an actor who doesn’t quality check their work by putting themselves on tape and critiquing it is the same as a chef who doesn’t taste his food before sending it out to his guests, which any fellow Gordon Ramsey fan knows is a huge no-no. How can you ensure consistently great acting if you’re not even looking at it and evaluating it? That also puts actors in the dangerous place of being dependent on coaches or others to tell them if their acting is working. I contend that you need to be the expert on your own craft. It’s your eye for quality work that needs to be trained.

I get the fears that people have—that watching themselves gets them in their head about their performances, or that they can’t stand the sight or sound of themselves, etc. I’ve heard all the reasons why not, and all of them go away with time and practice. It is weird watching yourself at first, but with time and repetition, you see past the superficial and can start to focus on what is most important: the story and your work.

Put your various character choices on tape and see what is working and what isn’t. Or, if you like them equally, which way tells the most compelling story to you? Keep experimenting and refining until you’re loving what you’re seeing, in the two or three major character choices you’ve prepared.

Step 11: Choose the Performance to Lead With and Prepare
You have to put up one way first at the audition, so choose which way you think best serves the story and the show, or all things being equal, your favorite way. But have the other one or two options in your back pocket.

Practice your lead choice until you can’t mess it up. Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong. Keep rehearsing it on tape until every take represents your choices as intended. The goal here isn’t to lock yourself into running a pre-planned routine beat-by-beat like a robot, but rather to prime the pumps and immerse yourself into the story so that even when you’re discovering each take fresh, with new thoughts and feelings, you’re still telling the same story and character choice.

Step 12: Perform. Set the Table for Yourself and Just Have an Experience  
I tell newer actors that acting is so much harder in ways you’d never expect and so much easier in ways you’d never expect. If you’ve done the prep work, the actual acting in the moment is effortless. It’s when we’re underprepared that we push to compensate. The actual preparation and rehearsal is the hardest work you’ll do.

When you’re fully prepared and rehearsed, you need to let go and trust that the work you did will be there to support you when you perform. All you need to do is set the table for yourself; set yourself up to succeed. Before you enter the studio to audition, use whatever process works for you to immerse yourself in your character thoughts, choices, and the story so that you’re present, full, and ready to go when you audition. When you get in the room, move or use the chair, choose your points of focus and remember and begin with your chosen moment before.

Then, just have an experience. Just listen and respond and trust that all your hard work will show up effortlessly. It’s not your job to entertain or wow anyone with your talent. Your job is just to have a truthful, human experience.

Final Word
Obviously, it is so hard to condense what I teach over the course of hours, weeks, and months into three articles, but, I can promise you that if you apply the steps I’ve outlined, I have no doubt that you will grow as an artist, reinforce your own process with new tools, or finally have a process to adopt and adapt along your acting journey.

Because our art is so personal, and our process and craft so tied into our identities as artists, I want to reiterate that my goal with this article was just to share my process, which is just one of many great ones out there. I have a particular point of view based on my experience. I am well aware that everyone is wonderfully different and that no one approach will work for everyone.

So, thank you for allowing me to share mine with you, and if me writing a few words down helps even one of you grow as an artist, that’s the most I ask can ask for.

Until next time!