Every so often I have to zoom out and consider my writing “To-Do” list, which years ago stopped being an abstract concept and became a spreadsheet that includes a bar graph. Vestigial habits from my math nerd youth. There are always dozens of projects there, so I’m not ever worried about lacking an idea to write. The struggle is the focus, the motivation, and the effort to prioritize. The truth is I always have multiple projects actively loaded up in the frontal lobe (sort of like I almost always have multiple broswer tabs open, I guess). Whether or not this is the most effective way to go is irrelevant in the face of the fact that, after well over a decade of this, it’s just how I work.
I do roughly rank the projects there – but “Importance” is a complicated concept. Some of it involves the money chase, and I am blessed when actual money seems enough within grabbing distance that some writing labor to pursue it actually seems like it could work.
But naturally there must also be creative satisfaction – which is to say there are times that my subconscious simply makes up its mind that this is where we are headed, and I can either hook in and ride that giant worm or not. Truth is it’s pretty exciting when that momentum fires up, it’s where projects like Habitat come from.
I think the simple approach is to view this as a binary struggle; but it really isn’t. Even the projects on my “money” list have to have something to them I find creatively stimulating or I wouldn’t be able to do them at all. And I think there’s another impulse that also exerts influence beyond financial needs and the creative joy of the project. I think it actually engulfs the “money” pursuit, because it’s about the results of your work rather than the work itself.
Thinking about that short play that I learned yesterday will get produced, I remembered that it was produced last summer. And I had two 10-minute plays produced this year, and I now know I’ll have at least two produced in 2014, with a whole year to grow that total.
It obviously doesn’t do anything notable for me in terms of finances or fame, but it feels very satisfying to just have any steady habit at all of putting work out there, joining the conversation. I now have enough quality work in both scripts and prose, and good enough habits when it comes to submitting it, to be confident that something of mine, though I can’t always predict where or when, will pop up in a magazine or on a small stage somewhere in America at least once every few months. When so much of Hollywood involves writing these labor-intensive feature screenplays and then pitching them into a vast, uncaring maw, it is important to get results from somewhere.
That’s an important reason for these lists – because I want to keep producing work in film, theater, and literature, it helps me to remember just which facet of my work might want me to go refine some more raw material. I just finished a new short story, my first since the one that got me to critical mass for my upcoming collection. I don’t think I’ll be releasing that in 2013, but early 2014 is unquestionable; and this new story marks the beginning of Collection #2. I shared it to a writing community and started swapping critiques with people, which is always very stimulating.
These things can feel like rewards independent of money, and I think there is a lot of advice out there that says you shouldn’t be satisfied with anything that isn’t money. I don’t agree – don’t be satisfied with anyone in a position to pay you telling you all about the wonders of exposure and all that la-di-da. But if you’re controlling your own destiny? Feel good about being in the conversation, because it does. And as a bonus, I believe it’s the best way to get the people with money to come sniffing around.
Woke up to a nice piece of news: my 10-minute play “A Point of Honor” has been selected as one of nine scripts to be performed at the 10th Annual Snowdance 10-Minute Comedy Festival staged by Over Our Head Players at the Sixth Street Theatre in Racine, Wisconsin. The Festival runs from January 31st through March 2nd, and there will be cash prizes for the script voted “Best in Show” as well as 2nd and 3rd places. So, fingers crossed there.
This is actually the second time this script has found its way to the stage through a contest – it was produced by Lakeshore Players in Minnesota for their 10-Minute Playwriting Contest last summer. Guess I need to get in with a company in Michigan so I can continue my conquest of the Great Lakes States.
The nine scripts were culled from a pool of over 200, which is something to be very proud of; means I rated in the top 4-5% by the reckoning of the judges. I consider that luck territory – meaning that I can take pride that I applied enough skill and craft to create a good script, but when there are this few slots there’s definitely an “eye of the beholder” factor that determines who makes the cut. There is more than one company that has rejected this script along the same odds – one even sent me an anguished e-mail claiming that it was one of the last ones cut.
It’s just part of what we grapple with in trying to sense any control at all over what happens with the creative work we produce; and it’s why you have to make a habit out of tracking submission opportunities, pursuing them, and then getting on with your life without waiting to hear back. It’s the only way to ever turn such unfriendly numbers your way. For that, The Playwrights’ Center is, as ever, the gold standard for leads.
Yesterday was exciting – or rather, much more exciting than you would predict eight hours of waiting to be. The Utah Shakespeare Festival, one of the most prestigious and successful Shakespeare festivals in America, was holding two days of auditions in L.A., and I decided to show up. The first day was focused on gauging musical talent (one of the non-Shakespeare shows they will stage in 2014 is Into the Woods), while yesterday’s focus was dramatic ability. I have performed in musicals before, but it has been a long time and I know they’re not where my best abilities reside.
Utah Shakespeare won’t draw its entire company from L.A. With organizations like these, the majority of the cast is often veterans from the previous year re-upping – it’s a paid gig performing Shakespeare full-time, pretty much a dream job. And for the remaing slots, they will hold auditions in several major cities. Last year, they fielded a company of 67 actors; which makes a sensible benchmark for how many they are likely to need next year. Over the course of 5-ish months they will present a season of eight plays and three staged readings of new works. Four of the plays will be Shakespeare – Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, Henry IV Part I, and Twelfth Night.
I have yet to perform in any of those plays. Add to it the healthy salary (relative to what actors are used to) and you’ve got a pretty irresistible opportunity. But not a simple one to pursue.
Utah Shakespeare is an Equity company, meaning they work with Union talent. I am not in any of the acting unions (just the Writers Guild, which is of no help here). This means that the auditions are heavily, HEAVILY tilted towards allowing Union members the best chance to secure the role. So how does one get in the Union in order to get these sweet advantages? Most often, it means convincing someone to offer you a Union contract instead of an actual Union member. Which means winning on a playing field heavily-tilted against you.
I don’t know if I’m good enough for Utah Shakespeare – that would be difficult to step outside of myself and gauge. I know I’ve received incredible encouragement and support from my peers, and that my track record when it comes to Shakespeare in particular has been pretty strong; not to mention I love doing it. I’ve made a serious study of American Shakespeare Festivals this year in preparation for this time (when seasons are announced and auditions start to post), and Utah won’t be the only one I chase. But it is the most lucrative and prestigious one for which I’ve managed to find a legitimate path of pursuit (I have submitted my headshot and resume to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the last two years, but that’s really like throwing a bottle into the ocean.) I don’t think Shakespeare is any longer something I just hope I get to do – I’m going to do it. It’s just a question of the venue, the play, and the circumstances.
So here’s how yesterday worked. I woke up at about 6:30am, showered, breakfasted, packed a survival bag for the day, and was out the door before 8. My survival bag had my laptop, phone charger, Kindle, my script for the play I’m still performing in Glendale (I knew it was likely I wouldn’t get to come home between the audition and last night’s performance), and a bag of raisins for snacking.
Equity auditions have an official time where sign-ins begin, and an official time where Auditions begin. However, unofficially, non-union actors know that the line to be on top of the sign-in sheet starts well before. For this one, auditions were to start at 10, sign-ins at 9. The first non-union actor was already waiting outside the door at 6am.
Equity Members don’t have to do this. They make their appointments for time slots in advance, and only need to show up by ten minutes before their slot. The day was divided into 20-minute blocks, with room for 6 actors in each block (we were to have 3 minutes of material prepared, preferably two contrasting monologues). IF not enough Equity actors booked slots in that block, or IF any of them didn’t show up in time for their slot, then the Audition Monitor would go to the list and fill the block with names. Priority was given to the EMCs – Equity Membership Candidates. They are enrolled in a program where they can accumulate points towards membership by working hours with participating theaters.
And if the block STILL isn’t filled by Equity members, and the entire list of EMCs is exhausted and no more show up, THEN the Audition Monitor goes to the Non-Equity list.
I had hoped to arrive before 8:30, but an accident on the freeway held me up. I arrived by 8:50. There were 12 EMCs already checked in, and I was #16 on the Non-Equity list.
I snagged the last open chair in the lobby (chivalry kind of doesn’t happen in these scenarios) and settled in to wait. Once in awhile I’d get up, do some stretches, some quiet diction exercises (always been fond of this one), just to keep myself loose. The way the day was organized, you weren’t going to be thrown in there on a moment’s notice, but you didn’t want to ever drift too far away from performance mode.
Different actors coped in different ways. There was nervous chatter, a little playful showing off. One older actor stood in the men’s restroom and boomed his voice off the walls. There was a lot of networking, a lot of stretching and contorting and rehearsing monologues to one’s self. You could be forgiven for confusing the scene with the common room of an asylum.
I read a book, kept friends updated on Facebook, and I got a significant chunk of a short story written. We’ve got the raw audio back from the Habitat recording session and I listened to some of that. By my standards, it was a productive day.
Around 11, the Monitor announced that, even if NO other Equity players made their slots before lunch, the furthest they could conceivably get on the Non-Equity list was three spots. And if the rest of us wanted to take the opportunity to leave and return after lunch, we wouldn’t lose our place on the list. This was very generous of the Monitor, and I was happy to take her up on it. I walked around Burbank, had lunch, spent some time writing at a coffee shop and catching up with a friend by phone.
I went back in promptly at 1:30. Just In Case. A lot of actor behavior is determined by Just In Case – so much of what we do is an absurd gamble that it is very easy to convince yourself that one more absurd gamble couldn’t hurt, and Might Just Help. Auditions were scheduled to end at 6pm, and sometimes the casting people will, by their good graces, voluntarily stay a little longer, but there’s no predicting this. Many people witll stay Just In Case.
The further on it stretches into the afternoon, the more fatigued the directors will be, the more performers, through no fault of their own, will begin to blur together. That’s human nature – studies have shown that a criminal who catches a judge after lunch will get more leniency. Late in the afternoon you get the book thrown at you.
A bit after 3, I started to see actors from the Non-Equity list losing hope. They talked about other things they needed to get done that day, snuck looks at the list, tried to do the math, sounded each other out to see if maybe enough OTHER people were thinking about leaving that maybe they should actually stick around.
Me, I just stayed comfy in my chair. An actress who has also worked with Shakespeare Orange County recognized me and introduced herself. We hadn’t worked together, and when I saw her in Twelfth Night, she was in drag, so I felt okay about not having recognized her.
Around 4, EMCs were getting in pretty regularly, and then that Non-Equity actress who had shown up at 6am got her name called. It felt like a victory for all of us. In the next batch, two non-Equity names were called that hadn’t stayed. That scratched them from the list, and I started to think I might have a chance before 6pm if this pace kept up.
And then, at 4:50, exactly 8 hours after I had arrived, I was placed in the 5pm group.
Non-Equities like myself were instructed that due to time constraints, we would have only one minute to do one monologue, and it had to be Shakespeare. Eight hours of waiting in order to have one minute to show off what I can do. But I wouldn’t have even got that if I hadn’t done the hardest thing of all, which was dare to show up.
After drowning in adrenaline out in the hallway, I finally got in the room. The two artistic directors of Utah Shakespeare were there with my headshot and resume. Strip away all the details of an audition and this is what you nearly always end up with – a couple of people at a table, watching, waiting to be wowed.
I introduced myself and did my monologue. I had chosen a speech by Mowbray in Richard II. It has a great ramp-up in intensity for a minute-long piece, and is good for showing off facility with the language. I also gambled that it would be something the directors wouldn’t be sick of hearing yet – I had heard a few renditions of “If music be the food of love…” from the lobby.
Right before I finished, one of the directors held a pen over my resume and made a quick stroke mark, then slid it over to show his colleague. Who knows if that stroke mark was good or bad; but you can bet I’ll never forget it. I thanked them and walked out.
Honestly, I feel like I acquitted myself well. I had kept myself loose, and managed to use the surge of energy without panicking or losing focus. I haven’t performed that monologue often, but I think that was the best I’ve delivered it. And the last time I used it, I ended up in Shakespeare O.C., so that’s encouraging.
And that was it. As I was leaving, the Monitor was telling the 15-20 non-Equities remaining that the directors had agreed to see them all. Even though I personally didn’t need their graciousness, I was glad they gave it. After a full day behind that table, I wouldn’t blame them at all for wanting to get out of there.
I thanked the Monitor, gathered my things, and drove off to get dinner and perform a play. A whole day of build up to deliver a speech, and then hope.
Honestly, the odds are long and I know this. Over two days they would have seen 250-300 L.A. actors, most of them Equity professionals with more experience and/or training, and better audition circumstances, than I had. I can tell myself that, as a man in his 30′s who has a track record of playing either up or down in age as needed, I’m in a demographic sweet spot for a Shakespeare company, especially one doing a man-crowded history like Henry IV, Part I. A lot of men my age might not have the mobility in life to consider pulling up the stakes and spending 4-6 months in Utah. And among those auditioning it was about 60-40 in favor of women, which means that as long as my odds are, it’s not nearly as long as it would be for them.
But that’s small comfort, mathematically. My guess is that, at the absolute most, 6-10 contracts could be offered to this group. It’s a gargantuan assumption to think I might be good enough, and even if I am it might not matter, because who knows what they need?
Really, though, I see it as an accomplishment that I did this at all. For one minute, those two artistic directors were my audience, and I got to do Shakespeare. And any opportunity to do Shakespeare is pretty good.
Saw a phenomenal photography exhibit at LACMA this week which reminded me I haven’t gone out strolling with my camera in far too long. So last night, after having coffee with a friend in Seal Beach, I went down to the pier just to see if I could get anything I liked.
I feel pretty good about this one:
Last night was the recording session for the audio play version of Habitat. Chrissie captured me making my “smoldering” face in the recording studio:
Likewise, I captured her making her “I’m having so much fun!” face:
There were also pictures of Matt that I’m sure will emerge with time.
Despite that I’ve been a grown-up for a long time, and in L.A. for a long time, there’s still this thrill I get when I get the sense I’m being allowed to play with the grown-up toys. All of my podcast participation thus far has happened in living rooms – to be working with genuinely Very Expensive microphones in a soundproof room where the Real Professionals record by day, I still feel like somehow I’m getting away with something.
I remember, in college, working on a silly little VHS camcorder movie (yes, folks, that’s how old I am), and sneaking into an editing room in the art building to use their dubbing machines to cut it together. I had never used anything like it before but I taught myself and didn’t break anything – which is my favorite kind of learning. I got run out of there just as I finished all the picture edits. And I still get this funny feeling that, when I do things like this, I’m going to get run out of the building at any moment.
Speaking of that silly camcorder movie, that was the last time that I wrote a role specifically for myself to play. Even as the acting side of my ambitions has blossomed so rapidly in the last couple of years, I still haven’t given myself a part. Part of it is that Writer Nick has high standards, damn it. And part is that my maturation as an actor has involved a lot of work at my sense of self-awareness, an understanding of what I “do” as an actor combined with the cultivation of a belief that what I do can be worthwhile. So I wasn’t just going to wedge a “me” role into a script unless it seemed to fit organically with the idea.
But it’s finally come together, and last night it was my own words on the music stand, and my own voice performing them. I won’t deny I gave myself a tricky role, and with the microphone so sensitive I could hear every syllable where I felt I could have done better. I have to admit, though, that I could get used to this voice-acting thing. Matt, who was directing from the booth, admitted that he could get used to this sort of thing too. What’s not to love about being able to get an alternate version of a line just by touching the intercom button and asking for it? No need to reset cameras or anything.
The script in its audio drama form is 40 pages long, which we hope produces a 30-40 minute episode; and all-in we were probably recording for about 2 1/2 hours last night. We easily could have spent two full days getting all the nuances right, but I still think we have enough raw material for something really good. It’s in Matt’s hands now to edit and finish with music and sound effects. Because I trust him thoroughly, I get to just relax and be excited to hear the finished product now.
Not completely, though. I don’t intend for Earbud to be Habitat‘s last stop. So I’ll be working on incorporating what I’ve learned through this adaptation back into the feature version of the script; and see if anyone else thinks like I do that this thing could be a movie.
Happy to announce that later this month, I’ll be recording an episode of Earbud Theater, a podcast dedicated to original audio dramas in the sci-fi genre. The episode, which I also wrote, is called Habitat, and is adapted from a screenplay of mine that I have no small future ambitions for, so it will be great to try it out in this format.
My talented and beloved friend Chirstine Weatherup will be starring with me – she plays a traveler on a deep space mission whose ship crashes on an alien planet; and I play…well, my role is harder to explain.
Not sure yet when it will be posted but I think we’ll be aiming for December. I’m a big fan of Earbud’s mission, so I can’t wait to get into the studio and play.
So here’s a short film I shot a couple of weeks ago at the Pasadena Arts Center College of Design. I’ve never had to handle a scene like this on-camera before; it’s really helping me grow and learn. Couple of notes:
-It was shot in classroom on campus, written/directed by Zak Marx under the supervision of Prof. Richard Pearce (who directed the feature films “Leap of Faith” and “A Family Thing”, among others).
-We only had 40 minutes to shoot it all! We were on three cameras, performed the entire scene once in masters, and then the cameras started shifting for close-ups. My stage background (and a couple of good rehearsals) really helped keeping all that text (and where I was in the scene) at the ready under such intense time pressure!
-My scene partner, P.J. King, is the narrator of the TV show “Bar Rescue”.
There are a couple of technical things I’m noticing – a continuity goof with my arm position, my dialogue volume, this weird phantom hair by my head that keeps catching the light; but given the circumstances and resources I’m really impressed by the polish of what Zak produced; and very proud of my work, especially near the end of the scene. I should give a shout-out to my Shakespeare O.C. colleague John Walcutt, who let me visit his camera acting class and gave me a little trick that was of great use here.
Now, I think if I can get one more on-camera piece to go with this and my bit in “Squaresville”, I can finally cut together an acting reel:
Notes for my self: I feel like my full body wasn’t engaged in the character in the first half – I was probably up in my head, looking for my bearings. Once I get up from the table, have that close-up moment, and come back, I feel like my work gets much stronger. Vocal projection is an issue – part of it is that we were all on boom instead of body mics, so since “Mr. G” is the more talkative and dynamic, he probably got more of the mic love. But I could still engage my voice more, especially since the conceit of the scene is that we’re in a bar, where there would be some ambient sound.
There were some bits where I was really looking around the room to see if he had henchmen coming for me – I’m glad the director didn’t use those bits in retrospect because it looks much stronger that he depicted me as fixated on the whole Ozzy Griffin story. Just like on-stage, sometimes you have to subsume your own desire to constantly be DOING what your character might do to whomever has the ball in the scene at that moment.
I don’t love all my work here but I don’t entirely hate it. In fact, I think it’s a huge step up from the test I shot earlier this year for a short film that never happened. There I was super fidgety and blinky and weird; here, I think, I’m finally getting closer to human.
So the other sites have picked up faster than advertised as well. Going to turn this into a clearing-house page to gather links until I can organize a better place for them. My partner Mr. Thomas should be updating the main book page in the coming days as well.
We’re now live on Amazon! The Kindle edition of Seeing by Moonlight is ready for sale at the sub-Frappuccino price of only $3.99. Thanks to my friend, Future Doctor Ashley Miller, I know we’ve already had our first sale. CLICK HERE, and, as the man says:
Other digital platforms will follow in the next 2-4 works, if you prefer. I’ll keep monitoring and announcing as they go live.
Update: Just confirmed, we’re also live in the iTunes Bookstore!