More Things to Listen to During Your Next Acting Warm Up / Cool Down

Juliana Valente Performance Photos
Juliana Valente. Photo: Jerry Zalez

Do you listen to music to drop into character or as a tool to walk away from a character? Last year I wrote this blog post on 3 Things to Listen to During Your Next Acting Warm Up / Cool Down while I was working on David Mamet’s play, Oleanna.

Juliana Valente Performance Photos
Juliana Valente and Nick Pascarella in David Mamet’s OLEANNA. Amy Sellars, Directo

Are you working on difficult material right now? Then you know that the warm up and cool down periods are crucial parts of that work. I’m not talking about the  physical warm up-though that should also be a part of your artistic day, I mean the moments you take to focus, to get in the “zone”, the “flow”, the “artistic state”.

Similarly, I find it helpful to cool down from particularly hot pieces by taking a moment to come back to reality through mindfulness; we really must teach ourselves how to shed the anxiety, fear, and/or trauma we have hosted in our bodies for the sake of storytelling.

I do benefit from taking time on either side of my working period to put on my headphones and listen to one of the pieces below to get into and out of a specific creative flow. (I create entire mixes for specific roles, but that’s another story 😉 )

Here were my picks last year:

headphones-1

1.) Inside the Actors Studio Suite, by Angelo Badalamenti

2.) Out of Africa Suite, by John Barry

3.) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, C Minor

And now, some of my go-to pieces in rotation lately:

4.) “Outsiders” and “Roses”, by Jean-Michel Blais

5.) Brahms’s String Quartet No. 1 in C minor and String Quartet No. 2 in A minor

6.) “Good As Hell”, by Lizzo

What about you? What are you listening to these days?

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Kate Winslet in THE DRESSMAKER is #goals in Every Way

“You were better off away from here. You would have been stuck hiding with me on the top of this hill, if you hadn’t been sent away.  But instead, you can create. You can…transform people. That’s very powerful. Use it. Use it against them.”

–Molly (Judy Davis) to Tilly (Kate Winslet) in THE DRESSMAKER

Last night I enthusiastically watched one of Amazon’s recent acquisitions, THE DRESSMAKER. Based on the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, the wildly ambitious tale of “love, revenge and haute couture” arms the central character with a sketch pad and tailor’s chalk. Initially released in Australia in 2015, it made its limited US opening in 2016. I immediately vibed with Kate Winslet’s opening line “I’m back, you bastards” and the theme of revenge via transformation. I am inspired by Ms. Winslet’s performance and look in the film, and kind of fell in love with the whole thing.

It’s not a perfect work. The editing seems clunky or rushed to me. And it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea: it exists in a universe that could have been birthed by Lemony Snicket and schooled by Lasse Hallström and Quentin Tarantino. But there is so much lovable quirk, camp, and couture, I can easily see THE DRESSMAKER  gathering a US cult following among artsy content-streamers this year.

Judy DavisJudy Davis is brilliant and I hope her heavy-lifting is recognized by viewers. She’s making everyone’s else’s job easier in every scene. I re-watched a couple of her scenes to try to figure out how she’s doing it. Her brain is so agile, working at thoughtfully-constructed depths as she takes ownership of this complicated character, and then we only get to see what bubbles to the top. It’s spectacular.

Hugo Weaving. HUGO WEAVING. His performance as the cross-dressing police sergeant, Horatio Farrat, is equally smart, brave, and delightful. Horatio’s obsession with fabric and fashion many audience members will immediately recognize as their own. You’ll either get it (and become bewitched yourself) or you won’t.

DressmakerLiam Hemsworth is exactly who you would want Liam Hemsworth to be.  I mean, not around silos, but everywhere else.

I highly recommend this film to my friends, and I want to go out for drinks and talk to you about it asap.

YOUR AUDITION BOOK / REP BOOK: Everything you need to know, Part One

your audition book

“WHAT’S IN YOUR BOOK?”

While this may be a normal question to those of us who have worked with a coach or class or college, for actor-singers just starting out, being asked “what’s in your book” can be a bewildering moment. Even actor-singers who’ve been at this a while aren’t really using their book as a tool to sharpen their focus and confidently go after what they want in the audition.

Just what is a Rep Book? Repertoire Book? Audition Book? Audition Binder?

Audition Book-Binder

It’s the music you take with you to auditions, the same way a model or designer brings a portfolio to interviews.

Here we go, from start to finish, this is everything you need to know about building your starter book, and continuing to build a winning book that gives you audition confidence and helps you stand out in the audition room.

WHAT THEY ARE REALLY ASKING YOU

What are they really asking when they ask you what is in your “book”? If it’s an industry professional they are asking: Who are you? What is your “type”? “For what roles are you perfect? What is your vocal ability/range? What do you love performing? How prepared are you?

You will save yourself YEARS of grief by being mindful about what you put in your book as you begin building. A book with three songs that are a singularly stunning short performances will serve you better than a book of 20 songs you “know”.

QUICK ANSWER:

YOUR AUDITION BOOK IS A BINDER with copies of the songs you sing for auditions. 

The physical assembly of the book will include these elements:

  • 3-ring binder
  • page protectors
  • tabs
  • post-it notes and/or highlighters
  • song list
  • a few extra copies of your headshot and resume
  • music selections you sing for auditions

WHO IS THE AUDITION BOOK REALLY FOR?

The only people who will use your rep book/audition book are you, your coaches, and the pianist at the audition. The pianist at the audition is the critical person to keep in mind as you assemble your book. Just as you perform for the “people behind the desk” to show them your ability, the way you handle your rep book/audition book shows the pianist (who is often also the show’s music director) what it would be like to work with you in music rehearsals.

One critical role of the Audition Book is to make the pianist’s life easier from the moment you walk in the room.

ELEMENTS OF THE PERFECT AUDITION BOOK

THE 3-RING BINDER

skin horse velveteen rabbit
Your book should have a tidy, organized look about it; even when it becomes as worn as the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, it will look LOVED.

The binder for the Rep Book or Audition Book is typically solid black or solid white and is usually 1 to 1.5 inches thick. You don’t get bonus points for having an art project on the cover of your book. And honestly, it may look like you have a little too much free time on your hands. Keep it clean and simple.

 

 

PAGE PROTECTORS

In every audition prep workshop I’ve ever attended (I’ve attended many) someone inevitably asks this question: “Do audition pianists want our music to be in page protectors or just hole-punched?” And a very long and boring conversation takes place and all I can think about is, “I’m paying $x per hour to listen to THIS conversation again!…and the answers are always the same: IT DOESN’T MATTER as long as your music is easy to read.

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What’s my personal preference? I use page protectors for musical theater repertoire and no page protectors for opera/operetta. Here are MY reasons why, but know that you could go either way and be absolutely fine.

 

REASONS I USE PAGE PROTECTORS FOR MUSICAL THEATER REPERTOIRE

  • If you are really hustling for great musical theater roles, it’s not uncommon to have two or three or more auditions or lessons in one week. That means those pages are being turned hundreds of times a month, and usually with vigor.
  • More flexibility in arranging cuts (see below).
  • The use of page protectors in musical theater audition books is fairly standard; it looks and feels very tidy.
  • It’s faster than the Print-Tape-Reinforce-Fold method (below).
  • Occasionally after you’ve sung your requested cut, a casting director will ask you to sing the full song, or a different part of the song. I keep the full version of my songs (pages I’m not using for my cuts) stacked inside an extra page protector-for just in case.

Note: Some pianists really appreciate it when you use glare-free page protectors; however, they are a little thicker/more difficult to grab and turn quickly, so other pianists don’t love them. Ask your favorite pianist what he or she prefers and go with that.

REASONS I DON’T USE PAGE PROTECTORS FOR OPERA/OPERETTA REPERTOIRE

  • I have less frequent opera audition opportunities than musical theater opportunities, so the pages aren’t being manipulated by pianists as often. For one, there are far fewer U.S. opera companies than U.S. musical theater stages, so fewer auditions to start with. Secondly, so many U.S. opera companies are strapped for cash that they actually charge an audition fee of $25, $35, $50 or more. It’s illogical, but true! And I’m not about that life.
  • You usually don’t need to arrange cuts in opera. Most companies will ask to hear “an aria” or a “short aria”.
  • Page protectors just aren’t commonly used in the opera world, so it may scream “hey, non-serious musical theater performer here!” to the pianists who just haven’t developed a lot of respect for U.S. musical theater performers.
  • If you DO go without page protectors, you should prepare your music using the print-tape-reinforce-fold method:
    • Print your aria single-sided. A double-sided print of music can sometimes be difficult to read depending on the lighting in the room and how heavy the paper is, because the reverse page can show through.
    • Tape: put pages back-to-back to create one double-sided page. Tape the pages together using one long piece of tape along the outside edge of the paper.
    • Punch and reinforce. Use a dependable three-hole-punch on the opposite length of the paper, and apply reinforcement tabs.
    • Fold, “dog-ear”, or curl the bottom corner of each page to make it easier to turn.

ARRANGING YOUR MUSIC IN YOUR PAGE PROTECTORS

  • Print your music single-sided. You will have more flexibility in arranging new cuts of your song for different auditions; also, it’s easier to read music that has been printed on one side only, unless you are using heavier-weight paper.
  • Include as few page turns as possible – this is a big one. Your pianist will not love you if there is a page turn in the middle of a complex or deceptive chord progression, or if there are multiple page turns relative to the length of the cut.
  • Consider for a longer cut of music, like a “brief song” (60-90 seconds of music), keeping the originally published pagination. For example, if page 11 was published to be on the left side of the book and page 12 was published to be on the right, keep it that way, because the publishers are often conscious about avoiding awkward page turns when they are arranging the layout for printing.

TABS

repositionable tabs

Label each song clearly that you or your coach or the audition pianist can find your next song easily and without your help. I like to use repositionable tabs because I will rearrange my book from month-to-month.

Another reason to use very clear writing or printing on your tabs is because it gives the audition pianist (remember, this is often also the show’s music director!) a quick glance at other things you do!

POST-IT NOTES AND HIGHLIGHTERS

These are used to show the start and end of  your cuts.

Remember, one of the critical missions of the Audition Book is to make the pianist’s life easier just because YOU walked in the door with this really great rep book. Here’s where you can really make a great impression.

post it notes markers

Clearly mark START and STOP and any CUTS in your piece. I use sticky note markers to do this, because I use different cuts for some songs, depending on the audition requirement. So instead of reprinting and re-highlighting my music, I just move the sticky note. I do have a few songs where a verse + chorus + 2nd ending make a perfect 32-bar cut, and I’ve marked those up permanently.

 

 

Before every audition, double-check those sticky notes to make sure your cuts are exactly what was requested on the casting  notice. Trust me, it’s worth it.

 

CONTINUE TO PART TWO HERE!

YOUR AUDITION BOOK / REP BOOK: Everything you need to know, Part Two (and a bonus)

If you haven’t read Part One first, CLICK HERE to go there now and come on back!

your audition book 2

A NOTE ON CUTS

First (AND THIS IS HUGE), do be meeting regularly with a voice teacher and/or rep (repertoire) coach who will work with you on deciding on your cuts for various auditions.

Second, read casting calls thoroughly. When casting notices go out, they will include (or should include) exactly what the casting team wants to hear at the audition. If you can’t –or just don’t–follow instructions for this, why, then, should they cast you at all? So pay attention to the end of casting notices. Read and re-read for obvious information and clues. Here’s an example: “Please prepare 32 bars of a song from the show or from the style of the show. Be prepared to sing a contrasting song if requested.”

  • “32 bars” – You usually are asked to sing 16 bars (measures), 32 bars, or a brief song (which should be a cut of around 60-90 seconds long) for a musical theater audition. Occasionally they will announce at crowded auditions that they only want to hear eight bars, which is cruel and unusual, but does happen so don’t be shocked when that happens to you. Anyway, the cut you prepare doesn’t have to be 32 continuous measures, it is sometimes 16 measures from the beginning and 16 from the end. HOWEVER, until you have worked with audition cuts for a while and really understand dramatic and harmonic progression, do not attempt jump cuts (I call these “Frankenstein cuts”) on your own, consult with your teacher or coach. Remember, we want to make the pianist’s life better, not make them crazy with a weird performance of cuts that don’t make sense.
  • “A song from the show” – I know a casting director that would prefer to hear only songs from the show he is casting. Another director I know doesn’t respond well to interpretations that are too different from the version in her head, and would prefer to not hear songs from the show she is casting. IF the casting notice says “a song from the show”at all, in my opinion, try to bring in a song from the show. Ultimately, consult with your own teacher or coach on song choice strategy. It’s definitely an important skill to cultivate, and will come with time–I promise!
  • “Or from the style of the show” – If you don’t know what that means, don’t guess, ask your teacher or coach. Sometimes you can look to other shows by the same writer/composer team, or shows from the same era, or characters that are similar to the character you are auditioning for. As you continue to educate yourself in the musical theater audition space, it’s super useful to research and understand musical theater styles as we know them today. And that’s another blog post.
  • “Be prepared to…” – This is easy: follow instructions and be mentally ready and studied up for whatever they may want next: cold reading, contrasting song, dance, etc.
  • “A contrasting song” – If you’re singing a contemporary ballad, a contrasting piece would be a contemporary uptempo song, or even a legit “show tune”. How contrasting should you go? Do not over think this. “Contrasting” doesn’t mean “complete opposite”. Be smart and have in mind another piece that has been in your book for a while that is different from the piece you are bringing in. Which brings me to my next juicy tip for when you hear…

That was great!

Yay! Someone on the casting team wants to hear more. What do you do?  Say:

“Yes! This is “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, step over to your book at the pianist, quickly find the tab for that song, and go!

The pro-version of this is to prepare a speech that goes along with your “Rep List”.

Your Rep List, or Repertoire List, is a simple list of songs that you are

prepared to sing THAT DAY.

You should never have anything in your book at an audition that you would have to decline singing that day. Awkward! This means if my voice is feeling yucky and I don’t have high notes that morning, I take “The Hair Song” out of my book and leave it on my desk before heading to the audition. Ok, so here’s the speech to have ready:

What would you“Yes! I have ‘Practically Perfect’, ‘I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You’, and ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’. What would you like to hear today? [flash winning smile]”

OR you could say:

“Yes! I have some Mary Poppins, a little Sibella from Gentleman’s Guide, and a fun Tom Lehrer song. What would you like to hear today? [flash winning smile]”

By giving the casting director choices you not only show them what you have in your Book, you show them that you are PREPARED for this. And speaking as a director, this is like a little compliment, like when someone shows up for a date looking like they put some thought into their appearance. It makes them feel good, and lets them know that they would enjoy working with you because you are SWITCHED-ON when it comes preparing a performance.

HEADSHOT AND RESUME

Of course you will bring a copy of your résumé stapled to the back of your headshot to be collected by the creative team at the table, but also keep a few extra copies of your headshot and resume in the front of your  binder. If you keep your résumé in the front inside pocket of your binder, the pianist can get a snapshot of your experience for just a few seconds.

Also, if you are auditioning in New York, you will sometimes pass a room with another audition in progress, and you may want to be seen for that opportunity, or drop of your headshot/résumé with the monitor if you can’t stay. It’s just nice to have extra copies of your materials.

ON CHOOSING MUSIC FOR YOUR AUDITION BOOK

You really only need five to ten songs in your book to cover just about any audition you attend. As mentioned before, work with a teacher or coach who specializes in “book building”. Though you really only need five songs, sometimes it can take a few months to get your book right. Sometimes you work on a song for a few weeks before realizing it’s not a great fit for your voice, and sometimes you just grow out of your songs. Here are some hard rules to follow for a winning rep book/audition book. If any song or cut doesn’t meet the criteria below, it doesn’t belong in your book. Period.

  • It is freshly coached, beyond memorized, and represents one great facet of your voice as it is TODAY
  • It is a role that your could conceivably be cast as TODAY
  • It’s been performed in front of people other than your teacher or coach
  • It has a distinct beginning, middle, and end–even the shortest cut
  • You really love singing this

BONUS: REP BOOK, VOL. 2 and VOL. 3

So here’s a fun fact: I have three personal rep books that I work from. (I’m a voice teacher, so I have several shelves of vocal music, but I’m talking about my own personal use.) One binder is the tidy little book that I take with me to auditions and the others are massive 3-inch binders of around 100 pieces of music. They are my “on-hold” books for:

  • songs I am still learning
  • songs someone suggested I learn
  • songs that are “supposed” to be perfect for me, but I don’t love yet
  • songs I learned for a specific audition and don’t love, but have been coached
  • songs I used to sing but feel “burnt out” or are on “don’t sing” lists
  • songs that I love to sing, but don’t really fit my “type”
  • songs I only sing in certain circumstances (funerals and weddings)

You’re not obligated to have a second book, but sometimes it’s nice to have a place for those songs that are not perfect for your “official” audition book. Who knows when they will come in handy! It also helps me set aside my audition book as “very special” performance material.

CHANGE YOUR GAME

I’ll leave you with a game-changing thought. So many actor-singers complain that they are going to audition after audition without role offers, and they are sick and tired of not actually performing. But what is an audition? It’s a solo performance opportunity. A one-woman-show. A cabaret. You want the role of Aldonza in Man of La Mancha? Well, for a moment in that room with the creative team, you ARE doing the role of Aldonza. For a minute all eyes are on you as you take the stage and sing “It’s All the Same” full-voiced, body flooded with anger and fear and determination.

When you view every audition as a great opportunity to perform, you elevate every step of the audition process. You become a better performer, a more prepared colleague, and a more relaxed person. And we all know the joy is in the journey.

This is the good stuff. Enjoy building your book!

I Need This: Judith Light In the Service of Storytelling

Judith LightThis week I neeeeeded this interview with the amazing Judith Light by Linda Holms. If you have sixteen minutes and change, listen to this lovely conversation full of inspiring  gems. Some of my favorite moments:

After more than 40 years in the business she says “I’m finding myself in a very new place, my manager of 36 years has passed away, and I’m in a real process of finding a new way, my new path. And I’m so grateful to be on TransParent because I have a family there that i feel very held and nurtured by…..But it’s a new world for me.”

From Broadway to Soap Opera: “I was making these pronouncements. I had these pictures in my head about what I should be doing and where I should be going and how lofty this life that I was embarking on should be. And I said I would only do theater and feature film, and that’s a really ridiculous thing to make a pronouncement on because at the point in time when I got the soap I was looking at leaving the business. Because it wasn’t working out according to those pictures.

“I didn’t know if the work that I was doing made any kind of a difference. And I kept thinking, ‘how can I find a way to make a difference in the world?’…So the content of my career didn’t matter as much to me as what the context was going to be.”

“I realized this business wasn’t about me, it was about the team, it was about everyone. And it was about the service of storytelling.”

“My disdain for, the way I looked down on certain parts of our business was my problem…When I was there as the understudy I watched how hard they worked and what great actors they were.”

“Ride the horse in the direction it’s going instead of fighting…I want to look at the things that are presented to me and I want to be grateful and respectful and I want to reach more people.”

“I learned how to hear comedy. Comedy is music. It’s math. It’s numbers, it’s what you hear.”

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW HERE

 

4 Ways to Become a Better Artist For Free in Your Spare Time (by Being a Geek)

4 Ways to Become a Better Actor For Free in Your Spare Time (by Being a Geek) (1)

A playwright I work with recently asked me what I do when I’m not doing theater-related work. I actually blushed and said “more theater-related stuff.” Why did I blush? I thought that made me sound uninteresting in the moment. The truth is that I geek out to music, theater, tv, film, history, anthropology as a hobbyist pretty much full time. I can’t turn it off.

But can I tell you something more? I believe a love of “the breakdown” gives you a healthy perspective and a decided edge. Now, I did grow up in a family of voracious readers and history buffs, and that makes doing research on my various current and future and hoped-for projects fun and easy for me–I realize that’s not the case for everyone. But if you are paying attention you will extract your own defining acting/singing/composing/directing/consulting philosophies from going to class (ABCY- always be in class, y’all!), listening to interviews, watching live performances, following media critics you admire, and consuming media: podcasts, interviews, performances, and documentaries. On the other side of learning “how”  is such a world of “wherefore”, of style and technique and type and history, an artist’s Canaan…I feel nearly euphoric thinking of all the layers that go into a fully fleshed piece of theater art. And the learning never ends. Isn’t that marvelous!

So, as promised, here are Four Ways to Become a Better Actor For Free in Your Spare Time (by Being a Geek).

Any aspiring writer, director, composer, actor, singer would glean insight and inspiration from objectively breaking down successful AND unsuccessful performances. Here are some of my current favorite sources for free “edu-tainment”:

1.) OBSESSED! with Seth Rudetsky.

If you are a musical theater person and you are not watching Seth’s stuff, I don’t know what to say. You are missing out on a major font of MT intelligentsia.

2.) Breaking Down the Riffs with Natalie Weiss.

Sounding like a diva is oh so mathematical and I love every second of this kind of work!

3.) Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast, hosted by Linda Holmes.

Easiest way to describe this easy-to-listen-to podcast: “four of your smart theater/film/tv/music/book/comic book friends get together to talk about what works and what doesn’t work in current media, as well as to geek out about their ‘favorite thing this week’.” I never miss an episode-you can get it on your favorite podcast platform or on the WNYC app.

NPR Podcast: Pop Culture Happy Hour

Bonus: I’m also THE BIGGEST FAN of one of the show’s frequent guests, author and critic Glen Weldon, who can be stalked followed @ghweldon.

4.) Game of Thrones Analysis, by New Rockstars.

Their Season 6, Episode 10 breakdown in particular is a must-see for composer/directors (note: there are spoilers in their breakdowns). I completely lost my mind when I heard the music score in S6 E10, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it except these guys!

 

What do you geek-out to in your spare time that makes you a better artist?

3 Things to Listen to During Your Next Acting Warm Up / Cool Down

 

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Are you working on intensely emotional or difficult material right now? Then you know that the warm up and cool down periods are crucial parts of that work. I’m not talking about the  physical warm up-though that should also be a part of your artistic day, I mean the moments you take to focus, to get in the “zone”, the “flow”, the “artistic state”.

Similarly, I find it helpful to cool down from particularly hot pieces by taking a moment to come back to my own reality through gratitude and mindfulness; we really have to shed the anxiety, fear, and/or trauma we have hosted in our bodies for the sake of storytelling if we want healthy relationships offstage.

Personally, I take about 10-15 minutes (or more) on either side of my working period, put on my over-ear headphones and listen to one of the pieces below to get into and out of my “flow”. Here are three of my go-tos (and a BONUS):

1.) Inside the Actors Studio Suite, by Angelo Badalamenti

Everyone who enjoys watching James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio” knows the first few seconds of this suite, but the full ten minutes of music is an easy, peaceful, and relaxing pallet cleanser. You may even feel extra actor-y for listening.

 

2.) Out of Africa Suite, by John Barry

This is the first piece of music I ever obsessed over. I have strong aural memories of hearing this during family road trips and observing my father studying or writing with this soundtrack playing on my pink portable cassette player next to him on the floor. When I grew old enough to appreciate good acting I became doubly obsessed with Meryl Streep’s performance, so when I listen to the Out of Africa Suite today I am immediately inspired to do important work and remember the safe feelings  of my creative temperament.

 

3.) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, C Minor

This is the Advanced Category. If you have “all the feelings” you will not find a more empathetic composer than Sergey Rachmaninov. The profound suspense in this piece, played masterfully here by Lang Lang is an immersive warm-up and cathartic cool-down. My mother would sometimes play this piece on our home piano on Sunday mornings. I would lay in bed listening, terrified and hypnotised. It was brilliant.

 

 

Bonus: I rather frequently use guided meditation to calm my mind before or after my theater work, hyper-emotional or not. I have subscribed to the Meditation Oasis Podcast for many years, and I cannot recommend this podcast enough.

http://www.meditationoasis.com/podcast/headphones-2

Do you have any rituals that are particularly helpful for getting into the creative state, or “the zone”? Share!

Give a listen to some of these today and let me know what you think!

xo,

Juliana

 

Four Acting Lessons from Costa Rica

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Pura Vita!

I recently returned from a quick weekend trip to Costa Rica! My dear friend and I decided at the beginning to make an effort to let go of the stress and grief in our lives, and to really truly relax. Easier said than done. Of course, we tend to remain students of Art wherever we go, and after all, if our end is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” no better place than Costa Rica! Here are some acting reminders for myself from this weekend. I hope they help you too!

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1. Be where you are.

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Be where you are.

It’s the first lesson of improv: “Yes, and…” It’s the first lesson in scene study: “know your given circumstances…” It’s a major mantra in the happiness movement: “Be where you are.”

I  have always been obsessed with butterflies, and this past Saturday I was mesmerized by these different stages of the metamorphosis and the application to the actor-singer.

  • On the left is the brilliant jade-colored pupa, who has hurried up to wait in her chrysalis and is currently undergoing transformation. Growth and differentiation…all these interesting choices occur within the chrysalis. It’s an obviously internal and private process. Pupation may last weeks, months or even years…she can even fall into dormancy until the right season.
  • The gorgeous malachite butterfly in the center, having emerged from her chrysalis, is sitting on the empty shell in order to expand and harden her wings. Every few seconds she will pump her wings, and any moment she is going to take off.
  • Notice the empty exuviae, or remains of the chrysalis-exoskeleton. It’s a reminder of what she had to go through, to grow through, and I hope we look to these souvenirs with gratitude. Of course, it’s not really an interesting choice to play a chrysalis. It’s an empty exercise to play “the end”, so it’s helpful/stronger to imagine your or your character’s development at an earlier stage.

Accepting your given circumstance always expands, not limits your options. You become interesting when you completely “buy in” to the immediate circumstance of this exact instance of your character’s life. You become exciting to be on stage with. Offstage you’re a joy to be around, and you are a valuable colleague. If while analyzing your career tract you are aware, mindful, and present to your current reality, you will be less susceptible to jealousy and depression. Mindfulness adds a sense of wonderment and even wanderlust to your journey.

Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment. -Deepak Chopra

Incidentally, don’t feel like you need to lay out and defend every “choice” you have made as an actor or a person. Oversharing is an easy trap to fall into for actors and musicians, so if this is a habit for you, consider this: when you really own your choices and tether them to a profoundly deep part of yourself you become a miraculous story and so much more than a flat stereotype.

 

2. Peace is dynamic. Passion is loud.

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Peace is dynamic. Waterfall at La Paz Waterfall Garden, Costa Rica

“Rainforest Waterfall” is a setting on my white noise machine, which I turn on to relax, meditate, or otherwise “zone out”. In still-shot photography it looks so peaceful here, even serene, but in reality it is exhilarating, almost overwhelming to stand close to a waterfall. The roar is so loud that you have to rely on hand gestures to communicate to your companions. The violence of the falling water vibrates in your blood, and fills you with a rush of adrenaline.

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It’s good to remember to give your characters loud passions.

My happiest, most peaceful internal moments have usually been when I am incredibly busy, scrambling from one thing I love to another. My heart is noisy and I feel like I am bursting with life, vibrating with passion. It’s easy to play a happy, serene, or peaceful character as if she were a wooden bowl in a still life, but then what you get is “static”…you get “white noise”. It’s good to remember: give your even your quietest characters loud passions.

 

3. Focus is patient.

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Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.

Among the truly amazing animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Refuge is the jaguar, and I watched these two adolescent female jaguars being fed. Instead of dumping the meat in front of them, the keeper would place the food in difficult-to-reach spots in the enclosure, high, low, and make them wait a minute or so for the next bite. We got to watch the predator in training and it was fascinating. Between bites, or when her sister was enjoying her capture this jaguar would crouch and wait. Her eyes would never “go dead” and she maintained a relaxed aliveness even when the scene was not about her.

You see where I’m going with this. You have to keep your relationship with your onstage others (and your offstage desires) taut, alive. Conflict is where the drama lives, and the second you stop caring you stop being honest; your character’s integrity becomes dim and your audience stops caring as well. Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.

4. Mystery is exciting.

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Mystery is exciting. Laguna Botos at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

In the southern part of the Poas Volcano is Laguna Botos, a beautiful crater lake surrounded by impressive tropical cloud forest. It last erupted 7,500 years ago and is now considered dormant. For the most part it behaves like a sparkling blue lake but sometimes the water gets heated for several degrees by volcanic heat and turns grey.

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Secrets under the surface. Laguna Caliente at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

In the north is an active crater with Laguna Caliente, one of the most acidic natural lakes in the world. The bottom of the lake contains a layer of liquid sulphur. The size of the lake is variable – sometimes 165 feet deep, but sometimes it disappears entirely. The temperature of the brine is 70°C but can rise up to over 200°F.

The diversity of colors of the lake is fascinating. It might be emerald green but some three hours later grey-whitish. Sometimes rafts of brilliant, yellow sulphur are seen floating in the lake. As if this is not spectacular enough, Laguna Caliente often experiences impressive geysers. This is caused by the magma reaching the water – extreme heat instantly transforms the water and acid into explosive steam and the lake blows up in a giant fountain.

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I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.

When I was a kid, I loved the Red Skelton and Esther Williams movie, Bathing Beauty (1944). There is a scene where Red Skelton has to be part of a ballet class where there are all these girls in Swan Lake costumes, and he is also wearing a Swan Lake costume. The ballet teacher is telling him how to be a dignified woman, how to walk as a ballerina. She says to him, “You have to say to yourself, ‘I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.’” It’s hilarious and touching and made a huge impression on me. Candidly, I think of this scene before almost every audition or social situation where I am feeling very nervous or insecure…I actually write on sticky notes and put on my mirror or say to myself:“I have a secret, I am beautiful, I am beloved.” This is simple, silly, and powerful. So try it sometime.

Secrets that are alive under your skin give you color, it’s not just in your costumes and mannerisms. If your own mysteries or made-up secrets tint your reactions and motivations, you will bring a fresh unpredictability to your characters that is quite engaging and works as well for comic characters as dramatic leads. And if you have ever witnessed a secondary character or ensemble member completely steal the show, this is exactly what that actor has done. So build up an arsenal of secret inner thoughts, specific and private circumstances, so that the discoveries you make onstage are bursts of unexpected color and power.

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Guarde la Calma

I hope you enjoyed some of my lessons from Costa Rica! Have you ever found acting lessons in your travels? Share!

Three Pieces of Career Advice from the Morning Run

Andre3000

Three Pieces of Career Advice from the Morning Run

I love words, love word-play, and I love hip-hop/rap. I will write about this more fully at some point, but this is typically the only music I listen to while working out or pre-gaming for an audition or performance or The Day Job. Here are some great quotes for career inspiration  (aka, motivation to hustle until I can Quit The Day Job) just from this morning. Submitting without comment. Enjoy.

I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.

– Jay-Z, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”

 

Why can’t you stay up practicing that?! If practice makes perfect, why do you just specialize in fun things, and not in the things that require effort, commitment, and sacrifice?!

-James David Manning, from “In the A” outro.

 

Do you B) hit the street hard with a flair

Or do you A) go to school for heating and air?

Dare make an honest living or make a crooked killing

Or do a bit of both until you’re holding on a million?

Brilliant. You got one foot in, one foot out

You put your left foot back in and then you shake it all about

You do the hokey pokey til you turn your life around

That’s what it’s all about.

-Andre 3000, “Royal Flush”

 

Just a note here. (I said I wouldn’t comment, but you know I frequently change my mind.) Andre 3000 a.k.a Dre or 3 Stacks is one of the premier lyricists in the game. His storytelling prowess in particular is unique and unmatched…and dear actor/singer friends, I am OBSESSED with his natural squillo and legato flow which makes his voice fascinating, versatile, expressive, and beautiful to record. I am inspired by his technique alone.

xx,

Juliana

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