Category Archives: Acting

Monday Motivation: You Doing You Creatively

I am overdue in continuing the “Monday Motivation” posts, so I thought it’d be an opportune time to note that sometimes it’s good to just do what you’re doing and keep on doing it. Especially for those of you in the middle of the slog that is NaNoWriMo: just keep truckin’. Don’t edit, write! As “they” say, the first draft is always garbage anyway and editing is another month.

One thing I thought of in terms of “you doing you” creatively is the fact that certain things are outside of your control. For example, sometimes people aren’t buying what you’re selling creatively… and it has nothing to do with the quality of what you’re selling (or you, personally). Mark Evanier mentions this as it applies to writers and actors in one of his excellent columns on rejection. As he points out, not every opportunity is an opportunity you’re supposed to get.

 

I’ve experienced both sides of this equation. On the submission side, I have and continue to get to be rejected both as a writer and an actor. I’m lucky on the actor front to often hear the voice-over spots I auditioned for that I didn’t get: many’s the time where I hear it and think, “Yup, they were going for something different than what I was giving.” It helps that I also get accepted as a writer and an actor from time-to-time, but it’s by no means guaranteed.

The flip side, doing casting or editing, I know the people Mark Evanier talks about who feel work should be guaranteed. The ins and outs of that are worth a whole other post, but the main thing I can say is, so long as you have an honest feedback loop in place to tell you how good your work is, you can and should just keep on doing your best and learning how to better that. Time and again I’ve seen that kind of self-aware, self-improving hard work be noticed and rewarded.

 

Many, Many Bewildered (and Sad) Breakfast Faces: RIP, Sam Shepard

There will be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning. And by “toast” I mean theater-related joy. And by “the neighborhood,” I mean “American theater.” And by “this morning,” I mean… well, I don’t know how long, but it’ll be longer than a morning.

Actor, playwright, and director Sam Shepard has died at the age of 73.

I first learned about it in a piece in Broadway World, which is worth checking out. You can also read about his life and work in:

Many of us picked up this book yesterday and leafed through it.

I’m not the only one of my generation of theater folk who feel this loss on a personal level. There are many playwrights like Shakespeare or Pinter or Wilson of whom I’ve either read or performed or seen productions of nearly all their works. But Sam Shepard is somewhat different.

Shepard has a distinct, American voice that resonated with so many of us. It was years since I had read or seen all of Kaufman and Hart. It would be years before I would connect with the work of Eugene O’Neill (that’s another tale). Sam Shepard was alive now and pushing his creations out into the world, where we too were training and working to make our marks.

Decades before Neil Gaiman was to tantalize us with his tales of American Gods, Sam Shepard was constructing a uniquely American mythology with plays that were simultaneously gritty and real, yet surreal and absurd. His characters often lived on the edge of society and frequently violated societal norms. There were no gods so much as forces of nature and Fate that his fabulously flawed characters would contend against when they weren’t fighting with one another.

I had many classmates who never looked at me quite the same way after they had seen me play “Mike” in a college production of “A Lie of the Mind.” It’s a disturbing yet incredibly human fairy tale set in a immediately recognizable yet unknowable America. At first, Mike seems like a more sensible character than his parents or brain-damaged sister. By the time he carries half a deer carcass on stage, you realize just how quietly crazy and savage Mike might truly be (and his exit from the play, presumably to start a whole new dysfunctional family cycle, is uncomfortably real). Sam Shepard wrote characters that rich into which actors can dive and explore, with motivations so plausible, audience members can wonder where the character ends and the actor begins (hence my classmates’ apprehension).

And those plays are still with us, thank goodness. If you haven’t checked any of them out (or any recently), do as Craig Mazin advocates: locate a copy of True West and read it out loud. His many parts in films are likewise, thankfully preserved for the ages — and his appearance always bodes well for whatever film in which he appears. Outside of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, is there a better film icon for American manhood than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager?

(Come on! I can’t be the only guy who watched The Right Stuff repeatedly growing up).

Yeah Harold Pinter had acting turns too, but he subverted the sound barrier with pauses, not breaks. You see, I’ve studied Shakespeare, I’ve enjoyed Pinter, but with Shepard, you had someone to aspire to, with a voice from your tribe. On the one hand it’s silly and illogical and not something to motivate you… but in the best tradition of so many of his characters, by God it did.

He was inspirational as a playwright. He was moving as an actor. As both, he connected story to audience in a way you long to do as an artist.

Is that a man? Damn right it is.

Recommended Reading: Artistry & Entrepreneurship

A certain cavegirl reminded me of a long article in The Atlantic by William Deresiewicz charting the evolution of “the artist.”

I first read it a couple years ago, but it remains quite relevant in 2017 — perhaps more so. It delves into what it means to be “a creative” in the world today and even touches on the commodification of “being creative.”

Commodification isn’t the only concept in the article that triggered memories of my anthropology studies. There’s also the whole aspect of how institutions have grown and changed in respect to supporting artists — or, perhaps it would be better characterized as how institutions and their support have both shrunken in respect to artists. They’re hardly the only group in our modern economy where that’s the case — though that is one of the reasons reading the article was so relevant. How does one make a living as an artist? What’s the new paradigm?

The safe, if selective, employment of artists and artisans by institutions (such as it was) is now all too clearly being replaced by entrepreneurship (again, not something unique to creatives and something people have noted for some time). So unless universal basic income becomes a reality (an unlikely event anytime soon), we all must become our own “brand ambassadors.” And chief cook and bottle washers.

And that’s something I’m not altogether happy with, not just because the term “brand ambassador” makes me mildly nauseous. I mean, it’s not like I’m not painfully aware that brand management is important (hello! you’re reading this on BjornMunson.com). However, the entrepreneurial vision pitched is that now we must all manage our own brands, pump our own gas, and possibly be our own tax attorneys. I’m not always happy about doing two out of three of those things — and I’m often concerned about getting it wrong… or not right enough.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy being a jack-of-all-trades. Anyone who’s spent enough time in filmmaking has learned you need to know at least a little about a lot of things. But I’ve been at this for a while. So although I’m by no means terrible at either camerawork or editing, I’d be a fool to ignore that some of my peers have done both of those tasks for a few thousand more hours than I. So just because one can do it all, maybe they shouldn’t. This is not to say you might not use a project to improve a particular skill (e.g., I’m going to edit my next project to maintain/improve my mad editing skillz). At the same time, if one wants to use a given project to improve, say, their camerawork, maybe they shouldn’t try and also improve their editing, directing, acting, and screenwriting on that same project.

So that brings us back to our networks of people. That’s the part of the equation no one writes articles about… or I’m missing them (feel free to put suggestions in the comments). Luckily, there are certainly organizations and sites where one can find networks. There’s TIVA and WIFV here in DC as well as Facebook-based groups. If there’s others, let me know.

In the meantime, I need to go clean out some bottles…

Gene Wilder, RIP

I meant to post this earlier, but life keeps on getting in the way. Or maybe it’s bills to pay, and I’m not as clever as Max Bialystock at how to pay them.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I'm going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I’m going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As has been reported in the Washington Post, AP, Variety, and elsewhere, Jerome Silberman aka Gene Wilder passed away last month, on Sunday, August 29th. He was 83.

2016 has proven to be lethal to the cultural icons many of my generation have grown up with — and Wilder was definitely someone we grew up with: perhaps first known as Willa Wonka and then, as we got older, as Leo Bloom, the Waco Kid, and naturally Doctor Frankenstein -er- Fronkensteen.

Gene Wilder has an additional resonance for many of us who are performers and storytellers because he was a phenomenally sensitive actor. I mean, he seemed to sense what his characters needed to be to serve the story — as mentioned in this wonderful video. He also was a very generous performer in the same vein as Jack Benny as this Vox article details.

Actors and comics from across the industry have mentioned his influence. Writer and all-around pop culture historian Mark Evanier has a great anecdote about Wilder — and Tom Straw has a great story of working with the man himself late in Wilder’s career.

Finally, I came across this article about he met his wife, who I hope is being supported by friends and family in this difficult time.

Now I’m off to munch a Wonka bar for a bit.

Why am I an actor?

Why am I an actor? Because being paid to play ain’t a bad way to go.

I actually started acting somewhat by accident. In high school, I had been recruited by the school’s drama department to help out with productions backstage — based on my obvious qualification of hanging out downstairs between classes where the theater was located.

During a production of The Man who Came to Dinner, the actor playing Mr. Baker was a no-show. Since I already had a trenchcoat and fedora on hand (did you miss that I was a huge radio theater geek growing up?), it was decided to give me some faux five o’clock shadow and escort the faux prisoners across stage myself.

So, to be clear, my entire job was to walk across stage. I was terrified.

Eventually, of course, I got used to both walking across stage, speaking, and other assorted acting necessities. I had a few more roles in high school, though never any classes.

When I got to college, I knew I wanted to be involved in filmmaking, but decided to ground that in studying theater. Likewise, to be a better director, I decided to study acting. As it turned out, I acted all four years I was there and went on to study at the National Theater Institute.

I really enjoyed being able to play.

As the father of small children, the bar is raised. Reading and acting out stories at bedtime is far more important than being apart from them for months’ worth of rehearsals and performances. I envy the actors who can work full-time and balance time with family, though I know it’s not easy.

Still, I do find the chance to make appearances in less time-intensive film work, like the 48 Hour Film Project. And I have a standing offer to DC-area filmmakers to be a “kirareyaku” or perhaps DC’s Sean Bean. We’ll see.

As long as I get to play.