If the Whole World Took an Acting Class

As an actor, I have spent my fair share of time laying on the floor and barking at the ceiling.  Okay, I’m not barking, per se, I am sending my voice through the space from the top of my head.  I have sat on the backs of classmates and been sat on by teachers, all for the sake of a vocal exercise.  I have chased fellow classmates around the room, repeating what they say, and I have run up and down a flight of stairs until I felt the “sensation of doing a line of coke” to start a monologue.  In my children’s theatre days, I’ve played princesses, fairies, puppies, teachers, moms, horses, trees, and once a shrubbery that slowly transformed into Lady Gaga.

Blanka Zizka and I in her workshop at the Wilma in 2014. Photo credit: The Wilma Theatre

On the other hand, I’ve waited in eight hour lines, spent overnight film shoots on the floor of an abandoned Brooklyn middle school, eaten dollar pizza while literally running between two jobs with four bags while dressed as a “hipster type”, and lied to several bosses about dental emergencies because I got a spot at an EPA.

As we all have, I’ve done some strange things, and no, I wouldn’t trade that for security any day.  But two nights ago, when laying on the floor of my Alexander Technique class, my teacher used the phrase “Pelvic Ears.”  I lost it.  I lost it to myself, because I deeply respect my teacher and the group in my class, but for some reason, after many years of the strange things I’ve done, I lost it at “pelvic ears.”  In the context of the exercise, she made complete sense.  Yes, I did want to listen with my pelvic ears!  But seriously, it’s truly remarkable that this is a career path.  And I wish it on everyone that is missing out.

Group exercise before a performance in college

Last night on a particularly crowded train, I sat next to a friendly man who started up a conversation.  The regular chatter began: Where do you work? Where are you from?  Why are you on NJ Transit?  All that stuff.  He was in IT, and I am an actor.  Here is what I notice about genuinely interested non-theatre people:

-They often call their own profession boring in comparison to hearing you are an actor.  Dear sir, this is not true.  If you are good at what you do and you are happy, then you go for it.

-They ask if you’re on Broadway.  This is fair, I get it, why would I know the ins and outs of IT?  I don’t!  There’s no reason you would know there are shows outside of the commercial theatre world.

-But most importantly, they tend to bring up one theatre experience from their past, either from school or community theatre.  Their stories are always specific, personal, and vivid.  It’s as if you suddenly gave them the green light to say, “Yes!  I was upset that I didn’t get cast in Oklahoma in 1994!”  or, “I’ve always want to go back to it, but I’m not as brave as you are.”

Here is what I take away from these interactions:  theatre has an incredibly lasting emotional impact, and the business scares non-career performers away.  I think this is silly and needs to change.  I know there are corporate coaches that bring theatre exercises to executives, but in my tempting experience, it is not seen often, and many of the execs I’ve met look like I just threatened to sell their first born when I suggest they take an acting class.

Skills learned on the road.

What is unclear to those outside the business, is that acting classes make you better at being a human.  A human in public, a human alone, and a human who cares about their present.  Also, a human who knows their emotions are justified.

If I grabbed a selection of executives from one of the many offices I’ve temped in, and threw them into the acting business for a year, this is what they may learn (ups and downs included):

-How to find their feet, and support their body for a healthy life, perhaps correcting the computer slouch from 40 years at a desk.

-How to lay on the floor and make continuous sound, at whatever volume you like, without ever being judged or told to be quiet.

-How to trust a classmate, or essentially, a stranger, to respect your feelings and perhaps catch an imaginary ball.

-To find their true voice.  And experience an entire room of people listening with respect.

-How to be pretty fantastic at costume parties.

Mad Men New Years 2013

-How to think on their feet, and never be scared of the question “What are you doing?” ever again!

-How to ROCK at the “Questions” section of Kings.

-What it’s like to experience the difficulty of not making ridiculous faces during a photo shoot, and reveling in it when you do.

Photo credit: headshot  proof by Emily Lambert

Photo credit: Headshot proof by Emily Lambert

-To see what your body and mind is truly capable of.

-To become closer with a group of people than you ever thought you could be (after three weeks!), and to share your life story over drinks instead of bad-mouthing your coworkers.

Celebrating Opening Night at Speranza Theatre.

-How to support yourself emotionally after leaving a difficult audition, especially after hearing the dreaded words, “You’re free to go.”

-How to stretch $50 until next Friday, and become friends with your mailman, who smiles when he has your check.

-To memorize all the free places in NYC to use the bathroom, and how to kill two hours between gigs without spending a dime.

-To forgive yourself and know that not getting hired is beyond your control.

-To get up time after time, burnout after burnout, and realize you still have your feet, your voice, and even your pelvic ears.

If you are an artist reading this, let us make it our responsibility to share this incredible world that has become a normal part of our lives.  If you are not an actor, you’re always welcome.  The door is always open, and I think you’d be amazed at what you’ve been missing.

What do you think people outside the business could learn from a theatre class?  Are there other similar industries I should jump into as well?  Let me know!

The Secret Life of Background Actors

This post has been a long time coming.  So be prepared for a lengthy one.  When I moved to New York City almost two years ago, I was pretty clueless about the realities of finding part-time work that didn’t make me insane.  Ten dollars an hour seemed like a dream to serve people cupcakes.  And I could live in the grand ol’ city with just enough to make rent, right?  I didn’t need any left over for you know…living.

Four months later, with no savings and a newly formed hatred for cupcakes and stock brokers, I quit without a solid plan of what to do next.  I took very part-time work as an assistant teaching artist with an after school program.  It was heaven compared to food service but I was working with about $150 a week.  This is when I discovered my wonderful temp agency and the fine fine world of background “acting”….

Boardwalk Empire: Irish Immigrant 1921

It started with a suggestion from Ben.

Ben:  Well, you could always do extra work.  I used to do it, but it was a hassle so I stopped for a while.

Me: A hassle?  Are you kidding me?  You’re saying I get to be in a major film or TV show and get paid for it??  I could work on set with celebrities and then be seen with them on TV??

Ben: You only get paid like $85 when you’re non-union…

Me:  I’m making $30 a day right now.  I’ll take it.


So I signed up for Casting Networks and was on my way to my big film debut!  Here’s the deal with Casting Networks:  You sign up for a bit of money and every day receive posts about what they are looking for in the next few days.  Things move pretty quickly.  Though I’ve talked about this is in other posts, it’s worth repeating.

Common types sought are:

-ND Peds (Nondescript Pedestrians, aka, not particularly noticeable people)

-Artsy Types (Still not sure what this means, my guess is you have to be sitting on funky steps or in front of a brick wall in your headshot to be considered.)

-Hipsters (Young people with the deadpan Williamsburg face.  They usually request tattoos or mohawks…?)

-Upper East Side Types (Waspy People)

-Low-Income Neighborhood Types (Not commenting on this one, it makes me uncomfortable.)

-Model Types (I got called in for Blue Bloods for this type once and did a go-see to be considered.  I was the shortest and least skinny girl there…and if you know me, I’m not concerned about my weight.  Afterwards I went and had ice cream in their honor.)

-Homeless Types (Many people have wardrobe set aside for this)

Uncommon but favorite types I’ve seen:

-Gay Bears with Cars: figure it out on your own.

-Bottom of the Barrel Prostitutes:  If I wake up and decide that that’s my type, I hope one of my friends stages an intervention.

-Seedy Brooklyn Types

-Corpse who has not yet worked on this show.  I’m glad there is work after death.

-High School Types with cow milking experience (THIS WAS TOTALLY ME!  I applied, with legit cow-milking experience and never heard.  Are there that many people in NYC who have milked a cow??!)

-Homeless types with high end car and news reporter change.

-Homeless Cabby Types with Suit Options

Untitled David Chase Project with two awesome ladies

The Oh-So Glamorous Life

Now don’t get me wrong, when I get called for BG work, I still get pretty excited.  It is nice feel a part of the shoot for the day, chat with some interesting new people, and learn about the way a film set works.  I was pretty clueless when I went into it and am now a member of the union with some experience and a plan under my belt.  The union pay makes it more worth it, especially when it’s something you do occasionally.  I also have a hell of a lot more patience…

So, yes, you get to follow those signs that say “to set,” and yes ,you get to eat from that free food table on the street…but how glamorous is it?  I’ve had family members and many friends actually be somewhat jealous when I’ve mentioned I’ve done this…so let me clear that up for you…

A typical day:

First you get the call from the casting agency the day before.  Pick up your phone or no job.  This makes you a little psycho about finding creative ways to duck out of other jobs when your caller ID suddenly says GW Casting.  There’s usually no way to call back.  Then you call in late that night and find out what time you should show up.  I wouldn’t cancel if I were you, I have a theory there is a background actor dart board you end up on if you bail too much.

Sometimes your call is on 160th street at 5am.  That’s when your boyfriend takes the 1 train with you at 4am because no background shoot is worth getting mugged for.  Next, you check in with the PA’s who have been there for a few hours already.  Be nice to these people.  They put up with a lot.  Next comes the great part!  The breakfast is one of the largest you’ve had in a while.  There will be enough breakfast food to feed a small army.

Then you sit in holding for 3-4 hours.  Activities include reading entire books, finishing other work, yoga, learning lines, playing with your phone, fighting for an outlet to charge your phone (only the strong survive!), and chatting with your table of fellow actors.  Initial conversations will ALWAYS include: rumors of when the day will end, who is union and how everyone feels about unions, the different casting agencies and odd ways people get work,where crafty is, and of course, personal details that are very TMI.  Choose your table carefully!  Look for people with books.  No matter what you do, one person at your table will be seeking their big break from today’s shoot.  Nod with sympathy.

If it’s a period piece, you were probably fit for a costume on a separate day.  You walk to set and tourists take pictures with you.  Someone may do your hair and makeup.  This is my favorite part, I often get life advice from the crew.

Next you get called to set and are given a place to sit or walk.  Don’t fuck around.  (Unless it’s 4am and you’ve lost all awareness of reality, then you should sing Les Mis with a group of fake Hamptonites.)  One very fun day on Boardwalk Empire, I had two different husbands and a child with one of them.   We had a fake family rivalry going by the end of the day.  Another time I spent 75% of the night trying to sleep in the Natural History Museum’s cafeteria.  It’s really hit or miss.

Lunch comes about 6 hours in and people turn into wild animals with the fear that the crew will eat it all.  They never do, there is always food.  Stop bitching.

You will then go back to set and begin picking up on any cues possible from the crew about whether the day is coming to a close.  Rumors circulate!  Bets are made!  Fights break out!  Not really, but some people get pretty funny about it.  I figure, if you’re not in for a long day, don’t sign up.  There are other options of how to spend your day.

Ben getting lunch on Pan Am. Looking dashing.

Thinking about doing it?  Things to know!

To close, below are some important vocab words and survival tips:

Craft Services: The most ridiculous assortment of free snacks you will ever have available to you at one time.  Want to slather almond butter on crackers and top it off with peanut M&Ms?  Or what about fruit salad with a side of Pirates Booty and an espresso?  Be sure to hoard candy bars and bring them back to holding for brownie points with your table.

Tax Forms:At every shoot you will fill out a whole new set of tax forms and receive the pink one when you leave.  This is because you are essentially being laid off at the end of each day.   Learn to fill these out in your sleep.  If you wrap at 3 am, you may be asleep.

Your One: This is the place where you start the shot.  You may do a million takes so you go back to it if they yell this.  You may begin your one with someone who is either very friendly and awesome or someone who wants to tell you about their taxidermy collection.  Takes all types.

Martini Shot: The final shot of the day.  The term goes back to have a post shoot drink.  Keep your ear out for this.

Golden Hour: If you are non-union, turn your ears off, you do NOT want to hear union people talking about it if you’ve worked this long.  If you are union: after 8 hours you get time and a half, after 10 you get double time, then the 13th hour (am I wrong about this?) you get a Golden Hour.  You are now getting paid about $147 an hour.  Celebrate.  Call your mom.  Buy new shoes.

“May Go Late”: This is an overnight.  If you are non-union, proceed with caution.   I did many before I joined the union, and the $80 paycheck was rough.  If you have nothing to do the next day, just jump on for the ride!  Ever want to hang out with random people dressed up as hipsters during a fake blackout in Bushwick until the sun comes up?  Here’s you chance!  Or maybe pretend it’s the 50s and pony dance at a Fourth of July party.  I’ve had some of the goofiest nights this way.

I also had an overnight that was so terrible, I joined the union afterwards.  It was the final non-union straw.  After sitting outside in 45 degree weather for 6 hours in sundresses until 4am, my section of the crowd started losing their  minds and humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Mis.  I still run into people who were there that night.  It’s like discussing a ship wreck.  We were dropped off by Grand Central Station at 5am.  Many people had to sit on the sidewalk until LIRR or Metro North started running.  No thank you.

My point:

I always have a point or lesson to all my blog posts, and I promise this one was not to be negative.  There are many great things about working on sets as an extra, especially once you get past the myth that it will enhance your career or help you be “discovered”.  You can take from it what you like, I personally have learned a lot and made some great friends.  It has been an occasional source of fun flexible income.  I also love observing other actors and picking up whatever I can from their work.  And hey, I got to meet Steve Buscemi and serve a fake breakfast to Michael Emerson.

If for some reason you’re a casting agent reading this…ummmm…I swear I’m a hard worker and background work is awesome!  I won’t bitch or stare into the camera:)

So next time you’re watching a show or movie, check out those extras.  There’s a whole other story going on back there.  Thanks for reading, and much love to all my fellow extras out there.

Play “Find the Ginny”