In Blog 8, in which I began the discussion of commercial acting, I said this:
In most cases, actors have to make do with commercial classes, often taught by people who aren’t real acting teachers. This is a mistake because commercial copy isn’t written like normal dialogue – and it’s really difficult to master.
I’d like to amend this statement a little – it sounds categorical and preachy. Commercial classes are useful for meeting industry people, and often the cost is covered by the extra work they offer. They can be useful to actors, who are already trained but have no experience of commercial acting and need to work both in front of a camera and get an idea of how they look on-camera.
That said, I stick to my guns that acting is acting – and trying to learn ‘commercial acting’ from someone who isn’t an acting teacher is a short-cut that almost never works.
I also said in my last blog entry that I would discuss the Wonderbread commercial I did for the Ted Bates Advertising Agency. In those days, I was going out for commercials almost every day. Sometimes I had several calls one right after the other. My acting teacher, Mordecai Lawner (Morty), had taken some time from our scene study class to work on commercials, since many of us needed get cast in them to pay our bills. I, myself, was a single mother with a young son - and I wanted to provide him with as much as I could.
Morty explained that a commercial has an objective in the same way as any other script. Of course, the objective was usually up-beat and positive – not dramatic and ‘dark’ except the occasional public service commercial.
He also demonstrated how it should be broken down into beats, each one governed by an action, and every line needed to be supported by subtext. If the commercial was only one line, the actor should have three ways to say it. For the sake of brevity, I will discuss the thirty second spot - these were the ones I was generally called in to audition for.
When I arrived at Ted Bates Advertising the morning of the Wonderbread audition, there was quite a crowd. I always thought the women – ‘girls’ we called each other in those days - were prettier than I, ‘smarter’ – that meant better dressed – and I had a sense of inferiority around the ones who worked all the time. On that particular day, I felt dwarfed, as usual, but did exactly as Mordecai had instructed us – went to the Ladies and sat in a stall with the Copy. It looked long and scary – here it is:
TEACHER: I want everyone’s lunch eaten before we get to the museum. I’m their teacher – everyday I see the same thing… kids don’t always eat what they bring for lunch. Mine do… Now that I pack their favorite sandwiches on their favorite bread. Wonder. There are cheaper breads - -but they’re not always this fresh’n soft. The way kids like bread. When you send yours to school, send Wonder. Try fresh Wonder English Muffins too.
I sat in that stall and broke it down the best I could, and then feeling that I’d accomplished nothing rushed back to the waiting room, worried that I wouldn’t be there when my name was called. To my amazement, no one was there! Something was wrong with the camera, and we were all supposed to return the next day. I rushed home, delighted at the opportunity to take my time studying and memorizing the Copy.
It took me a while, but I found the three beats. I put actions to them and subtexted each line. Sensory work – or preparation, as Morty called it, being of the Meisner persuasion – was easy since my son went off to kindergarten with his lunch every day. At first, I balked at the thought of promoting Wonderbread – I thought it was morally wrong to support a product I knew to have minimal food value. However, I pushed past my reservations – it might be more difficult now, since I know so much more about how important nutrition is for children – but then I just substituted the whole wheat bread we baked at home for their white version. I drilled it into my brain, going over and over the Copy until it felt conversational.
When I auditioned the next day, my hard work paid off. The casting director brought me in for the call back. I was incredibly nervous in front of the nine or ten advertising executives sitting before me. But I did it! I held on to my intention of bringing something really nutritious – my ‘homemade’ substitution – to American kids. Fortunately, I was a mother with a young child, so I didn’t have to make any major ‘character adjustments.’
They gave it to me, and it ran and ran and ran. I thought I had it made, but I was still very nervous and couldn’t get really comfortable in the short time we were generally allowed to prepare for auditions. I just wasn’t confident enough in those days to make the killing at commercials everyone thought I would. And perhaps I did have too much unconscious resistance to sell things I didn’t believe in or thought might be harmful.
Later, when I became an acting teacher, I figured out a formula for teaching commercials that is really practical and simplifies the process of grasping that particular kind of text. But when I teach it, I must say I find that weaknesses in the overall acting process often make the actor stumble – just as he/she would with any other kind of script.