Monday, September 26, 2011


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.   

Monday, September 19, 2011


A commercial is when you’re selling something, silly.

No, it’s not! If it was that simple we wouldn’t need actors for commercials.

Sometimes the people who do commercials aren’t actors - and it’s pretty obvious! Usually, however, non-actors who do commercials, like famous athletes, politicians, cats, etc. have coaches – or ‘wranglers’ in the latter case.  

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.

Commercial copy is written specifically for selling. So it’s particularly difficult to make it sound convincing. An actor has to use technique more than ever! It’s not complicated, it’s just a lot of work.

These are the tools of the actor, which must be applied:
          Finding the objective
          Discovering the action(s)
          Using Subtext
          Supporting it with sensory work
          Applying character adjustments
These are the same tools you would use for any other acting assignment.

So, now that we know what a commercial isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. A monologue? A scene? A mini screenplay?  I would say it’s always a screenplay – it can be either a monologue – only one person speaking into the camera at a time - or a scene – two or more people interacting.

When I first encountered the commercial aspect of the business, I was fortunate enough to get an agent fairly quickly.  The business was very different in those days.  We used to make ‘rounds’ – visiting agents’ offices and leaving photos or just ‘checking in.’ They didn’t have the security measures they do now, so agents were a lot more accessible. They generally had a secretary at the front desk, with whom you could speak and leave a photo and resume.  I signed up with the ‘Monty Silver Agency’ for both commercials and legit. My agent was Marvin Starkman, who gave me a very pretty baby spoon, when my son was born. He sent me out on a lot of auditions.

My first booking was an extra on a commercial for a product called ‘Vanish’ or something like that – I believe it was a headache remedy –  it didn’t survive very long, anyway. When I went to the shoot, I discovered that we were four ladies playing cards: two principals, two extras.  They quickly discovered that they needed to show the faces of the extras in reaction shots, so we were bumped up to principals.

A long dry period followed and Marvin advised me to ‘study’ commercials at the very first school that provided classes specifically for ‘commercial acting.’ Absolutely no help at all!  But I had enrolled in a scene study class given by the excellent Meisner teacher, Mordecai Lawner, who was a stickler for objectives, actions and subtext.

Eventually, I was cast in my first major commercial. Next time, I’ll describe the process of preparing a commercial.

Monday, September 12, 2011


So, as I was saying, when I left you with a cliffhanger from my last blog entry:

The storm was seriously frightening me, so I was using relaxation techniques from my acting background to occupy my mind with something more useful than fear – working on an acting problem.  As I focused it on my body – sometimes I call it ‘putting my mind into my body’ – my intuition took over and Shakespeare popped into my mind. Then I started ‘linking’ my fear to Shakespeare. A couple of plays came up that related to storms – The Tempest and King Lear, but they didn’t ‘feel’ right, so I kept on ‘breathing my mind down into my body’ until Macbeth arrived, and I felt the ‘linking’ snap into place.

I was interested by the fact that there wasn’t anything about a storm in the particular verses that initially occurred to me. Here is Lady Macbeth in the letter scene:

             Come, you spirits
           That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here   
           And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full 
           Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, 
           Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
           That no compunctious visiting’s of nature  
           Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between 
           Th’effect and it! Come to my women’s breasts,
           And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers,
           Wherever in your sightless substances
           You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick Night, 
           And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
           That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
           Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, 
           To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
What has this specifically to do with a storm, I wondered.  Of course, the play begins with the direction, Thunder and Lightening: Enter Three Witches, but Lady M., at this point is in her front yard, waiting for her husband to come home, so she can rev him up for the murder of Duncan. Then Macbeth can take over the throne and she’ll attain the one thing in the world she wants – to be a Queen.  It’s like reality TV.

A slight digression – but I need it to make my point. Many years ago, fresh out of RADA, right at the beginning of my career, I played Lady M. at The Roundabout Theatre - when it was in its first incarnation, in the basement of a supermarket on 23rd Street. I started out as Lady MacDuff, but the producer’s wife, who was playing Lady Macbeth got pregnant and wasn’t feeling well so I took over the role for the rest of the run. God, how I struggled with it, falling into every pitfall of bad acting in the book! I thought that because Lady M. pushes her husband into murdering Duncan that she’s a cold-blooded murderess – in other words, a psychopath. 
Later, I tackled the role again under the direction of the brilliant avant-garde director, Andre Gregory. We did a lot of work on it, using the sound and movement techniques of Jerzy Grotowski, in which Andre had steeped himself for so many years and passed along to me, through workshops and the rehearsals for Macbeth.  Although, in the end, Andre became steeped in something else - preparation for My Dinner with Andre with Wally Shawn (the film was eventually directed by Louis Malle) and abandoned Macbeth - I received from him invaluable information about acting.

Macbeth has a reputation as an unlucky play – skewered fabulously in the Canadian mini-series, Slings and Arrows, starring the incomparable Geoffrey Tennant.  (If you haven’t seen it - run, don’t walk to your nearest computer to stream it on Netflix.)   I was impressed by all the tales I had heard about Macbeth, and worked diligently to ‘skew’ my body and voice ‘to the sticking place’ where I would come up with the necessary amount of ‘evil’ to play the part.

I did have a dream, however, that was helpful.  It was a simple, very short dream.  I was walking in a forest and had come to a crossroads.  A male creature met me, covered in fur, with hooves and a tail. I forced myself not to look at him, and somehow had the strength to wake up. It was the God, Pan, and I knew, intuitively, from that dream – and the placing of it in the middle of those rehearsals for Macbeth – that fear lay, like a coiled snake, beneath all of Lady M.’s bravado and ambition.   

The night of the storm, as I quaked in my bed, the fear I felt at the raging winds transferred to Lady M.’s fear, well-placed for sure, that if she were invaded by evil, she would never get out alive. The problem of the speech is that she seems to be asking for evil forces to invade her – and indeed, on a conscious level, she is.  But beneath the surface, she is terrified.

Working with Andre, using the Grotowski methods of putting my body and voice into a particular state, I was able to find half of Lady M., not the half that people would see on the surface. That part would be taken care of by the objective, ‘I want to be Queen,’ and the actions that would be played to achieve that end - even though ‘getting what she wants’ means Lady M.’s destruction. As things begin to fall apart for Macbeth, who actually commits all the crimes, she begins to feel actual guilt and eventually kills herself. This proves that Lady M. isn’t a cold-blooded psychopath, but rather one of the victims of her own blind ambition.

Therefore, in the letter speech, quoted above, there must be a hint of her fear – and the only way to come by that honestly is to link it to a situation in which one feels that particular kind of unbeatable force. For me, being in the middle of a hurricane induces a lot of fear. The wind and the rain are merciless, nothing can stop them. By putting myself inside a hurricane, I can find the underlying layer of Lady M – and then get to work on the ‘actions’ I need to overcome the fear and move toward my overall objective.