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Treat Yourself Like an MFA Student: 10 Things to Do Every Weekend

Plenty of actors would love to get an MFA.  They may want the piece of paper, the training, the immersion.  But the cost, the time away from the industry, and the fact that your social and family life is taken hostage, can be less appealing than the accomplishment itself.

The one thing you can’t argue with, though, is the discipline that an MFA program forces on you.  You have a tight schedule that you must adhere to, or risk expulsion.

When it comes down to it, though, all you need is a schedule and willpower.  After all, MFA students choose to stay in the program (for the most part), and they are following a tight, full schedule.

Many of my students wonder if they should have gone for an MFA, when they bemoan not having enough auditions or the types they want.  My answer—create your own MFA program!  Plenty of actors on Broadway and on camera had no formalized training.  The lack of an MFA doesn’t stop people—lack of discipline, willpower and belief in self does.

What you’ll want to do is take these 10 things and make sure they happen on your weekend.  For those of you with jobs that are not M-F 9-5, try to persuade your boss to regularly let you have 2 days off in a row, since that will work best for you.  Will you be super busy?  Yes.  Will it be worth it?  Absolutely, if acting is your goal.

1.       Movement

  • 90 minutes both days
  • Try a class in Viewpoints, Suzuki, Laban, or another acting movement foundation
  • Take a class in:  dance, trapeze, martial arts, yoga, gymnastics, stage combat, etc.
  • No class?  Make sure you spend 90 minutes that day being creatively physical, from dance choreography to a complete yoga session—whatever pushes you.

2.       Voice

  • 45+ minutes both days
  • Full vocal warmup you’ve learned along the way
  • Class in Linklater, Berry, Fitzmaurice, Rodenburg, etc.

3.       Singing

  • This is important even if you are not a singer
  • Non-singers:  20+ min both days.  Find some recorded vocal warm-ups with a great guide, and warm up your singing voice, no matter how wobbly.  Then get the sheet music for a song you love to sing and that you don’t sound half-bad at, and have the accompaniment recorded, or download online with the recording already there for you.
  • Singers:  45 min both days.  Fully warm up your voice and go through the songs in your book that are active right now.  Make sure you are performing the song, not just singing it, whether that is with stillness or simple blocking/choreo.

4.       Run your pieces

  • 30 min both days.  Take all your monologues and run them!  Choose a few to work and play with, continuing to discover and deepen; and polish up the ones that are just about there.

5.       Acting Class

  • 2-4 hours either day.  Take a class that lands on one of your MFA days.  Think: scene study, monologue workshop, camera/voice-over.  Something where you are working on character.
  • Partner rehearsal – 1-2 hours either day.  Schedule rehearsal for your class scene/project with your chosen scene/project partner, if you have one.

6.       Acting Coach

  • If you are in the industry, always always always have a coach.  My students range from beginner to AEA MFA working actors, and they all get far more gigs when they are regularly studying with me or with any acting coach.  I’ve heard my actor colleagues say the same.   At minimum, I recommend 45-60 min sessions every other week to keep your momentum, for auditioning, character work, stretch work, new monologues, etc.

7.       Read a Play

  • Most MFAs are required to complete a very long reading list in order to earn their degree.  Read all the titles off of a list.  You can Google MFA Play Reading List, or here is a link to a pretty good list.
  • Once you are done with the list you’ve chosen, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays that were not on the list, as far back as the list goes.
  • Once you are done with that list, start reading the plays that were Tony- and Obie-nominated the past few years, and then keep up that habit going forward.

8.       See a Play

  • Never go a single weekend without seeing a play, whether it is a friend’s or on Broadway.  Make it happen.

9.       Watch a movie that won best actor

  • Check out the Academy Awards and Golden Globes websites and watch the movies that had best male actor and best female actor wins.  Go as far back as the list goes.

10.   Rehearse/perform

  • Perform in something.  If you are currently rehearsing or performing a role in a piece—perfect.  If not, volunteer for a staged reading, or do a monologue at an open mic night, or create a webcast/YouTube video that folks are going to see.  Just put yourself out there in front of an audience to continue to learn and hone that skill.

Remember, treat yourself like an MFA in training.  Be serious about your work and play, by turning down social engagements, creating your uninterrupted space at home for it (or finding space, indoor or outdoor), and putting your money toward it.  Truthfully, if you would have been willing to earn an MFA and come out the other end with easily $50K+ in loans, then putting your hard-earned cash toward these things should become a priority—especially if you do it well and do it right.

Questions?  Contact Reneé at renee@organicactingcoach.com.

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One of the first things I work on with students, both new and experienced, is the slate.

Usually after hearing a slate I’ll ask the student what class or teacher taught them their slate.  The majority of my students tell me they didn’t, that they just picked it up along the way.

Obviously, it’s a crime that this simple yet important step isn’t commonly part of an acting institution’s training.  There seems to be an assumption that actors already know somehow; as if by way of deciding to become an actor, they suddenly know how to do a slate.  Then again, how hard can it be to simply introduce yourself and your audition piece title?  Well, actually, it can be a bit tricky.   But with practice, it can become not just simple, but a launching pad for a successful audition.

Like any part of a job interview it’s important to be top-notch at:

  • Walking into the room
  • Introducing yourself
  • Introducing your piece
  • Interacting with the auditors

Walking into the Room

The slate actually starts as soon as you enter the audition room.  You start to make your impression on them right away.

DO:

  • Enter with confidence, but not arrogance
  • Enter with a smile, but not a big ol’ grin
  • Say a cheery “hello everyone” or “hello there” in a casual, welcoming way
  • Deposit your belongings neatly and quickly in a corner, preferably near the door

This allows you to walk in with poise, and connect with the other human beings in the room.  If done confidently, openly and well, it puts everyone at ease and reminds both you and them that we are all actually peers in this industry, creating art and entertainment together.

Introducing Yourself

The usual format for this is simple:  YOUR NAME + THE CHARACTER NAME + THE PLAY + THE PLAYWRIGHT.

Easy.  Start with a “Hi” or “Hello”, then “My name is” or “I’m”, then the formula above.

This seems to pose the most difficulty for most folks, for a couple reasons.  One is the tone to use.  In an effort to be friendly and accessible, most actors will slate ending in a question and never realize it.

DO THIS TEST:  Say “Do you want some?” in a chirpy way.  Now, if your introduction of your name has the same pitch/musicality, you are asking a question.  “Hi, my name is Reneé Rodriguez?”  And my response when I hear this slate is always, “Are you sure?” in the same pitch, to demonstrate how unsure the actor sounds.

Introducing Your Piece

The second reason a slate goes awry is in the wording.  Simply put, folks aren’t sure whether to say “I will be playing the role of” vs. “I will be doing”; or “from the play” vs. “from”; or “written by” vs. “by”.

My vote is to eliminate as much wordiness as possible, while still allowing yourself to flow through the slate:  “Hi, my name is Reneé Rodriguez, and I will be playing Billie from Women of Manhattan by Shanley.”  You‘ll note I just used the playwright’s last name, since he’s well-known.  With Shakespeare, I recommend leaving off his name entirely if you are comfortable with that.  The auditor knows who wrote As You Like It or Hamlet.  At least, I hope so for the sake of the cast!

If there is a second monologue, simply tack that onto your original slate.   You don’t want to introduce it separately after you finish your first piece.

DO NOT:

  • Give the circumstances of the scene
  • Describe the character
  • Tell them the quality of the piece
  • Apologize for being late or not feeling well that day

BONUS TIP:  Practice introducing your slate as if you have planned a wonderful, sophisticated dinner party, and are now opening the door to your home and greeting a favorite guest.

Interacting with the Auditors

Sometimes the auditor(s) may chat with you afterward.  If they:

  1. Give you a different direction to try with your piece –
  • Embrace it and go for it!  This is usually a lot of fun.
  1. Ask you to tell them about yourself –
  • Briefly tell them 2-3 quick facts about yourself.  For example, “I’m a Puerto Rican from California who loves to tap dance, speed-hike mountains and sing in the shower!”
  • Use facts that might start a brief conversation or spark interest without being too weird.

DO NOT:

  • Apologize for any aspect of your audition; if something significant happens, laugh it off with them
  • Inform them that you are sick or your throat is scratchy or otherwise impaired
  • Use any factoids about yourself that have to do with illness, death or anything depressing (i.e., I had open heart surgery, my roots are gray, my dog of 18 years just died)

Now, go practice your slate until it feels great and organic—really coming from who you are.  Video record your slate, review, and polish it up.  Then you’ll always have a fantastic start to your audition pieces!

Questions about your slate?  Email Reneé at renee@organicactingcoach.com.

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Did you abandon the New Year’s Resolutions you made?  Four resolutions actors can start now.


After one month, only 64% of people who made resolutions on January 1st are still working on them.

We are just about halfway through 2012 now.  What resolutions did you make on the first day of this year, and how are you doing with them now, almost six months later?  More exercise, debt reduction, healthier diet….these are common goals folks make at the start of a new year.

If your purpose this year was to amp up your acting craft, however, and you feel like you are not living up to your own promise, you can make it easier on yourself simply by now creating objectives that are aimed entirely at your career goals—and have fun doing them.

Here are 4 areas you can focus on to improve your craft.  Pick just one thing from each category, set the habits in your schedule, and be thrilled with the results:

  1.  Movement – From Bogart’s Viewpoints to Laban to tai chi, there are many disciplines actors find immensely useful to centering themselves and gaining confidence with their own body language.  Enroll in a class today, always checking the certification and experience of your teacher.   After all, there’s no reason to take a Viewpoints workshop with a teacher who is 4 times removed from the still-very-much-alive Bogart, especially since there are plenty of her students scattered throughout the U.S.  Quite frankly, though, I like to recommend to my students who are either just starting out or who have lots of movement training behind them:  find a yoga class you love and go 2-3 times a week, or join a dance class, whether it’s tap, salsa, tango…whatever.   Or, finally dive into that trapeze or fencing class.
  2. Voice – You want to mix things up and organically add vocal variety and vocal range to your speaking voice, without having to manipulate it so much.  If you have plenty of stage speech training, learn a new dialect.  I’m seeing instances where even Caucasian-appearing actors are needed with Arabic dialects.  Plus, learning a new dialect can be quite fun.  I personally like David Alan Stern’s CD/book sets for learning a new dialect, but there are plenty of resources for learning on your own.  If you are a dialect guru, take a singing class or find a singing teacher.  And if these don’t float your boat, take a look at Linklater’s, Berry’s, Rodenburg’s books and adopt 3 of their exercises into your warmup routine.
  3. Health – I can’t tell you how many actors lose focus and can’t make their most creative choices because at least one area of their health is failing.  You may not be aware of what could be holding you back or creating blocks.  Take a look at your routine and how it affects your body, and adopt one of these new habits:
  • Sleep – Find a way to get 8-9 hours each night.  At the very least, get 7 hours.  You may feel fine, but your clarity and your health is suffering every night you get less sleep.  Increase the quality of it as well—have blinds that make the room pitch black, have white noise to eliminate city noise pollution, and put well-watered plants in your room to increase healthy humidity for your nose and throat.
  • Nutrition – Add one thing and eliminate another.  For actors, the absolute optimal options here would be to add 3-4 fresh whole fruits per day (not that hard if you just eat a couple Pink Lady apples or whole package of strawberries and an extra banana) and eliminate dairy.  The first action is not only packed with vitamins and minerals but deeply aids digestion, and the second action will allow your voice to be at its best.  Or add a big salad with your lunch or dinner, and eliminate red meat or white grains.  Or add quinoa or couscous and eliminate fried foods.  The options are endless—and the change easily happens at the grocery store so that it doesn’t have to happen when you are hungry and seeking whatever you crave.
  • Support – Finally use that health insurance you have to seek out a weekly psychologist or counselor, or join a group or a community that ISN’T about acting or performing.  Or, go ahead and find a supportive rather than competitive stomping ground of folks who are also performers but have a well-rounded lifestyle.
  • Exercise – To me, this one is easy:  just get off the bus or train 1-5 stops before or after your stop, and walk.  Easy peasy, and health benefits are huge.  Let’s be honest…if you wanted to join a gym, you would if you actually believed you would go after that first month.  And listen, if you do want to join a gym, join one that allows month-to-month, so you can see if you really are made of the stuff of someone who goes every few days, month after month.
  1. New material – Time for you to refresh your book.  Take a look at the songs and ask a teacher or someone who is not in competition with you in any way:  What songs and monologues should I retire right now?  And when it comes to those monologues, look at the playwrights that are on Broadway over the past five years and find their other plays.   Pick something from those.  You want to make sure at the minimum, you have the following:
  • One comedic contemporary monologue (written in the last 50 years)
  • One dramatic contemporary monologue
  • One comedic modern monologue (written earlier than 50 years ago but not classical)
  • One dramatic modern monologue
  • One comedic classical monologue (most auditors prefer Shakespeare)
  • One dramatic classical monologue
  • One “quirky” piece (45 seconds long and showcases something you do well—extremely movement-oriented, or a dialect, or an “insane” character, etc.)

How to keep your new “resolutions”:

You can wish really hard that it’s going to happen for you, or you can make a very real, active commitment.  If you realize that it isn’t easy to change in this busy society, and you’re ready to fight your own ingrained habits to get there, then you will achieve your new goals.

  1. Break it down and make it specific.
  • When each week will you do each thing?
  • How will you fit it in so that it quickly becomes a natural part of your routine or schedule?
  • What time of day will be best for each of your new goals?
  • How often can you realistically do it?  It’s one thing to say you’ll go to yoga five times that week because the schedule fits, but it’s another to fit that into your monthly budget.
  1. Keep track of what you do, even if you are the type of person who hates doing that.
  • Journals not for you?  Schedule the classes, activities, appointments, and whatnot into your digital device, and when you are done, go into that entry and type in a few notes (“forward bend is getting easier”, “I love my new tap shoes”, “I feel great after 3 days of no dairy”, etc.).
  • Do you text or IM a lot?  You know that person who you communicate with every single day?  Tell them what you are up to and that you’ll be texting or IMing them your accomplishment (or lack thereof) for that day, based on your goals.
  • Whether you think you are doing well, or whether you are afraid of feeling like a failure, write down how you did that day.  Falling off track is an absolute part of the process, even though we perfectionists don’t like to admit it.  Whenever you fail, you get a chance to take a look at why that was, and change the aspect of your life, routine, personality, that caused it.
  1. Recognize the trade-off and what you are gaining from all this.  You have to be uncomfortable and disgruntled for a while in order to enact change.
  2. Make your environment supportive.  Don’t have the foods you eliminated in your home or workplace, and make it easy to carry your yoga mat or dance shoes with you throughout the day.  Schedule social things so that they end in time for you to get home, wind down, and get a full night’s sleep.
  3. Reward yourself.   It’s always best to avoid food or retail as a reward, so what if you luxuriate in some aromatherapy while you are showering next, or find the massage school and schedule a monthly massage to recognize your new habits, goals and lifestyle?  Male or female, a pedicure can be quite nice, and maybe it’s time you bundled up, went to the park, and watched folks sledding or playing with remote boats on the pond.  Visit your museums on the nights they are free, watch a podcast you’ve been dying to see….just relax and indulge.

Do you have more ideas to add within these categories?  Comment below.

How to memorize your new monologue – a workshop:  http://visualizing.eventbrite.com/

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Here’s a pertinent question I was asked today:

How can I improve my ability to connect with scene partners weaker or stronger than myself? I want to bring emotion to the work but I don’t want to force the issue or blow my partner off the stage.

Outdoor rehearsal of Curious Frog Theatre Company’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”.

With this, I can only give general advice since I cannot sit in on a rehearsal.

From those cast members who you perceive to be weaker than you, use their text and what you know the intention under the text is, whether they realize that intention or not. Make sure they are playing at least some semblance of that meaning before you react to it though, simply by listening. If they are not, play the meaning as best you can but don’t overdo it or you end up looking like you are overacting.

For those cast members who you perceive to be stronger than you, just have 1) full intent behind what you are saying, and 2) a very active inner monologue as you are listening to their words.

Additionally, go back and make sure you have your script broken down into major beats within each scene, and that each and every beat has an objective in the form of “I want/need to (transitive verb) in order to (desired result).” Write that objective out beside the text of that beat’s section.

“I want/need to (transitive verb) in order to (desired result).”

If you feel full intent and very clear underneath each objective you are playing in rehearsal, then great—your objective is working well. If not, your transitive verb is probably not accurate nor strong enough. And remember, you can never “get” or “make” anybody do anything, so make sure those words never appear in any of your objective sentences.

In my humble opinion, never play emotion. Play objectives as hard as you can. Emotion is inside of us all the time, whether we want it there or not. You can go on stage and emote the whole time but the audience wants INTENT and TEXT and STORY. So, stick to the text and keep amping up/strengthening your objectives, using that sentence formula.

“I want/need to (transitive verb) in order to (desired result).”

The stronger your objectives, btw, the more your fellow cast members will become caught up with you in scenes; both the weak and strong actors. Play what you are hearing AND what you are getting, but most of all, play your objective and the story.

Questions?  Get in touch by commenting below or email me at renee@organicactingcoach.com.

MAY SPECIAL:  One Monologue.  One Hour.  Only $50 through May 31st

(First-time clients only.  Returning students can use this special for home studio slots only.  Offer is unlimited through May—as many sessions as are available.)

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