Watch and Learn

A week ago I attended the first annual Boston Book Festival.  It sounded fun and there was a superb lineup of speakers/authors.  While I didn't get to attend every session my heart desired, I did sit in on three great ones that were not only informative but which left me, surprisingly, with a single realization that I've been pondering all week: few of the people I heard attained the goals they set out to achieve.

John Hodgman: John Hodgman wanted to be an author and, in fact, did end up an author, but only after publishing a single (but brilliant!) short story in the Paris Review, becoming a literary agent instead, appearing on The Daily Show, making a-bajillion ads for a computer company that shall remain nameless but is my favorite nonetheless, acting in movies and amassing a small army of slightly off-kilter but passionate followers.

Scout Tufankjian: American photojournalist Scout Tufankjian didn't know she would become so intimately affiliated with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.  She just wanted to take pictures.  Her agency sent her to New Hampshire to cover some unknown junior senator as he launched a run for the presidency.  It was the reaction of the attendees (and perhaps the quality of her photography) that resulted in her following the campaign for two years from inception through inauguration, and producing 12,000 images that became her best-selling book Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign.

Chris van Allsburg: Chris van Allsburg relayed the story of a young, average high school student with a vivid imagination who set out to become a lawyer, but talked his way into art school (without having had any formal art training) after the college admissions officer discouraged him from pursuing a legal track.  He's now a Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator of children's books. Perhaps he would have made a good lawyer anyway?

Tom Perotta: Tom Perotta is currently a successful author who had difficulty getting published, even though he had a professional relationship with former student and then-literary agent John Hodgman.  He took up teaching creative writing at Yale as a side gig, then switched to expository writing at higher-ed competitor Harvard. Maybe he needs a good actress to star in his adaptation of his own work, The Abstinence Teacher?

These folks have become successful but perhaps not in the fields they had first imagined  What does this say about goals and desire and success?  Does it have to do with their go-with-the-flow type of attitude?  A relenting focus on the end result?  Are goals, desire and success at all related?

My mom gave me a book a few years ago called Rules of the Red Rubber Ball by Kevin Carroll.  Memorably, it actually comes packaged with a red rubber ball which I have sitting on my desk.  The purpose of the book is to remind the reader to keep one's eye on the ball and not lose sight of the goal.  For Ken Burns, it worked out.  He wanted to become a successful documentary filmmaker and did so.  In the cases of Hodgman, Tufankjian, van Allsburg and Perotta, they had their eyes on balls, but the routes that took them too their balls involved detours or turns to another ball entirely.

What could this mean?  Was use of my early science successes to pursue music a wrong choice?  Because I earned two degrees in music but now act more than sing, have I failed to achieve my goal?  Is acting the detour?  Are we the governors of our paths?  I hope next year's Boston Book Festival is as thought-provoking.

(n.b. Is it ironic that I have been humming "Nice Work if You Can Get It" as I write this?)


I'll be Your Mouthpiece

Yesterday I worked on another industrial video project with a production team I've come to know.  We have a nice professional relationship now which has resulted in fun times on set and a semi-consistent flow of work for me.  What made yesterday's green screen work different from previous work was the type of role I had been given.  Yes, I was still acting.  Yes, I still had helmet-hair.  Yes, I was still playing a character.  Yes, I still had slightly stilted dialogue to deliver for instructional purposes.  But, in this case I was not acting opposite another actor.  Rather, I was delivering the copy directly to the end user via the camera lens, in effect making me a spokesperson.  I have done such work once before, recording six informational videos for a national computer and IT service provider which shall remain nameless.  It was fun to graduate to this type of service for the client and to learn--after the fact--that they were very pleased with my work.  (It was also fun to learn the producer used to be in a band called The Young Rationals.  But, shh!  Don't tell!)


Making the Intangible Tangible

Last week I had an audition but was not called back.  All worked out well, though, as I happened to win tickets to an amazing performance at Carnegie Hall.  This audition happened to be for a commercial that would be selling an intangible good.  In situations like these, I find interesting the means by which advertising agencies create a brand strategy.  In this particular case, the agency elected to illustrate the product visually using personification.  A current example of this can be seen in commercials for GEICO like this one:

The creatives have taken money--something that is typically handled electronically in today's transactions--and given it some pizzazz.  Some cuteness.  Something you'll remember and want to have.  (Not to mention a catchy song.)

In my audition, I performed an everyday task with the product to illustrate its ubiquitous nature.  Since the personification of the product had not yet been finalized by the agency, my product personified for audition purposes happened to be a teddy bear.  He was cute, but not so much as the GEICO money.  I cannot speculate why I was not called back; any number of factors could have been influential.  No matter: I look forward to seeing the final spot and the ultimate vision of the product.


Influence and Impact

Last week, in a surprising turn of events, I won tickets to the first performance of the Punch Brothers at Carnegie Hall.  (Thanks Nonesuch Records!) The location of the seats could not have been better

As a musician, I could not have asked for more from these guys.  They're highly-trained, phenomenally-skilled and enjoyed every minute of their excellent Carnegie Hall debut.  They love what they do and epitomize what a great ensemble and performance should be: punctual, friendly, fun, energetic, interesting, witty and technically unparalleled.

As a professional auditioneethe process of winning this contest got me thinking about the means by which it happened and how the experience could aid me in winning auditions. Specifically, I reviewed the factors that seemed to affect the outcome of the ticket give-away and determined the components that were, perhaps, the most influential.  Given these, I've identified four conditions to apply to future auditions:

  1. Be enthusiastic about the situation and/or product.
  2. Be sincere in that enthusiasm.
  3. Have a sense of fun about the experience.
  4. Have no expectations of the outcome.

Now it's time to test the hypothesis!



I saw this tweet about a contest on Wednesday and thought, What the heck?  I'll enter!  I like Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, and have enjoyed such music for years, so I whipped up a characteristically campy but completely sincere email message to submit to the drawing:

I clicked "Send" and thought nothing further of it.  Of the hundreds (or possibly thousands) of entries Nonesuch Records could receive, the likelihood of me winning would be slim.  Yesterday afternoon I received what I thought was a standard reply message, encouraging me to visit Nonesuch Records' web site and thanking me for participating in the contest:

I was gobsmacked!  Of all the entries, I had been selected the recipient of the only two tickets to be given away!  So, I'm in New York today, off to a very fun concert and after party, and I hope to have some good stories to share with you upon my return.

It looks like there was a reason I didn't receive a callback today for Wednesday's audition.  But that is another blog entry.


Sprinting Spot

Last month I had the fun task of participating in a quick commercial shoot in Maine.  Apparently the spot began airing this weekend.  Since I recall the focus being about some tax-related issue, thereby making the coverage area relatively localized, I was pleased to find the completed commercial in a non-Maine viewing venue: YouTube.  It's amazing to me--given all the running around I did for this gig--how brief it seems!  There are some cute takes we did that clearly didn't make it into the final cut.  Perhaps there will be another, longer version to air in the future that may include some of these remaindered moments.



Last year I attended a thoughtful memorial for my voice teacher, Helen Hodam.  At the conclusion of that event, a sweet recording of her was played--one many of her students wanted, including me.  I sent a few email messages to various parties but received no responses.  Then, just this past Friday, I received an email message with a link to this video and recording of that very performance, Loch Lomond, as recorded by Ms. Hodam on 8 August 1947.  Enjoy!


Collegial Kudos

Last weekend I saw the new Ricky Gervais/Jennifer Garner flick The Invention of Lying and I am pleased to say high praise goes to my friends Andrea, Celeste, Doug, Ellen and Michele who were all in the movie.  Not only are they fabulous actors and lovely friends, but they're now even more famous!  Furthermore, Mr. Gervais should be recognized for being "an actor's actor", as Michele commented.  Though her scene and Doug's scene didn't make it into the final cut of the film, each of them received notes stating it was a pleasure to work with them, their scenes turned out very well and each will receive copies of the scenes for their reels.

Quite a distinct and classy move by Mr. Gervais, I think.


Not Hot Stuff

A few day ago, I auditioned for a restaurant chain with a well-known, catchy jingle that may make a resurgence.  The audition required singing and I knew this was the reason I was called.  I was psyched to have a chance to sing for a commercial audition and wanted to do my best.  I made a mental choice to not sing too well because past practice of the jingle illustrated thusly.  Furthermore, I know of very few jingles sung in a classical style.

In the days prior to the audition, I learned and practiced the ditty, trying to stay true to the original while providing a bit of personal styling.  I practiced in the shower.  I hummed while on the bus. I muttered the lyrics under my breath while in the grocery store.  I tapped out the syncopated rhythms while riding the T.  Little did I know I would not be auditioning alone.

My audition partner turned out to be a lovely person that I've had the good fortune to work with before.  Polite, witty, sharp-looking, courteous, but cannot stay in a key. I had forgotten how challenging it can be to try sing with a less-skilled singer.  Mid-audition, a small voice in my mind recalled that phrase, "Hold your own!", and I finally appreciated its sentiment.  I made a conscious decision to ignore the other talent in the room (read: my audition partner) and stick to my key of choice.  I think it made the entire audition terrible.  Seriously.  I could hear the terribleness happening as the audition progressed.  I'm afraid my face may have showcased my awareness of the magnitude of the terribleness, but I sincerely tried to remain focused on the scene at hand, hoping it would mask my insight.  Part of me hoped the situation was humorous enough to help us both get the gig.  However, I know I didn't get it--it shot last week.


Riddle Me This

Quite awhile back, I had an unsuccessful outcome to a rather dubious and line-free commercial audition. On this occasion, we were not told the product prior to or during the audition, though the client was present. (Apparently this product was of a top-secret nature.) Instead, we were to make up the product for ourselves, pretend to hide beneath an imaginary bedsheet while using the concocted product, and then appear sheepish yet surprised. I did my sheepish best, but it was not enough to land the gig. Once I saw the completed commercial on television. Just think: this could have been me.


Grappling with the Hook

Since one of my last auditions, I've been ruminating on what prompts a client to like a talent and subsequently hire her/him.

As is known, frequently the hiring of talent can seem wholly dependent upon look and have little to do with action.  However, I like to keep clients to a higher standard and believe they really do consider the skill the actor carries into the room.

Can it be that first interpretation is so influential that if the initial presentation is not similar to the client concept, then it is not deemed plausible for the talent to revise the performance and provide what the client seeks?

Is it possible to give the client what it wants (or what it thinks it wants) and yet still be true to one's own choices and interpretation?

Where is the intersection of acting true-to-self and serving client desire?  Does such an equilibrium exist?