Creative Solutions for Survival
How do you respond to a crisis? Are you paralyzed, not knowing what to do? Do you run for sanctuary elsewhere? Or do you stay put, handling the situation as best you can, finding other ways to be successful?
Fifteen months into the pandemic, we look around us and see the responses to this crisis. Shuttered businesses. Atypically high prices on materials that overnight seem to suddenly be in much demand. (Have you heard about the price of lumber lately? And how long it takes now for delivery of all sorts of manufactured goods?!)
Yes, some businesses are working feverishly to gear back up to full production and alleviate shortages. But so many others have gone into bankruptcy and … disappeared. Why? In many cases, the long-term economic shutdown became too much for their already razor-thin profit margins to withstand. Restaurants and small businesses especially took it hardest, though larger corporations carrying a lot of debt also had to fold. Some businesses simply did not have enough capital or manpower to adapt and survive. And a number of businesses just couldn’t – or wouldn’t – adjust to new ways of enabling employees to work from home or delivering their goods and services directly to their customers.
The top business schools teach through the use of case studies, examining real-world scenarios and evaluating corporate decisions and their consequent successes or failures. It’s been fascinating to see this in action in our own neighborhoods. We’ve seen innovation and adaptation in play, with new services being offered to accommodate social distancing requirements. Restaurants seemed to lead the way with new “meals to go” and pickup windows; healthcare and business professionals embraced telemedicine and Zoom meetings, respectively; and entertainment giants have funneled movies – some originally intended for theatrical release and some, well, just original creations – through streaming services to audiences to enjoy at home. Schools took up virtual learning – for better or worse – and even many gyms and fitness centers offered classes online. Suddenly, our computers were our lifeline to the outside world.
Talk about a whole lot of new case studies! As in earlier times, we’re seeimg that the most successful individuals and businesses are the ones who’ve been willing to risk new approaches to adapt to the changed environment. Some of the adaptations are actually quite innovative, speeding technological developments that may have required another 5-10 years to take hold. Remote conferencing is a great example. We’ve had the technology for a while, but people were reluctant to fully embrace it. Until they had no choice. Zoom has led the charge and companies have realized that it’s a great way to save time and money previously spent on travel. It’s also allowed individuals like me to attend a number of virtual conferences around the world from the comfort (and convenience!) of home. I’ve noticed that remote conferencing has especially enabled people with limited mobility, particularly those who are bed-ridden, to reclaim their ability to participate in meaningful ways. I think, too, that we’d all agree that digital distribution of movies is not likely to go away either, putting continuing pressure on movie theaters to remain economically viable.
In my own line of work, I saw that voice actors as a group have done pretty well throughout the pandemic. Yes, there were far fewer projects in the first months as businesses pretty much ceased operations, but as spring turned into summer, voice over work proved resilient. The industry transitioned to home production fairly quickly with only a few adjustments. Clients and production houses found that they could create content from their home offices, collaborating online and working virtually with talent and other industry pros. The voice actors found themselves scrambling to build home studios, if they didn’t already have them. Those of us outside of the Los Angeles and New York markets had an advantage here; many of us already had broadcast-quality home studios in place. The LA and NY talent, however, were used to traveling to nearby studios for recording sessions, the result of a concentrated market and facilities in those cities. The biggest change the rest of us saw was the demand for connectivity software from our home studios. Many clients chose to use Source Connect, which very quickly became the new industry standard (supplanting the more cumbersome and expensive ISDN lines). Needless to say, Source-Elements, the creator of Source Connect, had a very profitable 2020.
In my work as an on-camera actor, the biggest adaptation has been within the auditioning process. Pretty much gone (for now) are the in-person auditions in front of casting directors. Self-taping, in which the actor records the audition scene(s) and then digitally submits it to the casting director for review, is now the default auditioning process around the country. Its sudden rise in use was not a shocker to those of us in the Southeast; we’ve been self-taping for years before Covid hit. It was actually born from an earlier crisis, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when it became economically infeasible for actors to drive long distances for short (often under 5 minutes) auditions. But in concentrated markets like LA and NY, the self-tape was rarely used. As with their voiceover counterparts, these film/TV actors had to very quickly learn how to create and properly use a home-based setup.
Self-taping has its advantages and its drawbacks. It enables casting directors (CD) to see many more actors per role, viewing tapes at their personal convenience. It saves the CDs time, particularly when the digital playback can be stopped and quickly eliminated from consideration if the performance is too far off the mark. It gives actors ample opportunity to record multiple takes, choosing the one or two best, and presenting those to the CD. It also allows actors to audition from a physical distance, whether they’re away on set or out of town on vacation. Self-taping has its drawbacks, too, including the loss of personal interaction between CD and actor, the ability to be redirected with clearer instructions during the audition, networking and relationship building, etc. It can also make actors too dependent on the process, losing their comfort with in-person auditioning, trading technical perfection of a performance over authenticity, and becoming less able to “play“ with the script in front of a live audience.
For the duration, though, as well as the foreseeable future, self-taping is here to stay. We will go back to in-person auditioning, but the self-tape has too many conveniences not to be used. So we might as well figure out how to create a good one. The essentials are a simple backdrop, (box) lights, a camera on a tripod, an external mic, and software for easy editing. Also important, though, is a good reader, ideally someone who is also an actor and understands how to be a good reader.
So, what does a reader do? As the name suggests, it’s someone who reads all the other characters’ lines in the audition script. A good reader doesn’t just read the lines; they give the auditioning actor someone to play off, to react to, to influence, etc. during the scene(s). The reader needs to be loud enough to be heard on the audition tape, but not so loud as to take away from the auditioning actor. Another actor is ideal, but sometimes you have to improvise. In a pinch, I’ve drafted my son or husband, but neither has much patience for the role, nor do either of them have the training or interest to play the subdued but important role of an off-screen scene partner. My teen daughter, who is also an actress, is a terrific option, but she’s often not available. And sometimes the material is not appropriate to play against a teenager. Especially yours. This is where Zoom and an actor buddy come in handy.
I’ve worked with a number of other actors and traded services as a reader. While I very much appreciate having someone read with me in my auditions, I’ve found that I learn so much more when I’m reading for another person. And I gain more than I give in the following ways:
1. Learning what truly makes a good read (or not)
It’s a little like sitting on the casting director’s shoulder. If you’re like me, we have in mind how the scene in front of us would play out. We have a notion of how we’d play a particular role, the choices we’d make, those character traits we’d bring to the part. And then we get to see how our friend interprets it differently.
The nuances and tactics – sometimes even the main objective – can be wholly different than you’d ever considered. Personally, I love that! It goes to show how each of us brings something unique to each role we play.
Conversely, reading for another actor can also show us what NOT to do. Did our friend fall into a trap within the script, taking the expected (and dull) route? Was our friend (gasp) not properly prepared to tape? There's nothing worse than to be grasping for lines, becoming more and more flustered with every attempt. (Best to reset and try another time.)
Did our friend overact, showing the need for more training? We don’t want to tell the other actor what to do, but sometimes it can be painful to watch.
2. Seeing risks that work (or not)
Following on the first point, it’s instructive to see the risks that another actor takes to make a character work. Whether it’s creating a memorable first moment before a word is ever uttered or taking a character in a unique direction, it’s fascinating to see how actors can truly make scripts their own. Say the actor chooses a sassy, smart-mouth attitude for a character that on the surface seems to be the embodiment of sweetness and light. It could become an interesting new twist that the writer and director never intended, but may like enough to adopt. And like enough to cast the actor for revealing that unexpected interpretation. Alternatively, the risk could be so far off base that it leaves the casting director a bit baffled. On one hand, it could give the actor points for originality and consideration for another, future project. Or … it could leave the casting director with the impression that the actor would benefit from more training before taking a chance on them. That’s why it’s called a risk. But if an actor doesn’t take them now and then, the actor risks being labeled as mediocre, bland, as someone taking the easy, safe route, etc. Not such a good thing in the end.
3. Observing how a little creativity can enhance a mediocre script
Sometimes … the material isn’t so great. Perhaps the writers are just starting out or are exploring a new genre within the entertainment industry. Whatever the background, it doesn’t matter. It’s up to the actor to elevate the script to something more interesting, nuanced, authentic … something far more than what’s on the page.
That something can be creating a character background and history that informs the story in subtle ways, providing new meaning to the dialogue, with a depth to the character that hadn’t previously been written. When an actor can do this, it’s startling to see how much can be gleaned from a scene that, on the surface, had seemed so vanilla. It reminds me of an acting exercise that provides two actors with short, very vague dialogue. The dialogue itself doesn’t really tell us much. It’s up to the actors to give it direction and purpose. The whole point of the exercise is to have the actors dig deep within themselves to flesh out entire characters that will never be truly revealed, but that are very much evident in the way they converse and interact with each other, using just the basic, non-descript dialogue. It’s amazing to see what each person comes up with!
4. Generating goodwill, that warm tingly feeling when you help someone else
There is something within us that just makes us feel good when we can help someone out. I find it very gratifying to know that I’ve helped one friend make his deadline or another friend her workload as she balances two jobs and family commitments. And their heartfelt appreciation is genuine, which is rewarding unto itself and makes me want to be available the next time they need me.
I’ve developed good friends in this manner. I’ve met them on set, in class, and through other people in the industry, but the relationship builds through our mutual assistance. Atlanta is known for the warm, supportive attitude within its acting community. Helping one another as readers for our self-tapes is just one more way that we’re there for each other, not just in the auditioning process, but as human beings.
The pandemic may have sidelined the entertainment industry for a while and kept us physically distanced, but through technology it’s also brought us closer together in spirit. It’s given us a third option to the old fight or flight choice when faced with a crisis: Adapt. Create. Yup … turn lemons into lemonade.