Wednesday, November 27, 2013

And Still You're Grateful

You're always sorry,
You're always grateful,
You're always wondering what might have been.
Then she walks in.

And still you're sorry,
And still you're grateful,
And still you wonder and still you doubt.
And she goes out.*

(The "she" in this is referring to the men's wives. It is something different for me. It can be something different for you too. The genius of Sondheim's lyrics. Interpret as you see fit, dear reader.)

Thanksgiving is a holiday I have fully embraced since first moving to the U.S. 5 years ago. I love the sentiment, I love the invitations, I love the people and I love the food! It's like Christmas without the stress.

First attempt cooking for Thanksgiving in NYC, 2009.

What I love most is the fact that people take time to reflect on what they are thankful for. Something we should be doing daily. And, in this business, it is certainly something that helps our sanity. A time to reflect regularly about what we have that we should be grateful for.

As I get older, I realise that so many of the things that I felt sorry, sad and regretful about are the things that I realise now were the right things for me. Things that happened for a reason. Even if I could not see it at the time.

In no particular order, I am grateful for:

1.  The fact that I am unwell right now. I have inflammation of the lungs so am at home resting and have time to write this blog just in time for Thanksgiving.

2.  Not going to drama school when I was 22.  When I was in my final year of high school, I played Meg Brockie in "Brigadoon" and then sang in an end of year concert.  And that last month of school planted the seed that I might actually be able to pursue acting as a career.  It had not been a serious option before.  But I had two wonderful teachers who saw something special in me and even my father paid me a compliment, so I knew it must be serious.  I went to University, as planned and studied for my MA in Philosophy and Theatre with the aim of going to drama school in London when I graduated. I fluffed one audition and had fallen in love so did not even apply to any other schools. Love and youth. Spent my twenties regretting it and now I am so very grateful! My thirties are so much better.

Everything's different,
Nothing's changed,
Only maybe slightly

3.  So many wonderful teachers. Teachers who have challenged me. Teachers who have become my friends. So many wonderful students.  Students who have challenged me. Students who have taught me. Students who have become my friends.

Bermuda High School trip to NYC
Recording radio shows with ACTeen Juniors

4.  Having my heart broken. The material I have been able to use in my acting work is endless. There was one man in particular that I thought I would spend the rest of my life mourning. Now I realise that it would have been a disaster if we had stayed together. I thank God every day that I did not marry him.

You don't live for her,
You do live with her,
You're scared she's starting to drift away  
And scared she'll stay.*

5.  Netflix.  Cable became so expensive and I, like so many actors, am broke.  So I cancelled it.  Netflix is wonderful. And I am watching some excellent stuff (most recently "Breaking Bad") instead of lying on the couch in a coma watching some reality crap on cable.  Watching good acting and feeling inspired.

6.  Clinical depression. I have battled with depression for years. I am grateful for it and the challenges it brings. And, as ever, how it helps with the actor's homework. I do not trust people who are happy all the time!

You're sorry-grateful,
Why look for answers where none occur?*

7.  Being Scottish!

Dancing a Gay Gordon's at The Caledonian Ball in Bermuda.

I have several issues with being Scottish here and working as an alien. There are challenges in addition to the normal challenges American actors face. I am not allowed to join Equity here and have had to turn down work as a result. But, I look at the positive. It makes me stronger and more determined. Besides, being Scottish is pure dead brilliant!

8.  Not getting jobs after auditions. Before acting, I got every job I applied and interviewed for. I did not really understand failure properly (well, apart from getting 42% on my second year Physics exam.) Of course, when I first starting auditioning and getting callbacks, I prayed for a big break that would get me my dream job. But it did not happen. I am grateful for that. I understand the day in/day out process of auditioning and  have realised thanks to some of those wonderful teachers mentioned in 3 and my wonderful new manager Kathy Olsen of Encompass Arts that, I can give a wonderful audition and not get the part. There is so much more to casting than that (that's for another blog). But the preparation and the going out there is what matters and learning that the job is not mine is making me stronger and a better actor. Fairly recently I auditioned for one of my longtime dream roles and I did not book the gig. Of course, I was upset, but now I realise, that if I had booked the job, I would not have been able to be doing what I am loving every Monday night at The Cafe at Broadway.  (now Polly's Follies)

There are so many more things to be thankful for but I do not want to go on forever. Perhaps I'll revisit them next Thanksgiving.  

I must end the list, however, with the best. 

9.  I could not be doing any of this if it were not for these  grown-ups in my life...

My family:
Back row: Dad, my sister, Jane, brother, Andrew, Mum
Front: brother, David, me, brother Johnnie
Foreground: back of a nephew's head!

10.  ...and these wonderful little people:

Nieces and nephews:
Back row: Nancy, Molly, Flora, Tess (on my knee), Hector, Jimmy, Charlie
Front: Tom, Jock and George

*Sorry-Grateful from "Company" 
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (for whom I am also eternally grateful)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Getting it together is the whole trick!

Here's a little story
That should make you cry
About two unhappy dames.
Let us call them Lucy X and Jessie Y,
Which are not their real names.
Now Lucy has the purity
Along with the unsurety
That comes with being only twenty-one.
Jessie has maturity
And plenty of security
Whatever you can do with them she's done.*

I am Lucy and Jessie, and Polly and Mary, with a touch of a few other dames (certainly my mother) thrown in for good measure.  And how do we show that versatility to casting directors while staying true to what we keep hearing they want: the real YOU. The reality is that these women are all the real me.  It's about choosing what to show and when.

Just when I am finally getting around to getting my reel edited, it seems that might be obselete now.  Everything in this business moves fast. And, if you are looking for work (let's face it, most actors are) then you need to be in the race.

Most actors I know use Actors' Access to submit. And I know I always wondered about how to get noticed.  There is a very simple pecking order if you want to be at the top of the virtual pile.

The pile from top to bottom

1. Actors with headshot, slate and video clip (for so long I thought it had to be a full reel, but it can be any short clip  -  even better actually as you'll see if you read on.)
2. Actors with headshot and video clip (no slate).
3. Actors with headshot and slate.
4. Actors with headshot only.

I recently attended a seminar held by the lovely folks at Actors' Access.  Anything to keep in the loop and up to speed.  And, of course, I always share what I learned.  There were many depressing facts that could make one just want to give up.  We watched a live version of how the submissions work.  Within an hour of a job being posted there were THOUSANDS of submissions.  And the reality is that a casting director will call in around 20 people for the role.

So what can we do to help ourselves? Easy. Look at the list above and if you do not have a manager or agent, there is still so much you can do to help yourself.  Just give the casting directors what they want. Or at least try!

1. Headshot (still the king - or queen - of submissions)
2. A slate (a new addition to Actors Access)
3. A reel (although, that is becoming less important. Number 4 is taking over)
4. Short, specific clips. (more specifics on the specifics later).
5. Cover note: short, sweet and, above all, to the point.

And herein lies one of our major problems.  and it is so hard, as an actor, to step away from the trap.  We want to show EVERYTHING.  If I submit a short clip of a great dramatic scene, how are they going to know how funny I am?  The wonderful Heidi Marshall explains this problem: At Ease, Actors.

Given their advantages,
You may ask why
The two ladies have such grief
This is my belief
In brief:
Lucy is juicy
But terribly drab.
Jessie is dressy
But cold as a slab.
Lucy wants to be dressy
Jessie wants to be juicy.
Lucy wants to be Jessie
And Jessie, Lucy.*

So, given our own advantages, what can we do?  Let's go back to the list.  Headshot. Simple.  It should look like you and be recent.  Latest advice is that it should be no more than two years old. There is plenty of advice on this without me going on. Let's get to the new thing: the slate. Simple, clear. Do not try to be clever or fancy. Just state your name clearly. The way it is set up on Actors' Access is that when a C.D. clicks on your headshot, it comes to life with your slate: almost like a talking headshot. It may seem silly but you'd be amazed how much one can see from a simple slate.It is free to upload one take (under 7 seconds).  A second slate is $5 to upload.  And here's the best news: your submission is automatically higher up the list than actors without slates. The following was taped after I heard about the slate and I rushed to my go to on camera wizard, Heidi Marshall (I think I may have mentioned her before...just once or twice!) and recorded the following.  Obviously, this is before editing for final slate, but it's amazing what you can tell about me just from this little clip.  

Poor sad souls,
Itching to be switching roles.
Lucy wants to do what Jessie does,
Jessie wants to be what Lucy was.

One of the reasons I love acting so much is that I can switch roles.  I can explore all the sides of me.  And a good reel will show that.  But, here is the problem.  Casting Directors simply do not have the time to watch every actor's reel. And in my research for trying to get my own reel done (thanks to a wonderful friend helping me out), I have been watching other actors' reels and frankly, I quit watching most of them after about 30 seconds.  The ones that capture my attention, I might give a minute or two.  If I do not have time to watch them while I am specifically researching reels, how do you think C.D.s feel about the prospect of watching thousands of them to cast one role? 

So this takes us to number 4 on the list.  I had always felt resigned to the fact that I would be on the bottom of the list of submissions on Actors access, unless it was a role that my manager had submitted for me (agent and manager submission still get more attention from C.D.s).  But there is hope, unrepresented actors. Do yourselves a favour! Stop worrying about the reel and showing everything.  Sometimes, we have a great clip but not enough for a good reel.  And without worrying about showing every side of ourselves, every skill, we should just focus on the task at hand.  Specificity helps the casting directors. I had already taken Heidi's advice and posted specific short clips on my website.  And now I know it's what casting directors want and I can post them on Actors' Access.  So when you are submitting for a job, you do not need to worry about showing everything. Just be specific.

Lucy's a lassie
You pat on the head.
Jessie is classy
But virtually dead.
Lucy wants to be classy.
Jessie wants to be Lassie.
If Lucy and Jessie could only combine,
I could tell you someone
Who could finally feel just fine!*

At the seminar, Blair Hickey (actor and co-founder of the wonderful Casting About) told a story about being called in for an audition based solely on the DESCRIPTION of a short clip.  The common thread is that Casting Directors are busy and they want you to be right for the role.  And they can tell so much from so little.  They are seasoned experts and you'd be amazed what a simple slate can tell you.  Watch them.  Pay attention to other actors:  in your classes, in holding rooms. We all make instant judgments on people. Save the casting directors time.  Even if you have an amazing reel, post BRIEF and SPECIFIC clips with descriptions (e.g. White collar professional: procedural interview). This also pertains to number 5: short and to the point cover note.  I used to think I needed to follow my good old-fashioned letter writing skills. Do not waste your time or the C.D.'s time. If the notice calls for Spanish speaking, under 5ft 3 and able to play the piano, the note should read "Spanish-speaking, 5ft 2, proficient pianist." If you spend time writing "Dear Mr. so and so, I was so thrilled to read about this project and would be delighted if you would..." well, they stopped reading long before I got to the elipsis.

Casting directors are very busy people.  They want the right person for the job and they want him or her quickly. I have heard from some casting directors not to use clips from class, but, what can you lose, really?  Of course, we would all love Meryl Streep's reel, but the reality is that, if you're an emerging artist, you are scrambling to get footage from short films you have done and if you have a great clip right now that shows you could play a battered wife or a diligent nurse and it's from a class, USE it.  

Have a website, post a reel, post a slate, post clips, be specific, make it clear and simple. Submit.  

So, let's do ourselves a favour.  Do it all.  Why not?

Tell 'em that they ought to get together quick.
'Cause getting it together is the whole trick!

* The Story of Lucy and Jessie from "Follies"
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Let Me Entertain You

When my friend, Sophie Yaeger, first told me about this exciting new venue, 
The Cafe at Broadway, I was thrilled. I was excited for Sophie and her future. 

The Cafe at Broadway
917 287 2392

I went to see the new space and saw the potential, possibilities and, above all, Sophie's passion for the place. Then she asked me to be the hostess for their new Monday Broadway style open mic. I was flattered, excited and absolutely terrified!

I saw the empty room.  It's a lovely room, as you can see.  I saw the blank canvas.  And, of course (as you can tell from my previous blogs) I immediately starting quoting Sondheim.  White: a blank page or canvas.  His favorite  -  so many possibilities.*

The Cafe at Broadway
917 287 2392

For me it was dark: a blank stage or platform.  Her favourite  -  so many possibilities.  That feeling of adrenalin when we see a space to perform. 

I don't need a lot,
Only what I got,
Plus a tube of greasepaint and a follow-spot!^

But, wait.  I DO need a lot!  A script, a director, homework, a costume, rehearsal. Sophie wanted me to be me. And that's the most terrifying thing of all. No rehearsal. No plan. No idea who would be in the audience. No idea what they would sing. No idea why Sophie asked me. 

People laughed at my insecurity: "But you're so good at stuff like this.". Really? How do you know? I don't. So I realised that I would have to fall back on the lifetime of training I had being part of the McKie family. I come from a family of talkers. Well, my father does not talk much when my mother is around (as you can read here) but he is more than capable (as you can hear here).
Public speaking, debating, after-dinner speaking, reciting poetry, singing parodies, performing at parties were all part of normal life as I was growing up.  Both my parents are teachers and I was (and still am, but not full time) a teacher. It is something in one's soul. My sister is a teacher too. A brilliant one. One brother is a lawyer and the other two are writers. All five of us learned poetry and had to make speeches in public.  It was the norm in our education. My middle brother, Johnnie, is the quietest of us all and the only one out of the five of us who did not debate at University. He was, and is, however, the great deliverer of one-liners and comebacks that will have everyone laughing. That's a gift. And he proved he can make a magnificent speech (as best man at my eldest brother's wedding and as groom, obviously, at his own). My natural instinct and familial and cultural training is to insult the crowd. In Scotland, that's a compliment.  But I feared this was not going to be my friend.  I also feared that nature would kick in and that is what I would do.  I did, of course. Sorry, Vanessa Spica!

Photo by Daniel Yaeger

Hello, everybody! My name is Polly.
What's yours?

Let me entertain you,
Let me make you smile.
Let me do a few tricks,
Some old and then some new tricks,
I'm very versatile!+

Singing a little Gilbert and Sullivan parody
for our parents' Ruby Anniversary

I started to realise that I did have the experience and years of training. I had done the homework. What is hosting? I have been thinking and realise it is not really very different from all the other things that are second nature to me.

Banter (the McKie family), being able to hurl insults and take the heckling in return (again, the McKie family), 

Singing for our father's 70th birthday party
(and encouraging the next generation along the way).
getting up to sing and entertain, even if the crowd is small and you don't want to 
(yet again, the McKie family) making the audience feel loved, wanted, amused and itching to get up and show their stuff (just what I want to do for my classes when I teach) and winging it (well, that's the story of my life).

But let me make it clear, that is not enough. This is the venue that helped me to be myself and relax enough to do my job. Well, to be honest, I was never relaxed and was a nervous wreck throughout, but the crowd (small though it was) did not see that. The Cafe at Broadway has devised the most welcoming open mic in the city. There is NO COVER charge and not only is there no minimum, they even have half price drinks all night for the open mic on Mondays!  They have lighting, sound, a glorious grand piano and cheap booze! What's not to love. The people who were there were wonderful.  I am grateful to all of them. It is a warm, friendly, supportive place. Come and sing or listen or drink or laugh or clap or meet new people or, do what I plan to do: all of it! See you on Monday.

And if you're real good,
I'll make you feel good  ---
I want your spirits to climb.
So let me entertain you,
And we'll have a real good time,
Yes, sir!
We'll have a real good time!+


 * "Sunday in the Park with George" by Stephen Sondheim
 ^ "Broadway Baby" from Follies by Stephen Sondheim
 + "Baby June and Her Newsboys" from Gypsy: Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Perpetual Anticipation

Perpetual anticipation
Is good for the soul
But it's bad for 
The heart.*

This weekend I drank the bottle of fizz that my friend, Jean Ann Garrish, gave me for my birthday back in April.  I had explained to her that, in the past, I always had a bottle of champagne in my fridge so that I would be ready to celebrate but that, in recent years, I had neglected the habit.  So she gave me a bottle to remind me.  My sister and her husband drink fizz in times of trouble.  As Napoleon said "Champagne: in victory you deserve it. In defeat, you need it!"

It has been one of those weeks.  Victory and defeat.  And waiting.

It's very good for
Practicing self-control.
It's very good for
Morals, but
Bad for morale.*

Being an actor means a whole lot of waiting.  Waiting to be seen at E.P.A. (a whole different level of waiting for the non-union, as discussed in Merrily We Roll Along, and ...roll along, following dreams.); waiting for an appointment after submitting; waiting for your agent to call, waiting for a cmail (not a typo  - an actors' access reference), waiting to hear about a callback, waiting for a job offer, waiting in the wings, waiting for the next season of "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix.

This week has been a week of waiting.

Well, of course, much more than this week!  I have waited since childhood to start following my dream.  Several false starts and deciding to take the plunge in my thirties (Growing Up).

So many status updates on facebook read "I nailed my audition"  "Callback: woot, woot".  What does that even mean?  I am betting 90% of them do not book the job (not based on any scientific facts!)  Actors do not come out thinking they nailed the audition.  Or is that just me?  I ALWAYS think I could have done more, done better, done more and better.  But I do know that I did an acceptable job at this particular audition.  I did my work.  They liked me.  I rarely feel that but sometimes you just know.  And this is a role I want to play.  A job I really wanted.  

And so the waiting started. 

Perpetual anticipation's a
Delicate art:
Playing a role,
Aching to start,
Keeping control
While falling apart.

Perpetual anticipation
Is good for the soul
But it's bad for 
The heart.*

This is when my 'phone becomes an issue.  Did I miss a call?  Double checking. Triple checking.  Posting on Callback Corner on Audition Update.  Going on the subway and praying for a voicemail when you come back up out of the ground.  

Well, after four long days, the waiting was over.  I did not book the job.  At least my waiting was put to an end.  The director was lovely enough to email me and tell me how much they liked my work. That's a rare thing. When I was called back for Mrs. Brill in Mary Poppins, the call came over two months after my first audition.  Four days is nothing.  Even if it seemed like an eternity at the time.

So, that was my defeat.  That accounted for half of the bottle of fizz. 

I have been lucky enough to be in email touch with a wonderful manager.  After several emails and attempts to find time, we finally met last week.  I knew in my gut from the emails that I liked her.  And I was right.  She's even better in person!  Thank you, Kathy Olsen and Encompass Arts!

Now, I'd better go out to Sussex Wines and buy a new bottle of champagne to keep in the fridge so I am ready for the next victory.  Ready to do some more waiting...and grateful for it all.

*Perpetual Anticipation from "A Little Night Music": Stephen Sondheim, of course.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Do something special
Anything that's fresh'll
Earn you a big fat cigar.
You're more than just a mimic
When you got a gimmick -
Take a look how different we are! *

We are all special.  Well, that's what the parents and teachers tell us in childhood (and therapists and self-help books in adulthood).  In Scotland, mostly you are told not to get ideas above your station and never to bum yer load (toot your own horn). And never to split an infinitive (I suspect that was just my parents).

I think most actors (working or resting) have daily/weekly/monthly (the regularity might depend on the regularity of jobs) doubts about themselves.  We go back and forth with that feeling of worthlessness, not knowing what to do, feeling inadequate and then that other side of what we really know, deep in our soul: we have something special.  If we did not believe that in some part of us (even if we hide it well), how could we survive?
So, here I am in America.  Land of the brave and free.  One of the reasons I chose to come to study here in the states was that self-belief that seemed to ensue.  I have a love/hate relationship with it.  Torn between never wanting to seem big-headed but dealing with the knowledge that I am fantastic.  I also like the idea of coming somewhere new.  Much as I love Cheers, I liked the idea of going somewhere where no one knew my name.  I had the freedom to try and fail.  Try and succeed. I am Polly McKie.  Not somebody's daughter.  Not somebody's wee sister.  Boy, I miss my family. But thanks to Skype and Metro PCS, I am still wee P.  The runt of the litter of a wonderful family.

We strive for the perfect headshot, perfect song, perfect monologue.  And what makes it perfect?  We hear in classes, in workshops, from casting directors, agents, at auditions, "bring YOU".  Sometimes I think I'd rather bring my mother to the audition than just ME.  She could sell me better.  It's always easier to have someone else sing one's praises.  

You can pull all the stops out
Till they call the cops out;
Grind your behind till you're banned.
But you gotta get a gimmick
If you wanna get a hand. *

They have not called the cops out for me yet.  But I do have to deal with immigration issues.  (details of all of that to follow in another blog, for fear that this entry may go on ad infinitum).  After approval here, I had to visit the U.S. Embassy in London.  After the first interview, I was ushered to another room and the nice lady asked me, "So, what makes you extraordinary?" Surely that is not my question to answer?  That is why I had all those letters from others. I was raised that it is not my place to say that I am great. So I stood there.  I hummed and hawed and said some things about what other people had said.  It's all a bit of a blur.  I remembered, though, what I said at the end of my awkward waffle, "People seem to think that I am funny.".  The nice lady behind the desk smiled and said "Yes, I can see that.  Your visa is approved."

Now I approach the difficulties of trying to get a green card.  I could extend my O1 visa but there are limitations  (that's another blog I'm not brave enough to write, but my mother is ready to write to Obama!).  My biggest breaks for auditions have been by word of mouth.  My favourite.  Someone else saying I can do the job.  So much easier than pushing ourselves forward.

Most days I think, "I messed that up. I do not know what I am doing. I have so much to learn." 

Today I choose to say that I am special.

I am Polly McKie.

I'm electrifying
And I ain't even trying. *

*You Gotta Have a Gimmick from Gypsy: Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (as per)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Look at Me! Look at Me!

Look at me!  Look at me!  Look at me...*

That is my life.  Look at me.  Oh, and could you like me too?  And, even better, could you give me a job?

I go to E.P.A.s.  Sometimes I am seen, sometimes I am not. 
(Merrily We Roll Along) 
Sometimes there is just one person behind the table.
(With So Little to be Sure of)

We have all been at those auditions where the young intern behind the table seems to be examining her navel, rather than looking at us:

Lady, look at me, look at me miss, oh

Look at me, please, oh
Favor me, favor me with your glance.*

Or it could be a an important producer examining his navel:

Say, Mister producer,  
I'm talkin' to you, sir.^

That does not mean these auditions are a waste of time.  I hear so many actors complaining when they feel that the important people are not in the room.  Or feeling that the important people behind the table are not paying attention.  Of course, there are horror stories about the casting director texting, etc., etc.  BUT, we have to show up.  We have to keep going.  There are audience members who text during Broadway shows.  Stop being bitter and complaining and consider it part of your training.

Nowadays, though,it is not enough just to show up.  It is expected that actors have an online presence. A website, a reel (still a work in progress for me), Facebook, twitter and so on.  Now I know very successful actors who have none of this.  I was excited when I received my first IMDB credit (thanks to The Austin Pendleton Project) and then went to add my photo to the page.  I was told I needed to pay an annual fee for that privilege (same goes for adding bio, trivia, etc.) Meryl Streep does not have to pay to upload her headshot and resume on IMDB (I'm assuming!)  Not Miss Streep's fault, of course!  For the record, I love her.

And therein lies one of the major problems.  Emerging artists are the ones who really need the help: managers and agents to sell them because this is the point in the career where that stuff is harder.  I am guessing Judi Dench does not have a website and is not doing student films to get stuff for her reel.  She does not have to pay for an event at the Network or One on One to meet a casting director.  Nor should she have to!  She is Judi Dench.  Goddess.

But we do.  And I do.  

What do you, what do you see off 
There in those trees, oh
Won't you give, won't you give me a chance? *

Again, what's the use of complaining about the person behind the table looking out of the window?  There is little we can do.  And we also have to trust that they know.  Sit on the other side of the table if you ever have the chance.  It's a revelation.  We have to embrace the way the business is now and do what we can.  No one is going to discover us sitting in a small cafe in Greenwich village.  There are all these wonderful showbiz stories of being discovered on Youtube etc. (Telsey and Co. have even started a department especially for looking at YouTube videos).  I have not sent a video to Telsey yet.  Maybe I'll be satisfied with one of them in another 10 years or so.  We all know someone who got a big break.  Who got lucky (although for most, there is hard work in the background somewhere  -  I prefer not to focus on the ones who are pure luck and not talent).  And, of course, I dream of someone seeing my talent without me actually having to DO anything (certainly not the self-promotion stuff).

Say, Mr. Producer,
Some girls get the breaks.
Just give me my cue, sir.
I've got what it takes. ^
(lyric appears in music book "All Sondheim: Volume 1" (the yellow book), but I have yet to see or hear it anywhere else.  I like it!)

I have been told over and over again that I've got what it takes.  It is not enough.  I made some half-baked attempts at self-promotion.  Even posing for a headshot is painful for me.  And then I took a life-changing class with Heidi Marshall.  Not only is she a casting director and director, she is the most actor friendly teacher I have met.  She tweets, she posts casting notices, she has a facebook page for actor headshots and websites to help us be seenshe recommends actors to other casting directors, she understands the fragile egos we have, she blogs.

In many ways I have extra struggles being an immigrant.  I realise, though, how lucky I am that I was forced to delve into the world of self-promotion, like it or not.  I do not like it.

Say, Mister producer,  
I'm talkin' to you, sir.
I don't need a lot,
Only what I got,
Plus a tube of grease-paint and a follow spot! ^ a twitter account, a facebook page, a profile on NY Castings, actors access, YouTube, a website, a reel (still waiting for more footage!), IMDB...

Paul Russell just wrote about the whole thing in this week's Backstage:

"How to Audition and Get Cast in Your Sleep"  Although I still got a lot of work to do and all the online media robs me of my sleep  -  I still love the article, Mr. Russell!)

So here I go on the self-promotion bandwagon.  Website, facebook actress page, postcards, twitter (which, as my brother - who has still to write my bio for IMDB because I think he'll do a better job than I can - points out, I'm not much cop at).  I've got work to do.  But I'm trying.

(See - crappy cell phone shot of new postcards from Twitter: my brother is right!)

I've been told I should have been born in a different era.  Born in another decade, I would be working more.  But I was born when I was born.  I am Polly McKie, runt of the litter and I've got what it takes:

Look at me.

* "Ah Miss" from "Sweeney Todd". Stephen Sondheim. 
^ "Broadway Baby" from "Follies". Stephen Sondheim.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Learn How to Laugh

When the winds are blowing.
That's the time to smile.
Learn how to laugh.
Learn how to love.
Learn how to live.
That's my style. *

Last weekend I saw a woman fall flat on her face as she entered the stage. It was clearly not on purpose (I know the play and the actors). Without skipping a beat, she picked herself up and carried on. Whatever was going on, it worked. She looked scared, flustered, frustrated but all as the character. One of the greatest pieces of advice I received from Austin Pendleton is to make your problem as an actor the character's problem. I have used that advice over and over again. And this actress did exactly that. On leaving the theatre, many people were discussing the fall and the consensus was that it was part of the play and that it was brilliant!

I believe in making mistakes. It seems trite to say that mistakes are how we learn. Of course we learn from mistakes, but there is more to it than that in acting. We know our lines and we know what is going to happen and what the other actors are going to say. But the trick is to keep that fresh. In real life we don't know what the other person is going to say or what we are going to say. And we want to be real in our acting. One of my favourite lines in “Friends” is when Phoebe acts as Joey's agent and gives him the honest feedback from his auditions: “They didn't believe you as a real human being”. We can critique acting with all sorts of fancy ideas and analysis, but the bottom line is that we want to see real people, real life. We want to feel something. And if the actors are not believable as real human beings, no matter how skilled they are, it will not work.

When the rent is owing,
What's the use of tears?
I'd rather laugh.
I'd rather love.
I'd rather live
In arrears. *

The whole special skill of being able to cry on cue is something I have never mastered. I do not wish to take away from the actors who can. Many directors ask for it. But I can't. And I would argue that it is not always what shows the truth. There is no right or wrong reaction. When my grandpa died, my mother came into the kitchen to tell us and my sister burst out laughing. As actors and as human beings, we should not be afraid of that. Of letting the natural reactions move in on us. Hearing the words and saying them for the first time. Otherwise, we are just robots saying lines. Anyone can learn lines. (Well, most people can.) We must be wary of saying “I always behave in this way when such and such happens.” There is no always. Every time is different and if we are not open to that, the acting becomes fake and stagnant. We cannot plan or predict our reactions in life so why should we on stage or on screen. Being able to cry on cue is a gift, but it does not magically mean good acting. Austin Pendleton (oh dear, I've mentioned him twice in this blog and I'm worried he'll get a big head!) often tells wonderful stories and one quotation that sticks with me he attributes to one of his acting teachers, Bobby Lewis:
If crying were acting, my Aunt Rivka would be Duse”

Click on photo above to play the outtake clip

I have recently been working more and more on film and learning so many new things. But the reality is that the training is essentially the same. Focus on an objective and on the other person. And be willing to make mistakes! So often I see it (and have been guilty of it myself): trying to cry. As if that will be an impressive place. The reality is that trying not to cry is much more effective and true. The wonderful Heidi Marshall, another favourite teacher of mine, worked with me on this. So many times I have been in her class or chatting to her and she'll say something wonderful and I say “Oh, Austin says that too.” And vice versa. They both teach about what is real. And they both make me laugh. They've been known to make me cry too. But whatever the reaction is, it is real. If we are not taking in what the other actor is giving us, what are we doing? And that can never be the same. Nor should it be. Working with Heidi, I embraced my mistakes. It gives one a sense of freedom and being open and ready for anything. I make mistakes all the time. Sometimes I cry, but more often than not I laugh. And I'm learning all the while.

* "Live, Laugh, Love" from "Follies". Stephen Sondheim.

And Another Hundred People Just Got Off of the Train

First posted by Polly McKie on Monday, May 6, 2013

And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people
just got off of the bus
And are looking around *

I was one of the ones getting off a bus today at 42nd and 9th to head to Westway Diner (a favourite for so many show people) to meet my friend, Vanessa Spica. We had planned to grab a late lunch, gossip a little, read through a scene we were working on for class and I planned to moan to her because I’d had a crappy day (but that’s another story)And in this city of strangers, I bumped into four friends.  First, lovely Liz Reddick (stage manager I met while working at New Harmony Theatre), then in walked Claire Warden and Whitney Egbert: two wonderful actresses, often mistaken for sisters!  Hugs aplenty.  Already my crappy mood was lifting. Then I spotted David Holmes (hot from his appearance last week on Law and Order SVU) and was thrilled to chat to him about that and, of course, about our beloved Austin Pendleton and David’s exciting film “The Austin Pendleton Project”.

And every day,
the ones who stay
Can find each other in the crowded streets 

and the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees 

with the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls 

with the crude remarks. *
I seem to meet people everywhere I go. Manhattan is a small island, after all. And the actor types congregate in the same places over and over again. Sometimes the people I meet are good friends, sometimes friends of friends, acquaintances, and then, the embarrassing cases where you know you’ve met the person before, but who knows where or when (I think digressing from Sondheim lyrics is acceptable when it’s Rodgers and Hart). Two such stories spring to mind:
First happened at Actors’ Equity. I had been waiting all day on the non-union wooden benches (this story is pre the swanky new 16th floor and pre my E.M.C card). I was taken through to the other side (the glorious haven where one can use the Equity bathroom and, even better, be seen at an audition) and I sat waiting and saw a face I recognised. We looked at each other awkwardly and eventually I said “I know you but I can’t think where from.” He (let’s call him Actor 1) had the same issue.  So we went through various options: opening night at The Pearl, a reading at Abingdon Theatre Company and various other actor-type scenarios. Neither of us could figure it out and went in to our separate auditions still none the wiser.
I left that audition and rushed to Pearl Studios to be seen at another call before it closed at 5.30p.m. I made it and booked that job (but that’s another story) and then headed home, weary and in need of a glass of wine. So I stopped by my favourite wine shop, Sussex Wines (they deliver if anyone wants to send me a gift) to pick up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. I headed to the counter and there, waiting to serve me was Actor 1!

And another hundred people just got off of the train. *

Now, Actor 2.  I was booked to play a role in a reading of a new screenplay. I had convinced the Casting Director I could be all American (but that’s another story) and went in the room meeting new people and pretending to be American. Enter Actor 2. As with Actor 1, I knew I knew him but could not place him. I said “Oh, I think we met at The Network!” Unlike Actor 1, he was clear: “No, I work at Bar Thalia! I met you when you came to sing at Singers’Space.
Let’s ignore the running theme of alcohol and focus on the joy of meeting people. Some, of course, we wish we’d never met (Actress 1 who recognised me from a callback and thought that gave her the right to sit next to me at another audition and talk at me, without pausing for breath – but that’s another story), but so many are a joy, a connection, a story, a smile, a lift in one’s spirit on a difficult day.

And another hundred people just got off of the train. *

"Another hundred People Just Got Off of the Train" from "Company". Stephen Sondheim.

I Like to Be in America! O.K. by me in America!

First posted by Polly McKie on Friday, April 26, 2013 

I woke up today and spoke in an American accent.
Not because I have forgotten my roots.  Not because I have turned into Sheena Easton. I chose to speak this way. And I booked a job.
My journey with my American voice has been long and interesting (well, I find it fascinating, but that’s because it’s all about me.) As with many actors, I thought I had a firm grasp on what an American accent was and I could do it without any trouble. Boy, was I wrong.  I now look back and think I was some kind of combination of Fran Drescher and Miss Adelaide. I admit a little of a snooty attitude to taking speech class at HB Studio.  As a foreign student, I had to take speech with the other foreign students who had English as a second language. (Glaswegian could be considered another language, but that’s a whole other blog.) I resented it. I was wrong again.  Enter Amanda Quaid! A class and teacher who changed everything for me. For the better (no offence to the great Fran and Adelaide).

Of course, I am happy to play the Scotch Irish (please enlighten me what Americans mean by that) drunk/mother/nanny etc. Heck, I’d even play the maid! I realised, though, that if I wanted to be cast in anything other than Irish plays (most Americans think I am Irish), I needed to master a passable American and not be a caricature (I’m enough of a caricature in real life without adding a funny voice to the equation). I had to learn that pool and pull do not rhyme in American.
That’s harder than it sounds.

I realized that I needed to work.  And I worked.  I took Amanda’s class and I studied with her privately and I practised (or, if I’m speaking in my American dialect, practiced).  Any chance I had, I used my American.  Chances for me were when I spoke to strangers (a cab, a deli, etc.).  If I had attempted to try it with my family or friends, I would have been ridiculed. There is a fine, fine line when trying to embrace American culture but maintaining one’s heritage.  And when we speak the same language (essentially), that seems to make it more complicated. I argued with some of the E.S.L. students that, in some ways, Amanda’s class was harder for me.  I had to “unlearn” how to say words I had been using all my life.  After hours, weeks, months of drilling and practice and working on the key to being believable (making it sound like ME) skip to today:
First there was a callback for a character from the midwest (I am from the midwest of Scotland, but this was for the midwest of America).  I have learned, after many mistakes, and much advice from Amanda, just to start in American from the very beginning.  So I speak to the bus driver in American.  I order a bagel in American. I chat to people in the lift (sorry, elevator) at Ripley Grier in American.  Trouble is when you bump into someone you know, but I am working on that.
Biggest compliment is that no one asks me where I am from.  If I go in for something American and am not asked, then I know I have convinced them.  Or even better at one audition: I performed my American monologue. Then the casting director chatted to me.  He looked at my C.V. (sorry, resume) and asked “So what took you to Scotland?”

When leaving that first audition this morning, there was a voicemail from a casting director about a reading for a new screenplay: Hi, I received your submission for the role and want to ask you about your accents.
So, I called back.
Me (in own voice): Do you want to hear me speak in an American accent now?
C.D. (in her own voice too, I assume!): Yes, please.  If you don’t mind.
Me (in American): No problem.  I’m not sure what to talk to you about!  You can also see clips on my website from Heidi Marshall’s class and I use my American for those.
C.D. Do you mind holding the line while I watch?
Me: Of course not.
3 minutes of being on hold (seemed like 3 hours).
C.D. Well, that’s impressive.  It’s very hard to be able to hide a Scottish accent. I’d like to book you now if you’re free next Friday.