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.

Growing Up, Making Choices. Ignoring All Other Voices.

First posted by Polly McKie on Thursday, April 11, 2013

When I first started blogging (all of 3 weeks ago), I thought it might be a good idea to use a theme for the titles and categories. Sondheim seemed the obvious choice. Those of you who know me understand. Maybe this is just copying Marc Cherry’s idea for his Desperate Housewives episode titles.  Maybe it is because I do not have clever enough headings of my own.  Maybe it is just because he manages to say the right thing about everything!
I’ve found myself, over the last few days, singing my own little medley of songs from “Into the Woods” (so much good stuff about growing up) and both versions of “Growing Up” from Merrily We Roll Along (Frank’s and Gussie’s: I think Sondheim wrote the latter for Louise Gold in the brilliant Leicester Haymarket production – correct me if I’m wrong, Sondheim geeks).


I turned 38 this week.

And my brother (the last singleton in the family, apart from me) got married.

And I turned 38.

If someone had told me ten years ago (or even 5 years ago) that I would be alone and childless at this point in my life, I think I would have been ready to slit my wrists.  But I am here and I have never been happier.  That is a trite thing to say. Happiness is so difficult to quantify, but I am pleased about my choice to be here in New York and glad that I have taken the chance I have taken. And, in fact, I am not alone and childless.  I have 4 glorious nieces and  6 handsome nephews (the joy and love without the responsibilities) and I do not feel alone at all. I feel more loved and supported now than I ever did when I was in a relationship.

I knew as a teenager that I wanted to act.  My plan was to go to drama school in London after completing my degree in Theatre and Philosophy at Glasgow University. I did not follow through and spent much of my twenties regretting that decision. I performed in plays and musicals here and there over the years but it took me more than ten years to pluck up the courage to pursue it properly.  No half measures.  I quit my job (I was a high school drama teacher), remortgaged my flat and moved to New York to study acting full time. I became that obnoxious mature student who sits at the front and does extra homework. I realise now, that if I had gone to London in my early twenties, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. I would have been crushed by the rejection, the brutality of this business, the whole lifestyle. I can see that now. I am blessed and grateful.
And the best part is, I am just getting to the right age to play all those juicy roles I dreamed about when I was sixteen. I wanted to be the Nurse, not Juliet.  Mrs. Lovett, not Joanna.

I’m getting older. I’m growing up.

...roll along, following dreams.

First posted by Polly McKie on Friday, March 29, 2013 

Yesterday is done.

Now there isn’t much pretty countryside on the travels of an auditioning actor pounding the New York pavements.  But traveling’s the fun!  Isn’t it?

As promised in my previous post (Merrily We Roll Along), I returned for day 3 of the E.P.A.  (Equity Principal Audition). I rose earlier, I joined the bizarre snaking line of fellow actors.  Spotted some familiar faces and waited.  And waited. Signed my name. And waited.  I had to leave so, as ever, used the wonder of Audition Update to check how things were going. Now this monitor was on the ball. And friendly.  And helpful.  She managed to get through ten E.M.C.s (Equity Membership Candidates) before lunch. Already the chances of being seen were higher than the day before.  Hope was high.  Number 11 and 12 were smiling and laughing.  We reminisced about yesterday, discussed our odds as if there were any rhyme or reason to this crazy business.
The afternoon was lovely.  My friend, Rosie Cosch who had been at another E.P.A. joined me.  Time passed quickly and happily. But, here’s the problem.  The time was passing but no more E.M.C.s were being called.  The monitor remained efficient and positive but those Equity members were coming in in dribs and drabs and taking alternate slots and we were once again, losing hope as 5 o’clock rolled around. By 5.30p.m., the monitor called it.  ”I’m so sorry, E.M.C.s won’t be seen.” It feels like she is pronouncing the time of death.  One little non equity girl who has been sitting since 7a.m. dressed and ready to impress, smiles sweetly and changes into her leggings and  picks up her rolling suitcase and begins her trek back to New Jersey.  I curse and say to my friend “Let’s go for a drink!”.

Children Will Listen

First posted by Polly McKie on Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn

I spend hours scanning casting notices: Actors’ Equity, Playbill, Backstage, NYCastings, Actors’ Access.  I search, I read and filter what I am right for.  I did not search for this one, it found me!
Voiceover: female, Scottish 50s or 60s.  Must be real Scottish person, not someone doing an accent.  My inbox was flooded with friends sending me the notice.  Let me be clear, I am not in my 50s or 60s, but I’m an actress.  I can sound whatever age you want me to be! I submitted and was given an appointment (not always a fait accompli).  I went to the studio on the day and it sounded as if I’d walked into “Brigadoon”.  No bad thing.  And let’s face it, a casting notice like that probably appears every hundred years.
The waiting room was full of fellow Scots.  There was a notice advising us to think about telling a story to children. And another saying “Think Mrs. Doubtfire”.  Obviously, because Mrs. Doubtfire was a true Scot, not putting on an accent. I’d better not get started on the fact that at the end of that film he/she is said to be from an island called England.  That would be a whole other blog (with the title “ignorance”).

Children may not obey
But children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say, "Listen to me"
Children will listen

Anyway, my turn came and I was taken into a little studio.  Then I was put in a tiny sound booth and I put on my headphones and I felt cool.  I was asked to read the copy as if reading to a small child.  I immediately imagined reading to my little niece Tess.  Then I was asked to do a second take as if I were telling the story to an older child.  I then imagined my nephew, Jock.  I am blessed to have vast experience in telling stories.  I am Aunt Polly to 6 nephews and 4 nieces.
I booked the job.  And am the voice of the digital book of “Brave”. 

Click the picture to listen to Polly read the Brave audiobook

I received some lovely messages saying how much people enjoyed me in the film.  Some good friends thought I was Merida’s mother!  I was not.  That was Emma Thompson!  But I’ll take it!

Merrily We Roll Along

First posted by Polly McKie on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 

I realise that I have not completed part 2 of the first blog, but I am impatient to write about today.  So let’s just consider this a “Merrily We Roll Along” moment and I can then work backwards and play catch up.  Sadly, it is not a clever artistic device in this case.  Just my impatience and incompetence.

Today was one day of a three day E.P.A. (Equity Principal Audition).  The theatre was casting “Gypsy”, “Les Miserables” and “Mary Poppins” and I feel I am right for Mme. Thenardier and Mrs. Brill.  I was at final callbacks for Mrs. Brill for the National Tour (this might be a flashback blog later.  Who knows?  I’m making it up as I go along.)
I went at around 9.45a.m.  I shall admit that since I became E.M.C. (Equity membership candidate), I have become a little lax about signing up at 5a.m.  We are lucky to earn the privilege of being seen ahead of non-equity and we have our own separate list.  So, for non-industry people it goes:  1.  Equity members with appointments 2. Equity alternate list (A.E.A. members who show up without an appointment and are slotted in when there is a space.)  3.  E.M.C. (me) who are slotted in after the alternate list ends.  4.  Non- Equity.
Based on experience of many E.P.A.s, I knew that when I signed up so late (after 9a.m. is late), I realised that at number 23 on the E.M.C. list, I had time and I went home.
Once home, I immediately checked my beloved Audition Update and by 10.30, they had already called 5 E.M.C. which is great and gave us all hope.  I panicked and headed straight back to Chelsea Studios.

Six hours later and they had not called number 6!  This is not anyone’s fault.  The call was well run and fair.  My heart goes out, though, to that girl who was number 6!  She did the right thing and cared about her fellow actors by posting on Audition Update.  She had more dedication than I: she was there at 7.30a.m.  So when it was clear that it was hopeless and we were dismissed, she is the one I worried about.  Not me.

I hope she and I are both seen tomorrow.  And I plan to get up and there earlier than I did today.
Now I must end this little tale of fantasy and learn from the reality of this week’s “Smash”.

With So Little to be Sure of

First posted by Polly McKie on Monday, March 25, 2013

With so little to be sure of, if there’s anything at all?

Why go to an E.P.A.? I am non-union: why bother? I won’t be seen: why bother? It’s the Equity required call: why bother? It’s already cast: why bother? They don’t need replacements: why bother? They are only looking for understudies or replacements: why bother?
Here’s why:
I went to my first E.P.A. (Equity Principal Audition) thanks to Amanda Quaid. She was my first speech and dialect teacher here in the U.S. (I’m thrilled to say that she has become my friend). She is a wonderful actress and knows what it is like to be a non-union actor starting out. She sent me a casting notice and showed me the and casting calls. It might seem like a small thing but it was a major step for me. I see so many actors who avoid actually going and it seems to me that the main reason is fear of the unknown. It’s terrifying. But, thanks to Amanda’s persuasion, I went. I felt ill. I drank so much water, I think I might have developed a camel hump. (I was lucky that this first experience was at Telsey, so I was allowed to use the facilities.) I knew nothing. I thought everyone was staring at me and judging me and, worst of all, laughing at me. But I went. I found the monitor and I signed my name on the non-equity list. And nobody laughed. Nobody pointed. So far, so good. I sat and waited. I watched. I learned. I went from 8a.m. and hoping that I would not be seen (out of fear) to feeling devastated when I heard the announcement at about 11a.m. that they would not be seeing non-Equity. So I left with that little nugget of disappointment but skipping (not literally: that’s not a pretty sight) that I had achieved something. I showed up.
Fast forward (after many more E.P.A.s: new fears and new experiences and dealing with not being able to use the bathrooms at A.E.A.) to a snowy day in February, 2011. I forced myself out the door and went to A.E.A. There was snow lying on the ground, so I donned my lovely bright pink wellington boots and packed my shoes into my bag, careful not to squash my headshots and resumes. I trudged crosstown and sat on the wooden benches all day and used the McDonald’s facilities. At 4.30, I was invited into the lounge and was seen! Woohoo. It was fine. I did my work but I was not feeling that anything would come of it. I left and was about to go and grab that well-deserved post audition/I have been working hard all day/sitting on wooden benches since 7a.m. cocktail and I thought, “Well, I’m already out and close. Maybe I should just head to that other call at Pearl (they were seeing Equity and non but it was almost 5p.m.) and check if the call is still open.” (this is before I discovered the wonders of Audition Update) I put my pink wellies (a.k.a. rain boots) back on and walked through the snow. The place was dead. No-one in the holding room and the lights were off. I passed the actual audition room and saw the panel (the wonderful director Elliot Wasserman at New Harmony) laughing and joking behind the desk. I sneaked my head around the door and said “Are you still seeing people?”. I was told to wait outside. A couple of other actors turned up and told me they had appointments. Five minutes later, I was inside performing my monologue, then working on sides, then working on a New York dialect and a speech impediment. I had a wonderful time. I loved them straight away. It was clear the director knew what he was doing and no matter what, I felt I had achieved so much that day. I showed up.
So why go to an audition?
I booked the job and became E.M.C.    
with Claire Warden in “Lost in Yonkers” at New Harmony Theatre.