“Choices. Human choices,” he would say in his mysterious mellifluous voice standing in front of the class. Then he would take the coins from his pocket and stack them up in his hand according to size. Simple. Strange. Remarkable. He was Mr. Lutz, the head of our college theatre department and these words were his mantra, his simple deconstruction of “How to Act.” The coins were the example, here is a “choice” of something a human does in a singular moment. Maybe the coin stacking is habitual, maybe it’s a distraction, maybe it’s an avoidance, a defense, a compulsion. It could mean anything you want it to, your job as the actor is to just make a choice.
As a young actor, I wanted it to be so much more complicated. I wanted an overwrought formula of emotion times intensity plus dramatic pause minus organic naturalism. How could it be about stacking change? What? I convinced myself that it was so much harder than it is and there was something I was missing. Yeah, I was missing the simplicity. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in training. I believe being a good actor does take a mix of natural ability plus a lifetime of study and practice. But in my lifetime of study and practice I have learned that the craft doesn’t have to be so mysterious. If I can pass on anything about the art of acting, it is this one lesson: MAKE. A. CHOICE.
The inspiration for this post came from a recent commercial audition. Here’s the scene: Myself & 2 Other Actors in the room, each of us reading a line. Actor A’s line was (paraphrased for confidentiality) “All that for just $9.99?!?” Actor A was a beautiful young man, buff, blond and chiseled American perfection. Physically, he fit the bill perfectly. Unfortunately, he betrayed his own inexperience with the following exchange.
Actor A – How do you want me to say it?
Casting Director – Like it’s amazing and you can’t believe it.
Actor A – But, there’s a question mark and an exclamation point. I don’t get what you want it to sound like.
Casting Director – Like it’s amazing and you can’t believe it. Insert line reading.
Ok, so that’s not verbatim but that’s the gist of what went down. I could not believe what I was hearing. “?!?” is so baffling to you that you are paralyzed?!? I thought actors were supposed to be insulted by anyone giving them a line reading. I cannot think of another time I’ve ever witnessed anyone asking for one and certainly not like this. Never, not once, ever, in my entire life as an actor.
I don’t tell this story to make fun of the young man. He was clearly nervous and just wanted to do a good job to give the CD what she wanted. But what any CD or director or producer wants on any project is for you, the actor, to do your job and do it well. Your job is to make a choice. Make it your own. Make it real and unique and unexpected. Make the choice that can only come from you, your mind, your sense of humor and your world view. Make the wrong choice, make a bad choice, make a big, bold over the top choice – it doesn’t matter what the choice is as long as you do something! (Ahem, shut up & act!) That’s all any audition is. It’s the chance for the people doing the casting to see what YOU bring to the role. As long as they see that you can bring something interesting to the table, then you have a chance.
And if you’re ever at a loss, if all else fails, try stacking some change.