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The Devil's Workshop

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The Devil's Workshop

I went to a casting director's workshop... Well, kinda.

I went to a casting director's workshop taught by an assistant who works at the casting director's office.

Why this assistant felt qualified to teach is not the question.

The real question is: Why did I feel compelled to attend a workshop and pay to have an unqualified person chip away at my soul?

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The Assistant said that the class was in three parts: Intro, Cold Reading, and Headshot Evaluation. The Intro was more of a question-and-answer period, which we could ask the Assistant anything.

Of course, the first question was: "How did you get into casting?"

Here's her story, as best I can recall.

She graduated from college — theater major, natch — in some bumpkin town in the middle of nowhere USA, where the main form of entertainment was getting high, baking pie art, and smoking tweak.

Inspiration struck while watching the E! True Hollywood Story on the Hilton sisters. (Yes, the sight of Nicky and Paris Hilton posing on the red carpet to a cacophony of flashing paparazzi was enough for this Assistant to yearn for Hollywood.) So, after a few days of trolling the Web, she answered an ad for a roommate on Craigslist, and was on a bus bound for Hollywood.

After hitting all the tourist hot spots, she snagged the UTA Job Listings from her savvy roommate, slapped together a resume, and leveraged herself into a non-paying internship at a casting director's office.

She had slaved away for a whole month when the assistant to the casting director quit, right in the middle of a huge project. The casting director had no choice but to promote the Intern into paid Assistant status.

At the end of this 40-minute Intro — otherwise known as How the Assistant Made It Big in Hollywood — she finally takes a breath, and at last we move on. Now can begin the meat of the class: The Cold Reading.

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The Assistant starts by handing us her favorite cold reading scenes. She states that since she has a 'background' in acting, she will give us coaching tips we would never receive anywhere else. In the world.

Wow. Anywhere else in the world? I stifle a chuckle. (But hey, who am I to laugh? I paid to be here.)

I have a confession. Ever since I read Geek Love I've had a weakness for circus sideshow freaks. And I quickly realize that where else but here, in this class, could I possibly see a turd try to polish itself into a diamond?

The first scene is from a TV show, a serious drama. The first pair of actors do a fairly good job of being playing the sympathetic witness and the tough defense lawyer. The Assistant launches into them, saying they should have taken a bolder acting choice: play it funny. And not only funny, but...

"You — playing the Witness," she taunted. "Why don't you cross your legs when you play the scene? I think you could act better when you cross your legs. Gives you a good physical thing to do. Plus, you look younger when you do that. "

Huh?

Then the Assistant says, "You — Lawyer. Just laugh through the whole cross-examination. Like you've been doing this for years.

"Talk louder when you say the line about the incest, then talk softer when you talk about her lying. So then just say every other line loud and soft. You know? I think that would be funny."

Geez, does the casting director know that his assistant is taking an award-winning drama and turning it into balderdash? (More important, why am I paying to sit here and watch this train wreck?)

Watching the same scene played over and over by ten actors, including myself, I begin to believe that the Assistant gives these nonsensical directions simply to amuse herself in a cruel game of "Simon Sez, Act Like an Asshole."

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Then we hit Part Three: The Headshot Evaluation.

According to the Assistant, a headshot is the all-important gatekeeper to the promised land of hard-to-get under-fives and co-star roles. (In other words, if she didn't like your headshot, you're shit outta luck to ever being called into their office.)

Further, she discloses that plenty of actors who are perfect for roles, yet she doesn't allow of them entry simply because she didn't like them. (Okay, no news here, but do you have to say it aloud? Ick.)

My other fellow 20 or so actors look up at the Assistant as she waves our headshots like a deck of gigantic cards. Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, and I feel like I've been lifted into the Mad Tea Party: "Off with her head-shot!" And, like Alice, I begin to fall into the rabbit hole.

The Assistant displays the first headshot: a sweet-faced actress smiling like a cute young ingĂŠnue. The Assistant spews: "This sucks! Your eyes look dead. Do you really think you're going to get a job with this photo?"

The Sweet-Faced Actress shakily replies: "I just booked a co-star role using that photo."

"Well, it wasn't from my office, now was it?" the Assistant retorts. "I'm just being honest, people."

Yeesh. Sweet Faced was almost in tears, and declared that she would definitely get new pictures pronto. To which Assistant smugly replied: "Good."

My blood begins to boil.

Next picture up is a B/W headshot of an actress in a beaded gown, obviously a still from a musical theater performance. Now, everyone in Hollywood knows that, thanks to digital online casting, black and white is obsolete. That is, except one person.

The Assistant laughs maniacally, looking straight at the Beaded Gown Actress. The young woman starts convulsing, blurting out in one breath as if she has Tourette's: "I'm-from-New-York-I'm-getting-new-headshots-this-week!"

The Assistant gets suddenly calm: "Nooooo. This is a great photo. I wouldn't change a thing."

The actress' mouth is agape in disbelief. Surely there's a zinger coming.

"You know when I was acting in college, I always used black and white photos," says the Assistant. "I think that they're making a comeback. Good for you for going against the norm."

You gotta be kidding me, right? Her comments made as much sense as if the Assistant revealed that she was a serial killer, and was collecting these headshots to place our severed heads on.

I feel my knuckles whiten as I hold tightly onto the chair, which I wish to throw at the Assistant. My picture is next.

Okay, now I get new headshots as frequently as every six to eight months. The headshot the Assistant is holding was taken five months earlier, and it looks exactly like me. I've gotten positive feedback from agents, managers, casting directors, producers and directors who have hired me. I'm confident that this evaluation will go quickly and smoothly.

"Where is she?" she screeches. I raise my hand and smile. The Assistant glares: "I don't like it."

I feel a stab in my heart as I speak defensively. "Why would you say that?"

The class immediately looks at me like I've committed a cardinal sin, and the air begins to shift under my protest. The Sweet-Faced Actress shoots me a "Don't go there" look.

"I can barely see your face with all this makeup you have caked on. It looks nothing like you. I mean, who is this person? Who are you?"

You've got to be kidding me.

The Assistant sneers at me as if I've been outed as a creature from Alien.

"I understand that's your opinion, but in that shoot I have barely any makeup on."

"Yes, you did."

"Uh, no I didn't."

"Did too!"

"Did not!"

The Assistant's head starts to turn like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. My skin starts to itch in my nervous hives. The words "Help Me" start to carve their way under my skin. Please get me out of the horror movie!

"I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with you," I say calmly. "The photographer I use frowns upon heavy makeup, so I had on very little."

"Well, I don't like it. It has problems."

That headshot has fond memories for me — especially since I recently booked a job with the picture. Do I have to sit here and be abused for a photo that I'm actually proud of?

"Okay, if the picture is so bad, what would you have me do differently for the next one?"

The Assistant puckers her mouth and begins to twitch under questioning. "You know what? I don't know what to tell you."

And with that the Assistant slams my photo down on the desk and picks up another.

Oh no. Why couldn't I have kept my trap shut and let that thing verbally abuse my headshot? What do I care? What do I need to prove?

But here's the reality: Like it or not, I need this ass-istant in my corner. How am I going to get through 'the gate' unless I can pass through her dragon's breath?

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As I leave the class, I'm furious. I feel like that woman crushed the best part of me.

But something else bothers me. 'My picture doesn't look like me?' Did this kooky assistant from nowhere USA have some sort of idiot savant insight that I should listen to?

I tossed and turned all night with her voice echoing in my head, like the Mom in A Christmas Story: "This looks noh-thing like you. This looks noh-thing like you."

I called my acting buddies and told them the story. They all laughed it off. What are you so upset about? they say. Who cares what she thinks?

For a few days after the workshop, I stewed. Do I have to take her idiotic advice because she is in a position of power over actors? Probably. But do I have to pay for it? Absolutely not.

Lesson learned.

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