12 Steps to Consistently Brilliant Performances, Part 1

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Auditioning isn’t just a numbers game. You have to be consistently well-prepared and put up solid work in order for the numbers game to work. Otherwise, you’re blowing opportunities that you would have booked. When we’re all just one audition away from a jobs that could change the course of our careers, we can’t afford to blow a single one.

The problem is, most actors I meet do not have a “process” they follow when preparing their work. If we think of your “craft” as your skill at being able to generate compelling acting performances, then think of your “process” as the step-by-step routine you follow to fully apply that craft to the work.

In other words, being capable of creating great art isn’t enough, you need a workflow, a strategy, a process, that ensures your work will consistently deliver on your potential.

More to the point, many actors I meet don’t really understand what the “work” of an actor is. Their process goes something like this: “I read the scene a bunch of times and then start memorizing my lines and then just do the scene over and over until it feels natural.”

Oh, boy.

I often ask my students, “Would you rather fly on a plane where the pilot did his pre-flight safety check with a checklist or just winged it?” In order for your performances to be safe flights, you need a checklist that you follow every time, so that you will know you did your job and are ready for take-off.

So, I present to you my 12 steps to consistently brilliant performances. Combining a process like this with great instruction, craft, and hard work, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Then, it’s up to our marketing, our team, our networking, our instrument, and time.

Again, just as in my previous article, “ A 4-Step Guide to Success in L.A.,” my process outlined below is not the only process or the right process. It’s just a process that has proven to work again and again for me and my students. So, if you can learn from it, great. If you don’t have a process, why not start with this and build from there?

Also, nothing in my process conflicts with the tools you use to access your emotions. It’s not a dogmatic philosophy on acting. It’s just a framework within which to apply your craft. If I have any philosophy on acting, it’s that it’s all about the story. The story is our salvation.

Here are the 12 steps, followed by an explanation of them all:

Step 1: Research
Step 2: Find the Story
Step 3: Initial Character Impression
Step 4: Other Character Choices
Step 5: Identify Opportunities for Making Choices and Make Them
Step 6: Create Reasons for Your Lines and the Moment Before
Step 7: Word Emphasis Exploration
Step 8: Create the Environment and Place Everyone and Everything
Step 9: Memorize Lines
Step 10: Perform Top Choices on Camera and Critique
Step 11: Choose the Performance to Lead With and Prepare
Step 12: Perform. Set the Table for Yourself and Just Have an Experience

Step 1: Research
If you get an audition for a show that already exists, watch an episode to get familiar with the genre, tone, and writing style. Genres include: soap opera, drama, single-camera comedy, and multi-camera comedy. Tones include variances within a genre, such as procedural, dramedy, broad or subtle comedy, and pace.

The writing style springs from the voice of the show creator who, in TV, is sometimes also the head writer. If you’re auditioning for a pilot or a film, look at what the director, creator, or writer has done before. Writers tend to write all their projects in a similar style, so, for example, if you were auditioning for the pilot of “How to Get Away with Murder,” watching “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” will give you an idea of Shonda Rhimes’ voice and style that should inform your prep.

Next, IMDb the crap out of the project—the producers, the writers, the regular show directors, and the main series cast. Never forget that your audition is a job interview with a talent portion. Casting and Production will appreciate that you’ve done your homework.

Step 2: Find the Story
Actors are storytellers. Always have been. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing—a commercial, an industrial, a film, a TV show, or a play. There’s always a story.

Read the material over and over again and just focus on what the copy says. Don’t interpret anything yet. You don’t want to overlook anything, or assume anything that isn’t on the page. And we’re all trapped within our own bias, so just read what the words say. Each time you read it, you’re going to understand more and see what the writer has written more clearly. It’s like watching a movie over and over. Each time you’ll notice something new because your attention will be on other elements.

What’s happening in the scene? When the writer was writing the script and they had index cards up on their wall of all the scenes they needed to move the story along, what did the index card for your scene say? Most scenes serve a simple purpose in the story, probably something like this: “Lori tells John she’s leaving.” The writer then imagines how that would play out and writes from there. The scene could be five pages long, but that’s the point of the scene. It keeps your eye on the most important part of the story context within which the scene is taking place in these characters’ lives.

We don’t always get the full script and get the full context, so we have to mine the copy we have for every nugget of information we can use to make choices.

Tune in next week for Steps 3-12.

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Shaan Sharma
Shaan Sharma is a session director, on-camera acting teacher, and author of “A Session Director’s Guide to Commercial Acting in L.A.”
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