Working in Commercials: Does Theatre Training Matter?

Peter Brown—Theatre Training Is a Huge Leg Up

"Most people, if they're honest, will tell you that acting in a commercial is a completely different animal than acting for theatre," says Peter Brown, who works in both venues. Most recently, he starred in "Dirty Blonde" at Arizona Theatre Company and Off-Broadway in "The Water Coolers," and he has commercials now running for A&E and Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. "Certainly the money that you can make on a one-day commercial shoot is a lot greater than what you can make working one day in a regional theatre or even on Broadway, but you're obviously not going to be able to investigate a given human being over the course of two hours."

While appearing in "The Water Coolers," Brown was approached by agents about doing commercials. "The first commercial I ever got was for Cablevision in a promo for their video-on-demand feature. I had studied theatre in college, but most of my theatrical training was on the job. Theatre training was a huge leg up for commercial work. It helped hone my skills to be aware of what to do when auditioning or performing. There's a framework that your body has to stay in. You have to be a lot smaller. The camera picks up a lot. A large gesture on stage might be reduced to the lift of an eyebrow or a smile.

"Standing in front of a casting director, you have to get a sense of what they're asking you to do. You have to be 'directable,' able to take criticism or try it another way. In many cases, you're given a script to look at and then it's taken away and you improv based on what you've read.

"Once I became interested in commercials, I watched what was on TV and what the trend was. I'm a character actor who's balding and overweight and I tend to be called in for either a dad role or for a funny guy-next-door neighbor. With reality television, we're seeing a lot more 'real people,' rather than spokespersons. When I walk in the [audition] room, I think of myself as just 'Peter Brown, the person,' not the actor. There's less of a sense of becoming; there's more of sharing. I just try to be myself.

"The essential element is getting representation. Unlike theatre, where once you join the union you're able to go in for open calls, it's been my experience that without representation you can't get in the door to be seen for an audition. Be aware of how you're perceived in the market. Think of yourself as a product and selling something so you can package yourself. Also, make sure your headshot looks that way.

"Let's face it, we're all in the business not only for artistic excitement but for financial gain to be able to live a decent life. My commercial work is coupled with what I do in the theatre, so at this point it's just something that I enjoy in a different way."

—Elizabeth Ahlfors

Marylouise Burke—A Late Bloomer

She's been acclaimed for her Off-Broadway and Broadway projects, including "Kimberly Akimbo" and "Into the Woods." But Marylouise Burke's formal theatrical training is not particularly extensive.

In her 20s, she took classes a couple of nights a week at the Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania. And when she moved to New York in the 1970s, she studied for a time with actor Kevin O'Connor, a proponent of the Sanford Meisner approach.

But she mostly learned by doing. "I'm kind of rough-and-tumble in the way I go about things," she notes.

Her on-the-job training included work in "downtown" theatre—sometimes in "wild and crazy" performance-art pieces. "I was doing a lot of plays by contemporary writers—that's my particular resume…. I think I have a pretty contemporary sensibility."

Some actors use commercials as a steppingstone from stage to the big screen. But Burke—again, atypically perhaps—made a transition to commercial work through various movie projects. She acted in student films. She played minor roles in major features, such as "Meet Joe Black" and "One True Thing." But her biggest on-camera learning experience was in a satirical film by Daniel Minahan called "Series 7," a send-up of TV reality shows.

Burke played a Catholic nurse who becomes a killer in order to win the reality-show jackpot. She had to assume a very restrained, "nontheatrical" acting style for the film's tongue-in-cheek interview sequences and other naturalistic scenes.

All of this film experience paid off. "By the time I came to audition for commercials, I was comfortable with the scale—and able to embrace it."

Burke has made three commercials, all for director Stan Schofield. Her most recent one—and her first nationally aired spot—is for Procrit, an anti-anemia drug for chemotherapy patients.

"In theatre, I'm quite often cast as a comic actress, and these commercials are really not that at all," she says. "They're very straightforward and artfully done. Stan Schofield is well known for very heartwarming and real and beautifully photographed commercials…for catching a telling emotional moment."

So, for the Procrit spot (which she describes as a "beautiful little mini-novel"), Burke harnessed the discipline and concentration she'd acquired in theatre in order to do some stylistic gear-shifting.

She portrayed a school crossing guard who's surrounded by first and second graders. The woman develops anemia and has to give up her job. She is next seen reading a "we miss you" card from the kids. She asks her doctor about Procrit. In the final scene, she's back on the job.

Burke was given "crossing guard" lessons—shown how to hold the stop sign and when to step off the curb. But otherwise, she prepared simply by allowing herself to trust the director's instructions and the writing—both of which, fortunately, were clear and specific. "I think I tried to approach it with as much honesty and openness as possible—and centeredness," she explains.

A self-described acting "late bloomer," Burke acknowledges that the encouragement she's gotten from commercial agents has given her more confidence lately about auditioning for TV spots.

—Mark Dundas Wood

Sean Dougherty—Using Meisner to Get Commercial Callbacks

"I'm going to say something and then totally contradict myself," says Sean Dougherty, an actor who has been working steadily in regional theatre for the past six years and will be performing with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey this summer. "You don't have to be an actor to book television commercials. You can have a very specific look that a bunch of people think is 'hot' at that moment and get booked just on your physical appearance. But that said," Dougherty continues, "it really helps to walk into an audition and say to yourself, 'I have training that a lot of these people don't.' From a confidence perspective, that has always been invaluable to me." In addition to his theatrical career, Dougherty has worked successfully as a commercial actor, most notably as last year's summer spokesman for Nick at Nite and, perhaps most visibly, as one of the poker players in the Wendy's "new guy" commercial.

Dougherty earned an M.F.A. in acting from Rutgers University in what he describes as "a Meisner-based program," which, though designed for theatrical actors, Dougherty has found remarkably useful in his commercial work. "There is a part of that training," he explains, "where you bring in nursery rhymes and are asked to craft three separate ways of doing the same silly rhyme. What it teaches you is to be able to give different meanings to words and explode your imagination around small, contained topics and situations. As a commercial actor, that proves enormously valuable, particularly in getting callbacks. At commercial auditions, they're oftentimes looking for someone to give a slightly different spin to things. It doesn't have to be wacky or outrageous; it just has to be a little different from what they've seen from anyone else."

Dougherty also found his intensive, conservatory-style training specifically applicable to the challenges he faced doing the Nick at Nite spokesman spots. "They were text-laden spots," he explains, "and I definitely fell back on all my theatrical voice and speech training. There was so much text in these spots, it was unbelievable. They were 30-second spots, sometimes with 23 or 24 seconds of text, and I was always able to have an internal clock that allowed me to bring the spot in on time. People would remark about how accurate my timing was, and I'm not tooting my own horn here. I attribute that directly to the theatrical training I had."

Dougherty recalls that when he graduated from school, "there was this big rumor circulating that TV and film acting was something completely different from stage acting. But working in the commercial field has allowed me to discover," he says, "that the crafting of it is remarkably the same. Clearly you don't have the same 'breadth' to work with and the 'size' of things are different, but as far as being specific about what you're talking about and letting behavior come naturally through your instrument, that's what's ultimately most important, both onstage and on camera."

—Lisa Jo Sagolla

Mark Jacoby—It's the "Why" Versus the "How"

"In commercials, it's all about the search for those 30 technically perfect seconds. You must make sure to have your hand hit the cup on the 'sur' of 'insurance,' not the 'in' of 'insurance.' Watch the angle of your head! Be aware of the precise timing of your words! In a way, it's a wonderful challenge—to keep your fundamental acting chops in shape while paying attention to all of these technical concerns," says Mark Jacoby, a Broadway actor who originated the role of Father in "Ragtime," played the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera" for three years, and was most recently seen as the Padre in "Man of La Mancha." Jacoby has also appeared in about 30 TV commercials, including Advil spots, and two currently running commercials, one for Plavix heart medication and one for Gray Goose vodka. "I hope no one sees any correlation between those products," he jokes.

Jacoby studied theatrical acting in New York with private teachers he describes as "Meisner-inspired," one of whom was a protégée of Robert Lewis. But when he decided to embark on commercial work, he took additional classes specific to voice-over and commercial techniques. "It was a matter of personal philosophy," he explains. "I believe that if you're going to work in a field, you should study it. I realized that going into commercial work was a new field for me and I wanted to learn all I could about it." While Jacoby acknowledges that theatrical acting training is certainly useful in commercial work, "that training is more like what a reporter might call 'deep background,' " he says. "It's your bedrock technique. It will underlie everything you do, but in commercials you'll be focusing much more on the mechanics of everything."

Jacoby soon discovered that the main difference between acting training for the theatre and training for commercials was a matter of the why versus the how. "The commercial technique," says Jacoby, "is more of a specific, explicit performance technique, whereas most modern approaches to acting teach you to think in terms of why you're doing something, not how you're doing it. In any acting class today, no teacher would say to you, 'Okay, now say the line this way' or 'Do your business that way.' They're going to try to get you to discover why you're doing it. But in commercials the emphasis is more on how to do it. In commercial training you'll learn to parse copy, figure out what the best timing is, how and when to stress a word, how to keep your eyes on the camera or not—and I don't mean to diminish all that, but it's a more technical approach."

"So the challenge," Jacoby concludes, "is to hold onto that 'why' while getting all the technique of the 'how.' You need to keep true to what you believe you're supposed to be doing as an actor, while at the same time giving them what they need mechanically to make the commercial succeed."

—Lisa Jo Sagolla

Joseph Jamrog—The Props Matter

There's a diminishing list of actors who can claim to have studied with Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, and William Ball, the legendary founder of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Fewer have spent nearly 50 years segueing between legit and commercial work, and fewer still are still successfully pursuing such work. But Joseph Jamrog, with over 150 plays and 300 to 400 commercials to his credit, is such an actor and, at 71, he's sage enough to know how two seemingly incompatible crafts can inform one another.

After his early 1960s theatre training, he says, his commercial career "began in a transitional period—when it was all pretty boys with blue eyes, blond hair, and if you looked good, that was it. Then character actors came in, and I was ready. Over the years, I grew from the young to the middle-aged husband, from the Maytag serviceman to the delivery-truck guy. Now I'm the guy talking about prescription plans."

But Jamrog had to do more than simply project the right age: He had to use his stage chops in ways that would result in picture-perfect commercial-acting skills. For instance, he says, "You had to learn how to audition. If you played a banker, you carried a briefcase, you wore the right suit, you came in with the correct upscale pen. Props were in play, and this was obviously part of my theatre training."

Meanwhile, many of the training options available now to actors, like on-camera classes, were virtually nonexistent when Jamrog began, so he had to learn with alacrity how to adjust his voice and body to the small-screen environment. "You're either quick and 'right there' or not, with no time to prepare," he says. "And if you weren't, you didn't book."

Jamrog notes that, clichés aside, commercial acting really is about "smaller" performances. "Which means you have to be realer, truer, and not as big; you take everything down a measure or two. So let's say it's a commercial audition or a 'Law & Order.' The idea is you're talking to the camera; you're talking to the actor who's most proximate. And you have to very consciously make your voice quieter."

And that's easy enough, he says. Harder is switching back to a legit frame of mind.

"At 71, I have years of experience and training, so when I audition for a play, I automatically know to be bigger. But if I'd limited myself to commercials, it would be harder—so whenever I could do a workshop or go for a regional-theatre job, I did. Some actors who only do commercials can't jump back to theatre. They lose that presence, that 'at ease' of standing on stage and listening to somebody."

While acknowledging that commercial acting has always been (and remains) a better economic proposition, Jamrog offers an ironic note: While youth is perpetually in, his advancing age hasn't made it harder to book work. Instead, he says, "It's a help on some levels. I mean, on one level right now you have lots of people who have been in other professions and who decided to go into commercials—they want the money or they take it up as a hobby. And when you have lots of good, talented, very fresh new faces, the commercial industry loves it; it thrives on new faces, and I'm an old face. But some new casting people don't know me, so I feel I'm being rediscovered. People still around from 30 years ago know me, but that list is getting shorter. So now I'm a fresh face, too, even after 50 years."

—Leonard Jacobs

Burnadair Lipscomb-Hunt—Learning to Work Quickly

Burnadair Lipscomb-Hunt came to acting through modeling. She was brought to New York from Philadelphia by couture designer Adele Simpson. She did runway and showroom modeling, along with commercial print work.

Encouraged to pursue acting, she had a "look-see" at the Terry Schreiber Studio and was soon taking basic scene study there, along with a body workshop and voice instruction. She notes that the Schreiber training was geared principally toward theatre work. For a beginner, this approach was "excellent." Lipscomb-Hunt learned the basics: how to exert only the amount of energy needed for a particular acting task; how to breathe correctly; how to "leave herself alone."

Her first major TV commercial was a spot for Kodak. She played the aunt who returns home to a family Thanksgiving celebration. With her Schreiber training, she was able to unlock the emotions in this scenario with little difficulty: Lipscomb-Hunt comes from a large family, and she is the "favorite aunt" who lives away from home. "Even though these were not my actual nieces and nephews, when I saw them, I actually saw my nieces and nephews," she explains. "I put their faces to these children's faces."

The actress went on to do commercial spots for Time Warner Cable, General Electric, and Lucille Roberts, among others.

She came to believe that her modeling background actually hurt her as a commercial actress. "As a model, I was very conscious of how I turned my head, how I smiled, how I looked…. I'm watchful when I go to my commercial auditions. I'm very careful, because I can get carried away and go back into that glamour again."

Commercials tend to use actors in roles that are close to "type." So for acting stretches, Lipscomb-Hunt looks to other venues. For instance, in the play "You Shouldn't Have Told," for Playwrights Horizons, she portrayed an 80-year-old woman, complete with padded breasts and backside.

These days, she's back in the classroom. She studies at Susan Batson's Black Nexxus studio, which she believes provides training that's equally valuable for stage and screen work. She's taking scene study with Batson and a process class with Roberta Wallach called "Develop Your Own Method."

"I also do something once a week called 'the Exer-actor.' Susan feels that that's like going to the gym. You exercise your acting muscles there." The Black Nexxus curriculum has helped Lipscomb-Hunt learn how to prepare more quickly—something that's essential for commercial auditions and production.

Lipscomb-Hunt believes that actors with solid theatrical training can easily adapt to commercials: "Basically, the things that they sell us are things we deal with in everyday life. So if you put yourself in those situations, you can just get there…. And, of course, if you do theatre, it's easier for you, because you're accustomed to doing the work anyway."

She tells of actor friends of hers who have pursued on-camera work in California: "They love New York actors in L.A. If you do not have a theatre resume, they will tell you to go back to New York and get it. Because they know that we can 'get there.' We can get to those characters quick."

—Mark Dundas Wood

Catherine Wolf—Be Yourself

The question put to Catherine Wolf—actress since age 11 with career credits in Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatre, as well as feature films, television pilots and series, and commercials—was this: "How has your legitimate-theatre training and experience aided you in your acting for commercials?"

"It hasn't," she responded with a soft, ironic laugh, then gladly shared her experience and philosophy:

"I think when you're on camera for a commercial, it's about who you are, not about any great acting skill. Whether you are exactly as you are—that's what the client likes for his product. The one thing I heard from an actor who used to do millions of commercials—when I was trying to break in—he said, 'Be who you are.'

"The more commercials I've done—and I've done quite a few—I walk in as who I am. I have a quality people will either buy or not buy. If I try to be something different than who I am, the camera can really pick that up very quickly. The medium is about seeing the person close up, so you can't lie about who you are."

That inherent honesty proves necessary, in Wolf's earned wisdom, because when the actor walks into the audition for a client and director, "you don't know what they want. One time I was up for a commercial for some Italian food product. We were a family. I got called back. The people were looking at a TV screen while the camera was shooting you. When they got to me, they just shook their heads. I thought they hated me. When I was selected, I told that to one of them. She said, 'No, we didn't hate you. We were matching everybody to you. You were the first one we picked.' So you never know what's in the client's head—ever."

To stress that point further, Wolf recalled being chosen for a Spanish-language Folger's coffee commercial for a Spanish network. "I'm not Spanish, and I don't speak Spanish," Wolf explained, noting that other actors auditioning did speak the language. But she got the part. Later, in explaining why she was cast, "the director said something very funny," she remembered. "He said, 'You got the commercial because you have the same kind of hair I do.' "

On camera, Wolf said she relies on personal experience rather than acting technique. For an Olive Garden spot, "I was the aunt…a New York kind of aunt. The part of my personality I could use was like I am with my own nieces and nephews. It was a part of my character, and a part of me."

For an indigestion-relief product, she had first to appear as though in terrible pain, then as a woman feeling great. For the joyous part of the spot, "I thought about how wonderful I feel when I look at my garden."

Her advice to young actors working to break in to commercials: Enjoy the auditioning experience, and keep in mind that it's a way to make good money so you can pursue legitimate acting. Wolf spends much of her energy as producing director of the Colleagues Theatre Company in New York City.

Still, she emphasizes, go into the commercial audition looking professional.

"They want someone selling their product who looks great. I don't mean you have to be beautiful; you just have to be clean, look nice. Like going for any job."

—Roger Armbrust

A comphrensive list of casting directors who cast for commericals and advertising agencies with casting departments can be found on page TO COME.