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Off the Bookshelf - How-To Times Four

How-to books frequently combine an unendurable smugness with psycho-babble. A virtual model of that repellent coupling is one of the four books reviewed here: Smart Actors Foolish Choices--A Self-Help Guide to Coping with the Emotional Stresses of the Business (Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, softcover, 176 pgs., $16.95), by actress Katherine Mayfield.

Her thesis: If an actor deals with his "inner child" and, by extension, faces up to early family dynamics--no doubt, dysfunctional--he will successfully handle self-expression, self-promotion, and money issues without sabotaging himself, consciously or unconsciously. Armed with self-knowledge and a new, improved style of interacting with others, he will negotiate the rocky terrain of facing authority figures, like agents and casting directors. The outcome? Winning!

In Mayfield's view, winning does not necessarily mean getting the part, although the odds of that, she maintains, will increase if you respond to your inner child. More importantly, you will be able to look at losing (she wouldn't call it that) in a more sanguine way.

For Mayfield, everything in a career has significant psychological underpinnings. For instance:

"Actors often believe that casting directors, agents, directors and producers have power to such an extent that they can make us happy and our struggles worthwhile. The problem can usually be resolved by asking some questions about your past: When you were a child, did you feel that authority figures helped you get what you wanted? Or, instead, did they withhold objects or attention from you? Did you feel that they had all the power and you had none at all? Exploring your feelings can help you discover some of the early experiences which influenced your present perceptions about authority figures and to move beyond believing that someone else must determine whether or not you get what you want."

Useless to argue that casting directors and producers are powerful and can effect the outcome of careers; and that these attitudes are not misinterpretations at all, but a hard-nosed response to reality.

Mayfield's gaps in logic start with the idea that these emotionally charged questions can be answered simply by asking them of oneself. Assuming they can--let's go so far as to say your behavior changes, too--is that a guarantee of anything?

Some more Mayfield pap:

"Think of each audition as a small step, as a building block, in the process of creating the career you want and remember that it is a process--the journey is more important than the end result."

It is? To whom? In what universe?

Covering the Callback

Short of endless allusions to the virtue of "creative visualization" (i.e., positive fantasies lead to positive actions lead to positive results), Call-Back--How to Prepare For the Callback to Succeed in Getting the Part, by Ginger Howard Friedman (Limelight Editions, softcover, 163 pgs., $9.95), offers some valid suggestions. Areas covered range from preparing for an interview to dressing for an audition, from selecting monologues to the art of cold readings.

Her overall contention is that an exciting actor at an audition reveals a sense of immediacy and urgency. Throughout her book, Friedman, a casting director and acting teacher, analyzes a number of scenes from the point of view of the auditioning actor. Writing about Ibsen's A Doll's House, for example, Friedman suggests that the actress playing Nora must truly believe, despite what she's saying, that she desperately loves Torvald and wants him to stop her from leaving.

Interwoven throughout are amusing and enlightening anecdotes. Friedman's most striking audition story centers on an actor and actress who met at a reading and decided to read the scene together instead of auditioning separately. Everything that could go wrong did. The actor, who did not inform the actress of his intentions, playfully slapped her derrire. Later, he passionately kissed her on the mouth.

"In doing so, he swung her backwards, exposing her underwear to the entire house. Her handbag flew open, its contents spilling all over the stage. Her audition sides dropped from her hands, the pages scattering in all directions because she had removed the staple that had held them together. When the reading was over the young woman ran into the wings with tears running down her cheeks . Her first mistake: She should have known the reader is the best person for the job, not another actor. The second mistake: She didn't "use it" when he did those things to her. The third mistake: She removed the staple from the sides."

A not uninteresting object lesson.

Competition &

Common Sense

Set within a Q-and-A framework, Brian O'Neil's book, Actors Take Action--A Career Guide for the Competitive Actor (Heinemann, softcover, 112 pgs., $13.95), looks at such subjects as landing and working with an agent, the art of doing follow-ups, the relative value of paid seminars with casting directors and agents, and making the transition from musical theatre performer to actor in film or TV. A former talent agent and personal manager, O'Neil is the founder of Acting as a Business, a career-planning service for actors, and the author of a book by the same name.

Although there are momentary "self-help" lapses here--like O'Neil's insistence that if an actor is good and keeps on auditioning, eventually he will get somewhere--for the most part, this work is a straightforward common-sense approach to the business.

For example, in response to the question: "What is the best way to follow up if the response [from an agent] is less than I hope for? Do I call or write or what?"

O'Neil says:

"If you have nothing new to say and a month has gone by, it is better to hold off until you have something to report . What constitutes progress? Any roles you've gotten, staged readings; callbacks for important projects that you think the agent might be familiar with or that may involve prestigious individuals."

One subject O'Neil fudges is that of age. While he concedes that it's outright illegal for a casting director or agent--or any employer--to ask, "How old are you?," he writes that this is not the same as, "What age range do you think you can play?" That's a legitimate question, and O'Neil advises you to answer the former as if you'd been asked the latter.

If, on the other hand, the agent is clearly asking that question to determine whether you've achieved enough at your age--meaning he suspects you haven't and therefore won't make a good investment for him--O'Neil advocates "ducking" the question. But he doesn't spell out how.

It would have been refreshing to hear him to say, "Within plausible parameters, Lie!" We regret his omission.

In Full Voice

Chuck Jones' Make Your Voice Heard--An Actor's Guide to Increased Dramatic Range Through Vocal Training (Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, softcover, 144 pgs., $16.95) is a puzzler on two fronts: its intended audience and purpose.

The thrust, as we understand it, is to teach the actor (or is it to review with him?) a series of well-known exercises that have been in vogue for at least 30 years. The avowed claims of these exercises, according to Jones and other advocates of the technique, is that a freed vocal instrument will allow "open," "honest," and "centered" emotion to emerge unfettered. Further, this freed vocal instrument will be a receptive vehicle for virtually any character in any text. Debatable perhaps.

But the fundamental problem here is that it takes Jones 93 pages to get to the exercises. Is the work intended for theatre academics? If so, why spend 60 pages on exercises?

An actor and voice teacher, Jones offers a prolonged discussion of theatre history, acting styles, and vocal problems actors experience. None of it meshes.

Still, in all fairness, Jones presents several thought-provoking observations, i.e., his analysis of English and American attitudes towards voice as emblematic of cultural values:

"Part of American actors' tendency to be suspicious of voice training derives from the way we perceive our national character. Early in our history, we learned to judge people by their deeds rather than their words. We admire people who live full emotional lives with considerable sensitivity, yet outwardly express little. We are, after all, a nation of doers, not clever raconteurs. The English tradition more actively encourages voice development than the American. The English have a centuries-old history of valuing the spoken word and, as a natural consequence, the voice itself.

Likewise, Jones' discussion of the way men and women use their voices is suggestive:

"In most cultures, including our own, women are encouraged to use facial mask resonators (nasal passages, sinuses, and cheeks), which produce clarity and brilliance, in order to seem child-like. Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to use chest resonance, which produces vocal power.

"Many women wind up with a breathy quality, a mixture of breath and vibration, which produces a weak childish sound. The voice often has a simultaneously manipulating and apologetic quality Boys, encouraged to use only the lower half of their voices, wind up with little freedom to reveal what they are feeling."

Jones' book has a little something for everyone. And that's just why it lacks focus and definition.

A modest proposal: Excerpt the section on the vocal exercises and publish it as a monograph.

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