Advice and Tips for Actors Helpful thoughts on acting from someone who wasn't the least successful actor of all time.

April 27, 2010

REVIEW: ActorsAccess.com

The second suggestion when you type “Actorsaccess” into Google after ActorsAccess.com is the phrase “Actorsaccess Scam.”  Well, is ActorsAccess.com a scam?

The answer is no.

What is ActorsAccess?  AA (as I like to call it) is the publicly published section of Breakdown Services.  Breakdown Services is the system on which anyone casting a project can accept submissions from managers and agents.  When publishing they are also given the option to post to Actors Access where any actor can go and look at the parts they are casting and submit online.  The yearly cost for unlimited submissions (as of 2010) is $68.  It’s been the same rate for years.  If you want to pay per-submission the cost is $2.

Now, the better question is “why do people think Actors Access is a scam?”  I think there are several reasons:

Pay Per Submission: Many people use this for their first option when signing up for AA and see how quickly the charges add up.  Why would it cost this much for an online submission?  Truth is, it doesn’t really.  Personally I think they’d rather you sign up and have a subscription account (which also grants you access to audition sides).  In the past four months I’ve done a total of 74 submissions and I only submit on non-student film union projects.  If you were just starting out you’d probably double or triple that number of submissions.  Totally worth every penny.

Few “Big Name” Projects: There are many scam casting sites out there that either make up or steal casting information for major shows.  They let actors submit on these projects but no one ever sees the submissions so actors get no response.   Since the vast majority of big name projects are actually cast through Breakdown Services there’s little need to put out a call to the actors at large unless a production company needs something very specific.  I’ve yet to see a major production put out a call for “Beautiful Blond 25-30 Guest Star” roles on Actors Access because they simply don’t need the extra submissions to successfully cast the part.  Is that unfair?  I’ll talk about that in another review.

They Submit Two or Three Times and Get No Calls: Believe it or not, this is the one I hear the most.  Someone in Nebraska wants to be an actor so they sign up figuring they’ll fly in if they ever get a major audition.  They spend six bucks to submit a photo they took with a camera phone and a resume that says, “Tree #3 Elementary School Production of Snow White” for roles they’re not right for and they get pissed because no one calls them in.  What they don’t know is that they were one of 3,000 submissions for that role from Actors Access and there were another 2,000 from agents/mangers who are more likely to have a relationship with the casting director.  I submit on Actors Access all the time (and I have a couple credits and good headsh0ts) but still only get a few calls.  Agents and managers have the same problem, they submit actors all day (it’s their job) but there is so much competition for even a one line role on a Nickelodeon show that they don’t get as many calls as actors think they do.

Both of these boil down to one point:  many people (particularly beginners) have no idea how the industry works.  They expect there to be shortcuts and there aren’t.  You’re unlikely to book a major role from Actors Access that will define your career but you are likely (if your photos are good enough) to get called in for plenty of shorts, web series and low budget films to make the $68 worth it.

Even if you have an agent it’s worth it to check on AA for projects you might want to do for little to no pay and your agent won’t be pursuing.  There’s some quality work on there.

AA also offers add-on services like the ability to upload a demo reel and to record video for you to use in lieu of a demo reel.  I have a demo up (haven’t had them record anything) and the cost wasn’t super cheap but I get to include it on all my submissions (included in the yearly subscription).  It sets me apart from the other submissions and lets me show my work.

And as an added bonus an Actors Access page can stand in for a free acting website if you haven’t put one together yet.

I could probably write a few dozen more glowing things about Actors Access but I won’t.  I’ll simply say it’s one of the few bargains for actors out there and an essential part of building a career.

April 12, 2010

REVIEW: Groundlings Improv and Writing Classes

The Groundlings are a sketch and improvisation troupe and theater in Los Angeles on Melrose Boulevard.  Their alumni include famous people such as Will Farrell and Conan O’Brien as well as a huge chunk of the Saturday Night Life cast members.  They offer classes in improvisation technique as well as writing.  From these classes they pick the “best” and with hard work, luck and lots of time the students can become members of The Groundlings troupe.


I absolutely loved every class, every teacher and every lesson I had at The Groundlings.  I took a total of five classes there (Basic level twice, Intermediate twice and Writing Lab once) and would not trade it for anything.  I learned so much about improvisation and having their name on my resume has been very helpful.

Let’s start out with a very quick lesson about how the school is run:  There are essentially seven class levels at The Groundlings.  The first two are for people with no improv experience, ability or desire to ever perform.  They can be skipped by auditioning for the “third level” class called Basic.  I did this and was accepted into Basic.  Here you learn the basics of improv.  From there, with your teachers OK, you move on to Intermediate Improvisation.  The title of the class gives away what you learn there, more improv.  With that done you have to get approval to take the Writing Lab.  This used to be done by the teacher’s OK but from what I hear now it’s done with another audition.  From there you move on to Advanced and then to a member of The Sunday Company which feeds into the main company but I’ll consider it still a class.  Along the way there are several times you can be cut (like me, after writing lab) and other extension classes you can take even if you’re no longer in classes there.

The most important thing to know about The Groundlings is that it is not a shortcut to being on SNL.  You will most likely be cut.  The joke around LA is that there are more famous people who were cut from The Groundlings than actually made it through to the main company.  Being cut says nothing about your talent as an actor (or writer or improviser).  Don’t go to classes there expecting Lorne Michaels to be waiting for you when you’re done.  Making it to the main company is as much timing and luck as skill, there has to be an opening and there can’t be someone else like you on the company at the time.  Do the classes for the education, not to try to skip to the front of the comedy line.

The Groundlings have a very specific style of comedy that they like to perform.  They favor huge characters and all their writing and most improv is driven by characters.  They don’t like jokes, they like funny characters (like Peewee, another alum).  The characters I write tend to be the kind you wouldn’t be terrified of if you met them on the subway.  I’m not the right style for the Groundlings.

The biggest complaint people have is that the company emphasizes this and pushes it during the writing classes and it’s true.  You will rarely be called upon to do such insane characters in normal acting situations so people dismiss The Groundlings as not useful for actors and I find that not to be the case.  The truth is you still learn the same rules of improv, you learn a lot about creating characters and if you get cut (which you will) you can still use what you learned to create less insane characters in your work.  The techniques work even if you don’t like the company’s style.

My biggest complaint with The Groundlings is how little the students perform.  I got to do exactly one show in my time there (which I rocked, if I must say so myself).  Second City (another big improv training place) is known for having students perform many times along their path and there’s real benefit from that.  I do honestly believe you learn more during a show than during weeks of classes but there’s also something painful about putting beginner improvisational actors up on stage.  Bad improv in class is fine but on stage it’s deadly and could convince people to quit.  The Groundlings definitely doesn’t put you up until you’re ready, but they wait a little too long and give too few opportunities.

Another problem with The Groundlings is how popular they are.  I had to wait over a year between taking Intermediate and Writing Lab.  Some people told me they waited over two years.  If I had passed through Writing Lab to Advanced I would have waited another year for that class.  It can easily take half a decade to make it through the Groundlings program in its entirety.  You can take extension classes (single classes sometimes taught by alumni on a very specific topic) but it’s hard to keep up on improv without actually doing it.

To this date The Groundlings is my only improv training and I’ve never felt that I lacked in that area.  I feel comfortable enough improving on set and during auditions because of these classes.  It’s a large commitment of time and money but I felt it was totally worth it.  Yes, I’m the guy who says acting class is a waste of time but specific technique classes are the exception and improv is definitely a technique that every actor needs to be familiar with.

This is my second review, my first was of Margie Haber’s Cold Reading Classes.

March 3, 2010

REVIEW: Margie Haber Cold Reading Classes

Filed under: classes,reviews — Eitan @ 10:09 am

UPDATE! 12/13/2012 UPDATE!

Why am I updating a two and a half year old post about a eight year old experience? I wonder that myself.

Instead of answering I’ll tell the story of what happened this last weekend. If you look below you’ll see a comment from the Margie Haber Studios. Basically it says “We have no record of you attending this school, please remove the comment.” Delightful. I would have responded to them, giving them the dates I attended the school and helped clear up this mess.

But before I could respond they also called my agent and talked to her at length. For those of you not in the business, this is not standard practice. If you have a problem with me as an actor or on a job call my agent to complain. If you have a problem with a blog post I wrote, you don’t. It’s unprofessional and drags her into a conversation she doesn’t need to be part in. Trying to get her to chose a side against her client or an acting school is dumb.

I reached out to the school and got a phone call the next day from Margie Haber (the “world famous Margie Haber,” as she introduced herself). Apparently this past weekend at an orientation session someone brought up my blog post and mentioned they would prefer not to attend classes with Barbara Gannen based on what they read. I learned that if you Google “Margie Haber Review” my website is one of the first few to come up (cool).

Margie told me over and over again that in the past few years how Barbara has changed, how Barbara has gone through things and is now a better teacher. I can’t vouch for this and in all honesty I declined the offer to go observe her class to see how she’s better and Margie offered no specifics addressing my experiences. Margie asked me to take this review down and I declined, offering instead to post an update.

So this is my update. I’m going to assume Margie never read my review because she only focused on the stuff about Barbara while I brought up a bunch of other points about her school and the way they handle their students. At the time Barbara was the worst acting teacher I ever met. It’s still true, as I haven’t taken an acting class in a long time. Is she better now? It’s possible. Did other people like her class? Probably. I suppose the standard your mileage may vary disclaimer applies to this as it applies to every review since the beginning of time. I don’t think this is necessary to say but if it makes Margie happy then I’m glad to say it.

I’d like to offer a few counter points to this conversation because it’s my blog. If Margie wants to review me on her website she’s more than welcome.

People do change. I’ll admit that. Sometimes they even get better at their jobs. However, Barbara was already teaching for years and years when I attended the school. That was part of my problem, she felt stuck in her rut and obsessed with what was “right” and “wrong” with each scene. The general structure and method of teaching was horrible and irresponsible. You can’t change my experience there even though it was years ago. It’s not invalid because it’s old just as those headshots sitting on Margie’s wall aren’t invalid because the student attended the school years ago.

Also, the way this situation was handled was amateurish at best. When I felt I was being placed incorrectly in the school I was brushed aside with barely a cursory conversation. Now that they disagree with my opinion, years later, I’m accused of making up my attendance and they call my agent before calling me. I’ve heard elsewhere that they treat actors (the people who pay their rent) with disrespect and I can vouch for the fact that this still happens. Nothing changed in that department. Margie was nothing but polite in our conversation but she didn’t see anything wrong with their methods of communication. I was hoping she’d at least apologize to my agent for wasting her time but it was not to be.

So there’s my update. I may get another phone call from Margie, I probably won’t. Read the review, make your own decision.

 

Original Post: 3/3/2010: This is a review of Margie Haber’s Cold Reading Classes at the Margie Haber Studios.  Margie (and her teachers) offer classes on cold reading for the Los Angeles actor, although I’ve heard Margie travels around and does seminars out of LA once in a while.  Margie also has a book on cold reading and has coached countless of celebrities and work-a-day actors.

Before a review of the studio, what is a cold read?  A cold read is an audition where you are not given a huge amount of time to prepare.  Typically a cold read is an audition where you are only given the sides (short part of the script with your lines) when you show up to the audition and you aren’t given the option or time of downloading your audition materials off the internet.  The idea behind studying this technique is that you will be confronted with this scenario where you will be required to create a fully realized character and deliver lines perfectly with nothing but a few minutes to read a short section of the script.  In reality this tends to happen most of the time with commercials and even then there are not going to be many lines to learn or deep characters to create.  Still, it happens.

Let me start my (first ever) review by saying that in hindsight I think this class was pretty worthless.  When I took the class it was incredibly expensive but recommended to me by dozens of people around LA.  There are only a handful of “audition technique” teachers around Los Angeles and Margie is usually listed near the top of the heap.  This may be because of her famous clients, her book or the thousands of students she’s taught but either way she is usually one of the first ones mentioned.  Now, I’ve said this before but I think most acting classes are a waste of time.  In a future review I’ll have some nice things to say about The Groundlings but for now let’s just say I think that there are few classes in which you can learn anything useful to your career as an actor.  So there’s that problem.

Second, the quality of teaching at Margie’s is very hit and miss.  I was unfortunate to have Barbara Gannen as a teacher.  She was, bar none, the worst acting teacher I have ever experienced.  Let me explain.  Every class (except one) was run the same way.  The actors came in, were given a script to read and then sent out.  A few minutes later the actors would come in and do the script in front of a camera.  After everyone emoted we would take a short break and then watch the tape together.  The first thing Barbara did after showing the tape was to ask the class if they had any opinions on the matter.  Let me skip to my third point and then I’ll come back to the second point.   This would make more sense if I wasn’t numbering my points.

Third, there were no real standards as to what an “advanced” or “beginner” were at the studio other than having had the experience of paying huge sums of money to go through one class, then an “ongoing” class and after an amount of time be moved into a higher up class.  I was placed in the “beginner class” which sounded fine to me because I had been in LA for a few years, had a few professional gigs and had been acting much of my life but only the past few years professionally.  By any rational standpoint I was a “beginner”  in the professional world.  From what I could gather from my “beginner class” a beginner at Margie Haber’s was a person who had never acted in any capacity before (but woke up one morning and decided they would be a professional actor) or someone who had acted only in theater for a few years in high school/college.  If there were three people in that class that had ever auditioned for a professional job in their lives I’ll eat my hat.  After two classes I realized this and asked to be switched to a more advanced class.  I explained, “I know how to act, I am not being challenged or even educated at this level.”  Margie herself said, “no.”  This was the only time I talked to or even looked directly at the great Margie Haber.

Back to class.  After watching a tape of our audition Barbara would pause the tape and ask the class what was right and what was wrong.  This was a class of people who had never acted before and certainly weren’t being well paid for their opinion.  So that was a waste of time.  After the students had their say Barbara would announce what was “right” and “wrong” with these scenes.  That sounds like a point four.

Point four, she had been using the same materials for the past half-decade (at that point) and had decided exactly how each scene should be done.   I’m not saying that I’m such an amazing actor that I always take a piece someone’s seen a billion times and blow their minds with a totally new rendition but there was no wiggle room.  Often times she didn’t actually know the source of the material.  If it was a sit-com and you played it like a sit-com she’d tell you that you needed to pause dramatically at certain points because she seemed to think it was a drama.  The process would then repeat.

The little good I took out of this class were technical points.  I learned to hold much stiller than I had on my earlier auditions and saw how much the camera amplifies little shifty movements.  That’s something I could have done on my Flip.  I didn’t need to fork out hundreds of dollars for this experience.

Let me pause here and say a few wonderful things about Margie Haber’s studio, since at this point everyone must think this place is a death trap.  When I tell people these stories they all told me the same thing, “of course, Barabara is awful.  You need to take classes with Jim Gleason or Annie Grindlay.”  You’ll note from those links that both Jim and Annie have since left to coach on their own.  I know Jim personally and have met Annie before and they’re both wonderful people and anyone looking for an audition coach/technique teacher could do no better than them.  I haven’t taken classes directly from either so I can’t write full reviews, but let me say I’ve heard and experienced nothing but amazing things from them (mostly Jim, but that’s because I know him better).  Most people told me these two teachers were better than the legendary Margie herself.  Even though I took this class years ago and everyone says horrible things about Barbara, I was shocked today to find out she still works at Margie Haber’s.

At this point I could tell the story about how Barbara used “The Method” as she saw it to demand actors relive horrible memories and tragedies from their past for the benefit of a single pretend audition (where each person could only say one word) but I think I’ve made my point.  The best way to learn how to audition is to audition.  There’s no real substitute for it.  The next best thing is taping yourself auditioning and then watching it and looking for technical things you can be doing better.

Taking a class where you’re told the “right way” to audition for a part isn’t helpful to anyone.  It doesn’t allow you to learn how to figure out a script on your own for future auditions which may be the point.  All the teachers could also coach your privately for your auditions and help you make the “right choices” for a fee.  No thanks.

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