Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Magic Potion

On Friday I attended an all day conference hosted by the film actors' union here in Toronto, ACTRA. I had signed up for one panel discussion and a workshop, both on the subject of auditioning.

Now I know a fair bit about auditioning, having taken courses on the subject, and also heck just plain auditioned a fair bit. I feel quite confident about the activity, and even enjoy doing them. So I didn't really learn anything new. But I was quite pleased to discover, or at least be reminded of, that even the most successful of actors still go through periods of no work, and yes, still have to audition. Sitting listening to these actors speak, I also felt like I belonged, like I hadn't made the wrong choice to pursue acting, despite the insecurity one can sometimes feel from all the rejection.

So I am very glad I went, and there were one or two small things I hadn't known about the process that were also quite interesting to hear about.

Then, later that day, I was on one of my usual writing forums at home and a thread was started discussing the nature of query letters. It had less to do with the typical, "How does one write a query letter" and more to do with "Why do we follow a certain formula when writing query letters". It was far more philosophical than practical, in other words. Many people weighed in with excellent advice, but I couldn't help but feel we were all overthinking the issue a bit much.

Having just been at that acting conference discussing auditions, and having had one yesterday, and also having also gone through the querying process myself, and being rejected by all but one agency, I decided that I wanted to post my thoughts on the process.

The fact is, there is simply no magic potion that will get you an agent (acting or literary) or get you the work (acting or literary). You can follow all the guidelines down to the letter and not hear a peep from anyone, and meanwhile some person you know will do everything "wrong" and become a huge success.

There is simply no tried tested and true method.

So what on earth are we supposed to do? It's maddening reading the stories from successful authors or actors on how they got to where they are today, because each story is different. We can drive ourselves to distraction trying to extrapolate that one universal thread of truth found within each tale of glory.

Yes, there are certain things you can do that will be unlikely to be frowned on. Show up on time to the audition, be polite, put in the work ahead of time, memorise your lines. Write a grammatically correct query letter. Double check the spelling, especially of the agent/editor's name. Make your story sound exciting and fresh.

And above all, in both cases, be yourself.



Be myself.

Myself which is so confused as to what myself should do or what myself should be that myself is just that blithering crazy person in the corner? Is that the myself to whom you are referring?

It ain't easy my friends. It ain't easy.

But I am afraid the "myself" factor . . . that's the key.

So this is what I have gleaned. Partially from my success in the writing world, and partially in my . . . not as great success (yet) . . . in the acting world.

In the end, dude, you have to find what works for you.

Listen to the advice. Listen to all of it. Read the stories, watch the interviews, be a sponge and absorb it all. Hmm . . . wrong metaphor. Don't be a sponge, be a sieve. Let the information pass through you, let it register, and then catch the larger bits that make the most sense to you. Those bits that work for your personality. That honours who you are. Steal the good stuff, and let the other stuff just go away.

It'll take a few tries to find what suits you best. And, while you're trying, people who don't like the method you chose will try to convince you to do something else. They could be right, they could be wrong. Just let it pass through you and see if anything remains.

But don't look for the magic potion. It doesn't exist. It would be nice if it did. But it doesn't. There simply is no one way, no one path, to achieving our dreams. It's what makes each of our journeys special. Would you really want to walk down a path with everyone else? It would be crowded, and you wouldn't be able to see anything except the other people around you. What about the sights man, what about the sights?!

Look, this whole acting/writing thing is really hard. And what sucks even more is that the kind of people who tend to be drawn to the arts tend to be more emotional, more empathetic, tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves more obviously than the average Joe. So not only do we have a really tough road ahead of us, we feel the pain all the more acutely (not meaning to diss other people and other jobs. Again, sweeping generalisation here.).

But don't let all the white noise confuse you. You can only do what works for you, not what worked for someone else. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut. Be open to advice, but protect your heart.

Advice in the arts tends to be very impractical. You try taking a voice class. Seriously. "There is a fire in your belly and the smoke is slowly moving up your throat . . . " You learn everything by friggin' metaphor. And the reason you learn everything by friggin' metaphor is because the teacher is trying so darn hard to find one universal way to teach an entire class something very personal, something that you can't see, something visceral. You've got to give them serious props, that is so not easy.

Anyway, advice in the arts is impractical. It is the best someone can do at the moment. And so, this is very important, one must learn not to look at the words, but rather to look at the spirit of the advice. Really that's a good idea in general I think. Don't get wrapped up in the technicalities.

Just remember to be practical. Be professional. Be thoughtful.

And yes.

Be yourself.


Unknown said...

Which is very hard when authors and actors spend most of the time trying to be someone else!

Janna Leadbetter said...

My thoughts lately have run parallel with the points you made in this post. There are SO many factors that figure into what determines a writer's success, such that there's no one way to handle any single aspect. Of course the writing has to be worthy, but, somedays, it may have more to do with the mood you catch the agent or editor in. Bah! It makes the whole shebang even more overwhelming than it is to begin with.

Best of luck with your successes, past and present!

Heidi the Hick said...

Wow, this is timely! I just whipped up a totally new query for my book. Five people have read it: two thought it was there, three thought it was almost there but needed a few scribbles on it. (And they all had a few good bits of input.)

So I'm driving along in the dark on the way home from writers group and I'm wondering...


It's a bizarre job interview/ audition that requires imagination, grammatical skills and luck. Maybe psychic ability, I don't know... but it's not a perfect science, is it?

I love it that you said you got rejected by all the literary agents but one. It only takes one, eh?

Good post, my dear. Your timing, for me, is excellent!

ps did you watch the Oscars????

God said...

Ah...I'm going to print this post and put it next to my computer so that when I'm FINALLY ready to query my newest 'baby' I'll have your words of inspiration right...there...

Thanks for this post. It's so nice to see success hasn't changed the Adrienne we all know and love!

Erin said...

This is a really really great post. For instance, right now I feel like when I act, I just do my own thing. My fear is - workshops and classes. I know the importance of those, and what's more, I have the desire to take them, in order to learn more...but I'm afraid that all the teachers will have different methods, and that I will work at things that must be 'the right way' and then realize years later that it's not the right way for me, at all. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

That's such good advice - especially against the tide of formulaic tips that are out there. Thanks, Adrienne.

Anonymous said...

Is 'alex and the ironic gentleman' becoming a movie?

ORION said...

Yup you got it! It's really the premise and quality of writing and the presence of the actor- the query/audition just gets your foot in the door...

Sandra Cormier said...

I remember watching Carrie Fisher's audition for Star Wars: A New Hope. Other actresses repeated the same lines, but she delivered them in her own special way.

The same can be said for queries. The formula may be similar, but the words are arranged in such a way that the writer's voice shines through. It might work for some agents, but not for others.

Such is the magic of artistic endeavours like acting, writing and visual arts.

Adrienne said...

sue - lol! exactly!

janna - a lot does have to do with luck, but we have to be ready for when the luck hits. And try not to drive ourselves crazy in the meantime!

heidi - I am so glad the post was as timely as it was! And yes I totally watched the Oscars! I don't care if it was the lowest ratings wise in years, I thought it was brilliant! And my boyfriend, Jon Stewart, was genuinely funny and amazing. One of the best Oscars I've seen in a long time. And I won the Oscar pool at the party I was at! Bonus!

thomas - it's really cool when I write something, just something I'm thinking about and feeling a little frustrated about, and it actually inspires someone else. That is truly flattering, thank you.

erin - I totally get your fear. But you HAVE to take classes. Not just to learn the skills, which is necessary especially in theatre, but also they are so much fun! Just keep in the back of your mind that there is no perfect method. Try everything, and keep what works for you! You'll be just fine hon!

dj - thanks so much!

anonymous - no it isn't, not yet. But because my American publishers are the Weinsteins, and because they have in my contract first refusal rights on making it into a movie, that got translated all around the web as that a movie was being made. Trust me, if that ever happens, you lovely readers will be the first to know!

orion - yup, in the end, it's all about the quality of the work.

chumplet - I've seen that audition too! Really cool. And you are right, it's just about a certain something. And I do believe most every author/actor (at least serious author/actor) has a certain something, but it's about finding the right director/agent who likes that something. If that makes sense. . .

LindaBudz said...

I think that advice can apply not just to query letters but to writing in general. You have to be a sieve when you read your critique group's comments ... then make the changes that ring true, but don't revise stuff just because someone else thinks you should.

Thanks for a great post, Adrienne.