Monday, March 26, 2012

The Urge to Merge

For several months now, I've been getting emails asking if I was ever going to restart "Parts and Labor." Truthfully, I never really meant to stop writing it. I simply got incredibly busy and fell out of the habit.

As I read these very kind emails from former readers, I told myself that I would know when the time was right to re-launch. Something would eventually happen that would stir me to write the column again. Something I felt strongly about.  Today that something arrived.

You see Tuesday, March 27th is the FINAL day that the members of SAG and AFTRA can mail in their ballots on the proposed merger of the two acting unions. If you are a member of either union and if you’re ballot is still lying around your house somewhere, I beg you to mail it TODAY. And I beg you to vote YES!

Volumes have been written lately about the proposed merger. It has a long history and has failed once before, but that was before the disasterous SAG “Non-Strike” of 2008 that resulted in all future TV work moving to AFTRA. But more on that later.

In an effort to not bore you, I’m going to try to stick to the major points that still seem to be confusing or pissing off the membership. And just to make this a bit more entertaining, I’m going to categorize them a little differently in this column that you are probably used to seeing them. So here goes:

TRUTH #1:   SNOBBERY IS DEAD

Membership in SAG has always carried a certain prestige since supposedly, not just any old bum off the street could join. You had to have an actual offer of union employment to become a member of the club.  AFTRA, on the other hand, had an open door policy. All you needed was a wad of cash and a dream and you were in. Any clod could do it. This “SAG superiority” issue has always baffled me since SAG is literally filled with thousands of actors who don’t make a living from their acting. And probably never will. Some of them got in through Taft-Hartley or were grandfathered in through one of the other unions or just happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. The idea that the SAG membership is somehow more talented or better trained than AFTRA is sort of silly. Yes, SAG can claim Meryl Streep and Ryan Gossling, but it covers Pamela Anderson and Hulk Hogan. Case closed.

TRUTH #2:   NEWSCASTERS ARE NOT EVIL

Some SAG diehards are having an issue with the idea of sharing a union with newscasters. I don’t get this. AFTRA has covered both newscasters and actors for approximately 60 years with no serious problems. What’s weird about the “Newcasters aren’t Actors”argument is that SAG, in addition to covering actors, has for years covered background extras, stunt people and (when needed for SAG projects), dancers! What is now being proposed is creating one union to cover ALL ON-CAMERA PERFORMERS. There is nothing complex about this concept. In fact, if in the future we are ever forced into a strike it could be in our best interest to have such a diverse group of talent under one roof.

TRUTH #3:   WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING YET…AND THAT’S OKAY.

The current pension plans under both unions are protected under federal law. No one will lose anything. Yes, once merged, the health insurance coverage will eventually change. It will have to and hopefully it will change for the better. The best news is that once we are merged, the "split earnings" issue can be finally be addressed. This gnarly problem hits particularly close to my heart since in 2009, I worked under all three of the actors’ unions: SAG, AFTRA and Actor's Equity (the stage union). I was so happy! I truly thought I'd had a terrific year as a professional actor. That is until I discovered that because my earnings were split between 3 unions -- I had no health insurance! If the purpose of an acting union is to look after the best interest of its members, then that union should understand the basic reality of any actor’s life: You have to take the work where you can get it. You should never be penalized for being lucky.

TRUTH #4:   IT’S STUPID TO HAVE TWO UNIONS

The writers don’t have two unions. The directors don’t have two unions. Why do the actors?  This wasn’t such a big deal until recently. Up until 2008, AFTRA’s jurisdiction was pretty small and both acting unions always negotiated their contracts together. But then there was a ridiculous break between the two unions in ’08 (Don’t get me started on that!) A window opened for management to play one guild against the other, and in the resulting flurry of insanity all future television work fell into the hands AFTRA. This was definitely a win for the producers’side since AFTRA contracts are cheaper than SAG’s. Sadly, that’s done now and there’s no backing up. I, for one, no longer want to pay dues to two unions when neither is currently doing a great job for me. What’s particularly ironic about the two union system is that the working membership of these both these unions are virtually identical. We’re talking about the exact same people.

TRUTH #5:   IT’S BUSINESS

Like or not, actors are high-strung people with a certain flare for drama. Much of the membership tends to think of a union as some kind of shining beacon of hope; something to cheer them up when get that sinking feeling that they’ll never work again. But that’s not really what either SAG or AFTRA are about. What needs to be clear here is that these are labor unions; meaning they are here to assist and protect people when they are working. In order to do that, they need to keep up with the times. Personally, I’m delighted that if we merge, the AFTRA open door policy will remain in place. The more the merrier! Those initiation fees will help provide us with revenue that could perhaps be used to hire top-notch I.T. people capable of locating our always hard-to-find foreign residuals. And wouldn’t it be great if we could afford some heavy-hitting labor attorneys who could (if needed) sue the crap out of the six (six!) corporations who now control all available jobs.

IN CONCLUSION

Yes, the merger will change some stuff. Not everybody will be happy about that. That’s not just show business, it’s life. It seems to me that most of arguments against merger are mired in nostalgia for the good old days. As we just saw, the automobile industry was saved in part by the UAW acknowledging that the past (glorious though it was) is gone forever. The same wisdom will hold true for actors. There is a not-so-secret battle being waged to wipe out the whole concept of residuals. Yes, we’ve lost a little ground in the past few years, but the war is far from over and we still have quite a few excellent bargaining chips left on the table. What’s needed now is for us to play the game smartly. And in my humble opinion, nothing could be smarter than to consolidate our unions and start trying to better our future.

One thing I can absolutely guarantee is that if we do not merge, nothing will get any better.  This is the smartest idea we've come up with in a long time.  Let's not blow it!   

David Dean Bottrell is a writer and actor based in Los Angeles. DavidDeanBottrell@gmail.com

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hotel Paradiso!

Last month, I got to fly up to San Francisco with a couple of other very funny people and do a fundraiser for a kid’s summer camp. It was extremely fun and they paid for me to do one of my favorite things in the world: Stay in a hotel!

My romance with hotels began when I was very small. My ever budget-conscious father always planned our family road trips so that if an overnight stay was required, it tended to happen in the home of any obscure relative who happened to own a sofa-bed. But occasionally, when that plan game plan failed, we got to stay in a motel! To me, these joints were magical since they not only had color TV and air-conditioning (two things we did not have at home), but beds that if you put a quarter in, vibrated and gave me that same special feeling I got while sitting on the hood of a running car.

When I became a professional actor in my 20’s, I discovered that if I wanted to rack-up enough weeks of employment to qualify for unemployment, I needed to do the occasional “out-of-town” gig. This was when I was introduced to the world of real hotels that delivered clean towels and sent a nice lady up to make your bed. I loved it.

Once when I was doing a new play festival for a regional theatre in Louisville, I got assigned to a downtown “residential hotel.” I was initially thrilled since I was young and single and it was nice and close to the night club district. I then discovered that “residential hotel” was code for “low-rent senior citizen housing.” It wasn’t that bad a place, but the hallways always smelled sort of musty and there was usually an ambulance parked out front. The low point came one night when I met a cute guy about my age in one of the local clubs and invited back to my place. When we got off the elevator, we were instantly forced to plaster ourselves against the wall as an EMT crew rolled one of my neighbors down the hallway on a gurney. This had actually happened before, but this time the guy had a sheet over his face and nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. Talk about a buzz-kill.

A few years later, I was in Philladelphia doing one of those fancy costume dramas at a big theatre there. It was the holidays and most of the cast decided to head back to Manhattan for New Year’s Eve, but I was in a bad mood. I’d just broken up with my then-boyfriend and decided to sit out the holiday in our old, but nice-enough hotel in downtown Philly. The front desk guy discreetly informed me that "a big group" was arriving for the weekend and it still wasn’t too late if I wanted to catch the last train out of Dodge. When I asked what kind of group, he told me it was some sort of Asian Christian Conference. That didn’t sound so bad. Not wanting to re-pack all my stuff, I decided to stick it out on the 17th floor.

I stayed up long enough to watch the ball drop, then called it a night. I had just dozed off when I was jarred awake by the fire alarm going off. At first I tried to ignore it. Clearly this was some Asian kid’s idea of a good Christian joke. But it just kept ringing. Five minutes passed. “I’m not getting up,” I groused. Then I began to envision the headlines: “Promising Young Actor Killed in Tragic New Year’s Eve Fire.” Following standard fire drill procedure, I skipped the elevator and took the stairs. There I encountered an Asian family who were (to date) the most terrified people I’ve ever encountered in my life. “This is bullshit” I said to them in my best unconcerned voice. Unfortunately, my remark didn’t comfort them much since they spoke no English. We descended about five floors when, for a brief second, I thought I smelled something. It smelled like cigarette smoke, but it was enough to make a believer out of me. I picked up one of the smaller kids and we hauled ass down the next 12 flights as the headlines in my head began to read “Heroic Young Actor Perishes Trying to Save Asian Family.”

Finally, we reached the lobby which was jammed with angry people. I quickly noticed a few firemen criss-crossing the lobby; chatting into their walkie-talkies; none of them looking terribly concerned. Clearly, I had been right all along. Pissed-off, I abandoned my new Asian family and started the long climb back to floor 17.

The next day, word of my heroics had apparently been translated into English and I was being nodded to respectfully by every guest in the hotel. The front desk guy even sent up a thank you note along with some vouchers for free food, booze and a massage. Stuffed, drunk and being kneaded by a nice pair of strong hands, my New Year’s Day was spent happily luxuriating in everything the wonderful world of hotels had to offer. As I drifted off to sleep on the massage table, I remember thinking: If there is a Heaven, I hope it has room service.

Copyright 2011 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor and writer in Hollywood. Catch his reoccurring role on “Days of Our Lives” starting on March 23rd on NBC.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dark Angel

A few weeks ago, I was sad to read about the passing of Ellen Stewart, founder of New York’s groundbreaking La MaMa experimental theatre and one of the central figures in the creation of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement.

Since founding La MaMa in 1961, she had, over the years, nurtured the early work of playwrights like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Jean Claude Van Itallie; directors like Robert Wilson, Julie Bovasso, Tom O'Horgan, Richard Foreman, Wilford Leach and Meredith Monk; performance artists like Blue Man Group; and actors like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. In more recent years, La MaMa was the home of the plays of Amy and David Sedaris, as well as countless foreign productions hailing from everywhere from Lebanon to Croatia. The musical Godspell began at La MaMa, and Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy was developed there. But unlike Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, another downtown institution which sent many shows to Broadway, La MaMa remained firmly dedicated to the world occupied by struggling performance artists and playwrights below 14th Street.

Ms. Stewart, a striking African-American woman with a wild mane of blonde hair, was a familiar sight on East 4th Street and could often be seen sweeping the sidewalk in front of the theatre before shows. She personally introduced each performance, and endlessly hounded her audiences to shell out a few extra bucks to keep the perpetually cash-strapped theatre afloat. Ms. Stewart's tenacity was legendary having managed to keep her theatre going despite two evictions and a couple of arrests for violating the fire codes. Ever the resourceful producer, Ms. Stewart once cashed an unemployment check, then produced a play with the money.

By the time I arrived in New York in the 80’s, La MaMa was a well-established breeding ground for hip, edgy experimental work. Anything done at La MaMa had instant “coolness” attached to it. I was a na├»ve young acting student when I saw my first show at La MaMa. It was a kick-ass revival of Sam Shepard’s “Tooth of the Crime” that remains to this day one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen on a stage. A hybrid of stage play and rock concert, it's about a lethal showdown between two intergalactic rock stars. The language and lyrics are vintage Shepard – hip, pissed off, heroic, poetic, smart-mouthed and other-worldly. All of it was thrilling to a young aspiring artist like myself.

Adding to the show’s sense of danger, it was performed on a steeply raked stage that constantly threatened to dump the actors (one of whom was on roller skates!) into our laps. It was heart-stoppingly exciting. I remember coming home that night and writing feverishly in my journal about how inspired, yet intimidated I felt by the performance I’d witnessed. Could I ever be that fearless? Could I ever generate that kind of electricity? To these artists, only the moment mattered. It was theatre as “experience.” It was art like I’ve never seen it before. It was perfection.

So imagine how excited I was when my laidback, “downtown” friend, Marty called and said “Hey, you want to be in this show at La MaMa? They’re looking for people.” Marty told me where to be and when. I showed up early and waited. After an hour, I called Marty. “Oh yeah. That rehearsal was cancelled. It’s tomorrow at four. I think. Can you make it?” This was the beginning of my short adventure with a show that (I think) was called “Dark Angel.”
The reason I’m a little fuzzy on that detail is that (like every other aspect of the show) the title tended to change from day to day.

“Dark Angel” was actually just a workshop. The plan was for us to "develop” the material and when we felt it was ready, perform it for Ms. Stewart. If she liked us, we would then get a shot at doing a full production on one of La MaMa’s three stages. I played one of a pack of crazed “street angels” that swooped across the stage every once in a while, singing or chanting or screaming while the main angel contemplated the best way to save mankind. If that sounds a little vague, so was the show.

In the three weeks I worked on it, I never quite understood what we were doing. Our cast members (many of whom seemed to be just people pulled off the street) came and went daily. No one ever seemed to have a current copy of the script and we spent a lot of time talking about how we felt. Our leading man would suffer at least one big weepy meltdown per rehearsal that required a big group hug from the rest of the cast. Never having done this sort of work before, it was hard for me to measure my progress as an angel. I felt my singing was as good as the other Seraphim, but sensed that my writhing and hair-pulling lacked conviction. Then one morning, I got the call. “Ellen is ready to see the show” I was told. I raced down to East 4th Street, wondering if we were ready to do the show for Ellen. When I arrived at the rehearsal studio, she was already there. Enveloping us in her warm, regal presence, she gathered us together and expressed her great excitement about the work we were about to do.

With Ms. Stewart's blessing upon us, we dove headlong into our performance; leaping, lunging, rolling, singing and screaming our way through what could best be described as a loose-knit presentation. I couldn’t stop myself from occasionally stealing little glances at Ms. Stewart, who was giving us her utmost attention. The expression on her face seemed to suggest that every moment of "Dark Angel" was rich, beautiful and positively stank with meaning.

At the conclusion of our performance, we all sat cross-legged at Ms. Stewart’s feet where she praised our courage and passion as artists and said a few other vague, but encouraging things. We were then dismissed while she gave her more specific notes to the creators of the show. Stepping out into the sunshine, I lit a cigarette. I felt exhilarated. I sort of doubted that this particular show would ever come together, but I had screamed and rolled across the stage of La MaMa. I was an artist. Nobody could ever take that away from me.

Although my plan to become one of the leading lights of the New York theatre took a slight detour when I moved to Los Angeles, my respect for those who made art out of life (and a life out of art) has never ebbed. Ms. Stewart’s achievement was even more remarkable when you consider that she was both black and a woman when there were few leaders in the theatre who were either. Her influence was so far-ranging that, in 1993, she was inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame, the first Off-Off-Broadway Producer to be so honored. She also was given a special Tony Award in 2006. To date, La MaMa has been honored with over 30 Obie Awards.

There are some people who seem sent here just to inspire us; to remind us that if you’ve got the guts, life can be lived like a poem. In 1985, the MacArthur Foundation gave Ms. Stewart one of their $300,000 "Genius" Awards with no strict stipulations attached. Ellen could have used the money to remodel her apartment (which was upstairs from her theatre). She could have bought a BMW, a house in the country or an extremely long vacation. Instead, she used it to buy a former monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turn it into an international theatre center. I absolutely love her for that. Rest in peace, Ms. Stewart. It was a job well done.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

You Kill Me

I was 20 minutes late when I arrived at the theatre. It was a small joint carved out of an old retail space and the metal door squeaked loudly as I pulled it open. Inside, seven latecomers and an usher turned and stared disapprovingly. About twenty feet in front of us, the first performer was already on stage. The producer of this particular "spoken word" show (who I'd told I was going to be late) grabbed my arm and whispered my instructions. When the current performer finished, I was to scurry down the aisle past the MC and drop into my seat in the front row. I complied. Once there, I discreetly opened the program and discovered that I was the last performer on the bill. My heart sank.

As anybody in show business can tell you, the last performer is the one the producer is hoping will “bring it home.” It’s sort of the star spot and the pressure is on to “kill.” I began to feel a little anxious. The piece I was planning to read was very personal and didn’t feel like a real “killer.” Plus, I’d had a busy week and felt a little under-rehearsed. I tried to focus on the show. It was a great line-up with no stinkers. Several of the pieces were awesome; full of originality and self-exposure. Finally, only one piece remained before mine. The writer-performer, who was blessed with a ton of quirky charm, started reading his offbeat and stylized story. The guy was hilarious. Suddenly, the audience seemed to consist entirely of his personal fan club. He was “killing.” I was fucked.

I originally got into the spoken word circuit because several readers of this blog suggested that I submit one of my columns to “Sit ‘N Spin;” one the granddaddy shows on the spoken word circuit. Since it began 10 years ago, SNS has sort of become a rowdy clubhouse for some of the craziest, funniest people in L.A. The shows are always edgy, honest and funny as hell. The audience is about 90% comedy writers and stand-ups. They’re super smart – which is great because you can do really complex, subtle stuff and they’ll get it. They’re also a tough crowd, so you have to bring your best game. They don’t give out a lot of pity laughs at Sit ‘N Spin.

The first time I read at SNS, my piece was okay. I maimed, but I didn’t kill. Then a couple of months later, I got a call from the producer. Some bastard had cancelled at the last minute. Could I step in on very short notice? The timing was perfect. I’d just finished a piece about a rotten experience I’d had “speed dating” that I thought was a scream. The night of the show, the comedy Jesus was with me and I killed. Since then I’ve performed many times at SNS. Some nights I’ve slayed them. Some nights, I’ve left a small stain on the stage. But no matter what happens during the show, everybody always goes out to a bar afterward where we all get drunk and tell each other how hilarious we were. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life and I treasure my SNS family. They’re the best.

This however was not the Sit ‘N Spin show. I didn’t know this crowd. As I sat watching the quirky guy rack up his 800th laugh, I began to feel queasy about my piece. It was about acute personal desperation - a subject I am very knowledgeable about. It had seemed sort of funny before. Maybe I should put back those two jokes I’d cut out. My mouth felt a little dry.

Then, a little nugget of hard-earned wisdom dropped into place with a hard clink. It was too late to worry about it. The piece was what it was. All I could do was man up and tell the story I’d come here to tell. The MC gave me a gracious introduction. I strolled to the music stand. I looked up at the crowd and smiled.

A spoken word show is not quite stand-up comedy. It’s not quite NPR. It’s not quite theatre. It’s somebody’s story told to a crowd of strangers. Somehow, if you manage to give them the perfect amount of cleverly-observed details mixed in with a healthy dose of blistering truth, they’ll love you. They’ll laugh or they’ll listen with a soundless intensity that can make your skin tingle. The most successful performers on this circuit are the ones who manage to scare you a little while making you pee your pants laughing. The only way you can score in this arena is to be utterly yourself. Nothing less.

Lights in my eyes. My piece on the music stand in front of me. I take a deep breath and look up. Smile. Talk. Set-up. Punch line. Joke. Boom! A nice healthy laugh. We’re off to a great start. They like me. Big Smile. The next joke is more personal. It lands. Apparently, it’s my night. Making a long story short…I killed. Not only did I kill, I was a killing machine. It was a comedy bloodbath.

I wish I could tell you that I “kill” every time I read, but I don’t. It’s one of the small miracles of show business -- those nights when it all comes together; when you can do no wrong. It’s ten minutes of comedy ecstasy. It’s better than heroin and twice as addictive. It feels better than anything you’ve ever done. Laughter fixes people. Always has. Always will.

So, if you happen to be free tonight, I’m performing in a yet another spoken word show at the Road Theatre. I’m reading that story about speed dating. Stop by. I can't promise that I'll kill, but I'm definitely going for attempted murder.

Fundraiser / Spoken Word Show
MELT IN YOUR MOUTH
Monday, November 22
8 PM
The Road Theatre
5108 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Suggested Donation: $20.00
818 761 8838

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Don’t Clap For Me, Argentina!

The first time I ever appeared on stage was in a high school play. I was at the time, a nerdy, nervous 15 year-old with bad skin who had only auditioned because of a terrible crush I had on a fellow cast member. As our opening night performance neared its end, I felt hugely relieved just to have just gotten through it without forgetting any of my lines. Finally, the last bit of dialogue was uttered and the stage lights blacked-out. As rehearsed, we scurried into our positions for the curtain call. Suddenly, the lights snapped back on and for the first time that evening I found myself face-to-face with the audience. I’d been told by my drama teacher to ignore the audience during the play, but now we were acknowledging them. We were looking right at them. And they were looking back at us and clapping. I suddenly felt flushed with embarrassment. I didn't think I'd been terribly good in the play and felt I had no right to be accepting this applause.

After the show, my family and a few of my geeky friends said many flattering and totally untrue things about my performance. I nodded and mumbled my "thank you’s," but it was awkard. I wanted to believe what they were saying, but knew in my heart they were lying just to be nice. Then, as I was climbing into my family’s battered Impala, an extremely shy girl from my Algebra class rushed up and slipped me a note. I stuck it in my pocket and didn’t remember to read it until late that night. In the note, she said that I was very good in the play and had “real talent.” I must have re-read that note fifty times before I went to bed that night. It thrilled me to my core; mostly because it had come from someone who was basically a stranger. To my 15 year-old ego, it was the equivalent of a rave review in the New York Times. As I drifted off to sleep, the words “real talent” rang in my ears like wedding bells. Maybe I would audition for the next play.

I did audition for the next play. And the one after that. High school plays became college plays. College plays turned into summer stock. Summer stock evolved into high-prestige, low paying New York theatre. Throughout this journey one thing remained constant: my fear of curtain calls and my inability to accept anyone’s praise. Acting in itself, felt safe. While performing, I had the protection of pretending to be a character. However, once the show was over, it was just plain old me standing up there. I knew I was supposed to enjoy this moment, but it always felt like somebody had just yanked open the shower curtain at a particularly inopportune moment.

I marveled at the actors who could embrace the crowd. I once worked with a Tony-Winner who used to throw up her arms like Eva Peron and acknowledge the cheers of her fans. Once when I was a young actor, I ducked out the back of a theater to avoid seeing friends who’d come to see me. I felt like the show hadn’t gone well and couldn’t bear the idea of forcing them to say nice (and untrue) things to me. They were, of course, extremely pissed-off since they had waited to say hello to me and let me know about it the next day. It was the last time I made that mistake. With performance comes responsibility.

For years, I wondered if my fear of face-to-face praise was rooted in my religious upbringing. Proverbs 16:18 (“Pride goeth before a fall”) is a little gem that has haunted me my entire life; the general idea being that God only favors those who never acknowledge their talents or successes; only their failures and shortcomings. In the Kentucky of my youth, the one thing you never wanted to be accused of was being “too big for your britches.” This was a fate worse than death; a slow execution by ridicule.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not actually opposed to praise. I like it. Frankly, I need it. Being a creative artist requires guts and often the only reason I can stick my neck out again is because the last time I did it somebody was kind enough to say “Good job, David.”

I wish I could say that this issue has resolved itself over time, but sadly, it hasn't. Last week, I appeared on a TV show and received many more compliments than I'd expected. Although part of me was delighted that all these people took the time to call or post a comment on my Facebook page, I was so also slightly mortified. My new manager sent me a lovely email that (as opposed to being gushy) was smart and observant. I read it proudly and then instantly thought to myself “Well, she’s my manager. What else could she say? That I sucked?” So, perhaps there might be a little work yet to be done on this issue.

At the risk of sounding egotistical, I actually do believe I have "real" talent. When given the chance to work, I take it seriously and try to deliver. Do I deserve a little applause? Of course, I do. We all do. Many of us creative types grow up hovering on the fringe of things; the observer along for the ride. When we discover that all of that stored-up information can be crafted into some kind of art, it’s a revelation. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we’re the class clown. The girl who can sing. The ballsy truth-teller. It’s a little taste of the most seductive idea on the planet: that people can transform themselves. No wonder people like to praise artists - We perpetuate the idea that the audience too can change.

Performance is a comfortable coat. It’s warm and it keeps out the elements. Having to hang it up and face your fans on their terms is, for many of us, a bit awkward and unsettling. But being a performer also means being willing to be "seen" - thoroughly, truthfully, warts and all. That's not always an easy thing to do, but it's necessary; especially if you want to improve your game. I know I'm not alone in my phobia. There are plenty like me. It's ironic that so many artists, who took this path because of a deep desire to be acknowledged for their talent, try to avoid experiencing it. Take a bow, Hollywood. You've earned it.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, November 7, 2010

As Seen on TV

About a year ago, I came out of “theatrical" retirement to act in a play here in Los Angeles. During the run I was interviewed by a local arts reporter who asked which medium I like better, theatre or TV and why. It was an easy question to answer “Theatre," I said. "Because I can do it without ever having to watch it.”

Contrary to popular belief, not all actors are in love with their own images. When I’m acting on stage, I get to flatter myself that not only is the acting going well, but that I also look good doing it. Plus there is the instant gratification quotient. If the ticket buyers laugh, I'm funny. If they're are absolutely silent, I'm compelling. If they're coughing a lot and dropping their programs, I suck.

I also genuinely like working for a camera, but it’s a very different beast. Since there's no audience, your focus is entirely on creating the most truthful, intimate scene possible with just the other actors involved. The camera gets nice and close to the action and trick to it is to remember that it’s not there to judge you, but to simply record the proceedings. It can be a wonderful experience, especially with a good director at the helm.

However, unlike stage acting, where you have a great deal of personal control over your work, in TV and film you ultimately have none. In the end, your performance will be constructed in the editing room and all decisions as to which takes to use will be made by the director and editor. As any working actor can tell you, some takes are better than others and it can be a little jarring when you discover that some of your less favorite ones have been used to create the performance the audience will finally see. Sometimes, when I see myself on screen, I want to scream, hide my head between my knees and withdraw from both SAG and AFTRA. Other times, I’m pleased and often wonder if my ass was saved by a smart, talented editor.

A few years ago, I was called to an editing bay to assist a friend of mine who had directed a small feature and had experienced terrible problems with one of his actors. Not having been present during the shooting, I can’t say what went wrong, but the actor seemed to trying awfully hard to be quirky and adorable (and was instead coming off as twitchy and delusional). Slowly we sorted through his takes, looking for the ones where he seemed a little calmer. We added a lot of cut-aways” to his co-star and by the end of the day, his big scene was clicking and the actor seemed surprisingly funny and charming. My advice: If you end up liking your performance, don’t forget to thank the director and the editor.

My other problem with TV and film work is sort of an embarrassing one. I know I’m a character actor, but there is still a small part of me that expects to look like James Franco on camera. That’s yet to happen, but hope springs eternal. Most of the time, I’m okay with my appearance, but occasionally a shot will flash up on screen and I’ll be completely mortified by what I see. Is that really how I look? Is my voice that irritating? Is my posture that bad? And look at those bags under my eyes!!

Obviously, all these problems could be avoided by simply never watching any of the camera work I do. There’s no law that says I have to watch. Technically, when the scene is finished shooting, my job is done. My problem is that part of what has always driven me to be an artist is a desire to get better at my job. And I can’t get better if I don’t take a look at the work once in a while.

Fortunately, I've learned a few tricks over the years to lessen the horror. The first is to, if at all possible, have at least one glass of wine beforehand and to avoid watching my work when there is someone else in the room. The second is to watch it again at some later date, since the first time is always (without exception) going to be traumatic. Don't get me wrong. I actually love acting and I’m proud that I have a job that allows me to entertain people, but it’s also a job that can sometimes leave me feeling a little vulnerable or embarrassed – sort of like being caught romping around in your Halloween costume on Easter.

About a year ago, I watched Johnny Depp being interviewed on the David Letterman show. He is one of my favorite actors of all time and I particularly like the fact that he is a fellow Kentuckian. I’d never actually seen him interviewed other than on press junkets where he’s plugging a film. Assuming what he said was true, it was sort of fascinating to find out that he basically protects himself from the pressures of Hollywood by (A.) Not living here. (B.) Only watching films made during Hollywood’s Golden Era in the 30s and 40s and (C.) Never watching his own films. Letterman seemed suspicious and questioned him as to why he had chosen to be a movie star if he didn’t like watching his films. His reply was interesting. “I love everything about filmmaking. I love the personalities; the process of it. I just don’t like seeing myself up on screen. It creeps me out. I mean…that’s ‘me’ up there.” His answer seemed genuine and it made me like him even more. How nice to discover that Johnny and I have more in common than just stunningly high cheek bones and a rustic place of birth.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

And in keeping with the theme of this entry… I've got a very fun cameo role on “Castle” Monday, Nov. 8th, 10 pm EST /9 pm Central on ABC. I’ll be home drunk, so don’t call.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Star Baby!

I was anxiously looking over my bills when the phone rang. Someone was calling me via their cell phone and it was a very bad connection. “David, it’s Ogger,” a friendly, but very scratchy voice said. “Hi!” I replied, not knowing who I was talking to. “Gotta a client who needs some coaching. She’s right here. Part of a competition. Have her call you?” Clearly, whoever “Ogger” was, he was a busy man who only spoke in sentence fragments. “Sure!” I replied as I stared at my unpaid Am-Ex bill. “Have her call me!” Then “Ogger” finished by saying, “She’s the most adorable 11 year-old you’ll ever meet.”

Had “Ogger’s” cell phone connection not broken, I probably would have told him that I don’t coach children. It’s not that I don’t like children. I do. Very much, in fact. But children in show business are a different breed. More specifically, their parents are. In my experience, there is nothing scarier, or more disturbing than a parent who thinks their child has talent.

A day or two passed before a lovely, polite woman with a West Indies accent named Bernice called. She was the mother of Ariel, who was in need of some dramatic coaching on a couple of monologues she had prepared for an international children’s talent competition about to be held here in Burbank, California. Bernice, Ariel and her little sister, Tihara had travelled all the way from their home just outside London to participate in the competition. Was I free to work with Ariel tomorrow?

I decided the best way to get out of this was to price myself out of the running, so I took my usual hourly coaching rate (the one I charge for adults) and doubled it. Bernice thought that was fine, asked to book two hours of my time and inquired as to what time they should arrive.

The following day, Bernice, Ariel and baby Tihara (a stocky three-year old) showed up at my door. They were very apologetic about being only a few minutes late and explained that they were traveling around Los Angeles via taxi. Apparently, Bernice didn’t drive. I instantly felt bad for them since commuting via taxi in L.A. meant they were spending a small fortune. Once we were settled in, Bernice explained that Ariel was representing Great Britain in every category of this competition (Singing, Dancing, Acting and Spokesmodel). My job was to spruce up her monologues, of which she had four (comedic, dramatic, character & contestant’s choice). Curious about the competition, I asked a few questions. Bernice began to explain the rules and regulations of this prestigious event.

Apparently, there was an initial fee to apply, followed by an processing fee, followed by an acceptance fee which then put you in the same breathing space as many powerful agents, casting directors and talent executives – all of whom were desperately looking for the next big child star. However, if you wanted them to actually watch your child perform, there were more fees to be paid. In fact, every category had a fee. Plus, if you wanted your child to have more than 60 seconds in front of the judges, you had to pay for that time as well. It was a total racket. My heart went out to Bernice who was beaming with pride that her daughter was about to be seen by so many big time Hollywood star-makers.

I glanced over at Ariel. She was a radiant little girl, virtually bursting with enthusiasm. I asked her if she was ready to start. She was. Ariel tore into first monologue with fierce energy and lots of hand gestures. Between the speed she was going and her British accent, I only understood about a third of it. Since this was not a cheerleading competition, I tried to gradually reduce the number of hand gestures someone had clearly taught her and suggested that she might start thinking of each of her monologues as more of a story that she was telling to the audience. Ariel, in addition to being adorably cute, was extremely smart, and I could see her excitement rise each time she grasped one of the ideas I offered her. Every time Ariel make an improvement, Bernice who was seated beside me, would quickly scribble down a few notes about what I had said. While watching her daughter, Bernice would sometimes unconsciously roll her lips in and bite them to contain her joy. Tihara, meanwhile, had gotten a little bored and was busy destroying a few of my magazines.

Despite my offering, Ariel never wanted to take a break. She loved performing. Finally she launched into her fourth monologue which sounded vaguely familiar. I then realized that Ariel was playing legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee from the musical “Gypsy.” After she finished, I felt compelled to ask if mother or daughter was familiar with the Ms. Lee or the musical. They were not and had found the monologue on the internet and thought it was a good match for Ariel. “Can you tell me please…What is this ‘Burlesque?’” asked Bernice in her lovely Jamaican accent. I cleared my throat. “Well, Bernice…” I began, “It was a form of live entertainment where comedians told jokes to the audience and then women came out… and sort of danced to the music while removing their clothes.” Bernice’s face went blank. So did mine when I saw over her shoulder that Tihara was about to pull one my plants down on her head – which she did.

Once Tihara stopped crying and the mess was cleaned up, I assured Bernice that “Gypsy,” the character her daughter would be playing, had revolutionized the Burlesque industry by not taking her clothes off, but instead performing behind large feathered fans, etc. Bernice looked relieved. I told her that the material was not considered racy here in the States and would be fine for the competition. Secretly, I wondered how many ambitious little girls would be playing strippers, junkies or prostitutes in the competition tomorrow.

Over all, Ariel was a pro. Not only was she talented, but she was very charming to watch. When I asked her to perform all four of her monologues back-to-back at the end of the session, she didn’t forget a single note I had given her. The child was an entertainment machine. It was time for Bernice to pay me. As she counted out the bills into my hand, I felt horribly guilty. These sweet people were clearly being taken for a ride by the event promoters and part of me wanted to hand the money back to Bernice. Bernice, however was delighted with what I’d been able to achieve with Ariel in such a short time. “You are so much better than her teacher in New York?” “New York?” I inquired. I then learned that for the last two years, Bernice and Ariel had been flying from London to New York once a month so Ariel could have a short lesson with an acclaimed children’s acting teacher there. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad. I folded the bills and tucked them into my pocket. “I’m sure Ariel is going to dazzle them tomorrow,” I said. I shook Ariel’s hand and reminded her that the most important thing she could do tomorrow was to not worry about the judges or any of the other contestants and to have a great time! “You’re very good, Ariel,” I said, “And no matter what happens tomorrow, you’ll always be very good.” She beamed and thanked me for my help.

Two days later, I got a call from Bernice. Ariel had gotten second place in the singing competition and “honorable mention” in the acting division. Plus she had been approached by two agents and a manager. Bernice nervously asked if I knew anything about them. I didn’t. I could hear the anxiety in her voice. I told her that all she had to do was go to these meetings and see what they had to say. I told her to ask lots of questions and not be shy. I also urged her to particularly ask about any and all financial arrangements. “Oh…okay,” she said quietly. I heard a little scratching noise as she added that piece of advice to her ever-expanding notes. I suddenly felt bad for Bernice. Reality was beginning to set in. I suspected that the dream of Ariel making it big in Hollywood was starting to look awfully expensive and complicated. I also knew it was her unwavering love for her daughter that had taken them this far. “All she wants to do is perform in front of people, Bernice,” I offered. “She can do that anywhere. She has her whole life in front of her.” “I guess you’re right,” answered Bernice tentatively and sighed. “We’ll go. We’ll see what they say. Right?” “Right,” I answered. Then there was a small crash in the background and Bernice had to go. Her younger daughter, Tihara (who I suspect might have a big career ahead of her in women’s wrestling) had just knocked over a lamp in their hotel room.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/


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