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