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Give Yourself Credit for Showing Up

Comedy, acting, and improv can be a hard business. There are so many disappointments and so much rejection that we often forget to give ourselves credit for even showing up. I know I do.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been out with a group of friends and someone will have a piece of good new to share like, “I had an audition for a TV show,” and I will start clapping for them in the middle of some crowded breakfast restaurant. They’ll glare at me for a couple of seconds and then snap back, “Don’t clap. I didn’t get the part!”

Like most things, I used to take that personally, but now it just makes me sad because it’s how I think, too. If we don’t get the results that we wanted, then there’s no need to celebrate. God forbid we give ourselves credit for just getting the audition in the first place. We all know that’s not good enough. Deep down we hate ourselves, and if we are not perfect then we don’t even deserve to live. (Ok, maybe a little dramatic, but it’s honestly how I think sometimes.)

The good news is I am changing. Let’s blame it on me becoming a father, but I am starting to see my own progress. I am becoming gentler on myself thanks to my daughter. In fact, since we had Betsy, I am starting to like myself even more. I kiss her chubby little cheeks and say I love her 100 times a day, and that stuff seems to be rubbing off on me. It has disrupted the negative messages in my head.

The other day, I had a big audition for NBC’s Chicago Med. It was five scenes, which for a Chicago actor is like getting three-picture deal. I showed up. It was not one of my best auditions, but it wasn’t terrible. As of the writing of this blog, I have not gotten a call back and today, that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Usually I am pile of nerves before, during and after an audition. In this case, I wasn’t. I was unusually calm. Typically after an audition I am filled with shame and despair and beat myself up on the ride home until I go to bed that night. I am not going to lie; even this time, I had tinges of shame, which I fought off like a winter cold, and the negative messages seemed to evaporate like snowflakes landing on the warm cement. (How is that that last sentence of writing? Pretty impressive, huh?)

But here is the best part: Even though it was just an ok audition by my “high standards,” I actually felt proud of myself for showing up and happy that I got to perform. I felt so good, it was equivalent to going to three hours of group therapy. I was on new kind of performance high, the kind that usually only come from a killer show or when I actually land a TV or film part. Not this time. The good feeling came from just showing up and doing the best I could on that day. Some would say that is acceptance. Some would call this serenity. I don’t care what you call it, I liked the feeling. And for me, this is progress, huge progress, and I believe it will lead to more opportunities and an overall better life for me, my new family and even for my friends who get annoyed when I clap at their good news.

Want to expand your improv horizons? Sign up for Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 22. Only $259 if you sign up by Feb. 8!

What To Do When You Choke in Auditions

If you have been doing improv for a while you will eventually get a chance to audition for some pretty cool stuff. Stuff you will really want to get. It may be for a Harold team, or a show, or if you’re lucky, even bigger things like a role on TV or film. Some stuff you will get and some you will have the opportunity to choke — you know, blow it, bomb, stink up the room.

Why do we choke in auditions? There are a million reasons. All I know is it cannot be avoided. It’s real. It exists. When it happens, it’s as painful as getting your hand slammed in the car door. The point is, it hurts.

When (not if) you choke, the goal is to feel your feelings and not let it ruin the rest of your day, the rest of your week, or in severe cases, the rest of your life. I cannot believe I am going to say this, but I am actually getting better at dealing with both choking and the aftermath.

Last month, I had a big audition for me. It was for two lines as shlubby drug dealer for the NBC show Chicago PD.   Because it was  for a network TV shows, and  I get scared whenever I audition for this particular casting director, and  I knew there was a good chance I was going to choke.

Even though I had over rehearsed the lines in the front of the mirror in the bathroom at my house and on the L on the way downtown, it didn’t seem to make a difference.

When I got into the audition room and stood in front of the camera, my breathing stopped and my heart rate increased. I was light headed and could not feel my hands. The casting director read the script and gave me my cue. That’s when I went blank. Deer-in-the- head-lights-blank.

Trying to recover, I stated the obvious, “I am drawing a blank.” (Remember, this was two lousy lines for Christ’s sake!) The casting director read the lines I was supposed to say out loud before she gave me another try. On the second take, I forced the lines out of my mouth, which by this time had gone dry. In terms of performance, I had clearly choked, and this time it only took two lines to do so. I had broken my old record.

Here is where the story gets good. Sure, I felt shame and fear that I would never be called back in, but they weren’t at my usual toxic levels. And just as the negative voices started in my head — “You’re a bad actor,” “You need to quit” — they were interrupted by one gentle thought: “How about you just got nervous?”

I have been auditioning for close to 25 years and choking for way more than that, and I have NEVER had that kind of thought. The truth is, I’m not a bad actor. I have gotten my fair share of parts on network TV shows and major studio movies when they come to Chicago, and some have been larger parts then what I just auditioned/choked for, so to say I am bad actor was a lie.

What was true was I got nervous. I actually knew the lines, and once again, I psyched myself out. It was also clear that what I need to do next time is to take care of myself and calm my nerves.

What surprised me was how kind I was to myself under these circumstances. I do not have the reputation for being particularly nice to myself, especially when I think I  fuck up. Not only did I realize that being kind to myself stopped my shame spiral, but also I realized that I might actually be getting better. The whole aftermath of choking lasted a matter of minutes when it normally would last days, sometimes weeks. Now the only thing that scares me now is what am I going to do with all of this free time?

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Trust your instincts

I used to think when I auditioned for parts on TV shows and films that I could tell right away if I got them. Thank God, I’ve lost that the superpower (though I never really had in the first place). First of all, sometimes you will have killer auditions, and for circumstances beyond your control, you will not get the part. And second of all, my perception is broken and has been for a long time.

Recently, I went on an audition for “Mind Games,” a one-hour drama on ABC that is shooting here in Chicago. When my agent called, he told me there was no script, they just wanted me to improvise with the producers in the room. I was ecstatic because I am a lot more confident about my improvising than my acting, and it’s always good to get in front of the producers — it’s essentially like getting a call back.

The audition was not at my casting agent’s familiar office, but instead inside a dimly lit office building in an industrial part of the city. The walls were paper thin, and from the waiting area you could hear the other actors auditioning. The door would shut behind them and then they would start “improvising,” saying a couple of funny lines, causing the producer to howl with laughter.

They called me in. Two producers sat at a conference table in the back of the very sparse office, finishing up a hearty laugh like it was bowl of the best homemade beef stew they had ever eaten.

The casting director gave me the scenario that they wanted me to improvise: She would be pretending to throw a cup of hot coffee in my crotch.

Typically when you hear they want you to “improvise” it means they want you to be funny, so, I think I better say something clever or witty. But that is not always the case. Knowing this was a drama, going for the laughs did not seem to make sense here.

So, I asked the producers some questions, which can always be a scary thing for me in an audition. They gave me some very important information: that this whole “coffee in the crotch” was a set-up that the character was doing to create a diversion because he was part of scam that was going down in the cafe.

I thought if my character was truly part of a scam, I would want to be believable so I wouldn’t get caught. And that’s how I played it. I reacted to how I would react if I got hot coffee in the crouch. I did it only once, and got no laughs, none, and then the producers thanked me and I left, not getting even close to the response the other actors before me had gotten.

Other people’s approval is my oxygen, and as I drove away, I went into the whole “I’ve blown it, they called in the ‘improv guy’ in and I did not make them laugh. I fucked up.” This is called shame and I went into a mini, 24-hour depression.

The next day I checked my messages and my agent had been calling my cell phone. The producers wanted to check my availability for the part of Coffee in the Crotch Guy. Typically when they ask for your availability it means it’s down to you and somebody else. The point is they liked what I did, I actually did a good job, and my perception is all fucked up and I need to bring it in to get repaired.

If I got the part or not, it didn’t matter. I realized I had made the right choice for that situation, and that is almost as as good as getting the part.

A day later, my agent called back, and I could tell in his voice that I wasn’t getting the part.

I was fine with it, really I was, because this was the second time I had made it to the “check on availability” stage for this series, and if the show stays on the air, my experience tells me I will get an even better part. And more importantly, I am grateful that my improv training has given me the gift of being able to trust my instincts even when I don’t trust myself.

My wife thinks I'm not a good actor

10/19/12: My Wife ThinkS I’m NOT A Good Actor

Jimmy CarraneI recently had an audition for NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” A security guard, a couple of lines. Pretty easy… or so I thought.

But, whenever I have an audition, I put so much pressure on myself that it’s no longer about getting the job, it’s about my self-worth. The sad thing is I have been going to audition after audition for more than 20 years — for commercials and industrials and bit parts in movies and TV shows — and 70 percent of the time when I leave an audition I sink down into a terrible pit, asking myself why I am even trying to be an actor.

At home, my wife, Lauren, ran the lines with me. It gets frustrating running the lines with her since she can memorize them after four or five readings, but I feel like I am back in high school cramming for a World History test.

We kept going over the script and each time, I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from her, so I kept losing confidence. Lately, I have been so needy in my acting and performing, looking for that outside validation from my wife, and when I don’t get it, I am more than willing to blow every opportunity that comes my way. They call that self-sabotage. I left the house feeling like I sucked.

When I walked into the room for the audition, the director and producer sat comfortably in the back on a leather sofa. I tried to find the girl who was going to read with me as someone handed me a tiny microphone to clip onto my shirt. Then I nervously began to read the script.

They let me read it three times, normally a good sign.

The second time, they said: “Don’t bend down when you deliver the lines.” The third time, they said: “This guy is business as usual.”

When I was finished, I felt like I might have a shot. I took direction pretty well and they had asked me to do it three times, which meant they must have seen something they liked.

As I was leaving the room, the casting director, whom I have known for years, followed me out and pulled me into vacant room and said in a very supportive tone:

“Do you know you are reading the first line?”

“Um… um…. No, I didn’t,” I said, feeling like a brick hit me in the head.

“I wanted you to know that. That is how you lost the last job.”

“Is that what I did in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. Obviously, if I had to ask her, I was doing it in there.

“What can I do next time?” I asked, still seeing stars from the brick.

“You know the script. Memorize the first line. Say it to yourself five times in the waiting room before you go in.”

Immediately, my brain went to three places:

1. Oh god, they will never call me in again.

2. I suck.

3. I want to kill myself.

But after a few minutes I realized that her feedback was actually incredibly helpful, and I felt hopefully that she’d taken the time to give me some constructive notes. Maybe it meant she thought I had potential.

The next night I went to couples therapy with Lauren, and I still had a bit of an emotional whiplash from the day before.

At the end of the session I said: “Maybe I am projecting this onto Lauren, but I don’t think Lauren thinks I am a good actor.”

There was a long pause, and I heard her squirm on the couch next to me.

“I have to be honest with you. I don’t think you are a good actor.”

Another brick. Then I went to those three places again. (Refer to above)

I felt angry. She was telling me this now, after we just got married?! She is my wife, she is supposed to support me. I was devastated. What was I supposed to do with this?

Later, I talked to my friend, Dan, who said, “I don’t know what this all means, but I bet it makes you a better actor.” Though I still felt angry about this, I had to agree with Dan.

After a week of wanting to kill my wife for saying this, I started realizing something: What I hated wasn’t her opinion about my acting, it was my opinion about my acting. I was the one who didn’t think I was very good. And though in perfect world your partner should think everything you do is Oscar-worthy, I would rather have her be honest with me than blow smoke up my ass.

And I started thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned from other improvisers over the years. Jon Favreau used to be an improviser here in Chicago before he went on to become a hugely successful writer, director and actor. He wasn’t known as a great improviser, and he got lost at iO and couldn’t get any recognition at Second City or The Annoyance Theater. It was safe to say Jon wasn’t getting much validation from the improv community he wanted to to be part of, but he didn’t let that stop him. Favreau believed in himself. He believed he had talent. And he especially didn’t care what other people said. After he got a co-starring role in the film “Rudy,” he went out to LA and made things happen for himself, starting with writing and starring in “Swingers.” He surprised everyone, except himself.

When it comes to confidence, I am a work in progress. The one thing I am clear about is no one is going to have confidence in you, if you don’t have confidence in you.  If you believe you are good, they will believe you are good. Any TV and film jobs I have booked over the years all had the same thing in common: I went into the audition ready to play with confidence.

I am going to be blunt. Working on my confidence takes work. Constant work, hard work, and sometimes I will be able to get help form the people I am closest to and sometimes not. And the more confidence I get, the less I look for outside validation. Even from my wife.

10 Secrets of On-Camera Auditions

More and more on-camera auditions are asking actors to improvise and most actors think that improvising is about talking really, really fast and “trying” to be funny. These actors are ruining their years of acting experience with their skewed concept of improvisation. What they don’t realize is if you’re not listening and not in the moment, you won’t get the job. 

On Jan. 9, Sean Bradley and I sat down with Grace McPhillips of the Chicago Film Actors Meet-Up Group to talk about how you can improvise effectively during on-camera auditions. Here are the top 10 things we think you need to know:

1. Determine WHAT you are reading for.
Most of time you will get a chance to improvise with commercials. If you’re auditioning for network TV shows or studio features, not so much. There is a possibility you may be expected to improvise for auditions for independent films or industrial films.

These are not hard and fast rules. You may get a feature director who wants you to improvise and commercial director who wants you to just say the words that are on the page. Remember your job is to adapt in the moment.

2. If you ad-libbed a line and it works in the audition, use it for the call back.
If you are fortunate enough to get to improvise on the set, by all means use a line or a bit. If it works, incorporate into the script; don’t feel you have to keep re-inventing.

3. It’s OK to pre-plan or write prior to the on-camera audition.
Sean suggested when preparing for an on-camera audition at home, feel free to write lines that come to you as you are working on the script with the intention that you will use them in the audition. As you are rehearsing , know where you would like to insert them, then find a couple of places where you can put the lines in the script and use them during the auditions.

4. Keep it simple.
If you do improvise at home before the audition or on set, don’t overdo it or you might not remember what you did. Instead, do a few things and keep it simple. According to Sean, “Do five things instead of 10.”

5. Know the story.
For commercial copy, know the beats of the script and understand the premise so you could improvise if they told you to throw away the script. The more comfortable you are with it, the more confidence you will have in improvising.

6. Own the room when you walk in.
Confidence can only help you in booking the job. Remember, an on-camera audition starts when you walk in the door, so be a presence when you enter. This is established through body language and feeling good about yourself. Fake till you make it. If you come in like “Oh, they’re just doing me a favor by calling me in for this,” it will affect your getting the part. Instead, walk in with the attitude, “I’m doing them a favor by showing up for this audition.” Directors want to work with confident people, so work on this, and remember sometimes your best acting happens off camera.

7. Ask the right questions.
Confidence can look like asking the right question if you don’t understand something. Ask questions about the material if you need to and remember it may lead to doing it a way you had not planned on. In fact, this may give you the edge on booking the part. This means you’ll be improvising with the script, and you’ll have to switch gears on your feet. It will also show that you can take directions. If you are afraid to ask questions or think you are bothering them or taking up their time, then that might be a bigger issue that you need to look at.

8. If they say to improvise you REALLY need to.
Sean says if they don’t mention improv, you should ANYWAY. If they say DON’T improvise, then don’t. I also discussed improvising into the scene, this means you do a couple lines and then go into the script. I usually ask if it’s okay if I improvise into the scene so they know what I am doing and can follow it.

9. Know what you can improvise.
When improvising for on-camera auditions for commercials, know the important information – whether it’s the benefits of the product or the date for an upcoming sale. That stuff stays in. Also, you need to know the comedy of the script. Don’t pile on the improv before the set up and punch line of the joke.

10. Learn by trying.
The only way to really get good at this is to take risks and actually try this stuff out. The best way to start learning is to take some improv classes.