Ask Brett: Set 14
Hello Mr. Cullen,
My name is Carla Coble (rhymes with noble) and I’m a professional actress/stand-up comedienne/writer living currently in Nashville, TN, but with plans in two years to make the move to LA with my husband of 7 years, and Golden Retriever, Furface. I’m currently trying to gain as much experience/training/exposure right now as I can, so the move will be less traumatic work-wise.
I’ve read that you have a degree in Theatre Arts from your hometown of Houston. As a fellow actor, may I ask you some questions about this?
I minored in Theatre Arts with a degree in Jazz Trumpet from Belmont University here in town, and our theatre curriculum had NOTHING of Stanislavski or Meisner. It was a mishmash of several schools of thought, as schools are wont to do. I am currently involved heavily in Meisner study with Bill Feehely (He studied with Michael Moriarty in NY) here in town, and while I love it, it’s such a technique that I can never gauge how I’m doing, since you work from an organic center: you can’t plan anything like you could in your early, naive days of Community Theatre. If you’ve had experience with the Meisner technique, do you also find this to be true?
Meisner had a favorite quote in which he said, that it takes 20 years to become a great actor, and what do you know? You said you’ve been at this since moving to LA in ’79. Would you mind sharing some dark times when you wanted to just give up and how you pulled yourself out of it? I think I’m at one of those now. I just don’t feel as if I’m doing as well as I thought I was, and that stings a little. I don’t want my craft to be mediocre; I want to be brilliant and reach into the hearts of those audience members, and make them leave that theatre never knowing what hit them. Does confidence truly come with experience and patience?
I’ve been doing lead work in comedy in this area for the last 6 years, and I guess some of this uncertainty is coming because that’s ALL I’ve done; suddenly I’m doing drama and the territory is uncharted.
And now may I bestow upon your future endeavors my highest honor: “Crack a colon!”
Thanks again Mr. Cullen,
(Letter reprinted with permission of author)
That was one hell of a letter and I’ll try my best to answer your questions as well as I can. It’s an exciting move that you’ll make to L.A., but one that should be carefully planned. You should try to get your SAG card before you get there because you’ll have a lot more opportunities in the professional ranks versus those that are struggling to just get their card. If you already have it, then great, but if you don’t, audition your ass off in Nashville and try to get a small role in a union film, commercial or TV show. Even if they don’t Taft Hartley you, the union will let you join when you get to L.A. Also, do as much theater before you come…do Shakespeare, Chekov, or anything that will give you a leg up in experience over all the models and wanna be actors who truly don’t know the discipline of the theater world.
Now as to Meisner…..I’ve never believed that any one teacher has all the answers but if his technique works for you then grab everything you can from it. I believe that as artists we should study everything and let it wash over us and take what works for you. Sometimes things we learn or sometimes disregard completely, later come back to you and when you least expect it, will become a new lesson, or a new understanding of it will open your eyes in a totally different way. I don’t understand what you meant about not planning something when you’re performing or studying scene work…but in my experience you should certainly do your homework and be ready with about ten ways from A to Z to show your director all the ways you can explore the scene. That is an actor’s job…not to rewrite or fit the role to you, but to go make the script work as is, and if you can’t, there’s probably something missing in the writing.
What I’ve learned in the professional world of film and TV, as well as in the theater, is that most people directing don’t spend much time directing actors. They leave you to your own devices while they figure out how to shoot the scene. Now as far as my studies as an actor, well I work under the influence of Stanislavski and various other techniques that have all been very helpful. I would recommend you read and study heavily “Respect For Acting” by Uta Hagen because it’s easily one of the best books I ever had the opportunity to work with. To this day I still try to use some of the lessons I learned in that book. But I will agree that as you mature as a person, so does your work as an actor. I think that for me, my life experience has deepened my feel for my work and also made it easier to access the emotions that I was afraid to deal with or reveal when I was a young man. Actors are hopefully a lot like a good wine, we only get better with age! But the bottom line in my opinion is to study everyone’s technique and to take what works for you…..it’s hard in the artist way to say someone is right and someone is wrong….it’s too subjective, so just take what you can while you can and hopefully keep growing as an artist every day of your life…till your last breath because if you don’t, the artist in you dies…….
Carla, I’ve never really wanted to quit acting even though I’ve had my share of slim times. It’s interesting that at the worst of times I’ve had, that has been when I made my greatest discoveries about myself and my work. It’s during those “dark periods” that you find yourself digging in and really understanding why you’re doing this in the first place….because you LOVE to act! And this brings up the next topic you spoke of…feeling mediocre about one’s work…..hmmmm……well I believe that’s a good thing because you know you’re not SATISFIED…..that you have more to learn and more room to grow. It doesn’t make it a bad thing because I always judge myself the harshest……it just means that you want to be better. On the other hand you have to realize that eventually someone told DaVinci that his painting was finished or gave him a date they needed delivery of said painting….what I mean by this, like TV for instance, is that you can only do so much in the time you’re given to create and you can’t beat yourself up over something you can’t control. There are only so many hours in a day and you have a lot of scenes to shoot and you can’t perfect every moment…but what you can do is DO YOUR HOMEWORK and be totally prepared for the day’s work and when you’re finished say…”I did the best work I knew how” and get ready for the next day’s work and sleep well knowing this. Now I’ve had twenty years of experience to learn this but it’s really true. And your confidence does come and so does the security that you’ve done a good job.
Now I know that doing comedy versus drama may seem different but I believe they are the same. There is that elusive thing called timing and not everyone has it but if we’re talking about comedy, it’s something you prepare for just like doing a drama. Maybe because you’ve done so much comedy it may feel strange to be revealing yourself in the more serious roles. But in my mind comedy…good comedy, (and I’m not speaking of stand-up) comes out of real human pain and suffering. It makes us laugh because it is so real…someone slamming their hand in a door, or someone doing something so painfully silly or stupid that it just kills you…take “Some Like It Hot”…..those characters are real and the situations they get into are not comedic but it’s what they do in that situation that makes it funny…dressing up as women to escape the mob…etc, etc….trust me when I tell you that Billy Wilder did not write and direct them to do bits, it was real behavior that made those scenes and actors funny….my point being that drama and comedy is about situation instead of being about how funny someone is….Although to contradict myself, there are people who are just funny and that’s that…..so I guess what I’m saying, Carla, is that there are no rules except the ones we impose on ourselves……….So don’t be afraid……don’t be afraid to fail either because that is how we learn, by our mistakes and THAT is a beautiful thing….being unafraid will probably get you more growth as an artist than anything and probably get you loads more work!
I hope that this helps you and I hope I haven’t rambled on too much. I think this is the longest letter I’ve ever written and I hope I didn’t bore you with it. It’s just your questions were quite interesting and I really like to talk or write about acting because I love it so much. Acting is a wonderful profession and I hope it opens up your world and life as much as it has mine. Good Luck and God Bless!