Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Acting...It's Not for Sissies (Nicole Comer)

Although Entertainment Tonight and pre-awards red carpet shows would have you believe otherwise, acting really isn't that glamorous a profession. At any given time, the rewards of fame and money that many associate with acting are flowing to at most a couple of hundred individuals, among countless thousands who are plying the craft. (Of course, you can substitute the words music, writing, sports, and quite a few others for "acting" in that sentence; it truly has become a "winner take all" world.) Worse, nothing, not even an Academy Award, guarantees continued placement in that group. If you don't believe me, take a gander at the complete IMDB credits of Faye Dunaway.

And yet, for those that love their art and can't imagine doing anything else, "working actor" is a proud, realistic, and honorable badge. Nicole Comer's delightful book is aimed at that population, and those who would join it. You'll have to get your starshine fix somewhere else.

Comer has been in the trenches for a good while, as a performer, coach, staffing agent, and, inevitably, odd-jobber. Along the way, she has developed a keen sense of how acting works as a business, especially in Los Angeles (and it could fairly be said that this guide is L.A.-centric). She has gathered her insights, anecdotes, scar tissue, and sass into this short, non-nonsense book that bypasses discussion of acting technique (she assumes you have other sources for that) for a penetrating look at how to optimize your chances for survival in a difficult industry.

Is the book just for aspiring actors, then? Far from it, actually. I think that anyone is who is trying to freelance or build a solo service business in any field would benefit strongly from what Comer shares here. The book takes less than two hours to read and is a heck of a lot of fun besides, so it is an excellent investment.

As it happens, beyond being a film critic myself since my college days - I made part of my living at it in my 20s, imagine - I have other connections to the Los Angeles film and television scene. A college friend has worked as an entertainment reporter there, and my sister, who has a bachelor's degree in drama and a master's degree in television, has spent many years in casting and production. Through them and their connections I have heard a lot about the ups and downs of the business. And Nicole Comer is exactly right, it is not for the faint-hearted. 

Comer has solid brass-tacks advice on such issues as finding your acting niche (you can't expand beyond your niche until you have one), having headshots done (a very thorough chapter), joining the Screen Actor's Guild, working with agents and talent managers, attending workshops (an extremely valuable activity), keeping up with the TV world (viewing every series becomes part of your work), and navigating "pilot season." Just about everything she says chimes with discussions I have had with my sister, and both have wickedly funny stories about the jerks one encounters in the industry (along with surprisingly many solid, grounded individuals).

I think the only bone of contention between their points of view would involve Los Angeles theater, specifically non-Equity productions. Comer is kind of down on the idea of involving oneself too heavily in this world, suggesting that daytime theater rehearsals impair an actor's ability to take auditions for film, television, and commercials, and that industry types don't much attend non-Equity shows, so the chances of being seen and appreciated are few.

My sister, who has worked extensively as a stage manager on non-Equity shows, would demur. She tells me that she can almost always re-arrange rehearsal work around an actor's audition needs, and that industry types indeed show up at the performances with great frequency, in part because there are usually at least a couple of experienced television actors in the cast of any given show. She has been surprised by who she has seen in audiences. 

Well, great minds don't always agree. But Nicole Comer is never doctrinaire about any of the opinions she expresses; she is explicit about the fact that she is coaching from the perspective of what she has seen and experienced herself, and Your Mileage May Vary. You actors out there would do well to avail yourselves of what she has to offer. As a freelance writer, I learned from it too.  

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