Talking to Myself

The practice of doing voice-over work can be a lonely business.

Generally speaking, you are in a booth (or your own, private studio) by yourself.  You face the microphone with just the script, your own ability to bring it to life (if possible) and nothing more.  You deliver the VO Micreading as best as you can, after which either a technician- or you- bundles it up electronically and sends it out into the ether for the potential client to have a listen and decide whether or not you are the person for the job.

And usually, that’s where it ends.  You never hear another word.  After all, for every VO job, there are a countless other guys out there, each with their own microphone and script, vying for the same job. You are one of a hundred, if not many, many more. It’s the industry equivalent of buying a lottery ticket; your chances of getting a voice over job- any job at all- are infinitesimal.

But the rewards?  Good gravy.

CoronaThe best job I’ve ever had- and I’m obviously just speaking monetarily here- was a commercial for Corona that I booked about four years ago.  I hadn’t even auditioned for the spot- I got hired off my demo reel, which is just as nice as it is rare.

The bad news: I was doing “Richard III” at the time and my voice, I remember clearly, was shot.  I was a full octave below my normal speaking voice and it sounded as if I’d sandpapered my vocal chords.

I had no idea what type of character I would be playing in the commercial, either.  They didn’t even describe the spots to me when I got hired.  I was just told where to be and when. On my way to the studio, I desperately prayed that they didn’t want some cheerful, young-dad type for the commercial.  They would have been none too pleased with my performance.

Turned out, nope: they wanted a TV sports announcer.  Low in timbre and gruff sounding.Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.48.27 AM Perfect.  Within an hour, I had taped three separate spots.  (You can watch one of them here.  Listen for the rumbly voice on the TV in the background.)

Doing three spots in an hour, by the way? That’s a terrific payday.  Because you get a separate fee for each spot and, since these were national commercials, I got paid at the top rate.

How much?  Try $450 each.  So…for all three spots?  $1,350.  For an hour’s work.  Pretty nice.

MoneyBut that was just for the session fee.  When the spots actually aired?  That’s when the money really started rolling in.  The first check was about $5,000.  So were the two after that.  By the end of the season, I had collected almost twenty grand.

For one. Hour. Of. Work.

Next football season?  I made about a third of that again.  From the same spot.  That I had recorded over a year earlier.  Crazy.

Every year since, I’ve gotten a holding check at the beginning of each football season for about five hundred bucks. Just in case they want to run the spot again.  And every time I get that check, I cackle in disbelief and joy.

It is the only job I’ve ever booked, before or since, that has been such a bonanza.

And that, my friends, is why the voice-over business is so crowded.  Not because there are enough opportunities for everyone.  There are absolutely not.

It is the fact that when you do get paid, the fees can be outrageous.Long Line

Plus it takes the least amount of effort than anything else in the industry.

Plus you can audition from home.  In your pajamas.  Or less, if that’s your thing.

Needless to say, because of atypical paydays like this (and they are as rare as sparkly unicorns or thoughtful Fox News anchors), the voice over industry is…what’s the expression? Ah yes:

Bigger than huge.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So, as you may know, in my second week in Los Angeles, I was fortunate enough to land a voice-over agent.  And, thankfully, they have been sending me auditions. Usually a single piece of copy to read every day or so, sometimes more often.  I don’t think two days have gone by without at least one script landing in my in-box.

InboxThese are in addition to the spots that my beloved Chicago agency has been sending me during my time here. Because despite my distance from home, there are still many radio and TV ads I can record that don’t need me to physically be in Chicago if I booked them.  I can always find a studio in L.A. if it comes to that.

Every spot I record, I buy another lotto ticket.  And as everyone in the industry knows, it isn’t necessarily a reflection on your talent if you do or don’t get booked.  Truly, almost any one of us can do almost any spot we try out for.

I’ve sat in a room waiting to read with a dozen or so other actors at my agency in Chicago and thought, “They could choose any one of our names out of a hat and they’d be happy Name-in-a-hatwith the resulting commercial.”  Which is, essentially, what they do.  So you keep buying that ticket, hoping for that elusive bonanza payday.

Since I’ve gotten to L.A., I’ve submitted about twenty or so auditions and received…no bookings.  Which is typical.  I could spent the next two months here recording spot after spot, shooting it out there into the nothingness and get absolute bupkis for my effort and no one would be surprised.  That’s the way the industry goes.

The trick, by the way, to auditioning successfully from home or on the road is to have a nice amateur studio set up.  It doesn’t take much: a laptop, a good microphone and a decent space to record.  Hell, sometimes you don’t even need much more than an iPhone and a quiet space.  You’d be stunned if I told you how many people book spots off auditions they whispered into their cell phones.

VO #2Finding that quiet space can be difficult, though.  For example, think about where you are right now.  Are you at home?  Okay.  Is it quiet?  I mean really quiet?  No radio or television in the background?  No neighborhood kids running around or dogs barking?  Is there a low hum coming from the computer, refrigerator or other appliance?

Try the bathroom.  Yeesh.  The acoustics are terrible.  If you have a basement (and many do not) you can set up a studio down there, but that means a real investment of time, energy and supplies.

You want to know a great place to record voice over auditions?  Your car.  The upholstery soaks up the sound- not unlike the baffling in a studio- and most of the ambient sounds are muffled by the car’s exterior (assuming you live on a quiet street or have a garage).

ParkingKnowing this, I went down to Paul‘s garage to record a few spots the other day.  It’s one of those underground, multi-car garages that many apartment buildings have on the bottom floor and I clambered into the back seat of his Mazda with my laptop, my microphone and a few scripts.

A minute or so after I got started, a lady- one of Paul’s neighbors- pulled in to the spot next to me. She shut off the car, got out, started to get her groceries from the back seat…and then spotted me in the back of Paul’s car.

I kind of feebly waved at her, but she looked away pretty quickly, grabbed her things andBack Seat skedaddled.  I cannot imagine what she thought I was up to.  Or…perhaps I can.

I record everything in the apartment now.  I don’t want to get arrested.

And that has become my typical day here in Los Angeles.  Now that I have the every-elusive agents, my hustling-to-find-an-agent days have obviously come to an end so…figuring out how to be useful and active during the day is the new day job.

So, I wake up, go to the gym or head out for a long run.  I do some writing.  I record some voice overs.  I shoot them out into the world and hope they boomerang back.  I do some more writing.  I monitor and submit myself for jobs on Actors Access or Casting Networks.  I visit with friends and see the sights of L.A.  I go to see theatre.  I work on new monologues.  I wait for my first commercial/TV/film audition.  I look for more open mics to try out some new stand up.  I talk to my family back home.

And I wait for the one thing that has, so far, eluded me on this trip.

A actual, paying job.

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The Agent Hunt

I kept hearing his name.  It didn’t matter which Chicago ex-pat I spoke to, they all mentioned him sooner or later.

“You should meet Orion Barnes.”  Over and over again.

First it was my friend Jason Singer, who moved to L.A. a couple of years ago but eventually made his way back to Chicago.  Jason had graciously offered to sit down and tell me everything he could about what to expect in Los Angeles and when we met for lunch in Chicago a few months ago, the name Orion Barnes came up for Envelope in Mailthe first time.  “Oh yeah. You should try and get in to see him. Send him your stuff. Your picture, your reel, everything.  I’ll tell him to expect to hear from you.  Maybe you can set up a meeting.”

So I sent him my stuff.  I waited.  I didn’t hear a thing in return.  I let it go.

Then, the day after I got to Los Angeles, when I was out to lunch with former Chicago/longtime Los Angeles actor Michael Sheppard, I heard the name again.  “Do you know Orion Barnes?” Michael asked, out of nowhere.

“No,” I said.  “But you’re the second person to mention him to me.  Should I?”

“Ex-Chicago guy.  Went to school at Columbia.  Used to be an actor but he got into the agent biz instead.  You should meet him.”

“Okay,” I said.  The “how” was never discussed.  And nothing came of it for a while.

PintsThen, last week.  Out for drinks with Cat O’Connor.  “Ohhh. I just thought of someone you should meet.”

“Oh yeah?  Who’s that?”

“Orion Barnes.  You know him?”

“No, but I’m starting to wonder why I don’t.  Who the hell is this guy?”

“He’s got his own agency.  Started it up just a few years ago but he’s doing really well.  You should get in to see him.”

“Happy to. How do I make that happen?”

“I don’t know.  Give me a day or two to think about it.  I’ll ask around.”

So I waited.  Until I didn’t.  Finally I wrote an email to Michael, who seemed to know the guy best.

Typing“Hey,” I wrote. “Any recommendations on the best way for me to meet or reach out to Orion Barnes?  I sent him some material from Chicago a month or so ago, but I haven’t followed up yet.  If you get a minute, give me a holler and let me know what you think I should (or shouldn’t) do.”

Michael wrote back immediately. “I could talk to him right now, if you like.”

Hot dog.  “That would be fantastic!  Thanks a million, Michael.”

And that, I figured, was that.  If they guy was interested, he would call.  If not, he wou-

BRRRRING.  The phone rang.  818 area code.  What the…?

I hit the button.  “This is Kevin.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 9.53.47 AM“Kevin?  Orion Barnes, how are you?”  The man himself!  It was like talking to Howard Hughes.

“Hey, Orion, great to hear from you.”

“Yeah, thanks.  You know, I’m thinking of writing a pilot.  I’m gonna call it ‘Everybody Loves Kevin.’  I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about you.”

I have great friends.  I really do.

“That’s great, Orion.  Glad to hear it.”

“So.  You available for a meeting next week?” he said.

Does a Catholic bear poop in the woods in a funny hat?

“You bet!  What works for you?”

“Let’s do Tuesday at noon,” he said. “My office.  Stop on by.”Phone CAll

“Terrific, Orion.  See you then.”

Blip.

And just like that, I had my first agent meeting. With the one guy I’d been told to meet.

Over and over again.

Deep breaths.  It’s just a meeting.  Don’t get too excited.

Yeah, right.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The offices of Rogers Orion take up the first three floors of this impressive glass-fronted office building on Wilshire Boulevard.  The logo, emblazoned in ten-foot letters on the outside, says it all:  We are in the business of making big bucks.

building mirror glass wall

I checked in at security and said that I was there to meet Orion Barnes.  The lady at the front tried not to look surprised.  “You’re meeting Mr. Barnes…himself?”

“Yeah.  He said noon.  I know I’m a little early.”

She looked puzzled. “Let me make a quick call, okay?”  She picked up the phone and punched a few numbers.  “Hi, Brenda.  This is Tricia at security.  I have a Kevin…?”

I pronounced my last name and she repeated it, doubtfully.

“He says he’s here to see Mr. Barnes.”  She paused.  “Really?  Okay, I’ll send him up.” She put the receiver down and pointed toward a bank of elevators.  “Take one of those to the third floor.  Brenda will meet you when you get off.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “Thanks very much.”  This had not started off well.P1140984

I rode the packed elevator up to three, but most of the people got off on the second floor. They were all excitedly chatting about this and that and I got the feeling that they were all sub-agents of the company, rushing back to their desks to make multi-million dollar deals for the company’s clients.

A boy can dream, can’t he?

When I stepped off on three, a smartly dressed, very professional-looking woman in her thirties was there to meet me.

“Kevin?” she said.  “I’m Brenda.  Mr. Barnes executive assistant.”

“Hi, Brenda.  Pleasure to meet you.”

“Mr. Barnes wanted to be available to meet you personally, but he’s on a very tight schedule.  You’ll be meeting with me instead, if that’s all right.” she said.

My heart fell, but I tried to look cheerful about this turn of events.

“Sure,” I said.  “No problem at all.”

Conference+Room+Walls-4778Brenda let me into this glass-enclosed meeting room with a long, oval table that must have been twenty feet long.

“So…you’re from New York?” she said as we sat down.

“No, Chicago.” I said.

She looked mildly disappointed but tried to hide it.  “Ah.  Chicago.  Yes, Mr. Barnes says nice things about this time there.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about him.”

We talked for a bit about what brought me to L.A. and, as I spoke, I saw the confusion creep across her face.

“So you just…came out here?  Just like that?  Without a rep?”

“Well, you know…I knew it was a long shot.  It just…seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  I guess.”  It sounded really stupid the way it came out.  I tried to recover.  “I did get a voice over agent in my first week, though.”

“Hey, good for you!” she said, in the same tone you’d use to congratulate a five year old on a painting they brought home from school.

Painting

“Look what I did!”

We chatted for a while longer, but her interest was clearly waning.  Just as I thought she was about to ask me to leave, the door opened behind me an an enormous looking football-player type with dark black hair and rolled up shirt sleeves poked in his head.

“Brenda, did Paramount call back yet?”

“No, Mr. Barnes.  Not yet.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 10.35.58 AMHe looked furious.  “God damn it.” His brow furrowed.  “I need you to get Donny on the line ASAP.”  He looked at me for the first time.  “Who’s this?” he said, sounding annoyed.

“This is…” she had obviously forgotten my name.

“Kevin Theis,” I piped up. “We spoke last week.”

Recognition flitted across his face.  “Oh, right, right.  The Chicago guy.  Yeah.  Sorry I can’t talk now.  Come back in a month, maybe?  Brenda will set something up.”

And before I could say “Okay…..”  He was gone.

Brenda wrapped things up quickly.  We made a tentative date for the end of February for me to return but, she said in a warning tone, “I can’t promise he’ll be available then either.  Sorry.”

“No problem,” I said, for the eightieth time that day.  “We’ll just see what haRobotic-Handshakeppens.”

“Nice to meet you, Keith,” she said.  Then Brenda was gone, too.

I took the elevator back down to the lobby and made my way toward the exit.  I couldn’t swear to it, but I thought I saw the security lady catch my eye and give me a look of pity, as if she knew what had happened.

I went out to the car, started it up and looked out at the huge, glass building.

And all I could think was, “So…that’s Hollywood, huh?”

I put the car into gear, pulled out of the lot, and drove home.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay, quick question:  At what point did you realize that this entire story was a complete pile of bullshit?  Did I lose you at the three-story glass-fronted agency?  Or when I described Orion as this giant linebacker type?

Or, and I hope this is true…did I have you all the way to the end?  Because absolutely none of that occurred.  No giant building, no security, no Brenda, no conference room. Not one damn thing.

Here’s what really happened:

I got up and, with the help of a FaceTime conference with Sara, chose my wardrobe carefully.  Afterwards, stylishly bedecked, I drove to the agency, which is about 15 minutes from Paul‘s house, and made sure to get there a good fifteen minutes early.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 11.00.39 AMThe office itself, on Ventura Boulevard, is a first floor walkup in this very modest looking building with just has a number outside.  No logo, no nothing- very subtle.  You wouldn’t even guess there were offices upstairs unless you stepped in the doorway and saw the directory informing you that Rogers Orion was on the second floor, Suite D.  I walked up and saw a simple, nondescript door with the company’s sign out front.  I knocked and, hearing no answer, turned the knob.

As I stuck my head in, I could see a guy, slightly younger than me, with a gray, wavy head of hair and a beard, talking on the phone in the next room.  There was just him in the office- no one else.

He waved me in and said into the receiver, “Hey, listen.  I gotta call you back.  My meeting is here.”

Orion

The real Orion Barnes (pre-beard)

He hung up, walked out and stuck out a hand.  “Kevin?  Orion Barnes.  Great to meet you.”  He had this warm, charismatic charm that made you like him right away.  Good character trait in an agent, I thought.

I made my way into his office and took a seat on his couch.  We started talking and the conversation flowed easily; first about how his agency came to be and then about how (and why) I had made my way out to California. Eventually, we started telling hometown stories, as he had been a student at Columbia before trying his hand at acting in Chicago during the mid-90’s and we figured we might have a few things in common.

It turned out that we knew a lot of the same people, which made sense, given the tiny community we had both inhabited back in the Midwest. Our mutual friends included Columbia grads and teachers, actors and directors we’d both worked with…hell, half the working actors in Chicago seemed to come up in the conversation. Then he mentioned that he had done “Slaughterhouse-Five” at Steppenwolf while he was a student.

“Hey, I saw that!” I piped up.  “What a fun show!”  More mutual acquaintances kept popping up again and again. Rick Snyder. Brian and Stephanie Shaw. Tom Mula. Henry Godinez.

OPFT“I did ‘Hamlet’ with Henry at the Oak Park Festival Theatre,” Orion said.

“You’re kidding.  I’ve done about a dozen shows there in the past twelve years.”

On and on.  He seemed to know almost everyone I knew and vice versa.  Plus he was a Indiana-Jones-467fight guy, and proudly showed off his full-size replica of the Indiana Jones machete from “Temple of Doom” that hangs in his office.  I was liking him more and more by the minute.

And despite his non-flashy digs, it was clear that he had done really well for himself.  He had about five dozen actors in his stable, some of whom were kicking some serious show business ass.  I had done my homework.  The guy was running a smooth, impressive business.

What’s more: we were clearly getting along like a burning house.

“Look,” he finally said.  “I’m sold. What do you say?  You want to do this?”

ROA LogoBoy, did I.  We talked agency business for a bit, clapped hands and…I was officially a client of the Rogers Orion Agency of Los Angeles, California.  The whole meeting had taken less than a half hour, all told.

As I made my way out of his office, my head was spinning with excitement.  Three weeks down and I now had, in addition to my voice-over agent, a commercial, film and television agent to represent me in L.A.

And it was the one guy that all my friends out here had recommended that I meet.

Blue skies.  Smiling at me.

Nothing but blue skies.  Do I see.

It’s The Little Things

With apologies to all the civilians out there, today’s offering is strictly for the benefit of my actor friends who might be thinking about someday moving to the West coast.  The rest of you can sing along, of course, but this posting is really only pertinent to those who might consider packing up their belongings and following me in my tiny little Irish footsteps out here to the Land of the Lotus Eaters.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

First things first:  Your resume.  You might think that a resume is a resume is a resume. ResumeWrong. They’ve got a certain way of doing things out here in sunny CA and they don’t truck with those who don’t adhere to their wily Hollywood ways.

For example:  Let’s suppose you book a network television show in Chicago. SaBloody Ashy…”Chicago Fire” or “Chicago Med” or “Chicago Sexy Building Inspectors.”  You’re on Season 2, Episode 7 and you’re playing the part of “Guy Who Is Bleeding a Lot From the Face.”  You have lines, of course.  (“Please help me, officer!  I can’t stop bleeding from my face!”)  Consequently you have a credit either at the beginning or the end of the episode (or both).

Now, you naturally want to put this on your resume.  And in Chicago, you’d do fine to list it as follows:

 Guy Bleeding From Face                 Chicago Med (S02E07)                 NBC/Universal

But that’s not going to wash out here.  Nossir.  Because in Los Angeles, you’re not a “Guy Who is Bleeding a Lot From the Face.”  You’re either a Series Regular, Recurring, a Guest Star, a Co-Star, or an Under Five.

Thus, if you book a lot of network shows, your resume might look something like this after a few years:

Co-Star                  Jesus and Judas, Together Again (S01E03)           The Learning Channel
Guest Star              How I Met Your Mothra (S03E09)                         Bravo
Recurring               CSI Akron (S04E10)                                                  CBS
Series Regular       Star Trek- The Chekov Chronicles (S01E07)       F/X

So- what separates a Co-Star from a Guest Star from a Recurring?  How do you tell the difference?

Well, if you’re a Series Regular, you appear on the show either every week (or almost

Judah

I’m a what?

every week), plus your name appears in the opening credits.  Not too hard to figure out. Series Regular = one of the Stars of the Show.  (Judah Friedlander, while not on every episode of “30 Rock,” was a Series Regular on the show.)

Recurring means that you might not appear every week or even all that often, really (and won’t have your name in the opening credits), but you’ll still pop up now and again and Smoking Manhave a semi-important role. The Smoking Man from the X Files?  Recurring character.  Of the twenty or so shows each season, he would appear on maybe eight or ten.  (And really creep up the place.)

Guest Star means that you have a role one episode of the show that is big enough to move the plot along.  You also likely appear in more than one scene, interacting with the main characters.

A good example of this would be: You play a patient on the series “House, M.D.” who has the doctors stumped because your eyes keep popping out and shooting across the room. House eventually figures out the problem (“It’s not lupus… Wait!  He’s suffering from a House MDrare case of Feldman’s Eye Poppy Syndrome!  Why didn’t I think of it before?”). Plus, your name appears in the credits at the start of the show, after the first commercial, rather than just in the ending credits.  That’s a Guest Star.

Co-Star means that you have one scene, but you have more than one line.  Let’s say, for example, you play a cop, but…he’s kind of a dick.  What’s the expression I’m looking for…? I’m sure Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 5.27.05 PMit will come to me later.  Anyway, you have a few dick-ish lines, but no more, and only in the one scene.  (Nonetheless, it is super memorable.)  And your name only appears in the closing credits.  That’s a Co-Star.

Finally, you have your Under Five roles.  This expression originated in soap operas and isn’t really used anymore in nighttime network shows.  At any rate, if you have an Under Five, it is supposed to mean that you say five lines or less during a single episode (i.e. “He’s going to jump!,” “She shot my grandma!” or “Why do his eyes keep popping out, doctor?”). Generally speaking, though, for network TV, if you have a line or two, you now call that a Guest Star and no one says “boo” about it.  Or if they do, to hell with them.

So…no names.  Not on the Network TV portion of your resume.  Just one of the above options only. However, for theatrical plays listed on the theatre section of your resume (assuming you have one), always list the character name (i.e. Tap Dancin’ Sam in “The Tap Dancin’ Sam Story.”)  But not for your TV stuff.

Clear?  Great.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay.  Second thing:  Self-taping.  This is a relatively new phenomenon in the industry, Self Tapingbut it’s very big out here.  I haven’t run into it very often in Chicago, except in the rare instances where someone wanted to try out for a play I was directing but couldn’t be in town for the actual auditions.  That’s the only time I can think of where someone did a self-made, digital film submission back home.

But here?  Happens all the time.  You’ll be invited to audition for a film or web series, but they don’t want to drag you all the way across town and then force themselves to sit through a million auditions. So they’ll send you the sides and ask that you have someone shoot a quick iPhone movie and send that to them instead.

Obviously, the quality is going to be widely varied (from semi-crappy all the way up to only moderately crappy), but it sure saves everyone involved a shit-ton of time and effort. (If they’re interested in you after viewing your submission, they will usually call you for an in-periphone extrasson callback but will, occasionally, book you just from your self-taped audition. I’ll let you know what that feels like when it actually happens to me.)

This has led to a little boomlet in self-taping technology.  People will invest in professional or semi-professional digital video equipment (and even lights and microphones) so their self-taped auditions will be of the highest quality.  I don’t know if it works or not but…that’s what they’re doing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Finally, a last word on this “Pay to Meet” business.

As expected, everyone who is not from Los Angeles who read about the “Casting Workshops” I described in the posting “Devil’s Bargain,” was horrified (and rightly so) Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 5.47.29 PMwhen they learned of this pernicious practice.  (When I told my Dad about it, he could hardly believe his ears.  “No,” he mournfully intoned over the phone.  “They don’t really do that.  Do they?”  Oh yes, dear Father.  They do.)

I have gone back to some of these workshop websites to look over the various rosters of Casting Directors that I could meet – for a fee – should I so choose to pony up the cash but…I just can’t bring myself to do it again.  I did five of them in my first week, blowing Bribeover $250 (that I could have better spent on malted beverages) and I just can’t stomach doing another round.

People swear by them out here, though.  The Casting Directors and actors alike each insist that auditions regularly result from the casting folks having met actors at these workshops.  And maybe that is so.

But it ain’t right.  The unions shouldn’t allow it.  And the actors, for all their good intentions and hopeful dreams, shouldn’t feed the beast.  So I’m swearing off them for good.

Well…let’s say:  For now.  I hope it never gets to the point where I’ll start considering them again.  We’ll see.

After all, I’ve only been here three weeks.  I’m not desperate.

Yet.

Surf City

I am definitely not going to make any friends back East with today’s post.

The news, all day, has been nothing but blizzard, blizzard, blizzard.  My Facebook feed is Blizzardfilled with pictures from my friends and family displaying their battles with snow drifts, hazardous traffic conditions, freezing rain, shoveled-out driveways and plow after plow after plow.

So please don’t think me uber-douchey if I talk about my last twenty-four hours out here in Los Angeles, a story which features a mega-watt movie star, a walk by the seashore, lunch in the sun and a drive through the mountains.

It’s a hard life, but someone must live it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Early Friday, I got a message from my friends Adam and Shantelle who caught wind of a showing of “The Revenant”- playing for free for all SAG-AFTRA members- at the RevenantDirectors Guild of America’s big, beautiful movie house on Sunset Boulevard.  As if seeing this multiple-Academy Award nominated film in a gorgeous theatre at no charge wasn’t incentive enough, there was also this bonus:

At the conclusion of the showing, the director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his star, Leonardo DiCaprio, were going to come out on stage and sit for a Q&A.

Was I available?  Hell yes I was.

I logged on to the SAG website and RSVP’d for the event and then made my way to Adam’s and Shantelle’s so we could head over together.  As the event was (understandably) full, we were cautioned to get there early, and we dutifully showed up a good hour before showtime just to be sure.

The DGA Theatre itself is, as you would expect, a magnificent building.  A curved, black LA_Directors_Guild_Americacylinder rises up from Sunset Boulevard and looks to have been cracked in two and separated into tiered halves.  The lobby is wood paneled- each wall dotted with pictures of famous directors on set, laboring at their craft.  It has weeping-willow chandeliers and what looks to be three or four large viewing theatres leading off in all directions.

We three joined the long line that snaked through the lobby but, given the size of the crowd, we weren’t entirely sure we’d get in. Happily, though, as showtime approached, DGA Theaterthe line began to move slowly into the auditorium and, after having our up-to-date Union cards checked, we took our very comfortable seats right in the middle of the house with perfectly unobstructed views of the enormous screen.

The film itself is tough to watch, as it depicts (spoilers ahead) the journey of a severely injured frontiersman, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) as he makes his torturous way through the wilderness to try and track down his son’s murderer, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).Leo

Every imaginable hardship is visited upon this poor guy.  During the course of the film (SPOILERS- SERIOUSLY), DiCaprio’s character is attacked by a bear, witnesses his son get stabbed to death, is buried alive, nearly starves a few times, slips into an icy river and almost drowns going over a waterfall, is flung off a cliff into a (handy) pine tree, slips into a dead horse carcass (Tauntaun style) to keep warm and comes close to freezing to death at least…I’d say eight times.

So, you know.  Hilarious.

It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking (just the opening sequence alone, depicting an Indian war party raid on a group of trappers, will leave you breathless), but it was very tough to sit through.  I have little doubt DiCaprio will with the Oscar for this film but…I don’t think I ever need to see it again.  It was really brutal and in a not-so-fun way.

At the end, the lights came up and a moderator stepped out to introduce that evening’s big attraction…and out walked Alejandro and Leo.

IMG_0921I don’t need to describe them to you, obviously, as DiCaprio is easily one of the world’s most recognizable actors and Iñárritu, especially since his Oscar win last year for “Birdman,” is one of the best known directors in cinema.  (Plus, I have provided a picture.)

They discussed the making of the film, which was shot chronologically and in natural light, which made the final product all the more astonishing, and the hazards they faced in getting it done (remote locations, lack of sunlight in arctic climes and weeks of rehearsals).Revenant 2

Both seemed very- and deservedly- proud of the film and, yeah, it was kinda cool to be in the room with them.  You don’t often get to see people in the flesh that you’ve known for their entire careers and they don’t get much bigger than Leo, that’s for sure. To be honest, he seemed a little full of himself, but you know what?  He’s Leonardo DiFucking Caprio.  If I was him, I’d probably be just a little full of myself, too.  Who wouldn’t be? (And Iñárritu is just an amazing, visionary director.  I’m a huge fan.)

Finally the two them split (the mob of ladies in the house refrained from mobbing Leo) and we did, too.  The consensus among us was that it was (a) an incredible achievement in film and (b) none of us could understand a word Tom Hardy said.  Again.

It was a terrific night in the theatre and I was thrilled to have been there.

Instead of in the snow.  There.  I said it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Yesterday morning, I hauled myself out of bed early so I could have plenty of time for a long run before I had to dash off to the UCLA campus for an student film audition.  I had actorsaccess-logoheard of the audition through a company called Actors Access, which is a division of Breakdown Services.  You pay a fee to join and you get to upload your profile, resume, pictures, reels, etc.  Your membership allows you to be privy to their list of upcoming actor notices for stage, screen and film.  If something looks like it might be right for you, you submit yourself and hope to get a message back inviting you to audition.

A student filmmaker at UCLA was looking for middle-aged types like me and as I had

UCLA Central Campus 2

been told by my friend Michael Sheppard to audition for as many student films as I could (you never know where the next Iñárritu will come from, after all), I sent them my stuff and- lo and behold- got called in.

Despite my early rise, I found myself inexplicably running late and then compounded the problem by getting entirely turned around inside the UCLA campus. (Charles E. Young, by the way, has too many goddamn roads named after him in and Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 12.54.32 AMaround the school.  Just saying.)  I finally got to the audition almost a half-hour late but nobody had noticed. There was a big group of guys, young and old, waiting to read for the film.

The audition went fine, as far as I could tell (you never really know) and when it was done, I decided to hang around and take in the campus.  I had brought some lunch with me (no eating out for this non-working actor), and chose a nice spot in the Murphy Sculpture Garden (to the bottom left of the picture) to sit in the sculpture-gardensun and eat.

And I’m sorry, my East coast friends.  It was just a glorious day.  Upper sixties, sunny and quietly peaceful.  I enjoyed it so much that, after lunch, I decided to stay on campus, grabbing a desk in the Charles E. Young Research Library (there’s that name again) to get some writing done before heading home.

After an hour, I made my way back to the car, but I wasn’t ready to go home yet.  I decided to be a tourist instead and, less than half an hour later, found myself standing on Santa Monica Pierthe world-famous Santa Monica pier, finally getting my first view of the Pacific Ocean since arriving in California.

The pier is a one-hundred year old landmark and a top tourist destination.  (It is also the final stop on historic Route 66.) The boardwalk has just about everything you could want on it: restaurants, an arcade, shops, a small amusement park, magicians, artists and a spectacular view of the ocean.  It’s almost exactly like Navy Pier in Chicago except that it doesn’t suck.

I strolled the pier, looking for a seafood snack that I could indulge in but…there was none to be found on the pier, which was disconcerting.  I think it should be a Federal law that all ocean piers should be forced to serve fried clams but…that’s just me.

As a final treat, I got back in the car and steered it towards the Pacific Coast Highway. AndPCH if you’ve never piloted a vehicle up this unspeakably beautiful stretch of road…brother, you haven’t lived.  I zipped past the Getty Villa, which looms majestically over the coastline, and finally turned up Topanga Canyon Boulevard, this twisty-turny mountain road that snakes through the Santa Monica Mountains back north to the Valley.

I had an ulterior motive for choosing this route home, by the way:  I am currently driving my friend Paul‘s car, which is this sporty little Mazda stick shift.  It handles like a dream and I have thoroughly enjoyed powering this beauty through the curlicue streets and on-ramps of Los Angeles.  I will be relinquishing the car to him when he returns to L.A. at the end of the month and will truly miss having a manual drive car in this town.  It’s just too much fun.  So…a speedy little trip through the twisty mountains seemed in order.

Topanga Canyon

Topanga Canyon

You’ll notice, as you gleefully careen through the turns, that the mountains are eerily familiar. That is because, if you’re about my age, these are the same mountains you saw every week on M*A*S*H, as the show’s exteriors were filmed in the Malibu Creek State Park just down the road.

I stopped only once, at the crest of the mountain highway, where an overlook gives you this astonishing view of, essentially, the entire San Fernando Valley.  It was truly breathtaking.  Then I hopped

DSC02010

The San Fernando Valley from above.

back into the car and made my way back home to Tarzana.

I’ve been hustling as much as I can since I’ve been here, so it was nice to take a few hours to just relax.  And as I heard on the car radio about the horrors of Superstorm Jonas dumping foot after foot of snow on my poor East coast friends, I must stress that I took no pleasure in thinking of how much better I had it on the beautiful, sunny coast.

Aw, hell.  I took a little pleasure.

Honestly, can you blame me?

In the Big Leagues

My friend Susan used to work in a restaurant in New York City that was across the street from a porn…er…adult theatre just off of Times Square.  Consequently, on her way to and from work, she used to pass by the signs outside the club advertising the tantalizing attractions available inside. Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 11.29.25 PM

Her favorite, she said, was a poster of a young man showing off his…attributes, with an accompanying caption that read (in large type, of course): “Bigger than Huge!”

“What,” Susan asked of me, “Does that mean?  What could be ‘Bigger than Huge’?  How big does something need to be before you say, ‘No, that’s not huge.  That’s much, much bigger than ‘huge.'”

I can only assume she never ventured inside to find out.

Size, apparently, does matter.  Occasionally.  So, on to today’s topic:  How big is huge?

large_crowdFor example, it is a well known fact that there are a lot of actors in Los Angeles.  But did you ever wonder how the population of performers here compares to other cities? Well, I have.  And after looking into it, I’ll give you a bit of a spoiler:

It’s really, really huge.  If not bigger.

The reason for this, of course, is because the amount of work available to actors in this city is exponentially larger than anywhere else in the country.  Not on the planet, though.  When it comes to movie production, nobody beats India.  Bollywood

[SIDE NOTE:  How much larger is Bollywood than Hollywood?  In 2012, American movie studios produced 476 films.  The Chinese laughed and produced 745.  Then India stepped in, pushed everybody aside, made 1,602 movies and claimed the crown.  So, really, if you want to find work as an actor, move to Mumbai.]

In this country, though, there is only one king when it comes to movie and television production.  Despite the recent exodus of production work to other cities (which we’ll deal with in a bit), there is still no busier place for TV and film production than L.A.

Soda ShopIf you take the proliferation of work, add the climate and the mythos that you can be discovered in a soda shop and be a star the next day, what you wind up with is the largest collection of acting/casting/movie/television talent imaginable.

So let’s try to imagine it.

First, let’s start with the actors.  In Chicago, for example we have around 1,500 Equity (aka union) stage performers, most of whom also belong to one, or both, of the sister unions- the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).  (Both unions merged a few years ago to form, simply SAG-AFTRA).  SAG AFTRA

I figure that it’s safe to triple the number of Equity actors to determine the amount of non-Equity actors in the city, bringing your grand total up to approximately 6,000 performers. Honestly, that number seems incredibly high to me but, still, better to overestimate in this scenario than otherwise.

So, actors in Chicago?  About 6,000, give or take.

sleevesWhat about you, L.A.?  You think you can beat that?  (And L.A. rolls up its sleeves and says, “Watch me.”)

According to one source- this nice fellow named Scott Frank, who did all the legwork for me on this question- there are approximately 108,640 union actors living in the Los Angeles area.  Again, it is likely a high number, but let’s hold on to that for a second.

By SAG-AFTRA’s measurement (and they are oddly secretive about their membership numbers), there are more like 70,000 union actors living here but, again, that’s a high estimate and what’s more, it is, in my opinion, a misleading number even if it were correct on its face.  Here’s why:counting

First, this 70,000 number includes all of those performers who belong to the union but are no longer active (i.e. former performers who kept their cards, retired actors, etc.).  We’re really looking for the number of active performers after all.

On the other hand, even if we were to take the 70,000 figure as gospel, it does not include the number of non-union talent, which must also number in the tens of thousands out here.

Math

But seeing as how there is no way to really get an accurate count, we’re forced to estimate so let’s say that the 70,000 figure is right but that a quarter of them are inactive.  Add to that, however, the considerable number of non-union talent, and that number jumps right back up to where it was.

So let’s just stick with it:  70,000 actors.  Compared to Chicago’s 6,000.  Yikes.

Okay, back to Chicago.  Where I come from, we basically have fourteen acting agencies (depending on how you count).  They come in all sizes, but everyone knows their names: Shirley’s, Paonessa, Grossman & Jack, Stewart, etc.

In Los Angeles?  They number over six hundred and fifty, as far as I can determine.  Again,

wallace-shawn-vizzini

“I know what the word means!”

large and small, boutique and mega-huge, but still…650 goddamn talent agencies?  That’s inconceivable.

But despite the huge number of agencies, they’re almost impossible to get into, even if you just want a meeting.  Why?model-agencies

Do the math.  Seventy thousand actors.  If you were an agent, how many actors would you like to meet in a day?  Ten?  Fifty?  They wouldn’t have time to find people work if they agreed to meet with even a fraction of the population. Many agencies don’t even have a submission policy.  Referrals only.  Ouch.

You want to know about casting agencies?  Sure you do.

Guess what?  In Chicago, we have three.  Claire Simon, O’Connor Casting and Paskal Rudnicke. That’s it.

SimonO'ConnorPR Casting

In Los Angeles?  They have ONE HUNDRED AND THREE.  And apparently you need to either have an agent to get in the same room with them or, as previously described, you can “pay to meet” them.  Good luck with that.

But hey, at least the work is here, right?  Well, yes and no.

See, they produce a lot of television and movies here (Backstage has the number at about 938 prChicago Fireoductions currently filming or recently wrapped).  But a lot of studios are opting to shoot their shows out-of-town so they can get better tax incentives, lower location costs
and a cheaper talent pool.  (Chicago has benefited from this phenomenon tremendously over the past few years, as have I.)

Still, compared to anywhere else, the work is mainly here. Television shows, movies, pie chartcommercials, voice overs, modeling…every city has a slice of this entertainment industry pie, but the majority of the pie, by far, is divided up out here on the West coast.

So the actors keep on coming. And the pool gets bigger and bigger.

How big?

Bigger than huge, my friend.  Bigger than huge.

Target Date

In order to become a decent writer, you need to have a lot of tools at your disposal.  These include (but are not limited t0) imagination, insight, the ability to imagine the world from more than one perspective, a sense of humor, curiosity, daring and a clear, understandable voice. self-discipline

All of these things, however, are useless without the final ingredient:  Discipline.

I mean, you can have all the ideas in the world, along with a brilliant, original plot, some juicy characters and an ending to die for but…unless you discipline yourself to sit down and put those brilliant ideas on paper, then your Pulitzer Prize-winning play/movie/book is going to die without having ever peeked outside the confines of your noggin.  Which would be an awful shame.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Writers have been describing their varied creative processes for as long as there have been writers.  If you take the time to read them, one thing becomes clear:  there is no correct way to go about it.

Early-Morning-After-A-Coffee-Start-WritingSome authors like to get up early and bang out a couple of hundred words before breakfast. Some set aside a certain time of day and force themselves to fill up that time writing (even if what they produce during their allotted time is utter rubbish).  Other writers stay up until the wee hours and look  for inspiration from the nighttime muses.

Others just get drunk.

One of my favorite quotes on the process of writing is from Richard Bach, author of Illusions_Richard_Bach“Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” He said, of his book “Illusions”:

I do not enjoy writing at all. If I can turn my back on an idea, out there in the dark, if I can avoid opening the door to it, I won’t even reach for a pencil.

But once in a while there’s a great dynamite-burst of flying glass and brick and splinters through the front wall and somebody stalks over the rubble, seizes me by the throat and gently says, I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper.

There are lots of ways to avoid writing (Do laundry!  Facebook!  Have a second lunch!  Take a nap!  Oh, and look…Facebook!), but if you can force yourself to do it- to take the time to transfer your thoughts onto the page on a regular basis- there is no better feeling.  Just Typewriterlike working out at the gym, practicing your chosen musical instrument or spending some time in the batting cage, engaging in the act of writing today makes you a better writer when you sit down to do it again tomorrow.  You let that muscle atrophy at your peril.

Of course, there is another way to avoid working on a particular writing project:  You can create a blog and work on that instead. You can spend hours and hours jotting down your thoughts, describing your daily adventures and choosing adorable pictures to go along with all of it and you’d be amazed at how quickly the minutes fly by!

Or you can sit down and do the goddamn work.

Since I arrived in L.A., I’ve managed to get some work done on this play that I’m sllllowly procrastinatewriting, but if there is one regret that I have since I got here, it is that I haven’t been disciplined enough about writing it.  Before I left Chicago, I convinced myself that, with a good, solid week’s work, I could bang out a draft good enough to show people.

That was two weeks ago.  I’ve written two scenes since then.  For shame.

I’ve done a lot of research on the subject of my play, true.  But writing only two scenes?  In two weeks? Unacceptable.

A few years ago, my friend Dorothy Milne delivered a beautiful monologue on this subject. DDeadlineorothy was lamenting the fact that she could not- and I mean constitutionally could not- work on a writing project…unless she had a deadline.

Her fear of producing crap was more overpowering than her fear of showing up empty-handed so…once she had a terrifying, looming deadline hanging over her head, she got to work.

Or, as Dorothy put it:

The only thing that makes me finish a show is having a gun held to my head.  Otherwise I just keep making it better.

Yes, I’d love to create a little something for your show… What’s my deadline?

So, inspired by Dorothy, I am going to give myself an artificial deadline to complete the first draft of my play.  I pledge, here and now, to have a readable draft ready to send back home by February 1st.  First

Contemplating it now, it seems to me to be a totally unreasonable goal.

To which I say to myself:

Shut up, you big baby.  And get to work.

 

Tragedy Tomorrow!

Lest we forget, there were three prongs to the “What to do in Los Angeles without an agent?” plan.  First, I could  write.  Next, I could explore the city and learn about how the business works out here.  And finally, I could hit the open mic market and see if stand-up comedy could possibly be for me.

Action plan

This last plan, admittedly, was the more…what’s a kind way of putting this?…boneheaded of the bunch.  After all, before last month, I had zero experience telling jokes on stage.  My material, as I developed it in my head, seemed funny enough, but would it translate to actual laughs in front of a crowd?

All these questions, and many more, would only be answered once I had the balls to actually step up at some club here in the city to give it a shot.

The opportunity finally presented itself this past Tuesday.  As I learned from comedian Jeff Ahern, Flapper’s has one of their open mics at Happy Hour on Tuesdays, with free admission and no drink minimum.  Comics just show up, sign up and stand up.  That’s it.

flappersSo figuring “Why not?” (and betting that nobody brings rotten fruit to throw at Happy Hour), I went.

Now, under normal circumstances, doing new things- especially in a new place- can be pretty scary.  Here I was, a fifty year old dude, sitting in a bar in Burbank- surrounded by twenty other, more seasoned comics whose average agDangerfield.jpege was a good twenty-five years younger than mine- preparing to take the stage to tell them my hilarious story about how much housesitting gives me anxiety and how stupid my dog is.  And hoping to get laughs from a crowd that was, easily, 99% comedians.

Talk about your tough rooms.

But I was oddly calm.  Again, the advantage of knowing that I had absolutely nothing to lose was a bulletproof shield against almost all anxiety.

If I bombed, I bombed.  Who cares?  But if I did well?  Hey, hey. Maybe we got something here.

Retro microphone on stage in restaurant. Blurred background

When the host- her name was Winter- got up on the stage to begin drawing our names out of a bucket (the order of the comedians was literally the luck of the draw), she asked if there were any first-timers at Flappers that night.  I put up my hand and she very kindly welcomed me and told the assembled comics to play nice when I got up there.

Then we got started.

The quality of comedians varied wildly, as you can imagine, but the responses from the crowd (even when they were good) was fairly muted.  An occasional big laugh would pop up here and there, but mostly it was good-natured chuckling and, at the conclusion, a nice, polite round for each of them.Joker Claps

Most of these guys (and it was- again- mostly guys), were used to this kind of reception. They were veterans of the open mic game. I befriended a guy in the audience named Nathan (he was from Chicago, too) and we chatted very briefly between acts.  He told me he was not an actor, but a prospective professional comic who had moved to L.A. to hit it big in the comedy scene.  This appeared to be what the majority of the comics in the room had done.

To this end, they each spent their days and nights going from open mic to open mic, honing their acts in three-to-five minute chunks and then, when the clubs offered open auditions, they would line up, do their best few minutes for the management and hope to get a booking.

Didn’t really sound all that much different than the acting game, with one exception: the open auditions.  That certainly sounded intriguing.

Throw Your Name in the Hat

I was lucky to have my name drawn early- I was about number ten on the list- and as I walked to the stage, Winter reminded the crowd that this was my first time and that they should be gentle.  I actually recorded my act and would love to share it with you, but the makers of this blog have not yet developed a way for me to post sound here.  When I figure it out, I will let you listen to it.  (UPDATE:  My dear friend Mark Neglia has solved this problem and created a YouTube link to my first Flappers routine.  Enjoy!)

It seemed to go well, actually.  The comics were very nice to me and I got more than a few laughs, which was encouraging.  I didn’t end as strong as I would have liked, but when you see the flashlight from the host signaling you to get off, you don’t have the option to wait until you get a big laugh to make your exit.  You’re supposed to wrap your shit up and leave.  So I did, to a nice, friendly hand from the assembled funnymen.

Nathan was very complimentary when I sat back down and so, even though I was risking being late to dinner at my friend Amy’s house, I stuck around to see his act (which was pretty good) before I split.

And you can bet that I played my act back on my phone on the way to the car, just to be sure that I didn’t imagine the laughs that I thought I had received.  Nope. There they were. Cool.

Laughing

They were not this enthusiastic.

It had been an absolutely painless experience.  Really enjoyable, actually.  I had stepped onto a stand-up comedy stage in Los Angeles in front of a bunch of fellow comics- who, to be fair, had been ordered to be nice- and had actually gotten laughs.  (Meaning “more than two.”)

Speaking honestly, I hadn’t been great. By any means.  But I had done better than expected which, for a new venture, seemed pretty damned good.

It gave me confidence and a sense that I should continue in this pursuit in the off-hours. When I wasn’t hustling to get an agent or working on one of my writing projects, I would continue to drop by these open mics.

Unfortunately, this confidence would lead me, the next night, to take an even bigger risk and cause me to experience my first truly heart-stopping night since I arrived in L.A.

Because on Wednesday…I decided to audition for the club.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When you’re thinking about doing something frightening and you adopt a “Why-not-what’s-the-worst-than-can-happen?” attitude, there is an inherent problem.  You rarely ever stop to actually answer that question.  Sometimes there is an answer to the question, “Why not?”Roll the Dics

In my case, the answer could easily have been “Because you’re not ready.”  Or “You’ve done this act exactly one time, dummy.”

Or, for me, an additional answer could have been: “You have your first Pay-to-Meet audition an hour and a half after the comedy club auditions start.  What makes you think you can do both in one night?”

But I wasn’t thinking like that.  I was thinking “Wouldn’t it be crazy to do both?  Yeah! So let’s do it!”  (Maybe its the air out here that makes you think such things.  I don’t know.)

Early on Wednesday afternoon, I had been treated to a wonderful lunch on the lot of Universal UniversalStudios by my friend Jamie Pachino, a television writer and playwright of great (and deserved) renown, and when we got done, I realized that I had about five hours to kill before my session at The Actors Key at 7:30.

Rather than drive all the way back to Tarzana, I decided to explore L.A. a little bit, grab some coffee, do some writing and prepare my sides for the “audition.”  I atomic_filterpoked around a thrift store or two in Burbank, went into this terrific vintage record store called Atomic Records on Magnolia (and bought a Firesign Theatre album there for four bucks!) and finally wound up- as you do- in a Starbucks were I set up camp for the afternoon and banged out a blog post in between running my lines.

But this thought kept nagging at me.  I knew that Flappers was holding their open auditions that night at 6:00 and a little voice in my head kept urging me to go.  There was a second, more reasonable voice that told that first voice that he should shut the hell up, but the first voice was a persistent little bugger and the caffeine I had been ingesting all afternoon was like rocket fuel to the little asshole.  He just kept getting louder and louder.

simpsons-2lqj51qFinally, just to shut him up, I decided to go and case the joint.  If the club was jammed with comics, I’d just turn on my heel and walk out.  But if it looked like I could get up there fairly quickly and then skedaddle in time for my session…well, maybe I’d put my name on the list.

Trouble was, I had taken so long to decide that, by the time I got to the club, there was- as feared- a room full of comics already lined up to audition.  There was a silver lining, though:  All first-time auditionees were moved to the front of the line.  They would see, in order- first timer’s, guys who had been bumped the last time they had tried to audition (they stop after a certain point) and then guys who had auditioned at the club before but had not been chosen.

ListShaking my head at my own recklessness, I told the girl to go ahead and put me on the list. She took my name and contact info and told me that I was behind about eight other first-timers.  At three minutes per audition, it looked like I’d be fine, time-wise, but I figured that if it looked like I was cutting it too close, I could always just ask them to pull my name and I’d try next week.

One of the club managers/regular comics got up to give a brief introduction to the proceedings but- to my mounting frustration- his intro was anything but brief.  He explained that we’d each have three minutes, after which we’d see a flashlight from the management table.  When we saw it, we were supposed to stop right there, even if we’re in the middle of a joke, and get off.  There were a lot of people to see.

If the management liked you, they’d reach out and offer you a booking.  Otherwise, you could always audition again down the road.  Then he went on and on about how we shouldn’t waste our three minutes.  No “Hey, how you doing tonight” stuff to start off.  Just start telling jokes right away.  And no kidding, when you saw the flashlight, vamoose.Time Flying

By the time he finished his introduction, it was already almost 6:30 and I was an hour away from my workshop.  I was starting to question my sanity in having signed up for this in the first place (and cursing the little asshole voice in my head).  The workshop was only about fifteen minutes away by car, but I wanted to run the lines a few more times before showing up and avoid walking into the place with flop-sweat running down my face.

Finally, the auditions began.  We were all in the room together- thirty or so comics- watching each other perform.  The host had told us that we should try to be supportive, and we were.  If you were funny, we laughed.  If not…we tried.

The comics, as always, varied in quality.  Some were okay, some kinda sad and a couple were very polished.  But their “three minute” sets- to me- seemed to be much, much longer  and as the time sped by (and my workshop approached) I finally decided I had to bail.

I found the guy with the list of comics and, between acts, asked him to pull my name.  He asked me who I was and, when I told him my name, he said “You’re on after the next guy.  You sure?”

Biting my lip, I said, “No, I’ll stick around.  Thanks.”  And I sat back down.

watch-the-clock-1-580x386This was gonna be close.

The next guy- the one before me- got up on stage but I’ll be honest:  I don’t remember a thing that he said. I was too freaked out.  All I knew was that I needed to get up there, bang out as much as I could in three minutes, walk off the stage, pick up my coat and bag, run to the car and then burn rubber to my workshop.

Finally, the comic before me got his “get off” signal, I heard my name and I stepped up onto the stage.  My act didn’t get quite as good a reception it had the night before, but still- it seemed to go fairly well.  At least I think so.  I can’t say.  Half of me was already offstage, putting on my coat.

Then I saw the flashlight, thanked the crowd and walked off.  I scooped up my bag and headed for the door.  My GPS had me twelve minutes away from my workshop, which would, if traffic allowed, give me five minutes or so leeway once I arrived.  Running the lines in the car, I zipped speedingdown Magnolia, hastily parked and- to my enormous relief – walked into the studio with time to spare.

Whew.  I had done it.  Auditioned for a stand-up gig and shown up in in plenty of time to participate in my first “Pay to Meet” workshop.

Would I do it the same way again?  No, I would not.  I had caused myself unnecessary anxiety prior to my first-ever casting director “audition” and had, as far as I knew, rushed through my routine at the club far too quickly because I had been in such a hurry to get out of there.

So, lesson learned, I told myself.  The next time I auditioned at Flappers (or anywhere else), I would arrive early, get low on the list and would avoid all that tension.

Except- as it turned out- there wouldn’t be a next time.

Because the club called me the next night and booked me for a gig.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I know.  Crazy, right?  I couldn’t really believe it myself.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Smart PhoneFirst, let’s take a look at what really happened.

It’s Thursday night.  The phone rings with an 818 area code that I don’t recognize, but I pick it up and…it’s the booker from Flappers.  She wants to know: am I available to be the warm-up act for comedian Malik S on February 5th for the Flappers Pro/Am show?

My mind goes into overdrive.  February 5th?  Is there such a thing? It sounds made up.

“Yeah,” I blurt out.  “Sure.  I can do that!”

“Great, we’ll email you a booking form.  Just fill it out and you’ll be all set!”

“Uh, okay!  Will do!  I’ll keep an eye out!  See you then!”  I was suddenly speaking in very short, declarative statements.  With lots of emphasis on each one.

Now, being an actor of long standing (and, as a result, a tremendous cynic), I immediatelyFine Print started looking for the catch.  I assumed it wasn’t a paying gig (and it isn’t).  It is nothing more than a chance to get the Flappers credit on my resume.  And that’s fine.

After all, I’m not a “young comedian,” but my act is still in its infancy, so I can use all the credits I can get.  So, will I work for free on the 5th of February?  Not a problem.  Sign me up.

Another nagging suspicion:  Is this some kind of scam to get me to join a class or something at Flappers for would-be comedians?  Turns out…nope.  They just want me to perform.  (Though I’m sure they are counting on me having some friends- i.e. paying customers- in the house that night.)

I’ve examined the offer up and down, but no matter how hard I look at it, I can’t find the downside.

I had auditioned.  I had been booked.  I have my first – albeit unpaid – job in Los Angeles.

As a stand-up comic.

Honestly, people.  I have no idea what the hell is going on out here.  I’m just along for the ride.

Devil’s Bargain

If you want to know about Chicago politics (and the Chicago ethos in general), there’s an old story that the long-admired politician, judge and legal legend Abner J. Mikva tells about the time he tried to volunteer to work for Adlai Stevenson’s campaign Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/for Governor back in 1948.

The story goes something like this:  On the way home from law school one night, Mikva saw a sign in a local Ward Committeeman’s office for Stevenson, so he walked inside and asked if he could sign up to help the campaign.  The Committeeman, a crusty old pol, took the cigar out of his mouth, looked Mikva up and down and said “Who sent you?”.  Mikva replied that no one had sent him, he just wanted to volunteer. Popping the cigar back in his mouth, the pol turned away from him and said dismissively: “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

And that was that.

This is the way we do things in Chicago.  You know somebody?  Okay, c’mon in.  You don’t? Scram.

No EntryThis is especially true for actors who wish to be seen in the offices of our city’s Casting Directors.  (You think you can just walk in off the street and audition for a movie or a commercial?  Here- talk to this Committeeman over here.  He has something he’d like to say to you.)

You want to see a Casting Director, you need an agent.  No ifs, ands or “but I’m really goods.” But getting an agent in Chicago?  Not so tough.  Most people, once they’ve been around the block a few times, land an agent and then, before you know it, you’re finally being seen by the infamous-and secretive- casting directors.

Out here in Los Angeles, however, they run things a little differently.  If you want to be seen by a particular Casting Director, chances are you’ll have the opportunity.  That’s right- you play your cards right and, on a night of your choosing– you can show up, hand over your auditionpicture and resume, present a scene to them, get some feedback and maybe- though it is by no means guaranteed- you could get called in to audition for your favorite television show or film.

The catch?  (You knew there had to be a catch, right?)  Your audition comes with a price. And depending on who you see, that price can either be relatively small or- in some cases- not too goddamn small.

payolaThe practice is informally called “Pay to Meet” and it requires no modifiers beyond that. You are literally paying money to “audition” for someone who may or may not be working on a project that you’re good for.  And out here?  It’s big business.

Here’s how it works:  There are studios all over the city with names like “The Actor’s Key” or “The Actor’s Group” or “Act Now” or “Waste Your Money Here.”  (That last one might be fictional.)

These studios contract with agents, managers and casting directors (let’s call them Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 10.06.34 PM“People to Know” or PTK’s for short) to host “workshops” which they then publicize to their clients.

The clients, of course, are the desperate actors of L.A., most of whom do not have agents to submit them to the PTK’s.  So the actors pay a fee to become members of these studios and, in turn, they get a monthly list of workshops.  They then look through the list of PTK workshops, check out the credits of each PTK and, if they see someone they like (“Oooh, she casts ‘Modern Family’!”), they sign up, pay a fee and snag a spot to audition.

[SIDE NOTE:  It is important that you know that you need a separate agent to submit you for different media.  I now have a VO agent, for example, who submits me for radio and TV commercial voice-overs.  But I have no agent for theatre, for television or for film. Which you need to be formally submitted to Casting Directors.  Keep that in mind.]

How much are these workshops?  As I said, it depends.  Are you a low-level casting assistant at a smaller agency?  You might get ten or fifteen bucks per person.  (Each workshop is usually limited to around 20 people).

money-raining1But if you’re a Head Casting Director from a big agency?  You might be able to command fifty or sixty dollars (or more) per audition from each of the actors.  So that’s sixty dollars times twenty actors.  Did you get $1,200 for your final answer?  Because I did.

And sure, they probably give the studio a cut. Plus they throw a few bucks at the reader who sits next to the agent and runs through the scene with each actor.  But still- that’s a pretty nice fee for about two hours work, wouldn’t you say?

Of course, at the beginning of each session- during the preliminary Q&A that they traditionally offer- they make a very plain disclaimer:  “This is not an audition or a guarantee of work.  This is just an opportunity to get feedback from a casting professional.”   Unsaid:  “Who will then use your money to tip the pool boy and have his Lexus detailed.”

handshake_with_the_devil_crop380wNow I ask you:  Can you conceive of a more loathsome practice?  Picking the pockets of non-working actors for the chance to meet a high-powered casting agent who will, in all likelihood, then use your headshot to line their cockatiel’s birdcage?  Isn’t that the worst scam you ever heard of?

Well, I signed up for a bunch of them this week. Oh, yeah.  I made it rain on these people. Because I’ll tell ya:  Every single actor I talked to before and since coming to Los Angeles has said the same thing to me about “Pay to Meet”:

It’s terrible.  The union shouldn’t allow it.  It is a terrible cancer on the industry.

Oh, and one final thing:  You should totally do it.  Because sometimes- just sometimes- it works.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

On the advice of my friend Jasmine, who has some experience with these workshops, my first stop was “The Actor’s Key.”  They enjoy a good reputation among workshops which, actors keyto me, is like being named “Most Friendly Pimp.” (It is almost impossible to avoid the prostitute analogies when discussing this practice.)  The Actor’s Key is known to have fair prices, an excellent stable of PTK’s and a good space in which to work.

Now, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t like to spend money.  I usually don’t have much to begin with, of course, but when it comes to parting with a buck, you’re usually going to have to pry it – NRA-style – from my cold, dead hands.  So spending the requisite dollars to attend these workshops was like removing important organs from my own bodybill-shock4840-620x354 with a pliers.  It…took some doing.

But finally, after consulting with Sara, the right PTK’s were chosen and I ruefully parted with a goodly pile of my beloved simoleons.  I lined up five workshops- one for Wednesday, two for Thursday and two for Saturday.

Then I set about choosing my sides.  What usually happens is: the studio will offer sides for you to download from their website. They give you choices like “Film Drama- Men,” “Comedy- Women,” “Daytime Drama- Youth Females” and “Sitcom- Medium Sized Dwarves.”  (Some PTK’s require their own sidessides, which is understandable.  They must get sick of seeing the same scenes over and over again, the poor dears.)

I picked my sides for my first session based on who I was meeting, a casting agent named Lyndsey Baldasare who works for David Rapaport Casting.  They do a bunch of the DC Comics television shows- “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and the new show, “Legends of Tomorrow.”  My scene was a little quirky, kind of funny but not too over-the-top.  I uploaded it to my brain and showed up at the requisite time.

Lyndsey was running late- a character trait I find more than a little annoying- but she seemed friendly and responsive once she finally arrived.  The questions – and responsive answers – during the Q&A were mostly inane (i.e., Q- “What are your favorite types of actors?”  A- “Good actors.”) but it was a mercifully short session, after which we all stepped in the lobby to wait our turn.

I struck up a conversation with a few actors in the hall while we waited, some of whom were veterans at the “Pay to Meet” game.  One guy said he paid a flat fee- $600- in order to qualify for the package deal, which gave him $800 worth of workshops.  I smiled at himmoneyflush as I was required by social convention to do, all the while thinking “Didn’t you have a convenient toilet you could flush your money down?”.

But really, who was I to look down my nose at him?  I was there doing the same thing he was.  The real chump was the schmuck paying full price.

Lyndsey spent a pretty good amount of time with each actor, which was certainly nice of her, but it meant waiting an eternity to get in the room as I was pretty low on the list.  (My impatience was compounded by the fact that I had neglected to eat dinner, but that’s a story for tomorrow.)

Finally, my turn at bat arrived and I went in.  And I felt the chill almost right away. Lyndsey might have been happy to see some of those actors that night, but she looked at me like I had just farted in church.

mirandaI tried to stay friendly and engage in a little small talk, but Lyndsey wasn’t having it.  “Whatcha got?” she said.  I told her.

And just as she said, “Okay, whenever you’re ready”…

…she reached for her purse.

Now I won’t swear that she rummaged in her goddamn bag the entire time I was performing, but it sure seemed like that to me.  When I was done (the scene took about a minute or so), she asked me- as she applied the lip balm she had been seeking so ardently, what I had wanted from my scene partner.

I did not tell her what I really wanted- which was to pick up her bag and pelt her about the face and neck with it.  Instead I explained my motivation for the sScreen Shot 2016-01-15 at 10.32.35 PMcene, after which she said, “Try and be a little nicer to her.  See what that does.”

I smiled and said, “Okay” resisting the urge to ask her if she was actually going to watch the scene the second time through.  The reader and I cranked it up again and let it play one more time.  Lyndsey tried to look pleased with the result, but there’s a reason she’s in casting:  acting is not for her.  I got a briefly scrawled, written evaluation which now sits in front of me.  I got straight 4’s out of 5 in all the categories- headshot, energy, interpretation of the scene, preparation and ability to make adjustments.  My age range, apparently, is 40’s.  So you know.  Hooray.

Oh, and for “Overall Impression”?  Three point five.

I’m thinking of hanging it next to my “Kevin Theis- 5.9” sign.

And that was the name of that tune.  I collected my things and took off, none to pleased that I had experienced my first-ever pay-to-play and felt like I had just been robbed at gunpoint…by myself.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Happily, the next night was much better.  I had two sessions, one with sitcom casting director Michael Nicolo (New Girl, Spider-Man 2, Cabin in the Woods) and another with ShondaLand_logoMorgan Redfield-Smith (who helps cast all the Shondaland shows: How to Get Away With Murder, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal).

Both were attentive, responsive and complimentary.  I felt less like I had wasted my money, but there was still this nagging doubt in the back of my mind:

Who calls in actors without agents?  Did they really expect us to believe that they, as high-powered casting directors, actually pick up the phone or send an email to an actor they saw in a five minute audition at some workshop?

On the other hand:  What do I know?  It must happen.  Or, at least, it must happen often enough that these types of workshops continue.  The fantasy of being discovered at one of these sessions is a powerful thing.  Maybe it never happens. But the thought of Powerballgetting a call from one of them is so tantalizing, so deliciously attractive that you can’t help but sign on.  Over and over again.

It is the Powerball lotto for actors.  You buy a ticket and dream about winning but…it’s
always some asshole in Tennessee who picks the right numbers.

So I’ve got two more tomorrow.  And I’m trying not to put too much stock in these things. Could I wind up getting a call?  I suppose.  But I would be completely stunned if I did.  And to ease the pain of having paid so much money, I’ll go ahead and assume that it was worth it on some level.

But at the end of the day, my final thought on the topic is simply this:

I shouldn’t need to pay for access to a Casting Director.  What I need:

Is another agent.

Help From Above

Here’s something about the entertainment industry that, if you don’t already know it, you should.  It is a difficult lesson for some and patently obvious to others, but the sooner you learn and understand this, the sooner you’ll be able to survive with a modicum of sanity in this business. Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 1.15.21 AM

Ready?  Here it is:

You really need two things to survive in the arts, whether it is in the theatre, on television or in films.  (Technically, you really only need the second, but it is preferable if you have them both. More on that later.)

Number one- You should be good at what you do.  This sounds obvious, but sometimes isn’t.  Ever hear an Olympic athlete talk about their post-Games plan?  “I’m thinking of being an actor.”  Like acting is a pair of shoes you can just try on.  No.  Wrong.  Sorry.

You want to be an artist of some kind?  Great.  Study hard.  Train yourself.  Learn how to be a talented performer, a top-notch writer, an incredible choreographer, an imaginative, collaborative director- there are many fields in this business in which you can excel.  Find what you’re good at, try to be the best at whatever it is and always, always strive to improve.

Number two- You need someone to believe in you.  This is the essential element to success.  Nobody- and I mean nobody– makes it in this business (or any business, really) without help.  You’re a good actor?  Super.  But you’re going spend your career being the best actor in your own bathroom if you can’t find a director hire you.  You’re an excellent director?  Happy to hear it. helping-handWithout a producer or a company to give you an opportunity to work, you’ll be imaginatively, collaboratively directing traffic.

Everybody needs help.  And help can come in many packages.  Someone could simply like your audition and hire you on the spot.  Or you could be seen by someone who refers you to someone else who has an available job. A stage manager or PA could remember you from a previous production- how good and not-a-dick you were- and  drop those magic words in the director’s ear: “You should give that kid a shot. He’s got something.”

And while its true that, in some cases, you don’t need the first of these two puzzle pieces (the talent) as long as you have the second (plenty of lousy actors get good jobs) it is equally true that the natural ability, the skill…that’s the only thing that’s going to keep you around for an entire career.

Seriously- who is the worst successful actor you know?  I mean the guy (or lady) who- when you see them on the screen- makes you say to yourself “Jesus, how did they ever make it?”  Go aRazziehead, take a minute.

Got it?  I bet we’re thinking of the same actor.

That crappy successful actor?  He’s an anomaly.  A unicorn. Yes, they exist, but they are as rare as decent, trustworthy, sane Republican candidates.  They are the exception, not the rule.

Besides, you don’t want to be them, right?  Right.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of the lessons I’ve learned on this little West coast trip of mine is that if you’re surrounded by the right people, they will give you help when you least expect it.  I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the kind acts that have been done for me by my various friends both before and after I left Chicago, but today I’d like to talk about one in particular.

First, I should start by saying that my agents in Chicago- the folks at Grossman & Jack Talent- are just amazing people.  One of the hardest things about coming to L.A. was having to G&Jinform them all that I was leaving.  I made it clear that it was likely only to be for a short while, but I felt terrible anyway.

After all, they stuck with me through thick, thin and very, very goddamn thin.  When I would go months- months- without work, they kept me on.  Weekly, sometimes daily voice-over auditions, they never stopped coming in no matter how bad things got.

Because they believed in me.  They appreciated what I could do behind a microphone and they trusted that someone out there- some producer or ad agency- would eventually hear whatMicrophone they heard and hire me.  And they were right, a lot of the time.  I got a ton of work through them and we made a lot of money together.

So get this:  When I was preparing to make the move out California, I actually had the audacity to ask them for help.  Can you imagine that?  It’s like leaving your wife and saying “Hey, honey- can you recommend a new girlfriend on the West coast?  I might be a little lonely out there.”

But by God, they tried to help.  Both in the on-camera department and in voice-over. Long DistanceThey put out feelers out in L.A. (without making any promises) just to see if anyone might be interested in this crusty old Irishman.  And thanks to one of these overtures by one agent in particular- VO agent Vanessa Lanier- I hit paydirt.

Late last week, I got an email from an agent named Vanessa Gilbert from TGMD Talent here in L.A.  (That’s TWO Vanessas, by the way, so don’t get confused.)

Vanessa G. (the one out here) had heard from Vanessa L. (back in Chicago) that I was someone she should meet.  She asked that I forward her my demo reels soTGMD she could have a listen, which I promptly did.

And then I waited.  Two agonizing days.  As my friends in the business will tell you:  Silence is not a sign of good news.

Then…boom.  Another email flies in from Vanessa G. Can we meet on Monday?  Gulp.  You bet we can!

The TGMD offices, by the way, are located directly behind the Warner Bros Studio lot.  You have to drive by these gigantic sound stages on your way and I’ve gotta say: I still kinda geek out every time I drive past a movie studio.  The film history just seems to radiate from those places..  You drive by, but you want in.

I arrived at the TGMD offices in plenty of time for my meeting and was greeted by two ancient dogs in the foyer.  They were extremely pleased to make my acquaintance and took turns letting me toss a ball for them and breathing their perfectly awful dog breath in my face.

Finally, Vanessa G. summoned me into her office.  She’s got this very authentic child-of-the-70’s aura and has enjoyed a decades-long career booking talent. You don’t doubt for a

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 5.59.53 PM

Vanessa G. with her close friend, Robert Plant. California, baby.

minute that she’s seen it all.

While she was very welcoming, but I couldn’t help but get an “I’m just doing this as a favor” vibe about the whole thing. She was going to let me sit with her for a few minutes, but that was about as far as it would go.

“Vanessa in Chicago told me a lot about you,” Vanessa in California said. “I hear you’re a utility guy.  You can do any voice, any time.  That true?”

My heart swelled.  Vanessa in Chicago had really talked me up.  Hot damn.

“I like to think so, sure.  She’s had me read just about every character imaginable.”  I ran through a few- stuffy banker type, South side Chicago gangster, superhero voice.  Then I shut up.  I didn’t want to preen too much.

Vanessa G. nodded, turned to her computer and summoned up a link to my demo reels on her computer. We sat and gave them a listen.  I was sweating buckets.Striker

As she listened, with her eyes closed and her head cocked to the side, I could see that she
had been in this business for a long time.  And she was, at first, not particularly impressed.  Her first response was to offer criticism of my commercial reel (“I’m not feeling it.  You need a better hook.”).  But then clicked on my character demo…and things suddenly changed.

Halfway through it, she hit pause.  She turned to me.  “Where did you learn all the accents?” she asked.

“My father,” I said.  “He was this incredibly gifted voice-over actor back in the 60’s and 70’s.”

Her eyebrows shot up.  “You come from a family of voice-over actors?”

“Yup,” I said.

She hit “play” again and the character demo resumed.  We listened to the end.

Then there was a pause.  I could see she was thinking of what to do next.  I died a little death in that long moment.

signing-contractFinally she spoke.  “Well,” she said, shooting me a big smile.  “Let’s do this thing.”

Paperwork was produced, information was traded, introductions made around the office. And just like that…I had a voice over agent in Los Angeles.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I want to be clear about something, though.  Yes, I have been doing voice work for a long, long time.  I believe I have a couple of terrific reels (criticism of the one notwithstanding). I have a list of clients and bookings as long as your arm.  All of that- the combination of my body of work, my reels and my ability- helped to get my new agent to sign me, no question about it.  I had the first of the two elements needed to succeed.  I am- and I’m not ashamed to say it- good at what I do.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 6.33.33 PMBut there’s no denying it:  Without Vanessa L.- my VO agent in Chicago- plugging me and singing my praises, Vanessa G. would never have given me the time of day, much less offered to take me on as a client.  I could have pushed my resume on her and sent her my demos from now until the cows got homesick and I would never have been allowed to darken TGMD’s door.  It was only because of the recommendation from my new favorite person in Chicago- Vanessa Lanier, God love her- that I was allowed in the sanctum sanctorum of Vanessa G’s agency to pitch myself.

I had the essential second element- help from above- to clinch the deal.

And I could not be more grateful.

Especially since I woke up Tuesday morning with four auditions sitting in my inbox.

Up, up and away.

A Taste of Hollywood

When you exit the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles and turn up Beachwood Drive to approach the home of my friends James Sie and Douglas Wood, you are treated to one of the most ridiculously perfect views in the entire city.

How ridiculously perfect you ask?  Here you go:

DSC01992

I literally laughed out loud when I saw it.  It was so perfectly, almost comically framed, I had to pull over and take this picture.  After I snapped it, I said out loud, to myself: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

James and Doug- married for years and the proud fathers of fourteen-year-old Ben- live in a house that can only be described as palatial.

james sie

Not Doug

Not a mansion in Beverly Hills, mind you.  Hell, you can keep those.  This is a Spanish-style, two-story stunner that would melt the heart of even the most stoic of out-of-town L.A. cynics.

Doug Wood

Not James

Huge kitchen with a sparkling Viking stove and countertops for days.  Vaulted ceilings in the living room (with a roaring fireplace, of course).  Terraced backyard garden with- you guessed it- a pool and a hot tub to boot.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.

James, Doug and I go way back.  I met James over twenty-five years ago, back when he was a full-time performer Lifelineand writer at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago and, after knowing Doug  tangentially through James for a few years, finally got to work with him properly on an unforgettable production of “The Tempest” that Michael Barto directed back in 1993.  James is a wonderfully gifted actor who now makes an enviable living doing voice-overs here in L.A.  Doug, for his part, is a phenomenal composer and brilliant vocal coach who, these days, has taken up creative writing as his latest foray into the arts with- unsurprisingly- resounding success.

Apart from their son Ben (who seemed very nice but equally uninterested in the Intruder from Chicago), they had another visitor taking up residence:  Chicago ex-pat Denis O’Hare.

Denis 2

Not James or Doug

Since his Chicago days, as you may know, Denis has done…well, let’s say “very well.”  Most folks know him from his work on the HBO show “True Blood” or from the FX series “American Horror Story,” but he has a career most actors would kill for.  Dozens of films, TV appearances, a Tony award, you name it.  And he is, I’m happy to report, a charming fellow. (You always let out a sigh of relief when you meet an actor you admire and they turn out not to be a dick. Thus it was with Denis.)

Well, Denis was having a busy morning.  He was set to attend the Golden Globes that night (like you do) and he had a lot of preparations to make.  For one thing, he was getting a mani-pedi and having his fingernails (and toenails) painted for the big event.  His plan was to wear a giant set of high heels to walk the red carpet and wanted his nails to match his outfit.  (He had played a drag character on “AHS” this season and, well, after that, who wouldn’t wear heels to the Golden Globes?  It all seems so logical now.)

hollywood-farmers-market-signJames and I left Doug at the house and headed out to the Hollywood Farmers Market for James’ weekly produce pilgrimage and to get supplies for that evening’s dinner.  (I was promised that I would see stars at the market fondling fruits and the like and was somewhat skeptical.  The Hollywood elite actually venture out to buy their own salad-makings?  How…rustic!)

The market itself, located between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards (near Vine) is as vast as it is impressive.  Every kind of greenery, juice

Olaf

“I have done other work than this.  Come on.”

fruit, legume, sprout or lettuce can be found there (at criminally high prices, of course) and…sure enough, within minutes we spotted a few folks from TV.  I saw Walton Goggins- a wonderful actor from “Justified” I’ve long admired- testing out the kale and couldn’t help but spot the giant actor Abraham Benrubi strolling about. (Benrubi, a veteran performer, is best known…to me at least…as Olaf the Troll on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  Don’t you judge me.  Don’t you dare judge me.)

After scooping up half the produce in the place and enjoying a delicious plate lunch, James and I zipped back to the house just in time to catch Denis back from the beauty parlor.  Sure enough, his fingernails and toes sparkled and he strolled through the kitchen modeling the giant heels he planned to wear that night on the red carpet.  As his on-call make-up artist got to work (you can’t make this shit up), James, Doug and I nipped off to the movies.

On the way, my two hosts made sure to haul me up to the top of the hill near their house so we could get a shot next to the Hollywood sign.  Doug was the photographer and, after a couple of standard “Hey, look.  I’m standing by the Hollywood sign” photos, he decided the shots were too boring.  “Jump in the air!” he yelled and I enthusiastically complied.  Here is the result:

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I make no apologies for this.

Then it was off to the movies.  And I was in for a real treat.  I was escorted to the famous ArcLight Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in downtown Hollywood to see the new Charlie Kaufman film “AnamArcLight Hollywood Entranceolisa.”  The ArcLight is this astounding, state-of-the-art movie house that sits just adjacent to the legendary Cinerama Dome.  At the ArcLight, you are not only provided luxurious, comfortable chairs for your viewing pleasure…your tickets come with reserved seating, too.  I was half expecting a foot massage during the film.

Speaking of which- do not miss this movie.  It is an incredible achievement.  A stop-motion animated film, it tells the (truly bizarre) story of a motivational speaker’s visit to a hotel seminar in Cincinnati and the odd -and graphic- romantic entanglements that ensue.  It may sound boring and pedestrian, but words cannot do justice to how original and riveting this film turned out to be.  And if you’re a fan of Kaufman’s work, well….run.  Don’t walk.

The lobby of the ArcLight, by the way, features all sorts of costume pieces and props from the various first-run films currently showing.  I saw Captain Phasma’s stormtrooper Anamolisauniform from “The Force Awakens,” an actual set piece from “Anamolisa” (pictured at right), as well as the costumes worn by each actor in “The Hateful Eight,” (the mannequin for Samuel L. Jackson’s character was- either oddly or appropriately- a different color than the rest.  You couldn’t help but notice.)

After the movie, it was back to James’ and Doug’s place where James got busy preparing that evening’s feast:  a giant salad featuring portions of almost all the greens he bought at the market that day, plus fresh mussels (also picked up fresh that morning) over pasta.

We also made sure to check to see if Denis’ outfit had been a hit at the Golden Globes.  As predicted, he was a smash.  I cannot tell you how much it melted my mind to see the Internet blow up with pictures of Denisthe guy I had seen- just hours before-traipsing through the house in his new heels and painted nails.  It was a Hollywood moment if there ever was one.

The dinner conversation was wide-ranging and endlessly fascinating.  We talked about our careers, our parents, our disappointments and our dreams.  We discussed death, life, studio microphones and raising teenagers.  We laughed.  We reminisced.  We railed and ranted. And we made James’ amazing pasta disappear in record time.

And then I went home.

All in all, it was a truly unforgettable, glorious day.  James and Doug, gracious and thoughtful throughout, had been the perfect hosts and had shown me an absolutely amazing time.  I cannot think of how I will ever be able to repay or properly thank them for their kindness.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I have now been in Los Angeles for one week.  And if there is a single takeaway from the whole experience thus far, it is this:

I am a very lucky man.  My friends- my kind and generous friends- are the finest people in the world.  You hear a lot about how harsh, hypocritical and unforgiving people in L.A. can be.  Maybe.  But that certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Instead, I can bear witness to the countless acts of selfless, sweet and Beach Sunsetunexpected graciousness from an entire platoon of colleagues- some of whom I have not seen in decades– who have stepped up to help me in my quest in ways both large and small.

Paul and Monica.  Chet and Michael.  Kyle, Tom, James, Doug, Adam, Ben, Jasmine, Vanessa, Matthew and Susan. Coming up later in the week: Amy, Mark, Ann, Brian, Jamie and more…the outpouring of love and support has been both humbling and inspiring.  I am eternally grateful to each and all of them and stand in breathless awe at their beneficence.

So…here’s to the Great Experiment, Week One.

The events of the last seven days will be a tough act to follow.

Can’t wait to see what happens next.