The Hardest Part

Tom Petty was right.

tom-the-waitingAs the time drew closer and closer to our Los Angeles Brexit and Milo and I prepared to load up the truck and move away from Beverlee (Hills, that is), I found myself tasked with assessing the overall wisdom of having embarked on this journey in the first place.

Or, rather, in the second place, since I actually moved out to California from Chicago twice in a single year.

Was it, I asked myself, worth the expense, the time, the energy, the effort?

non-ringing-phoneWell…professionally, it would be hard to argue that the trip (particularly The Trip, Part Two: Electric Bugaloo) was not a bust.  I only had a small number of film and television auditions and, to show for it…zero bookings.  That’s not good and, strictly from a business standpoint, cannot possibly be twisted into anything resembling a successful venture.

In fact, during the time I was in L.A., the most acting I did was at the weekly, Wednesday night acting classes that I attended with a handful of other Chicago ex-pats, where we would dole out scenes, jump up on stage, perform the scenes on-book and then give each other assessments and feedback afterwards.  It was fun, it kept the muscles from atrophying but..it wasn’t work.

32511116 - headphones on the old book. concept of listening to audiobooks.

True, I was (as was explained in my previous post on the subject) daily banging out audiobooks on a consistent basis but as I’ve said (a) this is work I could have been doing in Chicago all this time and (b) it certainly not what I had hoped to be doing when I returned to LA back in August, teenager in tow.

And, yes, there had been some other, occasional acting-related jobs in the past few months as well- little gigs here and there that have cropped up and put a few bucks in the bank but…not one commercial, not one television booking, not one Scorsese- or Spielberg-type ringing me up, desperate to have me aboard their new project.

failureI did not, to put a very fine point on it, find professional work in L.A.  So…the whole thing was a failure, right?

Well, hold on there.  Since we have the leisure of some Monday morning quarterbacking, let’s do so:

Part of the reason for the lack of bookings, as I’ve mentioned before, lies in the difficulty of getting seen by anyone in the first place.

headshotsTo recap:  When a casting agent puts out a call for actors in Los Angeles, they are deluged with submissions.   For every one role they are looking to cast- and this is not an exaggeration- they can wind up with over 2,000 headshots on their desk (or they would, if they weren’t all being submitted digitally these days).

With that kind of response rate, how do you, as a casting professional, sort through that kind of mess to pick even a small fraction of actors to see?

The answer is:  You don’t.  You call in the actors you know, the actors you recognize or the actors with the most powerful agents.  The rest…

…they wait.waiting-3

And that wait…it is simply dreadful.  Stultifying.  Frustrating.  Maddening.  (Consult your thesaurus for additional appropriate “I don’t like waiting” descriptors.)

Simply put:  I don’t mind not getting the job.  I mind not being seen for it.  I’m a professional actor.  I’m used to being rejected.  I don’t take it personally.

waitingBut for crying out loud, if you’re going to reject me, at least see what I’ve got to offer before deciding it isn’t what you’re looking for.

What makes this sight-unseen dismissal exponentially more upsetting is knowing that you’re in the middle of Entertainment World, U.S.A. and you still can’t get seen. Sometimes, when you flip on the TV or go to the movies, you get an eyeful all of the working actors, you start to feel as if you’re the only poor schmuck in town not finding work.

waiting-2And it is not as comforting as you might think to realize that, no, you’re just one schmucky little grain of sand on a beachful of other non-working actors in town and that your plight is very far from unique.

So what you do (or what I did, and I’m sure I’m one of many) is…you continue to wait.  You give the phone the side-eye, willing it to ring, keeping yourself busy, hitting the gym religiously, submitting yourself through the non-agent websites whenever possible and hoping against hope that your time will finally come.

It isn’t easy, sitting in that stewpot, ladling juices over yourself, day after day.  But you do it because…what else are you going to do?

And then, like the man says…one day?  Boom.  You’re eighty.

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

Luckily, I was plenty busy in the meantime.  I was in the studio almost every day, laying down audiobooks one after the other.  I was running each morning, too and hitting the gym every other day, trying to stay trim and fit and keep this half-century year old bod in shape.recording

Not to mention the fact that I was also functioning as a full-time, single parent for the first time in my life which, believe me, gave me newfound respect for what my mother did for all those years.

And honestly, that was the main difference between the last trip and the current experiment.  On this leg of the adventure, there were no late nights, no up-until-all-hours blog writing, no crashing on people’s couches or hitting the bars in the evening.

early-to-bedNo, for this visit, it was lights out early, up and off to school with the first morning’s rays, work all day in the booth, exercise, shop, plan and make dinner, do twice as much laundry as before, keep the place neat and clean and, of necessity, cut way, way back on the heroin.

I’m kidding, of course.  Sometimes we actually went out to dinner.

routinesBut the time for lazy, LA sightseeing on my part- which I enjoyed very much back in January- was pretty much over.  When Milo and I explored the city, it was during the weekends, not whenever I felt like rolling out of bed and checking out the tar pits.

As a result, we both fell into our habits, our daily routines and…boom.  It was suddenly December and I didn’t even have a star on the Walk of Fame to show for all my trouble.

We had moved to L.A., lived fairly normal lives as father and son, had some fun, traveled a bit, explored our new city… and now we were going home.

no-jobsSo as the time came close to leave, the question lingered:

Was it a complete bust?  Did I make a mistake coming back out here?  Do I regret having made this expensive and (professionally, at least) fruitless trip back out to California?

Most importantly:  If I had it to do over again…would I have made the same decision?

And of course, having removed the rose-colored glasses and viewed the entire venture honestly, the answer had to be:

Absolutely, without question, I would do it all again in a red-hot minute.

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

“But…why?” you might be asking yourself.  “Five pricey months in Los Angeles and no jobs?  Why in hell would you do it again?  How could this possibly be construed as a win?”

bad-oddsFrankly speaking, if you’re seriously asking that question, then you have no idea why I came out here in the first place.

And let’s be clear:  Yes, I had been hoping for work.  Of course I was.  I would have loved nothing more than to end this story with the buzzer-beating, last-minute, holy-shit-did-I-just-see-Theis-in-that-movie ending.

Finding acting work in L.A. was a huge part of why I bothered to come back to LA, naturally.  And it is, I have no shame in saying, somewhat disappointing that I didn’t get that particular happy ending.

long-shotBut ultimately, from the moment I left Chicago, I knew the odds of such a thing happening were astronomical, especially given the time frame I had given myself.  I know actors just as talented as I am (yes, they do exist), who have been out here for years looking for work and…what?  I was going to zip into town and land a sitcom in the five short months I had allotted myself?

If I had been honestly expecting that to happen with any degree of certainty, I would have easily medaled in the Arrogance Olympics.

Nope.  I knew what was probably going to happen.  From the start, I was well aware of the fact that, given the odds I was facing, my returning to Chicago empty handed was all but guaranteed.  And though many of you reading this story might have been hoping for me to buck the odds and land that big job, I am quite sure that most of you knew how it would end, too.lotto

Failure wasn’t just an option.  It was practically a certainty.

And with that being said my “I would do it again in a minute” answer has not become any more understandable, has it?  If anything, this of-course-I-was-going-to-fail explanation has actually made my pride in having made this trip a bit less reasonable.

Okay, fine.  So why don’t we just  jump ahead and get to the real reason I made the trip, shall we?

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

As luck would have it, one of the public domain books I recorded for an audiobook project this past month was Henry David Thoreau’s classic memoir of self-sufficiency, simple living and unintentional dick-ish-ness, “Walden.”walden

In it, Thoreau beautifully describes the two years he spent turning his back on civilization and living, practically as a hermit, in a tiny, self-made cabin in the woods, far from the madding crowd.  It is a lyrical, gorgeously written and almost insufferably egotistic peon to the natural world, the glories of eschewing materialism and, most importantly, himself.

(As my friend Joseph helpfully pointed out, de-constructing one of Thoreau’s best known quotes: “You would have been a lot less hypocritical with just the one ‘simplify,’ Henry.”)simplify

But Thoreau does get one thing exactly right.  The mass of men do, indeed, lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

Right on the money, H.D.  Nailed it.

Well…not this man.  I may have been quietly desperate before, sure. I won’t deny it.  My song was packed up and ready for the grave.  I was a shuffling, compliant, card-carrying member of the mass of men.

Not anymore.

Now?

desperatWell…I’m still desperate.  But at least I’m loudly desperate.  And my song isn’t going to my freakin’ grave, goddamn it.  I’m going to sing it at the top of my lungs as obnoxiously and off-key as it bloody well pleases me and if you don’t like it, you can make like Henry and go lock yourself in a cabin in the woods and give up coffee and booze like a dope for all I care.

midlifeCall it a mid-life crisis.  Or an epiphany.  Or a combination of the two.  But I needed to go on this adventure like a fish needs water.

And as clarifying as that answer might be (and I hope it was), that’s just reason number one for packing up and moving to Hollywood.  There was another, even more compelling reason as far as I was concerned.

I had something I needed to teach my kids.

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

See, when you have children, one of your primary jobs is to teach them stuff.  How to walk, speak, fetch you beer when you need one…all that jazz.

Bclimbingut the most important lesson- I think- can be summed up in two words:

Reach.  Higher.

Don’t like what you’re doing?  Do something else.

Don’t like where you are?  Go somewhere else.

Don’t like your job?  Get a better one.

Do not, if at all possible, settle for what you’ve got.ladder

Reach.  Higher.

And what I taught my kids this year- or at least what I hope I taught them- is that it is never too late or too scary or too crazy to let go of what you’ve got and see if there’s a higher rung on the ladder.

(Another lesson:  Marry someone as cool as your mother who will allow you to do insane things like this.)

And even though this particular adventure did not go as planned?  At least they know that I tried it.  With everything I had, I made the attempt.

And really, the attempt?  That is everything.

cliff-jumpIf I hadn’t done it, I would always have wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t.  o I threw myself off the cliff, hoping to fly…and plunged down onto the beach.  BLAP.

But I survived.  And I learned a lot.  And I had a lot of fun.  And I got to live with my son in L.A. for five months, an experience that drew us closer together than ever.

And…did I mention I haven’t been in an office for a year?

Would I do it again?

Man…sign me up.

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

Now…I know many of you are expecting this to be my last post.  But…it can’t be.

Know why?  Well here’s your M. Night Shaymalan ending, boys and girls:

Because before I left L.A. – on my very last full day in the city, in fact – my phone rang.

And I got a job.

An acting job.

A real, actual, union, paying acting job.plot-twist

And that story…you’re not going to believe.

Til next time…

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Life in Ft. Raphael

Here’s a tip for non-actors:

If you’ve got a friend who is in the performing arts and you know they’re going to an audition…don’t ask them about how it went afterwards.  Especially, a week or so later, do NOT say “By the way, how did that audition turn out last week?”auditions

Because – and you must trust me on this – if you heard about the audition?  You would have heard about the resulting booking, had it occurred. Actors don’t keep their light under a bushel. They set their bushels on fire and dance around yelling “Look at my flaming bushel!!”

Listen to Me Sign Person Tries to Get Attention in Crowd

When nothing happens, we shut up about it.  When something happens…we think that folks on freakin’ Mars should be made aware.

So, now that the old clock on the wall is telling me that my time here on the West Coast is drawing to a close, it has come time for me to report, before I hit the road back to snowy Chicago next week, how things have progressed out here.

And as you’ve likely guessed by now, had I landed a TV or film role, you would have heard about it the moment it happened.  I would have gleefully posted about it here on this page and asked you to marvel at my blazing red bushel long before now. (Phrasing?)next

But the deconstruction of that part of the business- the film and TV side- will have to wait for the next posting, however.  In this one, I would like to deal with the one, great, positive professional accomplishment I was able to make while out here in L.A. and that is:

Recording audiobooks.

Audiobook concept. Headphones and books on white isolated background.

A bit of history:  As people who follow this blog religiously (yes, both of you) know:  I began recording audiobooks full-time back in March.

Since then, both here and back home in Chicago over the summer, I managed to complete over forty books, most of which were Royalty Share contracts.  Felt pretty good about how that worked out, too.

Since arriving back in Los Angeles in August, however, and setting up my own blanket-fort studio, I’ve since laid down an additional seventy books and, apparently, I am showing no signs of stopping.  chart-climbing

I have at least three producers who automatically book me whenever they have a new project and one of them is actually paying me by the hour for a series of public domain books that I’ve been recording and loading up for the past month or so.  (If you’ve been waiting your whole life to hear me read Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” out loud to you…your long wait is finally over.)

blah-blahSo let me get out my calculator…let’s see….that’s about…a hundred and fifteen audiobooks since March.  Over 4,500 in total book sales (which is about double what I’d been hoping for).  The result?  I’m also making twice what I had budgeted to make through Royalty Share at ACX while I was out here.

The problem?  It still isn’t quite enough to keep my head above water.  I check my sales on ACX every morning and either celebrate or shake my fist at the sky, but the combination of the inconsistency and the lack of a single, truly high-volume selling book has meant that I rely more and more on the hourly work.

And that, my friends, is brutal.hot-box

Seriously, whenever anyone asks me how to get started in the audiobook business, the first thing I say to them is:  “Try this:  Get a flashlight, a stopwatch and a novel.  Take all three and go lock yourself in a closet.  Start the stopwatch and start reading the book out loud to yourself.  If you can make it to a half an hour without wanting to fashion a rope out of your clothes and hang yourself…you’re in the club.”reading-by-fl

Because no kidding- it is really, really tough work.  When I’m getting an hourly fee, I do my level best to stay in the Fort as long as possible but, no matter the financial reward…I find it virtually impossible to turn out more than two hours of finished product in a single day.

Sounds crazy, right?  Two hours a day of work?  How hard can it be?  Well…if your job was to be tortured on the rack or to listen to Donald Trump speak in public without cessation…two hours can seem like an eternity, actually.rack

I’ll be in Ft. Raphael, reading and reading and talking and talking and think “Well, that has to be at least a half an hour.”  And then I look at the clock, see that I’ve been talking for about ten minutes…and life loses all meaning.

steveThen there are the times when your mouth just decides to quit on you.  That’s fun.  You’re going along, cruising through the story, bringing the text magically to life…and then suddenly you start sounding like Truman Capote after a stroke.  And no matter what you do to will yourself into speaking clearly…your mouth has just checked out and taken your tongue with it.  Nothing to do but take a break and find your bearings.

editingBy the way, that’s not to mention the time you need to put in after the recording itself. The editing, processing and digital upload of the finished files.  That can sometimes take almost as long as the recording itself (especially if I’m not at my sparkling, letter-perfect best while in the booth).

And then there’s the music that I add to the introduction, the conclusion and the retail sample.  (To be clear, you do not have to include music in the finished product, but I always do it because my clients seem to appreciate it and I think that it helps with book sales. Plus I can’t help myself.)

So….two hours a day?  Believe it or not:  That’s a full day’s work in the audiobook world.

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

If there has been one big disappointment in my work recording books, it has been the failure of my theory that the more books I completed, the bigger my sales would be- overall- as a direct result.  graph-of-exponential-growth1

The theory was:  If one book sold at the rate of x, then four books would sell at the rate of 4x.  And if that was true, then forty books would naturally sell at 40x and…riches would naturally follow.

Turns out, not so much.  Because, sometimes…one book doesn’t sell doodley squat.  And the one after that will sell fifty copies.  The next?  Nothing.  Then…BOOM!  Three hundred copies.  It is impossible to predict what one or another book will do, sales-wise, once it is released.disgust

And it had almost nothing to do with quality.  Some of the best stuff I recorded sold just north of bupkis and some of the others….some honest to goodness digital horse manure…sold hundreds of copies.  I actually pitied some of the people who were subjected to some of these recordings and truly wish I could arrange to refund their money.  (Though I will, naturally, be holding on to my cut.)

pile-of-scriptsBut at the end of the day, this has become my new full-time occupation.  (Though the downside of that will also be discussed in the next posting.)  I’m proud to say that there have only been two days- only two– since I arrived in L.A. that I haven’t had a recording of some kind or other that I needed to work on.

That’s almost every day.  For five months.  Could be worse.

However, as my father would be the first to point out:  That is all work I could have done back in Chicago.  I certainly didn’t need to drive out here and build Ft. Raphael to record all those books.  I could have done them all back at…um…at….damn. I really need to name my home studio, don’t I?

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-8-54-04-pmStill, I cannot say that if I had stayed in Chicago whether or not any of this would have occurred.  If the books that finally got me the hourly gig (projects which are currently paying my bills) would ever have occurred.  If the audiobook producers now showing interest in my work would have been less impressed with only fifty or sixty completed projects compared to the 100+ that I currently have on my resume.

Who knows?  All I know for sure is that I’ve got a huge catalog of titles now that will be generating (to lesser and greater degrees, of course) royalties for me for the next seven years.

And, of course, I’ve got one additional future occupation all lined up:

Going back to Chicago and teaching a class on how other actors can learn how to do this sort of thing for themselves.

Here’s to the New Year, eh?