Presence in the Pursuit (Or the Art of Letting Go): One Pre-Enlightened Actress’s Guide to Living The Dream

# 45: Develop a Way of Working, and then Trust It!

I had lunch and a movie, a ritual of sorts, with my dearest friend Mary today and we talked a bit about trusting our own processes.  She’s in acupuncture school right now and she was sharing how the school has them get feedback from one of their top former students on how to study for the big tests they have.  He encouraged them to study 5 to 7 hours a day.  But Mary confided to me that that’s just not how she works.  For her, that many hours is just too much.

I mentioned that it’s taken me a long time to trust my process and to value it above someone else’s:  to really know what works for me and to trust that I’m doing it the best way for me when there are so many different ways of working and so many people that want to tell you how to go about it.

So this post is not for those of you that already have a process that you trust.  If what you’re doing is working for you, stop reading this right now.  Know that there are lots of ways to skin a cat and trust that if it’s working for you then it’s a valuable way of doing things.  Most of life is not math, thank God, or I would be doomed, doomed, doomed.  There are lots of right ways of doing the same thing.

That said, when I was a newer actor, I would have loved for someone to break things down for me in somewhat concrete terms and offer me a comprehensive way of working.  I don’t believe in secret processes or protecting my way.  We all bring something unique to the table and if something I share works for you, then awesome.  Acting is about sharing.  And listening.  So it makes sense to give a little insight into a way of working.  But that’s all it is.

I’ve been acting on some level since I was seven.  In the beginning it was just imagination and memorization and enthusiasm that I brought to the table.  As I started to study the actual craft of acting, I started to bring a Hodge-podge of acting approaches to creating a character as well.  I learned a lot about the craft of acting as a kid and so I think for a long time my process was kind of random and even changed quite a bit depending on what acting class I was in, etc.  Honestly, it wasn’t until I took a Master class with Maggie Flanigan in NYC post performing arts high school, post BA in Theater, post one year conservatory in NYC that I really was offered a set way of working on a script.  That’s not to say that I didn’t learn amazing tools from my other fine teachers, I absolutely did, and I still use those, too.  I developed a way of breathing and relaxing and thinking along the way through these other teachers as well.  And all of these learned tools comes into play like a palate when approaching the blank canvas of a character.

But Maggie was incredibly specific and she gave me the blueprint that I’d been longing for.  It wasn’t necessarily all new info, but it was very detailed and it was the closest to an actual formula for working that I’d found yet.  And I so needed a formula for consistency in my work.  I guess that’s as close to math as I’ll get.

These are my audition sides for tomorrow.  Even though I won’t be reading any of my notes by the time I go in tomorrow, breaking down the script on paper helps me to figure out the basics of what’s really going on with this new person that I’m supposed to embody with usually only a day or so of time’s notice.

This short range of time thing used to bring me a ton of anxiety.  How could I possibly be off the page and memorized and brilliant in only a few days time?  If I actually had the part, then it was a lot easier.  I could breath.  I had worked out my system and it worked for me.  Likewise, if someone handed me a script on the spot and wanted a cold reading then and there, that was easy too because we both knew the amount of time I’d had to approach it.  But this one or two day thing – not long enough to be performance level but long enough to be amazing, was tricky.

It wasn’t until this year, these last few months even, that I really made peace with the audition process and started to understand that I could bring some of what I do for an actual acting job to the audition room, but that I had to let go of the need for perfection or a performance, or it was never gonna work.  The sides are there for a reason.  I can use them.  I don’t have to be completely off the page.  But I should be quite a bit off the page, so some memorization is good.

I studied with a teacher here in LA that said to never memorize the script for an audition.  This change in my old way of working threatened everything for a good six months.  Ever the model student, I tried to not memorize and go into the room.  But it honestly didn’t work for me.  I’m most free when the lines just come and my head isn’t in the page.  The trick for auditioning is that I have to let it go and know that I might not get to the point where the lines just come.  I should try for that.  But I must also let go of the perfection of the performance standard.  An audition is not a performance.

I usually have at least a week to memorize everything on a booked job.  Sometimes less.  I don’t like less because honestly it takes at least three days for lines to get in my body and psyche good enough so that I can say them without thinking or concentrating on them.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to say them really quick with a French accent or while running, I know them so well. I never really get to this point when it’s an audition but I will with some of the lines which I like.  I get to this place by recording all of the words on the sides, including page numbers, etc, in Garage Band (in a monotone voice for my lines and for the other characters I try to bring some life to it, some idea of the intention of the other character) and then transferring them to my iPhone where I listen to them for hours while I go about my day:  washing dishes, driving to the store, any time when I’m alone and performing a semi-mindless task.  I do this for as many days as I have, everyday.  When I can say the lines faster then my recorded self can say them and I know them all every time without thinking about them and while performing another task and saying them flat, I start to feel really good about the work.  Because then I can rift on the lines, say them any way I want, with any intention or thought.  And my ability to respond to the other character is wide open.  Anything goes because I have the lines.

This process also helps me to brainstorm on the character.  I begin to imagine the scene unfold.  I think about the character.  How she dresses.

Dressing is big for me too.  How does this person present herself to the world?  Is she conservative?  Free-spirited?  How does she wear her hair? Putting on her clothes helps me to find her gait and walk and even her voice.

Then Maggie’s work comes in.  I can go to the sides and start to mark them up.  I start by reading the sides out loud and trying to be as objective as possible about the script.  On a second or third read, I can begin to focus on my character and her place in that world.  What is her relationship to the other characters? What does she want?  How does she go about getting it?  What are her tactics for doing so?  Where are the beats, or the moments when the story shifts to a new idea?  What are the obstacles?  Environment?  By the time I do the script analysis, I’ve usually listened to the lines a million times, so I’ve already been subconsciously thinking about all of it and it usually just comes.

For any history in the story, I have to flesh out the story behind the words and I do that by locking myself in my bedroom alone and talking aloud as the character.  I start to share the story of what she’s talking about in the script as an improv.  Whatever comes out, becomes truth.  Sometimes tactics change during this process.  If I later decide that my ideas aren’t quite right, I can always change them. But this gives my character a memory of sorts for when she’s talking in the actual audition.  This works for a performance too and I can really expand on it and play with it when I have the time.  For a performance, I’ll often spend whole days as the character, going out into the world and interacting with unsuspecting strangers as that person.  If it’s a particularly ugly minded character, I might find myself thinking thoughts that would shock Michal.  That’s kind of fun.

I’ll often do a mini version of this as I head to the audition.  I’ll drive or take the subway (when in NY) as the character.  I’ll stop listening to the lines and just try and exist in the head space of the character.  That helps with audition nerves too.  If I’m focused on existing in the space of the character and not on whether or not Michal knows her lines, then I’m more relaxed.

I can let it go.  And just be.

As a SAG-AFTRA and Equity member, Michal has appeared in dozens of plays and over fifty principal / starring roles for radio, television, and film. She is the voice, likeness, & performance capture artist for Tracey De Santa, one of 7 main characters out of a cast of a 1000, in the billion dollar phenomena Grand Theft Auto V. Her starring role in the LA Premiere of ‘White Hot’ at Hollywood Fringe earned her a Best Actress Award & her Ovation nominated theatre company, The Vagrancy, a Best Ensemble Award with knock-out reviews in ‘LA Weekly’ & ‘The Examiner.’ Film highlights: roles in Spike Lee’s Inside Man & Quid Pro Quo with Vera Farmiga. Born That Way, which she co-wrote with Mary M. Parr and Rob Travalino, was a Sundance Screenwriting Lab second rounder and one of 5 Finalists for Big Vision Empty Wallet’s Screenwriting Career Lab. She is the official Host of The Women’s Independent Film Festival and heads The Field Trips Department of Film Fatales where she’s a member in NYC and Los Angeles.
  • Hayley

    Lovely, inspiring, awesome… I’d like to be a fly on the wall listening to you talk in character locked in your bedroom 😉 it’s nice to know sometimes in the lack of trying hard, to be perfect, we are able to settle into what is just right and everything we need. Letting go can be as easy as we let it!! <3

    • Michal

      Oh Hayley, you are such a love! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m so happy to have you in my life!! Keep on rockin’!

  • Raeze

    I share your perspective on lots of things Michal and this is no diff…after going back and reading your previous blogs it occurred to me that it is easier to comment here. I like your process and it works for you so it’s doing what it is supposed to do…it may evolve as you do to better serve your new needs. You already know the importance of presence so remember that when you get nervous it’s because you are trying to live in the future (if it is an audition then enjoy the audition don’t think about what the casting director is going to do when you leave, what you are going to do if you book the job, or anything else that is not in line with what the present moment calls for which is your immersion in the audition.) Enjoy the moment and let it go…you already know that not every audition will result in you landing the job no matter how good you are or how many blockbuster movies you have starred in….You already know this. If you stay comfortable with the moment and trust all that good work you put in, the mysterious “they” will take notice and have no choice but to call you in for auditions because it’s fun to watch actors who are enjoying themselves, know what they are doing, and have obviously brought something unique to the audition which you know you do. Have fun!

    • Michal

      True that. That’s one thing I am getting out of the whole casting director workshop thing. I’m enjoying the reads because it’s really just for me and my acting partner and the audience, there’s a real honest presence to the work — and its a good reminder to bring that same enjoyment into the audition room when more is at stake.

  • Raeze

    …also something that i got from your prep process of being alone and getting into the character’s head reminded me of what Tolle says about a “universal consciousness”…based on this idea you may be tapping into just that very thing when you visit with your character

    • Michal

      I like that Raeze! You’re right about that. You’re on to something there. I think a good performance can kind of channel a differenrt spirit in a way, which definitely speaks to a universal consciousness. Thanks for sharing : ).