The Human Element

As I write this, I’m watching Cars on Thanksgiving morning. I’ve seen this movie at least three times before, yet I’m crying — again — because the car learned a lesson and took care of his friends, respected his elders, stayed true to his sponsors, and got the girl. Hang on. Let’s get it straight. I’m crying because the artists who drew the cars and the actors who voiced the cars and the music supervisor who chose the particular sound that I would hear during the precise moment that the cars were drawn and voiced to elicit this emotional response got it right.

And I know how this works. I understand storytelling. I spend my days breaking down scripts, auditioning actors to interpret scripts, dealing with the negotiations required to attach actors to projects, and — when I’m not casting — demystifying the casting process for actors everywhere. So, why is it that I can — even while noting the inciting incident, a non-traditional casting choice, the transition into act two, the decision to edit a scene away from its originally-scripted destination, an actor’s inflection on a particular word — fall for it and end up weeping?

Because storytelling is powerful. So powerful that we all love it, when it’s done right. (And, seeing as we don’t all agree on what makes “good” storytelling, we are lucky to have seemingly infinite choices and all find something satisfying to consume.) Here I am watching the end-credits roll. Hundreds upon hundreds of people brought this film together, and I believe they all contributed to the film’s overall ability to move me. Ah, and then there’s the Walt Disney card. And the Pixar card. And I’m thinking about the strike and how I’m supposed to be mad at The Man. How corporate greed is bad and the individual artist is good.

But The Man — with all its flaws — also employs creative artists. Hires individuals to bring our art to these “big” projects. And the reason there is art at such a large scale available to most occupants of this planet is because the suits at the corporations know there is money to be made in the mass production of stories. So, they commission our voices and we are suddenly able to reach a broader audience than with which we could connect on our own. But the bottom line remains: They need us. The world needs storytellers.

No, this isn’t gonna be another column about the strike. I, like everyone else, am keeping my fingers crossed for a wonderful new round of negotiations between the AMPTP and WGA starting the same day this column launches. May the strike come to an end before my next edition!

What this column is about is the art that drives this industry. And how that is truly the bottom line.

Last week I was in a meeting with Gary Marsh, owner of Breakdown Services. At one point, we began talking about various automated services marketed to industry professionals. Like websites that allow producers to plug in characteristics, hit “submit,” and Voila! there is a cast list, generated by a computer program. Like script coverage programs that handicap the likelihood that a particular script will yield a box office hit, based on key elements identified by the software. Yeah… I don’t know about that.

The following evening, I spoke to a group of actors at the SAG Conservatory at AFI and said, “At some point, I am paid for my opinion. Yes, it’s my job to bring the filmmaker’s vision to life through casting choices, but if the filmmaker didn’t want my feedback on the actors we’re considering, he’d choose to hire someone to do a day of list-making (with no value judgments associated with each entry on the list) and then just always cast the actors at the top of the list for each character, without any concern for chemistry or that ‘magic’ that comes from taking a chance on an ‘unknown’ who ends up blowing everyone away with his big-screen debut.”

As “big business” as this industry is, there will never really be a way to do it without the human element. The artist’s eye is required. The interpretation of the material — created by a human — must also come through a human. And yes, even if we’re watching an animated movie, it’s the human element that causes the connection. The “me too” that gives us comfort or catharsis or comic relief.

One of my favorite things about artists is their tendency to create no matter what. Sure, we’d all like to be paid very well to do high-quality work with people we respect and admire on material that challenges and inspires us. Every time. But sometimes we’ll just jam like jazz musicians. We’ll get together and find an outlet for the ideas bubbling up. We can’t not do it. Whether on a mainstage or in a blackbox space. Whether in a studio feature or in a guerrilla short film. Creatives create. It’s just what we do.

I bring this up because I think actors sometimes lose sight of the truly bigger picture while scurrying around trying to find an agent, network with a CD, choose a headshot, edit a demo reel.

Yes, all of that is important. I’ve built a career out of explaining just how vitally important “the business side of an actor’s pursuits to create for a living” is. But when you’re caught up in the busy-business of it all, I encourage you to remember that it is because of your creative fire that this “industry” exists at all. The world needs storytellers. And when you’re feeling like you’re not making headway in the business, remember to tap back into the muse that brought you into this business in the first place. It just might be the exact type of “soul reboot” that you need.

[Note: as I attempted to find great places for you to enjoy working out your creative muscles on the cheap, I found that a bunch of places I remember as having been really hot for regular collaborations, last time I checked (Drama Garage, Group 101 Films, ArtistSalon, Screenplay Workshops, The Exchange, Screenwriters, Inc., etc.) are all gone. I guess what happened to us with Hollywood Happy Hour risks happening elsewhere in Hollywood, eventually. We have a great idea, get inspired, start up a group event, rent space, promote activities, generate a following, and then either get tapped to do something that yields more of a profit or simply get worn out, doing all of the work required to maintain a regular event. (Luckily, HHH has a healthy online network, so it’s not totally dead, even though it’s been on hiatus for almost a year now. We can always come back!) Anyway, I guess some of these “once-thriving artist outlets” suffered from the same fate, at some point. It’s the nature of the beast. So, when you click on the currently-active links below, please note that they’re current and active as of November 2007. No guarantees beyond that!]

The Actors’ Lounge
First Stage LA Monday Night Readings
LA Writers Center
Naked Angels’ Tuesdays@9
Sacred Fools’ Ten Tops (but all of the Sacred Fools’ series rock)
SAG Foundation Casting Access Project
Screenplay Lab
Tisch Arts West Monologue Slam (at the November event, they invited non-Tischers to hop up on stage and participate in the 60-second slam)
(Loads of related info is available at the Planet Shark forums.)

I have to tell you, if I had the venue and the time, I’d set up an ongoing series like these, where artists can come together to “jam” on a regular basis. But it’s not easy to maintain one of these endeavors. So if you find one that’s working and that you’re enjoying, spread the word! Help ’em get some corporate backing so they can keep the venue up and running for artists everywhere. And, hey, every time you meet with any group of actors (at a class, at a networking event, in any showcase environment), you have a built-in group with the potential for ongoing, community-based performance opportunities. Get creative! Get committed! Get to work! (The passionate, inspiring, human work you so love to do.) We’ll hear about it. Believe me.

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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