Roy Assaf Trio
NYC-based jazz pianist and composer Roy Assaf was born and raised in Israel. At the age of twenty-one, he moved to the United States to study at the highly respected Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. After touring the world with the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, Roy played with some of the world’s most influential contemporary jazz bands, including Slide Hampton Sextet, The Mingus Big Band, Steve Turre’s bands, Roberta Gambarini Quartet, David Sanborn Group, and Claudio Roditi Quartet. After releasing his debut album “Respect” in 2012, Roy decided that it was time to create a band of his own.
In 2013, the Roy Assaf Trio was born.
With Raviv Markovitz on bass and Jake Goldbas on drums, the Roy Assaf Trio is currently touring Europe, the Americas, and Asia, bringing their haunting, playful, romantic, sensual, and eclectic music to audiences around the world.
Their exquisite debut album “Second Row Behind The Painter” brings voices, shadows, and personalities to life in intricate and bold detail, telling stories of lives lived and experiences shared. As listeners, we identify with these stories in our own way, embracing them to our hearts, like passionately written postcards sent from a different time, a different place, from individuals much like ourselves—complex, full of affection, charisma, intelligence, energy and good humor. Like a quiet reminder of the sublime joy of living, “Second Row Behind The Painter” is celebratory and enigmatic, an album you will listen to again and again and again.
In the following interview, Roy talks about his life and his art, and introduces us to The Roy Assaf Trio—their inspiration, their vision, and above all, their music.
Q. Can you tell me about your background?
I grew up in Tel Aviv in Israel, where I studied at Omanuiot Art School. It was a unique and memorable experience growing up in such an environment because we were always surrounded by creative activities and imaginative projects. Part of our curriculum was to go to museums and art exhibitions, theatrical plays, music concerts of all genres and much more. As a child, I studied classical music privately outside of school. I switched to jazz when I started high school at the Thelma Yellin High School for The Arts. It was then that I felt for the first time what it was like to be a jazz musician. I met new friends who played jazz and we would jam together, talk about different records, and go see shows on the weekends.
Music was my major, and other than the regular mandatory classes, every day was pretty much about jazz. I played in different ensembles, and I became familiar with different composers and styles and learned how to play with other people. I studied harmony, ear training, arranging, improvisation, jazz history and more. I had such a great time.
After high school, I served in the army for three years. I was fortunate enough to receive an “outstanding musician” status, which gave me the free time I needed to keep developing my music and my career. I wanted to learn and experience every style of music I could find. Salsa, Afro-Cuban, rock, Jewish weddings, large productions with dance troops, solo piano hotel gigs, and of course jazz gigs. I really wanted to try it all and also save as much money as possible so I could move to the U.S. when I completed my army service.
Growing up in Tel Aviv, I had the best childhood anyone could ask for. Anyone who has visited will know that if you like to enjoy yourself, eat well, hang out with great people and go to the beach, Tel Aviv is the place to be! So in that sense it was very hard for me to leave, and it was especially difficult to leave my family and friends, but I knew that in order to achieve my goals as a musician, I had to move to the United States.
Q. Can you describe your childhood experience with music?
My childhood experience with music was fascinating because my two older brothers are jazz musicians. As far back as I can remember, probably the age of five or so, there was jazz playing in my house. Records came in constantly from my brother’s teachers, and my brothers practiced and played sessions with their friends. I remember that while my friends at school were listening to Queen and Michael Jackson, I was really into Kenny Barron, Michael Brecker and Chick Corea.
Of course, I was exposed to different musical genres at my friends’ houses, parties, and on other occasions but from a very young age, nothing was really exciting to me like jazz music. My brothers used to blindfold me while I listened to old and new artists. They would teach me about time feel and groove. Every year I wanted to leave my classical lessons and take jazz lessons instead, but my parents thought that it was important for me to acquire a strong foundation—which was a smart decision. Looking back, I can say that growing up in a musical family shaped my vision and understanding of playing music, composing, sharing, and leading my own bands.
Q. What made you decide to leave Israel to come to the United States?
To be honest, I didn’t think much of it. I just knew that this was my path. When I was at the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, my brother was attending the New School University in New York. Many other Israeli musicians were there too, studying, growing artistically, and making a name for themselves—so for me, it seemed like a natural path. A year and a half into my army service, I came to NYC for a month to visit my brother. I took some private lessons, hung out, and got a feel for the city. When I went back to Israel, I started preparing my application letters to different universities in the States. After spending a month there, I knew that NYC was the place for me, but I wasn’t ready to move there yet. Instead, I started considering going to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music.
Q. Can you tell me a little about your experience at Berklee?
I decided to attend Berklee for a few reasons. I had been offered almost a full scholarship, and two close friends of mine had also decided to go to Berklee. They’d suggested that we rent an apartment together. The performance level of the students there was extremely high and the teachers were top notch. Also, because I had attended the Rimon School of Jazz & Contemporary Music, which is a Berklee Network School, during my military service, I could graduate in two years instead of four, so I decided to go for it. I’m really happy I made that decision.
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. A new home, new language, new culture, new friends. But as time went by, it started to feel natural. Musically, I remember that after the first few weeks, I knew why I had decided to move to the States. I was inspired like never before. I listened to the top students in class and studied with the best teachers I could ever ask for. They kicked my ass every day. I realized how much I needed to practice and grow. Coming from a small country like Israel, I thought that I was a good player since I was getting a lot of calls and I was busy all the time, but being at Berklee was a different ball game.
I remember the first time I heard one of the best ensembles at school, I was like, ‘Wow... That’s what jazz really sounds like.’ From that moment on, I lived and breathed jazz and music 24/7! I practiced every moment I could, and I made sure to seek out the best teachers and to surround myself with the best students. It paid off. I grew as a person and as a musician like never before. I made a lot of friends and colleagues, and right before I graduated, Berklee sent me to represent the school in Japan and later on in Costa Rica—where I also met my wife.
Q. How did you meet American jazz musician John Lee? And how did that lead to you playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars?
In 2006, I moved to NYC. I knew that if it was hard in Boston, then it would be much harder in NYC because all the best musicians from all over the world come here to “make it.” I practiced non-stop, surrounding myself with the best people and musicians I could find. I wanted to hear as much music as possible so I went out to different clubs whenever I could afford it. I gave myself a goal that within a year I would play with one of the big names.
Musically, I felt that I had improved a lot during my two years at Berklee, but I knew that the only way I could reach the next level of personal awareness, musical command and freedom was by playing with the masters. A few months went by and then a dear friend of mine took me to the Blue Note to hear the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars. I remember that night because it was my first opportunity to see and meet some of my heroes live and in person in NYC.
My friend knew bassist John Lee. She introduced me to him and we had a nice conversation. I found out that John Lee had a studio at his house. At the time, I wanted to record a demo, so he gave me his number and I was super excited. I called him several times but it wasn’t easy to reach him since he was very busy. But I knew that I wasn’t going to give up until I got an answer. Seeing John Lee and the Dizzy band that night made my goals clear. I wanted to be part of their community.
Eventually, I reached John Lee but he had only one day available at the studio because he was flying out the following day for a tour in Europe, so he gave me a number for another studio. But I refused to give up and kept pushing for it to happen. I guess that he felt my desire and persistence so he gave me the date. I brought in a trio to record a few tunes, and John Lee really liked my playing, so that night he gave me a copy of the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band Book. He told me to study everything in that book, to listen to the records as often as I could, and he would call me.
I got to work. A few months went by and John Lee called me to play one festival gig in Germany where I would sub for one of my idols, the late Mulgrew Miller. That was a huge moment for me. It was a little over a year after I had moved to NYC, and there I was, getting the call I had been waiting for.
Q. What was it like to be performing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, and to be surrounded by so many incredibly talented people?
The first gig was like a dream for me. Big festival, thousands of people, video screens— and here I am sharing the stage with Slide Hampton, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart and all these other stellar musicians. As you can imagine, I was very nervous. There is actually a video from that night on YouTube and I do look a bit pale. I guess they liked me because everything started happening after that. I began touring with them around the world, which led to other band leaders calling me. I felt like I was living the dream.
Most importantly, I was going to the best school in the world! At the time, I was twenty-three years old, and the pianists who had preceded me included Hank Jones, Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, and Mulgrew Miller just to name a few. These were really big shoes for me to fill. Everyone expected a certain musical level from me and I had to deliver. Otherwise, I would get fired. John Lee gave me records to check out every night after the gigs, and he would say, ‘James Moody said that you need to work on that, Lewis Nash said you need to improve that.’ I was under all this pressure trying to learn and keep this amazing gig. I wanted it so much that I did everything I could to get to a place where I felt comfortable—musically and psychologically—and once I did, it became pure joy. I’m grateful for every moment of it.
Q. I understand that after touring with the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, you played with a number of contemporary jazz bands. What was it like to collaborate with these artists?
The New York jazz scene is like any other scene. It’s based on word of mouth, so once people heard that I worked with the Dizzy band, it helped me get more phone calls from big name artists like Claudio Roditi, Roberta Gambarini, The Mingus Big Band and David Sanborn. But, I also started playing with my own generation of musicians. I enjoyed being part of a community of creative young musicians who were my age, experiencing different types of compositions and styles, trying to grow and shape the sound of the new generation.
Q. When and why did you decide to create a band of your own?
People had always asked me why I didn’t record a solo album and play some gigs with my own band, and I had always answered that I felt I wasn’t ready. First, I wanted to learn as much as I could from playing with other bands. I wanted to learn about putting a show together, being on the road, and dealing with industry people. I wanted to learn about leading a band, interacting with the audience, staying focused from beginning to end, and of course every detail related to how to improve my musicianship. Second, I have always felt that I should shape my life without forcing things. Instead, I have always followed my heart. At the time, I knew that being a leader wasn’t for me. Third, I didn’t feel that I had something valuable to present, either as a composer or as a performer.
But last year, after working very intensely as a sideman for seven years, I felt and knew— personally, spiritually, and musically—that it was time for a change. I decided to take a break and think of my future. I wanted to take some time to figure out what I was trying to achieve as an artist and how I wanted to live my life. I decided that writing my own music, having a steady band with me, and presenting my sound to different audiences around the world was what I wanted and needed in my life to be the most fulfilled and happy.
Q. Can you tell me a little about the Roy Assaf Trio?
My first decision was to form a working band with a distinct sound. I was aware that it might be more difficult as far as traveling and booking but musically speaking, I grew up on bands that had a unified voice, and that was my goal. Just as important as the music, I wanted to find two people with whom I could develop a friendship and be comfortable around. I was fortunate to find bassist Raviv Markovitz and drummer Jake Goldbas. I couldn’t ask for better musicians to be part of my trio but the fact that they are both loving people with positive energy who were willing to enter this exciting time with me and rehearse every week is a wonderful privilege.
For a year we were rehearsing every week. We were playing my music and putting together the trio’s repertoire. Each person brought up different ideas, and we practiced each one to see how it could help shape our style. We got to know each other really well and we talked a lot about what sound and message we wanted to present to the world. During the process, I came to understand that I wanted to present the trio as a group and not as three individuals. It’s not about me showing my abilities and taking the spotlight. It’s about all three of us together as a band, with each person having an equal role and contribution.
As we started performing live, we discovered new ways to communicate with each other and trust one another fully. We found our own special way of presenting our music in our concerts. Since we know all of the music by heart, we have decided to no longer plan ahead and prepare a set list. We now go on stage without knowing what is going to happen. Often, we play a lot of “free” segments between songs—which is even more fun. This makes every show different and fresh to us and hopefully for the audience as well.
Q. Why did you name your debut album "Second Row Behind the Painter?"
When I was a child in Israel, my uncle took me every year to my grandfather’s synagogue on Yom Kippur, which is a Jewish fast day. Two brothers in their seventies were sitting two rows ahead of us, and one of them was blind. There was something very magical about his appearance and I was stunned by the fact that he remembered almost the entire prayer by heart. He wore a cool looking hat and he had a thin mustache that reminded me of a painter. I told myself that one day I’d write a song about him.
When I started the trio, I felt that it was the perfect time to do it. The reason I decided to name the album after this character and this story is because it represents my beliefs in life and the trio’s beliefs as well, that we always learn from older and more experienced people around us and that we have a life long journey to study, grow, and improve both as musicians and as human beings.
There are so many people who have influenced my life and my work, but I can honestly say that I’ve learned from every single person and musician I’ve ever met. Whether it was a small piece of advice or a long conversation, someone close to me or someone I had just met and played one song with, I’ve always searched for what the person in front of me has that is unique to him or her. This is the reason why I love traveling and meeting new people around the world, and learning about different cultures.
Q. Could you describe your creative process as a composer? From the inception of an idea through to the creation of the finished piece?
I always compose based on a story. I never just sit down at my piano and write a melody, then chords, etc. That doesn’t work so well for me. I find inspiration in life events, places, movies and people. I simply choose a story or a theme and then I write my own script, inspired by it. From that moment on, the music comes naturally. I don’t think theoretically or limit myself by rules. I’m looking at each song like a movie that I need to compose a soundtrack to. That way, the notes don’t have to fit any rules but they need to fit the story, the characters, the place and time, the customs and all the other components that are part of my script. I trust my ears, my emotions, and my creativity to lead me through and help me write the song.
Once I’m done, I bring it to a rehearsal and then the second process begins. I’m very open to any change of direction, and for most of the music I have brought in, Jake and Raviv have proposed other musical directions for tempo, vibe, groove, etc. We’ve tried them all and ended up with a completely different version than I envisioned. The core story and characters, for example, would still be there but the place and era might have changed. This part wouldn’t work without musicians like Jake and Raviv. They bring their own ideas and personalities to the table and they aren’t afraid to try something new every time we get together.
For me, the creative process as a composer is about always walking into the unknown. It doesn’t get better than that.
Q. In your opinion, why is music important?
I look at music like medicine, but of the highest quality. Music has the power to help people over a short period of time, but most importantly, it can help people over the long term. As we all know, music allows people to forget about reality for a little while. We have played many concerts where audience members have come to us to tell us that they totally forgot about their bad day or their problems thanks to our music. I love hearing that and I’m sure every musician and artist out there has experienced this feeling.
Beyond that, I think that music can bring people to a peaceful state of mind that can tremendously benefit their decisions in life and their relationships with people. What if people looked at music as a kind of therapy? When you get mad, when you feel down, when you aren’t nice to others around you, take a second and listen to a short musical piece or think of the concert you went to last night—by the way, I think it’s extremely important that people go and see live music on a regular basis—because it can help you discover what’s important and what’s not.
Coming from Israel, I am familiar with the difficult times and hardships caused by the war between Israel and Palestine. I’m sure that music and art can help both sides get to know each other in a different light. I truly believe that the joy and emotion in music can bring the good out in people, and the more people understand that, accept that, and apply that to their daily lives, the better our world will be.
Q. What projects are you working on right now?
I’m currently concentrating on my trio, which is based in New York, and on my European quartet—NYConnection, which is based in Helsinki, Finland. Both bands have exciting tours for the rest of the year and for 2015 including Japan, South and Central America, Europe, US, Canada and more. Also, I just completed a project with David Sanborn. We worked for six months on his new album that features Marcus Miller, who produced it as well.
Q. What are your future aspirations as an individual and as an artist?
I’m really happy with the changes I’ve made in my life over the past year and a half, and I just hope to keep moving forward and growing. I’d like to continue creating, sharing with others, and being a happy person who puts good energy out there.
Roy provides the following tips and advice for musicians who are starting out:
1. Study as much as you can from anyone you can find.
2. Never be arrogant and think that you know it all. Be humble and respectful towards others because we all spend way more time off the stage than we do playing.
3. Practice, practice, practice every possible hour of the day, so that when the phone rings you are ready to go.
4. Establish relationships with other musicians. Go out there constantly and be visible. That’s your way to share your gift and learn from others.
5. Be aware that we live in a time when musicians need to understand the business side of things. Musicians need to know how to market and promote themselves. Unfortunately nowadays, being a great musician and a great person isn’t always enough, so keep that in mind and always adapt to how the world changes.
Image Credit: Chris Sorensen
Music and lyrics copyrighted to Roy Assaf/Roy Assaf Trio
Featured Piece: I Got It Bad/Duke Ellington
Read more at The Music People
by Bree Marie
In September 2013, Nick Cassavetes’ star-packed film YELLOW was awarded Best Feature Film at the Catalina Film Festival, and has continued to receive glowing reviews from audiences and critics around the world. Starring Melanie Griffith, Lucy Punch, Ray Liotta and Sienna Miller, YELLOW tells the story of Mary Holmes, a young substitute teacher who escapes to a hallucinatory, drug induced world populated by fantastical creatures. In our exclusive Q&A, co-starring actress Tonya Cornelisse told me about the foul-mouthed, hard-living single mom she plays in the film:
“Starla is born and bred on deep Oklahoma ... She is tough as nails and has “lived.” She is raising a son by herself who is probably also her best friend. She drinks, she smokes, and has the mouth of a trucker... a really dirty trucker. She's pretty fearless—the first to call out any sized “elephant” in the room... and with pleasure. She's down to play and win! Gena Rowlands plays my grandmother and Melanie Griffith is my aunt.”
YELLOW is a movie with an enormously talented leading female cast, making for a unique—and welcome—dynamic on set, according to Tonya: “The set was a dream! Nick creates this really beautifully free and relaxed environment. Everyone feels like family. It allows for the most heightened creative work to take place. The environment of a set can make or break a movie and Nick is extremely aware of what an actor needs, and the crew as well for that matter, to just be in the moment and let it roll. Despite it being crazy hot in Oklahoma when we were shooting, it was a great experience for me on every level.”
The role of Starla had an impact on Tonya. She shared: “When I was at acting conservatory in NYC, I became obsessed with John’s body of work as a director, and Gena's performance in “Woman Under the Influence” inspired me a great deal... along with “Gloria,” “Opening Night,” “Faces,” etc. I own everything that he has done or that I can get my hands on. How Cassavetes worked [to] bring the band together and make the picture [and] just do the work—It is how I want to live/work constantly in my creative life. I think Nick is really taking the torch and running with it and he has really been able to show his true grit with YELLOW. Needless to say, I'd love to work with him again, and again, and again!”
Tonya is clearly happy with the path she’s chosen, but acknowledges the hurdles she’s had to clear to make it as an actress. For Tonya, the biggest jump of all was leaving the city she loved to pursue her dream: “Moving to LA has been the hardest for me. The driving alone! I am from NYC and that city really catered to me. I was lucky. I did a Broadway show and got to work with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The theatre community was my family. NYC will always be home in my heart.”
She added: “When I moved here, I did so for a film and decided it was time to stay. The ‘ins and outs’ of casting are a mystery to me. There is a system that people are rated into instantly, and the ‘talent’ category is not the same as the ‘value’ category. I suppose you get to a certain level and the ‘one’ final break you need to get to [the] point [where you can be] seen on the projects you’re passionate about, is different for everyone. I do know, you better love what you do or it's just a complete shit-show. It has to be running through your veins. Bryan Cranston has this superb video clip where he explains his approach to auditioning and I think it's bang on.”
Tonya has a wide array of acting skills, which is fantastic in a business that calls for actors to transform into a “new person” in every production. Having done sci-fi and drama, and having appeared in comedies like the popular TV Series “Parks and Recreation,” Tonya eagerly favors roles that show her humorous side: “Comedy! Always. I play really intense dramatic roles a lot and love being cast in such fearless parts, but I am from a long improv background and have a pretty dirty mind/sense of humor as well. I was lucky enough to learn and play with the great Alan Arkin many a times whilst in NYC. I starred in a short that I also wrote that was selected at Sundance Film Festival called “Dog Lovers.” It was a comedy about a couple that bonded over the beautiful genitalia of their pooches. I do a lot of comedy stuff with FOX digital as well. They created a webisode for me last year called “The Katie Kooter Show.” That girl was trouble!”
Currently, Tonya is performing in the revival and 35th anniversary of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Buried Child.” With such an expansive experience in theater, I asked her what she thought of the live audience atmosphere a theater provides: “It's pretty great. The visceral reaction you get... there's nothing like it. Sam Shepard's “Buried Child” is over two hours, and it is intense. I am so excited about doing this one. There is something about when the lights go down and the story begins, and it is just you, your fellow actors and the audience.... and anything can happen. It's a really good lesson in trust. Everyone is in the same boat and there is no ‘abandon ship’ option. It's on! I love it!”
Notably, Tonya also performed in the off-Broadway show “Stop It!” directed by the great and beloved Philip Seymour Hoffman. As we discussed the show, Tonya shared her memories of working with the legend: “…every time he was around he was 110%—just a consummate artist and with the most sensitive, gentle soul. You just wanted to make him crack even the slightest smile all the time... or I did. It was a collaboration with him, and he was simply another member of the tribe. It was great to see him nod in approval though. It is making my hair stand on end right now!”
Tonya will be seen next in Christian Sesma’s sci-fi thriller LOST TIME, where she plays Gillian, a young woman placed in a psych ward—who has “unique” abilities to say the least. It was a profound role, with some particularly intense scenes: “I won't be specific, but there was a scene that involved a very large, very much alive worm—and we had to get way too friendly for my taste! … Gillian was one of those roles that I gladly exonerate when filming commences. I love playing those intense, tortured individuals. We are all suffering in our own ways and to explore that in someone else's shoes, someone else's journey, is a path I am more than willing to go down. For me, a character like Gillian allows me to step into an entirely different realm of reality. I love the challenge. This is making me miss that crazy B!”
LOST TIME, which recently premiered in Beverly Hills CA, will be released on September 19, 2014 in Canada and the United States. To view the trailer, please go to: http://goo.gl/ASaQkD
YELLOW was released on August 29, 2014 beginning in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. To view the trailer, please go to: http://goo.gl/KtDQjN
Image Credit: Used with Tonya Cornelisse's permission
at The Movie People
by Udoka Gabriella Okafor
Canadian author Morgan Rhodes is the creative and literary mind behind the New York Times bestselling high fantasy series which follows the lives of four teenagers—Princess Cleo, Prince Magnus, Princess Lucia, and the rebellious Jonas—whose lives and fate are bound by political realities in the fictional kingdom of Mytica. Filled with magic, political intrigue, romance, and rebellion, the young adult series addresses complex issues including loss, betrayal, and sacrifice. Having read the first two books in the series, I can say that the “Falling Kingdoms” books are thrilling to read, and that they will compel you to stay up way past your bedtime.
Morgan, who also writes paranormal novels under the pen name Michelle Rowen, will be releasing the highly anticipated third book of her series, entitled “Gathering Darkness” in December 2014, as well as a spinoff novel “A Book Of Spirits And Thieves” in the summer of 2015. She is currently working on Book Four.
In the following interview, Morgan talks to us about the characters in “Falling Kingdoms,” the inspiration behind her writing, and her creative process, and tells us why she became a writer of high fantasy.
Q. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up in southern Ontario, in a smallish town west of Toronto. I knew I wanted to be a writer as a teen when I got really good marks in creative writing, but after a year of English Lit at university, I decided I needed a more dependable profession, so I went to college for Graphic Design, which was my career for over a decade while I worked on my writing.
Q. Who were your role models when you were growing up, both within and outside of the writing world, and what inspired you to become a writer?
I can’t recall any specific role models. I read lots of books, but I didn’t idolize authors as a kid. As far as I can recall, the moment that made me want to become a writer was the movie “Romancing the Stone”… and not because Kathleen Turner hooked up with Michael Douglas. I just loved the idea of writing books for a living, as portrayed in the movie—which isn’t a super accurate representation, but actually not too-o-o far from the truth. I also tended to rewrite, in my mind, the endings to movies that disappointed me, and did some very early fan fiction to a book series I read as a pre-teen. All signs pointed to WRITER.
Q. I really enjoyed reading “Falling Kingdoms” and “Rebel Spring,” and I cannot wait for the third book to come out this December, and for the spinoff series that will be coming out next summer. What inspired the storyline for this book series?
Thank you so much! After writing two dozen books as Michelle Rowen, which typically followed a single viewpoint—the heroine’s—and mostly were written in first person POV, I wanted to take on a project that had a bigger canvas to play with. I wanted to get into the heads of both villains and heroes, and I wanted to write about princes and princesses and magic. High fantasy definitely fit the bill. As a kid, I’d been obsessed with movies like “The Princess Bride,” “Legend,” “Willow,” and other fantasies of the eighties, and more recently I’d begun to watch the grittier “Game of Thrones” on HBO, which I adore. “Falling Kingdoms” was the perfect blend of everything I’d seen and loved, and the story and characters evolved from there.
Q. My favorite character in “Falling Kingdoms” is Cleo. I absolutely love her and I relate to her a lot, in so many respects and on so many levels. I know that it’s excruciatingly unfair to ask you who your favorite character is—in your own book—but could you tell me which character you relate to the most?
Good question! I’d say there’s a little bit of me in every character. I think I can be stubborn like Cleo, both trusting and self-doubting like Lucia, I can definitely hold a grudge like Jonas, and Magnus… Hmm… I don’t have much in common with him, but he happens to be my favorite character to write.
Q. It was very difficult for me to read about Cleo’s life falling apart in the “Falling Kingdom” books. What was the hardest scene for you to write in this series?
Cleo’s losses were difficult to write, but necessary. Every one of them—especially, arguably, the first one—helped to turn her into the person she was meant to become. The hardest scene for me was probably the battle scene near the end of Book One. I’d never written anything like that before and my first attempt was way too removed, like a camera on a crane pulled far back from the action. In my second attempt, I brought things down to a much more personal character level, since character to me is the most important thing in writing, and really seeing things first hand, and focusing, not on the entire battle, but the moment-to-moment horror of being in a situation like that seemed to work best. But, it didn’t make it any easier to write!
Q. Can you tell us what we can expect from “Gathering Darkness?”
Plenty! I really want to avoid spoilers, but I’ll say that “Gathering Darkness” picks up almost immediately after the end of “Rebel Spring.” There is plenty of intrigue with the addition of Prince Ashur’s sister, Amara, to the cast and we learn more about the empire of Kraeshia—are they friend or foe? There are some big moments in “Gathering Darkness” that will define the Big Four characters—Cleo, Lucia, Magnus, and Jonas—going forward. And that’s really all I can say!
Q. What do you think prospective readers, who are unfamiliar with “Falling Kingdoms,” would enjoy most about your series?
I think what sets “Falling Kingdoms” apart from other YA series is that it’s told from multiple viewpoints. I have four main characters and several secondary characters. Some readers have said that they were originally intimidated by my character list, but as they began reading, they found that everything fell nicely into place and they weren’t confused at all. This is very important to me! I know I have a large cast, so I try to keep my “camera” focused where it needs to be.
I also feel that my writing style is easy to get into. I’m a character writer, so my first priorities are the interactions and conflict between my characters. It’s got a medieval feel, but I am not a by-the-books historical writer—so this is not a history lesson with lots and lots of description. It’s a fantasy! The magic, the court intrigue, the backstabbing (sometimes literally), the war, the romance, the friendships and family issues... This is the stuff I love to write, and I hope that comes across on the page. Another reader told me that they’d never read high fantasy before because they didn’t think they’d like it, but they tried my book and it’s led them to try other fantasy books. I’ll definitely take that as a compliment!
Q. Can you tell us what we can expect from “A Book Of Spirits And Thieves,” the spinoff to the “Falling Kingdoms” series?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with this book in first draft and edits, and I can tell you it’s unlike any book I’ve ever written or read before. It brings the best of both worlds—literally—in my writing, and I get to blend contemporary and high fantasy. Like “Falling Kingdoms,” it’s got several points of view—but only three in Book One—that create a tapestry of story and character agendas that begin to weave together in unexpected ways.
Two of the characters live in modern day Toronto where there is a secret society fixated on a dangerous new magic that’s been discovered, but the third character lives in Mytica at the “time of the goddesses,” which is a thousand years before the events in “Falling Kingdoms.” There will be lots of Easter eggs for readers of the original series, especially when it comes to the mythology and history hinted at in the “Falling Kingdom” books, but the two series will stand apart from each other without any confusing overlap.
Q. Apart from the “Falling Kingdoms” series and its spinoff, do you have any other book ideas that you are currently exploring?
My muse is never quiet. She likes to whisper shiny new ideas to me all the time. Currently, with more “Falling Kingdoms” books in the works, and the “A Book Of Spirits And Thieves” trilogy taking up my time, I can’t delve too far into these distracting ideas. There is a book I need to finish and self publish under my other pen name that readers have been waiting for a very long time, which I try to work on in my spare moments. Otherwise, there is nothing else officially planned.
Q. I actually just discovered that you write under the name Michelle Rowen. I definitely have to check out some of the books you have written under that name. What made you decide to write under a pen name?
Yes, I am a writer of many names. Well, two, presently. The main reason for the pen name is that the feel of my Rhodes books and my Rowen books are very different. Rowen writes very quirky and romancey, while Rhodes writes multi-POV high fantasy—two genres that don’t have a great deal of reader crossover. It felt different enough that two names seemed like the best way to go to avoid confusion and specific expectations.
Q. I know that this is probably the most difficult question ever, but who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book of all time?
It is a difficult question! I have a lot of favorite authors, but I have to say J.K. Rowling would top them all, and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was my favorite of that series. Harry Potter is a classic that will last the test of time.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? How do your ideas transform into drafts, and then into the final product?
I am an outliner. I like to have my plot set before I start writing—kind of like having a map when you’re going on a long road trip. For “Falling Kingdoms,” each chapter is outlined, which helps since each chapter is from a specific character’s POV. The great thing about writing this series is that the characters are all very real in my head, so if I come to a scene that doesn’t work as well as it did in the outline, I will (to a point) allow myself to be taken in a different direction. If it works, it can—and has!—changed the direction of a character’s journey. For example, there’s a new character introduced in “Gathering Darkness” who didn’t behave anything like he was supposed to, according to the outline. He was also supposed to get killed. However, he strongly disagreed, and now he’s a viewpoint character in Book Four, which I’m writing now!
Q. Will you continue writing young adult novels, or would you like to try other genres?
I have written for both adults and young adults and enjoy each. I don’t find a huge difference in my writing process when it comes to either age group. One thing my books do have in common is that they are all fantasy novels. The question might be: Do I see myself writing something that isn’t fantasy? I’d like to try it someday, but my ideas tend [toward] the fantastical. So far, I’ve been just fine with that!
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers out there, like myself?
My advice would be to enjoy the process of writing itself. So many people get tangled up in the idea of being published and having an online presence and fans and all sorts of other things… that they forget that it’s all about the journey. Writing is hard work, so be sure that you love your idea and your characters, and that you’re telling the story that you want to tell—no matter what it is. Make it your own and put your heart and soul into it without worrying about what the future will bring. That’s when the magic happens!
Image Credit: Shanon Fujioka
at The Book People
A Teacher's Advice
We often receive questions from professional actors and from others who are just starting out in their careers. We've noticed that many actors share the same concerns and have many of the same questions. As such, in the following interview, we have asked former stage actor and veteran acting teacher J.D. Coburn to help answer these questions for us.
Before we get started with the interview, there are a few things J.D. wanted to say:
I’d like to establish at the outset of this interview that there is a distinction between an actor and a movie star. They are disparate entities that exist side by side, but they have no practical relation to one another.
A movie star is a product, a brand name that sells tickets. The actor is an artist, an interpreter of the human experience. Movie stars fake everything, while actors tell the truth about everything. The movie star poses, while the actor reveals. I know that sounds like the typical crap you’d hear from some self-absorbed acting teacher, but the truth can be complicated.
Acting is living poetry. By word and deed, the actor confesses the human experience of the story. The actor works from inside where the experience is meaningful—from the guts, not from the head. The movie star works from the surface, from a place that is meaningless and superficial, while actors permit the real emotion of the circumstance.
Confusing what movie stars do with what actors do diminishes both art and humanity. With lighting, photography, editing, and music, a director can hang a human experience on a movie star in the same way clothes are hung on a model. For the actor on the other hand, the circumstance, however imaginary, is really happening to him or her.
There’s a healthy way to do this, and a lot of really sick ones. As an actor and an instructor, I employ the healthy way, rooted entirely in the imagination—because acting is entirely imaginary.
Serious training for the actor cultivates one’s imagination, depth and range of emotion, instinctive responsiveness, and ultimately, your humanity. Humanity is just another word for the actor’s talent.
I do believe in the principle that art expresses human experience. A personal artistic interpretation of the words on a page into a truthful expression of the human experience. That’s the art of drama. It elevates us, both as the audience and as artists. And that’s what it should do.
Colleges prepare actors to work like amateurs, while acting schools train people to be movie stars. The rewards in each of these two cases couldn’t keep an actor’s heart going for a single beat. Ask any actor why they act and they will not be able to provide an answer apart from, “I don’t know.”
Now, having insulted ninety-five percent of the acting community worldwide, we can begin flat-footed.
Q. Can you tell me about your acting and teaching background?
I started teaching in 1995 after four years of study at Playhouse West. I continued studying while teaching at Playhouse West for an additional five years. In 2000, I moved to Seattle to care for my aging mother, and opened my own school there. I’ve taught for over twenty years, so the way I look at it, my apprenticeship has just ended. I should point out that my intention from the beginning was to learn to teach. I had and still have no interest in being a working actor. I guess I am what I always wanted to be when I grew up.
I employ the Socratic Method in my teaching. Students demonstrate what they are learning through their practice and through question and answer. Learning is not memorizing something the teacher says. Learning takes place when the student has a personal and unique understanding of a given discipline. That’s truthful. And that’s all I was ever after when I taught—the truth.
Q. If actors are starting out in their careers, is it worthwhile for them to move to Hollywood right away? Is the training that is available elsewhere in the world the same kind of training that is available in Hollywood?
No. There is, practically speaking, NO training on earth that will prepare you to work in Hollywood and maybe only one or two IN Hollywood. You HAVE TO TRAIN. It’s stupid to believe you can compete against and work with world class players just because your high school musical got a great review. That’s right. I said, it’s stupid. If you have dreams, you have to get real about them. Serious training is part of the route to getting there.
In the last five years, the demand for original programming for satellite stations increased by eight hundred fifty percent. With the Internet as the stand out delivery system and the global increase in media production overall, you can work just about anywhere that suits you. New York is obvious but both coasts of Canada, Boston and Philadelphia have very active professional communities. Three full-blown studios are opening up in Georgia. Florida has a substantial amount of production routinely going on.
Training? That’s pretty dubious in any locale. I can neither recommend nor critique any training except my own, but I can tell you what I’ve seen. A lot of people get sold a lot of fertilizer under the guise of training for a career as an actor. Hollywood, in particular, has the best and the worst examples in the world.
Q. Do you recommend that all aspiring actors take acting classes?
No, I don’t. An actor is just going to keep training, just as dancers and musicians do. You want to play first chair, or dance a principal role, you have to train for it. Real actors know this without thinking about it. An actor’s life is training, doing theater, reading, and looking for work. To an actor, every waking hour that is not put toward acting is an hour wasted.
Q. How can an actor be assured that an acting school will provide the training he or she requires? Are there things that he should be looking for?
I say this all the time. Training is just part of the route to one’s success in any discipline. The homeless PhD is commonplace. What you do with your training is the key to your success. Remaining disciplined and working with the same fervor with which you have trained, your work ethic—those are the only assurances one has that one will succeed.
Learn to act clear through. Then prove you can act in your auditions. Most actors throw out all of their training, as well as their assurances, as soon as they start working on their careers instead of their acting.
Given an individual’s talent, any training might be the catalyst that engages their humanity. An aspirant should look for training that develops talent, imagination, emotional depth and range, and instinctive responsiveness. These are the characteristics of actors that are most admired and can afford the greatest range of roles on which to work. Someone with no emotional depth cannot act parts for which high demands are placed on emotion. The fellow or gal who has trained to work with real depth gets those jobs.
Look at the approach, look at the class, and look at the teacher. If they won’t let you audit a class, then they are hiding something. They’ll make up some crap like, “We have to provide a safe place to work, that means no auditors.” What they’re trying to do is sell you some exclusive knowledge that they don’t really possess. They don’t want you to see the class before you sign up because it’s probably a con.
IF the approach is a proven one, that’s a great start. If the teacher knows the approach clear through, that’s a great room to be in. If the class is made up of serious people—people like you—the kind of people who you would brag about being in class with, that’s the right class. It’s all about the class because that is where you’ll find your inspiration. That’s your network. That’s where you start your career, in a great class.
At the same time, there are practical skills—specific to filmmaking—that need to be second nature to you, as second nature as acting. Your first day in front of a camera cannot be your first day in front of a camera. I say to my classes, “You have to learn how to work the camera as an actor.” An actor has to find his or her own way to turn into frame without looking staged. Turning IN frame is a toughie. It may sound brutally simple—and it is—but it takes some effort to permit natural movement in such an unnatural setting as a movie set. Concentration and focus must be cultivated and rewarded through training.
Standing still is one of the skills one must master for film work. On-Camera, you can’t lean, bounce, or move one way or another, lest you move out of frame or out of focus. Yet, you’re still required to have a deeply emotional experience under those restrictions. Especially in a Two-Shot—it’s just like it sounds, two people in a shot, one behind the other—where you may be coming in and out of focus with another actor depending on whose line it is or the reaction the director wants. Sometimes you don’t even face the other actor in the scene and sometimes the other actor isn’t even there. You have to train to be able to function correctly as an actor under these kinds of supernatural restrictions.
An actor may be required to deliver deeply emotional reactions, like terror, for example, to a giant green wall. And, you have to be able to do all that for a minimum of three or four takes. More often, it’s ten to twelve takes, from a bare minimum of three different camera angles. That’s the job. Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
So, the aspiring professional has to find classes that prepare him or her to function both as an artist and as a journeyman. I don’t think such training really exists. In fact, I don’t think such ideal training for actors could exist in our culture of entitlement. It takes a couple of years just to get an individual to function correctly as an actor and an artist, let alone to meet the demands of working on a set. I think that most people who say they are looking for training just don’t want to work that hard for their careers.
I think it would be a tremendous service to the industry if such a training program existed. It could begin with finding a teacher with very high ethical standards in art.
Q. I understand that a lot of actors get nervous before auditions. What do you recommend that actors do to deal with this?
There are two fundamental problems that all actors have. They don’t listen. And they will not stop thinking about themselves. I recommend that actors get their attention off of themselves and focus on the job and how they want to do it. A landscape painter knows what emotion he wants to evoke with his composition and color choices. An actor has to be clear about the same elements. The difference is that the actor paints with instinct and emotion, while the canvas is the human experience of the scene.
Focus on who you are in the scene. Is your role that of an apartment manager? How would you be if you were an apartment manager? Pull that part of you up and play with it. How would you feel in the circumstance of the scene? Prepare in a way that will permit your real emotional responses. Those two things take serious training, by the way. Most actors think those are mental processes. They are not. They are emotional processes. Just like soldiers, actors have to have the iron discipline to put aside their fears and perform their jobs.
Q. What is the best way to prepare for an audition?
Learn to act.
An actor, having read thousands of scripts and plays in preparation for a career, can glance at a script and see the human story being depicted. An actor knows without thinking how he or she would feel in such a circumstance and permits those instincts when he or she is working. Having trained well is preparation for the audition. Actors use their imaginations to make the situation one that is personally meaningful. Be specific about relationships with other people in the scene and know how you feel about those relationships. All that specificity brings clarity to the moments of the scene.
Casting directors want to see a finished performance, with the actor having made clear choices and demonstrating competence in handling the demands of the role. There’s an industry term for the actor who is ‘ready’ to work professionally. The term is ‘commercial.’ Having nothing to do with advertising, ‘commercial’ means that your work meets an audience’s level of expectation for professional work. The same term is used for lighting, composition, costuming, and production design. Every element of film work is sought to be ‘commercial.’
That’s the definition of being prepared for an audition. You know how to do your job. If you are prepared for your audition, you should be able to meet that level of expectation, over and over again.
Q. How should actors interpret rejection?
There’s nothing to interpret. Rejection is not fuzzy or unclear in any way. Rejection is just plain old rejection. Very little about auditioning is rejection. You may not get the job but you can still make every audition a success simply by demonstrating that you can act and to what depth. If you’re right for the part AND you can prove that you can act, then you’ll get the callback. Prove that you can act twice in a row and you’ll get called in for a meeting. After the meeting, you might get hired.
For any actor—and there are roles for everyone—irrespective of a ‘look,’ talent, or competence, there are only about ten or twelve roles cast each year for which he or she will be ‘right.’ When you’re right for the role, everyone in the project knows it. There’s no argument. It comes out of who you are as a person and your skills as an artist, and whether they line up with the role and its demands.
The difference between the actor and the insurance salesperson is the product. For the insurance representative, he has a product—which he may or may not personally believe in—which he presents to people, and ninety-nine out of a hundred times, the product will be rejected. For the actor, the product is oneself, who you are and how well you know your job. So, unlike the insurance salesperson, when the actor is rejected or doesn’t get every job, he begins to see himself or herself as flawed.
The actor cannot take this as rejection, or even personally. That’s kind of a mind trick. Make your intention with every audition an opportunity to prove you can act. You will establish a reputation for yourself. That’s your job. The only element in your career over which you exercise any control is your reputation. And when they are casting a role for which you are ‘right,’ they will remember your auditions. You will have created a good reputation VIA YOUR AUDITIONS. That’s what auditioning is all about. It’s NOT about getting the job.
Auditions are the actor’s way of getting known in the business. Audition, not to get a job, but to demonstrate that you can do the job, that you know how to play and deserve to be in the game. You can’t be rejected if you’re working toward something bigger than your own career, and if you are proving, consistently, at audition after audition, at every turn, that you can act.
Approach your auditions as another opportunity to act and to prove that you can act. Instead of looking for someone to fill a role, casting directors will start looking for roles to put you in, because, in the audition, you will have proven yourself. You will have proven that you can act. Every audition is a win when you’re working toward something bigger than yourself.
Audition to establish your reputation. With that end in mind, every choice will be made toward that end, and you will have all the control.
It comes down to using the audition for your ends rather than the ends of the individual audition. Shift the power to your side by making your auditions all about proving you can act, period. It doesn’t matter if you get this role or that one. Your audition is your ‘shot’ in the business. Demonstrate, repeatedly and progressively, throughout your auditions that you can act anything they throw at you. That skill will require a mountain of training and twice as much practice, but that’s when you’ll start earning the big paychecks.
Q. What is the primary difference, in terms of required skill set, between acting for the stage and acting for film?
On stage you have to speak louder. To do that truthfully generally means you have to invent more meaningfully about the things you have to say. When you feel strongly about what you say, you speak up organically. Many actors just shout on stage and it looks untruthful and forced. The audience feels like it’s on a first date with someone who’s trying too hard. It’s very uncomfortable.
On stage, you’ll live out the whole of a story, in chronological sequence, in one instance. For film, you’ll live out a few minutes or even just a moment, repeatedly over a period of hours or days on a very technical shoot. The next scene you shoot will have no relation to the previous scene except that it may be the same location or the same lighting scheme. Movies are rarely shot in sequence with the story. That places a special condition on the actor. She must know where she is in the progression of the story to make sure that she is clear about the arc of the character, scene, or story.
See, the actor’s job is to support the story and the dialogue with the truthful human experience of the situation, and that doesn’t change from stage to screen. The compelling stories, regardless of the venue, are the ones that engage the audience on an emotional level. That’s art.
Q. How do you recommend that actors deal with cold reads during an audition?
Sanford Meisner said that there is no such thing as a cold reading unless the actors are dead. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like that. If you have a heartbeat and you are engaged with the circumstances, every reading will be warm-blooded and heated.
Technically, there are some things you should do to learn how to maintain your engagement and instinctive responsiveness while glancing at the text to pick up the next idea you have to express. Sounds complicated doesn’t it? It takes a lot of practice.
Your right brain sees the symbols on the page and their sequence. Your left brain handles all language, so it turns the symbols into concepts you can understand. It passes those concepts back to the right brain to locate the emotion that comes to you unbidden, then passes it back to the left brain to permit the words to be uttered as they ride along on top of that emotion. Whew!
You have to train your eyes to grab smaller bits of text, only as much as you can understand, the atomic ideas in a sentence rather than what you learned to do in the second grade—which is to read everything as fast as possible. Your brain CAN read that fast but you can’t make sense of it or say it all without keeping your eyes glued to the page. You can’t act with your eyes glued to the text. You have to be focused on the experience. That also means that you have to keep all of your attention principally on the other actor, but that’s not always possible in an audition.
So, you have to develop the skill of reading only as much as you can handle. Little by little, over time, you get to the point where you can grab a whole sentence or two in a glance, but you have to train to do that. Like everything else in acting, you have no training in life that provides a transferable skill in acting. You have to train your eyes and learn a new way of reading to succeed with cold readings—or first readings.
Q. Many actors are intimidated by the audition and casting process. Can you demystify it for us?
There’s no mystery to auditions and casting. Acting is one endeavor of which it may truly be said that you get out of it exactly what you put in. If you work like a demon at it, it will pay off with a demon’s fervor. People who show up for auditions with the idea that they’ll be movie stars just for showing up and being cute, or worse, the ones who are out to change the industry to fit THEM, are just delusional and they’ll go home before the first year is out. That latter group mystifies me.
Q. Is stage acting good preparation for film acting? And vice versa?
Often, when a film actor’s work starts to drag, either artistically or commercially, he will go back to the theater. For some, it indicates that their careers are over and they wind up doing dinner theater in Minneapolis or regional theater in Butte, forever. For others, reconnecting with their roots brings them back to life and subsequent auditions provide a jolt to their careers. Many actors do theater constantly to keep their chops up or for that perennial actors’ reason, “I don’t know why, I just have to.”
The bottom line is that acting is acting and actors must act, no matter where they are. The fundamentals never change and the ideal remains the same, a real experience under imaginary circumstances.
Theater is how one begins to build an audience, a fan base, in the vernacular.
I’ll tell you a great story. This really happened and these kinds of stories were routine with the group of actors I trained with.
One of our number, a very good looking woman, was distressed because her agent only sent her up for Hispanic Female roles, simply because she had a Spanish surname. She could play Italian or Greek or just plain old vanilla American but her agency had pigeonholed her. So on one occasion, she was playing a strong role in one of our plays, and she cajoled her agent into coming to see her perform.
To their credit, the whole agency showed up, seven or eight people. They sat through the play, in the back, taking notes but being respectful. Neither the cast nor the audience was aware that an agent was in the room. I was impressed with that. Afterward, they scooped up their notepads and coats and scurried off after assuring the actress in question that they’d seen what they needed to see.
A couple of days later we got the epilogue.
Based on what they had seen in our little theater in North Hollywood, the agency had gone back to their office after the play. They’d stayed up all night, and pulled out all of their files and headshots of the actors they represented. They dropped two thirds of their clients on the spot. Then they typed out a page of names of the people in our play who they wanted to represent and sent it to the school via our young actress.
After the agency saw what she was capable of, she went up for EVERYTHING, and over twenty young actors got representation as a result of doing theater with our group. I’m certain no other acting school has ever seen that kind of response to what amounts to a ‘school play.’ Hollywood dreams coming true were routine in our circle. That’s what comes from the pursuit of excellence rather than the pursuit of stardom.
Q. What is the best way to prepare for stage acting?
Deliberate practice of the same habits that all great actors share would be a nice place to start. Begin with the fundamentals, the things you do in every written scene. You listen, you see what’s going on right in front of you, you take personally what you see and hear, let it affect and emotionalize you, then permit your instinctive emotional response moment to unanticipated moment. We call the practice of those fundamentals ‘working off of what exists’ for short.
Once you are functioning correctly on a fundamental level, you can begin to cultivate the imagination, emotional range and depth, and instinctive responsiveness that all great actors share in common. Next, learn to use improvisation to solve the problems that the scenes present. Improvisation allows actors to discover, without preconceptions, how they feel in a given circumstance, as opposed to figuring out how they think they should feel and then faking or forcing that idea when they act. Therein lies the difference between great acting and acting that is disdainfully proficient.
As described, after about four years of serious study, that would give the actor the preparation necessary to elevate the American stage. I would endorse that. Give me a hundred actors who were willing to train that hard and we could cast anything, any project as a team, any role. The audiences and theater would all be better from the effort.
Q. I understand that actors are increasingly encouraged by the rise of HBO and Netflix. Do you believe that television programming will create new opportunities for actors?
That delves more into marketing and programming, broadcasting versus narrowcasting, trends and market shares and the myriad of delivery systems available today. It’s complicated, but I have a couple of straightforward perspectives. Perhaps they can offer some direction.
As I said earlier, satellite delivery expanded by eight hundred fifty percent with the addition of a large number of bandwidths to previous services. There are hundreds of new channels. Many countries and most languages have their own dedicated satellite broadcasts delivered worldwide. Even if you take away all the re-run channels, sports and weather channels, and the reality show channels, you still have to fill over a billion hours of original programming per year. That’s a lot of work for a lot of actors, worldwide.
Cable transmissions offer hundreds of platforms in as many formats to fill the largest niche markets for actors. Dramas created for the Cowboy Channel or the religious channels, all potentially offer opportunities for actors to work. The unification of the SAG and AFTRA unions has paved the way for actors to earn a living wage in the employ of multi-billion dollar broadcasting organizations.
Then there’s the Internet.
Netflix has proven that people are willing to pay for quality with its original programming—and NO commercials‚ just like cable in the 70’s. YouTube is the second largest SEARCH ENGINE now. People are nearly as likely to look up a video for information as they are reading material. That trend may portend well for actors. Then too, super-low budget independent projects can get a worldwide release via the Internet. YouTube is the platform for demonstrating what you can do with sheer talent and will. Prove you can do something great for nothing, and people with wheelbarrows full of resources will clamber to your door.
The world stage seems to have unlimited entrance points now. What will actors do with those possibilities? I’m anxiously watching to see. It’s a very exciting period. I’ve only seen a handful of actors make great use of the media and the new technology, but that’s how it starts.
For decades, actors have made big talk about what they would and could do if it weren’t for the studios. Well, the studios may very well be on their way out, except for their continued use as production facilities. That means unlimited opportunities for actors and their dreams and visions.
Q. How do you recommend that actors deal with the instability or uncertainty that is often inherent in an actor's career?
Seek life elsewhere. Acting is not for you. If you’re not willing to sacrifice everything, to risk all, to dedicate your existence to acting, then do something else because acting wants all you have—and acting comes first.
Some people would willingly live in their truck for the chance to pursue acting every single day. Is that position imprudent? Yes! Will you stop them from doing that? Nothing can stop them from doing that! Is it crazy? Yeah, it’s pretty crazy, but if that’s what it takes for an actor to act, then he may be willing to do that for a while.
Q. What do you love most about acting?
There’s no intelligent answer to this question. You might as well ask what someone loves about breathing.
Q. Have you ever had to recommend that one of your students consider a profession other than acting?
My groups are more like a tribe. I tell them, in writing, IN MY ADVERTISING, that our classes are the most difficult and rewarding thing they may ever do. I say in class that the times we spend together will account for the most vivid and satisfying memories of their lives, and they know this to be true. When your focus of study is to discover and elevate yourself, to cultivate your humanity so you can actually FEEL and live out the full spectrum of the human experience, one cannot leave unchanged.
I say this in class, “Better people make better actors.” Then they go to work on becoming better people, whole people, not the fraction of humanity we see in everyday life, but the bigger-than-life people we see on stage and on screen. Those are the roles in which they will be cast and it is those roles that they have to live up to and for which they must prepare.
You cannot land on a fraction of the moon. You land on the whole moon. By the same token, you cannot act as a fraction of a person. When you act, you need to permit the whole, integrated, remarkable person you are, with every bit of you at the ready.
There have certainly been people I’ve thrown out of class because they weren’t housebroken yet and were therefore untrainable.
I remember that my teacher said horrible things to me and I’ve seen him say such things to others. In “The Artists Way,” Julia Cameron speaks about Creative Monsters who kill the talent and spirit of the artist. I’ve never wanted to be a Creative Monster, but I’m certain that I’ve been guilty of it and it shames me to think that I may have undermined someone’s passion. We’re all young once, and often the mistakes we make when we are young are unforgivable. I’ve apologized to people who were in my first beginner classes. I know that my demands were too high and I was strict and unforgiving. Learning how to talk to actors is a big part of training to be a teacher.
To a fault, I have let people remain in class who cannot, after years, keep their attention off of themselves, thereby thwarting anything like a truthful human response. They’re emotionally constipated. They can’t help it. It’s how they were trained in life. But I let them stay on because they’re good people and they make the class better. It’s all about the class, you see. IF it’s good for the class, I’m its champion. If it’s bad for the class, I’m its enemy. It’s a failing of mine that I think too well of those who simply will not quit. I think Sisyphus is my patron saint.
The simple answer is No. I have told people to look for training elsewhere with the reminder that this way is not for everyone. But I have never seriously told someone to quit acting. That would be anti-ME.
Q. What is the best thing about being an acting teacher?
Watching young people grow.
I’m the biggest fan of great acting and great actors in the world—and the nemesis to anything less. When I taught, I spent all my time, everyday, with young people trying to discover their way, to help solve their acting problems so they could become artists. When they find it, the results are stunning.
Great actors are thieves. They’ll snatch a heartbeat and steal your breath.
In three hours of an advanced class, I could see ten or twelve examples of the best acting that is possible and only the people in that room saw it. It’s precious. It’s a living work of art. It’s living poetry that reflects back the whole truth of the human experience. The moments of real life, frozen and framed by the proscenium for an audience to live along with and learn from.
It’s just like Elia Kazan said, “It’s a confession.” What do you do when you confess but tell the whole truth, no matter how much it hurts? When you see that on stage it’s galvanizing‚ it connects audience, actor, script and screen. It’s uplifting for audiences and elevates theater as a whole when it’s put out there in the world.
The heartbreak is when I see my students working and they’ve become undisciplined and do not work with the depth with which they trained.
One night, at one of those big Hollywood premieres, a student of mine who starred in the film found me in the crowd. Surrounded by a sea of accolades she said, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, only what YOU think.” She was completely erroneous, of course, and I don’t like having that kind of influence over my students. But I also have to confess that it was deeply moving to me, having seen all of her struggles and growth in class, for her to have said that, because she meant it.
So, yeah. Watching young people grow.
Image Credit: Guillaume Séguin for The People Project
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Teen visual artist Moana Lambert, 18, who lives on the North Island in New Zealand, is a fiercely courageous and outspoken young woman. As an artist, Moana believes that art can inspire widespread social change, and hopes that her paintings will help raise awareness and compassion for our planet and for all living creatures. Her haunting, atmospheric paintings are infused with tenderness and affection for the most helpless of animals, and exhibit a kind of gothic sensibility that plays on the razor’s edge between the innocuous and the horrific. The wide-eyed young girls who dominate her canvasses look oddly out of place amid the cross-bones, broken glass, and toxic sludge that act as symbols of contemporary life, and in so doing, draw our attention to some of the most pressing matters of the day. In the following interview, Moana talks about her life, her art, and her hopes for a better future.
Q. When did you start creating art?
I realized I had a passion for art when I was in primary school, but I have been drawing and creating ever since I can remember. I guess I've always felt excitement about the freedom it gives me to create whatever I am feeling. My teachers told my parents that I had talent, and so my parents encouraged me by crafting and drawing with me at home. It became my favourite activity! As a child, I filled books full of drawings. I still keep these books.
Q. What do you hope to achieve with your art?
I hope to raise awareness about just how important our earth is. It's the only one we have, after all, and we are the only ones who can influence its condition. We share our planet with many other creatures and I believe it is ignorant to carry thoughts that we are the only living things that think and feel. I want to raise awareness and let other people know that if everybody treated animals with respect and kindness, we would provide the world with harmony and peace – which we need a large dose of. Just as importantly, I want my artwork to encourage those who are already fighting for these causes not to give up, and to provide them with support as their causes grow in numbers and awareness.
Q. Are you vegetarian?
I am not fully vegetarian, but I have made the decision to slowly convert. I have cut all red meats from my diet, and pork. I feel that it has made a great improvement on my well being, as I feel it is wrong to kill and eat such intelligent and beautiful animals. In the past, I tried to convert to vegetarianism suddenly and dropped all meat from my diet but found that I became ill. I think I have to get accustomed to it slowly.
Q. Can art help raise awareness about the importance of animal welfare?
Animal welfare has always been important to me. As I was growing up, I always felt a strong connection with animals, and have always thought that their well being was equally important to our own. Humans are just animals too after all, and I believe all living things deserve the same amount of happiness and freedom.
I think that awareness about animal abuse can definitely be raised through art. Art has the ability to portray strong emotions through something that is visually beautiful, and that will easily capture attention. It can be activist in a way that is non-threatening, but blatantly obvious as to what it is about. Art can be shared through social media where it is hard to miss, and hung in people’s homes where a statement can be made for the cause.
Q. Do other people or artists inspire or influence your work? If so, can you tell me who they are, and in what way they have inspired you?
To be perfectly honest, my artwork is strongly inspired by my own feelings and need for personal expression on subjects I feel strongly about, such as pollution of the environment and my love of animals. I aim to ignite this passion in other people when they see my work. But other artists have definitely inspired me.
Mark Ryden has been very inspirational because he is unafraid to portray through his work the grim realities that people choose to be ignorant about and prefer not to think about. His use of young, doe-eyed girls creates a sense of vulnerability that I think we can all relate to, in that we all feel vulnerable to the world at some point.
Camilla d'Errico's work has influenced me strongly because her images of people and animals provide a sense of harmony that I feel such an emotional connection to, and relates to my own love for all creatures on earth.
Séraphine Pick has been very influential as she is a New Zealand artist. Her work highlights human emotion through powerful facial expression and character. I believe this is important when painting people - to help draw the viewer’s thoughts to the meaning behind the image.
Q. How have people responded to your art so far?
Usually they say that it’s beautiful or the message is strong. I've had a few people from my school - who I barely know - come up to me and ask whether I brought my art that day and if they can see it. It means so much to me when people tell me that my art has inspired them. It means that it's all worth it, even if it's just one person, if the message in my work has reached someone or touched someone's thoughts.
Q. Can you describe your creative process?
My creative process often begins with something I've seen, read or heard that overwhelms me and makes me think “this needs to change” or “people need to know about this.” I then think of a way to present this in a painting. I want to make sure that the image will stick in the viewer’s mind and make them realize the importance of the issue.
Q. What kind of equipment, materials, and technique do you use?
First off, I create a rough sketch to plan my painting. Then most times I use acrylic paint, and occasionally water colours, for smooth blending on backgrounds. I find I can use acrylic paint with the most ease, and I often use a dry brush technique for effective blending of colours and shading. Sometimes I will even blend with my finger.
Q. What do you like to draw?
Animals, especially cats, have always been my favourite subjects. There is a certain majestic and serene presence about cats that I like to capture in a drawing. It leaves me inspired. As my mother is also an animal lover, there have always been beloved pets around me as I was growing up.
I also love drawing faces. I find it a challenge to achieve the correct balance of character and expression in the face and my goal is to continue to improve on this. I enjoy drawing fantasy creatures and beings, and creating characters, but I rarely post these online.
Q. I see that you’re also interested in photography. Do you prefer painting and drawing over photography?
I prefer painting and drawing to photography as it allows me more freedom and control over my creation. For me, photography is a beautiful way to enhance the world to how I want to see it, but drawing and painting present endless possibilities for what I want to do and unexpected changes and outcomes along the way. Painting is like a creative journey for me.
Q. What are you working on right now?
I am working on a folio painting featuring a man morphed with a black rhino, carrying a bottle and holding a baby white rhino. The ghost of the black rhino - which is extinct - is attempting to save the baby white rhino - which is endangered - from a destructive world. At the other end of the picture, I have painted the earth as a ghostly skull emerging from a white lily, which is often associated with death. I have also painted a string of red hair entwining parts of the rhino to represent anger and pain and passion, all feelings associated with the colour red. This is how I feel about the pollution of the environment and the mistreatment of animals.
Q. Can you describe a typical day in your life?
I am attending high school for my senior year, so on a typical day, I am usually planning out and working on my Art and Photography folios. I am preparing to enroll into Massey University in Wellington where I will be studying Fine Arts next year. After school I will usually spend time with my friends and family. The evenings is when I do more painting, and work on other homework and personal drawings. I also watch horror movies.
Q. What do you enjoy most about horror movies?
I like to be thrilled and shocked or scared by a film rather than bored
waiting for an inevitable happy ending. I guess my love for horror films appears often in my artwork, in the grim and eerie nature of some of my paintings.
Q. In your opinion, do you think that art is important in today’s technological society?
I think art is very important in today's society as it allows people's thoughts and feelings to be made into something visual. Art is a form of communication and I think it is extremely therapeutic on one’s mind and that it will always be present despite the advances of technology. I believe the world would be a dull place without any form of art, because art is thought provoking and allows us to think more deeply about different aspects of life, and it allows us to simply see beauty in strange things, beauty we wouldn’t be able to appreciate otherwise. I think art can go a long way with the help of technology, as it can be spread worldwide to be viewed by a huge range of people, and easily accessed with a click of a button.
Q. Do you think that teens would benefit from creating more art?
I strongly feel that more teens should create art, as it lets you define yourself and express yourself without the influence of other people. It is also a great outlet for teens suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, which I feel strongly about.
Parents, teachers, schools and society could encourage teens to create more art by refraining from speaking of art as if it were a lesser subject. I have come across adults like this from time to time. Adults need to support creative outlets for teens, and they need to make it a priority.
Q. Have you always known that you would pursue a career in art?
Yes, I've always known art would be a big part of my life. It's what I love regardless of anyone's opinion. Almost everyone in my life has been extremely supportive of my creativity and those who haven’t been so supportive have never bothered me much, because I believe in my abilities and I know that art is a part of who I am. Art is the thing that motivates me toward my goals. It is the thing in my life that I can always fall back on and feel confident about no matter what is going on in my life.
To view more of Moana’s work, please go to https://www.facebook.com/MoanaArtwork
Image Credit: Moana Lambert
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