Often times, 20 minutes can be more valuable than 20 years.
Over the years, and especially in recent months, I’ve come to appreciate the value of the “Incidental Hours” on a deeper, more practical, and more immediate level than ever before. No, I don’t mean Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours required to become an expert; I mean the time we must invest to close the gap between almost prepared and fully prepared.
As a result, my core focus and teaching platform of Television style prediction and adjustment has gone through some quantum growth lately. A bit of a breakthrough point of view hit me: Auditions are earned either through accrued years or incidental hours. Far too many actors focus on the years and disregard the hours. They set themselves up to fall short in the audition room and to stifle career growth.
I’ve got some theories about why this oddity exists everywhere I teach…
Let’s start with clarifying what I mean by:
Usually, as developing actors we focus on ‘the years’. This is the time it takes to understand the intricacies of the craft such that we may be malleable and available to a myriad of physical, situational, and emotional circumstances. It’s a never-ending process of discovering, deepening, refining, and reassessing. It’s awareness of the complexity (and ironically the simplicity) of the human condition. It’s open ownership of our vulnerable selves. It’s the willingness to be present, and an open invitation to others to participate in our journey as the character.
In my opinion, these are the 20 years to which Meisner referred in his famous statement.
It is vital to our development that we continually invest the YEARS required to deliver the above. As we do, certain aspects of our work become easier. We get ‘There’ faster, but ‘There’ becomes further. ‘There’ becomes fuller. We become increasingly willing to fully show up into the work. The ‘distance’ to the work becomes shorter. We spend more time ‘There’, and the work becomes better.
This (extremely positive and desirable) cycle has become the core focus for many, if not most, actors, and the criteria for their personal valuation of their work. For those actors, focus on this “Anno-Accruement” has become the sole valuator of their work. This leads to the justification of skimping on the incidental hours that each audition requires.
Interestingly, the shows and characters that seem to be the least appealing to the ‘Anno-Accruement’ focussed actor actually take more technical work to deliver flawlessly than the others. An audition for Handmaid’s Tale, or for Man in the High Castle, provided that you are an actor who has accrued the requisite years, is often going to be much simpler to handle, and thus require fewer hours to prepare than an audition for Suits or a Hallmark MOW, for example.
When the material is ‘hours-intensive’, there’s often no “space in the pace” for hesitation. You need to own that dialogue and have the material at the point where you are able to drive to conclusions without any actor-needed breathing room. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for the character or scene to breathe, but it does mean that you have much less opportunity to buy time to consider and discover, as you often do in a character-driven piece. This is because the specific material is not ABOUT your character considering and discovering, it’s about the plot-serving conclusion to which you must drive. In order to succeed, you must set yourself up to DRIVE. THE. PLOT (but still be real, natural, and interesting).
Again, assuming you have the accrued years, these auditions are far more challenging than the scene that’s primarily about the emotionally intense inner life of a character.
Owning scenes and dialogue to that level of smooth fullness is labour intensive. It requires a generous investment in incidental hours. The extra time it takes to fill the gap between almost prepared and beyond prepared.
Here’s where my theory comes in. I think that we in the acting community have created a culture of over-valuing years-intensive work, and under-valuing hours-intensive work.
I think we have decided to assign more artistic, social, personal value to work on an AMC show than we do for a Hallmark, CW, or SyFy show. I think this bias consciously or subconsciously becomes a roadblock to putting the hours into something that doesn’t meet this ‘Anno-Accruement’ bias.
And then….? Our auditions don’t get there.
I meet so many exceptional actors who can’t get why they can’t nail so many of their Television auditions. Most of them are missing the point that most (certainly not all) of our work on television is less about character, more about plot, and more about Moving. It. Along. SOOOOOOOOO many actors. Almost all actors initially bring a resistance to what’s required to nail these auditions – even when they see it as the goal and focus of the work. Still, they resist it.
Networks like ABC, CW, USA, Hallmark (and many if not most others) have a go-to fullness and pacing to their work that is UNNATURAL when compared to real life. Shows like The Flash, Arrow, Suits, The Good Witch, X-Files, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Good Doctor. All of these require some version of an up-paced but grounded performance that translates as natural – within its unique stylistic universe.
The number one culprit I witness every single class, every single workshop, EVERY time I teach, is a lack of awareness of the goal, and the resulting short-fall on the part of the actor as to where ‘fully prepared’ really lands. This doesn’t mean they must be letter perfect off book (although it’s my opinion that this should be the goal); it means they are bringing in a dialog hesitation to the work. They ‘steal beats’ to find their footing, inflating the ‘space in the pace’ and the scene comes out flat. It misses its dramatic payoff because they have made us sit with the character instead of driving us to the plot point.
It just doesn’t work.
The audience pulls away.
Here’s a real life example that I’m sure you can relate to: it’s your responsibility to deal with some urgent matter at your job. You have a co-worker who possesses vital information that you require to address the issue in a timely matter. You request the information from them so that you can take care of the issue and move on. They start to tell you the details but meander into how they felt about the events as they occurred.
What happens? You know what happens…. you are probably politely indulging them (as they indulge themselves), but meanwhile you are screaming ‘GET TO THE POINT!’ inside as with decreasing patience.
Next time, if you have another option, do you think you’ll ask them for their help?
In unrelated news, casting directors have literally hundreds and hundreds of more options for every role, and it’s never in our interests to give them a reason to seek help elsewhere.
Back to the coworker: is it wrong for them to have those feels and experiences? Of course not. Just like it’s not wrong for an actor to have an internal life, back story, and interesting complexity to their character. BUT – is it wrong and unprofessional of them to force you to focus on something that is not issue at hand? Absolutely. Are you less likely to go to that person for professional support next time you are in need? Absolutely.
To the same point, it is wrong for us to make a scene about our character’s feels and backstory when the scene or moment is not about that? Absolutely.
The more we miss that mark, the more we are working against our professional success in the name of serving Anno-Accruement rather than investing in Incidental Hours.
As an extremely active audition coach and teacher, my sample size is top-tier. Based on my constant large-scale interaction with the auditioning talent pool, I can report that this Anno over Incidental value system is rampant.
There exists a massive disconnect on the part of the average auditioning Film and TV actor. Herein lies the opportunity for the initiated actor. The cool thing is that the extra effort is really not very big at all, but the return is potentially massive.
Our goal, when we audition should never be to book the role. Our goal should be to build up booking equity by adding value to the experience of having us in the room. That happens when we deliver the highest concentration of printable takes every audition.
When an actor has only prepared the Anno-Accruement version of the work only, they are almost NEVER going to be able to take a re-direct and nail an interesting version of the Incidental-Hours version of the scene. They will likely be asked to ‘pick up the pace and throw it away’ They will likely stumble and deliver a falsely-urgent scene that is one-note. They will likely be seen as an actor who fails to bring interesting choices, who is limited, and who needs more time to develop. It is likely that one of the 400 other actors who are in line for the next casting opportunity will get their shot next. It is likely that they have just slowed their career, losing the chance to level it up.
That is SUCH a drag because more often than not, that is actually an EXCELLENT ACTOR. More than likely, all the actor needed to do was work a few of the lines for an extra 20-30 minutes (put in the hours!) to get to the point where they no longer require the dialogue hesitation and foot-finding beats. The truth is they actually are ready, but a lack of 20 minutes of refinement sets them back.
It can get worse from there. The actor often leaves the audition feeling soured, perhaps confused, with a disillusioned understanding of what the industry needs from them. It can often feel as though everything they have been conditioned to value in the art and craft of acting is specifically not valued by the industry. A sense of impossibility, or at least confusion can set in. When we find ourselves in a state of ‘I just don’t get this’, it’s easy to stagnate or retreat. Nobody wants to keep doing something that feels like failure.
As that mindset digs in, a negative attitude toward the industry, an ‘us vs. them’, or an ‘I’m just not good for that type of show’ belief system can grow.
I hope that this scenario sounds overly dramatic to you. I’m not at all saying ‘if you don’t nail that audition, your career is over’. I AM saying that every single audition presents the opportunity to bolster or hinder the positive and productive course of our careers. I’m saying some of your greatest and most immediate opportunity exists in the most innocuous of places: It’s in the gap created by the Anno-Accruement focussed actors.
Actors who put in the extra effort on the final hours of prep fill that gap. They open their work to the level of its full potential. They build a reputation of always bringing interesting options to the room, and cross the chasm between ‘almost ready’ and ‘regularly working’.
If you’ve put in the years, invest the hours and bridge the gap. Earn the work. Each and every time.