Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who are you again?

I have a "linkedin" account. I've had one for a number of years now. Mostly it was a fun way to keep up on the lives of colleagues who come and go throughout the meandering life of a professional. It has become of more importance to me in the last couple of years. I've used it to make new contacts, share this blog with relevant groups who share my interests and begin the slow process of networking.
It's a great tool. Absolutely.
You see, I used to bill myself as a 3D Artist. Had since 2001 at least. In a career of any length, you make a lot of friends and contacts.
I have a lot.
As a result I get a lot of endorsements for my skills in those jobs. Every imaginable thing you can do creatively on a computer I get endorsements for. Hell, I get endorsements for jobs I DON'T know how to do.
The problem I encounter is that it largely represents a past life. One I had to make a conscious decision to step away from to pursue the business of acting. Don't get me wrong, it was a mutual parting of ways. My second job in as many years disappeared. It was the event that forced me to evaluate my goals and finally go after what I wanted for myself. It was a great thing.
I only recently came to understand why I keep receiving these endorsements for a life I no longer live.
I never truly declared myself. 
Not to past colleagues nor to friends. I was afraid to own this dream of mine. It was a comfort to think I could slip back into my old ways of staring at computers and punching the clock should this whole "dream thing" not pan out. 
Having something to fall back on is such a cuddly warm blanket. It means we have nothing to lose. We never have to stick our neck out. We can poke our fork around the edges of our aspirations and not take the dangerous path of cutting into that sucker.
Well, I guess this is it. Here I am world. I am declaring myself. I have a shiny new shingle on my door:
Josh McHugh. He Acts.
You don't even have to knock.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Passion play

Dreams are free. Chasing after them? You pay for that.
The biggest thing I have learned about the acting community is what a passionate bunch we are about the art we have grown to love. So much so we are willing to suffer indignation, rejection, uncertainty. Even poverty.
From the outside looking in, we must seem a crazy bunch. A pile of shiftless dreamers.
We hop off the bus fresh into Hollywoodland, alive with possibility. We are greeted by an industry who look at that enthusiasm with equal parts fondness and pessimism.
Fondness, as many of them remember those first days as a dream. Eager to get started rubbing elbows, showing the world what they were born to do. It is a heady time to say the least.
Pessimism because, frankly, not that many of us will be able to stick it out. The realities of a life in show business are ones you have to experience first hand to understand them. There is nothing you can say to warn someone who is following their dreams.
I had my own impressions of the entertainment industry. I to grew up watching "Extra" and "Entertainment Tonight". Had I discovered this path myself as a younger man, who knows down which roads my dreams would have taken me. As it was, I came to this game a little later than most. By the time I had decided to follow the call to a life in acting, I had already experienced success in a more traditional career path. I had also learned to deal with the disappointments and pitfalls inherent to a life in the arts. My enthusiasm, though large, was tempered with a dose of hard-earned reality.
Those who come out here fed on a diet of TMZ and Variety, believe that stardom is simply a matter of being discovered. Eat at the right restaurants, go to the right parties, buddy up to the right exec and bang presto, you're red-carpet bound.
"Come on phone! Ring already!"
What they fail to realize is that the "newcomer ingenues" did not simply step into the light one day, ready to take their rightful place in the performer's pantheon. That is a misconception created by media outlets to do one thing:
Sell copy.
Most of the folks we regard as stars began their journey much the same as the rest of us. They stood in cattle calls. They auditioned for bit parts in low budget features. They bused tables to pay bills. Ate ramen and slept in their cars.
 They did not do it for the money. There ain't much of it to be had, certainly not starting out.
They did not do it to become famous. There are far easier ways to do that. Just look at reality TV.
They did not do it to become a star. That is not a goal. What it takes to become a star is unknowable. You will either become one or you won't. There is no class you can take that will make it happen. Many a charlatan has paid for their sports car selling this very dream.
Why did they do it?
Because of the same feeling each and every one of us gets when we are doing what we love. It is utterly transcendent when we are doing it right. We each have a truth we want to share with the world around us. Its a brave and beautiful thing.
Follow your passion.
You may not become a star but, if you're doing it right, you won't care.
That's me in the ninja mask, swinging an ax handle. See that twinkle? A star is born.

Monday, July 22, 2013


When I first started down this road towards acting and entertainment, I did what anyone living in the 21st century seeking knowledge would do as a first step towards following their dreams.
I consulted the Internet.
Imagine! A cornucopia of information ranging from the useful to the mundane to the downright esoteric. A few simple key words and your future awaits!
What to do in a casting office
What not to do in a casting office
How to get an agent
How NOT to get an agent
How to not NOT get an agent
Thy cup runneth over with advice, opinions, experts, blogs, tweets. There are sites for every nuanced angle one could think of surrounding our industry. Books? I got a few shelves full of those things to.
We bear witness to all this success around us. It can be maddening. What's the universal secret I'm missing to bring this all together?
I spent much of my career simply frozen from all this advice. I didn't know where to begin. I was so afraid to do the wrong thing, cause some unseen ripple in my future that would forever crush my delicate dreams. Then I had a conversation that crystallized what all of this had taught me.
Someone actually asked ME for advice. I had somehow become part of the data stream that had crippled me so! What was I going to say to this person, so very much like myself, about to stroll down the very road I have been walking for a while?
"Nay! Turn back! I am not the way!"
Well, I screamed this very loudly to myself. Then I thought better of it.
I gave him the best piece of advice I felt secure in giving:
There is no Path.
Simply step in and get involved. If you want to act or, really, do anything you give a damn about in this life, get involved.
There is no "secret" to this business. No code of conduct. The life of an artist is not one rooted in linearity. You don't start "in the mail room". You start where you start.
It's a very brave, scary thing to do. But once done, you will be sickened by how simple it can be. By committing to simple action I have made friends, established solid professional relationships and learned skills I will take with me wherever I go.
Get out and play!
Swing a boom mic. Strike some kinos. Write a scene. Shoot that sucker. Chances are you know at least ten other folks who would do the same if asked.
Ask them.
They might even have a camera.
This life we envision for ourselves will not be a product of something imparted in one hundred and forty characters or less.
Trust me, the irony that I am giving this advice in a blog is not wasted on me. My hypocrisy is fathomless.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Show. Don't tell.

"Have a secret."
This was the easiest piece of advice I have received in an actor's studio. These words (highly paraphrased) came from the mouth of perhaps one of the finest actors of our generation, Meryl Streep. She was asked about her process as an actress. It was later shared with me by an excellent acting coach. These words changed my approach to character instantly and broke that wall between myself and the role I performed.
Consider this.
We ALL have secrets. Every single one of us hides something about ourselves deep down. The guarding of this little truth informs so many of our decisions. They become who we are outwardly in many ways. They govern who we interact with and how we interact with them. They inform every relationship we have.
If you want a strong base to develop a character from as an actor, start by giving them a secret. It will help you understand your relationship with the other actor in the scene. It will give context to every line you say. It will help stir that inner-life that shows up so brilliantly on camera. Best of all, if you lose your way in a scene, you can always return to that little secret your character has and spring back to life.
What can that secret be?
Well, pretty much whatever feels right to you and your character. It should be something that is in line with the context of the story, certainly, but ultimately its only importance is that it gets you acting.
For an example, I will return to Meryl.
In the film "Kramer Vs. Kramer" She plays Mrs. Kramer, a woman in the middle of a divorce with her husband, played by another luminary, Dustin Hoffman. She says in her interview that she created Mrs. Kramer's inner life with a simple secret, one that informed every scene she shared with Dustin:
"She never really loved him."
She never told anyone her character's secret during the entire production of the film. It was for her alone, and it was used to stunning effect.
Meryl won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in Kramer Vs. Kramer in 1979.
In general, I typically refrain from giving acting advice. It is such a personal process, and honestly my own approach is in perpetual flux. I take what works, I disregard what doesn't, and I stumble on.
However, I confess that I do suffer from a healthy dose of hero worship.
When Meryl talks, I listen with every nerve that accepts raw data.
The changes to my work through this simple piece of advice were subtle yet profound. Give it a try and see what happens.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gimme Butterflies

I get worried when I don't get worried.
Weird way to put it, but it's true. When I first started down this road, nerves used to bring me to shaking hands and a leaden stomach.
Auditions were absolutely the worst. I'd be up there, barely able to slate. Dropping a line would be a small mercy at times like that. At least it meant you could get SOMETHING out. I'd stare down the long, pitiless barrel of a video camera lens and count the seconds till I could say my "thank you's" and flee from the room.
Simply put: I wasn't ready.
Now, don't get me wrong. In my heart I was ready to swallow my fears and enter that room. Every time. I had to. I couldn't call myself an actor if I couldn't do that.
My problem was I didn't like it.
I would get a notification that I had received an audition invitation, and I would curse out loud. You'd think I just learned somebody had died.
That is not a good sign of professionalism.
I despised how nervous I got. I knew I would be spending the next two or so days agonizing over the coming doom. I got to the audition, burped out my lines and fled. Only then would I feel that immense sense of relief, like I had just dodged a parking ticket.
It wasn't until I recognized where my nerves came from that I could enter that room and know I belonged there.
Here's where it started.
I wrestled from the time I was nine years old till I graduated high school at age eighteen. I have competed in hundreds of matches in that time. I wasn't half bad at it. I wanted to puke before every single match. Every one of them. Numbers-wise, that means I spent about nine years of my young life in ulcer-inducing nervous excite.
The funny thing was that I would suffer this raw nerve until the referee dropped his hand and shouted "Wrestle!" From that moment on, nerves had nothing to do with it. You simply lived in the moment. Second to second. You had way too many other things to contend with than the state of your stomach. I was prepared and well-trained. My focus was absolute.
Sometimes I won, other times I lost. But I never left that mat feeling like I had let myself down. I gave it my all. For six minutes of my life, nothing else mattered. What nerves I did have simply fueled that explosive moment. It kept me sharp. I could shape it into whatever I needed.
That is the state I seek now in the audition room. I will never get around nerves. Indeed, I need them in my preparation. As actors, we learn to take those nerves and use them to our benefit. It is pure emotional energy. It is a gift we give ourselves.
If you have prepared yourself, know what you are going to do in that room, made strong choices, then you can welcome the nerves. It means you are doing it right.
Yup...that's fear in my eyes.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On "Specialness"

"Let's hear a few of those things that make you special!"
This was a question posed to me from one of the generous readers of my blog last week.
I was kind of gob-smacked.
Nobody had ever asked me that before.
"How brazen!" I thought.
 At first.
Then I considered what was actually meant and I thanked them. This was not a confrontational question at all. They were giving me an opportunity to actually consider what it is I am doing here. What do I have to say and what makes the way I say it at all unique?
I had never sat myself down and thought about it before. I have been an artist in one medium or another my entire life. I have drawn from the time I could hold a pencil properly. Not once had I ever considered what I could do as special.
There are a lot of folks who can do what I do, perhaps far better. At last count it was "most of them". The thing that makes us stand out in our chosen modes of expression is not typically the technical. Really, most anyone can show some technical ability with the proper training and dedication.
Technical skills are really just the cost of admission. Art school cannot make you an artist. There is no diploma one can earn that will prepare you for the rigors of a life lived in the arts. What an art school does is teach you  how to use the tools you will need to one day BECOME an artist.
So what's left?
What's the magic sauce?
To torture a conceit, it is not the tools at your disposal, but how you use them.
Your qualities. Your perspective of the world and how you see yourself in it. We all come from very different places. Our life experiences, the people who shaped us and our world view. The things that are important to us. These are what inform our personal truth as artists, that which we attempt to share with our audience through whatever tools at our disposal.
Some people use pencils. Some paint. Some clay and fire. Those who choose the dramatic arts do so with themselves.
We could each portray the same character in a play, wear the same costume and even affect the same accent. We will still create a completely unique, valid performance from each other. We can't help it.
I take heart in that knowledge.
Nobody could ever perform the way I do. 
Think of a director as a painter. The stage is his canvas. His palette is his ensemble. Each member of the cast was chosen for the specific color that they bring to the piece.
If you get the part, you were precisely the shade they were looking for.
Understand what makes you unique, embrace it, and get to work.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Permission granted

When did you have that moment?
You know the one.
It's the moment you stepped out of your head as an actor, gave yourself over to the experience, and surprised even yourself with the emotional connections you had made with the story and the scene partner you shared it with.
I didn't fully trust such an experience existed for me. I was a very technical-minded man. I learned my lines by rote, knew the story inside and out. I became almost encyclopedic in my knowledge of the script and characters I would interact with.
The trouble I had was making the words, the character, mine. Of me.
I still felt like an outsider looking in. I may as well have been one of the audience for all the connection I had to what was going on in front of me.
I was too prepared with what I intended to deliver. I knew the words, but they were never my own.
The reason?
I had never allowed them to be about me. I was deeply guarded with myself. I had big blocks, subconscious ones that demanded I get no closer to the truth of a scene than I was prepared to go.
I wasn't prepared to go very far.
It's human nature. We hide the ugliest things about ourselves. Boy we try, at least. We shield our complexities and warts behind all manner of psychological defenses.
Acting, to me, is about showing the truth, our individual truth, to the world. By so doing, we grant permission to the audience to witness it, be inspired by that bravery and perchance look a little deeper into themselves.
If you, as an actor, are not prepared to show the truth, what are you doing up on that stage?
When my own walls were laid bare to me, thankfully in the safe confines of a classroom, it shocked me. I had no idea how much I was bottling, hiding and tucking away. I was denying myself all of this inner-life for fear of being exposed.
But exposed to what?
Your inner-life is just that. Your own.
I knew I had these tools within me. I had access to the entirety of my emotional self. It turned out what I had lacked was permission.
It took a strong teacher to show me these blocks, and then grant me permission to remove them. I was denying my personal feelings about the scene, making it ring untrue. I learned whatever feeling I was quieting was precisely what the scene called for and I had to grant it full measure. To do otherwise would make my work pointless.
The next piece I did as an actor outside of the classroom, I learned my lines. I knew the story.
Then I forgot about it.
I allowed the moment to take me wherever it would. It took me places I had never dreamed I was capable of going.
That was the moment I knew I had something to give, not just say.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Play is the thing

I remember my first time on stage. I was about six years old. The Pinardville Boys' Club was putting on a production of "A Christmas Carol" that holiday. Somehow, I ended up with the role of "Tiny Tim Cratchet". I had a little cane that served as a crutch. I hobbled about on stage, did my business, remembered all of my lines. I didn't feel the least bit nervous. I had never been on stage before, but it felt perfectly natural. Even fun.
As I grew older, the fearlessness of elementary school gave way to the anxiety of middle school, to the bravado of high school. That time on stage would be the last time I would perform in front of anyone for at least twenty years.
I've heard it said that artists spend their entire childhood learning to paint with the skill of an adult. Once achieved, they spend the rest of their life trying to paint as they did as a child.
In childhood, to go out in front of a gang of your closest peers and pretend to be something you are not is considered absolutely appropriate. There is no judgement in the eyes of a child. You simply go where the muse takes you.
For most of us, once we are adults, we put away "childish things". But for some of us, we yearn to recapture the connection with ourselves that we had as a child. People spend big money trying to touch the emotional and social freedom they enjoyed in their youth. For those of us who can delve into that raw emotional power, that pure spirit of play, it is utterly intoxicating. You do it once, you spend the rest of your life chasing the dragon.
Acting became that journey for me. With every role I play, I can reconnect just a little bit more with that silly kid with the cane on stage, dwelling for all the world in his element. Every performer I have ever had the pleasure of meeting seemed to share this very same quality.
The very best of us can not only find their inner child and express it, tap it, but they can bring us all along for the trip. They grant us, the audience, the same permission.
To play.
To wonder.
And occasionally damn near touch the divine.
My son, chasing dragons.