By Velina Brown
Q: I was recently in a play with someone who just didn’t have the proper process before shows. She would eat dinner an hour before curtain, whereas my favorite acting teacher in school always said not to eat before a show because it will make you gassy and bloated and weigh you down. And she was always listening to current music on her headphones in the dressing room while putting on her makeup, but the show was a period piece. It was annoying to me that she wasn’t trying harder to prepare for the time and place we would be portraying on stage. The audience always seemed to really like her, but I found her casual approach to preparation unprofessional and distracting. How can I do my best when I’m working with someone who isn’t doing their best?
Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: Hmm. How do I say this? I love you very much, but you’ve got to mind your own business. What time of day your castmate eats or what music she listens to on her headphones while putting on makeup is simply none of your beeswax. That her (neither noisy nor invasive) process is distracting to you simply means your focus is scattered. Concentrate on your process; learn what works for you in order to be prepared to take the stage. Do those things and leave everyone else out of it.
Since all advice is autobiographical, I’m guessing that your teacher said not to eat before shows because it made him or her feel “gassy and bloated.” Therefore, for your teacher, eating before a show isn’t a good idea. But that is not the case for everyone. I, for example, very carefully time my dinner as close to half-hour as possible to be sure I don’t end up feeling “low-blood-sugar-y” on stage. Further, I will often have a banana or protein drink at intermission to tide me over to the end of the show. My eating schedule is part of my preparation. If someone chooses to be distracted by my turkey and avocado sandwich on rye at 7:15 p.m., I will just have to let that be their problem. If by some chance we find ourselves working together, dear one, don’t make it your problem.
These things typically come up for someone new to the theatre. For instance, in one of my early professional experiences, I was working on a show set in South Africa. Most of us were pretty young. In this show, I was the leading lady and had quite a bit on my mind as I was putting on my makeup, so I wasn’t paying much attention to what others were doing unless they were making a lot of noise or something. The leading man in the show, however, was very involved with—and opinionated about—how others were getting ready. And, like your castmate, someone in our show was listing to music on their Walkman. Leading Man said, rather loudly, that they needed to turn the music off—even though they were listening with headphones and not imposing their tunes on anyone else. Leading Man felt that listening to music that wasn’t South African wasn’t appropriate. “We’re goin’ to Africa!” he said admonishingly, with such authority that I think Walkman Listener did turn it off. Though usually a nice guy, I thought he was wrong to chastise his fellow actor like that; in my view, he was overstepping his boundaries. With regard to preparing our minds for the show, I was much more ruffled by the kerfuffle Leading Man made than by Walkman Listener! As a 23-year-old newbie, I wasn’t as clear as I am now about how far out of bounds he was.
This reminds me: in the April 2016 issue of Vanity Fair, a piece by Michael Schulman called “Becoming Meryl” describes how one of the biggest challenges for Meryl Streep while working on her Oscar-winning performance in Kramer vs. Kramer—just three years out of drama school—was dealing with Dustin Hoffman’s control-freak and often abusive behavior on set, all in the name of “the method.” Schulman recounts, “Dustin and Meryl took their positions on the other side of the apartment door. Then something happened that shocked not just Meryl but everyone on set. Right before their entrance, Dustin slapped her hard across the cheek, leaving a red mark.” Producer Richard Fischoff, upon witnessing the blow, appropriately thought, “The picture’s dead. She’s going to bring us up with the Screen Actors Guild.” Instead, she went on with the scene…but left the studio at the end of the day in a rage. The article goes on to talk about Streep’s beautiful work in other key moments in the film without Hoffman’s interference.
I know you spoke of just feeling distracted because your castmate did not share your preshow practices, but as you see, some people take it so far as to admonish castmates for innocuous things, or resort to violence before a scene in an attempt to control their scene partner’s emotions. Not only is this just wrong, it can totally backfire. If your castmate seems to be doing fine, leave them be. Meanwhile, do yourself a favor. Don’t split your focus by giving more attention to another actor’s preparation processes than to your own. You’ll be less annoyed and have more fun. I promise.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at Velina@BusinessOfShowBiz.com.