Just Getting Warmed Up
Welcome to a new monthly column which I hope will add some perspective to our trade – sometimes new, and sometimes perhaps tired out from over stating, but yet somehow still needing to be stated again and again. I have been a student of this craft for most of my entire life. Cast in my first summer stock stage production at the age of 9, I developed the “bug” (as we often call it), and never found the cure. I produced and directed my first production in 1993, and there have been 126 more since then, at an average of five productions per year for the last 25 consecutive years. I’ve seen a lot. I haven’t seen it all – yet – but I’ve seen a lot.
Throughout the past 25 years I have viewed more than 40,000 head shots and resumes; I have witnessed more than 10,000 audition monologues; and I have worked with nearly 2,000 different actors. The range of talent I have seen runs the entire gamut, from children as young as 5, to aging actors in their late 70s; from the greenest of the green, to the most seasoned veterans, and everything in between. Many of the lessons to be learned from working with such a variety of artists are the same year after year, show after show, and the artists who have worked with me repeatedly know that I have certain mantras, maxims, aphorisms, and axioms that some actors have heard so often they call them “Sabelisms.” They are indeed, my twists on the trade.
This new monthly column will attempt to deliver those Sabelisms in such a way as to explain their meaning, relevance, and origins. They have developed over time, and no matter how old I get, or how many shows I produce, they remain an essential aspect of doing the work to get the work. There’s one: You have to do the work to get the work.
Most actors are lazy. Don’t be offended. Most people are lazy. We are designed to seek the path of least resistance. It is part of the learning process of the human species. Yet the most successful artists I have worked with know that there is nothing easy about succeeding in this trade. It is work. It is hard work. Those who are willing to do the hard work, will continue to find work to do. Those who demonstrate an ability to do the work, will develop a reputation for doing the work, and find themselves sought after when there is work to be found. We hear it all of the time: “She’s always working,” or “He is the first to arrive, and the last to leave,” or “That artist is so great to work with.” When was the last time anyone said any of those things about you as an artist?
A vast number of the actors I have worked with have to come the trade with a degree in hand from an expensive school with a major theatre or film department behind them. I always marvel at how an actor struggling under the weight of student loans and stifling debt incurred through their artistic education, can so quickly throw out so much of the education they paid so highly for. Nearly every theatre program I have ever heard of, known of, or have been associated with teaches certain precepts in year one of their program. They teach these aspects in year one, because they are the foundational beginnings of doing the work.
One essential aspect of that training is the importance of a good warm-up routine. Acting is a physical craft. Acting is 90 percent what you DO, and 10 percent what you say (there’s another Sabelism). Text Nazis, stringent stage managers, and dramaturgs everywhere often get upset at me for reiterating this aphorism, but it is true nonetheless. Pitch, tone, inflection, and rate of speech are all physical choices made by an actor, just as much as are posture, stance, gait, and gesture. We have all heard – perhaps ad nausea – how important our bodies and voices are as the tools of our trade. Yet every show I produce, I find myself having to remind actors to do their warm ups. It is ridiculous. It is ridiculous for anyone to think that they can ignore the importance of their tools – in some cases, outright neglect their tools – and hope to do their best work. This is true in ANY trade. Imagine a surgeon without a sharpened scalpel. Ridiculous of course, except I have seen so many actors bring a butter knife into the operating room of their trade.
Warm ups are not just a good idea, they are essential to the craft. Finding and creating that neutral physical place to build the character from is just the beginning. Warming up and strengthening the body for doing the work of maintaining the physical character – especially in a two-hour live performance – is the difference between presenting a believable performance, or “phoning it in.” You cannot possibly hope to accurately speak your lines with proper clarity, diction, and projection without first warming up your voice, your face, your tongue (one of the strongest muscles in the body), your jaw, your diaphragm, etc. You wouldn’t go out and pitch a World Series game without first warming up your arm…
“But Sabel, not every role I play is equitable to a World Series game.” That’s part of your problem. How you view the work, is how you will be viewed in the work, and how you will be viewed by your fellow artists. Treat every role like that starring role in a feature film, or don’t accept the role. If you are not willing to do the work, then don’t accept the work.
“But Sabel, this isn’t even a paying gig.” You cannot expect to receive offers for paying gigs, if you can’t demonstrate your ability to properly perform every gig you accept. You have to do the work to get the work.
Warm ups are not just for your body, but also for your mind. They should be a part of your routine that also helps you focus on creating and truly performing the character. Many actors incorporate their lines into their warm up routines. Some actors incorporate exercises that are specific to the physicality of the role they are playing. The great actor, Fredric March, used to walk completely around the outside of the theatre doing his vocal warm ups while he assumed the gait and posture of the character before making his first entrance. He was also known for his intense focus backstage. No chit-chat, no socializing – just an actor focused on doing the work. You cannot hope to walk onto the stage in full character, completely focused on the scene at hand, when three minutes ago you were chatting with a fellow actor about the Dodgers, or skimming social media for the latest click bait.
You have to do the work to get the work, and the work begins with a proper warm up, proper focus, and maintaining that focus throughout the job. The actor who is properly stretching, developing muscle isolation, focusing on breathe control, generating a physical character different from self, dwelling within the mind of the character while warming up the apparatus of performance, is the actor who is going to do the best work. Period. That goes for auditions as well as performances. Nobody wants to hire a lazy actor. Nobody wants to hire a lazy employee in ANY trade. Don’t be lazy. Do the work. Now go look in the mirror, and ask yourself whether or not you are willing to do the work. If not: Get out of the way for the rest of us who are doing the work.
Got your nose out of joint? Check back for next month’s column on head shots, because I’m just getting warmed up….