Steven Sabel's Twist on the Trade: Do The Show That You Know

This week I will open my 128th full-scale production as a producer/director. The group of artists working on this post-modern adaptation of Euripides' “Trojan Women,” will become the 128th group of artists to hear me say – at every rehearsal and performance to come over the next three weeks – one of my most famous Sabelisms: “Do The Show That You Know!”

Having produced and/or directed 128 productions, I still hesitate to say I've seen it all. I've learned that's the best way to ask for a situation you have yet to encounter. Nobody likes to face a situation they have not yet encountered. Familiarity is an essential part of success in our trade. Look how many directors and actors have chosen to work together time and again due to their familiarity with each other's work. The history of famous director and actor teams goes back hundreds of years. Familiarity is the reason why theatre companies form and exist. It is an essential focus in the making of every major motion picture – especially today, when audience “familiarity” with certain brands leads to entire series of films featuring the same actors playing the same characters in sequel after sequel. It is the key to the success of any long-running sitcom, dramatic series, and even game shows, with audiences developing their familiarity with the hosts of the shows.

Humans crave consistency. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, film producers crave consistency too. Consistent talent, consistent performance, consistent work ethic, productivity, attitude, and most of all – consistent box office draw! The best and most sought after artists in every field of this trade – editors, sound engineers, lighting designers, special effects teams, make-up artists, costumers, actors, directors, you name it – are the people who are known for their consistency. They are the people who do the show that they know, consistently. They are a known commodity, and in this industry, where a known commodity can be worth gold, it is no wonder that a known commodity is always going to be considered for the job before taking a risk on an unknown.

Taking all of this into account, you would be surprised how many times I have watched an artist decide to stray away from familiarity and throw consistency to the wind while on stage in a performance. “Do The Show That You Know” is a pretty clear direction. It is straight forward. It contains only single syllable words. It even rhymes so conveniently. Yet there are actors – I've seen countless numbers through 128 shows – who just can't seem to understand those six simple words. As I mentioned above, I hesitate to ever say I have seen it all, but I have seen a wide variety of actors do outlandish things in changing a performance after a show has opened.

Green Room Gary has been giving advice to his fellow actors throughout the production process, continues to do so in performance, and then also decides – since he obviously knows best – to make changes to his own performance as well. “When the director isn't here, I'll do it my own way,” says Gary.

Sam the Ham

Dorothy Drama and Sam the Ham have different motivations. When her best friend, Edna, and her Grandma Matilda are in the audience, Dorothy just can't help but turn on that extra juice, and melodrama the bones right out of the text of the play! With sudden bursts of random emotion and much sawing of the air, Dorothy sets out to prove to her friends and relatives that she is indeed a serious actress. Sam has the same intent whenever his mother comes to the see the show, or even worse yet, when he has a potential love interest in the room. Then consistent performance be damned, because Sam is trying to impress a lady and win himself a date.

Isaac Ideas isn't a bad fellow, but his “magnificent brainstorms” are a day late and a dollar short. Poor Isaac is just trying to be helpful when he arrives to the theater with new blocking in mind for an important scene. He isn't trying to sabotage his fellow actors by presenting them with something they haven't encountered before on stage, he's just trying to make the show “better.” His pal, Brandon Brando, is just trying to keep things “real” when he decides to change a line or two to make them sound more “natural” and “true” to the character.

Last Night Norman is such a prankster. He just can't help chatting with everyone back stage about anything and everything completely unrelated to the show at hand. He's full of funny jokes and silly anecdotes, and thrives on being the class clown of the cast. On the last night of performances, Norman just can't resist playing that little prank on his fellow actors, that he is oh so sure will help them forever remember closing night. He is always right. We never forget him…

These types of actors can be a terrible detriment to a performance. Changes of any kind to a performance should be made only with the knowledge of the stage manager, and only after thorough discussion with every actor involved in the scene. Anything less is disrespectful to all involved, and completely self-absorbed behavior. Whatever your great new idea is – if it wasn't good enough for rehearsal, it isn't good enough now.

On occasion there are unforeseen circumstances that call for required changes involving safety, or semantics, or sight lines, etc. There are occurrences on the stage, mid-performance, which sometime call for quick thinking, adjustment, and adaptation right on the spot. Props hate people, and they can often be the cause of these unforeseen moments. It's live theater. Things happen. All the more reason you don't want to be the person causing things to happen that are outside the realm of what was rehearsed and prepared for performances. If a prop sabotages a performance, we blame the theater spirits. If you sabotage a performance by making changes, we blame you.

Do The Show That You Know. Stick to the plan. Be consistent. It is what your fellow artists have become familiar with. It's what they expect from you, and it's a quality that will get you more work in the future.

Actors often ask me why I don't make it a point to watch every performance of my productions. Part of that aspect of me is based in having other responsibilities to fulfill, and the nature of our trade which finds the director's job complete after opening night. It is the stage manager's show after that, and their job to maintain a consistent production. You think directors get upset when an actor changes things on stage? Hah! I fear any stage manager worth their salt on this issue, and you should too.

Secretly a key reason I often can't bear to watch performances of my productions is because of actors like Green Room Gary, Dorothy Drama, Sam the Ham, Isaac Ideas, Brando Brando, Last Night Norman, and any variety of others who decide that they just can't possibly show up to the theater on time, follow their preparation routine, warm up, get on stage, and do the show that they know. I don't give director's notes to actors once a show has opened. I shouldn't have to. The show should be the same way I left it on opening night, if you will just Do The Show That You Know!


Steven Sabel's Twist on the Trade: Content Equals Character

We were all recently reminded that it was Martin Luther King Jr. who famously dreamed of a world where we would all be judged by the content of our character, but in our industry, artists are judged rather by the amount and quality of their generated content. Content equals character in a world where online presence is often the key to getting the job.

Whether we like it or not, the norm of the modern age of entertainment is to judge an artist by the amount and quality of the online content they can continue to generate. Relevant content equals relevance in the industry and viability as a marketable commodity. As an entertainment industry professional, you are a commodity. Or, you are not. We have all heard the stories about people getting work because of their large social media followings, YouTube subscriber base, or viral content. Go viral, or go extinct. Create a high profile, build an online presence, generate constant content, or slide into the oblivion of just another fantasy hobbyist. Get serious, or seriously reconsider your choice of profession.

Think about it. You are a business. Your commodity is you. You are your product and you are selling a service. In order to succeed in business, you must build your marketing machine, and your marketing machine must include an online presence filled with relevant content for prospective customers to seek, find, and assess before they will purchase. In today's age, nobody purchases anything or uses any service without first researching the company or the product – even if all that entails is posting to the “hive mind” for recommendations of where to eat, what to buy, or who to use for a needed service. I won't eat at a new restaurant, if they don't have a website with a menu, photos, and reviews. Would you?

As entertainment professionals, we cannot expect that anyone will hire us if we are a complete unknown without a relevant online presence. If you don't have a website, you don't exist. If all you are is a collection of personal social media accounts, you are no different than your cousin, Cecil, who works at the canning factory back home in Wisconsin. Get real. Google yourself. I guarantee that casting directors will before they offer you a job. What will they find? Your personal Facebook page? Your Instagram account?

If you don't have a fan page and a website associated with you as a commodity, then you are not a commodity. How serious can you really be about your professional career if you can't take the time to register a domain name and build a simple website? Or if you're completely tech illiterate – get a friend, bribe a friend, or pay a friend to build a site for you. Look at the major professionals whose careers you wish you could have. Assess what they all have in common when it comes to their online presence and generating relevant content. Most of them have people who do it for them, but until you are able to hire a marketing team – you are your marketing team.

If you don't have available content associated with your career – you don't have a career.

What you have is a fantasy life – no different than your best hometown friend, Sallie Mae, who you left behind back in Nebraska to become the manager of the local mini mart. If you happen to be the manager of a mini mart here in LA, but you're not using every spare hour striving to demonstrate that you are something more than a fresh-off-the-bus fantasy player – then Sallie Mae has it all over you, because she isn't paying $800 per month to rent a room with five other people in a three bedroom apartment in Koreatown with one bathroom. In fact, Sally Mae is laughing at you from her three bedroom, two bath house in Omaha, that (according to a Zillow search) she can get for $1,000 per month.

Get real. Get serious, or you might as well move back to Nebraska. If your only online presence is your personal social media accounts, you are not a professional business person – you're a hobbyist. In this world, you are what you do. If all you do is post about drinking at local bars with friends – your social media presence says you are a bar fly, not an industry professional. If all you do is post about political issues that interest you – you are a gadfly, not an industry professional. If all you do is post about that great restaurant you ate at last night – you are a wanna-be food critic. You are not an entertainment industry professional.

Entertainment industry professionals post about the work they are doing – even when they do not currently have any employment in the industry. Remember my favorite Sabelism: you have to do the work to get the work. True professionals will post about anything and everything they are doing to better their career. They post about acting classes they are taking, auditions they are preparing for, new physical workouts and diet regimens they are committing to in order to enhance their physical viability for the roles they wish to play. At the very minimum, true professionals are posting about new scripts they are perusing, monologues they are learning, accents they are perfecting, skills they are acquiring, or industry books they are reading to learn more about their craft.

When they do have work, true professionals are generating content about that work. They are posting about learning their lines, studying their scenes, doing their research on their project's time era, setting, hairstyles, clothing, manners, and any other thing that can assist their backstory and the creation of a viable character. They post about rehearsals. They post from the set while on break from filming. They post behind-the-scenes looks into their processes. They provide hints about their costuming or props, and they sell themselves as professionals on the job. Even when they are not on the job of fulfilling a role or a contract, they are on the job of getting more jobs by constantly generating content to demonstrate that they are true serious professionals.

True professionals post about the projects they are working on – promoting themselves and whatever it is they are doing day and night. The best way to market your product and services to new potential customers, is to promote the work you are currently doing for existing customers. It is far easier to generate relevant content when you are working, and far more important too, if you want to keep the string of work flowing. When you book a gig, it isn't an excuse to take a break from doing the work, but should rather serve as the impetus for doing even more work to line up the next project.

Build and fill your website. Create a public fan page. Flood your sites with relevant content. Do your best to be the only Joanie Jones or Sam Smith on the first page of a Google search. Content is character, and if your dream is to make a living in this industry, you must know that you will be judged by your content, or lack of it….