Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ballet Is An Art Not A Contest

For some years now there has been gathering attention, publicity and even some degree of notoriety surrounding the biggest ballet competitions such as Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) and the International Ballet Competition (IBC) which at first might seem like a good thing - to coin a Hollywood phrase, 'the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity'. But there is something else at stake here and it is no small thing.
Along with this seeming upward trend of publicity for ballet because of YAGP and IBC and other competitive dance shows and contests, there has been a precipitous decline and even removal of arts education from public and even many private schools. On the face of it these two seem unrelated except that the average age of a competitor at the major ballet competitions - 14 - is precisely the same age as the students in middle school and high school who are stepping off into the void of no education as to what the arts are, no application of how to practice any of them for their original intent (which is the creative exploration of existence not prize winning) and this comes on the heels of an elementary experience which for nearly all students, including anyone participating in YAGP or IBC, etc., has shown a scary fall off in creative thinking and imagination development during the elementary education process.
Those of us who are priviledged to work in the arts and ballet are all aware of these trends among beginner through intermediate aged students. Unfortunately, there has been a major move to turn the arts into some kind of contest sport for the sake of ratings by the people who run YAGP and the IBC and all those TV dance competition shows and so forth rather than helping to do something about the decline of imagination and creatvity among beginner to intermediate age students. Exactly what this is contest sport ballet stuff is supposed to do or who it is supposed to benefit is very unclear because other than the TV channels who earn ad revenue and the organizational bodies of the YAGP and the IBC making money off of the very high fees charged for these events, the performers involved and the art form of ballet receive practically nothing in return. Who wants to grow up and train for 10+ years as an artist to be a profitable property for a TV station to sell ads through - with none of that money coming to you? Who wants to grow up and train for 10+ years as an artist to spend $4,000 or more each year in competition fees to the YAGP for the sake of possibly getting a professional contract when you can still accomplish that by first becoming a good dancer in a competent ballet program then auditioning directly for a professional company?
Professional companies still do almost all their hiring by the live audition. So, for any student wishing to be employed by Boston Ballet or Houston Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet, the YAGP and IBC are utterly NOT essential. Somehow a hood has been pulled over everyone's eyes such that people think if they spend thousands and thousands of extra dollars doing YAGP, IBC or other competitions that their student will somehow be put in a great position to be hired by a professional company - that is just flat out wrong. What has happened is a distortion of the art form of ballet into somekind of contest sport where the end-all-be-all is the quest for awesome technique. That sort of pursuit is neat but nearly useless should you wish to make a compelling Juliet or a tragic Giselle. Especially considering that nearly all of those 14 year olds who achieve robotic perfection in their technique will burn out and be done with Ballet before they even graduate high school rendering all that effort useless to the future of ballet, but very lucrative to the organizers of the YAGP, the IBC, and so forth.
Ballet has always been an art form where a longer career span can be possible - women can viably perform into their early 40's, men into their mid-30's - as opposed to many other sports and especially Competitive Gymnastics wherein there is almost no such thing as a 20 year old competitor, usually not even an 18 year old competitor due to the ultra high, severely traumatic injury rate. But now, as more and more of these YAGP type competition circles run on, a nearly equivalent and equally bothersome attrition among young dancers occurs only instead of lifelong crippling injuries they simply quit the art form due to burnout. But not before shelling out tons of cash.
Obviously competition itself is a healthy thing and for sure ballet is VERY competitive already simply because you have thousands of dancers all over the world constantly seeking to get into the best dozen or so ballet companies and from there that level of competition continues right on down to regional professional ballet companies Milwaukee Ballet or Tulsa Ballet. So there never was any lack of competitiveness in ballet to begin with - in fact, far from it. But now, over and above that type of healthy competition that makes people want to improve their technique in order to get into the company they like as a professional dancer, the contest sport type of competition has been wedged into ballet the only purpose of which can be to make money for the organizers - those types of competitions do not help the art form advance at all (due to that high burn out rate among young contestants), and they are utterly unnecessary for anyone who wants to pursue professional dance work.
It would be truly helpful to ballet and the arts if the organizers of the YAGP, the IBC, and the other competitions and TV competition shows, would realize the golden opportunity they have to reinvigorate the sensibility and enjoyment of the performing arts as something other than a mere vehicle for someone else's judgement as to who wins blue ribbons, something more intuitive than a contest sport, and as something other than a means for the organizers to score very large sums of money through endless types of competition fees. Or, let's put it in another way: a ballet dancer is someone who must first enjoy the artistic, creative process because that is what the art is still built upon, and is someone who also enjoys pursuing their own technique not just for mechanical perfection like 7 pirouettes, but emotional conveyance, story telling, and being interesting to watch while working on stage. These competitions do exactly what George Lucas so prophetically warned about concerning his own work with Star Wars: "... a special effect by itself is uninteresting without a compelling story to go with it."
Pirouettes and saut de basques are awesome special effects but they are not nearly enough by themselves to make ballet compelling as an art form. If this focus on contest sport continues unabated then we will have lots of Jedi-like 14 year olds in ballet who burn out and quit long before they are mature enough to tell compelling stories, and that would be a real, profound shame and a stunning waste of money, time and effort.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Five Guidelines to Make Your Newsletter More Effective

Hello My Savvy Children! It's time for a little e-lovin' from me to you and today we're going to lift up the e-newsletter.
So, good news! Savvy actors are sharing their successes through e-blasts, letting the world know about the great projects they're helping to bring into the world.
In fact, MANY of them are.
Okay, so many of them are that my inbox is wading a bit in the tide of "Just wanted to let you know what I'm up to"s.
I'm feeling like they're coming at me. I want to feel like they're inviting me in.
Hey, I'm a newsletter guy too. In fact, EVERY time I send out a newsletter, I book work from it. Every. Time.
And when I lapse, I get e-mails from friends asking if they've been dropped from the list.
Because e-newsletters are more effective when they're done right. And now Papa Doug's gonna show you how through five guidelines.
1. Start with your brand
Most e-newsletters I receive are big exclamation points where every experience was just the best!!!!
Being positive is a beautiful thing, but we are not all drawn that way. Return to those adjectives that describe what you sell as a performer and then WRITE WITH YOUR OWN VOICE.
Are you a geek? Revel in delicious detail.
Are you ethereal? Choose breathy language that comes from feeling.
Are you blunt? Choose percussive language and short sentences.
Gossipy? Political? Bone-dry? Curmudgeonly?
Speak from your brand... and then format your newsletter with colors and a font to match.
2. Get to the point.
Hey, your e-newsletter is a marketing tool.
Get to the point.
That's why I'm going to use really efficient bullet points in this section.
  • Bullet points will direct the eye to where you want it to go.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Challenge yourself to keep it to one pane (so they don't have to scroll down.)
  • Make your subject line useful. "Doug Shapiro starting his 13th season with The Barnstormers" is stronger than "update."
  • Provide contact information so they know how to find you for work leads.
  • Provide a picture to make associating your face with your name easier.
  • Provide links to your shows that make ticket purchasing easier.
3. Be considerate
You want everyone who receives your newsletter to be glad about it, right? Well, you can assure that with some basic consideration for their needs.
Make it easy for people to unsubscribe ( MailChimp is great for sending bulk mail and makes it easy to unsubscribe.)
Only send to Industry folks who are very familiar with and enjoy you. Agents and casting directors receive hundreds, even thousands of e-mails per day and it's highly unlikely that they'll open anything from someone of whom they're not a big fan already.
Give credit to others who made your successes possible. (I'd like to thank Rebecca Soler who gave the great subject line and window pane advice in her fantastic seminar.)
Also, make sure that every picture or video you provide is linked through a website rather than in the body of the e-mail. You don't want to clog up their inbox!
4. Be consistent
My FOD's get a little antsy now if they haven't heard from me every two or three months. So, keep those e-newsletters coming on whatever consistent basis you choose.
That said, save up your successes. No need to barrage people with your glorious successes every time something happens. It's exhausting for them and for you. Spread out your e-lovin' to your fans over a consistent time frame.
5. Be a good host
You can either choose to shout information at people or invite them into the life party you're throwing. Make them feel like they're a part of something.
Just like an effective audition or job interview, choose to set an environment that welcomes your fans into an experience. I refer to my audience as FOD's. (Friends/Family of Doug) and start by inviting them to kick, back, relax, and enjoy the e-journey.
How do you create a welcoming environment? By keeping your e-newsletter about your readers and not about yourself. When you send out information dumps of all your accomplishments, it projects desperation.
Become sensitive to the difference between "I played the lead in this show" and "Joe Director [with link to director's website] brought the best work out of our entire ensemble." Both say you're working, but only the latter shows you're enrolling other great people on your journey. So, use the opportunity to hold up your colleagues. I choose to list the actors and design crew for every project I do, with links to their websites. It increases my readers' involvement because they recognize their colleagues and e-mail me back with "Hey! You know Alexandra de Suze! I love Alexandra de Suze!"
While you're at it, be the go-to person for whatever it is you love.
Are you passionate about new music theatre work? Feature a music theatre writing team like Carner & Gregor. Crazy about baby animals? Link to Old time radio comedy? Link to a Jack Benny video on YouTube. Connect with your readers about something other than the shows in which you're performing.
So, Savvy Actors, be your own Marketing Director and create an e-newsletter that sings with your essence without just crowing about your successes. Effective marketers choose information that is useful to their audience over information they just really want to share. Now get busy and share it!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Youth Acting: How To Get Started The Right Way

So you want to get your child started as a little actor or actress in the entertainment industry, but you're not sure where to start? No worries - we've got you covered.
First things first, in any hobby or extracurricular activity, it's best to get an early start if you want to become great at it. So the sooner you get your little one started, the better their chances for success are.
Second, decide what their 'niche' is going to be. Do they want to perform in live stage plays and musicals? Do they want to wow Broadway? Maybe they even want a leading role in a television show or feature film. Whatever their goal is, write it down, and embed it.
Third, get some sort of training. Whether it's paid professional training from a one on one coach, or if your child participates in an after school drama or theater club offered by their school or a local organization like the YMCA. Whatever training and experience they can get, take it. Some schools even begin offering a drama class as early as grade 5. Take advantage of opportunities like that.
Fourth, put together a resume. It doesn't matter if your child has little or even no experience at all, what matters is that they have a resume in hand that they can hand to casting directors that tells them a little bit about themselves, what their goals are, what their strengths are, and why they should be chosen to audition for certain parts.
Fifth, search for auditions and open casting calls that match your child's profile. Many times a casting director will post these auditions and write very specific requests for what they are looking for. Make a large list of auditions and casting calls that match your child as closely as possible. Now, you don't have to go overboard and skip a listing just because your child's height may be a little off, or maybe your child doesn't have the exact color hair that the director is looking for, but as long as your child is an 80% match to the description, it's worth writing down.
Lastly, help your child write up a very professional audition request and attach it to your audition application. It shouldn't sound like the parent wrote it, you should have a sit down with your child and ask them why they want the part, and simply help them get it written down and formatted correctly. One you have done this, send off your audition application and wait for a response for the director. If you do not hear anything within 3-5 business days, a follow-up email or phone call could help.
Final thoughts. Little ones tend to have sensitive feelings, and the last thing you want is to see disappointment on your child's face. Prepare them for the competitive world of acting and let them know that it's completely normal for them to not get an audition request every time they apply, and also they may not even get a role that they audition for. That's not to say you should prepare them to fail at everything they try, but simply remind them that they will eventually get their time to shine and sometimes the director is just looking for something else.