…while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
— Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is an insightful text, chock-full of practical real-life applications, whether your battlefield is Feudal China or Sunset Blvd. Find a good translation and give it a read.
I’ve been thinking a lot about strategy lately, specifically my career strategy.
What Came Before
I’ve been in Los Angeles for fifteen years now. When I first arrived in 2003, I followed the advice of my friend and mentor, Brad Lemack, and took the time necessary to establish myself. I got an apartment I could afford. I found a flexible but steady survival job. I bought a used but reliable car. Once all of that was in place, I officially launched my acting career; I got new headshots, uploaded them to the casting sites, and started submitting relentlessly. And I booked. Mostly small projects, but I landed lead roles in two feature films (one of which fell apart in the middle of shooting, the other spent six years in post-production). I also gave in to the siren song of the stage. I promised myself that the theatre would be my “side gig” while I worked my industry game, but more and more as time went on, I found myself booking and focusing on plays.
Still, I got myself a commercial agent and went out on auditions regularly. I did dabble once with a pay-to-play casting workshop (which got me an audition for House M.D.) and audited Meisner and comedy classes, but I never went full bore in either direction because I was barely scraping by. I landed all kinds of crazy projects, saying yes to almost everything I was offered, and found myself spread very, very thin, often rushing from one set to another throughout any given weekend and sleeping… basically never.
Maybe that’s how I woke up one day an AFTRA must-join and wound up getting my first Union card much, much earlier in my career than I probably should have. Around this time, I started writing my own plays (one of which later became a musical) and tried to start my own film collective. We actually managed to shoot a couple projects of our own for various little festivals and competitions and had ambitions of tackling a web series until the group drifted apart. Such as:
After the Adventure: Logan’s Heroes, written and directed by me!
Even still, after years of hustling, I got my SAG card just in time to walk the picket line during the WGA strike in ’08 and got signed across the board by the agency I interned for in college. That relationship, however, didn’t work out very well. While I did get invited to exclusive industry events (such as a private screening of Salome at CAA’s screening room in Beverly Hills in 2009, where I got to meet Al Pacino), the auditions I got sent out on weren’t right for me, and I dropped that agent after 90 days. I wasn’t worried; I’d gotten pretty far on my own, in spite of not having a solid strategy or a clear brand. After all, my plan was “keep putting myself out there and booking things until someone notices me and books me in something big!” I mean, what could go wrong?
Yeah. That’s literally the very definition of “going to war, then seeking to win.”
A Hard Reset
Thankfully (or y’know… not), the economy crashed at the end of 2008, and I lost not one, but both of my survival jobs in the ensuing economic chaos; they were both telephone sales gigs, and no one was buying anything because everyone besides the top 1% was flat broke.
With no agent, no job, and a lot of burnout and frustration (not to mention my wedding day on the horizon), I decided it would be wise to take “a sabbatical” for “a year or two” to “get my head right,” then come back stronger than ever. I felt good about that plan.
Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.
Instead of coming back to Hollywood a year after getting married, I got a 9-5 job, struggled to grow my non-profit theatre company (new website coming soon), got a ten-minute play published, watched the SAG-AFTRA merger from the sidelines, raised $12,500 to produce one of my plays at the New York Fringe, began producing theatre regularly, premiered my first musical and got it published, established myself as a Hollywood Fringe Festival staple, co-founded the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, got my third play published, joined Actor’s Equity just in time to get dragged neck-deep into the 99-Seat Waiver Wars, wrote twenty-five more ten-minute plays, joined the Dramatists’ Guild, quit the 9-5 job before it killed me, then nearly died anyway when I totaled two cars while trying to make ends meet driving for Lyft and Uber, started developing four more full-length plays, won a Best Actor award for playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men, and finally, co-founded StageCrafts L.L.C. with Jenn and bought studio/stage.
Suddenly, it had gone from 2008 to 2018, and I’d been living in Los Angeles for 15 years.
And while I’d had one hell of a ride, deep down, I was really unhappy.
In the back of my mind, I always thought was always going to be the James Earl Jones definition of “an overnight success” – work your ass off for fourteen straight years and one day, someone would notice you, and boom, you’re Darth Fuckin’ Vader or Hans Gruber or something like that, and all that hard work and persistence pays off.
Well, by that logic, I was a year overdue. And no one in this town even knew or remembered that I existed.
The Long, Hard Road Out of Hell
I’ve come to realize that I base a lot of my self-worth on my accomplishments. And while I can look back at the last decade and see all kinds of success… it wasn’t the kind of success I was looking for. In spite of the wonderful world I’d built for myself, it all felt like empty filler, because I was nowhere near what I’d originally set out to do. Put simply, in spite of all of my accomplishments, I felt like I’d been out here for fifteen years and had nothing to show for it.
Love you, Ronnie Marmo!
Anyway, as that decade wore on, I slid further and further into depression, because I felt my dreams were slipping further and further away from me with each passing day.
I’d quit my day job to drive rideshare so I could earn the money and have the flexibility to start auditioning again. Well, what I learned was that you only make enough money driving rideshare to barely afford driving rideshare.
So, like the economic collapse, I came to see the head-on collision that totaled my 2015 Hyundai Tucson as a blessing in disguise, not because I like totaling cars, but because it gave a definitive end to a particular chapter in my life. Also, because while my car was totaled, I somehow walked away completely uninjured. And, because I had an ace in the hole: StageCrafts.
It took a little while to get our new enterprise in order, but once Jenn and I got the hang of managing our spaces, I decided it was time to get back on the horse and once again start chasing the dream I had originally come out here to pursue. I got new headshots late last year and reactivated all of my old casting accounts. I re-did my website. I started submitting and going out on auditions again. I re-read The Business of Acting and created my new action plan. And this time, with ten years of experience under my belt, I now knew what I didn’t know.
Which is quite empowering, when you think about it.
In the meantime, after years of looking in the mirror and hating what I saw, self-care became a priority. I began focusing on sleeping better. Eating better. Exercising. Taking care of the small, nagging physical issues that had been bothering me. I treated myself to LASIK and went to the dentist. My mental health needed attention, too, so I got a really good therapist. I started playing video games again and put together a weekly D&D group. I started playing in professional poker tournaments once a month. I made it a priority to go out and see plays, read books, go to the movies, and go to baseball games, and to make coffee or dinner dates with friends twice a week. I worked with a financial adviser to restructure and eventually get out of debt that I’d been saddled with for a decade. I started auditioning for shows outside of Theatre Unleashed, and writing short films with our sister group, Hold For Plane Pictures.
In short, I rediscovered my joie de vivre.
As an artist, I felt like I’d given myself a new lease on life.
What does Sun Tzu mean by winning first, then going to war? Many hold that the meaning behind that statement is determining what victory means and working backward from there. What is your objective? What is your most desired outcome for this conflict? From there, work backward step-by-step, and you’ll have a plan to achieve it. Next, preparation: assembling the right people, the right tools, lining up the right resources. Finally, execution: only once you have your plan and everything is in place are you ready to go to war. Done right, victory should come swiftly and certainly.
In preparing my return, I realized that one area of my game that’s weak was networking. I knew a lot of theatre people, but not folks in TV or film. So, I began looking for networking events geared towards actors and industry folks… and then I saw a tweet from a friend of mine about an event he was running for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.
He was running workshops on the Business of Acting. They were free for Union members. They were weekday afternoons when I was available. They were really easy to sign up for, and they looked incredibly interesting. There was one about Career Focus that caught my eye:
Actor Career Focus: There are many areas an actor can pursue within the entertainment industry. By taking the time to narrow down what an actor really wants to focus on it can free them up to deepen their pursuit of job opportunities. In this session, we will examine the different ways an actor can focus their career goals and discuss how one can create a system by which to effectively target the industry professionals within that area.
It was full, but I signed up for the waitlist. Day of, I got a notification that I had gotten in, and I ran down to Mid-Wilshire. The next two hours were spent listening to brutal, but amazing, truth bombs and getting real, hard, nitty-gritty career advice and action-items. It was empowering. I walked out of there having finally thought about something I’d thought about but had never been able to articulate in simple terms: what kind of actor did I want to be?
Brad Lemack would look at us in class and ask us “what kind of actor are you”? For some reason, I always took that question to some sort of deep, existential place whenever he asked it. In this workshop though, we were given a list of about thirty different “areas of focus” actors could pursue, and we were told to pick five. Then narrow that list to three. Then narrow it down to one. And voila: that’s the kind of actor you were (or at least, you want to be).
Me? I want to do one-hour dramas.
In the months that followed, there were more workshops at the Foundation:
Updated my demo reel descriptions in the style shown to me by @dennisbaker at the @sagaftraFOUND workshop on reels! So grateful for the insights gained from these practical, pragmatic small group sessions. They’re utterly invaluable. #actorslife pic.twitter.com/Un7h5FczbP
— Gregory Crafts (@gregorycrafts) September 19, 2018
Sitting in the classroom, listening to Dennis Baker drop #TruthBombs and practical knowledge, and combining it with everything I read in The Business of Acting and learned from Brad years ago in school… everything finally started to make sense. Not only did I understand better what I still needed to learn, but those gaps in my knowledge were disappearing.
There are still plenty of small group sessions I need to attend: Audition Technique, Representation… and The Branding Workshop, better known as the most talked-about workshop the Foundation offers. And I can see why – it seems to be the fundamental basis from which the rest of the workshops extrapolate.
In order to have headshots that “work,” you have to make sure they accurately represent your brand.
In order to make sure your demo clips are useful, you have to make sure they accurately represent your brand.
In order for your resume to be useful, it should tie in and accurately represent your brand.
And what is an actor’s brand?
It’s their “essence.” Their je ne c’est quoi. Except by identifying their brand, they know what the quoi they’re talking about.
And no, that’s not just some pretentious actor bullshit; the co-star roles you’re going to book when you’re first starting out aren’t “stretch” roles. They’re basically going to be you, your “normal” self, in different clothes, speaking dialogue. That’s it. So, your “essence” is the type of character you come off as, naturally.
Using the knowledge gained from the Demo Reel workshop, I wrote a scene for my reel and shot it with some friends from Hold For Plane where I play a surgeon who has just suffered a devastating loss being comforted by his Resident Attending. It’s going to (hopefully) look like a clip right out of an episode of Gray’s Anatomy.
During the headshot workshop, Dennis took my picture and held it aloft for all to see. The room then scoured four separate lists of adjectives and descriptors and shouted out the ones they felt applied to me as I scrambled to write them all down. What I heard was:
Character, funky, quirky, character, grunge, edgy, wholesome, character, unique, outgoing, wild, sensitive, crazy, obnoxious, goofy, neurotic, goofy, student, sports nut, boyfriend, best friend, middle-management, roommate, psycho, slacker, artist, computer guy, journalist, artist, computer tech, intern, delivery guy, plumber.
Whew. That’s a lot. And yes, the repetition was noted intentionally, as I’d heard those descriptors multiple times.
When I got this picture, I was going for “me:” the gentle giant. Warm, friendly, approachable, trustworthy, sincere, intelligent.
Some of that came through in that picture. But most folks clearly saw a goofy character-type underneath the surface. One that was not being served by my current pictures.
And suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do (one-hour dramas), and I had identified specific and unexpected elements of my “essence,” which means I know what roles will be “low-hanging fruit” and which would be a stretch for me to book.
What’s more, I know what I need to do to get the most out of my next headshot session, and how to meticulously plan each and every detail – from the color and style of my clothes to the background we shoot against, to how each shot is cropped and edited. And that… boy, that alone is worth the price of initiation into the Union.
Oh, and did I mention the Foundation runs Casting Access Workshops with working Casting Directors that are free for union members? Yeah, so not only do I have a better understanding of my brand, but I can connect directly with the gatekeepers.
So, as I prepare to go to wage another campaign into Hollywood, I feel as if I am already winning, and my game plan is getting more and more fleshed out by the day.
I’ll share that game plan with you soon, but not before I read The New Business of Acting, (arriving in bookstores next week – look for my personal endorsement in the front materials!), and take the rest of those workshops at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation. Then, enough of my knowledge gaps will be plugged that I will feel like I can finish articulating a workable strategy.
Or, to put it in Sun Tzu’s terms, by the end of 2018, I will have won.
In 2019, I go to war.
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