Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Looking back, looking forward (long)

At the end of this month, I'll be changing my coaching practice.

I won't be accepting people who contact me from the general public to coach because I'll devote more time to writing (including a book I'm in the midst of completing now) and directing.

I'll continue to work with people I've coached over the years, those recommended by my actors and writers - as well as directors and producers who need their casts or individual performers to have special CP coaching sessions for a specific project in LA, NYC or Seattle.

Looking around my newly streamlined studio, I see the literally hundreds of people who have passed through here - so many doing so very well now .. doing what they love, changing their lives to incorporate their passions, perfecting their craft, finding their own way whether or not acting is their greatest calling.

So many actors have prepared here for auditions and performing in everything from feature films to shorts to commercials to industrials to political campaigns (top secret --including a popular U.S. Senator!) to theatrical performances (even *more* top secret!) to cabaret shows and many more.

Not everyone has been a fan - I'll never forget one angry guy who wanted me to take IOU's for sessions instead of cash. He actually demanded, "Do you mean to tell me you *won't* coach me unless I pay you?!"

Um, well, no ...

Worse, I had to let him go because he didn't do his homework.

He took great pleasure spreading vile and vitriol about me to anyone who would listen. He was even more upset when I told him to take my name off his resume since we had not actually worked together. More vile. More vitriol.

Sadly, he was such an urban legend here for being a problem person that people contacted me to congratulate me for being the first to stand up to him and set him straight.

I've also turned down people who aren't ready for the discipline and pressure of working one on one with a coach - and I won't coach kids who have "stage parents." Those parents can be quite caustic.

The kids I have coached are talented, natural born performers and the *best!* As are their families. I've bonded with many parents of those young actors over the years - two of whom were crucial in helping me through the months of chemo therapy I endured when I kicked breast cancer to the curb.

I have always believed kids should never work unless they absolutely want to and love it. Stephen Lennstrom was the young "Grey Poupon" kid in a limousine for several years on the mustard's TV commercial, as well as having lead roles in some three features. With my blessing, at 14, he decided he wanted to just be a kid and has pursued a rich, rewarding life as a happy teenager! He totally rocks!

I've always told everyone that if they decide they want to do something else - or even study with someone else - it's their life and I support whatever decision they make to better their lives and their craft.

Two talented actors realized that being a lawyer was their true calling, knowing that everything they learned about writing, speaking and performing would help their careers - both are doing spectacularly today!

Not everyone agrees with my philosophy that you need to get your head on straight if you want to succeed in show biz. I've seen too many people kill promising careers when they sabotaged themselves after they started to enjoy some modest success.

All the great camera acting techniques in the world won't help people who get in their own way on their way to an otherwise potential lifelong, rewarding career. It happens so often it's nearly a cliche.

If you're an artist of any kind, I hope you do learn to take the best care of yourself and love yourself unconditionally, because you'll run into a lot of brick walls that you'll need to discover how to go around, under or over. If you don't, you may find out the hard way you *don't* have to crash your way through them, hurting yourself or worse.

For the very most part? I'll remember the pee-your-pants, fall on the ground laughter that has filled and shaken these walls literally every day. Because I have a reputation of being pretty strict, this was understood to be "our secret." ;-)

A highly esteemed Academy Award-winning director interviewed one of my actresses - who attributes her success to me - recently for a role in one of his future films. The director challenged her, asking what she believes is the most important thing I have taught her. She responded, "How to laugh at myself."

He was greatly impressed. Me, too!

I'll never forget how exhausted everyone was from sitcom workshops. Or how confident they became during audition seminars and role playing.

And everyone individually doing against-type monologues nearly one syllable at a time to nail the character and subtext "naturally."

Or how thrilled they were to see themselves in the short films we shot on "Resume Saturdays," when actors who already work with me would each be cast in a short film I wrote, directed and photographed.

Green screen and other techniques were also practiced on Resume Saturdays - they did things here they could legitimately put on their resumes.

Then there's the memorable first time they saw themselves in a professional, paid job! A film, TV program, commercial or other performance on screen. There's nothing like it. For me, too!

It's so rewarding to hear from people who have studied with me as they describe how it feels to work with such artists as Sir Anthony Hopkins.

And there were the concealed coaching sessions for speech givers, lawyers and stage performances (I mean I *am* supposed to be a camera coach!).

I'll never forget helping one of my 15 year old actors prepare for his first theater performance.

For some reason, after learning how to act for the camera - after they have their camera skills down cold - many of my folks audition for significant roles in theater productions. And are cast - normally in lead, co-lead or lead support roles, which leaves us quite gobsmacked and stressed out because they have to learn how to perform brilliantly for another medium in record time!

I mean, they have never set foot on a stage before, but would have to come up with a stunning performance as a lead character!

So we cleared a large area, wrote the stage area names on the floor and worked it all out from there, using the camera to critique the performance.

Although my 15 year old talented actor took a lot of grief from the director who had been flown out from New York City to helm the well-known play, the day after opening night, a newspaper critic referred to my actor as "the only reason to see the play." You go, guy!

I remember when, after dashing back and forth between working with him in our stage area, shooting his work with my VHS camera, I set the camera precariously on the tripod without locking it in.

We heard an odd "click," only to turn around and see the large camera fall to the floor - hard - breaking into dozens of pieces. We spent the rest of the evening figuring out how to put the camera together. We did - and it worked just fine!

Accompanying people to their shoots is always the greatest fun for me.

I had a blast with an actress/singer/dancer whose normal workplace was in Broadway musicals in New York City. She studied with me intensively for 5 weeks to begin her transition to camera work while she visited her family who lives here.

Most of my actors have been very kind and generous with me - helping me with personal and professional projects, sharing their good fortune and inviting me to special occassions with them. I never expect these things, but they are always incredibly appreciated.

I recall one actor - successful in the theater, not at all for camera work. He came to me as if he had reached an alcoholic's "bottom," despondent he felt he *finally* had to come to me for help. I assured him his "shameful secret" was safe with me.

Within 6-9 months of his work with the camera here, he was cast as the sole character in a great short film - a real tour de force - and has been working in both arenas since. He was marvelous! But worried about my eating habits over the months of our intense work, he would actually make and bring me a hot dinner to be sure I was eating healthy meals! Bless his heart!

There was also the actress who had to hide evidence of her husband's physical and emotional abuse here (she taped him, and had files of information about his abuses). We were both very concerned about what he would do if he discovered she had the indicting information, but she finally, successfully divorced him (he wanted to "own" her).

There are dozens of such stories - I'd write a book, but I don't have permission from all my actors to tell them - some quite dramatic, some hilarious.

All of which I'll revere and carry with me as I move into a new chapter of my creative career. I will always coach - it keeps me sharp as a writer and director because each person presents such interesting, unique and challenging ways for me to figure out how solve a million new problems.

And to help him or her achieve the dreams they come with in the best, most efficient way possible.

Some have actually been willing lab rats in my experimentation to finding better, faster and easier techniques to help them give their best performances.

It takes so much courage to walk through that door and face themselves, really - in the guise of a coach - day after day, week after week. There's no escape, as there is in a class where people can decide not to do their homework and hide behind the others who can step up to show their stuff.

It can be tough, but ultimately an amazing experience when the fit is right with a coach and coachee.

My simple coaching philosophy: The actor who communicates gets the job. And therefore, the career.


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