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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

My interview with Steven Halpern: the origins of his relaxation music and what it offers the actor

Steven Halpern started recording music for relaxation and meditation in 1975. He has released over 80 albums. Much of his music is available on CD and at iTunes. His music is relevant for any actor who experiences anxiety or fear in their auditioning or in their work.  Some of his recordings are, "Effortless Relaxation," "Deep Theta," "Sleep Soundly," and "Music for Sound Healing." 
There is so much of what Steven talks about that speaks to the needs of actors who want to attend to their instruments. He was a pioneer in the "New Age" movement and his words reflect the beneficial energy that is available to any who wish to find it. Steven is also like a walking encyclopedia of books designed to bring healing and growth into your life. Talking to him was a window into a whole world, a whole professional creative approach that's worthy of the actor's attention. 


Corey: You were an undergrad at University of Buffalo in its heyday, 1965-69. You studied and performed with world class poets, as well as jazz greats Ron Carter and Archie Shepp. The music you played back then on trumpet was in the high energy, spiritually centered style pioneered by John Coltrane. How did you evolve from that kind of music to the meditative music you are best known for?

Steven: Corey, I like to trace my evolution going back to my days in Buffalo because the professors and the mentors that I had a chance to hang out with and study with harkened their tradition back to Ancient Greece, where the artists and the musicians would tune in to their Muse; and that getting in touch with one’s Muse, finding one’s voice, one’s tone as a musician, finding one’s voice and rhythm as a poet, were how I was really brought into the work of an artist. 

And that’s been in the background of all my work over the years. Well, almost on this date in 1965, my first month at the University of Buffalo, I was enjoying a jam session with some of the faculty members, playing John Coltrane-type music with a Sax player who sounded like John Coltrane, and as was my habit, I was walking around with my trumpet in my trumpet case. 

I was invited, called out of the audience to sit in, and I started playing some of the fancy licks and riffs that I knew and then all of a sudden, the trumpet started playing itself. In other words, there was no longer me having to think about playing or setting my omberture, it was an entirely spontaneous, effortless experience. 

Well, that experience opened me up to a whole other realm of studies and activities through college. And when I got out to California, right before I was scheduled to hop a return flight back to graduate school in Buffalo, I had an experience sitting and meditating in a grove of Redwoods outside of Santa Cruz, California, in which I started hearing different music, beautiful slow meditative music that sounds like what I recorded on my first album "Chakra Suite." But at this point I’m in the middle of the woods, I had just been invited to audition for a job; I walked down the road toward where I believed the audition was to be held for a job on the staff of a sister organization, akin to Esalen institute (which was the leading and the pioneering human potential center in Big Sur.) 

Through a series of coincidences I showed up when the person who was applying for a staff position didn’t show up, I was mistaken for the job applicant, and when they said, “Are you here for the job?”  I said, “Well, if you’re offering, I’ll take it.”  And this is still…I’m in the moment, totally realizing that this is like being in a movie or a play but it’s happening in real life. 

I go to where I thought the meeting was, there’s nobody in the room, no one on the building, but there’s a piano. I sit down at the piano, go into an instant meditation state, and start playing the music that sounds like what I heard in the woods. 

About 10 minutes later, I hear some rustling in the room. There’s ten people sitting in yoga positions, lying down, and meditating, and one of them says, “Who is this guy?” And someone else says, “Oh that’s the guy I said was applying for the job.” And someone else says, “Hire him!” And quickly my life changed, and I’m offered a position on staff at this…pretty much a weekend retreat center, where my main job was cleaning and also that I had to cook Friday night dinner. 

So, coming from New York, I kind of felt I was channeling Ron Silver (actor, former mentor at U. of Buffalo) when they said, “Can you cook for thirty people?” I had never cooked for more than three, but I knew a couple of techniques and I said, “Sure!” and I passed the audition the next day and I was hired.

 That’s when I started really understanding that I was playing music and I was not even aware of what I was doing; in other words, the music was playing through me but that again goes back to what the poets and the jazz musicians talked about, where the words would write themselves, and playwrights would talk about the characters would speak through them when they’re writing their plays, writing their movies. 

Well, in music it’s a similar situation, in the field of Metaphysics, this is often called ‘automatic writing,’ for me it was automatic playing. But whatever the word is, it’s where the conscious mind gets out of the way and you’re just dealing with direct energy, and it’s probably a whole other blog post to discuss where it’s coming from.

But the reality is I was trained as a very left-brain, analytical musician. If you played a phrase, I could tell you what notes you were playing and how that related to the chords and the progressions. Suddenly, none of that mattered. I was tapping into the quantum field in the space between the notes. It’s what Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer were talking about as “the field of infinite potential, infinite possibility.”  I was no longer directing the show. I was in the flow, and in that state. That’s how that transition really started happening. 

Within a month, one of the faculty, who was teaching a weekend at Bridge Mountain Foundation and at Esalen with Dr. Stanley Krippner. The week before was Dr. John Lilly who worked with Dolphins. And the staff told these guys, “You have to listen to this guy’s music.” 

And they said, ‘yes it sounds wonderful, I see people meditating, but that’s subjective data. If you want to be taken seriously, Mr. Halpern, you have to do some scientific research to get objective data.’ And for me, I had just canceled my graduate fellowship and I had been telling people, ‘You’ll never catch me back in Grad school again!’


Suddenly, I had an invitation to attend Grad school at the Humanistic Psychology Institute up in Sonoma State, California, that had one of the leading biofeedback centers in the country at that point. That’s when I started being able to do research in brainwave response to certain kinds of music. 

And then in my research project, going beyond brain wave biofeedback, beyond GSR and physiological biofeedback, into working with the Aura, the electro-magnetic energy field that surrounds us. 

One of my other faculty sponsors happened to be the guy that was in Russia at the first international congress on Kirlian photography. And when I met him he says, ‘Forget about brainwave research, we got something that’s better than that. 

And I was connected with one of only two people in the country that even had the schematic to make that piece of equipment. So I was at the leading edge of research on Kirlian photography. No one had even thought about researching the effects of music on consciousness, on healing energies. That was the upside.  

The downside was because it was so far ahead of its time, most of the media would not cover it. The whole concept of energy fields, which is now well known, it’s the basis of acupuncture, and so many know about the reality of electromagnetic energy fields-beyond just the physical skin-in our bodies. 

That’s one of the reasons why even though I got national exposure to a certain degree, major media either did not believe in this or was funded by pharmaceutical advertisements, did not want this information out there.

 And since I wasn’t promoting Mozart or some of the classical composers that were, in some cases like Mozart state sponsored in Austria, I was promoting a new form of healing music, already starting to be called, ‘New Age music,’ and there were so many political and religious overtones to it, and there was the whole cultural apathy and antagonism to anything that was labeled, “New Age.”

This meant that I was limited at how far I could bring the message of: A) the power of music to make very powerful contributions to an individual’s life, and B) because I was the main proponent in the beginning, the main composer, I ran into, ‘Well, you’re just promoting your own work.’ Well, that was true, but in so doing, I was educating people about the entire field of ‘Sound Healing.’ 

Corey: It sounds like you were so far ahead of your time, it may not have moved as quickly as you wanted but it was moving, just slowly. 

Steven: Exactly. 


Corey: How do you prepare for your work?

SH: Well, One of the things that I learned from hanging out with the poets and jazz musicians back in my formative years in Buffalo, was that, kind of the aphorism: “Physician, Heal Thyself.” And my take on that was, ‘Musician, Compose Thyself.’ 

So one of the ways we learned to get in touch with ourselves and just to come into center and into balance was through meditation. Meditation was always involved in orchestrating the breath, shifting into a deeper breath pattern, shifting into more sustained and prolonged breathing, deeper and more regular. 

But then I would also connect with some affirmations. When I go into the studio, I set the intention for bringing through music that will be of service to the highest good of the listener, that would be a positive contribution to their life, that would help them enter into states of relaxation, that would support their own innate intelligence for self healing and that would get them into the positive altered states of meditation and spirituality.

Going back in the ‘70s, ‘meditation’ and ‘spirituality’ for the general public were still kind of dangerous terms. If you used those terms, pretty much you’d be blacklisted and that would be the end of the interview, the end of the article, etc. 

So I shifted to speak more about the relaxation effects of the music rather than the consciousness effects of the music, but they were all related. As I prepare, in fact the first year that I was recording, I would book an extra hour at the beginning of my session, where I’d light a candle and I would meditate in the studio in that incredible anechoic chamber, it was the most silence you could hear outside of being inside the Great Pyramid [where he recorded in 1981]. And for me that would just get me into the zone.


Corey: Would you talk about the recording and how they can be of service to actors?

Steven: There’s the obvious effect that music that gets you into a balanced brain state activates areas of your mind and brain that you can then call upon more easily and access those deeper states. 

When you’re studying a script it’s very helpful to have whole brain rather than half-brain while learning the words, but also in terms of getting in touch with the creativity that connects you to the essence of the character that you are portraying. 

When you get into a state of, let’s say deep alpha, where the brain is resonating at 8 cycles per second, literally that will help your brain entrain to the dominant energy field, the dominant energy field of the planet. So you’re tapping into a much larger power source. So if you look for, as I always look for, as an ex- New Yorker, Type A individual, when I want my relaxation I don’t want to wait 20 minutes, I want it now! 

And my music provides instantaneous gratification that gets you into the Relaxation Response, a mode that shifts your brain waves into a higher coherence aspect, where you bring more of your self to what you’re studying, or wanting to emote, and then for tapping into deeper levels of creativity. 

My last several albums, in fact, that were called “Deep Alpha,” and “Deep Theta,” and Theta takes you deeper into the slower brainwaves that are heralded as the brainwaves where your brain cycles between 4 and 7 cycles per second, and in those states, you can tap deeper levels of your own being. 

I know many actors have to do multiple takes and you want to have more creativity available to you. If you have become more familiar with being in a deep Theta brainwave state, you can access that state, shift into it more easily. When you listen to an album like “Deep Theta,” there’s no question that the music will take you there, because built into the music are what we call "brainwave entrainment tones" that literally guide your brain into matching those frequencies. 

In fact, I was listening to the basic soundtrack when I recorded “Deep Theta,” and that was the recording session where I had some of the most amazing and creative breakthroughs of my career.  So I am the first person in my audience and I swear by this, it has informed all my recordings since. 

My recordings were designed and composed with specific outcomes in mind, but then at a certain point, when I’m in the studio, I’m not thinking about that. I’m just there at the piano and I wait for inspiration to come through and that’s really what we’re talking about. How do we get our human instrument, the instrument that any actor is working with, in tune to be played, so you have all your tools in command and this is a very empowering situation. 

Corey: For me, personally, I can say that one of the ways that your music has been of service, and I think I mentioned this to you, is that actors have to constantly go through this process of auditioning, which may include potential rejection, and it’s a consistent and continual process that goes on and anxiety can start to become an issue. I’ve used your music for years, it has helped to soothe and calm the anxiety and return me back to my essence, to my creativity and that’s something that’s been consistent help for me for many years. 

Steven: Exactly. And that’s really what we’re talking about. And there’s a concept of remembered wellness.  One of the great pioneers in the field was Dr. Herbert Benson, he wrote the book, “The Relaxation Response.” But when you are able to access those states with the music, then even if you don’t have the music handy, you can go back in your mind and tap into that place, because your whole being, your mind, body, spirit, remembers those states. 

Dr. Deepak Chopra and others say that this is more of our natural state and when you assist the body in manifesting its own innate intelligence, you’re doing what your body/ mind was designed and genetically programmed to do.

 You’ll also notice in my music, certainly most of my relaxation and meditation albums, there’s no central beat or pulse. You can’t hum the melody, you can’t figure out where the chords are going, that’s all by design. 

Most music has hidden stressors that unconsciously force the listener to anticipate where the melody is going, to anticipate where the chords are going, the rhythm of a song will literally entrain your heartbeat to the rhythm of the music and most music is not designed to support your relaxation state. 

It’s exactly the opposite. And that’s also why the breathing that happens when people listen to my music, your breathing rate typically slows down and deepens because that’s naturally how your body wants to breathe.

 Most music, whether you’re aware of it or not, and most of us aren’t, unconsciously causes you to breathe faster and more shallowly, because that’s the nature of most of the music that’s recorded. Think about it, even Mozart was composing in the caffeine capital of Europe in 1770s; people were not interested in relaxation back then. 

I’m not saying we should only listen to relaxing music and meditation music, but it’s there as a tool to be used when you want to do that.  Why not choose music that is proven effective rather than something you’ll just hear on Pandora or iTunes that says it’s relaxing, because some of the music isn’t, it's just being marketed that way. It’s really about making wiser choices

Corey: And it’s such a simple thing to become aware of your breath and to focus on breathing more deeply, but I‘ve found that as an acting coach and teacher that it’s not so easy to get people to do it. I can tell them, suggest it to them that it will help them and yet they still don’t want to do relaxation and allow themselves to listen to music that will help them and guide them into that space.

Steven: Corey, there are several reasons why that is. One is that our culture is devoid of understanding the importance of relaxation and reducing stress. So many scientific and medical studies now say that perhaps 80% of our diseases are related to having too much stress and unmanaged stress in our lives, I was one of those guys, especially not being able to focus on the spiritual and consciousness raising aspect of the music. 

When I found out how helpful my music was to people like me, I had an extra motivation to continue composing because I like variety, it was a gig that would help me as well as the people that would buy the music afterwards. So it was a win-win situation. 


Corey: Would you talk about “mindful listening?”

Steven: Well, let me give you an example. Let’s go back to what we were talking about, hidden stressors and how music can stress you without you even being aware of it.  I’m going to sing a melodic phrase that everyone is familiar with, take 10 seconds, close your eyes and feel what happens in your mind and in the middle of your chest when I sing this: (sings) Doe, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti…
……..(silence). I bet you’re holding your breath right now…

I christened that the Scalus Interruptus phenomenon. I didn’t realize that that was one of the most profound discoveries I’ve made in my career until I found some other people saying 'this is most amazing discovery' after I talked about it.

 I was just paying attention to my body and going, ‘You know, I’m getting stressed listening to this baroque music and listening to Bach is making me more nervous and ‘we’ agreed ‘Bach is the highest expression of Western intellectual art form.  Well, it's not always so. 

Another reason I’ve learned that so many people don’t value relaxation is that they’ve been told, depending on their religious background, that ‘relaxation’ is the work of the devil, that unless you relax solely through Jesus Christ, then all other relaxation music is from the devil. I was shocked when I learned this.

I’d been on an airplane when I started talking to the guy next to me and he says, “Oh, my minister says New Age music is the work of the devil, it’s all demonic.” I was speechless. Certainly not my experience! But that’s why people don’t understand the power. 

One of the things that I’m shifting into during this election cycle and afterwards is really trying to come out more powerfully and talk about the reality that is this music.

And I learned early on to value my own well being. I’m cautious about what’s called "relaxation" that's available for free on Pandora. What's the alternative? I think of something good that I could purchase for $10 that lasts me the rest of my life, that turns out to be a penny a use or something, it’s the best return on investment you could make…to invest in your own wellbeing. 

What I really value about the music that I’ve been able to compose and record and share with the world is that it works for such a wide range of people, male, female, different cultures, Africa, Asia, I was astounded when I met some people from Japan who said that the most relaxing music they listened to was mine.  I said, ‘but you have the whole Shakuhachi tradition,’ some of the music that I studied early in my career, but that’s not the music they have access to. The music from the 10th Century A.D., you can’t get a recording of that, but you can get a recording of “Chakra Suite” or “Deep Alpha” or “Mindful Piano.” 

So getting back to your question, to listen mindfully is the exact opposite of following the melody to its anticipated resolution or where it’s going. To listen mindfully is to be totally in the moment, to be present with each note, because that’s how I am when I’m composing. 

The other recent album that I released is called, “Mindful Piano.” When I recorded, we had a new computer reverb setup that the studio had just installed and I was suddenly able to play inside an amazing cathedral, and I’d listen to the sound in my headphones, I had to change the way I hit the piano keyboard, it allowed me to really slow down, and every note, when I’d play a phrase, I never knew what the next phrase would be. 

I would play the notes, I would take a deep breath, and I would just listen and sometimes the overtones would blend as I held down the sustain pedal and to listen mindfully I would recommend your audience listen to a track from “Mindful Piano” or “Deep Alpha” and listen to the space between the notes, listen not just to the main notes, but to the subtle overtones and harmonics that happen particularly with the grand piano, where there’s a blending. 

People remember the last chord of  “A Day in the Life,” from the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album. That was very inspirational in my life, but I do my version without having to take different visionary vegetables and it’s done live, I’m not working as the genius George Martin did with 8 different pianos to blend together, but it’s how I strike the keys and how I work with it and how literally the energy of the piano and my own physical energy begin to blend in an organic way, and to listen mindfully.

I invite people to not multi-task, but to be present with the music, you might be sitting in a meditation position, you might have your hands-your palms open on your knees sitting in a chair, I often listen lying down, I might point my feet at the speakers and I like to say you get a different kind of ‘sole music,’ the whole body responds to the sound, but the point is to be present in the moment, not trying to hurry the music, not trying to direct where the music is going.

Most music is very manipulative, which is great for most music, and I played that kind of music and occasionally I still do. But that’s not what the highest use of my music is about, it’s about empowering the individual, to help them connect with their own essence, their own spirituality, their own innate intelligence. 

And as experts like Deepak Chopra have been saying for 20 years or so, and I was saying for 20 years before that, you tap into a level in which you already are there. I had music faculty in grad school say, “Your music doesn’t go anywhere.” And I would say, “That’s because it’s already there.” 

And it takes you there because to be present with some music and some of this goes beyond the scope of our discussion, but there’s an energy field that’s created when anyone records, when I record, and when you tap into that you are blending with that energy field and that makes it easier for you to get into that state yourself.

There’s a concept in books like “The Field” or even the Law of Attraction that relate to the latest Quantum Physics that proves that this concept is true, but it’s subtle. So if you are coming from ego or if you listen to music with a big beat, it’s like looking for the stars in the middle of the day. The sun wipes out all the stars that are still there in the sky. 

So in the same way, if the music is so busy, so complex, then your spirit, that part of you that’s eternal, doesn’t know where to go. You need to slow down. And that’s why the Alpha and the Theta brainwaves are where you slow down the brainwaves, you slow down the breathing rate; it slows down the heart rate. A lot of the research that the HeartMath Institute have been doing and publicizing the last twenty years also relates to the same concept. 

We live in such a sped up society that what we are really doing is going back to our ancient roots as living organisms. Whereas in the old days, before the rise of the Industrial Revolution, now all the electronics and the electromagnetic fields have been knocking us out of our traditional state of balance. 

We need to reestablish that so that it’s absolutely perfect to use technology and sound technology, recorded technology to help us regain our natural state of being.


Corey: Would you tell me about the “Musician’s Prayer”?

Steven: One of the first ways that I started learning that there was more to music than just trying to be sexy onstage or attracting girls or even playing sophisticated mental and intellectual games which was where the jazz world was shifting through in the 60s, as John Coltrane and others brought in the idea of modal music, where you didn’t have chords changing 4 times a measure, but you had music that stayed on one chord and one basic tonal center, like Indian music. 

Well, the deeper aspects of music, I would say one of my earliest introductions was through the writings of Edgar Cayce. And when they found out about me, I was invited early on in 1977 to present at the headquarters of the Edgar Cayce foundation in Virginia Beach. Wandering through their library, I was already told that I was considered to be one of the manifestations of Cayce’s predictions of the use of healing music in the years to come, since he was doing his readings in the mid 20th century. 

I was wandering through their library of Cayce readings, I opened up one book and I found something called the “Musician’s Prayer” in a little tiny book written by Shirley Rabb Winston that had excerpts of Cayce’s readings related to music. And it basically said, ‘Lord, through my music let me serve the highest and best in the listener, let me bring forth that which is most useful and helpful to the spiritual growth of the individual who is listening.’ And I remember that the page. And it blew my mind. 

So I went to the head of the Cayce people and I said, “Wow. Tell me about the ‘Musician’s Prayer.’” And they said, “We never heard of it.”  And we went to the book and nobody could find it. And yet, years later, when I was back there I found it again. So it does exist, I wasn’t making it all up. But it was one of those situations that I went through every page. First I went to where I thought it was and then I finally found it. So that’s the Musician’s Prayer.

What that does it that it takes—when I was perfoming onstage, not just as a jazz musician, but to earn a living I played in bands, I played in R and B bands, I was the white guitar player in a black R and B band, I started playing those songs in High School, I played in clubs, almost broke out at a certain point but the point was I learned how to move onstage, I learned how to be an entertainer as well, and I learned how to impress people with my solos…that’s about ego. Both as a trumpet player and a guitar player, let me show you how good I am, ‘I practiced for 4 years to play these phrases and dammit you’re gonna be impressed!’ And a lot of people were impressed. 

But when this new music started coming, it was not about impressing anyone, it was not about me showing how much virtuosity I had, in fact, virtuosity got in the way of the effects that I was trying to orchestrate, which was to put them in a deep meditative state. To enable and empower and facilitate their own self-healing, to take them into higher states of consciousness, where their spiritual growth was enhanced. It’s just a natural state.

 When you get into that zone, and interestingly, you know that a lot of athletes talk about being ‘in the zone.’ There was a book written by one of the founders of Esalen, Michael Murphy, “In The Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports,” related to the fact of how many athletes talk about--it’s dated by the fact that O.J. Simpson was playing football then and he would be running and feel without even looking behind him to avoid a tackle, and they said, ‘how did you know to do that?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know, man, I just felt it.’ 

And in music that is what we sometimes tap into as well. If you’re playing with a band, it’s one of those magical bonding moments and I know many actors have had that experience. 

The last time I saw (actor) Ron Silver was in his performance of Bill Graham in Hollywood, around the year 2000, I got a contact high when he faked having an acid trip-when the Grateful Dead dosed him unknowingly. Afterward I drove past where I was supposed to stay in Pacific Palisades, I was all the way up by Malibu and I was completely straight. 

He was in ‘the zone,’  he was one of my mentors, I got to hang out a little bit with him and some of his associates in 1965 and 66, and he modeled that kind of behavior. He was into self-hypnosis. He was the first person who told me, “You need to learn about self hypnosis so you’ll be able to do some of these things.” When you see someone else do it, you go, “Wow, that’s amazing!” 

And so that helped stimulate me to start learning to control other aspects of myself and to learn to get into the zone. We didn’t call it getting into the zone, but so many times so many actors have done this. I’m preaching to the choir, I’m sure you’ve done it too. But the question again is: how do you get into the zone? And once you’ve been in the zone, it makes it easier to get there again. 

And that’s what I experienced that first jam session in Buffalo, and experienced over the years many times playing with great musicians that would happen. When you hit a group energy field, brainwaves synchronize and that makes it happen easier because where two or more of us are gathered you create a stronger antenna for that energy coming through. 

And it’s the same thing in the studio even if it’s just me, I know that I’m tapping into an energy field so I know I may be the person playing the piano, but I’m not the only energy field, shall we say, involved in co-composing and co-creating the music. That also takes ego out of it. 

I could tell you this, when I’m in concert or even in the studio if I play something I’ve never played before, that might be technically above my pay scale, if I think, “Wow! I’ve never done that before! That was amazing!” That breaks the spell, and then I’ll hit a note that is obviously a mistake. So that again takes it out of ego, it’s a reminder. ‘No, it’s not about you.’ It’s about the art, it’s about the energy, it’s about the healing that comes through, the feeling that comes through. 


Corey: Here we are at the last question: What do you see looking back at your journey and what do you see ahead?

Steven: Well, as I look back I see a consistency of vision, I see some things that I wish I had handled a little differently on some levels, but on the other hand I realize that if I had tried pushing the envelope much earlier, I had already had representatives from Big Pharma tell me not to use the analogy of listening to one of my albums instead of buying a bottle of aspirin if they want to get rid of a headache. 

I was perceived early on as being one of the ring leaders of this new form of music and that my life could be made much more miserable. So I decided not to say some of the things that I had said early on. And yet this weekend I found some of the materials I wrote 40 years ago-with phrases like, ‘from Bach to Rock, most music has this very structured inevitability.’ And I thought, “That’s still what I’m saying now.” It was true then, it’s true now. 

But what I’ve been able to do since 2011, which is when this new series of recordings started, I was aware in the studio that a shift had happened in my own being. It also happened because the new electric piano that I had ordered 2 years earlier, the Rhodes electric piano had arrived. My earlier albums were produced by Fender Instruments, that’s why it’s known as a Fender Rhodes.

And that Fender Rhodes electric piano really helped launch the whole New Age and healing genre, because it was such a unique sound. It was less percussive than a grand piano, and the sound itself would change people’s brainwaves, it’s like a series of tuning forks played with a keyboard. 

Many people now know about the crystal bowls, those also, well they just produce one tone, it’s a very pure tone and bodies and brains love to focus on it, because you can’t think, you can just be with a sound like that. And the Rhodes piano helps to be, it helps ME to be, and if I’m in that state, it makes it easier for my listeners to be in that state because I- and any musician, when we play our music, it’s understood that music is a carrier wave of consciousness. 

So if you’re in tune with your own essence, and with positivity, that is radiated, if you’re in tune with the energies of love and light, that is radiated out through the music. If you are uptight about playing a mistake or you are coming from ego, ‘you better damn well be impressed by what I’m playing, folks,’ that energy will come out and people like Dr. John Diamond showed through muscle testing that that will weaken the energy of the listener. 

A lot of actors that I’ve spoken to, people like Judith Light know all about this. And I would bet that there’s a lot of actors that know about this that don’t speak about it publicly for either fear of ridicule or they don’t want to give away some of their trade secrets to other people. But you’re a coach, so you’re giving away the secrets!

Looking ahead, I see where I can come out of the closet and speak. I’m working on my memoir, and in that process will share some more of the stories of things they really took me into higher levels of creativity and spirituality, and how music has been my guide through this lifetime, and in so doing, really understanding that part of my mission was to reawaken an awareness of the power of music, not just as something we give lip service to.

Even at the Grammy’s everyone was saying ‘Music is a healing force.’ Then what’s the first act that they had on? “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.  I would suggest that there’s a disconnect with that. What do we call that? Cognitive dissonance. And yet people like myself who don’t sell millions and millions of albums a year,  there is more of a need for music like mine now than ever before. 

And my mission is to help get that out. To partner with other organizations who are working for inner peace and world peace and humanity’s betterment. I have put a call out through Linked In and everywhere else; there are ways to get in touch with me that we can partner. Where two or more of us are gathered, we can become a much more powerful vehicle for conscious change.

 There’s an organization called Subtle Activism that I just found out about, started by David Nichol. ( 

This is what we’re talking about, this is no longer just ‘New Age Woo Woo,’ this is Quantum Physics in action. And for the sake of our planet and ourselves, as well as to be a better actor, we need to start incorporating the state of the art, because I can tell you people like Deepak Chopra and his associates all do. 

There are so many people that do that can’t speak openly about it. In the same way that we saw what happened to the Dixie Chicks, if you speak openly about your politics and are not a right wing guy like a Ted Nugent, right? That’s okay to say you’re gonna shoot people, but if you come out on the other side, with all the trolls and everything else, there are a lot of people who self censor and there have been times that I’ve self censored. 

What did I really want to say after the debate last week? But I know that if I put this out, I don’t know if I’m ready to get that level of negativity sent at me right now. So we do the work, and Peter, Paul and Mary had a song, “…we lay the truth between the lines. If we really say it, the radio won’t play it. So we just lay it between the lines”. That’s where the future is and I intend to be a more forceful spokesperson for all of this and particularly for those of us who are now in our 60s, for making more time for our conscious wellbeing, and to take more control over our health and to use sound and music as a vital and viable technology and assistance and resource in doing that. Not just using it as background music, but being mindful of it, really using it to its fullest. 

Steven Halpern on what to listen to if you are interested:

"The key albums and tracks:  for instance access to mindfulness,  stress reduction, centering:

DEEP THETA  track 1,2, 13

DEEP ALPHA   tracks 1,2, 13

MINDFUL PIANO  tracks 1,2,3

CHAKRA SUITE   track 1

Because all of these compositions balance the brain, thus promoting whole brain learning.That was one of the key ingredients of my music that I learned about from leading brainwave biofeedback scientists in 1977. Virtually unique among the music they tested, including most famous classical pieces.That’s when I knew there was more going on than I was aware of….and that it was not a ‘figment of my own
Imagination or ego.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Videos: Mickey Rourke, Henry Fonda, Benedict Cumberbatch

Kevin Spacey Richard the III

Tom Hardy screen test

Fences on Broadway 1987

Advice from the Tonys

Ethan Hawke

actors auditions

Chaplin blooper reel

Nicholson in France

on Scarface ending

Oliver Reed

Not afraid to fail



Michael Caine

Once Upon a Time in the West

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Mickey Rourke

Once Upon a Time in America

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Director Jeff Zinn talks to me about his work and his new book

Available at Amazon:

Jeff will be signing his book at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan on Friday, November 11th.
250 West 40th Street. 212 944-0595

I just read an audacious and important book on acting. It encapsulates what is most relevant and noteworthy of some of the great teachers and then creates a context that lies much deeper than most. Indeed, it is the creation of its author, Jeff Zinn, actor, director with an M.A. from NYU, Post Graduate work at American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University and the Kennedy School of Government. Jeff was Artistic Director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) from 1988-2011. Jeff is currently the Managing Director of the Gloucester Stage Company in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

1) If a beginning actor approached you and asked for your guidance on what to look for and what to avoid with teachers and training, what would you say?

Jeff: Beware of gurus. There’s something so mysterious about the creative process. We look on those who are really talented or really successful with awe: How do they do it? What’s the secret? What I have witnessed in some cases is teachers who exploit that mystique to encourage a kind of cultism in their students. The craft becomes bathed in esoterica, and even overt mysticism. This tends to put the art and craft of acting on a plane that is almost deliberately unreachable. So seek out teachers who are listening to you, watching you and your work closely, and offering practical advice, guiding you through exercises that are doable, where you can grasp the objectives clearly.

   2) At what age did you find your connection to acting? Did you have support from your parents about devoting yourself to acting?

Jeff: I began in music. I was a singer/songwriter in my teens, played in bands and solo on the coffeehouse circuit. In the book I talk about how playing on the street, competing with the traffic, which forced me to push beyond the bubble of the small club or living room audience, I found a powerful sense of flow, a feeling of release that I later named “surrender.” In college I was persuaded to get involved in the theater, and I had the rather naïve notion that I would be able to transfer that sense of surrender onto the stage and into characters speaking dialog and telling stories. It turned out to be way more difficult than standing in front of a microphone letting the words and the music pour out in a rush. As an actor you have the text and relationships, cues and blocking, a director’s notes, backstory of the character to integrate, and on and on. There are so many moving parts to negotiate and navigate – and this is why there is a thriving industry of acting teachers, coaches and university drama programs! We need help. We struggle to acquire a technique that will help us find our way in the moment-to-moment of performance.

My parents were always supportive of my “life in art” whether music or theater. But they also, from time to time, would try to nudge me into alternate career paths (mainly teaching) that might be more reliable. That’s what parents do.

3)   Would you talk about the journey of your training and some of the things you walked away with?

Jeff: My first acting mentor had been a member of the Michael Chekhov Company in the 30’s and 40’s and so we heard a lot about “psychological gesture.” He encouraged “strong forms” and discouraged “introspection.” In practice this resulted in a pretty over-the-top acting style. When I got to NY and tried this out in a couple of auditions it became clear pretty quick that this was not going to cut it. I gravitated to more method based teachers connected with the Actors Studio, like David Garfield, and eventually with Susan Batson. It was in her class that I met your mom, Rocky, who introduced me to you. During that time I was an observer at the Studio and got to watch and learn from a whole bunch of amazing, talented actors and teachers including Lee Strasberg himself, Harold Clurman, Elia Kaza, Shelley Winters, Arthur Penn and Ellen Burstyn, (the only one of that bunch still alive.) I also took a master class with Bobby Lewis. So my first hand exposure to some of the seminal Group Theater and Actors Studio people was pretty intense. My exposure to the Sandy Meisner/Neighborhood Playhouse approach was more second hand. I was part of a group formed by Playhouse alums who called themselves (rather pretentiously) the Neighborhood Group Theater. Harold Baldridge, who ran the Playhouse, was a mentor. One of my early directing projects was a play by his wife, Mary.

To answer your question about my takeaways from the training, I want to fast forward a bit to a way of thinking about these approaches I eventually developed, and lean on quite a bit in the book. It’s a formulation I call the “four elements” – shape, action, transaction and surrender.

None of the schools or approaches I encountered use only one of these elements to the exclusion of all others, there is plenty of overlap. But each tends to lean on one more than the others.  The Michael Chekhov approach, at least as I received it, was very much about shape: committing to a strong outward manifestation of the character in the hope that it will spur an authentic and believable inner truth. The Meisner approach, with its emphasis on the repetition exercise, was/is all about transaction: putting attention on the scene partner as a means of getting out of the head and, again, toward authentic behavior and expression of feeling. The Actors Studio teachers, from Strasberg to Batson, were all about surrender, tapping into and expressing truthful emotion. Yes, there’s examination of the text and attention to character externals, but in the end it’s all about the tears.  The one element I found to be ubiquitous in all the approaches was action: the notion that when we have identified our objectives and intentions and motivations we must decide what to do onstage. That’s why we don’t really ask anymore, “what’s my motivation?” We ask, “what’s my action?”

During my time in NY, when I was pounding the pavement as an actor and then later having fun directing small scale projects at the West Bank Café, Circle Rep Lab, EST, and Theater for the New City, I was also being exposed to more downtown stuff from people like Mabou Mines, Bread and Puppet Theater, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Liz Swados, and other even fringier groups. I was always thrilled by the theatricality and strong forms of that work but I often felt they lacked the deep emotional truth of the more conventional, uptown work that was driven by method approaches.  That feeling was reinforced when I arrived at the ART Institute and started working with people like Ann Bogart, Andre Serban, and Liviu Ciulei. The work was astonishing – big and bold and intellectually exciting – but struck me, somehow, as artificial. I wondered whether it was possible to have both at the same time. What would happen if you dropped an intensely truthful, method trained actor into a highly formal piece by, say, Robert Wilson, who just asks you to count to 87 as you cross the stage from point A to point B?

The point is that if you are that actor and you have developed your own way of opening up to surrender, you might bring that internal truth to the mechanics of crossing the stage in a Wilson construction. Some of his actors have done just that.

Cheryl Giannini, David Patrick Kelly, 
Derek Leader, Jeff Zinn
The Gypsies

  4)   Can you talk about an experience as an actor that has meant a lot to you? What was the role, who were you working with..?

I recently played Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya at the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet. It was really the first role I had taken on since writing the book and it gave me an opportunity to really put to the test what I had been writing about. The role had lots of shape elements that were far from my own shape and persona. He’s old, sick, Russian, pompous (I hope that’s not me!) so I got to layer that up. At the same time, he’s deeply wounded and vulnerable so I needed to dig deep for the surrender. His action – and this is every character’s deep action – is to construct and defend a sense of identity that will combat his inherent sense of his own insignificance. In every interaction or transaction he’s trying to prove the validity of that action, and so he must always tune into the other characters whose behavior signals the success or failure of the action. So those were my guideposts for every rehearsal, every performance. It kept me focused. I was aided and abetted and encouraged in this by my director, Robert Kropf (a wonderful actor whose picture happens to grace the book’s cover), and the other terrific actors, especially Stacy Fischer and Justin Campbell. 

 5)   You were the Artistic Director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) from 1988- 2011. Boston Drama Critics Association has twice awarded WHAT its prestigious Elliot Norton Award. Would you talk about: your core beliefs about what Theater should be? How do you work in the modern world to maintain such a theater?

WHAT was founded as a place where we could do challenging, provocative new plays, and that’s what we did for 25 years. Sometimes I have called it “theater for grownups” or “theater that matters.” I deceived myself for a time in believing that I could choose only those plays that I personally responded to. If I liked it, my audience would like it. That did not prove to be true. In the commercial theater – and let’s face it, even the not-for-profit theater is commercial theater, driven as it is by ticket sales and donations from individuals – we must respond to the tastes, cultural limitations, and prejudices of our audiences. So I am always on the lookout for plays and projects that I respond to viscerally, intellectually, perhaps politically, but that I also think I can “sell” to an audience. I have had the somewhat perverse idea of establishing a “hedge fund” that would support risky plays, where losses from a worthy play that fails to meet box office projections would be offset by the fund. The short answer? We are always making compromises. Whatever I choose to produce, I do what I can to pick the best actors, designers, directors, and put what money we have onstage so we kick the shit out of it and blow audiences away.

  6) What theaters today-in the U.S. or in the world-do you most respect for their courage and risk taking? (not playing it safe)

It would be a pretty long list because there’s an awful lot of good work being done. I’ll just mention my peeps in Wellfleet – The Harbor Stage Company – who are fighting the good fight with exceptional work and killing themselves doing it for almost no money. Send them a check! My own company, Gloucester Stage, led by Robert Walsh, has always supported new plays and risky work. I’m honored to be there. (Another check please.)

   7)   If you could travel through time, what theater(s) from the past would you most want to become involved with?

Oh I would give anything to sweep the floors for the Group Theater. Moscow Art Theater, of course. I probably would wash out of Grotowski’s company – too intense – but I’d love to witness. The Public in the glory days of David Rabe. (I actually once sent a letter to Joe Papp asking to sweep the floors and got a letter back informing me that they had professional staff for that.)

8)  You have directed numerous productions. Would you talk about the strengths you see actors and actresses bring as well as the areas that you see actors could improve?

I’m always drawn to actors who are emotionally available but not crippled by what Patsy Rodenburg calls “first circle.” In other words, emotionally free, but also capable of making bold character choices (shape.) I also respond to a sense of ease. So try to relax.

9) You have directed numerous productions, including the recent production of “The Totalitarians” at Gloucester Stage Company, where you are also Managing Director. You are an actor, director, teacher published author. What’s next?

Right now I’m just trying to do my job well as managing director. Fundraising is a huge part of that because without the fiscal health we can’t make the theater. Beyond that I’m intensely aware of creating a welcoming and nurturing environment for everyone involved in the company: artists, technicians, Board members, volunteers, patrons. I’m really honored to have been invited to also direct at Gloucester Stage. I think that’s probably rare for a Managing Director. I hope to act more, direct more. Another book? Maybe.

10) Do you want to talk about the central premise of your book?

 Jeff: Yes. The four elements – shape, action, transaction and surrender – are a way of focusing our attention when we take the stage or go in front of the camera. But these technical elements build upon a more profound idea: our identities/shapes are constructed in response to our awareness of our mortality. That awareness is too overwhelming to keep in the foreground as we go about our day-to-day. The shapes we construct allow us to feel that our lives have meaning and purpose. Without them we are empty, hollow, tragically insignificant. The construction and defense of those shapes are the ongoing project, the action, that we take in every moment of our lives, onstage and off. We go through life – characters move through the arc of the play – engaging with others who signal, by their responses, whether they buy the shapes we’re selling. These transactions signal the success or failure of that action. When the transactions fail, when the character armor breaks down, emotion is often released in an act of surrender. Our characters’ shapes may be similar, or very different, from our own; our actions are the same. Once we are able to absorb this truth, we are on the way toward bringing those characters onstage to life as we connect their struggle, their journey, with our own.

check out Jeff's book:

Saturday, October 1, 2016

DAY PLAYER: Set Etiquette for the Actor

Never be late. Be prepared to stay all day (10-12 hours), even if your part is small. I always pack extra food/ snacks and water-just in case.


Some scenes are filmed outside and some scenes are filmed inside. In a script, a scene will start with “ext.” for exterior or “int.” for interior.

Interior scenes may be shot on location in a private home or a space that belongs to a business. They may also be shot on a soundstage.


If you are outside a professional soundstage when shooting is going to begin inside, you will hear a bell and a red light outside the door will illuminate. This means do not enter.
The reason there are the three bells and the red light is because sound is being recorded. 

If you are on a set that has no red light or bells, it is just as important to stay silent from the time you hear "Quiet on set! Rolling!" to the time to hear "Cut!"

Even when sound is not being recorded, everyone involved in shooting needs their concentration. 

 It's really important to be aware of where the rehearsal or the shooting is going on, so you can keep your distance. If you get close or make noise, you will have broken a cardinal rule of on set etiquette and there can be consequences.

I suggest...

Going somewhere safe. Maybe in your honey wagon...

honey wagon
Or your car. Or just outside, away from the set. 

I try to park as close to the shoot as possible. Martin Scorsese has spoken about the shoot of 'Mean Streets' and how they used their cars for dressing rooms and everything else. I keep everything I need in my car, extra water and food. 

French actress Jeanne Moreau (right)  sleeping in her car with actress Silvana Mangano (left.)

However... You may have to leave your car in a designated parking lot and be driven to the set in a van. If you have no honey wagon, no trailer and no car, you can still identify safe places to be. There may be a space for people to be just outside the set, and if you are quiet when you hear the first assistant director call out, "Quiet on the set!" You will hear "Rolling sound!!!" then you can hang out there. I like to be close but not too close to the set. 

Determine who your point person is! Who are you supposed to check in with? It may be a 2nd Assistant Director or a production assistant. Learn their name and understand that they probably have a lot more to keep track of then just you. Pay attention to their instructions. Don't wander away very far at any time unless you have to. Since they are paying for you to be there, there shouldn't be any reason why you have to go very far. I will always let them know if I have to run to my car. That way, if the 1st A.D. asks for me, they know I am coming right back from my car. They know where I am and I haven't made the P.A. or 2nd A.D. look bad. 

On a set, things can change quickly. Scene order (shooting order) can change. It's best to keep close enough to hear when any changes happen at all. 


Craft Services is a communal food table provided by the production that may have fruit, veggies, bagels, candy, water bottles, etc. 
There is sometimes only on on set, which means there is a pecking order. If someone above you from the cast or crew comes over for food, I suggest stepping away until they have left. 

If you can find a seat where other people are and which is near craft services, then you are in a good place...for food. But not necessarily as far from the set as you need to be when there is rehearsal or shooting. 

It is not appropriate at the craft service table to start gushing to a celebrity actor or actress, and it is not the time to start telling them about your personal history or your resume. Or your second cousin who is related to the baby sitter the celebrity once had 15 years earlier. I am not being smug, this stuff happens. I mean, there is obviously a hierarchy on set, but I also think about the fact that the actors are at work, they have things on their minds, and they may be stressed. They aren't coming to craft service to have more thrown at them. Even if an actor is friendly, Suggest using common sense.


It's bad all around if your phone makes sounds 
while you are on or near the set.


While you are on the set, don't touch any equipment. 
You may see a person try to move a piece of sound equipment, lighting equipment, camera equipment, wardrobe, etc. 
Do not help them. 

On a professional set, these are professionals, possibly union members and there are rules that state that they can't get into your business and you cannot do any form of work or help that relates to any of their work or equipment. 
You may have a good intention, it's just that there are rules. 

If you don't follow these rules, it immediately 
denotes you as an amateur. 
If they ask you for help, that is different. 


If you are on an Indie, this may be closer to the crew size that you are working with:

crew of Mike McCarthy's Tupelove

Once you have figured out a safe place to hang, you muted your phone, found some water or snacks at craft service (or nibble on the food you brought for a full day's shoot), you will likely have some time to kill. This is where you can be proactive:  budget your time.
Keep your ears open about when you will be needed. People may not always tell you when you are about to be needed, even though it is their job to tell you. 
It's the actor's responsibility to be near set when needed, even if a P.A. (production assistant) forgets to come get you. 

If the seemingly strange use of time on a set doesn't make sense, I suggest turning the tables and imagining that you are making your own film. You may have a lot to do as director or producer, but when you need your actors, you need them  right at that moment, you don't want to hear that an actor is missing. The consequence for an actor being missing and unreachable may be replacement. There will always be someone else who is ready and willing to do your job. That's why I want you to be prepared not only to book a job but to maintain it. 

Once when I worked on a sit com, we did the obligatory table read on day 1 of rehearsals. An actor was literally fired after the first table read. I am not writing this to scare you, but to make you aware that booking a job is not the end of the audition process, it is the beginning of behaving professionally during your employment. 

By the same token, if your job suddenly changes in a way that does not feel appropriate for you- for example you are suddenly told that nudity or partial nudity (Bikini, lingerie, etc.) is now part of your role-you are allowed to notify them that you no longer feel comfortable with the changes. This gives the production time to bring in a replacement. You are the boss of you, of your body, but let them know. Avoid wasting time in your dressing room at a complete loss.  I have seen actresses do this without any warning. On a TV show, an actress was expected to appear in a bathrobe and take it off to reveal her near microscopic lingerie. It wasn't until rehearsal that she tried to take off her robe in front of everyone and collapsed in tears and ran off. Her character had been written that way, no character changes occurred. I think she felt willing to do whatever it took to make her career as an actress, until she suddenly realized that she was not. I'm glad she set a boundary but it was not the best moment. I saw a similar situation on a movie by Universal. We shot in St. Louis and the actress playing a stripper in a bar waited until the rehearsal to decide that she couldn't do it. Again, I support her boundaries in this patriarchy we live in, but there was no time to find another actress. The solution was the 1st A.D. calling out to the crew," Does anyone here have a girl friend who would do this scene?" Startlingly, a grip shouted out immediately. "Yes! My girlfriend will do it!!" And twenty minutes later we had the performance the scene required. 

When we book a job, there are a lot of other people that will rely on it. It's worth considering what your boundaries are, so you don't feel pressured otherwise and so you don't inconvenience a production will thousands or millions riding on us actors doing our jobs. 

When you are asked to step into rehearsal, you will first Block the scene, then the crew will Light the scene as it was blocked (the camera requires the added light), then you will come back to the set and Rehearse, small adjustments will be made by different departments, and then you will Shoot.


 These lights are needed by the camera. It is a limitation of the camera that it cannot see as the human eye does, and requires a great deal of additional light-whether you are shooting film or video. Accept that the lights are there to shine one you and your work. The lights are there to make sure that whatever is placed in front of the camera is seen, and that includes each actor. 

When on set, make sure that you don't trip over the light stands, don't touch them or move them in any way. Move slowly and carefully when near the lights. 

When you are on set, if the lights are bright while shining into your eyes, close your eyes and stare at the lights for about 15-30 seconds and then open your eyes. It allows your eyes to adjust incrementally. 

Lights are hot. If you are in front of the hot lights while shooting, drink water so you don't dehydrate, take a break from set if you have a chance. 

Once you have seen the Director of Photography, who is sometimes also the camera operator, work with his crew to light a scene, you want to be aware where those lights are. When you stand on your mark, you are lit for that position, if you venture off of your mark, you might not be properly lit. Also, if you are in a scene with someone else and you are both lit, you want to watch that you don't cause shadows on their face or body while the camera is rolling. Look at their key light, the main light that is hitting their face, and stay out of its beam. 


You may be placed to simply stand on your mark. But you may have to walk up to your mark and find it each time without looking at it. 
If you have to walk to your mark, practice this move! You can orient yourself by finding what is to your left when you are on your mark, and what is to your right. If I have to walk to my mark on camera without looking, I find something like a light stand, a door, a knob, any object that is in line with the mark. Then I practice and use peripheral vision to get there without looking down at the mark. 


If you are in a tight shot and have to walk into it, you need to hit the mark and you definitely can't look down at the mark. I suggest you practice the move a bunch of times and you ask them to place a sandbag where your tips of your toes are supposed to land. This way you approach and can gently let your toes touch the sandbag, which is where you need to be. This also takes practice and is not as easy as it sounds. You may want to walk backwards from your final mark to your opening mark and count the number of steps. If you walk backward 8 steps to your initial mark, that means you have 8 steps from your opening mark to your final mark. 

Once the initial camera set up is done, the lighting setup takes up some time. This is a good time to practice your movement in the scene. You don't want to walk under lights being mounted above you, so you can ask the Gaffer, the head lighting electrician, the Key Grip or the grips. They may be lighting your stand in, and in this event, I ask if I can be my own stand in so I can see where the camera is, the lights, the room, etc. Or you may not want to be stuck as a stand in, and then you can just ask when you can practice your move. It is no selfish to do this because if you practice your move, you are also helping the camera department by getting ready to move in a way that they can cover you or follow you. It's teamwork, just use common sense and ask for help when you need it. 

sandbag holds down C Stands with lights mounted on them.
sandbag can also help the actor when placed on final position in a medium or 
especially in a tight shot. 

Back to blocking light...

(see below) If Marcello Mastroianni were to kiss Anita Ekberg on her other cheek, his head would block her light. In addition, his head would block her face from camera. Movement in front of a camera must be choreographed (blocked) so actors do not obstruct the other actor, and everyone can be seen by the camera.  If you want to make sure you avoid doing this, stay aware of where the lens is pointing, what is in that frame and stay aware of where the key lights are for you and the other actor. 

If he kisses her on the other side of her face, his nose is blocking part of her face from the camera and from her light. This specific composition is clearly designed to allow her to be seen and to be lit. Once a composition is determined by the director and/ or the D.P.. there may be room to be human, you just don't want to block the other actor from their light and from the camera.

In this picture (above), there is light hitting the back of the couch, his forehead and his hat, her face and her hair.
You don't have to worry about all the lights, you just want to avoid blocking the light that is set to hit the other actor's face and head.  If you do it by accident, it isn't the end of the world. But learning this lets them know you are worth hiring and lets you avoid embarrassment of blocking someone's face multiple times. 

On a set, there are so many technical concerns that it is a boon to the crew and the director when an actor is hired who knows how to conduct him or herself on set. The set is a team of different departments, and you become a welcome member when you avoid inconveniencing other departments on a consistent basis.

The Bottom Line with lights: If you have ever walked into a room that is too dark to see, then you can understand the purpose of the entire lighting crew-to make sure there is enough light for the camera to see. 


You may start by 1) rehearsing the scene, then 2) the scene has to be lit. On an Indie, you may have to stand in your position while they light the scene. On a bigger production, they may have a "stand in." A 'stand in' simply stands in your position while the scene is lit.  Once the scene is lit, 3) the camera operator will come in and rehearse the camera moves in the scene. 

You are working with the camera. If the camera is on a tripod, on a dolly
camera dolly

 or is a 'steadicam' (below) 

 Pay attention to where the camera is seeing, what is in the frame? If the camera is not on you, it's doesn't see you. [But sound will still hear you.] Sometimes you have to take a cue off of the camera when it moves. Only do this if you are told to do it. You can ask the director or the camera operator if you have a question about when you are in the frame. Sometimes a director is grouchy and I don't want to ask my question about what I am doing in the upcoming shot. But if I don't ask and I get it wrong, I waste time and money. If I am not clear about what I am doing in the shot, I must ask! It is my job. I was hired to do it. If I am insecure and I don't want to upset anyone, and I don't get clarity on my job requirement in the scene, I am both being unprofessional and sabotaging myself. This is a team effort, we all rely on what the other is doing. I have to do my part as best I can. I suggest being flexible, open minded, positive and accountable for my job. 

Movement on camera

Avoid moving too fast on camera. Someone is behind the camera trying to follow you. And they are trying to keep the movement smooth. If you are fast and jerky, this is not possible. When we are given marks, we should avoid making the move as fast as we feel to move--we are probably anxious on set and we want to please, instead deliberately slow down your movement so it can be smooth and deliberate. The camera operator will tell you if you should speed up or slow down. But if you get on set and move fast in a medium shot, it will be obvious that you aren't experienced with the camera. The whole point is to work with the camera department and be a team with them. It's different in a master shot, you have more leeway, but keep this in mind because whatever you do in a  master shot will have to be matched in any tighter coverage. 

two cameras shooting at the same time. 


Measuring the distance from the lens to the actor 
so the actor will be in focus. 
If it is a tight shot and you move a whole lot, you may go out of focus. The measurement may also include the farthest forward you might move and the farthest back you might move in the shot, then the focus puller can keep you in focus as you move
In other words, if you tend to lean forward once you start talking, that movement needs to be seen when measurements are being taken. This ultimately gives you the freedom to keep that movement in the scene. 

Always be aware of where the camera is looking before you move in any direction while on set. Cross behind the camera unless you are in rehearsal or shooting. If someone is looking through the camera's viewfinder and/ or someone is looking at the monitor, they may be composing light or the visual composition.  Never cross the camera lens during those times. 


Master or Wide shot
Medium Shot
Over the Shoulder shot
tight shot

There are many variations, but basically the first shot captures the actors in their setting, possible full body shot. 

Medium is waist up or a little tighter.
Over the Shoulder is over the other actor's shoulder and over your shoulder onto the other actor. 
Tight shot can be shoulders up or tighter. 

'E.C.U.' is extra close up


Every shot will be slated either when the camera starts rolling or at the end of rolling for that set up. 

Sometimes they can come in very close to your face because that is the the focal point. The slate will be in focus that way. 

Sometimes the person doing the slate makes sure it snaps loudly so that the sound department can hear it on their sound track. This is one of the times when the actor can be forgotten, because they place it in front of your face and the slate snapping is so loud that it hurts your ears...right before you are to do your scene! If this happens, you can politely ask if "soft sticks" can be used since it is right in your face. None of this is personal. Other departments just have their job to do and none of these departments had a class in working with living actors. We actors have a lot to learn, but we have value and that is why they hired us.  We are about to shoot a scene and we are concentrating and preparing to do it. "Soft sticks" is a simple compromise that can work. 

I am sure this was not a loud snap of a slate.
Soft sticks is a good solution. 


Never stop a take because you made a mistake.  You may be focused on your own work, but there are many elements that have to work properly for every take. Always continue the scene until you hear cut. It is possible that no one noticed your mistake. It is possible that the director will edit around  the mistake. It is possible to print that take, use it for editing and get a "pick up," which means shoot the same scene but starting right where the mistake occurred. All the pieces will go together to make a whole. 

If they choose to shoot the whole scene in one piece, without edits, you must still not stop if you perceive a mistake. Afterward you can let the script supervisor know, since she is in charge of continuity. You might tell the director or first A.D.

Of course: if you are physically injured, STOP the take. I don't care what anybody says. 


When you film a scene and during that scene you pick up a cup of coffee and drink from it with your right hand, you have to remain consistent with that every single time you shoot. If you switch hands in later takes of the scene, the footage will not match when edited, you can't have the cup in one hand in a medium shot and then the other hand the very next moment in the over the shoulder shot. 

Of course it does happen, and there are 
lots of fun accounts on If you look up a film at IMDB.Com and look under "goofs," you can see the continuity mistakes in almost every film. 

The thing is, you may have shot the first frame size at 7am and the over shoulder after lunch. You forgot which hand you used and maybe you just didn't even think about this. The Script Supervisor carries a script and is meant to write down all the things actors do in the frame of each shot. Some Script supervisors are better than others. 
The actor can be a significant help by keeping track of what you do and how you do it. This may put you in your head to even think about, but in time it becomes second nature. Everything in this post can become second nature with time and practice. 


When you are off camera for another actor who is getting their side of the shot, you will be placed next to camera. Allow the Director of Photography, the camera operator or the director to place you in the correct position. If the other actor's 'eye line' is off, the scene won't edit well, one person may look like they are looking in the wrong direction. You are not expected to know the correct eye line for every shot. Just allow yourself to be placed where they need you.


One Rule about Lines: Do not step on the other actor's lines. This means speaking your line before the other actor has finished his or her lines. Always make sure you allow them to get their full line out before you speak. The take will not work if the sound dept. doesn't have the complete lines from each actor's tight shot. However, the director may decide he or she wants "overlaps," this means you can overlap each other. It depends on each production. You can always ask.


The long handled microphone is called a boom. A scene may be recorded with a boom.

You may also be recorded on a lavalier. This is a small microphone that attaches to your shirt or other clothing, and it requires a battery pack, which may be placed in your back pocket. Also called a 'body mic.'

The Bottom Line: If you have ever been somewhere where you can't hear the person you are talking to, then you can understand the purpose of the sound crew-to record all the sound necessary and to make sure the actors are clearly heard. 


A camera may be connected to a monitor for viewing. This is only for the Director, Producers, and other members of the cast and crew who are invited to watch. Avoid walking over to it and attempting to watch, unless you are invited. The crew has to see if the lighting is working, if the shot is working and all the elements involved. 

"video village"


A "Hot Set" sign means that everything on the set is exactly as it needs to be for shooting, in other words...don't touch anything on a 'hot set.'


Waiting is the name of the game on a set. Waiting for the lights to be set, for the camera moves to be worked out, for the scene to be shot, for the discussions that can happen on set, for the times you have no clue what you are waiting for. Be creative. You can easily zone out on your phone... I bring music, journal, books, etc. You may find some people to talk to. This can be good for connecting to someone, but talking can also get you in trouble. If you are singled out and asked to be quiet, it is a point against you. If the person you are talking to is singled out, you are guilty as well. You can go outside and talk, just stay close to someone with a walkie talkie so you can stay informed. 

Wait management

You are an actor. Stay in touch with your self. What do you need? Do you need to talk a bit with others who are there, so that you can feel connected in some way? Do you need to text the person you care about and feel connected in that way? Are you tense? Scared? Do you need to use your breathing app? [When we get tense or experience stress or anxiety, we may breathe in a more shallow manner, which deprives us of oxygen. Deep breathing is an antidote to anxiety, according to the MAYO Clinic, hospitals and every meditation and yoga practitioner for thousands of years.] This app is free and you can set the length of the breath, it can calm you down anytime you may need it. It can be set on silent.

Do you need to listen to your character playlist of music? I make a playlist on my iPhone for my characters and it helps me stay connected during the wait. 

The budgeting of time on set is strategic, because if you do your preparation and get ready to shoot hours before you actually shoot, you will be burnt out by the time you get to the set. If you neglect preparation, you may regret it. So I recommend finding your point person or someone with a walkie talkie that you can hear and periodically checking and listening to how long you have. And/ or stay close to set and you will hear more of whats going on. When they start shooting the scene before yours, start getting ready--if the scene they are shooting is a page or more long; however, if the scene they are shooting is 5/8 of a page or shorter, it may not take them long to shoot that. It may go quickly. You can get this information on the call sheet-scenes shooting, length of each scene.

It is possible that you can rehearse with another actor. You can ask, but some actors don't want to do it. Everyone works differently. 


Good manners are always in order on the set. You don't have to be a goody goody, just common sense polite. Our job is to retain dignity and professionalism, no matter what you hear from the other departments (cuss words, anger). 

A positive attitude also goes a long way. No one wants a complainer or whiner on their set. If you need something, you can ask. But no consistent negativity. Don't sit around the craft service telling sad stories about everyone you ever knew that died or the worst things you ever experienced. Just don't. When someone starts doing that, I will always walk away. 

In addition: If talking with an actor, avoid asking personal questions and avoid asking salary questions. Also avoid talking about yourself excessively, rattling off your career or the name dropping.


Call Sheet

Each day of shooting starts with a call sheet delivered the night before, which tells what is being shot, who is working, when, where, etc. Each actor is assigned a cast number. 

Now that I have said all of this...

I want you to be perfectly clear that when you are hired to be on a shoot, you belong there! You belong on that set. 

You still have to do your homework and make choices. If you don't know how to do that, ask for help. Find a teacher who has done what you want to do and who has taught people who are doing what you want to do. You can learn. 

With so much equipment and so many people on a set, there is a place for your acting. Just as we act on the stage when in a play, we do have a space on the set to do our work. It may seem narrow or contained at times, but if you want the camera to see your work you must understand what is required from you. Do your work, do what you love, and learn to allow the camera and sound to capture that work.

The director may be dictatorial, telling you every detail of what to do and how to do it or may be more creative and want to give you notes in hopes of you bringing your creativity to the process. I like to find a way to bring my creativity as best as I can, no matter what. Working on camera is juggling some of these things, but I see it as having an awareness. 

Watch your favorite actors and actresses and watch their concentration. Concentration was something Stanislavsky stressed for the actor, and shooting stories on film or video are the time and place to bring concentration.  Your creativity is what the camera wants, it wants you to bring the text to life.  Be patient with yourself and avoid perfectionism. Bring your talent, your enthusiasm, your inner light and...bring your work ethic.  Have fun! Have fun learning, have fun doing what you love to do. 

effects: a car splashes a puddle on the character

preparing for the shot


Director Federico Fellini


When you are finished on set, sign out!

"On set I’m an actor like every other actor. Most times, for every part I play, I can think of other actors who would be better. I worry from the moment I take a job. I worry about how I'm going to do it, if I can do it. I try to work out what I have to do on set and how I do that.

"I get extremely anxious. I panic. I can't get it. It happens every time, and I get myself into this state, and then I walk on set and the director says, 'Roll', and all of a sudden all of it disappears and it's all happening, and I relax and I'm doing what I do and I'm not even thinking about it. And I relax up until the moment they yell 'Cut'."

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