Thursday, April 26, 2007

Kicking Ass, Taking Names, and Other Ways of Networking in the Entertainment Industry

Before I really begin writing this article, I must preface it by saying that I don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself for the sake of talking. If it ever seems like I’m doing so I apologize in advance, but that is the nature of the assignment, and requiem for me to better inform you, the reader, of how I got to where I am at now. Also, if anything I have to say can in any way be helpful to just one of you on your journey in this industry, well then I suppose that fact somehow validates me writing this.

My journey begins at age thirteen as many peoples tend to. In less than a week, I moved from where I had lived all of my life to the middle of nowhere and began a full-time job waitressing at my parents’ new restaurant. There was no summer vacation that year, no trips to the coast or the city, no time for visiting old friends or making new ones. Just solid fourteen hour days of waitressing. Paid in food and the promise of new clothes for eighth grade, I worked my tail off, simultaneously trying to figure out a way to get the heck out of there. When school began, I involved myself in as many extracurricular activities as possible. More things to do may have meant less time that I had to work my real job, but it didn’t mean that I got out of it completely as I had kind of hoped. At this point in my life, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up- I only knew that A) I never wanted to be a waitress ever again, and B) I needed to get out of that town as fast as I humanly could.

(see, it's not an ugly town... just small and far from anything and everything...)

I guess at some point in high school I decided I would be an actress. I was in every school play, and I loved pretending to be anything other than a waitress. I loved being in front of people, the awful butterflies I got when the curtains parted, the congratulations I got for something I did that wasn’t a salad or milkshake. I worked hard- I’m pretty sure that I had tunnel vision all through high school, and though I loved a lot of what I did, I was still really focused on getting out and really couldn’t wait. There was really no one else I can remember going to school with who wanted out of that small town worse than I did. I’d like to say I wasn’t trying to escape, but I know that’s a lie. I know now, looking back, that’s all that really kept me going- looking for something bigger, better. I felt like a huge fish in a tiny puddle- like a beta in Southern Asia waiting, praying that some fishmonger comes and scoops me up and that I get put in the pet store display ten gallon tank and not one of those flower vases. But I digress.

Summer after Senior year, I got just that. If I could have had a helicopter land on the field outside of the gymnasium where I graduated and fly me to California, I would have. But as it was, my family couldn’t afford a plane ticket to get me out to college, never mind a frivolous helicopter ride. Two months after graduation, we stuffed as many of my things as we could into my dad’s old Explorer and drove more than halfway across the country in two, nay, three days, lest I forget losing our radiator just west of Yuma, Arizona in a harrowing mountain pass. I spent a month in San Diego with extended family before school started, and I remember being more excited than I ever thought any person could be, biding my time until my first big USC School of Theatre audition, which I KNEW I would ace and get the lead and be amazing. Sure it was a bigger pond, but I was a big fish, right? I could take it.

School started, and auditions started shortly after, and I got… nothing. Every show, almost every student film, every anything I had heard about that first semester and auditioned for- nothing. (You have to understand that this was the entire first semester of college, and prior to that I had been in multiple plays at any given time of the year for the previous five or more years.) I say almost every student film because I think I ended up doing one or two of them for friends of friends who had actresses cancel on them the morning of, and well, it wasn’t like I was doing anything. Second semester I knew I’d be better. I was auditioning for the school musical. ‘This was it,’ I thought- ‘my thing, my element. I am so getting a part.’ I remember auditioning for a few other plays as well, you know, as “backup”. Well, I auditioned, and I checked callbacks, and once again, my name was nowhere to be found. I was at this point, more or less basically crushed, (though now I like to reminisce on it as a very humbling experience.) Rejection in college? Not even in the real world? ‘Maybe this isn’t the right career choice for me,’ I thought. I mean, I can handle rejection, but being told that you’re no good for an entire year and hardly doing any of what I loved- my art- wasn’t something I could really handle. I don’t do stasis so well- I really don’t do stasis at all. I was at a loss.

I wasn’t the only rejectee. A few of my friends were as well. We were all kind of bummed until one of them spoke up a day or two later. He said, “Hey guys, you know the TV station on campus is having auditions next week. We should go.” And I figured well why the hell not? It couldn’t hurt- I like watching TV- and I suppose it could be fun making it. So I went- I curled my hair up in rollers and put on eyeliner and lipstick and wore my purple suede skirt with my floral print cowboy boots. I was straight out of Texas and looked it, 100%.

After that first audition, I felt disheartened. How do you know if you’ve done something well when you’ve never really done it before at all? I waited, expecting the worst and hoping that at best, my audition tape would disappear forever. A week later I got a callback. It didn’t seem real after all of that rejection. I fumbled my way through another teleprompter read, and an interview with a fairly well known publicist, and several days later, I got the news- I was rejected. Again. It wasn’t so upsetting really- I mean, I was becoming a professional acceptor of rejection, but other than that… Another week went by and I was back at square one- nothing lost, nothing gained. And then I got a phone call. Apparently I had been chosen to host a different show- one that reviewed music videos. I’m not going to lie- I was really super excited. Looking back at doing this show, I was also really super awfully awkward and bad on TV for the first few months. I didn’t understand how to work with the camera and the unseen audience, didn’t read copy so well without appearing like I was reading a book, and basically created the strangest pauses to have ever been seen on a television within a half-hour program.

I realized that the only way I was going to understand what to do in front of the camera was to work behind it as well, so that summer I did- filming other hosts, noting what I liked and what I didn’t, and slowly but surely educating myself as to what TV seemed to be. During this period, I learned the most valuable thing I possibly could in college that was worth every penny of my overpriced education and helped me to get my foot in the door. As I began my work in television, I observed and processed the most important thing that I began to use to my advantage- the power of the show producer. And while I worked hosting the music video show, I continued to crew on other people’s shows and projects. And when the producer of the show I hosted graduated and there wasn’t anyone to pick up the slack that knew the program so well, I took over. I cast a new host, I called in the videos from record labels, I learned how to do it all.

The following year I was lucky enough to co-host with my boyfriend of the time on The Cutting Edge, a nightly student film review show. Though initially he didn’t want to host TV at all, he made the mistake of doing a fake audition and the producers liked him so much that they agreed with him that as long as he hosted, I could co-host to handle the formalities of being on camera that he felt were “cheesy”: introductions, segment bumpers, audience addresses, etc. During the semester that we hosted together, I was able to learn and grow in an environment that was conducive and comfortable. We shot in a film screening room that was dimly lit, as opposed to the harsh bright studio I initially started in, and conversed with our own words, not those being fed to us by an empty black box. I slowly but surely began to make friends with the camera, and although he graduated and the end of the year, the producers kept me on for another year and a half with two more co-hosts. I loved it and was really grateful for the experience, but something was still not complete. I felt like it was me on the camera, but it was not my work.

At this point in my television career I had learned how to write, host, produce, light, shoot, and edit, but had not done more than one or two of those things at a time. Somewhere in between all of this, that changed. Along the way, in between the first and second season of hosting The Cutting Edge, I picked up the position of Promotions Director at the TV station. (I still was not 100% sure what I wanted to do with my life, but it seemed like a nice creative backup should any other ideas fail.) This was great because it meant a lot of producing. It also meant a lot of involvement. The summer I got the job, my boss asked me to producer a “Back to School”/ “Welcome to LA” video for us to air during the first few weeks of classes. However, school was out and no one was really around to help with the video. In less than a week or two, I put together a script. After I had done that, I initially began going down the list of usual suspects for reliable talent that I had worked with at the station to host the video, but then it hit me: this was what I wanted to do- why was I just giving it away?

I must at this point state that almost anyone in any industry knows how hard it is to get work without having a body of it for your employer to look at. But as a TV host, when you are a producer, it is self-sabotage and foolish to not give yourself work when you may very well fit the bill. It wasn’t like my resume was huge, and I decided I really needed all the help I could get. The next week we shot the video with me hosting it, and a few weeks later I had edited it and it was on air. The whole project was done start to finish in a matter of less than a month, and with only two crew members: one producer/writer/host/editor, and one camera/crew. A semester later, the show went on to win a Telly award for excellence in advertising. It was at this point I realized that I really could leverage my weight and try to get what I wanted out of the TV station experience. Everyone I worked with was on a level playing field as far as experience, and I felt like I was headed down the home stretch. I had never felt so sure of anything in my life.

This past fall I was asked to begin producing a promotional series called, “What’s Happening L.A.?” for the campus station as well as local channel LA36. My boss suggested I should host it, and although I initially shied away from the idea, I more or less agreed with him on that within that first meeting, as did the manager of LA36. However, a co-worker decided to try and suggest otherwise. Though I find myself to be a fair producer, no one was going to take this opportunity away from me- I felt like I had worked hard to earn it- and so that person was removed from the crew and we continued to work towards making this happen with me hosting, at least for the first few episodes. If after that the manager didn’t like me as the on-camera talent, we would find someone else. (I am, to this day, still hosting the segment.) Welcome to Hollywood people- sometimes there are moments where you do have to push your weight around lest you be crushed or forgotten, and begging, borrowing, stealing, and firing people are all acceptable methods of getting ahead in this industry. I’ve been at this job for several months now and love the fast-paced nature of TV, the two day turnarounds, even twenty-four hour turnarounds. Getting a script the night before, shooting it the next morning, editing it that afternoon, and delivering the finished package that evening is my idea of a good time. The fact that my face is in over two million homes isn’t so bad for my resume either.

A few weeks ago were my first nerves since freshman year when I was once again, auditioning for a TV show at the station where I work. Although the show had been very good to me, I decided at the end of last semester to give up my security blanket that was The Cutting Edge and jump in a different direction: trying out for a new show. Cool, calm, and confident, I entered a studio full of my producer peers and auditioned. And even though I had been told by many that I already had the part as correspondent on the show that I wanted, there still was doubt in my mind, and a part of me waited to receive that rejection that I so often had experienced so many times before. (Needless to say, I did get the part, but I think it was only through a combination of experience and networking that I beat out anyone younger or fresher- talent has something to do with it as well, but for producers, comfort and following can sometimes trump even that.)

(and yes, that is me with the Reno 911 cops on the red carpet- follow your dreams people!!! don't ever give up- it can be done!!!)

No one enjoys being rejected. And yet, at one point or another in almost everyone’s life, it seems to happen. Not only that, but it usually ends up a good thing- a defining moment on their timeline, even a catalyst if you will. Spielberg was told no multiple times by the USC School of Cinema, Ron Pompeil was told that he wouldn’t amount to anything by his father, and Jewel continued to sing and play her guitar despite multiple no’s from record labels. And I was told no every semester I auditioned (albeit only four or so) by the School of Theatre. That’s really where it all began. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, keep busting down doors until they figure out what the hell they might be good at and where they might fit into this industry (although a lucky break or someone taking a chance on you doesn’t hurt either.) Entertainment is a bitch- thousands if not millions at some point try or at least want to do it, move in pursuit of a dream, give up or grow old or die trying. Only a few dozen ever actually make it. What possesses us? And is there really any artistic merit in some of it? Though many argue that TV isn’t art, I wonder what leads them to draw this conclusion. For me, art is not tangible- it is something, yes, that may be viewed and enjoyed by an audience, but what about its sake for the artist? This is where I see that the true meaning of art lies: not in the eyes and ears of the viewers, but in the minds and hearts of the creators. For whoever makes something out of love and not necessity is an artist- they have a passion and a fire burning within them enough to create something seemingly unnecessary and even arbitrary and prove to the world that it is, in fact, something they wandered how they ever lived without.

No comments: