23 September, 2011

Ask Al: Finding Your "Type"

Hi Alexandra,

I just read your Contemporary Speeches blog - and it was very informative. I have also found finding contemporary speeches really difficult... classical seems easier.

I'm more concerned with "type." How do you really find out your type? And I mean a specific type (like the example you gave of Meg Ryan versus "just the ingenue"). 

It's something that I'm really trying to figure out, especially with graduating Stella Adler this year. I've been trying to figure it out myself, and I'm getting somewhat closer - but a concrete description is the key.

Thanks so much, I really appreciate your help!


* * *

Dear L,

Right. The truth is, there is no formula for this and no one can help you with it but yourself. And, it is always evolving. Growing. Your type is in constant flux because we are always, growing, changing, becoming older, wiser, more cynical, less cynical, fatter, smarter, etc. Frank Langella says "it is incredibly important to constantly re-envision yourself as an actor, to constantly keep up with your own changes. A 60 year old matinee idol is a not only a joke but is unbelievable and embarrassing. Losing your hair? Gaining weight? Getting older? Change yourself. Consciously. "He's right. Not only is it exciting to constantly re-invent yourself, but think of all of the things a young actor gets to look forward to: not just fantastic ingenues but the mature characters of Cleopatra, Blanche DuBois, Fagin, Mama Rose, and King Lear. Wonderful!

Think about it with yourself. Perhaps write it down. Do a few jottings in a journal, or whatever allows you to see your thoughts most effectively. I believe first and foremost it is important to ask yourself what YOU think you do well. Does classical material roll off your tongue? Do you find it easy to access a feeling of a certain period? Is there a side to you that is easily aristocratic? Is there a side to you that is easily bohemian? Nerdy? Stoic? Can you really get inside the body of a drug dealer or a prostitute-- (I have a friend who, incidentally, has never played anything in her professional life other than a prostitute)? Get in touch and get REAL with yourself. There is a business side to this industry and an artistic side, and both have their place, business is

Examples from my life:

I find it extraordinarily easy to play arty boho characters.
And highly intelligent characters.
And kooky weirdo characters.
And period pieces.
And sexy people.
And shy people.
And reeeeeaaaaallllly sincere people.
And psychologically damaged people.
And children.
And neurotic Americans.

I cannot, do not ask me, do not send me in for "contemporary girl about town" characters (without a LOT of work) because I will look like an IDIOT. I won't go. Don't ask me. It is someone else's job. Believe me. If I have enough time to work on something, of course I could manage it with time, but I'd be, as they say, "playing against my type." (Incidentally, something else I never thought I would do is "rough" or "blue-collar" or "tough" characters, I find that really challenging to access and it was interesting to do my most substantial television role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent in exactly such a type).

Which brings me to my next point. Your type has a lot to do with what comes very naturally to you. "stretching yourself" as an actor and achieving versatility is something you should do in your training and later on in your career when you feel you know your craft better (this is just my personal opinion). Stretching yourself is about the skinny girl playing Falstaff in the safe classrooms of Juilliard, about the 19 year old playing Dr. Dorn at Guildhall. Alternatively, it is about Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan because she is Cate Blanchett and she has (deservedly) achieved a status within the artistic and industrial world of acting, and the public want to see HER act in as many ways as they can. I'm generalizing, but you see where I am going with this. Even Simon Callow and Blythe Danner and Ian McKellan have their "types".

To use a few examples from my own experience, I will add this: when I was in college, I NEVER never ONCE played an ingenue. There was a girl in my year named Siobhan who was "small" and "sweet looking" and I looked like her MOTHER... and guess what? That is pretty much exactly what I played for the majority of my career in college. Mothers. And the maid. And Electra. And Helen of Troy at 40. And in one show I played 8 men and a puppet.

...Because being at Drama School (through no fault of it's own) is like being in a VERY small Rep company-- you have the people that do X and the people that do Y, and the people that do the weird anal characters and the people who can get away with giving the "old people" to.

Sometimes people are given "stretching" roles to work on in production (I found Varya in The Cherry Orchard a particular challenge in my first year when I was learning all about "less is more"-- that is a perfect example of RSAMD giving me a wole against my type to challenge me. I am would pin myself naturally as an, admittedly young, Ranyevskya or Arkadina "type")-- but more often than not, the stretching occurs in the classroom. Which I think is good; a safe place to experiment.

Life at school can feel very small, and situations like that can force you to view yourself against other people in your group, not against other people in the whole of the world. Guess what my first job was? An ingenue. As ingenue-y as it gets-- Laura Fairlie. Yes, the dark American girl played quintessential blond English girl and the rest is history. My next job? A Jewish ingenue. The one after that? A New-English ingenue. ... do you see where I am going with this? For ages, I pitched myself as "older," when the world saw me as I really was -- YOUNG. What is great is that by the time those slightly older roles come around I will be more than ready. These three incredible characters also have another thing in common... which brings me to my next little point...

I AM FUNNY. You are reading this blog, you know that. I am funny people. Anyone want to write a letter or two to a casting director out there? I am funny and I even won the RSAMD "Best Comedic Performer" award when I graduated. I AM FUNNY AND I HAVE BEEN CRYING FOR MY ENTIRE CAREER. Watch this space. A comedy better be next or I might actually dissolve in my "deep well of sorrow" (as a certain accent coach once put it).

But what I mean by all this kerfuffle is this: sure, there is a lot that I can do, and I fit a few different "types," but Young and Sad are what I'm working right now. In many ways, I'm making it a specialty and selling it because that is what it is about at the end of the day. And I'm not complaining. Well I am a little because I spend a lot of money on mascara. But in the long run, I'm fine with it. Does that make any sense? "Embrace it," is the message.

So, back to you: when you read a piece and can actually feel the words in your mouth, when you watch something and think "I can do that with my eyes closed" then you are getting closer. This has nothing to do with what an actor looks like, it has to do with what they ARE like. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope this is helpful. I know it is vague, but it is an art, not a science. Self-awareness is an actor's most potent and powerful tool.

All the best!

Al x

PS) If you are a person who is capable of discussing yourself with others and not becoming emotionally involved then by all means ask people what they think, but be prepared for some shock. Asking people what they think is like seeing yourself as unflattering in a photograph everyone else sees as perfectly normal, or listening to your voice on a tape. It can be a shock, so be prepared for that. You've been warned.


  1. thanks Al, that is great!

  2. Your detailed answers are so inspiring and realistic. Thank you! This is extremely helpful and reassuring!

  3. miz no nameMarch 27, 2009

    I agree, it is so interesting to hear your insights. I am not in the arts at all, but these thoughts don't simply apply to actors or creative people, they ring true for us regular human beings as well! Thank you for sharing.

  4. al, this was so fun to read. thanks for being so candid :)

  5. hahahaahaaa!!! Stop crying and start making us laugh on stage and not just here! You are a RIOT, Silber!



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