I first met John Walski at Act One Studios, a small actor training studio in Chicago. John had just moved from Milwaukee. The studio gave their students ample opportunities to perform and I was ready to start putting my practice into purpose. The play was Robert Caisley’s “Santa Fe“, one of six one act plays performed in collaboration with Appetite Theater’s Bruchetta Festival. Santa Fe was the only drama. It was the second or third play of my acting career. In contrast, John was a working actor having toured all over and interned with Milwaukee Rep. I knew the moment we sat down at the table for the cold read that we were going to be cast together. Santa Fe is about two brothers, one who travels the world living adventures, and my character, a small town mall security guard who thought his life would turn out differently.
John was such a treat to work with. He was intense and focused, but playful. He’d throw salsa chips at me at the top of the scene. Always listening. Present. Dynamic. Engaging. Always with a twinkle in his eye. I learned so much from John through that show. He was a giver. A teacher. A mentor. A brother.
One night, after rehearsal, John and I were chatting. I told him I wanted to experience more of the world. He told me he was finally ready to plant roots. The exact opposite of our characters.
Eight months later, we were cast together again. This time it was for Sideshow Theater‘s one act play, “Fugitive Motel”, a play inspired by Elbow’s song of the same name (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJDf1atIuBc), written by Walt McGough. My character – a townie restaurant owner booked a room at a local hotel to have an affair. John’s character – a restless banker traveling from Philadelphia in the adjoining room.
The first table read mirrored our conversation eight months prior. I was thrilled to work with him again.
After one rehearsal, John told me I had the chops to be a working actor. I was flattered. And humbled. High praise from someone I admired so much.
The show was only three performances at the now defunct Bailiwick. On the third night, John was rolling around on the floor backstage 20 minutes before places to get more soot on his suit. That’s the kind of actor John was. Always digging a little bit deeper, pushing a little bit further, rounding out the character a little bit more.
The attached photos were during the climax of the show. My character is determined to leave his wife and his restaurant to experience the world. His character is determined to not shoulder the blame for me running out and romanticizing him. John gave me a stage combat tutorial. And his knee pad for the fall.
The last time I saw John was right before I moved to LA. My father’s stage pistol had a broken plastic handle. I asked if anyone wanted it. John drove 30 minutes to pick it up. And said he would fix it up and hold it for me until we met again. We talked in front of my mother’s condo for 20 minutes or so about my trip. We joked and laughed. He was excited. For me. Talking with John for 20 minutes was like talking for hours. I felt his warmth. He seemed proud. Like a brother.
John took his own life three years ago. I miss him. I wish I could hug him.
To get a feel for John, watch this. I think he’d be proud of where I am and what I’m doing.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my goal was to make just enough money doing freelance public relations until I “caught my break.” In 2017, one of my existing clients asked me if I wanted to go from a 1099 employee to a W-2 employee. Having my taxes directly taken out of my check seemed like a no brainer, so I signed up. What I didn’t realize at the time was I wouldn’t be able to pay my 2016 taxes because I wasn’t anticipating how much money was coming out of my checks. And I didn’t have enough freelance PR business to back fill the deficit. By the time April rolled around, I owed a nice chunk of change to the IRS. I explored my options – payment plan, extension or bite the bullet and put it on my credit card. I opted for the credit card.
Now $5,000 in debt, I started exploring other options to limit the damage. Side note – I realize $5,000 in debt doesn’t seem like a lot, but having spent a considerable amount of time paying off a gold card I carried through college and a student loan, I prefer being in the black than the red. I looked at taking a loan from my 401k, a life insurance policy, or a balance transfer credit card. I opted for a Discover card with an 18 month, 0% balance transfer. I thought, “I’ll file my taxes as soon as I possibly can in 2018 and I should be in the clear.”
Being in debt sucks. There was a period of time where I ate potatoes and peanut butter for lunch to cut costs. I didn’t go out on weekends. I drank Carlo Rossi Paisano wine ($9.99 for a 5 gallon jug at Rite Aid). I didn’t date. Debt more or less forced me to live a hermit lifestyle, which is particularly tough in Los Angeles because it’s easy to feel isolated if you don’t make the effort to see and spend time with your friends. And it’s particularly challenging to pursue an acting career when you’re living thin.
I filed my 2017 taxes on February 22, 2018. I looked forward to getting my refund and significantly reducing my stress. If only. In March, I received a letter from the IRS saying they were looking into my return. I called and spoke with an agent to get a sense of what was happening. They said call back in 60 days. I did. I called in early June. They put my return out for referral, which basically means someone has to review the return and make a decision to release the funds or determine what’s wrong with the return. No movement. I called back in mid-July. I found out the money my client reported did not match up with the social security number on my return. My client had made a clerical error on my W-2. My employee identification number, which I use for my 1099s, was in the W-2 box where my social security number should have been. F*ck.
I requested a corrected W-2 from my client and submitted it to the IRS just after Labor Day. I called to confirm receipt. Sixty more days. I called back in mid-November. They said the only way to expedite the return since it already went out to referral once was to claim financial hardship. Having watched my credit score fluctuate all year along with my debt was enough to have the release sent out for referral again.
Two weeks ago, I spoke with my referral agent. Per his recommendation, I requested a letter from my company confirming what they paid me and how much was taken out for taxes and faxed it to him. I asked him about the corrected W-2 I submitted and he said the office is so far behind, they won’t even get to that for another two to three YEARS. Hopefully, within the next two weeks, my return will be cleared and I will receive my refund.
In the meantime, I landed three new PR accounts in the last month, effectively doubling my income. I can’t wait to have the weight of debt lifted off my shoulders. And I’m already thinking about a much needed vacation. What’s a cost effective place to go?
I played football my first year of high school. I was 5’8″, 125 pounds. I had one catch for seven yards, an interception, and a permanent pit of fear in my stomach I’d receive the kick off and get bent into a pretzel during the return. The daily bullying during practice from two team members didn’t improve my outlook. I soon realized football wasn’t my calling.
During the summer between my first year and sophomore year, I told my father I wanted to play golf. He said, “You’re running cross country.” His house, his rules. I joined the cross country team.
My first day of cross country practice, I wore my brand new Nikes. We did what we reverently referred to as a Zulu run. We ran a mile and a half to the Indian Boundary Forest Preserve. Then we were supposed to run three miles through the Forest Preserve and then two miles back to school. When we arrived, we saw heavy thunderstorms caused the North Branch of the Chicago River to overflow its banks. Undaunted, we walked the mile or so in thigh high water through the Forest Preserve and run back to school. I was hooked.
I ran cross country for the remaining three years of high school and all four years of college. I have several great memories from running cross country – winning conference individually my junior year of high school, finishing eighth as a team my sophomore year in high school, finishing seventh in the state my senior year of high school. And while I spent most of my collegiate running career addressing injuries, it still deeply affected my life.
To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.
Here’s how cross country changed my life:
Each year, we set goals to kick off the year, both individual and team. That’s the beauty of cross country – you’re competing individually and as a team. And you spend each week training to achieve your goals.
Your mind wants to protect you. It will tell you to slow down or stop. There’s no shortage of stop signs – muscle cramps, muscle soreness, stress fractures, side stitches, shin splints, etc. Over time, you learn to push your body and understand and surpass its perceived limits.
There’s only one way to progress. Run farther. Run faster. Run farther faster. Each day, practice is different and designed to increase your ability to run farther faster – base miles (building your mileage), tempo runs (steady pace), fartleks (speed up and slow down), intervals (speed work). Take a day off training and you suffer the next day.
My junior year of high school, I finished 15th in the sectional meet. I missed running in the state meet by one place. My junior year of college, I had a stress fracture in my left femur. My senior year of college I had plantar fasciitis. Each time you experience a setback or sustain an injury, you have to start back and square one again. And I did.
I like being in shape. After I graduated college, I packed on a bunch of weight because I was eating the same and not running. Two years ago, I started working out religiously again because I wanted to get back into shape. When I’m stressed, I go for a walk. I try to walk at least six times a week. I see the benefit. I feel the benefit.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of running cross country was the people I met along the way. Runners, like artists, tend to be a different breed. They run because they love running, not necessarily for accolades. There’s a community – they cheer the last runner as much as, if not more than, the first. There’s a sense of running into battle together.
Interestingly enough, running cross country and acting have similarities. We have our individual goals – I have my personal objective and tactics in our scene – but we’re operating as a team – actors, director, DP, lighting, sound, etc. We’re working together to tell the story. It requires ongoing, specific training – improvisation, script analysis, cold reading, on-camera techniques, audition, etc. It requires stamina. And I’ve met some really great people along the way. I love running. I love acting. Let’s run together.
2017 was a bumpy year personally and professionally, but I learned a ton and I’m excited to use my skills to climb another rung on the professional acting ladder in 2018. Here’s a recap:
After three months of waking up completely drained, I decided to buy a new bed. I bought a LEESA and I’m glad I did. For those of you considering whether or not a bed in a box is for you, I can tell you I’m getting deep sleep (lot of vivid dreams) and the LEESA sleeps cooler than a traditional mattress. It’s the one change I’ve made this year that is having the greatest effect on my life.
I spent time processing why I do what I do with a therapist. A couple big takeaways: First, I can only control how I respond to situations. Second, I can’t project expectations on others and get disappointed when they don’t meet those expectations, especially when those expectations were never communicated. Third, I’m learning to set better boundaries. Boundaries, in particular, have been especially helpful in reducing stress and focusing my time and energy on projects that will enrich and excite me. Fourth, I’m listening to my body and doing more self-care. And I learned a lot about myself, which, considering my body is my instrument for acting, has been extremely helpful in learning more about my personal process.
I’ve been studying improvisational acting at AdlerImprov Acting Studio for four years now and it’s transformed my acting. I feel more present and connected with my partner, more comfortable in chaos, and more spontaneous and creative. In the last six months, in particular, I’ve gotten exceptionally good at following a focus and letting it lead me instead of manufacturing or inventing. Ric Murphy, who currently teaches the class on Sunday, has been teaching acting for 40 years and helped create the professional actor program at DePaul University’s Theater School. He has taught some fantastic actors, including John C. Reilly, Judy Greer, Gillian Anderson. Under his and Rob Adler‘s tutelage, I’ve grown quite a bit and am very excited to use my sharpened tools in the New Year.
AdlerImprov Youth Summer Intensive
I co-taught the AdlerImprov Youth Summer Intensive with Amie Farrell. Amie’s a great teacher, coach, and actor, so it was an honor to work with her. I learned a ton about teaching, acting, and directing. First, “kids” have tremendous imaginations and they’ll surprise you with their creativity. Second, I realized how many choices are available in a script after sitting in the director’s chair. Third, I learned what it’s like to collaborate and how to use an actor’s inspiration to feed other takes. Teach if you can. It’s a highly rewarding experience.
After three years of using the same headshots, I needed new ones. I worked with Sage Kirkpatrick at Fresh Look Photography and was extremely pleased with the results.
I am now represented by Stewart Talent Los Angeles. Stewart was founded in Chicago and opened up it’s LA office three years ago. I’m grateful to work with them and hope they’ll take me on theatrically.
I wanted to get back into an improv comedy class and my commercial agent suggested casting directors are always looking for Groundlings or UCB on the resume, so I enrolled in Groundlings Basic. It wasn’t for me. I felt like it was too heady – start with a 10++ emotion, and activity, and get out the who, what, where in the first three lines of dialogue. I’m an Annoyance guy. If you’ve read Mick Napier’s book, Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out, the Annoyance doesn’t believe the “rules of improv” make a good scene. It takes a different approach, one that I prefer.
A couple years ago, a casting director suggested I’d benefit from The Alexander Technique. This year, I explored it for 10 weeks and I’d highly recommend it.
The goal of the technique is to “to develop the ability to avoid unnecessary muscular tension by retraining physical movement reactions.” In layman’s terms – break body habits/tension to improve overall body efficiency. I feel like I benefited in a couple different ways:
I carry myself with more confidence and presence.
I felt my wind pipe open, which means I’m using my voice more effectively and breathing more comfortably.
I learned some simple tips and tricks to use to prepare for auditions.
I’m more efficient. I brush my teeth different. I wash my dishes differently. I walk more efficiently.
AFI Directors & Meisner
Rob Spera puts his AFI directing students through a five-week Meisner crash course to encourage them to write more personal scripts and find their creative voice. To kickstart the crash course, Rob brings in a handful of Meisner trained actors to help with the repetition, emotional preparation and activities. This is the third year in a row I’ve participated in this initiative.
Pilot Season Prep
I took AdlerImprov Acting Studio’s Pilot Season Prep class with veteran working actors Amie Farrell and Brian Kimmet. While I don’t do a ton of theatrical auditions at the moment, I know it’s a valuable skill I’ll need to have as I move to the next run of the ladder. I took the class last year and saw how. I feel more relaxed and composed in the audition itself. I’m making stronger choices based on what the script is telling me. And, most importantly, I’m putting less pressure on myself to “get it right.” The one big takeaway this year is if I’m in the ball park, I’ll get a second take and I can use that take to play even more.
All in all, this year was another solid year of growth and exploration into my creativity, spontaneity, and presence. And I’m better actor for it. Looking forward to applying all my tools in 2018!
There’s gold (an acting career). It’s buried. You have a vague idea of where it is. And a vague idea of how to get there. But you have to run around a graveyard to find it. If you’re lucky, someone will throw you a shovel, but just when you think you’ve found it, there’s someone in the wings ready to take it from you. And even though people will tell you it’s in Arch Stanton’s grave, it’s probably in the unmarked grave next to it. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a dramatization, but it makes for a good story.
The one thing I’ve learned in my time in LA is that you can’t focus on the gold. You’ll run in proverbial circles while the pressure you put on yourself feels like a blazing hot sun beating down while the soundtrack of your life crescendos. I’ve also learned that your psyche can play games like the final duel: Do I pull the trigger? What if someone else to pulls the trigger first? Am I going to die? Another dramatization. The reality is this: you have to focus on the process and enjoy it, while building relationships with the people that will help you dig. If you get wrapped up in the ecstasy of gold, you’ll miss out on the journey along the way.