I asked him to write about how knowing sign language helped him book work, and what he has to say is invaluable to every actor out there. Read on!
by Matthew Jaeger
When Lira asked me to do a guest blog about an actorʼs toolbox my first thought was, “Oh crap, now I have to do work.” As an actor, I am inherently lazy when it comes to doing anything I donʼt consider fun. Probably WHY Iʼm an actor.
First a little about me and why you should give a flying you know what about what I say: I am what people call a working actor. Iʼm not rich. In fact, Iʼm REALLY poor. But I keep my costs low, and about 75% of my total income is from acting. The rest is a combination of odd jobs I pick up and Unemployment income between jobs. Each year that ratio improves a little more and each year my total income goes up just a bit. When I was an aspiring actor, meaning I bartended or waited tables to pay the bills, I believed that if I could just be a working actor, I would be happy. Even if I was poor, I would be content, as long as I paid my bills acting. I was wrong for a couple reasons. (Believe it or not, this will all bring me around to the toolbox. I swear).
As a working actor, you rarely know when your next residual check or booking will come. As a result, I had to accustom myself to huge swells of income followed by long dry spells, sort of like rain in Los Angeles. And I had to make sure that I saved enough during the swells to last through the dry spells. More importantly, during those dry spells I had to keep myself sane. And that is where the toolbox comes in (see, I told you).
There are some skills every actor needs in the toolbox. Accents, some musical ability, some movement ability, a familiarity with firearms... You really think you can be an actor and never have to use a gun? Take a basic class so you can look like you know what youʼre doing. But I digress.
And of course, scene study, improv, and audition technique. These are tools. They are the big tools, your hammer, nails, drill, etc - the tools you use regularly. But what about the rest of the tools? The ones that make you unique and push you to the top of the pile?
I recently got my first major TV role. A Top of Show Guest Star on CSI: Las Vegas. I had no theatrical representation at the time, I had never met the CD, and I even missed the first round of auditions. So how the hell did I book it? They needed an actor who was fluent in American Sign Language. And guess what? When I was six, my parents had put me in a sign language course. They just thought it would be a cool thing for me to learn. And I loved it. I ended up taking sign language in summer school for the next seven years. I didnʼt stop until I was too old for the class. I had a deaf friend in college, and he helped me practice some, but I lost most of it. Flash forward fifteen years later. I see an audition notice for Children of a Lesser God at Deaf West Theatre. Now, I barely remember anything, but I found a website and translated the sides for the audition and the callback. I booked it and began one of the most intense periods of learning Iʼve ever experienced. I worked with an ASL coach (who is deaf and does not speak) for two hours a day, three days a week. His patience and creativity got me almost fluent. Then I spent the next two months meeting and spending time with a number of deaf actors, most of whom I now consider very dear friends. The show was a blast, well reviewed, blah, blah, blah. Then it ended. I maintained many of my
friendships, but life moved on. Until a year later, two friends who happened to know that I was ASL fluent sent me the breakdown for an episode of CSI. The rest is history.
I tell you this story for a couple reasons. One, you never know when or how a tool in your toolbox will come in handy. So have a lot. One of the reasons we get into acting is that we love to become new people, try new things. So try a lot of them. Yes, weʼre all broke. But with a little creativity, itʼs easy to find classes, groups, and other places to learn new skills. Second, the tools should say something about you. Never learn or do something because it might come in handy (the only exceptions are your main tools listed earlier). Do something you like. Hell, something you love. The reason I picked ASL so quickly wasnʼt only because of my history, it was because itʼs something I love. I love the expression available and the beauty of the language. I love having a conversation in silence.
The tools you learn can help you in other ways. During my dry spells, I would go insane, worrying about money, and when I was going to book the next job, and how to pursue this audition or that audition, and, and, and... I made my girlfriend crazy just listening to me. So this past year, Iʼve focused on spending my dry spells honing my toolbox. Example: I love the outdoors. So, I rock climb, hike, learn primitive skills, survivalist techniques, and am now starting hunting (no judging, weʼre talking tools, not the moral issues of hunting. You wanna debate those, by me a beer and weʼll talk). I also keep up on my sign language, work on cooking and construction, garden, do yoga, anything that tickles my fancy. I also have a valid motorcycle license and want to start learning German. Most people would call these hobbies. To an actor, theyʼre tools. And my tools are what keep me sane when Iʼm between jobs. They keep me from being desperate when I walk into the audition room. Nothing annoys me more than an “actor” who is an “actor” and nothing else. Be a well-rounded human being.
If all you have is acting, youʼre screwed, because itʼs a hard and thankless profession. Get a life.
As actors we have an excuse to explore and learn as many things as possible. I love my tools. Iʼve known actors who got jobs, or at least callbacks, because they played basketball, played chess, knew an instrument, hell, knew how to whistle! And the skills you do, the hobbies you have, say who you are. They become part of your product. Remember, as an actor, you are selling... well, you. So each hobby you enjoy, each random skill you have, is another marketing, acting, and artistic, tool. Gather as many tools as you can. Whatever intrigues you, excites you, try it. The more tools you have, the more interesting you are and the more versatile an actor you become. And who knows? It might just book you a job.