Over the last couple of years, and with his permission, I’ve been re-publishing many of the Actor’s Tool Kit columns by Bob Fraser. Today we come to number 22: The Power of No.
When I first started writing and producing for TV, my agent was a very wise man and a straight-shooter named Leonard Hanzer.
Leonard was a smart and cultivated man, who understood the concept of Unique Selling Proposition before the geniuses of marketing figured it out.
(In fact, to my knowledge, Leonard actually invented the term “show-runner” while negotiating a contract for my partner and I. We wanted more money – they offered us a “better” credit. Leonard got us a lot more money and that unofficial credit.)
Anyway, Leonard represented some “heavy hitters” in those days: Henry Winkler, who needs no introduction, Susan Harris, one of the finest single writers in the TV business, Hal Cooper and Rod Parker, the guys who made Maude a huge hit – and when we first met with him, hoping to convince him that we were worthy of his skills, he said a brilliant thing:
“The only power that talent has in this town – is the power to deny services.”
I knew we were in good hands when he said that, because that is at the core of my own philosophy. In short, my philosophy is this: A career is built with an audience.
When “other people” attempt to move your career in a “different direction,” they are messing around with the primal force. This cannot be allowed – and your only recourse is in that little two-letter word … “no.”
Unfortunately, our craft (or art in some circles) is grounded in, based on, and dependent upon a very
different word – “yes.”
A critical ingredient of all forms of show business is the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. The important word in this bedrock concept is “willing.”
Our main job is to convince the audience to suspend their natural skepticism – and to go along on our journey, willingly. In short, we need them to say “yes” to our show.
Thus from the beginning of writing (or developing in some circles) the story – “He is lost.” “Yes, and he is hungry.” “Yes, and the wolves are closing in.” “Yes, and the aliens are landing nearby.” “Yes, and because they save him, they all learn to live with each other … etc.” – all the way through the final production of the movie, play, tv show, or dvd-mp3-cd-playstation-gamepod-picture-phone-thingamabob – believe me, the word “yes,” will always be in constant use.
This is HOW we have learned to play. This is HOW it is done.
Viola Spolin, Stanislavsky, Sandy Miesner, David Mamet, and many many others, have catalogued and explained the absolute necessity of collaboration (saying “yes’) in doing what we do – and most of us understand that it’s fundamental to acting (or performing in some circles). It just cannot be done effectively in any other way.
We must create that willing suspension of disbelief. The trick (or method in some circles) we all finally learn – and always use, is: Get the audience to say “yes,” by saying “yes” ourselves.
But – and this is a biggie – this business (“this Broadway, this Hollywood, this West End, this Bollywood, this … Show Biz”) is another kettle of corn entirely.
In business, it is critical to use your power. And in our business, as Leonard Hanzer so aptly put it, the only power
you have is in denial of services. The ability to just say, “no.”
However, we are steeped in “yes” attitude and because of that – we often get in trouble when it comes to the business end of our careers.
That is why I advise all actors to start practicing to say “no” immediately. This is not a power that comes later – along with the limo and the red carpet, after you’ve started making good money – it’s something that you must start building now, from the ground up.
What to say “no” to – that is the question.
I don’t think anyone will dispute that one must have a serious commitment in order to achieve a career in show business (in any field, really) – and an explicit definition of what one is trying to accomplish is the first step on the road to serious commitment.
In other words, you must have standards.
Don’t worry, you can make up your own. (Please don’t take the route of some recent rock stars – “If the producer does not provide 3 gross of brown M&M’s in a Queen Anne broth tureen, the artist may refuse to appear” kind of bull – but do realize, that this part of getting your career off the ground is totally your responsibility.)
I think that a professional actor’s minimal standards should include, “I’m doing this for money.” Because, after all, remuneration lies at the very heart of the definition of ‘professional.’
All of which is to say; once you truly understand what it is that you want to do … to all other things, just say, “no.”
Do you want to make money? Say “no” to working for free. Do you want to stick by your principles? Say “no” to work that does not support what you believe in.
Do you want to do Union work? Say “no” to non-union work. Do you want to do drama? Then pass on that supporting role in National Lampoon’s “The Age of Reason.”
Do you want to do comedy? Okay, simply say “nej tack” to Swedish films.
I think you get the point.
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(updated to fix typos and unwanted line breaks)