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Q&A with Barry Shapiro, Commercial CD, Herman & Lipson Casting

Actors connection_white logo Barry Shapiro has been a casting director with Herman & Lipson Casting for nearly 30 years, casting over 7,500 commercials for top clients such as L'Oreal, American Express, Verizon, Nintendo, Advil, and many more. He also casts for film, TV, and theater, and regularly teaches commercial technique classes and workshops in New York City and across the country. In the 2009 Back Stage Readers Choice poll, Shapiro was named "Favorite Commercial Workshop" and tied with Beth Melsky for "Favorite Commercial Casting Director."

Shapiro spoke with Blog Stage after his most recent sold-out "All Day Commercial Improv Intensive," a one-day intensive workshop for commercial actors at Actors Connection in NYC.

Blog Stage: Why is it so important for actors to know improv, especially when auditioning for commercials?

Barry Shapiro: I’ve been casting commercials since the early '80s, and when I started basically 90 percent of the commercials were 30-second scripts, right to the camera, and they were very firm on the exact wording that they had in the script. Over the years, things have changed a little bit.

Now there are a lot of commercials where there’s improv involved, whether it be a non-speaking commercial where they’re just doing stuff physically while there’s a voiceover announcer, or whether it’s a situation where they have a script but they want the actors to play with it a little bit. There are a lot of factors.

The big thing in commercials is "eating shots" – which is all really improvised – where you’re sitting in a restaurant eating and talking. It seems like it would be an easy thing to do, but it is one of the more difficult things to do. Just eating, without being self-conscious about being filmed while eating. It seems easy, but probably one of the most difficult things for actors to be good at is that reaction to food, and that’s why a lot of the same people book those jobs over and over again. They do it in a very natural way. And it’s a hard thing to teach, because certain people just eat weirdly, and it’s very hard to get them not to do that.

When you say "eat weirdly," do you mean when an actor is just eating a meal in real life, or that they act weird because they’re self conscious about being on-camera?

I’m sure everybody’s been across from somebody in a restaurant and you watch them eat, and they just have a weird look on their face when they’re tasting the food. You see that in kids a lot too, because they don’t hide anything. And especially when you do an eating shot on a commercial shoot, you’re eating that food hour after hour, with a spit bucket and everything, so you’ve really got to imagine – even if you like the food, you really have to imagine even more that it tastes good.

So you certainly wouldn't limit the definition of "improv" to improv comedy. These techniques are useful for all types of projects, not just for commercials with a punch line.

Correct. We’ve done commercials for Asia, where they’re going to dub the commercials anyway, and they just ask us to have the actors do a series of facial expressions. So that’s one of the things I work on, in my intensive and occasionally in auditions.

Or there might be a product, and their last commercial was 30 seconds of hard sell at the camera. But now they want to try something different, so they want to have two people just kind of talking about the product in a very kind of casual way. We worked on something for HDTV with a script that was very, very technical. It had all the information, but they found it was so boring they wanted somebody to come in who was good at improv, who could say the same thing but bring their own personality into it to make it sound a little more fun.

But do the actors still have to stick to the script as it's written?

Well, they have to generally get the points across from the script. A lot of people, when they get the option of improv, they make two mistakes: Number one, they forget there’s still time restraints and they can’t just add stuff and keep going on and on. And secondly, they think it means they don’t have to do what’s in the script at all. But it’s really more about playing with what’s there.

What are some of the main improv topics that you cover at your all-day commercial improv intensive at Actors Connection? What can actors expect to learn?

I have a series of different commercials, some ideas that I came up with on my own and others which have been previous commercials. I narrate what’s going on, and they have to react – without speaking – with their face, and have to mime driving a car. One of the reasons I use that is because you’ve got to be a good listener and be very expressive, and also still manage to drive the car in a way where there wouldn’t be a car accident. (laughs)

We do eight different exercises in the improv class. I do a "QVC improv," where one person is the spokesperson for QVC and the other person is an inventor who’s brought their invention to QVC... Another thing I do is a "K-Mart audition." When you see a commercial set in a department store, and you just see people shopping and talking and you don’t really hear them. That’s usually done with some type of improv… The other thing I do is I give them a script that’s written, a dialogue. Each actor has three lines, but then I tell them after they’re done with the lines, they’ve got to make up their own lines to finish the script. This is something that’s done at auditions all the time, so they’re doing what the writer wrote but they’re adding their own little thing to it.

And it’s really fun. People are laughing the whole day, so I try to make it more of a fun class. It’s not a lecture; it’s actors doing these auditions over and over again.

Do you assume that the actors who register for your improv class already have a certain level of experience and familiarity with auditioning for commercials?

It’s such a mixed bag. There are people there who have been working for years and years and have booked a lot of commercials, and want to just expand a little in the improv area. And then there’s other people for whom this is basically the first commercial class they’ve decided to take. I think that everybody can learn from everybody.

What made you want to start teaching these improv classes? In your experience, do a lot of actors come into the audition room and get caught off guard or feel unprepared for improv?

That was part of it. We go over all the different types of commercials. It’s kind of like an education, so that they’ll not only be better here but in other places too. They feel like they’re going to be competitive, because a lot of people go about this business without any training at all, and I want to give the extra edge to the people who know that it is important to train. I’d rather they book the job than someone who isn’t doing any training and just goes in there haphazard.

A lot of casting director workshops and seminars are advertised as a chance to not only learn, but also to get an edge in booking an audition by meeting the casting director face to face. How often do you actually audition and cast actors you meet in your workshops?

I bring in people from my classes to my auditions, and they’ve had a very good success rate of actually booking the job. Not only is it not a guarantee, but I would say probably 75 percent of the people in my classes I don’t end up bringing in for auditions, because they’re not at the level that I’m getting from agents.

Ultimately, I am not going to be making the [final casting] decision. I’ll make a decision about who can audition, but I won’t be making the decision on who gets the job. Recently, I cast a commercial and one of my former students booked one of the roles. That’s only because the client chose her out of 40 different actresses. They didn’t come to me and say, “Who do you think we should pick?” or “Who do you think’s the best choice?” They just booked it, and it’s almost more coincidental that she happened to book it and was one of my students.

How do you find new improv actors? Do you have relationships with any improv groups and theaters, like UCB and The PIT in New York?

I bring in actors all the time who go to those schools and come out of those schools. But sometimes people think, "Well, if they’ve gone to UCB, they’re really good at improv." That’s not necessarily true.

Usually what I will end up doing is calling an agent and saying that I want improv performers, and they may go and look and see who studies improv, who knows it, or who has had some experience doing it.

When you’re casting a commercial, do you accept submissions from actors without representation?

Yes. But I would say that when we’re doing a commercial, it’s mostly going to be people that I already have on file or people who submitted through agents.

And how does an actor get on file?

Basically, you have to have either met me in a class or have come in on an audition already. So that’s tricky. Sometimes it’ll be something in the mail that interests me.

There are also services like Actors Access and Backstage, or ads in the paper, different ways of meeting people. But usually that’s going to be for something a little unusual. I had to cast 50-year-old Eskimos a couple years ago., so you’ve got to think outside the box. And I’m bidding on a job for a man who speaks English with a Dutch accent, so I’m going to have to really extend a wider net. But if they’re calling and they say, "I want a Mom and Dad ages 28 to 35," I’m most likely going to do that through agents and through my own files.

Progressive_flo What is your approach for casting the types of commercial campaigns with one character who becomes recognizable throughout the campaign (like the Verizon Wireless "Can you hear me now" guy, and "Flo" for Progressive). Do those jobs typically go to actors with improv skills?

It’s something we hope never happens as casting directors, because that's our fear: there’s going to be an ongoing character and then they’re not doing casting anymore.

It’s the nature of the beast. It’s kind of like when they hire a celebrity. Not only did we not cast that commercial, but then all the money for their budget’s going to go to that one celebrity. Nobody really likes these celebrity commercials, the actors or the casting directors. The only person that really likes it is the agent of that celebrity, but that’s just something that’s always been around since the early days when Marilyn Monroe did commercials.

But we’ve been there. There was the Charmin guy, the Palmolive lady, the Maytag guy, so from the beginning of commercials there were ongoing characters. You’ve go to have those skills to be the one they not only like for that commercial, but decide to make an ongoing character.

I tell my students that I want people to make mistakes in class. This is how you learn. And then what a good improv audition does is basically gets that person more auditions in my office, because that’s somebody who knows what they’re doing. You reward them by bringing them in for more auditions.

Barry Shapiro's next Actors Connection event is "Commercial Connection" on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 9:45 a.m. In addition to Mr. Shapiro, the event will also include Doug Kesten (agent, Paradigm), Lakey Wolff (agent, CESD), Michael Raymen (agent, Don Buchwald & Associates), Tracey Goldblum (agent, Abrams Artists), Jerry Kallarakkal (agent, DDO Agency), Donna DeSeta (casting director, Donna DeSeta Casting), and Angela Mickey (casting director, Liz Lewis Casting).

The next Actors Connection "All Day Commercial Improv Intensive with Barry Shapiro" will be held March 11. From the Actors Connection online description of the program:

As every savvy commercial actor knows, many auditions are strictly improvised and in order to book, you need to have this skill set down pat. Barry is an expert teacher of these kinds of auditions where there is either no copy at all or the script is partly or entirely improvised. This intensive will focus on improv as it relates strictly to commercials. You'll learn to mime eating, talking and reacting in a restaurant scene; activities thrown at you "in the moment"; taking a script and putting it into your own words; improvising dialogue before the written script starts and after it ends; creating an instant character fully realized at a moment's notice and much more!

For more info and to register for these and other upcoming Actors Connection seminars, intensives, and events, visit www.actorsconnection.com.

-- Daniel Lehman

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