LIGHTS, CAMERA, CASH

The Fine Art of Acting for TV Commercials
as Taught by the Unmerciful Carolyne Barry
By Sydney Weisman

..”I guess I am good at doing commercials,” says Carolyne Barry, “because I respect it as a craft. It is not just a good way to make some extra money. It’s as tough an acting job as any that comes along.” She is sitting in a coffee shop, taking an uncustomary breather. Her usually lightning quick expressive face is momentarily calm. She sips a soft drink. The face is so familiar and yet hard to place. You’ve seen her somewhere, but where? Probably in one of the 400 commercials she claims to have done. So proficient is she as a television commercial actress that she is something of a prototype. Commercial producers and directors will say ” What we want here is a Carolyne Barry-type.”

Commercial acting came to her after a successful stint at professional dancing, as an actress in episodic television, and in off-Broadway and regional theater.

“You’ve only got thirty seconds to build a character and that script has to have everything a play has. A beginning, a middle and an end. If the character doesn’t change, doesn’t grow, the commercial won’t work. Think of it. Thirty seconds to do all that. Don’t tell me that’s not talent!”…

“That class is my baby. I don’t just let anyone into it. Do you know I’ve had people lie and cheat to get into my classes. It knocks me out. Look, if someone wants into my class bad, I will let them in. Even if they’re a beginner, they can get in. It isn’t always talent that gets you work.”

She pauses, apparently because she wants to be careful here. “There was an older woman in a class recently. She wasn’t good. I wanted to drop her. She pleaded with me to stay. I said OK. I never saw anyone work so hard. She’s probably gonna make it. On the other hand,” and here the face quickly changes again and the eyes get tough looking, “I’ve kicked people out after a couple weeks. Not because they lack talent, but if I see I’m working harder for someone than they’re working for themselves, I won’t have them in class. No matter what they learn from me, I don’t want them to say they’ve studied with me.”

…Leslie Hoffman is in the lounge. She is an attractive woman in her early fifties, somewhat fragile looking, with curly brown hair cut short, framing her interesting face. Like most of Carolyne’s students, she had been wandering the halls, saying ad copy outloud. …

…After studying briefly with other commercial acting teachers in town, she went back to Carolyne. Reluctantly, Carolyne agreed to let her in class. “The other teachers just weren’t demanding enough. After all, I am by training a professional opera singer. I am used to passionate disciplines and demands.” She feels Carolyne’s class is just what she needed. “Carolyne’s class is much more professional and demanding than the others I took. Right away she hit on my broad acting style. I mean I have been acting and singing on the stage since I was a child, and my technique was to play it big. The technique was very broad, way too broad for the camera.”

With a quick bustle the students get their homework from notebooks and purses. This is the week they will work in teams rather than individually. .

“OK, tonight,” say Carolyne, “we’re going to learn how to ‘suck’ focus.'” She picks up a bottle of detergent. She stands in front of the camera. “… Now watch this. Let’s say the two of you are auditioning and you have to have the product in your hand. Don’t hold it here.” The detergent box is on her inside hip, held shoulder high. A phantom person is to that side of her. “Don’t hold the box toward the inside of you. No, you hold it here, on your outside. OK? You see that? Let’s go, who’s first?”

..Carolyne muses over her role as teacher. “I spent years going to rotten classes. I vowed if I ever did this, not only would it be fun, it would be right. Nothing is worse than getting wrong advice. And that’s a problem. Then even if you eventually know it’s bad advice, bad education, it can take years to unlearn it.” She takes a breath. “I love this work, I really do. I love the teaching. I really developed that class from nothing. And look, I get so much out of it. I’m very proud of the people who study with me, the ones who really study.” Her very clear, Celeste Holme eyes get their stern, teacher look for a minute. “I give my students more than technique. I give them respect for the business, the drive to go out there and do it. Not everyone should do commercials, because it is not their essence. But everyone will work in commercials at some time because,” and now she grins with the relish of an insider, “at some time they’re looking for everybody.”