THE BIG BREAK INTERVIEW:
Upon meeting James Huffman, I swore he skated into the interview. His high energy and funky hair burst with enthusiasm. James, with the help of his partner, Kerry Ann Ross, runs The Audition Experience at Creative Acting Company, a networking seminar program that gives actors the opportunity to meet agents and casting directors face to face, perform for them and personally place a headshot in their hands. James is the driving force behind a program that once faced extinction. With a truckload of optimism, an affinity for new ideas and a strong desire to create opportunities for actors, James has turned The Audition Experience into a bustling marketplace of actor activity and success stories. While there are many places in New York claiming to offer similar opportunities, what seems to set this program apart is an overwhelming sense of community and support. The positive energy is very contagious here and it all seems to start with the man at the wheel.
BIGBreakNY: How did you start in the entertainment industry?
JAMES HUFFMAN: Since I was a kid, becoming an actor was something I always dreamed of but never had the nerve to do anything about. After college, I moved to Houston, Texas, where I spent a few years working for a country radio station and booking the occasional local print gig. Then I booked a few grocery store commercials and it was like someone lit a fire under my ass. I never looked back. I packed up my things, made room for the dog, said goodbye to the girlfriend and headed to New York. I tossed around the idea of going to Los Angeles, but New York seemed to be the place to get real training. I was also very aware that I was embarking on this journey sort of late in life, by industry standards anyway, and I needed to get the best training I could find, which seemed, to me, to be in New York. I started taking workshops at The Creative Acting Company, where I did work-study in exchange for free classes. I spent a lot of time there, taking just about every class they had to offer, but I was hell-bent on absorbing as much as I could, and getting as much training as I could. I ended up studying with Sande Shurin, Susan Batson of Black Nexxus, taking workshops at The Atlantic Theater Company, The Barrow Group, and a few others. I was doing crappy little one-act plays like a madman and working with a handful of comedy improv groups. It was insane. I’ve been so busy it’s all kind of a blur at this point.
BBNY: Wow! So how did you end up running this program?
JH: In my efforts to supplement my income, or lack of income, from acting, I had managed to develop a noteworthy sales, marketing and management background. At some point, about a year ago, Gus Waite, the owner of Creative Acting Company…did you know that Gus’s Uncle is Ralph Waite, the Dad from The Waltons? It’s true. Anyway, Gus approached me with an offer to take over The Audition Experience. The program was in shambles and Gus just didn’t have the time or energy to fix it or maintain it. Kerry and I had both taken many classes together at CAC. We both had been a part of the work-study program for a while, and Gus was at ease with the idea of the two of us taking it over. So we did. You should have seen it back then. So it was a mess and it had a very accurate reputation for being the bottom of the barrel, as far as seminar programs and as far as talent. I would host the seminars from time to time and each time, the guest, the agent or casting director, would comment to me on how terrible the actors were. The guests hated being there. Some industry people refused to participate. It was embarrassing even when I wasn’t running things.
BBNY: How did you sharpen up the program?
JH: Have you ever seen that movie “Lean on Me?” The one with Morgan Freeman where he plays Joe Clark, the bat-wielding principal who shapes up troubled East Side High School. That was me with this program. I cleaned everything up, changed all the policies and procedures. I created a new newsletter and a website with the help of some actors who worked for me in exchange for classes. I brought in a fresh new staff of assistants, who worked for me in exchange for free seminars. I impressed upon them the importance of being professional and consistent, but I also stressed that it is important to be as helpful and accommodating as we could. Over time, the more pride we took in our work, the better the atmosphere, the more pride the actors took in participating. All that good energy trickled down through the ranks, which resulted in better performances from the actors. A couple of months ago, I was hosting for one of the guests, and at the end of the night, he told me how impressed he was with the talent. I was taken aback for a minute. I even gave him a double take to make sure he wasn’t being sarcastic, but he wasn’t. I tell ya, that felt great, great to witness that kind of improvement. Now the guests say that all the time, which is awesome!
BBNY: How has The Audition Experience helped you in your career?
JH: Initially, taking these seminars helped me get over the mystique of the New York casting director or agent. I used to be intimidated by the mere thought of being left alone in a small room with one of these people. It was nerve wracking but the more I did it, the more I realized these were just regular people, with their own opinions, who worked at their jobs all day and grabbed a slice of pizza for dinner on their way to our studio. Some of them would love me. Some of them could care less. Some loved my headshot. Some told me to get new headshots. I learned to take it all with a grain of salt. Eventually I was able to relax, be myself and take control of each meeting.
At this point, I think I benefit the most from the relationships I’ve cultivated. Through the process of booking the guests, greeting the guests and making follow-up calls, I’ve been able to establish a great rapport with many prominent agents and casting directors, which has lead to booking a job here and there.
BBNY: Are there certain agents you would plug because of their extra efforts?
JH: Absolutely. Phoebe Rosenberg Jones worked as an assistant for the CBS Daytime office and she would come in, bring her own sides, read with the actor, give direction and read again. She was great because she would always spend as much time with each actor as she could. Phoebe came in on Saturdays so you know she could have been out somewhere doing something fun, but her attitude was always upbeat and productive. She recently moved to LA, so unfortunately we won’t be having her as a guest anytime soon. She will be missed. Bob Kale, from Hughes Moss Casting, is another one that spends good quality time with each actor. When I first met with him, he had me do my monologue four times, each time with new direction. The personal attention was great. He totally earned my respect. David McDermott (Commercial agent, Jordan, Gill & Dornbaum) is a favorite of mine because he is a funny guy. He gets up there, feeds off the crowd and delivers a very entertaining Q & A.
BBNY: How about personality traits of agents that actors have picked up on that you could share?
JH: Ginger Dicce is a big conversation piece around here. She comes in as a guest about once a month. Now Ginger is a very sweet lady but she has been an agent in the business for a long time and has a real old-school edge to her. That edge can hard to handle for some actors. The first time she came in, I met with her, read commercial copy and gave her my headshot. She told me it would have been nice if I had shaved. She was direct and blatantly honest. I was convinced she hated me. She called me a week later, sent me out on an audition, and sure enough I booked my first national. Now, every time she comes in, I watch the actors stumble out into the hallway after a one-on-one with Ginger and they look like a train wreck. It’s hilarious! Ginger and I have actually become friends but meeting her has become a kind of a rite of passage here at The Audition Experience. If you can survive a session with Ginger Dicce, you are definitely fit for this business. She truly wants you to do well. She wants to see if she can work with you. She also wants to see if you’ve got enough backbone for this industry. She knows her own personality and if she is finding work for you she wants to make sure you are worth it.
BBNY: What is usually said about Audition Experience to keep people coming back?
JH: Well, no matter what level an actor you are, you can benefit from taking these seminars. Whether you want to develop strong audition skills, polish those you already have, or get your foot in the door with some really great agents, all of which lead to one common result, booking work, you can do that here. You can also find a strong community of supportive people willing to share stories, experiences and information. This is totally starting to sound like a pitch, but it’s the truth.
The Audition Experience at Creative Acting Company is located at 122 W 26th Street on the 2nd Floor. You can find out more information and the seminar schedule at their website www.auditionexperience.com. You may contact by phone at 212-871-9021.
© 2005 BIGBreakNY, LLC. No material may be reprinted without permission.