If you’re looking for a serious career in acting, taking a class by Brandy Hotchner is a great start. The 42-year-old Scottsdale resident and Denver native is a resident instructor at Phoenix Theatre and the artistic director for Arizona Actors Academy, which offers method acting, master acting, on-camera, Shakespeare, teen and improvisation classes to locals. Hotchner’s had the acting bug since she was a little kid and has extensive experience, including time in New York City.
Hotchner is passionate about improving the Arizona arts scene and talked about what the public can do to help. Read on to hear her talk about her five favorite reasons for loving living in Arizona, too.
What brought you to Arizona?
I came here from New York in 2002. I had been there more than a decade and had all the ups and downs of an acting and directing career out there.
September 11th (2001) was a very personally traumatic event for me, and after about a year, the city just didn’t feel like home for me anymore. Many of my friends and colleagues had moved to L.A. and were loving the beach and seemed to be pursuing a career with a little less strife. I left New York to go to L.A., and my family was here, so I stopped here along the way to regroup. That first week here, I met who would become my now-husband. Within a year, I was married and had my first baby, and here I am.
What’s your first memory of being passionate about acting and theater?
I think I was around 8. Annie was a big hit on Broadway, and they were doing open auditions all over the country for the movie version. I cried and begged for my parents to take me to New York to audition for that. I think that’s my first memory of feeling pain to be an actor on Broadway and in film.
Both my parents are published playwrights and formed the first professional theater company in Denver, so all I’ve known is theater. I watched them write original plays and music for their children’s theater, and spent my weekends backstage at their adult theater.
My mother, Kathy Hotchner, at that time was doing all the programming at Arvada Center for the Arts (in Arvada, Colorado.) I didn’t know anything different, I was exposed to all the performing arts and theater from day one.
My family moved here when I was 16, and my mother started programming for the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. She is one of the reasons Scottsdale is a cultural center here.
I went to the University of Redlands in California for a degree in directing and studied abroad in London for a year. As soon as I ended college, I was off to New York.
How would you characterize the Valley’s theater scene?
We don’t have a self-contained professional theater here, even though we’re the sixth-largest city. If I could nail down why, one of the largest reasons is the lack of governmental support. Any of the great theater communities across the county have wonderful grant opportunities and support through the cities and states. That fosters more donor and individual support.
All theater companies are going to be nonprofit. They’re completely reliant on money coming from governments and individual donors. We have some very generous individual donors here, but not enough, and I think our state has some responsibility in that because the granting here is very minimal. The grants for organizations here are for the larger institutions, not small theaters.
Because theaters here are so dependent on subscribers who are largely in an older demographic, theaters are taking a real risk when they produce new, edgy or controversial works. It’s very expensive to produce theater. Losing money on one production can be catastrophic. Thus, local theaters here aren’t able to regularly produce plays that are relevant to younger audiences, that would get them in the door, which goes back to funding sources. Our arts organizations need to be able to take risks without facing financial ruin.
The theaters that are doing well here have a really strong subscriber base, which is pretty amazing. I would love to see the theater community here work harder on keeping talent here, which means casting new faces and inviting new directors to do new productions. Eight-five percent of the actors I train leave here because there’s no work.
Besides attending shows, what can the average person do to help the theater scene?
Supporting the HB2660 Multimedia Production Incentive Bill assigned to the Ways and Means Committee, by calling and emailing House Representatives Debbie Lesko (602-926-5413, email@example.com) and Andy Tobin (602-926-5172, firstname.lastname@example.org,) is one example. The Arizona Film and Media Coalition has been trying for the past four or five years to get this bill passed in our legislature that would give tax incentives to Hollywood studios to come here and shoot here — I believe Dan Harkins was one of the first designers of this. We give tax incentives to tech companies and bioresearch companies, but HB2660 has faced resistance in our legislature.
Hollywood flies over Arizona, a right-to-work state, to New Mexico and North Carolina, where The Walking Dead is shot. The amount of money brought in and jobs created, not just for actors, that go to those states is mind-boggling. We’re right next-door to Hollywood with perfect weather most of the year. We should have several major studios here.
It’s that kind of attitude toward the arts that has decimated our funding. What can people do? Demand of their city council and their local legislatures to prioritize the arts and improve our quality of life here in Arizona to a level that competes with Austin, Seattle or Denver. Some of our major local business councils have funded studies through the Flinn Foundation that show one of Arizona’s biggest economic challenges ahead is we lose our best young talent, and have a terrible time recruiting talent, because Phoenix can’t compete with Austin or Seattle or Denver or Chicago. We don’t have an environment that is as culturally rich and friendly. It’s up to us to demand from our government representatives they put these issues on their agenda.
And, of course, when you donate each year, give as much to your local arts organization as you can.
Why is theater important for quality of life?
Theater has always been a part of human culture and reflected the human condition. Theater at its roots is religious ceremony, which later evolved to reflecting our sociopolitical lives, our domestic struggles and our aspirations and popular culture.
Theater, film and television are some of the most powerful chroniclers of time we have. If you read an Arthur Miller or Edward Albee play, you’re getting a snapshot of the 1940s and ‘50s you can’t get anywhere else that is even close to the psychology of the human condition in America at that time.
It’s also unstoppable. People feel called to it. Why not make it great and valuable and so the artists who do it can feed themselves?
How did the Arizona Actors Academy come about?
I had been here for about a year and a half, and I was working at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts doing educational outreach, and ended up teaching Shakespeare at Scottsdale Community College. A couple of those students bugged me for six months to open a private class.
My friend, Shawna Franks, who I think is an unsung hero of the Phoenix theater scene, had just opened (theater) Space 55. She allowed me to use the space at virtually no cost. She continues to support local artists and produce original theater, and she’s truly amazing. So, I started around 2006 as a small, once-a-week class of actors who wanted to study acting at a different level than what was available to them here, and it’s grown since then.
How would you characterize yourself as an instructor?
Devoted. Invested. Honest. I don’t lie to actors – if I could, I’d probably be a much bigger outfit than I am. It doesn’t help an artist reach their goals, and it wasn’t helpful to me. There’s nothing I won’t do or throw at an actor to help them reach their goals, and I’m very individualized in how I work with actors.
You can call it method, but my training goes beyond The Actors Studio. I don’t believe there’s one right or perfect approach to acting, but there are fundamentals every actor has to have, and that’s the Stanislavski (method of acting.) After that, the actor needs many tools to achieve the goal of living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.
The format of my classes are the same as you’d find in New York. My mentor, and the biggest artistic influence on me in my lifetime, is Barbara Poitier, protégé of Lee Strasberg. I run my classes the way Barbara ran her classes, the way Lee ran his classes, which for this area is unique. Unlike my peers in New York who run these sorts of classes, I have actors who are devoted to class almost singularly. When I was in New York, I was in class between gigs. I really get to train actors, even beginning actors, and that’s amazing.
Who should give acting a try?
I think everyone should try an acting class. Acting teaches you about compassion, and it takes it from a theory of empathy and puts you inside the condition someone else is living in. I think that’d be very valuable for anyone, particularly those in positions of authority, like politicians, police officers and doctors, right?
As far as professional acting is concerned, if you just can’t not do it, you should pursue becoming a professional actor. If you can walk away, keep it in community theater or local film. It’s an art that has almost no reward. There’s no making a living as an actor, unless you are part of the approximate 5 percent who have the opportunity to make a modest living. That 5 percent is making around $30,000 a year, just enough to qualify for health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild. I believe the latest statistic is only .05 percent, a ridiculously small number, of union actors making true money.
You’re called to do something that is utterly selfless, which may alienate you from your entire family, that gives you no stability. It’s a very noble endeavor. To want to do this, you have to be endlessly curious, because every new role you take is a new journey into the inner workings of another person, place and time.
Actors are really smart. They’re well-read, and they have a huge grasp of history. They’re extremely sensitive to the human condition, almost too much so, and they have a ridiculous drive to open up their unique insight to everybody. Actors are sensitive on an elite level. This tends to be something that makes childhood not so easy, but it can make you a damn good actor.
What are the biggest mistakes new actors make?
The biggest mistake new actors make is to think they don’t need training. It’s extremely naïve to think you are pretty enough or charismatic enough to understand the craft of acting. At the competitive level, you’re up against the best of the best, and 95 percent of those are highly trained with the best MFAs from around the world.
If you’re good enough without training, and there are those people who are naturally gifted, you run into the issue that you get successful but don’t know how you created that success. You can come into that moment as an actor where it’s brilliant, but it’s accidental, and you don’t know how you created it – so when the director asks for that third or fourth or fifteenth take, you can’t re-create it.
The trained actor is the consistent actor, who shows up perfect and right and spontaneous and different every time it’s required of them. That takes major skill.
Do you have any tips for getting over nervousness when acting?
No, that’s part of it. There are actors who are so brilliant and so good and still puke before they go on stage, but you learn to redirect it and not let it control you.
Acting is really good, though, for people with fears of public speaking, because it really trains that out of you. It’s not like it cures a person who’s afraid of public speaking, it just helps them deal with it when the fear or anxiety kicks in.
Any time I have an audition or an opening night, I’m terrified, but it’s such a great adrenaline rush and so fun.
What advice do you have for redirecting that nervous energy and making it a positive thing?
Get into acting class. It can take a lot of time, so you have to train it out. You have to recognize where it’s coming from and how it’s manifesting itself physically. We think it’s all in our head, but it’s all over our body. You might clench your fist without realizing it – it’s important to take those little triggers and turn them into a relaxing breath.
What audition tips do you have?
You better know your material. You never know what you’re going to face in the waiting room, and you don’t know how the auditioners are going to be. The one thing you need to be confident with is what you bring into the room. Whatever the circumstances are in that audition, you need to be really good in that material.
What are your goals?
I love training actors and have probably found my most authentic purpose in life. A lot of my actors, whom I would consider alumni, are doing really well in Los Angeles or New York. I’d like to support them their whole careers, whether it’s on-set on a really tough movie or whatever. I want to see these really great artists do really great work.
But I’m an actor, and I’ll always be acting. When my children are old enough, I want to finally get to Los Angeles and get back to acting. I’m looking forward to that. But make no mistake, the happy accident that has me calling Phoenix home and coaching actors, I am nothing less then grateful for. It’s a real privilege to train the talent we have here. I’m grateful every day. And it’s only helping my personal growth as an actor.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges to owning your own business?
As a mom, the flexibility of my schedule makes me feel very lucky, but I don’t think small business is super-well-supported. I pay ridiculous taxes.
It’s also challenging for me to do my accounting, so I pay for someone to do that, but I don’t think there’s anything better than owning your own small business. Every bit of hard work, blood, sweat and tears you put into it comes back to you. When you fail, you fail big, but you learn so much, you come back really strong.
What advice would you have for someone interested in owning their own business?
It can take a long time before it becomes a viable business. Put your heart and soul into it, and understand there are dues to be paid. It doesn’t matter how you run your business, it’s typically about five years before you see some kind of income come in, so you need to be prepared for that because there’s a lot of sacrifice up-front. It’s worth all of it, but you need to have a support system in place.
Why should people take one of your acting classes?
My acting classes aren’t for everybody. I really believe the actors who want to train and work this way find their way to me. It’s very serious training, though my classes are full of laughter and humor.
I train actors for the very real competitive acting environment in L.A., New York and Chicago, where you’re against the best of the best. It takes the right kind of person who wants to get themself to that level. I’m not necessarily for someone who just wants to have some fun with it, because I’m going to give you very honest feedback. But anyone who has a passion for this, or is very drawn to it, I think will fall in love with these classes.