“It’s a miracle that we’re all unique human beings. There are seven billion of us on this planet and there are no two alike. That’s nature’s big miracle. And I think we ought to be able to fully enjoy it and express that uniqueness.”
– Sam Christensen
Image Consultant Sam Christensen is returning to Atlanta this week for a free preview workshop on Wednesday night at Drama Inc.
Christensen has been working in Hollywood since the 1970s when he started booking work as an independent casting director. “I began in the Hollywood mix as a casting person,” Christensen said. “I worked on ‘M*A*S*H’ for many, many years. Not the first season, but the final nine.”
His job was to cast the speaking roles who would work alongside the seasoned leads of the show. Often, these actors would be fresh faces with very limited resumes. His experience casting new talent would ultimately lead him to discover a specific issue that most of the actors he encountered seemed to struggle with.
During callbacks, Christensen would often try to help the nervous actors relax by reminding them to be themselves since the show was looking for real people. However, when given those instructions, most of the actors would look back at him with a glazed look in their eyes. Christensen said, “Of course, it’s completely illogical – if somebody says, ‘Be yourself!’ you think, well don’t I wake up every morning and I’m myself? What are you talking about? So that always intrigued me.”
Christensen believed that solving this mystery could be the difference between the actors who booked the role and the ones who did not. “For actors, the more an audience looks at a role that they’re watching and they see an actual person inside it, the more likely they are to believe the story and have the effect that the writer and director intend for the audience to feel – it’s that heightened authenticity,” Christensen said.
At the time, he could not quite put his finger on the solution to the problem, so instead he kept these thoughts in the back of his mind throughout his tenure in casting.
Once M*A*S*H completed its final season, Christensen shifted gears and decided to dedicate his time toward helping actors with their common struggles. He teamed up with a business partner, Ken Cortland and they eventually opened a three-story, 20,000 square-foot, one-stop-shop facility called The Actors Center.
“The Actors Center had a bookstore and a café and classrooms where acting teachers could teach classes and also where people could do these casting director workshops, which were very popular at the time,” Christensen said.
After a short time, The Actors Center gained popularity and business was booming until the film industry was hit by a writers’ strike, followed by an actors’ strike, coated by a national recession.
“Our business really faded and we had to sort of liquidate,” Christensen recalled. “I decided to do a more concentrated version of The Actors Center and offer a few teachers and this class that I had developed to be part of my own curriculum.”
The class was the answer to the question Christensen received from all of those actors he’d auditioned during his years in casting. What does it mean to “be yourself”?
Christensen had finally figured out the secret sauce and realized it was in the process of reconciling the way you view yourself with the way you are viewed by others. Helping others go through that process became the basis for the class.
“It’s not the kind of learning where you learn a bunch of facts and then you try to apply those. It’s a transformative kind of moment-to-moment, day-to-day process.,” Christensen said.
The course is broken down into three parts. Part One consists of working with classmates to identify common themes in the way they see you. Part Two is the private work of coordinating those outside descriptions with the way you see yourself to create a unified identity that honors the outside perception and also the inside perception you have of yourself. Part Three is the final step which helps Christensen’s students find fitting vocabulary words and phrases that capture some piece of them. In the end, they leave with a new understanding of who they are and a toolbox to help them describe it to others.
“If you go through the process, you can’t help but get a better sense of how you affect the world,” Christensen said. “It gives you the ability to take in and use other people’s perception and not try to fight them or falsify yourself to suit someone else’s needs.”
Christensen says his methods have proved to be effective for professionals from all walks of life. “Actors are certainly the biggest chunk of our clientele, and then the other 40% of our clientele are attorneys, political people, various kinds of professionals, doctors. Folks that have some kind of public outreach as part of their whole big career endeavors.”
For actors in particular, Christensen drew from his experiences from casting and realized that knowing who you are can help avoid the doubt and stress that have become a significant part of working in this industry.
“I want you to be able to say to yourself, given the time I had, those folks got a pretty good dose of me. I can move on to the next thing. I don’t have to waste two hours of download on something I can’t change or learn form. I’m going to make sure you leave that situation going, you know – given the time I had there, they got a solid feeling of the authentic me. That’s why people come,” Christensen explained.
We’re always told if you’re this way or that way, people will like you better. You have to tell a little joke, but some people don’t tell jokes. They just don’t do that. Some people have better vocabularies. Some people are more engaging and some people are a little standoffish and you shouldn’t have to alter yourself to please some perfect standard of human being. People are much more taken with us when you’re who you are.” – Christensen
As time went on, Christensen’s class began making enough of an impact to bring in more and more fresh students with each rotation. Eventually, Christensen and Cortland made the decision to move away from other instructors and focus solely on Christensen’s class.
“There seemed to be enough traction at that moment that we could maybe run a small studio just with my class,” Christensen said. “So when I took that leap, I had enough confidence in it working that I was sort of willing to stake the next chunk of my future on the fact that that traction would be enough.”
The decision turned out to be spot on. Today, Christensen’s program boasts over 10,000 graduates in major cities around the world including New York, London, and Toronto. Christensen attributes the success to word-of-mouth advertising with approximately 65-70% of his clients coming from referrals. “People would tell their friends and I think that’s why it has disseminated the way it has,” Christensen said.
One place where Christensen’s workshop has gained popularity is right here in Atlanta, which is the home of about 700 graduates to date. Christensen first came to the city several years ago to debut his Image Workshop for the budding film/tv community here.
For each new city that he visits, Christensen works with a former student to “produce” his class there. The former student will assist him in finding a location and the proper advertising venues to ensure his visit will be successful. Drama Inc. has become Christensen’s home in Atlanta as well as the location for Wednesday’s free preview class.
“People come for different reasons,” Christensen said. “But underneath it all, they’re coming because they just want to feel that they have been authentic in a situation – especially ones that provide some stress. That’s what I want for everybody because I think there’s just so much comfort in that and it builds confidence.”
Looking toward the future, Christensen is planning ways to bring his class to even more locations without necessarily putting in as much travel. Options include franchising and creating an online option for the course. For now, Christensen and Cortland are showing no signs of slowing down.
“We work a lot. Ken is everyday filling classes at various places and managing how things move forward and I’m in the class room all the time, plus there is work that I do in between to prepare for the next session,” Christensen said. “But for me, I’m one of those lucky human beings. I get to earn a living from something I would happily do for free. Not everybody has that. The beauty of doing fulfilling work that earns money – that what keeps me energized and going and working.”