Thursday, June 21, 2012

Audrey, Corin and Phebe's Big Adventure

As many of you probably know, I've been teaching myself simple video editing and production over the last few years. I was excited to get the chance to put my skills to work on a promotion video for As You Like It at the Riverside Theatre. I firmly believe that theaters must begin to fully embrace online media. The Great River Shakespeare Festival has been leading the way in this field, at least in the Midwest. Their promotional video for the 2012 season, The Real Housewives of Shakespeare, has 16,000+ views on youtube. Besides hopefully drawing up audiences, videos like these humanize Shakespeare's characters to modern audiences, create visual references for viewers who attend the play, and are just plain fun. I would argue making videos like this also support the storytelling of the play. Taking a character out of the play and into the world, like all character-based improvisation, strengthens the caliber of the actor's work onstage. We, as the actors, now have new memories, new muscle memories as our characters.

So if you have a good idea, speak up. Actors are often the most creative people in a room. Chances are someone will love your idea and let you run with it.

Enjoy the adventures of 3 country folk in the "big" city.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

On booking a job so you can perform in the rain.

"The task of theatre is to find action that creates such vibrant resonance in our imaginations that it enables us to reach a mutual understanding." -Why is That So Funny? by John Wright
Last night, As You Like It opened to a very warm house. The audience deserves the true applause because it rained for the entirety of the second act. I told Riverside's production manager and founding member Ron Clark that I really liked the theater they built, but they seem to have forgot to build a roof. We were all drenched. Audrey looked like a wet goat. I've never done a play in the rain and I thought the show stayed strong, albeit slightly measured for safety's sake.

Many of my readers are theater practitioners, but most are soldiers of other infinite multitudes and probably have little to no understanding about how actors get jobs. I thought I would explain the journey of one way an actor books a job and gets to opening night. There are countless ways... but here's mine for this job.

Audition, Audition, Audition

My friend and fellow actress Katie Hartke says, "You audition for your career, not for a job." The fact that most often theater companies do not employ an actor after their first audition proves her point. Although most auditions last less than five minutes, the process of auditioning takes time because many auditions only come around once a year. It took me about 8 months to make my way into the audition rooms of all the major theatrical houses in Chicago... and that was just the first audition for each company. But the exciting thing is that I will only get more castable as I get older. There are many early twenties women pursuing acting, less late twenties, still less early thirties, etc. Which is why it is so important to work, work, work during these early years so that my skills are sharpened and ready if (but I shall say, when) a break comes my way.

Jody, the Artistic Director of Riverside Theater, has a relationship with my alma mater and every year auditions our students. I auditioned for her in Minnesota in early 2009 and a few times since then. Ron and Jody run a very generous audition room, laughing and always making sure to learn a little bit about you as a person. This year, I auditioned for the company in Chicago, where most Midwestern theaters come to conduct their season audition. My audition consisted of performing two monologues, Perdita from A Winter's Tale by Shakespeare and Jennie from Chapter Two by Neil Simon. Auditions generally call for contrasting monologues; these particular two contrast because Perdita is classical, in verse, serious, gentle, fearful and Jennie is contemporary, in prose, intense, humorous, loud, demanding. Monologues are innately silly, because you are talking to someone who is not, in fact, actually there. But we do our best to share a piece of ourselves with the auditor who generally knows within the first six seconds of you walking in the room whether they want to work with you or not. Sorta like speed dating, except you want them to pay you. So sorta like speed dating for prostitutes. However, unlike prostitution, you also need a headshot and resume. Mine currently looks like this...

Jody contacted me shortly after the audition to offering me an apprentice position in the company and the role of Audrey in As You Like It which I obviously accepted. When I received my contract, I found I was to understudy Rosalind, Shakespeare's most loquacious heroine, a thrilling and fun challenge.

After accepting the contract, I moved to Iowa, rehearsed for four weeks, memorized over 200 lines, opened the show and drank the rain like it was my job. Cause it is. I'm playing a goatherd named Audrey whose most famous line is, "I'm not a slut." It's a good life, who can really be upset when they are wearing ruffles like these? Don't tell Ken Washington, but I'm really just in it for the ruffles.

Audrey and Touchstone, photo by Bob Goodfellow

Monday, June 11, 2012

On growing a brave, thick skin.

I've come to the conclusion that my insecurities are boring. There is nothing more boring than continuously thinking of all the ways I will fail at this completely insane artistic career I have chosen to pursue. I will no longer give these insecurities, or bad movies, life because they stand in the way of what I want. Whether it be in personal relationships, your career, or at a sushi bar*, it is hard to know what you want... It is even harder to admit what you want once you know what it is, especially if you want whatever it is really bad. If we admit how much we want something, then we acknowledge how much we will lack if we fail to attain it. I want to be a professional actress. (It was even hard for me to write that simple sentence. I deleted it twice.)

Recently, after a long rehearsal and over a drink at the bar, a fellow actor offered me a critique about a role I had recently played. His critique was simple and I acknowledge the validity of his suggestion for a missing piece in my characterization. It was a great note, actually, which I wished my director had given me. However, my response to his criticism took me on the following journey of emotions in my mind. I was... taken aback, defensive, angry at myself for being defensive. Next, I overcompensated by being overly receptive, beat myself up, felt sorry for myself, and then finally got over it.

I've thought a lot about this interaction and the idea of criticism in general over the last few days. Why was my initial reaction to be threatened by this criticism? Because I have insecurities about my own abilities, talents and work. Because my pride and vanity were hurt. This criticism seeps in through the holes created by my insecurities and hits at my core. But criticism is essential for growth. I want to be the type of artist who can take critiques and use them to make my work strong. I will not learn or grow by compliments and accolades. When I think about it that way, critiques are more important than accolades, especially during an artist's formative years. Rather than using criticism to cripple us into self-pity, we must use it to fuel the depth of our work in the future.

That said, we as artists must be discerning with our criticism for others. I have a few simple suggestions to offer:
  1. The bar is probably not the best place to give criticism. Flirt with the bartender or whisper to your whiskey instead. People will be more receptive if the sun is out anyway.
  2. If you are going to offer criticism, it doesn't hurt to offer a compliment too. 
  3. When critiquing a role that an actor (or anything that anyone) is over and done with and has no chance to alter, may I suggest wording along these lines: "Next time you play a role like that, I'd love to see you delve deeper into your..." as opposed to "What I think you were missing was..." 
  4. Let's also acknowledge that we don't always need to share what we think.
  5. Lastly, we don't always have to care what others think. Choose whose opinion matters to you. It's similar to what I've said before, "Strangers will shout things at you, especially in a big city. You have the choice to ignore these things. You don't have to "Go F*** Yourself" if you don't want to."

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

In the rehearsal room, a director's criticism is the lifeblood of a production. As actors we cannot step back and look at our work like a visual artist can. A painter can step back from her canvas and say, "That doesn't look anything like a goat." But I cannot step outside myself and watch me perform a scene as Audrey, the saucy goatherd. Our director, Ted Swetz announced on the first day to remember that everything that happens in the rehearsal room is professional, not personal. Theater is our profession, yet our work is innately personal. Ted constantly says to us, "More self... you need more self." He pushes us to speak through our characters from honest places within ourselves. The "more self" an actor allows onstage, the more present he or she can be with her partner. Another actor in As You Like It, J, sings an English folksong in the production. During tech, he jokingly busted out the chorus with an R&B, soulful riff. Ted shouted from the back of the theater, "You can do it like that!" J responded, "You're opening a whole big can of worms" to which Ted replied, "I've been trying to open that can for two weeks. SELF!" The new flavor J. had added to his character held his own intrinsic truth, which is more interesting, more electric than a body onstage trying to be a 1562 minstrel. When someone in any profession brings so much of themselves to their work, it's hard not to take criticisms of that work as personal failings.

John Carroll Lynch once told my acting class that there are three stages to taking a note:
  1. F*** you.
  2. I suck.
  3. Wait, what was the note?

I hope that bringing my "self", giving and taking constructive criticism, not taking things personally, and abandoning insecurities becomes easier with age. One of my favorite actresses, Helena Bonham Carter recently said, "Everybody has an inferiority complex when they step into a room. But then, when you have children and you get older, it doesn't really matter. When I was young I had so many inferiority complexes... Then it gets tiring. And you do get bored of it."

In the mean time, I'm dressing up like a pirate wench and picking goat fur lint out of my belly button in front of hundreds of people in Iowa. Because I'm a professional actress.

The beautiful festival stage in Lower City Park, Iowa City, IA.

*If you are at Takanami in Iowa City, get the Dragon roll. Shrimp tempura, avacodo and eel. It will cure whatever ails you.