Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The F Word

I never considered myself a feminist. It had a negative, bra-burning connotation to me. I was never particularly proud to be a woman, nor was I ashamed of it. I just considered myself to have landed on this half of the population and I believed it had no effect on my life. At the end of this past summer, I checked my courses online and found that, without warning or notice, Makeup Design had disappeared. The first time I signed up for that class, they rescheduled it to a time slot when I was in a class required for my major. This time, no rescheduling, no apologetic email. Nada. Just a very frustrated short person. I had no real interest in an elective outside of my department and the only other option was with the teacher who had me in five previous classes and was about to have me in two more, even if I didn't take her elective. Finally, I registered for the class, figuring that if nothing else came up, I had survived taking 15 hours at a time with this woman before (my friend aptly named it the “Sharothon”). Nothing else came up. And I was stuck in Women in Dramatic Arts.

It ended up being the most influential class I took.

Yes, we read Aphra Behn and Clare Boothe Luce and talked about the women in Ibsen's plays, but we more importantly gained understanding about the true circumstances concerning women—that the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be ratified, our pay is not equal, our sexuality must be hidden behind pantsuits to be taken seriously, and in other countries, women are treated as less than equal—covered up, beat up, shut up. I was fortunate to share ten weeks with a group of women that shared their thoughts and experiences with each other as we studied the history of women in Western theatre from the Restoration forward. We had good laughs, good cries, as each of us began to understand where we stand and that maybe it's not where we thought we were, that it has every effect on our lives.

I'm not saying there aren't other soapboxes to stand on, but I like this one. It has given me a sense of identity as well as a group to identify with. It has given me a plethora of playwrights, many of whom have been tossed aside in history. It has given me an outlet. I can volunteer at women's shelters or donate or do whatever good samaritan deed seems right for the day, and maybe I will. But what is so fantastic and timeless about theatre is that it doesn't take money and it can go anywhere. It delivers a message and connects people on the same topic. Theatre can be used as your soapbox of choice.

A couple nights ago, I finished Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World by Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, founder of V-Day, and a huge inspiration to me. In Insecure, she wrote:
Theater insists that we inhabit the present tense—not the virtual tense or the politically correct tense. Theater demands that we truly be where we are. By being there together, we are able to confront the seemingly impossible, we are able to feel that which we fear might destroy us—and we are educated and transformed by that act.

Theater is sacred because it allows us, it encourages us, as a community of strangers, to go someplace together and face the issues and realities we simply cannot face alone. Alone, we are powerless, translating our suffering and struggle into our own private narcissistic injuries. When we become a group, these issues become social or political concerns, responsibilities, a reason for being here together.

James Cromwell spoke with us at the Savannah Film Festival and expressed his thoughts on the broken state of our industry and our country. “Everything's broken,” he said. “We have to start over, build from scratch.” He spoke on creating theatre in a community to tell its story. That there is no competition in your hometown and “what is most important is what you have to say.”

I'm biased, but I consider our art to be the most powerful. Theatre has caused people to be outwardly angry, started riots. In the case of Eve Ensler, it has also raised $50 million for grassroots organizations around the world. It is the megaphone of the arts. What we do with it should be selective, personal, and benevolent for the sake of ourselves, our art, and the soapbox of our choice. For myself, I think it should also make a little noise.

Ensler, Eve. Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security-obsessed World. New York: Villard, 2006. Print.

Want to know more about Ensler's V-Day Foundation? Check it out at http://www.vday.org/home.

Friday, December 24, 2010

God Only Knows...

In the past few years, the movie Love Actually has become embedded in my family's Christmas tradition. Aside from the fact that it is ingeniously written and edited, it treats Christmas not as the greatest spending season of the year, but as a time for surrounding yourself with love and telling the truth. So in the true spirit of the holiday, here is a bit of a more personal post. Because, as Natalie says, “If you can't say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?”

Graduating college is a huge milestone that I haven't completely come to terms with yet. Perhaps I will when the diploma arrives in the mail. Maybe I will when it's framed on my wall. Or when it's yellowed years from now. To be unfortunately frank, my time in college was not as enjoyable as I wanted it to be. I worked unbelievably hard. I went to extra help sessions instead of parties. Spending time with people outside of class meant we were working on a scene. What made it worse was that for all the work, I wasn't getting cast and I began to resent the people who did. I also was growing more and more disgusted with what I perceived as superficiality as an attempt at professionalism in my department. Until I came to terms with the fact that I was the only person who could have made things better, I secretly blamed it on everyone around me.

My time at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey began to get me over my bitterness by getting me to open up. I was in an environment where I didn't have any resentment for the people around me, so there was none to hide. I can honestly say that I have never grown more as an actor than during my time there, which was coupled by growth as a person. I ordered my first beer in a bar. I also took my first shot of straight liquor. (I don't always use alcohol as a benchmark, by the way.) I didn't get anxiety when I had something to say in class or when I needed to call up a scene partner to schedule a rehearsal. My self confidence soared and I made 25+ unbelievable friends in eleven weeks.

When I returned to college for my final quarter, the shell went back on. The bitterness returned and I was more miserable than when I left in the spring. A couple weekends into the quarter, I realized that I was staying in my room and working on Friday and Saturday nights and didn't know where to go to hang out. My boyfriend got far too many calls on weekend nights with me crying on the other end because I had become better friends with my notebooks than with people. When he told me to go hang out with friends, I insisted I didn't have any. It was around that time that all of you came out of the woodwork. In droves. It honestly kind of freaked me out. Here were these people that I assumed didn't think I was worth speaking to who were being nice to me. It took me a while to quit questioning and take it for what it was. So I came to your parties. I talked to you in the hall. I accepted your compliments as genuine. I probably came off as being socially awkward, but the last few weeks of college became the most enjoyable of the three and a half years I spent in Savannah. I may not have had time to figure out how to make an acquaintance a friend or how to make a friend a good friend, but in the last few weeks you understood that my grumpy ass wasn't going to even try unless you said something first. It wasn't your responsibility or your duty, but you did it anyway and instead of letting me meander off into graduation, you conferenced with me about moving to Chicago, you barraged me with hugs after my senior show, you complimented me when I never thought you would, you walked me out of Crites Hall for the last time and into the real world. And all that time, I had convinced myself I was alone.

This Christmas, I wanted to let you know what was really going on in my brooding little mind and that you changed it. Toasting to you for helping me find a happier, healthier mindset as I wait for my diploma and a fresh start for the coming year. To fellow students, readers, friends, teachers, mentors, family: God only knows what I'd be without you. Merry Christmas to you all!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Who needs a Sassy?

If you are not familiar with the Sassy Gay Friend series on the Second City Network Channel on YouTube, you need to be. The Shakespeares are the best (Ophelia, Desdemona, Juliet), and then they took a wrong turn somewhere around the Giving Tree. I have been working on a list of characters who need a SGF more than the Giving Tree ever since. Here it is:
  • Hedda Gabler, Hedda Gabler
  • Blanche DuBois, Streetcar Named Desire
  • Laura, the Glass Menagerie
  • Hermione, The Winter's Tale
  • Wendy, Peter Pan
  • the Young Woman, Machinal
  • Lady Anne, Richard III
I know you guys have more. I'm trying to keep it to classical women with boy problems, such as characters from classical plays, books, historical figures, etc. Put your ideas in a comment or on my facebook!

UPDATE: Officially adding...
  • Madame Bovary, Madame Bovary
  • Jocasta, Oedipus Rex
  • Medea, Jason and Medea/Greek mythology 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Loris Takes Manhattan (plus thoughts on relationships)

If you don't know what a loris is watch this. This little guy went into my repertoire of random characters at the beginning of my summer at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and received much attention there. When I returned to New Jersey to see friends and to go into New York for various sightseeing expeditions and to see Driving Miss Daisy on Broadway, the loris made a definite reappearance.

My first time in “the city” as everyone up there seems to call it went something like this:
Day 1 (December 13)
  • Get off plane at JFK, having pressed my face to the plane window in search of the New York skyline, only to realize that it was on the other side of the plane.
  • Talk to cranky ticket lady and pay $15 for a bus ticket to Grand Central
  • Get on bus and fear for my life due to New York drivers.
    • See NYPD Crime Scene Unit van. Look for Gary Sinese.
    • Gawk at tall buildings.
  • Get to Grand Central. Stand in main concourse area. Take pictures like a tourist.
  • Meet lovely Heather, who's father is conveniently a professional driver. Use his service to get to World Trade Center subway stop. Feel sad.
  • Follow Heather through subways and Path trains to her stop in NJ.
  • Go to her house. Find it insanely cute. Discover that the toilet paper is folded into points. Remember depth of love for Heather.
  • Take a nap and get a shower while Heather goes to company Christmas party.
  • Reunite with Lauren, who comes back with Heather after listening to the Artistic Director talk for much longer than expected.
  • Head back to the city to meet my professor and mentor Sharon Ott to go see Driving Miss Daisy.
    • Realize on the way that we have left far too late and not only will miss my meeting time with Sharon, but also curtain for the show. Start running. Subway. Taxi. Runrunrun.
  • Find ticket at will call. Slip into theatre. Crawl over half an aisle of people. Realize Sharon's not mad. Slow breathing. Watch first Broadway show.
  • After stepping out into the cold and high-winds, follow Sharon to Ruby Foo's in Times Square to eat some sushi, have drinkies, and talk.
  • Meet back up with the girls, head back to New Jersey for warm PJ's and sleep.
Day 2 (December 14)
  • Head into city with the girls in early afternoon.
  • Lunch at the Tick Tock Diner on 8th and 34th. Grilled chicken sandwich with smoked mozzarella and red peppers.
  • Go to Mecca. AKA The Drama Book Shop. Spend too much money on two new plays and a workbook on creating emotion on demand.
  • Go to Bryant Park. Take pictures with the tree. Poke around in shops. Buy hot chocolate.
  • Meet Jenny at Rockefeller Center. Look at tree.
  • Walk around until we find Thai food. Order things we can't pronounce.
  • Head back to NJ to watch Peter Pan.
Day 3 (December 15)
  • Back to the city one more time with Heather.
  • New York bagel at Grand Central. Everything with cream cheese. Yes.
  • Buy another bus ticket. Hugs. Climb onto bus and head back to the airport.
    • Watch cranky old man get mad at everyone because he doesn't know where he's supposed to be. A lady asks what airline he's looking for and he goes off on her for calling it an airline.
  • Get there way early. Buy $3 Coke. Re-read Mrs. Warren's Profession. See flight has been delayed 10 minutes.
  • Walk out onto the tarmac. Feel cold. Get on plane. Sit in last row next to the bathroom.
  • Finish Mrs. Warren's Profession as plane lands in Charlotte, NC.

I think it's pretty clear that I hardly scratched the surface of New York. It's an exciting city that I definitely see myself returning to, but it was not the life-changing must-live-here visit that it has such a reputation for. To me, the most important part of this trip was reinvesting in the relationships I've developed in the past year or more.

As actors, we always hear about “contacts” and that “it's who you know.” It's important and it's professional and yaddayadda, but relationships shouldn't be pushed aside on a personal level. I'm not totally sure how to talk about this without sounding totally cheesy, but it's the holidays, so that's acceptable, right? I realized over drinks with Sharon that my relationship to her had changed since I graduated. First of all, I was drinking a rum and coke. Second, we were talking about more than the play we just read in class or when is that paper due. We talked about theatre, pursuing a career in theatre, and also things that have nothing to do with theatre. This last bit is where I think thank-you note contacts and the truly important relationships diverge. These are the people who advise you, keep you sane, give you a place to crash and go with you into the city to make sure you take the right train. They recommend grad schools and score you free tickets to Driving Miss Daisy. They give you someone to talk to about things that are not related to acting in the least. And you should do whatever you can to return the favor. It is not really about “the more the merrier” in your contact list, but how well you tend to who is there. Since Christmas is usually misinterpreted as a season for excessive and empty consumerism, I encourage you guys to stick more closely to a more warm fuzzy connotation and take some time to foster the relationships that are really important to you, both as theatre artists and in general. Do them a favor, meet them for coffee or drinks and pay for them, make them homemade goodies, anything that tells them that they are more than just a “contact” to you. As a general greeting for everyone on my list, I took some pictures with my favorite critters on the farm.
Happy Holidays from Loretta, Sophie and myself!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cookie Cutters

I was tinkering on facebook when I found that one of my friends had posted this,
a series of short pieces which illustrate classic film types with the help of people like Tilda Swinton, James Franco, and Natalie Portman. Give it a look. They are lovely portraits of classic characters that we all know.

There is something about the concept of types that I see actors latch on to, possibly because it is something definable, or because it is one of the few things we can control or shape. My college performing arts department has a particular fetish with “typing” it's students, which often leads to actors scrambling to perfectly define themselves in appearance. I'm a bit of a rebel when in comes to practices like this, but after I had been pegged as the “Juno” of the department, I found myself showing a picture of Ellen Page's haircut to the hairdresser. (Admittedly, Ellen and I both can rock some cute bangs.) I even recall students who knew what they were going to wear to an audition before they knew what monologues they were going to use. Understanding your type, how to dress to it, and looking like the best possible you are all crucial. There, I said it. You have to look good. I hate superficiality, but there it is. As someone who loves a good pair of sweatpants and has heard “You are such an Ellen Page!” or sometimes “You are so Anne Hathaway!” a few too many times, I approach types a little cautiously. Here are some thoughts:

1. Beware the list of types.
In an audition techniques class during my study abroad in Provence, I was assigned to read parts of a rather helpful book called How To Be A Working Actor by Mari Lyn Henry and Lynne Rogers. In their chapter “Getting Your Act Together,” there is a section on image types based on the concept of “universal style” created by image consultants in the 1990's. There was a list of styles followed by keywords to help you define yourself. They were...
  • Sporty: friendly, casual, unpretentious, comfortable with who you are, likeable
  • Traditional: businesslike, conscientious, loyal, organized, reliable, trustworthy
  • Elegant: refined, polished, cultured, poised, discerning
  • Romantic: caring, compassionate, charming, sensitive, vulnerable, nurturing
  • Alluring: provocative, body conscious, seductive, sexy enticing
  • Creative: adventuresome, free-spirited, imaginative, original, fearless
  • Dramatic: commanding, confident, intense, self-assured, sophisticated.
In class, we were given time to pick which one we were, and then we stood in front of the class, one at a time, and the class determined which best suited us. I went last and there I stood, in 100 degree weather in southern France, rocking some cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and my Chacos, probably sweaty, with my hair in a tangled pile. Essentially, I was a hot mess. The rest of the students could do nothing but eliminate “Alluring.” Eventually the professor ironically guided them into a combination of “Romantic” and “Elegant.” A year and a half later, I am still not satisfied with that. I lean towards those categories, but I can find one or more keywords in each of the others that describe me.

These lists are meant as an initial guide, not as a stamp to declare precisely what you are. Henry and Rogers even say “It is important to realize that we comprise all the styles to a greater or lesser degree.” You are not a Christmas cookie stamped out of a sheet of dough. There are not a dozen just like you. My recommendation? Take a look at one of these image type lists, get an idea of where you stand, and forget about it.

2. No one can define your type but you.
There may be teachers, fellow actors, mentors, etc. who might guide you in a certain direction. Consider their advice before taking it. If you think what they suggest shapes your appearance in a way that doesn't feel natural and reflective of your personality, please fortheloveofgod don't do it just to please them. They can handle it if you decide that that's not really the route you want to go.

3. Take pages, not the whole book.
I'm actually very pleased about my shared qualities with both Anne Hathaway and Ellen Page, both suggested by my peers and professors. I love both of these actors and how they present themselves, particularly how Page can move between quirky layers and a fabbity little black dress and Hathaway's use of color and texture. However, I'm going to steer clear of her use of the sheer:

4. If you like it, buy it.
If you have the money, that is. I've found that I don't have the “Sweet baby Jesus I must own this” reaction to clothes that don't suit my personality well. Buy to fit your personality, not your type. (I am currently pining over these wedges in bark) Trust your instincts. Unless your instinct is to go on a shopping spree you can't afford. Or go bear wrestling.

5. In the end, you're your own type.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to enjoy speakers at the Savannah Film Festival for a few years and over and over I heard casting directors, actors, agents, say the same thing, reiterated at last by James Cromwell. “There are no types.” A different version of an already-famous actor is not nearly as interesting as your completely unique set of appearance, skills, and personality. Instead of refining yourself to be someone else, refine what you have to become the best possible version of yourself.

All this being said, I am writing this down as much for myself as anyone else. Anyone who knows me knows that my wardrobe is not exactly fabulous, so if there are any extra thoughts you want to add on types, defining yourself in appearance, or just getting dressed in the morning, pop it into a comment!

Henry, Mari Lyn., and Lynne Rogers. How to Be a Working Actor. New York: Back Stage, 2008. Print.