Friday, January 21, 2011

Audition Journal #2: Utah Shakespeare Festival

Date: January 19, 2011, 3:35pm
Auditioned For: David Ivers and Brian Vaughn, Artistic Directors, Utah Shakespeare Festival
Pieces: Joan la Pucelle from Henry VI Part 1 and Steph from Reasons To Be Pretty by Neil LaBute
Attire: Denim trousers
Canvas Blowfish wedges
Yellow button-down with cravat-like ruffly goodness
Blue and white striped blazer

After such a fun and satisfying audition for Chautauqua, this seemed like a bit of a downer. I didn't bomb it, but there's nothing exciting about leaving the audition room knowing you received little attention, especially having taken the 6+ hour trip to get to Savannah.

Before the audition, I dropped by to see my teacher Vivian to give her the dramaturgy casebook from 'Art' and say hello. Having worked with me on my pieces for Chautauqua, she gave me a few pieces of advice: take up space and get out of my head. (The latter has been a constant note for me.) I proceeded to not re-visit the warm up that I had done earlier in the day and mingle with the lovely people that I miss being around when I'm home. Somewhere in this time frame, I grabbed a sip of water from the fountain, choked on it, and earned myself a strange-sounding voice.

When I was called into the room, I entered in what I thought was a confident manner, shook hands with David and Brian (they were offered, I was not busting into their personal space) and gave them my headshot and resume. They asked what I had for them and I, in a more causal manner than slating (since they asked), named my pieces. And then I stood and waited as they sifted through headshots. And waited. And waited for them to both look up. Eventually I asked, "Ready?" and they nodded me on.

I did my best to apply Vivian's advice in the audition, although playing with specifics of sitting and standing may not have looked thought-through. But, as I like to say, it's "fresh" not "unprepared." And I was trying to not think too much. Amidst all of this, I began to notice that my two-person audience was looking at resumes more often than they were looking at me. In between pieces, I asked for a chair in hopes I could summon their attention for the second, shorter part of my audition. No luck. When I was done, they asked what year I was in school and I explained I graduated in November. Thank-yous were exchanged and that was it.

Not so great. What was great was the margaritas with friends afterwords.

I did take a few thoughts away from the audition. I need to seriously focus before an audition. It was particularly hard to do so in this instance, being a graduate surrounded by friends I never see anymore. But that's what the post-audition margaritas are for. Also, I seriously have to re-visit that vocal warm up. It can only help. After the audition, I realized I have no idea how to actually go about getting out of my head. I know I need to do it, but I always interpreted it as "just stop thinking." Which sounds really dumb now that I type it out and maybe I misunderstood all this time. So now I'm questing to find out just how does one "get out of their head."

This audition made me have a pretty serious tangle with that awful "second best" feeling I lived with throughout college. I thought that shiny diploma granted me freedom from that. Not the case. What to do about that is another big question.

I had debated doing Vivie Warren from Mrs. Warren's Profession for this audition, but decided against it simply because of the dialect work. I think I rooted out all those "ask list" words and all the cases of scooting the final 'r' of a word over to the beginning vowel of the next word. But it felt a little weird, and then I bumped into a friend who suggested doing a contemporary piece instead of two classicals. Maybe she was right, and I think the contemporary piece was the stronger choice, but this leads to another of my many issues: I have to stop letting my peers change my mind. It's happened so many times before and I'm tired of watching myself do it. In the case of my peers at school, I think they are all well-intentioned. I simply shouldn't be such a push-over.

I think Steph and Joan have gone slightly stale in their over-working, so I'm going to give them a rest for now and find more pieces to add to my repertoire. While I'm disappointed in the audition, as I was really hopeful to go to Utah this summer, I discovered a few things to work on, and so I move onward, forward, upward to the next opportunity.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Audition Journal #1: Chautauqua Theater Co.

I've heard of doing audition journals, but had no real reason to keep one in college. But I figure it's a good way to keep track of what works and what doesn't and how many auditions I go to, as well as a way to keep people posted on what's going on in my professional life. So here it is, the first audition of my professional life.

Date: Jan 7, 2011, 10:32 AM
Auditioned For: Vivienne Benesch, Co-Artistic Director, Chautauqua Theater Company
Pieces: Joan la Pucelle from Henry VI Part 1
Steph from Reasons to Be Pretty by Neil LaBute
Vivie Warren from Mrs. Warren's Profession (just in case)
Attire: Brown short-sleeved turtleneck
Cream short-sleeved blazer
Denim trousers
Canvas Blowfish wedges
Recent haircut

This audition was for the theater's highly competitive conservatory. Last year, the company was made up primarily of grad students from places like NYU, Yale, and Julliard. So, while my fretting the week before was maybe a little excessive, it at least had good reason.

The day before the audition, I met with my teacher, Vivian, to work on my monologues. I prefaced them by saying, "I don't like to say 'unprepared.' I like to say 'fresh.'" What we tweaked:
  • Introduction: Surprise! It's not necessary to say it all in one breath. Here it is with breath marks added: Hi, my name's Elise Soeder. ' I will be doing Joan la Pucelle from Henry VI Part I (upward inflection) ' and Steph from Reasons to be Pretty by Neil laBute.
  • Switched the order: Everything about who I was auditioning for (Vivienne Benesch, the company, and the season) pointed to classical work. Therefore, lead with Shakespeare.
  • Cut the Steph monologue in half: Again, all things point to classical. Simply make them aware that I am proficient in contemporary work.
  • Various adjustments of operatives
  • Heighten the stakes for both characters
  • Have Joan literally show Burgundy his pining country: You can turn your back on the auditors. (WHAT?! Craziness.)
  • Joan is divine and if Burgundy even looks at her, he will give in to her will.
  • Don't play humor: Steph isn't laughing so that the audience can. She is dead serious.
  • Steph is full of shit: She doesn't know what she's talking about, but pretends she does. Throw it out there.
My session with Vivian was definitely beneficial, as I was more nervous about showing my work to her than in the audition room. In this case, my nerves were directly related to knowing the person and caring about how they perceived me. I showed up 45 minutes early for my audition and, when it was my turn, I went into the room, totally nerve-free. I can't tell you how that happened, it just did (even though my teacher and mentor, Sharon, was behind the table too.)

Vivienne Benesch was lovely, comfortable, and welcoming. I slated for video, and presented my two pieces, after which she asked if I had a third, which I didn't think she would do in a million years. Note to self: always work on the backup just as much as the others. I had prepared Vivie, but flubbed a line about halfway through. After a deep breath and repeating the sentence before, I went forward with it and finished, dignity intact. She then gave me a note to work on with Joan, which was to have no fear or trepidation in showing Burgundy my opinions. We worked on it for about two thirds of the piece. Sharon assured her that I had been working on similar notes concerning freedom of body and voice and I can still go further. She had also said nice things about me when I walked in, concerning my nomination for the LMDA/KCACTF award. (Thanks, Sharon!)

In general, it was a very satisfying audition, confirmed by Sharon who suggested in an email that I consider going to Chautauqua's general audition in NYC in March. Like she said, it's a long shot, but "everything is in place, you just need to try to free yourself up and "play" more...You might try doing your pieces outdoors, singing them, dancing them." If nothing else, I have had a very heartening start to the new year and my life post-graduation.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Dramaturgical Journey

This week, I completed and sent my application for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas/Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (LMDA/KCACTF) Student Dramaturgy Award, which is a huge name and a huge relief to have done. Dramaturgy has become an important part of my theatre work after just one project, so I'd like to take a post to geekily talk about how awesome it is.
Dramaturgy is a fairly new position in American theatre, but has been around longer in Europe. In fact, the dramaturg often serves as the artistic director of many European theatres. It's a German word and I've had to make sure to put plenty of emphasis on the final 'g' in an attempt to keep people from thinking I'm talking about scat. It doesn't always work. The role of the dramaturg is not easily explained, but I once heard a great way of describing it as collecting information and turning it into knowledge, which can then be used by the director, the cast, and the designers. The dramaturg is often responsible for choosing the best translation or adaptation of the play for the theatre's purposes and creating events and literature for audience enrichment. She must consider the question, "Why this play now?" and explore the piece's relationship to the current world. She must be keenly aware of relevance in all the work she does. So the position entails more than simply being a research go-fer.

My first work as a dramaturg was on 'Art' by Yasmina Reza, and earned me a nomination for the LMDA/KCACTF award. The easiest part of the process was by far sending the email to ask if I could do it. Figuring out where to start was quite a different story, as I was faced with the casebook guidelines from the American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre (ART/MXAT) Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. (The world of dramaturgy apparently loves it some long names involving slashes) To give you an idea of what it was like to start from zero, here's a quick summary of the five main categories of the guidelines:
  1. Textual matters—Including a knowledge of the play's structure and a full glossary of any possible unfamiliar terms in the script. Being a French play, there were plenty in 'Art'. Even though I didn't choose a translation or prepare an acting edition, I was responsible for keeping record of line changes and cuts.
  2. Historical and biographical research--This is information relating to the author. Her biography, information about the time she lived and wrote (including other artworks, social and political events, the historical period, a timeline, etc.)
  3. Directorial research--When the director leans over and asks you to find out how to get a grave plot in Montparnasse Cemetery, this is directorial research.
  4. Production History--Info on the first and subsequent performances.
  5. Critical survey--Criticisms are often literature-based. Find some that are actually useful to the director and cast. To be totally honest, I only found one for this contemporary play.
That makes it look kind of simple, but trust me, it is totally overwhelming. Eventually, I started with what I would need first, which was for a presentation which I would give to the cast, artistic staff, and the advertising class that would be designing our posters. It included the basics on the playwright, production history, and an introduction to the monochrome painting, since it is at the center of the play. Once I found a place to dig in, it was easier to expand from there. I constantly added to the casebook throughout the rehearsal process as questions were asked and actors provided me with their own research. The final product ended up looking like this:
Look at all that beautiful research! Unfortunately, I came across a problem with my research, and that was that I never knew when to speak up and share it in rehearsal. It was hard to gauge my information's relevance against how much it would disturb the rehearsal process. One of my issues in general is that I hate being in the way, so I often go unnoticed. In retrospect, I definitely wish I had piped up more often, but I did learn to go through the director. She will always let you know if it's a good time or not. (For those of you wondering why I'm constantly using the pronoun 'she'--This isn't one of my feminist antics. It just happens to be the case for this particular project. No worries guys, it evens out with an all-male cast.)

For the performances themselves, I helped organize and was on a panel for a talkback session and I wrote the first student dramaturg's program note at our college. The latter caught the attention of KCACTF adjudicators. The cast spoke kindly on my behalf (thanks, boys!) and my name was added to the list of nominees. And you better believe that went on my resume real quick-like.

To actually apply for the award (as well as fellowships that include residencies at places like--oh, I don't know--the Kennedy Center itself), I needed to send in two statements, one or more letters of nomination from a faculty member, a title page, and (here's the kicker) 100 pages of my most relevant information. Did you see those pictures? That is far more than 100 pages and I will venture so far as to say that it is all relevant. Regardless, it should not have taken me a month and a half to do these tasks, but I go into partial hibernation in the winter months. No joke. But I digress. I was a week away from the postmark deadline and things got a little crazy. Back in November, my teacher/director suggested I copy the whole daggum thing and give them a table of contents, highlighting my "most relevant" information. Then I re-read the instructions. They're pretty serious about the 100 pages or less thing. Panic set in, not helped by the fact that I hadn't received my nomination letters yet. And then I realized I had to send it earlier than the deadline because I was leaving for Savannah to go to an audition right at that time. I was having a Kermit moment. (You know that thing Kermit the Frog does when he's freaked out and he runs around waving his arms in the air, yelling? That's a Kermit moment.)

The day before I went to Savannah, I received the letters, had whittled the pages down to exactly 100, organized, labeled, written a cover letter, and compiled it all into brand new binders. Behold:

Nice, right? I found a little time to be highly satisfied before tucking them into a flat rate box and walking the 1/4 mile to our tiny post office. The girl at the desk was on the phone throughout our transaction. She has no idea what precious cargo she took off my hands and sent on its way.

So there it is: my dramaturgical journey. Maybe there's another chapter for this particular unit, maybe not. Either way, I've discovered something that I feel competent with, that engages my nerdy side and lets me read heady stuff and wear my glasses. I am hoping to pursue it alongside my acting career, as it widens the field of potential jobs and lessens the likelihood of living in a cardboard box. I would encourage anyone with good research, writing, and organizational skills to take a crack at it that quarter you don't get cast in a show. You never know, you might get nominated for something.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Black Swan and the New Year

I've had a pretty big first week of 2011 between an application and an audition and freaking out about them both. I intend to write about them soon, but I want to kick off 2011 with a discussion about Black Swan. Not so much as a rant about how great it was (although I can do that too, if you'd like), but to reflect on it as a performer and what it means to me in the new year.

Aside from my brief stint in high school of wanting to be a badass (which was against my character to the point of being amusing), I have always been a Nina, that is, the White Swan side of her. Fearful, fragile, easily disappointed in myself. And, like her, I am an absolute perfectionist to the point of detriment to my work. By which I mean that the intense focus Nina and I both put on technique leads to tightly controlled, timid performance. Which works if you just play the White Swan over and over again, but I think this personality has this flaw because we want more than that. We want to be perfect. Which doesn't even come close to happening until we release our obsession with it. Kind of a Catch-22, isn't it? Makes you want to go crazy and start sprouting feathers or something.

I was a little unsettled by how much I related to Nina (but not as unsettled as I was by screaming paintings and ripped hangnails). There was the center of my difficulties as a performer, right in front of me, in unavoidably large and freaky format. After I released my boyfriend's (probably numb) arm from my death grip as the credits rolled and re-entered a very cold 2011, I came to understand that it's time to address what Thomas says: "The only thing standing in your way is you." I struggled with myself and my perfectionism throughout college, but didn't have the time or energy to take the journey it requires to get out of my own way. I've graduated now and while I have no intention of taking crazy drugs or hanging out with Mila Kunis, it's time to experience, to be a little less careful. I don't need to check my phone seven times to make sure it's off or decline an offer to hang out with someone because I don't know them very well and my social skills are lacking. This year, I intend to find more freedom and confidence in myself as a person and a performer. It's time for a little visit to the Black Swan.

...Will let you know if my eyes turn red or my toes grow together.