My Kind of Town (no, seriously)

I've been back in Chicago for five months now and it's a whole new city.  

If getting my MFA taught me anything it's that there is nothing to be afraid of.  I hit the ground running here by teaching and performing at the Fringe Festival in September.  At some point in the past three years I developed the moxie to earnestly gun for the big opportunities that I had either been too scared of or too tethered to a dayjob to pursue.  While waiting on those to come to fruition I've been writing and focusing on creating my own opportunities.  This alone was worth the time spent.  

Before completing my bachelor's, I had my final meeting with the acting faculty at ISU.  They asked me where I saw myself working.  At 22, the question seemed asinine since my acting experience thus far had always seemed in the hands of directors and professors rather than within my own control.  I stammered something about "wherever will take me I guess".  This sentiment sums up my treatment of my career before grad school:  Placing the responsibility on somebody else, and making excuses for failure before I even failed. In the end, it was this logic that was doing me in. 

I've been teaching an auditioning class at The College of DuPage this semester, and a big rule that I keep repeating to my students is to never apologize (I even gave a soapbox speech on this last week and they humored me with tongue-in-cheek applause).  It seems fitting that I'm finally following through on this.  

Professional autonomy is going into my teaching philosophy somewhere.

Meetings and Partings (the obligatory and embarrassingly sincere "graduation blog")

When I moved to Georgia three years ago I was convinced that I was riding off into the sunset so to speak.  I left a dead end dayjob and lousy relationship and was going to spend what seemed like forever studying and practicing my craft.  

Suddenly it seems like three years was a very short period of time.  I've built roots here: a circle of friends, professional contacts, love of sweet tea, etc... and it seems almost cruel to walk away from this life I've carved out for myself.  This is not a new or particularly unique problem- I would imagine that nostalgia/terror is a fairly common sentiment among people graduating.  That being said, having hated high school and chafed under the constraints of undergrad, this is a new feeling for me. 

It isn't that I'm not looking forward to the next chapter, but rather that I'm so satisfied with this one that it seems nearly impossible to top.  I got the "happy", but the "ever after" part is eluding me so far.  I've gained so much confidence here in Athens (as an artist, as a student, as a human), that it seems inextricably linked with the university and the town.  Just need to remind myself to pack that newfound confidence up with my pashminas once I leave.

My friends are all scattering to the wind too as they take on opportunities across the country.  Maybe that means Home just got bigger?

On Telling the Truth

I learned something from my students this week.  I know, it's a massive cliche ("They're teaching me as much as I teach them!"), but bear with me here.

When promoting my simulated patient course at UGA, Ashley (a former student) helped me out by telling fellow undergraduates in the department what a valuable experience the class was for her as an actor.  While I was flattered and very grateful for the help, part of her description always puzzled me.  Ashley claimed that the encounters she had with medical students helped her work on her on-camera skills.  

Improv, I could understand.  Character development, yes.  Physical/vocal work, ok.  On-Camera?  The only camera present is the one that I use to observe from a control room.  And nobody is paying attention to it.  They're just present in the room and interacting with the medical student...

...aaaand this is EXACTLY how my friend in Wilmington described the key to acting on camera:  Forget that it's there and make everything about having an honest interaction with the other person.  

While watching my students last week, I realized that I've spent four semesters teaching the very skill set that has frustrated the living hell out of me as an actor!  I constantly emphasize honesty, listening, making choices, and avoiding "performing" in this class, because the encounters are supposed to mirror real life.  You know...like film.

*facepalm*

I think it's easy in an MFA program to lose sight of what we really do as actors.  In our quest to perfect technique and articulate our process, the whole point -truth- can be lost in the shuffle.  It can be so difficult for stage actors to shrink down to camera size while people with zero training or experience are able to just relax and exist without overthinking it.

When I was 15, I got a taste of what honesty felt like onstage without any real training.  That feeling was enough to make me want to keep doing this over and over again.  It's good to know that awkward teenage me was on to something, and that she shouldn't be so quickly dismissed because I'm older and wiser (or at least trained) now.

To quote James Cagney (as co-opted by David Mamet):  "Find your mark, look the other fella in the eye, and tell him the truth."

(Below:  My students filling out evaluations for the med students that they interacted with this week.  You can't judge bedside manner if you aren't present and listening!)

Much Ado About Precision

I turned in a thesis outline to my advisor (Ray Paolino) last week.  It included notes on some preliminary research that I did over the summer, text analysis, etc...  I mostly, however, wanted to focus on my goals in this production.  This included the standard things I've been working on: Vulnerability, learning when my defense mechanisms are appropriate character choices and when they are personal inhibitions, etc...  

I also traveled to Wilmington, NC to pick up my car last weekend.  While I was there a friend of mine with considerable on camera experience gave me a brief private coaching session.  As per usual, I found myself grimacing, fidgeting and self-consciously giggling.  My stage training always makes it difficult to relax.  Strangely enough, I also think this is a function of my lack of discipline as an actor.  If one has discipline, one can simplify and distill their choices until they're camera-ready.

My biggest goal for my thesis is to master this sense of discipline and simplification.

When I was in Italy last summer, I wrote the following journal entry.  It uses food as a metaphor, but if you can't in Italy, when the hell can't you?:

"I've always considered myself to be a good cook, and seen my process preparing a meal as a metaphor for my acting process:  Improvise, make big choices, fail big, avoid expectations that hold you back, and feel free to liberally stray from the recipe (that last part drives my mother crazy).  

"Ultimately, it works.  Most of my meals are unexpected and tasty.  I can count on one hand the number of times I've experimented to the point of something being inedible.

"That being said, this free-form style that I have has flaws that also mirror my acting process:  Lack of attention to detail, difficulty repeating a success, overuse of a particular flavor...Often the complexity and delicacy just aren't there.  They get sacrificed in favor of bold choices.

"The pasta that I had last night (which was so good that I'm STILL thinking about it), had a perfectly blended harmony of flavors and texture.  There was CRAFT to that meal, not just embracing one or two good things and then rolling with it.  The specificity made it memorable.

"A good actor can do a passable (even entertaining) Lady Macbeth with a few bold choices.  A great actor- an artist- crafts each moment as part of the whole.

"I have a good grasp on mining raw material, but need to practice how I incorporate it.  Discipline should be my focus in year 3."

California Suite

As a final for our Genre and Style class, my colleagues and I performed in Neil Simon's California Suite last week.  In keeping with my department's ongoing Henry Higgins-esque quest to break me out of my tomboyish wheelhouse, I played Diana (an classically trained British actress on her way to the Academy Awards).  

It was certainly a good exercise for me, and my advisor noted that this was the most relaxed and vulnerable that he's seen me onstage.  Unfortunately, I suspect that this can partially be attributed to me playing drunk in the second half of the scene.  That being said, perhaps that inebriated level of relaxation (artificial though it was), may be a good physical and emotional place to play onstage.  This may be something that I try as an exercise when working on my thesis next semester.

It was bittersweet to finish what was likely our last performance as a class.  I took a picture of us in costume, but it didn't include Vallea and half of us had our eyes closed.  Here's an oldie from last spring's finals when we filled our friend's office with balloons.  It's one of my favorite moments with this crazy bunch.

 

Going On

Last Friday the theatre gods smiled on me and I got to perform at the Alliance Theatre in Courage.  

This was my first experience as an understudy, and with the simultaneous hope and dread of going on.  There always seemed to be a kind of sick schadenfreude aspect to the hope of  one of the actors calling in.  Luckily, the actress who I stepped in for was out because of an opportunity to film a TV show rather than getting sick or injured.  This alleviated my conscience, but not my nerves!

Fortunately, I was surrounded by an incredibly positive cast and production team, all of whom had my back.  Kara, our assistant stage manager was like an air traffic controller backstage, pointing me in the right direction and handing props when necessary.  My fellow castmates pumped me up beforehand and were incredibly generous onstage.  Plus, I had JL with me and he was definitely in my corner.  I felt simultaneously full of adrenaline and at ease- it was like having a really good improv set.

Jess, Zack, and my professor George Contini all came to the performance, and it further put me at ease knowing that I had people in my corner in the house as well.  Then again, the lively 700-person middle school audience was pretty encouraging too.

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