The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

Cliche, but so often true, especially in acting. We have good reason to be afraid. In what other profession does one truly expose themselves honestly for all to see? No wonder we're devastated when people don't come to see our shows. Actors are the only sane (well,) people willing to strip off all their disguises, all their little everyday lies about who they are and stand there, defenseless and vulnerable? This is what makes acting hard - it takes some major strength of character to be able and willing to be that honest. This is why it is so important to constantly push yourself to do things which make you uncomfortable, or things that outright terrify you.

The summer I was 24 I jumped off a cliff. Literally. My grandmother died and we all drove to Vermont to bury her next to my grandfather in a little cemetery near Lake Champlain. My uncle (who I should mention is a very responsible man, ski patrol & instructor, former Air Force and who makes me always feel I am safe in his hands) suggested we take his brother's boat out sailing. This was magic to a group of 5 grieving grandchildren ranging from  32-17 so we set off, the five of us, my uncle, and my father. My uncle took us to this little area with some rocky cliffs and told us to jump the cliffs, that he did this with his siblings when he was younger. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, warm -perfect. We all scrambled up the rocks and jumped. First from the teeny baby cliff which was maybe 5 feet, then from the next one which was maybe 10-15 feet, and then we all made it up to the high cliff which was about 40 feet up. When I saw that every one of my cousins, most of whom I beat out in years, had managed to jump the scary high cliff I realized deep in me I would have to do this. No one was forcing me, but I knew as sure as anything that I could not let my fear of heights win this one. I steeled myself mentally, and began climbing the cliff. This part wasn't so bad. It was really pretty and... but then I reached the edge. Okay, so I'm terrified of heights, by the edge I actually mean about 5 feet away from the edge. I stared over the edge at the lake below and fretted. With all my courage I inched myself closer and managed to get about 2-3 feet from the edge... and then, I stood there. Finally, I knew nothing was ever going to make this an acceptable risk in my mind so I gathered up every shred of courage I had, and ran. I'd like to say all my training as a swimmer kicked in and I used my head and jumped properly, but I didn't and I hit that water forty feet below like a ton of bricks hitting a solid wall. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't fun. My cousin thought I'd killed myself and was trying to figure out how he could jump in to save me without jumping on me... but after lots of ibuprofen and some time I was fine...ish. I still have back pain, but every time I think about it I am glad I did it. It turns out there's a point the human brain tells you "Hey! Dude! No way can you survive this jump!" and forty feet is just barely past that point. 

I have a friend who is the most fearless actor I've ever met. There are two things about this which intrigue me - first, its amazing and second, most of the time she's good actor, but there are moments a director asks her for something and its like a light switch flipped - as though she said "ohhh, you don't want mild-mannered actor-friend, you want her alter-ego, Fearless Actor." I don't know how she does it, but I want to know. I imagine it's a bit like jumping off that forty foot cliff - except in my head I can't even see that there is a cliff. Maybe there are stairs, or a rock wall, or a bungee cord, or ... well you get the idea. So I have decided that before 2011 is over, I will figure out what that barrier is made of and how to bust through it. I may end up with a lot more back pain, but I figure it'll be worth it.


Innovative? Aw, shucks sir!

Yesterday I had a conversation with a playwright we've worked with which involved me sharing the general gist of our script reading process. In reaction he told me the way we sort and maintain our feedback is far better than most theatres! This was startling to me (in a positive way of course).  I mean, I'm pretty proud of our process – it took me a few years to figure out what seemed to work best and even still I'm always trying to figure out how we can improve.Like many theatre folk I've met I have some seemingly-innate confidence issues.  Plus, we're small! There are fifteen of us all told, and not all of us are "readers".  Because we're small we also tend to be slow.  BUT, admittedly I do think I well-suited to the position of Literary Manager and nothing spurs you on to find a better way than seeing a critic refer to the company you've helped to foster through it's toddler years as a good company that does bad scripts. Ouch. Whether I chose those scripts or not, I knew as the Literary Manager that fell on me and I never wanted to feel like such a disappointment again and thus after much soul-searching the basis of our process was born.So what is this process? It's pretty simple really. We maintain a spreadsheet. On one tab we list all the scripts which have been submitted but have not yet been read. Once a script is read it is moved to one of the following: No, Maybe, or Yes.  Maybe basically means we want a second opinion.  From the maybe and yes lists we select scripts to read aloud and gather feedback.  Then, we go through the yeses and jointly decide on our next season. This is the toughest part, because we insist that we all agree.  Afterwards, those scripts which were yeses which were not selected are moved to a new tab called "save for later". Does it work? Heck yes. When you look at the scripts showcased in our 2011 season, it is clearly our strongest yet. We're currently pulling together our 2012 season, here's hoping we can maintain the trend! 
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The Rules of Haircare are Simple and Finite!

Okay, so maybe the rules of playwriting aren't quite so cut and dried, but who doesn't love a little Legally Blonde now and then? It's like ice cream in that you know there are more worthwhile things to eat, but its so yummy.

As I type this I am in the process of reading script submissions. As we near the point where the final decisions have to be made about our 2012 season I feel the need to go through a marathon of reading to feel certain we haven't missed out on the next brillaint opportunity. This process frequently leaves me shouting random expletives at the empty room in frustration.

I adore reading new plays. When I find something strikingly interesting or poignant or even better - thought provoking it makes me squeal in excitement. I champion that play, personally taking it to every member of our team radiating excitement I hope will be contagious. But, and this is a big but, let's be honest here - reading through scripts can be uttering draining and infuriating. Sure, we have submission requirements and requests to make it more successful for everyone involved, but not everyone follows them. In additon there are some concepts so simple they're not part of our guidelines until we realize there are people out there who don't know them.

So, ladies and gents, here are a few of my greivances:
- Do not send me only a synopsis or a portion of your play. Submit the full play or nothing at all. It takes you no more time, but it saves me both time and effort. It is your job to sell me on your product and I cannot do that without the complete product. Once I have decided I would like to produce your script I will chase you down, not before.
- Number your pages! Such a small thing, but page numbers helps me determine an approximate runtime. Also, should we produce your script, we'll need those numbers for rehearsals in a big bad way.
- Give me a list of characters with basic descriptions. I don't care what you call it, but this should be in your script, right after the title page. I need to know male/female ratio, ages, cast size, and if applicable race or other details to know if we could have a reasonable expectation of casting your play.
- I love google docs, but don't send me your script in that format if you at all help it. Google docs are living documents, meaning that I could reading as you are making changes. I think its fabulous you want to keep working on your play, but I need to know that the script I am signing a contract to produce is the same script I read and loved. If you have an updated version you prefer we use, let me know when I contact you, I'll be happy to read the changes.
- Know how long your play is. If your script is 63 pages of dialogue, chances are it is not a full length - especially if you have it divided into two acts. If you're unsure how long your script really is find some people and have them sit down and read it out loud, that will give you an idea. Then think about how a theatre would put that script into an evening. My general rule of thumb is: 1 page of dialogue = 1 minute of stage time:
1-20 minutes = short play
21-75 minutes = one act play
76+ minutes = full length play
There's a lot of wiggle room in that, but if I am specifically looking for a full length and your cover letter and/or title page misrepresent the actual length of your play I will have wasted my time.
- Please think carefully before using the following: excessive foul language, violence, nudity, rape, or incest. These things can make for amazing stories if used properly, but used carelessly they can cheapen your script or make it impossible to stage.
- Do not provide casting, scenic/costume/tech design, or directing advice/suggestions unless you feel they are absolutely integral to telling the story.
That said, sometimes breaking these rules is what sets you apart, just be certain you know you trust your decision to be the one for your script before submitting. One script won me over to its oddities with ridiculously long stage directions that were cleverly written with a lot of humor.

Happy writing! And here's hoping your script will be the one to cause my next little giddy campaign.
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Embracing Challenges

Isn't it odd to discover we are not who we were?

About year ago, to be honest maybe a year and a half I read on a good friend's blog something to the effect of "I guess I'm a runner now." It struck me as kind of funny - this friend had been training for and successfully ran a half marathon. At the time I was training for a 5k. Neither of us were "runners" to me, this was just a goal. In a way it was like acting - the constant focus and determination to push yourself to find the moments like building muscle and layering on distance.

I started running because it was a challenge I had mentioned once. I knew I would hate it, but as soon as it was in my head I was gonna have to do it sometime. I stopped because I was rehearsing a show and I just didn't make the time. I had a million excuses, including the fact that I didn't want to run in the heat of summer.

When that show closed and the doldrums set in I realized I need both physical activity and human companionship to be consistent forces in my life. I still didn't make myself head for the path though - I chose wii fit plus.

Now, with my mental faculties fresh after having opened our current show, and with a new (to us) car which Gatsby is allowed to ride in I knew I needed to get out there. Together we pushed through 4 miles. It took forever - an hour! We had to do intervals of walking, we both looked a ragged, sweaty mess upon completion, and we were both pretty sore afterwards...

Yet today as I walked across the parking lot to my car after work I found myself thinking, "Man. I wish I had time for a run tonight! I'd REALLY like to get out there." So yeah, apparently I'm a runner - a very slow runner. And somehow it doesn't seem all that silly to me anymore.
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Humble Pie Face

Sometime its the simplest things which are the hardest to grasp. A few years ago, after a particularly difficult spring the then very small contingent which made up our company expressed to each other that we needed to feel we could admit when we felt weak, when we were overwhelmed, when we needed help. We made a pact to share these feelings so we could help each other - even if help meant reminding each other that we were not alone in our fears/stresses.

Earlier this year a friend asked me if I would be willing to accept any role in a show he will be directing - knowing that I had acted in the same show in college. I told him yes. At the time I was being honest. I was so excited that we were taking on the challenge of this particular script I had been not truly thought through what "any role" might mean... until I was cast. I accepted the role, but even as I did I recalled how of my two roles in this show, one was exhilarating and creatively challenging, while the other was simply challenging in every possible way. Thinking back on the two roles here is how I remember them:

Role A: As the show began I would wait each night behind the curtains itching with excitement. I'd step out proclaiming my lines, dazzled by the texture of the elements of this environment and drink in the audience. I felt both empowered and free.

Role B: Throughout the rehearsal process I was constantly striving to meet the lowest expectations of my director/admired professor. I could feel I was simply not breaking the barriers he'd hoped. I pushed and pushed until I felt emotionally raw. I pushed and pushed physically, as I'd been asked to race through the raked house while shaking a cane high in the air. I wore a sports bra. I ignored the sweat which made my layered costume unpleasantly damp. I struggled to keep control of my breathing - and tried not to be frustrated as I received the criticism "How can you be so out of shape? You're 21!"

So, as I discussed this casting with my friend and fellow theatre-junkie I explained not only this, but that I hadn't quite realized there was a role I really wanted until I was not offered a chance to read for it. I knew fell well I could ask to be considered, but I convinced myself there was no point as the director clearly had a vision in his head which I did not fit.

Never mind the fact that I make a point of telling actors auditioning for me I want them to try to surprise me, to convince me they are right for a role I wouldn't have considered appropriate for them - like say casting a gal who'd be 8 months pregnant as a girl scout.

So, tonight after all this surfaced and I was told strongly that I should read for this role... and that I should always feel like I can tell him these things... well let's just say I felt a bit silly.  


Interview with Whales, Save Us! playwright, Elizabeth Leavitt

One of my favorite parts of my job as Literary Manager for RTC is the chance to get to converse with and get to know lesser-known playwrights. I recently had the chance to chat with Elizabeth Leavitt about Whales, Save Us! which opens later this week.

RTC: Name? 
EL: Elizabeth Leavitt

RTC: Hometown?
EL: Sacramento

RTC: Current Town?
EL:  Salt Lake City  

RTC: Tell us about Whales, Save Us!
EL: This is a play I wrote as my thesis for grad school. I worked on it with a lot of great help and support. 

RTC: What made you write Whales?
EL: There were two initial germs. #1 is a little watercolor I did. My aim was to develop a play visually. So painting a bit helped get me going. 

RTC: Tell me about that second "germ".
EL: It was based upon an experience I had hearing a speaker through a Western Fairs Association. 

RTC: Why the greek tragic form? Did you start out to write Whales this way, or did it evolve into this form?
EL:I knew I wanted a chorus. The three nuns from John Guare's, The House of Blue Leaves were a big inspiration. There's a company out of Cornwall called KneeHigh and they do these great choruses. If you notice - the Girl Scouts really act as one. #1 only asks questions. #2 only says statements, and #3 eats. I thought it was a worthwhile challenge. And I wanted big stakes - life or death. And no one does over dramatic like the Greeks.

RTC: In your mind, what is “The Big One”?
EL: Oh who knows...I'll leave the why up to audiences and actors.

RTC: What do the girl scouts represent to you?
EL: Odd morality and self-sufficiency. 

RTC: Why did you choose to use girl scouts, but put them in the 1970’s brownie uniforms?
EL: My goal was to have a very visual play. It was between three girl scouts or three ballerinas. I wanted young girls with a very unsentimental world view - and I wanted that communicated loud and clear. Rather than having them explain their bottom-line sensibility I felt the uniforms would say it all. The new Girl Scouts of America are so damned watered down I could just weep - so I looked to the past.

RTC: You managed to write a fair amount of swearing without using the actual swear words – what spurred this choice?
EL: I think half-swearing is very funny. 

RTC: What (to you) was the most exciting part of the original production?
EL: Well, I just die when an audience laughs. So that was exciting.

RTC: What would you like the Columbus audience to know about Whales?
EL: Guys, this is a great show.

RTC: Tell us a story from your childhood which explains who you are.
EL: When I was three, in preschool, we sang The 12 Days of Christmas and each kid was chosen to depict one of the days. I was desperate to be 7 Swans, 6 Geese, 11 Pipers -- anyway, long story short, I got stuck with 3 French Hens and I thought, "this is how the rest of my effing life is gonna be."

RTC: Who are your favorite playwrights?
EL: John Patrick Shanley and John Guare 

RTC: What kind of theatre really stimulates you?
EL: I love when someone says the truth and it costs them a whole hell of a lot.

RTC:Tell us about a play which deeply impacted you.
EL: Savage in Limbo. It really guts me in the best way. Let me include an excerpt to persuade you to it (please read the whole play some time): "As I have told you, this is the very drink that killed my mother. My father died of nothin at all, which is maybe the saddest thing a person can pass on from. But my mother, who was the only one ever stupid enough to love me, my mother died from this drink that Murk is making me now. I have always taken consolation where I could find it, even when it caused me grief." (April, Savage in Limbo - by John Patrick Shanley)

RTC: What made you want to be involved with the theatre?
EL: Quite truthfully, I don't always want to be in it. It can really get me down. I like it a lot though. There's no better feeling than watching your play and seeing it done well. It's pretty great, and I think you should try it some time. Just take care of your heart, if you can.

RTC: What else have you written?
EL: I wrote a play about The Creature from the Black Lagoon writing for Oprah's Book Club, a monologue play about a Romanian gymnast discovering Diet Dr. Pepper and a play that sounds very boring but is a crowd favorite (4 friends - coming of age [Sounds riveting, I know]).

RTC: What are you currently working on?
EL: At the moment I'm working on some narratives without words (animations, of all things). I'm taking a short break from plays because words are failing me. Or I'm failing words.

Raconteur likes to ask people the Inside the Actor’s Studio 10 questions, so here goes..
RTC:What is your favorite word?
EL: Hi

RTC: What is your least favorite word? 
EL: Actually
RTC: What turns you on? 
EL: Cleverness
RTC: What turns you off? 
EL: Self importance

RTC: What sound or noise do you love? 
EL: Syncopated clapping in 1960s girl group songs

RTC: What sound or noise do you hate? 
EL: That 'ping' before a flight attendant speaks.
RTC: What is your favorite curse word? 
EL: Fuck
RTC: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? 
EL: Graphic novelist

RTC: What profession would you not like to do? 
EL: Doctor

RTC: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? 
EL: I suppose I hope we wouldn't have to say anything, me and God.




Wait, Wait - You People Care What I Have To Say??

It's that time. Time for me to write my director's notes for the program.

I am firmly convinced that every person who has ever written their own bio for something has complained about how much they hate writing it. I certainly have and loads of people I know.

Somehow program notes seem about 15,000 times worse than a bio. When a write a bio people have a limited amount of surface details to judge me on. But with program notes I am expected to inspire, entertain, intrigue, or at least sound kinda smart. So really, is it any wonder I have "the fear"?
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