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Put on That Red Light

26 Oct

 

hire-me

Self-marketing. It kind of leaves a bad taste in the mouth, no? Yet as anyone who has ever interviewed for any job ever knows, you forego that skill at your own peril. This is especially true of any kind of artist, because you are your commodity. And if you don’t sell yourself, nobody’s going to do it for you.

Last week I happened to get an invitation to an online survey from my alma mater college of the arts. They wanted to know, among other things, how prepared was I for a career in the arts?

Well, let’s see.

Ability to problem solve and analyze? Check.

Thorough knowledge and practice of performance technique? Check.

Interpersonal skills that enable you to look people in the eye and make coherent and intelligent things come out of your mouth at the same time? Check and check (most days).

Self Marketing skills?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alas, other than a fuzzy working definition of “networking” that boiled down to a mental picture of well dressed, cocktail-holding people standing around name-dropping at one another, I really had no good understanding at age 22 of how to sell myself.

My post-grad certificate from the School of Hard Knocks has shored up my education considerably, but even so, I sometimes find myself in the thoroughly uncomfortable position of figuring out how to make one success translate into another.

After Unified auditions in March, I wrote thank you notes to the auditors, including a note about my upcoming projects. It took way too long to do it – I don’t mean the 6-7 lady-hours of doing handwritten notes, I mean the fact that I wasn’t getting around to it until June. True, the hot iron I ought to have been proverbially striking was closer to lukewarm, considering the heinous disaster that was my vocal audition, but still.

And then we come to today. Due to circumstances that have nothing to do with talent and working relationships and everything to do with schedules and the fact that I live in Atlanta where a ten-mile trip takes an hour and a half, I will not be doing the choreography project that I usually do in the winter time slot. It’s a bummer because I am so hard-core in love with the prospect of choreographing right now.

I have a generalized feeling that I should be hustling but am not really sure how to go about it. In the meantime, I’m starting a serious writing project this fall – more on that later – and I have an acting gig on the horizon and a possible directing gig later in the spring. In the meantime I’ll be picking up dance classes when I can.

So if you happen to know anyone who is looking for a good choreographer, send them my way. I’ll be the surly-looking chick at Chocolatte who just spilled decaf on her laptop wearing this tag.

 

So what do you think – is self-promotion a dirty word? What have you done to sell yourself lately?

This is How We do It

7 Jul

For anyone who’s ever wondered what it’s like choreographing with a little kid, I submit:

Not sure who is having a harder time here.

Stay Classy: Three Performance Courses to Take in Atlanta

1 Jun

The serious professional in any industry knows the importance of continuing education, and artists are no exception. But after an entire college education in theatre performance, in everything from storytelling to Shakespeare to sketch (not to mention dance from kindergarten), you can get a little over going to class. For a considerable amount of time, I rested on my educational laurels, relegating my training to the school of hard knocks that performing in real time affords (which let me tell you – are neither small nor few).

But earlier this year it struck me that after *cough* years out of college, it might be time to brush off the books. I had just finished a writing project and a large production, and had only a small choreography project going for the winter. So when my friend M asked if I wanted to join her in an acting class, the time seemed ripe. After that I was having so much fun I didn’t want to stop.

So for any of you who may have a gap in your schedule and are looking for something to sharpen the tools in your box, check out my review of the following classes around town.

The Alliance Theatre Education Program

The Skinny: Befitting the regional mecca of theatre that it is, the Alliance offers the most comprehensive set of classes, serving all levels and all ages.  They’re also probably the most traditional. For adults, classes are offered in three levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I took the intermediate class, which at four weeks is the shortest and least expensive course. Each level covers slightly different material; intermediate level is a scene study.

Who to expect: People from related industries with limited acting training. Business people who want to break out their shell. People who Googled “become an actor” last week.

What to expect: There are several instructors employed in this program, all qualified and experienced. The instruction is more or less from the classic Stanislavsky-Chekovian school. There is a small formal lecture component so bring a notebook and pencil (or a camera to snap the whiteboard). You will do some actor-y warmups – nothing too off-the-wall, but it involves yoga so don’t wear a skirt. The course will be spent applying the lecture concepts to a short two-person scene from a classic stage work (ours was Glass Menagerie, and yep, you have to memorize it). Be prepared to find a new scene partner after your original one ghosts the class (adaptability! it’s a skill).

My favorite part: Although I’d already covered most of the ground with my degree, there was one neat technique we learned in the very last class that involved using physical hot spots in the body to reflect various emotional centers (head, heart, and groin). It’s a handy shortcut for when you get the nebulous “can you try it another way?” in an audition. As dancers M and I could really get down with the kinetic aspect.

Tip: Take the free intro workshop first – not only will it give you a sense of whether this is what you’re looking for, but you’ll also get a discount code to use when signing up for a full course. Details and info.

Meisner Foundation at Pinch n’ Ouch

The Skinny: Pinch n’ Ouch, named after a core concept of the Meisner technique, is a tiny professional theatre that presents edgy contemporary works. The Artistic Director, Grant McGowen has fingers in multiple pies including video production and headshot photography – and of course, teaching. Meisner was a school of acting I’d heard of but never studied, so when Grant suggested I audit during our headshot sesh in January I was all about it.  PNO offers other classes in film acting and scene study but the Foundations class is a required prerequisite unless you’re already a working Meisner actor.

Who to expect: Film actors who want to get into stage, stage actors who want to get into film, people who have met Grant personally through other avenues (the dude’s guerilla marketing strategy is on point).

What to expect: Bring a pencil and paper here too, but only to capture tidbits from Grant’s non-linear notes given after chunks of activity. You’ll spend the first several classes of the 12-week program working on variations of one single exercise – the basis (foundation? ha) for more advanced work. The commitment is pretty extensive – the class itself is three hours long, and you’ll be asked to get together with classmates outside of class time for 2-3 hours of practice. Many actors don’t care for the Meisner technique, and PNO isn’t the only shop in town offering it, so you’ll hear mixed reviews. Personally I found it helpful and interesting, and also very challenging. If nothing else, it’s another tool to have in your kit.

What I love: The Meisner technique is excellent for the overly analytical actor (hello, Stanislavsky training) because it’s all about getting out of your own head and focusing on pure reaction to a partner. (By the same token, if you’re more of the instinctual actor you might benefit more from Chekhov). You don’t even use written material. I also love that the PNO circle is very cozy, but not in an exclusive way. You’ll be welcomed in to this little community with open arms.

Tip: Even though the time commitment is huge, don’t let it scare you off. Grant knows many of his students are working professionals and allows you to make up missed classes in other sessions. Details and info.

Listen Up! Audio Narration

The Skinny: If you’re looking for something a little bit different (and a lot less emphasizing on physical type or ability), you could do a lot worse than this series on audiobook narration. Audiobooks are a huge market right now, and we have a little share of that pie right here in Atlanta.

What to Expect: The class is half lecture half experiential, and the small class size affords ample time to practice and ask questions. Bring a mobile device to read your practice sides. You will go on-mic and read a short piece, but try to get past the actual sound of your voice – it’s totally not the point. The focus is all about giving life to the story – acting through the voice. You’ll be learning what makes people late for work sitting in their car listening to a book.

What I Love: I’ve been wanting to get into audiobook narration since I first visited a studio during a Maymester in NYC my senior year. I’m good at cold reading (my primary audition skill), I have an acting and storytelling background, and I love books. As I found out during class, there’s more to it than that, but in a way…there’s also not. You don’t even need to be an actor or have an NPR-worthy voice to be a good narrator. My mom, who has never performed a day in her life, even came with me to the last class and knocked it out of the park! (Guess where my reading and storytelling skrills came from?).

Tip: This set of courses can be taken a la carte but there’s a small discount for purchasing all four as a package. If you don’t take all four, there is still a discount code available for signing up for the next in the series. Also good to note: these classes are NOT offered on a consistent and regular basis – it’s up to the discretion and schedule of the instructors – so if you see the class come up, jump on it quick!  Details and info. 

In addition to these, I also picked back up on voice lessons where my vocal therapist left off. I’m fortunate to be working with the fabulous and lovable Lyn Taylor. Lyn has done considerable work with youth and schools, which means her teaching style is right up my alley – broken down into small chunks and explained in five different ways with vivid imagery and a heaping helping of encouragement. But make no mistake, this lady really knows her stuff, and is super organized too boot (think lesson plans and recorded warmups). Vocal coaching is a very personal thing, depending on your needs and your level, but in general I recommend finding someone who can a) play the piano well, and b) has a good ear. Because those two things are nearly impossible to do for yourself when you’re training your voice. Everything else really just depends. I’m well on my way to getting my voice whipped back into shape, hopefully in time for some fall auditions! Lyn doesn’t have a website, but if you want to know more email me at cushioncut at gmail dot com.

Taking class is a great way to experiment; to get out of your comfort zone without the high stakes a tight timelines of an actual performance. It gives you rooms to stretch your legs, both figuratively, and in the case of dance classes, literally. Things are picking back up for the summer (choreography rehearsals for my next project, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at OnStage Atlanta, started this week!) so alas, I may not get another golden opportunity to indulge for a while. But if you have the time (and the funds,  WAH for all time) do yourself a favor and get in a course or two, or at least a workshop. You won’t regret it!

Keep it classy, friends.

I’m Doing My Best

26 Aug

A couple weeks ago I was asked to speak at Sunday Assembly* in a segment called I’m Doing My Best. That’s a short life anecdote given by a member that relates to the subject at hand–in church we might call it a testimony. Each month’s assembly has a different theme and August’s was Gender and Performance. Somebody got wind of the fact that I’m into theatre I guess, because I was asked to share this month. Scary!

*Sunday Assembly is, in their own words, “a life-celebrating congregation without deity, dogma, or doctrine.” Yes, in other words, Atheist Church. Along with the very cool folks that attend, what I like about Sunday Assembly is: 1) it’s Sunday night, not Sunday morning and 2) it’s only once a month. If you think it’s weird that I work at preacher school (where I occasionally participate in chapel services) and then sometimes attend godless church…well, yes and no. My personal spirituality could best be summed up as “I’m not ruling anything out at this point.” But that’s another subject for another time.

Anyway, I thought I’d share my speech with you guys. As a bonus for the “reader version,” I’ve added a few extra endnotes for your interest and edification. My thesis for this piece was inspired by this article I read recently, which put words to something I’d been feeling for a long time but hadn’t yet been able to articulate. It turned out a little more like a graduation speech than perhaps I intended, but I hope at least a few people will find the essential message resonates with them, as it did with me.

* * *

I’m not sure if you know this, but in theatre you face a lot of rejection.

Of course, most people will face rejection of some kind in their professional and personal lives, but in few other lines of work can it be so constant and at times so utterly arbitrary. For example, they like you, but…you’re too old for the precast lead. Or you remind the director of their ex. Or you’re too short for the costume.*

*yes, this actually happened to me–I almost got to be in the chorus of Beauty & the Beast at the Fox but you had to be at least 5’3″ to fit the dancing plate costume, FML.

You have to develop a bit of scar tissue to keep bouncing back, time after time when somebody tells you you’re not good enough.

But what’s even more insidious is the rejection that comes from within—the way so many actors—and so many of the rest of us, I’d wager—diminish our own accomplishments.

I got bitten by the theatre bug at an early age. In 5th grade I managed to convince my teacher to let me leave class every day for a week with my friends to write, direct, and (obviously) star in an original work. It’s a little fuzzy now but it involved princesses and a magical quick change into one of my old ballet costumes.

It was really good.

Anyone who knew me as a child would tell you what an incredible burst of passion it must have taken to motivate me to propose this scheme to a grown-up, let alone open myself up to the critique of my entire class. Just the year previous I had broken down in the middle of singing The Last Unicorn during the talent show because my friend was “looking at me weird.” I wasn’t really your most outgoing kid. Not a natural leader.

But whenever I tell people about this episode in my life, I’m quick to qualify it. You know–in a small school they let you get away with anything.*

*Not untrue. Hollatcha Clairemont Elementary. 

Fast forward several years. My parents were supportive of all my performances in middle and high school, but they weren’t so thrilled by my decision to major in it.* It was also around this time that I got my first significant rejection—my audition based application for a theatre scholarship was turned down. I still can’t hear the song I chose for my dance piece** with cringing a little.

*The technical name of my degree is actually Theatre & Performance Studies. The episode referenced here happened at Berry College where I attended for two years as a theatre major/psych minor before transferring to Kennesaw State to finish up. Fun fact: I transferred partly for money and culture reasons, but mostly for boy reasons. The relationship didn’t last but I’m still #winning because KSU is now recognized as one of the top schools in the nation for theatre degrees. Go Owls! (Berry has an excellent theatre program too; their shows were more professional than some actual professional houses.)

**”We Love to Boogie” from the Billy Elliot soundtrack. I wasn’t adept at choreography yet. Lots of head isolations were involved. 

But for whatever reason, I stayed a theatre major. I didn’t get cast in the first play of the season*, but I did get cast in the second.** And I regularly got cast in shows for the rest of my college career. They even awarded me that scholarship the second semester—thankfully I didn’t have to audition the second time.

*Translations by Brian Friel. It was down to me and another freshman for the part. That girl (who also later transferred to KSU) was a truly extraordinary actress by any standards, and led me to fret that college would be like high school, with the same girl getting cast in every single lead year after year (she was really good too and is actually sort of famous now, but still–this is an educational environment we’re talking about). Thankfully Berry, unlike Decatur High School, didn’t chose their seasons around their stars.

**The Learned Ladies by Moliere. I had a freakin’ awesome wig. 

Eventually I graduated and the minute I got my degree in hand, my dad said, Alright! Let’s see you start putting that thing to work! And cut me off.* I got lucky and was hired almost immediately as a dance teacher and within a year or so, I became a program coordinator and designed a dance curriculum that was still in place after I left that company.

But that was really only a part time job, and I was barely making rent.  It was just a kids’ school anyway.

*Yes, I realize how entitled this is. And I wasn’t even entirely cut off– I was still on my parent’s health and car insurance plans for a few more years. But for someone who had never supported herself, and who at that point hadn’t been taught any but the most rudimentary fiscal wisdom, it was a shock that cannot be denied.

Around that time I made two life decisions: that I would not pursue acting as a full-time profession and I would never marry another actor.

One of those resolutions I kept.

But even though the lifestyle of a full-time professional performer wasn’t for me, I didn’t regret my major for a second—not even when justifying it for the 80th time in a “real world” job interview. I kept with it on a part time basis as I slowly made my way into the field I’m in now, which is flexible enough to where I get to moonlight as an actor, dancer, and choreographer without having to worry about whether I’ll be able to afford air conditioning in August.  I’ve had a pretty decent amount of success—for a non-professional—and then…I had a baby. After my baby-induced hiatus I tried to return to acting. I went to about a dozen auditions without even a callback. I nearly quit acting, but my husband convinced me to go to one more call and I got cast.* After that, things started picking up and now I have a full time day job, a family, and a pretty awesome hobby to talk about at parties. I even have a blog [hi guys!].

*In Cabaret, as a Kit Kat girl. The fact that I wore underwear on stage within a year of given birth is a feat in and of itself.

In some ways, I have more time to devote to creativity now than when I pursued it professionally—Case in point, I wrote a play last year—I’d never written a play before in my life (unless you count the one from 5th grade), and, it got selected to be produced in a new works festival. But eh, it was only a ten minute play.

Does anybody else do this? Achieve something, only to disparage their own achievement? Get excited about something and then feel the need to sort of downplay it?

Theatre is weird. You have to promote yourself relentlessly as if you were a business entity, not a person. At the same time, it behooves you to be friendly and personable—the guy everybody wants to work with. There are some jerks in the biz–that’s a stereotype with truth to back it up. But you’ll also make some of the best friends you’ve ever made in your life – only to turn around and compete with them for the same work.  With these kind of contradictions it’s really a miracle that anyone besides sociopaths stick with it—although you might meet a few of those too.  But those of us who are not egomaniacal have a tendency to downplay our glory. After all, we don’t want to make our best friends feel bad. We don’t want to be That Asshole.

At the performing arts camp where I met my husband we had a talent night, and one of the other counselors sang a soulful rendition of Fever by Peggy Lee. When I complimented her afterward she said “yeah, that’s the one song I can actually sing.”  She was being kindly self-deprecating, but I was truly kind of floored. Did she really think she was a bad singer? But the crazy thing is, I do that kind of thing myself all the time.

The arts are a hyper competitive environment under the best of circumstances and you can’t help but measure yourself again and again and again against what other people are doing. Doubt and self-sabotage are the Ebola of the creative professions—contagious and deadly. And complaining is practically a team sport.

But, ask any actor why they submit themselves to this continual self-flagellation and you’ll hear the same thing: we do it because we love it. It brings us joy.

I’m talking about theatre but everybody has these moments in their life that spark joy and fulfillment. Whether it’s starting a new business venture or starting a new relationship. And isn’t it strange how sometimes it’s actually easier to dampen that bright little spark than to fan it into a flame?

The truth is, there’s a lot that’s difficult and dark about doing something you love. We accept that as part of anything worth doing. But that’s why it’s even more important to stop throwing shade on the silver linings. They’re rare enough as it is.

It’s important for our own sanity, but it’s also beneficial to others. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. As we let our own light shine, we give others permission to do the same.”

So let me ask you this. Can you imagine if I told you everything I’ve just told you about my theatrical life…without the qualifiers?

So instead of saying, I’m an administrative assistant and I sometimes do theatre, what about…

I am an actor.

I wrote and produced a play when I was ten years old and performed it in front of my entire class.

I went to school on a theatre scholarship and graduated with honors.

I designed a dance program from scratch at age 23.

I’ve done shows all over town and gotten to play some amazing parts.

I have a blog that got Freshly Pressed within its first month.

My first play was accepted at a festival and was an audience favorite.

And how about a new one: I just finished the draft of a new play last week.

Both of these stories are mine. Which one is more compelling?

I like to tell my son I’ll never run out of kisses because for every kiss I give away, a hundred more pop up in its place. I’m doing my best to believe that joy, like kisses, is not a limited resource. There’s room for everyone at the table, and by letting ourselves really shine, we become a light by which others might see the path to join us there.

 

So you want to choreograph a musical? Simple tips for setting dance numbers

17 Jul

Uh oh. Somehow you, a non-dance professional, got roped into choreographing a show and you have no idea where to start.

First, you should hire me.

If that’s not possible due to my extremely high demand and exorbitant travel fees, never fear. Take a deep breath and remember: if you do not have a dance background, yet end up having to choreograph a show, chances are the majority of your cast won’t be up to anything crazy-complicated anyway.

Above all: Never show fear. They can smell it.

 

 

OK! Let’s get started.

Appoint a dance captain

There’s always at least one person who is both a good dancer and marginally responsible. It will be easy to spot that person after a few rehearsals. They don’t necessarily have to be the very best dancer, but for the love of God, pick somebody that actually shows up to rehearsals and stays the whole time. That person can help you in many ways including:

  • remembering what you said last time (a double-edged sword)
  • demonstrating stuff you can’t do or don’t feel like doing
  • doing partner bits with you
  • showing everyone else how to do something “right”
  • the person who everyone else will watch during performances (make sure to strongly discourage this, but it’s probably going to happen anyway. Reality.)

Do the locomotion

In choreography courses, you learn that there are two settings to movement: locomotor and non-locomotor (Fortunately there will not be a quiz). All you need to know is that moving through space–say, from one side of the stage to the other–in any fashion, to the music, counts as dancing. As my childhood ballet teacher will tell you, that includes things like walking/skipping/galloping in a circle. You can also use the old line switcheroo, if you have enough space. That’s where you’re in staggered lines and the back lines moves up while the front line moves back to switch places.

The standard three staggered lines, aka windows (source)

Bonus for kids’ shows: everyone gets a chance to be in the front.

Grab yer partner

Do not underestimate the power of things done in pairs. Do-si-do is classic of course, but think outside the box (square?). Mirroring can produce a neat effect, as can shared-weight.

Make use of tricks

I rather hate tricks in dancing as a rule.

Tricks refers to acrobatics like aerials, any kind of extraordinary body contortion, or things like running up a wall and flipping off of it.  I don’t like it because it’s not true dancing, and it doesn’t require as high a level of technique over a long period of time (if you’re bendy, you’re bendy). Plus, tricks can and often do mask a lack of technical artistry. But if you have folks that can do a million turns in a row or a switch split leap, give them the opportunity to do it (have the other dancers frame them and strike poses). Easier for you, plus it will take up time and provide a little wow factor for the audience (my opinion’s unusual, most people are highly impressed by tricks).

I mean, sigh…I guess. If you must.

Plus, nine times out of ten, in a non-professional show the people that can do tricks are not cast in a large role (I don’t know, law of theatre?) and it gives them a chance to shine.

Get your Richard Simmons on

This may seem weird, but many fitness styles like aerobics are excellent resources for “dance-ish” moves, and they’re easy for your actors who move because they’re usually repetitive (see below). Sometimes when I do workouts, I think of certain moves as dance choreography and it makes it easier for me. So it stands to reason the opposite thought pattern can be used.

Give ’em a hand

If you have to choose, focus on the upper body, in particular the arms. Why? The feet are more difficult to get correct and for better or worse, the audience notices the upper body more. There’s a reason the classic Broadway stance is so powerful and continues to be used in every show of all time.

The power of strong arms and simple feet (source)

Press repeat

I mean this in two senses. One is repetitive movement. I have trouble choreographing this way because I die of boredom slash feel like I’m actually exercising. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. Examples would be, for instance, four grapevines in a row.

The other is recycling sequences of movement from earlier in the number or from another number. I promise, this does not mean you are lazy, and coming from me that’s saying a lot. If anyone calls you on it you can say it’s “thematic.” (Hey, even Bill T. Jones did that boob-groping bit over and over in Spring Awakening and he won a Tony for it).

If all else fails, freestyle

Especially if you’re working with kids, you will generally find that actors are eager to move to their own rhythm and sometimes even create something that is awesome enough to teach everyone. But you might encounter significant hesitation if you straight-up ask “who has a good idea for this next part?” Nobody likes to be put on the spot, plus it might breed resentment of the isn’t-this-your-job? variety. Instead, frame it as a collaboration. Then put the musical number on and let everyone dance around while you watch for an inspiration–but be sure to give whoever created it due credit.

Happy Choreographing!

What is this all about?

2 Aug

Well hello there!

Welcome to Cushion Cut, blog of my future. If you’re a reader of Against Type, thanks for sticking with me. If you’re new, thanks for checking me out (you can get a feel for my history–and mad* writing stylz–from my past posts, which I slung in my pack and brought with me).

So why the move? And what’s going on here? I started a blog on my creative endeavors years ago partly as a self-promotion tool, and partly as a see-what-I’m-up-to marquee. As time has gone on, my activities and interests have expanded considerably. I’ve found myself with a lot to say and no appropriate place to say it.  Doubtless it’s a rarity when it comes to blogs, but my scope needed to broaden.

My time and attention are pulled in million different directions. I bet yours are too. This generation–the millenials, if you please–have more going on than any before. Our parents are retiring. We’re getting married. We’re considering parenthood (or not). We’re considering changing jobs (or not). We read, we think, we daydream. We have ideas, opinions, and tiny 401(k)s. We worry–about our health, our looks, our finances, the environment, the economy, the future. We care–about siblings and social crises, about pets and pop culture. We’re doing awesome things–writing books, starring in movies, opening businesses. And we’re facing enormous challenges: moving away (or back home!), losing friendships, losing jobs, losing grandparents. No one role–child, sibling, spouse, employee, parent, actor, writer–can completely define us. These are all facets of who we are and what we think and do.

In short (or should I say long…you’ll notice brevity is not my strong suit), we’re like cushion-cut diamonds. Unique, pillow-like in appearance, but tough as nails. And the more facets we have, the more we shine. So nothing is off limits! If it’s a part of your world**, we’ll talk about it here.

*As in Hatter, not as in Men

** Be prepared for corny jokes, bad puns, and frequent references to The Little Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid (1989 film)