18 January, 2014

But it IS Medea...

One of the things my students and I talk a lot about in class is the concept that the characters we are portraying, more often than not, are going about their lives not aware they are being observed by an audience.

Of course, as we have previously discussed on this blog--Genre matters, so that may not always be the case. But when it is, when one is filling a character's skin with some form of naturalistic life, a few things are true.
1. YOU, the actor, know this is a play.
2. and WE, the audience, of course understand that we are at a play
... but of course...
3. THEY, the character, do not.
The character is a person, who is just going about the business of living their life.

The lesson?

So why does this matter?
So often in the world of acting, an actor is tempted to use the judgement of an "outside eye" upon their work. There are absolutely times when this is appropriate and helpful. But for most, it is not. An actor may be overly concerned about their physical appearance, or that their beautiful tears are being fully received by the audience. They may be tempted to "show off" for critics, friends, or an adoring public.

Or perhaps the opposite! They may be nervous, self-conscious, maybe fearful of going "over the top." Or perhaps fearful because their character is repugnant--so they want to make certain the audience knows they the actor are perfectly nice it is merely their character that is a total jerk.

These things matter because the play is not about the actor. It is about the character's story and we as actors are there to serve. Serve the story, and serve the character. So if King Henry, Blanche DuBois, and Mama Rose don't know they are in a play, than they most certainly don't care that your mother-in-law is in the stalls from Milwaukee.
Henry is too concerned about rallying the troops and saving England...
Blanche is preoccupied with sneaking her next glass of bourbon right away...
and Rose is far too busy getting her bus-load of Newsboys to the next vaudeville house to give a damn about your hang-ups.

And thus because these characters do not know they are in a play, the actor can pursue the character's wants, needs and objectives without becoming concerned about their fears, anxieties or egos. They are free to serve.

Now this might sound a little crazy, but this, one of the greatest acting epiphanies of my artistic career thus far is not an original idea. It came from Jean de Segonzac, a marvelous film director whom I have had the joy of working with on both Law & Order: Criminal Intent as well as Law & Order: SVU.

In the SVU episode "Lost Traveller," I played Nadia Gray, a Romani mother of a nine-year-old boy found dead in Brooklyn (played a-dor-a-bly by Cameron Ocasio). She is obliterated by the loss of her only son, and her seeming inability to find justice within the system.

The episode featured a climactic, emotionally shattering confrontation scene (with the glorious and supportive stars Mariska Hargitay and Danny Pino, as well as Donny Keshawarz playing my husband).  
From-the-viscera screaming.
Weeping from the pits of universal despair.
Electra. Antigone. Medea-type turmoil.

I didn't want this to be another over-the-top melodramatic turn in any ol crime show--I wanted to tell this woman's story with the very best of myself.

The fact was: I had never done anything like it on camera before.
And I was terrified.

A few minutes before shooting, Jean approached me in his quiet, gentle way. Checking in.
Then after a few moments, there was a silence between us. He must have sensed my trepidation.

     "Everything alright?" he said, the soothing trace of French-Canadian in his utterance.
I sighed.
     "Yes..." I replied, "...it's just...ugh, I'm a little blocked I guess. I want to do this woman justice. And I don't think I know how to portray this on camera without... I don't know... acting with all of me and risking looking like I am in Medea..."

Jean looked at me through his glasses and nodded his understanding. He looked away for a moment in thought. Jean is one of those directors that makes an actors feel absolutely trusted and believed in, as if he knows (perhaps far better than you do), that you already possess all the answers.

A thought struck him and he smiled solemnly. Then he looked back at me and said

     "But it is Medea... this woman doesn't know she is on a television show. Her son is dead. And no one is helping her. Don't worry about anything other than that. You just live it truthfully, and I will catch it. Sound good?"


My brain promptly exploded,
          and then we went about doing exactly that.

A lesson I have never, and never shall, forget.

14 January, 2014


I want to talk about something.  
     before I tell you about something

There are a great many professional philosophies out there about this Business of Show. Constant messages about the importance of "who you know;" about networking, PR, media presence, branding, meeting a revolving door of the correct people, and being in the right place at the right time.

My professional philosophy has always been to let your work be your calling card.
It's a classic. 

Last year, when I participated in Arlington in the "Inner Voices" series down at Urban Stages, I realized that the project had fallen in my lap through a series of positive working relationships, and the work was some of the most terrifying, challenging, and rewarding of my life.
That tiny little production brought me previously unchartered artistic territory, and some wonderful new friendships. It lead me to some of the most satisfying projects of my career thus far, plus, was the pivotal piece that challenged me to recognize (and confront) my inner conflict of being-or-not-being a "singer."
But, most crucially, it taught me a lesson about success.

I was headed home one night after a performance in our tiny theatre, having recently deposited my humble downtown paycheck, when the following thought hit me like a ton of bricks: I have never in my life been happier. Never. I was working on a piece of art with dear friends in a city that I had carved a wonderful life in, out of (what at times felt like) air, and THIS--THIS WAS SUCCESS. It didn't matter who ever saw this work. It didn't matter what I was or was not being paid. It had nothing to do with reviews or professional buzz; nor my theater's real-estate, or geography.

It was about the nature of the work,
It was about the people I was working with,
And how I felt about myself within the context of all of this.

To summarize:

Success is not about what you do. It is how you feel about what you do. 

And by that definition, Arlington was, in every way, my life's greatest "success." It was an absolute touchstone moment in both my life and career.

And thus, it feels incredibly right to be revisiting the piece again in an extended form.

In a way, it feels like a reward. Not for artistic prowess, mind, but more of a nod from the Universe. A confirmation that the pure motives of a pursuit of excellence, of loving your work, of working hard, and of truly allowing your work to be your calling card...? Well, it proves that integrity always presents you with the very best of gifts.

Please join us at The Vineyard Theatre. 


It's a sunny day and Sara Jane is valiantly trying to keep it that way. Her young husband, Jerry, is away at war - and though Sara Jane believes in the cause, nothing has seemed quite right lately. Especially the last few messages from Jerry. At least she has her piano - and Jerry's bourbon - to keep her company as she tries to figure things out. But how far will she go to keep the impending storm at bay?

ARLINGTON is a stirring, funny and powerful new work from playwright/novelist Victor Lodato and award-winning composer Polly Pen. (An inaugural version of ARLINGTON was commissioned and presented by PREMIERES in New York City; Paulette Haupt, Artistic Director.) The Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15 St.) has announced previews set to begin Wednesday, February 12 prior to its official opening night on Sunday, March 2. 

Carolyn Cantor will direct, featuring set design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. The Production Stage Manager is Megan Smith. 
For performance and ticket information to ARLINGTON, call The Vineyard box office at (212) 353 0303 or visit www.vineyardtheatre.org.

12 January, 2014

Genre Matters

A few weeks ago a student of mine asked a very legitimate question about naturalism on stage. He wondered why when he went to see "Newsies" on Broadway everyone wasn't the pinnacle of naturalistic acting-- why things may have appeared exaggerated or the term I would prefer which is enhanced.

My answer?

     "Genre matters."

A satire is not a tragedy is not a musical is not a comedy is not Commedia is not a farce is not a history is not naturalism

That would be like comparing altos to oranges

So what is a genre exactly?

Genre (from 19th century French, "kind" or "sort") is defined as: a category of artistic composition characterized by form, style, or subject matter; whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria.

Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented, and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions, a Venn-diagram of theatrical chemistry! Meaning: a history might also be tragic, or a farce might be simultaneously musical and satiric.

Wikepedia (as always!) helps us expand our understanding here:
Genre began as an absolute classification system for ancient Greek literature. Poetry, prose and performance had a specific and calculated style that related to the theme of the story. Speech patterns for comedy would not be appropriate for tragedy, and even actors were restricted to their genre under the assumption that a type of dobber could help.
In later periods genres proliferated and developed in response to changes in audiences and creators. Genre became a dynamic tool to help the public make sense out of unpredictable art. Because art is often a response to a social state, in that people write/paint/sing/dance about what they know about, the use of genre as a tool must be able to adapt to changing meanings. In fact as far back as ancient Greece, new art forms were emerging that called for the evolution of genre, for example the "tragicomedy".
Genre suffers from the same ills of any classification system. Genre is useful as long as it is remembered that it is a helpful tool, to be reassessed and scrutinized, and to weigh works on their unique merit as well as their place within the genre. 
Genres tend to shift with widely observes social norms, and to reflect the sociological "spirit" of an era. Genres also, regardless of the art form in which it is utilized serves as a kind of "shorthand." Most of us read, watch television and go to the cinema in some form or another, and the shorthanded difference between reading a "Romance" versus a "Sci-Fi Fantasy," or, shelling out £16 for a "Thriller" versus a "Rom-Com," is as crucial as salt on the popcorn.

So. "Genre matters." 

Then I said this:


10 January, 2014

Friends I Admire (and Why) - Part 4

Beverley Klein

- So mischievous, and fun, and smart, and sensitive all at once!
- Smart as a whip.
- She spells her name with a third "E." Classy.
- No matter where she lives, Bev always seems to have a comedic, omnipresent seemingly un-fixable leak in her bedroom. 
- She's a true "chum" (to use her extremely British, and accurately descriptive word). Nothing in the world can rip us to bits! Distance. Time. "Age difference." "The show being over." I feel as close (if not closer) to her today than I ever have, and more so all the time... So there. True chums.
- About a year or so after (brilliantly) playing Golde (my Hodel's mother) in the last West End revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," Bev and I walked into a hair salon so she might take a peak a few products. The owner of the salon looked at us for a minute or so then asked if we were mother and daughter. Beverley and I looked at one another and got quite verhklemt (as Golde and Hodel might say), both somewhat bashful about how touched we were to be considered related in real life. It was a sweet little moment.
- ...And it illustrated something I loved so deeply about her: Beverley is a strong woman—she was born in Post-War North London, she doesn't suffer fools, she speaks her mind, and doesn't like when a lot of fuss is made about nothing. But there is a tremendous difference between strength and imperviousness. Beverley is neither hard nor soft—she is neither and both. For Beverley Klein is also a woman of deep feeling, profound emotional intelligence, and warm, true connections to people, things and causes that matter; and that lovely sentimental side creeps up like a swelling inner ocean at only the most sophisticated of moments.
- She has the best and most beautiful
  1. Smile
  2. Mouth
  3. Teeth
  4. Sparkly eyes, and
  5. full-throttle LAUGH

- I call her "Bluma." She calls me "Scmulie." It's our thing. We're "Blu and Schmu."
- Beverley is on that emergency list of people that if I suddenly decided to have some sort of "shotgun wedding" and I had to call 10 people and tell them where to show up...well, suffice it to say Bev would be on that list. And she'd not only show up. She'd show up early, in a cute outfit, and probably offer to sing "Always a Bridesmaid."
- This woman is talented beyond reckoning. I would go anywhere to witness her perform. Watching Beverley work has been some of the most valuable hours I've spent in the theatre. She taught me almost everything I know (but didn't quite learn "in my bones" as a youngster, if you will) about objectives, motivated action, getting inside the skin of a character, and honoring their story above your own ego, and perhaps best of all, searching your soul and asking what you specifically have to "say" about a character.

"Mikey" and I... age 17/18
Michael Arden

- I've known him through not one but two name changes.
- I love the way his brain works (in super-hyper-blinding-mind-boggling creative overdrive)
- I love the way he sees the world (with hope, humor, compassion and wonder)
- He is the most multi-talented human I have ever met in my life. (Who is smart, acts like a genius, sings like a God, writes prolifically, produces, directs, composes, plays piano AND is that good looking? I... just don't know...)
- He was my Prom date. In fact, I would wager we've been to more High School Proms together than  anyone else in history (aaaaand that would be 3).
- He was also on my arm at my Broadway debut. Full circle beauty right there.
- We were Georg and Amalia. Archibald and Lilly. Charlie Brown and Lucy. Tony and Maria. You get the idea...
- He was the sole voice singing at my father's funeral.
- He came to The Woman in White twice (even though, as he said "I already knew her 'secret'...")
- We have this thing we do where I quite enjoy putting my nose in his belly button for personal amusement.
- We also have this other thing we do where the presence of the other makes us obliged to eat ALL THE FOOD ON EARTH.
- He believes in me. And because I admire him so much, it helps me believe more fervently in myself (particularly on the days when it feels very hard to).
- No one—and I mean NO ONE ON EARTH—makes me laugh like Michael Arden.
- He's the friend that... WRITES YOU A PLAY when he's 18. In fact, writes you a play and then 11 years later writes a part for you in another play
...and at Broadway debut in 2011
- Michael and I met at summer camp in 1999—paired together in our advanced acting class (that incidentally also contained still-friend, colleague, and Tony-nominee Santino Fontana as well as "Chosen Sister" photographer extraordinaire Arielle Doneson) in a "content-less scene—" (where you use vague standard dialogue to apply any number of circumstances.) Well all I can say is that it was magic.
- I don't think either one of us had ever in our young lives met another person with whom we had felt such an intense creative affinity, and I will go so far as to say I have never quite found anything quite as intensely in sync as it ever again. Michael and I were the kind of partnership that required little to no discussion; a silent, utterly synchronicitic link that allowed us to flourish profoundly in our formative years. I have met so many incredible artists along my life's path—as I know he has as well—but there is something to be said for the person you first shared that spark with, the first person to explode your sense of what is possible, and in doing so, not merely create beautiful things together, but make you better at everything you ever attempt to create again. 

More friends I admire:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


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