It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Starting Over

Dave Sikula would never fall asleep at your show.

I’ll be honest with you. I just abandoned another post when I realized, 500+ words in, that it just wasn’t working. If nothing else, I was in danger of saying some things that could easily be misunderstood and give too many wrong impressions.

So I decided to deal with something less controversial: namely, what the hell is wrong with audiences these days?

As an actor, I’m used to working with audiences that are up close and personal. My high school’s theatre was in the round, and the seats were thisclose to the stage, so I had early training in being aware of the audience while ignoring them. I mean, I’m always aware of them and their reactions, but I’m not concentrating on them. This has especially helpful in the last few shows I’ve done, that have either been on thrust stages or in interactive spaces. Believe me, we see everything, but learn to ignore it.

The musical I’ve been doing has been extremely (and rightfully) popular, and we’ve had only a few empty seats the entire run. One of my favorite parts of this show is my big number in the second act. I get to sing right to the audience and get in their faces in a positive way. And every night, I’m able to take inventory of who’s still with us, who’s checked out, and who’s asleep. (Literally.) One of the good things about the show is that we’ve gotten a wide variety of types of people. Having a number of different types in the audience pretty much guarantees that there’ll be plenty of varying reactions. Everyone is going to react to the show differently. I’ve found that I don’t like playing before large groups that have come to the show together (benefits are particularly bad in this regard). They’re all of the same mind, so if one of them finds something entertaining or funny, they all will, and will all react in the same way. That’s fine when they like a show, but when they don’t, it’s deadly. You can be doing everything right and well, and they just sit there like an oil painting. Take our last performance. We had a group of college students who couldn’t have been less interested in watching the show. They were dutiful, they applauded, took notes, and stayed until the end, but they were there only because they were supposed to be. Now, please note: I don’t fault them for being uninterested. Not everyone likes every show. (Goodness knows I’ve seen plenty I didn’t like.)

Not quite this bad - but almost.

Not quite this bad – but almost.

What I can’t understand is why someone would either go to a show they really had no interest in seeing or why they’d stay. Well, I know in one sense; it’s something that my wife and I have dubbed “Obligation Theatre.” In most cases, I want to see something or I won’t make the effort to buy a ticket and leave the house. But, every so often, someone I know is doing a show, and despite my worst fears and expectations (“They’re/he/she doing that? ), I go and endure a couple hours of pain because I want to support a friend, even in the most perfunctory sense.

But, that aside, every actor has stories about audience members who misbehaved. Just tonight, in addition to the dullards at my own show, I heard reports from another show about audience members who used the set as a place to set their bags, who went into the lobby during the show to complain to the cast about the temperature in the theatre, then stood in their way when they were trying to make their entrances and a couple that argued in the parking lot at intermission because the husband had fallen asleep during the first act. (They left.) During our production, we’ve had a number of sleepers, and at least one woman who thought the emotional 11 o’clock number was the perfect time to check her phone, and another who was in such a rush to leave, she ran smack into one of the actors trying to make her curtain call. (And don’t even get me started on the audience members who use the curtain call as the perfect opportunity to rush out of the theatre as though the joint was on fire. Are they really going to save that much time?)

We’ve probably all dealt with cell phones going off or talkers or singers-along or eaters or texters or latecomers or the deathly ill, but I can’t imagine how these people have been so sheltered that they don’t comprehend that they can be heard or seen or smelled or detected; that they’ve developed some kind of force field of invisibility that prevents anyone else in the audience or cast from detecting them.

An actor I once worked with had worked with another actor in the West End who had a unique way of dealing with latecomers, especially those who were down front. He’d stop the show, welcome them, make sure that they had programs and knew who everyone on stage was and what had happened thus far. Once he was sure they were well-informed, he’d ask for permission to start again. One can be pretty sure that these folks were never late for the theatre again. Similarly, in the days when people had to use cameras, rather than phones, to take photos at shows, when Katharine Hepburn would spot one of them, she’d stop the show, walk downstage, demand that the photographer stand and take all the photos he or she wanted because their needs were more important than those of anyone else in the theatre. When she was satisfied that the person had had their fill, she resumed the show. Laurence Fishburne once stopped a performance of The Lion in Winter when a phone went off. He stopped, looked at the audience with a lethal stare, and intoned “Tell them we’re busy.” I once saw Christopher Walken halt a cross from stage left to right when another phone went off. He stared at the audience in a Walkenesque way, with a look on his face that indicated his character couldn’t tell if he was hearing things or something was actually happening. When the phone stopped, he kind of shrugged and resumed the cross. Dennis O’Hare, in Take Me Out, was in the middle of a monologue when someone in the audience sneezed. Without missing a beat, he said “Bless you” and continued the speech. And we all know how Patti LuPone reacted to a photographer.

Don’t screw with Patti.

While all of those responses are admirable to me, anyway), in almost every case when I’ve had to deal with a moment like these, I’ve made the choice to just ignore the interruption or sleeper or noise or smell, and I have to wonder why. We all know it’s happening, it’s disruptive and annoying, but we all suspend our disbelief and pretend it’s not happening or it’ll stop eventually.

I guess it’s just the easy way out or that we want to avoid confrontation or that it’s not worth the effort to break the illusion.

As I said at the beginning, this was a substitute for another post, so I’m not sure what my ultimate point is other than to complain and urge all of us – myself included – to stay awake, alert, and involved when we go see a show. Even the worst of shows has some value, even if only as an example of how bad something can be. If I could make it through The Lily’s Revenge without throttling someone, there’s nothing that can’t be endured.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The Direct Approach

Charles Lewis III, on directing for the SF Olympians Festival.

Pre-show layout for "Hydra" by Tonya Narvaez

Pre-show layout for “Hydra” by Tonya Narvaez

“Cut! That’s a print. Now get that bastard off my set!”
– John Frankenheimer

The quote above from the late film director was reportedly spoken on the set of his 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau. Adapted from the HG Wells book of the same name, the ’96 production is one of Hollywood’s most infamous: Frankenheimer replaced the original director, actors shot footage only to be replaced, the weather was hell, the make-up didn’t come out right, the budget and shooting schedule both expanded, the script was being rewritten every half-hour, and Marlon Brando was… Marlon Brando. But it was working with Val Kilmer that drove Frankenheimer to the breaking point. By some reports, the director is said to have gotten so fed up with Kilmer’s diva antics that two came close to a fistfight at one point. So when it came to shoot Kilmer’s final scene, Frankenheimer is said to have followed the last take with the quote above.

Every director, if they make a career out of it, has at least one or two actors whose very names drive the director into a blind rage. I know I do. I started to think of one in particular during last week’s Olympians Fest directors meeting (which was followed by the writers meeting this week). I’d gotten the chance to direct a great script by a great writer, but we weren’t able to get our No. 1 or 2 choices for a key role because they were both in another reading that same weekend (actors may only be cast in one reading per week of the festival). I tried my diplomatic best to work with the actor we got, but he was determined to do the opposite of every direction I gave him. It was a script meant to be read at a snappy pace, but he would drag… out… every… line. His character was meant to focus one way, but he would try to keep the focus on him. In a staged reading, he kept moving so much that he obviously kept losing his place in his script, and I gave the other actors movements in an attempt to appear as if there were any kind of cohesion with what he was doing. It was a shit show and to this day, whenever I see the author, my first instinct is to say “I’m sorry for that reading.”

After five years, 78 writers, 57 directors, some 290, believe me when I say that there are many such stories connected with the festival. On that same note, there are just as many – if not more – stories of festival collaborators who clicked so well that they immediately got together again on their next project. In fact, if you were to survey the Olympians alumni whose work went on to full production, I’m sure at least part of that could be attributed to the chemistry that was developed during the original reading. Having taken part in the festival every year since its inception, and having taken part in every creative role except illustrator (I’ve taken up finger-painting, so it’ll happen eventually), I know there are far more people I’d love to work with than those I wouldn’t.

It ain’t gonna happen.

It ain’t gonna happen.

The role of Olympians director has always been a tricky one because it’s always been the one that’s been hardest to define. It’s a writers festival first and foremost, so the two most necessary elements are writers to create the scripts and actors to read them. In a festival of staged readings, the emphasis will always be on the “reading” portion. So why is a director necessary at all? There isn’t a lot of work that goes into putting a bunch of people on stage to read a script; what’s the point of being a director if you’re not there to inject some stylistic flourish? Quite a lot, actually.

I first directed for the festival in Year 3 and the first thing I remember was how strongly the writers were discouraged from directing their own scripts. As my own script developed, I began to see why finding someone else to direct was so strongly recommended. Writing is a solitary process. Doing it means spending a great deal of time bumping around in your own head. The problem is that the voice in your head will lie to you. A lot. Having the perspective of an additional artistic point of view will enlighten you to aspects of your script not even you had considered.

The problem comes when directors try to make it less about the writer’s words and more about what the audience will see. The impulse is understandable, but it’s also wrong. Those of us who have been with the festival long enough know why there are now rules about there being only 3-5 rehearsals before a reading, why you should never force an actor to do something with which they’re uncomfortable, and why you should never, ever wait until the day of a reading to fully stage a physical assault scene requiring the actors to both move and read while their scripts are in-hand. There’s at least one of those readings every year. We’ve all seen it. Some of us have actually been in it.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

If I wrote a list of banned Olympians directors, this guy would be at the top.

“Well then,” you might ask, what can a director do to help out when the emphasis is meant to be all about the words coming out of the actors’ mouths?” Easy: help them understand those words. They’re still actors, after all. They want character motivation and a better understanding of the person or persons they’ll be portraying. Perhaps the more esoteric moments in the script immediately made sense to you and the writer, but an actor will need something more. These are stories based on ancient mythological beings with fantastic abilities. The script is how it makes sense to the writer, the director makes sense of the script for the actors, and the actors translate that for an audience.

And that doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles. The most common staged reading direction of planting folks in front of music stands is used as often as it is because it works. It allows the actors to always have eyes on their scripts, but still turn and react to their fellow actors. Wanna shake it up a bit? You can do like Stuart Bousel often does and eschew with the music stands all together, arranging the actors in the form of an orchestra. You can define the characters through costume (which, like direction, should be simple, but can still be eye-catching). You can take full advantage of the fact that there’s nothing on stage but the actors. Last year’s Hydra by Tonya Narvaez was one of the most memorable because of the atmospheric way Tonya staged it. She wrote a paranormal thriller and set the mood by having the actors lit only by the lights on their music stands (see the photo at the top). Needless to say, we were still talking about that one days afterward.

Simplicity, it makes all the difference.

I had a list of about twelve people whom I’d considered for directing my Year 3 script about Atlas. The one I chose wound up not being on the list at all and she was the one who encouraged me to direct it myself. After I picked her, she wound up having a busier year than she’d expected, so I relieved her of directing duties to make things easier. After failing to find another director whose schedule would fit, I reluctantly agreed to direct it myself – something I hadn’t done since I was in school. I did direct, it went off okay, and I have since directed so much that I actually should put a director’s resume together one of these days.

I’ve also seen my scripts directed by others, but in the festival and out. It’s given me a pretty clear perspective as to what function directors serve in a festival of staged readings: we’re conductors. That’s probably why Stuart prefers the orchestra-style approach to readings, because it makes clear just how everyone fits into the symphony. The writer composes, the actors sing (sometimes literally – again, happens every year), and the directors is there to make sure every single not is pitch perfect for the welcome audience.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I hear the downbeat…

Charles Lewis is writing and directing this year’s Poseidon play. The music he’s been listening to that which plays when Kirk fights Gorn… it’ll make sense when you see the play. For more information about the SF Olympians Festival, please visit SFOlympians.com

The Five: Sorry Kids, No Time

Anthony R. Miller checks in with adventures in educating.

So I’ve been teaching a “History of Musical Theatre” class the last few weeks and you would think three hours would be long enough to give them a pretty solid, if not basic knowledge of the musical theatre, and you would be wrong. I use a lot of video clips for the class, and with over 50 clips; I never get to use them all. There’s a few that kill me to skip, a few that make me feel like I’m doing these kids a disservice but skipping them, so here are my top clips I had to cut, predictably there are five.

Follies-“I’m Still Here”

Ok calm down, I mention it. I bring up that it’s co-directed by Michael Bennett. But there is no playing of the classic song. There is no discussion of how this show is just one part of the death of the Broadway Myth that happens in the 1970’s.

The Will Rogers Follies-“Our Favorite Son”

Again, I mention the show I never really give Tommy Tune his time in the sun. Not only does the show base itself on the Ziegfeld Follies which we discuss at the begging of the class, but it features some musical theatre’s most iconic choreography.

Contact-“Simply Irresistible”

I would have blown minds with tis clip. We would have discussed Susan Stroman’s use of dance and movement to tell her story in the tradition of Jerome Robbins and Agnes Demille. We would have discussed the controversy that followed its 2000 Best New Musical Tony Award win when it had no original or live music.

Gypsy-“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (As Performed by Patti Lupone)

So Gypsy is discussed in the class, I even show a clip, but I don’t show this one. I feel it is my friggin duty to show them video of Ethel Merman performing it, I wish I had time to show both of them. Patti Lupone burns the friggin house down in it. But I can only choose one and Ethel Merman has to t win.

The Music Man-“Ya Got Trouble”

I have no fucking business teaching the history of American Musical Theatre without showing a clip of this show. Oh sure, I mention it beat West Side Story for the Tony. I discuss its use of rhythmic speak-singing. I mention it took 7 years to make it to Broadway. What I don’t do is show a clip. Maybe I’ll cut the clip from Pippin.

You can check out the entire playlist HERE and see everything I do show, along with everything that got cut for time.

Anthony R. Miller is a doer of many things, keep up with them www.awesometheatre.org.

Theater Around The Bay: Pint-Sized Plays: The 2015 Lineup

We are proud to announce the lineup for the 2015 edition of Pint-Sized Plays, our annual bar-specific short plays festival!

From over 40 submissions from Bay Area playwrights, we’ve chosen the following scripts:

She Don’t Work Here No More by Christina Augello

Relativity by Alan Coyne

Magic Trick by Elizabeth Flanagan

Colored Pencil Werewolves by Jeremy Geist

People Having Important Conversations While On Their Phones by Christine Keating

To Be Blue by Juliana Lustenader

Branding by Lorraine Midanik

Wretched by Daniel Ng

In addition, Pint-Sized will see the return of two favorite characters:

Llama V by Stuart Bousel

Bear 2: Electric Beargaloo by Megan Cohen

Stay tuned for announcements of directors and actors in the coming weeks! And mark your calendars so you don’t miss the show in August! The Pint-Sized Plays will have four performances: August 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 8 PM in the PianoFight bar space.

The Real World Theater Edition: Interview With Rachel Bublitz

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Rachel Bublitz.

Rachel Bublitz is one of those amazing people that you exemplifies what it means to be a supportive theater artist who is furthering her own artistic journey for theater and writing. I first met Rachel when she came to a performance of my first full length production by All Terrain Theater, It’s All in the Mix. Right away from her positive energy and enthusiastic attitude, you can tell that she is a playwright who will go far. She has a natural tenacity that some struggle to master, others just exude.

I was very excited to interview her about Loud and Unladylike, the new festival presented in partnership with DIVAfest, which highlights unknown, yet influential women in history by exploring their stories through a new works series. The festival started yesterday, June 25th, with Tracy Held Potter’s A is for Adeline (also showing on July 9th), continues with Claire Ann Rice’s The Effects of Ultravioliet Light on June 26th and July 11th, and Rachel’s own new work, Code Name: Brass Rose, presented on June 27th and July 10th. For more information, you can also check out the website at http://loudandunladylike.com/.

Babs: Tell me about Loud and Unladylike. How did it come about?

Rachel: One of my classes at State last Spring – I’m currently going for the MFA and MA combo from SFSU – had a final involving writing a script inspired from an outside source, and a classmate of mine did hers on a historical woman that I had never heard of. And I got a little mad, why hadn’t I heard of this kick-ass woman? That night I met Tracy and Claire to see a play, and I told them all about it and said there should be more plays about historical women, and they agreed, and so we did it. Something I love about having Claire and Tracy as close friends and collaborators is that we all agree that seeing a problem is only part of it, you have to then do something. This is our response to the lack of women’s plays being produced, and the lack of complex female characters in so many plays and films.

Claire then brought the idea to DIVAfest’s Artistic Director, Christina Augello, and she thought it would be a great addition DIVAfest’s season, and that was the start of Loud & Unladylike.

Babs: How did you choose your figure – Nancy Wake? When did you first learn about her?

Rachel: So we decided on the festival and that we’d be the guinea pigs and write for the first year. After that we had a meeting with lists and summaries of all the interesting lesser-known historical women we could find. Most of the women I had researched had been soldiers or spies; I’m drawn to the juxtaposition of war and what society tells us femininity should mean. Nancy was on a few different blogs that I came across, posts with titles like: “25 Badass Women You Don’t Know About.” That sent me off to Wikipedia, and before I knew it I was ordering her autobiography from Australia.

The whole cast of Code Name: Brass Rose. From left to right: Charles Lewis III, Veronica Tjioe, Matt Gunnison, Melinda Marshall, Neil Higgins, and Heather Kellogg. Photo: Rachel Bublitz.

The whole cast of Code Name: Brass Rose. From left to right: Charles Lewis III, Veronica Tjioe, Matt Gunnison, Melinda Marshall, Neil Higgins,
and Heather Kellogg. Photo: Rachel Bublitz.

I spent most of that meeting trying to convince Tracy and Claire that one of them should write about Nancy Wake, and finally, I think it was Claire, said to me, “Ya know, if you like her so much, maybe you should write about her.” And this blew my mind, how could anyone not want to write about this powerhouse? After they both assured me it was okay, I never looked back. We were meant to be, Nancy and me.

Babs: What has it been like collaborating with Claire and Tracy on building the festival?

Rachel: Collaborating has been a challenge, it’s not that it’s hard for the three of us to be on the same page, we are just all very busy ladies. Tracy just finished up her MFA from CMU and has her two boys, Claire directed Allison Page’s fantastic show HILARITY earlier this year and is working on a commission from Terror-Rama, and I have my rug-rats and school as well, and so finding time to get together has been hard to say the least. Somehow it’s worked so far. I think we owe a lot to the other ladies in Loud & Unladylike who support us so well; the very talented Tonya Narvaez and Roxana Sorooshian, our production manager and literary manager respectively.

This year has also found us to be on a very slow learning curve, well me at least. Running a festival is tricky. So many complications pop up every day! And there are also so many cool things you’d like to do but aren’t worth the trouble, especially in the first year when keeping things as simple as possible is key. Even the simple gets hard, trust me. But we are kicking around some exciting ideas for the 2017 festival, and we’re in the midst of selecting the plays for 2016, so a lot of exciting things are on the horizon.

Babs: I’m also curious to learn about the development process – how have you supported each other in the research and writing or has it been mostly solo? Any anecdotes you’d like to share?

Rachel: We’ve shared pages at meetings, and talked about the themes and questions we’d like to bring up in each of our plays. Something that surprised me, that I think we’ve all had to deal with, is getting over the reverence for the person the play is inspired by, so that you can actually get something written. Knowing that this was a real person and that you’ll be informing some amount of the population about them is a heavy task, and having Claire and Tracy wrestling with this same challenge all year has been a comfort.

Also, one of my most favorite parts of the festival, is that we each will have two readings with about two weeks in between to rewrite. We’ll be hosting talkbacks after each play, and Claire and I will be running those in week one. I’m excited to play that role and engage with my fellow writers and the audience in order to develop the plays further. The second week, which might have three totally different plays based on what happens in week one, will have talkbacks lead by our literary manager, Roxana.

Babs: What do you love about the Bay Area theater scene and what would you change?

Rachel: One of my favorite parts of the Bay Area theater scene is that I’m constantly discovering more of it. I’ll be out at a show, chatting with someone brand-new, and they’ll mention so-and-so theater that they work for, and more often than you’d think, it’s a theater company I’d never heard of. I’ll think, oh they must be new, but no! Usually they’ve been around 10 or 15 years. It’s insanity. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a theater company here and that’s pretty special. BUT, in a way that’s something that I’d like to change too. Not that I’d like to see less companies, I just wish there was more collaboration among them. I love seeing companies joining forces and I think everyone could stand a little more of that. If a project is too big for one company to take on, find another to duel produce it with! Let’s do big things and stretch ourselves, and help one another.

Babs: Any advice you have for aspiring playwrights and producers of new work?

Rachel: I think the most important thing you can do, other than of course the writing or the producing, is to go see shows. I have kids which makes it hard, but I try to make it out to as many plays as possible. Not only can you learn just from seeing other work, and all other work, good, bad, mediocre, all of it has lessons for those who are looking, but you go and see the work and then you talk to people after. Say hi to the director, the actors, the playwright. Tell them what you enjoyed (only of course, if you actually did), ask them about their inspiration, ask how you could get involved. Theaters take on a risk when producing local work, but if we all went out and saw one another’s work, that risk would be much less, so I especially try to make it out when a new work of a local playwright is being produced. We can’t demand it if we don’t ourselves support it.

Also, and this is what I think is the second most important thing, share your work. Submit plays to theaters, yes, but also have your friends over to read your drafts. Ask actors and directors you know to read what you’re working on, ask advice on where your work would fit best, and then reach out to them. You’re going to be ignored a lot, but I’ve found that if you keep it up, and you keep everything positive, they don’t ignore you forever. Also, true story, I’m still being ignored by plenty of folks, that’s just part of the business. Try not to take it personally, though I know that can be hard.

Babs: Plugs for upcoming work and shout-out for other plays to check out around the area?

Rachel: Yes! My full-length play Of Serpents & Sea Spray is getting a week-long workshop with a staged reading this July (the reading is on July 24th) and will be produced in Custom Made’s 2015/16 season this coming January, with Ariel Craft as the director.

As for other shows, I don’t think anyone here in the Bay Area is allowed to miss Desk Set presented by No Nude Men, it’s a power-house cast, and is being directed by Stuart Bousel, who might just be the most generous member of the Bay Area theater community and an all around excellent theater maker. It’s running July 9-25, and will probably fill up quick, so I’d jump on those tickets ASAP, if you know what’s good for you. And, the show I’m most excited for this summer, other than Loud & Unladylike of course, has to be SF Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays this August! Megan Cohen’s “BEEEEEAAR!”, performed by Allison Page back in 2012, is still at the top of my all-time-favorite theater experiences, and I have a hope we’ll see more of that beer loving bear this time around.

From left to right the ladies of Loud and Unladylike: Claire Rice, Rachel Bublitz, and Tracy Held Potter at a Custom Made production. Photo: Sam Bertken.

From left to right the ladies of Loud and Unladylike: Claire Rice, Rachel Bublitz, and Tracy Held Potter at a Custom Made production. Photo: Sam Bertken.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright who can be found on twitter as well @bjwany. Tweet at her to point her to theater happenings around town!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Give Him A Great Big Kiss

Marissa Skudlarek, really making time on the blog.

Two weeks from today, The Desk Set, the play I’m acting in, will open! Aside from a few Theater Pub one-offs, this is my first acting role in seven years. In a lot of ways, I’m in my element: the cast is full of fun-loving, enthusiastic, nerdy people; my role is small but memorable; I get to wear 1950s dresses and dance a tango. In other ways, I’m being asked to step outside of my comfort zone. I’m teaching basic swing-dance moves to the other actors, something I’ve never done before. I’m playing a platinum-blonde, buxom, sexy secretary, which, if you know me in real life, is pretty much the opposite of typecasting. And, I have to do my first-ever stage kiss.

Consider this column, then, a sort of companion piece to Allison Page’s “If You’re Sexy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” from two years ago. There, Allison wrote about playing Rita, the romantic lead in Prelude to a Kiss, and how to get over the awkwardness and embarrassment that can arise when you’re asked to play a “vixen-y, sexually free, comfortably seductive” character.

In some ways, my task might be easier than Allison’s. The tale of Peter and Rita in Prelude to a Kiss is a love story for the ages; the same cannot be said for Richard and Elsa in The Desk Set. My kissing scene is meant to be comical, not seriously sexy or romantic. I’m trying to make the audience laugh rather than trying to convince them of the purity and strength of my love – and I know how to make people laugh!

But where Allison found that she didn’t have to “act sexy,” she just had to focus on Rita’s emotions, that’s not really an option for me. My character, Elsa, is as cartoonish a sex symbol as Jessica Rabbit, and the humor of the scene lies in the contrast between her overwhelming sexuality and Richard’s repression and awkwardness.There are some real elements of 1950s kitsch to The Desk Set, and Elsa is one of them. She’s an archetype that grounds the play in the era when blonde bombshells like Marilyn Monroe made Americans both fascinated and uncomfortable. That’s the whole point of her scene, and it means that I need to do a Monroe-esque version of “acting sexy.” Walking with a shoulders-back, chest-out, hip-swaying sashay. Affecting a breathy, cooing voice.

This is where the whole opposite-of-typecasting thing comes into play. In real life, I was a late bloomer; I didn’t even kiss anybody till I was halfway through college. I’m over-thinky and self-doubting, and a drama teacher once told me that my acting was “too cerebral.” I’m tall, introverted, and not particularly curvaceous, which means that when I make an effort, I usually strive for “regal, elegant, and charming,” not “cute, bubbly and sexy.” Audrey Hepburn, not Marilyn Monroe, has always been my ’50s actress of choice.

So it was quite a trip to be offered my first acting role in seven years and find that the character is a flirtatious, shameless floozy — the opposite of cerebral. Did my being cast as Elsa mean that other people perceive me as sexier than I perceive myself? But The Desk Set is a comedy and Elsa is a comedic character — so if nerdy, librarian-ish me gets cast as the sexy girl, is that just meant to add another layer to the joke? (See, I told you I was over-thinky and self-doubting.)

But at our first read-through, I discovered — to my own and my castmates’ surprise — that I can manage the cartoonishly-sexy thing when needed. It feels more like mimicry, or like putting on a costume, than like “serious” (i.e., Stanislavskian) acting, but as I said, the role is written very broadly and that’s what it calls for. And to further refine my sexy persona, I started reading The Bombshell Manual of Style, because in real life, I’m such a nerd that I think I need to read a book in order to learn how to act like a 1950s bombshell. Also, because I have a not-so-secret weakness for style books and girly things.

I am a serious actor doing serious dramaturgical research.

I am a serious actor doing serious dramaturgical research.

As for the stage kiss, I rehearsed it for the first time on Sunday. I won’t lie, I felt kind of awkward doing it. But at the same time, I know I’m an adult and a professional, and so is my scene partner, and the awkwardness was at a “This is pretty weird, but I can manage it” level, not a “This is mortifying, I want to go hide in a hole and die” level. As I said, I can be an overly cerebral actor, so any physical action that I have to do onstage is going to be a little awkward at first, and will take practice to get right. I might feel uncomfortable kissing someone onstage for the first time, but I’d also feel uncomfortable if you asked me to do archery or throw a football, you know?

Because I haven’t had any acting roles since I was twenty, and because I was such a late bloomer, that means that the bulk of my romantic and sexual experience has come during the years when I took a break from acting. I used to associate being an actor with feeling the way I did in high school — awkward and neurotic and virginal. But now it’s time to forge some new associations. I realized that, while I may not stick out my chest and coo and giggle when I’m doing it, I have been the pursuer; I have made the first move or initiated the first kiss. Initially, I thought my being cast as Elsa was entirely counter-intuitive, but now I accept that there’s a little bit of Elsa in me.

You can see Marissa Skudlarek do her best blonde bombshell impression in The Desk Set at EXIT Theatre from July 9 to 25. Tickets here.

Cowan Palace: Hi, I Have Anxiety

This week Ashley attempts to wrestle the bear that is anxiety.

Remember that alphabet letter word name association game? The one your summer camp counselors/RAs made you play? You know, you have to say your name and something you’d bring to a picnic starting with the letter of your name? Like I’d say, “Hi, my name is Ashley and I’m bringing “apples” to the picnic!” Well, secretly I’d think, “Hi, my name is Ashley and I’m bringing anxiety to the picnic and I’m worried we won’t have enough food or blankets and that people will hate it… but I’m also glad you guys are bringing some snacks.”

See, I’ve been battling anxiety in its many shapes and sizes my whole life. Since before I even knew what the word meant. And at times it has been difficult to manage. The familiar, heavy pit in my stomach, the racing heart, and the restless nights have become a daily reality. I’ve learned to hide it most of the time and often my only tell is the unfortunate red hives that make themselves at home on my chest when I’m feeling that good ole anxious feeling. I’ve stayed away from medicating myself because my tolerance for things seems to ride both extremes (you should see what one Tylenol PM can do to me and what heavy prescription muscle relaxers can not do to me!) so I’ve had to try and come up with creative solutions to keep those anxiety waves at bay.

Acting proved to be a most effective tool. Getting the chance to escape and focus on the one thing that I was most passionate about helped my balance. When I hated my job or something in my personal life and it was causing me a lot of useless stress, I depended on whatever show I was involved in at the time to be the light at the end of my dark tunnel. Unfortunately, due to other life stuff, I haven’t really been able to use that technique in almost two years. And, there were certainly times it may have helped! But it also made me develop other coping skills and strategies. So, in case you find yourself struggling with some unease, perhaps this can help:

Walk Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

Along with often being anxious, I can also be secretly super competitive. And getting one of those bracelets to track my steps has been awesome. The walking helps me to relax and think things through. I also tend to be more willing to create possible solutions when I’m moving rather than letting myself collapse in bed weeping in despair (though, sometimes that happens and it’s okay). Plus, I love trying to constantly beat yesterday’s personal goal and having a tiny, wearable device assist in that challenge can be pretty fun.

Sing Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

I sing every day. It simply makes me happier. When I feel super overwhelmed and can make myself sing along to something, I instantly feel better. Plus, I don’t need a stage or an audience but can still manage to feel as theatrical as I need to feel.

Pic One

Go Back In Time

Okay, this is a weird one. But try to stay with me. Whenever I can remember to do it, I think of a time in the past where I was really struggling with something and letting my anxiety get the best of me. I then try and send past Ashley some words of encouragement. Now, when I’m feeling emotional, I imagine what future Ashley is saying to me and try to step back. It’s always amusing that something that feels like the world one day can often result in a forgettable issue with a little time. Getting some perspective helps.

Watch Netflix Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

That’s pretty self explanatory. It may seem like a bad escape but sometimes you gotta allow yourself to zone out and just binge watch the crap out of some show. The trick is to not feel guilty about it. Then go do something completely different. Like a walk or something.

Make A Schedule And Actually Stick To It

Structuring my day helps me to feel like I have control over it. The more I can pack into my planner, the better. It’s often my idle, free time that allows my mind to wander to anxious places. Even if it’s simply writing a few things to do with a basic timeline, it can improve my week.

Pic Two

Tell One Person. Or Just Everyone

This isn’t an invitation to write some vague, passive aggressive Facebook post but if you feel better after sharing your feelings, I support it. Sometimes formulating your concerns and voicing it to the right audience can help you move forward. Maybe try honestly opening up to one person before seeking social media guidance or write a Theater Pub blog about it.

Collapse Onto A Messy Bed Like Your Anxiety Depends On It

Some days, I just have to own my feelings in a big way. And sometimes my coping mechanisms just aren’t enough. So if that means weeping for an hour to get them out, I go for it. Truly, I think identifying what you’re feeling is half the battle, taking responsibility for it is the other.

And so I leave you with those seven thoughts. That, and a request to be kind and patient with each other. Like, bring that to the name game picnic and then go have an actual picnic. Until next time!