Barbara Jwanouskos starts your Pride Weekend with an interview with Alex Spieth!
I met Alex Spieth at Carnegie Mellon. She was one of the BFA actors in her senior year and was in a collaborative class in TV Writing/Acting/Directing. Although the class, at the time, was mainly focused on the classic three-camera sitcom format, it was still interesting in that it started to develop a nuanced skill of creating serial work for the camera for students taking the class.
Flash forward, around a year or so ago, Alex and other artists came together to create a web series called [Blank] My Life. It is a low-budget comedy that is self-produced. When I heard that Alex was trying to spread the word, I thought about this space and how we could explore the idea of creating your own work in this interview. After talking initially, she brought up some very good points about theater artists moving to the digital space.
Below is our interview for your enjoyment.
BJ: Tell me about your background as a theater artist and how you got where you are now. Is there any aspect of your personality that has helped you get where you are now and into the arts?
AS: One time I was begging my mom for something and she said, “Lexie! You’re so dramatic! You should be an actor!” And I remember it so clearly, because I thought: This is the finest compliment I could ever receive…I must enter…the craft.
So, I started acting in the 6th grade, and would say I became serious about it in high school. I grew up in Nashville, and had the good fortune of getting to work with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts in Acting, and (through a scholarship through my high school) Interlochen Arts Camp. These three experiences shaped my formative years as an artist so clearly and made me very comfortable taking risks at a young age.
When I approached my senior year of high school, I protested that I did not want a BFA, because ACTING SHOULD BE FOR THE MASSES NOT THE FEW. However, after I was rejected early decision from my top B.A. choice, I was like, Fuck my former principles…and auditioned at all the BFAs minus Juilliard (the reason I told everyone was “There wasn’t enough sunlight in the classrooms!”…but I was just scared of rejection? Much food for thought…). I got into Carnegie Mellon, and made the ultimate decision that this was absolutely where I was gonna go and I’d been ridiculous to want anything else.
Carnegie Mellon University was the best. I loved every inch of the four years: the training, neurosis, panic, return to Christianity, departure from Christianity, fun, scenes, and people. While I am sometimes depressed to not be Super Fucking Famous Already, every opportunity I have had since college has come from the relationships I fostered at CMU. Currently, I work a lot with Tele-Violet and Irondale Ensemble (most recently doing a 5-hour production of the 4 Shakespeare plays written in 1599).
I think the aspects of my personality that have helped me get where I am are that I refuse to not work. I want to be working 24/7, and I’m good at creating work and getting in work. Additionally, I have a sense of humor. My sense of humor has helped me when I felt depressed that I am not Super Fucking Famous Already and, In Fact, Have Not Done Much Regionally Either.
BJ: I know you had vigorous training at CMU’s School of Drama since that’s how we met! Can you give people an idea of what it was like? Is there anything that particularly prepared you?
AS: CMU is the best. It really is a completely comprehensive program that will equip you to work in your field. The thing that is hard is that the process of learning often messes you up for practically being able to ACT. Many of my classmates and, certainly myself, seemed to take a few steps backward in getting better. One time at a Bible Study (sophomore year I reclaimed religion before slowly letting it drift away junior year), I said, “I feel like I’ve lost my ability to act!” Which is very dramatic and not true long-term, but it can feel pretty crippling to have a constant “What do I do with my hands?!?!?” thought running through your head.
Carnegie prepares its students to act, collaborate, and perform incredibly well. They accept a student body that is not only talented, but also smart, giving, vibrant, and largely funny. The only change I would suggest for my time there (reiterate: I left 3 years ago, so times may have changed) is to incorporate crowdfunding/a basic DSLR camera utility session into Business of Acting (taken senior year).
BJ: Tell me about [Blank] My Life. How did it come about?
AS: I started writing the pre-season of [Blank] My Life after I got dropped by my agency the first year out of college. It was the first time that the Adelyne Roth Levine Memorial Scholar (aka me) felt like she had Publicly Failed. The options became: Ugh, god, I guess I could continue to do things that will make me feel even worse about myself (sleeping with Evil Playwrights, trying to trap newly single boys into thinking I was The Love of Their Life, etc.) or I could start writing.
If you watch the first few episodes of the pre-season, they are very rudimentary because it was literally my friends and I getting together for a few hours on Saturdays to film. We started in a guess and check kind of manner: making a video, editing it, sending it to YouTube. By the summer of 2015, we had 9 episodes and had gotten the quality and team to a level that I was proud of. I wrote the proper first season of [Blank] in the summer of 2015, and we started filming in October.
Over the year of 2015-2016, we filmed, edited, and released [Blank] My Life‘s first season on no budget. I’m incredibly proud of the product and think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I am lucky to work a fair amount in the theatre although I am tragically not Already Super Fucking Famous. However, creating and producing my own work has given me back the confidence I felt like I lost when I got dropped.
When I first got out, I spent a lot of time and money doing pay-to-play classes and workshops, and I would advise anyone who feels powerless in their career to NOT DO PAY-TO-PLAY CLASSES and spend the money on a rehearsal room, or a venue, or Final Cut Pro, or a DSLR, or knitting material, or a book on gardening, or anything in the world that will grow who you are as a person and a performer. In my experience, it has made all the difference.
BJ: For those perhaps unfamiliar, tell us about the premise of [Blank] My Life. What’s it about? Were you inspired by or responding to anything in particular?
AS: [Blank] My Life is an insecure comedy that just wants to make a connection that follows Susan, an NYC millennial, on her quest to find love and simultaneously not end her life. It’s like Louie if Louie was written by a young lady, it’s like Girls because it features a young lady with more elements of magical realism. While the series is based off of my thoughts/interactions, it’s also just as really based on nothing. It wasn’t in response to anything other than my need to keep creating work for myself.
BJ: What has been your process of writing and creating the series?
AS: In the summer of 2015, I got up every morning, and I wrote enough until I felt like I had a season (we axed 6 episodes, so I guess it was more than a season). Before I begin proper, I go through a “culling” period where I talk to People Who May Have Insights. Before the pre-season, I talked to a lot of people about the rudimentary natures of Cameras and What They Do, and before the first season I talked to a lot of web series creators about fundraising, location scouting, and SAG queries. All the time spent acting advice is great and often very useful; however, eventually you must kick yourself into high gear and just do the thing.
This time around, the project has a SAG New Media Agreement but wasn’t funded through anything other than myself and the generous donations of my team to the project. This was intentional as I wanted to created a fully-fleshed product before we started asking for money for the next endeavor.
A shoot would usually be planned 2-3 weeks in advance, we would get everyone there, and DO IT. We only went overtime once and we were only late to release an episode once WHICH IS PRETTY COOL.
BJ: What are some of the exciting discoveries or interesting/unexpected challenges that have come from creating the series?
AS: Exciting Discoveries:
–Interesting Casting Choices are Always the Best
–People Turn Up Every Time
–Actors appear to not know their lines and then magically get on set and WILL KNOW THEM ALL.
–NYC will not give a fuck where you film
–You can ask the NYC Parks Department for a waiver but they will nearly 100% not check it.
–People WILL give you space for Free!
–People WILL act for Free!
–There is literally always a Plan B when things fall through. Plan B will be just fine.
–Technology will often die unexpectedly (One day after shooting 7 hours, a camera died and we’d thought we’d lost it all and it was all very Jack and Rose from Titanic)
–How to get 1,000,000 million views (or anything above 6K)
–A personal challenge for me was learning how to be a leader. It’s hard to be a leader and have a stick up your ass (which I CERTAINLY do at many times). It’s easier for yourself and everyone else if you let most things be relaxed, keep the vibe generally chill, and only put your foot down when it really matters.
BJ: How many people are typically involved?
AS: Each episode involved me, a director, a DP, a PA/ Boom Operator, and 2-3 cast members; so per episode it’s about 6-7 people total. Overall we’ve had likely 30-35 people work on the first series.
BJ: And do you ever put money into promoting it on Facebook or YouTube (you know like the sponsored/promoted content?
AS: I have put money into sponsored content and am trying to find the algorithm for the greatest yield! We’ve also submitted to a fair amount of web fests, and I’m trying to see what will stick.
BJ: I’m curious about your thoughts on theater artists inhabiting and playing in the digital space. Tell me what you see.
AS: I think all actors should have web series other than maybe the few, few who are gainfully employed most of the time (I Release and Destroy The Need to be Super Fucking Famous Already!) I do not say this because it will lead to lots of dollars and/or success, but it’s a better and cheaper “Acting for the Camera” class than anyone you can take in NYC! One of your friends likely has an iPhone or Android you could borrow.
The digital space is really exciting because it can cut out the middleman. I’ve def not discovered how to get teenagers on my side (and this is where the power is….the power is in the teens), but if you can figure out how to be a tastemaker you can be your own agent, be your own boss, and LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE.
BJ: How has creating your own work opened up other opportunities for you?
AS: It’s made me more confident. When I walk into a room for an audition, I used to feel painfully alone, but now I have [Blank] with me. Wherever I go, I’m not just Alex-Looking-for-Next-Job-Spieth, I’m Alex-the-Person-Who-didn’t-Take-No-for-an-Answer.
It’s hard because I have no tangible proof that this will necessarily lead to anything, but I feel much better day to day. Which is kind of all that matters.
BJ: What are you looking forward to next within the series?
AS: I want to get as many eyes on this as possible. LITERALLY, SF, if you know anyone interested in the quirky musings of a vague Greta Gerwig, send them to [Blank]! If you know anyone that has a taste for female-driven comedy at a no-budget level, send them to [Blank]! If someone ever again says the phrase, “I am bored”, send them to [Blank]!!!!!
And I’m writing the next season. Let us pray for the future.
BJ: Any words of wisdom you have for people that want to do what you do?
AS: Do it. Do it really badly, because it will get better rapidly.
BJ: Any shout-outs or plugs for other projects or friends’ work (especially in the Bay?)?
AS: Yes!!! This summer, My friends Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. (CMU classmate) and Marcelo Pereira run San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (Sfbatco) and are collaborating with a young group called YPTMTC (Young People Teen Musical Theater Company) which is an arts education company. They will be creating a new way for youth to get engaged in heightened text in a program called “Not Yo Mama’s Shakespeare”.
Rodney’s one of my great friends, and you should always catch his butt on the Motown tour (for….there….is….no…town…like…Motown…..).
For more on [Blank] My Life, check out Alex Spieth’s website.