Falling With Style: My Failed Attempt To Pursue My Dream Was The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done

In the final installment of her column, Helen puts a bow on her experience of jumping off the corporate ladder to pursue a full-time career in the performing arts.

I started this column a year ago to document my journey towards becoming (in my own words) “employed full-time by the arts.”

Over the course of my investigative process, I did a lot of studying (notably, at ACT’s Summer Training Congress and with Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS program). I tried a number of styles of performing, from cabaret to children’s theatre, readings to fully-staged productions. I tried my hand at professionally manning other parts of the production: I stage managed; I music directed; I assistant directed. And I even dipped a toe in the waters of arts administration and development at one of the largest Equity theaters in the Bay Area.

Throughout much of this time, I held one or more part-time jobs to ensure a flexible schedule. And to be frank, I would have been financially under water without my partner’s help and encouragement.

Ultimately, I found that the goal I’d set for myself was counter to my true desires. Once my avocation became my vocation, it was more stressful than enjoyable: I could no longer choose projects purely out of enjoyment. I noticed myself wearily considering jobs for their paycheck or resume-boosting potential.

Something was definitely rotten in the state of Denmark, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it better — how to describe what I really wanted. And, wrong as the goal I had in front of me might have been, I didn’t want to give up on it — not after I’d sacrificed so much to go after it.

The answer hit me right in the gut when, at one of the ATLAS sessions I attended, Velina Brown said she practices “heart-centered acting.”

It bopped me on the nose when, through TBA connections, I sat in on TheatreWorks’ auditions and saw sublime work from Equity and non-Equity actors alike.

It goosed me when, thanks to the Theater Pub collective, I finally attended my first Saturday Write Fever and listened to a dozen just-written monologues (and even performed one myself).

And it razzed me right up close in my face when I was asked out of the blue to participate in a reading of The Fourth Messenger with Equity and non-Equity mega-talent all around me.

Now — bruised, sore and one step closer to enlightenment — by George, I think I’ve got it. It seems my ambition is to become a heart-centered actor, and in doing so, create superb art (regardless of my union status, my performance frequency, my ‘type’, or any other malarkey).

My focus for now is on step one of my journey towards heart-centered acting: developing a practice of heart-centered living.

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Now, in these last moments before this column comes to a close and my voice rejoins the continuum, I’d like to thank Stuart Bousel for the many jolts of artistic inspiration and introspection he’s provided me: this column, his own tome-like blog posts (can something be tome-like if it’s only in digital form?), Saturday Write Fever, and SF Olympians, to name a few. Thanks for being a creative catalyst for so many people, Stuart.

Helen Laroche (www.helenlaroche.com) is an artist currently living in San Francisco. She bruises easily; probably a B12 deficiency. You should see the other guy, though. She continues to write at www.sayshelen.com and she always loves a good story.

Falling With Style: The Moment I Stopped Caring, It All Fell Into Place

Helen Laroche shares how the last 6 months of not auditioning has done wonders for her career.

When I started trying to make acting a full-time thing last year, I went whole hog. I went out for every audition I could find, regardless of the distance I’d need to travel, regardless of the content of the show, simply to be seen and be cast.

Eventually, I got tired. And then I started undermining myself. I’d set up auditions and then cancel them soon after. One time, I was halfway to an audition 2 hours from my apartment when I realized I’d never feel good about the commute to rehearsal. I called the group, bowed out, and turned around.

I didn’t like the grind of constantly auditioning, constantly clamoring for roles I didn’t even really buy into, constantly driving all over the Bay Area for the chance to win roles that would hardly pay for gas. And I felt so guilty that I didn’t like it. This is the way to become a real Bay Area actor, I thought. This is what I need to do to succeed, to be seen, to build my career. If I really love performing as much as I say I do, then all of the sacrifices should be worth it.

But they weren’t worth it. After a production in January where I’d get home after performance at midnight, only to wake up at 3:45am for my opening shift at Starbucks and then perform a matinee, I was done.

I stopped auditioning, I moved to San Francisco, and I sold my car. I laid low. And then, a funny thing started to happen.

Every once in a while, totally out of the blue, I’d get an audition invitation or a full-blown offer of a role. A few times now, the opportunities that have come my way seemed to have been divined just for me — stories that I needed to be a part of at that particular moment in my life.

This Tuesday, I started rehearsals for the first time since May, for a read-through of The Fourth Messenger (previously played at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley; this time going up for a one-night reading at the Zen Center of San Francisco). As if on purpose, all of my previous hang-ups about the audition and rehearsal process were bypassed: I was cast without an audition, the rehearsal process is less than a week long, rehearsal is walking distance from my apartment, I’m being paid for my work, and I’m surrounded by wonderful local actors, many of whom I’ve seen in high-level Bay Area productions before. And the content of the musical is eerily on point with the current view on my personal development path.

In other words, I couldn’t have written a better story for myself if I tried. Thanks, chaos/God/destiny/FSM.

Helen is a writer and fun-time facilitator (read: event planner). You can read more about her escapades at www.sayshelen.com.

Falling With Style: Five Bay Area Shows I’m Excited About This Season

Helen Laroche is excited about what’s to come. 

As I become less and less inclined to audition these days, I’m happy to find that I’m still interested in the thing that got me to theater and storytelling in the first place — watching it. Because really, isn’t the best part of being an artist (nay, a person!) getting to share in a well-told story, whether you’re telling it or hearing it?

With that in mind, I decided to put together a list of shows I’m excited to see this upcoming season. For fairness’ sake, I didn’t put any shows that Theater Pub People(TM) are directly involved with (although you should know that they are the nonpareil of quality, and you should definitely check out The Age of Beauty which closes this Saturday at the EXIT; the SF Fringe Festival which runs the month of September 2013 at the EXIT; and the SF Olympians Festival, which goes up in November 2013 at … any wild guesses? The EXIT.)

So without further ado, here is the completely-personal, your-own-opinion-is-totally-valued-but-will-not-sway-me list of 5 Bay Area shows I’m looking forward to this season.

1. No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep (Berkeley), by Harold Pinter; runs now through August 31, 2013.

Yeah, let’s get this one out of the way. I’m excited, and I think it will ruffle some small-theater feathers to put this first on the list, but here it is. Berkeley Rep’s marketing ploy worked perfectly on my household: I bought season tickets to Berkeley Rep just to get tickets to this show. My husband, the non-theatre guy of our household, is excited to see “Dr. Xavier and Magneto be in love.” I’m excited because I’ve never seen a Pinter play, and I’ve never seen these guys live. And it’s just been fun to watch the jolt this has given the whole theater community.

2. Road Show at The Rhino (San Francisco), by Stephen Sondheim; runs January 2 – 19, 2014 at the Eureka Theatre

When I saw the Rhino’s season announcement email, with the last names of all their playwrights, and saw “Sondheim” among them, I high tailed it to their website to learn more. What Sondheim piece would fit into their “queer theater” credo? Turns out it’s a piece I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen — his most recent show, Road Show (formerly Bounce), which was first produced in 2003 and re-mounted with major revisions in 2008. It involves two brothers, one brother’s (male) lover, and their luck as they mine for gold in the Wild West.

3. Silent Sky at TheatreWorks (Mountain View), by Lauren Gunderson; runs January 15—February 9, 2014

Lauren Gunderson has been so hot these past couple seasons, and I have to admit that I haven’t seen a show of hers mounted yet. But I have read one of her plays, and the story is such that I will be a fan of hers for life: I was setting up a Shakespearean parlor reading at my apartment, and when it was clear we weren’t going to have the minimum number of people necessary to read All’s Well That Ends Well, I remembered that Lauren had a series of Shakespeare-inspired plays. (The first, Exit, Pursued By a Bear, had a rolling premiere last season (two seasons ago?) that included a staging at Impact Theater.) I went to her website, saw her list of works, and emailed her to ask if my friends and I could read the fourth in the series, called We Are Denmark. AND SHE SAID YES AND SENT OVER A PDF THAT STILL SAID DRAFT ON IT. It was so freakin’ cool. (And the play was great, to boot.)

So, she’s got a groupie in me now, for a number of reasons. But yeah, We Are Denmark centers in some part around astronomy, which Silent Sky also does. So I expect greatness. Also, TheatreWorks proved themselves to be awesome at night sky stage dressings in their awesome production of Fly By Night. So that’s another point in this production’s favor.

4. Top Girls at Custom Made Theatre Company (San Francisco), by Caryl Churchill; runs March 18 – April 13, 2014

When I first saw the audition notice go out for Custom Made’s upcoming season, I did my homework and read through all their shows. (For someone who calls herself a “theatre person,” I have read a woefully small number of plays in my life. So whenever I hear of a new season, it usually involves a lot of reading.) Top Girls is the one that stood out to me in the season, for two reasons: (1) it not only passes the Bechdel test, it blows it to smithereens; and (2) the amount of overlapping talking in the play makes for very difficult reading, to say nothing of how it’ll be staged and presented. Have you ever read Glengarry Glen Ross? That’s sort of stilted speech, with constant interruption, yet with each character maintaining her own line of thought. I’m interested in seeing this show for intellectual reasons as much as anything else.

5. The Color Purple at Hillbarn Theatre (Foster City), adapted from the book by Alice Walker; runs May 9 – June 1, 2014

When I first saw this musical done professionally, I was so moved I saw it twice. Sure, it had its moments of being over the top (just like any musical should!), but Alice Walker’s story was all still there, and Celie’s transformation into a self-confident woman was mirrored so compellingly in the actress’ soaring gospel voice. (I’ve always been a sucker for gospel.)

Doing this show at the community theatre level is a gamble on many levels, and it’s the first non-Equity presentation I’m aware of, anywhere. And you gotta hand it to Hillbarn for taking the leap and producing this show — I hope it gets the talent turnout they need to cast a 40+ person, nearly all-minority show. (We all know the talent’s out there; it’s just a matter of getting people to Foster City. And hey, they did it with Ragtime last season, to great effect. So if anyone can do it, Hillbarn can.)

(Auditions are early 2014, guys!)

Bonus: Camelot at SF Playhouse (San Francisco), by Lerner and Lowe; runs now through September 21, 2013.

So I lied. Had to tack this one on, playing now through late September. Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of this musical. No amount of Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews could save it.

But maybe Angel from RENT could.

That’s right. This production stars Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the Tony Award-winning actor who originated the role of Angel, as Sir Lancelot. HOW is it halfway through the run and I haven’t heard about this?? WHO is running the marketing over there??

Other actors in the cast include a hodge-podge of Bay Area actors, Equity and non-Equity, including Bay Area favorite Monique Hafen as Guenevere. 

So. Now you know which shows (some, guilty pleasures; others, intellectually stimulating) that I’m looking forward to this season. How about you? Are you going to come see these with me? Do you have others on your mental list that you want to share?

Leave it all in the comments!

Helen Laroche is a Bay Area theatre-type, currently doing her thing at www.sayshelen.com

Falling With Style: All Art Is Equal (But Some Is More Equal Than Others)

Helen Laroche is making art… or is she?

A few years ago, when I quit my job in sales because I was burned out, I set an intention for myself: I’d mentally finger-paint for a while, listen to whatever interests came my way, and build on those until I became an artist. Simple.

At the time, I thought I was going to become a writer. (I still have goals of publishing a book — no particular thoughts on the content.) But in this early period of unemployment, still far too grateful for the free time to be freaking out about money, I didn’t navigate towards writing.

I navigated towards baking bread.

Really. I spent my a month or so testing bread recipes — loaf bread, dinner rolls, pizza dough; white, wheat, cornmeal. With all the free time at my disposal, I could let them leisurely rise for a few hours before punching them back down. I could, for the first time in my life, afford to make little errors in my cooking in the name of experimentation, swapping out one ingredient for another to see what happened. I came from a pretty processed-food kind of home, and in comparison to anything you can get at the store, homemade sandwich bread is the shit.

I was puzzled — or more accurately, troubled — with my change in vocation. Sure, I wanted to be an artist, but that meant performing arts. Always had. That’s what I quit that high-paying, low-rewards job for, right? I felt the grip of guilt close around my throat: I jumped off the cliff so I could follow my bliss. And now I’m not even following through! Isn’t a career in the performing arts what I’ve always wanted? How could I give that up?

Cut to the past few weeks.

I haven’t been auditioning, haven’t been singing much outside of the shower, which the guilt grip continues to give me a little pressure for. But I have been doing a lot of event management for the company I’ve recently started working for. And it’s intense, and it’s stressful, and I love it. And I think I’m good at it, too. It’s definitely a creative outlet. (Today the whole company is recording a music video in Golden Gate Park. Mullet wigs, inflatable guitars, airbrush tattoos — guess who thought that up?) But is it art?

And this is where I start to go cross-eyed: if I sit and admit to myself, yeah, maybe the whole singing-and-dancing thing isn’t for me right now, am I being honest or am I just weaseling out of a life goal? How do I honor the goals and aspirations of my youth (“When I grow up, I’m going to be on Broadway!”) while also recognizing what feels good — not just hedonist-avoidance good, but truly in-my-soul good — right now?

And if I am drawn to what feels good and right in this moment, flitting every which way my bliss takes me, how will I ever achieve success, which I assume is a state that takes years of single-mindedness?

If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Helen is a sentient multi-cellular organism with the ability to convey thoughts through mutually-agreed upon symbols, which if you think about it, is pretty bad-ass. She strings together symbols elsewhere at <a href=”http://www.sayshelen.com“>SaysHelen.com</a>.

Falling With Style: All I Do is Win Win Win, No Matter What

Helen Laroche on her reaction to the Tony Awards this past weekend.

I’m still reeling from the Tony awards. I mean, if you watched the opening number and weren’t moved, even a little bit, by the sight of so many talented people working in tandem to deliver a mind-blowing spectacle, then you might be dead inside.

Didn’t Debra’s slack-jawed look of childish wonder speak for all of us?

Didn’t Debra’s slack-jawed look of childish wonder speak for all of us?

And yet there was a teeny-tiny piece of me that refused to enjoy it, and instead was jealous. Jealous of the dancers, who are so much better than I’ll ever be! Jealous of the singers, who have the drive to get to Broadway! Jealous of my many fellow CMU graduates who swept the Tonys! If I hadn’t intervened, that little voice might have ruined my enjoyment of the whole thing.

I find myself hearing that little voice a lot when it comes to performance. I hear about others’ achievements and instead of feeling pride, love, or awe, I feel jealous instead. Sometimes (and I’m not proud of it) I take some happiness or solace knowing, for example, that an oft-hired female of my type was not cast in a particular show. It’s as if I’m operating under the assumption that either that person can achieve, succeed, and be happy, or I can. Their loss is my gain, and vice versa.

But the gains I make by listening to that little conniving voice are hollow; the losses, utterly devastating. And worst of all, I miss out on enjoying other people’s heartfelt artmaking.

I’m reminded of a mantra I’ve heard many times in the past few months, first at the Theatre Bay Area ATLAS program and many times since: “A rising tide floats all boats.” Instead of listening to the little voice that hopes others lose in order for me to win, I’d like to focus instead on rejoicing in others’ big art-making achievements. Some days, that’s easier said than done … but I’m a work in progress.

If you’d like to join me in my visualization, picture this: your mortal artistic enemy (the guy that keeps getting cast over you; the gal whose play keeps getting slotted while yours languishes) on a podium accepting the Pulitzer-Tony-Oscar for Best Artist. And just keep sitting there until it makes you smile!

Falling With Style: To Do Good Work, Surround Yourself With Inspiring People

Helen divulges one of the truths she’s learned about being your best, most creative self.

When I started writing this column, I’d been underemployed for about 6 months, trying to figure out how I wanted to manifest my creativity. Those who have read any of my articles have bared witness to the falling and/or flying I’ve done since then. Most recently, my energy has been directed towards finding a stable job in an environment that I love, working towards a vision that I can get behind.

In the 9 months that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve had a handful of jobs, ranging from mundane to engrossing, within a variety of sectors. Whether the roles satisfied me had to do with a variety of factors: salary, challenge, my feeling as though I affected the company and, through it, the world. But when it all came down to it, nothing was more important than my day-to-day interactions with my teammates.

A good teammate, and even moreso a good team leader, can inspire me to do great things in a role that I might otherwise be unsatisfied with or unsure about. There are people who are inspiring just to be around, and when you find those people — “your” people — you should pay attention to that. It’s not common.

I think there’s a similar phenomenon in the community/homegrown/indie theatre of the Bay Area. There are a few people whose light is so dazzling, and we moths flock to their flame, hoping to be inspired by it. Many of those people are wonderful directors and writers. One of those people is Stuart Bousel, who was recently honored by the SF Weekly as a “Ringmaster of Bay Area Theatre.”

When people like Stuart inspire us, they deserve recognition. Who in the Bay Area inspires you with his/her writing, direction, or other work?

Helen Laroche is a writer and artist living in San Francisco. You can learn more about her upcoming projects at www.helenlaroche.com.

Falling With Style: Don’t think about pink elephants (or doubt)

Last time, Helen admitted that she still loves theatre, she’s just not *in love* with theatre. So while she waits around to see if the loving feeling comes back, she tries to connect with the underlying creativity that led her to the form in the first place.

I’ve spent the last two weeks moving from Palo Alto to San Francisco. Honestly, ever since I dubbed myself the family project manager for the move, I’ve gotten a little obsessive. The move and its hundreds of to-do’s have consumed most of my waking thoughts. But now here we are, newly carless, about 1/3 of our previous stuff tossed, sold or Goodwill’d, and almost all unpacked.

The other day, in the middle of all this commotion, I was unexpectedly forced to chill out. On Tuesday after dinner, I locked myself and my leash-less dog out on the back porch of the new place. I had no phone, no keys, and short sleeves. I knew my husband would be home late, and I don’t know the area well yet — so I just decided to wait.

I sat and stared into space, with no time-telling mechanism, no other means of distraction except for my imagination and my dog. For the better part of 3 hours, I hardly moved from my spot, huddled against the side of the apartment as the sun set.

It was the first time in ages that I’d spent so long with so little to distract me. I felt the twinge of an old, atrophied muscle as it tried to respond to a stimulus it hadn’t felt in decades.

As a child, I was a wildly creative daydreamer. I’d dream up a story and realize, upon re-focusing in the real world, that the dragon I thought I’d seen was actually the backpack sitting in front of me. I remember writing fables, plays, picture books — all by hand in loopy cursive. But it’s been many years since my last great picture book, entitled “Socks: The White House Cat.”

The type of mind-wandering I engaged in on Tuesday goes by many names, but whatever you call it — meditation, flow, imagination, sweat lodge-induced hallucination — it is the breeding ground for creative inspiration.

Where I’m at now feels like a Catch-22: I’ve been shying away from creating space for flow because it feels like it takes so long to get anywhere “useful.” Or, to say it another way: because my muscle is so out of shape, I need a lot of time to get plugged in to a place where the creativity is flowing. As I sit there waiting for flow to hit, I get anxious and doubtful about how my time is being used. (“Ugh! I could be crossing so many other things off my list right now!”) And of course, every time the doubt creeps in, my chances of finding flow in that sitting are all but nil.

I’d laugh if I weren’t so frustrated, because the lesson I’m learning from this quest to regain creative flow is one that’s already made itself known in my relationship, my personal spiritual practice, and my career search. The lesson, which I keep trying to get a second opinion on, is that I can’t control a thing, and furthermore, life is going to unfold however it damn well pleases.

Helen Laroche is a writer and artist living in San Francisco. You can learn more about her upcoming projects atwww.helenlaroche.com.