Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Interview with Danielle Gray

Marissa Skudlarek speaks with one of the Bay Area’s most exciting multi-hyphenate performers!

I don’t think I’d ever seen the actor-singer-musician-clown-fashionista Danielle Gray at this time last year, and then all of a sudden they burst upon the indie-theater scene. And, while I spend my days in a cubicle at a day job, Danielle always seems to be learning new circus skills, or singing torch songs in secret cabarets, and looking fabulous doing it. Currently, Danielle is acting in the new play Hunting Love in Oakland, which seemed as good an excuse as any to chat with them about their art and aesthetics.

HuntingLove

Nican Robinson as Narciso, Danielle Gray as Echo, Susan-Jane Harrison as Love.

Marissa: Tell me a little bit about Hunting Love and the character you play in it.

Danielle: Hunting Love is a new play by Susan-Jane Harrison. It’s kind of a reunion collaboration between Susan-Jane and director Erin Merritt, who used to work together at all-female Shakespeare company Woman’s Will. Hunting Love is being produced by a new company called Local Dystopia, which has produced shows here and in London, and is going up at the Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. The piece is fairly ambitious in its incorporation of dance/movement and sound/music. We have this amazingly talented three-person Greek chorus/band (Jed Parsario, Mia Pixley, Bruce Bennett) who play original music, provide atmospheric Foley sounds with their instruments, and act as minor characters. I am so impressed by them all the time.

Hunting Love is a new story, loosely using characters from Greek mythology. I play two characters who are inextricably connected in the story – Echo, a lovesick dryad who has willingly been turned into air so that she may follow Narciso (played by Nican Robinson) forever, and I also play Histrionia, daughter of Love (played by Susan-Jane Harrison). Character inspirations for my Echo include ballerinas, kittens who scratch you even when they’re trying to be affectionate, and baby velociraptors. She’s a bit feral, but in a lovable way. Histrionia is in her early twenties, but has had some emotional development setbacks… so she is a fully-grown woman with the emotional capacity and understanding of intimacy of a teenager. The play is about learning what intimacy and love even are — how do we go about this confusing business of loving one another?

Marissa: You’ve said that your audition for the 2015 San Francisco Olympians Festival (after which you were cast in a major role in the staged reading of Allison Page’s Jasons) is the reason you’ve been so busy with work over the last year.

Danielle: This is true! I auditioned on the advice of a friend who did it several years ago, and quickly found myself surrounded by excellent new friends and collaborators.

danielle-Theater Pub

Danielle as a mime in the March Theater Pub show, On the Spot. Photo by Tonya Narvaez.

Marissa: What were some of the artistic highlights of the last year for you?

Danielle: It sounds like I’m pandering, but sincerely, working with Theater Pub has been a major highlight of 2016. [Danielle played the Duke in Theater Pub’s February show Over the Rainbow, had roles in two short plays in our March show On the Spot, and also appeared in our June show Better Than Television –ed.] Theater Pub is the opposite of elitist, and everyone involved is engaged fully in the process of trying new things, both with existing texts and new work. It’s been really refreshing. However, my favorite show I only got because the director and writer saw me at Olympians was The Horse’s Ass & Friends, Megan Cohen’s delicious vaudevillian showcase of short works that played last December. It was a dream cast and crew and experience — everyone involved was a super talented pro and a lovely person, and I still count them all as friends I would recommend to anyone, or work with again in a second.

Marissa: Since so many good things came out of the Olympians Festival for you, it’s appropriate that you’re now acting in another play that is inspired by Greek mythology. What’s your favorite Greek myth or mythological figure?

Danielle: Oh, it is hard to pick. I like Medusa quite a bit, because she’s such an interesting, nuanced character who is often unfairly reduced to a Halloween monster. Her situation is fully unfair and she’s just trying to make the best of things by living up to her bad bitch reputation with no apologies, amirite? I’ve also always been fascinated by Hera, who is clearly the one keeping Mount Olympus running behind the scenes while Zeus is being a swan unconcerned with consent or whatever. I like complicated, imperfect female or non-binary characters in basically any mythology.

Marissa: You are making it as a working artist (sans day job) in the Bay Area, at a time when many people say that that’s no longer possible. What are your tips on how to make this work?

Danielle: So this is a popular rumor, and it’s only sometimes true, but I have been known to pull it off for months at a time. My situation changes frequently. I have anywhere from two to four part-time day jobs going at any given time. Nearly all are at least a little art-related, a rule I made for myself this year.  Right now I am teaching at an outdoor preschool for the summer, and I work at the front desk of a dance studio so I can get class credit, which is like… medium artistic, more about supplementing process expenses and doing research. Other arts work is contract-based and somewhat unpredictable, like cabaret or walk-around character acting for parties.

Tip #1: FOUR JOBS IS TOO MANY, don’t do this, I do this so you can see how crazy it can make a person.

Tip #2: Most artists I know have at least two things they love. My advice, for people who are willing to hustle like they will die tomorrow, is to do both of them. Don’t buy the advice that you have to pick. I love working with kids, so I keep my side job options open in five-and-under education, and luckily I live in the Bay Area, where when parents find out I also do cabaret they just think I am cool. They recognize that adults contain multitudes and are capable of being responsible, caring human beings AND doing weird circus sideshows for cash.

Tip #3: Accept help from trusted sources. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that as an artist in a city with skyrocketing prices, I never hit a surprise financial wall and let my mom (a former costumer and lifelong artist/arts supporter herself) boost me with grocery money. I figure I’ll pay her back when she’s old and I’m successful by being Dorothy to her Sophia and making sure she gets to go on a vacation whenever she effing wants, just like she does for her mother.

Tip #4: This one is honestly the most important. Don’t work jobs that make you miserable. Don’t do it, it’s not worth it. Hold out if you can for a day job that has a team you love, or perks that are actually worth it (like training you in skills that will benefit your arts career), or a job that just makes you happy. Do not languish in industries you hate because you are afraid you won’t find something better in time to rescue yourself from late rent. You will manage. Believe in your own resourcefulness. Ask your network for help.

Marissa: You’ve also been getting into the cabaret scene as a singer, ukulele player, and clown. I am an amateur ukulele player myself so I have to ask: what are your favorite songs to play on the uke?

Danielle: I have been clowning and doing circus sideshow for a couple of years now, started teaching myself ukulele about four years ago but only started playing publicly last year, and I’ve been singing since I could open my mouth. But now I get paid to do it all in dark cabarets and variety shows, fulfilling my destiny of being Sally Bowles with (slightly) more sense in my head, and hopefully fewer Nazis. Lately I’ve been playing the following to relax: “I Wish I Was the Moon,” by Neko Case, “The Chain,” by Ingrid Michaelson, and “That Was Us,” by Julia Nunes. And I’m learning a duet with my dear friend Adam Magill which we will finish eventually: “To Die For Your Ideas,” Pierre de Gaillande’s English translation of a Georges Brassens song. I play so many broody songs on the ukulele I created a clown character centered around it just to lighten the mood. Triste is a sad, pretty clown, who sings pretty, sad songs.

danielle - fortune teller

Danielle as Gilda the Fortune-Teller. Photo by Ralph Boethling.

Marissa: What are your biggest influences or contributors to your aesthetic sensibility?

Danielle: I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, starting just about as soon as I could read a novel. That probably had a lot to do with what is happening here. I read Grimm’s fairy tales and the Anne of Green Gables series like a hundred times. My favorite book in high school was Lolita, because I am obsessed with Nabokov’s love letters to the English language, and the concept of playing with and manipulating audience sympathies. Lydia from Beetlejuice was a strong influence, though I only started wearing black in my late twenties: I didn’t have a “goth phase,” at least not where wardrobe is concerned, because I grew up in the desert. I also grew up in a very theatrical and musical household, so we watched a lot of TCM as a family and on our own. Old Hollywood films, musicals in particular, have had a huge impact on my aesthetic: Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Carol Burnett, Buster Keaton. Also the fashion of forgotten gems of 1990s cinema. Not the enduringly popular films, but the weird ones like With Honors, or Michael, or Truly, Madly, Deeply. Dad-jeans time capsules. I am enduringly obsessed with vaudeville aesthetics, magic, etc.

Marissa: What’s coming up next for you, and what shows are you most excited to see this summer/fall?

Danielle: So we just opened Hunting Love this past weekend, and it will run through August 21. Click here for tickets. We’ve also begun rehearsals for KML: The Musical, opening in September, which is SO EXCITING because it’s not just my first time working with Killing My Lobster, it’s my first foray into any sketch comedy since my high school cohort’s tragic but heartfelt attempt to form a troupe. I’m thrilled about the team for this show.

I haven’t booked anything at Panic & Give Up (a secret speakeasy cabaret I love) in the near future, but I am always haunting that joint and I’m sure I will turn up on their stage again eventually. It’s a good place to look for me. You can keep in the loop by using the form at www.daniellegray.com/booking, and requesting to be added to my email list. Or follow me on Facebook — I always do a public post when I have a show coming up.

The next show I’m going to see is The Thrush and the Woodpecker at Custom Made, and I’m pretty stoked about the space station they’re building over at PianoFight for Faultline Theater’s The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident.

Marissa: My column is called “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” and you are a notably glamorous person, so I also have to ask: do you have any pointers (either practical or philosophical) for achieving glamor?

Danielle: Oh goodness, Marissa. Blush. I get asked about fashion advice a lot because I am not subtle about my evolving love affair with my wardrobe, and the best advice I have for anybody is to wear what you actually like. It is that simple. Honestly. If you want to wear a ball gown every day, just do it. I’m not at all exaggerating. If you like to wear yoga clothes, buy the ones you really like and rock them. The only thing stopping you from looking exactly the way you want is your hesitation – find photos that inspire you and replicate the items, scour thrift stores and department stores alike, be real about the colors you enjoy, don’t be snobby about brands (high end or low end). I think of every outfit as a costume, with a particular inspiration. Once a friend told me my outfit was “a pair of fishnets away from Bob Fosse Captain Hook,” which remains one of my most treasured compliments. Some days I’m “Andro Duckie.” Often, I get “80s New Wave/Boy George.” You know what makes you feel good, you know whose style you admire. There’s no reason you can’t do what they do. People like to see other people being unabashedly themselves.

Keep up with Danielle’s adventures at www.daniellegray.com.

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The Five-Singing Children, Ladies of Theatre, Hulk Hogan and More!

Anthony R. Miller Checks in with whatever’s on his mind.

Hey you guys, so once again, I completely fail to have one “Big Idea” to discuss, but luckily, I still have a few things to talk about, luckily, there are five.

Kids Rock

I was lucky enough to attend the opening of “School of Rock” at the Curran Theatre and I’m seriously still high on life. While the show is still on Broadway, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber has allowed amateur and school productions to be licensed now. OSA had the chance to present the very first school production in the country. The show is fantastic, and I could go on for hours about it. Webber is the undisputed king of the reprise, the music is clearly influenced by British Metal, Julian Fellows (Yes that Julian Fellows) took a great, but problematic movie script and gave it so much shape and rounded out the characters and relationships so well. But that’s not what’s important, what’s important is THESE KIDS. Just to be in the room and share this moment of unbridled joy for all the amazing kids in the cast. It warmed my bitter cynical heart and left me with a dumb grin on my face the whole time. It was like mainlining serotonin. I think the entire run is sold out, but if you can, sneak in, buy a scalped ticket, do whatever. It’s been a long time since I’ve loved a show so much. Thanks Kids.

Death of a Fictional Character

And now let’s talk about pro-wrestling. It’s been a rough year or so for Terry Bollea. You may better know him as Pro Wrestling God Hulk Hogan. The thing to know about old school wrestlers is they never dropped the act; they were their character all time. This was never so true than it was for Hogan. But now he’s in court suing over a sex tape with his friend’s wife, where he is, to say the least, very un-Hogan like. We are presented with the uncomfortable truth that my childhood hero is a human being, capable of doing and saying very unfortunate things. This brings me back to my never ending “Art vs. The Artist” discussion. Do I simply love the art created by the person or does the realities of who the artist is in real life taint that ability? It’s easy to say “Well, Hulk Hogan is ok, he’s a fictional character, but Terry Bollea is a dick.” But when the man spent most of his career convincing us those two people were one in the same, It’s not so easy.

ShortLived Baby!

PianoFight’s short play competition known as “Short Lived” has begun. Tons of writers and theatre folks are presenting shows in this content. Myself included. My Play, “We Were Walking Around Like We Owned The Place Before It Was Cool” will be featured in week 4, it’s about how Hipsters being mad about gentrification may be the most ironic thing of all. It’s pretty funny, has a great cast and is directed by my Director on Retainer, Colin Johnson, come see it and vote for us.

Happy International Women’s Day

For those that follow my article regularly (Hi Dad) you may recall fellow blogger Allison Page and I went on an excursion to see “Thunder From Down Under” the Australian Male Stripper Troupe. Beforehand, she and I were chatting and the conversation of “What Comics do you find funny?” Came up and perhaps I disappointed Allison with my response because the only ones I could think of at the time were men. Then two days later it occurred to me that IU had done a terrible disservice to a woman whom I find remarkably funny, if not one of the funniest people who ever lived. So for International Women’s day I would like to take a moment and honor Carol Burnett. She had sass, presence, wit and is still a remarkable performer. Check out old clips of the Carol Burnett Show of Youtube, you won’t be sorry. She is one of the greats. (Are we cool now Allison?)

Reunited and It Feels So Meh

And Finally, the great rite of passage for anyone in their late thiries is upon me, My 20 year High School reunion. (Yeah, I’m old) So while I’m sorta-kinda looking forward to seeing who is balder than me or who married someone with a ridiculous last name, I’m in fear of what people might say to me. In high school I was a weird theatre-kid and now, well, I’m a weird theatre-adult. I’m doing exactly what I said I would do. I’m not like famous or anything, so what do I say to a bunch of people who will be homeowners with steady jobs, spouses and 401K’s? “Yeah, I’m pretty broke all the time, but that’s pretty much the life I chose.” I made a big point to never be a person who misses all the cool things they did in High School . And it does make a nice bookend to my recent experience to “School of Rock”. Without theatre, I would have probably been a juvenile delinquent, and while I was by no means popular in High School, everyone knew who I was. It’s gonna be weird, because at some point people will tell me how they perceived me 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I want to know. I don’t spend much time looking back at those days; nor do I want to be a person who does. Not to mention its being held at a bar I used to run the San Jose Poetry Slam at, this place was My House. Some of the greatest Artistic achievements of my 20’s began at that bar, so it’s gonna be double nostalgic and double weird. Ugh, the past.

That’s all this week, see you soon nerds.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer and producer, go to http://www.awesometheatre.org or follow him on twitter @armiller78 to keep up with all his projects.

Everything Is Already Something Week 20: Actors Who Write

Allison Page is the new James Franco. 

It’s three years ago or so, and I’ve just finished a reading of several episodes of a web series I wrote. We’ve all been milling about the theater chatting, having snacks, and discussing the episodes. I’m scratching down a bunch of notes for myself – things I want to change, things I really liked, changes inspired by the way a person read the character, all the regular stuff. A guy walks up to me, and says completely seriously, “That was pretty good writing, for an actor.” He smiles and leaves.

I would argue that I’ve been an actor since I’ve been a talker – possibly before that. It’s never not been a part of my life, and every time I’ve made an attempt to cut it out, I just can’t. But the last three years especially have been co-focused on writing. I make my living writing allllllll day. And yet, I have this chip on my shoulder that I’m always going to be seen as an actor first, and a writer second. Or that somehow I can never really be a writer because I was an actor…which, when you say it that way, sounds really stupid. Generally, no one cares what you focused on before you started focusing on whatever you’re doing now. There are probably people in the NFL who used to work at Best Buy. I doubt anyone’s watching the game saying, “Yeah, he’s okay, but shouldn’t he be selling TVs? I just can’t see him doing anything else, ya know? He’ll always be Best Buy Brian to me.” Which isn’t to say that acting is as important to me as selling TVs, but the point is that most of the time, no one cares about that. But the actor/writer combo feels like it has a weird little stigma. Or maybe it’s because I am doing both of those things, and not giving up one for the other. If anything I’m using them to inform each other – something that I imagine and hope other actor/writer hybrid monsterbots are doing. I’m pretty happy with that, but every once in a while someone will say something like “That was pretty good writing, for an actor.” And after I’m done mocking his hairline, which is not so much receding as it is just running away, to make myself feel better – I get to thinking about the various reasons he might have said that.

Actor/writer is definitely an interesting combo if you look plainly at stereotypes. Actors: flighty, demanding, vain, difficult, extroverted, emotional, possibly dumb, probably-loves-swimming-with-attractive-people. Example: Marilyn Monroe

I'm carefree because I don't have to think...WHERE ARE MY BLUE M&Ms?!

I’m carefree because I don’t have to think…WHERE ARE MY BLUE M&Ms?!

Writers: brainy, quiet, meditative, introverted, probably-shut-themselves-up-in-a-cabin-for-months. Example: Ernest Hemingway.

This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?

This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?

Putting those two things together seems impossible. But those are also just stereotypes and don’t hold a lot of water in real life, but just because they’re not true doesn’t mean that the idea of them doesn’t still exist.

I’m aware of other actors who have started to write and don’t even wait for someone else to put the burden on them, they just do it themselves. Putting themselves down for having been an actor first and discounting their own writing because of it. Congratulations for getting to it before your nay-sayers did…but now you’re your own nay-sayer! For me (and I’ve said it before) one of the best things about the bay area is that you can do nearly anything. It’s a big beautiful testing ground on which to spill your artistic guts. There are so many outlets for you, if you look for them.

Last night I took a Lyft home, as I am like to do. I had just come from Write Club SF, an event which describes itself as “Literature as blood sport”. Naturally I was a couple of beers in (when you become a writer, you get to drink more. BONUS.) and got to talking to the driver about the event. I won my bout that night and have a tiny trophy to prove it. He told me, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s always wanted to be a writer. “So be one.” I said. “I don’t know” he told me, shaking his head. “I just feel like I don’t have the education, and I can’t afford it.” Naturally, I pish-poshed at that. I told him my whole rambling story, (you can check out my previous blog “Sorry I Didn’t Go To College” if you want to find out how I got here.) He’d been wanting to write for years. He’s started writing several novels but hasn’t finished them because he doesn’t feel like he’s really allowed to. After all, what right does he have to join the ranks of the elite alcoholism and snobbery of writing…right? My advice to him was that if he wants to do it, he should do it. The best thing about writing is that you barely need anything. If you have a laptop – great – if you don’t, paper and a pencil are damn cheap. I told him about a ton of free events that can help get him started. He ended the ride saying he thought it was fate that brought me to his car to encourage him to go after his dream. I won’t put quite that much weight in it, but I’m glad he felt inspired. I’m no Hemingway, but I do what makes me happy without regard for the opinions of people who don’t have the right to set the standard for me, because I don’t let them.

Tonight I have a short play in the SF Olympians Festival. It’s my first time writing for it after having acted the last couple of years. One of the many things I love about this festival is its dedication to not giving a fuck who you are. You send in a proposal. If your proposal is chosen you have a year to write a play. Then a staged reading of that play is produced. There are first time writers, long time writers, sometime writers and everything in between. There are, like me, other actors who are writing for the festival. There’s a drama critic writing for the festival. People from the fanciest of colleges, and people who barely graduated from high school writing for the festival. Unemployed people, authors, mothers, teachers, grad school students, tech people, and directors writing for the festival. And the best part is that we are all on an even playing field. Sure, the quality of each individual play is up to the writer, but we all have the same resources. We all get a director, actors, a theater, and even a piece of artwork representing our plays, regardless of background, experience or education. We’re pretty well supported by the festival and each other. I personally have missed only 2 plays, and have seen 22 in the last 2 weeks. And at no point has anyone mentioned that I’m just an actor who writes.

I try to work really hard at what I do to get that cozy “I earned this.”, feeling. But I’m also sure not to get down on myself just because I’m not Pynchon or Poe or some other writer with a P name. I’m actually happy to be both an actor and a writer. It’s satisfying for me; otherwise I wouldn’t do it. In the end I don’t think of myself as an actor who writes or a writer who acts – I’m an actor and I’m a writer and a bunch of other stuff too. I don’t think I know anybody who boils down to only one thing.

And for good measure, here are some people who did both, in no particular order and including playwrights, screenwriters and authors. (Don’t worry, I won’t mention James Franco):

Sam Shepard

Tina Fey

Bob Newhart

Mary Pickford

Wallace Shawn

Molière

Mindy Kaling

Christopher Durang

Kristen Wiig

Jerry Seinfeld

Marion Davies

Larry David

William Shakespeare

Carol Burnett

Steve Martin

Amy Sedaris

Harvey Fierstein

John Cleese

Gilda Radner

The Marx Brothers

Paddy Considine

Woody Allen

Mary Tyler Moore

Christopher Guest

Jon Favreau

Jennifer Westfeldt

Kenneth Branagh

……JAMES FRANCO. (gotcha)

This smile never needs a caption.

This smile never needs a caption.

See Writer Allison’s play The Golden Apple of Discord TONIGHT (November 20th) at 8pm at the Exit Theatre along with other short plays based on the Trojan War. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.