Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Embracing the Mirror, Part Two: Such Great Heights

Marissa Skudlarek follows up Ashley Cowan’s piece from yesterday with her own tall tales.

September, 2000. I am a 13-year-old high school freshman who dreams of theatrical stardom. My local community theater is holding auditions for Annie, seeking girls between the ages of 7 and 13 to play the orphans, and I beg my parents to let me try out.

“Okay,” they say, “but you realize you haven’t got a chance, right? The orphans in Annie need to be cute kids, but you don’t look like a cute kid anymore – you’re too tall.”

At 13, I am about 5’6”, a few inches below my final adult height of 5’8”. I argue that there are plenty of real-life 13-year-old girls who are 5’6”, and it stood to reason that one of them could’ve been in a Depression-era orphanage. There was nothing wrong with that logic, except that casting has its own shorthand. The orphans in Annie have to be cute kids, and the easiest way to convey that a character is young is to cast someone short.

If I’d been cast as a 5’6” orphan in Annie, my idea was to play the role as surly and truculent and resentful – since I’d be playing the oldest orphan, the one who’d been there the longest. Even as a young girl, I guess I’d absorbed the idea that tall women often play the bitch or the villainess. “I feel like unless I ask to read for a certain role, I am going to be handed sides for the ball-buster/ice queen/bitchy lawyer part,” says local actress Erika Bakse, 5’9”. “I don’t generally mind this because they are pretty fun roles — there’s a reason the majority of quotes in the recent New Yorker article about The Real Thing came from Charlotte, who is in only 3 scenes of the play. But it would be fun to get the opportunity to show other sides of myself. Interestingly, the one time I got to be more of an ingénue was in Stop Kiss, with a shorter Callie opposite me. Bisexuals/lesbians can be any height, I guess.”

(Full disclosure: last year, Katja Rivera and I cast Erika as a ball-busting feminist in my play Pleiades. Erika’s character was also supposed to be the oldest of the eight young women onstage, and her height probably helped her read that way to the audience, too.)

On this blog, we often talk about the difficulties facing female actors: too many aspirants and not enough roles. In such an environment, anything that makes a woman “difficult” to cast can turn into a permanent handicap. I therefore wonder how many tall women get dissuaded from acting, if prejudices along the lines of “The leading man always needs to be taller than the leading lady” mean that they’re not cast as frequently as their shorter sisters. By the time I got to college I was pretty sure that the odds were against my making it big as an actress, and I felt like part of that had to do with my height.

At the same time, college was when I came to terms with my height, and started to take pride in it. Instrumental in this was seeing Cate Blanchett play Hedda Gabler, in a production that began with a dumb-show in which Blanchett stalked around the stage for a minute or two. The stage was dimly lit and I was seated in the back row of the balcony, but Blanchett’s stage presence astounded me: her elegance, her dignity, her power, her height. Like me, she is 5’8″. I draw on my memory of her performance whenever I need a jolt of self-confidence about being a tall lady.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I'm still taller than everyone.

Me and the Desk Set ladies on audition night. Even slouching, I’m still taller than everyone.

This year, when I played Elsa in the comedy The Desk Set, my four-inch heels and bouffant blonde wig made me the tallest person onstage. And there were several moments where my height became part of the joke: in my stage kiss with Alan Coyne (who commented that the wig and heels made me very intimidating); when I stared down my romantic rival, played by the petite brunette Kitty Torres; when I danced the tango with Andrew Calabrese, my breasts at the level of his eyes. It was fun to use my physicality in this way, though if I think about it too hard, I can start to have qualms: does this mean there’s something inherently ludicrous about tall women? And it seems less likely that I’d be asked to kiss a shorter actor in a scene that was meant to be earnest rather than comical.

Some roles are specifically earmarked for tall actresses. I get annoyed when women of average height play Rosalind in As You Like It, because the reason Rosalind gives for dressing up as a boy is “I am more than common tall.” And the catfight between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a short-girl vs. tall-girl classic. (After our scene in The Desk Set, Kitty Torres and I are now hoping that someone will cast us as Hermia and Helena. Producers, call us!) Overall, though, in classical theater, there seems to be an unspoken rule that young actresses play ingénues and middle-aged actresses play queens. The difficulty is that we tend to think of ingénues as petite and queens as statuesque.

Local actress Valerie “Three-Time Helena” Weak, who is 5’10”, has these stories and tips:

I don’t think I’ve ever played opposite someone in a romantic onstage relationship who was shorter than me. I’ve definitely dealt with callbacks where we were paired according to height (like when none of the taller Noras got to read with the shorter Torvald) – and that happens even more often when they’re putting together ‘families’ or ‘couples’ for a callback at a commercial.

I’ve learned to make sure I wear flat shoes when I audition for shorter male directors – I’ve definitely had audition situations where a shorter male director is put off by my height in general. I also know to ask costume designers for rehearsal shoes ASAP if I’m going to be wearing a heel in the show – not so much for me to practice walking in them, but for the men who will be working with me to get ready for how much vertical stage space I’m going to take up, rather than that being one more thing for them to adjust to in tech week.

Let’s go back to 13-year-old Marissa. In the middle of writing this article, I procrastinated by rereading some old emails I sent to my high-school acting teacher, and happened upon this amazingly pertinent quote:

I was complaining to my mom about this and she said I should ask you. I read in Vanity Fair that this hot new talent, an 18-year-old actress called Anne Hathaway, had wanted to do Broadway but wasn’t cast because she was too tall. Her height? 5 foot 8. What I wanted to know is if, in your experience with various shapes and sizes of actors, height is a hindrance to actresses if they want to get cast. Because it would absolutely suck if that were the case. So superficial.

Even as a teen, it seems, I was worried about the plight of being a tall actress. My teacher responded with these words of wisdom:

The theater world runs the gamut from directors and agencies that cast specifically for looks, to directors and agencies that cast based on talent, and everywhere in between. Is your cousin dating the casting director? Did you schmooze with the right people? Has so-and-so told what’s-their-name about whozit who mentioned your work to the director? Did you perform remarkably? Was your audition scheduled after the director had a fight with his/her boyfriend/girlfriend? So many factors figure into casting that it is best to just do your best. Let the rejections roll off your back, and the acceptances be wonderful surprises. Height, weight, skin color, gender… there are a few things with which you are born… worry about the elements under your control. Are you well-rehearsed? Have you worked on making your instrument the best it can be? Did you sleep enough last night? Do you have good relations with your family and friends?

Which seems like good advice for anyone, be they old or young, male or female, short or tall.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and sometime actress, who enjoys playing the “Am I The Tallest Person In This Elevator” game whenever she’s at her day job. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Everything is Already Something Week 29: Haiku for Playwrights

Allison Page, better late than never.

And now, a bunch of Haiku about the ups and downs of playwriting which are totally plaguing me right now:

I guess I should start,
Inciting incident right?
Nah I’ll watch TV


40 characters,
Who would produce this monster?
Not my problem…art.

I can’t write it’s cold,
I need a pony to write,
I can’t write it’s hot

Too many white men,
Must change world with this play,
No pressure yeah right

Disappearing guy,
Character gone since scene four,
I guess he’s dead now

Characters argue,
Who says “poppycock” for real?
Talk like humans talk

I hope no one laughs,
When that guy starts crying hard,
Please get good actor

But how much stage blood,
Is too much stage blood, you guys,
Is five buckets cool?

Uh oh story fades,
Can’t sustain three acts no way,
Better make it two

I need Cate Blanchett,
Otherwise this play is shit,
Guess this play is shit

Silently judging you

Silently judging you

I’ll stop for a sec,
Just for a cup of coffee,
Oops been 9 hours

Endings are so bad,
But how do I make it stop,
Ev’rybody dies

I hate the whole thing,
Let’s make it Greek tragedy,
Keep only first page

Allison is toiling over two scripts at the moment. You can follow her adventures on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.

Everything Is Already Something Week 23: 5 Reasons to Self Produce in 2014

Allison Page starts your year off right. 

Unless you’ve been hiding in a mountain and eschewing the passage of time, you know that it’s 2014 now! HOORAY! It’s a new year and you can do new shit! Everyone expects you to try. We’re all waiting…just kidding, do whatever you want.

I do feel a wee bit of pressure because this year I will turn thi…thirrrr…thhhiir…THIRTY. That was hard. Yeah, I’m turning 30. I’m actually mostly okay with it, but I don’t want to head into it feeling regretful. So this year, I’m self-producing. Here are some reasons for it. Let’s get listy.

1. Be a tally mark on the good side.

Gender and racial equality in theater has been a hot topic in the community this year. In some ways, it’s always a hot topic. Not enough female playwrights are having their work produced. Not enough people who aren’t heterosexual white males are having their work produced. There are meetings, research projects, groups and all kinds of things about this issue. I think that’s great, but I’m personally interested in being a positive statistic. If I produce something myself, then that’s one more female playwright whose work has been put up. If I happen to hire a female director (which I have) then that’s one more female director who has an opportunity this year. If my play stars two women (which it does) then there are two more lead female characters in the world (and yes, it passes the Bechdel test).

All this AND a tampon that works?! I LOVE BEING A WOMAN!

All this AND a tampon that works?! I LOVE BEING A WOMAN!

Sure, it won’t count as a positive for a major company whose numbers are being scrutinized, but to be honest, those companies are not relevant to my career right now, so I’m not focused on that. I’d rather be working.

2. It’s the only way to be certain your play will get produced.

You’ve been submitting things all over the place. You’re a good little playwright. You work hard; you follow the protocol. But, here you are, who knows how much later – and there’s at least one play that you just can’t seem to get produced. It’s burning a hole in your head. You can’t move on to other work because you spend so much time thinking about it. You think, “If I could get this up on its feet, I’d finally be able to move on. But no one’s biting!” Well, then how about you bite, Playwright? If it’s something you believe in that strongly, there’s only one way to be absolutely positive that it’s going to happen: do it yourself.

3. Just because it hasn’t been chosen by someone else, doesn’t mean it’s not good.

This feels like it has been reinforced a lot throughout the last year or so. People at the top of the food chain at theater companies have spoken out and said “Hey, brah, it’s not that you’re not good, there are a lot of things to think about when we choose a season and stuff.” Of course, it doesn’t mean that it IS good, either. You’re taking a lot into your own hands if you self produce, and hopefully that means you’ve worked really hard on the material, and that you have people behind you who really believe in it…and hopefully those people are smart. With each company only able to have so many shows in their season, say 6, the odds are not exactly stacked in your favor. So stack ‘em yourself.

4. Work with whomever you want!

Well, almost. You probably don’t have the cash in your pocket to get Meryl Streep to play the part of Snarky Butler #8, but if you’re self producing, you automatically have more creative input.

Okay, I get it, Meryl. I'll ask Cate Blanchett.

Okay, I get it, Meryl. I’ll ask Cate Blanchett.

Maybe you can just see a certain actor in a certain part and it excites you. Well, appeal to that actor yourself. As an actor, it’s pretty damn flattering when a playwright comes to you and says “I have a part just for you!” Whoooooaa – ego parade! Of course, if you choose not to direct your own work you’ll have to find someone else to do it. I was shocked how quickly someone agreed to direct my show for next…oh, God…THIS year! I only asked one person. I got exactly whom I wanted, and she is 100% on board with me. We’re in this together and that is just fantastic. I also believe I snagged someone who will be honest with me, which is pretty important. The last thing you want is someone to stand around and tell you something is amazing if it’s just a nightmare and needs to be fixed. But don’t give up if the first director you asked says no, that’s okay. There are other directors in the sea.

5. The ability to grow and change your project in an instant.

Let’s say a company chooses to produce your play BIG BUTTS, BIG HEARTS at a theater in New Jersey. Oh my gosh, congratulations! I hope Snooki comes to see it!

Is yer play over? Let's get shotz.

Is yer play over? Let’s get shotz.

But…you still live in the bay area. You’re not going to see that cast grapple with it. Maybe there’s a part that just isn’t working. You might not even know about it. Maybe you’re not really even married to the part that’s not working and would gladly change it in an instant. Too bad, you’re really far away. I’m not saying the director won’t contact you to try to work it out but I think you’ll agree that if you could see what’s happening, it might be easier to understand the problems and possible solutions. I’m sure some people would say that they’d rather have the playwright out of the equation by the time it goes into rehearsal to keep them from “meddling”, but if you can keep yourself from being obnoxious, you’re also a great resource. You did write it, after all.

Naturally, when you choose to the do-it-yourself approach, there is a lot more responsibility in store for you – financial and otherwise. It’s probably not for everyone, but it is an important part of the theater world. You’re in good company. My hope is always that theater-makers will be supportive of each other’s work. I try to be. I see shows (I hope to see more this year), donate to Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns for local shows, am always up to act in readings for playwrights who need to hear their stuff, and I love drinking beer with people who want to talk about this crazy theatrical world of ours. I look forward to the crazy stuff 2014 has to offer, including my own play HILARITY and whether or not the producing of it will kill me. Here’s to you, self-producing Playwright! You’re lookin’ good this year.

You can spy Allison with your little eye at SF Sketchfest with Killing My Lobster on February 3rd and follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.