The Real World- Theater Edition: One More Interview

Barbara Jwanouskos- one more interview for the road.

As my last post to The Real World – Theater Edition, I’d like to first thank all the readers out there who have gotten some enjoyment from following this column. I am extremely grateful to Theater Pub to have been able to have the space to reflect on art, theater-making, and the creative process. Thank you to all the people I’ve interviewed for being so heartfelt and expressing your passion for art. Your dedication is such an inspiration and so needed. Please, all artists and people, keep creating and building. If this column has taught me anything, it’s that perseverance and commitment to craft and vision can be momentous. The creative power that we have can do so much. I guess I keep distilling the words of wisdom from the past two years of interviews and I come up with —

don’t be discouraged
what you do is important, powerful, and beautiful
stay connected
keep going even (especially) when it’s hard, even if only a baby step

I was fortunate enough to connect with local playwright-director Andrea Hart and dramaturge Heather Helinsky for this last interview on Andrea’s new play, dark is a different beast. We talked about collaboration and the creative process, how they work together, and how they fit into a broader theater ecosystem.

Thank you for reading.

BJ: Tell me a story of how you got into theater. How did you know this was it for you?

AH: I studied theater at college in upstate New York and had an amazing advisor and theater director, Robert Gross. His experimental ethos pervaded the theater program there, including an amazing student-run theater program. One year I performed at midnight in sunken gardens that were part of our art building. The audience was loud and raucous and huge…they were as much a part of the performance as we were. I loved that. And we were in an unusual place at an unusual time and all of that was part of the performance too. All my work tries to capture that essence of creating something that doesn’t conform to expectations, but that takes everyone involved on a unique journey.

HH: Oh, many reasons, but one of the most compelling things for me is what happens in the room together, when we’re all breathing in and responding to the same story. It’s important in our divided culture to find ways of talking and really listening to each other. I learned that in 2008 when I was dramaturging a long run of August Wilson’s Radio Golf in Pittsburgh right up until the eve of Obama’s first election. It was like a town hall meeting every night! So much energy and electric conversations. It brought so many neighbors together and everyone had an opinion about what August was saying about the challenges of a black man running for elected office, roughly ten years before Obama showed up on the national scene. August’s play helped us all process the daily news cycle. Well, Andrea’s play is a response to this year’s national election. We need to keep talking, not shut down. Theatre forces us to stay engaged instead of being cynical about it; artists try their best to show the way.

Heather Helinsky, dramaturge.

Heather Helinsky, dramaturge.

BJ: How did you get involved with 6NewPlays and what has the development experience been like?

AH: I started talking about creating a West Coast version of 13P in 2010 with an L.A. playwright I met at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Our goal was to find a way to make West Coast theater vital and relevant and combat the feeling that if we weren’t doing it in New York or Chicago we were somehow less committed. Over the next couple years we kept finding other playwrights who resonated with the idea. Originally we tried to do an L.A./S.F. group, but it became too unmanageable, so the SF contingent kept meeting and discovering the shape we would take. It took about 3 years of meeting pretty regularly to get ourselves up and running, but the conversations we had those 3 years were a lifeline for me as I continued to try to figure out what it means to be a playwright in this area. Or at all!

HH: Andrea and I are colleagues through Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is a residency that allows playwrights the time and creative space to dream their next project into existence. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just the relaxed environment we nurture in Omaha: a place for writers all over the country to push conversations forward. I’m not surprised that 6NewPlays started there. In Philly, where I’m based, Orbiter3 has been successfully keeping this playwright-centered process going. We need more of this organic energy where playwrights get to drive the process, but every theatre community has its challenges, here in San Francisco no exception. I’m excited by the warehouse space Andrea has chosen, it gives the storytelling a uniquely Bay Area sense of place, but that’s my outsider opinion. I hope this 6NewPlay movement helps the artist community here find their own unique spaces that help add to another part of the conversation to the production.

BJ: What is dark is a different beast about?

AH: dark is a different beast is about finding connection in a disconnected world. I think it’s ultimately a meditation about what living during this time, and watching the news and being aware of what’s going on in the world and living through various catastrophes—either personally or via your experience of watching it unfold on the news or through a friend or loved one—what that does to our ability to love ourselves and each other. Sometimes it feels like authentic connection with others is a process of cutting through layers and layers of padding and protection before finally revealing and seeing the soft core of someone else, and discovering the strength in that place. The play is basically that image played out on a large scale.

HH: Great answer, playwright Andrea! I encourage playwrights on principle not to over-explain your play, let the audience come up with their own interpretation. It’s that and many other things, including the elemental forces in this country, the conflicts between fire and wind, water and earth. We’re living in a time where all of those elements are fueling a big bonfire of issues, and the play mines those metaphors. We’ll see what resonates the most when the audience shows up!

BJ: How are you both working together in this production? What are your roles? Do they have boundaries? What’s your working style?

AH: I asked Heather to work with me on this script after the script had been around for almost 5 years. I wish I had asked her 3 years ago! She has been amazing at helping me find the structure and make the actual “plot line” clearer, without sacrificing the imagery or fantastical elements of the piece.

She came out to see a few rehearsals in October. I had never had a dramaturg working with me during the production, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. She was able to describe the play to the cast in ways I hadn’t yet. She gave them direct feedback about how the story was coming across and where it wasn’t. She and I stayed up until midnight discussing the ending and she talked me through how to present script changes to the cast. She is basically like a script doula…she holds my hand and encourages me to make the tough choices. She helps me put the script first even when all the production concerns are making me want to do the opposite. She was even counseling me through some actor notes last night via text when it was after midnight her time.

Andrea Hart, playwright-director.

Andrea Hart, playwright-director.

HH: Thanks, all kind of you to say, Andrea. One of the hardest things for a playwright to do is be a playwright-slash-director. Andrea came to me while we were in rehearsals at GPTC for a very poetic play by Chicago playwright/director/producer Bonnie Metzgar. We talked there of the challenges of self-producing and decided to set deadlines over the summer so the actors and designers didn’t feel unnecessary stress if Andrea did any major rewrites. Her focus right now should be directing and nurturing the actors. But the reality of writing is sometimes you discover things in the rehearsal room along the way, so we had a very calculated strategy for me to come in midway and take a hard look at the ending. I’ll miss being there for opening night and I would have loved to see the designers tech this show. I’m sure we could learn more if I wasn’t based on the east coast, but there’s always limitations in theatre-making. Sometimes a limitation can be freeing and have its own advantages. Andrea and I can work well long-distance because there’s a strong bond that has been built over the years working together at GPTC. We’ve been through fire there too, I know Andrea’s aesthetic preferences, we know how to make a quick but tough decision and keep moving forward. Onwards!

BJ: Has working with the story in film changed or opened up how you see dark is a different beast as a play?

AH: The film came out of the need to have better footage of my work to use in grant applications. The cinematographer was a friend and he suggested making it into something that could stand on its own as a film. The process, I think, taught me more about film then it did about theater. It did make me realize that this is definitely a theatrical piece. It helped me know when the language was working or not working—after editing the same line multiple times! The film also only included a few short scenes from the full play, so ultimately the play is an entirely different beast (har har!). And I think how the piece ultimately needs to be seen.

HH: Film is not my medium. As a dramaturg, I work purely in theatre. I read about 300 new plays a season for different national new play organizations and my job is often to sniff out a submission that is really a film script trying to pass as a play. But when a writer like Andrea comes to me and has the experience of making her script as a film first, I love hearing what she learned and what’s she’s already willing to throw away for the sake of a making it a play. There’s always a lesson from crossing over, but you have to be willing to rip it apart and potentially throw away the things that worked best on screen. My training came from the American Repertory Theatre, under AD Robert Woodruff, where we were always encouraged to search for new forms. Woodruff loved Fellini, so we did several exercises ripping apart Fellini’s films and finding the values that were purely theatrical and repurposed them. Like ripping apart a historic house and turning it into a hipster contemporary apartment.

BJ: What challenges and opportunities have come up in the process?

AH: Challenges: How do you have enough time with actors in the room to work the script, discover the design, etc? Really, that’s the biggest challenge. How do you have the space/time/resources to develop the play in the way that it needs before being seen by an audience? I think that’s especially important working with a piece that is this visual and design oriented.

Opportunities: The actors have all brought a lot of interesting knowledge to this piece, from the 3rd Face of Power, to Native American ritual, to comic-book imagery…everyone in the room is constantly introducing me to something I wouldn’t have known about before that is completely relevant to the piece. That makes the piece so much richer and fuller.

HH: Yes. All of the above. Just telling your truth in the form of a play is a challenge, and communicating with a room full of collaborators, and making sure we’re all on the same page with the playwright, and not spinning too far in other directions.

BJ: Have you had any moments of being stuck? How did you get out of it? Or are you still there?

AH: The ending was a big sticking point. I always sort of hated it and kept telling the actors…”We’ll figure that out soon.” Heather was a huge help in talking me through why it wasn’t working and what might work better. It took both of us only getting 3 hours of sleep and me trusting actors to deal with a major change. I’m still not sure it’s the right one, but I know it’s much closer to being right than what we had.

HH: Yep. Out of the 300 new scripts I read a year, a majority of them haven’t figured out the ending yet. Part of my job is to get the writer there. You have to see the potential and keep pressing after hard questions. But then, think about Shakespeare. How many contemporary directors cut the heck out of Shakespeare’s Act 4 & 5? We revere him, but we also get frustrated and cut his last acts to say what we want to say now. For a world premiere, you also have to respect and trust the writer, not force changes to the text until you absolutely have to. My philosophy is to treat a new play like a classic and a classic like a new play. Respect the writer’s first impulse, maybe even go back to an early draft to find the answer. Something hidden in there is closer to the truth.

BJ: What is your take on Bay Area theater vs. other places? What does it look like or how does it differ? Do you see any opportunities to grow the scene?

AH: One thing we’ve talked a lot about with 6NP is that in the Bay Area you really have audiences that are ready and willing to watch anything. What I would love to see is an expansion of support for local theater makers to have the time and space to develop more risky ideas BEFORE inviting the audience in. I think there are some amazing organizations offering this (CounterPulse comes to mind), but with the size of the artist pool, we need more. Ideally, artists shouldn’t have to use the production process to flesh out their work. I think when a workshop showing of a piece has to charge $30 for tickets, something in the ecosystem is not healthy.

HH: I work all over the country in many different theatre ecosystems and this is the first time I’ve been invited to the Bay Area. I’m happy to be here with Andrea, but our collaboration started outside of this city. It takes a lot of respect and trust to invite a dramaturg into the room. Our origin story is taking a critic and throwing an outsider’s critical opinion into the process. Do you want a Kenneth Tynan in the middle of your rehearsal process? Many people don’t.

BJ: What words of wisdom do you have for people that want to do what you do?

AH: I’m at the stage of the process where it’s really hard to feel wise. But I would say…as much as the audience showing up on opening night terrifies you, still make the risky choices. Do what you need to do to drown out the chorus of advisors and critics who get louder as you get closer to opening. Everyone is scared about their part in the final piece. Do what you need to do to get past the fear and find the essence of the story you’re trying to tell. Stick with that.

HH: Pay attention to the playwrights that are part of this 6NewPlays collaboration. In Philly, Christopher Chen’s production of Caught at Interact blew us all away and many Philly playwrights wrote their own new plays in response. I also love Eugenie’s work. Take care of the playwrights making work in your own backyard. The city has many stories to tell, there’s a unique ecosystem here and on a national level, we need to hear your voice just as much as playwrights in NYC, Austin, or Chicago. Give them grants so every once in awhile they can mix it up with writers in other cities, like Philly or Omaha, then bring them home. Don’t lose them.

BJ: Where can we find more info on dark is a different beast and do you have any other projects or friends’ projects coming up we should check out?

AH: Check out 6NewPlays’ website: 6newplays.com. You can find out about dark and also about the next show coming up by Erin Bregman. I also have to put a plug in for Ochlos Theatre Lab, where I create devised work with my collaborator, Carol Ellis. We are slowly working on a new project that we’re hoping will emerge toward the end of next summer: http://ochlostheatrelab.org/. I also pretty much always love what CounterPulse is doing and the education department at ACT—specifically director Tyrone Davis. (Every 28 Hours!)

HH: Playwrights of San Francisco, send your work out bravely to these places, because I work there: Great Plains Theatre Conference, Sundance Theatre Lab (November 15th deadline!), PlayPenn, Jewish Plays Project in NYC, the O’Neill. Or if you’re still in college, the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival’s playwriting division. I hope our creative paths cross again. Thanks for my first experience in the Bay Area! Looking forward to getting to know your community more. Andrea did a fantastic job in hosting me and introducing me to how things work here. A sincere thank you.

dark is a different beast is playing at Light Rail Studios in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 12, 18, and 19. For more information, please visit http://m.bpt.me/event/269658.

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The Real World, Theater Edition: A Harmonizing Hiatus

Barbara Jwanouskos is tired.

Like a lot of folks, after a big creative project, I am absolutely drained and can do little else other than binge watch episodes of Clone Wars on Netflix. I used to feel really guilty that I Wasn’t Doing Enough and I needed to Keep Collaborating, Keep Writing, and in general, Keep Going. I just figured that that was the secret to success of all the artists that I looked up to. They were squeaky wheels who pushed forward their vision and knew how to hold themselves up and say, “I am an Artist” to people who were influential and maybe skeptical. I have pushed myself to be more of a go-getter and make Important Connections with decision-makers, but I always feel as though I come up short. It’s not in my nature to fire the cannons on multiple fronts over multiple battlefields to gain ground. After two shots fired into the sky, I’m tired. I’m done.

What they tell you is that this ability to talk about oneself and one’s work gets easier with time and practice. I suppose that’s true. And it is important to make friends with other people that enjoy the same things as you do. After all, theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a collaborative art.

I also want to be an advocate of Not Doing Anything. I think it’s actually rather natural to have periods in your creative endeavors that are fruitful, to be harvested and encouraged, budding, and maybe barren. And if this was a nicely fitting world, perhaps this post would come out in the winter when we can look around and agree by what nature has for us, that this might be an idea worth merit. Unfortunately, things do not always fit nicely or neatly and often go on unexplained for years or decades (if ever) before being illuminated.

I remember a group discussion with Mac Wellman. When asked of his advice for emerging playwrights, he said to take breaks the theater and also writing. He said to write in other forms, but to not jumble them. I liked that. I mean, he didn’t exactly Why, but that’s actually better in many ways. To be left to experimentation to try this, was refreshing. Who knows, for some folks, taking a break from Doing Something all the time may be akin to death, but I think there is value in stopping for a second and listening, seeing what’s around you. Recalibrating the self simply for that purpose alone.

For myself, heading out of grad school this past year and then the New Plays Lab this year, occasionally I get on social media and become overwhelmed with How Far Behind I Am when seeing what my peers are up to. Then, I remember that everyone has their own journey and their own Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, so that it’s impossible to compare one to the other. I had made the conscious decision to Not Do Anything for a good long while – perhaps the whole summer, who knows – until I’m ready to dig in again. The best part of this phase is the wealth of idea inklings that bubble up and fade away as I just enjoy the scenery.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped creating and developing. Merely, that my energy is now focused on my other interests – I’m thinking of film, tai chi, working out, and some upcoming trips. They all may sound a little weird to others, but I have been enjoying the most fascinating conversations that I know will inform the next plays I write.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and blogger. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany, but currently the creative projects for theater are on hiatus.

Everything Is Already Something Week 51: What Collaboration Does For Me

Allison Page, collaborating.

I used to be a loner. Picture a grouchy old bearded man in a sweater, hunkered down in an armchair, scribbling away on a stack of paper, occasionally shaking his fist at the sky. Possibly at some point he throws half a glass of bourbon in the face of his wife. That was me, but not a man with a beard. You know, but bearded on the INSIDE. Often, I think people have this idea of what a writer is and immediately they think of Ernest Hemingway. And that’s how you’re supposed to be a good writer, isn’t it? All the geniuses and masters toil away in their own well-crafted solitary confinement – crouched down in their pillow forts where all the pillows are barbed wire, and we tell ourselves that’s how you get to be a writer. That’s how you get to be an artist. AN ARTISTE. That suffering makes your art better is a long held idea. I admit to buying into that at some point. I think we all have – especially when young and impressionable. Anyone who caught the bug of wanting to write books or plays or poems (DEFINITELY POEMS) or to act or dance or paint or sculpt or…I don’t know, whatever you guys are doing – puppetry? Anyone who had that impulse at a young age probably started identifying their artistic heroes and began to define what they wanted to be by taking note of what created the artists they connected to most. That was a hell of a sentence.

Misery worked pretty well for Alanis. Teenage girls of the 90s, can ya feel me?

Misery worked pretty well for Alanis. Teenage girls of the 90s, can ya feel me?

Let’s take young, pink-haired, angry Allison for example.

I’ve known I wanted to be an actor since I was probably 5 years old. At that age I was mostly inspired by cartoon characters – let’s be real, cartoons are fucking great. Actually, I remained inspired by cartoons for a while. Actually actually, I still am. I was the only little girl I knew who wanted to be The Genie from Aladdin instead of Jasmine. Animaniacs was a big deal in my life. I mean, it still is. It holds up. (Garfield and Friends does not. Don’t bother.) Once we start getting into the real people I looked up to, though, it doesn’t take long to start finding the darkness. (If we’re being honest The Genie isn’t actually that happy a character, he just deflects his sorrow with jokes. So I guess the darkness crept in even earlier than I thought.)

By the time I was 14, I was already very into old movies. Yes, I was very cool and popular (lies). It was at that age that I first watched a little movie called Der Blaue Engel, or The Blue Angel. It’s a little German tragicomedy about a teacher who falls in love with a cabaret performer. IT DOESN’T GO WELL. It ends with Emil Jannings dying while regretfully clutching the desk from which he used to teach before the succubus Marlene Dietrich ruined his life because he loved her so much that it turned him into a literal sad clown. SO FUN. And that’s the actual movie that made me want to be an actor. Isn’t that wild? Sorry, spoilers in case you haven’t had time to catch this movie since it came out in 1930. But really, it’s beautiful and cruel, you should see it. That was sort of a sidebar because I’m really talking about writers, but I was an actor first so there ya go. When I was 16 I decided I finally had a favorite play. It’s still my favorite play. What is it?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Yikes.

Quite a choice for a teenage mind. But just because something is dark, does that necessarily mean it came from a person who is feeling dark? When you look at comedies, they certainly don’t necessarily come from people who are feeling fun and light. I’m meandering a little on the topic at hand. Let’s get back to it.

Here’s a sampling of some writerly heroes of mine:
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Dawn Powell
Dorothy Parker
Raymond Chandler
Dashiell Hammett
Clare Booth Luce
Robert Benchley

Go ahead and google how many of them were lonely writers and avid drinkers. Just as a sample group. Get ready to be sad!

Robert Benchley: absolutely hilarious and definitely died slowly of cirrhosis of the liver because he loved sad/alone drinking. YAYYYY.

Robert Benchley: absolutely hilarious and definitely died slowly of cirrhosis of the liver because he loved sad/alone drinking. YAYYYY.

I’m not saying I’m as gloomy as any of those people or that they were alcoholics because they were writers, but I think writing can breed loneliness or at least nudge it along. You so often do it alone. I mean, in the end you have to do it alone, right? You can’t have 20 fingers typing on your keyboard or writing with your pencil. Well, you could, but it would take forever. As much as I am alone when I write, I try to spend an equal amount of time either writing WITH other people – like, actually collaborating on something, or writing NEAR other people. I think if you’re in the business of writing about people, that it’s good to maintain connections to people as opposed to doing the opposite of that.

When I write sketch comedy, I do that in a super fun writers room scenario. There are something like 10 – 15 of us (some writers, some actors) throwing out ideas, talking about possibilities, and laughing really hard. It is AMAZING. It feels like magic should feel. So much so, that when I’m executing all those ideas, it still feels collaborative even when I’m alone. Weird, right?

Clearly that’s kind of specific to sketch. When you’re writing a novel, or a play, or whatever else you’re writing, you’re not always looking for that level of collaboration. But that doesn’t mean you have to stew alone all the time. I like to be alone together. I can sit and work on what I’m working on, and a friend can sit across from me or next to me at the table to my left, and we work in silence sipping coffee as long as we can, then turn to each other when we kind of can’t bear it for a minute. We’ll gossip about something, or talk about the trouble we’re having with a particular section, or even *gasp* read a bit we’re particularly proud of to the other person. Or if we’re really struggling, just talk about the coffee we’re drinking. Sometimes if I’m working on something particularly draining, chatter about coffee might be the most I’m able to think about. It’s been good for me, this process.

I want to be a good writer. I think I’m an okay one. I want to be good, but not at the expense of my grip on reality and connections to other people. I don’t need to be Fitzgerald or Parker or Powell, I just want to be the best writer I can be while not falling into the gloom. If that means I don’t go down in history, I’m okay with that. Since allowing myself the possibility of collaborating or writing alone together, everything seems like a little bit less of a struggle. I mean, geez, writing is already not so easy. If you can find a way to make it a little bit easier, I don’t see how that can be bad. I still have my grouchy-old-man-in-a-cardigan moments, but I have fewer of them. And there’s a nice space of happiness in between: the comfort of knowing that the person next to you is dealing with the same thing you are. Or, if you’re competitive, the knowledge that you may be kicking their ass in the number-of-pages-typed-in-a-day department.

I’m not going to say collaboration will kick your depression. What am I, a doctor? No. I’m not a doctor. Don’t ever let me tell you otherwise. But what I am saying is that while hell may be other people, it is also probably a lack of other people. We need each other a little bit. Maybe even just for an occasional reality check.

There isn’t one way to be a successful/good/happy writer. Just like there isn’t one way to be nearly anything. Don’t try to fit yourself into a dangerous mould. Make your own mould. Hell, BE the mould.

Me? I get by with a little help from my friends.

Not actually Allison's friends, but let's pretend.

Not actually Allison’s friends, but let’s pretend.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/comedian. Her new play HILARITY, about a comedian struggling with alcoholism and jokes, is being produced by DIVAfest and has its world premiere at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. Previews start March 5th. Tickets at hilarity.bpt.me

Higher Education: School’s Out Forever

Barbara Jwanouskos finishes up an important chapter.

Today is my last day of classes and the last official day of the Dramatic Writing program here at CMU. After this, the graduating class of writers flies out to LA to meet with industry professionals, then back to Pittsburgh for commencement, to New York for more meetings with industry professionals, and then we return to Pittsburgh to get things in order. Then, we leave.

It’s a bittersweet moment where I can’t help but be nostalgic, nervous and excited all at the same time. I went into this program because I wanted to radically improve my craft, and it’s happened, but part of me feels like I’m just barely scratching the surface. There is still so much out there to learn and so many opportunities to grow further. Though my official academic stint is coming to an end, it’s cliché but it’s true, now is when the real learning begins. When does the learning process ever stop after all? Now’s the time to apply all of what I’ve learned here while also trying to make sure that I’m still finding opportunities for production, development, and inspiration.

It can be daunting to stand at the precipice of any big change in your life. Part of us thinks, “well, maybe I could have done more…” Over the last couple of months, my goal has been to make it to the end strong. Now I’m here and I’ve been reflecting over the times where I made mistakes, where maybe I could have gone further. One of the most difficult challenges for me in this moment is recognizing the good work that I’ve done over the past two years and acknowledging that it is worth of celebration. I haven’t come to a solution that instantly takes all the feelings away, but what I have come to is that I can feel proud of my accomplishments, while simultaneously recognizing that there are so many people, places, things, experiences, and memories I am saying goodbye to.

As artists we deal with loss on a continual basis. We work in a collaborative medium that asks us to build relationships with other people and create events that inspire a connection from others still. In the process of creation we need to be able to trust one another and lean into vulnerability. We start to understand the people around us in better ways. And sure, maybe we have our disagreements or our spats, but having this collaborative atmosphere is wonderful because everyone brings so much to the table. Then, when it ends we part ways and go onto other projects. And that’s just the nature of it.

A couple guest artists came recently and spoke to the School of Drama students. What struck me was how they anticipate these feelings and adjust their own artistic schedules and interests to make the transition times easier. Andrea Thome, a playwright, came recently and we talked a bit about her process of collaboration and of making art. She said that she gains a lot of energy by collaboration and so she’s always trying to meet and talk to new people to start new work. Alan Alda said something similar. He told us in a talkback session that as artists it was very important to have interests in something other than just acting (or writing, directing, etc.). He said it was important to have interests in other things because it helps feed you during the times when one project might be over and another isn’t in sight.

Their words of wisdom resonated with me as I try and think what is my next thing? What is on the horizon for me? What are the things I care about and want to develop further? Instantly, my mind is flooded with images of sprinklings of new plays, people I want to re-connect with once I return to the Bay Area (that’s right, I’m coming back!!), my loved ones who I’ve been separated from for so long, and all the other inspiring pieces of life I can’t wait to engage with. Then, I remember the other side of a goodbye and the other side of loss, and that is the beginning that is waiting to happening.

Cowan Palace: A Story, a Stab, a Mess and a Yes

This week Ashley confronts demons from the past in the name of yes.

Yes. It’s a simple word, isn’t it? But it sure can pack a punch. And this week it beat my head in with a bat.

When I moved to San Francisco six years ago to act in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, I had no friends and spent all my free time alone reading and walking through the city. After a string of failed romantic endeavors, the solitude was refreshing but soon became achingly lonely and I wondered if I had made a huge mistake leaving the comfort of friends and family 3,000 miles away.

Here I am in my first month of TNTing. Hang in there, kid.

Here I am in my first month of TNTing. Hang in there, kid.

While rehearsing TNT, a show heavily rooted in improvisation, we kept focusing on the infamous “yes, and” practice. There were no such things as negated choices; we were left only to contribute to moment. So to inspire a bit more courage and to push myself to be braver in my personal life, I challenged myself to experience “a month of yes”. Meaning, if given the choice, I couldn’t run from opportunity. Instead, I would be forced to embrace it.

Now before you jump in that this concept is dated, I’ll have you know it was before Yes Man came out or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia structured an episode around same idea. Throw a girl a bone, huh?

Yeah, I got it, Jim. You beat me to it. Enjoy that yes!

Yeah, I got it, Jim. You beat me to it. Enjoy that yes!

And honestly, it wasn’t a hugely dramatic month. Jim Carrey couldn’t have cared less. Mainly, it helped encourage me to socialize with my cast more than I would have done. But it certainly built new friendships with many people who are still in my life today. One is even a bridesmaid in my nonfictional upcoming wedding (holla, Allison Page!) and many others will be guests.

The month and the relationships formed in it gave me another idea though. I started to write a short web series entitled “Month of Yes” and took inspiration from the assumed character traits we had developed in our show and I created characters that were a combination of them and us. It was absolutely a reflection of my soul at the time and a genuine piece from my heart. But I was still scared. I was terrified that my words weren’t funny enough, or clever, or interesting, or anything worth trusting. And I allowed that fear to be seen and ultimately, taken advantage of.

I welcomed a collaborator who I believed could enhance my vision and strengthen it. Someone I could hide behind. And at times, the push was helpful. It got me in a creative mindset and the excitement for a joint project with someone I considered a true friend was inspiring and fun. But it also slowed my natural process, made me continue to question my abilities, and lose the grip of something that was once very personal and important to me.

Ultimately, the passion dimmed. It became something else. The title was dropped and replaced with something that never quite fit. New elements were introduced that constantly made me question the integrity. The heart of the project took on a different beat. The partnership suffered. The working relationship struggled. No one seemed happy. I didn’t say no.

Until I let go of my hold so I could grab onto other opportunities that satisfied my creative needs. I lived out a dream of playing Viola in Twelfth Night, I fell in love, I went skydiving, I traveled to Europe with my siblings, and I grew stronger.

Since then, I’ve attacked my fear of sharing my written work with new weapons. It’s still very scary but being able to writing for this column and having other works showcased proved to be an incredible tool to finally start trusting my own instincts and stop caring as much about getting things out there. I felt ready to be heard.

But over the weekend, I came across an online trailer for a project that mirrored my “Month of Yes” in one too many ways. Posted by my past collaborator. Suddenly, the familiar concept and ideas from my experience were being displayed in someone else’s voice. Was it a coincidence? Perhaps. It was a fairly basic idea, after all. But yet, I don’t believe that to be the complete truth.

My heart breaks to see something that was once so close to me, now feel so far away. I can’t help but cry for the girl who poured her feelings out into pages only to have them put into new hands. I mourn for her and her dream.

This is the industry, right? I shouldn’t be so surprised. Or naive. This is what happens all the time in the entertainment business. When you share your story with someone, you risk them taking it. And what can be done?

If I could do it differently, would I? I’d love to say yes. But I don’t know if that’s fair. I’ve always valued collaboration. I’ve always believed the project is more than the individual. And I’ve always trusted in the greater good of the art, even if it means forfeiting the credit. And I don’t want to lose that earnest belief because it’s a part of me.

But what I would suggest is learning to say yes to yourself. Be your own best friend. Tell the story you have to tell. Don’t let anyone stop you. Try not to endlessly question it. Or it may slip away from you.

Take feedback from others with a grain of salt… rimmed on a margarita. Sometimes other opinions can make or break how you feel about your own work; be brave to put it out there and strong enough to hold it tight in the process. Be careful with seeking an artistic partner. It’s almost never going to be an equal balance. Don’t go into it unless you’re fully prepared to let go of your vision. There’s a reason people say you shouldn’t go into business with friends. You have to be willing to risk the relationship and your work. Be open to yes. But don’t be afraid to say no.

Well, that’s my two cents, anyway. Anyone out there ever experience a similar tale? Did you lose your work to another? And how do you bounce back from it?

As always, I want you all to know how greatly I appreciate having the chance to be here. Writing and experiencing something with you. Conquering emotions one word at a time. And I’d love to continue this conversation in hope we can keep pushing each other to be stronger and to say yes to all the positive things that make the artistic community we’ve created continue to thrive.

And so with that and as an attempt to move forward, my first step was writing out some of my feelings in this blog. My second step is to share a piece from my original draft of the “Month of Yes” pilot episode. A script I was way too scared to share or work on alone. So here it is in total draft form. And golly, it’s dated now. Again, forgive the super “draftiness” of it, I haven’t touched this version since 2008!

A redhead, a brunette, and a blonde walk into a webseries. The original ladies who inspired Month of Yes.

A redhead, a brunette, and a blonde walk into a webseries. The original ladies who inspired Month of Yes.

Scene Three: Shot of Haley texting her love interest; waiting a beat. She gets a text back and shock fills her face.

Haley: Whoa, that’s really dirty. (Thinks a moment and then gives a smile and continues walking. She passes a coffee shop where she runs into a friend who is texting. The friend sees her and waves and Haley walks over.)

Friend: I’m sorry, just a little text sex to get the morning going.

Haley: You do that in public?

Friend (makes a confused face and then grabs her phone): Check out what he wrote.

Haley: (checks out the text and her face crumbles) Whoa. That’s really dirty.

Friend: I know, right?

Cuts to Haley with her friends (Scene Four)

Haley: He was texting us the same things.

Alexis: Horrible! (looking through the phone at the messages)

Haley: I know! I really liked him… I seriously thought he would make a great boyfriend. I just feel like such a fool.

Alexis: No, I mean these texts suck. They’re not even that sexy.

Haley: Really? I thought it was pretty dirty-

Alexis: Whatever. He was lame. There are plenty of other guys.

Haley: I guess… I mean, it would be nice to find a guy who could communicate with me by doing something other than just texting.

Katie: Yeah, phone sex can be way hotter. (catches the eye of a cute boy nearby and gives him a smile… within a few moments she gets up and goes to talk to him.)

Alexis: Way hotter.

Haley: Uh-huh. (notices that Katie is now talking to the guy
Alexis: What’s up, Haley? You still seem sad… and that’s really not good for your skin… you’re already so pale –

Haley: Oh, well, I posted a blog last night and it didn’t get that many views. I guess that kind of bummed me out.

Alexis: You’re not going to be the next Carrie Bradshaw if you don’t find more interesting things to write about. No one wants to hear about your allergies.

Haley: This has been a really tough season for-

Alexis: Just think like Carrie, okay? It’s not so hard.

Haley: But I’m not trying to be-

Alexis: Are you still going to be my bridesmaid?

Haley: Um, yeah of course.

Alexis: Great. I have some ideas for the dress.

Haley: Wait. Already? You don’t want to wait until you’re engaged to think about that?

Alexis: Duh, I am engaged.

Haley: What?! I didn’t know that! Tom asked you?!

Alexis: Oh, yeah, last night. You didn’t get my mass text?

Haley: No. Stupid Text Sex. My box must have been full last night.

Alexis: Oh, now THAT sounds dirty.

Haley: I can’t believe you’re engaged! Where’s the ring?

Alexis: On a chain around my neck.

Haley: Oh.

Alexis: Closer to my heart that way.

Haley: Oh. (beat) Oh, wait, are you quoting “Sex and the City” again?

Alexis: That’s what Carrie did with Aidan’s ring.

Haley: But she didn’t end up actually marrying him.

Alexis: Aidan is so hot.

Haley: Yeah.

Alexis: And so good with his hands. (she starts rubbing her neck)

Haley: Okay.

Alexis: And those –

Haley: So who else is going to be a bridesmaid?

Alexis: Well, Katie obvi (shoot to her flirting with the guy) Though, I don’t want that biatch stealing the show and looking hotter than me at my wedding. We’re going to have to make the dresses plain. And she can’t wear her hair all curly and beautiful, it’ll steal focus. Oh, and my sister Liz is going to be my maid of honor.

Haley: Great.

Alexis: But she’s really hoping you’ll want to do all the planning for like the showers and the bachelorette party. OMG, Haley, can we please go to Vegas?! Please! We could all get so f-ed up there and –

Haley: Wait, why would she think I would want to do all the planning? I mean isn’t that the part of the maid of honor stuff to do –

Alexis: I don’t know. She doesn’t want to do it.

Haley: Okay, but –

Alexis: You know you’re good at that party planning stuff. Look, I thought it would make you happy. I can’t believe you’re not more grateful about this-

Haley: I am happy! I’m so happy for you! And um, okay, if she needs help planning, I would love to do it-

Alexis: Just make it classy, okay? I don’t want any like pretzels around… that’s crap. I want like good stuff. Like dip. Chips with different kinds of dips. Did you get that? Dips. Maybe you could start writing this down.

Haley: I have a memory like an elephant.

Alexis: What’s that supposed to mean?

Haley: It’s an expression.

Alexis: You know I hate animals.

Haley: I’m sorry. I’ll start looking up dip.

Alexis: Thanks Hales. Oh hey, I’ll even let you make those cupcakes I like.

Haley: Thanks?

Alexis: No prob, sweetie. Just keep it moist.

Haley: Keep it moist?

Alexis: That’s what she said!

Haley: Oh. Gross.

Alexis: Hot. Anyway. I’m going to go meet the BF… aw, I guess I should just call him the F now, huh?

Haley: I guess.

Alexis: Well, I’ll talk to you later. Remember – dip! Oh, and don’t worry about that jerk… we’ll find you a hot date for the wedding. Hot! (She leaves; Haley makes the realization that she now needs a date.)

Haley: Ugh. A date. (She looks at Katie who is now making out with the guy in kind of an outlandish and ridiculous way considering they are still in public. Perhaps Katie’s legs are positioned above the table.)

(END OF SCENE/ Next Scene opens at Haley’s apartment)

Haley: Okay, so I color coded the list. The green tabs are the recipes that I think you’re really going to like, you know, like “green for go” (Shot of Alexis mouthing something like “loser” or “dork” to Katie) Um, yellow for the ones I wasn’t positive about – your opinions on garlic keep changing so (Alexis makes a disgusted face and then Haley continues) well, and the red ones… the red ones are the recipes that were really fancy but had at least one ingredient that I know you don’t like… but I just wanted you to read them anyway…

Alexis: Haley, what are you talking about? Recipes for what?

Haley: Dip.

Alexis: Dip?

Haley: Yeah… you know, the fancy dips you wanted for your party…

Alexis: Eh, I don’t know if I want them anymore. Maybe we should make it like Hawaii themed and serve margaritas.

Haley: Margaritas are more for a Mexican style party… and if you didn’t want dip, why did you make such a fuss about it?

Alexis: I didn’t!

Haley: You texted me three times… sent me an email… and then wrote “you biach, you better have some good dip recipes for me!” on my Facebook wall.

Alexis: Oh. Well, whatever. Let’s do something more fun. What do you think, Katie?

Katie: I like the margarita idea. I don’t want salt on my glass though, Hales.

Haley: Yeah. Okay. I’ll keep that in mind.

Alexis: Speaking of salt on your glass (Haley makes a confused face), who was that guy at breakfast today, Katie? He was kind of hot.

Haley: Is “salt on your glass” a phrase people say?

Katie: Yeah, he was hot, I guess. He had really small hands though.

Alexis: Oh, weird.

Katie: Yeah.

Alexis: Did you feel like you were getting with a carnee?

Katie: No… I’ve done that before. This was a little different. His hands were like pretty and small-

Alexis: Are you going to go out again?

Katie: Maybe.

Alexis: Haley, I’m hungry. What do you have?

Haley: What kind of food do you want, my fridge is pretty stocked, I think. Plus, I made all these brownies… remember when you also asked me to bake brownies earlier today so that you could “test drive them”? Well, I have like three different types in the kitchen, so-

Alexis: Om.

Haley: What?

Alexis: Om. I want an om.

Haley: I don’t even know what that means.

Katie: An omlette, Haley.

Haley: Sometimes your shortening of words confuses me-

Alexis: An OMLETTE then; that’s what I want.

Katie: Me too.

Haley: Yeah, I don’t have any of those just lying around-

Alexis: Duh, can’t you just whip one up-

Haley: I used all the eggs to make brownies-

Alexis: I really want an om… could you go pick some eggs up? Please, Hales? An om for your favorite bride to be?

Haley: Seriously?

Katie: And we need more Vitamin Water.

Alexis: Oh, totally. Please, Hales? You’re so sweet.

Haley: Yeah… I guess so.

Shoots to Haley outside with a grocery bag. She passes by a couple kissing and rolls her eyes; she passes by a girl on the phone (perhaps it was her “friend” in the first shot) saying something into a phone like “yeah, I know, Mom… I didn’t even really want to be a writer, but they picked up my blog and they’re going to turn it into a Lifetime movie, Haley makes a hurt face, she then passes some guys on the street with scratch tickets, one looks at her and smiles and says something like “Hey baby, you wanna scratch this?” She shakes her head, a moment later he takes a penny scratches it and screams out “OMG! I just won. I won! I won forty bucks! Forty bucks!! You missed out, babe! I could have taken you to dinner somewhere with this! Like down in Fisherman’s Wharf!” Haley keeps walking close to her apartment looking more and more upset. Suddenly her grocery bag rips and she tries to carry everything herself. She walks struggling and then trips on something dropping the items and the eggs shatter everywhere. She bursts into tears.

Shoots back to her inside with the girls

Alexis: I’m sorry, sweetie. That was really nice of you to go out for us… now, were any of the eggs okay?

Katie: You should have scratched that ticket!

Alexis: Yeah, next time you know, just take the scratch ticket, we could have used that money, you know?

Haley: I’m sorry you guys, I’m just not in a great mood. It’s been a long day… could we maybe just talk about this tomorrow? I’m going to go to bed.

Alexis: Are you sure?

Haley: Yeah. Congratulations, Alexis. I am really happy for you. (Haley is still weepy and she walks away)

Alexis: I really wanted an om.

The next day. Haley is on the couch watching TV and Alexis walks in.

Alexis: You haven’t moved all day.

Haley: I’m tired.

Alexis: Well, you should at least put on some real clothes. Oh, and some make-up. You could really use some make-up.

Haley: Why? There’s no reason, I’m not going out.

Alexis: Haley, you can’t stay here all night watching more of this Next Top Model Marathon.

Haley: I like it.

Alexis: Who doesn’t? But seriously, we’ve seen this season like three times. You need to go out. I thought you were going out with Katie tonight.

Katie: (comes out from a bathroom looking beautiful) She said she didn’t feel like it.

Alexis: Lame sauce. Haley, you’ve been a downer for too long now.

Haley: What do you mean? It’s been like one day.

Alexis: Too long! You need to go out. You need to start like getting out there. You need to get over stupid text boy by meeting a new guy… to text.

Haley: I just don’t feel like it.

Alexis: Stop saying no all the time.

Haley: What do you mean? I pretty much do whatever you need, Alexis. Don’t say that to me.

Alexis: But you’re saying ‘no’ to every potentially cool thing. Don’t you think so, Katie?

Katie: You don’t go out with me much, Hales. And you DID say no to that scratch ticket.

Alexis: Exactly!

Haley: Fine. Next time a scratch ticket is involved, I’ll say yes.

Alexis: What about going out?

Haley: Eh.

Alexis: Not an answer. Just say yes. (Haley just shrugs). I think we should make a bet. You need to say ‘yes’ to everything for a whole week.

Haley: What’s the prize?

Alexis: I don’t know. Who cares?

Haley: Then what’s the point of the bet?

Alexis: No, make it a month. Tomorrow’s the first anyway.

Haley: What do you mean, a month?

Alexis: Look, just do it. I saw it on TV or something, where this girl tried to just say yes to opportunity in her life.

Haley: What happened?

Alexis: I don’t know.

Haley: Nice case.

Alexis: It was probably on Oprah.

Katie: Hales, you got to do it. Ops knows what she’s talking about.

Alexis: Look, this is the perfect time. You’ve been bummed about so many lame guys lately… and you haven’t been writing a lot of sexy stuff in your blog, maybe this could help that too. Make you more interesting.

Haley: Yes to everything?

Alexis: When you want to say no to something… you should say yes. Like going out with Katie tonight.

Katie: Yeah, come on Haley, it could be fun.

Haley: I still don’t get what I win…

Alexis: It’s going to be awesome. It’s just a month. (Haley thinks about it)

Shot to Haley and Katie going out

Katie: See, aren’t you glad you went out?

Haley: I don’t know. I can’t believe Alexis just stayed home to watch America’s Next Top Model.

Katie: Well, I’m glad.

Haley: You’ve already been hit on by three different guys, of course you’re glad.

Katie: Well, none of them were cute.

Haley: Then why did you kiss one, agree to go out with one, and then talk to that other one’s mom on the phone about spending Thanksgiving in New England? (Katie shrugs)

Katie: His mom had an interesting recipe for stuffing.

Haley: I think if I have to have an entire month of ‘yes’, you need a month of ‘no’, Katie. (Katie contemplates it).

Katie: Has there been anything you’ve said ‘yes’ to that you normally would have said ‘no’ too?

Haley: Not really. I only agreed to this silly idea so that Alexis would leave me alone… I don’t think it’s going to have that much of an influence on me.

Katie: Come on Hales, it’s not a bad idea, this month could be great. Just open yourself up for new possibilities.

Haley: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see. (a couple of guys pass by and then stop, one looks at Katie and starts talking to her and another looks to Haley)

Guy #2: Hey.

Haley: Hi.

Guy #2: Want to make out?

Haley: Oh! You’re forward, huh?

Guy: Well, then can I just touch your boob? (Katie looks to her and smiles and shakes her head; Haley looks horrified)

Haley: Oh. God. (another look of horror and a close up of her face)

###END###