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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Everything Is Already Something Week 57: How to Be an Artist in 11 Easy Steps (or 1 Really Hard Step)

Allison Page is an artist. OR IS SHE?

STEP 1:
BECOME INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT TO BE AROUND
Your friends, acquaintances and total strangers are sure to notice you’re becoming an artist the moment you start parting your hair really far on one side and talking about yourself all the time. Good talking points are — “No, I wouldn’t know about that. I’m just always writing, you know?” as well as, “Don’t you just love Brecht?”

STEP 2:
DON’T SMILE EVER BECAUSE ART ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN
If you’re going to be an artist, you better turn that smile upside down. Art is hard, man. It’s supposed to be a struggle. You think Edgar Allan Poe was having a GOOD TIME? Oh yeah, Van Gogh was just YUCKIN’ IT UP. No. If you’re going to art, and you want to art GOOD…you can’t smile. Everybody knows that.

Vincent Van Gogh: Laugh Riot.

Vincent Van Gogh: Laugh Riot.

STEP 3:
CONVINCE YOURSELF YOU’RE DONE LEARNING
Hey, you know everything there is to know about your art. Don’t ever let anyone convince you there might be more than one idea about something. Someone else makes some art? YOU MUST SEE NO MERIT IN IT. Unless that artist is from the 1800s. Then it’s okay but only because they’ve been dead forever so they can’t be real-time competition to you. #SarahBernhardt4Life

STEP 4:
ONLY MAKE LIKE FOUR THINGS EVER
Listen, who cares about watching your art grow over time through trial and error; success and failure? NOBODY. THAT’S WHO. Spend three decades on one precious thing you think is a goddamn masterpiece. After all, you only want to be popular after you’re dead, anyway. That’s how to REALLY art. Throw everything else in the trash.

STEP 5:
DEVELOP A MYSTERIOUS SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROBLEM
Opium is always a good choice. It’s niche enough to be interesting, without the flamboyant flashiness of coke. If it’s good enough for Sherlock Holmes, it’s probably good enough for you.

STEP 6:
MEN: GROW A BEARD
Hemingway. I rest my case.

WOMEN: PUT YOUR HAIR IN A BUN ON THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD
Topknots keep your face tight and emotionless, like an empty shell and also an artist. If this doesn’t work for you, cut it reeeeaaal short.

Get it, Gertrude!

Get it, Gertrude!

STEP 7:
GET YOURSELF ABANDONED BY A LOVER
It’s okay if you didn’t even like them that much and it was kind of a mutual thing, you can just lie about it. Keep the details foggy. If someone gets too inquisitive, get a far-off look in your eyes, and mumble something about the ocean.

STEP 8:
FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, NEVER TAKE FEEDBACK
Treat all feedback the same way: like it’s coming from a talking horse. Whether it’s from the most well-known artist in your field, or from your “friends” and “loved ones”, tell ‘em all to fuck off. Then lock yourself in a room and X their eyes out with a sharpie in all your photos. Resist the urge to change even if you think they might be right and just trying to help you. THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO THINK.

STEP 9:
DATE SOMEONE WHO WEARS A TRENCH COAT AND TREATS YOU LIKE DIRT
Insist they’re “unique” and “troubled” and “so talented” but never say what kind of talent it is.

STEP 10:
EMBRACE AN EXTREME AND CONTROVERSIAL POLITICAL VIEW
If you can somehow manage to make it sound like women are werewolves or witches, that should help.

No caption necessary.

No caption necessary.

STEP 11:
JUST BE A DICK, ALREADY
Be mean for the sake of being mean. Ridicule everyone else’s work. Drop a kitten out a window. Befriend a 19 year old so that when you’re dead, that ONE person can talk about how kind you were, but also just hard to understand because you’re so “interesting”. They’ll write a memoir about you and though they’ll get some slight fame out of it, console yourself with the fact that you’ll be much more famous than they will. Of course, you’ll be dead, but that’s how you wanted it anyway, because you’re an artist.

For those who feel like this is not the strategy for them, there is an alternative.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST IN ONE HARD STEP:
Make art.

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Allison Page is a writer/actor/co-creative director at Killing My Lobster in San Francisco.

In For a Penny: Everyone’s a Cricket

Charles Lewis III, opening the new year with a chirp!

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“In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”
Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to Joseph Snodgrass, 17 Jan. 1841

Considering the Theater Pub theme for January was supposed to be “downtime and balance”, it’s been… interesting to read how my fellow ‘Pub writers have interpreted that. I won’t pretend that I’m immune to the same anxiety – if you read my “Running in Place” piece from November, you know that isn’t true – but I’ve forced myself to take some deep breaths and enjoy some well-earned relaxation. Case in point: last week was my birthday and I successfully avoided a lot of headaches by cutting off social media, stopping at a few bars, and heading to The Castro to finally see Birdman. I was surprised to see that it was a film about theatre. Yes, I know, Will wrote about it, but – whether for film or theatre – I tend to avoid such write-ups before a show so that I can go in as “fresh” as possible. And given that all the advertising sells it specifically as the story of a washed-up film star looking for a comeback, you’ll understand if I wasn’t exactly expecting A Midwinter’s Tale. Besides, I still liked it. I didn’t find it the masterpiece everyone else has, but I thought it was well-performed, beautifully-shot, and had an ending that some are calling ambiguous, but I’m calling beautifully tragic.

Still… there was one thing that didn’t sit right with me as I watched it; one character really. And it’s a damn shame that with so many great characters that were over-the-top, yet ground, this one damn-near ruined the whole show for me. It’s a character that personified one of my most hated tropes. No, not The Magic Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or the emasculated husband whose spirit is killed by his shrewish wife. It wasn’t the socially awkward intellectual, the “ugly” pretty girl with glasses, or the woman in the refrigerator either. No, dear reader, it was that was that one character you expect to show up in every clichéd “artist story”; that foul creature who brings only pain and misery wherever s/he goes. That’s right, folks, I’m talking about The Evil Critic.

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand the Fountainhead-esque urge to include such a caricature. Artists to put a lot of themselves into their work, so it only makes sense that they take criticism of said work personally – I say that as someone who has been singled out in reviews as being the weak link in a production. But putting aside the fact that this clichéd character has been done to death, its mere presence suggests that 1 – artists are beyond reproach simply because they’ve created something, and 2 – anyone who would criticize said work would only do so out of spite from not having created any of worth. Those ideas don’t just bore me, they offend me.

Say what you will about the overall increase or decrease of critical quality over the years, constructive criticism is invaluable to the artistic process. When done right, criticism isn’t really about the appeal of a work to public at large, but rather what the work says (if anything) beyond its surface interpretation, how it compares to other works that have done the same, and what it adds to the legacy of work that has come before. As Roger Ebert often said “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about what it’s about.” So when I so when see so many one-sided artistic interpretations of critics, it offends me because it implies that artists are just cry-babies who want to lash out at anyone who doesn’t go along with what they say (y’know, kinda like the way they show critics).

That’s not to say that critics are above getting personal in their reviews – they’re human beings. There are critics that hold personal grudges or just flat-out refuse to take seriously the work of a dedicated artist for petty reasons known only to the critic. In the near-decade I’ve been involved in professional theatre, every artistic director I’ve known (along with a few writers and directors) have shown me legitimate examples of critics with obvious axes to grind. They exist. We’ve all seen them.

But the critics can also be the ones to see the value of your work when you’re not bringing in the big audiences. In fact, I think that’s what gets me about Evil Critic characters like Ratatouille’s Anton Ego and Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson: they come from the minds of two artists who once had nothing but critical praise when their films weren’t box office successes. I mean, I get when it comes from someone like M. Night Shyamalan (who had, then lost, the love of critics) or Roland Emmerich (who never had it), but seeing it come from critical darlings Brad Bird and Alejandro González Iñárritu strikes me as incredibly hypocritical.

Who is this supposed to be? Everyone who actually liked The Iron Giant?

Who is this supposed to be? Everyone who actually liked The Iron Giant?

But if you take the word of playwright-turned-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – a writer whose work I admire, but whose ego is notoriously easy to bruise – the problem isn’t what is said so much as who is saying it. From The West Wing to The Newsroom, he’s used his characters to express his belief that giving the masses a voice through the internet is nothing but a detriment. That’s funny coming from a guy who claims to pride himself on freedom of speech.

Yes, the internet has made it possible for an anonymous troll to have his/her opinion heard as well as any established scholar. Yes, it’s created a Möbius strip of scrutiny in which everyone’s opinion about an opinion is subject to someone’s opinion. But in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s the price one pays for living amongst human beings and their ability to string together (mostly) cohesive thoughts. Everyone with a voice has the right to use it, just as YOU have the right to IGNORE them, if you so choose. That’s the not-so-hidden secret of receiving feedback: it isn’t the end. You take the feedback, digest it wholly, and take away whatever is necessary for you to improve. If a particular feedback source isn’t providing that, choose another. Choose several. Choose however many it takes for you to show improvement, but don’t complain just because someone exercised their human right to speak out. Every time I hear someone complain that their work “didn’t have the right audience” or “was presented to a public that wasn’t ready for it”, I always think back to one of my favorite quotes from Theater Pub’s own Cody Rishell (bold emphasis mine): “You are an artist. An artist cannot control his or her audience. You want people to talk about your work, good or bad. If you do not, you are a hobbyist.”

When I finally decided that this would be my column topic for this week, two incidents immediately went through my mind. The first was a memory of when I was offered a really, really great role in a classic play, but had to decline due to a previous commitment. When I went to go see the production, they guy they got to replace me was… well, he wasn’t the best thing in the play. At all. The only thing better than watching him crash and burn on stage was how all the critics singled him out as the downside to the show. In private moments of schadenfreude, I would boast to myself “That’s what happens when you don’t cast ME!”

The second incident that came to mind is one that regular ‘Pub readers know all too well. I actually love this because it’s the perfect example of what I’ve been trying to say: that the things we do and say don’t exist in a vacuum. A playwright didn’t like public perceptions of women, so she responded to it with her art. Her art was performed publicly, so a critic responded to it. His criticism was made public, so it too was responded to. And then that response was responded to. And so on and so on. That’s what’s so great about what we do as artists, we create something intangible that has a lasting effect on all who experience it.

I’ll admit that the older I get, my reaction to can be equal parts Zen and hair-pulling. On the one hand, I’ll hear that there’s a critic in tonight’s audience and think to myself “I’ve spent the last few months putting together something that you want to destroy with a two-star rating? Bring it on, muthafucka!!” On the other hand, even when I’ve seen my name mentioned positively in print I tend to fall on the Barton Fink reaction of “Well, they’ll be wrapping their fish with it in the morning.” I don’t know how others deal with it, this is just what works for me. This is why I’m not partial to straw man interpretations of critics; they come expecting the best, but your definition of that might be completely different than theirs.

At the end of the day, there’s only one thing I take away from every review I read – which I hope is similar to what every critic takes away from my work – what did you learn? Did you learn about the lives of characters like the ones in the show? Did you learn how to arrive early before the show starts? Did you learn that a black box production of a 17-person play might not be the best idea? Did you that the artistic director of this company is only interested in putting on productions that represent his/her myopic worldview? Hell, did you learn that the bar down the street from the theatre has the best garlic fries in the city? Above all, what did you learn?

If you can answer that question, then a two-star review might just be worth your trouble.