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

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

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

HuntingLove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: On Applause

Dave Sikula ponders Standing Ovations and other ways we tell the artists that we like their work.

Like many of you, I’ve seen “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep. Unlike many of you, I’ll be seeing it again this week. My wife and I were originally scheduled to see it for her birthday, but family matters took her out of town early. She was able to catch it last week, though, and of course, once she’d seen it, I had to go.

I was struck by a few things about the performance. The first was, while it’s a fine, fine production of an enigmatic play, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “revelatory” as have some. Years ago, I was lucky enough to see Pinter himself (with Liv Ullmann, of all people) in a production of “Old Times.” That production was revelatory. After years of reading how Pinter should be played, it was fascinating to watch the man himself practice what he preached. It was a superb production – and would have been so even if he hadn’t been Harold Pinter. Pauses were just that; brief hiatuses just calling attention to themselves before moving on, rather than import-filled breaks in the dialogue. As with so much of Pinter, it was creepy and atmospheric, but in just the right amounts. (And let me hasten to add, so is the current offering. It’s just I’ve already been there …)

But the two things that interested me most were these:

As the curtain rose with both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on stage, there was no entrance applause. I don’t know if it was because the former was wearing a toupe and the latter was facing upstage (and by the time they were more or less recognizable, the show was well underway) or if the Berkeley audience has just achieved a gratifying level of sophistication. Regardless, I was glad to not be met with that most interruptive of rituals.

In my time (he said, sounding like his grandfather – who never talked like that anyway), I’ve been lucky enough to see a goodly number of important stage actors – Katharine Hepburn (even met her backstage), Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Rex Harrison, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Alan Bates, Frank Langella, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline – but I can’t think of more than a handful of people I’d want to give entrance applause to. Why people do it at all puzzles me. Sure, they’re great artists, but you’re basically applauding them because you recognize them and they’ve shown up for work. Unless directors and writers have anticipated the situation, you’ve placed everyone on stage in the awkward position of stopping the show cold, holding, and waiting until things die down. (In a way, it strikes me as the same thing as people applauding a singer when they hear a hit song they recognize. I’m reminded of a story I heard about Tony Bennett rehearsing in an empty auditorium. He started singing the verse of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and it went like this: “The loveliness of Pari – thank you for remembering.” He knew that’s where the inexplicable applause would come.)

Now here’s where I make sure you realize I think all of these people are more than deserving of applause, accolades, and any laurels that come their way. It just strikes me as an odd ritual that, in America at least (I hear they don’t do it in London), people start clapping the second they see a big name on stage.

Similarly, at the end of the show, people leaped to their feet to give the show a standing ovation. (That is, most everyone; the older woman next to me could barely wait for the lights to come down before bounding from her seat and getting out of the theatre.) Now, I understand how, when people are profoundly moved, they want to give a standing O. I’ve done it on many occasions, but I’m more interested in the peer pressure of the act – not to mention the unintentional standing ovation. In the former case, as with “No Man’s Land,” while I felt it was an excellent production, I wasn’t moved by it. As much as I enjoyed it (which was significantly), I didn’t feel compelled to stand to show that enjoyment. A good portion of that, though, can be chalked up to my having a seat that was in an inconspicuous location. No one would see if I stood or sat. On my next viewing, though, I’ll be in the front row, visible to both the cast and the house as a whole, and will feel the need to stand, whether I feel the performance deserved it or not. I’ll admit it will neither be a strain nor a compromise to do so, but the impetus will come more from a desire to avoid “what’s wrong with him?” than a genuine expression of being deeply touched. Actually, last week, I was nearly forced into standing by the latter occurrence, the unintentional standing O; that is to say, when during the applause, poor sightlines force one to stand simply to see who’s on stage. I may not have even liked the show, but circumstances have made me stand just so I can find out what’s happening up there.

Stephen Sondheim (for whom I have given both entrance applause and a standing ovation) has speculated that it’s high ticket prices that have created the automatic standing O; that audiences have spent so much money on tickets, parking, babysitters, meals, souvenirs, etc., that standing at the end of the performance is a way to convince themselves that the expense was worth it. “I may have spent a lot, but look at what I got!” There may be something in that, but I’ve seen shows in venues ranging from community theatres to some of our better-known professional houses that got standers even when the results were neither particularly expensive nor good. Even when I’ve been on the receiving end of them, I’m grateful, but (more often than not) think “We were good, but we weren’t that good.” Conversely, I’ve seen shows that were deeply moving and/or entertaining that no one has risen for. (And on one occasion on Broadway – “The Pirates of Penzance” – I was the only one standing. One of the single-most entertaining evenings of my life, and I was determined to show it.)

Ultimately, I don’t know what my point in raising this is. Maybe it’s just an expression of my observation; maybe it’s just my contrary psychology. All I know is, come Saturday, I will rise to my feet at the end of the performance, but it may not be because I want to, but just because I ought to.

Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.