As I get ready to bring The Drifts Live: the novel onstage to NYC (United Solo Festival, Nov. 6., 7pm), I've been getting asked a lot how I've stayed in show business so long. When people ask that, they also usually want to know which Seinfeld episode I was on or what it was like to work with so and so. Oh, and war stories(read on). Honestly, I don't have that many horror stories, but I loved kicking the bejesus out of Patrick Swayze. And, god bless him, he gave as good as he got.
When people ask me this question, there's only one thing to say: I'm interested. I'm curious. Who wouldn't want to be ducking behind trees in a North Carolina snowstorm to stay warm while getting the shot, dangling over a pit in the mountains of Mexico hoping get this night in the can or flipping Jason Alexander off? There's all of that, of course, but my life depended on it too. Read on.
I'm in the business for good. There's no peeling me off it and god knows it's been tried. My life has always been about three things: acting, writing, and teaching. I knew it as a kid; I don't know how. Maybe it runs in my veins. My grandma and grandpa met in the 1930s doing a radio show. He fiddled, she sang. Boom, boom here I am. This level of clarity is a blessing and a curse. No matter what doubts come--and they have come. I'll do anything in this business. I won't do everything, but I'll do anything. Chew on that.
That knowing has been my light and compass. Even when I thought I'd blow my brains out if I didn't get cast. Nothing about the business bores me: not being on set waiting for a set up or backstage at a theatre. Not in a rehearsal hall and not in a table read. Not in a class and not falling flat on my face. I will always risk engagement and possible failure over disinterest. I show up, I'm prepared, I'm curious, I'm present. I am ready to go. I'm not late, I don't bitch, I don't gossip. It's distracting, it's draining and it's dull dull dull. I'm right where I'm supposed to be. Life moves forward. We either get on that speeding train--or we leap from it.
That said, I have leapt from the train. Bored. But my boredom wasn't the business. It was me looking to others for fulfillment. Talk about a thrill kill. If I'm looking there, that must mean there's nothing here, right? For instance, I love auditioning (I know, don't hit me) but it became a curse. In spite of my knowing and clarity, it took me a long time to be okay if others didn't like what I did or said. My job is to bring it. To do my work. Paradoxically, I wanted so badly to be myself, I looked to others to tell me what 'myself' was acceptable. But, I had known all along.
Approval-seeking, doubt and fear were the "A" grades of my childhood and a good chunk of my adulthood. The more I criticized myself, the more I risked, reached -- and loathed myself. Face it, it's a miracle any of us get any work. Or that that work gets seen or read by anyone. At the project level, think of the potholes: script, financing, direction, performance, marketing, etc. etc. etc. At the personal level, you've got to have the agent that thinks to send you out for a part. Then, you've got to have the casting director who thinks she might keep her job if you are a fit. Then, you've got the directors and producers who've got to imagine they can take exactly what you've brought into the meeting and plug it into their shoot. Fair enough. But, you know, a shout out to all the casting directors, directors, producers and agents who've called me off the bench over and over all these years. Don't think I don't know who's responsible. Or not.
War story. When I wriggled out from the thumb of my family and wobbled off to Chicago I earned my stripes. I had $30 in my pocket, knew one person (an ex-boyfriend, sort of) and was on the lam from the mob. Not kidding, but that's a story for another time. Once I got to Chicago, I also quickly got in with the mob not once, but two more times. Maybe it's unavoidable, maybe it's me. I don't know. Also, another story for another time. Dealing with the mob is nothing compared to being an actor. To learn to act, I had to learn to play. Scariest thing ever for someone like me. Eventually, I learned to seek accident and spontaneity; cracks in the sidewalk and fissures in the façade. . It turns out I'm a born improviser, love surprises and will catch the ball when it comes my way. I'll be happily working at these for the rest of my days. To learn, one's got to find the right teacher. The right guide for your exploratory expeditions. There are a number of frogs and false prophets out there, but there is gold too.
I've been lucky in the community of players that've come up with and the people I've studied with. Joyce and Byrne Piven at the Piven Theatre Workshop gave me the keys to the kingdom. Hubert 'Cubby' Selby, Jr., (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream, etc.), Donald Freed (Circe & Bravo, Secret Honor, etc.), Sy Gomberg (Summer Stock, When Willie Comes Marching Home, etc.) led me further. Right now, for instance, I study voice with Fides Krucker, a ground-breaking singer & vocal coach who teaches us how to use the autonomic nervous system to access pitch. We have pitch, but we often don't allow it. We yawn, we bobble our heads, we swagger, we release our fourth eye (think about it). Fides and my other teachers are rare birds. But they aren't the only ones. Yours are out there, too. It's important that a teacher gets you, sees what you may have to offer and can help you access the art in yourself. Not every teacher suits every student. Take what you can use and leave the rest. Another secret to longevity is having the good sense to understand that there is almost always something to learn.
War story. I once had an agent in Chicago (who shall remain nameless. You know who you are.). After I'd gone through god knows how many auditions and callbacks, I won the lead in a feature. Yay, right? Yes, definitely. Life changing. Except at the end of the first day of shooting in the mountains of a foreign country, the Director leaned over and said, "You need to get a new agent."
"Yes. She wouldn't let us hire you."
"She negotiated against you. She wanted X (an actor pal of mine on the same roster). We had to fight your agent for you. Get a new agent."
No kidding. But I waited. I waited until I got on terra firma. I waited until I'd met with several other agents. As soon as I signed with the amazing Janet Louer (oh, I hope she's still in the business) at Harrisse Davidson, I fired the other agent. I wrote them a letter saying I knew what they'd done. I'm not here to fuck around. I'm here to do the best work I can and get it in the can. I was politer than that but my eyes opened. Of course eye-opening situations are part of the game. Get used to it.
War story. A week after landing in L.A., I got a pilot. After a week or two of work, I got a phone call. "Do not be funnier than the star," my manager told me. I had no idea. Where I come from in Chicago, you just get out there and do the best you can. That is true. As long as it doesn't look better than the name above the title. Got it. And, you know, the list goes on. I'd need more than one hand to count the number of series I was going to get but they ended up going with a name. That's the business. I learned early to take it on the chin, pull up my big boy pants and roll with the punches. It's not personal, but my eyes are open.
Part 2 shortly...
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