Tag Archives: performing

Empathetic Acting – Okay or Nay?

“I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.”
– Meryl Streep

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Okay, my dander’s all up.

For those of you that know me well, I’m sure you’re shocked. I mean, me?  Irritated? Feeling passionate about something? Shocking, I know. But alas, ’tis true.

And in this day and age, you’d think it would be about politics or Trump or something. But nope. This time, it’s about theatre.

Theatre?

Yep, theatre. I’ve argued over a lot of things before, but theatre is new to the list.

[Disclaimer: I had originally intended to say that I was arguing with an actor for the first time, but my husband politely reminded me that that is sooo not true. I have a lot of friends who are actors. And I argue with them about everything. So, I scratched that and made it a little more specific – it’s definitely the first time I’ve argued with someone about acting.]

To be even more specific, the argument was over who should and shouldn’t portray certain characters.

Okay, here’s how it started. This was a post I saw on Facebook.  Apparently it’s a new “pledge” that we’re supposed to take, both as actors/directors, but also as theatre and movie-goers (that’s all of you):

“As a cis performer, I will never play a trans character. Should I ever direct or produce, I will never cast a cis actor to play a trans character. As a cis consumer, I will do my best to avoid projects that do the above. In addition, as a white actor, I will never play a non-white character. As an able-bodied actor, I will never play a character with a disability.

I will not occupy space that isn’t mine.”

I write about a lot of things in this blog, so I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m a community theatre actress. I’m also sure I’ve mentioned that I live in tiny little nowhere, right smack in the middle of the bible belt.  And if you didn’t know, now you do. And armed with that knowledge, I’d say you could probably correctly infer that “trans” actors, “non-white” actors, and “disabled” actors are probably a bit few and far between in this area. So, when I saw that “pledge” that all of us actors are supposed to take, I recognized the absurdity – at least for my little neck of the woods.

If we waited for those people to show up – especially ones that had the ability and the desire to tirelessly work, unpaid, for months, to produce a show that would be viewed only three or four times – we’d never get anything done.

So, I said that. I commented on the post.

And it all went downhill from there.

I was accused of not hearing these people’s cry for justice. For not allowing them to tell their own stories.

Okay, stop.  If this were Hollywood, there might be tons of people showing up to claim these roles. But it’s not. It’s a little county in the middle of the North Carolina mountains. We performed The Wiz for goodness sakes. We had approximately one and a half black people in it and we had to beg them to do it.  (And how lucky we were to get them – holy crap, they were phenomenal.) But were they offended that we did the show anyway, even though we were unable to cast the entire thing with people of color as it is intended?

I don’t think so.

Or were they?

We did To Kill a Mockingbird. While we had a few people of color who were able to join us but, again, we were faced with a 99% white cast. But we still did it. And it was phenomenal.

Should we have left that story untold because we didn’t have enough people of color to play the roles?

We performed Wait Until Dark. I portrayed a blind woman, Suzy. Should I not have done that? Should we have not performed that powerful show about a disabled woman who uses her superior intellect to outwit her would-be killer? Should we have not shown that audience that anyone can overcome their disabilities and kick some bad guy booty, simply because we didn’t have a real blind woman to play the role?

And how about when we performed The Dixie Swim Club. My good friend and actress Rebecca portrayed an aged woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who didn’t leave a single audience member dry-eyed for four straight performances. Should she not have done that?  Should she not have given a voice to the millions that suffer from that horrendous disease because she didn’t herself?

What about my sweet friend Cynthia portraying Shelby, the diabetes-ridden daughter in Steel Magnolias? Should she not have done that since she’s not diabetic herself? Should I not have portrayed her distraught mother who loses a child because I’ve never lost one myself?

No.

No, no, no.

Let’s stop this.

Theatre is one of the most beautiful things around. If you haven’t been a part of it, you’re missing out. It accidentally teaches you empathy. You become another person. You literally “walk a mile in their shoes,” so to speak. What better way to understand someone than to tell their story? To actually become them?

Now, I get it. I know where this pledge came from. Apparently Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson was recently cast as a trans man in an upcoming movie and there has been a cry from the trans community about not being represented fully because it is not a trans person playing the role. There’s even a hashtag for it – #supporttranspeopleinentertainment. I get it. I do. But my question is this – was there a more qualified trans candidate?  You have to be more than trans – you also have to be an actor. A damn good one. Acting is a business, like any other. You have to be great at what you do, or you’re going to passed over.  I’m all about fighting for equality – believe me. I run my mouth about it all the time. But there comes a time when you have to really ask yourself what you’re doing. Are you really asking for equality? Or are you asking for special treatment?

Regardless of the big Hollywood story, however, let’s take it back down here to our level. In the community theatres of the world, you are just not going to have the abilities to fill every role with a person who is what they’re portraying. And, frankly, isn’t that what acting is all about?  Isn’t that what we’re doing?  Telling a story for someone else?

Is there really something wrong with that?

If you ask me – NOPE. Not only is there not something wrong with it, but it is exactly what we all should be doing – acting or otherwise. We need to take every opportunity we’re given to try to understand what it’s like to be someone else, and to let their story be heard. For the actors of the world, we do that with our acting talent. For the writers of the world, we try to do that with our writing talents.

I recently read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. Ms. Picoult wrote a powerful, almost life-changing novel from three perspectives – a privileged white lawyer, a discriminated black nurse, and a male white supremacist. And my, what a story it was. In the end of the book, she wrote an author’s note. In that note, she said that she was well aware of the backlash she’d receive from writing this book. How dare her try to speak as a black woman? And she was right – there was definitely backlash and mixed reviews. But as she described in her note – she has written about many characters in the past – victims of rape, men, abused spouses – all things that she, herself, is not. And how did she do that? By talking to them. By learning about them. By putting herself in their shoes and living their lives through her words.

And why did she do it? Because she could. She was given a gift. She’s a storyteller. And with this gift, she knows that it is her duty to give voice to the voiceless. She is using her talent to change the world, one novel at a time. And, personally, I think she’s doing a damn good job of it.

Stories deserve to be told. Silencing them is never the answer.

Never.

What say you?

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“Stop explaining yourself. Shut up and act!”
~ Craig MacDonald

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The Transformative Power of Theatre – A Patron’s Perspective

“To enter a theatre for a performance is to be inducted into a magical space, to be ushered into the sacred arena of the imagination.”
– Simon Callow

I had to take some time to share an audience member’s thoughts after watching our latest performance of Proof by David Auburn at our little theatre in Ashe County, North Carolina.  If you’ve ever been a part of the theatre in any fashion — or even if you’ve ever found yourself sitting in an audience — these words are for you.  We are all storytellers, each and every one of us.

Thank you, David, for these magical words.

Ashe County Little Theatre’s Proof by David Auburn / Photo by: Bobbi Jo Scott

ASHE COUNTY LITTLE THEATER
by David Desautels

Since seeing the most excellent latest production by the Ashe County Little Theater on opening night this past Friday, I’ve been wondering about why I like going to plays so much.

Growing up in our household money was scarce. But we always had books. And books meant travel, if only in my mind.

My mother and I journeyed down the Mighty Mississippi River visiting Tom Sawyer and even stopping by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A bout of strep throat and missing school for a week set me on my journey without even leaving my Jefferson bedroom.

I remember begging Mom to read “just one more chapter” and next thing you know I was in Missouri with an eye on Tom conning his buddies into whitewashing a fence.

She read to me after a long day at work and fixing dinner for the remaining four (of seven) kids. She read till she could hardly talk, her voice barely above a whisper at times.

Her reading to me was the highlight of my day. That is until she suggested that, while she was gone, I might pick up the book myself.

I did. And that led to a lifetime of adventure. Marco Polo took me along with him from Italy to China. George Washington let me take a swing at the cherry tree with his axe. Zane Grey allowed me to shoot up the Old West.

Helen Keller won me over with her triumph over tragedy. Abe Lincoln encouraged me to keep the kerosene lantern burning. And George Washington Carver elevated the lowly peanut to a place of honor practically making it an obligation to eat peanut butter.

Louis Pasteur made milk drinkable. Henry Mortin Stanley’s “Dr. Livingston I presume” made Africa accessible. And Thomas Edison made discoveries believable.

Which leads me back to the Ashe County Little Theater by way of The Parkway Theatre. A 6th grade outing there to see Gone With the Wind made Margaret Mitchell’s classic come to life in full color.

Friday night at the play I, once again, traveled to another place. I do it with books, movies and, especially, plays. For two hours my normal world stands still and I am in an alternate reality.

I BECAME THE CHARACTERS. ALL OF THEM.

Over the years, our Little Theater has taken me places.
All with ordinary people putting in extraordinary performances.

I’ve seen a pharmacist become a lawyer. A teacher become a Steel Magnolia. A radio repairman become a radio announcer. A paralegal become a director.

Ordinary people–a shopkeeper conducting an orchestra, a local funny guy putting on a robe and being a judge, a kid becoming an Orphan. A barista becoming transformed into a math wiz.

Local people giving their talents as set designers, ticket takers, actors, sound and lighting wizards.

And, to my knowledge, not a single one of them makes a penny for their efforts.

But that’s not to say they don’t get paid. Their currency is the applause they receive from folks like me who, for a couple of hours, travel the world without ever leaving our precious county.

Thanks Ashe County Little Theater for your decades of tireless and selfless giving.

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“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
– Chinese Proverb

 

Off to See the Wizard

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“Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”
– Glinda, the Good Witch of the North

Well.  I guess my answer is, “both.”

A few weeks ago, I was asked to play Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, for the Autumn at Oz festival in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, coming up this weekend, October 5-6.  And then, a few days later, I was asked if I could also double as the Wicked Witch for a few shifts.

Um.  Ok?

At first, I had no clue what any of this meant.  I mean, yeah, I had heard about this festival way up on top of the mountain near where I work.  But I really had no idea what all the hoopla was about.  Now, I was pretty sure that I could pull off the split personality required to be able to switch between good and evil (heck, I do that all the time in my daily life…easy peasy…), but what did all of this really mean?  This isn’t your typical ‘play’ that I’m used to performing in.  No weeks and weeks of rehearsals, no constant run-throughs, not even a stage.  What was this festival all about?  I didn’t have a clue.

Well, now I do.

In my two-week crash course in learning about the festival, I have come to find out that this is actually kind of a big deal.  Back in the festival’s heyday (early 1970s), this thing was evidently a sight to behold.  The land of Oz has been recreated high atop a mountain in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, complete with a yellow brick road, Dorothy’s house (pre- and post-tornado), the Emerald City, and everything in between.  There were even ‘balloon rides’ like Dorothy takes at the end of the movie (which, for this ski-resort area was a modified ski lift).  Unfortunately, the combination of the owner’s death just prior to the park’s grand opening, and a mysterious fire only five years later, worked together to shut the park down in 1980.   (Click here to read an article that I’m not too crazy about, but that does give some back story.)  In 1993, the park re-opened, on a much smaller scale, and is now open to the public only one weekend a year with the name, “Autumn at Oz.”

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And boy, is it popular!

This year, 6,000 tickets have been sold.  SIX THOUSAND TICKETS!  And they are completely sold out.  Apparently this is something you want to get tickets for well in advance.  (Click here to ‘like’ Autumn at Oz on Facebook and stay up-to-date with the information for next year if you’re interested in taking your own little stroll down the yellow brick road!)

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As for my part in it – well, this is how it works.

On Friday, I get to leave work early (woot! woot!) and travel up to Beech Mountain.  A few of us will have a photo shoot for promotional purposes (upcoming brochures and whatnot).  For this, I’m Glinda.  (Yay! Somebody has to make me all purty and whatnot.)  Then, we all get settled into our condo for the weekend.  Saturday and Sunday, I will be the wicked witch working in 2 hours on/1 hour off shifts.  There are three of us (shhhh….don’t tell the kiddos that….) that alternate shifts as the wicked witch.  There are two places along the yellow brick road where the witch is situated – her ‘lair’ and the poppy field – so two of us are working at all times, with one getting an hour break.

Now, this is the part that scares me.

As an actress, improv has never really been my ‘thing’.  Give me a script, and I can be whoever you want me to be.  But tell me to do stuff on my own, and I freeze.  Well, guess what Saturday and Sunday is?  Improv.  Lots and lots and lots of it.  For two hours at a time, I have to “be” the wicked witch.  No script, no lines, no blocking.  Just be the witch.  Now, everyone who knows me well will probably say that shouldn’t be a problem for me.  I mean, come on.  Helllo?  It’s Melissa.  Mean Ol’ Witch?  Duhhhh.  Perfect casting.  But nonetheless, here I am.  Terrified.  What if I mess up?   What if I’m not scary enough?  What if I’m too scary?  What if a kid kicks me?  (Hey – it has happened in the past, so I hear.)

Well, I guess I just have to put my big-girl witchy britches on and just wait and see.

So, as of Sunday night, the public festival is over.  But not for us.  A full cast of characters (just one each this time) will remain behind and do two performances on Monday for a few school groups that will be coming through in two waves.

Now we’re talking.

This is when I’m Glinda.  And this is when I have a script.  Woohoo!  A script!  The kids will come through the park, stopping at the places along the yellow brick road that Dorothy stops at in the movie and the scenes will be reenacted for them.  How cool is that!?  After a few groups come through and our two performances are complete, there will be one more on-site photo shoot, and then it’s time to click our heels and head home.

Holy crap, I’m excited! 🙂

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Check back here for a complete update when I get back.  Can’t wait to post pics of myself in all this garb (oh yeah, selfies shall abound…) and experience something like I’ve never experienced before.  New friends, new experiences, new memories….this is the stuff life is made of.

It’s time to head to Oz!

ozme

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“What a world, what a world!”
– Wicked Witch of the West