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theatre school

Forever Ravenclaw

I've mentioned before that as an actor and a theatre artist I consider myself to be a perpetual student. Really, as a person, I have always been an academic; I didn't need a sorting hat quiz on Pottermore to tell me I'm a Ravenclaw. But particularly in the arts there is always more to learn about the craft, more films to watch and actors to study and theory books to read, even if actual classes may be financially out of reach. The Summer Sling reinvigorated my love of the atmosphere of study, and in the two weeks since I have filled my free time watching fight films, rereading old books on acting and audition techniques, seeking out new plays, and submitting myself for various acting/company membership/fight director opportunities. 

Four days of constant critical thinking about what makes effective fight choreography made me realize how passive I had become with my craft, even while I was auditioning and performing. Not that I didn't put work into the projects of which I was a part, but just that I was not doing everything I could to enrich myself as a theatre maker in the in-between times (and let's face it, there are a lot of long in-between times). Perhaps what I am finally grappling with is the melding of career and craft, recognizing that they are two distinct but inseparable aspects of the life of an artist.

College was four years of honing my craft, gathering as many tools as possible to make myself a better actor/designer/collaborator etc. It was a time to learn as much as I could about what is available to learn, and to be constantly hungry for more knowledge, more skills, more experience. I believe I used my four years at NYU well, taking on perhaps too many projects in my quest for opportunities and challenges.

The first couple years after graduation were, in large part, focused not even on career but simply on financial stability. Goal number one was work enough, earn enough money at whatever day job, to be able to stay in this city to keep making theatre. It has only truly been in the last year or so that I have started to have time to actually focus on my career, creating this website and a backstage profile to really be able to put myself "out there" for auditions and to be able to promote my work as a playwright and fighter.

The shift in focus, after school, to the business of being a theatre artist, resulted in an absence of time spent reading new plays or books about craft. It is thrilling, now, therefore, to be able to return to my true love, the study of artistry and the creation of the artistry itself. Earlier this week marked my eight year anniversary of moving to this city I love to do what I love, and I want so much more but I'm so grateful for where I've gotten.

Here's my Ravenclaw wisdom for you: 

 
Happiness is having something that satisfies you while also having something for which to strive.
 
Photo by Theik Smith Photography at the 2016 New York Summer Sling.

Photo by Theik Smith Photography at the 2016 New York Summer Sling.

The Love of the Fight

We took a few smiling ones, and then I believe the direction we were given was "victorious" which apparently to a group of fighters means aggressively violent. (I'm just to the right of center about two rows back exchanging hair pulls with my dear friend Carlotta.) Photo credit: Theik Smith Photography

Summer Sling 2016 has come to an end. It was a whirlwind four days, in which I got far more than I bargained for. I got to put faces to many names I'd been hearing for years, work with a collection of some of the best fight guys in the business, and stretch myself to work further and faster than I ever thought I could. The fight community, for as much as we love blood and guts and killing each other, is full of some of the most supportive people I've ever met, and I am proud to stand among their ranks, even if I might stab them while I'm there. It's all a learning process!

The beginning of each day was an open period, in which I took advanced classes in knife, sword & shield, broadsword, and rapier & dagger. The latter three were aimed at teaching some less-commonly used techniques that really opened up how I thought about the weapons at hand. (Swetnam style R&D is so different to the traditional stage combat method of fighting that I could practically feel my brain clunking around to rewire itself to the new form.) Several of these classes took place in large, un-air conditioned gyms, which got a good sweat going early in the day (in case the walk from the train in 90% humidity wasn't enough).

The rest of my day was devoted to choreographer track itself, which is like a condensed version of an entire semester of theatre school accomplished in four days. Our fearless leaders on this jam-packed journey were my first and most frequent teacher, J. David Brimmer (who has many Broadway credits to his name) and Lewis Shaw (a D.C.-based choreographer and expert swordmaker). The remarkable thing about our group of nine was that six of us were women - nice to be diversifying the old boys' club. On day one we chose scenes to choreograph and in groups of three we served as actors for the other two choreographer's scenes. By halfway through day four we showed the scenes one final time (video of my choreography is at the end of this post). 

Throughout each day we worked through a combination of lectures from working professionals about the job of a fight choreographer, practical classes in which we sometimes had only fifteen minutes to choreograph a fight and then either place it in a set to destroy or figure out how to film it for a self-tape audition etc., working with found objects or set pieces to tell a story, and of course periods in which we worked on the actual choreography of our scenes.

While regular participants in the sling had five individual class periods each day, choreo track students had this over-arching project to accomplish by day four, so we spent lunch periods thinking about our scripts and evenings trying to solve problems in our choreography. I spent a good twenty minutes on Saturday night with my roommate helping me figure out how to kill someone (and then ended up using neither of the ideas I came up with at the time). On our last day, we all cut lunch short to get in a little more time brushing up our scenes. It was an incredible challenge - take a script you make have never read before (and your actors probably haven't, either), and create a fight in essentially three days, which is actually only about two hours of time for you to work on your scene with your actors. But I did it; we all did. It was remarkable to see the work of my fellow choreographers grow so much so quickly.

Our second period class on the last day ended up being a single sword class with fight master Mike Chin (who has played every Asian character in the background of every show on TV, at this point, I think) - and I took a moment to realize how quickly people can grow, from needing an entire semester to learn a simple fight for a test, to a few years later being able to learn the same amount of choreography in an hour - and actually act and perform it rather than just walking through the moves. Mikey doesn't go easy on his students and he pushed us through a lot of moves quickly. I was in fact a bit surprised at my own ability to take in so much choreo in such a short time. I realized I had probably never been given that opportunity before.

Throwing dirt in Sterling's face in the middle of our single sword fight.

Throwing dirt in Sterling's face in the middle of our single sword fight.

When we presented our scenes in our final choreography class, my scene ended and there was silence. Stunned silence, that for a moment made me nervous. Then David, who has seen every fight test I've ever done (because he adjudicated the one class I took that he didn't teach), who has coached me through self-choreographing fights in the past, who has known me longer than anyone else in this business as a fighter, said "wow." He said "I don't think I've got a negative comment," which I've never heard him say before, even about fights he has really liked. I learned then that my ability is in being an outside eye to hone the instincts of my actors into compelling stage pictures and visceral moments. I know as a director (and so as a fight director too) that my strength is in sewing together the ideas of my collaborators to fit my vision, rather than forcing my vision upon others so that they feel constrained, and I think that's where the success of my scene came through.

I was immensely proud of the nuanced acting of my performers (we did the scenes without dialogue because nobody had time to memorize two scenes in three days while also creating their own fights and maybe sleeping); I was proud of myself for letting go of bad ideas and pushing past where I was stuck; I was proud that my mentor got to see my work and was impressed. Lewis too said he got chills at how much the scene had improved from the day before and how I had worked myself out of my challenges, and that he teared up a bit watching the scene. To have someone who just met me see my growth, and to make my mentor proud, was more than I could have expected or asked for coming into this process.

I owe deepest debts of gratitude to Brimmer and Lewis, and also to Robb Hunter for an hour and a half of chaos that taught me more than he meant it to, to Mike Chin for reminding me about how much of fighting is acting (yes, duh, but still), to MJ Johnson (pictured above about to pull me over a table) for found objects and attitude, to Rick Sordelet for teaching me more about camera angles and filming myself in fifteen minutes than I ever learned in four years of very expensive theatre school (which was nothing), and to Mitch McCoy, who has been my dear friend for years and who, in addition to being more obsessed with broadsword than I am, helped heal my back with Reiki so I could actually make it through the whole workshop. I am also unspeakably grateful to all the interns who brought us weapons, kept time, and helped us figure out where we were going, and to my fellow choreo track students, who shared all my anxieties and fears and strengths and got through this all together. May we all work together again soon.

Hey, hire me to fight you! Or fight for you! Or tell other people how to fight each other! I know a few things now. (Not many. But some good ones.)

Fight video - Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, Act IV scene II; Duchess played by Gaby Labotka, Bosola played by Nic Coccaro.

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The Heartbreak of Dreaming

Sunset in the Golan Heights, Israel

Sunset in the Golan Heights, Israel

This post was inspired by a long series of nights spent dreaming I was in Israel and waking up to find that's not the case. It's tough to spend a long and beautiful time in one place and wake up to a different reality.

Artists are storytellers, we are dreamers. By nature we see things for more than they are, deeper than their surface value.  We spend time thinking, wondering, pondering, creating alternate realities. By vocation we live alternate realities all the time. I mean that in the sense of imagining ways things could be, but also nobody read me a story as a kid (nor did I read one as a teenager or young adult) about a person who grew up, went to school, and then spent years working multiple jobs at once to be able to spend a little time on the side pursuing her dream. This life I lead, while not unheard of, is far from common or traditional. But the unpredictability, the flexibility, the constant variables that make up the schedule of a freelancer, paints the world with a different brush. The brush of a dreamer.

Dreamers see possibilities where others don't. They imagine things never created before and, if they're a magic combination of hardworking and lucky, they make those imaginings a reality. Right now, as American politics faces options it never believed possible before, dreamers all over the country are forging new realities for our nation. That's happening through a lot of hard work, and a lot of determination in the face of being told our ideals are impossible.

Some may equate dreamers with optimists, but that's not me. I think of myself as a realist in many ways, making the practical decisions that must be made to make impractical decisions possible. When I was in high school, I made the extremely impractical decision of applying to only one college, a college that happened to be the number one "dream school" in the country. I had no backups. I had a fake list of four other schools I could list off when people asked me where I was applying, so that they wouldn't look at me like I was crazy, but to this day I couldn't really tell you anything about the drama programs at Brown, Carnegie-Mellon, Columba, and Northwestern that you don't already know. I did zero research. I focused 100% on making my NYU dream a reality. I did all the practical work, got all the good grades, did all the extra-curriculars and volunteer work needed to make my impractical decision a practical result.

As graduation loomed ever closer, I realized a dream was coming to an end. Don't get me wrong, theatre school was hard, it is still the hardest thing I have ever done, and I was grateful in many ways to have survived it and to see the light at the end of the windowless theatre tunnel. But the end of that tunnel was also the end of my known future. From age fourteen I had seen myself going to NYU and living in New York, and that's what I did. Yet with that cap and gown staring me in the face, I was completely unsure what to do next. I had been very good at achieving my dreams to that point. But I didn't know what the next dream was.

Most days I still don't know what the new dream is, and I graduated almost four years ago now. I dream of creating new theatre, and telling stories, and changing the world through art. I dream of creating political pieces that start a movement. But I also dream of moving to Berlin, or to Tel Aviv, of becoming a citizen of the world, a nomad whose home is nowhere and everywhere. 

The danger of being a dreamer is that there is a great risk of disappointment. Far too often, reality does not line up with the possibilities we see. Every audition that doesn't yield a role or each play submission that is rejected is a small (or not-so-small) heartbreak. Being a dreamer is full of extreme highs and consequently extreme lows. Dreamers can imagine incredible successes, bright, perfect outcomes - and when life falls short of what our minds create, it can be a devastating letdown. Some days, it can be easy to shake off a loss, but other days, the death of what could have been roots itself in our hearts and makes everything a bit darker.

I was hoping as I wrote this piece it would come to some sort of inspiring conclusion. But the fact of the matter is I'm at a loss. Sometimes things are just hard. They warn you, when you're a kid, that theatre is a hard business, not for the faint of heart. That if you can think of anything else you'd like to do, do that, because it will surely be easier. And by easier what they mean is that it won't break your heart so much when it's hard. Unfortunately, I have yet to find anything practical that I love as much as theatre or rock music. I'm doomed to be a dreamer forever. And I guess that means a lot more heartbreaks along the way. Good thing my phoenix heart is strong. (There it is. There's the inspiring ending I was trying to find.)

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