Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Best Art

Note: I wrote this on January 1, 2016 while living in Minnesota. I prefer to share intense personal things after they have happened. Hindsight lets me know if something is worth sharing. Or safe to share.
And now, a year and a half later, I am to say that I am a bit calmer in my feelings described below, but also following them! Writing out my dreams allows them to manifest, and it's important to recognize that.
I have slightly edited the below since its initial draft:

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I was struggling with something when finishing my Acting BFA from the Guthrie- I wasn't sure if I wanted to be an actor. For a time, I thought it was because I didn't believe in myself. That awful imbecile of a discouraging voice is now gone. But the difficult realization still lingered months ago- I still didn't want to be an actor full time.

I have seen acting as a sacred, almost holy ritual. Mass is a performance, like a play. Seeking enlightenment, nirvana, or the Holy Spirit (whatever your fancy) is the pursuit of God, or truth, or oneness with the Universe (again, whatever your fancy). Not only as a practitioner, but as an audience member, I have zero patience for theatre executed on autopilot or without any thought or service to truth, mindfulness, commitment, and imagination.

Two of my greatest artistic successes (which had what I think were my WORST artistic attempts squashed between them: a very cowardly and surface-level performance as Tuzenbach in a dreadful Three Sisters and a downright crappy audition in London) happened in Winter 2012. I played Ned Blunt in The Rover at drama school and then sang the Meditation Song at Christmas Eve Mass a month later near my hometown. I will discuss the latter.

I flew into RI a day earlier than originally planned, and it so happened that I would make it to my aunts' choir rehearsal. They've been choir directors since long before my birth. One of them, Jo-Ann, called aunt by choice not by blood, was my voice teacher until I was 18. She called me up, and asked me be the soloist during the reflection time after Communion- "Oh, Holy Night." I said yes immediately, and got myself to rehearsal.

This was the year the Sandy Hook shootings happened in neighboring Connecticut. The country was really shaken by the death of so many little ones. And, in general, folks seemed on edge in our community. I had drifted from following strict Catholic doctrine, but still believed in something greater than ourselves. Like the reason we hang ornaments (to reflect), this moment of meditation is was meant to open up the heart and mind to peace.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining... the lyrics declared, and surprisingly topically.
The soul felt its worth...
Fall on your knees, Hear the angel voices...

At the mass itself, I stepped forward once everyone had received the Body of Christ. Annie on percussion, the full choir behind me, and Jo-Ann on piano and conducting, we collaborated to pray- to really tap into our souls and be mindful about the world around us. Using the skills I'd learned at drama school, like using language by luxuriating in its sounds, filling the space, and driving it all with intent.

When singing the song, all the self consciousness and tension I often felt when auditioning with a song was gone- there was a purpose greater than myself that night. The purpose was to SERVE the people in attendance, to inspire them to pray. To reflect. To meditate. I remember every moment because I was being mindful of communication and presence, but I didn't comment or force anything. The words, the intent- it all flowed through me. And when it ended, the church burst into the most thunderous applause that had, up to that point, followed something I took part in. I did not bow, nor did I smile. I breathed it in and tilted my head to thank them, and to share in what they were feeling.

After the mass, about ten different grown men walked up to me, weeping. Each of them shook my hand, quivering. They could not form words other than breathy "thank yous." I felt like one of the actors I have reached out to at the stage door, post performance My grandmother asked if I loved the applause. I said, "I do not love the applause. I appreciate its spontaneity as a signal I have fulfilled my artistic (aka spiritual) duty."

I mean this. And THIS is the only thing worth pursuing.

Though I do mourn that my current path makes it difficult to get an appointment audition to something I do believe in, like The Phantom of the Opera, I recognize that THIS humble, slow-moving path I am carving is MINE, and truest to myself. And one day, I will stand on a stage, whether it be in London's West End or a humbler stage in the regional scene, and share my soul and search for mindful revelation through that uplifting score.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Asking the Deepest Questions

About a year ago, I met for lunch with a pretty "important person," who said to me that I needed to just commit to one thing in the theatre business, because otherwise people wouldn't know what to do with me. I was seeking data from him and many to decide to give my life purpose or drive. In that instant, I realized that his advice was limiting and boxes one in.

Whilst I recognize the importance of commitment and saving money, being an artist requires me to be more than an actor or just an admin. It requires a joy and openness to always being a student, a teacher, and an actor, and a singer, and an administrator, and a writer.

I spent most of last week travelling back and forth between New York City and my current residence, Providence, RI, to take some classes with a deeply inspiring role model/mentor in my life, Alexandra Silber. I hadn't been in an acting classroom since 2013, and it was an important opportunity as a wiser, on-the-other-side-of-the-mountain 27 year old. To reacquaint myself with deep questions about who I am and how I execute my artistry.

I ask myself many of these questions on the regular, but to do it in a structured space with allies enhances and challenges one to go deeper. And it also inspired me to take charge of how I am actively executing my goals and embedding a positive mindset into my life habits. Because only through believing I, right now, can execute my loftiest dreams may I ever accomplish them. And I can.

When I left NYC in 2015, I wasn't ready to be there. The lifestyle and the expense wasn't something I could marry with my desire to make art. Right now, I am an active, deeply involved ensemble member with the fringe RI company OUT LOUD Theatre, where we challenge ourselves to expand and probe the concepts of performance and space. It is deeply satisfying and productive, and therefore I feel successful in it. When we presented Marat/Sade in March, I used ever tool in my kit and worked with a company so thorough in its work that I can't help but be proud.

Many more extraordinary opportunities are happening at OUT LOUD through to next summer, and I have been hired during my brief lulls at OUT LOUD by a company called 2nd Story for two of their productions. And it's happening because of the work I am putting in at OUT LOUD.

In addition, I am writing a musical with a friend. And there are so many other things I wish to do... and no one is giving me a permission slip to do them. I just have to do them. I sometimes think when I've just done something of my own volition, it's been a surprise to me I have at all. I believe the next step to greatness is purposefully doing the things.

And perhaps the biggest change in my mindset is that I say with intense confidence that I am an actor, but chiefly I also say I am an artist. Because the pursuit of serving pieces in different manners is paramount. Studying dramaturgy as a master's is likely the best thing for me to do by the time I reach my early 30s. I want to solidify a foundation of teaching or administration and then continue to expand and probe my artistic boundaries from there. But in the meantime, I make art and work for the RI Philharmonic and love every moment of it, At 5pm, I leave the office and rehearse or sing or write.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Living Artists: Elizabeth Welch

As part of an open-ended project, I am interviewing (mostly) theatre artists from the perspective of life beyond New York City pavement pounding. It's to perpetuate the concept that life is bigger than one moment or job. The Artist's Way (to borrow Julia Cameron's phrase) is filled with reflection, complexity, autonomy, and integrity.

American singer/actor Elizabeth Welch recently completed a season-long run as the principal Christine DaaƩ in the Oberhausen, Germany, production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, after years as the Christine understudy in the US Tour and Broadway productions. A mother and wife in Colorado who afterward found herself on the Great White Way, Elizabeth was kind enough to share highlights of her journey, which is beautifully, uniquely hers.

You studied voice and met your husband whilst working in Europe directly after school ended. What brought you to start your family life in Denver, Colorado, before ever pursuing an NYC career?

I was born and raised in Colorado. I love it there. We decided to live near family for when phantom-der-oper-oberhausen-tickets-15we had kids. My husband’s family was in Buffalo, NY and beautiful Colorado had much more appeal to us than the snow belt of Western NY. My husband always said, “It’s a great place to be from!” I can’t really tell you why we didn’t go directly to NYC, except that I am very much a Colorado girl, and it’s a hard state to leave behind!

Many actors start out on a career path without a partner or family, waiting usually until their mid-late 30s to “settle down.” You have arguably done the opposite. In what ways has this order of events contributed to the quality of your career?

I did do it backwards. Having a child and a family was important to me. More so than having a career in performing. I always knew I would perform, but I never put pressure on it being my “career”. It was my passion, and I would do whatever side job was necessary to give me the freedom to perform. I didn’t want the pressure of earning a living to be in anyway attached to my auditions. I do what I do because I love it. I think this lack of pressure helped my career, because I only brought fun into the audition room. I had nothing to lose, which brings a relaxed energy and therefore, a better audition.

I would also say, having a child grounded me. It gave me a deeper understanding of myself and the world. There is no substitute for life experience, and I take it all with me into every role I play and every audition I take.

Who knows what my career would have been if I’d moved to NY right out of college. But I assure you, I wouldn’t change a minute of my journey.

How did the opportunity to play Christine in Germany arise? Did you pursue it or were you asked?

It’s just crazy the way life works. I was in rehearsal in NY and I said something offhand in German. Nothing major, just a simple phrase. But our dance supervisor knew they were looking for a Christine in Germany. That small moment started this whole ball rolling. You just never know! But it’s a clear lesson on the power of our words!

In coming to the role “anew,” were there any particular scenes you deepened your research or intention for?

Having a month of rehearsal for a role I’d known for 7 years was such an amazing experience. I was able to look at everything from a new perspective, because I had the time. I had a new director. I had the freedom to explore and see things from different angles. In addition to that, there are variations in the German translation. It’s not a word-for-word translation, so I had new intentions in the text I was singing. Because of that, I was kind of seeing each scene for the first time. I know the character but she suddenly had a new way of expressing herself. It was awesome. I loved this process.

Are there any particular differences you’ve noticed with German and Broadway audiences? Has that affected the work in any way?

The main difference I noticed was the length of the curtain call! These German audiences love to applaud! They’re very generous and genuinely want to be here. Oberhausen is relatively small, so the audience comes from all over. People make a special trip to get here, which makes it even more special.

You are not a fluent German speaker, though your education background assuredly prepared you to do the work. In undertaking a principal contract in Germany, how did you begin to prepare to be a non-native speaker in a German-speaking country? Was a translation provided? And was it a literal translation?

My classical training was a huge help. I’m very well prepared to sing in other languages. However, I was signed on pretty late and only had a few weeks with the German translation, which is not word-for-word. I began translating it myself because I absolutely needed to know every word I was singing. I started with only Christine’s text. Luckily, just as I was starting to translate the rest, they sent me a “back translation”, which was the literal translation of the German text. That saved me a ton of time!

Did you do any physical or phonetic work for the language?

Oh yes. Absolutely. I had the best phonetics coach, and we spent a lot of time together! He wanted the best, and he knew I wanted to be perfect (or as close to it as possible) so we worked very hard on my accent. And we still meet every other week for an hour to keep it strong and clean.

While the intentions are likely the same, the literal words and thought structures are different. For example, on the rooftop, you’re not singing, “All I Ask of You,” but, “More Want I Not from You/I couldn’t want anything more from you.” How have these new images, regardless of language, affected your work in the role? Anything revelatory that surprised you?

Yes, there are differences! Which is exactly why I needed the word-for-word translation. It changes everything. The overall intention is the same, but there is a big difference between, “We had such hopes, and now these hopes lie murdered,” and “Piece by piece you broke my childhood beliefs/hopes.” WE hoped vs. YOU broke is an interesting difference.

Some of the German poetry is so lovely. I prefer certain phrases, actually. Some parts work better than others, of course. But overall, I really enjoyed this challenge. It’s wonderful to have a new way to express Christine’s feelings.

Opening your own company of Phantom must have some qualitative differences. How does the atmosphere of doing the show in a small German city with an international cast differ from doing the show with a mostly American company in a long runner?

I wish everyone could have the opportunity to work abroad. Nothing compares to that life experience. Working with people from every corner of the world opens your eyes and you heart to things you could never imagine. There are many cultural differences, which are beautiful, and give you a respect for history you couldn’t learn from a book. However, there are many more similarities than differences. Just a bunch of humans working on the same job. The world is so much smaller than we think. I wish airlines were as inexpensive as public transportation. The world would be a different place if everyone could come visit their fellow humans across the ocean.

This might seem too simple a question, but in what ways have the different costumes and wigs and spacing and even sets possibly affected your work in the show?

Not at all a simple question. Not much changes for me in character and intention. There are more changes from the translation than from the costumes and staging. However, the staging and costumes add physical and technical issues which took some getting used to. Especially since Christine is such a physical role. I had to learn how to run and get up off the floor in all new huge dresses. That’s not an easy task anyway!

What keeps you inspired during a long run? You’ve been involved with Phantom as cover (and now principal!) Christine for nearly a decade. Is it a work/life balance?

There is absolutely a balance between work and life, and that is a constant tightrope walk. For everyone, I believe. Staying balanced on that tightrope does help keep the show fresh. You can focus on work when you’re at work, and home when you’re at home. I feel like the audience can sense if you’re thinking about the load of laundry you might have left in the washer. It’s all about balance.

Also, we have a different show every night. Often, people are sick or on vacation, so we have a different cast every night. And even if the cast is the same, each audience brings its own special energy. Live theater is an ever-changing art form. Just like Live Life! That’s what makes it interesting.