How to Close a Show

The healing process begins with the last curtain call. Cry. Hug your other actors. Get out of your costume for the last time, but be so attached to it that you buy it from the company. You’re sure you’ll find some reason to wear a tutu.

Strike the set. If you are handy, grab a power tool and go to town on those screws. Don’t think about the fact that you are dismantling two months of hard work, sweat and planning in a matter of minutes. Just get those screws outta there. If you are less handy (ahem, me) do whatever menial tasks help strike to move along but still make you feel kind of useless. Pick up screws. Fold curtains. Clean the dressing room. Steal someone else’s power tool for a few minutes and go to town on those screws yourself. Feel important for two minutes.

Hug everyone. Tell them how much you’ve enjoyed working with them. Mean it.

Go to a cast party. Take a shot of whiskey with your favorite cast members. Sing with them. Light up a bonfire and watch the night go up in smoke. Soak up the last moments that this entire group of people will be together for a common purpose. Sure, you may have made some new friends who you will stay in touch with. Maybe you’ll work with some of these people again, or run into them at auditions. It will always be congenial, it will always be a pleasant surprise, but it will never be like this. Never again. This is the last time, so enjoy it. Finally get to kiss your showmance-crush, but know that nothing will come of it. Its not the beginning of a relationship, but rather the closing of one. A release of tension building up from quiet moments in the dark backstage.

Keep drinking beer. Don’t go home yet. Yes you have work in the morning but you’ve been hung over before right? Tell yourself you’ll drink coffee. Sing more songs. Talk shit about that one person you thought was annoying. As a group, analyze every moment of the show and how it could have been different, but be glad it wasn’t.

Wake up the next morning hung over and reeking of smoke. Shower. Go to work and pretend you aren’t hung over. Be so tired you can’t think straight. Be so tired that you don’t think about what you’ve lost.

Let a couple of days go by, enjoy you’re new freedom. Go grocery shopping for the first time in 3 weeks. Do a proper work out because you actually have the time. Call your non-theatre friends and catch up over dinner. When someone asks about your plans for Friday evening, start to say you have a performance, then remember you don’t.

Realize for the first time that it is truly over. That the thing you created together will never be seen ever again. Not in the same way. Not with the same people. Miss your castmates. Miss that person you talked shit about, and feel bad because you really did like them. Wish you were putting on your make up and laughing backstage. Run your lines in your head out of habit. That night have a dream that you are running late for your call time, or that you are out on stage and forgot your lines, or are wearing the wrong costume. Wake up and remind yourself it’s over, and you can go back to sleep.

Dedicated to the cast and crew of Red Hamlet.

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Dear Hello Kitty Diary…

13. You’re about the work first, knowing that career will follow and not the other way around. Dedicated work leads to good work. Good work leads to great work. Great work is thrilling. Great work is noticed. Celebrated. Hired. And money follows bliss. As Steven Pressfield wrote in “The War of Art,” “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.” ~ 15 Things Actors Do That Make Me Happy

Dear Hello Kitty Diary,

Acting is hard.

I am a reasonably talented actor. I am not terrible looking, and I have pretty good timing. I have a wide range of interests, from classical acting to dance to music to comedy. In my wildest dreams I want to be on a sitcom. I want to be the next Robin Sherbatstky or Grace Adler or Rachel Green. Unfortunately I seem to be the only one who recognizes what a great sitcom star I’d be. As a child I hoped I’d be “discovered” walking through a mall or appearing in a community theatre play. I’ve since learned it doesn’t quite work that way.

Countless submissions to agencies yield only a self-addressed envelope containing a “thanks but no thanks” standard response. There are plenty of not-terrible-looking brunettes to go around. I dream about moving to L.A. one day, but with no money, connections, SAG card, agent, reel or film experience in general, that day seems like a long way off. Whats a struggling ChicagoActress to do?

So with all those odds stacked against me you’d think I’d be suicidal, or at least a little depressed. Occasionally I am. (Depressed, not suicidal. I’m only suicidal when I think about the fact that Kristen Stewart has a career and I don’t) Luckily, I have the anti-dote to this depression. The cure for artistic frustration is only as far away as I am from my computer and a solid wi-fi connection.

Now is absolutely the best time ever to be an artist. We have more forums for our work to be seen. We have faster ways to communicate and share ideas. We have new and important things to say. When I look at my favorite musicians, artists, performers, most of them have found their own path to success outside of the traditional road.

Broadway and Hollywood aren’t the only ways to make yourself heard. They are not the end-all-be-all of success. We have Youtube. We have kick-starter. We have WordPress.  So you want to design clothes and accessories? Get yourself on Etsy! You want to write funny songs? Throw them up on Youtube!

There are countless examples of entertainers finding success after generating their own material. The pilot for “It’s Always Sunny” cost $200 to make and was shot on a digital cam-corder. Youtube has given us Garfunkle and Oates, Jenna Marbles, and love him or hate him, Justin Beiber. Lena Dunham wrote, directed and produced Tiny Furniture, using her home, mother and sister for the setting and characters. And we all know the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon Good Will Hunting fairy tale. One of my absolute favorites is the PigPen Theatre Co. who formed in college, and developed their own unique story-telling aesthetic. (They are also coming to Writers Theatre next fall. Eek!) What all of these entertainers have in common is that the work came first. They produced compelling material and were eventually recognized.

It’s easy to be passive about generating material and opportunities as an actor. It seems like the only way to find success is dependant on someone ELSES ability to create (playwrights, producers, backers ect.).  I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to work with some ambitious companies this year, who created their own opportunities. Vintage Theatre Collective used kickstarter to finance Miss Julie. Aaaron Sawyer and his lovely wife Brindin used their own money to finance the production of Red Hamlet, which he wrote and directed himself. I’ll be with Unrehearsed Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing in May, and shooting an adaption of Neil LaBute’s Bash over the summer. The short film will be produced with private equipment, using a group of friends for the director and actors. We won’t be able to submit it to festivals, but it will give us an opportunity to learn, practice, and hopefully shop it around for backers and put something on our reel.

So no, I am not depressed. I am surrounded by limitless possibilities. I am fortunate enough to work in a community of artists who value story-telling over financial gain, and who understand that the work comes first. I am constantly inspired by the people I am lucky enough to work with, and the artists I am connected to through this wonderful thing called the internet.

Together we can generate good work, practice, get better, and then get noticed. I don’t feel too discouraged about not having an agent yet, because I know it will come in time. The rules are being re-written, so let’s do some writing of our own.

Thanks for listening, Hello Kitty Diary.

Like Show Business…

“Theatre remains the only thing I understand. It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being. In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety — this is the only life I know. It is the life I love.” ― Robert Helpmann

A couple of months ago someone asked me why I do theatre. I gave him a brief explanation of my educational background and how I came to be in Chicago. He said “But you still didn’t answer-why theatre?”.

Honestly, I was completely stumped.

I can’t remember a time when theatre was not a part of my life. When I was little and I used to wish on stars every night, my request was always the same “Please make me an actress”. (For a brief period of time my request was “Please make me a witch and let me go to Hogwarts”, but once my 11th birthday passed and no owls appeared, I gave up).  As a child I was only interested in putting on plays, going to dance class, learning to sing. Like most theatre kids, I felt that I didn’t fit in at school. Though I am no longer a misfit kid going to theatre camp, the sense of homecoming when I am part of a show remains. Every time I strayed away from theatre I never stayed away long. For me, having theatre in my life is as essential as family or faith. Theatre is the love of my life.

I love the lightbulbs around the mirror and the fine powder coating the inside of my make up bag. I love the years of dust collected in prop rooms and the smell of fresh paint drying on wooden flats. I love the stillness of the theatre when only the ghost light illuminates the stage. I love the frantic, kinetic energy of an opening night. I love the zipper hastily stitched into a broken costume. Shoes that are a bit too small but match so perfectly you have to wear them. Mock ups, designs, paintbrushes, light gels, safety pins, sitzprobes, catwalks, duck tape, heavy red curtains.

I love living on top of my cast mates for the length of the show. The camaraderie that forms during a particularly exhausting tech run, when everything becomes hilarious. The passing of folklore and etiquette from one generation of actors to another. I love that all theaters smell the same. I love the sense of peace and purpose that washes over me every time I enter a theatre- the feeling I think I am supposed to get when I enter a church.

I love the instant gratification of a laugh from the audience, and the slow burning electricity of a suspenseful scene. The poetry of Shakespeare, the social challenges of Ibsen. Standing backstage as an overture plays.

I love the sense of kinship I automatically feel with other actors. The private jokes and had-to-be-there moments that exist only within your cast. The community that forms around a common idea and purpose: to tell a story, to affect an audience.

I think of theatre as a reflection of our relationship with the Uni-verse. We are not solitary people, but the Uni-verse expressing itself as a human for a while. I am not actually the character, just Erin expressing myself as Rosencrantz for a while. Living in the world of Red Hamlet for a while.  We choose to share an illusion in the hopes that we will be entertained or learn. Theatre reminds us we are all connected.

So there is my artsy-farsty foo-foo answer for why I do theatre. I guess the simple answer is “It makes me happy.”

That works too.

How to be a Working Actor (And Not Want To Kill Yourself)

Authors Note: This is a companion piece to How to be an Out of Work Actor (And Not Want To Kill Yourself) 

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell whether he knows it or not.”

~ Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

It happened! You’ve done it! You’ve finally been cast in a show!

Now you’ve got rehearsals every night, and lines to memorize, and a day job, and auditions to go on because this show won’t run forever, and a social life, and a commitment to personal hygiene, and relationships and family obligations and AHHHHHH!

In How to be an Out of Work Actor (And Not Want to Kill Yourself) I wrote about the pitfalls one encounters while being out of work, and how to avoid descending into “Actor Limbo”. I am about to head into tech week for Red Hamlet. (You can get your tickets here) So now I’m writing about how to keep sane while you balance your day job and your acting career.

Being an out of work actor can be complete hell, obviously. Being a working actor should be heaven, but it can turn into hell if you don’t take care of yourself. Again, there is absolutely nothing new or groundbreaking about this list, it’s pretty much common sense. But that doesn’t mean we always stick to it, so here goes.

  • EAT: The body needs fuel or it will get sick. Its amazing how much you can do running only on adrenaline, but eventually you will crash. You don’t help anyone by skipping meals. I stick to simple foods that are easy to prepare. Salad every day, ( I make it on Sunday and eat it throughout the week) green juice, avocado toast, brown rice and quinoa, granola, apples, bananas and LOTS of tea.
  • AUDITION/SUBMIT/SEE SHOWS: This show won’t run forever.  Yes its a pain to come home after a long day and put together material for an audition that you probably won’t book, but its part of your job. Continue to promote yourself (and your show while your at it).
  • DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB (or get fired from it) The theatre is a fickle mistress. Unless you are very lucky, you probably can’t live on the salary you receive from your show. If you have a flexible day job that pays the bills, hang onto it for dear life. That means being fully present, sober, and well rested for the day.
  • SHIFT GEARS: One thing I do to help keep my day job and acting job separate, is no matter how crunched for time I am between work and rehearsals, I ALWAYS change my clothes. It helps break up the day and separate my nannying energy from my acting energy.
  • KEEP A CALENDER: Live and die by your calendar. You’ve got a lot of plates spinning and having an accurate calendar helps them from smashing to pieces.
  • HAVE SOME PERSPECTIVE: No. One. Cares. How. Tired. You. Are. Remember all your fellow actors who are dying for a job right now and be sensitive to those who might not be working. There is nothing worse than being an out of work actor, and having to listen to your working, well-compensated actor friends bitch about their shows.
  • STRETCH: I should be writing about exercising. I wish I could tell you I was one of those badass people who wakes up at 5 AM to do P90X, showers, heads to work, then goes right to rehearsals, but I can’t do that. I’d rather sleep the extra hour. Luckily both my show and day job are fairly active. To avoid injury, stretching is essential.
  • INVEST IN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS:  Once you fall into a routine of seeing only your co-workers and your cast-mates, its easy to let other relationships fall to the wayside. But it is essential to maintain friendships outside of your jobs. I am so grateful to have a close group of friends who are happy and supportive of my acting career, but otherwise have nothing to do with theatre. It reminds me there is an outside world.
  • NAP: I am only good at three things; walking in heels, playing with kids and napping. (You’d be amazed at how you can build a life around those skills) I can sleep anywhere, at any time. So I nap when I can get it, on the train, in the hallway on a break, underneath the dressing room counter. Sleep allows the mind to rest and the body to recover.

Committing to these things keeps you from burning out, and makes being a working actor exactly what it should be, heaven.

What does it mean to “Make It”?

My dad said “To be an actor is a lonely life. Everybody wants to make it, and you might not make it.” and I said to my dad, well it depends on what “making it” is then. I was a smart kid, I said it depends on what making it means. He said what do you mean? I said well, you’re a teacher. If I can make a teachers salary doing comedy, I think thats better than being a teacher.

~Dave Chapelle

Over the summer I worked at the Red Barn Summer Theatre. I was in three shows and understudied a fourth. On my off-nights, I took tickets at the front of the house. The patrons were always sweet and complimentary, and went out of their way to say nice things about the shows they’d seen me in. One evening an older gentleman and I were chatting when  he asked:

“So do you want to be an actress then?”. I was confused. He had just told me how much he liked the first two shows I’d been in. I fumbled for a response.

“Um…I mean…I am an actress. They pay us here.” I stuttered, not wanting to be rude.

“No but I mean like a real actress.” He persisted.

Then I understood. He meant was I trying to “make it” as an actress. I was not offended in the least, just a little taken aback. Most people outside the industry seem to believe that the only reason anyone would pursue theatre is to ultimately become a famous movie star. Working summer-stock in Frankfork, Indiana  is certainly not the glamorous life of an actress I pictured when I was five, but it was three months of supporting myself completely by acting, and I was proud of that. So a smiled at the patron and told him that I planed to return to Chicago at the end of the summer and continue acting.

Lately I’ve been contemplating my definition of success. I feel strongly that I have to settle on a definition for myself, and not let what society considers “making it” be my only guide. Once I define it for myself, I can set goals and take specific action towards achieving them. If I don’t, I’ll just be aimlessly wandering. Really its acting 101, figure out your super objective and relentlessly pursue it.  But what is my defenition of success?

What does it mean to “make it”? There are so many possibilities it makes my head spin.

What does it look like? Is it having a career like my hero Cate Blanchette? Winning Oscars and running a theatre with her husband? Is it being a movie star and all the superficial things that seem to go along with it? A publicist, high profile relationship, pictures of me in a tabloid wearing designer jeans and aviators to get a coffee with words written over me proclaiming “Stars, they are just like us!”

Or is it something else? Is it the ability to work? Is it simply the ability to support myself through my art? Will I be satisfied if I am lucky enough to work in regional theaters? Is my definition of success becoming a company member with a storefront in Chicago? Is it spending summers at Utah Shakes or working at the Goodman? Winning a Tony? Teaching acting at a college? And if I am fortunate enough to accomplish any of those things, what comes next?

I don’t really have an answer yet, but in the meantime I’m not getting worked up over a harmless question like “Do you want to be a real actress?”. I know in my heart I already am, regardless of how other people define success as an actress.

(The quote from the beginning of the post is from Dave Chapelle’s inside the Actor’s Studio episode. He certainly has a clear idea of what defines success and what he is willing or not willing to sacrifice for it.The episode is absolutely fascinating, so if you can stand James Lipton’s fawning, check it out)

“It’s Just a Little Ballet…”

My sister Leenie had this dance teacher in New York. Not only did she teach a great class, but she had some excellent philosophies on dance and life. Occasionally during class, Eileen would get frustrated. The teacher would say to her “Hey Leenie, relax. It’s just a little ballet. We’re fighting two wars and there are people starving all over the world, this is just a little dancing. Relax and enjoy it.”  Sometimes when I get frustrated over the little things, Leenie will look at me and say “Hey Erin, it’s just a little ballet.”

So that audition I thought I did terrible in? (The one where I kept adjusting my bra?) I ended up getting a call back. At the callback the director said off-handely “We don’t need to hear you guys sing again. You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t sing”. He wasn’t talking specifically about me, but it did give me a boost. I may not get the job but I did learn something important in the audition. I need to relax. It’s just a little singing, just a little dancing. Just doing some theatre. Yes it’s my career, yes it’s the most important thing to me (after family and health) But what’s the point of it all if I don’t enjoy myself along the way? Do I have to wait until I am cast in a show to have fun? That may take months. No, I choose to be happy and enjoy myself in the process.

This weekend will be a big test. I’m going down to Memphis for UPTA’s, and I plan on having a ball.  Yes I’ll be taking the night train to and from, and it will be a crazy, long, hectic day, but by George I am going to have fun. If I start to get frustrated or nervous, I will take a deep breath and remember…

It’s just a little ballet. 

What Goes Through My Head During a Musical Theatre Audition…

This is going to be a departure from my typical sunny-positive-attitude-no-matter-what-happens post. It’s a glimpse into what actually goes through my head when I have to sing in an audition.

I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with auditioning. Almost too comfortable. I don’t want that comfort to turn into cockiness or complacency. So last night I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and went to a singing call. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to control my thought patterns to create positive experiences. But for some reason whenever I sing during an audition I turn from my normal, confident, positive self into a hysterical basket of nerves. Here’s a taste:

Alright here we are! Wow this room is really small, I can’t believe all 12 of us fit in here. Whelp better get my forms filled out. 

Oh shit. We can hear in the audition room. Oh shit everyone out here is going to hear me sing. Worse than that, I’m going to have to listen to ten people sing before me who are much better singers than I am. Oh great. Well at least I have my sexy new red audition dress on. Why is that girl staring at my boobs? Sweet Jesus! I am falling out of my dress! Holy cow, better just keep adjusting my top so my bra doesn’t stick out. Ok…alright…there. That should be fine….nope…oh crap.

Ok just try to relax. Why do I get this way during singing auditions? I have an alright voice. Over the summer I sang Logainne every night for a month and NEVER got this nervous? 

Good lord I don’t need a voice coach, I need a shrink. 

Gah, listen to her…another great singer. Musical theatre kids are scary. No they are not scary, they are the same as any other actors. I just think they are scary because I am intimidated by literally everyone in this room. 

Ok say you’re affirmations…I have confidence I have what it takes…I have confidence I have what it takes…I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain…NO! Comeon Erin focus! Mean it! Be confident! Oh God I am going to be the worst one aren’t I? 

How are my boobs? Dammit still falling out. Why won’t this dress stay put? I’ll take a stitch to the top when I get home…can’t do anything about it now…unless someone has duck tape. 

Erin O’Connor? Thats me! Shoot why don’t they tell us who’s on deck? Ok got your head shots? Here we go! WAIT! Bring your music in dummy! Ok smile, be yourself. Get the accompanist’s name… LInda, hi here is my music. On shit, my throat just went dry. It feels like I just inhaled a bonfire. I need water! Too late now. Take a deep breath. My body is seizing up. How are my boobs? OMG DON’T ADJUST YOURSELF IN FRONT OF THE GOD DAMNED DIRECTORS!!! Shit just sing. 

And now my song!

Omg Erin what are you doing? This isn’t what we practiced! What about all your moves? Why am I suddenly paralyzed?  Comeon we did this 100 times today! We visualized it all week! Why are you just standing there??? Here comes the bridge….ok you did that move at like 40%, I guess that’s something. Aaaaand we’re done. 

“Sing something else? Sure I could, is there anything in particular you want to hear? Something sassy? Um…I’ve got tits and ass? I MEAN ‘Dance Ten Looks Three.’ ”

Great, way to draw attention back to your boobs. Am I falling out again? No no, don’t look down. Oh shoot! OMG ERIN STOP MOLESTING YOURSELF IN FRONT OF THESE PEOPLE!!!!

Ok here we go, singing again. BE SASSY! Thats not a playable action. Ok stop being a pretentious actor and give this freakin director what he wants. Um….how can I be sassy? Ok I’ll smile and move more, ok feeling better. Alright now we are getting into it! Lets check in at the table…aaaaand they are staring at the table and not smiling. Shit. 

Director guy: Erin tell me about your dance experience.

Me: Well I have much more experience with dance than I do with singing. Oh good, directors love it when you apologize in an audition right? Lets give him a rambling, barely coherent explanation of my dance history. 

Director guy: So…ballet mostly?

Oh shit, In all of that I didn’t mention WHAT KIND of dance I have experience with. Seriously Erin? Seriously. Ok! Thanks very much have a good night. Gotta grab my binder from the piano….oops, just walked out of my shoe. Laugh it off laugh it off…

Back out in the audition room. I can read their faces. I can hear what they must be thinking: Of course the tart in the booby red dress sang “tits and ass”. Look at her, she can’t stop touching her boobs! Too bad she can’t sing. 

Thats not fair Erin, don’t project. These are probably nice people who haven’t given you a second thought and you are making them out to be judgmental snobs because you feel bad about your audition. Just grab your stuff and get out of here. 

Catch the train. Sit down. Why does this keep happening? Why am I like this? When I get nervous before I dance, or before I do a monologue, somehow I manage to channel that nervous energy and use it in my performance.  It helps, rather than hinders. But whenever I have to sing in an audition, all of that energy seems to paralyze me, dry out my throat and cause me to be totally in my head. I don’t have this problem when I perform! I’m not even a terrible singer! I’ll never be a Broadway belter, but I should be doing better than this. Whats wrong with me? 

I need a distraction, Where is my phone? No text messages. Well lets check Facebook. Who’s on the feed? Ah, a post from Jared McDaris: 

Words of Encouragement from Shakespeare.
“Shake it off.” – Prospero,
The Tempest, 1.2

The Bard is always there for me when I need him.