Acting & Experiences, Life in General, mental illness

The Now on which the Shadow Stands.

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Loving life…all of it!!

This is one of my favorite quotations. As far as I  know the author is anonymous, and this poem is inscribed on the base of a sun dial at a University.

The shadow by my finger cast
Divides the future from the past:
Before it, sleeps the unborn hour, 
In darkness, and beyond thy power.
Behind its unreturning line, 
The vanished hour, no longer thine:
One hour alone is in thy hands,-
The NOW on which the shadow stands.

The reason I’m sharing this today is that I’ve had a sort of time warp jump illustrated to me in my life, perhaps in a way, a very external one, that few people will experience.

It’s been over ten years since I’ve done a film or TV. I have no regrets.  I’m so glad I took the time to be with my girls, and there’s no question that the theatre I did in that time has made me twice the actress I was before, but what an interesting thing to see myself on film again with a decade jump.

Now, forty to fifty is a big leap, and Scream at the Devil is far from a Vanity piece. You don’t play a woman tortured by schizophrenia with full make up and fake eyelashes. Not if you want any kind of reality, and I certainly did. Actually, I’m fifty-two now, so call it a dozen years. And I look different. I’m in good shape, but I have cellulite, and a few more pounds. I have the same cheekbones, but the skin is a big looser around my mouth. My eyes crinkle when I smile, and let’s face it, extreme emotion is seldom physically flattering.

And I’m all right with that. Of course, editing is a strange process, you can, and often have to, change the tempo of scenes, choose shots that make the scene work or fit into the other actor’s improvised lines, it’s not anything like choosing the best still photos from your vacation or head shot shoot. What I’m hoping for here is a performance that moves those who see it, and that honors the suffering of those affected by crushing mental illness and chemical imbalance.

I know, though I don’t care all that much, that people will judge my appearance in this film, and compare it to my much younger self. Why? I don’t know. I suppose as actors and performers and even as a people, we have allowed judgement of physicality and age to so infect our perceptions that even the judged have bought into it.

Big mistake. And here’s why. I don’t care how young you are, how beautiful, how sexy, or how much you place your self-value in those traits, you will age. And I wish for you the same joy in it that I have found.

I’ve never been happier, or felt more beautiful. It makes me so sad when I see women who are in their fifties still trying to sell themselves as ‘sexy.’ Not that they aren’t, of course, they are, but it’s a different sexy, it’s a confident, feeling sexual and contented on the inside instead of counting on others feeling that you are what you want to be.

Does that make sense? Once when I was in an intensive scene study class, a very attractive blonde young actress was struggling to do a scene from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and the coach was trying to get her to embrace Maggie’s sultry, seething sexuality, but she just coudn’t. Finally I said, “I can help her!”

David, the coach, looked at me and said, “Fine, Shari Shattuck wants to tell someone how to play sexy. Please, yes, be my guest.”

Instead of speaking up in front of everyone, I left my seat, went down to the stage and whispered in her ear, “It’s not about ‘acting’ sexy, it’s about feeling turned on, feeling sexual.”

She nodded, started the scene again and virtually slithered over furniture and the actor playing Brick like a cat in heat.

David turned to me and said, “What the f*ck did you say?”

I just winked at the actress and said, “It’s a secret.”

But it’s not, or it shouldn’t be. Ladies, gentlemen, embrace your age, be the best you can be, and smile at the fact that the twenty-somethings will get more attention than you. That’s okay, it’s a relief really, to stop being thrown into the arena of physical competition. Don’t let anyone do that to you anymore, and don’t, please, I’m begging you, do it to yourself.

I’m very excited about my life now. I’m calmer and happier, and more fulfilled and focused than ever before. I have as much, maybe more energy than I did in my twenties, I am so much better at dividing my time and knowing what I want and who I want to spend my time with. What a gift!

Take that gift, reach out and grab it. Unwrap it and smile and rejoice. The gift of now, the culmination of all your work, realizations, epiphanies, emotional growth, and wisdom.

Who could ask for anything more?

With love and contentment,

Shari. June 30th, 2013.

Life in General

Sleep and Other Luxuries.

The glorious bedroom of the Medici suite at the Fairmont on Knob Hill.
The glorious bedroom of the Medici suite at the Fairmont on Knob Hill.

Well, it’s official, the film “Scream at the Devil” is, as they say, ‘in the can.’ Though of course, ‘on card and logged into the computer’ is more accurate these days. It’s strange to make a film without actual film, but hey, times change. And speaking of change, and time, I have a new book to write!

We had a blast during the shooting, and when it was over, well after dawn on a Saturday  morning, I went to bed, leaving the crew to whoop it up around my pool until all hours of the early afternoon. For the next few days, I took my daughter to school, and then went to bed again. Now I’m up in San Francisco and I’m still not sure when I’m supposed to sleep or get up, mostly though, it’s really nice to get into bed.

Especially in a suite at the Fairmont, a little congratulations gift from my amazing mate. Let me tell you about those five star sheets. If you are a man and you are not a biker, a swimmer, or a cross dresser, then I’m sorry, because you will never know the joy of that egyptian cotton on freshly shaved legs. Mmmm. It’s, frictionless, and yet, so fluffy.

Writing is a solitary business, except for editors, of course, and there’s nobody to screw up your work with bad lighting or silly sound design. But a film is another animal, (perhaps ‘zoo’ is more the mot juste) and it isn’t over when we call wrap! Now we get to put the film together, shot by shot, and add in special effects, sound and music. This, my friends, is where the movie is made or lost. It just doesn’t matter how good my performance is if the the editor has no sense of timing or drama. I can manifest all the fear of Satan I want, but if the composer puts a spritely polka underneath it, the tension, we can assume, will be lost. Post production, almost more than the visuals themselves, tell the audience where to look and what to feel.

So once again, I come back to the refrain that a film is something we do with a group of people and no one person is more important than any other. I did have one ‘actor’ experience on this film, where the actor thinks that it’s all about them, and I swear I wanted to stab them. Perhaps that’s because I was holding a butcher’s knife at the time.

Here’s the deal, do not—ever—show up on a set without knowing your lines and call yourself a professional. What would people think if the camera assistants showed up, and then began to figure out how to pull focus? You would fire them and get someone who knows what they are doing and doesn’t waste everyone’s time.  When you keep fifty people waiting while you get your shit together, whether that’s knowing your lines, or building up to a emotional point, you have not done your homework, and you are not good at your job.

Period.

In any other job, you would be ostracized at least, and eventually fired if you did it more than once, yet in film, actors are coddled and even ‘bad’ behavior has come to be expected and accepted by the unwitting crew. Not that anyone behaved badly on “Scream” far from it, we had a terrific group of people and I’m lucky to have a bevy of new friends, but you get my rant, uh, drift.

One of the things I’m most proud of in my acting career is the fact that almost every director I’ve ever worked with has worked with me more than once. There’s been a few I declined to work with again for a variety of reasons and, I’m sure, a few of them who are more than content to continue in their careers without me, and that’s fine. Personalities happen. But I hope to hell I was on time, prepared, and easy to work with. It’s my job to make their job easier, not harder, to Serve the Piece, and the most important thing to remember in a film or TV  show, or play, or any job actually, is—Am I doing the best thing for the overall result? For the Company? For the charity? For the school? Whatever it is you do. The question should never, ever, ever be—Is this the best way to get more for me?

Because it isn’t about any one person. Just like life, just like families, offices, countries, just like…fill in the blank. We are in this together.

I had a wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating, draining, and heartfelt experience with this group of people, and I’m so glad to have met all of them. It was my first experience where most of the cast and crew were younger than myself, and it was really very cool to be the ‘mom’ to everybody, and to see so many of them at the beginning of what will be very long and rewarding careers.

As far as the sleepiness is concerned, it’s understandable. Just consider this; not only did I work 13 hour days, or nights, as the case may be, but I put myself through an emotional sieve. To recreate all the insanity and sorrow, I went through the equivalent of five funerals, four near-death experiences, and a week’s worth of cocaine paranoia.

While I hope you have experienced none of these things, if you’ve been through even one, you’ll know how exhausting it can be. No wonder the sheets at the fabulous Fairmont are singing me a lullaby.

And now, back to mom-hood, and writing. I owe a sequel to “Invisible Ellen” by the end of year and I’m not really sure what that will be about yet. Multiple careers are a blast, but I do sometimes feel like I need someone to turn me in the right direction. Point and shoot. It’s a question of focus, but only of that. Even as I write this, I feel ideas forming, stories lurking, and plots unfolding. The blurriness is starting to clear. Oh, there she is, Ellen, and she’s beckoning, “Come on, lazy bones, write me!”

Gotta go, darn, I’ll miss this duvet.

Do what you love until you are exhausted, and then, let yourself rest, you earned it.

Shari, June 12th, 2013.

Life in General

Two Good Reasons to ‘Scream.’

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My makeup artist’s station. I’ll spend a good bit of time here!

And…they’re off!! Day one of principle photography of “Scream at the Devil” was a gem. We got some amazing footage, and I finally got to sink my teeth into an amazing role. 

I love emotional work, but I have to be honest, I never really cared for the melodrama of the soap work. It was just too prefabricated for my taste, not to knock anyone else’s guilty vice! I know many people love the genre and with good reason, it’s a blast to get involved in the long running stories, but as an actress, it was my least favorite medium. 

One of the things about film work that I love is the fact that you shoot out of order, it sort of isolates the scenes so that I can focus on that moment, but this may be the most challenging version of that I’ve ever taken on. Now imagine this; I’m playing a schizophrenic with multiple ‘episodes’ of dementia. So, sometimes I’m lucid, but often I’m not, it runs like increasing waves. Add into that that we shoot per location and supporting actors who are scheduled in. In other words, all my scenes in the kitchen with Eric Etebari will be shot in one day, all my scenes without him—another. There are kitchen scenes throughout the movie. Tony Todd, who plays the compassionate police detective, is only working one day, so we shoot all his scenes on Tuesday, beginning, middle, and the final shot of the movie. 

Just keeping track of what wardrobe I’m in is a challenge. (Thankfully not mine, that’s the wardrobe department and the script supervisor’s job.) Then I add in my emotional roller coaster ride, estimating which loop-de-loop I’m jumping on and off on. At last I have a point of reference to work off for the rest of the filming. I know my level here, therefore, I can gauge my level there

And it’s a blast. I’m tearing through this ride with my hands in the air whooping. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on a film set, and I wasn’t sure I was eager to go back, but at one point I just looked around at all the craziness and people and equipment, and frenzy and thought, “This is fun.” 

A couple of my favorite moments: I was standing near the kitchen counter in wardrobe,  barefoot, and I accidentally knocked a glass off the counter, it smashed all around me. The gaffer, (lighting director) shouted, “Don’t move” So I stood, frozen on one leg, as he crossed to me, wrapped his arms around my thighs and lifted me. He moved me to safety and set me down, like I was a light stand. It was hysterical. 

The FX designer, was watching the video playback of an effect we created where my spine expands, this is the guy who has worked on every movie from Jurassic Park to Men in Black, to…well, you name it, and he actually shuddered a little and said, “That was really creepy.” So funny. 

There are notes all over location that read things like, “This is a home, be respectful. Pick up your trash.” etc. There are signs on doors that read, “Wardrobe” “Makeup” etc. On the camera department, where they keep the incredibly expensive lenses and cameras, the printed sign reads, “Camera department, No admittance by anyone other that Camera Operators.” Underneath it, scribbled in pen, someone wrote, “Except Shari, she can go anywhere she wants.” 

I love those little things. It made me laugh, and it’s so fantastic to work with a crew filled with enthusiasm and talent. My husband is truly remarkable in the way he inspires and complements everyone, it’s why he brought so many people up through his theatre that have gone on to great things, but still love theater arts. The crew is watching him work, realizing they can trust him beyond their own vision, they are watching the monitor and muttering that it already looks like a 5 million dollar movie. 

Sure, people get tense, the testosterone runs high, I have to remind the first assistant director, (whose job it is to run the set)  that I’m working here and they need to settle down and stop shouting at everyone to hurry right before I have an on screen melt-down. But ultimately, we are all working for a common goal, what a wonderful feeling. 

And it’s so cool what you can do with more creativity and energy.

So, a short blog today, as I have a script to study and an insane week coming up, but here’s my note for today.

Do it. Be creative, learn your craft, be ready, positive, and always, always be a part of the solution, not the problem.  Stop shouting, don’t blame, fix, listen, look for ways to help, not just in the job assigned to you, respect everyone else, and enjoy it. 

Put your hands in the air, raise your eyes, and shout at the sky, just for the joy of it. 

Shari, May 12, 2013. 

Life in General

Gorillas in the Mists of Venice

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A view of the filming from the bridge.
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And what I see when I’m ‘alone.’

What’s that? There in the fog? Look closely, that way, in the near distance, a movement, a murmur, the wildlife stirs.

Oh, that’s us. We’re shooting a film here sans the rest of our crew. The whole big scene, assistants, grips, FX team, assistant directors, catering, etc, will all be hunkered down for a few weeks of intense group participation back in LA, and that will be tons of fun, no doubt, but today is a very different animal.

Because for this segment of the film, probably the first three minutes, it’s just me, the director, and the director of photography. It’s a raw way of working, but let me tell you, it has its definite advantages.

First, as an actress. Yes, I’m doing my own makeup and hair, and keeping track of my own wardrobe, not very well, by the way, I won’t look as pretty or be as well lit, but that’s okay, this film isn’t a vanity piece, and on the other hand I don’t have a team of people in my face picking and fussing at me with spray cans, lint rollers and brushes right up until the director says action, which, when you are doing a scene where you are beginning to see the devil in your real life, helps I think.

So much of acting is about just being able to be alone in a crowd. Being capable of not seeing what is right in front of your eyes, but instead what you imagine and mentally produce. The more I think about it, the two most valuable qualities to have as an actor are probably a fantastic fantasy life, and emotional detachment.

Here’s an example. I’m shooting a scene in my hotel room in Venice, it’s a very intimate phone conversation with my estranged husband, (played by the fabulous Eric Etebari, who will shoot his part much later back in LA) I don’t have him giving me the lines, and the director is busy, so I have to just memorize my part, and ‘hear’ his lines in my head. Meanwhile, the DP is constantly checking the focus on the camera because the camera is panning and moving in as the scene continues.

Do you have any idea how hard it is not to look at someone moving suddenly in your eye-line? To stay fixed in a tense, emotional moment when someone is waving a hand a foot from the camera? The combination of ‘forgetting everything’ and ‘being in the moment’ is a dichotomy that is extremely unnatural.

But, hey, that’s what I do.

A huge part of being a good actress means being technically good. By that I mean that you know what the framing is on the camera and visualize how to best fill it, you match your hand and head movements so that the editor can cut between the master and the close up. You make sure you are in your light, even if that means a fraction of an inch turn of your head. You are careful not make any unnecessary sound that might mess up the audio. You sit into the shot and place your face in the exact inch that means you will be in focus. You pause when a boat in the canal outside sounds it’s horn and then repeat the line so that it is ‘clean.’ All in a days work.

Now add to that, shooting in a city packed with tourists with nothing to do but try to see what’s going on, and locals who try to get in the picture. It’s hysterical really. We got to the point where we would set up the camera facing the wrong direction. The Italians, always on the phone, would find a place to settle themselves directly in the shot, then, when they were ensconced, at the last minute we would swing around and I would move to the other side so that we could get the shot even amidst the indigenous flora and fauna.

And there you have it, Gorilla filmmakers in the mists of Venice.

And if I must say, we got some amazing footage. Atmosphere and emotion and history that we could never have achieved back in good ol’ Hollywood.

So for you actors out there, my message today is “be flexible.” Don’t expect everyone to be completely silent and still and cater to you. It won’t happen, not even on the biggest sets. Other people have jobs to do too, and you need to respect them as well. When the sound guy lowers the boom to six inches over your head to catch your whisper, don’t look at it, and don’t even think about it. Yes, you will see the grip angle the reflector card as you step in to your close up, yes you will see the first AD cue the extras to walk behind you. But you must stay in your own dream.

Forget them all, and remember everything. Be in the moment emotionally yet intellectually perform a thousand tiny physical tasks. That’s my advice for today. Whether you are shooting with two people on a busy street, or a crew of hundreds on a sound stage.

You will never be alone, but we must believe that you are.

Meanwhile, back in the jungles of Italy, in between shots, I smile at everyone, help the elderly man down the stairs of the bridge when our camera is blocking the railing, listen to the bells of the cathedrals tolling in their fullness, and remind myself again how lucky I am.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Shari Venice, Italy, March 10th 2013.

Life in General

All the Help I Need.

 

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I spent a few hours today with the costume designer for Scream at the Devil. I’ve worked with Vicki before on many plays, and she actually designed and made my wedding dress for me. She’s an extremely talented lady who will be ‘building’ me several pieces for the movie, but today we came up with a master plan, colors, how my look will degenerate along with my sanity, and the overall look of the character. 

My character Miriam is an artist, and that will be reflected in what she wears. Whenever I work with someone of Vicki’s caliber, I am reminded again of how much help I receive as an actress from the incredibly hard working teams around me. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these crew members on films. Often, they are the ones who are, literally, in your face while you are so emotionally raw, frazzled and stressed. To have a makeup artist who knows when to keep his or her mouth shut or sometimes offer the pressure of a hand on the shoulder, can mean a good day or a bad one. 

In fact, I’ve seen people fired, many of them, for something as simple as moving around in the actor’s eye line. Now, I’m not one to pitch a fit on set, usually, though I do remember one time, when I was also playing someone losing their mind, and the crew was changing the set up. I was sitting off to one side, rocking, with my fingers in my ears, trying to maintain the level of emotional instability while lights and camera were moved, and I heard one of the grips say sarcastically, “What do we have here, method acting?” 

I unleashed on him. I don’t remember what I said exactly, something along the line of “Shut the fu**” up!” But I do remember the look on his face. He was both shocked and really, really sorry. He had no idea I could hear him, or that he had distracted me, which is a huge no-no. We got through the day, and then he made a special point of coming to apologize to me. I did the same. I would never have spoken to him that way if I hadn’t been in character, already sobbing and vulnerable to the point of breaking. We became friends, both understanding the other, and finished out the film with great mutual respect. 

I’m not a ‘method’ actress. Hell I’m a mom. Can you see me bringing my schizophrenic character home with me? That would be fun while I’m making dinner or helping with homework. “Finish your math or I will kill you! Satan told me to.” 

Doesn’t really work, not for me. I’ve always found that kind of immersion to be indulgent. Besides, movies aren’t shot in order, so what at what level of insanity would I live? Slightly hysterical or full blown delusional? So many choices, so many dishes to smash. 

Characters do, however, have a way of infiltrating your soul. When I finished the last shot of “Immortal Sins,” in which I play a deeply evil spirit called back to life to claim revenge on the ancestor of some one who burned me at the stake in a previous life, I remember going to my trailer and sitting down. As I sighed it out, a heavy, thick layer of emotion lifted off of me, so strong that I sobbed and collapsed back, exhausted. I hadn’t even known I was carrying that much of a pain body until it left me. 

Part of that may have been because the director had been insecure and consequently very difficult to work with. Which brings me back to the crew, on whom I so often rely for my day to day support and sanity on a difficult shoot. 

The costumer on that set was Spanish, were shooting in Galecia, Spain, and she did not speak a word of English, I knew almost no Spanish. Her assistant spoke English, and translated for us, but we often understood each other. We had been shooting in castles in winter and believe me, it’s cold in those stone edifices. So she had found me a sweater, hand knit and super thick, that I would wear between scenes. When the ladies came to pull my wardrobe that last day. I made to hand her the sweater, but I had fallen in love with it, it had been such a comfort in a strange, hard world on a difficult shoot. Our eyes met, and I said, in English, “I think, that this sweater was destroyed in the fire.”

Her assistant looked up from where she was gathering my wardrobe, confused and started to ask what I meant, but the costumer was already nodding and smiling. “Si,” she said, “el fuego.” And she pushed the sweater back into my arms. 

I still have that sweater, and though I can’t remember that costumer’s name, I think of her with great affection every time I see it in my closet. 

So here we go again. I know I will become closer to these people for a few weeks than I am with some of my best friends, and then it will be over, and those people will fade away. 

But I’ll keep the moments, and their support close to my heart, to draw upon, like a warm, hand-knit sweater when I need the comfort. And I will be forever grateful for it, for them, for this. 

Shari February 10, 2013

Acting & Experiences, creating character, Entertainment, Life in General

How to Survive a Casting Session.

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This shot was taken by the CBS photo studios when I was on Young and Restless.

I spent last weekend, and will next spend next weekend, casting for our movie, Scream at the Devil. The level of talent coming in is amazing, mostly due to Joseph’s weeding out of anyone without fairly serious acting credits, but there are still distinct differences in style and effort.

Some people have memorized the lines, some have costumed for the part, some even bring props. Some are cheerful and complimentary, some are aloof, some are focused to the point of distraction. As actors ourselves we understand that everyone has their process.

Obviously, I’ve been involved in many casting sessions before, mostly on the actors’ side, but I’ve also been on the other side, because of directing theatre and sometimes being the actress who needed to be ‘matched.’ And it’s an eye-opening experience. If there were one thing that I could tell actors about this process it would be this—don’t take it personally.

The second thing would be this—make strong choices. Now you have to understand that 98 percent of the people judging you have absolutely no clue about acting. They have an idea in their head of an imaginary person in the part, and they just want that person to walk in.

Which is why, most of the time, I could tell from the minute I entered the casting office if I had a shot or not. There have definitely been times that I could change that, but they were rare.

What I mean by making choices is that you make choices about the character. How they behave, how they speak, walk, hold themselves, how do they feel? A decent director, or even casting director knows that if an actor comes in with strong choices, and they aren’t the ones they are looking for, most likely that actor can make different choices, and they will ask for an ‘adjustment’ to see if the actor is capable of being directed. They should do this anyway.

If the director doesn’t understand the process, they won’t ask, and all too often, the cold read they got in the audition was a lucky guess and the best they will get on the set, a real actor who has range will only improve.

I remember one audition in particular, where the other ladies were coming out of the audition pissed off. They all said the same thing, “The director didn’t look at me! He was looking down and writing the whole time!” So I went in. The casting director started to read and I didn’t start. She looked up at me in surprise and I was watching the director. Wondering why no one was speaking, he looked up, and I asked, “Are you ready?” as though I had only been being polite. He nodded.

I started the scene and he looked back at his clipboard again. So I got off the chair, onto the floor and crawled across until I was right in front of him, low enough for him to see me, and did the lines from there. It shocked him, and clearly made him uncomfortable.

But he offered me the part, which I refused, because it wasn’t a good enough movie for me to work with a director that had no idea how to respect or work with actors.

I used to look at a script for how good it could be, I learned to read it for how bad it could get. There just aren’t many great directors out there, and people with real creative talent—not to mention good taste—are the exception not the rule.

For our casting sessions, the actors coming in are getting to read with experienced actors, myself and other theatre actors from Joseph’s company who have come in to help out and get the invaluable perspective of being on that other side. And Joseph worked with each person auditioning to give them input and adjustments.

They even get a rehearsal. What? Crazy. Stop it, that can’t be true. You mean I’m not reading with the casting director’s assistant who speaks in the same monotone they use when they do their main job, answering the phone? You could see the relief and gratitude on their faces. It was a treat for them. Whether they get the job or not, they got to act. Fun.

You see usually, you go in, introduce yourself, read the scene one time across from office personnel, and you’re outa’ there, hoping desperately you accidentally did something they liked.

Ultimately, there’s a particular personality and look that needs to be filled, the best performance doesn’t always get the job. And sometimes your two best actors just don’t work as husband and wife, or sisters, or what have you, so you have to go with what services your script.

Don’t take it personally.

But do your homework, be prepared, have a question about the role ready to ask. It just shows professionalism. You might not be right for this role, but the powers that be will remember you as someone they can trust to call in the next time.

And remember this. The people who you are so nervous to see, who you are trying to impress, who you know are judging you, they want you to be good. It’s in their best interest, that’s what they are there for, hour after hour. So take them into your space, audition them. Are they good enough for you? Are they rooting for you?

I haven’t been on many non-acting job interviews, but I’ll bet the procedure is pretty close whether it’s an accounting firm or a retail position. You can’t predict what they want or will hire, but you can be pleasant, prepared, and know that the choice is sometimes random.

So make good choices, enjoy the interview, and walk away. Just like life, be the best you can be, and know that you can’t please everyone and every personality won’t agree with yours, what you say and how you act this morning is different than the way you will feel and act this afternoon. Accept that. The dots that need to connect aren’t always in your control, but if you’re ready, and you work hard, and you stick with it, the numbers will usually come up, eventually.

If it doesn’t, don’t blame yourself, it might not have anything to do with you, so go be brilliant in your next audition or in something else all together. Kiss your kids, bake a cake, volunteer, smile at someone sad, it’s all important, and you never know what will lead to your next big break.

And if that person doesn’t smile back, don’t take it personally, you did your best.

That’s all that matters.

Shari, January 23, 2013.

Acting & Experiences, creating character, Entertainment, Shakespeare

The Insane Reality.

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They say the road to insanity is a lonely one, so why do I need so many people in my head?

Paranoid schizophrenia, the disease that my character in “Scream at the Devil” suffers, is a fascinating, and very frightening form of schizophrenia.

In my research of this disease, I realized very quickly that as laypeople, we often misuse and misunderstand mental illness definitions. A schizophrenic is one who suffers a long-term illness that causes them to loose touch with reality (a psychosis). A Paranoid schizophrenic loses touch with reality and has symptoms that are specific to paranoia.

For instance, two of the traits most often associated with paranoid schizophrenia are—1. hearing voices, and 2. delusions, almost always of a harmful nature.

Not surprising, in our very predominately Eurocentric Christian-American society, the number one voice heard by schizophrenics is Jesus Christ.

The number two is Satan.

So, beside the obvious questions that raises about the mental health of people who insist that they have an inside line to the Almighty, and know better than the rest of us what ‘God’ is thinking, it gives me a starting point.

The voices can be one, or they can be many, they can tell the person to do things that can be harmful to self or others, they are most often critical and make cruel comments about the person who ‘hears’ them. They can talk to the individual or about them. I’ll be inviting quite a few personalities into my head, distinct individuals that I am creating now.

The most common delusion is that the individual is being singled out for harm. The government is targeting them, or a co-worker or mate is poisoning their food.  These delusions can result in aggression or violence if the individual believes they must act in self-defense against the imagined harm. Some of my past drug addiction is working for me here. I would sometimes not sleep for days, and I actually thought that the police had tunnels around my house, and I would imagine people in shadows. I can sit still down, quiet my mind, and clearly recall those feelings, though they were more than 30 years ago.

So now I begin the work of building this character and her decent into this kind of horrifying madness. I cannot build this person the way I would usually create a character. No relative past history, experiences that create current emotional responses and behaviors will have any bearing, no logical reaction to reality can be prepared.

Which leaves me with two things: Sensory work, and Transference.

Sensory work, means that I need to create an intense fear (or other emotion) of something that isn’t there. Well, it isn’t there on set, but in my mind it is very real and very present. Fortunately, the screenwriter-director has done his homework and so mine is much easier. Something is moving under the carpet? In my mind, with a good bit of focus and preparation, I can make that a river of acid that will fry off my skin, or a huge snake that will wrap around me and squeeze until I choke. Sensory work.

Transference means I move a reaction I would have to one thing, onto another. In the script, my husband is trying to get me to take my medication, I put myself in the place of swallowing  a piece of glass that broke off a juice cup when I was six. Transference.

It’s remarkably similar to being a paranoid schizophrenic. They believe it, I have to believe it, even though it isn’t there.

They say that the only way to understand someone else’s journey is to walk a mile in their shoes. I’m about to cross a continent, and believe me, my compassion for the people suffering from this cruel disease is profound.

How do I respond to a voice no one else can hear?  The answer, of course, is that I have to mentally speak that voice, yet detach it from my own consciousness.

Deep, I have to go deep.

I’ve done ‘crazy’ before. I’ve played parts that are delusional, with visions of grandeur, and insanity caused by extreme guilt or obsession, but that’s different. This woman is in a constant hell, a long hallway with less and less windows, fewer and fewer glimpses of light or sanity, and no way out, or back.

Am I scared? Actually, I’m having a blast.

Roles like this don’t come around all that often, believe me, I’ve done a whole lot of acting work, and maybe two percent of it has been well written. Mostly stage, of course, where you have the option of choosing the best of the best.

But Lady Macbeth’s journey into insanity is quite different from Miriam Jones’. Lady M. is driven to suicide by horrible actions, and their consequences, that she herself put into motion around her, Miriam is dealing with actions put into motion by the machinations of her own brain.

Inside out. Outside in. For the first time, I’m starting a character at the end of her journey, and working backwards. I feel like I’m in a Pinter play, only far more twisted.

And here’s the thing. The real goal in acting is to do all the homework, be completely emotionally and mentally and physically ready, and then, forget everything and just react.

And then there’s that element that the director has so beautifully interwoven into the story.

Maybe she’s not crazy.

I like to apologize in advance to the entire cast and crew of “Scream at the Devil.” Putting myself in that place won’t always be easy, and even though, at my very deepest, most distraught insanity, some level of me will be going, “Whoo, this is fun!” I know that the crazy will leak somewhat. It always does. And I’ll be extremely vulnerable on set. That’s why the director’s first job, on every set, is the protection and well-being of everyone there. Stress out and start blaming or bitching, and I’ll withdraw. Tell me your issue calmly, and I will work with you.

I promise.

If you need me, I’ll be in my padded cell.

Shari, January 16. 2013.

Life in General

Dog, Cat, Character.

 

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My cat, Moose. He is very amused. 

A couple of blogs ago I talked about the non-existence of writer’s block. My theory being that you can always write something. But I’d like to break it down a little further. 

We all have times when we have vague ideas but nothing that really seems pertinent. One of my most enjoyable, and helpful, experiences as an actor was the time I spent studying and performing with “The Groundlings,” a very well known comedy improv group in L.A. Some of the people I had in my class included Lisa Kudrow, Chris Parnell,(known mostly as Dr. Spaceman on 30 Rock) Michael McDonald from Mad TV and many more. They were great, but some of the people you don’t know were the funniest. 

The best thing you learn from improv is to always say yes. Sometimes you might have an idea then discard it before giving it a chance. That mean, negative voice in your head says, that’s stupid, it won’t work. 

I say, slap ’em and give it a try. To give an example in improve, you might have the audience suggestion that you are robbing a bank. Lights down, lights up! You’re standing there pretending to hold a gun in your hand pointing it at your partner, but before you speak they say. “Put all the money in a bag and act natural.” Now you’re the teller. 

Under no circumstances do you say, “No, I’m robbing you!” Instead, you need to justify the ‘gun’ position. So, the gun, becomes the bag and you retort with, “Good news, we’re giving away reusable shopping bags today!” And the scene continues. 

Or— “But you don’t have a gun. Here, take mine.” 

As I’m starting up notes for a new novel, it’s time for character development. Now I have several different systems for this, my favorite being to combine more than one interesting people I know into one. But to stay on the Groundlings theme, I want to give you an exercise that is both inventive and fun. 

Use your pet. In Groundlings, we would create scenes or monologues based on the personality of an animal we knew. One of the funniest I saw was a Basset Hound. “Are you leaving? Are you coming back? Are you ever coming back?” It made a hysterically loving but insecure person. 

So take a look at your cat, your dog, your iguana, your hamster, bird, what ever. Write down a few of their traits. Are they lazy? Always hungry? Eager for your attention or indifferent to your entreaties? Do they like to go outside and be adventurous, or do they prefer to lie on the heating vent and sleep all day? What do those traits translate to in human personality?

If they had a human voice, what would it sound like? Low and growly, or high-pitched and piercing? Are they quiet but full of remorseful stares, or do they chatter endlessly? What do they talk about? 

If they had a job, what would it be? If you have a cat that grooms constantly, perhaps they would be a hairdresser. A dog that sniffs out everything, a detective. A parrot that watches you constantly with one eye might be a psychiatrist. Don’t forget to give yourself several options before you land on one. 

Now, sit down and write a monologue as that person. Put the animal part aside, except for the traits you’ve landed on. Don’t forget physical traits. Are they slack-jawed and clumsy, super-stealthy, sneezers, droolers? It all works. 

Next, add another character. Maybe you, and make a conversation, or scene. This is a blast, who among us hasn’t had a one-sided conversation with our pet? Now they can answer back! You can go on from there to writing a short story or adventure for them, and trust me on this. You will be surprised by what they do. After all, you know them, but you don’t. 

And you’re off on your own petting zoo adventure. 

 By the way, if you are neither a writer nor a actor, this is still a super fun game for kids! I’ve used it as a writing exercise for a fourth grade class and they had a ball!! 

Now let’s move this into acting. In this case, I like to take one particular trait. I once had a director tell me that my character would enter the room and all eyes would go to her, knowing she was dangerous. 

Easy. I pictured that I had a long black panther tail that lashed from side to side as I walked. 

To translate this back to writing, you could say,  “He could almost hear the swish of a panther’s tail as she fixed her predator’s eyes on him, it lashed dangerously, delightedly, as she started for his table, and the hunt began.” Or some such, I’m winging it here. 

But you get the idea. Works both ways. On the page, and on the stage. (Or set, or studio, or living room, classroom, whatever.) 

So get in touch with you animal side, and write your little paws off. 

Have a blast!! 

Shari, January 2nd. 2013. 

 

Life in General

My Chillen’

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I would call them ‘my children’ but they are so much cooler than that even with, or perhaps in spite of, the natural tendency toward mortification in all teens.

I’ve directed a few show in my day, everything from Shakespeare to original pieces, but it’s always been with groups of professional actors. You know, if they don’t show up or learn their lines, I fire them. It never comes to that. It’s amazing how quickly someone will step up when you explain that you have someone waiting to take over the lead.

But now I’ve been asked to direct “The Importance of Being Earnest” for my daughter’s eighth grade production. No understudies, no alternates, and a couple of extra parts written in.

Here’s what I’ve got going for me. 11 really fabulous 14 year olds, the fact that they have been educated by a Waldorf school system, and the resources of a creative community.

Waldorf is an amazing way to develop a brain. The kids all knit, woodwork, blacksmith, make stained glass, play musical instruments, sing chorus, study Spanish and German, have physics lessons outside where they use a pulley system or create science experiences, they all learn to write beautifully with real fountain pens, and on and on. It’s amazing to visit the high school and see boys knitting during an English class, or girls outside hammering copper into bowls. And the college placement? Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Rhode Island School of Design, etc, forty percent of the graduates go into the sciences, and I mean they become top doctors and research scientists. There is much to be said for teaching kids to think, instead of memorize. Every kid speaks at graduation and most of them mention that they want to do something to make the world a better place. And they do. One of the kids in the first graduating class was Paul Newman’s daughter, who went on to create the line “Newman’s Own” which donates most of it’s profits to charity. That’s the kind of human Waldorf produces.

In my daughter’s class, there are two, ‘special needs’ students. One is a boy with HDHD, it’s hard for Jay to be still or quiet, but the kids let him know when he goes to far. In rehearsal, this sometimes results in a “Jay, shut up!” but it’s good-natured, and they are all learning something valuable. Jay is experiencing the fact that the world will sometime reprimand him for his erratic energy and he must learn to control it, and the other kids, that the work environment is not always ideal—and that’s okay.

The second kid has brain seizures. Jenny is beautiful, bright, fun, and incapable of learning to read. She participates in most of the lessons, and all of the art, she is well respected and liked by her classmates. I didn’t realize the extent of her differences until I asked her to write down that we needed glasses for the play. One of the other girls asked her, very matter-of-factly, ‘do you want me to write it for you?’ And did so, meanwhile, Jenny had drawn a picture of the glasses, problem solved, no judgment.

Wow.

The other thing that impresses me, is that these kids get it. They speak to me as an equal, with respect for me and for themselves, they laugh heartily at the dry, clever wit of Oscar Wilde. This is amazing to me, and half the battle as the director.

We’ve worked on speaking distinctly with a British accent, (some get it, one is hysterical) we’ve worked on where in our bodies the character comes from, (the snooty aunt leads with her nose in the air, the cocky young man swaggers from the hips), we’re learning to listen and react, not just act. And we’re making excellent progress on lines.

Now, I’m not expecting a Knightbridge Theatre production, of course. But, even in the early stages, I’m very taken with each of these kids, their efforts and their natural ability to, not only perform, but to throw themselves into it, encourage each other and set aside their teen angst self-consciousness.

And for 14 year olds, that is no small thing. It is a huge thing, and they are all champions.

I did have one problem. The young lady playing Cecily came running to meet my car this morning, her face a mask of panic.  “Shari, Shari, I have to talk to you,” she panted. “Do I have to kiss Steven? The script says he kisses me!”

I reassured her that we would stage it so that no actual contact would take place. The terror subsided and rehearsal began.

The best thing about this process is, I’m the one learning the most. Isn’t that always the case? When we set out to teach, or to lead, we must listen and learn how to do that. And the gift is mine, I am the receiver of learning to love each of these outstanding young people more than I did before. I’ve been on camping trips with them, worked festivals, had some of them over for sleepovers, but this is different. I’m counting on them to be their best, to be proud of their uniqueness and their special talents, to learn to love another aspect of themselves.

Or, as Oscar might have said, “Learning to love yourself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

Merry Christmas from me and Mr. Wilde.

Shari, December 20, 2012.

Life in General

Competition, Contests, and other Crap

ImageOkay, here’s my second blog of today, and it’s because of a request someone sent me, (No names!!) to write about competition in the workplace. 

First, let me be clear. I know nothing about ‘the workplace.’ Sadly, I’ve never had a ‘regular’ job. Never been a waitress or a teacher or an executive. I’ve only been an ice skater, a model, an actress and a writer. 

So I do know something about competition. I was raised with it. It screwed me up, big time. Let’s start with life, I was the second of four children, I don’t remember a time in my childhood that my mom didn’t have another kid who needed her attention. And what a group, between the four of us we sang opera, danced, skated, painted, were labeled ‘gifted,’ and on and on.There was only one way to stand out in that group of siblings, and that was to excel. If I wanted mom’s attention, I had to win something. 

And that takes us to ice skating. Here’s the deal. I would go train in other cities, sometimes countries, I would live with a group of other girls, they were my ‘friends.’ Until competition day, then what I wanted most was for them to fail, to fall down, to mess up, so that I could win. Tell me that’s not a twisted way to develop relationships. 

Yikes. Moving on to modeling. A sliver more room for support, I mean there could be more than one winner here, after all, but I still had to get that job over my ‘friends.’ I still judged myself constantly against others, and worse, I was judged, constantly not by my sense of humor or personality, but how I looked on the outside. 

Am I screwed up enough yet? Getting there. Now let’s move on to acting. I sit in a room full of women who look an awful lot like me, we weigh each other up, feel threatened if the casting director seems impressed by their reading, and hope against all hope that we, and not them, are the one who wins the part. 

Now I’m cooked. 

Then I began to do theatre, and the heavens opened, and the sun shone down, and I finally had allies. We had a common purpose, I could truly root for the other actors, I could understand that if they were better, I was better. 

Hallelujah! About friggen’ time. It only took me into my early twenties to get it. The next step was to stop competing with myself. That’s another several years of therapy, money well spent! Did I really need to hike eight miles until I puked? Or could I turn back at four? Why was it that if, in a single day, I wrote a chapter, read to kids at school, hiked, auditioned, cleaned the house and cooked a gourmet dinner, I still went to bed feeling that I hadn’t done enough? 

Competition. 

Now, it isn’t always a bad thing. I heard a saying recently that said you should compete with yourself because then you both win. That’s clever, but not true. What I have found is that the child inside that needs the attention, needs to be exceptional and special, that feels hurt without it inside, also needs a mom. 

Not my mom, she’s great actually. But if there are two people in me, then one of them needs to be the mom and comfort and love the other one, the child. Tell her that it’s okay, hug and rock her. 

It works. And guess what? We both win. 

As for the workplace? Well, all I can say about that is do your best, kick ass, expect the same effort from your peers, but encourage them too, comfort them, ask for their help, and take it when it’s offered. We are better together than we are apart. If you get the promotion, take somebody up with you. If they do, back them up and call in your favors. 

Unless you’re an ice skater. Then baby, you’re on your own. Embrace it, and get some friends who don’t skate. 

This is flippant, I know, but you try summing up one of your major life shapers in less than five hundred words. 

So compete away!! But celebrate too, your successes as well as others. And remember it’s what you are competing for that counts. The gold medal is great, but dying happy is the real goal here. 

That’s the measure of success.

So here’s to the winners. The ones who look back on their lives and say, “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” 

Shari, December 8, 2012