Lonesome Some More

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Coastal trail through Oregon rainforest. – photo by Katie Bennett

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

It is hard to be honest.

Lots of people don’t like it.

I don’t even like it when people are honest with me.

A good friend told me once, “People don’t want to hear the truth. They want you to lie to them. Do. Do, if you want to get along with people.” He turned out to be right. One day we were too honest with each other and now we are no longer friends.

Life is a paradox.

We hunger for authenticity but when it’s hurled at us we cry out in anger. As artists and teachers and media experts we think we are helping others when we tell the truth.

What is truth? A leader more famous than I am once asked that. Unfortunately, he is famous for some very bad reasons.  Life is short and it’s hard to change things because most of our young lives we buy into nonsense and by the time we learn truth more babies are born.

The cycle repeats itself. We don’t live long enough to change the pattern. Also, we are lonely.

That is the cry of humanity, isn’t it?   Kurt Vonnegut in his book Slapstick invents a presidential candidate whose campaign is “Lonesome No More!”. He invents artificial families for everyone in the U.S.

Of course he wins.

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The campaign for Vonnegut’s fictional election

But he gives people quantity, not quality. How do you have that without honesty? How do you keep people in your lives if you do tell the truth?

So we lie. A little. Each day.

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Not in Maine

Katie at the International Test Rose Garden in Portland

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

Years ago when I was in a theatre in the East End of London, a young Cockney boy sitting in front of me noticed my American accent. When I answered his demand to know where I was from he said in a lilting, broken brogue, “Oregon? Is that in Manhattan?”

It used to be when I mentioned Portland, people thought I meant a city in Maine.  Not any more. It all caught up with me last spring when I was visiting Florida and some people asked me what kind of Voodoo Donuts were my favorite. I was shocked that they’d even heard of them and worse, felt a loss of respect when I told them I really liked their local Krispy Kremes.   They seemed to know all about Portland  and that’s when I realized that somewhere along the way, the small industrial city that I was born in had crossed a line and become known all the way across America.

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Our coastline told in Christmas lights at the Oregon Zoo

How?

The answer is the media.

Shows like Portlandia, Leverage, Grimm, The Librarians and Significant Mother and the locally filmed Wild have drawn national attention to us. There is a budding, flourishing wealth of people in the creative industry of storytelling in Oregon who are working together to make film, commercials, shows and theatre. The only other place in America where I have met so many talented writers, teachers and performers is New York City.  And last summer when I visited New York, no one asked me how things were going in Maine.

This reminds me, I must visit London again soon.

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You can help support Oregon Film by finding out who your local state rep and senators are in your district (see https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/ and lobby to keep film incentives in place. These incentives provide tax breaks for people who choose to film here.  This promotes our visibility and brings more jobs to Oregon.

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Blinders and Dung

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

Red Closed Smile

I like getting older.

I like it because every ten years or so my brain explodes. Neurons fire, cells increase, memories connect and event after event that I absorb in life expands my view. I see things I never used to see.

When I was a young performer I had blinders on like the horse in the novel Black Beauty. Like the horse, I dragged a carriage through the city park. I saw the cobbled path which was right in front of me, a few flowers and a whole lot of horse dung.  I had the constant feeling that time was running out.

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My play “In Search of the Red Skull” (now “Pirates of the Red Skull”) was invited by PDX Playwrights to be part of the Fertile Ground Theatre Festival

Lately I’ve been around a lot of young artists who are on the cusp of graduating and setting out into the world. I notice these people feel the same burden I felt back in the day. They are exhausted and weighed down with debt and sudden responsibilities. Many of them are working full time at jobs which are not even in their chosen profession. They feel the rush of despair and hear the messages from the world that they’d better “make it” before they are thirty or they have no chance of success.

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I directed the West Coast premiere of Teresa Deevy’s play “Temporal Powers”

But the world is not a city park. It is just a small part of the greater landscape filled with forests and trees, rivers and highways and ravines.  It is difficult to explain this to a young person because he or she has been a child for most of life and an adult for only a small portion. An older person has been an adult for most of life and a child for only a small portion.

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I starred in “Tomorrow”, Dennis Mulyar’s award-winning film about hope

 

 

As an older artist, it is therefore hard for me to explain this but letting go of the dream of being a young hot success has resulted in more rewards than I ever would have expected. It is possible to explode on the landscape as an artist at the age of thirty-two or forty-two or sixty-two. It all depends on how you define success. For me, major highlights of this past year were co-producing a staged reading of my play Pirates of the Red Skull with PDX Playwrights, directing the West Coast premiere of the lost Irish play Temporal Powers, acting in the award-winning film Tomorrow and writing a quirky screenplay called Liberty and Grace.

horse_with_blinders[1]On this New Year’s evening I look forward to continuing my journey along life’s cobbled path. I like to think I have shed my blinders. However, I know that the breathtaking scenery which awaits me is something which I cannot quite yet imagine.

I can’t wait.

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On Fire at Second City

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At work practicing my comedy skills

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

This summer I told a non-actor friend that I was to about to go take some comedy classes at the Second City Theatre in Chicago and she asked warmly, “What’s that?”

“It’s a famous theatre. You know, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, The Cow That Started The Chicago Blaze of 1871? All these smokin’ hot actors came out of there and got hired on Saturday Night Live.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of that show,” she said, brightening. “Well, have a nice vacation.”

“I’m not going on vacation!” I simmered with indignation. “I’m going there to work.” I blew out a deep breath and tried to explain again. “It’s a truly illuminating place to study. That theatre is really on fire.”

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Little did I know, this would turn out to be the truth. On my third day in Chicago I was in the deMaat Theatre in Old Town trying out my scorchingly funny act in my Stand-Up Class when a Second City employee came in and quietly stated, “There’s a fire in the building. Please gather your things and calmly exit the theatre.”

Of course because it is a comedy school someone had to ask, “Is he kidding?” but I vaguely remembered from public speaking class that it is against U.S. law to yell “Fire!” in a crowded building in jest even if it is an actor who delivers the information in a whisper. So I slowly packed up my laptop and strolled out of the deMaat with the rest of my class figuring we had lots of time. Jason contemplated grabbing a cup of Our Best Roast from the Starbucks downstairs which was next to the peppery Chipotles Restaurant where we planned to have a spicy lunch. Don pondered whether to strike up some action at the restroom on the way because he had to pee like a constipated glowworm.  I talked him down, figuring we might need the water. As we entered the smoldering staircase, Sarah paused to consider whether she should stop to take a selfie next to the steaming walls. Veronica, who is the funniest phlebotomist I’ve ever met, raged at her, “Get your ass down those smoking steps or I will separate you from your infernal platelets!” Selfishly I wished that Sarah had got that selfie so I could share it on Instagram because a photo of Sarah in hell would make it worth figuring out how to use Instagram.

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By the time we reached the haze on the ground floor we had feverishly picked up the pace. As we skipped through the murky lobby it hit me how few of us there were. The whole building should have been teaming with children who were in the Second City youth summer program.   The children had been whisked out of the building before they even warned the adults? Suddenly I became self-righteously indignant. Have you ever noticed that when an elderly person dies people yawn but when a baby dies people fall to pieces? Like one thing is a tragedy but the other isn’t? What makes children more important than adults? Do they pay taxes? Do they contribute anything at all to society? What’s with all those signs on cars that say “Baby On Board” and the ones on busy streets that say “Caution, Children at Play”? Like we should be careful not to hurt a child but it’s okay to mow down the grownups? And why were the Stand-Up students last? Did they think because we were already standing up this would give us a few extra seconds?   Self-importance engulfed me like flames. I’m still in my prime!  Okay, I’m past my prime, but I haven’t made my mark yet! I deserve to live as much as the babies.  I’ve still got what it takes and I’m going to get on Saturday Night Live before those kids grow up and start getting treated like I am!

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By the time we got outside we were sort of in shock and kind of just stood in front of the burning building. After a moment we remembered we should take pictures so we could share the experience with our friends on social media. As we fired up our cell phones, twelve fire engines and eight emergency vehicles screamed up to the curb and three news helicopters materialized overhead. As an elderly fireman jumped off his running board and ripped the caps off the fire hydrant right in front of me I quipped, “So, this must be…um, quite a large fire?” “Darlin’,” he drawled with a feisty wink,” I’ve seen better in my day.” He climbed up the ladder hauling the gigantic hose which was now dripping with water and continued, “Most of these newbies are here to interview those suspicious-looking cows. Look, there’s one over there across the street sulking by the Walgreens.” I turned and noted a shy brown Long Horn darting into the drugstore with a police officer in hot pursuit. The old fireman nimbly scaled the rungs and smiled for my camera while showing off his ancient colossal tube.  “Oh, dear,” I thought. “There’s not only gonna to be a hot time in Old Town, but there will be fury on the Chicago news tonight over the targeting of these cows.”

Second City Fire 538Just then an irate woman of no discernible rank or uniform started screaming at us with an air of unfathomable authority. “Get out of the way, you nits!,” she blared at us. “What is with you with your cell phone cameras, you silly twits! Let the firemen do their work!” An unaccountable sense of territorialism flared up inside me. After all, my tiny standup class wasn’t exactly a crowd plus there had been no fire alarm and we were last to come out of the building unless you count the two Hispanic employees of the Chipotle Restaurant who hadn’t been told about the fire at all. They had magically appeared next to us like lightning only when they noticed the fire engines. And their restaurant was right by the front door.

“It’s MY fire!” I seethed at the woman. “It’s MY burning building! I was just in MY smoking stairway moments ago and the only alarm given to me in the midst of the inferno was by the straight man in some comedy routine!” Only I didn’t express my outraged sense of ownership out loud because the woman was dressed in black and possibly some kind of theatre person. I was afraid she might work for Second City and I didn’t want to get booted out of the school. Wait a minute, I realized, I’d already been booted out of school.

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My Second City Comedy Sketch Classmates

So I went to have a cup of tea with my Comedy Sketch Writing classmates and started posting to Facebook completely ignoring Alex, a nice student sitting across from me who had come all the way from Germany to study in America in person and be in community with nice theatre people like me. He helped me discover that Second City had posted a photo on Twitter but not on Facebook so I thought I’d make a subtle joke about competing websites and linked the photo from Twitter to Facebook.   Understand that when I post a leggy picture of myself with my blonde hair shining in the sun I get at least 30 Likes inside of ten minutes. But here I am in a blazing extra-alarm fire which takes down half of a historic building at a famous theatre school and I get…um, no Likes? After an achingly long fifteen minutes my cousin Jane finally throws me a bone, “I don’t use Twitter.”

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Second City is really big on us knowing our audience and clearly establishing our Given Circumstances so I figured I’d been too subtle. My Twitter joke just wasn’t going to be understood by the Facebook Crowd. So I went online and found a news article with a picture of the fire and properly posted it along with my Who What and Where with lots of pictures the news couldn’t possibly have gotten. I changed the name of my photo album to “YES…I WAS IN A FIRE AT SECOND CITY AND…?” After another five minutes my friend Shirley replied saying, “Have a nice time, see you when you get back!”  It dawned on me that no one ever reads articles on Facebook.  Including me.

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At least my friends at Second City know we made a smoking hot exit.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: This post was written in the style of standup and includes the following comedy elements: the rule of three, a rant, double entendre, mockery, a reversal, exaggeration, sarcasm, word play and political satire.

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Death in a Blue Spotlight

In pioneer garb at a recent Living History event in Rhododendron, Oregon – photo by Carly Mayberry

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

Once a long time ago I was cast in a really bad musical.

The story was one of quirky Americana about the Wild West. I played a pioneer girl who didn’t get the guy, sang two solos and got stabbed to death protecting the hero during a knife fight.  The show had clever lyrics and the music was syncopated with difficult intervals reminiscent of famed composer Stephen Sondheim.  At my audition, the song the composer handed me to sing was properly scored and he seemed organized despite the fact that the show only had a two week rehearsal period.  We were due to give one performance at a well-respected festival and I was the last to be cast, so I assumed the other actors were on their game and professional. However, after a few rehearsals I realized the composer had written out the music to only one song and had been teaching the rest of the music to the cast by ear. Most of them couldn’t sing or even carry a tune.

“Jerry,” I whispered to the pianist after a week, “I don’t think I can do this. I think I have to quit.”

“You can’t quit,” he joked back feebly, “We’re halfway through the rehearsal process.”

“It’s only been a week,” I whined defensively, “and what if somebody actually comes and SEES this?”

“I know,” he pleaded fearfully, “but if you quit I’ll have to quit so please don’t quit.”

During the performance, I found myself backstage bringing scenery on and taking it off since no one had been assigned to do that. I found myself giving actors cues because no one seemed to know when to enter or exit. During the final knife fight, the villain completely misjudged 32 measures of music and stabbed me upstage left behind the piano. As I held the rubber knife against my body which I had fought for in rehearsals (the other actors had seen no problem with using a real one), I pondered the blue light down by the audience where I was supposed to be. It seemed very far away to someone who was supposed to have a knife in her chest. But the villain had no concept of what it meant to get to places “in character” and it was he who dragged me bumblingly into the spotlight. My red face must have been purple in the light as I sang my final solo and collapsed to my death in relief.  To my horror the audience clapped. A lot.

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Blue lights at the Portland Zoo – photo by Katie Bennett

After the bows it was even worse because my fellow actors all congratulated themselves on what a wonderful job they had done and included me in their praise, saying “Good job” as they went off with their friends.  I had only one friend in the audience because I had sent out all my show invites that morning so that everyone would know I was in a play but no one would be able to come.  After the theatre emptied, my friend came down from where she had been waiting in the audience. She was not a theatre professional but she was a member of the audience and as far as I was concerned, that was all that mattered.  “You know,” she said quietly, “you told me it would be bad…but that was really BAD.”

It was such a relief to hear.

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Full Circle

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Taking selfies in Time Square last month

 A Big Life:  Encouragement for People in the Arts –

“Resiliency, not perfection, is the signature of greatness.”

Jim Collins, author of Built to Last –

When I first began my working life as a young college grad I moved to New York and found employment as an office temp.  For a day or a week or a month I would work for American Express, Newsweek, Met Life or Calvin Klein but eventually I would move on.  Many offers of full time employment came to me but each time I graciously declined. I thrived on the flexibility which allowed for auditions and acting jobs and for days off when I wanted them.  It was exciting never to know where I would be from day to day. There was lots of work in those days and when there was down time no one minded if I read a book. Because I never had to deal with the politics of whatever workplace I happened to be in, my employers and I were always in the “honeymoon” stage.  They were always courting me but we never got married.

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100 Maiden Lane by the South Street Seaport in New York where I spent many happy hours temping

As wonderful as this was, it is possible that this early experience affected my ability to deal with conflict in the workplace. When I decided to become a teacher and secured my first full-time job with benefits, I was horrified to discover a few students who seemed to hate me. The fact that others loved me was no consolation and within my first month of teaching I was completely thrown. This brings to my mind the movie Kindergarten Cop in which there is a scene where Pamela Reed tells Arnold Schwarzenegger that the five year olds in his class can feel his fear.   As he lies on his bed in complete exhaustion, she tells him he must not be moved or he will lose them.  So he gets out his policeman’s whistle and slowly whips the little kiddies into shape.

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Curran, the security guard at 100 Maiden Lane

Like Arnie, I have discovered that when you stick with a situation for a long time, things can come full circle.  Sometimes it is the students who resist you most in the beginning who end up loving you best in the end.  This principle applies to many aspects of life. It applies to family, it applies to friends and it applies to a career in the arts. Sowing seeds, standing your ground and all the while remaining vulnerable is an art.  It is easy to get angry or self righteous. It is easy to run. It is horribly uncomfortable to stay confident and compassionate and just wait.  These days when I feel like running from an uncomfortable moment with someone or even with my own thoughts, I whisper to myself, “Lean in!” Staying with the bad moment often results in a change in my thinking and it always results in more positive relationships.

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The circular atrium at 100 Maiden Lane

Of course, this doesn’t mean no one should ever temp.  Last month I went back to New York to take a Catherine Fitzmaurice voice and movement workshop. While I was there I ventured down to 100 Maiden Lane where the elite firm of Cadwalader, Wickerham and Taft used to be. With fondness I recalled temping off and on for a group of fantastic lawyers who always asked me back. It’s a residential building now but the architecture is exceptionally beautiful so I decided to zip inside to look at the atrium. Curran the security guard greeted me at the doorway with delight. He remembered me after all these years!

Everything has its own full circle.

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Becoming Closer

As Sleeping Beauty in an in-house grad project I directed us in at the University of South Carolina. w/ Pilar Herrera.

A Big Life:  Encouraging Words for Those in the Entertainment Industry –

Once I had a summer fling with a beautiful, intelligent man.

While we were together we had some major differences and I pondered hard whether I really wanted this.  We were both due to be in separate cities for a while but I didn’t worry about that. I was good at letter writing and on the phone.  I was good at distance.  It was such a relief when he was gone to pick up my pen and write flowery missives, pretending he was something that he was not.  When I wrote my letters it was to a fantasy person.  I can only imagine my lover read these letters and did not feel that he was truly seen.

When I was a young actress, I treated “the career” like that. The career was a lover with whom I felt comfortable at a distance. I went to lots of big fancy auditions and left feeling rejected. I said no to offers that sounded small, ordinary and pedestrian.  I didn’t know how to be personable and was disconnected from any artistic community which had real respect for me. So I dreamed I magically would be swept off my feet without having to do much of anything.

These days I try not to pretend the career is something it is not. Life can be ordinary and pedestrian. In fact, a lot of creating art is just that: You write a play and you do it with friends. You want to act so you study until you get better. You don’t try to dream it into reality in some cock-eyed way.  The “career” is a different entity from what we would like it to be.  The temptation is to fling ourselves at it relentlessly without regard for its true nature…or to run away all together.  Both are ways of avoiding becoming closer.

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As Mom in a recent test commercial with Studio 3 in Portland, Oregon. w/ Lana Sage.

As you can probably guess, my summer boyfriend and I broke up. “Breaking up” with the career for a while is something I did too. For me, just being a teacher and focusing on the work of being an artist without being out in the professional game has given me a greater love for the “real thing”. Getting back together with the career has been scary too…unexpectedly so.  That is probably why I sabotaged myself so much in my youth. Fear of success is every bit as real as fear of failure.  It is very scary to do the hard work of becoming closer.

Just as it is with a lover.

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Histamines and Hormones

In the Camassia Area, West Linn, OR

 A Big Life:  Encouraging Words for Those in the Entertainment Industry –

Spring in Portland is a cheerful, vividly green pitter-patter time. Frogs are noisy, the snakes are out and even the spiders are starting to unwind from the giant rhododendrons. There is no pale pink subtle budding in the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. The plants loom and the slugs underfoot are large, lush and liquid.

Some say spring is an awakening time, a time for new projects. After months of acting and directing, I hunger to get back to the writing.  I love to work outside, but putting my chair out on the back deck has resulted in nothing but a trip back inside for a blanket–I’m always freezing in spring. The cold damp really gets to me.  Summer is my element…I love heat.  Also, all week I have been filled with anxiety for no reason.

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April wisteria in my backyard

Or is there one?

When you’re an artist with an erratic schedule, it’s easy to attribute uneasiness to psychological reasons.  However, it’s important also to examine the physical. Too often we ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with me?” when we feel sad or worried. We mourn that we will never act again, never write again, or never have an art project of any quality.  So I have to remind myself that all week I have been nursing a slight cold. What’s more, I have a nasty case of drizzling hormones. But the body is cyclical and these emotions will pass.

Summer will come.

Painter in the Camassia Natural Area

I dream of it as I sit outside shivering in the dying April sunlight with my toes curled up in a heated throw (I’m a great believer in extension cords). As I listen to the raucous Oregon frogs drown out the sound of the distant highway, I look forward to the ecstasy of writing again…and heat!

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The Cameraman in the Closet

Tommy - Tomorrow's Menu

As Tommy on the set of the film Tomorrow which premieres June 20 at Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon

A Big Life:  Encouraging Words for Those in the Entertainment Industry –

“The closeted people are ready!”

It was the end of a long night shooting a bedroom scene. The camera guys were shut tight inside a tiny closet. One of them held the boom and the clothes out of the way while the other one pointed his camera at the door. My job was to get out of bed, open the door, turn on the light and retrieve the suitcase jammed between the cameraman’s legs.

“Give me a 50,” said a young man holding the slate. “Click it.” Let’s use a blind pull.”

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The small slate is used in tight spaces.

Film actors often say their first love is the arc of being in a live play. They love the continuity and the fact that they can take the journey of the character in the order that it occurs.  Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many years in the theatre, but I often prefer the high tech feeling of being on a film set.  One would think an actor as claustrophobic as I am would hate being the “talent” in a small room crammed with 15 people attending mainly to their cameras and equipment.  But I love being a cog in the wheel.

In a sense it is true that I am a piece of their equipment. However, have you seen the cameras they make these days? They are works of art.  Thinking of myself as a talented part of the whole takes the pressure off.  It helps me stay relaxed, which anyone will tell you is key to being a great actor.  None of the training, thinking or studying I do in preparation for performing will help me be emotionally engaging onscreen without that ability.

So if you ever find yourself opening the closet door to someone holding a microphone or climb under the covers while ten men in your bedroom check out the lighting, make sure you let loose and laugh hard.

That’s the kind of thing that makes for a good day’s filming.

Inside the bedroom closet on the set of Tomorrow

***

Will Tommy the lunch lady take her life back into her own hands?

What: Tomorrow, a short film directed by Dennis Mulyar, written by Eddy Gudakov and produced by Ian Midura
When: June 20, 2015
Where: Cinema 21; 616 NW 21st Ave Portland, OR 97209.
Phone: (503) 223-4515

 

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The Star and the Coward

A Big Life: Encouraging Words for Those in the Entertainment Industry –

Kfatie and Joe

Backstage at STC schmoozing with Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre

The year before I went to act at the Shakespeare Theatre Company* in Washington, D.C., I caught one of their productions which featured a beautiful and well known film actress I will call the Star.  My friends in the show each had something to say about her: She was unpredictable, tempestuous, troubled and passionate. What I discovered later is that she is also funny.

My assigned host was a wild and sexy dark-eyed actor in the cast known for breaking hearts wherever he went.  Dark Eyes was married but from the way he was flirting with me, I wasn’t surprised to hear that we were giving a ride to a pretty woman after the show. As the three of us hurried out the stage door, she sped ahead impatiently shouting, “Come on, Come on–hurry!” Suddenly she stopped in her tracks and turned to me laughingly declaring, “I know–I’m such a bitch.” It was the Star.  All I could think of to say was, “I heard that about you.”

Okay, I didn’t say it out loud.

“You should have!” cried one of my friends in the cast upon hearing this. “She would have loved it–you probably would have become her best friend for life.” Pondering that, I decided the Star would at least have had more fun if had chosen to spar with her.  After all, she was an actress in the show just like anyone else. Instead I cast my eyes downward in the face of her fame and mumbled something innocuous.  Oh, what a coward!

At the time I wasn’t really what talent agent Damon Jones of Portland’s Actors in Action calls a “people person.”   The successful actor needs to be friendly and confident.  It’s important to meet people where they are. But how do you become a “people person” if you’re not one?

The answer? Practice.

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Partying it up with Portland’s finest at the Oregon Actor Awards in October 2014. Photo by Melody Saunders.

Becoming a people person is a very giving thing to do. These past two years in Portland when I sit down to count, I find that I have been involved with at least twenty different organizations.  That’s a lot of parties, folks! Here’s my latest secret: When I’m at an event where I don’t know anyone, it can be nerve-racking. What I do is go stand with a group of people who are pleasantly chatting and act like I belong with them.  When they get around to asking who I am, I tell them the truth: “I didn’t know anyone here and you looked friendly.”  They always laugh and say, “Well, you know us now!”

And by then I do.
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*The Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) won the Tony in 2012 and has won more Helen Hayes Awards than any other theatre.  STC is sometimes referred to lovingly as “the Folger” because they used to perform at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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