Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter of Wonder

As previously mentioned, I am usually quite the Scrinch (Scrooge and Grinch) around the holidays....IMO there's too much fuss and preparation for only a few minutes of eating and unwrapping. 
But this year, I spent more than 160 hours immersed in holiday cheer.  I worked at Navy Pier's Winter WonderFest in the midst of 750,000 ornaments, hundreds of Christmas trees, dozens of hanging and illuminated snowflakes and inundated by (somewhat repetitive, considering the plethora of options available) Christmas music and the ever-present smells of funnel cakes and cinnamon coated nuts. 

The thousands of patrons ranged from babies (the youngest I met was born on Christmas Eve!), to school groups, families, couples and senior citizen groups.  My job as Major Nougat of the Candy Corps was to improv with my partner Colonel Caramel and the other Winter WonderFriends and entertain everyone we came across. 

In addition to posing for hundreds of pictures and signing autographs, activities included: having bunches of kids march with us and help us create new, silly ways to march, serving as an attorney in Bah Humbug Court defending those ticketed by the Winter WonderForce for infractions such as insufficient holiday attire or Scrooge-like behavior, holding imaginary tea parties, telling and acting out stories made up on the spot, collecting high fives and holding dance parties when certain songs played.  Several times we had the honor of escorting Santa Claus around the fest.  Each day brought new opportunities, games to play and ways to make people laugh. 

One of my favorite things was to infiltrate family photos.  Whenever we'd see a family posing (usually in front of one of the many Christmas trees), my partner and I would literally run over and get in the picture.  The photographer, staring at the camera, would see us appear in the viewfinder.  Watching his/her expresison change from intent concentration to suprise to joy never got old.  He or she would either burst out laughing or say "yes," or "wait," in order to refocus.  One woman was so tickled by this she kept laughing and saying, "I'm just filled with joy."

Most kids were excited to see us.  They'd come running over to talk, play, take a picture or even give me a hug.  But a few were frightened or shy, and hid behind their parents.  So we developed games to draw these kids out.  If we didn't get them to take a picture, usually we at least got a high five. 

Every time I made someone laugh, every time I saw a kid's eyes widen with wonder and joy, whenever a little girl or boy gave me a hug or sat on my lap, I confess I felt the holiday spirit. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Double Casting: Two Peas in Pod?

Note:  If you seek holiday-themed reading, I'll be posting tomorrow about Christmas traditions in medieval England at

Double casting: two actors play one role. 

The first time I was double cast was in eighth Oliver in my junior high's musical, Oliver!  Being very short with short hair, I was chosen to portray a boy.  The other Oliver was an actual boy (whose older brother was single cast as the Artful Dodger).  I'm not sure if the school was trying to give more students the opportunity to participate or thought the role was too large for one student to perform at every performance.  But after all the rehearsals, after learning all of the lines, songs, choreography and blocking, I would have liked do to more performances.

I'm currently double cast as Major Nougat at Navy Pier's Winter WonderFest.  Think: Disney characters on steroids.  With 11 others (in particular Colonel Caramel), I pose for pictures and sign autographs, but also traverse the 170,000 square feet of the Fest and improv scenes with patrons and other Winter WonderFriends.  We gather in the center and have a dance party whenever a certain Mariah Carey song plays.  We attend sessions of Bah Humbug Court, where we defend patrons who have been ticketed by our holiday cops for infractions like Scrooge-like behavior, beleagured picture-taking, insufficient holiday attire and impersonating Santa.  Yesterday, Holly the Rag Doll tried to avoid her sentence to Jolly Jail and ran out of court, so I had to chase her all over.  Being a ranking officer of the Candy Corps, I also encourage patrons to salute and engage in various marching exercises. 

Because this is such a physically and vocally demanding role (according to my pedometer, I walk around six miles a shift), and because WWF is often open 10 or 12 hours a day, double casting makes complete sense.  Yet it's odd to see the other major in 'my' costume (she told me she thinks so, too), and to feel like I'm missing out on the fun when I hear what happened days I'm not there.  And yesterday in the hall outside the dressing rooms, a cast member called me by the other major's name.  Hmm.  Both casts rehearsed together so we could develop similar physicalities and ensure understanding of our characters.  But each of us bring different things to the table, and it's fun to work with a mix of the casts each shift. 

Other issues: when single cast, if you have the opportunity to do an on camera job or want to go out of town, you probably have to say no.  When double cast, you might be able to trade shifts.  It's sometimes challenging to get family, friends and talent agents to attend productions you're in.  But when double cast with an irregular schedule, it can be more challenging to mesh your schedule with theirs. 

As a patron, double casting means you have a decision to make.  For example, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, this season's Tosca is portrayed by the very well-known Deborah Voigt and also by Violeta Urmana, who is making her Lyric debut.  So if you'd rather see DV but your tickets happen to be for a VU performance, you'll have to hope you can exchange.  On the other hand, seeing fabulous performers new to you can be exciting.  (I still remember the first time I saw Jose Carreras at the Royal Opera House in Il Trovatore at Covent Garden...)

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Will you work for food? For free?

Oprah is filming a pilot here in Chicago for her new OWN network.  I've been contacted by a friend who will be an extra who suggested I join him and another friend. 

Apparently extras can now recruit other extras, avoiding the need for a casting director or even knowledge of who/how many will show up at the appointed times and locations.  And apparently there's no pay, just meals.  It seems O/her production company are banking on the fact that people are so eager to say they're involved with her in any way they will work for free.  So they can earn bragging rights instead of cash.   

What precedent does not paying extras set?  If someone at Oprah's level expects freebies, will other TV shows and feature films stop paying us? 

I've worked as an extra on dozens of productions and expect to make $65 or $75 for 8 hours plus time and a half overtime, usually excellent meals (and parking).  Many think even that is insufficient recompense for the effort required.  Insufficient pay to endure long hours (usually at least 12) and occasionally unpleasant physical conditions...cramped holding areas, not enough restrooms, standing outside for hours in extreme cold or heat, walking long distances from parking to holding carrying the requisite changes of clothes, days where we aren't even given coffee and donuts or water while the (union) crew is constantly provided all sorts of tempting fare, and often right under our noses.  I choose to look at it this way:  I'm getting paid to observe famous stars/directors up close and in action, or to read/talk on the phone/email/hang out with fun people when I'm not in the scene.  

Being an extra isn't brain surgery, for sure.  Nor it it as difficult as being the star.  But it does require some skill...even an extra can screw up a shot by walking too slow or fast and running into the star, or by overreacting or looking at the camera.  For scenes shooting multiple days, you need reliable people for continuity. 

Certainly there can be reasons to work for no money.  If you don't have any acting experience whatsoever, student films, for example, can be one way to get some.  They can be a way to learn what it's like to be on set and take direction.  However, it's my understanding that these films and extra work even on a major motion picture aren't really considered acting credits by agents or those who hire talent for pay.  Better than nothing, perhaps, but not as good as other things.

For example, many non-Equity theatres in Chicago don't pay their actors, but offer a wealth of experience and the opportunity to be seen.  This "free" acting can count as credits; I've often heard agents like to know their talent also does theatre/improv and some will go see the shows.  And in the corporate world, many companies offer internships (often for college credit, which is a form of compensation) to help those just starting out get their feet in the door. 

Some free work assignments can be worth it in pursuit of a goal: a viable credit, networking and/or experience that should pay off in the future.  If you think being an unpaid extra will provide sufficient benefits, have at it.  But if you think you deserve compensation for your time, if you believe the old adage 'they won't buy the cow if they get the milk for free,' stay home. 


Thursday, December 10, 2009


While some people enjoy living whichever way the wind blows, I am not by nature a spontaneous person.  I like lists, plans, and schedules because they provide a sense of control.  I know what's coming next and what I need to do.

So the freelance/Gainfully Unemployed lifestyle, in which plans often change at the drop of a hat, can present  challenges.  I'm flexible in some ways (I can do the splits), but not so much in others.  Examples: A friend who's having trouble meeting her deadline needs my help with plotting or just wants to vent.  Another whose schedule is as varied as mine wants to get together at the drop of a hat.  Do I drop whatever I'm doing to accommodate these requests?  If I'm on my way to an audition or a job, obviously the answer is no.  But what if I'm working on projects I want to complete on self-imposed deadlines?  Is getting my work done as planned more important? 

When I am spontaneous, I often feel disrupted instead of easily embracing sudden changes.  Though I like keeping to my timetables, it's hard to say no to social opportunities or when friends want my help.  I prefer to work before play, but know I'll still get my work done in a timely fashion. 

Then there's the randomness of auditions and potential recording dates.  Example: an agent called after 5pm to schedule an audition for 10:30 the next morning, with lines to memorize.  I had plans that night that would keep me out fairly late, and already had three major events on tap for the next day.  Not only that, I was already booked one of the days of the shoot.  But I didn't want to say no to the agent or miss the opportunity to go to the casting agency and meet a potential new client.  So I had to scramble to adjust my schedule (requiring the assistance of others to change their schedules) and make the time to learn the lines (fortunately not that many)...all without knowing, of course, if I'd book this job. 

There's a continuum of spontenaeity in various types of acting. One of the reasons I enjoy being in plays/musicals is because I know exactly what to do and say next. I've rehearsed and been given direction. I usually know everyone else's lines by opening night, so it's easy for me to compensate if someone drops a line or misses an entrance. Voiceover jobs are nice because the copy is right in front of you,  Even if there are script changes, you can write them down.

On camera work can be more difficult. You've memorized your lines, but someone wants a script change. Remembering the new line(s) on the spot after you've already engraved the old ones in your memory is tricky.  And when they change the can be hard to keep track of what is old and new.

More challenging still (though also at times more freeing) is improv, where every word you say, every gesture you make, is spontaneous.  You can't plan ahead, because you don't know what your scene partner(s) will do or say next.  If you try to think of something funny to say/do, you won't be in the moment and won't be able to listen and react to what is going on.  Usually when doing improv, you're involved in some scenes, but not all.  So even during a show, you have a little time to regroup.  But my current job is all improv all the time (except during breaks, of course), with anywhere from one scene partner to twelve and an ever-changing number of patrons joining in.  It's both exhilerating and a bit unnerving to have a job requiring so many hours of  being "on" and in character.

First 2010 resolution: learn to adapt more easily to small and large changes in plans.  Some suggestions on how to do that:

eHow  Spend thirty minutes with a child.  These days, I often spend more than that!  And it is surprising and fun to see how willing and eager most are to join in the activities my partner and I come up with, from creating new ways to march to doing the Snowflake Dance. 

LifeDev  Pencil it in.  Oooh.  Scheduling spontaneity?  That I can do!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Life is a Roller Coaster

I've never been a fan of roller coasters--waiting in a long line just to have suspense build while you fear you'll slide back down the huge incline only to plummet and race through hills and valleys you can't control, clinging to the guard rail for dear life resulting in whiplash (emotional and physical) with only a few flat stretches to give you time to catch your breath. 

But sometimes life is like a roller coaster.  Though they say without sadness we wouldn't know what happiness is and even keel existence might get boring, dealing with huge ups and downs, especially when one follows on the heels of another, can be disconcerting and challenging. 

Small ups and downs are one thing.  Say I'm looking forward to an on camera audition, then the agent e-mails that it's been canceled.  A lost opportunity to have agent face time and be seen by a client, sure, but it's easy to believe another will soon follow.  Or I'm told I'm one of the few voices being considered for a big narration project, then I learn the client has gone in another direction.  Disappointing, but the producer says he'll keep me in mind for future projects.  I can believe I'll book another job soon. 

Then there are the big swings.  One minute I get a request for a full manuscript and am basking in the good news glow.  An editor enjoyed my writing and story enough to want to want to read more.  The next I learn of a betrayal.  Though the two events are completely unrelated, emotions can get muddled.  Dealing with bad news on the heels of good can throw you off kilter.  It's hard to maintain hope and excitement and have a positive attitude about the first while trying to take the second in stride.  It's hard to focus on reviewing the rest of the manuscript before submitting and meet other deadlines when trust has been broken. 

There are times when the ability to compartmentalize emotions and/or not be affected by external events might prove helpful.  What does help is to remind myself of all of the things I'm grateful for. 

How do you deal with bad news?  Here are a few articles:

eHow  Consider the worst case scenario, and develop a plan of action to deal with it.

beyond the rhetoric  Reinterpret it.  Frame obstacles as opportunities.

When someone you know gets bad news:

Family Education  ...offer your sympathy and—if appropriate— your help. It is less than useless to act as if nothing has happened.