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Making Opportunities, Setting Goals, Continuing the Fight

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Making Opportunities, Setting Goals, Continuing the Fight
As the year comes to a close on these Take Fivers' adventures, Back Stage seeks five working actors to take their places and write monthly about their 2010 experiences. If you are interested, contact Back Stage Executive Editor Dany Margolies at dmargolies@backstage.com, with "Take Five" in the subject line. Let us know a bit about you and your interest in writing, and include a headshot and résumé. We are seeking working actors from anywhere in the country.


Beth Grant, Los Angeles
On the plane, headed back to L.A. from the Austin Film Festival, where the movie I helped produce, the sweet-hearted "Herpes Boy," the kid with a birthmark and an unfortunate nickname, had its world premiere. Our modestly budgeted, truly independent little movie was a great big fat hit. We sold out both screenings, sadly having to turn people away. We got great reviews and did many press interviews, including The Onion.

While we were there, I had the honor of speaking at the University of Texas, first to the students in the acting graduate program and later to a larger group, the Film Community—which included writers, directors, actors, and any interested students. I love sharing the survival skills I've acquired over the years with young people getting ready to begin their careers.

I talk about almost every aspect of the business, but my favorite—and I truly believe most important—piece of advice is to stay positive and stay away from negative energy, naysayers, or as my teacher, Milton Katselas, called it, "commissary talk." He said, "Attitude monitors talent." If I have an open heart and a strong work ethic, everything always works out just fine.

Speaking of good attitudes and the willingness to work hard, the "Herpes Boy" team is fantastic. It starts with Byron Lane, who created this movie out of thin air from his Web series of the same name and who brought it to my husband and me through co-producer John Baumgartner. He found a great director in Nate Atcheson, a producer in Liz Hughes, and their D.P. Ben Kantor. Byron raised the money.

We all collaborated to find the fabulous cast—including the vivacious, beautiful, and very funny Ahna O'Reilly; the wise and wiseacre Julianna McCarthy, whose deep blue eyes tell the story of a life well-lived; my brilliant onscreen and real-life husband, Michael Chieffo, who plays a Type-A authoritarian with such conviction I'd think it was his true demeanor if I didn't know better; my darling daughter, Mary Chieffo, who had to audition for her role and surprised us with a strong, dry-witted character who makes a wonderful possible love interest; my friend Octavia Spencer, who is hysterical and just got named one of Hollywood's top 25 funniest people; sweet Larry Weissman; and wild and wonderful Zack Silva.

Everybody involved worked long, hard hours for small pay. To a person, all had great energy and are still going strong with their enthusiasm for this project. We have great salespeople, have invitations to more festivals and markets, and are looking forward to it all. I have no doubt we will sell this movie. But it is not about the money. It's about the love of the work. We all did it together. It's about being artists and supporting Byron's new and unique voice. It's just a little movie but it's ours; we created and could never have done so without positive energy, teamwork and Byron's leadership, and, yes, great attitude. On we go!


Leon Acord, Los Angeles
Like washing your car almost always ensures some rain, it seems the best way to get an acting gig is to plan on doing something else for a while. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A few weeks after "Carved in Stone" closed, I received an interesting proposition from Ryan Gierach, editor-in-chief of the WeHoNews, West Hollywood's online-only, twice-weekly newspaper. Having read my Take Five columns in these pages, he wondered: Would I like to become their new theater critic?

Hmm. I've always enjoyed writing, almost as much as acting, so I was sorely tempted. But should actors be critics while they're still acting? What if I find myself auditioning for a director whose work I've earlier panned? What if I need to give a bad notice to a good friend? Wouldn't critiquing theater cause a tremendous conflict of interest?

Worse still, would accepting this new job send a signal that I'd given up on acting and was now moving on? As they say, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." I've always wondered if theater critics and film critics are just frustrated actors, thwarted directors, or washed-up playwrights. And timewise, would it really be possible to juggle doing both?

I asked many of my actor friends. While a few seemed appalled, most encouraged me to do it. "Why not?" was the prevailing advice. The more I considered it, the more I wanted to say yes. It would require a heavy diet of theater on a regular basis; writing about the shows afterwards would be like an analytical college theater course. How better to learn about theater than to watch it, all kinds of it, over and over again, and then put my thoughts on it into words?

I've always felt the more you write, the easier it is to write. Since I have a couple of projects I want to write and self-produce, there's that to consider. Finally, I considered book reviews. They're almost always written by other authors. Who better to review a book than someone who's written a few her- or himself? Why should theater be any different? Why is it different? So I said yes.

I've reviewed two plays so far: "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and "How Katrina Plays." I loved both these divergent shows, so I haven't had to write a single critical word—yet. Interestingly, I think I'll learn more from those harder-to-write reviews, when I'm trying to articulate why something doesn't work.

Then, just as I'm getting emails from publicists and trying to plot my theatergoing schedule, it happens. Jason Moyer, my former colleague at Celebration Theater, emails, asking if I'd consider appearing in his third annual production of "A Christmas Carol." Give me a nanosecond to consider: Yes!

So my advice this month, as I begin work on my Jacob Marley: Make yourself busy during slow periods! Give yourself conflicts! It's like the old saying, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." Now the challenge: seeing theater while actively working in it.


Meagan Flynn, Kansas City, Mo.
Do you know what matches any type of décor you may have in your house? An Emmy statue! I'm proud to announce that the "Unreal Housewives of Kansas City" executive producers, myself included, were awarded gold statuettes at the Regional Emmy Awards on Oct. 3. We were honored in the category of advanced media arts–entertainment. It is a big accomplishment, and I am very much treasuring the accolade. It wasn't even a year ago that my partners and I started discussing a Web series, and now we are award winners and about to start filming Season 2. It's been a crazy ride, and I have learned so much from this experience.

The most valuable thing I think I've learned is that I can produce—that, as an actor, I don't have to wait to be hired, that I can get out and create my own work. It is because of my experience with "Housewives" that I was able to co-produce and star in the short film "Closing Time" this month. My co-producer–director and I worked very hard to get this project made, and I am extremely proud of it. My acting muscles haven't felt that stretched out in years. You know that feeling of exhaustion after you have just emotionally given everything that you had during a scene? I had that after every day of shooting. I truly don't feel like I held anything back, and that is an incredibly satisfying feeling. We are now in postproduction, and I hope to have a final product ready to share with you before the end of the year.

Producing is truly the ultimate high—to know that you are creating and making things happen for yourself. I encourage every actor out there to get up and get something produced this next year. You will learn so much about filmmaking that will benefit you as an actor, I promise. I am currently working on three new projects just because of the connections I have made and/or the lessons I have learned from producing these last two. Biggest tip I can pass on to you: Hire the best possible crew that you can, and respect the job that each and every one of them does. Yes, this means you will probably have to spend money to get an amazing-looking product. Remember, it doesn't matter how good your script or actors are; if you don't have great sound, lighting, and camera people, your film will be a disaster. I'm proud to say our crew on "Closing Time" were some of the best in the region. From the art department to the caterer, they all went above and beyond anything I expected.

I think a lot of actors feel that this whole business is out of their control. A lot of times that's true, but by producing you can put some of the control over your career into your own hands. "Closing Time" is a film entirely carried by me and one other actor, and it will be an amazing piece to have on my reel and for submission to festivals and directors. I now control something that I can use to get further ahead. As an actor, you must be not only an artist but a businessperson, and producing your own work is just good business.


Victor Joel Ortiz, New York City
I've been thinking hard lately about why I do this. "The Road Less Traveled" by Robert Frost has always been a favorite allegorical poem, but I have to say I underestimated the difficulty of the "road." My best friend got married last month and is talking about buying a house. Other close friends' accomplishments include graduating from dental school, having a second child, and graduating from law school. The male ego in me feels a deepening frustration with my lack of success.

I have, however, found inspiration lately on the American Theater Wing's website. It has a series of roundtable-discussion videos with successful actors and directors working in New York City. They asked Angela Lansbury why she did this, and she answered, "I'm not very good at anything else, but this I am very good at." I couldn't have said it better myself. It's a hard life, but I can't complain when I put it in the perspective of how much harder other people's lives are.

This month my favorite filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky, began casting his next film in New York. I have been mailing him my articles every month and figured my agents would have an easier time getting me an audition for a small part I knew I could do. Wrong. I didn't even get to audition. I realized this, though: I can't live in the past. If I continue to think of all the roles I didn't get, I'll lose it. I have to keep my head up, continue to sharpen myself as an actor, and continue to fight.

I've been more involved with the Flea Theater lately, which I am proud of. I have been in charge of the front of house and the pre-show speech (along with other company members) for its current production of Roger Rosenblatt's "The Oldsmobiles," which is excellent, incidentally. I also participated in a reading of Steven Banks' "Looking for Christmas," which the company might do next year. The level of talent there really is impressive. To have a place that you can call your artistic home and to have that camaraderie with other actors is something I cherish.

While I was in Miami for my friends' wedding, I auditioned for the GableStage theater's artistic director, Joe Adler. They are doing a production of "Farragut North" this fall, which is a fantastic play. Not only could I learn from a seasoned director, but I would also gain a regional credit and be home for the holidays. As it turns out, he has been following the Take Five articles and was happy to meet me; we even know many of the same people. We spent half an hour just getting to know each other, and even if it doesn't work out for this production, I hope we can connect on another later on.

That's the thing about being an actor, though: You have an epic success, and then you are unemployed again. If anything, I have learned to be resilient and comfortable in the unknown. More on me at www.victorjoelortiz.com.

Julian Miller, Chicago
It's been a great month. John C. Reilly is alleged to have said, "If you want to learn to act, go to Chicago." It's never been more apparent to me why. I trained and performed in school and apprenticed at a very well-known regional theater, where again I trained and I performed. What it comes down to for me is that for all the training, I still wasn't connecting in my auditions. I'd never had a read I felt great about, and for all the classes I'd taken, I was never able to really identify what was missing. The only thing I was sure of was that I'd reached a point in my career where the gate between where I was and where I wanted to be was locked in part by this wall.

Along comes the class I'm currently taking, and never has it been so clear. I've been setting myself up for failure in audition scenarios. I'm so excited to finally have a process that is instantly accessible. It has been extremely refreshing to feel like I can finally show what I can do to casting directors and producers. One new frustration, however, is the lack of cohesive information about what's going on and where in the Chicago theater scene. I'm coming in from Philadelphia, where the spirit of theater is very well aligned with the idea of community. The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia is a well-oiled machine that brings together everything theater, from jobs to auditions to classes and back. It really helped me to develop relationships and learn about how the Philadelphia portion of the industry worked.

There is no such comprehensive resource in Chicago, so I and a few fellow actors are in the process of building the Chicago Theatre Alliance. It's going to be focused on grouping together all of the resources that any actor could want in one place. ChicagoTheatreAlliance.org will have everything from the weather (so you know how to dress for the day) to carpool info for auditions that aren't in the city. Actors will be able to complete profiles and network and interact at any level they're comfortable with. I know I'll be looking for a partner to write with for musical theater and the stage.

That brings me to my next goal. I started performing at such a young age that the stage doesn't make me nervous at all. I can get up there with anyone else's material with not a second thought. Sharing my own material, however, is such a different animal for me. So I'm dedicated to presenting songs from the musical I'm working on before the end of the year. The thought is terrifying, but it's something I need to do, especially if I ever want to see it come to life. Onward and upward till next month.





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