DirectorSpeak

Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Director Akia

Akia is a whirling dervish in human form. And as far as I’m concerned, she is one of the best known and most knowledgeable people in and of NYC’s Indie community. Akia has many tremendous professional traits, but perhaps her most memorable trait is her incredible giving heart. She practically oozes generosity out of her pores! She’s an NYC woman through and through, and listening to her talk about the city and community she loves is to take a journey through a very special New York world. So, don’t be shy – jump in and join us, as Akia spills all!

Akia

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*The Early Years *A Suspended Clamshell *Coming To New York *Assistant Directing *Psychology of Casting *Directorial Traits *New Technology/Social Media *Rising Sun Performance Company *Working in NYC Indie Theatre *How To Get Started *Fast Five

Akia  is an active member of the flourishing Indie & Off Broadway theatre community having produced, directed, and performed with numerous NYC companies since 1997. She is the Company Manager for The Blue Man Group. She has received critical praise for her direction of Rising Sun Performance Company, of which she is the Founding Artistic Director. She is a Board Member of The Paul Butterfield Fund & Society, and Company Manager for The New York Innovative Theatre Awards & Foundation, and is a recipient of their “Founders Award” for her contributions to the organization and Indie Community. {For a more detailed bio, click here.}

CP: Welcome, Akia! I’m so happy to be talking with you. I’m grateful too, that you were able to take some time out of your tech schedule to sit down with me. I know you don’t have any time to waste, so let’s just dive in. Tell us about the beginning of your directing journey…

*The Early Years

AS: I started out as a dancer. A second generation dancer – I studied dance with my mom’s ballet teacher! I grew up in the Princeton area, and then, in my teens, I moved into musical theatre. So, I’ve always sort of been in the performing arts – as a kid I’d taken acting, and dance, music, piano. My mom was an artist and my dad was a musician, so it was just part of the family line, I guess.

CP: What do you think that growing up with artists did for you – besides getting you interested in the arts as a way of living?

AS:  I think that it opened me up, made me more receptive to different ways. We traveled a lot, too, so having that openness of cultural experiences and different life experiences – lots of inhibitions were taken out of the way really early.  The dance world is very physical, and you’re running around in a leotard a lot, so a lot of the physical inhibitions sort of go away. And traveling as much as I did, whenever we were somewhere else, it was really important to learn about that culture, and learn about the art forms there, and folk art, traditional dance, and sort of heritage of different areas. Which I think certainly fed into the way that I approach projects, and the way I approached my own art growing up.

CP: Did you travel just within the US?

AS: No, we actually spent about 7 years living both in the US and traveling to the West Indies. My mom was working with the government in St. Vincent, to open a cultural center to work with the schools. So, travel was definitely part of my fiber growing up. I think that really changed my world view in a lot of ways. As a teenager I took acting classes, and had the opportunity to do student directing and showcases.  I went to a performing arts school, so, I was directing, acting and doing musical theatre, and lots of different things. And I found that I really enjoyed the rehearsal process. I really enjoyed being in the rehearsal room.

CP: Oh yeah – there’s just no where better. One of my favorite places to be, ever.

AS: Exactly! As much as I loved performing, I was finding I was happier “making” the work, rather than “performing” the work. It sounds totally horrible and egotistical, and it probably is, but I found that I liked not being at the whim of a director’s good mood or bad, or whether I was cast or not.  I found that I really, really was being drawn to making the work, and being able to serve and enjoy seeing something from the start to the end. That was a crazy long way to get to your answer!

CP: No, no – that’s exactly the right way to answer it. Your answer is your answer. It’s however you do it. I didn’t start directing til I was mid-30s. I joined the military, did commercial real estate for a while – everybody’s path is different, you know. So your answer is your answer! So, you grew up around art, went to an art school… I’m curious about, coming from a family of artists – do you think that fed into your visual style, and your input onto the visual palette?

AS: Yeah, I think so. I think that is impacted the way I approach design, and acting. I talk a lot with the actors about how they approach their work, and their life experience and how that plays into it. I like to try as many things as possible, which I think comes from my history as well. You have to be open to opportunities. I think it’s made me a lot riskier, in life, you know – trying different things, and being a little crazy about the things I say “yes” to, and the things that I take on.

*A Suspended Clamshell

CP: Do you know who Ken Davenport’s Producer’s Perspective, right?  

AS: Of course!

CP: Right. And he had a post recently about encouraging his staff to bring in at least one crazy-ass -that’s my word, I’m sure he used something more polite- idea as a solution to something. Something that’s so crazy that everyone knows you can’t do it, there’s no way, just make it totally balls-to-the-wall out there. Because maybe you can’t use it precisely that way…

AS: …but maybe there’s a kernel there.

CP: Exactly! Maybe it’s the thing that breaks you out of the box. So, when you bring in your designers and you say, “What? What could we do?” and one says “I think that we should be suspended from the ceiling and do a moon-walk!” And someone says, “We can’t do that, but the ‘suspension in air’ part is cool, maybe we can do that!”

AS: Yes, yes! In fact, I once had a script brought to me, and we ended up producing it, where in the original script there was a clamshell suspended from the ceiling, which opened up with a dancer in it, who then broke into a disco song. (lol) Well, we didn’t end up with the clamshell, but we did end up with dancing angels and disco songs, and there was a lot of “what exactly are we doing with this script?” It turned into something very different – there were things that worked, and things that didn’t.

CP: But the point is to look at what was the impetus behind the suspended clamshell, and then make sure you keep the impetus. That you honor the desired result, even if it isn’t done in exactly the same way. And I’m sure you did that. Going back to your family, I suspect that with all this art in your world, it was a natural thing for you to want to move to NYC.

*Coming To New York

AS: I moved to NYC originally to be a dancer in musical theatre, and then I started working at the New York Comedy club doing improv. I just found myself doing projects because I was cast, but not being really proud of the work that was being done – not to discount the experiences, because you learn from every experience. But I found that I didn’t really enjoy the experience of doing work for the sake of doing work. And I found myself, as so many people in this community do, working with a lot of the same people, and running into the same people at auditions. We were all having the same experiences and feelings of restlessness. One of those people was David Anthony, who would become my co-founder of Rising Sun. We were performing a lot and struggling for the same things as performers in New York. He also came from a directing/producing background in Tennessee. And we sort of came up with this brain child – let’s start of company! We had a lot of ideas: we wanted it to be an ensemble company, we wanted people to try different things, and be collaborators, and have a safe environment for people to call home.

CP: What year was that?

AS: We started the company in 2001, in late August of 2001 – which was interesting timing, of course! But I think it was actually really good, and healthy for a lot of us to be able to focus on something positive like the company, you know, “post.” (After the 9/11 attacks) So, David and I started the company, and at first I was performing more and then just naturally transitioned to directing.

CP: So, would you say that most of your directing training has been “on the job” or have you taken classes?

AS: I took directing classes at the conservatory, and did a lot of student directing. And I had the opportunity to sit in and audit a lot of classes at NYU. But I don’t have a degree in directing. So, a lot of it has been absorbed from others, “on the job,” making mistakes, and trying different things. Working with other directors, learning from them.

*Assistant Directing

CP: I think that assisting is one of the best ways to learn the craft of directing. Schools can teach you some things – structure, history, verbiage – but a lot of it is connected to instinct, and honing that instinct with each experience. Are you open to having assistants even when you don’t necessarily need them – to help someone else learn? UNPAID assistants! (lol) Did I mention we were “indie?” LOL

AS: LOL – yeah! Yes, when possible. I like having other people in the room. Because it’s another perspective. It’s another pair of eyes, to help point those things out. And another resource for the actors, because often when I direct, I’m also producing, and when we get into tech, it’s nice to have another person who’s been there, been part of the process. Plus, I really enjoy the collaborative process of directing, so it’s really nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. I’m never above saying, “I’m really struggling with this moment, what are you seeing? What sort of problem solving would you see here?” I’m totally open – I like having other bodies, other opinions.

CP: Now, I know the answer to this next question, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Have you done other work in the theatre, besides directing? Other positions?

AS: Yes. Yes! (lol) Everything! I’m an artistic director, I’m also a producer, and a company manager. I also work with the NYIT Awards, I produce those as well. So, I tend to have my hands in many pots! A lot of my experience was gained by default, from having an OOB theatre company.  We started this company when I was 23, and I had – there were things that I really knew how to do, and there were things that I had NO IDEA how to do!

CP: But you had to do them anyway. That’s the “glory” of OOB theatre!

AS: Yeah, you have to do it all, that’s our glory. You just have to figure it out. I’ve done everything from running the light board, and running sound, to hanging lights, doing a little bit of lighting design, doing costume design, scenic painting – all of the tech stuff. As a director, knowing a bit about all the aspects of the show helps you to communicate with your collaborators. Having a really strong idea, a “feel” of how you want a show to look, informs your conversations with designers.  I’ve worked with directors that were like, “I don’t know, let’s put some blue over on that wall, I guess!” (lol) So, having a really strong sense of the environment that you want to create is important.

CP: I think that’s the perfect way to say it: that a director needs to know what ‘environment’ they want to have created. Because you may not know exactly how you want it to look, or to sound – you don’t know what precise sound effect you want there – but you need to know that this is the feeling that you want there. I once worked at Dallas Theater Center, with Richard Hamburger, and he told the composer that he wanted something with a “womby” feel, like the character had just come out of the womb. And I thought, “That’s wild!”

AS: And really specific! I’m sure it totally informed the composer.

CP: Yes, and that’s what I learned from that. The director needs to communicate the needs of the environment, but they don’t need to suggest all the nuts and bolts of ‘how’ to create it. I guess, for me, it’s the same as casting – you know how you need a role to feel, but you don’t tell the actor exactly how to act it – well, not if you’re a good director anyway! In the same vein, you don’t hire a designer and then tell them how to do their job, it’s just counter-productive.

*Psychology of Casting

AS: Oh yeah, I do credit a lot of directing to casting! And there’s also the psychology of it, in the sense that, for me, a lot of it is the chemistry of the entire cast and crew – these are the people that you’re going to be in a rehearsal room with for 5 hours, 8 hours, whatever, a day. I would rather work with someone that I enjoy working with, who is going to get along with everyone, and work their butts off – maybe their technique isn’t as stellar as another performers, but I would much rather take the person that can be guided, and will take notes, and that we can work off of each other, rather than the most beautiful, technically, Shakespearean, classically trained actor.

CP: Yeah, being an asshole can really keep you from being hired. It’s such a small community, too, that word gets around. When I’m casting, I always look to see who they’ve worked with before, and if I know someone on that list, I’ll call…”Hey Akia, there’s this guy that worked with you, what was he like?” Because if you say he was an asshole, then it’s not happening. (lol) Life is too short to spend 5 weeks in the presence of an jerk.

AS: And I certainly do that, too. You know, you have an actor come in and they give an awesome audition but something seems…. ‘off.’ Maybe there’s an edge, or they seem defensive, or whatever. And 9 out of 10 times, there’s usually someone on the resume that I know. And I’ll pick up the phone and call, “Hey, so what was your experience with this person?” One of my favorite stories actually is back in the day,  I was temping, and someone that I was temping with asked me come in and act in their NYU directing project. She said that if I came and acted, I could also audit all the classes that week and see the other directing projects. So I went in, and acted in it, and then audited the rest of the directing workshop. They were all “silent” pieces, five minute pieces with no talking, just creating story with intention and no language. And there was one scene that, to this day, was SO vivid, totally clear: it was a dark room with one single hanging light bulb that was swinging back and forth, and a door with light coming under. And a guy is trying to get out. A key comes flying under the door. He picks up the key and tries it, but it doesn’t work. And then another key comes in. He picks up and tries it. Then keys just started pouring in from under the door. It was this amazing visual, very clear story that I was literally talking about for …, well, I’m STILL talking about it, 8 years later. I was so “wow’d” by it. It was 3 minutes of a silent scene that was a whole story, and was really amazing. A year and a half later, I’m interviewing directors, for our second show as a company, “Baby with the Bathwater,” and I was talking with a guy, and said, “You look really familiar. I feel like I’ve seen your work. I know you from somewhere.” And he was like, “No, I just graduated.” And we started talking about who we both knew. Then, a year and half later, we discovered that HE was the director of that piece! And we’ve been collaborators ever since. His name is Jason Tyne-Zimmerman, and he was one of the first directors we worked with as a company, wonderful guy. We’ve been working together for 8 years now, on various projects. And I use this example all the time.  You just never know who’s in the room! We all have our bad days, we all have our off days, but it really this community is SO small, and you just always have to put your best foot forward, because you never know who’s in the room. I just love that story, because it’s such an amazing example.

*Directorial Traits

CP: Here’s a wide-open question for you: How would you define what a director is?

AS: I think being a director means being a strong leader, and I think being a collaborator is also a huge part of it. It means you need to be aware and care for the other people in the collaboration process. I think that people skills are really important. Picking people that will work and collaborate well with each other. I think that ideally a director needs to be someone that can put the puzzle together in many different layers – not only to have a strong artistic sense onstage, but having a really good idea and perspective about the needs of the people that you’re collaborating with, and what everyone’s bringing to the table.

CP: Put your producer hat on for a second, and tell us what it is that you want from a director when you’re hiring one for Rising Sun.

AS: I think, as a producer, when I’m working with a director, I want to make sure that I have someone who is a strong leader, and is someone that I can trust my actors with. Because Rising Sun is an ensemble company, so for the most part we work with the same core group of people, so the environment in which I put the people in my care is really important to me. Someone who is respectful of time, someone who treats people well, while getting the job done, is really important to me.

CP: And understanding a budget.

AS: And understanding a budget! Oh my god, yes, understanding a budget! No clamshells suspended from the ceiling! (lol) As a producer, I want a director who’s a strong communicator and a strong leader who can keep their cool. It’s not an easy job! And I think it’s a given that you want someone with a strong vision, and who knows how to ask for what they want. And I think those are two different things – some directors know what they want, but don’t always know how to articulate the “how” – and not just for the actors, but knowing how to talk to designers. To be able to explain the environment in which they want the story to unfold.

CP: How would you describe your style as a director? Some words used in the past have been midwife, shepherd, engineer…

AS: I like those words. “Midwife” that’s fun!

CP: That’s the one I use, because I feel like I’m not the one that gives birth to a play, the playwright does that. And then the audience receives it. I just “midwife” it through that process.

AS: That’s a good one, but I feel like “shepherd” is probably the one for me. Or maybe “kitten wrangler,” which is another way of describing how I feel sometimes. Now I totally want a shepherd’s crook at rehearsal – “gather round folks!”  I tease the IT awards folks, Shay, Jason and Nick, [http://www.nyitawards.com/aboutus/staff.asp] I tend to shepherd or wrangle them back stage at the awards show each year, to try and get the three of them together for their photos. I’d grab two of them, and one of them would wander away, and I’d be like, “Guys!” so I told them it was like wrangling kittens! I will take full credit for the last three years of them being photographed together!

CP: Having been backstage at the awards a couple of times myself, I can understand just how difficult a job that is! Okay, so let’s get a little bit more into your style, your process. What kind of environment do you like to work in?

AS: I feel like my style adapts to the actors that I’m working with. I don’t pre-block, I really like to have long rehearsal periods, I like exercise work. We do a circle before every rehearsal, we do a circle before every show – and that includes our tech people, the stage manager, everyone. I feel like my approach is really from the unit, from the ensemble – everyone is in this together. I try to create a really supportive environment, but also an environment where nobody is leaving work for others. Everyone has their role in the rehearsal room, but as a member of an ensemble, where it’s “our” show – not “my” show or “the company’s” show, it’s “our” show – and everybody has an equal responsibility to the success of it. Even if you’re on stage, just taking those few moments to think about what’s needed, you know, to check in with the stage manager to see if they need help at the end of the night. Don’t be the first to leave rehearsal. It’s not going to hurt you to carry something up the stairs, or help put the props away. I think that’s a big philosophy change for a lot of actors that work with me, but I also think that it’s really important, because I feel like you almost earn your place on stage a little bit more if you’re giving everyone in the room that kind of respect.

CP: And what’s the next step? You’ve picked a play that you want to direct, you’ve cast from your ensemble – do you start with lots of research?

AS: Well, it depends on the project. One of the bigger projects that I directed was, The Last Supper, which was an Indie, kinda-cult film that came out in the early 90s. I fell in love with the movie, but kept thinking, “This should be a play!” It was a good film, but it didn’t really feel like a movie. I kept thinking that it would be amazing on stage. It has a really simple premise – 5 college grad students, all very cliche, liberal, not elitist, but all upper middle-class, mid-West, all very hellbent on changing the world and making their mark. And they accidentally kill someone in the beginning…

CP: Sounds like the prologue to the Big Chill!

AS: Right! (lol)  The victim turns out to be a serial rapist, so they decide that maybe the murder wasn’t such a bad thing. They decide that they are going to invite a dinner guest over once a week, and if they can’t change that person’s political views, they will kill them by the end of dinner! We actually met with the screenwriter, and it turned out that it WAS a play first, so he re-wrote it as a play, and we got rights to do it in NYC. The cast and I spent a lot of time researching – at the beginning of every rehearsal we would have political conversations about current events and different ways to kill people. So, there was a ton of research for that show. We did a blog for it, and everybody contributed to it.  I think it depends on the project as to how I approach research. I also try not to OVER-research, because I don’t want to come in with so many pre-conceived notions and ideas that it affects the rehearsal in a negative way, if that makes sense.

CP: What is your initial way into a text – text or movement?  

AS: Text! I’d have a couple of rehearsals at the table, like a read-thru with everybody, where we go through it, and then talk about initial impressions, questions, what type of research would be helpful, and I really involve the cast and the designers in that process of helping to problem solve. What questions are standing out to people? What do people feel like their approach will be. So, that’s what a lot of that table work is. Where are our challenges? What is the problem-solving that we have to do? What are the initial impressions? That’s usually the first thing. Then one or two more days of tablework -depending on the needs of the script- then usually, I like to do another full read-thru with the whole cast. The second read-thru is a good time to start picking it apart, in more detail.

CP: When do you bring designers in?

AS: It depends on the project – I like to bring them in as soon as possible. I like for them to be there for the first table-read, and if I can have them, I like to have them as involved in the process as much as possible. It’s not always a possibility. For Bug which I’m doing now, that wasn’t possible, because our designers signed on a little late, later than I would have liked, obviously. I like to have everybody in the room as soon as possible – even if they just come in for the table-read and then we don’t see them again for 3 weeks.

CP: So that they can hear the voices, and get a feel for the world. Here’s a question I like to ask, and it’s wide, so let’s see where you take it. How do you handle transitions?

AS: Ahhhh… that’s… a good question! (lol) I’ll use Bug and Last Supper as examples. Both of those pieces were in very intimate spaces. I like to avoid blackouts as much as possible. I like taking the audience along with the whole ride, so I tend to build transitions where you see the passing of time, and you see the change taking place, you see what’s going on between the scenes. So, for the Last Supper instead of seeing stage crew come in wearing all black, in a blue light, to change over the set pieces – when the dinner table had to be re-set, it was the actors in their home, in character, changing over the dinner table, and passing the plates, and being in their home. So, I think, it depends on the environment in which the play is. We’re doing the same sort of thing for Bug. Bug is a fast-paced, manic, very tense show, and I think, for what we’re doing in such an intimate space, to do blackouts between each scene sort of stops that momentum. So, we’re doing the same thing – during all of the scene changes, you’ll see the actors change over the room and living in the space, and having this room where they have these experiences. It depends a lot on the space and the environment. Another show I did, HellCab, we had to do very quick blackouts – it all took place in a car, with a driver and different passengers, so it was very quick. Music is a big part of transitions for the feel and the momentum. A lot of it is about momentum.

*New Technology/Social Media

CP: Let me get your opinion on new technology and its impact on theatre, for good and bad – especially social media, since I know that’s one of your specialities.

AS: I can certainly talk to social media, cause I AM all over social media – Facebook and Twitter, etc. It’s interesting – I feel like there’s a lot of circular momentum and movement in social media.  Three years ago it was cutting edge and awesome and – not that it’s not still awesome, but I feel like email communication, and smart phones, and all of the various devices we use has actually started hindering it a bit, because there’s such an onslaught of information and such an onslaught of people using it.  It’s not new and exciting any more for you to get an invite on line, or in an email. Actually, ironically, people respond more now to having a postcard handed to them, like it was 10 years ago.

CP: Yeah, it’s more personal, it’s one-on-one.  

AS: Right, it’s one-on-one and you have that face-to-face connection. You’re able to physically talk about the show and give something tangible as a reminder. Within Rising Sun, we have marketing workshops, and we talk about this. I ask them, “How much mail do you get these days that’s not a bill?” It’s actually more refreshing now to get a letter, “Oh my god, I got a letter, I got a postcard, I got something personal in the mail.” There’s an artform to social media, and you have to be really careful about not being sales-pitchy. It’s about making sure that people are feeling included and interactive – kind of a backstage, sneak-peek, type feel of information. The info that they get on social media should be short and attention-grabbing, and something that they wouldn’t get in an email. They need to not feel “sold to” because there’s so much online marketing – there’s so much! Everyone’s promoting everything on Twitter and Facebook and stuff, and now you have to be really specific about making it personal.

*Rising Sun Performance Company

CP: Let’s talk more about Rising Sun. You’ve told us how it got started, so tell me more about what it is that you love about having a company?

AS: I love the “family” of theatre. The reason that I do theatre is that I really love being in the rehearsal room and I love having a family of artists that you really trust and enjoy working with. You know what to expect of their work, and I think that directly relates to the quality of work that gets done. If you have a group of people who respect, trust, and love each other, then everyone tends to care about the work, and it’s not a “hired gun” type feel. I think what I like about having a company is having a relationship with people. To be able to say, “I know that this is your strength,” and knowing where people need to be challenged – “Hey, next show, let’s put you here, take you out of your comfort zone.” Also I think that having a company gives its members a home and a group of people that support each other and that are sharing the same experience, and are creating a history together. I really enjoy being able to provide that home for people, that they know that if they’re having a rough day, they have a family that they can share with: “Ah, I just had a shitty audition” and everyone can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve had those too!” It’s just having a place for resources, and having that network. It’s just a safe place to play.

CP: “A safe place to play.” That’s really it. So important. And so, let’s talk a little bit about what Rising Sun is doing right now.

AS: We’re doing Hotel Suite, which is the name of the project, the event. We’re doing it at the Hosteling International New York.

CP: Which is an incredible place to do it in, very site-specific.  

AS: Yes! It’s totally site-specific, it’s environmental. We selected all of the shows – it’s actually eight plays, with three different performance times, so we’re doing Bug by Tracy Lets (which Akia is directing!), Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, and then we’re doing six, short, one-act plays. All of the shows are sharing a set, in the same room. You have to “check in” to the hotel, and be taken through the corridor, and then, finally, into the space.

CP: So, on some nights you come and you just see Bug and other nights it’s the one-acts, etc., right?

AS: Right – the show schedule rotates. So, it’s a huge project – it’s completely scary! I’d have to say, we’ve been really fortunate that we have a group of people that are really committed and really care about the show and are busting their ass to make it all possible. We did an Indiegogo campaign, where we raised our goal, down to the last three hours when we raised our last $500. So, a great big thank you to the 135 donors that made that happen, which is Ah.May.Zing! We have 8 awesome directors, and 8 awesome playwrights and a cast of about 20, and a design team, and a wonderful crew. Now all we need is butts in seats!

CP: So, that’s a nice segue, because you are an Indie company, doing an Indie play in New York City. So, let’s talk about directing theatre in NYC, within the Indie community. Just start with “why” NYC? Of all the places you could go, why did you come here? What do you love and hate about NYC?  

AS: I have traveled a lot, but I feel like I’m just a total East Coast girl, and a New York snob. I’ve been in NYC for 14 years, I moved here when I was 19, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world, at this point in my life. I feel like NYC is the heartbeat of theatre. I just feel like this city breathes life! I am constantly inspired, every day. There’s days when this city kicks the shit out of you, and you have to get up and brush yourself off and do it again. But I feel like this city has a character and story and pulse, and a life that I’ve not experienced anywhere else. And it’s home! Warts and all. It can be a tough city, it can be exhausting and grueling, and there’s certainly days where it feels, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I working here?”

*Working in NYC Indie Theatre

CP: Oh yeah, I know those questions! Let’s talk more about that, about the challenges inherent in living and working in NYC.

AS: I think that finances are always a challenge. I am fortunate that I have a great day job, and that it is in the theatre world. I work at The Blue Man Group, I’m the company manager there. I am blessed and grateful that I’m able to work there, to be part of such a great theatre organization and still be able to work on outside projects. I think that’s an amazing gift. But it also took me a very long time to get there! Also, there are just the challenges of being in a city that is saturated with great art, and great work. You have to work that much harder to stand out, to make an impact on an artistic landscape that is filled with amazing, creative wonderful talented people.  Another challenge is just living in this city. As much as I love it, I think personal individual space can be an issue. If you ride the subway every day, that’s two hours you’re sharing with hundreds of other people and that does – it sounds like a really small thing, but it does have an impact. You get up, you go to work, and then you’re not really able to de-stress, you’re fighting traffic, or subways, or LIFE! to get to rehearsal, and there you’re dealing with cramped rehearsal rooms or noisy places. I think there’s a lot of silent challenges that are more environmental, or psychological, I guess, instead of physical, if that makes sense. It can be grueling.

CP: What do you do to fight that and be in this career? Like for me, I have a garden, or I get my Kindle out on the train.

AS:  Yeah, Kindle! On the train – it’s funny, because as much as I’m like, “Oh, the subway – ugh!” it’s also my down time. I’ve got my Kindle so I’ll watch a movie on the train, or read a magazine, or listen to my music, or sometimes, late at night, I’ll nap. I’m totally not above sleeping in the corner! Also, I try to leave some days for myself, to be home and have some downtime. And I have family that are close in New Jersey, and there’s something that’s always healing about Grandma’s house! So, I try to get out of city for a couple of days when possible. Sometimes, you just have to push through it, and going back to what I was saying before, I think it’s the people you surround yourself with that help you through. I think that the work we do at this level, we’re not doing for financial rewards, so the people you surround yourself with and the work that you choose to do is really important.

CP: So, let’s talk a little bit more about those people – the people of the Indie community. I’m going to throw some words into your mouth and you can just play with them and let me know what you think. I sort of feel like the Indie community used to be a lot more separate and now it’s really growing together, is becoming more of it’s own unit, it’s own identity. What do you think about that?

AS: I agree. And I’ll totally disclose that I’m biased because I work with the IT Awards (NYIT Awards) and I credit them a lot. I’ve been in this city since ’97, and I feel like the landscape has changed a lot since the time I’ve been here. People were working in “silos” for a long time, and were doing their own work and having tunnel vision, but when the Innovative Theatre Foundation/NYIT Awards came along, things began to change.

CP: Were you with NYIT from the beginning?  

AS: I was, yes, I have been with them since the beginning. I got an email, as a producer, from them and they said they were looking for volunteers, so I went and volunteered, and they’ve been stuck with me ever since!

CP: I’m sure I can say on their behalf, that they are “gladly” stuck with you!  

AS: So, yeah, I credit them for helping to create the community. I think there are a lot of advocates out there, like Martin Denton and Rochelle Denton at NYtheatre.com, League of Independent Theatre, The Community Dish – they have all been huge advocates for this community. The Field is and has and continues to be an amazing resource. Fractured Atlas, who is a little bit newer, but I feel like they’ve done an amazing amount of work for this community for the short time – well, I mean, I think its been 6 years so it’s not THAT short. There’s a lot of organizations – Materials for the Arts, ART/NY, to name a few. These organizations have been amazing about partnering and sharing resources and also working as a united force, working together. This has helped the community and those organizations serve the community a lot better. So, yeah, I’ve seen such great strides.  The community is so much stronger and there’s a lot of resource sharing and cross-promoting, postcard swaps, and email blasts, and Facebooking each other. It’s phenomenal. It’s an amazing community, and it’s a huge community, but it also feels intimate and supportive and loving. And it’s a group of people that love what they do, and are doing what they love. And they care about the work. It’s gratifying to be a part of that community. These are people that I am happy to call my peers.

*How To Get Started

CP: So, imagine you’re a director living somewhere else, in Wyoming maybe, and you’re thinking about coming to NYC. What do you think they should do when they get here, or even before they get here, to become part of this community? Where should they go? Who should they talk to? What websites should they visit?

AS: I’ve had a lot of young performers come to me like, “I want to act, I want to work in NYC” and the first thing I always tell people when they move here is, just from a sanity standpoint, “make sure that your feet are solidly on the ground when you are here.” Sometimes, you’re not going to have paid theatre work for six months at a time, and you can’t really dig in your heels here artistically until you feel okay financially, until you feel safe where you live, and you have a job that will support the work that you do, and you can navigate the subways. It feels like such a small, basic thing, but I think that’s step one. I’ve seen it time and time again: people jump in with both feet, and the intention is great, but then they get overwhelmed. And I’ve seen people freak out, and burn out, and leave the city within six months. So I think that the first step is to make sure that you are in a safe environment emotionally, physically, financially, before you can even start thinking about trying to work in this city.

CP: So, find a way to take your time, to come into the city in stages – find a good day job, find a good place to live, and maybe just attend theatre.

AS: Yes. Then, once you feel grounded in NYC, then start connecting with theatre companies. Go see plays, sign up as a judge at large for the IT Awards, and go see theatre for free if you don’t have money to buy a ticket. Volunteer to usher. Look up theatre companies, and festivals that need volunteers! Get a festival pass. Also, look up your favorite playwrights and see what theatre companies are producing those playwrights. See what kind of work people are doing, and if that’s work that you gravitate to, then talk to them. I’ve never heard of an Indie theatre company turning down help! Do box office in exchange for a ticket, offer to hand out postcards – volunteer at the Fringe Festival, and the Frigid Festival! Go to The Field and Fractured Atlas and see what companies are working with them, and get an idea of who’s who. Find the companies that you are drawn to. 9 out of 10 companies in the Indie theatre community have a very strong aesthetic about the work they do, and who they are, so you can learn about them and see if they fit what you think you want to do. Talk to people – go to after-parties, go to fundraisers, volunteer at fundraisers – start networking as soon as you can. Start seeing other people’s work, even before you audition for anything, so that you know the company’s aesthetic. Because it can be overwhelming, so step one is get yourself grounded, and step two is find those companies who’s work you gravitate to.

CP:  So, tell me what it is that you LOVE so much about this wild and crazy Indie world?

AS: I feel like the work that we do in Indie theatre is professional. A lot of people feel that it’s just a stepping stone, it’s a way up to Broadway. And maybe 10 or 15 years ago it was that, it was a place to get a credit on your resume and then move on, but not anymore. I feel very passionately about this community because I think there is something to say about a community who quite literally puts everything on the table to do what they do.  I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with fiscal sustainability or being paid, and I think that’s important as an artist, and it’s important for our community to strive and fight for that and make that happen. But in the Indie world, people put their rent money up, people put their life savings on the line – there is no question that people are 100% behind the work that they are doing, and that they are quite literally fully invested in that work. And you know, I think there is some amazing work being done on Broadway, but I find that the storytelling and the work is not foremost. I don’t find that the same quality and caliber of story telling is being done on Broadway as it once was – and it hasn’t been for a long time. If you want to find the playwrights that are taking risks and telling new stories, and doing political theatre, and doing theatre for change, and highlighting female playwrights or gender specific, or sexual orientation specific – you won’t find that on Broadway. And you won’t always find that on Off-Broadway. I feel like Indie is the place where people are finding their voices as artists. People are allowed to take risks here and I think that is instrumental to the landscape of art in this city, and that’s why I feel so passionate about it.

CP: I think that this evolution that you were talking about, as far as where the OOB world has come from – I have watched it evolve from OOB to “Indie.” And I feel like people feel that more. We used to be OOB, and now we’re “Indie.” We’re not just an off-shoot of something over there, that we don’t even recognize much any more. We’re our own thing.  

AS: I agree. I feel like the community has become more respected, more noticed, more acknowledged. I think NYtheatre.com, Martin and Rochelle Denton, were huge advocates and proponents for that. I feel like what Nick, Shay and Jason have done through the NYIT Awards is incredible.

CP: It seems like, if you just went to the NYIT Awards Facebook page, and then friended all the theatre companies that had friended them, you would have such a list of names of who is who in the Indie community!

AS: It’s true! And that would be a great place to start researching the different companies in the Indie community.

*Fast Five

CP: So, here we are at the “Fast Five,” which is my “homage” to the Actor’s Studio. Ready? Here we go:  What is your favorite NYC spot for inspiration?  

AS: It’s so cliche, but I really love Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. I don’t get to visit there as much as I would like but I find I could sit there for three or four hours and just people watch. I love the architecture, I love the environment, I love the sounds.

CP: What’s your favorite theatre superstition or ritual?  

AS: Oh, that’s a good one. I think that the ritual for me – I feel really incomplete starting a rehearsal or show without our circle meeting with my cast and crew. Before every rehearsal or show, we circle up – it’s a moment to shake off the day, and it’s a moment to connect with each other. And we do that with everyone involved with the show – cast, stage crew, stage manager, board op, front of house, and everybody participates in that warm-up before the show. Because, again, it’s not just the actor’s show. It’s everyone involved, it’s their show. And it’s sort of a moment of gratitude. So that’s the ritual that I like.

CP: The question about the ritual came from a story I read once about Stansilavsky. He used to put a footmat at the door of the rehearsal hall, and you had to wipe off your day before you came into the hall. So that people left “that” world behind before they entered the world of the play.

AS: I LOVE that! That’s great!

CP: What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever had on stage?

AS: The oddest prop? Oohhhhh… there’s been so many! You know, it’s not the oddest prop, but it’s the oddest situation I’ve had with a prop, is that okay? When we were doing Last Supper they drank wine throughout the show. We had wine glasses, and the tables were really close to the audience, and during one of the transitions, an audience member grabbed the glass of wine and took it, and drank it, and put it back. So, I think that was the oddest situation I’ve ever had involving a prop, so hopefully that will be okay.

CP: Let me check with the blog owner….Yep! It’s FINE! (lol) That’s a wild story. Was it real wine?

AS: No, no, it was grape juice. So “hah” on them! And then the actor went back to get their drink, and found the glass empty – hummm! Fortunately we had bottles of wine on the stage, and the actor was smart and refilled it.

CP: What’s your favorite tech rehearsal snack?

AS: Favorite snack? Humm… well, I like to say that I should have an endorsement deal with Red Bull. I drink a lot of it and anyone who knows me knows that I always have one on me. Yes, I know, it’s SO bad for me, but there you go. I’m also a big fruit lover, I love to have sliced mango, or cantaloupe – anything that’s quick, easy and cheap. So, fruit and Red Bull. Healthy/Not Healthy – hopefully they cancel each other out.

CP:  Yeaaaaa-NO. (lol)  What is your most valued trait in an actor?

AS: Mutual respect, and consideration. I think being considerate of their scene partners and the people who are supporting the show –  that goes a long way!

CP: Any final words? Was this too painful for you?

AS: No, this was awesome! It just flew by. Come see Hotel Suite! Thanks, Cat! 

Check out Akia’s reading recommendations in our library. And don’t forget to leave your comments below! Are there questions you wish I had asked? Questions you’d like to have asked in the future? Let me know!

Peace
Cat

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