Brandon Kienzle is a writer who was a filmmaker and is now also one of our favorite artists. We love his work and wanted to talk to him about where his inspiration comes from. We’re so glad we did!!
Love+Water- When did you start writing?
Brandon Kienzle- I started writing when I was a kid. I was writing little stories, and was usually always a way to extend the Star Wars story- like about me and Hans Solo. I actually went to film school because my main focus was to become a writer/director. When I moved to LA with the intention of making films, I realized I was not a collaborative artist. So I switched my focus and moved to New York to write a novel so that I could control the project by myself.
L+W- What is your novel about?
BK- It’s about a young woman who walks away from a life as a super hero after she has a nervous breakdown and breaks out a Polar bear from the Central Park Zoo. It’s kind of split between the two of them, about these two characters learning to survive in the wild, so to speak, after being caged up for a long time.
L+W- How did you come up with these two characters?
BK- The ex-super hero is an offshoot for an idea I had for a film a few years ago. She was the sidekick to the main character. The project dropped by the wayside but she always stuck with me. Playing the role of the sidekick was something she never asked for; it was thrust upon her and one day she decided she wanted a life for herself. So with that idea, I’m interested to see if she’s able to create the life she wants for herself. My favorite part of the city is this place near the Central Park Zoo. If you stand at the right angle and look into the zoo you can see the Polar bears, and you can see them pacing back and forth, and there is something about that that always seemed sad to me. So I’ve always thought of breaking the bear out.
L+W- Your art is SO intriguing- what is your inspiration?
BK- I started doing design and image-related work a few years ago, and it was a result of beginning to write a book. It takes so much time, and I don’t always enjoy the process. I needed something creative that was immediate that I could do while I was writing. That lead into my picking up image and design work, starting with Photoshop and some photography. I did some street photography and started to play around with the images. They became slightly surreal and that lead me into doing visual things with old Victorian medical images, manipulating them and seeing what I can come up with. It has a kind of fantastical bend, and somewhat faded antique look to it.
L+W- What do you think about the concept for Love+Water designs?
BK- I think something interesting can occur when you have a paradigm to work within that you wouldn’t necessarily choose on your own. Those restrictions often create interesting creative choices. I also love the idea of doing that for something that is going to benefit charities. That doesn’t happen very often with art, so to merge the two- I’m looking forward to it.
L+W- What’s the most moving moment you’ve had with your writing?
BK- They’re easily noticed, because I have more frustrating moments with my writing than moving ones. Recently I was developing an idea for what was ultimately going to happen to my characters, and it brought me to tears. I’ve been so involved with them for so long now that I developed an attachment to them that I didn’t realize was so strong. That was really moving, and inspiring. I’ve created a kind of cinematic experience on paper with them, and that is really neat to see.
Jason Stefaniak is a filmmaker you’re going to hear more and more about in the very near future. He’s extraordinarily talented, dedicated to making stellar films, and loves to tell stories that make his audiences go “hmmmm.” And he’s just getting started. As a grad student in the NYU film school, his first film, “The Garden,” already won the PBS award (and it co-stars yours truly:), and his second-year film, “The Choi Family,” which explores the devastating effects of students opening fire on a college campus, recently premiered to critical acclaim at NYU’s Cantor Film Center. And there’s more to come…
Love+Water- I’m so honored to have played the “wicked mother” in your fabulous film “The Garden.” How did you come up with the concept for it?
Jason Stefaniak- I had just moved to New York for school and I knew the first film we had to do was a silent black and white film. I would pass this garden everyday and started thinking about how I could use it in my film. I’ve always done volunteer work that has to do with becoming more aware of the environment, so it seemed like a good idea to use. I came up with the idea for the story fairly quickly, and thought I would use that garden. But it didn’t work out, so I then went on to find a new one. I walked down 6th St. and passed the “Creative Little Garden,” which is stuck between two buildings. It was perfect, I saw how the whole film could play out, and so I ended up using it. It worked out perfectly. The main challenge was casting the little girl. We ended up casting until 5:00 on the Friday before we started shooting the following Tuesday, and that’s when I found Caroline. I scoured every casting website I could before she came along, and I knew she was right for the part.
L+W- How did you know she was right?
JS- She came in the room and I had a piece of fruit on the table. I had her explore the room and make discoveries and then come over to the piece of fruit and become really interested in it. She did this so well both times, the second time with direction. But I think what sealed the deal was when I asked her if she understood the story of the film and she repeated it almost word-for-word. That’s when I knew she was the one for the role.
L+W- The shoot was very smooth from my point of view. How did it feel for you?
JS- As you know, we shot it over two days for twelve hours each day. We were able to make the garden our home base and did a lot of shots- over 60 set-ups in two days, which is a high number. But the crew was so strong and the cast was so cooperative that it went extremely smoothly.
L+W- It has really been making a great run of the festival circuit- can you talk about that?
JS- It has been in the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, a couple of kids’ festivals, and it won a contest to screen on PBS so it was shown between two movies they aired a couple of weeks ago.
L+W- Your most recent film, “The Choi Family,” is an extremely moving film with a controversial story. How did you come up with the idea?
JS- I shot a documentary about a woman in Northern Virginia who is working for more sensible gun laws in response to the Virginia Tech shootings. That issue was still on my mind as I was starting to come up with an idea for my second year film. I was reading about the Virginia Tech shootings and about Columbine, and thinking of different ways into a story about either gun violence in general or about Virginia Tech. My girlfriend Melissa went to Virginia Tech and lived in the same dorm in which the students were killed. That made is very personal. I decided as a result to create a story about that.
L+W- You tell the story from an interesting and unexpected point of view. How did you decide to do that?
JS- I decided that instead of taking to so-called easy way into the story by telling it from the shooter’s perspective, I decided to explore the story from the family’s perspective. A lot of people were skeptical because they didn’t know what I was trying to do by telling such a story. That motivated me even more to tell it from the family’s point of view because I knew it would grab people’s attention.
L+W- What was the casting process like for that?
JS- I decided I wanted the family to be Korean, because even though I couldn’t tell the actual story of what happened at Virginia Tech I wanted to create that similarity. So not being Korean myself, I knew it was important to not subject myself or the film to criticism of not casting non-Koreans. It was a huge undertaking- I ended up casting for three months. It was relatively easy to find the acttress who played the daughter, but it was more difficult to cast the parents. I ended up finding a doctor who recently got into acting and was realyl enjoying it, and he was quite good, so I was pleased to have found him. The mother ended up coming to me from Los Angeles, and I cast her the weekend before we started shooting. She is a working actor, and has been on “Lost,” was in the movie “Crash”. I cast her over the internet.
L+W- Were you concerned you weren’t going to find someone in time for the shoot?
JS- I believed I was going to find someone. I just had to, and I didn’t stop looking. And it payed off.
L+W- How was the shoot?
JS- We shot for six days, including New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It was a challenge because I had never met the actor who played the mother, so when she arrived we began rehearsing and getting as prepared as we could to shoot the next five days.
JS- My biggest goal was to get people to feel something for this family, to see them as victims in their own right. This was the challenge in the editing process, because it was not working for such a long time until I began to make big cuts. I had to cut ferociously, and it was really hard. But that was how I got it to the point that I wanted it to be emotionally.
L+W- What was the most moving moment you had shooting “The Choi Family”?
JS- I was constantly worried while shooting about any shots coming across as melo-dramatic. We were on the set setting up for a shot and we did the tape and the actors left, and the boy who was serving as the gaffer, who didn’t come across as a sensitive guy, but more of a technical person, said to me that he was already feeling moved by what he saw happening in the room with the actors, and that he really felt bad for the family. I never had a conversation with him about what I was trying to achieve with the film. So I was really happy that it came across in that way, before the film was even put together.
L+W- Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your work?
JS- I’m trying to learn about other people and other cultures through the films I make. I try to find stories culturally or ethnically that I have a personal connection to that I can tell. I find telling stories with female characters much more challenging than stories about male characters, and stories about Korean-American families more interesting than American families. It’s a way of encouraging empathy in people by telling as accurate a story as possible about groups that are in the minority in American culture.
If you would like to see “The Choi Family” contact Jason directly at Stefaniak@nyu.edu
Rebecca Lally is an extraordinary film editor, director and animator, and LOVES her work. She works for some big networks like Showtime, Nickelodeon and CBS, to name a few, and has several amazingly cool projects of her own in the works. But underneath her talent as an editor lies her passion for painting, a medium which she recently hooked back into in order to recharge the artistic authenticity that ultimately defines and characterizes all of her work. This not only makes her desirable to work with on an artistic level, but explains why, when you meet her, you feel like you have permission to let your artistic soul spring to life!
Love and Water- Can you talk about how you came to start painting again after many years?
Rebecca Lally- I have a background in painting, having studied it in high school and college, and actually had an amazing experience with delving back into it last May when I decided to take a two week painting course in Italy. I really wanted to challenge myself to push my technique to a new level because I realized I was painting the same way I had been for years. The reason I hadn’t explored other ways of expanding my craft was simply because I hadn’t been doing it for such a long time. I had never done landscape painting before, but I wanted to try it and figured if I was going to start it might as well be in Italy. I signed up for a course in this little town called Montecastello, which means ‘little castle.’ It was on top of a mountain and the art school is in a converted convent. I would take a class in the morning, then go outside and paint, then have lunch made by a local Italian cook, and drink wine and paint some more, and then have a siesta at 4:00 and then dinner at 7:00. At night the school invited artists from Canada and America show us slide shows of their work. It was an incredibly inspiring time where I reconnected to my art. I’ve now decided that I’m going to start a painting project where I do a painting every week for a year, until I go back to Italy again next May. They’re all going to be done with palette knives, which helps to loosen me up as a painter. I set up a blog called ‘A Painting A Week,” where I will post each painting and talk about each one. It’s a bit of a large undertaking, but I think I can do it every week as long as I work two hours a day, twice a week. Each painting will be of different landscapes in New York City. I’m really looking forward to starting it.
L&W- Where did you get your training as an editor?
RL- I was interested more in directing at first, but when I got to film school editing was definitely an appealing medium for me. Basically I went to film school before any digital editing was mainstream. So I learned to cut film with a razor blade and tape. When I left school, I did some acting and photo assisting jobs, and it was around the time that Final Cut was exploding. So I decided I needed to get a job that would help teach me how to use it. I had a friend who worked at Showtime Networks, and got me an interview. I ended up getting a job as a post-production coordinator. It basically consisted of being in charge of booking the Avid room for editors, which is an older editing system. I became friends with the editors and they let me come in after hours and on the weekends to work on my own short films. I had help from the editors was I went along. I finally got hired as a staff editor, which wasn’t very complex editing but I definitely got better as a result. After a year of doing that I began to freelance, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I freelance right now for Showtime, CBS, Nickelodeon, TLC, Smithsonian Channel HD, and Fuse.
L&W- What do you like about editing?
RL- I tend to work with a lot of creative, cool people, for one, which is a huge part of what I like about the editing world I work in. As for the work itself, I really like cutting visual images to music. When I work on promos I can cut images to the music they give me and create something really beautiful. What really strikes me about the power of editing is the ability to make the audience really feel what is happening or what is being represented on screen. When I was a kid I saw ‘The Color Purple,’ and I remember this scene where Whoopi Goldberg is shaving Danny Glover and you think she’s going to kill him. The scene is intercut with her children in Africa having a ritual of a kind of blood-letting, and we go back and forth between the two. I remember thinking at such a young age that it was one of the most brilliant choices in editing that I had ever seen because it was so effective. It enhanced the power of the emotion of the scene so beautifully. So I see editing as a way of bringing new life to scenes and images that are already powerful on their own by figuring out the most effective way to put them together. I experiment a lot with this when I do projects with Dora Mae Productions, the production company I have with my mother, playwright Debbie Jones and my two sisters, Samantha Jones and Jeannine Lally. When we collaborate on a project such as the feature film “The Last Christmas Party” we shot last year, it gives me a great opportunity to follow through with my vision from start to finish.
L&W- How does that effect or complement your work as a painter?
RL- I’m so visually driven and caught up in creating frames. Editing has forced me to really look at what is happening in the composition of my paintings. When I’m editing and playing around with images there are so many times I will freeze on a frame that is so compelling that it moves me, and often it’s a frame within a rather mundane series of footage. I try choose the subjects of my paintings in the same way- I wait for a landscape to move me rather than choose something I think will make a pretty picture. It has freed me up to paint from a more emotional place instead of an intellectual one.
L&W- Where do you see your working heading?
RL- I have a couple of animation projects that I want to work on, which combine my love of drawing, editing and film. I have a film project that I want to work on as well. I want to shoot, draw and animate a project in the next year, because I’m very visually-oriented right now. I will make a foray back into directing at some point, but right now I want to focus on the projects that have strong visual elements to them. When I was in film school I was thinking that when I graduated I would go out and figure out how to become the next Steven Spielberg. But I didn’t do that, and it occurred to me recently that if I really wanted that I would be doing it. So I’ve begun to get really specific about what it is I do want to pursue artistically. I think it’s really important to not let my art work and ideas float around, but to have specific goals for them so that I can work at fulfilling them. That has given me more of a distinct purpose as an artist and has made me really excited about my work.
L&W- What is the most moving moment you’ve had so far with your art?
RL- When I was in Italy we went on trips over each weekend. I had studied so much art history, and when we were in Florence we went to this museum and I lost my group almost immediately. So I went off on my own and began exploring. When my sister Jeannine and I were in high school we had this great art history class where we studied a female Renaissance painter named Artemisia Gentileschi. She’s a very interesting figure in history and a remarkable painter. She has done very dramatic light and dark works. She did a couple of treatments of Judith beheading Holofernes. Many Renaissance painters did paintings of this scenario, but most of them depicted Judith looking very demure. Gentilileschi painted a much more dramatic version that I had studied in this class, but never knew where the actual painting was in the world. I turned a corner in this museum, and it was there. It was just huge, and so much more powerful than I had imagined. What is so striking about it is that Judith’s face is calculating, because she is doing what she has to do to save her people. It is beautifully painted, and beautifully lit, and when I came across it was like a tremendous gift. I felt very connected to the painting and to my own work in that moment, as if I was doing what I should be doing with my art. It was very moving and very inspiring.
L&W- When is your birthday?
RL- February 1- I share it with my twin sister, Jeannine, and we always go to terrible movies all day. We used to sneak in, but when we got older I got caught once, so we then decided that we would just pay for all the movies we go to. It’s really fun. At night we go out with our mom and other sister Sam for BBQ. It’s usually a great day.
L&W- Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your work as an artist?
RL- I think what I’ve figured out is that after being in promos and advertising is that I had to make a lot of compromises with my art. That is good and bad, for many reasons, and there ar e parts of that process that I enjoy. But one part of that process that wasn’t as good for me was that it kept me in a safe-zone. I didn’t branch out a lot or take many risks because I was trying to achieve what the overall goal was. I’ve had some jobs recently that have allowed me to break out of that habit. I’m working right now with Steven Sebring, who directed “Dream of Life,” which is the movie abotu Patti Smith that premiered at Sundance a couple of years ago. He shoots a lot of fashion and has been working on some campaigns. In the project I’m working on with him he asked me to be creative, to go for what I thought would work and take some risks, and then we could look at it and see how it fits with what the overall goal is. It ended up being a great collaboration between us and the client was so excited, and it was still a commercial product. It was an interesting lesson to me that I don’t always have to play it safe when I’m working for someone else artistically. My advice to other artists working in a similar medium is, when in doubt, keep connecting emotionally to the piece and trust the direction it takes you, regardless of how off the path it may seem.
Mike Moroz watched a young friend lose her battle with breast cancer because of a lack of awareness of the risks involved with the disease. He decided he needed to do something about that, so he wrote a film about her journey with the disease, called “Face The Sun.” He plans to donate 65% of the revenue from the film to cancer organizations. The more traffic he gets on his site, the more investors will hopefully invest to get the movie made. So visit the “Face The Sun” site right now, and then come back and read the moving interview I had with a very passionate and talented writer.
Love and Water- Talk about how you came to write the screenplay, “Face The Sun.”
Mike Moroz- A number of years ago a very close childhood friend of my wife was told when she was 29 that she had something on her breast that could lead to breast cancer, but to not worry about it because she was too young to get breast cancer and to come back when she was 40 for a mammogram. We lost Diane six years later at age 35 to breast cancer. I needed a way to respond to that. It was horrible that there was such lack of awareness for young women about the risks of breast cancer and I wanted to do something about that. So I wrote a screenplay about Diane’s story to illustrate the dangers of not being aware of the risks breast cancer can hold, and to celebrate her courage throughout her battle.
L&W- That’s such a wonderful tribute to her, and such a great example for other women to follow. Where are you in the process of making the film?
MM- We are in the process of getting full financial backing for it. We recently lost a large sum of the financial backing that would have allowed us to start shooting already, so we are working on getting that back in place. We have a cast and director, and are finished with most of the preproduction. Our plan is to donate a large portion of the revenue of the film to cancer organizations. I’m an actor and this is the first script I’ve written, but have written several scripts since then, two of which have been turned into films. I currently teach acting and filmmaking at a high school on Vancouver Island. I’m so excited to make this film in order to start giving back to those organizations that are working so hard to help people and families battling cancer.
L&W- What is the most important message you want to convey through the film?
MM- One is that what we’re trying to do is to generate some significant awareness for young people in particular, and people in general, about the need to be their own best health advocate. We know our bodies, and if something doesn’t feel right it is important that we advocate for ourselves. It’s important to get second and third opinions in order to give ourselves the service we deserve. Also, there is a real strength that is present in families that battle cancer. The journey is an astonishing one that gives a new perspective to daily life as a result. There is a need to celebrate that, which I know the film can help give to people as well. And of course there are the many grassroots cancer organizations that are working very hard every day to make alliances with cancer patients and their families a little bit easier, and they are often grossly underfunded. So we want to help them by donating a 65% of the revenue from “Face The Sun.”
L&W- That is such an amazing incentive for investors, I would think, since you are not out to make a profit on it yourself.
MM- It’s very true- the whole purpose of the film is to raise awareness and money that we can give back to help create more solid organizations that can offer resources for all cancer patients to take advantage of.
L&W- Is there anything else you want people to know about “Face The Sun?’
MM- I think it’s important for people to pay attention to how they are feeling, how their bodies are doing. I invite everyone to visit us on our website. The more traffic we have on our site the more potential investors will see the growing interest in the film, which is extremely helpful in perking their interest in funding it. When they a large audience in place, it makes them realize that the film will do well once it is made and out on the circuit, and that is what we want them to realize. 65% of the revenue will be going toward causes that support cancer, so we’re extremely excited to get the word out and build our audience now.
Debbie Jones is a New York City artist who writes award-winning plays, has a production company with her three daughters (one being the magnificent improv coach, Samantha Jones, who was just recently featured on the L&W blog), has a collection of short stories coming out, wrote an independent film that is touring the festival circuits, and now writes for television. In short, she is what every artist imagines themselves to be at the height of creativity: an evolving human being.
L&W- When did you know you wanted to be doing what you are doing now?
Debbie Jones- I grew up in a farming community in New Jersey, and there was a big old hill in the back of the town called Turkey Hill. You could see Manhattan from there, and I knew I was coming here. I think when I was 18 it hit me, but all my life I was reminded by old chums who used to live on the block with me that I was putting on shows when I was five years old in Susan Peters’ garage. So I think it was always there but I didn’t face it until I went to college. I was very fortunate there because I ran into this old nun who was about 4’10” and close to 90 years old at the time, and I guess she recognized a fellow thespian because she gave me an enormous amount of attention and opportunities in the theater. I directed probably around 100 shows in my 20’s. That’s when it really started, I would say. That really got the ball rolling for me. I lived in the Lower East Side when I first arrived, where my daughter Samantha is doing a lot of her work.
L&W- How has the Lower East Side changed from the time you first arrived?
DJ- I’ll tell you, it’s almost the same as it was when I came here in terms of the neighborhood and culture. It has enormous freedom for artists. Artists can get lost there, and not have to play by all the rules. They can do all the pure work they want to do there. My daughter Samantha is now directing a one-woman show for her friend Penny, and it’s an extraordinary piece of work that perhaps might not be seen if it weren’t done on the Lower East Side. The community seems willing to take in and allow productions to happen. That has been alive for decades. It’s a place for people who want an opportunity and a chance, which we’re losing in New York City. You used to be able to come here and get an apartment and be comfortable enough while pursuing your art, and that really isn’t true anymore. But there is still some of that left on the Lower East Side, which is so important. There’s a lovely irony in the fact that all three of my daughters do some of their work there.
L&W- You have a production company called Dora Mae Productions with your daughters- when did you all decide to create that?
DJ- When my girls were little- my twins were in sixth grade and Samantha was in high school- it became a necessity because I really wanted to go out and do theater. They would work on the shows with me, working the door and props, and they did a good job in those years. So even though the actual production company wasn’t officially formed until 2002, we had years and years of experience working together, and now we’re full partners. We made our independent film, “The Last Christmas Party,” together, which my daughter Jeannine Jones and I wrote. We did “The Breezeway” together- a play I wrote- and we did another play I wrote called “Jeremy Rudge,” which was produced at The Mint Theater Company. Austin Pendleton and Becky Baker were in it, both of whom are brilliant actors, and I was so happy to have them. We worked on a television pilot that I directed called “6:03,” which is by Ato Assundoh. Samantha was in it along with Chuck Bunting. My other daughter, Rebecca Lally, and I collaborate on treatments for television together. Samantha and I predominantly work as director/actor. She was in “The Breezeway” and also “The Last Christmas Party.”
L&W- What projects are you working on now?
DJ- I’m putting out a collection of short stories right now. They were kind of in the shadow of my life. When I was raising my three daughters, I used to write from about 11:00 at night to about 3:00 in the morning, because that’s the only time I had. Sometimes a short story would slip out, and I realized at one point that I had a whole collection of them that had never been edited or taken care of. So that’s what I’m doing right now. We’re calling it “Tales of Wonder from the Garden State,” because they’re stories that I guess you could say have “earthy magic”- some have a Twilight Zone feel to them, and some are simply character studies. My palate is predominantly working-class people. That’s where I come from, and that’s who I write about. I would love to see “The Breezeway” on Broadway. We won some awards, and got it produced, and it would be great to see that happen. I directed “The Last Christmas Party” that is currently out on the circuit. It was a really good experience- we shot it in about two weeks and part of it was improvised and part of it was scripted. Samantha produced and acted in it, Jeannine co-wrote and co-edited and Rebecca was director of photography and co-editor. We just decided to take some of the shorter plays that Jeannine and I had written and incorporate them into this script, and then do a documentary of this party that we do every year. We couched the plays inside of the documentary, and it worked well.
L&W- When will “Tales of Wonder from the Garden State” be available?
DJ- We’re working to get agent interest, but we’re willing to publish it ourselves as well. I think when you start out in this profession you can have an idea about what you want, but I’ve gotten to a point where I understand my own work and I’ve shaken out all the notions of waiting for someone else to do it for me. I can get my work out on my own, if I can’t get it done in more formal or traditional ways.
L&W- That is very inspiring for many artists to be reminded of, and the fact that you do it so successfully is so admirable. What would you say is the most moving moment you’ve had so far in your artistic life?
DJ- Getting “The Breezeway” produced was very important to me. The play really works, and seeing audiences respond to it touches me a great deal. There’s a monologue in it that talks about the character’s brother Joey, and Samantha played that part. When she did that monologue, it really knocked me out. It moved me, because it’s a good monologue and she’s brilliant, but also because it’s about my brother Fred, essentially. In every work I always believe there is a character who is the artist, and that character was me at a certain age. The viewpoint was expressed in that character through my daughter’s efforts. That was probably the most moving moment for me.
L&W- Do you enjoy writing for film and television as much as you enjoy writing plays?
DJ- I think that the evolution from being mainly a playwright, into writing for film and now television has been a very good transition. My daughters encouraged me to make that transition and I’m pleased that I did because I used to think that writing for film meant giving up good writing. I thought it lacked language. But I see now that I can do great writing for film, and it translates so beautifully. So I’m happy about that.
Visit Dora Mae Productions
Matt Hoverman- Well, usually my classes are somewhat cyclical. I’m sure you can remember from doing your solo show that it’s often a scary thing. There are certain times of the year when people make resolutions, as in December and January, that I find more students in my classes. But I think in addition to that, since I’ve been teaching the class for nine years now, there has been enough buzz about it from people who have really benefited from it that I actually have to turn people away. I think that has to do with an increased interest in actors taking control of their careers. Earlier last year, as the economy began its downturn, I thought initially that I wouldn’t have as many students. But what has happened, as there are less opportunities in the theater, actors are taking their careers into their own hands more and more, and creating a solo show is an excellent way to do that.
L&W- Can you talk about how the class is structured?
L&W- You have had so many success stories from your students who have taken your class. Can you talk about some of those?
MH- Well you had your show accepted into the Midtown Theater Festival last year, as did a number of other students, and that’s a great way to get your work seen by the industry. There are so many great, wonderful stories of students who are brave enough to share their stories and reap amazing rewards as a result. One of my students was getting married, and her wedding planner suggested she participate in this documentary called “Manhattan Brides.” So she did, and when it was all said and done she got an e-mail saying they had changed the project to a reality show and were going to call it “Bridezillas.” What she thought was going to be a lovely interpretation of her wedding turned out to be this monstrous version of her that they had altered completely. She was publicly humiliated, and was really hurt, but decided to turn it into a solo show. She won Best Solo Show in the Fringe Festival in ’05 and got represented by a great agent, and she now has a film deal to turn it into a screen play. There are so many success stories, and a lot of times it’s that the performer just feels absolutely centered and fulfilled.
L&W- But you don’t have to be an actor to take the class, right?
MH- Not at all. A lot of the people who take the class are actors. Some of them are young and looking to discover their own unique voice. Some are older actors looking to explore their own stories and create opportunities for themselves and to show the market what they can do best. And then there are people who aren’t actors but who have a story to tell. I love working with those people, because I believe everyone has a story to tell. You don’t have to be Meryl Streep to do a solo show, and I can prove that by watching any number of students I have who aren’t actors. Their stories are often as profound and moving as the best character actors’ stories. I think there’s just a great fulfillment of finding yourself through your own story.
L&W- What would you say is the key to shaping a good solo show?
MH- One of the traps that a solo show performer can fall into is not seeing him or herself as the hero of his or her own story. I find from teaching this class that most of us tend to see ourselves as passive, so if we have a story to tell we often start to tell it in the vein of “so this is what happened to me: I was born in Cleveland and then I went to school and this girl dumped me and then I became an actor and all these things happened to me as a result,” and there isn’t a through-line. It may start out interesting at first to an audience, but then mid way through no one is sure why the story is being told. So when I teach I make sure everyone has defined and articulated what their “want” is: what it is that you’re going after in your story. What did you want at the time the story took place, and did you get it or not. When you have that as your story’s through-line then it can just fly from there. You become the hero of your own story, and the audience can identify with you. It doesn’t mean you always get what you’re after in the end, but even when you don’t the audience can and will sympathize with you. That way you’re not looking to be healed by the audience; you’re sharing a compelling story with them and providing them with a kind of entertainment that is extremely moving. It’s why people go to the theater: to identify with the characters on stage. And in a solo show, you are the character they are identifying with.
L&W- So the show essentially becomes a character piece, and that character has come out of you.
MH- Yes, when you take a tragic story and identify where you were able to triumph in it, you can tell it from that perspective and really inspire your audience. You become an active protagonist going after what you want. It’s a hero’s journey, and it’s a way for you as the performer to see yourself not as a victim of life but as a person who can take their own life into their own hands and make choices. That’s how it can be extremely empowering for the performer. Which is why it’s so fulfilling to watch non-actors do this work and not only receive a positive response from their audience, but to see them look at themselves in a new grounded and confident way.
L&W- When I took your class the one thing that I thoroughly enjoyed was the element of connecting to my own story and also connecting to the audience in such an intimate way.
MH- I went to Brown for my undergrad degree in acting and the University of San Diego Acting program for grad school. And both are amazing programs for theater, but are also very experimental. One of the things that I wanted to get back to was to create a place where people could create work that was connected to what was going on in their hearts and share that with others. So towards that end, I try to create a really safe place in the class. There are never more than six students per class, and there is only positive feedback given. (I always tell everyone in the first class that if you miss negative feedback you can always stay after class and I’ll berate you.) In my experience bringing stories out from the heart needs a place of trust and safety. And in every solo show class I’ve taught, people’s fears are always the same. They fear if they start talking about themselves no one will care, or the audience will see it as self-indulgent. But what they don’t realize in the beginning is that when an audience goes to see a solo show they want to see a human being telling his or her own story. So I need each student to feel comfortable enough to bring in any material they want so we can then shape it into a story for the stage. And that is the key to having a successful journey with your solo work.
L&W- Can students create their shows based on characters they have created outside of their own experiences?
MH- Absolutely! Many of my students create terrific character monologues from observation of others or from their imagination. But I have to say that most who have that idea when they come into class often will choose to tell their own story because they see how compelling an exercise it is. Overall, tremendous things happen to people who do solo shows. Billy Bob Thornton created “Slingblade” as a solo show and went on to win the Academy Award for the move version. Camryn Manhein, who was on the show “The Practice” had created a solo show called “Wake Up, I’m Fat” about being a plus-sized actress in the industry, and got cast on “The Practice” as a result. And the writers used many of the themes she used in her solo show for her character. So she didn’t just get cast in the role, she provided a whole point of view for it based on her solo work. John Leguizamo created a place for himself as a Latino man to play all kinds of roles. What I most want people to walk away with from my class is that there is a place for them to tell their stories. And if they never have a chance to take my class I hope that everyone gets a chance to share his or her own story in some way, because there is simply nothing else like it. It’s amazingly empowering.
Here are some pictures from Artfully Unforgotten’s debut of “Voices of Afghanistan,” a short documentary film about women and children of Afghanistan who have found an inner strength to rise up against the challenges of their country and survive. The film premiered at Best Buy’s Loft in SOHO on Friday, along with a silent art auction of Afghan-inspired work created by the students of Parsons The New School for Design.
Heather Metcalfe, founder of Artfully Unforgotten, shot the film while in Afghanistan and now has a book, Voices of Afghanistan that will be available in early 2010.
One of my favorite highlights of the night was seeing the soccer balls that were made by one woman’s soccer ball company that she started in Afghanistan, and now employs dozens of people. It was very moving to see the actual soccer balls and to be able to purchase them.