Episode 12 – Stage Direction with SallyPAL host Sally Adams

Stage Direction
In Episode 12, I enlist my husband George (the coolest guy on the planet) to ask questions about stage direction. I cover how to approach work when you are a beginning director, how to collaborate without giving away your job to enthusiastic performers and staff, and how a director can make an impact on an audience.


Sally on Stage Talks to Cast

What’s the most important advice for a successful collaboration? Communicate with your stage direction team. They can keep you on point while they lighten the load.

What’s the best way for a beginning director to approach stage direction?
Start small and keep it simple. We used to say, “Keep It Simple, Stupid” or K.I.S.S. Now we say, “Keep It Simple, Simon.” It’s nicer.

What’s the most important thing for a director to remember?
The Story, The Story, The Story. Everything we do must serve the story. That truly is all there is. We are, after all, story tellers.

What does it mean to create a safe space in terms of stage direction. And how would you do that?
It’s about maintaining a rehearsal environment where actors feel free to collaborate. It doesn’t serve anyone if your team is afraid to express their ideas in what is, essentially, a creative space.

What do the most successful directors do that we can emulate?Collaborate while maintaining the vision. For the director, the vision is what holds the whole together; set, lighting, costumes, performances, script. Without vision, these are a jumble of pieces that don’t necessarily go together.

What is the unseen work in stage direction?
A good director will spend a lot of time with the script. They will also talk to designers and other staff before performers are selected. Do your stage direction homework. Solid front end work saves time and creates confidence in your performers.

How can directors make an impact on an audience?
Have a clear visual notion of the story you are telling. Design cohesion in stage direction means paying attention to details and honoring the work of collaborators. Everyone’s contribution counts as long as everyone is building the same world.

Episode 11 – Spirituality and Dance with Nicole Perry

Nicole Perry
Episode 11 is an interview with Florida choreographer and dance teacher, Nicole Perry.

Nicole holds degrees in Dance and Music and is currently pursuing a PhD in Spirituality and the Arts. Nicole has choreographed for Miami Children’s Theatre, Center City Opera Theater, and was the resident choreographer with Hedgerow Theatre in Philadelphia for 2 seasons before becoming a full-time dance teacher in Florida. Learn more about Nicole at her website: http://nicoleperry.org, where you can also learn about audition coaching when you add “/audition-coaching” to nicoleperry.org.

Bonus
Be sure to listen until the end for Concise Advice from the Interview, and Words of Wisdom from George.

Episode 10 – Good Women Writing Good TV Comedy

Writing Good TV Comedy
There’s a wonderful stage play by Neil Simon titled, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Simon loosely based the play on his years writing for Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar. The play takes place during television’ youth in the mid 1950’s. Real-life writers, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Carl Reiner inspired some of the characters in the play. Many, including Woody Allen, went on to have superstar writing careers. Unlike most shows of the era, Your Show of Shows hired a woman, Lucille Kallen, to be part of the writing staff. Caesar later hired Selma Diamond for Your Show of Shows as well as a later program, The Caesar Hour. A pair of women in a the male dominated field writing good TV comedy, Kallen and Diamond were rare for their time.

Very Funny Women
Although my SallyPAL guest in Episode 10 works with a lot of very funny women, she admits times haven’t changed as much as many women writers would prefer. The Middle‘s creators, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, have fairly thick resumes for writing good TV comedy. But there are still a majority of mainstream shows dominated by men. Due to a huge number of new TV outlets like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Crackle, and many others, there’s been a surge in the number of women writers. Outlets are hungry for new material and women comedy writers are ready. The new landscape could also make room for other types of diversity.

Increasing Diversity
According to an article in the British news outlet, The Guardian, Project Diamond may force production companies to increase diversity on and off camera. Production companies plan to conceal their prejudicial hiring practices by burying statistics. Industry insiders have threatened to fight back so that British television more accurately reflects the population. “TV writers and producers have threatened to boycott plans to measure diversity on television after broadcasters refused to reveal which shows had the worst record for employing people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.”

Pushback
It’s surprising in 2017 to see so much pushback for writing good TV comedy. Women writers have proved their worth time and again. Statistically, we know diversity on the small screen draws new viewers rather than repels them. And, as my husband likes to point out, it’s just easier to tell characters apart if they don’t all look alike.

Women Are Funny When They’re Pregnant, Right?
As for Neil Simon’s very funny play, no real diversity is called for. In a cast featuring eight writers, only one is a woman. And she spends Act II wearing a pregnant belly. Women are funny when they’re pregnant, right? What may have escaped notice is that funny women are funny with and without the belly. What Neil Simon reveals about the golden age of writing good TV comedy is it was mostly written by white men. Imagine how much shinier that golden age would have been with all the outliers included. It might even have impacted the way we view our shared history. Instead of a homogenized version of TV America, we could be remembering a more realistic, diverse, and funnier version.

TV Diversity
Now when the mainstream refuses to improve TV diversity, we have places to go. If we stop using TV as background noise and more carefully choose the stories we invite into our homes, maybe we can encourage the TV gods to make more shows like The Middle. As we push past our addiction to TV pablum, we can demand more funny women on and off screen.

Executive Producer ABC's The Middle Writing Good TV Comedy
Writing Good TV Comedy with Jana Hunter

Jana Hunter
I interviewed the hilarious Jana Hunter for Episode 10 of SallyPAL. She’s made her own mark writing good TV comedy for nearly 30 years. With her husband and writing partner, Mitch Hunter, Jana has written and produced The Drew Carey Show, According to Jim, Roommates, Gary Unmarried, and Notes From the Underbelly. For the last nine years, Jana and Mitch have been executive producers for The Middle on ABC.

SallyPAL
Jana and I talk about making it as a TV comedy writer. We explore what she loves about The Middle as the show winds to a close. Jana also gives some great writerly advice. Be sure to listen until the end for Concise Advice from the Interview, and Words of Wisdom from George. And, as always, share the podcast!

Episode 9 – Playwriting and Physical Difference

Nicole Zimmerer, Playwright with a Physical Difference
Beautiful, funny, fiery, and talented, Nicole Z talks of playwriting and physical difference.

Physical Difference
Diversity is something performing arts can address in creative ways. There are examples of diversity stories on Broadway from the tragic transgender rock opera, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, and the complex family story, “FunHome”, to the racially diverse, “Hamilton”, and the  Deaf West Theatre company’s production of “Spring Awakenings”. Diversity has come to mean racial diversity. There’s no doubt we need more people of color on stage. But maybe that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Playwriting for physical difference is one way to chip away at the diversity problem.

Actors in Wheelchairs
One thing we don’t see on stage is actors who use wheelchairs off stage. This year was the Broadway debut of a wheelchair bound performer. Ali Stoker won her role with a killer audition. Her physical difference didn’t deter producers from casting her. And yet there are very few areas of diversity so overlooked. There are characters with physical differences; “Wicked”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Children of a Lesser God”.  Yet, as “New York Times” critic Neil Genzlinger notes, “it remains a rare occurrence, and as a result Broadway remains unrepresentative of the full range of humanity.” The problem with Ali Stoker’s debut is not that she is singing, dancing, and ASL signing lyrics from a wheelchair. The problem is that it happened just this year. After over 150 years of Broadway performances, producers finally decided it was time for wheelchair bound actors to play wheelchair bound characters.

Equal Opportunity
While many call Stoker’s wheelchair debut “inspirational”, all the artist with a disability really wants is an equal opportunity. As audience members, we must support shows that feature a wide range of physical difference. Diversity on stage is both reflective and cutting edge. Over 20% of Americans has a disability. So why are we uncomfortable with disability on stage? Diversity is our strength. If hiding our differences makes us weak, it seems like embracing our physical differences makes us strong.

Nicole Z
Nicole Zimmerer is a playwright, and actor. In addition, she’s an advocate for casting people with physical differences. Nicole has been writing and producing plays most of her life. She recently graduated from the University of Houston Playwriting and Dramaturgy program and will study playwriting as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon in the fall. Nicole and I talk about her beginnings, the Kennedy Center performance of her one act play, “Falling with Grace”, and her recent full-length play, “Thicker Than Honey”. Finally, we discuss her fight to represent artists in wheelchairs through playwriting. As a result of living with Cerebral Palsy, Nicole understands how it feels to speak up for her rights. Finally, she’s being heard.

Extras on SallyPAL
Be sure to listen until the end for Concise Advice from the Interview. I have 5 great bits of advice from the beautiful, funny, fiery, and talented, Nicole Z. Don’t miss Words of Wisdom from George.

4 Steps on the Journey to Success  

 

Many of us have an area or two (or 10) in life that presents a challenge. Some of these challenges seem overwhelming: Overcoming addiction, digging out of a financial hole, losing a loved one. Some challenges present us with positive opportunities to grow: Learning a language, starting a blog, completing a 5K. Here are 4 steps you can apply to the challenges you face. Use them to leverage your life for learning, fellowship, fun, and growth.

Step 1. Choose a Specific Area of Growth that is Measurable and Commit to It

This first step can sometimes be the most daunting. Becoming a better person sounds like a great idea, but it’s not truly measurable and it’s certainly not specific. Committing to improving your posture, learning how to make vegan pancakes, zeroing out a low-balance credit card, or writing your first one act play are all specific and can be measured. Look around your life for one small thing with a dividend. If your back is often sore, there is a likely payoff in learning how to properly sit and stand. If you want to move toward a plant-based diet, learning to make one killer recipe could be the start of something big. You might choose a credit card with a low balance and see if you can put an extra $10-$20 a month toward paying it down. And knowing a one-act play can run anywhere from 10-90 pages gives you a pretty good measuring tool.

 

Step 2. Gather a Support Person or Two

Being accountable to your brain for accomplishing a task means you are accountable to no one. And unless you have some super human lone ranger power (hint: You don’t) success is unlikely. Distractions and other people’s projects will inevitably get in the way. Ask someone to be your accountability holder. Choose wisely. Make this a person someone who will honor your commitment. I have had accountability holders who turned into nannies. You can avoid this by making sure your person understands your commitment. Reminding someone of a commitment is not nagging, even though you will sometimes feel like claiming it is. Be coachable and see your support person as your biggest fan.

 

Step 3. Make a Plan with Visual Aids

With your support person decide how to measure your success. Will better posture allow you to sit comfortably for longer periods of time? How much longer? Will you try three different recipes or just practice one several times? By when will you get the card paid off? Will you freeze it in a cup of water while you pay it down? How many pages or minutes will you commit to writing every day. Your support person can help you hash out the details of this plan and ask the questions you may blithely skip. After your commitment session, make some notes that can become visible reminders of your commitment. I have a sign on my desk that reads, “Shut up and Write!” It’s not subtle, but subtle doesn’t always get the message across.

 

Step 4. Follow Through

With the help of your team, visual aids, and commitment, take steps toward your success as often as possible. If it’s every hour as it might be with your posture, set a timer on your phone to act as a reminder. If it’s every few days as it might be for cooking or writing, set the day in your calendar. If it’s once a month for something like your credit card payment, include weekly savings in the plan so you get to the end of the month with enough to pay the card down. And enjoy the process. Give yourself a pat on the back for all the little successes. If you only focus on the end game, you miss the fun of learning along the way.

I know a lot of people in the performing arts who prefer the excitement of the rehearsal process over the performance. Your journey toward mastering anything in life is where you discover who you are. And, by the way, you are awesome. If all does not go as planned, forgive yourself. Do not spend time beating up on you. It’s a wasted opportunity! When we fail, we have a chance to learn, regroup, repair, and restart toward the goal with more knowledge than before. Once you build up a roster of small successes, you’ll want to move to bigger projects.

Episode 8 – Educational Theatre

Arts Educators Empower the Next Generation
Arts educators bear a special responsibility. They must provide feedback that opens young artists to take creative risks.  At the same time they teach technical aspects that are hard to master. For teachers, lifting up while calming down can be challenging but rewarding. When students reach college they have some ideas of their own. They also have some performance habits, both good and bad.

Pitfalls for an Arts Educator 
To be an arts educator in a college setting you must be relevant. That means practicing your art while teaching classes. This is always a good idea. But it comes with pitfalls. For a performing artist it means your students will see your work. That can be scary. Students are often supportive. But they can also be very judgemental. If you are not confident in your work, you could lose status as an arts educator. Lisa Stefanic is a working artist and an arts educator. When Lisa is in the classroom, she brings her vast knowledge of what actually works (and doesn’t work) on the stage. When students see her work outside the classroom, it’s clear she knows what she is talking about.

Arts Educator Lisa Stefanic
Today’s episode of SallyPAL is an interview with actor, director, arts educator, and acting coach, Lisa Stefanic. If you’re a fan of Weird Al Yankovich, you may remember her as Phyllis, the Wheel of Fish contestant in his feature length movie, “UHF”. Lisa has performed in or directed more shows than could fit on a resume. She has starred in several original shows. She also teams up with her husband, Vern Stefanic, to help students create new works. We talk about teaching, developing new talent, making old shows new again, and a variety rehearsal techniques.

But Wait… There’s More!
Be sure to listen until the end for Concise Advice from the Interview and Words of Wisdom from George.
Arts Educator Lisa Stefanic teaches theatre classes at Tulsa Community College and as a private coach.
Arts Educator Lisa Stefanic