As Margaret in Carrie the Musical, I was hired as a guest artist at my alma mater, CSUF, and color blind casting was part of the decision to use me in the role of Carrie's mother. There are a few black students on the cast and crew, and I find myself having intriguing conversations about race and working in the theater almost every single day. It is fun, and the interest that my colleagues show in my opinion is flattering. Then I received an email from a friend who lives in the south who has student writing a paper on the very same subject. And so, a blog was born! If you like, take some time to read my thoughts on being black and working in the theater, and then click on over to Cal State, Fullerton. and buy tickets for Carrie the Musical, running until November 1st, 2015.
Over the years the roles, as opposed to ensemble work, that I have played have been exactly my type. In other words, the role was intended to be played by an African American. Generally, I do not see a lot of color blind casting in the world of high budget, musical theater. In addition to the opportunities I have had to do Shakespeare, some of the color blind cast roles that I have played include Poppy in Noises Off, Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed, and, currently, I am playing Margaret in Carrie the Musical. It is worth mentioning that all three of these productions were at colleges or not for profit organizations.
As an African American woman there is also the challenge of type. While I believe TV and film is making its first strides towards moving away from this issue, the theater seems slow to catch up. In general, casting directors envision two types of African American women, the Mammy or the Prissy. One being matronly, overweight, and possessing a deep voice, and the other being petite, spunky, and high voiced. It is arguable that this is an issue for all women in entertainment but I think the options for variation on these two themes are much more narrow for African American women. As a 5'11", medium skin tone, average proportioned woman, I often seem to fall too much in the middle of these two caricatures to be easily cast. Not to mention the times that I've been told that my singing sounds too trained. While I admit there are styles that I can only approximate as opposed to sounding completely authentic, I do not believe that Disney's Aida is one of those styles.
Finally, there is the challenge of playing stereotypes. On more than one occasion I have been asked to play an uneducated, presumably poor character who speaks in a very street way when that notion was completely unsupported by the script. On the other hand, twice have unapologetically played a slave character and not shyed away from the vernacular at all. I have no problem telling the stories of people who do not speak the way that I do due to their education or upbringing as long as it is somehow serving the greater story. When I was, for example, asked to find a "ghetto" version of the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot (a role I've not played, but have sung several of her songs in concert) I was absolutely appalled, and replied by calmly stating, "I don't believe that is supported by the text," and swiftly changed the subject.
The more mundane challenges of dealing with designers who haven't taken the time to understand hair textures or really considered skin tone when purchasing make up are frustrating, but eventually I just look at those moments as an opportunity to help someone to do better next time. It may also be an opportunity for me to learn how to concentrate on doing my job, cashing my paycheck, and keeping my mouth shut. Of course, keeping our mouths shut is not something black people are stereotypically known for doing either.
If you are like me, you have more than one persona that you want to maintain online. I do not friend anyone on Facebook unless I have a personal relationship with them. Instead, I refer them to like my Facebook Page. Trust me, if you want to stalk me you will get plenty of information just by liking my business page. No need to read my crazy political views, see pictures of my kid, or, even better, to see pictures of the most amazing crab benedict. That's the sort of torture that i reserve for people I know in real life. So imagine my surprise when I started having trouble linking my personal Twitter to my profile, and my professional Twitter to my page. Why is this so difficult? If Lynn owns a bakery she should be able to have a Twitter feed that is her and a Twitter feed that is her business without having to open a separate e-mail account. Am I right?
If I'm violating some twitter policy, sorry 'bout it. Please don't shut down my account.
To make this work for me I used Twitter and Facebook. This is mostly copy and paste except for that one little bit in the middle.
Here ya go:
To connect your Twitter account and your Facebook profile:
Now sign out of the twitter account you want updating your profile, and sign in to the twitter account you want updating your page.
You can link your profile or Page to your Twitter account so that you can share your Facebook posts on Twitter. To link your accounts, go towww.facebook.com/twitter and follow the on-screen instructions.
After you've linked your profile or Page, you can choose the types of posts (ex: status, photo) that you want to share on Twitter. Go towww.facebook.com/twitter and click Edit Settings below your profile or the Page you linked.
For posts from your profile, only posts that you've shared with Public will be shared on Twitter. Learn how to choose the audience of your posts.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I guess I blinked because it has been a year since I last posted a blog! Since my time to write is limited by the length of my my kiddo's nap, here is the year in pictures.
Teaching a skill or a trick to another person is an art unto itself. You have to communicate what is necessary to the student in a way that is accurate, but you also have to be understandable in order for the student to be able to assimilate whatever it is you are trying to teach them. The biggest challenge is to try to communicate the information while considering that the student does not have the benefit of experience, which is something that you the teacher have in spades. If you are a good teacher you try to explain the finer points of your lesson while remembering that it is all still theoretical to your student. Hopefully, your desire is for the student to assimilate the information then be able to accomplish the skill or trick on their own. This challenge for a teacher has come up three times in the past month during discussions with good friends (and there was wine). Once while discussing teaching singing lessons, once while discussing teaching a new language, and once while discussing teaching me how to do this:
So I wanted to take a little time and share my journey, which is by no means over, as I learn to suspend my post pregnancy body from a rope using my own sheer will and my own upper body strength, then swing out over a body of water and a section of audience members who likely think it all looks pretty, darn easy.
Before my first attempt at doing a much shorter swing (that would only involve me having to swim in a few feet of water then dry off my ego and my body should disaster occur and I let go of the rope) I did dead hang after dead hang from my pull up bar, from a large ladder, from a sheet tied to my ceiling, and from the manila rope on the set. I gotta tell you, dangling for 2, then eventually three, and now 6 seconds does very little to calm the nerves when you consider that the consequences of losing your grip are a trip to the bottom of a body of water and a very bruised ego. Never the less, I screwed my courage to the sticking place, took about 20 deep breaths, and lifted my feet off the ground. I made it to the landing pad, barely, and after one swing back to the other side decided to call it quits for the day. I am now able to swing back and forth about 3-4 times before I think my arms are going to fall off and if I squeeze my knees together around the rope I can swing back and forth without touching. I should be attempting the above any time now!
So I want to give a few pointers for anyone else trying to traverse the finer points of swinging on a rope.
1) Your first time will be very scary, but it may not be as scary as the next time you come back and have had a few days to think about it.
2)Try not to think about it! For that matter try not to spend too much time talking about it either. Walk in and just do it as soon as you can as often as you can.
3) Some people feel that it is easier to keep your fists together at your chest, lock your elbows, and get "on top of the rope". I think it is easier to keep my dominant hand at my chest and my other hand just above my face. Neither of us are correct. The easiest thing to do is to not swing on a rope, over water, in front of people.
4) As you get a feel for hurling your body across open space with only a rope, your will, and your muscles to save you think about hurling yourself a little faster! The momentum makes it easier. Either give it a 3-4 step run, or jump up and slightly away from the rope in order to lift your legs.
5) You are probably not going to fall, so get out of your head. Remember #2? Try not to think about it.
Hopefully, someday I will be able to post a video of me doing this insane feat! I think I can!
On February 19th, 2014 I had my first baby! Raymond Ezra Harper came kicking and screaming into the world at 1:37p and it has added a completely new layer to this long, strange trip that I call my life. When people ask me how it is to have a baby I like to say, "it's exactly the same, except there's a baby."
Two weeks after our little boy was born I went to an audition. I had to slap a little extra concealer onto my under eye circles, and if you looked closely enough I was also concealing a slight limp from the pain, but I went, I sang, I felt good about it. My friends all greeted me with admiration for getting back out there so fast, but I wonder if some of the other people at the audition didn't judge me just a little. Maybe they thought it was selfish of me to start looking for a gig so soon. That I was somehow ranking my career over my family. Maybe they thought I was crazy when I had responsibilities at home. Was I really going to leave my kid in daycare so that I could do a show? Obviously, I asked my self those questions before I even thought about strapping on the old character shoes. OF COURSE I DID!
Moving back to California from New York has shone a spotlight on the fact that most of my closest friends are, in fact, not performers. They may have been at one time or another, but they have since pursued other passions and careers and are happier for it. When my best friend, the French Teacher, had her baby she was back in the classroom six weeks later. Putting her entire career on hold indefinitely was not an option. Why would it be any different for me? Looking for gigs and creating my own product is what I do. Wether I am hitting up auditions or not, I put a little time into being an artist every single day. I am only accountable to myself, and it is a full time job. And I love it. I had doubts about being able to get back to it after my baby arrived, so when his Dad offered to ride along and hang out with baby in the car there was no option to say no.
Fortunately, my husband and I discuss everything ad nauseum. We then conclude what will be best for us as individuals and as a family. After all, we are simultaneously both. When he sits around playing computer games, I have to remind myself that this is a hobby that he enjoys and it is a release of all the stresses in his life. If he didn't get to pursue that hobby what kind of a partner would he be? No matter how much I want him to spend all of his evening paying attention to me, he deserves his down time and he is responsible enough to decide how to spend that down time. I am responsible enough to know that I am not fulfilled unless I am looking for the next opportunity to entertain. Telling stories and making people laugh is part of what feeds my soul. How can i bea good wife or mom if I am not feeling fulfilled?
As far as the logistics of starting a band or booking a show- my hubs works days and band gigs would be at night, and my Mother asks me every day if I have any leads on a gig so that she can finally have an excuse to retire. It's adorable, and they both want to be the champion in either scenario. And they would be.
The bottom line is- I haven't stopped being me, Brooke Aston Sings, since this little dude came along. if anything, I'm even better!
Here's the thing, I've never been responsible to anyone except for myself. Sure, some would claim I have an unhealthy desire to gain the approval of my parents, but they are awesome so whatever; I spent two and a half years at the end of my twenties in a relationship while continuing to pursue my career, but to be honest he was never a consideration when it came to me auditioning for or taking a job that I really wanted. Maybe that was a sign, maybe not, but either way that relationship didn't last, and I reconciled myself to the idea that casually dating, partying with friends, and voraciously pursuing my career throughout my middle thirties, sans relationship and children, was the path that was laid out before me so I better get used to it. To tell you the truth I got so used to it, I was actually happy about it. Being single suited me. 2011 marked the seventh year since Brother and Mother had left me in New York with two bags and a pile of plastic tubs in Mom and Dad's garage to be mailed when I found a place to live. I have returned to the city again and again over the years- subletting, working in restaurants, auditioning, and taking gigs that took me out of town and around the world. It has been pretty frickin' awesome.
However, in April of 2012 I started dating one of my oldest friends and on New Year's Eve he proposed (8 months after we started dating, let the judging commence), in February we bought a condo in California, I gave up my lease in Harlem, got pregnant in May, and had an incredible wedding in September. I am not living the life I envisioned two years ago, but I am admittedly living one of the dream scenarios that I envisioned as a kid, and on top of all that I am frickin' happy! Like every single day for at least a moment I look at my man friend, my belly, my vaulted ceilings, my life and I am undeniably, irresistibly happy. But with all things there is a catch. It is a nagging anxiety that I wish I could squelch. After I pop this kid out am I still going to be a performer? A theater rat? A singer? An actor? An artist? Once I have a kid will I still be able to be me?
I couldn't spend months of my pregnancy worrying about this little quandary on my own, so I reached out to some of my performing/Mommy/superheroes and I asked them how they coped when faced with the same prospect. The resounding response was not only can I can continue to perform but I will HAVE to. Even my girlfriends who don't perform anymore said that I had to continue to pursue my passions after this little boy ripped his way out of me or I will go crazy. Of course, I'd heard that advice before- I mean I've been an avid watcher of rom-coms since puberty, but this time it was from the mouths of moms. Real moms. Moms who are my friends, because at 35, I realize, I have a a LOT of those. Thank goodness.
Most of my performing Mommies said that Dad is key. If Dad has your back and your breast pump has your front then you can make it work.
So here's hoping that after this last year's hiatus, the dizzying happiness I've had in my personal life will infect my professional life with opportunities that add to the happiness frenzy, and that my little boy likes musicals!
...you should probably do it. Wise words that inspired me to sign up for an acting class with the very accomplished, energetic, and enthusiastic Rocco Lapenna. (Check out the links below) A few months ago, I decided to forgo my yearly battle with seasonal affective disorder (or the winter blues), so I sublet my apartment in New York to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, and January with my long time friend but new found love of my life, here in California. As our relationship has grown and my devotion to him has become more clear, I've realized that Southern California is my home. Forget the fact that my family moved to California when I was nine years old, that most of my closest and oldest friends live here, or that my college and post college years found me living in this one region of the country for the longest period of time when compared to any other throughout my life. New York has always felt temporary even when I was happy. So here I am. My last contract ended so I came to hang with the boy, head back to New York in February and finish out my lease until July, then pack up my crap, sell my furniture, and come back to the Golden State to see what this new chapter has in store for me.
These three months may be a stopgap, but that has not deterred me from making plans. I have been discussing projects with my fellow and others, I have volunteered to sing at a fundraiser and in a school project, and I signed up for an acting class. Last Wednesday was week two and all I can say is I had a rough one. I started the class feeling confident and prepared, but after one misstep early during our four hour time slot I went into a complete tailspin. The negative self speak would not turn off, the worries about my age, my talent, my castability, and my choice to move across the country again (not to mention making that choice for a man) started to overwhelm me. Hell, I even started to feel too tall. I had reverted to my 13 year old self. So with nowhere to hide, no song to sing, hands shaking and a gorgeous, confident, talented, 18 year old scene partner to read with, I could not get out of my own head. I was a mess. Fortunately, Rocco pointed it out and moved on quickly. An hour later, when class was meant to come to an end, I slipped out while several of the other students stayed over to finish their work. My teacher took a moment to say, "you had a terrible class today, but you better bring your black ass back in here next week and try again." Actually he said, "Bye, Brooke," but I think my interpretation captures his true meaning.
So after spending a day pondering my meltdown I remembered a few things. I haven't had to work in the way you do in an acting class for ten years. When you spend two weeks, eight hours a day putting a show up you just put your head down and go because it is all about the result. Class is all about the process, and though it feels a little masturbatory to me right now there will be tangible results; a more confident, comfortable, and relaxed artist- me. I am in the middle of a self imposed upheaval in my personal life. Even though I am switching gears and moving across the country that does not mean that the relationship I have had with my career for 19 years is over. It just needs to evolve in a way that considers my relationship with this new person in my life and the new place I've decided to live. I didn't take this class because I thought it would be easy. The twenty somethings (and teenagers!) in my class are discovering who they are, they are excited to take on the world, and they haven't been bowed by the many struggles of being an artist. They are brave. So I have to be brave as well. I've been all the way around this earth, I've moved across the country four times, I've been in love then heartbroken, and still managed to fall in love again, and I have passionately pursued my life as a performer for almost twenty years. I think I can get up in front of 13 strangers and have real emotions in imaginary circumstances!
As long as I don't screw it up.
Looking for a place to do some scene study in LA? check out Rocco Lapenna's class at The Director's Playhouse:
Well, my last contract ended on October 20th. Receiving unemployment benefits has proven to be more difficult than performing Chekov in front of my Russian, college professor having not consumed any vodka. Nerve wracking to say the least.
Applying for unemployment has become a full time, week long job. Last year, when I was living in New York, you were required to apply in the state you were living. Now, you claim in whichever state you have wages during your base period which is not necessarily your last date of employment. Because I didn't get through to CA until Friday afternoon and what I learned is that I have to apply in New York, I couldn't speak to anyone until a week after I actually became unemployed. Since no one gave me incorrect information, I cannot back date my claim, and in New York, there is a mandatory waiting period, so my benefits will not kick in until two weeks after I was unemployed. That is, they will kick in if and only if New York determines that I can receive benefits at all. Not to mention that tiny, little Superstorm/hurricane named after my Mother, that knocked out the unemployment offices in New York on Monday and Tuesday.
Now I just have to send a fax, yes, I said a fax! Then wait to hear back from New York. Fingers crossed and prayers by my Mom, and hopefully I won't be reduced to Top Ramen and selling my body on the street. The life of an artist?
Yes my friends, the time has finally come for me to draft an Artistic statement. An honest assessment of my approach to the theatre. It was edited by my new friend, Roger Ellis, who writes a fantastic blog http://mtheritageblog.com that I recommend to anyone interested in musical theatre and its historical relevance. My statement was sent to the Stage Directors and Choreographer's Foundation in order to attain an Observorship of a master director as they direct a new production, revival or original, on Broadway, off-Broadway, or regionally. :
The audience offers the theatre artist their time, and in return the theatre artist gives them a glimpse into an imaginary world so that they may reflect and improve upon their own humanity. As a woman, African American, and a world traveler I have strong motivation to explore themes commonly tackled in drama, particularly love, race, and community. As a director, my guiding principle is to facilitate and guide the process of all the artists, designers, craftsmen, and performers involved in a production as they tell stories, create worlds, and, ultimately, reflect what it is to be human.
My experience as a performer has given me significant insight into the actor/director relationship, and I have developed a work ethic that has allowed me to boldly pursue employment in the theatre in many capacities. As the producing director of a non-profit theatre company, I directed three staged readings and one full production of original works. I was able to develop my process for analyzing text, plot, and structure, and I developed a framework for communicating that information to the actors and designers so that the productions were consistent, clear, and relatable to the audience. I have produced variety shows and cabarets performed by myself and others simply for the joy of being creative. I am equally comfortable directing musicals or plays, dramatic or comedic, and it is when I am at the helm of a collaboration that I am the most certain that my particular set of skills, as a leader, organized thinker, and decision maker are fully realized.
I have an insatiable curiosity about people and the world and this has carried into many non-theatrical disciplines. As a child I played tennis, golf, water polo, and gymnastics. I was taught how to build a fire, ride a horse, and sell cookies. I can water-ski, sew, and play the flute, but the pursuit of all of these activities was never as satisfying as imagining and acting out scenarios inspired by whatever setting I found myself in. Playing castaways in a boat or vampires in the basement were my favorite ways to pass the time whether I was alone or with friends. My varied life experience has shaped me into a well-rounded theatre practitioner. As I evaluate my life as an adult, I realize that not much has changed. My acting career has found me playing a stripper with a gimmick, a fairy godmother, and one of twenty singing library patrons, singing horse race attendees, singing farmers and cowmen, and singing citizens of Baltimore. The theatre is where I have resided my entire life.
As I transition into the next chapter of my career, I intend to continue to work as an artist by directing musicals and plays from the classic repertoire to modern. Admission into this program will allow me to observe a master director while they tackle pieces with a larger scale, cast size, venue, and production team, and it will strengthen my resume by more accurately reflecting my interest in directing at a premiere regional theatre, off-Broadway, or on Broadway.
The theatre teaches us endless lessons about our own humanity. Whether witnessing from the audience or as a member of a production, these truths are what I will strive to learn from and communicate to others as I continue to grow as an artist.
This weekend I had the incredible opportunity to attend a portion of The young Americans 50th Reunion. I am completely overwhelmed by the scope of all that happened this weekend, and I have started a new job that is taking all of my creative energy so can't reflect and write about it just yet. That being said, my friend, Addam, wrote this beautiful observation and I wanted to share:
What an amazing era to be a part of this organization. While the 60s and 70s had so many incredible opportunities to work with legendary performers and the 80s had a seemingly unending line of divas I think we were afforded the witnessing of what seems to me, perhaps the greatest period of change.
At some point in the early 90's there was no Young Americans. The dream may have lived but for all legal purposes the organization was officially extinct.
Of the seemingly massive group that I had seen in the 80s, only a tiny group of people remained. Those folks that didn't jump ship are (nearly to a person) some of the most resiliant, headstrong, dependable, and admirable people I will ever know. Even at an age we now think of as children. It's hard to say if the group taught them to be these things or if these people were just this way by nature and happened to converge at the right place and time to keep things going.
It occured to me last night there was a magic that happened in the bankruptcy. If the group was to survive it had to change. I don't know if it ever would have on (what I know of) the course it was on.
Much like the Boyne shows are built around the individual people in the cast. The new incarnation of the organization would grow from the stuff these folks are comprised of. Greatly talented as performers, but more importantly as people.
This foundation gave birth to the NMOT. I don't know if the YA's could have done an outreach tour with the folks in 88. I'm not being critical of them, just saying their experience was different.
On paper, none of this should have worked out. An group that had seen glory days in the era of Perry Como should not have been able to survive in the same time frame as "Smells Like Teen Spirit". And it wouldn't have if we had continued relying on convention center shows and Boyne. We may have been able to draw out the death, but I don't believe the group would have made to to 2000 without NMOT. And I personally don't believe Milton and Bill would have had the confidence to send out the first one without knowing the kind of people they had at their disposal.
Once the NMOT started, being a part of the group felt much like entrepreneurship (without that pesky making money part). It was a world where hard work became reward. Our style of teaching grew from nearly nothing into the core principles of how the tours are conducted today. We learned by trial and error like some sort of music education pirate-gypsies. There were times where we had no money, times when we had no place to stay or food to eat but somehow just before the last bit of shit was about to hit the fan some inventive line of thought would solve or at least bandage the issue. These experiences helped shape all of our lives within the group and beyond. Seeing the current activities of the group really brought to mind the value of the folks that stuck around. Who they are as people casts a shadow you can still see in the mission and spirit of the modern organization.
So thanks to you guys. You know who you are
Since the age of sixteen my adventures in music have taken me all over the country. After years of bouncing around I've made Orange County my home. Here are my stories.