Category: acting

Becoming Ursula, Part One – Getting A Head


Who wouldn’t want to play a Sea Witch? With eels, no less?

I’ve been fortunate to have had a long and rewarding career in musical theatre.  I’ve done Broadway, a National Tour and countless regional theatre productions.  I’ve appeared in world premieres, revivals and revisals, in roles dizzying in variety.  In 2014 alone, I played an aging stripper, a Jewish mother, an amoral British money-lender and the mother of artist Georges Seurat.

But there’s one kind of role that’s always eluded me:  a shrieking, mugging, scenery-devouring, terrifying-funny psychotic.  I’m talking, of course, about playing a Disney villain.  More specifically, a villainess – since the few major Disney bad guys pale in comparison to their female counterparts.

So when Olney Theatre Center announced that they were producing Disney’s The Little Mermaid as their 2014 holiday show, I was beside myself.  I love Ursula.  She’s a slinky, slimy, sexy sociopath.  Her big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is brilliant.  (Side note:  Ursula is one of the few Disney villains who actually sings.)

Since the role is such a plum, naturally many of my fellow actresses were interested in it as well, but I was shameless in letting the good folks at Olney know that I really, really, REALLYREALLY (really!) wanted to be seen for the role.  To their credit, they did not shy back in horror at my eagerness, and when auditions rolled around I was called in to read.  As it turned out, shameless was exactly what director Mark Waldrop was looking for.  To my delight, I was offered the role, and accepted with greedy alacrity.


With Tracy Lynn Olivera and Jamie Kelton, in Pei Lee’s costumes for Olney’s 2013 production of “Cinderella.”

Becoming Ursula, though, was going to take more than just me being eager.  The Sea Witch is a grand creation:  part human and part octopus, she’s an undersea nightmare that has to be translated from the anything’s-possible world of animation to a flesh-and-blood actress treading the all-too-solid boards of a theatrical stage.  It’s a major challenge, but when I discovered that Pei Lee was going to be designing the costumes for Olney’s production, I knew I was in good hands.  Pei and I have worked together in the past (that’s some of her work on Olney’s 2012 production of Cinderella to the left) and I’m a huge admirer of her creativity and attention to detail.



Ursula’s headdress, a work in progress.


A noble profile, in the making.

Because Olney’s PR department wanted to do a publicity photo shoot in October, Pei got in touch with me in late July to start work on the Ursula costume, specifically on the character’s headdress, which would be featured in the photos.  We met so she could make a wrap of my head (a complicated process involving plastic wrap, scissors, felt-tip markers and a LOT of tape), and approximately a month later I went out to Olney for a fitting.

Even unfinished, the headdress was amazing.  It had the shape and flow of Ursula’s hair from the animated feature because it’s made of a lightweight fabric called FossShape (which can be sewn and then “frozen” into place using heat).  It fit like a dream and was even comfortable. Pei had included details like reversible sequins (which can be shifted from white to black) and during the fitting, roughed in “sideburns” to complete the look.  We were both tremendously pleased with the results.


Halloween $13-off ticket promo ad.


Menacing the Mermaid.

Since the photo shoot was going to focus on head and shoulders, we also had to do a makeup trial.  The day of the shoot I came in early, and we played with both water and creme-based makeups for about an hour.  Rather than the purple-skinned Ursula of the cartoon, Pei wanted a paler version with just some gray-lilac shading beneath the cheekbones, with teal, black and purple around the eyes and bright red lips.  While we liked the translucency of the water-based makeup, applying it with a makeup sponge was tricky and the results somewhat uneven and streaky.  Since the photos would be edited and the publicity team, along with our Ariel, Laura Zinn, were waiting, we decided we’d revisit the makeup issue down the road.  I got into the now-completed headdress, a rough mockup of the Ursula costume (which was far from ready) and we did the shoot.   The photos turned out great.


In front of the green screen.

Our second makeup trial happened during the third week of rehearsal, when we needed to shoot a green-screen video for a special-effects moment which occurs late in the second act.  The costume was still being built, so the rough mockup was called into play again.  For the makeup, we had a little more detail this time, including some whacked-out tinsel false eyelashes I happened to have in my kit.  However, we still weren’t happy with the streaky results of the water-based foundation, but didn’t want to sacrifice its translucence for a smoother but opaque creme-based makeup.  (We also decided that the lashes, while fun for the video shoot, were a bit too pale and fragile for eight shows a week.)  After the video shoot, I scrubbed my face and went to rehearsal.  While talking over the shoot with fellow cast members, I mentioned the makeup issues and our dissatisfaction with the streaky application.  One of our Mersisters (Gracie Jones, who plays Andrina) looked thoughtful.  “Why don’t you try airbrushing?” she asked, and on being quizzed further, showed me photos of airbrushed zombie/ghoul/ghost makeup designs she was currently producing for Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson, MD.  (Great article about the Forest here, if you’d like to know more.)  “I’d be happy to do your makeup,” Gracie added.


A little too zombiefied.


Well, you can bet I pounced on that offer.  I texted Pei, and 48 hours later we were into Ursula Makeup Trial #3.  Pei, Gracie and I (well, Pei and Gracie – I just sat there) experimented with the airbrush technique for a good hour.  The application process was super-smooth and even, and took half the time of the previous sponged-on trial.  Our first version ended up looking a little too ghoulish, so I washed off and we started again.  This time I pincurled my hair, as Pei wanted to see the finished makeup with the headdress.


Success! And in half the time!


With a little lighter hand on the shading, Gracie was able to produce the results Pei wanted.  She was also able to lay down a base of teal and purple for the eyeshadow, and using a template of Pei’s design, even swooshed in Ursula’s wildly arched eyebrows.  The smoothness of the application, not to mention the time saved, was cause for celebration.


The finished product.


With Gracie’s work done, she cleaned up while I added the fine details (yes, I actually did something more than just sit there the whole time).  I finessed the brows, applied a thick, sturdy set of lashes, lined my eyes a la The Black Swan, gave myself a full cupid’s-bow mouth in bright red, and for the finishing touch, added Ursula’s signature beauty mark.  Pei brought in the headdress, we popped it on and voila! URSULA!

(Side Note:  One of the problems we’d struggled with in earlier iterations of the design was my own eyebrows interposing themselves into the mix.  Using my brows as the line of demarcation between the teal and purple shadows, along with Gracie’s airbrushing, made that problem literally disappear.)

To say we were three happy campers would be the understatement of the year.  At last Ursula’s face was in place!

Up next:  Tentacles, et al.

The finished Ursula and her creators:  Gracie Jones, me and Pei Lee.

The finished Ursula and her creators: Gracie Jones, me and Pei Lee.



Up to My Eyes and Paddling Like Hell

doggypaddleI just looked back at my last two blogs and had to cackle.  Bread baking.  Bread baking? Who has time for bread baking?

So Beaches is closed and I had a week of overlap between that and the start of rehearsals for The Threepenny Opera, both at Signature Theatre.  Being as 3P is emotionally and theatrically kind of the anti-Beaches, it’s been an interesting adjustment as well as making for some long-ass days.

I’ve been doing a lot of auditioning and have got myself booked through the end of the year now (announcements to come), have a couple of rapidly-approaching one-night gigs (announcements to come) and if that wasn’t enough, decided rather foolishly that I needed to participate in Camp NaNo and gave myself just an easy 20k word goal for the month of April.  I’ve written a grand total of 600 words in the first week, accomplished in two 300-word spurts.  Pathetic.  What was I thinking?

Someone on one of my writers’ forums asked the question in what order do you do these things: writing, editing, research?  Here’s my answer:

Tweak/write write writey write write.
Tweak/write write writey…wait.
Realize I need to know more to finish the scene.
Research research research.
Ooo research.
Write the scene. Only use a fraction of the research.
Tweak tweak/write.
Write writey write write.
Backspace backspace o crap just highlight it all and delete.
Realize I shouldn’t have deleted what I deleted.
Tweak/write write writey write write…

Repeat as needed.

Meanwhile all around me spring has sprung and the daffodils are budding and the garden needs to be tilled and I at least remembered to take the cover off the fig tree so the poor thing can bud, unless the one-two punch of deer munching on it in the fall and all the wintery precip of the past few months hasn’t killed it.  Same with the freakin’ cherry trees.  Both the rosemary and the eucalyptus look like they’re winter-killed, too.  At least the ornamental cherry we planted last year is showing signs of life.

Off to rehearsal now.  More later.

::doggy paddles into the sunset::



When Worlds Collide

It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged anything of substance, and for that I apologize and offer the usual excuse that I’ve Been Busy.  I’ve already mentioned the industrial work that took me right up to a flurry of workshops, cabarets and one-night events, not to mention the start of rehearsals for Gypsy at Signature Theatre; what I haven’t mentioned is that on November 1st, I started writing a new book.


Author/Actress at work, feathers and all.

See, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo which happens every November.  Essentially, you pledge that you’ll write 50,000 words of a brand-new novel during the 30 days of November.  They don’t have to be polished words – in fact, you could be writing utter crap – but the idea is to just get yourself to put words on paper on deadline.

Now, you would think for someone with a journalism background that putting words on paper on deadline would be dead easy, but it ain’t so.  I am a persnickety author with a very strong Internal Editor so my M.O. when writing is to write a few sentences, edit them, polish them, and then move on.  It works for me (after all, I’ve already got two completed novels under my belt) but sometimes you’d like the Editor to back off a bit so you can just let the words flow.   I thought trying NaNo this year would help me achieve that goal, and I’d made tentative plans to write a light romantic comedy for the competition.

Problem was, I was so busy in the weeks leading up to November 1st that I wasn’t able to do the necessary planning for the rom/com novel.  Hadn’t anything but the roughest idea of a plot, hadn’t decided who the main character would be – in other words, all I had was a title (it’s a great title, though, which I will share once I write the darn thing).  So I was a little panicked by mid-October.

I was already about 30,000 words into the third book in my fantasy series and was running into a series of hiccups with it, mostly centered around motive and personality for my lead protagonist and antagonist.  Just as an exercise, I’d written some material about both characters’ childhoods and upbringing, and I was growing more and more interested in exploring that further.  Why not write that book for NaNo? I asked myself, and myself, feeling exceedingly harried and irritable at the time, responded “YES YES DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”


November 2013 calendar. The week of Thanksgiving I gave up trying to log it all in.

So on November 1st, in the midst of an extraordinarily busy week, I started writing a new novel.  It was helpful that I had a good clear idea of where I wanted to go with the story, but it was hard making myself just spew the words rather than stop and polish.  And I did need to spew.  In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write at least 1,666 words per day.  That’s a lot of words, particularly when you don’t have a lot of focused time.  So I squeezed in the writing whenever I could, sometimes getting up a few hours early, sometimes writing while I ate, sometimes grabbing a spare 20 minutes between rehearsals, just to get  the words down.  There were days when I couldn’t write at all and had to make it up the next day; there were days when what I wrote was so heinous that the Internal Editor leaped in before I could stop her; there was a particularly awful morning when I discovered that I had somehow neglected to save my work properly the day before and had lost some 1300 words that I then had to recreate in addition to that day’s quota.



In spite of all this drama, what I was writing wasn’t half bad.  In fact, it was pretty good.  Maybe all these years of writing means that the ratio of Junk Spew to Decent Spew has tipped in favor of useable material.  Once I got past the first couple of weeks, it started to come easier.  Part of that may have been that when Gypsy rehearsals began, I wasn’t called all that often so I had more time.  Part of it may also have been that I’d disciplined myself to grab those precious free minutes to write, rather than cruise the Internet or sit in front of the TV (or sleep).  I actually ended up crossing the 50,000 mark a few days shy of the deadline and was able to call myself a NaNoWriMo Winner.  I can’t tell you how exciting it was to log in my word count on the NaNo website that day and see this screen pop up on my computer.

Of course, that didn’t mean the book was finished, not by a long shot.  I continued writing through December, difficult as that was what with the holidays and all, but since I had a great deal of downtime in Gypsy, I was able to write in the dressing room and log in several hours a week that way (witness the photo at the beginning of this blog).  I continued the pattern in January, with a helpful push from like-minded writers at Absolute Write.  I made myself a new, easier goal – to write 500 words a day – and a few days ago I was able to write THE END on my NaNo novel.  I did a quick editing pass on it and put it aside, intending to give it a week to percolate, but impatience got the better of me and I rewrote the beginning, made another editing pass, formatted it into chapters and fired off an email to my faithful beta readers to see if they’d be willing to give this new book a go.  It’s shorter than my other tomes – a mere 71,000 words – but I’m pleased with it.

The question yet to be answered is if this book is going to be right for the series.  In other words, will I need to position it as the first book in the series and try to get it published that way, or should I view it as an interesting exercise and put it aside?  Only time will tell.  In any case, as Grand Experiments go, I’m calling my NaNo experience a success, and I’m already making plans to participate in the 2014 event.  I still have that rom/com to write, you know.


Scrag End of Summer

 I’m not a summertime person.  I don’t like hot; I don’t like humid.  I don’t even like summer clothes.  When summer is fresh and new in June, it’s tolerable, but I hate it when you get into September and it’s still sticky and miserable out and every day feels like a leftover.

I haven’t done a great deal this summer except write, read and send out a few more query letters.  I did a little bit of traveling in August: made a quick jaunt down to Raleigh to visit my sister Margaret and audition for the North Carolina Theatre, and a week or so later drove to Kentucky with John and one of his buddies.  I hadn’t been in Kentucky for years, and our route took us through a particularly beautiful part of West Virginia as well.  To the right is the New River Gorge, where we stopped on a whim on our journey, and I’m so glad that we did.  It was breathtaking.

I left John and his pal in KY to do things that manly men do, rented a car and drove on into Tennessee for a quick visit with my mom.  Normally I drive the interstate route from Virginia to Tennessee, and while it may be quicker (nearly 12 hours instead of 13-ish), the Kentucky route has it all over the interstate for beautiful countryside.  Next trip I make to Mom’s, I’ll be going that way.

Meanwhile it’s been writey-write-write as I carry on querying agents with Book 1 and try to complete Book 2 of my fantasy trilogy  Once again my beta-readers have been invaluable with their insights, comments and encouragement. 

I took a little time out from the writing to appear in a racy revue called “The Summer Hummer,” which was for the benefit of Taking Care Of Our Own, an initiative sponsored by theatreWashington (the folks who bring you the Helen Hayes Awards every year).  Taking Care Of Our Own assists currently active Washington area theatre professionals and artists in personal emergency situations, and it’s a project I believe in and support wholeheartedly, having seen far too many of my theatrical comrades-in-arms devastated by personal illness, injury or other disasters.  The George Clooneys and Meryl Streeps and Kristan Stewarts of this world aside, those of us in the acting biz don’t usually make a lot of money, and when something unforeseen happens, it can hit us hard.  It’s good to know that the TCOOO initiative will be there in an emergency.  For a good cause, I’m willing to put on a skimpy costume and sing a naughty song, and that’s what I’m doing over there on the left.  If you’d like to know more about TCOOO and maybe even make a donation, follow the link above.

For those of you eager to know my next stage gig, I’ll be appearing as a bad-ass Wicked Stepmother in the Olney Theatre Center’s holiday production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.  It’s directed by my good pal Bobby Smith and I can’t wait to start work on it in October.

First, however, I gotta get through these last few weeks of summer.

Compare and Contrast

I’ve been in the acting business for a long time – by my count, some thirty years.  Long enough to know the ins and outs.  Long enough to grow a pretty tough hide.  Long enough to be called “old pro,” “experienced,” and even “an institution,” which makes me feel particularly ponderous.  Long enough to be considered enough of an expert that people even ask me to teach what I’ve learned to the wide-eyed and innocent.

This writing business, now – I’m new to it.  Not to the writing part, but to the business end.  I’ve been scribbling away for years, but it’s just been in the past couple of months that I’ve actually tried to get someone to pony up the money to publish what I write.  And when I was in a particularly bad mood this morning, I began to enumerate all the ways that the acting biz and the writing biz are the same.  I’m not talking that artsy-fartsy stuff about how both involve Creation and Communication and Storytelling.  I’m talking about the process of getting work for pay – either booking a gig or selling a book.

When you audition for a gig, you’re putting your physical self out there:  your voice, your body, your mannerisms, your speech patterns.  You may be super-talented and a hard worker and a sweetheart into the bargain, but what it boils down to is whether you’re what the director is looking for, at that moment in time, for that particular project.  It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve prepped, nor how good your audition is.   If you don’t fit the bill, you’re out of luck. As I tell my students, not getting the gig is not an indictment of your talent, just as booking the gig is not necessarily a validation of your talent, either.  It’s simply that you’re the right person, right now, or you’re not.  Next week, things could be just the opposite.

When you fire off a query letter to a potential agent or publisher, you’re also putting a part of yourself out there, but it’s a different part of yourself.  It’s not your body or your voice that’s on trial – it’s your creation, your dream, your little helpless child of a book that you birthed and laughed and wept and cursed over; your baby that you’ve nurtured and massaged and tweaked.  You’re sending it out into the world praying that someone will love it as much as you do.  And again, the cold cruel world only wants it if it’s what the CCW happens to be looking for at that moment in time.

Now Lord knows I’ve been in show biz long enough to develop the thick skin and the requisite shrug when I don’t book the gig.  But the book rejections sting more than I thought they would.  The first couple of rejections were sort of exciting (“See?  I really did submit my query to an agent and look! he/she actually responded!”) but now the excitement has worn off.  Since I started submitting in late June, I’ve sent out 15 queries and received nine responses, of which eight were form letter rejections and one was a request for a partial.  I understand that for an unpublished writer, this is a pretty good track record.  But it’s the six agents who haven’t responded that have me pacing the floor.  A lot of writers fire off a dozen or more queries at a whack, but I’ve been going slower while I figure out how best to do this, so my rule of thumb has been to send out a new query immediately upon getting a rejection.  Last week was so slow that I deliberately queried an agent I was sure would reject me, just so I’d have something in my writing inbox.  Then I went into second-guessing mode and started pinching and poking at my query letter, like one does with a stubborn zit.  Zitlike, my query got all inflamed and annoyed at me, so now I’m slapping my hand away every time I start trying to revise it for the umpteenth time.

This, too, is a parallel between the acting biz and the writing biz.  It’s rare in show biz that you get any kind of notice that you didn’t land the gig; instead, you do your audition and you either get notified that you landed the gig or you hear nothing.  Limbo Land.  So you tap into your gossip mill to find out what you can that way, and maybe you’ll learn that So And So got the gig and you’ll be pissed for about 12 hours and then you’ll (a) move on or (b) start second-guessing everything you did in the audition.  And if you pick that particular existential zit long enough, you won’t be worth a damn the next time you go in to audition.  So you learn to shrug and slap your hand away.

I whined to John this morning about  how both the Biz of Show and the Biz of Writing are rife with rejection, but after I’d passed through the whining stage and had moved on to the infinitely more satisfying Full On Sulk, I realized that what was bothering me most about the writing is that fact that it’s so solitary.  Acting is highly collaborative:  from the first rehearsal to the final performance, you are surrounded by people who are all working with you toward the same goal – to produce a show.  Even when eyeball-deep in your work, there’s always someone around to bounce ideas off, to joke with, to complain to.  You are never alone when you’re acting. 

But damn, are you ever alone when you’re writing.  Oh, there are groups and websites and forums and chat rooms where you can talk about the business and kick and compare notes, but ultimately you have to go back to your computer and write.  When the writing’s going well, it’s a great place to be, but when the writing is not going well, it’s the loneliest spot in the world. 

So now – I’ve had my whine and my sulk and now that I’ve sounded my barbaric yawp over the internet, I’m feeling less forlorn and a lot more capable as well as hopeful.  Back to the chair and the computer, back to the manuscript and the query and the long list of agents.  Thanks for listening.