My Three Hats: Producer, Director, Publicist

CaptureOver the last few weeks, I have had several conversations on my contribution to the world of theatre. My favorite description of my experience is one I use in many a bio:

She’s served the theatre in many aspects of which she’s very proud – actress, director, producer, stage manager, costume designer, prop designer, theatre reviewer, publicist, radio presenter, and writer/monologist.

I remember thinking that it seems very broad. The cliche “a Jill of all trades, a master of none” sometimes crosses my mind but then I think to myself that I have been on an amazing journey. I learned so much about what I love and what I excel in and what I am not comfortable with and not as passionate about anymore.

I love is creating and promoting theatre. I love producing as I get to figure out how I am going to make a show happen. When I direct, I am lost in the words of the playwright and get to collaborate with actors and designers on bringing a show to life. If I am producing and directing, I am innately promoting. That’s my personality and as a result, all three resonate strongly within me.

When I decided to become a director in undergrad, I knew I wanted to go to grad school. I knew it was the only way I would be able to immerse my mind, body, spirit in the craft. My MFA in Directing at the Actors Studio Drama School was the foundation I needed before embarking on the next leg of my journey.

After graduation, my husband, Ian, some friends and I started Black Henna Productions. For 12 years and counting, I learned how to be a producer and a publicist. All of it through trial and error and taking a class here and there. When you are running a company, directing the show, and promoting it, you get really good at a few things:

  1. Creating a schedule;
  2. Building a team; and
  3. Developing a product.

After the death of my best friend and co-collaborator, Cas, I took a step back to see my vision. I thought I had to have one role in this world. However, my one vision for my world of theatre is a to be able to promote and support artists in their truth and craft so that they can pay it forward to the next artist. All too often we forget about why we create by focusing on competition rather than specialization. My mentors, Michael Roderick and Ken Davenport, said that to me years ago and I never forgot it. It’s a personal mantra. And with that, when I am working with any artist as a producer, director, and/or publicist, I ask: Why are you doing this show? The answer then propels me to ask: What sets you apart from the several other shows being produced?

These are the questions I ask myself and my team when are developing any project. Then without fail, I sit down and draft the schedule. Then I set out to build the team. Then we begin developing the product. What ties us together is the vision and trust. If we don’t have either then we have a rough road ahead of us.

In a conversation with a fellow producer, we touched on some points about why I created Theatre Beyond Broadway, my PR company and community. I created it so there would be a connection and the fostering of relationships. I told her about my 3 hats and she said, ” We have three people doing your job.” I said, “I know. It’s a lot to juggle but I love it”.

Truth: I didn’t have a choice. I jumped in and just did it. As I continue to do this day.

Friendship: Cas, What is Happening Right Now?

61302_435788954421_135800_nOne of my last conversations with my dear friend friend, Cas, included the phrase “you’re the asshat with cancer”. It’s not important what the context was but just the fact that I could say that to him. We both nodded and and then busted out laughing. Well, I had a good belly laugh. He did his raspy/silent laugh and trying not to feel pain. Two days later we had brunch at the diner. After hugs and kisses goodbye, we had this text exchange:

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Cas and I laughed, gossiped like no one’s business, read each other’s beads (hands in the air and neck rolls), cried together and sometimes sat in the dark in silence. I was spoiled. We lived down the road from each other before he moved to midtown for a spell (near my job). Then he moved back to “Town “, his affectionate nickname for Forest Hills.  Cas was just always near. We could sometimes go for weeks or months without physical contact because of our many ongoing projects. But we knew that we were good. The check in text was our big thing and we tried our best to see each other’s shows. The best times were when we were collaborating together.
Cas was a passionate artist. A brilliant mix of actor and diva. He could turn it on for an audience without effort and then yell at us all backstage for moving his eyeliner a millimeter to the right of his wig. Then he would find it and tell us how much he loved us and then bake us monkey bread or something crazy for the next performance. That was Cas. It was a consummate love fest.
I met Cas in 2002. Ian and I went to see a show in Middle Village called Some Enchanted Evening (Beari Productions). We had just learned that there was theatre in Queens, after years of working in the city. We were so happy to have theatre near home. We were excited to see new work. So, we are enjoying the show when this talented creature belts out “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me Kate. A huge Cole Porter fan, I fell in love. I turned to Ian and said, “Who is that guy.”  After the show, we waited for him. We had to tell him how much we enjoyed his work. It began there.
In 2004, Cas and I finally got to share a stage together in South Pacific. He was Billis to my Bloody Mary. That was a fun show where many friendships began. Ours shifted as we talked theatre and dreams. And Torch Song Trilogy. Cas always told me that I needed to direct and produce it. We’d work on other shows. There were barbecues in his backyard. There were road trips to see our friends’ shows. There wasn’t an instance of him not mentioning Torch Song Trilogy.
Finally in 2008, I had enough. We were hanging out in his house and he brought up the show again. I said to him, “Fine, let’s just read the third act”.  We did and I was moved. We then proceeded to order Japanese and read the first two acts. We laughed, we cried, we yelled. It was magic. At the end of the night, I said to him, “Let’s do this. I’ll direct you and we’ll do it under Black Henna Productions.”
That began a 5 year collaboration on the many shows that Black Henna produced. That collaboration, infused with our big dreams, led to many wonderful opportunities. We met with Broadway producers, went to the Tony’s, supported many fundraisers, and met many other independent artists with same dreams. Our dreams were also coming true.
Cas pushed me as I pushed him. I feel incredibly blessed to have had him in my life. My career would not be where it is now without him as my one of cornerstones. My relationships wouldn’t be what they are without his nuggets of advice. My faith wouldn’t be as strong if I didn’t see the strength in him.
I did ask his advice before he left us. I asked him if I should take a specific risk. Cas said, “You set these two goals for this year and they are moving along. See them through. Do the risk next year.”
Cazzie, I will. I promise.

Producing v. Acting: Lessons Learned Via Twelfth Night

I really don’t have a problem wearing multiple hats but I prefer not to when I am working on a show. It gets very confusing. I especially do not like to act when I am producing. It can become weird for the director. Is he talking to his boss or his actress? However, sometimes…sometimes, I just like to break my own rule.

This past Sunday, we closed Twelfth Night after four months of being in pre-production and a five week rehearsal process. In the beginning, my job was to produce and publicize our show. As we got closer to the our first readthrough,  the actress cast to play Maria was unable to do the show. We were on the fence about recasting or letting me do the show. I was stuck. I know the process of all things theater. I know the difficulties that arise just doing one job. Yet, Maria is a role that I wanted since I was 18, when I played a minor character in my college production of Twelfth Night. Fast forward to this summer…I guess the universe was giving me a gift…or two. I wore the two hats but had to be very clear when I was wearing them. I was producer by day and actress by night. However, as we got closer to opening, I sometimes had to wear both on my head and I felt like the Mad Hatter.

I learned so much about myself. About theater. About passion. I really did my best to give all of me to the whole process. That’s all I could do. I was also very fortunate to have amazing and talented actors cast. Though I occassionally act, I do prefer producing for my company and doing the publicity. I enjoy the Ps more than being on stage. (Though, if you need me in a pinch, email me).

The run of this production was both exhilirating and exhausting. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to be able to play one of the three of roles on my Roles I Must Play Before I Die.  So with all that gushing, here’s a quick rundown of the run for those of you who couldn’t make it. We will start with:

Our opening show at McCarren Park was interesting to say the least. In addition to our performance, we had a kickball game with loud music at the other field; aerialists practicing off of the tree limbs behind the audience; cyclists cycling through; a frisbee game and who knows what else. It’s a busy park. It was also warm. Not as warm as…

 

Sunday’s performance at the Forest Park Bandshell. As a matter of fact, we managed not to be rained upon but boy was it HOT. We were dripping through the performance. It reminded me of our performance of Much Ado About Nothing at Snug Harbor in Staten Island in 2010. It was the hottest day that summer. Anyway, at some point towards the end of the our performance, I actually felt myself checking out. I had to pull it together (which I managed). It was intense. Thank goodness my parents provided food and water for us. And thank goodness we had an audience.  

 

 

Monday’s performance at East River State Park (Brooklyn) reminded me to always demand a permit. Even though I was allayed my fears of needing one, I had to deal with the park rangers right before my entrance. I had to switch from actress to producer to actress in a matter of 2 minutes. Thankfully they didn’t pull the show but the stress level made it hard to enjoy the performance. Plus the audience saw the whole thing. On  the plus side, I will say that the location is pretty cool because it’s on the river and the ferry stops right there. Great skyline.

We had a few days off and were ready to rock at Central Park on Friday when the skies opened up and rained all day. We had to cancel that performance which hurt us donation wise. The lesson there is to consider an indoor venue as a contigency. We were able to have a lovely performance there on Saturday. I think it was our  best show even thoughI nearly killed our Aguecheek in one scene when I pushed him and our Olivia slipped because we were on an incline. However, we pulled it off and it turned out to be a great day.

Our closing show was on the red steps in front of the Van Cortlandt House Museum. By far, our least attended but our most favorite to perform. There were many levels to play on and we had a great cast party afterwards. Lots of fun. Nothing brings together a cast than sweat and burritos.

 

 

 

 

Today I drafted the notes for our post-mortem production meeting. I talked about where we can improve for next summer and what we learned from this experience. One of those points was to begin planning even sooner. Like by the end of the year. Why so early? Well, Black Henna really enjoys doing Shakespeare in the summer. That is the seedling of the company. If we are going to produce one show a year then it better rock and it better stand out. Plus next year marks out 10th Anniversary. We have tons to celebrate.

Super kudos to you for supporting near and far!

And if you are wondering how come Ian and I aren’t in a picture together, simply Orsino and Maria aren’t in any scenes together. Here we are pre-show!