For a magazine piece on the trials and tribulations of young aspiring artists in New York, I once talked to many actors and others in the theatre in different stages of their careers about their beginning years. A lot of people have had crappy jobs, but actors probably have more than most, partly because they need the flexibility to take classes and attend auditions. They also tend towards jobs where their acting skills are an asset, like waiting tables and answering phones in a whorehouse. How they deal with those jobs versus their craft and career is an important element in the shape of their lives over time. But several actors (both successful and still striving) told me that when things were at their worst, their first thought was: This will make a good story for interviews when I'm famous.
Actor Claudia Shear dealt with those jobs in New York (63 of them, she claims) by turning them into a play, Blown Sideways Through Life, which changed her life considerably. She performed it to critical acclaim and sellout crowds, and filmed it for PBS in 1995 (a show I haven't seen). She got lots of acting offers (including a couple of guest shots onFriends), and had another stage hit with Dirty Blond, portraying Mae West. Done by others, Blown Sidewayshas become a popular piece both in theatres and in other settings relating to the issues it raises. The one problem I had with her script was that she never talks about being an aspiring actor, though eventually she does describe a bargain basement Fellini-esque acting experience in Italy.
The character she creates is otherwise achingly true to life: a misfit girl in Brooklyn ("I wanted out so badly; I wanted to fit in so much") who quits school and lies about her age to follow "the lure of alternative identity through employment."
These adventures in the working world were exciting at first — a high-end department store job as an "overpainted salesgirl" selling trendy makeup by seeming to be as blas© as the fashion slave customers, and a stint as a nude model for an artist, in which her embarrassment was trumped by her part in an artwork ("I loved being beautiful"). But the jobs got worse, and often shorter. At one point she chatted up potential customers calling a brothel, for a percentage of the take. She also gained a lot of weight, which added to her isolation.
Part of the brilliance of this piece is that audiences can connect with her unique experiences while recalling moments of their own lives and their own similar feelings — not only about crappy jobs, but the anxieties, indignities and injustices of almost any job, from the "no reading" and "no opinions" rules of busywork to the arbitrary bosses whose cold ire appears as suddenly and disproportionately as their praise.
The emphasis is comic, but it is surprisingly warm, especially when she describes the society of the working girls, or the moments of rebellion that earn the respect of her co-workers. Shear's message is personal, but it is also social. A simple formula like "Treat the people who serve your dinner the same way you treat the people you're having dinner with" becomes powerful in the context she creates.
Or rather, the context created by her script and the pitch-perfect performance by Christina Jioras, in the current Redwood Curtain production at the Arcata Playhouse. She is theatrical and sincere, expressing the material without imposing anything extraneous on it. (She mercifully doesn't even attempt a Brooklyn accent.) All alone on the stage for an hour and twenty minutes without intermission, Jioras holds the audience apparently without effort, but with conviction, attention and charm.
The production is bare-bones — perhaps a bit too bare. Some music or other means to set scenes and especially define transitions might have helped. But that's a quibble. Jioras and director Cassandra Hesseltine use Daniel Nyiri's stage design well — I especially liked the little platforms that allowed Jioras to get closer to the audience without getting in their faces. But basically, the heart of the evening comes from the words and the performance, and these are equally eloquent. It's a direct connection between an alive performance and a live audience, through the content of a script electric with thoughts, feelings and stories from our common lives.
Blown Sideways Through Life plays at the Arcata Playhouse one more weekend: this Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7 and 8, at 8 p.m.
As for Redwood Curtain itself and its apparently perennial search for a new home, Artistic Director Clint Rebik and Executive Director Peggy Metzger were both present on opening night wearing badges. Clint's said "Redwood Questions $5" and "Answers $25." Peggy's said, "Updates $50." After I suggested they bill the Journal, Clint stated that they "had irons in the fire" for a new theatre space. As this line appeared for free in their e-mail announcement, I refused to pay. So Clint added that one of the spaces they're looking at most seriously is in Arcata. (It isn't however the Arcata Playhouse, which is booking shows at a brisk pace. "We had trouble finding open dates for this show," Clint said.)
Coming Up:Jeff DeMark reprises his latest show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots(which has a similar theme of dealing with insane jobs), at the Arcata Playhouse on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. He'll be accompanied by the Tiny Tim Musicians ... Playwrights wishing to participate in the Sanctuary Stage 24 Hour 10 Minute Play Competition in October need to register by Sept. 21 (see sanctuarystage.com.) ... And as a taste of things to come, Ferndale Rep is holding auditions on Sept. 9 and 10 for its November production of Charlotte's Web. According to its email, those auditioning for the 15-20 roles should come prepared to "read from the script, and do barnyard animal impersonations."