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HIT BY AN ‘A’ TRAIN

A Train

I don’t think I realized how much the play I’m working on would get under my skin. All of them do–even the scenes I explored in acting classes–but there have only been a few roles that yank me so far in that it’s hard to find my way out. Saint Joan was the big one. She followed me around everywhere, wouldn’t leave me alone. She was the most demanding of anyone I’d ever played–both emotionally and physically–and I was stick-a-fork-in-me done by the end of that run. She still crosses my path here and there. This time, it’s more the subject matter that’s getting to me…or maybe the head-space of a character who feels so guilty and responsible for a tragic outcome that she can barely live with herself.

I’d read Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train a couple of times over the years and always wanted to work on one of the scenes in class. I never found a partner to do it with and my understanding of the play was superficial at best, kind of like–I want to play a good lawyer scene. And then I actually got cast as Mary Jane and was excited but for a good stretch of my rehearsal process it all felt really distant from me, as if this was the first character I’d ever tackled who had nothing to do with me or my real life. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that every character who enters my sphere has something to do with what I’m currently and personally grappling with, so I couldn’t understand why Mary Jane didn’t. Until she did.

Digging into the text with my directors, we uncovered MJ’s history with an alcoholic father, her efforts at recovery through therapy and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, the inexplicable loyalty she still feels towards her father and his rogue sense of justice, the ego she’s developed over her plea-bargaining and trial skills, the poverty she lives in as an underpaid Public Defender and her working-class background that helps her identify even more closely with the clients she defends.

As I started to build from those facts, I realized how much I actually did identify with Mary Jane, even though the circumstances of our lives were different. I, too, come from a childhood that contained deep trauma, that was difficult to make sense of and that has had repercussions throughout my adulthood. I, too, have found myself believing that I could somehow reverse those experiences by falling in with people who reflected my upbringing in mysterious ways. And I, too, have felt that encouraging a person’s (many different persons) potential strongly enough would be sufficient to change a life.

Then, add to that mix, the research I did into the criminal justice system; combined with the on-going despair I’ve felt about our country’s vicious track record when it comes to prison time, racism and police brutality; combined with the stories a former corrections officer brought into one of our rehearsals; combined with the experience of living in Boston again after 11 years away; combined with an incredible scene partner in the role of Angel who brings beautifully complex work to the table and…it’s a lot.

Since our last couple of weeks of rehearsal and into our run, I’ve had a very hard time shaking this play when I leave the theater. I can’t find a way to decompress after shows and I drive the long way home to calm down. It’s to the point where I can only sleep for a couple of hours at a time, my dreams are entirely from Mary Jane’s world, and I wake myself up crying, thinking that I’ve fucked it all up for good and destroyed a man’s life. And, at the same time, I’m so sad that our run is nearly over and I won’t get to continue on with Mary Jane indefinitely. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment. But it’s such a rare and wonderful gift when this happens…for a character to blaze into my life with such intensity that I have to make room for her and learn what she has to teach me.

THESE LITTLE WONDERS

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The other night I was standing in our tiny, gritty, art space rehearsing for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Got some productive time on a monologue with my two directors and then the entire cast listened to a former prison corrections officer share his experience with us. I love those moments when everyone is focused on the same goal–when the dots start to connect and you can see the pieces coming together. Mary Jane started showing up for me, for the first time, and I can finally see where she might want to take me.

I took the back roads home under a bright, round, moon under a sky of stars. I nearly hit a young deer–something that hasn’t happened since my Indiana college days. The road meandered between two lakes–the water so high and sparkling it nearly met the pavement. There were woods everywhere and a cacophony of crickets I could hear through the window. I rolled my windows down, let the spring air in, and the cricket-song moved me so much I started crying.

I feel like a desert wanderer who has finally found water.

In L.A., it was years between plays because it was so damn hard just to get an audition. And then, when I did get a play, there was always a sliver of hope that “someone” would see it; that it would “somehow” lead to “something.” Here, I don’t have that hope. I don’t have even a handful of friends in the area who will see me in this play, let alone someone who might cast me in a professional gig. And something about that is so liberating…to work again just for the sake of the work…to find joy in the pure experience–which I do. I was standing in that rehearsal and I suddenly felt a thrill go through my entire body. That hasn’t happened in a long time. It wasn’t because something had happened. It was just because I loved being there, doing the work, surrounded by other people who love doing the work.

And those crickets…God, I’ve been so starved for nature. In L.A., I’d work my ass off to be able to afford a three-day trip to a national park. It’d take hours to get out of that city of traffic. Now, everywhere I go, I’m surrounded by trees, water, stone fences, wildlife, history. I can see the sky. Driving home, I realized–I was as happy with these small joys as if I held the keys to the kingdom. I still want to be a working actor. I still want to make money and have personal freedom. I still want to be in the game. But it takes so little, so very little, to really make me happy. And I can’t believe how long I went without the smallest of joys and how lucky I am, at last, to feel them again.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM A YEAR OF FILMS BY WOMEN

 

Ocean Waif

In October of 2015, Women in Film Los Angeles launched a challenge that asked people to watch one film a week by a woman for a year and to share and discuss those films on social media. To date they’ve reached over 11,000 pledges and are still going strong.

What I’ve learned from my year of women-directed films is much the same as what I’m hearing from everyone else–namely, that you really have to dig if you want to consistently discover female filmmakers. Here are my observations from the year:

  • I wanted to watch current films, not just the standards that everyone already knows. It was much easier to find independent films with female directors; very difficult to find mainstream studio films. The Wrap recently released this stat:

    …of the 149 movies currently slated for a wide release from the six legacy studios over the next three years, only 12 have female directors. That means a whopping 92 percent of the major motion pictures due in theaters through the end of 2019 will be helmed by men.

  • Sometimes I couldn’t find a narrative feature at all and that’s when I started filling out my year with shorts and documentaries–both of which are much more prolific in terms of female directors. Once again, it all comes back to money and opportunity. What can you make when you have neither? I scoured other people’s lists to see what they were watching and the same films came up over and over again (as they will on my list too). There were limited choices; sometimes nothing appealed to me and I had to go outside the box to find something I wanted to watch.
  • This process of deliberately watching films from female perspective is what finally drove home to me how much of my life–and the lives of all women–have been shaped by the male gaze and point-of-view. Our stories are not being told and so, because we don’t see ourselves on screen or the potential for what we can be on screen, we often don’t see another choice but to accept and perpetuate the myths and stereotypes of what a woman is or what she can and should be. Of course there are many exceptions (thank you, new Star Wars franchise) and media is not the only thing that shapes a life but I’d never before realized just how critical a role it actually did play for me. What could the world look like for future generations of women if we were truly represented?
  • One of my reasons for taking the pledge was to find a director for my own feature project. I fell in love with a lot of new filmmakers but one issue remains: most of them don’t have the breadth of experience that male filmmakers have and may require a leap of faith. Years and years go by between most women’s first and second features…sometimes more years than you can believe and it’s actually tragic how long it takes for a woman to find the funding or opportunity to make one film, let alone several.
  • A highlight: Ashley Judd seeing my blog about her film Come Early Morning (one of my all-time favorites) and writing a lovely comment to me on Facebook.
  • I watched 35 Narrative Features, 8 Narrative Shorts, 6 Documentary Features and 3 Documentary Shorts.
  • My Top Five new films that I discovered and highly recommend are: Stray Dog (Documentary Feature) by Debra Granik, Into the Forest (Narrative Feature) by Patricia Rozema, Hostile Border (Narrative Feature) by Kaitlin McLaughlin & Michael Dwyer, Cigarette Candy (Narrative Short) by Laura Wolkstein and Emotional Fusebox (Narrative Short) by Rachel Tunnard.
  • I remain committed to working with women directors and am very inspired and excited by the prospect. I also remain committed to seeking out films by women on a regular basis and especially to supporting them at the box office and on social media–two places where it counts.
  • Join the movement and take your own #52FilmsByWomen pledge HERE.

The Films

LOVE & BASKETBALL (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood

OBSELIDIA (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Diane Bell

BLEEDING HEART (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Diane Bell

GAS FOOD LODGING (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Allison Anders

STORIES WE TELL (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Sarah Polley

COME EARLY MORNING (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Joey Lauren Adams

SELMA (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Ana DuVernay

STRAY DOG (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Debra Granik

ANOTHER KIND OF GIRL (Documentary Short) / Directed by Khaldia Jibawi

JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Amy J. Berg

I DON’T CARE (Narrative Short) / Directed by Carolina Giammetta

LIFE IN COLOR (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Katharine Emmer

ADVANTAGEOUS (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Jennifer Phang

THE INTERN (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Nancy Meyers

HOSTILE BORDER (Narrative Feature) / Co-Directed by Kaitlin McLaughlin & Michael Dwyer

TOUCH (Narrative Short) / Directed by Jen McGowan

SPEED DATING (Narrative Short) / Directed by Meghann Artes

BELLE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Amma Asante

GIRLHOOD (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Celine Sciamma

ENOUGH SAID (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Nicole Holofcener

HOTEL 22 (Documentary Short) / Directed by Elizabeth Lo

MIELE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Valeria Golino

SEQUIN RAZE (Narrative Short) / Directed by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

EMOTIONAL FUSEBOX (Narrative Short) / Directed by Rachel Tunnard

CIGARETTE CANDY (Narrative Short) / Directed by Lauren Wolkstein

WAITRESS (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Adrienne Shelly

THE PIG CHILD (Narrative Short) / Directed by Lucy Campbell

WATER (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Deepa Mehta

TALLULAH (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sian Heder

WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Gillian Armstrong

FANGIRL (Documentary Short) / Directed by Liza Mandelup

ALWAYS WORTHY (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Marianna Palka

STRANGERLAND (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Kim Farrant

BONESHAKER (Narrative Short) / Directed by Frances Bodomo

PINE RIDGE (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Anna Eborn

BRIDGET JONES’S BABY (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sharon Maguire

IMAGINE I’M BEAUTIFUL (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Meredith Edwards

BIG STONE GAP (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Adriana Trigiani

CERTAIN WOMEN (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Kelly Reichardt

SUFFRAGETTE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sarah Gavron

OPERATOR (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Logan Kibens

RED ROVER (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Brooke Goldfinch

INTO THE FOREST (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Patricia Rozema

BRIGHT STAR (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Jane Campion

ALWAYS SHINE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sophia Takal

IT HAD TO BE YOU (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sasha Gordon

AMERICAN HONEY (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Andrea Arnold

THE DRESSMAKER (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

LEARNING TO DRIVE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Isabel Coixet

THE WINDING STREAM (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Beth Harrington

THE INTERVENTION (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Clea Duvall

DESERTED (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Ashley Avis

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