The Actor Initiative

AN Interview with Artistic Director Erin Shea Brady and Artistic Associates Mollyanne Nunn and Bex Sohn on typecasting, body shaming in theatre, and No Stakes' new Actor Initiative.

Ian Michael James: So let's start with a brief intro. Have the three of you worked together before?

Mollyanne Nunn: Yes, we have!

Erin Shea Brady: Mollyanne and I went to school together at Columbia but really started working together on The Rise and Fall of Little Voice last year. Rebecca and I met doing Our Class at Remy Bumppo and then spent over a year working together on Little Voice - from the staged reading to our production at Theater Wit. They were two of the first to join No Stakes as Artistic Associates and I'm very fortunate to be working with them!

Ian: This coming year, No Stakes is taking things in a slightly different direction. Erin, tell us a little bit about that

Erin: Yes! We aren't taking anything away from our work in 2016 but we are adding to it! We are going to include actors in our conversations about play selection through a super exciting new initiative. The issue of typecasting has been taking my attention in a big way. I’m increasingly aware of how harmful it is to our industry, our creativity and to our actors.

Ian: How so?

Erin: So much of it has to do with challenging our society’s definition of neutral. The entertainment industry is guilty of perpetuating the myth that “normal” means young, white and thin. Chicago is a much more open-minded place to work than New York or LA and still I hear story after story. Women who are being made to eat onstage in every. single. play. because of their size. Actors of color who are limited to roles that perpetuate racial stereotypes. This isn’t everywhere. We’re all working hard to correct it. But it’s 2016 and we have yet to move past it. This is a town that strongly supports creative growth and yet, still, the big, juicy opportunities are frequently denied those who society has deemed as “other” for reasons that are arbitrary and have little to do with the actors’ potential to tell the playwright's story.

Ian: So where does No Stakes comes in?

Erin: Through our new Actor Initiative, we're opening up a door to actors who want to explore roles outside of their traditional “type”. We want to know - what is the role you want to learn from? Where do you want to go from here? How can this role help you learn the thing you need to learn to get to your next step? It’s not so different from what we’re doing for directors with WINGSPAN.

Ian: What will this do for No Stakes?

Erin: I really think that it will allow us to make better work! Casting against type opens up a world of opportunity. I firmly believe - and it’s the basis of No Stakes - that if we go outside of our comfort zone, we’re forced to play around in pockets of our brain that we haven't explored and that's what makes us grow. I was super lucky to have had Tom Mula as an acting teacher at Columbia College Chicago–

Mollyanne Nunn: Tom Mula is the best.

Erin: Right? And he had us do a scene from Streetcar. He sat down with me and my scene partner and asked, “Okay, so who is Blanche and who is Stella?” I was like, “Stella”, because I’m usually the quieter one. And he said, “Okay great, play Blanche.” That scene allowed me to open up and play in a whole new way. It is, by far, the truest acting I’ve ever done because I couldn’t rest on what I already knew or had planned. It was a huge gift.

Ian: So what form will this take? How will we open up these opportunities without sacrificing the playwright's intention? 

Erin: I think because, as a company, we're young and small, we have room to explore. People don't anticipate any one thing from us yet, so we can experiment and play with form. This year, we have discovered the power of staged readings. Production-wise, they're pretty straightforward so we're able to produce several of them. They don't so much require that the actors are the right age or, yes, type. The artists can still learn from rehearsing the script and performing in front of an audience. In the case of a young actor wanting to learn from Blanche DuBois, whose story leans heavily on her age and how she grapples with getting older, we'll opt for a staged reading instead of a full production. In another case, casting against type may support the playwright's intention and allow us to explore it in a new way. So we're keeping it open to whatever we feel best suits the project.

Artistic Director Erin Shea Brady: "I firmly believe - and it's the basis of No Stakes - that if we go outside of our comfort zone, we're forced to play around in pockets of our brain that we haven't explored and that's what makes us grow."

Artistic Director Erin Shea Brady: "I firmly believe - and it's the basis of No Stakes - that if we go outside of our comfort zone, we're forced to play around in pockets of our brain that we haven't explored and that's what makes us grow."

Ian: What challenges do you foresee?

Erin: Something like this can become about ego really quickly, and at No Stakes, that’s not what we do. A strong collaboration between actor and director is key, so much of our focus will be on bringing the right combination of artists together. The director's place as the authority in the room is essential to ensuring a cohesive production, so if it's the actor's pitch, a balance will have to be struck. 

This is also not a place for white actors to play roles meant for people of color. We want to create opportunities for underserved actors - not take more away. Each proposal will be considered with a great deal of thought. We are still committed to truthful storytelling. The audience has to be invested. It's not a free for all.

Ian: Our mission, thus far, has focused on supporting emerging directors. How will this continue to do so? 

Erin: Well, in part, we are expanding our mission, but I don't believe that WINGSPAN and the Actor Initiative are mutually exclusive. We want directors and actors to be able to take their education and continued growth into their own hands. (Also, to clarify, when I say emerging, I don’t just mean young. I mean artists who are still coming into their own.) We are supporting directors through the projects that scare them, right? And as directors, we also need to learn how to open our minds when it comes to casting, how to create a safe and healthy environment, how to support actors in the rehearsal room when they're outside of their comfort zone. I haven't been perfect at it but it has always been a priority. I think it’s a hugely important part of the job and we're giving directors the opportunity to really focus on healthy and productive collaboration. 

Ian: Why is now the time to enact this initiative? 

Erin: Every time I bring this up to an actor, their face lights up. Actors need to have a voice. They are often asked to compromise their mental health or their safety or their integrity in order to get roles because the rate of competition is so high - particularly women and actors of color. When it's as easy as it is for directors and producers to abuse that power, we need to take a closer look at how we do things. We need to look at the limitations that this industry has set for us, to take the rules apart and put them back together differently. 

Mollyanne: At musical theater auditions, every girl comes in dressed exactly the same way. They wear a little blue dress and pull two little pieces of hair back off their face - very feminine. Nobody has their own identity. I decided to start walking in looking like me, like an individual, because otherwise, you lose yourself. 

Ian: So, announcement time. For our first project through this initiative, Erin will be directing Artistic Associate Rebecca Sohn in the role that she's most eager to play. 

Erin: Yes!!

Ian: And... it’s a musical! Bex, tell us a little bit about your background and why you chose to use this opportunity to play in musical theater.

Rebecca Sohn: There was a variety of body types, ages, genders and abilities all in this one, joyous room. I’d never seen anything like it and I was hooked.

Rebecca Sohn: There was a variety of body types, ages, genders and abilities all in this one, joyous room. I’d never seen anything like it and I was hooked.

Rebecca Sohn: I started as a dancer when I was 5. I studied ballet at The Pennsylvania Ballet Company’s school and performed in The Nutcracker for several years. When I hit puberty my body changed and that meant everything came to a screeching halt. I was no longer a candidate. Dreams dismissed. I’ve never really gotten over that and I don’t expect to. It’s just with me. It was devastating. At the same time that my ballet career ended, I was 16. It was perfect timing to develop a terrible body image. Since that moment, I’ve felt like my body and I were at war. I went from being closely in tune with it and able to do incredibly beautiful things and to feel beautiful doing them, to having no control over it anymore. It ruined my life.

Then I moved to San Francisco and I really got into singing. At the same time I was studying voice I discovered Traditional West African Dance. That was a game changer. I heard drumming echoing off the concrete campus walls and followed the sound to the dance studio. There were live drummers and the dancers were amazing. There was a variety of body types, ages, genders and abilities all in this one, joyous room. I’d never seen anything like it and I was hooked. I hadn’t danced in 7 years. It was too painful. African Dance changed that. I immediately began to study it and have been enjoying it on and off now for close to 30 years. I love it. Everything about it is joyful. I love the grace of it and the freedom of it.

Erin: We haven't officially announced our season yet, so we'll hold off on the specifics, but when I mentioned the idea of the Actor Initiative to Bex, her response was almost immediate.

Rebecca: What draws me to this role is… everything. I love everything about it. The character is so hopeful and so determined to live the amazing life of her dreams no matter what. She is just going to pretend to be the person she wants to be until she really is that person. Fake it till you make it. She’s got moxie. I love that.

Ian: What do you think you can learn from this project? 

Rebecca: There are things that I never feel like I’ve conquered and being sexual onstage is one of them. For one thing, I feel like it’s the most naked and vulnerable you can be, without even being naked, but just the judgement of, “What is sexy? What do other people see as sexy?”

In this society, in this world, it’s very narrow - what we agree is. So, that’s scary to me and I feel like the times when I have tried to do that, I discovered that I was a funny person, that I was perceived with comedy, and you just kind of have to swallow that and let that be okay. And there’s some of that that I’m fine with and will own and that’s fine and fun, but that’s a hard, scary thing, coupled with this particular kind of dancing and singing. It’s still a character, I still get to hide behind it, but it’s a part of a role that I’ve never felt confident in. It’s scary.

Erin: Part of my challenge is to make that as safe as possible in the rehearsal room. And to talk about it, not just so much as, “This is a sexual moment, how are we going to play it?” or “This is a dance move, how are you going to do it?” We have the character's lens and context. We can talk about what, in this moment, the character would do. We can frame it in a way where the sexual moment, the dance move, the high note is a product of what best advances the story.

Rebecca: And no character is just one thing. There is also lightness and comedy. 

Erin: And intention. Any time there’s a big emotional or vulnerable moment that an actor is intimidated by, it’s my job to say, “Okay, well what do you want from the other character?” The more you can focus on the other person, the less aware of you you become. And that’s a big thing. Bex, you and I gravitate towards plays that are intense and wonderful but scary. So, it’s a challenge for me to be able to support you in that and to learn how to best create the room that will allow us to move forward.

Rebecca: And with this Actor Initiative, it’s “What role would you play that you would never get cast in?” This is a role that I have always wanted to play that I would still never get cast in, and now we’re also adding age into it. That’s a huge factor. I’m not interested in doing an ego piece. When you open up this question, it could easily be just to serve an actor’s ego. I really want to serve this play and find a way for the audience to accept me in this role. I don’t know where my dancing abilities lie anymore outside of African dance. 

Mollyanne: And that’s one of my favorite things about choreographing. I come in with a frame, but everything looks different on different people. I love that. Something that looks good on you might look awful on me, and that’s the fun part for me. Finding what works for that individual person. What looks sexy on you could make me look like a doofus.

Rebecca: I’ve never heard a choreographer speak to that!

Mollyanne: It’s body positivity. You can be big and be a great dancer. You can have short legs and be a great dancer. But we’ve become so accustomed to, “This height, skinny, long legs.” That doesn’t make you a good dancer. It doesn’t make you interesting to watch.

Ian: Erin, how did the collaboration between you and Mollyanne come about? As director/choreographer, how will you work together?

Erin: I knew that I would not be able to confidently take on this project without her. Not just a choreographer, but Mollyanne. Molly, when you came into Little Voice, I knew you were a great dancer. I knew you followed your instincts and you’re one of the bravest actors I know, so, I wanted you in the room. But to see the way you worked with LV, I could see that we are the same. We want to bring something out in the person we’re working with and it’s not a cookie cutter thing. That piece was so character-driven. You and Scarlet and I worked together to see, “Can we free up or change LV's voice with movement?” I never questioned that we had the same goals.

Mollyanne: I want to break the mold of what it “should be”. I think there’s so much room to be playful. I can give you a move and I can make you do it a thousand times but if you aren’t comfortable doing this move, it’ll never look the way it’s pictured in my head. I love learning the way people’s bodies work. Rebecca, you have a really strong background in African dance. Let's use it! Your story - starting ballet and not having the right body type - that is exactly my story, too. I was this tiny, petite thing and they said, let’s move her to New York! And then I grew a chest and they made me feel very ashamed. I would literally tape myself down and wear a leotard with a shirt on top of it to keep myself in. It got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. And that’s when I found contemporary. It’s all about taking those constructed, unnatural moves and finding them in your own body. How does this weird, awkward movement relate to you?

Erin: Yep. I’m interested in whatever feels good. I’m interested in whatever serves you guys the best, and we will find moments in that to further the story.

Mollyanne: Dance isn’t a natural thing for our bodies to do, so it has to feel good. Whether a move makes you feel powerful or sexy or vulnerable or beautiful.

Erin: It’s a tool! Music, too. Much of the work is to find the song in your own voice. I’m never going to hit a note like Patti LuPone because she’s amazing and she’s her. But how many different ways can I make a sound on that note? What movements can I make that change that sound? How does it sit on a different vowel? It’s all about playing and finding your range, and then using that range to tell the story. The way characters are expressed musically gives us more information. It's an extension of our normal, so it allows us to explore things that we don’t have available to us, day-to-day.

Ian: Erin, what excites you about directing this piece?

Erin: I’m excited to see Bex and Mollyanne explore this through dance because I have a mental block. I have so much dance-related frustration and trauma relating to my own body-image issues. When I was pursuing musical theater as a kid, dance was just something I never really got. I remember feeling like I got it and feeling like I was in it, and whoever my dance teacher was at the time would say, “You just need to commit to it more!” And I felt so committed to it, I was working so hard - I never knew what that next step was. Dance - my body - was the thing that was going to stop me from becoming a musical theater performer. I’m excited for the opportunity to see you guys work and see if it unlocks something for me.

Mollyanne: I started dancing when I was two, and by the time I was four, I was dancing with girls twice my age. I just had a knack for it. I think I was six when people started telling me to not eat the food at Thanksgiving - to just smell it. My mom was horrified and yanked me out of that class, but I was keeping a food log by the time I was ten. At ten years old, we don’t know that naturally. That’s something that society teaches us to do. When I got to college, I struggled with an eating disorder because I somehow associated “getting the part” with being littler. I saw littler girls getting the part. And, sure enough, the littler I got, the more opportunities I had.

Erin: It’s crazy when that behavior is so directly rewarded.

Mollyanne: It was junior year of college before I thought, I can’t live this way anymore. What’s the point of any of this if we’re so miserable we can’t enjoy the experience?

Erin: I had a similar, but kind of the opposite experience where I would not eat and it didn’t work. I remember thinking, “I can’t even starve myself to be what those girls are.” 

Rebecca: I had the same lack of success. I referred to myself as a “failed bulimic” because I would do all of the things and I was still big. And by big I mean, not big. Not big by any standard except for that one. 

Erin: That’s what’s so crazy. That standard. Molly, you’re talking about society teaching us to be this way - and it absolutely does on a very dangerous level. I forget, though, that it’s magnified for us. In the industry where we’re supposed to reflect the world back, we deal with these issues times ten because as women, success and opportunity is directly linked to our weight. Whether or not we can effectively portray "normal people". We’re not usually five and six when those insecurities come in. This is the industry that has the most power to change those narratives and we’re perpetuating them. It’s just so backwards.

The words “type” and “typecasting” extend so far beyond what we think of - the funny friend, the leading lady. There can still be a leading lady and a funny friend - but what do they look like, who are they, who do we cast in those roles? That’s what we need to explore.

Ian: The funny friend doesn’t have to be the one black character in the show.

Erin: Or the brunette.

Rebecca: Or the one with glasses. That's still such a thing. She has glasses and wears a ponytail and then she becomes beautiful when she lets her hair down and takes her glasses off.

Mollyanne: We have so much power to show people a different way of being and we're not. 

Erin: Dramaturgically, we look at old movies to see "what life was like back then" - with a grain of salt, but still. This is how life gets preserved and there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that.

Ian: The message of that is, man, if she would just adhere to society's standard of what beauty is, then everyone would realize how beautiful she is.

Rebecca: Because she took off her glasses. She can't see, P.S. 

Erin: Lindy West, who is so brilliant, starts her book Shrill with a list of all of the fat women she saw on TV as a kid. They are basically Ursula or Mrs. Potts. In real life, fat women have romantic relationships and function like human beings. It doesn't need to be controversial to have a fat woman play a romantic lead.

Rebecca: And the thing that's so amazing to me is, in our lives, in real life, we accept it. But, suddenly when it's onstage, we have to tell a story "this way" only.

Erin: We have this amazing tool. People dress up like Katniss Everdeen for Halloween. People cling to characters in movies and onstage for inspiration. There's so much power in it to tell stories that let people know they aren't alone, to reach out in this very personal way and we're abusing it. We're using it to make people small.

Rebecca: There's a parallel, too, in the political climate. We tear people apart when we should be building them up. That's the agenda of all dictatorships - that's how you keep people down.

Ian: So, why this play now?

Erin: This is a play about acceptance. People find a place where they are accepted, and that gets taken away.

Rebecca: And it couldn’t be more relevant.

Erin: You can take this play and apply it to many of the horrible things that are going on in the world right now, politically, and it’s also an opportunity to discuss how those politics are perpetuated in the media. Shonda Rhimes made this great speech at the HRC gala - she said, “I’m not ‘diversifying’ television, I’m ‘normalizing’ it.” Diversity isn’t the “other”. The thing that is “other” is the thing that we are used to watching on TV. That’s the thing that is wrong. This is an opportunity to create an ensemble of normal people - people who are of the real world, the one that we live in. We get to see them find the place where they fit - their tribe - and then we see that home get taken away by hate. There’s nothing that’s more relevant right now.

All photos courtesy of Resident Photographer Liz Scheiner