CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Actor Kelly AuCoin – Part 3 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, What To Watch

[Photo credit: Quentin Mare]

[Photo credit: Quentin Mare]

I’m very pleased to present Part 3 (the final installment) of my in-depth conversation with theater, film, and television actor KELLY AuCOIN

You may be familiar with Kelly’s recurring roles as Pastor Tim on The Americans (FX), ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn on Billions (Showtime), Gary Stamper on House of Cards (Netflix), and Benjamin Stalder on The Blacklist (NBC). 

A glance at his IMDb page gives you an idea of how busy Kelly has been on television and in the movies, but he also has an illustrious theater career. In 2015, Kelly won a Drama Desk Award for his work in Signature Theatre’s The Wayside Motor Inn. He also starred as Octavius Caesar, opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus, in the Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, among numerous other roles. 

Later this year, Kelly will be seen in the Alec Baldwin/Salma Hayek film Drunk Parents, and in HBO’s upcoming The Wizard Of Lies, starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer.

This conversation has been posted in three installments. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 is here.

In Part 3, Kelly talks about the importance of owning the moment in performance; the role social media plays in the life of a working actor; and what he wants to improve in himself as a performer. –VA

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What are you most proud of, in terms of what you’re able to do in performance?

I think what I’m most proud of, I think I can own an audience. Breaking the fourth wall or not, I can stand downstage center and meet everyone in the eye and love it, and gain energy from it, and manipulate them. And I love it. “Manipulate”, “own them” – those are words, of course, that could sound negative, and I certainly don’t mean them that way. But I like that. I like that a lot. And that’s actually something that only the stage provides, and the stage is absolutely my love. So I do love that. It makes me feel like I want to play Prospero [in Shakespeare’s The Tempest] someday. [laughs]

I can see it! I can definitely see it. You need a few more years, but yeah…!

Thank you! [laughs] The other thing is, though – that scene I was talking about from last summer – I’ve never played a scene that I’ve loved more. There’ve been others that are wonderful scenes, too, but that’s the most recent example where two actors are just, like, we would do something different every night, but we were so in tune that it was always alive. Even when we would lose lines, which would happen every once in a while, it was still there, the scene was still there.

So the other thing I would say I’m proud of, the only award I’ve ever won was a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble [a special award in 2015 for A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn]. I love that that’s the only award, because that’s all I give a shit about – ensemble.

And so I’m proud that things like that scene happen with regularity – scenes where I, with another person, can create an extended series of moments that can sing, that can be in the zone, and that do so regularly – and I love that.

It’s interesting, because those are two very different things.

They’re two very different things, in a way.

And owning the stage and owning the audience, again, I think we’re talking about expanding to fill the space and also becoming larger yourself. Not just what you’re doing is filling the space, but becoming an enhanced version of yourself, and not just through the character but actually through yourself.

Right, yeah.

And I think it’s absolutely true that there are some people who get onstage and they become enhanced versions of themselves – they actually augment who they are.

I think that’s true.

So I think it’s great that you love that about what you do, because I spend a lot of time trying to convince my clients to do that. “Own it! Own your moment. This is what all the work is about, so you might as well!”

Yeah, and it’s the fun part, too! And that’s the thing that’s hard, that’s when fear gets in the way, I think. Because when you’re doing that, you are making it very clear that you think, or know, that what you’re doing is good. That you are good.

Or that what you’re doing is true.

Or true. But I think when the fear comes in, I think it’s that people aren’t afraid as much in this situation of being called out for having something true. I think they’re afraid of people saying, “That wasn’t good.” And maybe false comes into it, too, but ultimately then what they’re saying when they hear “That was false” is “You’re bad.”

You’re stating, “I’m worth watching, and I’m the most interesting person in this room right now, and I am good at what I do.” And I think that’s a powerful thing, because if someone doesn’t like it, then they’re saying, “Psshh, you think you’re good…” [laughs] And there’s nothing more devastating than having someone say that.

So yeah, you’re right, it’s about owning that, but there’s nothing more fun than that. That’s the fun! And to get to the fun, you’ve got to be cocky, and you have to know your shit doesn’t stink. Of course it does sometimes, but you still have to know it.

There’s actually a podcast called “The Moment”, by Brian Koppelman – he’s one of the showrunners and creators of Billions – and it’s based on a lot of conversations about things, but at least at some point in every interview he gets to the part where he asks the performer or the artist or the person, “Was there a moment…?” He’s interested in people where, there’s a moment that you can either rise to or won’t rise to, where your career can take something that launches it. If you meet it, then everything changes; if you don’t, that’s interesting, too. He had [actor] Ellen Barkin on, and she was talking about all the moments where she didn’t rise to meet it, and that was interesting.

David Costabile, who plays Wags on Billions, he had taught, and he had done clowning, a lot of theater. I actually roomed with him in London – we barely saw each other again until the first table read of the pilot for Billions. But he talks about one of the best teachers, I think he was saying, that he had who said, “You have to assume your own brilliance.” So Koppelman said, “So you have to assume you’re brilliant.” He said, “No, you have to assume your own brilliance.”

And the slight variation to that, it’s hard to put it into words and I’m probably going to say it wrong, but what struck me about that – I wish I’d had a teacher that told me early on about that, that’s a great note – “assume it”, that means two things, you know? I am assuming in this moment that I can do it, and I am this. But also, you take it on. And that’s tied in with that opera thing, in a way, that I was talking about – be the big bombastic thing, don’t worry if it’s good enough or not. In a way, it’s tied into that. And that’s fun. And it’s fun for the audience.

And the other thing I was going to say, it does sound on one level like two different things – owning the stage and the other…

But I don’t really think they are different.

No, I don’t either, but it can in a cursory way. But I think in those moments, it’s still about connection. But the audience has become your scene partner, in those cases. And so it’s still about listening and reacting and reading, even though it’s just you up onstage.

Well, and when you’re an ensemble, everybody’s counting on you to own it. You have to,

Yeah, they want you to. And there’s nothing like existing in the same room, you and an audience. You’re breathing the same fucking air, you know? It’s the same molecules. And what you’re doing in that room is utterly unique. It’ll never happen exactly the same way again. It’s magical. We all know this, it’s a cliché, we’ve all said this before, but it’s true. And we bring that knowledge with us when we go onstage, and when we go to see a play. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t think live performance will ever die – because it’s an utterly unique experience.

And it’s so primal, don’t you think?

It’s so primal.

It goes back to the caves, that storytelling. At one point it was more about survival, really, but then it turned into entertainment, and passing along the stories, and the furthering of the human experience. When you go to a live performance, no one’s forcing you to do it. You’re doing it because you want that experience, and so you might as well, as a performer, meet it.

Absolutely, absolutely. Why not? [laughs]

I talk to a lot of musicians who tour all over the world, and they tend to talk about how they feel like their job is traveling, but then when they perform, that’s the play – I mean, literally, play. They’re traveling for a living, but then they get to play.

And auditioning is the work [for actors]. And obviously there’s a lot of work that can be painful and stressful and fraught and upsetting – rehearsals, and everything – but then once you’re up, yeah, that’s the play. And if you do hit those zones periodically, there’s nothing better.

You came up at a time when there wasn’t social media. And then there was social media, and now there’s this sort of faux intimacy that goes on with what do you let out there, what do you say about yourself, what do you promote intentionally, what do you maybe make sound even better than it actually is, and all that kind of stuff. What is the persona of being you, and also being the journeyman that you are, where you want to be a chameleon, but you’re still presenting a persona, but you’re not – and I’m sure management has a lot to do with that, too.

Right.

How do you experience that? It used to be that all that kind of publicity was done in a very controlled environment – how you shaped your image – and now there’s a lot you can do yourself…

You have to.

…but there’s so much going on and you can’t control everything, and people post things about you, and all that. Does that enter into the craft part of it? Do you notice that chatter? Is that shaping who you are in any way?

I don’t think so. And Facebook and Twitter serve two different functions for me. Twitter is more about the advertising. Because no one emails anymore and no one wants to receive big mass-emails about your play, I do tell people when I’m doing a play, on Facebook. If there’s a great review, I might post that. But now that I’m using Twitter, I do that much less.

Because there’s always that weird line with Facebook – you know, the “humblebrag” – which I get, it’s just hard, because how will you talk about what you’re doing? Because people say they want to come and they want to hear about it, but then how do you talk about it without sounding like a dick? [laughs]

So I advertise a lot less on Facebook, and I advertise more on Twitter. It seems more ripe for some things. Like, “So excited! Going to be shooting the next blah blah blah.” It just seems more like the business option. At least I’m using it that way, and I haven’t been accused of humblebragging on Twitter. [laughs] And I don’t even know if I was, that much, on Facebook – I’m just always afraid of it, because I see it. I don’t know, there’s something that just seems to be more off-putting on Facebook than on Twitter when you’re talking about your gigs. I don’t know what it is – maybe the brevity that you’re forced into on Twitter helps.

I think also, unless you have a “business” page on Facebook, it’s your friends, you know? At least, nominally, it’s your friends.

Right. And with Facebook, too, when people were starting to get the business pages, people were, like, [mockingly] “Oh…you think you should have a business page…?” I don’t know, there’s just something about it. And yes, it’s your friends, but we want to know what our friends are doing – it’s just hard.

And I also don’t get very political with Twitter – I get much more political with Facebook. Until recently, actually – until the Black Lives Matter stuff. I think I lost a bunch of Twitter followers since I’ve said things, and it’s fine, I don’t care. But in general I try to stay away from politics on Twitter, and make it more about business and everyday life stuff. Also, I like people who have funny Twitter feeds, so if I think something’s funny I’ll post it, and others might disagree, but I enjoy that type of banter on that platform.

But you don’t find that it informs your choices in any way.

No. I think I got a lot of followers because of the Americans connection, and a lot of people, I think, found it surprising that I was laughing about all the “kill Pastor Tim” feeds. To my mind, I was, like, “People are talking about Pastor Tim, that’s awesome!” He started off as a very marginal character, and now people are invested in whether or not he lives or dies. I don’t like the conclusion they’ve come to, but…[laughs]

So I think actually, in some ways, people – it’s so silly that I’m going to say this – but I think the fans like it. Oh god, I can’t believe I just said that – ewww! [laughs]

But I do think it’s fun to have interactions with people who like the show, and I think it’s probably fun for some people to have discovered that it’s ok if you hate the character. It’s fine, I like that you think about the character!

Well, I think, Kelly, it’s safe to say that there are actual fans…I think you can say that, because it’s empirically true…

[Laughs] No, I know, but it’s weird to say it. I don’t mean to imply my fans – I would never be, like, “You know, my fans deserve it!” [laughs]

So no, I’ve never felt that it informs…no. Now, I don’t know, I can only surmise what it might be like if you have two hundred fifty thousand followers, or a million followers, or you’re the lead on a show, and maybe the PR for the network would be, like, “Oh, this is what we’re hearing…” I have no idea. For me, it’s just sort of fun to joke around with people, and if someone says something nice, I’m usually, like, “Thanks! That’s amazing! [laughs] I’ve worked in obscurity for a loooong time, so thanks for saying anything!”

“Thanks for noticing me!”

[Laughs] FX [which airs The Americans] and Showtime [which airs Billions] have, a few times, asked me to live-tweet along, and that’s fun, because you get the same group of people every week, and maybe you rehash jokes. It’s fun to interact, but no, it hasn’t informed me.

Do you have a sense of seeing yourself from across the room when you’re performing?

Oh yeah, sometimes.

What’s that like for you?

First thing, I’m usually, like, “Hhhh, lose five pounds!” [laughs] I think it’s less when I’m performing than when I’m rehearsing. Because I think it’s a helpful tool in building a performance. I think it can, for me anyway, get in the way during performance.

Like, I was describing that tiny voice that’s non-verbal, that can feel the euphoria, that can be aware that you’re in a zone. I think if you move too much towards, “Aaaah, this is what I look like!”, that becomes too conscious, for me. But I think there’s plenty of room for that while you’re rehearsing, and then hopefully you can push that aside when you’re performing.

I think that some people have that ability to do that, and some people don’t, and it’s kind of a hard thing to teach or to acquire. But do you get a sense that that perception that you have of yourself from across the room, is that accurate?

[Laughs] Good question! I mean, we have to trust that it is – just like assuming your own brilliance. Yeah, I don’t know. I think you have to believe that it is. And then you have to surround yourself, over your career, with people that you trust who can tweak that perception a bit as you go along, and hope that you never get to a position where you think you’ve learned it all and you can’t be tweaked for the better anymore.

So given that, what are you aware of wanting to improve in yourself as a performer as you go forward?

I feel like I damaged my voice at some point, and I don’t know how I did that exactly. But there was a show about five years ago, Blood and Gifts [by J.T. Rogers], a great play about America and Afghanistan in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And it was very heightened. We had an unusual space – there wasn’t a proscenium [Note to readers: a proscenium is what we think of as a traditional type of stage setup], and there was nothing, really, to bounce your voice off of, and the acoustics were not great.

So we were pushing our voices a lot more than we would have normally. And that was another thing about not going to grad school – I have a good voice, and I’ve had snippets of training, but I never had the same type of training that a lot of people do. So I noticed it for the first time. There’s a higher register that I can’t access anymore. And part of that is aging, but part of it feels like damage, for lack of a better word. So I’d like to figure that out – which would indicate that I would do something about it, and of course I haven’t done anything about it and it was five years ago. [laughs] So that would be one thing.

And, what else? Oh, I’m sure there are plenty – I’d just like to get better at everything! [laughs] You know, it would be fun to have time to take workshops in styles that I haven’t done in a while. I haven’t done Shakespeare in so long – it was 2005, the last Shakespeare play I did. I’d like to do more of that, because it used to be my staple. It’s like muscles – you have to work the muscles or they atrophy.

Was Julius Caesar the last Shakespeare you did? [Note to readers: Kelly played Octavius Caesar opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus on Broadway in 2005.]

Yeah.

Which leads me to my next question. You’re going into all these situations with all these wonderful, storied actors. How do you deal with not being stage-struck when you have to do your job – even with people who aren’t famous but whom you admire tremendously for what they can do?

Right. I think Caesar helped me get over that, a bit, because there were so many stars in that show. And then there was this mega-mega-mega-star. So there was only one person to be intimidated by, if that makes any sense. [laughs] And then my character was just a complete prick to Denzel, and so you could fight against that by just doubling down on the, “Oh yeah? Well, fuck you!” Which is what I did, and I think it worked really well. And I actually think it might have irritated him – I don’t know. [laughs] But that’s good!

Yeah, that was your job anyway!

Yeah! Yeah, that is something to keep in mind, and it sort of ties in with what I was talking about, about being a guest star on a TV show. It’s hard not to worry about staying in your place and not stepping on toes, but you can’t. So Julius Caesar was one step in getting past that, and then working on Without A Trace, where I had those scenes with the other guest star, where it was my first time owning scenes, being the focus of a series of scenes where we were the highest on the call sheet, and being able to have the freedom, then, to own that the way I would in a play, and trying to maintain that type of energy even when the stars were back on set.

[Note to readers: a call sheet is a daily production schedule given to the cast and crew which is put together based on the scenes that will be shot that day; typically, the actors are listed on the call sheet in the order of their status or importance to the production on that particular day, from highest to lowest.]

What did you learn about performing from watching your dad be a politician, if anything?

[Laughs] I know that I must have gotten stuff from him. Maybe the idea that you have to connect with people even when you’re not feeling it, performatively.

Good one!

And he always wanted to connect with people, but sometimes, as people do, you’re not feeling the energy – and you can’t just not do it – finding a way to make the connection happen, to whatever extent you can on that given day.

There’s something about a work ethic, I think, that I got from watching him, too. I still, if I’m late for a call [Note to readers: a call is the time that an actor has been told to report to work] – rehearsal or show or anything – I just, I mean, I text my stage manager at the first hint that I might be two minutes late. And eighty percent of the time I’m not. Actually, much more than that – I rarely miss calls. I’m late for so many things, but not calls! [laughs]

My stage manager over the course of any gig will probably get twenty messages from me saying, “Oh my god, I might be late! I don’t know if I will, I’m probably going to get there on time, but I might be – I just want you to know I’m on my way!” And then I’m usually five minutes early, and I’m, like, “I’m so sorry!” They’ll tease me, but they usually say, “I’d much rather you tell me than not, so it’s fine.” But I had enough teachers early on who said, “That is your job number one – show up on time.” And it’s written into the Equity rules and the SAG rules. You show up for your call on time. That’s, like, number one, with a bullet.

[Note to readers: Kelly is referring to Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing American theater actors and stage managers, and SAG-AFTRA, the American film, television, and radio performers’ union.]

So I know that is something that a good teacher or a director will teach you early on, but I also think I saw that in my dad. His hours were crazy, and sitting in the car with so many people who were just as tired as he was, but just schlepping all over the state and giving speech after speech. So I think that that was probably one of the big things – work ethic.

Is there anything specifically about performance that you feel is part of your credo that we haven’t talked about, in terms of being a performer or the experience of performing?

I don’t know if I have a specific credo, but I would say that, to me, the most important thing is the ensemble, and that manifests onstage and off. I love tech [rehearsals], right? Most people hate it. I love being forced to think about nothing else. And oftentimes you’re in the bowels of the theater, where you get no WIFI and cell reception. So it’s just you and your buddies, and we’re all napping, and we’re all eating together, and then we’re falling asleep on the floor together – I love the camaraderie of the cast and the ensemble.

So I don’t know what the credo would be, except listen. Always, acting-wise, listen. Because you could do almost anything onstage if you’re listening and then responding to what you literally just heard, as opposed to what you planned you might hear.

[Many thanks to Kelly for generously spending so much time with me in this conversation! Readers can follow Kelly on Twitter to keep up with his busy and very interesting career. –VA]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Actor Kelly AuCoin – Part 2 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, What To Watch

[Photo credit: Quentin Mare]

[Photo credit: Quentin Mare]

I’m very pleased to present Part 2 of my in-depth conversation with theater, film, and television actor KELLY AuCOIN

You may be familiar with Kelly’s recurring roles as Pastor Tim on The Americans (FX), ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn on Billions (Showtime), Gary Stamper on House of Cards (Netflix), and Benjamin Stalder on The Blacklist (NBC). 

A glance at his IMDb page gives you an idea of how busy Kelly has been on television and in the movies, but he also has an illustrious theater career. In 2015, Kelly won a Drama Desk Award for his work in Signature Theatre’s The Wayside Motor Inn. He also starred as Octavius Caesar, opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus, in the Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, among numerous other roles. 

Later this year, Kelly will be seen in the Alec Baldwin/Salma Hayek film Drunk Parents, and in HBO’s upcoming The Wizard Of Lies, starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer.

This conversation is being posted in three installments. Part 1 can be found here.

In Part 2, Kelly talks about what it’s like to watch himself act onscreen; how he experiences being in “the zone”; and how he uses music when developing a character . –VA

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What’s your process for finding a character? Do you find yourself leaning more on intellectual processing, or sense memory, or physical manifestation? Is there one that’s more weighted than others?

There’s always an intellectual process. But I think I probably tend to feel my way into something – trying to create space for the non-intellectual impulses to come up, and then trying to follow those impulses and see how they feel. And then some of the things that make sense or don’t make sense intellectually come in sort of sideways, and then maybe later on, at the end.

There have been times when three weeks into it I realized I didn’t understand – that this had to mean something slightly different than what I was playing, because of a piece of information that I had heard but I hadn’t processed yet. And I still have this old thing of, like, every actor feels like they’re going to be discovered as a fraud at any moment. And when that type of thing happens, there’s sort of an embarrassment, or a “Dammit, this is the moment they find out I’m a fraud!”

But I keep trying to remind myself that that’s ok, because this is just my process. I get there. And other people may lead with the more intellectual stuff and then add the others, but that’s not the way I work, so it’s ok. That feeling of no stupid questions, nothing’s wrong, that exists around the table work for the first week should apply to the whole process. Sometimes it’s a big “Duuuuuhhh!” moment, like, “Oh, of course! They’re married!” [laughs] But hopefully it’s not that bad!

And the other thing about feeling my way through – the thing I love most about theater acting, in particular – is that you can almost always be incredibly ensemble-based. And you and I working on a scene right now, the best way for me, anyway, early on to figure out the scene is to really listen to what you’re doing, and respond immediately to what you’re doing. I may not know why I responded this way, but I did because of some information, some impulse you were sending to me, and it felt great.

And then I love and rely on directors, because you then talk about, “Why did that feel good?” And most of the directors I love working with won’t talk it to death – they won’t name the thing that happened, necessarily, or make you name it, because that, to me, kills it. But there will be an idea of, “Yeah, it was great…” This is so ridiculous that I’m going to say what I’m about to say, but it’s almost like a [Jackson] Pollock, where you splash paint all over, and the director helps you find that little section…

Yes, sure. It’s the framing.

It sounds so pretentious! [laughs]

No, not at all!

But I think it’s true.

I don’t think it sounds pretentious at all. I’m always talking to my clients about this when we work together – “This is just a big sandbox and we’re just throwing the sand around.”

That’s right. That’s less pretentious than, “That’s a Pollock.” [laughs]

But I think there is a generosity. And there has to be a safety zone, which is created in the work environment, but also needs to be created within yourself.

Yeah, I think that’s true. Yeah. There was a play I did last summer, and we had just a brilliant director – she’s a hero of New York theater. She’s run this particular theater company for 40 years, and she’s wonderful. And she can be very hands-on in working scenes, and she can go the other way. There was this one scene, the final scene between this woman who played my wife and me, that just sort of had a feel for her.

The first time through, we were relatively off book [Note to readers: “off book” means having your lines memorized.], holding scripts still, but we didn’t plan any blocking [Note to readers: “blocking” means deciding how and where the actors will move around the stage during a scene.], we didn’t really plan anything, and it was going to be stop/start, but we ended up getting through to the end. And the director was, like, “You know, I don’t want to fuck with this too much. Let’s leave this. There’s some shaping I’ll do, but you guys know what you’re doing in this scene, and I don’t want to kill those impulses by over-rehearsing.” And I’m saying a little bit more than what she said, but that was the gist. And so sometimes that happens, too.

It was a very emotional scene, and there was one rehearsal where I literally started crying three times during the scene. She was, like, “You know, I know that just happened, this probably just came up, but you probably want to save it for one time?” I’m like, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah, I know, I know, I know…” [laughs] Or, “The last pause works better if you cut a couple of these others.” Or, “Don’t rush that.” But little tweaks, as opposed to really getting down deep, because we just sort of inherently understood it.

Also, the actor [who played the wife] had been a friend of mine for eight or ten years, and we adore each other, and it was the first time we’d gotten to act. Part of it, I think, was literally just this joy – it was our one scene together alone, and it was just, like, “It’s you! We’re working together! Oh, cool!” So there was a natural kind of joy to it that probably helped.

That Pollock thing actually works on TV and film as well, in a different way. They want to get a scene the way they see it, but they also love some of the weird things that you might bring up spontaneously in a given take. And you never know which take they’re going to use. You don’t know what order they’re going to put it in. They might cut something, they might rearrange things in a weird way.

So there’s the editor, and the director, and the people in the editing room end up even more treating it like a Pollock, more literally – taking that chunk and moving it here. So that metaphor applies to both – that pretentious metaphor applies to both [laughs] – but just in different ways.

One thing I’ve really noticed about your screen acting is that you are really fully committed to the interaction, and reaction, of what’s going on. Not like you’re back there trying to steal the scene or something, but there’s always something going on – you’re not just passively waiting. And passive waiting can be really noticeable, when an actor does that.

Right.

Sometimes it’s, like, “Boy, that guy’s just waiting around until it’s time to do his line.”

Yeah. [laughs]

What I find, working in music performance, is looking for those micro-moments – dynamically, or however else we want to find them. And I think something I’ve really noticed about your coming from theater and being onscreen is your ability to find the interaction and the reaction to the collaboration that’s actually happening in the scene. 

Oh, cool. 

Which might be hard to manufacture in the artificiality of what’s going on in screen acting – shooting out of sequence, and “do it this way, do it that way, do it this way.”

Right.

And this is sort of an offshoot of that, but I wonder how you experience seeing yourself onscreen, and the choices that you make in reaction mode, and in principal mode. Does that affect how you do your next job? Does it hamper you in any way? Or does it encourage you?

Right. I used to hate watching myself. I had to get over it because I was putting my own reel together. [Note to readers: a reel is a video containing a sampling of an actor’s work from a variety of roles, which casting directors and others view when considering the actor for new jobs. You can find Kelly’s reel and other video clips here.] So you have to get over being freaked out [laughs] and start to develop, well, it may not be correct, but something bordering on an objective opinion of how you did. And I still tend to think I’m pretty bad, but I have moments that I don’t dislike as much as other moments. [laughs]

What do you notice about those moments? What are the things that appeal to you?

Well, one of the things I’ve noticed is that my managers are, like, “You have to put that scene on. What do you mean, that’s bad? You’re an idiot. Put that on.” So I know that I just said you have to develop a more objective point of view. I don’t know that I’ve been successful with that. This is so silly, but I think I’ve been able to figure out what, despite what I think, is probably good. You know, like, “I feel that that’s bad, but I think it might not be. I think, based on what other people have said…” That’s slightly overstating it – I am better at it than I used to be.

I notice physical tics that I either like or don’t like on myself. I hate my mouth, and everything about my mouth, when I look at myself on film. I’d like to lose five pounds, but that’s neither here nor there. I noticed at one point, I was, like, “Oh, I have to tell the makeup people to fill in my eyebrows.” Because as a bald man – a pasty bald man – I need that. You know, stupid stuff like that, that can make me think a whole take is bad.

There’s a thing we have, as people who create things, that I like to call the True Voice, where something kind of settles in you and you go, “Oh, that’s true. Whatever that was, that is The Truth.”

Right.

When do you tend to notice that, if ever, about your own performances? What kinds of things bring that response for you?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t thought of it in exactly those terms. I’d have to go back and look, I guess. But I know that, for instance, that scene with – have you seen Billions?

Yes, all of it.

Ok, so you saw the fake fight scene. [Note to readers: that scene can be viewed in its entirety here.]

Yeah.

Like that, I loved. I was perfectly happy with that. Except there were still some things I was, like, “Oh I wish I’d mmmmm’d…” [laughs] But in retrospect, I remember, there were takes when I did mmmmm, and they chose this [instead], so that’s fine. I objectively look at that and I think, “That was good. I did well.” Partially because the scene was shot in such a way that we were never hampered by going out of sequence, maybe? No, that’s not necessarily it. That scene was all about reading each other and picking up the cues. And he was saying one thing, but acting another way, and as soon as I walked in it was, like, “We’re having a fake argument now! Come on!”

And I was trying to not show anybody, but I had to be with Damian [Lewis, who plays Kelly’s character’s boss, Bobby Axelrod] even more ferociously, I guess, because I had to show one thing to everybody else and figure out what he was doing with the other. So that was all about the connection. It was much more like theater. So I experienced that as, “We’re just having fun. We’re really doing this. There’s not a lot of stop/start. I don’t have to gear myself up.”

You know what it reminded me of was an acting exercise.

Someone else mentioned that, too.

Yeah, where you’re given contradictory direction, you know – this is that, and you have to do it this way.

Yes. 

And you’re teaming up together to pull this off, to make this happen. 

It was a little heist.

Yeah! And you had to totally commit to the physicality of it, and the duplicitousness of it, which is what you’d have to do with a scene partner in an acting class, right?

Yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why people – even stars, generally – stick around for the reverses. [Note to readers: a reverse, or reverse angle shot, is a shot that views the action from the opposite angle as the previous shot, such as the shots that take place during a conversation between two characters in a scene.] Because they know, even when they’re dead tired, that that’s going to be the best take. It’s common courtesy. When you have somebody that actually sticks around and plays with you, then you can at least have a semblance of a scene partner.

It’s not going to be the same as that situation because this is your close-up and you know that to a certain level, but if that person’s there for you, then you can still play a little bit. And they might throw something slightly different, so you can react to it. So if they can still be alive when they’re not on camera, actually, and they can still be alive and throw you things, little curve balls, that’s amazing. Those are very generous actors, when they do that.

Keri Russell [who plays Elizabeth on The Americans] did that. She was pregnant, and she’d been working since five in the morning, and it was, like, nine at night. We had this big scene, and she was, like, “Pregnant woman! Why don’t they schedule this better?” [laughs] But she was fully there the whole time. And she shot her scenes first, so that she could relax, but then my reverses. She stuck around, and she was so there for me. It was just great.

And she constantly had to be wearing winter coats [to hide her pregnancy, because her character wasn’t pregnant]! The poor woman!

Winter coats, and giant salad bowls, and grocery bags! Did you notice how many times she came back from grocery shopping that season?

I know! I was, like, “Man, that spy does a shit-ton of grocery shopping…!”

She does. And damn, they like big salads in that house! [laughs] They were brilliant at blocking it. It was so simple, the things they chose [to conceal Russell’s pregnancy] – it was amazing.

So, one thing I’m really interested in is “the zone”, and how performers experience it. Have you noticed what kinds of conditions will most likely get you into the zone when you’re performing? What gets you there more often? 

Well, that’s sort of a classic mystery. I know people lament, as do I, the lack of a clear path to the zone. I don’t know, I think for me – I’ll use theater as the example, I guess – the zone usually happens in chunks, in moments, rather than in a whole two-hour play. When I’m experiencing it, I guess, things are moving by more quickly – it’s fast.

And that doesn’t mean it’s literally fast – we’re not delivering our lines faster, or anything like that. It’s almost like a window that you’re opening and shutting, and you can open it when it’s not on track, but you’re shoving it, and you can push it with two fingers if it’s on track and in the zone. That’s what it feels like.

Kelly, I’ve got to tell you, everybody struggles with this question. And that is the best analogy I’ve ever heard anybody say.

Well, that’s great! [laughs]

Yeah, that’s exactly it.

It’s like smoothing in. It sort of ka-chunks into something that’s greased, rather than not.

Do you notice it when it’s happening?

Yeah, I do. Because no matter what anyone tells you, ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re acting, but there’s also a part of you that’s aware. Again, we’re not insane. We don’t actually think that we are John Proctor, or a pirate [laughs]. So there’s something, but it’s muted.

The masochistic part of me has often thought – like, this happened in the last play I did, too. I was just about to come onstage, and I had lines to open it, and I was thinking, “What if I forgot my lines? What if I literally forgot my lines?” [laughs] And sometimes that comes up to, like, fifty percent of your brain, and that’s when you’re, like, “Ooookay, come on, back down there…” [laughs]

So anyway, you do have conversations with yourself on a semi-conscious level while you’re having the actual conversation. That’s there, you just hope it’s very very small. And it’s not verbal, exactly, but there’s an awareness. And that’s how you remember your blocking, that’s how you remember that you actually do have to hit a timing here, or something – technical things.

So yes, on that level, I’m aware of it. But it feels more like a tiny little bit of euphoria that you’ve got down in the corner of your brain, or your heart or wherever, that just feels like, “Yeah, this is why I do this.” Moments.

Even when my career wasn’t going very well financially. And I’ve been fine, I’ve been able to make my living for the last fifteen years doing this, but a meager living. [laughs] Even if things weren’t going spectacularly, if I had a gig that had some of those moments – and you almost always do – that’s like, yeah, that thing, that thing is what this is all about. The zone – I can’t remember right now what words I use to describe it, but “the zone” works as well as anything else – it’s like, that’s it.

So yes, I’m aware of it. And afterwards, it can feel a little spent, in a way. And also at the same time – I know this sounds silly – at the same time, you’re energized.

Yeah!

It’s like, “Oh, wow, what was that?” No, it’s not even “what was that”, because sometimes it’s sort of, “that came out of nowhere”, but the zone can manifest as, you’ve just never done it that way before. But it can also manifest as, it’s just never felt that smooth before.

Yeah, now I’m just trying to add stuff to it, and I don’t know why. I do stuff like this, and this is why I’m still learning as a teacher. Like, I give a good enough example, and then I try to come around to the exact thing. Like, perfect is the enemy of the good enough, or the merely good. [laughs]

Well, I was going to ask you about your teaching, because I know from personal experience, you’re constantly searching for a way to connect, understand, impart, be open – all that stuff – which is the same thing you’re doing when you’re performing.

Yes.

And of course in teaching, there’s an aspect of performing. And so I wonder if your experience of teaching has taught you anything about yourself as a performer, and what insights you may have learned from that which have changed the way you approach performing.

Yeah, I wonder. Well, I didn’t go to grad school. So, the teaching I do is for this theater in town that has more supplementary education. Most of the students have gone to grad school, and most of them in some way or another have some experience. And we only teach ten classes, or if it’s a monologue class, five classes. And we are hired as acting or directing or writing professionals, not as educators. So it’s ok that I don’t have the vocabulary that somebody would require teaching at the grad school level.

This is at Primary Stages?

This is at Primary Stages, yeah. It’s ESPA, the Einhorn School of Performing Arts. So I think I was pretty bad in my first class, because I was trying to be something I wasn’t, and I couldn’t be that, because I wasn’t. Everything I would say was mitigated with, “Now, it’s just my opinion, you know what you’re doing, and you might not agree…” [laughs]

And so finally I talked about it with the woman who runs the school, and she was, like, “Yeah, actually, we know it’s your opinion. Especially in this class. This is what you, Kelly, do. You are imparting to them how you would do a scene, how you would work this scene. If it’s convoluted, then it’s convoluted. If it’s simple, if it’s stupid, whatever it is, they don’t have to take the class again. But they are signing up to find out how you work something. So own it.” And that made it easier.

The schedule of the two shows, overall, I’ve been shooting nine months out of the year, so I can’t do it.

Aw, that’s too bad!

Yeah, it’s a good problem to have – it’s a champagne problem! [laughs] I do like it, though. I think, maybe, not having gone to grad school – less now, but for a while, probably – not having the shorthand that a lot of people have going into a process, including the directors, meant there was some time spent finding common language. Whereas if I had gone to grad school, that might have been less time.

And even if that wasn’t a problem, I sometimes perceived it as a problem, like maybe some insecurities. And sometimes that manifested, early on, as, again, talking around and around and around, and not knowing how to express what I was trying to express. And I realized, possibly, while teaching, I don’t remember an “aha” moment, but maybe going through that process with other people, almost in a directorial position because of the scene study.

So being on the other side maybe helped me come to the realization that the problem was probably just that I don’t think I was as comfortable with “I don’t know.” And if I was bringing up a question, feeling like I needed to have an answer. And you’re not an idiot, and you’re not a terrible actor, if you don’t have an answer. And if I had directors that were uncomfortable with that, and would be, like, “What are you thinking?”, I would get, maybe, a little flustered at first. Whereas now I’m, like, “I don’t know. But I know this is not working, so let’s figure it out.”

I don’t know, I’m guessing that having that experience as a teacher probably helped me, at least somewhat – that the “I don’t know” is not a bad place to be at all.

Yeah, well, it leads to discovery. I wonder – I assume that you are into various kinds of music. Yeah?

Yes, I love music.

Do you think musically when you’re breaking down a script, or figuring out the beats of a character? Do you think of it in terms of pacing, rhythm, pitch, dynamics – all the kind of stuff that would go into music?

Yeah. I don’t think I approach it at the top that way, unless it’s Shakespeare or something classical, something in verse – then that’s an obvious thing, because the rhythm actually can inform the meaning, just structurally. But I do think that if I notice something as silly as I feel like I’m shouting too much, that’s sort of a pitch thing. And each one of those times I’m shouting could make sense in a vacuum, but let’s moderate a little bit. Kind of like the pauses that I was describing in that one scene [in The Americans] from last year. And they are sort of obvious things, but you sometimes need that outside eye.

Yes, the answer is yes. [laughs] Those things definitely matter.

I’m not a big “louder, faster, funnier” person, and fortunately theater is moving away from that somewhat. Have you heard of Annie Baker, the playwright?

I have, yeah.

She wrote The Flick [winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama], and John, and a bunch of other stuff that’s really wonderful. And she’s certainly part of the wave, but she’s at the forefront, she’s certainly one of the most acclaimed, of letting things land and sit. And I think it’s actually really interesting and ironic that the millennial generation of theatergoers and makers, despite what people might have thought, are creating more space and breath and air, and letting things live in a more realistic or hyper-realistic way, even though that’s the generation that is supposedly losing focus.

So that’s kind of wonderful, because I love the music of silence. I love living in silence. I love watching people behave when they’re not necessarily saying anything. I don’t know if you know the actor Reed Birney? He just won a Tony this year for the first time – he’s a brilliant actor.

For what?

He won a Tony for The Humans, for featured actor.

Oh, yes, I know who you mean.

He’s a great guy, too. But I love watching him perform because he never seems rushed. There’s music in that, to me. And there’s music in finding those places where’s there’s banter. Maybe it’s [Katharine] Hepburn and [Spencer] Tracy type of banter – I love that, too. So yes, that matters to me. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, which I think is a trap that our theater fell into for a while. I think we’re coming out of that a little bit.

Some people would disagree. Some people would say I’m an idiot, and that it should always go faster, but…

Well, it’s just your opinion, right?

“It’s just my opinion, I don’t want anyone to think…like, take it or leave it…whatever…” And then five minutes in, I haven’t given the note. [laughs]

“What is your opinion, exactly?!”

“Yeah, I’d like to hear your fucking opinion!” [laughs]

Do your characters ever have soundtracks, or theme songs?

Sometimes, but not often. The character last summer was a huge Pixies fan, and so of course I listened to a lot of The Pixies. I rode my bike to the theater a lot, so I had at least three songs of The Pixies on my mix. I did jokingly create, like, “Superfly” was Dollar Bill’s [Kelly’s character in Billions] theme song for, like, a week. Anything badass, anything that props up his grandiose feelings about himself, works for Bill.

Big enough for two families…!

Yes! I think Pastor Tim might be Amy Grant. Because that’s like ’83, ’84. She was just crossing over – “Baby Baby”, I think, was her big hit. So he might harbor a secret crush on Amy Grant, actually, I think. I know I did, so, why not? [laughs]

So I don’t do that a lot, but I have, and it can be very helpful – not as much as I always wanted it to be, but it’s another thing you can bring in to absorb. I did a [Tom] Stoppard play years ago [The Real Thing], and I had my own dressing room, and all I did was play this sort of rapid-fire – it was almost like house music. The character [Henry] was very much into these ‘60s pop bands, so it had nothing to do with the character – it was just something that got my energy going. So it wasn’t exactly a soundtrack, as just pump-up music.

And Stoppard is incredibly musical.

Yeah, the language itself – oh yeah, totally. I love Stoppard. The Real Thing and Arcadia – I was lucky enough to do both of those plays, and it just doesn’t get any better than that. And those you do have to be a little more technical about than you think, to hit the music.

Like the same kind of thing with [David] Mamet – the same idea.

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. You want to get the realism and everything, but there’s so much you can discover. They’re almost classical in that way. Following a rhythm, finding a good rhythm, solves problems for you. It’s not artificial. Because that’s what they were writing. And I like that other people are writing things differently now, but if someone has written that way, then it’s hard to deny it.

Has being in close proximity to Carolyn’s dance career affected you as a performer – the way you think about physicality? [Note to reader: Kelly’s wife, Carolyn Hall, is a New York Dance & Performance “Bessie” Award winner for her body of work in modern dance.]

Probably. Actually, someone told me that I was a really physical actor recently, and I think that has to do more with that ease I’ve been told I have. This sounds so weird – I’m not patting myself on the back – does that sound…

No, not at all.

Ok, good. So, yeah, I don’t know – not in a direct correlation way. I don’t do what they would call physical theater or dance theater, which she’s doing a lot more of now. But maybe. I mean, there is something – I feel like I had this before that, but maybe I haven’t – there’s something about physically taking a space, planted forward, and owning an audience that is a very physical act that you have to back up in other ways, too, but at base it’s a physical act. Yeah, maybe! Maybe so. I also did a play where I played Jerome Robbins…

What was that?

It was about the blacklist. It was a play called Finks. Joe Gilford, who was Jack Gilford’s son…

Sure!

…wrote about his parents, who were blacklisted. And Jerome Robbins was one of their friends. And Robbins testified [before the House Un-American Activities Committee] and gave names.

Yep.

So the play was called Finks, and I played one of the “finks”. But there was a scene where at the end I had to dance while the two main characters that had just had a baby that was obviously the playwright – or I think so – they were talking about their shattered lives. And Jerome Robbins – who skated above it, got off and betrayed them – was dancing this slow but interesting dance.

And I had never danced before. It was one time in my life that I was actually in shape, so that was good [laughs], but I would come home – and this was up in Poughkeepsie, at New York Stage and Film, it was a full production but they do workshops and things like that – and I worked on that with her. She gave me some hints on where to generate the movement from, and stuff like that. And I don’t think I did it very well, but I did fake some people out! It wasn’t choreography that was so difficult that I couldn’t make it work, but it wasn’t pyrotechnic in any way.

You weren’t up there doing West Side Story…!

Yeah, no cartwheels, no fan kicks. [laughs] But it was fun to actually work with her directly on that. She definitely helped me own it – to whatever extent I owned it!

[In Part 3, which will be posted next, Kelly talks about the importance of owning the moment in performance; the role social media plays in the life of a working actor; and what he wants to improve in himself as a performer. –VA]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Actor Kelly AuCoin – Part 1 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, What To Watch

Photo credit: Quentin Mare

[Photo Credit: Quentin Mare]

I’m very pleased to present my in-depth conversation with theater, film, and television actor KELLY AuCOIN.

You may be familiar with Kelly’s recurring roles as Pastor Tim on The Americans (FX), ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn on Billions (Showtime), Gary Stamper on House of Cards (Netflix), and Benjamin Stalder on The Blacklist (NBC). 

A glance at his IMDb page gives you an idea of how busy Kelly has been on television and in the movies, but he also has an illustrious theater career. In 2015, Kelly won a Drama Desk Award for his work in Signature Theatre’s The Wayside Motor Inn. He also starred as Octavius Caesar, opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus, in the Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, among numerous other roles. 

Later this year, Kelly will be seen in the Alec Baldwin/Salma Hayek film Drunk Parents, and in HBO’s upcoming The Wizard Of Lies, starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer.

This conversation will be posted in three installments.

In Part 1, Kelly discusses what it’s like to be a journeyman actor; how he developed his take on Pastor Tim without being given much, if any, information about the character’s past, present, or future; and the role fear plays in his artistic choices. –VA

______________________________________________________________________

Well, congratulations to you, Kelly!

Thanks!

Because it’s been, like, The Year of Kelly AuCoin. Could you possibly be any more out there right now?

Well, the next step would be, no one’s has made me a regular yet. I’ve got nice regular recurring roles that continue to build and grow, and it’s great, and the shows are pretty spectacular. The Americans was my favorite show on TV before I joined, which is so lucky, and Billions is a lot of fun. And they’re so different, so that’s really fun. I get to show off what appears to the outside world as versatility, and it’s just the wig [on The Americans]. It’s follicular acting! [laughs]

But there’s an element of fear, because it all could come to an end after someone decides the best storyline is to kill Pastor Tim – actually kill him this time! But I know, I look back five years ago, and I would have killed to be where I am right now. And I’m still learning. The roles are such that I can still grow and learn, and that’s fun.

Yeah, and I’m just so interested in the idea of being a journeyman actor, and placing yourself into different sets and situations where you have to look like you’re a native in that world…

Yeah.

…and to be able to just jump into that with very little preparation, I imagine, in some situations. So I thought it might be interesting for readers to get a sense, as a case study, of how you stepped into the role of Pastor Tim. I’m sure you aren’t given a lot of backstory…

Right.

…and you don’t even know where to go with the backstory because you don’t know who this guy’s going to turn out to be. And I have my own private theory about that…

Most people seem to – it’s good!

But I won’t press you on that! So, ok, you go in to read for this, and then you get the job. And this guy has to be a three-dimensional person, and you don’t know a lot about him, and you’re purposely not told a whole lot about him, I’m sure.

Yeah.

So how do you make his world become a three-dimensional world, as an actor, and have him actually be a person of substance, without being able to fill all of that in? What’s that like?

Well, it feels like there are probably a number of parts to this answer, but you asked about going in to read for it, so I’ll start there. I had actually auditioned twice, or at least once, for the first season. Different casting director, different showrunner and everything. And I was really bummed that I didn’t get it. But it was a one-off, it was just one big scene – it would have been a fun scene, but one big scene – and so in retrospect it was great that I didn’t get it.

This one, I don’t even think that it said “possible recurring character”, so I don’t know what they had in mind for Pastor Tim. It seems, in retrospect, that they must have had at least a few more episodes in mind, since the church seemed to matter so much to Paige in the lead-up to that, and in reading that script. But I certainly didn’t get the whole script, I just got our scenes. And to this day – even though I’ve been on three years now – to this day I don’t get scripts further than a week ahead of time. And a week is lucky.

Oh, man!

So I don’t actually know anything about what’s going to happen to Tim, unless one of “The Js” – Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are the showrunners – might drop me a hint, which they did at the beginning of last year, actually: “Don’t throw your collar away just yet. We’ve got plans for you.” That was it. Which to me meant, maybe a spectacular death is coming in Episode 4 – I didn’t know. [laughs]

But all I really had to go on were the two scenes I auditioned with. One was in that first episode where Philip [played by Matthew Rhys] comes to my office late at night and threatens me, and then the other was the first sermon. And the sermon was kind of easy, in a way, because it was theater.

I was going to say that, because Pastor Tim’s performing, doing his thing.

Yeah. That was a big episode, but then there were a lot of small things, and then one of my first big episodes in the next season was during the baptism [of Paige, played by Holly Taylor], and it was a long monologue, and it was in front of a whole church full of people, and that was kind of, again, easy is not exactly the right word, but I was immediately comfortable – maybe more than actors who hadn’t done much theater would be.

So it was nice that two pivotal episodes included something that I’ve felt in my bones since I was in grade school. I’ve been performing in front of people for years. TV and film have become more natural to me, but it wasn’t necessarily in the DNA as much as theater.

So for the audition, the sermon was just a matter of moderating tone. And casting people in the room – in this case it was the director and one of the executive producers – will sometimes give you adjustments just to see if you can take them. It might be something that doesn’t intuit, but do it anyway because all they’re trying to find out is if you’re easy to work with.

And then the other scene, the way Pastor Tim met the aggression of Philip was a little bit more of a give and take. It was like actually working on a scene with a director, because my take was initially that it was very defensive and protective, recognizing the danger and on his toes and trying to defuse in every way because that was what was on the page, and there was nothing specifically to indicate otherwise.

But the other two guys who knew the storyline, and maybe knew what they were interested in with the character, tried to make it more that there was something about this man that would meet aggression with openness and concern, and simplifying down to just that. Like, ok, [Philip]’s got these black gloves on, he keeps moving forward an inch every time he speaks. Or just look, look at him, take him in, see the pain, and respond in that way – it was more a simple, sort of gentle kind of response.

And then we even worked on that when we got on the set and we were shooting the scene. To the extent I was getting direction, it was about continuing that – don’t let a hint of fear show. And we even did takes where Tim was hiding the fear, like an audience can see and maybe Philip would or wouldn’t, and other takes where literally he wasn’t afraid. It was so smart, in retrospect, when I saw it. It was like, oh, of course, that’s probably the only thing that saved him. The only thing that Philip had probably never experienced before was somebody so guileless that he would respond that way.

Yet Pastor Tim had an element of menace in there, too, I thought. What I love about that scene is that there is just enough where you could read into it if you wanted to.

Uh huh, yeah.

What you carried off with that was so impressive because it was sort of like, is there? Isn’t there?

Well, the other thing that’s brilliant about it – and I’m not saying I was, I’m saying what they were pushing me to [was]. I’m not saying the execution was but the idea was brilliant, because the simpler you are, the more the audience can read things that they bring to it. And I think that’s part of why Pastor Tim is so fascinating to people. Like, most people hate Pastor Tim. Even Tony Kornheiser, the sports guy, is like, “I want Pastor Tim dead.” [laughs] And he’s been doing that since the first season.

But there’s nothing overtly threatening about anything that Tim has done, except early on in this last season when he’s all about trying to protect Paige, and so he might confront the parents. But he’s never said, “I’m turning you in.” He’s like, “Explain to me what’s going on.” He’s listening, he’s trying to trust, and he’s like, “All right, well, let’s meet again tomorrow,” or “Let’s think about this.”

So anyway, what was brilliant about their choice is that simple way of approaching it where the first time he was seen, the calm can be read as someone who’s been through this a lot – an operative might be really good at this. For the first season, everyone thought I was a pedophile, partially because of that wig, I think. [laughs]

Well, I certainly never thought that!

And also, I think a lot of secular viewers bring a certain knee-jerk reaction to their interpretations of religious characters. That’s also TV’s fault, because TV and film and entertainment outlets tend to show religious people in this manner. That’s something I thought was sort of radical about this show – that, so far anyway, Tim is just what he says he is. He doesn’t have another agenda. His agenda is just to take care of his flock.

And he’s welcoming people into his flock, he’s not necessarily proselytizing. When he’s talking with Elizabeth, even, it’s like, “Ok, you don’t even have to think about the specifics of God and everything. It doesn’t matter. Literally all that matters is how we treat each other.” Or when he’s in the travel office with Philip and he’s, like, “You should come on these [missionary trips to other countries]. We’re really light on the whole God thing, it’s more about community.” At every step, he tells people, “This is what I’m about.” And I think it’s so straightforward that no one buys it.

So anyway, that’s a long, roundabout way of saying, that first audition and that first scene, and the way I was directed and coaxed in those two sessions, informs how I’ve at least approached every scene from then on.

There are different directors for every episode so they always have their own thing. I’ve been on now longer, so I feel comfortable in saying, “Well, but remember the thing that happened three episodes ago, I think maybe…” and then we can have a discussion and tweak.

But they hire good people, and those people know what they’re doing. They go through extensive tone meetings with the executive producers, and they see all the other episodes, so they think very carefully. I had one director call me ahead of time and say, “I’m really looking forward to working with you. I wish I had a Pastor Tim in my life.” It was kind of neat, rather than the “Oh, I wish Pastor Tim would die” kind of response. [laughs] So I knew that was going to be a fun one.

Well, it’s interesting, because you talk about having to just sort of lay back and trust. When you do a play you get the whole script. And I know you’re involved in developing scripts…

Sometimes, yeah.

…and so everything can be manufactured and understood from the context of the whole universe of that play. And in that situation you have to trust your fellow actors, you have to trust your director, all the technical crew and all that. But in this situation there are omniscient people involved…

Yeah. [laughs]

…and whether or not they have everything fleshed out – but I imagine showrunners would have a good deal of it fleshed out – you do have to let go and trust in the direction you’re given without maybe even understanding all of it. Can you talk about the contrast in those two different types of situations and how it affects you as a performer and the experience of preparing?

Yeah. There’s so much that’s different about doing a play and doing TV, I’ve internalized that at this point, but it’s just one element of what’s so different. In a way, just technically, time-wise, it’s probably better, or easier, in TV that you just have to trust. Otherwise, you would be doing a play’s worth of research and prep for every episode, and there just literally isn’t enough time.

However, I know it’s true, there has to be a reason – because these guys are brilliant and they know what they’re doing and everyone in TV does it – but I still can’t wrap my brain around how that is better. Wouldn’t it be better for me to know where I’m going to end up next season? Now, maybe not at the beginning of last year – maybe if I was going to die, it wouldn’t necessarily benefit me either way to know that that was coming. But if I had turned out to be an operative, a KGB agent, that would be something that you’d think I should know for the whole series.

Right!

So I don’t know why that isn’t the norm, to let people know, but for some reason it isn’t. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Early on, I think the thing I had to get over was that it led me into trying to not screw up, trying not to make wrong choices, which led me to not really making choices in a pivotal scene.

Yeah, or you’re second-guessing.

Yeah, it was too much like sussing out. A huge element of TV acting is just being natural and real, and making sure of that, because the camera’s so close anything fake will show. But then to add something on top of that, some intention – that was the thing I think I struggled with or that was harder than onstage, early on. It’s much easier now, partially because I’ve been playing the characters for so long.

With theater, it’s like a second skin. I mean, the first read-through, the table read, the table work you do for a week, sitting around talking about possibilities – and the best table reads are with directors who make you really believe that there are no dumb questions – asking all the stupid questions, like, “What does this mean, exactly?” Not just in an intellectual way, but, “Why would I say this line right after here?”

And sometimes you answer the question, and when you get on your feet you change it. And then a week later you change it again. And you have so much time to sink in – it’s like you’re really sinking into these characters. You’re trying stuff on and just starting them, and you’ve got to be willing to kill your babies, as they say – ideas that you really love, impulses that you love, won’t necessarily work because you found three more that are more important to keep than the one that doesn’t fit.

And then you’ve got the great period of tech [technical rehearsals], where you’re not really acting, you’re sitting in the theater and having all the technical elements being built around you. And you’re sort of away from it for a few days, and you come back, and that break is kind of essential as well. You come at it fresh, and expect to be a little wonky, but all these things have had a chance to marinate in your brain.

And then you get the first audience, and that’s the element that TV and film will never have – the jolt that you get from performing in the same space, and breathing the same air, as the people you’re performing for, people who are experiencing what you’re bringing. And to me, all the best theater actors, you might not recognize their performance – at least energy-wise – once they get an audience. They just come alive that much more.

TV, it’s all about doing your takes until you get ‘em, and you can’t do ten of every scene, so you try to talk about it, and you just try to nail it as quickly as you can. The work of putting it together, where you memorize a performance and then put it up – that isn’t there. It’s more like jumping off a cliff. And you should in theater, as well, but you can sort of coax things along in theater. You have to make big choices. And I don’t mean “big” like flailing my arms around like Richard Simmons or anything [laughs], but “big” like bold, clear choices – and being bold about anything you do, even if it’s not responding for a while.

It’s harder when you only do a guest spot or a couple scenes, because at this point I have a camaraderie with people. But not feeling rushed, not thinking, “What is my line?” – you can read that in people’s eyes on TV – not thinking, “Oh, does Juliana Margulies want me to do this line faster?” You can’t think of any of that stuff. If you’re playing a dick, you’ve got to be a dick to Juliana Margulies. If you’re playing someone who is seducing her, you have to trust that what you’re doing is seducing her.

I used to have a tendency to be sort of apologetic in the way I would play certain things – not literally, but I know in myself I was, like, “Well, of course Juliana Margulies is going to think I’m hitting on her,” or whatever. No, she just wants you to play the scene the best you can! But it sometimes takes a while to be cocky enough to be bold. Or bold enough to be cocky. [laughs]

I think that’s probably the key, actually, now that I’ve done it in a roundabout way. For me, probably the thing I had to learn and the thing that has helped me, that sort of brio that you can bring to something where they’ve never met you before, they’ve been doing the series for five years, you come on and your first scene you have to dominate everybody – you’d better fucking dominate them. And that doesn’t mean as an unprofessional actor, that means as the person you’re playing. And people appreciate it, that’s the thing.

The first time I was able to do that, I think, was a show called Without a Trace, and it was an episodic procedural show – Poppy Montgomery and Anthony LaPaglia. There’s a mystery – someone goes missing – and the show deals in present time and also does flashbacks. So we had these flashback scenes, and my character was sort of one of those guys who had to dominate. I was a fashion designer, I had just gone public, I was making millions and millions of dollars, and there was this rooftop party in New York that was all for me.

So I think it was probably the first time I was cast as one of those cocky asshole wonderful characters, and it was the first time I’d been able to fully feel like I could command the set, because there were none of the regulars there. The closest thing to the two regulars were me and the woman who was the other guest star. And that kind of taught me, it was like, oh, it’s so much easier when I can actually not worry about stepping on anyone’s toes. And I was able to bring that into the next number of sets even when there were stars there, and it was better. So that was a great learning experience.

There’s a sense, when you’re onstage, of expanding to fill the space. And then, of course, when you’re working on camera, everything’s got to be camera-sized, but you still have to actually inhabit the space.

Yeah. There’s a way of describing screen acting versus stage acting that follows the pattern of, take it down, don’t be too big, don’t be this, don’t be that – negative notes. And I get where that comes from, because they’re not wrong. But it led me – and I think leads a lot of people – towards neutrality.

I’ve taught a little bit and I still struggle with finding the right words, but it’s more about making bold internal choices – making bold choices, for me anyway, that lead to stillness, but stillness isn’t necessarily the stated goal. Because “I’m going to try to be still” can work, but especially if you’re just starting, it’s more about, “Why?” If I were directing, it would be like, ok, I’m going to help him find a way to end up being still, but what is it that’s going on with him that he would want to be still for?

Maybe his choice would then be, like, say, that first scene with Philip and Pastor Tim. He ends up being still, largely because he’s watching everything. It’s all about looking at the eyes. He’s watching him so intently, and listening so intently, that movement doesn’t matter. That’s extraneous. There’s no reason for him to expend the energy, when all of his energy is about processing what he’s seeing, so that might lead to stillness, or it certainly would lead to something very small. And, in turn, that fills the space.

I think screen acting is more about eyes than anything else, and eyes lie or don’t lie. I mean, if you can fake honesty, great. I think it was Spencer Tracy who said, “Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And it’s true, to a certain extent. Although it’s not fake, you have to trick yourself. And you’re not insane, you know you’re doing it, so you’re not really fooling yourself.

[Note to readers: I have since learned that the quote about faking honesty is widely attributed to George Burns. But it sure sounds like something Spencer Tracy would have said! Of course, the most famous quote about acting that’s attributed to Spencer Tracy is, “Show up on time, know your lines, and don’t bump into the furniture.”]

Sometimes what blocks people from good acting is feeling shy about making stuff up in front of people. Like, I can’t actually run scenes with my wife [dancer Carolyn Hall]. I can run lines, but I can’t run and work on scenes. Because even though she loves it, and she’s good at it, there’s a part of me that feels embarrassed and that she’s going to see the grown man playing make-believe, and that’s slightly embarrassing. And I can’t do it with my dad [former Congressman Les AuCoin]. I tried to run lines once when my dad was visiting, and I deliberately told him, “I’m not going to be acting. I’m just doing lines!” He was, like, “Ok, ok…!” [laughs]

Interesting!

Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I can do that in front of people I don’t know as well, or don’t know at all, which is sort of a strange thing because my wife and my dad are two of my biggest fans, my biggest supporters. But I can’t do it, there’s something in there. And I’ve often wondered if that illogical, irrational, semi-conscious fear of being discovered as a grown person “playing” might be part of what stops us from playing, and the play is what is necessary. And tied into that a little bit is the fear of someone saying [derisively], “Oh, you think that’s a good choice? Oh…that’s interesting…” I don’t know, that’s not a really fully-formed idea, but I think there’s something true in that.

One of the best things, I did a workshop with somebody that works with clowning, which I’ve never done, and he also worked with SITI Company [an ensemble-based theater company in New York] for a long time, which is a more heightened style than I’m used to. One of the exercises was, “We’re going to sing now. Just make stuff up, sing whatever you want to sing, but do it in the style of an almost cartoonishly overblown opera singer. And we want it to be big and bad.”

And it was amazing. One thing that happened was people lost their inhibitions. The other thing was that everyone sounded great. Like, even non-singers sounded great. It was a great lesson to me to try to take and manifest in other ways – to own what you think is the ridiculousness and the play, that there’s something about that that can actually spark some pretty beautiful, wonderful stuff. And it’s sort of the antithesis of the other thing I was talking about.

When you think about that, what role does fear play in furthering your mission? Because fear can be a helpful thing sometimes, if it’s harnessed for your own good.

Sure.

Are you conscious of that, of going to the fear, or challenging yourself, putting yourself out on a limb?

Yeah. Obviously, there are levels of fear. I think a certain amount of fear usually helps me in theater. If I don’t feel the butterflies before a performance, there’s a better chance that it’s going to be a slightly more flat performance. I want a sense of ease, and everyone does to a certain extent. It’s weird to talk about yourself, but I’ve been told enough that I have a physical ease onstage that I think that’s a quality that when people cast me, that’s what they’re looking for. And I actually love that. I feel comfortable with the ease. [laughs] “I feel easy with the ease!” That sounds convoluted, but if I’m feeling too easy right before going onstage, then that might be an issue.

So a little bit of fear is good. I have enough people around me now who remind me that that’s just what I go through every time, but there are two or three times during every process where I feel I’m the worst actor – not just onstage right now, but in the history of the world – that I’ve never acted before, and I certainly never will again. And Carolyn’s always, like, “Yeah, this is about the time in the process when you tell me this. Yeah, yeah, right on schedule.” [laughs]

And I think that’s important because it reminds you that you can’t just settle on your first or second choices. It’s your third or fourth choices that end up being the ones you keep. And those may be building on your previous ones, or they may be a one-eighty, but it’s ok. You couldn’t have gotten to that if you hadn’t had the other that you reject. So that fear can spur further searching, which is great. But there’s a debilitating fear that some people get that obviously you don’t want. So it’s fear with a “small f”, not Fear with a “capital F”.

But I have yet to find that fear has ever been helpful to me onscreen. If I feel fear or the butterflies, it’s usually not as good a take. And I’m curious about that. I don’t know why that is. I suspect it’s because there’s no time. Movies, you have a little bit more time – I haven’t done as much film as I have TV. And so the ease to do the same thing over and over again, with slight variations, the ease that I need to have my mind free so that I can be spontaneous and not censor myself – fear has yet to be helpful with that. So that’s the difference for me.

Yeah, I wonder if that has something to do with, again, the sense of space. If you’re able to kind of offload, physically, differently – I wonder if you can process it through your body in a different way?

Yeah, that could be. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but that certainly makes sense. That rings true.

[In Part 2, which will be posted next, Kelly talks about what it’s like to watch himself act onscreen; how he experiences being in “the zone”; and how he uses music when developing a character . –VA]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 3 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present the final installment of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction, and Part 2 is here.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA

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You play in so many different settings with so many different combinations of people, and you’re about to go to some new countries and you’ve been to other countries.  I would imagine that all of that information kind of gets in there and expands your horizons, like you talked about your experience going to music school.  Are you conscious of that expansion as it’s happening – playing with this combination at that show, or going into that thing with those people?  Do you feel like you carry a core of yourself as you navigate through all that? 

Oh, yeah, for sure.  Yeah, I definitely feel like I carry a part of myself through it all.  This is great, because what you’re saying is, for me, anyway, I’ve realized that that’s kind of the ultimate goal – to constantly be in a situation where you’re collaborating with different kinds of musicians in different settings.  A lot of my favorite musicians are finding scenarios in which they can do that, in which they’re putting themselves in these situations that are forcing them to do something different.

I think of Mike Marshall, I think of Chris Thile, I think of Béla Fleck, all of those people.  Chris has Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and he’s playing with Brad Mehldau and Edgar Meyer, and he’s doing a solo Bach thing.  He’s carrying his spirit with him through all of those different things, but each of those things has its own unique life and its own unique spirit.  And that’s awesome.

For me, I’ve decided that that’s what I hope to do with my life, to constantly be surrounding myself with musicians that I respect and musicians that challenge me.  That’s been a really fun part of the last year, especially, getting to put myself in different settings like that.  For instance, with the Milk Carton Kids last fall, doing that collaborative tour and singing three-part harmony every night.  Normally, I’m onstage by myself singing alone the whole time, and that forced me to use my voice in this different way, to be blending with two other voices for an entire hour and a half.

And you’re working with two people who have been blending with each other for a long time, so you’re working your way into that.

Right.  So jumping in and suddenly being a third – they were having to change up their thing, too, to blend with a third voice.  Exactly.  And now the thing with Sara [Watkins] and Aoife [O’Donovan], and navigating those waters of the different combinations of our voices and instruments.  I truly think that that’s what makes a great musician – putting yourself in those different settings and learning how to bring your voice to it, while also supporting what is going on.

So when you talk about how you carry that core of yourself into all those different situations, how would you describe who that is, who that core is, that defines who you are as an artist?

That’s a tricky one. [laughs] Well, I think it’s easier, maybe, to describe it in terms of the voice, because every person’s voice is unique.  When you’re having a conversation talking to someone on the phone, it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s that person, because that’s their unique voice.”

I think it gets harder to describe when you’re talking about an instrumentalist.  In my mind, the truly great instrumental players of our time, you can recognize their playing by just hearing them play, even if you’re not looking at them or if you’re just hearing a recording of them.  And that becomes their voice.

You hear Béla, or you hear Jerry [Douglas], or you hear Mike Marshall – you know it’s them.  That’s the thing growing up that was cool – going to the Mandolin Symposium and hearing Mike Compton and David Grisman and Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, and they’re all playing the mandolin, they’re all playing the same instrument, and it could just sound exactly the same, but it doesn’t.  And you close your eyes, and I could tell you which one was which, because they’ve all instilled their soul into their playing.  It’s hard to describe exactly what that is, but I think that’s ultimately the goal – allowing that sound and that part of you, creating that part of you, to come through.  I don’t know if I totally answered the question! [laughs]

Well, it’s a weird question!  So, for instance, Mike Marshall – I always think of him as a joyful player, you know?

Yeah.

And he has that joyful sensibility, and when you talk to him, that comes through.  And other people seem to have a darker current to them.

Right.

Or other people, a sort of, I don’t know, interplanetary current?

Totally.

So, I don’t even know if you have a sense of this or could even describe it, but how would you describe your sensibility as an artist?

Well, going back to what you were saying, yeah, you listen to someone like Billie Holiday, and you can just hear all of the trials and sorrow, and awful things that she had to go through, in her voice – that really comes through.  And so for me, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a pretty good life and haven’t had to face a lot of that adversity.  But what I would hope is that just from listening to music like that and taking little things away from it, and those things going through my individual self and my soul, that even though I haven’t necessarily faced any of that in my own life, I could hear that sorrow within someone else’s music, or hear that joy within someone else’s music, and allow it to come out of me in a way that is truly unique to me, and it’s my own original take and my own original feeling coming through.

That’s just the nature of being human beings.  Three different people could go through life experiencing exactly the same things, and they’re all going to have their own take on it.  That’s what’s so great about music.  Three musicians could go through learning exactly the same songs, exactly the same music, and it’s ultimately going to sound a little bit different.  For me, it just is a product of learning and trying to saturate myself with the music of my heroes and really studying that, and then ultimately trying to create my own music based on what I take in.

I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as an old soul…

Yeah.  [laughs]

…because of the precocity with which you started appearing on the scene, but also the sophistication of how you construct your artistic life.  I mean, there is a sense of, how is that possible in somebody so young, you know?

Yeah.

But in a way, that could feel kind of reductive.  It sort of discounts all the hard work, and all the things you’ve exposed yourself to – the working at it.

Right.

So how does it strike you when people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul…”

Right.  Well, I appreciate you saying that, because I think it is kind of hard for people to really grasp that I’ll be 24 next month, but I really started working hard on this stuff when I was 11 and 12.  I think it’s easy for people to say, “Oh, well, she’s an old soul.”  And this goes for a lot of my peers in the music scene.  I think they face some of this stuff, too.  I just started at such a young age and really worked hard, and started even playing my own live shows around 12 and 13 years old.

I think a lot of that, in terms of the way that I might carry myself, comes from, you know, I’m an only child, and for as long as I can remember, my parents would opt out of the babysitter and just take me with them everywhere they went.  For as long as I can remember, I was always surrounded by older people, and that was just a natural thing.  And so automatically I had to learn how to carry myself and interact with people that were a lot older than me.  And it’s the same for when I started going to a weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in Wimberley [Texas] – all those people were way older than me.

But I think the gift and the magic of it is that I was lucky to be around people, like I was saying earlier, that didn’t belittle me, and they treated me like an adult from the get go.  And so I think that really shaped my character and made me just feel like one of them, and made me want to work really hard to get to play with those people that I respected.

Yeah, I wonder if you had been treated more like a novelty act, if that would have changed a lot of how you felt about things.

Yeah.  People were really straightforward with me and treated me as a real musician, not just a kid musician, and I think that inspired me to want to just work really hard at it and be on their level.  It mostly says the world about a lot of the people that I’ve mentioned in this interview, for having the wherewithal to not treat me like a little kid and to really challenge me.  I’m very thankful for that.

Your career has really exploded over the last several years.  Do you find it hard to keep your focus when you’re being pulled in so many different directions, and now you’ve got your business team behind you and your label and everything.  Is it hard for you to keep it together and do what you need to do take care of yourself so that you can continue your artistic pursuit?

That’s a great question.  Toward the end of last year I did definitely start feeling that way.  And it’s kind of because, you know, for as long as I’ve been doing this whole music thing, I was also in school. [laughs]  I was in middle school, and then high school, and then college, and it was a lot.  It was a whole lot to balance.  And there were definitely times mid-way through college when I thought, “Man, I don’t know if I can do all this!  [laughs] This is a lot for one person to balance.”  But I just decided to stick with it, and I’m really glad I did.

And then from the moment that I graduated college, it was just straight out onto the road for about a year and a half.  It was really at the end of that touring behind Build Me Up From Bones [Sugar Hill Records, 2013] that I was, like, “Ok, I need to not be on the road as much in 2015 and kind of get back to my roots a little bit, and really just focus on my music and my writing.”  Because I just hadn’t had a chance to just stop and catch my breath, really, from the time that I was 12.  [laughs]  Even when I was in school, any breaks that I had in school – spring break or Christmas or over the summer – I was always touring or recording, and working on my music.

And so this year has been really great for me so far.  I moved to New York about a year and a half ago, and for the first time I feel like I really live here [laughs], because I’m at home more than a week or two at a time, and I’ve gotten to just have fun living in the city, and really get back to focus on my songwriting as a craft.  And doing this project with Sara and Aoife, it kind of came at the perfect time, because I’m not touring as much this year, and it lined up for all of our schedules in that way, which is pretty cool.  I do feel like it can be a lot to balance sometimes, but you just have to know when to say, “Ok, I need to get back to my roots a little bit, and remember what that feels like.”

I just can’t imagine juggling all you’ve juggled for all those years.  It must feel liberating to not have to go to school!

Oh, absolutely.  I mean, it was a wonderful four years, but it was a lot, for sure, and I’m very thankful for this time now.  In a way, I feel like I’m coming to know my music now in an even deeper way – to finally, for the first time, just be able to focus on it, solely, and not have the school stuff on top of it all.  It’s very liberating.

Where do you see yourself heading as far as what your priorities are for the next short while?  For instance, what do you want to get from the I’m With Her Tour?

Well, I think for me it’s kind of the first time – even with the Milk Carton Kids, we were all at the forefront of that – this is really the first time where we all feel like we’re equal parts of this.  It’s just going to be a really great opportunity for me to learn even deeper how to play alongside two other musicians in a different way, and maybe even a more supportive way.  Because night after night when it’s just me singing my songs the whole night – I feel like it’s just going to be really refreshing not to have it be my music the whole night.  I’m hoping that it’s going to allow all of us to take on the role of side musicians, in a new way, but also still be at the forefront.  I’m just learning to blend with them.

We’re all really serious about this project, and I’m really excited.  This is our first tour, and I’m excited to get past the point of just remembering the arrangements [laughs], and to work up to a place where we’re really just, like I was saying, reacting off of each other and playing and listening.  We’ve done one show, and that was a lot of new music – it was almost all new music, new covers for us.  It was just trying to get through it and remember everything that we had arranged.  So I’m excited to get past that point and really just be able to play.

Are you conscious of the role that you play in influencing girls coming up – being a strong presence and a “quintuple threat” or whatever people want to call you, being a bandleader, being a front person?  Is that something you’re aware of when you think of the little ones coming up?

Yeah, especially within the last couple of years.  It’s so special when people – and not just girls, but any young musician – coming up to say they’ve been inspired by what I do.  It sort of feels like a full circle kind of moment.  And it’s good, it’s healthy for me to see that.  This business is crazy, and it’s a lot of hours logged traveling in the van, getting from show to show, and I think those are the moments that really make it feel like it’s worth it.  I see a lot of myself in them, and I try to give to them what my heroes gave to me when I was that age.

Thank you again to Sarah Jarosz for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation about performance.  I encourage my readers to check out her beautiful albums – each one truly is a gem – and if you have the opportunity to see Sarah in concert, don’t hesitate to do it.  –VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 2 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio.

The final installment will be posted next week. –VA

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I know that something a lot of artists have trouble with is when people are really effusive with the compliments and are really excited about what they’re seeing and want to share that with you.  What does that feel like to you?

When people give a bunch of compliments?

Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of other artists where sometimes it doesn’t feel like it lines up, or it’s out of proportion, like that show wasn’t so great or didn’t feel that great to them.

Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because I think I and any musician peer of mine that you talk to will struggle with that, where you get off the stage and you think, “Oh gosh, that was not my best night.”  [laughs]  And then you’re greeted by people saying that was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen.  I’ve kind of learned in those situations, even if I felt like it wasn’t my best playing, to just say thank you.  Because it almost is more of an ego trip to be, like, “Oh, no, that sucked, that was awful!”  [laughs]

Yeah, “You’re wrong!”

Because hopefully they’re being truthful, and they really experienced something that they thought was great, and I think it’s unfair to shoot that down.  So I think it’s good to sort of take it in and be aware that someone’s experience was great – but also to walk away in those settings and learn from your mistakes.  One thing that I’ve tried to get better at doing, which is very hard for me to do, is listening back to shows of mine.  It’s a dreaded thing [laughs], as most musicians, I think, would say.  But if I allow myself to do that, I wind up learning so much, and noticing things.

And this kind of goes back to the question about how it feels to be onstage.  I think this certain part of your brain does kind of go away, because you’re entertaining and you’re up on a stage in front of people.  So some things, I feel like, you can’t rationally notice the way that a person in the audience would notice them, for better or for worse, and by going back and listening I can be, like, “Oh, ok, I didn’t even notice this happening when I was up onstage.”  And a lot of times, for me, that’s maybe singing on the harder side, and when I go back and listen I can say, “Oh, I can actually back away a little bit.  In the moment, with the adrenaline, it feels like I need to sing that really hard, but maybe I don’t actually have to sing it that hard.”  So it’s just taking those compliments, and then also noticing what I would want to be better, and finding a good balance of that.

Do you watch a lot of video?

Of myself?

Yeah.

Every now and then.  I really kind of don’t like to do that [laughs], but when I do let myself, like I’m saying, I learn a lot, and I think actually it can be a very constructive thing to do.

Can you give an example of something that you’ve noticed you do physically that you’ve tried to adjust, or even that you appreciate and say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing there”?

Yeah, I think mostly what I notice is the vocal thing that I was saying.  Like, where in the heightened energy of being onstage, for me anyway, there’s this feeling of needing to make everything bigger.  And oftentimes, when I go back to watch a video, I’ll say, “Ok, well, that could still be big, and I wouldn’t have to push it quite as hard.”  And that just goes back to the whole trying to stay relaxed thing, and noticing moments where I could be even more relaxed and settling into a groove.

That’s kind of the ultimate goal, and I think that’s the hardest thing to do onstage – to really settle and relax into a place where you can just listen, where you can just be a reactive musician and really play based on what’s happening in the moment.  Ultimately, onstage, you settle into a lot of your habits and things that you know work night after night, but I think the best shows and the best nights are the ones where the audience is feeding off you, and you’re feeding off that, and you can be relaxed and just play music and not just kind of go through the motions.

Do you find that there are certain things that make it easier for you to get into the zone?

A lot of it has to do with sound.  I find that on nights that the sound is really great, it’s easier for me to just hear.  It’s hard when you’re battling sound issues, and there’s feedback – it’s hard to reach that point of relaxation.  Because the best times are just sitting around in a circle with folks, really playing music, and if you can try to recreate that on a stage, then that’s ultimately going to affect the music.  I try to have a really low monitor sound, because I feel like it’s just truer if I’m playing more off the room than off of a speaker that’s in front of me.  That makes my experience truer, and ultimately more enjoyable.

And, of course, having that ambient sound is going to change depending on whether you’re in a cozy room or on an outdoor festival stage.  Do you find that it’s harder to manufacture that sense of playing off of the atmosphere as opposed to the monitor?

Yeah, definitely.  And I think in that sense I go for a different vibe – it’s almost like two different shows, and two different types of energy that I would try to create, based on those two settings.  Especially in a festival setting on an outdoor stage, it does have this feeling of wanting to be bigger than life.  In a theatre, you have this limited amount of space that you’re trying to fill, and in a festival setting it’s open-air – it could just go on and on and on [laughs] into the ether, so to speak.  And that’s a daunting task to try to fill that and make it feel intimate in such a large setting.  I think it’s just trying to find that balance, in a festival.

Those are especially the times for me when I need to try to stay the most relaxed.  Because it does feel like it takes so much more adrenaline and so much more energy to put on a big show on an outdoor stage, whereas you can really kind of hone in and be really soft and quiet in a nice performing arts center.  I have grown up doing both, and they’re two things that I really enjoy doing.  I just feel like it’s a totally different show in those two settings.

How do you experience the energy coming off the audience?

I think I’m pretty sensitive to it.  I think a lot of musicians, at least a lot of my peers, would say the same thing.  It’s funny – I’m sensitive to it, but I’ve learned, if it starts really getting to me, to kind of try to shut it off.  Because there have been nights when an audience will not necessarily be super-responsive during the show, and people will talk to me afterwards and say, “Oh my god, that was just so amazing!” and you think, “Oh, well, it didn’t feel like you were being responsive to it during the show…”  [laughs]

And so it’s easy to kind of let that stuff get to you in the moment, because all of the energies are sort of uber-heightened, and you become so aware of every little thing, that sometimes it might not be truthful to how it’s actually happening.  I think it can sort of have negative effects, but it can also have really positive effects.  If you’re feeding off of a great crowd, that can really add to the energy of the show.  But then, also, in times when it might be negatively affecting me onstage, I just kind of have to say, “Ok, well, just settle in and relax into the song and focus on that tonight.”

Do it more for yourself.

More for myself, yeah.  And it’s never going to be the same – it’s different from crowd to crowd and night to night – and you just kind of have to learn to adapt.

Do you have a pre-show ritual that you do to get yourself ready to take the stage?

Not necessarily.  I feel like lately what I try to do is I actually just try to be as relaxed as possible.  I really like to actually sit down [laughs], because when you’re onstage you’re standing and you’re putting out a lot of energy, for usually an hour and a half.  I just try to really conserve my energy.  A lot of people try to get really amped up before a show, and I’ve found that the more relaxed I am, the better I am on the stage.  The more energy I try to preserve, the more energy I have to put out on a stage.  But that isn’t really anything in particular.  I think it’s definitely not having conversations before [laughs] – I really try to just relax my voice, and save that energy for the stage.

And how does your state of mind before a show compare to your state of mind when you come off the stage?

That’s a really good question.  I guess the state of mind leading up to a show is, hopefully, relaxed.  But I think inevitably, certain little anxieties – and maybe anxiety’s not the right word, but you’re about to get on a stage in front of a bunch of people.  So you try to be as relaxed as possible, but ultimately you’re thinking about the show and how it’s going to go.  And then after the show, I do feel like it is this huge energy, because you’ve just been on this adrenaline trip, basically, and you’re just at the height of that when you get off the stage.  I feel like it normally lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour – a kind of buzzing, almost, buzzing from that heightened energy – and then it slowly fades away, as you load up the van and drive away. [laughs]  So it’s trying to be really relaxed and calm leading up to a show, and then it’s really high-energy buzzing afterwards.

Do you like to rehearse a show as a show, going through a whole set to get a sense of the arc of the set?

I’ve never really done that, rehearsed all the way through – well, that’s not true.  Definitely running through the songs, but I think there’s something to be said for mostly working on the songs that really feel like they need more time and more work.  But I feel like I have a pretty good sense in my head about the energy and the feel of different songs and, when I’m writing a set list, keeping that stuff in mind and thinking, how is this going to create an arc for a show to bring people up and down on this wave of feelings.  I really appreciate that when I go to see a show, and someone takes me on this up and down journey and it’s not totally horizontal.  I really appreciate that, and so I feel like that’s what I try to do when I create the set.

But it’s cool to leave some stuff for the moment, and for mystery, and not have every little detail planned out.  That allows you to – what I was saying earlier – to listen and react in the moment.  If it’s all planned out to a T, it’s easier to just kind of not be present and rest on your laurels and that kind of thing.  And so I try to leave a little bit of space for being present in the moment.

Do you feel that music school, and in particular your Contemporary Improvisation major, changed you as a performer?

Yeah, I do.  Maybe not as a performer, so much, because that wasn’t really the focus of my time there.  It wasn’t really on performing, it was more on the nitty-gritty of the arrangements and the music.  But I think, ultimately, having my ear expanded, which was really the thing that happened most during my time at NEC [New England Conservatory], that’s actually going to affect how I carry myself onstage.  It’s mostly going to affect the music, and the music is going to affect the performance.

I think being exposed to so many different styles of music that I hadn’t really listened to before – a lot of free improvisation, a lot more jazz, listening to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and a lot of great female vocalists that I hadn’t been exposed to before my time at NEC – that definitely influenced me and how I approach the stage.  But mostly I feel like, since I was performing for all my life, basically, that part is still me and was there before I went to NEC, and I think it was more the music that was affected by my time there, more than the performance aspect of it.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  Do you picture what you’re singing about?

Yeah, actually.  I have this conversation with people that ask me, “How do you remember lyrics?”  [laughs] And I think a lot of it actually is mental pictures of what’s happening in the songs.  And it can be sort of abstract, like a whole verse could have a certain image with it.  Like with my song “Build Me Up From Bones”, for instance, that whole song started based on the image of a fingernail moon.  And so, really, whenever I sing that song I think about that in my mind.  And even with a song like [Bob Dylan’s] “Ring Them Bells”, each one of those verses carries an image for me, like St. Peter and St. Martha and all of those.  It’s almost like when you’re reading a book, at least for me – you have this image in your mind of what’s happening – and I do feel like that’s how it is when I’m singing songs.

So you mentioned “Build Me Up From Bones” – you were thinking visually as you were writing it?

Definitely.  I think the line that was the spark for that song – this is when I was living in Boston, actually I remember it very clearly.  I was walking down the street, I think it was actually Hemenway Street, which was where I lived during my time in Boston, and it was at night, and it was a fingernail moon.  And I think I just wrote on my phone in my Notes app: fingernail moon scratching on the back of the night.  And I had that line for probably a month before I was, like, that’s pretty cool.

It’s very cool, by the way.

And I eventually took that and made it into the song.  So that image was the initial image that stuck with me for a while with that one.

I imagine that helps you in the studio.  It’s so hard to make a three-dimensional performance with just the aural component, so I imagine that would help you with fleshing out the performance when you’re not in the live setting.

Oh, definitely.  I think some of my favorite writers and performers create a whole world within their music, and they kind of transport you there, whether you’re listening to their record or you are at a live performance.  Ultimately, I feel like that’s why a lot of people go to see live music – it’s because they want to be transported for an hour and a half away from their realities.  And if you can create a space, an image, or a world that allows people to do that, that’s pretty powerful.

And obviously, when we’re seeing a live show, we’ve got the visual information as well – what’s the performer’s face doing, what’s their body language. 

Right.

So you have to put that across in the studio, and all the things that you do with your face and body do show up in the sound, but it has to be within pretty  controlled physical parameters.  How do you feel that you do create that visual sense for the listener when you’re recording?

Yeah, that’s a good question.  This is something that I’m thinking about all the time and trying to get better at.  I was having a conversation with Sara Watkins, actually, and Aoife O’Donovan, because we were all recording on Aoife’s record recently.  And we were talking about how, if you allow yourself to be physical in the studio and move the way you normally would on a stage, then that actually comes across in the recording.  If someone’s smiling while they’re singing a lyric, I feel like I can see that – I can hear it and then see it, you know?

Yes.

Or if someone is being big with their body when they’re singing a lyric, I feel like that comes across.  But a lot of times what winds up happening, and I feel like I’ve definitely been guilty of this, is that you get into the recording studio and you get into the vocal booth, and you kind of stand still [laughs] and sing the lyric really straight, and not at all how you would normally sing it if you’re playing with people or being on a stage.

And so I think if you allow yourself to be true to your physical self in the studio – we were all saying this – that definitely comes across on recordings.  I think it’s just that some people change their whole vibe when they sit in front of a microphone in a studio, and I think if you can allow yourself to just be relaxed and play how you would normally play, then at that point it’s up to the engineer to know how to capture that physicality within the recordings.

And that gets harder when you’re actually recording it live in the studio and you’re stuck behind your instrument.

Right.  Yeah, it’s tricky, and that’s what sets a great recording apart from a not-so-great recording.  And I think that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, I’m not crazy about the record, but I love seeing that person live…”  I think maybe that’s just a product of that, where it is hard to capture that spirit in the studio.  And I think some people are masters of that.  Some people are truly fantastic in a live setting, and might not have figured out how to capture that in a studio, and vice versa.  Some records are products, truly, of the magic of the recording studio and all the different devices and sounds that you can put to use in a studio, and then maybe they aren’t able to recreate that in a live setting.

So it works both ways.  And that’s why I feel like it’s fun to have each be their own thing, and try to bring in elements of both to each.  For me, anyway, a lot of my recordings have a lot of stuff going on that I don’t do in my live shows, and that’s fun.  I think it’s cool to see the different forms that a song can take on in different settings, and be this one thing on a record, but be this maybe more stripped-down thing in a live setting.

How has being in the studio, and doing producing duties in the studios, affected you as a performer – having the producer hat on?

I think it definitely goes back to the whole bandleader thing.  You have to be able to get outside of yourself a little bit, to be able to listen to it as a whole, and to be able to make comments and critiques based on the thing as a whole.  And I think that is actually kind of harder to do in a live setting, because you’re battling all of those other energies, like I was talking about, and so it’s easy to kind of fall into your routine and the way that you proceed through a live show.  Sometimes it can be hard to step outside all of that and see, “Oh, ok, this is the bigger picture, this is what’s going on.”

But having worked with [producer] Gary Paczosa so much, and shared those duties, he’s taught me a lot about noticing things and really taking everything into consideration.  The challenge then becomes, when you consider all the possibilities, how do you narrow it down to the ones that are really crucial to giving the song its life.  One great thing about Gary is that, from a very early age, he encouraged me to dream big and really consider all my options.  And now we’re at this point where we’re, like, “Ok, well, how do we see all the options and then become really picky about what’s really crucial and what the song really needs, and kind of strip it down to that?”  And that mindset in the studio definitely carries over to sculpting a live show as well.

[To be continued…]

In the final installment, to be posted next week, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 1 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present an in-depth conversation about performance with one of my very favorite musicians, Sugar Hill Records artist SARAH JAROSZ.  

A multiple Grammy Award nominee over her young but already illustrious career, Sarah won two Grammys in 2017, for Best American Roots Performance (“House of Mercy”, from her fourth album, Undercurrent), and for Best Folk Album (Undercurrent).

Sarah is a musical quintuple threat: singer, multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo), songwriter, bandleader, and co-producer. She is a regular member of the house band on A Prairie Home Companion, and has also appeared on Austin City Limits, the BBC’s Transatlantic SessionseTownAcoustic Café, Mountain StageConan, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among others

You can keep track of Sarah’s touring activity here, and sample some videos here.  

This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Sarah discusses her early path to becoming a performer, what inspired her to take herself seriously as a musician, and how she experiences being a bandleader. –VA

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What’s your earliest memory of performing, when you were conscious of performing for other people?  What did that feel like for you?

Well, for me it goes back a long way, and it kind of was just something that I always did.  I think one of the earliest documented performances of me, that I don’t personally remember, was when I was two years old, and it was a school production and I was singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and I was actually wearing a little flag dress, if you can believe it [laughs].  I grew up in Texas, after all!  So it was always something I did.  It just was always sort of second nature – the singing part of it.

It started out in school performances, and then I did a bunch of national choirs.  My first music teacher – her name was Diana Riepe – she was very formative for me.  She taught using the Kodály method of music, which is based around solfège – you know, the hand signals representing the notes.  She was the one that encouraged me to try out for these national choirs which were run by the Kodály people.

So I did that about five years, and it was always in a different place.  So that was actually my first experience traveling for my music.  This all started maybe in the second or third grade time frame.  And I got to go to Chicago and San Francisco and Massachusetts, and it was just really special to get to travel and see the country because of my music.  And luckily my parents were really supportive of that.  I just was always doing something where I was performing, and so it always felt comfortable being onstage in front of people.

Do you remember how you felt being onstage, how you experienced the audience and how you experienced your body, when you were that age?

I’m trying to remember.  It just felt normal – I don’t know that it felt any different.  It did feel good.  I remember really enjoying it, that’s for sure, and almost getting giddy off of it, getting up onstage, and being really excited afterwards.  And for a lot of my peers, I remember they would be, like, “Oh, I’m so nervous!”  And I just never felt that.  It felt really physically natural to do.

And then when you started playing instruments, did you feel that the instruments were an extension of yourself?

Yes.  Yeah, definitely.  And it’s actually to the point now where I almost feel weird onstage if I don’t have an instrument in my hands.  Because when I started playing the mandolin, and later on the guitar and the banjo, I was always playing and singing simultaneously.  Only recently in my shows did I start just doing one song where I was only singing.  Yeah, and so it did become an extension of that, and actually something that I came to really rely on.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or a version of yourself, or do you feel like it’s somebody different who’s up there?

It’s a little bit of both.  I think maybe the best way to put it would be “an extended version of myself”.  There is a certain amount of taking on another persona, because people want to be entertained.  I’m afraid to use the word “acting”, because it is me, and it is not being someone that I’m not, but it is sort of larger, to a certain degree, than I might be if I’m just having a conversation with someone or sitting around in a circle playing music.  But I think what I constantly work on is, I’m trying to find that balance of being able to entertain folks and put on a show, while still being really relaxed and just playing.  I think it’s finding a balance of that that’s key, and that’s what I constantly try to work on.

I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you, but you have so much poise on the stage…

Thank you!

And you seem so relaxed, and you seem like you’re able to just plug into the groove so readily.  I remember the first time I saw you was when you did a tweener [a song between sets] at RockyGrass.  You must have been 12 or 13 – do you remember that?

Yeah, I think I was 12.

I think you did “Blue Night” or something?

“Blue Moon of Kentucky”.

Yeah.  And everybody was, like, “What was that?”  I know I was.  Because you just seemed so completely comfortable, and that’s unusual for someone that age.  And you’ve definitely matured into that, but it’s something I feel like you’ve always had, and I’m sure you’re always hearing that.  What do you think that comes from?  What do you think accounts for that?

I think it comes, largely, from what I was saying about how’s it’s just always what I’ve done – I’ve been up on a stage since I was two years old.  And I think another part of it is having parents that, from a very early age, made me believe that it could be a reality, that it could be my career and my life.  I think I might have approached the stage differently had I been the kind of person that heard, “Oh, well, this is a great hobby, but you should really think about doing something else…”

“Have a safety plan!”

Yeah, exactly.  And that was never the case.  I’m very fortunate that they were so supportive of that.  So they made me feel comfortable, in that regard.  They made me feel like I could do it.  And especially starting out this young, that played a big role.  And then, on top of that, just seeing live music for as long as I can remember, witnessing other people do it, and recognizing things that I liked about certain performances and things that I didn’t like about others, and that being normal, too.  I think a lot of my peers, at my age, their parents weren’t taking them out almost every night to see live shows in Austin [laughs].  So that was a reality to me, too, just getting to witness so many amazing performances at a very early age.

What kinds of things did you notice that made you think, well, that works for me, or that makes sense for me – not necessarily that you’re going to steal or incorporate, but that would influence your own persona onstage?  Not necessarily even performers, but aspects of performance that you took note of?

Well, I guess early on, if we’re going way back, a lot of the things I would see were the Texas singer-songwriter folks – someone like Shawn Colvin, or Guy Clark, or Bill Staines – those are some of my earliest memories of concerts.  And so that’s its own thing.  It’s more of the storyteller persona of being onstage, which I love.

But then, I think what really gave me this jolt of excitement, of wanting to do it, was seeing Nickel Creek play.  Because that was really happening at the time that I had just picked up the mandolin – I was about 10 or 11 – and seeing Chris [Thile] play, and seeing the way that he is just a rock star onstage, but still with all these acoustic instruments.  And all of them were just so great onstage.  And seeing people that were closer to my age doing this and having such a great stage presence and making it just larger than life, you know, is how it felt to watch those shows at that age.  And that’s when I thought, “Ok…I want to do this!” [laughs]

And then, of course, you eventually started hanging out with these guys, at music camps and all that.  When did you feel like you were one of their peers, performance-wise?

Well, it’s kind of a blurry line, because a lot of them just made me feel so welcome from the very beginning.  But I will say, I feel like it’s really only since I moved away from home, and went to college [New England Conservatory], and starting life on my own now, that it really feels that way.  But truly, from the get-go, one of my favorite stories is when I first met Nickel Creek.  I think I was 10, and they were playing at a festival outside of Austin called the Old Settler’s Music Festival.  And they were doing a little workshop – you know how those things go at festivals.  And I had just seen their music video on TV, and I had just gotten my first mandolin.  And I walked up to them after, and Chris kneeled down and wrote, “Let’s jam sometime!” on my program. [laughs] And that was kind of the moment when I was, like, “All right! I want to get good enough to jam with him someday…”  [laughs]

But just for him to write that – I’m just any little girl – there was always that air of kindness.  And the same goes for so many people in the scene, like you’re saying, and I just felt really welcome.  And that had a lot to do with my being inspired and being encouraged to want to get really good.  Because all of those people were, like, “Well, if you work hard enough, you can do this.”

Yeah, there is a real sense of generosity in the community, and also a sense of wanting to bring people up, you know?

Yes.  And actually Mike Marshall, I feel like, is one of the best at that.  He certainly was that for me, right from the get-go.  A real turning point truly was my first RockyGrass Academy when I was 11.  That’s where I got to meet Mike for the first time and learn from him.  I mean, how cool is it?  I’m guessing maybe at that point he was in his 40s, and someone like that doesn’t have to give an 11 year old the time of day, you know? [laughs]  I had just been playing for a year.  But he was just so generous and so encouraging.  And he treated me like an adult, and I think that was also the thing about all those people.  They never treated me like a little kid, and they approached their teaching in that way as well.  They weren’t dumbing it down – they were always really challenging me.

It’s also interesting to me that your writing is as sophisticated as anything else that you’re going to find out there.  And that must come from a sensibility of being so saturated in the sophisticated theory that happens in that music that you’re around. 

Yeah.

And you were writing before you went to music school.  When you write, are you thinking in terms of how it’s going to feel to perform those songs?

Yes and no.  I think initially no, because I was just trying to see if I could do it in the first place.  I feel like the more that I’ve done it, I might be thinking about that aspect more – how it’s going to feel to play on a stage.  But initially, I guess I first started trying to write when I was 12 or 13.  And my mom had always written songs as a hobby, and that in itself made me feel like, “Ok, this is possible, this is something that people do…”  [laughs]  And from the very early stages, a lot of it was just kind of messing around with little ideas, and I would often show her the ideas, and she would say, “Ok, well, that’s cool – what if you tried this?”  Just having that influence in the house was kind of crucial.

And then, on top of that, all the great songwriters that I was exposed to from such an early age, and trying to, initially, kind of model the songs after those people – like Gillian Welch, or Tim O’Brien, or Darrell Scott.  I think, going back to my first record [Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009], a song like “Tell Me True” was very influenced by Gillian or Tim – kind of that old-timey sound.  And a song like “Broussard’s Lament” is very influenced by someone like Darrell Scott – the “percussion-y” style of guitar.

I definitely see what you’re saying about the influences.  However, you’ve got your own “voice” on those.  I mean, that’s definitely something that develops over time, but they’ve got your sensibility on them, don’t you think?  They’re original in that sense.

Yeah, I feel – as any musician feels, I’m sure – that you’re influenced by everything that you take in, and it goes in, and you kind of process it in your own original way, and then hopefully what comes out has its own stamp with your sound.  And that’s always what I was trying to do, and that’s what I still do, and that’s what’s so great about music and art – it’s just endless.  You can always be discovering something new that you haven’t heard before, and that’s going to set off some other little trigger inside of you that you might not have known was in there before.  That’s going to release something new in your interpretation, and the way that you process that is going to be different from the next guy, and so automatically that’s going to make it have its own original stamp.

And you do such interesting things with covers.  I think you pick covers that are challenging, but also may be freeing, in that they don’t have a real lyrical standard to them – like a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan cover that, you know, you’re definitely not going to sing it like they do it.

Exactly.  [laughs]

What inspires you to bring a cover to your act and to bring your own twist to it?  What is there in a cover that is intriguing to you?

I think a lot of it is picking songs that I feel I could do something unique and original to.  Like you’re saying, I seem to pick songs by writers that I admire greatly, but sound very different from me, even vocally, like Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.  Those are all such distinct voices.  I guess there are differences in the choice that goes into picking a cover for a live show versus picking a cover for a recording.

I think for a recording, it has to bring something to the table that makes sense on a record, and not just, like, “Ok, this is just a collection of songs.”  It has to make sense with the other songs.  It has to bring something that fills out the feel and the story.  Like with [Dylan’s] “Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, on my last record [Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013], that appealed to me because it was such a sparse arrangement of that song, and I had never really recorded something that open and bare before, and that seemed like a good texture to bring in to fill out the rest of the record.  But mostly it’s just picking songs that I love to sing and feel like I can do something a little new to.

When did you feel like you could bring something to the table as a bandleader?

I guess that always kind of came naturally.  I think that sort of spawned out of writing my own songs.  I think it might have been different had I not been writing my own material.  That in itself just gives way to hearing different arrangements and saying, “How do I want this song to take life on a stage or in a studio?” and from there thinking, “Ok, well, this person would be ideal, or this person would make it really great.”

And luckily, around that same time, I started going to a lot of these music camps.  Mike [Marshall] and Dawg’s [David Grisman’s] Mandolin Symposium, for instance, was a place where I started meeting musicians my own age who were into a lot of the same music.  And I think a lot of wanting to play my own shows came out of that – you know, playing with guys like Alex [Hargreaves] and Nat [Nathaniel Smith] and seeing, “Ok, these people are doing it, too.”  But then it goes beyond that, and you meet musicians you feel really get your music and can really bring your songs to life.

You have a really calm energy around bandleading.  When I’ve seen your trio with Alex and Nat, I have been struck by how you create a bubble around the three of you that’s like a safety zone or something…

Yeah.

…and sort of, like, what’s possible within that bubble?  You’re definitely including the audience, but I feel like Alex and Nat can just sort of lay back and do what they do.  And that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you see with a bandleader that there’s a kind of jangly energy to it that seems counter-productive, you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely.

So are you conscious of creating that?

Yeah, for sure.  Actually, the thing with Alex and Nat, it’s kind of seen its day, for now at least.  We played together for almost five years, and I was definitely excited to try out some other things.  So right now, I’ve done a few shows in another trio setting with Mark Schatz on the bass and Jedd Hughes on guitar and singing.  But I feel like this question pertains to any sort of configuration like that, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that do create that bubble and that sense of a wholeness.

Also, having played so many solo shows, it’s interesting to see the songs take form with musicians backing it up.  But I think the goal is to find those musicians that make it feel just as relaxed as if it were in a solo setting, and just as smooth and seamless.  And I feel like Nat and Alex really brought a lot to the table in terms of how that happened, and I’m excited to see other configurations and how my songs can take shape with different musicians.

[To be continued…]

In the next installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio. — VA


HOLLY NEAR — A Q&A

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Singer/songwriter/actor/author/activist HOLLY NEAR has been making powerful music for over 40 years.  She is widely known as one of the original feminist musicians of the 1970s whose ranks also include such artists as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Margie Adam.  In 1972, she was quite possibly the first woman ever to start an independent, artist-owned label (Redwood Records).  Through her appearances and recordings, she has worked for peace and human rights in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.  For a detailed look at her accomplishments in music, film, television, theatre, and progressive action, see this timeline on her website.  She recently appeared in the star-studded Memorial Concert for Pete and Toshi Seeger [Lincoln Center Out of Doors], and her 30th album, Peace Becomes You [Calico Tracks Music], can be purchased through her online store along with many other titles in her impressive discography.  Ms. Near graciously agreed to consider a series of performance-related questions I submitted to her.  Here are her illuminating responses, which I received from her by email. –VA

Do you consider yourself to be a natural-born performer?

­­­­­Yes.  I have been “presenting” since I was a small child, starting in the living room of our family home.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like a different version of yourself?  In what ways?

I am “Holly Near” or “Her” when I am presenting.  She is different than the person offstage.  Of course there are similarities.  Still the one onstage is projecting a personality, a sound, a story, a song, a feeling.  It is, by nature, the theatrical-izing of a self.

When you were developing your music career, were you conscious of wanting to present yourself onstage differently than mainstream female singers had typically been presenting themselves?  If so, what did you want to do differently?  Was this a topic of discussion at the time among you and your peers?

As a child, I was not having this conversation with myself.  But when I became more conscious of the idea of female and woman as a result of my growing feminism, then I began to study my behavior, my performance, my ideas through that window.  I had always had a strong stance.  That did not change.  I had always had a big voice.  That did not change.  It was more in my mind, my perception, and the greatest impact was realized in the lyrics to my songs and the introductions to the songs.  All the feminist performers I worked with were thinking about how we were presenting ourselves as feminists different from how we had been presenting ourselves as women.  Again, we were mostly looking at the lyrics, the music and the way in which women related to each other and to community differently once we became self-proclaimed feminists and, in some cases, as lesbian feminists.

You’ve said that Ronnie Gilbert [of The Weavers] influenced the way you stand onstage and the way you sing out in a strong way.  [Note to readers: for context, see this clip from “The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time!”, a 1982 documentary by Jim Brown.]  Have female artists of subsequent generations told you that you influenced their performing styles?  If so, in what ways?

Yes.  I used to watch people come up to Ronnie and say, “I grew up on your music.”  Now they say it to me.  I am now older than Ronnie was when she and I first worked together.  As for performers, I don’t know specifically how my work has influenced them.  But from my point of view, it may be a subtle thing that they don’t even realize and won’t until they are much older, when they come to an age of reflection.  Young people are usually so in the present and that, in my opinion, is where they should be.  But someday, they will know that each generation makes a path on which the next generation walks.  Feminist cultural activists made a large walkway for young women who now freely dance along without always knowing that it used to be a briar patch.  That pleases me.

What things you do differently now as a performer than when you were first coming up, such as how you relate to the audience, or how you introduce songs?  How is your philosophy about performance different?  How is the way you present yourself different?

I am not sure it is different.  I have been a very consistent performer.  However, I do what I set out to do with much greater ease and sophistication, with greater craft.  And that is wonderful.  I am very respectful of craft.

Do you have a sense of being in your body when you’re onstage?  Do you feel like you’re grounded?

I make a point of landing before I walk on stage.  It takes 15 seconds in the wings.  I am very much grounded.  However, there is something else that happens if I am doing my job well and that is I let the unknown be with me.  I do not have a set patter or staging.  I will often speak about something for the first time in front of an audience without having rehearsed it.  I work in new thoughts spontaneously.  But this comes with practice.  I am much better at it now than when I was starting out.  I used to sing more notes and use more words.  Now I am more concise.  I’m more relaxed.  I allow humor to flow easily.  I have a very intimate relationship with the audience, whether it is 100 or 1000, I make the work personal.

Do you get stage fright?  If you don’t, why do you think you don’t?  If you do, what do you do to combat it?

No.  I was a little nervous from time to time when I first started performing.  I would freeze up.  But after a while, that went away.  Now the only time I get nervous is if I am asked to do something I am not sure of or if I present in front of a group where I’m not sure if I am welcome.  The rest of the time, I have no fear or nerves.  Excitement sometimes, but that is different than fear.  When I do workshops and people ask about stage fright, I give them an exercise to do.  It works for some, not for others.  I ask the presenter to feel like the host rather than the guest.  Turn the power dynamic around so that one is not feeling looked at or judged but rather is looking at the audience and welcoming them as you would someone in to your home.  Mentally check to see if they feel welcome, if they are comfortable, if there is anything they need and eventually, one starts to feel comfortable with the possibility that what they might need is you.  Not you, the nervous and insecure one, but you the generous artist who prepared to share what you have to offer with grace and confidence.

Do you have a pre-show ritual or routine that helps you get ready to go onstage? If so, would you be willing to describe it?

It takes about 15 seconds.  I simply remind myself when standing in the wings what is my job.  Why am I here and what is it I am meant to do.  Then I go do it.

Do you connect to your older songs differently than you used to?  Do they mean different things to you now than they used to?  What, if anything, do you do to keep the connection to them fresh?

Every time I sing a song, I let it live in the current moment.  That is what keeps it fresh.  I often introduce a song with a different story and that influences what the song means to me and probably what it means to the audience.  A song is not static or at least it doesn’t need to be.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  If so, how do you experience that?

In my particular style of writing and presenting, each song is a story and sometimes like a little three minute play.  So the song is very visual because there are characters and location and tension and outcome.

When you think of your favorite performers, what are the qualities they possess which excite you as a member of the audience?

When they walk on stage I know that something exciting is going to happen.  Period.

How do you keep your focus during a performance, and stay in the moment?  Which conditions make this more difficult or less difficult for you?  Which conditions make it more or less likely that you’ll be able to go into “the zone” when you’re performing?

I don’t have trouble staying focused.  The moment, or “the zone” as you refer to it, is where I live.  It is the house I walk into when I walk in front of an audience.  The conditions don’t matter.  I have played in places where you can hear a pin drop and places where you can hear a bomb drop.  I take ” the zone” with me where ever I go.

You’ve traveled extensively during your career, and you’ve been exposed to many musical cultures and styles of performing.  When you’ve performed in other countries, have you noticed that you changed how you presented yourself onstage or how you interacted with the audience?

When I sing in other cultures, whether it is another country or a neighborhood that experiences their daily life differently than I do, I try to remember to take a passport.  By this, I mean I try to be sensitive always to where I am, whether it is festival in Nicaragua or a senior center in California.  And if I stay connected to that awareness, the presentation changes.  I think the hardest for me is when I am singing in English in a place where English is not spoken.  My songs are so wordy.  I have never figured out how to do that well.  Translation is very time consuming and ideas are complex.  If one is a singer of love songs, then the audience can simply relax and enjoy the sound of the voice, the musicality of the artist, the emotion of the interpretation.  But with my songs, it is not so easy.  I have yet to feel comfortable with this.  So, I do a lot of listening to others when I go to other countries.  And that works just fine.  People love to be heard.  Not so good for my ego but definitely good for international relations.

Thank you to Holly Near for taking the time to share her thoughts with us on the subject of performance.  I urge my readers to see her in concert and to check out her catalogue for purchase. –VA


CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 2 of 2

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops

Driessen

[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.  What follows is the second of two installments of the transcript.

You can find additional information about Casey at the beginning of Part 1.  In that installment, he discusses such topics as messing up during a performance, what makes him feel more confident, and his insights from working in the studio.  In Part 2, Casey addresses the use of substances at gigs, taking compliments from fans, and how your instrument can work for you, among other things.  –VA

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On being under the influence of substances while performing:

Substances are around – drugs, alcohol, marijuana, caffeine – you know, any number of things.  They affect everybody differently.  I think it’s important to understand for yourself how they affect you.  Some people can play great under the influence and you would never suspect that’s part of their equation.  I hope they’re conscious of how it affects them, and I know how substances affect me.

I’m generally very comfortable onstage.  I’m at peace up there.  Well, I was sitting in with a group in which all the guys in the group were pot smokers – and it’s a cloud of smoke out there in the audience.  It wasn’t my gig, I’m just sitting in.  So I thought, hey, if there’s ever a situation that’s safe – I’m going to go ahead and smoke before the show.  Then I got up there, and I was so paranoid.  I mean, like never before.  I’m usually pretty physically fluid when I play – but I could not move my feet.  I wanted to be anywhere else but playing and standing onstage right there.  It was so different than how I normally feel.  And I thought, when I got off the stage, “I am never doing this again.”  So I learned, the hard way, how my body reacted to it in a show setting.

Alcohol is another one I’m aware of.  Sometimes it can make you just a little bit more fluid.  Maybe it takes the edge off of the nervousness.  It’s just a fine line there – I have to be careful with it.  Did I have a decent dinner?  Did I eat dinner?  Is it going to hit me faster than if I ate some spaghetti or something heavy?  I enjoyed having that little edge taken off sometimes.  Right now, I don’t have a drink before my shows, because there’s a lot of technical accuracy with my whole body that I have to be in tune with – stepping on pedals at the right moment for the arrangement to happen.  I’m just not willing to take the chance that if it doesn’t go right, it was because I had a drink before the show.  So that’s a decision I’ve made for myself.  I’m learning, when is it ok and when is it not ok – for me, personally.

On the use of beta blockers for stage fright:

I’ve never tried them.  They are not necessarily “performance enhancing drugs” – they’re anxiety and stress relieving drugs.  And they do something with your hormones and the way your body reacts with adrenaline.  I hear that a lot of classical musicians take them before big performances. They’re supposed to kind of help you not be shaky or nervous or sweaty – your fight/flight type of responses.  They’re generally prescribed, though I was just reading a study saying twenty-five percent of orchestral people use them, however seventy percent of those that use them get them from their friends.  So, I don’t have any experience with them, but I know that lots of people do.

On what helps him feel more confident:

Preparation.  Practicing.  I get uptight for a gig a week out, even though I know I’ve got a week to work on this material – thinking, “[gasp] It’s a week out!  I’ve got to practice for this stuff!” Fear and worry are motivators for me to say, “Ok, it’s time to do some work on it.”  If there’s a specific performance which you know you’ve got material that is difficult for you, spend time on it.  If it doesn’t go well, you did the best that you could.  At least you spent time on it – that I can be ok with.  But if it doesn’t go well and I was not working on it, that is a situation that’s not acceptable, because I didn’t do anything to try and help myself for it.

Understanding the musical situation.  Are you nervous at jams?  Or are you nervous in gigs?  Is it worth being nervous?  Are you one of a bunch of people in which they’re not scrutinizing what you’re playing, where you’re just part of this fabric – is it worth getting uptight about?  Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.  But understanding the musical situation – what are the expectations of the other musicians?  What are the expectations of the audience?  Is it a wedding gig?  Are they there to dance?  Are they going to be drinking and just having a good time if the beat is there?  In that sort of situation, you might have a little bit more freedom to be a little more loose.  If it’s a sit-down concert and you’ve got a big solo section, that’s much different than playing a wallpaper gig.  So what’s worth your stress time?  You can’t stress about all the gigs, you know – but hopefully not.

The more that you put yourself in difficult situations, the easier those situations are going to get.  It’s usually the first one that is the toughest.  Maybe the first five of this new music you’re working on, or this new group that you’re playing with.  But it’s going to be ok, you know?  This is not the ER – we’re just playing some music here for people.

This one jazz pianist, he was addressing this type of situation.  You know, you’ve got your solo, and you think, “Oh, I just fucked up my solo…”  Ok, wait a minute here, let’s think about this.  It feels really important, because people are at this club to see you, and maybe there’s eighty people there, maybe there’s two thousand – whatever.  So you just “screwed” up this solo.  Ok, well, let’s back up for a second.  Let’s zoom out.  You are one guy in this city in which there’s all these other musical things going on.  Back up again, ok, now you are in a city within a state full of other cities.  Back up again, you’re in this country full of states full of cities full of people.  Back up again – I mean, it’s like, really?  Is that one solo is going to make or break anybody?  Hey, so it didn’t go.  You can’t win ‘em all.  But it’s really not worth stressing about.

On taking a compliment:

I’ve played for people who got really stressed out after gigs.  This stuff really affected them – you know, whether performances went well or not.  People would compliment after the show, and the performer would say something like, “Oh, that was not a good show.”

I mention this because I think you have to be really careful in these situations, because the audience is paying you a compliment.  You did something for them.  You connected.  And by responding, “No, this was not a good show,” you’re effectively saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Or like, “Your feelings right now are invalid, and you just liked something that totally sucked.”  You just shot down a compliment from somebody.  Suck it up, if you can!  Or remove yourself from the situation.  But I think you have to be careful about letting the frustration that you might feel be poured out to the people that actually did have a good time.  So ok, even though it wasn’t ideal for me, there must be something going on here – I’ll take this compliment.

On making your instrument work for you:

There are a lot of things that you can do to your instrument that are going to make you feel better about the way you play.  You can apply this to whatever instruments you have, but keeping your instrument maintained – I know it costs money, but it’s going to make it easier for you to play.  And there’s enough hard stuff about playing any instruments – they’ve all got their difficulties – why make it any harder?

For me, one thing is string action.  How high are your strings off the fingerboard?  That makes a big difference.  How hard do you have to press here in order to get the notes out?  There’s a range – too low, too high – but there’s a nice middle ground that also affects the tone.  Not only how it feels, but, a little higher action, a little bit louder, a little bit brighter.  And so if you need something to kind of cut through a little bit more – cutting through can equate with confidence – maybe experiment with the action on your instrument.

For guitars and fretted instruments – frets.  Frets get grooves in them from playing which affects the intonation and the way that you can slide on the strings.  Get your frets dressed.  With bowed instruments, you get ruts in your fingerboard.  You’ve got to get your fingerboard planed.  When I get it planed, I think, “Oh, it’s so much easier and more in tune!”

Putting on new strings – that makes a huge difference for intonation and tone.  These things don’t stretch evenly as a whole.  Sometimes I feel like, “I just can’t seem to play in tune, but I used to be able to.  What is going on?  The instrument’s in tune…”  Well, the strings have stretched a little bit differently.  And when I put on a new set of strings, I realize, “Oh, right.  I don’t suck as much as I thought.  It was the strings.  Maintain my instrument!”

Fresh hair on the bow – it helps grip a little bit better.  It gives you a wider range that you can play with dynamically.  It makes you more articulate.

How heavy your pick is – if it’s really light, it might be easier to play, but it might not produce as much sound.  And you might feel like you’re having to work harder to get it out.  Try some different pick gauges and shapes to see what happens.

We experiment with these mechanical details on our instruments to find this nice middle ground that allows us to be expressive and not hinder our instruments physically.  It’s important to get your instrument maintained once in a while.  I go into music shops and I say, “Hey, you’re an expert at making an instrument sound better.  What can I do to make my instrument sound better?”  Because things gradually change over time, you may not have noticed a slow degradation.

I had a luthier tell me, “Oh, you know what would be better for you?  Your instrument would sound better if you used a different shoulder rest.”  And I thought, “What?  The shoulder rest makes a difference in the sound of my fiddle?”  He said, “Hold on a sec.  Let me show you something.”  So he went and got this shoulder rest which is light, stiff, made of wood, and it doesn’t really clamp far onto the instrument.  I had a heavier one, and I was clamping it way down the body.  He said, “Just put it on there just as much as you need to, to make it stay.”  And my instrument was more lively.  I heard a difference!  And as a result, I felt better when I was playing.  “Cool, my instrument’s sounding good!”  You feel good, and then you’re happier to be playing.

I would have never thought of that myself.  I had to go in and have somebody who is an expert to look at these things and say, “I think this might help the sound of your instrument.”  It will help build your own confidence because you’ll be happy to play your instrument, as opposed to, “I’m just not getting enough back from my instrument, I just don’t want to play it.”

On what he’s learned from playing with Tim O’Brien:

Tim is one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever been around.  He’s such a relaxed singer and player, too.  He seems to open his mouth, and he has this range and delivery that seems to go wherever he wants.  I’ve come to believe that whatever kind of person you are is reflected in the way that you play your music.  So, Tim has such nice loose hands.  They’re not loose as in sloppy and all over the place – it’s just this really fluid sound to everything he does.  And he’s a relaxed guy.

I believe you have to evaluate yourself, too, and understand that your instrument is an extension of your personality.  When you’re nervous, somehow that’s going to come out.  Your playing exudes that a little bit.  Whatever you can do to calm yourself down – if you want to be more calm – give it a try.  But if you want to be more aggressive with what you’re playing, maybe you need to read some bad news or something like that – really get pissed off!  Whatever you feel, whoever you are, you exude.

In conclusion:

You’re not alone in wanting to play more confidently, with more guts – I’m right there with you.  So have fun, and don’t be afraid to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations and enjoy them!

Thanks again to Casey for sharing his thoughts in his workshop, and for giving me permission to publish them on this blog.  I definitely recommend to my readers that they see Casey live if they have a chance.  His “Singularity” show, in particular, is practically a high-wire act, and his musicality and virtuosity are inspiring.  –VA


CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 1 of 2

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops

Driessen

[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.  

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.

A highly sought-after touring musician, session player, educator, and producer, Casey is known for his fiery, percussive playing style and his way of stretching musical boundaries.  He has performed with such artists as Béla Fleck, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Thile.  The artists he has recorded with include Darol Anger, John Mayer, Jerry Douglas, Jamey Haddad, and Blue Merle.  He also played on the soundtrack for the Johnny Cash biography film Walk the Line

Casey’s latest album, The Singularity (Red Shoe Records), showcases his inventive live-looping/pedalboard technique which he regularly utilizes in his concerts.  You can watch this video of Casey’s TEDx talk to see his demonstration of this technique.

This transcript will be posted in two weekly installments.  –VA

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[Casey began the workshop by singing “Country Blues” while accompanying himself on the fiddle.  When the song was finished, he talked about what he experienced while playing it.]

Well, I started to think about this class, and then I immediately forgot the lyrics that I was supposed to sing.  And then I started thinking about how I forgot the lyrics, and then I skipped a set of verses.  And then I started thinking about being able to focus when you’re playing – losing track of that focus, it ends up being a detriment to me.

On distractions:

I’m trying to do my best to focus on the music, and I end up closing my eyes when I play because I’m so visually distracted.  I see movement here, I recognize somebody in the audience that I haven’t seen for a long time, and then I just start thinking about other items as opposed to what I’m really supposed to be doing.  And so I’ve found that, for me, closing my eyes helps me focus my ears on the musical situation. It’s a way to cut out some of that distraction.

And then I go through this thing where I think, well, if I’m closing my eyes, am I putting up a barrier between me and the people that I’m playing music for?  Because I think, well, what if I’m watching and somebody’s playing and they’re closing their eyes?  And I’m figuring, yeah, there might be a small bit of a barrier there.  But I’ve determined that I’m ok with that, because I feel like I’m going to make better music if I’m closing my eyes.  And it’s not that I’m hiding from anything – I can actually give more of myself to the music and to the people that are listening if my eyes are closed.  So that’s sort of the trade-off.  Hopefully, the music then translates, as opposed to just the eye contact translating and myself being less satisfied with what I’m playing.

On stage fright:

I started to think about stage fright – and how things affect my playing when I’m at gigs – a few years back.  And I realized that I don’t feel like musicians talk about this subject very much among themselves.  We’re supposed to be solid and strong and confident all the time, and we don’t really discuss this.  But I was curious – if I’m feeling this, certainly other musicians must be feeling similarly.

I’ve been playing the fiddle for 30 years, and I’ve been performing since I was 13, and I still have these situations where I get anxiety about a performance or a recording session.  So with that amount of experience behind me, if I’m feeling this way, certainly other people are feeling this way, too.  And my goal in this workshop is to help you realize that you’re not alone in this and share my experiences – things that have actually happened, that I’ve learned from.

There are two different categories of confidence, I believe.  There’s an emotional or mental confidence towards playing.  But then there’s also physically being more confident in your playing.  They’re tied together, for me, each affecting the sound that comes out of your instrument, and what you hear, and how you perceive your sound.

On audience reactions to a show:

So I thought I would start here by mentioning when I began to evaluate this subject for myself.  A great show, in my mind, where I’m super-satisfied with the performance, is that I nailed everything, flawlessly.  I was in tune, I was in time, I played the parts when I was supposed to, I was completely inside the music.  I mean, this rarely happens, but when it does, there’s this music happening and I’m just kind of floating on top of it and riding it – like there’s this effortless time.  And occasionally that does happen, but it’s few and far between.  There’s not a show, really, that doesn’t go by which I wish that something had gone differently.

Then there are shows in which a number of things didn’t go the way I wanted them to.  And I noticed that those were the shows that people seemed to react the most positively to.  The show that I was the least happy with, strangely everybody was, “That was great!”  “Oh, I really loved tonight.”  “Tonight was so…”  “That was one of the best shows that I ever…”, or, you know, whatever it is that they’re saying.  And here I’m thinking, “Oh, jeez, why does it have to be this show that they’re taking away with them?”

Meanwhile, the shows that are effortless, when that does happen, nobody seems to say anything.  What is going on here?  Why is this happening?

So my thought is that people react to emotion more than they react to technical wizardry. As an instrumentalist, a guy that practices as much as I can, I want to technically master this instrument and bring that execution to the musical situation.  But if it’s all lining up, you don’t hear anything kind of popping out.  If there’s a wrong note, or a scrape, or you forget something and so, God forbid, you rest for two seconds and then you come back in – it feels like an eternity to you because you forgot something and saying “[gasp] Oh shit, what am I going to do?” – well, my theory is that you’ve given the listener something that they can grab on to.

Tim O’Brien would joke about his tuning on stage and say, “I always thought if I played out of tune, people could hear me better.”  Well, there’s kind of something to that!  But the audience doesn’t necessarily hear these things as “out of tune” or “out of time” so much.  I think they can hear it as little things popping out above the bed of whatever the music is.  And for me, all of sudden when I’m struggling on something, and I might be bearing down because I’m frustrated, they see emotion, and they hear emotion, coming through the music.  Whereas when it’s effortless, there’s emotion there, but there’s this “sailing” thing that I don’t think rises above, and percolates in and out of, the bed of music that’s happening. That’s why when the show doesn’t go great for me, they’re seeing emotion, and emotion is being translated through the music.

I feel like there’s a threshold where if you improve technically beyond this threshold, the main people that are going to hear it, really – maybe, if they hear it – are going to be other musicians.  The non-musically inclined population – once you hit this certain point and you get better, more in tune, faster, whatever – I don’t think it affects them to the same extent.

On messing up during a performance:

It adds an element of humanity.  We are all human.  I would love to be a machine, but try as I might, I am not a machine.  It’s just not possible.

I do a solo show now which includes effects pedals and live looping.  It all happens live – nothing’s pre-recorded.  I’m playing, trying to play it well, because once I record and loop it, I’ve got to hear it over and over.  I hear the good stuff, I hear the bad stuff.  In the beginning when I’m working on a new tune, and even sometimes on one that I’ve been playing for a long time, I will make a mistake in it. Then, depending on the severity of the mistake, I have to erase the loop that I was working on and start over – and when I first started this solo concept, I was bummed by the thought of having to stop and start over.  It was like, “Wow, I just screwed that up, and now I’ve got to stop.”  All of a sudden I’m showing my human face to everybody.

I realized that after those shows, I’d be beating myself up, but people would say, “That was great how you had to restart, because I actually couldn’t tell what you were doing, that it was happening right now.”  It helped people understand what was going on, just because I had to stop and start over.  Unexpectedly, it ended up being a good thing – it helped the show out.  So I thought, well, jeez, now should I plan a screw-up in there?  But I thought, that’s playing with fire – then I’m going to screw up the screw-up!

We’re so focused on ourselves. It’s important to remember nobody hears you more than you hear yourself.  Really.  Nobody knows what you intended to play.

This is one idea I like to remind myself of.  If I made a mistake, tell me I made a mistake.  How does anyone know what I was intending to play?  They’re not inside my head.  Maybe I wanted it to sound like that!  Nobody really knows.  And that’s why I think lots of times these things, these mistakes, feel like they last forever for musicians, because we know what we wanted to come out.  We know what we were going for.  We didn’t hit it, we’re bummed out, but it was probably just fine.  I’ll listen back to shows, remembering things that I just didn’t feel sounded great, and find myself thinking, “What was I…I don’t really hear…yeah, maybe that was it?  But that’s fine…”

On keeping a things fresh and exciting:

I think you have to keep doing things that are challenging – as humans, but certainly as musicians.  You want to improve, you want to get better, and you have to do new material in order to do that.  Whenever I have to do a new looping song – oh boy, it messes with me because if I don’t press the pedals in this right order, then it throws the whole arrangement off.  But you get better with repetition.  And it keeps you on your toes, literally!  I like that.  I need that.  It might not be easy the first time around, but it gets better.

Just like you’ve been doing your tunes forever – they get better over time.  However, you might need to say, “I’m tired of this arrangement on this song.  I’m sort of bored.”  Well, maybe you need to switch an arrangement around on it, you know?  Find something new to do with the same tune.  And then in early performances, you might end up with half the band going to the old arrangement while half do the new arrangement, and then you’re going to have to figure out what’s going on!  But what might feel like a train wreck to us, generally I don’t think feels like a train wreck to the audience, for the most part.  And even if it does – the element of humanity, you know?  You’re the ones onstage.  You’re the ones performing.  People are not coming to, really, judge you – they’re coming to support and to hang out with you.

On what makes him nervous:

I get the most nervous whenever I have family and friends in the audience.  In reality, who should have my back the most?  Who should be on my side the most but my family and my friends?  And they are, and I know that.  But still, those are the shows that I find myself getting worked up about.  “Oh, my mom’s here.  Oh, my ex-girlfriend is here.  I’ve got to be really good for this one!”

Another situation I get nervous for are small shows.  I’ve done shows where it’s me and you guys.  That’s interesting, because I think the audience also has a little bit of nervousness about their own presence in the room.  Like, “If I clap too loud, or if I holler ‘Wooo!’ because I liked something, everyone knows that just came from me!”  But when you’re in this massive crowd like at a festival, you can sort of be invisible, right?  If this was the club that I played in Grand Junction where it was me playing for the opening band, the staff, and one drunk heckler – they’re probably uncomfortable for me, I’m uncomfortable for them because I know they’re uncomfortable – I don’t know what to do about it other than just think, “You’re going to have to go through some of these situations and just play.”  Maybe then it’s good to close my eyes so I’m just thinking about playing my music.

On getting into the right space for a recording session:

Recording sessions are interesting, because it really is a different situation than playing live.  With live, a lot of things are excused by listeners because of the added visual stimulus.  If they’re watching a performer, they’re seeing somebody move to the music, they’re watching the drummer, they’re dancing, whatever – they’re not just focused solely on the music that’s happening.  So you can get away with a lot, really.  With the recording session, that’s all that’s there.  The audio is the sole focus.

For recording sessions you have to make sure you can hear yourself well, perhaps more than in live playing, while still hearing the other musicians well enough that you feel like you’re part of the musical situation.

I tend to be, maybe, a little bit more careful.  Some people are a lot more careful with how they play – taking less risks.  You know when you’re taking a risk, stretching for something.  You have to evaluate, do we have time to sit here and work on something if I am screwing up, if I’m playing a difficult part?  Am I just overdubbing, or am I tracking live with the band?  Is there isolation to allow me to replay my part?  It’s really a case-by-case type of situation, but I would tend to be a little less risky with my choices if there’s a time constraint in the studio.  And lots of times there is, because it’s costing money the longer that you’re at the studio.

On input from the producer in a recording session:

Sometimes you have to let people work through ideas and challenging spots for a bit.  And even if you think you have an answer that will help them right away, it might not be the best thing to just tell them what to do, because then you run the risk of shutting somebody’s creative juices down.  I’ve been shut down before, but usually you get a chance to try something out.  If improvising is not your strong suit, work out some notes that really sound good.  And don’t be afraid to rest, either – that’s one thing we often forget, we don’t have to play all the time.  It makes your content more meaningful when you actually do play something if you’ve taken time to rest.  It can be more tasteful.

I make notes in producing situations, notes about something that I want to come back to, that I don’t want to forget, but when now’s not quite the right time to mention it.  I want to give the musicians a couple more chances to get the part, because who knows, they may surprise me with something I was not expecting, and that’s great.  As long as there’s some sort of constructive contribution – not, “Don’t do that.”  But, instead, “Hey, I don’t think that note is working, try this one instead.”  You know?  As long as you have some sort of solution, as opposed to, “That’s not working.  I don’t know what to tell you.  You’ve got to figure it out.”

Having somebody produce is really helpful, because it’s so hard to evaluate yourself within a musical situation.  Sometimes when producing I need to say, “Ok, let’s take a break, everybody come in and let’s listen to the last three takes.  Let’s talk about them and let’s see what actually is happening.”  That way everybody can re-evaluate what they were playing, and listen without instruments in hand.

You might realize, “Oh, you know what?  I thought that was working…”  Maybe you were just really proud of the cool thing you were doing, but it didn’t actually work with the rest of the group.  “Something’s not right there, it’s not working.  Ok, so I need to not do that.  Okay, I’ll pat myself on the back for doing something cool, but it’s really about this whole musical situation, so I’ll need to make a change.”  You have to step back from it in order to really evaluate.  That’s what a producer can help you do.  And producers, lots of times, are listening for emotion, too.

I think we just get focused on ourselves.  We’re so concerned.  But, when you listen to the other people that are around you, maybe you don’t need to play as much.  Conveniently, you’re removing one element of difficulty for yourself.  And when you’re listening to the other musicians, you’re also getting inspiration from them, too – you’re getting ideas.  So it’s really important to hear other people, and remember that it’s about everybody playing together.  There might be a solo in it, but it’s ultimately about the music that you’re making as a group.

[To be continued…]


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 3 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews

I am very pleased to present Part 3 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview is being  posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discussed her development as a performer.  In Part 2, she talked about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  In Part 3, Julia reveals what she’ll be up to after she completes her current tour. –VA

Are you going to keep doing voice work?

Julia Sweeney:  I love doing voice work.  Actually, that would be a very good happy ending for me.  Like Laraine Newman, who was also on SNL – she works all the time in voiceover.  I can’t believe how much she works in voiceover.  And what a great life that is.

It’s the best.

JS:  I’m telling you, it’s the best.  Do you do voiceover?

I’ve done a little.

JS:  I love it.

And I think because you have so much live experience, you have a live feel in your voice work.  And that is really hard to do.

JS:  Wow, thank you.  I never thought about that.  That’s just made my day!

Oh, I’m so glad.  Do you have a sense of that when you’re doing it?  Do you have a sense of going for the live experience, or is it just how it happens for you?

JS:  No, I don’t, it’s just how it comes out.

Well, you’re very dynamic, anyway, just in the way you are in the world.

JS:  Wow, you’re making me feel so good!  I don’t know, I guess I can kind of see that.  It’s really just the same way – now we’re getting back to, “I’m sure that you put on something…” or things that I do not really do.  No, that’s really me.  [laughs]  That’s it.  There I am.  I’m naked.  Not different later, just the same.

Well, not everybody can say that.  Even monologists and people doing their own material.  A lot of times people feel that they have to invent a character in order to do it safely.

JS:  Well, you know what, that reminds me.  When I first started, I actually took a stand-up class.  This is so funny, this is before I did The Groundlings – I guess I was kind of thinking about it enough to take the class.  But anyway, in the class, he taught us – now, this is thirty years ago – that you had to make for yourself a character, and then when you went onstage you were in that character.  So I did make a character for myself of a really shy person who didn’t want to be onstage.  [laughs]  That was my character.  And it really was a character.  And it was very useful.  I mean, I could see teaching that.

Well, I use that technique with people when they’re doing self-confessional material, as musicians, and a lot of times they feel like they just can’t do it safely.  And we’ll talk about, ok, let’s remove it one step.  You know what you need to know because you wrote this, you experienced it.  But let’s remove it one step, and let’s come up with a character who has a similar experience and come up with their own story.  And then they can use enough of what they know from their own experience to inform that character, but they can do it as that character and they’re not completely vulnerable.

JS:  Yeah.  I did it a little bit as myself.  It’s not so much a character if I think, “I want to be the version of me that is just as authentically me as any other version of me, that loves to be onstage and can’t wait to see all those people and can’t wait to tell my stories to them.”  And I kind of imagine myself like my best self in that manifestation.  And then I just can do that.

Yeah, that makes sense.  And then you can keep revisiting that if you’re getting unfocused?

JS:  Yeah, I do think that.  Especially when we were on the road, and if I stopped to think about how much I didn’t want to do the shows, I couldn’t even go there.  [laughs]  I just had to say, “I’m going to do it, and I’m going to have fun, and we’re going to be in a van for eight hours, and then have trouble parking in Manhattan, and it’s going to be fun!  We’re going to find out what’s fun about it.  And we’re going to go into the club, and the guy’s going to tell us how we haven’t sold enough tickets, and that’s going to be ok!”  I mean, it sounds like an insane person.  I think if you did it too long, you really would be insane.  But I think for short bursts, you can do that.  [laughs]

I know, I talk to a lot of nationally, and internationally, touring musicians, and they say, “Basically, I travel for a living.  And then when I actually get onstage and do the show, that’s the extra part, that’s just the recreational part.  The rest of it’s just traveling for a living.”

JS:  I know it, that’s the thing I’ve kind of hit the wall with.  It’s really many things.  One is, weirdly, I feel like I’m having an inverse parenthood, where as my daughter gets older and is about to go to high school I want to be home more, so while most mothers take off the first five years, I want to take off the last five years.

So to me, being on the road is a huge cost, because it means I’m not here and I really want to be here.  And it’s terrible for my health, because I don’t work out and I don’t eat right.  And I know there are people that do.  I’ve been with musicians like Jonathan Richman, who gets up every morning and does a hundred pushups and drives all over town so he can get the perfect nut mixture.  And I just don’t do that.  If I’m on the road I’m just eating cupcakes and having lattes all day.

And who knows what they’re going to have in the green room, if there even is a green room.

JS:  And then I get so high from the show – Jill and I both say this, we both want to eat a thousand calories after the show, we’re so hungry.  And it doesn’t matter how much we ate before the show.  There’s just something about that experience that just makes you ravenous.  I think it’s because you’ve given and you’ve given, and now you want to get back, or something, I don’t know whatever it is.  But it’s just not good if you’re trying to not be a million pounds. [laughs]

And I thought I was going to get better at it, and in fact I got worse.  Because I think as I got older and it didn’t really matter that much how thin I was, it was really “just for health”.  It wasn’t like I was trying to be the hot babe onstage – that ship had sailed many years before.  [laughs]  So it was really just about me, and it’s just a high cost.  I do a lot of shows in a month, and it takes me a month at home to just get back into the routines.  And I just don’t want to do that anymore.

And now my whole thing is how I don’t want to do performance – this is terrible! [laughs]

Yeah, do you mind if we put that out there into the universe?

JS:  No, it’s so funny, because I was just thinking of our producer, Heather [Schmucker], who’s producing our shows, Jill and I.  She just had sent me an email saying, “Don’t you think that we should make an announcement that this is it?”  And I had said this to Jill, and I said this to the booker, that I didn’t want to book more shows than we had.  But then I didn’t want to – well, because first of all I’ve said this before, and then I changed my mind, so I have zero credibility about it.  And then I didn’t know.  But, actually, now I do know.  Now it’s been several months, and I really do know.  And I’m so excited!  I’ve already planning my whole next year and how no travel there’s going to be in it.

Good for you!

JS:  So anyway, I was just thinking this is a useful conversation for me to have, because now I have to write this blog entry where I say that.  But I’m trying to say it in a way that doesn’t make it like, [self-importantly] “I’m making an announcement!”  “Aaaand, who cares about your announcement?”  [laughs]  But I also feel like I want to articulate it.  Anyway, so this has been helpful – thank you!

Glad I could help.  Anything I can do to help you put a brake on your career.

JS:  Yes, help me!

So, are you thinking you might write for TV shows anymore?

JS:  Well, I can’t really, because I’m living in Chicago – well, I’m not even living in Chicago, I’m living in Wilmette.  You know, I don’t even want to write on TV shows.  I’ve done that so much.  I have a novel that I’m going to try to write – that I am writing – and then I want to write a screenplay based on it, and then I’m going to see if I can direct a version of it.  That’s what I want to do.

That sounds fabulous!

JS:  It’s a three-year thing.  And then in the meantime I’m hoping I can just drum up enough voiceover work, because I do that here and there, to keep me making enough money to make it ok.  But it’s a hard thing for me – that’s the other hard thing, to keep me on my deadlines when I don’t have any external deadlines.  So I put some things in place that are going to keep me honest about how far I’m making it each week.

Boy, that’s rough.

JS:  I know, it’s really hard.  But I really want to do it.  I really want to.  And I’m going to.

And you know, I think if you really lobby yourself, you’ll probably get the movie rights from yourself.

JS:  I know!  [laughs]  Actually my book agent was, like, “Well, that’s not the way you make money.  You write the book and then you sell the movie rights.”  I go, “I know…but I don’t want to do that! “

“I want the movie rights.”

JS: “I’m selling them to myself right now!”

“And I’ve heard I can get ‘em real cheap.”

JS:  I know, exactly!  Oh my god, I made such a good deal with myself, I can’t believe it.

–Thanks to Julia Sweeney for taking the time to have an in-depth conversation about performance with me.  This truly was one of the most delightful interviews I’ve ever experienced.  I encourage my readers to go to Julia’s website to find out about her films and books. — VA