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


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.


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.]


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


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.


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.”


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.”


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.]


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.


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.


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.


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…


…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.


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!


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…


…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…


…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.


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.


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]


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.


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]


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


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


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?


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.


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


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?


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.


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


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


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


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?


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. 


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?


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


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


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


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. 


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…


…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


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


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


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

I am very pleased to present Part 2 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, Julia talks about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  –VA

I’m sure you can get into situations where things just become transcendent.

Julia Sweeney:  Oh, yeah!

People talk about the zone, and I’m sure you get into that.  How do you experience the zone?  What kinds of conditions contribute to that for you?

JS:  First of all, really, I realized that improvisation is so much a young person’s game.  I swear, I’m not just making excuses for me not being so good at it!  But knowing what I’m going to do, knowing how the story goes and which parts to tell, and being on top of it, is really important.  Although I think there are definitely times when I get onstage and I’ll start talking about something that literally just happened to me in the dressing room and it will work great.  It feels very high and fantastic and the audience is laughing and responding, and they’ll often say, “Oh, that moment was so great.”  But it’s hard for me to even know if that’s the zone or not, or if that’s just this one great accident that happened.  I don’t even know about that.  I can’t articulate that in my mind.

But I know when I think of my favorite moments performing, I basically think of two of the monologues I did, “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God”, when the run had been going for long enough that people were trying to get in – I was selling out, so that always feels good – and I really knew the show, but I hadn’t been doing it so long that I was now so sick of the show.  And I’d have moments where I felt like I was completely engaged with everything I said and I just had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control the silences.  To me, that’s a sign of the zone, not so much controlling the laughs but controlling the silences.  That’s another way to control the audience.  And it felt like, oh my god, it’s the greatest feeling you could ever have.  Even though I am now saying, “And I’ve had it! I’ve had that feeling.  Now let’s have some other feelings.”  [laughs]

Do you feel like you have mastery over your craft in terms of what you’ve been doing so far?

JS: [laughs]  No!  I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I kind of haphazardly put it together, and sometimes it’s great, and mostly it’s good.  And sometimes it’s horrible, and that it feels very herky-jerky in my mind.  Like I feel like I’m not [actress] Anna Deavere Smith.  Like I’m like, [awkwardly] “And now, I take a step to the right…”  Her control is incredible.  I don’t feel that way.  I feel like, [shakily] “I’ve got a paintbrush, and I’ve got some paint, and I kinda know what the colors are, I kinda know what I’m painting…”  [laughs]

I would assume that you’ve changed as a performer over the years in terms of your confidence in your skill set and knowing what works?

JS:  Well, I think just being calm.  I think, actually, from the audience’s point of view, the audience really can sense when somebody’s nervous onstage.  And so I think just doing it a lot makes me really comfortable getting onstage, and so that really makes a big difference.  I mean, I definitely think you can get to that – you can get confident by just doing it a lot.  And also feeling like you know what you’re going to do.  You’re going to give them a show.  They’ve paid, and now you’re giving them a show.  And that calmness, I definitely learned.  At the beginning, I wasn’t calm, not for many years, and then I learned how to be calm onstage.

Yeah, I definitely see that.  There’s a centeredness, a groundedness.

JS:  Yeah, and you can feel an audience knows if people are too nervous.  And then they get nervous, and that’s just a killer for laughs.  So then you’re only getting nervous laughs, or sympathy laughs.  You want people to feel like they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Yeah, I talk to the people I work with about that all the time.  It’s like, you’ve got to take the audience by the hand and say, “This is where we’re going, and I’m going to take care of you , and it’s going to be ok.”

JS:  Right.

How do you experience the audience? And has that changed over the years, how you experience the energy coming from the audience?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if this is related, but this has just occurred to me that I have been waiting to tell someone this, so I’ll tell you.  [laughs]


JS:  It’s about experiencing the audience, really in an individual way.  Ok, so the lights are on and you see the audience, you can see a few faces in the front two or three rows, and you can’t see anyone after that because of the lights.  And I like that.  In fact, to me, I wish I couldn’t see anyone, because then I’d just imagine everyone loving me.  [laughs]  If you can see people and they’ve got a scowl on their face, it’s sometimes hard – and sometimes it’s not even a scowl, it’s only just their resting face is not a pleasant look.  And it can be just, you know, disquieting.

Anyway, this is really neither here nor there, but it’s just talking about experiencing the audience.  Sometimes I’ll see someone in the audience that reminds me of someone that I loved.  And so I saw this guy in the audience, an older guy, that looked like my dad, and my dad’s been dead ten years.  And he didn’t even look exactly like my dad, but he just had a way about him that was like my dad.  Like he was sort of balding, and he had these kind of cool glasses, you could tell that he was smart, but he was kind of slight, and he had this smile.   And it wasn’t like it was as creepy as I pretended that was my dad, but I guess my thought was, “Oh yeah, if my dad didn’t know me, and he had come to this show, he would have liked me in this show.”  I guess that’s what I was kind of thinking.  And that was really a dance in my head at that particular performance, you know – like he was there.

And this happens, I think – it’s not just a dad thing, but there’s other, like, aunts, or friends.  I can see people’s faces and I imagine their personalities, and then I want to please them, I’m glad to please them with my stories.  Like, they really get me, or they really get this, what I’m saying, and I don’t even have to explain it very much to this person, because they get it already.

Anyway, so this guy – I was just, like, “Oh, I’m just a revelation to him!”  You know, whatever compliment I’m giving myself to keep myself in this positive state while I’m doing the show.  [laughs]  And then at the end, the guy came up with a friend, because they were buying something, and the guy not only didn’t even speak any English, but there was something wrong with him.  He obviously didn’t get anything about my show.  There was nothing that I had fantasized about with his look that was true in any way.  It was so, like, “Oh my god, oh my god!  We just had a relationship, and you were not in it!”  [laughs]

Well, whatever works for you!

JS:  It’s true!  But anyway, whatever!

When you’re in an audience, what excites you or inspires you when you see a good performance?  What are the characteristics of it?

JS:  Well, I like things to be smart.  I like things to be witty and insightful.  And I really like a combination of irony and compassion.  There’s a way certain people – and I hope I’m like this, because I really do feel this way, but I can really see it especially amongst comedians, people who have it or don’t – where you can describe other people, because a lot of times in comedy you’re really making fun of other people, but you’re laughing, I wouldn’t say it as simply as “with them rather than at them”, but they’re funny but you have compassion for them.  They’re not being ridiculed, there’s like a more ironic compassion.  And I like that – I like that quality.  And immediately, if people have that, I like whatever they’re doing more.  And I think it’s one of the things that I liked about Jill.  I responded to her lyrics so strongly because I felt that was in there.  They were funny, but they weren’t superior.

I mean, I definitely can rant about things I hate in politics and stuff like that.  It’s not like I’m so approving of everyone – believe me, I’m not!  But, in general, I would say I try to have compassion.  There’s just so much funny stuff that you can laugh at but also have compassion for.  I think that some people are too derisive, even though I think there’s room for that, too, and there’s some people that do that who I like.  It’s not taking the edge off, either, and plus I think it can even be more poignant, and pointed, when you have compassion for them.  But it isn’t just making fun of other people, which is a simple way to say it, I guess.

Well, it sort of helps bring everyone into the universal truths of the human condition.

JS:  Yeah, I think so!  And even, sometimes, we do political stuff of people that I really think are doing harm to our country.  So that’s hard.  But I still try to keep an edge to it.  I’m like, [compassionately] “Oh, they don’t know.  They don’t know that global warming is not a hoax.  [laughs]  And I’m going to try really hard not to think of how they’re in charge of laws that can affect other people…”  Or something like that.  And to me there’s something funny about trying to have compassion for people like that.  There’s comedy there, too.

I think that’s what’s so moving about your show Letting Go of God, because you are earnestly on this journey of discovery, you’re not just writing everything off on a whim.  You go to enormous effort…

JS:  Right.

…you travel the world, and read all these thinkers, not just the Bible, and you’re really, truly, sincerely wrestling with this issue.  And you’re not saying that people who believe this stuff are fools, either.

JS:  Right.

And I think what resonates is that it really is based in this loving place.

JS:  Well, I do like to feel that mostly that’s eighty percent true – there’s twenty percent of me that hates everyone.  [laughs]  And I like that in other people, too.  So that’s my particular thing – I like that.

Did you ever worry about the repercussions of “coming out” as an atheist?

JS:  You know, it’s so funny, because everyone asks me that, and I always think, oh, well, first of all, if anything, people in L.A. were more horrified that I was religious at one time.  That was the part that was like, “Really?  You really…?  No way!”  [laughs]  So if I was endangering anything in L.A. when I first opened that show, it was that I let people know that at one time I was religious.  And that probably cost me some work.  [laughs]

But now that it’s been years, it’s interesting – I like to say that when I was doing that show, that was before the “atheist craze”.  [laughs]  And now I feel like in some ways I’ve been dismissed as “one of those people” – not by conservatives, who would always dismiss those people, and I don’t even care about them – but by what they consider to be an “open-minded, post-modern, modern thinker”, of being too rigidly dismissing religion.  And I really totally am not dismissing religion.  And I still have a lot of compassion for it, and I really understand why people like it.  And I feel I do get grouped with that and kind of put in a category with that.  And I feel that’s unfair, but the only way people would know that is if they watched my whole show, and most people don’t.  Most people are just going to know one or two things about you that is the headlines – they’re not going to read the things.  So I definitely get put into that category, and, I don’t know, I can’t do anything about it.

And I’ve been, on and off, writing a more expanded version of that as a book, and on some days I really think I’m going to finish it, and other days I’m just so tired of the topic.  But I don’t know if that will be rectified.  I mean, sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I should be out there more as the face of atheism because I’m not like those other people” – even though I’m still an atheist.  But, some part of me thinks, “I think all people will see is “Julia Sweeney, Atheist” [laughs] – and then they have their own preconceived notions of what that means.

Or “Julia Sweeney, Pat-slash-Atheist”.

JS:  You know, I had a friend who used to tease me and say, “First you were Pat, then you were Cancer Girl, then you were Atheist Lady!”  And I’d go, “That completely sums up my entire professional life.”  [laughs] I don’t know, I’m still coming to terms with what I think, but I think especially in this culture and the way the media is right now – and maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s just newly this way because of media outlets being so numerous and new – but it seems like people can’t know anything about you but one headline thing.  And I am just done with that.  Hence, the way that I will manifest that is by writing fiction.  [laughs]

I do have certain things that I talk about, like cancer, or religion, but I can’t seem to be big enough with it.  And frankly, I don’t even know if I want to, because I know what that would take, that people would understand the nuances of it in the popular culture.  I’m not talking about people who’ve actually taken the time to watch those shows.  I’m just talking about the zeitgeist of the popular culture – insofar as anyone even knows who I am anymore, by the way.  Which is fine, it’s just that they only know this one thing – “Oh, you’re an atheist.”  And they’re not going to take the time to know more, and I’m not even saying they should.  It’s just, you’re going to enter the popular culture, and you’re only going to get two words to say that are ever going to be attached to your name.  [laughs]  What are those two words?  And make sure you want those two words to be the right two words.  And if you don’t like it, don’t even go there!

It is too bad, because you’ve done so many different things.

JS:  Well, I’m not trying to seem complaining.  You know, actually, I just worked on this new website, and doing it was really therapeutic for me because I was, like, oh, this is what I’ve done.  Ok, so this is what I’ve done!  Wow, it’s so clear!  And, I’m satisfied with it.  I’m happy with what I did, and I’m happy that it still exists, that we live times when the media and the technology can make it still there.  But I also feel, like, in a transition phase, either transitioning to doing nothing [laughs] – I’m not sure yet – or transitioning to writing something different.

Clearly this is good timing for this interview about performance…

JS:  Yes, I know, I know!  But I do have a lot of experience performing.  Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?  [laughs]

[To be continued…]


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

I am very pleased to present Part 1 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 will be posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discusses her development as a performer.  –VA

When did you feel you first wanted to be a performer?  What precipitated that for you?

Julia Sweeney:  It’s funny, because I have been thinking lately – I don’t know if I’m articulating this right – about the difference between an actor and a performer.

I didn’t think of a profession as a performer – that wasn’t in the list of professions that seemed possible when I was growing up.  You kind of were a lawyer or a teacher.  I guess a teacher would be the closest to being a performer.  But my dad was a trial attorney, so there was kind of a performance aspect to his work.  And so I wanted to be a lawyer.

I was always funny.  Like I was voted funniest girl, second grade through eighth grade at my school.  [laughs]  I didn’t think of that as performance, I just thought of that as being funny.  But I obviously loved getting the laughs, and I learned how to get better laughs.  So I think I just unconsciously gravitated to that because of the high that you get when people laugh at what you say.  It never occurred to me to be a stand-up, even though we did like certain stand-ups in our family – it just didn’t occur to me.  And then when I was in college I thought maybe I’d want to be an actress, and then I auditioned for the Goodman Theatre in my sophomore year and didn’t get in, and just gave that up.

Then I decided to be an accountant.  I guess it was lurking there, in the back, but I decided to be an accountant, in show business.  That’s what I wanted to be, a specific type of accountant – an accountant in show business.  So I moved to L.A. and got a job as an accountant at Columbia Pictures, where I worked for five years, and during that time I realized that I wanted to be onstage.  But not as myself – I wanted to be an actress.  So I started taking improv classes, and I guess that is a performer.  I guess let’s just say an actress is a performer.  [laughs]

But, you know, in some ways it really is different.  Like, I know people who are actors who never get onstage.  They only act before a camera where it’s really alone, and it seems qualitatively different than getting on a stage in front of people – being a person who impersonates somebody in front of a camera where not necessarily an audience is nearby.  So that is a very different thing.  And I guess I didn’t know that much about show business then, so I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do.  But I did like the idea of playing characters.  I didn’t really think of being myself onstage until even after Saturday Night Live.  So it was a gradual thing for me to be myself as a performer onstage.

So what did you learn about yourself when you started with The Groundlings and then when you got onto Saturday Night Live?  What did you find out about yourself when you got in front of an audience?

JS:  I did learn a lot at The Groundlings.  Literally, you learn techniques – improv techniques.  But I learned that I had a humorous point of view that I could convey – that was the biggest thing.  And I could convey it sometimes as a character, and sometimes as myself.  But that was this thing that I had – I was funny, I guess.

How did you discover that?

JS:  I don’t even know when that started.  I’m just learning about it myself, actually. [laughs]  I don’t really know when it started.  I know that I made people laugh, always.  But I learned to kind of control that galloping horse by going to classes at The Groundlings Theatre.  So you might have these comedic instincts – like you might have a natural ability to shoot baskets, but if you don’t learn how to make the baskets and drill yourself in it, you’re never going to be good.

So I really feel like it was The Groundlings, and then I guess Saturday Night Live, that kind of showed me how to funnel that natural comedy into something that could be useable as a character or something.  And then it wasn’t really until after I was on Saturday Night Live that my friend Kathy Griffin kept encouraging me to get onstage and tell stories, that I started to tell stories onstage.  But I still never thought of myself as a stand-up – I just thought of myself as a person who told stories.

Then I started doing these monologues, so then I wasn’t really considered a stand-up, but I felt like my monologues were funny.  And sometimes I would feel almost self-righteous about it, like, “My monologues are as funny as anybody’s stand-up, but I’m talking about a serious subject, and I’ve gone to the trouble of making up a story that has acts in it, and it goes somewhere.”  But I think a lot of stand-ups wouldn’t think that was true, like I was more of a dramatic monologist than I was a comedienne.  And I don’t really know what’s right or true.

Anyway, then I met Jill [Sobule], and I literally would sit onstage and think of something, while she sang a song, that related to my life, and I would tell that.

So you weren’t preparing that material?  You didn’t know what you were going to be talking about?

JS:  Not at first – it was really, just, “Oh, that song reminded me of this…”  But then, as we started doing shows more and more together, of course, we started to notice which songs went better with what stories, and we kind of tried to have a little bit of an arc, we tried to have little themes.  Like we had kind of this boyfriend theme that paid off when I told the story of how I met my husband.  And it kind of gravitated, very loosely, towards a structure.

Do you think musically?

JS:  No, but I’ve always loved musicians.  And I did this before with Jonathan Richman, another musician.  We met when I was on Saturday Night Live and I interviewed him for SPIN Magazine, and then we became friends.  And I started doing that with him, where I would go out to his concerts – we never made it “The Jonathan and Julia Show”, it was Jonathan’s show that I would get up for a period of time during his show and tell stories that somewhat related to his songs.  So I guess I always kind of liked that.

See, I just am always so jealous of musicians, because, first of all, it’s not all relying on the story – they get the music.  So they have the lyrics, and they have the music.  And then their lyrics don’t even have to make sense! [laughs]  I mean, they have to make sense and be resonant, if they’re good, but they don’t have to conform to normal storytelling rules.  And I just feel constantly frustrated by having to, one, tell the truth – which I’m just sick to death of – and, secondly, having to make it build to a payoff.  I really am tired of doing that, and I’m trying to stop, frankly.  I’m so sick of it!  [laughs]

That’s so interesting, because that’s been your trajectory for quite some time, and you’ve found so much success with it!

JS:  I know it, except that I’m telling you – I feel like this is another topic – like I have these shows with Jill but then we’re stopping, and even though I love Jill and I’ve loved doing it – we’ve done it for seven years – but I just have had it with the storytelling about my life.  I’m just done.  I can’t do it anymore.  I mean, obviously I can do it 16 more times, which is the number of shows we have left [laughs] but this is going to be the end of it.

I really love it, but I have hit the edge of what I can do anymore.  I don’t have a turbulent love life; my daughter [Mulan] is becoming a person who you can’t just constantly tell stories about onstage without truly violating her privacy; [laughs] and it’s too hard, the travel and stuff.  And actually being on the stage is an emotional roller coaster for me that I just have to take a break from.  Or maybe a break for the rest of my life.  [laughs]  “I’m taking a break from performing…for the rest of my life.”

Well, I actually wanted to ask you about that.  Because you present this intimate material, and I wonder how you protect yourself, yet leave yourself accessible to the experience and also let the audience in.  Do you feel like you’re doing a version of yourself, or a character that’s based on yourself, or is it truly directly wired to yourself?

JS:  No, it is myself!  That’s just it.  People come up and say this to me all the time: “I feel like I really know you from your monologues and books, but I know that you’re really more than that.”  And I say, “No, I’m not.  That is me, and in fact you do know me.” [laughs]

So when you’re doing this, do you ever get anxious, or stage fright, in terms of, “Here I am about to unzip my protective coating again…”

JS:  No, that’s the interesting thing.  I don’t have that fear, and I even have that desire, but it has costs, but not until later.


JS:  Because in the moment, I want to be a performer, and the people have paid, and the machine is going, and the car’s in gear, and you gotta goooo!  [laughs]  And then, you know, most of the time I do get laughs, and that’s totally the payment for it – I get really high from that.  Then it isn’t until two months later where I’m going, “Oh my god, why did I say that?  That’s a terrible thing to say!”  And then I’m up in the middle of the night thinking, it’s really a horrendous roller coaster that I’ve been on, really since I was about 33 – and I’m 53, by the way.  Twenty years! [laughs]

So now I feel like, can we just do fiction again?  Like, when I was on SNL, I wasn’t myself, I played characters!  So now, after this year ends, after we do all of our shows through November, I’m going to stop.  Because I’m writing fiction now, and I’m really enjoying it, and I just feel like I want to write fiction.  That’s all I can say – that’s what I want to do.  I feel just over-naked with the telling personal stories.  And I love it in other people.  And I think I’ve done well.  I think I’ve been honest, and I’m proud of what I’ve done.  But I’m also completely embarrassed by it.  [laughs]

And maybe Mulan is a little bit, too…

JS:  Yes, it’s true!  And I just, I don’t know, I talk of entering the convent.  [laughs]  I’m in The Trouble With Angels, and I’m saying, “Ok, and now I’m done, I’m entering the convent.”

Do you have a pre-show ritual, or a way of getting yourself psyched up so you can go out there and do what you need to do?  Do you and Jill do something?

JS:  Well, we make our show order, which changes all the time.  It’s just the weirdest thing with stories, you know?  Like say I’ll have ten stories that I know work.  Then I’ll do a new story.  “Oh my god, here’s another one to go in the pantheon!  This will work every time!”  Then I do it two more times, and then all of a sudden that story’s dead.  I can’t find my way back into how that story was funny, and no one’s laughing!  So our show order’s always changing, mostly because of me thinking, “Ok, that story didn’t work.”  And then we change that up.

And, you know, Jill – see, this is the thing about singers, they do their vocal exercises, so Jill is always walking around going, [singing] “Doo doo doo doo DOOOO doo doo doo doo…”  and all this stuff.  And I don’t have anything like that.  [laughs]  I’m just sitting there going, “Wow.  You sure do a lot of vocal exercises.”

Also, for whatever way I’m wired, for whatever reason, my blood pressure goes down when I get onstage.  I just don’t get nervous.  As soon as I walk onstage, I feel calm and focused.  I don’t know why that is.  I mean, part of it is definitely just doing it a lot.  Because always people say, “How do you become a performer?”  I go, “You get onstage every time you can for about ten years.  [laughs] And make it, like, three times a week at the least.  And then you’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I know what this feels like.’  You’ll have had enough terrible things happen that you’ll have a general idea of what to do when things go wrong.”  [laughs]

Do you ever feel like you’re on autopilot and you’re kind of sightseeing when you’re up there?  Or do you pretty much always feel fully engaged?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if I’d say autopilot.  Definitely not with Jill, because one of the great things about doing things with Jill is it’s interactive.  When I have done monologues, it definitely could slip into that.  Because even though I felt like I was giving a really good performance – and people said I was giving a good performance, so I think I was – different times when I would start a show and then half an hour would go by and it was like you drove to work and you don’t remember anything about getting there.  I wouldn’t really have any sense of having done thirty minutes of a show.  Like I’d go, “Oh my god, where am I?  Did the show just start?  Am I finishing the show?” [laughs] 

And there was actually some really scary moments, some of the scariest moments of my whole life.  You know, like being on Broadway, and coughing, and looking up and not knowing if the show was starting or ending.  You know, terrifying!  Like you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and your toes are hanging off the edge – that sort of sensation?  [laughs]

But with Jill I don’t feel like that, because we’re so with each other.  I definitely feel more engaged in some shows than others, but it’s more like the sensation of really being super-engaged is what I remember than not being engaged.  Or maybe that’s just denial about when I’m not engaged!  [laughs]

For example, Jill and I just did eight shows in the Northeast in July.  And it was so funny, because there was this one show where we didn’t know why our booker booked us in to it.  I think he just booked us there because it was in between two other dates.  And we were only getting a percentage of the door, and they had, like, twenty people.

Oh no!

JS:  So considering that we were driving and staying in a hotel and we had our producer along with us, basically we were paying to do the show.  But the people were so nice at this theater!  Everyone there was a volunteer, and they really let us know that, [laughs] and they were so sweet.  And also, they didn’t have air conditioning and it was, like, a hundred degrees and it was in the attic of something – it was terrible!  It was terrible in so many ways that it started to be great.  Because it was just so terrible – this is, like, as bad as it gets.  It’s a hundred degrees in the theater, there’s only twenty people, and there’s two hundred chairs. [laughs]  It was so terrible!  And, actually, that was my best show of all the shows.  Because I was up there, like, “Oh my god, this is such a special situation!  I am gonna give the best show I can!”  [laughs]

See, now, that’s a real professional!

JS:  Well, I don’t know, because maybe sometimes when there’s lot’s of people I kind of start disengaging, but whatever!  Anyway, that was just a funny thing.  And so, one of the things I remember about this trip was that moment – feeling like, man, I’m just going for it.  [laughs]

[To be continued…]