Tuesday, May 15, 2012

First-Person: Melissa-Jane Shaw on Stockholm

Melissa-Jane Shaw, Jonathon Young (Photo credit: Karim Romero)

The weight of two roles in presenting Stockholm
by Melissa-Jane Shaw (notes compiled by Jasmine Chen)
Seventh Stage Productions, which is now heading into  its 7th year is dedicated to telling stories by women, about women and for everyone; as well as generating opportunities for emerging and established female artists both on and off stage. Stockholm by Bryony Lavery is about to have its North American Premiere at the Tarragon Extra Space. As Artistic Producer of Seventh Stage Productions and the actor playing Kali, I invite you to see this startling piece of theatre that we have all worked so hard on. 
Stockholm has a cast of two, which is myself and the wonderful Jonathon Young. People often ask me how I manage to perform in the show while acting as producer at the same time. Our company is very small so the roles are essentially defined by Kelly and I, based on our strengths. Initially most of the business side of the company fell on my shoulders, which I found got to be too much. This past year, we sat down and figured out what we could divide. It has been easier this season for me with the division of duties; I don't think I could have done this show without Kelly's help. 
As an actor, which is my priority when I am in a show, you are using your creative brain and the experience is very visceral.

There are a myriad of challenges to doing double duty, but the hardest time is now, the week before opening. It is usually fine right up until the crunch time. As an actor, which is my priority when I am in a show, you are using your creative brain and the experience is very visceral. When I am in shows where all I am doing is acting, I love it because I can do what I need to do as an actor and prepare for what is fundamentally a really stressful experience; which is putting this production up for the first time in front of people. I am an actor that gets nervous, I think most people do! I really care about how a show is received and I care very much about my job as an actor. This also happens to be the major crunch time as a producer, because I am financially on the line. If people don't come to see the show, we will be in debt, and that debt can just increase if I don't do my work. This week, I know that I have dropped balls as a producer purely by virtue of having too much in my brain. As soon as that happens, you realize it is not just a mistake, that it is in fact dollars and cents for you. This is probably the worst time to be doing the two fold, because you are dealing with the stresses of both roles. 
I prioritize my time and try to get things done as soon as I can. I avoid procrastinating, although it is often the jobs that I don't particularly like that end up being avoided.
With my acting work I try to be off book by the first week. I usually know the play quite well, which helps me as an actor. I try to be really present in the room. I don't answer emails during rehearsals; at lunch I'll check something if it is really urgent, but otherwise everything can wait. I am an early riser, so I wake up at 6am, go to a coffee shop and answer emails from 7-9; then I go to rehearsal; I come home; I usually teach in the evenings; I still have to make money to pay my mortgage; and then at night I give myself another hour to work. What ends up happening is when I come home, I have about 200 emails in my inbox. If something is not a priority, then it just does not get answered. At this point people start wondering, are you dead? What is going on? But you have to just filter and prioritize. 
It is really amazing that we get to choose the work that we want to do.

My number one priority is me as an actor, my second priority is me as a producer. You need to keep your co-producers, sponsors, donors, cast and crew happy; anything beyond that is not priority.
Amidst the many challenges of being a producer and an actor, there are undoubtedly countless rewards. It is really amazing that we get to choose the work that we want to do. As an artist that is the greatest gift. Kelly and I are this team that chooses the work and from there we choose who we want to work with. Hopefully they want to work with us with the budget we have! Shockingly, we have been very successful with very little budget. In regards to the process, I feel very safe as an actor. We bring people into the room that we feel safe with and this allows for a certain level of vulnerability, which is great. When someone else has hired you there is always a bit of a filter. Here we have a little more control and that is empowering. However, it is absolutely terrifying during the crunch time because if anything goes wrong or the show isn't well received, all the blame falls to us. But, if things go well, all the credit goes to us. I love running a show and there is very much a feeling of “we accomplished this!”. I like seeing all ends of a process. It's funny when I am working only as an actor, I find myself thinking, “I wonder what's going on in the marketing department ?” or “I wonder what's going on in the press?”. It is interesting to be able to see the entire process through, on all levels. 
“Come see me so that we don't go broke! Come see me so that we aren't 10 000 dollars short!”

Something that others may not know about producing is that often  people perceive that I am self promoting when I ask them to support a show, i.e “Come see me, Mom! Come see me in a show!”. But what the crux of it is, really it's “Come see me so that we don't go broke! Come see me so that we aren't 10 000 dollars short!”. More importantly, there is an amazing team behind this and we want people to see the show because it is a fantastic product. It is hard sometimes to promote a show when your face is on the poster, people joke and say, “you're an ass!”, but in truth, this is the largest role I've ever had in a Seventh Stage show. I've played supporting roles in all of our productions, but when you are playing front and centre the perception can become that this is a vanity project. It is hard to take that perception because the intentions for this company are more altruistic than that, we really do believe in providing opportunities for female artists. 
So far, what I am very proud of is that this show has embodied many of the things Kelly and I have been striving towards. Firstly, I'm very happy with our choice of project; we wanted to marry movement and text. Secondly, partnering with Nightwood has been a goal for us for a long time, they are a big sister company to us and it feels right. Lastly, we are very pleased about our internship program, which brings wonderful young women into the process; this was a major goal for us. We've put all of these goals and dreams out there and without the show even going up yet, many of them have already been fulfilled!
Why do I think people should come see Stockholm?
This show is like falling down a rabbit hole, it starts out quite nicely and then completely flips. I think it targets heterosexual relationships specifically, it plays into stereotypes and prototypes of the romantic love that society is obsessed with. The movies, magazines, and fairy tales that we have grown up with have put so much pressure on people to have a significant other. God forbid you are a single woman in your 40's! God forbid you don't have a lover or partner! Specifically for women, this can cause them to become quite desperate. Society is based on coupling and often the  dependency that can exist between men and women. I do think Stockholm is an important piece on a societal level. On a purely theatrical level, it is wild; it moves quickly and the turning points are fast; the language is poetic, as well as the movement. Stockholm is smart, sexy, and shocking physical theatre. Be taken hostage for a 60 minute wild ride!

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