Taking What You’re Given

Alyssa contemplates her lines

Alyssa Thompson contemplates her lines as Tess Goode

First, technical notes from the POV of an actor:

When you improvise during acting warm-ups and rehearsals, there are a pair of rules that you abide by:

  1. Always take what you’re given
. If your improv partner says, “It’s raining in here,” what you don’t do is say, “No it’s not!.” You take what you’re given, and roll with it: “Cheerio, guvnuh! Here’s a nice parasol, pretty as ya’ please. Keep ya dry as my Auntie Mable.”
  2. Always make your partner look good. 
Improv isn’t a competition; it’s a community effort. You take what you’re given, and you aim to always make your partner shine. See above.

The photos that follow of my compatriots in the recently completed Cincinnati StageCrafter’s production of the Wendy Wasserstein play, The Sisters Rosensweig were shot on the same day of a successful multi-flash shoot. I brought one of my many flashes to use as an accent light, and wouldn’t you know it — as soon as I set it up to bounce off the ceiling in the rear of the “green room,” complete with a full CTO filter to warm the flash in keeping with the tungsten makeup lights, I discovered that my unit, a Nikon SB-600 with a Lumiquest softbox had burned out it’s element.


But then, in true improv fashion, I worked with what I was given.

I cranked the ISO to 1000, pulled the EV to between -.3 and -1.3 for some contrasty goodness, and worked with the light I had.

In the end, I was thankful I did.

I got intimate images of actors, dressing and applying their makeup, and a sense of the camaraderie that actors share while waiting to go on stage.

Acting is hard, hard work.

director and actors on stage during the set break-down of The Sisters Rosensweig play

Director Julie Jordan and fellow actors on stage during the set break-down of The Sisters Rosensweig

So much more than reciting lines, acting involves researching the playwright’s intentions, previous performances, your character’s background and persona, an understanding of how that character fits into the lives of the rest of the cast, and then you find a way to channel your own experiences and perceptions of what this character wants out to an audience, night after night, for the duration of the show’s run.

And of course, you do this in addition to your day job.

Welcome to community theatre.

The first time I acted – and cared about it – I played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” I was hooked. I remember the shocked faces on my classmates, and the beaming approval of my literature teacher (on whom I had a vicious crush) after completing the scene where Willy loses it after been told by his boss that he needs a vacation. No one thought the quiet, shy “artist” boy had that much pent up emotion in him. Somehow, I found it easy to “snap” through Willy’s frustrations, and I could unleash that side of myself, truthfully, thanks to the character.

That was 28 years ago. Not a few roles later, I found myself in a new city and in a new full time job. After I had started settling in to Cincinnati, I decided to recommit to my creative self. I didn’t want to allow TDJ to dominate my life anymore than it already did, and I wanted to explore if I was allowing samlowephoto to become a kind of extension of TDJ. Creation needs very much to have an animus that is apart from commerce. So, I got reacquainted with my personal manifesto, and one former avenue of exploration seemed to leap out at me: acting.

Kevin Knoll, who played Merv Kant, reacts to the sound of my Nikon shutter

A little online searching ensued, and voila, I arrived at CinnStages.com, where I found an audition for The Sisters Rosensweig, being produced by one of Cincinnati’s longest continually-performing community theatre groups, Stage Crafters. Before I knew it, I was auditioning, and to my delight, received a phone call from director Julie Jordan.

I was offered the role of exuberant-yet-conflicted Geoffrey Duncan. And I gladly accepted.

Brigid Slivken as Sara Goode, relaxes with her soda in the green room

Although I found a way during every single performance, despite my inner self-confidence and comfort with my character, to botch at least 2 lines and wrestle with the tone and delivery of many more, I completely enjoyed exploring his character. The Sisters Rosensweig is a play about self-discovery, self-honesty, and relational transparence; the themes that all serious actors grapple with with a kind of masochistic delight. Although I wasn’t familiar with it prior to the auditions, I quickly came to understand why it had been nominated for a Best Play Tony Award.

My fellow actors were funny, gentle, respectful, and earnest. Julie kept a firm grip on her vision, but didn’t refuse to consider other’s views on scenes and characterization. She insisted that we really think through what our characters were all about, and challenged us to bring that intent to life on the stage.

JV Katz (foreground) as Gorgeous Titlebaum, and Alyssa Thompson as Tess Goode prepare for their performances

If you haven’t enjoyed live theatre since watching your kid play a candy cane in a Christmas pageant, then get thee to a nearby community theatre performance this weekend. You’ll be surprised at the quality of the experience, from set design to the performance of the actors, themselves.

Community thespians of all stripes are doing it for the love of the craft. A handful are hoping to one day make acting their profession; for some, it’s an engaging hobby. But for all, it’s something they do in addition to their family and relationship lives, as well as to their jobs and their lives as students. It’s a group of people where being an amateur is a thing of pride.

Photography is storytelling. Acting is storytelling. Advertising and marketing communications, at least when it’s done right, is storytelling.

Storytelling, after all, is one of the most fundamental ways people connect.

Connect with your community, this weekend. Go see a play.

JV's corner of the makeup counter


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