Thursday, March 4, 2010

Playing With Actors - Music to Your Ears

Playing With Actors is produced by Michelle Mazzarino, Jimmie James, and Jessica Crandall. They are celebrating their one year anniversary at The Scratcher on Sunday, March 28th and we spoke about what these evenings are all about.

What is Playing With Actors?

Michelle: It's not just theater and it's not just music. It's a poetic experience. Jimmie and his band play music while an actor comes out and does a monologue for two minutes. It's like a melding of the two things. making their own voice.

Jimmie: And it's not just the music that makes it different. It's that it's actually a song with a beginning, middle and an end and I sing. I've seen monologues done with music before, like with jazz behind it, or a guy on a bass, but this has more of a - they seem to be their own sort of plays - musilogues, we were calling them before.

How do you get your actors?

Jessica: A couple of different ways. We're all artists and we know a lot of people so it's calling people that we know and also we hold auditions. Michelle does most of that.

Do you use a casting director?

Jessica: We've used New York Casting a lot.

Michelle: It's very interesting when you hold auditions.

What's your experience been?

Michelle: Jessica and I learned a lot, as Jessica is an actress as well, so we learned a lot about actors and how they flake out (laughing) and how they don't show up. They'll book the audition with you, confirm or call or email you six times and then not show up and not call or anything. It's bizarre.

Is that true of union or non-union actors?

Michelle: Across the board, it doesn't matter, right?

Jessica: Yep.

Jimmie: We do it in a little theater that a friend of ours has downtown, so they submit through New York Casting and they audition and if it seems appropriate, we invite them to the show. They come to it, and sometimes I'll play music to see if it's going to through them off or something. They could be great doing the monologue but if I play guitar they could be like, 'what's going on?!'. And they (Michelle and Jessica) pretty much decide on who we want to ask. And it's very eclectic.

Are these original monologues or are they from existing work?

Jessica: They come from all over. Some people have their own stuff and sometimes they're pulled from plays that are being done all the time.

Michelle: Like Christopher Durang or some stuff is self-written-

Jimmie: or Mamet

Michelle: Shakespeare - you have all different types, there's not one-

Jimmie: Or German- like the Dadaist one, someone came up and did one all in German which worked. It was amazing how it worked. All of them work on some level. It's a unique situation because I'm behind them and a lot of times I don't know what it's about. I can't really hear. I'm really listening to the tone, like as if they were musicians. The band is usually four people- it keeps changing as much as the actors do and the whole band listens. That's the kind of musicians we have. It's like a jazz session almost, so if they get loud then the band goes - and it pushes the person. Both of them (Michelle and Jessica) know that because they've done monologues there many times.

Talking about the audition process, one of the things that is unique to it is that we - the club that we do it at - gave us two hours before the actual gig so the people that we've asked from the auditions, and the friends that we know that we've invited, all meet at the club ahead of time, and we do an acoustic version for them. It's also where we pick what song is appropriate to what monologue and it's very loose and abstract. It's not like, you know, 'give me all the content', it's more like, 'what do you feel that it is?' and 'well, this song feels like...' and it's very quick. We have a bunch of songs that I've written and also covers that we pull from and then we do a run-through so that they feel it. And then they're excited by the time the gig come because it's only an hour before and they've done it only once. Once it's electric and they're on a mic, damn, it's exciting. They love it.
Is this something that happens once a month?

Michelle: Yes.

So if someone comes once a month, are they going do see different actors, and hear different music or will they hear some of the same stuff?

Jimmie: I think this year was really a lot about getting grounded with this whole thing. Like the club we played in, it isn't really an audience-type club. A lot of people that come are really actors and musicians that really show up. It's not like a guy from Jersey out on a date. They come because they know us or know the event but it's not like the New Group. We were going to do the New Group because the New Group has an audience. They're not necessarily actors, musicians or even artists - it's more of an audience-based venue than what Googies has been, which has been good for us because we've been able to work out a lot of stuff and get comfortable. I've seen them change (Michelle and Jessica) and myself change whereas now it's all rote. In the beginning it was like, "Oh my God! I don't think I'm doing it tonight!" (laughing)

Do you all perform?

Michelle: Jessica took a little while to warm up to us. She decided later to perform. She saw a few shows first and then decided and that seems to be how it is. It's hard to figure out how to tell people exactly what this is and so most of the people that I've spoken to - when I've explained it to them, they say, "that sounds kind of cool but I kinda want to see what it is before I get into it" and then when people come - it's such a simple but lovely night. There's something really simple and really beautiful about it. I think of it more as a sort of artistic sharing than a putting on of a show. It has a different feel to it.

Jessica: Yeah, it's not like we're hear to entertain you.

Jimmie: It's not entertainment. It's a creative event. It really is. I don't think any of us really knew that in the beginning.

What was the inspiration?

Jimmie: Actually Michelle and I - Michelle is an actress, and I've been playing music forever and I came up with this idea of why don't I sing this song and then I stop the singing part and you walk up and do two minutes of a monologue - by Shepherd say, and actually we were going to do a whole set - where I'd sing another song or two, and she'd do the next two minutes of the same story. And it just sort of - I don't even know how it turned into Googies.

Michelle: It just happened. It was sort of like kismet.

Jimmie: Jessica was mentioning the love about it and that's really the thing that has been so inspiring about it. Everybody that is in it is doing what they love to do. That's whats been fun about having to manage some of this stuff, is to ask people to do what they like to do, and what they can learn from and grow from. And we attract those type of people. The bass player wants to play the bass. You want to do the auditions, it's not like a work situation, it's more like everybody is growing in it so there an appreciation when the show happens.

Michelle: It's not a have-to.

Jimmie: The other thing that is sort of lovely about it is that we make a program that we do at every show with all the actors, monologues, who the band is and bios and it's got a lot of care in it, and I think that it comes across to the people that see it - like they want to be a part of it. it's not like they do it and they're like, "see ya". Its like a family-based thing.

Michelle: We have actors that come back because they want to do another piece that they're working on so its a good place to exercise work, if you have an audition or just something that you can get your muscles around, you can flex, you have an audience and critique if you want, you can ask your fellow actors.

Jimmie: It's very open. That's the thing I like about it. Like the song - nobody knows until we know and when we know it's usually when it's on (laughing) and I'll tell you, I've never done one that I didn't enjoy. Everyone brings something that is so individual. I think that's the thing, it opens for an individual to really shine.

Michelle: It's not a judgmental atmosphere.

You were talking about moving to an audience-based venue and you mentioned the New Group. Is that something that is happening?

Jimmie: I don't think it's going to happen this season but we are looking at a club that we're interested in down in the Bowery. The big thing coming up is the anniversary because we're going to have a lot of people that have been on it throughout the year. It's not so eclectic like the last gig we did, the band was me playing the guitar, a baritone sax and a cellist. I'd never played with a lot of these musicians until the gig. I'd never heard them. Like the cellist, I met on the train.

And he showed up?

Jimmie: (laughing) Yeah, exactly. A lot of it has been like that. You can feel that it's been pulled together by instinct. It's not, "oh, I'm hoping to get someone like this or we need that..." Even where it's going - we really don't know. We're just showing up to this thing.

Michelle: Yeah, it's like the power of the spirit. Where does the spirit of this want to go.

Jimmie: We're here to serve it, instead of it serving us. It's amazing the growth I've seen in the individuals. It's been astounding to me. It's the one thing I never really thought about - like why we were doing it. I thought more about the externals of it. But the biggest part I've seen is how many people have grown, and that to me is like - that's everything.

As artists or performers?

Jimmie: As artists, socially - on so many levels. It is simple when it happens, but there's all this stuff that happens to get to that simplicity - the auditions, the flyers, getting the bios - just getting someone to email you a bio can take forever. People think they can knock it out in one afternoon and there they are, still editing! (laughing) But that's kind of the beauty in it, that there is character involved in creating a creative venture. It's love. It's human experience.

Playing With Actors one year anniversary is Sunday, March 28th at The Scratcher, located at 209 E. 5th Street. It runs from 7 to 9pm. To view an excerpt of Playing With Actors, click here.

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