Stepping into Magic: an actor's journey…

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them" ~William Shakespeare

You Never Can Tell: Closing

 

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Final look into the dressing room mirror, with my newly purchased costume jacket and belt from wardrobe!

Closing weekend: Friday morning I picked up Tia Angie from the Oakland airport, in from Denver to see the show! We lunched in Jack London Square at Lungomare, walked along the water and then checked her into her Berkeley hotel, The Rose Garden Inn (A great find!) Friday night, Miles arrived from an insane drive up the I-5 to celebrate with me for the weekend. Saturday afternoon Angie watched the Matinee, the cast had lunch in-between shows, Miles and our friend Linda watched the evening show in freezing Orinda weather and then we caught up over late night food and drinks at Eureka! in Berkeley. Sunday morning Angie, Miles and I had coffee before taking her to the airport and Sunday afternoon we closed with an incredible final show to a standing ovation with Miles and our friends George and Lisa in the audience. (At intermission Miles sent me a bouquet of handpicked roses!) We exited stage left, got out of costumes and joined in a champagne toast in the green room led by Artistic Director Eric Ting (Who is directing the next show on the Cal Shakes stage Othello, opening Sept. 14th!) Goodbyes, congrats, thank yous and hugs flit about from person to person, the dressing rooms were cleaned out, costume pieces were purchased and a few of us went to The Fourth Bore Tap Room and Grill for a final supper.

 

Monday morning I woke up and realized I had been going over all of my lines from the play in my dreams, I laid there for a few moments and just kept going over them, savoring the brilliant language, before gearing up to pack and hit the road. We cleaned out the little casita I was staying in and headed south to join our friends for a Labor Day BBQ in San Mateo then drove to Visalia for the night to break up the trip halfway. Tuesday afternoon we hit the road again, listened to the new De La Soul album (It’s fantastic!) and arrived back to LaLa land!

Today Miles is on set shooting part of an episode of his latest adventure (Stay Tuned!) and I am sitting on our balcony in Pasadena, listening to the Academy of Ancient Music radio on Pandora, looking at my Bay Area roses from Miles (They are still in full bloom!) sipping some coffee,  and writing this post. Images of the stage, my costumes, the music, the cast, the scenes keep swirling in my mind’s eye…

My mother wrote in an email this morning: “I know this can be a down time for you….but its also a time to rest and retrieve yourself back from the 19th century…Something does always seem to come up for you….even if it is just auditions…..hopefully you can detach, replenish and feel good about what you achieved with your work.”

She’s right. It’s always a tough transition to leave a show, to leave a cast, a stage and work of art that I have been immersed in for close to two months. Time and time again, we do this as theatre artists. We become a part of a family and then have to go through a separation. After each closing of a show our theatre family grows bigger and bigger and the world seems a little smaller. It is inevitable that I will cross paths with these beautiful artists again and I look forward to that day. I hold in my heart the dear memories of my time as Gloria, the challenging task of working through Shaw’s language and emotions, discovering the twists and turns of her story, revealing the love and labor through live theatre. I miss my cast-mates, the Bay Area weather, the walk up the hill to the theatre, the thrill of walking on stage each night, but I am home and I really missed home.

I no longer have to look at my love Miles through Skype or FaceTime. I can talk to our plants and the hummingbirds, our grapefruits are almost ripe, the Pasadena streets have been missing my footsteps and the LA theatre scene is bustling with shows to attend. I am filled with gratitude for the experience of my first George Bernard Shaw play, I am proud of my work and remain in awe of the extreme talent of the cast and crew of You Never Can Tell. The audiences were fantastic and Cal Shakes is an incredible company to work for! I am also blessed by all of the family and friends who came out to support our Shaw Show, thank you for making the trip!

Congratulations to ALL who were involved in this unforgettable production: Thank You from the bottom of my heart!

Until Next Time….

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Instagram post for our closing show by John R. Lewis

You Never Can Tell: Kissing

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“The lovely flowers embarrass me,
They make me regret I am not a bee –”
Two years ago he kissed me…

Today he sent me a rainbow in the form of roses, a flower that means so much to both of us…

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It was a kiss that changed the course of my path, as kisses should… We decided to embark on a future filled with unknowns and struggles, but more importantly brimming with nourishment and support. Since that day we first kissed our love has blossomed and deepened in ways I don’t think either of us could have predicted two years ago. And isn’t that the great thing about taking a chance? You never can tell…

In my current play my character, Gloria, has her first kiss with Valentine. Each night my scene partner, Matthew Baldiga, and I use the language of George Bernard Shaw to fall and fight in love. Throughout the course of the play Gloria struggles with her feelings which are at war with her head. Valentine follows his heart and freely showers her with affection. Who knows what happens to the two after the curtain falls…? I should like to think they live a life of adventure, work and love… However, I am a romantic…

gloria and valentine first kiss

Photo by Kevin Berne

Maybe they were similar to G.B.S. and his wife?

Shaw met his match in Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fierce and strong woman, in 1896 the year our play takes place. Of Charlotte G.B.S. had shared “Instead of going to bed at ten, we go out and stroll about among the trees for a while…” and “Kissing in the evening among the trees was very pleasant…” It was a relationship filled with intellect and strong views, in a time when Women’s rights and political tensions were high. Both were members of Britain’s  Fabian Society (Founded in 1884 to be “at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left.) Beatrice Webb described Charlotte in her journal: “By temperament she is an anarchist – feeling any regulation or rule is intolerable – a tendency which has been exaggerated by her intolerable wealth. She is romantic but thinks herself cynical. She is a socialist and a radical, but not because she understands collectivist standpoint, but because she is by nature a rebel.” Theirs is a complicated and interesting story and I am currently reading more about them in my Shaw biography by Michael Holroyd…

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You never can tell with relationships… They are a delicate dance that require stamina, flexibility, understanding and conviction. All I know is that I am grateful for taking the leap and kissing a man who thrilled, and continues to enrich, my heart, mind and soul.

Happy Kiss-A-versary My Love!

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Lyrics from one of my favorite songs about kissing by Louis Armstrong!

KIND OF BLUE: 57 years later & My Jazz SOLmate…

Just this afternoon a Facebook friend posted that the incredible Jazz Album “Kind of Blue,” by Miles Davis had been released on this day, August 17th 1959. This album is a huge part of the soundtrack of my life. I first heard it while in the womb, as my mother tells me. She had a lot of Jazz records (Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis, Chuck Mangione, Miles…) and I can remember really far back hearing the sounds of the trumpets, piano, bass… the voices… Jazz is my all time favorite genre. If I was stranded on a deserted beach, this is my album of choice. As I write this post I am tapping the keys to this recording…

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Whenever I happen to catch a live Jazz group and there is a trumpet player I request my favorite track, #3: Blue in Green. I know it’s a tough request, and rarely is it possible to capture what Miles had laid down that day back in March of 1959. However,  I do remember a trumpet player in Long Beach who got the closest… Most Jazz groups jump at the chance to play track #1: So What or #2: Freddie Freeloader

I met my Jazz soulmate in the alley behind my downtown Albuquerque apartment back in the early 2000’s. He was a scrappy orange tomcat I rescued after his twin sister had died and animal control was about to take him away. He was a skinny little thing, scared with bright yellow eyes like the sun: I named him SOL. When ever I put on Jazz he would perk up and listen, but it was when I put on Miles Davis that he really dug it. He would meow along to Davis’ trumpet for as long as the song lasted. Coltrane’s sax and Montgomery’s guitar didn’t inspire him as much but sometime Billie’s voice could produce the same effect…

Only 4 short years after we found each other, Sol became extremely ill and I had to make the hard decision to put him to sleep. It was a late night in November, I called my dear friend Malika and asked if she could drive me and my gato to the vet. I was inconsolable, holding him in my arms, in his favorite towel and Malika said a blessing over me and my little family, which included Luna my other gato. (Malika later adopted Luna and they are still living happily together!) She asked if there was any music we should play while driving to the vet and I immediately grabbed my “Kind of Blue” album. We drove to the 24 hour pet hospital and were admitted into a small, dimly lit room. Every one was speaking in hushed voices, calming and reassuring. Sol was in my arms, relaxed as if he knew it was for the best. I held him close, talking to him, singing to him and petting his slender sick body… He slipped away peacefully, my tears wetting his orange fur… As we exited the vet’s office I glanced up at the muted television and low and behold a Miles Davis special was playing… As I watched the thin trumpeter in his iconic pose I knew Sol was telling me he was okay…

For the 50th anniversary of this album, in 2009, NPR released an interview on morning edition: Between Takes: The ‘Kind Of Blue’ Sessions. In this story you can hear Miles Davis talking with the artists to perfect a recording and learn more about the studio session that produced the masterpiece. Turns out Miles like to kiss the musicians on the ear!

The album was recorded in two sessions, the first on March 2 (Tracks 1-3) , 1959 and the second on April 22, 1959 (Tracks 4-5, an alternate track 6 was added later) The quintet included: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and, of course, trumpeter Miles Davis. In Bill Evan’s liner notes, Improvisation in Jazz by Bill Evans he addresses the improvisational element of the recording of this album: “Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.”

This album reminds me of a theatrical performance, the artists combining their individual skills to bring to life a story, a concept a complete work. It’s nothing short of magic…Just last year a 60 minute documentary was released about this album with various musicians talking about the profound impact of this work of art. It’s a great look into that influential time period in Jazz history and all of the elements that brought this record into our world: “Kind of Blue-Miles Davis Documentary”.

While living here in the Bay area I have been listening to KCSM 91.1 on my rental car radio. Jazz soothes and excites my soul, it speaks to something deep inside and continues to score my days as an artist. Just as we memorize lyrics to our favorite songs, quotes from our favorite movies, I have each note of this album memorized. Sometimes I tap out the piano, or scat the horns, or thump out the bass and drum solos. It is a perfect album from beginning to end, taking you through all the different qualities of emotion. During an acting exercise in grad school we were asked to bring in a song that captured our idea of love, mine was “Blue in Green.”

Happy Release day KIND OF BLUE, thank you for being my comfort soul food and a little slice of heaven on earth…

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You Never Can Tell: Openings…

 

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Opening Night flowers from my Mom & Dad, a tradition that never fails to surprise me!

On Saturday August 13th, under a half moon, the resident owl hooting backstage, with a full house, we celebrated the Opening Night of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell on the gorgeous outdoor Cal Shakes stage in Orinda, CA. Just before our first previews we faced a difficult occurrence when a fellow cast member was injured and an understudy had to go on. The phrase “You Never Can Tell,” has definitely become a big part of our vocabulary and now has taken on a whole new meaning for us after an intense and productive tech week and three previews. The actor who was hurt plays 3 different roles in our show and is a crucial element to the story. Our fabulous assistant director, LeeAnn Dowd, filled in for his meticulously specific Act 1 roles and a young local actor, Lucas, took on his difficult language heavy Act 2 role. Lucas went on Wednesday night with book in hand, then Thursday he did an incredible job off book and Friday night our actor returned with a cane, healed and hungry to get back to work. His first audience was our third and when he walked off stage that night he was so wide-eyed with how thrilling and informative it was to share our crazy tilted story with the patrons. We were ecstatic to have him back, and so grateful to LeeAnn and Lucas for their heroics.

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My character “Gloria” looks out to the sea as the cast of You Never Can Tell sings and brings the lights down for intermission. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The day of opening night began with errands and house cleaning to welcome my love Miles for the weekend, he was on the road from LA and heading straight to the theatre for curtain. We had rehearsal in the afternoon to clean up and tighten a few things, everyone’s spirits were high and filled with anticipation. When I walked into our dressing room flowers had arrived from my parents, sending opening night wishes and love. Just before dinner break our director, the incredible Lisa Peterson, gathered us in a circle on the stage, a ritual we started in the rehearsal room. With a huge smile she filled our hearts with encouraging words and led us in our final cheer: “You Never Can Tell!”

Miles kept me updated on his progress on the road and I showered and finished opening night thank you cards. Finally, it was an hour before curtain and I began the process of styling my hair, applying makeup, getting into my corset and costume, practicing my Ukulele and feeling the butterflies flit and fly around in my belly. Miles arrived at 7:45 and ten minutes later we were called to places. It was a warm clear night, the sun set as the first act flew by and intermission showed up so suddenly! We closed the show to joyous applause and headed to the green room for a toast and photos. Cal Shakes hosted an after party where Miles and I chatted with friends old and new. We ended the night with a wonderfully crafted Manhattan and Old Fashioned at Prizefighter in Emeryville.

Since Miles and I met, two years ago in the Bay Area, he has made every opening night of my performances (From Dallas to Los Angeles to Cincinnati back to LA and now in the Bay!)  Having him by my side increases my gratitude for being on this journey. While I was in Tech for the opening of this show, Miles opened a thrilling production he had been rehearsing for several weeks. Director Robert Allan Ackerman and playwright Dotson Rader have been on their own journey with a play about Tennessee Williams titled God Looked Away starring Al Pacino and Judith Light ! After a few readings Miles joined the creative team to play opposite Pacino as “Baby,” Tennessee’s lover of 14 years. The project opened a fully staged workshop production for invited audiences in a West Hollywood theatre and my love Miles shined like the star that he is! Sadly I wasn’t able to attend, since I was in tech, but I swear I could feel the positive vibrations that his performance had on that town all the way up here in the Bay. Recently an article by Michael Fairman was posted online and beautifully captured the past few weeks in Miles’ career which has been blossoming and growing as I always knew it would. So even though it has been hard being away from one another, we are hard at work, and when he arrived for my opening night weekend we celebrated both of our accomplishments!

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The Cast and Crew of God Looked Away at Macha Theatre in West Hollywood.        Seated from left to right: Robert Allan Ackerman, Al Pachino and Dotson Rader, behind them: Judith Light and Miles to the right!

Sunday after opening we had our first matinee, the play takes on a little different tone in the full natural light against the golden hills, there are no blackouts and you can see the entire house of audience members. It was a strong show with a sense of calm, Miles was in the audience again and I could see his perfect smile from the stage. When the show was over we had a brief talk back led by Cal Shakes resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly. (Check out her fascinating blog posts about our production HERE.) After sharing a little about each of our characters, our process and the adaptation of Shaw’s classic to California, the final question was from some siblings who had come to the theatre for their very first play and wanted to know more about acting!  We jumped at the chance to encourage them to get involved with Cal Shakes and any other opportunities they could find, eager to recruit more members to our wonderful world of storytelling. We said our goodbyes and well wishes for a happy day off, Miles hugged my cast and crew, now new members of our theatre family and we headed back home to get ready for a romantic and celebratory night out!

One of our favorite places is The Brazen Head in San Francisco, I found this neighborhood gem back in 2012 when working at The Magic theatre and have returned ever since. We got dolled up, crossed the Bay bridge, ready for a big meal in the city and a visit with one of our favorite bartenders: Jimmy. Sitting in the dimly lit corner we shared a glass of champagne and toasted to the moment: being together back in the bay and our theatrical/artistic successes. Our meal was to die for! French onion soup and a burrata caprese salad to start, followed by a filet mignon and shrimp scampi with a bottle of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon. Jimmy came over and sat with us for a bit after dinner and we talked about the life of an artist, he was a recording musician for many years. We discussed the drive to succeed, the hardships in love and life and he encouraged us to keep going and aiming high. (And he just about died when he found out Miles had been in one of his favorite shows, NCIS: LA, with one of his favorite actresses: Daniela Ruha!) It was a luxurious ending to the weekend and the perfect place to celebrate….

Monday morning we found a new favorite place for brunch in Berkeley: Aunt Mary’s Cafe! We feasted on pancakes, a chorizo scramble, collard greens, cheddar cheese grits and biscuits with sage gravy. We were so excited to eat we didn’t even snap a photo! We ran a few errands, visited a dear mutual friend and their little 6 month old baby girl, and returned back for an early night in since Miles had to get on the road first thing Tuesday morning. As I type this post he is cruising south on I-5 back to LA to make to a general meeting with a casting director, followed by an audition and then dinner with his theatre family from God Looked Away, he is incredible… I am cleaning house, resting and gearing up for the start of another week of shows up in the beautiful Orinda hills, filled with gratitude and awe from this weekend. Curtain is at 7:30 tonight and this Friday I will have a big group of cousins in the audience! The work continues for both of us…

Gloria Vs. Father

“Gloria” and “Mr. Crampton” (Michael Torres) have a little father daughter discussion to try and work things out…! (Photo by Kevin Berne)

It was an ideal opening weekend! Having Miles in town, celebrating with the talented cast and crew at Cal Shakes, hearing Artistic Director Eric Ting remark on our process, meeting all the loved ones and theatre family/friends who came to support, the wonderful meals and now the exciting challenge of a full run ahead. My parents will be coming in a couple of weeks and Miles will return again. ( I can’t wait!!!) Until then, I have my days back, time to get back into the hot yoga studio, update my website, return emails and messages, wash dishes, continue binging Cheers on Netflix, catching classics on TCM and possibly visiting some museums and local attractions… (Bay Area folks any suggestions?)

On with the Shaw Show! I am excited to share our story with more and more audience members in the weeks to come and hope they enjoy our delightfully strange world as much as we do…!

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You Never Can Tell: Beginnings…

photo.jpgLook at this cast! Aren’t they all gorgeous? I am sure many of you theatre artists reading this are connected to one or more of these fine folks, because that’s how it works doesn’t it? We are all part of a huge, loving, hard working, kick-ass family of beings who live to tell stories… And here we are beginning a new adventure!

What a treat to be back in the Bay Area, creating some magic in a room with these artists! At the Helm of our Shaw Ship is Lisa Peterson, who was recently named Berkeley Rep’s Associate Director! Her Shavian knowledge, fantastic laugh and sharp eyes keep all of us on our toes as she sculpts our world and our words… This is my first time performing a G.B.S. play and I couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone other than Lisa, and did I mention the jaw-dropping setting? The outdoor theatre in the golden Orinda hills and eucalyptus groves is a treat to the senses…

I’ve had many beginnings in The Bay Area… This sunny gray climate has influenced so much hunger and desire and excitement in my continued search for my role(s) as an artist in this world. Walking the streets of San Francisco, Mountain View, and now Oakland and Berkeley have informed my work and I have always been impressed with the tenacity and big heartedness of Bay Area artists, there is a truth that seeps from their every move…

My very first Equity gig was in San Francisco at The Magic Theatre, diving head first into Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of Medea with director Loretta Greco pushing me to the depths of the deep end, day after day. That show began my career as a professional Regional Theatre Actor. In fact, I was in rehearsals for that play when I self taped an audition that booked my first season at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Since then I have traveled to different states to tell stories, standing on various stages, forming lifelong bonds and connections. Two years ago this month, I met my love, Miles Gaston Villanueva in the Bay Area. We laid eyes on each other for the first time in a rehearsal room for the  TheatreWorks production of Water by The Spoonful. That show was the beginning of a creative and loving relationship with an incredible soul, a man who has challenged and loved me through our passion for art and who makes my heart smile…

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Sabina Zuniga Varela as “Yaz” and Miles Gaston Villanueva as “Elliot” in the 2014 Theatre Works production of Water By The Spoonful by Quiara Algeria Hudes. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

On July 26th our wonderful cast and crew celebrated Shaw’s 160th birthday with a potluck after rehearsal. The table was laden with homemade goodies and tasty treats. We sang happy birthday and toasted to the man whose words and thoughts we are beginning to taste and share…

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Happy Birthday! George Bernard Shaw                                                                                                   July 26th, 1856 – November 2nd, 1950 

Tomorrow we have our first run through!

We will begin to piece it all together using our words, bodies, hearts and breath on that rehearsal room floor as we struggle and swim through the four acts of You Never Can Tell. There are big ideas, quick wit, moments of giddiness, tension, desire, confusion and recognition. The language is fast and the thinking is deep. All three women in the play, a mother and her two daughters, are strong in their decisions, words and thoughts. It’s a thrill to begin to explore the complexity of my character Gloria, finding what reminds me of myself, what surprises me, what confuses. She is raised by a very progressive mother, Mrs. Clandon, and has been educated to challenge the norm at that time, as you can read in this exchange that happens in Act One:

McCOMAS. You hold to your old opinions still?

MRS. CLANDON. As firmly as ever.

McCOMAS. Bless me! And you are still ready to make speeches in public, in spite of your sex (Mrs. Clandon nods); to insist on a married woman’s right to her own separate property (she nods again); to champion Darwin’s view of the origin of species and John Stuart Mill’s essay on Liberty (nod); to read Huxley, Tyndall and George Eliot (three nods); and to demand University degrees, the opening of the professions, and the vote for women as well as men?

MRS. CLANDON (resolutely). Yes: I have not gone back one inch; and I have educated Gloria to take up my work where I left it.

While rehearsing this play I am drawing on the strong women that I have been exposed to and influenced by in my life: my mother Maria Varela, Gloria Steinem, Ella Baker, Sandra Cisneros, Winona LaDuke, Chavela VargasFrida Kahlo… the list goes on and on (Click on each name for videos to hear their words and see their faces.) Each of these women have challenged what was expected of them, they’ve created, they’ve fought, they’ve spoken up, they’ve resisted. Many of them have not stopped, they continue to shed light on issues at hand and persist in the struggle. They began and I must continue….

I thought of these strong women, and the women in our play, as I watched Hillary Rodham Clinton accept the nomination at the DNC this week. We are working on themes that are very timely with the historic nomination of the first woman as the presidential candidate for a major party in our country: Feminism, Marriage, The New Woman, Family, Convention, Relationships, Class, The Life-Force and Love. Regardless of any qualms with Hillary, this is a moment in history, or should I say Herstory…. (BTW, if you missed any of the DNC speeches check them out HERE on C-Span!)

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Center: Maria Varela Clockwise from top left: Frida Kahlo, Ella Baker, Chavela Vargas, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Winona LaDuke, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Steinem.

George Bernard Shaw wrote his women well, after all his mother Bessie was quite intriguing and his childhood was a trip to say the least…. I am learning more about his mother and the beginnings of Shaw’s search for his calling in a highly recommended biography by Michael Holroyd: Bernard Shaw, Vol.1:18:56-1898-The Search for Love, I am hoping to finish it by the end of the run…

So, on the last day of this month we begin the head-first dive into the deep end of our play with our first run through. It’s absolutely terrifying and thrilling at the same time, this work we do. We are traveling through an abyss of stakes, cues, props, music, dancing, connecting, entrances, exits, all in the search for what we love: telling stories.

And next week, we begin Tech…

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March Madness

  
College basketball is everywhere, the men and women’s teams are suffering buzzer beating losses and relishing glorious triumphs. The sweetness, eliteness and final-ness of this annual season of stamina and survival bring these athletes to the top of their game. 

I first started playing basketball in third grade and continued through high school and played pick up games in college. There was almost a moment when I was going to try and play for The Lady Aces at a small school in Indiana… I believe that my years as an athlete, playing with a team, winning and loosing, was a fundamental part of my training as an artist. It was one of my first experiences in an ensemble, but back then I didn’t know what that meant, I just knew I was a part of a team….

Recently a fellow theatre artist asked her Facebook community to reflect on why we, as actors, find ensemble work important. She wanted to relay different stories and experiences with students. I reflected on an answer, wrote a comment on her post and then realized I had about three blog post drafts for the month of March just waiting to be finished….

So this is my March Madness post, containing reflections on three specific moments that all happen to have something to do with an ensemble…

THE WARRIORS 

 Sometimes I am not able to fully digest a theatrical moment until weeks after. What I experience sits with me, marinating, peaking up and reminding me of how fortunate I am to be a theatre artist right now at this moment. This month I was lucky to catch the 3 play repertory performances of the 2016 MFA class at my Alma Mater USC. Every graduating class completes this rite of passage and professionalism in the final semester of the program. The ensemble of actors rehearse and perform three plays for 5 weeks, alternating shows Wednesday-Sunday. It’s a rigorous schedule, testing the stamina and dedication of each artist. The year I graduated we had the delight of performing Chekov’s Three Sisters, Shakespeare’s 12th Night and a devised piece called Forget My Name. I had never been so tired and amped in all my life. We battled sickness, entertained the masses, stretched and sharpened our chops and we survived. Our tribe of nine killed it in all three plays and the term “I can do anything…” escaped our lips over and over…

This year these 14 fierce and hungry actors tackled a devised piece based on the Greek tale of The Oresteia, Brecht’s Three Penny Opera and Twilight L.A. Miles and I saw all three plays in one weekend beginning with The Oresteia and ending with a double header matinee performance of Three Penny and an evening show of Twilight L.A. 

To try and capture what each show delivered, how these words and artists brought me to the edge of my seat, I couldn’t do it justice and I don’t want to attempt to write a review of each piece. Rather, I want to reflect in stream of thought what still sticks with me weeks later, what images, sounds and feelings linger….

THE ORESTEIA: language and poetry, blooming and dying roses, thorns, dim lights highlighting cheekbones, a growl so deep it comes from the belly of Hades, shovel plunging, smiles surprising, the solo from The Dark Side of the Moon, Apollo glistening in want and hate, black lipstick smeared, bloodthirsty eyes, a boy growing up, bodies colliding, justice, pain, need, want, limbs, breath, silence…

THREE PENNY OPERA: piano keys, pink and red lace, smiles and knives, running and hiding, voices lifted in fury and love, blush and teeth, laughter, deep belly laughter… watching, listening, a wedding party, empty plates and gangs of rags, back and forth, cardboard chewing, jingling keys…

TWILIGHT L.A. Dancing with rage and pride and grace, deep bass in the seats, tags, stillness, tears, race, class, broken glass, pavement and blood, dark and light, right and wrong, then and now, a single hand from the front, then the back, history, story…

These artists are now heading into their LA/NYC showcase and I can’t wait to see what happens next! Their ensemble work made me jealous and giddy all at once…Keep an eye out on those stages and screens for these faces!

THE VOICES 

 The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has created a new project called Play On! Playwrights and dramaturgs are paired up to “translate” The Bard’s works into modern English. It’s been thought, by many of my friends and colleagues, as a controversial exploration. Some really like the idea, others not so much.  

This month I had the pleasure of participating in an early reading of Virginia Grise’s work on All’s Well That Ends Well. On International Women’s Day, of all days, a diverse and talented group of women were cast to read the first two acts of Virginia’s work then the final three acts of Shakespeare’s words. In just one day, in a few hours, an ensemble was formed to read, listen, learn and share. The conversation after the reading was so stimulating and eye opening that this play, which I had known little about, quickly has become a favorite. It was an invigorating day of work and artistry and the joy from the newly formed yet fleeting ensemble was palpable…

THE FAMILY What really is just sinking in, is the incredible honor of attending the Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle (LADCC) Awards ceremony this month. Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles was nominated for 6 awards!  

This was one of the most challenging plays I’ve been involved in, and it couldn’t have been possible without the ensemble. The material we were asked to wrestle with, the elements of our outdoor space, the weight of the significance this piece held, brought all those involved to a place filled with struggle and searching. 

The journey of this production began three years ago at The Magic Theatre. The first incarnation of Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of this ancient story was one that had Medea’s character steeped in the art of magic and healing, trying to make it in the Mission district area of San Francisco. Since then Luis took his story to Chicago and infused the play with the spirit of Pilsen. The story then arrived to Luis’ hometown of Los Angeles where he captured the soul of Boyle Heights to be represented on the marble floor of The Getty Villa outdoor theatre. There is always a ritualistic element to creating a theatrical piece, but this one was especially sacred. With the collaboration and passion of The Getty Villa and The Theatre @ Biston Court and with an extraordinary ensemble of artists we presented this classic story, rife with poetry, family, terror, love and flight… 

 And on March 14, 2016, at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theatre at New Roads School, sitting next to my love Miles (on his birthday!), his mother, our brilliant cast and team of producers, we were awarded 4 of our 6 nominations from the LADCC!  Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro & Directed by Jessica Kubzansky 

WON:

* Writing Adaptation: Luis Alfaro

* Directing: Jessica Kubzansky 

* Lead Performance: Sabina Zuniga Varela

* Production: The Getty Villa & The Theatre @ Boston Court

(You can read the full list of Winners in the L.A. Times article)

NOMINATED:

* Sound Design: Bruno Louchouarn

* Ensemble: VIVIS, Marlene Forte, Justin Huen, Zilah Mendoza, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Quinn Marquez and Anthony Gonzalez 

  We are so proud of this moment in Latino Theatre, where we got to celebrate and be recognized, by the Los Angeles critics, for our story, our play, our blood, sweat and tears that was created by an all Latin@ cast and design team! (Playwright, Set, Lights, Sound, Costume, Props) 

 
Luis acceptance speech.

Sabina acceptance speech.

Best Production speech.

Many thanks to all of the warriors, the voices and the families I have met along the way, in my home town of New Mexico, California, Oregon, Colorado, Texas, New York, Ohio and beyond…. I couldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t meet all of you. I am a Theatre Artist, a Storyteller, and maybe most important an Ensemble Member, exploring the depths of humanity and wonder.
It’s been a grand month, a season of inspiration and resting and many many birthdays, including mine!   March brings the spring, the blossoms and brackets, the wind and the wins!

Let’s see what April has in store…  

A Year of Strength…

 A year ago I closed a show in Los Angeles and hopped a plane home to New Mexico. A year ago today my mother was admitted for a valve repair surgery in Denver, Colorado. She knew the recovery from an open chest surgery would be brutal, especially after watching my dad go through it over 7 years ago, so she researched options for non invasive procedures. We were in Denver for two weeks, she recovered for a bit in the hospital and then at her sister Angela’s house before we drove back to Albuquerque to get her settled in for the long haul of recovery. It was difficult and trying for her, lots of ups and downs with breathing and medication and building back strength…

Now, a year later she’s already been to Los Angeles twice, to see one of my plays and go to the Ovation Awards, Atlanta to see herself in the permanent exhibit at the Center for Human and Civil Rights, New York to help a friend after the passing of her husband, Cincinnati to see another of my plays, and is currently at Duke University for two weeks working on her photography from the Civil Rights movement. 

My mother has been and still is the epitome of endurance, strength and persistence. I am not surprised at all that she is so active and healthy after what she went through a year ago today, she is one of the strongest people I know. Yet realizing that it was only a year ago, I am again in awe of my Mom. I was blessed to have been with her during the procedure and part of the recovery process. Although it is hard to see a parent in pain and struggle, I feel grateful to have watched her fight to make herself better.

I thank the creator, angels, ancestors, stars and universe for her health and am inspired to work on my own body and spirit, because this life is what we have and we’ve gotta make the most of it…I went on a 30 minute run today, pushed by something inside of me to make myself better, healthier, stronger…

 Here’s to many, many more years of strength for my Mom, my Dad-all of my loved ones and Myself, so we can enjoy our incredible journeys to the fullest…! 

 

Native Gardens: A closing and the cultivation of joy…

It’s come full circle, the season of the World Premiere of Native Gardens at The Cincinnati Playhouse has come to a close. As I write this post I am sitting outside on the balcony of our Pasadena home, next to all of our plants and flowers, and the newly added Cyclamen, from our set,  that I carried on the plane from the theatre. The weather is 30 degrees warmer, I can hear parrots in the palm tree and see hummingbirds at our feeders. 

Closing night was a success! The audience was generous and giddy. We all played full and with fervor on that stage, filling the house with our story one last time. After getting out of costume we gathered for a champagne toast in the green room, led by our brilliant director Blake Robison. Actors cleared their dressing stations and loved ones mingled while sipping bubbly and moonshine soaked cherries. We then trickled up to the lobby for a wine party and celebration, hosted by a doner, with the two other casts currently working at the Playhouse. We joined The Revolutionists and To Kill A Mockingbird in a spread of mushroom Brie, crackers, pork tenderloin, roasted root vegetables with apples and a slice of bannana cream pie. All the while being served a delicious deep red wine as we looked out over the city and leisurely wrapped up the run of our show.  

It was a lovely and magical setting to deliver our goodbyes, so longs, farewells, see you laters, thank yous and love yous… Smiles, tears and big hugs were shared and eventually the evening ended and the final preparations for departure began.  At the beginning of closing week I finally ventured to the Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park. Just a short walk from actor housing I entered their current exhibit of spring flowers and my jaw fell to the ground! It was an explosion of color and scents, a celebration of growth, petals and blooms. I imagine this is what it looked like when the Greek Goddess Demeter allowed abundance to fill the lands when her daughter Persephone was returned from Hades. 

Sitting here reflecting on closing our play, I can’t help but realize how much a theatrical production of a new play is like a garden. It begins with a seed of thought that grows into a script, this seedling of a play thrives in the soil of a theatre that provides all of the necessary elements to cultivate the growth of a story. Actors, crew, staff, rehearsals, tech, lights, set, sound, costumes, tickets, publicity, audience, patrons, donors… All of which are an elemental part of the production, just as the garden needs sunlight, water, earth, bugs, bees, love and care…

The theatre has seasons, just as our planet does, and there comes a time when all of the effort, work, sweat, ideas, adventures, creativity and performances must come to an end. The set is torn down just as the earth is tilled, ready for the cultivation of the next play.  My aunt Dolores arrived on Thursday to visit and see the play. She is my mother’s sister and also my godmother. Since I was little she has been a big influence in developing my own interests in identifying birds, naming plants, flowers and trees and exploring nature around me. She was a teacher before she retired and one of her big projects with her school was to develop an outdoor classroom for students to have hands on experience in understanding ecosystems and habitat. When I was younger I accompanied her 5th grade class on a field trip to Chaco Canyon. She lives in New Mexico in the middle of a Cottonwood grove and from her sunroom you can hear dozens of different birds tweeting and eating on her outdoor feeders equipped with little microphones that are connected to speakers inside. She and my Uncle Clyde travel all over with their dogs, camping and sightseeing wildlife and National Parks. 

The day she arrived we ate a late lunch at The Montgomery Inn overlooking the Ohio river. We caught up over crab cakes, ribs, shrimp and hot wings. That night she rested from her trip while I performed our last Thursday night show. Friday we explored the Cincinnati Museum Center, located in Union Station, taking in the Natural History Museum, the IMAX film National Parks Adventure and visited the old control tower on the third floor. Then we drove all around downtown Cincinnati so she could see the architecture, churches, bridges and murals. That night we enjoyed a beautiful view of the city over a mixed grill of seafood (salmon, grouper, scallops and shrimp) at The Celestial Steakhouse. She helped pack some of my belongings while I performed our final Friday night show.

 Saturday morning we had the great pleasure of a VIP tour of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens with our cast and the actors of The Revolutionists. We were up close with the Asian elephants, we fed Wallabys, and saw our tour guide handle armadillos, a bearded dragon a python and a scorpion. It was super exciting and the warmest day of my entire Cincinnati stay. Miles arrived while we were at the zoo to celebrate closing week with me, and the three of us had a yummy brunch at The Rookwood. That afternoon Dolores attended our final matinee performance in the second row center and had a blast! Miles worked on lines for upcoming auditions and then joined me after my evening performance for food and drinks with the cast while Dolores packed up and rested for her return trip. I drove her to the airport Sunday morning and hugged her goodbye…

Dolores has been such a fundamental part of my growth as a human, her presence in my life has helped cultivate my interests and has been a solid rock of support. She videotaped my earliest community theatre projects, she would hand sew birthday presents, take me out to lunches, create photo collage gifts and now travels to see my shows. What a treat it was to share my work and explore this city together, can’t wait to see where we meet up next! Now I’m Home! Miles was by my side, lighting up my life, for the final weekend of shows and festivities. He generously got himself a seat on my return flight and we flew back together yesterday. He has been at every opening and closing of my shows since we have met and just as a flower loves sunlight, I am grateful for his presence on this journey. He visited three times while I was in Cincinnati! Helping me settle in, exploring the city together, ringing in the New Year, hanging with my cast and crew, celebrating opening weekend, closing weekend… He was a huge part of this production, and we have now made wonderful and close connections with everyone involved in Native Gardens. I know our paths will cross with these incredible folks again…  We now get to continue cultivating our own garden on the balcony of our little piece of Pasadena paradise. I purchased the gardening gloves that my character Tania wore as a memento of this very special and joyful process that was the World Premiere of Native Gardens by Karen Zacharias. Until next time Cincinnati, Hasta la proxima! 

FRANK: …Like I said, new neighbors.

TANIA: New…

ALL: Friends.

End of Play 

Native Gardens: My Roots…

Clockwise from left: Dinner at The Celestial, Brunch at The Rookwood, atop the Observation Deck at Carew Tower, at The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport, crossing The Purple People Bridge (Background image is a view of Mount Adams from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River)

A week ago my parents flew into Cincinnati for a visit to see my play! They arrived while I was on stage for a Saturday matinee, so I ordered them an Uber and they settled into my apartment. It was quite a treat to walk in the door, on break in between shows, to see them sitting on the couch!

 That evening they came to the show and afterwards I brought them down to tour the green room and dressing rooms, and to see how beautiful their opening night flowers still were. I think they were both surprised at how funny my performance was, granted they usually watch me in drama, a lot of Greek drama at that! We were in the mood to get a bite and grab a nightcap so we took a leisurely, but cold walk to The Celestial. They have an incredible view of downtown and that night there was live jazz. So over crab cakes and lobster bisque we wound down the night and their Cincinnati adventure had officially started.
The next day was Super Bowl Sunday! We began with brunch at The Rookwood and were sat at the same table I had been the Sunday before with Miles and Lance. I left a little early to warmup my body and voice before our matinee and they walked over to make curtain to see the show a second time. The night before was a quiet and serious audience, this matinee was giddy and vocal and I’m glad they got the experience of watching the show with different responses. We didn’t have an evening show so we had two pit stops before heading back to watch the Super Bowl. We started by driving to Newport, Kentucky, across the river to take a walk along The Purple People Bridge. It was a sunny, clear day, but really windy so we walked about halfway across to take a look down at the great Ohio river and take in the views of downtown Cincinnati. We then hit the road to pick up some BBQ at Eli’s. We got pork ribs, pulled pork, Mac and cheese, baked beans, jalapeño cheddar grits, cornbread and coleslaw and that evening we watched the Broncos beat the Panthers. 

The next day I had to tape an audition with the help of my brilliant cast mate John Lescault and my mom running the camera. After I finished we had lunch at The Mount Adams Bar and Grill. As we ate snow began to fall, more and more, it was a beautiful sight. We had planned to drive around after lunch and explore more of the town but came to a consensus that it was best to stay in and avoid driving in the snowy weather. We had reservations that night for an early Valentine’s dinner at The Celestial. We enjoyed a perfect view of the city over oysters, steak and shrimp. The night ended with watching the fantastic Oscar nominated film Brooklyn.

They flew out the next day but the flight was late enough that we had some time to add a few more sights to their Cincinnati Adventure! We started with breakfast at Hathaway’s Diner ar the bottom of Carew Tower. Then we faced the elements and rode the elevator to the top of the tower to the observation deck, which we found out was outdoors! It was a beautiful view, freezing, icy and windy, but a 360 look at the city and surrounding areas. We still had plenty of time to kill so our last stop was the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. This place is incredible! Dedicated to displaying the history of slavery, freedom fighters and multimedia artwork, both past and present. My favorite exhibit is a big circular room, filled with the sound of Amazing Grace heard all around, dedicated to those who lost their lives while on ships being carried against their will through The Middle Passage. The current exhibt, Kin Killin’ Kin: The Art Of James Pate, is breathtaking…There isn’t enough space in this post to express all that we experienced there, I just highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Cincinnati. 

We picked up their suitcases and I drove them to the airport in Kentucky to catch their flight. As we were hugging at security my mom said, “Some people travel to Europe, we go to wherever you are doing a play!” I waited as they got through security and waved a final goodbye as they headed to their gate. Their visits are always too short, but we find way to make the most of our time together.

My character in this play is from New Mexico and I was especially proud to land this role and represent my home state in a Regional Theatre World-Premier. Having my parents in the audience added to the experience because they are a huge part of who I am. They are my roots, my support and working in my craft wouldn’t be possible without them. 

My Dad always reminds me that I’m doing the right thing and that everything will work out, especially when times are tough. He’s become an excellent critic, especially about dialect work and character, and I enjoy his feedback immensly. My mom has helped me with auditions and advises me with line suggestions and let’s me know if my volume is good. She shares reviews and articles and has always been a perfect stage mom. There’s nothing better than looking out into the audience at curtain call and seeing their smiling faces… 

I don’t know where they will get to travel to next, but I know it will be a great adventure!

Native Gardens: Opening and A Reunion…

Photos by Aly Michaud

We did it! What a fantastic Opening! The Cincinnati Playhouse sure knows how to celebrate a New Play!
I began the day picking up my partner Miles, who flew in for the weekend, which helped settle my nerves and warmed my heart. I continue to get nervous on opening night despite the many years I’ve been doing this. The anticipation of beginning the journey into a full run, no more rehearsals and of course, knowing the critics are out there just waiting for something to write about.

Rather than rehearsing the day of opening, we had a company meeting shortly before curtain. We gathered in the green room and discussed our wonderful process, with reminders from our director to keep the show’s momentum on the balls of our feet and encouraging comments from our playwright about having fun. I looked around at our team, finally at this point of a world-premier play, and was overcome with gratitude. Everyone involved in this production has brought such talent, professionalism and joy. 

We opened with a burst of energy, filled the space with our story and bowed to a standing ovation. A celebration followed in the theatre lobby filled with meeting our generous and kind sponsors, chatting with happy audience members and hugging each other congrats over meatballs and Malbec. Having Miles by my side increased my happiness tenfold, his support and love mean the world to me and since we’ve met he’s celebrated with me at every opening night. A true creative partner and love…

An overall sucess with good reviews to follow. David Lyman, for the Cincinnati Inquirer, wrote: “Robison’s cast is a nimbly comic group; Karen Ziemba’s tough-and-cagy Virginia, Sabina Zuniga Varela’s “passionately rational” Tania, John Lescault’s easily excitable Frank and Gabriel Ruiz’s touchy but eager-to-please Pablo.” While Alex Barhorst, for The News Record, expressed: “The lead role of the pregnant Latino wife, Tania — played by Sabina Zuniga Varela — was performed well and is especially impressive as her first performance in Cincinnati. She is no amateur in the theatre business, however. She has appeared in numerous pieces, including her recent work with “Mojada: A Medea” in Los Angeles.”

Now we get to settle into running our show 7-8 times a week, sharing our hilarious and poignant story to connect with audiences through laughter and nature.  Over the weekend my dear friend Lance arrived from Pittsburgh. He drove into Cincinnati to visit and see the play! We began our visit with brunch at Rookwood, which started with yummy biscuit sliders and coffee. We figured out that we have now know each other for 13 years! 

We met in New Mexico and enjoyed a friendship for many years before I moved to California and Lance moved to Louisiana and now Pennsylvania. We haven’t seen each other in person for over 7 years, keeping in touch with phone calls, but as always we picked up right where we left off. 

He enjoyed our Sunday matinee and joined Miles, myself and the cast after our evening performance for a drink at The Blind Lemon, followed by a slice of pizza at Goodfellas. I always remember laughing with Lance, and introducing him to Miles, who is amazing at making me giggle, I was beaming with happiness with the banter between the two. We enjoyed a final meal of tacos Monday afternoon at Bakersfield, before he jumped in his car and made the drive home. 

I’m fortunate to have Lance in my life, we’ve created great memories and shared so much of our art, philosophy and love of New Mexico. He was a constant fixture at family gatherings and always someone I can count on for honest advice. It was a blessing that he was able to make the trip, see my play and meet Miles. I so look forward to our next visit!

 
This weekend my parents arrive to see the show…!

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