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

Archive for the month “February, 2016”

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.


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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