Cristela is a Cringeworthy Missed Opportunity

When the first ads for ABC’s new sitcom, Cristela, started airing, I got a little excited. A show with a funny, chubby Latina in the lead? Si! I’m in. Even from the first promos, however, I was a little leery. The humor felt forced, and I worried the show would end up being one-dimensional and stereotypical.

The series premiere proved my worries to be accurate. I agree with other reviewers, that the show’s lead and co-creator, comedian Cristela Alonzo, has so much potential to be a real star. She’s charming, likable, cute and unique. We need more faces like hers on television.  I would like to say we need more voices like hers as well, but the real Cristela’s voice is not clear. I don’t know what she’s trying to say.

The biggest problem is every character introduced in the premiere is a one-note stereotype, from a machismo driven father to a ditzy blonde co-worker.  The pilot’s premise is that Cristela, the character, is struggling to finish law school after six on and off years, working several jobs and helping to support her family. Yet that family, (sister, brother-in-law, immigrant mother, niece and nephew) all treat her like a disappointment and a burden who should give up her dreams to take a dead end job just so she can afford her own place and get the hell out of the brother-in-law’s house. Cristela doesn’t want that dead end call center job, she wants the unpaid internship at the big law firm that will help get her foot in the door for her dream career. At the same time, Cristela encourages her young niece (the one member of her family who appreciates Cristela just as she is) to go out for the soccer team instead of cheerleading. Here’s where the mixed messages start.

Perhaps the best line in the episode is when Cristela’s sister, Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera) says “I can’t believe it. Today my little girl is going to become a cheerleader.” Cristela quips back, “Ah yes, the great Texas tradition where girls learn they’re not quite as important as boys.” Nice. Having also grown up in Texas, this rings soooo true. This is a great line that gives us insight into Cristela’s character as a strong woman who believes in equality. This is also why it is so disappointing when Cristela later fails to stand up for herself and her heritage.

In the internship interview, we meet Trent (Sam McMurray), the head of the law firm. He’s a good old boy Texan and while McMurray is a skilled enough actor to make the character somewhat interesting, he is still written as another one-dimensional stereotype – with one of the most obnoxious jokes I may have ever heard on broadcast television. The joke also requires a bunch of forced and clunky set up to deliver. He asks her about why she’s been in law school so long, she replies that paying her own way she’s had to start and stop a few times but will never give up. He replies that when a person is drowning after the third time down, it’s over. She says she never learned to swim so she would just be dead. The “joke” follows with, “Can’t swim? How’d you get to Texas?” Cristela’s eyes widen in disbelief, Did this wealthy white man just call me a wetback? Yes, Cristela. He did. That’s exactly what just happened. Trent then breaks into a broad Mexican accent, and “Orale, mija!” he’s just kidding, just messing with her. (Subtext: you’re not allowed to be offended. I can say anything I want and it’s okay if it’s a “joke.”)

This could be the moment where Cristela shows us what she’s really made of. It has already been clearly established that Cristela’s mother, Natalia (Terri Hoyos), is an immigrant, a hard working woman who struggled and fought through adversity to give her children a better life than the one she had in the rough village she grew up in where “We didn’t have cheerleading. We had fun games like getting water from the well… and digging the well.” Natalia may be superbly skilled at throwing around the Catholic guilt and haranguing her children with horror stories of her own childhood, but the sacrifices she made do deserve a little respect from her daughter. Cristela has already taken offense to the boss’s daughter assuming she is the office cleaning lady, so wouldn’t it make sense that this callous comment from the boss would cut her too?

But no, Cristela just takes it, sheepishly apologizes for her background and sucks up to the white man. “I’m an American, born in Dallas. Go Cowboys!” Cristela is a huge fan of quarterback Tony Romo but critical of team owner Jerry Jones. Trent has the opposite viewpoint. Cristela makes a dig about geriatric Jerry, who, oops!, turns out to be a close friend and client of Trent’s.  Cristela leaves the interview dejected and defeated because she insulted the boss’s friend! What? He just called you a wetback! She’s lamely playing into another Texas stereotype that football trumps all. Can’t we raise the stakes a little here? Or, is actually dealing with the issue of immigration too sensitive and too touchy for a network like ABC to tackle? To me, there really shouldn’t be a “debate” about immigration. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, let them work and let them pay taxes! We’ll all benefit. But, from my perspective the only issue at the heart of the debate is racism. The opponents of immigration and Border Patrol radicals are not complaining about all the Canadians, Australians and Britons who come to Hollywood to take our preciously few, highly coveted and high paying acting jobs. Why not? Or should I say, white not? Why are they so terribly threatened by all those brown-skinned parents who work their fingers to the bone to provide for their children? I truly don’t know, but it’s the people like Cristela’s mother who seem to receive receive the most hate, derision and ridicule for entering our country to work.

I expected the same woman who wants her niece to have a chance to play soccer and not just jump around on the sidelines rooting for the boys, to also stand up for her mother when the white man makes a wetback joke. Yes, I am repeating that word because let’s not beat around the bush here, that’s what he said. I think of other strong female comedy protagonists and how they would have reacted in this situation. Wouldn’t the stronger choice be to walk out? Raise the stakes! Cristela might want this internship, but not at this price. She’ll make a stand and a sacrifice, even if it means she has to take the soul-crushing job her family is pushing on her. Claire Huxtable would have walked out, with so much elegant grace and dignity. Roseanne would have walked out, with some crude and snappy comeback. Even Lucy would have walked out, probably with a pratfall and a pie in the face, but she would not have just taken that insult and then beaten herself up because she disagrees with the boss about football! In the end, Cristela wins the job because the boss is impressed with how hard she has worked to put herself through school, unlike his own spoiled daughter. But, what if he’s impressed with her work ethic, her integrity and familial pride? What if nobody has ever stood up to him before and he loves that she has the cajones to do so? That’s the show I wish this had been.

Nonetheless, I’m over here on the sidelines still cheering for you Cristela, not with pompoms but with hope and solidarity. I hope this show gets better and I do hope that both Cristela the character and Cristela the writer figure out who she really is and what she wants to say with this incredible platform and opportunity. Your voice is important, querida, raise it. 

Shut Up & Keep Moving: Lessons From an Old Pro

Connie Sawyer SmTo be honest, I’ve been standing still. It’s been a rough month. My Captain died. My boyfriend and I rescued a dog who has required much more time, energy, attention and money than we could ever have anticipated. And, my expectations for “Episodic Season” have yet to pan out.

It’s been a dry few weeks for auditions. I had a great spring and early summer, going out quite a bit even when production was slow. Then all of a sudden, poof! Nothing. Ouch. I will comfort myself with the explanation of now that everything’s in action, everyone else is back in town and the competition is fiercer than ever. There are just too damn many people vying for too few jobs. Yay.

So, I’ve been stuck, spinning my wheels and feeling sorry for myself. After my last post, I realized I wanted to know more about my newest hero, Connie Sawyer. I reached out to her agent and was thrilled that she agreed to let me interview her. We spent a lovely hour at her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Fund Retirement Community and I will be forever grateful for the time she gave me.

This is what I learned.

  • Keep Moving
  • Mentors Are Great
  • Never Give Up
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally (knew that, but great reminder!)
  • You Are What You Are
  • Family First
  • Honesty Is Not Always The Best Policy (yikes, I hate this, but she has a point.)
  • It Gets Better

KEEP MOVING

In case you don’t know, Connie Sawyer is 101 years old and she is still a working actor. In fact, she is the oldest living and working member of SAG/AFTRA and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Amazing. I asked her the secret to such a long life and a career. This was her simple answer. “Keep moving.”

“I always played golf, I tap danced in my act. I was a hoofer in Vaudeville. I played golf, I swam. I live in the Motion Picture home and I go to the exercise class 3 days a week and the arthritic class in the pool. It keeps you moving and it keeps you young. You don’t eat a lot of junk food, I never did. I’m not a fanatic about health food, but I love fruits and vegetables and I don’t eat a lot of fried foods.”

NEVER GIVE UP

Born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1912, Connie’s family moved to Oakland, California when she was a young girl. Connie began her career as a performer at the bright young age of 17 when she won a local talent contest. “I sang and danced and told funny stories.”  That landed her a gig on a radio variety show on KCRF in San Francisco. There, she learned sketch comedy and began “doing a single,” which is what they called a stand up comedy act in the Vaudeville days before the term stand up was coined. Vaudeville, people. This woman cut her teeth doing VAUDEVILLE.

Did you get paid?

“Did I get paid, baby!? I sure did.” On her six month contract with the radio station, Connie received $125/week! That was big money in 1930. Hell, an extra $125/week would sure do me good today!

After getting her feet wet with Vaudeville shows and night clubs in San Francisco, Connie soon set her sights on bigger markets. The bright lights of Broadway were calling to her and she hit the road for New York City. “I worked my way across the country. Took me two years. I played every dump you could think of.” While on this cross country trek, Connie got some attention in Pittsburg where Gil Lamb, a movie star, eccentric dancer and comic, was emceeing a show at a very nice night club.

“He got the William Morris to come and look at me.”

“THE William Morris?”

Yeah. THE William Morris. Gil Lamb got him “to come and look at my act. They brought me in to New York. My real name was Rosie Cohen and I was like a poor man’s Fanny Brice. I did everything in dialect, I had a song about Ming Toi Cohen, Dinah Cohen, Two Gun Cohen from the barbecue. And The William Morris said ‘We’re going to get rid of that corny act, you’ve got talent. And you’ve got to change your name.’ So from Rosie Cohen, I became Connie Sawyer. They said to me ‘Who would you like to look like?’ I said ‘I’d like to be a blond and gorgeous. Constance Bennett.’ You wouldn’t remember her, she was beautiful. Big, tall, leading lady. And I said, ‘Don’t give me the name of Jones or Smith.’ ‘What name?’ ‘Something everybody knows like Tom Sawyer.’ They said, ‘That’s it! But you can’t be Constance, you’re a comedienne.'” And so, Connie Sawyer was born.

Shortly after this, Connie experienced her first and possibly ONLY moment of doubt. She also discovered the value of a mentor. “I was lucky, I always had a mentor.”

“I had to play Grossinger’s. Before I got a new act, they booked me for the weekend. I opened the show. It was with Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis. Joe E. said, ‘You’ll open the show.’ I said, ‘I’m not a dog act or an acrobatic act. I’m a comedienne!’ He said, ‘What d’ya want? Sophie Tucker, the headliner, to open the show?’ I opened the show.”

Unfortunately, ‘I bombed. Talk about flop sweat. The audience didn’t like me, they didn’t laugh. I’d been getting laughs with the old act. I was upset, I started to cry. I said to the audience, ‘Why are you so mean to me? I’m Jewish. What is wrong?’ You know what I did? I ran offstage. Very unprofessional. That’s why I’m telling you this. And then Sophie Tucker came to my dressing room. I said, ‘I’m going home. I’m going to call Mama. I’m going home.’ And she said, ‘No, you’re not. We’re gonna help you. You’ve got talent, you’re pretty and cute.’  And they found a writer, I got a new act. And The William Morris sent me out to play and break it in.”

“Cut to the chase, we put an act together, it was fine and I auditioned for the Reuben Blue, an East Side supper club. I got the job and from there, I just sailed.”

“That time that you ran offstage, was that the only time you ever felt like ‘I can’t do this. I want to quit.’?”

“Oh yeah! It’s the only time. No way. I went sailing! I played every night club in New York. I became a headliner. The last club I played was 1956. London. The Colony Club. Beautiful club. They came in evening gowns and tuxedos. I was the only act and I was on the bill for an hour. … I had two children. I took them with me and I was there for six weeks. I said ‘That’s the last time. I’m going to become a character actress.'”

And being a London headliner act was the last time Connie played “a single.” “I wanted to stay home with my children and my husband. And that’s how I became a character actress and that’s how I’ve been in the business all these years. But, I started ‘doing a single’.”

From there, Connie began performing on Broadway and booked her first television appearances on variety shows in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Always moving and staying busy, Connie worked as a Broadway understudy and continued doing her act around town to supplement the scale income of an understudy character actress. It was in 1958, already in her late 40s, that Connie got the attention of one of the world’s biggest superstars – Frank Sinatra.

“I did a wonderful play called Hole In The Head.  The show, they changed it into a comedy. I went to the director and told him I could put a comedy shtick in. I played a drunk that wandered in and out of the play yelling, “Geronimo!” And Frank Sinatra bought the property, his manager saw the show and I told her I could do a shtick and she told Frank Sinatra, ‘There’s a girl in the show that does a funny drunk. And the author didn’t write it.’ He said, ‘Bring the drunk.’ So I came to Hollywood. I’m the only one from the Broadway show that got into the movie A Hole In The Head.”

DON’T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY, i.e. “Get used to rejection.”

From then on, it was more smooth sailing for Connie Sawyer. She has lived in Los Angeles since 1959 and has worked consistently ever since. Of course, that doesn’t mean she booked every role she went out for. Or should I say, she didn’t always “get bought.” Today, we usually say we “booked” a job, but Connie has an interesting turn of phrase I’ve never heard before. She often says, “they buy me” or “bought me.” On one hand, this sounds crude or objectifying. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. Today, we actors talk a lot about “marketing yourself” and “creating a brand.” And, it’s true. We are selling ourselves, we become a product for production and consumers to spend their money on. The big stars become, “a bankable name.” It’s a business and I think the more I can wrap my head around “getting bought and sold,” the less these occasionally rocky waters can get to me.

I asked Connie what advice she could give to actors.

“I never gave up. You go with the punches. It’s a tough business. I love to perform and I’m sure all the actors do. You stay with it.

“What’s the hardest part about the business?”

“I guess rejection. Gotta get used to rejection. You just forget about it and just go on. The competition is so keen. Even with the old ladies! There’s so many of them. I tease them.” At auditions, “They say, ‘Here’s comes Connie.’ ‘What? Nobody died yet?’ And they laugh and yell and say ‘Shut up!'”

Connie’s laughter is infectious. On this particular day, feeling beaten down by the biz, this was exactly what I needed to hear.

“See? You laugh. You gotta have an attitude of humor, otherwise it’ll get to ya. Don’t do that. Don’t let it get to ya. It’s tough to be an actor.”

Do you think it’s harder for women?

“Oh absolutely. Oh my goodness. But it’s so good now. It’s loosened up. We’ve got lady directors, lady producers. … Way better than in my day. Look at the girl comics today. Oh my goodness, when I was a girl comic back in the 40’s, it was disgusting. The men didn’t like ya. If the war hadn’t come on, I would never have played all those night clubs and Vaudeville, because the guys, there weren’t too many 4-Fs, so they had to buy the women and they bought me.”

The war helped boost your career?

“It helped me. I was on USO. I was on the hospital shows, which were hard. I saw many kids with no arms and legs. I was on it six months. It was tough. I had to quit, it started to get to me. So, I did my share in the 2nd World War.”

“But, I’m never gonna give up. What’s the old expression? You die with your boots on.”

Continuing with her great life lessons, I told Connie what an inspiration she is to me.  With the big 4.0. on my very near horizon, I’m in a bit of a panic. Here’s what she had to say to me and the young people she works with at Theatre West, a local theatre company she has been involved with for decades.

“I just tell ’em, keep moving. Never give up. You’ll hit a gold ring. You’ll get a job. Something happens! It’s an attitude.”

“I only cried when I was a kid way back with Sophie Tucker. I never cried again about the business. I laughed about everything.”

Really? Never?

“No. When I wouldn’t get a job, I lost a lot of good ones. Everybody does. You just go on.”

I’m going to try my best to never cry about this darn business again. If I can go a year, that will be a major accomplishment. I am in awe and a little bit of disbelief that Connie has gone over 75 years without taking it personally! I have subscribed to The 4 Agreements philosophy for nearly a decade, but, her attitude is more than I can even imagine and certainly what I will always aspire to moving forward. Hey, maybe that’s her superhero ability that has made her whole career possible. Amazing. No more tears. No more tears.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE

Being in this business definitely means knowing who you are. I asked Connie if her career changed as she got older or if she ever aspired to be the leading lady.

“I became a character actress and they bought you for your age and different things.”

You were never a leading lady or ingenue?

“Oh no, no. Who would want to be a lady? Not me.”

Why not?

“Oh, honey. I’m a character actress. I’m a comedienne. They buy me because I have great timing. People laugh and that’s my talent. It’s inside.”

Do you think the leading lady roles are less interesting?

“Oh no. Of course, they’re interesting. But I never looked like a leading lady. You are what you are. You love what you are. You don’t just want to be something else. That’s why you have such a good time.”

I pause in the conversation here. This hits me deeply. I talk the talk of this but do I walk the walk?

I am a fat actress.

I am a blue eyed Latina.

I don’t fit in most of the pre-fabricated boxes that the industry sells. I love who I am and I love being a character actor, but I’ve still been guilty of trying to force my way into those places where I will never fit. My eyes are basically my signature, my brand, and the one feature I get the most comments and compliments on from everyone from loved ones and colleagues to strangers on the street. So, why did I feel compelled to buy brown contact lenses a couple years ago? I’ve only worn them a few times, in certain situations where I thought the contacts could help me get work as a Latina. That’s one of those boxes I want to shred, the general perception of what a Latina looks like and what kind of roles she (or a fat girl) can play. But, come on, let’s get real. These boxes are made of steel and stone and are taller than the Sears Tower. I can’t tear them down today and I can’t do it on my own. Thus, I am dramatically rethinking the brown contacts.* I am what I am. I’m chubby. I’m funny. I can create a character (broad or subtle) in seconds. My name is Adelita Elena Lopez and I have beautiful blue eyes.

“They buy me because I’m funny. From doing a single, that’s my talent.”

*2020 update: The purchase of those brown contacts came from a lifetime of hearing comments like, “You’re not really Mexican,” “You don’t look like a Lopez,” “If you have a name that sounds like you speak another language but you don’t speak that language, change your name.”  I’ve heard these and many more from childhood friends, new acquaintances, industry professionals, etc. I got the lenses after discussions with both agents and casting directors whose attitudes were basically, “If it can help you get the job, why not? Couldn’t hurt.” That decision came from a place of desperation, a terrible and lonely place. One thing I have learned since from one of my finest mentors, “Never be desperate.”  That is true. What is not true is, “It couldn’t hurt.” I fear that covering my blue eyes with brown contact lenses is tantamount to donning black or brown face, something that has hurt communities of color for far too long. I won’t do that. I apologize for my desperate stupidity.

Shut Up & Take Care of Yourself. (For My Captain & All My Other Fallen Heroes)

Oh, Captain. My Captain. You were more than an idol, more than a hero. You inspired me. You taught me. You helped me grow into the person I am today.

Carpe Diem. Tom Shulman may have written the words, but you made me believe them. You were Mr. Keating to me, that magical once in a lifetime teacher who opens students’ eyes to new wonders and makes them believe they deserve to stand up for themselves. The teacher who makes you fight for what’s right, the teacher that allows/forces you to think for yourself, not to follow the herd. Oh me, oh life.

I am so grateful for the many excellent teachers I have learned from in all areas of study and on my lifelong journey as an actor. There are so many to thank, including but not limited to, – from childhood: Sharp, Klein, Stewart, Head; from college: Lank, Lutz, T., O’Connor, McCrory, Flauto, Snow; and adulthood: Johnson, Green, Hill, Kloss, Cackowski, Grace, Skov, and so, so many more. However, the person I most want to thank right now, in this moment, is a teacher I only had for two weeks at a gifted and talented summer camp in 1989. Dr. Marti Runnels taught my Theatre Arts class at Texas Tech’s “Shake Hands With Your Future” camp that year. One evening, he took our class on a field trip to the movies to see Dead Poet’s Society – a moment that would greatly impact the course of my entire life.

It was a magical time, the summer camp, the class, the movie. At barely 14 years old, I was overflowing with all the stereotypical teenage doubt, insecurity, desperation and fear that plagues most people during puberty. What I didn’t know at the time was my genetic predisposition to mental illness. I didn’t know that my angst wasn’t something I would grow out of, that I would continue to battle my depression for the rest of my life and that bi-polar disorder would strike hard in my family resulting in a catastrophic loss. All I knew then was that movie got me. It got to me, it spoke to me, it understood me and expressed everything I was feeling and wanted to be. Carpe Diem. Make your life extraordinary. My best friend from home, whom I was already deeply involved in a community theater teen troupe with, was also in the camp and at that movie with me. From the moment we saw that wisp of smoke and Neil’s father cried, “My boy, my boy!”, she and I were sobbing and did not stop for about three or four hours. I left that theater saying, “I will never give up. No one will ever stop me from being an actor. Never.”

The next day before Theatre class, my best friend and I organized the rest of the class to thank Marti for the outing. We arrived early and were all seated at our desks. When he walked in the room, we all stood up, and one at a time stepped onto our desks to speak those words, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” It was AWESOME! Just like it was the only thing Todd could do to express himself to Mr. Keating, this was the only way I could sum up how moved, inspired and grateful I was. Thank you, Dr. Runnels. Thank you. 

And this is why, “Oh Captain, My Captain,” was the first and only response I had to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. This is why losing him hurts so much and feels like I really lost someone I knew and loved, who loved me in return. He’s part of me becoming me. Carpe Diem became a national catchphrase for the early 90’s and a concept that burrowed its way deeply into my psyche. This became my motto, my mantra and the fuel for my adventurous spirit. That Christmas of 1989 I received a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words. I still have it. See what remains of it in action HERE, just one example of how Carpe Diem and The Captain have impacted my life and my work today. 

I meant what I said leaving Dead Poet’s Society: nothing or no one would ever keep me from being an actor. Unlike Neil, I have extremely supportive and nurturing parents who never deterred me from my dream. (Thanks again Mops & Pops!) That was one obstacle I didn’t have. But there’s nothing easy about this carer path and, at 14, I was already hearing from directors that what I couldn’t be was a fat actress. Except for the one time I got to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (thank you, Mr. Sharp), I was basically told I could never be the leading lady unless I was thin. From a mole, to a rat, to a tugboat, I spent my teen years as our company’s go to “character actor,” very often crossing gender. This was disheartening then, as it is now, but I’m not complaining. (Nothing and no one will stop me!) I would’ve played anything, as long as I got cast, as long as I got to act. Ah, the heady days of the 80’s and 90’s, getting high on the smell of greasepaint and spirit gum.

All my life, through rejections, heartbreaks, starving artist poverty and the worst of all, losing my brother, performing has been my safety net. The stage is my home, my church and my security blanket. Like the Captain himself said to Marc Maron in 2010, “The only sanity clause…, the idea is going on stage is the one salvation.” Yes, Captain. You know. When I am performing, there is no depression. Well, in the darkest times, it is at very least held at bay. It may linger or lurk, but it cannot consume me. The stage is a salve for open wounds,(see Healing Improv by my dear friend Bart Sumner) a place to be free and a chance to live. It’s not about getting to be someone else, it’s about getting to be ME. Getting laughs is also a drug. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s more addictive than crack. 

Actors. I know it’s rough, I know you’re in pain, I know you’re struggling and starving (sometimes literally). I’ve been there, I am there. It’s time to shut up that ugly voice of doubt inside you. Shut up and take care of yourself. We actors are often sensitive and emotional, which leads to self-criticism, which leads to self-destruction. I have lost too many heroes and idols and far too many of them were taken by drugs or mental illness. One in four adults struggles with some form of mental illness. There is no shame in admitting that you’re human. Go to therapy. I love therapy. It has saved my life more than once. I firmly believe that every person on this planet would benefit from counseling, and especially actors. (We love to talk about ourselves, right? Kidding. Or, am I?;) ) Get help. Take the medication that is prescribed to you, as prescribed. Do not abuse that medication. Take care of yourself mentally and physically. 

So many heroes are gone, but recently I met someone who is a new kind of hero. LA Connection, the improv theater where I perform and teach, provides improv shows for summer camps, birthday parties and other events. A few months ago, we were hired to perform for a 90th birthday party. The party was held at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, a beautiful residential facility for seniors from all aspects of the entertainment industry. One guest and fellow resident at this party was Connie Sawyer, a spitfire old gal who may reside at an assisted living facility but is far from retired. At 101 years, Connie is the oldest living and WORKING member of SAG/AFTRA. Her credits begin in 1954 and continue up to today. They include classic TV such as The Jackie Gleason Show, Bonanza, The Donna Reed Show and The Andy Griffith Show. More recently she worked on ER, Dumb & Dumber, Pineapple Express, The Office, How I Met Your Mother and many, many more. Many of her characters for the last twenty years are simply listed as “Old Lady,” Elderly Lady” or even “Oldest Woman in the World,” which she played on an episode of New Girl that just aired in March. Most recently, she has appeared in a recurring role on Ray Donovan (which aired two weeks ago!) and plays a lead in a just completed short called Entanglement about a love triangle at a retirement home. She will turn 102 in November.

Our short form improv shows generally involve a good deal of audience participation, but particularly when we do these private ones we get guests up on stage with us as much possible. We are used to the challenges of doing kids parties. An event where the median age of the audience was around 90 offered an altogether different set of challenges. Here came Connie to the rescue. Her friends essentially volunteered her for every piece that required an audience member on stage, which she was more than happy to oblige. And she blew me away. She was quick, spry, witty and funny. Oh, and that old lady was dirty! We usually try to keep these type of shows PG, but, hey, if Connie’s gonna bring up some kinky sex stuff, then all bets are off. Connie Sawyer is not a star or a household name, but she is the kind of actor I want to be. She works. 

She has inspired me now to take care of myself even more. I want to still be working at 102 years old. I do a good job of managing my mental health and now my physical health must receive the same priority. I’m not planning on a dramatic weight loss, but I do need to be more mindful of my blood pressure and other concerns. I get regular blood tests and while I am not at risk for diabetes, my cholesterol is higher than ideal. I will take better care of myself. 

There have been many public figures whose passing felt like a big loss (partial list below), but I have never wept so much or so hard for someone I didn’t actually know as I have for My Captain. It has been a rough few days, and obviously, the whole country and much of the world feels this loss too. We’re all trying to understand why and how and what could have been done. In the end though, there will never be a satisfactory answer and there will never be anything we could have done differently. It was up to him. He gave us so much, more than we knew to ask for, more than we could have imagined and probably more than we deserved. He gave and he gave. We took and took, and maybe the one thing we could have done differently was to give something back. Celebrities often talk about “giving back” charitably, which The Captain did a thousandfold. When they “give back”, we take yet again, but what do they get? I’m not talking money, awards, accolades or even gratitude. If only we could give them back what they give to us, emotionally and spiritually. The work an actor does must be whole-hearted giving, like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. You have to share yourself with your fellow actors and with the audience. Truly great, one-of-a-millennium actors, like The Captain, give everything of themselves, everything. He gave his whole heart, his whole mind, his whole soul, his very life, so that we could learn from his genius. He gave everything and what he didn’t do was save enough for himself. Mr. Keating taught me to fight for myself, no matter how hard the battle, and that is the lesson I will also take away from this wrenching awfulness. Even in death, he teaches.  

I will continue to mourn, but I will take care of myself. I will seize the day.

You made my life extraordinary. Be at peace, Oh Captain, My Captain.

A Partial List of Other Heroes I Have Lost Too Soon

  • Gilda Radner
  • River Phoenix
  • Phil Hartman
  • Chris Farley
  • Heath Ledger
  • Brittany Murphy
  • Phillip Seymour Hoffman

SHUT UP & EAT! Tammy Likes Pie and That’s Okay

SHUT UP & EAT – Part One

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted. My procrastination may be because this next topic is the one I most want to write about but also the most difficult. This post will have to be in at least two parts because the topic is that large. I thought there was one angle I wanted to discuss, but recent events make me realize there’s much, much more that I need to purge. So, grab a cookie and some cocoa, pretzels and a beer or an apple and a smoothie, sit back and enjoy.

That’s right. I said eat a cookie. Eat some freaking carbs if you want to. Or, fine, eat a damn apple if it makes you feel better, just SHUT UP & EAT! Feed your body, love your body, feed your soul, nourish yourself and keep it to yourself. Oh, and quit telling me what I should eat. That’s none of your damn business.

Do I seem angry? I am. I’m sick to death of women’s bodies getting picked apart everywhere. I’m sick of all the “shaming” catchphrases. “Slut shaming,” “fat shaming,” “body shaming,” on and on and on. When, oh, when, will women -and the way they are represented in media and entertainment- be regarded for their intelligence, talent, humor, abilities, attributes and accomplishments rather than just their f’ing appearance?

It has to start with us. We have to see ourselves as complete and worthwhile no matter how many wrinkles we have, the color of our hair or eyes or what jeans size we wear. The more we can love and respect ourselves, the more love and respect we will receive. I know too many talented actresses who obsess and lament over their weight and appearance in an endless cycle of self-deprivation and self-abuse. The fear of fatness is so pervasive that even when a heroine emerges that can show us something we’ve never seen before, people are still terrified of accepting her – even the fatties.

My immediate anger comes on the heels of a recent op-ed piece published on dame.com and reposted on salon.com that has the audacity to say Melissa McCarthy has sold out fat women. I call foul. The author herself describes a lifelong history of ridicule and abuse because she is overweight. I understand her pain. I am fat. I’m currently a size 18-20. People, often complete strangers, feel no shame at blatantly pointing out or mocking my fatness. Here are a few real life stories that have happened to me.

1. The only time I ever attempted to go to a trendy Hollywood nightclub, I was rejected at the door. Being held back at the rope, I watched several skinny, scantily clad blondes get let right in, but not me and my also brunette friend (who I think is pretty darn hot but was probably a size 6 or 8 at the time, not a 2 or 0 like the gals getting in). We left. My friend was furious, but to be honest, I was a little relieved. I knew it wasn’t my scene.

2. When I worked as a barista trainer, I was at a grocery store buying milk for that day of training new employees to make cappuccinos. As I’m loading 6 gallons of whole milk (and nothing else) into my cart, a little old Asian lady tut-tuts and shakes her head. She then points to the skim milk. “You should drink that. Too much here,” and pats her tiny belly looking at my larger one. “Not good, not good.” Did she think I was just going to go home and down all 6 gallons in one sitting? And who the f’ asked for her damn opinion anyway?

3. I was standing on a crowded bus holding on to an overhead strap when an older Middle-Eastern gentleman offered me his seat. I declined saying, “I like to stand sometimes.” He replied, “You like to eat all the time. Hahaha!” He thought this was so funny, he repeated it to the person sitting next to him, “She really likes to eat! Really!” This was hilarious to him. I don’t think he even meant to be malicious, he just thought he was making a joke and that I should laugh with him. He’s right though. I do like to eat. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t enjoy food. Food is life.

4. Just last week, walking up to a bus stop, an elderly woman who was clearly mentally ill and probably homeless sees me approaching and launches into a monologue. “Oh, look at this one! It looks like an easter egg! Hey, Humpty Dumpty, how’d you get so fat?”  She kept going and kept going with more of the same. I did my best to ignore her until my bus came, thankfully within a few minutes.

Even though I understand that there is no reason to take any of these incidents personally, particularly when dealing with someone who is unwell, they stuck with me because they did hurt. People from all cultural backgrounds, walks of life and age ranges (although from these examples it seems those over 60 especially have no social filter) feel complete carte blanche to attack, criticize or judge others for their weight. This is one form of discrimination that is still completely socially acceptable.

It’s true that fat people are far too often the big butt of the joke in film and on TV. In my personal experience as an actress, I have come across this many, many times. I have turned down more than one audition or role offer because the entire joke of the script was basically, “Ooh gross, a fat woman having sex!” or “Haha, hot guy and fat girl. Yuck.” More painfully, these projects even expected the actress who did take the role to work for free! No thank you.

I am sensitive to this kind of fat ridicule, but I am not so sensitive that I see it where it does not exist as the author of the above-mentioned “Melissa McCarthy is a Sell-Out” article does. She claims that McCarthy is a body-acceptance advocate in real life, but not in her films. I fat out disagree. (Not a typo.)

Melissa McCarthy is funny because she is, not because she’s fat. We laugh at her line delivery and character nuance, not at her. We laugh not because she’s disgusting, but because she is unique and unexpected. She plays people whom I would love to hang out with in their hot tub. Humor is subjective and not everyone is going to find her or her films funny. That’s okay. We cannot quantify comedy. A sense of humor is a completely personal manifestation of life experience and personality. Personally, I thought The Hangover was the most unfunny movie I’ve ever seen, but the rest of the world seemed to find it hilarious enough that the exact same movie was remade two more times. I thought Bridesmaids and The Heat were utterly brilliant with McCarthy playing truly groundbreaking roles. I also laughed out loud repeatedly watching Tammy, and I think I’m a pretty tough critic. I didn’t laugh once during The Hangover.

One reason I hated The Hangover is because the female roles are completely one dimensional stereotypes: The Virgin Bride, The Harpy and The Hooker with a Heart of Gold. BORING. Yikes, if I digress on that tangent, this post will never end! Back to Tammy. I enjoyed it because McCarthy’s performance and the whole film are nuanced, layered and honest. It’s not as broad or bawdy as Bridesmaids and it’s not trying to be, but it still has a similar heart. Tammy goes through a lot in the course of 90 minutes. She learns, grows and changes. She becomes a better human being with stronger, healthier relationships, both romantically and with her family. And yes, she EATS!

There are a few moments when Tammy’s character isn’t completely believable, such as the much talked about, “Mark Twon, he was a good guy,” joke. It doesn’t work. Although Tammy isn’t the smartest or most educated woman in the world, that one moment doesn’t feel authentic. It’s hard to believe that she really has never heard of Mark Twain and is that ignorant, especially compared to later on in the film when she does show a great deal of emotional intelligence caring for her grandmother and developing a new love interest. The Mark Twain joke doesn’t work because it’s going for a punchline rather than looking for the truth. Comedy is most funny to most people when it is true. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes we laugh through our tears. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Tammy walks out on her husband after she catches him in the midst of a romantic dinner he cooked for a neighbor. “You never cooked dinner for me! Not even once!” Tammy cries. Beat. “And it smells really good too.”  It’s heartbreakingly honest and it cracked up the entire theater in the showing I attended.

Many Tammy critics such as the sell-out article author seem to be offended that the movie opens with Tammy eating chips. They get more offended that she also drunkenly tells some cows, “Sorry, cows! You taste so good!” and when robbing a fast-food joint to scrounge up bail money for her ailing grandmother, she takes pies as well. (The place she robs is another branch of the same chain that fired her. Can we say poetic justice, anyone?) When Grandma makes Tammy return her ill-gotten gains, she admits that she cannot return the pies. They’re gone. It’s funny. We don’t see Tammy eat them and we don’t need to. If there had been a scene of her ravenously gorging on the pies, that probably would have been offensive or degrading. That would cater to the same mindset as all those people who rejected and criticized me without knowing me. That would validate the bigotry of those who think all fat people are binge-eating, 6 gallons of milk chugging, lazy and unattractive slobs.

That’s not funny because it’s not true. That’s not me and that’s not Tammy. She’s going through a rough time, even before the bad day inciting incidents of totaling her car after hitting a deer, being late to work and getting fired then walking miles home to find her husband having a romantic dinner with a neighbor. Tammy’s clearly in an unhappy marriage, working in a dead end job with no goals in sight. She’s stuck in a small home town that she hates and sees no future for herself. She has problems. Then, when she does hit the road with Granny Susan Sarandon, her problems get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Tammy just lost what little she had and while she does her best to put on a brave face, she really is suffering. We also see her eating a donut from a motel vending machine when she is locked out while dirty Granny is getting it on inside. It is a sad, lonely moment for Tammy. This character is an emotional eater. That is real. That is honest. That is painful. That is comedy. And hell, why can’t she just be hungry? She’s had a long day and there aren’t any bloody apples in a vending machine!

And guess what, overly sensitive, hyper-critical people out there? If Tammy didn’t have problems, there wouldn’t be a movie! Oh, yeah! A protagonist of any film anywhere has to start in one place and end up somewhere else. There has to be a journey, a struggle and an eventual triumph. That’s a movie. Duh. A character without flaws is unbelievable and uninteresting. There is no point in watching a perfect character who doesn’t have a struggle. What are we ordinary humans supposed to relate to?

The sell-out author also whines because in the course of Tammy’s robbery, she tries and fails (the first time) to jump over the restaurant’s front counter. Well, she’s an ordinary human, not a super-hero or master criminal. If Tammy were to leap over the counter with ease, that wouldn’t ring true. This is not a person who has experience with leaping over counters or with robbery. Of course it is going to be a bumbling effort. It’s called physical comedy. Lucille Ball excelled at it and no one ever called her a sellout. Melissa McCarthy excels at it and gets criticized at every turn. Sellout gal says Tammy “falls flat on her ass” but that’s an exaggeration. She bounces off the counter the first time, keeps trying and eventually succeeds. It’s not pretty or graceful, but it shows Tammy’s determination in a desperate moment. Her diabetic grandmother doesn’t have her medication and is locked up. Tammy has few options at her disposal, but is willing to do whatever she can to take care of someone she loves.

Love. The op-ed piece author laments that Melissa’s characters don’t follow an arc based completely around romance. Thank GOD! Yes, I too, would LOVE to see Melissa McCarthy in a typical romantic comedy setting where the entire plot is based around falling in love. HOWEVER, it is also incredibly refreshing to see ANY female character who likes sex but whose purpose, goals, choices and actions revolve around things other than men and romantic love. Sellout lady’s first exposure to McCarthy was Bridesmaids and her first scene where the Megan character sees a man at a party and declares, “I’m going to climb that like a tree.” When everyone else in the movie theater laughed she “pursed my mouth” reeling from a perceived projection of old jokes about fat bodies being unattractive. This is her own issue. It is not written nor implied here, but she creates her own inference.

The introductory description of Megan from the Bridesmaids script goes like this: Annie and Lillian stand with MEGAN, 30’s, tomboyish, looking a bit odd in her floral dress. As written, Megan could be a a tough, confident, sexually assertive woman of any size. The filmmakers cast Melissa McCarthy because she brought the most panache to the role. She also brought the Guy Fieri inspired clothing choices to the character because she’s a damn good actress. (Guy Fieri inspires something in all her films, but that’s another story.) The “climb that like a tree” line makes people laugh because it’s a well-written funny line, because McCarthy’s delivery is great and because it is unexpected. Megan is a character that we’ve never seen before on the page and certainly not on the screen as brought to life by McCarthy. In general, we never get to see women as anything but sexually submissive. Our culture does not support anything else. Men ask women out, men make proposals, men are in charge in bed (thanks 50 Shades of Grey). Megan defies all of that and she does it successfully. She does get Air Marshall Jon in the end. She is completely comfortable with who she is and she has dignity in massive proportions.

With McCarthy’s Detective Mullins character in The Heat and with Tammy, the characters’ stories and their journeys are also not about romance. There is more to life! There are other people in our worlds that we can love! Det. Mullins fights to protect her brother. Tammy fights to protect her grandmother. These equally important relationships are front and center while romantic relationships take a back seat. THAT IS REVOLUTIONARY for all women, not just chubby ones. Det. Mullins is a heartbreaker with multiple men pursuing her whom she brushes off without care. She could have a relationship if she wants and she chooses not to. Rock on. Tammy has a guy who becomes interested in her but she just left her husband mere days ago. She’s not ready to jump in to something right away. That’s the smartest choice the character makes in the whole film.

There are plenty of things in pop culture and entertainment that I can find offensive, but a woman enjoying some pie in a stressful moment isn’t one of them. After all, how many times have we seen the same old trope in a million romantic comedies of the lead girl going through a break up and comforting herself with a pint (or gallon) of ice cream? Whether we choose apples or chocolate, celery or corn chips, food nourishes, comforts and sustains us through all the brightest and darkest days of our lives. Food is life. Shut Up & Eat.

Worst Breakdowns of the Week

BLOODY BRIDE

STRIKING. A knockout. Think of Megan Fox, Amber Heard, or Sharon Stone when she was young. TRAUMATIZED woman, who endures Stockholm Syndrome although a FIGHTER. She finally SNAPS when forced to marry a crazy psychopath at a wedding filled with corpses. She tries to escape over a road of glass and nails before hiding in a chicken coop, where the farmer KILLS her, then marries her corpse.

Wardrobe: WEDDING DRESS, must fit a size 6. Will try on at audition to make sure. Wardrobe has already been purchased.
Rate: $100 cash, meal, copy within two weeks of shoot, EXPOSURE (circulating film festivals)

ROSE

LEAD Any ethnicity female, 35-40, tall (6ft min), thin. An obsessive loving mother to an 11 yrs old boy. Will go to any length to protect her mentally challenged boy both physically and emotionally from people around him. Blinded by her love for her son, her questionable acts call upon a bad omen on their family of two. She has to go beyond life and death to be with her son and to right the wrongs done to her family. This role requires topless and full back nudity for a sexual and physical (pushing and hitting) abuse scene. Credit, meals, reel material…NUDITY REQUIRED:  TOPLESS & FULL BACK during sexual and physical abuse scenes; GUARANTEED PAY OF $100 PER DAY ON DAYS WHEN ACTRESS IS REQUIRED TO BE NUDE AND $75 ON ALL OTHER DAYS.

 

 CODY ]
 – Age 19 to 30, all ethnicities, very attractive, in great swimsuit model shape. Gorgeous dumb blonde who uses the dumb blonde approach to get what she wants.

Shut Up & Admit You Have a Problem

  • Heart racing.
  • Uncontrollable, excessive sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Obsessive thoughts.
  • Fast & repetitive speech.
  • Talking to people who aren’t there.
  • Mood swings from the highest high to the lowest low.

What is happening?!? Symptoms of addiction? A psychiatric crisis? Or, is it…? Oh, yeah, wait. That’s just an actor before, during and after that “Big Break” audition.

Why would anyone knowingly, voluntarily put themselves through such torture? Because we have a problem.

“Hi, I’m Lita and I’m an actor.”

“Hi Lita.”

Recently, I had the amazing fortune of being flown out of town to shoot a commercial. I got put up in a luxurious hotel, driven everywhere I needed to go, had my meals paid for, worked less than 5 hours and will get paid well enough that I won’t have to worry about rent for at least 6 months. Yes! Life is good. I’m an actor!

So, why was it that less than 48 hours after returning from this euphoric trip I was feeling cranky, restless, anxious and scared? One word: Withdrawal. I got a real good taste of the real good stuff and I wanted more. I was crashing and I needed another fix. The anxiety flew away and the euphoria returned as soon as I got my next audition notice. I am an acting addict.

I don’t know if I can pinpoint exactly when I first became aware of my problem, but, I know now and knowing is half the battle. It makes perfect sense. Why else do they say, “She’s caught the acting bug,” if it isn’t a disease? Where did that notion of acting being an illness you can catch even originate? Someone (maybe a Barrymore) recognized that once it really gets a hold of you, it’s got you for life. Be careful, it can consume and destroy you. I believe the far too common substance abuse problems that have taken far too many great talents may be an ill-advised self-medicating of the underlying acting addiction. Manage your illness one day at a time.

I’m honestly not being facetious when I call what I have an addiction. Acting has made me feel brilliant, loved, ecstatic, out of my body, on top of the world and given me a sense of community. Acting has also made me feel small, used, worthless, severely depressed, isolated, desperate and anchor-less. I have put every spare dime I can scrape together back into it at every juncture and lived below the national poverty level for most of my adult life. I prioritize it above everything. I have been saved by it and I have suffered for it. No matter how many heartbreaks, disappointments, near successes, failures, insults, ego punches and tears, I cannot stop. I will not give it up.

I tried to quit four or five years ago. That lasted about six hours. I can’t even remember now what the final straw was, but I was done. I couldn’t take this city anymore and I was sick of making myself vulnerable just to get rejected. I was heartbroken, scared, in doubt, broke and feeling sorry for myself. It felt like rock bottom, or so I thought. I announced to my boyfriend, “I’m quitting. I can’t do this anymore. It hurts too much. It’s too hard.” Then I buried my head under the covers and cried. And cried. And cried. For six hours. I cried. THAT was rock bottom.

Finally, I stopped crying and reached out for a lifeline. Thank God for Facebook. I miraculously saw that a friend had posted something to the effect of, “Having auditions for original web-series until 5:00. Come on down!” It was 3:45 or so. My boyfriend was already on his way to work and I don’t drive (more on that another time) but the audition was close enough that if I could get out the door in 15 minutes, public transportation could get me there. I posted that I was coming and jumped up to wash my face.

Running, puffing, panting, sweating, I literally made it there at 4:55. My friend was happy to let me catch my breath before I read. I did my thing and they laughed, a lot. I kinda nailed it. The next day, my friend called with an offer. I accepted. I was back.

The truth is, it wouldn’t have mattered if she offered me the part or not. I was back on the metaphorical crack as soon as I saw the word “audition.” I was suffering from self-doubt and a perceived drought of opportunity in my six hours of hellish sobriety. I don’t just “Like” acting, I cannot be happy without it. It’s not all that important what people think of what I do, what matters is that I do it. My pathetic attempt to convince myself I could quit was a turning point. I was able to face and embrace my addiction for the first time. I realized I could never again let my self-worth be defined by whether or not I was getting auditions or booking jobs. I know I’m good enough, smart enough and doggone it, people like me. That doesn’t change because they chose someone taller, smaller, blonder, tanner or any of the other myriad factors that go into casting.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

I knew I couldn’t quit, so I had to learn to focus on the things that I can control. Fighting windmills just leaves you broken. I learned to manage my expectations, set realistic and specific goals and remember how much I enjoy every chance I get to perform. I LOVE to act and I finally started loving auditioning. If the only acting I get to do in a given day or week is 30 seconds of walking across a room and smiling at the camera, then that is still better than nothing. I’m going to enjoy those 30 seconds and do my best. When I leave that room, I will also do my best to leave the walk and smile behind too, not criticizing myself, my work or the project. In many ways, I had to learn to care less. Confidence and ease will book a job. Fear and anxiety will not.

Shut up and admit you have a problem. The truth will set you free.

Here are just a few of the side effects and/or causes of Acting Addiction. If you’ve experienced any of these (pro or con), you may be an addict. Don’t worry you are not alone. Go take a class, you’ll feel much better.

  • PROS of ACTING
  • feelings of euphoria
  • builds self esteem & confidence
  • interest in and feeling strongly connected to others, quickly forming strong emotional relationships
  • feelings of empathy & compassion toward others
  • ability to analyze and access one’s emotions
  • increased adrenaline
  • great pay
  • opportunity for travel & new experiences
  • being treated like royalty
  • CONS of ACTING
  • delusions of grandeur
  • breaks down self esteem & confidence
  • fear, anxiety, self-doubt
  • panic attacks, heart palpitations
  • selfishness, self-absorption, narcissism
  • toxic relationships
  • loneliness & withdrawal when a project ends
  • feelings of envy & hatred toward others
  • hypersensitivity to criticism or perceived slights
  • emotional outbursts
  • little to NO pay
  • getting stuck in dead end “survival” jobs that suck the very soul out of you
  • being treated like an extra, aka “background”, aka “breathing furniture”

Read more of the Shut Up & Act! Blog by Lita Lopez

Upcoming Shows

OCTOBER PERFORMANCES

GAME NIGHTiO West Theatre, 6366 Hollywood Blvd. 90028  1st Thursdays. Next show October 2nd! FREE SHOW! 6:30 – 8:00pm. Happy Hour Specials & Drinking Games. 3 teams performing sketch, short and long form improv.

HA-HAS FOR TA-TAS – LA Connection Comedy Theatre. October 10-12. 2nd Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month Fundraiser Weekend! 50% of all box office sales this weekend will go directly to the Breast Cancer Research Fund. Please come out or DONATE NOW. Performing with my regular TEMPORARY INSANITY group on Saturday, October 11 at 8:00 pm. $10.00 (No comps available this weekend.)

AND STILL I RISE: FOR THE RAINBOW LADIES WHO CHOSE LIFE WHEN DEATH KNOCKED

I am thrilled to be part of the world premiere of And Still I Rise… Debuting in October, also as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this dramedy brings to life true stories of triumph and survival. The Vagina Monologues meets Breast Cancer. This show is funny, poignant and powerful.

Previews (with discount tix for actors and industry) begin on Wednesday, October 15 and the show officially opens on Friday, October 17th. Additional performances run 10/18 & 10/19, 10/24, 10/25 & 10/26. Reserve your seat HERE!

TEMPORARY INSANITYL.A. Connection Comedy Theatre, 13442 Ventura Blvd. 91423

I am taking a small break from this show for the month of October except for a special event breast cancer fundraiser. See above. Returning in November, Every Saturday @ 8:00pm. $10 (Industry comps available at door with business card or contact me in advance.) 1 hour of short form, Whose Line Is It Anyway? style improv. byob!

Past Performances

THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES – This was a GREAT success! We had a full house AND raised $4,075 for our wonderful charities!

Friday, April 11. 8:00pm, Cafe Club Fais Do-Do 5257 W Adams Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016

One night only benefit performance raising money for A Window Between Worlds – art as a healing tool; and V-DAY – a global movement to end violence against women and girls.  Get tickets HERE.

LA CONNECTION AT THE COMEDY STORE – Wednesday, May 14. 7:30 pm. Temporary Insanity at The World Famous Comedy Store! L.A. Connection takes improv to the Comedy Store once again! See multiple groups from the L.A.C. company perform, from beginners to 30 year veterans. The group I teach goes on at 7:30, T.I. at 9:30. Contact to get on the list for $5 tix, or $10 at the door. Call 818-710-1320 for industry comps.

Shut Up & Make a Choice

“Choices. Human choices,” he would say in his mysterious mellifluous voice standing in front of the class. Then he would take the coins from his pocket and stack them up in his hand according to size. Simple. Strange. Remarkable. He was Mr. Lutz, the head of our college theatre department and these words were his mantra, his simple deconstruction of  “How to Act.” The coins were the example, here is a “choice” of something a human does in a singular moment. Maybe the coin stacking is habitual, maybe it’s a distraction, maybe it’s an avoidance, a defense, a compulsion. It could mean anything you want it to, your job as the actor is to just make a choice.

As a young actor, I wanted it to be so much more complicated. I wanted an overwrought formula of emotion times intensity plus dramatic pause minus organic naturalism. How could it be about stacking change? What? I convinced myself that it was so much harder than it is and there was something I was missing. Yeah, I was missing the simplicity. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in training. I believe being a good actor does take a mix of natural ability plus a lifetime of study and practice. But in my lifetime of study and practice I have learned that the craft doesn’t have to be so mysterious. If I can pass on anything about the art of acting, it is this one lesson: MAKE. A. CHOICE.

The inspiration for this post came from a recent commercial audition. Here’s the scene: Myself & 2 Other Actors in the room, each of us reading a line. Actor A’s line was (paraphrased for confidentiality) “All that for just $9.99?!?” Actor A was a beautiful young man, buff, blond and chiseled American perfection. Physically, he fit the bill perfectly. Unfortunately, he betrayed his own inexperience with the following exchange.

Actor A – How do you want me to say it?

Casting Director – Like it’s amazing and you can’t believe it.

Actor A – But, there’s a question mark and an exclamation point. I don’t get what you want it to sound like.

Casting Director – Like it’s amazing and you can’t believe it. Insert line reading.

Ok, so that’s not verbatim but that’s the gist of what went down. I could not believe what I was hearing. “?!?” is so baffling to you that you are paralyzed?!? I thought actors were supposed to be insulted by anyone giving them a line reading. I cannot think of another time I’ve ever witnessed anyone asking for one and certainly not like this. Never, not once, ever, in my entire life as an actor.

I don’t tell this story to make fun of the young man. He was clearly nervous and just wanted to do a good job to give the CD what she wanted. But what any CD or director or producer wants on any project is for you, the actor, to do your job and do it well. Your job is to make a choice. Make it your own. Make it real and unique and unexpected. Make the choice that can only come from you, your mind, your sense of humor and your world view. Make the wrong choice, make a bad choice, make a big, bold over the top choice – it doesn’t matter what the choice is as long as you do something! (Ahem, shut up & act!) That’s all any audition is. It’s the chance for the people doing the casting to see what YOU bring to the role. As long as they see that you can bring something interesting to the table, then you have a chance.

And if you’re ever at a loss, if all else fails, try stacking some change.

Read more from Shut Up & Act! by Lita Lopez.

Shut Up & ACT!

Perhaps you’re wondering why I keep saying “Shut UP!”  Isn’t an actor’s job to speak?  Sometimes.  But, like I often tell my beginning improv students, “You do not have to be talking to be improvising.”  Some of the best moments can come from silence, being committed to a moment and simply having an honest, human reaction.  When an improviser gets too caught up with trying to say something funny, they usually just get in their own way, steamrolling their fellow players and missing the opportunity to find the truth of a scene.

Shut up and listen.  Shut up and feel.  Shut up and chop some broccoli.  Show, don’t tell.  Show us you are hurt, angry, amorous or confused by the way you chop that broccoli and you’ll never have to say, “I’m so mad!”  We’ll know.

The movie Dreamgirls has one of my favorite examples of this.  Eddie Murphy does some of his best acting work ever in this film.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know “that look.”  There are some amazing moments throughout this film but “that look” is the one that stuck with me the most.  It takes up maybe no more than 5 seconds of screen time but it’s a scene stealer.  Eddie has spiraled into drug addiction, his friends are trying to intervene, someone says something to the effect of, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”  The response could have been a monologue, it could have been a tear soaked rant of epic proportions.  Instead, Eddie just gives a look.  It speaks volumes and shuts his friend up.  The monologue is in his eyes.  He should’ve won the Oscar.

Another reason I say “Shut Up & Act” is that actors are so damn whiny!  Myself included.  I whine all the time. “Whhyyy didn’t I get that part?”  “Whhyyy does nepotism trump talent or experience?”  “Whhyyy can’t fat girls be romantic leads?”  “Why? WHY? WHY!?!”  Ughh.  It’s exhausting.

The “WHY?” really doesn’t matter.  If we could get answers to these questions they probably wouldn’t be satisfactory anyway.  It’s a waste of energy to focus on “why?”  Instead, I continually ask the Universe for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.  I cannot change nepotism.  I can write roles for fat girls and create my own opportunities.  I cannot control the choices made by the suits who hold the purse strings.  I can choose to be happy to have even gotten an audition when there are literally thousands of people vying for any given role on any given day.  I cannot change Hollywood overnight.  I can accept that the acting biz is a numbers game and you just have to keep playing to win.

I can stop whining and stop complaining.  I get to do what I love and for that I am extremely grateful every day.  I still have goals I am working toward.  Talking, talking, talking about what I don’t have won’t help me achieve those goals.  What I can do, is shut up and act.

Read more Shut Up & Act! Blog posts from Lita Lopez.

Happy New Year!

Tonight, I got to be onstage, my favorite place to be.  Improvising for a full house on New Year’s Eve.  I fulfilled my heart’s desires, in a made up musical called Ventura Vampires.

As long as I’m performing, I am where I’m supposed to be.  Let’s kick some ass 2014!