Archive for August 11th, 2008

Part 3: Working in LA, Working with Actors

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW , has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee, covers sports for FEMMEFAN. Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Parts 1 and 2 of the interview (scroll down) dealt with fun five questions, writing under pseudonyms, writing serials, and her cycle of novels that begins with TRACKING MEDUSA.

In Part 3, we talk about working behind the scenes and about working in LA.

Benson: Do you always work with the same actors?

Ellington: As a writer, I love having a group of actors I can trust with my work and who trust me to write challenging roles for them, but I also think it’s important for everyone to scatter and do as many different projects with all sorts of people and bring back what you learn from it. Also, the more I work in all aspects of the field, the more I meet new-to-me actors who are exciting to work with, and I love that. I have my “short list” of actors who can call me up at any point and say, “Hey, I’m up for this role, I need a monologue, how fast can you write one?” or “I’m involved in this project and it’s kind of a mess, could you come?” or “Hey, I’m coming back to Broadway, want to come play?”

Benson: Would you go to LA?

Ellington: That would be based on quality of the project and money. I’m not comfortable in LA, it’s not my vibe. The joke is, “You know how much money it would take to get me on a plane to LA? You know how much more money it would take to get me off the plane once it landed?” Although I may be going out there for the Breeders’ Cup this fall out at Hollywood Park. I’m trying not to, but . . .we’ll see what else is going on. I have a couple of producers for whom I do manuscript critiques as they option new material, or for whom I script doctor, but I do that from here. They overnight or email me scripts and I do the work. I’m the Queen of the Confidentiality Agreement at this point.

Benson: Doesn’t it bother you not to have your name on it?

Ellington: No. Because I’m taking the original writer’s vision and just honing it a bit, polishing it. I’m trying to make it more of itself. And I’m well-paid to do it. I’m not trying to destroy it and make it MINE. My own work – that’s mine, and I’ll keep revising until my editor or producer yanks it out of my ink-stained fingers. But I have too much respect for writers and the writing process to do anything but want to clarify their voices.

Benson: Does that mean you’re not seeking work in LA?

Ellington: I’m not willing to start over out there and claw my way up within industry protocols. If I get a good opportunity, sure I’d listen. I’ll talk to anybody, and then take it seriously once there’s a contract in front of me. I tend to work more overseas. I’m more comfortable in the UK or Australia than I am in LA. I’m not interested in the power struggles or the games. I’m interested in the work. And I enjoy being relatively anonymous.

Benson: That must be difficult, with the need to promote.

Ellington: Yes. It’s about keeping the balance of getting the work out so the audience can find it and still having my life be MINE. It’s really not all that fascinating, but it is mine and I intend to keep it that way.

Benson: What if someone you really liked working with called for something specific?

Ellington: I’d be more open to it, but still cautious, whereas if they were working on something based anywhere else, I’d say yes without thinking twice.

Benson: You’ve worked in theatre, film, and television. How different are each of those?

Ellington: Very different creative processes. I’m fortunate because I’ve worked in production, so I could observe the creative process and then apply it to my own work. I started making my living in the theatre when I was eighteen – while still in college. I started working as a roadie in rock and roll. I’ve literally done every job backstage from lighting to sound to props to set painting to stage management to production management to producing to wardrobe. I’ve been a union negotiator. I’ve worked contracts from both sides of the table. My union card’s with the wardrobe union, but I kind of fell into that working off-Broadway and getting tired of being on call 24/7 as a stage manager. I love the theatre; I’m addicted to it. I’m a real theatre junkie. One of the reasons I’m relocating to Massachusetts is that I’ll never stop working backstage until I’m too far away to commute. And I have to stop working production in order to become the best writer I can be. I can’t keep splitting my focus; the price is too high. I used to be able to compartmentalize much more easily than I do now. That rising friction between the writing and backstage work is what led me to start transitioning out of it and into full-time writing a few years ago. I wanted, for once in my life, to do a smooth, planned transition instead of doing what I usually do, which is jump in with both feet, fly off the cliff and see where I land. I’ve hit a point where, when I try to do both simultaneously, I can feel myself start to fracture, like glass prisms shattering and scattering, and it’s hit the point where I feel like I won’t be able to gather up all the shards and put it all back together. It’s difficult, because I love being backstage so much, but I have to start drawing stronger boundaries about when I work on other people’s stuff and when I work on my own. But I still will come back and do shows with specific actors from time to time. There are some people to whom I will not say no, because they’ve earned that kind of loyalty from me.

In film, I’ve worked as a production manager, associate producer, and in wardrobe. In television, I’ve only done episodics – the one hour dramas – and I’ve only done them as an extra wardrobe girl. Although when they get behind schedule and they keep splitting into more and more B units, it’s amazing how quickly the extra wardrobe girl ends up handling the leads! A couple of seasons ago, I did three different series back-to-back . . .I don’t think I ever learned so much so fast in my life. Oh, wait, in college I was the prop girl for a very low-budget TV pilot. I forgot about that.

Benson: What do you like and dislike about each?

Ellington: I love almost everything about theatre. I love the rehearsal process. Tech is a pain in everything, not just the ass, but there’s something wonderful about it anyway – provided you have a good stage manager. I still get a thrill every night when I walk in the stage door. I always promised myself I’d quit when that stopped. I was on MISS SAIGON for five years, and I had a change on the deck during the helicopter scene – and every night, it was exciting. It never got old. I love developing working rhythms with the actors. I love that it’s live, and you have to be on your game and think on your feet all the time. I love when you have complicated show, both technically and emotionally, and you’ve got that two-way trust and partnership with the actor. I’ve done a lot more principal dressing than ensemble dressing, which is very one-on-one, very focused, very much about the actor knowing you’ll be consistent and that, whatever might go wrong, you’re right there, in the moment, to make it work. You’re the anchor offstage that allows the actor to soar onstage. Some days the actor wants to talk or might want you in the dressing room all the time; other days, the actor needs solitude and quiet time. It’s knowing when to be a protector, when to be a co-conspirator, and when to leave the person alone, whatever aids that individual’s creative process and mood and energy level that day. You’re not right all the time, but you try. Whether it’s a busted zipper or a missing prop or a piece of scenery that goes astray, you can make it work and most of the time, the audience will never know. It’s like your little secret. If I’m on the deck between cues, I tend to keep the actors with whom I’m working in my peripheral vision at all times, just in case. If I’m elsewhere in the building, I’m listening, so if I hear that something is different or off, I can bolt to the deck and be on stand-by in case something needs to be done. I’ve had to go out in blackouts to retrieve actors who got stuck in scenery, or caught them as they staggered off after being injured and bedded them down on the floor packed in ice and wrapped in blankets waiting for EMS while putting the understudy on in the quick change. That kind of thing. Of course, there are the productions where you just put them in costume at the top of the show and hand them a jacket somewhere, and you have to adjust to that quieter dynamic.

Actors who can handle an eight-show week over a protracted period of time without freaking out or getting high-maintenance are a joy. Everybody gets tired, everyone has a bad day occasionally, but it’s how you inflict it on others that makes or breaks a production. And if an actor can cut it on the road, where you have to be REALLY self-sufficient – you see what people are made of. Although it takes longer to gain their trust when they come in from tour to Broadway, because they’ve had to deal with so many unreliable crews. It takes weeks for them to believe you’ll actually show up in the quick change, because they’ve been left twisting in the wind so often.

On Friday: More on what it’s like behind-the-scenes

To read an excerpt of HEX BREAKER and find out more about the Jain Lazarus adventures, visit the Hex Breaker site.
To purchase HEX BREAKER, visit Firedrakes Weyr Publishing.

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