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Part 5: Friendship, Touring, Working with Actors as a Writer

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.

Benson: Do you consider any of them (actors) friends?

Ellington: Some of them, yes, but that doesn’t mean we’re in touch every single day. And of course, there are work friends, where you spend a lot of time on the show, but then not until the next show, and there are actual, real friends. Some I’m closer with than others. It’s like any friendship; there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes, too, you can have a great experience working with someone, but don’t get the chance to spend time outside of the show. So sometimes you lay the foundation of the friendship in the initial working relationship, keep in touch, and it builds over time. And it’s at a different place the next time you work together. And then there are actors where I started as their dresser, but as the friendship developed over time, it really works better for them to have someone else as their dresser and we just go to dinner and catch up when they’re in town, or I write for them instead of dress them. The dynamic has shifted. There are actors with whom I wasn’t that close on a run, but for whatever reason, we kept in touch, became friends, and then actively sought out ways to work together. There are also those people you stay in loose touch with, but it doesn’t mean you’re not close – in trouble, you’d always have each other’s back – and then, when you land on the next project together, it’s like you just left the dressing room together yesterday. You pick up immediately where you left off, but better.

The great thing about working with people over and over again, especially when you like them, is you develop a shorthand. You have to be careful, though, that it doesn’t seem like an exclusive club to others on the show. That can be detrimental to the overall backstage atmosphere. Although I’ve been on shows that have been such a mess that the actor and I had to bond with an “us-against-the-world” attitude for sheer survival, especially in out-of-town tryouts.

Benson: Do you tour a lot?

Ellington: No. Through the years I discovered that, although I prefer theatre work to film work, I prefer film (or TV) location work to touring theatre.

Benson: Why?

Ellington: It’s my own eccentricities, my own personal weirdness. In film, you’re there for a very finite period of time, the hours are brutal, it’s intense, and you don’t have much time to do anything but live the project for that concentrated period. Touring theatre, I find I feel cooped up, resentful of being on other people’s schedules, and trapped. It’s lonely in a lot of ways (even when you have an amazing group of people), but at the same time, I don’t have enough solitude to get any real writing done. I travel a lot for the writing, and I like being on my own schedule when I’m out of town, not on someone else’s. Also, road contracts for crews have been decimated over the last few negotiations. It used to be lucrative to go on tour for a few years; now, it costs money unless you’re in a relationship with a fellow tour member and can save at least one person’s income. I also resent it when local crew makes twice what I do, when they have one fourth of the skills. I get claustrophobic and then I act out. At this point, I’d go out for a limited time because a specific actor asked me to and put me in the contract, but not book a tour just to work a tour.

I do miss the feeling of “home” one has working in a regional or repertory company, though. Talk about developing a shorthand with these people – -you’re together all season. Even when you can’t stand each other any more, you still miss each other. I had the sense of “home” on SAIGON, because it not only ran for years, but it was an extraordinary group of people. Everyone was working on creative projects all the time. We’d swap manuscript drafts, play new songs for each other, figure out designs, artwork, it was constant creativity. When one person went off to do a showcase of original work somewhere, that person knew at least 100 people from the show – cast, crew, everyone – would show up in support. I keep looking for it again on other Broadway shows, but I haven’t found it. This summer, in particular, while working on another show – a show I loved working on — I missed SAIGON so much sometimes it caused physical pain. There were days where my heart was literally sore. And I hadn’t thought that much about the show for several years; it closed in 2000.

As an aside, I’ve realized I’ve talked a lot about money in several of the questions. There are projects you do for love and projects you do for money; when you’re lucky, they’re one and the same. But, if you’re going to survive in this business, you have to remember it’s a business. Unfortunately, those who hold the purse strings believe – and I’ve sat across from them at negotiations and they’ve flat out said so – believe that we – actors, writers, crew, etc. – should feel privileged to work in this business, and, basically, we should pay them to work in it. Uh, no. If they didn’t have creative work, actors, and crew, there’d be nothing for them to sell. That’s why the writers had to take a stand, why the stagehands had to strike, and why the actor negotiations got so much attention lately. Producers have no product, no reason to exist, without the rest of us, so they need to stop acting like they’re doing us a favor by signing an occasional check.

Benson: How different is your relationship with actors when you’re the writer?

Ellington: I still strive to create an atmosphere of trust. I sometimes manage to get on as a co-producer on things I write, and I thrash out a lot of ground rules with the rest of the producers and the director before we walk into the rehearsal room. I don’t sit quietly in the rehearsal room and not speak to the actors. I don’t contradict the director – we’ll sort out our differences in private and present a united front – but I won’t sit there and whisper to the director who then talks to the actors. We’re not playing telephone. If I have something to say, I’ll say it. I try to retain at least casting approval, although I prefer to participate in the entire process, so we usually start with a pretty solid bunch with a firm foundation and the beginnings of a connection. If you give up rights, it better be for a boatload of cash, and then you better keep your mouth shut if you disagree with their decisions.

Benson: How do you cast?

Ellington: I have an intense casting process. Sometimes, I’ve written a role with an actor in mind, so that person is attached from Day One, and that’s all settled. But if a person has to leave for whatever reason or we’re starting from scratch – I start with 20 minute appointments. I always hire a professional actor to read with auditionees. I think it’s unfair to expect an actor to read with some little office assistant. I usually ask for a 2 minute Shakespeare monologue and a 2 minute contemporary monologue, and then I hand the actor some of my work for a cold reading. There are a few minutes of chatting, to get a sense of who the person is.

Most actors really blossom during the process, because they’re used to being treated like cattle, but there are always a few where you go, what are they thinking? Like the actor who took off his shirt and gave me a lap dance – honey, that is SO not getting you the job, I don’t care how hot you are – or the guy who came in to audition for a tough guy and thought pulling a switchblade on me would impress me. He was flat on his back with the knife at his throat before he knew what hit him. I lived on the Deuce for 13 years before it was Disneyfied – you don’t pull a knife on me and not expect to eat it.

Every actor who auditions gets a phone call, whether they’re cast or not. And sometimes, I’ve seen someone I really liked who wasn’t right for anything in the piece, so I either wrote in an additional role or wrote something else and cast the person in it as the next piece down the line.

Callbacks usually run an hour. I don’t call actors back frivolously. If there’s a callback, there’s something I see in them that I seriously think I’m going to use in the project. I like to see how the actor takes direction, I like to see how much the actor dares to be inventive, if the person can think on his feet. I tend to cast the people who connect most strongly to the work, which means I usually wind up with a pretty diverse cast. There’s an element of colorblind casting to it, but without the quota system.

For MOON TRIBE TALES, because it was a large, ensemble cast and we were going to be together for six months to develop the piece, we mixed and matched the callbacks in groups, doing improves as well as pre-written ensemble scenes, because the chemistry between the actresses was so vital. We had thirteen actresses playing at least a half a dozen roles each. I think we had something like 90 characters in the whole production. There was another project, which, unfortunately, never made it through the casting stage where we knew we had to rent an ice rink for callbacks, because a good portion of the cast had to be skaters. AND they had to have good chemistry together. We didn’t have time to hire an actor who lied about skating ability and then set them up with a coach. They had to be excellent skaters, because we’d only have two weeks to prep them in the skating sequences before shooting.

When we filmed PLATEAU, we cast for nearly a month, and someone I had tossed into the pool from the submissions as a wild card – there was something in his eyes – wound up winning the part. We had an intensive rehearsal process for about three weeks, much of it filmed, so when we got to the location (we had four days to shoot the sucker), all we had to do was camera block and shoot.

On Friday: Television, Mythology, How Working Backstage influenced the writing, and, finally . . .HEX BREAKER.

To read an excerpt of Hex Breaker, visit the site for the Jain Lazarus Adventures.

To purchase a copy of HEX BREAKER, visit the FireDrakes Weyr Publishing site.

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Part Four: Working Behind-The-Scenes

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.

In Part Three of the interview, she began discussing her twenty-plus years working backstage in theatre, film, and television, which continues here:

Benson: Are enjoyable actors the exception?

Ellington: I’ve been really lucky and worked with mostly good people. If you’re going to have a career on Broadway, you have to be collaborative and easy to work with. Unless you’re a searingly brilliant talent, complicated diva behavior will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. The daily grind is just too hard, and eventually, people won’t want to work with you. I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of actors who were labeled “difficult”, but in reality, they were specific, and we got along fine. And then there’s a very short list of people with whom I won’t work again – the way they feel in control and important is to inflict pain, especially emotionally, and it’s just not worth it. The only way they feel alive is to spread misery on everyone around them. That’s not process, or “method”. It’s mean. It’s dysfunctional. We all spend too much time in too small a space to be cooped up with people like that. Even if it was film money, in my mind, it wouldn’t be worth it.

There are also those who act like you’re just the greatest thing ever backstage and then don’t acknowledge your existence outside the building. I don’t mean you have to be best buddies with them outside the show, but if they act like they don’t know you when you’re elsewhere . . .uh, no. You’ve got to cut your losses with them, stay professional, but keep a distance. Those tend to be people who don’t have a lot of theatre experience, who don’t understand it’s a partnership not master/servant relationship. It’s important not to invest yourself in anyone who’s inconsistent in the way they deal with you. They’re playing you, and they’ll suck you dry if you give them a chance. There’s also an element of co-protection involved in the relationship. If I’m willing to go to the mat for someone, I also expect that if management is unhappy with that, the actor will step up and say, “I want this person with me. Deal.” Unfortunately, you sometimes encounter actors who want you to fight their battles for them, but when it comes time for them simply to state that you’re doing what they need, they give you up to save themselves. Of course, it’s best to find that out about someone in a situation that’s not all that important in the overall scheme of the universe, like backstage, than if you were in an actual life-or-death situation. You know you can never trust them if there’s a tough situation and can protect yourself, no matter how disappointed or hurt you might feel on a personal level. Ultimately, you can choose not to have them in your life on any level after a particular experience.

And then, of course, actors sometimes step up and surprise you. I was once brought in at the last minute to a very troubled show, and, as the tech process continued, they decided to cut a dresser. It should have been me, because I was the last person hired; however, the actors with whom I worked made it clear to management that they wanted me. Someone else was cut. Once an actor put me in the contract, but the supervisor didn’t want me there, so she kept putting off calling me. The actor finally said, “Look, if she’s not at the next run-through, I’m leaving. It’s a condition of my contract that she does the production with me, or I don’t do the show.” I was at the run-through. That mutual loyalty is very important, and you tend to get that from seasoned theatrical people rather than film or television actors who make the occasional foray into theatre. The backstage partnership is much more equal between actor and dresser than between actor and key wardrobe on set.

In my experience, in film and television, there’s behavior that’s not only tolerated but enabled, in the name of staying on schedule, that would never fly in the theatre.

I’m concerned about the turn theatre is taking now, with more film people making production decisions. You can’t run a show like a film set. It’s collaborative in a different sense, with a lot less hierarchy and jockeying for power than you find in film and television. You have to be a lot more self-sufficient in theatre, because you don’t have a bunch of hungry, underpaid PAs trailing after everyone to clean up the mess. I think I’m getting out of the backstage part of it just in time. I’ll just have to be in the rehearsal room as a writer rather than as a production person.

I don’t like the hierarchy in film, or the slowness. It’s like charting a military operation, to get it all done. I am twisted enough to enjoy doing call sheets and script breakdowns, but that’s just me. I do like the fact that, in film and television, you capture the performance and it lives forever, whereas in theatre, it’s a momentary experience – which, paradoxically, is one of the wonderful things about theatre.

My only real experience in television is episodic drama. I know a lot of people who won’t sign on as crew for an episodic because, in their words, “it hurts too much”. The hours are brutal, for actors and crew. I think I’ve only had one day in all my experience that was a straight eight hour work day. The dramas on which I’ve worked have had eight-day shooting schedules, so you’re trying to get the whole thing done in eight days and move on to the next episode, and that means a combination of location and studio work. In ambitious shows, it’s nearly impossible, so there are days where you’re shooting the new episode, but the company is split with part of it shooting from the previous episode or several previous episodes. I worked one drama, where, in my first two days on the show, I worked on five different episodes. Continuity is vital. I spent most of those two days trotting around after the same actor from unit to unit, matching him to the continuity photos taken weeks earlier. Thank god he shared his sides with me, because no one had thought to give me a script, and he was so relieved not to have to worry – I found out later I’d replaced someone who kept putting him in the wrong clothes. It was one of the few experiences where the relationship was almost like being backstage.

In film, it’s often shot at about two pages a day (although on indies I’ve production managed, we tried to work a lot faster than that), for television it’s between 6 and 10 pages, but you’re going for a lot of the same quality. I also think there are too many layers in television – too many people have a say in the final product, and it dilutes the vision. The importance of a brilliant show runner is crucial, to keep the overall vision intact. It used to be that just sitcoms were written by committee, but now it seems like everything is. If I worked my way up in television as a writer, I’d want to train with a good show runner, because a million years into the future, I’d want to show run anything I created. You can tell when a show switches show runners – it’s jarring as an audience member, even if you’re not exactly sure why. I can’t imagine being a show runner for something like LOST or STARGATE ATLANTIS. I’d die. I’m very detail-oriented when it comes to consistency or continuity, but shows like that would kill me. Of course, as a writer, those shows are the ones that are fun, especially when they’re well-cast.

Benson: How honest are you with the actors you work with?

Ellington: In what respect?

Benson: Any respect.

Ellington: Well, I’m not going to sit around giving them notes, no matter what I think about the performance, unless I’m one of the creators of the material. If you’re talking about how I work with them backstage, it completely depends on my relationship with the individual actor. I don’t lie to them, no matter what. Not even when management asks me to.

Benson: Does that happen often?

Ellington: Not often, but it’s happened more than once. Once, in particular, I was on a show because I’d been in a particular actor’s contract. Management asked me to lie to her and I said, “No, she brought me on to this because she knew you’d lie and I wouldn’t.” There are definitely actors with whom I have a strong enough relationship where I can say, “You’re really being an ass today” or “hey, you changed that inflection, that was really nice” and some where you just walk away, or you say, “Don’t cross that line with me.” There are some where you don’t say anything, but you stand in the wings and go, “Oh, he’s tired today, he’s chewing the scenery”, but it’s not always appropriate to say anything. You just adjust what you to do take some of the strain off him. If an actor actually wants and respects my opinion on something, I’ll say what I really think. I worked with one particularly needy actress who wanted to be told how good she was in every change. I finally said, “Look, I’m going to tell you you’re good once a show. If you use it up in the first quick change, you’re shit out of luck for the rest of the night” and I stuck to it.

In other words, don’t ask unless you want the real answer. One of the things I say in preliminary principal dressing interviews is, “If you want a Yes Man, don’t hire me.” There’s a short list for whom I’d take a bullet, literally or figuratively, but I’m not an ass kisser. I think ass kissing breaks the trust you need to work successfully backstage. If something goes wrong, the actor has got to trust me to take care of it, not flutter around trying to get someone else to deal with it. Whether that means not gossiping about what’s said in the dressing room to trying to anticipate something the actor needs if he’s sick or low energy or upset or whatever to knowing when to shut the hell up. Confidentiality in the dressing room is vital, especially when you’re dealing with actors as a dresser. There are some really nasty people out there, lying in public about these performers. Of course, my first instinct is to hunt them down and just rip them to shreds on every level, but that’s not always the most effective solution. I’ve got a piece in progress that was inspired by horrible lies about an actor with whom I’ve worked closely in the past, before he became well-known, and with whom I’ve stayed close. I found these lies by accident, when I was doing research for a completely different piece on tabloids. To me, the only use of a tabloid is if I run out of cat litter and haven’t made it to the store. It’s all crap, and badly written crap at that. But my characters were in the public eye and had to deal with a smear campaign, so I decided, well, maybe I should take a look at this schlock. Once I finished throwing up . . .seriously, it was that bad, and it hurt to see someone I care about, someone I know very well lied about that way . . .and once I was convinced by the friend who was the target that it wasn’t worth committing an act of violence over . . .I wrote about it. I have a particularly grisly way for this son-of-a-bitch to answer for those lies. In this case, I am indulging in Mary Sue-ism, because I’m setting out in graphic detail how I’d like this person to pay for striking out at someone I love.

To get back to the question, if I’m nice to an actor, or I give the person a compliment, it’s because I mean it, not because I want something. I look at our work together as a partnership, not them as a steppingstone. I have a life once I leave the stage door. Unfortunately, quite a few star dressers define themselves by who they dress. I’m invested in them as fellow human beings on the journey, but dressing someone who’s famous does nothing for me except make it more difficult to get out of the stage door at night, you know? If you’re on Broadway for more than ten minutes, you’ll work with someone high profile. I’m in wardrobe, trust me: They’re all the same in their underwear, no matter how much money they’re pulling in. And part of my job is to make sure that when they’re in the dressing room, when they’re on stage, when they’re in the middle of a change . . .no one violates them in any way, be it physically or psychologically. You can’t prevent everything, especially since theatre audiences seem to think they’re watching videos in their living rooms lately. But you try. Being an audience member at a live performance is a privilege. I’m getting sick of audience members who don’t respect that. It’s much more fun at someplace like the Edinburgh Festival, where your audience comes to the show, and they take you out to the bar after not because they’re trying to sleep with you or make money off you, but because they actually have interesting opinions and ideas about the themes in the work.

Benson: You’re pretty intense about your commitment to the actors.

Ellington: Yeah, can you imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t have a life outside the theatre?

On Monday, Part Five of the Interview: Friendship, Touring, Working With Actors as A Writer.

To read an excerpt from HEX BREAKER, visit the website.

To purchase your copy of HEX BREAKER, visit FireDrakes Weyr Publishing.

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