The curtain closes...

And so, as with all good things, the run of Over the Tavern has come to an end. I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about it, usually with something that goes a little like, “Wow! I’ll bet you’re ready for this to be done and for life to get back to normal, huh?”

Well, while I am thrilled that I now have the time to see my husband and my children—who I have missed whole-heartedly—and am excited to get my home back into some semblance of an organized routine, the answer has been a resounding, “No.” I’m not ready to go back to life as I knew it a few months ago.

First of all, there is that pesky “reality” to which I am returning. Let’s be honest, there has been a whole lot of reality that I have missed out on in the last few weeks…sort of like going on vacation. We are in the middle of a remodeling project that has kept my amazing husband—who is a saint, by the way—from doing much more than minimal housekeeping and childrearing duties in an effort to get the project finished as quickly as possible. Let me reiterate…he is a Superman in my eyes, but there is so much dirty laundry in our house right now that I’m surprised any of us have anything to wear. It’s true…running a household is much less fun in real life than it is on stage.

Second, as part of this experience, there are some things about me that have changed. I am in the process of going back to focusing all my attention on what I was doing before this experience without the distraction of the production process: work, being an organized wife and mother, finishing up our remodeling project, decluttering our house, and laundry…have I mentioned the laundry? But, I’m no longer the same person that I was when this process began almost three months ago. I spent many years building up walls in order to do what I do every day and those walls had to be broken down in order for me to do what I had to do on stage. Now, I am having some difficulty reconciling that Laura with this Laura that I have rediscovered.

Don’t get me wrong…I love my life. I love my job and my family. I just want to love them with the same fullness of joy I rediscovered from the stage—a joy that isn’t deadened by those walls that I worked so hard to build. And, I want to find a way to work performing back into my life on an occasional basis. As part of this process, I found parts of myself that had long been buried and I am not prepared to, nor am I willing to, bury them again.

Here’s my analogy: It’s as though, once upon a time, I had a great color TV that was stolen and I could only replace it with a black and white model. I still enjoyed watching TV and, initially, missed watching in color. Eventually, however, I got used to it and even sort of forgot what color TV was like. It was good enough; I was happy enough. I convinced myself that color was a luxury for other people and I didn’t truly need it to be happy. Then, one day, I came home to find a new color TV in the old one’s place and—oh, happy day!—it was bigger and in HD. At that point, I couldn’t believe I’d spent all those years watching TV in fuzzy black and white and couldn’t imagine not seeing things in full, high-definition color for the rest of my life. But, with this realization comes a new fear. What if this new TV disappears as well? What if I am forced to pull the old black and white out of the closet and fool myself into believing it’s good enough for another 14 years?

This leads me to other question I have been asked: “Will you be auditioning again?”

This role was a gift that has now disappeared and can never be replaced. What if I never, ever, in my whole life receive a gift like that again? And, now that I want it so badly, will I be able to stand the heartache of auditioning again?

And then, I realized why I stopped performing. It wasn’t just that my life was busy; I became afraid of auditioning and failing. They say it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all. I think that it has been easy for me to believe that it is better to avoid getting my hopes get too high. It became easier for me to pretend I didn’t want to perform than it was for me to risk failing. This audition process was easy. I didn't know how badly I truly wanted this role or this show and, to be honest,  I never, in a million years, thought I stood a chance of getting them.

In preparing to wrap this up, I re-read my previous blog posts and a common thread was how much trouble I have making myself vulnerable. I don’t like to show chinks in my armor; I don’t like to open myself up to failure. And, I will be the first to acknowledge that that fear of failure pervades every part of my life.

Maybe that is the greater lesson in all of this—one that I never expected to learn. In trying to avoid failure, I have lived a life of endless anxiety and lost so much joy. Maybe now is the time in my life to look that fear of failure square in the face. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the profound changes I experienced throughout this process continued to reverberate through the other aspects of my life?

Here at Lyric Arts we hear time and time again about the transformative power of the performing arts from people who take part in our productions. After years of working to create that experience for others, why shouldn’t I allow it to work for me?

At the risk of being a cliché—something I never seem to fear—I chose to end this entry by quoting Elphaba from the Broadway musical Wicked:

Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game. Too late for second-guessing. Too late to go back to sleep. It's time to trust my instincts, Close my eyes…and leap!

(Pretty good stuff, huh?)

Finally, a huge thank you to the artistic staff (Joanna, Patrick, Brian, Shannon, Matt, and Bob) and the crew (Katie, Bob and Andrew) for making this such a magnificent experience.

And, to Justin, Molly, Noah, Alex, Alec, Valerie, Dan and Barb: I am missing the family we created together. Thank you all for never allowing me to take myself too seriously and for sharing your blood, sweat, and tears with me. No matter where we all go from here, please know (most sincerely) that you all hold a special place in my heart and that, should you ever need anything, you know where to find me.

What? It's opening night?

First of all, I think some apologies are in order. When I started rehearsing for "Over the Tavern" and said that I would blog my "actor's journey," I had grand plans. Truly. I imagined writing two blog posts a week, dissecting my character, profiling my fellow cast members, and talking about all the things I was discovering about myself in the process.

So, how did I do?

In reality, I haven't had time to update this blog since March 20. At that point, I was discovering that I was panicking and figuring out how I was going to get through the panic. I decided to put my head down and work...and work, I did. Over the last three and a half weeks, my cast mates and I have worked very hard to put a show that we can all be proud of. In that, we have absolutely succeeded...at least we have from my perspective. Last night, in front of a small, invited preview audience, we witnessed this show truly blossom and come to life for the first time...and it was amazing.

What have I learned about myself in the process? I have learned that no matter how much I try to tell myself something to the contrary, I am a performer at heart and from the depths of my soul. No other creative outlet fulfills me the way that acting does and throwing myself back into the fray like this has, without sounding too melodramatic, brought me back to life.

At Lyric Arts, I talk about the transforming power of the performing arts all the time. I can give so many examples of Lyric Arts actors who have told me about the ways in which this theater has changed their lives. I tell their stories over and over again. But, in the last two months or so, I have truly lived it. I have spent so many years pushing that part of myself to the side that I had lost all connection with my creative soul. In rediscovering this forgotten, but essential, part of my being, I have found a joy for life that I forgot I had. Not to say that I wasn't happy before, but I am lighter. I am happier. I laugh more easily.

And now, it all comes to this...opening night. This is my 83rd opening night here at Lyric Arts, but I can promise that for me, it will truly be like no other.

(More to come, I promise...)

Lyric Arts' Managing Director Laura Tahja Johnson is playing the role of Ellen Pazinski in Over the Tavern which runs through April 29, 2012. Tickets on sale now online or through the box office at 763-422-1838.

My "A-Ha Moment"...

It’s a big week for the cast of “Over the Tavern”…we will be moving out of the comfort of our crowded rehearsal room and onto the stage. The set is being built and costumes are being created. I even bought an “old school” bottle of setting lotion in order to work on my 1950’s era coif. Everything is going along swimmingly and we are right where we should be in terms of the schedule.

However…

About Sunday or so, I started feeling a familiar sensation…pure panic. I couldn’t remember my lines at rehearsal last night…lines that I had no problem remembering earlier that afternoon. I was frustrated. I was angry. I didn’t want to quit, but I certainly wanted to walk away.

I had to think long and hard about what was going on in my head. (Really, what choice did I have? I couldn’t go on like that for another rehearsal, that’s for sure.) It was as though I had run full force into a wall of panic.

And then, as I was drying my hair this morning, I had a huge realization. The Panic Wall and I are familiar adversaries.

If you are not familiar with the Panic Wall, let me explain. It is a common occurrence in my world. As a perfectionist and an over-achiever (a dangerous combination), the Panic Wall rears its ugly head the moment things become difficult for me and I begin to fear that I might not meet my own ridiculously high expectations. And, it is able to camouflage itself because it appears in different sizes depending on what task lies ahead. In addition, its size increases exponentially as the opportunity for very public failure also increases.

Can you imagine what the wall is looking like for me right now?

What made this realization so earth-shattering for me is that I recognized how often I come up against the Panic Wall. It could loom tall in front of me before a presentation, while I am writing an important grant proposal or fundraising letter, or in the midst of the process of trying to figure out where to send my children to Kindergarten. Or, it could be the sneaky little speed bump the makes it impossible for me to decide what will be the perfect thing to wear for a big event or which color yellow to paint the laundry room.

As I see it, there are three strategies for dealing the Panic Wall:

1. Avoidance and retreat (a.k.a., “just quit”). This is not an option in this case, nor do I want it to be an option…this show is something I really want to be a part of. But, it might explain why I don’t play the guitar.

2. Taking a break. This is a very useful technique as it can give a person the time needed to gain the perspective necessary to come back at the wall with a clear head. However, one must be very careful in employing this method because it can quickly lead to the non-strategy known as “procrastination.”

3. Getting to the other side. Now, in my vast experience, there are two ways of getting to the other side of the Panic Wall. Going directly through the wall is not impossible (believe me…I’ve busted straight through more than a few walls in my day), but you need a lot of firepower, in addition to blood, sweat, and tears…and you never know what the collateral damage might be. The less dangerous approach would be to relax, remain calm, get determined, and systematically climb the wall until you reach the top.

Did you see the light bulb?

This may sound like common sense to anyone still reading (or to anyone who knows me), but it was a major "a-ha moment" for me…not just in terms of being successful in this production but also in terms of being successful in the rest of my life. Pretty big stuff, huh?

So, I am going to continue to breathe. I am going to relax. I am going to trust the process. And, most importantly, I am going to begin to climb.

Now, where’s a grappling hook when you need one?

So...this is really happening, huh?

Wow! Almost two weeks since my last post. Those two weeks have been like a whirlwind. I don't know where the time has gone. Well...scratch that...I know exactly where the time has gone: work, home, kids, rehearsals, husband, script, sleep, repeat.

Rehearsals are rolling along nicely. We are making our way through the script and finding each other in the process. There are moments in the show that make me laugh and moments that bring me to the brink of tears every time I see them. And, I am sure they will only get better over the next five weeks.

However, I had a kind of panic attack over the weekend. After years of talking about how much I missed being on stage, reality set in...

I am really doing this. I am really going on stage. I am really going to have to have my lines and blocking memorized and wear costumes and become someone else...on stage. And, my friends, family, co-workers, and colleagues are all going to have the opportunity to watch and they are going to spend their good, hard-earned money to do so. Yeesh.

For a perfectionist and an over-achiever, that is a sobering realization.

It was almost as though I had monetarily forgotten that this would be the end result. Or, as though over the years since I had been on stage, I had forgotten just how much work I would need to put into this project in order to make it something of which I will be sincerely proud.

We are expected to be "off book" for the show's first act next week, and I feel like I have a long way to go. I know in my heart how much better rehearsals will be once I can lose the script but, like a kid with a security blanket, I am just not ready to give it up yet. Now, I am doing everything I can to carve out a few minutes here and there to sit with my script and try to make sure that I know what I am doing. Nobody wants to be the weakest link...especially not me.

On another note, I did something last week that was unbelievably fun and completely self-indulgent. Have you ever noticed that all of our actors have their pictures in our programs? The best picture I had was this one. So, I made the decision to have some professional "head shots" taken. Thanks to the amazing David Setness for shooting some pictures that can best be described as looking like me on my very best day...ever (evidenced above). I don't think there is anything that could make me feel more confident.

Well...nothing except maybe having all my lines memorized. (Double yeesh.)

 

Lyric Arts' Managing Director Laura Tahja Johnson is playing the role of Ellen Pazinski in Over the Tavern which opens on April 13, 2012. Tickets on sale now online or through the box office at 763-422-1838.

The real work begins...

We are coming to the end of rehearsals for week three! So far, we’ve been blocking scenes beginning at the top of Act One and rolling right on through the script. By the end of the week, the show will be fully blocked and we will have the opportunity to start really digging into the script...creating relationships and forming three-dimensional characters.

These early rehearsals are where you start to get to know your fellow cast members: how they speak, how they move, and how they polka (more on that another day). Because we are portraying a family (not to mention a large family that lives in a very small apartment) there is a remarkable amount of physical intimacy between characters. For my character, that includes hugging, cradling a child’s face in my hands, kissing, rubbing someone’s back in comfort, and breaking up a fist fight, among other things.

Let’s be honest, that is a lot of touching for a group of people who hardly know each other.

And, by the time this show opens, that level of intimacy has to feel completely comfortable and look entirely natural in order for the audience to believe it.

For many of us, the biggest challenge will be getting ourselves “off book” (i.e., learning our lines so that we don’t have to walk around with a script in our hands anymore) as soon as possible. That way, we can start to talk to each other as characters instead of just reading lines from a script. Once that happens, it frees us up to create fully-formed characters and build the relationships between them.

We’re getting there…slowly, but surely. For some of us—okay, for me, specifically—it is very difficult to slowly tear down the walls that you build up in your daily life in order to make yourself vulnerable enough to participate in the process. As actors,  we make a conscious decision to make ourselves vulnerable. Time after time, our job is to stand in front of  groups of strangers and ask for their acceptance—including auditions, rehearsals, and each and every performance. And, for some of us—okay, for me, specifically—it is the feeling of being able to trust in the safety net of acceptance from your fellow cast members that makes participating even possible.

 

Lyric Arts' Managing Director Laura Tahja Johnson is playing the role of Ellen Pazinski in Over the Tavern which opens on April 13, 2012. Tickets on sale now online or at through the box office at 73-422-1838.

Who has time to blog?

So, in my last post, I promised that I was going to take you on my journey through Over the Tavern with me. And now, it’s been over a week since that first post. All I can say is that it amazing how time flies when every minute of your life becomes completely scheduled.

Between a full-time job (well…full-time plus), being a mom, being a wife, kids’ activities, community volunteer work, and trying to keep our household from descending into utter chaos, my schedule was already tight.

Now I have added evening rehearsals to that list which means that I rush out of the building as close to 5:00pm as I can, pick up two six-year-olds from school, bring them home, and do what I can to spend whatever quality time with them that I can while I get dinner started. My husband comes home a little after 6:00 and I am back out the door by 6:30 to get to rehearsal. It’s not every night (and I am certainly not complaining), but it is a significant amount of time that I am used to having in my schedule to do things like clean my house, make sure homework is done, prepare for my next day at work, or talk to my husband face-to-face. Did I mention the impending doom of utter chaos that lurks around every corner?

Again, I am not complaining. I share this only because the vast majority of Lyric Arts’ actors are in the same situation. Lyric Arts’ actors are unpaid; they act in our productions for the love of what they do; they are not making a living by performing in one of our shows. Granted, many of our actors also work professionally or are just beginning their professional career, but most of them are "working stiffs" just like you and me. For eight to ten weeks, they work all day, rehearse all night, and struggle to keep everything else afloat while pursuing their passion. I think that so many times when we, as audience members, watch a performance, we forget the hours of preparation that go into each production and what sacrifices those performers have made to do what truly makes them happy.

Here’s the upside. For someone like me, it does make me happy. I am excited to go to rehearsal every night. I am feeling a little bit more jovial as I go about my day…more energetic. I am more appreciative of my children and husband. I am much more enthusiastic about a job that I am already pretty passionate about, all because I made the decision to step outside of my normal, everyday routine and do something I really love to do.

And, at the risk of being a cliché or sounding trite, I am gaining a sense of creative fulfillment I haven’t felt in a long time. Then again, that could just be the caffeine and lack of sleep talking.

Next time: The rehearsal process…what we’ve been up to so far.

P.S. If you are not already planning to do so, don’t miss Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!  It opens Friday (I’ll be there!) and runs through March 18!

Hi. My name is Laura. I'm an actor.

Well, at least, I used to be an actor. Some of you may know me as Lyric Arts' Managing Director, but long before I started working here, I was an actor.

It all started for me at about the age of three when my mom would put me on the coffee table and I would sing for guests and family members.  I started dancing (tap, ballet, and jazz) at six years old and spent hours in my bed re-enacting scenes from my  favorite television shows before falling asleep (dramatic fainting scenes were my favorite).

I was on stage every time I had an opportunity...elementary school musicals, school choirs and bands, junior high school productions, senior high school musicals and plays.

When I entered college, my dream was to major in both Theater and Vocal Performance. However, Numerical and Computational Mathematics was a much more logical and marketable choice. I loaded up on courses in Mathematics and Computer Science, but couldn't resist taking "Introduction to Theater,"  "Acting for Beginners," "Theatre History," and "Dramatic Theory."  I graduated with a degree in English, a minor in Mathematics, and an even deeper love of the performing arts.

Throughout my college years, in addition to school and working as the Assistant Marketing Director for the University's Performing Arts Center, I was still involved in theater whenever I had the chance...acting at the community theater and directing and choreographing at local high schools. When I graduated from college, I knew that I didn't want to be a professional actor (I wanted a more stable and secure future for myself), but I knew that no matter where I went and what I did, I wanted to be sure that music and theater were never far from my grasp.

I moved to London after college, moved home, took a job in administration with the Symphony Orchestra, fell into a job in radio as a morning show personality, and was  involved in a burgeoning local theater scene. I moved to the Twin Cities, got married (to an actor), worked in corporate media, and had very little time for theater (or much of anything else, for that matter). Eventually, after five years, I stuck my toe back in the water as a choreographer for a local community theater and remembered how much I loved being a part of the entire process of putting a show on stage...from auditions to final performance. The bug had bitten once again.

At about this time I was lucky enough to find a job with Lyric Arts. I was thrilled to find a job that allowed me the opportunity ensure that other performing artists—actors, singers, dancers, directors, choreographers, designers, musicians, etc.—would have a place to create theater in a warm and welcoming environment. Since then, I have given birth to beautiful twin daughters (now six) and have watched Lyric Arts (which I consider my third child) blossom and grow.

After eight (eight?!) years of sitting in my little corner office working on marketing and fundraising and vision and strategy and building Lyric Arts into the best theater it can be, a little voice started squeaking in my head. Even though I spend most of my daily life thinking about creating theater experiences in which others can participate, there was something missing. I'll bet you can guess what it was.

So, I finally found the courage to audition for a role and what better place to do that than at Lyric Arts? Shockingly enough, I was cast as Ellen Pazinski in Over the Tavern.

Yikes.

Tonight is our first read-through, where we read through the script together as a cast for the very first time. I am nervous, I am scared, I am anxious, and I am very excited.

Hi. My name is Laura. I'm an actor. And, I want to take you along on this journey with me.