Sunday, August 22, 2010
Tap Into Your Infinite Interconnectedness with Liz Filios
Meet my friend Liz Filios. Liz Filios has worked in India, South Africa, and Italy, but now calls Philadelphia home. Liz was seen recently in The Arden Theatre’s productions of Sunday in the Park With George, and Candide as Cunegonde. Critics called her performance “dazzling,” “a phenomenon” and touted the newcomer’s talents – which include “a gleaming high soprano voice, and a sense of humor.” Liz has also performed for Philadelphia audiences at The Wilma Theater (Eurydice, The Life of Galileo), The New Candlelight Theater (Lend Me a Tenor, Hello Dolly! ), and The Walnut Street Theatre (Les Miserables). She holds a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from the University of Michigan and has performed as a vocalist with The Philadelphia Orchestra, the International Opera Theater and the Cape Town Opera Company. She is currently nominated for both a Perry Award and a Barrymore Award.
Liz and I met at La Citadelle in Philadelphia to catch up with each other and conduct the interview before she headed off to India for a friend's wedding. It had been so long since we had seen each other that I found we were discussing issues I wanted to address before I'd even had a chance to open my notebook or turn on my recorder.
ME: OK, I'm ready now. You were talking about being cracked wide open - the deconstruction that occurs before construction.
LIZ: Yes, well, sometimes you choose consciously to make sacrifices for your art and then other times you don't have any choice. You can try to make sense of it in retrospect. You can say to yourself, "Well, this wouldn't have been possible had I not lost this or given up that." That can be of some comfort but there is an arbitrariness to it all that is inherent, especially if you're in the arts, and you have to just learn how to enjoy the ride. Otherwise it can drive you nuts.
As I get older, I've been trying to look at all of this with new eyes. Yes, I might be making this many dollars but what is my quality of life? You don't just get paid in fiscal currency, you get paid in artistic currency as well.
Of course, in order to do this you do often have to break things down in order to build them back up again. Destruction is a necessary part of creation and you can take pleasure in knocking down the blocks. Learn to not get too attached to one temporary thing but appreciate its transience. That makes it easier to let go and easier to start again.
ME: I know actors often find themselves between jobs. What do you do to stay inspired when you're not technically employed.
LIZ: Oh my gosh!! I am a workaholic! I will find something to do!! I can't sit still. I would just go crazy. There are classes to take, there's a turn-out to work on, there's a high note that needs refining, there's an acting technique to explore, there's a teacher out there from whom I can learn. To me, it's getting back to the real part of my career, the honing of the craft and working on the weaknesses. Getting the job is the fun part. The real works comes when you're free to study. In Philly, I've taken classes with Antonio Fava, in commedia dell'arte, I've taken classes with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. I tend toward the physical classes because I think one of my main faults is that when I get into a show I get so buried in the material and the text that I become disconnected from my body. I get so much in my head that I start to censor myself. I find that taking classes that reconnect me with my body helps to generate new ideas. For instance, I took a class with Steve Pacek when I was between shows in February and March of this year. I knew Steve because I'd seen his work and he is brilliant! I love watching performers and not necessarily dissecting their work but asking myself what it is that makes them great. So, when I heard Steve was teaching a class, I said, "I'm there." It turned out his class was full but I wrote to him anyway. I said, "I've seen you in this and this and these are the reasons why this class is really important to me." That got me in. We did a lot of work on Viewpoints and Laban. Steve would have us perform our songs, choose two Laban "effort shapes" and try to do the movements without focusing on anything but the movement. Suddenly, things would just pop out of me. When I think about vocal pedagogy I am stuck in academia, but when I think about "slashing" suddenly this incredible high note will soar out with out having to "pass GO and collect $200," if you know what I mean. It was really crucial work for me and I wouldn't have been able to do it if I'd been in a show.
Now, some shows kick you in the butt and force you to learn. When I was cast as the Narrator in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat I said, "I can't do this. I can't sing this." I was more scared of it than I was of Cunegonde because it was belting. Musical Theatre can be very dogmatic, things must be done the way they were done before. If you do A Chorus Line, you'd better do the original choreography! The role of Narrator is one of those things. I'd just come back from working on the cruise ship and had all this money saved up. I blew it all on about ten different teachers trying to figure out the secret to belting. At the end of this journey I was working with one teacher having finally mastered my belting technique and I was singing away. She said, "Now can you do that in your head voice?" I said, "Why would I want to do THAT??" She said, "Just try it for me." So I did and then she said, "WHY would you ever want to do anything else?" So, after all those hundreds of dollars and voice lessons, the most valuable thing I learned was - I can just be me.
(The Narrator, by the way, is the role for which she received her Barrymore nomination)
ME: Speaking of teaching, I know you've been doing some of that yourself.
LIZ: Yes, teaching is another thing about which I’ve become very passionate. At the same time I was taking Steve Pacek’s class, I was working for Maureen Mullin at the Arden doing an outreach program called Arden for All which correlates to their children‘s programming. They train theatre artists and send them out to public schools. We teach the text and a little bit about the play and they get to see the play for free. The idea is play, have fun and learn about the play but really you’re teaching them grammar and the basic building blocks of story and writing. It was great to get those nuts and bolts in but sometimes the lessons were so oriented toward meeting the requirements it sucked the fun out of it. So, I tweaked the lessons a bit. Then a month later someone from the Montgomery Theatre called and said they had a pilot program and needed a couple of teaching artists who could come help them build it from the ground up. So, Maureen said, “Well, I have this one person who was really ballsy and changed my lessons plans, maybe she thinks she knows what she’s doing.” So, they brought me on for this project and it was huge! I partnered with four teachers from High Schools in Souderton. Two of them were English teachers, one of them was a Chemistry teacher and one of them was a Trigonometry teacher. We brought theatre into the classroom and made learning fun. I enjoyed it as much as performing because I got to use other parts of my brain.
ME: That sounds so interesting. Can you tell me a little about one of the programs you did. How about the English class?
LIZ: They were studying The Great Gatsby and we created this one idea that was based on Facebook because social networking is such an important part of the story and the kids have this framework built in ready to access. They understand what social networking is now in a way that when I was studying The Great Gatsby we never would have been able to fathom. Facebook was blocked for the school but we used a similar program that allowed us to create profiles for the characters in the book. They were then able to make “friends” and send private messages and public messages to each other. So, the students got to see the whole social interaction and the intricacies of how the characters related to each other. Even the kids who initially treated it as a joke were in character!! It was awesome!!
We also did a section on jazz. F. Scott Fitzgerald called himself a writer of the jazz age. So, I brought in a bunch of jazz recordings. I also introduced the students to several musical terms such as scat, syncopation, and chromaticism and helped them make their own links to the literary parallels.
I found it all just as inspiring as working on a character on play, maybe even more so because of the ripple effect. I also have such respect for teachers who do this year round. I enjoy being the breath of fresh air that can come into the classroom.
ME: Do you have any other creative outlets? I mean besides teaching, acting, singing, dancing and trapeze work?
LIZ: Yes, I kind of discovered it by accident. I started writing music last year while I was working on a cruise ship. The discrepancies between my living conditions as a performer and those of the other staff angered me. After weeks of seeing the injustices toward them I got so mad I had to write something. I didn’t sit down one day and think, “Now I’m going to be a composer.” It was more like working out my frustration on the piano. Some people punch pillows, I pounded on the piano keys. Then, words surfaced and suddenly there was a song. It may not be a great song but it was an outlet. I found that after I’d plugged into this I could express other things. Then I started playing my songs for people and I would see their reactions. It was such a simple yet profound experience to be able to sing about my heartbreak and then suddenly theirs would come to the surface and they would tell me how they thought the song was about their family or their loved one. I kept writing because I wanted to help other people. I didn’t want to make money or even make a recording or have my songs published . I just wanted that experience of being able to sit down in a little room at a piano with a few of your friends and say something you don’t have to courage to say outright. You can say it in a song and it’s OK and they can listen to the song and cry and it’s OK.
It’s so cheesy but I was reading Eat Pray Love on the ship and there’s this part that talks about how some of the major religions of the world explain human suffering. The way that Elizabeth Gilbert explained it was, Christians believe human suffering comes from original sin. Buddhists believe it comes from desire and if you can let go of your desire you won’t suffer - as much. Then there are the Hindus who believe (I just love this) it’s just a case of mistaken identity. We suffer because we believe we are individuals and we think we are these lonely, isolated organisms that are totally alone in the universe and that our suffering is our own private burden. Whereas, if we knew that we aren’t alone, that we are a part of this huge fabric of infinite interconnectedness then our suffering wouldn’t be so great. We would realize that everyone has the same experiences. When I play my songs for other people I can see that web, I can see my connection to every other person in that room so clearly.
ME: Do you feel any difference between using your words as opposed to singing words someone else has written?
LIZ: Yes, but I sort of cross the wires. I find it can be a really successful mad scientist experiment when I’m singing someone else’s words to try to make them my own. Whereas when I’m writing my own material instead of making it about me, me, me, sometimes it’s easier to zoom out and write about something I know nothing about. It’s like throwing out a larger net, then you reel it in and say, “Ok, this works, this works and this I obviously know nothing about.”
ME: I’m also wondering about the two mediums from a very raw, creative output standpoint. In theatre we have many other people’s input, the director tells you this, the choreographer tells you this, the vocal director tells you that whereas when you write a song it’s much more direct.
LIZ: There is a joy in my personal creative projects but there's also an aspect that’s truly terrifying because it’s just you and it’s your fault either way. I’m coming back to Elizabeth Gilbert. Have you heard her Ted Talk about Creativity?
ME: Yes (you can find it here)
LIZ: She says that genius was considered to be this separate entity that comes to you and inspiration comes through that. So, if it was good you couldn’t take all the credit necessarily and likewise if it was bad you did have to take all the blame. I think when I’m creating something, the most important thing for me is patience. I want it to be right the first time but it doesn’t have to be and that’s why it’s called the creative process. It’s frustrating but that’s also the beauty of it. When things are born in nature normally they don’t happen over night. Sometimes it takes days, or weeks, or months or even years.
There’s story of the acorn and the oak tree and how the acorn has this force pushing it up out of the ground. But, there’s also there’s another invisible force which is the actual oak tree itself projected in the future that is pulling it up and saying , “Come on, you can get there, you can reach it.” I think that works for artists as well. You can say, “OK, I’m only this far off the ground at the moment but it’s exciting to know that there’s still space to grow.” If I hit the ceiling every single time I sat down to create something, I’d be bored. It can be hard because it entails a lot of failure along the way.
I have friend who is a director in town and she said, “Why do we do it? It’s embarrassing. Why do we choose to do something in life where we constantly fail?” We try and try and maybe one of these projects that we try over all of these years might succeed.
ME: (laughing) and it’s all public and they write about it in newspapers…
LIZ: I know and we do it over and over!! I guess we’re oblivious to that. We don’t care how many times we fail. We keep trying and you have to treat success and failure as
TOGETHER: impostors. (we’re remembering an earlier point in the conversation when Liz mentioned that her Dad introduced her to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, IF and how it has been some of the best advice she’s received.)
LIZ: It’s not about quantifying it. It might be kind of impossible to take the pressure off of yourself when you first sit down to the blank canvas to say, “It doesn’t matter if I succeed or fail because they’re both illusions and it doesn’t matter if I finish it today or twenty years from now," because we do carry all of these social pressures with us when we sit down to create. But, I know when I’m most connected to my inner child I’m not thinking about judgement, I’m just expressing myself. So, maybe that’s selfish but it’s important to be selfish sometimes.
ME: Well, perhaps the initial impulse may be to just to get the thing out on to the piece of paper but then comes the part where you share it and I think that goes back to what you were saying earlier about being interconnected and that’s why we share our stories.
LIZ: and that’s selfless because there’s that gap you have to bridge and the choices you have to make to share and that takes a lot of courage. So, it’s no longer about you.
ME: Since we're talking about courage, how do you approach auditions? So many of my students find them terrifying. How do you frame them for yourself?
LIZ: I try not to want it too badly. I tend to sabotage myself the more I think, "I need this job" or "I would be perfect for this role" or "I hope this person doesn't show up for this." Those kind of thoughts are completely useless and I've left most of them behind. If I find myself wanting a part I will try to tell somebody else about it. It's sort of like audition karma! If I tell my friends who are also my competition, it takes the pressure off of me and I can't want it as badly now. So, spread the love! And remember that the real audition happens after you get the job. You don't get jobs from auditioning as much as you get jobs from jobs. If you're lucky enough to get a good gig just do your job and be on your best behavior and pour yourself into it - all your energy, all your eagerness, all your creativity and that will get you ten times more jobs than one audition will. So, when you audition just use the talents you've been given in the best way you can. Share. Go in and say "here" and a little bit of that invisible fabric will appear if you do your job right - and that's all you wanted in the first place.
My own little place to explore my creativity and imagination