Thursday, April 20, 2017

Concluding A Book Series: It's Personal

About ten years ago I had an idea for a short story that rumbled around my brain for a couple of years. When I finally sat down to write my story, Time for Coffee, it had grown too long to be a short story; I had a novel on my hands. Several drafts later, a friend and mentor asked me if I had ever considered turning my manuscript into a series. That's when my stand alone novel morphed into a four part series I entitled, Fall Again.

Had I started out to write a series of  novels, I doubt I ever would have started writing. Then, the thought of writing a single novel was overwhelming since my original idea was for a short story. I probably would have forgotten about the project. Thankfully, I had been writing for several months and had strong story and characters. Once I started thinking in terms of a series, the division of my material into separate novels was easier than anticipated. 

Fall Again is a contemporary romance series set in the world of actors and other working artists. It's the story of Marc and Lauren, and their closest friends. It is set in New York, Los Angeles and a few points in between. The story spans twenty-two years. There are four books in the series:
Beginnings An Unrealized Romance - Marc & Lauren meet, fall in love and separate without closure.
Lost Boy Marc the Interim Years - Marcs life and career during his separation from Lauren.
California Girl-Lauren the Interim Years - Lauren's life and career during her separation from Marc.
Reunion A Romance Realized - Marc & Lauren reunite years later.

Four novels now allowed me to delve deeper into the characters lives and experiences.
For me, writing came easily. I could always make time to write. When I experienced blocks, I was able to work through them fairly easily by remembering who my characters were and staying true to them. During a couple of blocks, new characters introduced themselves and guided me through the block as I incorporated them into the existing story.
One of my favorite characters was discovered this way.

Since my story takes place over two decades, I had to be attentive to details. For example making a phone and air travel have changed drastically from 1989-2010. I enjoyed the creative part of the process.
What I never enjoyed were the technical aspects of self publishing. Formatting and uploading files became easier over time, though I freely admit I wanted to throw my laptop across the room on several occasions.

For me, the fourth and final installment of the series was the most difficult to write, because it was the most personal. In 2013, my father became ill. I was able to be with him at the end of his life. This was a difficult time for me and my family. Late at night when I couldn't sleep, I worked on my manuscript, escaping my own reality and finding sanctuary in the world I'd created. One night after an especially trying day, I wrote a scene that took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). My characters are dressed in cocktail attire and sipping champagne on what is to be an important night. The scene ends in a romantic moment at the Urban Lights Sculpture just outside of the museum. (  Later, when considering images for  REUNION's cover, the Urban Lights sculpture seemed like a natural choice.

A few nights later, I was  at my dad's bedside as he slept. I was  reading and making notes on a hard copy of my manuscript when he woke up, saw what I was doing and asked, "Is that a book?" I was able to tell him about the project, not knowing this would be the last conversation I'd ever have with him. When he passed a few days later on April 15, 2013, I promised myself that I would see this project through to it's completion. The first novel was published in 2015, while the second and third installments were published in 2016.  REUNION, the final book in the series, was published on April 15 of this year, the fourth anniversary of my dad's passing.

As a new writer, I've learned several lessons during my journey. These are all things I'd heard before, but still had to experience on my own for them to fully make sense. For those of you beginning your writers journey, and especially to those who will be self publishing, here are a few things to keep in mind:

- Believe in the strength of your story.
- Always be true to your characters. You know them better than anyone else.
- The more you write, the better writer you become.
- Find Beta readers who will give you honest opinions.
- Find an editor, and be open to their suggestions. Remember, you still have the final say. 
- Publish only when you're ready.
- Market your book, but do some studying first to save time money and energy. Remember,
- Marketing is a Rubix cube. Find what works best for you.
- Some will read and enjoy your work, while others will not.

The most valuable piece of advice I could give to anyone who's contemplating a writing project, start writing. Stephen King said it best; "The scariest moment is always just before you start."

I began thinking about this project as a short story almost ten years ago. I began writing the original stand alone novel in November of 2012, and completed the series with the fourth and final installment this April. It's been strange not constantly thinking about my story and characters. (Yes, I continued to make minor changes until I published.)

 The last few days have been rather lonely; I'm experiencing a sort of  writer's empty nest syndrome. I'm toying with the idea of spinning off two of the supporting characters from Fall Again into their own independent story. I also have a first draft of something completely unrelated to Fall Again that could one day become a stand alone novel. In the meantime, there are many non-writing tasks I could do, like cleaning house; something I've neglected since I began writing. Or maybe, I'll just sit back and relax for a while. I think I've earned it.

Fall Again: Beginnings An Unrealized Romance
Fall Again: Lost Boy Marc the Interim Years
Fall Again California Girl Lauren the Interim Years
Fall Again Reunion A Romance Realized

Thursday, March 9, 2017

My Life and Times with a Cultural Icon: My Friend Barbie

The spring 2016  Barbie "Fashionistas" line will include dolls with petite, tall and curvy physiques.

An old girlfriend of mine was in the news last year. Her name is Barbie: the perfect-I can-do- anything-girl with the unattainable figure. She made headlines because she's received a major--or should I say several makeovers. The spring 2016 Fashionistas line of dolls will feature four body types (including its "original" version), seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. Now, many little girls, (and I'm sure a few older girls) will have the opportunity to have a Barbie doll that more accurately reflects them.

Mattel's Barbie has been on the market since 1959 and has been a presence in the lives of millions of  girls worldwide. She has been connected to 125 careers, has wardrobe pieces designed by some of the world's top fashion designers, and has perfected the art of perfection. Barbie is a cultural icon. At age fifty-six, she looks fantastic!

The Barbie doll was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler (co-founder of Mattel), whose own daughter was named Barbara. (Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, was named after Ruth's son.)

Barbie's German influence, Lilli
Barbie was inspired by a German doll, Lilli. This doll was definitely not for children. Lilli was a flirtatious and brazen high end call girl. Originally, she was  created as a comic strip character for a Hamburg newspaper in 1956. In the comics, Lilli was witty, irreverent and sexually uninhibited.

The Lilli doll was originally sold as an adult novelty toy that could be purchased in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores. According to Robin Gerber, the author of Barbie and Ruth, “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.”

The dolls eventually became popular with children. In 1956, one of the dolls caught the attention of Ruth Handler's fifteen year old daughter, Barbara, while on vacation in Switzerland. Three years later, the first Barbie doll was unveiled at the New York Toy Show. The full name of the first doll was Barbie Millicent Roberts, from Willows, Wisconsin.  Her job was that of teenage fashion model. And the rest as they say, is history.

A few years ago I shared Barbie's racy past with my mother who replied, "I knew there was something I didn't like about that doll! My first instinct was to never let you play with those things!" To say that my mother was overprotective would be a gross understatement. I'm grateful she never knew of Barbie's German counterpart until recently. I know several women, who as children, were never allowed to play with Barbies because of her sophisticated and sensuous appearance.

My own relationship with Barbie began when I was old enough to take notice of the Saturday morning commercials that aired during network cartoon blocks of Saturday mornings past. Remember, the fact that these cartoons entertained children was secondary to their primary purpose, which was to sell toys.

I remember the Barbie commercials that featured the exciting life of this plastic superstar. Barbie had the perfect house, an outfit for every occasion and a boyfriend. She was beautiful, confident and led a glamorous life full of adventure. I wanted to be a part of that world.

At age five, I received my first Barbies (Barbie, her friend Midge, and a carrying case of clothes), hand-me-downs from my older cousin. My world changed forever!

My father always regretted never purchasing Mattel stock back then. Over the years my younger sister and I would accumulate about thirty dolls,  Dream houses, carrying cases, vehicles and many outfits. As a little girl I had plenty of beautiful baby dolls. But after Barbie came into my life, I never looked at them again. I joined the Barbie Fan Club, read Barbie Magazine and Barbie novels. (This was in a pre-internet world.)

For  me, Barbie would become more than a doll. She became a friend and mentor. I'll stop short of calling her a role model. When I was seven, my family moved to a new house. The move meant that I was no longer able  to see my best friend Beverly everyday as I had since we were toddlers. There were no kids my age on our new street. In school, I was shy and introverted. Barbie filled a void.

With Barbie, I elevated make believe to an art form. My Barbies took vacations to the Caribbean, Asia and  Europe. One summer a few of my Barbie dolls went on an archeological dig in my backyard.

While my Barbies always worked as teenaged fashion models, they explored different careers. At one point, I had a doll who was a news reporter, one who was a makeup artist and another who was a teacher. I had dolls who were rock stars, photographers and artists. A couple were attending college. And yes, I even had one doll who was a wife and mother. One of my Francie dolls (Francie was Barbie's Modern cousin from California) was married to Alan, Ken's best friend and the only male doll in the line I ever had. (He was a gift from my grandmother.) Together, they were the proud parents of a Little Kiddle. These miniature dolls were not part of the Barbie line, but my sister received one for a birthday. We condensed Francie's pregnancy to an afternoon one summer.

There were times when the dolls accompanied me to school as part of elaborate dioramas. I considered dioramas "acting jobs" for my Barbies. Little did I know I was foreshadowing my own future as an actor. The detailed tableaus were done as parts of book reports in English, a report on Paris in French, and once, Barbie portrayed Mary Magdalene in a religion class project (I went to Catholic school.) My projects featuring Barbie always earned me A's, and maybe a little extra attention from my teachers and classmates. 

Contemporary Christie

Christie was introduced in 1968 

In 1968, I received a Talking Christie for Christmas. Christie was Barbie's black friend, and the first full sized African-American doll in the line. (Black Francie in 1967 was the first.) I honestly don't remember thinking that this doll that resembled me. I do remember thinking she was beautiful.

There were two items in Barbie's world that my parents never purchased for my sister and me: a wedding gown, and Ken (Barbie's longtime boyfriend.) I don't know if these were conscious decisions  by my parents, but in retrospect, it makes sense. My parents constantly told us that our educations should be the most important part of our young lives. Perhaps thoughts of boyfriends and dream weddings would be bright shiny diversions. Later, when we became teenagers, dating was never encouraged because boys could distract us from our studies. (I didn't have a boyfriend until I graduated from high school.) My parents were raising us to be independent, intelligent and confident women.

Barbie remained a constant in my life until I was twelve, a little longer than most girls. On the first day of seventh grade I met a new girl, Amy, who'd transferred to my school. Seventh grade is a rough place, especially for a new girl. I saw her sitting by herself and introduced myself, which was a small victory in itself considering my shyness. We spent that first day together as I showed her the campus and helped her navigate the large school. Amy was confident, outgoing and fun. She wore makeup, had great clothes... and a boyfriend. I quickly realized that Amy was a cool girl. It was only a matter of time before she found her way to the cool clique, though we'd always remain friendly.

But after that first week, and influenced by Amy's example, I began to pay attention to myself.  I was now interested in clothes for myself instead of Barbie. I started experimenting with makeup and reading Teen and Seventeen magazines. I was growing up and developing opinions and a style of my own.  Most importantly, it was becoming easier for me to make friends. I no longer needed Barbie. Our friendship had lasted for seven years, but it was finally time to go our separate ways.

For years, my dolls were stored in the attic of the house where I grew up. When my parents sold their house and moved into a condominium, I lovingly packed up the dolls and their extensive wardrobe before shipping them to my home in California. They're currently in a plastic storage container in the back of a closet in my home office.

Teresa Barbie's Latina friend in 1988 
Teresa Now

Many times, while shopping at retailers who have entire aisles dedicated to Barbie, I find myself looking at the new dolls. For me it's like visiting old friends. The Barbie universe has become quite diverse. For several years you've been able to find Barbies with different complexions and hair textures which reflect different cultures and ethnicities. For example, Teresa, (Barbie's Latina friend),  joined Barbie's world in 1988.

Over the past few days I've read different responses to the new petite, tall and curvy Barbies. Most are positive. Many comments come from mom's who are glad their little girls now have dolls that project more realistic and varied body images. Some little girls called Curvy Barbie "chubby."  (Poor Barbie. Her figure has been a topic of conversation for decades.) In focus groups, little girls have overwhelmingly gravitated to the doll with blue hair (think Katy Perry.)  To me, they're all just  pretty dolls.

The Classic Figure
Over the years, cruel insults have been hurled at Barbie. She's been called too skinny, too busty and  far too sexy for a child's toy. Many have called her a bad influence and a poor role model. Honestly, isn't this a bit much? Shouldn't little girls look to their mothers, teachers and other prominent--and real women in their lives when looking for positive influences and role models? While Barbie may be a cultural icon, in the end, she's only a doll.

As a little girl, I adored Barbie. She served a purpose by helping me imagine the world of possibilities ahead of me. She was a devoted friend and was always there when I needed her. When the time was right, I put her away along with my other childhood toys, and said goodbye.

I never thought Barbie was too thin, busty or sexy.  I never worried or cared that I'd never attain her perfect figure, have her flowing long hair or be successful in numerous careers. I accepted Barbie just as she was...just like she accepted me.

Here are some additional vintage commercials that were too good not to share! The 1970's spot features Maureen McCormick; Marcia Brady from THE BRADY BUNCH.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

It's Personal: Your Story, Your Way

I’d like to share a childhood memory. I had just turned seven and was on vacation with my family. We’d spent a week in New England where my sister and I saw the ocean for the first time. Before we returned to Ohio, we spent a couple of days in New York City.
Even as a child, I loved New York and had looked forward to this part of our vacation. On this, my first visit I enjoyed the hustle, bustle and excitement of the city. I loved going to the top of the Empire State Building, riding the subway and the extravagant show at Radio City Music Hall.
However, there was one thing that bothered me on this visit to the Big Apple--and the incident has continued to bother me for years.
The incident took place during our visit to Liberty Island. It was a hot summer day, but the ferry ride across New Yok Harbour was very pleasant. The views of the city were spectacular, while Lady Liberty left me awestruck. Once we arrived on the island, I remember the smells of hotdogs and popcorn. I also remember a very long line to board the elevator that took visitors to the top of the statue; something I'd dreamed of doing ever since I'd learned this was possible. My parents said it was too hot to walk to the top of the statue, so we’d admire the statue from the ground. While disappointed, that’s not what upset me.
There were a lot of people on the island that day, including a large group of children who were playing in a grassy area and speaking a different language. I was fascinated by what could have been either Spanish or Italian. Close to the children was flock of pigeons. I watched these children run into the pigeons who quickly took flight. For a few brief moments the children and birds became a single energized unit. For a seven year old from the Midwest, this was an amazing sight. In my excitement I pointed to the children and the scattering pigeons as I pulled on my mother’s skirt.
“Mom! Look at the flock of children!” My choice of words was deliberate, and in my seven year old mind, quite clever.
Instead of looking at the children, my mother was looking at me and shaking head. “No, Donna. The word flock refers to birds. You should have used the word group in referring to the children.”
And that reprimand was what ruined my trip to Liberty Island.
Of course, I knew the word flock referred to birds. But in this case the word flock was better way to describe the children in this heightened moment as nature and humanity combined to create a few moments of sheer joy. And I was joyful-- until I was corrected for describing an event as I saw it that hot afternoon. At seven, while making a rather keen observation, I was not equipped to take on an argument about vocabulary and usage with my mother, a teacher and perfectionist when it came to the English language. For years, I refused to believe that my choice of words was wrong.
Years later in junior high school English class, I first heard the word, metaphor; a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Finally, I felt vindicated. My use of the word flock so many years ago had been correct in my own personal interpretation of an event.
Of course, my mother denies any knowledge of the pigeons and Spanish-or-Italian-speaking children on Liberty Island incident. But to this day, I still gloat over the fact that I was right in describing the incident- or telling the story my way.
As an adult, and now as a writer, I firmly believe that your story is just that; your story. You should always tell your story in your own voice, honestly and in your own unique way.
To some, freeing yourself to spill the essence of your life experiences and emotions onto a page may seem like an exciting adventure. To others this same idea is terrifying.
Years ago, a mentor gave me the following advice. “When you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a world full of unique characters and situations. It’s your world, so who’s to tell you what’s right or wrong. Be true to your characters and their integrity. This is especially true when as you’re writing dialogue. Allow yourself to tell your story in your own voice and point of view. And don’t worry about breaking any of the traditional rules of writing from time to time.”
While the advice sounded simple and a tad rebellious, I took his advice and immediately noticed a change in my writing. First of all it was easier to write as the words flowed more easily from my imagination and onto the page. My characters became stronger. And once I released myself from the notion that I had to follow all the rules, I began to enjoy the writing process more. I was willing to take more risks, and as a result have become a better writer.

While this approach has served me well, I’ll admit that sometimes I’m hesitant to push through some of my remaining walls. In the second novel of the Fall Again series, Lost Boy, my editor suggested using a word that I originally felt uncomfortable using. While I had considered using the word (bullshit) as I originally wrote the section, I opted for a weaker word which, as a result, weakened the scene. My editor advised me, “You have Marc telling a boldfaced lie to a friend in a situation that is relaxed and casual. Why don’t you, as the narrator, call his lie what it is?” In the end I realized that he was absolutely right. Had I been true to myself initially, I would have followed my instincts and used the word early on. I feared I might offend my readers. My reliable beta readers told me the scene was funny and real, which was my intent all along.

In the third novel of the series, California Girl,(available this summer), I explore some difficult subjects, including an abusive relationship. At first, approaching these subjects was challenging, and I briefly fell back into trying to tell my story "nicely." Needless to say this approach didn't work. My characters, and especially my heroine Lauren, lost integrity. When I dismissed thoughts of what  I feared others might think and remained true to the subject matter, my writing took on an honest and emotional quality that had been missing.
Weaving words together to create worlds and people is a talent and an extraordinary gift. Trust yourself, your talent, and please, trust your readers. Give yourself permission to freely explore your gift and artistry. Give yourself permission to embrace your own flocks of children- whatever that means to you!

By telling your story in your own unique way, you’ll allow your voice to ring through true and clear, while becoming a better writer!



Saturday, March 26, 2016

So...What Happened to Easter?

Last Friday, I was in a fitting room at the Banana Republic at The Grove in Los Angeles. I had
found the most adorable fit and flare sleeveless LBD (little black dress). It was my size, on sale with an additional 30% off. It fit perfectly. I clicked a quick dressing room photo which I sent to my husband before stepping out of the fitting room to see the dress in the three-way mirror.

A smiling sales associate stepped beside me. "That looks really nice on you. Are you thinking about wearing it next Sunday?"

I gave her a blank stare. "Sunday?"

"Yes. Easter Sunday."

"You must be mistaken. It can't be Easter."

"It's early this year."

Now that I thought about it, store displays were featuring brightly colored displays while I'd seen commercials featuring bunnies and chocolate--but somehow I never put it together. How had Easter completely fallen off my radar?

I was raised Catholic and attended mass every Sunday. I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten through the twelfth grade where I was taught that Easter was the most important day on the Christian calendar.

As a kid I looked forward to visits from the Easter Bunny who made a quiet deliveries early on Easter morning. I never appreciated EB's accomplice, my mother, who was responsible for creating the most beautiful baskets. She filled colorful straw baskets with cellophane grass and a plush pastel bunny surrounded by traditional candies.  Candy was a rarity in our house. My sister and I went trick or treating on Halloween night, only to have our candy stash thrown away two days later. My mother claimed the fun was in collecting the candy--and no, I've never forgiven her for destroying this childhood ritual. But Easter was different. As soon as we awoke we attacked the baskets eating chocolate eggs, bunnies and Peeps--before breakfast.

Usually the Saturday before Easter we'd color eggs which were also in our baskets. During the following week the eggs would make for novelty items in our lunch boxes. Some were turned into  Easter egg salad, which always seemed tastier than plain old egg salad.

For Easter Sunday mass, my mother usually dressed my sister and me in matching dresses which were accessorized with matching hats, lacy anklets, pocketbooks and black patent leather shoes.

Dinner was always a family affair which seemed to be at one of my grandmother's houses. which always smelled of roast leg of lamb, baking ham and homemade cakes.

I remember looking forward to the Peanuts special, It's the Easter Beagle Charlie Brown which usually aired sometime the week before Easter. This special had a weak storyline, but amazing music. Vince Guaraldi composed jazz variations of Beethoven classics.

My most memorable Easter was the year my family went to Italy. On Easter Sunday we were in Vatican City receiving the Pope's blessing. This incredible experience was followed immediately by another as we stepped into St. Peter's Basilica where we saw Michelangelo's Pieta.

When I was a senior in high school, I remember going to Easter mass with my family, then brunch, and then home. That was it. My parents retired to their bedroom where my father took a nap and my mother settled in with the current novel she was reading. My sister and I, having nothing else to do, went to the mall. This is the last Easter I remember spending with my family. I'm sure there were others, but this was a turning point; I was growing up and holidays were beginning to lose their magic.

I rarely came home for Easter when I was in college. I do remember going to brunch with a friend and her parents one year. After mimosas and French toast, I went to a callback for a summer production of  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (I was cast in the production and heartbroken when my parents insisted that I come home that summer. Theater at Emerson College was one thing. Outside of college in the real world was another.)

While living in Chicago, I was the Easter Bunny in Carson Pierre Scotts department store on year. Frankly, I found the costume frightening as did many of the small children who were forced to sit on my lap for photographs. Quite by accident, I developed a trick that usually stopped small children's tears: I wiped my eyes as I pretended to cry. Misery loves company and the child, feeling sympathy, would stop crying to console me. One little girl brought me carrots.

When I first moved to Hollywood, I was determined to get to a Sunrise Service at The Hollywood Bowl. But then I realized how early sunrise actually was and never made it.

For the past several years, Easter Sunday has just been another day at work.

Back at Banana Republic, a chime indicating a text message draws my attention away from my reflection in the three-way mirror. My husband is telling me to purchase the dress, but by now I've decided I don't need another black dress, especially for Easter Sunday. I thank the associate who reminds me that the dress is going for a great price. True. I love bargains, but I leave the LBD in the fitting room,

Earlier today I was in a CVS and saw shelves full of Easter candy. I remember loving the foil covered milk chocolate eggs, but I can't find any. I find Hershey Easter kisses, which are the same thing in a different shape, but I really want chocolate eggs because it's Easter. I leave with nothing.

Tomorrow I'll go to work and look forward to enjoying dinner with my husband and a good friend
afterwards. This year we're doing Italian. I know there will be good wine and conversation. I'll try not to wear black for a change.

After I get home and attend to my pets and household chores, I might watch  It's the Easter Beagle Charlie Brown, mainly to listen to Vince Guaraldi's jazz score. Who knows? I may be able to recapture some of the magic from the Easters past.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Most Valuble Asset for Performing and Creatve Artists: Your Health

Once again I've put way too much on my plate while trying to balance acting and writing careers, running household and being the perfect wife. Recently, I had to reevaluate my priorities.  It's a matter of health.

A Cautionary Tale
Things had been going well. My first audition of the year resulted in a booking. I was auditioning regularly and had a high callback ratio. I was working a day job that I actually enjoyed, working with a group of creative people on public speaking presentations centering on historical events--and I love history. Life was good.
On Monday evening, my husband  and I had a friend over for dinner. It was pleasant evening that ended with my husband and I watching a favorite TV show. Then we went to bed.
My husband fell asleep quickly. But I'd been having more and more difficulty falling asleep lately; my mind was constantly racing with random thoughts. On this night I also found myself unable to relax.  I felt weird. I was out of breath like I'd just run a race. My heart was pounding and felt like it was about to burst through my chest. I had a horrible headache which caused dizziness.
Something was wrong. Not wanting to wake my husband, I slipped out of bed, went online. According to WebMD I was exhibiting symptoms of a stroke...the online info said to call 911. I didn't. Instead, at 2:10AM I woke my husband who took me to a nearby emergency room where I was given a thorough exam that included several neurological tests.
No. I was not having a stroke. In fact I was embarrassed with the diagnosis of sleep deprivation and anxiety.
The ER physician wanted to know what was happening in my life. I replied that things were good. He asked me to think back over the last few months to find a possible cause of stress. The month before we had some unexpected repairs done in our home which disrupted our home life and made it necessary to change our routines. That was defiantly a source of stress, but that was a month ago. He informed me that stress never leaves the body. When he asked me about my everyday routine, it was apparent I was burning the candle at both ends; doing far too much on any given day and only getting four to five hours of sleep a night. He prescribed, relaxation, rest, sleep (he wanted me to take a sleeping aid for a few nights), and told to follow up with my GP. Finally, he gave me a work release for the next day and instructed me to call in sick to work.
I didn't listen. After just a few hours of unrestful sleep, I resumed my regular routine. I was at a commercial callback at 10AM before going to my day job where I remained until 5:30PM. Instead of going home, I kept an appointment with my hairstylist before returning home after 8PM. I went to bed early, but only managed to sleep for three or four  hours. I got up early the next morning and began all over again. I was not going to let a little lost sleep and stress get in my way.
Is it any wonder that I ended up with the same symptoms--only worse a few days later? This time I listened to my body--and made myself and my health the priority. The End
My story is not unusual among performing and creative artists. Many times we find ourselves balancing our craft with the everyday demands of life (family, day jobs, household, etc.) Sometimes we see ourselves as super beings and strive to do everything...and to do everything well.
Many creative professionals are perfectionists and possess vey strong work ethics. (An old boss at a former day job told me he hired actors whenever possible because of their strong work ethics and attention to details.) We want to do well in all aspects of our lives, especially in our artistic efforts. So is it any surprise that some of us are taking on more than we can handle and find ourselves trying to perform an impossible balancing act?

-An LA actor friend had just sent her husband, also a working actor, off to New England where he would be doing a play for two months. She was getting their seven year old daughter to and from school everyday and arranging for a sitter when necessary, going on auditions and subsequent bookings, working a part-time day job, and running their household. One day, while shopping for  ingredients to make homemade cupcakes for a next day school event, she was rushed from an area grocery store via ambulance due to chest pains. While she was sure she was having a heart attack, she was diagnosed with anxiety.

-A dancer on a cruise ship performed her two nightly shows while ill, though she managed to conceal her condition  from the cast and crew. She performed the next night as well, only this time she collapsed backstage after the second show. She had the flu with a fever of 102 degrees. 

-One Saturday, an LA actor woke up with a bad stomach ache, but went to work the day job-which was somewhat physical. No amount of Pepto-Bismol would provide relief. By the end of the day the actor decided not to wait to contact their own doctor on Monday morning, and went to an urgent care facility. Less than two hours later, a (non-emergency) appendectomy was performed. They were home the next day. Had this person waited the appendix could have ruptured meaning a more invasive surgery and a long hospital stay and recovery. 

Thankfully these scenarios as well as my own had happy endings. But there also stories of those who have ignored messages from their bodies, and whose stories don't end happily..

A woman who at age 26 never had a Pap Smear, was required to get one during her physical before she began working as a dancer at a large resort. The test revealed she was in the early stages of cervical cancer. She now admits that she'd just never taken the time to see a doctor despite a few warning signs.

Another performer found a lump in her breast which was advanced breast cancer. While over 40, she'd never had a mammogram.

Lastly, I know of one incredibly gifted actor who let a minor and treatable infection go untreated. He continued his usual fast-paced routine that included playing basketball. The infection eventually reached his heart and killed him. This man was in his thirties, in good shape, and by all outward appearances, healthy. Had this man seen a doctor and gotten on a cycle of antibiotics and possibly taken it easy for a few days, he'd still be with us.
When I had  my own health scare (more than ten years ago now), I made some simple changes in my life that have helped keep me healthy. I'm not talking weight loss, just maintaining my health.  
While I'm not a doctor,(though I've played one on TV), I'd like to share a few common sense things to keep in mind. Most are common sense. So please consider these few friendly reminders.
Eat Sensibly/Eat Healthy. The better you eat the better you feel, and the better your body will function. After my scare, I began to watch my salt and processed sugar intake, which meant I was reading food labels. I basically eliminated most processed and fast food. Anything high in fat was cut to a minimum. I stopped eating red meat and pork. I rarely drink soda. I was never big on snacks, but when I do try to stick to fresh fruits and veggies, yogurt.  I still enjoy an order of fries or a favorite desert on occasion. The key is everything (including alcohol and caffeine) in moderation. Know your BMI. Use this number a  guideline to maintain a healthy weight.

Hydrate. The old adage of 8 glasses a day is no longer true. Instead, think about how much you weigh and divide that number in half. That's how many ounces of water you should drink per day. For instance, a person who is 200 pounds, should drink 100 oz. of water per day to be adequately hydrated. Consider making water your default beverage.
Have a physical every year. See your dentist twice a year. Get an annual flu shot. Ladies, see your gynecologist. Make sure you schedule appointments for  the tests and screenings that are recommended (mammograms, colonoscopies). While some test are unpleasant and sometimes embarrassing, they are potentially lifesaving. (many states have programs for standard screenings if you are uninsured.) Here's a list of suggested screenings, though always consult with your own physician.

Exercise. Make exercise a part of your life and choose something  you enjoy that you won't dread doing. A good walk can help to clear your head, while stretching (yoga & Pilates) help with flexibility, circulation and sleep. I love fitness DVD's that allow me to exercise without leaving home.

Don't Smoke. Or, stop smoking.
Get enough sleep. The number of hours will differ for each person, though most of us need anywhere from six to eight hours a night. Remember sleep allows your body to recharge.
Listen to your body & do what it says. You know yourself and your body better than anyone. You
know when you can treat yourself or when you need to seek medical attention. Waiting too long can sometimes lead to complications and a hospital stay for conditions that could have otherwise been treated easily. 
It's okay to stop (or at least slow down). This is not a sign of weakness. In fact I believe stopping
when needed is a show of strength and self- respect. Remember, if you don't stop, your body will stop you. (Years ago as I was getting ready to move to LA, I scheduled myself to work 18 hours a day for two weeks solid at three different jobs. Ten days in, I woke up one morning unable to move. Exhaustion won. I dropped one job for the remaining  few days.) 
Your body is your most important instrument and an incredible machine which must be maintained to keep you going physically and mentally. Your body is your dwelling that allows you to exist. This is where you think and create. Your body transports you from one place to another.

Without your health, you can't give 100% to yourself, your craft or to those around you.

While good health is important to everyone no matter their profession, it is especially important to artists; our bodies are the vessels which allow us to practice our crafts. 
Take care of your body and your body will take care of you. After all, you only have one.



Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Casual Conversation Planted Seeds for a Series of Novels...and a New Artistic Direction.

In 2006, my husband Tony and I wrote and performed a show for the Fringe circuit. The experience took us to several cities where we saw many live shows and met performing artists from all over of the country.

While in Indianapolis, we joined another married couple for dinner one evening; performers who were also doing a show in the Indianapolis Fringe. Christian and Catalina amazed audiences with magic and telepathy, while our show was a series of stories based on our marriage and living in Hollywood.
Once our drinks arrived at the table, Catalina proposed our next show. “You should do a show about your experiences as actors in Hollywood! People would find it fascinating.”
This sounded strange. “But it’s not fascinating! It’s just what we do.”
Catalina disagreed. “Not to people outside of the industry who are dying to know about the real Hollywood! I’ve enjoyed listening to your stories and I'm sure others would too!”
Hollywood is a city, an industry and a state of mind. For Tony and me, it’s home.
While we never wrote that show, I never forgot Catalina’s words --words that may have planted the seeds for my contemporary romantic series, Fall Again. The  four-part series follows the lives of  working artists and takes place over twenty years.
When I began to write the first novel in  the Fall Again series, my focus was bringing the tortured romance of  my two central characters, Marc and Lauren, to life. But this is also very much a story about the lives of working actors. I found myself thinking about my own experiences in the industry along with experiences of my fellow actors and other artists. Many of these events found their way into my manuscript and became elements in the careers of the actors in Fall Again.

When we first meet Lauren Phillips, she’s just completed her first day of work on a network soap, the fictional Clayton’s Crossing. For years, daytime dramas provided work and on the job training for many actors (Brad Pitt, Julianne Moore and Meg Ryan, to name a few.) My first job on network television was on NBC’s Days of Our Lives. Like Lauren, I was nervous…especially when I learned my first network television scene would be with Genie Francis, (formerly Laura Spencer on General Hospital), who was soap opera royalty! This was Genie’s first day as reporter Diana Colville. She comes to Salem’s University Hospital searching for someone who can identify a person in a photograph and approaches the nurse at the desk…me! I had five lines of dialogue that day. (For the record, Genie Francis was very nice and helped make this day smooth and memorable.)Ten days later, I was back on set, and would return to DOOL regularly as Nurse Evelyn for ten years.

When I booked a job on this show I couldn't believe I'd
 be working with an actor I'd admired and grown up watching. 
In the third novel, Lauren will book a job as a guest star on a sitcom. The event was inspired by my own appearance on The Robert Guillaume Show. Yes, I was thrilled when I booked the job and loved working with Robert who I had admired and watched for most of my life. But for me this was just another job; it’s what I do. For every amazing day in an actor’s career, there could be hundreds ordinary days.

The Fall Again series starts with Fall Again: Beginnings where actors Marc and Lauren are auditioning at the same Los Angeles casting studio.This is the first time they have seen each other in over twenty years. The story then shifts to New York City in the late 1980's where Marc and Lauren meet, become good friends and eventually fall in love. While Marc and Lauren are actors, many of their friends also have careers in the arts. There is a writer, a dancer/choreographer, a comedienne, and an award winning poet. We follow this close knit group of friends in the early years of their careers. There are a variety of day jobs, family conflicts and work related separations. During the series, the careers of the secondary characters will also be followed.

The second and third books, Fall Again: Lost Boy and Fall Again: California Girl (available this summer), follow Marc and Lauren's careers during their twenty year separation. While both are working actors, their lives and artistic journeys are very different. Both encounter events(9/11, entertainment industry strikes) that effect their careers  as they both continue to evolve and grow as artists. There will be relationships and other personal issues including growing older in business that fixated on youth.

The final novel, Fall Again: Reunion (available this fall) reunites Marc and Lauren after a twenty-two year separation. Together, they will try to find balance between their personal lives and careers as they again, consider a romance.

I wanted the Fall Again series to  realistically reflect the lives of creative and performing artists, (though every creative will follow his or her own unique path). The series is grounded in the real world of working artists. All of my characters are dedicated to their careers. They are professional, diligent, and as a result, are earning livings as performing and creative artists. Those working in  creative and performing fields are often misunderstood by those in more traditional jobs who often have misconceptions of artists being frivolous, lazy and unfocussed. (I addressed this subject earlier this year in the post, Artists, Angst and Tee Shirts)

As an actor, there are often circumstances that are beyond my control. But as an author I’m enjoying complete control of the world I've created. I'm finding that my two careers are supporting each other since creativity feeds creativity.

In Fall Again, my goal was to provide a realistic glimpse into the lives of working actors and other creative artists. Hopefully I’ve dispelled some misconceptions of those in creative professions, while telling Marc and Lauren’s love story. I want my readers to experience the triumphs and heartbreaks throughout my character’s careers, and most importantly, enjoy their journeys.

The Fall Again series unknowingly began almost ten years ago over a casual dinner conversation between creative people in a creative environment.  Albert Einstein said it best--creativity is contagious.

Fall Again Series


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Falling Short: Confessions of a Would Be Dream Girl

Like any other working actor, I have a many audition stories. This one, which highlights my "shortcomings" is one of my favorites. 

At the beginning of my acting career I was living and working in Chicago.  For actors who are just starting their professional careers, Chicago is a great place to learn the business of the business. The talent pool is smaller, so newer actors will have opportunities that that they may not have in New York or Los Angeles. 
One Thursday afternoon I received a call from my agent Jan Marie. Jan was a new agent and the owner of her own agency. She often struggled to get her clients into auditions with many production companies always calling and using the established talent agencies. I’d never heard her this excited.
Donna’re in! I got you a spot on Saturday. It took some doing but you’re in!

Jan slow down.  What did you get me into?

An audition for the National Touring Company of Dreamgirls! You're going in for a role in the ensemble.

Dreamgirls premiered on Broadway in 1981. The musical is based upon the show business aspirations and successes  R&B groups like The Supremes and The Shirelles. The musical follows the story of a young female singing trio called "The Dreams", who become music superstars.
Auditions for a National Touring Company of Dreamgirls were being held in Chicago. The audition was big news throughout the African-American acting community, and just about everyone I knew was trying to get one of the few coveted audition spots.  But not me. You see, ever since Dreamgirls opened on Broadway, I’d had dreams of being part of the cast…that was until I saw the breakdown:
Ensemble: Attractive black females, 18-30.  Must sing and move well. 
Height Requirement: 5’6-5’11.

I was heartbroken.  I fell several inches short of 5’6.  When you think of the musical Dreamgirls you think statuesque women like Sheryl Lee Ralph. I'm barely 5'3 so I never got involved in any of the pre-audition hysteria of looking for the perfect songs (up-tempo &  ballad), finding the perfect  outfit, then starving myself to fit into the outfit.  It didn’t matter.  But now, I had a spot that others would kill for. At first I felt guilty about taking a spot away from another actor who fit the height requirement. I hated to break Jan’s bubble but  felt I had no choice.

Jan, thanks. I know you must have worked long and hard to get me that audition. But Jan...I’m too short! The height requirement is 5’6.  I’m barley 5’3 which means I’m really 5’2.

Jan Marie had represented  me for several months. Apparently, she'd never considered my height. Many people are surprised to see how petite I really am. I have long legs and to this day live in heels. The fact that I was barely 5'3 was news to her. 

I heard papers rustling on her desk. 

 Donna…okay I have the breakdown. Oh! You’re right. But I want you to go anyway.  You know how it is. They never really know what they want anyway. You’ve got the voice. What’s the worst that can happen?

I couldn’t say no to Jan Marie. She wouldn’t let me. Jan believed in me like no other agent ever had.

Okay. What time?

Saturday at 12:50. And the callback follows immediately at 1PM.  Bring dance clothes and be prepared to move.

She then told me that she'd snagged me the very last appointment of the preliminary call. She told me to "think tall" and wished me luck. 

I chose 2 songs that I felt showed off my voice and got to work. 

Then, I called Ty. Ty was a friend and costumer who had worked on Broadway and Vegas. (I think he’s in Branson now.) I wanted his professional advice in  styling a tall outfit and assisting me with my hair and makeup. Calling Ty was a brilliant move on my part.  By the time he’d finished with me, I appeared several inches taller.  He insisted I wear a dress to show off my long legs. He looked through my closet and pulled out a black cocktail dress that  I'd gotten on sale and never worn. The form fitting dress hit just below the knee and had a slit that showed “just the right amount” of leg.
He commented that the dress was class not trash.

He even told me what type of undergarments to wear to draw attention away from some areas while drawing attention to others.

He showed me how to  tease my hair to within an inch of it's life before pulling it into a French Twist. The poufy front helped to create the illusion of more height.
Before he came over he'd asked me what size shoe I wore and arrived with a pair of stiletto heels. I love high heels, but had never attempted anything this high. Ty drilled me by having me walk, then strut  up and down the long hallway in my apartment building until my walk appeared completely natural. I have no idea what my neighbors must have thought. 
Before Ty left, I thought that maybe I had chance of making the company after all. I had no reservations about my voice, and with my new tall makeover, I just might be able to fake my way to the callback. Ty made me feel even more confident. by telling me that his roommate auditioned earlier in week. 
You’ll be on the stage of the Schubert, and the auditors will be at least a third...maybe even halfway back in the orchestra section.  Their distance away from you will work in your favor.

I used this headshot for my Dreamgirls audition.
My resume that day listed my height as 5'6.
The next day, Saturday, I arrived at the stage door of Chicago's Schubert Theater. My newly fudged resume listed my height as 5’6.  Outside of the door I noticed a group of beautiful women dressed to the nines talking about their auditions.  Some weren’t very happy.  It seemed that none of them had sung their ballad, and some barely made it through 16 bars of their up-tempo selection.  And I noticed they were all over 5’6.  It looked like this was going to go really fast.

Auditions were running on time and in a matter of  minutes, I was led onto the stage of the majestic Schubert Theater. So many times I'd been on the other side of the stage in the audience. And so many times I'd dreamed of being on this side of the proscenium. In one of those OMG moments, I realized  I was actually on that stage in a professional capacity. In that moment everything became very real...and I realized just how much I wanted to book this job.
I gave my music to Sunny, the pianist, and moved to a mark at the center of the stage. From the stage all I could see was big black pit where the audience seats were. Then a voice from somewhere in the darkness said,  This is Donna Allen. 
The pianist played my intro. I pulled myself up as tall as I could and I began to sing. My voice filled the theater and bounced back to me from the house.  By the time I finished my up-tempo selection  I felt at least 5’10.  
A  voice from somewhere in the darkness asked if I had a ballad. 
 I was amazingly calm as I confidently  nodded to the pianist. I sang my entire ballad, pulling out all of the stops. 
 When I finished, I knew  I 'd done well.  And I stood there. And I continued to stand there to the point where I felt uncomfortable. I was expecting to be dismissed with  a thank you, or asked to stay for the callback, but there was silence. 
I looked back at the pianist because she was the only person I could see. She smiled and nodded as if to say, “It’s okay. Just wait.” 
That’s when I heard the voice from the dark again. 

Miss Allen, just a moment please. 
Then I heard several whispering voices.  There seemed to be a lot of people out there in the dark. Finally the voice spoke again…but not to me. 
Sunny, would you do us a favor and go stand next to Miss Allen? 
I thought that was odd. The pianist came and stood next to me. She was short!
Miss Allen would you please remove 1 shoe?

No! I’d come too far to leave now. I removed one shoe while remaining standing, perfectly poised on the opposite leg and my stiletto heeled foot.  There was laughter from the dark.

Thank you, Miss Allen. Would you humor us, and stand on stand on your other leg. 

All of a sudden, Sunny became tall, and my true size--short, was revealed.

Thank you.

I took my music, and exited through the Schubert’s stage door, still not quite believing what had just transpired.  I hailed a cab, suddenly feeling severely overdressed and made-up in the harsh daylight.

From a Dreamgirls production touring The Netherlands.

So, I would never become a member of the Dreamgirls ensemble. I did take pride in the fact that I’d had a good audition. I still laugh at the mental image of myself standing on the stage of the Schubert Theater on one foot in my black cocktail dress. 
Over the years there would be other auditions and other jobs.  I booked one job simply because I was the shortest woman who attended the call. They knew. Good things come in small packages.

The 1st National Tour of DREAMGIRLS opened at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 20, 1983. After three stops, the tour proved too expensive to run and closed early.