An Actor’s Full Circle

It’s the mid-1970’s, I am 6 years old and I sit in front of my mom’s antique armoire every morning. This is my performance space. It has three long mirrors. A wide one in the center, and two moveable ones on the side so I can change focus at appropriate dramatic moments.

In the drawers,  I keep all my tools for prep. I have a ritual, where I methodically place make-up items on a laid out hand towel. Lipstick, powder puff, and a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder. I sprinkle powder onto the puff, and dust my entire face and neck till I’m covered in white, then finish it off with mom’s rejected Estée Lauder lipstick.

White face, red lips, now I’m ready to perform…

I improvise soliloquies and sing arias in made up languages. All my work is original, if not repetitive. My repertoire expands when Mom takes us to see the movie version of the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. I learn the entire soundtrack because I am in love… with three things. One: the music moves me in ways I did not yet have the vocabulary to describe. Two: Ted Neely who plays Jesus. Oh Ted, with those piercing blue eyes. I don’t know how to love him either, because he’s giving me feelings. And not the kind you’re supposed to have about Jesus. Three: Yvonne Elliman who plays Mary Magdalene, because her voice is like sweet honey, her performance is true, and well, because she looks like me. Not exactly like me, but close enough. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced this. Someone up there looks like me. While Ted Neely awoke my romantic, Yvonne Elliman awoke my dreamer. This is what I want to do, I want to be an actor.

But I don’t say it out loud, because every other movie we see after Jesus Christ Superstar: Grease, Heaven Can Wait, Rocky, Logan’s Run, The Turning Point, Ice Castles. I loved them all, but I never saw me in any of them. So my performances with white powder on my face in front of the armoire become less frequent and eventually non-existent.

Until 6th grade at Blessed Sacrament, when my beautiful teacher, Miss Annie Barbieri, assigns us these skits which have messages, like ABC after school specials. My scene is a two hander in which my character is torn when her friend is shoplifting at a department store. In reality, I am more of the shoplifter in real life, but my character is different. She knows it’s wrong. I get up there, off book and playing out the greatest dilemma I’d ever felt, except, I’m not really me, it’s like someone else talking, I’m just moving my mouth. On the way out to recess, Miss Barbieri waves me over, puts her arm around me and says, “You are a very good actor. You’re very real up there. You should be taking lessons. Maybe even auditioning.”

This is big! Because Ms. Barbieri, she IS an actor. She’s been on “Simon & Simon.” Surely she knows what she’s talking about. She just re-awoke my dreamer. I get a commercial and theatrical agent, start auditioning, but the truth is, in 1983, there’s just not a lot out there for someone who look like me. So I put the dream away again.

Two years later, I’m a freshman at Immaculate Heart, and I find myself playing the main role in the skit my class is presenting for our big Welcome Day celebration. I’m playing a detective, so I fashion myself into an Edward James Olmos from Miami Vice. I’ve got the trench coat, painted on mustache, hair slicked back and hidden under a hat, because despite my school being a liberal, feminist one, in the 80s, we still assumed that all detectives were men. I’m nervous as hell to get out there, but as I step on stage, it takes over me, the Detective, and he doesn’t let go of me till I walk off the stage. I don’t even remember how it went. Was I any good? Who knew. At the end of the day, the upper level English teacher, Carmen Hill congratulates me.

“You were fierce, you commanded, and it was almost like you disappeared, and you were channeling, I don’t know, some kind of Eddie James Olmos.”

Whoa. This is big! I couldn’t have asked for a better review. Except the drama teacher never approaches me and as much as I value Carmen’s opinion, if the drama teacher doesn’t see it in me, then maybe I don’t really have it.

For totally unrelated reasons, I get kicked out of Immaculate Heart at the end of my junior year. You can read about that story later. Having totally shamed my family and myself with my expulsion, I figure, screw it. I’ve already lost everything, why not just say what I’ve been wanting to say since I was six.”

“Ma, I want to be an actor.”

“Ay, susmaryosep,” is all she says, and that’s Filipino for Jesus, Mary, Joseph.

I sign up for Drama 101 at Glendale High School. In our first week, we have to perform a monologue for our teacher, a giant of a man in stature, voice and energy, Mack Dugger. I go through Dugger’s bookshelves, pull out Samuel French Ultimate Monologues. I flip through it: female, young, dramatic. The Madwoman of Chaillot. I didn’t know how to pronounce it then, I don’t know how to pronounce it now. But with that monologue, Mr. Dugger moves me from Drama 101 to Drama 102. This is big! Because there is no 103. I get cast in student directed one acts and the MainStage show, the dreamer is back.

Until my first year as a theater major at Glendale College, when the head of the department, a small man with a large mustache, tells me I can’t possibly play Alais in Lion in Winter because, and I quote, “you look about as much like a French princess as I do.” I am put in as one of 6 non-speaking Ladies in Waiting, otherwise known as on-stage prop movers.

In my second year, he tells me if I want to get cast in The Nerd then he’d have to cut my long hair and make it a Connie Chung hairdo, you know, because how else could an Asian girl pass as a newscaster? I want to say, “Are you freaking kidding me?” Instead I say “Sure, I’ll do it.” He doesn’t give me the role. He gives it to a blonde non-theater major, and he doesn’t make her cut her hair.

It’s clear I need to get out of Glendale College, so I apply to Cal Arts, audition with Portia from “Julius Caesar,” and get my acceptance letter. Except, I realize, I don’t have the money to go to Cal Arts and I’m not brave enough to take out massive loans. I defer for a year, giving myself the condition that if I don’t get a paying acting job in this year, then back to school it is.

Every week, I go to the newsstand to pick up Drama-Logue, — remember them, with the shiny paper — and I go through the audition listings and get myself out there. The months fly by and suddenly, it’s August, no paying job. School starts in September, so I know where I’m headed, though I don’t know how. Maybe I’ll sell pot and pay for tuition that way. Suddenly, my pager goes off, — remember those? — I have an audition for an educational touring company called Twelfth Night Repertory. From the first minute I pick up the material, I know I want this job. In the eleventh hour, I get a very well paying gig that pulls me away from school, to do shows in schools. And the shows are like better written, more theatrical after schools specials, with a message. Something about them reminds me of the skits from Ms. Barbieri’s class.

I cut my teeth with these shows, and it is the best training an actor can get, because no one will call you out on your shitty performances faster than a 13 year old kid watching a school assembly in the cafetorium. If you are not completely authentic and committed and believable, you will get booed. Or worse, you get applauded — when your character dies. My death got applauded more than a handful of times. But now I’m dreaming and in love again. This time with the educational theater forum. I love arts for arts sake, but art for social change’s sake, that is where I live and breathe.

A couple years later, it’s 1995, and I’ve been touring the country with an interactive show for incoming college freshmen with the company Playfair. My New York agent, Linda calls.

“Hey Frannie, a couple of the colleges where you did Playfair want you to come back and do a diversity workshop for them,”

 Linda says.

“Diversity workshop? I don’t do workshops, that’s for academics like Cornell West.”

“Yeah, yeah, but the schools think since the students like you, they’ll listen to you more, blah de blah. It’s very hot right now, you know multiculturalism.”

“Uh….can I do a play…about multiculturalism.”

“I don’t know. Can you? Put something together, let’s see.”

So I do. I interview young people and hold round table discussions to find stories from their cultural perspectives about their American experience. And I create 8 characters from these interviews, and I’ll play them on stage, male, female, gay, straight, all different ethnicities. Wait, how do I pull that off?

Then I hear Carmen’s words “it was like you channeled Eddie James Olmos up there.” And that is what I did. I just need to get out of these characters’ way. I just need to be the vessel, channel them, and let them tell their stories. I started touring Faces of America in 1996. The LA Times slammed me. The Aryan Nations threatened to bomb me. The United Nations Association gave me a standing ovation. I’ve now performed the show in multi-useless rooms for audiences as small as 20 to stadiums with crowds as big as 4000, at over 500 colleges in 49 states. Hawaii, I’m waiting for your call. 23 years later, I’m still doing the show, of course with massive re-writes to keep it current.

Two years ago, I’m hired by the Pasadena Playhouse, to workshop a new play by Gabriel Rivas Gomez. Before one of our rehearsals, I am sitting in the car, on the phone, pitching my show to Redlands University when Gabe taps at my window, needing change for his parking meter. I’m in my sales pitch flow, so I wave him away. When I get out of the car, I apologize and tell him what I was doing.

“This is your show? And it goes to colleges? You know I teach at a college now, I have a budget, I can bring you in. Will you come?”

“You have a budget? Yeah, of course I’ll come. Where do you teach?”

“Glendale College.”

Glendale College. Oh, yeah. I’ll come.

Walking into the theater, it doesn’t seem all too familiar, there have been changes in the last 30 years, from the seats in the house to the head of the department. When I enter the dressing room, however, it is exactly the same. I think I even recognize some of the busted and wobbly chairs from 25 years ago, because theater department dressing rooms are where old chairs go to die. I sit at the make-up station, same one I used to take when I was 18, and I start my ritual. I lay down the hand towel, and start to methodically place my make-up. Lipstick, powder puff, but no more Johnson’s baby powder. I don’t need to whiten my face anymore. My brown one is good enough.

At the post-show Q&A, a student raises her hand.

“I don’t have a question. I just wanted to say thank you. I’m Filipino-American, and I always feel invisible, you know. But now, I just watched you up there, and you look like me. I feel like I’ve been seen, you know?”

“Yeah, sweet girl, I know. Thank you for sharing that with me. And thank you for reminding me, I need thank Yvonne Elliman. She looked like me too.”

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