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Career Conversations: Discussion between YA Librarian Llyr Heller and Theatre Careers
LLYR HELLER: Hello everyone. My name is Llyr. I'm one of the librarians here at TeenScape. Welcome to our next edition of Career Conservation: Working in Theater.
Quick notes: Please silent cell phones. Bathrooms are right outside just down the way. And you may be in some photos. I may jump up to take photos this way like the back of your head will be in photos. Yeah, lets get started.
Please help me to welcome: We have Matthew Paul Olmos award winning playwright; Bernardo Cubria award winning playwright and actor; and Andy Lowe, Director of Production of East West Players.
So how we do this here is I'll start with the questions. Get it rolling and then I like to take audience questions especially volunteers. Lets get some questions going. Alright. Let's start.
First welcome. Thank you all so much for taking time out of your Saturday to do this. We are recording for podcast so your questions will be on our podcast.
I like to just start with the path you've taken to get to where you are today in terms of schooling, internships, things like that.
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I actually started my senior year of under grad, I switched majors to theater because I took a play writing class just kind of on a lark and it really took to me. And I sort of I just felt I had a connection to it like something I'd never had before. So I immediately jumped into grad school.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: So I went the grad school route. I went and got my MFA at the Actor Studio, New School for Drama in New York. And then I basically just stayed there. I started at an Indy theater company. I interned at Manhattan Theater Club. And then I began as a staff, a staffer, at the Mark Play Development Center, which is a laboratory for playwrights in New York.
At a certain point, my own career began to take off a bit and then I didn't have time for the full time work. So in 2012 I flipped over and started doing play writing full time, and that's basically what I do now. So...
ANDY LOWE: I came at play writing kind of as an accident. I'm an actor and I moved to New York after college. I went to theater school to be an actor. And then just because things were slow and I wasn't booking some acting stuff, I decided to start write...writing at home. And then the more and more I did that, the more and more I liked it. But I didn't do grad school. I didn't do all of that. I mean most of the people that I've met and gotten my play writing opportunities from have been because of my acting and because of getting to know theater people that way. So it's...it's not at all a path that anyone should follow. [Chuckling]
Yeah, I think, that's going to be the the running theme, right, for this is that none of us necessarily probably ended up where we thought we would because it's not really a linear path; right, I mean, so my thing was I actually thought I was going to do visual art. I was going to do like graphic novels, story boarding, you know, concept design for like theme parks. And I ended up at well and so because of that, I started doing a lot of writing.
I ended up having a play that I wrote in high school was selected for production by the Old Globe for a young California Young Playwrights Project. And then I went to school so I could be an art major and ended up in a really crappy art program. [Chuckling]. That really wasn't doing I was literally the nerd that wanted to sit there and cross hatch all day. They were not into that. They just wanted me to look at Des Champs journal and do a lot of, you know, performance based sculpture, which was not what I was into at all. So I ended up in the theater program because I met the theater design instructor there, Ron Ranson, who got me into his first kind of design class. And that was really much like closer to what I was looking for because it was place making. It was design. It was, you know, much more nuts and bolts. It was more like how do you how do you story tell through design.
And then from there, it went to light and design. And, of course, having done some play writing in the past, eventually play writing. And then eventually I ran out of all the other classes that I could take that wasn't acting, so then I ended up acting. Then I started acting, and I'm like: Wow, I'm Asian! They aren't going to cast me in anything. So I started an Asian American theater company. And then I started to apply all these other random schools that I was picking up while I was freelancing at La Jolla Play House and the Old Globe and the San Diego Rep and doing stuff with my own small company. And, you know, still going to school. Crazy. And then had an agent in LA and San Diego and was driving back and forth.
So it was crazy. And so eventually it was like let's stop everything. Let's cool off, and pick a thing. And right now I'm a production manager. So I'm producing mostly. I still consider myself a director first; but yeah, it's never a linear path; right.
LLYR HELLER: Wonderful. Thank you.
Can any of you, do any of you have a favorite school you could recommend? I know you had some bad experiences; you don't have to name it if you don't want to. But any particular schools? I know you went to UC Santa Barbara; is that a particularly good school for play writing?
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I would say in terms of under grad, I think wherever,I don't think there's a huge difference in under grad where you go at least in terms of play writing. For grad school, unless you're going to like a Yale or Juliard, those are schools that will really put you afterwards and place you somewhere. You will get an agent pretty quickly. You might get a show at a prominent theater. Others schools you can also learn quite a lot. That's where I went also. But, at this point in time, most of them can't do much for you outside like their sort of professional development. It isn't anywhere close to like a Juliard or Yale. So like a lot of kids when they're thinking about applying, I'm always saying that unless it's paid for and it's free, there's a lot of things to consider because they might not be able to help you in a bigger way after school's over.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: Yeah, I mean, I would say I agree with Matt. I think that unless it's like Yale or maybe Columbia or Juliard that those are schools that set you up afterward, and that you can have easier access to sort of the bigger agencies, and there's this sort of network that really takes one another. Like we joke the people who have lived in New York about the Yale mafia. It's a real thing. Watch out. If you can get in it, get in it. But I think mostly I would get into a school where I can write as much as possible and that gives me the freedom to produce my work even if it's at a lower level. The school that I went to was the University of Houston, which is not a renowned theater school. But why I loved it was because my friends and I where like: Oh, you guys only do white plays, can we use the smaller theater and put on our brown plays? Sure. Yeah. Do whatever you want. And they got out of our way and let us fail and create our own stuff. That was where I learned the most.
ANDY LOWE: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, something to kind to just kind of add onto what they're saying too, right, is that I think there's maybe three methodologies you choose a school for theater, right. One is where you you're getting kind of your fundamental. You're just learning your core, like your craft, your acting or writing, whatever, or if you're doing technical work or design; right. And then there's kind of career launching, right. And that's kind of when you're at the kind of grad school or conservatory level; right. Cause those are where it's not even just kind of, you know like the idea everyone says networking or whatever. It's not really just networking, it's actually you kind of think about creating your kind of circle of artist who you collaborate with right. Cause literally a lot of these talking about the Yale mafia the Yale mafia is what it is because they are all hiring each other because they knew each other. A director makes gets a foot in the door and gets a big fellowship grant and they call on their play writing friend who was in the MFA with them and they commission a play together. Or this playwright gets a big grant and a commission at South Coast Rep and she calls on her friend who was directing her plays in the MFA; right. So that's kind of where that is right.
In terms of getting the experience and getting your craft, there's a lot of different ways you can approach that; right. There's a lot of great technical programs. If you're going to design or technical theater on the East Coast, like in the Carolina's, I got a lot of friends from there. There's a great design program at UCSD down in San Diego.
The other thing that I think , you know, I think is underrated in terms of how you're choosing your school is what city you're not; right. It's not just like where do you want to be because part of telling stories is also living your own story, right. That's how you come to understand stories is living your own story. So what do you want to be the backdrop for your story that you're learning that is informing your experience; right. LA might be the place and USC and UCLA have great programs for play writing and actors. Of course, New York. Boston. You know the other thing is that you're looking at theater programs that are affiliated with kind of world class theaters, right. So like ART has a great relationship with Harvard or...Yeah...Yeah, Harvard.Of course, UCSD has a great relationship with the La Jolla Play House. USD in San Diego has a great relationship with the Old Globe Theater; right. So these are all kinds of like things that factor into this. So kind of getting an idea of, you know you know, and also there's also obviously all of us talking about nontraditional educations; right. It's like sometimes your education is you start at a theater company and you learn things cause you have to get it up because your opening night is in two weeks. So you better learn lighting design right now; right. And you'll find those kind of tools.
There are other great programs from companies like Oregon Shakespeare Festival that have a great apprenticeship program. You know and both for technical as well. I don't want to forget that kind of side. This is such a multi faceted field that all kind of interplay together. So yeah.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you so much.
Would this be a good career path for an introvert versus an extrovert? And, as you said, the tech the tech jobs perhaps you're painting a set in the back, you're working with others, but you don't have to be on stage with others.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: [Inaudible] I feel like I know a lot of artists that are introverts. Even actors that are introverts by nature. But they channel this other thing or they are able to find this other way of expression.
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I was just saying the exact same thing that I know a lot of actors who are off stage very quiet and very to themselves. Writer's the same way. But their work on the page, you read it, and you're like oh, my God, this is so alive and amazing and crazy. Or actors who are just sort of off the walls on stage. But they somehow, like you said, they just, I think, they have something where they're able to sort of do something that they can't do in every day to day life. But they are able to do it in this one medium and that's where they sort of flourish. So for me it's totally something, but at the same time, I would say a big like me and Bernardo talk about this all the time where like a big part of this is, you know, writing is a lot like maybe half my job. The other half of my job is really to go to people's shows, go to readings, go to events, and actually just try to meet and talk to people. So the networking aspect of it is pretty big and that's how things come through. So it's odd where in one way you can be sort of an introvert, but there is an expectation of you to just sort of being involved in the community and sort of be active in it socially. So...
BERNARDO CUBRIA: Yeah, I mean, I think if you are an introvert the way to sort of combat that is being like Matt said, even if you just go to people's plays. That means a great deal to someone. I mean as playwrights, if you come to my reading, I will always remember that you came to that reading, like, you know, and that will like that means a great deal to me. And also I think by being professional, being early, and always you know treating people kindly. That's the kind of stuff that's more important than whether you're an introvert or an extrovert. Because that's the stuff that people, when they go, hey, should I be in Matt's play. I'll be like no Matt throws his water bottle at you. But, you know what I mean [Laughter] that's the kind of stuff that's more important.
But yeah being around extrovert helps in every industry because you can go to a party and go charm some people, you know. Like I wish that wasn't true, but that is very helpful in this industry.
ANDY LOWE: Yeah, I mean, and, you know, the thing is too right, again, kind of coming back to this idea of networking. Networking doesn't have to be I'm going to meet people; right. I mean one of the things I've done I've been in LA for six years. Within the first year, I started a gaming group; right. It's just other actors and musicians and people who've come through our theater and are like oh, you know, like to play board games. Let's just do board games. Much more simpler, it doesn't have to be but , you know, it is. A lot of this is about finding collaborators, it's about who you jive with, right. And so, and you can you don't have to talk about the biz to figure out what that is. I mean, you know, there are many times I'll be sitting there going you know oh, man you just took all my resources stupid Katan. And, you know, and then it will be kind comes forward and be like what if we just write a musical. Because, you know, because I mean it is still this kind of this lived experience and this kind of building bonds, right.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: Yeah and I think one of the mistakes when you talk about networking is this sort of like I think a lot of people put a lot of energy into theaters that they don't even like and they don't even like their work; right. And it's like why are you so desperately trying to like we all want to make a name for ourselves and we all want to meet people. But also like look at who's doing the kind of work that you're interested in that you want to work at, and then go volunteer for that theater company. And say hey, do you guys need someone to run box office? I am turned on by the art you create. And I think ...And that's the part, what you're talking about, see other people's plays...Yeah...People who are like minded.
Yeah. So like for me in New York INTAR was this Latino theater company. And I was kind of like bumbling around seeing like bad Shakespeare in New York. And then I walked into INTAR and I was like oh, my God. There are other Latino people who do theater. And like they tell the kind of stories I like. It wasn't just that it was Latino. It was like this is my stuff. Like this is what I like. I was like oh, I'm going to hang out in this theater, you know. And that was the beginning of the end. [Laughter]
No, I'm just kidding. [Laughter]
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. I will pause. Any questions from the audience thus far? Do you have a question? All right.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So I was wondering what do you do as like, you know, playwrights, like, how do you come up with ideas and things. I'm sorry.
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I mean for me a lot of mine are sort of research based. So like me reading the paper or listening to podcasts or just reading any random articles that people send me. Like, I'll read something. I'm just interested in certain topics and at a certain point something will catch my eye. And I'll be like oh, that's interesting. This woman did this thing. It's like the tiniest the little mention in the article, but it sparks an idea in my head. And then pretty soon I'll sort of research that idea and then I basically just keep researching until a story finds it's way into my brain.
For me it's just like taking in mostly nonfiction type stuff, newspaper articles, essays, things like that and then something it sounds like I'm waiting for it, but it happens enough where I'm like that's interesting. That's interesting. And so it just sparks ideas for me. So it's really just letting things come to me and then waiting for a little spark to be like oh, okay, I have an idea.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: For me it's more like I daydream a lot. And I'm kind of sit around and think about, you know, ideas. And, if I have an idea that I really like, it usually takes me about a year or two to write it because I kind of filter my ideas cause I have a lot lotta of bad ideas. If one idea keeps coming back and keeps coming back and I keep thinking about it and I keep making little notes in my notebooks about it, it becomes it gets to a point where I have to write that play. I think that has saved me from writing a lot of I have so many bad ideas that I'm very happy that I'm very happy I never sat down and wrote. [Laughter].
ANDY LOWE: My big advice actually for you is well, okay, yeah. So like stories can come from anywhere, right. It's really like what interests you. I also kind of for every level of like theater artist whether design or whatever, I always recommend that people take a little bit of improv. Because sometimes that that skill, that muscle of basically of just having to make choices on the spot can be hugely valuable; right. There are times actually when I was writing writing a little bit more where I'd be like I have a silly idea. Like this is a cool this would be a cool Star Trek episode; right. So here's this concept of, you know, what if an alien race, you know, started World War II the same way we did, right. And, you know, I'm just coming up with something random; right. And then it's kind of like here's this random scenario. Here's my actor friends. Come on over. Here's the scenario. You're an alien, you know, and you invented World War II. And you're, you know, you start spit balling; right. You start kind of figuring out where you go. I have a great idea for a character I don't know what story they're in, right. So then feed it to another actor friend. And then start putting let's put that character in, you know, an ice cream shop. What happens?
Oh, as we improv through it, we suddenly discover he's got a back story of why he doesn't like ice cream because he's lactose intolerant. Oh, okay. Where does that lead us to? Why is he lactose intolerant? You know, you can kind of come up with all kinds of random stuff as you keep literally bouncing the ball off the wall, right.
Any other questions?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [Inaudible]
BERNARDO CUBRIA: That's a good question. No, that's a smart question. Is your question off of play writing or other things as well?
So I will tell you of my income, I would say ten percent of it is play writing. That may even be a large exaggeration. Where's my wife? She'd come here and tell you what it is. But like I make most of my money acting in commercials, which does not feed my soul. It sells my soul. Play writing is not a place to make money. That, if that's your question, like, like Matt is in my opinion I'm not here to embarrass him, but one of the best LatinX playwrights alive today. And I don't even think Matt has been produced all over the country. Won a bunch of awards. Matt would you tell someone to become a playwright to make money? [Laughter].
Like Matt's where you want to get to. You know what I mean? Like there's like two playwrights who make money off of play writing, right.
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: Yeah. I mean I would say one of the best things advice I ever got there's a lot of people who there's an artist named Eric Fleischer who's an sculptor and a painter and he had a piece in Rockefeller Center just after 9/11, I think it was called Bodies or Falling Bodies. And it actually got his piece got taken down, but it was a big deal that he got this sort of commission to do this thing right after 9/11 in Rockefeller Center in New York.
One piece of advice he gave me one time was that he felt there was through his lifetime there's been so many other artists, painters sculptors whoever they were who were much more better than him much more talented than him. But what they didn't have that he had, he thought was that they were too scared of the what's the word? Maybe not volatile, but unpredictability of income that artists have. And you got admit it made sense that many people need to a have a certain amount of pay check each month year whatever it is so they know they're going to be fine throughout the year. They can pay rent. They can support their family whatever it is. But he was just sort of saying that many of them drop off what they're doing with their art because it's so all over the place. The income you make year to year. Some years it's pretty good and you feel on top of the world and other years it's really low and you're scared.
So he felt that's something that artist's need to say like I'm going to take this life on even though the income I'm going to have is going to be all over the map and I'm never gonna know where it's going to be next year.
So in answer to your question, you know, some years I do okay and other years I'm literally toward the spring like I need an e mail to come in to give me some money to do something cause I need to like pay rent. So, you know, what I mean. To me that's the main important thing knowing that it's always going to be even friends of mine who are doing really well. They're doing TV stuff whatever. I have a friend who was on The Daily Show for a few years; got an Emmy for that. Was on writing for the Parks and Rec after that. And then she had a lull for about five years before she got, I think, How I Met Your Mother. And it was just amazing because she was this sort of celebrated writer who has Emmys. She was on The Daily Show back in the John Stewart days back in the 80's, and it was a really hot show. Then she had this five year or so gap where nothing was coming in, but luckily she saved money and she was sort of all right. So the income question is funny because it's each year is so vastly different depending on what you're doing. And a lot of my stuff comes from maybe one time a film thing comes through, or one time a TV thing comes through, but and playwright for me happens to be a little bit more steady, but there's like always odd jobs that come my way and I'm like okay. And that ends up saving me for the year whatever it is. And other years I'm doing better. But it's such a weird like my taxes are all over the map cause, you know, it's random.
ANDY LOWE: Yeah, I mean, it's a loaded question because I know people who are making, you know, a few hundred thousand, you know, annually. I know there are people in freelance that are doing like 30 thousand. You know, I have I have I have a sit down job at a theater company right now so I'm in the realm of 50 thousand, which is, you know, respectable. But but, I mean, when I compare to like my same job say in the theme park industry, it's like three times that; right.
So, so, again, it's not it's not something you go into for the money, but I don't want to say that you cannot make money; right. And part of this is that this, this field is so diverse that you will end up doing a lot of things. And, if you are committed to kind of, you know, I mean, I've kind of gone more the arts administer realm; right. So I'm kind of I'm producing and directing less and doing my own art less. And that's how I have a steady pay check ultimately; right.
When I was doing freelance, you know, I'd say 70 percent of the job was hustling for other jobs; right. And, as soon as I got a contract, then it's like okay I'm gonna spend about 60 percent of my brain doing the art and I'm going to spend the other 40 percent of my brain hustling for the next thing.
You know, so it's like, you know, I've lucked out where I've had years where I got a $60,000 grant; right. So its like you apply to a grant through actually San Diego Public Library and they were kind of the fiscal receiver and I got to work with a playwright and commission a new work and develop a piece. And that sustained me for a year while I was doing my other hustles, you know. I'd say so yeah and then there are years where it's like, you know, I wasn't, you know, booking any acting. I wasn't, you know, directing any shows, but I was like getting hired consistently as a freelance stage hand and an electrician. And those years, actually, I probably got paid a lot better because , you know, it's like this is another thing too, right, where there's like, you know, you can still get hired like kind of hourly, you know, W4 over hire work as an electrician, as a sound technician, as a carpenter. You're still in the creative field. You're still having to do all this problem solving. And it's certainly a lot steadier. And you're not kind of hustling as much, but you're also kind of in that kind of grind, right.
So it's a balance, right. You know, you do have to kind of multitask and multi disciplinize yourself so that you can jump from, you know, doing, you know, doing commercials and book that so that gives you the space to concentrate. Ok, I'm going to spend this next month and just write, right. Or you decide to go the other route and you find, you know, it's very rewarding to just be an arts administer, a producer, you know, a fundraiser. These are all kind of important aspects of this and it still keeps your foot in the work.
LLYR HELLER: I had a follow up question to that. What's kind of a week in your life with all the different jobs you all do? Like if you're screen writing one week? Or you're also doing your play writing? Like your acting? All the various what's your week kind of look like and what are your hours? I know they're all over the place, but...
ANDY LOWE: Which phase of my life? Good God. [Laughter]. I mean for me right now because I've got the non profit job at East West Players, I mean generally speaking it's suppose to be 40 hours a week. It ends up being between 50 sometimes 70 hours a week when we're about to open a show. And, then on my time away from that, and then there's the time that I allocate for my own kind of creative projects whether it's , you know, developing a short film or whatever so you know try and keep a little bit of time for myself outside of that.
When I was an actor, it was all over the place; right. Because literally it would be like I have three auditions. Like there's be weeks where I'd have three auditions a week, two of them in LA and one of them in San Diego. So I spent a lot of time in the car. And then I'd come back and I'd sit there for about six hours a day looking at budgets for the shows that I was producing in San Diego. And then so, I mean, yeah, it can range. I mean this is more to the point of what we're talking about of this is something that you pursue for your passion. You know, your work is your hobby which is both a blessing and a curse; right.
And, you know, particularly, I think, talking about like, you know, we're all kind of representing well to a certain degree of like theater East Coast Players is the longest running theater of color in the nation; the largest professional producer of Asian American theater; right. So there's an extra boost of I got to stay awake, another hour earlier I can get through this budget because there's actors of color that are dependent on the opportunities we create; right. So there's an extra kind of like motivation there for more like me. I don't know, I been talking a lot. [Laughter]
BERNARDO CUBRIA: I mean my schedule is the only constants in my life are I have a baby and he wakes up between 6:30 and 7:00. And that's a constant and my wife so far has still decided to be a constant in my life because she's still at my house. So those are the two constants I have.
I mean, I have weeks where I don't have any auditions. And I write a lot at a coffee shop. And, you know, try to write plays and pretend to write screen plays, but I never do that.
And then, like, okay, this is just an example of one of my days this week just because I think it's how insane I think this industry is. I woke up. I take my kid to daycare. I'm on my way to a coffee shop to write a play a new play. I sit down to write. I get a call from my agent. You have a last minute commercial audition in Burbank. I live in Santa Monica. Okay. So I drive all the way to Burbank. Well I go home. I shave my face. I go to Burbank. Okay. I pretend to be a young dad. Sell my soul for five minutes. Then I start driving back from Burbank. On the way back, I get a call from my legit agent. Hey, you have to put yourself on tape for a cop role for This is Us and they need it in an hour. Oh, my God, I speed. I get home. I put on my cop shirt that I paid like ten bucks for these moments of my life. I record the one line. I send it off. And then my baby, we go pick him up from daycare and I'm hanging out with him. Okay. This is important just to tell you this is what you are in for in this career. Yesterday at 8:00 p.m. at night I get a phone call. Hey, you booked that This is Us line. Awesome. When does it shoot? Tuesday. Oh, I'm in New York Tuesday for a reading of my play. Oh, well what are you going to do? I don't know. Cry and drink a lot of wine because I don't know which of the two things mean more to me. So I turned down the one line of the TV show because I care more about play writing, but it hurt. And that I just tell that story to be like if you had asked me Monday what's going to happen this week, I cause there have been so many weeks where none of that happened. So it's all very exciting stuff, but it's also like why did it happen in one week?
I don't know. Matt, do you have an answer. [Laughter]
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: No. I mean, for me I think as a freelancer I'm almost doing my best each week to convince myself it's a 40 hour work week. If I'm traveling or here in New York or at one of my home bases, I try and treat it like I have eight hours of work every day.
Like if I'm traveling somewhere and have rehearsals, I have rehearsal and then I have rewrite afterwards. So I spend eight hours a day working on my rehearsals and my play. And if I don't have rehearsal that day, then I try to do my best to get up and spend a couple hours doing e mail. Then I try to spend a couple hours doing writing on a couple different projects. So I try best I can to pretend as though I have an office and a day job where I have to be there sitting.
When in reality and many times this happens, I get up and wonder around the house and I'm doing something stupid for most the day, you know. But it's weird, I think when you're working full time still, all you want is time to work on your plays. And like I wish I could be doing artistic stuff all day long. Why am I stuck in this job? This is terrible. Then you are awarded some of this time. You have this entire week of technically nothing to do, but it's a weird thing to actually force your brain to: No, I'm not just going to go for a drive, or go to the beach, or go play with dogs in the park. To be like actually: No, I have a job. It's called writing. Even though I technically don't have to check in anywhere, but to make yourself check in is sort of the goal of my existence.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. Audience questions? I know there are a few. All right.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was going to ask if you had any regrets about choices that you made to get to where you are?
LLYR HELLER: Good question. Oh, good one.
ANDY LOWE: You know, that's [Chuckling] I could say yes, but it's hard because so much of who I am is everything that I've been through; right. So to forfeit some of that is to forfeit me; right. So no. You know there's certainly things that I wonder about. So case example, right, thinking that I was going to go into design, illustration, whatever which could have landed me in animation or could have landed me in theme park design or something like that. And of course, leave that behind and focusing on theater, then little did I know in 2015 I got a random call from an old boss of mine from another theater I used to work at who was like: Andy, I'm working for Disney Imagineering right now. I've got this project and I can't tell you about it until you sign this NDA, but you'd be great for this; right. And low and behold here I am looking at going, going into something I thought I had left behind 10, 15 years ago. It's funny because, again, this is such this field is so you know, you're never ever one thing and you develop all these other random skills that you don't, you know, I know I know stage managers that have gone onto become entrepreneurs and, you know, like executives. I know directors that have become chief creatives for theme parks. I know sound designers who have gone into the video game industry. I know, you know, actors who have jumped into every imaginable thing you can imagine; right. Because so much of this as story tellers, your it's kind of your job to put your head into a lot of different things. You do become a chameleon and you have the ability to jump in and out of other careers; right. So that was kind of an interesting thing to just randomly take this three month freelance gig working for Imagineering and jump into this and put myself into this different head space that I thought was gone; right. So that was cool; right. I mean and I think that's kind of one of the fascinating things about, you know, this field; right.
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I would say that my immediate answer is yes. Many regrets all the time, every day. But at the same time, what you're saying, they all lead me to a certain path that I didn't expect to go on. So one thing I really regret happened where I met this one person where this person changed my life over here. But I can think of two very specific examples for me.
One is right outside of UC Santa Barbara. I applied kind of blindly to all these grad schools. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know anything about theater. I wanted to keep studying. I got into a bunch of schools, but at UCLA they were offering a bunch of money to go to UCLA. They were going to pay for tuition. They were going to pay me. Housing was free and everything. I really didn't want to go there. I wanted to go to New York. I was dying to go to New York. I'd been there once and it just felt like that's where I wanted to be as a person. So at the very last minute UCLA had to call me and said we need to know today if you are coming or not because you've held us off too long. And so I was like: Yes, okay. I'll be there. So clearly they were already aware that I wasn't dying to go there. I went there because of the money purely even though in my heart I really didn't want to. Then after my first year at UCLA grad school, they kicked me out at the end of the year. And then I immediately went back to New York and I was happy. Then the second example would be that a couple years ago, because all my friends were playwrights were coming out here to write TV shows. And I'm like I want some of that money also. I'll come out to LA and I'll start working in TV as well. I made another decision purely based on money. I'm not really a TV person. I like film. I like theater. That's what I care about. But I was trying to force myself to like it TV. So I came out here, did the whole run meetings, and all that stuff. I really didn't like it. It was not me at all. That was another thing. I'm like oh, wait a minute! This had happened. I thought back to UCLA and I was like I did that thing again where I made a decision solely on money and it didn't go that way. My life didn't turn that way. I can't say it was a mistake because things that have happened since then that were positive, but for my own personal thing, I really felt when I've done something purely based on money and didn't have any soul in it, it didn't go my way. So I'm sort of in my brain now, I'm sort of thinking if that comes across me again, hold on let me think about this for a second before I make that decision. I can't say it's a regret totally because a lot of good things came out of both those decisions, but I do regret them, you know.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: Yeah, I mean, I have so many regrets in my life, but it's not my career has been what it is. And, I think, more of my regrets are like, you know, I should have just like I wish I had gone to, I wish I had known I wanted to be an actor and a playwright before I applied to universities. I wish I had known that there are certain schools that set you up before for after.
But, you know, I wasn't at a place in my life to know those things and I wouldn't have succeeded at those schools if I applied at that moment in my life. So I think those things happen for a reason. I'll tell you this isn't a regret, but I early on in my career made my career the most important thing in my life. And I, for example, was on two vacations with my wife then girlfriend we were at the vacation and I booked things and I left my wife alone and flew back to New York to do the jobs the acting jobs. And I think, when I'm on my death bed, I don't think I'm going to think back fondly on the off off off Broadway play that I did. I think I'm going to remember the vacations I took with my wife. So what I wish is that I had remembered what are the things that actually make me happy. That's actually what Matt's talking to. It's not just a career thing. It's what actually makes Matt happy is writing plays and film; right. And so for me it's like this stuff is very important. I care deeply about my career, but, you know, my wife and my son are important too. And sometimes you can forget that in these industries.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. Get the work life balance.
To switch...oh, let me grab...yeah. I'm coming. I'm coming to you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: If you had like well kind of answered that question already for me, but as a what do you struggle with directing and acting? What is your biggest struggles?
ANDY LOWE: Well, okay. It, it depends because there are the plays that you, okay so like for as a director, there are plays that you're passionate about. And you're like I've been wanting to work on this play. I know exactly how I'm going to do this. And then there's the plays you're like I don't like this play, but someone has asked me to do this. I gotta find a way in or I gotta find my way in where I can make this mine or I can say something. Does that answer your question?
Like, like that's probably the hardest thing, right, of when you have to fit your round peg into the square hole. Or, you know, figure out how to sand down the square hole to fit your round peg. And, you know, often times that can be really fortuitous cause it forces, it challenges you to think outside your own box. I mean it's very easy to get comfortable in your own kind of creative sensibility. I mean, you know, I didn't do anything. I didn't direct this show, but we just did a production of Mamma Mia, right. Going into it, honestly, I don't think any of us were really excited about the show. It's a jukebox musical by Abba. The story doesn't make any sense. The characters are really, it's really just the vehicle to pump out more Abba songs. And, as we started working on it, like the director, the choreographer, the musical director, and the cast it was kind of a thing where we were already doing the show with an all Asian American cast, right, which was already kind of a twist on what was traditionally seen, which was all white people in Greece. So, so the process of trying to make this ours, right. To go okay well if this is a Filipino family in Greece, then how does that change how you look at these songs? So suddenly, you know, the song "Chicken Tika" becomes becomes "Chica Tita", right. And it's referring to kind of an affectionate aunty thing in Filipino culture; right. And, you know, this whole story of this girl who's trying to figure out which one of these three flings that her mom had is her dad so that she can go off and marry this guy and leave Greece, starts to fall off. You know find tones of, you know, the immigrant experience and, you know, the figuring out what is like, you know, decisively yours and what you take with you when you leave home; right. Which was really resonant to our audience and to the Filipino community and to our actors. And sudden;y then suddenly we had like a really deep show. And we're like it's Mamma Mia. What the hell? Where did this come from? But, you know, but it absolutely I mean, you know, this, this, this, you know, blew our box office up like nothing else has before. And people came back and people brought their friends because it touched them. Mamma Mia. [Laughter] And it was great, right. Yeah.
BERNARDO CUBRIA:I mean I think the hardest thing for me that I struggle with is in an industry that I, we all know is not a meritocracy. We know that. But we also want it to be. I spend way too much time comparing where I'm at to other people and that leads to nothing but pain and suffering. And I wish that I did that less. I wish that I could go on social media and some days I can do it and just be happy for my friends and for people who I don't really know, but I know their names because they're in the same industry as me. Instead of sometimes seeing other people's successes and taking it as a sort of FU to my entire existence in life. And that's a really when I was younger I didn't have that at all. When I was 21 and I first started doing this stuff, I was just happy for everybody and full of happiness and butterflies and cotton candy. And then, you know, this industry takes a toll on you. It really does. If you guys want to do this, God bless you. It's awesome. It's wonderful. But it's also hard. It's a tough life. And so that for me, I wish I did that less compared myself to other people.
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I would just say from the outside, when I look at careers of actors and directors, one thing that always strikes me is that as a writer I can sit in my room and write. I can do my work. I can actually get stuff done. Actors are rejected every day of their life. They get invited they have to get invited to come into a room to be rejected. And directors I always find tough because directors have to have a project to direct. Clearly they can make their own projects and write their own thing and create their own thing, but often times it's a writer or producer contacting them and being like: Hey, do you want to work on this? So there's a lot of it's just not as easy sometimes to apply to stuff as a director. And, as an actor, it's easy to apply to stuff, but you're going to get rejected every day of your life. So I mean I don't envy I don't love being a writer in that sense because it's sort of a weird existence of creating your own thing, but I also don't envy sometimes when I hear actors day to day or when I hear directors like looking for a project. Like from an outside point of view, those are the struggles I see, I guess.
ANDY LOWE: Talking about getting hired as a director, the analogy I always use is that what if you were a race car driver; right. And you're like I can race a Ferrari like no one else could. I'm telling you I'm a great driver; right. But the other guy owns the Ferrari. He's like I'm not risking my Ferrari on you. You've never drive a Ferrari before. So you go and buy a crappy pinto for three hundred bucks. You soup up that engine and you put a big fin on it; right. You get the nitro in there and you blow up this pinto, but you send that thing, you know, trailing around the track and there's pieces of it like left behind; right. I have many bits of pinto around my track, right. Which, you know, trying to prove I can, I can, I can, you know, drive a Ferrari. I've you know, I haven't driven a Ferrari. I've driven a Ford maybe. [Laughter] Right. So, you know, still waiting for the Ferrari owner to take a chance on me; right.
LLYR HELLER: I'm going to switch gears real quick and I'm going to ask about the tech you use. Are there any particular platforms you need to know?
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: You mean like social media stuff or like?
LLYR HELLER: Like when you're writing, what do you use?
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I'm very old school so I write by hand and then I write I transfer it to Word. I know there's a lot most playwrights and screen writers I know use Final Draft or versions of that, that are way beyond that. That have all sorts of cool things where they can save their research. There's all this technical stuff. I'm I can't wrap my brain around that stuff so I just use a pad and pencil and Word.
LLYR HELLER: Do you find you need social media?
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I, you know, I've actually started embracing social media more in the last couple of years. Where like I will post, if I'm traveling somewhere for my work, I will always post about it. I will sort of hashtag the play. I feel kind of icky doing it, but enough times someone has contacted me and said: Hey, I saw you were in Texas last week, can I read that play.
So things like that pop up; not that often, but when they do pop up I'm like all right I'll keep doing it. So it does help in that regard. And it also helps me when I see other people. Sometimes I'm looking for an actor I'm like oh, he's not in town so I know I can't call Bernardo. So it does help to have a general sense of oh, they're doing that thing I'm curious about that. I e mail that person. Oh, you're doing that thing. Do they need anyone else? Whatever it is. So like there's a big ...One of the biggest reasons I think I stay on Facebook at all is because there's a give and take of opportunities that are going on. So...
BERNARDO CUBRIA: Yeah, I also write on Word. I will say like I like to format my plays kind of weird and do like kind of, you know, things that I find interesting visually. But I have been told by certain people that they don't even read the play because they think that I don't understand how a play is supposed to be laid out. Because I'm trying to do whatever any way. So I think it's very important to know what the rules are before you break them. I think it's good, if you want to write, to get Final Draft and like write a play on Final Draft and figure out how that works. And then if you want to do something else, but... there's just like a norm going on in the industry that I think it's important to know what it is before you try to do other things.
ANDY LOWE: Okay, in which aspect? Yeah. I mean so for me okay. So producer hat on, its Excel and Word. I'm doing documents and contracts with Word. I'm doing budgeting and schedules with Excel. And a lot of that, so those are kind of base fundamental things. On the technical direction side, you're looking at Auto Cad. You're learning computer assisted drafting whether it's Vector Works or Auto Cad. Vector Works is really important because Vector Works has packages that has different applications for specifically lighting, theatrical lighting, drafting; right. So, so kind of understanding how to kind of render in 3D and in space those are kind of important things. You know, in the realm of design, I'm kind of whatever medium is that works best for you. I know designers that do collage. I know designers that sketch. But they also have to be able to draft in Auto Cad or Vector Works. If you're specifically a sound technician Q Lab is a really important thing because then Q Lab is a software designed to kind of play list out different audio elements and how you can layer them and use those for play back for shows.
Lighting, it kind of depends. Honestly, the industry standard right now is ETC is Electronic Theater Controls. So they have kind of computer controlled lighting, which you can download I think for free. They have kind of an off line editor. But pretty much every digital lighting console works off the same principles of Command Line. What else is there? There's a lot of different things. Oh and then, of course, becoming popular now is media like video projection, which is harder to get at because you're talking more specialty software that's really expensive. Kind of the industry standard, I would say baseline, would be like a software called Watch Out, which is specifically designed for mapping and media design. You can do kind of, to a lesser extent, a lot of similar capabilities with Q Lab. They have a media package but...
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. Any...that was a lot. That was great.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, so I was wondering what was it like starting out learning how to do all these different things? Use all these different programs? I'm asking because I'm really bad at anything digital. I'm just wondering if that was difficult for you to learn how to do.
ANDY LOWE: For me it was fun, right. Because a lot of it was kind of teaching myself as I go. As I was because we started a theater company, and literally it was I'm in a lighting design class this week. I'll be ready for, you know, the technical rehearsals two weeks after that. So there was a lot of kind of experimentation. I think it really does kind of help particularly, when you're talking about like digital technologies or things on the computer, where you're trying to realize things in physical space; right. As soon as you start having to be physically hands on and go okay this is how this exists in three dimensions. And then then you can go here's all the information I need to keep track of; right. Okay, this is what's important. All the other stuff is noise, but at least this program can keep track of these elements. Does that help?
BERNARDO CUBRIA: I mean, I think, I'm not technically savvy or anything like that. But, like, for example I had a theater podcast for awhile and I didn't know anything about that how that worked. But I just like taught myself and I think was okay with the fact that it was going to take me a year to be good with that, you know. That's like with the technical stuff, if you're not good with that stuff naturally, it's okay and it will be fine. Cause, as long as the quality of the stuff is good. Like I read a lot of plays that are written really well and technically well or whatever, and they suck. So it's just like, you know, that doesn't matter so much.
ANDY LOWE: It's also sometimes it's just the opportunity is I want to do a podcast. I'm really crappy with audio. I need to go meet someone who's really good with audio and also wants to start a podcast. And then that's where you find your collaborators; right. It's not really so much networking as it is relationship building.
LLYR HELLER: And that's true anywhere. That's how this podcast started. Someone in a different department said, I know how to record that. I said, great, I don't. We only have a few more minutes. I did want to ask, so you all touched upon diversity and the lack of. To be realistic, do you find it being so in the young adult literature fiction realm, there's a big push for diverse voices. And it's amazing and it's excellent. And I'm wondering if in your realm if there's any push for that? Or do you have to create your own as you were saying?
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS: I mean I think it's definitely changing. I would say as I was coming up, I would say there was definitely like and still exists, an issue of me sort of being pigeonholed as only LatinX playwright or a Mexican American playwright. I always just think of myself as being a playwright and the stories can come from wherever. But right now, I also spend a lot of time on committees for different awards or things for playwrights. And so right now there is a big push on where they are really trying to focus on equity and inclusion and having stories of color and stories of women. So that aspect has changed. But you know still when you look at some of the bigger stages out the there I mean there's many cool companies who do diverse work, but there's also large companies like Manhattan Theater Company or larger institutions in New York where they are if you look at the playing field, when they announce their season you're like oh, great. Oh, there's a woman in there great. So it's still a big issue. But I can sense a little bit, from the ground up, a little bit where people are just trying aware of the problem a little bit and trying to address it some what but who knows when it will actually take place.
BERNARDO CUBRIA: I'll say two things on it. One there's this funny thing happening where there is a push so a lot of white people think it's over for them, which is really hilarious to me. I'll have so many white playwrights and actor friends of mine be like we're just not like allowed to be in this industry anymore. And I'm like only 8 percent of speaking roles on television last year were Latino. I'm like that's fine. I guess, since we're not at one percent anymore, people don't feel like that have anything. So that's an interesting thing that's happening cause that's like a fight that's occurring. And then but then, there's the other side of it, which is like I don't know if Matt's felt this way, but as a LatinX playwright there's sort of an expectation where they want me to write plays, but they want them to be about the border or about drug war or about immigration. And my plays are not about those things. And so I have people even within my own industry who are trying to open doors tell me: Well we don't like your plays cause they're not LatinX. I'm like well I wrote it and I was born in Mexico so it makes it a Mexican play. So, you know, it's interesting. These are complicated conversations that we're all having and we're learning how to navigate. But it's way better than it was ten years ago. That I will say.
ANDY LOWE: Yeah, I mean, so I stopped acting maybe in like 2004ish. And that was for a number of different reasons. One, even then there was a big push for so you would see like a lot of grant funding and foundation money that would be going for diversity. It was all into like we need more playwrights. We need more diverse voices. And you'd see these playwrights. Their plays get funded and they would world premiere, and then that would be the end of the play. It would never get a second production. Because all this funding went into new works and as soon as it was produced, nothing would happen. So it's done. And then, of course, the other aspect of it was for me at that time as an Asian American male actor, I had a half life. That is, from about 18 to about 30 I can play , you know, kung fu henchman or triad or Yakuza. So I'd get a lot of work out of that. And, of course, you get to a point where you age out of that and you can't be the young punk anymore. And so there's a dearth. There's a dearth for anything until you get about 50 or 60 and then you can play the old man in the park doing Tai Chi or the mob boss; right. So that was the thing so I hit, you know, around 2004, I was like okay. Well, one, there is tons of playwrights out there so I don't feel like I can add anything better than some of these other playwrights that are amazing. I'm a pretty good actor, but I got a half life coming up on me. And there's a lot of great actors. What's missing are directors and producers. People who are going to fund, going to lobby for, going to, you know, produce and, you know, say this play needs to get it's second production; right. And that's kind of where I started to veer my trajectory and how I kind of really focus on producing and directing. So, so, sorry what was the original question again? [Laughter] [Inaudible].
Yes, right. So, so, where we're at now, right, yes is that there's a push. And there's still people who think, you know, that it could be a fad; right. And, honestly, I remember like when I started my theater company, it was kind of the last time Asian Americans became awesome. It was right after the Joy Luck Club and Dragon the Bruce Lee Story.
And suddenly we had like three TV shows and a bunch of movies, and then it was just like all gone. It just all disappeared and suddenly yellow face is a thing again. What? Why? We did this already. So, so right now we've got a great up swing, Crazy Rich Asians is out there. Aquafina's new movie is out there, and it's green lighting like more TV shows; but it doesn't mean it's done. [Laughter] because it can all go away like that. So easily; right. So for me it's kind of like there's a diligence. I think the real difference right now is that oh, this is why I started the other tangent but the difference right now is that, we have now between now and the 90's was that there are more when you look at the list of producers or people who are green lighting projects at the networks and whatever, there are more people of color in those things. You know, it's all these diversity programs have been going on the last ten years have actually worked and the pipeline projects have gotten executives in those roles, and that's where the lasting change happens. As we've been able to build the case of look this stuff sells. There's a whole 50 percent of the nation you're not programming for, and that's the market right. We talk about the according to census data 2042 is the year when the nation becomes a minority majority country; right. At which point, we have to ask all our content including the theater world, which has been slower on this than film and television because they are held up by grant money and not by the market. That, if you're not cultivating and creating for the market for the audience, then when are you creating for? You're killing the medium yourself by kind of programming to the same audience you've been programming for 70 years. And why are we doing South Pacific again? Why are we doing Ms. Saigon again? So right.
LLYR HELLER: Well thank you all so much for joining today. Thank you audience for joining. Round of applause. [Applause]
And thank you all so much.
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CAREER CONVERSATIONS PODCAST, February 2019, CAPTIONED BY TOTAL RECALL, www.yourcaptioner.com