In this episode of Big Trouble, actor/playwright/storyteller Octavia Chavez-Richmond gets kicked out of a theater company for letting out her frustrations, and she learns a thing about empathy and always trying your best in the process.
Brought to you by Voice of Authority, my comedy solo show about having the US govt come after you for $19 million you don’t have, at 59E59 Theaters, NYC, July 17-21 and Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh Fringe, Aug 2-24.
Octavia’s work has been featured at international film festivals and regional theaters. She holds an MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory where she received the David Wickham Playwriting Award. Trinity Repertory awarded Octavia with the Margo Skinner Memorial Fellowship for 2018.
Still images credits in order shown: Chalef Photography, Dean Temple, Mark Turek
My show, Voice of Authority, is about a string of those days when the US Department of Justice comes after me for $19 million. True story. And the song that serves as the core theme of the show is: No damn luck today.
On opening night at the FRIGID New York Festival, the plan is to interrupt that song at the top of the show with a ringing telephone, because there is always someone in the audience who doesn’t turn off their phone despite the announcement, right?
In an ideal world, I’m interrupted during the first verse. I stop, accuse the audience of making things very awkward, and then realize the ringing phone is mine.
Oh! That’s my lawyer, I have to take this. Sorry.
In the real world of opening night, however, the sound cue never comes and I get to the end of the song, which is a surprise I didn’t see coming. I find myself thinking, “I’m gonna have to improv my way around this plot point.”
Which is what I start to do. I’m almost there and boom, there’s my sound cue – classic iPhone ringtone. And it’s loud enough to drown out a jet.
WHOSE PHONE IS THAT?!!
So what do I do now? That is literally what I’m thinking as it happens.
It also happens to be what I’m thinking when I get hit with the $19 million lawsuit. So in a way, I guess theater is a lot like real life. Something goes very wrong, what were your priorities suddenly seem a lot less pressing, and this newfound crisis owns all of your focus.
Sounds awful, right? Except for one thing: You are now 100 percent present.
Some people pay their gurus a lot of money to get that way, and some people pay their lawyers.
When you get it into your head to do something like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Fringe staff is pretty good about getting you to ask yourself, why are you doing this? If you can’t answer the question, you’re not ready.
Aside from the various ways I want to advance my career and my work, my reason for doing this is to become a better artist. A better actor. A better performer. A better writer. Doing a show for 22 days (with only one day off) in front of people who don’t know you will do that and more.
My five shows at FRIGID are just the beginning of that road, and it’s one that has started off bumpy. But we live for moments like this whether we like it or not, because now we have to make a choice, and if we can find the courage to make a bold one, it might take us somewhere we’ve never been before.
I’m in the FRIGID audience at the Kraine Theater watching David Carl and Katie Hartman in their hysterically funny David and Katie Get Remarried. Katie — whose character is needy, narcissist, and biting — is singing a song she wrote about David after a breakup so she can forget him forever. She’s at the emotional peak, about to break free, and David’s keyboard stand collapses, crashing to the floor. Katie stops dead, robbed of her climax, and stares at the audience. David looks her direction with what I read as genuine fear.
In the seats we hold our breath and the tension is excruciating. We’re mostly certain this is a real problem and not a staged one, and now we can’t look away. What are they going to do?
What they do is never leave character. They grab this moment and milk it for all it’s worth. David is on the floor with his keyboard looking like a naughty five year old caught with a broken heirloom. Katie is forcing a smile that burns like the fires of hell.
And we’re still holding our breath.
Until she slowly turns her head his way. We see the fear on his face grow and we’re witnessing theatrical perfection. This stage relationship has become so real and we are all invested in it. All Katie has to do now is throw away line about ruining the climax of the song and the audience comes to pieces.
People on the street could probably hear the laughter outside the building.
So what did I do when my sound cue went wrong? Did I get through it? Absolutely. Did I stay in character? Mostly, but I’ll admit to letting my frustration with tech throw me off my game. Did I handle it as well as Katie and David? Absolutely not. But that’s what I’m working toward, and it’s why I’m taking this show to Edinburgh.
To learn. From what others do. From what I do. To embrace the unknown. To remember to have fun. To go somewhere I’ve never been.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved by the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17–21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa…
(Pictured, left to right, my grandfather, Baba, great grandfather, and great aunt, and me, center, the disappointing, lazy three year old who has yet to compose his first opera)
It’s a two-hour long train ride into the city to perform for five minutes, and after you’ve finished your dinner – a much-too-salty bag of cashews from the Rite Aid because it’s the only place open at Grand Central at midnight – you hop the train home and become the guy sleeping across three seats of some stranger’s Instagram, generating outrage from a couple hundred of their followers over all that privilege you have.
It’s probably not the right time to ask them to buy tickets to your show, although at the moment I’ll try anything because I have hundreds of seats to fill, and nobody else knows who I am.
If you know me, I’ve already let you know how each one of those seats is generating another layer of panic, and that’s why a friend texts me: “It’s hard to be a star.”
It just so happens to be my birthday when she does, and the magic of Facebook’s database has me on one of those social-media-induced narcissist spin cycles.
So many people remembering my birthday? I am a star!
That lasts a blissful 15, maybe 20 seconds. Then I start to come down and the voice in my head kicks in, the one I named my show after, the voice of authority: you are in no way a star.
That’s why you’re on the train at 2am, you schmuck.
No social-media ego fix can change that reality. And my friend’s text takes on another layer. It’s hard to be a star. I feel that acutely in this moment. Maybe you know that feeling of being confounded by finding, and keeping, an audience. It’s hardly exclusive to acting, every business has to do the same thing, and it’s fundamental to success. There is no stardom without an audience. And no cash flow either.
Maybe that’s obvious, maybe I’m just thick, but at no point in my life as a developing artist has anyone ever explained this to me. Not in the arts in high school. Not at Columbia. Not in any of the study I’ve done since I graduated.
But my friend, she just got her MFA from Brown. Maybe they taught her something no one taught me. Not even my family. I grew up in a family of artists. No one mentioned this. The only thing they ever talked about was that I should do something else because I didn’t have the work ethic to make it in this business.
I work 14-hour days. Often. Often four of them are on the train.
To my family the development of craft is everything. My Ukrainian grandmother, Baba, for instance, was a concert pianist who studied at the Vienna Conservatory. In my childhood she’s at the piano from the time I wake in the morning until the end of the day. And what she sees in me she calls лінивий, the Ukie word for lazy. Give me a break, Baba, I’m six years old and it’s summer vacation.
Baba may have been intense, but I miss her every day.
She comes to see me in a play in NYC when I’m 20. Afterwards she takes me aside and says: “Everything else that you’re doing is the wrong thing. This is what you’re meant to do.”
As an influential member of the Ukrainian diaspora, Baba had a ready-made audience. If she did something, the Ukrainian community showed up. In droves.
I never really thought about it, but I suppose Baba built that audience. She contributed to that community enormously. She taught lessons, organized a festival that just passed its 50th year, fought to preserve the Ukrainian culture and language, and helped create an 11-volume encyclopedia on Ukrainian music defined by region. She gave, and they gave back.
I’ve never found a community like that for myself. Maybe my grandmother is right, maybe I don’t work hard enough. Or rather, I haven’t worked hard enough at some things because I’ve never understood until now how important they are.
When you look at people who succeed today, who build these massive social media followings, it’s easy to dismiss what they do. You can call it dumb, or shallow, or pandering to the masses, but then you’re selling them short for how hard it is to be star. Each one of those people has found and kept an audience. They’ve learned how to communicate in a way that makes people feel like they are a part of something, like my grandmother’s Ukrainian community. And they do the work required to sustain that on a daily basis.
That’s really hard. Now that I’m struggling to learn that myself, I’m awed by how hard it is. But I can find solace in my friend’s text, because I can hear in it how much she believes in me. And I can hear my grandmother’s voice through her, pushing me to work harder because this is what I was meant to do.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story
about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved
by the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at the Kraine
Theater in NYC Feb 21-Mar 9 (Tickets»), at 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17-21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2-24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa…
Dean dressed like a bum and Little Dog* in her stylish down jacket, walking across the pond. Image credit Alex Tuller.
I’m looking for ways to avoid the things I don’t want to do. There’s this long list of practical, business-side things looming over my show, Voice of Authority, before it opens in NYC in February, and then goes to Edinburgh Fringe in August. PR and publicity. Promotion. Audience development.
Just having those things on my to do list stresses me out and my ADD kicks in. The deadlines approach and pass by unmet, and it feels like failure. It feels like empty seats, and the show doesn’t open for a month. Every performer wants there to be someone that handles this for them. But so few of us are at a point in our careers where we can afford that.
This is where I am the moment a friend texts me: “I booked a job in Boston, can you dog sit for me?”
“Sure,” I text back. Dogs are good for stress. I have my own dog, but this other dog is what I need for my stress.
Then I text her, “Hold on one second,” and I text my wife to tell her a friend is asking if we could dog sit over the weekend.
“Okay,” came the response. I read that with the “OK” inflection and not the “okaaaaaay?” inflection she might have intended.
“No problem,” I text back to my friend.
Then my wife texts, “Is it house trained?”
I didn’t ask. Can you imagine having a dog in the city that’s not house trained? What a nightmare.
Also, my wife should text faster.
“It’ll be fine” I text back. “I’ll take care of it.”
I meet my friend and collect her five-month-old, three-pound-max Little Dog*, who shows up sporting a miniature t-shirt and down jacket. Her mom hands me a stack of wee pads. Okay great, I’m all set.
Although Little Dog* is a little disoriented and she misses that wee pad entirely the first night at 1am. I clean up discretely. Puppies make mistakes. No need for the wife to know about it.
And at 4am, Little Dog* misses the wee pad again. Apparently Little Dog* has no idea what a wee pad is. And she has a digestive system the size of peanut.
Have you ever been around a dog that relieves itself every two-and-a-half hours? Because I have not. Not until now.
My dog, Odi, a 40-pound Icelandic Sheepdog, can hold it in forever. We drive to Atlanta from New York with him one time and he was freaked out by the drive and the highway. He doesn’t go once until we get there. Fourteen hours. To me, that’s a dog.
But no worries, Little Dog*. We’ll walk it off.
The first two days we spend hours walking, hours I don’t have to think about PR or audience development, and Little Dog* takes care of business outside. So far, so good.
“There’s an ice storm coming,” my wife says, which sounds like nonsense to me because the sky is crystal clear.
But five hours later, we are covered in a rock hard layer of ice three inches deep, and I’ve learned something new about Little Dog*. Three pound dogs can’t walk on ice or they turn into three pound popsicles pretty quickly.
And you remember what I said about Little Dog* going to the bathroom every two-and-a-half hours? I was so naive back then.
The first crap hits the floor at 4am. The second, while I’m making breakfast for the dogs because I’m up now and I might as well.
“Really? You just went,” I say to Little Dog*. She stares me down and squats. Two feet from the wee pad.
The third time I walk into the bathroom and there she is with another crap. Honestly, I admire the thinking, I come here for this too.
And now she’s eating it.
We find the fourth at noon on the bottom of my wife’s shoe, and she’s starting to suspect that Little Dog* might not be all that house trained. And the 12 paper towels distributed all over the floor, soaking up pee, are reinforcing this idea.
But I’m taking care of it. I have actively chosen to play chamber maid to a three-pound shitting machine who keeps me up all night instead of working on PR and audience development for my show. And now, I have to figure out how to clean the treads of my wife’s shoe while everything outside is frozen solid.
At least I’m not working on PR, right?
In Voice of Authority one of the principle questions is: Are you willing to suffer for something you want? Just as a big a question is: Why are we so often willing to suffer for something we don’t want?
I don’t know how to do PR. Or promotion. Or audience development. So they’re scary. You don’t know where to begin. You don’t know if you sound or look like an idiot. That doesn’t just make those things daunting. It makes me question whether I can even do this show.
If you try and fail, the seats are empty.
If you don’t try, the seats are empty, and you’ve failed.
It’s so incredibly easy to get distracted from the task at hand by the shit in your life, literally in my case. But who wouldn’t rather fail the first way than the second?
If you’re going to have the privilege of being on stage and sharing that experience with an audience, then I suppose there’s a price you’re going to have to pay for that. You can tell yourself it would be more meaningful if you could focus on the performance and someone else would handle the business, but it probably wouldn’t be. At least not until you’d earned it.
And with that in mind, I pull out my computer and start contacting the …
My show, Voice of Authority (tickets»), is about getting into big trouble. The US Dept of Justice comes after me for $19 million. True story. So I’m doing a new, very short storytelling series I’m calling Big Trouble, where I ask you to tell us your story.
My first guest is my Here Lies Joe co-star Andi Morrow. Andi is an actor, writer, & director currently living in Los Angeles. She is originally from the mountains of East Tennessee, and recently travelled home to make her latest project, PUSHER. The film, which Andi wrote, directed, & stars in, centers around a young woman who has found herself caught up in the opioid epidemic that is plaguing her Appalachian community. You can learn more at www.pusherfilm.com and www.andimorrow.com.
If you’re like me you stare at your computer screen and think, my God, why did I announce this was a regular thing in that first blog entry?
The first one is so easy. The idea pops into your head. It just happens and then you’re drunk with the success of it and think, “I’ll do this regularly leading up to FRIGID NYC and Edinburgh Fringe. I can show people what it’s like to get ready for a festival like that and maybe get a laugh or two in the process.”
You damn fool. You just buried yourself in the very beginnings of the creative process, that place where you have to move past inspiration and into the production of consistent content.
You think that because you write every morning you’re bound to have plenty of mineable ideas. But as you read through your writing you realize: “Damn, I meander all over the place. I’m like one of those monsters, I mean tourists on the streets of NYC who can’t walk a straight line.”
And some of this shit that comes out is unexpected, like you sat on the can and suddenly there’s a cockatiel pecking at your ass and reciting Britney Spears lyrics.
Oops I did it again.
And you did. You landed yourself at the beginning of the creative process where you know nothing whatsoever about your subject and the voice in your head keeps telling you to give up because you’re a fraud.
And you agree that’s the truth. You’re faking it, making it up as you go. You need to become an expert in:
Who you are
That show you’ve been doing on and off for a year
How to ramp up to the next level
And you know next to nothing about 1 or 3. Maybe you know something about number 2, but you’ve made enough scatalogical jokes for this blog entry and you can’t keep falling back on that.
It’s going to be an excruciating journey of discovery. You’re gonna fail. Publicly. So, so often.
But you’re going to enjoy those failures, because you’ve done things the other way, the not doing things way. And you’re tired of failing like that.
You have no idea where you’re going, and that’s actually pretty cool.…
Dean is an actor, writer, and creative director based in NYC and the Hudson Valley. His solo show, Voice of Authority, will be at the Kraine Theater, Feb 21-Mar 9, at 59E59 Theaters, July 17-21, and at Edinburgh Fringe, Aug 2-24, in 2019.
He has appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall (Mr. Richard in Fannie Lou the Musical), as well as design installations there for VDAY through his company, Drake Creative Collaborative.
He also serves as board president for The Art Effect, a nonprofit where youth learn to explore, experience, and excel in the arts and arts-related fields.