Published on April 14th, 2017 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Alison Wandzura
You’ve no doubt seen the thespian talents of Alison Wandzura on such fare as Van Helsing, The X-Files, and Motive, but the newest project for this multi-dimensional actor, writer and producer has brought her to the Vancouver stage.
Almost, Maine, which Alison Wandzura co-directs and co-stars in, features other recognizable film and television talents like Alison Araya, Broadus Mattison, Craig March, Edwin Perez, Luvia Peterson, Nancy Kerr, Nelson Leis, and Omari Newton. It’s the first theatre production from ARTery Collective.
We caught up with Alison Wandzura to get the scoop on ARTery Collective and Almost, Maine.
Can you start by telling us a little bit more about you, ARTery Collective, and Almost, Maine?
I had been talking about doing a play for a couple of years, when one day in an audition waiting room, Luvia Petersen said to me, “I heard you want to do a play”. Fast-forward a couple of weeks to when Luvia had put together a core group of actors which would become the ARTery Collective, led by her and Omari Newton. The first time we all came together, it was to read the play Almost, Maine by John Cariani, which Luvia has come across and fell in love with. During the read-through we all fell in love with it, and it’s been one big lovefest ever since.
What inspired ARTery Collective to produce this play?
Almost, Maine is a contrast to most of the on-camera work that many of us in the Collective typically do. I’ve spent much of my time on sets wearing a power-suit, in the sci-fi genre, saying words I had to look up the meaning to. Almost, Maine, in contrast, is simple and unpolished. We’re trading in our power-suits for flannel shirts, and these charming stories of hitting or missing love feel so much more relatable to us as regular humans.
“I can simply bring myself to the work and that’s enough.”
What can you share about your own creative process as an actor and co-director on Almost, Maine?
This is my first time directing, and it’s been incredibly enlightening to look at the scene from the audience’s perspective. Having the time to really explore the scenes has been so different from the film world, where you often get only a few hours to prepare a role. The discussions we’ve had about these characters’ worlds and how we relate to them has enriched the performances. If only we had the luxury of that much time to explore our characters in the film world.
From an acting standpoint, I started out thinking the characters I’m playing (each actor plays multiple characters in Almost, Maine) were quite different than me, and ended up realizing that they’re all just different versions of me. And that’s usually my journey as an actor. Trusting that I don’t have to reach so far outside of myself – that I can simply bring myself to the work and that’s enough.
What film, television, and theatre-related books and authors have been influential to you in your creative journey?
I’m a huge book worm, so I read a lot about the craft of acting and the business of acting. Some of my go-to’s are The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte, Self Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business by Bonnie Gillespie, How To Stop Acting by Harold Guskin, The Real Life Actor by Jeff Seymour, and True and False by David Mamet. When it comes to books on the craft, some of my favourite authors actually contradict each other, but I approach it like I do acting classes – take what resonates with you and leave the rest.
What was the most rewarding part of this project for you?
Getting to know everyone working on Almost, Maine has been the most rewarding and memorable part of this process. Of course there’s a certain euphoria that comes with being on stage, but just as meaningful to me is bonding with this group of artists. Once you do a play with someone, you’ll always have a special connection with them. You’ll see them 10 years later in a coffee shop, call out to them by their character’s name and embrace them as an old friend. It’s like family, really.
What was the biggest challenge in developing this production and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was wearing three different hats – co-producer, co-director, and actor. At any given time, one takes precedence over the others, but now a few days before the show opens I’m thinking, “Can I please just wear the actor hat now?” But alas, there are still tickets to be sold, a raffle to be organized, etc! It has, however, been a labour of love. From day one Luvia Petersen, Founder of the ARTery Collective, has stressed the importance of everyone feeling supported and asking for help when they feel overwhelmed. And sometimes you just have to know your limits. For example, I wanted to bake banana bread for our run-through tonight, but you know what… that’s just not going to happen.
“I think of the business as a game, and I love playing it.”
What would be your advice be for aspiring actors and directors?
I loved directing Luvia Petersen and Broadus Mattison in one of the Almost, Maine vignettes. Their openness and generosity made the experience so rewarding. My approach was to keep checking in with my actors about how they’re feeling, and where they want help. I like to facilitate open discussions versus telling them how to do things, because they’re ideas are just as valid as mine.
As for acting, I always tell people starting out that it’s not just a craft – it’s a business too. Of course you have to be skilled and constantly improving your craft, but on top of that, you need to be looking at whether your business is growing. And if not, what needs to change? I refuse to spend much time feeling frustrated – I try new things until something catches and I feel a forward momentum again. I think of the business as a game, and I love playing it.
Also, if you’re not getting the kind of work you want to be doing, produce it for yourself. We can’t look to film and television jobs to fulfill all of our creative longings. I’m paraphrasing the advice I got from my former mentor, Kristin Lehman, and it’s advice that’s served me well.
What is your opinion on the current state of the theatre, film, and television industries in Canada today?
As a storyteller, I want to raise awareness for important issues, and promote equality and fair representation of women. Does the majority of the work I do check off all those boxes? Not currently. But every time I see a female showrunner or director or writer on an audition breakdown, I feel hopeful that we are going in that direction. Every time a When We Rise miniseries about gay rights comes out, or a Moonlight gets an Oscar, I feel hopeful.
What other projects are you currently involved with?
You can catch me in Season 1 of SyFy’s Van Helsing, currently on Netflix. This is, again, a very different role than the ones you’ll see me playing in Almost, Maine.
I also just filmed an ABC pilot called The Crossing with Steve Zahn, whose work I love, so fingers crossed that one gets picked up.
Where can we find out more about you, ARTery Collective, and Almost, Maine?
Thanks to Alison Wandzura for speaking with us!
Almost, Maine is on in Vancouver from April 15th to the 22nd at The Cultch.