The 'Wonder' Women

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 1, 2014

"We all look good in that one."

"No. My nose looks huge." We scroll to another photograph.

"There. Everyone looks great in that one."

"Are you kidding me? My eyes are half-closed. I look like I'm on heroin. Take another one."

We're outside of La Casa De Pedro next door to the Arsenal Center for the Arts, and the Titanic Theatre Company has just finished their opening night performance of David Lindsay-Abaire's "Wonder of the World."

With me are the four female actors in the show: Meredith Saran, Alisha Jansky, Laurie Singletary and Alissa Cordeiro. Since they have just performed to a house full of people who've commended the show with accolades such as "amazing" and "hilarious," I'm sure these women are all on a post-performance high.

After trying to take some candid photos of the performers at the bar, none of which worked out, I've taken them outside to pose in the only suitable light.

"Wonder of the World" is the perfect example of a Titanic show: "Dangerous" and "pointy-edged," this show cruises along "that fine line between comedy and drama." Lindsay-Abaire said of his work, "My plays tend to be peopled with outsiders in search of clarity," and this talented group of women personifies that sentiment. They're a hard-working group of Boston-based actors that struggle to stand apart and make art in a market where the rolls are limited and the competition is stiff.

"Okay, we all look beautiful in this one," Meredith Saran points at a photograph on my camera.

Meredith plays Cass, the protagonist of "Wonder," a woman who sets off on a hero's journey to accomplish an extensive list of personal goals. She feels that her seven-year marriage has left her missing out on certain things, so she travels to Niagara Falls, the honeymoon capitol of the world, to find herself.

In truth, she's also running away from her husband. He has a practice of auto-erotically pleasuring himself with Barbie heads that bothers her a little.

"I feel distanced from my friends who don't do theatre," Meredith confesses. "I just don't have as much free time as they do and often have to miss out on social events and parties. I've been in "The Donkey Show" at ART for two and a half years, and we perform every Saturday night. That's a lot of parties, and pot lucks, and bowling nights, and movies, and weekend trips that I've missed out on. But to me, a party is just not as important as performing in a show. Some people don't really understand that.

"Most of the people I grew up with have gotten married and had kids," says Alissa C. (Since Alissa and Alisha's names are so similar, I've taken to labeling them with the first initial of their last names as well.)

Alissa C. is the character-actor workhorse of the production. Throughout the show she removes one character and dons another as fluidly as if she were taking off one mask and putting on the next.

"I'm not opposed to children," continues Alissa C., "but right now my life fantasies include getting a Resident Artist spot in a repertory company, with the family coming after. I don' think this is unique to women in the theatre, but I don't think it's exactly conventional, either."

"Have you ever felt that people disapprove of your acting?" I ask.

"It's usually strangers who seem to judge me for it, people you casually meet who ask you what you do," observes Meredith in the nonplused, buoyant way she seems to observe most things. "When I say, 'I'm an actor,' they seem confused."

"Absolutely!" pipes in Alissa C. "It's seen as a fantasy career, not one an educated person would pursue."

"People treat it as a hobby," Alisha J. comments, "not as a legitimate life choice."

"How about all of the stereotypes about actresses!" Alissa C. has the ability to keep her tone droll even when she's worked up. "They're needy. They're flaky. They're self-absorbed. They're incredibly vain. They're opportunistic!"

"Or they accuse me of just wanting to be famous," adds Meredith.

"Are there actresses that fit this bill?" asks Alissa C. "Absolutely. Are there men and women in every kind of industry that fit this bill? Definitely. But these are stereotypes that follow actresses especially."

"What about this one?" I ask, pointing to a photograph.

"The problem with all of these," says Alissa C., "is that they're all smiling, looking great together, and I'm hovering over them, looking like a total creeper."

"Can't we all just stand in a line?" asks Alisha J.

I first introduced myself to Alisha J. by tapping her on the shoulder and asking, "Are you going to have a drink?"

"Yes..." she answered cautiously.

"That's good," I continued, "for a minute there I thought you were sober."

"And who are you?" she asked.

I explained that I was taking pictures, and I wanted one of her with a cocktail in hand, like her character in the play.

"That's good," she sounded relieved, "for a minute there I thought you were the waiter."

Alisha J. plays Lois, our hero's blithely alcoholic, suicidal and completely unreliable mentor.

Of all the women in this play, Alisha J. is the biggest surprise. She doesn't have a lot to say. Her manner is quiet and poised. The other women are instantly engaging, but Alisha J. seems aloof; maybe she's shy. She's the complete opposite of the woman I just saw on stage - a bold, brash and commanding lush. To say she blooms in front of an audience is entirely too floral for what she does. She ignites, like a spark to quicksilver.

"Have you ever felt like acting is a foolish pursuit?" I ask.

"Interesting question," says Alisha J.

"When I look at my bank account, sure," mutters Alissa C.

"Not foolish, but sometimes crazy!" continues Alisha J.

"What kind of masochist signs up for a career that's 99% rejection," asks Alissa C., exasperated, "where you're sometimes pitted against your close friends for a single role? It's exhausting."

"And if you do get the part," I add, "you just expose yourself to the judgments of your 'friends' who were rejected, your enemies and the nastiness of the press."

"I do theatre because I love it, madly," Alissa C. concludes. "Isn't everyone called a fool for love once in a while?" she asks, and then laughs at herself, recognizing how "cheesy" that sounds.

"I feel like it's foolish to pursue anything that doesn't make you happy." Meredith brushes her hair from her eyes. Her makeup is perfect, and you can tell that she's careful about her appearance. "Acting may not be a secure career or make me tons of money, but it's what makes me feel whole."

"Only pursue acting if you must do it to live," Alisha J. repeats the advice that many acting teachers have given her. "If you can do something else... do that."

"Alright." Meredith takes control. "Everyone close your eyes. On the count of three, open them." Then she says to me, "And you take the picture. It'll be perfect."

"For all the emphasis on feeling, emotions and expressiveness in theatre," comments Alissa C., "traits typically assigned to women, the theatre is still pretty much a boys' club. Maybe it's because women weren't originally allowed to partake in the theatre."

"In Hollywood, producers will turn down your screenplay, or give you less money, if they feel the script 'skews toward women,' " I add.

"Just because a play is written for a man," Meredith notes, "doesn't mean a man has to play it. When I look at Stagesource for auditions, I am always annoyed, seeing so many auditions for plays with all male or mostly male casts. There are way more female actors in the theatre than male. A woman has to compete against more women for fewer roles."

"Do you think you have fewer opportunities because you're a woman?" I ask.

"I don't think of my life in those terms," says Laurie. "I've had many opportunities. And I took advantage."

Laurie has a coquettish smile and exudes a relaxed, sexual charisma. She isn't preoccupied with her hair or the shape of her body. Since she's spent the evening in the arms of her tall, dark and handsome husband (Damon Singletary, also in the cast), she feels free to flirt in an innocuous way.

"What is the point of going to the theater?" I challenge these women. "It's such an esoteric pursuit."

Meredith and Alisha politely ignore my question. And why shouldn't they? They've spent all their free time, the time that most of us spend unwinding from work, rigorously working to put on this play. Here I am devaluing that experience for them.

There is an uncomfortable pause, and then Laurie confronts me. "I disagree with the premise of your question."

"I mean, what kind of theatre are you concentrating on," Alissa C. asks.

"Boston has a vibrant fringe theater scene," clarifies Laurie.

"Populated by friends of the company members," I argue.

"Who support each other by attending and promoting each other's plays."

"But why should anyone else watch this play?"

"Anyone who sees 'Wonder of the World' will relate to Cass and her journey," Alissa C. interjects, "because we've all experienced that moment in life where everything we thought to be true gets turned upside down, and we have to go through the process of figuring out what the new 'everyday life' is, and where we fit in."

"But if you look at the biggest and most successful theatre companies, the companies you probably want to hire you most, you notice that they're expensive, inconvenient and often catastrophically boring."

Laurie remains persistent. "Theatre is exciting, unique and can be affordable with Goldstar-type discount programs."

"But it's a gamble. Why should we bother?" I ask.

"Again, Boston fringe theatre projects are often written by new playwrights and performed by unknown talent."

"And this is a good thing? Usually, that's a recipe for a box office failure."

"Boston showcases works that have never been seen before."

"So there's no guarantee that they're worth watching."

"To see a perspective beyond one's own experience," say Laurie. "There's a therapy is relating to characters in an intimate, live setting. When a group of people are physically close together, experiencing the same events in a heighted way, there's a sense of becoming a part of something larger than oneself..."

"I wish I could believe that," I say, "but the more theatre I see the more I think it's mumbo jumbo. Maybe the magic dies."

"Heart and Dagger's 'Sex Fest II," Laurie asserts, and this shuts me right up. "Boring? I think not." Laurie's lips curls into a smile, and she winks at me.

Though we've just officially met, Laurie has clearly done her research and was able to instantly assess me.

She knows that at the beginning of this summer, I spent and inordinate amount of time working to get audiences to attend the "Sex Fest." Though I really don't know her, I just can't help admire this woman. She sees that in spite of my negativity, I want to make the theatre better.

I'm unable to repress my own smile and I think, This is the kind of person I want to see on stage.

Though Laurie is frequently cast, the roles she is offered are limited. "There are tons of roles for younger gals, but there's also a lot more competition," she tells me. "I have a smaller variety of available roles because I'm an older woman."

Laurie will always have the opportunity to play someone's mother, because there aren't many women her age that are still acting. But it strikes me that it's the really interesting people like Laurie, with rich life experience and the ability to turn my expectations on end, that I want to watch.

"Stereotypes follow actresses especially," says Alissa C. "I've had people say, 'I can't believe how normal you are!' What does that even mean? What exactly did you expect? This alone would frustrate me, but playwrights and screenwriters turn around and write characters with these very traits. I mean, come on."

"I don't think I'm going to be able to get a good picture," I say. "There are just too many challenges here."

"That's alright," someone says -- I think it's Alisha J. "Maybe you can fix it in post."

"Wonder of the World" continues through Aug. 9 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit titanictheatre.com/upnext.html

Comments on Facebook