The Undeniable Yes

Bradley Whitford by Jennifer BlainePaula and Joanne by Jennifer Blaine  Laura Linney by Jennifer Blaine

Ever since I was seven, I’d dreamt of being an actress. Now, here I was, 22 years old, assisting at my first legit reading for a teleplay. To top that, my favorite acting professor had gathered all of us players at the home of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman! The script was written as a vehicle for Ms. Woodward, but as I looked around the room, I recognized other famous faces and tried to keep my cool. At a break I stood with Joanne Woodward and Laura Linney and Ms. Woodward admitted “When I first debuted in Picnic on Broadway I felt so awkward. I had no idea what to do with my hands.” I laughed on cue and stuck my own hands deep inside virtual pockets. I had no idea what to do with my entire self in that rarefied space, let alone my hands.

As we took a break, I approached Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame (though this event took place several year before the series began.) Whitford had attended Wesleyan University as I had. He was infamous as both a student and as an acting instructor. Still, I could not resist asking him for advice. After all we’d attended the same school. Maybe my timing was bad, maybe he was in a bad mood, or maybe he really meant it.  He looked at me closely and at my bright shining face. “Don’t be an actress,” he told me. “They only cast the mom or the babe — and you are neither.”

Shocked, I retreated to the bathroom where Mr. Newman had framed a happy letter from a fan of his spaghetti sauce. Why did Whitford say that? Am I that unattractive? Why didn’t I talk back to him? Where did my voice go? Does an alma mater mean so very little? My mind kept spinning with questions, trying to process his dismissal.

I returned to the room where I delighted in reading stage directions and a few bit parts. I was still in heaven, though the edges of my skirt were tinged with my brush with hellfire. We finished reading. There was a subsequent reading for the same project a few weeks later. Mr. Whitford was not invited to the other reading, so I never got the chance to challenge him about his comment. I tried to focus on what was most important: it was an honor to participate and to have met Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. I still consider that event one of the most magical and elevated moments of my life.

My mind, however, had hooked onto that awful pronouncement. “Don’t be an actress.” I continued to roll it over in my mind while I attended acting class, while I starred in a short play off-Broadway, while I worked with an acting coach who told me I wasn’t pretty. I kept thinking about this awful message. I couldn’t shake it until one day a friend of a friend of mine told me there was an opening at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row and asked if I knew of anyone who would want to rent it out?

This sparked me. I moved into high gear, gathering pieces I had worked on at P.S. 122 and at the Dia Center for the Arts. I cobbled together an evening of work. I had it recorded by a client of mine that often shot for the PBS channel. In essence I created my first one-woman show in 1995, despite not having a clear plan or totally knowing what I was doing, and I was not a babe, and not yet a mother!

We can use the worst things people say to us as fuel. It’s not just the good things that inspire, but the challenges we face that can actually create a fire in our bellies to launch us into our bigger selves. Artistically, I don’t know if I would have been quite as desperate and as dissatisfied as I needed to be to take the leap of creating my first one-woman show had it not been for Bradley Whitford and what he said. I am now grateful for his comment (though still perplexed). Sometimes when people tell us no, but there is a stronger yes inside us, it does not matter who they are. Our undeniable yes overrides the background noise and becomes the most sacred roadmap to follow.

“Ms. Blaine, am I a bad actress?”

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The High School student blinks back tears.

“I know I did not do well with my monologue today. The other kids here are so good.   I don’t know if I should just stop trying.”

I am the resident acting instructor at the Kimmel Center’s Showstoppers program. As we headed into our last weeks before showtime, the pressure was on for the students to nab the remaining juicy roles. I looked at my sad student, moved closer, and held her hands.

“You are not a bad actress,” I told her.

She sighed, letting the chair support her for the first time.

“But you know what we look for in acting, right?”

“To be real?”

“Yes. Do you think what you did was true to the character?”

“No. I was trying too hard.”

“Exactly. It’s good that you know that. What you were doing is called “indicating.” That means we are showing the audience how something should be done, or how we should feel. But if we try too hard it comes across as forced, flat and empty which is not a very good choice. It’s not that you are not a good actress, it’s that it wasn’t your best performance.”

I locked eyes with her. “Why are you here acting with our program?”

“To show a different side of me. To be more than just a sweet girl princess type of character.”

“Okay, good. I’ll write a character just for you.”

She brightened. “Really Ms. Blaine?”

“Yes, if you promise to stop trying so hard and enjoy yourself. That’s all the audience is looking for. They want to experience a great story and you have to transmit it by making interesting choices. Promise me you will try.”

“Yes, Ms. Blaine. I feel so much better already. I know you probably can’t tell, but I feel just so much better. I am so glad I spoke up.”

“Me too. In fact you speaking up is a good start to being more truthful in life as well as onstage, which will make you the best actress you can be.”

Collecting No’s

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collecting no's

“I was looking to get a regular performing gig set up in Philadelphia,” I told my friend as we walked along South street back in 1999.  “So I spent the entire day on Saturday collecting no’s.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“Well in business I have heard that you need to reach out to 10 potential customers every day in order to get one who will sign up for what you’re selling. I have also heard that if you try to get 10 of those to say a flat out no, that it’s harder than you think and it becomes like a numbers game.”

“That’s funny,” she giggled.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I was determined to leave my materials with 10 places and I did. I don’t know if they will be interested or not, but I feel unattached to the outcome and just proud of myself for trying.”

“That’s great,” said my friend, who is a good friend.

“Why don’t you go into the Starbucks and try?” She suggested.

So we walked in to the Starbucks at 4th and south and I asked the barista if they ever had entertainment. She quickly deferred to her manager, Steve.

I stood there and pitched Steve on my talents as a comedian. “I do funny characters, and could just work for tips.”

“No, you can’t work for tips here,” Steve broke it to me. I was about to chalk it up to another no when he added “I can pay you to entertain the customers though.”

And there it was! A regular comedy gig in Philadelphia twice a month. I used the venue to develop and try out new material. I even got a feature in a newspaper about my performing there which led to a spot on the local ABC chat show. It was an ideal gig and a great transition to bigger venues which could sometimes be a cold impersonal environment such as a casino. After performing for strangers of all kinds I gained a stronger stage presence. I got better and better at that venue, and got paid to boot.

If we shift our focus to being unattached and just trying to get those no’s we can gain results that surpass expectation or anything we might have dreamed up for ourselves.

Wynton Wisdom

Wynton Marsalis by Jennifer Blaine

As I watched the segment on Wynton Marsalis, the master trumpeter, jazz innovator, and educator, part of the documentary series “Iconoclasts,” I was struck by a moment Marsalis recollected. As Wynton was leaving home to go off to college, packing just some tapes and a few possessions, his dad turned to him and asked, “Are you okay now?” He meant with not a lot of material things. “Yes, dad I’m okay,” he replied.

His dad said, “Remember that, so when you have a lot, you won’t be scared if you lose it because even if you do you will always be okay like you are now.”

Imagine if we could all be blessed with this sense of security and self-assured attitude! I love this story because his father is teaching him so many things all at once: to be grateful even when we don’t have much, to live in gratitude, don’t scare yourself, and trust the process because change is part and parcel of the creative process. We may have a lot or not a lot, but it’s the awareness that we are okay that means we can make our own music and march to our own beat.

Straighten Up And Fly Right

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When we fly we stock up on movies for Lily who’s eight. For our most recent flight in April Michael chose The Horse Whisperer, a film which depicts an awful accident. A girl, played by a young Scarlett Johansson, goes horseback riding and she and her friend slam into each other, one horse goes down and the girl is crushed underneath. Once the horse is upright it wanders into the road only to be hit by an oncoming truck.

My daughter is scared shitless.  The girl, loses her leg, the horse’s chest is gaping open and its nose is torn. Yes, it’s a family film. It’s too scary, she tells me shaking. So we turn it off and put on an Adam Sandler movie, which only seems to scare me.

To add to her trauma, the news was on a lot that week with the story of the German plane whose copilot steered it into oblivion. With all this on her mind, Lily somehow manages to fall asleep.

So there we were.

35 minutes later Lily wakes with a start.

“We’re all going to die, we’re all going to die!!!!” she cries emphatically. She is certain. She is a great actress and she has everyone believing her too.

Anyway it’s that part of the flight where everyone is finally sleeping. And she is screaming “We’re all going to die.” So like any good mother I do my best to muffle her and shut her the fuck up. “Shhh shhhh shhhh!!!!” I cover her mouth. “We’re gonna die!!!” I try to reason with her, “you’re just having a nightmare”. “We’re gonna die!!!”  I shake her. I slap her. I slap my own child. It accomplishes nothing. “We’re gonna die.” I point to all the people on the plane.  “No one is dead, see?” Who knew I would ever say something like that as a way of comforting her?

“We’re all gonna die!!!!!!!!!”

The stewardess comes running down the aisle from 20 rows away. That is how loud Lily is.

“Is she okay?”

What the fuck? Does she look okay?

“No. She is having a nightmare.”

“Does she want some juice?”

What the fuck does that have to do with the fear that we are all going to die?

“How about some water?”

I picture this stewardess using this technique for a variety of emergency situations: “Oh, your arm is bleeding, how about some snacks? Oh you may have a fracture, don’t worry, this flight has complementary beverage service!”

Lily screams “We are all going to die!” I tell her “No, the plane is safe and we are all going to be fine.”

But the truth is we are all going to die. It’s something I think about about 20 times a day. Maybe Lily’s defenses have come down and now she’s thinking it too. And should I lie to her?

I tell the stewardess she had a nightmare, and all she needs is for me to hold her.

“Look,” I firmly grasp Lily. “You have woken up all these people!” I make her look at all the blinking exhausted eyes cast into our row. “This is a time to sleep and you’ve disturbed all these people.” This quiets her down. Shaming her silences her! And that basically is the teachable conscious parenting lesson. Shame is more powerful than anything to get your kids to straighten up and fly right.

I cradle my 8 year old, who will always be my baby. She settles down onto my lap again. She gets back to sleep, dozes deeply for the remaining two hours of the flight and I am left counting the minutes until I can run off the plane and escape the psychic pain of carrying the mortality alarm clock on board the flight.


Jennifer Blaine dirty jokesPerformances at Annenberg Center on March 6 and 7 as part of Women’s History Month

Jennifer Blaine, Philadelphia’s acclaimed solo performer, comedienne, and playwright “whose comic genius is like Lily Tomlin and Tracey Ullman” (Philadelphia Daily News) will perform her one-woman show Dirty Joke as part of the 2014-2015 By Local series at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. 

Performances will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, March 6 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7, 2015, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA. Tickets are $20-30 and available at www.AnnenbergCenter.org or by calling 215-898-3900. The Annenberg Center for the ‘Performing Arts’ by Local Series spotlights artistic talent that thrives within the Philadelphia community.

Jennifer Blaine has performed with the likes of Chris Rock, George Carlin, and Joe Piscopo, and has brought her smart, irreverent humor to premier venues and festivals nationwide. Jennifer is renowned for her extraordinary ability to shift between characters across age and ethnicity; her shows are a balm for those craving some comedy, candor, and inspiration.

Jennifer is thrilled to bring Dirty Joke back to her hometown of Philadelphia, after premiering the show to sold-out audiences at the 2013 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. According to the Philadelphia City Paper in their review, “It’s comedy with a conscience…Blaine is warm and thoughtful, never pushy or pedantic, and of course there’s all those dirty jokes.” 

Dirty Joke centers on one of Jennifer’s most popular characters: Ruth, an elderly Jewish woman with a penchant for off-color humor. Ruth sings, dances, tells jokes, and makes light out of the dark moment in which she finds herself — struggling to hold onto her apartment. As Ruth convenes the first live “Superwoman Conference,” Jennifer portrays 7 real-life changemakers who have made a significant impact on our world:

  • Madeleine Albright: The first female U.S. Secretary of State, who advocated for democracy and human rights;
  • Arianna Huffington: Chair, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group and author of 14 books;
  • Kiran Bir Sethi: Pioneering Indian educator who founded the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, focused on engaging young people and making cities more child-friendly.
  • Majora Carter: Founder of Sustainable South Bronx who coined the term “Green The Ghetto,” and the recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship;
  • Cindy Sheehan: American anti-war activist who protested outside of President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch after her son was killed during the Iraq War;
  • Wangari Maathai: Nobel Prize-winning Kenyan activist who, as founder of the Green Belt Movement, planted millions of trees with women’s groups.

As Jennifer explains, “When I craft a character, I start from an inner sense of who the person is and what motivates them. I study their history, listen to them speak and zero in on their gestures, posture and gait. Then there comes that shift from being just a snippet of a person into a living, breathing tribute.”

Dirty Joke marks Jennifer’s fourth collaboration with director and fellow Wesleyan University graduate Vashti Dubois — who produced the critically acclaimed Philadelphia performance EvictionProof PeepShow Home. Vashti co-founded the Mumbo Jumbo Theatre Company in New York City, championing female artists of color such as playwrights Lynn Nottage and Adrienne Kennedy and actresses Lisa Gay Hamilton and Hazel Goodman.

It’s no coincidence that Jennifer’s latest show features a “Conference of Superwomen.” In addition to keeping a busy schedule as a solo performer and comedienne, Jennifer is the founder of The 5,000 Women Festival which showcases the creativity of women artists in all media. For more information about Jennifer Blaine and The 5,000 Women Festival, visit www.jenniferblaine.com.