Thursday, April 7, 2016

Opening Doors

Contributed by Stephanie Willing

As a child I knew I wanted to be an actor, but not in an all-encompassing “This is my dream!” kind of way. I also wanted to be a marine biologist, a writer, an equestrian, a ballerina, and when I was very young, either a unicorn or a dinosaur--whichever happened first.

My early acting career was uneventful but satisfying. When I was handed my first script at Bible camp with highlighted lines, I was ecstatic. Later when I auditioned and won the part of the (I now realize) caricatured Jewish innkeeper’s wife in the Christmas play, I was triumphant. And when I played the Virgin Mary in sixth grade with a pillow tied under my robe with my father’s leather belt, I was happy. I dropped that baby weight with a slip of the belt loops, but I never dropped a line.

And then I stopped acting because I still wanted to be a dancer/writer/martial artist/

equestrian/ecologist. As the eldest of four in a household of specific and limited means, I was told, “Pick one.” I chose dance and stuck with it for the next twelve years, all the way through college, thanks to scholarships. Then, like many artistic and nerdy folks, I went to work for a couple years in a used bookstore, saving money and glorying in the dusty pages of potentiality. One day, while shelving a tray of battered romance novels, I knew in my bones what I had to do. Go to New York and be an actor/dancer/stage combatant!

While still in Texas searching Craigslist for jobs and auditions in NYC (I’d never heard of Actors Access or Backstage), I clicked on a “volunteers needed” ad for something called the IT Awards. I responded, emailed, confirmed. It seemed like a good place to begin my reconnaissance; I figured I could meet people, learn the names of the theater companies, and see what kind of work was being made. I found short-term housing in the Bronx, booked a one-way ticket, and flew to New York City. My first week in town I was an usher at the 2008 New York Innovative Theater Awards.

That was the year that the
Vampire Cowboys swept with Fight Girl Battle World. I only saw screenshots of the cast and costumes, but I was in love. I was in awe. I said, “I need to know these people.” Again googling, I found The Saturday Night Saloon and signed up for the Rabid Vamps Fight Studio (the VC’s stage combat and choreography class). Through the Saloon, I met the folks behind Gideon Productions, Nosedive, and The Brick.

My first acting opportunity came through those connections, and I was cast in The Ninja Cherry Orchard with a huge bevy of actors that blew me away. Since then, almost entirely, every part I’ve played or production I’ve choreographed has come through a connection that began in 2008, even down to the man I married.

Stephanie Willing (left) performs with the Vampire Cowboys in the
Opening Number of the 2010 IT Awards

Just like my two years in the bookstore, I had found a group of passionate nerds who always had room for one more, and just like that, Indie Theater became home. I can directly trace my path in NYC theater from that single moment standing at the back of the auditorium at the IT Awards manning the doors. If you were there that night, you probably didn’t see me. You saw your friends, the wonderful people of our community that I had yet to meet. But when I held the door open for you to walk into the auditorium, I was also opening all the doors I’d walk through for the next eight years.

Stephanie Willing is a dancer/actor/choreographer/stage combatant/voiceover artist, so the childhood dream is working out so far, but she’s still working on the marine biologist bit. She received a BA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University and studied Fight Choreography with Qui Nguyen of Vampire Cowboys. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing for Young People from Lesley University. Upcoming projects include fight directing for Flux Theater Ensemble’s production Rizing, opening May 2016. She will also be performing as Joan of Arc in MTWorks’s production of David Stallings’ Anais Nin Goes to Hell in October 2016.

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