Tuesday, October 20, 2015

To the Safe Zone!

In which our Diva faces off against some gnarly zombies

It's time for Nightmare on Chicago Street again, and that means more webseries goodness from the fertile mind of Jeff Kelley!  I had a great time working with Jeff, the ever-hilarious Jason Pawlowski, and some skeeeery zombies in this year's videos. Here's the first episode:

Be sure to subscribe to the NoCS YouTube channel to keep up with Ed and Rebecca's adventures leading up to Saturday's big bash. If you're in the area, check out the official website for info. I'll be on hand in my Rebecca duds, so if you see me there, come up and say hi!

Nightmare on Chicago Street takes place in downtown Elgin, Illinois, on Saturday night, October 24.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Welcome (back) to Fright Night

In which our Diva gets to revisit an old friend on the big screen

Thirty years ago this summer, I got my dad and then my friend Kathy to drive me to Aurora from the booming metropolis of Bennett, Colorado (population ~1800) for three separate viewings of a movie with the dubious title of Fright Night. Once I got my hot little hands on a VHS copy, I systematically wore it out over the next couple years.

It's the tale of a teenage horror fan who happens on unusual nocturnal activities next door and quickly discovers that his new neighbor is a vampire.  It sounds like the setup for a joke, and there's no shortage of humor. But, as with so many stories that seize my little fangirl heart in their fangy jaws and run away with it ("A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost share a house," anyone?), there's a whole lot more going on too.

All these years later, I'm gratified to know that I'm not the only one who thinks so, and that it has taken its rightful place as a horror classic. Its cast is in high demand at conventions, two limited-edition Blu-ray pressings have sold out in a snap, a forthcoming documentary blew its Kickstarter goal out of the water, and mere mention of the 2011 remake can elicit the kind of vitriol usually reserved for those who dare meddle with beloved childhood icons. (I'm secure enough in my fan cred to assert that said remake is perfectly serviceable, albeit nothing special.  But that's not a course I recommend undertaking lightly.)

Last night, at an anniversary screening as part of Bruce Campbell's Horror Film Festival at Wizard World, the Chin himself opened the festivities by asking who had seen it in the theatre. I raised my hand and confirmed that I'd done so three times, when I didn't yet have a driver's license and the nearest movie theatre was 25 miles away.

If you've ever seen Campbell in action at a fan event, you're probably not too surprised to hear that this resulted in a solid five-minute interrogation about just what was so special about this particular movie that I went to those lengths. Trying to be concise (yeah, I know, good luck with that!), I first mentioned what really was most important to 15-year-old me: "Teenagers who made more sense to me than the ones in the John Hughes movies." Pressed for further reasons, I mentioned the gorgeous production design, and how there always seem to be more details to notice in both the visuals and the characters. (Just last night I registered for the first time that the pendant worn as part of Peter's "Great Vampire Killer" outfit is a hamsa.) I didn't mention the balance of horror and humor -- so commonplace today that it's hard to remember just how groundbreaking it was in 1985 -- partly because it's so intrinsic to the film that I no longer consciously think about it, but mostly because I was thinking back to why it was so compelling to me then.

Fifteen-year-old me didn't really think much about the uniqueness of the horror/comedy thing, as much as it's gone on to become part of the DNA of so many of my favorites. She just knew she was in love with these characters and this story.

Thankfully the Groovy One finally moved on to quizzing another fan, though heaven knows I could babble for an hour about why I love this movie. About how it was a lightning strike, exactly the movie I didn't know I needed at exactly that moment in time, that might or might not have made the same impression on me if I hadn't been fifteen and smart and bouncy and weird and living in a small town that seemed hopelessly limited and limiting.

When writer/director Tom Holland did his introduction, I didn't even need to ask the one question I'd brought to the Q&A, about why he chose to make this particular story about teenagers. As he explained before the screening, his original brief for Cloak & Dagger was a sort of juvenile update of Rear Window, but the final form of the screenplay didn't go that way. Still, the idea persisted, and he reached the conclusion that the only way for it to make sense for a modern kid to see a murder through the neighbor's window and have nobody believe him or do anything about it would be if the murder he witnessed was supernatural. And the only adult he could turn to would be the horror host he watched on TV... and thus a classic was born.

They said "Be crazier than that!" I'm in the fourth row center, obliging.
Charley, Amy, and "Evil" Ed are ordinary kids living ordinary lives until they're forced to deal with something extraordinarily dangerous. We don't know what the social pecking order of their school looks like, except to infer that Ed has been bullied and that he and Charley have bonded over horror fandom. All three are just a little awkward, drawn not as stereotypical nerds, just regular kids navigating the bumpy transition to adulthood -- heightened emotions, stilted relationship talk, and all.

Amy is bouncy and optimistic and compassionate and enthusiastic and adorkable. She also bears the perpetual Hollywood onus of being "the girl" (and thus damned to represent all girls), and has taken a lot of flak over the years that -- as someone who strongly identified with her, flaws and all -- I sometimes have to remind myself not to take personally. Four years after the remake, I still bristle at dismissals of her as a flimsy damsel-in-distress in the process of praising the more assertive characterization in the update. Now, don't get me wrong -- I love Amy 2.0. Heck, when the promo stills were released, my first comment was a gleeful "Amy gets a gun. I could be on board with this." And the character we eventually saw lived up to those images and to the promise of a Marti Noxon script.

However. You don't get to say "only hung sweetly by Charley's side" about the girl who steps up save him before he ever needs to save her. (Well, it's a free country; you can say whatever you want. But I'll take umbrage.) When, according to all evidence available to her, he's having some kind of mental breakdown and is determined to do something that will get him locked up for the rest of his life.

Ed turns to her and says "What are we going to do?" It's Amy who immediately comes up with the tactic of asking Peter Vincent for help, thus buying time in which Charley promises not to take action and marshaling the resources of the only adult he's currently prepared to listen to. If they had been living in the world they thought they were, if Dandridge had not in fact been a vampire, then Charley's sanity and future would have been saved entirely on Amy's initiative.

I babbled something to that effect at Amanda Bearse during a Q&A at a convention a couple years back. It wasn't the most coherent thing in the world, but she seemed pleased, and I hope she's rightfully proud of the character she created, particularly having now raised a daughter herself.

On a related note, another aspect of that article linked above that irritates me: "until she was turned vampire by Jerry and became the typically sexed-up evil female. Evil because she is sexual, as has been the case in vampire narratives since Carmilla and Dracula. Contrastingly, in the remake Amy has far more sexual agency–and is not demonized for it."

Here's my problem with that line of reasoning: The original Amy had an agency that was immensely important for 15-year-old me to see, the agency to make her own choices and have them respected.

Charley, with his "we've been going together almost a year" outburst, very nearly disqualifies himself as a hero before even starting to become one, then saves it by apologizing in the next breath without prompting. He was clearly parroting the script he's been force-fed by popular culture about what he's supposed to want and how he's supposed to get it, and he's instantly ashamed, probably without fully understanding why he even said it. He admits to being scared too -- a cardinal no-no in the teen-movie guy code! -- and the ensuing earnest discussion of what level of physical intimacy they're ready for is funny without being played for laughs at their expense. They have all these feelings -- and yes, they both have them -- but not the experience to deal with them in any way that isn't all kinds of awkward. So they talk about it awkwardly, and healthily, and with the understanding that it's important to talk about what they are and aren't ready to do. In the teen-movie landscape of 1985, this was nothing short of a revelation.

So it's all fine until Dandridge comes along and uses Amy's sexuality against her, manipulates feelings she has explicitly stated she is not ready to act on, with the aim of overwriting her identity and turning her into someone else entirely. Not even the long-dead woman in the portrait, but merely his image of her. She's not "evil because she is sexual." She's dangerous because Dandridge is using her as an extension of himself.

At the end of the movie, when she's free of that influence, we're nominally back where we started, with Charley and Amy making out -- fully clothed -- in his room. But it's comfortable in a way that it wasn't at the beginning. They've survived shared trauma and come out stronger, but they're not adults, and they're refreshingly not in any hurry to be. They've decided what they're ready to do, and there's no tension about whether that should change. It will come in its own time, and we're left with the sense that they'll decide it together.

So... that's Amy. One character. That's not even getting into Charley and Ed and brilliant creepy-charming-predator Dandridge and the treasure that is Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent. A blog post only has so much space.

Anyone still wondering why I love this movie so much? :-)

Monday, August 17, 2015

The accidental filmmaker

In which our Diva took a walk and made a thing

I love where I live. To wit, where I can, on a Friday morning whim, walk two blocks, shoot for about an hour with a consumer DSLR and zero crew, and by Saturday afternoon have made this:

Even before I went to VidCon, I've been pulled up short more and more often recently by the ever-expanding array of creative tools accessible to the ordinary person. Did you know you can download full-blown 3D animation software for free? I didn't until last week. And those hand-drawing-on-a-whiteboard videos you see all over the place? Sparkol VideoScribe is only free once, but isn't terribly expensive after that, and it's super easy to use.

Cross-pollination of ideas from tech to arts and back again drives evolution of both at a merry clip, with concepts like open source and Creative Commons benefiting creators and consumers alike.

Next thing you know, you've made a thing that can quite properly be called a short film, starring a gorgeous pocket of nature that happens to be down the block.

Nature and technology conspire.

It's a pretty fantastic time to be a storyteller, y'know?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Shakespeare Week!

In which our Diva has a little classical fun

Shakespeare Week is a UK-based educational initiative (put together by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), but enough of it happens online that it's pretty inevitable people would pick up on it overseas.

Like me.

To that end, in lieu of my usual trying-to-be-weekly vlog efforts, I've been posting a short "mono-vlogue" each day. You can check out my full Shakespeare playlist over there, or begin at the beginning with Monday's take on Portia's famous "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice.

Hope you enjoy! Do give a nod to the Bard this week in celebration, will you?

Saturday, March 7, 2015


In which our Diva sends a message in an imaginary digital bottle to her teen self

Dear Me,

You are a Smart Kid, and a Pollyanna, and a nerd, and a skinny girl, and getting taller seemingly by the minute, and watching people flip out about this sex thing with no small degree of bafflement.

This is for you.


In celebration of International Women's Day, take part in YouTube’s global #DearMe initiative to inspire and empower young girls everywhere. We all know that growing up is tough. But if you could go back in time, what wisdom would you share with your teenage self? It all starts with two words. Dear Me. 

**Share your advice by making your own #DearMe GIF at http://youtubedearme.com **

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Remember the ladies

In which our Diva impersonates the Founding Mother of smarts and sass

A couple weeks ago, a friend alerted me to Drunk History's "Stumble Into History" contest, which called for videos of fans posing as historical figures to react to their portrayal on the show. It sounded like fun (and getting flown out to warm, sunny LA to do a walk-on in Season 3 sounds particularly good right about now!), but I've had other priorities, so it wasn't until this past weekend that I did anything about it.

At which point, I pulled it together in less than a day, with resources I had around the house, and uploaded my entry a comfortable three hours before deadline. I'm pretty pleased with myself for that. :-)

I spent a fair amount of time waffling among the awesome ladies on the list -- Mary Dyer? Dolley Madison? Nellie Bly? -- but ultimately Abigail Adams and her legendary letter-writing were always going to prevail. (I am rather sad nobody represented for Nellie, the original intrepid girl reporter.)

So, interspersing some of Mrs. Adams' famous words with a few of my own invention, I took pretend quill pen in hand and threw my mob cap in the ring.

You can check out the results here and (if you feel so inclined and if you have a Facebook account, on which the voting mechanism unfortunately depends) vote for me once a day until next Monday, March 2. Comments and sharing are also most definitely welcome, and thank you!!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

MY autograph? Um, okay...

In which our Diva commits vlog with tremendous ambivalence and curiosity

I am, as you may have noticed, not even a little bit famous. Despite this fact, from time to time, I receive an email or letter asking for an autographed photo. Typically they mention a relatively recent credit from my IMDb page, tell me a little about themselves, and are generally polite and respectful.

The one currently sitting in my inbox (waiting for me to get around to printing a promo photo at Walgreens in a size that can be sent with regular letter postage, which the 8x10 headshots I actually have on hand rather decidedly can't) says he's a fan from Epitaph: Bread and Salt. Now, that has over half a million views on YouTube, increasing the odds that he's actually seen it, as compared to some other films requesters have mentioned.

One of the previous requests I've received, upon googling the name of the requester together with "autograph" (because I'm nothing if not a curious beastie), let me to this blog post by author C. Leigh Purtill. She was understandably baffled at receiving an autograph request from a Polish gentleman who seemed vanishingly unlikely to have actually read her books, and took her blog to see what her readers made of it. I'm guessing she probably never predicted that there would still be a fairly lively discussion happening in the comments nearly six years later, with all manner of obscure public figures (including myself) chiming in to relate their stories, share the names of requesters, and puzzle over why they're interested in us.

It says a lot about the state of the world, and particularly of trying to make a go of it in the entertainment or publishing industry, that the first place pretty much everyone's mind goes is "Is this some kind of scam?" The short answer, as far as I've been able to determine, is no, although currently the discussion is circling around the pros and cons of confirming that the email address they're using for you is valid. (In my case, it's the one I list on my IMDbPro page for professional purposes, so if it weren't, I'd definitely be doing this "self-managed actor" thing wrong! But that's not the source for everyone, so it's a valid question to consider.)

In my aquaintance with collectors, no matter what their area of interest, the qualitative and quantitative properties of what they collect, of what makes a particular item worth including and what doesn't, is a highly idiosyncratic thing. I can easily picture the autographs of obscure public figures having a place in the collection of someone for whom the act of collecting itself, of organizing and cataloging, is the point. There are social interactions in both contacting celebrities (or even not-so-celebrities) with requests as well as in the collector community, which, as a glance at the fanmail.biz forum or the Google results for "my autograph collection" will tell you, is a diverse and thriving one.

So I can guess at what's going on when I get that request in my inbox. But I don't really know, and (although I briefly considered asking this latest requester if he'd mind taking some sort of survey and passing it on to fellow collectors), it seems sort of rude and weirdly presumptuous to ask directly. If someone is writing to me saying "I'm a fan," I don't want to go essentially accusing him of lying.

Instead, I spent my latest vlog ruminating on the phenomenon, and inviting insights from the people who do the requesting. Whether any of them will respond, or even see it, is a total unknown. But what the heck, right?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Grieve not with thy bitter tears

In which our Diva commemorates a famous death

On this day in 1862, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal died of a laudanum overdose. The inquest ruled it accidental; some who knew her claimed to know for a fact that she had taken her own life. We will never be able to confirm with absolute certainty what was in her mind that night.

We do have her poems, many of which dwell on death and loss, a tendency in which she was not alone among her contemporaries.

On this solemn anniversary, this one -- probably my favorite of hers -- seems fitting. It closes Unvarnished; I recorded this reading a few years ago.

Early Death
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.

But true love, seek me in the throng
Of spirits floating past,
And I will take thee by the hands
And know thee mine at last.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ophelia is everywhere

In which our Diva ponders how the girl nobody at court considered until it was too late came to be considered a great many things

Long, long ago, when woolly mammoths roamed roamed the wilds of the information superhighway between the glittering GeoCities and the gates of AOhelL (which one reached by means of shiny wheels that appeared by the dozens in one's physical mailbox), yours truly created a section of her personal website called "Doubt Thou the Stars Are Fire - An Ophelia Gallery."

Through the magic of the Wayback Machine (and a temporary change in my display resolution - raise your hand if you remember SVGA being fancy!), I can give you an idea of what it looked like:

Also thanks to the Wayback, I can quote my long-forgotten "about the site" statement:

I had no idea it was going to get this big.
This project was originally conceived as a page for my Fireside Tales section [that was where I used to blather about fairy and folk tales before discovering blogging], but it wasn't long before I realized there was far too much material to fit in that context. It began (as so many things seem to) with Shakespeare, and with the familiar figure of Hamlet's poor tragic lady-love, who is driven mad by the madness going on around her, and who drowns in the brook with a song on her lips.
The next ingredient was my long-standing fascination with Pre-Raphaelite art, and with the circle of individuals who produced it. Ophelia was a favorite subject of theirs, as you'll soon see if you didn't already know. At one time I had notions of doing a website on the Pre-Raphaelites, but the lovely folk at WebMagick and The Germ have covered the subject far more thoroughly than I ever could.
The final catalyst was reading Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a standout amid the recent flood of pop psychology and women's studies. To Dr. Pipher, Ophelia is the symbol of the loss of identity that so often strikes girls as they reach adolescence and are pressured to define themselves by everyone's standards except their own.
As you'll see throughout this site, Ophelia has far more faces than those few. She is a potent identifying figure for women in general and teenage girls in particular, and she means something a little different to everyone.
"This big" might sound funny in the age of blogs and content management systems and wikis (if I were to undertake such a project today, it would totally be a wiki!), but in the Wild-Digital-West days we prided ourselves on hand-coding HTML, which was actually the easier way to make something look the way you wanted than the clunky web-authoring software of the time!

So there were quite a few hours and a lot of love in that handful of pages, gathering art, photos, essays, and links to people, businesses, and pets bearing Ophelia's name.

Then came blogs and wikis and aggregators, and a far wider and more populous online world, and it all became far too much for one busy woman to keep track of. The links became outdated, and the subject became amply covered in multiple elsewheres. So I retired the site, and moved on to other things.

I still think often of poor drowned Ophelia, of course -- I could hardly help it even if I wanted to, up to my eyebrows in dramatizing a woman whose legacy is inextricably bound up with her. I still have the ghost of that "I need to add this to the site" impulse when I encounter a new expression of our enduring cultural fascination with her -- Emilie Autumn's tour de force album Opheliac; or a chamber opera entitled Ophelia Forever that features not one but three incarnations of the title role; or even a contemporary art piece involving a recreation of Millais' painting in bacteria, time-lapse photography of its decay, poetry collected via voice mail, and a musical composition based on the genetic code of digestive flora!

I think of poor drowned Ophelia, and also sweet hopeful Ophelia, and mad Ophelia struggling to make herself heard through old words and melodies and the language of flowers. I think of the reality of an old ballgown turned gossamer flotation device and glittering anchor by turns. I think of a role that can liberate or imprison, or paradoxically do both at once -- for Lizzie, one of its most famous exponents, or for unknown dozens of young actresses taking her on at any given moment.

I've never played Ophelia myself (barring reading from our desks in a high school literature classroom), and I've passed the "ingenue" phase of my Shakespeare career and into the "queens" -- though, despite having dived headfirst into Titania and Lady Macbeth, I somehow don't feel ready to tackle Gertrude. But she remains there in the background, somehow, well past the adolescent confusions in which one is supposed to identify with her.

For a fictional girl who didn't make it out of her teens, Ophelia really does contain multitudes. Like many characters, really, especially those of whom we learn tantalizingly little in their moments on the stage. Those whose shadowed lives we can illuminate with the experiences and questions of our own.

It's with this role I begin Unvarnished, with Lizzie offering a few typically wry observations hinting at how it has touched on the corners of her own life. A glimpse:

Three years ago, I witnessed in person the sensation Millais' Ophelia still creates in those passing her on the Tate Gallery wall. Lizzie was part of making something magical, whose appeal is impossible to quantify. Yet her experience of its making involved entirely earthly and practical considerations of cold water and needed wages. If anything encapsulates the contradictions of her life, that's it.

 The music opening the above video is from Helen Trevillion's "The Goose Girl"

Friday, January 9, 2015

Unvarnished vlog: Why Lizzie?

In which our Diva gets some use out of that phone tripod she got for Christmas

I've been bitten by the vlogging bug. (Well, technically I can call myself an early adopter -- all of these predate my even hearing the term "vlog" -- but it's way easier now.)

For those of you who prefer the written word, don't worry -- I still plan to do proper blog posts too! But thoughts come out differently in writing than they do in speaking, and of course once the Unvarnished process is more visibly underway, this way of sharing it should be even more fun.

I started simple today, with a few thoughts on why I'm so fascinated by Elizabeth Siddal and what inspired me to create a solo theatre piece about her. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably encountered most of these thoughts in one form or another, but I wouldn't mind your giving a listen even so. And, if you're so inclined, sharing with potentially interested friends? :-)