AAPEX Interview: Paula J Riley — AAPEX Interview , Paula Riley — AAPEX

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

AAPEX Interview: Paula J Riley

What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?

Being the child of performers, I was exposed not only to the external environs of the Borscht Belt circuit of the 1940’s, but the constant shenanigans of my comic father, who would bounce me upon his knee while trying out many a song or funny new routine. For attention I would dance for the inevitable weekly crowd of relatives who’s accolades have never quite been matched.

I went to a performing arts camp in the Berkshires called Stissing Lake where a young Jerry Herman was the musical director. I performed as a little ballerina in Finian's Rainbow , A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I did the traditional school plays where I would sing, act and dance. I studied at several of the day’s foremost acting schools and with teachers such as John Stix, at The Herbert Berghof Studios. As a New Yorker growing up in the 60’s, I was privy to the likes of many struggling young actors, comics and singers. I hung out at the original Improvisation begun by Bud Friedman and his wife Silver on West 44 Street in Manhattan. I would occasionally get up to sing but I preferred hearing the humor of Robert Klein, Richard Prior, Rodney Dangerfield or Stiller & Mera trying out their latest material. Or I would listen to the melodious tones of Bette Midler, Leslie Uggums or Liza Minnelli. Their nightly piano player was Charlie Smalls who would later write the Broadway musical The Wiz

As it was the rise of Off-Broadway, many of the smaller houses were playing some of America’s greatest – and still unknown – playwrights of the century such as Edward Albee and Sam Shepard. I worked part-time at the famous Village Gate – again rubbing elbows with a young Neil Diamond or Stacy Keach who played the title role in MacBird!, an Off-Broadway anti-war satire by Barbara Garson staged in 1966.

In that same year, I met and began studying with Iza Itkin and worked with her until 1970. I was a charter member of Iza’s repertory theatre company in Manhattan, The Chamber Theater. Iza was the daughter of David Itkin of the famed Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Some of Iza’s directorial accomplishments were: The Infernal Machine produced Off-Broadway and The Prisoner at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. She also wrote a poetic memoir called A Becoming, I Iza. I believe her greatest talent was directing and her contribution to theatre is the creative structure I now call The Spiral Theatre Studio.

At the Chamber Theatre, I studied the art of improvisation, which led me to a deeper understanding of myself as well as the intricacies of acting. This would have a lasting and profound influence upon how I would later teach. Working with a closely-knit group of actors for an extended period of time gave me great insight into the acting group dynamic. This is where my true grit was challenged as an actor. By osmosis I began my tutelage in directing. I feel I need to honor her teachings on that structure. I want to fulfill her dream (and mine) by recreating this magical venue.

Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.

During the period that followed my studies, I married and divorced, wrote, directed and sang in several nightclub acts, an early love of mine. I even returned to college for Interior design, looking for the creative part of myself I was yet to fulfill.

I had always been the one that adults would come to for advice when I was as young as seven. And being the good little child I would somehow find an answer that would satisfy them and it would be right on.

I now know it was my intuition that gave me a sense of others, a perception that has grown and helped me “know” through feelings not intellect. Of course this has been a great factor in a career in which I can gratefully apply this gift. And so it seemed clear and natural for me to coach, teach and direct.

I became active in a neighborhood theatre company and directed a couple of productions. I had begun to scratch the surface of my intended destiny. But life was hard financially and I had to take in roomers in order to make ends meet. A friend who worked for a popular modeling agency recommended that I house out of town models and their mothers, M & M’s as I called it. I also worked as a bartender which supplemented my income but also made it too tempting to have “just another drink” before I went home. I had a monkey on my back that I didn’t address until many years later. Meanwhile, I picked up whatever jobs I could as an actor, director or singer.

My directorial credits include: A Fake Fiasco by Fred Timm, I Feel Swell, by Henry Meyerson, Wednesdays by Sue Brody, Extreme Unction (Reading), by Marvin Cotlar, Traffic Jam by Bonnie Corso, The Reading by John C. Davenport, Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge, Golden Boy by Clifford Odets, The Wreck on the 5:25 by Thorton Wilder, From Lindsay by Monica Raymond and The Stronger by August Strindberg.

Some of the plays from which I directed scenes for my 3-month “From Scratch To Script” workshops are: Beautiful Clear-eyed Woman by Diana Amsterdam, Little Murders by Jules Feiffer, Come Blow Your Horn by Neil Simon, A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Glengary Glen Ross by David Mamet, The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCuller, Laundry & Bourbon by James Mclure, Lie Of The Mind by Sam Shepard.

Throughout my acting career I have portrayed such characters as: Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss. Daisy, Amanda in Glass Menagerie, Edna in Prisoner of Second Avenue and Thelma in ‘Night Mother, just to name a few.

Another love of mine is writing. I started to write a play and then another. I also wrote many short stories and poems. They were reflections of my inner burnings. However, one of the plays, which took me three years to complete, had actually been plagiarized. I can’t reveal more on this because I won’t expose names but it appeared on a major TV network with a star-studded cast. This was a double-edged sword since it was good enough for that venue but I was never credited with its creation. I am still hoping to produce the play that was made into a TV movie, on The Spiral Theatre stage. I still write poetry – it’s a great outlet.

What is the "spiral stage"? What is you mission here, and why?

I am prepared to carry on the tradition of this sustainable poetic construct I call “The Spiral” which was originally conceived and built by Iza Itkin. I am now partnered with a prolific playwright, Coni Koepfinger, and will be directing her play Coffee House Magik which will be The Spiral’s inaugural performance. While I continue teaching, coaching and directing, my legacy is to resurrect the stage I learned how to act upon – which now bares the name The Spiral Theatre Studio.

The stage is a synthesis of the free organic and the structured geometric. Working on this stage helped me create an organic teaching process that insures the actor/student the most nuanced, and unselfconscious performance as possible. I call this the Primary Principles of Acting (PPA). I am writing a guide by the same name for actors, which describes my process and offers several effective exercises to create an in-depth character core for scene work, auditions and performances.

It is my goal to create this stage in a sustainable way and therefore become the first truly “Green” theatrical performance space in New York City. We can achieve this mostly with the ability to stage all our productions on this environmentally friendly construct. By not having set load-ins and load-outs, we can function in a controlled environment.

We can dictate what comes into our space, which will be green-optimized from the ground floor up.

One of the important elements of this theatre is to introduce “essential theatre” to both the general public at an affordable price and to have a specific department which conducts educational outreach for public and high school students.

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