Monday, Jan. 5, 2009

Cheap Coffee With Actress Ruth Arnell

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I very rarely get to talk to people active in local theatre who aren’t directly involved in a project that they are working on at that moment. Such experiences are usually fleeting moments in the lobby of some theatre. Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with actress Ruth Arnell at great length over cheap coffee from the comfort of my own living room. The interview was done for the purposes of this past week’s A&E Feature in the Shepherd-Express. There was no specific show involved. Arnell is a very talented actress who has been getting some very serious work in the suburbs. She also maintains an active video blog about her experiences on You Tube. Unlike so many other young actresses in town, Arnell has no plans for leaving Milwaukee, setting her goal as that of being a professional actress living downtown as opposed to a semi-professional actress living in the suburbs. Here are some rough transcripts of my conversation with her.

PT. 1: YES, IT'S OKAY FOR REAL GROWN-UPS TO PLAY ONSTAGE.


Me: What first attracted you to acting?

Ruth Arnell:
. . . it’s just so psychologically rewarding to give people something that’s comprised almost entirely of yourself and have them say, “yes! I approve! Way to go! Let’s have coffee!”

Me: [laughs]

Ruth: So I think on a very basic, psychological level that’s probably what it is, but also when you do something and you get the immediate response of what people’s thoughts were. Because if you write a paper for school, it doesn’t matter how good it is, probably only your professor is going to read it and they’re not going to have an emotional response. They’re just going to tell you, “don’t use phrases like ‘a cigar is just a cigar,’ Ruth. This is academic writing.” (That happened and it’s not fun.) You know, but—creating something and getting to have that response right away. . . I don’t know . . . it’s just a really great payoff for me, because what I want to share with people when I act isn’t . . . it’s not the performance that I want to share with them . . . it’s the creative process that came before it, but I can’t have them come to rehearsal. All I can have them come to is the performance. So it’s like—okay, this is the closest thing I can give you to the table work that we do and what we all discovered about our characters and about this time period or whatever. I want to show you the month and a half that came before. Because the final performance—if it’s really, really good—maybe it’ll make you think of a movie you’ve seen and you can see 1,000 of those . . . it’ll cost you maybe a couple of bucks at Blockbuster . . . or maybe it’ll be a really crappy performance and it’ll remind you of when you saw your kid’s middle school musical. Y’know—with the performance you’ve got an hour and a half—two hours and anything can happen that can make the experience sort  of . . . but that month and a half—unless you’re there doing it . . . THAT’S were it really is for me. So I like to share the good times and the creative process with other people and I’ve got an hour and a half window to do it. And I love it.

Me: Okay. What was the first show you ever went to?

Ruth: [pause]

Me: Can you remember that? The first professional show?

Ruth: I don’t know. I didn’t grow-up going to a lot of theatre. It wasn’t something I really did until later. I think probably the first professional thing I ever saw . . . y’know, like most people . . . was The Nutcracker. Or not most, but a lot, y’know?

Me: Milwaukee Ballet?

Ruth: Yeah. It did not appeal to me. I needed less dancing, more jokes. [laughs] So unless you put a little Abbot and Costello action in there, I don’t think I’ll ever go again. It was great. It’s very impressive, but it’s not for me. It’s not that I don’t CARE. It’s just that I don’ like it. Yeah, I’m trying to think . . . I didn’t start really going to see professional theatre until I was in college.

Me: But did you know it was going to be theatre that you wanted to get into?

Ruth: I knew, but I didn’t really think that you were allowed to DO theatre, because it’s not a grown-up thing.

Me: [laugh] And how long did THAT impression last?

Ruth: My god, it lasted through the middle of my junior year of college!

Me: [laugh]

Ruth: Because I started doing plays—like actively doing plays my freshman year of high school with a guy who does stuff over at Acacia now Justin Martin. And I started doing it and I loved it. And if it wasn’t for Steel Magnolias and The Imaginary Invalid  I would’ve been in ALL of the shows in high school! And I kicked some ass! And it was great. And I went to college and I studied—English was my major and secondary education was my minor. And as I would imagine something that you find at a lot of colleges that, if you study secondary education as a minor, a great deal of the classroom time and many of the assignments are geared towards elementary education methods. Y’know . . . ways of dealing with the kids’ needs and . . . whatever. And so I felt like I was taking all these classes and kind of wasting my time and money. And we’re talking about conflict resolution with 9 year olds and I’m worrying about . . . what if I do my student teaching in MPS and I’ve got juniors [in high school.] That’s different than being at Bethesda, y’know . . . out in the suburbs. . . so, yeah. Middle of my junior year. I’d been doing tons of shows in college and decided—maybe do this instead.

Me: What College?

Ruth: I wet to Carroll College.

Me: Okay.

Ruth: When I was there, Dave Wolfen [sp?] was there. He was fantastic. He was wonderful. Um . . . Tom Bruno was my acting teacher and my directing teacher. Now he does stuff here in Milwaukee. And that was nice—having people who were grown-ups and doing this taboo thing of gown-ups can play onstage after they’re REAL grown-ups. So yeah, I just kept being really active in theatre and decided, you know, maybe I should just say, “screw it” to this secondary education thing ‘cuz it’s a waste of my time. And it’s boring. And theatre’s great. And I’m enjoying it. And eery scene study I’mlearning something and getting a lot out of it. And they way you get to know people working on a play is so much different from working on a group project of—how are we gin to teach our class the alphabet? I don’t care.

TOMORROW: The discussion with local actress Ruth Arnell evolves a bit . . . perhaps gets a bit more coherent.

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