by Lorie Lewis Ham
Because the Valley has so much talent in it’s local theatre community, we like to profile local actors and directors and let people get to know the people they see on stage, and others behind the scenes that make these shows happen. After a break for the holidays we are back with a new profile, but this time we thought we’d do things a little differently–this time we have an interview with local actor/director Heather Parish who is also the founder of The New Ensemble theatre company in Fresno.
KRL: Are you from this area?
Heather: I was raised in Visalia from the time I was quite small, so yes, Visalia is my hometown and Fresno is now my “town-that-is-home”.
KRL: What is your day job?
Heather: I currently work at Linden Publishing in downtown Fresno, publisher of the imprints The Woodworker’s Library, Quill Driver Books and Craven Street Books. We publish and distribute books worldwide on the topics of fine and vintage woodworking, California history, and general non-fiction.
Prior to this I cared for my chronically ill mother full-time for eight years. It was very stressful, but it also allowed me a certain amount of flexibility to focus on theater. During those years I served as artistic director of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival and started The New Ensemble.
KRL: Schools attended?
Heather: I graduated from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington in 1997 with a double major in English literature and education with a minor in theater. I was also lucky enough to spend a term in London, England studying theater and seeing some amazing productions.
Before all of that, though, I received my initial theatrical education at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.
KRL: When did you first get involved in acting/directing and why?
Heather: I am not typical in that I didn’t find a passion for theater at a young age. I wasn’t a child actor. I was lucky to have a mother who took me to see the College of the Sequoias musicals every year from the time I was six or seven years old. And I went to an elementary school and a junior high school that produced children’s operettas, which I took part in. I liked it and had a good time, but I wasn’t a kid that was hankering for the stage. As a high school student, my interest was in journalism and I didn’t participate in school plays.
But at the age of 18, after surgery to correct a chronic cardiac condition I’d been managing since I was about 10, I was very depressed. The writing I did was too isolating and I was painfully shy.
After a few months of counseling, my therapist basically told me to get a life. She explained that I needed an outlet that A) required me to learn how to do something new, and B) required me to be involved with other people.
So, as a student at COS, I looked at the course offerings that would fit into my schedule and landed in a stage lighting class in the theater department.
And, on the first day of class, the professor (Paul Jones, whom I consider a deeply influential mentor to this day) asked for volunteers to work backstage on the fall production of The Phantom of the Opera (not the musical!). I explained that I was a complete newbie and asked to be put where I would learn the most. He made me the assistant stage manager.
So that was my start. By the end of that production, I was having such a good time, my confidence improved, and working with such an amazing group of people, I was pretty hooked. I probably took more theater classes than general ed classes from that point on.
I was extremely lucky to be at College of the Sequoias during those few years in the early ‘90s. There have been dozens and dozens of talented students to come out of that program, but during those years the talent pool was pretty deep, so I was pushed to keep up with everyone else from the first moment.
KRL: What was your first part? First show directed?
Heather: My first acting role was as Audrey in Shakespeare’s As You Like It to Chris Mangels’ Touchstone during my second year at C.O.S.
The first show I ever directed was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with middle-schoolers at Dinuba Unified Schools. Up until then I was a stage manager, technician and actor – in that order. With the help of John Sorber, currently the choral director at El Diamante in Visalia, it was a nicely staged, well-sung production. I still look back at it and am surprised at what those kids could do!
KRL: Do you have a favorite type of show to be in or direct?
Heather: I look for plays that have a solid script. I love language plays, plays where the writing contains everything the audience needs to go on the journey. This is why Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde are so well regarded so many years after they’ve come and gone. If you do their language well, everything else will follow.
The New Ensemble’s motto is “The Word to the Voice to the Action”, so I look for plays that allow for all three of those to be done very well.
I also approach a play’s language in the way that musical theater people might approach the score and lyrics of a musical. To me, the spoken word is a kind of music of its own and it possesses both the logic and the emotion of the piece. So if I don’t find the language of the play compelling, I tend to be less interested in it.
That’s not to say that the spectacle of theater (sets, lighting, costuming, etc) isn’t important, it is just lower down on my priority list. Some great plays really crave the spectacle. But first and foremost, I want to revel in the language and find out how the language we speak and act upon can change others’ experience in the audience.
KRL: What do you like best about acting/singing/directing?
Heather: I’ve been obsessed with story since I was a child, so I like constructing and telling a story. I believe that everyone who is truly engaged in their life and their world has a predominant way in which they interact with the world. Theater is the means through I which I explore and wrestle with what it means to be Heather Parish and Fresno and the United States and the World right here and right now.
The best thing about acting and directing is that by creating this pretense, this false thing, we have a structured way to really dig into what happens to us as individuals, as society, as conscious people struggling with how we live and think and feel with each other. And then to share that insightful pretense with an audience, have them imaginatively enter into that world you’ve created, and then leave with – hopefully – a greater sense of connection to the world. . . that is a true wonder of how humans can connect through story.
Sometimes we escape in stories and sometimes we are more present than ever because of them. Being able to create that is a real gift- whether it is done live on a stage, on film in a cinema or television, or in the individual privacy of a novel, human storytelling is a wonder we take for granted.
KRL: What is the hardest? (acting & directing)
Heather: The VERY hardest thing is insane fear of failure that comes with trying new things and doing things differently. Every single show I’ve directed in the last five years or so I knew could either be extremely interesting or the worst thing ever staged. And I know you can find people who come down on both sides of that question. I hate the fear that comes with the idea that at some point, failures will happen. But I am also pretty confident that when they do happen, I can deal with them.
The NEXT hardest thing? The day to day practicalities of trying to create theater – everything from finding the money, space, the people, the time, the props, the furniture, the volunteers, how to get butts in the seats, how to stay an artist when you’re busy counting beans, and how to not drop dead at the close of every production. But conquering all of that is a pretty big rush.
KRL: Future goals and dreams?
Heather: My future goal and dream is to find my next project. Always.
KRL: How and why did you end up starting your own theatre company?
Heather: The beginning of The New Ensemble sort of overlapped the end of my time as artistic director of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival. The first production was just a way for me and my dear collaborator, Brooke Aiello, to revisit a former production of The Turn of the Screw (produced five years earlier at the Ice House in Visalia). We were interested to see how the same show, with the same actors would have changed and grown, so we produced it independently here in Fresno. It was an endeavor to challenge ourselves and see how we’d grown as artists.
After I moved on from WSF, continuing with the Ensemble seemed a natural way to fill the void. I specifically chose projects for myself and the group of actors I enjoyed working with based on how they would challenge us and, hopefully, give audiences something a little different as well.
After successful productions of some very smart, challenging plays like The Pillowman, A Picasso, Copenhagen, Hamlet. . . and producing shows for a few other local directors like J. Daniel Herring (Baptized to the Bone) and Anthony Rico Nan (Chesapeake), The New Ensemble has had a solid three year run.
Heather: I love the bold, outside the box thinking of director Anne Bogart at SITI Company. And I also love how director Diane Paulus makes old things new again with her fresh stagings. I am saddened by the closure of Shakespeare Santa Cruz because I think it shaped my ideas of theatricality and my love of Shakespeare in performance more than anything. I have a lot of professional actor-crushes.
But I have to say that most of my heroes are the people around the country sweating it out trying to keep local and regional theaters going. We tend to look to New York City so often when we talk about “real theater,” but the fact of the matter is: most people’s ONLY experience of theater is in their local community. A handful of those will travel to a regional theater to see something there. So having ANY kind of theater available to a community on a regular basis is an increasing rarity.
And along with those local artists, my heroes are the people who show up, buy a ticket, and tell their friends when they liked something. These are the people who keep The New Ensemble going.
KRL: What do you feel has helped you the most in growing as an actor/director?
Heather: When I started The New Ensemble, I had an initial challenge of directing five plays in a calendar year. I didn’t live up to that, but I did mount three shows, five readings, and a variety show in rapid succession. Doing so much work in such a short amount of time, I went through my “bag of tricks”, as we say, about halfway through the year and I had to really dig deeper to find ways to solve problems theatrically and work with actors in new ways.
That tendency to empty my bag of tricks continued with the challenges of my follow up productions, so I’d say that’s what’s helped me grow. Constantly asking myself to go a little deeper into the bag or into different territory from time to time in order to develop as an artist keeps things fresh (I hope!).
KRL:What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into acting or directing?
Heather: There are so, so many things. Mostly: Be willing to take the opportunities handed you, no matter how humble or else be willing to create your own opportunities.
Also: Don’t wait for the perfect time, perfect cast, perfect conditions to do your work. Do the work you can do NOW, no matter how imperfect it may be. Learn by doing and do it a lot.
And: Your jealous, judgy, condescending, snooty ego will happen. Note it and then put it in its place. Learn how to praise your competition and to give criticism to your friends (nicely!). (I learned this one the hard way – a few times!)
KRL: Any funny and/or inspirational stories to share?
Heather: I have to say that it was a passing comment from a fellow student at C.O.S. during that production of Phantom of the Opera (not the musical!) that kept me going at the beginning of my journey when I was at my most overwhelmed.
As the ASM, it was my job to read lines and walk blocking for actors who were absent from rehearsal. After doing so one rehearsal, Chris Mangels (who was cast as the Phantom in that production and is currently a Professor of Theater at COS) leaned over to me and asked if I had acted before. When I said, “Not really,” he said, “You should, you read really well. You should take acting classes, too.”
I was very flattered and didn’t forget what he said. It had a huge impact. I signed up for the Intro to Acting class a few weeks later. At that point there was no turning back. If he hadn’t made that comment, which I am sure he doesn’t remember now, I might have just let theater go after a semester. Many times, it is the way in which our peers encourage us that lights the biggest fire.
KRL: What is your dream role? Show to direct?
Heather: My favorite part is the one I am playing and my favorite play is the one I am directing. My favorite movie, however, is Rocky.
KRL: Is it hard balancing a job and theatre?
Heather: It is extremely hard work balancing a full-time job and producing theatre. Some people in the world think that putting on a play is like organizing a glorified assembly: open the curtains, play dress up from mom’s closet, plug in a microphone and do a show!
It isn’t. Even the smallest production is time consuming, physical, and depends upon getting several very different types of people in the same place, at the same time, on the same page, and moving in the same direction. It is herding cats and arranging furniture at the same time. And then you have to keep the cats from scratching the furniture.
It also takes a lot of different skills. On the directing end, it takes a lot of careful, attentive, and disciplined energy to lead a cast and staff through creating a performance.
For producers, you have to have an ability to predict and create interest in the play, an eye for the money, the resources to provide the goods and man-power needed, organizational skills, marketing savvy, and a task oriented nature.
As an independent theater artist, I do both. And put in a full day’s work on top of it.
That’s just the way it is and the majority of the artists in the world have to do the same. ut what that means is that there is a lot less energy to make theater in me than when I had a more flexible situation. And so, less theater gets made.
Heather: My principle hobby is participating in historical re-enactment events throughout California like Renaissance faires, Jane Austen dances, Dickens Fair, Victorian balls, and the like. I have an interest in historical costuming and the social history of the past that I don’t get to indulge as often as I’d like. But my Facebook albums are populated with pictures of me in various forms of costumery. It is a little bit theater, a little bit history, and a little bit “make-believe playtime” to keep the kid in me happy.
See what some of Heather’s friends and theatre associates have to say about her:
One of my favorite things about Heather is that she has always had this incredible capacity for collaboration. She is so open to others artistic and personal energies and allows herself to be INSPIRED by the people she works with. But more than that, she can bring out in them what they need to inspire themselves. She is one of the most generous people I have worked with, both artistically and on a fundamental level.
Brooke Aiello, local actress & TNE Original Member
Heather has high standards and believes in celebrating and supporting those artists who want to explore how and why they create art. She doesn’t believe in a formula, but strives to provide opportunities for directors and actors to explore both contemporary and classical work with a alternative approach that perhaps will provide more relevancy for our modern-day audiences.
J. Daniel Herring, local director
I admire Heather, not only for having the guts and tenacity to start up her own theatre company, but also for picking the shows she does and making the casting decisions she makes. Heather is not one to think inside the box. She’s up for anything that will create interesting or new experiences for Fresno audiences. She has a very sharp, critical mind and it serves her well in the director’s chair.
Haley White, local actor/writer & TNE member
The interesting thing about Heather Parish is how she bridges both the creative and practical sides of theater. As a director, Heather is one of the most creative people I have ever worked with. She selects challenging plays to work on, both classic and contemporary, and she always stages her plays in a unique way. Heather is always more interested in creating a thought-provoking theater experience for the audience that in doing things the established way. She is open to boldly unconventional casting, especially nontraditional gender casting, and she has a wonderful intuition for making the most of any theater space she works in.
Jaguar Bennett, local actor & TNE member
Editor’s note: TNE will be presenting play readings throughout the spring, Heather will be acting in Dangerous Liaisons at GCP, and she has a monthly local theater e-newsletter giving insights and tips for theater in Fresno. A fall show for TNE is in the planning stages. You can also keep up with Heather on her blog.
Check out more arts and entertainment articles in KRL’s A & E section! And watch for info on TNE readings and shows, auditions & more here at KRL.