Tuesday, January 14, 2014

January’s Peculiar Person of the Month: Corporate Actress Katherine McDowell

An Interview
David Rondinelli

Katherine McDowell out of costume
Katherine McDowell is a corporate actress and part time princess as she performs at many different firms and events all over the country. Growing up near a dormant volcano in a small town from Northern California, McDowell refers to it as a place where rednecks and hippies coexist peacefully.

An extensive traveler throughout her whole life, she has seen many parts of the U.S. and Europe, which has given her an alternative education and a world wide scope.

It was at 18 that she set her sites on New York City where she was accepted into Tisch School of the Arts for their BFA program. The travel bug hit again and she spent two semesters abroad in Ireland and Italy and most of Western Europe. From there, an MA at King’s College London in conjunction with the RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) was the next step and a “fantastic experience” according to McDowell.

McDowell currently resides on the Upper West Side with her boyfriend where she works as a corporate actress. A growing field that requires her to act out certain scenarios to improve communication skills and understanding amongst different businesses. In addition, she also runs her own business called Fire Pixie where she acts and dresses as different well known pricessess for parties. McDowell has stated that her work allows her to become a more honest and vibrant human being when faced with daily compromise and different people.

Still an avid traveler, she hopes to leave the country once a year, but always finds New York City to have brand new experiences. McDowell shares her own vibrant experiences as she opens up about her life and why she feels New York City is such a magical place. Read more about her as Katerine McDowell is January’s Peculiar Person of the Month.

This Peculiar Life NYC:  When did you know you wanted to be an actress?

Katherine McDowell: I was set on acting from the age of 10 or so. My trajectory as a child when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up: teacher, lawyer, mediator, president, actress.  My parents had both worked in the film industry and were supportive of an artist child, a fact I still find regularly shocking as a pseudo adult myself.  It reminds me of what open minded and creative people they are.  My first major role was a summer program at the local junior college for kids, I was the villain in a melodrama The Villain Who Wore a Dirty Shirt It was with great regret that as I got older I realized A.) I’m not generally cast as a villain and B.) I’m rarely cast in male roles.  Which is probably why I love Shakespeare so much, they often let women play roles written for men.

TPL NYC: You do a specialized type of acting, can you explain it and how it helps the different companies you work with?

KM: My primary form of paid acting is corporate acting.  It is working with a corporation to help their employees learn a skill set and then offer an immediate practice opportunity through role play.  Companies find it really useful as a form of continued education for their employees.  It provides a safe forum for people to learn new skill sets and have a seemingly real practical application without the risk of making mistakes in a professional setting where there could be lasting effects. Companies sometimes have individuals do role play with other people in the organization, which can be complicated because they’re not as skilled at role play and there may be other ego or embarrassment issues in the way when working within a peer group. When working with a professional third party it removes those boundaries creating a more beneficial experience for the participants and with better results for the company.

TPL NYC: I actually never heard of people role playing and acting out different corporate scenarios for communication and training effectiveness. Is this a newer field or has this type of job been around for a while?

KM: I think it’s relatively new in the business world, at least in the US.  It’s very established in the UK.  Similar work has been in place for some time as an educational tool in other settings in the US.  Medical and Law Schools will often hire actors to interact with students to help them deal with real people instead of just ideas on a paper.  I think it’s something we will see more of in professional settings with the idea of continuing to educate a workforce.  As our education system focuses more on test based success, our people skills aren’t being developed and this is becoming more important in organizations.

McDowell as Rapunzel

TPL NYC: Can you take me through a typical day for you when you have to work with different companies?

KM: Once we’ve arrived at the venue (be it local or somewhere else in the country) we have a quick check in with the people running the course.  As the acting group, we number from 2-6 people all dressed in business appropriate outfits.  The course facilitators are typically professionals in the skill set being taught that day. 

A few weeks before the actual event each actor will have received their briefs and the timings of the actor required activities for the event.  The evening prior we will have discussed what topics will be covered and any details we will need to be aware of with the facilitators.

Once the course participants have arrived there is a short introduction. Typically the actors are seated in the back of the room or off to the side and also take a moment to introduce ourselves.

While the facilitators are running their presentation, our job is to be as attentive and unobtrusive.  We don’t interact much during this time, the facilitator’s focus is to deliver the necessary information and the course participants are trying to learn the techniques and make their own discoveries. The actors might be called upon to perform together or with a facilitator to demonstrate some of the skill sets being discussed during this early part of the day.

After lunch the actor’s work really comes into play.  Each course participant is handed a brief describing the situation to be discussed with an “employee” and a short hand of their relationship.  After a brief preparation they begin with their actor.  Generally a group is made of three course participants and one actor, one course participant participating in the role play while the other two observe and offer appropriate feedback.

During the role play it is the actor’s job to reveal the necessary information, have an informed and realistic understanding of their role and options, and offer feedback appropriate to their participant’s level.  For example, if someone is really good at the skill set, it is the actor’s job to increase the challenge.  If someone is really struggling, the actor should help guide the participant through gentle hints or revealing of information beyond the asked format while maintaining character.

We provide multiple role plays for each participant, and then provide feedback immediately following with what worked and what didn’t.  Our job is to be as helpful as possible while letting the participants draw their own conclusions. 

TPL NYC: How did you find a job doing this and what made you want to get involved in this type of acting?
KM: Luck!  I was doing a staged reading tour in the Midwest.  We were reading excerpts of Greek tragedies in public libraries. I booked the role by answering a last minute Facebook announcement from a fellow NYU graduate.  It was only 3 of us on the tour, and one of the other actors had also studied in England and we really hit it off.  When he found out about this opportunity he passed along my name.  After a full day of auditioning/training I was hired on a freelance basis by REACT Acting for Business, a company based in the UK who is just starting to reach out to the US.  I knew I wanted to be a part of this work. I got into performing because I wanted to touch people’s lives.   This work does exactly that in a very hands on way. Also, getting a paying gig as an actor is one of the most exciting things ever. Period.

McDowell as Ariel
TPL NYC: Take me through some of the roles that you have had to perform? Is it the same for every company or do you have to be a different person for each scenario?

KM: I think every time I’ve done this work I’ve had a different character.  Though I’ve done several jobs for the same company, I’ll end up with a different character to specifically address the needs of the participants on that course.  A lot of it is personality base, and though I have some knowledge about my role in the company and the structure, what it really comes down to is playing a human being who has fears and needs and desires.

Often, participants will have the opportunity to bring in their own scenario they want to practice.  In that setting, I only have a few minutes to discuss with the individual what the person they are dealing with is like and just do my best to help them practice the skill set and provide the best mirror.  It’s always a tremendous compliment when they say how much I was like the person they are struggling to communicate with, especially when it’s a 60-year-old man. 

TPL NYC:  What type of scenario do you have to perform the most?

KM: There isn’t really one scenario, and with a group of actors I may end up working a different scenario while one of my colleagues has a role I have done previously.  I’ve worked the most at “coaching” seminars, where middle management is learning the skills to coach an up-and-coming direct report.  It’s using different skills and roadblocks to help them figure out the best way to do that. 

TPL NYC: What type of insights have you learned about people and corporations from doing this type of work?

KM: Honestly I’ve worked for some companies that I have personal misgivings towards.  I’m a very conscientious person in my daily life.  I try to eat sustainable, organic, local foods when possible, shop free trade organic products, and support companies who have an ethos and perception that this planet is a group effort.  So I had some ethical questions about first working with big companies that really don’t reflect these values. 

What I’ve come to realize is that all companies are filled with people having individual experiences.  A lot of these employees aren’t out to destroy the world as we know it, they’re simply working in a job that they find personally fulfilling or that hired them for their aptitude.  They are filled with needs and hopes and fears and dreams just like everyone else.  I am less quick to judge people based on where they live or what they do, because it’s simply what they know. I mostly do work to help improve communication and awareness. In some small way, I’m having a positive impact on these companies and the world at large.

TPL NYC: Do you get to have any hands on experience like writing the script? Do you have to be dressed a particular way?

KM: I receive my “actor brief” that is already written through the REACT office working with an employee of the participating company.  Everything has already been determined before I even see the information.  Sometimes, if I’ve worked the course or company before, I can provide feedback or questions on the script to make sure it’s as useful as possible for the task at hand.

We are expected to dress in a corporate appropriate manner, basically slacks and a button down.  Rarely are full suits necessary, but sometimes that is the corporate climate.  I have a section of my wardrobe reserved for this kind of work.

TPL NYC:  You are also a part time princess. Tell me which princess you are and how often you get to be her?

KM: I actually run a princess company, so I am all the princesses!  I do anywhere from 1-4 parties a weekend, and also have some other wonderful princes and princesses who are available if I’m too busy.

McDowell as Belle
TPL NYC: How did you start that?

KM: I lived in Berkeley, CA for a couple years and was selling windows as my day job while pursuing acting opportunities in the Bay Area.  Not computer windows, the type that you actually hang into your home.  It was interesting for the first few months, but once I’d learned all there is to know about windows I was bored.  I happened to attend a party one night with some friends and was chatting with a girl there.  When she found out I was an actress with a boring day job she told me I should be a princess.  At the time, I didn’t even know that was a possible job description.

I worked for Fire Pixie in California for about a year before I moved back to NY.  After I moved back they contacted me about franchising the Fire Pixie brand.  So a few years ago I started to offer Fire Pixie on the East Coast.  It’s nice to have a network to belong to and I have a lot of autonomy. It really is just running my own little company, and all the joys and pitfalls that includes.

TPL NYC: When you go to audition as a princess is there one in mind that you use to get into character?

KM: I don’t ever audition as a princess, unless it’s for a stage play.  And I haven’t actually been called upon to do that.  I did attend a Disney cruise open call once for Princesses once.  That involved a simple dance routine, and height measurement and facial scrutiny.  They have a very specific thing they’re looking for at those events.

When I do a party I try and have a few elements of that princess in mind when I perform as her.  I also have to know all about her reality.  There is nothing more embarrassing than forgetting your prince’s name.

TPL NYC: Do you do any other creative fields like singing or dancing as well? What is the process like for those endeavors?

KM: I dance and sing for pleasure, but they’re not currently part of my professional pursuits.  A lot of actors are also singers/dancers and for things like musical theatre the audition process is much the same.  The singers and dancers attend open “chorus call” auditions to show off their particular talent specifically.  There are many different forms of singing and dancing, and the experience for an aspiring opera singer or ballerina is very different from someone pursuing musical theatre.

TPL NYC: This is a two part question, but who inspires you professionally and personally?

KM: Professionally I’m inspired by sane performers who create beautiful performances.  I love Maggie Smith, Cate Blanchett, and Audrey Tatou.  Katharine Hepburn is a legend for a reason, and she was so smart and wasn’t afraid to live her own experience. I am inspired by performers who seem to have found the balance between creating art and being a real person.  I think there is a romanticism that as an actor you must be conflicted or struggling, a bit crazy, and people love to glorify that.  I’m far more interested in an actor who is creating beautiful art with good intention and at the same time maintaining a balance and reality in their life.

This concept leads to who inspires me personally.  I find myself repeatedly drawn to the writings Thich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese monk.  Other Eastern writings of Swami’s and the works of Marianne Williamson also serve as discussion points and inspiration. At the heart of inspiration is this desire to live fully in this experience of living this life. At this point, I find the concept of awareness to be a key element of that desire.  Writings that help remind me of this idea and deepen my understanding are the most inspiring to me at this point in my life.

TPL NYC: By learning to become someone else, what do you feel it has granted you in terms of understanding human relationships? Do you feel that it has made you a more effective communicator, or do you feel that is allows to present yourself with more mystique by being able to become anyone else?

KM: I think the job of the actor is to allow people to access experiences they’ve stopped allowing themselves to feel.  At the heart of all of my work is this desire to communicate as clearly as possible.  I have to understand my characters needs and desires and impulses, where do they come from and why do I do these things in this moment?  Only by having a clear understanding myself can I begin to allow the audience to travel with me on this journey.

McDowell as a woodland fairy

I have found ways to make even the worst character sympathetic, at least to myself.  This ability to accept all people in all ways I think has made me a far more sympathetic individual.  To put myself in someone else’s shoes makes it much easier to communicate with someone who I do not agree with.

I suppose I could use it to be mysterious and cryptic, but I’m much more interested in seeing if I can help people connect. Most people are trying so hard to not connect that it can feel very strange when someone is very present with you.

TPL NYC: What type of characters do you enjoy acting like the most?

KM: I love doing villains.  I really do.  There is no true villain in a play, there is always a redeeming quality, and often they have the most transformative journey.  They are complex and they require a lot of work from the actor to not pass judgment on the character’s bad actions. Often it is the villain who the audience needs to see to understand where they harbor those worst parts of themselves and why they choose to not act from those dark places. 

Villains most often are the complex roles, but truthfully any role that has internal conflict is of interest.  Often the ingénue does not have much (if any) conflict that isn’t imposed upon her.

TPL NYC: Can you cry on cue? If so, how do you get yourself to do that? Same thing with other types of emotions, do you find them organically, or do you have a trained technique?

KM: I can cry on cue.  I actually used to cry for my friends mom when we were little.  She was so fascinated by it she would say “OK, you can stay and play another hour but you have to cry.” And I would stop laughing and playing and go up to her with tears in my eyes.  I would think of sad things or just sink to that place inside where you feel your chest tightening.

In a true performance setting it’s normally a variety of factors that come into play.  A well written play performed with other great actors will naturally lead you to have the emotional journey of tears or rage or love.  If you aren’t feeling connected to your own experience, or the play isn’t great, or your other actors aren’t really available there are a lot of techniques available.  I trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which focuses on an imaginative technique.  What if you were really there?  I use this along with physical cues.  If you’re feeling joyful and want to feel sad, collapse your chest and drop your chin.  If you’re feeling awful sit up straight and let a small smile tickle the edge of your lips.  It is like magic.

TPL NYC: What’s next for you? Do you have any projects coming up that you can fill us in on?

KM: At the moment there is nothing on the immediate horizon.  My corporate acting gigs are normally only given a few weeks notice, and the holiday season typically brings everything to a halt.  There are some kid’s parties coming up, and the audition season is very busy at the beginning of the year.

TPL NYC: Is there a role that you would like to see yourself in the most?

KM: I would love to play Imogen from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  She’s the ingénue role but she has so much going on. 

McDowell as a star-spangled jester

TPL NYC: So this blog is about peculiar things. What is the most peculiar thing you have experienced while acting?

KM: Oh my…peculiar things.  I think the whole experience of performing is peculiar.  It is a pretty surreal place to be.  The theatre is full of moments where you improvise a missing prop, a forgotten line; where you fall in love with someone you can’t stand backstage or hate someone who is your best friend.  It is so constantly peculiar that in a strange way the truly peculiar moments are the normal ones.  Like eating the peanut butter sandwich after the end of the play each night that your character doesn’t touch in the second act, because you’re hungry, and why waste a sandwich?  But at the same time it’s a prop and imbued with all this meaning.

TPL NYC: In a similar way, what is the most peculiar thing you have ever experienced in your life?

KM: The most peculiar thing?  That sounds like it has to be something really dramatic.  I don’t know that I find anything peculiar these days, it’s all just part of life.  Normal is just something we sort of tenuously agreed upon at some point, so peculiar is everything outside that realm of normal.  Yet normal means different things in different parts of the world.  What is normal in India (elephants as a form of transportation) is very peculiar here.  I think I’ll have to leave it to you to continue to route out the peculiar elements in the world.

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