Actor Spotlight: Kelley Ogden
This month, actor Kelley Ogden will join SOSS to read “In a Muted Zoom Room No-One Can Hear You Scream” from Annabelle Gurwitch’s new collection You’re Leaving When?. Our casting director Jessica Laskey talked to Ogden about her lifelong comfort in front of an audience and how taking control of your own career can change everything.
Jessica: Kelley, I know you’ve done theater from an early age. How did you first get started?
Kelley: I started doing theater in the womb—literally. My mother was directing a show when she was pregnant with me… I got into it because I grew up in it. Both of my parents were theater educators at the high school and college level, and they were also directors and actors. It’s really the world I grew up in in Houston/East Texas, so I was comfortable onstage from an early age.
My parents weren’t exactly stage parents—like, “Get her an agent!”—but because I was an only child, they took me to all of their activities. Most of my childhood was spent in the dark theaters and rehearsal rooms watching shows being rehearsed. The ways that influenced me were unforeseen—I’m not just comfortable onstage, but I’m also an auditory learner. For example, my parents were both in a production of Dial M for Murder when I had just turned four and I was at every rehearsal, watching and listening to everything. I ended up memorizing the whole show, so my parents would take me off into the wings to run lines with them when they weren’t onstage. That influenced me beyond just being a performer.
Jessica: You clearly have a natural capacity for words if you were doing that at age four!
Kelley: I had a love for language, as well as an instinctual feel for human relationships, at a preternaturally young age. Everything in rehearsal is about, why is this person doing this? What is their relationship with this other person? I’ve always had an ease breaking down human relations in odd ways, not even related to theater. When I started working in governmental relations, my first boss used to pull me into meetings because I’d be able to give him insight. We’d be talking to a legislator but the staff is really who drafts and forms a member’s perspective on legislation. I’d be watching the staffers to see how different points landed, if there was a change in their body language—did they bring up points that seemed nice but were actually passive aggressive? That’s why I think everyone should have a theatrical or artistic education.
Jessica: You went to theater school at DePaul University in Chicago. How was it living there?
Kelley: Chicago was great—it opened my eyes significantly and taught me there were types of theater I hadn’t been exposed to that I really loved, like immersive, avant-garde and clowning/commedia. (Chicago Tribune theater critic) Chris Jones described the Chicago theater scene as “intense and dirty,” and I think that’s very illustrative. That’s what I like—I don’t need a lot of frills or spectacle to my theater; it actually makes me distrustful of the work being done. To me, the real beauty is in stripping all that away and seeing somebody trying to figure something out onstage. My favorite moments are when somebody makes a mistake or goes up on line. That’s the excitement. Maybe it’s from growing up seeing how the sausage gets made that I’m not impressed with the casing. It’s the nitty-gritty of the pieces that go into the sausage, being specific about it—that’s where the genius lies. Chicago also gave me my wife, Lisa, so I’ll always be grateful to it.
Jessica: You and Lisa moved back to Texas after college but then came to California in the early 2000s. What precipitated the move West?
Kelley: Eventually we knew we wanted to be able to get married and have a life and at that time in Texas, we couldn’t do that. We didn’t want to live like that. We were looking around for someplace to move to and came out to Sacramento where we knew no one and made a life.
Jessica: Sacramento is also where you founded your theater company, KOLT Run Creations, in 2007. What made you decide to start your own organization?
Kelley: It was incredibly beneficial to have not only onstage experience but also all those years working on the business side of arts organizations (at Steppenwolf, the Houston Ballet and the Museum of Natural Science). It helped us figure out how we wanted to run things and how we didn’t. … We started with the idea that we know why big theater companies do known shows or shows with a hook—to make money and know the show will deliver for them, especially in a smaller market like Sacramento. We asked ourselves, what are the stories we think should be told but wouldn’t always fit the parameters for a larger company, that aren’t sure-fire successes? It was always a coin flip—we had no idea how an audience would respond, but they were stories we wanted to tell.
Jessica: Creating your own work seems like the ultimate way of controlling your creative destiny.
Kelley: I can’t tell you how many young women have approached me wanting to know what shows they should do and end the conversation saying, “I guess I need my own company.” As actors, we’re taught that we’re cogs in a larger machine, which has its purpose, but I do think it’s really important for actresses to also acknowledge that they have points of view and voices. Every actress should try a process where you take ownership over your agency, where the buck stops with her. It’s so easy to hide behind a director, a character, a costume, a show, that it’s really important for actors to find what moves them and exercise that agency to tell that story.
Jessica: How do you choose which shows to produce?
Kelley: It’s always just a matter of, what story needs to be told now? We’ve done shows that were surprisingly prescient: we did Antigone when the Arab Spring exploded, when young Arab women were standing up against tyranny. We never set out going, “We want to make this point.” We just found material that appealed to us and we didn’t think anybody else would want to tell that story, so we decided to tell it. It started off being issue-oriented and then it became format-oriented. Since we didn’t have a set location, we embraced being nomadic, doing performances in an empty swimming pool, an art gallery. We created our own unique experience.
Jessica: You’ve played lots of different characters over the years for KOLT, Capital Stage, Davis Shakespeare Festival, Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, Main Street Theatre Works and Theater Galatea, among others. What have been your favorite roles?
Kelley: Antigone innately appealed to me. I’m very comfortable being an outsider, and I say that because Antigone has to go against the grain of everyone around her because of what she thinks is right. Growing up gay in East Texas with a disabled father and being a caregiver, you see ways in which society really, really wants people to fit it. Antigone repeatedly refuses to back down. … I appreciated playing Antigone because it gave me the opportunity to go fully to that extreme that I’ve always felt comfortable in but never had the agency to really embrace. One of my other favorite roles was Mary Ann from “Escape from Happiness.” I love her because she’s wonderfully neurotic and incredibly written. She’s the one I’ve had the most character leakage from. She didn’t like questions about herself, so she’d say, “I’d just rather make you things—a sandwich, a chocolate cake.” That struck some sort of chord with me. Since that show, I started baking whenever things got too tense. During the pandemic, that really exploded.
Jessica: Speaking of the pandemic, the essay you’re reading is about how a writer stayed sane during lockdown. How did you manage it?
Kelley: It’s a process I’m just now coming out on the other side of, and I’m still searching for the language to describe it. It was a welcome shed—I had to shed my skin a bit. In 2019, I had been doing shows for most of the year and yet I wasn’t finding a lot of joy in it, so the pandemic was actually a nice coda. Because so much about being a performer and being in theater was a part of who I was as a human being, I think the pandemic was the first opportunity I had had in most of my life to not do it and not depend on that to define myself.
Ironically, what saved me and kept me sane was trying to discover who I was without it. Theater life is always about booking the next show. It’s fast-paced, getting the word out with big flashing signs. I think (the pandemic) was a really wonderful way to live for a couple years—I was blessed that I had a day job that could support me. It was a blessing to recognize the beauty of the small. I developed more relationships with the animals in my yard than I did with people for two years. In an odd way, the pandemic gave me a gift: it forced me to be with myself instead of constantly being out onstage in front of people.
Actor Spotlight: Megan Smith
This month, actor Megan Pearl Smith will join SOSS to read Sands Hall’s recent essay from the Alta Journal, “The Ways of Fiction Are Devious Indeed.” Our casting director Jessica Laskey talked to Smith about how being a professional musician contributes to her ease in front of an audience and her personal connection to this month’s reading.
Jessica: Megan, you’ve done so many interesting roles over the years, including productions at Capital Stage, Sacramento Theatre Company, California Shakespeare Theater, Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, San Francisco Playhouse, Colorado Shakespeare Festival and many more. How did you decide to become an actor?
Megan: I decided sophomore year of high school (in Davis). I don’t know why exactly, it just came to me. I was painfully shy and had issues getting out in front of people—being the focus of peoples’ attention was terrifying to me. However, I found that I really enjoyed improv. I joined an improv group in high school and was really embraced by the drama department. At a time when I didn’t know where I belonged, (drama) really helped me socially get through high school. I had always been a kid who played pretend and when I found I was actually quite good at it, it felt good to be good at something—to be part of something larger than just me. I’ve always loved ensemble work and being part of a team.
Jessica: You’ve said that college was really formative for you as a performer.
Megan: I got my formal training at the University of Oregon, but more than anything, my fellow students taught me a lot. I was blessed to be in a group of out-of-this-world talented people. We formed our own improv troupe, Absolute Improv—which I think is still going—and did a lot of student-run productions, which was so formative. My mentor had worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and ran a professional company in Eugene, so I did professional theater right out of college, which taught me a ton about how the American theater works. When I graduated, all my friends moved to New York, Chicago, LA. I was like, “Nah,” so I went back to Davis to figure out what to do and then ended up spending nine years working and teaching all over the Bay Area, meeting amazing people.
Jessica: How do you prepare for a role?
Megan: The most important thing for me is to really familiarize myself with the story. The actor is in service to the story. It might seem obvious, but I don’t want to be the kind of actor to put my own personal stamp on a story, so I approach it from the inside out, starting with the written word. After reading the story to myself multiple times, I record the story on my phone and listen to that multiple times—we’re talking twenty times—to really get inside it so there are no surprises. That helps me with the rhythm and flow of the piece—discoveries (in the text) need to pop—those are my favorite parts of any story, when you get to have an audience discover new information in the moment.
The aim is to give the smoothest flow of energy to the read so the audience isn’t worried about me searching for a word or stumbling. That way, they’re not taken out of story, they can just relax and take it in and go along for the ride.
Jessica: You’re also half of the folk/rock band Misner & Smith (with partner Sam Misner), which means prior to the pandemic, you performed live all the time. When you went virtual for your “Live from Our Living Room” concerts on Facebook, how did that change performing for you?
Megan: How people value live performance is changing. With online performance, it feels like you need to scale it back a little bit. It’s a bit more like film. The energy level coming at the audience needs to be dialed back slightly, more intimate—less bonfire, more blue flame. My actor training helps a lot, knowing how to endow things with meaning and substance that just aren’t there in real life. You have to pretend people are (in the same room) giving you something—you just have to believe in your own mind that people are engaging with you. Reality is in your mind’s eye.
Jessica: Does performing feel different now that you’re back to in-person concerts?
Megan: It’s twofold—it’s like we never left and like we haven’t done this in a long time. It’s a funny feeling. It’s a little like riding a bike, you don’t forget it completely. The audiences we’ve played for have brought incredible energy, so we’ve felt pretty supported and held. We did a live show out in Fresno for the Fresno Folklore Society a couple weeks ago for people we didn’t really know, but the audience was so great. Even people who aren’t familiar with our music seem genuinely excited just to hear people play and sing and have that kind of experience live again. It seems to be bigger than the music—it’s really just about having a shared experience all together. … We also greatly benefit from that. We’re lucky to be playing shows where we feel like people are really listening, appreciating all the detail, work and craft we put into our music. That’s what you want as an artist.
Jessica: You’ve worked with Sands Hall before, though not as an author—as an actor. What’s it been like working on performing her writing?
Megan: I know every single person she’s referencing (in the essay)—I even kind of knew the story from when I first started working for Foothill Theatre Company doing Woody Guthrie’s American Song, which is also where Sam and I got together. Lynne Collins directed us in that show, Sands was in it as an actor, Tom Taylor worked on parts of the production, the artistic director Phil and his wife Claire are dear friends, too. Reading it took me back eighteen years.
Jessica: Did the treatment of the female artist in the story resonate at all with you?
Megan: Sam is our main song writer, there’s no question about it, but he’s very outspoken about how influential and important my musical contributions are to the sound of Misner & Smith. As a female artist and mainly a harmony singer, it does feel like my job is to back him up, but what I’ve learned over the eighteen years of us doing this—and with him being outspoken about it—is that our music wouldn’t sound the way it does without my influence. It’s not just the songwriting and the lyrics, it’s the whole piece of it.
When you’re an artist, it’s hard for you to toot your own horn, so it’s really helpful to have somebody else go ahead and say, “This is the job you’re doing and this is why it’s important.” In this particular story, I see that being part of it: this woman, Mary Foote, is telling her life story, putting it down on paper because it’s important to her and her family. The real tragedy of the story—how Stegner takes it as his own—is that it takes advantage of a certain assumption we’re taught from a very early age. Society teaches us (as women) to ignore the importance of our contributions. Stegner takes advantage of that social assumption, that anything women do is women’s work and it’s not as important as men’s work. What’s doubly disturbing is that not only did he take advantage, but he also takes things verbatim and then perverts the story of their lives to suit a salacious telling of somebody who really exists. It’s so dastardly, so devious, so mean. And he didn’t even consider that his actions would be looked upon as negative—he took it completely for granted because it’s a woman’s story from a woman’s perspective. He thought he could get away with plagiarism because men don’t have to answer to the same rules. I think that happens all the time to all kinds of people in all fields of work, not just artistic.
My sister is a premier surgeon in her field and she’s even dealt with people stealing her work. It’s a really important and relevant story to tell, unfortunately. It’s triply important now because we never got the Equal Rights Amendment—women are never mentioned explicitly in the US Constitution. That’s not good enough. What we’re starting to realize is if we don’t have equal protection as women, we’ll have to fight this until we all disappear into the ether.
In addition to being a professional actor and casting director for Stories on Stage Sacramento, Jessica Laskey is also a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Comstock’s, Sacramento and Sactown Magazines, as well as in The Sacramento Bee, Inside Sacramento and OUT North Texas.
More information at jessicalaskey.com