Confession No. 2: Alison Cimmet is a friend who fascinates me. Which means, undoubtably, she’s a perfect Quaz candidate.
Ever since I’ve known Alison (who lives in my town), I’ve wanted to ask her 1,000 questions about the life and struggles and triumphs of a woman fighting to make it on Broadway while also trying to raise two children. She’s had some amazing highs (starring in Baby It’s You!; a handful of huge national commercials) and some dispiriting lows (auditions upon auditions upon more auditions), but always seems to come packing with a warm smile and kind words.
Here, Alison dishes on what it’s like to have a play cancelled; what it’s like to stand on a Broadway stage and look over a packed house; how the audition process works and why Jorge Posada is so darn important to her life. You can visit her website here.
Alison Cimmet, the Quaz stage is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Alison, you were a cast member of the recently closed Broadway show, Bonnie and Clyde. I don’t usually start these off of a downer, but I will here. What does it feel like when you’re in a show that’s canceled? How does the cast usually find out—and how did you find out here? Is there a sense of disbelief, or do people usually see it coming?
ALISON CIMMET: Bonnie and Clyde was a great experience with a great group of people; even though it was short-lived I’m so glad I was a part of it. It was many years in the making and there was a high level of commitment to (and belief in) the show. Throughout our preview period (about a month of paid performances at night while we continued to rehearse and make changes during the day) there was very positive feedback. So when we opened December 1 to universally negative reviews, it was crushing. Producers told us tickets were only being sold until the end of the month and that our future beyond that was uncertain. It was incredibly disappointing for all involved, and truly devastating for many of the major players (the writers, director, stars).
We finally got an official closing notice two weeks before the 30th. I got a call from my agent with the news, but many cast and company members learned the news through Facebook or by getting a text from a friend who had read the news on Playbill.com. Everyone was sad but we managed to keep our spirits up through the Christmas season, and we found out that in the new year we’d be recording the Original Cast album which gave us something to look forward to.
As for me, personally: having a husband and children means that my life is incredibly full even when I’m not working. I was able to keep things in perspective and look forward to my impending unemployment—after a busy year on Broadway I’d have lots of time to spend with my awesome family.
J.P.: You were the understudy to the lead on the show Baby It’s You!, which chronicled the rise of The Shirelles. On multiple occasions Beth Leavel was unable to perform, and, well, there you were. If you can, please describe what it felt the first time, when you knew you’d be starring that night. How did you find out? How did you feel? Is there an “in-the-moment” calmness, or were you freaking out?
A.C.: My job on that show was to be Beth’s stand-by (an offstage principal understudy). I attended every rehearsal and preview performance and took extensive notes. I had to learn all her lines, songs, onstage blocking, and backstage traffic. In the event that she couldn’t perform, I’d be there to fill in. Beth Leavel (who, by the way, is an amazing performer and a lovely human being) is known for being a tough cookie and hardly ever missing performances, so I was *certain* that I would never be called upon to perform my duties.
When she started to lose her voice a week after opening (and the day her Tony nomination was announced) it caught me off guard. I was listening to the show via monitors backstage and heard that she was struggling vocally. Before my brain even started working, my body was freaking out: heart beating heavily, stomach doing flip-flops. Because it was so early in the run they hadn’t yet created my understudy costumes, so during that show I had some “just in case” emergency costume fittings in the basement of the theatre to see if Beth’s costumes (more than 20 of them!) fit me. Luckily, they did. I then ran through my lines with a fellow stand-by, and lamented the fact that I had not had a full run-thru rehearsal; nor had I rehearsed any of the lightning-quick costume changes (more than 20 of them!); nor had I sung any of the songs with the band. I still did not know whether or not she’d be well enough to perform the next day. That night I hardly slept at all.
Around 10:30 the next morning I got the phone call that I’d indeed be performing in the matinee that day. The next few hours were surreal. I was super-focused and calm as I walked through the blocking on an empty stage before the matinee with the stage manager (who was wonderfully supportive), and discussed the costume changes with the backstage dresser (who was basically my hero). When fellow castmates asked me how I was feeling, I said that I was purposely *not* getting in touch with my emotions—otherwise I would have been a sobbing heap of fear.
So anyway, yes, I was very calm, kind of in a robotic fog. After my opening song I was able to settle in and have some fun, but the whole show was like an out-of-body experience. I ended up going on the rest of the week, and none of the subsequent shows were as thrilling as that first one. Ultimately I performed 10 times over the course of the run; by the last few I felt I was finally able to embody the role and make it my own which was very gratifying.
A.C.: My mom got involved in community theatre when I was very small, and then my older brother did as well. When I was 6 and my sister was 7 we followed suit and auditioned as a team for a local community production of “Finian’s Rainbow.” We performed a fully-choreographed version of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” for our audition. The director was so taken with us that, since we were too young for the chorus, he created a tiny cameo (a child leprechaun) that we performed on alternating nights. I was hooked.
I spent the remainder of my childhood in Portland, Maine doing as much theatre as humanly possible. When I wasn’t performing with my brother and sister in our living room, I was doing community theatre shows, school productions, and my mother’s audience-participation murder mysteries … sometimes juggling all these different projects at the same time! My parents were incredibly supportive, both financially and emotionally, and gave me access to incredible opportunities. I spent my summers at an acting camp called Stagedoor Manor, a high-school acting conservatory at Northwestern University, and a vocal performance program at Tanglewood. Then I started doing professional theatre during my summers while in college. As far back as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be an actress. I never wanted to be rich and famous, I just wanted to work consistently and do interesting roles in interesting projects. I still feel the same way.
J.P.: There’s something about actors and actresses that often confuses me. It’s that need to always be on; the drive to be the center of attention; the loudest; the most creative. I’ve never felt that way with you, but I think you know what I mean. Truthfully, it irks the hell out of me. My question is—is this a byproduct of the profession, or is it something many performers just have? Or, am I way off and you have no remote idea whereof I speak?
A.C.: I think that assessment is a bit flimsy. There are all types of actors just as there are all types of folks in any industry. On the other hand, there may be a disproportionately high percentage of actors with those qualities you speak of—I like to call them “shmactor-y.” It might be a by-product of any combination of the following things: always needing to be “on” in case that person you just rode the elevator with is a casting director; adoring fans telling you how great you are; critics telling you how awful you are; deep insecurity; having people watch and then clap for your talent; your actual personal body being your “instrument” and needing to care for it with that in mind; naturally wanting attention and having that be what led you to the profession in the first place; the natural capacity many of us have to mistake attention for love; possibly just naturally being a narcissistic asshole.
I tend to feel uncomfortable in the proverbial spotlight and only comfortable in an actual one. Other actors always have to have attention, be the funniest one in the room, that kind of thing. I agree with you that it’s annoying, but I think that kind of narcissism is maybe only slightly more common among actors and is probably something you can find in any profession. Actors just have more public exposure than, say, accountants or pilots or gardeners. I personally find myself drawn to people (actors and non-actors alike) who aren’t always the loudest and don’t always have to be the center of attention (anyone who’s met my husband can affirm this).
J.P.: Of all the things you’ve done, I’m guessing you’re most recognizable from your turn as the secretary in the Staples commercial. How did you land that part? And how do you compare the satisfaction that comes from commercial work with the satisfaction that comes from the theatre? Is there any comparison at all?
A.C.: That was quite a ride! Within one year I did three big national commercials. I got recognized on the street for being the secretary in the Staples spot, the girl trying to shrink her clothes at the laundromat in the Cheerios spot, and the wife giving a pep-talk to her Ikea kitchen. All three of those jobs came through auditions my commercial agent set up for me, and then a series of callbacks for the casting team. It’s fun to think of commercials as little bite-size performances, and I suppose I’d say the artistic satisfaction is proportionately bite-sized as well. As for on-camera work in general (commercials, film, or television), it is an entirely different craft from stage acting. I enjoy it, but my experience and training and passion remains with live traditional theatre. I like the journey of the story telling and the in-the-moment aspect of live theatre. But commercials are a blast, and the money I make in a couple of days allows to me to pursue my less-lucrative theatre habit.
J.P.: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t watch TV. Ever. How do you explain that? Isn’t it odd for an actress?
A.C.: Haha, well it’s true that I don’t have cable or any TV channels. We do own a television and watch a lot of Netflix movies. I do occasionally watch television shows through Netflix or Hulu. But, as I said in the previous answer, I’m a theatre actress at heart. And I go to see plays all the time!
J.P.: Your resume says you were on The Sopranos. Do tell …
A.C.: I dabbled in background acting for a short time when I was starting out. One of the shows I worked on was The Sopranos, in which I was a writing student for Tim Daly’s teacher character. I was in two different scenes, and in one of them I was quite recognizable. Once I amass more legitimate television credits (like the recent guest-spot I did for TBS’s Are We There Yet?), I will probably remove The Sopranos from my resume. But it’s a fun conversation starter!
J.P.: What’s the difference between the tons upon tons of good actors and the truly great ones? Like, what separates a Streep or Brando from the pack? And do you feel like you’re good? Great? Do you have it in you, talent-wise, to reach the highest of highs, or do you feel a certain limit within yourself?
A.C.: I think sometimes a performer has, innately, something special that others can’t learn, cultivate, or imitate no matter how hard they try. These extraordinary actors truly and deeply inhabit the roles they play. As for myself: I am all too convinced of my own limitations, which is in itself a limitation. And anyway, I don’t really put any thought into being good, or great. Just about doing the work.
A.C.: Oh boy, it really depends. Auditions and my feelings about them vary wildly. Mostly, I feel like auditions are like dating. No matter how much I have to offer and no matter how much it seems to be a perfect fit on paper, the date is sometimes a big flop. Other times it goes splendidly, and I get another date or two and maybe even end up in a long-term relationship.
The average audition … I get an appointment in advance, with a scene or two from the show that I need to prepare. I read the entire script so that I can approach my scenes knowing their context; sometimes I go to see the play if it’s currently running; I might watch a taped version at the Performing Arts Library; I’ll try to find clips or movies online to become more familiar with the material; often I will hire an acting coach and/or a singing coach. All of this can be time consuming and expensive!
On the day of the audition I go the studio where the session is being held, and wait outside with other actors, each of us with our prepared material and our headshot and resume. When my name is called, I go in and do some or all of the material. Sometimes I do it once and they say “thanks” and that is it. When all that preparation leads to a two-minute audition that falls completely flat, it’s definitely disheartening. Other times the director will work with me and have me do the sides several times. Most projects will have callbacks (sometimes the next day, sometimes weeks later), and I go through the same stuff all over again. Once in a rare while, I actually book the job!
J.P.: As you get older, do you find it harder to get roles? I mean, there’s always talk about women and Hollywood and the struggle? Is it the same on Broadway?
A.C.: Actually for me, I think it will only get easier as I get older. People always want to cast me as the past-her-prime brassy sidekick or a quirky mother of college-aged kids, but I’m still too young for those roles! Once I’m in my forties I’m hoping my career will totally take off!
• Fox calls. They’re doing a new movie, “Sarah Palin: Great American Icon” and they want you in the lead role. The pay is $3 million, buy you’ll have to do lots of press and talk about your admiration for Palin. You in?: Hell no. I do lack integrity, so I wouldn’t put it past myself to do an awful job just for the money. However I could never agree to lie and say I admire that woman.
• Rank in order: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Paul Newman, Kirby Puckett, Celine Dion, vanilla ice cream, Billy Joel, your slippers, Tom Cruise: Newman, Clooney, Pitt, Joel, slippers, vanilla ice cream, Dion, Cruise. Who the heck is Kirby Puckett?
• Five greatest actresses of our lifetime: Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, Catherine O’Hara, Viola Davis, Imelda Staunton.
• Do you think the Broadway experience is overpriced? Feel free to elaborate?: Hell yes.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: I’m on a plane right now! Don’t put thoughts into my head!
• How did you respond to Jorge Posada’s retirement?: Who the heck is Jorge Posada?
• Can you happily watch a movie on an iPhone-sized screen?: If I were desperate for entertainment, probably. But it hasn’t yet come to that.
• Worst movie you’ve ever seen? Best?: Worst: I’ve blocked it out. Best (most beautiful): Amelie.
• Most talented performer you’ve ever worked with?: Oh geez. I’ve worked with so many extraordinary people. One of the most thrilling and inspiring was Harriet Harris, an insanely talented comedienne.