Friday, March 27, 2015

BEHIND THE SCENES: From Oliver Twist to LA

How One Midwestern Girl Followed Her Dream Out West
--by Tanna Frederick

Heartland USA
I grew up in Mason City, Iowa, or, as the rest of the city knows it, River City with, “A capital T that rhymes with P that stands for Pool.” Oh, yeah. We had one of THE BEST MUSIC programs in the nation, let alone the state. We sang at Carnegie Hall, for example, my sophomore year. None of us had been to New York, and we were selected for our excellence under the guidance of award-winning choir director, Joel Everist. We competed all over, winning event after event. And boy, we were expected to represent. We were serious, we were competitive, and we were expected to work with each other. “An invisible thread connected us,” Mr. Everist used to say. “Work like adults; work like professionals.”

When I was in Girl Scouts in the fifth grade, growing up in this beautiful, progressive, serious artistic hub (that was a great big city for Iowa – population 35,000) in the middle of green oceans of cornfields, we did what people did as entertainment for our field trip. We went to see the musical Oliver.

I had heard about this children’s theater from my classmates; the ones who could afford to be in it. They were obsessed with it. Gary Ewing was the teacher, the master, the MAN. Five shows a year, classes every Saturday, auditions. They were always eagerly waiting to hear what the next season’s line up would be. The classes were a mix of 4th graders to seniors in high school, all in the same class; all treated the same, worked the same, and rehearsed the same amount of hours with the same intensity, the same expectations; all required to paint the scenery, scrims, run light boards, and sound cues.

When we auditioned, it was a brutal process. Imagine a 9-year old, sitting with 8-18 year olds in the audience and watching them compete with utter focus, trying to act cool as a cucumber while reading cold and brilliantly (the older ones had it down WAY better than the young’uns), while by process of elimination those that didn’t fit were asked to leave.  

I learned to cry young. I learned to take a complete day and cry at 9. I learned to realize ‘no’ was a positive answer. That ‘no’ meant working harder, learning more, taking the smaller part and making the performance big and bold, even if your heart was breaking on stage through two months of rehearsals and performances. I learned ‘no’ was the best answer I could be given at nine years old because I went through my crying and disappointment days early, took them for what they were worth, felt the hurt deep down to my belly and all the way out to my fingers. I learned what rejection was and I learned I could handle it because right around the corner was a lead role that would knock my socks off and outshine any hurt and pain I had endured.

I was just a kid but I knew I had a knack for acting. As I sat there with my girl scout troop, not enough seats for an overflowing house, I knew my best friend was playing Oliver Twist, at nine, and I couldn’t really conceptualize, now having been moved to the hard-on-the-tush aisle steps because of the sold-out house, what it would be like seeing him on stage. Already a young prodigy in his own right, he was winning dance competitions at the Iowa State Fair. That may sound like small potatoes but put any professional in one of our state fairs and we’ll give them a serious run for their money. Remember there are three films titled State Fair which were all based on the Iowa State Fair, a mighty important event. Tait Moline, talented beyond belief, my hero, my best friend, by then we had watched all the Broadway plays we could on Iowa Public Television, and worshipped Bernadette Peters.

When the house lights went down and the stage lights came up, everything around me stopped. I remember every single second, detail, note, and position of that musical. I remember the adults’ faces, the kids’ hutzpah, the box steps, the smell of the lights burning dust and gel, the happiness and sadness of every character’s face, the tears, the smiles, and the suspension of disbelief. The commitment from the characters to play, to pretend, to pain, to joy. I must have been eight at the time, taking hardcore (for a first grader) classical piano lessons that my parents had scraped together for and I was thrown ahead into a timeless floating ether of ecstasy.

It was a rivalry of power and life and I wanted it. I wanted it forever.  

I joined The First Act (now Stebens Childrens’ Theatre) the next year. It changed my life.  It WAS my life. It IS my life. It taught me to follow my dreams and that dreams can turn into a reality through hard work, dedication, sweat, breakthroughs, teamwork, and tears.

Way Out West
I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 after graduating from Iowa University with a continued dream of living on the stage and in film. My trials and tribulations were very similar to most actors in LA. I was a waitress when I wasn’t on the stage or auditioning. During rehearsal, a fellow actor told me that the famous director, Henry Jaglom, would sometimes cast fans of his work. With that knowledge and zero fear of “no” I wrote him a letter of praise for his film Déjà Vu.

My letter prompted a meeting and, pleasantly, a budding friendship. Henry had given me his play, A Safe Place to work on in my acting class but I thought I would do him one better and find a theater to produce it. Finally, that “no” was a “yes.” I got to get up on stage and transform the room. It was so exciting to feel the heat of the lights. It continued to fuel my desire for a life in show business.

After that, I continued to collaborate with Henry and I’m currently playing Katia Wampuskic in his play, Train to Zakopane, one of my most challenging roles to date. She is an anti-Semitic nurse who falls in love with a Jewish man. Every night I have to channel hatred from a place that isn’t present in my own life. It is a true story about Henry’s father, by far one of his most personal pieces yet.

Prior to performing Train to Zakopane, I got to perform Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman directed by Levy Lee. It was a theatre marathon; an emotional ride that could and maybe will never be matched in my performing career.

Before each new project, I take a moment to remember the Girl Scout sitting in the aisle of the children’s theater watching my future peers perform. I remember the magic that comes with transforming the mood of an audience, the magic of baring your heart on stage. It is a rush that cannot be matched with anything else in the world.

When I lose myself, I think of Oliver Twist...what I knew then and what I know now: that I love what I do, that I want to keep learning, that I never turned back, never gave myself a safety net, and never will. Times are hard, times will be hard, the sweat doesn’t stop, the hard work doesn’t stop, but I learned how to cry at nine and get on with it.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Train to Zakopane: A True Story of Love and Hate has been extended and is currently playing at Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405 through June 28, 2015. For tickets go to

Photo credit: Leslie Bohm

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