Charise Greene is a dialect coach, actress, playwright and director. Recently we had the opportunity to speak together about her early life, career, the nitty gritty of being a dialect coach to actors such as Ruth Wilson and Matt Smith, her play Cannibal Galaxy: A Love Story (being staged in New York this month), guilty musical pleasures, and so much more.
DB: You were born in Laguna Beach, California. What was your childhood like growing up there?
CG: Laguna was a different place from what it is now: the kind of town that teachers like my parents could raise children in – now it is just utterly unaffordable. The Laguna I grew up in was an artists’ community, this little liberal haven within a really conservative county, sandwiched between the ocean and a canyon in the back so you had to wind through roads to find it. Every summer these huge art festivals would take place with both local and other more famous artists selling their work. As a kid who was drawn to create art, it was just fortunate that I grew up in a community that shined a light on creativity at every opportunity. I was also lucky because it is just beautiful! I spent a lot of time in the ocean – I grew up pretty sandy. Because my parents taught full-time, we had a nanny and she was English. Growing up with her as an extra loving care-giver was so inspiring. After my brother, Nathan, was old enough to do after school programmes instead of having a nanny, I became a little bit of a latchkey kid. I did a lot of hanging out with other kids and their babysitters, after-school programs, and I think that taught me a sense of independence, as well as respect for parents who work.
We also travelled a lot. Because we lived in a pretty safe and sheltered community, it was really important to my parents that we got out of that. They made it a priority to go abroad every summer. But they were teachers, so we travelled on a serious budget. My folks, Nathan and I spent many summers staying in youth hostels, which exposed us to fabulous people from all over the world. I think that provided us the spirit of curiosity. It also made my brother and I so so close because, unlike the kids who spent summers in camps with other kids, we only had each other to play with. We were actually born on the same day, five years apart, which is the same day as my parents’ wedding anniversary. We were all always pretty connected.
DB: So is he the older brother or the younger?
CG: He’s younger. Oh! The summers were also great because we had this VW bus (like the Scooby Doo kind) that we’d go camping in – we would just drive and cook eggs on the little stove in the van. I was really lucky! My parents were incredibly passionate about raising good human beings, so I credit anything that I’ve done correctly to them and the friends they surrounded us with. I’m still super close with my parents’ friends.
DB: What made you want to be an actress?
CG: Something really specific! In 6th grade I took my first drama class. One day we were asked to do short scenes and I was playing a child who had to sing “I’m A Little Teapot.” I was absolutely terrified – I stopped breathing. But then something inside me said “get up!” So I took a deep breath, stood up, did it, and the whole class busted out laughing at my performance. I remember feeling more present and alive than I had felt anywhere else and just thinking, “I need to do more of this. This scares me and it’s important.” I went on to take more drama classes in junior high and my teacher saw something in me so he submitted me for a monologue competition at Disneyland. The monologue was about my parents getting divorced – my parents were very much in love with each other – and I remember being 12 and thinking, “this is such an excellent dramatic piece of writing.” But I didn’t know there was a time limit, and halfway through performing my monologue at the competition this loud voice boomed, “Time!” I was so confused. And then I was so devastated. I walked away crying. Then, a month later, my parents took me to Disneyland (for what I thought was just going to be a day of fun with my family) to this huge convention outdoor centre, sat me in a chair and all of a sudden Jaleel White (who played Steve Urkel on Family Matters) was calling out my name on a microphone. He gave me a Mickey Mouse trophy with my name on it. I’d won the Disneyland Creativity Monologue Challenge. My mind was blown.
I continue to be amazed that this is my life, I think, because I don’t have anyone in my family who does this for a living. Everyone was so supportive of me, especially my wonderful drama teacher, Mark Dressler, but I think I admired my parents so much that I always thought that I wanted to do exactly what they did in every way. Becoming an artist was like walking off a cliff.
DB: I always think quite a lot of teachers are frustrated actors and actresses because they have a captive audience that can’t walk out in disgust. (Laugh) There’s a lot of performance in teaching.
CG: I’ve done quite a bit of teaching in my life and I think you’re right! I’d never thought of it that way – my dad loves to perform and has always done it outside of work in the community, but he was always in education professionally. I did plays in high school, l but I was also an athlete, a nerd – I loved school. In college I kept trying to avoid it. I was majoring in Political Science and I found that all my other credits were going towards a Theatre major anyway, so I double-majored. It was like this thing that kept tapping on my heart. After college I went to work in a law firm (avoiding doing it still) until my mother passed away. That was really a formative moment for me – in every way, but specifically in that I realised life is short and that all the excuses I had were coming from my fear. I knew that making decisions based in fear was the opposite of the way that my mother lived her life. So, in addition to honouring my own soul, it’s a way to honour hers, to be honest.
DB: You went to Brown Trinity as well didn’t you?
CG: I did! When my mom passed away, I auditioned for graduate schools. I ended up going to Brown/Trinity for a number of reasons:
First of all, I loved their pedagogy of emphasising the whole artist. It’s a MFA in Acting, but you have to take writing and directing there – they really like to teach that it’s all the same thing, which empowered me as a storyteller. Secondly, the Stephen Sondheim Fellowship I received was a huge gift, because graduate school is so expensive. I feel indebted to them forever for my education because it’s a tall order to pay for grad school in our industry. Brown/Trinity is free now, and I feel so excited about that development for future artists.
DB: Do you think, by doing that Masters and looking at the other aspects as well, that it makes you a stronger actress, in the way that you know what other jobs are?
CG: Yes, precisely! I think it’s confusing for some people in that I do so many things but the truth is, to me, it really is all the same thing – storytelling. Being a coach in the room, an actress, a playwright, a director, it really is just a kaleidoscope of creativity. It builds empathy for the artists and characters that you are working with and encourages collaboration; I think working from multiple perspectives can inspire courage and confidence.
DB: And you’ve been in a number of Art and Indie films as well, haven’t you.
CT: I’ve done a lot of self-producing and acted in several niche arthouse-type of films. And I coach in the commercial world, where you’re working with incredible A-game artists, within their own A-game teams – and there are a ton of teams working at the same time – so it is like a complex web of excellence, and with that comes an incredible amount of time! If anything glitches in any one of those departments, you have to cut every time; the drawback I think is that it is often hard to get a sense of momentum. In a smaller arthouse setting you have super hardworking, small teams, they have to do it quickly and cover multiple departments on their own. It is wonderful to see those people be so skilful in multiple ways at any given moment. Also, there’s a sense of family working on a smaller team, everyone is communicating with everyone as opposed to just the 2nd AD, and it’s more intimate. Of course the work might be less ‘slick’ but with less slick work, sometimes, it can be more deeply human.
DB: How is performing on film different from being on a TV show?
CG: I think momentum is a big difference: I know a lot of my actors on TV get frustrated with the amount of cutting that has to take place because they have to tap in and out of their character’s given circumstances over and over and over again, and they’re not in charge. Then, sometimes it feels like the 2nd calls out “moving on!” before the actor has felt like he/she had a take that was deeply satisfying. In a smaller arthouse film it can be more actor-driven. What’s cool about the commercial stuff is, in collaborating with people who are top of their game, actors benefit from resources to help them in creating a character. For example, they get a dialect coach or a language coach if they need one, or if they are performing something they don’t know about, like a yoga coach or a reiki practitioner, they will get to work with a professional yoga coach or a reiki practitioner beforehand and learn a lot. There’s also high budget fight choreographers. If you are working on a smaller piece, you often have to do that research and execute physicality on your own. But what’s wonderful about smaller more low-budget productions is it’s frequently more actor-driven. Language is usually the driving force of story, and, thereby, actors become empowered to deeply impact the final product. Actors have a strong voice in arthouse stuff.
DB: What drew you towards becoming a dialect coach?
CG: I was spoiled by the most beautiful teacher, Thom Jones, in graduate school. He was my voice and speech teacher and he remains one of the most inspiring human beings in my life. I’m honoured to now call him a dear friend. Thom helped me understand the power of language and sound in storytelling. In graduate school, I became inspired by the voice, which was something I honestly really hadn’t thought much about in my work. I applied to be his TA in my third year of school and that’s really where it all began; I started coaching grad students for him, as well undergrads at a local university called Clark. I realised I had a knack for it, that it was a whole lot of fun, that I found sounds to be fascinating and so profoundly imbedded in the body, and teaching really deepened my own acting. I also remembered having that wonderful English nanny as a child, and how much I would parrot her – how doing dialects and accents was always part of my play and imagination when we would travel abroad. Being an actor has played a huge part of my becoming a professional coach because I understand what it’s like to be in the moment and how vulnerable it is to make sound, and what it is to be either distracted by that sound or more deeply committed in your chosen action through the voice.
DB: As a dialect coach, how do you actually get a job?
CG: I’m very lucky to have a beautiful agent named Diane Kamp: a lot of my work comes from her and the wonderful groundwork she has laid for us coaches. She was the first dialect coaching agent in the country and she has really created a process of integrity for coaches. And, like anything else, you gain a reputation through the work that you do, and so actors refer me to other actors, showrunners refer me, as well as producers. I even got a referral from a costume designer on a televisions how the other day – so cool when departments work together to create teams. Sometimes people will see something I worked on, connect to it, find my name and contact me that way. Job after job – you gain a reputation for being a compassionate coach. Work begets work.
DB: You have worked as a dialect coach on lots of shows such as The Affair, was that with Dominic West particularly?
CG: Yes, that’s been my bread and butter for four years – I’m so thankful for that job. I was coach to Dominic West and Ruth Wilson who were both playing North Americans. Last year I was also the coach to Catalina Sandino Moreno, who’s a Spanish-speaking actress and Iréne Jacob, who is a French-speaking actress, both for clarity purposes, and a couple of people who came in to play guest and co-star roles, who were English and doing North American dialects.
DB: You’ve worked on Blindspot as well.
CG: Blindspot was something I did several times just this year for a South African dialect. I worked with Luke Mitchell, who’s Australian born. That was a really interesting challenge because he’s an Australian actor, playing a North American, but character also tapped into the actor’s Australian dialect when pretending to be an Australian guy in the story. Then we learned that the character was born in South Africa, he had a flashback scene, and so he also had to do a South African dialect in a moment of anger. So it was a really fun, complex job. The story was also told of his childhood self so I worked with two children who played baby Luke and baby Luke’s sister – I coached them in South African and they were just wonderful.
DB: You have also worked on Quantico and Madam Secretary.
CG: Quantico was for Priyanka Chopra’s North American dialect, because she is Indian and has a gorgeous hybrid of Indian and RP (Received Pronunciation). I subbed in for a wonderful coach named Charlotte Fleck for that position for about two-and-a-half months (she took on a pilot). The great thing about coaches is that we are a small, nerdy community of mutually supportive people. Madam Secretary was a really interesting challenge: there was a character who was speaking Turkish, so I coached that text; I also coached Sudanese and Ugandan accents for that show. That was a fun job!
DB: You also worked on the movie Isn’t it Romantic (which is in post-production).
CG: Yes, that was with the brilliant Jennifer Saunders, she’s a genius – an English actress who had to do an Australian dialect. Working with her was an absolute blast. She has such a great sense of humour about the work and she makes everything really fun. I loved working with her.
DB: Matt Smith! Did you work with Matt?
CG: Yes. I love Matt! I’ve actually only worked with Matt over Skype. I prepped him for a new film called Mapplethorpe because they couldn’t afford to have me on set coaching him. That puts a lot of pressure on the actor because being required to think about what you sound like, while keeping your connection with your scene partner is a tall order – he did such an extraordinary job. He also used me in post-production: I watched and listened to the film pre-release, and flagged moments where he slipped into his English dialect, then I sent those notes to him. Then he had an ADR session (which stands for “Automated Dialog Replacement”- where actors record their voices over the actual film), took my notes and applied them there; normally I would be in the room for those ADR sessions, but again this was a low budget film. In our prep together for Robert Mapplethorpe, Matt was both so playful in the work and focused – it’s a nice combination. I admire the way he works. He has so much energy.
DB: Normally, where do you do your dialect coaching?
CG: For prep, I do more Skype than anything else. Usually I get hired to prepare an actor before they fly to the US to do their work. Prepping involves a number of different things and it is really about adjusting to the individual artist: some actors learn by listening and repeating, some by getting it in their body, some by actually looking at the phonetics on the page, some work best through improvisation. (I did a lot of that with Ruth Wilson when she was working on this super interesting arthouse film in Canada, a horror movie called I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House). In general, it always culminates in us practicing the dialect while acting the scenes together. Another example of individualised coaching was with Catalina from The Affair. We would often work her lines in Spanish when she was feeling stuck (I speak Spanish), and then we’d bring it back to the English, so she didn’t feel like she was losing herself. Speaking in our native language always helps us reconnect to what’s true. I also do dorky things like: drill sentences, warm up sheets and all kinds of nerdy school stuff that a lot of actors – like Ruth Wilson – really love. Ruth is one of the most diligent actresses that I have ever worked with. I adore her.
DB: Do you find that you have to use a combination of things?
CG: Absolutely! Acting with a dialect scares many actors: nobody wants to put on a funny voice and distance themselves from who they’re playing. It’s about coaching from a place of connection and freedom.
DB: Also with accents and dialects in order to get the sound, if your own language doesn’t have certain tongue movements, then I assume you have to go to a more physiological method to get the sound.
CG: Davina you should be a coach! (Laughs) You’ve hit the nail on the head! Yes, we do specific tongue exercises often to strengthen a part of the tongue that has otherwise remained dormant in an actor’s native language or dialect. It’s a highly physical endeavour inside of the mouth. Sometimes a word or a combination of words are just too distracting and too frustrating and then we ask the writer, ‘Can we change this one verb?’ And of course the writers always say, ‘Absolutely!’
DB: Because sometimes it is just the combination of sounds: two words that run together that you just continually stumble over and can’t get your tongue back in time.
CG: For you guys the ‘RL’ combination is famously difficult: so the word ‘girl’ in an American dialect is very challenging for the English because moving the tongue from R to L is a new experience inside the mouth. There are so many elements of working with dialects which we don’t think about: vowel and consonant changes are what we hear as an audience mostly, but I am also coaching placement, pitch, intonation, rhythm and speed. Oftentimes what I find is that an actor is creating all the vowel and consonants changes correctly, but they don’t sound exactly right because the placement is all wrong, or there’s too much or too little pitch being employed, or the rhythm’s wonky, or the speed is fighting the meaning of the text. Those are the sorts of things that dialect coaches are hired to hear.
DB: Have there been any dialect coaching jobs that have been particularly challenging?
CG: Yes! There’s this new pilot coming out called Get Christy Love, which I just recently worked on and I had to get actors to speak lines in Arabic, Turkish and German. I don’t speak any of those languages, so I had to do a ton of listening and repeating myself, until it was second nature and I was super-comfortable with it. That way when the actor went up on his or her line, I wasn’t searching my brain for the sound, it was just waiting on the tip of my tongue.
DB: If you aren’t familiar with an accent, how do you solicit help with it?
CG: It’s all about finding someone from the region of study, and listening as much as possible. I find those people in every way that you can imagine: other coaches help each other a lot; I have friends in other countries that I’ll often reach out to; I have one actress who went to an international school with lots of contacts. Facebook has its blessings: if I’m failing in my personal contacts, I’ll post asking whether anybody knows anyone. I pay people for their time to do a recording for me; I ask them to do it once at speed, and then very very slowly and then again at speed (or conversational).
DB: Are there certain countries that you think produce actors and actresses who are particularly adept at accents and dialects?
CG: I haven’t so much found that it’s country to country, I think it’s really more about the individual experience. I do believe that these kinds of capabilities live in the body and it’s really about having somebody help you unpack and find it. How easy or challenging it is to unpack it comes down to human beings’ particular histories. I think childhood and teen years are really formative times for developing creative freedom. So are moments of shame: so often I find that people have a really innate talent for something, but they were told they’re not good enough or they are made fun of and are shut down. That requires someone to open up the actor’s vulnerability…to remind that person that he/she/they are enough.
I do think that if you’re naturally curious about something you are just going to have more capability with it. One my favourite jobs I do maybe 10 times a year is teach improv to children who come from all different parts of the country: some of those classes I leave teary-eyed because I got to witness a kid who walked in the door completely shut down get excited, open up, make a sound that she had never made before without apologising for making it.
DB: When you watch anything on TV, film or stage does being a dialect coach ever affect the way you view what you are watching?
CG: I would love to say that I am just an open, easy audience member but I do get distracted: by sound, by awkward editing, if the dialect isn’t working. I have a few shows I love, and I am passionate about powerful theatre. But I don’t watch a lot of acting in my free time because I’m watching it so much of my life, or doing it so much of my life, that I find I need to step away from it to refill my personal well. I really love listening to music, cooking, and I read a lot. I love being in a room where I’m being taught. The thing I do most – that fills me right now – is playing with my daughter, Mariah!
DB: If somebody was to say they wanted to be a dialect coach: how should they go about it, as a career?
CG: I do believe getting a Masters degree is really important if you want to coach. What you learn in Masters programs is how it all connects: how does my brain, heart, body and voice connect to this writing? How does this writing connect to history? How do I connect with my scene partner? How do I connect with the audience? And, ultimately, how do I connect with myself? Find a teacher who inspires you, interview that person every chance you get, follow that teacher around, learn from his/her/their experience.
It’s super important outside of school to ask people if you can shadow them and observe, because it takes a tremendous amount of observation to figure out how to apply what you have learned in your own body, and connect that to others. Do it as much as you can, for whatever money is offered (or none!), because you have to build up your experience, as well as your dialect folder. There are also tons of excellent books and CDs (I know I know…who uses CD’s anymore? But that’s what comes with these dialect books) that are really helpful to get you started, and to compare what you’re hearing to what another coach is hearing. There’s some subjectivity to phonetics and your research needs to be thorough so you feel empowered in your own choices. There’s also a wonderful source online called the IDEA website (the International Dialects and English Archives), a beautiful resource that taps into every country of the world with sound samples. The internet is a fabulous tool. When I’m learning an accent or dialect, I try to find news interviews with local folks from my region of study (not actors playing a role) who are from the same socio-economic status of the character of the person I am coaching because that makes a huge difference. So do questions like: where were this character’s parents’ born? What’s this character’s education?…all the questions actors ask in prep, the coach asks in her own research too.
DB: I think also that languages are so intertwined with the cultures to which they belong and which produce them, you can’t separate them.
CG: That is so true. The migration of people over time due to slavery, a search for freedom, colonisation…it all influences the way a mass of land sounds. Even looking at the climate of a country connects to the way that people talk. Is it hot and dusty there? Then their mouth is probably a little more closed and that is impacting the shape of their vowels. If it is relaxed and open and they’re spending time in the ocean, like on Laguna Beach, then they’re probably going to talk a little bit more slowly with liiiike super ooopen vowels, maaaan. Also, the different circumstances of a moment impact the way one speaks: your freedom and technical accuracy with a dialect on set is going to suffer if you’re hungry, angry, or tired (which you almost always are on a television set, because it’s exhausting). My Uncle, who’s a psychologist, says to HALT before you make a big decision in your life and ask: am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Then I need to fulfil that need and then make a decision. You don’t have that privilege set as an actor. You’re almost always tired. So…coffee!
DB: You are about to have a play that you have written, performed.
CG: Oh I am so excited to talk about this, Davina, because it is the most thrilling thing in my life apart from Mariah and Alex [Morf]! I am so pumped! Cannibal Galaxy: A Love Story is starting rehearsals tomorrow and opens in June, in a fantastic theatre called the New Ohio, Downtown [New York] which is a super-cavernous ware-house feeling space that feels like it could be outer space – just perfect for the piece.
DB: How did you come to write it initially?
CG: I was in Washington DC, visiting my husband Alex (who was on tour for War Horse )when we got the news of the Sandy Hook shootings. When I heard the news (Alex had a matinee), I decided to go to a science museum. Like everybody else, I was in deep grief and shock. It was so upsetting (please forgive me for getting emotional but I just can’t believe where we are as a country). I was watching the workers of the museum and I started to wonder: how does a scientist think about these unfathomable moments in life, and how does that connect to spirituality? Because I was grappling with my spirituality in that moment. Asking the question that we all ask, “How could this possibly happen? How can we live in a world where this is possible? How do we explain this?” I went home and wrote the first twenty pages: one of them was a monologue that the play ends with and the other was a short scene and it took place in a science museum between some workers. Like most rookie writers I then stopped and walked away and went back to my other jobs. Another act of violence happened and another one and another one, and the play really started to write itself. I just kept returning to my laptop, and I finished it in two weeks – it poured out of me. I’ve always been really shy with my writing and haven’t had the courage to share many things that I’ve written before this really. But this one felt needed to be in the world right now. The play explores the place where violence and creativity meet, asking how we process the inexplicable and what we do with what we don’t yet understand. It felt relevant, so I decided to get over my shyness and share it. First, I held a couple of readings of the play: actor buddies who came over, drank wine, ate cheese and read it out loud. I passed out super-dorky worksheets with questions like: did the play make sense? Who are you following? What do you think this play is about? Then I realised I did really have something, that people were moved by it. The play got picked up by a theatre company, called Fault Line; they took it, and me, to Xavier University, where they have a grant to do new development workshops. These students, Davina, were so committed. They threw their whole selves into this play. I had a professional director, Aaron Rossini and a professional actor, Craig Divino, who are co-Artistic Directors of Fault Line Theatre, working on the play with me and the students. I got a week-long workshop out of these brilliant young people, who were so invested in breathing life into the play; I learned a great deal, and I made some changes as a result. Then Stephen Skiles, creator of the theatre department at Xavier University, asked me if they could do the play on the main stage. I said, ‘Can you do it? Can I come?!’ Such a gift! I recommended one of my favourite collaborators from Brown/Trinity, her name is Tiffany Nichole Greene, as a Director – she was good enough to take it on. I showed up a million weeks pregnant with my husband and my now Director of the New York production, Jenn Haltman, sat in that audience, and the three of us wept. These students were brilliant – Tiffany guided them in the deepest way. We had two talkbacks afterwards and those were two moments I won’t forget, because I got to hear an audience full of people from different generations, different experiences, different ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds reflect upon their experience of being an American right now, and grappling with the questions that the play is asking. The play doesn’t answer any questions, it just asks them. A couple of years ago, a theatre company called Between Two Boroughs, in New York City, asked me if they could produce it. Again I was like, ‘Can you produce it? Can I come?!’ Jenn Haltman is directing it, her co-artistic director Becca Schneider is going to be in it. Tzipora Kaplan, our General Manager, is making magic happen behind the scenes every day – we have cast the most wonderful group of actors. Our designers are geniuses, theatricalising this world through metaphor. Now, as a writer, I’m in a totally new position where I have to let it go! Just let it be.
DB: Also you are not following in anybody else’s footsteps. It’s not like performing King Lear.
CG: Precisely. The only research that you can really do for new plays is about the given circumstances of the play itself, and that’s our country and all of us struggling with these impossible circumstances. I feel that, if anything, this play calls on its actors and director to tap into personal truths and access the parts of ourselves that are afraid right now, and yet are somehow still hopeful that we can change the fact that last year more school children died than combined U.S. Service members. This desire for change connects us all. I should say that the play is a dark comedy – there’s a lot of humour in it. What I’m trying to tap into is the way that, as Chekhov wrote, we do have to laugh at our tears and cry at our laughter. My hope is that the experience of watching this play is quite chaotic, just like it is being alive – if we’re really being honest with ourselves, it’s chaos.
DB: And it’s how different people cope with life generally, not just terrible events.
CG: That’s right. How do we continue to get up and make eggs in the morning when the impossible, the catastrophic, has taken place? That’s really the feeling I had growing up, with a mother who was battling cancer for a long time and ultimately died of the disease. How do we move forward, but also be honest about how we are changed? How do we lean into that discomfort?
DB: What’s it like being married to an actor when you’re an actress and a dialect coach?
CG: It’s a blast! It’s like a clown car, we’re just playing a lot of the time. There’s so much support and encouragement for creativity. There’s a real deep mutual respect and understanding for what it means to claim your creative space in our house. We also help each other a lot: I have a call-back tomorrow that Alex is helping me with today; I prep Alex all the time for his auditions. He has to do a British dialect for an upcoming film, so I will be helping him with that too. Also, there’s the actual nuts and bolts of helping each other, like putting stuff on tape etc. Also, there’s the deep understanding that we have of each other that we’ve chosen a life of creativity, and that that sometimes comes with frustrations and sadness and let downs. Being married to someone who really understands that makes me feel that I don’t have to hide my feelings, and this is really a gift. There’s a lot of times that we are both feeling the same thing at the same time and then we have to take a pause, go play in the park, or go to our brilliant couples’ counsellor (that we love so much, who married us under the chuppah) who is in many ways a spiritual guide to us. How do two people who are highly sensitive cope with these challenges of creating for a living? We have to constantly remain awake to ourselves and to each other, tap into what we need to be there for each other as well as do our work, and be honest about that. Because we don’t have 9 to 5s, we can’t go to the office and leave the work there.
DB: You helped him with his English dialect on Turn didn’t you? I was thinking that he was really good, unlike a couple of shows that I have had to give up on because the English accent is not… well… English. Usually the default is, it ends up sounding Australian.
CG: I did! I’m with you. I don’t have a lot of patience for it either, I’m quick to change channel or turn it off and go outside. Oftentimes it’s an issue of money for smaller production companies. But it might just be that they don’t recognise that we are all listening to each other all the time in our world now, so we need to hold ourselves to task in authenticity. If sound is going to hijack the storytelling, then, what are we doing? We’re not really hearing the story any more.
DB: Is there a song that takes you back to a special time in your life?
CG: Yeah. The Beach Boys make me cry, every time! My parents used to play The Beach Boys all the time. Dad would play them doing yard work and do a silly Dad dance and make me laugh. Road trips in our VW bus and in my mom’s little blue old VW Bug – I can hear The Beach Boys, I can smell the old canvas, I can hear my mother’s voice, I can feel the lick of the sun through the window – it is so specific to my life. Only later, as an adult, did I learn of the plight of The Beach Boys and the lead singer’s struggles, and it makes sense to me why I’ve always had such an emotional reaction to their music – even as a kid I always had so many feelings listening to them.
DB: Do you have any favourite artists?
CG: Joni Mitchell. I find that I listen to her the most. She just, to me, is everything. I love everything about her voice, her lyrics, her message of peace, that emotional vulnerability and openness with which she both sings and writes music. Again, it harkens me back to my mother – I hope I don’t sound like a broken record – Joni Mitchell is, in many ways, connected to my mother.
DB: What concert have you been to that you would say was the best?
CG: I have to tell you that Whitney Houston changed me as a kid! This was in the early ‘90s, I was probably 11. I feel like that this was the concert where I, as a young girl, was like, “That is the fiercest thing I’ve ever seen in my life”. The sound coming out of that woman’s tiny body was so mind-blowing. Listening to her in concert, as a little girl, was really empowering. I just loved that a woman, who was so slight (because I’ve always been a small person) could make that kind of sound.
DB: Is there an artist or band that you’ve not seen that you would love to go and see perform live?
CG: So many but I have to tell you that if I could have a ticket to hear anyone live, I think it would be Beyoncé. I’m in love with her. I think she is a ferocious artist and that what she has done socio-politically through her work has been so amazing, and the way that she created her last album was to me so genius that… I just want to see that woman, live. She leans into theatricality in a way that I really respect and appreciate, while also being capable of being simple with her voice when she wants to be. So seeing the dichotomy of that in concert would blow my mind – I would love that!
DB: Do you have any guilty music pleasures?
CG: Yeah! This is so embarrassing! There are two answers. The first is: The Carpenters. (Laughs) Just like ‘so goofy’ but they make me feel so vulnerable, to listen to those two siblings sing together. Her voice is so angelic, so special and seamless – it’s just that recorded keyboard that’s just so terrible. And the shameful answer is, Christmas music. I was raised Jewish, I was Bat Mitzvah’d after seven years of Hebrew school, and I am the biggest Christmas-loving Jew you will ever find. I love Christmas music, any kind, so does my father—Peanuts, crooners, Pop Christmas—more than any religious Christian I have ever met. So I will listen to Christmas music way way way out of season. (Laughs)
DB: Do you dance?
CG: Yeah, I love dancing. I danced as a kid for many years and I really loved it. In graduate school we did African dance for three years and I felt more free in African dancing than I’ve felt in any other dance class. I’ve taken African dance a few times in the city and every time I’m like, “My God, I should do this every week, I’d be such a better person for it and so much more open”. It literally opens the chest cavity – heart to the ceiling. Alex and I were just saying last night that we need a place to go and dance because we haven’t been since the last wedding and we don’t have any weddings coming up because we’re old now! When we go to weddings we just dance our faces off – we are shameless out there. We do dance in our home, we’ll just turn on music and clown dance.
Three questions we ask everybody:
DB: What is your favourite word?
CG: Love. My parents were so free with that word—with each other, with us, with their friends and family—that it took me a long time to realise that people were taken aback by it. I would tell people that I loved them, and mean it, and it was like “too much!” For me it is a practice in a world that often is afraid of that word. Love is the opposite of Fear. It’s the source of creativity.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
CG: It would be waking up in the morning and spending time with my family, feeding Mariah avocado, being with Alex and the New York Times and then I think I would like to go off and do something creative – on my own. That could be acting, directing, writing, coaching. Then being exposed to something live, even if simply on the subway ride home. Coming home and having dinner with my family and, these days, going to bed early. The privilege of going to bed early for a new mother is not to be overlooked! (Laughs) Sleep is the gift right now.
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
CG: I don’t think that I could live without gratitude. When I get stuck in the dark and am afraid, I realise that I have lost my gratitude, and each time I get back to it I can return to the present moment. My brother has just gotten his PsyD (which is a doctorate in Clinical Psychology) and he is so brilliant. He did his research for his dissertation on grief’s relationship to gratitude, and explored the ways that gratitude is often increased when one loses a parent at a young age. His research all pointed to the fact that people who lost their parent at a young age are, indeed, often more grateful. I think that’s profound, and directly connected to what I feel in my life: that we have such limited time on this planet to put goodness into it. Why not be present through it? It goes so fast.
[Update: since this interview Charise’s play Cannibal Galaxy: A Love Story has been staged at the New Ohio Theatre. The link immediately above includes several reviews]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.