Sunday, September 6, 2020

How Chadwick Boseman and I Are Alike


Like so many, I was gutted when I found out that actor Chadwick Boseman died from Stage IV colon cancer. As someone who has Stage IV breast cancer, every death due to cancer takes a bit of a toll on me. The fact that he was young and an actor made the news extra difficult to me to manage. But there is one specific element of his story that I identify with deeply - one I have been hesitant to talk about for fear of retribution, mocking, or damage to my reputation in the acting industry. 

As many people now know, Chadwick was dealing with cancer for 4 years before his death. This means many of the films he is known for were shot after his diagnosis and amidst his cancer treatments. But did you know that back in 2018 he began to be mocked in the media for looking “tired” and “bored” and “exhausted”? Of course, no one knew what he was going through, so many people made up reasons why this might be so. Many people accused him of being tired of doing the “Wakanda Salute” when he seemed less than energetic performing it on red carpets and around town. (See articles linked at the bottom of this post.) This upset a lot of fans, and memes were created and spread like wildfire. 
 





Rumors continued to swirl this year when he appeared “too skinny” in February 2020 appearances and in an Instagram Video in April 2020 (some blamed veganism, and some suggested he only bulked up for film roles and was skinny the rest of the time.)

And now we know. He was dealing with a deadly illness that he rightfully didn’t have to disclose. The media and his fans are now shocked and apologetic. But I can’t stop thinking about what it was like for him to deal with these memes and jokes while he was fighting for his life.

I didn’t need to wonder for long. I know - intimately - what that is like.

I am going to start my story by saying how incredibly scared I am to share it. My pulse is racing, my palms are sweaty and my body is running cold. Because I experienced such a trauma that I’m having PTSD flashbacks from just writing these words. My fear is around what people will think and say about me when I reveal what happened - will they think, “If you’re sick you shouldn’t be trying to be an actor. These people are paying money to see you. HOW DARE YOU BE LESS THEN PERFECT.”


So...


As I mentioned above, I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in November 2018 with the cancer having spread from my breast to my lungs and bones. I was just starting rehearsals for a production of ‘NIGHT MOTHER, in a dream role that I had always wanted to play. Performances weren’t until January 2019, so I spent the daytimes at the doctors (include a 3 night stay at the hospital after lung surgery) and spent my evenings at rehearsals. Interestingly, they found the cancer because in September 2018 I began having trouble singing, and I was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia. (The cancer was caught on an X-ray.) So later, when I came out of lung surgery and all of the sudden I had lost my voice, I assumed it was related to the pneumonia and/or having the breathing tube during surgery. But as I continued to rehearse for ‘NIGHT MOTHER, my voice did not get better - it got worse and worse. I went to multiple ENTs and no one could figure out why it was so difficult for me to speak. I sunk into a pretty deep depression - I could no longer sing, and my speaking voice was getting weaker by the day. Why couldn’t I shake this pneumonia? Would I be able to perform in January? I was worried but determined. In addition to starting cancer treatment, I started vocal therapy and set my sights on the show.

My voice stabilized a little bit - it wasn’t strong but I could get *some* sound out, and my director and I determined that in a small theater my voice would carry enough to perform. Luckily, the character I was playing was deeply depressed and suffered various illnesses, so my voice being a tad strained should only enhance the drama. And for three weeks of performances (picture below), I gave that role everything I had. I was proud of my work and, perhaps more importantly, the performances gave me something to focus on other than my cancer. What started out as bleak had a silver lining. 

Carla Brandberg and Me in 'NIGHT MOTHER


Then... the reviews began to come out. One reviewer decided to mention my vocal difficulties by putting his own - uninformed - diagnosis in his review. It was kind, but still embarrassing to be pointed out:

“For the performance we attended, Erin Cronican deserved a medal for her performance as Jessie, as she persevered through the role with real-life bronchitis! The show must go on, folks, and truth be told, Cronican’s struggling voice may have actually accentuated her ability to convey the desperation of her character."

But many reviewers completely ignored my performance and focused instead on complimenting my fellow actor. It’s important to note that this was a two-character play, so to avoid mentioning me in a review is very hurtful, especially given all of the work I put into the play. But ultimately I sucked it up and swallowed my sadness, disappointment, and embarrassment.

Then we started getting audience reviews through a website called Show Score. Think of it like Yelp, but for NYC Theater. The members of Show Score vary in their intent. Some are diehard theater fans who use the website to express their views with like-minded individuals - and they find out which show to see next based on reviews from people they follow. But some use the site as a social media network and rack up likes and follows by posting as many negative things as possible about a performance. It doesn’t help that Show Score’s interface welcomes and in fact encourages this. When you go to post a review, Show Score asks you to fill in the blanks:

1) See it if:
2) Don’t see it if:
3) Also...

The fact that the structure invites “don’t see it if” means that some people will use this section to mock or penalize the production, and it’s further encouraged by the “Helpful” button beneath it, which acts as a “like” button for all of the people who agree with that person’s assessment.

It should be noted that if I were just an actor, I could ignore sites like Show Score and be very happy as a performer. But I am also a producer and am responsible for our show marketing, which means reading all reviews and sharing relevant ones in our marketing in order to generate audiences. So good or bad, I have to read what people say about me and the shows I do. I have a pretty thick skin, but it’s hard when you read things like this:

“Others a bit off the mark. One sounds like she has laryngitis & it's distracting.”
And this:
“Don't see it if you can't handle a downer evening. One performance not up to the mark.”

But, though painful, these two negative reviews were among a flurry of positive ones, so I put my ego aside and set my sights on my next show - THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, which would be performing in late March/early April.

And then good news came in - I figured out wha was happening with my voice, and there was a treatment possible! I was diagnosed with a paralyzed vocal cord, which was injured while I was in lung surgery. (This article explains very clearly what I was dealing with.) The treatment was to have collagen injected directly into the vocal cord, which would make it stand straight up (like it was a bone in a splint) which would create more power and dexterity in the voice. I had this treatment done in February, right after my show closed. The collagen would last for 3-4 months and provide immediate vocal relief, and after it wore off doctors would be able to see if the paralysis was permanent or temporary (because the injection would give the vocal cord and its nerves time to heal.) Luckily it WAS temporary, and though I didn’t have perfect dexterity until later in the year I was better vocal health as THE MAIDS performances got closer and closer.

But bad news came in, too - little did I know that my cancer treatment was not working, and my lungs, bones, and brain became overtaken by tumors. I stopped being able to breathe properly, so though I would feel fairly normal when I was seated, the minute I walked across a room (or needed to stand or sit) breathing would become strained. My small frame lost about 25 pounds between January and March because the tumors were leaning on my adrenal gland causing me to lose my appetite completely and consistently vomit every time I had food or drink. I had no energy, no muscle mass, and no strength. The doctors put me on a brand new treatment which included two kinds of aggressive chemotherapy. I also had radio-surgery on my brain to try to manage the brain tumors.

I continued to rehearse THE MAIDS throughout this time, both as an actor and director. It was the only thing that brought me any kind of stability and happiness. I pushed through rehearsals as best I could with the most loving ensemble and creative team imaginable. I created staging that would accommodate my difficulties. I dug deep into the character and included my own diagnosis in the backstory of the role I was playing to give it depth. And once performances started, I set out every single night to ignore how I was feeling and give 200% to the audience. If I became out of breath, I would find a way to stop moving and/or speaking and focus on my storytelling. Allowing for those brief pauses also brought heightened drama to the play, which many people said was palpable throughout. I was proud of my work and proud of my colleagues’ work, and the play would go on to be nominated for 3 New York Innovative Theater Awards - including Best Revival and Best Ensemble. 


I wish this story could end happily there, but it doesn’t - and this is where my connection to Chadwick Boseman’s situation really comes in.

I want to start by saying that in New York City - the land of commercialized theater - there is a big push for polish, pace, and perfection. Our theater company has always sought to break this trend, because to us - if it’s perfect and polished and paced, there’s no room for LIVING. You’re just seeing people on a stage reciting lines quickly and mimicking movement without really experiencing the life of those characters and those stories. Our company always strives to go deeper, to create REAL people in REAL situations, and this is not always popular with those people who prefer the glitz and glamour of Broadway. We have reconciled this over our 10 years of existence, and yet have managed to find an ever-growing audience who loves us for our commitment to truth-telling. 

Me in THE MAIDS


So I was not prepared for the vitriol, mocking, and shaming that came at me for my performance in THE MAIDS. Here are just a few of the audience remarks found on Show Score:

“This production is the perfect example of why a director should never cast themselves as a character.”

“However, Erin Cronican (who also directed) was totally off the mark, offering flat line readings (when she wasn't searching for them) and a lack of any passion or energy”

“Don't see it if you need a perfectly cast trio to make going worthwhile. You expect actor/director to know her lines inside out...Coworker Solange (Cronican) feels miscast. She was often hesitant, reaching for lines. Her chopped hair and raspy voice simply make her way too modern and hipster for the role, setting THE MAIDS off kilter. She's too edgy for the room.”

“The dramatic tension in Genet's text was lacking in their performance -- especially in Solange (Erin Cronican). Sunday evening Apr. 7, Erin tripped on her lines, seemed hesitant, was often at odds with the dialogue.”

“The actor playing Solange, who is also is the play's director, was not well connected to the material nor well prepared. A number of the line readings were flat, and there were more than a few mistakes. She brought little emotion to a part that needs quite a bit of it to let the play come alive.”

“Erin Cronican is trying hard but she is the weakest link, maybe because of the oversize shoes, maybe her voice, or just struggle with some lines.”

“However, it's rarely if ever a good idea for one of the actors to also direct the play.”

Again, audiences - who did not know what I was dealing with - were quick to ascribe their own answers as to why they were seeing what they perceived as weak. Me taking pauses equaled “she doesn’t know her lines” and my lack of energy equaled “the director should never perform in the show.” Never mind that I’ve been directing my own work for years to great acclaim, and never mind that I have never been accused by a reviewer of not knowing my lines. 

Gaia Visnar and Me in THE MAIDS
 

I was devastated. It was easily, in all my years of performing, the worst experience of my life. I felt so hated, so embarrassed, so unsure of myself, and so alone. The physical effort I was putting out was harrowing. In the one moment I spent off stage during the 80 minute, intermission-less show, it was all I could do to get my breath under me. I was pretending I wasn't huffing and puffing from running around the stage, carrying props, and holding up my scene partner (whose character was prone to getting faint.) After that quick break, I would re-enter the stage to perform a 4 page soliloquy (a 10 minute monologue spoken alone on stage) with all eyes on me and no safety net. I was exposed, and now every time I performed I knew I was hated.

I mean, what was I supposed to do? Should we have put into the program, “Erin Cronican, who plays Solange, is in the middle of fighting for her life as a Stage IV breast cancer patient”? Do I have to preemptively, from now on, apologize for myself in case I don’t measure up to people’s standards? Did Chadwick Boseman need to tell everyone that he had cancer so that people wouldn’t make memes about how tired he looked and how disappointing he was to his public?

Or - even worse - does having cancer mean that I should give up on being an artist, because you think you deserve some kind of performance that is perfect in your mind?

I felt a little better after a reviewer wrote a very nice article about my work in THE MAIDS, in the face of my illness, which he knew about: Let’s Talk About A Different Kind of Acting.

(It’s interesting to note: when I asked Show Score to include this review on their website - because critic reviews are included alongside patron reviews - they declined because they said it read too much like a feature and not a review.)

Me in ANIMAL FARM

Before we go much further, I want to mention that this performance haunts me, even now. I performed in our production of ANIMAL FARM in February 2020 (pictured above) - nearly a year later - and one of the patrons gave me a backhanded compliment, again on Show Score:

“Cronican, so memorably awful in The Maids, rebounds.”

Even a year later, I’m left embarrassed and like I have to apologize for myself. But the worst part is I feel like I have to defend my decision to keep performing. Because it’s being made clear by some audiences - if you’re not PERFECT you do not deserve to perform. It’s as if they are saying, “How dare you take our money when you know you’re less than 100%? HOW DARE YOU?”

Don’t know you that I ask that of myself every day? Even now, as I write this, I’m thinking, “Well, they’re probably right. People have expectations that I’m not meeting. How dare I think I could expect anything more from them?”

Don’t you know that I grieve the life I used to have, when I *could* run around and having full breath and not deal with chemo side effects day after day? Even now, as I write this, I’m thinking, “Well, that’s not the audience’s problem. That’s MY problem. And no one who comes to my theater is going to care WHY I’m not delivering, they only care that I’m not.”

I’m very lucky that I am on a chemo regimen that, for now, is working and I’m about 90% of my old self. No one seems to know what I’m dealing with based on recent performance feedback, and I’m grateful for that.

But, now that I “pass” as “normal” - do you know how isolating that is? Like, any minute I slip up the mocking and derision will start again, and I’ll lose the only thing that gives me happiness and peace and purpose. It’s a fear I live with EVERY. SINGLE. MINUTE.

You’d think I’d be more concerned with dying from my illness. But living with an illness can be just as insidious. And this is why it deeply upsets me that it takes Chadwick Boseman’s death to get any kind of care and compassion from his adoring fans.

People with chronic illnesses and disabilities fight desperately to seem “normal” so that they don’t have to explain themselves. I hate the idea of needing special considerations. Not only is it embarrassing, but it’s triggering. On top of the physical impacts of my illness, I’m consistently dealing with the mental and emotional ones as well.

And - again - as I type that, the little voice inside my head says, “Well, you know one easy way not to feel that way, right? You can quit.”


FUCK THAT.


Yes, I will be more vocal about what I’m dealing with. Yes, my theater company bio now mentions that I’m a cancer patient. And yes, I’ve been a guest on numerous podcasts that talk about the intersection between my diagnosis and my work as an artist.

But don’t think for one moment that I’m doing to this apologize for my work, or my decision to stay an artist in the midst of my illness. Being ill does not mean I GO AWAY NOW. Having a disability does not mean MY VOICE NO LONGER MATTERS.


As a wind down this post, there are a few things I want as “takeaways” for reading it:

First - Just because there’s a website called Show Score (or Yelp, or any other review service), and just because you may have had an experience you did not appreciate, it is NOT ok to personally mock others. At best it makes you look petty and self-involved. At worst, you could be doing real damage to the person (they could lose their job, or livelihood, or sanity) and it can also do deep damage to the company and their reputation. Is your grievance worth all of that? And furthermore, really ask yourself if not liking a piece of art warrants that kind of vitriol.

Second - I think Show Score should remove the “Helpful” button, and the “Don’t see it if” request from their review model. In the right hands - like a professional reviewers whose job is to connect the show they saw with the right audience - this question can be very helpful. But in the wrong hands - which is MANY of the Show Score members - it serves as a bullying platform. If you feel as strongly about this as I do, please consider sending your feedback via email to their co-founder and CEO, Deeksha Gaur. (Note: Show Score has just been purchased by Today Tix, so a revision in their review system is more important now than ever.)

Third - You’re allowed to have opinions about art. Personal interpretation is what makes art great. But opinions are not facts, and your opinions are not more right than others’. Maybe think a little deeper about that the artist is trying to do - ie: what’s present - instead of solely focusing on what is missing or what they are NOT doing. Why do you have those opinions? What are they based on? It’s perfectly fair to say something like, “I didn’t like this show. I have a hard time understand French absurdism so I had difficulty connecting to the story.”

Fourth, and last - There is this thing called empathy. It’s the act of putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and imaging what life must be like for them, and feeling what they might be feeling. We as actors do this with every role we play. I ask that audiences try to do that as well.


EDITED TO ADD:

Here is the letter I just emailed the CEO of Show Score (click to view larger):



REFERENCES


All show photos above by photographer Russ Rowland.


Here are some links about Chadwick Boseman’s story:


https://cosmicbook.news/black-panther-chadwick-boseman-weight-loss

https://www.insider.com/black-panther-star-chadwick-boseman-michael-b-jordan-tired-wakanda-salute-meme-2018-5

https://www.essence.com/celebrity/chadwick-boseman-tired-wakanda-forever-salute/

https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/wakanda-sometimes-meme-now-has-fans-in-tears-after-black-panther-chadwick-boseman-passes-away-due-to-cancer-2830251.html

https://twitter.com/JennyENicholson/status/1299548223346896896

https://www.scoopwhoop.com/entertainment/society-bullies-chadwick-boseman-demise-battle-with-cancer/

https://www.buzzfeed.com/jennaguillaume/chadwick-boseman-wakanda-forever




Erin Cronican is a Stage IV breast cancer patient, whose career as a professional actor, producer, and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally and appeared Off Broadway with several plays and musicals. She is currently the Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater in NYC. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.




Wednesday, September 2, 2020

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM - Streaming now!



I’m excited to announce that we recorded our live Zoom performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, and it’s now available to stream via YouTube for a limited time! Through Saturday, September 5, you can see this production that critics and audiences are both loving (see reviews below.) GET YOUR TICKETS HERE

Named "Best Live Theater to Stream Online" by TimeOut NY
Named "What To Watch" by Times Square Chronicles

This play tells the tale of Hermia & Lysander (a lesbian couple) and Helena & Demetrius; four misguided lovers whose escape into the woods lands them in even more trouble, as members of the gender fluid fairy kingdom decide to use them as veritable pawns in their own love games. Against the backdrop of the wedding of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, and the fiery battle of wills between the Fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, the four lovers are challenged by magic and trickery to finally work out what love is all about. One of the most famous of literary love quadrangles, the play is one of Shakespeare's most popular works for the stage and is widely performed across the world.


Appearing on YouTube

Tickets starting at just $10: www.TheSeeingPlace.com

Benefiting the Ali Forney Center, a non profit organization that support LGTBQIA+ homeless youths.

Now through September 5, 2020



Here are what reviewers are saying about my work, and our cast as a whole:



"Inspired by the legendary Group Theatre, The Seeing Place aims for an "organic, edgy American style of acting", evident by such turns as Cronican's comically lovesick presentation of Helena, dumped by Demetrius but determined to win him back, matched with her focused, businesslike portrayal of Peter Quince, the leader of a group of amateur players hoping their modest theatrical venture will be accepted as part of the royal wedding entertainment." - Broadway World


"One thing that’s challenging for some actors is code switching from theater acting to camera work, especially the monologue-like format of Zoom theater. Most of the TSP actors had this down, but the star of the show was co-director Erin Cronican, who played both Helena and Peter Quince. Her character creation and immaculate comic timing were a real treat to watch. I was constantly engaged by Cronican’s performance, and found myself laughing out loud alone in my Ready Room at Cronican’s well-crafted and deeply detailed comic moments. Cronican’s Peter Quince monologue at the top of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play is one of the best renderings I’ve seen in years. Cronican knows exactly what’s funny about every moment of this play, and serves it up to her audience masterfully." - Bitter Gertrude


"Cronican brings a real (and funny) humanity to Quince both as a put-upon stage manager and then as a Prologue who reacts in frustration to her mistakes as she makes them but then gets increasingly gets carried away by and carries off the latter portion of her introduction of Pyramus and Thisbe. DiLorenzo and Cronican suffuse the conflict between Hermia and Helena with energy and emotion." - Thinking Theater NYC


"The Seeing Place Theater’s Zoom production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps the best Zoom work I’ve seen so far...They brought this magical comedy to life with great depth and understanding...The production gave us brilliant performances with outstanding digital effects and overall stellar direction. Not one of the eight actors came up short with their acting acumen, and notably, their awesome facility with the four hundred year old language. In almost all contemporary Shakespeare theater or film, at least one or some of the actors seem flat or stilted. But not here. All eight seemed to understand everything they were saying, and delivered their lines as if they were on a first name basis with The Bard. They also had such a deep understanding of the play, that they were able to communicate it to a twenty-first century audience easily. I just want to point out, that a late sixteenth century play about ancient Athens made itself at home in New York City in 2020. The humanity of that astounds me.“ - Ewing Reviewing


"The cast performances are strong, with lots of laughs, and relationships build satisfyingly among the characters. Performed over a live Zoom link the casts fine performances are aided by the technology at hand to great effect. Background sets, and even special effects are achieved when the fairies are on screen, and when Bottom is magically transformed." - Talk Theatre To Me 





And I also did two interviews about the show:

https://www.broadwayworld.com/san-diego/article/BWW-Interview-Erin-Cronican-Brandon-Walker-And-Dan-Mack-live-streaming-performances-of-A-MIDSUMMER-NIGHTS-DREAM-at-The-Seeing-Place-20200829

https://bittergertrude.com/2020/08/29/autonomy-and-disability-on-stage-the-seeing-places-midsummer/




Erin Cronican is a Stage IV breast cancer patient, whose career as a professional actor, producer, and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally and appeared Off Broadway with several plays and musicals. She is currently the Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater in NYC. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.




Wednesday, August 12, 2020

I'm Reviewed in the New York Times!

I'm very excited to announce that my production of DUTCHMAN, by Amiri Baraka produced by my theater company The Seeing Place Theater was reviewed by Maya Phillips of the New York Times, with my photo front and center!



Part of the review reads:
"The Seeing Place production, which starred Timothy Ware and Erin Cronican and was directed by Brandon Walker, highlighted the sexual friction between Clay and Lula. Cronican’s Lula gives Clay a lusty up and down, hungrily takes bites of her apple, a seductive smile creeping across her face. Ware’s Clay smirks gamely in response; he seems mostly unbothered by her odd diversions and casually racist remarks and appears to lust back...By underlining the sexual power dynamic between the man and the woman, Walker’s direction simplifies the larger reach of the play and what the characters represent. The tension becomes less about the matchup of Blackness and whiteness in society than about the interracial fraternization of one Black man and one white woman..."

We also appear in the PRINT EDITION - with a teaser image on the front page of the Arts section:








Read the full review here:

Learn more about our production here:
The Seeing Place's DUTCHMAN


Erin Cronican is a Stage IV breast cancer patient, whose career as a professional actor, producer, and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally and appeared Off Broadway with several plays and musicals. She is currently the Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater in NYC. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.


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