Heather Tyson – Title Still Pending


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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Welcome to Heather Tyson’s world

No matter what maps suggest, travel from here to there is never that unencumbered, surefire, straight-as-an-arrow path. Who knew the best route from Dayton, Ohio to Laguna Beach was via Chicago, New York and Los Angeles?

Just so, Heather Tyson’s journey. It’s 1997 and she, a recent Northwestern University theater arts graduate, along with a fellow grad and friend and dreamer, rented a U-Haul and made the trek to New York. A sensible decision for someone who always imagined she’d be an actor on a stage, with an orchestra in the pit, the smell of grease paint in the air, the audience silenced by the rising curtain and her name in neon lights. Her mother and aunt, both of them dancers and singers, were her inspiration. Whether nurture or nature, on stage was where she needed to be. New York was a mecca of endless stages.

As she explained, in the late ‘90s there was little crossover between the various disciplines or opportunities for acting; movies, TV, stage, commercials were the big ones, and actors stayed in their respective boxes. “A stage actor was a stage actor, a movie actor stuck to movies. If a stage actor shifted to the big screen cinema, that was the end of their stage career. You couldn’t have both.”

We both chuckled over the impression, back then, that a star’s career was in the dumpster if they appeared in a TV commercial. Translation: If the best they could do was pitch toothpaste between sitcoms and dramas populated with real actors, they were in a professional freefall. Commercials had nothing to do with serious acting.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

“I think that stories connect us. I think they educate us.”

Want to be an actor? First, you audition. Tyson soon realized, securing auditions was her job. Thursday was the most important day of the week. Backstage, the industry newspaper filled with casting notices for musicals and plays, hit the newsstands. You responded with a resume and headshot. She had a stack of them. “Both were critical, and it was important they not get separated.” Glue or tape were acceptable methods for securing the two documents. So were staples. While the two of us sat in club chairs in front of a fireplace, she did a darn good job pantomiming the process of stapling each corner, like it was a long-embedded muscle memory. For added measure, careful scissoring was required to reduce the standard 8 1/2” x 11” paper to accommodate the 8” x 10” headshot. Delivery instructions were specific, generally hand carrying them to an office. Sometimes that meant dropping them in a designated box outside an agency’s door.

Tyson did off-off-off-Broadway shows, generally without pay. She also did a lot of bartending. She was “giving herself time,” a mantra I’ve heard from others who tried to break into the business, a measurement in years before acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, this dream is never going to happen.

Then again, an opportunity might come out of nowhere. “It was about making connections and building relationships.” These incremental successes kept her going. Indeed, she landed a small part in The Sopranos. She wasn’t keen on camera work, but a success was just the sort of encouragement that gets an actor out of bed every Thursday and grab a copy of Backstage from the local newsstand.

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Courtesy of Heather Tyson

“I saw acting as art, but the truth is, it’s a business. Who knew?”

The reality TV show Survivor was first aired in 2000, and Tyson along with millions of other Americans tuned in. The word “reality” had many implications, mostly bad for an acting career. “I watched not necessarily trained actors getting paid to not necessarily act. At least what I thought was acting,” she said, then laughed. “How was I going to survive Survivor?”

While in New York, she met a man finishing his own education that would lead to a career in graphic design, and they married. Two people now pooled their financial as well as emotional resources.

Tyson also reasoned, not caring to be on camera was limiting her career and her income. Cameras meant Hollywood. She’d given New York seven years, but she wasn’t giving up her dream. Just recasting it. Another U-Haul, another road trip, another adventure, this time with her husband and his dreams. They both embraced the adventure.

Acting in L.A. is initially nothing but auditioning. Auditioning is an actor’s first job. Auditioning became her job. Unpaid but a job nonetheless. “To get in the game, you have to show up for auditions. Auditioning is tangible. There’s a certain stability in that, the steps defined.” She ticked them off.

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–First call, or round of auditions.

–Second round of auditions, maybe, hopefully, crossing fingers, perhaps a bit of luck.

–Casting wants to see you. Small celebration.

–The producer wants to see you. Bigger celebration.

She felt close when she got to Step 4 for roles in Gilmore Girls and Two and a Half Men. None of that negated the need for an income. She was done with bartending. Tyson started teaching theater arts. She was also from a family of educators, so that made sense.

And she worked auto shows. Auto shows? That on the surface makes less sense, but a.) there are lots and lots of auto shows throughout the country, b.) they are scheduled throughout the year and c.) there is a certain “on stage” and “curtain up” quality when working a tradeshow floor, creating an aura of “you deserve this latest model” and making it fun.

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Courtesy of Heather Tyson

“I believe that artists try to make sense of the world through their art.”

This morphed into corporate gigs training car salesmen on the finer points of selling cars (despite the rumor anyone can sell them), but more important, promoting customer service. The crossover from acting isn’t that much of a stretch. Script? Check, she’s provided written content. Comfortable on a stage? Check, she’s been on a stage. Ability to read the audience and adjust? Check, because if she couldn’t read them, they’d let her know, and that’s not applause she’d be hearing. That hint of entertainment? Check, otherwise they are free to leave. “Often you are writing on your feet in response to what that group wants or needs while not losing sight of the script.”

Then, as the second decade of the millennium was gearing up, her marriage was spiraling down. The end of any relationship – the curtain dropping on a future two people had envisioned; the striking of the stage, the “structure of our life” – is painful, a betrayal not making it less so. I asked Tyson if I could use that particular word, her word, betrayal, not wanting to violate her privacy. “Absolutely, because that was the genesis of my solo performance. Being betrayed challenges so much of what we believe.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Tyson can’t shake that feeling she’s on vacation

The name – Title Pending – makes sense when applied to how she felt about her life. Most lives are a work in progress, the title elusive.

Another journey, though no U-Haul to pack this time. This was about unpacking emotions, turning them over, examining them, putting them in place before making sense of them. The first step was to write them down.

Tyson doesn’t hesitate giving Ann Randolph credit for jumpstarting the process. Randolph is a writer, teacher and performer, not necessarily in that order. She holds retreats that create an environment to foster creativity. Her book, Write Your Life: Page to Stage gives participants the space, guideposts and encouragement to pen their stories, the writing both painful and liberating. This was something new and challenging, even scary for Tyson. “I wasn’t tasked to play a character. I had to be the character.”

“Nowhere to hide,” I pointed out.

“Ann would often say to us, the problem – that is, what’s holding you back – isn’t that you don’t care. It’s that you care too much.”

Tyson emailed me her thoughts which I can’t possibly improve. “There are so many ways to betray people. And we all experience it. I felt betrayed not just by him, but by the whole world. Dramatic, I know, but that’s how I felt when all of my beliefs crumbled. A huge part of this journey has been about me realizing how and when I betrayed myself. That has probably been the most difficult betrayal to face, and yet so important. I’ve had to be really honest with myself, question some of the choices I’ve made, ask myself why I didn’t speak up about certain things, etc. I’ve learned and grown so much through this…and what a wild ride it’s been!”

One of many pivotal moments that helped her through the process: Her realization that everyone experiences loss and disappointments. “Stories connect us. We share stories, each unique but also there’s a sameness. It’s walking the grief path together.”

Even more challenging, those fears that haunt artists: Hurting others while at the same time being personally judged. “I’ve learned I can’t control how someone responds to my story.”

It’s one thing to write about the fallout from a betrayal. Many people journal with no intention of having anyone read their words much less publish what they have written. Some people even burn the pages, a symbolic gesture. Tyson wanted to push herself further, tap into the performer inside. Such exposure is akin to leaping out of a plane without benefit of a parachute.

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Courtesy of Heather Tyson

Heather Tyson going solo

Of course, easier said than done. When people go to any performance, they expect to be entertained. It can be funny or sad, scary or horrifying, riddled with action or intrigue, but it better darn well entertain. It took Tyson about eight years to work out all these kinks.

She also drew from her years in the automotive industry. I speak from my own experience training in the business world: We learn more from the process of training and those we train than what we can only hope we give to them.

Title Pending opens with a breathless monologue about boxes. Not the U-Haul variety, but those boxes in which we (figuratively speaking) organize our stuff. Those things we were told to do or not do. How we should or should not act. What is reasonable to expect or not expect from life. Advice coming at us from every angle, life’s bromides, the boxes are convenient if not also quite heavy.

Then she…well, I don’t want to spoil where she takes her act. How she creates several personas and weaves them into a story in which it is easy for the audience to say, “Ah, yes, I know that feeling.” Her execution is spot-on, tugs at our memories, makes us laugh and acknowledge that yes, we are all joined by our stories.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

I also believe artists put their heart out into the world through their work.”

Tyson staged her solo performance last year at the Fringe Festival in Santa Monica. For the first time, she wasn’t waiting for someone to pick her. She had the script, the desire and the funds to register for the open-access show and pay for the theater space. Five performances later, she thought she was done. The festival organizers had other ideas, selecting her for the Encore Award which meant staging a sixth performance. “The award is based on artistic or commercial merit, or both,” she explained.

In February of this year, she had another opportunity to perform at the Solofest at the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks. She continues to look for venues. A simple stage is all she needs.

“I’ve been living in Laguna Beach for two years, and honestly, after L.A., I can’t shake the feeling I’m on vacation, the ocean right out there,” Tyson said. “And then, finally, I find myself up in L.A. doing precisely what I’ve wanted to do for years.”

Title Pending isn’t her only theatrical focus. She has twice volunteered as a cast member for the Pageant of the Masters. More recently she was part of the committee (Research Committee Volunteers) that selects the art to be staged.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Tyson has more writing to do

We finished our time together talking about the future – a script for another show, the script still in its infancy. This one is about belief systems that tend to push people’s buttons. “We live in a gray area,” she said, “afraid to be ousted from the group. At the same time, we have our doubts.”

Something I don’t doubt – she will get it written. And it will be funny and scary and sad and challenge us to think about our shared stories.

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