STATERA: Tell us about your work in the theatre.
Susaan: I'm an actor based in Chicago and have had the privilege to work extensively in both the rich storefronts as well as larger institutions. I've worked regionally in Berkely, DC (THE ARABIAN NIGHTS) and St. Louis (FACELESS) while touring shows that started in Chicago and recently toured to London, Toronto, and Vancouver with the solo show, OH MY SWEET LAND, with Silk Road Rising. Last year I had the great privilege to bring the character of Yasmina in YASMINA'S NECKLACE to the Goodman (after a premier at 16th Street Theatre). I worked closely with playwright, Rohina Malik, for 9 years while she developed the play and character. I also love the chances I've had to work with Erasing The Distance, a theatre company that spreads mental health awareness through theatre. Additionally I'm honored to be taking part in a Local EDI task force.
Lanise: I am an actor and director. I’ve had the pleasure of working and studying all over the world.
Dana: I am mainly an actor in Chicago, and although I have started doing more TV, voice over and film work, I really do love live theater. It is my true love in terms of performance. I also really love new work and the process of putting up a new play. I also love wigs...in shows. Multiple wigs is really the dream for me and one show here, a new work, I got to wear 7 wigs in one show. Living the dream. Aside from wigs and live theater :), I also worked at the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago for over 5 years and that helped me learn so much about the American theater and not-for-profit arts administration.
Christine: My theatre experience both runs the gamut and is very stereotypically Chicago-- I've done straight plays and tons of workshops and readings for new plays by local artists. I've understudied at some of the bigger houses, done experimental storefront, festivals, classics in bars, commercials, TV, films.
STATERA: Can you share about your journey to the Chicago theatre scene?
Lanise: I was lured to Chicago after a stint as a resident acting company member with Milwaukee Repertory Theater. I’ve been here off and on for about 9 years. I love Chicago! It’s the only city you can forge a fulfilling career and also maintain a high quality of life.
Susaan: I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh and graduate from Allegheny College. After graduation I spent a couple years in Pittsburgh figuring out how I could progress my desired acting career. I didn't have any mentors I felt I could turn to, but during that time I worked occasionally as an assistant stage manager at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater. There I met my good friend, Kelly McMahon, who was assistant directing. We quickly became each other's champions and sounding boards. One day we were discussing my graduate school search and the director we were working with said "Don't leave DePaul off that list. It's the best." I quickly looked into it, found myself auditioning in NYC, and was accepted into The Theater School at DePaul. It was exactly what I needed and I ate everything up while I was a graduate student there. I like Chicago and stayed because I was getting work and loved the people and the vibe.
Dana: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to school at a small liberal arts college in New York. I graduated about 4 months before 9/11 and had thoughts of going to grad school in NYC or moving there after school...but as we all know, that day changed everything. My father also ran a large global travel company (he actually had some clients on one of the flights that day) so his business and career was drastically affected by 9/11. This sort of felt like a calling to come home and live with them in Illinois, re-charge, and figure out my next steps.
Luckily, I was able to get some part time jobs downtown and eventually move out of my parent's home within a year and live in Chicago, Boystown specifically. I didn't start auditioning right away but eventually started attending generals and smaller storefront auditions around town. I had auditioned for the School at Steppenwolf my last year of college and wasn't accepted, but like many others who don't get in their first year, was encouraged to apply again. And so I did, and got accepted and that sort of kick started my acting life here, as I was asked to understudy at Steppenwolf right out of the program...which was such an exciting time.
Christine: If I'm being honest, it was a quarter life crisis that led me to Chicago. I was living in Portland, OR, working in advertising and feeling like "this can't be it, right"? So, I did some soul searching (i.e. therapy) and realized there was a reason I took an acting class every time I moved to a new city. So, being the diligent Type A personality I am, I called up everyone I knew who was an actor or acting-adjacent and asked them a LOT of questions. Chicago kept coming up as a great place to train and cut your teeth as an actor. So, I moved here to give it a shot. That was seven years ago (almost to the day).
STATERA: What is your own most memorable mentorship experience?
Dana: I feel like my most memorable mentorship experience came when I applied to work at the Goodman Theatre as the Executive Assistant to the Executive Director in 2011. Up to that point, I had mainly been an actor here in Chicago and was questioning about whether applying to work full time inside a large theatrical institution would be a smart move for me. I called two specific women in my life who were not only familiar with Chicago theater but also helped me understand the man and theater I might be working for. We talked about the pros and cons of taking a 9 to 5 job, which would take me out of daytime auditions, and how being an assistant might change how I am seen an as actor in the community. But they also reminded me of how much knowledge I would gain from the inside and that the job didn't have to be forever. I was so grateful that they took the time to talk with me, listen and even help me craft a good cover letter! I loved working at the Goodman and wouldn't trade that time for the world.
Susaan: About 8 years ago I was asked to be part of an accountability group. We met every couple weeks to discuss what we were currently working on, shows/auditions/mailings/websites/ect., and what we wanted/hoped to be working on. It lasted about four years with the last two being only the same three or four people. We became very close and to this day they are great friends and we still consistently support each other.
Lanise: Years ago I was doing GEM OF THE OCEAN at Milwaukee Rep, all of the actors bonded from day one, and the older more experienced actors took me under their wing. I definitely seized the opportunity, asking them as many career based questions I could muster. They gave me acting tips that I use to this day, and also let me crash on their couch when I visited NYC. Even now I could call upon them and receive the same munificence they gifted me 13 years ago.
Christine: Something we hear a lot from potential mentors is "I don't think I have what it takes to be a mentor". It's so easy to look at your body of work and only see the gaps, the ways it doesn't measure up to your aspirations or the careers of people you admire. But, at our spring mixer, the room was packed with women--some just out of college, some who had been in the industry for 20 years--who were connecting with each other, supporting each other and dreaming big together. It was a much needed reminder that we ALL have something to bring to the table. You're never "too experienced" to learn something new, or "too inexperienced" to impart wisdom.
STATERA: How did you become connected to the Statera Mentorship Program?
Susaan: Minita Gandhi, who started the Chicago chapter with Erika Haaland, is one of my dearest friends. We met when we were both starting out in Chicago (at our first Chicago audition!) and our sisterhood was solidified when we worked on a show that toured for a few months. She's been discussing Statera with me from the start.
Dana: Minita Gandhi reached out to me to be a mentor during the inaugural class, but I had heard Erika's name for over 2 years off and on and it just felt like fate. Years ago, I used to host a lot of ladies nights at my home, where people would come and drink and eat and chat, and many of the attendees were artists. Some of those guests told other people about these gatherings and word got around that yes, I like wine, but also that I like bring people together who might not know each other but will hopefully become fast friends.
STATERA: What do you see as the greatest need and/or the most common need for mentorship relationships?
Christine: I think it varies so much depending on who you are and where you're at in your career, but the thing that keeps circling back around for me is the need for a sounding board. It's easy to feel isolated in such a competitive field, but I've realized that theatre artists, myself included, are hungry to share their experiences and dole out advice and support. This sense of community has enriched my experience as an actor.
Lanise: Strategizing, discipline and goal setting. I like to discuss aspirations, then see if their daily habits move them towards that goal or away from it. There are numerous small things that can be overlooked, its implementing smart habits each day (or week) to inch you along your artistic trajectory. Simply having a de-stressing routine, eating healthy high performance food, and scouting out the places that you want to work are small things people don't consider, but can prepare you for the opportunity that can change your life.
Susaan: I think the world at large is often overwhelming and the more connections we can feel comfortable confiding in or bouncing ideas off of regarding hopes, dreams, challenges, and successes, the more we can individually accomplish. We don't have to build Rome in a day, but sometimes it feels like we're behind if we don't. I think mentorship can ease the pressure from the "how" anxiety into the accomplishable step by step (and who says you can't take two or three steps at at time...not me). Mentorship is reciprocally beneficial. No one has all the answers all the time, but we are all human and want to connect and grow.
Dana: I think the greatest need for them, and this program specifically, is the structure. Some of us might have people we feel we can text, or email or FB with a question or two, but a whole program/class that is set up for a 6 month period where there are guidelines, expectations and resources to help you build your mentee/mentor relationship...is so valuable. It gives both the mentee and the mentor accountability and room to breathe. It isn't like you have to get all your questions answered in an hour over coffee, you have time to go deeper into a meaningful relationship together. That's why I think this program is so valuable. I also think putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, whether or not those shoes are similar to yours or not, is helpful. To help someone else, besides yourself, move thru this business. That’s what I loved about being a mentor. Getting out of my own head and in the process, learning so much from my mentees.
STATERA: Talk to us about your leadership style and why you're called to work in this capacity for your community.
Lanise: I’ve been fortunate to have incredible guides in my life and I love seeing people win. If I can help them win, I will. I thrive on collaboration, earnest engagement, discipline, tenacity, audacity, resilience, and compassion.
Christine: I'm a talker; it's the best way for me to process my experience. I'm also an organizer and a doer. My favorite thing to do it gather people I admire and trust in a room to generate ideas, talk about goals and figure out strategies to accomplish them. Having come to acting without a BFA under my belt, I initially felt like I was at a great disadvantage, but I've come to learn that the key to success is hard work, integrity and compassion. These characteristics are accessible to EVERYONE. By spreading that message, I think we can build a stronger, more inclusive community.
Susaan: I'm definitely a connector. My natural state of being is wanting to make connections between people I meet. I'm very enthusiastic about that. I'm also a listener. A term that I personally connect with is "heritage" in the sense of shared experience. I love tapping into shared "heritage" to bring people together.
Dana: For me, I feel like one of my greatest strengths is my ability to make people feel comfortable or at ease, to make them feel seen and to make them feel welcome. I was specifically drawn to this program so that I can help get people together in the same room, talking and laughing, connecting and learning or doing a group activity...so I am excited about planning events for the mentorship program. People are yearning to share safe spaces with each other, connecting in real time and not on their phones, and I think we can help do that. I also like using my connections to help pair mentees and mentors, and it's been really fun thinking about all the amazing artists in Chicago that want to be a part of this program.
STATERA: Okay, now its time to AMPLIFY. What recent personal projects or upcoming projects are you excited about? Any links or PR you want to share with us?
Christine: I'm currently filming an improvised, avant-garde feature with a longtime collaborator and friend about a YouTube lifestyle blogger. No links yet, but I'll definitely be flooding the internet with them soon. And a short film I produced this summer, Eat You Heart Out (https://eatyourheartoutfilm.com/) is in post-production.
Dana: I am headed to Arkansas to Theatre Squared to do a Lauren Gunderson play in Nov-Dec 2018 with Chicago's very own Keira Fromm directing. I am trying to do more regional work so this is an exciting opportunity and hey, it's in the Ozark Mountains! Come down and see me: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
Lanise: I am over the moon to be acting in FAMILIAR at Steppenwolf this winter and directing BEHOLD THE DREAMERS at Book-It Repertory Theatre next spring. www.laniseantoineshelley.com
Susaan: I'm looking forward to spreading Christmas Cheer this season in A Christmas Carol at Drury Lane and I just shot an episode of Chicago Med. I still haven't gotten my website up, so someone please mentor me!