[INTERVIEW] Meet Ashley Griffin

Ashley Griffin is fairing the weather in New York City this holiday. No, not MACG Magazine’s Ashley C. Griffin, but Ashley J. Griffin, who is most well known as the creator of the pop culture phenomenon “Twilight: The Unauthorized Musical Parody (New World Stages).” The Los Angeles native has performed on and off of Broadway and film, including: “Wicked: For Good Concert – Gershwin Theater,” “Hamlet,” “Alias” and “American Dreams.” As a writer, Griffin’s work has been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and the U.K. Most recently, her show “Looking For Wonderland” was a semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neil Festival.

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MACG MAGAZINE: What was the defining moment that influenced your growth in performing arts?

ASHLEY GRIFFIN: I honestly don’t know if there was one defining moment. I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do, and it’s been more of a steady process of development over the years as opposed to one big “ah ha!” moment.  

There are “little” moments that stand out, such as being inspired to become the first Anthony Newley when I was eight when I saw a clip of him performing “Who Can I Turn To” on The Ed Sullivan Show and discovered that he was the first person ever to be nominated a Tony for best book, score and leading performance by the same person in the same year. Seeing Gwen Verdon perform for the first time in “Damn Yankees.” Discovering C. S. Lewis. Seeing “Hamlet,” “Our Town,” “Pippin,” “The Pillowman,” “Eurydice” and Nick Dear’s “Frankenstein” for the first time. Seeing Idina Menzel perform in “Wicked” and having an ugly duckling moment of “Oh! I’m not Laurie in ‘Oklahoma,’ I’m THAT!” Having Gabriel Barre take me under his wing changed my life forever, as did finding my “people” — my friends and collaborators with whom I work frequently. But if there’s one story that sticks out, it’s probably this:

I grew up in L.A. and started acting (and writing — I completed my first musical when I was eight and put it on for my third grade class…) when I was very young. I did a lot of theater but also went out for film and TV. Being a precocious kid, I was obsessed with Shakespeare, and my mom and I began watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” because Patrick Stewart was an RSC actor and frequently performed Shakespeare on the show. My mom took me to a Star Trek convention to hear him speak. I remember sitting in what to an eight-year-old looked like the biggest room in all of existence, crammed in with hundreds of people. Then during the Q&A I got brave and raised my hand to ask him a question. He called on me — and all the news cameras were suddenly directly in my face (I ended up in the Star Trek fan club magazine the following month).

“Mr. Stewart,” I began, “my name is Ashley Griffin, and I’m going to be an actress when I grow up.” The whole audience started laughing. He quieted them and listened intently to me in a way few grown-ups had ever done. “I watch ‘Star Trek’ because I know you work with the RSC, and I love Shakespeare. I wanted to know, having worked in both film and theater, what would you recommend the best way for me to train would be? Should I focus on film or theater?”

He spent the rest of the time answering my question in an incredibly kind and thoughtful way. He spoke to me about the advantages of training in the theater and the differences between theater and film. As a result of that conversation, I stopped going out on film and TV auditions and focused solely on theater — making my Shakespeare debut not long after, playing Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When I did the international tour of a show a few years later, I got to study at the RSC. Throughout the years his advice has held me in excellent stead. He has continued to generously mentor me over the years, and one of my proudest moments was getting to share my recent production of “Hamlet” with him, in which I directed and played “Hamlet” and was fortunate to have some very lovely things said about the show. His generosity of spirit deeply inspired me, and wanting to emulate him has been a great goal of mine as an artist and a person.

When you’re eight years old and someone like Patrick Stewart takes the time to talk to you and believes that you can achieve your dream and are worth being taken seriously — it makes you feel in your heart that you can accomplish anything. It’s always meant a great deal to me.

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MM: Were you always passionate about the arts? What is your earliest memory?

AG: I was born knowing I was an artist. Some of my earliest memories consist of dictating stories to anyone I could wrangle to transcribe them for me before I was old enough to read or write (or even hold a pencil) for myself and making everyone from friends and relatives to babysitters put on shows with me in the living room. (“I’ll be Cinderella, and you’ll be everyone else. Ok, let’s start. Ok, I’m going to stop you there, you need to say this instead, and walk over to the couch when you say it. Ok, let’s do it again…)

My mom tells an infamous story that when I was REALLY young I would stand on our porch saying the same thing in baby talk over and over with the same inflections and physical gestures. She finally asked me what I was doing, and I replied, “The Blue Fairy monologue from ‘Pinocchio.’” (Where I learned or had even heard the word “monologue,” no one knows…) I then proceeded to walk her into the bedroom where I put on the video of “Pinocchio” and played the section where the Blue Fairy says, “Now Pinocchio, you prove yourself brave, truthful…” — I was doing the same inflections, the same gestures, just in baby talk. That’s the moment my mom says she knew I was going to be an actor.

I had three rules growing up: (1) I couldn’t sing in the living room before 7 a.m., (2) I couldn’t wear costumes to preschool and (3) I could only perform one number when company would come over. I would choreograph dance numbers in the living room and would even re-direct shows I had seen nonstop. I’ve always been obsessed with storytelling.

MM: What is the most unexpected thing that you’ve experienced or learned in this profession?

 AG: As I’ve been in this profession since I was a kid, I’m fortunate that my enamorment and disillusionment grew and developed together holistically — I’ve never been a total starry-eyed neophyte nor totally jaded and bitter. It is always unexpected and difficult to learn that hard work and talent sometimes don’t equate with success and that sexism and ageism are alive and thriving. I grew up with a wonderful, strong mother and female directors, writers and artistic directors. It wasn’t until I started having success as an adult that I found myself confronting tragically stereotypical misogyny head-on — and it’s greatly inspired me to speak out about it and fight against it.

On the flip side, I’ve experienced immense kindness and generosity from well-established people in this industry. I guess the most wonderfully unexpected thing I’ve experienced is just how much of a community this profession really is. It’s something that I don’t think exists in quite the same way in any other job, and it makes me immensely grateful to be a part of it. As such, I’ve learned that being nice and being a good person is just as important as being talented, and that makes me very happy. I think that needs to be emphasized in theater programs just as much as how to hit the high “C” and do a triple turn.

The best artistic pieces of advice I’ve learned came via Stephen Schwartz. The first is that the closer you get to something being purely and personally truthful, ironically the more universal it becomes, and the second is, “Trust yourself. Please yourself, but be hard on yourself.”

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MM: What was a positive, unforgettable moment in this profession?

AG: I’ve been fortunate to have a few. The ones that stick out the most to me are when I’ve been really dropped into a role I’m playing and surrounded by wonderful actors who are also really dropped in. Or when I’m writing and I’m really “in the zone.” Both are almost like, for lack of a better description, surfing or flying — but with words and emotions instead of waves and air. You’re in the center of the creative experience and, I feel, as close to the Numinous (as C. S. Lewis coined) as you’re likely to get in this lifetime.

Getting to be mentored by and work with heroes of mine like Gabriel Barre, Lori Petty, Stephen Schwartz — I’ll remember every moment of those experiences for as long as I live. Getting to sing “Defying Gravity” at the Gershwin Theater on Broadway or seeing my name and show on the marquee of New World Stages — those were pretty unforgettable. Even just to get to walk through Times Square, run into people I meet and realize that I’m a part of the Broadway community is amazing.

But I think some of the most special and memorable are the small, intimate experiences you share with your fellow cast members and collaborators. The stuff that happens “behind the curtain,” as it were.

MM: What type of training was important for/to you to succeed?

AG: On the simplest level, it was hugely important to receive the right technical training. I was very fortunate to be exposed to wonderful teachers from an early age. As a child I had teachers who treated me as being just as capable of understanding the craft of acting as any adult. I learned about beats, actions and objectives as well as vocal technique (Tanya Travers is the greatest voice teacher ever) and dance technique — things that have held me in good stead ever since.

I continued my training at the fantastic Los Angeles performing arts high school The Hamilton Academy of Music and then at The Boston Conservatory and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I also had the opportunity to study at The National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. But what taught me just as much was having the opportunity to perform consistently starting when I was five years old. Growing up in L.A., I was very fortunate to have lots of performing opportunities, and you learn just as much from getting up day after day in front of an audience as you do in a rehearsal room.

But I think most importantly was the development I gained as an artist by finding my “people” — my personal community of artists who I click with, admire and work well with. They can be teachers — such as the incredible Ray Virta, whom I first met at NYU and has continued to be a dear friend. Mentors such as the truly remarkable director Gabriel Barre, who took me under his wing and taught me by example more than I have learned in any classroom about acting, writing or directing. (I have often said that any negatives in a production I’ve written or directed must be blamed on me, and any successes must be attributed to him.) And my dear friends and collaborators whom I frequently work with, most especially the incomparable Ryan Clardy, who supports, encourage and give me feedback so intelligently and lovingly.

Having a group of artists who love each other and create a safe space has taught me how to be fearless in an art form that is frequently fear-full. Technique doesn’t mean anything if you can’t or aren’t willing to share your heart. It is by the love and example of the artists I’m close to that I have been able to move toward being an authentic and honest artist, not just someone concerned with “getting the right answer.”  I have been very fortunate to train with some of the greatest artists in the world, and that is why I have the technique to be able to do what I do. But it is in the DOING — in getting on stage and having my work put up and collaborating with artists and mentors who care for and believe in me that I have developed into and succeeded as an artist.

MM: What is anticipated next from you?

AG: I’m very excited to be working with Kate McConnell and Squeaky Bicycle Productions on developing a couple projects this spring in NYC as well as continuing to develop my play “Trial” and musical “Lyra.” My film “Ophelia, Descending” (in which I play the lead role of Jenny) will have its premier this spring, and my play “Snow” is also slated to return to NYC in the fall of 2017.

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For more information, updates and contact information, visit www.ashleygriffinofficial.com or the following social media accounts.

Facebook@ashleygriffinofficial

Twitter: @ashleyjgriffin

Instagram: @ashleygriffinofficial

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