INSIDE THE HEAD OF DAWN "SAM ALDEN
Dawn "Sam" Alden
Photo by Johnny Knight
I was trying to put into words what a great person Dawn is. But I thought it would be better to have the words from a person who knows her well. Here is DS Bauden's salute:"Have you ever come across a person whose aura just screamed, 'Be friends with me, you won't be sorry!' Well, I had that experience one summer when I met Dawn 'Sam' Alden. Of course, she was cleansing my karma with rose water and painting a crescent moon on my forehead before we watched the The Mists of Avalon. How can you not want to be friends with someone like this? *Putting on my televangelist cap* Not ONLY is she a talented actor, and one of the best combat fighters on stage that I've ever seen... Not ONLY does she have a wicked sense of humor and the heart of a lion... Not ONLY does she love Elijah Wood and Lord of the Rings... BUT ... she is also someone who I believe, will make a difference in the world today. Dawn "Sam" Alden is a woman that truly does 'Pay it Forward.'"
Let's get to know this rockin' babes with blades woman!
Why did you start acting?
I couldn't stay away from it; no matter how hard I tried!
What possessed you to do Xena as a play?
About Face Theatre cast me! But I auditioned because it was an opportunity to use my fight training on stage, something I very rarely get a chance to do except in projects of my own making.
If you had to do it all over, would you be an actor?
If I still had the bug, yes, and I'd start earlier and jump right into it. If I could avoid it, however, I'd like to spend a lifetime as a Sociologist, or an Anthropologist, or a Travel Writer, or a Physical Therapist, or a Cop, or a Veterinarian, or a Tolkien Scholar, or a …
Give us a brief day in the life of Dawn?
I sleep through at least a half an hour of my alarm, heave myself out of bed, walk the dogs, go to my day job where I try to balance the work they pay me for with the work of my heart - administrating the Babes With Blades troupe, go home, walk the dogs, if I'm in a show head off to rehearsal, if I'm not do some more work on Babes or various writing projects and then with any spare time (is there such a thing?) try to catch a few episodes of my favorite t.v. shows.
Who is Dawn?
A big goofball trying to change the world.
Do you also write?
A bit. I'm working on a stage adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, plus I have several ideas for internet movie serials at which I am trying my hand. I also worked with a fabulous writer on penning a show specifically for Babes With Blades that is a cross between a live comic book and a feminist satire piece called "The Coming of the Feminazi." I'm trying to find a producer for it now. I would love to write more because there is such a need for plays with fighting roles for women, hell, even with strong female leads, but it comes very slowly and painfully to me.
How do you handle stress?
Cigarettes and chocolate.
In general, do you think fans expect too much from actors?
In general, no. I think most fans are very respectful of the boundaries that actors set. But occasionally fans expect the actors to be the characters, and that can't happen. Stage and screen are captured moments that look deceptively like reality, but aren't. They are a sanitized reality, a focused reality, and the characters that live within those worlds are similarly trimmed. Actors can't be their characters, they live in the real world and are subject to human foibles. Fans that forget or deny that are expecting the impossible.
Do fans matter?
Of course! As a fan myself, I would hope so. And I've seen the effect that fandom can have on shows, especially now that TPTB are wising up to the internet as a tool to reach fans and through which to listen to what the fans (consumers) want and will support.
What is your footwear of choice?
Whatever is comfortable. I hate heels.
What do you think of Shakespeare's work?
The man's works are an actor's playground. Love them love them love them.
Is the glass half full or half empty?
When I'm thirsty, it's completely empty.
Years from now, how would you want to be remembered?
As someone who left the world a better place than she found it.
Tell us about Babes With Blades.
Babes was formed in an attempt to redress the imbalance in the heavily male-dominated stage combat world. Working on all-female Shakespeare productions with Footsteps Theatre, I came in contact with a lot of stage combat trained women, and we always bemoaned the fact that we got all this training in this fabulously fun discipline, but never had opportunities to use it. I applied the women's movement maxim, "if you can't find it, found it," and put together a showcase of women's fight scenes interspersed with self-penned monologues by the participants about the experience of being a woman fighter. I invited all the casting agents and artistic directors in town, with the idea that we were introducing them to a resource that they had for too long allowed to lie fallow. I had a fabulous marketing person, Karin McKie (Tree Falls Productions) and the word went out all over town. Every paper ran a spot about us. We had people calling in from all over trying to get tickets. We sold out our original two shows, added two more, and sold those out. Mary Shen Barnidge, a local critic and ardent supporter of women with weapons, suggested I consider giving the show a full run. That fall, that's exactly what we did. We wound up mounting four shows in about two and half years, one of which we took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland - an amazing adventure! We've been on break now for a few years, doing the odd gig about town, but are gearing up for another show hopefully in fall of 2003 (check the webpage for updates).
The experience of forming and running the troupe has been utterly life changing. In the process of creating the shows, I've started doing research on the historical presence of women warriors and found so much information that was omitted from history classes and is denied in popular culture about our martial history. The commonly held belief that women have never taken part in martial sports, defense of their countries and personal swashbuckling is a load of horse-- um, feathers. There have been women warriors in every time period and geographical location in history! In learning swordplay, I am carrying on a tradition that is as much my own as all the menfolk that are highlighted in the history books, on our stages and screens and in our common cultural myths. Part of the work I do with Babes has become to get that message out, to give a higher profile to our heritage of martial women.
I've seen the lives of the women in the troupe change as well. I've seen a Valkyrien actress, always apologizing for her size, take ownership of the space around her and command it as her own. I've seen a small, blonde, cute actress revel in the feeling of being a broadsword wielding bad-*ss. I've seen women take charge of their images and become inspired to create their own work when what was presented to them wasn't meeting their own artistic needs and callings. Of course, I can't claim credit for all of that, but I like to think that a troupe of supportive women throwing punches at each other nudged them along a bit.
What is your pet peeve?
In the stage combat world, when a guy who has barely any training, takes it upon himself to give me tips on how to hold a sword, just because I'm the only gal in the room. This still happens.
Do you love the theater?
It's a noble profession. I am honored when I get a chance to work. When done well, it can be a transcendent experience.
Do you enjoy doing Xena Live or years from now will you be hitting yourself for doing it?
I had an absolute blast doing both Xena Live shows and met an amazing group of people in the process. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Which character did you like playing more, Aphrodite or Chicken?
I hadn't watched a huge amount of Xena before I was cast as Aphrodite, and I'd never seen an episode with that character. We didn't have the fantastic Di Bauden working with us on the first show, so no one in the cast was able to provide me with a tape of any of her episodes. I was completely lost! Then by luck I caught an appearance by Aphrodite on Hercules and had a basic idea of where she lived. But still, a lot of it was trusting I had the spirit of her and then just saying the lines and having fun on stage. I really grew fond of Aphrodite during the course of the run.
Dawn "Sam" Alden and Diane S. Bauden at the Wonka Ball in Chicago, June 2002
Red the Chicken was a different challenge. I had nothing to model myself after - she was a new creation, and not from the Xenaverse. But how does one play a chicken that walks, talks, thinks and fights? Answering that question turned out to be a great deal of fun. I also got to fight with new weapons - the Kama, which are Japanese in origin. I'd been doing a lot of double-handed stick fighting, so getting a chance to play with a new double-handed technique was a treat.
What is the most favorite character you played so far?
I played Antigone in Jean Anouilh's retelling of the tale. It was a magical production and a dream role. I also really enjoyed playing Petruchio in an all-female production of Taming of the Shrew.
Is it harder for woman to be taken seriously in the acting world?
It's harder for a woman, period. There are fewer roles and more actresses competing for them. Actresses are held too much higher physical standards than men - have you ever noticed that as a t.v. series goes on, the men in the cast put on weight while the women all get skinnier and skinnier? That's the pressure of Hollywood to conform to an impossible standard of beauty. There are also fewer and fewer roles for women as they get older. The better you get at your craft, the less opportunity you have to practice it! That's why we need more women in other areas of the performing arts - writers, producers, directors, artistic directors. There are large chunks of women's experience that are not esteemed worthy of productions, worthy of being investigated and invested in. We're more than half the population, why aren't our stories being told and told well? Okay, I'll put my soapbox away now.
What do you think of the Xena Fans?
Intelligent with a sly sense of humor. I like.
Have you ventured into the small or big screen yet?
Here and there, although film intimidates me. I'm still learning how to work the camera.
What do you do on those days when you want to give up?
Call a friend. Hug my dogs. Lose myself in a good book.
What do you see yourself doing in the future? Any future projects?
Oh, I have so many projects in process at all times it's a wonder I have time to eat! If I won the lottery, I'd get them all up and running, but as it is they all move more slowly than I'd like. As for acting projects, I've been cast in the Bailiwick's production of "Hamlet Dreams", a sign language version of Hamlet, which is opening in the spring.
How do you handle depression?
I hide. I don't want anyone else to know I'm not in good form all the time.
What advice can you give to future actors?
Do something else, if you possibly can. If you absolutely can't, go for it now, don't wait. Stay honest and stay hungry. Do everything that is offered to you at first, so you learn what you like and what you don't like. Remember your job is to tell the story - it's not about you, it's about the audience taking a journey. That's why they bought the tickets that pay for the production. Don't listen to critics - when you go home at the end of the night, if you're not happy with your own work, it won't matter how many people loved or hated it. Keep your values. Remember that any hang-ups you have as a person will show up on stage. Develop your own voice as an artist and then create your own work. Remember you are unique, but so are all the others. The minute you stop loving it, do something else. Don't be a jerk - no one wants to work with jerks. Focus on your fellow actors and learn from them. Remember it's a collaborative art - if you don't like working with other people, become a painter.
What attracts you more to a mate? Looks, or a sense of humor?
Sense of humor, hands down.
What are your favorite kinds of movies? Horror, comedy, or romance?
You'll laugh at me, but I can't watch horror movies! I have such a vivid imagination that I don't need any help to scare myself silly. I love adventure movies, sci-fi and fantasy (they tend to have a quest motif which I love), and quiet, intelligent dramas - movies that make me think as I am leaving the theatre.
Have you worked on something that made you ask, 'Why Am I Doing This?'
Many times. I try not to answer the question at the time. I know I had a reason when I started!
What would you say every actor needs?
Enough food to eat and a decent place to live. A few moments a day to call your own when you can allow the artistic juices to flow uninterrupted. A relentless drive within that keeps you creating even when it isn't convenient to do so. The support and encouragement of loved ones doesn't hurt either, but you have to be able to carry on without it.
Who would you say is the best person you have worked with?
I have been lucky to work with so many wonderful folks, I couldn't pick.
Who was the worst?
These make the best stories. Ask me over a beer.
What have you worked on that gives you the most pride?
Babes With Blades. The ensemble-generated shows that we created for Women-In-History Month at Footsteps. Salome. Antigone.
From what you have seen, can working in Sci-Fi be a death sentence on a career?
I think all actors have to fight being pigeon-holed, especially on screen. Producers who are putting a lot of money on the line want a known quantity, so if they've seen that you can play a bad guy, they'll call you in for the bad guys. Sci-fi I think is the same way.
What theme would you like to tackle in your next work?
I'm a political animal, so anything that has an agenda and a point of view, I tend to like.
You now have absolute authority over the world. Omnipotent in all areas. What is your first move?
Set an expiration on my own omnipotence so I can make some changes and then lose my absolute power before it corrupts me absolutely.
How would you categorize your best acting?
When I'm entirely focused on the other person and not concerned with what I'm doing, just reacting to what they're doing.
What stupid thing did you do as a teen?
Mostly the things I didn't do because I was too shy. I missed a lot of opportunities.
What, if anything, can stop you from acting?
A speeding bus. A broken heart.
In your opinion, do you fit your astrological sign?
Oh yes, I'm a classic Libra. On the other hand….
What to you is the worst feeling in the world?
Knowing I've just hurt someone's feelings.
The best feeling in the world?
Laughing so hard you can't breathe.
Favorite bodily function?
Cracking my joints.
Most sensitive part of your body?
Favorite song of the moment?
Oh, never ask a Libra that question. We'll be here all day.
What is the first thing you think of in the morning?
Must. Hit. Snooze.
Is there one part of the acting process where you usually get stuck?
The beginning. I'm always afraid that this time nothing is going to come, I won't get an inspiration, I won't know where to go, I am empty and talentless and have nothing to offer. Then I take the first step, whatever it is, and everything begins to fill in and build and I realize it's starting, it's happening and I can relax and play.
Does the best acting flow for you, or does it come from rehearsals or re-takes?
My best work comes when I have plenty of solid rehearsal time. The more I rehearse, the more I know the terrain and the more places I can go comfortably. It sounds strange, but the more I prepare the more effortless it is when I am on stage, the more I can let go when I am in the moment.
Which part of acting do you enjoy most and why?
It depends on the project. If my fellow actors continue to explore and play, then the performances are the most joyous. If the work doesn't lend itself to that kind of playing, then the rehearsals are usually where the joy comes.
When someone walks into your bedroom, what are the first five things that they are likely to notice?
Dog hair, a portrait my sister painted that hangs above my bed, dog hair, piles of paperwork, dog hair.
Would the world be a better place if women ran it or would it be the same?
It would be better, and I sure hope we have the chance to prove it.
Do you feel the gay community clings to any role model they can get? If so, is that too much pressure for the star?
Perhaps because the gay community has fewer role models, they tend to hold more weight than in the het community. I would imagine it would depend on the star - if they are comfortable being a representative of the community, like Sir Ian McKellan has become, then it isn't a problem. But if there is pressure on the star to behave differently than they are comfortable with, or to fit someone else's definition of who they should be, then that is too much.
Will there be a Xena Live Three?
I understand it is in the works, but About Face is the place to go with that question. Keep bugging them - they need to know there is a desire to see it happen!
How hard is it to rehearse for a live role?
It's almost exclusively what I do, so it seems right to me. I would think it would be much harder to do screen work where you shoot out of sequence and never get a chance to actually take the journey of your character from beginning to end.
Are the stunts difficult to do?
During rehearsal we discover what our limits are and we try to stay within them. If you can't reproduce the move every night on stage, you have to change the move. But everyone likes to look as cool as possible, so we push the envelope a bit.
How long did you have to rehearse them?
The rule of thumb is that is takes five hours of rehearsal for one minute of stage fighting. Even then, the fights mature over the course of a run and get more responsive to the bodies of the actors performing them.
Do you have butterflies before each show?
If I don't feel I am adequately prepared, I'm jittery, my hands shake, it's terrible. If I feel prepared, I just get energized.
God forbid someone misses a line, but if someone does, how do you work through it?
I can't give you one answer because it's different each time. You try not to listen to the screaming in your ears and stay calm and open your mouth and see what comes out. It's about trust and letting go. Trusting your fellow cast-mates and your audience to go with you, and trusting yourself to know what to do. Then you let go and let the energy of the moment determine where the night will take you.
In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you would be in a chicken costume fighting the Warrior Princess?
Nope. I didn't foresee any part of that sentence coming true. But I'm sure glad it did!
What would you say was the funniest moment you have had working on this play?
There were so many! The one I remember most vividly is surprising Elizabeth Laidlaw with a fresh-laid egg on closing night - her face was priceless! The time I was hardest pressed to keep a straight face was shortly after Alex Billings joined the show. At the Chicken and Lamb's final entrance with Xena, there is a point where we cross to Androgyny and Ambiguous and are supposed to be getting some information from them while Xena and Gabrielle are taking the focus. Alex would always use the opportunity to try to get us to break and one night the two of them had already been cracking each other up for the whole proceeding scene. When we came running over, they both grabbed onto us and mouthed "Help Us Please!" Of course, that started Lamb and I going and the four of us practically wet ourselves trying not to laugh out loud and ruin the scene.
What did you feel about the very last show of Xena Live?
I never wanted it to end. It was amazing, and the audience was one of the most enthusiastic for which I've ever had the pleasure to perform. It was an enormous love-fest, with the cast feeding off the audience's joy and giving it back in full measure. There was so much love in that room it made one giddy!
Was it your idea to lay the egg?
Yup. I'd been planning it for about a month, trying to think of the perfect moment when Elizabeth wouldn't have anything crucial to do afterwards. I wanted to surprise her, but I wanted to be considerate to her as well!
What opportunity are you most happy you seized?
Founding Babes With Blades.
Favorite kind of lighting?
Bright sunlight. I'm one of the snake people - I need an external light and heat source for my blood to move.
What does the word 'family' mean to you?
Those whom I trust enough to allow myself to need.
Favorite iced treat?
Mango gelato. Or coconut. Although I had some pear once that was unbelievable…
What makes you smile?
What questions should I have asked then answer please?
If I could choose one superhero power, I'd have to go with breathing underwater.
Dawn "Sam" Alden in action
Dawn "Sam" Alden Dawn "Sam" Alden began her love affair with violence in Pittsburgh, where she was one of the founding members of GREX, a combat/commedia/physical theatre company, with whom she fought and choreographed for four years. In Chicagoland, she has choreographed all manner of violence for Piven Theatre, Terrapin Theatre, Yugen Theatre, Shattered Globe, National Pasttime, Chicago Dramatists' Workshop, The Aardvark, Circle Theatre, and Shakespeare's Herd. She both fought and choreographed for Footsteps Theatre Company, where she was Resident Fight Choreographer for 5 years, the first female Resident Fight Choreographer in the Midwest. Most recently she was seen swinging swords and sticks in XenaLive! episodes 1 and 2. Sam is a member of the International Order of the Sword and Pen and a contributor to various magazines of articles on the neglected martial history of women.
Thanks to Kamouraskan for the beta.
L. J. Maas and Murphy Wilson [Amy Murphy].One Step Beyond ... Uber, That Is. WHOOSH #49 (October 2000)
The "Inside the Head of..." series in Whoosh various issues
Amy Murphy resides in Indiana, and is an avid reader of Xena: Warrior Princess Fan Fiction. If it exists in the Xenaverse, chances are she has read it! Murphy has also tried her hand at writing fan fiction, turning out two very nice pieces that reside on a couple of web sites throughout the Xenaverse.
Favorite episode: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124)
Favorite line: "I Have Many Skills" --various episodes
First episode seen: TITANS (07/107)
Least favorite episode: LYRE, LYRE HEARTS ON FIRE (100/510)