The cassette tapes each contain four hours of interviews, most between five minutes and an hour. They’re labled, “Alabama,” “Phyllis, Boston,” “Georgia,” and so on. The white binder, which she also offers for my perusal, holds transcriptions of the road-trip interviews. Browsing its pages, I note that many contain highlighted sections and pencil markings.
“I meticulously transcribed verbatim every little word all these people said,” she says. “And then, literally, with a scissors, I cut and paste on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, all of these things, trying to piece together the, sort of, fabric of America and make sense of it.”
Schneider has often been likened to Anna Deavere Smith, an actress/playwright who, in 1993 and 1994, won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show for Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, respectively. And although Schneider won’t call herself a genius, she will acknowledge that she’s heard the term used to describe her since age seven, when she was recognized as a violin virtuoso. “You know how they talk about a photographic memory?” she asks. “That’s not actually how my mind works. It’s aural. I remember what I hear.”
While one of Schneider’s dialect clients, voiceover artist Joanna Rubiner, called her a “freaky genius” with an “exquisite” ear, Schneider says the gift has a flip side. For one, the cutting and rearranging of the verbatim transcripts for the sake of the play provides different results than what’s already imprinted on her brain.
“So I remember everything these people said to me,” she says, pointing to the bag of tapes, “and when I try to do a piece onstage, I hear the next words [they actually said]. I hear the rest of the monologue. It takes every bit of strength and intellect that I have to control that.”
Having such a fine-tuned ear leads to the question of authenticity versus familiarity in her art. At one point, in her notes following a rehearsal, her director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, complained that Schneider’s character of Eric, a Pittsburg gang member, “sounded Southern, like a black comedian doing his white-guy voice.”
“Nobody knows the Pittsburg dialect,” Schneider says now. “It’s so weird. It sounds sort of Southern, but people don’t know it and they don’t recognize it. So what do you do? Do you do it the way people want to hear it so they understand it or do you do it the way it really is? This is so pervasive in my work. They ask for German, but they really want Peter Sellers or Madeline Kahn.”
And then, too, Schneider says the term “genius” has, at times, been used to insult her.
“I remember when I was in the country band Honey Pig. Honestly, I just want to belong. That’s why I’m always trying to sing backup and play fiddle in somebody else’s band. Invariably, I end up taking focus and the lead singer gets mad at me,” she says. “When [the lead singer of Honey Pig] would introduce the group, she would say, ‘Eliza is our resident genius,’ like it was an insult. ‘She wrote this song while sitting in the gutter.’”
She sighs at the memory and then returns to her email.
As I paw through the tapes and flip through the binder, I thrill at this sudden access I have to Scheider’s inner sanctum. My irrational mind leaps forward to the day we will collaborate on a creative project of such magnitude and significance that we will ever after go down in the books as Eliza and Eliza (long i pronunciation on hers, short i on mine).
The evolution of a one-woman show
When she finishes sending her email, Schneider throws a wrench in my plans for us to bond during the interview process.
“Last night, I really overdid the voice thing because I had to get up at 5:30 for Wake Up San Diego, and then I had a tech and a run,” she says. “[In the past] I’ve injured my voice and have had to be silent for two weeks, three weeks, and six weeks.”
Hearing this, what else can I say but yes when what follows is her grand idea that she will type her answers to my questions.
“I can type faster than I can talk,” she says. “So you can ask me questions and I’ll write the answers down and turn the computer, and that will make me very happy.”
She offers as if the idea will inspire my enthusiasm as well. It does not. But I’m willing to give it a go.
“This vocal rest thing is usually all or nothing for me,” she says, and then she tells me to start asking questions.
I begin with a question about the evolution of Freedom of Speech, which has been in the making for two decades and has lived through various versions and myriad changes.
An interview with Eliza, featuring dialects, stories, and violin.
While she types her answer, I continue to poke through the tapes and transcriptions, which go back as far as 1993 when Schneider, then a senior at UCLA, took off during the fall quarter to finish filming Beakman’s World, an educational children’s show in which she played assistant to an eccentric scientist. She had the month of November off, and she used the time to drive the first 17,000 miles around the country recording dialects. Some of these initial recordings, part of her senior thesis project, would land in the first version of the play, which at the time, she called I’m Not Weird: American Perspectives. In the spring of 1994, after realizing she’d missed “huge subcultures, the Navajo, the Ozarks, the Mormons,” she headed back out on the road.
Not long after, she met acting coach and director Sal Romeo, who convinced her to include herself as a narrator in the play and suggested the title Road Trip. She continued to conduct interviews as the millennium neared, and toured a self-directed “collage of characters grappling with their millennium fever.” From 1998 until the attacks on the World Trade Center, she called the show USA 911. Later, on the advice of a friend who also acted as her manager, she changed the title to Freedom of Speech.