The first time I see Eliza Jane Schneider onstage, I want to be her friend.
Or maybe her writing partner, or her personal assistant — anything that will allow me access to her creative process.
I’m as fascinated as I am entertained by the self-proclaimed “actress, oral historian, dialectologist, singer, songwriter, playwright, voice artist, and fiddle player,” and I want to know the secret of what one fellow actress calls her “freaky genius.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’ve dropped in on a tech rehearsal for Freedom of Speech, Schneider’s 34-character, one-woman show. At this point, all I know about her is that she provided the voices of eight regular series characters on South Park (Wendy, Shelly, Principal Victoria, the Mayor, Mrs. Cartman, Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. McCormick, and Mrs. Crabtree), and that she wrote Freedom of Speech based on interviews she’d gathered over ten years, while driving an ambulance 317,000 miles around the United States and recording dialects.
4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
When I enter Diversionary Theatre, a 108-seat black-box theater in University Heights, the tech rehearsal is already in full swing. Aside from the stage lights, the only other light in the theater comes from the blue glow of laptops on the faces of the director and a couple of tech people in random seats here and there. A low yellowish light emanates from the control room at the back of the theater.
Everyone is quiet except for Schneider, who is onstage. I choose a seat closest to the door and watch as she steps into a pair of black patent leather fuck-me pumps and says, “I didn’t know how else to get into the Mustang Ranch. So I applied for a job.”
Another voice says, “Hold, Eliza,” from somewhere behind me in the darkened theater. Schneider closes her mouth abruptly.
While the stage manager converses with the sound guy, Schneider stands in a pool of light shaking her hips and wiggling her body for no one in particular. It’s hard to tell whether she’s having a moment of total un-self-consciousness or one of extreme self-consciousness.
After a few seconds, the director looks up from her laptop and says to Schneider, “I’m losing the part about you applying for a job. Don’t let it be too visually busy.”
Schneider nods her understanding, and when the stage manager is ready, she repeats the line, as she will again four times in the next ten minutes.
Although I have always liked a good one-woman or one-man show, I don’t expect to find myself so riveted by the incomplete 30-second bits that, over the next hour, will introduce me to Vanessa, the prostitute from Nevada; Celina, a “Little Miss” Pageant runner-up from Georgia; Paula, a “Virgin Mary enthusiast” from Connecticut; Ronny, a Christian medical student from Massachusetts; and Heidi, a dominatrix medical student from California.
Several times, the stage manager calls for Schneider to perform those transitional moments when she morphs from one character to the next. In the New York Times, reviewer Bruce Weber called them “astonishing transformations.” I have to agree. I watch while, with little more than a voice change and a single gesture (putting her hair up, taking her hair down, putting on or taking off a hat or an overshirt), she transforms from Vanessa to Celina, Celina to Paula, Paula to Ronny, and so on.
One part of me is dying to ask, “How did you do that?” And another part thinks, She’s amazing. I want to be her friend.
It’s this latter part of me that thrills when, during one particularly long conversation between the director, the tech director, and the projections designer, Schneider plunks herself in the seat next to me and whips out her phone to show me pictures of her two-year-old son, Raiden. Within five minutes, I know the Cliffs Notes version of her long-distance love story, and how, after decades in Los Angeles and New York, she ended up in San Diego.
The Mad Scientist
Four days later, Schneider welcomes me into the room she calls her “little lair” in the finished basement of her in-laws’ house in Mission Hills, where she and her man are living. In contrast to the spare, bright, airy feel of the rest of the house, this room is dark and small, crammed with furniture and bookshelves and file cabinets. Of the room’s approximately 100 square feet, I estimate the available floor space around one square foot.
“Everything in here is mine,” she informs me when we enter the room. “This is my room.”
I remove my shoes, accept her offer of a seat on the bed jammed between the window and the desk, and take note of the volume of...stuff packed into this small room: books and movies and games. Art, musical instruments, recording equipment, a menorah, and stuffed animals galore.
The desk, directly in the center of the room, holds piles of papers, binders, plastic bags, and a half-used jar of organic coconut oil, along with the fax machine and computer.
It takes a bit for my eyes to adjust, but after a few moments, I begin to see the details that make the room less a junk closet and more the laboratory of a mad scientist.
The books, it turns out, are books on acting, voice acting, writing, and time management. What I thought were movies are actually video games in which Schneider voices characters. The large white binder on the desk is labeled “Monologues.” And a plastic Ziploc bag on the desk holds the microcassette tapes she used to record the interviews she collected around the country and then used to create Freedom of Speech.
“Go ahead. You can open it,” she says when she sees me peeking through the plastic bag. “I need to send an email.”
She opens her laptop and then turns her attentions back to me. “That’s only America. And that,” she says, pointing to a large black duffle bag on one of the bookshelves, “is the rest of the world.”