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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2016

Keep an Eye On: Lauren Spencer, Actor

Friday, May 27, 2016   (0 Comments)
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By Sam Hurwitt


 Actor Lauren Spencer. Photo: Lisa Keating

Lauren Spencer is at a turning point. Six years after her she first started working as an actor in the Bay Area, she just did her first show at Marin Theatre Company, Anne Boleyn, this April and May.

Before that she was in Mechanics of Love with Crowded Fire Theater, in whose productions of Blackademics and The Late Wedding she's also performed over the last couple of years. Last summer, she starred in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet, followed by Shotgun Players’ production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover.

In June she’ll be in Campo Santo’s production of H.O.M.E. by Star Finch, and in September she hits American Conservatory Theatre in King Charles III. That is to say, she’s at the point where an actor usually makes to jump to Actors’ Equity.

“I think I’ve been ready to go Equity for a while now,” Spencer says. “I choose to be in the Bay Area, but I want to continue feeling like I’m choosing to be here, not because I feel like I can’t go to New York or other places where you have to be Equity. Also because I think the union is important. I think Equity needs to do a lot of revamping to serve the different markets that they’re supposed to serve, but I do feel like there needs to be a system of protection in place for the artists that say these are the boundaries and these are the rules. So I’m ready, and I’ll probably be doing that with ACT. I just need to figure out when exactly I would sign that paperwork, just so that I’m not ruining a bunch of things that are happening.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Spencer loved acting from an early age. “The very first play that I remember, the school I went to had something called “drama kinetics,” and it was for really little kids,” she recalls. “I think I was maybe in first grade, so I was six. And we did some sort of musical play about plants blooming in the spring when the sun came out. I was a flower, and Christopher Primavera, I remember his name—bright red hair, lots of freckles—was the sun, and he forgot his line, and I knew his line, so I leaned over and I whispered to him his line. And in my six-year-old mind, I had been the reason the play kept going, and I felt this great sense of communal success, but also ownership, that I was this key part of this machine. I was a cog that was necessary; I wasn’t just a flower. That memory is very crisp and clear in my mind. We did a play a semester, and I don’t actually remember any other plays I did back then until seventh grade.” 

When she went to Vassar College, Spencer majored in English. “I thought I was going to be a writer when I graduated,” she says. “There was a pretty exclusive track to write a creative thesis, and I wrote a novel. When I moved to San Francisco, I was publishing poems and short stories in literary magazines. But the theatre train carried me away. I found a really robust community and jumped on that train.”

Although she’d continued to be involved in theatre in school, it took Spencer a while to find her way back to it after graduation. “I moved to New York right after I graduated,” she says. “I didn’t act in New York. I decided I didn’t want to get a job after graduating; I wanted to see the world and experience a different culture and different ways of thinking about what life is supposed to be. So I worked for a few months, made some money, found a job teaching in a bilingual preschool in Chile and I lived there for a while, and then I traveled around South America and totally got the bug. When I came back to New York I realized I wasn’t done traveling, and that set off three years of coming to New York, working 70 hours a week in restaurants, making lots of money and going on these trips all over the world. I did that for about three years and I suddenly felt like I needed to...not settle down, but pause and do something productive.”

That brought Spencer to San Francisco. She had a couple of friends in the Bay Area theatre community—actor Jonathan Bock and fellow Vassar alum Marissa Wolf, who’d become artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater—and she decided to come visit and check it out.

“So I packed this weekend bag, and I thought, ‘I’ll go for a week,’” she says. “I bought a one-way ticket, and I said, if I can find a job in a week, I’ll stay. And I got a job in a week! I called my mom, and I was like, ‘So…I’ve decided to stay in California.’ And she was like, ‘Wait a second! I thought you were only visiting!’ And seven years later, here I am.”

Once here, she jumped into the local theatre scene with both feet. “Jon told me to join TBA, which I did, and I started auditioning, and just going and meeting as many people as I could, and trying to have coffee with them, and going to theatre social events just to figure out the community,” she says. “The first play I was cast in was called Handless, with Ragged Wing Ensemble, and I got cast pretty soon after that as Beatrice in Woman’s Will’s production of Much Ado, and it just sort of snowballed from there.”

At this stage in her career, Spencer’s been doing a lot of thinking about what’s next for her, and not just in terms of going union.

“I guess I’ve been having questions about what the point of theatre is,” she says. “I keep coming up against this question of what I want to contribute to the world and the evolving relationship I have to what it means to be an activist and an artist, or what’s my community and how do I serve it.”

“I remember being in a show recently that was so much fun, and I was having an amazing time with an amazing group of actors,” she explains. “But I remember looking around and being like, ‘We are a bunch of adults playing dress-up! This is what we do.’ That’s super fun and really fulfilling for me most of the time, but what’s the extension of that? I think particularly in the Bay Area, we get a little precious about the value of theatre. I was in a Matchbox reading with Crowded Fire—it was a play called Kiss, and the playwright said something that stuck with me so much in the talkback; he said, ‘Theatre doesn’t solve every problem, and we need to stop pretending that it does. It’s great to put this out into the world, but it’s not a cure-all, and it fails a lot.’ And I started thinking about, what supplementary work do I do to feel like I’m not playing dress-up every day—that I’m also doing projects that have real-world application to people who don’t even have access to theatre?”

Spencer says she’s been particularly jazzed by her experiences doing free theatre in the parts, with SF Shakes and in the Free Theater’s ad hoc production of Julius Caesar. But what really gets her going is new work.

“New plays are my heart and soul, for a couple of reasons,” she says. “As an actor, I love having a living playwright in the room and being able to converse around the play. There’s a sense of ownership and collaboration that happens. And then in what I want theatre to be able to do, I think new plays are really important, because we need to give representation to underrepresented voices. I mean, why are we doing plays anyway if we’re just going to rehash old tropes? It’s really important to me to give my energy and my heart and my talent and my time to plays that are about stories that we’re not encountering in everyday life because people don’t want to talk about them, or about people who feel like they don’t get to have a voice.”

She cites Idris Goodwin’s Blackademics, and the difficult and heart-baring conversations that came up in talkbacks during Crowded Fire’s run last year, as exactly the kind of experience she craves more of.

“I came across this journal entry where I wrote, ‘Blackademics really scared me, and that’s how I knew I wanted to do it. I only want to do work that scares me,’” Spencer says. “I think that’s what’s next; if it doesn’t ask me to confront my fear, then I don’t know that it’s worth my time or my energy. I think that might a good place for us to go as a community, to just hold an empathetic space to say, ‘You’re afraid of these things, and I’m afraid of these things. How can we support each other in surmounting that?’”