Candy Simmons: Asking For What You Want

These words from Candy Simmons are full of smarts; they provide a great example of what can happen when you show up and Do The Work.  When her acting career in New York wasn’t moving in the direction she had hoped for, Candy started creating, producing, and touring solo productions.  This eventually led her to living in Minneapolis.  Candy’s new solo show Expiration Date broaches the topic of death and dying, even offering a Health Care Directive workshop following the Sunday, April 1 performance.  The piece opens next week at the Old Arizona.  You can find out more and buy tickets here.  

AfterLife (photo by Matthew Wells)

L: Where are you from?  

C: Well, I grew up in Alabama.  I got my Bachelors in Theatre at Florida State.  And then I moved to New York right after college, and was there for 11 years.  I’ve been in Minneapolis for just over two years- since December of 2009.

L: What were your reasons for leaving New York?

C: I love New York so much, and I think of my time there as my grad school.  But, I left because I was tired of fighting for everything- to go to the grocery store, to get into the city, to get to work.  The cost of living is so much higher, so I was having to work so much more to be an artist.  I felt like I was spinning my wheels, and I wasn’t getting cast in the work I wanted.

In 2007 I decided to create a solo show to use as a vehicle for myself.  This process ended up being so empowering.  We’re taught as actors to give our power away.  You pay $1,000 per head shot, because that’s what you do.  And then you hope that an agent picks you, so that you can hopefully audition a gazillion times to maybe get cast once, and you’re going to wait tables, and this is what your life is going to look like.  Nobody had told me that I could just create my own work- it wasn’t discussed as an option when I was in school.

L: So you toured this piece?

C: A director I worked with in New York had toured the Canadian Fringe circuit, and she thought it would be a good way to get my show AfterLife on its feet, because it’s so low pressure.  If it bombs than nobody will ever know!  But, if it goes well you get some press.  I put a tour together, and it was a massive crash course in marketing and producing.  Through touring I got really excited about producing my own work.  I wanted to live somewhere with a lower cost of living where I could afford to rent space and make work.  In 2009, when I came through Minneapolis on my second tour, there was something about the energy and community here that I fell in love with.  So, that’s how I got here.  I’m really happy- this is exactly what I needed.

L: Your new show Expiration Date opens March 30 here in Minneapolis.  Can you talk about that?

C: It’s a project that I’ve been working on and writing for a couple of years, spurred by losing a couple of good friends at young ages.  It’s been made possible by an Artist’s Initiative Grant [from the Minnesota State Arts Board], which is a huge gift.  I get a paid block of time to focus on just this project.  Expiration Date is about a woman facing her own mortality after being  diagnosed with a terminal illness at 35.  The piece comes out of 15 interviews (as well as a lot of reading) I’ve done about experiences with death and dying.

When my friends died, I was struck by our inability to talk about what was going on.  It wasn’t until they died that I realized that we hadn’t had a conversation about what it was like to die, or what they wanted for their last days.  We as a society are totally unprepared to deal with the topic of dying.   When I mention the show,  15% of the time people shut down and don’t want to talk about it because it’s too scary.  But, 85% of the time people just start talking.  They are aching to have a conversation about their Grandmother’s experience at her end of life, or losing a good friend to cancer.  Once you give someone the opportunity to talk about death, it’s like a dam lets loose, and so many incredible stories come out.

My goal is to make this show a conversation starter about the end of life.  Because, if you don’t know how you cope with a trauma like that- a basic experience that’s going to happen for all of us- you’re going to miss out on some pretty amazing parts of life.  Also, with modern medicine, we can be artificially kept alive much longer.  If you get into a situation where you’ve never had a conversation about end of life with your family because it’s too uncomfortable, how do they know what you want?  Actions like doing a Health Care Directive take away so much of the guess work and the fear.

Expiration Date (photo by Aaron Fenster)

L: Are you collaborating with anyone on the show?  Do you have a director?

C: I’m working without a primary director.  Instead, I’m asking people I respect in the community to come and give feedback, so it’s kind of like a board of directors.   Tamara Ober is choreographing.  We met back when I was doing the Canadian Fringe.  She knows my work, and has been along for the ride while I’ve been developing the piece.  For this piece, I really wanted to explore integrating movement sequences and video, seeing if the whole still makes sense.  The two movement sections provide an access point to the work that exists outside of the text- that isn’t quite as scary.  I’m a bit of a perfectionist in the rest of my life, and I’m not so good at being messy.  And, that’s my goal for this project.

L: What else do you do besides acting and producing your work to financially support yourself?

C: Last year I made more money as an artist than I ever have!  That was from the touring that I did last year.  I’ve held onto a freelance gig as a graphic artist.  Corporations fly me to conferences to do that.  Other than that, I’ve had a couple of temp gigs in town.  I just live really frugally.

My goal is to figure out how to do more touring.  I love taking shows into new communities and seeing what the reactions are.  It becomes a different show.  With the type of work I make, I’m really interested in starting a community conversation.  I’d like to take the three shows that I’ve built on tour throughout the US.   For performing artists, I think that can be a way to sustain yourself.  I notice here that people are so prolific- they make lots of work, but they can only afford to put it up for a 2 week run, and then you put the show away just as you’ve gotten good at it.  I toured my solo shows for 3 months before I understood some parts of it.

L: What have you learned along the way? 

C: I’ve learned to ask help.  I’ve always felt really strongly that if I’m asking an artist for time, that I should be able to pay them what they’re worth.  But, sometimes that’s not possible.  Also, I’ve learned to ask for what I want.  Instead of deciding that someone is never going to be interested in me, or never going to give me a certain deal on performance space….I ask.  Sometimes just having enough faith in your work and its importance behind the ask is enough for people.  Sometimes being super honest and unafraid is enough.

A lot of artists apologize for themselves and are self-deprecating.  But, being self-deprecating is boring.  No one wants to hear that.  They’re either going to say yes, maybe, or no.  You can just make a new plan if they say no.  I’ve asked people for some ridiculous things that I knew I wasn’t going to get, but I got on their radar.  And next time, maybe they will say ‘yes’.  I’ve learned that if I’m putting my energy into the direction I want to go, it always works out.

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