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Audrey Francis: In a Room Full of People Who Intimidate You

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Actor, Steppenwolf Ensemble since 2016 / Co-founder, Black Box Acting

When I was in high school in Colorado, I made fun of the theater kids. They used to dress in all black. They used do Mortal Kombat in the cafeteria. I thought, "Theater people are so weird." (And, of course, I'm wearing all black, today, right?)

In college, I majored in journalism. I wanted to create documentaries and direct. Then in my senior year of college I took my first acting class, and it was a former football coach who taught it, Mark Liermann. He was so cool, and he spoke about theater in a way that, to me, felt very accessible.

He cast me in a play, and after the play, he pulled me aside. I remember him saying, "You'll grow up someday, and you won't do the things that you're doing right now" (because I was very bad. I was taking lines out to the audience trying to get the laugh). He said, "You'll grow up someday and not do that. You have a raw, natural talent." I remember him saying “raw, natural talent.” He also said, "Don't move to L.A.. Don't try to become an editor or a director just yet. You're supposed to be an actor. You need to move to Chicago. You need to go to the School at Steppenwolf and get training." I’m like, “Steppenwolf? What’s that?”

You know when you have those moments where people just speak to you? I trusted this man with my life. He was a coach, a mentor. He reminded me of my dad in the sense that he was an athlete, and he wasn't precious about anything. I did what this man told me. I changed all my plans, and I got a U-Haul with a friend of mine and went to Chicago. Mark Liermann, Amy Morton and K. Todd Freeman, my teachers, are the three reasons I’m doing what I’m doing now.

“Always put yourself in a room full of people who intimidate you.”

I came to Chicago in February. Stayed on somebody’s couch. Chicago was grey. No sun. In Colorado I think there's only 70 days without sun and in Chicago there's like 70 days with sun. I did not do well my first three years here.

Did you feel like you had made a mistake?


Did you want to go home?

Yes! I called my mom crying multiple times saying, "I don't think this is for me." She told me not to come home just yet. She said, "You have to really try." I also think, if I'm being really honest, I didn't want to say that I quit so fast. My first success was auditioning for the School at Steppenwolf. Thank God I still didn't know what Steppenwolf was at that time. They do their auditions at the administrative offices [across the street from the theater]. I was like, "Oh, OK, I'm auditioning in an office." I think I was nervous, though, because everyone else that was auditioning was nervous. I just didn't know. I had no idea what this place was.

I did a monologue that I had done in college about how I wanted to become a prostitute but then ended up becoming an actor and how tragic that was. It was a total comedic piece. Zero integrity. It was just bit after bit after bit. I'm so grateful because I think Erica Daniels [casting director] saw something underneath that could be worked with. Just like Mark Liermann had. I remember her telling me, "I need you to do a monologue that's honest and like a human. No one would really do that in real life. I think we're interested in what people would do in real life. I'll never forget her saying that to me. I don't think the college environment ever sets anybody up for the training that you could get professionally in Chicago.

I remember the first day of class. I had this moment where I looked around, and I thought, "Oh my god. I am actually in a room with the most talented people I've ever seen." This was a whole new level of work being done. Thank God for my mother because when I was growing up, she told me, "As you get older, always put yourself in a room full of people that intimidate you." I thought of that, because when I saw the talent that was there, I remember thinking, "I am not like them."

My mom's a classical pianist and a painter. She always talked about art as a very spiritual thing. And this was the first time that I was hearing people talking about acting and theater in that way that resonated with me as a spiritual human being.

During that time, I got to see Laurie Metcalf and Yasen Peyankov in Frankie and Johnny. I remember thinking I didn't know that this is what theater could do. I had no clue. Something clicked, and I was like, "This is the best place for me to be right now.”

Amy Morton [actor, director, ensemble member since 1997] walks into a room, and she's a strong, smart woman who doesn't apologize for being strong and smart. Especially 12 years ago, I didn't see that sort of person all the time. The only people I saw do that were the women in my family who are all Latin, kind of intense women. Amy walked in and she talked about the responsibility of an artist. I remember she very simply led us through an exercise called “provocative questions” where you ask somebody a provocative question and then you get their reaction. An example would be, How is your relationship with your mother?

Oh my god.

Right? What I saw you do just now was be overwhelmed by the question, you physically pulled away, you averted eye contact, and now your skin is blushing. I could have also asked you what you had for breakfast this morning. Amy would so simply say, "That's not provocative. Do you honestly think that's provocative?" She was so grounded about what it meant to bring truth and bravery to the work. I remember one time I did this exercise where I imagined I was pregnant. I'll never forget. She just said, “Audrey, it wasn't living in your body. If you're going to do that onstage it needs to be situated in your body, living in your body, because that's your responsibility."

Did you understand what she meant at that point?

I think I did. I remember thinking I definitely wasn't invested. I had some faking in there. What I understand now 12 years later is that your body is so loyal, so motherfucking loyal, and acting does require a level of your body believing what's happening even though your brain knows, "Hey, this is a play and I'm going to go offstage later." It requires an immense amount of physical strength, which now I understand.

Explain to me how you “situate it in your body.”

Do you have kids?

I do.

OK. If they're four hours late coming home what does your mind do?

Oh god, it's 100% imagination kicking in.

Right. It probably makes your stomach drop or the hair stand on your neck. You know that you've imagined it. But something hits that makes your body actually believe it for a second. Amy and Ken trained me to train my mind to utilize my imagination because your body will believe it. Our imagination is such a powerful thing that you have to train your imagination to believe that you are living under those circumstances. Our poor bodies will believe it if you use your imagination and you practice that muscle. There's a healthy way of doing it. It's not Method, right? It's not about that. It's about understanding that when you're here this is a sacred space and your body can believe those things. It is a muscle I think.

Was there a moment when you realized, "I think I understand this now, or even better, I think I just did it now"?

Yes. I do remember. I remember because it was at the School at Steppenwolf . There were actually two moments. One was with Amy. We were doing a Meisner repetition exercise. Someone had made a comment about my nose. I was so embarrassed and angry and hurt on a real level onstage because I'm self-conscious about my nose. I have never felt those things honestly onstage before. I went back to my seat, and I was so embarrassed and mad and ashamed and I thought, "What is this thing?" An hour later I’m still thinking about the exercise, and I thought, "Wait! That was awesome. I've never done that before on stage. Oh, it's that." I'm also totally fine and also I'm having a feeling of pride happening. I remember that moment. Another time, I had to be naked in a play for 20 minutes, so that was a huge issue.

How did you prepare for that 20 minutes?

Man, that was brutal. I was 25. I was lucky enough to have a drink with Laurie Metcalf after Frankie and Johnny. I said, "What was it like being naked onstage?” She was like, "Who gives a fuck? Do you like the play?” “Yes.” “Is it gratuitous?" I said, "No, it's not." I did feel like it was necessary to the piece. She was like, "Yeah, so fucking do it." I thought, "OK, Laurie Metcalf. You'll probably never remember this conversation but I will remember this conversation for the rest of my life." I thought, "She's right. I'm just going to do it. Fuck it."

We Think It’s Time

I was in The Fundamentals at Steppenwolf [in 2017]. I got a text from the company manager, Erin Cook, that day and she said, "Audrey, can you stay after the show tonight?" This was on December 30th. It was a Friday. "Amy and Anna [Shapiro] are going to be downstairs seeing The Christians. They want to come up and talk to you really quick about the school." I thought it was really weird that they wanted to talk to me on a Friday night about the School at Steppenwolf. I must be getting fired. I'm joking about being fired, but I was anxious in the sense that something big must be going on for them to stay until 10:15 on a Friday night. I just didn't know what it was, but I definitely thought it was about the School at Steppenwolf.

Caroline Neff and I shared a dressing room. I love her so much, and we've become really good friends. I was washing my makeup off, and then I noticed Caroline was gone, and Amy and Anna were standing in the dressing room.I said, "OK, OK, OK. I guess we're talking." I noticed Amy was so happy. She had a suppressed smile. Anna said, "OK, Audrey. We're here because we want to talk to you about joining the company. We think it's time." Right when she said that I looked over at Amy, and Amy's eyes welled a little bit. She handed me a Steppenwolf mug and said, "Here, you can have this, too."

I just lost it. It was so cool having both of those women with me because I kind of idolize both of them for very different reasons. It was really cool to have those two different energies in that moment. Then the third energy was Caroline Neff opening the door, taking video of the whole thing. Coolest night ever.

For me, that was my dream. I had wanted two things in my life: to build a home for actors who felt like they didn't have a place to practice being fearless, and to be a member of the company that taught me what it meant to be fearless.

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