The first time I see Eliza Jane Schneider onstage, I want to be her friend

Who is this multimedia bombshell?

Eliza Jane Schneider plays 34 characters, each with a regional accent, in her one-woman show Freedom of Speech.
  • Eliza Jane Schneider plays 34 characters, each with a regional accent, in her one-woman show Freedom of Speech.
  • Image by Daren Scott

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.

Diversionary Theatre

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.

It’s magic.

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.”

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.

Of the 100 square feet in Schneider’s office, I estimate the available floor space around one square foot.

Of the 100 square feet in Schneider’s office, I estimate the available floor space around one square foot.

“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.

In 2003, under the direction of Sal Romeo, Freedom of Speech, now constructed of verbatim excerpts of her interviews, won Best Solo Show at New York’s Fringe Festival. With her sights on the big time, she and her manager shopped the show around to Broadway and Off-Broadway producers, all of whom wanted a big-name director. In the end, they settled on David Bar Katz, who had directed John Leguizamo’s Tony-Nominated Freak.

“He rewrote some of the characters and turned the piece into something I barely recognized and was sort of the opposite of what I had intended,” she writes. “I was into blowing stereotypes, and he caricaturized some of my people to the extent that I decided if I have to sell out to this extent in order to take my play to the next level, I’d rather not.”

After the play ran for two weeks at P.S. 122, a prestigious Off-Off Broadway theater in New York’s East Village, Schneider “dropped out” of acting and joined the John Kerry presidential campaign. The experience inspired her to write Sounds of Silence: A Documentary Puppet Musical Farce about the 2004 Election in Ohio.

“Nobody wanted to hear about the stolen election,” she writes to me now, “but audiences love the road trip in Freedom of Speech as much as I loved going on it.”

Later, she’ll say aloud, “SOS sucked, but FOS was awesome.”

Today, after several years of one-off performances around the country, her play now two decades in the making, Schneider finds herself in San Diego working with Moxie Theatre’s artistic director, Turner Sonnenberg, who has assisted in the process of “paring it down to what it should be,” Schneider writes, “much closer to the original than it was when it got to New York.”

Headshots, exhaustion, and a buxom sorceress

Our ask-and-type exercise lasts for five minutes, at which point Schneider’s phone rings.

She listens for a moment and then says, “You’re telling me you don’t have an opinion as to which one we should use?”

And, after a second, “Okay, I’ll ask Elizabeth.”

I swoon.

In two days, Freedom of Speech will open for its first fully supported run as part of a theater’s season. And a week from now, Schneider will also speak on a panel with other video-game voice-over artists at Gam3rCon. The phone call she just received was from a Moxie staffer who wanted to discuss which images to use on a postcard-flyer to pass out at Comic-Con to promote the show.

The plan, Schneider explains to me, is to have the Freedom of Speech flyer on one side. The other side will be a composite of images of her voice-over characters along with a headshot, something she can autograph for gamers and other fans.

She shoves things around on the desk to make room for the laptop so we can sit next to each other on the bed. When she has settled in beside me, she pulls up a digital image of the flyer, which, on the Comic-Con side, contains a smiling, heavily made-up headshot of Schneider along with a gaggle of large-eyed South Park characters. She’s not completely satisfied with the picture of herself and she wants my help deciding on a new one. So, she also pulls up a series of headshots, hundreds of them, some on a black background, some on white, most just a slight tweak of the head or curve of the mouth different from the one before it.

While she’s pointing out her favorites, there’s a light knock at the door. Roger, her aforementioned-long-distance love and now father of her two-year-old son, peeks his head in. “I just need to quickly know what’s going on today.”

“We’re having an interview,” she says in an apologetic tone. “I have a deadline at 1:30 today.” “For what?” he asks, clearly irritated.

For a couple of minutes they discuss the postcard flyer, the rest of the day, who will be responsible for their child, who will work, who has more time, who has less. I keep busy with the binder. In the end, they agree that she’ll be done by 1:30.

This leaves us less than an hour.

“It’s hard. It kind of makes me not want to work anymore,” she whispers after he has left.

Then she lays her head down on the desk.

“I’m sooo tired. It’s just too much,” she says, her voice now rising in pitch, “trying to fit three months of production into two weeks. It’s just too much right now.”

Like any destined-to-be-best-friend-slash-collaborator would, I ask if she wants to do this another day (hoping she’ll say no). She sits up and says, “Is this not what you wanted? I thought you wanted to see this part of [my life]. No, I love that you’re here. I need a friend right now.”

Before I can form words of consolation, she’s turned her attentions back to the computer. An email has come in from her agent at William Morris in Los Angeles, asking if she can come in next week to do some voice work on a sorceress character in a video game project.

“Do you think I should say no to that?” she asks me.

I don’t know her well enough to help her answer this question, but I vaguely remember a discussion about having too much on her plate at once.

“It’s odd because it’s a lot,” she explains, “but then if I take the train, and I go stay at my little retreat and I get to sleep away from my baby for a night, I actually get more sleep and I don’t have to talk as much.”

She sits quietly for a moment, her fingers hovering over the keyboard, awaiting their instructions to type a yay or a nay.

“It depends if it’s yelling,” she says. Then she types her response to the email, which I can see over her shoulder. “No yelling,” it reads.

And then she exclaims, “But, oh, I want a picture of her! She’s a great-looking character. I want to get a picture of her for this composite.”

During her three- or four-minute internet search, I begin to get a bit anxious about how little time we have left.

“That’s her!” she exclaims when she comes up with an image of a buxom, big-haired character donning sexy-smart glasses and a purple cape. In one gloved hand she holds a long cigarette holder. “Look how badass she is.”

She attaches the image to an email, which she sends to her Moxie contact. And at the same moment, another email arrives from the agent. It reads, “It’s a three-line cameo. It shouldn’t be vocally intense.”

“Perfect,” Schneider says aloud before she responds with her preferred days.

Then, while I look on, she sends another email to someone regarding babysitting, after which she turns to me and says, “So, probably the best way for us to go about the rest of this morning...” And then, without a pause, says to herself, “Did I do everything I was supposed to do here? I sent the image to Jen. Babysitting. Yes, available Izzy.”

“Okay,” she claps and turns toward me and away from the computer. “So, the best thing for us to do is probably me answer your questions instead of write because you have a lot of questions, and I’m talking [anyway].”

But then she changes her mind again because, “I sometimes prefer the typing so I know I said something right.”

I acquiesce again, and she begins typing. I listen to the sound of her fingers flying across the keyboard. I watch over her shoulder as she types and then backspaces, reading as she goes along. She whizzes past the errors, the misspellings, ignoring the squiggly red lines, but occasionally deletes “I don’t want to” in favor of “I’d rather not,” and every couple of minutes, she says aloud the words she’s typing.

“I froze my eggs.”

After a few minutes, Schneider stops typing long enough get off the bed and retrieve a leather photo album, which she offers to keep me busy while she types. Inside is a combination of photos and excerpts of love letters sent by email between her and Roger while she lived for a few months in the Philippines and he remained in San Diego.

When Schneider caught the baby bug in 2010, she asked an old friend to parent with her and now has a two-year-old son.

When Schneider caught the baby bug in 2010, she asked an old friend to parent with her and now has a two-year-old son.

As their story goes, in 2010, Schneider got the baby bug. “I wanted to have a baby so much I froze my eggs,” she says. “I wanted to have a baby soon, and I didn’t feel like meeting somebody new would give me time to develop a relationship that [I] would need with the dad.”

So, she decided to look into her past for someone who was willing to make a baby and co-parent with her. “I thought of the most wonderful human being I’d ever met, and his name was Roger Ray, from college. I looked him up on Facebook. I actually friended somebody I didn’t like so I could find him,” she says. “It had been a good nine years since we’d spoken, and since we’d hung out, it had been, like, 18 years.”

To her surprise, he claimed to have been in love with her since college but had been too shy to speak up. And just when they got back in touch, she was on her way to the Philippines to coach a German actor to sound Russian. The coaching would take place by Skype, but she wanted to do it in the Philippines.

“The goal was to get completely out of credit-card debt, which you can do in the Third World because you can reduce your living expenses to, like, a hundred bucks a month,” she says, “and you can make $5000 a month, at least on this film I was working on.”

Today, the two are raising their two-year-old son and saving to buy a house in University Heights. The goal is to save $120,000. “We have $80,000 now,” she says. “[Roger] works seven days a week. We spend nothing. [His parents] are not charging us rent.”

Where Freedom of Speech is her love job, games are the bread and butter. On Tuesday, when she goes to Los Angeles for her three-line cameo, the amount of time she actually works will, in this case, be approximately 20 minutes, for which she says she’ll likely receive “scale and a half” for her four-hour minimum.

“Totally worth it,” she says, turning from the computer and going on to explain verbally. “Scale is, like, $800-something for an actor on [Screen Actors Guild] scale. And then double scale is $1600 or $1700-something.”

The Voice Over Resource Guide for union rates for “New Media/Interactive” puts the rate at $809.30 for “any single Interactive Platform performance of up to Three Voices during a Four Hour Day.”

Schneider flips through the leather-bound album, showing me photos of her and Roger’s shared vacation in the Redwoods when she got pregnant the first time and others of his visit to the Philippines. Between the photos are cut-out excerpts of printed emails they sent to each other in the months they spent apart.

“Eliza, I don’t have the words to describe you,” one reads. “You are an intriguing multi-sensory/multi-media bombshell of concepts colors and sounds. One has to meet you to understand.”

I agree.

While I’ve been reading, Schneider has returned to the computer, but when I peek, she’s not typing to me, she’s sending an email.

In the moment before she sends the email, she says, “Shit! I forgot Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That’s such a recognizable image.”

And then she goes in search of the image online, which she’ll then have to attach to an email to send to Moxie.

Our 1:30 deadline is approaching.

I continue reading the pieces of her love letters.

“It is pretty hard to focus if I am looking at you — too many wonders,” one reads. “I have to turn away in order to keep my train of thought. I can so easily dive in, but then I am swimming.”

Yep. I feel you, man. I have to turn away to keep my train of thought, too.

The remainder of our time goes nowhere. After Schneider shows me videos of herself playing bluegrass and performing in her rock opera Blue Girl, after she finds three more character images to add to the flyer, and after she sends those images by email, she throws herself back on the bed.

“I’m a mess,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. “Sometimes people interview me and then they don’t end up writing the story because they’re, like, ‘I don’t know what the story’s about.’”

I hate to admit it, but in this moment, entombed in Schneider’s lair, I’m no longer sure I care to see how this particular sausage is made.

A week later, I sit in the small black-box theater and marvel once again at Schneider’s ability to morph back and forth between characters. The theater isn’t full, but those in attendance (a mostly older crowd, as theater crowds often are, which includes local newscaster Sasha Foo) are wide-eyed and mesmerized. I assume it’s everyone’s first time seeing the show, and for the first half, I envy their virginity. In the second half, the scene between Aaron the junkie/guitarist and his girlfriend Elizabeth, a bassist/mechanic, breaks my heart. I find myself once again in awe of Schneider’s talents and intrigued by the mystery of her creative mind. But this time, I enjoy the not-knowing.

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