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

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

Image by Daren Scott.

(Originally published in the San Diego Reader, October 16, 2013.)


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.

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.

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