By Pat Launer
Everyone in the United States is a cultural hyphenate (Jewish-American, for example). But not everyone is a professional hyphenate.
Few have more disparate identity-dashes than Eliza Jane Schneider, actor-playwright-mimic-voice artist-voice coach-dialectologist-fiddler.
“Sometimes, it feels like it was a mistake not to choose a single specialty,” says the “woman of a thousand voices,” who’s bringing her acclaimed solo show, “Freedom of Speech,” to Moxie Theatre (through 8/11).
“But to me, music, voice, voices of the people, playwriting, dialect, language, violin – it all springs from the same well of fascination with sound. And I find that the various artistic pursuits tend to feed each other.”
San Diegans will see how all those skills come together in “Freedom of Speech,” which is based in fact (on a series of wild American dialect-collecting road trips) and stems from hundreds of hours of verbatim transcripts of interviews with diverse people around the country. But perhaps that’s jumping the gun. First, a little background on Schneider.
Reared on the Rez
“My Mom is your typical Jewish leftie lawyer,” says beautiful, whip-smart, humorous Eliza, as we sip specialty drinks in her favorite spot, Eclipse Chocolate in South Park. The location is ironic, since Schneider has voiced eight characters on the popular adult animated Comedy Central sitcom, “South Park.” She’s also played Liza on “Beakman’s World,” and has been seen or heard on Bravo’s “Arts & Minds,” “King of the Hill,” “Girlfriends” and in the films “What Women Want” and “Finding Nemo.” Her voice is used in a number of video games as well.
“Mom was an Indian Law Legal Aid attorney,” she continues. “My Dad taught at the Bug-O-Nay-Gee-Shig Native American high school. They were out to save the world.”
So she spent her early years on a Chippewa (or Ojibwe) reservation in Bimidji, Minnesota, with her parents and her “sociopathic adopted Vietnamese brother, Yo Binh Jacob Schneider.
“He’d pick me up at Chippewa daycare and teach me songs he learned at the Jewish Center camp.”
Schneider’s other brother became a doctor (whew! something for a Jewish mother to cherish!). But lawyering runs deep in the family.
“Our extended family went to Israel several times – in a pink Mercedes tour bus. My mother’s generation is all Harvard lawyers. In 1937, my grandfather Milton was part of what was called ‘The Harvard Jew Crew,’ seven Jews that also included Joe Viertel, the father of Tom and Jack [Viertel, renowned Broadway producers]. Milton’s son, my uncle Mickey, went to Harvard at age 16 and graduated as Valedictorian at age 18. This is a family where, if you get straight As, nobody notices!”
Her grandfather also played the violin, and she was given his instrument as a young adult.
“It played itself. It was like a Ouija board. All these Jewish klezmer tunes I’d never heard started coming out. I was trained in classical violin, but I was around a lot of fiddlers at that time (the difference is a matter of style). I could look someone in the eye and play what they were playing. Now I identify as a fiddler because it gets me invited to more parties!”
As a child, says Schneider, “I always thought I was Indian. But I was the only one who talked a lot!”
The New York Experience
When Eliza was 8, the family moved to upstate New York, but she carried the reservation with her.
“I learned how to be a person on the reservation. I have certain truths I hold to be self-evident – like giving back to the earth.”
She got her Jewish identity from her mother and her (kosher) summer camp – Camp Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes of New York, which she attended from age 7-20, first as camper, then as counselor. She learned to play guitar in Reform Jewish youth groups: the North Eastern Lakes Federation of Temple Youth.
“Camp is where I became a performing artist,” Schneider says. “That was my first time onstage. Back at home, in 4th grade, two years after my camp debut, my parents went to a concert in which I had a solo. At the end, the whole audience stood up for me. Mom looked at Dad and said, ‘Uh oh.’”
That was the same year she wrote her first play, a musical adaptation of Snow White.
“My teacher said she hated school plays. She told me I could do a play only if I did everything: wrote, produced, directed.”
So she did. And all the kids who’d alienated her became totally caught up in the production.
As she puts it, “I got acceptance through singing.”
In 8th grade, Schneider auditioned for the touring company of “Annie.” She was cast, but her mother wouldn’t let her go. “She wanted me to have a normal life.”
Schneider held off, but still, by age 12, she had her professional Actors Equity card, which she earned at the Geva Theatre Centre in Rochester, New York, at first playing the violin in a production of “A Christmas Carol,” and continuing to act in 2-3 plays per year, until she left for college.
After her junior year of high school, she attended the theater program at the Northwestern National High School Institute.
“I was humbled,” she recalls. “The crème de la crème were there. We could take any elective, and I chose dialect. I came to realize that there was very little authentic source material.”
Later, at UCLA, she transferred from the Theater department to the World Arts and Cultures department, and wrote her senior thesis on American regional dialects.
“Freedom of Speech” chronicles her evolution “from being embarrassed of being American to falling madly in love with the people of America.
“I’ve always done dialects,” Schneider says. “My dad was a drama and math teacher, and a published playwright. And I’ve always had a photographic memory” (some might say “phonographic”).
For ten years, Schneider worked with Hollywood’s “dean of dialect,” Robert Easton. Her natural abilities were enhanced by the intensive ear training she received through the Suzuki method of learning violin as a young child.
By age 7, she was a violin virtuoso. Not long ago, she made an album of fiddle tunes, “Gypsy Grass.”
Never one to let grass (gypsy or otherwise) grow under her feet, Schneider is currently learning to teach violin to 2-4 year-olds, starting with her 2 year-old son.
“I’m hoping to attend Hebrew school when he does. He’s starting Japanese immersion preschool soon. Meanwhile, I’m learning Japanese from Pimsleur tapes, to stay a few steps ahead of him.”
The father of precocious young Raiden Daniel (named for the Japanese god of thunder and lightning as well as the Biblical hero) is Roger Ray, owner/operator of Ray’s Tennis in Hillcrest, a longtime family business. Ray and Eliza met at UCLA (he had a crush on her then), and reconnected several years ago. It’s because of Ray that she left L.A. and moved to San Diego.
“The Japanese culture is like the Jews’,” says Schneider about her mate and his family. “Both are very underrepresented in prisons! And both are hard workers, very focused on education.
“One of my son’s first sentences,” she brags, “was ‘I am a Japanese Jew!’”
Her eclectic background, her travels and her phenomenal ear have enabled her to teach at many colleges worldwide, and provide expert dialect coaching. Among many others, she’s helping a Ukrainian “talk American,” and she worked with a Chinese actor in “Hangover 3,” so he could sound like he was speaking Thai.
Her next solo show, “Words of the Prophets,” will be created from interviews with homeless people all over the world.
Schneider’s ten cross-country trips started in the early 1990s and continued for 20 years. She logged 317,000 miles on her American Airlines card, and she’s visited all the English-speaking countries in the world, conducting more than 7,000 interviews over all. She started by asking, “What’s going on?” and “What’s important to you?” She found more commonalities among us than differences.
In preparation for the first trip, she shaved her head and acquired an old ambulance.
“It was perfect,” she says, with a smile. “Lots of outlets, a separate cab I used as a recording studio. And the IV hooks were ideal for my houseplants.”
The performance piece went through various incarnations and name changes before she settled on “Freedom of Speech.”
“It has a double meaning,” Schneider explains. “The freedom I had driving across the country and talking to everyone. And the question of ‘What exactly is freedom of speech?’ Do we actually have it?”
In the show, she plays 34 characters, re-creating their words in precision dialect, capturing the “tempo, lilt, pitch, timbre and tone.” She switches between the accents and regionalisms with mind-boggling agility and fluidity.
One character is a Native American from the reservation where she grew up. Another works at the 2nd Avenue Deli on the Lower East Side (“I didn’t want her to stop talking. So, though I’d been a vegetarian for eight years, I had a corned beef sandwich with her”). Among Schneider’s favorites is a woman from the Deep South, from a family of former slave-owners.
There’s music, too. “Some characters wanted to perform for me: a country song by a thug who gets all Joni Mitchell on me; a rap song, an aria. One even played the fiddle.”
At the New York International Fringe Festival, she got rave reviews, winning the “Best Solo Show” award.
The Moxie Connection
Schneider worked on the piece at the prestigious O’Neill Theatre Centre and at the WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory in Baltimore. Over time, and under various dramaturges and directors, it underwent a number of changes that weren’t to her liking.
And then she connected with Moxie Theatre, an eight-year-old professional San Diego company founded by local female artists, with a mission of presenting “more diverse and honest images of women for our culture … [producing] primarily female playwrights … expanding the idea of what is feminine.”
Now award-winning Moxie artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is at the helm of “Freedom of Speech.”
“What Delicia is doing is shockingly close to the original conception I had when I was in college,” says Schneider. “She’s a phenomenal director who I feel very lucky to work with. She’s the only person whose vision and perspective I trust more than my own on this work. She’s taking the piece to a new artistic level. She’s helped me crack a code I’ve been working on for over a decade. She is a true treasure.”
It’s a mutually admiring relationship.
“Directing Eliza in ‘Freedom of Speech’ is like working with a world-class musician,” says Turner Sonnenberg. “She is like no one I’ve ever worked with. The way she combines her craft and talent as an actor with the amazing mastery of her dialect work blows me away. People may know her from a career in TV, movies and voiceovers, but I’m excited for audiences to experience her extraordinary talent live, in an intimate setting. For me, the play is a gift. It’s like Eliza went on a journey to discover a truth, and ‘Freedom of Speech’ is what she brought back. The play is funny and smart and allows us to see ourselves through her and through the real Americans she interviewed and brings to life.”
The New York Post called the work “a vivid aural photo album of America,” and the Los Angeles Times hailed her performance as “virtuosic.” New York Magazine said Schneider was “Anna Deavere Smith crossed with Amy Sedaris.” According to nytheatre.com, Schneider is an “engaging, multi-faceted performer with a lot of chutzpah.” Backstage West called it “wildly funny” and “genuinely poignant.”
Schneider sums it up in her own words.
“The show has the form of an autobiographical documentary. But it’s really a love story about a petulant girl who starts out hating America for perpetuating hate. She begins collecting sounds and winds up falling in love with her country. By the end, I feel proud, patriotic and part of a family. Even if I can’t agree with all of them, I AM them. There is no US and THEM. We’re all one. This was my journey, and I invite you to come along.”
Moxie Theatre presents Eliza Jane Schneider’s “Freedom of Speech” at Diversionary Theatre (4545 Park Blvd.), through August 11.
Performances run Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $22-27. For more information, call (619) 220-0097 or visit www.moxietheatre.com.