photographs by Barry Wisdom
People around the world may burn the Stars and Stripes, hang our leaders in effigy and protest the U.S. government’s involvement in everything from the assassination of foreign leaders to the selection of Miss Universe finalists, but the United States remains a top destination for those seeking a better life.
And whether one is an illegal immigrant from Moldava or Russia, a Green Card holder from the Dominican Republic, or even a divorced good ol’ boy from the Deep South, nothing embodies the American Dream like New York City.
It’s a story old as time, a song as old as rhyme, but given a fresh chorus by playwright Saviana Stanescu, herself a Romanian immigrant, whose quartet of struggling dreamers find their paths crossing in her 2008 dramedy “Aliens With Extraordinary Skills.”
Stephanie Altholz, who plays Nadia, a classically trained clown (her “extraordinary skill”) from Moldava in the B Street Theatre’s Mainstage production of “Aliens” (opening Jan. 15), said it’s easy for her to relate to the young woman’s cockeyed optimism and unabashed desire to succeed at her craft while taking a bite out of the Big Apple.
“Nadia has this line: ‘I feel like it’s impossible to die here.’ She’s so naïve,” said the 25-year-old Altholz, accentuating and stretching out the word “naïve” like an articulated Gray Line tour bus. “She’s obsessed with ‘Sex and the City,’ and even when she discovers it’s not what she’s seen in movies or on TV, and she finds it’s still a very, very tough city, she still loves it. Her romantic side is unstoppable.”
“I love her – I do.”
Like Nadia, Altholz set her sights on NYC as the epicenter of creative fulfillment.
“I was always interested in acting,” said the Illinois native, whose family – guided by her airline pilot stepfather – landed in Sacramento midway through her high school career. “I just knew that was what I wanted to do. I remember being in the seventh grade (in Arizona) and being told I couldn’t take drama until the eighth grade, and being furious about it. That was my first memory of desperately wanting to do it.”
“I was the youngest in the family, and I’m sure there’s some sort of psychological reason for my wanting to be the entertainer in the family,” said Altholz. “When people were fighting I made them laugh – or wanted to – at all costs. I always felt appreciated for it, never vilified for it. I never felt I should shut my mouth. I’m lucky. I know a lot of people aren’t.”
Following graduation from Sacramento’s Rio Americano High School, and a string of classes taught by local theater guru Ed Claudio, Altholz enrolled in the two-year program at New York’s New Actors Workshop.
While at the lauded New York school co-founded by director Mike Nichols, she was immersed in a mix of Stanislavski-based “Method” training and improvisational theater skills – as well as a myriad of New York-centric life experiences understandably absent from the school’s catalog and the Time Out guide.
“I worked in restaurants, went on auditions, lived in ‘interesting’ places,” said Altholz. “You get hard when you live in New York – things stop fazing you so much. I lived in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, right on the border of Queens. It was terrifying, it was unsafe. Once, somebody got shot on my stoop.”
“I was home and I heard the gunshots and there was a dead body,” Altholz remembers. “There was a break-in when I was home, my roommate almost got attacked. Then there was the time my brother was visiting and taking a shower, and the bathroom wall crumbled into the bathroom. I look back at it now and it sounds awful, but at the time it was just another story. I adapted pretty quickly.”
Altholz said she would keep such tales of the city from her mother as long as possible (“No need to make her worry.”), but there were many. While perfect fodder for a late-night chat show visit with David, Craig or the Jimmys, she knew some of her acting school anecdotes might not elicit foot-stomping laughs or thunderous applause from mom and dad.
“My mom, who has a PhD, always emphasized education,” said Altholz, whose older siblings are both doctoral candidates. “But she understood very early on I wasn’t a dilettante, that I wasn’t dabbling in acting. She knew it was something I wanted to do the rest of my life. My parents were always supportive and were 100 percent behind my decision to pursue theater.”
But also like Nadia, Altholz herself occasionally had cause to rethink her choices.
“I think it’s the greatest city in the world, but sometimes I hated it,” admitted Altholz. “Like when you forget to pick up your prescription and you have to get back on the subway at 10:30 p.m. when you’re sick with a cold, and someone shows you his penis on the way to the pharmacy.”
Despite the hardships, Altholz embraced Gotham and piled on as many or more positive experiences as negative ones, including working with the Dutch West sketch comedy/web video troupe, and performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Chelsea where she had the opportunity to rub elbows with the likes of Bobby Moynihan, who went on to NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Nadia’s naivety extends beyond her New York state of mind, and her desire to satisfy artistic desires, said Altholz.
“She feels the same way about love,” said Altholz. “She wants to fall in love, live in the city and meet her Mr. Big. And New York, more so than any other city, can take so many shapes and provide so many things. It’s a character of its own. It really is a magical city – as cheesy as that sounds.”
The spell cast by New York City lasted two years beyond her 2006 graduation, but by the end of those 24 months Altholz was feeling restless.
“I moved back to California because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to act. And I defined being a successful actress as someone who made their living doing it.”
Like Dorothy Gale, who discovered all her heart’s desires could be found in her own backyard, Altholz found her own scarecrow, tin woodsman and lion in the personages of the B Street Theatre’s Buck Busfield, Jerry Montoya and Dave Pierini, who auditioned Altholz for the company’s internship program while she was still in New York.
Her internship, which included stints with the B Street’s traveling children’s troupe, a Mainstage debut in 2008’s “A Christmas Carol,” and occasional trips up very tall ladders for tech work, led to her selection as a full-fledged company member and the title role in “Extraordinary Things: Through the Eyes of Anne Frank.”
Last year, she put her New York-forged improv skills to good use as part of the B Street’s “B on K” improvisation performance at the Cosmopolitan Cabaret.
Altholz solidifies the connection between her and Nadia a bit further.
“I think we both have been through a lot and both in the end have a sort of unswerving feeling of what we want and what’s going to get in our way. But it doesn’t change the prize that we have our eye on.”
“I am in my definition of success, so I’m very happy and blessed to have found the B Street Theatre,” she continued. “I love every person here. There’s no other place I’d rather be.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The B Street Theatre’s Mainstage production of Saviana Stanescu‘s "Aliens With Extraordinary Skills"
WHEN: Previews 5 p.m. Jan. 14 and 2 p.m. Jan. 15; opens 7 p.m. Jan. 15; continues through Feb. 26 with performances at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2727 B St., Sacramento
DIRECTOR: Buck Busfield
CAST: Stephanie Altholz (Nadia); John Lamb (Borat); Rinabeth Apostel (Lupita); Bob (Brian Rise); Katie Rose Krueger (INS agent 1); Stephen Rowland (INS agent 2)
TICKETS: $18-$30; $5 student rush; $10 preview performances
INFORMATION: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org