How She Does It: Keiko Elizabeth
Of all the ways to combine creativity and motherhood, the performing arts are among the most challenging. But the obstacles inherent to this path are no match for the fierce passion, commitment, and intelligence of Keiko Elizabeth, who you may already know from her work on stage and television. I can’t wait for you to read Keiko’s highly articulate and introspective interview! (Spoiler alert: Inspiration by the boatload.)
Keiko is from in Sacramento, California, and graduated from Stanford University with a degree in biological science. After a stint teaching middle school science to kids coming out of juvenile hall in San Francisco, she decided to pursue a professional acting career. Keiko received an MFA in acting from Cal State Fullerton, where she studied with renowned Russian acting teacher Svetlana Efremova.
Since graduation,Keiko has worked on a range of TV shows including Days of Our Lives, Hawaii Five-0, and Hot in Cleveland. Keiko is a company member at Theatre of NOTE, where she recently originated the role of Naomi in Supper by Phinneas Kiyomura. She lives with her husband and two children just outside of Los Angeles.
SM: Please introduce yourself and your family.
KE: I’m Keiko Elizabeth, I’m an actress, mother, wife, producer, writer (sort of). I work in television, film, and theatre and have a son and a daughter — 9 and 3.
SM: Tell us about your artwork/creative endeavors.
KE: I discovered acting rather later in life. I went to college with hopes to become a doctor, then I nearly went to law school, then I taught middle school students coming out of juvenile hall. It wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that I stepped on stage for the very first time. I knew right away it was something I wanted to do well and for the rest of my life, so I began applying to acting MFA programs with probably the least amount of experience of any MFA applicant in the history of MFA applicants.
It just so happened that as I was applying and auditioning to MFA programs, I got pregnant. The funny thing is that we were trying. It just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do both things at once. I had very little experience with babies and I just thought they’d sleep all the time and not move or talk that much (oh, the naïveté). My son was born my first week of my MFA program, and truthfully, that first semester was blisteringly hard. I returned to class full time after two of the shortest and longest weeks of my life, and had to sit on a donut or lie down on a yoga mat in class because I couldn’t sit on a regular chair. I was not only the least experienced actor in my program, but I was now behind, my boobs leaked at random times, and I had to go into evening rehearsals for a play when my son was only 6 weeks old.
But I didn’t quit. In fact, I loved every excruciating minute of it.
And now, I’m a working actor in Los Angeles. I was just in seasons 3 and 4 of How to Get Away with Murder, I’ve been on a variety of television shows and films, plus a commercial or two. I’m a member of a theatre company here in Los Angeles called Theatre of NOTE. I love being a part of the theatre-making process — we are a democratically run company and we read and select all of the plays in our season as well as self-produce every show.
I’m also developing a couple of film projects — a documentary and a scripted feature.
SM: What goals do you have for your art? How would you define your “life’s work”?
KE: This is such a great question. My goal for my art is continued growth and expansion of myself as a storyteller. So that means playing complex women with lives, beliefs, and tendencies that are different than my own — that’s where the fun is. It also means telling stories on larger platforms that reach more people, and working with other artists who have similar vision.
You know, it’s interesting, acting is one of the arts that really requires other people in order to do it. I can do my own creative and imaginative work on a story or on a character, but at some point the creative cycle feels incomplete if you don’t get to play with others and for others. Seeking out collaboration and work is fundamentally important to being an actor. It’s like when you were little and you’d go over to the neighbors’ house and say, “wanna play?” Part of creative success for an actor is finding people to play with.
SM: How has motherhood changed you creatively?
KE: I really became an artist and a mom at the same time, so I only know myself creatively since becoming a mother. But I will say that being a mother focused my creative work in a way that nothing else would have. It raised the stakes on everything I was doing, and for me this was a good thing for a while, until it wasn’t any more. At first, I took my studies and my development as an actor very seriously, because it was taking me away from my baby, so I felt that in order to make that worthwhile I had to be good. But as any artist knows, at some point you have to give up the desire to be good to make anything remotely truthful. There came a point when I had to let go of tying my worth as a mother to my talent — “I’d better be good and successful, because so many people including myself and my child sacrificed so much for me to do my art.” That’s too much pressure for the muse to work under, it’s incredibly narcissistic, and it’s a belief that resulted in a lot of unhappiness. I had to get back to my mission as a storyteller, to my imagination, to my sense of play and aliveness, and my children helped show me how to do that.
SM: Where do you do your creative work?
KE: I have a little nook in an upstairs dormer of our house that I’ve set up as a quiet creative space. Most of my work is imagination-based, so I don’t need a lot of materials. I also have an office studio where I have a light kit and backdrop for taping auditions, which I do fairly often.
SM: Do you have a schedule for your creative work?
KE: Every morning I wake up and do imagination work for 1 hour and 20 minutes either on a story I’m working on in acting class, or a play that I’m interested in exploring on an ongoing basis. This morning time is like imaginative barre work for me, so if I have an audition or a job that I’m preparing for, I’ll schedule additional time to work on it during the day. The consistency of practice every day, even on weekends, is really important for me—it keeps me emotionally, imaginatively, and spiritually accessible, vulnerable, and creative. I often need to be able to fall seamlessly into a story with less than 24 hours to prepare, and in order to be able to do that, my emotional and imaginative accessibility needs to be very high.
SM: What does creative success mean to you?
KE: Creative success for me has a lot of do with my ability to empathize and then translate that empathy into action within the story that I’m telling. So that means in every creative encounter — in every audition, every performance — was I able to put aside my own beliefs and life circumstances to step into the shoes of this other person’s life circumstances and beliefs, and engage with the people of my imaginary life as if it were my own? And can I do it every single time? And tomorrow with an entirely different set of life circumstances and beliefs? If I can answer yes to all of those questions, that is creative success. Beyond that, if people see it and want to pay me to do it, that’s cool too.
SM: What makes you feel successful as a mother?
KE: I think the feeling of success as a mother comes for me in fleeting moments. When I see my child genuinely connecting with something in a pure and loving way, it feels like I also am experiencing that connection, and it feels really divine. For example when my son is really enjoying playing a particular piano piece (that maybe he hates playing the next day), or when I hear my children playing pretend together (instead of fighting and crying). It’s like a feeling of rightness, of coherence, of connection. I try to really inhale those moments into my bones, so that when I inevitably have shittier moments, it’s still okay because I know those good ones at least existed so I can’t be that bad.
SM: What do you struggle with most?
KE: I think what motherhood and acting have in common is that there is a lot that you can’t control, because both endeavors involve other human beings. So the best you can do is show up authentically, give as much as you can in that moment, and then keep engaging rather than retreating.
Since I tend to be a control freak, having to let go of that tendency was really, really hard, and continues to be hard. But when I do surrender control and go with the flow, I’m so much happier, everyone else is happier, and my work is better too. But it’s like I have to keep learning the lesson over and over again.
SM: What inspires you?
KE: Other women, especially artist moms who perform great feats of creativity and great acts of selflessness in the service of their children and families and humanity on a daily basis. I started a community for actors who are also moms called the Mama Actor community and these women, 100% of whom I did not know before starting the group, inspire me every day.
I also have creative mentors, three women who, at different times, gave me just the artistic gift that I needed. These women continue to provide creative nourishment and inspiration.
SM: What do you want your life to look like in 10 years?
KE: In 10 years, I want to be developing and producing TV shows and films under the banner of my own production company. I want to be starring in films and television shows that I’ve had a say in creating, that tell the stories of interesting and unique and flawed women. In 10 years, my son will be going to college and my daughter will be just entering her teens years, so I imagine it will also be a time to double down on my family and what’s important for us to teach our children. Ten years from now is going to be the time of my life.
SM: What are you reading right now?
KE: I just finished reading Outlander, which was like eating the last piece of a rich chocolate cake — so indulgent and delicious, but now that it’s over I miss it! I’m not even sure I want to watch the series, because we all know how that goes. I just started The Power of Kindness by Piero Ferucci.
SM: What are your top 5 favorite blogs/online resources?
- The Poetry Foundation
- The Send Me SFMOMA project, where you can text a word to SF MOMA and they’ll text you back the image of a piece from their collection inspired by that word.
- The Mama Actor blog and FB community. That’s my FB group, so if you’re an actor and a mom, find us.
- Moms In Film. Doing great things to advocate for moms (and dads) who are filmmakers. They ran a childcare trailer at SXSW last year that got a lot of press.
- The SAG-AFTRA Foundation has a huge resource library of videos for those interested in pursuing acting.
SM: What do you wish you’d known a decade ago?
KE: I wish I’d spent less energy on self doubt, worrying about what other people might think, and feeling like I don’t belong. This one life we have is so precious, I just think to my younger self, “Go! Do it! Say it! Don’t be so afraid!”
SM: What advice would you offer to other artists/writers struggling to find the time and means to be more creative?
KE: Three things. One. Just carve out time. It’s important. It’s important to you, it’s important to me that you do it — and I don’t even know you. If you have to leave 15 minutes early for an appointment and sit on the side of the road to have some quiet alone time, so be it (that’s a personal story; I guess it depends on what you need for your own creative expression, if it’s paint, maybe the car isn’t the place).
Two. Distraction is really the killer of creativity, and if you’re just returning to focused creative time after not having it for a while, it’s normal for your brain to be squirrelly. Don’t give up on yourself. Just keep showing up and the focus will return, even if it takes a year. It will return, I promise.
Three. Find a community of creative mamas. Like this one! I didn’t have one so I started one and it’s saved the lives of many of us who are in it. You may feel like an inferior imposter, you may feel a superior artiste, it doesn’t matter, you still need a community. These women will inspire you and give you their own pilot light until you can find the inner strength to relight your own.
Connect with Keiko!
There is so much to love about this interview, but my favorite line is:
So the best you can do is show up authentically, give as much as you can in that moment, and then keep engaging rather than retreating.
Retreating is so compelling at times, but pushing forward (always forward) is the real deal. Also, I totally agree about distraction killing creativity. I wish more people were writing about this.