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Posts tagged ‘MFA’

How She Does It: Keiko Elizabeth

Keiko_ElizabethOf 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.
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.
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.

Keiko_Elizabeth_4It 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.

supperSM: What goals do you have for your art? How would you define your “life’s work”?
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?
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?
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?
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.

Keiko_Elizabeth1SM: What does creative success mean to you?
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?
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?
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?
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.

Keiko_Elizabeth_3SM: What do you want your life to look like in 10 years?
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?
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?
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?
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!


Zoë: Breaking the Silence

Many of you will resonate with this moving portrait from guest blogger Zoë Purdy, a freelance writer and editor. Zoë lives with her husband and three children in Toronto, Canada.

Zoe Purdy

“I’ve been thinking, and I don’t want to be a mother when I grow up,” Sofie announced gravely one day when she was about three years old. “Oh, yeah?” I answered. “Well, you get to decide, of course, but you don’t have to make up your mind until you’re an adult.” She nodded, the relief evident on her face. Sofie is my middle child, cheerful and smart, stubborn and quirky.

“Babies are cute and stuff,” she went on, “but if I have one of my own then I’ll have to take care of it.” “True enough,” I agreed. “And you don’t think you’d enjoy taking care of a baby?” Sofie has always been gentle and empathetic, and of my three children I think of her as the most nurturing. She is the one who wants to bring every ailing insect and earthworm home to be nursed back to health. When our youngest was a baby, Sofie eagerly suggested ways to soothe her when she cried: nursing, cuddling, feeding her an ice-cream sundae, covering her in stickers. It surprised me to hear that she didn’t find the idea of motherhood attractive. “It’s just that there are so many other things that I want to do and if I’m a mother, I won’t get to do them,” she explained in a matter-of-fact tone.

I protested, of course, forcing myself to sound enthusiastic despite the ache I felt gathering in my chest. I told her that being a mother is only one part of who I am, albeit a very important part. There was absolutely no reason why she couldn’t do all those incredible things she imagined and have a baby. I believed what I was saying, but I know that it fell flat. This is why: as a parent, how I engage with life and who I am fundamentally as a person have far more impact on my children than anything I actively try to teach them.

Over the next days and weeks I returned to that conversation again and again. Something bothered me and it wasn’t that my daughter’s vision of her adult life didn’t include children. If she ultimately decides that parenthood isn’t for her, I won’t object. No, what really bothered me was this: my daughter found my life unappealing and I really couldn’t fault her for it. I had let myself be swallowed whole by motherhood and I had barely noticed. When had I given up on doing gratifying and important work myself? When had I decided that it was enough to raise other people who might grow up to do interesting things, to make their own valuable contributions to the world?

Three-year-olds are fickle creatures. You could ask Sofie what she wants to do when she grows up and get a different answer every day of the week. I’m sure that I too entertained a variety of career fantasies as a child, but one thing has remained constant throughout my life: my love of the written word. I have been devoted to writing and books for as long as I can remember.

My mother tells me that I dictated stories to her before I could read and write. Later I took to carrying around a small notebook just like one of my favourite storybook heroines, Harriet the Spy. As we rode the bus I would jot down notes about the other passengers and then spin off into wild speculations about their lives. At school I was known as a daydreamer — I was always busy putting together stories in my head, making up characters and sticking them into different scenarios to see what would happen.

Sofie writingI was a shy child who was constantly told to speak up at school. Whenever a teacher read my writing for the first time, they always remarked with surprise that my voice was so strong and clear. In writing, I was able to try out other lives, to get out of my own head and inhabit someone else’s. It’s not that I was unhappy with my particular circumstances or with who I was; I simply wasn’t content to experience everything through only one set of eyes when books and my imagination gave me the ability to live and to feel so much more broadly and deeply.

I felt a kinship with the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Matilda. I almost cried in recognition when I read these lines: “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

As I got older, I never gave any thought to whether I could make my living as a writer. I always assumed that I would find a different way to support myself, but I never doubted that I would continue to write. It was a part of who I am, as basic and incontrovertible as the colour of my eyes.

When I graduated from university with a degree in English literature, I had no firm plan for what would come next. My boyfriend Erik was working on his PhD in chemical engineering at the time, and he spent his days in the lab developing a novel method of aerosol sampling. We joked that our relationship represented the meeting of Arts and Science. While there are plenty of good things to be said about a liberal arts program, it doesn’t prepare you for any specific occupation. Engineering majors become engineers, while English majors become… Englishologists? Baristas? My fellow graduates were all heading off to teacher’s college and law school in droves, but I hadn’t applied to either. I already had a full-time job at a bookstore. While I didn’t envision myself in retail forever, selling books certainly beat selling coffee. I decided to take a year to work and figure out what to do next.

I cast a wide net, sending out resumes and applications to anything that looked remotely appealing. I was particularly interested in a Master of Fine Arts in writing and literature. Spending a couple of years in an MFA program doing nothing but writing and reading was incredibly appealing. Even better, for the first time in my life I would be in the company of other people who thought that these activities were not only legitimate but also important. It was a way to put off adult life and its responsibilities a while longer. There was scholarship money available, and undergraduate teaching or editorial internships could offset the costs further while providing work experience. It wasn’t entirely impractical. I put together my portfolio, rustled up some reference letters, and summoned the courage to send in my applications.

The acceptance letter came that spring, the day after I found out that I was pregnant. Erik and I had agreed that we wanted children, but in that vague way you talk about things that are too far away to feel real. This, however, was real. When the shock wore off, we welcomed the idea of a baby. The timing wasn’t perfect: we weren’t married, we had no money, and Erik was still a student himself. The MFA would have necessitated moving across the country — so for now, school and motherhood were mutually exclusive. I turned down the offer. I told myself that I was postponing it rather than giving up on the idea entirely, but then, as if on cue, I stopped writing. As my belly grew, I imagined my creativity being channeled into the new life within it.

That autumn just after the new school year started, I gave birth to our son. Max entered the world in dramatic fashion, an accidental homebirth. Erik remembered only one thing from our prenatal class and it turned out to be highly relevant: newborns are extremely slippery, and you must keep a firm grasp on them if you don’t want to drop them onto the floor. So on that sunny fall afternoon we went from being two individuals to being a family of three. The world turned upside down. Read more

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