Q & A with Yelena Shmulenson
Yelena is a true testament that if you want to be a performer, no matter the obstacles put in your way, you can make it happen if you take initiative and action and put all your “personal special skills’ to work to benefit YOU! Check out her story in this very interesting and informative Q & A! I hope that it will inspire our readers to take some action.
BB:You immigrated to the U.S. not too many years ago. Did you come to the States wanting to pursue an acting career?
YS:My family immigrated to the US as political refugees from the Ukraine in the 90s.
I never planned on being an actor. I’d always performed; according to my Mom, I started singing when I was two. I had a good memory and I was never shy, so I was always on stage reciting poetry or singing.
I didn't really know what I wanted to be after I graduated high school. It never occurred to me to go to Moscow or Kiev and apply to acting schools there. I applied to the University in my city to be an English teacher because I was fluent in English already and I didn't want to lose the language skills. But I didn't get accepted because of various reasons, anti-Semitism included, and I was a bit lost and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
BB: Being new to the States, how did you go about pursuing a career?
YS:I went to the branch of Brooklyn Public Library and looked through the College Guide for several days. We had no money for college except for a couple of grants that I qualified for as a refugee, so I knew I was looking for a college in New York State. I was never any good at exact sciences, so math and physics programs weren’t for me. I knew how to play piano and sing, but in order to audition for a piano program you had to have four piano pieces ready to play, and we didn’t have a piano in our tiny Brooklyn apartment. For the voice programs you had to sing two Italian arias but I don’t have that kind of voice and I didn’t know where to find the arias and how to learn them without a piano. A year prior, I’d spent three months in Salem, Oregon as an exchange student in the Argonauts Summer School of the Arts where I discovered musical theater; so sitting in that library looking through the giant Guide, musical theater was something that emerged as a main contender.
Six weeks after we landed, I spent a day as a translator for a day-long career seminar for people in the arts from the former Soviet Union, and one of the American presenters happened to have a copy of Backstage, the Fall College Guide issue. I called all the schools listed and asked for a catalog. I didn’t know the difference between undergraduate and graduate programs, so some schools sent me their graduate catalogues and some undergraduate.
I really wanted to go to a conservatory like AMDA or AADA, but I also knew that I needed an education, so I applied to regular colleges as well. I even applied to Juilliard. I asked around what the best acting school was and the answer was always ‘Juilliard’. But I couldn’t afford their $70 application fee, so I wrote to them explaining that I’m new to the country and that we had barely any money to buy groceries, so they waived the fee! I went to Lincoln Center Library to get my monologues. Copying them out of a book was too expensive, so I wrote them out by hand.
I ended up going to Marymount Manhattan College, which didn’t have a musical theater major, just a minor, but they gave me a Dean’s Scholarship, and together with NY State grants, my whole tuition was covered. I ended up majoring in theater.
BB: You are fluent in five languages? How has this special skill helped your acting career? And how do you find the opportunities for projects that are not in English?
YS: I speak Russian and Ukrainian and English. I learned French at MMC, and Yiddish at a YIVO Institute Summer Intensive Program at Columbia. I’m also very good at accents and dialects. I got my Equity card performing at the theater on Ellis Island playing six different immigrants in 25 minutes seven times a day. But after I was in the Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN as the icepick-wielding wife in the all-Yiddish prologue, the non-English speaking roles just seem to find me. I also performed in a production of ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY in Russian here in New York, and I made some connections within the Russian-speaking acting community, so we all look out for roles we might be right for and let each other know when someone is casting.
There are a lot of agencies that look for foreign voices for dubbing commercials, educational films, industrial projects. I’m also registered with them and I get a steady stream of auditions from them.
BB:More and more actors are going in for roles where they need to become familiar with a foreign language they don’t necessarily know, whilst still connecting to it as an actor. How does an actor prepare and/or what is the best way to quickly learn the sides etc?
YS: It’s a very tough thing to act in the language you don’t understand. You obviously need to know what you’re saying in English and then match the English lines to the foreign language lines, and make sure that when you speak the other language the connection to the objective and the intention are still there.
We have this stereotype that in order to speak Yiddish you have to shrug your shoulders and sigh and be ‘funny’. It’s just like any other language. You can watch Yiddish movies, which are available now at a click of a mouse, to get the cadence and the flow of the language and not to sound like a caricature. (Yiddish movie prints aren’t kept in the best condition, but if you get anything that the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis puts out, you’ll get the best quality there is. Their website is www.jewishfilms.org)
The best way to learn the sides in Yiddish is to get a native speaker to record them for you and then drill it until you know it backwards. And the trick is not to learn it word by word but in chunks. When we speak English we don’t separate every word, we speak in phrases. So listen to the recording over and over and drill, drill and drill.
BB: You have been very successful both in NY theatre world, as well as in the TV/film end. How do you balance the two and how do they differ as far as acting technique.
YS: There are more opportunities for me in film and TV lately. I cornered the market on Russian and Yiddish-speaking characters. It was hard in the beginning to audition for the camera, everything I was doing was so big I kept going out of frame. I’ve learned to be still and let my eyes do most of the work. If you’re on camera and there is nothing going on behind your eyes, then no amount of technique will help you. Camera will pick up all of your insecurities.
And in terms of balance, it’s all about keeping my schedule flexible enough to be able to handle auditions and last minute changes.
BB: Any advice for actors coming to NYC to pursue a career?
YS: Make sure your resume is strong. If you are just out of college and you are getting leading roles in your city, stay there and build up your resume. Once you come to New York, the competition is so fierce you might not even be in the running for these roles.
Figure out what your strengths are as a performer and make sure that they come through in your marketing materials. Figure out where your weaknesses are and work on those. If you don’t dance, sign up for classes at Broadway Dance Center. If you don’t sing, get a singing teacher.
Focus. There are so many things that fly at you from all sides in New York. You need to remember why you moved to NY and every day you have to do at least one thing to get you closer to your goals.
This is a tough and heartbreaking business. If there is something else you’re rather be doing, do that.
BB: anything else you would like to offer?
YS: Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. If you want to do straight theater and you get a Web series audition, don’t turn it down; it might turn into an incredible opportunity. I used to record Russian language dialogue for Living Language series, and then the studio where I recorded called and offered me an audition for an audiobook. It wasn’t something that I planned on doing but I read and I booked it! I’ve done seven audiobooks since then, and I love the work. And I got three Earphones awards from AudioFile magazine.
Yelena Shmulenson was born in what is now Belarus, spent part of her childhood in Siberia, and grew up in the Ukraine. She started singing and studying piano at the age of six.
She emigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1993 where she decided to become an actress. Four years later she graduated with a BFA in Acting and minors in French and Musical Theater from Marymount Manhattan College.
Stage credits include six seasons with the National Yiddish Theatre/Folksbiene, “Bronx Express” and “The Unlucky Man In A Yellow Cap” (both Fringe NYC), Frank (‘Klezmatics’) London’s musical of “A Night In the Old Marketplace”, the tour of “Lady of Copper”, I.B. Singer’s “Enemies: A Love Story” in Russian, and Off-Off Broadway productions of “Flowers For Algernon”, H. Leivick’s “Displaced Wedding”, “The Lilac Minyan”, “The Essence: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum” (Fringe, tour) etc. She also performed for two seasons at the Ellis Island Theatre, where she played more than her share of immigrants from all over the world.
TV: “Boardwalk Empire” (Mrs Manny Horvitz), “Life On Mars”. Film: Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd”, “Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish”, and the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”. Upcoming: Cedric Klapisch’s “Chinese Puzzle” with Audrey Tatou.
She has also recorded several audio books, winning three Earphones Awards.
She speaks five languages and is married to Allen Lewis Rickman who is a native New Yorker.