Every artist in Los Angeles has struggled at one point or another. It is a constant hustle to get your work seen and meet people with which you can collaborate and grow ideas. In addition to all of the American transplant artists LA hosts as a city, it also is home to a huge international artist population. People from all over the world immigrate to Los Angeles in hopes of making it big in Hollywood and becoming an American film star. In the midst of a tumultuous societal and political climate, I decided to highlight a few of these amazing immigrant artists that are enriching American TV and film. This month I have the pleasure of introducing you to Stephie Theodora, an award-winning director, actor, musician, and cartoon writer who has traveled the world stages before settling in LA.
From an early age, you grew up around artists. Do you think living in that environment is a big part of the reason you chose and felt confident in pursuing a career in art and entertainment?
THEODORA: 100%. My hometown of London, Ontario had a strong arts community and still does. I was incredibly lucky to grow up around small theatre companies, galleries, bands and art spaces. Also, I was lucky that my parents loved the arts and wanted it to be a part of my life. Our city of 300,000 people even had our own arts council which granted funding for local projects. We had yearly theatre festivals, and as a kid, I attended a kids theatre company called “the Original Kids”. Every year from the age of 6 to 18, I was a part of two large theatre productions. Many of the local directors, writers, and musicians were teachers in the company which resulted in me seeing independent live theatre at a young age. No doubt without the support of a city that cared about its culture would I be here today.
At the ripe age of 17 your original play “Blow This Popsicle Stand” swept the London One Act Festival and launched the success of your theater company, Black Hand Theatre. What was traveling the world like both at such a young age and through the eyes of an artist?
THEODORA: I was 19 when we landed in Prague for the first time with one of my plays. The year before was spent fundraising to attend our invitation to represent Canada at the festival. Making a theatre performance at that point seemed easy, raising $10,000 to get the cast and crew over to Prague for three weeks was not. Our awesome hometown helped us get there, and I remember arriving in Prague and not caring about what happened, but just that we made it and I wanted to enjoy it. We ended up having sold out shows, good reviews and picked up a couple of awards that year.
I remember feeling suspicious by my early success in life and that has stayed with me. I also got scouted at this time to direct a Beckett play in Vienna which also didn’t seem like something I deserved or could really do. But that was the nice thing about being 19, I could be like, “Whatever, you’re the dumb one for thinking a 19-year-old could do this.”
When I returned home to Canada I wanted to write about my mom’s childhood in Serbia and thought that would work well in Europe. The following year we were back with a wildly different show. Different cast, a bigger production, and a lot more complicated tech and set.
Every place we traveled received us in starkly different ways. I remember rehearsing in a park in Berlin and strangers just gathering around us. Right away I felt like the show could be more clever. We then rewrote the script the night before opening night because I felt like the German audience just saw more things and were not easily entertained.
When we were in Istanbul rehearsing outside, the local street kids started throwing stones at us and running onto the stage to take our props. Or, they would grab us by the hair and cause a real fuss. We looked around for grown-ups and really had no idea what to do. As we were packing up our stuff I remember thinking, “If we did something visually cool and impressive, this wouldn’t have happened.” We changed so much of the show from what was already physical theatre to what was almost a spectacle with loud sounds and flips and dances. And we had fewer rocks thrown at us when we did that.
My own voice was pretty abstract by the time we got to Hong Kong, but our show opened the same week that swine flu was discovered and that really changed the mood of the crowd. I never got a sense of what the audience thought and we were never reviewed.
Berlin was a big shift in my personal voice as an artist. I remember arriving and immediately meeting the coolest artists and feeling like a massive square. That’s why I wanted to move to Berlin, and why I did.
You have a track record of reinventing yourself as an artist. Starting with success in theater, then music, to video game design and now in animation. What was the catalyst to make you go into animation?
THEODORA: I think all of the career changes in my life have been because I got comfortable. A professor of mine told me years ago that I was, “only comfortable when I was uncomfortable.” Maybe that was a catalyst to all of the career changes.
Getting into the gaming industry was really hard and I started as an intern. After four years of climbing up to be a games designer, I was really happy. But, I felt like I was trapped leveling up everything: my title, the money I made, my clothes, my couch, and the trips I took. I was stuck in the same game, just working my way up the levels of full-time employment. The only career that I thought would be worth starting all over again was in cartoons.
Recently, you made the decision to move to Los Angeles under a 01 Visa. What made you decide to move to LA and what was the visa process like?
THEODORA: A couple months before I left, I went to every TV market in Europe with my business cards and yelled, “Hey I’m a writer, I want to write for cartoons!” (I really felt like I had nothing to lose.) Out of maybe two hundred people I annoyed, four individuals really helped me out. One gave me my first writing job on a show in England and the others rallied for me to come to LA and sent agents and managers to my inbox. I still shake my head at the generosity and kindness of those four people.
It was on pure adrenaline that I decided to move to LA. I really had no money saved up (not a good idea, btw) and I didn’t really know anyone here. I just put in the visa application, cleared my account out to pay the fee, and naively assumed I would get it. I had spent a couple of weeks gathering all my paperwork to submit and was really lucky that the awards and press I got from my plays helped. Also, I was the lead singer of Europe’s Trashiest Band of 2010, I like to feel that was the moment America said, “This one, she will benefit our country.”
September, 1st was my last day of a real job. I handed my flat keys to a friend and landed in LA October, 25th without a visa and a carry on suitcase. I ended up getting the visa in early December. Only after that did I know how stressful it can be for most people and I can’t believe how many people I just told, “I got the visa it’s in the mail!” and I had no idea if that was true.
How does living and working in LA differ from other major cities both as an artist and as an immigrant?
THEODORA: Nearly everyone in LA is an immigrant and I think we are all looking around wondering, “Am I here? Is this the LA scene? If someone could just make my dreams come true, would they be here? TV SAID HOLLYWOOD IS HERE BUT WHERE IS IT?!” There is no answer to that.
The lack of walking and biking and busing makes there no obvious places to meet. I think that’s really hard about LA. In Berlin, I met my bass player in a gallery, the guitar player on the street and our drummer drawing with chalk on a sidewalk (okay, guess we were hippy punks). I haven’t had those happy accidents in LA yet, but they can still happen. I think the rent prices are so high that no one can really chill and connect in a European “let’s sit in a cafe and talk about art” way. Which isn’t bad, it’s just different.
I feel like everyone is running towards something in LA and that gets criticized a lot. But I remember feeling super idle in Berlin because it was cheap. We could make the art we wanted, friends would come, we could all afford to eat out and we were free all of the time. LA is a town of hustle. But, what everyone misses is that above all this is a town of courageous people chasing their dreams. Think about how tough Angelinos would be during some crazy alien invasion. I want the people who’ve been rejected thousands of times on my team against an army of E.Ts.
Also, LA’s reputation seems to be getting cool. People in Europe know about Eagle Rock and Downtown. You say, “I live in LA” and people go, “Oh yeah? I’ve heard good things about Highland Park.” More and more awesome people are coming to the city and setting up shop and making counterculture happen in LA again.
What has been one of the hardest transitions as an artist immigrating here?
THEODORA: It’s a weird time to immigrate to the US. I think everyone is transitioning. I am in a constant state of culture shock but I don’t think that has to do with me not being from this country. I think LA is like that for everyone, even Americans. This Hollywood experiment that started 100 years ago is still going, and no one is controlling this beast and it’s now booming again, which is insane!
I feel like LA and America are awesome places to make art. Make it and not make money from it, probably. People really support you, encourage you and say, “Oh you are going to be famous”. In Europe, although great, I felt like there was a constant skepticism. I still feel like that American dream still exists.
There are some downsides, like a lot of bands you see in LA are together because they want to get famous. They didn’t all go to school together or are all just friends, they met on craigslist under the caption “Band Going all the Way”. In Europe, you just knew that no agent or manager would see you that night or any night. No one was ever going to make you rich and famous but you were getting paid, fed, and drunk by the end of the night and that was awesome. You made art because you wanted to make something. Also, working in TV, everything needs that Hollywood razzle-dazzle. In Europe, TV could be weird for the sake of being weird, totally funded by the state because it is weird. That I miss.
What is one thing you wish other people knew about the immigrant artists that work in LA’s entertainment industry?
THEODORA: I’m super fortunate, I have many friends who are really struggling to keep and renew their visas. I believe that most immigrants who arrive in a new country, no matter what they do, are working super hard for their dreams. Those dreams involve being a part of an economic system which eventually will benefit the country.
“Creativity takes courage.”- Henri Matisse
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(Photo’s Courtesy of Stephie Theodora and David Moya)