One day I would like to publish a collection of "How I got into the business" stories. I think if young people could read all of the amazing and improbable ways we get into this crazy industry, they just might make the leap themselves. My good friend Courtenay Miles realized her dreams earlier than most, in a family who could nurture that dream. That's a good start for sure! But it takes hard work and a nose for opportunity to make that dream a reality. Here's Courtenay's "How I got into the business" story.
HOW I GOT INTO THE BUSINESS
Courtenay Miles – 1st Assistant Director
A 300 lb man in peasant garb and bare feet dances and kips joyously around a tall lapis urn. Above him, on an ornate balcony high against a fortress wall, a woman in silken robes does her best not to notice him. I am 9 years old, standing with my mother in the stage left wings of the Fox Theater in Atlanta Georgia. The NY Metropolitan Opera is presenting L’elisir D’amore – The Elixir of Love. And the barefoot peasant with the gloriously resonant voice is Luciano Pavarotti.
My mother, a classically trained lyric coloratura, retired early to have four children and live in her native deep south. But each year, as her children exhibited just the threshold of patience to sit through an opera, she would take us to see the Met where we often spent one act backstage through her relationships with colleagues.
The Elixir of Love was not my first opera, but it was my first trip backstage. It is one of my most vivid memories. As we watch from downstage left, Pavarotti, playing the peasant Nemerino, dances around the Elixir, proclaiming that the object of his affection, the noble Adina, will soon fall under its spell. Adina, played by Judith Blegen, looks down scornfully, singing out her disdain. My mother and I stroll upstage, past the soft goods. Finally, Adina turns and exits the balcony, just as we arrive parallel to the set.
And then it all plays back in my memory at 48 frames with a ½ diffusion filter. As we walk upstage the world suddenly morphs – the renaissance fortress collapses into a single 30 foot beam about a foot thick. Moments later I am watching Adina gather her ample skirts and skitter down a rickety staircase of raw wood. The fantasy world continues to play out in front, but here, behind the fantasy, was the most fantastic world I had ever seen. Raw wood, pulleys, spewing fountains on dollies, entire banquets on wheels, countless shadows moving about with props, and a glamorous singer racing off for a costume change, pulling pins out of her headress. To me, making the story come to life was suddenly vastly more interesting than the story itself.
Being nine, I didn’t see stagecraft as a career – it was an escape into the mysteries of how to tell a story. And growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, there was scant opportunity to learn the crafts and no role models. I began the circuitous 1,000 point plan to get to the career I have today.
I entered Tulane University in the school of Biomedical Engineering, intent on becoming a trauma surgeon. Though I loved the sciences, I always overloaded on courses in Literature and Theater because I had never given up on my love of story. I figured, you only have 4 (or in my case 5) years when you can learn anything you want so you might as well take every class that piques your curiosity. And for me, those were Shakespeare and theater classes.
I graduated with a degree in Literature and a Watson Fellowship in Directing. As a Watson Fellow I travelled Europe interviewing directors and watching every piece of theater I could. My studies centered on different modes of storytelling, from conventional narrative to improvisation to montage. When I returned to the US I got my first job as a Stage Operations Apprentice at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta – literally, sweeping the floor.
I next apprenticed in Stage Management and began freelance stage managing around the country, always drawn to large, complex productions. I was able to enjoy the challenges of world film premieres, corporate exhibitions, both the Atlanta and the Utah Olympics, a Broadway premiere and countless theater productions. While working in Los Angeles I heard about the work of Assistant Directors in film. It sounded like the perfect job – huge production challenges but with a more integral role in the creative storytelling than stage managing allows. I applied to the DGA Training Plan and was accepted. After 10 years of building a successful career, I was starting over as a Trainee, the lowest person on the totem pole.
I have been an AD since 1997. What led me through the circuitous path to get here was always one thing – story, and how do we tell it. People first gathered around the fire, Greeks packed amphitheaters, Elizabethans built firetrap 6-level venues all to tell stories. Stories are what teach us, enlighten us, confirm our collective faith in our human values and our fears of what destroys those values. Stories also confer dignity and meaning on even the smallest acts and lives. I have been fascinated since I was young by how we tell those stories and in my opinion, film is the storytelling medium of our time. I feel continually lucky to be able to work in the center of the amphitheater of the modern world.Return to Musings