Parfum de Vie – The Smells We Love and Perfume Psychosis – A Meditation


Compulsion

Americans are famous for loving shriekingly clean scents, shunning anything remotely unwashed, and themselves smelling like nothing interesting to the point that more than once, when smelling the latest designer released flanker intended for just such an audience,  I’ve wondered if they were simply bottling drugstore cleaning fluid and calling it a day.  Once when sniffing an unlabeled sample I was forced to wonder, “Is this Versace Bright Crystal or CLR?” So I was absolutely enthralled when I posed the question “What are your favorite smells?” on Facebook, and got responses that ranged from earthy to filthy.  A Perfume Freak’s Dream.

Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Scent memories are powerful.  With one whiff of a familiar smell, we can be mentally whisked to a moment in our past, the presence of an old companion, or a particular time or place we will never forget.  I know that when my college friends smell Calgon Turquoise Seas body spray (if it’s even manufactured anymore) they think of me which is pretty hilarious, but whatever.  I cannot deny my past and frankly, I still dig some Calgon.  (And Victoria’s Secret Dream Angels Heavenly which resulted in more than one person telling me, “You smell like a stripper….no no!  That’s good.”  Alright, sure.)

My past is full of lots of potent and unforgettable smells (I did live on a farm for some time, you know…) For years I have dreamed of a perfume that would smell like my Dad on a morning before church.  It is the most wonderfully comforting scent of Irish Spring, coffee, toast, perhaps a smidge of smoky bacon, shaving cream, mouthwash, and Tuscany Pour Homme.  Nothing smells more like “home” to me than that.  Penhaligons Sartorial comes close.  As does Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, but the toast and coffee are missing.

Similarly, another scent from my past that I wish I could recreate is the scent my parents seemed to effortlessly emit when they would return from an evening out.  Melded perfume and cologne, a touch of charbroil from the steaks they probably had, someone else’s cigarette smoke, a hint of booze, hairspray, leather, and the fantastic zing of a wool coat that has just come in from the cold.   They would walk in the door looking handsome and beautiful respectively, and that scent would just take over the house.  It was so grown up and mysterious and I miss it, although I suspect that I might occasionally smell this way myself.  There is something about Molinard’s Habanita that grasps this concept for me, and it is downright cheap and cheerful.  CB I Hate Perfume has an offering called Winter 1972 that has that cold wool coat with just a hint of cigarette.  Jasmin et Cigarette by Etat Libre D’Orange gets the smoke, but lacks the beef.

Yet another scent I wish to smell again is that of my Gramps’ basement, which sounds dubious, but read on.  Gramps, in his heyday, had a fully finished basement complete with wet bar and jazzy 70’s organ.  It was a wonderful place.  It smelled, quite frankly, like the business end of a wine cork.  To the wine cork add a bit of pipe tobacco, perhaps a bit of basement-related mustiness, maybe a bit of pine (for the holidays), a lingering waft of cigarette from somebody’s coat (we’re talking early 80’s here), and more than a dash of bourbon (Truly, I thought eggnog was the color of dishwater due to the ratios of rum to mix my Gramps used. Only in college did I discover it’s true density.)  Think about it: wine, cork, smoke, must…truly, if any of these scents are to be taken literally, this is the one that would make a fantastic men’s fragrance.  If only  I were a chemist.

Great smells in their natural habitat need only be experienced, however.  They need not necessarily be bottled. Certainly, they aren’t all meant to be worn on the skin.  That said, owning a bottle of something that, when sprayed, has the ability to transport you is an experience of pure comfort and joy.

Using the scents put forth on my Fbook page, I’m going to offer perfume-related  suggestions that just might spark a memory or two.

Let me first state, however, that the intent is not to be literal.  For an exercise in literal scent recreation, check out the Demeter line of fragrances.  It’s arguable that they are fully-fledged perfumes, but they are a master’s course in scent science. So, truly, if the scent of a thunderstorm is what you are after, Demeter has a scent aptly named Thunderstorm (as well as Earthworm, Funeral Home, and Humidor, just to name a few).  My project, rather,  is an experiment in the art of true perfumery and it’s ability to be an appealingly wearable scent, and yet still evoke an ethereal image of something you love.

In the meanwhile, some of our favorite scents are available quite easily in bottle form.  Flowers, woods,  and bakery treats dominate the perfume market, particularly those available and heavily advertised in the US.  So, for our purposes here, I am far more interested in conceptual scents and oddities.  A good lavender isn’t so hard to find.  Something with the snapcrackle of printer paper straight out of a Xerox or the spice of your dog’s fur may prove more difficult.

What can I say?  It’s a hobby.

Certainly, smell is all about context.  While my friend Nick and I agree that shallots slowly caramelizing in butter is probably the best smell on the face of the earth, I wouldn’t want to smell that way sitting at my desk.  Just like the smell of fresh raspberries might be a delight in nature, and refreshing post-bath, it would be hard to take someone seriously in a business meeting.  As such, I believe that flowers are best experienced as, well, flowers.  They are what they are.  There’s no great lilac perfume because you’re better off just smellin’ a lilac.

I guess this is just my way of saying the following perfumes are all in the name of fun, and if you are so interested, broadening your perfumery horizons.  I will never have smelled All the Perfumes, but I have made a bit of a dent.  I hope you enjoy.


Books, Magazines, and Other Related Paper
:  People love the smell of paper in it’s many incarnations, as do I.  However, the scent of newsprint is not the same as an old book.  Sharp crisp copies still hot off the printer don’t smell the same as a freshly cracked magazine.  A trade paperback smells very different from a leather bound classic.  The library, the used book shop and Barnes and Noble all are singular smelly beasts.  Certainly, paper is, underneath it all, wood.  But if you were only identifying things by smell, a cedar chip and a ream of printer paper wouldn’t seem very near to each other.  The cedar is still rich with it’s oil, the printer paper bleached and sharp.

The creator of the aforementioned Demeter line is also the genius behind CB I Hate Perfume which seeks to create in either water perfume or extrait (pure perfume) form, just such things as these amalgamated dream scents from our past and our experiences.  One such creation is a scent called In the Library.  It’s an intimate scent.  Vanillic in the way that, trust me, a good ol’ book is vanillic.  Warm, aged.  It’s a great pick, and I highly recommend it.  Truly, the love of the scent of paper seems fairly universal.  A newly launched scent called, aptly, Paper Passion has just launched, it’s subtitle – “perfume for book lovers.”

For that hot off the press slightly shrieky cleanness, I recommend Thierry Mugler Cologne.  It is far from subtle.  I believe Perfumes the A-Z Guide calls it “steam iron.”  Like paper, it somehow manages to evoke sharp coldness and steamed fresh ink.

Tires, Cars, Industry, Tar, Gasoline and WD 40.  For all the times I’ve driven through Gary, Indiana and experienced the sulfurous fumes that emanate from Steel plants, one would think I would be convinced that industry = stink.  However, this is not always the case.  The Blommer chocolate factory, on occasion, fills the city of Chicago with a very out of context air of baking brownie.  It is wonderful, and as reported in the Tribune a couple of years ago, likely highly carcinogenic.  BUT with our inherent love of pipe tobacco, gasoline, and vinyl, humans love to stick their noise into a cancer causing chemical and breathe deeply.  I ain’t here for your health.

My father, an engineer in the automotive industry has a job that is both white collar and yet requires trips to the plant floor donning earplugs and goggles.  When he arrives at home, he smells like a freshly sprayed can of WD 40 and it is one of the world’s most wonderful smells.

My husband loves a fresh tire.  He describes them as “sweet” and so they are, and of course rubbery.  Bvlgari Black is the premiere rubber perfume.  It looks like a puck, it is unisex and it smells great.  Women the world over have been attempting to woo men with bottles of fruity silliness, clean musks, and flowers, when all the time it was grease they were after.  Good, clean, grease and rubber.

Grass, Snapped Grean Beans, New Mown Hay, Horse Barns, Alfalfa, and Good, Clean, Dirt.  Only a kid from the country could assert that, in fact, cow shit is a vast improvement on all other kinds of barnyard shit including pig and turkey, in particular.  It is second only to the nicely grassy horse or rabbit shit which, in comparison isn’t just “not bad” it’s sort of kind of nice.  Even comforting if you were ever on first name basis with a horse or rabbit.

And I was.

I mention this because in perfumery there is an aroma-chemical called Indole that makes an appearance in both white flowers and poop, so if I mention that something has a barnyard quality or rather lacks a barnyard quality, I mean it with much affection and all seriousness (as the discussion of perfume allows).

But let us begin with a proper lawn mowing which engages no indolics whatsoever.  Newly mown grass is one of the world’s most wonderful, fresh and naturally occurring smells.  Frankly Gap’s recently re-issued Grass scent smells just about like it.  I’ve never smelled Demeter’s grass scent, but I bet that ‘s pretty great too.  I often wonder if Californians or Floridians feel quite as passionately about grass as we Midwesterners.  Surely they don’t have that bleary eyed look we all get stumbling our of homes in late March and maniacally fall to our knees, praising the heavens taht we have seen something that is both naturally occuring and green.  LOOK AT IT!  IT’S GROWING!!!!!!!  I sort of get why dogs roll around in things.  I bet they are just grateful that it’s there at all.

But I digress.

Moving away from the literal green of grass and moving on to the conceptual family of “green scents.”  Galbanum, a resin, is the primary player in the most famous green scents:  Chanel no 19, Gucci Envy, Chanel Cristalle (a green citrus).  Many Iris perfumes find themselves in the green family.  The Vintage Vent Vert.  Parfums di Nicolai’s Odalisque.

Diptyque’s L’Ombre Dans L’Eau is a trip through a rain-soaked garden on a hot August morning.  Tania Sanchez says it better than I that it smells like a “snapped green bean”.  To that I would add a dash of tomato leaves.  To anyone who grew up with and/or now tends to a veggie garden, this is a trip down memory lane.

Hay is sweet.  Not straw, but hay.  I prefer alfalfa, myself.  Green, sweet, fresh, and earthy.  I’ve read that Hay Absolute is a perfume in and of itself, but I’ve never had the pleasure.  And, unfortunately, for me I am allergic to it all.  Still, I rarely let that stop me.  Parfums di Nicolai has a very sweet offering both in scent and concept with a delicious hay accord that is actually a bit sweet for me.  It’s called Kiss Me Tender.  Serge Luten’s offering, Chergui, is hay inspired with a dash of honey and tobacco which evokes something of a Baltus Van Tassel-like character, in my mind:

Baltus Van Tassel from Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Baltus Van Tassel’s Bursting Barn from Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Bath and Body Works had a “clover” scented lotion that came as close to my childhood memories of an alfalfa field that anyone has ever gotten (that I know of).  I long for someone to recreate that scent.  I’ll help if I have to.

Love, Sex, Bodies, Babies’ Heads, and other Animalic Bits:  This would be the area in which Americans tend to squirm and look around for their Puritan bonnets, buckled shoes, and bottles of Dolce and Gabbana Blue.  One whiff of Muscs Kublai Kahn has the potential for the sniffer to look at you like you’ve just told a dirty joke in church.  If you’ve ever met someone from basically anywhere BUT the US, Canada, and the UK, you’ll quickly come to realize that the rest of the world just isn’t bothered by the natural smell of the human armpit.  In fact, during the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume, Lovely, she insisted on a little body odor because, “Secretly I think everyone likes it.”  While I think the true dirty animalics were probably focus-grouped out of the formula, a bit of duskiness remains.  And, indeed, it’s one of my favorite perfumes.

The new formulation of the perfume classic Femme by Rochas has a distinct and dirty-minded cumin note, and cumin smells like pits.  The Chanel orientals do not shy from the civet, leather, or animalic notes available to them in quality form.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:  Often these big ol’ classics (Chanels, Lauders, Guerlains) are quickly dismissed by people of my generation and younger as “old lady perfumes” but per usual, your grandmother has lived longer and knows more than you do about such things as quality and class.  So to dismiss her Youth Dew as a scrubber is to dismiss the true art of perfumery.  Sniff again, and notice the cinnamon, vanilla and booze.

Lovers of Mad Men and all things retro, I implore you to move beyond the Chanel no 5 and experience the Guerlains, Balmains, Lanvins, and other grand players from the great age of perfume.  It will challenge you.  You will have the urge to wrinkle your virginal little nose in distaste.  THIS IS THE MODERN ERA OF PERFUMERY’S INFLUENCE ON YOU AND MOST OF IT IS CRAP.  Not all, certainly.  But our noses have been trained to love nothing but what amounts to hand soap and shampoo in EDT form.

Grab a bottle of Shalimar and experience the genius of Guerlain’s inedible desserty masterpiece.

If you can, find a bottle of the long discontinued My Sin and prepare yourself for a perfume adventure.  It loops from aldehydes to grimy leather in the blink of an eye.

Sarah Jessica’s Parker’s Covet perfume was said to be inspired by the scent of her babies’ heads.  Now, I have never smelled the noggins of her children, but this perfume smells more chocolatey to me (if my memory serves.)  Still, thought I would mention.  Rather to capture the close to the skin-ness that I think one is looking to evoke here, I would suggest an oil based scent.  Perhaps Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely in the oil form.  I have a great little amber oil I picked up in the hippie dippie section of Whole Foods (is there any other section?) for 8 bucks.

Leather, while a chapter of perfume that stands alone, is by all accounts animalic, no?  So is honey, if we’re getting technical.  In a more specific area of perfumery lies the animal fur.  Clean, living animal fur is a spicy natural wonder.  We have a cat that is downright perfumed naturally.  Peppery.  Dry.  And comforting.  We have another cat who some people say smells like butt, and I say smells like beeswax…which probably smells like bee butt.  If so, count me in as a fan of bee butt.

Just one more weird statement I have made when talking about perfume.

The Grand Joke played on the world of perfumery by Etat Libre D’Orange comes in a small glass bottle adorned with the infamous “crying penis” artwork that I am downright not joking about.  It is called Secretions Magnifique and it is nauseating.  However, it fits the category as it is an experience, most certainly, and moreover inspired by all bodily secretions that are not urinous or fecal.  That still leaves a lot of secretions.  They also threw a little jasmine in there for good measure.  But then again, sometimes jasmine smells like floral bad breath.

The ocean, salt, beaches and the primordialDune by Dior is considered a marine scent.  This doesn’t quite do it justice.  But, in fact, there is a dry salty note in it.  It’s wonderful.  Vetiver is a dry grass that rasps, in a way.  I burn the essential oil sometimes, and if I overdo the vetiver I feel like I’m mummifying.  That said, vetiver fragrances are downright sexy.

Hermes Eau des Merveilles is salty and incensy and very very calm.  Very close to the skin, and very dry.  It is unisex, and I would recommend it for somebody who wanted to broaden their horizons beyond fruity florals, without announcing it to the world.  A good subtle experiment, and nicely beachy.  But not summery beachy – Eau des Merveilles is a beach after the tourists have left for the season.  It mysterious and moody.  I suspect it would layer nicely with a bit of amber or vanilla, as well.

In a complete reversal, let’s talk about the old school european suntan lotion fragrances.  Those would be Bobbi Brown Beach and Estee Lauder Bronze Goddess.  I have a mild distaste for white flowers and I feel that these fragrances, Bronze Goddess in particular could be my in road.

Tobacco, Cinnamon, Vanilla, Burnt Sugar, Espresso, Booze, Ground Coffee and the gourmand.  These are the least challenging and easy to come by perfume offerings.  Prada’s latest:  Candy.  The cognac firm Frapin’s offerings.  Aqualina Pink Sugar.  On a more classic note, Guerlain’s Shalimar and L’Heure Bleu.  If you walk up to the department store perfume counter and say you want something that isn’t floral or citrusy, you will walk away with one of these most likely. 

So, I’m going to go a bit weird with this one and give you some slightly less literal takes on the gourmand.

Ready?  Let’s go.

Anne Pliska is a bit Christmasy.  There’s gingerbread here.  And oranges.  Apparently, orange is not an easy note in perfumery.  Mainly because I can only count about three of them that manage to have an orange note that sticks around.  While it is a gourmand, it’s also icy.  It’s frankly gorgeous and completely reasonable in price.  I only hesitated to tell you about it because I wear it and I convinced my mother in law to wear it, too.

Sacrebleu is a gourmand in the sense it has gourmand ingredients…but you wouldn’t want to eat these.  It’s one of the few fragrances with a  detectable tuberose  that I still love.  (Tuberose is very challenging for me.  I’m trying to push myself.)  IF I had a “signature scent” which I just don’t, this would probably be it. Similarly (with FAR more tuberose) is Dior Hypnotic Poison.  I am convinced, if the Bronze Goddess thing doesn’t work out,  that this will be my in-road to tuberose, because THIS tuberose is covered in coconut and almonds.

Coco by Chanel.  I call it the Brunette of the Chanel bunch.  It’s warm, spicy,  a bit loud but never shouty, and full of layers.

Tabu by Dana.  Now listen.  It’s going to stonk your socks off the first time you smell it, and if you are just dipping a toe into the older perfumes, maybe avoid this one.  It smells cheap.  It IS cheap.  But it is very hilarious and a great gourmand.  My advice is look for the root beer.  There is a distinct root beer note to Tabu that can be heard about all the shoutin’, and there IS shoutin’.  Patchouli has some things tosay.  As does clove.  Musk.  Heavy hitters all.  Seek ye the root beer.

Coffee – Bond no 9 has a very warm and welcoming frag called I Love New York.  And even though it’s never been my experience, their version of loving New York smells like coffee.  Still, not a bad thing to smell like.  My only qualm is that it might smell slightly too much like coffee.

The best vanilla ever created is the aformentioned Shalimar.  There is no getting around it.  It is the finest, Frenchiest, richest, most sumptuous vanilla to be had.

If, however, you were looking for a lighter vanilla.  Less creme brulee.  Check out Vanilia by L’Artistan Parfeumer.  Sadly, it’s been discontinued, but it wasn’t discontinued very long ago, and thanks to the Internets, you can get your hands on a decant, or even a bottle.

Lolita Lempicka – I talk about this perfume a lot.  It was one of my Autumn picks.  It is one of my faves.  And it is a vanillic licorice with herbs.  Grand.  Distinct.  And very well done.  Also can easily be had for a reasonable price.

I put tobacco under the gourmands because it smells like you could almost eat it.  When, as a teenager I smelled an unlit cigarette up close and personal fo rht efirst time I shouted “IT SMELLS LIKE A FIG NEWTON!”  Uncool.  But accurate.  Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille makes you want to eat yer tobackey.  How very un-Ford like behavior.  A drier and smokier tobacco you might want to check out is Sonoma Scent Studio’s Tabac Aurea.

Wood, Forests, Workshops and Cedar Chips

Wood smells great.  It has natural oils.  It smells clean and warm at the same time.  Each wood has a distinct smell.  While we may not be up on the obscurities of the many different trees, certainly we know the difference between pine and cedar.  Sandalwood is the queen bee of the wood perfume family.  Mysore sandalwood oil (heavily overharvested and endangered) is supposed to be a perfume in and of itself.  I’ve never had the pleasure.

Ormonde Jayne Woman lists Black Hemlock as one of its primary notes.  When you sniff Ormonde Jayne Woman for the first time, when you look up you expect to have been magically transported to an enchanted forest where you may or may not be in danger due to the local sorceress.

On an more earthly plain, fresh unsullied hamster shavings smell downright grand.  The cedar ones in particular.  Cedar oil, in it’s essential form, somehow isn’t quite as warm and cozy as the wood itself.  In fact the oil can be a bit harsh.  Lately, the cedar that has been invigorating my pulse points is Commes des Garcons White.  It’s cinnamon and cedar and it’s downright cozy.

Recently…very recently, as in I got the sample a couple days ago, I discovered Sonoma Scent Studio. Perfumer Laurie Erickson’s work is just great.  Honestly, I can’t recommend it more highly.  Her perfumes are old school good.  They aren’t dumbed down.  There’s no flash.  They are adult and really well crafted.  My personal favorite at the moment is Winter Woods (I got this last Friday and I’ve already gotten several compliments).  It sort of combines the mystery of Ormonde Woman with a very really woodsiness and just a hint of smoke.  Although it isn’t listed in the notes, I get a very subtle vanilla and a pure incense in the drydown.

And then we have agarwood or oudh or aoudh or any of the other spellings that indicate as an American, you are just not gonna pronounce it right.  I say oudh with an “oo” that sounds like the “oo” in “foot.”  Here’s hoping I won’t get laughed at.  Anyhoo, I don’t know too much about oudh except that it’s like Hansel:  So hot right now.  I’m only just teaching myself about it, and will just have to report back.  I CAN tell you that if you are just dying to drop insane amounts of cash on perfume, start here.

Smoke, Fire and the Burned.  Growing up staunchly Protestant, I never experienced what my Catholic and formerly Catholic brethren think of as “church smell”.  To them, church smell is distinctly related to incense.  To me, church smell is a combination of green beans with ham in it, that cheap pink public bathroom soap, floor cleaner, Youth Dew, coffee in styrofoam cups and cheesey potatoes.  It’s true, being a Protestant just isn’t quite as glamorous as the ritual-practicing incense-burning Catholics, particularly when talking perfume.  Thankfully, through perfume, I can still relive what I never experienced.  In perfumery, incense goes far beyond a gas station purveyed joss stick.  Incense ranges from cracklin’ breath-takin’ frankincense to sweet purrin’ myrrh.  Resins.  Saps.  It’s fascinating. I like Armani Prive Bois d’encens, Annick Goutals Encens Flamboyant and Sonoma Scent Studio’s Incense Pure.  The best, however, is Chanel’s Coromandel which is just wonderful and I would bathe in it if I could.  White Chocolate Incense is the best way I can describe it.  Imagine having a mug of spiked hot white chocolate placed in your hand and a cashmere blanket wrapped around you.  You are ushered into a room that is bathed in silk, cashmere, angora and leather.  There is the purest frankincense burning in the corner and the floor is of the smoothest cedar.  That’s Coromandel.

It’s not just incense our noses like to burn.  Wood, fireplaces, even sugar (which I will address under a different category.)  Smoke is downright a-okay.

I mentioned CB I Hate Perfume earlier.  They have a particularly smoky offering called Burning Leaves.  If that is a bit too much bonfire for you, I recommend Sonoma Scent Studio’s Fireside Intense which is smoky but a bit closer to the skin and wearable.

Patchouli 24 by Le Labo is more than just smoke, but it’s the smoke that helps it stand apart.  Frankly, I could have thrown this under many categories such as the Animalics, or even the blurb on Books.  As Luca Turin says, There is a vanillic sweetness to an old book, and you will find that here in Patchouli 24.  Fear not the Patchouli, my friends. We all have our hippie related patchouli fears but patchouli is used is many many perfumes to round them out.  If you are a fan of the more oriental Chanels or Diors, it’s patchouli that is toasting your toes.  Think rich sumptuousness not raspy head shop.

Herbs

The Aromatic Fougere incarnate

In perfumery, herbs range from the very literal to the very weird.  The oldest cologne recipes originating from medieval times (even Egyptian) utilize thyme, rosemary, mint, and many other aromatics.  A perfect example of British style apothecary perfume (ie smells “older” than it is) is one of my faves: crisp, clean and herbal L’Eau by Diptyque.  In fact, L’Eau was one of my “in roads” to niche perfumery, but that’s a different post.  Herbs tend to be a bit masculine in perfumery.  The classic “masculine” scents are called Aromatic Fougeres and are packed with Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme and Vetiver.

However herbs are not always so very manly.  An herbal selection that falls under the “minty” category (a notoriously difficult note to achieve…however, I love mint in most forms and am therefore not as picky as your average perfume freak bear) would be a selection from the Guerlain Acqua Allegoria collection (a very reasonably priced way to get some Guerlain).  It is called Acqua Allegoria Herba Fresca. Another great mint pick is Dirty by Lush, and the solid is about ten bucks.

Herbs and Citrus often go hand in hand in the perfumery world.  One of my summertime picks is Eau d’Hadrian by Annick Goutal.  It’s unisex, fresh and decidedly herbal.  I wear it on the hottest days of summer when most perfumes are too much but none won’t do.

If you are really into aromatic herbs, however,  you should probably wade into the men’s department (that goes for both men and women.  Perfume is invisible. The only gendering happens in the marketing.  Again, another post…) , but keep your wits about you.  Head for the older stuff.  Perfumes for men are notoriously badly made and insulting to it’s audience.  The reason many people hate fragrance is because of newer Versaces and anything with the label of “sport.” Look for the classic Guerlains, Diors, Chanels.  Tom Ford has done well for men. A good in road for those who are nervous about crossing gender lines is the classic Acqua Di Parma or Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage.

A classic that has maintained a little world of it’s own is Clinique’s Aromatic’s Elixir.  I’ll be honest.  It’s a bit of a love-hate perfume and I am just not on the love side of the aisle.  However, much reading and research tells me it is very well done and a true classic.  It’s clear it is made from very high quality ingredients and is incredibly well made.  It’s distinct.  It smells like a classic from its era (the 70’s.   A wonderful time in perfumery.)  I’m just…not there yet.  (This opens the opportunity to discuss, “Why can’t you just not like it?”  I can.  I mean, I don’t.  I don’t like it.  But I know that Aromatics Elixir can teach me something about perfumery.  Whereas Fame by Lady Gaga, another perfume I don’t like, is just more of the same old crap that’s been flooding the shelves for all of the 2000’s.  As a cultural figure, she might have some lessons for me to learn, as a perfume figure, I’ve heard it all before.)

Seasons, Holidays and Memories – In a previous post, I attempted to capture All That Is Autumn To Me via perfume, and I made much headway.  Above, I’ve mentioned more conceptual memories I’d love to recreate.  My next project will probably be The Ultimate Christmas Perfume.  It’s hard to recommend perfumes for other people’s memories.  But even my own can be perplexing.  One of my favorite scents in the whole wide world is very specific and very strong.  It is Opening Night at a Theatre, Act Two Post Intermission.  The smells range from fresh sawdust, the oily smell of stage makeup, the heat of the lights, the booze in the patrons, the faint scent of cocktail meatballs and party trays, the range in perfumes in colognes, sweat, nerves, paint, leather, dust, hairspray, cigarettes,mentholated cough drops, mints….  The amalgamated smell is so wonderful and singular
and in some form has been a part of almost all of my life from my Dad’s performance of King Arthur in Camelot to my latest opening night just a couple months ago.  I don’t know if I’d want to wear it on my skin (if I don’t already by rote) but a candle would be nice.

Speaking of candles, sometimes this category is better served by atmospheric scents.  Every year my Momma (and now me and my sisters) make “Christmas smell” which is just a saucepan filled with all things Christmasey and simmered.  I love pine-scented candles.  Vanilla hand lotion.  Scent doesn’t always have to be EdP.

Nor does it need to be artificial.  Each March, some day comes along that registers above 60 degrees and I fling the windows open with glee to smell fresh air, soil, and green sprigs.  It’s a perfect scent, and one that must be walked into rather than put on.

There’s another category of scent is one that I think probably is the most fun, and also marks the true perfume geek:  The scent memory of an experience you’ve never had.  I remember the first time this happened for me.  I knew that my Aunt had worn White Shoulders for years.  And when I came across a description of White Shoulders in a book, I figured, “What the hell?”  A bottle of the EdC concentration is about 12 bucks at Walgreens.  If nothing else, the bottle is pretty.  I grabbed some on my lunch break.  When I smelled it, I expected to have immediate thoughts of my Aunt assuming I would remember the scent from childhood.  Instead, for some reason, I was mentally whisked to Ginger’s first visit to her new house in the movie Casino.  “What a Difference a Day Makes” was playing in the background and the world of the early seventies appears in a classic Scorcese long shot through closet upon closet of fur and jewels.  I just knew that the house smelled like White Shoulders.  And White Shoulders is just the sort of thing Ginger would have worn.  That day at least.  Trying to prove her innocence with an innocent perfume.  I just have to figure out what she must have worn at night.

Jean Claude Ellena, Hermes’ in house perfumer, says he is inspired by the paintings of Cezanne and Matisse.  Not their literal contents, but rather their spirits.  This appeals to me.  What’s the point of these big human brains if we can’t stretch out senses a bit?

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Autumn Rhythm – My Search for the Ultimate Fall Perfume


Don’t you think there ought to be a perfume called Autumn Rhythm?
The Bombshell Manual of Style

I do.

I am once again on the hunt for perfume.  This means a few things 1.  I will drop a lot of cash. 2.  I will succumb to perfume press descriptions which I’ve learned are complete bullshit, generally speaking, but nonetheless will reach saturation point where I will feverishly smell any sample that uses words like “honeyed” “spiced” “tonka” or “boozy”.  Full disclosure:  I already hit that point a week ago.  3.  Further, when my husband arrives home he will find me surrounded by samples, blotters, bottles, notebooks, and guides and will say without fail, “It smells like a whore house in here.”  To which I will reply, “A really expensive one.”

Ah, tradition.

Speaking of tradition, we have entered my favorite season of the year. For a few years now, I’ve been searching for my perfect Autumn perfume.  I love perfume and I love Autumn.  It only makes sense that I would want to meld these two loves into one symphonically spiced dream stormcloud that is bathed in fallen leaves, Jack o’Lantern light and atmospheric moodiness.

Now that I’m fully graduated and carrying around a card that says I am an adult…  Aren’t I?  Didn’t we get one of those? Autumn has become more of a leisure season than summer.  It’s my favorite time of year and as such, I feel I should be scented appropriately for it.  Just like I ritually pull my sweaters out of my cedar chest each year, I love the idea of pulling a pretty crystalline bottle of something spiced, boozy, and warm out of a drawer.

I mean, of course, bourbon.

But after THAT, I would like to reach into a second drawer and pull out a perfume that has patiently waited until its “time.”  I want to build a scent memory and limit this particular scent only to September, October and November.  I crave ritual and tradition.

What I want is to wear on my pulse points my ultimate concept of Fall.  For me, each September, October, and November I am sucked into an autumnal bolt of toile fabric frolicking merrily amidst the falling leaves, drinking a cidery cocktail as I wave to hay-riding, football-tossing passersby on their way to a pumpkin patch, having just left an apple orchard where they ate pork chops and traded flannels.  We are all rosy cheeked, good-looking and temporarily freckled.  We will meet up a bonfire that night where we will tell ghost stories, drink hot toddies, and wear cloaks.

Can we bottle this?

I’m not looking for my Fall perfume to be revolutionary or weird.  Nor do I want to smell like a Glade plug-in.  To illustrate by contrast, I like my Winter perfumes to feel like a cozy cashmere blankie scented with vanilla smoke, a  cup of caramelized something or other in my hand.  For Autumn, I want things a bit more outdoorsy– less shelter from the cold, but still warm enough to kick through some leaves.  Slightly dry, but still cozy.   In Summer I love zingy citrus and herbs, cool breezy berries, and white musks.  Spring is all about Iris, for me, but that’s a different post.

Not all perfumes or notes have a seasonal connotation, of course.  Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, for example, is a loud rose.  Roses, to be sure, could be associated with, say, June.  But a tea rose is to Paris as Ru Paul is to a woman.  Fabulous but not real.  This is a rose that showed up via spaceship after aliens caught a glimpse of Alice and Wonderland and the Golden Afternoon.  It is juicy and shouty and I wear it not because I love roses but because it is the smell of hot pink.  Azzarro pour Homme is similarly seasonless in that it smells like the world’s most attractive man and we can all agree that’s a wonderful thing year round, no?

So my quest is specific and has a hypothesis:  Is there a scent, wearable by a human who must occasionally occupy space near other humans, that contains all the atmospheric things I love about fall?

  • cloves
  • pumpkins
  • apples
  • cinnamon
  • squashes and gourds
  • rain
  • leaves
  • color
  • sweaters
  • scary movies
  • caramel
  • brandy
  • Applejack
  • baked goods
  • hay
  • harvestiness (TM – me)
  • books
  • fireplaces
  • bonfires
  • incense
  • candles
  • football (open to interpretation, but surely a little leather and sweat wouldn’t hurt anybody)
  • Gothic fiction
  • Ghosts
  • Witches (in the cauldron dwelling healing wise woman sense, of course)
  • Pencil shavings
  • Unsolved Mysteries

I’m speaking conceptually, of course.  The concept of an apple is far more interesting in the world of perfumery than a literal apple.  I mean, save yourself the $80 and just grab a Granny Smith.  Unless the literal kind of fragrance is your jam, then hithee to a Bath and Body Works.  I’m talking about art and shit.

For each of these aforementioned autumnal concepts, I can offer a perfume-related option:

  • Incense?  Armani Prive Bois D’Encens
  • Pumpkin – Etat Libre D’Orange Like This ( a weird “pumpkin” accord inspired by Tilda Swinton of all people and frankly, it’s too much for me)  I wish the bottle would hiss, “If it’s war Aslan wants, then it is war he shall get!” when you spray it, but that’s neither here nor there.
  • Football – Serge Lutens Muscs Kublai Kahn – Rrrrggggllll.  Full disclosure, this perfume smells like leather, musk, and armpits.  Really very expensive well-crafted leather, musk, and armpits.  Between the sheets leather, musk and armpits.  It’s wonderful.  As a former cheerleader, I can tell you that a football bus smells nothing like a high-end French manufactured perfume, even with the armpits.  I only WISH it did.  Rather, it smells like  all the things that glandular adolescent boys smell like including hormones, sweat, and anger.  And not just the present ones, but the total tonnage of all the football players past who also rode this bus year after year, like ghostly hormone-addled, often bloodied and grass-stained masses of testosterone and young masculinity, silently accompanying their successors to and from battle.  An image that’s almost beautiful, if not for the stench.  Throw in 50 Booster-provided sack lunches complete with bologna sandwiches, Doritos, and Twinkies as well as a few liberal and ultimately futile pumps of raspberry-scented body spray from the cheerleader occupied front of the bus and you’ve got a cumulative odor that I will never forget and yet inexplicably miss.
  • Pears – Annick Goutal Petit Cherie.  A charming little scent that is not dark enough for fall.  Yet, if you love pears, this is your girl.  (This particular juice is known to go bad before it’s time, so buy the small bottle.)
  • Witches – Ormonde Jayne Woman.  Witchy, not in the evil green-faced way, but rather the cauldron-dwelling wise woman, beautiful and terrible and lurking behind dark branches and mossy glens.  It’s unlike anything else out there.

But throw all of those together and you smell like an Autumn-themed migraine.

And I want ALL the things.

After going through dozens of samples and bottles, I’ve learned some things, realized  some notes I don’t want in this perfume and I’ve narrowed down my list to the following:

  • Brandy perfume – There is a perfume company called Brandy that produces only one perfume, also called Brandy, that smells like boozy apples and spice.  It’s great.
  • Lolita Lempicka by Lolita Lempicka – The most mainstream pick of the bunch.  The bottle is a purple apple covered in gold writing.  The juice is sweet with notes of licorice and fruit, vanilla and booze.
  • Oliban by Keiko Mecheri – Very spicy and autumnal with a big dose of incense.
  • Geisha Rouge by Aroma M – It’s an oil, instead of an EdP.  It’s gorgeous.  It smells like everything I love about the season. I am also fantastically allergic to it, but this has never stopped me in other areas of my life like hayrides, cats, dogs and rolling down grassy hills (which is awesome.)  So Geisha Rouge is NOT OUT YET even though it makes my neck burn.  There IS an EdP formulation which will probably solve the issue.  And yes, I am willing to go into aniphylactic shock for a perfume.
  • Commes des Garcon White by Commes des Garcon – A spectacular cinnamon cedar.
  • Dzonghka by L’Artisan Parfumeur – It smells like woods and tea and dry wonderful things.  It also has this peculiar (and great) note of what Finesse mousse used to smell like in the 80’s.  Like if you soaked a cedar plank in Finesse mousse, while drinking a cup of Earl Grey.  Which might sound, I don’t know, sticky– but it would smell amazing.
  • Ormonde Jayne Woman – Far too fabulous to stay with just “witches”.  I hesitate only because the thought of ONLY wearing it in Autumn saddens me.  Also, it costs a lot of money.
  • Bois de Violette – Serge Lutens.  I once heard this perfume described as “purple.”  This is right on.  I’ve also heard it described as the ultimate “rainy day at the library” perfume.  Also right on.  What’s more autumnal than plummy shades and  rainy days surrounded by books?  Purple is also the traditional color of royalty and so is the price tag on this perfume.  However, the point of luxury is not to calculate all the practical things you could have purchased with the amount you spent.  Rather the point is to enjoy it.  Still, if I do settle on this perfume, I may hyperventilate a bit at the Barney’s counter.
  • Padparadscha by Satellite – It is none of these…and yet all of them.  It’s an amber, which is hardly exciting in the world perfumery but undeniably pleasant.  What it does have is a dose of pepper.  I love pepper.  It is dry, spicy and warm.  Which is exactly how you want to feel in Autumn, as opposed to wet, bland and cold.
  • Voleur de Roses – L’Artisan Parfumeur.  Putting aside the apple and pumpkin spice version of Fall,  this is a mysterious gothic rose.  Wrought iron, thorns and the colors from the Crayola “bold” marker pack.  This is Autumn from the dark corner of a Slytherin party.  There’s patchouli here.  And earth.  Another “purple” scent.  But this time, in deep dark velvet.
  • Botrytis byt Ginestet.  “Botrytis” sounds like some sort of elderly affliction involving swollen ankles and orthopedic shoes.  The perfume, however, is nothing of the sort.  It’s honeyed, spicy.  It’s fruits are boozy.  It feels like a sunny Autumn afternoon.  Even the bottle is topped with a gold leaf.
  • Brigitte by Tocca.  The fruitiest of the nominees, take that as you will.  It’s spicy and gingery with a rhubarb note I dig.  Marketing jargon says it has a “panettone” accord, and that’ just fine with me.  It’s pretty and it’s inspired by Brigitte Bardot.  What’s not to love?
  • 1270 by Frapin.  Frapin is a French cognac maker that has delved into perfumery.  To me, this makes FAR more sense than fashion designers making perfume.  I mean, think about it.  That makes no sense.  Clothes and perfume have NOTHING to do with each other.  In fact, I would argue perfume does better without clothes entirely, but that’s a philosophical discussion. ANyway, Frapin 1270 is a cognac for the skin with many wonderful layers that unfold as you wear it.  It’s lovely and warm and unisex.
  • Black March by CB I Hate Perfume.  Oakmossy and dark without ever venturing into gourmand.  It’s green but in a deep dark woods sort of way.
  • Russian Caravan Tea by CB I Hate Perfume.  The best tea perfume out there, in my opinion.  It’s gorgeous and smoky and sweet.  The only problem is, Will and I will fight over the bottle.  We both love it.

But these are the “newbies”, relatively speaking.  The best age in perfumery was arguably the 50’s through the 70’s when mysore sandalwood wasn’t endangered, Europe wasn’t freaking out about citrus oils and allergens, and perfumers weren’t ruled by cheap executives.    What Autumn is, thematically speaking, is dark, rich, mysterious and textured.  We must look into the perfumes of the past to truly delve into this idea.  Although I must tell you that I have nixed a few of these from my nominees for the Ultimate Fall Perfume, that is purely from a personal point of view.  As a student of perfume, these not only fit the bill, they wrote the book.

  • Cuir de Russe by Chanel.  Although I’ve never had this experience, I am convinced this is how it would smell sitting in the back of a Bentley with a wealthy gentleman who had a drink in his hand, a cigar in his mind, and the window open.  It’s grand.  There is something autumnal about leather, and this is arguably the best leather. Seek ye not the perfume counter for this masterpiece, but get thee to a Chanel storefront.  It is part of their exclusive collection and yes, it is very expensive.  That said, the bottle is very generous.  And truly, you can’t beat the quality.  If you are going to splurge, splurge into this.
  • Mitsouko by Guerlain.  Whereas I would put Shalimar in my “Winter” perfumes, Mitsouko has a drier edge.  Much of the perfume community considers Mitsouko to be the greatest perfume ever created.  It is an acquired taste for some, myself included.  I’ve been “teaching” myself about it for years.
  • L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain This one has a nuttiness to it.  The Bombshell Manual calls this a summer evening scent, and I see their point.  But I raise them L’Heur Bleue’s coziness.
  • Bois Des Iles by Chanel.  Another “brunette” scent.  Probably a classier one, all told.  Bois Des Iles is similar to Ormond Woman in that I dislike the thought of limiting it to Autumn alone. It is incredibly grown up.  Even at 31 I feel like I might be being presumptuous to put it on.  Like high heels when you are 5 years old.  But how much fun are those high heels?  Perfumes: the Guide calls it No 5’s Brunette sister.  And I love that idea.

In truth, the likelihood that I would settle on a singular scent for an entire season is remote.  However, I need some sort of figurehead for the theme.  And if I pick up some flankers on the way, the more the merrier. September feels much different from November and certainly if I was feeling zany, I could find a scent for both the early and warm days and the later cold and grey days.  Halloween opens the door to even further possibilities.  My Ultimate Autumn Perfume will, I hope, encapsulate all those things and more.  If  not, well, it’s just perfume. *wink*

Movie Hero of the Week – Myrna Loy*


(Haven’t done a Movie Hero of the Week in over a year.  But I love doing them.  Decided to jump back in.  Although “of the week” is decidedly a misnomer.)

I love Myrna Loy.  I love all the actors I put in my Movie Hero of the Week posts in one way or another, of course (a dash of tongue in cheek notwithstanding).

But Myrna.  Myrna Have I Loved.

She was the ultimate co-star. ” Never a stand alone pillar of female power onscreen, she excelled at sharing the frame and reacting, what Cary grant called tossing back the ball.  Here she differed from her dynamo friend Joan Crawford and from such dominating female screen icons of her generation…most at home in comedy, she achieved her best effects by underplaying, by suggesting meaning rather than hammering it home….Extremely modern in her minimalist technique, she remains our contemporary in her ability to grow, to stay in the game and continue evolving.”  (Quoted from Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood)

She had a grasp of comedy and rhythm that was so subtle and filmic, and yet she could her hold her own with even the slap stickiest of Cary Grants.  She was smart and ferociously opinionated, often challenging the studio system, which was a dangerous thing to do.

What I admire about her most is her on screen partnership with William Powell, but I will get to that in a bit.

IMDB credits her with 138 movie and television titles.  She was around during the silent era and successfully transitioned to sound.  Not bad for a girl straight out of Montana.  It’s funny.  Her life had a span similar to my grandfather’s.  She was born in 1905 and died in 1993.  He was born in 1906 and died in 1995.  To look at her movies is to see the twentieth century, nearly in it’s entirety.  I feel like through her I am able to see the world he saw, in a way.

For a Chicago connection, she “was supposedly the favorite star of famed outlaw John Dillinger. He came out of hiding to see Manhattan Melodrama (1934), in which she starred, and was gunned down by police upon leaving the theater.” (source: IMDB)

In the summer of 2008 (I think) I trudged through the few remaining titles I had left to see on the AFI 100 list.  (I know there is a separate dimension in which I am still watching Shane.)  One of the joys of that project (the most dubious of New Year’s Resolutions) was The Best Years of Our Lives.  It is simply stunning.  Her performance of the supportive, understanding and solid-rock-strong Milly Stephenson left her with the nickname “The Perfect Wife.”  Veterans pined for Loy’s presence in their post-traumatic lives.  She said, “Some perfect wife I am. I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”

She was principled and fought for what she believed in.  She was even blacklisted by Hitler himself.  She fought against discrimination in public housing and Hollywood alike, pressing studio execs to portray African American actors as briefcase holding executives not servants. According to the book Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, “Along the way, in her eighty-eight years, she found the time to…fight the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, become a UNESCO delegate, campaign for various Democratic Party Candidates, serve John F. Kennedy on the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, help found the American Place Theatre, and rack up credits in radio, television, and stage.”

Myrna and I share a belief about film and acting in general.  “I admire some of the people on the screen today, but most of them look like everybody else. In our day we had individuality…Most of the sex I’ve seen on the screen looks like an expression of hostility towards sex.”

One of my all time favorite movies is Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House starring one of Loy’s frequent co stars, Cary Grant.  It’s a hilarious comedy about how absolutely insane and yet alluring building your own home can be.

In this clip, Mrs. Blandings chooses her paint colors.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had a conversation with my Mom that didn’t allude to this clip:

But hold on, because I saved the best for last.

The Thin Man

One of the great joys of my movie loving life has been The Thin Man movies (I own the whole set), which Loy is most famous for. The plots are kind of hard to follow but it simply doesn’t matter.  The point is Nick and Nora.  William Powell is Nick.  Myrna Loy is Nora.  They are one of the grandest  pairs that ever was.  Rhett and Scarlet, MacB and Lady MacB, George and Martha, Beatrice and Benedict,  and Nick and Nora.  I would…hell, I don’t know what I WOULDN’T do to be able to take on any of those pairs.

This clip is Nick and Nora at their best.  Seriously.  Seriously.  Somebody let me take a crack a this.:

Including the Thin Man movies, Loy and Powell made 14 films together.  They were artistic partners and friends.  Powell was a practical joker and sent Loy a funeral wreath for her 35th birthday with a note that said, “Be brave, dear.”  Of Powell, Loy said, “I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and, above all, a true gentleman.”

If you’ve never come across a Myrna Loy film, give one a try.  She had many nicknames, but the most famous was The Queen of Hollywood.  Her star may have faded a bit since the golden age of movies, but her performances never will.

And also, I’m serious about doing a stage version of The Thin Man.

*What is a movie hero? An un or under-sung member of the film making community who deserves more of the spotlight. And yet lack of such a spotlight often adds to their charm.

Be Confident. Be Yourself. Gee, thanks.


Family and non-theatre friends (“Civilians” as my friend Jay calls them) are essential supporters in our lives. We’re in a high sacrifice, low payout career. Having normal human beings around can be the key to maintaining sanity and perspective. Still, we occasionally have to translate our odd experiences to those, the fully functional, who have not chosen to be systematically rejected as a way of life. Bless them.

Off we trot to audition after audition. They shout, “Just be confident! Be yourself!” We try not say, “That’s not helpful! It doesn’t mean anything. But thank you for your support!”

Except, actually…

It isn’t meaningless.

In fact, it’s flawless. It’s perfect. They are so right on. It is ever so more helpful than my usual, “Tits up!” (Although at the very least, it can’t hurt, right?)

Let me translate.

“BE YOURSELF”

You’re on the phone with your Mom. You say, “Welp, guess I better go get ready for this audition.” And she says, “Well, you know what you do? You just get in there and be yourself. Break a leg!” (My Mom has stopped saying this due to the audible sighing on my end of the line. I don’t blame her. BUT she USED to. My Dad still does. Turns out they are geniuses. Read on.)

You think, How can I possibly be myself when I’m either terrified or have surrended to hopelessness or am feeling so competitive I don’t even recognize the person inhabiting my body (depending on the audition) and am speaking/singing someone else’s words under someone’s else’s circumstances. I am nothing if not NOT myself. Myself shows up belching in the car afterward, changing into flip flops and cracking something with caffeine I had denied myself until the audition was over, texting Will saying “I’m done. You want Chipotle?” THAT is me. Eager Beave in the audition room is somebody else. They say, “Can you do an Armenian accent?” And this person, whoever she is, says, “YES! Of course! I also clean bathrooms for free.”

You feel me. I know you do.

I once had an audition, I swear to God, that went like this.

DIRECTOR: Are you funny? You seem funny.
ME: (Completely not funny.) Yes. I’m funny.
DIRECTOR: Are you nervous?
ME: Yes.
DIRECTOR: Why?
ME: I’m always nervous.
DIRECTOR: That’s funny.
ME: …
DIRECTOR: Don’t be nervous.

Don’t think of purple dinosaurs, lady.

Actually, that ended up being a fairly successful audition. But my true self was sitting at the back of the house eating popcorn and saying, “OH just wait until I tell the other personalities about THIS one.”

So how do we access the humorous, joyous, intelligent and charming individuals we all are when we are also under positive stress. Here’s how:

1. Your material. This is a running theme with me. What you pick, what you are attracted to, the language of the pieces you use are all ways of showing who you are. What are those roles that just scream YOU to you? Do a piece from those shows!

Sidebar: Why not just write something for myself then? Well. I mean this with love. You probably aren’t a very good playwright. Most people aren’t. It’s cool. I’m not. This is very thin ice to tread. BUT if you think you are a good writer, and you think you can write a piece that will blow folks out of the water, then do it. Take a good risk. Make sure it’s active and not a story. I would also suggest saying the piece was written by “Anonymous” because if you say you wrote it, you will have just made a steep hill an even steeper one to climb. BUT, I’m all about authenticity and if you have genitals made of steel, more power to you. Preach!

2. Quit trying to imagine what the director or casting director is looking for. You will never know. Pick material you think is appropriate for the piece. Prepare it well. Audition. Go home and get Chipotle.

In a callback situation, read the play (READ THE PLAY), make strong choices. Let them direct you. Accept that they won’t always direct you. The important thing is how these words come out of YOUR mouth. What YOUR presence is in the role. Yes, YOU. Certainly we would all like to try our hand at playing an age 40 years different from ours cross-gendered with an Italian accent because we are ACTORS! We can play any role! But you know…that’s really more of an academic exercise OR sketch comedy. Being “right” for a role doesn’t mean it’s easy.

But don’t attempt to read minds. Trying to suss out what the director is looking for weakens your choices. They may not even know what they are looking for. OR you might change their mind.

3. Dress nicely but dress in your style. Wear shoes that feel good and make you feel like you look good. Don’t worry to much about “dressing for the part.” Just the other day I heard a director say, “Ugh I HATE that,” followed by a music director saying, “Mmmph I LOVE that.” See? You can’t win. Wear something awesome that feels good. Imagine if there was a movie about you, how would the costume designer costume the actor playing you? In something that made your body rock, that was a more cleaned and ironed version of your normal clothes. It’s like you popped up a notch so the back of the house can see. But then, I’ve been confused for a drag queen. So grain of salt. Grain of salt.

4. Your material. I’m saying it again. Find pieces you LOVE. YOU. LOVE. They are fun. They seem to be tailor made for your skillz. And they exist. For everybody. Find them. Love them. Prepare them well.

“BE CONFIDENT”

What does that even mean!? I actually thought that. For years. I’m not crying in the corner! That’s the best I can do, people. I showed up, didn’t I? Be confident. Hmph. Be electric. Be incandescent. Be stripey.

It reminds me of a song by Steve Martin:

“Be courteous, kind and forgiving
Be gentle and peaceful each day.
Be warm and human and grateful
and have a good thing to say.

Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike
Be witty and happy and wise
Be honest and love all your neighbors
Be obsequious, purple and clairvoyant.

Be pompous, obese and eat cactus
Be dull and boring and omnipresent
Criticize things you don’t know about
Be oblong and have your knees removed.

Be tasteless rude and offensive
Live in a swamp and be three dimensional
Put a live chicken in your underwear
Get all excited and go to a yawning festival.”

Even the most stoic among us is going to get nervous for certain auditions that hold a degree of importance to us. You don’t get nervous? Pin a rose on your nose, dude. Good for you. A director of mine just told me that she heard Uta Hagen say, “If you don’t nervous. Get out of the business because you don’t care.”

I kind of agree. But that’s neither here nor there because nervousness is not the opposite of confidence. Insecurity is. Confidence is knowing your path. Confidence is not comparing yourself to others. Confidence is standing in your own shoes and presenting who you are without judgement. That’s why confidence is attractive. If you don’t know if you are right for it, (say like RuPaul) how the hell they gonna know you are right for it? Confidence is knowing that whether they call you or not, you are going to go on L-I-V-I-N’ and enjoying the trail you are blazing. And that’s key. You have to blaze your own trail. You know why a lot of directors don’t want you to dress for the part? Because they don’t want a room full of the same person.

You can be nervous and confident at the same time.

“Be new, George. They tell you ’til they’re blue, George. You’re new or else you’re through, George. And even if it’s true, George. You do what you can do….” Sunday in the Park with George

Guess what. You’re new! You might not be young, but you’re new BECAUSE you’re you. Don’t blend in, for the love of god. This is Chicago. We don’t have to play by the rules.

Your material is new because you’ve prepared it with YOUR take on it. This is why I’m begging you to look at your material and ask yourself, “Do I like this piece?” If the answer is “no” or “meh”. Get rid of it. Find something you love. Picking a piece you are itching to share with people is a way to invigorate your auditions. Stand tall. Feel your nerves. Feel the weight of the audition. But know that you are showing them something they’ve never seen before because it’s you performing it from your perspective. THAT is confidence. That’s how you leave them wanting more. Don’t just try to get through. Live in it for that two minutes. That two minutes is a show and you are the lead.

So in conclusion, my Mom and Dad, and your Mom and Dad and your friends are GENIUSES. Be confident! Be yourself! with the addition of Be prepared, you’ve got a battle plan and a no-fail one at that. You’re not going to get every show. You just. Aren’t. You will get the shows that are right for you, the experiences that belong on your path, if you stand tall in who you really are. Being able to show up, do your thang, and walk away towards the next opportunity AS yourself IS confidence.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare


I have this philosophy that being open about the closed-door process of auditioning demystifies potentially intimidating situations and help us all learn from each other’s experiences.  I know, I know…grab some s’more supplies and we’ll all gather around the campfire and sing “Kumbaya”.

But on the real, something I am intensely interested in is audition repertoire. I’m really fascinated by pieces actors choose.  I also love really digging into my own book.  For most performers, it’s kind of an after thought.  After auditions, rehearsals, day jobs, performances, who has the time, right?  You see a posting, you fling something together or use that tired old monologue that’s been your trusted workhorse for years.  Trust me.  I do this too.  Still, we make our lives more difficult by being flip with our repertoire.  I believe it’s essential to really sit with your audition pieces.  Ask questions of them.  I say this over and over, but it’s true; as a performer, you are your own empire.  Your audition pieces are your employees.  They work for you.  Are they doing their jobs fully?  Also, are you utilizing all they have to offer?  Have you been actively recruiting exciting new pieces?  If you like your material, nay LOVE your material, if you find joy in performing it…auditioning becomes that much more easy and fun.

It can be overwhelming to look at your repertoire in it’s entirety and ask these questions.   You might be thinking, where do I even start?

Over several posts I’m going to be digging into different areas of audition repertoire and talking about how you can find really exciting and fun pieces that show off who you are as a performer.

Since I like to talk about things in real time, currently I’m switching out my old Shakespeare piece and bringing in a new one, so let’s talk about the Bard.

Conventional practice says YOU NEED A SHAKESPEARE MONOLOGUE.  I agree.  BUT, if you really hate Shakespeare….if classical theatre curls your toes, screw it.  Don’t do classical theatre.  Don’t have a Shakespeare monologue.

Heresy, right?!  Not really.  Do what you like.  That said, a theatre company may hold a general audition in which they want to see two contrasting pieces, one classical.  Typically you could eek your way around this by not expressing interest in the classical show, but tread carefully.  Not doing the pieces that were requested can very quickly make you look “difficult.”  Still, it’s your life.  Don’t waste it on stuff you don’t care about.

That said, in my opinion Shakespeare rocks, and you are missing out on a fairly large and vibrant subsection of productions if you don’t spread your wings in that direction.

So what to pick?  Ideally, you should have TWO Shakespearean pieces, one comedic, one dramatic.  Which will you use most?  I can’t tell ya.  It depends on who you are as an actor, what kind of productions are currently being produced, and what roles you are interested in.  What would rather play?  What would you rather play?  Dogberry or Claudio?  That would be an indicator.

There is often concern about what pieces are “overdone.”  Well, I’ll tell you something.   What’s overdone is not investing in your classical pieces or being intimidated by them.  They are just text, my friends.  Albeit really really great text, generally speaking.  So, if you want to do “To be or not to be…”  If that is the piece above all others that you connect to…Do it.  Just make it awesome.

That said, while the philosophical question behind “To be or not to be” is food for thought, I would offer that from the perspective of an actor auditioning for something, you could find a monologue that is more active and vibrant and shows off who you are as a person and a performer.

So.  (And I will ask this over and over ad nauseum) Who are you?  What floats your boat? Personally, I like my Shakespeare monologues with a dose of evil.  It’s just so damn fun.  Lady MacBeth isn’t a bitch!  She’s ambitious, people.  Talk about motivation.  What is fun for you to perform?  Do you like to wax romantic?  Do you like to make ‘em laugh?

Still, even if you know exactly what you are looking for in a Shakespeare monologue, the cannon itself is a little overwhelming.  I often suggest heading towards the Histories.  They are often pushed aside in favor of the Comedies or Tragedies.  In fact, the new monologue I’m working is Queen Margaret from Henry VI, Part II.  I know, you just fell out of your chair from excitement.  But listen, this woman is NOT HAVING ANY MORE BULLSHIT.  “I am no loathsome leper, look on me!” It reminds me of this moment from Best in Show: (go to :55 in the video)

The key is to find the right character and then find them at a moment of crisis.  By crisis, I don’t necessarily mean Drama or Tragedy.  I mean crux.  See these characters are human, because they are.  For now, in your search, push aside ideas of “heightened” language, scansion, or anything else that makes you a little wary. Just find a human you connect to and want to play.

Secondly, find this moment of crisis as it is happening.  Don’t find the moment when they are telling someone about it after it happened.  Don’t pick a story monologue.  It isn’t active.  These moments work in the context of the the play or scene, but in an audition,  you haven’t built enough relationship with your audience to make a story monologue viable.

I mentioned Claudio before, so let’s dig in a little.  Claudio, as you may recall, is the suitor to Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (one of my very favorites.)  Based on false information, he thinks Hero has been banging  somebody else so when he shows up for their wedding grieving, angry and distraught, he has this to say:

CLAUDIO Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

This “rotten orange”?  “She shows the heat of a luxurious bed”?!  Dude is throwing SHADE.  He is pissed!  He is also devastated.  Admittedly, this is a short piece but imagine the power you could rack up in this.  Short pieces can be very effective.

Staying with Much Ado About Nothing, let’s take a look at some comedy.  I offer you Benedick, the charming blowhard who starts the show with everything figured right out, and always affirming his Bachelor status.  In this monologue he is expounding on just how much he hates Beatrice…the woman he (spoiler alert) shortly marries:

BENEDICK O, she misused me past the endurance of a block!
an oak but with one green leaf on it would have
answered her; my very visor began to assume life and
scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been
myself, that I was the prince’s jester, that I was
duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood
like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at
me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs:
if her breath were as terrible as her terminations,
there were no living near her; she would infect to
the north star. I would not marry her, though she
were endowed with all that Adam bad left him before
he transgressed: she would have made Hercules have
turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make
the fire too. Come, talk not of her: you shall find
her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God
some scholar would conjure her; for certainly, while
she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a
sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they
would go thither; so, indeed, all disquiet, horror
and perturbation follows her.

DON PEDRO

Look, here she comes.
Enter CLAUDIO, BEATRICE, HERO, and LEONATO

BENEDICK Will your grace command me any service to the
world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now
to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on;
I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the
furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of
Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great
Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies,
rather than hold three words’ conference with this
harpy. You have no employment for me?

DON PEDRO

None, but to desire your good company.

BENEDICK

O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not: I cannot
endure my Lady Tongue.
Exit

Purists may balk, but I say either cut or integrate Don Pedro’s lines and you’ve got yourself a monologue.  He goes from listing Beatrice’s horrible attributes (and inadvertedly showing us how witty and hilarious Beatrice is in her own right), to desperately begging Don Pedro to send him anywhere ANYWHERE Beatrice is not.

Remember, in the context of auditioning, don’t think of Shakespeare as separate or different from any other piece. 

While you search, remember: there are comedic monologues in tragedies, there are tragic monologues in comedies, and there are both in the histories.  It’s all the delivery and timing.

I’ll post later about preparing these monologues, but for now read and gather.  Sit with them for awhile.  Read them out loud.  Find phrases that speak to you.  Ideas that seem clear and pointed.  Just like any monologue, it’s easiest when the character is talking TO someone. Once we dig into preparation, you’ll find most of the time Shakespeare tells you exactly what to do.  In many ways, Shakespeare provides a road map to preparation right there in the text.

But for now, have fun!  Find pieces that excite you and spark your creativity.

Hamlet:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure.

In an audition, the true nature you should be concerned with is your own.

11 Things I Have to Tell Myself About Theatre…and Nachos


A castmate and I were musing about our respective moves to Chicago and how our 21 year old selves would view our current lives.  While I sort of wrote this blog post to my 21 year old self, I also know that I couldn’t have learned these things by reading a list.  I really had to learn these lessons authentically.  Still they are things I have to reiterate to myself and it’s nice to see them all lined up and spell- checked and in numerical order with a movie clip at the end. (Also note to 21 year old self, you are currently working on a project you LOVE.)

Sidebar: I hope my 41-year-old self writes something to my current self like, “Use that windfall of 14 million dollars to buy a villa NOT a yacht.  THAT was a hard-learned lesson, giggle giggle. Care for a bellini?  Let me just summon my faithful houseman Agador Spartacus.”

11 Things about Doing Theatre in Chicago

1.  Confidence means more when you aren’t onstage.  Talent, training, technique and rehearsal are the keys to a good performance or audition.  Confidence is deeper.  You have to know…you have to KNOW that the path you are on is your path and the one that is right for you.  Comparison to other actors is death.  It kills your spirit.  It kills your creativity.  And it kills your spark.  Judy is right, you have to “be yourself.  Everyone else is taken.”

2.  Have priorities.  Change them if you need to. And make sure they are actually yours, not someone else’s.  You can be a professional actor and not necessarily want to star in a tv series.  It’s your career.  If you want to do Cher covers while rollerskating, then the world will be a better place for it.  I am so serious.  The world needs HAPPY rollerskating Cher coverers not UNHAPPY commercial actors who wish they were rollerskating and covering “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”  In the same vein, if that sounds like it sucks?  Dude.  Don’t do it then.  Only an performer thinks, “Ugh that project sounds horrible.  I’ll do it.”  Why?  WHY?

3.  As in the beginning…so in the middle…so in the end.  If that company sucked to audition for….if they were running an hour behind….if they were rude or dismissive…I assure you the rehearsal process will be the same way.  On the other hand, if the audition process was smooth, the people friendly, and the paperwork informative, that’s a huge high sign that they have it together.

4.  Make sure you love every single audition piece you use.  If you are bored by something, the people behind the table will be too.

5.  If you are offered a project and you have an inexplicable sinking feeling or  panic….that’s your intuition telling you to say no. (Not to be confused with feelings of healthy fear that indicate you are challenging yourself.)

6.  It’s okay to say no.  If you say no upfront to a project in a polite way, you won’t burn a bridge ( If you bail halfway through with a shady excuse, that’s a different story).  The project that feels “not right” for you might be a dream job for someone else who will love it.  If you know you can’t throw yourself into the project wholly, what’s the point?

7.  It’s totally okay to take a break for as long as you want to.

8.  When you take a break, it can take a long time to get back into the swing of things.

7.  If a role scares you, it’s probably the right role and you will benefit from playing it.

8.  If you have to force something from the get go, it’s not worth it. (Not to be confused with healthy competition)

9.  You have to love doing this for your own sanity.  I call it the Nachos Philosophy.  Sure every once in a while, I get tired of nachos.  Or am occasionally disappointed with a plate of nachos (what is with the cheese and pickled jalapenos only bullshit?).  Might you occasionally resent this inexplicable need for nachos and that it occasionally causes you to sacrifice other amazing foods in your quest for more nachos? Of course.  But can I imagine my life without nachos?  No I cannot, Madame.   You’ve got to love it like nachos.

10.  You can stop loving it and start loving it again.

11.  This: 

Gone for a Soldier – My Spring 2012 Reading List


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I am an avid reader.  And now that I have a Kindle?  Oh my god.  I’m a reading machine WITH a reading machine. I sometimes get so overwhelmed by titles I have to read or watch that I come up with complicated spreadsheets to keep track.  True story.  And I’m fine with it.  I know who I am.  Lots of things inform what I read and when I read them.  I try to create seasonal To Read lists just to keep my thoughts together.  Two major elements that inform my “To Read” lists are the current season, and if I’m in a show.

In Spring, my reading usually takes on an outdoorsy feel.  (One of my favorite Spring reads is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.)  I also read up on different religions in the spirit of Easter and Passover.  Since Chicago weather has been more early July in nature, than late March, I’ve also been tempted to read things with Summer on the brain.  I usually read some big blockbuster type book like a Michael Crichton that just begs to be read on a beach.

This Spring, I am also rehearsing a production called Opus 1861 which involves music from the Civil War era in a modern day wartime Afghanistan setting.  Since I have no personal experience with either conflict (although I have visited many a Civil war battlefield and museum, and am now in retrospect very grateful for the experience), I have been stocking my list with lots of research. (I also have a big list of documentaries I’ve been trying to plow through.)

My seasonal lists usually consist of around 20 books.  I try to make them a diverse mix of non fiction and fiction.  I try to learn about a subject I know little about.  I try to throw in a couple pulp fiction fun reads, and I also try to read some items that might help me in my personal goals.

Okay, so that said, here are the titles on my Spring 2012 booklist:

Part One:  Research

  • The March by EL Doctorow (I am exceedingly jealous of my husband who will be at the upcoming opening of Steppenwolf’s production of The March.)
  • War by Sebastien Junger
  • The Civil War by Shelby Foote
  • 1861: The Civil War Awakens by Adam Goodheart
  • Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq by Kirsten Holmstedt
  • What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
  • The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers by Nancy Sherman
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
  • The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West
  • The Girls Come Marching Home: Stories of Women Warriors Returning from War in Iraq by Kirsten Holmstedt

Part Two: Personal Picks

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – I try to attempt a classic on each list.  I figured a saucy one makes sense.  Lusty Month of May.  All that.  Whatever.
  • Game of Thrones Book 1 by George RR Martin.  After all this grit about the Civil War and Afghanistan, I think I will require something very escapist and fantastical.  I’m sure there are battles but there is no denying it’s pure fiction, right?  RIGHT????  *Twitch twitch*
  • Dune by Frank Herbert.  I promised Will I would read it.
  • Outbreak by Robin Cook.  THIS is my kind of science fiction.
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  I love a good new agey fable every once in awhile.
  • Dance of Death – Book 6 The Pendergast Series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  This is my favorite pulp fiction series.  It’s got elements of mystery, science fiction, occult stuff, and one of my favorite recurring characters: FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  If these books ever get made into movies, Paul Bettany just HAS to play this guy.  HE HAS TO.  I will accept NO ONE ELSE.
  • The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury.  More escapist conspiracy crap that I frankly love to read.
  • Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup.  A book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  Other than exercising my vote, the best way to maintain autonomy over our own bodies is to learn as much about them as possible.  And then maybe reread The Handmaid’s Tale again.  Cripes.
  • Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron.  Sometimes I need to be reminded.
  • The Firestarter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte.  I preordered this one before I had the Kindle.  I bought this program when it was a pdf file.  I can’t wait to see the rehauled print version.  This woman is a genius.  An unmitigated fully feminine no compromises genius.  I think I will be glad I have the print version just so I can write “GENIUS!” in sharpie in the margins.

I won’t end up reading all of them.  That’s why there are so many titles.  Likely some of the books I’ve chosen as research won’t end up resonating for me.  Some of the ones I’ve chosen for personal reading will end up sucking.  That’s why I have the rule of 50.  If it ain’t working for me after 50 pages, I put it down.  I’m also sure I won’t make it through all 4 volumes of Shelby Foote’s comprehensive The Civil War before tech.  Or before I’m 40.

I also won’t read them in any particular order (although the research books will be heavily weighted towards the beginning since we open in mid-April.)

Hopefully, I can carve some time out in this gorgeous weather to sit back and dig into my list!