You call yourself a what? Acting identity inherent in local artists

By Ron Bernas


“I’m an actor.”

It’s a phrase that can stick in an artist’s throat. It seems like a statement that has to be earned. But how? Is it something you say after your first paid gig? After you get an agent? Or are you always an actor, and you just sometimes get paid for it?

Two artists recently shared their views on that subject and, it seems, they are both kind of uncomfortable with the “actor” label. Perhaps it’s because they are both so much more.

Scott Norman, 47, is a face you might have seen on television, where he had parts in the short-lived “Detroit 1-8-7” and “Low Winter Sun,” both Detroit-based police dramas. He’s also appeared in independent films like “Street Kings 2” and “Detroit Unleaded.”

scott norman.jpg

Scott Norman

Scott’s path to acting was circuitous, though it had always been in the back of his mind. He was living in Japan and working as an English teacher. His students were attracted to his passion and animation and told him he should be an actor. It was something he had thought about for years, but didn’t pursue until he left Japan to move to New York where he started studying to be an actor.

He came to Michigan at the urging of an old friend who said the state had a thriving, fledgling movie industry. Today, he works in tech support (what he calls his “jobby job”) while he attends classes at the Motion Picture Institute, with his eyes on the goal of acting.

“I found I was not having control over the availability of roles,” he says. “So I’m at the institute to learn how to write and produce projects that I could then act in.”

Acting, he says, is a part of his identity, but he only calls himself an actor when he’s looking for acting work, rehearsing or performing. “But you’re always an actor because you’re always observing people and building understanding of other people that you use to build characters,” he said. “I’m an actor because of all the parts of my personality and my experiences.”

He likes, instead, the label “artist,” explaining it this way: “We’re all artists in a way. It’s in our nature to create and express ourselves. It’s how we choose to express ourselves—sculptor, musician—that brings labels. But the active medium is the audience and your relationship to them.”

“Artist” is also the preferred term by Maria Kelly, 52, a former teacher and professor of education who is pursuing an acting career that she had put on the back burner while she raised children.

maria kelly.jpg

Maria Kelly

“If by ‘actor’ you mean someone who is paid to act, they yes, I’ve been an actor because that’s how I paid the bills at one point,” she says. But she adds she thinks “theater artist” is a more apt term because she also worked as a director and choreographer when she worked, as a young woman, for two small professional theater companies in Minnesota.

Anyway, “acting” can be a relative term, when working for small theater groups.

“We had this big bunny costume and we would offer our services at parties and events,” she says. “So, if by acting, you mean performing a part for an audience, yeah, we did that, too. We called it ‘bunny slut’ work and it helped pay the rent.”

She worked steadily in commercials, industrial videos, print and voice-over work. “It wasn’t Shakespeare and it didn’t feel nice.

When she was married and children came along she shifted to teaching and cut back on acting. She didn’t even seek parts in the active (unpaid) community theater community. “I felt I needed to justify the time away from my family, so anything I took had to, you know, at least pay for the gas there and back.”

A recent move to Michigan, and grown children having left the nest, Maria finds she is in a position to pick up where she left off so many years ago.  She is has jumped into the community theater scene in metro Detroit and accepted a role as an understudy with the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.

“I want to have the experience,” she says. “There are so many quality groups in the area that I’m looking forward to exploring them.”

In the meantime, she’s discovering another artistic skill: She’s been bit by the pottery bug after taking a local class. Maria sees it as merely an extension, or another aspect of her personality.

“Creative people tend to find outlets for sanity’s sake,” she said. “Because if they don’t have that creative outlet, they end up making the people around them crazy. Finding other creative outlets just sort of happens.”

Ron Bernas is an actor, playwright and Detroit area freelance writer and editor.

©Ron Bernas [2016] and Wildemere Publishing LLC.


 This story: Learn more about Scott Norman

                                                "Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult book cover"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead book cover

Story 2:  Authors Colson Whitehead, who’s black, and Jodi Picoult, who is white, address notions of identity in “The Underground Railroad” and “Small Great Things,” painfully convincing novels focused on race and racial injustice.

Jay_ThenandNow2Story 3: Years after suffering a crushing accident, a photographer finds new passion.

Story 4: Life, not production, makes an artist.

Coming soon: The advent of digital photography forces a difficult decision.

We’d love to know your views. Comment below…

Sacred Craft: DJ Jay Daniel on Creativity and its Killers

Jay Daniel doesn’t take creativity for granted.

His grandfather sculpted, aunt danced, mother wrote and sang, and his grandmother cultivated his artistic interests. His childhood illustrations still hang throughout her home. At 9, Jay started playing the drums; by the time he was 11, his interest in DJ’ing was blossoming.

Jay Daniel performs at Movement 2015 in Detroit.

Jay Daniel performs at Movement 2015 in Detroit.

“I used to listen to radio DJs,” he says over pizza at Detroit’s Motor City Brewing Works. “I bought my first record when I was 11.”

That was “Midwest Swing” by Nelly’s St. Lunatics. He still gets that “cool” feeling now that he got while digging through record store stacks back then. While he hasn’t been on the electronic music scene for long—just five years—the media already is calling him a DJ on the rise.

Says “Daniel’s productions stand out for their simple elegance — they’re no-nonsense, no-frills hardware jams that pair hard-hitting bass drums with enchanting, haunting melodies, possessing a rawness and immediacy that makes his tracks feel human and relatable. He’s also an excellent DJ.”

For the first couple of years on the scene, Jay played other artists’ work—actually not an easy feat.

“You have to mix different elements of the song that relate,” he says. “Subconsciously, you pick up on it and then you know what you want to play next. You have to be attuned to it. You have to listen to the record. You have to study the record, pretty much. You have to be sensible rhythm-wise to understand what music plays well.” Of course, being a musician helps.

A couple of years ago, Jay started crafting his own mixes. “The second mix I made was called the ‘3750 Mix.’ I was just vibing—going off the feeling of the record rather than the BPM, you know.” Listening to it later “felt surreal,” he says. “I remember thinking ‘How am I gonna top this!’” He laughs. “But I knew it was a good start for me and I got a good response from it.”

Creativity has its limits

As Jay’s popularity grew so did his travel demands. In 2014, the 24-year-old traveled internationally every two weeks or so. He’d play in Paris for one show, return to Detroit for a few days, head to Japan, back to Europe, Detroit, Australia, and so on.

“I was in front of a lot more people and I didn’t realize it was making me anxious,” Jay says. Being exposed also opened him up to more criticism—his own and others.

“People are judgmental and have certain notions of you. And that’s in the back of your mind before you even meet them, so you end up being more critical too. I’m not a distrustful person typically; but you end up around all these people and you feel like your energy is getting used. It can be exhausting.”

“…Embarrassment, self-consciousness, remembered criticisms, can stifle the average person so that less and less in his lifetime can he open himself out.”

Ray Bradbury, “Zen in the Art of Writing”

It wasn’t just the negativity that started bringing Jay down; he found himself solely performing for other people rather than for himself and his love of music.

“I always knew (performing) was for other people because, you know, I’m a fan first. I like music. I never felt like anything anyone else made was just for them or that anything I made was just mine. Other people can hear what you make and enjoy it.”

On top of that, the excessive travel was eating into Jay’s production time, jet lag was taking its toll, and he was having difficulty winding down.

“The party never ended. Even when I was home, I was looking for something to do,” he explains. “But that’s when I should have just sat down and created something. It could have been anything. It could have been drawing, writing, or anything. Just to use that creative energy so you don’t get all frustrated.”

Pruning and bearing fruit

Youth, thankfully, didn’t keep Jay from reflecting sooner rather than later on where he was and where he wanted to be. He reduced his touring time and ramped up time with family.WatusiHIgh

“That helps a lot,” he says, being around people with the same energy as you. “They know how you think to a certain degree. They support you.”

Jay also didn’t sit around the house doing nothing; neither did he look for the next party. Instead, he began working on his own record label Watusi High, which just released the two-track EP “School Dance.” Though touring periodically — he was recently in Australia — he’s now working on an album. The record label, Jay says, gives him something else to feel positive about.

“Now I can build a catalog and have an umbrella for my artistic creations and expressions.”

You set the bouJayimagendaries

Jay’s advice to other artists?

“Stay focused. That’s the most important thing,” he says. “Stuff happens in waves and if you’re not focused then you might fall off that wave.”

Having too much time on your hands, Jay says, is dangerous. “You start thinking about the wrong stuff and end up downing yourself. It’s important to keep that creative energy going. There’s so much other stuff that can dampen and hamper your creativity, if you let it.”

When asked if other people can kill an artist’s creativity, Jay says: “Only if you let them. Just keep creating. Be positive and know your history. Everything is created. Don’t forget where your craft came from. It’s sacred and has longevity. It helps you express yourself.”

Connect with Jay Daniel on Twitter. Find his new EP “School Dance” at Paramita Sound, Submerge, and Peoples and Hello records in Detroit.


 ©Leslie and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2015]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moving People: A Novel Journey Through Books

Ron Bernas

By Ron Bernas

Artists are always seeking inspiration. To seek is to find, and they find it in the way the sun reflects off a lake at dawn, the sounds of nature or someone else’s turn of phrase. But immediate inspirations are one thing; and to make something meaningful out of them, the true artist builds them on a basis of a long-term philosophy.

As a storyteller, I find inspiration in things that make me look in a new way at something that’s familiar or mundane. If it makes me laugh, too, that’s even better. As a playwright, I am inspired by many writers: Horton Foote for the way he tells meaningful stories that are quiet and powerful, and Moss Hart for the heart around which he builds all his work and George S. Kaufman, for his way with a one-liner. Kaufman and Hart collaborated on, among others, “You Can’t Take it with You,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and has always been one of my favorites. It makes you laugh, it makes you think and it makes you want to be a better person. We should all aspire to reach that bar.

I talked to three artists about the books that have guided them on their creative journeys. Here’s what they had to say:

James PujdowskiArtist, teacher James Pujdowski

“Much like everyone who lives through their 20s, I felt I was going in the right path in education and was in the middle of earningPublished by Important Books an advertising design degree. I was a freelance graphic artist picking up jobs and I thought this was my only life. Then I took a required painting course at Wayne State University and an Instructor suggested ‘The Art Spirit,’ by Robert Henri.

This book mirrored every thought I had about art and life. I could not get enough of this guy and on each page it validated exactly what I felt was right with who I was and how I was going to let art be what my life would be about.
“I re-read the book several times until it became my mantra. When I reflect on the words in the book, I imagine I’m in one of Robert Henri’s lectures or, while I’m working on a painting, he is right over my shoulder guiding my hand. I’ve given copies of the book to choice students in hopes they pick up the torch and find the same aesthetic direction and peace it gave me.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘There are two dates in your life that are important. First, it’s your Birthday. Second, it’s when you realize why you are here!’”

James Pujdowski is a longstanding member of the Michigan art scene. His expressive landscapes and still lifes are drawn from direct observation from his travels around the country and benefit from his imagination and love of vibrant color. His work can be found in public and private collections across the country, and he is in much demand as an art show jurist. James is also a teacher at a private school in Grosse Pointe Woods and at art centers, colleges and universities.

Oneita Jackson

Oneita Jackson photo by Cybelle Codish

Photo by Cybelle Codish

“I’d been taking notes in the back of a book called ‘Foyle’s Philavery:  A Treasury of Unusual Words’ and a woman asked, ‘What do you do?’ We were at a funeral repast talking about the homily, one of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in any church, any service. ‘I do words,’ I told her. And there is no one way I do them—I read dictionaries, stylebooks, and English books.

“Writers are the custodians of memory.”
~ William Zinsser, “On Writing Well”

But as a satirist, I refer to five books constantly to ensure I’m doing my best, most honest work when making observations of humanity: ‘Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition,’ for mechanics; ‘Beating Around the Bush,’ by Art Buchwald, to make sure I’m on point satirically; ‘On Writing Well,’ by William Zinsser, for the vision that informs my body of work; ‘A Handbook to Literature,’ by C. Hugh Holman, for technical terms, and ‘The Best of Simple,’ Langston Hughes, for my common-man voice.

Oneita Jackson is a Detroit cab driver who studied English at Howard University. She was a Detroit Free Press copy editor for 11 years and wrote a column called “O Street,” which received a Free Press Columnist of the Year award in 2008. Her latest writing project is the “Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome,” observations of a cab driver in awkward situations. Find her on Facebook at Oneita Cab Driver.

Chris Emmerson

Chris Emmerson “I love German author Herman Hesse. He has so many great books. ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ is great, and ‘Steppenwolf’ is, too, but my favorite is ‘Siddhartha.’ It’s all about the spiritual growth of a man and I Siddhartha by Herman Hessefind that so inspiring and motivating. He really understands the multiple nature of good and bad in each of us. He explores the many different aspects of people and uses really cool imagery.

I read this at the same time I was getting into yoga, right about the time I read Gandhi’s book and the works of Rudolph Steiner. Still, ‘Siddhartha’ really gets right to the heart of the themes of personal enlightenment that interest me so much. Stories like this are important to me because I view life as a spiritual journey and I’m always intrigued by how people can have different beliefs and ideologies and achieve growth and enlightenment from different paths.

“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”
~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Chris Emmerson has been a fixture on Detroit’s rock scene for more than 10 years, playing at many of the city’s most popular venues. He started playing guitar at the age of four and started his first band in the fourth grade. Gigs with his father led him to a career as a professional musician. He released his first album, “It’s So Easy from Far Away,” in 2014, playing guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and percussion in addition to laying down all the vocal tracks. His second album, which tends toward the pop rock genre, is due out this year. In addition, he’s also a popular yoga instructor. His work can be found at


Ron Bernas, who compiled this post, is a freelance writer, editor and former reporter. He is the author of the screwball comedy-inspired play “A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody,” which has been performed around the world. He reads nonstop and is the author of Ron’s Bookshelf, a blog about books and reading at

©Ron Bernas and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2015]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Ron Bernas and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Language of Dance

Andrea Daniel

By Andrea Daniel

I have been a dance lover since childhood — making sure to attend performances by major troupes during their annual stops in Detroit and often writing about dance as a freelance writer. But that has been the extent of my dance involvement since participating in Advanced Dance Class in college. And then I received an invitation to the free ArtLabJ event “Moving with Detroit,” supported by CultureSource and

Now, some events you attend knowing what will greet you. You know your agenda, and you have your game plan going in, particularly if you’re to write about it.

Then there are the other events, those you walk into knowing you must have an open mind; you don’t quite know what you’ll get out of it. The “Moving with Detroit” description was pretty clear and set my expectations. The invite said:

The goal is to promote dance and movement events and encourage people to see, talk about and experience dance in Detroit. … The 90-minutes session is jam-packed with a mix of networking activities, panel discussions, artists’ talks, performances, and dialogues. It will be a space for networking, connecting and talking about dance and movement in Detroit and will include a performance by Harge Dance Stories.

But that was only the surface.

The program at hand

“Moving with DancIMG_1621e” wasn’t just an event, it was a working session. We learned about the inner workings of ArtLab J, the brainchild of president and founder Joori Jung; we networked; we brainstormed about the summer release of the “Moving with Detroit” Dance Magazine. And we  benefited from the presence of 90-year-old former dancer Harriet Berg, the lady known as Detroit’s preeminent dance historian.

Left-right: Nannette Mazich, executive director of Eisenhower Dance; Cheryl McIlhon, Eisenhower Dance board member and Detroit Opera House Dance council chair; and dance historian Harriet Berg.

Left-right: Nannette Mazich, executive director of Eisenhower Dance; Cheryl McIlhon, Eisenhower Dance board member and Detroit Opera House Dance council chair; and dance historian Harriet Berg.

In her own attempt to bridge the Detroit dance gap, Berg published “The Body Electric Detroit,” the 2012 guide to all things dance.

She praises Jung’s efforts: “I think that is the unique quality of Joori that she doesn’t just think about her own work and her own company, but about how she can get other artists, and other choreographers and people involved, and give them an opportunity to show their work.


“That is what we’ve been lacking in Detroit,” she continues. “We have the dancers that have the training but there are not enough opportunities to perform. And we have so much talent here in Detroit that Detroiters never get to see because they have to go away. So our dancers are dancing all over the Harriet Bergs dance guideUnited States and we don’t know about their work here. I think that’s one of our serious drawbacks for a young dancer. You know, ‘I’m trained. I’m ready to go… Where do I go?’ It’s about having regular opportunities to perform here.”


Below the surface

What would an event dedicated to dance be without… dance? And there was that, presented by the newly formed Harge Dance Stories, a mobile collective of artists working on various projects.

In following my favorite dancers and covering dance over the years, I have learned the artistry has a language all its own. The trick is to be able to read between the lines or movements to discover the message therein. No other time was this more apparent than watching an excerpt from  “Line Between Heaven and Here.”

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Two solitary women, Jennifer Harge, Harge Dance Stories’ founder, and Erika Stowall took to the floor, while a somber vocal ensemble piece — no lyrics, just some vocalizing — by Michael Hall called “Choir Only” filled the room. From them came the story (at least by my interpretation) of women, of supporting one another, of sadness, and of anguish.

“It’s about what living looks like when death plays a big part in our lives,” Harge says. “Women are our children’s keeper as forces come at us as we try to maintain our foundation.”

I found it interesting that she named her dance collective Harge Dance Stories rather than using the traditional “dance company.”

“I see dances most clearly as a story. The things I choose as dance have a diversity, an arc.”


~ Choreographer Jennifer Harge

Harge and Stowall, founder of three-year-old Big Red Wall Dance Company, met 10 years ago in a dance program at the University of Michigan and often serve as guest artists for each other’s companies.

The “why” of it all

ArtLab J president and founder Joori Jung

ArtLab J president and founder Joori Jung


A Seoul, Korea, native Jung moved to Detroit from New York three years ago to open a dance studio. In her attempt to get to know the city and surrounding communities, she noticed something missing, opportunities for dancers to regularly showcase their work. Her initial response was to fill the gap.

What began as a bi-monthly showcase for dancers’ completed or works in progress at her Eastern Market ArtLab J studio expanded into the Detroit Dance City Festival, which is moving into its third year and has developed international ties.

“Moving with Detroit” is her latest labor of love.

“We want to build up a relationship with all people,” says Jung. “So we want more networking. Like, design and music has a lot of networking going on, but with dance is harder to find that space, so that’s why we made the program.”

One of the things I enjoy when talking with dancers is hearing them describe why they are dancers. Their answers are precise, thoughtful and seem to come from a tender place inside.

“It’s one of the only things that’s consistently made sense in my life,” says Harge. “I always lean on dance to process life.”

Stowall cites catharsis: “It’s the best way to express myself without judgment or ridicule.”

“Dance is my therapist, and she’s free. We have a one hour session everyday.”


~ Erika Stowall 

When it comes to dancers, where words fail, dance completes the sentence.


Andrea Daniel is a poet, publicist, freelance writer, voice-over artist, BMI registered songwriter, founder of AND Communications and co-owner/operator of Dakota Avenue West Publishing. Andrea produces and hosts the Michigan Literary Network’s Internet radio show, and is co-producer and co-host of Literature, Lyrics & Lines on Detroit Public Schools WRCJ-FM 90.9. She lives in Detroit, Mich., with her son and Terrier-Poodle-mix, Dot.

Read more from Andrea Daniel on this site or on her blog.

© Copyright Wildemere Publishing LLC. 2015.