BY CARY GINELL
Many Ventura County theater performers have two lives: they have their on stage lives and then their 9-5 lives, which are spent working a traditional day-job in an unrelated field. A privileged few are able to sustain themselves through performing as members of Actors Equity, but most are unpaid volunteers at local community theaters in the area, with occasional paying jobs in and around the Los Angeles area. Some work in related fields as private teachers in performing arts schools or as independent instructors. Joanna Bert is one of those who loves performing so much, she can’t wait to get to her next gig and is driven by her passion for the theater to create her own opportunities. Joanna is the founder of Smile and a Song Princess Parties, in which she transforms herself into a storybook character and appears at children’s birthday parties.
Home grown in Ventura County, Joanna graduated from Agoura High School and received her BFA degree from Emerson College in Boston. After graduating, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life, so she decided to come home.
VCOS: What made you choose to return to Ventura County after graduating college?
JOANNA: I wasn’t sure that acting was what I wanted to do. I was such a homebody that I wasn’t sure that I could be away at a place that was cold and different where I was alone, so I came home, and for a while, I didn’t do acting. I volunteered for an animal rights organization in L.A. and also at a holistic veterinary clinic. I was really into working with animals. But then I fell back into what I call “princess work.” I worked for another company in Orange County. So I kind of got my feet wet that way. It was a little far for me to go; I was living in L.A. at the time, but it became too much of a distance to drive to the gigs, so I kept this in the back of my mind for a while. I had this dream in the back of my mind for about two years but I never thought it would become a reality.
VCOS: Were you performing out here at that time?
JOANNA: I’ve been performing since I was a young child. I’m with SAG and have performed with Cabrillo Music Theatre in Fiddler and The Sound of Music. I worked the Canyon Club Dinner Theatre as Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis, I did professional TV work; I was with Ellen Burstyn and Paul Sorvino in a TV show, I was in Nickelodeon commercials and did a lot of child acting work. I played Mary in Secret Garden in the Glendale Center Theatre – that was my biggest and my most favorite part. So I kind of dabbled, in and out, with theater a little bit. After I graduated high school, I went to LAMDA [note: London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] and studied Shakespeare in London.
VCOS: And how old are you now?
JOANNA: I’m 25.
VCOS: You’ve done a lot more than most people of that age.
JOANNA: Yes, I’ve been around the world. When I was in high school, I was part of the Santa Monica Playhouse and was a regular member of the repertory there. They do original children’s musicals, which is what I love to do.
VCOS: Do you write?
JOANNA: Yes I do. I’ve been writing ever since I was a kid. I would take something like The Nutcracker – I was also a ballet dancer – and turn it into a mini-play. Or I’d take favorite TV shows and adapt them into plays.
VCOS: So how did the princess party idea come into being?
JOANNA: I was sixteen and was introducing myself to the neighborhood. I loved doing characters. One of my favorite birthday parties when I was a kid was at a theater play space and we acted like animals on the stage and got to dress up in costumes. That was my favorite birthday party ever. So I introduced myself to the neighborhood kids by dressing up as Beauty from Beauty and the Beast and singing songs, telling stories, and I served cupcakes and passed out my business card.
VCOS: And how long have you had your business now?
JOANNA: It’s almost two years. I thought this was something I’d do on the side, to help support myself because my ultimate goal was Broadway and musical theater or Shakespeare. If I do go towards that one day, that’s great. If not, there’s nothing more fulfilling for me than the feeling of success in what I’m doing right now – having something start from nothing more than a twinkle in my eye. Today, I have independent contractors who are working for me. And I’m making memories for kids who are going to remember it forever. This is something that I’d never, ever expected to have. Seeing it grow is exciting and I don’t know if theater would do that for me. In my company, I’m my own director, I’m my own creator, I’m actually creating something.
VCOS: Did you do much improv?
JOANNA: Yes, I did. It’s a lot of improv. That’s what I do when I interview new girls to work for me. I tell them, “My name’s Joanna. It’s my third birthday. You’re Cinderella. Just open the door. I’m wearing your dress and I’m so scared, I can’t speak. Go.” And I usually have them improvise what they’d say to me. Kids are so smart. They know everything.
VCOS: What’s the hardest question you’ve had to deal with from a child?
JOANNA: “Hey, Snow Queen, make it snow!” (laughs) My answer to that would be, “Well, it’s so warm and sunny in California, I don’t think it would be good for the plants and animals here.” Or, if that doesn’t work: “If the snow melts in this hot sun, it would make such a mess and your mom would be so angry.”
VCOS: How old are the kids that come to your parties?
JOANNA: Anywhere from first birthdays to three, four, and five. I’ve done ten-year-old parties, like their “last” princess party. I was a theater teacher, too. I taught improv and creative drama to pre-school through high school ages. So I’d pull out my old theater exercises and games and would adapt them for the princesses and the older kids, and they loved that.
VCOS: Tell me about the characters that you play.
JOANNA: They’re all very traditional. My favorite is probably Rapunzel, because I look the most like her. My face shape suits her, with the green eyes, the blonde hair and the freckles. She’s young, but not so glamorous. I play baby-faced princesses very well. But Rapunzel is young and spunky. It enables you to be dorky and it brings out my inner child and my inner geek. And I’d make little jokes like, “Did you know it takes me three hours every day to wash and brush my hair? And I use the same shampoo that my horse uses: Mane-and-Tail.”
VCOS: Do you have a script that you follow?
JOANNA: Yes. I greet the birthday child. Make a big fuss. Tell her that I’ve heard all about her at my castle from my prince, and all the servants at the castle are talking about her party and I’m so glad that I got the royal invitation, bla bla bla. Then I ask how old she’s turning and ask her to twirl around in her beautiful princess dress. Then I introduce myself to her friends and family or the king and queen of the castle. We do storytime, I do an interactive retelling of the character’s story from her point of view, and I try to bring along a storybook for visual aids. Some kids are auditory but a lot of kids these days are very visual, so they like to look at the pictures. Sometimes if they’re not listening to what you’re saying, they’re able to help understand the story by seeing the pictures. I sing songs with the kids. If I’m playing a character from a movie, they’ll sing those songs from the movies with me.
VCOS: Do you write your own songs?
JOANNA: I have a song that I made up for the Snow Queen. I used it when I worked at a pre-school in Santa Monica, and we did a winter show. It’s to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot,” but I changed it to make it a snowman song about a snowman melting in the summer.
VCOS: Do you always do your parties alone?
JOANNA: No. Sometimes we have multiple princess parties – or I will do Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter which I do with Andrew Metzger, who’s a good friend of mine. He’s wonderful with kids and is great with improv. He does the Mad Hatter and Captain Jack, the pirate. Then we have Monica Ricketts, who played Fiona in Shrek in Simi. I’m currently seeking another princess.
VCOS: What is your ultimate goal? At some point, you’re not going to be able to play young princesses anymore.
JOANNA: I do other characters, like the Wicked Witch, which might be my favorite party that I’ve ever done. I got to teach the kids to cackle with me. And I was wearing this long, beautiful black wig, which was actually my roommate’s. She’s a cosmetologist. So the mothers would want to touch it and they’d ask me if that was real human hair and I’d say, “Yes, I just scalped it off of a little girl in a blue gingham dress.” But my ultimate goal is to originate characters. I would love to write children’s books and plays and create original fairy tale fairies and princess characters. Take more of a step behind the scenes and have other people be princesses, once I’m not of that age where I can do it. I would be most happy just to be a wicked witch or evil queen!
VCOS: You seem very confident in your abilities and your vision for your business. Is there anything you’re afraid of?
JOANNA: My business is growing very fast, so it sometimes grows a little too fast for me to manage for one person. I try to be very organized and get back to people and be the best business person I can be, but sometimes one person can’t do it all, so I would probably have to start giving responsibilities to other people, and when you do that, you’re not in control of the quality anymore. But I’m looking forward to the challenge!
You can find out more about Joanna Bert’s Princess Parties at www.smileandasong.com.