Paloma Nozicka | Performer of the week

Paloma Nozicka and Adam Brown in Jackalope Theatre Company's Long Way Go Down.

Paloma Nozicka and Adam Brown in Jackalope Theatre Company's Long Way Go Down. Photograph: Krzystof Piotrowski

The suspense thriller is a difficult genre to capture successfully on stage, but Jackalope Theatre Company’s Long Way Go Down tells an intensely emotional, brutally violent tale that will leave audiences breathless. Starring as a pregnant Tijuana stripper who has just been transported across the border, Paloma Nozicka gives a stunning performance as a captive who sparks an unlikely relationship with her jailer. A native of Glenview, Nozicka did some improv in high school, but was pursuing a career in journalism when she enrolled at University of Wisconsin in Madison. She began taking acting classes to pad out her schedule, eventually picking up a major in theater when she began getting cast in university productions. After graduating in 2009, Nozicka moved back home, got an agent and has been working on stage and in commercials since, voicing K-Mart’s holiday campaign this season and appearing in Goodman Theatre’s Teddy Ferrara next February. She speaks to us about the research she did for the role, how she reacts to the violence on stage, and just how physically exhausting Zayd Dohrn’s script can be.

What was your first reaction to Long Way Go Down when you first read it?

The funny thing is, Andrew Swanson was helping out with casting and he sent me an e-mail being like, “There’s this part for you in this play we’re doing, and I read it and I immediately thought of you and we’d love for you to audition.” And so in my head, I’m like, “Oh, cool. I’m going to be playing some quirky contemporary girl, some college chick or something.” And I read the play and she’s a Mexican immigrant who barely speaks English. I don’t know where he got me from that, but O.K. (Laughs.) So I read the play, and I had to finish it. Sometimes when I read scripts I need a break, just because they’re so wordy and it’s hard to read it without wanting to see it up on its feet. And this play, I really couldn’t stop reading it. It was the quickest read, it went by so fast and I was so excited to see how we were going to stage it. I think that there are different ways it could be produced. One of the ways could be playing into stereotypes, and it has the potential to be a very surface play. That’s not what we did, but there’s that potential there because it’s about Mexican immigrants and Arizona coyotes. The way Kaiser directed it is so nuanced and I just love it.

What kind of research did you do into the illegal immigrant experience? Did you spend a lot of time talking about that in rehearsal?

Yeah, when we did our initial table read, we had a dramaturg come in and she gave us some information about human trafficking and sex trafficking and drug trafficking. Things like that are so abhorrent to me and everyone in the show, so you just have go in and fill in those blanks for yourself. Anything that you can do to get that feeling of danger. Because it’s possible to read the script and be like, “O.K., I can just act like I understand, I can act like I’m scared.” But you have to really go in, and I watched a bunch of documentaries about crossing the border and I watched movies about different aspects of it, because it’s not all just immigration, it’s also the drug trafficking and the crazy amount of sex trafficking. And it’s all tied into this one thing, this imaginary line that separates these two countries and how much people will sacrifice to get over it. For me, it was a lot about watching real people who had tried to make that crossing, and more often that not, the stories were unsuccessful. It’s really heartbreaking to see people who try so hard, and they get sent back. And they keep trying and they get sent back. Some people give up, and some people just keep wanting to come back into the country.

Violetta has a very intense emotional journey in this play. How did you work with Kaiser to trace all those characters shifts and make them natural?

It was interesting because the first few weeks of rehearsal we were trying something different with her. It is pretty evident in the first few scenes that Chris is enamored of her, he has a crush on her, and initially the character for me was much bolder, she was much more confident. She knew that she could use that to her advantage. We talked a lot about using sexuality to get what you want, but when we got into rehearsal, it just became evident that—and I think that goes along with doing the research, too—I started to realize just how scary of a situation this would actually be. She’s trapped in a safe house with two men, she’s alone, she’s pregnant, which they don’t know until later, she’s freaked out. So for me and Kaiser, it was really about that survival mode. You’d do anything to survive, especially if you’re a mother. I’m not, but I spoke to a lot of women, a lot of my friends recently had children and I asked them, “What would you do if you were in this situation and you were pregnant?” And they said, “I would do anything possible to stay alive. It doesn’t matter. When it comes to your boyfriend, your partner, whatever. If you have to choose between your partner and your child, it’s always the child.” Using that survival tactic is how that journey gets mapped out, and of course looking at the script and using the lines as fuel to see what the next tactic is going to be for her. But it started off as a very different play, and then it just morphed into this much scarier, much more intense situation.

There’s a lot of violence in this show, what is it like being in the room with that?

It’s really terrifying. And every night when we do it, Violetta is sleeping, so when I’m lying there I can’t see anything that’s happening, but I can imagine watching it for the first time. It just goes from such a happy, jovial scene right before that and it’s just terrifying. The sound of breaking glass is just such a visceral, scary sound. It always reminds me of car accidents. It immediately gets your heart pumping and your blood going. And just to see the stage, especially at the end of the play, there’s just shit everywhere. Every night we wreck that stage, and it’s never something that I’m comfortable with. It’s always something that is a little bit terrifying. And to see Danny [Martinez], who plays Nini, I think he makes that switch so well, from being this fun, lovable person you can relate to to being a really scary force to be reckoned with.

I’m sure being tied to a chair in front of live audience can be pretty scary, too.

Yeah, we talked about that, too. We take our time with that moment, because there aren’t very many lines in that part where he’s tying her up. Earlier we had thought about speeding it up a little bit so the action was quicker, but our director was like, “No. This needs to be silence, complete silence while this is happening.” It’s really a very scary thing to have that happen, it makes you think about all of the possibilities. As a character, you’re thinking, “This guy has me tied up, what’s he going to do? Is he going to leave and bring people back? Am I going to get raped?” A bunch of crazy stuff goes through your mind, and that moment is really intense every night. And I bruise really easily so I have bruises all over my wrists from when I try to escape. I just get a little too into it and get bruises all over my arm.

What has been the biggest challenge of this show, and what has been one of the most satisfying things about the experience?

I had an interesting viewpoint going into this play because my mom and my stepdad are Mexican, and for them there’s a bit of a stigma with the way the United States views Mexico. I watched Traffic the other day, and every time they showed scenes that were in Mexico, it was always these little borders towns and deserts and peasants and wooden shack houses, and I’ve been brought up my whole life knowing that Mexico is a big, beautiful country. It’s a country like any other country. So going into this play and playing one of those people, who is struggling so much and does live in Tijuana and is a stripper and is desperate, wrapping my head around that was really difficult because I’ve grown up knowing that a lot of people in the United States view all of Mexico like that. I didn’t want to be perpetuating a stereotype, but at the same time that’s as much a reality as anything else.

But the most challenging thing about this production is putting myself in that mindset where you're so desperate for something that you would do literally anything. That recklessness and selfishness—that's been hard to create every night, and continues to be a hard thing to do. To want something so bad that you'd abandon the love of your life, and your country, and your family, just to get it. Going back to doing the research, the more research I did, the more it just became a reality for me on stage. And it’s really terrifying, to let your body get into that, to feel fear and to feel that you could possibly die or get raped or any of these things that are a real possibility for Violetta.

But on the plus side of that, I also think that is the most satisfying part about it. Kaiser has told us, “If you’re not exhausted by the time you’re done with this play, then you’re not doing something right. Because this should be exhausting for you.” And it’s a very physical show, even for me, even though I don’t have any fight scenes or anything. It’s just very physical to constantly have your heart rate go faster and then you calm down a bit and then it goes faster and then it calms down a bit and then you’re crying and you calm down. Your body doesn’t know that it’s fake. But I think the most satisfying thing about it is to have those experiences night after night. It really is living that story, and I feel satisfied knowing that we told a good story and that people are reacting to it and coming away with an experience they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t come to the show. It’s one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve ever done, which might sound weird because it’s such an intense, dark story. I just love it and look forward to playing out the story every night.

Jackalope Theatre Company’s Long Way Goes Down plays through December 22 at the Viaduct Theater (3111 N Western Ave, 773-340-2543). Read our review of Long Way Go Down.

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