All posts by Ravenchild

A visit with a ghost and then, sometime later, rebuilding from ruins

The ruins of our garden shed

by Cynthia Wands

This year we lost our garden shed. We didn’t misplace it, but the loss was complete and unmistakeable. From years of slow moving soil erosion, and a rotting roof, the entire structure fell in on itself. And on it’s side. And down the hillside.

And yes, this does remind me of some of the scripts I’ve worked on. Initial promise. Lots of adjustment. Then total ruin. At least that was the worst case scenario I had in my head.

But back to our shed. The original owner of our little cottage built the garden shed, some eighty years ago. We found out that he was quite a character, even if we never met him in the flesh. Early on, we did have a visit from him as a ghost. But I’ll get to that in just a minute.

This owner, we’ll call him Mister Cottage, was a caretaker for the golf course across the way. He was staff, maintaining the grounds and the buildings, and when they rebuilt the main clubhouse, he reused many of the discarded bits to make our house. This included the old wood frame windows, which shimmer, and tink with cracking sounds when it gets cold. The welded together metals cans that served as an exhaust vent in the attic. And the Buick hand brake that continues its use as a door handle to the deck. He was inventive and determined, and he was successful in building this little cottage with a massive fireplace and a wonky kitchen. The story goes that he died in this house. We should have paid more attention to that part of the story.

But Mister Cottage loved his shed. It housed his giant table saws, and tools and lumber. It didn’t see much use for tending a garden, but it was the engine of his industry at the cottage. And this year, after eighty years of rain, the occasional earthquake, and raccoons, the shed had enough.

The garden shed waits for it’s reincarnation

So, for my playwright friends. You know the part in the process, where we look at the arc of the play, how does it move along, what actually happens, and how does it get there? This is the beginning of all that. It is the beginning of all that hard work.

During this pandemic solitude, Eric and I spent several months rebuilding the little shed. It was a slow, labor intensive process, pieced out by how much we could afford to buy things, and manage the work. Like in writing: IT WAS SO MUCH WORK. Everything took longer, and was harder, more complicated than it seemed.

And there was a strange sense of rewriting history as we worked on it. The table saw had been given away, the cement floor broken up, the roof rebuilt. But the painting part. Yes the painting. That’s when the odd things began to happen.

I wanted to paint the entire shed white. A very nice paint. All white everywhere. Eric helped me set up all the painting props: the tarps, the brushes, the rags. And it took weeks. I would spend hours painting the walls, the sides, the ceiling. And the paint would disappear. As in not show up on the walls, sides or ceiling. I would paint it again. Same thing. I went through 5 gallons of white paint. I had the feeling that Mister Cottage did not approve. Because we had been through this issue of interior decoration years ago.

When we first moved into the house, it was – spartan. We repainted walls, filled it with paintings and mismatched furniture and cooked smelly curry dishes, and listened to loud jazz, and played charades with friends where there was lots of yelling and laughing and banging about.

We started to notice that sometimes, overnight, things were moved around the house. Certain paintings on the walls (and only the paintings with naked people) were always tipped to one side. Things left on the counter appeared on the table. Things on the table appeared on the counter. You could hear the floorboards in the hallway creak, as if someone were walking away from you. You could hear things go bump in the night. Lights suddenly turned on in a room when no one was there.

And sometimes Thaitu, the Abyssinian cat, would jolt up and watch something move across a room, eyes bugged out, and then she would look at us as if we were idiots for not seeing it. Whatever it was. And then one night. I heard bumping and scraping in the kitchen, and got up, and turned on the lights. They flickered for a moment, and Thaitu appeared next to my ankles, fluffed up like a porcupine. The room was cold, really weirdly cold. And I knew he was there, and he was making it known that he was not happy.

Thaitu let me scoop her up, and I held her as I realized I had to be the one to do this. So I told him. I let him know that we loved his little house, and appreciated everything he did to build a home that was lovely and we would always take care of it. And we were going to hang the artwork with the naked people on the walls. And we would have parties and loud music and smelly food. But he had to go now. Because it was our house now.

And he left. The noises stopped. The artwork was left alone. And we thought we were done. Until I started in on the garden shed. And the paint wouldn’t show up.

I would paint a coat of paint and it would vanish. As in not appear. After three coats of paint it finally started to show up.

Three coats of paint. No really. This is what three coats of paint looked like.

After five coats of this damn white paint – it started to appear. We hung new lights. We put up shelves. And hooks and things.

This did remind me, again, of writing plays. Sometimes you write for a character to appear. You write and write and still, they don’t seem to have a form, a color, a point of view. And then, after a lot of rewrites and hearing them talk out loud, they start to show up.

The garden shed starts to show its color. White.

So, here’s where the playwright’s metaphor gets stretched a little thin. The tools had to audition for their place in the shed. No, seriously. My thought was, we only had so much space in the shed. Only so many tools could be included.

Auditions held for The Garden Shed

But much to my surprise, and perhaps related to my hotly contested abandonment issues, every tool was included in the final organization.

All tools are included.
The beginnings of the shed

So. There we are. The Garden Shed of Mister Cottage has begun a new life.

Very much like a new chapter. A new scene. A new act.

It means my garden can be supported with the tools, and the space and intention to do better work.

Just like a playwright.

And with that, I will go pour a glass of wine and celebrate.

The front walkway of the cottage.

Sometimes an image can help you breathe…

by Cynthia Wands

Was it just yesterday – really – yesterday. Saturday, November 7. I felt like I had this heavy pressure on my heart for weeks. But on that day, starting at 8:36 in the morning ~ we had phone calls, and messages, and tweets, and emails and Zoom sessions with family and friends. And that’s when I realized I had been holding my breath.

The 2020 Election had been “called”. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had been declared the President-Elect and the Vice President-Elect.

I watched television from Tuesday, November 3 through Friday, November 6, waiting for the results. It was excruciating. I went to bed, then woke up, then slept on the lumpy couch to watch exhausted newscasters play with projected numbers and revised projected numbers. Could Biden’s numbers go up? Were all the votes counted?

It felt hard to take a deep breath. It was hard to look away, but it was also hard to keep watching. I felt like I had been here before, waiting, for a long time, for something catastrophic or incredibly wonderful to happen. Either or. It felt like four years ago.

Four years ago, Eric, my husband went through a stem cell transplant at the City of Hope hospital. We’d been watching his cancer numbers climb (70% of his bone marrow had multiple myeloma cancer cells) and after a lot of research and soul searching, decided a stem cell transplant was his best choice. That’s when I noticed I was holding my breath. A lot.

During the weeks of preparation for the stem cell transplant (pre-meds, an implanted Hickman port , dozens of blood draws) I learned that all this work they were doing was to get him ready, was to help him survive the days after the transplant.

All his white blood cells would be affected (okay, killed off) by the chemotherapy/transplant procedure, and then, afterwards, the white cells would start to build up again. That was the plan. There would be a countdown of how his body would recover from the transplant, how his white blood cells would come back. According to the treatment plan, 7-10 days after the transplant, we would see his numbers go up.

So he had the transplant. He seemed to do well. But after nine days in recovery at the City of Hope hospital, his white blood count was still 0 -.1 (A normal white blood count is 4.5 – 10)

This was not good. He had several blood transfusions. My twin sister was staying with me and everyday we kept watching his numbers, worried that his recovery wasn’t kicking in. If his white blood count was still 0 after ten days, he would have to be transferred to another hospital setting, and another treatment plan would be suggested.

That’s when I noticed that I was holding my breath a lot. Waiting. Waiting for the numbers to go up. Waiting for the white blood cells to kick in. Waiting for him to survive this stem cell transplant.

And on the tenth day after his transplant, his white blood count rose to .7 – not even 1.

And yes, it was not 1 or 2 or 4.5 – but it rose more than it had in the entire ten day recovery period. So he was allowed to go to the next stage of treatment. I was still holding my breath. After 14 days, he was allowed to go home. Where he has continued to survive, and to go on to different drugs and treatment plans.

But I remember holding my breath. Waiting for numbers. And this election felt like that.

So I followed twitter feeds, and the television, and my phone. We were watching the numbers go up. In Nevada. Arizona. Georgia. Pennsylvania. And this damn Electoral College voting.

On Saturday morning, November 7, at 1:35am I saw this on the television screen:

I decided that I better stop watching the television. I left the lumpy sofa and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up, turned on the television, made some coffee, and then looked at Twitter on my phone. That’s when I saw this:

It was 8:36am in the morning.

I wanted to take a deep breath, but I was afraid my lungs would burst.

I was afraid that I would blink, the moment would pass, and it wouldn’t be true. Or that it would be true, but that it would turn out to be corrupted, and then become sadly untrue .

It was a moment that I had thought would change everything. It was a moment that I thought would feel like relief and validation and a sense of accomplishment. But it didn’t feel that way. I just felt scared to breathe.

As the day went by, it seemed more real. It almost seemed true. I heard from family and friends, and saw dancing in the streets, and heard church bells ringing in Paris in celebration, and saw fireworks in London to cheer the election results. I was able to join the Zoom meeting of the playwrights workshop that I love, and we read scripts where we forgot about an election, and projected votes. And little by little, I felt better.

But truly, it wasn’t until I saw this, on Saturday night, that I was able to really breathe. And cry. And laugh.

The first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States: Kamala Harris

And then there was this image:

The first speeches from President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamal Harris

Here they are. Both of them wearing masks. At a historic moment in history, they are showing up, making the best of it, and trying to breathe.

A good example of what we need to do, to get by in this present moment.

Women’s Voices

by Cynthia Wands

It’s been an amazing experience to listen to all the women’s voices during the Democratic Convention. Women who are journalists, broadcasters, politicians, a woman who works as security in a high rise elevator, sisters, mothers, Nancy Pelosi, and citizens.

I didn’t hear much authority in women’s voices when I was growing up. The nuns at Catholic school were characters, some brash, some almost invisible, but they were never heard from in the congregation at mass. They could sing in the choir. But they didn’t have voices that you could hear as an individual or participating as an equal in the church hierarchy.

As a playwright, I think back to all the characters I wanted to be as a young girl: a lion tamer, the first person who could fly without wings, an eccentric artist who kept a large menagerie of exotic animals, or a lawyer, like Katherine Hepburn in ADAMS RIB. I loved mouthy, extroverted, fearless, confident women who were fierce.

I’m looking at all the women who are running for office this election, and the voices of women interjecting their issues into the fabric of our chaotic American life right now. And I’m relieved to see that the centuries of women’s silence is coming to an end. I also see the pushback and disrespect and misogyny and violent objection to women in power, using their voices.

So I’m encouraged. For our voices as women, as characters, as people.

I wanted to share a bit of a giggle. This is a bit of diversion taped by the BBC, and the actors are having a bit of fun with our Zoom culture. I love it. I hope you do too. It’s about three minutes.

Auditioning for the Faces of America

by Cynthia Wands

Remembering an audience of 11,000 at the MUNY Theatre in 2019

I was watching the Democratic National Convention last night, and I’m still thinking of all the faces and voices from the Americans who appeared during the states roll call.

I’ve watched it three times since last night, and I’m still very moved by it.

I loved seeing the faces, and hearing their individual voices: some of them polished and confident, others were quirky and spontaneous and awkward. It’s a great melange of the people who care to be involved in this difficult period of time.

I miss being part of audiences, crowds, spectators, and feeling like I belong to a large group, a clutch, of people.

Last year I flew over to the MUNY theater to see a production of 1776, a musical I’d never seen onstage before, and I didn’t know much about it. It certainly reflects the time in which it was written, almost a piece of amber with flecks of culture embedded in it. And I still think about it, and the music, even today.

What I also remember about that production was the audience of 11,000 people who saw the show.

The MUNY Theatre in 2019

I wonder when we will ever get to feel that thrill of being together to celebrate en masse and to carry with us the contact high of belonging to such a large animal group.

I will say, that watching the close ups of people’s faces last night on the television, was rewarding and intimate. And it makes me wonder about the scale of what we’ll get to experience in the future.

When Everyone Hits the Pause Button

by Cynthia Wands

Opening Night of “ALL THE WAY” at the Neil Simon Theater, 2014

Occasionally I’ll get pictures as “Memories” on Facebook (I know, I know) that will make me pause and remember places and performances that were part of our pre-pandemic history.

When I look at these images:

I’m shocked to see so many people crowded together in an audience. No one is wearing a mask.

There are actors singing onstage with their mouths open wide right next to another actor who is also singing with their mouth open wide.

At a long ago party, there are wine bottles and glasses scattered across a table where anyone could just pick them up. I mean anyone could touch anything.

I don’t remember so many hugs, and embraces, and funny elbow nudging moments with the people I love.

So there’s that pause button. I know it may or may not come back that way.

In the meantime, I’m reading articles about the cultural cost of this pandemic to our industry. Specifically, The Fear of Jerks.

The New York Times May 27 2020 Polls Show One Hurdle to Reopening Broadway: Fear of Jerks

And I’m reading stories of those performers, like all those performers in all the shows, that were nipped in the bud by the pandemic. The pictures in this story really got to me.

The New York Times: The Universe Hits Pause, The Ripple Effects of Broadway’s Shutdown

But I’m also remembering what it was like to be in an audience, alive with energy that creates a cathartic performance.  I found this YouTube video of Patti LaBelle singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from CAROUSEL. And, yes, it is over the top, way over the top, and it could only happen in a theatre with an audience that was unafraid of being together.

You’ll Never Walk Alone – sung by Patti LaBelle at the Apollo in 1985

So. Yes. I’m looking forward to “live” theatre again.  When it’s safe. When it’s fearless. When we can be together.

Facial Consequences While Zooming

by Cynthia Wands

I don’t know about you, but I find I get perturbed when I look at my own face on a Zoom call. If the call includes a lot of people, and I’m looking at the group on a “Gallery” view, I have a face the size of a postage stamp, and I’m fine with that.

But I get disoriented when it’s a Zoom conference with just a few people, and there is my face, hanging on my monitor screen, like a lost animal in a cage at the animal shelter.  I see my Pursed Lips Reaction when I’m skeptical of something that’s said. Then there’s my Upward Facing Eyebrows when I’m surprised or combative or uncomprehending. The Eyebrows get a lot of the facial reaction exercises.

I don’t like being surprised by my own facial contortions. I’ll hear someone say on the call: “Cynthia, you seem surprised.”

I don’t hear that very often in my life. I’m like a Girl Scout: I’m prepared, I’m motivated, and I adapt. But don’t call me surprised. 

And I get thrown about what I looked like when I was surprised. (Was it the mouth? The eyebrows? A slight frown on the forehead?)

Usually I’ll try for a reply that diverts the attention. (“No, no, not at all; I’m not really surprised, but I am very interested in what you were saying. What were you saying?”)

So, I’ve come to realize that there are facial consequences to zooming: you’re seen in a spontaneous, perhaps faux dimensional reality that can catch you in unexpected moments. A little bit like real conversations in real time with real people.

The attached article by Dipika Guha about our current awareness of how theater artists live is a great read. Even with some surprises.

Can You Hear Me?

By Dipika Guha

“Suddenly everyone in the world is discovering how theater artists have always lived. From month to month, with no financial security, making our own schedules, relying on our own motivation, seeking solace with our friends and leaning hard on our networks without whom we are nothing- as artists or as people. Little has changed for us in some ways. We were born, raised and sustained in a field in scarcity and crisis. Some questions thoughts and questions remain the same, others are a virtue of the moment… “but it was broken to begin with” and “will anyone want to reconvene in a closed space together?”- “Perhaps we all will? Perhaps we absolutely won’t.” “Perhaps we should make stories and film them with our cell phones at home and upload them to YouTube.”

“Can you hear me?” and “Is anyone there?” is the refrain of Zoom calls and conference calls and Skype calls with friends, collaborators, and colleagues. What is clear is 
yes we are, in fact, here for each other. Our instinct is to connect- and to keep connected. Where once square boxes held the ephemeral – it is now the territory of the daily. We’ve all had a lifelong practice with sitting with the temporary present- the heightened moment that hangs pure in memory.”

The Lark Theatre Blog: Can You Hear Me?

Inspiration from Sugar Flowers in Amsterdam

by Cynthia Wands

Photography by Natasja Sadi

The world seems small these days. Although we’ve been living a quarantine style life here in my house for quite a while, it aches to see the rest of the world in such subdued, grieving and restrained circumstances. But here’s a surprise.

I discovered a woman who makes sugar roses in Amsterdam, and she spoke directly to my idea of writing plays. (The capriciousness of inspiration…) This Instagram posting spoke to me how tediously long the rewriting process is, how you risk experimenting with unknown characters, without names or a history as you try to create their world and identity.

I used to work in a French Bakery in Berkeley many years ago – the French Confection on Hopkins Street. We made cakes for grand events, following the recipes in the tradition of French chef Alain Ducasse. I peeled apples. Strained raspberries. Rubbed the skins from hazlenuts. I loved the architecture and the formality of the cakes made there: Boule de Niege, The Marjolane,  The Polonaise, The Nuit St. George. All created from a history of risk, experimenting, and the revelation of a surprise or two in the final form. I was an actress working to get my SAG card, happy to have a job that helped subsidize my struggling actor lifestyle. I had no idea of the impact of working in that bakery: how the impression of discipline, form and generous artistry would follow me in my future.

I found this inspiration in an Instagram article, written by Natasja Sadi, the force behind an account called cakeatelieramsterdam

She collects bouquets of flowers, and photographs them, and uses them for inspiration in her sugar work. Her sugar work is impossibly beautiful, unworldly and inspired. The world seems a little more wide-reaching today. 

Here is the posting from Natasja Sadi: 

The world’s most exclusive tulips at my table. I’m still dreaming of all the fields I was so fortunate to visit. (Thank you @passionfortulips for the tour and meeting all the amazing Dutch breeders at 1.5m/6ft distance.) I was so lucky to go home with these incredible tulips.

Some tulips here are straight from the grounds of what they call the breeding chambers. Bulbs that are still in their experimental phase. Some seen here don’t even have a name yet. Only a number. Did you know that it takes 5 years for a bulb to become a new tulip and another 10 years to hit the market? These breeders taught me an incredibly important lesson. Patience. I sometimes get restless planning ahead. Thinking of projects that will take several months.

These breeders work so hard, take an incredible risk cultivating new tulip variations and know that they are in this for the long run. 15 years… They are in no rush. They just continue with their passion to produce the most exclusive, most beautiful tulips the world has seen…

Spring in Holland is like nothing else. A magic carpet of colors everywhere. A fairytale that sometimes seems too unreal, the mind doing it best to process all the beauty…

The Cake Atlelier Amsterdam, an Instagram Account by Natasja Sadi

An Immersive Performance

by Cynthia Wands

Years ago, I was involved in a kind of “immersive theatre” – portraying living suffragette characters from history when I lived in Boston. It was more of a “yelling at people” kind of theatre – any interaction from the audience was viewed as a disruption. I was painfully reminded of those characters during the recent Democratic debates. I did, in fact, turn off the television and did not watch the rest of the last debate when the candidates started screaming at one another.

But it did remind me of this style of performing – a sort of living out loud conversation with the audience. This was a kind of “passionate role playing” that attempted to share the experience and rage of the women’s movement in the early 20th century. Mostly what I remember is that I blew out my vocal chords, (not using the right kind of vocal training here), and that I wore a really uncomfortable corset that squeezed me like a lemon.

Cynthia Wands as Lucy Stone, A Suffragette from Massachusetts

Here is a link with a 22 minute video that shares some of the performers/creators of some of the current immersive style theatre being performed in New York City. The folks that I know that have gone to see “SLEEP NO MORE” have really enjoyed the experience (with some reservations). I think there is a kind of intimacy, not just physical, but energetically, that connects people to this style of performance. It speaks to how our audiences need to feel connected to the world and what they feel.

https://allarts.org/programs/immersive-world/immersive-theater-qy9hup/?fbclid=IwAR2SorOmunyEJoKmguJOpWKPLPBsieS_5HtMK-uU9RtsSTYICpgrAVJcyJo

That First Broadway Show

by Cynthia Wands

Last week, my twin sister took me and our ten year old twin nieces to see FROZEN on Broadway. We could have seen some other shows: WICKED, THE LION KING, the Harry Potter play. (I have yet to see HAMILTON. I’m saving up my big bucks for that).

But when our nieces were three years old, I gave them the unfortunate Christmas gift of FROZEN dresses that would light up and sing “LET IT GO”. I kid you not.

Yes, I bought into the commercialization of our American Theater. Worse, I seared the memory of that damn song into our entire family’s collective memory, as we had to listen to that melody over and over again during that Christmas.

So here we are, some seven years later, and this is the first time that our nieces have been in New York City. We were destined to see FROZEN, the musical that they had memorized the songs and dialogue since they were three.

The evening that we went to the show, a new cast of leading characters were put into the show – the previous contract had ended for the year, and this was the opening night for this new group. The house was sold out, and filled to capacity with a kind of hysteria that was a little unnerving.

We were sitting way, way up in the last balcony, and the stage seemed very far away and below us. The announcements were made, the house lights dimmed, and the music started. And I have to tell you: it was incredible. The music especially, for actors who were going on for the first time in these roles on Broadway – their confident and beautiful voices filled the house. (We couldn’t see any of the details of the microphones or sound system – but it was beautifully balanced between the orchestra and the performers.). The special effects were outrageous, and the characters were easy to follow in the fairy tale genre.

I wondered if our nieces were a bit too old, at ten years old, to be watching this, but every time I glanced over at them, they were in the grip of a fierce and rapt attention mesmerized by the performers. They had that kind of laser beam focus on what they were watching that had them completely in the moment. (Albeit with a singing snowman puppet, and a reindeer named Sven.) I saw them completely in love with the spectacle. The crisis for a musical character that is saved by a sister’s love. Feisty young girls that have secret powers. All that.

A friend of my sister’s was in the show, and afterwards, he graciously gave us a tour backstage, and he chatted with our nieces about the mechanics of the costumes changes and the evolving casts. He treated them as though they were part of theatre community, and they were in turn, were shy and fiercely inquisitive about how things worked onstage. (“What is the snow made of?” “How did she change her dress so quickly?” “How does the snowman walk around?”) At the very end of his tour, he discovered that they spoke French, (he does too) and they had a brief, charming conversation in French. He gave them autographed photographs from the show, and they floated out of the theatre like helium balloons.

I had a couple of thoughts about the evening, the production, the connection with the people onstage. As a ridiculously over produced, absolutely expensive, wildly imaginative production – the audience loved it. They were charged as if they were at a football game. The cheers at the end of Act One were cathartic. There was a reminder at the beginning of the show that the audience was prohibited from singing or talking during the show. Even with that admonishment, during the show I could see audience members mouthing the words to the songs. Small children were crying out for Anna during her dying by poison scene. There was yelling and crying at the curtain call.

The human contact backstage after the show was the real highlight of the evening. Watching our nieces as they were included in the conversation about the performances onstage, and to be able to pick up a prop and feel that it’s real: that was the real magic. It’s a reminder for me, that the human connection to our artwork, whether or not it includes singing reindeers, is a part of our place in this.

WHEN A PLAY BECOMES A TWITTER STORM

By Cynthia Wands

Behind the Myth of Benevolence by Titus Kaphar
as seen in the National Portrait Gallery

I’ve been watching the news about “THE SLAVE PLAY”. Friends saw this show when it played off-Broadway, before it’s current run at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. It’s been fueled by controversy and personal reactions, but the twitter/news storm that I’ve been following came from an audience talk back with the playwright on November 29.

This first video shows a portion of the talk back with the playwright, Jeremy O. Harris, who is addressing a screaming white woman in the audience. It’s a very intense exchange, and it’s created it’s own media storm.

Broadway World: Video of Disruption of THE SLAVE PLAY

This article appeared today, and By Allegra FrankAja Romano, and Constance Grady talk about their reactions to the play.

VOX Article on THE SLAVE PLAY

And then there is another article on the audience member, now called “Talk Back Tammy” on Twitter:

The Mary Sue article on “Talk Back Tammy” at THE SLAVE PLAY

And lastly, there is the Broadway World Chat Board, which now has the audience member listed as “DO NOT SEE THE SLAVE PLAY” heading.

Broadwayworld Chat Board: Do Not See THE SLAVE PLAY

I’ll be following the life of this play; it closes on January 19, 2020. If you happen to see or saw this play, I would love to hear your comments about it.