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.
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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
I loved this story by Karen Zacarias – it seems to resonate with my life right now.
As a writer, writing alone, and as an audience member, who doesn’t always feel included in what I’m watching onstage – I loved her story about moving about in the world, and feeling alone.
Recently I met some friends of friends, through our early theater careers, and we traded names like collected baseball cards. We talked about actors and their personal lives and relationships and gossip from decades ago like it was a soap opera happening now.
It reminded me of how attached I’ve become to stories of the past – and how my writing tends to gravitate to some of my own mythology.
What I love about this Ted Talk – is that Karen Zacarias is not a great storyteller. She’s nervous, trips over herself, loses a word and can’t quite keep the thread of the story going. But she’s a writer, not an actor, so there’s an authenticity that’s so heartfelt.
These past few weeks have kicked my ass. I didn’t want to write that. I wanted to be able to write that I’m going through a personal transformation, and embracing life altering changes, and transitioning to the person I always wanted to be. But no, truly, my ass is kicked.
As an artist, a playwright, a writer of blogs, I relied on my “straight job” to provide for me and my partner, and to subsidize a life of inquiry, printer cartridges, and medical insurance. That changed this past month when I was “Let Go” from my job. I’m doing all the proactive tasks to reassemble my life support system. But I wake up in the morning and my life is different and – odd. That’s a word I use a lot these days. Not driving to work: odd. Not having to worry about work: odd. Not knowing what I do with that part of my identity: odd.
And I found this very interesting article:
And at the bottom of this article is a link for a 2-evening online course for designing your dream job throughout the University of Toronto.
“In this class you will learn how to articulate what you want to create in your ideal next opportunity before you go out and look for it. You will define what you want, who you want to work with and what kind of contribution you want to make. With the knowledge of what your dream job actually entails, you’ll learn how to apply it to your job search and to display it in your resume and cover letter.
During week two, you will learn to smash the assumptions that keep you from creating your dream job and learn the tools that will take you from where you are today to a life where you get to live your legacy at work.
In the first half of this two-part workshop, you will explore why so many of us aren’t happy at work and learn a new and effective philosophy of career design that will help you create work that is fulfilling and engaging. You will use elements of design thinking to prototype your ideal future and what happens if you keep living life exactly as you are today (default future).
Take two evenings to free yourself from 100-hour workweeks, meaningless Excel models and office politics, while exploring your phenomenal potential.“
I wondered how I would reinvent myself through an online class like this. I imagined all the characters I could become – lion tamer, pastry chef, tarot card designer, advocate for political action. But at the bottom of the description of this course, I found this caveat:
“Thank you for your interest in our course.
Unfortunately, the course you have selected is currently not open for enrolment. Please complete a Course Inquiry below so that we may promptly notify you when enrolment opens.“
(And yes, I had to look up the word enrollment, because I couldn’t believe they would misspell it. And I was wrong. There are two versions: enrollment or enrolment . See what happens when you don’t have a job?)
I’m looking at my life, story telling, identity, financial stressors, and time to clean out the linen closet. So I will end my blog piece with this wonderful interview with Yo Yo Ma, and he talks about story telling:
“Culture tells a story that’s about us, about our neighbors, about our country, our planet, our universe, a story that brings all of us together as a species.
I believe that culture is essential to our survival. It is how we invent, how we bring the new and the old together, how we can all imagine a better future.
I used to say that culture needs a seat at the table, an equal part in our economic and political conversation. I now believe that it is the ground on which everything else is built. It is where the global and local, rural and urban, present and future confront one another.
Culture turns the other into us, and it does this through trust, imagination, and empathy.
So, let’s tell each other our stories and make it our epic, one for the ages.”
I’ve been watching this glass artwork take shape for the last five months. It’s a commissioned piece for a reliquary. The two vase like urns are small containers that hold the ashes of someone who was a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a person. I didn’t know her, but the artist, my husband Eric, did. And for five months, I’ve been watching him design and create these whimsical and pieces. Today Eric was able to deliver them to their owners, the two surviving daughters of the woman who inspired these pieces.
This journey of creating a form, out of glass, to hold a memory of a person, captured in dust, has been a profound experience. I didn’t expect the process to resonate so much with playwriting, but it did.
Very much like creating a character for the stage, I saw that the initial design sketches were about the purpose of the pieces: what should it hold? How tall? What colors? To what intent?
The next several weeks were all about questions. Does this glass work, what temperature does the flame work need, how do the two shapes interact with one another.
I saw a central design element, which was expensive and time consuming and complicated become a trap for the design of the piece. And then Eric threw it out. After it was put together and the effect was seen – he went in a different direction. What is it that we hear in playwriting: “You must kill your darlings.” Well, I watched him do it. I was bugged eyed but quiet about it. (I must admit I was also annoyed, frustrated and exasperated watching him do this. “Really? After all that work? All those materials and time and effort?”)
Throughout the process, I saw his questions about the effect of the materials, the way the seals worked, the color of the copper. And lots of questions about the overall effect. Eric struggled through some doubts and judgements about the process, but finally was reconciled to what he could do, and what could be done.
Just like our writing and rewriting and staging and listening process to creating our work onstage, there is this shared process of asking questions, risking answers that don’t work, and going in a different direction. Eric’s work made me think about the ashes in my work, how the words hold them, and the risks in asking questions.
Here ‘s a wonderful interview with James Grissom with the late Marian Seldes. She was a force of nature, and someone who was a fearless artist. Here she talks about some of the facets of fear. And it’s amazing to see that it’s so connected to the process of sharing our work, as artists.
Fear seems like such deep and overwhelming emotion to me; I think of characters on stage as experiencing fear as a mortal vulnerability. Some of the characters I’ve written seem to experience anxiety, more than fear, and it seems to lower the stakes for the outcome. I’m still thinking about fear. And feeling it too.