All posts by Jessica Abrams

Creativity and Life: A Love Story

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” ― Martha Graham

I am at work turning a play of mine into a screenplay — or rather, using the play as a loose basis for a screenplay.  I’m writing about a writer having a crisis of heart and of faith.  She yearns for a larger, more “important” meaning in her life and is convinced it lies outside of herself, outside her small apartment.  She doesn’t know where, but it’s certainly not on the hard drive of her computer.  She’s tested; she has an epiphany; she’s tested some more.  Someone dies, something in her dies and she is reborn and realizes that everything she has to give the world lies within herself.

“We must cultivate our gardens.” — Voltaire, Candide.

Along the way, my heroine sheds certain habits that don’t serve her.  She stops cooking compulsively and does things that don’t necessarily feel comfortable, like spending the day with a slightly douche-y neighbor (with whom she ultimately falls in love).  As for me, there are several ways I manage to avoid writing.  In my last blog post I talked about spending the day helping some Chihuahuas fly across the country.  Easier and less gut-wrenching avoidance tactics include living out the fabulous lives of Facebook acquaintances, obsessively browsing casting breakdowns, and organizing my face products.  As my heroine is on the brink of change, I cling to these habits even more tightly.  I write a word, I check Facebook.  I eek out a sentence; I forage through the fridge.  Fear grips me — fear of moving into uncharted territory, fear of being called talentless, fear of not finding my mascara minutes before a date.

“In the world of the dreamer there was solitude: all the exaltations and joys came in the moment of preparation for living. They took place in solitude. But with action came anxiety, and the sense of insuperable effort made to match the dream, and with it came weariness, discouragement, and the flight into solitude again. And then in solitude, in the opium den of remembrance, the possibility of pleasure again.”  — Anais Nin

Like my heroine, I know I have to move past these habits.  I have to sit down and let the story write itself.  It feels like a mythical match of wills because in some way it is: love versus fear, three-headed demons that grunt and shuffle versus incandescent fairies that fly, life versus death.  I know this.  I also know I have no choice.  If I want to tell this story, I have to sit down, move out of the way, and let it happen on its own.

“Creativity takes courage. ”  —  Henri Matisse

I force myself.  It’s one of those do-or-die moments.  Did I mention this story is slightly autobiographical?  My heroine doesn’t make a casserole.  I don’t check Facebook.  I realize there’s nowhere to go, that this is life, right here in this moment and on this page.  I realize this just as she finds peace and solace in her life.  Or maybe she came first?  It’s impossible to know.  One informs the other in a beautiful, terrifying, life-altering dance that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.  The fact is, everything that comes after — for her and for me — is gravy.  We had to do this.  We were called forth, our destinies inextricably linked.

I’m thinking next time I’ll write about a five year-old boy.



The Pain Principle

This is a blog post about an acting class, a play being turned into a screenplay, and some flying Chihuahuas.

I had acting class two nights ago.  I love my acting class.  My acting class is my therapy, social hour, Barbie dream house and spiritual retreat in one three-and-a-half-hour time slot.  When I come out of my acting class all I want to do is act, but the next day, well, I have to write.  Correction: I don’t have to, but that’s what I do, right?  I’m a writer.   And yet I crave that instantly gratifying experience that gets me out of my head and ends with people applauding.  Or saying “Cut.  Nice job.”

I am turning a play of mine into a screenplay.  It’s not easy — and by that I mean the writing.  Any writing, lest we forget.  To sit alone and let these characters of our own making speak, especially if no one really cares if they do or not — no easy feat.  And this has been particularly tough for me.  It’s not just that I’ve had a taste of a storytelling process that doesn’t involve one of the most dangerous people I know (me) playing with one of the most dangerous weapons I know (my brain) — it’s that I’m still waiting for that flow, that zone.  And forty pages in, it’s nowhere to be found.  The usual sinister ramblings of the writer mind whisper in my ear: the character is boring.  The story is boring.  The tone is off — one minute flip, the next maudlin, depending on my mood.  And the worst: how does this in any way contribute to the general good of the world?  Particularly if this gridlock puts me in such a crappy mood that I’m pissed off at everyone I come into contact with?

So yesterday, having had one too many of such moments, I decide to shake things up and really contribute.  Give back.  I don real clothes, as opposed to sweats, and head to the animal shelter to volunteer.  This is where the Chihuahuas come in.  I go to help an organization fly twenty of them to New Hampshire where they’ll be adopted as opposed to euthanized.  On the car ride over, I consider the possibility of “taking a break” from writing and devoting my life to being of service full-time.

Anyone been to the county-run animal shelter lately?  Let’s just say it’s not for the overly sensitive and highly hormonal.  But I help.  Get my clothes dirty.  Give and get love and do my best to implore each of those little creatures to hang tight, because a beautiful life is on the other side of six hours in a cargo hold.  I also run into the bathroom every half hour to sob my eyes out.

Three and a half hours later — as long as an acting class but not quite as euphoria-enhancing — I come home.  I uncork a bottle of wine to put things in perspective.  It dawns on me: Who am I kidding?  I can’t put the pen down.  I’ll wrestle this script to the ground if I have to.  Besides, while I certainly think volunteering is a fantastic way to spend time, isn’t this my contribution, my gift to the world?

If I had to find a moral to the story — and being a writer I always try to — I’d say that in some way we writers are like those flying Chihuahuas.  We sort of have to sit with the discomfort and understand it’s not a permanent state.  Somewhere on the other side lies something beautiful.

Or not.  But we have no choice but to go through it.  Or we die.

On Self-Producing

We’ve all heard about the miracle of childbirth.  And no — not the miracle of human emerging from human: the miracle that causes the memory of  its agony to diminish almost immediately after it happens.  Well, it’s been almost six months since The Laughing Cow, the play I wrote and co-produced, opened.  As I contemplate embarking on the process again, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a stroll down the memory lane of angst, neurosis and borderline alcoholism that accompanied the birthing process to see if that same miracle applies.

It’s one thing to produce a play; it’s another to produce your own play; another thing entirely to produce your own play that involves fifteen actors, multiple scene changes, a six-week rehearsal schedule and a shoestring budget.  But that’s beside the point; any playwright-slash-producer in this position can understand the uniqueness of the role and just how freaking lonely it is.

That’s right.  Six months later, as magical, life-affirming and miraculous as it was, what resonates the most glaringly is the lonely feeling I experienced a good amount of the time.  For one thing, whoever said that no one cares about your play as much as you do was dead right.  As great a production team as I had,  there was just that much more at stake for me.  Many a day did I (silently) freak out over someone’s not responding to an email or completing a task they were assigned.  Who cares that they had a job or a husband — the highly hormonal pregnant woman in me was screeching (silently).  This is my baby!  Crowning!  Stop what you’re doing and help me!

Then, production and, to continue with the metaphor, the cord has been cut.  And yet despite the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, dentist, therapist, hair stylist and acupuncturist alike, why didn’t I enjoy it more as I watched my amazing actors speak my words and get laughs?  Why did I sit in abject terror night after night, to the point where a car alarm down the street heard (by me) during the show would send me (silently) into righteous indignation?  My own unique neuroses aside, I can only offer this: my work was done.  As everyone else manned the light booth or acted, I was there watching.  Judging.  Worrying.  And that, my friends, can be very lonely.

After most shows, we’d celebrate at our local watering hole-slash-cool gastropub.  The actors, those lucky sons of bitches, had their catharsis on stage.  My terror was still with me, only mitigated by a shot or three.  They’d chat, watch sports.  I would feel a great sense of accomplishment but still, a part of me was still back there.  Why didn’t we fill the house?  Why didn’t the audience laugh at the funniest line I’ve ever written in my life?

I don’t mean to sound bleak.  Would I do it again?  I would and will, even if nature didn’t do enough of her part to dull the memory of some of the aches and pains.  The magic, the communal effort, the gift of working with so many awesome talents to create something we  will always share — that made it all worth it.

And who knows — next time I may have to do it au naturel, that is to say, without the alcohol.

Procrastinators Anonymous

Hi, my name is Jessica Abrams and it’s been a year since I’ve worked on a new play.

I’ve mulled ideas over, even jotted some thoughts down (you know the kind:  you look back at them in a year’s time and they make absolutely no sense) but no scribbles have given birth to characters who then tell a story, and no story keeps me up at night or distracts me from the nastiest of Real Housewives catfights.  And even though in said year I’ve produced a play of mine, written a spec script for an existing TV show, worked and re-worked a pilot pitch, pitched that pilot at various studios, had two readings of other plays, fostered a pitbull, deep-cleaned my kitchen and gotten on intimate terms with several Facebook friends and their families, I miss waking up in the morning energized to see what those kooky kids — my characters in a good mood (or me in a good mood?  It’s often hard to differentiate) — have to say.  I miss the exhilarating feeling that comes with creating an entire world out of a handful of people and a stage.

If this were a support group as opposed to a one-sided blog post, I would ask you, fellow creative talents, to share any thoughts you may have on this subject.  I do have a few flimsy hypotheses myself.  For instance, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I’m spoiled.  The last four plays I wrote came with an ease that I still to this day marvel at.  The characters in The Laughing Cow, the play I co-produced last Spring, ambushed me as I was walking across the Disney lot, where I was working at the time (and on which the fictional company in the play is “loosely” based).  A tiff with a 20-something hipster neighbor over the well-being of her cat spawned Easter in Tel Aviv.  A handful of ex-boyfriends came back for a few more rounds and poof — a one-woman show.  Spoiled or intimidated?  That’s the question I often ask myself.

There’s another issue here too.  Not (yet!) being paid to write my plays I have the luxury of being able to write what I want.  But that can create an added burden.  I had the amazing fortune of attending the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive two summers ago and the opportunity to hear Marsha Norman speak.  She implored us to search within our souls for that thing we are trying to exorcise — which is essentially who we are — and to shape our stories around that.  Find it before writing, she said.  Figure that out.  (And anyone who was with me that day — including Ms. Norman herself — who may have experienced that talk differently, please accept time and historical relativism as my disclaimer).  I think there’s a lot to be said for understanding that deep need, but I’m also willing to accept that those questions can get answered once the writing has begun.  Thoughts?

I’m always amazed (and a little jealous) at my friends getting their MFAs and how tight their deadlines are.  I know from the Kennedy Center that a creative environment fosters creativity; or is it simply being scared shitless by a particular professor? My point is…?  I’m not sure what it is, exactly.  Maybe I’m just “sharing”, as they call it in 12-step programs.  The truth is, I miss being in that heightened creative state — it gets me up in the morning.  It fills me with joy like nothing else.  It connects me with myself.  I think I need to jump-start a new play.

Or maybe I should look into getting my MFA.

THE WOMEN OF TU-NA HOUSE at The Hollywood Fringe

Less than a week ago I was a Fringe virgin, tentatively taking my seat as I prepared to see a show about elementary school crushes and Hallmark Valentines stamped Return to Sender. Four shows later, I can almost call myself a savvy Fringer, flashing my badge and glibly leafing through my press packet as I wait for the curtain to go up.

How fitting, then, that my latest — and last — blog subject is a one-woman show about women who are highly skilled at the art of love — or rather, satisfying men.  Nancy Eng’s THE WOMEN OF TU-NA HOUSE is a moving and at times heart-crushing show about the workers at an Asian massage parlor that doubles (not-so-secretly) as a brothel.  From the madam whose constancy lands her a brownstone in New York to the worker who can’t stop crying after her cat dies (and whose tears earn her a generous tip), the stories are moving and gritty and real.

Too real for the not-so-savvy Fringers out there?  Not at all: interspersed with stories of desperation and truncated hopes is humor.  Lots of it.  As a matter of fact, Nancy Eng manages to weave so much wit into these women’s yarns that we almost see these characters as friendly aunts, dispensing age-old advice on men and sex and life.  Never mind how they arrived at it, their vista from the baser level of human existence earns them a certain wisdom that asks — demands — us to take note.

And we do.  How can we not?  In addition to being a deft storyteller, Eng is a skilled actress, a chameleon as she moves from one character to the next.  She has quite a few up her sleeve, but each one feels new.  Unlike her characters’ encounters, there’s no wham-bam repetition in these characters or their tales.

In the end, just like the Tu-Na House customers, everyone — sophisticated and naive Fringers alike — will leave feeling satisfied.


When I first saw the title of Jackie Loeb’s one-woman extravaganza at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, I had my reservations. What the frack does this woman have to celebrate? Aren’t one-woman shows supposed to be about angst and rejection and recovery from eating disorders?  I jest, but that’s kind of what mine’s about…  I was further confused by the cover photo on the Fringe listing: Jackie wearing a mix of coy surprise (little old me?) and elation, her hair blown back (it, too, is surprised and elated).  Who is this saucy Aussie and what the hell is she kvelling over?

Glad you asked.  Jackie Loeb doesn’t just have a one-woman show.  Jackie Loeb IS a one-woman show.  She sings — by that I mean, one minute you’re hearing Aretha being channeled through this blonde, bob-wearing gal from down under, the next, Maria Callas.  She plays guitar.  The piano, neglected for the first half of the show was put to awe-inspiring use once she sat down at it.  She tells jokes and funny stories.  The woman has so much talent it’s sick.

The celebration part?  Let’s just say much of it centers around her recent move to L.A.  As you can imagine, Jackie has a few things to say about… oh, let’s see… the freeways, the culture, the use of the word “adjacent” to denote a not-so-great neighborhood that happens to be in the same time zone as a nice one.  Jackie just seems to get this city in such a fresh way it reminded me of my own culture shock when I first moved here.  And when I say “fresh”, I mean both new and sassy.

Oh, and turning forty — that, too, is fodder, particularly her rendition of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman”.  Obviously the words have been changed to protect the innocent, but it’s such sheer genius you completely forget what Billy was singing about in the first place.

Yes, Jackie Loeb — there is a Santa Claus and yes,  you do have so much to celebrate (exclamation point).

SO MUCH TO CELEBRATE! plays June 23rd and 24th at the Asylum Theatre.

After This I’ll Shut up (And Dance)

Walking up the steep set of stairs to get to one of the wonderfully informal gems tucked away off LA’s Theatre Row known as the Complex Theatres, I was reminded of my days as a dancer in New York, ascending to some ragtag rehearsal space on or near Forty-Second Street (pre-Disney whitewash).  The elevator was always broken, the stairs required more muscle power than the dancing itself, and God forbid you touched the railing for all the decades of germs that lurked. But once you got inside the studio, it was like entering a technicolor world where the sheer joy of dance managed to drown out the sirens, the horns and the urine smell down below (not to mention money and boyfriend woes).

That was a long-winded way of saying that upon entering Stella Valente’s world, I was transported in much the same way.  Valente, an actress, comedienne and dancer, tells of her lifelong game of hide-and-seek with herself in her one-woman show, SHUT UP AND DANCE. From the mob-fringed world of Queens, to spicy Miami, to Buenos Aires where she learned to tango and ultimately to L.A., Stella makes anyone whose trajectory has been a series of impulsive exits off the Interstate of life feel in very good company.

Especially if you also happen to be someone for whom those exits came in the form of a grand jete.  Stella loves to dance, and she does it beautifully.  She also masterfully combines the high-art of beautiful movement with a down-and-dirty expose on her life and loves.  Her characters are hilarious: I never wanted her mother to leave (full disclosure: I’m working on a one-woman show myself, with a character much like her mother.  Now I’m wondering if it can be a two-woman show with Stella playing that part?).  But the character that comes through the strongest is Stella herself and her love of dance.  Because no matter what happens, dance is always a part of her life.  It’s a metaphor for the different challenges she faces, a mirror gently reminding her of the aspects of her personality that could use just a tad bit of tweaking.

It made me miss those New York days, condemned buildings and all.

SHUT UP AND DANCE plays 6/17 and 6/24 at The Complex Theatre in Hollywood.

CRUSHED at The Hollywood Fringe Festival

I have a confession to make: until last night I was a fringe festival virgin.

Year after year I’d drive past the tent, see the sign, hear about the shows.  In a way it felt like a big block party.  A block party filled with people on Ecstasy.  Even if it was right outside my door, it still felt weird to crash it, like I needed one of the more sober people to actually insist I come.  In the case of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, I got such an invitation when I was asked to be a guest blogger.  So last night I popped my Fringe cherry.

I use this analogy in part because Kiersten Lyons’ one-woman show CRUSHED deals with this very concept and more. Lyons originally told the story of the various men who rejected her, starting with Han Solo and moving on from there, as a pilot; but it’s hard to imagine the show without Lyons in the flesh recounting it.

Moving from a clothesline of paper hearts to a transparency projector to the various “places” she conjures up so well, Lyons makes the audience feel like she’s a long-lost girlfriend and we’re catching up on events that transpired since we parted ways at age six.  She’s funny and affable and self-aware; she also did the amazing thing of making me remember the look on Marc Tetelle’s face when, in eighth grade, I told him I liked him and how Neal Barry and I kissed after the Sadie Hawkins dance (my first!) which led to his ignoring me for the next two years.

My own romantic pitfalls aside, Kiersten Lyons’ lead her — and, ultimately us — to a place of hope and surprise and comfort.  Let me share this with you,  she implies.  Help me tell my story.  She even says this, in not so many words, to the audience directly.

I think that’s what makes the Fringe so special.  It’s a chance for audience and performers alike to collaborate in an intimate storytelling process.  A chance to experience the moment together.

A chance to feel like you really belong at the party.

CRUSHED plays at the Underground Theater June 15 and 16 and June 21 through June 23rd.