All posts by Ravenchild

Looking at labels…

by Cynthia Wands

Photography by David Parr for San Francisco Rep’s production of MACHINAL

Last night was a night of nostalgia and perplexed inquiry. It involves a bottle of wine. We had saved a bottle of wine to pair with some exotic menu, sometime in the future, when we can entertain and have dinners with friends again. But given Eric’s ongoing chemotherapy, we know we might not be able to do this any time soon. So we had roasted a chicken, and thought, oh heck, let’s break out the good stuff:

Le Cuvier Sangiovese

This was a gift from wine loving friends. We love this winery, (“small-production wines utilizing wild yeasts, dry-farmed fruit and neutral barrel aging”) and the winemaker (John Munch: “a plenipotentiary & elliptical pontificator”), and we were really excited to finally taste this wine. (The only online mentions we could find for it: “Strong notes of bold cherries and blueberries followed by oak and chocolate hints in a deep inky body that had mild length and minimal tannins.” Also: “Not available in retail stores.” Also: Not currently listed as available from the winery.) It’s not an especially beautiful label, and it doesn’t tell you a lot about the wine.

Here’s where it becomes like theatre.

If you go see a performance, and you’re familiar with the venue, or the director, or a cast member, or the playwright, you might read the program for the show with a lot of interest, because, you want to know more about the ingredients that went into this production.

And you can find out bits about them: where they studied, or who they’ve worked with, what shows have they done, is that a wig or is that their real hair.

And the program can label their identity for you: Oh, they’re from an Ivy League school, or they worked with that guerrilla  theatre. Look, they got produced over there. And that’s an interesting seasons coming up. So you make assumptions about who they are and what they’re like.

That’s the same sort of assumptions that can happen with a wine label. We knew the grape (Sangiovese – used in Chianti) and we knew the winery and the wine maker. But then, it can happen the label doesn’t tell you enough.

Because this was such an INCREDIBLE wine – (like an incredible performance) and we wanted to know more. What year was it made? (not on the label). What vineyard did it come from? Is it a blend of vintages? Are there other vintages to compare it to? And can we find another bottle of this? (The answer is no.)

The label didn’t tell us any of that. Sometimes wineries will squeeze in all kinds of information on their labels about who they are and what they do and when they did it. But this winery is different. On the back of the bottle, we could read: “DIRECT QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS TO THE WINEMAKER. winemaker@lcwine.com”

“DIRECT QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS TO THE WINEMAKER. winemaker@lcwine.com”

(John Munch, the winemaker, has a blog about his adventures in winemaking. You can find it here: https://www.lcwine.com/index.cfm?method=blog.blogList&websiteContactID=C0104A27-D7A1-1167-7A54-E363760DC45E)

An online search of this wine and more comments about it was not fruitful (forgive the pun). It would have been more satisfying to drive up to the Le Cuvier winery and get a chance to talk to John about this wine and his approach to the grape. (Here’s one of his wonderful blog pieces about his approach: https://www.lcwine.com/blog/Why-Am-I-So-Stupid-)

But back to my comment about – here’s where it becomes like theatre. I’ve been to some incredible theatre, with a one page program, maybe it’s not very beautiful, listing the company (or not) and the production details (or not). And then there are the times when I’ve been able to go out with the cast/crew after a show, and you get a chance to talk about the performance, and the rehearsal, and the audience. That’s when you can really find out – how did this come about? Where did it come from?

A postcard for MACHINAL, directed by Michelle Truffaut at San Francisco Rep.
When I posed for this picture I had no idea of what the image would look like.

Years ago I performed in MACHINAL at San Francisco Rep, and the visual/performance aspects of this show were wildly imaginative, incorporating neon lights, staccato staging/blocking and original music. This production postcard was the best “label” that could illustrate that show. Looking at it now reminds me not only how difficult it was to do this version of the script, but how unique and brave it was.

Last night, searching for more information on a bottle of wine, I found another reminder of how we need to see beyond a label, and how it can spark an inquiry into the unknown.

When things break…

by Cynthia Wands

Yes. You can snap a handle off a sink faucet.

Lately I’ve been breaking things.

I dropped a favorite water glass and it smashed to bits. I also had a hummingbird feeder fall apart when I was trying to feed the charm of hummingbirds that vacation on our deck. And then I snapped the handle off the bathroom sink. Literally I snapped it off with my bare hands.

That was a surprise – I didn’t know I had that much raw strength in my hands. Or that I had that kind of ongoing angst that I can break things apart with such ease.

Actually it’s an old sink. An old faucet. I don’t really have that much strength. Or so I tell myself.

But I have a Yankee kind of “don’t throw it out it can be fixed” mentality. And I have a far fetched idea of Kintsugi, based on images I’ve seen online.

(Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.)

Ribbons of gold hold this bowl together. It’s beautiful.

See. I can’t do this. My attempts at repairing things in my life, in my mind, in my garage, don’t look anything like this. Instead, I have a lot of broken pieces of things, that I think I can fix, and they are waiting for that idea to actually happen. So I hate breaking things.

I think sometimes that’s why I’m anxious about rewrites to my scripts, and attempts at “fixing” my artwork. I don’t have this “embracing flaws” practice. It’s more a dodge ball game of what can I hide that I don’t like, or I’m uncertain about.

Recently, my 34 year old Kitchen Aid mixer died.

I loved this thing.

This was given to me as a gift when a friend saw me struggling to make twelve cakes for a big party. He couldn’t stand watching me do battle with a tiny hand mixer to put together all the cakes and buttercream. I’ve treasured this machine for 34 years and, for some reason, I thought it would outlive me.

But recently I was baking some sample cakes for a friend’s upcoming wedding (small cakes) and it broke. The engine died. Attempts to have it repaired were not successful, and I was having a meltdown about this. My husband, bless him, ordered me a replacement, (even though I was struggling with the purchase price and the money issue, he went ahead and did it anyway.) Bless him.

So, broken things. I’m about to jump into rewrites for a script that has wrestled me into a corner. I’ll see if I can find those ribbons of gold to patch things together.

And here’s the new Kitchen Aid mixer. It’s different than my beloved workhorse mixer. The bowl is different, the power of the motor is different. But I’m adjusting to the idea that I can have new things.

The new mixer is the color of “Ink Blue”.

And the plumber is coming on Friday to replace the faucet. Another new thing in the house. I’ll try not to snap the handle off on this one.

What we see when another war becomes visible…

by Cynthia Wands

A Russian soldier surrendered.
Ukrainians gave him tea, food, and let him call his mother on video.
<via @lapatina_>

March of 2022

Another war. Unlike other wars I’ve followed in newspapers/television and online, I have more access to see this happen in real time. I’ve seen more video, tweets, and images of this war than any other because of my access (and the available time to view it) on social media. It’s horrifying and overwhelming.


People trying to evacuate from the Kharkiv central train station
sourced from syvokon on Instagram

Anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg, Russia (by Anton Vaganov of Reuters)
Attributed to Ukrainian photographer Dmitry Muravsky

I’m thinking of the images we that don’t get to see right now, the images that we don’t know about, that will be revealed to us, later on.

I think about this because my father served in the United States military during the Vietnam War – and the only images I knew of that experience were shown on television, or in Life Magazine, or in the newspapers. Those images were carefully curated by the media, and by my family. I didn’t feel much connection to the loss of life and the horror that played out in that war. My father never talked to me about what he did in the military, and I didn’t know what his job was. When he was asked about his military experience, I heard him say: “I served in the Air Force for 25 years.” And then he would change the subject.

This kind of omission, and the determined silence around it, led me to believe that he just “worked in the Air Force”. After he died a few years ago, I was given more information on what his actual job entailed, and it wasn’t as sinister or as noble as I had imagined. But I still remember my blind acceptance of what I was told. And what I saw.

I wonder what will the writers and playwrights and artists and creators make of the images that we’ll see because of this war. I am trying to keep my eyes open.

Changing Views

By Cynthia Wands

“The Queen’s Court”, a painting by Andrea Kowch

In the past few months, I’ve found a disconnect with revisiting books I loved, movies I remembered, television shows that I thought I liked. The view seems to have changed. Whether it’s this isolation, or my own aging process, or the political and psychological climate, I’m no longer as satisfied with what I thought I liked.

It’s also true that I’m not seeing the plays, operas, dance concerts in live performances that I used to see: my window to live events has closed for the time being.

But some of the artists that I’ve enjoyed, have sparked my imagination to consider them in a new light. One of them is a painter, Andrea Kowch, who came to prominence when she was quite young; she was 17 years old (in 2003) when she started winning awards and gallery shows for her artwork.

I’ve loved her portraits of women, strangely posed, in a natural and disturbing landscapes. They seem to resonate differently with me today. Here’s a bit from her biography:

“We all share a common thread, and as active participants in an ever-changing modern world, the purpose of my work is to remind viewers of these places that we sometimes perceive no longer exist, and to recognize and honor them as a part of our history that is worth preserving.”

One of my favorites of her paintings is this one, titled “Pecking Order”:

“Pecking Order” by Andrea Kowch

Her biography contains a description of her artwork, that sounds very much like magic realism in theatre:

“Inspired by memories, inner emotions, history, and my fascination with nature and the human psyche, the stories behind my paintings stem from life’s emotions and experiences, resulting in narrative, allegorical imagery that illustrates the parallels between human experience and the mysteries of the natural world.”

When I read this, I thought, that’s a brilliant synopsis. It could stand in for a play, or an opera, or a dance performance. And that made me feel somewhat connected to someone’s path in their artwork. Nowadays, that’s a rare treasure.

Here’s a link to her gallery that shows more of her artwork:

So here’s to the magic of artwork. Changing visions. Shifting views.

“The Lightkeepers” by Andrea Kowch

Holiday Healing

by Cynthia Wands

Artwork by Catrin Welz-Stein

This quote jumped out at me this morning:

“True healing is an unglamorous process of living into the long lengths of pain. Forging forward in the darkness. Holding the tension between hoping to get well and the acceptance of what is happening. Tendering a devotion to the task of recovery, while being willing to live with the permanence of a wound; befriending it with an earnest tenacity to meet it where it lives without pushing our agenda upon it. But here’s the paradox: you must accept what is happening while also keeping the heart pulsing towards your becoming, however slow and whispering it may be.”

~ Toko-pa Turner 

I’ve been following the writings of Toko-pa Turner for a while, and I’ve always loved her essays on solitude, healing, and belonging. I’ve reread one of her most recent books a few times, and come away with new insights every time.

Healing from these past two years of isolation and and pandemic fatigue seems to be a lost path for me – I’ll have to continue this dance of protection and longing for the foreseeable future. (Insert screams of frustration here.)

This solitude is a quiet kind of punishment after a while – writing doesn’t come any easier in isolation. I find myself diverted with different kinds of projects to keep my curiosity alive. Baking cakes, fussing over the garden, pruning roses, crafting with silver-plate tea pots. All kinds of diversions to feel the creative pulse.

Today I’m going to listen to the rain (RAIN! REAL RAIN!), and light a fire in the fireplace, and try to feel the hope and healing for this next year. For all the female playwrights listening to the rain right now in Los Angeles, here’s to the recognition of all of our hopes and all of our healing for this next year.

And as an aside…

Ted already claimed the best spot by the fireplace, so I’ll have to settle in next to him.

Winter Solstice

by Cynthia Wands

My Winter Solstice Project: a tea pot becomes a vase for flowers

December 21, 2021, the shortest day of the year. I’m glad today is here, and will be very glad to kick 2021 out of here, another year of the pandemic. What a difficult year. It’s been exasperating, infuriating, melancholy, sad, briefly joyful, buoyant, hopeful, frustrating, with a sprinkling of hopelessness thrown in.

So here’s a book, HOPE IN THE DARK, that Rebecca Solnit wrote, a few years ago:

A book about all kinds of Hope, by Rebecca Solnit

I first found a reference to this book by an article written by Maria Popov, and I’m including it here because the entire article is really wonderful:

Solnit herself has written memorably about how we find ourselves by getting lost, and finding hope seems to necessitate a similar surrender to uncertainty. Here is a passage of hers that I find really wonderfully apt for playwrights right now:

“Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”

But to get back to hope. Hope for what we’re looking for right now. In the book “HOPE IN THE DARK”, here is an idea of hope that I especially loved.

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

A wonderful idea to consider on this shortest day of the year.

The writings of Rebecca Solnit can also be found at her website:

Essays

Images That Find You

by Cynthia Wands

Image by Cynthia Wands
(A tarot card I created for my script in development: THE LOST AND FOUND OF 2020)

I sometimes wonder if my poor eyesight has something to do with my need for images. When I was around eleven years old, my twin sister and I were both diagnosed with very poor vision. As in we couldn’t see the chalkboard at school vision. (Yes, this is one of those back in the olden days stories.) There was a very real sense that we had failed at something (we had failed to see), and we were punished by given cats eye glasses that were both hideous and necessary. I remember when I first put on the glasses, thinking: Oh. So that’s what the floor looks like.

But I could see. I could see clouds. And the bark on trees. The ants on the ground. And these were images that had been blurred away from my consciousness, and I didn’t know it. So images were a form of relief and arrival. (“I can see that!” “I know what that is!”)

And in the time of seeing, my mother brought us to museums and let us wander the halls for hours where we would swallow up the images of paintings and stuffed buffaloes and antique clothing and medieval armour. I collected postcards of the museums and places of interest that we went to. I had postcards from The Beeswax Museum of Sioux City, Iowa. The Custer State Park Museum of Buffalo. The Lincoln Nebraska Frontier Museum.

I’m still somewhat perplexed at the appeal of these images: spinning wheels, fuzzy paintings, hairstyles from Marie Antoinette, bad examples of taxidermy, a display of lumpy looking baskets. Lots of animals. But I was the curator of my own limited world view, and I loved owning these images.

I kept the postcards in a box, and when we moved to Northern Maine, I memorized them. They became a talisman of other places and objects of wonder. And when I first saw theater productions, I was transfigured by the images on stage: characters moving in the light became dream like messengers. They were like my postcards.

I think my sister and I both wanted to create and manage the images that came to us. At one point, dissatisfied with the way we looked in the cats eye glasses, we melted them on the radiator in our bedroom. We managed to soften up the frames enough to sculpt them into bizarre free form eyeglasses that looked like something from a demented artist. Perfect. The only thing that was missing was a sprinkling of rhinestones or precious gems that we would have scattered on the frames, to give them that added precious weirdness. Our parents were exasperated by this display – the next pair of glasses were metal frames that couldn’t be easily melted.

Years later, I had the privilege of being directed by a woman director, who had a throaty laugh, and smoked menthol cigarettes, and she wore cats eye glasses that had rhinestones embedded all over them. From onstage, you could see her in the audience and the glimmer of her eyeglasses sparkled like a fountain of light. She was a marvelous spirit. And I loved seeing that image of her.

When Things Go Wrong

by Cynthia Wands

For some reason, this story has followed me around for the last few weeks:

Fake Rock Nearly Crushes Opera Star: Accident or Sabotage?

Feuding stagehands, falling props: It might sound like the plot of an opera, but in France it has been the subject of a court case.

From an Article in the New York Times written by Alex Marshall

It was the first line that really got my attention:

LONDON — The tenor Robert Dean Smith was lying onstage — eyes closed, pretending to be dead — when he felt something very close above him.

At this point, as I’m reading the story, I’m looking at the headline, and the picture, and I knew the something could go wrong here. Really wrong. So I kept reading:

Smith was appearing as Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse in France, and he assumed that what he sensed looming was his colleague, the soprano Elisabete Matos, who was singing Isolde. She’d probably decided to alter the choreography and had come to stand over him, he thought.

But when Smith opened his eyes, he saw a 467-pound fake rock hanging just inches from his face. “I panicked and just threw it out of the way,” he recalled of the 2015 incident in a telephone interview. He rolled out from underneath the object, and quickly got to his feet — which likely confused an audience that had watched Tristan die a short while before. (His co-star kept singing throughout.)

The cause of this dangerous mishap was at first a mystery. But the reality turns out to be so bizarre that it could be an opera itself.

And the rest of the story is really interesting, (more on that later) but it did occur to me that I could come up with similar headlines.

Invisible Virus Nearly Crushes Planet : Reality or Just a Bad Science Fiction Movie?

or here’s another one:

Wildfires Scorch California’s National Forests: Is That Okay or Just Another Nightmare?

You can see my headlines aren’t as punchy and powerful. But here’s the rest of the story from the New York Times:

Last week, a court in Toulouse found a stagehand at the theater guilty of tampering with the computer system that controlled the prop rock’s descent. The production, which was directed by Nicolas Joel, intended for the object to stop about 30 inches above the tenor, and its continued descent at the performance in question was only stopped when another member of the technical staff realized something had gone wrong, according to a report in La Dépêche du Midi, a local newspaper.

According to the prosecutors, the stagehand, Nicholas S., whose surname has not been revealed by French newspapers out of respect for his privacy, had long been in conflict with a rival stagehand, Richard R., who he hoped would be blamed for the error. Two months before the incident, Nicholas S. had won a court case where he accused Richard R. of assault.

Nicholas S., who denied the allegations that he had tampered with the computer system, was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence and made to pay a symbolic one-euro fine to the Théâtre du Capitole. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith, the tenor, said he had never imagined someone had been trying to hurt him or had tampered with the equipment. “I’ve seen too many accidents onstage,” he said. “I’ve seen trapdoors open with people on them, and doors and walls fall down onto people.” Smith once cut his hand open while playing Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen,” because someone had forgotten to blunt the knife.

In 2008, Smith was actually the beneficiary of such a mishap — making his Metropolitan Opera debut, as Tristan, after the tenor Gary Lehman was injured during a prior performance because of a prop malfunction. Lehman had been lying on a pallet on a steeply raked section of the stage when the pallet broke loose from its moorings and plummeted into the prompter’s box. Lehman hit his head and could not take part in the next performance.

Given the frequency of accidents onstage, that the 2015 incident was the result of feuding stagehands was “just really bizarre and very unfortunate for the theater,” Smith said.

After the 2015 performance, the tenor apologized to Matos for his part in ruining the show. After that, he said, he had tried to ensure he died onstage in positions where he could keep his eyes open to see if anything was coming.

Constant Merheut contributed reporting from Paris.

I’ve seen onstage mishaps with trap doors and falling sets and lights; and at one explosive performance of The Rich Mans Frug in SWEET CHARITY, I saw a dancer’s lose fitting dentures go flying out into the audience. But now, I will remember that amongst the other things that can go wrong, you can also keep an eye out for that 467 pound fake rock.

Recognition

by Cynthia Wands

A view of a mannequin artwork done by me some years ago

Recently we had a dear friend stay for a few days in our home (vaccinated/tested/deemed safe and secure to visit) and what a joy it was – a friendship that has spanned 40 years and we were able to reconnect and talk for hours. We drank wine and talked about theater and art and performances we loved and celebrity. Later on we drank cocktails and talked about those we lost in the AIDS years, and directors we worked with, and scripts we loved.

The last night they were here, we also talked about ambition, and recalibrating our lives to our opportunities, and the specter of recognition in this culture of ours.

After these months and months of isolation and Zoom communication, it felt wildly alive to be able to have treasured talks like this.

By chance, another friend sent me this clip from a popular television show (another program that I haven’t watched and didn’t have much appreciation for.) It’s an episode of “Doctor Who”, where the artist Vincent Van Gogh visits the Musee d’Orsay and experiences his artwork being shown and shared by contemporary people.

I found it so moving – the fantasy of an artist experiencing his work through the eyes of future generations. It was a lovely and poignant reminder of the power of artwork, recognized or not.

I hope you enjoy this three minute clip as much as I did.

“The beginning of any writing adventure…pleasure and spaciousness”

by Cynthia Wands

The image of a blue door I saw in Paris some twenty years ago, still remains with me.

I have tested a myriad of different ways to work through blocks in my writing. “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. Great books. Great ideas.

I’ve been part of writing challenges. And prompts. And round robin writing forums.

And I still struggle with an occasional appearance with my writing…pause. It can be a blank or a wall or a subway car roaring by. Sometimes there is that missing beat.

Just recently I found an essay which included some thoughts by Your People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye, and one sentence flew out at me:

“Two helpful words to keep in mind at the beginning of any writing adventure are pleasure and spaciousness.”

I loved that phrase: two helpful words. Not an assignment. Not a system or a schedule. Just two helpful words. It just gave me a helping hand this past week. I hope you find something in this essay as well.

Here’s the rest of the article: