Praise for libraries, clogs…the list goes on

It’s that blessing-counting time of year again. It’s good, right? To be reminded once a year (cuz we need reminding!) to count our blessings and to explain to our kid what thanksgiving means. After this year’s explanation of thanksgiving/Thanksgiving/gratitude, my daughter told me she was thankful for lollipops. I told her I was thankful for her and our family and a warm place to live. I asked her if she was thankful for anything like that, and she said, “No, just lollies.”

Right. Better luck next time.

Yes, I’m truly madly deeply grateful for my family and friends and my job and my home and theatre-making  and the multitude of amazing obvious-to-me blessings in my life. However, when making this year’s gratitude list, I decided to a take a step beyond the knee-jerk gratitude items that are always on the tip of my tongue. Once I started digging in, I was reminded that I’m grateful for so much. There’s so much.

Below, you’ll see the first ten (somewhat random and sometimes superficial) items I added to my gratitude list. I will tell you that my day got much better after brainstorming a gratitude list. Suddenly, I caught the gratitude virus, and I was thankful for LOTS and EVERYTHING. (I’m grateful for this tissue, so I can blow my nose. I’m grateful for this window, so I can see the sky. I’m grateful for this hot shower, because HOT SHOWERS ARE SO AWESOME. Only two things are more awesome than a hot shower. I’ll let you guess what those are.) Being grateful from moment to moment for LOTS and EVERYTHING feels really good.

Although I suspect this is true for many people, I know that I take much for granted in my life. This is unfortunate, not only because it decreases the pleasure I take from my life and the gifts of my life, but also because by taking so much for granted, I also make the assumption that everyone has what I have — which we know is not true — and I become complacent and complicit in perpetuating the inequality and inequity in this world. Many many people don’t have hot showers, or showers, or clean water to drink, let alone bathe in. [See The Water Project. See Half the Sky. See Save the Children. See Durham Rescue Mission. See Hidden Voices.]

A sampling of ten items from the long list of things for which I’m grateful:

  1. Libraries.  One of the first things I did after moving to Durham (that is, after finding a place to live and locating the Whole Foods) was get my library card. The library is a place where I feel safe and hopeful — answers are in the library, stories are in the library, knowledge is in the library, Storytime is in the library!– all available for free. My weekly visit to the public library gives me great joy. Public libraries are a beautiful gift to the community.
  2. Health Insurance. Listen, without health insurance, my family could be very broke, or very sick, or very anxious. It ain’t cheap, but it’s affordable and it’s comprehensive. That’s something everyone should have, don’t you think? Go, Obamacare.
  3. Smooth roads + good signage + our old GPS. Like many people, I spend a lot of time in my car. Unlike many people, I am directionally challenged. I never know where North is; I can’t call up a mental street map; I don’t have one of those smart phones with Google Maps. I am always .005 seconds away from being completely utterly lost. Good roadside signage plus a GPS are key to arriving on time (I was going to say “key to my survival” which feels true, but is not true). Also, both of our cars have passed the 10 year mark, so driving on a bumpy, pothole-pocked road is noisy, uncomfortable and could quickly result in a trip to the mechanic. Sure, there’s a ginormous cavernous pothole right outside the gas station near my house, but otherwise, we’re lucky to live in an area with roads in good repair. Me = grateful
  4. Music for children that doesn’t suck. Since we have to listen to the same songs and CDs five billion times in a row (Did I mention that I’m in the car too much? Did I mention that my child is the boss of me?), it’s nice to have children’s music that (mostly) doesn’t make me want to rip my face off. Thank you, Laurie Berkner Band. Thank you, various Putumayo CDs. Thank you, Elizabeth Mitchell.
  5. Clogs. Yes, I said clogs — don’t judge. Dansko, LL Bean, Target-brand, whatever. Easy  to slide on and off; comfy clogs make me two inches taller without hurting my feet. And they look dressy? Sort of? I only have two pairs, but if I could be the Imelda Marcos of clogs, then I would be.
  6. People who grow food in their own gardens and keep their own chickens. I love the idea of this. These people are super cool.  I aspire to be these people…sadly, I have a hysterical aversion to ticks, my daughter has an egg allergy, sometimes chickens frighten me with their cold, beady eyes, and I manage to kill all of my plants sooner or later. This is not my thing. Thank goodness people do this. Thank goodness they share with me. Wait, hold up….actually, I’m grateful for all farmers (of the small and large scale variety, and especially those who practice humane and environmentally-sensitive agriculture). That’s some damn hard work. Thank you, farmers, for feeding me.
  7. Doulas. Giving birth is rather, um, intense. A good doula rocks. (My doula literally rocked me.)
  8. Free-to-the-public places to be and stuff to see, such as public parks, playgrounds, nature trails, beaches, museums, public works of art. (I’m noticing a trend here with numbers 1, 2, 3, and 8.) Thank you to the folks who make and keep those free public spaces available (and keep them clean and safe and beautiful).
  9. Though-provoking and lightly snarky podcasts. (These are free too  – once you buy the MP3 player and computer, of course) Here are some of my favorites:  BBC casts (Women’s Hour, Forum — A World of Ideas), Inside Acting, Slate Magazine casts (Double X, Culture, Political, Lexicon Valley), Audio Dharma, American Theatre Wing, On Being with Krista Tippett, TED. My secret wish is to have my own podcast. Until then, I listen with pleasure to the podcasts of others. Let me know if you have favorites to suggest.
  10. Funny people.  Here’s the truth – if you make me laugh and keep me laughing (and laugh at my jokes too), then I will love you. I don’t even have to know you  — you could be a complete stranger to me on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or SNL or just have something to do with creating the Planters Peanut ad that says “Spend this holiday with the nuts you love.” I love you for keeping my spirits up in this challenging world, in these challenging times.  Yes. Love.

So, what are your less-obvious gratitude items? I’m curious.

You can learn about yourself, and learn about other people by sharing your gratitude lists. See, now you have a fun, revealing, inspiring and free(!) party game!

Counting my blessings. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving.

I’ll be back on Dec. 3.

Putting the ‘fun’ in Acting Fundamentals

I taught my first Fundamentals of Acting class last week. I think it went really well – everyone left smiling and feeling jazzed and saying things like “Looking forward to next week!” I felt that way too. Oh, happy day!

I drove home after Class One. Couldn’t sleep. Too excited.  My mental skywriter was writing fluffy, looping “grateful grateful grateful” in the landscape of my mind.

Now it’s Sunday night, and I just finished my lesson plan for Class Two of Four (which has eaten considerably into the time I have for crafting a blog post). And I’m excited again, and nervous again, and grateful again.

I feel lucky and grateful for the opportunity to share my love of the theatre* while offering practical acting skills and advice (hopefully). I’m grateful for all of the wise and fabulous teachers/directors/actors who’ve taught me what (little) I do know, and I’m most especially grateful for the wise and fabulous folks I’ve partnered with to co-teach prior to this class. I feel lucky  to have observed so many great teachers at work. Do you feel like you carry those people into the classroom with you as resources? I do. Hmmm, what would Cheryl do? What would Nathan do? What would Rachel, Jay, Mary, Jeff, Ellen, Bill, Devon, Chris, Jody, Dan, Melissa, Dina, Adam, Lorm, Nancy, Johnny, Greg, Rafael, Laurie, Sumi, Tom, Jenny, Janice, Beth, Dana, Enoch, Dave, Hope do?* What would my Mom, a former kindergarten teacher, do? Thank you, my teachers! What gifts you are to the world.

As I mentioned, this is a four-part class on (trumpets, please!The Fundamentals of Acting. Huh. Initially, when I sat down to hammer out text to describe/advertise the class, all sorts of questions were triggered – like, most importantly — What are the Fundamentals of Acting?

So, I brainstormed the list below (not in any particular order, and no doubt, incomplete).

Brainstorm List of Acting Fundamentals:

  • Creating a character (external) – body, voice
  • Creating a character (internal) – given circumstances, relationships, motivation/tactics/intentions
  • Script analysis, world of the play, story
  • Basic stage etiquette, terminology, job descriptions, etc.
  • Basic vocal work – diction, volume, pitch, tempo, resonance
  • Basic physical work – gesture, neutral, weird actory things
  • Ensemble building — being with other people on-stage and off-stage
  • Performance experience – scene work, monologues, auditions
  • My list of acting pet peeves; list of acting favorites
  • Actor mind — Focus, relaxed concentration, memorization, openness, creativity, improvisation. Something about authenticity?
  • Fun? Acting is FUN.Yep.

I also spent an evening with my best friend Google, and added more to that list. A long long list with a lot of words and eight hours of teach-time. Huh. I got myself tangled up with prioritization and the fact that all of the items on the list overlap and intertwine and that it’s all much more subtle and nuanced and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ack, imposter syndrome. I searched my house feverishly for undergraduate readings by Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner and Stanislavski and etcetera. I couldn’t find them. Have you seen ’em?

There’s a looooonnnnng list of items to accomplish in order to be a an ACTOR. It’s more complicated than I first thought. And of course, my fear is that if I’m not ticking most of those items off the list, then I’m just ACKIN’ up there on stage. Or worse, being a WHACKTOR. Geez. Been there, done that. Hopefully, not recently.

But I digress….the question here is What is Fundamental?

This is the final text that was distributed to the public about the class:

The purpose of Fundamentals of Acting is to give older teens and adults an opportunity to further explore and develop acting skills on a more advanced level, regardless of experience.  Participants will learn or build upon drama skills, including voice, movement, vocabulary and character development and scene work.

Through low-stress, structured exercises and performance, students will:

·         Review basic theatre terminology and etiquette

·         Examine voice, speech, and breath as acting tools

·         Build characters from the inside-out and outside-in

·         Learn to make clear and well-informed acting choices

·         Develop confidence and relaxation on-stage

Please bring water and a yoga mat or towel for gentle warm-up exercises. Wear clothing and shoes that you can move in.

My basic plan (subject to change) for the class is:

  • Class One: Body
  • Class Two: Voice
  • Class Three: Mind
  • Class Four: Performance

Now, what do you consider to be (trumpets, please!) acting fundamentals? I’d love to hear your thoughts and have a conversation with you.

Like most things, acting (good acting, any kind of acting) is very subjective. I don’t know if we could easily devise a short list that everyone would agree on, and I haven’t asked my friend Google if such a list exists. However, as an exercise for myself, I tried to boil everything down to five essential bullet points.

Actors need to:

  • Be heard (project!).
  • Be understood (diction!).
  • Make specific choices that hang together coherently.
  • Develop a particular character for a particular play.
  • Be a team-player.

In the broadest sense, do those cover the ‘must-dos’? Fundamentally?

In the end, however, I keep coming back to the phrase  — actors need to be alive on stage. In this moment, that idea seems essential.  Actors need to be alive on stage is sophisticated and fundamental — yikes, I don’t know exactly what I mean by it (another blog post) — but really, I think that there’s something about electric-focused-energy-aliveness that is directly related to a compelling performance and somehow naturally gathers up all of the other items on the list. Maybe it’s a chicken or an egg thing. I don’t know. What do you think?

Well. That’s what I’m working with and that’s where I am. To be continued….

Wish me luck.

Wishing you many alive moments on the stage.

*This class focuses on acting on stage, rather than on film. Based on my limited experience with film acting, there seem to be a few key differences of style and skill. I’m not a film acting expert, but I can become one if you want to put me in your film. Hee.

*This is not the list of all of the teachers I know and love — not even close. It’s just the list of people I can think of in the time allotted to write this in my somewhat distracted state, and it includes folks I’ve actually seen do some teaching. I have a long list of  ‘excellent teachers-I’d-love-to-see-in-action’ on my to-call list. Here’s hoping I get to that one day. Also, although I am really enjoying this solo teaching experience, I have a real heart for co-teaching too. 

Getting (or not getting) what you want on Election Day

Tomorrow is Election Day. It seems like a lot is at stake this year. Whew. Like many people, I will be on pins and needles hoping hoping hoping watching watching watching as the votes are tallied. My guy! My guy! My guy! I want my guy to win! Four years ago on Election Day, my husband and I took our three-month-old daughter to vote with us. A beautiful experience voting as a family for the first time.

Sure, I hope ‘my guy’ wins again, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. And no matter the outcome, a large portion of the country is going to be deeply disappointed on Wednesday. Not the majority, obviously, but still, many many people will not get the outcome they voted for.

I wonder how folks will deal with that.

Will we have graceful winners and graceful losers? Given the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy and the numerous other critical issues facing our country, will people quickly abandon the discussion of winning and losing and focus instead on stepping into a united future of the States of America? Will there be olive branches and genuine handshakes of ‘we’re all in this together’? I hope so.

I hope so, but I’m not confident that will be the case. Maybe not right away. Maybe not ever. Because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people handle not getting what they want, and frankly, people don’t handle it very well. I know I don’t. In fact, I venture to say that one of the greatest challenges in life is learning how to ‘be cool’ with not getting what we want — ‘being cool’ for real, and consistently. We are very bad at this. We are so attached — like frantic emotional octopuses (octopi?) — to the outcomes that we want and the way we want things to be.

We seem to have a tendency for grasping and clutching — or maybe that’s just me.

I know I hold much of my life too tightly. I often think there is only one right way for things to be. And based on my experience of living with a wee youngster, it seems this inability to deal with not-getting-what-we-want-when-we-want-it is a problem right from the start of our lives. It’s an on-going ever-growing challenge.

Yeah. You know what’s always caused giant tantrums in our house (ehem, from the adults and the kid)? Yeah, when a person doesn’t get what he or she wants — when expectations are not met, when the outcome is undesired, especially when that person is already stressed — it’s welcome to Tantrum City, USA.

I hope we don’t wake up to Tantrum City, USA on Wednesday morning. I hope we all can put on our best big-girl and big-boy behavior and be friends. I hope. I hope that no matter which side we are on today,  we can be graceful tomorrow and the next day and the next day and so on…together.

However, if that’s not the case… if you don’t get what you want on Election Day, then I’m here to offer you some alternative responses (see them below). They are inspired by real-life recent examples of a four-year-old melting down when she didn’t get what she wanted. Try these on for size on Wednesday (in the privacy of your own home) if you think they will help. If I don’t get what I want on Election Day, then you can be sure I’ll be working my way down that list too.

Ideas for responding like a preschooler when you-don’t-get-what-you-want-when-you-want-it (which is NOW):

1. Whine loudly, yet incoherently, while draping yourself limply over the arm of the couch. Slide slowly, dramatically, to the floor in a heap. Roll around on the floor. Don’t stop whining!

2. Scream as loudly as you can with all of your teeth bared. Clench your fists as your face turns bright red. You, a red pepper, a four-year-old HULK!

3. Menace someone in the room (yes, usually your Mom) with the threat of physical harm. Examples: Hit the carpet as hard as you can while crawling in a circle around her; charge forward with your fists balled up boxer-style, stopping just in time; scoot along on your bottom with your feet windmill kicking — getting closer and closer, but never actually making contact; try to pinch your Mom with your toes. Be careful, if you hurt Mom, you will get an instant Time Out.

4. Destroy things! Break your nightlight; try to pull off the head of your Tinker Bell doll; knock over all of your toys; crumple your drawings in a ball; throw your books around. P.S. You’ll need to clean up this mess later, and if you actually break stuff, you’ll be in big trouble.

5. Negotiate, bargain, negotiate. Surely, we can work this out! When your negotiations go nowhere, find someone else (like Dad!) and try again.

6. Repeat each of these phrases twenty times: “I’m not your friend anymore! You’re not my Mom anymore! You broke my heart! It’s not fair! I’m berry upset with you! I’m berry serious! I want it! I want it! I WANT IT!!!!!!” When you pause to catch your breath, give your meanest Death Glare — like lasers from your eyeballs.

7. Cry — big, fat, sad tears. Point out your tears to your Mom. Go into the bathroom to watch yourself cry in the mirror. Ask your Mom to come and witness you watching yourself cry in the mirror.

8. Apologize wildly for everything that you can think of, everything that you’ve ever done in your entire life, in the hopes that the outcome will change.

9. Refuse a hug. Refuse any attempts by other people to help you feel better. Put your hands over your ears and close your eyes tightly. Refuse to move on.

10. Slam the door to the bathroom and lock yourself in. (When you get scared because you can’t unlock the door, your Mom will pop the lock and rescue you.)

11. Walk away, up to your bedroom for some alone time. Read books and sing songs to yourself until you are calm in your mind and your body. Then, come downstairs to play.

12. Sing along as your Mom quietly sings the chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

13. Hug your Mom or your Dad or your friend or your cat. Cry. Feel better. Move on. Go build something.

Happy pre-Election Day, my friends. Here’s hoping we can roll with the outcome better than most four-year-olds. Wishing you all the best, sincerely.

Vote.