Meta Mette Metta

Last Saturday was the closing performance of Little Green Pig’s production of Celebration. (Below you’ll see some links to reviews for this production, fyi.) I miss the show. I miss the generous, talented people associated with it. I miss my character, Mette. Celebration was a theatrical roller coaster ride seeded with major family dysfunction and deep brokenness (secrets, abuse, racism, violence, denial, repression, control, suicide) combined with the family’s desperate refusal to abandon the façade of perfect-family-happy-party-time. Amid the mayhem were moments of great affection, humor, courage, and love.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot to write about with this production, but Mette has been weighing on my mind this week. I’ve been trying to make sense of her – Why do I miss her? What can I learn from her? What was the experience of sharing her skin?

Yes, getting meta with Mette…hee.

Below, is a snapshot of Mette as I lived her. (She wasn’t like the Mette in the movie; she wasn’t like the Mette that another actor might portray. She was mine.) Some of her personality I was aware of during the performances and some of it I pieced together after shaking her off. The audience and my fellow cast members wouldn’t have noticed most of this — there was so much going on and I certainly wasn’t the star of the show and there so many über-talented actors to track — but that’s as it should be… this was my acting thing.

I wonder if you’ll understand my affection for her.

First, a photo to give you the flavor of my gal:

Mette in action.  Photo by Alex Maness

Mette is leaving! Photo by Alex Maness.

Yeah, Mette always has a little blood in her mouth (metaphorically speaking). That’s why she drinks so much, why she wears red lipstick, makes so much noise. She has a big mouth. She is a BIG MOUTH and she has fangs. She generally thinks people are “hilariously full of shit”- especially the family around the table – but she doesn’t mind as long as she’s having fun. She likes to have fun.

She loves to touch people — grab/grasp/poke/push people on the arms and on the face. She thinks it’s funny when other people get in trouble.

She’s a straight talker. She’s a heavy drinker. She’s self-involved. She’s a volcano, that Mette. Sex, for her, can be a transaction, a weapon, or lots and lots of fun. She’s cool with her sexiness. She shouts. She gets very angry very fast. She flirts purposefully and wickedly; she mates for life. She loves her husband.

Mette gives as good as she gets. She never apologizes for herself even when she’s gross or inappropriate. There is nothing to apologize for.

She loves her child. She wants to be a good mother (better than her own!) Sometimes she treats her daughter like a baby and sometimes like an adult.  Mette loses track of her kid often — Where did that kid go now? — but she is very clear that her daughter is ‘the best thing she’s ever done’ and the best part of her life. Mette raises her daughter in an environment with violence (overt and suppressed), verbal abuse, racist songs, and dysfunction, but she wouldn’t describe it that way.

Mette does not define herself as a mother or a wife, she is always “Just Mette.”

Sometimes she cries at night because life isn’t measuring up to her expectations…neither is her husband… and neither is she.

After a performance, a friend said, “I bet it felt good to be so angry!”

Yes. Yes, it did.

After a show on another night, a friend described Mette as “icky.”

Yes. But geez, I loved her.

I'm through with you. Photo by Alex Maness.

I’m so through with you, dude. Photo by Alex Maness.

So what did I learn? What am I taking with me from Celebration via the vehicle of Mette?

The most obvious is an affirmation of how satisfying it is to be an actor and to create theatre in community. There’s something deeply enjoyable about the bifurcated mind on-stage — the tightrope walk of surrendering completely to the reality of the play and at the same time tracking technique, staging, ensemble, and audience. It requires deep concentration. It’s being in the zone, baby, and it feels great. Being in the zone with a tight ensemble feels even greater. Being in the zone with a tight ensemble while playing an interesting juicy character feels knock-out-awesome-greatastic.

Mette and all of the characters in Celebration reminded me once again that given a particular set of circumstances, given a particular context, people can be capable of anything — bad decisions, beautiful sacrifices, horrible mistakes, mortifying missteps, and heart-breaking courage. Life teaches us/work teaches us/theatre teaches us this: I have the potential for all behaviors and so does everyone else. I am you and you are me, you know? In order to play a character on-stage, I need to understand where she’s coming from and buy into her choices. Over time, that ‘buying into’ increases my understanding and respect for her decisions even if I don’t think I’d make them myself. It’s cool, but I don’t know how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as walking a mile in someone else’s high-heeled shoes.

In fact, I’ve been thinking that if I could love Mette and the rest of the f-ed up people around the dining room table of Celebration (and I did!) then surely I can love and accept the real beautifully flawed humans in my life. Surely I can soften my judgement and open my heart to the real folks walking around this planet with me.

Yes, for all of you good Buddhists, I’m getting metta with Mette….

Ok, ok, ok, this is what I learned and what I know…if I am intentional about noticing and implementing the lessons, acting and theatre-making are opportunities to increase my ability to love. Admitting that makes me feel like the biggest-silliest-rainbow-sparkles-and-unicorns-theatre-geek in the entire world — “acting and theatre are opportunities to increase my ability to love!” — GAH! —  but I really think that’s true. I think it’s true for anything that people are passionate about whether it’s making model airplanes or saving the whales or running a marathon Our passions connect us with the greater human experience — and connection is the conduit to love. Love breeds love. “All we need is love“…..and that’s how art can save the world.

As for little Mette, I hope to hang on to wisps of her personality — a sprinkle of her zesty-ness and her straight-talking, a tad of her crackly electricity and her this-is-who-i-am-man-take-me-or-leave-me. Though it’s likely that will fade as I regain my Tamaralibrium. Really, the greatest gift she gave me was learning that I can do some things I wasn’t sure I could do. So, it turns out… I can raise my voice in anger. I can attack. I can be a wife and a mom and be sexy. I can snarl, and be unapologetic, and make noise, and take up space. I know I can do those things if I want to… because I did.

She gave me some of her power after all.

Now I know.

Links to Reviews:

The Five Points Star

The Indy 

News & Observer

Beauty fail, beauty win

A few weeks ago, I freaked out and bought some cosmetic spackle to “fill + seal” my frown lines.

Yeah.

I was killing time in the Barnes and Noble, and I wandered across an article in a fashion magazine about my ‘elevens’. I didn’t know about these until I read this article — ‘elevens’ are the two frown lines between your eyebrows.Yes, ELEVENS.

Thank you, staff beauty writer, for pointing out this problem to me. Another potential flaw with a special name that I need to vigilantly guard against. I’ll just slot that into my lexicon next to muffin top, bat wings, bra rolls, cankles, and menopot. Fab.

I first noticed my lines in college – they were easy to smooth out then — but over the years I’ve done much concentrated thinking (and ok, some frowning), and they’ve become permanently etched in my brow even in my most serene moments.

I always kinda liked mine until I read an anxious reader begging for help, “Emergency! Please help! My frown lines are terrible. WHAT CAN I DO?”

“Oh,” replied the advice columnist (well, my interpretation of the advice columnist’s reply) “you mean your ELEVENS? Your horrible vertical stick-like elevenish frown lines? Holy crap! Go immediately to purchase this spackle and that illuminator and this concealer. The spackle will fill in your cavernous wrinkles with a paste-like substance, the illuminator will create a shimmering mirage of young skin while redirecting the eye, and the concealer will smooth everything over so your wrinkles blend in with the rest of your makeupped face. These three products together will cost you over $100, but you must stop the ELEVENS! No wrinkles no matter what the cost. And, always wear bangs to hide the evidence of your thinking and frowning so you never look OLD or MEAN or SEVERE or SERIOUS…. or OLD. Your goal for the rest of your life is to appear 30 years old. Color those grays poking out from the top of your head. Drink two Diet Cokes and call me in the morning.”

Wow, I fell for it. I took that bait. I don’t know if I was having particularly low-self-esteem that day, but I did not blink, I did not pass Go and I did not collect $200; I marched myself to the Target with my daughter in tow and grabbed that recommended spackle off the shelf. In fact, I seized the remaining two boxes in a scarcity induced mania fueled by beauty desperation. On sale! Hooray! Wait, the sticker says they are discontinuing it?! No no no this always happens I find something I like then it’s discontinued what am I going to do when I run out of these two boxes oh my god my wrinkles everyone will see that I am getting older…must. have. this. product….

Never mind that the spackle comes in a toothpaste-sized tube, and you need apply only two centimeters of it to your frown lines. My two tubes will last at least a decade. And never mind that the company was probably discontinuing this particular product because IT DIDN’T WORK. Excuse me while I wipe the word ‘sucker’ off my forehead.

So, I raced home and spackled myself. Yes, very nice. Oh, yes, much younger now! My elevens are fully camouflaged.

That evening, a propro of nothing, my daughter reached up and traced my frown lines with her lovely little index finger. Then she traced each of my eyebrows and rested her hand on my forehead like she was checking for fever.

“What are you doing, honey?” I asked.

“Tracing lines,” she said. Then she skipped away.

She didn’t seem to have a particular point of view about my lines. To her, they’ve been part of my face since the day she was born. Just lines. Completely unremarkable, really. And good for tracing. Apparently, despite my best efforts, they were still in plain view. Huh.

Shortly after my daughter was born, I stopped buying all of those fashion/women/beauty mags. I didn’t want them around the house for her to see and for me to try to explain. I’m a feminist, ok? I’m trying to raise a four-year-old feminist. Victoria Secret ads on the coffee table muddle things up. Even still, I’d eagerly look for opportunities to thumb thru magazines in the grocery store or bookstore. Furtively, joyfully, gluttonously. However, since the Spackle Incident, I don’t read them at all anymore – Mademoiselle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Vogue, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, O: Oprah Magazine, etc. — despite how much I LOVE them. Because I love them so much – so glossy and gorgeous and fantastical and young and sleek and inspirational and full of promises and comparisons and gossip and full of answers and possibilities and the BEST stuff I NEED to make myself HAPPY. I love those magazines like I love a hot fudge sundae, but they make me crazy.

I don’t need any more crazy.

I need to be myself — which is plenty hard enough, right?  I’ll trace my lines, get over them, and then spend my time, my money and my life on something that really matters. At this point in my life, as I march toward 40, I am finally waking up — waking up to my voice and my body and my self in this world. Finally, at long last, the picture of ‘what really matters’ is coming into focus. I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste my life f-ing around with my wrinkles.

Because also, this happened…

During a peaceful car ride last week, my daughter chirped from the backseat, “When I grow up, I’m going to be beautiful.” [My internal monologue = I failed to protect her from our culture’s obsession with physical attractiveness as the ultimate achievement. She is four years old and thinking about being beautiful already. Is that all she wants to be? Wait, does she have low self-esteem? Does she think she’s ugly?]

“I think you are beautiful now,” I said.

“No, mom,” she laughed, “I’m just a kid. Kids can’t be beautiful. Womans are beautiful.”

“Oh. Who’s a woman you think is beautiful?” I ask. [My internal monologue = She’s going to say one of the princesses.  Oh, here we go with the princesses. Now I’m going to have to deconstruct the Disney Princess.]

“You, Mom,” she said.

[Internal monologue = silence]

“Thank you,” I said, “Who else is beautiful?”

She listed all of the women we know — all of our friends, her teachers, babysitters, grandmothers, and the moms of her friends.  No ‘womans’ from books or DVDs or pictures. None of her favorite fantasty-play-acting characters like mermaids, princesses, fairies, ballerinas. Just real live women in her world.

My daughter’s simple formula was WOMAN = BEAUTIFUL. She didn’t rule anyone out. She didn’t mention clothing, shoes, size, shape, skin, hair, job, money, age. She believes that when she is woman, she’ll be beautiful too. Just like all the rest of us.

My heart leaps at this thought.  A reminder of the beauty in all people, not just women, but everyone. A generous application of beauty, a blanket and universal acceptance — yes, we all can be that. We are all beautiful. All of us in our different ways. Beauty-full.

What or who is beautiful to you?

Five for wheels-turning

So, just fyi, I’ll be off next week for good behavior, and return again on Monday, Oct. 15.

In the meantime, if you’d like to do some reading related to theatre, art-making, feminism, vulnerability or empathy, see the list of five below. I’d love to know if you have reactions to any of these. They are definitely some of my favorites for wheels turning and inspiration sparking.

Send me your thoughts and your inspirations too. I’d love your recommendations.

#1. The other four on this list are links to online posts, but the first one is a book (you might have heard about) titled How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. Read this book. You will laugh, you will be stopped in your tracks, and your eyebrows will be singed with fierce feminist commentary. (Beware, however, you’ll need a high tolerance for vulgarity, sex talk, and British slang.) Moran, hailed as the ‘the British version of Tina Fey’ made me giggle and gasp with her straight-talking, as well as inspiring a surge of righteous anger about the world we live in today. A great read. Apparently, she has a new book coming out too, and I am excited.

Here’s the blurb:

There’s never been a better time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain…

Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should you get Botox? Do men secretly hate us? What should you call your vagina? Why does your bra hurt? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby?

Part memoir, part rant, Caitlin Moran answers these questions and more in How To Be A Woman – following her from her terrible 13th birthday (‘I am 13 stone, have no friends, and boys throw gravel at me when they see me’) through adolescence, the workplace, strip-clubs, love, fat, abortion, TopShop, motherhood and beyond.

#2. A very long, but amazing keynote speech by Polly Carl at the online journal, Howl Round: Finding the Gift and Making Theater for Everyone. If you are a theatre-maker, you should read it, and let’s talk.

During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.

#3. From 2010, but still relevant and fabulous, Lauren Gunderson’s A Openly Optimistic Letter to Performing Artists Freaking Out About Relevance During Hard Times. It’s a call to arms and a reminder of the necessity of storytelling for illustrating and shaping the world we strive to create.

Don’t let people say “art is escapism” and think that our feelings are hurt. Let us say, “We’re not escaping life, we’re stepping out to remember what life we want.” We imagine a new world so that we may see it first, then we set it right.

This is how we, the artists and producers and patrons of a rich and powerful country, are essential. And we are. This is how we, the masons of storytelling, engineers of myth and meaning hold up a nation to itself.

#4. A lovely piece about vulnerability from the Washington Post: A love note to the workaholic by Brené Brown. I have the quote below on my desk, and I read it everyday. Brené Brown is AWESOME.

It is not weakness, and the uncertainty we face every day is not optional, whether with our families or with our careers. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage, the clarity of our purpose and the fullness of our life. As Madeleine L’Engle writes, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability . . . To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

#5. An old favorite of mine about the power of babies: Fighting Bullying with Babies, a NY Times post by David Bornstein.

The baby seems to act like a heart-softening magnet. No one fully understands why. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist who is a professor at the University of British Columbia, has evaluated Roots of Empathy in four studies. “Do kids become more empathic and understanding? Do they become less aggressive and kinder to each other? The answer is yes and yes,” she explained. “The question is why.”

Wishing you all the best. Happy Autumn!

Saying goodbye to RICHIE

On Saturday night, we concluded our nine performance run of RICHIE. Now, I am launched into catch-up mode. Catching up on sleep, on cleaning, on emails and phone calls and appointments and Candy-Land and cooking, catching up on the life that resided outside of the theatre bubble that I rolled around in for six high-speed weeks.

I feel relieved. Now I have my evenings back and I can sleep – oh, a blessed bedtime of 9:30 pm! Now I can pay more attention to my child and my husband and my family and friends. Now I have more space in my life for so many things – because in my experience at least, theatre takes up a lot of space. When I’m involved in a show, even when I’m not physically there, I’m mentally there. I am a person divided until the show closes. Well, actually I’m always divided; it’s just more obvious when I’m in rehearsal.

I’m really sad to say good-bye to RICHIE and all the trappings associated with that production.  There’s a mourning period at the end of every show for me – a sense of loss and disorientation as I transition back to “real life” and to all of the many tasks and people who were banished to the back-burner during weeks of rehearsal and performance. So I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m a little teary-eyed as I type on a Sunday afternoon – we did have our final performance last night followed quickly (by me) with a grilled cheese sandwich, two gin and tonics, a few hours of frenzied dancing with castmates and five hours of sleep. That’s a recipe to get my tear-factory started!

Yeah, I’m not surprised that I’m having a hard time saying good-bye to RICHIE. This show was just what I needed at this time in my life, arriving when I was open to learning some things that I’ve needed to learn for awhile now. And it was fun. Really, really fun.

Look, it’s awesome to be on-stage. It just is. It’s an honor to walk into an amazing story as another human being, onto a stage where people pay to see you perform (You can see me! I exist!), and applaud when you finish – it’s fantastic. It’s a gift. Bathing in all those chemicals that rush around your body and brain when you are on a tightrope of anxiety and exhilaration, plus the deep and focused concentration that it takes to sustain a performance over two hours, plus the feeling of accomplishment that comes after you’ve worked so hard alongside other people of like-minds and hearts – the combination is seductive, it’s addictive, it’s being seen, it’s incredible. It’s exhausting, but whew, what a rush!

Not to mention that I was lucky enough to play a character with her own freaking fan club. How sad am I to give that up? Really sad. Here’s a recommendation – if you can, play a character who assumes power over the course of the story surrounded by a group of women who chant her name and do her bidding. Do this because you will feel really super unusually cool. No matter how much you remind yourself about the difference between real-life and pretend, some of those feelings of bad-ass coolness will bleed over and you will feel more powerful and more affirmed and more alive than usual. Give this gift to yourself with the understanding that you will be bummed when it’s over and that you will feel slightly ridiculous when you return to reality. Actually, we should all be each others’ fan club in real life. Let’s just do that for each other, ok? Wouldn’t that be great?

People seemed to like RICHIE. Performances sold out. The audience was packed. That’s all great stuff, but I don’t have the perspective to know what RICHIE was like for audience members. I don’t have enough distance at this point to know if it was ‘good’ or powerful or entertaining or if I was any of those things. We can’t ever really know that across the board since so much depends on each individual’s experience and expectations and point of view. I sure think it was good (what a silly word to apply). I’m very proud of our work. This show, an all female adaptation of Richard II, a pub-crawl thru Durham, a Paris Hilton/Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan homage, got a lot of attention and that was fantastic. It’s a lot more fun when your show gets good reviews and people say good things and you get a lot of attention in the press, but for me as an actor, that’s the icing, not the cake. (Side note: For producers and theatre-company-directors, reviews/word of mouth/press are more than just icing since those things can have an impact on the financial health and viability of the company. Just a reminder that if you love a show, spread the word, share the love and encourage people to see it.).

As an actor on this show, my ‘cake’ was the experience of being inside the process and the world and the show of RICHIE.  That’s what I’m sad to give up. In the world that we created, I felt able to push the boundaries of my experience of being a woman, well, a human, really. I don’t know if others in the cast had this experience…gosh, I’m having a hard time articulating this….but I felt, more than ever before, the freedom and ability to be simultaneously beautiful and ugly, girlish and wise, aggressive and fierce and profane and vulnerable, sexy and powerful, muscular and lyrical, charming and dangerous and silly and funny, superficial and deep deep deep WOMAN. This is big for me. This open-source complexity is something I believe in, but have never fully owned.  In the world of this play, serious gorgeous Shakespearean verse could co-exist with four-letter-words as tools wielded by women doing business and living life. It was warrior and princess, madonna and whore, a mash-up of masculine/feminine without compartmentalizing or categorizing. I don’t know if this was due to the absence of male characters or the overwhelming presence of female characters (19 of us), but there was some heady female alchemy present.

So, in my mind, my character chose her costume because she liked it (short-shorts, tummy-showing blouse, a wig, false eyelashes, knee-high boots, a metric ton of red lipstick) and not because some dude might think it was hot. There were no dudes in the world of RICHIE. And no offense, Dudes, but it was nice to have some play-time in a land without you for a little while.  It was fierce female power on-stage (how liberating!). And off-stage, the women (and the few fab guys too) were generous professionals who brought their ‘A games’ and were all bent on telling a kick-ass story.

That’s what I will miss –what I always miss —  the people and the joyful community of theatre-makers that form like an extended flash-mob before disappearing again. They’ve become my friends, and I will miss seeing them regularly. I will also miss the deep and physical witness of powerful women (even deeply flawed fictional women) who were in charge of life and death without second-guessing their right to do so. It’s hard to know when we will see another cast of 19 women on-stage together. I’m so lucky to have been a part of that.

I will miss living the language of the Bard. I haven’t felt so invincible since I was a senior in college acting in Measure for Measure. Something about speaking Shakespeare’s language…the words offer electric insight into the power and complexity of the human experience. It’s like drinking from a fire hose — in a good way. William Shakespeare, I salute you.

We know that the beauty of theatre is the impermanence of the art-form. It’s also part of the gig — projects blossom and end, then the next one comes along. Next Thursday, when I’m sitting on my butt on my couch at 8 p.m. with a plate of nachos, relaxing with a doofy action movie, I will be happy to be there. I will be holding my hubbie’s hand (when I’m not shoveling nachos) and I will be grateful to be at home in my cozy house. I will be excited about my next creative project. I won’t be thinking so much about RICHIE. But right now, frankly, I’m damn sad to say good-bye.

How I want to be as an actor

This week we begin rehearsals in earnest for Richie, Little Green Pig’s all-female version of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I want to get everything I can out of this experience, and I want the people involved to get the most out of me, so I thought it might be helpful to set down some intentions for the rehearsal and performance process. Partly, this is an experiment to see what will happen if I start with an intentional list of ‘how I want to be as an actor in this show,’ and partly it’s an ongoing effort to clarify how I want to be in the world and how I want to spend the art-making time that I have.

You’ll see the list below. [It’s at the bottom in case you’d like to think for a minute about your own intentions before seeing mine.]

As I sat down to write, I discovered that most of these intentions have been floating around in my mind as a ‘personal code of acting’ for many years, and this list has been very heavily influenced by my time spent on the directing/production/writing side* as well as acting teachers, cast-mates, etc.. Since I’ve never written this stuff down before a show, I’ve been lazy and hit-and-miss about following the ‘code’ from project to project. As we all know, committing words to paper is helpful for accountability, intentionality, and mindfulness, so I’m hopeful this list will keep me on track. Writing it down also helps me sort out what I really mean and what’s important to me. I’m thinking of it as a work in progress…

I also wonder if most of the bullet points below are plain ol’ obvious and duh! — is this stuff everybody knows and everyone is trying to do? I’m really curious to know what other theatre-folk would include on their intention list going into rehearsal.  Do your intentions change every time or pretty much stay the same? Like mine, is your list really a combination of intentions and a code of honor/philosophy of acting? How has your list changed over time? Would you be willing to share?

And what do you think, people-who-don’t-consider-themselves-theatre-folk? Do you make a list of intentions before beginning a specific project or process? What might you include on that list?

As an actor and member of the ensemble, I will:

  • Arrive on time to rehearsals (Note: On time = 10-15 minutes early).
  • Get it done and move with a purpose – after all, we are on a short time-table. Learn my lines as quickly as possible so I can be off book. Learn my basic blocking as quickly as possible, so I can dive into more nuanced work.
  • Take care of myself and my health as best I can (eat well, sleep, exercise, etc.).
  • Have fun and laugh lots. This is a play, after all. It’s important work, but it’s just a play.
  • Take responsibility for developing a multidimensional character with a back story and relationships, and commit to clarity of intention and meaning.
  • Inhabit my character in the most truthful and believable way I can. Also, endeavor to be a bad-ass. [I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but I think there’s a certain amount of bad-assery that needs to be present for actors. It’s certainly not arrogance or even confidence — maybe it’s about striving to be really solid and specific and fiercely focused. Or maybe it’s just a mind-trick to make me feel brave enough to get on-stage. I don’t know. It feels silly to write ‘be a bad-ass’, but it’s on the list.]
  • Use my body as an acting tool rather than as a source for actor-inhibiting-physical-hang-ups.
  • Stick to the words the playwright chose.
  • Be mindful of vocal variety in pitch, tempo, volume, emphasis and rhythm, as well as diction, diction, diction. And more diction. And communicate.
  • Be brave and honest. Stretch beyond what I think I’m capable of as an actor. Be open to direction, new ideas and improvisation.
  • Be generous with my scene partners and seek out opportunities to connect as characters.
  • Have meaningful conversations off-stage with everyone related to this production. We are a team, on-stage and off.  Strive to maintain and cultivate relationships with everyone who has a heart for this work.
  • Do my best to solve problems that are mine to solve. Try not to create problems for other people. Ask questions and ask for help from the appropriate folks at the appropriate time.
  • Remind myself that I am one piece of a complex and complicated work of art. Given my part in this process, lots of stuff will go on that I won’t be able to see. I will trust, be patient and manage my confusion if it arises.
  • Be thoughtful and aware of the message this play is sending to the audience; be mindful of how my values square with that.
  • Maintain a positive attitude throughout the entire process, even when I am tired, even when I am worried that it won’t ‘come together in time’.  Manage the anxiety that accompanies being vulnerable, being uncertain and being on-stage.
  • Always remember that I also have an identity and an important life outside of the rehearsal room with people who love me and need my attention. Be present, available, attentive, and loving to family, co-workers, and friends. Make this process manageable for those around me.
  • Say thank you out loud to everyone at every opportunity. Thank the actors, designers, director, production team, audience, my husband and daughter. Appreciate the gift this is, appreciate the gifts.
  • Aim to do my best, strive to learn and become better. At the end of the performance run: I will feel proud of my contribution, people will want to work with me again, and I will want to do this work again.

Whew! As I re-read the list above, it feels daunting to even partially realize every bullet point. Yikes, can I do all that? Well, we’ll see. I’m game to try this experiment and see if having a pre-rehearsal list of intentions will make an impact on my experience. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks in advance for your support.

*Cheryl and I do give our acting ensemble a document that outlines our hopes and expectations during our working-time together. (That document also includes a list of what the ensemble should expect from us as directors/producers/playwrights.) However, it occurred to me that I’ve never created a personal list of intentions for myself as an actor…until now.

My heart is haunted: silent, spoken, sung

I’ve been haunted by a story all week.

The story sits in the room with me, trails behind me as I walk, hovers over my spooned-in oatmeal, perches on my nightstand as I sleep. When I wake in the night I see it gazing at me hazy and shimmering. Waiting. My neck-hair prickles. My fingers feel numb. It’s wonderful. Wonder-full.

This is a true story, heard on a recent NPR podcast, Krista Tippett’s On Being. Tippett interviewed Terry Tempest Williams, an author of creative nonfiction, activist and naturalist. Before this week, I’d never heard of Terry Tempest Williams. Now I am obsessively reading her book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Me, caught up in her writing and her stories, the way I was caught up in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on The Body (oh, so many years ago). I feel feverish, tasting words as I read like blood in my mouth or ash or tears.

In When Women Were Birds, Williams explores the gift of her mother’s journals. Here’s an excerpt of the podcast transcript from On Being:

Ms. Williams: When my mother was dying, I was in bed with her, rubbing her back and she said, “Terry, I’m leaving you my journals.” And I didn’t know she kept them. And she said, “But you must promise me one thing: that you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And I gave her my word. She passed. A month went by. My father was gone, my brothers were out of the house. I was cleaning and I thought, “Today. Today’s a good day to find my mother’s journals.” And I found them exactly where she had said they would be, hidden in the closet. Three shelves filled with journals, each one handpicked, each one bound in cloth, gingham, denim, flowered, so on and so forth. And I took a deep breath — my mother was such a private person — and I thought, “Finally, I will be able to know what she was thinking, where she was.” And I opened the first journal and it was blank. I opened the second journal; it was blank. As was the third. All of my mother’s journals were empty.

Ms. Tippett: How do you understand that?

Ms. Williams: I don’t. And that’s the mystery, that’s the, you know, I don’t know. And that’s what’s got me thinking about voice. You know, what is it? How do we find it? How do we keep it? How do we use it?

Does that blow your mind or what? Does that make you feel faint? Your imagination is off running and spinning in all directions, struggling to make meaning? Me too! Oh, me too! Less than half-way thru Williams’ slim book (on variation twenty-four), I already find her journey into voice to be broad and deep enough for diving, and refreshingly, without answers. We are left only with questions like the ones she mentioned in the transcript above. She doesn’t know the meaning behind her mother’s gift. No one living ever will. The beauty, the gift, is in the struggle to make meaning, to understand, to frame the concepts of voice and legacy and relationship – to find the meaning we make for ourselves and to position ourselves in relation to that.

We know her mother gave her a gift. The way you explain that can tell you a lot about yourself.

I think often about my voice in relation to my daughter — how I express myself to her and in her presence, how I define myself as her mother, as a woman, a person, an artist. What am I saying, why, and how? What do I share and what do I keep private? Do I need to document my life in order to make it real, to be remembered, or I can trust my friends and family to remember me as they will? How do I encourage, stifle, ‘manage’ my daughter’s own voice? What is she learning about speaking and about keeping silent? How do I make myself known to her — is that something I even need to do? Can I let my child make her own decisions about who I am? What legacy of self-expression am I leaving behind? Is this all-consuming effort to nail down and declare who we are really a worthwhile endeavor? Maybe the worthwhile endeavor is looking out rather than looking in – spending time in relationship and letting others define the edges of ourselves, and what’s ‘inside’ is simply a mystery? I don’t know. I really don’t know.

The not knowing feels heart-breaking and beautiful.

This book makes me dream of a series of short performance pieces – variations on voice – inspired by When Women Were Birds. Perhaps drawn from multiple performance mediums – visual art, dance, film, theatre, music. Perhaps as a result of collaborations between multiple artists. Perhaps framed as a festival. Perhaps an opportunity for a community to come together to explore voice and silence, legacy and relationship.  I’m dreaming about all of this accompanied by the haunting of Williams’ story. What does it mean? What will it mean?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions…

Feeling the love -or- Still crazy after all these years

Over thirty years ago, I auditioned for my first play. My mom tells me that I asked her to audition (although I’m not sure how I knew about it in the first place since, as a five-year-old, I wasn’t reading the daily newspaper with my morning coffee. Um, Mom?). I sang my best version of Happy Birthday to You in front of a large group of kids and parents — an extra stressful experience because I was the very first auditionee (my dad asked if I could go first since we were on our way to the zoo). The big kids helped me navigate the script for a cold-reading. And, ta-da! I was cast in the chorus of The Littlest Angel. And ta-da! I became a theatre-kid and have been ever since.

With the exception of family members I’ve known since birth, I have known theatre longer than almost anything in my life. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Despite the fits and starts, the bumbling about, and the long long time it’s taken me to realize and commit to it…I’m a theatre-person. That’s what I do. The few years in my late 20’s when I was totally estranged from the theatre were some crappy disorienting times — like my internal compass was smashed and I couldn’t find true North.

Loving theatre is a tricky thing with sticky, complicated and mixed emotions. My theatre commitments have been challenging for my personal life. I’ve missed things. I’ve dropped out of real life. I’ve been unavailable to people — like that t-shirt that says “I can’t. I have rehearsal.”

I missed saying a final good-bye to my Grandparents because I was in a show.

My commitment to my personal life has challenged, and in some cases, de-railed my theatre work and the work of others.

Having a baby = surprisingly massive derailment

I don’t know about theatre-life on Broadway. I don’t know about what it’s like to make your living in the theatre biz (well, not yet anyway) or even to do theatre that’s different than what I’ve done. Maybe it’s all similar to the spectrum of experiences I’ve had while theatre-making — mopping the stage, plunging the toilets (while being grateful the performance space has toilets), getting paid well, getting paid last, not getting paid at all, 12 hour tech rehearsals, fabulous reviews, not-fabulous reviews, amazing talent, amazing people, an amazing partner, an amazing amount of hard work, dozens of re-writes, untold late nights, much ‘why am I doing this? what are we doing? what’s going on?’, hilarity, adrenaline, schlepping, frustration, unexpected expenses, story-telling magic, buying toilet paper and glue sticks and 50 fake tulips, setting out buckets to catch the rain from a leaky roof, and being grateful-unhappy-happy-grateful to do it.

Yet and still, I love it. I love making theatre and all of its wonderful tendrils — creativity, collaboration, teamwork, communication, making change, inspiration, perspiration, entertainment, community-building, discovery, connection, story-making, etc. It’s important work for me; it’s an important gift we give to our community. Theatre stimulates our emotions and takes us on wonderful, meaningful journeys, but more importantly, theatre, done well, stimulates community. Live performance has the capability to expose, ignite and reconnect our shared humanity — quite literally bringing people together shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors and fellow citizens on planet earth. Scary and vulnerable and wonderful.

Besides parenting, theatre-making is my work. Creativity is my work. It’s what I offer to the world.

I’m so glad and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in the theatre, especially in thriving, art-making Durham. I’m so excited to see what’s coming next for me here. See some info on my work.

Last week, I taught at a theatre camp, and it rocked my world. Those theatre-kids loved story-telling and playing. They loved flexing their imaginative, creative minds. They loved the high-wire feeling of participating in a live performance. And they loved the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a successful show. It was beautiful, live-wire, joyful, exhausting. Their budding relationship with theatre was shaping them before my very eyes.

Last week, I also participated in a panel discussion about the female theatre artists in the Triangle area. That discussion was invigorating and fascinating for lots of reasons, including our different perspectives about available opportunities for women in the Triangle theatre community and about the competitive vs. collaborative mindsets at work. There’s so much still to be examined and questioned and clarified and discussed and solved, but one of the things that stood out to me was how passionate all of these women are about theatre-making. If we didn’t love it, then we wouldn’t care enough to have the conversation. The willingness to engage in conversations for art’s sake, for artists’ sake, is something to celebrate and to continue.

The tasks I have before me are to remain open and to remember that my connection to my creative-work is fluid and can be flexible. Like my life, my relationship to theatre is always unfolding. I may need to rejigger my theatre life to accommodate my personal life — perhaps creating new models, new approaches and new ways of working. I may need to rejigger my personal life to accommodate my theatre life — and who knows what that will look like. For me, the important thing to remember is that the love for theatre-making is still there. I’m still crazy for it after 30-plus years.

What are you still crazy for after all these years? How has your relationship to that changed over time?

Yearning for all

You’ve likely heard something about the article in The Atlantic Magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It’s titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. It received so much attention that the website crashed. Cool. If you haven’t read it, then please do. It takes awhile because of the length, but it’s worth it. After my trek through it, I feel like I’ve been dowsed with a bucket of ice water and handed an open can of worms. Whew! Periodically, I’ll be dropping in posts that have been stirred up as a result. (Don’t worry, in between, my posts will be just as random as ever). Here is my first musing related to “Having it All”.* (see little footnote below).

Since I’ve become a parent, my creative life has suffered. My professional life and my relationships have suffered. My identity and the opinion I have of myself have suffered. (Perhaps, I should say they have all ‘transformed’ or ‘decelerated’. The fact that I judge these as ‘suffering’ is telling anyway.) I’ve declined exciting opportunities because of the way the world of work and theatre-making is structured, and because I want to be present and available to my child and my husband. When I tried to maintain the pace I’d set before having a baby, my parenting and my marriage suffered. I couldn’t figure out ‘how to do everything’ so some things had to go. That’s what moms do, yes? That’s what people do when their life circumstances alter dramatically, right? That’s life.

I’m grateful I still have a job. I’m grateful for what I can do. I am always aware that this is my choice. It was my choice to have a baby. It has been my choice to spend time with her that I could have spent making art, making money, advancing my career (or going to the gym, visiting friends, taking a shower, dating my husband).

And yes, it has been worth it. For me, being a mom is mind-blowing, soul-shaking, beautiful, awe-full, and metamorphosing. I haven’t exactly transformed from a caterpillar into a butterfly over these last few years, but I do know that I am not the person I was before I had my daughter. And all of that is my choice. So, yes, I chose that and I’ll stand by it because opportunities will come again and when a door shuts, a window opens, and it’s all worth it and suck it up and take responsibility and make the hard choice and get over it and be grateful and all those other things that I say when I don’t think I have the right to complain about whatever it is that I’m complaining about. I know to do all of that. And, thankfully, as my daughter gets older, the work-life balance becomes easier (hence, the blog!). In many ways I am finally coming up for air and re-entering my creative-work-groove. That’s great.

However, for the last three years, I’ve felt terrible guilt as I alternated between blaming myself, blaming my husband and blaming my child when I couldn’t do everything that I wanted with my life since becoming a mom. I still do this, and it feels terrible. And I tell myself that I have no right to be upset and no right to complain about anything because I am so lucky to have what I have and to be a mom and etc. I still feel that way. And I remain uncertain about how to sort out ‘my rights’ from this tangled mess.

But after reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, I’m questioning the way I think about this. I’m tweaking my assumptions a little. Is it really complaining when I say “I wish I could be part of that creation/conversation/project/opportunity/experience”? To say, “I want to participate, but I don’t feel like I can”? To say, “I’m sad because I can’t figure out how to be the mom I want to be and the professional I want to be, by my definition, on my own terms”? Because that’s really what I’ve been saying. I want to be at the table with the movers and shakers. I want to indulge my creative imagination and make more art faster, higher, harder. I want to accelerate, not maintain. I want to be included in the things I was included in before I was banished to Motherland — banished by the choices I’ve made. Because like many women, I believe I have something to add to the conversation, creation, experience, project, opportunity, and because I enjoy the work. Oh, and I want all of that in addition to building, nurturing and participating fully in my family life. Sigh.

Is this yearning really the same thing as complaining? Is it acceptable to feel gratitude for what I have and to yearn for additional fulfillment at the same time? Can I have compassion for the way I feel about this complicated situation?

As a community, can we have compassion for moms, dads, women, all people who feel the pain of giving up what they love for something else they love? Saying yes to one, means saying no to another. That choice-making is painful no matter how much it feels like the right choice. We all know sacrifices must be made as a part of life. That is reality. But I wonder if we could offer compassion, tenderness, support, and dare I say it, make accommodations for people confronted with the reality of choosing between their family-life and professional-life, rather than offering what they already offer themselves — “You can’t compete. It’s your fault. Suffer the consequences.” I wonder if I can do that for myself.

To be continued…

How do you talk to yourself around choice-making? What’s really underneath the ‘complaining’ you do? What comes up when you must “say yes to one, and no to another”?

*Anne-Marie Slaughter states very clearly in her article that she is writing from a position of privilege. Although not nearly at her level, I am aware that I write from a position of privilege as well. My husband and I are a dual income, middle-class family. My friends, co-workers and family support me in the work I do inside and outside the home. I feel grateful for those things, for the luxury of choice that I do have given my circumstances, and for the opportunity to have this conversation.