Trusting Character and A Robust Collaboration: Performing WOMAN AT THE WELL @ HERE Arts Center, NYC

Last week, I had the good fortune to mount a small, vibrant solo play I’ve been working on over the last year. Born out of the 2013 One Coast Collaboration, WOMAN AT THE WELL began as a collaboration between playwright Martyna Majok, director Aimee Bruneau and myself, under the producing guidance of Michael Place. We set out to create a solo show that explored autism as a human circumstance, rather than as an “issue.” Through several days of conversations and several robust drafts by Martyna, we did a reading of a play about a precise, curious woman waiting at a bar for a man who never arrives. Her patience stretches to reveal a story of grief, misunderstanding, connection and ultimately, some resolve about love and death and goodbyes. It is a beautiful world to step inside of for an hour.

This recent production was staged at the HERE Arts Center in New York City as a part of the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival. I flew in on a Saturday and worked with Michael Place (as a director) for the few days before the curtain rose on Friday. It was a challenging, exhilarating experience. I stayed with Micky in Bushwick and we basically spent six days talking, rehearsing, dancing, dreaming, watching Game of Thrones, playing sweet sad music, and discovering the nuances of the play’s journey. The entire time we were working together, Micky had sharp insights into the script and was more interested in sharing the excellent idea behind a moment rather than prescribing a delivery or effect. This was an inspiring way to work with a director, as we kept unfolding the petals back from small moment after small moment, until each discovery daisy-chained to the next bright realization. I did not expect this blink of a rehearsal process to be so rewarding, but you never can tell what will be reaped from a few focused, playful hours between good friends and seasoned collaborators.

This was a glad bookend to a process that was sometimes challenging for everyone involved. Martyna and I collaborated in long distances to keep the play breathing (she based in NYC and I in Seattle). This is the first time I have worked with a playwright in this capacity. I am accustomed to writing/building/revising my own solo work but was eager to find out what the process could be with a collaborator. I learned to be generous with my ideas and discerning about compromise. It is so easy to get my way when the only one I’m working with is myself; collaborating with a writer and director make the process less streamlined but undoubtedly richer. Each year, I spend weeks teaching my acting students about collaboration, especially in a generative process, and each year they teach me new things. I got the chance to apply their wisdom in my work with Martyna and Micky. All three of us have different working styles – I like to overprepare and frontload the work and Micky and Martyna work confidently on faith and diligence. They are more trusting where I am explicit. Martyna can write a marathon in a short time but I work better with long bouts of marination. Again I got to recall that collaboration is about making space and time for everyone in the ensemble to do their best work and then bravely recognizing the most brilliant idea in the room when it rises up. It is about trust — not trust that everything will turn out how you want it to, but that everything will turn out as it should, which is often better than anyone could have planned. This process was a delicious, hardy reminder of that.

By far the most fascinating part of this process was the interaction with an audience. That may sound obvious but is not always the case in my experience. Sometimes the process is so tasty that the run melts like a weak after-dinner mint. Not here. Breathing through this performance of WOMAN AT THE WELL felt like a pioneering moment in my solo work. One choice Micky, Martyna and I made early on was to not soften the character’s relationship to people. We had set out to explore a woman on the autistic spectrum and I had the honor of recalling my brother Adam as the character surfaced. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a small kid and I had the awesome luck to know him as he grew up and navigated his condition and interactions. For this character, I got to channel the way his hands moved like articulate paddles, how his eyes would squint with mischief and open wide with wonder, his sincere, wide open curiosity about people and his often-inappropriate responses to the world around him. As these qualities took root in my body, I had to abandon many of my actor “tricks” that too often guide my relationship to an audience during a solo performance. I could not charm, empathize or manipulate the audience into liking me. This character is smart but guileless. Rather, I had to be clear, open and direct. This created a strange, almost abrupt relationship to the audience as the play began. I could feel them. They were not sure what to make of her. Whether they liked her or not. Whether she was trustworthy or erratic. To feel that distance from the audience and then to trust the character anyway, to let her talk and move and reveal herself in her own time, that felt like a true leap of faith. And as her story continued to unfold around me, inside me, between the audience and me, I could feel them soften toward her. I could sense them beginning to understand her strange mannerisms and honest curtness. They leaned into her and, as they did, she was able to discover more and more of her story. It was a delicate, awesome experience, like feeling the sun warm up the earth.

In Loving Memory of Rita Geisler Jackson, One of the Great Women I Come From

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The fever dream of these last few days has been navigating New York City under the weather patterns of change passing over my family. Several days ago, my gramma “Ma” said to my Aunt Rita, “I think I’m going to die soon. All of my bones hurt,” after withering over these last several months into a delicate, tenacious container.

Then, this past weekend, my grandpa “Pa” went into the hospital with a broken rib and his x-rays revealed clusters of tumors around his ribcage and neck. The diagnosis was bone cancer and they scheduled radiation to begin on Tuesday.

On Monday night, Ma passed away.

She waited to say hello to her youngest son, my uncle Vernie, and then a few hours later, she left. My mother sent me a text early Tuesday morning. When I received it, I felt very quiet and said a tiny prayer. My mother made her way back to Rochester a few days ago and I am rocking on a train headed there now. I will miss the viewing hours today at the funeral home, but will join my family in time for the funeral mass tomorrow morning. I will be honored with my cousins Alicia and Alyssa to carry the offerings to the altar.

My cousin Jackie asked us to send her a memory of Ma and at first, I could only think of a wash of colorful cardigans and sparkling Avon accessories, but then I thought about sitting around a cozy kitchen table with her and my aunts, drinking milky coffee and eating German pastry from a box bought at Wegmans. And when she would offer us a quarter to comb her hair. She loved yellow roses and a song about a yellow bird. The cascading bubble lights dancing around her robust Christmas tree. The soft voice she’d use to tell me that I’m a good girl and to be nice to my brothers. She was so warm and soft to nestle into. She had a fierce love of gambling and an optimism for winning, built on her unshakeable faith in the goodness of God and the joy of life. I remember devouring her Readers’ Digests at their summer house in Watertown, NY. And I am still wracked with hunger for my mom’s stories of growing up second oldest of sixteen kids on the beach in Charlotte and how Ma would cook dinner in a big, Army stew pot. I think of Ma’s cooing voice and the last afternoon I saw her, when I got to lift her from her wheelchair into her bed. I was terrified to break her and her pointy arrangements of fragile joints and bones, but I was so grateful to feel close to her. To feel trusted to hold her and carry her with my arms wrapped securely around her body.

The memory I cherish most is of her and Pa, their lifetime of love for one another. Married 67 years and cherished by 49 children and 30 great-grandchildren. Over the last few years, I would visit and sit in their kitchen with them and Ma would whisper so softly that I couldn’t make out her requests, even sitting right next to her. But from across the room, Pa could understand every word she whispered. They gently, playfully, joyfully grew older with each other in the same house that grew their children into adults.

I keep thinking of the time before last, I visited them by myself. We shared a store-bought dinner at their kitchen table cramped with newspapers and sugary pastries and we watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy on a small color television on their kitchen counter, framed with scotch-taped birthday cards scribbled in pen and faded photos of all of us in pairs and small crowds with our arms around each other, smiling.

Brian Yorkey’s IF/THEN

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Despite some shortcomings in structure and development, Idina Menzel and LaChanze deliver show-stopping performances in this production. They alone are worth the price of admission.

On my recent blink of a trip to New York, I managed to catch a matinee of new musical If/Then. I am a serious fan of Brian Yorkey (who wrote the libretto) and of his Pulitzer and Tony-winning work Next to Normal. I feel a hardy glow of hometown love for him, considering the many years he spent fighting the good fight and developing bold new musicals at the Village Theater near Seattle.

If/Then is not the breakout masterpiece that N2N felt like. It features the clear, chiming voice of Idina Menzel at the center of a story about a late-thirties divorcee moving to New York City to reclaim her promise. The story follows two “what if” storylines – one where Menzel’s character lands her dream job and the other where she lands her dream man. Clever in structure and staging, the dual plots were often too much for my white-haired neighbors in the audience to follow, “I don’t think I understand this at all. What does the title mean, do you think?” one of them asked me during intermission. That said, the same frail theater-goer leapt to her feet almost every time Menzel opened her mouth, so I don’t think her afternoon lacked delight even if it lacked understanding.

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley claimed that New York “has never looked cleaner” than it does in this show. And he’s right. The atmosphere lacks the danger and dirt that welcomes you to even the shortest visit to New York, and the play suffers for it. While fraught and sometimes unpleasant, the characters and the story lacked any resonant obstacles that could give me empathy for this woman and her story. It all came too easily and went to smoothly, even in the more heartbreaking events of the second act. Maybe that is just the way of musicals but, based on my experience of Next to Normal, one of the reasons Brian Yorkey has risen so fast and so brightly is for his capacity to transcend the thin layers of sentimentality in this form to reach a heavy gravity of experience. That does not happen here.

What does happen is magic, though. The work captures that feeling, that I find unique to New York, where coincidence seems weighted with infinite possibility, where you could turn the corner and launch into a whole new chapter of knowing someone or working on something or exploring an undiscovered part of yourself in this dynamic landscape. A sense of serendipity surfaces throughout this work and pays off in the end. The musical concludes with the idea that what we are bound for comes to us, no matter what and in several orders. We may choose one storyline, but eventually the right path finds us no matter which direction we move in.

Photo courtesy of broadwayworld.com.

Caryl Churchill’s LOVE + INFORMATION, New York Theatre Workshop

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The pace and precision of this show was wondrous. Literally. One could not help but wonder how the actors and crew were resetting the small, neutral cube of a playing space (textured like graph paper) with such agility and speed between each vignette. This two hour play is structured as a series of short (sometimes very short) scenes that we flash into and out of without context or explanation, separated by blackouts and booming, narrative sound cues that point to location without leading us by the nose into the next living room, backyard, coffee shop, doctor’s office…

A marathon of short-attention-span theater, Churchill introduces dozens of small, profound ideas and powerful insights in these scenes through the conversations that surround and define the major events of our lives. Without getting bogged down in plot or naming the problem, we receive myriad attempts to understand, deal with, share the problem. Two patients receiving chemotherapy discuss God and faith. Two women friends discuss therapy, analysis and giving meaning to trauma. Two young boys stargaze. A woman receives a dark prognosis and must navigate her way out of the doctor’s office. A museum security guard debates about whether to return to his home country, he’s made a list in an attempt to make a rational versus a “feeling” decision. Over and over again, sex is discussed as an exchange of information while love and faith remain powerful mysteries. The play calls us into the universal hidden in the mundane, into the way our lives are built not by huge events but by the small moments and conversations we muster to endure them.

Admittedly, the convention of constant blackouts became tedious at a point and, sadly, the only thing we had to do during the transitions was absorb the booming sounds and look at each other in the audience. This can sometimes be a poignant experience in the theater, but in the case, one couldn’t help but notice the other audience members getting a little restless as the play wore on for two hours without an intermission.

I tried to collect and organize my thoughts about it as I waited in the long, slow-moving line for the women’s bathroom afterwards. And then that thing happened, which is one of my favorite things that can possibly happen: as I eavesdropped on the small conversations percolating around me, I couldn’t help but feel I was still in the play somehow, that this idle small talk bubbled from a deeper well of human pain and humor.

Photo courtesy of NY Times, and features Kellie Overbey and my old friend John Procaccino. Additionally, NY Times review here.

Peter Brooks’ THE SUIT, at Seattle Repertory Theatre

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If you are ever in Seattle, and you ever have the opportunity to go see a matinee with the students of Cornish College of the Arts, of ANY show… Go. It will be one of the liveliest two hours of theatrical traffic you will ever experience, and the talkback will be more than praise and predictable exchanges.

THE SUIT is a simple and beautiful story told with humor, music and elegant moments staged on a bare, modular set. The actors who Brook and his co-directors have assembled are charismatic, precise and refreshingly present in material they have been inhabiting for over two years. A chorus of three musicians complete the recipe of a world full of music, love, liquor and humor in the midst of the oppression of Apartheid.

In the talkback, students asked about the process and how the performers shared several details about their process in building the show:

1. No table work. On their feet every day trying new exercises and bits of staging.

2. The musicians were fully integrated from the beginning, often given challenging tasks to create mood or subtext under the action. Now the musicians work off the actors as though they are in dialogue. Improvising. Reading each other. In the live moment.

3. When asked how they keep the show fresh after working on the same short play for over two years, they responded that they still rehearse with the assistant director every day (unusual for a production of this size and caliber) and that they never know exactly how they will feel or what they will say to each other, that the dialogue and their responses to one another vary from performance to performance. I wish I could hear more about this, and about how they create a container that holds a simple, powerful story and precise staging an left space for the actors to fill the room and the characters with whatever life is actually coursing through their veins on any given day.

Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

ANGELS Alighting this Summer at Intiman

Angels-Announcement

Today Intiman officially announced the cast for Angels in America: Parts 1 & 2 this summer, and I am incredibly honored to be playing the role of The Angel. I cannot wait to live inside this play, and its epic ideas, nightmarish scenarios and tremendous language, with a formidable cast: Anne Allgood, Chuck Leggit, Quinn Franzen, Adam Stanley, and Timothy Piggee to name a few. I’ll be collaborating with Andrew Russell again after first working together on Hedda Gabler for the Intiman Festival in 2012. And the design team is killer – Jen Zeyl, Bobby Aguilar, Matt Starritt, with Mark Mitchell designing costumes. It is a recipe for something delicious and terrifying, to be sure. My favorite.

More here.

Why Football is More Popular than Theater, Part One

Richard Sherman manages a clutch interception in the last seconds of the 2014 NFC Championship, taking the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Richard Sherman manages a clutch interception in the last seconds of the 2014 NFC Championship, taking the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

1. Innocence of the outcome.
The secret is out, or most of them are anyway. The Salesman dies. Romeo gets the girl, but not in time. The sisters never get to Moscow. Blanche and Lear go mad. Godot doesn’t show up. I love and cherish these works but we all know how they end, their flavor and excitement lie in interpretation and execution. But who knows what will happen at the end of the fourth quarter of a championship game? Nobody, that’s who. And paying attention in the first half makes that surprise more delicious. It’s the most unpredictable plot line ever. Even the writers don’t know how it’ll end.

2. Threat of injury.
While we can watch actors onstage face the danger of a live audience, the threat of failure, and the vulnerabilities of emotional havoc, football players face the immediate risk of getting truly fucked up. Now, I hate to see these great athletes get hurt but I’d be lying if it wasn’t a thrill to watch them put everything they have on the line in front of us every week. In theater, even as an audience member, we often risk a broken heart. But somehow that just isn’t the same astonishment and rush of watching men literally buckle under the weight of each other.

3. We get to take a side. And cheer.
In my three-and-a-half decades on this planet, I have found only a handful of topics that can connect me quickly and completely to almost any stranger. Weather is one, but a weak example. Love and loss, stronger but so personal. Mothers. Series television shows. The experience of growing old. And FOOTBALL. It is the most prevalent common vocabulary I’ve learned since I discovered rock and roll. And it has landed me in spirited discussions, debates even, where all parties can acknowledge and respect each other’s expertise and then willfully, aggressively pursue a dissenting opinion. So satisfying.