October Returns

Three years ago my brother Frank ended his time on this planet with a gun, and I went into hiding. First artistically and then completely. I moved to the beach and went underground, stopped performing and making, studied solitude, nursed a terribly battered heart, and tried to find a new way through the world without the creative appetite that had guided me up to that point. And it worked. I healed on my own, walking on the break without wrapping it in the bandages of public witness. I did my best not to attract attention to myself or my whereabouts and learned a new way out of the chair, through the door, into a serene world of long views and solitary commutes. Two years of keeping my own company, hiding, and healing. That time is ending now, I think.

With these moves. Into new projects. And back into the city.

I’ve spent the last two months directing – workshops of new plays and, opening this week, Ellen McLaughlin’s devastating Iphigenia and Other Daughters at the University of Washington. And I have not felt so good, and full, and inspired in a very, very long time. This time of robust collaboration and good making will be punctuated at the end of this month with my move away from the beach and back into the heart of the city. I feel like I am returning, heading home after an arduous and solitary journey. Home to the theater and home to the city.

My brother Adam and me. Typically, I am sending a smile straight into the camera and Adam seems to be seeing something the rest of us aren't.

My brother Adam and me. Typically, I am sending a smile straight into the camera and Adam seems to be seeing something the rest of us aren’t.

And, of course, underneath the plotlines of all of these projects and transitions has been the melancholy chords of October’s score. October 5th was my brother Frank’s birthday, and my body quaked for most of the day, feeling the violence of his absence. And fourteen years ago today, October 17th, we lost my youngest brother Adam to his own single gunshot that I hope couriered him softly into the next place, gentler and brighter. I’ll never forget that morning. The strange voicemails from my aunt, the red capri pants I was wearing when my knees gave way with the news dropping me hard on the damp pavement. I’ll never forget that jagged week in my old hometown sleeping in a guest room and trying to draw my mom and Frank as close as they’d let me, while migrating geese sounded taps overhead. That was only the second time a gaping hole had been blown through my heart, shuddering the aorta loose from its fasteners and tangling my veins so the oxygenated blood mingled with what had been suddenly used up, pooling in a dark, deep purple melancholy. An ocean of grief that is still part of the topography of my body. You can find it on the back page of the map of me, out beyond the mountains of my ambition and the dirt roads and desire lines I’ve carved and still wander to each of the people I’ve known and loved. Beyond my great lakes of talent and privilege and across the vast fields where I plant and harvest huge crops of new emotions each year — barrels of rage, bundles of tenacious hope, silos filled with small kernels of love. One for every stranger and small thing. One for every good try and terrible fail. One for every tiny memory I can muster of what my family once was like — all in tact and breathing and expecting to sit at the dinner table together forever. Out past all of that is this ocean of grief that laps at my edges, dark purple and dangerous, so deep and very vast. It is a hard road to reach it, plagued by bad weather and fallen limbs of old, dry promises. But still, I like to visit it sometimes and always in October. I sit on the cold beach, damp with an expansive sadness, and listen to it come in and out, crashing and receding, reminding me of the mysterious places I can’t see, far beyond the horizon, where my brothers are waiting for me.

And Also With You

 

Mary's corner in Saint James' Cathedral. Photo by EB.

Mary’s corner in Saint James’ Cathedral. Photo by EB.

Last summer two good friends of mine asked if I’d be the godmother to their then unborn but since deliciously adorable son. I cried and said yes and thank you; grateful for family, more good family. A few weeks later I mentioned that I’d never been confirmed, opting instead to play Dorothy in my middle school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Rehearsals conflicted with confirmation class and my priorities were clear, despite my mother’s disappointment. When I mentioned this, my good friend gave me a long, quizzical look, “But you agreed to be our baby’s godmother.”

And that was the moment I leaned into a new turn on my spiritual path.

This morning I attended mass at Saint James’ Cathedral in Seattle, in preparation for starting adult confirmation class there this Wednesday, a commitment I wasn’t willing to make four years ago for my brother Frank’s daughter, while the horrors of sexual abuse within the Church were still being unearthed. A lot has happened since then. My brother has passed away. I have two new nieces in need of godparents. And Pope Francis has been elected and become a voice in the world who I want to listen to. He has softened the church I grew up in, to a whole host of people who matter to me including women who have had abortions or exercise their power to choose in other ways. He has taken on climate change seriously and has not only spoken of, but practiced peace. And he’s basically called Donald Trump a schmuck. So suddenly, this feels more like a church, and a religion, and a sangha of sorts, that I can abide in. At least a little.

Saint James’ Cathedral is grand. Towering ceilings balanced on thick, shiny pillars, speckled with light filtered through vivid stained glass. It brought to mind the lions of Saint Mark’s in Venice, where I prayed for my brother’s relief from a vicious mental illness, and the tall, gentle canopy of La Sagrada Familia, the first church I ever wanted to come back to again and again. Saint James is laid out like a cross, seats on four sides and the altar in the middle. Theatre in the round. And, like the Pantheon, there is a circular skylight carved at the top of the center dome, where sunlight and real god beams in.

Parking was always sort of a thing at my church growing up, Saint Vincent de Paul’s in Churchville, NY. And staking your claim to a good pew, also sort of a thing. Getting to the church on time was stressful for my family, as we were always dragging my youngest brother Adam, who happened to be autistic and also very, very loud, along with us, usually clutching an unruly lego model with lots of small, loose parts. Late.

So I got to Saint James’ early. Found a good spot. And then a good spot. Prayed for a little guidance on this path. To be able to ask the right questions, about how Jesus Christ really functions as the only son of God even while we are all his children. And about how the Church can continue in the terrible shadow of such widespread and sinister sexual abuse of children, how does one integrate that hypocrisy with the scripture? And what about ladies? How do they fit into this whole order? God, please help me to ask those questions. In the right way. That won’t get me kicked out of confirmation class. And please help me to hear answers, even when they come from places I don’t expect.

I sat there and thought about all of that. And watched the homeless men shuffle and the suburban moms glide into the pews around me. And I got really quiet, and I cried. Wept really. Sitting there, waiting for mass to begin, with my eyes closed and my heart suddenly so sore. This happens to me in holy places. And sometimes during sex. Also when I’m alone in my house, wandering around, and I suddenly get overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people and love I’ve been gifted. And it happened this morning, in a church, at once so perfectly familiar and so ornate and foreign. I didn’t make any sounds or anything; I just closed my eyes and let the tears run down. A weather pattern playing out, wiped away now and again with one of my brother Frank’s old handkerchiefs marked with “K.”

The mass was hard to understand – not the scripture, but the actual words. While theatre in the round can be an exciting concept, if it is staged under a dome and poorly amplified, it drastically loses its meaning. So I stared at the ceiling, a habit I developed in grade school during those endless Sunday mornings while my mother tried to keep my brothers shushed. I’d count Saint Vincent de Paul’s ceiling tiles, white and simple in that old country church. I vaguely remember coming to 117 or 119 depending on how I’d count the half-tiles on the corners. Saint James’ has an excellent ceiling, ornate and boasting that skylight escape hatch. I wanted to point it out to the little girl with the fidgety ponytail in front of me, as she sped through her block letter word searches and pulled anxiously at her stretch pants.

But then the priest got to my favorite part, when we pray for peace. Not only for our own hearts, he said, but for the world. For the wars in the holy land and the violence that plagues our cities. Peace between our leaders and in our own relationships during times of stress. “Peace be with you,” I extended my hand to the little girl and then her mom, to the quiet man sitting behind me and then to the usher making his way up the aisle, who looked like he might have had Down Syndrome. And also with you.

This is going to be a complicated process, I think. I am grateful to the babies in my life who have challenged me to step foot back there, into the church of my ancestors. The one that gave my grandma Rita a faith so strong and sweet, she seemed to sip from a deeply divine spring and laugh lightly about it when things were hardest. I expect I will be wading through my own deep skepticism and layers of indifference, but I am interested in trying. Curious. How I might come to a holy place of my own, that feels true and that I can share with my family, both the ones who are gone and the ones just arriving, new.

Beginnings and Endings and the Long Legacy of this Work :: Public Works Moves onto the Delacorte

It’s always strange and wonderful to stumble into Central Park in the middle of this pulsing city, and to suddenly shift tempos. Smell the grass, spot the birds and, as dusk falls, hear the cicadas overtake the traffic. It fills me with wonder every time.

Today we moved into this oasis, out of the rehearsal room and onto the Delacorte Stage. A stage that has cradled the giants of the American Theatre but is still somehow dwarfed by the sky and the Poplars that tower over its grid.

Leaving the rehearsal room is always a challenging act for me, filled with feelings and a sense of loss. It’s a goodbye – to a nest, a laboratory, a home. But as artists and as humans, this is what we do, yes? We leave home. We say grudging farewells and move forward. We create new homes as we go.

And the Delacorte is a good one. I’m starstruck, to be honest, by this space. Awed as Lear arranges dozens of performers in sharp angles and dynamic curves along the lip of the stage, arched like a smirk skimming the front row of the house. Almost two thousand people can sit in this theater – and spend a few hours with Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, or Meryl Streep, or in our case, the magnificent Ms. Jett, a community ensemble member who makes the trees tremble when she sings.

This weekend, people from all over New York will convene in this space, along with theatre artists from all over the country. People are hearing about this, this crazy impossible notion of making theatre of, by and for the people on the most epic scale.

One of the Public Theater's declarations, posted outside the Delacorte Theater. As you stroll through Central Park, you can hear the cast rehearsing as we tech through the big musical numbers.

One of the Public Theater’s declarations, posted outside the Delacorte Theater. As you stroll through Central Park, you can hear the cast rehearsing as we tech through the big musical numbers.

Of course, it is not a new idea. Brilliant ensembles and visionary artists have been working with this idea since the idea of theatre began. And Percy McKaye did it in New York City in 1916 with his 2,000-person cast of Caliban by the Yellow Sands that played to 20,000 people a night in a form he came to call “The Community Masque.” He rooted this project in his idea of “Civic Theatre”  as “the conscious awakening of the people to self-government in its leisure…” calling for the public to be involved directly in the collaboration, not just as spectators. This concept of community, collaboration and unified action has been explored deeply and through a variety of methods throughout the last century, of course by Cornerstone Theater Company, but also the Free Southern Theatre (now Junebug Productions), the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and el Teatro Campesino to name a few.

Good things are magnetic, they draw you in. This is true onstage, when you feel yourself lean forward in your chair. And this is true in life, when you find yourself showing up, stepping forward, coming back for more. This weekend, it will be true for the almost 8,000 people who feel Ms. Jett’s seductive belt wash over them and who watch the little kids from the Bronx’s Dreamyard show us their fancy footwork in the big finale. And it will be true for those of us who are drawn to the place where truly excellent craftsmanship meets that primal function of stories and theater – bringing people together into a collective experience, and making a new home together. Even just for one night.

***

This year NYC’s Public Theatre Public Works Program will bring a cast of over 200 community members, professional actors and cameo performers together on the Delacorte Stage in Central Park to present a spectacular pageant production of Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of THE ODYSSEY, conceived with and directed by Lear deBessonet. Last year’s cast of A WINTER’S TALE is pictured above.

I’ve spent the last year studying the Public Works program from afar, researching a myriad of methodologies about art and social justice and thinking deeply about how we might translate this tremendous experience for our community in Seattle. I’ve been invited to observe the rehearsal process at the Public this summer and to watch this enormous endeavor take shape over the the next few weeks. I’ll be taking copious notes, asking as many questions as possible and listening quietly. I’ll also be recording the experience in several installments here. This is the fourth post in that series.

The Show Behind the Show :: The Invisible Workings of Public Works

Saturday was our last day in the Martinson rehearsal hall at the Public Theater, before moving The Odyssey to the Delacorte Stage in Central Park. And it was the first day that we all witnessed this massive endeavor truly take shape.

In the morning, we sang through each number with the full band and in the afternoon, we ran through the show in its entirety.

In the morning, we sang through each number with the full band and in the afternoon, we ran through the show in its entirety.

The Community Ensemble has been rehearsing for several weeks, along with professional actors Karen Olivo (Queen Penelope) and Brandon Victor Dixon (Odysseus himself) in the principal roles. And those rehearsals have been powerful. Wickedly efficient. Big. Many, many bodies moving in space, coming in and out of rigorous formations and spirited conversations. But on Saturday, we added the Cameo Groups. These are performance ensembles who make a special appearance in the production, showcasing their expertise, and giving a wider sense of this city’s breadth of talent and culture. I won’t give anything away, but will say that, beyond an incredible cast of actors, dancers and singers, this production will also feature a full youth symphony, a gospel choir, acrobatic breakdancers, a drum line, and a flock of the fiercest flamenco dancers in New York. Almost 100 people joined our cast on Saturday, and pulled a seat up to the table.

With the addition of six cameo performance groups, our cast was complete.

With the addition of six cameo performance groups, our cast was complete.

The run through was a triumph. The Public Theater staff joined us and many of us both wept and cheered, then left humming the songs. It felt like an incredible feat of artistry and vision, and certainly it was. But ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you, the most amazing show today happened behind the show. When I saw on the schedule that we were doing a “run through with Cameo Groups,” I thought, “Cool. We’re going to stop and start and I’ll get to really observe how they fold these scenes and acts together.” No, no. That was done in rehearsal weeks before, when each group came in for an afternoon, worked with Lear and the cast and figured out how to enter, what to do and where to move. No, there was no stopping in this run. Instead, we experienced a straight run of this epic story thanks to the almost undetectable expertise of the stage management team, which is truly the engine behind this beautiful machine.

Caption.

Rumor has it that Evangeline called cues for a run of A WINTER’S TALE last year while she had a raccoon caught in the production booth with her. “I think she just stayed cool and called for backup,” one of the veteran performers told me.

Evangeline Whitlock has stage managed all of these Public Works productions. Her team this year (lead by ASMs Kristin and Nikki) had every seat in the rehearsal room labeled and each of the 200 people in the show accounted for. As we approached each number, they managed to cue, move and ready each group for their entrance without ever stirring the invited audience to turn around. They literally snuck a marching band on stage. This level of organization, management, and execution is indicative and key to how this enormous endeavor works. The pre-production process for each rehearsal, let alone the actual production, includes pages of seating charts, maps of stage traffic, and meticulously tracked contact sheets. As magnificent as the final production is certain to be, like any breathing, complex organism, there is a vast, delicate network humming under the surface to connect each component to the greater, extraordinary whole.

***

This year NYC’s Public Theatre Public Works Program will bring a cast of over 200 community members, professional actors and cameo performers together on the Delacorte Stage in Central Park to present a spectacular pageant production of Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of THE ODYSSEY, conceived with and directed by Lear deBessonet. Last year’s cast of A WINTER’S TALE is pictured above.

I’ve spent the last year studying the Public Works program from afar, researching a myriad of methodologies about art and social justice and thinking deeply about how we might translate this tremendous experience for our community in Seattle. I’ve been invited to observe the rehearsal process at the Public this summer and to watch this enormous endeavor take shape over the the next few weeks. I’ll be taking copious notes, asking as many questions as possible and listening quietly. I’ll also be recording the experience in several installments here. This is the third post in that series.

Welcome Home :: A Proposal

This year NYC’s Public Theatre Public Works Program will bring a cast of over 200 community members, professional actors and cameo performers together on the Delacorte Stage in Central Park to present a spectacular pageant production of Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of THE ODYSSEY, conceived with and directed by Lear deBessonet. Last year’s cast of A WINTER’S TALE is pictured above.

I’ve spent the last year studying the Public Works program from afar, researching a myriad of methodologies about art and social justice and thinking deeply about how we might translate this tremendous experience for our community in Seattle. I’ve been invited to observe the rehearsal process at the Public this summer and to watch this enormous endeavor take shape over the the next few weeks. I’ll be taking copious notes, asking as many questions as possible and listening quietly. I’ll also be recording the experience in several installments here. This is the second.

***

Almost one hundred people are swiftly swarming the large rehearsal space. A recording of Todd Almond’s opening number WELCOME HOME plays over the rehearsal speakers. It looks like chaos – folks with canes and slower swaggers circled by tiny kids, men and women weaving in and out of one another in near-miss proximity – until a series of chords finally resolve and everyone lands, opens their arms and begins to sing. A giant sound. One hundred people singing about being on a journey, trying to return to where they came from. Their movement is big and energetic, earnest. Even the most somber or tough of the men open their mouths, and their hearts, and sing.

Over 100 of us gather on the steps of the Public Theatre to take the company photo.

Over 100 of us gather on the steps of the Public Theatre to take the company photo.

They’ve learned this entire number – song and dance – in under six hours and are already practicing toward perfection. Though even the folks who get a step behind seem part of the celebration, all of us together, learning and moving and putting ourselves out there. At the end of the sequence, all the onlookers erupt with applause. You can’t help it. Watching everyone move in synchronicity, beginning to embody this epic story, the feeling is overwhelming. I think it’s best described as joy.

Radical Joy was the proposal director Lear deBessonet set before us in the first rehearsal on a hot July evening. But today she expounds on that, “We are proposing a vision of a radically unified city, in both what we are creating and how we’re creating it.” In a time when the complexities of race, class and privilege are at the forefront of our minds and conversations, when it feels urgently necessary to talk about what is wrong with our societal systems, this work offers up a hope. A vision. A proposal that it is possible. For folks from far-reaching neighborhoods and vastly different cultures, from a spectrum of wonderful and harrowing experiences, to come together and create. With discipline and joy. Even if this rehearsal room is only a microcosm. And even if it contains its own flaws and contradictions at times, it feels like a radical example of what is possible among us.

Todd Almond and Lear debasement before the first rehearsal with Broadway actors Karen Olivo and Brandon Dixon.

Todd Almond and Lear deBessonet before the first rehearsal with Broadway actors Karen Olivo and Brandon Dixon.

Throughout my time as a theatre artist, I have struggle with how to access the power of this form. Theatre is clearly a vehicle for change, conversation, and transformation and I spent many of my younger days writing shows that were overtly political. Almost didactic. After awhile, I realized that they also needed to be really funny, but still…

This process has got me rethinking about all of this. Perhaps the power of theatre is most effectively accessed through the joy of making, of singing together, of sitting back and watching people move and act together towards a common goal. Of course, when they are masterfully told, our darkest stories can be so satisfying and impactful (Kate Whoriskey’s RUINED at Intiman or Reggie Jackson’s recent premiere EMBOLDENED come to mind), but maybe joy works too. Maybe sometimes it works better. Way better.

I feel like we are living in a time of urgent conversations, and many of these are related to our sense of home. Last weekend, I had the chance to hear John Criscitello speak about his “Woo Girls!” poster campaign at the annual Smoke Farm Symposium. He lambasted the corporate takeover of Capitol Hill and lamented the loss of this neighborhood as a haven for queer culture, artists and dissidents. The discussion got heated. Who does Seattle belong to? Who lays claim to our city? The assembled crowd wrestled these questions even as we railed against the corporate presence which has already planted firm roots on almost every corner of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. And, on a larger scale, I think of how last month’s Black Lives Matter disruption of a Bernie Sanders event in Seattle made national news and lodged Racial Equity squarely into the conversation about our upcoming presidential election. Our need to talk, to address these critical questions of equity, class, income divide, is crucial, even in these two small examples. Both of these events beg a similar question – How do we address the ways we are divided and how we might build towards a solution? Who does this city, and this country, belong to? Where is there space for rage? And, conversely, is there hope? I think I am drawn to Public Works because it adds art and joy to this dialogue, not as a replacement for the difficult conversations we must have, but as a platform for them. A small example of what we create when we are unified, landing our feet and turning out together, opening our mouths and our hearts and making a giant sound.

 

Donald is a veteran of the program, he's been involved for three years, since THE TEMPEST. And he met his wife doing Public Works.

Donald is a veteran of the program, he’s been involved for three years, since THE TEMPEST. He met his wife doing Public Works.

 

With the Public Works’ ODYSSEY, in the Company of Joy

This year NYC’s Public Theatre Public Works Program will bring a cast of over 200 community members, professional actors and cameo performers together on the Delacorte Stage in Central Park to present a spectacular pageant production of Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of THE ODYSSEY, conceived with and directed by Lear deBessonet. Last year’s cast of A WINTER’S TALE is pictured above.

I’ve spent the last year studying the Public Works program from afar, researching a myriad of methodologies about art and social justice and thinking deeply about how we might translate this tremendous experience for our community in Seattle. I’ve been invited to observe the rehearsal process at the Public this summer and to watch this enormous endeavor take shape over the the next few weeks. I’ll be taking copious notes, asking as many questions as possible and listening quietly. I’ll also be recording the experience in several installments here. This is the first.

***

This morning I work up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, tangled in turquoise sheets under orange sunlight with a hard-working air conditioner fighting off the summer heat. Smiling.

Last night was the first Public Works rehearsal with the community ensemble of over 100 NYC citizens, and it was a joyful, inspiring time. The room was crowded with people of all ages, backgrounds, distinctive laughs and dialects that rang out through the rehearsal hall. We ate together. First. We ate together, broke bread and shook hands, while the little kids played tag and the older ladies leaned way back in their chairs. Folks threw their arms around each other and took pictures, and they welcomed me into the room like I was stepping into their home — Derek, Ella, Lex, Junior, Baby, P-Funk, a little girl named Jenny who play “Time” in THE WINTER’S TALE last year. Many of these folks are showing up to this room for the third year in a row, veterans of the rehearsal process and stewards of the good will at this program’s core. I had been a little nervous walking in, unsure of what I would find or how I could contribute. What I found was a big, hearty family and it seemed that the only way to really contribute was to sit down and eat.

Cornish College grad Sarah E.R. Grosman serves as Artistic Associate and Assistant Director to Public Works.

Cornish College grad Sarah E.R. Grosman serves as Artistic Associate and Assistant Director to Public Works.

There were some familiar faces in the room too. Two Cornish College graduates have found their way onto the Public Works team – Sarah E.R. Grosman has been the Public Works Artistic Associate and Assistant Director since the program’s inception three years ago and Eden Hana joined in March as this year’s intern. And, I have to admit, there is something in the atmosphere here that does feel like the Pacific Northwest — something about the tempo of the room, patient and playful, like we’ve stepped out of the bustle of New York and into someone’s birthday party at Golden Gardens. And something about the sense of social justice, the sense that art and collaboration are powerful tools for change and connection. That reminds me of home.

After dinner, the Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said a powerful hello, reminding the room that this is one of the most important projects they do all year — where we come together from across the city and craft an experience of hope, joy and music to gift to New York, a fleeting experience. One you must be present for to fully experience, and that comes and goes too quickly in one, short weekend. Then he introduced Lear deBessonet, the Director and mastermind behind Public Works, and then our rehearsal really began.

Lear spoke about the play and the process and the values that are at the heartbeat of this work. She didn’t only discuss WHAT we are doing, but WHY? Why make art? Why now? Why like this? Why spend our time together telling old stories when we live in a nation of increasingly divided communities? During a time of constant sorrow and misunderstanding? Why come together like this, with people who are so different from us, when all our instincts during this time of daily tragedies is to turn inward, to protect ourselves and the people closest to us? Because, she posited, JOY IS RADICAL. And art can serve many purposes during troubled times. Artists can illuminate parts of the world that are difficult to look at, yes. But she believes that artists have another mandate, and that is to propose the kind of world we could make. To use art and imagination to offer up a complete idea of how the world can be — through coming together, with joy, to face obstacles and triumph together.

Dayron Miles of Dallas Theatre Center, and Public Works Associate Director Laurie Woolery - just two of the rockstar collaborators in the room.

Dayron Miles of Dallas Theatre Center, and Public Works Associate Director Laurie Woolery – just two of the rockstar collaborators in the room.

She went on to talk specifically about THE ODYSSEY, that tells the story of Odysseus and how he has been away from his family for twenty years and has been fighting fantastical monsters, intoxicating seductions and cunning dangers in order to return home. This is a story about trying to get home, she said. And it is a “Hero’s Journey” by genre, and it is a core belief of Public Works that every person in the room is a hero, on their own great journey, facing impossible obstacles sometimes on a daily basis. This story belongs to all of us. And then she acknowledged each of the communities in the room, honoring the returning veterans and the new faces alike. She shouted out to each of the partner organizations – Children’s Aid Society (Manhattan); DreamYard Project (from the “Boogie Down” Bronx); Fortune Society (Queens); Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn); and Domestic Workers United (all boroughs, including Staten Island) — and the room erupted with joy and applause.

Members of the community ensemble fill the room after rehearsal is over. Nobody seems to want to go home.

Members of the community ensemble fill the room after rehearsal is over. Nobody seems to want to go home.

Until the stage crew began to clear tables and it was time to rise to our feet. These hundred people were divided into twelve groups, and each group was assigned a story point from THE ODYSSEY. They got fifteen minutes of conversation and rehearsal. Then, one by one, these groups of tiny kids and senior citizens, men and women, friends and strangers, stood up in front of us and sang. And danced. And embodies these epic characters. Scene by scene, they began to tell this great story.

And this is me insisting that my dear friend and Public Works intern Eden Hana give me a highfive while we're taking a photo. Not awkward at all.

And this is me insisting that my dear friend and Public Works intern Eden Hana give me a highfive while we’re taking a photo. Not awkward at all.

Flailing. (on playing in Allison Gregory’s NOT MEDEA)

I kept apologizing. In rehearsal this afternoon, as I wrestled with Allison Gregory’s fierce modern Medea in the final moment of the play – when she finally steps forward not as a woman of fury but as a woman of grief. Not as a murderer, but as a mother who has lost everything. I was so full, brimming, with heat and rage and terror. The strange ingredients of loss, when melancholy becomes explosive and deafening. I kept apologizing because I couldn’t control it; I wasn’t wielding my emotions like a tool, like subtext, like “the fuel that fires the engine of action” that I teach my students. I was just overcome. I’m so sorry, I kept saying.

This deep, hot, unwieldy grief is in me and I’ve been its container without release since my brother Frank passed away in 2013. When I lost him, suddenly Acting felt useless. Artificial. A distraction from the real life that plays out in the sun. My work, always everything to me – the answer to every equation. The clearest way to express joy or profound love. The most noble forum to share, purge, make sense of injustice and heartbreak. When Frank died, suddenly it seemed clear that the work I’d made my life had actually been my greatest hindrance. I’d spent my whole life in rehearsal – pretending to be people I wasn’t, developing imaginary relationships – while the people I loved were out  in the air, living. Or suffering. Needing me. Instead of standing next to them, I turned around and traced their shadows over and over again without ever turning back to catch a real look at the sun. In 2013 my bones were still bruised from birthing my last show, Riddled, which did not go on to lead the life I’d dreamt for it (this is how it goes sometimes with children), and suddenly my appetite ran dry. I didn’t want fiction. I wanted family. I wrapped my limbs around the people closest to me and tried to stare directly ahead.

It was never really what I chose, I think, to do this sort of thing. Theatre. Telling stories out loud in front of strangers. It was always just the simplest solution. My natural form. How some people take to swimming. That is how I stepped onstage. And as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never really been able to fully know myself in any other way, or to understand the way the world works or the ways we humans flail around in any other practice. I tried to go to business school. I tried to get married. I’ve tried driving back and forth across the country again and again. And I tried to give it up when I lost Frank. I tried so desperately to just be a normal fucking person. Scared and sad, I refused to reach into the mire of my emotions for any elective reason.

But today I did. For Medea. And for Allison, and my beautiful friend Micky, and for my scene partners Keiko Green and Connor Toms who rang out like church bells filled with talent and promise and voice. And it felt wonderful. Like I was a well swollen with groundwater waiting to be sprung, waiting to be funny, to collide with an audience, to listen deeply to another actor with full presence, to feel. Scared. Sad. Outrageous.

I’m out of practice. But I think it’s finally time. To make something new. To step inside fiction in order to really, really get at the truth of things. Of course (the thing that terrifies me most) when I take pen to paper I can only write about Frank, really. The mettle in my bones points to great purpose, like a magnet gripping North. I write about Frank, about Adam, about my brothers and their wonder and deep wisdom nestled inside their autism and delusions, about my father’s magic and the way he accidentally set the house on fire and smiled when I took a picture. About my mom. The pageant gowns she’d sew for me, directing all her time and patience and loving attention to getting me ready to go out and stand in front of other people and smile.

 

We’re doing an invited reading of NOT MEDEA this Wednesday 7/8/15 at Seattle Repertory Theatre at 7pm. Send me a message if you’d like to be on the list.

 

Patti Smith on Work

When I wrote and performed a rock musical titled Riddled in 2012 (with the incredible musical talents of Sean Michael Robinson and his band Landlord’s Daughter), it felt like the culminating creative work of my career. I had long been performing autobiographical solo shows that combined found text, music and original verse, but this was new. And bigger. And so much harder. To welcome fiction, and the inspiration of the Bonnie & Clyde story, into my desperate exploration of the cognitive dissonance I feel around guns and my father’s obsessive libertarianism, I had struck a new vein. For about two years, I had an incredible team of collaborators (including director Braden Abraham, co-producer Daryle Conners, and designers LB Morse, Matt Starritt Bobby Aguilar and Harmony Arnold) knocking heads together to create a fresh form of creative storytelling to contain this work. It was exhilarating.

And when it was made, I was so hopeful for it to live a longer life. It got mixed reviews, with some good responses in that mix. And when I spoke to a local producer about picking it up for a longer run he said, “You know, I know what you’re going for with the Patti-Smith-whiny-white-woman thing but it doesn’t work for me.” I am not made of the strongest stone and I don’t think I have yet recovered from that conversation.

However, this interview with Patti Smith hearkened me back there with a glow of hope today, as her work almost always does. In the beginning and the end, let us love the work itself.

http://www.thatericalper.com/2015/02/14/patti-smith-on-the-biggest-misconception-about-her/


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Kultur Shock Squires Chop Suey Towards an End

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Tonight I landed in the dance pit in front of my old friend Gino, watching Kultur Shock lead a crowd of bouncing bodies into joyful revolt. If you haven’t heard their music or seen them play, they are an international Seattle-based band that slams together punk, metal, and traditional Balkan music often resulting in a gypsy mosh pit and a sense of nomadic catharsis. Whenever I see them, I feel sort of like a political refugee that has suddenly found myself among my people and it is somehow all of our birthdays on the same day and we must celebrate. And knock the dust from the ceiling with our jumping up and down. And sway and then bang together. The crowd is always filled with old people with greying hair and young men with rowdy pony tails and girls in hippie tank tops. And it does feel as though we are sharing in a joyful revolt. Which I needed tonight.

They played Chop Suey, which they often do, and most of the folks reading this probably know that Chop Suey will be going away in a small count of days. And I felt nostalgic tonight. I’ve been in Seattle since 2001 and for most of that time, I’ve been attending shows there. In grad school, my friend (and now reigning comic genius) Trish Nelson and I went to see Reggie Watts play with Maktub there on Halloween. She spent all day and over a hundred dollars creating a shower costume out of PVC pipe (inspired by Ralph Macchio’s getup in The Karate Kid) because she had a vision of bobbing around in the crowd anonymously. At one point, she dropped her wallet and took out an entire table full of cocktails reaching for it. I also attended Sun Tzu Sound’s first TRUSTs at Chop Suey. And saw a Blue Scholars show there that made my brain dance. One time I saw Saul Williams rhyme there and was so moved that I went home and wrote him a letter. As I got older, sometimes I would hide away on a Saturday night and go dance there by myself. When I was working on my rock musical RIDDLED, I’d go to Chop Suey to listen to soul music and try to discover how the character in that show moved when she closed her eyes. Unlike most venues in this city, I never felt strange going to Chop Suey by myself and it felt good to go back there tonight.

It’s been awhile since I’ve lived on Capitol Hill and a long time since I stepped out of the conversations protesting the development there, but tonight I had that familiar pang again. It will be such a shame when all the old, dirty places are gone.

Brutality in the Light: Civic Rep’s STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

When I read STREETCAR in college, I read the story in the warm glow of the idea that this play is indeed a classic. Beautifully wrought, complicated characters in extreme circumstances dancing through a canonical story. I was moved by Blanche’s fragility and taken aback by Stanley’s violence, but again, somehow it all happened in my mind in the warm glow of a paper lantern.

My professor talked about Blanche’s lantern. Her need to control the light and the environment and the people around her. We talked about her manipulation of circumstances and people and her “descent into madness.” We talked about her need for artifice – for furs and superior airs and soft light. We didn’t talk much about the ragged, inescapable impact of her traumas – of her  guilt and presumed culpability in her young husband’s suicide, of the deathwatch she stood over her family while nursing a mortal emotional wound to her own heart, of the sincerity of her love for poetry and great works. We didn’t talk about her excessive drinking and sex with strange men and insistent control of her circumstances as her only means of coping with a world that seemed to spin beyond her control and with increasing speed. We didn’t really talk about those things. And neither have most productions of the play I’ve seen (with the exception of Sheila Daniels’ production at Intiman in 2008). Nope. In fact, most productions of this play have us pretty relieved to see Blanche carted away in the end, at least in my experience. She’s an uppity, neurotic disruption to Stella and Stanley’s attempt to make steamy love and a happy home. I’ve seen actresses play Blanche crazy and, thanks to Marlon Brando’s sexy white tshirt, most actors play Stanley as a seething stallion of irresistible testosterone. I’ve mostly seen their sex played as a foregone conclusion because, sure she’s compromised, but what woman really wants to resist a hunk of man like that? And hasn’t she been flirting with him for the entire play? Hasn’t she sort of asked for it?

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L Zane Jones’ production at New City’s Shoebox Theater (playing now until Jan 25) asks different questions and offers us new slivers of light into the dark tragedy of Williams’ masterpiece. The staging is simple, elegant, evocative and accomplishes claustrophobia, as we watch these characters press into the corners of that long room, and up against the immoveable brick of the upstage wall. She establishes a world where domestic violence and wild lovemaking fold into one another, a world increasingly haunted by ghosts who will pour your drink and pull fabric over your head. Kelli Mohrbacher’s Stella is sensual and sweet and so clear, so devoted to the joyful folds of her relationship with David Nail’s funny, punchdrunk, lumbering Stanley. He isn’t Marlon Brando (THANK THE GODS), but is a regular guy with a helluva lot of charisma and a confidence that makes up for the fact that he’s not a movie star. I know Christopher Frizzelle gave him a knock in The Stranger here, but I really disagree. This Stanley is the kinda guy who girls like Stella fall for, and who bruises his way through life with sheer force and good jokes. And who is sick of getting kicked and has a formidable capacity for violence that outpaces his sense or shame. I like him when I meet him but, by the end of this play, I don’t forgive him. For his brutality with Blanche and sabotage of Mitch, for the way he muscles Stella. I don’t forgive him for needing to own everything in his house and then destroying everything he owns.

Of course, the last and very real reason you should go see this production while it lasts is Robin Jones in the role of Blanche. Rather than a pitiful descent into madness, Jones plays Blanche with nuance and humor while the demons circle in on her. She plays action, pushing up on the weight of hopelessness heaving down on her. And with Sam Read’s earnest Mitch, we see her find hope. So often that relationship is sent up as a manipulation, played as though Blanche is angling Mitch into marriage. But in this production, we see hope. Two lonely people who might actually be a perfect match, until Stanley destroys the prospects. And then we watch Robin Jones navigate  Blanche’s images and memories and paralyzing fears with such great specificity. We don’t see a “crazy woman.” We see a woman trying to make sense of an unbelievably cruel fate.

I learned so much about this play through this production. I often hear theatre artists talking about “breathing new life into classics” but that is a lot harder to do than to dream. Civic Rep does just that in this DESIRE. Go.