The Troubled Relationship Between Time and Art

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Back in college, my friends and I invented a day of the week known as Twunesday.   Twunesday fell between Tuesday and Wednesday, and all events that didn’t fit within the constraints of our seven-day week were scheduled on this day.  When will I write that paper?  On Twunesday!  How about taking a nap?  Twunesday is an excellent day for naps!

Nowadays I find myself filling up my Twunesday schedule with all the artistic endeavors only doable on days when I have a clear schedule, void of responsibilities.  I daydream about a clean, cleared-off desk with an artsy looking planter full of succulents, a steaming coffee cup, and a little framed motivational quote about the sun and new ideas, or some other baloney.  This desk does not exist is my house, most of my writing is done at the dining room table with a cat laying half off my keyboard, usually cutting off the use of everything from caps lock to the space bar.  A pile of papers containing theatre mailers, tax documents, and notepads with my husband’s play notes are held down by a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, of which I have read half.

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An Acting Lesson for Troubling Times

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When I was twelve, I played Anne Frank in a local theatre production up in the mountains of North Jersey.  It was in one of those performance spaces that makes you miss the community theatre scene–a sturdy, 19th-century chapel in the center of town, with original wooden pews, a lady bug infestation, and the smell of books and old coffee.

The timing of this show was a major comfort for me and my family, it was just over two years since we had moved from Plainfield, a town that had become so dangerous that we purposely “disappeared” with as little a trace as possible.  These were the days before the internet, and so all you needed to do was select being “unlisted” in the White Pages, and bam, you were off the grid.  Studying Anne brought such solace to me in a time when I felt that I had also up and left my friends without a mailing address.  The door simply closed on that old life.  Unlike Anne though, I started a new one.  I was welcomed by a chance to play in the woods, to ride my bike until the sun went down, to meet new friends, and through that, work with new theatre companies.

I had a pretty lucky theatre ‘career’ as a kid, I probably worked more then than I have as an adult so far.  But up until that point, I hadn’t dealt with a role with such a massive line-load as Anne.  I also spend 99% of the show on stage, only stepping behind a flat to change during the second act; and of course, I did not come in the final scene, when Otto Frank returns without his family.

But my primary focus was on my lines, of the logistics of staying on stage that long, of the ins and outs of imitating and embodying a historical figure I had already looked up to for years.  You can learn a lot about someone’s energy and enthusiasm for life through their writing voice, and perhaps this is why we’re all so drawn to this girl.  I studied the way she viewed the crumbling world around her, how she always maintained empathy and a belief in others’ goodness, even when she got angry and frustrated and panicked.  I connected with the fact that she had terrifying nightmares that woke her up mid-scream (at least this is how its depicted in the show).  I grew up with nightmares, and still either sleep walk or wake up gasping for breath from time to time.  But most of all, I remember obsessively retraining myself on how to hold my pen–sometimes the two front fingers connected to the pencil, my thumb on the other side, and sometimes the pencil between the fore and middle finger, something that took a good deal of practice.  I still catch myself doing these from time to time.

Like this.

Like this.

And so I learned to sit like her, to speak in a rhythm I believed she would have used, and to sink into the small world of the annex; as in real life, I played with the ladybugs and stared out the church window at a similar chestnut tree she describes in her diary.  In the end, as with all roles, I am still me, and so we slowly became one, walking and talking in tandem.  In the early days of living in a new town, she was a friend.

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Do Not Let Me Entertain You

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This is in response to today’s Daily Post, entitled “Invitation.”

If you go to the theatre, turn on a movie, stand in front of a work of art, switch on the radio–do not let me entertain you.  If you do, you are being tricked, you are missing the point, you are closing off a part of you due to fear, misunderstanding, the anxiety of truly looking at yourself.  Each piece of art–from the loud, frivolous musical to the subtle, abstract painting–evokes something in you that wasn’t there before, it creates.  It creates joy, nostalgia, anger, confusion, wonder, and perhaps even inspiration to change.  And whether the art pleases or angers you, it makes no difference.  What matters is that you went from feeling nothing–from moving along in a neutral day, from following the rhythm of the world, to distracting yourself by your own inner world—to stopping, to looking at the mirror that art provides for one moment, and challenging yourself to listen, to look.

With all the confusing anger around Meryl Streep’s speech and Hamilton providing a “safe space” and other misrepresentations of my field, I see the opportunity not to quiet these incorrect views of art, but to challenge them.  If these people, the ones who believe that art and artists are literally only meant to delight them, to make them feel more comfortable in their already comfortable states, well then I say, great!  I dare to you come to something truly challenging and try to leave simply, “entertained.”  I dare you to listen to an artist’s “unwelcome” opinion and walk around with it for one day before responding.

I keep reading,  “We go to see theatre for an escape, do your job.” But I ask you, if you only see art as an escape, what are you escaping?  Even asking yourself that question means that art has proved your thesis as incorrect.

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Day 26: My One-Day Modeling Career…Or, My Last Day as an Ingenue

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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I can’t speak for every actress, but for me, there was a specific moment when my worries about women in theatre hit me like a brick wall.  I was very lucky in one large respect as a child–I had theatre, and the roles written for young female actresses–to provide me with the belief that women had something to say in the theatrical literature.  I played Helen Keller, Anne Frank, understudied Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Perhaps most memorable in my own personal experience, was a character named Girl in a beautiful play for young audience’s called Mother Hicks.  Girl–who has never been given a name–is an orphan in a small mid-western town during the Great Depression who spends the play searching for a true home.  Like Helen and Anne, she is on her own hero’s journey–not one that trails along beside a male character.

Yet as I got older, even when I got to college, it was obvious that these rich character arcs were getting left in the dust as I entered the ingenue stage of my life.  In college, though I was very grateful for the roles and great people I worked with, I played psychologically damaged women, or the tough older character that guided the crumbling, delicate ingenue.  The strong, dynamic characters being written for women, were often deranged or in the process of having divorce-induced nervous breakdown.  Luckily, in educational theatre, it is acceptable to act outside your type and age, and so my full disappointment for women’s roles was delayed until I graduated and moved to NYC.

Because then the roles essentially stopped.  After many years of padding my ego as a community theatre child–big fish syndrome–I found myself floundering to make sense of the Juliets and the Ninas, and it was clear in my auditions.  The roles I have been cast in are those rare gems like The Laramie Project, where a woman is not playing the role of a women, she is playing an activist, a writer, at one point and bigoted old lady that I had to somehow connect with.  I’ve played devious 17-century wives that are trying to ruin their husbands, I’ve played men!  But more often than not, the roles I am not cast in leave me feeling like I’m missing something.  I connected with the women on the stage as a child, and yet in these audition rooms, I feel like an unkempt, masculine woman who just can’t bring herself to wear heels as the rest of the room is popping on their 3-inch stilettos.

It took me some time to stop resenting women who could be vulnerable enough on stage to play these beautiful roles–these characters are not to be diminished.  I did play Juliet, but I never felt like I figured her out, almost to the point of embarrassment. Either way, the women I’ve come to know who can rock these roles with confidence, are often tough, fiery ladies, not the docile, introspective characters-in-love they portray.  So I am stuck between the dilemma of longing to have this strength and waiting until the characters I connected with as a child return as I get older.

But where am I going with this?  I’m supposed to be telling a story.  I came to terms with this shift  during that time I mentioned in the flash-mob post, when I was applying for every job that was remotely related to performance.  During my background actor days, I submitted daily through Casting Networks–a site for BG work–for a casting call for “Model Types.”  I assumed that it just meant tall, thin-ish women with high cheek bones.

The thing about growing up in theatre as  girl is that once you hit your teen years, everyone loves to comment on your appearance.  “Oh she’s an actress?” a well-meaning friend would say to my parents, “I can see it, so pretty, she should be a model!”  I know this is meant as a compliment, but for years I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me.  Maybe it’s because as a kid, I did not fall into the typical confines of overly groomed beauty.  My hair went past my waist until the 7th grade, and until I was about 10, I barely brushed it.  It was like a mane to be pulled out of my face so I could get on with the day.  I was told that longer hair would get me cast more, so I was terrified of cutting it.  To this day, it is why I have never dyed my hair either.

Anyway, when I hit puberty, I wouldn’t say I instantly blossomed into some sort of flower.  My eyebrows met in the middle, I struggled letting go of my Bartman t-shirt, and I cut my hair out of fear that public school would be harsher on me than my former bubble of Catholic School.  I can’t say I enjoyed any of this change though, and I was startled by the increase in physical comments the second I started following along with the expected standards of girlish upkeep.  Why comment on my looks when I say I’m an actress?  You haven’t seen me act, who cares about my hair?

By my early twenties, I learned to play the part of “lady” and gritted my teeth in silence when the comments from friends turned into catcalls from men on the streets or checkout guys at the supermarket.  When I began to explore background work as a means of an acting-related side job, it was even more clear that there were a few boxes for women–model types, polished business type (must had upscale matching suit), hippie type, edgy women (tattoos and colored hair encouraged), hipster girl, high school student, prostitute.  The one category I seemed to fit into was high school student, which is why I paced back and forth between my fake locker on The Carrie Diaries for way too many months.  I also had good luck with period pieces, but that’s mainly because my thick eyebrows and un-dyed hair qualifies me for 1920’s secretary.

“Model-type” however, was a surprise.  I got called the day before for an audition.  I was asked to wear heels, 3-inches or higher.  We would be asked to “walk.”  Now remember, this was less than a year after hiking the Camino.  I knew how to walk, I just didn’t know how to walk up tall in a straight line with sticks hooked to my feet.  With the little money I had, I bought hideous, three-inch black leather heels from Payless that latched on to my toes like a Medieval torture device, and clonked across my tiny Astoria apartment throughout the evening.  I watched bits of Top Model and other tutorials on model walking/what the hell I was supposed to do with my face.  The thing I hadn’t even thought about for some reason, was my body type.  I was 120 pounds from the age of 16 until about 25, I didn’t worry about my weight at that point.  Anywho, I pack up my stuff and headed to midtown the next day.

As I exited the elevator, a line of striking, made-up women lined the hallway, all towering over me as I passed to pick up my sign-in card.  The casting office, through one of the doors, was only for casting personnel, the hallway was as far as we were allowed.  The requirements of the day were clear, “Walk toward the casting table as if it is a runway, wait for the director to tell you to stick around or not.”  A quick, “No, thank you,” or “Please wait over there” was heard after each girl.

I sat in the corner of the hallway to slip on my heels, and smiled at a few women around me.  It was clear from the very beginning that I was out of my element–that this was a whole other world of female performers that I was unfairly infiltrating.  They sat, focused on their pocket mirrors, adjusting their makeup, fixing imperfections in their hair, and most notably, ripping their body images apart to one another.  Now, before I go on with this, please know that I respect these women and was only taken aback that this particular groups was a creating negative hell of self-deprecation.  I cannot assume that this represented the modeling world–for I have never returned to find out.

“I’ve been working on getting rid of this.” She tugged grotesquely at a inconsequential amount of fat on the back of her thigh.  “Ugh, I know, I’m disgusting today,” answered the pristinely assembled women behind her, “I hope they just told look at my shoulders today.”

I started to think about what I would say if I joined in on the conversation.  “I HAVE MAN ANKLES!” I daydreamed proudly screaming.  I loved my muscly legs, my disproportioned thighs, my blotchy red skin from five weeks in the sun.  As the conversations went on, I began to let of my hopes for the day.  What was I trying to do here?  If the audition is stressing me out, why would I want to spend a week being viewed with these expectations.

I hobbled along the line in my wobbly heels and watched the skilled, strong-as-steel women strut down the slippery linoleum hallway.  I knew my walking looked nothing like that, and I knew that many of my body’s small curves would be considered a disqualifying factor.  So about three women to go,  I just thought, “Well, screw it,” and began to laugh at each panicked, self-conscious inkling that tried to work itself into my mind.  I also started to desperately crave donuts.  It must have been all the anti-food talk reverberating through the halls.

When it came time for me to walk, I distinctly remember the casting director glancing at me for a moment, and then looking back down at his notes to talk to his assistant about the person before me.  No one was even going to watch me try.  So, with a donut dream in my heart, I hobbled with pride and comedy down that loud hallway as two grown men shuffled papers and looked the other way.  I had never been so proud to be ignored.  I stood obediently for a moment, ahead of the table, waiting for my verdict.  The guy looked up, “Oh!  Yeah, you’re free to go.  Thanks.”

As I leaned against the back of the elevator, it dawned on me that I had started to buy into the idea of women in NY theatre and film.  If this was all there was, then I didn’t want to be a part of it.  But come on, there’s no way this was it.  I knew that, but I needed to reach this point of rock-bottom frustration with what I was not to start figuring out what roles I longed to play again.  Why are the child female characters in plays written as such vehicles of bravery and wisdom?  And why do you have to wait until your 30s to get a glimpse of that again?

As I sat at Andy’s deli on 7th, eating a glorious cheeseburger, I contemplated my great respect for the model women who had the strength to project such presence.  I did not, nor did I long for, this skill.  I longed for the Helen Keller roles, the Annes, the Girls.  To all my playwright friends–please keep writing women who have their own Hero’s Journey, and not just one that makes her decide between her cushy-yet-suffocating domestic life and a life with another man (I’ve started seeing this trend in theatre).  We can do more than look pretty and care for families.  Here’s hoping my 30s are more enlightening than my ten years of failed attempts at playing the ingenue.

Day 10: My Touching EGOT

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

I’m low on energy and time today, so I’m going to keep it short and sweet.  Also, maybe someone reading can help me out with this.

They say that someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony has what’s known as an EGOT.  Quite an impressive status. Well, just as impressive, is my nearly complete “touching EGOT.”

I have touched or held an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony, BUT, my friends, I am having issues getting my hands on an Oscar–literally.

I first touched (and got to hold/spin) a Tony when I was interning at the Broadway Green Alliance.  It is quite heavy, and very pretty.

I got to touch a Grammy when I babysitting the children of a couple who wrote the music to several Disney films.  I remember walking in one evening and saying, “Hey!  You won a Grammy!  Look at you!”  They said they liked to put it out when their son’s friends’ families visited (since he went to a very fancy private school) and they were worried they wouldn’t look fancy enough for them.  They had a good sense of humor, I was a big fan.  Nevertheless, that’s how I touched a Grammy.

I secretly touched an Emmy when I was temping at a very negative hedge fund.  The non-profit portion of the company (which was later sued for a bunch of shady things) included an Emmy-award winning reporter.  She was never particularly nice to me, and I had to drop off her mail in the morning.  One day, when she wasn’t in yet, I quickly touched her Emmy to check that one off my EGOT list.  Even though they were all a bunch of grumpy gusses, I walked out that day like this strutting cat.

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So friends, if you have access to an Oscar and would be okay with me holding it, just for a moment, I would greatly appreciate it.

Happy Thursday, all.  More tomorrow.

Day 4: Enough is enough, or…the night I walked out of a film shoot

 

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  Today’s theme is, “Enough is enough.”  Whatever that means to you, feel free to comment, link your blog, or repost online with any stories of your own.  Thanks for reading!

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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If you want to get under my skin, complain to me about free food. This has been an issue around me lately.  There are very few things that cause me to openly lash out against negativity.  But after years of wondering if my bank account would bottom out at the grocery store (thank heavens those days are behind us), free food, either from a job or otherwise, is no reason to complain.

But recently, I’ve been getting particularly infuriated by this type of griping—and in the process, I’ve realized something.  My aversion to complaints has a lot to do with being an actor.  In the theatre world, there are plenty of factors fighting against you—lack of work, unsteady paychecks, too many people in one market.  And so it’s necessary manages what is in your control—the amount of work you put into your materials, your marketing efforts, and above all—your attitude.  A bad outlook or crotchety attitude is a sure way to ruin your chances in the theatre world—there simple isn’t time for it.  And so I’m always shocked when this isn’t the case in other industries.  In a way, it’s a form of privilege.  You can afford to complain about your job, to not look at the bright side.  In theatre, you find a way, usually with the help of all the other emotionally in-tune artists around you, to work through your frustration in a healthy, constructive way—or with a lot of wine.  You know, healthy alternatives.  Either way, you don’t complain at work.

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The Actor in the Back of the Coffee Shop

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“It’s just different from what I’m used to,” says the fussy lady in the coffee shop across from me, as she slams down the delicately crafted Matcha latte in front on the barista.  “If you had sweetened it the first time, I would have liked it.”  She wavers between a demanding tea connoisseur and someone who has never interacted with a food establishment before. Luckily, I know the people who work here, and will be able to share a glance of what a pain in the ass when she leaves.  Also luckily for me, she has no idea that I’m sitting here like the opposite of a secret shopper, writing about her unwarranted indignation about what is essentially a cup of hot sugar.

So yeah, not in a super-social mood lately.  Yesterday I told Ben that I would feel much more comfortable with a standard acting career acting if I could make one major change–to remain as introverted and secluded as an actor as I get to be as a writer. I know how to get my thoughts out, how to get to the point of what I want to say, when I sit in a public place with my laptop and write.  Here, I have the societal understanding that no one should mess with me because I’m clearly writing something super-duper important. This, paired with my intimidating resting face, usually assures my privacy.  Fussy tea lady is a reminder that I’m not exactly ready to dive into being a social butterfly to flaunt my acting career.  I used to have a thicker skin for people like this, or at least I thought I had to have one in order to stick with the types of jobs and interactions necessary for a public-facing career.

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Oh good, I’m super great at the wrong thing

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Last night I had a dream about eating a sandwich with my grandma.  She passed away a little over two years ago, and had one of the best kitchens on earth for snacks and conversation.  In the dream, she made me a huge but simple ham and cheese sandwich on really nice bread that she said she specifically bought for my visit–something she was known for doing.  However, in real life, I haven’t been able to eat gluten recently in an attempt to figure out why I’ve been so sick.  So in the dream, I start to have this huge dilemma–I’ve been so good about getting healthy.  I’ve been disciplined, I’ve been taking care of myself properly.  If I give in to eating this bread, I’ve gone backwards again.  I’ve failed at my goal.  But in the dream, I stop myself from giving my grandma the gluten speech and eat the damn sandwich.  We have a nice talk before my brain drifts away into the another storyline someplace else, leaving me wishing the elusive and comforting dream had continued a little bit longer.

The significance is due to the infuriating exhaustion I’ve developed this summer.  I just finished another acting class, and though the class was incredibly helpful, I still walked away feeling like I have frozen in my growth as an actor.  Without a show, without the time to find a consistent project to throw myself into, I stall.  Throughout it all–the juggling, the pushing, the planning–I’ve worn myself down further and further, constantly attempting to do everything that I do well.  Or actually, better than well, perfectly.  And yes, I have become very very good at creating stability–financial and otherwise–so good that I have ended up in the place where my art that I’m fighting for barely exists.

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The Buddhist Actor and the Audition

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The Mental Life Cycle of an Audition

If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past 20-some years of acting, it’s the twisted, complex labyrinth of psychological grief I embark upon each time I lock down an audition.

Step one: What a cool opportunity, I’m not going to get hooked on the idea of getting the role, it’s just great to go. Yay me.

Step two (approximately an hour later): Great!  I have officially figured out all the logistics of how to schedule/travel for this role if I get in the show, but totally won’t count my chickens before they hatch.  If I don’t get it, that’s cool too.

Step three: Irrational confidence/justification stage: It’s a small theatre in a small town so I bet they won’t get that many women and I know that guy through that lady who I think is stage managing so I feel really good about this one.  Also, I’m now obsessed with the character.

Step four (the night before): Maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe this is dumb and it would stress me out to go anyway.  They have other people who would be perfect for it, and I’m really not feeling prepared.  Also, I’m totally getting sick.

Step five: The audition waiting room: Everyone knows each other but me. They’ve all apparently been working constantly.  I’m gonna sit here and stress over the weird shoes I’m wearing.

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The Buddhist Actor

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Last week, I had a rare opportunity to sit in on a Taoist workshop lead by the head of the Chinese Taoism Society, Master Meng Zhiling.  I knew very little going in about Taoist culture and beliefs, only that they would be a great complement to my Buddhist studies (and helpful toward my goal of sitting and meditating for more than 10 minutes at a time without deciding the clean the living room).

During the second workshop, Master Meng spoke specifically about breath and meditation, focusing on body position and the role of Chi. In a nutshell:

  • Shoulders relaxed and down
  • Breath is focused three inches below your belly button
  • Spine and neck are in line
  • Head is lifted but not tense (like a basket on a string!)
  • Overall, you should feel physically light and balanced
  • This practice takes time and patience, since we most likely have been breathing differently all our lives

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