Monday, June 25, 2007
I had a meeting today with an eccentric English director - someone who has a name in this country and who has worked with a number of famous people. He's also been asked to be a guest lecturer a lot, especially in America, which is where I first encountered him while I was in grad school.
He is a nice man, the kind of person who probably fancies himself a mentor for young artists, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy life to meet with me. But at the end of our 2-hour meeting in a museum cafe, I wanted to shoot myself in the head.
I haven't indulged in too many moments of abject despair about my (currently non-existent) theatre career since crossing the pond 6 months ago, but today I made up for all that restraint. In the tube on the way home, my mind was a jumble of ineloquent curses and whiny tantrums:
Fuck fuck fuck it all. I'm never going to fucking get anything going here or anywhere else. Theatre is beat. This is bullshit. My career is going nowhere. I should pack it up and become a fucking preschool teacher. Fuck fuck fuck.
What did this man say that so stimulated the wrathful demons inside me, you ask? I have no idea. Really. Except that he did chide me a bit for being "unfocused", for being interested in too many things, and also for being too effusive, too enthusiastic. "Talk a little slower my dear. Don't try to tell everything at once." And maybe that's all it took - being chided took the piss out of me. It made me feel like I'm an eager-beaver graduate all over again, a newbie, fresh off the bus and dazzled by the lights of the big city marquee. It made me feel like I'm never going to get off the bench and back into the game.
And I can't believe that after all the time I've put in in the trenches - slaving for peanuts in non-profits and schlepping my ass here and there between 1,001 jobs, that I am still not qualified enough, not juiced up or hooked up enough to get the attention of anyone in theatre in this godforsaken country. It's like being in junior high all over again and having to find my clique. Where are my people? Where are the people who, like me, value collaboration above self-aggrandizement? Where are the people who would rather focus their energies on actually engaging with another person than trying to impress them with 120 straight minutes of name-dropping? Where are the people who aren't feeling so protective of their hand-built sandbox that they're not willing to invite the new kid over to play a bit and maybe share the toys a little.
It's humiliating all this selling of self. I sucked at it in the small and relatively low-key pond of San Francisco, and I suck even harder at it in the giant ocean that is London. I think in the back of my mind, I had some kind of ridiculous fantasy playing that in coming over here I could hopscotch over all the facets of the business of making theatre that have always plagued me - networking, proving your value as an artist by affiliating yourself with impressive people and institutions, using others (either literally or figuratively) to get a leg up. I was hoping that I would bump into some people like me who are just looking for space and time to play and people to play with, and that we would dance off together in a blissed-out creative haze.
But that isn't happening. And while I'm certainly capable of scraping some folks together and putting on a show myself, what I want more than anything is to be IN CONVERSATION with some other artists. I wish I could take out a personal ad:
36-year old over-educated director/dramaturg/teacher/dance-lover seeks artists of any discipline to connect and make art with. I love talking, listening, and brainstorming about the world and where we fit into it. You love long converations over coffee, taking creative risks, and know where we can rehearse for free. Let's get together and see where it leads. Let's dream something up and make it happen. Let's become intimate with each other's questions and then invite some others to chew on them with us.
One of the things that I got so fed up with working in non-profit theatre was how slowly things move - you have to fundraise at least 1-1/2 years out for any given project. Your organizational vision grows by leaps and bounds, while your infrastructure grows by dribs and drabs. It takes years for a play to go from the page to the stage, and often they never make the leap at all. Somehow I thought things might move faster here, but so far it feels the opposite. I've been here 6 months, and it feels like another 6 could pass and I would be in the same place - a person who wants to work but who can find no work, a person who wants to play but who can find no playmates.
I have to think the universe is trying to teach me something here. Maybe today's feeling that I'm trying to drive with the parking brake on is a warning that I'm not ready to "go back to work" yet afterall. Probably there is more discernment to be done, to figure out which of my interests and enthusiasms deserves my full attention. Most likely the eccentric English director hit the nail on the head when he metaphorically reduced me to a puppy fresh out of the box. Maybe my legs aren't strong enough yet for standing in this brave new world. Maybe I've distracted myself with work all these years to avoid the fact that I'm still afraid to do what it is that I most want to do. Whatever that is.
I read a book once called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind - the kind of book you could read over and over and still not fully grasp. The bit I remember is something that I think comes from the Noh tradition - no matter how much mastery you think you have achieved, you must still approach every task and every problem from the perspective of a beginner. That way you will continually refresh yourself by testing your skill in the present moment, rather than repeating yourself or relying on tricks or shortcuts.
That's hard for me. To feel like a beginner. To accept that there is only the long road. Very hard.
But that's how it is today.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
In her book Traveling Mercies, author Annie Lammott wittily asserts that in all the world there are really only two prayers:
"Help me. Help me. Help me."
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
I think she's right, and I appreciate how these simple words acknowledge the essential impulses that are at the core of everything we do. We are tender towers of flesh moving through a bright, harsh landscape - nearly every day each of us needs some kind of help to do something we want, or get something we need, however small. And when the need is big, and the help comes, the relief and gratitude that floods out of us is as primal and potent as the need was.
Now while I think of myself as a generally compassionate person, I'm not one of those people who go out of their way to help others too often. I mean to be. And sometimes I am - sometimes I actually do get it together to bake a lasagne for my new-parent neighbors, or send a card to an ailing friend even though they're not expecting it. But mostly I do easy things, like take my old clothes to the Goodwill and send small checks to Amnesty International. Mostly I stay safe, and clean, and just think about helping in the bigger, messier ways.
And one of the things that makes giving help so messy is that it exposes you to other people's pain and sadness. If you actually look and listen to another person and truly tune in to their deepest needs, it can be uncomfortable, if not overwhelming. Most of us are only willing to make that dark journey into a few people in our lives - a partner, a sibling, a best friend - and maybe not even then.
Last week, I had an encounter that reminded me how fulfilling the impulse to "help" is not simple or easy. There is a homeless woman in Chiswick, the town I live in. Notably, she is the only homeless person I have ever seen here (except for a male drifter with an aging back-pack who hung around on a corner with his guitar for a week), which seems remarkable for a city neighborhood. She is an almost quintessential figure of a bag lady - 60ish with wild grey hair, completely hunched over, and dressed entirely in black cloth. She wears "shoes" on her swollen feet made of plastic bags, newspaper and rubber bands, and she drags behind her a wheelie-cart loaded down with plastic bags, boxes, bits of paper and string. She is often seen walking up and down certain streets by the tube, but even more commonly, she resides in a secluded bramble-patch at the edge of a parking lot behind my building. In that spot she starts cook-fires, feeds the pigeons, and spends a lot of time screaming. I think she is probably schizophrenic. But I have never seen her bother anyone, or be violent in anyway, or do anything other than hang out alone in the bushes. Intuitively, I think she has chosen to remove herself from society - to go to a place where she can be as she is without really bothering anyone.
I walk through this parking lot nearly everyday on my way to the tube or the shops, and I see this woman at least 3 times a week. When my mom was visiting, we had many conversations about her. I think to my mom, who had just turned 60, this woman was a terrifying figure - a kind of doppelganger of what she could have or possibly still could become if her circumstances shifted for the worse. For me, she was part of the landscape - something I had come to accept as part of the neighborhood, like the brick houses and the tall trees. Here's how some of our conversations went:
Mom: "I can't believe that a town as wealthy as Chiswick can't get it together to help this woman."
Me: "Maybe she doesn't want help. Maybe she's content living as she is."
Mom: "It's obscene that no one does anything for her. She could be any one of us."
Good point. And one that we all know deep down, but easily ignore when we past dirt-encrusted folks with tattered hair and no teeth on the street. "There but for the grace of G-d go I," quickly gives way to "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That she isn't me."
So I mulled on what my mom had said, and simultaneously I cleaned out my closet. I had an old pair of super-soft slippers that I no longer liked and a working (albeit slightly annoying) umbrella that I was prepared to give to the Charity shops. And then I thought, "Maybe I should give them to the Pigeon Lady. Maybe these slippers would feel good on her feet, and she probably needs an umbrella." And I put these things in a bag, and set them aside, and did nothing for many weeks.
I fantastized sometimes about walking up to this woman and handing her the bag. I tried to imagine the conversation we would have - maybe she would be happy about being approached and we would chat about the weather, the pigeons, the beautiful hyacinths blooming in her bramble patch. Maybe it would be a silent exchange, but I would catch her in the eye for a moment and we would see each other. Maybe she would yell at me and be alarmed by my trying to talk to her. There seemed to be a lot of plausible scenarios, and at the bottom of each was a cold little blob of fear - fear that she would do something to frighten Gabriel if I brought him along, fear that she might curse me or worse attack me, fear that I might not like looking in her eyes and really seeing what her life is like.
So, I did nothing. But I thought about it all the time, especially when I passed her on the street. It became a kind of secret I was keeping - my desire to help and my fear to do anything. Finally, I decided that I would leave the bag with a note for her to discover. I added a box of lovely chocolate cookies to the slippers and umbrella, double-wrapped them so the rain wouldn't get through, got out one of my nicest notecards, wrote her a little letter, and stapled it to the front of bag. Here's what it said:
To the Woman Who Feeds The Pigeons:I dropped the package off in the bramble patch on a sunny Tuesday morning, pleased that I was finally doing something. Later that morning I passed through the parking lot and saw the woman busy organizing her belongings in the bramble patch, so I knew she had seen my package. At the end of the day, I passed through again, and I noticed what looked like the bag, with the note still attached, sitting on the asphalt beside the bramble patch. There was no sign of the woman. I went over and inspected the bag. Both the bag and the card were unopened. On one side of the envelope, she had scribbled this note back to me:
I thought these things might be useful to you.
I hope you are well.
You are not kind. And you waste your time.
I never take anything from anyone.
Tuesday, June 19thI was startled. I had not considered this as a possible outcome. I felt embarrassed and caught. I put the bag down and started to cross the parking lot, but then it occurred to me that leaving the bag there might cause her distress, so I picked up the lot and carried it with me to the tube station where I tossed it in the bin. So much for good intentions.
Perhaps my initial instinct about this woman was right - she might be living outside on her own by choice - perhaps as a form of protection against past troubles. She was checked in enough to know the date. Or maybe she was offended by being offered something she hadn't asked for - perhaps she feels completely self-sufficient and my clumsy attempt to "help" made her feel angry because it challenged that sense of autonomy. Perhaps she is paranoid and distrustful of others and doesn't like being approached. There is no way to know for sure - no way except maybe trying to talk to her.
So for now, I'm pondering the experience, letting it sit in my heart, and waiting for inspiration to strike and when/how/if I should try to connect with this woman. If I do anything else, I think I will have to stretch much further out of my comfort zone than I am accustomed to. I will probably have to get a bit messy, a bit involved, and open myself up to the truth of this woman's situation, whatever it is. And I'm not sure if I'm up for that. I might be. On a good day. I'd like to be. We'll see.
Wait and see.
Look before you leap.
What could be simpler.
Labels: Community Muses
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Gman turned 3 yesterday. But we've actually been celebrating all week: he had his party in the park with 6 friends last Sunday (you're supposed to invite one kid for each year of life, but hey, Gman has always been a "more more more" kind of guy), he had a special outing and present-fest with his Amma (aka Grandma) on Wednesday before she flew back to America after a long visit, and then on Friday he celebrated with his classmates at preschool with cupcakes. And because as a 3-year old he seems to finally be fully conscious of the world around him, I figured it was time for me to step up to the plate (so to speak) and learn to bake.
My mom says that cooking is an Art and baking is a Science. Let me say that I was never any good at Science - too precise and persnickety. In fact the only things I remember from my 10+ years of biology, chemistry and physics are:
1) Entropy - a component of the second law of thermodynamics which describe how the universe is constantly moving toward chaos "defined as a change to a more disordered state at a molecular level." (Wikipedia) I remember this seemed like a good reason not to clean my room when I was in 7th grade. It now seems like a apt explanation for the kind of destruction a child can wreak on any room in under 3 minutes.
2) Schrodinger's Cat - a conceptual experiment designed by German physicist Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate some point of quantum physics that I have never fully understood. In the photo in my textbook, the poor feline was trapped in a box with a shotgun attached to it, thus proving something about how you can know where the cat is, but only if you kill him.
3) If you "accidentally" drop sulfuric acid in Chemistry class, it burns cool holes in your jeans.
I remember quite clearly the cakes my mother made me for birthdays when I was a child. Weeks ahead, we would pick a theme and do sketches together. Then she would surprise me with a cake that exceeded my wildest imagination - a three-dimensional zoo cake with animals made out of marzipan, a cake with cascading chocolate fondant ribbons, a rainbow cake covered with crescents of fresh edible flowers.
I was not so foolish to attempt such grandeur with my first cake, but I did think I should try to make something that would please Gman's three-year old imagination.
Me: "What kind of cake do you want for your birthday?"
Me: "What about an animal? A giraffe? A zebra?"
Gman: "Dinosaur, Dinosaur, DINOSAUR! RAH!"
Me: "Got it."
So I headed over to the ultra-posh-super-pricey cookery store on the high street to see what I could find. To my pleasant surprise, they rent cake molds for cheap AND they had a dinosaur one. I got the mold, a pastry bag and tips (for the icing), and explicit instructions from the shop lady about every step of the baking and icing process. I even planned well enough so that I could de the deed while Gman was asleep with enough time left to do it a second time if I totally screwed up.
I purchased 2 boxes of organic chocolate cake mix (I wasn't crazy enough to start from scratch), mixed them up, poured them into the greased, floured cake pan and waited for magic to happen. 30 minutes later I removed a gorgeous looking cake from the oven, which even after it cooled WOULD NOT COME OUT OF THE PAN. I finally chipped it out in 3 pieces. But no matter, icing hides all mistakes. Later that night (with my mom advising), I began the icing process. Of course all my recipes are in cups (which are volume), and all British food is sold in grams (which is weight). But after some complicated mathematical calculations, I managed to mix up reasonable quantities of butter, sugar into a frothy mass and I was ready to add the food coloring. Gman had requested an orange dinosaur (his favorite color), but no matter how much red and yellow foodcoloring I added, I could not achieve any color stronger than pale salmon (okay, honestly it was pink). And by this point, because it was an unseasonably hot night, the icing was also starting to melt. I quickly filled my pastry bag, and started decorating. But I discovered that icing is nothing like paint in consistency - it slithers here, it squishes there, it defies all attempts to carefully place it. After several false starts, I decided to go with the blob method - the result was something reminiscent of a Carvel ice-cream cake from the 70's. But no matter, it did resemble a dinosaur, and even though it took me about 5 hours to make (ridiculous, but I had to keep putting it back in the fridge every 10 minutes so it wouldn't dissolve into a puddle), it was delicious.
And the look on Gman's face when I showed it to him was exactly what I was aiming for:
"That's MY cake! You made that cake for me? MY dinosaur. MY cake. I'm going to eat it all up!"
And he did, along with his 6 friends. Later in the week, emboldened by the success of my first baking attempt, I made 3 dozen cupcakes for him to take to school and share with his class - also from box mix, but who's counting? They were also well-received, and Gman was pleased and proud that his cupcakes were chocolate and that everyone had sung to him.
When Gman was only a few months old, my husband and I had a philosophical conversation about how we were going to raise him - one of the very few we've had on this point. We talked about what memories we had of our own childhoods, about what had made an impression. We both agreed that the things we best remembered were the ordinary things that happened all the time (reading a definition from the dictionary before dinner every night, or going to temple every Saturday) and the special things that happened only occasionally (a river-rafting trip, looking for the first flowers of spring, staying up late to see a comet.) And we decided that we would spend our effort on creating a few solid family rituals and on occasionally doing something really unique and memorable.
I don't know if Gman will remember his 3-year old dinosaur cake (or any of his life up to this point), but I think I will. It taught me a lesson about extending myself out of my comfort zone and how simple gifts can bring the greatest pleasure.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
WHAT DO YOU DO?
It’s the million dollar question – the one that makes new graduates shiver and sweat – the one that can turn a cocktail party into a Kafka-esque ordeal – what do you do? Most of us work diligently to craft an acceptable spiel or a series of spiels in response to this seemingly innocuous, yet craftily impertinent question. “Well, I’ve been in marketing for quite awhile, but I’m really eager to shift into event planning. I’ve discovered that I’ve really got a knack for…” “Actually, I’m at home right now with our baby and I’m loving it. But after my 3-month maternity leave, I’ll be back full-time with Schnapps, Schneppel & Slivkowitz…” “I’m a free-lance (fill-in the blank), and it’s fantastic. Yeah, the money is shit, but it’s great waking up each morning knowing I’m living my dream…”
Blah, blah, fucking blah, blah (as my husband Lord Limescale would say.) These are the stories we tell, the white lies we design to highlight our good-points - the aspects of our lives that might make others appreciative or even envious - and down-play our weaknesses, inconsistencies, and doubts. Here are some of the sound-bites I’ve used in the past to explain myself and the specific nature of my scrapings and scratchings on this earth:
“I’m a director.”
“I’m a free-lance performing arts teacher.”
“I’m a drama teacher, but I also do arts administration and direct.”
“I’m a theatre director and dramaturg, and I’ve been working for a non-profit play development organization for the past 6 years. I also teach.”
Notice a trend? Over the past ten years, the answers have gotten more and more complicated. It usually required a full five minutes of follow-up explication before I’d get the “oh, I get what you do” nod. And even then, nobody really got it. “What’s a dramaturg?” “What theatres have you worked at?...Oh, I haven’t heard of those.” “How many jobs do you have?” I sometimes used to wish I was a lawyer, or an accountant, or a dentist. Something concrete with a clearly definable job description and an accepted sense of professionalism.
And now, none of these things is even true anymore, at least not in the present-tense sense. I last directed a developmental workshop of a play nearly a year ago. It’s been just over three years since I directed a full-length play. I haven’t taught anyone anything (except how to say “yes, please” and “no, thank-you”) in six months. I’m not producing, managing, facilitating or administrating anything at the moment except one unruly three-year old and one six-room flat. I am, in fact,…a full-time mommy. And while I expect and hope that this condition will be temporary. And while I claim to value the hard work and social contributions of my full-time mommy peers. The truth is. I hate having this as my spiel. I hate telling people that I am not doing anything right now except tending to my home and my family and waiting for inspiration to strike me about what to do next. And I hate that I hate this. What greater purpose is there, really, than taking care of other people. Than making a family. A home.
“We are human beings, not human doings.” My mom used to speak this quote a lot. For awhile I had it up on my bulletin board. And I believe it. I do. But truly, I am addicted to doing. And like any addict worth her salt, I am committed to hanging on to my addiction. I have a history of fiercely resisting any and all attempts by the universe and my own subconscious to slow my ass down. But I finally found the perfect solution to my workaholicism – I ripped myself out of the environment where I had the opportunity to do so much and plunked myself down in a place where it is hard to do much of anything – hard because I don’t know anyone, because my experience and work history are virtually meaningless in British terms, because I have a small child and one tenth of the support network I had back in SF. Some days I feel like an utter fool for having done this – those are the days when I read theatre reviews from SF Gate and feel engorged with envy and regret – “I could have been doing that!” But on good days, on sane days (which are rarer than I’d like them to be), I remember that I came here to reinvent myself and to discover (perhaps for the first time), what it is that I really want to do.
And yesterday, I had a tiny break-through on this score. I went to meet Mr. L, who runs the graduate program at a prestigious drama school in
Now, in fact, I wasn’t quite as cogent with Mr. L as I’m being now 24-hours later. In actuality, I blathered on for quite awhile at a high rate of speed trying to find my point. Mr. L looked increasingly concerned and then shortly thereafter excused himself – I think I drove him off with my fast-talking, informal, American ways. But nevermind. It was a first step toward figuring out an authentic answer to the question.
“What do you do?”
“I have conversations with people. I like to be in conversation with other artists and with people in my community about things that matter to us. These conversations are most satisfying to me when they take on a theatrical form.”
Nevermind where or how or when these conversations occur. Nevermind who is watching the conversations from a distance or whether they pay me to have them. The point is the connecting with others and making sense of things. The point is self-expression and self-discovery and intimacy and amazement. The point is being after-all.
Labels: Career Anxiety