Tuesday, January 31, 2012

DESIGN FOR LIVING: The Fabric of My Being

 [Quilts by LO'H for Richard and John's twins, Charlie and Annie, December 2009]


Sociologically, clothes speak of our moment in time, on Earth, now. Fashion speaks volumes. You know an era when you see it by a woman’s silhouette. It matters. It doesn’t. It’s life. You can read about this today in my post because it’s just kind of interesting, or you can read about it because you might like to do it someday. I’m looking at costume as a human, as a director/actor, and as a teacher. There’s a lot to say (and from the length of this post, you'd think I was saying all of it, but I'm barely building the sleeve of the coat, as it were).

I’m returning to a theater focus today, wondering why I don’t take out my sewing machine more often and, you know, make the curtains already. I’ve never been a seamstress, but the hours spent in my university costume shop were among the most transformative of my life, creatively, sure, but for cookies, spare buttons, and gossip it was the best kept secret on a pretty wild campus.

SO: Four years of great textile experiences later, while student teaching in my fifth year, I was called upon to use all my skills again, just as I would come to use them again and again forever, in the service of a PROJECT. Ah, bliss.

So: Sew:  In my last year of college, my roommate Michelle, who was from a town near the university, had promised her younger sister that she would make her prom dress, and I agreed to help her. Michelle was majoring in Fashion Merchandising, the kind of major that a few engineers I knew sort of sneered at—almost as comical as majoring in Theatre Arts! I mean, what does this major get you? A homemade prom dress! But this stereotype is propagated so easily because 1) it’s clothes; 2) it’s selling clothes; and 3) the incredulous ones never saw Michelle sweating over her Organic Chemistry exams.
            And it’s mainly the “fashion” part that rankles the serious academic. I bring this up because often we don’t consider the process that goes into things we take for granted. Miss O’ brings you into her collective “we,” as ever, whether it’s clothes or politics or her dates. Won't you join her?

A Prom Dress Is Born

I watched over several weeks as Michelle planned the dress, bought the materials, measured her sister, adjusted the pattern (for narrower hips, for example), and made the plunge: One morning (the first of at least two weekends' worth) Michelle hit the living room floor, where she spent hours laying out the fabric, reading the pattern directions, pinning the pattern pieces onto the reverse side of the satin, using a wheel and a kind of carbon paper to imprint the pattern lines onto the fabric; she measured for seam allowance, marked the darts (or places where points join), and cut out all the pieces--bodice, skirt parts, and the flounces for the kicky ruffle split in back. Over any spare hour when we weren't studying, she sewed, I hemmed (I do a lovely tailor stitch), and you should know that it took such a long while because this fabric, so shiny and slick, was really hard to work with. Satins usually are woven with silk or cotton, one side shiny, the other not. But this satin was acetate, which Michelle had to buy because it was all she could afford. “The problem is, you can’t really clean it. Dry cleaner solvents will dissolve it,” she said.
            “DISSOLVE it?” I asked.
            “Yeah,” she said, and she took a scrap of the satin, had me follow her to the bathroom, and there in the sink, I watched as she poured nail polish remover that did in fact dissolve the acetate. By way of contrast, she did the same to a scrap of cotton, where nothing happened except for cotton getting wet—and us getting headaches from the fumes.
            When Michelle’s sister Sarah arrived at our apartment on prom day, we were still working feverishly on the final touches and needed to do the last fitting. (Memory: I used my Swiss Army knife scissors to do the thread cutting, and foolishly didn’t shut them on the last snip, so that my bare foot slid into the point, causing a gush of blood, and all I could think about was, “Move the dress! NOW!” That is what being a serious artist is all about.) Sarah put on the dress. She was facing Michelle and her back was to me. I mouthed a gasp and pointed: We had placed the skirt one dart off, and so the long center ruffle split opened over her left leg rather than down the center. Michelle looked and her eyes widened. She looked at me. “I like it,” I mouthed, and I did; and Michelle mouthed, “I do, too!” and she did. And Sarah, who saw none of this frantic mouthing, thought it was fashion and loved it. Incidentally, so did all her friends, and her off-center dress was the hit of the night.
            Let’s review: It’s not enough to decide to “make a dress.” You need a lot of skill and knowledge to undertake it (and a willingness to embrace a mistake and call it luck). And you need to understand the sense of “event” or “occasion” that is a prom, or a concert, or any show that requires a special kind of costume or style of dress, and to understand the person or character being so clothed. You need technical skill. You are going to a lot of trouble here: Is it worth it? Given the fun Michelle and I had, and Sarah’s pleasure and extreme gorgeousness, no question it was worth the effort, but you had to believe in it. And this leads us to the wonderful world of Costume Design . . . and You.

Nuts and Bolts, or Buttons and Bows, If You Will

This is yet another part in Miss O’s continuing series, “Theater Is Not a Sissy Sport, er, a Sport for Sissies. Actually It's Not a Sport at All, Suckers!” I just love costume stuff. I myself have a very specific and carefully thought-out Miss O’ “look,” whatever the season: solid trousers, solid top, real leather walking shoes, and accessories of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and scarves to pull it all together and fancy it up. I can literally go from the compost heap, to work or school, to dinner and a show, and look not only appropriate, but also rather fab, all in the same ensemble. It is my credo.

If you have a drama club handed to you, you will discover you need to clothe those actors. HOW do you do it? Here’s how.


Kids love fashion. This is my favorite unit to teach. Easy, right? Uh, no. Teens are nervous about this unit because they have to DRAW PEOPLE, and they hate that. But the fun part is grading the projects. I just love it, because the results are so cute, you can hardly stand it. The whole point of the unit is to learn how a designer visually depicts a character for the stage. How to dress people so they look as if they all belong in the same play is challenging, especially in a high school with limited resources.
            (During the first musical I worked on at Luxe High, Hello, Dolly!, a one-and only-year teacher, whom I’ll call Myrna, taught me and Jane a great way to get kids to bring in clothes that will work. We used this method every year after, and thanks be to Florence, er, MYRNA, wherever you are! In addition, most every tip and method comes from my university experience: kudos to Felice, Sharon, and the gay men of VT Theatre Arts.)


            After my Theater Production class reads the play and we discuss the Production Concept, we set about doing costume research. The concept determines what we look for in terms of dressing the actors. When we did Scapin (Bill Irwin’s adaptation), we made a decision to go Renaissance Italian, rather than say, blend it with sneakers. When we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as discussed earlier, we went with modern formal dress for the court, a kind of age-less white in dresses for the two ingenues and white tops and pants for the young men; and rustic farm type clothes for the Rude Mechanicals. It all looked of a period, was inexpensive to find, and we pulled it together with a color palette.
            As much as period, color and line help define the look of a production. There are great books and classes on this, of course, and entire MFA programs devoted to its study. I do not have an MFA. What I had to do was translate the learning of many smart design people into a high school with no costume shop and no budget to speak of. Here’s how we broke it down:

1. What clothing items can kids bring from their own wardrobes that will work in the show?
2. What costume pieces need to be built, purchased, borrowed, or devised (faked)?

            With number 2, then, you have the most work cut out for you. If for example, you buy some period patterns for dresses, can your actresses buy the material and have the dresses made? If drama club buys the material, can they still have the dresses made?
            The first thing after breaking this down, we have to decide on the set and costume colors for the show. You really don’t want every color of the rainbow and chemistry lab sitting up on your stage. How to start choosing colors is a trick. After you read the play, ask yourself, What do I picture?
            For Hello, Dolly!, the answer was “jewel tones.” We imagined Dolly’s red dress, and decided to go from there. Dolly’s palette was deep gold and red. Vandergelder would have a golden brown suit to start. We put Mrs. Malloy in sapphire blue and white, her assistant Minnie in emerald green and white; and Cornelius and Barnaby in black or dark grey suits with white shirts. To show the couples, Cornelius got a sapphire blue tie and pocket hanky, and Barnaby the same in emerald green. See?
            So with that in mind, we went to the fabric store and chose variations of those main colors for the chorus and extras. In this case, no pastels, no “warm” or “yellow” tones. We wanted clear colors, a little muted in the chorus so the leads could stand out. We pointed out that the “everyday clothes” should have a cotton or matte finish; while in Harmonia Gardens, the chorus can pull out some shine. The point is that during large chorus numbers in particular, everyone blends. (There would be nothing worse than seeing some hot pink sateen to just throw off the whole picture.) Again, we took care that the chorus knew what shades the leads will have, so they don’t pull focus from those main characters. We pulled down bolts of fabric, cut a quarter yard of, say, 7 colors and two neutrals, such as black and white, and possibly a shade of brown that would look nice with it. In my TP class, we measured out squares of every color and neutral shade, and cut up enough squares of each shade for 100 costume packets.
            What is on the pages of those packets? Photocopied items from reproduction clothing catalogues, costume resource books, and our drawings of items from the period. We do a men’s packet and a women’s. We include accessories, shoes, and include a list of what items they may have at home that will work. Armed with this packet, kids have no guess-work as to how to do a costume. If they need patterns, hats, and the like, they need to tell us, and we will work with them.
See the packet examples that follow.



            For Dolly, we bought one fancy pattern and my class traced skirt patterns for girls onto newsprint, and we copied the directions and gave them out. For men, we ordered those paper collars from a costume supply catalogue, in case, and a few inexpensive bowler hats. Touches like collars and hats can make a costume.
            At the first costume parade for Dolly (and if that parade doesn't pass by, lord knows what your stage will look like opening night), I remember looking at the girls and saying, “The lines are right, the colors are spot on, the clothes work . . . you kids have done a great job.” But something wasn’t right. “You need bows, buttons, a few touches . . . ,” and I could see I wasn’t clear. I finally said, “You know, frou-frou.” And all the girls said, with real understanding, “Oh, frou-frou!” We girls really do speak a universal fashion language. And, my, but how they frou-ed!
            And here is a tip of all tips for making boys look like men in a period show: Knox gelatin. Combed through their hair.
            Boys get a neat, glossy, period look that dries without grease or residue, and it washes out like a dream. I never do a period show without gelatin. Watch a show at a high school, any period show. You will think, “Something doesn’t look right. The costumes are okay, the set looks right . . .” and you may not notice that all the boys have “modern” dry hair, but they do, and that is what doesn’t look right. Slick hair saves shows, and boys love having their hair “knoxed” once they get over the initial shock. It’s pure horse-hoof protein, and washes out clean and easy.

SAGE ADVICE: Every play written before 1975 will benefit with a little Knox. Mix some in very hot tap water or microwaved water in a mug and use a sturdy comb. [cue camera full on] “It’s that easy.” And that little extra touch transforms the entire theater experience. Really. Thanks to designer Denise for telling me that tip in college.


An Overview Note to the Drama Director: What you need to know about:
Basics of sewing
Fabric stores
People who sew
Costume Crafts
In Stock

Costume Lecture Notes and Projects
            a. Drawing the Body
            b. Painting/coloring the drawings
            b. Presentations

RESOURCES: Basic Drama Projects is great for lecture notes on the basics of costume design. I recommend it. Meanwhile, I will tell you what I know.

            This unit is a kind of guerilla approach to teaching costume design, necessary for high school drama, even more necessary because I am going on the assumption that you, like me, cannot draw or paint with anything approaching “talent.” Please set this doubt aside. Your own lack of expert ability will help set your students at ease. In my classes, almost anyone could draw better than I could, and a few were really gifted; but most of us frankly sucked, and by “sucked” I mean had no future in art, though we were lovely people, for the most part.
            That said, I have to tell you that the costume renderings made by the untalented were frankly adorable. I mean, seriously, they were so much fun to look at. A beautifully made rendering, the figure gorgeously drawn and painted, is also wonderful, and such a surprise because it is the exception rather than the rule. My point is that all the serious efforts deserve praise.
            This unit is ultimately about training yet another lens on the world, this one about clothes making the man and woman, and how you can make that happen.

            Explain: Tell students that you are about to embark on the wonderful world of Costume Design for the theater. I used to share a few quotes: “Clothes make the man,” aforementioned, or this from Oscar Wilde: “Fashion is a thing so hideous we are forced to change it every six months.” Ask them to take a moment to think about the importance of clothes. Ask, How much thought did you put into what you are wearing today? You don’t have to answer. But if you do, how did you go about choosing your ensemble? After students share, Ask, What do clothes say about us?
            Model: You might start out by showing an electronic slideshow presentation of pictures of clothes over time. These might include pictures of Martha Washington, Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, Clara Bow, or Julius Caesar (a statue, natch), for example, as well as traditional-dress scenes in a variety of nations around the world, such as India or Mexico, at different times. Now deepen this: Include pictures of the indigent during the Depression, or example, or people at wartime. For each picture, ask students: When was this picture taken? Where? How do you know?  Ask them to point out fashion trends and surface characteristics that define a place and period of time.
            I find that returning to previous eras is easier than starting with their own in terms of “design,” I mean. Ask: If you were going to dress to play a character that was representative of the United States in the 1970s, what comes to mind?  After initial ideas, move to another level beyond clothes: hair, shoes, makeup styles, typical poses, accessories, expressions, whatever seems to define that era in terms of fashion. Ask, What about age? gender? profession? region of the country? interests? This is how you begin to think as a designer. More than giving an actor a pair of pants and a jacket, or a skirt and blouse, real design considers a larger set of “expectations,” cultural and otherwise, if you see what I mean, and costumes provide assistance.

These notes, culled from my years of experience, are not utterly “professional” but rather made simple, both in terms of information and example details, for you, the classroom teacher. Remember, there are MFAs to say nothing of Tony Awards given in this stuff. And I don’t have either one. I give examples here from film and theater productions I have both seen and designed. I URGE YOU not to use these anecdotes unless you yourself have seen these shows or movies. Use examples from your own experience. It makes for a livelier lecture and a more genuine enagement both with the subject and with your students. If you don’t have any experiences, get some. I mean this in a loving way.

I. Function of Costume Design in the Theater
   A. Clothes must suit/enhance the character, including
            1.  Role in the play, including changes undergone from beginning to end, if any
            2. Social status/employment
            3. Gender and how represented in time period
            4. Qualities/personality traits
            5. Relationships to other characters

EXAMPLE: I often used Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which nearly all of my students had seen in 9th grade‚ for my examples in this unit. It’s a good movie, and the costume design is specific and helpful for teaching most concepts. If possible, a few photos on hand will help. Point out differences between Lady Capulet and the Nurse, for starters, using the list above. For example, How can you tell who is upper class? How do you know the Nurse is not? The answers don’t have to be specific yetthis may only be a gut feeling from the students, but point out that they didn’t have to know a thing about Renaissance Italy to figure it out. That is good design.

B. Costumes must suit the play’s subject, style, and time period.

            SOME BACKGROUND: Costume design really began, as with set design, with the idea of “historical accuracy.” In Shakespeare’s time, for example, Julius Caesar was not performed in togas, but in the everyday clothes . . . of Shakespeare’s time. This is because there was no Google, let alone museums, TV, or photos of clothes of ancient Rome. Today, we generally expect characters’ clothes to fit the time period in which the play is set, either by playwright or director. When I say, “by the director,” I mean something more conceptual. Romeo and Juliet, for example, has been set in any number of locations, both modern and not, and some concepts work better than others. That said . . .
            1. A play that is era-specific, such as Mister Roberts, a play about World War II that takes place on a cargo ship in the Pacific, needs clothes from that period, real uniforms, etc., and was not meant to be set, say, in Shakespeare’s time on an Elizabethan ship docked at Dover.
            2. Many of Shakespeare’s plays, by contrast, I have seen performed in clothing styles from Shakespeare’s own time as well as clothes inspired by a painting by Watteau, and even given a Nazi theme, as in Ian McKellen’s famous portrayal of King Richard III, because Shakespeare is just timeless like that.
            3. The point is that the chosen costume style should be specific and consistent in a way that enhances and does not detract from the play. (The jury may be out on the effectiveness of the Nazi theme, for example, though it was certainly memorable.)

C. The designer must coordinate the costumes not only with the play but with the other characters on stage. The audience needs cues to recognize relationships.
            1. Families can be defined by color. In Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets were in red and gold, or variations on that; the Montagues, by contrast were in blue hues. This is a helpful visual identification for the audience, particularly at the ball and in the fight sequences.

            2. To give the audience a visual cue to spot “couples,” for example, one approach is to use color, as well. This helps audiences know who will be “getting together,” and is especially helpful in large-cast musicals. (In the Luxe High production of Hello, Dolly!, which incorporated those jewel tones: redux: Mrs. Malloy wore deep blue, so Cornelius, her future love, wore a deep blue bow tie, with a blue handkerchief in his breast pocket. Minnie wore emerald green, so future boyfriend Barnaby sported an emerald green tie and hanky. These are helpful cues, especially in shows where all the ingenues kind of run together.) In Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet, while Juliet is in red and Romeo is in blue, when they marry in the chapel scene, they are in . . . purple. Their union is signified by their colors also joining. Did you notice that? Take a look—it’s really cool.

D. The audience really should not notice the clothes after the initial entrance.

            1. My point is that a good design becomes part of the show, blends in to make the parts into a whole. A friend tells a story of seeing, in a high school production of Our Town, a canary yellow dress during the funeral scene: “How can you watch the graveyard and listen to the commentary when you keep getting distracted by every move of that yellow dress?” A chorus member in Hello, Dolly! wearing a really extraordinary dress and hat that takes focus away from Dolly herself is an example of bad design, no matter how lovely the outfit. (But try explaining that to the chorus girl’s mother.)

            2. I will give you an example of how to do a “stand-out” costume the right way: In Stratford-on-Avon, I saw a glorious production of The Rivals, a Restoration comedy set in the 18th century colonial period in England. The comic character of Bob, the country squire, decides he is going to dress up to impress a woman. The designer, who had appropriately dressed Bob as a rough farmer in peasant clothes at the play’s opening, gave him this stunning transformation: Bob entered wearing pale pink satin breeches with orange bows placed at his knees and up and down the front of his matching tunic; upon his head was an enormously high brown pompadour wig, with a tiny pink tri-corn hat perched just at the top, a bit to the left. No one in the audience could stop laughing. It was just a wonderful entrance. The costume in no way detracted, because this transformation is important to the plot, the show was a comedy and splendid all around, and the acting lived up to the design. (The set design, too, included miniature Georgian houses as a background, so the notion of the miniature really was a design conceit throughout.) And the tiny tri-corn—just too wonderful and inspired—was never worn again, so in Bob’s subsequent scenes his new costume “disappeared,” as it should.
E. The costumes must coordinate with the set and lights. And vice versa x 2.

Above, I offered an example using The Rivals of how the set and costumes mirrored each other. Now I have two catastrophic examples:

I.  Example the First

Let’s take a big (and fictitious) example for fun, which is based on actual events, I kid you not (different play and different palette, same results) (I'd actually kind of like to write this play now):

SHOW: Day and Night!! A Comedy in Two Acts
ACT I: Early morning and breakfast hours in the living room and bedrooms areas of an artist’s loft; the artist and several family visitors and friends present
SCENE: Preparations and discussion of a huge ritzy party they are all to attend that night.
·      SET 1: “Black”: Walls, floor, furniture, screens, accessories are all in black.
·      COSTUMES 1: “White”: Bathrobes and slippers, dressing gowns, tee shirts, socks, etc. are all in white.
ACT II: Late evening at the well-appointed mansion penthouse of a wacky art collector.
SCENE: The artist and friends arrive at the party to meet the collector and his investors, and hijinks ensue!
·      SET 2: “White”: The walls, floor, furniture, accessories, table cloths, are all in white.
·      COSTUMES 2: “Black”: Tuxedos, evening gowns, shoes, accessories, are all in black.
Tout Simple!
Then one day, about a week after that first big production meeting, the set designer calls and says, “Hey, Mr. Director, the play is called Day and Night right? Shouldn’t the Act One set be white, like the day, and the Act Two set be black, like the night?”
            And Mr. Director says, “Why Mr. Set Man, you have a point! Go for it!”
           [NOTE: Reread the above concepts for sets and costumes. Now flop the sets. Read it again. Get the picture? That's right.]
            Six weeks later the set is up and the costumes arrive. And the lights are going up. And everyone realizes, to their horror, that ONLY SET MAN knows about the concept change.
            Hijinks ensue? More like fireworks, teeth gnashes, and diva wails. Act I is now a white out, and Act 2 has become a study in black holes. While the lighting designer can adjust light levels and move gels, there is no way to just “change out” the costumes. A bathrobe does not an evening gown make. A tee shirt is not a tux. The set issue is the same: a poor artist’s loft is not a swanky penthouse apartment.
            This mix-up is not as much of an aberration as you might think. I’ve heard stories from professional designers who have worked with directors—who actually get paid and make a living, even—who have no idea how to communicate, thereby in fact causing problems this costly and catastrophic. These “directors” nod and agree to everything, and then at the first technical rehearsal, have strokes. And cause them.

[Aside 1]
            I once was an assistant to a director in New York (an unpaid company, all of us) who hated the costumes for his show so much, he decided to change the concept the night before opening and announced his intention by sharing his disgust with the cast and crew. “Lisa, what do you think?” he asked rhetorically. I told him he was wrong to do this, and he blew up at me. “United we stand, divided we fall!” he cried.
            “But you cannot put the onus on the actors to come up with new costumes,” I said. “You cannot throw out the work of months by the costume staff. No one is being paid for this. You approved the designs, you saw them in various stages of building. Now is not the time!”
            The costumes stayed. Needless to say, this is the LAST show I’d do with him. C’est la vie.

[Aside 2]
The point here, too, is for teachers. I’ve had classes blow up at me because I never told them about something—a story to read, or an assignment. It happens. A fire drill can drive it out of my mind; maybe there was a snow day and one class missed it and I forgot. When you blow it, APOLOGIZE. PROFUSELY, AS NEEDED. Adjust your schedule, add time, regroup. Be aware, do your best, and with every major decision, ask yourself, in big loud letters, “WHO ELSE NEEDS TO KNOW THIS?” And then TELL THEM. Why is this HARD?

III. EXAMPLE THE SECOND (and closer to my heart)

I was in a production of She Stoops to Conquer that was an MFA thesis project for a costume designer. Her three-dozen- plus period costumes, which I helped sew, were thoroughly researched, gorgeously imagined, and painstakingly constructed; the color palette suited the characters and gave the show the wealthy but also “country” feel the guest director was going for. The lighting designer, working toward his MFA in technical theater and therefore not actually expected to be an artist in lighting design, created a palette of green gel colors under leaf-patterned gobos, to give the neutrally-colored set the “outdoors” feel the director requested. Guess what happened to all those stunning costumes under the leafy green gels? Dress rehearsal was a horror movie, the costume designer inconsolable. The lighting guy tried his best to do a design and gel fix in the remaining two rehearsals, but the costumes never really looked right under the lights (though they looked perfect on the neutral set, as did the lights on the same set, but not on the costumes). And really, the onus is on the lighting designer to marry the two—and you can see my "Let There Be Light" post to cycle back to that unit of study.


In a school setting, the set construction, light hanging, and show rehearsals are happening simultaneously in the auditorium. It’s managed chaos, but communication is fairly easy. It’s also really important. Once, in my final year with drama, I worked only on the set of a production of The Taming of the Shrew, and my colleague Jane’s new co-director, Tamara, who was in charge of the show, was still a novice. Our wonderful set painter, Marilyn, who was retired from teaching Earth Science but still came in to paint, was just getting ready to draw Petruchio’s house on one side of a pylon. (This tall, three-sided object was on locking casters, and we devised this to make three sets simultaneously. It was a nice system, designed by Karl, set up to strike into pieces and be reassembled if we wanted it for another show. It worked for us because we had a huge-ass stage. It’s not for everyone!)
            I don’t know what made me ask—well, yes I do, because in former days I was the set nazi (by which hyperbole I really mean that I made sure that we had what we needed; I was happy to leave the artists to do their art)—but I called Tamara and Jane over. I showed them Marilyn’s notebook of sketches, and said, “Now before Marilyn starts drawing . . .this is your last chance.” (This is the habit of mind of a good writer and editor, I might add.)
            Tamara said, “Petruchio’s house is on the other side of the stage.”
            Marilyn and I looked at each other. “Since when?” I asked.
            Tamara just stared at me, a little sharp and officious, if I do say so myself. “It’s always been there.” Jane backed her up.
            But Marilyn and I distinctly remembered the production meeting. We had the notes in front of us. The sketches.
            “We changed it the first week,” Tamara said, and walked away.
            I hope you can see the problem. You will also notice the complete lack of apology for miscommunication. Let me put it this way: Tamara did not inspire good fellowship. And how many of us have worked in companies where, nice or not so much, managers did not impart information to the people who actually NEED TO IMPLEMENT IT?
            So one day when I was painting benches— “a top priority” all of a sudden—Jane sent a kid to tell me they needed the metal army trunk painted to look like wood, and they needed it now.
            “What trunk?” I ask. Messenger leaves and returns. We hunted around, moved an assortment of items and poofed up dust clouds, and there it was, in a corner under some drop cloths. I’d never seen it before. It was not on any of my lists.
            “Ask them which is more important,” I said to the messenger, “benches that will be dry tomorrow or a trunk that is dry tomorrow.” Trunk it was.
            “What is the trunk for?” I called out. Questions like this drove Jane and Tamara insane.
            “JUST PAINT IT!” Hearing their audible sighs even at the back of the stage, I did what could only charitably be described as an uninspired job. With some pale brown bench paint close at hand, over the army green and bubbled rust I threw a few strokes of color and with the wood-graining tool, no shading or highlight, I made some strokes for effect, and shoved the object aside. That was the last I saw of the trunk or heard about it.
            On opening night, I finally learned what the trunk was for. It was, I saw to my horror, placed down center on a bare stage, under its own light, and was, it turned out, filled with carefully-placed costume pieces. To music, the narrator opened the trunk, and each of the actors took turns removing his or her signature item from it as a way of introducing his or her character to the audience. Delightful idea . . . except that the trunk was beyond butt-ugly. I hadn’t even touched the inside lid! I felt nauseous. I thought the trunk distracted, sitting like a lump, rather than, as it should do (what I would have made it do), look, in its “mahogany” heaviness, sturdy and homey at first; then as the lid opens, “emit” some lighting to make the contents seem magical; and then shift the light so the trunk’s presence would simply “disappear” as the actors took focus while retrieving and establishing their signature costume items. (My mother commented on the ugliness of the trunk. I told her the story. She knew exactly why I was upset, and so did our scenic artist, Marilyn.) To add personal injury to this public insult, the play also ended with the actors returning items to the trunk at curtain call.
            Afterward I said to the directors, “I wish you’d told me that the trunk was a character in the play.” They didn’t know what I meant. They hadn’t noticed the paint job. (My mom had and said so: See, that is where I get my Miss O’-ness.)
            And that, my angels, she said arrogantly, is the difference between a good director and a great director. Or, a decent high school drama director and a neurotic artiste asshole.
           You make the call.


            Say it with me, kids: “Communication.” This is about communication among the whole production team. If we are all going to do our best, it is vital that we all begin by RESPECTING the creativity and commitment of everyone working with us. This includes the students, the parent and staff volunteers, and everyone in between. This means that as a director, every time I make a decision, I have to ask myself: “WHO ELSE NEEDS TO KNOW THIS?”
            Please, teachers and other humans of America and the world, let’s take a moment to reflect on GLOBAL IMPACT. I think we can begin by looking at something as simple as the trunk episode. Now, in the great scheme of the global entertainment economy, is the trunk a big deal? I think we can agree, No. However, in the great scheme of establishing the tone for the entire show that follows, the answer is yes, yes, and YES. Will the show survive it? Of course. Was the show all it could have been? No. The trunk is only one example of why.
            Another example: Al Gore sees a collapsing ice shelf at the North Pole. Will Earth survive this? Maybe, but probably NOT. Hmmm . . . who else needs to know this?
            I hope you see my point.

So there I leave you, breathless, I trust. 

It takes shitloads of knowledge to put on a good show. It scares me how much I know about doing it, though know nothing about curing cancer, of course, all the while remembering to pay my bills and floss. Actually, I often forget to floss.

NEXT UP: The rest of the class stuff for teaching Costume Design and letting the kids get their sewing scissors thready. Till next time, Bon Chapeau!

Friday, January 27, 2012

From the Date Files: ARE YOU INTERESTING?

Miss O’ had a date last Saturday—a very unusual occurrence for Miss O’, and in fact it should not happen to her at all because, as it is for Project Runway's glorious mentor Tim Gunn, it is only in celibacy if not cloister that Miss O’ can do her work, live her calling, which (let’s face it) is drinking (related?)—and this man (the aforementioned “date”) expressed curiosity (fear?) as to whether or not she would blog about it (he only learned of her blog habit on this date—and it's really ironic considering the week before she'd done a whole blog on Performance). “No,” she assured him, “because Miss O’ has no sexuality,” and yet here she is, blogging about it, so while she still has no sexuality she clearly has no scruples either, but really she does because she’s not telling you ANY details (maybe one) (later).

Completely annoyed by her use of third person yet?

I am.

This is a man I’ve known for several years in New York, who sort of emailed one Friday back there and sort of proposed we get together for something. He shared with me, on this date of ours, that he knew he had often sought my company in the past only so he could tell me things or ask advice, and he liked my feedback. “But I always walked away self-conscious,” he admitted (and self-knowledge is deeply attractive), “because I knew I had been saying uninteresting things.”

He was not wrong. Should I tell him? You’d think I’d be less of a douche, and I was, saying (not without sincerity), “But they were interesting to you.”

So in the period of utter silence that has followed, from his end, Miss O’—I—we—have had a series of internal dialogues/self-flagellations and external conversations that brought home to me this revelation: He is not interesting, because he is not interested.

It’s not a question of being interested in me. That’s a matter of personal taste. What I’m getting at is more to do with how we fulfill our social lives and heart lives in the day to day. To be interesting, you must be interested: in life, in the world outside yourself, in others, in their responses, their feelings, in their responses to you, your life, to the world outside themselves  . . . I’m getting dizzy.

And by interested, I do not mean interested merely in telling your own story, performing a charm show, being delightful. I mean being genuinely aware and engaged and curious about what you see, where you fit in, what could happen next, what is happening now. 

Now about me...

I feel I have to stop already and apologize for the seeming set-up of myself as anything like a role model of all things interesting. I am, of course, not. This is about how I respond to other people, and what I think those responses elicit from them.  Some of us are introverts, some extroverts, some loud, some quiet. But whatever your style or way of breathing with the rhythms of the world, there is no substitute for someone saying and feeling, “Really? Why?” when you speak. I had a playwriting teacher at Bread Loaf who would say, “Say more about that…” and you found you did in fact have more to say, that there was a reason you started talking out loud in the first place.

So there are good listeners, good engagers, who hear what you say, listen to your view, and say, “That makes me think about…” and before you know it a conversation has started.

Then there are the assholes, those guys who ostensibly “listen” to you, who “hear” you, but instead of asking in the way of an engaged person, “Really? Why?” instead challenge you, “Really? Why? Because I think you are fucking wrong.”

At my bar once, a regular about my age had overheard my support for Obama, and he swaggered up to me with his beer, uninvited, to tell me why I was wrong for supporting him. I looked him in the eye. “You are about to become an asshole,” I informed him. He froze, and got angry, and said, “Well if I knew that another person was more informed than I was, . . .” and I leaned in: “Wow, you just became an asshole, and I am now moving, with my beer, down there.” And I moved down there, and he muttered stuff aloud to the bartenders all night until I left. (Emma the manager said, “Lisa, if you keep this up, we’ll have no regulars left.” I’m a charmer.)


I haven’t dated at all in over 5 years ("Really? Why?"), and before that it was 15 years (for what you can now see are obvious reasons), so I don’t do this much, but I got more or less turned off of it permanently by repeatedly hearing the following when I might confess—finally trusting—my deepest dreams, spiritual longings, loves, passions:


The other “response” is the condescending one, the one from the men who pretend to engage while they wait for you to finish so they can judge you.  


I exaggerate. No I don’t.

Dating—the very prospect of it—fills me with waves of nausea. On the other hand, getting the courage to meet and talk to new people? No courage required, I just do it, though I have been known to have anxiety attacks at large parties, such as weddings. But generally I can just walk up to people and say, “Hi, I’m Lisa,” and I have a city full of friends to show for it. And in point of fact, I am not an extrovert. On the Myers-Briggs personality test scale, I split the difference on the Introvert/Extrovert index. I’m just interested in people. I watch them, record them, and I rack up a lot of great stories. Oh, and I write about them, humiliating them for placing their trust in me. And tell them to fuck off when I never asked for their opinion.

Why am I so alone?

I chatted up a man once, of Irish descent like me, who remarked that being at ease with people and making not merely small talk but real conversation seems to be part of our DNA. “But I was met with a real conversation-ender once,” he said, and continued, “but maybe you could have done it. After the introduction and pleasantries, I told her I was a sound designer in the theater, and she said, ‘I work at weigh station on the turnpike.’ And I was stumped.”

I smiled, I laughed, and he grinned: “I knew it.” And I told him about a novel I had read recently, The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich, whose chapters all stand alone as short stories, and one of the stories is called “Scales.” It’s about a woman who works at a truck weigh station, at a crossroads in her life, with a new baby, wondering how she will handle it, and decides to put her baby, this burden, on the truck scale, “and he weighed nothing at all.”  We both just beamed.

But this kind of exchange is not for everyone. Many people find this kind of engagement exhausting. I know that.

Am I fun to be with on a date? I would say, based on my track record, no, I am not, unless it's "yes" because maybe I tell a good story. (I say "track record" though I've only gone out on about four second dates. In my LIFE. Possibly I exaggerate.) I’m too much myself. I just jump in and engage as if we are two people who might make discoveries, rather than assume a gentler pose, a kinder air, and build to the truth. “There’s such a thing as too natural, Lisa,” a man told me once. And was he wrong?

Doubtless the other week I exhausted that poor man, or terrified him, or repulsed him, date-wise, though I’m sure we’ll remain hearty acquaintances (unless he reads this post, and I feel pretty sure he won't).  To his credit he asked me questions, and to my credit I answered them and added questions, too, but I don’t think my responses were interesting to him.

Sometimes people just aren’t interested.

Whew. And now, back to work!

All art by the incomparable Anne Taintor, who is just a goddess, so no copyright infringement is intended, but rather, promotion. Look her up.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Facebook Project: Miss O's New York Updates

Amassing the Posts

Hello, Readers--
My friend Rebecca Cummins helps lead a group in Vermont called Celebration of Expressive Arts, and she has asked me to come up in May and read New York Stories.

Below I'm recording some I spent Saturday recovering from Facebook. If you have any stories I've posted that you'd like me to locate because you think someone might like hearing it, let me know. And thanks.

Forthwith: Past Updates, 2009-2011.

MISS O'...

...walks past Antoinette and Tony’s every morning en route to work. Married 68 years, they stay inside up at the windows in the cold months. Tony gums to me, “Go home!” and then, “You look gorgeous!” and I bow. Antoinette mouths, “How are you?” and I mouth, “Fine,” waving her off. I mime, “How are you?” and her right hand does the old “so-so,” and she admonishes, “Be CAREFUL!” Is there any other way to start a day?

...gives you, ladies and gents, the 3-ringed circus that is NY in the morning: In this ring, the wannabe gangstas talking “internships” and a “vampire” last night on a “pretty good episode” “who kinda died, but not his true nature”; in  ring two, the Macy’s worker climbing freehand on the awning frame to change the cover to red; and in the center ring, girls in bird costumes and roller skates outside MSG. Awake yet?

...overheard this exchange at the turnstiles: “...and they’d call clients and say, ‘This looks good, you should get in on this’ when they knew...”  “So what?” “But they knew it wasn’t...”  “That’s not criminal.”  “But...”  “Buyer beware.”  Have a nice day.

...’s perfect Saturday in New York, in autumn: Metropolitan Museum; walk through Central Park; exit at 65th Street for cranberry scone and tea; sip and munch at Lincoln Plaza staring at the newly unveiled fountain across from the Opera house; walk down to Columbus Circle, finished after 17 years; let an artist use her hand tracing as part of an art project; down to 20th to Le Zie for dinner with wine. And: Scene.

...has noticed this jack o’lantern happily sitting on the retaining wall by the basement-level trash alley door of this apartment building, amazed that it’s lasted all week. Today she saw why: In the back of the pumpkin are carved two holes, with a chain running through it, chaining that gourd to the iron fence behind it. In New York, we understand the importance of security. Boo!

...’s Uncle Chester (Chet) O’Hara of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is 90 years old today. Driver of the lead jeep at the liberation of Paris, POW in Germany, American Union rep. When I called him last year I told him I was really happy about the election. “That’s how you voted, huh?” he asked me. “Well, I did, too,” he said. “Now I loved Hillary, loved her...” Way to rock it, Uncle Chet. Happy Birthday.

...just had lunch with her friend Kathy B., a voiceover artist, and they took in this 7th Avenue view: A woman’s large, shapely bottom too-tightly encased in a gray miniskirt, split pleat in back. Too split. “Should we tell her?” KB asks. “No,” LO says. “Etiquette says only tell her if she can fix it. She can’t fix that.” Nor could she fix the perfect “O” split over brown panties where her anus is.

...walks toward Antoinette, out by her gate. “You hear those sirens? Saturday morning? Our neighbor, his wife died a few years back, he died, right there in front of the elevators.” She points to the building across the street. “THANK GOD he died by the elevators.” She looks at me. “So they FOUND him.”

...was squashed on the 7 Train by a stick-insect tourista Fashionista doubtless headed to Fashion Week. Sensing irritation at her mass, Lisa began embiggening herself, first the right arm, which forced the Fashionista’s left arm into her carefully rouged cheek, pushing off her hat, and ended by nearly vaporizing her before her timely exit at Bryant Park. Enjoy your skim latté.

...returning to NY from NJ, saw lots of Marathoners encaped in foil, medaled, triumphant, and looking at maps trying to figure out their stop to return to the cheaper hotels by the airport. Makes you remember that most of the runners are NOT NYers, but they see more of the five boroughs in a few hours than I have in 6 years.

...is standing by the door of a 7 Train car after it pulls in, when she is elbowed out of the way by a young Asian woman with her friend in tow. She is agitated, pushy, and is sort of shoving this book at her friend, arguing in words Lisa can’t quite hear. And the book is “Living in Compassion” by his Holiness the Dalai Lama. Namasté.

...saw a Mary Kay representative on the N Train yesterday, a red blazer with loads of lapel medals and her Mary Kay pin, chatting up a protégé in Spanish. Soft of form, voluptuous of chest, short of stature, blocks for ankles, she fairly burst with body confidence as she doubtless related cosmetics conquests past. I loved her.

...is waiting for her neighbor Gareth, a South African married to Norma, who is Irish, to come over and try to unclog this displaced American Southerner’s bathroom sink. Home for three days with flu, I’ve had to listen as a squirrel continued his demolition work inside my bedroom wall, work that’s been going on, on and off, for about four years. Snow relentless but no squirrel today! Um. Hope it’s...just resting.

...hears Dar Williams sing “February”: friend Terri died one year ago, and last week Terri’s mom died, too; I still have the flu; the UPS man said, “The delivery guy for the Chinese place, the guy with the glasses,” had been struck on his scooter and killed Friday. An old woman, out walking her dog, said, “And the driver was drunk and high when he hit him.” The whole neighborhood is bereft. We didn’t even know his name.

Whenever you feel like your life is just sucking ass, consider this rejoinder from my friend, George: "I'm better this morning. I went to Bangladesh, and a nice little girl with a distended stomach listened to all my problems from her filthy mat by the village latrine/morgue. Though the buzzing of numberless flies may have drowned out much of my sad tale, I think she appreciated all I had to say."

SUBWAY STORY January 24, 2010 

On the way home from dinner Saturday night at my friend Pat’s in Murray Hill at around 1:00 AM, I walk to 23rd Street over to Park Avenue to pick up the Uptown 6 Train to Grand Central/42nd. I used to be scared of this hour until the first time I left a party at 2:30 AM and walked nervously out onto 10th Avenue…into bumper to bumper traffic, crowds of people, and then got to Times Square to find the 7 Train so packed I had to stand all the way back to Queens. 
So I get to Grand Central around 1:30 AM and walk downstairs to the 7 platform, which is inside a big, grimy off-white tunnel with really loud acoustics. A very tall, lanky 50ish white hippy man with his iron gray hair in a bun is playing guitar and singing (in an okay voice), “Who’s gonna drive you home…tonight…who’s gonna drive you home…” (I’m answering in my mind, “Whoever’s driving the damned train.”) There is something about the singer’s eyes that seems sort of empty, hard to read, and it’s incongruous with that mellow melody. (It’s no random observation; you have to notice these things.) 
Just as I am aware of the musician, I meet face to face with a guy who has been telling a sing-song story really loudly. He’s black, about 25, wall-eyed, effeminate. He is wearing two backpacks, a red one under a blue one. “Colly, why did you put that on the top of the refrigerator?” he asks in an authoritative voice, and answers himself as a tiny child, “I’m sorry Mommy.” He walks over to some people and continues, “Now Colly, you mind Miss Rhonda” and “Yes, Mommy.” He walks to another group. 
“…I can’t go on…thinkin’…nothing’s wrong…who’s gonna drive you home…tonight…” 
“Now you listen to Miss Rhonda. We’re getting on the bus now.” “Yes, Mommy.” He walks. 
Suddenly an older black man, like a character out of the young man’s story, a story that has notes of Southern culture woven into it, appears on the platform. He’s wearing a kind of small-brimmed fedora—what are those hats called?—butterscotch colored, and a matching golf sweater, odd on this frosty night. He shouts, “Do you have your medicine?” And the young man answers, completely clearly, “It’s in my bookbag.” “Well, take it!” the old man commands. “I’m doing make believe,” the young man explains; he continues to himself, “Did you hear what I said?” “Yes, Mommy.” The old man lingers, and then moves along. I’d thought he was a caretaker, but he’s no one to him. Was he even there? 
“…who’s gonna drive you home…” 
By now the platform is getting full: young, stylish women, middle-aged men, young guys, many on iPods—Hispanics, Asians, whites, blacks—all headed back to Queens after a long work day, or a night out. The Make Believe Man is pacing and pacing, telling his story from one group to the next: “Yes, Mommy.” 
Unfazed, the young man explains in the same voice he’s been using with the story, but in a more matter-of-fact tone, “I’m talking make believe.” Then he continues, “Are you ready to get on the bus with Miss Rhonda?” “Yes, Mommy.” “Stop sucking your thumb, Colly.” “Yes, Mommy.” 
“YOU SICK FUCK, YOU SICK MOTHERFUCKER…” and the guitar man is packing up his instrument, swearing threateningly all the while, and there is an expectation in his outraged voice that we on the platform will be on his side. No one really moves, no one stares. The energy, though, curiously embraces a whole new tolerance for the previously annoying Make Believe Man. I catch the eye of an older Hispanic man looking at me—I notice his pencil-thin mustache and soft yellow jacket—and there’s a silent agreement between us that Guitar Man is the real lunatic. Finally Guitar Man stalks past me, “STUPID SICK FUCK….” He knows he’s alone in his rage. No hate crime occurs. Jesus. 
The subway train pulls up and I get on. There is a seat, but only if I insinuate my wide ass into the space (however graciously the guy in the Pit Bull coat tries to slide aside), and I’d been sitting a long time at Pat’s so I decide to stand by a door (I smile, give a little wave down low, and say, “No, thanks,” to Pit Bull Coat, who flashes a little corner-mouthed smile before he looks distant and unaffected again). 
This gives me a good view of things. Knowing that one always meets her fate in the path she takes to try to avoid it, I am not at all surprised when Make Believe enters my car by walking through the sliding doors from the next car. He keeps walking, though, as he tells his story, briefly startling only the people who were already on the car when the train pulled in. 
Looking around, I realize that everyone in this car could be from the cast of Freak Show: So many facial scars, off-hue skin tones, oddly low hair lines, squashed cheeks, deep furrows, beady eyes, hair too shiny, heels too high. One woman is arrestingly tiny, maybe just over 4 feet (when I see her exit), stick-limbed, Lohan-chic, such a doll-like blonde head, talking to a large texting man who seems to be answering her English questions with another language. When I catch a reflection of myself in a window, I see my waxed-canvas stovepipe-y hat over grey corkscrew hair and know that I, too, belong in the Freak Car. It’s homey enough. What the hell. 
I hear the sliding doors open at the other end of the car. “Colly, no thumb-sucking now.” And the doors close. Make Believe has moved on. 
The frost feels especially tingly on the dark walk home from the station. 
All so quiet. 
For now. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

WORKSHOP: We Say We Want to Just Make Out, But We Don’t Know How Not to Get Off

On With the Show

It’s all about “performance” these days. Forget Broadway, forget the Golden Globes: We ALL feel this. We get performance reviews at work; performance reviews in the sack; expectations to perform even at a dinner, a meeting, a date. Everything is ON. Your job is to keep someone SO interested, SO engaged, that they fucking forget they have a fucking PHONE to check. It’s goddamned SHOW-fucking-time.

Do you feel the PRESSURE? And yet in all this pressure to perform, we (and when I presumptuously say “we,” I mean the collective of humanity, and you may feel you don’t think that means you, and I ask you to assume it does) may lose sight of what we were doing in the room in the first place.

My friend Polina is a brilliant theater actor and innovator, a great teacher of acting. I’ve taken her classes. One evening in a scene study course, two student actors, a man and woman, were sitting at a table, speaking lines from a play. His character did the talking early in the scene. Polina interrupted him in mid-speech, without ceremony, and said to the girl, in her gentlest Russian-infused voice, “Excuse me. Sara, why are you listening to him?”
            Sara turned, said, “Because he’s telling me…”
            Polina said, with concern and sincerity, “He is boring.” She looked at the young male actor. “You are boring.” She looked back at Sara. “I am bored.” She gestured to the class. “We are bored. I am asking you why do you sit there. Why don’t you leave? Would you really sit and listen? Get up.”
            The man, Kyle, said, “But it’s in the stage directions.”
            Polina looked at him, then back at Sara, shrugged. “I don’t get why do you stay there.”
            Kyle got angry. “But if she leaves, what do I…”
            Polina honed in, and hard, but not meanly: “Make her come back. Use the lines. But make her come back, or she LEAVES. Da? Now. Again.”

One for the Money, Two for the Show

            Once years ago at a Michael Chekhov workshop—a workshop in the acting technique of the great teacher and actor Michael Chekhov—Polina had been given a directive, along with half of the group, to “do whatever inspired them.” Polina had no idea what that meant. “What is that? What does that mean?” were the feelings she recounted to me. A Russian-Jewish Soviet dissident from the Moscow Art Theater with a Ph.D. from Yale School of Drama, and an eager proponent of this work, she could only stare at the leader. The other actors leapt up and began “being inspired,” yelling, singing, moving wildly. Polina had no idea where these impulses came from, “so,” she told me, “I cleaned the room. I straightened chairs, or moved backpacks, and set about making the space nicer.” When the leader called time, the actors stopped, and the leader made comments. She was especially impressed with Polina. “What were you doing? What was your impulse?” Polina looked at me as she recalled it, mystified. “I told her my impulse was to figure out how to kill the time until this fucking experiment was finished.” (Polina would never swear in Russian, but in English it’s meaningless and so no problem at all. There’s another essay there…) Polina was supposed to feel she’d gotten her money’s worth? Was that it?

            This story put me in mind of an acting exercise I did, the first day of my first acting class in college. The acting teacher (who must have attended a similar workshop to the Chekhov one at some time in his past) broke the class into two groups and told the first half of us to go to the front of the black box studio and “act.” Everyone jumped in and began playing, making up scenes, the whole ball of wax. I could only stare. What were they doing? Where did this impulse in all of them come from? I didn’t get it. So I sat down on the floor in front of the chalkboard and waited for the exercise to be over. That’s what I did for the full two minutes. I waited. When that portion finished, the teacher quizzed the class: “Who was the most interesting to watch?” To a student, they said, “That girl,” pointing at me (doing my best Marlo Thomas face!). The teacher looked annoyed. “But she wasn’t doing anything…” he began, only to be interrupted with cries of “But she was . . . ” and he quickly moved on. He gave us another assignment, this time to count floorboards.  What he was trying to show was that having a real task made you more interesting to watch, but what he hadn’t counted on was an actor who was honest in the first place, who’d said, “This is bullshit,” and waited it out, thereby missing an opportunity to teach that what is actually “interesting” is honesty. (My acting teacher was really good, as it turned out, so I don’t mean this meanly. And I'm not the "role model" for honesty. But I’m trying to get at something to do with engagement, expectations, performance, and YOU. Us.)

Like Polina in the workshop, I wasn’t “trying” to “be” anything. We did what was honest for us in the moment. In a workshop or class, one would think this kind of honesty would be probed, discussed, used. What most teachers expect, and what most people expect, is not discovery, but performance. This isn’t only to do with acting or theater, but since that’s where I engage myself most, it’s my example. Here’s another one, at the risk of going all My Dinner with André on your asses.

I took part in a day-long workshop in London under the direction of an Irish experimental theater director. In the morning session, we actors engaged in an improvisation about being prisoners of war. The point of this improvisation was empathy—working to put ourselves in a place where we could empathize with the politically oppressed. She established the spaces and taped out the “cells,” putting two of us to a cell. She gave us various prompts and activities. What was my honest impulse? To utterly withdraw into myself. I had no interest in getting to know my “cellmate,” to “play” anything. I paced. I seized. I hardened my soul into a tight iron fist. I went about as deeply inside myself as it was possible to get in such artificial circumstances. I wrote a treatise, I had a name, “Eleanora Mann,” and by morning’s end, I was beyond anyone’s reach, emotionally or practically.  It was thrilling.

There was no discussion at the lunch break, no break at all really. We ate, I guess—I don’t remember any of that, except for a kind of confused waiting—but the afternoon session took us to a new place, years after the imprisonment, after: The war has been fought and the Allies have won our freedom: We became either judges, prosecutors, defendants, or witnesses at a “tribunal,” coping with the end of the oppression, working now for some kind of restitution or reconciliation. I was assigned the role of a judge, as was another participant, Ben. We had no idea how to do this, and in the brief time we had to prepare, Ben said casually, “Law and Order,” and I said, shrugging, “Sure. Exactly,” and we played every TV judge we had ever seen, about as sincerely and firmly as you’ve ever seen. We were dusting off the Emmy.

            I’m being sarcastic, but here’s how the day played out: A morning of intense involvement had been somehow reduced to a scene that felt utterly false and stupid. I don't know exactly how that happened. I mean, we were all just finding our way through a situation without a script, like life, really, when you think about it. What happens when a new country is being born out of ashes and degradation? Each of us takes on a role and we try to play it as best as we can imagine. But when the exercise wound down, we as a class never talked about what the experience of the day meant for us (closure was needed, context, explanations. Dinner. We had to change to go to a theater across the city), or what discoveries we'd made, though ostensibly that was the point. 

What turned out to be the point (consciously or not), I was disappointed to learn, was performance. That evening, as our ensemble made our way on the Underground to a production of Sweeney Todd, I got on earful. My morning “show,” as people thought of it (and I couldn’t tell you what anyone else did, so personally did I take the exercise), was not only ineffective and frightening, it was “selfish”—that word came up a lot. My afternoon “show” as the judge, by contrast, was “amazing.” And as I had done in my first acting class all those years ago, I could only look at the fellow participants and the leader during each separate one of these unrequested critiques, utterly confused. What had been the purpose of the workshop if not to make discoveries inside ourselves, to imaginatively explore—using drama and role-playing—what an alien and terrifying situation could bring about inside us, and cause us to act out? Apparently, we were supposed to be “performing” for each other. This is exactly what Ben and I did at the end of the day, play fake judges, bullshit with pained expressions, turn to each other meaningfully and occasionally whisper “significantly” (mostly obscenities to which we could barely keep a straight face), and it wowed the crowd. How was “wowing” the point?

So what I’m really probing now is the mistaken idea that performance has any place in acting class, in daily life, at work, or in sex—so that I might come (so to speak) to the title’s point: Because of performance anxiety and all the wrong expectations, people really don’t know how to make out any more. Do they? A greet, a grin, a drink, a knee rub, and the pants come off. Orgasm is the goal. The mess is made and cleared. People go home.

As Bret sings in Flight of the Conchords hilarious quickie-love-making song, “It’s Business Time”:  Was that IT? 

Let’s take a step back now, and ask those unasked questions: What is it to linger, to dwell, to go deep, to emerge, to stare, gape, stutter, work up to having to talk? Why not ask the question, “How was it?” and mean it, want an answer, find a deeper meaning, a better way in? Take this artistically or sexually—both are apt—and I wonder: What is the big goddamned hurry to put on the SHOW? There’s no audience: It’s just you and me. Right here, right now. Let’s learn something. (That is not a proposition.) (NO, it's NOT.)

Now let’s talk about teaching. Again.

This was a story last week in The Washington Post: In Schools, Self-Esteem Boosting is Losing Favor to [More Finely-Tuned] Praise 

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. I always was a hard-ass and trusted it.

What did I get out of being told, “Your judge was amazing?” Absolutely nothing. What did Polina get out of being told that she was “so interesting”? Unless work is probed, explored, and delved into, what does so much “empty praise” mean? Look at Polina’s work with the young actors in her class: She was bored. She told them so. She wanted them to think about what they were saying, what would make their characters listen, stay, work to get someone’s attention. Would “Wow, nice!” make them powerful actors? She told them frankly, “I am bored.” They had to work to figure out what would make them—the actors/characterswant to BE in the scene before they could expect an audience to want to watch them. Polina pushed them to that point.

THAT is teaching. That is LIFE.

What is “performance”? The performance is the point at which you have done all the work you possibly could, given your all, gotten feedback and help and worked some more, and then SOLD TICKETS. Not until or unless you sell tickets—to put on the show, do the surgery, deliver the eulogy, take the exam, present the work to a paying public—are you in performance. Too often we treat the day to day process of living, of meeting people, of getting our bearings, as a goddamned performance, a “make or break” opportunity, do or die. It’s stupid.

I am bored.

Sex is boring. Our jobs are boring. The media is boring. Our politics, our issues, our candidates are boring.

And yet love is not boring, the earth is never boring, literature, art, science, goodness, hope—all that is not boring. Not in the least. I’m tired of being made BORED by people’s push to a fake engagement known as “performance” when what really should be going on is a process, and it's that process that too many are too fucking terrified to actually acknowledge. It’s so much easier to pull back the lips and squirt out, “Wow, nice!”

Process makes us engage. Process IS engagement. Are you bored? Change it. Change the scene. Get her to come back in and listen to you. Remember why you were talking in the first place. Make him make you stay. Make everyone work a little bit harder to get your vote, to have your heart, to earn an A, to keep you in the room. And you do that, too. Not because you are an asshole, but because you are honest, and it matters, and you love them.