Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It’s only the beginning of second semester…AND NOW YOU ARE BURNED OUT

Miss O's First Theater Production Class: Drawing by Don McInturff


            To Recap: In previous posts you’ve read about how I prepared to teach, how exhausted I got, and isn’t this fascinating? I’ve also introduced you to teaching a skill via talking about a novel, and one arts curriculum overview (and one typical unit) so you could see all the shit that was sitting in my head, ready to deploy in a class, in directing shows, and now in writing this thing. To hold in one’s head 150 new names, 300 old names (the juniors and seniors), 200 names of colleagues—and all of their stories; plus a full script, design ideas, acting notes, and what key fits which lock; novels, stories, plays, grammar, and humanities and science connections; and memos to pay bills, get the sump pump fixed, go to the store, don’t forget the dentist; the new computer grade book program and how to average for interim reports; and which parents to call today between grading stacks of essays—walking around with a head like this can really take a toll. Not to complain, merely to observe: This is what being a teacher is.

In all the madness of teaching and learning and grading and chaperoning and festival hosting and drama directing (to say nothing of trying to have some sort of inner life, and social life, and learn the customs of the different places I lived), I never had a moment to really reflect on anything I was doing. Even after the first year at my first school, when I packed up the pick-up truck and took a road trip cross country with my buddy Debbie (who photographed every hotel I would not stay in in favor of camping, and bless her heart, she camped), I mostly stared gratefully at landscape and sky and relatives—oh, so many—who lived across the nation. I just wanted to empty out my head and be with trees, desert, road, ocean. School memories? Fuck ’em.

When I returned to the dreary little apartment above Edna’s beauty shop on the small main drag of the tiny rural town that was my first adult home, what was clear to me was that for all I knew about language arts and theatre arts, I had no idea how to put it all together in the classroom, and I could not work alone. It shocked me that I was expected to do all my teaching and all my drama club stuff—all that directing/designing/building work alone; I wasn’t prepared for that. Theater is COLLABORATIVE. That’s what I like about it. Much as I love kids—and they are great colleagues—I needed adult support. I am collaborative by nature when I work (though I must absolutely LIVE alone). Starting out, I did not know how to ask for help, and no one was forthcoming—not that I blamed them. Theater is time-consuming and demands many talents, and unless you have passion for it, well, who would do it, especially with teenagers? When I left teaching the first time in 1990—burned out beyond anything I had known, even during the time of all-nighter exam weeks at Tech—I never expected to return to teaching or even to theater. By then I was living in a 150-year-old former schoolhouse on the edge of a wood on cheap rent and a wood stove, and there I expected to die, smoking my pipe and staring at the duck pond.

I have used this outhouse many, many times. Yes, I have.
But I had a bathroom in my actual old house. This is at the cabin at my friend's farm. 
I have a sense of drama. I can't help it.

            My career-resuscitator was the Bread Loaf School of English, a master’s program for, oddly enough, English that I began the summer I quit teaching. I drove my pick-up to the Green Mountains of Vermont having a feeling that something momentous was happening. It was. (I got in on a rural teacher scholarship, a huge pay-off for my three rudderless years in Central Virginia—that, and great stories, good people.) The focus on theater at Bread Loaf is key, and it was there that I saw in practice how to integrate drama into my English classes and began to rethink how to teach theater as a subject. I learned to teach at that place—that’s where it was modeled for me. I also realized I should be learning stuff because I love learning, not only for how I would “use” it in a classroom. That place energized me over five summers, enough so that by the second summer I decided to have another go at teaching that lasted 12 more years. If it hadn’t been for Bread Loaf, well, I really have no idea who I’d be.

Lisa O and George L at Bread Loaf, 1994; photo by Jean L

            Enter what I call Luxe High School, home of my next and last teaching job. When I applied to the county (along with many other Virginia counties) the last place I expected to teach was my former high school. As in where I went. And my old senior English teacher called and set up an interview. I nearly fainted. (Did I tell you that story? How it happened to be the only job that was open in Northern Virginia, how my former senior English teacher interviewed me, and how the first day I was there, I walked into the girl’s bathroom beside the foreign language pod, collapsed into the a corner and began sobbing, “Oh, my GOD, I can’t be here, I can’t do this”? In my head, in the moment, I split the school into two: the old one I went to, and this new one where I work, thanks to Mental Illness, my old friend.)

            Jane Williams [I’ll call her] was the drama director, and I was to be her assistant. She became my mentor and my creative champion, and we worked as a great team for 10 years—well, for 7 or 8 years, and faked it for two more. (We eventually went the way of Astaire and Rogers, Kelly and Donen—it’s hard to sustain any partnership, and in the end we wanted different things out of theater.) But while it lasted we produced some great stuff. Above everything, Jane taught me the mechanisms by which you harness a support network of set builders, scenic artists, costumers, and box office people. I was always one to thank anyone who helped me, baking cookies and holiday treats and making cards and crying. But what people need, Jane realized (and I had yet to learn), to make them keep their promises and commit to you, is money. So we divided the yearly $1,200.00 drama stipend by anywhere from 6 to 10, sharing it with school faculty and staff who helped us out. (Perspective: As I’ve pointed out, an assistant volleyball coach got $3,000 for six weeks. For further reference: My yearly raises in regular pay ran to about $250 to $500, and none for the first four years I taught at Luxe—step-increase freezes that I never got back. And just for giggles, this little stat: After 20 years with a master’s degree, I would still not see $60K.)


            Way back some blogs ago, I mentioned how the first thing you have to do to direct a show is develop a Production Concept. So here we are at Luxe High and we are going to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Step lively, people!

[An Apology: I really thought I posted this blog already. I’ve alluded to it in the Costume posts, but I never did. So here it is: The Production Concept explained.]

            Before you choose a script after all your summer reading, you need to know what it should look like in your mind. Here’s what I’ll say about Midsummer: I’d always wanted to do it but had no idea how I’d do it. One summer in a workshop intensive at Bread Loaf, a director/professor and actors did a morning of scenes from this play, and something occurred to me: The play is a dream. (Blown away by my genius for grasping the obvious, yes?) It is someone’s dream...and suddenly how to do the forest and what the costumes should look like didn’t scare me anymore. Because it really didn’t make any difference. What was important was how we humans manipulate our dreams to try for an outcome that we think we want. Just shadows, a fantasia, and it is fun. (I hope you are seeing a pattern with the word “fun”. Not as in “ha, ha, dee, dee, dee”. Fun should be a rich experience. I am deeply serious about fun.)

            I began by researching past productions done by professionals. I went through oodles of books. One set of photos I saw had the actors playing the four leads all in some version of white, making them essentially interchangeable. Another set of photos had Theseus and his court, as well as the Rude Mechanicals, in modern dress. And it seemed to me we could lift fairy costumes straight out of a Halloween catalogue. Okay. The set? Most of the stages were bare in the pictures, and I remembered that most every Shakespeare play I’d seen had a bare stage. It’s all spelled out in the lines, “Here we are in the forest of Arden.” “Here we are at court.” Marcel Marceau had only to “sit” on a “park bench” and he created a whole world. Let it go, I told myself.

(An Aside on the Art of Mime)

(Seriously: Marcel Marceau, the French mime, was perhaps the most stunning performer I’ve ever seen live. In 1987 he did a sweeping U.S. College Tour to try to promote and save his art. I studied mime. I loved it. If I repeat myself, forgive me: In a lecture the day following the performance, he stood in boots and jeans and button-down shirt and spoke flawless English to decry street mimes (“You are in a box?” …hand, hand, hand… “You are an idiot! You are ruining my art!”) and try to teach the meaning of his art. What was his art? “Mime is the study of attitude. In one gesture…” and here he lifted his “hat,” “…you know I am a gentleman.” He continued, with motion: “Every animal has his own style: Every lion moves like a lion; a horse moves like a horse. Unless they are sick or dying, every animal has a style, every animal except Man. Man must always search for his style. It is our tragedy, but it is also our beauty.” I wept. The mime is the student of man’s style, of man’s attitude in time. It’s thrilling to do it. And really, really hard: When you fake-pull a hundred pounds, you really may as well be pulling 100 pounds, because it’s what you are doing. But it’s worth it, in the service to a story of being human, I think.) 

Marcel Marceau, from Google Images

(Another quick story: Before the start of M. Marceau's amazing show, my friend and fellow mime, Debbie, noticed a woman coming down the aisle with an usher; Debbie began to laugh. She was crying with laughter, and trying to stifle it. "What's so funny?" I asked. Debbie said, "I just saw something beautiful, but I don't understand it," and she pointed at the woman. "She's...blind," she burst out, and she collapsed laughing. "It's a MIME SHOW." I love my friends.) (P.S. I just recounted this to Debbie on the phone, and she reminded me that the show was delayed because the sound equipment hadn't shown up. "The night was rife with comedy," she said. Yes, it was.)

Back to the Concept: Tangents Are Part of All Good Teaching. You Heard Me.

            So: That’s as far as I’d gotten when the school year began and my Theater Production class was thrust into the whole thing. So right after the first Play Project, the kids had to suffice with a few lectures and then into the woods…literally.

So we are doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We need a forest.

My TP class that year (and here is a great regret: I never saved a copy of each year’s rosters) had some unusual kids, many of whom had nothing to do with the drama club--artsy types who went on to study music and work at Borders, that kind of crowd.

            So we went to the library and I asked kids to find as many books with pictures of forests as they could. We spread out the books, and began leafing through them. I brought “self-stick” notes and the kids marked the pages of the pictures they liked best.

            I prefer this to the Internet. There is nothing like leafing and marking and spreading out whole pages to see what you see.

            We were drawn to this one photo of a forest after an ice storm. Everyone in the class kept gravitating to it. Someone said, “It’s called A MidSUMMER Night’s Dream...?” Yet there we all landed.

            (Did I mention that we read the play aloud in class? We did. I made sure that before the actors were given the books we’d ordered that my class did a reading using those books. It’s important that the people designing the play should read it. I’m a nut that way.)

            So we checked out the books that had pictures that we liked. We went back to the room, and went back into the script to see what would actually justify a forest after an ice storm. Well, the seasons are out of joint.

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts 
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown 
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.
~A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene 1

            Okay. We keep the ice.

And the color palette? A student artist named Greg said, “The Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, you know, to match the ice...”

            And a set was born.

            That’s how it happens.

Aurora Borealis from Google Images

            There is a big difference between, say, The Music Man and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is really no “conceptual” innovation that needs to happen with Meredith Willson’s (yes, “Willson” has two L’s) musical Iowa triumph. It’s a lovely turn-of-the-century American story with music and should be utterly played as such. Now, a show like Chicago, you can conceptualize, set in a kind of timeless America, costume it in black lace and have a great show. But each show is different. It’s important to be fair to the needs and expectations of the play.

And just to remind you: We’re in a public high school doing this level of artistic thinking. Isn’t that cool?

PARALLELS: I think there is a way to teach theater production thereby showing
a. the reasons arts-based or trades-based education can be valuable
b. how taking a play through to production is like structuring learning of any subject in any classroom.

For example, I establish a certain vocabulary at the outset...and then we launch into something we are trying to understand. We—and this is mostly me now—push to do the work and make it happen. Throughout this time, we are, as a class, doing units of study in set, costume, makeup, etc. (see previous posts), and by spring, they are ready to try the whole thing again, this time with a firmer grasp--because they had the original fall show madness to bank away. I think this is why the class was always so successful.

And I ran on that creative high for many, many years. Until I didn’t.
The Final Burn-Out: Knowing When It’s Time to Leave

            I ultimately left teaching, and left directing two years before that, not completely by choice (but mostly). I’m telling it now because I sort of want to get it over with, like pulling a Band-aid off really fast.  I’ve talked a lot about setting up curriculum, and doing shows, and living the teaching life. Now here is some of the emotional shit.

So this is a discussion of criticism and its effects on kids. The moment I am about to describe is seminal in my experience as a drama director, and while I know feelings were hurt, I do not regret it. (I only bring it up here because there are a lot of kids I need to apologize to for sneaking out the back door of the drama club two years later, the way I did. It wasn’t intentional. I was too emotional about my departure, and too little of a grown-up to do what grown-ups do, and smile and act like everything was my idea. It wasn’t.*)

(*It strikes me that this could be the beginning of a hilarious novel about a high school drama club. Maybe I will write it.)

            It was the end of the Monday technical rehearsal before the Thursday opening of Annie. The actors knew all the lines, the singers knew the songs, the dancers knew the steps, the sets looked good, everything should be working. And yet the show was simply lifeless, just agony to watch. I am a terrific judge of the shows I direct. If I can watch the show over and over and over with real engagement, it’s a great show. I am not wrong about this. My biggest fault is that I cannot “settle” when it comes to a show. If I think the show is not as good as it truly could be within everyone’s abilities, I will push everyone until it gets there. This makes me extremely unattractive on the Monday of tech week. As I say, I don’t care. I have friends.

            The kids assembled on the apron, all 100+ of them. The pit orchestra had struck and headed back to the band room (all students, by the way, and one adult on piano). My colleague, Jane, was assembling line notes to pass out to the actors. I looked at the kids. I paused. I breathed. I spoke.

            “I won’t say you suck, because that is not constructive,” I began. Their eyes widened. I saw one young actress roll her eyes and sigh, her hatred of me sealed forever, I assumed, but she’d really irritated me with lazy line readings in rehearsalsnice kid, but still...I couldn't worry about it. “I don’t say this to hurt you. I say this because I don’t understand it. The Orphans in ‘Hard Knock Life’ are fantastic--they have the energy the show needs.” I pointed out a few other lovely moments. “But...I mean, you all know the songs, the dances, the blocking...everything is in place. It’s just...” and it hit me: “We don’t believe in Annie. Maybe I don’t believe in it, hadn’t believed in it. We have to believe in this show. I think I’d been writing it off as a kids’ show, and really, it’s a good story. We aren’t telling it. I don’t know how to solve this. I’m asking you. I don’t know how to solve it. What are we doing to do?”

            One of the girls in the cast said, referring to Molly Shannon’s Saturday Night Live character, “You mean, like ‘Superstar!’?” And the kids laughed. I took it in.

            “Yes!! I think that’s it! You have to believe you are superstars, that the whole story is up to you! And do that tomorrow. Because, guys, we cannot show this show to an audience the way it looks now.”

            I mark this as the moment when Jane decided, after eight years coaching (that’s what we call directing in high school) together, that we needed to part ways (though that was two years off). She was outraged, and understandably, that I would speak so frankly to kids this way, after how hard they had been working. Maybe I wanted to get pushed out, I don’t know. Jane rushed up, and said, “Well, unlike Miss O’Hara, I thought you all were wonderful!” And she proceeded to give notes and explain what a great show it not only would be but already was; and yet...not one kid was buying it.

            The next day, we had our second try, a dress-tech rehearsal. I milled around the stage beforehand and talked to cast members and we threw our arms up and cried, “Superstar!” I went into the house, got on the headset, called for quiet, cued the orchestra (which sounded just amazing, and all kids, under Mr. M’s direction—we had great music teachers in our school). The show began. From the opening number, the change was astonishing. They weren’t there yet, but they really were onto it now.

At notes time, Jane told me I was not to say A WORD. She was barely speaking to me, and who could blame her? The cast listened to “Mom,” as she praised their every song and corrected only minor points; they were silent, tried to listen, but they were looking at “Dad.” When Jane finished, she reluctantly said through very tight lips, “Miss O’Hara, do you have any comments?”

            I said quietly, lips out and head nodding, as I surveyed the cast, “You didn’t suck.”

            You could have heard their collective sigh in Utah. I think a whole weather system changed as a result of that sigh. “We didn’t suck!” they exclaimed.

            What kind of monster am I?

            Opening night was SRO, jam-packed with kids and parents, and the show was STUNNING. The audience was in raptures. At intermission, our set designer and tech ed teacher, whom I’ll call Karl, looked up at me to where I was calling cues in the house on the headset, and I threw up my hands, and we just roared with laughter. I went backstage and told the kids they rocked.

            On closing night, the cast assembled as usual in our “green room,” the choir room, this time to give gifts before the warm-up. Their present to me? A five-pound SUCKER. They applauded, I collapsed with laughter, and I told them I was amazed and humbled by how terrific they made this show.

            Jane, I know, never forgave me, and the relationship frosted. Finally, after one more year of strain, she told me, kindly, that she did not ever want to work with me again. She’d recruited a new young drama teacher to take my place, someone “who is a better fit.” What was there to say?

            Maybe I was too hard on young performers, too hard on students. It was part of my make up. I was hard on myself, I pushed beyond the beyond. And it’s not as if I didn’t have a sense of humor, a sense of fun. Some of the best laughs of my life happened at play rehearsals with those wacky teens. (Jane called that “goofing off” and “wasting time.” We were, at times, very different people.)

            But I have to be honest with myself: Very few people in the audience know the difference between what I would call an A show and what I would call a B-minus show. My parents can tell: When they saw the first show I didn’t direct (I only helped out with sets through my TP class), my mother said, “Wow, we can tell you didn’t direct that. Is this what the shows will be like now?” (The show was okay, but nonetheless they stopped coming.) By contrast, Karl (who was now heading a Tech Ed department at another school) said to me, “I don’t see any difference between this and the shows we used to do.” And as I looked around at the audience reaction, I realized that almost no one did.

            Directing for ego—even if it is only perceived as ego—is deeply unattractive. I couldn’t settle for less than the best I knew we all could give, but at what cost? For every young performer who remained close to me, Jane assured me that I lost two. I also lost the friendship and respect of a colleague of long-standing. And yet I know I would do what I did exactly the same way, because that’s who I was. Who I am.

            At the end of the day, for better or for worse (surely there is one more cliché to pile on), I am an artist before I am a teacher or a friend or a colleague. I can let go of a friend—though I suspect there to have been no real friendship there—before I can “settle” for what looks to me like a shit show. Neurotic? No question. But true to my vision? It’s the only way I sleep at night. And the shows were gorgeous.

            The moment I knew my drama coaching days were OVER? The man who took over for Karl with the sets, Mr. X, one afternoon strode wildly downstage from the set-building area at the back, walking right into the middle of a rehearsal (of the last show I would direct at the school, though I didn’t know that then) and interrupting the entire scene, a moment when the actors were just getting the sense of it. “I gotta ask Miss O’Hara something,” he yelled at the confused crowd of actors. “Hey,” he beckoned to me, “come look at this.”

            I screamed, “WHAT? NO!!! Don’t do that!”

            And Jane looked at me. With a tense anger in her voice, she said, “Why are you like that? Who cares? Just see what he wants.” When I was still fuming upon return— the actors... concentration... losing the momentshe added, sharply, “Lisa, get over it.”

            I can promise you this: I will NEVER get over that.

            Now if you want me, I’ll be in the bar. A New York City 
freakin' bar.

Miss O' with former students, 2011 at Mara's Homemade
East Village, NYC

Thursday, February 23, 2012

One Night You Meet the Faces and the Bodies That I Meet

Wherein Miss O' Brings You Home With Her
New York City, February 23, evening after work

On any subway car, in any moment’s motion, we may find ourselves staring. It doesn’t mean anything. Some faces just need to be stared at longer than others. It doesn’t mean anything. You get caught unawares by a shade of brown, a set of furrows, a mole, a mustache, a nose shape. You spy a generosity of eyebrow so startling you wonder how she copes, and then she catches your eye and grins conspiratorially and you realize she feels beautiful. And you thank god for that.

As the subway comes near to your stop, it is important to put your reading material away, sit up slightly, or lean forward, at least, if sitting. The people standing in front of you will move almost imperceptibly to alert you that they know you will need a path to the door. Their adjustment will in turn alert others, in a microcosmic kind of chain reaction, so that the words “Excuse me” should not have to leave your lips. Any extra silence is golden on a noisy night’s long journey into Queens.

When you have been admiring a standing woman’s shoes, and have not been able to catch her eye to ask about them, you can judge whether or not to speak to her upon exiting by the way she moves for your impending exit. If she puts down her book and stands back slightly, and the subway has not come to a complete stop, you have leave to say, “I love your shoes,” so she can smile, and you say, “Doc Martin’s?” and she says, shyly, “Yeah,” and you say, “Gosh, they’re great,” and out you scoot onto the concrete platform and into the chill night air.

As you head into the downward staircase, you must merge with the round-abouts and the to-your-lefts and all who go tumbling down, making right-of-ways for the left-ways coming-up stroller people. And heading to the turnstiles, you negotiate the all-walking-outs with the least obtrusive move into one of three stiles and thence out, and strategize a circular kind of move around the blue riveted post to avoid a small incoming man fishing out his Metro card and not looking up; and then you swirl to the down staircase and patiently pounce-bounce behind the old man with the too-big case who wants no help, and swirl around again and toward the street, dancing down the treads because you hear no traffic and that means the light is in your favor and then you see the red hand blinking and the 2…1…0 and you hear the starting swoosh from 39th Street headlights; hum; flash. What do you want for dinner? Which way will you go? You have some time to think.

And all the way up 40th Street you are looking for the starlight, star bright to wish you may and wish you might send all the love you have to every person you know out in the universe, and you realize you may have just prayed it aloud, because the short, stocky woman with the flying black-dyed hair and plaid coat, the woman with the shopping sacks and the too-big-purse, turns slightly as you pass, and it’s New York and who knows what she heard or didn’t, even she isn’t sure, and it’s your chance to pass. Apartment lights are coming on along the block, the cars are searching for spaces, and everyone is hungry now. You recall the wine that’s open in the fridge as you slip under the awning lights of the Chinese place glowing yellow and red, and there they say your name and know you don’t want sauce-fork-spoon with that, and no need to waste a plastic bag, because you live just across the street.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

SENSE MEMORY: Wherein Miss O’ Learns the Coffee Is Hot

Oh, Baby

This weekend I was visiting my friend Richard, who has twins, Charlie and Annie, age 2, with his husband John, when a big collection of thoughts coalesced in my head. Richard and I shared theater classes in college and many show memories that translated into a love of projects. This weekend’s project was me helping to take care of his children, which I love to do because two-year-old twins give me a complete rest from my own headspace, while Richard does things like get the laundry done and make meals. One of my favorite things to do is watch toddlers eat, because as they become berry-stained, gravy-covered, cereal-splattered, all with delicious abandon—faces ever present to every taste and texture—eyes that widen, lips that pucker—and fingers that splay and offer themselves to be wiped down after each handful—I enter a world in which there is no self-consciousness, where all is sensation.

My childhood was all babies, all the time. My youngest brother was born three weeks before I turned 8. I was the right age to feed, diaper, dress, and pick him up out of the crib in the room we shared, handing him off to my mom or dad in the middle of many nights. We had Gerber baby food jars in my fridge for as long as I can remember opening a fridge; my dad cut every dinner’s meat into tiny pieces at the table for plate distribution until I was about 14 years old (for the younger ones); the smell of ammonia in the downstairs bathroom from the diaper pail is just how the bathroom smelled. When the youngest started school, my mom started babysitting a neighbor’s daughter, and the Gerber gained a fridge foothold again. By then, too, I was babysitting every kid in the neighborhood, from six weeks old to 9 or 10 years old, feeding and diapering and opening jars of Gerber to feed (um, not the 10-year-olds). It’s just what I did, who I was.  I figured I’d be married out of college and this would always be my world.

Then I knew I wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t.  And it was good. 

One day after classes during my first quarter at Virginia Tech, I returned to my dorm room and opened the little fridge I had rented with my roommate Deb. I don’t know why I opened it, or even half-rented it, because I never kept anything in it. But I suppose out of a reflex I opened it—that after-school snack habit—and I looked in. I froze before the contents: Nowhere, not in even one tiny corner of that fridge was there even one Gerber baby food jar. My eyes began to burn, and my face was soon damp with tears of relief, of joy, even: A fridge did not have to contain baby food to be a fridge in my life.  I reflected. There was no ammonia smell in the bathrooms. Sure, there was vomit smell, but I was used to that, too; what I realized is you could use a bathroom without kicking your foot into a diaper pail. How was this possible?

I never looked back. I couldn’t. And thus it was that Miss O’ vowed never to marry. When she fell in love that one time and started talking marriage, the whole charade ended in revelations: he wanted babies, and wanted them NOW, and she could not go there. There were loads of other problems and dysfunctions, but the crux of it rested on babies and the bearing of them.

Not wanting to bear children does not mean not enjoying them, but I only recently started to enjoy them (as opposed to liking them okay and being good with them, as in my babysitting days). I attribute this to a confluence of events: My youngest nephew was born when I was 41, and I was in New York City, acting and writing and working as an editor; I was no longer dating, menopause was not far off, and babies were forever not to be, and as a result, I think I felt free to just love them as I saw them, as people, knowing I’d never have to change another diaper or spoon any food into another waiting mouth. It changes everything, this view. Not into the mouth, though that is part of it.

After the Epiphany: A Cross I Bear

At home with my mom and dad this past fall, I was once again asked why I never had children, never seemed to want them, when I was “so good with them” all my life.  (They never seem to question why I have no mate—in fact, no one does—while everyone I meet does ask about “your children.”) How do you explain such reasons to loving parents, who wanted you and your siblings more than anything? How selfish must I sound? “I’m happy with life as I’ve made it,” I say, and mean this. Whatever her sadness at not having grandchildren from me, I also know that my mom respects my choices.

And she always engages in a present-tense, political way, even at 78. Lynne, my mom, is like Maude from the 1970s feminist sitcom of the same name, so it was not a surprise then, as we were watching the news on this same visit, that my mom—after a segment on an “attack on an 84-year-old grandmother”—should remark, “Do you notice how the media always identify a woman by her ability to breed?” She paused. “You never hear, ‘an 84-year-old grandfather was attacked,’ do you?” I pictured the ghost of a Salem ciggy moving to her pursed lips.

You see whence I get my voice.

And Then There’s Maude

When I was 9 years old, the Abortion Episode of Maude was televised. This was before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but abortion was legal in New York State, where Maude took place. In the 2-part episode, a 45-year-old Maude becomes accidentally pregnant by her second husband Walter. There are real health concerns to be considered, and she has a grown daughter and no desire to be a mother again. After much discussion, and with real love, she and Walter agree that she should have an abortion.

I watched these episodes the nights they aired. During commercials, my mom explained pregnancy and abortion to me. Somehow—I don’t remember what she said—I went with it, and took away from it that pregnancy was a choice. It’s astonishing how liberating knowing a thing like that can be. Not that any choice would be easy—Maude’s clearly was not, and the adult emotions shared in the show were far beyond me—but that it was important to know you had the moral obligation to make a decision that was best for everyone.

Acting on It

I held onto information like this, episodes like this show’s, all my life, as a teacher and an actor. Becoming an actor (like becoming a teacher, I think) is not really a choice, in that you simply begin watching yourself from the outside at a very young age, visualizing the acting out of every move of your own life, even as you project yourself into the lives you see around you, whether in the flesh or recorded live on tape in front of a studio audience. What takes you over is the magic “if”: What would I do if I were in this situation? What would Maude do if . . . ? What would my mom do if . . . ? You never know when a character you play, a role you take on, might be informed by this imaginative exploration.

One of the great keys to delivering an effective acting performance is not only emotional memory, but also sense memory: the ability to conjure up and bring to the fore what it (any it) would feel like, smell like, taste like, hurt like, lift like, or otherwise physically land like—if—and then be able to replicate that feeling and deliver it out to the empty air, on demand, or before a live studio audience.

This very weekend, Richard and I reminisced about a play he stage managed and I performed a lead role in, called “Ravenswood,” a one-act from a longer work called Bad Habits by Terence McNally.  I played Dolly Scupp, a middle-aged ex-smoker with a broken foot whose husband is in the mental health resort of the title. The director was our Intro to Acting teacher, and both Richard and I still remember his marvelous attention to sensory detail. This from Richard: When a character carried luggage—an empty suitcase—the director would say, “The luggage is heavy.” It was a constant note Richard had to take. “And how many movies or shows do you see,” Richard said, “where the actor is carrying a clearly empty suitcase.”

For me the note was: “The coffee is hot.” After the second time I got that note, I went back to my apartment and made a cup of tea. I held the mug in my hand (on stage I would be drinking from an empty cup), feeling the weight of the beverage and how my wrist and hand responded. I became aware of what the steam did to my face, of my eyes squinting, my brow furrowing slightly, my breath blowing, the slight hesitation as my lips met the rim, as if I might get burned. My stage coffee sipping ever after—whether with empty paper cups or full mugs of cold water or tea—has been Tony-worthy.

(The director led us through an exercise early on where we imagined our characters moving through the space, and when I got up and began walking with a limp, he laughed with such delight—because I had remembered her broken foot.)

But here’s the real story out of all this.

Yes, Greg, I Am Actually Going to Tell This Story

In 2003, I returned to Tech to celebrate the retirement of two brilliant teachers, and my acting teacher/director was still teaching there. A group of us went out for a drink. He said at one point, “I’m thinking of a story. Do you know what I’m thinking of?”

I didn’t hesitate. “Oh, yeah, I know which one...”

He looked a little unsure, “…about the cigarette?”

“I’ll tell it,” I said. And he grinned. I grinned.

So I will tell you, too, because it did a number on me:  At one point in that play, my character, Dolly Scupp, breaks down and decides she will throw away her discipline and smoke again, and she grabs a cigarette, lights it, takes a drag, and is satisfied. The trouble in rehearsal was that 1) I didn’t smoke; and 2) I didn’t smoke. So I had gotten my friend Todd to teach me how to smoke. He used unfiltered Camels (old school hard core), teaching me to do an intake of smoke, hold it without inhaling, and get it to come a little bit out my nose, so I looked like a real smoker. (The worst fake smoking by a good actor I’ve seen is Robin Williams in Seize the Day—he puffs quickly out after a short intake from the ciggy, and repeats these short, nervous puffs—whereas one needs to drag on it, hold it as for dear life—and he’s awful at it, but I suspect he didn’t have Todd to teach him.)

So I was really working on looking as if I could smoke. What I couldn’t manage was Dolly’s ecstasy, her giving in to temptation and so recapturing the great feeling the cigarette had always given her. Well, I had no idea why anyone would smoke, not then. So the director gave note after note. Finally he cried out, “That first drag: It’s like having an orgasm!” and I retorted in my mother’s flat, hard Midwestern voice: “I’ve never had one of those; what’s that like?”

The room fell silent. The director looked horrified, less by my attitude than by his own naiveté in assuming that every female artist of 20 had lost her virginity.

“Is it like hot chocolate?” I asked, fiercely. “Because if it’s like hot chocolate, I can do that.” So I replayed, not hot chocolate, but rather the moment I bit into a real chocolate truffle for the first time, how I’d had to lean against the wall of the strip mall, how I couldn’t speak. I took a drag, I had an orgasm.

“That’s good hot chocolate,” the director said.

(This could be the end of the story, but here’s the coda: A few weeks later I collared a very nice fellow I’d met on campus and made him take my virginity. Some things just have to be got rid of, and that was one of them. For art. Poor guy never knew what hit him.)

I’ll Laugh, I’ll Cry

I used to never be able to laugh on cue. I cry well, and can’t always cry on cue, but crying is a lot easier to make realistic than laughing. Lately, I’ve thought more about what makes me laugh, because I laugh a lot, and I think I could laugh on cue now.

I get tickled . . . My friend Lisa blithely swimming fast past me just hits me as comic in what it must look like; my nephew Cullen’s trike legs kicking like he knows where he’s going; my cousin John placing his hand, in greeting, tenderly . . . on my ass, to suggest that our family tree does not fork; and Richard just last night as we listened to Charlie at the dinner table saying “Slech” or “Blets” and we couldn’t figure it out, and Charlie was getting desperate, moaning the sound, so Richard said, “Let’s take a kitchen tour” and dragged Charlie, high chair and all, to cabinets and to the fridge and there it was: Ketchup. I wet my face with tears laughing.

I really do become helpless with laughter, my knees buckle, or I double over—even from the little scenarios I write for myself, as I did at work when we had screened a video of a girl dropping her books and lots of boys going over to help her pick them up, and I found myself saying, as one of the boys, “There’s a book on your boob,” and reaching to “remove” it.

I do not know how it is that people live in the world without laughing.

Yet I also know that when one is traumatized or depressed, one cannot imagine laughing ever again.

This Post Is About to Take a Dramatic Turn

When one is trying to remember one's lines in a play, it’s hard to be mindful of what one is actually doing: drinking the coffee, smoking the cigarette. Pretend takes work, emotional recall, sense memory—and one has to ask: What is the make-believe in service to?

“The coffee is hot.”

“The luggage is heavy.”

“You just found out you are pregnant.”

There were posters on the New York subway system for several months that showed a woman tucked in a fetal position, saying, “Abortion Changes You.” And I would respond, sometimes aloud, “You know what else changes you? Sex. Childbirth. Your parents dying.”

I am taking this post about sense memory back to the place of emotional recall: What would it be like if . . . you have done everything right, nothing wrong, and gotten pregnant by forces beyond your control? What would it be like if . . . you intended to do everything right, tried to do nothing wrong, and he played the “just the tip” game, and then “I’ll pull out,” and then: “Oh, shit.” And oh, shit, indeed.

No one likes abortion.  Whatever your life experience or level of empathy, that anyone imagines or pretends to know what it is like to make that kind of decision, and proposes to make a "better" one, is idiotic to me. Anyone who imagines that such a decision is made as lightly as which color socks to wear is not only utterly lacking in empathy but is at heart an immoral person.

Richard and John are gay men, a devoted couple, who wanted to be parents. They became parents. They are about the best I've ever seen. Anyone who would judge them in the negative without knowing who they are as human beings and what they can give as parents is an immoral person.

Here is my sense: One is not moral because one follows a rulebook. Anyone can follow a rulebook. Morons can and do follow such rulebooks. The truly moral person is the one who can know the rulebook, read a situation, delve deep into his or her heart, and make an actual decision, all the while understanding and dealing with the consequences, because he or she believes it is the right thing to do.

(Just so, a good actor does not read a play and set about performing merely the words, nor carry out the actions in the stage directions, such as "drinks coffee," without informing those words and actions with real intention, emotional recall, and sense memory.)

A truly moral person does not take over others' private decisions, private choices, and force people to act against their own wills and as if they have no rights. A truly moral person does not believe that a woman’s womb and reproductive life are the property of a church or the property of the government.  A truly moral person understands that personal decisions are between a woman and her god, a woman and her doctor, and woman and her conscience. A truly moral person knows that gay men and women are human beings, deserving to love and be loved.

(Just so, a good actor does not take a playwright's intention for her character and twist it to suit her own ends, her own agenda, because that would be a disservice to the character, the play, and, ultimately, to art.)

Some people have a hard time with moral living. We all do, at one time or another. Some actors give lousy performances. That can happen.

All you can do, as a person faced with life, is to try, like any good actor, to make the imaginative exploration, What would happen 
if . . ., and feel that.

“The luggage is heavy.”

“The coffee is hot.”

“You just found out you are pregnant.”

"You are gay, and you want to be a parent."

One may cry, one may laugh: Our responses to any situation, even in the pretend, can surprise us.

And then I always need to remember that, when I play the game of emotional recall, of sense memory, it was for pretend: In the end, you must know: it’s not your luggage; it’s not your coffee; her pregnancy is absolutely none of your business; their love, and how they express it, is up to them.

These moral howlings are by now part of our collective memory, hundreds, thousands of years of figuring it all out.  We have to take our places and look into the past, to those other lives, to older plays, and ask, What would I have done if . . . ? and What would I do now if . . .? Then we have decisions to make. It can be—whether you're called on to fake an orgasm on demand, or faced with the consequences of a one-night stand, or made to deliver sex, or expected to turn over your reproductive rights to a panel of men in Washington—troubling. It can trouble a person. And it should.

Still troubled? Why not have some ketchup? Or a good laugh? Or an orgasm? Or make your voice heard? After all, it's up to you. Isn't it?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

BlogLogic: The Art of Striptease in Paragraph Form

 What Now, My Blog?

Miss O’ has been looking at her blogspot stats lately (a feature on Blogger, telling you which pages have been opened, and when and how often), to see which blog posts have had the most hits. (While the posts may have been opened, she knows full well that they may not have been read past the first few sentences.) The most popular posts have titles that imply that the reader would learn something about the life of the writer herself (“Two Questions: Miss O’ Responds” and “From Where I’m Sitting, New York City” are the top two), a kind of cock-tease in each head, as it were, though Miss O’, more often than not, is given no clue as to whether what the reader found there was interesting or useful or cool or stupid or what. Such is the nature of this weekly beast—one posts on faith.

The most commented-upon blogs were the early ones, where Miss O’ tended to swear a lot and heave political asides onto the page along with the education commentary. Education was everywhere in the news, and that may have accounted for it.  The rest is silence, in that of the nearly 50 posts to date, only a handful of posts have elicited real commentary (and very sweet concern, as with the “From Where I’m Sitting” post, where Miss O’ discussed her problems with depression).

My friend Hugh asked me recently, “Who is your intended audience?”

And I answered: “I don’t have one. I write for myself.” I admit it. (My friend Jean, a poet, said, “I write because the poem has to be written.” Yes. That, too.) When other people read a post of mine, I’m just astonished. To tell you the truth, if I thought about an “intended audience,” I don’t think I’d create anything.


The aforementioned friend, Hugh, writes a gorgeous, thoughtful blog called …The Vivid Ellipsis…, and he told me that starting his blog was inspired in part by my blog, The Miss O’ Show, just as my blog was inspired by BoyMommy, started by my friend Jen, who is the stay-at-home mother of three boys. We three have very specific lenses that we train on the world, because of our lives, history, humor, and writing styles, but there is common ground in our inherent decency and thoughtfulness. And we use humor, again in our very particular styles, to broach our subjects: Jen a new century Erma Bombeck; Hugh an intelligently wry observer in the way of a friendly philosopher; and I tend to a female Lewis Black via Virginia Woolf, Miss Manners, and Miss Teacher-You-Had-in-Fourth-Grade.

Lately Hugh and I have had a lively email correspondence about just what a blog should do, because, when I asked his opinion of mine, he queried the writing persona I have assumed as Miss O’. “Are you Bill Maher or Jon Stewart?” he asked, comparing the popular comedians, one snarky and condescending, the other thoughtful and playful.  I considered. “I am Stephen Colbert,” I replied, "at least in my mind."


And this leads us, well, me, to the question: What is a “blog”? The follow-ups, then, include: Why write one? Who is the writer? Who is the audience?

I am late to the blog game. When I announced on Facebook in March of 2011 that I was starting one, my old student Brittany wrote, “YE-ESSSSS!” and led the followers. It made me wonder what on earth people thought I was going to write about. I am afraid I may have let a lot of people down. I do fear that folks may think I will be more than I am, somehow—funnier, smarter, more astonishing—and why I do not know; yet even if I lack the ability to dazzle, still I must write.

My writing takes place in near-total isolation. I live alone, as my readers know, and no one reads my posts before I publish them. By contrast, many of my writer friends live with someone who reads behind him or her, one who comments, guides the writer to improve the post, article, or poem before it’s published.

Writing for me, by contrast, is no different from either letter-writing or rehearsal for a show. I think of publishing posts the same way I think of mailing first-draft letters (I always wrote fluent letters, with rarely a cross-out, and never revised), or as performing previews of coming attractions: I put my posts up and edit them for a week after, the way you work on a show in front of the audience. This may not sit well with my professional writer friends, for obvious reasons. So am I a writer or am I not? I would say, I write this blog.

My writer friends, on the whole, are superior craftsmen, and real artists. My art form of choice is not actually writing, but, rather, theatrical performance. As a result, I have no expectation that the writing in my blog is art. Should I then not publish a blog?


There is a lot of shit out there, in the blog world, just really awful stuff. Two marvelous actor-writers and a great troupe have been performing a show called Blogologues here in New York, doing blog posts as monologues (edited, directed, and performed with the permission of the bloggers), and they are just terrific shows centered on themes (Autumn or Valentine’s Day, for example). The group’s greatest difficulty is finding the right source material. There’s PLENTY of potential source material, but most of the sources aren’t good, not even “so bad they’re funny”-good, but merely BAD. 

I frankly live in terror that I am bad. And yet I must write and publish this stuff, at this time in my life. Why publish a blog? I can think of two reasons, interrelated, which came out of my correspondence with Hugh.

1.     I miss writing letters. By way of explanation for this, two quotes come to mind: Twyla Tharp: “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home”; and Lord Byron: “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.” Most every weekend of my adult life, from the age of 23 to the age of 39—the year I moved to New York (by which time the world was fully electronic)—I wrote (inked, typed, or word-processed), single-spaced, 2- to 6- page letters to at least two different recipients, often four. No two letters were the same. The fun of writing them was in my communion with the recipient. I relished solitude even as I deeply loved the many dear friends with whom I corresponded regularly. 

I have, in a closet, boxes that contain every letter I have ever received. ALL OF THEM. From birth. (I presume all or most all of my letters are lost to the ages—I’ve often thought how interesting it would be to publish the collected letters written to me, and the reader would have to use the clues to figure out the character of the recipient.) I’ve kept samples of every kind of stationery I have used. All of it. This practice of letter writing—from paper to stamps to fonts and formats—formed me, and made me, for good or ill, into Miss O’. And then the letters stopped. No one writes them anymore, and truth to tell, I’m no longer interested in receiving them. I have become forever e-changed, drive-hardened, like everyone else. The trouble is, it’s shattered me, too. And this leads me to the next reason for writing in public.

2.     I must connect, and talking is how I do that, and if there’s no one to talk to, I must write. “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” as one of E.M. Forster’s characters says. I am by nature solitary, as I said, and always have been (my brother Pat used to tell me I was a freak, the amount of time I spent shut up in my tiny bedroom); I always spent a lot of time in my own head. Still, I must TALK, and talk out loud. The results of this habit were played out in teaching, oddly enough, because it was through imaginative exercises alone in my room, in part, that I found my voice as a teacher, as an actress, and even, however uneven the results, as a writer. As I have grown older, this solitude has gradually, and really without any warning, transmuted into acute loneliness. Looking at the age of 50 staring me rather squarely in the face (or in the periphery, at any rate), it was time to acknowledge that my solitude is most probably a life sentence.  Such is the way of choices. What I had to decide was what to do about it. I do go out with friends, on occasion; I pay visits to friends and family from time to time; I drink, but that only gets you so far. I used to smoke a pipe for companionship, but I am very vain about my teeth and staining was moving beyond the two cleanings a year on the dental plan, so that had to go. I write for my play lab, but the truth is I seem to lack the ego to pursue playwriting as fully as I might (though ambition seems to be growing). What I do know is that I need deep connection, the one I found writing and receiving letters.

And, so, The Blog was born.

The Blogging and Its Dangers

First of all, a blog can be, excruciatingly, flinchingly (you only ever see that adverb with the un- in front) used in a way that a person with more self-possession would use a diary or journal.

Fortunately, I have a journal for the really personal junk. I handwrite about three pages a day in it, every morning, and get all the insecurities and last night’s dreams and gossipy tidbits out of my system. I tape into the endpapers of these bound volumes all my theater and movie ticket stubs; scraps of paper and post-it notes with stuff written on them; little clippings; swatches of wrapping paper from gifts; used condoms. (Ha, ha! They are unused, obviously.) (Hugh just shook his head and sighed. Did you hear him? Sorry, man.)

In other words, I would never place such personal stuff in a blog (or tape condoms onto my journal endpapers, please GOD tell me you know I'm kidding) (at least I think I'm kiddingI'll have to check), and yet personal things do creep into the published posts. The problem with being a lifelong writer is that one develops a point of view, and when one is nearly 50, one has amassed loads of life experience (if not wisdom) to inform one’s point of view to the point of dogma. And the results can go unfiltered, especially when one has lived a long time alone. This can be off-putting, it can be unattractive, it can be annoying. (My parents wrote me an email not long ago: “Honey, a foul-mouthed woman is a real turn-off.” Fuck yes. Can’t argue with that.)


Miss O’ is my alter-ego, my evil twin, my lesser being, my angry asshole, my Madonna/Whore. She gets to say shit.  A girl can get so fucking sick of being so fucking even-handed and nice all the goddamned time, and Miss O’ couldn’t give two shits about politesse. I like that about her.

Actually, maybe that was Lisa talking. Possibly Miss O’ is in point of fact my better angel, the person I tried to be as a teacher, though she comes across as Miss Manners on meth here in the posts. She—or is it I?—can hector, harangue, and lecture you. She can make you want to click delete. Something in her likes to press the buttons and take it that far. It’s words after all, and you can choose to not read them. Miss O’, though, thinks she can lure you to the next paragraph. She may well be wrong about that.

But I use Miss O’ as a tool, I think, to help me get at things, to not shy away from subjects that cause anger and feelings of disgust; and she can also forge ahead and teach a curriculum that maybe two or three readers will find remotely interesting. Miss O’ does not judge the writer—she WRITES. She gets ME to write. She is the voice in my head that says, “Well, DO something.”

And so I decided to do this blog.


If I had to articulate why in the hell I'm writing this blog, I'd say I'm getting at three things:

1.     Reformation: I want to teach people what it’s like to be a teacher, why teaching matters, and offer whatever tools I can that might help make teachers better at their jobs.
2.     Information: I want to publish my full Theater Production Curriculum and Drama Club Memoirs for would-be drama coaches to use. I’d hoped to do it as book, but I can’t see that happening because holding a full-time editing job while living in New York City is intense and means I will never have the energy to get an actual book put together to shop around, and I could die tomorrow, and it’s more important to me that I make public something people might be able to use than to make money off of it. I believe in theater arts education THAT much; and theater is collaborative, after all, and most of us work most of the time for free anyway.
3.     How-the-Hell-Should-I-Know Participation: Just to see what I say, because I’m funny that way.

Ultimately, as I mentioned, I’d like to know I’m connecting to other people. I cannot force a connection, and it’s a big universe out there and all that, and still I’d like to try. That said, most people don’t engage with the blog in a way I hear about, but if you write, I always write back. (NOTE: The only guy I almost married once told me that, among my many failings, I "wrote back" but did not "respond" to his letters. It is a failing, and I've worked on it. His way of responding to my letters was to quote lines of mine and include the editorial note [sic], meaning "your error, not mine." Nice, huh?)

So, to my angel friend Hugh, this is my blog-letter to you. Without our neighbors to challenge us and ask the bold questions, we would never know what we think or how we feel about anything. What’s left to me in this time on Earth is the possibility of a deeper knowing worth sharing. And maybe getting tickets to The Book of Mormon. (Oh, wait, I DID. And it was AWESOME.)

And to love YOU, dear reader, and hope I am of use. 

(But not for Broadway tickets. I don't know ANYONE.) (I DON'T.)

Until next time!