Joe Cocker Had Help From His Friends So Why Can't I?

I seem to be developing a habit of comparing past experiences to more recent revelations. I'd like to say this post was headed in a different direction, but saying that would create a "pants on fire" situation.

When I was in fourth grade I learned about poetry. For some reason, something inside me ached to write like this. I would lie in bed at night trying to put pen to paper. 

Four years later I had the great fortune of being blessed both with a scheduling mishap which caused an English class with only 7 students and an amazing teacher. She was able to really spend time on everything we did - and we spent a fair amount of time on poetry. All she needed to do was to point out that sometimes poetry rhymed, and sometimes not. Soon I was filling up entire journals with verses, learning to love the texture of words.

Three years ago I found a script I felt had some potential for us to produce. When I presented it the board asked if I would be interested in directing. I wasn't even ready to think about that. I'd taken a couple directing classes in college - sure I'd received a couple very nice compliments from professors on my work during the final, but still - what did I know? I was certain it couldn't be enough to take on a full length. 

In some ways I was right. I loved working on that show and I will always be glad both that we produced it and that I did allow myself to venture into the unknown. Since that time I have taken on three shorts for our most recent three flex productions. They have all been great experiences and each has taught me something about myself and about directing. Most recently I directed S.W. Senek's Milk Cartons. I knew I would have fun, but I was so worried the audience wouldn't see the humor as I did. There were other scripts I could have fought to do, but I really thought they wouldn't be the same challenge - and before I attempted the enormity of tackling my next full length production I needed to believe in myself - and in my ability to see insane, relate-able  humor. 

Tonight was the first real rehearsal for Whales, Save Us! I have been looking forward to directing this show since the first time I read it. However, about 85 minutes before rehearsal started I suddenly because so nervous I was nauseous. Crazy! This was something I knew how to do. Maybe it wasn't nerves... maybe it was the fact I needed my asthma medication - or the fact I hadn't eaten lunch. All I know is when my actors walked in I knew what pages we were rehearsing and in what order, but did I need more? I really didn't know. It took faith in a dear friend who had told me days prior to trust myself, that sometimes it's better to know what you know and what you don't. 

Just like poetry, I needed someone I believed in to tell me that it was okay to walk in with a plan which wasn't entirely fleshed out and to trust where my instincts took me. So my plan was to treat this like one much longer short play. I wasn't stressing and I was going to be honest and just lay out the facts for my actors and trust that if there was an issue they would tell me. And you know what? We had a great rehearsal - much better than we would have had if I'd walked in with blocking and exercises and a minute-by-minute schedule.

This is gonna be one hell of a show - get excited.


What good is a safety net full of holes?

I used to be that girl. The one who appears incredibly confident. She falls while rollerblading and just laughs at herself, she sees someone new on campus and barges up to them to demand an introduction. When everyone is in jeans, she's in peasant blouses and long gauzy skirts looking super feminine. I've often wondered what happened to that girl.

When I got married, I regained a bit of her while planning. I immersed myself in the details selecting what I liked and what made sense to me rather than what everyone else was doing - the girl with the oddball vendors. It seems when I am operating as part of a we the confidence quietly slips into place.

My mom says she made me afraid of everything because I was her first so she was worried about everything with me and I do think that makes sense. Except that somehow I became that girl and then lost her.

Tonight, we read a script about a relationship. The two are both being unfaithful - he to his wife, she to her sister (who happens to also be his wife). At first the two are strikingly human, but as the story grew I began to see him not as an imperfect soul who made an error in judgement, but a completely flawed person. He was demanding, full of excuses, felt he was blameless for the swath of damage in their lives... every choice he had to make he chose poorly. And while pondering this play, suddenly I knew where she went.

I wouldn't call Lily and Carter's relationship abusive, dysfunctional would be far more appropriate and yet his character called to mind an ex from college I haven't spoken to in several years. In the beginning, I knew dating him was the wrong choice, yet I allowed myself - almost dared myself to make it anyway. I can tell you the exact moment I knew it wasn't a normal, healthy relationship. We'd been out with friends and on our way back into the dorm I gave a friend a quick peck. It was a friendship kiss - as I would tell my now-ex many times over the next several hours ("I mean come on! he's gay!") In the end nothing I could say would win him over.

This was just a few months into our time as a couple and I kept my doubts to myself. Most of the time he was sweet. Sure his side of any debates during meals were simple, egocentric, and often so odd or idiotic they downright baffled me, but to me he said all the right things. There was something there though, unidentifiable that had crept in during that argument. He didn't trust me.

"I'll just break it off'" I thought towards the end of my freshman year, but I made the mistake of telling a friend. "Noooo, you guys are great together! You're my favorite couple." Fine. I gritted my teeth and decided it was in my head... Only it wasn't. I learned to live with him telling me that my make-up wasn't slutty enough (yes, he told me which colors to wear and which perfume), buying me trashy clothes & undergarments, that I didn't apply my make-up quickly enough, constantly comparing me to other girls, coercing me into countless acts I wasn't comfortable with, all while telling me I was "crazy" and a "nerd" (this last one is funny as I was in theatre and he was computer science). I permed my hair thinking he'd like it. I wore low-cut tops and the brand of denim he preferred, but I was never good enough.

One day, over summer break after two whole years of this a coworker who told me everyday to ditch him said something else. I 'd been talking about another friend from school and she pointed out she thought I liked him. Turns out I did - I married him four years later.

In all the times I've thought to myself the reason for my loss of personality, of recklessness was due to my ex I had never realized what exactly had happened... until tonight. It turns out remembering my abusive relationship (no, he never hit me but his words did damage enough) and wondering about how to abandon my "safety" onstage were all it took. That man robbed me of myself, and replaced it with fear. He taught me I would never be good enough for anyone, never pretty enough, never hot enough, never smart enough, or talented enough and replaced it with a deep-seated need, compulsion even, to get people to like me. It's a scary cycle; believing no one likes you or thinks well of you, but constantly trying as hard as possible to get them to like you.

Yet again, theatre has taught me something. Hopefully, this knowledge will be the key I needed to break the glass of this dainty, futile room I've been living in for 12 years.


Safety, or I told you that story to tell you this one, or everything is connected

When I was young my dad used to tell us this “joke” about some builders who get to the end of their construction and end up with an extra ½ a brick so they throw it away. Then he would tell us about a man walking a dog while smoking a cigar. The man gets on a bus and is the dog can’t be on the bus, so he leaves him outside where he trots alongside. Inside the bus the man is soundly told off by another rider for the cigar, so he throws it out a window. When he gets off the bus, the dog is waiting for him. “And what does he have in his mouth?” my father would ask… the ½ a brick.

I think I’ve loved theatre since before I knew what it was. When I was young, maybe 7 I had a solo in the church choir. I loved it, but it terrified me so much that I quit the choir afterwards. I had to be forced back by my parents – and at the time I hated them for it. They were not emotions I could face safely. When I hit high school and began learning the history of theatre it awoke a sense of joy and awe. Here was an art form which made me feel so utterly alive, so human, so …present.

My husband recently found this video  of a voice coach talking about a book tour she did. (The portion of the video I’m referring to starts around 3:30.) It should really be heard to truly get what she’s saying, but she talks about a man she met who didn’t like theatre. He tells her this repeatedly, telling her about how he went with his wife to see The Women of Troy. It seems the thing they didn’t like was that when one of the characters loses her son, the actress made a sound and he found it embarrassing. Then, as he’s speaking with her something in him shifts and he tells her that a year ago a policeman came to tell him that his daughter had been raped and murdered – and he made that sound. She reminds us that truth and honesty in theatre is like life – to be present you simply cannot be safe.

After our last production one night, my parents stood talking with a few people. My husband had directed a short called The Third Date in which a guy preparing for a date finds he has been visited by his father who died 6 years prior. My mother lost her father suddenly at age 2. Her entire life she has felt that empty spot where her dad should have been – not where the father figure should have been, but a more personal hole for this particular man she cannot remember except in one dream-like memory. My mom suddenly turned to me with tear-filled eyes and a quivering voice to say “That’s my dream you know.” Startled and puzzled, I was at a loss. She continued, “I never told anyone. I always hoped one day I’d open a door to find him standing there.” This is a rare side of my mother, an intimate pain that cannot be relieved.

Around the same time I was spending a lot of time pondering how people could not like  theatre, why people don’t attend theatre more, and more personally, how I can push past my own fears to allow myself to become a better actress. 

It is easy sometimes to think of theatre as a stodgy, highbrow art-form. However, this seems to be an excuse – the reason people shy away from theatre is because it’s not safe, in fact, theatre is dangerous. This is a truly visceral expression. It forces the audience to come along for the ride – you have to feel. This is why since 6th century BC theatre has been a documented part of culture. Why actors were some of the first people sent to concentration camps in WWII, why plays have been used – and continue even now to be used as a form of rebellion. We, as actors, as directors are putting you, the audience, society into a place where you must think – you must feel. This is how we make our argument, and folks, you should love that it’s not safe. I do.