Reflecting art that nourishes everything under the sun.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
For the month of October, I was involved in a musical theatre writing lab in New York City (produced by Michael Roderick of Small Pond Entertainment), where book writers, composers, and lyricists were asked to randomly pick two names out of a hat to collaborate on the writing of two ten-minute musicals. Within three weeks, we were to present our work in an industry showcase reading at Chelsea Studios. In our meetings that led up to this, we were enlightened by panels of seasoned Off-Broadway composers and book writers that gave us tips and advice about the business and our collaborative process.
From the moment we started, I was frantically swept into a whirlwind writing frenzy of this "Project Runway-esk" musical theatre challenge, coming up with lines, story, and lyrics ideas, usually spinning in my mind at around 3 a.m. I was fortunate enough to be paired with two very talented composer-singer-songwriters, Allison Tartalia and Anne Mironchik. My first piece with Allison was the beginning of a rock and pop musical with dark and sexy overtones. The second piece with Anne was a swinging cocktail of authentic jazz and modern art.
When it came time to showcase all the musicals, Heidi Klum would have had a hard time proclaiming who was in and who was out. From the clever and catchy stories of Seth Bisen-Hersh and Michael DiGaetano, to Melanie Weinstein's hilarious one-woman show, to Michael Roderick and Mark Weiser's poignant educational theatre piece, no one would have had to pack up their knives or clean up their work stations. Tim Gunn and Tom Colicchio would have been proud. Stay tuned and look out for the names of these talented musical theatre artists—coming soon to an Off-Off, Off, or Broadway theatre near you.
This past April, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the filming of an instructional documentary workshop (directed by Andrew Shemin) that taught me about the relationship between actors, audiences, and their nervous systems. I was one of four NYU Educational Theatre graduates working as an experimental actor in this workshop facilitated by BioArt Theatre Laboratories founder Madeleine Barchevska.
Although I have two degrees in theatre, I have to admit I was pretty nervous when I was told that I would be participating in an acting workshop that would involve working with science and my nervous system.
"What in the world does science have to do with acting?" I thought.
While I was in conservatory, I had done some pretty freaky, intense acting techniques that included Strasberg's method: like imagining I was in saunas to the point where I was ready to pass out or drinking invisible martinis to "drive my behaviorial action" in a scene. My anxiety level rose as I prayed we wouldn't have to engage in transcendental meditation where I would have to leave my body and watch it do a scene with a fellow actor.
To my relief, this was nothing of the sort. Ms. Barchevska was very kind and calm, unlike the "Mommy Dearest" acting teachers I've experienced in the past. Her BioArt technique focuses on human perception and innate social skills. If an actor can effectively use her nervous system, she will successfully be able to connect and engage the nervous systems of her audience. Many of the exercises that Ms. Barchevska took us through brought us to a place she calls "neutrality." I've experienced a state in my body similar to this as a dancer, only it was called "being in your center." Imagine how useful it would be to achieve neutrality in our daily lives, whether you are a savvy business person, teacher, performer, or just someone in a relationship. Ms. Barchevska taught me that effective communication comes from a calm and neutral place, not out of the common societal hustle and bustle reaction — what she quotes as the "fight or flight" response. It is no wonder so many of us are running around with unhealthy stress levels affecting all areas of our lives.
After our two-day shoot, I felt extraordinarily calm and collected. It was a sense of control that did not have tension, but a deep sense of peace and fulfillment. I felt like I was able to "just be" without going haywire with my worries and concerns about the past and future. In acting, they call that "being in the moment," which is the aim of every performer.
I find Ms. Barchevska's work valuable to the teacher, artist, and student. While applied theatre is the vehicle to social, individual, and community change, learning about the engine or our nervous systems while driving this process of change is key to effective communication, healing, enlightenment, and experiencing pure enjoyment from this creative process.
If you are interested in learning more about this work, please visit Ms. Barchevska's website at http://www.bioarttheatrelabs.com/.
I am fascinated by the oases you find in the midst of a desert, or in my case, the midst of New York City. Most of us know about Central Park and have seen a couple of red-tailed hawks nesting in one of the nearby penthouse terraces. New York City is full of oases, from community gardens to the most beautiful live violin music down in the subway you have ever heard in your life.
On Memorial Day, I went hiking in the Tenafly Nature Center in Northern New Jersey. Tenafly is a quaint suburb just ten miles outside of New York City. I had the pleasure of seeing lots of chipmunks, a small garden snake, and a wild turkey. Although there were tons of mosquitoes eating me alive, I walked alongside a lovely lily pond, hearing only the low funny moans of bullfrogs. In fact, I saw the most perfect-looking bullfrog hanging out on the most perfect-looking lily pad.
It is these moments of finding oases that make life worth living. As an artist, I have days when I am parched in the desert sun, dehydrated of inspiration. And then I have a wellspring of water which comes just in time. Who would have ever thought I would find that in this urban jungle? In every jungle there is a waterfall, and behind that waterfall, a secret treasure. I am learning that I find it in the stillness of my mind. It was waiting for me the whole time.
Joel Derfner, author of Gay Haiku, has again managed to elevate the genre of gay literature to an ecstatic level of wit and sophistication. Joel's new book, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, is a personal memoir that goes emotionally and humorously beyond any "coming out" story you may have ever read or heard about.
Joel provocatively reflects on what it means to be gay by exploring several stereotypical activities such as knitting, online dating, and even go-go dancing. According to Joel, he was a "walking stereotype for honest reasons." It wasn't that he set out to do these things to be more gay (if there is such a thing), but because they were natural interests to him at certain points in his life.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of hanging out with Joel in the West Village in New York. Although I had just read his book, I was still dying to know why he did the crazy things that he did. Swish is similar to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love in that it is a soul-searching journey, only Joel seemed to know who he was all along, even before moving to the Big Apple. From orgies to evangelical meetings, one thing has remained constant in his quest to be the gayest person ever.
"So what happened instead?" I asked carefully.
"I became the most myself ever." Joel clearly replied.
Joel is graciously open and down to earth. What you read is what you see, and what you see is what you get. He is cute as a button, with wild curly red hair as warm as his Southern hospitality. Most of all, he is fiercely intelligent and incredibly funny, which translates easily into his writing for both literature and musical theatre.
Swish has both a controversial edge and a revealing vulnerability all at once. With keen insight into the gay lifestyle, it is a story that everyone can relate to if they are willing to honestly understand themselves and the points of view of others. Anyone who wants to learn more about gender, identity, and the human condition while laughing out loud should definitely read this book. By the way, Swish also includes a fabulous forward written by beloved, legendary icon Elton John.
Please look out for Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead in hot paperback pink and white from Broadway Books coming into stores this June!
For more information on Joel Derfer or his books, please visit http://www.joelderfner.com/.
Last Wednesday, the stakes got higher as my father flew into town. I stressed out for an entire week beforehand on what he would say when he saw me: "Honey, eating too much of that Puerto Rican food again!" or "Honey, you've got a little pimple!"
That morning, I pulled into the parking lot at work with all kinds of insecurities. "What will he say about my monotonous, non-creative day job?" and "What black clothes can I wear to mask these hips?"
Then, it occurred to me that there was this huge black bird with a red head grazing on the grass in front of me. "What in the world is that?" I thought. "Does someone have a turkey farm here in Northern Jersey?" Only, this was a lawn in a commercial business park. I looked for some colorful peacock feathers, but didn't see any. This bird looked like a peaceful turkey, with a long red neck and head enjoying the sunshine and fresh morning dew.
As soon as I got in my office, I Googled "wild birds of northern New Jersey," and an article came up about a turkey vulture that had crashed into a woman's windshield. The article expressed that not only was this incident strange, but sighting a vulture in this urban area was even stranger. Apparently, there is a mysterious colony of turkey vultures somewhere around the George Washington Bridge.
My mind immediately began to wander back to the Disney cartoons I've seen as a child where vultures are portrayed as foreshadowing, evil symbols of what a witch was about to do. I have also heard of many enlightening experiences where exotic birds have appeared to people and given them some spiritual message.
So, I Googled "the symbolic meaning of vulture sightings" and found a site that satisfied my "looking for a deeper meaning in life" curiosity. What I took from it was that someone will attract a vulture energy when they need to look beyond the physical realm in their life. A vulture symbolizing death is a cliché. They may eat the carcasses of dead animals, but they are cleaning up the environment. As a vital part of ecology, they are preparing the earth for the new life to come. In fact, seeing a vulture may mean that there will be new life in a relationship that may have been dead for many years.
What I have taken away from this is that we have to look beyond our physical circumstances. Just because something looks bad and is an obstacle in our path, doesn't really mean that it is. All living things can be used as symbols of hope, peace, and laughter in the midst of some our denser days.
For more information on protecting the turkey vulture, please go to http://vulturesociety.homestead.com/.
It seems as though every Easter Sunday has been bright and crispy clear. Although we had a heavy rain storm yesterday, the sun faithfully shone through the window this morning as my cats soaked in the warm rays while watching chirping sparrows tease them on the fire escape rail. The painful puddles of yesterday dried up, and the bright blue sky smiled at me with hope.
"You must look forward," she said.
So in this spirit, I planted yellow and orange snapdragons to remind me how I can turn bitterness into beauty if I choose to.
I am reminded of my neighbors' seder last year, where I had the privilege of experiencing bitter parsley dipped in salt and sweet charoset smothered on matzo for the very first time.
The bitterness and sweetness of life is a universal theme. Every spring can be a renaissance of what we want most in our lives. If I may, I'd like to leave with you with Robert Frost's A Prayer In Spring:
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.
I'm still licking my lips from a beautiful vegetable curry I made today, along with an afternoon of inspirational theatre...
Theatre is a lot like cooking: all the elements need to infuse together to make a delicious meal. I was worried my broccoli and cauliflower had seen better days. I have a tendency to make my curries a little too spicy, and I didn't seem to have enough coconut milk to cover my colorful potpourri of veggies. I had just experienced the best biryani I had ever had this past week at a new vegetarian Indian joint in my neighborhood which actually had cashews in it. I figured I'd try to do the same and add cashews to my concoction. Sometimes being a copy cat works out, and sometimes it doesn't. I find the theatre to be the same. Either it is so boringly over the top, with everything included but the kitchen sink; or it is something that has been done way too many times before in too many formulaic ways.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case with my curry/biryani or the theatre I experienced today. The play I saw was a compilation of monologues put together by Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle called A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer: Writings To Stop Violence Against Women and Girls. The play was produced by Lillian Ribeiro (a true vagina warrior princess) and directed by Rose Ginsberg in a deliciously funky artist building that houses Art House Productions in eclectic downtown Jersey City, New Jersey.
As a V-Day veteran, I was once again encountered with a warm atmosphere of art for and about women when I entered the theatre space. This art included touching photographs with women's faces and booths with V-Day memorabilia and literature about domestic violence (with lovely volunteers from _gaia and Women Rising). Of course, I was greeted by the vagina warrior princess producer-host, Lilly Lips, who had on a bright orange bob wig and 1940s-looking navy blue suit, a combination that unexpectedly made her electric blue eyes shine exquisitely with love.
The actors were dressed in red and black. When the play began in a medley of powerful words about violence, I was pleasantly surprised to see male actors in the cast, which was something I missed in the original Vagina Monologues.
Each monologue was about a different occurrence of violence, some of which included a woman being tortured in Darfur, an urban woman being beat up by her boyfriend, and a college girl getting gang raped at a party. The audience was fully engaged and silent. All we could hear were these terribly sad stories, with the accompaniment of the screeching wind outside the building which was better than any sound effects any director could have planned. It was like the wind was involved in this theatrical event, or perhaps it was the screams of all the suffering souls who had lost their lives due to violence—haunting us to never forget them. This reminded me of the poems written by Marjorie Agosin in her book, Secrets in the Sand: The Young Women of Juarez, where she describes still hearing the cries of the women who were so brutally raped and murdered in the deserts of Mexico, where their unknown bones are still buried today.
So, the stars were all lined up. The wind was involved, the actors and director gave justice to all the great playwrights that contributed to this work, and my cashews tasted great with my not-too-spicy vegetable curry. It was an afternoon of delicious, life-giving nutrition for the body, mind, and soul. Aristotle would be proud, or should I say Sappho?
I dedicate this story to all living beings who have suffered at the hand of violence. May we continue to hear your voices until there is peace on Earth.
"Theatre is a tool for social change. It makes you happy and is therapy for the soul. A lot of people don't realize that theatre can tap into a place where people need to do something for themselves. I provide that outlet."
-Lilly Lips, theatre producer, director, and activist for _gaia
Let me introduce you to Lillian Ribeiro (a.k.a. Lilly Lips), true vagina warrior princess, activist, and my bohemian artist hero. I met Lillian while auditioning for her production of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues for V-Day 2006 in Union City, New Jersey. It had been over a year since I had auditioned for anything. The last audition I had gone to was for Dracula on Broadway, which had gone disastrous as I nervously piped Frank Wildhorn's No One Knows Who I Am out of tune live, in front of Frank Wildhorn himself.
The first thing Lillian said to me as I walked into the room was "How is your vagina feeling today?" If that didn't break the ice, I don't know what would have. Next, I had to audibly produce the best orgasm I possible could. I felt like Meg Ryan in that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally.
Lastly, Lillian asked me why I wanted to be involved with the Vagina Monologues. My reason was more real than the fake orgasm I had just produced. I was just coming out of a very dark period in my life, where I had been subject to years of abusive relationships with men. Somehow, theatre has always behaved like my deus ex machina. My theatre god has appeared numerous times and lifted me out of my fiery pit of low self-esteem and dysfunctional chaos. I wanted to help and educate women so they wouldn't have to go through the same thing. Within a few days, the casting director called me and told me I got the part! I was to recite two monologues about the clitoris. But, what was I to do? I still couldn't say vagina without cracking up.
Lillian is a very giving director. Our rehearsals consisted of belly dancing and self-empowerment workshops. Most of the actors themselves were victims of abuse. We could all attest that this production was a very healing experience.
This past Sunday, I met with Lillian and asked her why she does what she does. "Theatre gives people a voice to express themselves, using characters as an outlet. You're walking in someone else's shoes to understand what their life is like. We've lost a bit of that—really understanding humanity. Actors fulfill [things] within themselves."
Lillian has directed the Vagina Monologues for the past five years for V-Day. At the end of our production, she asked members of the cast and audience to raise their hands if they or someone they knew had been the victim of abuse. She boldly said she would continue to participate in V-Day until the day came when no one raised their hand.
This year, Lillian Ribeiro and _gaia are producing A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer: Writings to Stop Violence Against Women and Girls (edited by Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle), presented by Art House Productions on Saturday, April 4 for V-Day 2009 in Jersey City, New Jersey. She will also be hosting Lunafest: Short Films By, For, About Women on April 19 at LITM in Jersey City as part of the V-Day festivities. If you're in the area, stop by. Who knows, you may even experience the healing power of a true vagina warrior princess, just like I did.
"She was a star in college and she is a star today," I thought. "And, what am I doing with my
life?" Within seconds my black tortoiseshell cat, Cinderella, jumped on
my stomach and started her usual kneading and purring. Then all of a
sudden it hit me: I could sell some prints of my paintings and
photographs online! Why hadn't I thought of that before? Where had this
idea come from? Then, I looked up into the most soulful green eyes you
have seen. Cinderella was staring intently, deep into my being.
it be?" I asked myself. "This cat was speaking to me telepathically!" I
jumped up with fresh enthusiasm and ran back to my computer and logged
onto a website that allows artists to sell, advertise, and create
prints of their artwork on demand. I was amazed that this idea had
suddenly popped into my head out of the pits of my pity party, from the
eyes of my cat, and it warmed my heart having the belief that she loved
me that much, even in that ugly private moment. Did she really make the
connection that I am happiest when I am doing my art?
Once, I was
underground in a Manhattan subway terminal and saw a jazz musician
holding a sign that said "Art is Life." Art has always been my life,
but what could that mean to the rest of the world? The slogan stuck
with me all day. If art is life, then life is art. We need it to
breathe. If I am not doing art, I am not living. I think Cinderella
A day after my online art epiphany, I saw an
elephant painting with his trunk on Animal Planet. He appeared to be
truly enjoying himself. They also showed a cat that played the piano
while his owner played guitar. My old childhood cat, Odyssey, was an
avid Miles Davis fan, especially the Kind of Blue album.
are many great books that have recently come out exploring the
phenomenon of animal destiny and how many times it is intertwined with
humans. There is no doubt in my mind that all living creatures are
connected to one another. Playing and dancing under the sun is not
species specific. It is our relationships with one another, whether it
is human to human or human to cat, that create fulfillment in our
lives. Art is a natural reflection of this.