Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Story Lives On

I hung the flag today in honor of Teddy. I did not grow up in a family of Kennedy lovers. Despite her Irish Catholic heritage, my mother quite adamantly despised them. As a child, I struggled with the incongruity of the portrait of this iconic family and the feelings of my mother. I was confused by the heart breaking images of the fallen JFK, his children and widow standing at attention and my mother's demonization of this heroic figure in American history. I remember being doubly confused by her tears on the night Sirhan Sirhan's bullet took the life of Robert Kennedy. Then came Chappaquiddick, the story that only seemed to reinforce my mother's contention of the moral failings of the Kennedy family. According to my mother, Edward was just another in the line of corrupt, privileged and moral-less playboys. Mary Jo one more victim of their avarice. Mother seemed hard hearted when it came to the tragedies that befell the Kennedy family. Except on that night in 1968, when Bobby was assassinated. It confused me. Especially since, having grown up in Catholic School, I was surrounded by other Catholic families on whose walls hung a portrait of JFK and for whom the words, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country" were not fodder for political satire as they were in my household, but a serious call to service. Out of this tension, this contradiction, this argument, I was forced to form my own opinions. Born in 1959, the Kennedy name has been woven into the fabric of the America in which I grew up. Their ideals, their eloquence, their indisputable record of service conflicted with my mother's venomous scorn. What resonated the most with me as I pieced together my own view of this complex family, was the incredible burden that fell on to the shoulders of Teddy Kennedy as he rose to assume the mantel of patriarch due to his family's series of tragic losses. Never was this more evident to me than when John F. Kennedy, Jr. was killed in a plane crash in 1999. Broken hearted I watched as Caroline was dealt another cruel blow - the only living member of her famously tragic family of origin. Her pain, I could only imagine. It seemed that in her time of despair, her uncle, Ted, stepped into the moment with strength and compassion. A father-figure whose weighty responsibility only seemed to grow heavier with time. I was two years old when JFK was killed. Nine when I puzzled over my mother's tears in 1968. But at forty, as I watched Caroline and Ted on the boat, saying goodbye to Jackie's only son, I was an adult woman, whose own story included the relatively premature deaths of my father and brother. For me, the grief I felt and observed, melted my mother's cold hearted opinions and the story of the Kennedy's became one of loss and survival. I believe, were she able to admit it, my mother's tears on that night in 1968, were born out of her own understanding of loss and the grief that Rose must have felt as a mother, burying yet another son. Mother, too, buried her own sons. Our views are shaped by our experiences. This morning, as I watched the funeral Mass for Senator Edward Kennedy, I was inspired not only by his achievements as a legislator and his Democratic ideals, but by his imperfections as a human being. I saw a man whose life reflected not only his successes but his failures. And I heard his sons speak of a man, who urged them to never give up despite set backs and tragedies. And I saw all of this, against the backdrop of the Catholic church, itself an imperfect institution in which redemption is possible and forgiveness is guaranteed. And I felt proud and grateful to have lived at this remarkable time in our nation's history. I was proud of my Catholic heritage and moved by the familiar and comforting ritual of the Mass of the Resurrection that has been balm for my own aching heart in my times of loss. We are all imperfect human beings. Mother, Teddy, me. But in the end, the story of our lives - messy, complicated, contradictory, courageous, heroic - the story - of how we survive unspeakable losses and transform them into gifts of compassion, wisdom and understanding - is the legacy we leave behind. This is Teddy's legacy. It too, is my mother's. At fifty, this is the opinion and belief I have forged out of the confusing, mixed messages of my childhood - our life is our journey, our journey is our story and our story is our legacy. The story lives on.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

By Your Pupils You'll Be Taught

This past weekend I flew to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to attend the wedding of one of my beloved former students, Zack and his partner, Kevin. The wedding, symbolic in its meaning, was an intimate affair. Fewer than fifty people. A selective group made up primarily of two loving families, a few supportive friends from college - and two drama teachers. This detail did not elude me. As I sat over looking the beautiful panoramic view of the Rockie Mountains, I couldn't help but reflect on what I would now call the "fruits" of my labor. In my over twenty years of teaching and directing, I have worked with thousands of students. Some I have not seen since their final show or their graduation from high school. But there are those few gems who have stayed connected as they have moved on in their lives. I have known Zack since he was fourteen years old. Half of his life. Someone asked me, "Have you ever heard Zack sing?" I smiled and said, "Yes. I was there when Zack began singing." That is the joy of the drama teacher's journey. You get to be there - at the beginning. Discovering, uncovering and nurturing a student's talent is part of the journey. Being invited to his wedding fourteen years later is one of the payoffs.

Earlier in the year, another former student of mine, Ben, asked me to officiate his wedding. I did. A first for me. As his teacher, Ben always stretched me into new territory because of his immense talent. Our relationship deepened when, only two weeks after starting college as a theatre major, Ben's father committed suicide. I was the first person he called when he got the news. Thirteen years later, I stood before he and his bride, as they exchanged their wedding vows. One of the greatest honors of my life.

I believe both of these stories are a testimony to the kind of deep, lasting relationships that are forged in high school drama programs.

Theatre on Purpose is not about fame and fortune. It's not about Broadway or American Idol. It's about knowing who you are. It's about authenticity. It's about courage. It's about relationships. It's about life. And as for this drama teacher, the lessons have been abundant.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One Word

I remember the song, "I can see clearly now, the rain is gone."

Webster's Dictionary defines the word clear as: bright; cloudless; luminnous; easily seen through; free from mist or haze; free from ambiguity.

The doctor's clarion call, like the bell tone of an angel, announced to us in the waiting room of Long Beach Memorial Hospital, "The lymph nodes are clear."

With that one word, the haze of fear that had descended with the diagnoses of breast cancer was lifted.

Never has a word carried such light.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No One is Alone

Twenty-eight years ago my life shattered when I was twenty-two years old. My cousin, Jimmy, told me later that "everyone's life shatters." No one prepared me for this. Maybe that is because no one really can. The good news is that twenty-eight years later, I'm put back together. Certainly not the same person I was then but I did pick up the pieces. Mental health is a continuum. Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders are often triggered by events over which we have no control. Part of the picking up of one's self often includes some very dark, difficult passages - "dark nights of the soul" as they are often referred to. One of the books I read during that time, was called When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd. This book helped me to understand that during a depression, transformation is taking place. Kidd uses the metaphor of the caterpillar and the cocoon. One cannot rush the process of becoming a butterfly. The cocoon cannot be opened prematurely. She likens a depression to being in a cocoon. I think looking at these dark times in our lives through a spiritual context can be helpful. We are where we need to be - always. I can only speak for myself of course, but it has been my experience that everything works to the good. Even the hardest things we face in life - the most unimaginable pain we might experience - contains gift. But sometimes, we feel very alone. It's important to remember that we need not be. Humbling as it may be, it is important to seek help when we need it. Ask. The Beatles said it best, "I get by with a little help from my friends." Other books that have been helpful to me include Henri Nouwen's, CS Lewis' A Grief Observed. As the song from my favorite musical, Into the Woods says, "No one is alone." It's important to remember that.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Yesterday I met with my writing teacher, Cecilia Woloch She was consulting with me on the manuscript of a memoir I have been crafting for fifteen years. Two intense hours of page by page, line by line critique that have given me a focus for the next revision. I was reminded yet again, that creating an artistic work takes time, patience and commitment. Writing is only part inspiration. The rest of it is hard work. It isn't easy. It is a process. I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and begin. I love fine tuning. It is the same way with theatre. Rehearsing a play is akin to the writing process in that the director may begin with a vision - an idea, a hook, a theme, an insight - and then over six weeks or so, has to work to shape the play to communicate this vision as clearly as possible. Clarity for a reader or for an audience is important. That's not to say that a final product is not subject to varying interpretations. Of course a reader or member of an audience comes to the work from his or her point of view and life experience. The artist, be he a writer or theatre director cannot be worried about what might happen to the work once it is made public. All the artist can do is craft the clearest articulation of his vision possible. The rest is out of his or her hands. The artist must love the process - messy as it is. It is a labor of love. Rushing it, may lead to a premature birth. In rehearsal, I often tell my actors that this is the time to risk, to try new things and to fail. Fear of failing inhibits the growth and discovery process necessary in rehearsal. This same idea may be applied to the writing process. One of the most inhibiting factors to a writer is fear of failure. Every artist must define for himself what this means and face this fear with great courage. Committing to a writing practice is essential to overcoming this fear. Exercising those muscles, staying in shape, and practicing the craft help to develop self confidence. This is why being in a writing group is so helpful. It is why actors continue to study their craft in acting class. Practice. There is no replacement for it. Loving the process makes this commitment a joy rather than a chore. I believe loving the process is the key ingredient to being an artist. I came away from my meeting yesterday knowing that I probably have a year's worth of work to do on my memoir before it will be ready. What a great feeling.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ribbons of Life

Count down. Another Friday unlike any other Friday. Surgery on Tuesday. All of a sudden pink is the color of the day. I really don't like pink. Never have. And I don't like what it has come to symbolize. I don't want a pink ribbon. I don't want to race for the cure. I didn't want the red ribbon either. I didn't want to walk. I didn't want to quilt. I don't want to be a member of this club any more than I wanted to be a member of that one. This color combination is close to the heart - pink and red - Valentine's Day - love - passion - heart ache - pain - anger. The truth is, you can never really know what it is to experience something until you've been through it.

When AIDS showed up at the door, I had no choice but to sit down with him and to get acquainted. We became quite intimate and he changed my life. Odd bed-fellows. After his work was done, he became my muse. My creative partner. For fifteen years, he and I have collaborated. Solemn Brother. We have come a long way together. We are on solid ground.

I wasn't prepared for breast cancer to come in. She was sneakier. Less obvious. When I first met AIDS he looked gaunt, grey and he shuffled. BC hid inside - disguised in strength and beauty. She walked briskly three miles a day. Until one day in the garden, she made her presence known. Sneaky sister. Ferocious female. Enemy of woman. She is a liar of sorts. AIDS at least came out of the closet. BC, was stealth in her attack. She snuck in through the back door.

I suppose I will befriend her at some point. What choice do I have? But it's too soon for me to open up to her. I am guarded. Reserved. She is unfamiliar. I do not trust her. She, too, will likely work her way into my being. There will be new knowing. Deepening. I may even see her as gift. Tied in a pink ribbon instead of red. But not today. I'm not ready to take on this relationship.

BC, Forgive my rudeness - but you can leave now. And take your ribbon with you.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Appreciation

While responding to an invitation to attend a memorial celebration for my old theatre professor at USC, John Edward Blankenchip, I gazed upon his picture and my heart ached a little bit. My throat got tight and tears sprang to my eyes. There was an opportunity missed. I'm not sure I ever said "Thanks, John." I was young back then and didn't exactly fit the typical drama student image of the late 70's. I came from a very sheltered, Catholic school environment where I had performed the leading roles in the annual musical throughout high school. While not entirely straight laced, I fit in at the sorority house much more readily than the wild world of the USC drama department in 1977. It was John Blankenchip who first "discovered" my talents at USC and cast me frequently in his shows. I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to perform in the Fringe Festival with USC in 1979 where my love/hate relationship with the theatre really took root as we ran a full rep of plays while crewing the shows we weren't in. It was hard work. My parents came to visit once we opened and stayed to see me play Linda in "Pal Joey" eighteen times. They never missed one of my performances. Ever. John observed this and recognized the love of my parent's reflected in the person I was. I know this because of a conversation we had after we returned from Edinburgh. John and I drove down to San Diego to see "Dames at Sea" in which a fellow classmate, Kirby Ward, was performing. I was a senior at the time and only a few months away from graduation and becoming engaged to be married. While neither of us knew it at the time, I was also only a few months away from losing my father. Daddy had always championed my acting. He was my coach and biggest fan. But he was also old fashioned and made it known that what he wanted most was for me to marry and to start a family. This mixed message was one that caused a great deal of inner conflict as I approached graduation. On our drive to San Diego, John began to ask me about my plans. As we talked about my future, he shared with me his thoughts on my chances of "making it." He told me he though I had what it takes...if I wanted it. But, if, what I wanted was to settle down with a family, then, that is what I should do. He told me honestly that he didn't think I was "cut throat" enough for the entertainment industry. His words were prophetic.
On August 17, 1981, my father dropped dead at 64 jogging to the office. John attended the funeral. On May 1st, 1982, I married. John attended the wedding. While I have many memories of John from my days at USC, it is this for which I remember him most: A teacher, who cared enough to affirm me for who I was and to take the time to show it. My life has been a complete blend of these two aspects of myself - the theatre and family. Thanks, John. You were right.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Little Poem

You can only become what you are
by allowing yourself the time
to find who you were
from the beginning
but lost
you got so busy
that you forgot
to take time
to recognize the person
you forgot
you are.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Living the Questions

Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything.

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Patience has never been one of my strong points. It seems I was born in a hurry and haven’t stopped racing since that day a half century ago. I have lived my life with a sense of urgency and intensity. Lately though, something has been happening slowly from within. My full throttled outward productivity level is downshifting. I am learning about containment. I am learning about restraint. I am learning about silence. I am learning about listening. I am learning about selectivity. I am learning about patience. I have spent twenty-six years - over 40% of my life, focused on producing and directing other artist’s work. My contribution to the artistic world has amounted to interpretation, analysis, and attempts at communication of a playwright’s intent. The stage, my canvas, the materials borrowed. The required energy is focused outward, driven by the demands of production. The ephemeral nature of theatre leaves but a memory, an imprint of an experience. A moment here or there. Transcendent moments perhaps – even transformative experiences - but lasting only in the minds of an audience.

Recently, I walked the festival grounds in Laguna Beach, taking in the artwork created by local painters, photographers and sculptors. I read the artists’ statements next to their work. Their work. Physically present for me to look at. I was struck by the uniqueness and individuality of each artist’s style and their attempt at saying something through their art. Only patience could create such art. I found myself genuinely inspired. And I began to ask myself what it is that I have to say? What is it that is uniquely my own? What do I need to do in what Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot calls, “The third chapter?” It is not an answer I seek. It is a new question. In her essay, Coming to Writing, Helen Cixous says, “what misfortune if the question should happen to meet its answer. It’s the end!”

With each answer, a little death - stagnation. With each question, a new birth - vision. Is this what Rilke means by “ripening?”