Saturday, March 26, 2011

March Madness

The rain had stopped and the palm trees swayed against the bright, four o'clock day- light savings March sky. The combination of sky, palm tree, and depression weighed heavily on me. The brightness of the afternoon sky cast a shadow of sadness across everything. I watched the palm trees bend in the wind and thought," I hate palm trees." There is something so removed about them - I felt mocked by their dance. Towering above me against that bright sky, the gloom engulfed me.
I didn't know why. Lack of sleep? Exhaustion? Migraine medication hang over? Lent?

This month, four years ago, I waited for my mother to be cremated on a day much like this one. On that day, I wanted a cave not an expansive sky.
She died on the first day of spring.
Five years before, my friend Ellen's fifteen-year-old son, Ian, was hit by a car. He died on St. Patrick's Day. Corned Beef and Cabbage has never tasted the same.

This year, a tsunami hit Japan leaving a landscape of loss. One story I read about in the paper, told of two parents who returned to the flattened remains of the school where over one hundred children were swept away as they followed earthquake preparedness procedures, standing on the athletic field for forty-five minutes until the giant wall of water washed over them. The parents returned to search for the bodies of their two children. When they found them, they wrapped them in blankets and put them into the back of their car.

The playwright, Lanford Wilson died this month. I never knew him. But I knew his work. I read his plays, performed in The Rimers of Eldridge in college, and directed The Fifth of July. Wilson founded Circle Rep and mined the depths of human relationship through a style of writing that is often compared to Chekhov's. He is now silenced and what remains is a body of work that will likely be rediscovered, re-appreciated, and revived. Because he's dead. I wish I'd met him.

Last night when I returned home, my son's car was parked out front of our house. My heart leaped when I saw it. This month, just before Mardi Gras, he moved out. This time, the emptiness of the house felt more permanent.
I dashed inside, called out, but got no response. I fixed dinner, and in the back of my mind, waited for him to come through the front door. He never did. He drove off after having dinner at a local restaurant without stopping in to say hello.
I was caught off guard by this - my gloom heavier than it had been in the afternoon as I'd cursed the palm trees. I felt discarded and a little like a fool. I'd waited for him. Anticipated seeing him. My heart was ready for him. But he didn't come.

When I realized what had happened, I flew into a fury - the depression erupting like Vesuvius into rage. I fired off a text message ending with a half dozen question marks. Why??????? Why would you not stop in?????? Why????? I sobbed my eyes out alternating between hurt and anger. The lyrics from a song in the show I am currently directing taunted me. "Like an arc on uncharted seas, our lives will be tossed. And the deeper is your love for them, the crueler is the cost. The hardest part of love, is the letting go."

Don't need so much. Don't want so much. Don't cling so much. Don't love so much. Let go.
But the tears kept coming.
Do not discard me. I am your mother, I thought. You are my son. You are my son. You are my son. I cannot bear to be hurt by you.
And then I thought of my mother, who lost two of her sons.
And I though of my friend Ellen, who lost her only son.
And I thought of those parents in Japan, wrapping their children in blankets and loading them into the backseat of their car like cargo.

I cannot bear the grief.

The text message came back - it had been a thoughtless misstep. "I'm sorry" he wrote, "I'm really sorry" - the urgency of his regret palpable even through the cell phone. I knew he was.

Our emotions get all jumbled up sometimes. None of this is connected and yet it is all connected.

I still feel flat - still feel depressed. Likely a result of the adrenaline surge that I've endured the past few weeks working to get this show up. I'm glad I go to New York next week to see my daughter. I need to see her. I need a change of pace. I need some solitude. I need the anonymity of the city. I need to mother.

I need it to be April.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Blessed Unrest

Haven't written much lately. No - lately my life has been about that other art form. The one that relies on the multi-faceted elements of live storytelling. The one that begins with text. Layers in music and lyrics. The one that is interpreted and translated through actors, dancers, and singers in order to become something off of the page - living, breathing, moving. The one that needs space not a desk. The one that comes into being moment by moment, piece by piece. The one that uses costume and light. The one that is best expressed through gesture and pause. The one that cannot simply come together with the final punctuation point, stroke of the pen, or tap of the keyboard of the solitary artist. This one involves a lot of people. It is a collaboration. The sum of its parts greater than any one part and those parts can't come together until the very end which is then, the beginning. As Stephen Sondheim wrote "Everything depends on execution. The art of making art is putting it together bit by bit." It is a process.

I've been at this art form for a long time. And every time I find myself nearly brought to my knees by the shear magnitude of details involved in mounting a musical. Ask Julie Taymor. I'm sure she would agree that executing one's creative vision takes a kind of courage and boldness. Right or wrong. Good or bad. Better or worse. Richer or Poorer - the marriage between director and musical is a commitment of one's life for a certain period of time.

Should the snake head puppet turn this way or that on the lyric, "no pain, no gain?" Should Cain clench his fists, drop to his knees, plie or stand in a wide second on the lyric "lost, slowly dying in the wilderness?" " What is wrong with that transition? Hold one more second, then walk away. No another second. " These directions, only after digging deeply into story, subtext, and character to understand exactly what story is being told.

In educational theatre, there is the added responsibility of teaching. Teaching the craft. Teaching discipline. Teaching commitment. Teaching technique. Teaching them to dance. Teaching them to sing. Teaching them not to play with the props. Teaching them what it means to be a team. And hopefully, inspiring them along the way. Instilling in them a love for the theatre.

This path is not for the faint of heart. It takes enormous stamina. And then the dreams begin. Whole numbers running through your mind at night when rest eludes and sleeping becomes found work time. I have staged entire numbers in my sleep.

It has been six years since last I directed a musical. Surprising to me, who for two decades marked the years not by dates, but by shows. '94 Into the Woods. '95 Carousel. '96 Fiddler. '97 Secret Garden. '04 King & I and so on. My six year hiatus from musical theatre was not a hiatus from the theatre. I directed plays, cabarets, dramatic collages - all in alternative, challenging, non-theatrical spaces. Expanding my imagination, sharpening skills that simply had not been developed having had the luxury of working in a fully-equipped theatre in my early years as a director. But most importantly, during this time, I saw a lot of theatre. I continued to hone my craft as a spectator.

Years of experience, a certain aesthetic, a propensity to zero in on minute details, the right collaborators, and an obsessive compulsive scheduling gene have brought me now to this point. Three more rehearsals until we come back for "tech." As I look out onto the vast set-less, costume-less, light-less stage, I see the makings of a show. I see it in its barest state before color, texture, and dimension are added. I see the work of the actors on their own telling a story with every ounce of their beings. The beauty of the theatre is that when all of the other production elements come together, something magical happens. There is transcendence.

In her famous quote, Martha Graham says,
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others"

I never tire of this quote. It inspires me every day. And so I keep on marching.