03 February, 2017

Ask Al: You Contain Multitudes

Dear Al,

Honestly, I am a little embarrassed to ask this question because I suspect you are asked it all the time, and possibly not with total seriousness. But I am actually asking in earnest: How do you get to Broadway?

I am a sophomore musical theatre student in a great American MT program and I’m a soprano just like you! It is my one and only dream to be a performer on Broadway someday, and I literally can’t see myself doing or loving anything else as much, but all I ever hear is how impossible it is to get “there,” how hard, how tough, how the odds are against us all. If that is true, then I don’t think I understand why training programs even exist for such an “impossible” profession! Because, well, you are “there.” You did “it.” You proved that this impossible thing, is not, in fact, utterly impossible. Somebody is doing it! So I figured I might as well ask what makes you tick, what motivates you, and how, if possible can others hope to be in a position like yours one day?

I know there is no real secret, I do. I know you have to work harder and be better than the rest. But what does that mean? What does that look and feel like?

You are such a big inspiration to me, and I just wanted to know if there were any thoughts on the topic you could share.

With gratitude,

Tara


 * * *

Dear dear Tara,


You’re not only a smart cookie, you are bold! This is a great question, and I sincerely thank you for asking this with such a genuine spirit. You are right, one does have to work harder and always strive to be the best they can possibly be in order to work at the top of any profession. But, assuming that that is obvious, let’s start by breaking up the mysteries of “making it” into a few points—all of which are not about specific “How To-s,” but about outlook.
 

1. No more “Never”
    Ah platitudes!  
    I love your logic because YES: Somebody is doing it. They have to cast someone, so “Why me?” Well, why not you? I like to think of Broadway as the “Special Forces” of the Theatre, and thus, by that logic, yes, it is an extremely rare, special, and thus, difficult achievement to make the cut. The reality is: you might not. Most people don’t. But? Some people do. And you could be among them. You have to be talented, bold, very resilient, and more than a little lucky.

    But you are correct: someone is out there doing it. People are also winning medals at the Olympics, going to outer space and this year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. So take away those “Never” platitudes and replace them with language (and thus, thoughts/beliefs!) that stay open to possibility, even if the possibility is indeed slim.

Instead of
    “I’m never gonna make it,”
    “I’m never the lucky one,”
or
    “I’ll never sing like that”

Try phrases like
    “They have to choose someone!”
    “It might as well be me!”
Or,
    “Every day I am improving my skills and capacity!”


2. Athletes of the heart
    You are correct, “How do I get to Broadway” is a question I get asked all the time. It is matched in frequency to “How do I know when I’ve ‘made it.” And “What is ‘Success?’” Whoa Nellie. These questions all garner a similar response.

    'Broadway' is just like any other dreamy life goal. If I were an Olympian, people would assume that the view from the summit took years of early mornings, sacrifices, fierce commitment and bone crushing work, but somehow, society doesn’t always view artists in the same way. Believe me, the rigor required is identical, it just takes different forms. As Antonin Artaud said, artists are “athletes of the heart.” Artists of all kinds, but particularly interpretive artists have to do emotional gymnastics that turns their heart, minds and souls inside out to serve a story. But performing artists are also? Actual athletes. Just ask any performer doing 8 shows a week. Of anything.You ask what rigor "looks and feels like." That is, of course, different for every individual, but here are some ideas that I adhere to. These thoughts do not apply to and for everyone, but they are a guideline for me. (Also, if you are not an actor and you are reading this blog anyway, I welcome you to find the corresponding parallels in your own profession and life!)

    - Rigorous self-exploration (you are the only personal human experience you will ever have)
    - Incredible discipline (of diet, exercise, rest, study, class, physical therapy, skill improvement, health maintenance, vocal rest)
    - Empathy (you have to constantly expand your heart to be able to understand and portray without judgement, people very different from you)
    - Curiosity (about humanity, relationships, history, culture, and people who are different from you)
    - Voracious, rigorous study (read plays, books, see theatre, take classes)
    - Practice Practice Practice (you have to DO it actually warm up, sing, stretch yourself, sight-read, Read out loud, or freaking finger paint I don’t care— but you have to DO your art— every single day)
    - Exercise (your body is your instrument)
    - Feed yourself real food and actually sleep (depravity is overrated, and seriously uncool/not to be bragged about)
    - Constant skill improvement and expansion

Finally,


3. “Broadway” is special, but it also just geography
"Broadway" only made up of a few criteria:
    - The size of the house
    - The geography of the address.
     There are 41 qualifying Broadway theatres, all of which have to have over 500 seats, and located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center circling along the street “Broadway,” in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. It is also, not unlike church or marriage or the right to vote, much much more than just that the basic criteria, but in essence…that’s it...

     Yes, Broadway (along with London's West End) is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. But, while that is amazing, and a wonderful goal to aspire to, there are many many places in America, and across the planet to create, perform, participate in, and enjoy, the theatre.

    Off Broadway services more New York city tourists in a calendar year than the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island combined!

     And that is just New York! What of London’s West End, National and International Tours, summer stock, semi-professional theatres, and last but certainly not least, incredible, award-winning regional theatres across the country (like the Guthrie, McCarter, Goodman Theaters, the Mark Taper Forum, and of course, The Kennedy Center)? See where I am going with this? Essentially: There are lots of places to work that are not Broadway.

     These incredible venues are not only the birthplaces of many original works, and Broadway shows before they reach New York, but the majority of regional theatres like to revisit the past and cater to the audiences (just like you!) that love classic plays and musicals as much as they enjoy the new stuff, not to mention: they are the sites of many of my (and hundreds of thousands of other actors’) very favorite artistic experiences.

     In 2016 there were also over 500 amateur productions of Fiddler in America alone, along with 20 professional American productions, and countless international professional productions (did you know Fiddler has been professionally produced in Japan over 1300 times in the last 50 years?!)


Which brings me to the ultimate point:


4. Work is the Goal; and Work is Work
     I am no less playing Tzeitel than Haley Bond was at The Muny last summer, or Teagan Wouters continues to do in the Australian National Tour; or any number of Tzeitel’s across the country and world in regional, amateur and high school theatres. I get paid—and yes, a Broadway production usually gets recorded into an album, which is eligible for a Grammy; but the words themselves, the songs, and the life Tzeitel Kamzoil lives? Every actor with “Tzeitel” next to their name in the program says the same words—at varying levels of professionalism, artistic depth, exposure, technique, experience and capacity, yes—but we all still do it.

     And so can you, dearest Tara! If you possess talent and grit (and I’m just going to assume you do!) you can play Laurie and Carrie and Magnolia and Maria and allllll the yummy sopranos you want—they just might not be on Broadway. But honestly…who cares? You might thrill, entertain and move the good people of St. Louis or Sarasota or Minneapolis and that’s wonderful! Some of the greatest artistic experiences of my life have been in Edinburgh, Washington, DC, Sheffield, Manchester, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. These lovely roles are out there in the world to be played, and you might just play them. 

     For work is work. That is the nature of an functional actor’s life/a performing career. Working. Not working in a highly public, salary-and-fame-and-award driven way. Fame and fortune are hollow goals, and their pursuit (I promise, I've witnessed it) will make you miserable. Not every screen actor is a movie star, nor every musical theatre performer a Broadway legend. Some are both (ohai there Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnette, and Mandy Patinkin)!
    But most of us actors are just going from job to job, and while often those jobs are quite rewarding, though sometimes they are not. That's okay. We go about this work regardless of the fancy address; we pay our bills, collect our insurance weeks, and when we are lucky, make new friends and fill our souls. But above all, working is truly about providing for ourselves as artists. That alone is a difficult goal to achieve (only 1% of all the actors in the Actors Equity Association, work) thus, being a working artist is truly the ultimate artistic dream. If notoriety and shiny awards come your way, how wonderful. If not? That’s okay too. Someone has to, nay, gets to play Hedda Gabler in Philadelphia; someone gets to play Valmont and Mama Rose and Coriolanus in Whereverville. Be honest: wouldn’t it be magical if that could be you?


5. “I contain multitudes”

    Walt Whitman said:
    “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
    Whoa boy, Walt. Steady there. You nailed this on the head. Human beings are vast creatures, containing multitudinous textures, capacities, and qualities all of which make up who we are, and the stories of out lives.

     Broadway is a wonderful life goal, and I feel beyond honored to have “made it” to both the West end and Broadway myself—I count my blessings every single day.

    However, “Broadway” is, in actuality, just a goal like any other. It is like making partner, losing the weight, winning the medal, etc. There is no train station of “Success” one pulls into where when they depart, everything is perfect and grand. There is no magical wand that waves and voila you are all set. No no no. You achieve the goal, pop the champagne and celebrate! But then? Life proceeds.

    Ask any Olympian what life is like 3 weeks after they win a gold medal. I guarantee you they are watching movies and ordering takeout. My version of that is this: 40 minutes after my Carnegie Hall debut was I in a fancy champagne bar raising a glass of Veuve Cliquot in Manhattan? Nope. I was in Brooklyn Diner getting a strawberry milkshake with my mom, manager and two of my best friends. I was still in my ballgown. Then? I ran home, fell dead asleep, and woke up early to teach my 9am acting class for the next 6 hours the next day down at Pace. Why? Because I contain multitudes!  (Incidentally, not one of my students gave a damn that I’d made my Carnegie Hall debut the night before. They were too busy feeling their feelings and being chickens…). I reveled in the dichotomy of my activities—because life is ridiculous! And hilarious! And beautiful! All of the these activities heightened the celebration of the other, and of the richness of life itself.

    The point is: once you climb the mountain/achieve your dreamy amazing goals, yes, you absolutely get to enjoy the view from the summit! But then you have to realistically go about life with humility. That means maintaining and hopefully often expanding your standards; it means setting new goals, getting new dreams, falling on your face again and again (just in higher heels…) and on you go, living your life. You still have to vacuum, do the dishes, get sick, feel grumpy, bloat after eating salty stuff, get caught in the rain, and have bad hair days. #SorryNotSorry: big dreamers and high achievers are people too.

    Part of “making it” is not only accepting, but celebrating that your best life achievements and your greatest successes will come in may shapes and sizes. When I think of my Carnegie Hall debut, I do think of the orchestra, the gown, the sight of the hall, and that high C that soared over the crowd. But I also think of the strawberry milkshakes with my closest people, and the class I taught the next day at 9am. When I think of that achievement, it contains the multitudes of all of those details— not just the shiniest one. I was proud to be at school the next morning after the evening I’d experienced. I was proud to be celebrating the greatest artistic achievement of my life thus far with my dearest friends in a place that felt true to myself. Because I contain multitudes.

Work. Sing. Soar. Be yourself.
Whatever and wherever that lift-off point may be.
For you, too, contain multitudes.

31 January, 2017

The Sentence
 by Anna Akhmatova

And the stone word fell
On my still-living breast.
Never mind, I was ready.
I will manage somehow.
Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—
Unless…Summer’s ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window.
For a long time I’ve foreseen this
Brilliant day, deserted house.



11 January, 2017

"I never met a man who wasn't in love with her..."

     “Olya…” she wiped her nose, “poor little thing, like a bird with a broken wing she was.”

Madame Solovyov moved to leave, lifting her purse and adjusting her jacket as she made her way to the aisle.

      “You know,” she said, addressing Dmitri her back still toward him, her gaze fixed upon and lit by the setting of the sun, “I never met a man who wasn’t in love with her. Not one.” She sniffed lightly. “Not until I met you.”

Her eyes closed in contemplation. Dmitri remained motionless but felt a surge of heat beneath his overcoat.

     “To think,” she mused, her eyes cold and dead, “the one man she truly gave her heart to treated it like a rag.” She readjusted the lace at the collar of her bodice, “What men would’ve done for a scrap of her love…” then, giving him a sobering stare, “What you did with a diamond.”
      “But I have done nothing.”
      “Indeed,” she said.

She eyed him over her shoulder, before glancing once more upon the grave then disappearing into the mist of the morning.

31 December, 2016

The Fiddler Plays…

The fiddler plays and grows ever thinner, thin and thinner,
already thinner than the fiddle-bow, thinner than a string.
In place of its master, by itself the fiddle plays thinner, ever thinner,
and its master burns for his faith on a white pyre.
The fiddle plays alone now ever thinner, thin and thinner,
the fiddler cannot pass it a sip of water; On their own
the sounds play and they play thinner, thinner.
until sounds glow on the pyre, sounds glow.
Sounds glow on the pyre, glow thin and thinner,
now the darkness plays without fiddle and without bow.
It plays without sounds and its playing: thinner, thinner, thinner,
until we sparkle all through its black eyes.
Oh, darkness, for whom do you play ever thinner, thin and thinner,
for us, the small tears? Are your favors destined for us?
Music from tears. Tiny tears. Thinner, thinner, thinner,
together with the white pyre and the dark earth.

30 December, 2016

05 December, 2016

Ask Al: Cherish the Climb

    The other day I had an incredible conversation with one of my former students. I realized that instead of the traditional “Ask Al” format, I would preserve the conversation in its dialectic essence, so you could see how beautifully the thoughts progressed.

    I also feel that the subject matter, though specific to acting, is utterly universal to anyone meeting difficulties in pursuing a dream of any kind. It could be about family stuff, relationships, work, or a major life event. In general, anything that is difficult, unconventional, or described as really “going for it” will always carry personal shame and self-doubt. It will also likely carry jealous, controversy, fear, and often total misunderstanding from the most well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning!) of people.

    When we are in pain or distress we want the discomfort to ease right away so we look for familiar “fixes.” These might work temporarily, but ultimately discomfort is necessary in order to truly grow.

    My student was in the middle of a true growing pain, and they made what I considered to be a slightly impulsive decision to go to back to school, perhaps without examining all the emotional “evidence.”

    Here is a modified transcript from our conversation. When I tell you that teaching has brought richness into my life, I mean it. This conversation helped me hugely, maybe as much as it did my student. I hope it helps you too.

(And yes, you theatre nerds, in the tradition of Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, why yes I did decide to name my student “The Creature.”)

***

Al:
Grad School?!

The Creature:
     Honestly I thought I would never want to go back to any type of school ever. But I had the thought today and I figured why not apply and at least see if I get in? The most I have to lose is the cost of the application.
    These past couple months have been very eye-opening and challenging for me and I realized that straight acting and TV and film is what I really want to pursue. I also feel a huge amount of pressure from my parents to book acting work right now, and that's just been really hard.

Al:
    Would it be okay to talk about this a little bit more deeply? Especially if I'm going to write a recommendation. I really just want to understand what you're looking for. My word means a lot to me, and I want to put it to good use. You know how I feel about your talent, I just want to make certain you're applying for the right reasons. When a person just sees a request for a recommendation in their inbox without any prior knowledge, it can be a little arresting. It just makes me want to ask some follow up questions!

The Creature:
    I totally understand... To be completely honest I think in underlying reason for me wanting to go back to school in particular is because I've been missing the opportunity to express myself every day.
    Perhaps it's also subconsciously a way to prove to myself that I'm still worthy of this career?
    I've been doubting myself lately which is hilarious because I really haven't been going on very many auditions. It's been very slow, Al, I just feel like something is really off and I don't quite know how to put my finger on it..

Al:
    That's okay. What I'm hearing is a sense that this choice is coming from a place of fear and distress, not a place of peace. So I think if we talk more deeply, we might address the underlying situation before you take the next step forward.

The Creature:
    I think you're right. I think my fear is coming from the sudden reality of this as a business and the ability to make it a living. Especially financially.

Al:
    My sweet, you know this career has ups and downs. It gets slow. Sometimes very slow. You truly need to cultivate patience more than ever now.
    The golden question is this: HOW CAN I TAKE CHARGE OF MY *OWN* ARTISTIC EXPRESSION? You are capable of expressing yourself every day, just not necessarily in a formal performance setting. There are studios, notepads, classes to take, plays to read out loud alone or with a group of pals, poems to write, dances to choreograph. Part of this adjustment period out of school is figuring out how you scratch that itch for yourself without being given "permission" to do so by others.

The Creature:
    I know. I'm the worst at patience. I need to get more practical too... Okay... Now I'm starting to think that maybe grad school was more of an impulsive fear based/retreating decision... But there's also a part of me that really does want to get more core training. I feel like I went into this with really no plan I guess.

Al:
    You did not have a plan, no. But sometimes that is good! It is always in our toughest moments that we really become ourselves.

The Creature:
    All I had was a strong gut feeling. This is definitely a low, but I have learned a lot of things about myself and its been a test of my spiritually and faith and purpose.

Al:
    That’s all good. You know, sometimes in life we fall in love with the Result of a dream: the feeling of being on stage in front of people. But we must also being in love with the process of getting there. The crappy auditions, the dark days of despair, and the stupid things we do for money. If we never try hard enough to really Fail, then we have to accept that we didn't like to climb, we just liked to imagine the summit. We want the victory, but not the fight. We must Cherish the Climb, so to better appreciate and deserve the view from the summit. In life, we are all defined by what we are willing to truly fight for.

The Creature:
    Woah.
    ...You just dropped the mic.
    And I think you just fixed my problem

Al:
    Tell me why we just fixed your problem. Teach it back to me.

The Creature:
    - We fall in love with the result of a dream (such as the feeling of being loved by an audience.)
    - Rather, we need to fall in love with the process of getting there, part of which is about accepting failure.
    - Right now I feel like I have a strong sense of purpose that I'm meant to act, I just don't know how I'm going to get there, and the fear of not knowing how is terrifying. (That's something I've realized about myself—that I hate not knowing the answers. I have to constantly remind myself to live the questions)
    - Getting a survival job does not mean I'm submitting to failure.
    - And, no one “gives me permission" to express myself. All I have to do it give myself permission (I think that goes back to me always wanting to please authority figures and teachers), I have to learn to please myself.

Al:
    A+. This is huge.

The Creature:
    Thank you Al. I truly don't know what I would do without you. I feel like I've lost all touch and connection every everyone and everything. I'm grateful for my connection with you because I've never felt so on my own more than I do now. But it's all good for me.

Al:
    Well I am always here.
    You don’t need a new school. At least not right now, or for these reasons.
    You need you.

The Creature:
    Wow.

Al:
    After exploring this, do you see how going to grad school might just be postponing feeling these exact feelings, just in a few more years?

The Creature:
    I do. I see it clearly now.
It would be like keeping my fears at bay and remaining "safe” by replicating a familiar environment. It was my subconscious way to maintain a known, and a structure, because right now I feel a lot of fear and uncertainty.

Al:
    Exactly right. You no longer have authority figures and teachers to please, so you are scrambling to get that heroine-like stream of approval and validation from external sources. When all the while, the TRUE source of approval is available within you. Self love and self approval is a real thing. It is not arrogant, it is you accepting yourself for all your truths—good and bad!

The Creature:
    Yes.

Al:
    This pattern is so real and so valid. It happens to almost everyone (well, at least every self-reflective person) in some form or another. People use food, relationships, over-working, drugs, sex, exhibitionism, even social media to find that feeling. The answers are not “out there.” Truuuust me.

The Creature:
    I can definitely relate. I've used food and people in the past.
Okay. Wow. I’m feeling much better now. THANK YOU.

Al:
    I’m always proud of you, but this was a really big moment.

The Creature:
    I'm really glad we talked today. I have been hiding lately; I've been hesitant to ask for any help from anybody because I feel ashamed.

Al:
    And listen: a few final things.
1. Go get a survival job without shame.
    We’ve all had them in whatever form. Get one that allows you to enjoy your life and gives you time to do the stuff that makes you happy.
     My best friend plays oboe at American Ballet Theatre, then she pops over and subs for us at Fiddler, and is pursuing her doctorate in music from Rutgers. She was the principal oboe of the Chilean National Orchestra for 8 years for gods-sake. You know what she also does? She works at a jewelry store Uptown. Why? Because she likes books and food and coffee and groceries and ya know, not growing a huge fear-based tumor about rent. She also likes the people, and it means she can enjoy her life. My best friend is NO loser. She's feisty, talented and also? Pragmatic. People who make time to enjoy their lives…ya know, enjoy their lives.
    Shame has been your big demon for the first 22 years. Let’s kick shame in the teeth. You don’t need that jerkface anymore.
     In addition,
    -  [Tony-nominee] is working is getting his masters in Social Work at Columbia.
    - [Broadway friend] makes websites and sells electronics.
    - [Other Broadway friend] is pre-med online and does PR work on Instagram.
    - And let's not forget that I teach. I taught YOU.
    - Plus! Great story: one of our amazing Fiddler vacation swings STILL WORKS AT A RESTAURANT. One day he was even in the middle of a shift, no longer technically at Fiddler, and lo and behold, Fiddler called him in a total panic and begged him to play Mordcha the Innkeeper at 2pm. He covered his restaurant shift and made it to the theatre just in time. Broadway called. Rockstar moment.
    All of the = bye bye shame!

The Creature:   
Wow!! This is all very inspiring.

Al:
    Okay second of the last “things:”
2. Don’t talk to anyone in your life who does not totally understand the lifestyle of being an artist.
    At least for a little while, while you are getting your sea legs. Most adults are used to a somewhat steady income, and not a lot of job related passion or strife. But an artistic life is very unconventional: income is volatile, disappointments are many, auditions come and go, and they sometimes go badly, and all of this can make the (very sweet, but totally ignorant) worry-worts panic, and this sends the artist into any number of spirals.  If this is your mean Aunt Edna, schmeh, fine. That's easier to overlook...
     But it might also be your truly loving parents (or friends, or partner, or whomever). That is okay. There is a lot to talk about with them while you are figuring this part out. But going over every little bump in the road is just going to cause their fear monsters to attack them, and via them, you. Talk to supportive artsy or showbiz people who already know the ropes and will say helpful things.
    It is not their fault that they do not fully get it— heck, I don’t know how to do their jobs! I also can’t go to space, or teach chemistry, or properly dye hair. I can’t drive a subway, or run a farm, or file paperwork without getting a mini ulcer. Hell, I can barely feed my cat on a schedule, and in 2010, I absolutely set fire to my towels attempting to dry them in the oven, then 24 hours later shorted the electricity in my building whilst installing a ceiling fan, then did a solo show at Feinstein's that evening. Ah the highs and lows of the Glamorous Life! 
    I’m comfortable with these truths. Strengths or weaknesses, I’m at ease with allllll the things I don’t know how to do. Ah, the sense of peace I feel about requiring the services of a hairdresser and electrician; of letting the astronauts do their space thing without my interference.
    This is no different. It is hard because they are your parents, and you are their precious golden child, and right now you are all in that very difficult transition of you being an adult, and them learning how to appropriately parent an adult child. That is legitimately hard for them—not just on you. It is tricky and takes a lot of time to get right, and sometimes (a lot of times in fact) people don’t get it right. Families just end up screaming at one another about decade-old grudges on Thanksgiving, or worse, they stop talking altogether, then they pass the pathology on to their own poor unsuspecting children. Fun!
    The point is: every emerging child, at any age or stage, needs space to figure life out.

The Creature:
    Yes. My family is just so concerned about money, which is fair. I keep telling them that they are technically saving money compared to what he would be spending on my more tuition! But of course their main point is that I need to find a side job as soon as possible so I can at least start making money for myself. Of course I understand. I have just been hesitant to do that because...well, I'm realizing just this second that subconsciously, I guess I had a lot of shame around the idea of a side job. Like it was somehow indicative of my failure. But now after this talk I now realize that is not true. It is a part of my path to success!

Al:
    Yes! Tell your parents you are on the job hunt and that you trust it’s all gonna be okay.
     Then? Go on an actual job hunt. Start by looking in places you wouldn't mind hanging out anyway: like my BFF and the jewelry store. Don't be too picky, just start somewhere and get a little experience and some rent money, and take it from there, one day at a time.
     Trust me on this: if you are indeed living under a bridge eating insects with trolls in 2018, I will call your parents myself, and then we can all discuss your life in finer detail..
    This is going to be okay. You just have to start.

    And now, the third  and final “thing.”

    3. The next time me you’re in a place like this, raise your hand and express yourself to those you love.  Say “help please! I’m feeling fear and shame and discomfort!” Do this before you start making impulsive decisions to heal the immediate pain of the unknowns.  
    Applying to grad school was NOT going to solve this.
    This conversation was.
    Try to give yourself permission to not only ask for support/help, but to feel less shame about asking at all.

The Creature:
    You just dropped the mic again.
That was the lesson of tonight.
    I’m feeling determined and inspired and tomorrow is the start of a new me. THANK YOU AL.
    I am cutting and saving this conversation for ever.

Al:
Me too.



30 November, 2016

'Day in Autumn' by Rainer Maria Rilke

After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.

Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,  
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen. 


25 November, 2016

Newlyweds

Grigory had tried. He really had.

Eva, being the premature bride she was, had been given the benefit of the doubt more times than her wonderfully patient husband cared to recognize; and patience came easily, for her overall manner was so utterly mild, agreeable, pleasant.

But all of this turned to mud when it came to the matter of her appalling cooking. It stands to reason that all Jewish women live and breathe to cook, yes? They never get tired of stirring and peeling and kneading and chopping. They go to sleep at night spooning the crock-pots, and awake each morning to find a skillet under their pillow and a rainbow arching serenely, magnanimously, over the stove. But the truth is, there were many days when Eva would have done anything to avoid the culinary perils of her kitchen. Anything. Hit-herself-over-the-head-with-the-aforementioned-skillet-from-under-the-pillow anything. Anything.

For the first few years of their marriage, Eva had many of those days. At first, she thought it was because of her recent run of bad secular recipes: she had trouble with preparations, non-kosher foods that seemed not only foreign but forbidden. She felt pornographic palpitations when handling dairy and meat on the same chopping board, and lost concentration removing the tails from shellfish, or chopping fine pieces of streaky bacon. Her palpitations notwithstanding, she jumped in with both feet, (for, as her mother had always said, if one is going to eat pork, one might as well eat a belly-full). Nonetheless, it was a challenge to feel enthusiastic about cooking after she had botched a number of meals in a row. And, by a number, one means to say, all.

Grigory, however, bless his sanguine heart, believed that she was still capable of redemption, and went about staging something resembling an intervention. He told Eva, quite simply, that she had to stop buying loaves of bread and pre-prepared vegetable dishes from the green-grocer and passing them off as her own. Eva nodded solemnly. Not long after, she successfully made her very own loaf of dark rye. The next day, she made soup[1]. Progress.

* * *

Eva’s challenges were not simply cultural and dietary; she had considered herself to be the passive victim of Sarah's natural ease in the kitchen, and, having identified her deficiency quite early, had somehow always skillfully managed to hand the majority of actual cooking duties over to her sisters. Eva claimed she was more of a food preparation sort of a creature: she cut the carrots, kneaded the dough, chopped the onions, slyly handing these things over to those who knew what in the world to do with them.

She thought her approach stealthy, and believed it would serve her a few more years, and indeed it might have. Had she remained in the shtetl, these shortcomings would have revealed themselves in due course, and their ever-insistent mother would have, with vigorous severity, whipped her flightiest daughter in to a cook one could at the very least describe as solid. Unfortunately for everyone’s sanity and general digestive health, Mother never got that chance. And perhaps regardless of missed opportunities, Mother’s efforts might have been in vain, because for Grigory, it was Eva’s knowledge of exclusively Jewish cuisine that proved the initial barrier during their first few months together.

First off there was cholent. This combination of noxious gases had been the secret weapon of Jews for centuries, and the unique combination of beans, barley, potatoes, and bones or meat was meant to stick to your ribs and anything else it came into contact with. His wife attempted something unusual for their first house guests: She made cholent “steaks” for Sunday night supper. The guests never came back.

Next there was kugel, which, although usually considered a dessert of some description, Eva chose to prepare as a savoury main dish. “The very first kugels were savoury, you know!” she informed him, proudly plopping the heavy dish down before him, expectancy in her eyes. The dish heaved a plethora of noodles, onions and salt and was, apparently, meant to be edible at room temperature, which, Grigory discovered to his grave disappointment, was not entirely the case. As the weeks progressed, Eva, inspired, skipped the noodles, and substituted everything from potatoes, to matzah, to cabbage, carrots, spinach and even to cheese for the base. Grigory soldiered on, with love.

Finally, there was kreplach, which sounded much worse than it tasted. Eva informed him with a certain frenzied air that it could be soft, hard, or soggy, and the amount of meat inside its sturdy folds depended upon whether your mother or your mother-in-law had cooked it! She laughed maniacally at her own joke, but Grigory was too frightened to laugh—both at his wife and the soggy mess before him. Yet, despite Griogry’s attempts at pretense, and despite Eva’s valiant efforts, he never succeeded in fooling her, and she never succeeded in feeding him. Every meal ended with an emotional meltdown.

The truth was, Eva longed to provide for Grigory, to be his perfect partner in life. So complete was this longing that she focused her overall value to Griogry exclusively on her command of the kitchen, forgetting her virtues entirely in favor of the crippling solitude of self-flagellation[2]. She would therefore burst in to a fit of childish temper if he attempted to assist, teach, or comfort her.
It was beyond them both.
He didn’t have a prayer.


[1] Eva made Ukha soup. Ukha is a warm, watery fish dish, though calling it a “fish soup” would not be completely correct. Beginning from the 15th century, fish was more frequently used to prepare ukha, ergo creating a dish that had a distinctive taste, but Ukha as a name for fish broth was established only in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, prior to which the name was given to thick meat broths, then later chicken. Today it is more often a fish soup (prepared with preferably freshwater fish), cooked with potatoes and other vegetables. Chava’s attempt at Ukha, for what it is worth, was tremendously noxious and tasted of feet. At least she had tried.

[2] Well, you can take the girl out of the shtetl…

18 November, 2016

things that got me through the last 10 days

1. my closest friends
2. leftover halloween stuff
3. my beloved student babies
4. joe biden memes
5. trees and leaves
6. the healing of communal grief with the company of Fiddler (the Wednesday matinee after the election is a performance I shall never forget as long as I live).
7. the cooking of things
8. tati
9. sleep
10. mama silbs
11. kittens
12. puppies
13. New York City
14. episodes of togetherness

Union Square Post-It Wall, NYC.

11 November, 2016

Ask Al: You Have ONE Voice

Hi Al!

     My question for you is: do you have any advice for being a legit soprano in theater today? I've studied classical voice since I started singing, but Musical Theatre has always been what I love and wanted to pursue, and why I'm majoring in it now.
     My program is very focused on doing contemporary, experimental theater, which I enjoy, and think is important to have experience in. However, next semester's season doesn't include a single musical revival, and that terrifies me as a legit soprano looking to actually have a career. I chose to come to this program to be exposed to theater that is outside my comfort zone, to be more rounded as an artist, but that doesn't change the fact that my instrument is more well suited to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein than Pasek and Paul. 
     You are such a big inspiration to me because you are able to be successful doing the type of theater I would like to do, and I just wanted to know if there were any thoughts on the topic you could share?

Thank you!
M

* * *


Dear M,

A very big and often-asked question! Here are some thoughts.

1.  The only limitation on yourself, is yourself.
     When you look back in however many years, you might look at your body of work and realize you're not really doing a lot of musicals. In time you might realize you love watching, but don't enjoy being IN them! You might be a comedienne. You might be a huge TV star. Or doing a zillion dramatic plays on regional theatre. Or you might be doing a smattering of all of the above. Or! You might be a lawyer or a chef or running the state of New Hampshire or in a punk band or kicking ass with your a bungee-jumping business. Or whatever. You can also be all these things.

     Again, if you would have told teeny Al that one day she'd be a NOVELIST?! Puh-lease. Little Al would have laughed in your face. "I can't even spell!" she'd say. Thank you spellcheque spellcheck. Nevertheless, here we are: Writer. In fact, when I protested to my literary agent that I couldn't do this because "I'm a actor," she took a deep breath and calmly replied "Well, that may be so, but... I don't represent actors. So you must be a writer." I almost wept. Take that Masters in Creative Writing I don’t have--haters gonna hate. I'll just keep plugging away and doing me, thankyouverymuch. My literary agent's words prove that we are only limited by the labels we place upon ourselves.

     I’m sure a lot of people out there think I faked it, that I didn’t put in the "right kind" of work to become myself. But does a marathoner have to have a masters degree in Sports Medicine? No. They must hit the pavement every single day and run, DO, learn from their mistakes, get better, run longer and more efficiently. That’s what I did.
     In college, I snuck away from the Drama School halls, and listened to open masterclasses; I sang in the Opera School practice rooms. I wrote every single day on the subways, trains, airplanes, and in every single dressing room, and then one day? An epic novel was sitting on my desktop. That’s how it is done.
Running 26.2 miles tomorrow is not possible.
Running it in a year could be.
Writing an epic novel by tomorrow is not possible.
Writing it bit by painstaking bit over 7 years? Is.
I know. I ...did it.
Without training. Just a little talent, some of brains, but mostly a lot of grit, discipline and above all passion.

     My passion for theater and my acting training is the bedrock of my artistic life because the message is that I can be/transform myself into anything I need or choose to be. The world might want me to label or limit myself, but the only people that can ACTUALLY label or limit us is ourselves. We give others permission to limit us—we allow them to get into our head. Ignore those people.
     When I taught my kids a Pace, I harped on about this all the time. "Yes, girl who thinks she isn't pretty, yes you can play that bombshell. Don't tell yourself you can't do that, let the director decide." If we obsess about the "I cants" we completely lose track of the "but what if I CANs?!"
     ...Don't be that girl. Try it all. Do it all. Sing 'Many A New Day' AND 'Out Tonight,' then after that go to microbiology class, read Anna Karenina, be in Twelfth Night, bake gluten free cakes, and go to the baseball game. All of it will make you better at being a person, and that is the thing that matters most in any creative career. If we as artists are meant to reflect life, but we don't have a full and true life to reflect, than what are we doing?
 
     I've seen so many young talented people strangled to death by the voices telling them "how it is" in the business, and that they have to narrow in on a market, know their brand, etc etc. And while I don't deny the legitimacy of, and respect that as a possible path, I'm not a ruthless business person, I'm an artistic soul and I suspect you are too. The best way for an artistic soul to survive in the arts long term is not to prioritize "knowing their brand and then marketing themselves well" but to know themSELVES deeply so they can be authentic in every move they make from personal to business. It is my deepest belief that good work and an authentic person is the best business card there is.

     Don't limit yourself. Be brave enough to question, to not know, and not be good at it all; to learn, grow, and BE, everything you CAN be.


2. Not every caring person is the Voice of Reason.
  Sometimes people who love us very much get very nervous when we try to break free of our tiny familiar comfort zones in an attempt to live huge. Sometimes that is because they are afraid for us, wanting us to be responsible an practical, wanting our safety and happiness and believing with all their hearts that being "careful" is how that is achieved. But often, there is a small component of their own ego resenting your chutzpah and courage to bust out, and they want you to stay small so they can be more at ease with their own life choices. I am here to tell you: those reactions have nothing to do with you. These reactions to your mega plans sound like this:
     "Why would you want to leave your secure job and start a business you're passionate about? That's insane!" 
     "But only 1% of actors in Actor's Equity are working."
     "You want to pursue the arts in this economy?!"
     "But what about your responsibilities? You have a family to look after." 
     These people make excellent points, and of course one should always assess whether one is being impulsive or truly being passionate; but fretting over every worry-wort's opinion about your life goals is not productive. Those comments come from care, and from their fear, not from the absolute truth. Surround those people in the hug they need, and keep making courageous leaps. You may fall on your face. You may break a few ribs. But nothing worth having is not worth fighting for.


3. YOU. HAVE. ONE. VOICE
     Your voice is your instrument, yes, and you are limited by your anatomy, sense of pitch, training, natural capacity, musicality and and and— but! The human voice is not a bassoon, limited by it's player as well as its structure. The voice a remarkably versatile thing.
     I am a legit soprano but you'd never know it listening to me belt my face off in Kiss Me Kate's ‘I Hate Men,’ or belting a D as Tzeitel every day. I can do that too! So can Benanti and Osnes and Boggess. You're a soprano, but not just a soprano, you are a singer, and thus, innately versatile! Opera views versatility differently, and that is okay too. In the opera world, you find your voice known as your facht, and those are the roles you are available to sing (lyric soprano, dramatic soprano, spinto, etc). But one of the beautiful things about theatre is the ability to shapeshift! The industry might not always behave that way but it doesn’t mean it is possible. Just because we can sing 'If I Loved You' doesn't mean we can't sing 'Gimme Gimme.'
     The same holds true for you. You have ONE voice, ONE instrument, made up of infinite colors.


I really hope this helps. All the best and let me know how you're doing,

Al


10 November, 2016

A Letter to my Beloved Students

Pandora.
Beloved babies, 
You have all been on my mind in the most profound way the last few difficult days. I can only imagine how shocking and frightening it has been for you, seeing your world churn in this way, feeling unsafe, and I am certain, afraid. 

I do not blame you. 

I want you to know that I keep my promises: you shall always have complete safety with, and and ally in, me.

So many of our shared memories have flooded through my mind in the last 72 hours: the now ever-more relevant themes of Electra and her struggles, the house of Oedipus, our ever-more prescient Trojan Women, the Hope remaining in Pandora's jar. Every single one of the plays we made together are ancient, and the ancients have been warning us of life's joys and horrors  for 4000 years.

But above all, I thought of Spoon River. 

People. Just people. Ordinary Americans with a myriad of pasts, needs, goals, myths, and pains--Americans who have just endured the First World War, with differing views, beliefs, politics and outlooks... yet there they all are, sharing the hill.

I am so proud to have been any part of your lives; you know how much you have always meant to and given me, and it is an honor to start to call you friends and not just students. Our paths are intrinsically intertwined and I felt compelled to share this moment with you. You are the future. 
Every night this week, the themes of Fiddler have been chilling in their relevance, but still we serve, and the catharsis of that collective, shared service has been a source of healing for the artists and the audience. That is what theatre has always been there for in society. You are the lucky servants, and we are the creators of the present and future. We have a job to do, we must serve to change the darkness that seems to swallow our world.

For freedom isn’t free, my loves. It blooms by the blood of those who seek it, and those who protect it against forces that would take it away. Artists have just been given the greatest role of all: to fight with our stories, our acceptance, our empathy. To lead with our understanding, our temperance and our tolerance for and of others, but intolerance of hatred and evil. That is NOT political. That is human. And as artists we are tasked by representing that humanity. 
Do not despair, create.
Do not destroy, serve.
Do not raise your fists in anger, reach your palms across the divide in an attempt to understand.
That takes courage, that takes dignity.
Be bigger than your opponents.
Love more than you could ever be hated.

And on the note of love:
I love you.
I love you truly.
I think love is the best super power we have, and I am sending all of mine to you for you each are beautiful beacons of hope; there will never be words for the gifts you have given me, and I hope I have given you a 1/100th in return.
Remember my babies;
The good we do.
How much we create.
The respect we bestow.

How hard we love—no one gets to vote on these.

With every last fiber of my heart,

Al

xx


Song of the Builders by Mary Oliver

On a summer morning
I sat down
On a hillside
To think about God

A worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
A single cricket;
It was moving the grains of the hillside

This way and that way.
How great was it's energy,
How humble it's effort.
Let us hope

It will always be like this,
Each of us going on
In our own inexplicable ways
Building the universe. 



09 November, 2016

'Resume' by 
Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp;

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

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