25 December, 2009

California Christmas

Excellent.

I think the best way to start off when meeting new family members is to chase two of the teenage cousins over the fence because you have mistaken them for "hooligans."

Yes.

That sounds like a really quite fantastic way to start...


24 December, 2009

That's what Christmas is all about...

This is the first Christmas I will ever have shared with my mother's family (of my recollection-- that means-- as an adult).

When I arrived on Tuesday evening the reunion was commonplace and touching.

"Hi Uncle Bill..."

I said it in a way that somehow communicated the following:

Hi there. I haven't seen you since Hawaii-- which translates to-- I haven't seen you since we were all there in Kauaʻi, which was three weeks before your father died, which was, incidentally, about 6 months after my father died. That was a very odd Yin and Yang experience in paradise that involved not only an extremely high stake family reunion, but also an incident of sun poisoning, a peacock imprisoning me in my hotel room, and, most touchingly really, a voyage "out" where you and I got away to get ice cream and you extolled the virtues of butter pecan. That was the last time I saw you. That was over 8 years ago. Hi. Hi there. Thank you for letting me crash in your house for the holidays while I feel a wee bit existentially lost.

Then a sweet and sort of awkward hug (I find all non actors give what I consider to be "sortofawkwardhugs" but perhaps that is another essay...)
Followed by:

"Merry Christmas. Thank you for letting me stay."

He looked at me a moment through his large, thick glasses;
"Are you my niece?" He stared at me hard.
"Um, yes," I replied.
"Then this is your house too."

And suddenly I felt very, very much at home.

* * *

Tonight, while Victoria is already celebrating Christmas morning on the beach, and all of London is fast asleep, while New York is just tucking themselves in; Mom and I will be with her family in Southern California-- baking, eating, laughing, getting to know one another. It will be different, yes. But often, different can be illuminating!

And so, while I marvel at a supermarket called El Super, while I gawp at palm trees and piñatas and corn husks and fireworks(?!!) and chili mango and jalapeños; while mom and I are busily preparing a variety of foods both familiar and un; while I enjoy the odd sortof-to-reallyawkwardhug with various "brand-new" people, while I re-pack my warm weather clothes; it is clear that this year, the most important Christmas gift of all will be the gift of what feels like a new family. (Now that is what I call Christmas magic...)

And now, to conclude, the clip that never gets old.

Linus explains what it is all about.

Happy Christmas All. x

17 December, 2009

The Little Match Girl

Sometimes the very best Holiday gifts, are the ones handmade, and from the heart.

Let me know what you think, and stay warm!!

The Little Match Girl 

The Little Match Girl

14 December, 2009

Sleeping

When I think back on this time, I think I will recall that for so very much of it
     ... I was asleep.
Perhaps that is how it is with pain: hibernation.
A chrysalis of sorts forms around us while we heal.
Or change.
Or both.
That is not shameful. It is not weak. It is necessary.

But I'm preparing to tear away the barriers of that sleep now.
I want to wake.
I've passed through a door.
I've marked a single, charcoal line upon the ground and contemplated crossing it.
I ready to burst through.
Yes. I'm ready.

...

Now, reader here is a preface: I don't often share on this blog in this candid a manner, but I feel the need.I know that many of you visit and know me not at all. You have shared the work, you have associated with "Act 3 Al." I have never attempted to use this blog in any manner of emotional ventilation, I have put forth every effort to protect and respect those with whom I share my life, many of whom already have very public lives as it is. This is not a tabloid. And venting is what a journal is for. The details are unimportant, the revelations are.

That is what this is: a revelation. I would be denying the journey if I did not mark it. This is too magnificent to keep to myself. And I am done hiding my light under a bushel.

There are several things I can say out loud.
So much I can face I didn't know or couldn't see before.
I looked in the mirror and I saw the Self of a young woman terribly disrespected and my insides churned.


Things like:
- I didn't have any respect for my Self.
     I never really did. (Self respect is like a muscle, if you do not exercise it, it atrophies).
- And that led to a monsoon of other unhealthy behaviors. That's over now.
     Standing up for yourself is allowed. It is, in fact, tremendous.
     No more dressing to hide,
     No more allowing away.
     No more.
     No more capitulation.
     No more valuing everyone else above myself until that Self is a shell.
     No more apologizing for being.
     No more.
     No one will walk on me. Intimidate. Bully. Strip away. Burgle.
     No one will rob me of my trust.
     Or of hope.
     The professional arm was strong while the personal arm withered.
     No more.

- Sometimes.. in fact... often, change is good. Change is great. I can embrace change. I can bear hug it and lick every last fleck of change sauce from the plate of life. (Mmmmm change tastes like parma rosa sauce).

- I am shocked by the force of a decade-and -a-half of built-up rage. Absolutely astonished. I must possess some sort of rage storage helix inside me...

- This is the end of the Dad cycle. (Well, what do you know?)

- I don't need a home, home is right here [touches her heart]

- That thing I hoped would end with high school... college... real life.. is never over. It is all the same. It never ends. Stop waiting. And this knowledge sets one free. Hooray. Adjust.

- and perhaps, most importantly of all...

... She broke my heart.
     She did.
     It cracked in half. 
     I loved her.
     I loved her more than anything.
     And that is what still smarts.
     And probably always will.

I am certain I can adjust to that too.


Take part in life Dear reader.  Do not shirk away from the world, take part in it. Do away with good enoughs and happy enoughs and fines. I am no longer ashamed to say I wish for more. No. I demand more. Of my Self. Of this finite, beautiful time. It is too brief and too special to be wasted on the parasitic, to be squandered on despair.

So here we go...
             ...the charcoal line...

____________________________________________


              ... Good morning.

09 December, 2009

I've been:


singing for
Hal Prince
Sheldon Harnick
Terrence McNally
Stephen Wadsworth
Arthur Laurents
James Lapine
Rene Flemming (and her cape)

singing with
Lance Horne at Lincoln Centre
Kate Baldwin
Howard McGillin
Ana Gastyer
Sheldon Harnick
Cheyenne Jackson
Alan Cumming
Daphne Rubin-Vega
Michael Urie

Running Fiddler lines with a frantic Harvey Fierstein

Sounding the call (with my gorgeous friends Michael Arden and Toni Trucks)

Receiving colanders from Martha Stewart

Witnessing Jane Fonda licking her fingers and mimicking tears...

Rocking at Joe's Pub

Living in between...
uncertain about what the future holds and attempting to just ride with that uncertainty rather than try to control the uncontrollable

healing

Learning

Traveling like a crazy person and genuinely confused about the city I am in ("Where am I what city what day is it what time why the what the why why zzzzzzz....")

Emoting, dancing and singing with and basking in the glory that is Adam Cooper

Giving Thanks

Proud of my friends
Santino (for bouncing back)
Tasha (for being brave)
Victoria (for going out to the other end of the world and getting what she deserves)
Alley (for bring so brave about the death of her amazing father)

Humbled after winning a lovely award

Wrestling with my swinging feelings about London:
            feeling this one moment: "having the most incredible time back in London. Although my visits were fleeting they was filled with familiar things, faces of true friends and of course a lovely award! (Thank you all for such a wonderful visit, and everyone's lovely and generous congratulatory words. A lot of people made what I did in Carousel possible..., and I am incredibly humbled and grateful. xxx)"
            and this the next: "Dear London, why do you hate me? Love Al"

auditioning for the same role as a girl so young SHE BROUGHT HER MOMMY... who fixed her hair... and feeling really REALLY old...

Seeing her lovely new friend Kate Baldwin in Finian's Rainbow

Meeting LAUREN GRAHAM (her hand was incredibly soft...)

trapped after locking myself in a closet at an audition-- story to follow...

filming an episode of the ultimate badcrimdrama-- LAW & ORDER! (airing 8 January on NBC)
     and loving and laughing my ass off with Anderson and Sisto. FUN-NY (seriously... I had no ass)...

Planning the future (Christmas with mom in LA followed by a Reprise of Julie Jordan than an operatic trip to The Kennedy Centre!)

realizing that every once in a while... every so often now, it still smarts...

Writing:
sitting in my living room surrounded by 14 research books (each sprawled and lying face down), over 200 sticky notes, and the evil evil (appropriately black and Bulgakovian) cat, and a blaring collection of eclectic soundtracks and my trusty laptop awaiting the words... (AH! let the book come together...)

Enjoying a week writing 4 more chapters of my first book and filming 3 scenes in my first television...

Overall,
... Good two months.... Great two months...

07 December, 2009

21 November, 2009

Reflections on a night performing at Lincoln Center...

1. Al Silber = NOT AN OPERA SINGER. (Among 3 hours of opera singing...fine...)

2. Rene Flemming wore a "cape"

3. Jane Fonda licked her fingers and mimicked tears on her face to a girl with partial hearing.

4. Stage Management quote: "Where are we going to find a MUSIC STAND in this building?!"

5. Snagged a free colander from Martha Stewart (to which I replied "I love I love I love my colander, girl!" to... no response... )

6. Howard McGillin rocked a supersonic-fast 'Somethin's Comin''

7. Favorite quote: "They just finished 'Being Alive'"

8. Conclusion: gin was consumed by Lance and I as we strolled through the bowels of Lincoln Center in comic despair...

02 November, 2009

Winning the award

Every form of happiness is innermost. The outer displays are the results of this secret, unspoken, unarticulated private flame. Our greatest moments are personal, not always able to be touched or shared.

Of course, ultimately, I have always believed that our life's efforts, our labors and actions should be motivated by a simple to desire to be great. Yes. Ultimately, at the end of our days it is about being great, not at all about being thought of as great. I live by that. There is no sense in obsessing over recognition, I focus exclusively on my own standards, my individual set of artistic and moral values. I know the difference of giving everything, and withholding. An audience, every audience, every day, deserves 100 percent of my energies and devotion. Nothing less. And I don't actually care if anyone takes note.

I will know the difference.

I will.

Here, though, I attempt to share with you the unimaginable honor received yesterday from the TMA committee. I cannot share it really, it can only be marked. (But it interesting, isn't it, this human need to award, to commemorate, commend, celebrate..?) I include this post with a photo to respect the pregnancy of the moment Julie Jordan got a nod. She is a beautiful character, one I endeavored to create with a an almost pious sense of devotion, one whom I treasure and delight in the way I would a living, breathing, real life friend. She and Carousel have brought me countless gifts since childhood (one of my very first theatrical experiences was playing Louise in Carousel in 1996 and the experience rocked me), and I know the Perseus-ian tether connected from her heart to my own will never sever.
And although the return to London was fleeting it was filled with familiar things, places, smells, foods, and most importantly, the faces of true friends and of course the lovely, truly shocking, award itself. Thank you London for such a wonderful visit, and thank you to everyone for your incredibly warm and generous congratulatory words. A lot of people made what I did in Carousel possible.
But oddly, the award felt like an odd kind of marking for the last year of struggle. Well done, Al, the piece of glass declared. Well fought. Well battled.
Truly, I am incredibly humbled and grateful.

Thank you.

27 October, 2009

Images from New York...

“Each man reads his own meaning into New York”
--Meyer Berger



“When it's three o'clock in New York, it's still 1938 in London.”
--Bette Midler

16 October, 2009

Ask Al: Auditions, Drama School and Conservatory (Part One)



Dear Al,

I am considering auditioning for Drama Schools next year, and would love any information, insight, or general "tips" you might be able to offer? I am sure there are a lot of out in the big wide world who are interested in picking your brains on this topic!

So I guess the specific questions are these: 
1. What should an applicant expect on audition day? and 
2. What should an applicant do to prepare for it?

Thank you so much,

Andrew

* * *

Dear Andrew,

OKAY.

BIG STUFF HERE.

I've watched a few people succeed and many, many more fail and have long felt that a significant proportion of those who "failed" did so because of factors other than lack of talent. I didn't fully appreciate what those "factors" were, and I came to the conclusion that too many people fail not because they don't have talent but because they are not properly prepared. So you are already asking the right questions about preparation, what follows is my personal interpretation of said preparation.

As I have said before if in my general audition blog, auditioning is a talent of it's own. The competition is well known to be very tough. Here are the facts on how tough it actually is: in 2004 the drama schools with 'accredited' courses received between 1,000 and 3,000 applicants for intakes that range between about 25 and 150 students across all of their courses. The most famous schools will probably accept 1 applicant in 100; this proportion rises to between 3 and 5 per hundred at the less famous (but not necessarily less good) ones. What follows are some basic preparations you can make to enhance your chances by making sure that your talent is shown off at its best:

1. FIND OUT ABOUT AS MANY PROGRAMS AS YOU CAN
Most of them advertise and most of them have web sites. Then ask for prospectuses and application forms for those you like the look of. When you apply you will be sent details of what you will be required to do when you go for your audition - some schools now have these details on their websites.

* * *

2. READ THOSE AUDITION REQUIREMENTS CAREFULLY
Read very carefully what each drama school requires you to do. For instance, a few ask you to prepare three audition speeches - and could well ask you to do all three. I've seen a number of people come with only two prepared because most other schools only require two. (In fact I believe that it's better to prepare many more - say between six to ten - to open up your options for each circumstance.)

Make sure that you've got the right kinds of speeches. Many schools define "classical" as "Shakespeare or contemporary" or "Elizabethan or Jacobean" (which mean roughly the same period), but some specify verse"; others don't. Others are less restrictive in what the mean by "classical".... Be sure what each means by "modern"; to some that can mean over the last hundred years, to others just the last ten. The best tactic is to put together a portfolio of at least six speeches (and preferably more) so that you can choose to suit the varying circumstances.

Some schools will ask you to prepare a song (even if you're not applying for a Musical Theatre Course) - you should prepare this with as much care as your audition speeches. Remember, that a song well acted can tip the balance if your auditioners are at all equivocal about your speeches. Think of the tune as an 'underscore' to the words - and, as with a speech, it should appear as though you're inventing the words on the spot and are saying (singing) them for the first time. NB Some schools ask you to sing unaccompanied; others with accompaniment. If the latter, make sure you've got easily readable sheet music.

It is essential to plan ahead. Check out deadlines for applications - they vary considerably! Bear in mind that once you've sent of your application you can be called to audition at any time - occasionally within in a few days. And some drama schools are resistant to changing audition dates. I suggest that it is best to start sending for prospectuses a year in advance of your hoped for entry.

* * *

3. DON'T JUST APPLY TO ONE SCHOOL!: Apply to as many of the 'good' schools as you can afford. How do you know which are 'good'? First, read the contents of their prospectuses. Don't be fooled by smart graphics - what do the words say and would their kind of training suit you? (Be very circumspect about a loose use of the word "method" and the name "Stanislavski" - what do they actually mean?) Second, try to find people who know something about the recent work of each particular school. A drama school is only as good as its current teachers. A list of famous graduates or a glossy prospectus doesn't tell you what it's really like now. It is essential to ask around and get several opinions - which may well be contradictory.

Especially if you are just starting out it is important to get to get used (a) to the actual act of auditioning, which is always different from what you might have anticipated and (b) to learn how the varying audition systems work. At a guess perhaps 50% of ultimately successful applicants don't get a place first time round (for all kinds of reasons) so think of your early assays into the field as exploratory exercises to learn from rather than the 'be all and end all'. You'll also make a lot of friends as you go round the drama school circuit. [I know one young actor who got her place at RADA within three weeks of her first audition (including two recalls) and another who took five years on the audition round before she got a place.]

* * *

4. YOUR SPEECHES
As is well known the audition speech is the traditional form of assessing an actor's potential (or otherwise). Unfortunately it means that you've got to be at your best for the 2 or 3 minutes that it takes. At least you've got 2 or 3 hours for a conventional exam. You could argue that at least the agony is over quickly but too many people fail because they seem to give a similarly brief amount of time to (a) the content and (b) how they do it. Your problem is that the competition is so fierce that there is a sense that your auditioners are looking for ways of eliminating people for whatever reasonable reason. Also (and crucially) their time to watch you is so brief (they will get some ideas from interview/singing/movement sessions etc., but the speech is almost invariably the most important) that you have to find ways of really impressing them in just that 120-180 seconds. "Not fair!", you cry; it isn't, but it's just like the profession so start getting used to it. Your only advantage is that you are being watched by people very experienced in assessing potential as opposed to the "complete actor"; but even so that "potential" is too often masked by silly mistakes (choosing a character who is totally unsuitable for you, for instance) and no drama school wants a "silly" student. You have to be together and organised to do both the training and the job.

SELECTING YOUR SPEECHES
At least one school issues a blacklist of speeches not to be used and every auditioner has a mental list of those he/she is fed up with sitting through AGAIN. The fact is that you've got to do one of these popular speeches extra well to stand a chance. How can you know if a particular speech is "popular" or not? This is difficult, but you can help yourself if you avoid anything from those books of audition speeches because a lot of other people are selecting material from them. It can be a good idea to do a speech from a play you've done or from one that you otherwise know well. It may well be that there were no speeches long enough contained in anything you know, but there will be scenes in which one character is 'running things' and it is reasonably easy to cut out other people's lines and perhaps with a little bit of rewriting make a complete speech that nobody else will be doing. AND, it is a fact that the "original" speech (provided that it's well-written) will put you at a distinct advantage. The other advantage of taking a speech from a play you've done, or know well, is that you will have a very good idea of what the whole play is about from the inside - essential to a good performance of that speech.

A few schools provide a list of speeches from which you have to choose. How can you be different from everyone else in this circumstance? Go for the more obscure! It'll mean that (a) you'll have to ask advice about what's obscure and what isn't and (b) they often require more preparation, but choosing one of these can be well worth it.

REHEARSAL OF YOUR SPEECHES
(See Auditioning [Part One])

OUTSIDE HELP
Several schools counsel against this and I have seen numerous circumstances when the outside help is downright misleading. There seems to be a cottage industry out there of people happy to take your money for their guidance. How do you know if you're being helped properly? In general, it is best to find someone who has close contact with the profession and not someone whose experience is concentrated in speech and drama exams. The latter have very little to do with modern acting. If you can't find anybody whom you feel is suitable, then at least try you speeches out in front of somebody first. They may not be able to give you detailed constructive criticism but at least you'll get a gut reaction and doing a speech in front of only one person is very different from doing it by yourself.

* * *

(to be continued...)

09 October, 2009

8 years on...

"...Today, some of our inner oceans will swell inside of us and overflow. A word, a look, a scrap of music will find its way behind our eyes, reach into the place where the wound begins and tears will fall.
We must seek peace and sometimes it is difficult to find that inward place, thinking on spiritual things, quieting the wild and rushing feelings that surge around our hearts.
The trick is to find the center of light... a center of peace in the very place where ragged winds of struggle and loss blow in our eyes-- each and every day, we must find the place where we can move from tumult, crisis, anxiety....into hope.


We would all like so much to change what is, say what has happened isn’t really so. There is nothing else we could have done to make this death not happen. We simply did everything we could.
And now, knowing in our hearts that the only way out of sorrow is in, we think-- as Michael would have-- of the positive, the joyful, absorb the color and life, even from the grayest of days, the darkest of nights.
Michael would have reminded us that the sun is shining somewhere.


The next paragraph or two is from CS Lewis’ final book appropriately entitle THE LAST BATTLE from The Chronicles of Narnia. My father read every single installment to me as a young girl, with the exception of THE LAST BATTLE... because we loved the stories so much we didn’t want them to be over. Well, now it is my turn to read the passages, and it is dedicated to my father.
“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended this is the morning.
And as Aslan spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion, but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that i cannot write them.
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after, but for them it was only the beginning of the Real story. All their life in this world, and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." "

04 October, 2009

I've been:


writing 6 chapters in 48 hours...
...after a proper writer's freak out
...and sending all of this to poor louise (See: gratitude number 26)

exploring the sublime new york city

being taken to friends' favorite places

rekindling old friendships (leah, michael, dane, nick, kenn, flagg, alex, ari, ben, bergen, santino, jessica, adam, rachel... and so many more) I'm so so lucky!

and discovering new ones
...especially in the unlikeliest of places

kicking professional butt!!

auditioning like a crazy person

...thanks to Jeff, who is showing me such angelic care (and thanks to Ruthie, for introducing us)

seeing great theatre
...in fact opening weeping in the third row centre of bond and wolverine's foray

saying the word "Ninja" a LOT

eating amazing new york food

...and then delighting in walking it off as I fly around the city on foot!

reveling in this fact: peanut butter at my beck and call!

discovering my "inner north" (I DO have a sense of direction!!) as well as a total ease with this great and glorious city

sorting out the "zen" of santino's nederlander dressing room

very VERY cathartic "potato voodoo" with leah

fainting at joe's pub

totally honored by a TMA Award for best performance in a musical, what an utterly unexpected delight!

thinking a great deal about London and how there is, indeed, a life for me there in some way... and how it is so often that one must make a journey to discover these things...

savoring the Jewish high holidays and loving any opportunity for new beginnings

moving forward...

24 September, 2009

The Russia Diaries: Olkhon Island Photos

"We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds."
--Anton Chekhov

18 September, 2009

The Broken Spectacles

It was impossible at this point to ignore his eyes: deep set, large and a ghostly blue, the skin around them was dark and sallow, outlined perfectly by a brow at times delicate, at others severe. She could not help but stare.

It was not until this moment when he gazed at so close a proximity that the constant barrier, the screen-like barricade across his gaze the glass provided became intolerably evident. He met her stare: and suddenly the screen fell, his eyes were unadorned, and the unexpected intimacy of his expression made her quiver. His eyes were exquisite. Piercing. Deeply pained.

And filled with love.

She looked quickly away, busying herself once again with the broken frames, clicking the heavy glass back into place with a definite clack. She could feel the unbridled intensity upon her, and despite the chill in the November night, she felt at once hot and nervous.

She was unsettled, but still greater than her disquiet was her astonishment. And greater than either of those was her despair. “There you are,” she announced with false self-possession, “all fixed.” She held the frames out sideways, arm fully extended, and subsequently, she caught the nakedness of his look, which she held for a lingering moment before his “thank you” abruptly broke the spell as cleanly as the break in his now repaired spectacles.

He reached for them now, and the momentary brush of his calloused fingers on hers made her swelter once again. And then, as if replacing a coat of steel armor, Dmitri placed the frames firmly back upon his face, and they were once again at ease.

13 September, 2009

Gratitudes 76-100


76. Men in suits
77. A fully functioning mind and body. What a wonderful thing it is.
78. Love. There is so much love in my life and I am so fortunate and thankful.
79. Great hair. (Mom, who has great-even-though-she-doesn't-think-it's-great curly hair is really jealous hehe!) Thanks dad!
80. The UK. The UK has been so good to me over the last 7 years. It has provided me with an education, an incredible career, a vast range of experiences including places, people and events, as well as a tremendous network of friends that have become like family.
81. April 28, 2001
82. Skype!
83. Roark & Galt
84. the iPhone and my gorgeous Macbook computer
85. East of Eden, for teaching me how to read...
86. Nick. For being real.
87. Judy Chu and our decade of letters
88. VADIM!
89. Russia... The Motherland... ohhhh how it transformed me...
90. Leah Edwards. Angel.
91. Lance Horne for changing my life and the coconut!
92. Jordan, Maggie, Hannah and Madison-- my wonderful brother and his family.
93. Snuggly duvet days (especially when it is a bit chilly and perhaps drizzly too. Yum.)
94. Victoria Hinde and Tasha Sheridan for literally saving my life.
95. The Betts Family - They have provided me with my first and last London home, and have been more than just hosts but friends over the last 4 and a half years. Their home in Finsbury Park has become a symbol of new beginnings to me, and their generosity never ceases to amaze.
96. Emma. Look what one friend-date can do!
97. America
98. Music
99. D...
100. The theatre

12 September, 2009

New York New York...


I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline. Particularly when one can't see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window - no, I don't feel how small I am - but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.

-- Ayn Rand

* * *

Dear Readers,

I am about to go on a journey. Not your average holiday, return to Michigan shores, or trip being the Iron Curtain.

No.

This journey is the first step towards a journey of RETURN. A journey home.

For the next four months, I will be based in what many call "the greatest city on earth," The City That Never Sleeps, The Big Apple, The Capital of the World, Gotham, Empire City, The Melting Pot, or sometimes, simply, The City. Yes, dear readers, it is none other than New York.

I am going for a change of scene. I will plant some professional seeds, spread my wings a bit, focus on my super secret writing project (!!!), and return to a few old and very dear friendships that will aid in the nurturing, healing, and flourishing of this slightly depleted soul. Nothing can stop me, I am on my way. Ascension is the only direction in a city like New York, and I intend to ascend in whichever way the universe intends me to.

So. Bring on the Peanut Butter. Bring on the 24 hour diners, the river, the park, a real autumn and winter. Bring on red coats and weekends in Boston. Bring on Thanksgiving. Obama. America. Home.

So much in life doesn't matter. I don't care necessarily what life shall be, nor what it may or may not inflict upon me. I care about what Life IS.

And Life can have it's way with me. It won't break me. Neither you nor me. That determined faith in our own resilience is our only weapon against the cynical, the weak, those who talk of honor but do not practice the word they so loudly and vigorously screech.

Yes. Faith in ourselves; that quiet, steely belief in our capacity to endure and perhaps even thrive in the face of pain. The pain that perfects us, teaches us, heals and sculpts and defines us. Pain is breakthrough, if we have the courage to break through.

In the last 6 months, I have experienced things I have never felt before. Pain I never dreamed I would endure, and yet, I have taken it on with a certain delight. Sometimes one must experience pain past the point of principle on behalf of others. Sometimes our suffering is a matter and ingredient of unassailable personal dignity. the sufferer does not resist/submit/speak/remain silent for others, but for the Self. It is done. Then the Self has earned it's ascension. This power of the Self is the only banner we can hold against all the derailing messages of around us. That's all I need to know about the future.

I am going to New York because I feel a bold step is necessary now. And fortune favors the brave. Here I go. I promise to write.

"I took the tube over to Camden
To wander around
I bought some funky records
With that old Motown sound
And I miss you like my left arm
That's been lost in a war
Today I dream of home and not of London anymore...
"

-- The Waifs, from "London Still"

06 September, 2009

7 Olive Grove

Goodbye: A List

Everyone at Atakan Market
The Tailor and his wife
Late night watermelon
Star Trek til wee hours
Midnight Mitzvah man
The fountain of the naked woman
Flowers in the park
Snow Day!
Christmas 2007-8
The Christmas Tree Debacle
Beep Beep
Baths with candles
Rose's Cafe for Sunday brunch
Pizza on Demand
3 o'clock school run from West Green Primary School
Turkish food from the wonderful people at Istambul
Mario the mechanic: a hello every day
the 341 to Islington
Black Boy Lane
The Imperial House of Prayer
The nice man at the newsagent
Chicken and Chips man
Damian

Living here has changed my beliefs — it changed the way I feel about myself and my community. And it's a glorious feeling. Having lived in Tottenham is not a stain, it's a badge of honor. I believe that living here has helped me to truly see the world.

It is a rough neighborhood, but the thing about Tottenham is this: it is a place where overall, I have found people look out for and after one another. If you can live in Tottenham, you can live anywhere, so they say, and it though at times it has been comically tough, rough, and just plain odd, this has been home, and I have loved it. Tomorrow, when I say I once lived in Tottenham, I shall stand up straight. This was home, and in my memory, it always shall be.

Thank you 7 Olive Grove, for two and a half wonderful years.
I shall never forget you.

21 August, 2009

Ask Al: Training & Working in the UK


A few years back I received an email from a totally lovely, eloquent and hopeful student named Lauren. Lauren is terribly bright and articulate (she was attending Barnard College at Columbia University when she wrote this) and she was curious and crafty enough to do her research and she randomly found and contacted me through my website to ask me a few questions about the big bad world.

Then that got me thinking: if Lauren is out there, and has questions I can answer, perhaps my answer to her could serve to help others out there with similar concerns and queries.

Thus! I decided to start a new serial entitled Ask Al; in which I post, as you know, a real-life question and answer correspondence (edited for privacy of course), in the hopes of helping, enlightening, or perhaps merely entertaining, other inquiring minds out there.

Since this note, I have had the extreme pleasure of meeting Lauren in person at stage door and want you all to know that Lovely Lauren was the start of it all.

I now offer you the very first Ask Al.


* * *

Hi Alexandra,

I recently read the "Fresh Face" article on Theatre.com about you and "Fiddler on the Roof." First of all, congratulations, and even though I do not live in the UK, I would love to see it!

I guess I'm writing to you because as a young actor I am looking for advice. I just graduated high school in Cleveland, Ohio and am going to Barnard College, Columbia University in the fall to study theatre and pursue some other academic interests. I have done some professional theatre here in Cleveland and some summer programs (British American Drama Academy, American Conservatory Theatre, Stagedoor Manor) and eventually want to break into professional theatre as a career. As much as I love the US, I have to admit, I have always been an Anglophile and even more intrigued and impressed by the British theatre. That said, I have done a lot of research on drama schools and even though graduate school/conservatory training is four years away, I'm still looking for guidance considering attempting to go abroad for more actor training or staying here for school (that is if I get in!). I have always been impressed by the advanced level of training in Britain and the almost different approach and appreciation of theatre. And you having gone to RSAMD obviously had an amazing learning experience and piece of it! In fact, I feel that maybe my "theatre values" are more similar to the majority of British "theatre values" versus some American "values" (although that may be too presumptuous of me).

I guess what I'm getting at is what do you recommend for an American actor who is thinking about going to school in the UK for training and eventually wishing to work in the UK? I have heard so many conflicting views on trying to go to drama school in the UK and even more on getting work in the UK. I have constantly been discouraged in attempting to go the UK because I have been told I would never work as an American even if I had pursued a degree at one of the drama schools. You obviously have defied that assumption and I guess I am wondering what your advice is on that matter. As corny as it sounds, I have always dreamed of studying in the UK (in fact I almost went there for university - I got accepted to a few academic schools for English and English & Drama but decided to stay here) and moreover working as an actor in the UK but have always been told that it is pretty much impossible. You are doing what I long to do so you seem like the right person to ask for advice!

So, once again congratulations on all your theatrical accomplishments and thanks again for reading my lengthy e-mail, I appreciate it! Break a leg!

Lauren


* * *

Dear Lauren,

First of all, you are a very articulate and impressive writer! Your email was very descriptive. But what you are asking me to articulate is complicated. I cannot speak on behalf of any organisation, and I also encourage you to remember that everything that has happened to me in Britain is fairly uncommon, and that working as an actor anywhere (not to mention in a foreign country) is never easy no matter how strong the desire. So, that all being understood, I am about to administer some non-flowery, utterly realistic tough love... get ready...

You clearly have a very set view of what you want to do with your life, and also seem to be ambitious and have a concept of your world outside of "the box." Yes, training abroad is a wonderful, irreplaceable experience, and twice the education you would get at home due to the cultural exposure alone.

It must be understood however (and I can't tell you how many times I've explained this to other American students-- which is why it will be in bold) that if you are not eligible for a British WORK (not student or travel) VISA (be it through European Union ancestry, marriage [though this can be VERY precarious and not at ALL a guarantee], being a celebrity, Commonwealth citizenship), YOU CANNOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WORK IN THE UK.

There have been many "schemes" that fluctuate regularly, allowing graduates from British Universities and Drama Schools to stay for a period of 24 months after graduating. The rules change almost annually, but as of now this opportunity exists for most foreign students. [*Update 11/2013: This opportunity NO LONGER exists in the UK in any manner.*]

Still. If you decide to train in the UK, there will still be many things you will not be able to do that your British classmates will benefit from: you will not be able to work as an actor during training (this happens quite often-- a student will leave temporarily or before they actually graduate), you will therefore not be able to legitimately audition for anything pre-graduation (a valuable experience), and all of the contacts, agents, casting directors will be of little to no use to you once you quite probably return home.

Example: my friend (let's call him 'J' shall we?) is an American actor who trained at RSAMD, and desperately wished to stay in the UK after graduation. At the time (roughly 2005) there was a new scheme from the Home Office called the Fresh Talent Initiative, that allowed anyone with a degree from a Scottish University to stay in the UK for 2 years without work restrictions. He successfully applied, landed one of the best agents in the country, collected many contacts, and did reasonably well for a young actor starting out. His career and life began to take root and flourish in the UK. He made professional connections, made a little name for himself, worked regularly and made and built upon personal relationships.

Unfortunately, he was not eligible to extend this Fresh Talent opportunity as it was strictly 24 months and nothing more. He was not eligible to attain a different visa (say the Highly Skilled Migrant Visa which is based on exceptional circumstances-- such as making over a certain amount per year, education, age, work experience, etc), and thus, was forced to return back to the US without so much as an agent, contact, or reputable American acting resume to his name. And though J does not regret or dismiss the value of his UK experience, if he could do things again, he would have just come straight back to the States to begin an American life in the first place, for he had to start all over again from the bottom. (*Update 11/2013* Incidentally, J did pretty well for himself across North America! He recently decided to retrain and change careers because he felt being an actor was a great experience but no longer in line with what he wanted or who he became in the present. Life is a marathon--not a sprint.)

Do you see the predicament? It is a question of
LIFE EXPERIENCE versus CAREER GOAL INVESTMENT.

So. If you see yourself living in Britain in 15 years time, and you have no legal way of achieving that, then you need to rethink your goals.

If all you are after is British training, well now that is available to anyone who is qualified. And in my experience, it is worth the schlep across the ocean. (But that is for another time...)

In another contrasting example, my friend "G" was also a forgein student training in the UK and he graduated before the Fresh Talent Initiative was put in to place. He was desperate to stay and create a life for himself in the UK but there was no opportunity for him to do so. G was forced to return home to Canada immediately following graduation and slowly created a life for himself there. He has worked steadily at one of the top theatre festivals in the world, been in several major films, and has quite an impressive role on a cable drama that required some serious English accent action. He is now successful enough to apply as a Highly Skiled Migrant on the back of his North American success if that is what he wanted to do.

SO.

You have to be very very clear about what you want to achieve, and every British student around you will most likely be making the logical choices of moving to London and settling in so the pull to follow suit will be tempting. But consider the "costs" of losing the opportunity to stay once you've begun to establish a life you more than likely will have to give up. I believe if you keep the "training experience" and "24 months experience" as a guide, with the ultimate eye on making your way home eventually, you can't go wrong. (Which means nurturing your home contacts throughout the duration of your UK stay).

To answer your other question directly, do Americans work in the UK? Yes, of course. There are hundreds of working American actors all across Britain, and people that tell you otherwise are either making assumptions or il-informed. My film, 1408, was cast entirely with American actors living and working in England. There were three Americans in Fiddler on the Roof. American plays, musicals and films are done all the time in the UK and the real thing is almost always preferred.

But, unless you have a convincing English accent, you will never be seen as anything more than an American actor, and that really limits you. My English accent is something I have perfected to the point of insanity (hours and hours and hours and hours of practice like Eliza Doolittle...), and it has never been questioned. In fact, the advert I did for Zovirax in 2006 was one where I (shhhh!) pretended to be English and although I absolutely can't believe it, no one ever knew otherwise. But amusement aside, it really does have to be that good.

You may at this point be asking, "well how are you working in the UK? And the answer is complicated. The short version is, that I was (by completely fluke-ridden exception) awarded a temporary WORK PERMIT (only lasts for a specific time period, for a certain role, for a specific company) to play Laura in The Woman in White, and off the back of that success I was awarded a Highly Skilled Migrant Visa which is awarded on a points-based system. I was awarded points based on personal recomendations, earnings, and because the circumstances of my fast and surprising success were extreme. But I'm telling you, I BARELY GOT THAT VISA. BARELY scraped by with enough evidence to stay, and it was touch and go for weeks. I don't say that to be discouraaging I am merely presenting an realty/indication of the difficulty. And if I had to return home to the US, I have no American contacts, no agent, no equity card...

So! Best of luck. I hope that is helpful and not too discouraging. Remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. The most important things in life have very little to do with career, and it is far more pressing to be proud of the quality of PERSON you are, than of the things you own or have achieved. That's my view anyway.

here are a few additional websites of interest:
The Home Office, UK

18 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: Moscow Photos

 
"I didn't choose Russia but Russia chose me. I had been fascinated from an early age by the culture, the language, the literature and the history to the place." 

-- Helen Dunmore

O! It was [but is now no longer, thanks to the internet] lost!


Check out the wonderful blog of my long lost friend James Welsch here.

James is a very talented composer that I met at Interlochen in 1999. He was terribly clever with rhythms-- in fact, percussive pieces both instrumental and vocal, stood out as one of his finest achievements. It was his compositions for the voice that brought us together collaboratively, I sang his beautiful and achingly original "Sigh No More" (from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing) for his Senior Recital in May of 2000, at high noon the same day as our Prom (or, MORP as we strange Interlocheners called it).

But, all this being said, it was his string quintet that has stayed with me for nearly a decade, and been a part of my creative life. throughout the entirety of this time. I used it in my teaching from 2002-2005, and his piece featured heavily in several productions I did at RSAMD. When his music was going to be used for The Cherry Orchard, I tried desperately to find him and ask for his permission (and for his blessing), to no avail.

Then, a few months ago I found James again after a nine year hiatus. The glories of the internet bestowed a reunion upon us, and I had the opportunity to contact him (I can still sing the entire haunting melody of that string quintet from memory).

The following is our exchange which I include here because... I just think reconnecting is a magical thing. A magical thing. And those moments are sometimes so marvelous, they simply must be shared.

Look out for him. He was a wildly talented teenager. I can't imagine how incredible he must be now.

* * *

James. Okay.... I am about to describe a piece you wrote that was performed in your Senior Recital: it was a string quartet (possibly quintet?) with an emphasis on the viola. It is, one of my favourite pieces of music in the world. I believe there were four movements, the third very vibrant, the second (?) very melancholic and epically heartbreaking.

So.... I would be lying if I told you that over the years, this piece of music was NOT a part of the stage movement class I taught at Interlochen in 2002, or the mask classes I taught in Glasgow from 2003 to 2005. Or that, the whole piece in its entirety did not underscore/orchestrate a beautiful student production of The Cherry Orchard I did in Scotland in 2003 (you were credited in the program by the way, I just had no idea how to FIND you at the time, despite multiple fruitless attempts...)

I will now utilize bullet points for the next section of thoughts.

1. Um, thank you.
2. I hope you don't mind.
3. What is the NAME of this piece?! An old version of iTunes erased the name of it from the files I had.
4. Do you have any other recordings of this piece?
5. If so, could I have them?? I promise not to use them in any other rogue Scottish Chekhovian productions ... or productions of any other kind for that matter...
6. How are you? How are things?
7. Thank you, again. In an odd way, you have been with me all these years, orchestrating my life though you didn't even realize it. Amazing thing, music, isn't it? Evocative, haunting, and far reaching.

All the best,

Al x


* * *

His response:

Good Morning Alexandra! And how do you do,

Isn't it amazing that piece was from NINE years ago. Gracious heavens. I was thinking writing a faux angry letter with a copyright citation from my lawyer, then saying just kidding, but then I didn't want to hurt you if you didn't get the joke!

No, thank you Al I'm glad you like that piece & you've found use for it. (Did you know: to make a piece not-copyrighted, you have to state that it's in the public domain, otherwise its AUTOMATICALLY considered copyrighted & protected by congress? I publish all my music anonymously these days & I have to specifically state that it's not copyrighted. I've been planning on UN-copyrighting that old stuff, so in such a hypothetical situations like old recordings played in Chekhov plays in Scotland, people don't have to worry about paying men in suits to use my music.) But anyway, that was the nicest letter I've gotten in a while, & a few days later another Interlochen friend Danny sent a random note saying he dug up an old video of another piece, Parallel Obsessions, &, in his words, "What a blast! I love that piece, James!" So, thank you friends, for lifting my spirits when my artistic moral is low.

OKAY! Let's answer all your questions in NUMERICAL ORDER*:

1.
& 2. No worries, as we say in the Sierra Nevadas.
3. It's called "String Quintet of", & there's two violas which is why its so viola-y. I wrote a bunch of pieces that year with similar titles, such as the "String Quartet of". The four movements are unlabeled, like "I", "II", "III", "IV". The musicians were Eska Laskus, Katherine Bormann, Carrick (neé Nathan) Bell, Emily Eng, & Melissa Solomon.
4. I'm assuming you have the second recording from my Senior Recital (which starred you!) No, it's never been played again! Perhaps your repayment could be someday, when you come upon a wandering band of string musicians, ala the Muppet Movie, to get it playd again some day. Those Interlochen friends did a great job, but it would be great to get a recording with tighter rhythms &c.
5. You know I was in England for a year,02-03 at Oxford, I wish we were in touch, I woulda come and seen it! And I was just back last summer, in Derbyshire for my friends' wedding, then singing in Newcastle & Liverpool, but I avoid London like I avoid NY. I hope you like living there tho.
6. Well, thank you for asking. I'm still in my "lost years", working to emerge from them. I didn't write music for many years, frustrated by a lack of performance opportunities & a non-existent audience for new classical music. These days I write FOLK HYMNS, mine are non-traditional tunes sort of in the traditional American "shape-note" genre. Like this one I just put on my blog. I'm working on a west coast folk hymnal called the Western Harmony. Otherwise, I serve champagne to rich people at lavish San Francisco parties & drink beer & hike a lot & play the ukulele & write other things also. Hmm, I guess that's a fair summary. I live in a groovy 1905 flat in Berkeley with my friend Jenny & we throw spectacular parties, like yesterday's FAKE WEDDING, with a randomly chosen bride & groom, a beautiful service in the hills, & speeches & dancing!
7. You've been with me too! I enjoyed looking thru yours photos of you in a variety of plays, & I'm glad you're working in THE THEATER.

Come visit California! Great plays in Berkeley. Happy Easter & Christmas & write from time to time!

Many happy returns of the day,

James


* Addressing points is numerical order is one of my favorite things (as Louise can attest) and it 1. makes me love James even MORE and 2. I believe this addressing things numerically business will most definitely make it on to the next list of favorites... naturally most likely to be titled "Whiskers on Kittens..." Watch this space.

15 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: St. Petersburg Photos



"Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before."
-- Anton Chekhov

14 August, 2009

Gratitudes 51-75

51. Kit
52. Clouds
53. Roses
54. The feeling I get when I teach
55. My beautiful computer
56. My Fiddler family
57. My waist! ;-)
58. Red lipstick
59. Jake the cat
60. Michael
61. BARACK OBAMA
62. The internet (which is amazing, oh my GOD)
63. Coffee
64. Mrs. Devine for teaching me how to read...
65. Nina Machus for teaching me how to sing...
66. Dude & Jimbob Stephenson for giving me a foundation
67. What About Bob?
68. Concealer!
69. Birmingham, Michigan
70. Danny Kaye
71. ...Dad... again...
72. The miracle of technology
73. Gap Curvy jeans
74. La Petite Coquette for the confidence boost of the decade, and for Arielle for showing me the light!
75. The Savoy Theatre

13 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: The Tale of Rabbi Lieb

We found the bakery. It was there all along. Like Brigadoon. We sat down and enjoyed some rather splendid baked goods and coffee.
Then I got all philosophical.*


*how fascinating to know now, how prescient this video would truly become...

12 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - The Moscow Metro

Soviet resolution to build The Metro
We take the glorious Metro! The people's Palace of underground delights. 

The Moscow Metro (Моско́вский метрополите́н) serves the city as well as the neighboring Moscow Oblast towns of Krasnogorsk and Reutov. This first underground railway system in the Soviet Union was opened in 1935 with a single 11-kilometer (6.8 mi) line and 13 stations (it will soon have 188 stations and be over 313km). [Also! The beginning of the Cold War led to the construction of a deep section of the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line. The stations on this line were planned as shelters in the event of nuclear war...holy crow... 

There was an intense governmental glorification of The Metro, for it was not only one of the Soviet Union’s most extravagant architectural projects (with reflective marble walls, high ceilings and grandiose chandeliers, many Moscow Metro stations have been likened to an "artificial underground sun," in fact, the vertical design emphasis encouraged citizens to look upward as if looking up at the sun, and to boot, the Metro's chandeliers were one of the most technologically advanced aspects of the entire project). Stalin ordered the metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future)This underground communist paradise reminded its riders that Stalin and his party had not only delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifices, but the monument was in their honor and glorified the people themselves. Most important of all: proletarian labor produced this svetloe budushchee.

 
... I mean... where else in the world is the rumble of trains accompanied by the tinkle of chandeliers? I marvel that taking the Metro is a rather solemn, official experience. Everyone is entirely silent, the announcements deliberate, officious and almost reverent. The hum of the electric lights combined with that of the churning escalators lull the upright people who look straight ahead and stand very still.  "This is as close as the city would get to a church, I suppose," I whisper to Kit as we make our way down the stairs. He just turns around to me and nods, taking the social cue that THEY DON'T REALLY TALK IN THE METRO AT ALL, and perhaps lightly suggesting that I take the hint as well.

All of this as we prepare for the sleeper train to St. Petersburg tonight. 




 

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - The Young

"You're sixty years old. Medicine won't help."
- Anton Chekhov

* * *

Later exhausted and drained from our "very sensible" trip to the post office we drive to  Novodevichy Cemetery only to discover it is closed. Damn.

We sigh, concede to return next week and walk around the beautiful river bank, taking in the setting sun, the extremely, demonstratively affectionate couples snuggling on benches, the dogs, the ducks and babushkas all sitting still as anything, lost in thought.

We buy cold drinks and head back to the car, ready to pack up and head for the train station, The Red Arrow, and for our sojourn to St. Petersburg.

On the way home, Vadim tells us his children and Emanuelle will be in Petersburg at the same time.      "Perhaps you could met?" he suggests, "though it is a very large city and they will all be at the disco..." he grimaces. "I worry for them," he admits, "and... how I envy them."

The lost time. Lost opportunities. That is a theme with Vadim. In Irina one can clearly see the Russian characteristic of acceptance, of spiritual endurance.

But in Vadim it is another matter. Vadim knows of and cares little for the details of economic ideologies, but on a human level, thus far, he appears to be an individualist, and almost, one might say, somewhat ashamed of it.

     "Nastia..." he sighs, "Nastia signed up for fashion school in Milan and got on a plane by herself at 19. She doesn't even know what that kind of freedom really feels like to the likes of me. Communism is a distant shadow of her past, something she barely remembers. And why should she? Why?" And he is quiet for a long time.

We drive along. I wonder if he is thinking about the juicer. I wonder if he is thinking about Nastia's current Italian visa troubles. The day we arrived she had gone to the Italian consulate and been denied her student visa. It was a paperwork issue, and after Kit assisted Vadim draft an English letter clearing the whole mess up, everything was off with her student acceptance letter and all was well. But she returned home understandably distressed. And it was precisely this distress, this notion that world is her oyster for in many ways, it is; that was the thing that both amused and hurt Vadim. That, and of course, Emanuelle. And the juicer. And perhaps the notion that she is leaving not only his house but his world. The only familiar world he knows.

This isn't about the juicer or the boyfriend or the fashion school. It isn't all about her growing up. It is more about an uncertain and unfamiliar world. For her, for him, for everyone. It isn't simple. And yet, in truth, it is.

     "And Arkady?" he continues, laughing loudly, "Arkady is a born businessman! An entrepreneur! He owns a flower shop with his mother on Tverskya! He renovates old cars, races them, and sells them! He is studying for his doctorate in science! Everything he touches turns to solid gold!" He shakes his head, smiling. Confused perhaps, but proud. "And did you know he knows everything? And, by the way, he is always right. He won't stop talking until you agree with him! Where would Arkady's place be in Communism? They are so lucky and so... ignorant..." he sighs. The Young.

They all nod.

And it is in this moment when I truly feel that I am Arkady's age. No. More than that. Not only his children's age, but I feel a part of the generation that shares the auspiciousness of his visions.

I nod too. But my nod is a vow: to not to waste the opportunity that is my life, nor the gift that is my freedom.

The young and The Old.
I wonder.
I wonder if it is always the same.

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - "You feel how others feel..."

12 August 2009

Moscow


Tired. We walked nearly 12 kilometers yesterday and I slept like the dead. Vadim is an angel of hospitality, and we set off for a slightly slower-paced day filled with official business.

On the drive in to town I coerce Vadim to speak of his personal history. He is such a deep and curious man-- thoughts penetrative, mind broad and insatiable. Before we left this morning he gave us both a copy of his published novel! A story of an aging man in the Soviet Moscow who falls in love with a younger woman he cannot have...Hm.

It is evident soon that the story of his father is the starting point--a general in the Red Army who believed fervently in the Socialist ideal, "a great patriot," he added thoughtfully after a moments pause.

His father traveled to the U.S. during the Cold War, an absolutely shocking act of open-mindedness for the time, and found America to be "shockingly normal," returning with stories of human interest from Oregon to St. Louis, to Charlotte. Apparently motivated by the death of his own father (murdered by Germans only 500 meters or so from Vadim's house!), he joined the army young and never looked back.

"He adored his Motherland," says Vadim, interestingly referring to Russia as "his" Motherland and not "the" or "our." When I tentatively bring this up Vadim simply closes his eyes and shrugs, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening for a moment...

"And you?" I ask, changing the tone in typical British style, "How did you become the lifelong medical Muscovite?" He slaps the steering wheel and laughs, small teeth bared, head back in sudden joyous amusement-- so thrilled to be relieved of his dark thoughts for a moment.

"My mother's family has a medical background, and I think it was understood that my brother and I would follow this tradition. My father never pressured us to serve in the Army, and anyway as a medical doctor one is required to serve in the Army reserves as a Captain with training and everything. HA!" he explodes, slapping the wheel again, "Imagine me! Old man running about with teenagers in Georgia!" At this Irina laughs. She shifts cat-like in her seat, smirking at Vadim before glancing out the window again. He asks her is she understands him in English. She nods, and replies in Russian that she understands more than he knows. He looks at her and they both smile.


* * *


After arriving in town we change over some money and retire to Petrovka street at my request (it is going to feature...). Vadim takes u to a Turkmen restaurant and we embark on a glorious meal of "Asiatic" food served in a colourful tents illuminated by the blazing summer sun. There are men with pipes, students lounging on decadent jewel-toned sofas, and women in hats smoking skinny "European" cigarettes.. It was at this stage that I realize I am capable of reading Cyrillic letters and actually getting by in the Russian language! How did that happen?! Suddenly, the "code" cracked, I was at last able to read things and ask Vadim what things were, point, ask, etc. It was a real thrill.

I order a traditional stir-fry, Kit a sturgeon shish kebab and Irina noodles and pavlova. Vadim takes only coffee. I think of the photo albums from last night, of his relatively radical transformation from obese young man to fit and trim older man in what appeared in the photos to be just a few months. He not only lost weight, his hair turned gray, he grew a beard, he got glasses.... what prompted this shift? Dare I even ask? As if reading my mind he comments on it himself.

"When I was fat I would've eaten all day, but now just coffee," he apologizes/
"What brought about the change?" I ask, trying not to sound anything other than matter-of-fact.
"I was sick," he looks down into his coffee, "very sick. Yes." He glances away onto the green of the park where a few moments ago he had told us he has spent his childhood and youth behind the old hospital. "I am a medical doctor, I should have known something was not right," he explains this with a hint of what seems to be shame in his voice. "I was tired all the time, for 15 years. I thought I was just sick from Communism!" he laughs, but his face falls quickly, as does Irina's, the memory of that time devastating. "Anyway..." he continues quietly, "finally my colleague made me take a test, and I was able to identify the problem and move on from there..." he sips his coffee and thinks about this for another moment before speaking again, this time with more solemnity. "But the medication, the treatment, was the hardest thing in my life."

Ah Vadim. Such a complex man. A child of the Soviet Union, but an individual spirit aching to grow.

"The entire process, it takes ten years. I am in the middle of year eight," he says with humility. "Many, many people do not survive the process..." I cannot believe this. I press him gently to explain. "Well..." he searches, "all of the symptoms you had before are the same only in reverse and at 1000 percent. You are so irritable you are like a monster, lashing out at those you love for reasons you do not understand, it is as if the voice was not my own..." and then he grew very quiet in deed, moving the white cup between his surgeon's hands.

"But worst of all what is inside your mind. The opposite of exhaustion is not alertness... it is mania... and it is this that drives men to take their lives. It is the never-ending noise of the brain, releasing one thousand thoughts a second, every one of them menacing. And there is nothing to stop it. Nothing turns it off. No Sleep. No pill. Nothing but death itself..."

He finishes the final sip of his coffee with finality, exhaling as he replaces the cup upon the saucer.

"It took time, and a lot of tolerance from my family, but now I am more even and quite well. I do not know how they all managed. But it has made me a better Doctor," he said brightly, attempting to lighten things. "More sympathetic."

I look at him and try to penetrate him. I feel so limited by our too brief acquaintance, by the language barrier and by Kit and Irina, who are in this, removed and far away. I try.

"I can understand how hard that must have been," I fumble slightly, "I cannot feel the pain myself of course, but I can see it with my mind, I sympathize. And how challenging it must have been for those around you, who loved you and did not wish to see you in pain, not to be punished themselves when they had done nothing wrong. And as far as your practicing of medicine-- yes, I see. You see people at the most desperate moments of their lives. Some of them will never walk again, some of them die and you must tend to loved ones. Now, you have felt the despair, felt the frustration of being 'just another face' to a doctor, watched as your own wife and children suffered as you suffered. Of course you are a better doctor. You have been a patient..."

He looked at me a moment, trying to piece together exactly who I was. I could see I had puzzled him-- a young woman, the same age as his older son, who understood the greatest challenge of his life.

"You are a very sensitive girl, Alexandra. You understand. You feel how others feel."

11 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - The Post Office

At the post office to register our visas.

Whoa.

What a torment. An avalanche of paperwork and government bureaucracy required to visit a still archaic country.
     "Don't be fooled by our shopping malls," said Vadim as he filled out the forms for us, "We are still barbaric in many ways," and he checked off about 100 boxes. "Every day I spend hours filling our thousands of forms, hours I could be spending with my patients. But I must do it to prevent prosecution of course. I am not a dermatologist, I am operating on people's spines!"

We fill out the forms.
In Cyrillic.
We report to a window.
And eccentric elderly woman with gold teeth makes photocopies of a bazillion documents.
She points us to another window where we are to buy an envelope.
We buy the envelope.
We report to another window where we are to buy stamps
We buy them.
We report to a line where we are to send it off.
We stand in this line.
People cut in it.
We arrive at the window and after more kerfuffle send them off.

The process takes two hours.

The Post Office is damp and lightless and I cannot understand how we could possibly have survived it!
     "Russians must make everything hard..." Vadim sighs, "else, how would we suffer?" he twinkles.

The Russia Diaries: 11 August - Red Square and Captain Beatle


We arrive in to town and our first stop is certain: the iconic and stunning Red Square.

Krásnaya plóshchad (Кра́сная пло́щадь). It is beautiful. No, literally. The name Red Square derives neither from the colour of the bricks around it (which, in fact, were whitewashed at certain points in history) nor from the link between the color red and communism (an irony which goes not at all unnoticed).

Rather, the name came about because the Russian word красная (krasnaya) can mean either "red" or "beautiful" (the latter being archaic). This word, with the meaning "beautiful", was originally applied to Saint Basil's Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square. It is believed that the square acquired its current name (replacing the older and slightly less glamorous Pozhar, or "burnt-out place") in the 17th century.

Red Square is the most famous city square in Moscow, and arguably one of the most famous places in the world. The square separates the Kremlin (the former royal citadel and currently the official residence of the Russian President) from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod.

As major streets of Moscow radiate from here in all directions, being promoted to major highways outside the city, Red Square is often considered the central square of Moscow and, in many ways, of all Russia.

During the Soviet era, Red Square maintained its significance, becoming the symbolic and literal focal point for the new state. Besides being the official address of the Soviet government (the government was moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg after the Revolution for militaristic, as well as symbolic "shifting of paradigm" reasons), it was also renowned as a showcase for military parades. Kazan Cathedral and Iverskaya Chapel with the Resurrection Gates were demolished to make room for heavy military vehicles driving through the square (both were later rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union).

There were plans to demolish Moscow's most recognized building, Saint Basil's Cathedral, as well. The legend is that Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin's associate and director of the Moscow reconstruction plan, prepared a special model of Red Square, in which the cathedral could be removed, and brought it to Stalin to show how the cathedral was an obstacle for parades and traffic. But when he jerked the cathedral out of the square, Stalin objected with his famous quote: "Lazar! Put it back!"

The buildings surrounding the Square are all significant in some respect. Lenin's Mausoleum, for example, contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Nearby to the south is the elaborate brightly-domed Saint Basil's Cathedral and the palaces and cathedrals of the Kremlin.

St. Basil's rises from Red Square in an irresistible profusion of colors and shapes. Its montage of domes, cupolas, arches, towers, and spires, each bearing a distinctive pattern and hue, have fascinated the eyes of visitors since its construction in the 1550s.

On the eastern side of the square is the GUM department store, and next to it the restored Kazan Cathedral. The northern side is occupied by the State Historical Museum, whose outlines echo those of Kremlin towers. The Iberian Gate and Chapel have been rebuilt to the northwest.


Paul McCartney's performance there was a historic moment for many, including Vadim, as The Beatles were banned in the Soviet Union, preventing any live performances there of any of The Beatles; the Soviet Union also banned the sales of Beatles records, and this was the first time that a Beatle performed in Russia. Vadim was there.

"You are a bit of a superhero," I said, smiling.
"What is that word?" he asked, curiously.
"Oh," I fumble, "um, a superhero is really a fictional character with special powers. Like Superman or Batman or..." I know who he will like, and punch it with a mischievious grin, "Captain America."
He grins from ear to ear, his arms go up in the air and performs an involuntary little hop and hushed and quickly cries "I would like to be a superhero," before reserving himself once again realizing he is supposed to treat Red Square with reverence and sobriety. "I wish to be a Captain Something. I am after all, a Captain in the Army, it is because I am a medical doctor you see. All medical doctors must serve as Captains, it is the rule."
"Captain Vadim?"
"That is boring."
"Captain... Moscow?"
"Alexandra, please."
"Captain BEATLE."
He pauses and his eyes grow wide like a very young and very excited child.
"I AM CAPTAIN BEATLE..." he whispers... and in a flash, he IS. He places his arms behind his back and requests this photograph to capture the moment. "I AM THE WALRUS!!" he cries.

It is the cry of Captain Beatle.


* * *


"What about you Alexandra?" he asked as we made our way to the American car.
"What about me?"
"Are you a superhero too?"
"I don't know," I replied, "do you think so?"
"Oh yes," he nodded pensively,  "I do."
"Well, hm... I am not a Beatle..." I think for a moment.

I recall R's daughter. When I first met her 4 years ago we instantly bonded over The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I read a section to her about Owl and from that moment on she thought that my name was not Al but Owl and it stuck. When I call R, OWL SILBER comes up. And somehow everything associated with the owl has also stuck with me. I adore them and identify with them... all because of a little girl's "mistake." (Or was it?) Children are wise. Like owls.

"I like owls," I tell him
"Hm..." he thinks. He likes this. "The Night Owl?"

I love it.

"I love it," I tell him, "perhaps it should be in Russian?"
"Yes! Oh yes you have so much Russia in you Alexandra and here you are, it must be it must."
"Kak skazat' The Night Owl po-russki*?"
"Nachnaya Sava**."
"Oh my god I love it."
"It is very good."
"Ye lyublyu ta.^"
"Yes. Nachnaya Sava and Captain Beatle. It is good. The world is better off now."
"Hooo!" I cry, for I am Nachnaya Sava.
"And I... I am the walrus..."


That was the state of matters that afternoon.

We drove home exhausted, delighted. Hours of quiescent observation passed from the window of the American car; the world beyond the window appeared friendly, conversant, almost commonplace. 

And the setting Moscow sun was glowing on this irresistible man.





*How do you say The Night Owl in Russian?

**Ночная Сова = The Night Owl

^я люблю это = I love it

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