December 4

When I arrived to tend bar at the theatre last night, my coworker and the box office manager, Beth, was listening to some Christmas music on  Spotify channel. Beth said she waited until our general manager had left for the day, as he possesses a surprisingly low tolerance for holiday music. We laughed about it, and that reminded me that I had created a fabulous and varied Christmas music playlist in iTunes. Since I play music in the bar before the shows and at intermission, I figured it was the prefect time to bust out my playlist, which includes artists like Sting, Ella Fitzgerald, Jose Feliciano, Run-DMC, harpist Sylvia Wood, and Mahalia Jackson.

After I finished setting up the bar, I plugged in my iPad to the speaker system and opened my playlist. The first song on the list is a gorgeous a cappella rendition of “Joy to the World” by the sister trio, The Roches. This was one of my mom’s favorite carols, and she reminded us every year, in her soft but strong Southern accent, that for her, Christmas wasn’t Christmas until she heard “Joy to the World”. Within moments after I pressed the play button, I felt tears welling up, and I don’t know exactly why. I knew this song was the first song; I compiled the list, for goodness’ sake. I could have just started with another song, I could have bypassed the song entirely – but I didn’t.

As the song progressed, and the Roche sisters’ beautiful, intricate harmonies filled the bar, my mind and heart flashed back over a lifetime of Christmases. The ritual excavation of the Christmas tree from the crawlspace storage and all, ALL, the dozens of fragile and hardy ornaments in their assigned boxes; the joy my mom took in decorating the tree and living room (despite my father’s good-natured grumbles about how “the goddamned tree” blocked his access to his beloved bookcases); the many Christmas albums we listened to on the hi-fi, the way my mom turned on the Christmas tree lights on Christmas morning and kept them on all day; the fancy French toast breakfast we had after opening presents. All these bittersweet memories tumbled out after just a few bars of a familiar song.

I’m sure this sensitivity accompanies the fact that even though my father passed in 2003 and my mom in 2011, a big part of me still doesn’t completely fathom that they’ve passed on. I’ll play many more Christmas songs over the next few weeks – I just need to think a little before I press the play button again.

December 2

A year from now, will anything have changed in the US as far as gun control? Will we remember yet ANOTHER mass shooting of adults and children? How bad does it have to become for real change to occur?

To the first question, I answer “no”, unfortunately. To the second question, I think we will remember, accompanied by that queasiness anyone with a soul would feel when recalling images of bullet-riddled bodies of dead children. To the third question: I wish I knew.

December 1

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. As part of the commemoration, Artists Giving Back Theatre is presenting a production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent on the Main Stage of the Athenaeum Theatre (where I work). The Main Stage seats 984, and as of right now, patrons have purchased over 900 tickets.  I’ll be working in one of the theatre’s bars tonight, and am happy to say that I’ll be a little busy.

I remembered during the first few years of the AIDS pandemic, one of the more durable alternatives to the ubiquitous red ribbons of support came from The Body Shop: a red bracelet. It looked similar to the POW/MIA bracelets so many Americans wore during the Viet Nam War, and was inscribed with a simple message: “until it’s gone”. As I was getting ready for work today, I thought that I would wear my old red bracelet if I could find it on my dresser full of jewelry boxes. I opened the box that contains mostly bracelets, and quite surprisingly, it was near the top. Battered and fading, the bracelet still shone bright red, and the inscription was still legible. I put on the bracelet, and remembered how many years I wore it, and how many dear and wonderful friends I lost to the horrible disease – and I couldn’t remember why I stopped wearing it.

So my right wrist, which is usually adorned with a variety of bracelets, from a blessed bracelet of five metals to a silver Tiffany chain with a heart-shaped clasp to an assortment of stone and wood malas, now shows a little more color. Again. Still.

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Our minds are still reeling as we learned Monday of the untimely death of Robin Williams. The preternaturally gifted actor and comedian possessed not merely a spark of madness, but a supernova’s worth. Fortunately for us, his fans, Robin’s madness expressed itself as artistic genius in his more than 60 film roles, dozens of roles on TV, and hundreds of stand-up comedy appearances. He delighted millions with his lightning-fast humor and surprised many with the range of his skills as an actor.  But unfortunately like so many exquisitely talented artists, that kind of joy eluded Robin on a personal, permanent level. He engaged in a decades-long battle with the twin demons of depression and addiction that ultimately, tragically took his life.

As the world learned of Robin’s passing, thousands of expressions of shock, sorrow, appreciation, and love flooded social media. So much love, so much heartbreak, for this man universally known for his extraordinary gifts. In my circle of friends, Robin was beloved as well for his kindness and grace, especially towards new and up-and-coming performers. Everyone I know who had worked with him had only the highest praise for him as a person and an artist (and in a community that often loves to dish the dirt, this is a rare occurrence). I wonder if Robin could have conceived of the tidal wave of emotion his death would trigger, and if knowing how deeply and universally he was loved, would that have held his hand from his final desperate action. The all too sad answer is: Probably not.

What follows, once the initial shock starts to fade into resigned acceptance of the new reality, are the inevitable questions: How could this happen? Wasn’t he getting help? Couldn’t anyone see the signs that Robin was in a horribly bad way? I can tell you, in one blunt and uncensored response: Depression is a nasty motherfucker. It is insidious, a charlatan, a tease, a deceiver. It ebbs and flows. It isolates you and will make you think that it defines you, it’s all you have, your only option. If you’re susceptible to its siren call, you will see reality only through its eyes, and its reality is hard and cold and unforgiving and brutal. It convinces you that you suck, and the world would be better off without you. But depression is a disease, an aberration, the same way that respiratory diseases make people breathe abnormally. Yes, treatment does exist, but it involves participation in therapy and a trial-and-error of different medications. How does the depressed one cope while the treatment is starting to take effect?

Because shame and secrecy still surround so many who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses, the only way to help is to bust through the stigma. I ask you all to participate in a simple action: reach out and share. Whether or not you have experienced depression, we all could use a little more love and contact. Take a minute and tell someone close to you how dear they are to you. If you haven’t heard from an acquaintance in a while, send them a “how ya doin’?” email. Send a message to that friend you reconnected with on Facebook and tell them how glad you are that you found them. Pick out a card and send a far-flung friend a love note (yes, by snail mail). Get a group together for pizza and wine and sit around and just talk. I’m not so dim that I think that any of these simple actions can in and of themselves defeat the Goliath of depression. But if we remind each other that we are loved and that we are safe places, maybe someone in our lives, with internal struggles unbeknownst to us, will feel that they can confide in us and let us know that they need help. And we can tell them, “I’m here and you are not alone. Ever.”

Happy Fourth, y’all.

Today US citizens all over the world observe the Fourth of July or Independence Day. Our national holiday’s celebrations include parties, picnics, barbeques, and at night, fireworks. While most people have certain traditions – strawberry and blueberry pie, Grandma’s fabulous secret recipe potato salad – my Fourth is decidedly non-traditional but is, at the same time, uniquely American.

I am the granddaughter of an illegal immigrant. My paternal grandfather dodged the draft in Sweden and slipped into the US through an obliging Canadian forest. The irony in this is that his son, my dad, went on to achieve one of the highest ranks in the US Army. My parents chose to live in a middle-class suburb, with a large percentage of Italian- and Sicilian-Americans. Our high school yearbook photos resembled a mini United Nations publication. Through several strange and wonderful serendipitous events over the years, I am proud to claim friends in England, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Israel, Brazil, Russia, Australia, Sweden, and (soon) Bangladesh.

Today I will attend two different Fourth of July parties. Friends on the Northwest Side are hosting the first, a delightful couple that has been happily dating for many years. She is a white woman originally from New York; he is the son of Indian immigrants and has a given name so unfamiliar to most Americans that he often goes by the nickname, “Bob”. While their tables will certainly groan with hamburgers and brownies, they’ll also be laden with yummy samosas and spicy vegetable dishes. The second party, hosted by another lovely couple, will take place on the beachfront in one of the ethnically diverse communities in the US: Rogers Park. At the local grocery stores in RP, you can easily find Jamaican jerk spices, Polish pickled cabbage, English salad cream, Bulgarian yogurt, Brazilian palm oil, and handmade tortillas and salsas. Our picnic tables may have grilled hot dogs, but most of our menu will contain hummus and tabbouleh with homemade pita chips (my contributions), antipasto, bratwurst, guacamole, quinoa salad, traditional shish kebab, and sangria. I mean, really: What else would you expect from a bunch of urban liberal hippie artist types?

However you choose to celebrate the day (if indeed you celebrate it), I hope it’s safe, happy and delicious.

Dine-and-ditch. Yeah, it’s still a thing.

Over the weekend, I read online about Andrew Palmer, a Baltimore resident who has been convicted of theft and is going to prison for five years. This jerk flagrantly, and repeatedly, committed the act known as “dine-and-ditch”: partaking of food and drink at a restaurant, then deliberately leaving without paying the bill. Via the website jezebel.com (http://www.jezebel.com):

“Unfortunately, since he was always careful to keep any individual bill under $100, the most he could ever be charged with was the most minor level of theft, which carried with it only a few weeks in jail (a sentence he has served numerous times). Numerous restaurants knew about him and had his picture ready in case he showed up and tried his spiel there. {snip} Prosecutors, meanwhile, have been after him for years, and even after combining several different instances into one, charging him with theft under $1000, and sending him to jail for 18 months, Palmer just came back and did the same damn thing. So they got him again, on the same charge. Finally, on an appeal after the original judge had rejected the $1000 charge in favor of a $100 on an $89 tab Palmer had skipped out on, they got him for a third time. Thanks to the three-strikes rule, he’s now headed to jail for five years.”

As a former and present waiter and bartender, this juvenile and despicable behavior enrages me as few other things do. Palmer was not surreptitiously sliding a loaf of bread or a pound of hamburger into his coat to take home to his hungry children. He was regularly, and frequently, availing himself of some of Baltimore’s finest establishments, enjoying high-quality, expensive food and alcohol, all the while knowing he was going to bail, depriving the waitstaff of their deserved gratuity and the restaurant of their income. The chutzpah this requires is unbelievable, and it’s not the first time I have had experience with this kind of ridiculously entitled behavior.

Back story: I went to graduate school on a full scholarship and assistantship. The university gave me enough money to cover basic living expenses, and my parents occasionally helped me out, but by no means did I have lots of money to spare. Two other classmates, Jane and Sally, were grad assistants with me. Jane was smart and pleasant, and generally kept to herself. Sally and I liked each other right off the bat, and became friends outside of class.

Though we had a lot in common, Sally had grown up in a more sheltered environment than I had. By the time I started grad school at age 21, I had attended public and private schools with a wide variety of students, and worked at least four part-and full-time jobs. Sally had attended private all-girls Catholic schools with the same group of girls from kindergarten through high school, and the first time she had ever held any kind of employment was when she started the assistantship. Sally’s parents were paying all her bills for her, as well as providing her with a generous allowance so she didn’t have to worry about living within the limits of the assistantship stipend.

One day, Sally suggested we treat ourselves to a local cheap but delicious Mexican restaurant that we liked. As I could barely afford Taco Bell at that point, let alone a sit-down restaurant, I told her I’d like to go another time. Sally asked if it was because of finances, and I said yes. Sally laughed and said, “Just do a dine-and-ditch!” I had never heard that term before, and Sally explained it. I told her that that was kind of a mean thing to do. Sally rolled her eyes and said, “Nobody cares. I do it all the time.” Horrified, I said that the people who ran the restaurant were really nice people, and, aside from simply being wrong, her actions would hurt a local family-run restaurant. Sally sneered and said, “Who cares about a bunch of (ethnic slur)s?” I was floored. Here was a young woman, from a fairly well-to-do family with no real money worries, and no conception of what it’s like to work for a living, casually admitting that she walks out on restaurant bills, and she didn’t give a damn. She also made it clear, no matter who they are or how hard they work, that some people, especially of different ethnic backgrounds, are beneath her and deserving of her contempt. Understandably, our friendship faded after that incident.

I feel that everyone should have to spend at least six months working in the service industry, or at some kind of job that requires dealing with the public and relying on tips for income. I think that that, more than all the inspirational messages on Instagram and Pinterest, would be a great lesson in compassion and respect. I know Andrew Palmer and Sally could have benefited from it.

Kumbaya, for real.

Many years ago, my friend Don and his partner, Jay, were driving me downtown to the Amtrak station. We were having a fine time chatting about various mundane topics and silly people. As we neared the Loop, we had to stop just north of the Chicago River for a notoriously long red light. Moments before the light turned green, a young African-American woman began to cross the street in front of us. Oblivious to the changing light or the numerous cars in multiple lanes, this woman sauntered across the street, and held up traffic for what was probably less than 10 seconds. But of course, when you’re driving and someone or something prohibits you from proceeding, you easily perceive any delay as interminable. The woman finally arrived at the median, and Jay, who was behind the wheel, drove ahead. I didn’t think much of the event; I saw it simply as another in a long line of all sorts of semi-conscious, self-absorbed doofuses who are unaware of their surroundings and other people, or just generally apathetic. In other words: Another jerk in the city, no big deal. Apparently I was the only one in the car who felt that way.

As Jay moved away from the green light, Don calmly let forth a stream of the most stunning racist invective against the woman who crossed against the light. I was floored to hear Don speak like that. He had never, in all the time I had known and worked with him, struck me as anyone who harbored such negative feelings. My surprise was doubled when Jay, who is of extremely gentle temperament, calmly said, “Now, honey…”. He said this much in the same way I fondly call my friends “knucklenead” when they do something kind of dumb, like search for their glasses when their glasses are sitting on top of their head. I couldn’t believe that Jay didn’t show more outrage, anger, shock, or any stronger reaction, to Don’s hateful words.

Then it struck me: I assumed, because Don and Jay are an out gay couple, that they would demonstrate compassion toward any other population that has had to fight for their civil rights. In my naive little mind, which admittedly leans toward Kumbaya and let’s-all-love-each-other, I thought that anyone who had to struggle against any kind of against institutionalized oppression and hatred would actively show support for their fellow humans engaged in the same sort of battle. Or, at the very least, they would treat their fellow humans as…humans. But, upon reflection, I realize that this perspective is hopeful at best and simple-minded at worst.

A friend asked me why I didn’t say anything to Don and Jay in the car ride years ago. The truth is, I was kind of scared and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to insult or begin an argument with my friends, but on the other hand, as time passed, I realized that the more I let conversation like that slide, the more I’m giving it tacit approval. I don’t let those situations slide anymore; I speak up and out. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes it does make a person reconsider, sometimes I get hit with, “You feminists have no sense of humor!” {In the words of my niece: “um…wut?”}

I mention this as I contemplated the whole Donald Sterling debacle. Without devoting too much blog space to him, this man, a member of a faith that has suffered some of the most unimaginable atrocities over hundreds of years and continues to be a target for the hatred of millions even today, blithely spouts off nasty slurs against multiple ethnic groups. He doesn’t get how his racism is part of a much larger and uglier picture. Even now, his blindness toward the fallout of his own bigotry is hard to imagine. I truly wonder if, at age 80, he has to capacity to develop any measure of self-awareness. I can’t figure him out, but fortunately, I have to occupy my mind with more important tasks, like cleaning the cat box.

 

Maybe I dodged a bullet.

About a year ago, a theatre I’ll call “ABC” was auditioning for actresses in my age range for the role of a mother, “Annie”, in the world premiere of a new play I’ll call “Crossroads”. I submitted my head shot and resume to ABC, and they emailed me back with an audition time and sides for Annie (sides are the selections from the script the theatre asks the actors to prepare for the audition). ABC didn’t send the script, but that wasn’t a big deal. Usually, but not always, a theatre sends a PDF of a new play with the sides to give the actor as much information as possible. When I read the sides, I still couldn’t deduce the entire storyline, but I could find some humor and some warmth between Annie and her family.

The audition date arrived, and I made sure I had my sides with my notes on them, several extra head shots and resumes (just in case, a good thing to take to any audition), my monologues ready (ditto), and some warm-and-friendly-mom-looking attire (T-shirt, cardigan, longer skirt, flats, simple jewelry). When I arrived at the theatre, I saw probably 15-20 actors in the lobby in various states of warm-up and audition preparedness, but only one or two other actresses in my age range. I signed in and began warming up (warm-up to be described in another post). Before I went in, I heard someone ask the monitor when callbacks would be held. The monitor replied that due to time constraints, ABC would be casting directly from these auditions and that they wouldn’t be holding callbacks.

Jane, the casting director for ABC, came out from the theatre and told me that I’d be reading the first side with two other actors who I’ll call Jerry and Sam. We introduced ourselves, then started rehearsing our scene. After a few minutes, Jerry, Sam and I were called in to audition. Steve, ABC’s artistic director, the casting director, and Lee, the director of the Crossroads, introduced themselves, and asked us to begin whenever we were ready. In my opinion, we did a really good reading of the scene, and the three auditors clearly felt the same way. They laughed, and reacted very positively to our performances. The play director then gave us a bit of direction, we did the scene a second time, and again, the auditors loved what we did. The three of us went back to the actors’ holding area, and each of us were called in to read several more times.

When you nail an audition, you feel it, literally. It feels like accomplishment plus artistic expression plus connection plus great communication. You walk out of the theatre happy, exhilarated, and a little bit high. No matter what the final casting decisions are, you know that you left your best work on the stage, and really, that’s the best you can do at an audition. This was how I felt after the Crossroads audition. Not only did I feel like I performed really well, but when I had a brief conversation with Lee about the scene and the overall play, I could tell we really connected and that Lee really liked me. I left the theatre feeling terrific.

About a week later, I received a personal email from Jane at ABC thanking me for my audition, but that they were going in a different direction as far as casting the role of the mom. Jane said that they really liked my work, and would definitely keep me in mind for future projects (this last bit is pretty much standard as far as casting “thanks, but no thanks” emails go). My initial response was disappointment; after all, I did really well, and I would have cast me (ha).  But then I reminded myself of all the reasons a perfectly fine audition doesn’t get you the job: chemistry, availability, looks, personal debts, plus any other reason imaginable. Fast forward a few months, and my friend, Stephanie, emails me to come see her in a play. As I read the email, I realize she’s performing the role of Annie in Crossroads. While I was happy for her, I was surprised. Stephanie is a terrific actress, but completely different from me in age, looks, and energy. I guess ABC wanted a very different sort to play Annie.

Not long after this, I ran into my friend John, a well-respected theatre director. He mentioned that he had recently seen Crossroads, not knowing I had auditioned for it. I asked him what he thought of it. He had one word to describe it: Awful. Stunned, I asked him to explain. He said that among its many problems, the script had no idea whether it wanted to be a zany comedy, a family drama with secrets waiting to be exposed, or an examination of terminal illnesses. John said it was so bad, he left at intermission, and it was a labor to have stayed that long. While I realize directors can be some of the hardest to please as audience members, the fact that he didn’t see the play through to its end says something about how bad it was. The critics, unfortunately for ABC, fell in line with John’s opinion.

Then it dawned on me: Perhaps the reason that ABC didn’t initially email the script for my audition was that it they knew it was…not very good. Maybe someone at ABC was doing a favor for someone else by selecting this play. Maybe, through some series of negotiations and promises, ABC was committed to doing the show, no matter what. Maybe it was ultimately a good thing that I wasn’t cast in what was, by and large, a terrible show. I’ll never know the real story, but for now, I have to go prepare for another audition.

Don’t be afraid to be who you aren’t.

As we actors navigate our career paths, we often find that directors, agents, and casting directors like to pigeonhole us into familiar types: ingenue, leading man, character actress, funny guy. This kind of categorization makes life easier for the decision makers, but it can render us short-sighted in terms of our own confidence and abilities.

About 10 days ago, I read an audition posting from one of the up-and-coming small Off-Loop theatres. This theatre was requesting submissions from actresses, 50+, to play an beautiful, seductive Argentinian. As I read the rest of the description, I thought that this was a part I could really play well – except for the Argentinian part. At 5’9″, very blonde, and with, as a friend once said, “the map of Sweden on your face”, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would would buy me as a South American (mistake # 1). And I certainly didn’t want to play someone who was definitely over 50 because OMG THAT’S OLD (mistake # 2). So I didn’t even submit my head shot and resume to the theatre (mistake # 3).

Fast forward to Sunday, and I was watching the Olympics closing ceremony with my dear friend, “Jane”,  who is also an actress and acting teacher. We started talking about auditions and productions, as we often do. Jane told me that a former student called her to ask if she’d be interested in reading for a role for his theatre, and of course she said yes. The reading went well and she was cast in the role, though she said it was going to be a challenge because the role was a sexy 67-year-old Argentinian. I did a double take. While Jane is a terrific actress, she’s a few years younger than me, and just as blonde, so I was surprised that she would be cast in the role. But then it really hit me: Jane wasn’t hesitant to read for and accept a role that is completely different that who she is in real life, nor is she afraid to play someone much older than she is.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days. Actresses in general try to hold on to their youth for as long as they possibly can, with good reason. Few juicy roles are available each season for older actresses, and we fear that if we take on a role older than our actual age, we’ll be pegged as old forever. Old = invisible, dismissible, not pretty nor sexy nor fun. But when we’re offered a role that doesn’t fall within our concept of ourselves, we have to learn to see it as a professional compliment. Isn’t that exactly what we want as actresses: for someone to think we’re talented enough to play someone completely different than who we are in everyday life?

Your wish is my command: More theatre etiquette!

My previous post about theatre etiquette generated a lot of responses, most of which began with, “Thank you!” I’m lucky to have such smart and generous readers! Since the responses also contained excellent additions to my original suggestions, I am happy to share my readers’ thoughts here now:

  1. At the risk of sounding really obvious: Don’t talk during the show. Yes, there are many people who do this, and apparently these folks have forgotten that they have left their homes and traveled to a venue and bought tickets and gone into a performance space and sat in seats to watch artists do what they have been rehearsing for months, and probably been training for for years. Seriously, though; I don’t know how much clearer I can make it: a live performance is not the same as something you watch at home. If you want to talk to the performers, stay home, put on your TV, and chat to your heart’s content.
  2. This is especially applicable during the cold and flu season: If you have bronchitis/a cold/some other respiratory affliction that makes you cough, hack, wheeze, and expel phlegm or snot, please stay home. You may still be contagious, you certainly sound contagious, and you’ll be disturbing the show (and an actor may break character and pointedly address you and your ailment). Trust me: You’ll enjoy the show much more when you feel better.
  3. Research the show before you buy tickets to it. Again: seriously. If you want to expose your kids to theatre, countless websites and publications list many varieties of age-appropriate offerings. Many shows, due to language, violence, theme, and possible special effects, are not really appropriate for children. If you realize you’ve chosen a show that’s too adult for your kids, bring your concerns to the box office. The staff there can often (NOT always) exchange your tickets for something that will make everyone happy. Along those lines…
  4. Be kind to your theatre staff. I work behind the barred window, and tend the bar, and have helped house management. Far more effort than you can imagine goes into the preparation of your night at the theatre, and often for much less money. If you approach us with any kind of issue – a lost hat, you need to leave a ticket for your wife who’s parking the car, the theatre’s ceiling is leaking on you, your tickets are for last night’s show – we’re going to help you. That’s our job. But if you’re nice about it, we’re more than willing to move heaven and earth to right the wrong, and make you look forward to your next visit to our theatre.