Monday, September 9, 2013

Arts and Inspiration: How I Spent the End of My Summer Vacation

Recently I was having a conversation with my good friend Ben, who was worried that he hadn't updated his blog in a few weeks.  He recently moved to Vietnam to teach English, and for about the first month he was putting out several posts a week.  Now that his teaching gig has begun he is more consumed with work, and he worries that by not posting, he is letting his readers down.  I said to him:  "Why do you keep a blog? So you can tell everyone about the awesome stuff you're doing, right?" He agreed.  "Well," I continued, "so if the reason you're not posting is is because you're to busy doing awesome things, then how could people be upset with you?"

So I haven't posted in a while, and it's because I've been doing some awesome stuff. Last weekend my show, Life Play, opened as part of the Act One: One Act Festival at the Secret Theatre.  While I've had several other productions over the last year, this is particularly significant because it's one of the first projects to be performed that I began after finishing grad school.  This shows me, hey, maybe I can totally do this without adult supervision.  I also had two weeks in August where I completed a short play each week--one that ended up being read last Wednesday in La Petite Morgue's Fresh Blood Series and another for submission to KNOW Theatre's Annual Playwrights and Artists Festival.  I'd love to get into the festival again (and maybe actually manage to see my play instead of getting caught in stupid New Jersey traffic), but more than anything it felt awesome to FINISH SOMETHING. There's also another recent bit of awesomeness I'm not sure I'm allowed to divulge right now, but it's safe to say that for the first time since I came to the New York City area two years ago, my theatre career is starting to take some sort of shape.  I'm not sure what shape it is exactly--trapezoid, oval, octagon?--but there is definitely some movement there.

In addition to my own plays, I've also been seeing some fantastic theatre thanks to a combination of well-connected friends, TDF and Dramatists Guild comps.  My brain will soon become monopolized by freshman writing, so I'm trying to fit in as much theatre-going as I can. In addition to Fresh Blood and the One Act Festival at the Secret Theatre, my playgoing last week ranged from Lee Blessing's A User's Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernie Madoff to The New Light Theatre Project's musical adaptation of the Oedipus cycle in Washington Square Park to a one-woman show about Harold Pinter's wife Vivien Merchant.  I've also been fortunate to get to bear witness two of the buzz-iest theatrical events of September, Mike Daisey's All the Faces of the Moon at The Public and Lucy Thurber's The Hill Town Plays, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.  I don't mention these last plays to be braggy--it just I miss so much stuff on Broadway and Off-Broadway I sometimes feel like I'm not really taking advantage of all New York has to offer and when I read an article on NPR that discusses shows I've actually seen it feels great to be part of the national conversation again.

And though these shows and experiences have been wonderful, the most inspiring part has been they ways in which I've been able to connect and exchange ideas with other artists. At the Kennedy Center, Amy Attaway of the Actors Theatre of Louisville led a session meant to demystify the paralyzing fear we all have of networking.  "Always go out after the show," Amy advised, "and keep a drink in your hand and the crazy out of your eyes."  Sometimes that has meant Starbucks, sometimes it's  Yuenglings at Kettle of Fish post-show, and sometimes it's a chat before the show on the sidewalk because you have to be up for work stupid early and can't stay out past 10 p.m.  And sometimes it's a late night Facebook chat with kick-ass artist I'm just getting to know better where we bear our souls about our creative insecurities and spur each other on to reach higher and dig deeper.

In July I posted to Facebook a quote from the immortal Harold Clurman on creative frustration: "The theatre cannot solve its problems alone.  Perhaps our complaints are only another manifestation of that impatience which is a symptom of American youthfulness.  We hope to accomplish everything more rapidly than life will permit."

Remain patient.  Have faith.  And for heaven's sake, keep swimming.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I Kind of Have a Thing About Birthdays

Mind-blowing right?  I'm like the first person you've ever met in the entire universe who gets pensive, neurotic, and sentimental surrounding her birthday.

But this is my first birthday during which I am keeping a blog, so I thought I would take some time to articulate my thoughts and experiences about the subject into words.

First off, I have a summer birthday, which in theory is awesome--no school, clear weather, banana ice cream (in my case at least).  But in terms of corralling people together to watch you blow out candles, the logistics are a bit more complicated.  During the school year when it's your birthday, even if you have no friends at all you can still bring in cupcakes and other kids will pretend to like you for the time they spend licking up the frosting.  And if you do have friends, they might come to school early and decorate your locker and then your emotional validation is displayed for the world to see.  In the summer, on the other hand, any social gathering must be planned and organized and RSVP'ed, which becomes complicated by the array of scheduled sports, sleepaway camps, and family vacations.

Which brings it to the second major reason that birthdays have always been somewhat angsty for me:  over roughly the first half of my life, my birthday coincided with the American Natural Hygiene Society conference.

No this was not a gathering of dentists--the American Natural Hygiene Society was the vegan organization that formed my family's diet and lifestyle.  My dad, raised a raw foodist, had been attending the conferences his entire life and my mom since she was 10 years old.  They met and fell in love there and when they divorced obsessively healthful eating was one of the few things they still agreed upon.  Along with my family, there were a gaggle of other kids who convened every year with their parents in whatever city the conferences took place; for a while, the venues shifted from city to city, but by the time I was in elementary school they were either in Fort Lauderdale or Washington, DC (I still bear a small grudge against Georgetown for the night a door ran over my big toe the night before my seventh birthday).  While they used to throw a joint celebration for all of the kids whose birthdays were in July, because my Dad was President of the ANHS for most of my childhood and sort of felt like some kind heiress, like the Paris Hilton of veganism.

So much banana ice cream...
But while there was a certain level of angst at having my birthday so disconnected from my day to day life, there was also a small relief that I never really had the responsibility of thinking what I would do on that day.  Once I got to high school, for various reasons conference attendance no longer was mandatory, and for the first time I actually had to think about where I would be spending my special day.  While for many years I was reassured with the presence of the same friends who would be there every year, I was now subject to the same scheduling issues that plagued other summer birthdays.  And because I had spent so long without much of a choice in the matter, I felt under particular pressure to make up for lost time.  While there were a handful of people that were usually around in high school, by the time I got to college I was moving around so much in college and grad school that every year would often include a completely different set of friends and settings.  I have enjoyed brunch in Williamsburg, partied with canvassers in LA, wandered farmers' markets in Jerusalem, gone swing dancing in Youngstown and chanted at the Bhakti Center.  This led to some wonderful memories, but also a nagging every year terror that people wouldn't show up or the plans wouldn't turn out perfectly.  My initial plan for my summer in LA was to take advantage of Disneyland's free admission on your birthday program, but decided to go to work instead because most of the people I would have wanted to see would be there.

Even this past Sunday night I kind of freaked out at Trader Joe's when I saw the weather forecast called for rain, putting the kibosh on plans for a casual picnic and I had to come up with a not-lame idea that wouldn't force my friends to spend a ton of money none of us have.  We're going to karaoke--it's likely going to be a ton of fun.  What most excites me is the opportunity to bring together friends from my different communities out here.  To integrate.

Integrate.  Perhaps that's what this has always been about--having people around me to share my milestones, thoughts and experiences.  Integrating the past divided between parents, interests, health conferences and finding a consistent core.  So as mark another birthday, to old friends and true, to old friends and new, I wish that good luck go with you--and happiness too.

Have a good one today, too.

Friday, July 19, 2013

When Works of Art Find You at the Times You Need Them Most

Most people consider me reasonably well-read.  And yet my scholarship contains some rather glaring gaps that I've managed to fill by acquiring a Wikipedia-level knowledge of many things.  Years ago there was a Facebook group entitled "No, I Have Not Read That Great Literary Classic--But I Saw The Wishbone Episode" (for those who didn't watch PBS in the late 90s, "Wishbone" featured a literature-obsessed Jack Russell terrier who liked to cast himself in the lead roles.  To this day it composes my entire knowledge of Ivanhoe).  I have never actually read Proust, Nietzsche, or a Dickens novel outside of A Christmas Carol.  I know who Rosebud is but I have never watched Citizen Kane.  

Gradually, I've attempted to fill those gaps as time and opportunity allow.  In some cases I am flabbergasted that I hadn't taken the time to consume them earlier--I am probably one of five people on Earth who can claim to have watched the Star Wars films in chronological order.  In other cases, I feel had I encountered these works earlier, I may not have had the capacity to truly absorb them into my being.  

Such is the case with Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George and The Fervent Years by Harold Clurman.  

In the case of Sunday in the Park With George, like Ivanhoe, for years I had possessed a working knowledge of the musical inspired by the life of painter Georges Seurat.  But for whatever reason, the characters and the music never electrified me the way my nine-year-old self was by the iconic fairly tale types of Into the Woods.  But on a recent Bernadette Peters Youtube-clip binge two months ago, I discovered a link to the filmed production in its entirety and watched it while at the airport during a recent trip to Chicago.

And that shit moved me.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Conversation to Sort Out My Feelings About "Orange is the New Black"

Over the weekend, I binged-watched Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix.  While I had a frustrating relationship with Kohan's previous show, "Weeds," the prospect of such a female-heavy cast was too much to resist.  And to my delight, I found the experience of watching the show to be heartbreaking, moving, and exhilarating.  Where "Weeds" had repelled me by its insistence on reducing many of its characters to nasty tropes for the sake of glib humor, here Kohan seemed committed to creating full-bodied characters.  As the theme song says, perhaps "everything is different the second time around."

And then the finale happened.  SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.

While it was not wholly unexpected, I felt like I had been gut-punched (or perhaps in this case, tit-punched).  Sick and uncomfortable in the way I felt after finishing a Thomas Hardy novel.  Perhaps it was the nature of binging, the intense emotional roller coaster in a short period of time. I intend to rewatch the episode and scene again with a clearer head.

Though the advantages of Netflix's whole series dump are clear, the one big drawback is the the lack of discourse available.  For weekly shows like "Mad Men," for instance, one of my favorite parts of the experience is reading the recaps throughout the web that dissect small details and find a larger context for the conversation.  With a show that not all of America is experiencing at the same time, however, it can be difficult to discuss major plot points without spoiling the experience for everyone else.  So the other day I put out a call on Facebook for people who had finished all 13 episodes, and was fortunate to receive a reply from my new friend, actress Adriana Jones.  Below is a copy of our dialogue.

  • Conversation started June 6
  • Adriana Jones

    It was lovely talking to you after Fresh Blood tonight! Let's stay in touch; I think we could become good friends .
  • Tuesday
  • Lisa Huberman

    I just felt the whole piper freakout was completely unearned. I guess i knew it was going to become that show eventually. but I hoped it wouldn't
  • Tuesday
  • Adriana Jones

    I understood why Piper would be upset about Larry leaving her and Alex goading him in their secret meeting, because on top of that her business is failing because Polly is useless, so it made sense to me that she would be coming undone. It was just a weird tonal shift to suddenly have Pennsatucky want to kill her.
  • Lisa Huberman

    I don't think it was a tonal shift for pennsaltucky to go after her. But seeing her take violent action over pennsaltucky means piper has passed the point of no return and will get an extension of her sentence.
  • Adriana Jones

    Yeah, I was wondering about that. Did she kill pennsatucky? Or just beat her up really badly? Healy won't vouch for her, since he was ready to just let her die, so there's probably no way to prove it was self defense. Will she get transfered to a maximum security prison then (and become roommates again with miss claudette)? I imagine not because that would eliminate the rest of the cast, but it will be interesting to see where this goes in the next season and to see if it becomes "that show"-the violent, gritty crime show-or if it will just be a slightly darker version of this season.
  • Lisa Huberman

    Having watched (and been frustrated by) Weeds, I figured this was coming. But I had so loved the restraint of the first part of the show. As the theme song says, taking steps is easy, standing still is hard
  • Adriana Jones

    Ah, I never watched Weeds, so I had no idea what to expect. Coming into it from that perspective, I was pleasantly surprised because they avoided a lot of the more annoying cliches and developed a pretty wonderful, fleshed out cast of characters.
  • Lisa Huberman

    I totally agree--especially coming from Weeds. Weeds had some great actors, but everything was played for some crude absurd joke. I felt so much warmth and sadness watching this show. Miss Claudette broke my fucking heart
  • Adriana Jones

    Ah! I almost cried for Ms. Claudette. I also really love Kate Mulgrew as Red.
  • Lisa Huberman

    Right? And Jodie Foster directed episode 3. Some serious heavies. Also fun fact: the woman who played Yoga Jones was the voice of Patti Mayonaise on Doug
    That completely blew my mind
  • Adriana Jones

    Oh my god, that's awesome! I am going to have to rewatch some episodes and see if I can detect the patti resemblance.
  • Lisa Huberman

    Love how much female camaraderie the series showed. There was something 90s about it--films like a League of Their Own and Girl, Interrupted.
    Fried Green Tomatoes too
  • Adriana Jones

    Yeah, I've been getting really exasperated by the lack of genuine portrayals of dynamics between women or just women period in film, so it's nice to see such a strong cast of women on a hit tv show exploring so many different types of female relationships. I miss the girl power 90s.
  • Lisa Huberman

    I do too! I miss the grumpy women of 90s pop culture
    And I mean WOMEN. Not teenagers
  • Adriana Jones

    Yes! And even the teenagers were more mature. The comparison between buffy the vampire slayer and twilight is made often, but I'm always struck by how much stronger buffy and the other girls on that show are than any female character in twilight and the difference in power between the girls on the two shows.
  • Adriana Jones

    Well, twilight is a move not a show.
    But you know what I mean.
  • Adriana Jones

    Blargh, I'm going to get stuff done now, but I'm glad I got to decompress about "Orange" with you. Talk to you later! -A
  • Lisa Huberman

    Hey--would it be okay if I published this convo on my blog?
  • Adriana Jones

    Absolutely, blog away (just send me the url so I can see the post it's a part of?)
  • Lisa Huberman


Friday, July 12, 2013

Health Nuts, Tennessee Williams, and the Evolution of an Idea

One of my favorite parts about being a playwright has been watching ideas evolve into what they will ultimately become.  In my weekly grad school workshops, I watched my fellow writers experiment with different approaches to addressing a particular concept or experience until they found the ideal form.  I remember one of my classmates poured months of research into a play about slavery that he hoped to use as his thesis, and when it was rejected ended up reshaping that historical info into a thrilling pilot about the abolitionist movement.   Last year I went to go see José Rivera's play Massacre at Rattlestick, and while the play didn't completely and totally "work" I enjoyed being able to recognize patterns and themes from his other plays that made up so much of the language of my undergraduate career.  A month later, I went to see a reading of his play The Hours are Feminine, a play of a completely different tone from Massacre, and yet again I noted a connective thread.

The original sign
from my grandparents' health food store
Even more interesting are instances when a playwright isn't just addressing similar subjects or using revisiting common themes, but literally retelling the same story.  Case in point:  before Tennessee Williams wrote The Night of the Iguana as a play in 1961, he first penned it as a short story in 1948.  Both versions of the story have the same setting, a hotel in Mexico, and both feature an emotionally troubled female painter named Ms. Jelkes who identifies with a captive iguana.  But while the version has the painter traveling with her ailing grandfather and centers around her bond with a tormented ex-preacher, the short story version hews closely to Williams' own experiences, and Ms. Jelkes gets sexually and emotionally entangled with two homosexual American writers.  

I was thinking about Williams in particular a month ago when I was going through papers to take back to Ohio.  In a binder full of creative writing from undergrad, I came across the first thing I ever wrote that would become Health Nuts, a one-act play that is going up this evening at The Brick.  It's handwritten on notebook paper and conveys the inner monologue of an Ohio health food store proprietor in the 1960s who is shattered when she discovers a Hershey Bar in her husband's coat pocket.  

The idea was based on jokes my mom and I used to make if my grandmother--who did open a health food store with my grandpa in Ohio in the middle of the 20th century--ever caught my grandpa Max sneaking chocolate.  

An excerpt from the original story
The class ended, and I left the short story unfinished.  The idea, however, stayed with me, and when it came time for screenwriting class, I thought I would have a go at it and called the story Health Nuts.  This time I expanded the world, adding anecdotes from my vegan childhood--for instance, my mom embarrassing me by coming into my elementary school and lecturing me on the evils of chocolate--but the treatment, at least, followed the same general structure.  

From the treatment

When I tried writing the script, I toyed with the idea of having the wife be the one sneaking chocolate.  
But I eventually struggled pulling the idea together and put it aside.

The screenplay

Then, in my last semester of grad school, I found myself scrambling to come up with a ten-minute play for Midnight Special, the semi-monthly reading series produced by the Rutgers playwriting program.  With about ten hours before go-time, I decided to revisit this idea I struggled with for an entire semester in screenwriting class two years earlier.  I distilled Health Nuts the screenplay into a ten-minute dispute where a wife confronts her husband in their health food store after finding a Hershey Bar in his coat pocket. And it played like gangbusters.  In further revisions I would add a third character and details of the world back in from the screenplay, but this idea that began in the basement of Bradley Hall in 2008 has finally found its true form.  And it's about to debut before a paying audience tonight. The journey seems to have come to an end.

The one-act version
Of course, someone recently suggested it might be really funny as a web series...To be continued!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Tony Awards and My Changing Relationship to Theatre

So last month, I decided to watch the Tony Awards in Times Square.

This was a purely last minute decision.  I hadn't seen any of the nominated shows this year, with the exception of Best Play nominee The Testament of Mary, and had even rebuffed an opportunity to watch the dress rehearsal in favor of a 6am shift at Trader Joe's (because money.  I could always find a live stream somewhere on the internets (yes, mom, that extra "s" was intentional).

But there I was, approaching 42nd St. around 6:45 and I started to wonder, as I do often, what was the point of living in New York City if I was going to watch it all from my computer screen?  At any rate, Christine Pedi from the Sirius XM Broadway station was hosting, and at least I could make my dad jealous.  So I bought a $.79 bagel from Duane Reade for dinner and plopped down in the middle of a sea of tourists to watch Neil Patrick Harris sing and dance on a giant screen.

Initially, I told myself I would stay for just the opening number and then go home, but soon I was seduced by that old razzle dazzle--theatre people know how to put on a show.  Oscars, you have officially been served.

Still, I couldn't help but feel like my 14-year-old self would have enjoyed this a lot more more.  The 14-year-old who spent car rides to school with my dad memorizing the lyrics to Mel Brooks' The Producers and sat enraptured watching Susan Stroman's walker choreography tap across the stage at Radio City.  Whose heart stopped feeling Bernadette Peters brush past my aisle seat during the opening of Gypsy.  For years I still held a bitterness that the candy colored Thoroughly Modern Millie beat out vastly more subversive Urinetown for Best Musical in 2001.

I cared about musicals then.  They were an integral part of my life.

As a writer of "straight" plays, the Tonys carry mixed emotions.  The ceremony tends to squeeze plays that aren't musicals into minute-long speed-thrus, and a few years ago moved the best book award to the pre-show broadcast. (to add insult to injury, the play nominees were recapped by speed talker Jesse Eisnenberg, who seemed to be auditioning to play a hipster Harold Hill).

And I don't see Broadway musicals anymore.  The last new Broadway musical I saw was 2010's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which closed after only a few months because it couldn't find a broad  audience.  It's easy to chalk it up to the superficiality of the contemporary theatre world, but has Broadway changed or have I changed?  Am I becoming Stan Marsh from South Park, who suddenly reaches 10 years old and finds all of the music he used to like sounds like shit?

Because of my inclinations as a critic, I am trained to look beneath the surface.  To see the larger picture.  Broadway is about more than simply fulfilling dreams--it's also a business serving the elite and the tourists who can afford to pay top ticket prices to see celebrity-studded revivals.  It's also true though that a musical adapted from a movie was a lot fresher when The Producers debuted in 2000, a period in which musical comedy was all but dead in the water and the field was dominated by dance-heavy "concept" musicals like Fosse and Contact.

The fact is, the world of Broadway felt exponentially farther sitting in the middle of Times Square than it did all those years ago watching the Tony Awards in Ohio. Sadly, there are few chances of joining the chorus as a playwright.  And even established playwrights have a hard time finding commercial success on Broadway, as we have seen this year with high profile flops by David Mamet and Theresa Rebeck.  Many well meaning family members from Ohio encourage me that I could have a play "Off Broadway," not understanding the nonprofit world is also driven by commerce (this point seems to also be lost on New York Times theatre critics).  I think sometimes we need to replace the terms "Broadway" and "Off Broadway" with "big-ass theatre" and "littler-ass theatre."  There is some bold, exciting work in larger theatres in midtown and a lot of commercially-driven crap at New World Stages.  It's unfair to put something like Annie Baker's The Flick and Naked Boys Singing in the same category.

And even if there are shows Broadway I want to see, it usually means I see them alone.  Yes, I know TDF and rush policies exist, but most of my friends usually tell me they are in rehearsal or too broke.  There are a lot of uses for $40 in New York City.  Part of why I got into theatre was the sense of community, and so when I see shows and readings they tend to be shows that I can share with people in my network.  I only went to see The Testament of Mary after seeing my friends on my facebook newsfeed posting about it.  You know when I saw the most Broadway plays? When I was in grad school in New Jersey and I specifically enrolled in classes that would force me to see shows.  For theatre criticism I saw, among others, Sutton Foster in Anything Goes and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.  And while the costs where prohibitive, the knowledge that I would have regular informed, lively discussions about these experiences assayed any doubts I might have had about laying down the cash.  

It's not that I don't see theatre anymore:  I see a ton of it.  I go to readings, short theatre festivals, site-specific productions about orgies, and immersive shows that ply you with wine while three men with pianos guide you through Franz Schubert's Winterreise.  One of my most delightful experiences this year was seeing The Public Theatre's Wild With Happy and seeing projections of Disney World become characters in their own right.

Are these productions somehow "better" or more "real" than Broadway?  I don't like think in those terms.  I find them unhelpful and unnecessarily divisive.  It's just the world in which I am living right now.  Right now my resources and time are best spent supporting the artists whose achievements seem within my reach and who can best help me achieve my own goals.  When I plump down $20 to see a friend's devised theatre piece in Queens, I may not be able to watch clips of it on the Tony Awards, but I'll get to engage in a lively Facebook salon about issues of feminism and workplace ethics.  I am truly pissed at myself for missing Annie Baker's The Flick, but it also fell smack-dab in the middle of a particularly hellish grading period and many contacts fell by the wayside.  But that's a conversation in which I would have loved to actively participate.

And that's I guess what it's about for me: the conversation.  I was never the strongest actor, and when I used to get passed up for roles in Ohio as a kid I would become frustrated and contemplate leaving theatre for good.  But what kept me coming back was hanging out in the lighting booth and talking Broadway with my high school's technical director or the thrill of picking apart a production in the car with my Dad as soon as we left the performance.  In college I would hang with the smokers outside the shop door after theatre history riffing on Brecht and Artaud.  Now the conversation occurs in my friends' Facebook feeds (and probably on Twitter.  Though I really don't understand Twitter).

My relationship to theatre and my goals within it are changing.  I don't know where it's leading.  But I'll keep talking my way through it until I get there.  I hope you'll join in.  

Friday, May 31, 2013

"Generation Me" Bears No Resemblance to the Awesome, Ambitious People I Know

I think all of this "Generation Me" stuff is a load of crap.

There's a lot written in the news lately about millenials, young people born roughly between 1980-2000.  We're spoiled, self-centered, and entitled to achievements we didn't earn because our touchy feely helicopter parents gave out too many participation ribbons to boost our self esteem.  We lack ambition, take too many "selfies" on our new fangled smart phones and don't care about anything but our own happiness.  And because we've been coddled so much, we have no sense of the emotional strength it takes to take responsibility for our lives.

Another guy who made a lot of selfies.  Ugh, what a poseur.
It's a seductive stereotype--and it describes few of the people I know.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Do You Measure, Measure How Far You've Come in a Year?

Monday night I went to my Birthright reunion.  I approached the event with mixed feelings.   At the most basic level, I always get a little bit of anxiety in any situation involving Judaism or Israel, because my obsession with exploring different views of Middle Eastern history makes it difficult to keep my mouth shut when I feel like only one perspective is being explored.   Unlike most of the people on the trip, I went to Israel when I was 18 on a March of the Living trip, and the closed-mindedness I encountered then was so confusing that it was almost ten years before I could begin to feel like I had a place in that conversation, so for me the trip was less about learning the history of the region and meeting Israelis for the first time than it was reclaiming my Jewish identity.  My initial impetus for finally deciding to go on Birthright was to extend my trip and not only connect with some of my family out there, but also travel to the West Bank and Turkey to get a more well-rounded experience than I had when I was in high school.  But at the last minute those plans fell through, and on our ten-day trip last July I spent a lot of my time frustrated about how our tour guides were subtly pushing this narrative of Israeli and Jewish history that conflated history, politics, and religion in a way that was deeply troubling to me.  I felt bad that I couldn't just relax and enjoy the ride like those who were visiting Israel and developing a relationship to Judaism for the first time. Though these issues were important to me, I didn't want to be the one to (figuratively) tell everyone that Santa Claus wasn't real.

But politics was not the only thing giving me stress that week.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

On Creativity, Confidence and the Struggle for Control

"If I were a painter," Norah Jones sings, "I'd paint my reverie.  If that's the only way for you to be with me."

It's a beautiful idea--the idea of visualizing one's feelings to make concrete one's inner longings.  Would my own experience as a painter had been so dreamlike.

I don't talk about my painting much, but visual art has been one of my great loves throughout my entire life.  My grandmother, Madelaine Ginsberg is an abstract painter and my mother always made sure my life was aesthetically rich.   Though I maintain a rich and vibrant fantasy life, painting in proportion has always been a struggle.  Growing up I used to look in envy at the my best friend Michele Bartos, who effortlessly rendered objects and people with stunning accuracy.  Never would anyone mistake HER elephant inside a boa constrictor for a hat.  Believing that to be a TRUE artist one needed to possess the ability to represent subjects accurately, I would spend weeks in art class copying photos and painting fruit, but to my chagrin there would still be something slightly "off" and at the end of the day even my good paintings would lose at the art shows next to the more photorealistic ones.  A few months ago I read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse which encapsulates my own frustrations in the gap between plan and execution.  Early in the novel, Woolf narrates the inner monologue of an artist struggling to achieve her vision:

She could see it so clearly, so commandingly when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.  It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work  as dreadful as any dark passage for a child.  
But the difficulty in creating realistic images was not the only point of struggle I encountered in the creative process as a visual artist.  While my realistic art failed to make much of an impact, I was well-represented at school art shows.  My high school art teacher, Mr. Rubino, encouraged us to use canvas paper for our palettes instead of Styrofoam trays and egg cartons.  Not only was canvas paper easier to  come by than the trays, but in the end you ended up with two for the time it took to create one.  Consistently, my palettes were far more intriguing than my bland paintings, and one day I decided to cut one up and enter it into an art show, where it won first prize.  I continued to run with this idea, even experimenting with different surfaces for my palettes.   The most honors I ever received in the art show was during my screen printing phase, where I took a screen of two friends kissing at prom and ran it over the newspaper I was using as a drop cloth.  The picture still hangs in my room at my dad's house, and I look at it with longing for the days when I had easy access to Mr. Rubino's screen making machine.

And while it was certainly gratifying to receive recognition, I also felt like a fraud (something Sheryl Sandberg also touches upon in Lean In).  I hated that the work into which I had put the most effort got no attention in favor of works I threw together in 30 seconds.  Over time I developed less and less motivation to put a lot of energy into my work, something I felt was immature and wrong.

When it came time to apply for college, there was a moment when I considered applying for art school. But the accidental nature of my better work was terrifying.  With few true skills to fall back on, no doubt I would be like the Miller's Daughter from Rumplestiltskin, locked in a dungeon with a pile of hay trying to figure out how I once spun straw into gold.  And because in real life magical little men don't appear with cover-up deals that involve a first born sacrifice, I knew eventually I would be exposed as a fraud.  So instead I pursued the more linear paths of acting and later writing.  Maybe linear isn't the right word--these fields were easier for me to intellectualize.  Operating in a more literary sphere, as a language person it was easier to match the thoughts in my head to what ended up on the paper.

I still keep a set of acrylic paints and a craft box with me, mainly for the nights when my writing is giving a headache and I need to prove to myself I can finish something (cooking serves a similar function).  Though my filing cabinet is a mess, the one folder I make sure I can easily find is one that contains spare palettes I accumulate in times of need.  When I am making a last-minute card, I find I have go through my back stock rather than create something new: if I set out with the intent to create a "Materpiece Plus," as Mr. Rubino would say, I will invariably intellectualize it into muddiness and mediocrity.  It is only when I manage to convince myself that it doesn't matter that I can be truly spontaneous.  Somehow it is easier to see the beauty in an older work than a current one because I almost feel as though it's a gift from a different person entirely, like Old Biff giving his younger self the  future sports Almanac in Back to the Future II.

Theoretically, I should be able to apply these same lessons to my writing for the theatre.  But it's harder not to intellectualize it and convince myself it doesn't matter when I'm trying to justify the thousand of dollars of debt I have incurred for my MFA in Playwriting.  My involvement with the art world consists of occasionally stumbling into a gallery in Chelsea on a bad day whereas the theatre world is all over my social life, my professional network, and my Facebook feed.  It MATTERS whether or not I succeed in the theatre in a way that art doesn't.  I can't afford to spend time messing around with scraps of newspaper and my feelings so many of the emerging writer programs end at age 30.  

And yet I'm finding limits to my intellect.   Though it's painful to attend events from which one's work was rejected, I am interested in the qualities in plays that make someone else want to produce them.  What I have noted is a sense of weirdness, a freedom, a spontaneity I rarely allow myself in my writing.  And so I second-guess myself and get frustrated at my own work for being bland, superficial, and formulaic.  Whereas I used to use realistic painters as evidence of my inadequate art skills, I now look with envy at those dramatists whose richly textured worlds seem more richly layered bare, who "go there" in terms of dramatic danger, rendering my own attempts at wit and cleverness bland and superficial.  No doubt these writers also have more diligent writing regimes and take constructive criticism with a humble smile instead of turning into an emotional crying mess that can only be soothed by wasting an evening watching clips of Mad Men on Youtube and crafting fabric flowers. Given this instability and immaturity, it's tempting to convince myself that, like visual art, I lack the discipline to truly deserve the kinds of opportunities to which I aspire.

I suppose the key is to not compare oneself to others.  That seems logical and simple.  But as someone who has spent my entire life cultivating an image of "cleverness," the idea of putting something out there that may be too messy, too awkward, too weird is deeply uncomfortable.  Ira Glass speaks of the frustration those with "good taste" experience when we find that our own work "disappoints" us because it "doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have."  According to Ira Glass, the key is to just set deadlines for oneself and work and work until that gap is reached.    This is perhaps why in my own playwriting I have opted for wit over drama, choosing subjects pleasantly understood and enjoyed as opposed to the kind of mystery that might leave an audience (and myself) offput and lost. So I turn out "interesting" plays, but rarely with the kind of drama and spontaneity found in my paint palettes.  I wonder why I can't write a play as interesting as that screen of Natasha and Ben on the newsprint, but then I remember how much TIME it took before I was in a place where I could create it. Months before I took the photo at our winter formal, then spent a day creating the screen, then a week making print after print until I finally felt relaxed enough that I didn't care whether it was good or not.  

But that brings up another fear:  how long would I have to stay down the rabbit hole before I found my way home? Or worse, would I get lost there, and how many shows, opportunities, and relationships would I miss?   In Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim's George Seurat muses on "finishing the hat" with respect to concentrating on a detail of his painting He writes of how "You watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat."  Maybe it's from feeling socially ostracized in middle school, but the feeling that there is always some event, some social interaction or family gathering I am missing is terrifying.  And it's all well and good and worth it if what you turn out to be writing is the next Angels in America, but as Kate Monster astutely observes in Avenue Q, "There's a fine, fine line between love"--in this case the kind of Love for one's art personified in A Chorus Line--"and a waste of your time."There are times when I wish I could walk away from it all.  In an essay soon to be published in The Dramatist magazine, I liken my relationship to playwriting like an abusive lover my friends and loved ones keep urging me to drop for good.

But the fact is I have been telling stories my whole life: though countless plays remain still born and under-developed, I take comfort from the stack of hand-written journals I've been steadily accumulating since age 11.  Maybe the kind of creative success I yearn for is still a few years--or a few decades--off because it might take me that long to get out of my own way and be okay if indeed there are some people, some very smart people who I respect and love, who might look at my work and judge it as inadequate.

In this, I take inspiration from my grandmother once again.  She told me that when she was young, like me, she aspired to be an artist, a writer, and a performer.  But some teacher gave her negative feedback on her work.  Now, in her eighties, she's secure enough in herself as an artist and a person to pursue a career in popular fiction for her own fulfillment, on her own terms.  Hopefully I won't take that long, but until then I can still revel in the paint on my fingertips.