Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dispatches from Canvasser Hell: A Throwback Thursday Photo Essay

A few weeks ago, I was going through old journals looking for an essay I had started about remakes in ancient Greek theatre.  In the process, I uncovered a trove of feelings and musings chronicling the six years I've been on the East Coast.  In many cases, it was thrilling to see early musings of what would eventually become full-length plays.  It was also comforting to read about painful moments of crisis from which I have been able to come out the other end stronger and more whole.

Fitting both of those criteria was the journal I kept during the height of my canvassing career here in New York.  The period chronicled ranges from, when I was riding high fundraising for Amnesty International, through March 2012, when I finally quit after struggling to sign up child sponsors for Plan USA.  As I read these passages, I am struck by the pain I felt during that period of my life, when I was struggling to find a foundation emotionally, financially and artistically.  At the same time, I also am struck by just how much the work I was doing for those charities meant to me--a kind of passion that, while draining, I sometimes miss.  I tried to bring some of that passion into Marcy in Sex and Charitable Giving.  Here I've selected passages from February 2012 through my quitting in March.

A note on the handwriting:  for this period of time, I started writing in all CAPS.  This was inspired by a directive from my boss, who instructed us to write in CAPS on our forms to improve legibility.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Gentrification, Transience, and NYC: Revisiting RENT

I was meeting with a director in a few weeks ago Hell's Kitchen and we passed by the Westway Diner on 9th Ave, which was boarded up.

"Oh man," he said.  "I had one of my first shows in a theatre space above there. Now that theatre's a SLEEPY'S.  That's New York.  You can't get too attached to places."

In this case, I could assure him that in fact the iconic diner was undergoing a renovation and would be open again a few months.  But he was right about the transience of life here.  One of my favorite things when I first moved to Queens was taking the 7 Train and passing by the 5Pointz graffiti mecca in between Hunters Point and Court Square.  It was this gorgeous, audacious piece of art that had pictures ranging from hipster owls to a giant portrait of Biggie Smalls.  It was a such a vibrant contrast from the dull and gloomy neighborhoods I'd occupied in Jersey and the Midwest.  Having grown up the child of hippie radicals, I delighted in the notion that I was indeed on the cutting edge of a new great artistic age, at the epicenter of what would be the new Greenwich Village or Montmartre, or you know, Williamsburg.

The demolition of 5Pointz as seen from the 7 train

But as Queens has started to attract attention, the real estate developers have other priorities.  A year ago, the owners officially signed a deal to build residential condo towers, despite numerous petitions and protests.  One morning, my train rode by and to my horror, I discovered a large portion of the building had been hastily painted white.  Just like that, the White Witch had blanketed her endless Winter over Narnia.

And this has all started to make me think about RENT.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Ancient Greek Dramatist on Remakes: Athens is Officially Out of Ideas

Before I decided to pursue an MFA in playwriting, I had briefly contemplated pursuing a more academic route in either theatre history or dramaturgy.  In many ways I feel like it would have been a stronger candidate for masters and Ph.D. programs in those areas.

But though I am really enjoying my current path, occasional tidbits from theatre history tickle my fancy, in particular a lost essay by Charon Isherwopolos, a little-known ancient Greek theatre critic, that proves that remakes and unoriginality that we lament in theatre and film today are far from a new problem.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Favorite Things: Free Public Spaces in New York City

On his blog, my good friend Ben Herman recently posted a comprehensive Google map of his favorite places in Saigon.  Having visited him there in July, it was fun to retrace the places we had been together.  It also blew my mind because I was not aware that this create your own map feature in Google existed.  Ben challenged me to create my own map of New York, which I began with relish.  I intend to complete and post that map sometime soon, but it quickly became clear I have so many awesome spots it might take a while.

In the meantime, I thought I'd first present a preliminary map of some of my favorite free public spaces in New York City.  It may be one of the priciest cities in the world, but through my explorations I have managed to find some great places to hang out and be creative in Manhattan on an artists' budget.

On the one level, this seems like it wouldn't be that challenging--this is a city of infinite public parks.  However, I've always had a hard time being productive outside--whether it is the ambient noise or proliferation of adorable puppies to distract me.  Also, as the weather starts to turn, the idea of warmth and shelter becomes extremely crucial.

So here are some of my go-to public spaces in Manhattan.  If you know of any others, please let me know!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Secret of My Success...And Wondering If I Even Deserve It

I have a long commute to and from New Brunswick on the bus two days a week.  Ideally, I should use that time to prepare for class or work on my writing, but honestly usually too beat for complex thought.  To pass the time I like listen to This American Life episodes I’ve saved up.  The great part about This American Life is the podcasts last about the duration of the ride, which allows me to not think about the New Jersey hell-scape I am passing through.

Recently I listened to an episode a few weeks ago called “How I Got Into College,” in which people try to trace the factors that led to academic success.  In one story, a scientist recounts his childhood as Bosnian refugee struggling in an Atlanta public school.  How an essay he plagiarized so impressed a teacher that she recommended him to an an elite private school.  This experience completely transformed his life, putting him on a path that would lead him to Harvard.  The story always presented a kind of irony to him--the fact that cheating was what led to his ticket out.  On the show, he uses a private investigator to hunt down the teacher who changed his life twenty years before.  After a happy reunion, it becomes clear that the teacher’s story differs dramatically from his.  While he recounts a lucky break in which he managed to fool someone into thinking he was smarter than he was, the teacher tells a very different memory.  Not only does she not remember the plagiarized essay at all, but she remembers a student that radiated genius and potential from the start.  While he remembered himself as an immigrant kid struggling with English stuck in a rough school, she was certain that he would have been successful whatever path he took.  

The program then went on to speculate as to why he had hung on so dearly to this story of a kid who had fooled the system and got ahead through pure luck.  It might feel arrogant, perhaps, to state that you were always destined for greatness and succeeded on your own merits as opposed to the help of others.  When you start to proclaim your own greatness, it’s like an invitation to be taken down a peg. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brecht, Bombs, and Elm Trees: Lisel Mueller's "Triage" and Processing Tragedy

Lately I've been thinking a lot of Lisel Mueller's poem, "Triage," which I first read in an Illinois poetry class in college. "Bertolt Brecht lamented that he lived in an age when it was almost a crime to talk about trees," Mueller writes "because that meant being silent about so much evil." A German-born writer who emigrated to America at the beginning of WWII, her life bore witness to its share of historical tragedy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When Your Privilege Begins to Hit Home

As the descendent of 1960s liberals, I was raised with the idea that it was important to fight injustice.  Often that means continually exposing myself to painful truths that can violently rattle my sense of self as I confront my own biases.  As I watch the horrific events unfold this summer in Gaza and Ferguson, Missouri, I am grateful to my friends and colleagues on social media who have shared their stories and insights to deepen and complicate my and perspective.  

And yet sometimes you have experiences that bring home certain societal truths and revelations about privilege more painfully than any Facebook post or Salon article possibly could.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Top Eleven TV Theme Songs Since 2000

TV theme songs are all the rage right now, as evidenced by the popularity of the Saturday Morning Slow Jams  (my favorite is still "Duck Tales").  A lot of it is nostalgia--kids who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s are now of the age when we're starting to feel like grownups, longing for 2D adventure cartoons based on Disney franchises from the 1940s in the same way our parents longed for vinyl.  As The Atlantic demonstrated last year, thinking the today's kids just don't get it or are missing out is an American tradition.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Playwrights in the (theatrical)House

A few months ago, my writing group, the Mission to (dit)Mars Propulsion Lab, started holding our biweekly meetings at The Secret Theatre.  For the five months before that, we had been meeting to share pages at organizer Don Nguyen's apartment, where we would sit around on couches and chairs drinking wine and munching on Pepperidge farm cookies.  Not only was it a beautiful apartment, but the informality of the setting created a safe space to take chances with our work.

But something shifted when we started meeting at The Secret Theatre.  See as a playwright, I rarely have regularly scheduled opportunities to be in theatre spaces as an artist.  When work on my stuff and send it out it's all done from the privacy of my bedroom (or coffeehouse/library), while directors get the community interaction through the audition process.  Even when my plays are performed,for budgetary reasons most of the initial rehearsals I attend are in peoples' apartments and the only time I usually spend time at the theatre is to attend the performance.  And it's hard not to feel like a bit of a guest at that point rather than a true Theatre Artist.

And though I was never the most confidant performer growing up, I used to relish the feeling of being in the theatre--the smell of sawdust in the shop, looking at production photos from previous shows, sneaking up to the catwalk and seeing old names written on the railings.  Just sitting around before and after rehearsals and experiencing the ebb and flow of the rhythm of the space through various production processes.  Encountering artists working on other shows and picking up not only on juicy gossip but also new opportunities (True story:  one time I overheard someone discussing how an actor dropped out of a production of The Emperor's New Clothes I had auditioned for but didn't make the cut.  I still wanted to be in the show, so when I learned of this new development I went to the auditions for Evita this director was holding and I threw myself at her feet.  She put me in The Emperor's New Clothes).

The Salon reading for my play Sex and Charitable Giving on May 19.    Photo by Don Nguyen
The couple first meetings at The Secret I felt this wonderful sense of calm and reassurance.  I wasn't just a guest or squatter at this theatre space like I somehow feel when bumming free wifi at the New Dramatists library or the Public Theatre lobby.  And unlike situations where I am sharing pages in a classroom, someone's apartment, or across the table at a coffee shop, I feel like these scenes may truly have a life outside of this circle of writers.  Knowing this, I start to take my own work more seriously.  Surrounded by the physical space of curtains, audience bleachers, and lighting elements, it's hard not to start thinking more visually.  To feel the play start to breathe and become a living thing.

On June 30, we'll be having a showcase at The Secret Theatre where we'll show excerpts of the plays we've been working on the past year.  After that, we go on a summer hiatus.  I'm already getting homesick.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Feminine Playwright Mystique: Expanding My Knowledge of Women Dramatists

I have a confession to make:  when I am asked to name my favorite playwrights, very few women tend to make my top list. As someone who considers myself a feminist, this is completely unacceptable.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On My Own Terms: Finishing the Play

Last night on a Suburban Transit bus between New Brunswick and New York City, I finished my first full-length draft in three years.

And it felt amazing.