Higher Education: Gratitude

Barbara Jwanouskos is thankful.

As I am writing this, it’s Thanksgiving, so, of course, I’m reflecting on what I’m thankful for in my life. There’s a lot, to be sure. My health, my loved ones, the experiences I’ve been able to have… There’s one I’d like to focus on, however, and that’s my gratitude that I have the ability to take two years to hone my writing here at Carnegie Mellon.

I have no clue whether this choice will “pay off” in my future, but what I do know is that I have developed both personally and artistically while being here studying. I’m almost at the end of my second semester – the program has been a whirlwind, but it’s taught me so much.

I came in with goals in mind: I really wanted to understand story structure inside and out, I wanted to develop my writing discipline, and I wanted to refine my ability to translate idea to the page. I think it’s important in an artistic pursuit to give yourself goals because I think they help you treat the activity that you do with diligence and faith. Honoring these goals is my way of being in conversation with the opportunity I’ve been given – it’s my way of responding and working with the gratitude I feel.

These are the things I keep coming back to when times get hard, when I have a lot on my plate, when I am not getting the responses I was hoping for, when I see others succeeding when I am seemingly floundering. Because I have made tremendous progress in all these areas, and these are the aspects of my life that keep me saying that this experience, above all, was worth it. It’s really easy to get sidetracked and caught up in activities that are simply distracting. Having a holiday that’s dedicated to saying “thank you” helps me to see all that is positive in my life. And more than that, it helps me see everything in my life ultimately as positive and worthwhile experiences.

There are many ways up the mountain, and going back to school is just one, but for me it has been tremendously rewarding to be here. I’m also happy that I have that and the ability to share my experiences with my community back at home. I’m glad that every so often I have the chance to demonstrate what I’ve learned while here.

So, thank you for teaching me, for listening to me and for watching me as I grow and develop my ability to create theatrical experiences that move, transform and inspire. I am grateful for it all!

Cowan Palace: Gratitude and Other Food for Thought

Ashley Cowan is thankful for you.

 Courtesy of Café Gratitude’s website.

Courtesy of Café Gratitude’s website.

Thanksgiving. It’s that special time of year when all at once you’re surrounded by seasonal selections and the pressure to be grateful. Most likely, somewhere between your first and second serving of pumpkin pie, someone asks you what you’re thankful for this year. You savor a bite of that flavorful fall-inspired dessert and silently wonder if you’ll be judged harshly for showing more appreciation for food over family. But hey, that’s okay. Because the thing is, acknowledging gratitude, in any shape or form, can change your life.

When the National Institute of Health decided to examine blood flow in the brain while subjects focused on feelings of gratitude, they found higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. Which as you bio kids know, is the area of the brain that controls some major body functions, like eating (told you it’s good to be grateful for food), drinking, and sleeping. It’s also a targeted area for measuring metabolism and your stress. As the study progressed, it soon became clear that those who had higher feelings of gratitude were the people who exercised more, slept better, experienced lower levels of general body pain, and tended to identify with more positive emotions on an everyday basis.

But how can you become one of these happier, healthier, more grateful folks? Well, it takes work. It’s a lifestyle decision with a daily choice: how am I going to view the world today? It’s easy to get caught up in negativity. Your job sucks, you can’t afford a needed vacation, these winter hours just make you want to hibernate, whatever. Once you start focusing on less positive stimuli, your brain has a much harder time suddenly switching to a happier extreme. It becomes much easier to mentally trap yourself in a cruel cycle. While being grateful or appreciative isn’t the same as simply being positive and happy, it can significantly alter your thinking when you attempt to counter negative thoughts with it. And the good news is, once you shift it, and reward your mind with additional affirmative thoughts, you’ll be able to take advantage of the chemistry magic in your brain.

Maybe you’re thinking, “easier said than done, Ashley!” And to that I say, “thank you for remembering my name!” Also, seeing as this is the time of year to reflect and be thankful, here are 3 of my suggestions to spice up that dish with a little shake of gratitude.

1.) Give More Specific Compliments (and Order Extra Helpings of Them)

Instead of just telling your mom that you love her pumpkin pie, tell her a special feature about why you enjoy it so much. By identifying a specific detail, for example, the creamy, cool consistency or the subtle use of nutmeg matched with cinnamon, it helps you to focus on being thankful in a genuine way by deepening the experience and creating a longer lasting impact. Look around you. Take the time to give people real compliments! Make a goal to try and reach out to a new person each day. Or more if you’re feeling it! You will be amazed how much a small, kind word can do to someone who needs it. Trust me. You get to shine a light on your enjoyment and appreciation while uniquely brightening someone else’s day. Shine on!

2.) Approach Crappy Situations with Appreciation

Okay. This one sounds hard. And crazy. And super unrealistic. I get that because it’s also a struggle for me. But I didn’t say, immediately feel thankful after your car breaks down or you get dumped. Because sometimes stuff is just the worse. So allow yourself to process the anger, grief, whatever, first. Cry, scream, and talk to Ben & Jerry about it!

I’m thankful for you, Ben & Jerry! And this picture courtesy of theicecreaminformant.com, which is a real thing

I’m thankful for you, Ben & Jerry! And this picture courtesy of theicecreaminformant.com, which is a real thing.

But then, do what you can to step away from it and think of how you can twist the moment into something else. It can be a minor, simple detail. Maybe it gave you the chance to see a place of the city you wouldn’t have stopped in otherwise or perhaps it’s the excuse to look into carpooling. Maybe being newly single means finally catching up on Glee (your coworker SWEARS it’s getting “better” this year) or giving yourself permission to get a crazy haircut. Who knows! It’s not easy. But if you can try to find one thing that you can be grateful about in a terrible moment, I promise it will help heal those awful feelings a little faster.

3.) Write it Down.

Imagine being able to present an entire list of things you were thankful for at Thanksgiving instead of racking your brain for cliché blanketed answers. Maybe that’d be considered dorky. But then again, you’re reading a theater blog when you could be looking at pictures of the Kardashians, so maybe you’re already on my team. In any case, if you made it a habit to write down one thing you were grateful for each day, you’d be able to restart your brain and rock the positive effects.

Kim may be sad that you’re not looking at her photos. But Ashley’s glad you’re still here!

Kim may be sad that you’re not looking at her photos. But Ashley’s glad you’re still here!

So to conclude, here are a few things I’m grateful for: food – judge away, I love this time of year for many reasons and one of them is absolutely because I find it to be delicious, my fiancé Will’s jokes, when my sister talks to me in one of our designated pet voices, how my mom ends each phone call telling me she’s proud of me, getting an email from my dad that both promotes the Connecticut weather and quiet, beautiful hope for a scenic season, emoticon-happy texts from my brother, reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in years thanks to social networking, writing this blog and meeting to talk about my dreams of starting a Theater Pub podcast all on the same day, blankets, Dunkins coffee brewed at home, Hallmark holiday movies, and all of you reading this right here, right now. You’re a part of this community and I greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Open Mic Prep: An Interview With Erin Carter

On December 13, Theater Pub will be putting on an “open mic night” in collaboration with the Individual Services Committee of Theatre Bay Area and the Exit Theatre to raise some funds for the Lemonade Fund. We recognize that not everyone will know what the fund is or how it works, and so what better way to bring home just how important this fund is than to interview a local theater artist who benefited from it? Many thanks to Erin Carter for talking to us about her experience and we hope to see you at the event on December 13, 8 pm, at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco!

So, in a nutshell, who are you?

Erin Carter: I am an actor, writer, director, and teacher, and recently I also became a recruiter! So any starving artists, please call me if you’re looking for a day job!

Erin_Carter_Headshot_Color

And how has the Lemonade Fund played a role in your life?

Erin Carter: The Lemonade fund appeared in my life at literally the darkest moment. Two years ago, I suffered a cerebral aneurysm and underwent emergency surgery. I spent 6 weeks in the hospital, during which time they removed part of my skull, operated on my brain, put my skull back on, waited for me to heal, re-taught me how to walk, eat, cook, function, and just be a human being in the world again. The Lemonade Fund appeared in my life in the midst of all this as the best possible surprise, an announcement over email informing me that my Bay Area theater community was looking out for me, that they knew what I was going through and that they were there for me. It was an enormous boon to me during an extremely traumatic time, and a reminder of the hugeness of heart and spirit that runs through this community. It gave me hope and strength, which are two things you need most when going through a medical trauma.

Did you know about the fund before you took advantage of it?

Erin Carter: I had heard of it, and I might have donated to it before.

How did you access the fund? How does it work for someone who needs it and what should they do to take advantage of it?

Erin Carter: I actually did nothing to apply for it. Someone in the theater community had heard what was going on with me and applied on my behalf. It was incredible, especially because neither my family nor I would have even thought to apply for the funds, but the Bay Area community was looking out for us. I am so grateful to that person and to Theater Bay Area for taking me under their wing.

Looking back, what’s the most significant impact the fund has had for you?

Erin Carter: Obviously, the money was huge. After six weeks in the hospital, my bills were significant. Additionally, I was unable to return to work for six months, and I needed all the extra funds I could get. But more than the money, I felt supported by my community. As theater practitioners, we are constantly trying to touch people’s lives, and yet here, completely outside of the theater, my community touched my life in an intimate, tangible way.

What else do you want to tell people about the Lemonade Fund?

Erin Carter: For a person and a family going through medical trauma, the stress is incomparable and touches every aspect of your life-physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, everything in your life changes. It is the time when we need each other the most and when you can make a real and immediate impact on a person. If you want to do something good, if you want to help someone in need, this is an incredibly impactful way to go.

And how are you doing these days?

Erin Carter: I’m great! I have been among the lucky 30% who survive a brain aneurysm and suffer little to no side effects. I am stronger now than ever, more vigilant with my life, more clear about who I am and where I’m going. The brain aneurysm was the absolute darkest time of my life, but it also brought about a greater sense of gratitude and clarity for me.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Why I Won’t Be Seeing “Porgy and Bess”

Dave Sikula’s isn’t going going to see “Porgy and Bess”.

Over the past week or so, I’ve had a number of friends either post on Facebook – or actually mention in person (imagine!) – that they had seen or were going to see “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the Golden Gate. No one has asked me if I was going – and why should they? – but if they did, I’d give them a firm “No.”

On its face, this would be an odd answer to anyone who knows me. I love musicals, I love Gershwin’s music, and tickets seem plentiful (and how could they not be, given the barns the SHN shows play in?). But there’s not a chance in hell I’ll be anywhere near the theatre – unless it’s on my nightly walk to rehearsal in the heart of the Tenderloin.

You may ask “Why?,” and I’ll tell you. (Which will come as a surprise, I’m sure, given this piece’s title.) First of all, let me state my firm belief that “Porgy and Bess” is the greatest achievement of both the musical theatre and the creators of the show – half of whom seem to have mysteriously vanished. I consider “Porgy” to be one the three towering achievements in the musical theatre. (The others are Hammerstein and Kern’s “Show Boat” and Sondheim and Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd.” Nothing else, in my opinion, comes close. Maybe Goldman and Sondheim’s “Follies,” but that’s it.) And I find “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” to be the most powerful number in a brilliant score.

I was first exposed to the show in the late 70s, when the tour of the Houston Grand Opera production played the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. (Side note #1: For those who consider the Oakland Paramount the ne plus ultra of movie palace style and décor, the Pantages makes the Paramount look like a local cineplex that hasn’t been remodeled since the late 80s. But I digress …) Jack O’Brien’s production was the first to present the entire score (there were a number of cuts made in 1935 because of time and technical issues) and it was the first time that a director had been hired to bring new blood into the show. All previous productions had been replications the original, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian was a great, great director (I highly recommend a number of his films, especially the 1932 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and the 1939 “The Mark of Zorro”) – but what worked for one cast in 1935 was not a one-size-fits-all solution. (Side note #2: Jack O’Brien himself goes into this issue in great detail in his new book “Jack Be Nimble,” which I also highly recommend.)

Anyway, O’Brien took the script and score and turned what many considered a tired and too-long warhorse and turned it into one of the most powerful and gripping evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre. When the show ended, even sitting in the far reaches of the Pantages’s balcony, I was too spent to leave immediately. It was utterly overwhelming, and I had to sit a while to absorb what I’d just seen. Even now, listening to the cast recording of that production will give me chills.

So, if I love the show so much, why won’t I go? When discussing this production, the controversy raised over it (mainly by Stephen Sondheim) would seem to inevitably follow. For those of you who don’t remember or are too lazy to click, Sondheim preemptively dismissed the “revisals” of the show devised by its artistic team. This team sought, at the request of the Gershwin estate (the people who decided that DuBose Hayward should be excised from any billing, despite writing the play the opera is based on, as well as contributing the libretto and most of the lyrics – despite the billing, Ira Gershwin contributed the lyrics to only some of the songs) to make the show more palatable to the apparently delicate sensibilities of modern audiences by “strengthening” the characters, cutting down the cast, and cutting down George Gershwin’s own orchestrations.

Now, the wisdom of these changes can be debated. Personally, like Sondheim, I think they’re wrong-headed and unnecessary. (Especially if Suzan-Lori Parks, who may be America’s worst famous playwright, is responsible for them.) I’m not saying plays or opera libretti are sacred and inviolate when it comes to change. The books of old musicals are rewritten all the time, if only because, until 1943’s “Oklahoma!” most musical books (with a few exceptions) were flimsy excuses to string together lousy jokes in scenes that took up time until it was time to sing another number. What I am saying is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

Are some of the aspects of “Porgy and Bess” troubling to modern audiences? Certainly. But to try to edit them out denies the realities that went into the research and creation of the play and the opera. Yes, some of the dialects may seem troubling, but they’re authentic to the time and place. The characters themselves, with the exceptions of the villains – Crown and Sportin’ Life – are hard-working, honest, and, if not always admirable, at least understandable. To alter them simply because some in the audience may find them uncomfortable is to A) sacrifice thoughtfulness and controversy for comfort and B) ignore the stereotypes that are presented. (O’Brien’s book deals with this, as well. As a white director, his comfort level in dealing with an almost-exclusively African-American cast was low until he and the company started discussing the stereotypes and dialect in honest discourse. There was no thought of tempering the libretto. Overcoming it took thought and communication.)

One of my favorite quotes – and unfortunately, a web search doesn’t reveal its source – is “To euphemize the past excuses it.” That is to say, while we can pretend that racial, sexual, and other stereotypes didn’t exist in old movies, songs, books, and television shows, or feel superior to our ancestors because we’re more enlightened, to cover them up denies us the chance to wrestle with them and make us defend our own beliefs (and prejudices – we all have them; yours are just different from mine …). If everything we see is squeaky clean and lacking in controversy, how is that art? It’s comfort and reassurance; it’s not challenging. (Side note #3: This is one of the reasons I lament there are few prominent conservative writers for the theatre. I’d like to have my preconceptions challenged once in a while to sharpen my beliefs by having to defend them.)

Finally, it’s not just the blanderizing of “Porgy and Bess” that makes me want to avoid it. In the few clips, excerpts, and songs I’ve heard show me that the current creative team have taken what I think is the richest and most powerful score in the musical canon and turned it into a series of pop hits; a concert of badly-orchestrated and performed ditties. If I want to hear that, I can find plenty of dull and ill-conceived versions of the show’s best-known numbers. (Side note #4: Recommended pop versions of the score: those featuring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, and Miles Davis playing the orchestrations of Gil Evans.)

Ultimately, I place the blame for the whole farrago on the Gershwin estate. Sensing that one day the U.S. Congress may one day actually revise this country’s corporate-friendly copyright laws, they wanted to create a version of the show they can control for decades to come. It’s hard to think of any benefit these copyright laws have given American culture. Locking up plays, books, movies, songs, and characters benefits only corporate entities and does nothing to inspire new and creative works. (Ironically, the same companies that fight tooth and nail to have copyright extended indefinitely – most notably Disney – are the very ones that have most benefitted from creating new works based on concepts in the public domain.)

And that’s why I’m not going to see “Porgy and Bess.”

(Side note #5: I hadn’t intended to go on this long, and was actually going to touch on two other topics this week: artistic depictions of the creative process and the tacit contract an audience enters into by purchasing tickets, but I’ve taken up enough of your time and will, hopefully, deal with those next time.)

Claire Rice’s Enemies List: Bloviating (An Interview with Dave Lankford)

Claire Rice interviews Dave Lankford, author of the (now) infamous “Dear Actor” article.

Writing on the Internet can feel like sending paper airplanes off into the night sky: it’s romantic, lonesome and often unrewarding.  That paper airplane will always exist out there somewhere, but you’ll never know who has stumbled across it or if they even cared. Of course, every now and again, you’ll write something that will fly out of your hands and into the darkness where it will hit a nerve. Hard.  Such was the case with Dave Lankford’s acting advice posting “Dear Actor (Sincerely Playwright)”.  The piece sets its sights on being inspirational and easily swallowed so it is a short list of obvious acting truths that are often taken for granted.

It is important to note that at the moment Dave hit “publish” a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, a drop of water danced down the back of Jeff Goldblum’s hand, the planets aligned and a character in a Dan Brown novel solved a puzzle before the reader did. Magical chaos. It is that moment social media marketing people get all excited about: it went viral. Picked up by theatre artists of all types it was passed around, shared, commented on, and debated. Just as Dave had intended, there were actors, teachers, directors and playwrights who were honestly inspired and generally pleased.

But not everyone was inspired.

I posted the piece on my Facebook page with this elegant and enlightening little bit of literary criticism comment: “Can I just say…ugh!!!!!! I’m sorry. I don’t like this. It’s so condescending.” (I know, I’m a charmer). I’ve said a great number of stupid and unkind things on the internet that I just can’t stand behind any more, but I’ll stand behind “condescending.” While I recognize it is a criticism that stings, it is how I honestly feel and I think I can back it up rationally without being unnecessarily catty. Other commenters on my Facebook page, on other pages, on Twitter, directly to Dave’s email and on the post itself vented their displeasure aggressively.

In response to this sudden internet fame (he had defenders in Scotland and Australia as well as deriders like Mike Daisey and Colin Mitchell) Dave posted a PostFace where he defended himself and spoke to his surprise at the sudden and entirely unexpected attention. I’ve seen other bloggers take similar steps after garnering a great deal of reaction. Stuart Bousel followed “Please Continue Your Conversation A Home” with “You’re Never Going To Work In This Town Again” . Melissa Hillman followed “A Common Problem I See With Female Playwrights (it’s not what you think)” with “Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo”.

What happens when a writer becomes not themselves, but only the five hundred or more words they created? As artists, we are all compelled to create. Our art must inevitably contain our opinions on the world, but we are able to sit safety in the back row. We are in our words, but we are cloaked in fictions and poetry. What happens when we put ourselves out there without the safety net of art? What happens behind the scenes when our work is suddenly and unexpectedly tossed around the internet like a beach ball? Who is Dave Lankford and why did he want to write a letter to actors at all?

So I interviewed Dave to find out more about his art, how he came to write “Dear Actor” and what this sudden spotlight on his existence has been like for him.

When did you found The Shelter and what was the initial impetus for its founding?

Dave Lankford: The Shelter was formed in 2009. And there was actually a short-lived company before The Shelter. The founders were all training at T. Schreiber Studio with a women named Sally Dunn. Sally decided to retire from teaching. Some of us stayed at the studio, others opted to leave. But a few of us desperately wanted to keep working together. We formed a company called Fallout, which was named after an exercise in the class. Our goal was to perform published works. In parallel, Michael Kingsbaker, one of the founders of Fallout had the idea for a workshop. He had trained in LA and was a member of The Actor’s Gym. He wanted to start something similar as part of Fallout. So we decided to call it The Fallout Shelter. The goal of The Fallout Shelter was to give people a place to experiment, hone their craft and form a community. Long story short, Fallout fell out. But in January of 2009, we had our first Shelter Sunday. And we’ve been going strong ever since. Ultimately, it was about working together with people we admired. People who we felt brought out the best in us and our work. Now, we produce original material. And while the founders all started out as “just actors”, we’ve all expanded into other disciplines. There are very few people at The Shelter that are just one thing. And we are always encouraging our members to experiment which different theatrical crafts.

Oh, and we changed our name to The Shelter (dropped Fallout). Obviously.

So you started out as an actor yourself before you became a playwright / producer / director?

Dave Lankford: Yes. When I came to New York, I had already worked in the DC area a performer. I had acted as a kid, but had to give it up due to sports (I swam through most of college). I got back into it somewhat sideways — I got really involved with the Slam Poetry scene and competed with the DC National Poetry Slam Team. From there, I developed a one-man show that I toured both regionally and nationally, and eventually started to broaden my pursuits into improv, theatre, TV and film. When I moved here, I was only focused on acting. My slam pieces were self-authored, but I never thought about writing for the stage until I started working with The Shelter.

The same goes for directing. Our very first staged production at The Shelter was titled 3:56AM. It was composed of 9 short plays, all taking place between 3 and 4 in the morning in a Lower East Side apartment building. I acted in one piece, wrote a second, and directed a third.

I bet. What where the kind of challenges you faced moving from a performer who wrote for yourself to writing and directing for other actors?

Dave Lankford: It was a process. But I took baby steps. My first piece was a one-hander, a monologue featuring a woman up late, caring for her newborn. I was a first time father, so I wrote from the heart. I wrote what I knew. Not that different from how I would write a slam piece. But after I wrote the first draft, I forced myself to rewrite it from the perspective of a woman. And that was how I started to experiment with different voices. I think the biggest challenge at first was finding voices that were not my own, I would say. And I think that’s a challenge for most writers: developing characters that do not sound like you. Characters that see the world differently that you do, at least by default.

Have you felt any of the pieces you’ve produced with The Shelter were break through pieces? Pieces that you felt successfully pushed you to a new level as a writer?

Dave Lankford: Each piece has been a breakthrough of sorts, as I always try to push myself to do something new. However, a few stand out. In a piece titled NIGHT OF THE LIVING, a two-hander, the characters rarely shared the stage. For portions, they were only able to communicate by two-way radio. One actor was backstage, the other on stage. As the writer, that meant my dialogue had to be strong. I had to understand how two people could communicate without certain visible cues. The interesting thing about that piece is: it was the only one of my pieces in which I have also acted. And that was a game changer for me. The director and I had an arrangement that when I was rehearsing, I was an actor. I was NOT the writer. And so I had to approach my own work as if it was someone else’s. It gave me the freedom to make new choices, ones I had not foreseen as the writer. But the director also forced me to respect the intentions of the writer. She would often point out things like, “Well, the writer put a pause there.” And I would say, “He did?! Why would he do that?!”Ironic. I have literally been fed my own medicine.

What inspired you to write “Dear Actor”?

Dave Lankford: The funny thing is, it wasn’t what I was going to write that day. I wanted to work on a Noir script I’m writing for a project The Shelter is currently developing. But I wasn’t feeling it that day. And I also work in product design and development, so I considered blogging some thoughts about that side of my life. But I wasn’t feeling that, either. So I decided to write a post about acting. Not because I wanted to tell the world something. Merely because I knew I should write something, even if it never saw the light of day. The post started as a collection of thoughts based on things I had seen repeatedly with actors, including myself. And I think the Noir prompt gave me a context in which to frame it. The influences I mentioned in the postface crept in, especially my memories of Meryl Streep describing the process of being a detective, of hunting for clues in the script. I don’t remember when she said it, but it stuck with me. The playwright became the obvious person to present the mystery.

Do you have a blog that you write on normally? Is this your first time using “Medium”?

Dave Lankford: It’s my first time on Medium. I chose it as I think it’s a beautifully designed product. There’s craftsmanship in the code. And that speaks to me as a product designer. But, I have blogged before. Back when blogging was a new thing, along with surfing the Internet, I started a blog chronicling my journey as a struggling actor. The blog eventually got the attention of Microsoft, who hired me to write the blog on their (at the time) new platform called MSN Spaces (which no longer exists). I eventually became an ambassador for MSN Spaces, and represented my blog at the Sundance Film Festival. There’s another ironic story there. When I was first writing, before the deal with MSN Spaces came through, I had been hired as an extra for an indie film being shot in DC. I worked for maybe a day or two, and I had opinions about how the director was handling the shoot. So, I blogged about the experience. And let’s just say that I was not kind to the director. Well, he happened to Google the name of his project and found my post. He was, of course, less than pleased. I’m sure he was hurt. And that ended up costing me for some time. I’m positive it cost me a number of jobs as an actor. When I contacted you, I also contacted the other people on the thread. Mind you, I didn’t contact everyone that disagreed with me, or who called me names. That would have been insane. But there was something about that thread. And the thing I wanted to tell everyone the most is “Be careful what you say on the Internet. Our industry is smaller than we realize, and some people hold grudges.” I certainly do not hold grudges, but I’ve also learned my lesson.

Is this experience causing you to have flash backs to that one?

Dave Lankford: It is. I think it’s given me pause as I see reactions to my piece — that’s part of it. But it’s also affected how I view the comments about “Dear Actor.” And not just the negative posts. Some of the positive posts come packed with just as much vitriol.

Right now, in American Theatre, the hot topics seem to be gender equality and colorblind casting. Why do you think your post got such a big reaction? I ask because it seems sort of innocuous, if you don’t mind me saying so.

Dave Lankford: I agree. I mean, first and foremost, there are much more important things in the world that deserve our energy. And in the world of theatre, I think you are absolutely correct. Equality and color blind casting should be championed. So much so, that I’ve taken personal inventory of my own ways. As for “Dear Actor”, most of the reactions that I’ve seen or been made aware of have been positive. And I feel that maybe it’s because theatre writing can become academic and dry. Some of the greatest books I’ve read as an actor were difficult reads. And “Dear Actor” gave a different spin, even if the things being said were not necessarily new. In some people’s eyes, I was covering acting 101. I also think that as “Dear Actor” gained stream and went “viral”, it gave people the opportunity to have an opinion on the subject. I think of it this way: no one I knew was screaming to the rafters about healthcare reform until healthcare reform was being debated in Washington. Obviously, healthcare reform is a subject worthy of people’s passions. But in general, I didn’t feel that many people were passionate about it until it was all over the news and a top subject of the media. Or, on a more superficial level, who cared about Paris Hilton until they saw Paris Hilton everywhere. The sure fact that she had mass visibility made her a lightning rod for people’s opinions. “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.

How have you weathered being a “lightning rod”?

Dave Lankford: I never expected anyone, save for maybe 200-300 people at most, to read “Dear Actor.” When I saw 1000 and then 10000 and then 50000 visits to the page, it was exciting. Thrilling. But, surprisingly, it also filled me with anxiety. The first reactions were all positive, and that was both wonderful and humbling. But as I began to read the critical and negative responses, I was put in my place. It forced me to question my writing. It forced me to understand how the piece was being interpreted. I saw a few people calling me names, mainly things like “tool”. And that stung, mainly because they didn’t know me and I didn’t feel were in a position to judge my character. But when I read the word “shitbag”, I realized that words can hurt. I knew when I read it that the comment was snarky, and it was not intended for my eyes (I was not mentioned in the tweet). But I did read it. I tried to put it past me. And that proved unusually hard. The second part of the “shitbag” story is that Mike Daisey, a well-known monologist, was also on the thread. He’s a success story in my eyes. And that somehow, no matter how illogical, lent credibility to her comment. I’ve had to come to terms with craziness of the Internet. And the fact that people do say hurtful things about people they have never and will never meet. And it’s taught me to look past it all. More importantly, it’s taught me to focus on the positive. I stopped reaching out to people who were being hurtful and started engaging people who were either giving critical or positive response. Mainly by thanking them. I started reaching out to people who found Dear Actor, even though they lived in England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Italy or Japan. To know that something I wrote travelled that far is amazing. I received one tweet from an actress who has appeared in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s opening a play in London today. She tweeted to thank me, and she said she wished she has read it earlier in the rehearsal process. And that’s an incredible thing. To inspire a person, to receive their gratitude, is an extremely special gift. And I don’t take it for granted. I don’t know that I’m worthy of it, but I know you have to take in moments like this.

If one of the plays you had written received this polarizing of a response, do you think you would feel differently or the same?

Dave Lankford: I don’t know. Similar, but different. A lot of the negative comments were directed specifically at me. I think because it’s easy to assume that I am “the playwright”. People began to question if I was a good playwright, if I was lying about also being an actor. In others other words, people were making assumptions about my character. I guess people might do the same when it comes to a play. But at least the work has a better chance of standing on its own. At least people’s judgments of me as a playwright would come based on having seen my play. Then again, look at Neil LaBute. People have certainly made judgments about him as a person based solely on his plays.

As you continue to move forward in your career in theatre I assume you’ll have more public moments like this. Do you think that this has prepared you for the next time?

Dave Lankford: I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a moment like this again, writing online or for the stage. But I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself, about other people, and about how to deal with sudden visibility. This was really small potatoes when you compare it to bigger viral sensations, fame or politics. I don’t know how celebrities and politicians survive. But I’ve learned enough to know what’s important. To know who to listen to. And I’ve learned, much like the playwright says to the actor, to trust my instincts. I’ve also learned that there are some people out there who are trolls. They thrive on negativity. It brings them attention. And I’ve learned that giving them attention is like giving oxygen to fire.

So, what’s the next project for you?

My next project is for The Shelter. We have a quarterly series called The Shelter Peep Show. Each installment has a different theme or focus. This installment revolves around Noir. I’m submitting a piece that finds a man, the office nobody, stuck in a closet with the office femme fatale as the result of a game of Truth or Dare. And in true Noir style, he’s in deeper than he could ever imagine. I’ve been work shopping the piece at Shelter Sundays. Contrary to some opinions of me, I believe strongly in collaboration. It’s an amazing experience to have actors read the play early in the development process, and then to get notes from actors, writers and directors. All of my pieces, every play I have ever written, has been shaped by a community of artists. I’ve been tempted to write a letter, from actor to playwright, that touches upon this relationship. But I also have some other things I want to write about, so we’ll see what comes first.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Dave Lankford: Let it happen. I’ve spent an unusual amount of time reading everything that people have written about the piece. And I wish I would have used more of that time to create. I still would have given time to reading reactions. And I’ve loved chatting with people who enjoyed the piece, especially folks in other countries. But I’ve missed out on time — something that is rare for me, in that I have a demanding job, plus I’m a husband and a father — and I could have used that time more productively. Then again, the experience itself is unique. And as an artist — be it actor, writer, etc — I see part of my job as collecting experiences. They are the building blocks of my imagination. The anxiety I felt is an insight, and I’m sure that will come in handy one day.

And advice for artists who want to take up blogging?

Dave Lankford: I highly encourage it — even if you make the post private so that no one can ever read it. I think part of the learning process is writing what you know. It solidifies the tacit knowledge swimming in your subconscious, making it something you can actually understand. It also makes you examine your own process, and I think taking personal inventory every once in a while is a positive thing. Plus: we should be sharing what we know. I feel that artists are generally protective of their ideas, as if sharing would give someone else the competitive advantage. But the fact is, when you share, other people share. And we all advance as artists. I also think artists are afraid of critique. But, so long as it is constructive, critique is incredibly valuable.

Great. I guess what came to mind, to keep it short is: write what you know and write what excites you. But above all: write.

Here we ended the interview, but he did go on to say these two things which I thought were worth putting in as well.

When we talked about my reaction to the tone:

Dave Lankford: As for the tone, I think it’s a matter of the voice we hear in our head. It’s why a character in a novel can be the favorite of one person, the least of another. We project our own imagination. In my mind, the playwright was the man or woman that presents a mystery to the person who’s just stumbled upon it. I think the juxtaposition forces as assumption of authority, but that was not my intent.

And lastly Dave said of the experience:

Dave Lankford: “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.

Everything Is Already Something Week 20: Actors Who Write

Allison Page is the new James Franco. 

It’s three years ago or so, and I’ve just finished a reading of several episodes of a web series I wrote. We’ve all been milling about the theater chatting, having snacks, and discussing the episodes. I’m scratching down a bunch of notes for myself – things I want to change, things I really liked, changes inspired by the way a person read the character, all the regular stuff. A guy walks up to me, and says completely seriously, “That was pretty good writing, for an actor.” He smiles and leaves.

I would argue that I’ve been an actor since I’ve been a talker – possibly before that. It’s never not been a part of my life, and every time I’ve made an attempt to cut it out, I just can’t. But the last three years especially have been co-focused on writing. I make my living writing allllllll day. And yet, I have this chip on my shoulder that I’m always going to be seen as an actor first, and a writer second. Or that somehow I can never really be a writer because I was an actor…which, when you say it that way, sounds really stupid. Generally, no one cares what you focused on before you started focusing on whatever you’re doing now. There are probably people in the NFL who used to work at Best Buy. I doubt anyone’s watching the game saying, “Yeah, he’s okay, but shouldn’t he be selling TVs? I just can’t see him doing anything else, ya know? He’ll always be Best Buy Brian to me.” Which isn’t to say that acting is as important to me as selling TVs, but the point is that most of the time, no one cares about that. But the actor/writer combo feels like it has a weird little stigma. Or maybe it’s because I am doing both of those things, and not giving up one for the other. If anything I’m using them to inform each other – something that I imagine and hope other actor/writer hybrid monsterbots are doing. I’m pretty happy with that, but every once in a while someone will say something like “That was pretty good writing, for an actor.” And after I’m done mocking his hairline, which is not so much receding as it is just running away, to make myself feel better – I get to thinking about the various reasons he might have said that.

Actor/writer is definitely an interesting combo if you look plainly at stereotypes. Actors: flighty, demanding, vain, difficult, extroverted, emotional, possibly dumb, probably-loves-swimming-with-attractive-people. Example: Marilyn Monroe

I'm carefree because I don't have to think...WHERE ARE MY BLUE M&Ms?!

I’m carefree because I don’t have to think…WHERE ARE MY BLUE M&Ms?!

Writers: brainy, quiet, meditative, introverted, probably-shut-themselves-up-in-a-cabin-for-months. Example: Ernest Hemingway.

This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?

This is my writing beard. Do I look smart yet?

Putting those two things together seems impossible. But those are also just stereotypes and don’t hold a lot of water in real life, but just because they’re not true doesn’t mean that the idea of them doesn’t still exist.

I’m aware of other actors who have started to write and don’t even wait for someone else to put the burden on them, they just do it themselves. Putting themselves down for having been an actor first and discounting their own writing because of it. Congratulations for getting to it before your nay-sayers did…but now you’re your own nay-sayer! For me (and I’ve said it before) one of the best things about the bay area is that you can do nearly anything. It’s a big beautiful testing ground on which to spill your artistic guts. There are so many outlets for you, if you look for them.

Last night I took a Lyft home, as I am like to do. I had just come from Write Club SF, an event which describes itself as “Literature as blood sport”. Naturally I was a couple of beers in (when you become a writer, you get to drink more. BONUS.) and got to talking to the driver about the event. I won my bout that night and have a tiny trophy to prove it. He told me, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s always wanted to be a writer. “So be one.” I said. “I don’t know” he told me, shaking his head. “I just feel like I don’t have the education, and I can’t afford it.” Naturally, I pish-poshed at that. I told him my whole rambling story, (you can check out my previous blog “Sorry I Didn’t Go To College” if you want to find out how I got here.) He’d been wanting to write for years. He’s started writing several novels but hasn’t finished them because he doesn’t feel like he’s really allowed to. After all, what right does he have to join the ranks of the elite alcoholism and snobbery of writing…right? My advice to him was that if he wants to do it, he should do it. The best thing about writing is that you barely need anything. If you have a laptop – great – if you don’t, paper and a pencil are damn cheap. I told him about a ton of free events that can help get him started. He ended the ride saying he thought it was fate that brought me to his car to encourage him to go after his dream. I won’t put quite that much weight in it, but I’m glad he felt inspired. I’m no Hemingway, but I do what makes me happy without regard for the opinions of people who don’t have the right to set the standard for me, because I don’t let them.

Tonight I have a short play in the SF Olympians Festival. It’s my first time writing for it after having acted the last couple of years. One of the many things I love about this festival is its dedication to not giving a fuck who you are. You send in a proposal. If your proposal is chosen you have a year to write a play. Then a staged reading of that play is produced. There are first time writers, long time writers, sometime writers and everything in between. There are, like me, other actors who are writing for the festival. There’s a drama critic writing for the festival. People from the fanciest of colleges, and people who barely graduated from high school writing for the festival. Unemployed people, authors, mothers, teachers, grad school students, tech people, and directors writing for the festival. And the best part is that we are all on an even playing field. Sure, the quality of each individual play is up to the writer, but we all have the same resources. We all get a director, actors, a theater, and even a piece of artwork representing our plays, regardless of background, experience or education. We’re pretty well supported by the festival and each other. I personally have missed only 2 plays, and have seen 22 in the last 2 weeks. And at no point has anyone mentioned that I’m just an actor who writes.

I try to work really hard at what I do to get that cozy “I earned this.”, feeling. But I’m also sure not to get down on myself just because I’m not Pynchon or Poe or some other writer with a P name. I’m actually happy to be both an actor and a writer. It’s satisfying for me; otherwise I wouldn’t do it. In the end I don’t think of myself as an actor who writes or a writer who acts – I’m an actor and I’m a writer and a bunch of other stuff too. I don’t think I know anybody who boils down to only one thing.

And for good measure, here are some people who did both, in no particular order and including playwrights, screenwriters and authors. (Don’t worry, I won’t mention James Franco):

Sam Shepard

Tina Fey

Bob Newhart

Mary Pickford

Wallace Shawn

Molière

Mindy Kaling

Christopher Durang

Kristen Wiig

Jerry Seinfeld

Marion Davies

Larry David

William Shakespeare

Carol Burnett

Steve Martin

Amy Sedaris

Harvey Fierstein

John Cleese

Gilda Radner

The Marx Brothers

Paddy Considine

Woody Allen

Mary Tyler Moore

Christopher Guest

Jon Favreau

Jennifer Westfeldt

Kenneth Branagh

……JAMES FRANCO. (gotcha)

This smile never needs a caption.

This smile never needs a caption.

See Writer Allison’s play The Golden Apple of Discord TONIGHT (November 20th) at 8pm at the Exit Theatre along with other short plays based on the Trojan War. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.

Working Title: The Same In Our Differences

Will Leschber looks at Anthology entertainment as he spends a “Night on Earth” with the “Trojan Women”.

Last week I was able to take in one of the myriad Olympian Festival shows. I had the pleasure to see the evening entitled “Trojan Women” which showcased eight short plays featuring the women of the Trojan War. Spurned lovers, bereaved queens, war widows: these women fill out the background of a war that is dominated by figures such as Achilles, Hector and Odysseus. The beauty of highlighting these stories is that it gives a voice to figures forgotten. Briseis, Hecuba, Laodike, Andromache, Polyxena, Cruesa, Oenone, Chryseis: this anthology of supporting women creates a rounded picture of the Trojan War and allows a perspective outside the battlefield to draw focus. Anthology stories are particularly good at providing multiple perspectives.

Anthology film while not a genre that we see everyday, it is a memorable one. The lines of definition can blur but for our purposes today we shall say Anthology films are ones that tells multiple stories independent from one another and are usually strung together by theme or subject matter. I think there is an important distinction between Hyperlink films and Anthology films. A Hyperlink film tells multiple stories that cross over or weave together by the end of the film. Magnolia (1999), Traffic (2000), Crash (2004), and Nashville (1975) are examples. However, Anthology stories remain separate while being part of larger film whole. The thematic thread in the Olympian festival evening was the supporting women of the Trojan War and the individual stories colored in the shades of life as such. Anthology films can come from a single filmmaker but often these kinds of films come about through multiple writers/multiple directors that work together to create a larger film outside their uniquely told stories. Some household Anthology films are: Sin City, Four Rooms, Grindhouse, Paris je t’aime, Kentucky Fried Movie, Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone: the Movie, Monthy Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch is one of the kings of the Anthology film. His 1992 effort Night on Earth is one of the best examples of the genre. Here we see five taxi cab stories that unfold at the same time in different cities around the world. The opening credits show a spinning globe which then cross fades to a wall with five newsroom clocks: Los Angeles 7:07 pm, New York 10:07 pm, Paris 4:07 am, Rome 4:07 am, Helsinki 5:07 am.

Zoom in: Los Angeles. Winona Ryder is a rough, tom-boyish cab driver who picks up the pristine casting director, as played by Gena Rowlands. The conversation is informal. Ryder smokes a lot. Differences in age are apparent and how age can alter values. We get a sense of the LA landscape at night as the cab passes monuments of everyday living: LAX, Centinela Hospital, La Brea Blvd, Astro Burgers, etc. The taxi winds up into it’s Beverly Hills destination, and finally Rowlands makes a film role proposal to Ryder. This we expect but the answer is possibly one we do not.

The Clocks roll back as the camera zooms in on the timeline of Ney York City. The Globe spins. New York flashes: A lit Empire State Building at a distance, pay phones tattooed with graffiti, a China Town neighborhood rolled up for the evening. Armin Mueller-Stahl is an east German immigrant who picks up Giancarlo Esposito in his rundown, shabby cab. Since the Mueller-Stahl’s immigrant can’t drive very well, Esposito proposes that he drive the cab to Brooklyn for them. “Its not allowed.” “Yeah, its allowed! This is New York!” They go. The city is seen through the wandering eyes of the newly arrived immigrant and something as common place as the Brooklyn Bridge to street-wise Esposito is filtered with fresh awe. Our cab driver immigrant learns how to drive, he learns how to cuss, he learns how to be a new Yorker. And so do we.

The clocks roll back to restart the half hour we’ve just spent and the globe rolls on to Paris. The moving post cards flash: The dark Metro, side street fruit shops with shades down, plentiful motorbikes parked for the night, the Seine twinkling in copper purples and neon speckled blues. In the Parisian vignette, a French-African cabby picks up a blind passenger and confronts the things about our sense of sight that narrows our field of vision. He can see and she cannot but in seeing that she is blind our French cabby is then trapped in his belief about her abilities or lack there of. Race, sex, nationality, perspective: all are touched upon through this informal smooth interaction between strangers.

Roll the clocks, spin the globe…Rome: The Colosseum, sex, religion, dark streets, old buildings. Roberto Benigni as the cab driver talks to himself in grand style and cracks a parade of jokes. He picks up a priest who needs a late night lift. Even with a passenger in the car, Benigni dominates the conversation as much as he did when alone. Soon the evening turns dark and darkly comic. Religion is sickly in the backseat while a sex-crazed, passionate people are in the drivers seat.

Time speeds back.

Clocks, Globe, Helsinki: Here we get a darker story where three drunk passengers develop a new respect for their cabby when they learn of his tragic past. It seems here in the darker and colder parts of the world, individuals bridge the gaps of connect through shared tragedy. Do we connect the same way in LA or NY? Or do the places we live highlight different aspect of our human condition?

I like to think Jarmusch is saying we are all the same in our differences. We all want to touch the movies in L.A. We are all immigrants in N.Y. We all are blind at times to others around us in Paris. We all joke and talk and focus on our sexual selves as religion remains in the backseat in Rome. And we all sing cold songs in cold times in Helsinki. Just like when we cry with Hecuba and laugh with Oenone, we are all supporting players in the Trojan War.

The SF Olympians festival continues until 11/23 and Night on Earth is available to stream on Hulu-Plus or to rent on Amazon.com / iTunes.