The Real World, Theater Edition: What I Don’t Need Anymore

Barbara Jwanouskos, focusing.

It’s actually really fitting that for the first month of the year we decided to focus on downtime and balance. I’ve felt the need lately in all aspects of my life –professional, personal, and artistic– to really take a solid look at myself and what exactly I want to achieve in these realms, and to make decisions about what I don’t need.

You all know that in my downtime from theater, writing, and work, that I practice kung fu and tai chi. I’ve mentioned before how the lessons learned from the pursuit of that art meld into other areas of my life. Most recently, I took a seminar, in which, I was reminded of how MUCH I truly do carry around! The task was to try to relax as much as possible while retaining the bare minimum of structure. It’s like you’re going on a backpacking trip — you want to pack light.

So, you’re thinking “great, so Barbara is tense, so what? So is everybody and what does this have to do with theater?” Which is probably pretty valid. I guess for me the connection and the a-ha moment in both activities, is that in order to progress further you need to give up something. And again, this might be kind of a duh realization. Still, I think it’s a good reminder and a good self-check to do every so often.

I have a couple writing goals for the year:

-To expand my portfolio by writing new plays. I don’t yet have a goal, but I figured at the very least writing one new full length, one short play, a short film, and revising my play “i stole lance armstrong’s bike” would be a hefty set of goals for the year.

-To get my personal website up and running. This one is so easy that I continuously put it off.

-To write consistently, as in every day. I used to do this more and fell out of practice with it, but to relate back to tai chi again for a moment, the time I started making deep, yet subtle (though absolutely tangible) progress when I made the small goal to practice for at least ten minutes every day and to write afterwards notes on what came up. I have a stretch goal to practice in the morning and evening and each month to increase my practice session by 1 minute.

I’d like to bring in some observations of why these things seem so hard to actually DO (especially consistently). Well, there’s my work schedule, there’s where I live and my commute time, there are the other commitments I have, and then add in the very necessary social outings with friends and family. But there’s also a lot of stuff I could cut out — for instance, really pushing for a fulltime job (I have been already, but I could make some even more pointed decisions to create more time). I could not volunteer myself for as many theater (or other) pursuits.

This one is hard because for me sometimes (especially when your role as writer is to be erm… writing) because I like being involved and socializing. I like helping out. I was talking about this with some of my friends the other night and it’s like, I have this need to only focus on my projects (and of those only the ones I really care about). We were reflecting that everyone else is certainly going to survive without us and no one would probably notice in the first place. Maybe this is sounding too pessimistic, but it really was an affirmation that I believe the work I do has meaning. So why get mixed up in other people’s art children dream projects because you want to “be involved”? I can be involved in a variety of ways. I can make plans to hang out with friends if that’s what I want to do. And I can support organizations, projects, and worthy causes in a variety of ways.

So, to digress for a second, by now maybe you’re like, “Wait, I thought this column was going to shift to interviews…” Well, you know how life goes. As it happened trying to balance all the above stuff and still try to fill my cup before I burned out, I got the timing wrong on my first interview of this year. And so yes, I did decide to write this as an alternative to that. Hopefully it is valuable or possibly interesting to others. But honestly, I don’t care. Not in a “I really don’t care about the content of this blog” way. I do, I absolutely do. I mean “I don’t care what others think about my decision to address this situation in this manner and what I think that they think it may say about me as a person, my abilities as a writer, or my aptitude to be a conscientious theater citizen.”

Phew! I know that’s a mouthful, but this gets to the last thing I’m willing to give up in order to swiftly achieve my goals: thinking. I’m sick of thinking and I’m all about doing. Thinking is great sometimes, but it gets to be natural. I can’t shut it off really. All I do is redirect and intensely focus on what I’m DOING. Maybe I’m over-emphasizing this point, but actually I with I had some companions on this “less thinking, more doing”. I’m so sick of navel-gazing theater to death. Can we just do it? Can we just write plays? Perform in things? Find a makeshift place to put on a play? Even if it’s really slow to get all the pieces in place. Even if it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I wonder if maybe I could do this (and possibly others, though I am certainly not interested in forcing or even working to convince anyone), maybe I could create some great art!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based writer and member of Just Theater’s 2014-15 New Play Lab. Website coming soon…

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Higher Education: Kicking Self-Doubt’s… Booty

Barbara Jwanouskos is here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And she’s all out of bubble gum.

Summer’s winding down for me. I head back to Pittsburgh in just under two weeks and classes start just five days after that. I’ve been concentrating on finishing the projects that I’ve committed to finishing and starting to cultivate the former good habits that used to be a part of my every day.

Non-sequitur here! I’ve been thinking a lot about tai chi because once I go back, I will be directing my own practice again. I won’t have regular classes to attend. I won’t have guidance from senior students or my instructor anymore. It’s actually a lot like how I went into summer – only with the writing being the activity upon which I had to be more self-directed.

I’m not exactly nervous that I’ll fail to practice. Even though last year was difficult, tai chi was a great way for me to calm down, get centered and move around a little bit. I think the hang-up comes from some kind of thought that goes a little something like this, (HIT IT!) What if when I’m practicing on my own, I end up letting myself off the hook too much and my practice becomes lazy?

I worry about this with writing too. I worry that even my sometimes minimal attempts to work on my play or do free-writing are not enough. But then I read this blog article, “Yes, Virginia, You Can Totally Force Art” by Chuck Wendig and I had sort of a huh, how ‘bout that? moment because I totally agree with him about the idea that when you have a daily practice goal – length of time, words, pages, etc. – cranking out those last couple of words, minutes, fractions of pages do make a difference in the long run. Even if you do end up throwing out all of it. I feel like more often, I have the same experience that Wendig describes, where you read over the what you wrote, and realize, hey, this isn’t nearly as awful as I thought it was…

I had a thought while teaching tai chi to the cast of Nancy Frank’s Inexpressibly Blue directed by Robert Estes for the Bay Area One-Acts Festival. Robert asked me to go through some tai chi and qi gong postures with the cast since I practice and assistant teach tai chi at 108 Heroes Kung Fu and Tai Chi (over in Chinatown). I went through the beginning section of the Yang Family tai chi form up in a beautiful, sunny park yesterday. It was interesting for me to go through the postures and the philosophy behind tai chi with them because you can really go deep down the rabbit hole.

The cast was mostly fixated on the postures of the form because of the blocking they would need to figure out for the performance of the play. Beyond the choreography and memorization of movements, there’s a whole endless string of other considerations to put into the practice. I think writing has been the same way for me this summer. Whenever I get stuck or frustrated with one piece of the play, I just go to another section I think I know about. Sometimes I try to power through a section I’m working on, and just have faith that something might pop up or that I could throw it away if it really sucks.

Tai chi is the same way. I think any practice is. Ultimately, you do have to have faith in yourself that you can go further than you think you can. You have to have faith that you’ll come up with something if you don’t remember what to do next or if you can’t think of where the story goes to. And, you know, tomorrow is another day. Every sucky thing that happened yesterday when you were writing or tai chi-ing just is a total wash the next time you decide to give it time.

There’s this book I’m reading right now about tai chi energetics called Juice: Radical Taiji Energetics, which probably sounds like fake magic BS to a lot of people, but the thing is, even with a feat that seems impossible, the two things he says that you have to do in order to reach these advanced levels are practice every day and believe that it will happen. There’s something to that. I don’t care if it’s radical or if it’s common sense. They work together too. Maybe you don’t always believe in what you’re doing but, ef it! You’re gonna practice anyway. And maybe you don’t always feel like you have time to practice, but hey, if you don’t, then how will you ever develop?

One of the screenwriting books Save The Cat Strikes Back! says basically the same thing that in order for him to find success with his writing, he had to be disciplined, focused and positive with his work. Those are hard things to remember to do sometimes, but it sure beats kicking your own booty with self-doubt. I’m trying to remember these small ideas that count when I come back to my thesis play to write, as I prepare to teach a whole group of students creative writing for the first time, and as I try to keep my tai chi practice this year. I’m confident something will come out of it if I can just wade through the muck. Did anyone ever regret taking the time to put a few more crappy sentences upon the screen? Probably not… Who knows where they will lead!