Taboo topic gets a voice…Bravo!

This afternoon, I attended a performance at the Pacifica Spindrift Players Stage 2.  I was treated, um…I don’t know if “treated” is the right word.  It’s not often that I have personally witnessed a script tackle an issue head on while being both very insightful, funny, and genuinely moving.  The play Coping Through Pain written and directed by Elizabeth Fatum was exactly that experience.

Susan (Maggie de Vera) is a woman who has a “unique” way of coping with stress and emotion.  This play was brought to life because, like all great theatre before, it’s a necessary topic that needs to be brought to light for the safety of those involved.

The lights went down in the audience and came up on the stage that had a podium, a white board on an easle, and a chair behind the podium; all of which are stage right of center. When the first few actors came on set, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  It seemed like it was supposed to be improvised interactions between various groups.  Then, enter Susan and you get sucked in by her presence.  She begins as a quiet demure woman somewhat clumsy, but when needed, she becomes assertive until she accomplishes her goal, then goes back to quiet and unassuming.  And she makes you laugh while doing it.   A quick lesson in acting: playing the opposites within moments or beats of each other create interest and energy.  Susan uses the following during the opening scene: quiet and mousey  to strong and assertive and then back which is funny when done well, and Ms. de Vera was right on the money.

The funny thing about this is that once she gets the actors on stage to leave, she starts the show as though she were presenting to us a lecture about Controlling Uncontrollable Things.  She writes the acronym on the board – C.U.T.  She begins to explain that emotions and stress are things that are uncontrollable items in life that actually can be controlled.  She begins to use an example of a volcano and is suddenly interrupted by a loud thump backstage and then some of the other actors re-enter the stage and play out a scene, and you come to realize that those actors are the physical representations of Susan’s thoughts that show the audience glimpses into Susan’s past and private life which feature Stephanie Rose Neimann who plays Young Susan.  This explains the opening of the show.  Clever. Following the departure of the “thoughts”, there is a small interaction between Susan with a person that was a focus in the scene before. Once Susan “gathers” her thoughts, she continues with the presentation aspect but is again interrupted.  The play is told through this manner of storytelling.

As you can probably guess from the acronym, she suffers from Deliberate Self Harm Syndrome and is considered a “cutter.”  This behavior is not unique.  The problem is that it’s such a personal act that no one talks about it.  And it’s personal for any number of reasons.  Sometimes there’s feelings of shame or guilt tied to the action, while some do it because they “feel numb” and are looking to “feel alive.”  This behavior affects millions of people, and in a society that is so full of pressure to fit in, the possibility for it to become worse is high.  Ms. Fatum made it a point to explain in the show that Susan was a bright and well rounded person.  There isn’t a general group that this action encompasses. There is no way to simply look at a person and know if this something that they are going through.    I am grateful that Ms. Fatum has planted her foot in the ground and heaved this issue in the audience’s lap.

There are many great moments throughout this too short 40 minute performance.  One of the most honest, I think, was when Jodie (Kyeshia Arrington)  is talking to Susan and offering her a friendly ear to confide in.  One would think that something so simple and easy could be pulled of by anyone.  That’s the problem.  Nothing is ever that simple.  This particular scene felt so genuine that I felt like I was actually in a high school watching two friends secretly talking.

Another great moment is again Susan interacting with her Mom (Shannon Quinn) after a  flashback.  This was a really well written scene.  The mother was questioning her role in her child’s illness.

The most powerful moment is the point when Susan realizes that while she isn’t hurting anyone else, she is hurting the most important person.  Herself.  At this point, the entire cast is on stage and Susan has just stopped Young Susan from placing another cut on her arm.  Then while in an embrace, the Susans in unison ask for help.  The rest of the cast, also in unison answer the call.  It’s a very moving scene.

Congratulations to Pacifica Spindrift Players Stage 2 for producing an important piece of work for the sake of all those that suffer from this behavior.  While there were a few tiny, tiny choices I would have liked to have seen done in a different way, this was a great debut for Stage 2.  I live in Campbell, and if this is the type of shows that Stage 2 will be performing, I will be more than happy to drive the 53 miles to see another.

My hope for Ms. Fatum is that, while this piece has grown from a 5 minute skit to a 40 minute play, she continues her work on it thus creating a full length 2 act play.  I feel like so many people will be shocked to learn what I have during the 20 minute talk back after the show.  If there is a way to incorporate some of that information into the middle of the play to understand the mindset of a person with this illness it could possibly have a bigger emotional pay off  in the end.  Still, should you ever get the chance to see this show produced elsewhere, please see it.

The Director/Writer and Cast of Coping Through Pain

Thank you, Theatre Bay Area!

Since I started this site, I have been trying to get my hands on everything art-y that I can.  Well, I had picked up a copy of the Theatre Bay Area magazine for March (it’s the one with the blue cover, orange was Feb.) from the great independent bookstore, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.  It’s a beautiful day, so I sat outside and began to read the issue.  While the activity was enjoyable, it didn’t last too long because I only got to Brad Erickson’s Executive Director’s Note.

I had to rush home because when inspiration strikes I have to work with it as soon as I can.  On my first post Hello world! in January of this year, I explained that I would LOVE to help out all of the Arts because the decline was being felt across the board and not just in theatres.  Well, the Note gives some of the actual numbers of this research.   I find this research is bitter sweet because while the Arts are declining, the act of reading literary works is rising among people 18-24 years of age.  So there is an upside, sort of.

I was lucky to have some sort of Arts programs in the elementary and middle schools that I had went to.  And as I said in the podcast, I feel exposure to the Arts while growing up is an important factor in appreciating them.  Usually, that exposure inspires people to create. It turns out that those that get involved in the Arts are more likely to attend them as well. So it’s a huge cycle.  Mr. Erickson gives a great comparison of sports.  As a kid they are placed into some sort of little league sport which gets them watching sports, and continuing to play them throughout middle and high school, even college where some pro athletes get made.  He follows this up with a brilliant paragraph that made me speed back to Campbell and begin writing for episode 2 of the podcast.  And for this short blog post.  OH, here’s some of what that paragraph said:

“Can theatre and other traditional arts take a cue from the world of sports? Can we build a seamless continuum  of participation that recognizes the the kinship between the youthful thespian, the middle-age community theatre star, the high school drama teacher and the Equity actor?… Can we be honest  about the prejudices we hold for other art makers in our own discipline? For the way professionals sometimes not so secretly discount the work of educators, of children, of “hobbyists”? About the way theatre artists sideline the work of colleagues working in unlike genres or venues: large-budget theatres vs. small-budget, new work vs. classical, “edgy” vs.  “entertainment”?  Can we authentically and respectfully welcome a broad spectrum of theatre engagement motivated by our shared passion for the power of this art form to reveal – in ways both silly and profound – our common humanity?”

So many things to think about just from that one little paragraph.

What do I do now?

Opening night of Sweet Charity had it’s share of hiccups, like both acts beginning late, and a few missed cues. However, for the most part it was a good performance.  The basic comment that I got about the dancing, which I was expecting, was that the dances need tightening.  I spent so much time in rehearsals going over every single step in detail (sometimes multiple times) that there wasn’t much time to actually run the dances.  So that comment was something that I was expecting.  One of the things that surprised me the most was that even with the problems that we had, most everyone said that the choreography was good. And, a director friend said that she will keep me in mind the next time she has a chance to direct.  So while I am happy about that, I feel bad that I couldn’t give the cast more opportunities to run the dances.

On Sunday, I volunteered to usher.  As I was waiting, I poked inside the audience and watched the warm ups.  The cast was doing the vocal warm ups which was followed by a running of Brass Band.  I watched this very closely, and what I saw was strange.  I turned to my partner, who was also ushering, and asked, “Are they performing this better than they did last night?”  To which, his response was “I was just thinking that!”  I hate to assume, but I am venturing to guess that nerves were playing a part in the show on Saturday night.

Regardless, I wouldn’t mind giving them the chance to run the numbers a few more times to boost their confidence in the steps, and to tighten up the performances.  There hasn’t been a mention of a brush up rehearsal on Thursday night, but I will be happy to be there.

Now that Sweet Charity is officially opened, I don’t know what I am going to do with all my time!

Of course I am kidding.  I will be trying to set up meetings with other companies, requesting interviews with more people, and researching more stuff that inspires.

Hey, maybe I’ll dust off the instruments.  Don’t get the reference? Take a listen to the podcast.

Until next time,

Break a leg!

So it's the Oscars tonight!!!

Unfortunately, I have to wait until 11:00 pm or so to start watching them.  This means I have to stay away from the web or else I’ll have a headline screaming at me that so and so won this award or whatever.  Luckily, the Razzies have already been given out.  Did anyone see them?  I never actually know when they are given out, but I have to say a huge thanks to Chris Hardwick’s tweet about this gem of a clip.

I have always been a fan of hers.  She’s like my guilty pleasure.  My favorite movie? While You Were Sleeping.  Second fave? It’s a tie between The Proposal and Miss Congeniality. But what I love about her is that, in this clip, Sandra Bullock shows us she doesn’t take herself so seriously and isn’t afraid to laugh at herself.

Let me preface what I am about to say:  This is my personal belief.  Whether or not you agree with me is entirely okay.  What I do ask, is that if you do disagree, tell me why.

But back to the post!  I have worked with actors that are so full of The Serious that their character never seems to become fully believable.  And when it’s a comedy, it’s tragic.  Usually, I can spot them by the way they laugh.  If I never see the person do a let it go-full belly contracting laugh (this is usually the same person that thinks they are doing the “polite” laugh) when something insanely hilarious happens, you know that they are holding back because they take themselves seriously.   Now you may say, but what if that’s just the type of person they are.  I can, with 99% conviction, say that as a kid, everyone has had one of those laughs at least once.  As we grow up, society plays with the mind and makes you think that certain types of behaviors aren’t acceptable. Let me ask you, as a kid did you every really question what was acceptable?  I know I didn’t .  As long as it didn’t hurt anyone (there’s a huge difference between moral compass and insecurity), I was as free as a bird with my actions.  There are some people that are able to maintain that great big laugh, and it’s somewhere in that feeling of letting it all go that, I believe, an actor should go to bring their character to life.  For me, that’s the place of Make Believe.   By the time the actors are ready to perform the show, they have to be confident and believe that their technique and practice has helped them learn their lines, remember when and where to cross, plus grab any props they may need the way it’s supposed to and bring them to performance level.  But to be completely believable, and sweep the viewers away into the world of the play, they have to go to that Make Believe place and simply become.  Just like when you played outside as a kid.  They can’t be inhibited  by their conscious insecurities, like I had ranted about in a previous post or else the stage never hits the brilliance it can shine with, even if all the lights are turned on high.