This article appears in The Be Zine. To see the entire issue on theater, click HERE.
What has Theater taught me? Ego indulgence and humility. Confidence and neurosis. Teamwork and competition. Empathy and retreat. Deception and honesty. The story of humanity in a microcosm. My story.
When I was a little kid, I learned that I could entertain and amuse my parents and my older sisters and get positive attention. As the youngest of four daughters, I was eager to exercise this talent to my advantage whenever my ego felt bereft. This helped me compensate for having fewer general skills and powers than my seniors. I couldn’t win at games or read or figure or run better than the rest, but I could sing and mime and look cute. I also was the only blonde, which helped.
When I was in second grade, I was very good at reading aloud “with expression”. I remember (and still have a written report about) my behavior when the class did a Reader’s Theater story about a snake. I told the teacher that I had a toy snake the class could use…provided that I got to read the lead role. Mrs. Richie declined my offer.
When I was in third grade, Miss White selected me to play Captain Hook in the musical Peter Pan. I was stunned. “I’m not a boy!” I protested. She told me privately that she thought I’d do a better job than any of the boys in the class. She could tell that I was a ham and would take risks to win attention and applause. And I did. In the final week of rehearsal, she gave me a monologue, a poem in rhyme that she would put into a particular scene if I could memorize it. I worked on it very hard. In the final performance, though, I skipped it altogether because I forgot where it was supposed to be inserted. To this day, I can rattle it off by heart. “Methinks I hear a spark, a gleam, a glimmer of a plan….”
When I was in seventh grade, I was double-cast as the lead in our pre-Bicentennial musical. I was the Spirit of ’75 for two performances (why the Music teacher and the Home Ec teacher chose this theme a year early is anyone’s guess). So was Kevin Bry. Yes, I played a man. Again. I vividly remember being in performance and feeling sort of bored with the dialogue the teachers had written to link together the songs the school chorus had rehearsed. So I decided to overact. “The sun still rises in the East….doesn’t it????!!” The audience roared. I think they were pretty bored, too.
When I was in High School, I took real Drama classes. I learned to dance, and I gained some confidence singing solos in the Concert Choir and the Jazz Choir. I became a lot more aware of my own vulnerability, too. I will never forget the Talent Show in my Junior year. I was in a leotard and character shoes, posed and ready to dance when the curtain went up. I was listening for our taped music to begin. And I heard nothing…until the audience started to howl and whistle. Suddenly, I felt naked and taunted. Then the music started, and I couldn’t concentrate on it. I was humiliated. My father and mother and boyfriend (who became my husband) were in the audience, hearing those students jeering at me. We all went out for ice cream afterward, and they tried to convince me that the performance wasn’t bad and the audience wasn’t being critical, but I just wanted to block the whole thing out of my memory forever. Obviously, I haven’t.
When I was in college, I was a Music major with Voice Performance as my Senior thesis. I auditioned for a part in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as a Junior. I hate auditions. I tend to choke when I know that someone is out there in those dark seats judging me. I am awesome in rehearsal – prepared, alert, willing and tireless. I was working hard, getting better at performance in my Master Classes and feeling more and more that my teachers and colleagues were actually rooting for me. But not at an audition. I was nervous, my mouth was dry, and my voice wavered. I could see my choir teacher in the house, talking with the casting director. I am sure that Prof. Lamkin was telling him that I was a very good soprano despite my weak scale runs in Mabel’s aria. I managed to land a part in the chorus.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with my B.A. in Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Worst audition EVER! Oh well. I found out that I was already pregnant. Got the role of Mother at age 22…and 24…and 26…and 28, and stayed off the stage for years. Meanwhile, my husband performed all over the country with a competitive Barbershop quartet and once at Carnegie Hall with the Robert Shaw Chorale Workshop. My children were on stage quite a bit, too. I was their coach. They were in all the school concerts and plays, took dance and music classes, and I watched and cheered and videotaped my heart out.
Then some neighbors invited me to help them start a Community Theater. I was tired of being in the background. I stepped up, and brought my oldest daughter with me. The next summer, I brought three of my children, my husband, and my mother-in-law as rehearsal accompanist. The next summer, it was just me, and my husband told me that he wouldn’t be able to solo parent while I was at rehearsal after this. Meanwhile, he was performing with the Chicago Master Singers and rehearsing every week. A few years later, my youngest daughter started taking theater classes with a group called CYT. The next summer, they did a community theater production, and I auditioned again and got cast. My oldest daughter played in the pit band. One of the performances was on my birthday, and the director brought me out on stage for the audience to sing for me during intermission. * shucks, folks! *
I ended up working for CYT and becoming their Operations Supervisor full time. In addition, I taught Voice classes and Musical Theater classes and Show Choir classes to kids aged 8-18 after work. All of my children and my husband participated at some point in the seven years I was employed there. I watched kids grow up in the theater, auditioning three times a year, growing in confidence and artistry, and questioning their identity every time.
“Who am I, anyway? Am I my résumé? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” A Chorus Line
Accessing emotions, improvising with another person’s energy – initiation, response, vulnerability, defense. Mime, mimicry, mannerisms, artifice and accents. Playing in the muck of human behavior. This is Theater. It can be devastating and edifying. You can lose yourself and find yourself or never know the difference.
I wonder if I should regret raising up a bunch of performers and encouraging them in this charade or if I should be proud to have modeled survival in the arena. I don’t know. It’s complex. We’re complex. And maybe that’s the entire lesson.
Life imitates Art; Art imitates Life. What’s the difference? Maybe Life and Art are one and the same or so intermingled that it’s impossible to separate them…like mayonnaise: egg, oil and vinegar bound together in one, smooth shmear.
Here are two pictures I took on the same day in New Mexico:
Statues in the city; real people in the wilderness. The fact that I put those photos side by side might say something about life…or art. They’re blended, see?
How about this one?
It’s a photograph of flowers on my dining room table. A still life. Is it still life? Those peonies were alive, right there in front of me. I took a picture, which I think looks a bit like a painting. That’s Art, but it looks a lot like Life. Our brains tend to blur symbol and substance. Try talking philosophy for a while: the words we use for concepts often supplant the concepts themselves. For example, the sign shows the words The Grand Canyon. Is the Grand Canyon the sign or the landscape behind it?
I love Art and Life; I love their blurred edges; I love their intermingled perspective. How fortunate to be able to play with both!
Life Imitates Art
This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine. For the table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.
“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly. Here are some key quotes from that piece:
“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it. That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”
“When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet.”
I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”. However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.
First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’? I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning. What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.
Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling. It is how we know we are alive.
And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us. We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history. That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values. We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out. These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well. It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories. Civilization is a story. Religion is a story. Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories. There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones. (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous. There is no ‘right’ story. Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.
This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well. The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning. In some ways, we want that. We find it exciting. But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative. To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace. Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning. When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego. Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out. My energy is renewed, and I am at peace. (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ. Awareness is the first step!)
“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.” We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times. Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others. For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity. May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!
The second issue of The ‘B’ Zine is out! This is a collaboration of The Bardo Group (which considers me a contributing writer) and Beguine Again. The theme for this month is “Preparation”. I invite you to check it out, enjoy it, reblog it, and be part of the movement. Peace!
THE B ZINE
BE inspired … BE creative … BE peace … BE
Volume 1, Issue 2
This Month our Theme is
THIS SEASON in the Christian Church is Advent, a time of spiritual preparation for birth of the Christ spirit in the hearts of human kind.
If you are not Christian, you might use this time and these practices as preparation for the birth of your highest Self as represented by the founder or a saint of your own religion or as an awakening to the Essential Spirit within. If you are atheist, you might see this time as preparation for the birth of the very best You. Inspiration and suggested spiritual practice are gifted to us by Terri Stewart, Priscilla Galasso, JD Gore, and Rev. Tandi Roberts.
In this issue we also look back with Corina Ravenscraft at November and its gifts of Gratitude and Rememberence as we cross the threshold into December. Corina’s second feature is a celebration of December.
Jamie Dedes reviews Writing Your Self: Transforming Personal Material by John Kilick and Myra Schneider. Working with this book might be a good way for you to kick-start the fast-approaching New Year. We have poetry from Jamie, Joseph Hetch, Terri Stewart and Myra Schneider and a sampling of Naomi Baltuck’s singular photo stories, both inspired and inspirational.
Other features include a reflections on: an Ethiopian coffe ceremony with Karen Fayeth; life and isolation with Joseph Hesch, World AIDS day with Tracy Dougherty; the presence God with Liliana Negoi; and an artful medition by the Rev. Tendi Roberts.
You will find team and guest bios HERE along with links to their work and/or websites.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Slowly We Go, Terri Stewart
Prepare Ye – The Way and the Wilderness, Priscilla Galasso
Preparation, Frank Watson
Preparation Ritual, Tandi Roberts
I Knew Advent, JD Gore
For the Love of a Good Cuppa, Karen Fayeth
Lifting Stones, Lilliana Negoi
World AIDS Day, Tracy Daugherty
Rememberance and Forgiveness, Corina Ravenscraft
Seasonal Cheer, Corina Ravenscraft
Swann in the City, Joseph Hesch
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jamie Dedes
Writing Your Self: Transforming Personal Experience, Jamie Dedes
Finding Silence, Myra Schneider
Beneath the Surface, Joseph Hesch
You Just Missed it, Joseph Hesch
The Leaves Still Fall, Joseph Hesch
The Republic of Innocence, Jamie Dedes
Winter Is Here, I Know, Jamie Dedes
Embracing the ‘M’ Word, Naomi Baltuck
The Many Degrees of Spooky, Naomi Baltuck
Virgins No More, Naomi Baltuck
It’s Never Too Late, Naomi Baltuck
Light from Darkenss, Becky Withington
Header: Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerardvan Honhorst (1622)
Above: Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, Murillo (1655)
Below: A page from an 11th-century Gospel of Matthew (1:18-21) with Matthew 1:21, (35) providing the origin of the name “Jesus.”
“Art is the proper task of life.” — Neitzsche.
What is Art? Who gets to define it? Who gets to make it? Do we delegate this activity to those trained and proven in convention or do we allow that any human has the privilege to create, to explore, to juxtapose materials and images and sounds and actions and ‘stuff’ of any description into something unique? And do we recognize that the miraculous gift of this activity is not merely the product to be admired, but the process that transforms? Have you been changed by Art, as a creator and as a consumer? Do you disqualify yourself from the role of artist? Is it fear that keeps you from it?
I admire people who engage in “the proper task of life”.
Milwaukee can be a rather uninspiring place in the dead of winter. Not that the light, feathery, cotton candy snow that piled up overnight wasn’t beautiful. As we walked to the breakfast cafe to meet Steve’s mother, we came up with an alphabetical list of adjectives for this particular day’s precipitation. I don’t want to complain about the temperature hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, although it is a favorite local custom. There are much better ways to engage the imagination, and I live in a house which reminds me of this every day.
Scholar & Poet Books is the name of our other roommate. The drafty, old duplex we share rises over 4 levels: basement, first floor, second floor, and attic. She occupies every level and every staircase. She completely fills “my” closet while some of my clothes have languished in suitcases under the bed for 3 years. I am learning to appreciate her presence instead of begrudging her seeming dominance. In fact, I think I am coming around to choosing her company.
After Sunday breakfast with Mom, we returned to her, eager to taste her bounty. Samplings for the day included Irish, French, Argentine, Tibetan and Yiddish. She expands our consciousness, delights our senses and supports our livelihood and our dreams. Her body is an amalgam of tens of thousands of books and CDs with a few hundred other artifacts thrown in. She is library, concert hall and museum. She is introvert heaven.
We started by reading aloud a poem by W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”, the howling North Atlantic wind of the Irish verses being matched by the Wisconsin bluster that rattled our windows. After delving a bit into Yeats’ biography, Steve then began his daily business of listing our friend’s appendages for sale while I went downstairs to do the dishes and make bread. After lunch, while the loaves baked, we began to discuss our plans to travel to Tibet. Internet research prompted a search through our stacks to find more information on that side of the planet. Steve came down with 6 books of varying relevance. When the bread was safely out of the oven, we went upstairs to watch a DVD, Manon of the Spring, having watched Jean de Florette just weeks before. This emotional tale of French village life transported us visually and linguistically to another world in a simpler century. I tried, unsuccessfully, to pick out the movie’s musical theme on my harmonica before returning to the kitchen to make dinner.
When we’d finished our meal and our wine, we retired to the bedroom to peruse the wall of jewel cases. We settled on a CD of Argentinian folk songs and dances by Suni Paz. In contrast to the Irish ballads we lit upon at first, these undulating rhythms drew us deeper into the sultry passions beneath our awakened senses…
Fueled by a solid Monday morning breakfast, we dove into the business of packaging our sales, accompanied by Moishe Oysher singing Yiddish, bluesy, vaudeville, Hollywood-like tunes. I have no idea what they were about, but his passages of improvised “scatting” made me think of Tevye stomping and shaking around in his barn, pouring out his desires to be a rich man. One of the books we packaged was sent to a Jewish community center in New York; it was a children’s book called Klutzy Boy. It made me laugh.
The anthem of my Alma Mater, Scripps College, starts: “Strong in the strength of all, venturing together, searching, exploring the life of the mind…” In the midst of a Milwaukee winter, this is the antidote to cabin fever. I’m grateful to be shacking up with Scholar & Poet Books.
(author’s note: to browse our inventory listed on A.B.E. Books, click HERE. To visit our eBay Store, click HERE.)
© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved