A good play is one that entertains. A great play is one that makes you think. An efficacious play is one that makes you change. And a play that makes you change, is one that you will never forget.
I saw a play/musical in April called Stop Hitting Yourself at The Off Center, part of the Fusebox Festival’s Machine Shop series in Austin, Texas. It was good, great, efficacious, and memorable on many different levels, mostly that of capitalism, individualism, America, and the planets’ resources. However, perhaps the one level it did not intend to impact me so deeply was that of… monogamy.
I often wake up with a phrase tickling my brain and pulsating slowly as I brush my teeth, look for clean clothes, deliberate if there’s time for coffee… Most of the time, I don’t even consciously acknowledge that this phrase has been resonating in my head until I’ve reached my car, as if I’ve been hypnotized. Usually the phrase is the lyric of a song and usually this subconscious wave is the result of poor sleep. Lately, I’ve found myself stuck on a particular phrase from the play Stop Hitting Yourself.
“I stopped believing in monogamy.”
In the play there were these profound moments where the cast would break out of character, step down stage as all of the house lights go up, and confess their sins, crimes, dirty habits, controversial beliefs, inappropriate behaviors, crude thoughts, etc. They did this three times during the play. On the 4th time, they broke out into a song, “I’ve Got Big Balls.” I attended two performances, discovering that these moments were different for every show, but always received the biggest laughs. They were certainly my favorite parts of the play – real people talking about real shit. I found myself guilty of many of the same confessions, except for this one:
“A few years ago, I cheated on a man to whom I was engaged, and around that time I stopped believing in monogamy.”
She wasn’t the only actor to confess her negative viewpoints towards marriage. One night, another actor shared:
“Whenever friends of mine tell me they’re getting married, I usually see it as them jumping off the carousal of life.”
That same actor also shared:
“I think most of the gays that are fighting for marriage will be divorced in the next two years.”
I don’t think I believe in monogamy. It’s my biggest question, my biggest secret, and my biggest insecurity.
My boyfriend calls me a “little bird,” because of my desire to travel and move with the changes of the season. Birds are the most monogamous of all species. Penguins pick one mate for life. I so badly want to be a penguin. And yet, at the same time, I don’t… Deep down, I know it’s just my insecurities that push me to wanting to march with the penguins.
One, I’m not so much afraid of death as I am of being alone when I die. Yet, here I am, the bird that often prefers to fly alone… Yeah, sure, I’m young now – I can fly as much as I want to from one lover to the next? But at some saggy-ass point, I’ll wish that I had found a companion.
Two, I’m terrified of the idea of having sex with someone who I am not “officially” in a relationship with… Keeping in mind that every relationship I’ve ever been in has been a long-term relationship. In other words, even my hippie parents would be disappointed by the number of lovers I’ve had…
Perhaps I’m being too open for a blog post, but I’m saying this because… There is a lot of judgment and stereotypes towards people who don’t believe in monogamy, one of which is that we’re generally selfish people who are looking for an excuse to have sex with whoever we want without any repercussions. I am not one of these people.
Three, I know for a fact that I am not one of these people because I have worn the other shoes… Where the actress cheated on her fiancé, I have been cheated on. Without making this blog any more personal than it already is, let me just say that I was cheated on in one of the worst ways possible, and I can’t imagine putting anyone through even 10% of that pain. I think if someone has the urge to cheat, they should be a loyal friend and shouldn’t be a coward. They should share their sexual frustrations with their partner, or break up with their partner altogether, or propose to their partner an “open relationship.” That being said, where there are people who are totally secure enough to be in open relationships, I am also not one of these people… I think that’s the reason why I have struggled to express my feelings on monogamy to my boyfriend. I am terrified that he also might not believe in monogamy and, therefore, would find a certain comfort in cheating on me or consider proposing an open relationship.
The other reason why I started writing this blog was because, as I suggested earlier, I don’t know anyone who I can really talk to about this “stuff”. Then, ironically… As I started writing this blog two weeks ago, thinking to myself, “It’s a good thing my boyfriend doesn’t read my blog,” guess who stumbled upon some research notes? To say the least, my boyfriend has now decided to start reading my blog… So, we finally had a very sugarcoated conversation about marching with the penguins. And so I shared this story with him:
The other week, I had the opportunity to cheat on my boyfriend. An “acquaintance” asked me if he could kiss me, knowing full well that I had a boyfriend. Of course I said no, but I’ll be honest… there was a brief moment where the idea of giving him just a little kiss gave me a huge rush. There are different reasons why people cheat and I’m really trying to restrain myself from generalizing or judging those reasons. But I will say that, in that one moment, I felt the attraction to that rush. In that one moment, I could understand why people give into romance so easily and cheat all the time. Why such a rush over a little kiss with someone I barely know, when I could easily go home and have sex with my boyfriend?
“It’s so much better to desire, than to have.” – Anouk Aimee
My question is: What is the source of that rush? Why do we crave it?
Does that craving come from a biological place? As if no matter how sexually satisfied I might be, my body will always be on the look out for a stronger man to produce my next baby and protect me and my baby.
Or does that craving come from a genetics place? For example, on one side of my family, all of the men cheat on their wives.
Or does that craving come from my personality? I’ve dated such radically different men, so perhaps I just enjoy being curious? No… Even if that is true, that can’t be the main source…
That rush seemed almost as intense as an orgasm. So I can’t help but think then that it comes more from a nature place, not a nurture place. This led me to my research…
“…when we’re first falling in love includes a racing heart, flushed skin and sweaty palms. Researchers say this is due to the dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine we’re releasing. Dopamine is thought to be the “pleasure chemical,” producing a feeling of bliss. Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and produces the racing heart and excitement. According to Helen Fisher… together these two chemicals produce elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention…
…Another possible explanation for the intense focus and idealizing view that occurs… people in love have lower levels of serotonin and also that neural circuits associated with the way we assess others are suppressed. These lower serotonin levels are the same as those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, possibly explaining why those in love “obsess” about their partner…
…In romantic love, when two people have sex, oxytocin is released, which helps bond the relationship… the hormone oxytocin has been shown to be “associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people.” When it is released during orgasm, it begins creating an emotional bond — the more sex, the greater the bond… Vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone, is another chemical that has been associated with the formation of long-term, monogamous relationships… [It’s believed] that oxytocin and vasopressin interfere with the dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, which might explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows…
…Endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, also play a key role in long-term relationships. They produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure. Like dopamine and norepinephrine, endorphins are released during sex…
…The feelings of passionate love, however, do lose their strength over time. Studies have shown that passionate love fades quickly and is nearly gone after two or three years. The chemicals responsible for “that lovin’ feeling” (adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, etc.) dwindle. Suddenly your lover has faults. Why has he or she changed, you may wonder. Actually, your partner probably hasn’t changed at all; it’s just that you’re now able to see him or her rationally, rather than through the blinding hormones of infatuation and passionate love. At this stage, the relationship is either strong enough to endure, or the relationship ends…
…If the relationship can advance, then other chemicals kick in. Endorphins, for example, are still providing a sense of well-being and security. Additionally, oxytocin is still released when you’re having sex, producing feelings of satisfaction and attachment. Vasopressin also continues to play a role in attachment.”
I found in Psychology Today an FAQ with Christopher Ryan, the writer of Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. This question and answer stuck out the most to me:
Why is long-term sexual monogamy so difficult for many couples?
“Several factors conspire to make long-term sexual monogamy difficult for people. As a species, we’ve evolved to be sexually responsive to novelty. From a genetic point of view, the lure of new partners (known to scientists as the Coolidge effect) combined with less responsiveness to the familiar (the Westermarck effect) motivated our ancestors to risk leaving their small hunter/gatherer societies to join other groups, thus avoiding incest and bringing crucial genetic vigor to future generations.
Another problem is that most people in the West marry because they’re ‘in love,’ which is a temporary, blissfully delusional state we should enjoy, but not expect to last forever. As the German poet, Goethe put it, ‘Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing. A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.’”
Having been married before, I have to say that I totally agree with this statement. And having never witnessed a lasting marriage before, I’m starting to question the importance of marriage altogether, except for maybe tax purposes or to prove a political point.
My boyfriend has dreams of getting married and having kids, so I was curious to see how he would respond to that quote. He replied:
“I think most people who take their vows, don’t actually recognize the weight of what they are promising to provide and sacrifice.”
I think most people are like me and view their marriage vows as a pledge to monogamy over anything else. When I was with my husband, monogamy was never an issue for me. Blame it on late hormones or boredom, but not until recently has monogamy become an issue for me. When I was married, I did not appreciate the weight of what I promised until just as my marriage was failing, just as it was too late. I thought my decision to give up on our marriage was a symbol of weakness and my helplessness in keeping my promises. Overall, I viewed divorce as a “failure”. Perhaps now I better understand how much more there is to marriage vows than just a pledge to monogamy, but I’ve now adopted the phrase “death sentence” and am 99% certain I’ll never get married again.
At another performance of Stop Hitting Yourself, the same actress also said:
“I think monogamy is, generally speaking, an unrealistic expectation and I think our novels, films, and literature, and all that, would be much more interesting if we didn’t think cheating on someone was the worst thing you could do.”
And this is where we finally get to the heart of this blog posting… How does all this monogamy talk relate to art? Although I might not believe in monogamy, I have to disagree with her. I think if anything, novels, film, and literature glamorize and dramatize infidelity, making an already desirable idea even more desirable. In other words, infidelity is sexier and riskier, making it more important and, thus, more thrilling to successfully achieve.
“In 2006, about 19% of married men and 13% of married women under the age of 30 said that they had been unfaithful to their spouse. Do those numbers sound high? They certainly are if we compare them with the results of a survey 15 years before, when the respective numbers were roughly 13% and 11%. A “mere” two-percentage-point increase for women and a six-percentage-point increase for men may not sound like much, but to put it another way: Between 1991 and 2006, the numbers of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20% and husbands by a whopping 45%… David Popenoe of the Marriage Project, at Rutgers University, immediately noted this oddity: Although our culture may have gotten more sexually permissive over the past 50 years, ‘the attitudes against adultery have gotten firmer over time.’ He cites one survey showing that more than 90% of the population believes that cheating on one’s spouse is always wrong.”
How exactly have the attitudes against adultery gotten firmer over time? So what if a survey says that 90% of people think cheating on your partner is wrong, it doesn’t mean that they think our desire to be with multiple partners is wrong too. Like I said before, I believe in loyalty and bravery, but I don’t believe in monogamy. There are probably more people than I think who would agree with me on this, but I think our culture pushes us into hiding. For example, why should we feel so guilty to admit that we want to have sex with someone else other than our partner, when that’s how we are biologically and genetically designed, and perhaps even nurtured? Overall, I don’t understand why monogamy is such a sensitive subject, hence the reason why I don’t have any one who I can talk to about this “stuff.” I sure hope someone comments on this blog…
For a moment then, let’s ignore the survey regarding people’s attitudes against adultery and take the “life imitates art” route: So much of our personal fantasies are inspired by magical images and words played out in art. So, could perhaps the increase in infidelity be partially due to the increase in films where the adulterer is the protagonist? Am I the only one willing to admit that I experience more of a rush when I witness on screen infidelity being romanticized rather than a marriage being romanticized? If I had to pick between Nia Vardalos and the sexy John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Diane Lane and Oliver Martinez (who personally doesn’t do very much for me) in Unfaithful, I would definitely have to go for the latter.
Yesterday I was sharing some “drummer philosophy” with another percussionist. There are a lot of stereotypes against drummers, like any musician, one of which being that we’re bad “boyfriend material,” or in my case “girlfriend material.” It was clear that this percussionist and I do not follow most drummer stereotypes, from being “flakey” to the most drunk after a show, but we still agreed that we’re bad relationship material. He shared with me, “I don’t want a girl to love me. I just want a girl to like me.” I laughed when he said this, thinking he was just joking, but he was totally serious: “Love is a temporary chemical reaction, like a drug, and it messes me the fuck up.” He went on to explain that he merely wants a girl that likes him and that’ll put up with his musician lifestyle without too many expectations. It is true that many of the neurotransmitters we experience when we’re in love are the same neurotransmitters we experience when we sniff cocaine, so no wonder why love is addictive. And perhaps why it leads to such crazy expectations like marriage. (Yes, I have to agree that marriage is unrealistic and, therefore, crazy too.) As much as I want to follow the same path as him, I don’t think my art would be very good if I closed my heart off to the world. Creativity and suffering have always been linked together, and what is more painful than love? In fact creativity and drugs/alcohol have always been linked together, but believe me when I say that I have never once had a drink or even a hit of pot. Love is my only drug, so I guess I’m to lead a life of flying from one love to the next until my ass is too saggy for anyone. That’s the one insecurity I might as well get over now.
This semester… One of my students was arrested for having a gun and marijuana on school grounds. One of my students, along with two advocates, wrote a letter to another student of mine that detailed the different ways in which they would kill him. Two of my students, who were in a deeply committed relationship, had a dramatic break-up. One of my students was kicked out of my after school program because she was sneakily texting inappropriate messages to boys during my class. One of my students was put in the hospital because of an eating disorder. And the list goes on… This semester was rough, to say the least… And yet, the most rewarding.
For those of you who do not keep up with my blog… I teach three after school programs with Creative Action in Austin, Texas: a theatre class, film class, and music class for percussion, all at the middle school level. The mission of Creative Action is to spark and support the academic, social, and emotional development of young people, following what-we-call the 4Cs…
This semester, every time I thought I conquered one of the 4Cs with a student, something devastating happened and suddenly I felt like I was back at ground zero. My coordinators think I’m too hard on myself… Sometimes I agree, reminding myself of the metaphor my boss loves to use: My job as a teacher is not to completely tear down walls, but to simply poke holes through them, so that students may see the light on the other side. Yet sometimes I disagree with my coordinators, reminding myself that I can still improve upon my patience, upon letting go of perfectionism, and, most of all, upon building my confidence. I think this middle ground is a good place to be.
One student in particular shook this ground like Namazu. (For the purposes of this article, I will refer to said student as Jane.)
Let me explain… Scattered along my body are a series of henna style tattoos that, like traditional henna tattoos, each represent a ceremonious time in my life, such as my wedding day. Each rite of passage is represented by a symbol. For example, I have a bird flying over my left shoulder to signify the day I left my husband. The next portion of my tattoo will be of Namazu, a giant catfish who causes earthquakes. He lives under the islands of Japan and is guarded by the god Kashima. When Kashima lets his guard down, Namazu thrashes about violently, trying to escape.
This semester was not only rough for my students, but for me too. My ex-boyfriend stole over $4000 worth of my equipment and belongings, fell into hard drugs, and threatened me. The last few months we were together, I felt like Namazu waiting for Kashima to let his guard down. When my ex was finally out of my life, I finally felt liberated and, in my pain, almost swam away from Austin altogether. Without even knowing the struggles I was going through, Jane inspired me not to flee. She did so in two ways: one, she opened up to me on how much I inspired her and, two, in doing so, I recognized the same Namazu in her. (That moment of recognition had a sweet irony to it, as Jane aspires to be a tattoo artist. I’ve asked her to design a flower that I can add to my Namazu tattoo design.)
I think back to not tearing down walls, but poking holes through it… I think that you cannot force change, only inspire it. Change. Inspiration. If I had to pick one of the 4Cs that rang most true in my relationship with Jane and, ultimately, in this semester, it would be confident leadership.
I gave my phone number to Jane’s mother since, starting this summer, I’ll be teaching Jane private music instruction. I also gave my number to Jane. Usually, I only give my number to my private high school students, but I made an exception since Jane is entering 9th grade next year. One night, Jane and her mom texted me from an animal hospital, devastated about their pet that was dying. Weeks later, on another night, Jane called me, sobbing uncontrollably about how a different pet went missing. Not long after, her mom texted me, asking me to call Jane again for support. A few of my private students have practically become my nephews after several years of teaching them, but never had I been invited and accepted so quickly into one of my students’ families. I knew that I had poked several holes into many of my students’ lives, but never on this level. I made new discoveries in my role as a mentor between inside our class space and inside their family space. I found myself questioning my hesitations and eagerness to support Jane both as a student and as what-felt-like a niece. My hesitations were sparked by both my struggles in trusting others and working within the general code of conduct as a teacher, whether in a public school or private instruction setting. My eagerness to support was sparked by both my understanding that Jane feels very alone in this world, hence as to why she has a special attachment to her pets, and my fear in how her Namazu may flee…
Confidence. Leadership. I think back to my middle ground… I think back to that space between Japan and an open ocean… between Austin and be it freedom or fear… I realize that balance is a common thread in confident leadership…
The day Jane opened up to me… I found her crying outside of class. She shared with me her concern for another student. Said student was suffering from something… something that Jane too had the unfortunate experience of and was only just starting to recover from. It doesn’t really matter what the “something” was. What mattered to me was that Jane never told anyone of this struggle. And when she discovered that another classmate was going through the same thing, she didn’t know how to help him. Jane was trying to force him to change his ways, but since she would not give any reasoning as to why she “thinks she knows best,” obviously fearful of opening up to him, her attempts fell flat. I was honored that Jane trusted me with her secret and I encouraged her to find the confidence to share it with him, to use her story as a means for poking holes and showing him the light. It took a great deal of time, but one day, I stumbled upon a conversation between Jane and several students, him included… Jane was sharing with them her story, emphasizing how she wishes she could go back in time and change her ways. The next day, I saw an immediate in change in Jane. I felt like she had found a balance, a peace of mind…
The last time I wrote a blog about teaching was the day before my end-of-Fall-semester review. So it feels appropriate to post this blog the day before my end-of-Spring semester review. Jane’s confident leadership, not to mention how she also excels as a courageous ally, critical thinker, and creative artist, leads me to often labeling her as one of my “best students”. After the troubles I experienced with many students, I did not expect my end-of-Spring semester review to focus on my pride for one of my “best students”. I expected it to focus on how rewarding it was to witness a student who progressed greatly in one of the 4C spectrums… But it makes sense as to why that felt wrong. When I approached this blog, it seemed only right to share my story about Jane. About how she touched me and how it lead me to change both my personal life and my life as a teacher. I changed my attitude towards Kashima. For example, I realized how easy it is to mistake fear for freedom and visa versus, the desire for the unknown for the denial of our dark pasts. I changed my approach to our rehearsal process. For example, at one of our dress rehearsals, I realized that it was necessary to stop helping the students and completely turn all leadership power over to them, so they could find the confidence to pick themselves back up and help others.
Someone once told me that you cannot weigh one person’s pain to another’s, because our different experiences lead us to experience pain differently. Likewise, I would not weigh Jane’s pain over another students’, no matter how much of a hot button issue it may be or how much I identify with it. Thus, it doesn’t matter really how Jane might excel more or how much one student progressed more… What matters is the journey of peace of mind.
I used to find it rather tacky when playwrights and screenwriters wrote themselves into their own scripts. I used to roll my eyes at yet another protagonist who is an author or screenwriter suffering from writer’s block. Even when I’d admit that some of my favorite films do just this, my ears still rang with Julian Hoxter, author of Write What You Don’t Know. And even when I was, on the rare occasion, guilty of the same thing, I, like the struggling writer, craved for something outside of my own world. However, I recently discovered that my “comfort zone” isn’t the unknown, but quite the opposite…
So here comes the purpose of this article: One month into shooting my first feature film, The Long-Term Side Effect (LTSE), I realized… I had unknowingly written myself into my own script. And I couldn’t be sure whether the events in my life would turn out the way they do in the film… In fact, I couldn’t be sure if I picked the right ending for the film…
When I was asked to write this post, I was very hesitant. One, I don’t like to write about myself. Two, this article was referred to as a “human interest story,” and I wasn’t sure what human would be interested in my life. However, as I began to scribble down my thoughts, I discovered there was a valuable lesson in all of this, one that I think anyone can connect with, writer or not. (I’ll be curious to see the comments and posts.)
Kathleen Mason and I spent the months of January and February work-shopping the script for LTSE. Kathleen is the lead actress of LTSE, playing Lei Kelly, a woman who, due to the strange side effects of an experimental cancer treatment, has mysteriously stopped aging. After we cast the film, we spent the months of June and July rehearsing, often improvising around crude drafts that I brought in. In fact, there were a few shoots where we were still testing out dialogue. Normally, after I’ve written a screenplay, I let it hibernate for at least a year before I decide whether it’s any good or not, before I decide whether or not I should film it. That didn’t happen with LTSE. It was an organically explosive creative process.
From writing a story about a door-to-door salesman who believes God is speaking to him through his GPS… to writing a reverse Cinderella story about a woman who hides away in a motel for a month… to writing a story about a man journeying into the unconscious with each one of his personas, represented by puppets… I don’t normally write very close to home. My stories are normally dark comedies about seemingly “normal” people, their secrets acting as the script’s unique fantasy element.
So, between a rushed creative process and, mainly, my fear of writing about myself, it came to me as quite a shock when I discovered that I had written myself into LTSE.
During principal photography, my marriage was failing. As a result, I had drastically changed our shooting schedule to be at home by 5pm with dinner on the table before my husband returned from work. I sacrificed a great deal of the film in order to be a better wife, from not working after dinner to trying to go to bed with him at the same time.
(In respect to my ex-husband, I’m going to refer to him in this article as Phil, purely because that was the name of our cat. And in respect to myself, a workaholic and insecure artist, I will refrain from too many intimate details of our relationship, particularly why it was failing.)
Where my husband was #1 in life, my therapist became #2. I canceled shoots to make sure I could dedicate time to therapy so I could successfully find the secret for saving our marriage. In less than two months of therapy, of which during that time I could not inspire Phil to join me in counseling as insisted by my therapist, it occurred to me that no matter how much energy I put into saving our marriage… unless he did anything, it was determined to fail. So, I finally packed my bags, walked out the front door and told Phil to call me when he was finally ready to talk.
During this entire process, Kathleen was the only person involved in the film who was fully aware of everything that was going on. The only person who didn’t point out the bags under my eyes or even questioned as to why I stopped brushing my hair… She was the one who enlightened me, “Dannie… You’re like Lei’s husband.”
At the beginning of the film, Lei will not talk to her husband, leading him to finally packing his bags and walking out the front door. Throughout the film, their daughter is constantly harassing Lei about finally calling dad, about finally being able to communicate with him.
When Kathleen enlightened me, my thoughts went to the end of the film. We had already written the ending, but we hadn’t shot it yet. Would the events in my life lead to the same ending in the film? Or should I wait and rewrite the ending based on how the events in my life unfold? Because that would be the “right” ending, right? “Shit,” I thought…
When it comes to relationships, something I’ve always struggled with is the concept of falling in love with a person versus an idea of that person. Essentially, am I falling in love with a human being or the potential of our relationship? I feel like every time I know that a relationship is about to end, it’s because I’m working towards an idea that is no longer possible.
Part of the reason we write is to live out another fantasy or a fantastical version of our own lives. Thus, there was the question of, in the ending, do I go with the fantasy, AKA my idea of my husband and our future, or do I wait and go with the dark reality that I foresaw. In other words, does Lei call her husband or not?
Whether or not I’m falling in love with a real person or a fantasy of that person, is it wrong to do the latter? Whether or not I go with writing the reality or the fantasy, is it still wrong for me to imagine, rather cinematically, our love story with all its indie quirkiness and Hollywood endings? It took me a while to come to this conclusion, but no… I don’t think it’s unhealthy to fantasize. I mean how can it be when writing feels so therapeutic? Part of the reason we fantasize about our lives is to see our desires fulfilled and our goals accomplished. Thus, fantasy for me is often the key to determination. No matter how magical and unrealistic, I think it’s healthy for people to consider all of the things they want in life in the highest imagination and to the utmost extreme. Knowing the pleasure in doing this is not as powerful as the “real thing” just encourages me more to be an adventurous person, to kiss him first or to quit my job or to spontaneously buy a plane ticket.
As a result of this experience, I’ve been inspired to make my next film much more magical, a story that teeters on the fine line between reality and fantasy. It will be visually stunning and musically enchanting, using both story methods and technical methods I have not seen in a film quite like this before…
And in regards to the story itself, I will write a little of myself into the script… I have learned to not feel guilty for wanting to write, “what I know,” because what I know is what I am passionate about and stories need passion. And whether or not you are a writer, I want to encourage you to embrace your true, deepest desires and goals and to fantasize the hell out of them.
Most “full-time” artists I know teach because “they have to pay the bills.” I started teaching before I considered myself an artist and before I even had bills, so I hate being thrown into this group. I love teaching, but I will admit I never want to do it full-time. Sometimes I fear that if I were to become a full-time teacher, I’d fall into a pattern of recycled curriculums and lose track of my personal goals. Someone once told me, “Because I love art, I cannot teach it.” I can’t remember who said this to me and I can’t remember how I replied… I couldn’t have agreed or disagreed with him/her… All I remember is that fear… that feeling of one day, I might hate the very thing that created me.
After school teaching has always been the perfect fit for me, because each semester brings new kids, new ideas, and new projects. In other words, I have never used the same curriculum twice. In fact, each semester I force myself to try at least one new style/genre, technique/method, etc. Thus, my part-time job is always exciting and daunting, overall refreshing and, the result, positively astonishing. (My goal is to eventually move from after school teaching into part-time work at detention centers where I can work with teens.)
This semester I taught three after school programs with Creative Action in Austin, Texas: a theatre class, film class, and music class for percussion, all at the middle school level. The mission of Creative Action is to spark and support the academic, social, and emotional development of young people. At Creative Action, we follow the 4Cs, being…
1.) Creative Artists
2.) Courageous Allies
3.) Critical Thinkers
4.) Confident Leaders
Tomorrow I have my end-of-the-semester review. This will actually be my first review ever with Creative Action as I just started teaching with them in August. One of the things we’ll talk about is how I effectively implemented the 4Cs into my curriculum and challenges I faced in doing so. Without a doubt, I want to talk about Number 3, Critical Thinkers, specifically how I taught my students to understand diverse perspectives. I want to talk so much about this, I thought, “Why note write a blog post about it?”
I went to JEB Stuart High School and George Mason University, both of which were featured in the National Geographic back in 2001 for being the most diverse schools in America. At those schools, I often found myself the minority, not just because I am white, but because, unlike the other white kids, I was not from a wealthy neighborhood. On top of that, half of my friends were gay. AND, on top of that, I was a closet atheist. A great deal of my teaching surrounds understanding diverse perspectives through teaching positive debate, developing empathy, inspiring courageous expression, and demonstrating active questioning and engagement in society. All of this falls into the category of “Critical Thinking.”
Before the semester started, I was enthused by one story from a friend of mine, Craig Sadler, who is a faculty member at Media Tech and one suggestion by a team lead, Sophi Hopkins, at Creative Action.
Sadler described to me one of his favorite teachers in high school. (I was not surprised to find out he was a theatre teacher.) If his teacher saw two students in a verbal confrontation, rather than breaking them up, he would let them finish arguing in front of the whole class. Then, when things settled down, he would allow student witnesses to describe, analyze and reflect the situation, addressing the conflict(s), specifically how the two students were communicating. Naturally, the students would see where they may have “failed,” and hopefully find a solution.
Hopkins described to me the “Ouch/Oops” rule. The rule is that if someone says something that offends you, you should say “Ouch.” This applies to both students and instructors. For example, if someone says, “that’s gay,” and that statement offends you, you would audibly say “Ouch,” so that the he/she and the whole class can hear. If that someone didn’t mean to offend you or was misinterpreted, he/she should reply, “Oops.” It is up to the instructor whether or not to address the offense.
I found both of these techniques hugely helpful in allowing students to express themselves and maintaining a safe environment for that expression.
In all of my classes, my students’ final sharings were devised pieces. (My theatre students did a play on the theme of violence in middle school. My percussion students did a Stomp inspired piece focusing on acts of kindness. My film students did music videos, each one touching on a different social topic, such as bullying.) Thus, many days demanded discussion on a variety of topics from sexuality to race, violence to relationships, insecurities to social expectations, and God. Upon opening the door for free expression, many challenges occurred:
1.) What do I say when a student asks me for my opinion? And my true answer is controversial or inappropriate for me to share within a middle school structure?
2.) How do I prevent a verbal confrontation from escalating to tears or a student wanting to leave the classroom without silencing anyone’s voice?
3.) What do I do when I want to respect the students who want to continue discussion, but notice that other students are bored and/or ready to move on to the next activity?
4.) What do I do when there is a strong discussion about specific social issues, but the students are not interested in writing or improvising a story about them?
I don’t think there’s a clean answer to any of these questions, because obviously the circumstances are different from case to case. Each question seesaws on such a hairy, shady line – often it seems the pros and cons are even on both sides. I post these questions to encourage a discussion through the comments box below, so please feel free to share, whether or not you’re an instructor.
I’ll start off the discussion with this comment: The first semester to a new group of students is always an experiment, but this semester I experimented more than any other semester by emphasizing and encouraging social topics/issues more within the process and product. When I sensed interest in a topic/issue, I created specific activities surrounding it for the following class. However, there were many days where students would enter the classroom, heated by a recent event that would demand an immediate discussion. Sometimes these discussions would last over an hour. I know one area where I need to improve is in applying game structures and exercises (particularly story-based ones) to these spontaneous discussions in order to keep everyone engaged. Perhaps in doing that, students will be more inclined to write or improvise a final piece on the topic/issue, having had more practice in creating short stories based on their own thoughts and expressions. I think most students are, at first, intrigued at the idea of creating a story from scratch, but when they realize the work it entails, they lose interest. Next semester, I plan to take on a little more of the “structuring” stage (AKA the “boring part”), finding a way to layer and arrange all of the moments they have either discussed or improvised/wrote. That being said, next semester I’d like to experiment more with creating abstract pieces and encouraging the students to step out of realism, making it easier to combine all of their ideas on whatever theme we have chosen.
I want to end this blog post with the biggest success of the semester…
A good friend of mine was just accepted into a grad school program to receive his Masters in Education. At his interview, he was asked, “How do you know when you are a successful teacher?” His reply was along these lines: when a student comes back to him, years later, and shares how he inspired him/her on an academic level. He expressed that, even if it was just one student out of a hundred (although obviously he would hope for more), he knew he would be a successful teacher when he witnessed a lasting impact. I thought long and hard about how I would answer this question. And, although I wanted to agree that I would’ve given the same answer, part of the reason I’m at Creative Action is because I don’t just focus on academics, but social and emotional development. That and because every moment I could think of in my childhood that had a “lasting impact,” was because a teacher didn’t do anything, didn’t help me or guide me. I kept thinking specifically about the time in third grade when a new girl came to my school. I was so eager to meet the “new girl” because all of the other girls in my class bullied me and perhaps she would be my friend. But, when I saw her, she was Muslim and wearing hijab. She was so different than me, I didn’t know how to approach her. Then later at recess, I heard the popular girls making fun of her, so I tried to fit in by saying, “She must be wearing that scarf because she’s bald.” All the girls laughed and the teacher overheard, but did nothing. I never forgave myself for that. I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop hating myself for that. And the fact that the teacher let me get away with such an ugly remark sickened me even more. I think I am a successful teacher when a student comes back to me, years later, and shares how I opened his/her mind. My students don’t need to become stage practitioners, filmmakers, or musicians. My students just need to be open-minded individuals for me to be proud.
About two-thirds into the semester, I had a new student, who I will refer to as Jane (White, 6th Grade), join my percussion class. On her first day, she pulled me aside, explaining that she knew one of the other students, who I will refer to as Kate (Hispanic, 6th Grade). She described Kate as “mean”. Honestly, I think Kate is certainly whiney and unfocused, but not “mean.” I tried defending Kate to the Jane, but Jane wouldn’t hear it. The two of them were constantly finding ways to not interact or collaborate. A week later, I asked Kate to teach Jane a drum beat we were working on because she played it best. Kate complained and complained and complained, right in front of Jane who was pretending to not hear, clearly out of embarrassment. I insisted that I didn’t have time to teach it to Jane and had to work with another group, walking away from Kate before she could whine any further. I went to the far side of the cafeteria to give them plenty of space and did my best to pretend like I wasn’t watching/listening. To my surprise, Kate sat down next to Jane and started playing the beat. At first she was very aggressive, repeatedly yelling, “you’re doing it wrong,” rather than showing Jane how to do it. My instinct was to go back to them, in fear that Jane might drop her sticks and walk out of the cafeteria. However, soon enough, Kate played the beat for her and I could tell Jane was impressed. Another girl sat next to them and played along with Kate, softening Kate’s demeanor. As Jane tried again, Kate encouraged her and I soon head her say loudly, “There you go!”
Whether through performance or educational structures, art has the power to transform people. Don’t believe me? See this video below, sent to me by Sophi Hopkins.
“Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all!”
-David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations of the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (1993), page 3
In Bayles and Orland’s book Art & Fear, they explore the process of making art, how fear hinders the artist. That’s not really what I want to talk about today… What interests me are the types of art forms that would be described as “fearless”.
There are many art forms, if not all art forms, that require the artist to be truly brave. My heart especially goes out to all actors, good or bad, classically trained or not. So if I were asked, “What style of acting would you say is the most daring?” I would answer, “clowning”. Clowning… oddly enough an art form that requires the clown to go into the unknown as him/herself, and is, thus, an art form that is at its best when the clown clearly understands and acknowledges his/her own flaws.
Now, for those of you who are going, “You mean like the clown at my kid’s birthday party?” please at least look up “clown” on Wikipedia before finishing this blog post. I admit I know very little about clowning, but because I am interested in understanding how fear plays a role in my art, I want to learn more.
“My favorite humor is the totally moronic,” says Burgos. Don’t get him wrong, he’s all for “intelligent” humor, but he personally takes special joy in being “physically ridiculous.” Burgos, like his inspirations, believes that laughter is a reaction to witnessing someone’s status being lowered. The actor playing the fool can change, every character can be a fool, some fools can be major and their partners minor, but, however you label the fool, he/she tumbles to the occasion over and over again. (And, as Burgos suggested, with such pleasure, but we’ll get to that later…)
I will admit that in working with Burgos, as a director, actor, and co-teacher, I have found myself in many instances envying his courage and ability to be “big”, no matter how moronic the act. Like the chicken and the egg, I asked him what came first: his lack of fear or his interest in clowning? He believes the interest in clowning came after his lack of fear, while acknowledging that he still doesn’t trust any clown that goes on stage totally fearless. Hmmm…
To explain: The clown cannot prepare or know, because he must discover with the audience (which makes sense in regards to Burgos since he is the most brilliant actor at improv that I personally know personally). If the clown goes on stage with preconceived ideas or the audience laughs when the clown wants them to, then he/she has become a stand-up comedian. Therefore, there may be a certain fear in the unknown, in not being able to see the final “product,” but, in Burgos’ words, “you have to learn to not give a crap,” in order to trust the process.
In parallel to that, clowning goes against a great deal of “traditional” acting training, which in itself is terrifying. “You [the clown] have to be comfortable with you, yourself. As the idiot, as oppose to actors who want to become a different character. Even though, in becoming any character, the actor is still rooted in him/herself, clowning is all you.” That is why everyone has his/her own clown.
I prompted Burgos, “In my mind, not only is clowning an art form that requires true bravery, but, as a result, it is one of the most liberating.” I was thrilled when Burgos answered with a question, “Well, why is there so much bad acting?” His argument was that clowning derives from an authentic place since the clown must tear down his personas and hit the truths hard, freeing him/her from all the “bull shit”.
Loosely quoting Philippe Gaulier, Burgos explains, “The clown never has anything to say. The clown can never be political. The clown thinks poop is the answer to life.” The punch line not only lowers status, but reveals truth. And it is this act, which also transforms the audience:
“Four elements have to be present for a successful clown turn. Present yourself. Take me into your world. Transform me. And bring me back with a new awareness. That will involve transformation and so it involves release. You should never be the same at the end of a clown turn as you were at the beginning. If you are, nothing happened. And your audience should never feel the same. They may not feel better, but they have to feel something. We’re not snack food. A good clown show, you should feel disturbed in some way. In some way off balance.”
For any of you that have read my “About Me” page, you will know that I believe the transformative effects of a piece is what makes it “astonishing” theatre. Thus, I come to the conclusion that not only is clowning an art form that requires true bravery and not only is clowning, as a result, one of the most liberating art forms, but, if done right and done well, clowning is astonishing.
After the clown accepts the unknown and his/her flaws or idiocy, however you want to look at it, and is fully able to enter Morrison’s transformation on stage, there is still a great deal to learn. I would like to end this article in response to Morrison’s quote, “they [the audience] have to feel something”… Earlier I mentioned that the clown tumbles to the occasion and with such pleasure – I believe it is this joy that instills a new “feeling” into the audience, whether for better or worse, good or bad.
A friend of mine, who for the purposes of this blog I will refer to as “John,” is having relationship issues.
He is an artist, like myself – a musician, specifically.He is a great singer and guitarist, but his greatest talent is in writing lyrics.I love a songwriter that tells a good story, but with the courage to describe even the grittiest details, to admit to the deepest flaws, to share the most dangerous visions, etc.To really speak the truth and offer an insight that, through its poetry, we oddly understand and accept immediately, but must listen to over and over again in order to eventually rearticulate it within our own story.John does just this.
As I was saying…John is having relationship issues.Issues that I can relate to all too well and you will have to trust me when I say I’ve been in the exact same situation.We all have trouble communicating with our loved ones at difficult times, but in consoling John, I realized one of the biggest troubles most of us artists have…
John’s girlfriend, “Jane,” has trouble articulating how she is feeling. As a result, she often finds herself making large brush-stroke statements in order to make sense of the intricate complexities of their relationship. Those results are, therefore, not fully true and, in the confusion they cause, are often hurtful.
However, I am a believer that no relationship is fully one person’s fault.It is incredibly hard to accept our own flaws, to find a way to work on them, if we even choose to do so, and to fulfill the expectations our promises entail.The same way John was looking to find where he could improve upon his communication process with Jane, I have done the same. I realized that this is where both of our aches derive… where the aches of most artists derive…
We have an innate need to express the ways of the world, of relationships in particular.And, thus, our job is to take our experiences and put them into scripts, to write them into songs, to expound them by pounding on a drum set, to spread them through paint on a canvas…
I see a therapist.I’m not afraid to admit this.I think by going to a therapist, that is making a strong choice, not one out of weakness.I started going to a therapist in order to understand not only my communication process with others, but also with myself.I discovered that there are two types of people who go to a therapist: Ones who are afraid to communicate and the ones who are so open to communication to the point where their frankness damages their own insecurities, where their panic of possibly being in denial forces them to blame everything on themselves, where their demand of every detail leads to anxiety.I am of the second category, like most artists, because my training, my job, my passion is to, again, express all the ways of the world.Us artists are paid to communicate our lives through our art and we are successful and loved by our fans when we are fully honest and open.
I explained this to John.I said that as much as we want to hate our loved ones for their inability to communicate, we have to keep in mind that this is what we do for a living and not everyone is trained and works and lives by the same strength.While being excellent at accepting and articulating our views, our flaw is that we expect others to do the same because it is easy and natural for us.
A lot of people don’t enjoy research. A lot of people, including myself, thoroughly enjoy research. For those of us who do, I ask why? Ok, yeah, we like to learn and feel smart and yadda yadda…
For me… I think there is something totally invigorating when a connection is made. When I am reading two totally different books and I discover a parallel or intersecting thought, idea, theory, fact, whatever you want to call it. Or, even better, when I am reading a book that completely describes exactly what I am feeling, but am having the trouble in articulating. It’s like people. As human beings, we are excited when we make a connection with someone, whether it’s a mere discovery in a favorite band or even sex. I don’t mean to imply that reading is as stimulating as sex is, but today, as I read my new book, The Theatre and Its Double, my heart fluttered a little when I made a connection between it and my little research in Carl Gustav Jung.
By the way, consider this post PART II to my last post. AKA, if you haven’t read my last post about my launch into surrealism and Dada, you might want to…
My mom is an addict of cookbooks. Well, she’s a “collector” of many things… (A few months ago I helped her move out of her storage room, only to discover ridiculous “you-never-know-when-you-will-need-them”s, such as trash bags full of empty film containers from the 90s and stuffings from the inside of an old love sac we stole from a thrift store’s dumpster. I spent the rest of the evening looking online for the TV show Hoarders application.) But cookbooks in particular! One day I was teasing her that she needed to give up some old cookbooks in order to make room for the new ones that she has been stock-piling on the floor in front of the overloaded shelf. Her response was, “Even if you find just one good recipe, then it was worth it!”
I think that goes for any book. If you find that one good connection, then the whole book was worth purchasing. Perhaps this is also why I refuse to just borrow a book from the library, although even my university library never had the books I wanted… Like my mother, I have to buy it. Thank god for used books on Amazon!
So here’s the connection I made today:
I was reading the preface of The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud. This is why I love him:
“We must insist upon the idea of culture-in-action… and on civilization as an applied culture controlling even our subtlest actions, a presence of mind; the distinction between culture and civilization is an artificial one, providing two words to signify an identical function.” (Page 8 )
“If the theater has been created as an outlet for our repressions, the agonized poetry expressed in its bizarre corruptions of the facts of life demonstrates that life’s intensity is still intact and asks only to be better directed.
But no matter how loudly we clamor for magic in our lives, we are really afraid of pursuing an existence entirely under its influence and sign.” (Page 9)
“For the theater as for culture, it remains a question of naming and directing shadows: and the theater, not confined to a fixed language and form, not only destroys false shadows but prepares the way for a new generation of shadows, around which assembles the true spectacle of life.” (Page 12)
Although I have not read the entire book, I know, like Andre Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism, it will push towards the “dream” in order to answer the same questions we ask ourselves when we are awake. I knew that Artaud’s term “shadow” meant dream or subconscious/unconsciousness or something along those lines… I feel embarrassed to admit that I had trouble figuring out exactly what it represented… So I went online to find the Amazon book description:
“According to Artaud, the theater’s “double” is similar to its Jungian “shadow,” the unacknowledged, unconscious element that completes it but is in many ways its opposite. As “culture” inexorably draws the artistic impulse into safe channels, the repressed irrational urges of theater, based on dreams, religion, and emotion, are increasingly necessary to “purge” the sickness of society.” - John Longenbaugh
Aha! I went back to my research about Jung, specifically this very helpful website. Longenbaugh reminded me – I knew I had read about a “shadow” in the Individuation Process. A Night In (Or the Night My Wife Left) focuses on the first step of the Individuation process, which is the analysis of personas. And, as I rediscovered, step two is becoming conscious of the “shadow.”
“The Shadow represents unknown or little known characteristics of the ego. When one tries to see his Shadow, he becomes conscious, and often ashamed of, the characteristics and impulses that he denies in himself but sees clearly in other people: for example: egotism, spiritual laziness, unreal fantasies, intrigues, indifference, cowardliness, greed, and all those little things of which we say ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. Nobody will notice, and besides other people are doing it too’.” – Dirk Gillabel
I feel I have been going about this research the wrong way. I have been focusing on books like the ones mentioned above and David Hopkins’ Dada and Surrealism. I’m feeling more and more that I need to dedicate half of my time towards just Freud and Jung, and OF COURSE the exciting new movie A Dangerous Method.
That all being said, I’m very curious to any opinions, thoughts, comments you readers have on Dada, Surrealism, Freud, and Jung. This is the first time I’ve directed a surrealism piece, having only acted in one before back when I was studying in England. I still, obviously, have lots of questions but would love to hear what questions you all have – perhaps I can help answer those too. Thanks!
So, if you’ve checked out my productions page recently, you’ll notice that I’m directing a play called A Night In (Or the Night My Wife Left) produced by LIV creations for the 2012 DC Fringe Festival. (By the way, we are still looking for puppeteers and crew, including a stage manager, so please feel free to apply – just email me at info@LIVcreations.com.)
I’ve recently have gone through a pretty traumatic… “event,” I guess you could say… In my family… In my very personal life… The other day, I was giving the last chapter of my life to a dear friend, who also recently went through a very similar experience. And, out of all the typical advice she could have given me, from “time will heal” to “trust your instincts,” whatever… Out of all that typical advice, she quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I know this – I’ve heard it before in a Baz Luhrmann song and seen it before on a poster in my boss’s office, but it never really stuck with me. Until now. I want to truly know this…
So, the first thing I did… I looked into puppetry… I have never directed a play with puppetry and I’ve always wanted to. Why? I feel that David Currell’s Pupets and Puppet Theatre sums it up best for me:
“The survival of puppet theatre over some 4000 years owes a great deal to man’s fascination with the inanimate object animated in a dramatic manner, and to the very special way in which puppet theatre involves its audience. Through the merest hint or suggestion in a movement – perhaps just a tilt of the head – the spectator is invited to invest the puppet with emotion and movement, and to see it ‘breathe’… The actor represents but the puppet is. The puppet brings to the performance just what you want and no more; it has no identity outside is performance, and brings no other associations on to the stage. The puppet is free from many human physical limitations and can speak the unspeakable, and deal with taboos.” (Page 9-10)
So A Night In (Or the Night My Wife Left) originated from my idea to do a show that combines puppetry and film. I’m in the process of talking to a few people as possible puppet mentors for the production and I’m also, of course, researching the hell out of it on my own. AKA, I really feel like I’m learning puppetry from scratch (so thank god for books like Puppetry: A World History by Eileen Blumenthal as well as YouTube) and I keep reminding myself that the phrase “I don’t know” is okgood encouraged.
A Night In (Or the Night My Wife Left) is also a devised piece that… I sort of breaks a few rules. Normally in a devised piece or Moment Work, you merely start with a theme or an idea. I have said controlling idea, but I also have the first 10 minutes, and ONLY the first 10 minutes, of the play written… Where the play goes and how we get there is completely up to our ensemble.
All actors must allow a certain level of vulnerability, and in devised theatre or Moment Work, that is particularly true. The entire ensemble, including myself, must be able to discuss and share experiences in regards to the controlling idea in order to create a story from scratch. This is why I love watching devised work – it just feels more… real and I think that is because the ensemble is using their “real life” stories as a basis. To sum up: The ensemble is transformed by their personal experiences which is then heightened by the experience of creating the piece itself, as the process allows for more collaboration than any other “traditional” play, and, as a result, it naturally boosts any transformative effects the piece may have on its audience. In other words, the questions the piece asks to the audience are not so general – they feel more intricate and complex, which as Annie Dillard has taught us: intricacy equals beauty.
Anyhow, the reason I write all this is because I want to be vulnerable for a moment… As I have been thinking about the play and thinking about my experiences, I’ve found more scary things to do every day… Now, normally, what is said within the rehearsal space STAYS within the rehearsal space, but since we haven’t started rehearsing yet, I think it’s ok for me to share… BUT, before I do, let me just review what the play is about…
First of all, if you don’t know the synopsis: Manny is getting a divorce. His wife’s only reason to him is, “I just don’t know who you are anymore.” After his wife’s quick Facebook status update, he is immediately bombarded with phone calls, forcing him to share the bad news to everyone he knows. In doing so, he finds himself delivering drastically different versions of the same story, depending on who he is talking to, whether it’s his boss or best friend or mom… Suddenly he reconsiders his wife’s final words and looks to his multiple personas for the answer.
In ancient Latin, persona means “mask.” In A Night In (Or the Night My Wife Left), LIV creations evolves the mask into being through puppetry and object theatre. Each one of Manny’s personas is embodied by a puppet or object that he interviews, takes out on a date, and kidnaps all in one night, as he tries to understand who he truly is. Both a theatre and film production company, LIV creations uses projected video in conjunction with puppetry and object theatre to tell the surreal, dreamlike story of finding yourself.
Believe it or not, I hate it when people say that a play is about “finding yourself.” Every script is about “finding yourself” to some degree. But this play… I guess you could say that it is the “ultimate” play about finding yourself. Where surrealism is “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express… the real functioning of thought… in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation” (Andre Breton), A Night In (Or the Night My Wife Left) parallels this through Manny’s journey into his unbounded unconsciousness (much like a dream) so that he may begin the individuation process.
According to Carl Gustav Jung, the individuation process begins with understanding the Persona, the mask(s) we take on in our every day life. Here’s a good example from Wikipedia:
“The breakdown of the persona constitutes the typically Jungian moment both in therapy and in development’ – the “moment” when ‘that excessive commitment to collective ideals masking deeper individuality – the persona – breaks down…disintegrates’. Given Jung’s view that ‘the persona is a semblance…the dissolution of the persona is therefore absolutely necessary for individuation‘. Nevertheless, its disintegration may well lead initially to a state of chaos in the individual: ‘one result of the dissolution of the persona is the release of fantasy…disorientation’. As the individuation process gets under way, ‘the situation has thrown off the conventional husk and developed into a stark encounter with reality, with no false veils or adornments of any kind’.”
Ok, enough of that stuff… Like I said before, I’ve been thinking about the play and my own experiences…
Let me start with my own experiences… I’ve been specifically thinking about (or obsessing over) my very recent traumatic “event”. As a result of said event, I haven’t exactly been sleeping right nor sleeping well. I don’t want to go to sleep and when I try to, I can’t stay asleep for more than 15 or 30 min. I’m waking up every hour or so, every two hours if I’m lucky. And all the while, I’m having these incredibly vivid dreams. INCREDIBLY vivid. (It was very eerie when I went out last week to see the film Take Shelter, a story about a man who suddenly suffers from nightmares and visions. Go see it! It was astonishing!) And whether it was the vivid dreams that started it, during the day I now find my fantasies pulling me further away, distracting me from everything, playing with my fears…
Now let me go back to the play… I started reading the book Manifestoes of Surrealism by Andre Breton. This book is not an easy read, let me tell you. I’ve spent two days on this thing and I’m still only on page 21. But here is some good stuff:
“We are allowed the greatest degree of freedom of thought. It is up to us not to misuse it. To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery – even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness – is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself.” (Page 4-5)
“Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable… We are still living under the reign of logic…” (Page 9)
“Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, that this considerable portion of psychic activity (since, at least from man’s birth until his death, thought offers no solution of continuity, the sum of the moments of dream, from the point of view of time, and taking into consideration only the time of pure dreaming, that is the dreams of sleep, is not inferior to the sum of the moments of reality, or, to be more precisely limiting, the moments of waking) has still today been so grossly neglected… an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams.” (Page 11)
“Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?” (Page 12)
“We really live by our fantasies when we give free rein to them.” (Page 18)
From thinking about the play and my own experiences, I’ve made an interesting connection: I have found more things that I want to add onto my list of “Things to Do Every Day that Scare Me”…
1.) Not ignoring my dreams and trying to understand them.
2.) Not limiting my imagination.
3.) Giving into my fantasies.
Although the results might be disastrous, I believe they will lead me to discovering something important…
Before I end this blog, since we’re on the subject of devised work and all that… I just thought I’d put a special shout-out to the production STAY, produced by Theatre of the First Amendment. It is currently playing at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington DC. I have seen it on three separate occasions in its making over the last two years. Each time it astonishes more and more and in new ways…
As you will see on my Productions Page, I am currently directing America Recycled, a devised piece that will conclude the 2012 INTERSECTIONS: A New America Arts Festival at the Atlas Theatre in Washington DC. I am so thrilled to be working on this project with the amazing Kelly Thomas who studied at the Contemporary Performance at the amazing Naropa University.
Like any other production, my brain starts constantly cycling around the themes, characters, ideas, etc. during my daily activities and even in my dreams. This seems ironic to me right now as this play is about recycling…
Anyhow, as we interviewed the ensemble members, my biggest question was, “What are you recycled from?” This is a really hard question… I know this because it was the first thing I asked myself when Kelly asked me to co-direct the show with her. Since then, those initial thoughts have continued to cycle in my brain and develop. So I thought it might be fun to share with you all?
So here goes…
I keep having this one image… It’s of my brain…
My therapist gave me this book to read, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D.? I’m going to quote a section of that book, but, where he uses the metaphor of a light switch, I think of recycled cardboard boxes… I know, I’m obsessed with cardboard boxes.
“Imagine standing in the control center of the brain, [like a warehouse] completely covered with literally tens of thousands of [cardboard boxes]… One section… controls our moods.Another section governs our health.Another… our emotions, another our planning functions, another our hopes and dreams.Another section is responsible for how we act, how we move, sit, stand, walk, look, speak, react and respond.Everything about us – our memory, our judgment, our attitude, our fears, our creativity, logic, and spirit – is [compartmentalized in boxes] in our mental control room.
When any command is transmitted to the control room, the proper directions are sent to the appropriate [boxes].Within a fraction of a second, some of those [boxes open or close].
When the brain itself, a network of tens of billions of neurons, and electrochemical switches called neurotransitters, telegraph messages to every part of the brain, selecting just the right section of [boxes], which in turn [opens] parts of us… and [closes] parts of us…” (Page 38-39)
“All of our thoughts, all of the pictures in our minds, are always tied to something else that we already know about.If you are given a new thought or a new picture, one you have never thought about or imagined before, your brain will immediately find something else in [one or more of your boxes] to tie the new information to, to give it sense, to help you understand.
Every new thought you think has to have some old thoughts to stick to, a proper place to fit. When you are told something new, your brain will, in a fraction of a second, scan through literally millions of [boxes], filled with every idea or thought or impression you have ever stored. In that same fraction of a second, based on the information already stored in your mental [boxes], your brain will send you an instant telegram, telling you how to feel about this new thought, where it should get [organized], and whether you should accept it, believe it, keep it and use it, or disapprove, disbelieve, and throw it out.” (Page 48-49)
And, whether those boxes got there by nature or nurture, they are all recycled! They all came from some place else.So I was thinking…How the heck am I supposed to answer the question, “What am I recycled from?” when I contain over a million boxes! That would take over a lifetime to answer that question in full!So obviously, I’m thinking too much about the question, right?I should just go over the basic things right?How the hell do you start finding the “basic” boxes in a warehouse full of a million boxes!?
So, kind of like the writing exercise I asked the ensemble to do last week, I wrote down the first three things that came to my head and decided I’d stick to that.It was still hard – ignoring all of those other boxes…
My first thought was “How I look.”Where did my blue/green eyes come from?Where did my natural hair color come from, although I don’t even know what my natural hair color is anymore…Where did my big feet come from?Etc, etc, etc.
My second thought was film and theatre, “What I do.”How theatre cycled into my life was sort of an accident…Then through theatre, film accidentally cycled into my life as well.To sum up my not-so-interesting-life-story: I use the word “accidentally” because I trained for nine years to be a musician and just happened to try one thing in theatre that instantly was a success which lead me to try one thing in film that instantly was a success.So it’s hard for me to pinpoint where the initial inspiration was to even try that one thing which, up to that point, was totally not associated to any of my “basic” cardboard boxes…
In fact, the more and more I thought about the question, the more I kept wondering if it really mattered.Sure, where you come from and all that is important, I know, but hear me out…I’m not about to write any autobiography and I don’t think, no matter how rich and famous I become, anyone will really want to read my autobiography.I can’t tell you how I came up with the film title Selling Knives to Jesus and the story of a door-to-door salesman named Evan Milton who has a GPS that converses with him and, eventually, inspires him to meet this kid named Jesus.Does it matter how that story came to be and who the weirdoes are in my world that cycled those crazy images and thoughts into my twisted brain of a writer?(You know, I can’t even tell you who created my cardboard box labeled, “Sure, I could be a writer.”Maybe my memory is just really bad…)Anyhow, I kept thinking that what was important was the story itself – Evan Milton’s story that is.Did it impact an audience?Did it create or alter any cardboard boxes within them?The transformative effects of theatre and film – to me that’s important.AKA, how I cycle my crazy stories into people, inspiring them to see the world in a new way, that’s important…
This lead me to thinking…
I love teaching, but I don’t expect that I’ll ever have any children… That being said, I don’t suppose I’ll cycle anything directly into the next generation of my family… So as far as my community and America as a whole goes, how might I have an impact? Hmmm… That’s an interesting thought: What’s the difference between “recycling” and “impacting”? Gosh, being rich and famous sure would help though, wouldn’t it? Well, as I’ve said on my “About Me” page, I’m young and feel entitled to be a little optimistic and romantic: I have a lot of strong beliefs about theatre and film, two arguably dying and/or thriving art forms, depending on how you want to look at it. And whether you’re on one side or the other, I still think I could repower both art forms by simply spreading some ideas about their “transformative effects”.In other words, I’m not about to change any artists’ religion (AKA artistic vision) here…There’s another interesting thought: What’s the difference between “recycling” and “change”?As I was saying, I’m not about to change any artists’ religion here, but to respirit them.Yes, I just made up a word: What’s the difference between re-cycle and re-spirit?I suppose if you can re-cycle something that’s already cycling, then you can re-spirit something that’s already spiritual, right?
Does my stream of consciousness make any sense?
Oh, and my third thought was just the image of a plastic bottle. I know, not very exciting. Although it could be! And, exciting or not, it’s important I suppose. It was kind of like my first day of therapy… I walked into my doc’s room and there were two couches of different colors, two big, comfy chairs, and a table surrounded by six rolling chairs. My doc said, “please take a seat, wherever you like,” and I looked around the room. Immediately I started to walk towards the far side of the red couch, but then I suddenly stopped! I realized that this whole thing was a test… In an instant I scanned my cardboard boxes and tried to find any hidden meanings I might have attached to that red couch, but nothing came up fast enough before my doc said, “Are you alright?” So… I just sat on the far side of the red couch. Wow, that could be the title of the autobiography I am not going to write: The Far Side of the Red Couch. Anyhow, I just wonder what a plastic bottle says about me…
Currently, Dave Williams and I are in the final script editing stages of an online series, which has yet to have a working title… The plot revolves around a revenge conflict and can be generalized as a drama with horror elements and a sick twisted sense of humor, much like Devil’s Advocate or Constantine, just less Keanu Reeves. (Note how the specific references also have religious themes…)
This semester, I thought I would take a class on “Conflict and Resolution,” for George Mason is known for being one of the leading universities in this field. I am specifically interested in the conflict of revenge and how it differs from other plots. Below is what I have discovered in our lessons thus far. I recommend anyone interested in writing, especially those writers who didn’t even realize there is such a thing as an undergraduate degree in Conflict and Resolution, to take a look at it, for all writers are bound to write a revenge plot one day.
Humans have objectives. Those objectives are always, to some degree, self-serving. So what is, in its extreme, a “selfish” objective? A selfish objective is when an individual takes action as a result of his/her deep passions, without any intent to use problem-solving, yielding, or avoiding to resolve the conflict. I would argue that an act of revenge is, the most selfish objective, for the deep ache created by the enemy informs the individual’s passions, such as Harvey Dent seeking the death of those responsible for the brutal murder of his lover, Rachel Dawes, in The Dark Knight. This is in opposition to a character like Marlin, in Finding Nemo, who, open-mindedly, uses instead problem-solving skills to find his son. Even in the 21st Century, the conflict of revenge still turns over blockbusters, from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith to Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince. I believe this is due to the fact that the protagonist’s passions are so strong, often to the point that he/she doesn’t even need to consciously explain to the audience his/her objectives, and, furthermore, the audience does not even question a second solution to contending.
Revenge is a hostile conflict due to the self-perception theory (Bem, 1972). In everyday life, people take action against their enemies and then, afterwards, rationalize their behavior in order to support their passions (Glass, 1964). However, on film, directors and screenwriters boost the villainous qualities in the antagonist, which, as a result, strongly supports the protagonists’ rationalization and, furthermore, magnifies his/her passions. Often enough, the antagonist is so evil that the protagonist is not even required to consciously explain to the audience why he/she must take revenge.
For example, Inglorious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, estimated $37.6 million opening weekend (Sperling, 2009). Audiences were immediately drawn to the film simply due to the fact that the handsome Brad Pitt, playing a Jewish-American soldier, takes revenge on Nazis. In America and Europe, it is hard to find a bad guy perceived as wickeder than a Nazi, which, with this stigma, insured audiences that they were in for quite a drama; a drama, which would not need much exposition, if any at all, in presenting the reasons for launching attacks against these swastika-bearing murderers.
The term “passion” insinuates a high level of self-concern, which screenwriting textbooks demand in order to keep the audience interested. If the protagonist is not concerned, he will not take action. In real life, people with a high level of self-concern lean towards the two following solutions: contending and problem solving (Pruitt and Kim, 2004). However, on film, directors and screenwriters will follow only one solution: contending, for problem solving is not nearly as effective in magnifying the protagonist’s passions.
For example, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Tim Burton, made a worldwide gross of over $150,000,000 (The Numbers, 2009). Audiences were immediately drawn to the film due to the violence, the blood and guts, which the eclectic Johnny Depp, playing Benjamin Barker, was promising. Benjamin was deported to Australia on a false accusation devised by the jealous Judge Turpin who, upon Benjamin’s exit, raped his wife and took his daughter in. When Benjamin returns home, changing his name to Sweeney Todd, he concocts a plan to spill Turpin’s blood and any others who may get into the way. However, if he were to sit down with Turpin and bargain over his imprisoned daughter, not only would it be visually boring for the audience, but it would suggest that Sweeney is not passionate about making their circumstances just, displaying the conflict as unimportant. By taking a risk for an act of bloody revenge, Todd is raising the stakes and, thus, illustrating the significance in his passions.
Through magnifying the passions, the protagonist’s objectives become more selfish and, ultimately, dramatize the story. For instance, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is an entertaining story due to the many revenge subplots, which continue to raise the stakes as all the characters become more and more invested in their passions. As mentioned earlier, passions are fueled by the protagonist’s ache, which Freud would argue is a result of man having the lust for hatred and destruction, especially when one of man’s basic human bonds, love or simply common identification, has been wounded (Schellenberg, 1996). For those writers who are interested in revenge plots, it is recommended to study Freud’s theory, for if they are deeply hurt by their antagonists, their protagonists’ passions will be so strong that their actions become natural instincts to the point that they do not even need to consciously explain to the audience their objectives, and, furthermore, the audience does not even question a second solution to contending.
This may possibly be the longest blog I have ever written. My professor would be proud of me. Maybe she’d know a good title?
Anyhow, after having said all that, my challenge is that my protagonist’s self-concern, his passions, change from high to low a few times as he tries to accept the stakes that keep getting raised by his actions. These changes are a result of his fear in contending, as in he doesn’t think he has it within him to kill his enemy. So by breaking the mold that so many blockbusters have perfected, I’m kind of nervous… Any advice? Any arguments?
Bem, D. J. (1972) In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 6). New York: Academic Press. Pages 1-62.
Glass, D. C. (1964) Journal of Personality, 32. Pages 491-549.
Pruitt, D. G. and Kim, S. H. (2004) Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement. New York, USA: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Page 43.
Author Unknown (2009) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [online] Available at:?<http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2007/SWENY.php> [Accessed September 15, 2009]
Schellenberg, J. (1996) Conflict Resolution: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York, USA: State University of New York Press. Pages 40-41.