Make Good Art.

Long time no post. Yes.

Long story.

Most important lesson from this interval: in the words of the brilliant Neil Gaiman, “Make Good Art.”

He’s got a hilarious and wonderfully honest commencement talk about this, in which he includes the following scenarios:

“IRS on your trail? Make good art.”

“Cat exploded? Make good art.”

“Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”

To which I would add:

Somebody tells you that what you do doesn’t count, even though they’ve never seen your work? Make good art.

Somebody rolls their eyes when you try to explain what you do? Make good art.

Somebody gets resentful when you defend yourself? Make good art.

Earlier in the speech, Gaiman makes a crucial point:

“And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times, and it gets you through the other ones.”

(All quotations from Gaiman’s speech are taken from Make Good Art, designed by Chip Kidd [New York: Harper Collins, 2013].)

Once again, I think Gaiman’s absolutely right. The ability to make art, to make it in the company of some utterly extraordinary people, and to be reminded that such art matters, is what got me through the “other” times recently.

(I’ll post more about one of those projects soon: it’s in post-production right now.)

It’s one of the many reasons why I make sure to thank those artists (on Twitter and elsewhere) whose work I’ve seen and enjoyed: hard work and long hours went into that art, and I appreciate every minute of it. You (yes, you) are amazing. Thank you.

Gaiman’s point also kicked my ass today: I was talking with a friend and explaining what it’s like being a first-generation immigrant in a new city/state/country sometimes. “I’m a Resident Alien in more ways than one,” I said, and he chuckled in recognition.

“I’ve thought for a while about writing a play about that,” I continued. But then I stopped and corrected myself: “Enough thinking. I should just write that play,” I said.

So here I am, saying it to a wider audience: I’m writing that play. Starting now.

Stay tuned.

Lessons from Vivian, Part 1.

The last coherent thing Vivian Bearing says to her empathetic nurse Susie near the close of Wit is “I’m a teacher.” (She’s just explained that “soporific” means “makes you sleepy,” and Susie, generous character that she is, thanks her for teaching her something new.)

It’s been just over two weeks since we closed Wit, and I’m still learning things from Vivian. No doubt I’ll continue to do so, but I want to start articulating some of these thoughts here– if only for me to look back on later and consider how these ideas might have changed over time.

The first lesson is both the simplest and the hardest, and the one I learned over and over again as I stood backstage trembling in the dark before Vivian’s entrance: Memento mori.

No matter what else happens, we are all definitely going to die. Now, later, nobody knows, but the moment itself will happen. In the face of that incontrovertible fact, everything else gets put into a rather stark perspective: what are you going to do with your time? What really matters?

I was lucky enough to get at least one definitive answer to this question virtually every night of the show: in the sounds of people weeping as the inevitable end closed in on Vivian even as her carers did all they could, the stunned silence that often preceded applause at the finale, and the remarkable audience members who came up to me in the lobby afterwards to thank me for our company’s work. People I’d never met were so moved by what we’d all put together that they clearly needed to talk to me: about best friends going through Stage 4 cancer, about dealing with end-of-life issues with loved ones, about losing friends and family members to this infuriating disease, about living this life themselves. I’m sure my castmates had similar encounters.

It was a deep privilege to listen to them, to hear their stories in exchange for the one we’d told them, to discover repeatedly that because we’d told our story well, these people felt that they could tell theirs.

What really matters? Art matters. Storytelling matters– because these create moments when true connection can occur: reminders of what it means to be human. To contribute to this process in the company of such an amazingly talented and generous group of people (onstage, backstage, and in the audience every night) was, for me, a gift of extraordinary grace.

I wear two bracelets these days: the first is one I acquired during rehearsals in support of ovarian cancer research. be brave, it says. The second is one I had engraved once we closed the show: Memento mori. Do what matters most.

Something rotten? The play’s not the thing.

Happy New Year, one and all!

I just came across this link through Twitter– Ralph E. Shaffer, emeritus professor of History at Cal Poly Pomona, recently wrote about Shakespeare and education in the Chicago Tribune:

In it, he states clearly that he is “not a fan” of Shakespeare’s work, calls his language “outdated,” and concludes “If today’s secondary students don’t read Shakespeare they won’t be much worse off than my generation.”

I’m all in favor of everyone having an opinion, and frequently encounter students who are “not fans” of Shakespeare when they take my required-for-all-English-majors courses. Nor am I in the business of ‘converting’ anyone to any kind of Bardolatry.

But what such blithe dismissals miss is the possibility that students might end up a great deal better than they already are after working with Shakespeare’s texts. Often, in fact, those students who claimed to loathe Shakespeare at the outset of the course end up with both changed opinions and a new way of looking at the world by term’s end. I make a bargain with them, as I do with all my students: you don’t like Shakespeare? That’s fine– all I ask is that you give his works a genuine try by bringing some curiosity to the table.

When they do, and we start asking questions together, suddenly all kinds of light bulbs go off. Just what is iambic pentameter for, anyway? What happens when he doesn’t use it? Are there really that many dirty jokes in the plays? (Answer: yes, actually. I suggest to the class that if something looks like a dirty joke in what they read, it probably is– and it’s probably far filthier than they’ve imagined. I’ve seen jaws literally drop as I explain some common early-modern phallic references.)

As we go on, some naysayers find themselves, knowingly or not, having fun– which leads to even more discoveries, including a realization that here is an incredibly rich language they can use to articulate circumstances in their own lives. They’ve found ways to discuss the impossible effects of fame via Antony and Cleopatra, the impact of financial implosion through Timon of Athens, and I, for one, will never forget what I was teaching on September 11, 2001: Titus Andronicus in one class and Henry IV Part 1 in the other. The plays gave my students and I the means to talk about vengeance and war (and their complexities) at a time when those very matters filled the air we all breathed.

Professor Shaffer writes that he “never saw a Shakespeare play,” and perhaps there’s the rub– as an actor, I admit I’m biased toward performance, and teach all of my classes with performance firmly in mind. Seeing, and more importantly, hearing Shakespeare’s words brought to life engages even the most hardcore haters in my classes most of the time. Shaffer might be surprised at just how much he enjoys the “outdated language” (a curious objection for a historian, that) if he were to experience it in the theatre rather than on the state-required page.

I freely admit that not everyone in my classes ends up liking Shakespeare at the end of each course– and that’s fine. But they do leave having had an encounter with a wide set of circumstances from the past and a different way of thinking about the world around them, a way they can accept or reject, as they choose. And isn’t that one of the purposes of classroom work, to enable students to make informed decisions?

Shaffer is perfectly entitled to say that something’s rotten– but it’s his own (mandated, unperformed, and evidently unengaging) experience of Shakespeare that stinks, rather than the original texts themselves. If Shakespeare remains a closed book to him, fair enough: I’m delighted that he eventually found material he loved. But I have seen these plays open worlds for hundreds of others– students who may well have been “no worse” if they’d not read them, but who end up better in innumerable ways for having done so.

Rest days.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

(John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

In every training plan, no matter what the race distance, at least one day is usually set aside as a rest day. That means no training of any kind– no ‘easy’ spins on the bike, no ‘slow’ jogs: nothing but allowing the body to recuperate from the week’s work. It is at such moments that the body gets stronger, interestingly enough: in what might seem an allowance to weakness, making time for rest actually allows for strength to increase.

So it is mentally, I believe.

Thus, in despite of the ostensible ‘rules’ of NaPoWriMo– to post something every day– I decided last week to take some much-needed rest rather than type inanities for the sake of putting something onto the screen. Such posts are the mental equivalent of “junk miles”: mere spending of energy, rather than effort undertaken for a specific end.

At the same time, I was dealing with the kinds of busy-ness inherent in this time of term: lots of papers to mark, students to meet with, and yes, yet more plagiarists. To be perfectly honest, I was not only exhausted but demoralized by the combination. I’ve posted before about the pitfalls of plagiarism– now imagine that it’s late in the term, and the writers in question are advanced students: ergo, those who by any lights should know better.

Apply head forcibly to brick wall. Repeatedly.

Demoralization isn’t exactly a fashionable attribute to admit to among faculty: after all, we’re here to educate! To inspire! To enjoy the efforts of our students! Etc.! But when some of said students don’t seem to put forth as much of their own effort as is required, well, it’s very hard not to hit a downside of the educational emotion slope.

So I take some comfort in Steinbeck’s words at moments like these: no, I’m not someone who delights in every moment of every day of the education business– I’m a human being, with ups and downs like everyone else. Once I can set the image of an “ideal educator” aside, then I can get down to the real task at hand: being very good at what I do.

Because what I do (reaching audiences and getting them to look at the world and themselves in new ways) matters to me. I hope it matters to them as well.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

(Side note: a surprisingly large number of Shakespeare’s plays mention or feature storms; conversely, a surprisingly small number of the works of his contemporaries do so. So concluded my decidedly unscientific mental survey of Renaissance drama the last time I found myself quoting this line: in the middle of the run of my first Ironman triathlon, when it rained and hailed so hard I could barely see five feet in front of me.)

It’s been a Lear-like day, weather-wise, around here: at least 7 tornadoes were sighted in the area, with several communities suffering widespread devastation unusual for this part of the world.

I’m hugely fortunate to have been well away from the tornado zones, and to have watched the rain pound the streets and cars parked thereon as if I were in the middle of a gigantic car wash, with water coming in sheets from all directions.

For a brief moment after the tumult, there was a glimpse of sunshine this afternoon. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, at how stark that light must look to those south and west of here faced with piles of rubble where homes and businesses used to be.

A terrible beauty, indeed.

Hitting the reset button

I almost typed that title as the “resent button,” which is precisely the one I don’t want to hit. But it’s presciently indicative of the need to stop every once in a while.

My workouts have felt a bit ‘off’ this week– nothing precise, no injury, but a general sense of not having the usual spring in my legs and energy to work with.

Admittedly, it’s been a grey week, which doesn’t help. But I rather suspect that at least some of it is due to the craziness of this time of term– papers abound, stress levels are rising among the students, and the prospect of there being really only 2 weeks of usable class time left does raise the pressure to get everything done before finals.

Not too surprisingly, then, I woke up this morning and was not feeling the exercise love– it was cold and foggy outside, and the prospect of running was awfully close to anathema.

So I did the only sensible thing: took a short walk to get a few groceries, got some useful errands taken care of, then decided I was done– and spent part of the afternoon watching the NBC broadcast of the Ironman World Championships, which is always motivating. I also did a half-hour of yoga after dinner for the first time in ages: the off-season is the perfect time to get back into the habit, and it’ll help me considerably when things get even busier in April and May of next year (when I’ll have all these typical term stresses plus the show to deal with).

I’ll sign up for some 2014 races soon to give myself something to train for, but in the meantime, taking a pause to recharge is a useful thing.

(Not, perhaps, the world’s most thrilling post, but an honest one as NaPoWriMo continues…)

*Deep breath* And so it begins…

It’s very strange to get to do something I’ve long wanted to do– a mixture of delight and sheer terror, of hallelujah! and oh shit! simultaneously.

Oddly enough, that queasy feeling is exactly how I know this is something I really should be doing.

Today the process began that will culminate in my theatre company’s production in May of Margaret Edson’s Wit. (Fear not, there will be links posted to the website and all that jazz once it’s all up and running– show doesn’t open until May, so we’ve got some time.)

I’ll be playing Vivian Bearing. (The central character, for those who don’t know the show.*) She’s been on my bucket list of characters ever since I first read the play over ten years ago, so when I got the phone call offering me the role, my reaction was “Hell yes!”, much to the amusement of my Artistic Director.

My director (whom I absolutely love and trust, thank heavens) just sent out a first set of ideas for us to play with, and he and I will sit down to chat about the show in the next week or so.

So I’m excited.

And terrified.

But excited.

Yet scared mindless.

So what this means is that I’ll probably be nauseous for the next six months or so, right?


*deep breath*

Bring it on.

*Yes, I do know that the play was recently performed successfully on Broadway. And yes, I’ve seen the wonderful HBO film– I’ve forbidden myself from watching it again until after the show is over, lest I end up curled up in a corner whimpering at Emma Thompson’s brilliance. Fortunately, I’ve had a little bit of practice at this, since the last major show I did was Doubt— so replace “Emma Thompson” with “Cherry Jones and Meryl Streep,” and you get the idea. (Remind me why I do this again??)