there is no story without all of us

there is no story without all of us

This week I've been working on Philip Glass' rarely-performed Madrigal Opera - theater music for six voices and violin/viola - with my beloved Choral Chameleon and director R.B. Schlather, and the virtuosic Johnny Gandelsman and Will Frampton on violin and viola, respectively.

It's an interesting animal. We have the choral form of the madrigal and the storytelling form of the opera, only Glass purposely didn't set a story or plot or theme, leaving that up to the individual director to decide. I won't spill too many details about our production - you can come hear us this weekend to experience for yourself - but suffice to say R.B. hasn't written in any plot twists or character arcs or intricate storylines to keep you gasping on the edge of your seat.

We all have plenty of storylines running through our minds already.

If you're not too familiar with Glass, he gives us vowels and simple (solfège) syllables to sing. Some phrases are more traditionally melodic than others, but still you'd be hard pressed to make an aria out of any single line in the piece. It's probably why his work is so easily skewered, made fun of (see David Ives' "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread") and even dismissed or loathed.

But it's still called an opera, right? So there is a story in there somewhere, and as I sing my syllables and lift my face off the page and release myself from counting repetitions for dear life, I hear the creation of the fabric, the song, the storyline that is happening in the room. When I need to breathe, I can hear my counterpart carry the line for me. Here come the sopranos with that chord shift to take us forward. Thank you basses for that solid ground. Alone in the practice room I have ee and ah, sol and do. Here with all of you I am creating and witnessing a rich tapestry of sound, with meaning as varied and personal as each one present.

Minimalist? Okay. We might also call it interdependent. 
Performing this piece in 2017 - we don't live in a vacuum - carries a special resonance. Isolationism would sink us by the second measure.

We may not have, or ever find, the language to discover the details of the story we tell, what each of us brings and what each of us takes. But we have enough to tell it nonetheless. Come hear it for yourself. We need you, too: there is no story without all of us. 

why we'll survive the zombie apocalypse

I never imagined I would write a blog post with a title that included the words "zombie apocalypse". I'm not really one for zombies, or vampires, or end-of-the-world galactic battles. I understand the place those stories have in our psyches, but something about the undead just kind of turns me off. But the other night I had the great good fortune to be sitting around the table with my family, telling stories and shooting the breeze over draining glasses of wine and crusts of bread, when my brother and sister-in-law started in about who they'd want around during the zombie apocalypse. Apparently it's a parlor game they play (does anyone have a parlor anymore?), identifying the skills of their friends and creating a "dream team" of ninjas and techs and hardy folk to band together in a post-Armageddon world. So while my nephews offered what they could bring to the table, statistic and strategic aptitude and toy dinosaurs, I chimed in and said, "I'll be there for mental and emotional health."

There was a pause, a friendly chuckle, and my sister-in-law (whom I love dearly) said, "No, we're talking about survival skills Katie -- basic life and death stuff."

"Great," I said. "I'll be there. You'll want me there."

The conversation went on, with more insinuations and reminders that we would be fighting off zombies and the team would not be able to support dead weight who couldn't hold their own. "Fine," I agreed. "I'll do what I have to do. All I'm saying is that when you start to go crazy from the stress, you'll want me there."

I could easily write a soapbox post, urging you to Call Your Elected Officials! and Save Big Bird! and Donate To My Film Fundraiser! because Art Matters, Dammit! But the thing is... I don't think I really have to prove that to you.

What did most of us New Yorkers do as we hunkered down to await Sandy? (Besides drink and poke fun at El Bloombito.) I'll put money on the fact that we turned on Netflix, busted out the DVDs, and sat back to be entertained, to experience a human story, to laugh or cry or do both at the same time. When the power goes out or we sit around the campfire, we tell stories and sing songs, play games and experience a connection to each other.

I don't mean to be glib and rosy. There has been devastating destruction in our region, and survival is not a romantic story. Losing power for any length of time, especially days (now weeks) on end, is no joke. There is much recovery work to be done, and many people's lives have been irrevocably altered by this storm.

But still we know, somewhere in the pit of our stomachs or the back of our minds (side note: I find it fascinating that these phrases are part of our general lexicon: that there are deep, buried places in the body wherein our core knowing hides and waits for us) -- we know that soul survival is just as essential as physical.

My boyfriend was off to sing a funeral at a local church a few months ago, an occasional gig for both of us. He was feeling guilty about taking money from people at a time like that, and I reminded him of the great service he was doing for the grieving family. "You are lifting them up," I told him. "They all want you to sing gloriously, whether they know it or not - they need to hitch their spirits to your voice and let them soar."

It's why the zombies don't have a chance: humans have souls, and soul will beat no soul every time. But I don't have to tell you that. You already know.

the sound space of silence

I've been thinking a lot about silence and sound lately after hearing Sunday morning's episode of On Being on NPR. Krista Tibbett speaks with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton about silence ("not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise") and its effect on our brains, on our ability to be truly present, to take in the sound and the space of the place we're in. They discuss the intimacy of really listening -- actually being open to and taking in another person and their experience, instead of searching for what we want them to say. Or from an actor's point of view, waiting for them to finish talking so we can speak ("Bullshit, bullshit, my line... bullshit, bullshit, my line" -- Man on the Moon). It's really worth a listen, and there are extra little sound meditations available on the site. The one I've included below is particularly cool: the variations in the sound of silence from three different locations around the world.

But I was primed for this discussion, because the night before we'd been to the Met to hear Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. If you're not familiar (I wasn't), the opera is based on Herman Melville's novella -- a morality tale of sorts, depicting the murky waters of what (or whom) is good and what is evil; how do we know the difference; what happens when we have to make that judgment call? The production was wonderful: great singing, powerful staging and design, really affecting performances (this from the girl who prizes the storytelling before pristine singing every time).

And I was struck, as I often am at the Met, by the power of silence. There is no amplification in that enormous hall. It does not request that everyone be silent -- it requires it. The final moments of the show are incredibly powerful -- the orchestra slowly fading out as the tenor finishes his aria, until he stops, a cappella, at no ending at all (musically speaking) except that is the last note on the page. But life is like that, isn't it? Murky, confusing, full of regrets, and lacking in tidy packages or neat bows. I could hardly inhale during the moments after he stopped singing, before the curtain came down. There wasn't a noise in the hall. We were all listening to the silence, as much a part of the story as the hours of singing that preceded it.

So there's a big difference between opera and Broadway, huh? Compare that to the rock concert, in-your-face spectacle of GHOST, for instance -- in which the chorus sings lyrics like "more more more more more" and the words MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE are projected against the back wall, in case you missed it. Or weren't listening. Obviously it's an unfair argument, comparing apples to oranges. GHOST has some great singing of its own and really amazing special effects; rock concerts are just as valid entertainment as opera anyway, and I'm not going to get into a high/low art thing here. But it does remind me of hearing Damien Rice play at Radio City a few years ago. It was loud, too loud really to hear the music, and people milled around, getting drinks from the bar and talking with their friends, although Radio City is a theater and not a club. I sat and tried to listen, and when it was all over at the end of the show he came back out to play his encore. Acoustically. And everyone shut up, because they had to, and lo and behold that hall was actually built for music. I think he sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow;" I'm not really sure. I was listening more to the silence around the song.

why do we tell the story?

This is why we tell the is why... pain is why... love is why... grief is why... hope is why... faith is why... you are why

--once on this island (flaherty/ahrens)

There are times I wonder what it's all for - not always in a futile sense (though we all have our days) but curiously, inspecting the thing to see what it is. Why do we do these plays, tell these stories, over and over again? Why is Shakespeare still relevant these centuries later? Why do I write, talk about my own journey and process, when yours is inevitably your own?

"When the student is ready, the teacher appears," we say. I think teachers can appear in all sorts of guises, be they books, quotes, people, blog posts - however the message can get to us, it will, just when we are ready and able to hear it.

When I reflect on the teachers in my own life, the shifts and passages and the inspirations that led me along, I can see how each thing led to the next. Or maybe we just like to look at it that way in hindsight, make a linear story out of a motley existence. But it seems at least at some point that it all makes a sort of divine sense - I couldn't learn that lesson until l did. I wasn't ready to move out East until the option of safety had been swept out from under me. It's the old hitting rock bottom truism. Why we all let things get impossibly worse before they get better is beyond me, but it seems to be how we learn.

Some of it is choices. Some of it is just the erosion of time and goodwill on the hardened callouses of habit, until comes the moment when our shiny pink potential can see the sun. Even after we've been at that thing with the pumice stone til our eyes cross.

At the moment I'm re-reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian psychoanalyst and cantadora (a singer of songs! a teller of tales) who uses the power of story to open gateways to the soul and spirit. She is a keeper of stories, an archaeologist of fairytale and myth, unearthing the bones of the old teaching stories from before they were whitewashed by Grimm and Disney. She talks of these tales as nourishment, as maps, so that no matter who we are or where we are in our lives, we can find ourselves in them and plot our way forward. "This being human," as Rumi put it, is nothing new. There have been many before us, and thank the stars they told the story, and over again, for those days (like maybe yesterday) when we thought we were the first and only to ever feel like this.

The uncertainty is why we tell the story. To remember is why we tell the story. To express ourselves, to teach, to pave the way for whoever follows, to re-affirm those who have gone before. To process, to heal, to get through the day, to forgive, to laugh, to lighten up.

Why else, do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

what happens in the theater stays in the theater (unless it gets posted on youtube)

So I'm doing this world premiere production at Delaware Theatre Co (closing weekend already! how did that happen?) -- a (mostly) a cappella, modern retelling of the biblical gospel stories through a reality-show lens. It's a fast, fun, funny commentary on our technology-driven lives: my Mary has a belt of cellphones around her waist and a growing Twitter following; the Magi follow a "star" with the aid of text messages and GPS. There's a live camera feed projected onto two huge screens onstage (as seen in the photo above), and our a cappella/beat-boxed songs are juxtaposed with projections and pre-recorded snippets. It's rather meta. As we explored these themes throughout the process, the cameras and the personas and screen vs. stage, the discussion (probably inevitably) came around to the business model of the theater and how it is(n't) keeping up with the times. How we could be live streaming these performances around the world, but we're often prevented from doing that by our own artists' unions. How virtually every other business works on residual income, getting the product out to greater and greater numbers of people, through the most efficient means possible... and the theater is restricted to however many butts there are seats for in any given house on any given evening. And then the show closes, and if you missed it, too bad! It's over, unless it gets re-mounted or somebody finds the money and inspiration to take it to the next level -- and even then, even if all the same artists come back to do it again, it won't be the same.

But wait. Isn't that kind of the whole point?

Don't we go to the theater precisely in order to get away from the screen, to get in the same room with a few dozen or few hundred other people, to share that energy and see it, hear it, feel it firsthand? To have the collective experience -- not just watch someone else go through something but actually go through it together? Because we can feel it, viscerally, the human voice and human experience -- and when I'm in my room and you're in yours it's a nice proxy, maybe, but we do still know the difference between a screen and the real thing. We can live-stream stage shows all we want, but it's a little like looking at your friends' vacation Mobile Uploads on facebook. They may be showing you what that Hawaiian beach looks like *right now*, but there's no sand between your toes (or Mai Tai in your hand, for that matter).

I'm reminded of the Buddhist monks and their sand mandalas, painstakingly crafted grain by grain into exquisite works of art... and then destroyed. Not saved for posterity or put into a museum for the benefit of the estate (and the public, of course), but swept away, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, a reminder of the impermanence of all things. A reminder that the only real thing is THIS moment, and now this one... and once it's gone, it's gone.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for residual income and I've got nothing against screens (I've been told I look great on camera). I'm going to shoot my music video early next year, and have the time of my life doing it. I'll post it on YouTube and promote it on facebook and maybe someone will watch it on their smartphone someday while they're hurtling through space on a high-speed train. I'm really interested to see how that song, that story, will live on the screen - how it will be differently informed by that medium. And I've gotten incredibly kind comments from fly woman genius listeners and those who have found my work online and been moved by my recordings.

But at heart I still feel that the real magic -- at least, theater magic -- happens in the room together, where the energy is palpable and the show changes every night because the audience does, because the actors are human and fallible and informed by the unique circumstances of that day and that moment. And if you want to know what happens at the show, you'll just have to put your butt in a seat to find out.

on dali; or, a portrait of the artist without facebook

On our day off Monday, wonderful Wyn Wilson (playing the Big/Little Edie role) and I took a jaunt downtown to the Dali museum to fill the well and see the town. As usual for me in an art museum, I started scribbling away in my journal halfway through the exhibit...

In retrospect (a retrospective) -- how easy to put everything in order... create a through-line... as though life is actually linear, everything in perfect succession, lessons learned, packaged and tied up with strings before proceeding to The Next. But we in the middle, how can we see the forest for the trees? The artist may wrestle with those same demons, however many years later, just choosing this time a different color paint...

This morning the three of us Edies did a TV interview on Studio 10, and over the past week I've been all a-twitter with Opening! and family visiting! and flowers in the dressing room! Hearing that applause, catching the buzz, visiting and talking with patrons, oh my. Thank goodness for brush-up last night, to remind me there's a show to be done.

Promoting the thing, talking about the thing, reading (gasp) reviews! of the thing - it's all nothing, of course, without the thing itself. The telling of the story, the singing of the songs, the being the vessel for whatever comes through it.

Creating the actual thing.

Which is what, I suspect (and hope), most of us do it all for anyway. And while the perks are fun and the ego loves to be fed, just today I wonder what it would be like to create for creation's sake. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you do something brilliant and don't post it on facebook, did it really happen?

Did Dali enjoy a more idyllic artistic existence, or just a more prolonged moment before the critics (and art teachers and Establishment folk) got to comment on his creative fruits? I suspect it's the latter.

On the other hand, if people weren't saying fabulous things about my performance, I would still be enjoying the heck out of giving it. I know this much to be true because I was enjoying the heck out of rehearsals and performances before people were saying fabulous things. But if art is holding (as 'twere) the mirror up to nature, there has to be somebody to look in it. None of us creates in a void, and the point of the theater is our shared experience. Anyway. Here I go with my cyclical arguments again.

Here's Wyn tying a wish to the Dali Wish Tree. I can't remember just what I wished for, but it was something about a life of wild abandon and self-expression.

Here's to another weekend of storytelling and creating the thing...

15 days of rhonda: day 15

And that's all she wrote, folks. It's been a great ride. Many thanks to the good people of the Chenango River Theatre, director Chris Clavelli and of course the fantastic cast (Jen Burry, Jack Harris and Paul Kelly). Check out our production photos here. And speaking of photos, of course the photoblog experiment has come to an end! It was harder than I thought (as expressed on Day 9) but a useful challenge... and fun to boot. What did you think?

Lotsa exciting things a-brewing, so stay tuned for what's next! In the meantime, join me on Wednesday in Times Square for a mini concert as part of Sing For Hope's Pop-Up Pianos 2011.

15 days of rhonda: day 14

"We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." --T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets In a paradoxical way it seems that as the run goes on I know the play less and less. I prepare, I go through my pre-show rituals, I get myself whatever I need to Be Here Now. And then I start to wonder if I have any idea how to play this scene. And then I walk out and do it anyway.

Of course, I should be so lucky as to perform every scene from Beginner's Mind. But it's actually a really freeing concept... it can never be Right; there is no such thing as Right. There's just honest. And who among us really knows what we're doing at Life, either?

15 days of rhonda: day 13

Last night at intermission I was too a-twitter with watching the New York State marriage equality bill vote (and by "watching" I mean feverishly refreshing my facebook feed to read the live updates) to take a picture of Rhonda. So here's one of the first ones I took way back when. I'm so proud to be a New Yorker right now, elated for my friends and all those people who have been granted the same rights as their fellow citizens in this great state - and ready for two more shows about the crazy-simple-complicated, universal nature of love.

15 days of rhonda: day 12

Week 4 begins with 3/5 of a show and a whole lot of water.

Last night's audience - one of the best yet - was treated to flooded roads on the way in, some compensating-ly loud scenes (did the stage get transplanted to Niagara Falls?) and a power outage at the top of Act 2 for good measure. We waited, but that was that. Rhonda never saw the light of day. Or any light, for that matter.

We got dressed by flashlight and made our way out to the kitchen, incomplete and anti-climaxed. It's a testament to the playwriting that although each scene is in itself a fully told play-let, the show as a whole still takes us all on a ride. No fun getting off in the middle.

15 days of rhonda: day 11

I'm tired after this weekend. I suppose it's all starting to wear on me: the living two half-lives, country mouse and city mouse combined, with no chance to fully sink into either one; the back and forth without a full day off in over a month; the fact that I made an ass of myself at the company bowling outing. One spare in two games, from a Milwaukee native? Embarrassing.

But when it comes down to it, how can you complain about the actor's life? (Actors - don't answer that.) But really, working - doing what I love - two hours a day (three if you count showering, setting props and getting dressed) and having the rest of the time to relax, kayak, create... it's the beginning of a dream come true. I'm just going to appreciate it right now from the comfort of a nap.

15 days of rhonda: day 10

I re-read yesterday's post and thought, good grief, now I'm misrepresenting myself, making it sound like I didn't do my homework until three weeks into the run. Which of course isn't true. But there's a different sort of subtlety, ease, playfulness that's coming in as I'm no longer cramming for opening night or clarifying what the eff I'm doing or rehearsing that prop exchange for the umpteenth time. There's upkeep, sure. But it's a never-ending process. The show will grow until we close next week, and then we'll put it away, but not because there was nothing left to explore.

It's like painters say, right? The masterpiece is never finished; you just stop working on it.

15 days of rhonda: day 9

All right I'll say it: this project has been more difficult than I anticipated. Not only the photography part, which I'm remarkably unqualified for (thank goodness for camera+), but what to tell you every day! Short of waxing poetic about our lovely audiences or remembering the quirks of each night [likely meaningless to all except my boyfriend, who saw the show three nights in a row last week], I'm not used to finding myself that consistently interesting... I've started playing around in the lulls of the show, making up stories and imagining the rest of these characters' lives, where did they buy this shirt, was it the first thing in the drawer or did she pick it out special, does she love her job, what does she listen to on the commute? The questions are endless, the danger is forgetting to walk back onstage. But it's funny to me how long it's taken (three weeks into the run!) for me to do it as often, as much as I do now -- how much permission is necessary when we become adults just to sit and make believe. Kids can transfer seamlessly between our reality and any one they choose to make up at a moment's notice, and don't they seem the happier for it? Whoever decided that growing up and "facing facts" was the way to get on in life?

15 days of rhonda: day 8

20110617-121356.jpg This was an accidental shutter-happy moment (does anyone even know that reference anymore?) but I couldn't pass up the Bud Light feature in the background. Rhonda would be proud.

15 days of rhonda: day 7

20110612-092304.jpg Discoveries made this week:-- Sometimes the intermission blackout doesn't come as soon as it usually does. Be prepared to improvise. -- Taughannock Falls, Ithaca -- Noses can drip indiscriminately and without warning, even onstage (and onto the stage), while one is being proposed to. -- There are still places where you can leave your door unlocked night and day; where one store sells bolts of fabric, soy cheese and dime candy; where the local antique shop owners go down to the pub and dance on Friday nights after 54 years of marriage. -- Having a campfire to sit out at changes everything.

15 days of rhonda: day 6

20110612-095701.jpg Another weekend almost gone already? Seems we just start to find our rhythm and it's time to turn around and head back to NYC.

15 days of rhonda: day 5

20110611-094139.jpg Last night we had a post-show talkback. I will say that some of my most memorable talkback experiences were on my children's tour, where questions ranged from "Are you guys dating?" (Long Island) to "Y'all man and wife?" (West Virginia). So the bar wasn't set too high, but still I was happily surprised by the discussion last night. From a board member noting how everyone can relate to a piece of the play, whether they talk about it or not - to a professed non-theatergoer wondering how this place ended up in Greene - without realizing it, we started touching on some of the big questions we ask as artists (why this play, why this play now, for whom?). This morning after breakfast in town I was stopped on the street by the local salon owner, who saw me through the window and ran out to say hi. "Don't I know you from being onstage?" he said, and we laughed as he recalled how much he had enjoyed the Rhonda scene.

Local celebrity notwithstanding, I am reminded what I did love about that children's tour, why it's so good to do theater in places that aren't saturated with it. This play just speaks to the heart, and the guilelessness of an audience full of people who don't see live theater every week can be refreshing, welcoming, real.

Someone asked last night if the show changes from night to night, and I replied that -- at the risk of being saccharine, and I know it's probably too late already! -- yes, it does -- not least because of you.

15 days of rhonda: day 4

20110610-012358.jpg Clothes are funny. Winter clothes are maybe funnier (although there are some people in NYC these days giving that theory a run for its money), and any woman who's ever worn a pair of skinny jeans knows that the things we do to get ourselves into and out of clothes are probably the funniest of all. Last night around the campfire we were talking about evolution, among other things, and so it occurs to me that it seems rather odd to evolve into a vulnerable state of being that requires so much extra protection from the elements. Although in the end, that necessity gave us Carolina Herrera and Coco Chanel, so I suppose I'll just count my blessings. With special thanks to Jen Burry for photographic assistance.

15 days of rhonda: day 3

It's a triptych for Day 3! (Almost.)

First weekend down. I love the way every show is different -- the crazy goofs that happen with lines and accidental head-butts and sudden southern drawls that character never had before -- but how much the differences also depend on the audience and the energy they bring to the room. The subtle ways an actor learns to gauge the laughs and the bits and how different audiences react to the same moments. On opening night the audience gasped audibly at the surprises; one lady ran a running commentary about events as they happened, as well as a few forecasts of things yet to come. The next night's crowd was almost inevitably more subdued, but it's dangerous to judge that as lack of enjoyment. Every group brings something different to the table, whether it be loud laughers or otherwise, and isn't that why we go to the theater? To truly be a part of the experience, because it's really never the same show twice.

15 days of rhonda: day 2

Rhonda is a tough broad. When I started working on the scene for my callback I scoffed, wondering why on earth they would be considering me for the role and telling everyone "I will never play this part!" But they asked for it in the audition, and what could I do but jump in feet first and let 'er rip? Never say never, I guess, because you never know.