Friday, May 28, 2010

Day 131: Being

I am on vacation, staying in the most comforting, charming, soul-soothing house in the countryside that you can imagine.  I am incredibly blessed to have chosen-family who offer me the use of this house (and their car to get there) when they are off teaching at opera programs.  I am sitting on a lounge chair on the deck, over looking an expanse of green fields and trees and the catskill "mountains" (having lived in California and Colorado, these earth-pimples will never be mountains to me), listening to a cacophonous symphony of birds.  I'm on my something-or-other-th glass of wine.  I've been here just shy of 48 hours, and I've already finished one book and plowed through most of a second.  I am trying, desperately, to relax, to shake off the wonderful and painful and grueling and exciting and disappointing and satisfying craziness of the past few weeks.  The doing nothing is helping, the wine is helping, the best-boyfriend-ever is helping, visiting the guy with the chicken-duck-rabbit-pigeon-guinea fowl-pheasant bird farm who sells fresh eggs practically straight from under the chickens butts is helping, seeing the deer in the grass at the edge of the property is helping, watching neon-yellow finches feed from the bird feeder 5 feet from me is helping.  But there is a knot in my chest that still hasn't loosened.

As I relax, and my engine revs down, and I continue to push the incessant to-do list that runs non-stop in my brain far enough into the background that I only barely hear it screaming at me, other things start to come up.  Emotions, longings, fears, dreams, doubts.  Some of it is good, some of it is uncomfortable.  And I am made aware again of something I learned about myself long ago: I keep myself so busy in part so that I don't have time to stop and feel things.

Ah, but I want to feel things!  The good things, of course, but even some of the bad things.  I know I can't have one without the other.  As wrenchingly painful as the first 6 months or so after my separation were, I also had never felt so alive in all my life.  I felt a range of emotion - from grief to excitement to anger to happiness to love to loss to fear to liberation - that I had never allowed myself to feel before.  It was horrible and wonderful all at the same time.  It transformed me, and I know I am a greater person -- and a much greater artist -- for it. 

But unfortunately it is a life-long habit for me to suppress and avoid my feelings.  I am trying to learn to just sit with where I am, to just be sometimes; to have a day where I'm feeling off and be ok with that instead of trying to fix it.   But voices in my head fight that.  My tendency is to view everything as a problem to be fixed.   That doesn't always serve me as a person, especially because not everything can be fixed.  Though, it suddenly occurs to me, perhaps I can put that habit to good use in my writing, as every scene and character in a play needs an "action": something they want or a problem they need to fix.  No one wants to watch a character who is content to just be where they are, that doesn't make for good theater.  But my life isn't theater, and I'd like to learn to be content where I am.  Sometimes.  Not always, as I want to continue to grow and change and learn and better myself, but sometimes I need to just -- be.

On that note, I think I need to go "be" with some Vermont hickory smoked maple cheddar cheese and another glass of wine.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day 127: Letting Go

(Forgive the radio silence for the last week.  Between the play festival and finals, my students' recital, and my boyfriend's music show and birthday, I have scarcely had a moment to breathe.)

There is far more to process and learn from the experience of this last week's 48-hour play festival than I can possibly fit into one blog post, so I'll start with its biggest - and most painful - lesson: how to let go

As a performer, I am used to being in control of what happens during a live performance.  Granted, I can't control what the other performers do or how the audience reacts, but I can control my own performance and trust myself to put on a good show no matter what else happens.  As a playwright, I have discovered that it is far, far more nerve-wracking for me to be in the audience watching someone else perform my play than it is for me to be on stage myself, because I have absolutely no control over what happens.

As a playwright for this festival, it was up to me to decide how much I wanted to be part of the rehearsal process.  I chose to be part of all of it, as I love watching the process and also want to exercise control over any line changes that might be needed once the play gets up on its feet.  I think the collaborative part of creating theater is the most satisfying part: seeing what other people bring to the work I have created, and how they can help mold and shape the final touches on it.

So I was there all day last Sunday, until after their tech rehearsal, at which point I decided I had to leave.  It was too nerve-wracking for me watching the actors continue to struggle to learn their lines, and I knew that, with only 3 hours til the performance, there was nothing I could do to help.  So rather than hover over them like an anxious stage mother, I left and came back just in time for curtain.  This was the first step I took towards letting go.  It paid off in this case, as the actors pulled through reasonably well -- there was a lot of paraphrasing of my lines, but they got the story across and the audience loved it.  And of course, the play made it to the finals, so I was very happy.

Then during the week I had to let go again.  There was no time when my director and I were both available to rehearse with the actors, so I offered to rehearse with the actors once to help them with lines, and then have the director work with them.  The director didn't want me to do that, though, as she wanted to have input on the rehearsal process.  As this is her job, it made sense and I agreed.  It was very difficult for me, though, to trust the actors and director to do their jobs without me.  But I did.  And it was actually kind of nice to be able to show up at curtain time on Saturday with no extra rehearsals or anything, and I was excited to see the work they had done on the piece without me.

Unfortunately, it did not pay off this time.  The actors froze and ended up skipping over almost half of the script.  As such, my play made very little sense.  With 14 people in the audience who had come because of me, I was mortified.  Not to mention more than a little angry.  I really believed my play had a strong chance to win, and I felt like that had been ripped away from me.  Not by anything I did, but by something completely out of my control. 

Having spent my life in the theater, I understand that these things happen. There is nothing I could have done to prevent those actors from jumping ahead.  Maybe it wouldn't have happened if we'd had more rehearsal, maybe it would have.  Given that they did better with less rehearsal the weekend before, it's pointless to wonder.  If I continue on this playwright path, I am going to have to deal with directors and actors and set designers doing things that don't always please me.  And sometimes just plain screwing up.  (Unless I decide to write one-woman shows for myself to produce and perform, in which case I will only have me to blame.)  I will have to continue to trust and hope that my work can shine through regardless.

And that is what has happened.  Out of the disappointment and frustration comes a shining light:  the producers of the festival told me how highly they think of my work and that they want to work with me in the future.  Even though no one really got to see it, I did, in fact, write a damn fine play.

That's all I have control over.  I have to let go of the rest.

Monday, May 17, 2010


My 10 minute play, 'S Mothering, created for the From the Hip 48 Hour play festival, was chosen to move on to the finals!  If you missed it tonight, you can come see it again on Saturday (this time with a full week to rehearse instead of a day!). 

8pm Saturday May 22nd
Wings Theater
154 Christopher Street
Tickets: $15

More recollections about the experience and all later, too exhausted now, but I wanted to share the amazing news!!!!!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Day 118: Ready, set....

Here I am, about to embark on one of the craziest things I've ever done: write a play - for public consumption - in only 24 hours.  I just met my director and two lovely actors, saw them do an improv, and was given my "surprise theme" that has to show up somewhere in my play.  I have until 10pm tomorrow night to create a 10 minute play for them to memorize, rehearse, and perform on Sunday evening.  This is a terribly exciting adventure and I can't wait to see how it turns out.

If you want to see what I come up with, reserve your tickets ahead of time -- reservations are piling up! 

Reserve your tickets by emailing and mentioning the date, time, title of show, and number of tickets desired. Group rates of $12/ticket are available for parties of 8 or more.

"From the Hip"
Sunday May 16 at 8PM
Wings Theatre
154 Christopher Street
Tickets: $15

About to unplug my router so I'm not distracted while writing.  I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Day 116: Mind your Manners

I have so little going on these days (hah!) that I have decided to produce another of my short plays (cause I'm INSANE!).  More details to come, but save June 19/20 on your calendars! As such I am back on the "other side of the table", as we performer-types like to say, meaning I am sitting behind the audition table doing the casting rather than being in front of the audition table doing the auditioning.  I really love this process, and know that if I ever do return to the auditioning side of the table again, I will approach it very differently now.  My auditions aren't for a couple of weeks yet, but I have been in the process of gathering resumes and headshots and scheduling audition slots.  (It's actually a fair amount of work to get people to come audition for you, it turns out.)  In this process, I ended up doing something I've never had to do before: I canceled someone's audition.  If you ever thought that your cover letter/email doesn't matter, let me assure you: it does.

It turns out I form an almost instant, subconscious opinion of each actor or director who contacts me based upon my email (or, rarely, phone) correspondence with them.  The professionalism, clarity, and promptness of a person's messages all get filed in my brain.  For good or bad, I have the 12 actresses coming to read for me organized into a loose hierarchy in my head, largely based upon how they have interacted with me over email (the only thing that can trump this is a personal recommendation).  A person who has impressed me with their professionalism has to disappoint me with their acting to not be cast.  A person who has not interacted well with me has to really impress me with their acting in order to be cast.  Which column would you rather be in?

So why did I cancel that actor's audition?  Her emails to me had always been a bit flaky and unprofessional: too conversational, not well-written, no signature file or link to a website, nothing to tell me she was a potential collaborator rather than just a friend dropping me an email (even though I had only met her briefly at a networking event).  I was going to give her a chance to impress me with her acting anyway, until she emailed me on two separate occasions to ask me questions she had already asked and that I had already answered (and that she had confirmed receiving the answer).  At that point, I knew I would never cast her, so rather than wasting everyone's time I simply told her that I needed any actor I worked with to be more on the ball than that.  If you can't remember your audition appointment, how can I trust that you will remember the rehearsal schedule?  There are too many incredibly talented people out there for me to waste my time with such nonsense.

I now feel like I haven't been crazy all these years for spending so much time making sure my professional emails are just that: professional.   Remember that old expression, you never get a second chance at a first impression?  Well, nowadays, many of our first impressions are electronic.  Whatever your field, it is worth the time to make sure that impression is a positive one.  And that's my unsolicited advice for the day.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Day 112: Of Gods and Babies

I saw Sondheim on Sondheim last night, a theatrical/musical evening's worship of the greatest living creator of the American Musical Theater.  (I contemplated using the word "arguably", but I'm not sure I think that is actually an arguable point). They even had a song in the show singing about how Sondheim is "god". 

Interspersed between the mostly stellar performances of his music are video clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work.  At one point he says that he regrets not having had children, but that art and teaching are the other ways to fill that need; that the shows you write are your babies that you send out into the world.  (He stole my line!).

I decided I didn't want children several years before I started trying to "give birth" to a play.  There were many reasons, one being that I feared I might resent a child for taking time away from my opera career, and another being that my teaching satisfied a lot of my urges to have an effect on future generations.  Inherent in our human nature seems to be a desire for our lives to have meaning; to feel that we have made a difference; to live on past our death somehow.  Having children is a very clear way to do that.  But if you don't have children, how to accomplish that is a little more nebulous.  How do you know that you living has mattered?  For me, teaching is the best way to do that -- I am able to influence and shape other people, without having to change any of their diapers. 

It is very egotistical to want to leave a mark, to want our lives to have meaning.  My boyfriend is fond of reminding me that the world will continue to turn without me (when trying to convince me it's ok to take a break).  Indeed, the world will continue to turn without me, just as it would without Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey or even Stephen Sondheim.  That's what the world does, it keeps turning.  Life goes on.  People adapt.  That is what has allowed us to take over the planet - along with rats and cockroaches and pigeons - our incredible ability to adapt.

Given that on a very fundamental level the world will continue to turn without any one of us, I think the real question is how do we want to feel about how we live our lives?  I can't control whether or not people will remember me.  Even if I had children, I couldn't be sure the world would remember me much further down the line.  The one thing that is within my control is how I feel about how I live my life.  If I have the opportunity to look over my life from my deathbed, I want to feel I lived my life big: experienced a lot and gave a lot; fed heartily from the buffet but also planted a lot of seeds.  I'm glad to say that even now, I feel that way (most of the time).  In the midst of my pangs at not being on the stage last night, I remembered I got to perform the role of Desiree (in Sondheim's masterpiece A Little Night Music).  Not on Broadway, but I did get to perform it.  Not many can say that.  I've had so many amazing experiences, and I have done my best to give a lot -- with my teaching, my performing, my Reiki, by trying to be generous with my family and friends and even with strangers.  Is the world any different yet for my having been here?  Maybe not, but certainly some individual people's lives are different.  Just as mine is different because of certain people.

Who in your life has affected you the most?  Don't think about it -- just blurt out the names of the first people who come to your mind.  When I did this in my journal last night, my list only had one famous person on it.  Far more than half of them are teachers.  Even if I'm never famous, maybe, just maybe, some day I'll have the honor of being on someone's list.  There is some ego there, sure, but it is also my way of feeling that I have earned the carbon footprint I take up on this earth.  It's how I want to feel about my life - that I've not only lived well for myself, but that I've made other people's lives better.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Day 107: from verb to noun

I met with a director the other day who told me she also writes, but doesn't call herself a playwright.  She feels that word is sacred somehow, and doesn't feel she qualifies.

My boyfriend always makes a point to distinguish between himself as someone who "sings", rather than someone like me, who is a "singer".  It is something he does, but not something he has cultivated enough as a craft to feel he deserves the title of "singer".

When does one graduate from doing something to being something?  Or, if one does something, is one by definition an -er of that thing?  When does the verb become the noun?

What does it mean to be an -er of something?  What does it mean to be a writer, for example?  Does it mean I make my living at that? (I don't). Does it mean I spend a large portion of my time writing? (I do). Does it mean that I choose writing over everything else? (I don't).  Does it mean I always walk around with a notebook? (I do). Does it mean writing is my primary mode of expression? (I don't know).  I haven't felt like much of a writer the last couple of days.  The only reason I even started writing this blog post was that the sudoku puzzle I was doing at the wine bar was too hard, and I got frustrated and pulled out my notebook instead.

When I gave up my opera career a couple of years ago, I put a lot of effort into redefining - no, UN-defining myself.  I had been "Natalie the opera singer" for so many years that I didn't know who I was if I wasn't doing that anymore.  I bristled every time someone introduced me and said "she's an opera singer", or when someone called me by my long-held nickname "diva" (which I earned for my singing, not my attitude).  When someone asked me what I did, I didn't know what to say -- I didn't want to be defined by how I was earning my money (at an admin job) but wasn't sure I deserved the title "singer" anymore.  I turned this self-consciousness outward, and stopped asking people "what do you do?" and started asking instead "what keeps you busy during the day?"

We are living in the era of the "/" - where everyone you meet is an actor/singer/waiter, or director/writer/yoga instructor, or musician/IT guy/biker.  Hardly anyone has a single career throughout their lives anymore, and amongst artistic types, few have a single career at one time even. Even in this era of the "/", we still have an incessant need to label ourselves, to define ourselves by what we do, to turn our verbs into nouns.  I'm guilty of it as well -- I'm a singer/actress/voice teacher/playwright.  (And that doesn't even include my admin job, or my currently-very-quiet Reiki practice.)  It's enough to give a person split personalities.

Can we just agree to eschew the titles altogether? 

Hi, I'm Natalie.  I do lots of things.  But I am me. 


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Day 105: The Art Doula is born

I have my first column!

Today (or what was today only 20 minutes ago) was the launch day of, a new one-stop blogazine for the independent film community in New York.  I am excited to be one of the feature writers on the site, with a column entitled The Art Doula: helping you give birth to your art through practical pointers, motivational mantras, and creative compassion.   You can read my first column here!

The inspiration for this goes back to my post on Day 73: The Art of Happiness (or the Happiness of Art), where I was musing about how I can give more back with my writing (and my art in general).  In the days and weeks following that post, it came to me that I'm really good at getting lots of stuff done, and at taking an idea and figuring out how to bring it to fruition.  I wondered if perhaps I could help other people get their own stuff done, so that they can make their creative dreams a reality.   When one of the founders of BVEW approached me about writing for the site, at first I didn't know what I could write that would be relevant to the film world.  But then I realized that this kind of advice would apply to any creative field, and she heartily agreed and brought me on board.  While I have other visions for where the Art Doula might go eventually, this is a great place for her to start.  Come and visit me over there and let me know what you think!