Falling in Love With the Characters

Last week during the annual post-Christmas reunion dinner with some of our friends from UC Davis, Ruth asked me if I had a favorite character that I have played. I was stumped so I asked Dave since he lives with all those characters and my opinions about them and I suppose he sees my relationships with them more clearly than I do. His answer: Marianne from The Miser. Of course I agreed. I loved Marianne with her innocent belief that everyone loved her because that was the natural order of things, and I loved playing her in  the awesome costume that our designer, Michael Berg, devised for me: a purple princess dress with a purple lace-covered and pink and purple ribbon-trimmed corset worn on the outside, plus multi-colored lacy stockings, purple lacy socks and my pink and white checked converse lined with more purple lace. A blonde wig and a giant pink and white polka dotted bow completed the marvelous ensemble. My pre-show playlist for her included “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Practically Perfect” (from Mary Poppins), and “Barbie Girl,” all of which helped me get to that super cheerful place from which Marianne did everything. I also found a voice for her that is considerably higher than mine with which I got to say the sometimes show-stopping line, “But I’m not very responsible with shiny things.”  How could I not love her?



But if Dave were to have suggested another character–Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nina from the Cocktail Hour or Germaine from Picasso at the Lapine Agile, for example–I would immediately have raved “oh, of course, SHE was my favorite.” I have, in fact, fallen in love with nearly every character I have played, which is, for me, a key to making them playable. My job is to take whatever clues about the character I can find in the text and create a living person and that job is so much easier from a place of love. Falling in love with each character keeps me from playing a type rather than a person, and keeps me from playing my opinion of her or from being apologetic about her actions. Being in love with the character saves me from the temptation to comment on her in my performance, as if saying to the audience “I know she is an idiot, but she’s written that way so what can I do?”

There are a few characters I simply could not fall in love with and my performance of those characters suffered from that inability to connect. Paula from A Seagull in the Hamptons leaps immediately to my mind. I really didn’t like her much less love her. I found her weak and whiny and couldn’t find my way to a more sympathetic view of her. So I never fully got her and I struggled with every rehearsal and every performance. I was relieved to let her go when the show closed.

In a few weeks I will be taking on Mae (also called Sister Woman) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I  am already quite smitten with her despite her somewhat caustic nature and capacity for meanness. I have sympathy for her because I suspect she suffers from a great disappointment in life as it has turned out for her. Half my work is already done because of this sympathy and burgeoning love.

There is a lesson in here, I am sure, that concerns something much bigger than acting. If love is what lets me into a character’s world and allows me to create her with sympathy and honesty, what could I do outside of myself and outside of the theatre with that kind of love? What might I do for myself even? If I can love these characters despite their naive idiocies or petty jealousies or bad choices,  I can also love myself despite my naive idiocies, petty jealousies and bad choices. And if my capacity for love extends to fictional creatures, it is certainly big enough to take in the rest of the world.

I have never thought about this kind of connection between the work I do as an actor and my capacity for sympathy for other human beings and for myself. On the cusp of a new year seems like a great time to begin.

Her Pack

She sat by the window in her small kitchen stirring her coffee absentmindedly and thinking about the dream that came to her again last night.  In it the moon was rising over a field, its light reflecting off the snow in a pale glow.   A line of evergreens stood sentry in the distance.  Everything was still.  She stood waiting, smelling the cold rather than feeling it.  And then they were there, surrounding her, their eyes glowing grey, blue, and golden in the moonlight.  She was unafraid, as always, knowing the wolves to be more friends than beasts of prey.  The dreams never lasted long, and they left her aching for more.  She wanted to reach out and touch them, to feel the softness of their fur and the warmth of their bodies.

The phone ringing in the hallway returned her to the present.  She let it ring while she finished her coffee and thought about the day.  She had a meeting with Mr. Carlson about the feature she was to write then she would be free to head over to the museum to interview the curator of the temporary Chagall exhibit.  Then it was back to the tiny newsroom in the failing town newspaper to write the story.

This morning her coffee did little to dissipate the fog of longing left over from her dream.  As she went through the motions of her day the dream stayed with her–more real than Mr. Carlson or the curator at the town museum.  More real than the girl at Starbucks handing her her afternoon coffee.

But somehow she got through the day.  She arrived home and went right to bed.  Within moments they were there again, the pack.  Her pack.  This time she willed herself to stay asleep as the wolves moved closer.  She could feel their breath on her skin.  She reached out to touch the nearest wolf, a grey female with pale blue eyes, and stroked her fur.  She felt a tug of recognition.  In her dream tears ran silently down her face.

She awoke sobbing, her hand still reaching.


On Writing I: just keep writing

As I go back to my notes from my two weeks at Habla Ya, I see my writing at its most naked–handwritten in pencil with lots of crossing out and writing over–and I really like it.  I have always believed in lots of drafts because it takes me so long to find out what it is I want to say.  I’m pretty sure my dissertation has at least 5 drafts per chapter, not including the dissertation journal that I kept for writing warmups every day before doing the “real” work.  But now that I look back at that writing process, I think the real work was actually in that journal because I didn’t really know what that giant piece was about until I’d written a couple of chapters.  And in the writing journal I was free to go wherever I wanted without any preconceived ideas about what it should be or what I should say.  The only rule I had was to just keep writing.

Yesterday I had a lovely conversation with my friend Emily about writing and we agreed that one of the wonders of writing is how surprising what comes out of us can be when we follow the simple rule just keep writing (or in my case lately, just keep the pen moving).  I’m working on a story as part of a writing experiment–writing part of the story every day for a month then I will type it up and see what I have–and every day when I sit down to write I have no idea what I’m going to say.  Sometimes I have a sentence or an image that gets me started, but I never know where it’s going to take me.  And I like that because by the time I’ve finished the day’s work on the story I’ve always gone somewhere surprising and exciting.  It’s like really good improv–saying yes to the scene as it evolves instead of trying to shape it to some preconceived notion of what will be funny or deep or entertaining.  My preconceived notions never seem to be as good as what just comes out as I let the pen in my hand move across the paper–even when I feel like I’m writing myself into a corner, which happens a lot.  Because my only rule for this month’s writing experiment is “keep the pen moving,” I often find that there are ways out of those corners that I could never devise if I sat and thought about it.  When I just keep the pen moving, it takes me places I didn’t imagine were there.  And that’s the beauty of writing.  And of really good art in general, isn’t it?  It takes us places we didn’t think we could get to but that were there all along.

Kind of like Dorothy and her ruby slippers.



La Adivina

En las montañas de Panamá en un pueblo tan pequeño que no está en una mapa, vive una mujer antigua y misteriosa.  La gente del pueblo tiene miedo de ella pero también ellos la respetan.  Nadie sabe su nombre.  Es posible que ella olvidó su nombre hace muchos años.  Pero ella puede predicir el fúturo todavía.

Un día una mujer joven llegó al pueblo para consultar la adivina.  Ella era de un país muy lejos del pueblo.  Ella estaba extranjera, pero la adivina la conoció.  Ella la esperó, y ella la dio su fortuna sobre su destino.

“Mija, yo he leído su vida en las estrellas y ahora te diré.  En los años que vienen, tendrás mucha suerte.  Encontrarás el hombre de tus sueños.  Sera guapo, rico, y romántico.  Tú te casarás con él y juntos tendrán tres hijos: dos niños y una niña.  Tu país estará tranquilo porque tú y tu esposo serán la rein y el rey.  Todo sera perfecto por 10 años.

Pero un día después de esos años, un extranjero llegará en tu reino.  Él parecerá como un hombre de honour, un hombre valiente.  Él fingirá que está en tu país para ayudarlo.  Pero, no.  Él sera un villano y estará en tu reino para destruirlo.  No conocerás que es el hombre de que te dicé hasta él casi destruye su vida.

Sin embargo, pordría salvar tu país si tú mi darás su hija cuando ella tendrá cinco años.  No podría verla después.  Ella crecerá como mi hija y la enseñaré como leer las estrellas y otras cosas para entender el fúturo de todo.  Ella podría ser una adivina sin igual.  Pero tú no la verás nunca y ella no te recordará.

¿Qué harás?”

La joven mujer necesitó pensar sobre este problema.  Ella se quedó en el pueblo por un mes para pensar y meditar sobre la proposición de la adavina.  Después de un mes, ella regrasó a la adavina y le dijo:

“Pensé sobre sus palabras y hice una decisión.  Se la daré mi hija para salvar mi país.  No quiero pero debo.  Cuando ella tendrá cinco años, regrasaré aquí con ella.  Pero debo que usted prometerme que ella estará feliz con usted.”

La mujer antigua suspiró y le dijo:

“No puedo prometerte que alguien estará feliz.  Sin embargo puedo prometerte que creceré tu hija como ella estuvo la mía.  La enseñaré como ser adivina y la protegeré.  Ella tendrá bastante comida para ser fuerte.  Ella tendrá buena salud.  Cuando estará adulta, sera una mujer inteligente y muy respetable.  La gente aquí va a enamorarla.  Estas cosas puedo prometerte.”

Y con esta promesa la mujer joven consentió a llevar su hija a Panamá para salvar su país.  Ella regresó a su país y las cosas que la adivina predijó se han realizado.

Pero la historia de la niña es por otra día…

El campéon

El sol sale encima de las montañas y ilumina el valle. Un rio corre despacio a través del valle y la luz del sol baila sobre el agua. Muchas flores crecen al lado del rio y lo pinta el piso del valle con colores rojo, amarillo, morado, rosado, y naranjo.

Es un día muy bonita en un lugar muy tranquilo, pero esta tranquilidad no puede continuer esta mañana porque un hombre y su caballo negro galopen rápidamente hacia el rio y destruyen la paz de la mañana. Este hombre–el campéon–es alto, delgado, y bizarro. Tiene el pelo negro y los ojos azules. Su caballo puede correr casí como el viento–una buena cosa porque los dos deben ir rápidamente. Detras de ellos hay siete hombres con caballos tan rápido como el del campéon. Cuando los hombres llegan al valle, todo está caótico.

El campéon corre porque necesita ayudar a las personas de su país que están las victimas de un rey muy malo y cruel. El campéon es el único hombre que puede salvar la gente. Los siete trabajan para el rey y quieren apresar al campéon y llevarlo a su rey para encarcelarle para siempre. Pero no saben que el campéon es un hombre de cualidades especiales. El puede ganar cuando el tiene su espada y su escudo de plata. Son las armas maravillosas y magicas.

Entonces el campéon atraviesa el rio y mira hacia los hombres. Los cabalos de los hombres corren más rápido hacia el campéon. Ellos atraviesan el rio y creen que pueden ganar sin problemas. Ellos se equivocan.

El campéon derrota a los hombres sin problemas. Él mata a tres hombres en tres minutos con sus armas maravillosas. El otros cuatro hombres abandonan su tarea y los cuatro cobardes se dan la vuelta y corren lo mas lejos posible.

Ahora el campéon puede continuar su viaje para ayudar a sus compatriotas.

Pronto el valle está tranquilo de nuevo.

A return to writing

I used to write a lot.  When I was a kid I wrote stories and kept first a diary then a journal (the difference as far as I can tell is that a diary says “my diary” on the front and has a little lock to keep unwanted readers out while a journal is just a blank book for recording the same thoughts that would go in a diary.)  Then I wrote papers for college.  Then a thesis and another thesis and a dissertation and then I stopped writing.  Well, except for the occasional journal entry in which I bitched about any number of things that I thought were wrong with my life.  But nothing I would consider real writing because I figured I didn’t have anything to say since there were no stories clamoring to come out and since I figured acting was my creative outlet.

I was wrong.  It turns out I do have stories to tell; they are just buried inside my head and need (only) a little coaxing to come out, which I realized when I was in Panama studying Spanish.  For homework assignments my teachers often asked me to write stories to practice using verb tenses correctly.  My first story, El Campéon, was an exercise in using the present tense.  I discovered while writing it that a. I can write in Spanish (who knew?) and that b. I may not have any idea what’s in there before I start writing but there is something in there.  And so I’ve been writing for the past month or so.  Every day.  Then I decided that I’d like to share my writing and if I’m going to share my writing, I might as well get started.  So Dave set up this blog and here I am.  I’m posting the stories I wrote in Panama first because they are complete as they are and I like them.  I plan to post pretty regularly to keep me writing regularly and to keep me writing for an audience, even if that audience is only in my imagination.

So welcome to my blog.  Enjoy.