Tuesday, May 26, 2015

new city theater.

The other night I went to see MUD at New City Theater, a play they had first commissioned and performed in the early 90s. It is a startlingly beautiful work, spare and haunting and mysterious, starring Mary Ewald, one of my favorite actors ever. The director, John Kazanjian (who happens to be Mary Ewald’s husband), has set up the room - the theatre is one long room, raw brick along one wall - with the stage in the middle and a single row of 26 seats (the box-office website tells you there are only 20 seats, but I counted 26). The “stage” is a curtained cube, veiled with a sheer scrim that lets you see the actors inside, but creates a separation between you and them that is contrary to all our preconceived notions of what theatre is: that, unlike a movie, there is no impermeable membrane between the viewers and the actors. It is unsettling, but then, it is an unsettling play.

A few weeks back I had a couple of different people ask me, “Why do you see so much theater?” And I came up with an answer, sort of, but I didn’t really manage to say all that I really wanted to say. The short answer is very simple: I grew up in Seattle, I had an enormously privileged upbringing by parents who were passionately interested in the arts, and who took me everywhere with them. The long answer is more complicated, and it is tied up with two things: the end of Intiman Theatre, and the death of Mark Chamberlin. Nobody tells you this, and you have to learn it the hard way: you have to tell people when they matter, when they are doing work that matters, when they are creating something that means something to you, because when they are gone it will be too late. And also, this: you have to believe in what you are doing, and when it turns out that even this isn’t enough, you have to get back up and try again.

I keep coming back, again and again, to the night that Mike Daisey gave a benefit performance of HOW THEATRE FAILED AMERICA, that spring when Mark Chamberlin died and Intiman closed, only one show into their 2011 season. I keep going back to Jerry Manning telling everyone that they should go see Elizabeth Kenny’s SICK at New City Theater. I keep trying to remember what made me listen and go home and buy a ticket. I wasn’t a Rep subscriber yet. I had an ACTPass that I used maybe once a month. I hadn’t reached the point where I went to so many plays that even the actors started recognizing me. All I know is that I went to see SICK at New City Theater, and I kept going back, again and again, and I kept my eyes and ears open, when J. told me to go see STUCK at WET or when R. told me to go see TORSO at Theatre Off Jackson. It was like being swept along in an avalanche, or a tsunami.

One thing I told V. a few weeks back, when he asked me why I see so many plays, is that very quickly I began to see them as forming the arc of a body of work, not just for a playwright, but also for a director, for an actor, even for the sound and set designers. For the way a theater builds a sense of identity, an aesthetic that transcends the individual artistic director who may embody it for a period of time. The art is what remains. But, paradoxically, it is people that matter the most. Their voices hang in the air, like the last notes of a song vibrating in your heart before they dissolve into nothingness. This is what Jerry Manning seemed to understand better than anyone: It is the people who matter, and as E. M. Forster said, a hundred years ago, we need “only connect.” I saw him all the time, all over town, tiptoeing in the back door of his own theater, seated in the back row at Strawshop, walking down Broadway with Gretchen Krich, one of his closest friends and another one of my favorite actors.

I remember SICK as being a free-flowing narrative, broken up by a friend of Elizabeth Kenny’s, who would hit a buzzer when she thought the anecdote had gone on long enough. She would give Elizabeth another cue card, and the story would continue from there. It felt improvised, but in a controlled way. Much later, several plays later, I would see more clearly the level of precision and uncontrolled control executed in all of John Kazanjian’s work, Sometimes it felt like every single molecule of air in the theater belonged to him. There isn’t any other way to explain it. There isn’t anyone else who makes me feel this way.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

 last night.

LIVE! FROM THE LAST NIGHT OF MY LIFE was one of those plays I read about after it happened, one of those plays I was always sorry I didn’t get to see. It belonged to that era of theatre-going when I went to ACT a lot, maybe sometimes the Rep, but I hadn’t discovered any of the little theaters that are all over Seattle. I had been going to Strawberry Theatre Workshop for a few years already and I had just discovered New Century Theatre Company. I had already walked away from Intiman when they imploded, finally, in the spring of 2011. Everything changed for me after that. My theatre-going life is divided into two distinct periods, Before Intiman Imploded, and After.

But we were talking about LIVE! FROM THE LAST NIGHT OF MY LIFE. Written and directed by Wayne Rawley, it is being remounted with the entire original cast and almost the entire original crew. It is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen, and also one of the saddest. Doug Sample works the graveyard shift in a convenience store, and tonight is going to be the last night of his life, because at the end of his shift, he is going to kill himself. Meanwhile, all night long he has to deal with shitty customers and a talking advertisement and with all the people in his life, past and present, and occasionally future, who keep walking in and out, with the occasional dream dance sequence with his secret backup dancers. Wouldn’t our lives all be better if we had backup dancers to follow us around?

What makes the play beautiful is two things: the mind-numbing ache of working a minimum-wage job and being told, over and over, that you could just do so much more if you would try and live up to your potential. And also this: the absolute emptiness of depression. It’s so easy to say, well, just one day more. Just get through one day more. There are things worth living for. But what do you do when you don’t see anything in your life worth living for? When there is no amount of love that can drown out the voices in your head that say, you are worthless? That you’ll never do anything and you’ll never be anyone, and you are just going to be stuck here, day in and day out, in this shitty little convenience store?

The saddest, most heartbreaking thing about LIVE! FROM THE LAST NIGHT OF MY LIFE is all the moments where Doug might have decided, well, ok, maybe I won’t kill myself tonight. All the moments where someone walking in the door could stop him, all the times when someone could have just been there five minutes earlier and help him find something worth living for. The sunrise that floods the convenience store windows comes too late. The cop who almost finds the gun in his bag doesn’t open the bag. The friend who loves him can’t quite reach the darkness inside him, no matter how hard she tries. There is no saving Doug, just as there is no saving so many people, every day, all the time. But there is still hope for some of us.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or by phone at 1 (800) 273-8255.

LIVE! FROM THE LAST NIGHT OF MY LIFE is produced by Theatre 22 and is playing at 12th Ave Arts through April 18th. Tickets here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/907030

Monday, March 02, 2015

theatre notes.

Last week A. and I went to see SEVEN WAYS TO GET THERE at ACT, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I wasn't sure exactly what it was going to be about - a bunch of men-babies talking about they can't get laid, maybe. And there was a little of that, sure, but there was so much more than that, and I can't stop going over all the little moments of the play in my mind. It was very, very, funny and very, very honest, and I cried at the end. I loved it, and it surprised me how much I loved it. Co-written by Bryan Willis and Dwayne Clark, SEVEN WAYS TO GET THERE is based on Dwayne's real-life experiences in a men's therapy group in Seattle during the late 1990s. The soundtrack is all 90s alt-rock and it takes me back to my high school years, but that isn't why it all felt so real to me.

All of us have problems, the play tells us, no matter how different our lives seem on the surface. All of us have fears and doubts that paralyze us, and some of us stand at the edge of a darkness that can't be described or understood, and some of us fall over that edge into the abyss. There's never any warning, only signs so insignificant that one only thinks about them afterwards, picking apart every last word, every last minute that you saw someone you thought you knew and understood. But you never can. There is a line from Holly Arsenault's play THE CUT - a work in progress, so I don't know how it will end - that keeps echoing in my head. A dying woman once tried to commit suicide as a teenager. "I should have died thirty years ago," she tells her lover. Those thirty years of survival felt like a gift.

Five years ago this month the writer Elspeth Thompson committed suicide near her home on the Sussex coast. She had been depressed for weeks, and had begun taking antidepressants that, instead of halting her descent into darkness, sent her spinning further into space, into the cold lake waters, pockets weighed down with stones like Virginia Woolf, who had done the same thing sixty-nine years earlier. I think of them both when I hear Mike Daisey talk about depression, about how close he has come to that same end, and yet somehow still walks back from the edge. But the people who struggle every day never really know. They never know if they can keep putting one foot in front of the other until one day turns into one year turns into ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and that yawning abyss recedes into a faint shadow in the distance. And those of us who watch them and ache for them, we never know, either. We can only wait, and hope.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

nostalgia is dead. long live nostalgia.

I walk across my neighborhood every day, and every day something has changed. The old buildings have been torn down and rebuilt as ugly modern apartment buildings with storefronts downstairs, those dreaded mixed-use building that defile every block of Capitol Hill these days.
I heard today that the Harvard Exit movie theater is closing next year. The Harvard Exit was where I spent much of my childhood, as my parents only ever watched foreign films with subtitles. I am sad, but at the same time, I can’t quite recall when I last went. Same goes for the Egyptian, which died and was resurrected by SIFF.

I like nostalgia as much as the next person who says “I remember when…”…”things were so much better then…” Do we really mean that, or do we just like to say these things to show that we were there first, and therefore are way cooler than you could ever hope to be? I remember I hated the new ACT space when they moved across town from their intimate quarters, long since transformed into On The Boards, to the sprawling Eagles Auditorium, where they crashed and burned through a couple of seasons before closing, briefly, and then coming back from the dead.

There are things I miss. The lamb chops at Labuznik. Beef noodle soup at Green Village II. The old Shanghai Garden, which really isn’t as good as it used to be. The old REI which always smelled like creosote. The Seattle Art Museum used to be in Volunteer Park, where the Seattle Asian Art Museum is now. When I was in elementary school, the Seattle Children’s Theatre was in the Poncho Theatre at the Woodland Park Zoo.

But the old memories give way to new places, new things, maybe not better, just different. A new skin grows over that raw place left behind when you shed the old one. There’s nostalgia, and there’s the paralyzing effect of looking back so single-mindedly that you completely miss what’s in front of you. Like Lot’s wife, I suppose, if that’s the right metaphor. A city is a living thing, changing and evolving before your eyes, and there will always be things you love and hate about it.

Nostalgia is dead. Long live nostalgia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

things I remember about St. Louis.

I arrived in St. Louis, MO in 1982, where my father taught at Washington University and lived there until 1985, when he took a sabbatical at the University of Washington in Seattle. We moved back to St. Louis for part of 1986 - one semester of 1st grade - and then back to Seattle. Dad had gotten tenure at Washington University, mom balked at living in the Midwest for the rest of their lives, and he was offered a job at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. We came back to Seattle in the dead of winter, to an unfinished house still in the midst of renovation.

There is not much I remember about St. Louis, because I was very young and my world was contained by the small boundaries of the street where we lived, Clayton Child Center where I went to daycare and then preschool, Chinese school on weekends, the brick campus of my father’s university. I remember winter snow and summer heat that left the lawn prickly and stubbly under my feet. We lived in Ladue, a couple of miles from the university, which I did not then understand was predominately wealthy and predominately white.

We were the only Chinese family on our block, a long cul-de-sac of nearly identical brick houses; I was not old enough to see this. I did not understand that my dad drove a BMW (back in the days when professors drove BMWs) and my mom drove a Mercedes (a hand-me-down from her father). I did not know that sometimes the police would see them driving their nice cars in our nice neighborhood and pull them over. I was not told that these were all factors when we moved to Seattle and my parents bought a house adjacent to the predominately-black Rainier Valley and sent me to public school in South Seattle. I would not understand until later that our Asian-ness gave us a level of protection somewhere between the privilege of white folks and the complete lack thereof for black folks. We might get hassled occasionally, but we didn't worry about getting shot by the police.

What I also didn't remember is that St. Louis is a city of suburbs connected by endless freeways. I didn't know that about 11 miles to the northeast of our comfortably upper-middle-class-white-suburb of Ladue lay the black suburb of Ferguson, and that the fault lines that had been apparent when we lived there 30 years ago would burst into flames with the death of a black teenaged boy at the hands of a white police officer. The song of the south is a wail of anguish at the injustices of this country. Last night I heard the roar of people chanting as I sat in my living room and turned to see over a hundred, maybe two hundred protesters marching down my street.
I thought about a moment from an early draft reading of Robert Schenkkan’s THE GREAT SOCIETY, when a simple traffic stop in a Los Angeles neighborhood explodes into what became the Watts Riots of 1965, a small moment that turns into something cataclysmic. I thought of Italo Calvino’s words after he witnessed the Montgomery protests of 1960: “The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation…without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual States is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York Public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East.”* How little we have changed in 54 years.

*Italo Calvino, March 6, 1960, Montgomery, Alabama. (from HERMIT IN PARIS: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITINGS).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

it's just me and all the old geezers.

A few weeks ago, I went to a matinee of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at ACT. It was a Saturday, and I looked around me, and the other 400 people in the audience were between 65 and 85 years old, give or take. And they LOVED it. They roared with laughter, sighed with recognition, had a whale of a good time. I enjoyed the play - it’s very funny, and it starred many of my favorite actors - but more than that I enjoyed their enjoyment. They understood and responded to the cultural references that sailed over my head by a good thirty or forty years. It’s a very special experience, going to the theatre with people who remember and understand the time referenced in a work. I notice this especially in plays that connect to the Vietnam War; for those who were young at that time it seems to have just happened only yesterday.

A couple days later I came across The Stranger’s review, titled ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Is Clickbait for Wealthy Geezers.’ This is not an unfair assessment, it is the truth. This is how theaters like ACT and Seattle Rep survive, because the aforementioned Wealthy Geezers are their lifeblood. The season line-up has to include something new, something “daring” (daring by Wealthy Geezer standard to make them feel like even though they are on Medicare they are still Hip and Culturally Aware), something Tony-award-winning, maybe a musical. You have to have at least one clickbait play, and you should ideally position it at the end of the season, so the WGs will a) sign up for next year’s subscription and b) throw in another $3,000 donation. If you are Seattle Rep, you won’t even list a donor in the back of the program for less than $1,000 a year. This is why I tend to donate money to small theaters for whom the $100 I send them means more than pocket change.

And you know what? I’m ok with all of this. The support of the Old Geezers means that Seattle Rep can commission something like Justin Huertas’ LIZARD BOY, a comic-book musical jam-packed with - as it was when I saw an early version - dick jokes and teenage first love. It means that ACT can create their Central Heating Lab program, which helps support new and independent theatre companies who have a name and a vision but no space to create in. In time I won’t be the young kid in the audience - I will be one of the Geezers. Maybe by then I’ll be the one donating $3,000 a year. Maybe by then I’ll be in a position to commission new work. Maybe by then my taste will be the one that dominates while the younger generation rolls its eyes.

Personal taste is just that - personal. You have to see things you don’t like, things that don’t move you or that you don’t connect with, in order to understand more clearly what it is that you do love. I don’t love Tony-award-winning plays, those big Broadway machines that sweep the awards and then are produced by every single regional theater across the country the next year. I love new work, but I also love classics - Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Beckett. Shakespeare is his own category. I look for stories about loss, longing, love, hope, forgiveness; I look for familiar faces, changing, pushing themselves, evolving, people I have loved for a long time, new people I look forward to seeing more of. This is what matters to me, what keeps me coming back. I hope it never goes away.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

nobody knows why.

Several months ago a friend in her 70s told us that her lymphoma had returned. She has had several battles with cancer, followed by bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, Chinese medicine. She has congestive heart disease and an elderly mother with dementia and leukemia, and some days it seems like only sheer force of will keeps her moving forwards. The most recent round of chemo worked, in the sense that it got the lymphoma back under control. What people don't always understand is that "in remission" is not "cured." There is no "cure." There is only a sleeping giant called "cancer" that may or may not reawaken before something else manages to kill you - old age, car accident, a tree falling on your head. You monitor your body and manage your symptoms the best you can, and sometimes you buy yourself more time, five years or ten or twenty or thirty. And sometimes you don't.

A famous man committed suicide earlier this week. It was shocking that someone who was so funny, and so beloved, could be weighted down with so much pain that death seemed like the only choice left. And yet it was not shocking at all; he was open about his own troubles, and then I remembered that often the funniest people have the most demons, and they live with the hope that the laughter of the people around them can drown out the voices in their head that tell them, "you are not worthy of survival." For these people who have those voices in their head, there will never be enough love, never enough laughter. Then I remembered, too, that depression and mental illness, like the heroin addiction and alcoholism that killed Philip Seymour Hoffman, are like cancer in that they are manageable if you are lucky but not something that can be cured if by "cured" you mean "completely eradicated from your body." That shadow of the valley of death recedes and reappears at the edge of your vision, waiting.

I keep coming back to something that Marion Cunningham says to Ruth Reichl in TENDER AT THE BONE: "Nobody knows why some of us get better and others don't." This applies to so many things, cancer and mental illness and addiction. You can do all the right things - chemo and radiation and therapy and antipsychotics and rehab and yoga and macrobiotic diets that seem to be mostly consisting of seaweed. You can be positive and forward thinking and looking to the light and eternally hopeful. And you may still die sooner than you are ready for, certainly sooner than anyone who loves you is ready for. This is why I hate the language surrounding death and illness of any kind: it isn't a battle you lose or win. It's such bullshit. The body is at war with itself, no winners, no losers, only the understanding that each day is no guarantee of a tomorrow. Mike Daisey calls it "wrestling with the devil," and he would know. How true it is, there are days when you are standing triumphantly on the belly of this beast, and there are days when you are flat on the mat with some asshole's elbow on your throat.

Maybe some day those of us who wake in sunshine every morning, more or less, will understand what people who wake with demons shouting in their face go through to shout back even louder in order to get out of bed. The shame shouldn't be in their feelings and daily struggles, but in our inability to comprehend their despair. Even then the only thing we can do is say, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved. And understand this: so often this is not going to be enough to pull someone back from the darkness.

A line by Joseph Conrad, an oft-repeated refrain in Salman Rushdie's JOSEPH ANTON, comes to me: "You must live until you die."