Monday, January 24, 2011

state of the arts. (thoughts on theater).

I found the playwright Oliver Emanuel (@foolisholly) on Twitter via the wonderful actor Samuel West (@exitthelemming), and through Oliver I found Daniel Bye (@danielbye), also a playwright/theatre director. I'm not familiar with Daniel's theatre work, although he is certainly brilliant and hilarious in his tweets and blog posts, but Oliver does a fair amount of radio work, which is occasionally available through BBC radio online. This is a new facet of globalization, one where I can talk to writers in England (sorry, and Scotland; Emanuel is based in Glasgow, I think) in the middle of the night in Seattle (morning there) or vice versa, where I can listen to a radio play that might otherwise go unheard as I live halfway around the world.

I grew up in Seattle amidst what I thought was an intense and intimate theater scene in terms of a passionately connected community of actors and local playwrights. The big names - Pinter, Stoppard, McDonagh, et al., trickled out from London via New York; if it was a hit there it might eventually make it out here. (I leave out the classics - Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, and so forth - the same rules don't apply). You might see someone local working on a project in readings and workshops, but you wouldn't see the powerhouse playwrights except for at the height of their careers, their greatest hits. It wasn't until Frank Corrado's Pinter Fortnightly series of readings that I understood the great beauty of being able to experience the complete arc of an artist's body of work.

What we have here in Seattle is a network of small theatre companies and programs like ACT Theatre's Central Heating Lab, which acts as a sort of incubator for new work. They operate on a shoestring and a prayer and they create art, the next generation of artists. It is a homegrown process. What we don't have is a way to see other young playwrights across the globe, how they are working, how they are coming into their own, creating their own language, creating their own New Wave. When I think about British theatre my frame of reference is off by a generation or four; I came of age reading Stoppard and Pinter and John Osborne. I need to see what's happening right now, to bring my sense of awareness up to date.

What I get to do now, thanks to the Internet, is watch (or rather, listen to) these young playwrights - ferociously intelligent and funny, of my own generation - create a body of work that, years from now, can be looked upon as something extraordinary. Already I have heard four different radio plays by Oliver Emanuel, already I have seen how a distinct voice can develop and evolve from work to work. It is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Chinese mother.

The other night a friend posted this article from the Wall Street Journal, provocatively titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," an excerpt from the upcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. (It is important to note that the title of the article was most likely chosen by the WSJ to be as provocative as possible). The response amongst my American-raised Chinese friends was immediate: some things rang true, but ultimately none of us can remember being called "garbage" by our parents.

There are a lot of things our childhoods had in common, my other Chinese-American friends and I. We spoke Chinese at home. We had a hot-water dispenser with pink or purple flowers on it. We none of us wear shoes indoors. We don't hug each other. All of us washed vegetables and learned to make dumplings at an early age. The fact is, all these little things become insignificant compared to a greater fact: I had an amazing childhood. That my parents' love for me and mine for them is unspoken does not diminish it in any way. At all.

Talking about parenting is tricky. It creates yet another way for people to judge each other, to measure themselves against someone else's standards. In many ways, my parents weren't like other parents I knew, like their friends. It would take too long to explain all of the freedoms I had, all the experiences that make up my childhood. I remember now, why I played piano, why I practiced every day for an hour. I hated practicing. I would prop a book or a magazine against the music and play while reading. But I hated the idea of giving it up even more. It wasn't a chore, a burden, but a privilege, I was told. If I didn't want this privilege it would be taken away.

I cannot look back and say I regret anything about the way I was raised. Praise was rare, and all the more valuable when it was received. Criticism was freely given, and either stung me into apathy or improvement. My father can given a lecture on disappointment that seems to last for days, and my mother has a temper that could frighten Cerberus. There are things I am confident about - making ice cream, photography, finding obscure things on the Internet - and things that I am not - baking with egg whites, my looks, my writing. But I am grateful for all of it, because they are all part of the entirety of my life.

Monday, January 03, 2011

the long goodbye.

A friend was diagnosed with cancer this past fall. I remember getting the email while at another friend's house on Halloween night. We had just eaten a magnificent supper of cornbread and beef stew and caramel-frosted prune cake. We were laughing at Eddie Izzard when I checked my phone and read the news. It is typical of this friend that her main concern was for her three children, all younger than I, the youngest still in college. She wanted to make sure they had a support system. I got into my car to drive home and I cried.

She is a firecracker, this friend of mine, the kind of woman who seems to be moving even when standing still. Like a hummingbird, or that Boccioni sculpture, you know the one I mean. I have seen her talk herself hoarse and keep going in a whisper. I know from experience her hugs are tight and warm, and time slows down when her arms are wrapped around you. I know she loves books more than almost anyone else I know, more than me, even. I know she loves her children with a fierceness that is like a wild thing, and the weight in my heart I feel must be magnified a hundred thousand times for them. Or more. This kind of sadness is incalculable.

Then, suddenly, more sadness was around us. Two friends of friends - people I'd met, but didn't know well - lost their fathers in different traffic accidents, just days after Christmas. I thought of my father's brother, who died of a heart attack when he was barely fifty and my cousin was away at college. There were no good-byes, no warnings. No time. I thought of an interview by Justine Picardie with the luminous English actress Natascha McElhone, whose husband had died unexpectedly while she was pregnant with their third child and working halfway across the world. "I told him I loved him every day, all the time," she said. "Nothing was left unsaid." How many of us are that lucky?

As an only child I don't know what my greatest fear is, coping with aging parents on my own, or losing them, as I know I someday will. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the Delhi airport, reading Julia Reed's beautiful The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story. I wept when I came across this passage: I realized that my biggest fear was of an inevitability far greater than any hurricane: the fact that they too would be gone. I hug my parents a little tighter when I say goodbye to them at the airport now.

How do you say goodbye when you know you have a year to do it?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

farewell to the old year, bring in the new.

i made no resolutions last year
or if i did i don't remember them
but i remember all the things i did
people i hugged tight
children who told me stories
and who held my hand at the fair
meals with friends
during which i laughed until i could barely eat
and travels with my family
that led to dusty hills as old as time
under a burning sun
the fragrance of jasmine in the air.
i baked cookies and cakes
planted paperwhite bulbs
that sprang up in the warmth of the dining room
and burst into bloom.
and i took picture after picture
of dogs
and children
and flowers
sunsets and sunrises
the camera and my eye merging into one.
it was a good year.