Wednesday, May 30, 2012

a few theatre notes.

Just about a year ago I saw Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep and stayed afterward for the accompanying roundtable discussion. This roundtable brought together actors, directors, people who worked in arts funding, and the artistic director of the Rep, Jerry Manning. There was a sadness and disillusionment that night, from both the people who make theatre in Seattle - people who love what they do so much they are willing to pour their souls out to you night after night, for a lot of time and energy and very little money - and from people who go to the theatre but don’t always feel that what is being produced is necessarily speaking to them as an audience. I walked out of the theatre with a flickering sense of rage touched with despair. A few nights before I had seen THIS at the Rep and O LOVELY GLOWWORM at the Erickson, produced by the New Century Theatre Company. By the end of the year I would see about three dozen plays from several different theatre companies around Seattle. Some of it was terrible. Some of it was amazing. It still wasn’t enough. Next year, I thought to myself, I would do more.

It is the end of May and I’ve seen somewhere between twenty-five to thirty plays since mid-January. Here are the last three:

I still have no idea what Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS is about. There is a sense of the end of civilization, of being as stuck in the past as Winnie is stuck in her mountain of sand. As produced by New City Theatre it was beautiful and intimate and desperately confusing, at least to me, more like a piece of music than a story. You see this echoed in Pinter, too, but that is another story for another time.

BED SNAKE at Washington Ensemble Theatre was a confusion of a different sort. Even with a slightly bigger space than New City’s - it has about forty seats to the latter’s thirty or so - it was still like being crammed into a shoebox. It wasn’t so much a play as a Faustian love story spliced with a rap video, all set to a hip-hop beat. There isn’t any other way to describe it.

The New Century Theatre Company does a monthly reading at a bar near the Seattle Center. Intiman and the Rep are a block away; On the Boards (the old ACT space) is up the street. This time it was Abi Morgan’s TINY DYNAMITE, which is kind of a love story wrapped in the threads of friendship, grief, repentance, longing, and the hum of electricity, interspersed with stories about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again I am happy to see actors I know and love; again I feel a wave of gratitude for this group of artists who love what they do so much they gather together on their nights off to make more art. This is what draws me to the theatre, again and again, this sense of community, this sense of interaction and collaboration. May it continue, like a ‘riot in the heart.’

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

this is how we roll. cookbook club.

My cookbook club meets every other month, usually 12-15 of us from a mailing list of about 20. All women. Husbands and partners are not invited, although occasionally one will amble through the dining room or kitchen, collecting themselves a plate along the way. Often there are children, babies, and dogs. But it's really just us, carving out a day of cooking and then an afternoon of eating with a group of friends at the end of a busy week. In a life that is crammed with other things - work, family, the cares and worries that wake you in the middle of the night - you have to take some time that's just for being around other people who make you happy.

It's an organized group. There's the email list and a Google spreadsheet for dishes. Membership is limited, due to space issues. ("Do we talk about Cookbook Club?" "It's not FIGHT CLUB, people!"). We decide on a cookbook together; someone offers up their home for the gathering. At each meeting we talk about what we made, how the cookbook worked for us or didn't, and what we'll do next time. Everyone can cook, except for the few who don't cook and therefore bring the good wine or interesting cocktails. These are women who have *chops,* who aren't interested in making things complicated, only things that taste good. We know if a recipe is or isn't going to work, and how to tweak it so it suits our tastes. There is no molecular gastronomy here. There is, inevitably, too much food. This is how we roll.

Most of us are roughly the same age, in our thirties, with a few outliers. ("I'm old enough to be your mother." "BARELY. Maybe if you'd been a COMPLETE SLUT in high school"). Some of us are closer friends than others, and hang out more frequently. Others I only see every few months, and this gives us a chance to catch up. What keeps the club going is our love of food, of course, but also our love of being together. We talk about our childhoods, the play we saw last week, the dream I had about Martine and I being in Rome, our love for British television. We make time for this. It isn't just about the food.

Monday, May 14, 2012

theatre notes.

I was reading a speech made by the playwright Dennis Kelly this morning, which left me stunned by its clarity. I must confess I am not familiar with his work, but his words kept running through my head all day long. It opens with this: "…political theatre is a complete fucking waste of time." This isn't really true, at least in my mind. The idea of art as political protest goes back thousands of years, starting with the Ancient Greeks. It has existed for as long as we have had anything to protest, often shrouded in hidden symbols or cloaked with history. Think of the Soviets, of Mikhail Bulgakov's play The Days of the Turbins, or Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide. Skip ahead a few generations to Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, which leaps from Victorian colonialism in Africa and its collapse, to sexual repression and its release in 1970's London. Think of Pinter in his last few decades, like the roaring of a lion who cannot rest.

Kelly mentions the AIDS plays of twenty years ago - like Angels in America, specifically, or the ones I knew from the mid-90's - Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lonely Planet. The latter, written specifically for its two actors by a local playwright, had a quiet wistfulness that reminds me of Adam Mars-Jones' short stories from the height of the AIDS crisis. These plays were all born out of a wild grief and anger at this scourge that was cutting a wide swath through the gay community - I am just barely old enough to remember this - but I wonder how they will play out for the next generation, or the one after, or a hundred years from now. Will they take their places next to Shakespeare as something eternal?

The thing about a political play, like any other art of protest, is that is can't just be about the protest. If you strip away the skin and the flesh of political rhetoric, there has to be something of substance beneath it, the bones of story and emotions. It has to stand on its own merits as a work of art. It has to connect with the audience, move them, open their heart and their minds to what's being said. For one night a sea of strangers are waiting to spend two hours inside your head. It has to be beautiful. No, beautiful is the wrong word. It has to mean something.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

an autobiography. notes for a novel-in-progress.

This is a true story.

Facts and fictions are different truths.*

I was born in China in the summer of 1980 and adopted shortly thereafter by a young Taiwanese couple. They were living in St. Louis at this time, newly American citizens, and it took a few years for all the red tape to be sorted out so I could join them. It is entirely possible that I was the first international adoption in the state of Missouri. Meanwhile I lived in Shanghai with my maternal great-grandmother and various aunts and cousins. I learned to speak Shanghainese, my first language, which I quickly forgot in exchange for Mandarin Chinese and then English.

I have no memories of the time before I came to St. Louis at the age of two. No memories before the American government placed a stamp on a piece of paper that erased the name given to me at birth. No memories before the night I found myself sitting on a blanket on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching fireworks explode over the St. Louis Arch as I held my mother’s hand. I wore glow-in-the-dark necklaces bought from a park vendor and stuffed earplugs like soft marshmallows into my ears against the booming fireworks.

The passport and birth certificate issued by the state of Missouri with my new name and my new parents gives my place of birth as China, but the country where I was born will not claim me. Nor will Taiwan, where my parents were born and raised and where they returned after three decades in America. A birth certificate recently reissued came back from Jefferson City stating my place of birth as “REST OF WORLD.” I am American by citizenship and education but the rest is and always will be a bit of a muddle. I remember my mother telling me, years ago, “You were born without a country.” Later I realized: I would have to be my own country.

Sometimes I see middle-aged Caucasian couples with young Asian daughters and I feel my heart crack a little along fault lines I didn’t realize existed. I turn and look at families with children that are miniature replicas, or distinct combinations, of their parents, and feel that same sharp crack going in a different direction. And yet my parents and our family is all I can remember, all I have ever known. Any other thoughts and questions and doubts lay tucked away somewhere and forgotten, like the monsters in the closet you hid from as a child.

What they don’t tell you is that all of us are thrown into our families like castaways on a foreign shore, by birth or by chance. You have to learn this on your own. We are all the same. The first journey we take is finding the way to our place in our family, and then onwards into the outside world. This longing, this search, it stays with us all our lives. This is the beauty and the pain of our existence.

*This line comes from The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, by Patricia MacLachlan. I read this when I was about 10 years old, and it is one of my favorite books of all time. I know it by heart. Everyone should read it.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

theatre notes. (not really in order).

Spring Awakening (Balagan)
The Bells (Strawberry Workshop)
Old Times (Pinter Fortnightly/ACT) (reading)
Abundant Acreage Available (ACT) (reading)
How to Write a New Book for the Bible (Seattle Rep)
A Shade of Green (Theatre 9/12)
Red (Seattle Rep)
I Am My Own Wife (Seattle Rep)
A Fool's Paradise (Seattle Rep)
Holy Days (New Century)
First Date (ACT)
Night and Her Stars (New Century) (reading)
Or, (Seattle Rep)
The Lucky Chance (Seattle Rep) (reading)
A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem (Hugo House)
Twilight Zone (Theater Schmeater/ACT)
Torso (Printer's Devil/Theatre Off Jackson)
Happy Days (New City Theatre)
Stuck (Washington Ensemble Theatre)
Freud's Last Session (Taproot)
Pitmen Painters (ACT)
Clybourne Park (Seattle Rep)
{title of show} (Balagan)

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

theatre notes. the pitmen painters.

It was about ten minutes into the first act of The Pitmen Painters when I started crying and I didn't stop until the intermission. I don't mean full-on sorrowful, heartbroken weeping, or tears of laughter, although it is a funny play and I did cry tears of laughter. I mean the kind of tears that well up when you see something that sweeps a wave of recognition over your heart and mind as the drama plays out across the stage. Like Red at Seattle Rep a few months ago, it's a play about art, the meaning of art, how and why we create it, and why it matters. "Art isn't about answers," says Mr. Lyons, the art lecturer, "it's about asking questions." It's about creating something that wasn't there before, something that only you can see or imagine, and then share with the rest of the world. It doesn't matter than none of these men have ever seen a painting before, spending their days as they do in the dark pits of the coal mines. They paint what they see - the houses of the town, the darkness of the pits, the people in the streets walking against a deluge of rain, a vase of flowers on a table - and it becomes art. This is one side of the play.

The other side of the play is about identity and longing. These men, they know who they are, absolutely. They're miners, except for the one who was gassed in the Somme twenty years before and is now a dental assistant, and another one who is unemployed. Their life is difficult and painful, leaving school at the age of 11 or thereabouts, spending ten hours or more a day crammed deep into the mines, always the fear that a beam will crush you or the earth will suffocate you. In the morning they put on their one-and-only striped suits and walk to work, strip down for the heat of the underground, come back up hours later to shower and put their suits back on and then spend an evening at the pub or perhaps learning about art. The art changes everything. They could be something different besides the identity they were born into, and it opens a world of possibility and at the same time a fear of the unknown. This is the inescapable human condition: our never-ending search for who we are and what we might become.

coda: R. Hamilton Wright has this one line, near the end of the play: "Twenty years, they go by in a flash." It was twenty years ago this summer I saw him for the first time, in The Revenger's Comedies at ACT Theatre. It feels like yesterday. I hope to see him again and again, for twenty years more.