Friday, July 25, 2014

Meet and Greet

A few years ago in this space, I wrote a bit about the curtain call.

After the curtain call, I am used to disappearing. After giving my best performance, and then sincerely bowing to those who came to watch, my job is done. It's time to mop off the makeup, get into my own clothes, and leave the temple -- er, the theatre -- with dignity. If I know there are friends coming, I'll go out and see them, of course. I'm grateful to them for coming and waiting to see me. However, even here, I prefer to keep a low profile so as not to put myself on parade.

(The rest of that post can be read here.)

At the time, I was working on my first role in Las Cruces, and had recently learned about a local custom that seemed strange to me: meet and greets with actors, in costume, immediately after a performance. Years later, it is still extremely uncomfortable for me, whether I am an actor in the show or sitting in the audience.

From the audience, what I see is the actors doing something like a traditional curtain call, but instead of fading into the wings they run out -- still in costume and makeup -- to form a reception line in the lobby and receive compliments in person.  (If you actually clicked the link and read my post about the curtain call, you may understand my nausea at this.)

Members of the audience are then put in an awkward position, having to decide whether it is mandatory to stand in line and greet the actors in person, or whether it's okay to head straight out to the car and risk seeming rude. At the Las Cruces Community Theatre, the reception line often creates a backup all the way into the theatre, to the point that people have to sit in their seats or remain standing, waiting to leave, including elderly people. To be blunt, it strikes me as rather awful. I have been told that some patrons enjoy this, and from my unscientific observations, I concede that some do, yet I suspect a slight majority either don't care or find it uncomfortable.

Meet and greet is also part of our show here at Unto These Hills, and I'll come back to that in a moment.

As an actor, I have tended to despise the meet and greet. At the end of a show, I am likely to be sweaty, in need of a bathroom, or simply wanting a moment to calm down. Casually gadding about in costume and makeup also feels, internally, a bit disrespectful of the illusion we created. Or just awkward. When the performance is done, the mask is to be removed and put in its place.

Going further, I don't like members of the audience feeling like they are obligated to greet me personally; nor do I want to project the image of the actor basking in praise. As I wrote in the aforementioned post, I'm a singer in the choir, and the glory is not for me.  Sure, it's nice to hear a compliment when I've done something well, but that's a gratuity. It's about the work, not about Algernon.

At the Black Box Theatre, I usually agree to do the "greeting line" on opening night. The other nights, I go backstage, calm down and get out of costume, and then come out to say hello to friends or thank the volunteers. (Thanking the volunteers is very important.) Also, I am very happy to do post-show receptions - just let me pee and towel off, get a glass of water, and I'll be happy to come out.

Unto These Hills is a different kind of venue. The Mountainside Theatre is part of the Cherokee Historical Association, and our show could be described as a sort of living exhibit and tourist attraction. Elsewhere on the hill is the Oconaluftee Village, a living replica of a Cherokee village up to the 18th century, and at the bottom of the hill is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and a craft cooperative.

We do meet and greet in rotations. Each night, immediately after the curtain call, a group of cast members ascend the steep hill to the very top of the house, by the exit, where the departing spectators cannot avoid us. By the time we get up there, our hearts are pounding. I sit on a stone wall in costume (including a long wig). Historically this show has taken some criticism for casting white actors as native characters; in recent years they have been sure to cast more Cherokee actors in important roles, yet here I am in a wig, feeling rather conspicuous at meet and greet. I felt so grateful the night an elderly Cherokee man, beaming, having bounded up the many stairs without breaking a sweat, smiled one of the warmest smiles I've ever seen and greeted me, in Cherokee: "O sta!"

The show has an educational purpose and these "meet/greets" have the potential to spark an interest in a subject that is badly taught, or simply missing, from most public education.  One cast member wrote on her own Facebook page:

Tonight at Meet and Greet a man, I'd guess in his 60s, asked if the play was based on a true story or a legend.... I don't blame him I blame the severe lack of Native American education in our country. I'm at least proud that we can spark some interest in the subject, but the widespread ignorance and apathy for a whole race of people, my people, really breaks my heart.
For that, I can take the stick out of my ass about meet and greet. Maybe it really does help. So it's okay to be there and also okay to feel weird about it. And eventually someone from stage management emerges from the shadows, dressed in black and wearing a headset, and says, "You're released."  Off I go, taking the most invisible route I can, hoping our presence helped someone connect to the story we are telling.

[Image: Lobby area, Mountainside Theatre, Cherokee, NC.]

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Writing: A Blog Hop

My friend Ji Hyang, who blogs at Natural Wisdom, invited me to participate in this "blog hop" thing. Oh, what I will do for my friends.

What are you writing/working on?

Honestly I have no work habits established as far as writing goes. I manage to hand in a column every month for the Deming Headlight. Supposedly, during this summer in North Carolina I am revising The Chess Play (a play I wrote to be performed by children, workshopped in Deming this spring).  I haven't touched it.

For my son, I have been working on a personal, handwritten storybook. The book pictured above is a blank book, and I've persuaded several members of the cast of Unto These Hills to contribute illustrations from which I take inspiration for the story. It is a whimsical fantasy tale incorporating many things that Gabriel likes, including some of his friends and his little brother.

Here is the illustration for the book's title page (which is untitled for the moment):

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm.  Well.  It's handwritten, and my handwriting is not like anyone else's. Which might be a good thing.

Why do you write what you write?

For pleasure. For communication. For connection. It's true of letters, editorials, plays, and even Gabriel's storybook.

I've no professional aspirations, but it feels good when I do it well. Last year, I wrote a couple of chapters of a book on acting and found it so boring I quickly abandoned the project. The world will be fine.

How does your writing process work?

I don't know. My father, a professional writer, is very disciplined about his work. Me, well, I can usually meet a deadline, but it may or may not follow an all-night writing binge splashed in wine. Language is an instrument and I am a noodler. It helps to be in an environment where I am not interrupted and can play appropriate selections of music. Sometimes it useful to sit (aka zazen) before and/or after writing practice.

The List of Wars

Randy Granger and I had hoped to perform An Iliad together in the Asheville area this summer, but things kept falling through. Two venues in Asheville canceled, and then some of Randy's gigs went away and he could not make the trip to North Carolina. Just as it seemed the play would be on hiatus for the summer, a conservatory connection living in the area helped make a show happen, and so it was that An Iliad came to Black Mountain.  (I also gave a free show in Cherokee back in June.)

The White Horse is a former car dealership which has for several years been a performance venue serving beer and wine. For a show like An Iliad, it works very well, offering easy interaction between the actor and the spectators. Not my strongest run at the beginning, mainly because I was trying to play with a very different space, but the performance found its groove.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a long conversation with a couple of people about The List.

One of the memorable features of this play is a long recitation of major wars and revolutions around the world, starting with the conquest of Sumer and going up through the current civil war in Syria. For several minutes, the list goes on, a solemn litany of major conflicts in human history.

In Las Cruces, a combat veteran told me that as he listened to The List he had been enjoying it as theatre, but when I named the war he himself had fought (Vietnam) it took him by surprise, like a button had been pushed, his experience had been recognized and united with human history past and future. Similar testimonies taught me that The List is an important, almost sacred part of the play, pointing a way toward reconciliation and healing, however imperfect.

Last night, in Black Mountain, the conversation raised an interesting question about The List: what about veterans of non-military conflicts? This was raised by a woman who had gone through Hurricane Katrina, the chaos and the turmoil that followed, the destruction of her home and her society. Her recent decision to leave her home city, the city her family had lived in for generations, for the safety of her young son and to recover from PTSD, was clearly one that had cost her personally. As powerful as The List was, she said, she wanted to be included. She had never worn a uniform or been trained or deployed to a war zone, but she had been in one and felt herself altered forever.

Joining our conversation was a man who had helped counsel first-responders after the attacks of September 11. Here was another occasion when civilians, people not trained for battlefields, were abruptly plunged into The Shit.

9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are not included in The List. The List focuses on military conflicts and a few major social revolutions. I took the liberty of adding "Indian Removal" to The List, as it seemed improper to exclude that horror - the long walk, the trail of tears, let's just call it ethnic cleansing. Especially here in Cherokee country. It feels appropriate to include it since at least one side was in uniform, while on the other side civilians were killed or forced to march, many of them unprepared for conflict with a large army. The line between soldier and civilian is cruelly fluid, and this is not just a feature of modern warfare. Still. The List is, for practical reasons, limited to military conflicts and does not include the suffering of those plunged into warfare unprepared, or those whose lives are stripped by natural disasters with consequences similar to the effects of war.

And those folks need healing, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rain Pace

No matter how well you prepare, in outdoor drama there is a critical factor that is under no human control whatsoever, and you already know what we're talking about: weather.

It rains frequently here on the hill and our stage, as you see above, is made of sand. The "eagle rock" set, visible in the top right of the picture, pools with water. There is also a cabin that rolls out on stage left, on which we perform on a flat wooden deck that becomes slick. Meanwhile, when that deck of sand is saturated, it turns into a muddy soup. For the fighters, it becomes dangerous. You don't even need to be swinging a war club or a saber to slip and fall. There are adjustments we make for rain, but wet is wet, and we must tread carefully while, at the same time, moving the performance at "rain pace."

"Rain pace" basically means speeding up the dialogue and whatever else can be sped up safely. Not fights. Not dances. And not scenes that are timed to recorded music (for instance, the scene in our second act, depicting the Trail of Tears.)

The show goes on in the rain. We have, this summer, canceled two shows: in one case, a storm knocked out all power on the hill, and in the other case management held the curtain until after 9:00 PM in hopes a lightning storm in a neighboring valley would move away. Lightning will cancel a show but rain will not. For the hearty patrons who stay, there are rain ponchos for sale, and a rain shelter from which the show can be viewed (though you mainly see the tops of actors' heads from up there). 

There is a blue light downstage, visible to the actors but not the audience, that may be activated at any time if a storm is approaching. There is a similar light backstage. If the light comes on, we're at rain pace.

Moving at regular speed or rain pace, as it may, we are all sodden, cast and crew alike. Our shoes are wet. Wet sand is caked to our skin, smeared on our costumes and our own clothes. Wigs, masks, and microphones need to be protected as best as possible. It rained much of yesterday -- the show went on, performing for an audience of 136 stalwarts in a 2,000 seat theatre, fully exposed to the rain -- and it rained through the night and at this writing it continues.

Time itself seems to be moving at an accelerated pace. Time itself is an illusion, and perceptions of its speed have to do with where our attention is. Nonetheless, it is breathtaking to sit at the fire pit by our dormitories (when it is dry enough for an evening fire) and remember the date, to think more than two months have already gone by. In the two months plus that we've been on this hill, we've mounted a large-cast outdoor drama, workshopped a full-length musical that is in development, some of us (including me) have undergone 60 hours of stage combat training and gone through an examination process, and I've also continued to book and perform An Iliad. (This Sunday, I'm performing it in a tavern in Black Mountain. Click here for details and come by if you're in the Asheville, North Carolina area.)

Meanwhile, in just a few weeks here, two theatre friends back in Las Cruces, New Mexico have died unexpectedly: one of illness, the other murdered. Being so far away, there isn't the time or space to touch other friends and help each other digest such loss and confusion.

The blue light is on and we are packing in the projects, also making time every day to touch the dharma in some formal way -- often finding some quiet place on the hill for zazen, using chant to warm up my voice.

For the last month, I'm hoping to be a bit less industrious, always putting something out there, and to take in and listen to this land where I am privileged to spend some time, the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smoky Mountains. It is so refreshing to be in a different kind of climate, where rain actually falls from the sky so frequently, and it is not just a work-related problem but a natural function of a living place, a nourishing force that can also be a destructive force, doing itself blithely while human beings run around and call to each other through the fog.

[Image: Fight rehearsal on the set of Unto These Hills in Cherokee, North Carolina.]

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Plea for Indigenous Realism

Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous KnowledgeRed Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge by Daniel R. Wildcat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our climate emergency (the author calls it "global burning") is becoming impossible to ignore, and it is already too late to avert some catastrophic effects in 2014, and yet there is much to do and important reasons to do it. This book is an argument for important principles to be learned from indigenous peoples: "American Indian and Alaskan Native wisdom is a cooperative construction built on generations of attentive interaction between humans and the diversity of life found in the unique ecosystems and environments we call home."

This is, as repeatedly emphasized, not a call for a rejection of technology or a reset to some idealized past stage of development, but an argument for an "indigenous realism" in which "the value of technology is...a function of the symbiotic relationship between environment and culture."

It is effectively an extended introduction to an important topic, with some historical detail and a cursory presentation of some guiding principles that can be learned from Native approaches to technology and ecological balance, from the past and also the present. It is, however, not an academic work and does not go into these in depth, but urges the reader to consider and study this perspective more deeply.

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