Saturday, August 16, 2014

A bit of fun for a cause

I've been enjoying seeing posts about the "ice bucket challenge" to benefit the ALS Association, the organization dealing with the disease known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

And it was closing day of Unto These Hills.

And there was this amazing prop...just....sitting there.

So I made a volunteer PSA.

And I also donated. If you enjoy this, please share it. And also donate.

Monday, August 11, 2014

People around you are hurting

This post ain't really about Robin Williams, but we'll start with him.

Tonight I remembered a photograph I saw in a magazine from the 1980s -- People magazine maybe. A stupid television show called Mork & Mindy had made its young star, a comedian named Robin Williams, famous very quickly. A few years later after he became famous, he became a father for the first time. It was the kind of story for which People existed.

And this photograph I remember was very beautiful. It was the famous comedian looking like an ordinary young father, walking hand in hand with his toddler son, away from the camera, down a pier towards a pond.

That photograph was the first thing that flashed into my mind tonight when I heard about Robin Williams being found dead this morning. I didn't think about his movies or his drug use or the way he smiled at the camera in the music video for "Don't Worry Be Happy."  I thought about that picture of him with his son, a small boy reaching up to hold his hand.

We lose more people in our country to suicide than car accidents. I've lost an alarming number of friends and people I know to suicide. More people suffer from addiction and/or depression than we seem to realize, and even those who ask for help and get the care they need have a rough and uncertain road ahead of them; too many suffer in silence. Their friends and family often don't know what's happening, or don't know what to do. Sometimes the person in our midst who takes their life is someone we never knew was suffering that much. Sometimes, it's the person who seemed to have come through it and seemed to be doing great.

And I've noticed suicide is very hard on those left behind, who are often bewildered by the loss and surprised by their own reactions. It is easy to understand why some people feel very angry at people who kill themselves. Suicide usually isn't like a candle being snuffed out, but more like setting off a bomb in the middle of one's family and friends.

Instead of binge-watching Robin Williams movies, maybe we can think about this. Maybe the media can write about human suffering and how we can help each other instead of trying to delve into the lurid details of Mr. Williams's death.

Something as simple as checking in with somebody we know, somebody we know has gone through hard days, or we just haven't spoke with in a while, just "hi, thinking of you, how are you?" might make a bigger difference than we realize.

[Image:  I couldn't find the picture I was talking about. The boy's name is Zack, and I found a picture of him as a grown man standing next to his father.]

Friday, August 08, 2014

4th of July in Cherokee

One more "Desert Sage" post this week: I never posted my July column, a letter to Deming from Cherokee, North Carolina, about the strangeness of passing Independence Day on the reservation. It appeared in the July 10 edition of the Deming Headlight. So here's that.


This year Independence Day arrived while I was working on a reservation. There were fireworks and beer -- purchased elsewhere, for this is a dry county -- and the usual assortment of delicious unhealthy foods, and yet I was not exactly in the United States.

Cherokee, North Carolina is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who live on a portion of land that was once their nation -- land purchased from their conquerors, the United States government, or lands held in trust by them. Here by the Qualla Boundary in the Great Smoky Mountains, in the shade of a large casino and souvenir malls, there are historical and educational sites such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, an interactive replica of an 18th century Cherokee village, and a seasonal outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” that has been in repertory since 1950.

Frequent readers of this column can guess it is the latter that brings me here for the summer. Your correspondent plays a role in the history play – an historic Cherokee chief, no less – among a large cast, music, dance, and pyrotechnics. We perform six nights a week, typically for four to seven hundred people at a time. We are also rehearsing a brand new play that is in development, and some of us are working at the replica village as well.

The play dramatizes the relations between the old Cherokee Nation and the United States, especially the devastation of Indian removal and the Trail of Tears. A more direct description of the policy would be ethnic cleansing. Sixteen thousand Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma and a great many died on the way. A fragment of the Cherokee was able to remain in North Carolina and their descendants live here.

Even before the 4th of July came along, it had been a curious job. One of the historical criticisms of this play was that too many white actors were performing in “redface,” rather than having Cherokee performers play the major characters in their own history. This has improved, and now there are several Cherokee actors in the cast, as well as a mix of other ethnic backgrounds. Even so, today I share a dressing room with a distinguished Cherokee man, painting my face and donning a black wig. There is no avoiding the strangeness of the situation, and we share a great deal of laughter.

The streets are lined with gift shops and people dressed more like the Hollywood image of the American Indian, great feather bonnets and dance costumes, razzling and dazzling tourists and accepting tips for photographs. Generally, I stick close to the river, enjoying the children and dogs playing and people fishing, easing my mind’s grumpy chatter about all the disrespectful profiteering.

Before our 4th of July performance, the Cherokee Historical Association made a presentation. Combing out my black wig I wondered what kind of presentation this would be, considering the tale we tell – of Andrew Jackson, numerous violated treaties, land lotteries and Indian removal, of conquest and enclosure by the United States. Would they talk about the Declaration of Independence, the document that declared their conquerors’ independence from an older empire? A document that, for all its strengths, refers to natives as “merciless Indian savages?”

What they did, instead, was turn the 4th into Veterans Day, celebrating several area veterans. This may have been the most tasteful approach, to recognize service without additional commentary.

There were fireworks later at night, but after re-enacting Horseshoe Bend and the Trail, many of us were content to sit by a campfire and enjoy the mountain sky.

[Image: Soco Creek, Cherokee, North Carolina. Took this picture in July while I was looking for Yonaguska's burial site.]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

"Desert Sage" announcement

"Desert Sage" is a local editorial column for the Deming Headlight, originated by Win Mott in 2001. For nearly 12 years, Win wrote the weekly column himself, appearing on the Thursday editorial page. Beginning in 2013, the column was shared by Win, me, Lynn Olson, and Richard Thatcher -- all residents of Luna County, New Mexico, writing about national and world events with a viewpoint grounded in the place where we lived. I've been sharing my own monthly "Desert Sage" pieces on this blog.

Today comes the announcement that I will take over the column entirely, starting immediately.  Read Win Mott's transition column here.

So now it begins. What the heck do I write about this week?

[Image: Writing session at Cherokee Coffee in Cherokee, North Carolina. Here for another 9 days before driving home to New Mexico.]

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Magicians and Radicals

I've been forgetting to post my "Desert Sage" columns here during the summer. This was the June column, appearing in the Deming Headlight on June 12 of this year.  

"Desert Sage" is a Thursday editorial column originated by Win Mott for the Headlight years ago. In 2013, Win began sharing the column with four writers, including yours truly. My column appeared regularly on the second Thursday of each month. 

Changes are taking place with the column once again, and there will be an announcement about that later this week.


“What you are about to learn may disappoint you.” 

The magician brought out an array of handkerchiefs and small props in preparation for my first lesson in magic. This was not actual sorcery but the human art of illusion. Trickery. Fooling the eye into believing it sees something that is not real. 

It was disconcerting to learn how easily a human being can be fooled. 

One of the essential skills of a magician is that of misdirection, luring your attention elsewhere. When a magician makes something disappear, it is often hidden in plain sight. A magic trick is a small story and the audience will accept the tale and gasp in amazement. It’s fun. Yes, there are those who hold back and try to catch the trick, but they are just party-poopers. 

There is an analogy here to politics. Societies are held together by stories, and usually these stories take a kernel of fact and embellish them, improve upon them by adding memorable details, dramatizing events, and celebrating individual accomplishments. 

Last week, Desert Sage Win Mott wrote about one cherished American myth, that of the “rugged individualist” who built the west. Despite the libertarian fantasy of solitary frontiersmen, “they worked together,” wrote the sage. “Not just to help in crisis, fire, flood or the like, but in the everyday life of planting, irrigating, harvesting and even marketing. clearly functioned better when people banded together.” Moreover, government played an active role in the settlement and development of the west. As an example, Mott wrote about the Homestead Act, to which we will return in a moment. 

Some historical myths present us as we wish to see ourselves; some teach moral lessons - recall George Washington’s cherry tree. The mythos of the rugged individualist celebrates positive values such as perseverance, ingenuity, and self-sufficiency. 

Another use of myth is misdirection, like the magician’s sleight of hand, drawing attention away from the actual power relationships that direct our economy and our laws. Of the romantic, rugged individualist, Emma Goldman wrote, “Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.” 

The Homestead Act of 1862 is often remembered as an example of good government action, helping the commonfolk. As Desert Sage wrote, “Its impact on individuals was to make essentially free land available to poor people willing to live on the land and farm it.” This was formally the intent of the law, and Desert Sage’s point is valid, yet even here there are onion-like layers of myth and misdirection. 

Looking deeper, that land wasn’t really free – it had to be ‘discovered’ and ‘liberated’ from previous occupants, with enormous violence. Moreover, freed slaves and agrarian families often could not raise the needed capital, and it was wealthy speculators and landholders who snapped up the conquered lands and pushed the frontier westward, enacting a great new myth, that of “Manifest Destiny.” 

Just as one can learn to spot what a magician is doing, one can begin to notice the misdirection in our national myths and rhetoric, the friendly masks placed over those who rule. As my magician friend warned me, this knowledge can be disappointing. And looking into these matters will get you called names much worse than party-pooper. 

Exalting rugged individuals keeps us divided and conquerable. There is little an individual can do about a powerful and organized ruling class. A resilient and activated community, on the other hand, can unseat people, change the power structure and write a new storyline. 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Long Run Fatigue

At this writing, we have completed 54 performances of Unto These Hills if I count correctly, with 13 to go.

The last time I had a run this long was probably my last show as an Equity actor, when I played Bob Cratchit at Trinity Rep in 2005.  Since then, when I work at all, it's at smaller theatres with much shorter runs. Every performance is precious and rare. Long runs don't feel like that. Since May 31, we have been performing six nights a week, and we continue through August 16. For many members of this cast, many of them undergraduates in theatre programs here or there, these 67 shows are their first experience with a long run.

And for some actors, 67 shows isn't even a long run. Just ask Broadway actors, or actors in touring companies. They'd call 67 shows an interlude.

Be it 67 shows or 670, we have to deal with the familiarity and the fatigue of repetition, the conundrum of doing the same show as rehearsed while experiencing each moment fresh as new. This is a problem that turns some actors away from live theatre and toward the camera. (Besides the money, that is.) I've heard actors I really admire, who gravitated away from theatre toward film work, complain about the repetition in live theatre.

One way actors keep it fresh for themselves is by pulling small pranks on each other. Audiences might be amazed by how much goes on, even onstage. To a degree this is actually healthy, as long as everyone understands the golden rule, which is that the audience must never catch on to the mischief. The scene must remain intact. But if actors are in a little bit of danger of laughing, it keeps us alive, listening, breathing. I would never wish to sabotage a scene partner outright, but I'll vary what I'm doing, surprise them, tease them a little. It's fun and keeps us from becoming automatons, lifelessly repeating the same lines the same way, with no semblance of life or passion.

Another way is to keep going back to scenework. Even within the confines of the scripted lines and blocking, there might be new discoveries, a way to use a line more clearly, a gesture, a point of contact with another actor, something in our use of breath, moments we hadn't noticed or heard before.

Besides new discoveries, there is an art to re-discovering things, noticing them again as for the first time. For this, I find cham soen (zen meditation, also known by the Japanese term zazen) helpful. Generally I don't like to talk about meditation in terms of practical benefit  - "if you sit zen, you get this and that" - but this is a rare exception. For the actor's discipline it happens to be tremendously useful, a way to gather ones energy, release the crap on the surface consciousness, bring our attention and our breath together, and wake up listening throughout our senses.  Leaving aside the broader discussion about our vow to practice, it happens to provide tangible benefits to how we do this particular job. (I've also found useful ways to merge chanting zen with vocal warmups, but that will be for another entry, maybe.)

In formal zen, there is a lot of repetition, and a lot of opportunity to practice repetition as not-repetition, to experience it freshly again without forgetting or pretending or "knowing" what comes next. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, "Just do it," which is very concise yet the sense here is much deeper than it may sound. Similarly, my acting teacher used to say, "Just say it," but that means something more realized than the sentence might suggest.  (But dear god, please don't ponder that. Just do it. Ha ha.)

Anyway, it's a useful way to wake up and live the piece we've rehearsed again, top to bottom.

It's a practice and we have just about a dozen tries left. The following morning, I'll be on the road back to New Mexico. On the weekend of August 22, Randy Granger and I will be performing An Iliad in Albuquerque.

[Image: dress rehearsal from Unto These Hills, back in May. Your correspondent is on the far left (of course) playing Yonaguska.  Photo by Wylder Cooper.]