This Wednesday, I attended the premiere of Gallows II at Maya Cinemas. My friends Chris and Travis from Tremendum Pictures wrote and directed the piece, which featured the talents of SO many of my other friends and colleagues, both behind and in front of the camera. It was awesome seeing so many familiar faces and places on the big screen, and I was especially proud of the inspired camera work my creative partner-in-film, Kyle Gentz, did as cinematographer. Honestly, if I started to list everyone else I was proud of, this would be a very long post, indeed.
On Friday, my film "Story Queens" premiered at The Big Tell showcase at Tower Theatre . I was one of 10 filmmakers who won a $5k grant for producing a mini-doc about life in the Central Valley. This is my second time winning the award; this year I made a film focused on Drag Story Time, a free family-friendly event that happens sporadically throughout Fresno and our surrounding communities. I believe it is important on so many levels, least of all which is it teaches children to approach the unknown with playful curiosity rather than fear.
This week I discussed future collaborations with a few other Fresno creatives, worked on Fools-related duties with my partner-in-theatre, Miguel, and got feedback on recent work from my MFA advisor.
Not at all a bad week for art here in Fresno.
I'm probably jumping the gun here a little, but just wanted to announce I've started a grief support blog.
For my third semester of grad school, I was required to do something a little outside of my normal artistic disciplines so I thought I'd try building a website from scratch. (Building a site on wordpress.org is VERY different than using a drag and drop site builder like Weebly).
So far, it's proved far more challenging and time consuming than I anticipated, but I plan to stick with it for the time being. Not only is it a cathartic way for me to move past some of my grief, I'm still learning new skills every time I log on.
If you're interested in following the journey, check it out here: beautyinthedim.com.
It’s an old song.
It’s an old tale from way back when.
It’s an old song.
And we’re gonna sing it again and again.
We're gonna sing it again.
- Hermes, Hadestown
I saw Hadestown nearly a month ago, the night before its official Broadway opening. I was pretty familiar with the music (and story) going in. In fact, the show's transfer to the Great White Way is one of the primary reasons my theatre-nerd friends and I decided April would be the perfect time to visit New York. We bought our tickets to the show months in advance, even before we had our lodging secured.
I didn't know what to expect when I took my seat at the Walter Kerr Theater, but I knew it was very unlikely I would be disappointed by what I saw. After all, I already knew I loved Anais Mitchell's score. I knew I would be a fan of Amber Gray and Patrick Page (if their performances on the original cast album were any indication). I also came in immeasurably excited to be seeing a piece developed and directed by goddess-on-earth and personal #careergoals embodiment, Rachel Chavkin. Once I saw the set, even before the house lights dimmed, I knew I would likely be a fan of the technical elements of the show, too.
What I didn't expect was to be so impressed and inspired by the material that it would continue to consume my thoughts even weeks later. The evening I was attendance at Hadestown, I was entranced for most of the first act simply because of the energy radiating off the performers and musicians on stage (in a lovely homage to Mitchell's singer-songwriter roots, the musicians are as much a focal point of the show as the characters are. They are placed prominently on stage throughout the play's entirety and even given individual shout-outs by Persephone in an entr'acte after intermission). David Neumann's choreography is incredibly layered and specific. Bradley King's lighting, particularly when the entire stage transforms from 'Up on Top" to the depths of Hades, reaches levels of outright magnificence, as does Rachel Hauck's set design, which is so integral to the production it almost becomes a character itself. Every moment of Act I was perfect, precise, and bursting with a sort of indescribable joy that kept my attention fully rapt from start to finish. (Anyone who knows me well knows I can find about 200 things "wrong" with any given show, even one I enjoy, by intermission. With this production, I had zero complaints.)
Act II was even better. Having a visual association with the lyrics somehow made them feel all the more pertinent in relationship to our current political climate (Going in, I thought you couldn't get more eerily relevant than "Why We Build the Wall" but turns out seeing Orpheus plead with the dead workers to band together and stand up for themselves was the thing that hit hardest for me on a socio-political level.) As the story came to a close and the ending played out the way it's played out for centuries, I found myself knocked out of breath. It was an ending I knew was coming but it still managed to catch me off guard because Orpheus' character is written (and played) with such earnest hope that I fooled myself into believing the cast had somehow planned out an alternate ending for our evening's audience. But, no. Hermes and the ensemble even warned us outright in the opening number: "It's a sad song...It's a tragedy". As they repeated that phrase again in the final song, a touch slower and far more somber than the first time around, I felt my body rejecting the ending they were showing me, even as they continued to sing about Orpheus and his ability to, "make you see how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is." In other words, I found myself desperately trying to see the love story play out the way it could be, in spite of the way it was going down right before my very eyes.
I had tears streaming down my face well before Gray began singing the curtain call number, "I Raise My Cup". It's a a simple, quiet song that toasts to Orpheus, "wherever he is wandering, alone on the earth", Persephone urges the audience to let the music "follow him and bring him comfort". The song, for me, harkens back to a speech I love in Terrance McNally's Master Class, which is a fictional account of a workshop led by real-life renowned opera singer, Maria Callas. In the show, McNally has Callas talk about playing the character of Medea, how one night on stage in the role, she experiences a moment where she feels connected to every actress who has ever played the part before her, back on through to ancient Greece, back on through to whoever the inspiration for the real Medea was. It is a love letter to theatre, acting, actors, and storytelling, all at once.
I felt the same way about this callback to Orpheus- one of the first characters in one of the first recorded stories to fail in such an undeniably human way. On the night I'm in attendance at Hadestown, Gray sings the last words ("To Orpheus and all of us, goodnight, brothers, goodnight") and the crowd leaps to a well-deserved standing ovation. I jump up, too (again, out of character), flooded with an overwhelming wash of love, respect, and outright awe for theatrical artists- modern and ancient, professional and amateur, American and foreign. I am simultaneously overcome with feelings of empathy and pain for every idiot human who has ever felt the need to metaphorically turn over their shoulder and make sure their loved one was behind them, thereby losing them in the process. Right before the lights in the theatre come up, I feel myself transition from a few sympathetic tears to full-on, chest-heaving sobs. I have to force myself to stop thinking about the show in order to collect myself enough to not look like an insane person in front of my friends and the other patrons in the audience.
I try to vocalize how I feel after the show and I am not able to do an adequate job.
That was April 16th. And here I am on May 12th still thinking about it, still trying to verbalize why the show had such a profound effect on me.
It occurred to me only a couple days ago why Orpheus' story– a narrative about "someone who tries" and fails– has effected me so powerfully at this particular moment in time. In a world where it seems like art and arts funding is constantly being stripped away, in a world where leaders don't listen to the cries of our earth or any marginalized or suffering group, in a world where people, like the dead workers in Hades, rather disengage and 'keep their heads low' than fight against tyranny and abuse, the artists out there don't give up. They continue to try, over and over again. They continue to have love and hope for a world that offers scarce return in the way of both. On some level, when the cast sings, "It's a love song about someone who tries," they are singing about themselves. They are singing about the other companies and crews on Broadway, past and present. They are singing of visual artists and photographers and dancers and musicians and writers. They are singing about all of us who continue to work toward making "the world we dream about the one we live in now." When Orpheus sings, "Give me a lyre and a campfire and an open field at night. Give me sky that you can't buy or sell at any price. And I'll give you a song for free, 'cause that's how life oughta be," he is representative of all the rest of us who would take peace over power and beauty over billions, every single time.
In effect, I had thought Hadestown contained a love letter to artists within the play and I was moved to tears by that alone, but I now see the entire piece is one giant, beautiful, powerful love letter to art and storytelling, artists and storytellers, alike.
No wonder I can't get it out of my head.
With great trepidation, I read some of my poetry in front of an audience at my last grad school residency. I've always hesitated to associate the word 'poetry' with my poem-like musings, mostly because my experiences in undergrad drummed in the notion I needed to take far more poetry courses and follow far more established rules of poetry before I'd ever be worthy of calling myself a poet. This feeling of inadequacy has stuck with me over the years, and though I might post poetic pieces on blogs or social media from time to time, I generally don't ever do anything with this extension of my writing practice.
The response to my work, from peers and advisors at residency, was far more supportive and encouraging than I could have possibly anticipated. So much so, it's taken me an entire month to soak up all the ramifications from that one 10-minute presentation. In the interest of not turning this blog post into a novel, I will spare you most of those realizations for the time being. I will share this, though:
I've come to understand that, although I don't necessarily do so purposefully, I usually write to be heard instead of to be read. I think it's the performer in me. In other words, the one thing I was too afraid to give to my poetry was the one thing it needed all along: my voice. In that sense, the pieces are not really poems but rather, monologues. And with this minor distinction, I am far more willing to accept them as art and myself as the artist who created them.
This semester, I am experimenting with different ways to showcase my writings as spoken word pieces. Some ideas for bringing these poems back to life (and honestly, credit goes to my classmates for most of these ideas) include having dancers choreograph movement to them, creating short films for them, turning them into songs, and (perhaps most obviously but also most terrifyingly) finding the courage to perform them live at local poetry slams.
Another idea that came up is to take my individual poems and make corresponding visual art pieces for them. Ultimately, the goal would be to display the live painting in a gallery and, using iPods or something similar, people could listen to the poem associated with each piece on display while viewing each piece of art. This is the idea I decided to begin playing with first, mostly because painting relaxes me and I I can do it alone, in the privacy of my own home. It also doesn't hurt that I'm such a neophyte at painting, it somehow removes the self-induced pressure to be perfect (whereas, if I started out going the short film route, I'd be much more critical of myself and the entire investigation process would likely be more stressful than fun).
After executing this spoken-word-meets-visual-art strategy, I think this particular poem is probably too long to be practical for an art show exhibit. For flow and functionality sake, if I were to ever engineer this concept in a real world environment instead of just on a digital platform, I would want to keep each spoken word piece to under a minute or so. Honestly, that'd probably work better digitally instead. Still, I think the juxtaposition between the two (or is it three? or four?) mediums is cool. And this experiment brought up another idea. One could do several paintings that told a poem's story from start to finish and string them along in a video so that people were only looking at each individual image for about 10-15 seconds. Of course, I'd probably need to get much better as a visual artist before truly considering that route.
Next up: I want to talk to my dancer friends. Would any of you be interested in choreographing something to one of my poems?? If so, let's chat.
The idea for this short came about while I was talking to my friend Brooke about grief. She said something about how, since losing her mother, she was wrestling a lot with a desire to die, too. These thoughts weren't coming from a typically depressed, suicidal place (a mindset her and I are both intimately familiar with); rather, it was more that she wanted to join her mother in whatever afterlife might exist, largely in order to experience whatever it was that her mother experienced while dying and also as an alternative to being stuck in a dimension of reality that no longer had her mother in it. Brooke’s comments stuck with me, especially as someone who understands the subtle difference between the anguish of clinical depression and the torment of loss.
Concurrent to this conversation, three other things happened:
1) I had just come off a short run of a condensed, “lovingly mangled” (as Fresno art critic Donald Munro described it) production of Twelfth Night. The experience was fun and rewarding, but it reminded me how much I miss performing in traditional Shakespeare productions and how sad I am to be aging out of so many of the Shakespearean roles I always hoped I might someday get a chance to work on. I thought of Hamlet, a play I’ve been involved in at least four full-length productions of, and that I’ve referenced and utilized in other creative, professional, and academic work countless times more. A play whose words I’ve literally etched into my body, in the form of tattoos, on two separate occasions. A play I thought I understood and identified with before my mother died but now see bursting with new layers and allegory since her passing (one of the more bittersweet elements of loss, people who have suffered it may recognize, is seeing more depth and vibrancy in all things).
I’ve long been fascinated by Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, as well as the many debates, theories, and interpretations surrounding it. I’ve always been in the camp that the speech is very blatantly about suicide contemplation. Maybe because I get suicide contemplation. What I never noticed prior to my mother’s passing was how much of the speech could also be Hamlet simultaneously wondering about his father’s post-life fate. In addition to this, and something I probably always knew on a subconscious level but never really knew, like, in my bones sort of knew, is that the words from this monologue aren’t just coming from a depressed person contemplating ‘whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles”, they’re coming from a person in the deep throes of all-consuming, debilitating, exhausting grief. And grief is the kind of emotion that makes people who might not normally think about suicide, think about it often. Grief is the kind of emotion that makes people who do think about suicide, think about it more.
I know the odds of ever playing the role of Hamlet myself grow increasing less likely with each passing year. So I wondered how I might, at the very least, take a stab at the world’s most famous soliloquy in a way that could represent how I'd approach the role if ever given the opportunity. My friends Joe and Barry had produced a version of “The Speech” in a short film format a few years earlier. Their version is well-produced and well-performed, both of them talented artists in their respective crafts. Hamlet, in their interpretation, is a hungover cowboy wandering aimlessly throughout the raw, unflinching heat of the desert. The soliloquy is less contemplation and more Chance in their vision, with the titular character playing an intense, increasingly high-stakes game of Russian roulette throughout the entirety of the film. (Trigger Warning: If I'm not being clear here, this is a VERY visceral, in-your-face interpretation).
“The Speech” makes Hamlet’s words immediate and accessible, two things I wanted to ensure I did with my interpretation as well. And while Joe and Barry’s version is told from an undeniably masculine perspective, I wanted to make sure whatever I created was inherently sensitive and obviously informed through a feminine gaze. Once in undergrad, an acting professor remarked that my strength as a performer existed in having a “vulnerability that comes through the strength”. Over the years, I’ve honed this compliment into my core purpose as an artist, aiming purposefully to create art that, even if the subject matter is difficult, remains more delicate than loud and more sensitive than flashy.
2) I watched the first season of 13 Reasons Why upon recommendation from several friends, hoping to be a fan of the series. I am a big advocate of representation, not only in terms of casting and story authenticity, but also in relationship to attempting to help make difficult realities easier for individuals, and society at large, to bear. Suicide has long been a subject swept under the rug; often when it is tackled in art or media it is glorified and/or its ramifications are vastly underrepresented. I was eager to watch 13 Reasons Why for this reason, naively believing it would be beneficial simply for existing. Instead, I found the series to be largely irresponsible in its messaging, particularly in the climatic scene that shows Hannah Baker killing herself in a bathtub.(I could write an entire blog on this subject alone but in the interest of time, let's move forward.)
3) I had entered my first semester of grad school, and as such, was starting to observe everything though the lens of inquiry. I asked myself, if 13 Reasons Why handled the subject of suicide improperly, but Hamlet did not, what was the difference? How could I accurately portray the feelings of grief-related suicide contemplation without falling into the same traps of exploiting the subject matter and, perhaps worse, potentially traumatizing people involved in the production of such a piece and/or people who might stumble across the finished project as audience?
The culmination of these inquiries (and many others) are represented in the following short. I very purposefully included a trigger warning and resource for help as bookends for the film. Also, with great intention, I avoided direct shots of the razor outside of establishing purposes and even then, tried as much as possible to frame it only in wide shots. I worked with my make-up designer, Amber Medina, to honor the ‘whips and scorns of time’ on our Hamlet’s body- everything from scars to stretch marks to tattoos to acne- and made sure our costume designer, Miguel Gastelum, placed her in worn, comfortable clothing, in direct protest against 13 Reasons Why’s suicide scene that showcased it's lead character approaching her meticulously planned out suicide with clean clothes, a restrictive bra, impeccable hair, and a fresh face of makeup (with recently shaped eyebrows, to boot). Hannah Baker's suicide is shown to be more revenge-driven than anguish-driven throughout the series, but in light of the other things that happen to her, the scene rang as false for me. (In a decision that I don't think read as clearly on camera as we would have liked, we left Hannah Baker’s signature blue nail polish on our lead actress, Lia Dewey, but had her wear it for several days ahead of the shoot in an attempt to make it appear chipped and lived in on camera). I decided to conceptualize the scene, as 13 Reasons Why did, in a bathroom, with a razor as the 'bare bodkin' referenced. This served not only for compare and contrasting purposes, but also as a means of baring as much skin of a atypical film body as possible. In addition to showing Lia in an unfiltered way, we made sure to highlight the tattoos and piercings and skin of our Ophelia (Jessica Meredith), too. While the piece as a whole remains sensitive and subtle, this subversion was intentionally bold.
I could go on for several hundred more words about the detail that went into the planning of this project- the justification for choosing daylight, our reasons for playing in wide-and-macro shots for the majority of the film, the many Hamlet-and-Shakespeare-related Easter eggs hidden throughout (as well as a blatant homage to Basquiat, the American visual artist whose work often dealt with "suggestive dichotomies"). I could cover the many personal and artistic realizations I came to both on set and afterward, especially in accordance with working with trauma-centric material. I could describe the many takes it took to get me to perform a Shakespearean voiceover at an appropriate volume and expression for film. But I’ve rambled long enough for now, so I will leave you with the short and a final warning that if you think you are not in the right frame of mind to view a piece that deals with suicide contemplation, please feel free to skip this one.