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.
"Tear off the mask. Your face is glorious."- Rumi
I've been thinking about how so many people don't know their own power. This has been at the forefront of my mind for a lot of reasons lately, perhaps most prominently because I've only recently begun to fully embrace my own strengths and capabilities. I'm sure anyone who knows me well enough has marked subtle differences in my personality since my mother's death back in the spring of last year. Walking someone to death's door will alter even the least introspective personality, but for someone of my pensive nature, it's been like a brutal master class in Self Discovery. The many small things grief has revealed to me over this past year have altered my day-to-day experiences in big ways: a new job, enrolling in a MFA program, auditioning for a freaking musical for the first time in two decades, etc. Those new experiences have continued to shape and evolve my personality, which, in turn, continue to affect my experiences, so the cycle of growth rolls on and on and now I find myself, at the young age of 37, finally developing into the person I've wanted to be since I was 16. Here's the kicker, though: Everything was internally driven. It wasn't anyone else finally seeing me for who I really am or appreciating me for what I can offer, like I wasted my entire youth wishing and hoping would happen. It was just me learning to look at myself differently, and the world differently, and then I noticed everyone else was starting to see me differently, too.
I remember watching Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette" in late June and being completely taken aback by her ability to tow the delicate line between honest self-reflection and astute self-empowerment. I had just chopped off all my hair for Fun Home and was feeling incredibly exposed, as well as guilt-ridden over the fact I hadn't been a very empathetic ear for mom when she lost her own hair to chemo. I was feeling inadequate in rehearsals because of my lack of music training, and insufficient in grad school, not only as a student but as an artist, too. Under the lens of careful examination and inquiry, my art practice seemed disjointed, insignificant, and even hypocritical at times. I was doubting my place in the program, in the play, and even in the world. I was wondering if I should stop referring to myself as an artist at all. Layered on all of this, I was still navigating the relentless tides of grief and mourning the extra 70 pounds care-taking had put around my midsection.
Something clicked for me while watching Gadsby's stand up special. I noticed, instantly, our numerous physical similarities- she's about my size, at least in my current kummerspeck shape. Her hair is short, like my new Fun Home 'do. She has remarkably similar facial features- thick eyebrows, blue eyes, high forehead, pale skin, dimples. I found myself completely in awe of her beauty and stage presence, while simultaneously realizing how long I had been denying the worth of my own. It was the first time I noticed how silly so much of my self-loathing was. Slap some spectacles and an Australian accent on me I could pass for her twin. How, then, could I see her beauty so clearly and yet none of my own?
At one point in "Nanette", Gadsby says, "I built a career out of self-deprecation, and I don’t want to do that anymore...It’s not humility. It’s humiliation." I know change doesn't always happen in an instant, but for me, in hearing her say this, it was though a lightbulb turned on in my head and a cacophony of self-realization started flooding my senses, all at once. I found myself crying and laughing and muttering the words, "holy shit". I heard the spirit of my mother say, "took you long enough!" and I winced at the bittersweet nature of her ability to mock me, even from the other side. I had to pause Nexflix. I said a prayer of gratitude and vowed to not lose what I had gained in that moment. I promised myself I would make the lesson stick. I finished the special, and went to bed.
I woke up with everything fresh in mind, put on a tank top that exposed my upper arms for the first time in I-don't-know-how-long, wore it out of my house, accompanied by a shade of lipstick I wouldn't normally dare wear in real life...and I haven't looked back.
In the month since, people have remarked on how great I look more times than in, perhaps, the past 10 years combined (no weight loss, no clothing changes, and still no hair) . Word of compliments and praise about my work and presence in the Fresno arts community continues to find its way back to me, as if the second I wasn't desperate for the validation, a dam of it broke open. And as I find myself more secure and confident in my choices on paper, on set, and on stage, more people keep asking me to collaborate with them and I feel more deserving of the label "artist" and more proud of the unique voice I bring to the world.
I say all this not to toot my own horn (but, hey, I haven't for many, many years so toot, fuckin', toot). My main purpose of sharing this post is to hopefully reach some of you who might be able to use my experience as a cautionary tale in regards to your own life. I wasted years -decades- of my existence believing I was not good enough, thinking I had to do things alone, thinking others were out specifically to get in the way of my happiness. I am telling you now, that is no way to live. Mostly, because if that's what you want to see, the world will make sure that's what is out there for you to see. I find this self-fulfilling victimization a sad side effect plaguing many of my brothers and sisters who are in marginalized groups, as though we've internalized the shame and insecurities (the LIES) heaped on us by those in oppressive groups and somehow learned to manifest their judgement into our own eyes and brains. We can't let that happen. When that happens, "they" don't have to keep us down because we keep ourselves down for them.
If you want to live your life as a victim, you will see everything with a victim mentality. The world will follow suit and lay out situation after situation at your feet that you can use to climb up on your cross of martyrdom and rant and rail about how horribly everyone treats you. If you want to live your life thinking you're less than or not good enough, you will always find people who will help back up that theory, too. (Mostly because they're trying to protect their own insecurities. When you don't know who you are, there is nothing more fun than judging others who don't, either.) But if you want to live your life from a place of power and purpose, that's wholly possible, too. It's liberating and contagious, even. You just gotta reframe your perspective a little, is all: Decide to live your life like the whole world sees you as the you that you want to see. Refuse to let anyone else dictate your narrative. Stop fucking caring what other people think. Start doing more of what feels right to you.
And, if you haven't already done so, go watch "Nanette".
I'm finally ready to release the final version of Maudie to the world. It didn't get a whole lot of traction in the film festival circuit (although it showed multiple times at LA Women's International and won the audience award for Best Film in the category we showed in at San Luis Obispo International). I think there are several reasons for this, outside of the fact it's a little long to play before feature films and is a little imperfect in scope due to the fact we originally just set out to make a small film for The Germ. I never had the time and budget to get the pre-production exactly right, and definitely didn't have the support getting the post-production where I had hoped. I can't tell if it feels too heavy-handed to me in hindsight, or perhaps not heavy-handed enough. But, at it's core, I think the message is still pure of heart and relevant, even a few years later. Guess that's what happens when you use something classic like To Kill A Mockingbird as an inspiration. Regardless of content or lasting power, the process of making this film was a great learning experience for me as a director (and a producer, for that matter) and it marks the first time Kyle (my DP) and I did something together outside of commercial work. We've worked on multiple projects together since and I think our creative relationship has continued to blossom and develop to one where, as we both grow individually, we evolve as partners as well. (We worked a couple things in the past few months that should be out soon, in fact.) So many other people helped make this film possible, including cast members and crew who came out a year after the original footage was shot, and friends who helped provide location options, props, and other support. I am grateful to all of them, and can't express how good it felt to have a full crew of talented folks supporting me on this film, after spending many of my first film projects multi-tasking in several roles while the few friends I could convince to help out did the same.
Anyway, enjoy! And stay tuned. Something else should be poppin' up in the next month or so.
This story was mentioned in a book I am reading, so I took to the interwebs to see what it was all about. I don't remember hearing about it at the time. I didn't know Twitter was capable of such beauty.
Make sure you have kleenex on hand. It's staggeringly poignant and moving and heart-wrenching:
NPR's "Weekend Edition" host, Scott Simon. live tweets the final days of his mother's life, here.
I am studying tattoos as an art form, particularly how they relate to healing. If you have a tattoo in honor of a deceased love one, use tattoos as a healthier alternative to cutting or other self-inflicting pain acts, or just want to talk to me about how your tattoos have healed and evolved over time, please reach out. I'm also studying the historical context of tattoos, so if you'd like to speak why your ancestors are emphatically for or against them, I would be interested in hearing about that as well.