Hosting One of My Favorite Events for One of My Favorite Arts Orgs
New Dramatists is an extraordinary organization. Based in New York City, in an old church on 44th street near Hell's Kitchen, it was founded many years ago--70? 80? I'm not sure--to support playwrights. When I moved to New York I did a ton of work there--readings and workshops of new plays with an amazing group of writers and directors. In fact, one of my greatest honors of my career was being awarded the Charles Bowden prize, which they give to actors who've supported the work of playwrights.
Last night, I went to the city to host one of their annual fundraisers. This one is called NOCTURNAL COMMISSIONS--funny, right? A group of donors is assembled and they commission short plays that are written on the spot. After dinner and a bit of socializing, the donors and other guests go upstairs to the former sanctuary and are treated to a performance of all of the short plays that have been written, staged and then performed by a group of actors.
It's an extraordinary event. So fun and exciting and powerful. Watching artists make work on the spot is always thrilling. And, seeing 'civilians' become a part of that process--it's great.
It's important to make things--plays, songs, paintings, dances, websites, cartoons, blogs, pottery--and to find the generosity to share what we make with others. So much of what I'm thinking about right now is generosity and vulnerability. We need these characteristics -- to be able to share ourselves and our work and our projects and our visions--and to invite others to join us.
Here's to making art together--in all kinds of ways.
In Honor of National Coming Out Day
National Coming Out Day. What a funny holiday, unlikely, to say the least. It's not something I think about a lot, coming out, now that I'm 53 and married to my husband and living an out life that reflects my values. IT certainly used to be something that consumed a lot of my time--worrying about it. COMING OUT. So, as the day was coming to an end, I wanted to commemorate it in some way.
Things that make us feel seen.
I began to think about the things that have made me feel seen, especially when I was young and confused and afraid. Growing up gay, I remember watching for any sign of gayness--in books, tv and movies. It's hard growing up with no models, or no healthy models. This got me to thinking about gay movies. My friend Stephen Webber and I often talk about what are the good gay movies?
I made a list. My sort-of in order, top ten gay movies of all time.
Have you ever tried to make a top ten list? My friends and I actually have a game called Top Ten and you just pick a category and make a list of top then things: salad dressings, fruits, kinds of shoes, trees, rollercoasters, jazz singers--you get the idea. But, making a definitive list of movies, gay movies at that, proved challenging. I LOVE SO MANY OF THEM!
I shared my post on facebook:
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I like my list. It's a good list. Of course as soon as I made it I realized I had to cheat to allow for more than just ten so I did that thing that always bugs me in all of those end-of-year movie lists, I created a few ties. As soon as I got ok with that I realized there were so many more movies that I didn't include. I shared some of those in a chunk of text below the list. Then, because I'm not an idiot and I expected a lot of gay blowback (ahem), and because what else is social media good for if not for crowdsourcing--I asked which movies I had forgotten. Now, the list is appended with a HUGE list of recommendations. I'll work to make this more presentable. In the meantime. Here's the list:
9. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
7. THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
6. HEAVENLY CREATURES/MYSTERIOUS SKIN
4. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
3. HAPPY TOGETHER
2. MOONLIGHT/PARIS IS BURNING
1. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE
but, wait, what about Far From Heaven, Prick Up Your Ears, Keep the Lights On, Blue is the Warmest Color, BOYS IN THE BAND!!, Cruising, Maurice, Weekend, My Own Private Idaho, Midnight Cowboy, High Art, Boys Don't Cry, Dog Day Afternoon, Beginners, All About My Mother and VICTOR/VICTORIA?!?
What else am I forgetting? [edit: Querelle, Parting Glances, Swimming Pool, Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, John Waters!, Entre Nous, Carol, Talented Mr. Ripley, Satyricon, Notes on a Scandal, Caravaggio, Edward II, Taxi Zum Klo, Beautiful Thing, The Hours, A Home at the End of the World, Velvet Goldmine, Lust in the Dust, Sebastiane, Go Fish, I Love You Philip Morris, Tarnation, Law of Desire, Shortbus, Times Square, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rope, Torch Song Trilogy, Bent, Death in Venice, Suddenly Last Summer, Tea and Sympathy, Brideshead Revisited, Philadelphia, A Single Man, Beginners, Another Country and an incredible Japanese film called Funeral Parade of Roses]
Ok, top ten lists are bullshit. But Happy Coming Out Day!
Checking my white privilege by reading books by people of color. With reading lists.
I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class town. There were a handful of black people in my high school class.. I remember the first Latinos moving into our neighborhood: three sisters wearing flannel shirts and black eyeliner. We had one Chinese restaurant downtown. I knew one Jewish kid. We had some neighbors from India. My parents grew up during the depression; there wasn’t overt racism in our home, rather race didn’t really exist.
Moving to LA exposed me to a larger world but the arts aren’t very diverse, it turns out. And NYC, bastion of multiculturalism, is pretty segregated. In the summer of 2016, in response to the increased, no, more exposed, racial violence in the U.S., I created a bit of arts activism for myself. I’d exclusively read books by people of color for one year: to broaden my awareness, deepen my understanding, cultivate empathy, learn stories by people from backgrounds different than mine.
I am essentially an autodidact. Though I had some college I never graduated. I knew I wanted to act at an early age and sort of just started doing that in my teens and then into my twenties and at some point I started to be a professional actor. But I always read. My folks were both great readers, my mom still is--and, though I have had some great teachers (Bruce Smith, my theater teacher in Lancaster, Mrs. Mouring, high school theater teacher and countless friends, colleagues and strangers who have taught me profound lessons) it is through books that I have been educated.
There have been periods in my life where I DEVOURED books. Some of these have been the most difficult times of my life. Literature allowed me an escape from the pain of whatever I was dealing with AND to learn ways of coping. Empathy. Curiosity. Expansiveness. I'm in my 50s now and I'm a pretty consistent reader. I tend to read fiction but enjoy the occasional non fiction.
Last year, in response to the increased (?), more visible (?), continued racial unrest here in the US, I decided I would use my reading practice as a way to engage with issues of race and racism. Did I get woke? I don't know. But, being a middle class white person in America, I decided to check my privilege by exposing myself to stories of people not of my color. (I had read lots of great writers of color before--but not in an organized or strategic way. You'll see my additional list at the bottom.)
As leader of The Secret City, a community arts organization, I have come to see my participation in art making and art consuming with greater responsibility and urgency. It's a time of urgency. However, In case you haven't noticed, it's also an incredible time in the arts--films, music, literature--there's an explosion of culture that is thrilling. Whenever you feel down about the current state of affairs, I encourage you to turn to the arts--amazing people are making amazing things. RIGHT NOW. They are lighting the way.
I share my reading lists here. By the way, this isn't an original idea--I had seen at least one other person doing this and it struck me as a great idea.
BOOKS I'VE READ IN THE LAST YEAR:
With a few exceptions, these are all US authors.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian--Sherman Alexie
Americannah--Chimamanda Ngosi Adache
Between the World and Me--Ta Nahesi Coates
Gorilla My Love--Toni Cade Bambara
Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven---Sherman Alexie
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness--Arundhati Roy
My Year of Meats--Ruth Ozeki
Queen of the Night--Alexander Chee
The Sellout--Paul Beatty
Swing Time--Zadie Smith
The Sympathizer--Viet Thanh Nguyen
A Tale for the Time Being--Ruth Ozeki
The Turner House--Angela Fluornoy
The Underground Railroad--Colson Whitehead
We Love You Charlie Freeman--Kaitlyn Greenidge
White Teeth--Zadie Smith
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me--Sherman Alexie
STILL TO COME:
At some point along the way, I shared about my project on facebook and got a TON of great recommendations. I wasn't able to read all of them in the past year, but here's the list. I draw from it regularly:
Almanac of the Dead--Leslie Marmon Silko
Ancestor Stones--Aminatta Forna
Bad Feminist--Roxane Gay
Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer--Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Blue Boy--Rakesh Satyal
The Bone People by Kerri Hulme
Book of Salt--Monique Truong
Breath, Eyes, Memory--Edwidge Dandicat
A Brief History Of Seven Killings--Marton James.
Bright Lines--Tanwi Nandini Islam
Castle Cross the Magnet Carter--Kia Corthron
Ceremony-- Leslie Marmon Silko.
Collected Plays--August Wilson
The Cooking Gene--Michael Twitty
The Count of Monte Cristo--Alexander Dumas
Days of Obligation--Richard Rodriguez
Delicious Foods--James Hanniham
Famished Road--Ben Okri
A Fine Balance--Rohinton Mistry
The Fledgling--Octavia Butler
Hired Man--Aminatta Forna
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms--N. K. Jemisin
If He Hollers Let Him Go--Chester Himes
Johnny Would You Love Me if My Dick Were Bigger?--Brontez Purnell
Just Mercy--Bryan Stevens
Kafka Was All the Rage--Anatole Broyard
Krazy Kat--George Harriman
Krik? Krak!--Edwidge Dandicat
Lady Sings the Blues--Billie Holiday and William Dufty
The Light of the World--Elizabeth Alexander
Love Bones and Water--Adam Zameenzad
The Lowland--Jumpa Lahiri
Memory of Love--Aminatta Forna
My Bondage and My Freedom--Frederick Douglas
Native Son--Richard Wright
The New Jim Crow--Michelle Alexander.
One-Bedroom Solo--Sheila Maldonado
Parable of the Sower--Octavia Butler
Radiance of Tomorrow-- Ishmael Beah
The Star Side of Bird Hill--Naomi Jackson
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue--Samuel R. Delany
Topdog Underdog--Suzan Lori Parks
Venus--Suzan Lori Parks
Walkin' the Dog--Walter Mosely
The Warmth of Other Suns--Isabel Williamson
Wild Swans--Jung Chang
Woman Warrior--Maxine Hong Kingston
BOOKS I'VE READ ALONG THE WAY:
A selection of books by authors of color which I read prior to this year's project:
Another Country--James Baldwin
At the Bottom of the River--Jamaica Kincaid
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Barbarian Nurseries--Hector Tobar
The Bluest Eye--Toni Morrison
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao--Junot Diaz
The Color Purple--Alice Walker
The Fire Next Time--James Baldwin
Giovanni's Room--James Baldwin
The God of Small Things--Arundhati Roy
House of the Spirits--Isabel Allende
House on Mango Street--Sandra Cisneros
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings--Maya Angelou
Interpreter of Maladies--Jumpha Lahiri
Invisible Man--Ralph Ellison
Joy Luck Club--Amy Tan
Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse--Louise Erdrich
A Little Life--Hana Yanagihara
Love in the Time of Cholera--Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Love Medicine--Louise Erdrich
On Beauty--Zadie Smith
One Hundred Years of Solitude--Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Plague of Doves--Louise Erdrich
The Roundhouse--Louise Erdrich
Tears We Cannot Stop--Michael Eric Dyson
Their Eyes Were Watching God--Zora Neale Hurston
10 Books I Wish My White Teachers Had Read--Crystal Paul
Inside Junot Díaz’s class at MIT: What the writer wants his students to read
salon.com|By Prachi Gupta
'The Fire This Time': A New Generation Of Writers On Race In America
At some point in every workshop, I invariably talk about MAKING CLAY.
Wait, isn't it a writing workshop? Let me explain.
A few years ago I was privileged to take a really incredible workshop with a sculptor in Galisteo, New Mexico. Judy Tuwaletsiwa is a brilliant, warm and wise artist whose studio is on a beautiful parcel of land with old cottonwoods that lead down to a dry creek bed. The group of us were welcomed into her spacious studio where she had paper-covered tables laid out with pencils. She led us in an exercise of deep listening and we all drew on the paper, the sounds of soft scraping graphite filling the room. A while later she passed out lumps of wet clay. We were to play with the clay and make a note whenever an image or idea emerged from the grey, damp mass in our hands. We then wrote stories based on these prompts. It was a wonderful exercise and everyone was moved. The thing that really struck me though, and this is where I'm going, is that most artists have a material to work with to make the thing they want to make. Sculptors use clay (or glass or steel or whatever, you get my point), painters have paint and whatever surface they're working with, dancers use their bodies, actors have text and so on. Writers, though. Writers have to make the stuff that they're then going to write with. They have to make their own clay.
No matter where an artist is in their life or career, this is the greatest challenge--making the clay. And we must trust that that dull, shapeless blob of text that we're writing--call it a rough draft, if you like--has within it the ideas, beauty and depth that we are looking for. And that the clay will lead to the novel, the play, the essay, the memoir.
So many of us have judgments about what we make, or we're hung up on the gulf between what COMES OUT OF US and what we know we're capable of. To be able to sit at the blank page, or screen, and just poop it out, well, it takes courage. Can you write when it's not good, when it's not what you want it to be, when it's ugly or stupid? Can you give yourself the gift of writing without critiquing or judging or wishing it were somehow different? There will be time to make things beautiful. That's the easy part, really. But, when we sit down to begin, we're just making clay.
Just back from a 5 day trip to Louisville, Kentucky - my first time. Was visiting my friend/collaborator Rachel Grimes who lives about an hour outside of the city. She and her hubby, Alec, have built a really great house from re-purposed materials - and, on the footprint of a little old farmhouse they took apart to make the new home. It's in the hill country north of the city in a town called Carrollton. Rachel and I met through SITI Company years back - we both worked with the company at various times and intersected at some point and took a liking to each other. We talked about working together over the years - I've tried to get her to The Secret City and she did sit in with the band on a trip through town. Anyway, Rachel called me last year and we got to talking and decided to make a piece of theater using my stories and her music. Rachel is a composer of new music - some people call it post-classical but it's more melodic than that - very moody and rich.
We agreed to meet in June of last year - we had a few days at Skidmore, sponsored by SITI Company - to make a new piece. We put together an evening of new theater - called RC RADIO HOUR - and, it was a great night. Funny, deep, surprisingly theatrical, intimate. The plan was then to make a series of radio- shows-as-theater.
So, all this brings me to last week. Rachel and I made a plan to meet up and continue our work. I flew to Louisville and we hunkered down in the hills of Kentucky and talked, planned, schemed, dreamed - read some stories, played some music and dug deep.
Next step is a one-night performance in NYC - sometime this fall. I'll keep the blog updated. It's a special night and I want everyone to come.
Also, really enjoyed seeing a new place - fascinating, historical Kentucky.
Well, it's begun. While working away on my book - hoping to have a finished draft of the manuscript by end of June - I'm finally getting around to sharing some of my stories with the larger world - whoever that may be. I wrote this story, HAIRCUTS, for last Sunday's gathering of The Secret City in NYC - the theme was PATTERNS. I've posted it on a website called MEDIUM - it's a fun site, let's you play with layout, etc. It's my first go at this - sort of scary to start sharing the stories this way but exciting, too. This new phase is all about letting go of control - so, here we go!
Please check out the link, read the story and, if you're so inclined, click the RECOMMEND button in the bottom left corner of the page. It helps spread the story around.
Thanks for following along.
It's the year of the SHEEP - I just saw that somewhere online. I don't know much at all about Chinese astrology except that I'm a DRAGON, which is the best sign in the Chinese Zodiac. That's all I need to know. See, that kind of cocky confidence is what I'm bringing to this new year. Or is that just bullshit I smell? Either way, I'm going to use it to make a really wonderful year for myself. I've started looking at my calendar for the next 12 months and it is JAM PACKED - lots of projects and travel and collaborations. I'm excited to say that the work with The Secret City is really paying off now, in means of stability and viability - we're hiring staff members for the first time - I have my first meeting with incoming staff TOMORROW and that's thrilling. After 7 plus years of building this organization, to be in the position to bring in support is thrilling. It also means that some of my attention can begin to be directed elsewhere...
Here's what's coming up: I'm going to Louisville in two weeks to work with Rachel Grimes - she's my collaborator and friend, we made RC RADIO HOUR together last summer and will continue our work - we'll be in the recording studio, which sounds really fun. I'm going to lay down some of my stories and we'll also be making music together. Rachel will play some of her songs, too.
I've got workshops galore coming up - the writing life workshops have been going really well and I'm happy to continue with them. It's been wonderful to work with people on their projects - something very particular about watching people's work come to life. I've got a Feb/NYC workshop and an March/LA workshop. Beyond that, I'm in talks with some filmmakers to create a FILM LIFE workshop, more on that as things develop as well as a phone workshop (8 weeks, one hour a week) and an workshop up here in Woodstock - hoping that will happen for summer.
Somewhere in there I'm going to finish my book! Stay tuned.
Here's to a wonderful, creative 2015. Let's do it like the sheep do!
Back home in Woodstock - had a great 12 days in LA. Secret City was slammin', spent some time with the folks up in Lancaster, taught a really powerful workshop of WRITING LIFE ( thanks, marvelous students!) did a lot of prep for a SC board meeting, hung with lots of great pals, spent a few hours at the Brite Spot, and adopted a DOG! Sally is our new family member - my pal Jessica Hughes was fostering her and I saw her pretty face on FB a few days before I flew out there. Our beloved family dog, Ruby, died in August and we've been grieving her deeply...and, we've also missed having a dog around the house. So, we've been talking about it, Bobby Lucy and I, and we started looking around. So, when I saw Sally's sweet face, I thought she might be a great new friend. I met her on a Monday and she would barely come near me - she seems to have been abandoned and maybe abused - not sure - she's very skittish and cowers when she's approached. She let me pet her a few times that first day and I told Jessica I'd come back to meet her later in the week. Wednesday, I wrote Jessica to say I thought I should just come get her, spend some time together. So, that's what we did. Sally spent a few days with me and she took to me a bit and Bobby and I decided I should bring her home with me. So, Monday, Sally and I flew back to New York - she was pretty freaked out but also did really great on the plane. I held her on my lap a LOT of the time and Bobby drove to Newark to pick us up. We got home late Monday night and Sally's been settling into her new home ever since. It's amazing to watch her grow and change - she loves Bobby and loves sleeping on the bed with us, under the covers. She freaks out whenever anyone leaves, or when she has to leave - BUT, she loves coming back home, and loves whenever one of us comes back in the room. I think she's going to have a really great life - as one of our friends said, "Sally hit the jackpot!"
So, we have a new dog. She's still skittish but learning to trust.
And there's lots of stuff going on: Another Secret City this Sunday in NYC - then some time off. I'm going to work on my book over the holiday break. Planning new workshops for the new year. For now, we're gearing up for the solstice - one of my favorite moments of the year where the sun seems to dip low in the sky and almost stop; there's a sort of pause, a collective exhale and in that moment, in the dark, we all imagine what the new dawn will bring. More life, death, grief, projects, loss, art, creativity, community and friends - like Sally, who's sleeping next to me on the couch right now. What might she become? What might we all.
The other night, we were invited to a dinner party by Verna Gillis. Verna is a great hostess, adventurer, artist, raconteur and friend. She lives in Kerhonkson Village with her partner Roswell Rudd, a musician whose life work and list of credits could make you swoon: Gil Evans, Carla Bley, Charlie Hayden, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor are among his sideman gigs and his own work and compositions have earned him Grammy Awards and a Guggenheim. Verna is a Grammy nominated music producer specializing in world music. For five years, she created and ran Soundscape - a multicultural performance venue in NYC that, in many ways, put world music on the map - this is how she and Roswell met. Nowadays, Verna is a storyteller and her solo show, Tales from Geriassic Park, was an audience favorite at the NY International Fringe Festival as well as United Solo this fall. It's funny and sharp and moving.
Verna and Roswell's house sits on a big piece of land with various outbuildings. Sadly, earlier this year, there was a fire and two of the buildings burned down - Verna lost a ton of her personal archives as well as work by her late husband, the sculptor Bradford Graves. But the property remains and on it is a sculptor park dedicated to Graves work - with over 200 sculptors about the land, perched on blue stone pedestals.
It was nearly dark when we arrived and, getting out of the car, we could hear piano music coming from the house. Roswell was noodling, as he calls it. We knocked, pushed open the door and the house and the people in it lit up at the new arrivals. Kate and Sarah, new friends from the area, were also there and an air of cheer hung about.
A few minutes after we got there, Larry Fink arrived. Larry is a photographer - I had seen some of his work in New York city over the years. He works mostly in black and white - i would have called him a street photographer but maybe that's not accurate. I learned more about him during dinner and hearing him speak - anyway, he's a great, celebrated photographer and at one point, someone was thumbing through his new book, which is all pictures of the Beats: Ginsburg, Kerouac, Burroughs...
I'm 50 now, so not a young man. I have my own experiences and stories and successes and failures. I have been to plenty of events and parties where I am now the elder and it can be a crap of the dice: sometimes you feel irrelevant and sometimes you feel lionized. It was beautiful sitting at that table with those older people and, I say OLDER with love and respect: people who connect me to a few generations before mine, artists who made incredible work in the fields of music and photography, creative innovators.
After dinner, it was time to leave. "Roswell," I said, "would you play a little piano for us before we go?"
"Piano?" he said, looking sideways at me.
"Well, it's not my instrument."
"The way you were earlier, when they got here," Verna said.
"Oh," said Roswell.
"Roswell is the best noodler," said Larry, and we all laughed and got up from the table.
Larry and Roswell have known each other for 50 years or so - they met in the Village when Larry was shooting pictures of the jazz scene at such places at the Vanguard and the Blue Note. Larry was making his way home that night from his teaching gig at Bard back home to his place in Western Pennsylvania.
We made our way to the living room - African drums stood about, masks hung on the walls, artifacts from lives of adventure and cultural exploration.
Roswell sat and began to 'noodle'.
Autumn in New York - in such a bright, distracted, fresh syncopation. His hands moved and landed and stalled. At one point, Larry, who stood behind him a bit, reached into his pocket and pulled out a harmonica. Roswell gave him a solo and he took it.
Through all this, Bobby sat on the couch looking through Larry's book of The Beats. Kate and Sarah and I stood at the baby grand laughing, swaying, marveling. Verna was over in the corner on her computer, having heard it all before.
It was a beautiful scene.