Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Big Lonely

Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness that I have found.
Claire Danes

An artist is always alone - if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.
Henry Miller

So, I'm sitting at my desk, still in my coat on from having come in from outside, from having come in from a good cry on the side of the road, a cry affirming the incredible loneliness that has increased most days since I've moved to the Central Valley. (And yet you ask, how could you be lonely with those fall colors, with those almond blossoms that make Spring a ridiculously joyful party. Bear with me, reader, there are seasons of my life when loneliness is a necessary place, a time in which I need to look into the mirror of myself for a designated period of time--every artist needs this space, this time. This may have been a prolonged period of loneliness for me [3 years]. However, it's one in which I haven't made use of the loneliness; instead, I've tried to shove in placeholders to stave off the loneliness. I won't go into all the stuff I've stuffed my life with in the last three years, but what I've always known, what I've talked about in a interviews, even, is that I need, crave, leaning into what I call the "Big Lonely"--a vast desert of solitude that's required to do the work it takes to write, which is also fine counterpoint for the big not-lonely of acting, and the super-social world of teaching. The Big Lonely is also a great chance to listen to God. Henri Matisse, one of my favorite visual artists, said, "The essential thing is to work in a state of mind that approaches prayer." Prayer of gratitude, prayer of asking, prayer of turning everything I want or think I want over to the care of God.)

So, I'm sitting at my desk, in front of a first draft of a poetry manuscript, culled from the multitude of poems I wrote between April and October, poems that celebrate the landscape of the Central Valley; poems that describe my spiritual struggles, my romantic joys and sorrows; poems that insist on choosing life even if the mind wants to twist living into a less-than-attractive option. But it's the only option. I live. I insist on living. My body refuses to give up. It hasn't given up to any of the life-threatening illnesses I am diagnosed with. The poems show that life is sometimes full of unbelievable joy, and is sometimes threatened to be overcome by darkness, but in the end, there is always life. There's always a new hope, a new journey around the bend--whether it's the hope of sensing God on a new level, the hope of a new connection with a friend, the hope of surviving another lonely night, the hope of finding lasting, loving romantic partnership, the hope of the perfection of a creative moment as an actor, musician, or writer--the hope of reaching the next goal as a singer, the hope that my fingers will grow stronger and smoother on the bass guitar, the hope that I'll feel the reality of that line of Shakespeare's from head to toe the next time I perform it, the hope I will discover a new combination of words that will delight myself and another, the hope I will open a new mind in the classroom, the hope that God makes possible.

And suddenly, the lonely has a new texture to it, it's full of possibility, it's full of worlds I'm inventing on paper, it's full of imaginary characters I'm embodying on stage, it's full of songs I haven't yet built bass lines for, it's full of kisses, of prayers, of laughter, of new weather--it's Alaska, Paris, Dublin. It's my upcoming trip to New York City, it's a party on December 17th, and it's now--it's Nick Drake playing on my headphones, it's a sense of momentum, of new, of incredible, of the pool of light on my desk in this dark office after nightfall. It's meteor showers. It's dancing, it's cereal in a bowl, the clinking sound it makes when I pour it in. It's my present skin.

"Time has told me
You're a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.

And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore.

So I’ll leave the ways that are making me be
What I really don't want to be
Leave the ways that are making me love
What I really don't want to love."

Time Has Told Me by Nick Drake

Monday, November 14, 2011


In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.
Deepak Chopra

It's what I learn from the great actors that I work with. Stillness. That's all and that's the hardest thing.
Morgan Freeman

Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen - that stillness becomes a radiance.
Morgan Freeman

Still, it can be more effective to accomplish what you need to accomplish with the minimum effort. Watch Anthony Hopkins. He doesn't appear to be doing anything. He is so still that you can't see him working, but you are drawn into his character through his very stillness.
Morgan Freeman

Many writers who choose to be active in the world lose not virtue but time, and that stillness without which literature cannot be made.
Gore Vidal
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Recently, the idea comes to me nightly that I must dart out of the life I'm living--make major changes, do something huge, move across country, change my career. But the continuum of that idea is complete and total stillness, to root myself exactly where I am and whittle away my activity, so I'm quiet with myself more often and have more room to hear God's instructions.

I'm stilled, this fall by the brilliant colors. I don't know if it is just me, but the trees seemed to change overnight, and on my walk to the jogging path, my mouth hangs open with awe. What was I busy with when the change started? Why didn't I watch the slow advent of autumn? Was my mind racing with places I rather be? Suddenly, the creek is dry; I could walk across it. And the cottonwoods are bright yellow, and the trees lining the streets on the walk to the creek are deep orange and reds. There was a seasonal shift that I missed.

Now, I've bought a crock pot because I've always wanted one and the weather and my long days at work insist on slow-cooked meals.

I want to soften my heart slowly, in the same fashion as the stews I'll make. Let the cold around it warm over months, so by springs first blossoms, I'll be heart-warmed and ready.

I just finished writing a play about trees and the play is really about making a choice about where you root yourself. And the trees wonder over all the things they get to notice that people don't get to notice because of the constant movement.

So, I am here, still, and planting myself in the rich earth of the Central Valley, and in the calendar of the school year, which helps me better connect to seasons, as we change and break as the seasons shift.

I'm learning stillness, so I can stand on stage for several moments and say nothing--and you will know everything about me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This week, I had my first singing audition in thirty years, and it was not like any singing audition I can remember. It was for a musical, and we had to learn songs as a group on the spot—including one in three part harmony—and then sing each solo or with a group. This was interspersed with cold readings from the play, “The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee.” I felt grateful for the cold readings because I’ve worked a lot on those, on taking my time, controlling the time, and really using cold readings as an opportunity to play and to act, so that was the fun part. The singing, however, was like walking through fire. The first song was for a soprano and I’m a mezzo, and I was so nervous the paper was shaking in my hand. But I did it and I hit all the notes—albeit the high ones at a belt, even though earlier that day I’d sung much higher during my voice lesson. Any anxiety or nerves tightens up the muscles and my well-warmed up voice has gone out the window.

By the second song, I have enough courage to make some acting choices, which I hope will show something of what I can offer, even if it turns out they don’t get to see my vocal chops tonight because I’m just not used to the heightened nerves of the situation, and, admittedly, I’m just now coming into my full voice after three years of voice lessons—three years crammed into a very busy life.

Now, I had several gigs singing with a band during this time, and was rarely nervous then, but that’s because I was too busy concentrating on the bass I was playing at the time and the bass was this big beautiful thing I could hold up between me and the lovely audience. And I wasn’t auditioning. I was there. The audience was going to give me something afterwards, except for the occasional “good job” or thumbs up.

I had a song prepared, but there wasn’t time for me to sing it as these were callbacks I’d been mixed into as I couldn’t come to the initial auditions. The song is one I performed often at 14 and 15 for talent shows at school, “Rubber Ducky.” It’s a fun song, easy for me, and I fine-tuned it with my voice teacher. Now I’m adding “Bewitched” to my repetoire, and soon, I’ll have like a dozen songs, and I’ll put together a little nightclub act with a guitarist or pianist, and it won’t matter that I didn’t get cast in Spelling Bee.

Mainly, when I’m acting, I’m righted from head to toe and toe to head. Everything straightens out in me. Sure, it’s nervewracking, but once I’m in the performance space, it’s like coming home, and there’s a buzz in my fingers and toes. I think acting was always in my bones, though this right feeling didn’t come until I performed in New York City at the Atlantic Theater as part of the 24 Hour Plays in May of 2005. It was like a dream come true to perform at David Mamet’s off-Broadway theater space on a dark night. The 24 Hour Plays are kind of a nightmare that always end like a dream come true. Essentially, 6 short plays are written, rehearsed, and performed (off-book) in a 24 hour period. I’d participated as a producer in the past, but I never had the experience of acting in the plays. In New York, around 5:30 or 6 PM, as I was running lines with one of my scene partners, I thought, this is a stupid idea, and acting is really stupid. What am I thinking? I never want to do it again.

However, that feeling completely disappeared the moment I stepped under the stagelights and started sweeping the floor, and then, when I got my first laugh from the 200 audience members, I was won, forever, to the acting.

I haven’t had as much time to act as I’d like. Illness and other distractions (such as living in small towns without much opportunity) has kept me from it for spells, but I never feel like myself when I don’t incorporate into my weekly routine. This means, that for the past several months, I’ve been a half-person, so I was grateful for one evening playing on stage.

Writing this, I wonder, what would it take to make it my life. Could I really make a leap of faith, quit my job, and move to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, and do what my body is meant to do? Stay posted. . .