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Bowie

Phoenix Heart

 
 

It's January 8th, 2017. Today would have been David Bowie's 70th birthday. Instead, two days from now many of us will mourn the one year anniversary of his passing. My first post in this blog was shortly after that, discussing how his death affected me as a person and an artist. Right now as I write this post, "Rock n Roll Suicide" is playing on my turntable, the encore from the David Bowie Live Santa Monica '72 album, the song I love so much I tattooed a lyric from it over my heart. "Oh no love, you're not alone." "Ho lo ahuva, lo at l'vod."

It's 2017, and one year ago today I was in Jerusalem with a group of strangers, a few of whom had become fast friends. We visited the Kotel and I said a prayer, felt the presence of my Jewish grandfather that I never met, and thanked the city and the spirits for a special day. I wore a Bowie shirt, in honor of his birthday, and thought of all the things I had to be grateful for. Three days later, eleven days into the year, while sitting in an Israeli national park, I found out my hero had died in the night.

It's 2017, and 2016, the garbage year that so many of us struggled and fought through and hopefully survived, is over. My hope is that 2017 will be better, some would say it has to be, but then we look at the state of politics and social divisions in America and I'm not so sure, but I have to have hope. (I tattooed that on me, too.)

It's 2017, it's Bowie's birthday, and I'm remembering Bowie, the icon, someone I never saw live, but whose music and artistry and passion I loved. Bowie was never afraid to be who he was, whoever that was, and was not afraid for that to change, dramatically and often.

 
I feel confident imposing change on myself. It’s a lot more fun progressing than looking back. That’s why I need to throw curveballs.
— David Bowie
 

That concept is key to me, as an artist - to be willing, able, and sometimes even eager to change. As a Taurus, I am innately opposed to change, so it's something I constantly struggle with. However I think a focus on progress, moving forward, and evolving is important. Letting things die so new things can be born is a part of life. And that idea is why I relate so strongly to the iconography and lore of the mythical phoenix.

 
Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing powers, and they make highly faithful pets.
— Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
 

Phoenixes, in addition to all the traits above, are most known as creatures of rebirth, bursting into flames and being reborn from the ashes. If ever there was an artist who was a phoenix, it was Bowie, constantly creating and killing new personas every few years, from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to Halloween Jack and the Thin White Duke. Ultimately all of these characters became disposable in the face of something new. All simultaneously eternal, ephemeral, and empty. 

2016 was full of many goodbyes, celebrity deaths, jobs ending, life changing, and 2017 will be no different. In August Fuerza Bruta, where I had worked for nearly six years, finally closed off-Broadway. Next week I face saying goodbye to my new Broadway family at Jersey Boys when the show ends its historic eleven-year run on January 15th. After performing with the company at Gypsy of the Year last month, I have truly felt a part of the JB family at the August Wilson Theatre, and next week's ending is sure to be a tearful one for many including myself. I admit auditioning and other career moves have been on a bit of a slow track over the last couple months as I've spent almost every day at one job or another and almost every night at Jersey Boys, seeing the run through to its close. But even big Broadway machines eventually die (except Phantom). So now I face two months of less certainty in my work life, another opportunity to reinvent my future, a chance to lay the groundwork for 2017.

Beginning is challenging. Starting new is scary. But if one of the biggest pop stars of all time could do it, very publicly, and right up to the very end of his life, I think I'll be alright. Let's light this fire together, everybody. May your 2017 be full of bravery, risks, adventure, and success.

 
My new year's tarot spread today, with my Bowie deck. The death card came up today, as it has every year at the start of the year. Big ch-ch-ch-changes ahead!

My new year's tarot spread today, with my Bowie deck. The death card came up today, as it has every year at the start of the year. Big ch-ch-ch-changes ahead!

 

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Focus Vs. Flexibility

I can remember wanting to be an actor since I was at most nine. That's when I began taking acting classes at the local (surprisingly equity) theatre in my hometown in suburban Chicago. When I was thirteen, I started assisting with the summer arts camp, helping younger kids with their writing, acting, dance, and singing. (There was straight-up art, too, but that was never my strong suit.) A year later, in addition to classes and summer camp, I started ushering for the main stage performances. Illinois Theatre Center (now closed) became my home away from home. 

In high school, rather than auditioning for productions in our mediocre drama club, I spent my afternoons (and evenings, and weekends) in rehearsals at ITC, running props, or operating the light board, or organizing the play library. I grew up in that theatre, learning about all aspects of production instead of just acting. I did that too, as the lead in three successive teen drama productions and as an ensemble member in three summers of musicals. (I was the second-most-Jewish person in our production of Fiddler on the Roof.) 

 

Three summers of ITC musicals: Fiddler on the RoofAnnie Get your Gun, and Urinetown (click to enlarge)

 

At fourteen, my aunt took me to RENT, my first broadway show, and I decided then and there I would audition for NYU and live in New York. I visited the "campus" for the first time at fifteen, and it was the only school I considered or applied to. I took eight AP classes in high school to make sure I had the right academics for such a prestigious school, and I was on the executive board of the student council, captain of the matheletes (SURPRISE!), captain of the scholastic bowl team, and a member of both the National and Spanish National Honor Societies. I was not messing around. I was going to NYU. I was focused. I got straight A's my entire life. At some point it occurred to me that high school could be really really easy if I just took regular classes and coasted through without trying, but that was never my style. What can I say, I'm a workaholic (with a healthy sprinkling of OCD, to boot).

When I auditioned for NYU (the day my senior research paper was due for my AP English class, thanks) I had to indicate my preferences for studio training. The decision is ultimately up to the administration, based on your audition and application, but they do take your request into account. I chose the studio known for its holistic training approach, in which first year students, in addition to acting, movement, and voice and speech classes, are also trained in directing, design, and stage management.  I just figured it would make me a better actor, to continue to know more about how other aspects of theatre worked. (Ironically, I said my second choice was the Adler studio, which I think now would have been a terrible fit for me.)

At the end of my first year, when we put on our final presentations, my scene from directing class was chosen (by our group of fifteen students) to be one of the five presented. I also performed a monologue I had written first semester, because I wasn't acting in any of the other scenes that had been selected. At the end of our presentations, I went into my final review with all of my teachers sitting intimidatingly before me, behind a table, while I sat in a solitary chair facing them, sweaty hands in my lap. The only thing I really remember of my fifteen or so minutes in that room was one of my teachers saying, "So, you want to be a directing student, right?" I was horrified. No! I wanted to be an actor! I was just trying to be well-rounded! My monologue hadn't gone all that great because I'd thrown all my effort into my directing scene, but that was because I wanted to be sure my fellow students performing it looked good, and I put them before myself. But I spent the summer panicking. Was I a bad actor? Was I doomed to a life behind the scenes, which, to me at the time, amounted to a failure?

I came back to my second year, and chose to continue directing, to keep my options open, even though I still wanted to be an actor. That year in the program, we were required to stage manage an older student's production, and assist two student designers on designs for others' productions. I ended up assisting one lighting designer, but then lighting a project myself and sound-designing one as well, in addition to the show I was stage managing. (In addition to 30 hours of studio a week plus academic classes plus rehearsals for class and design meetings and tech and load ins and oh, right, homework, or something.) The big project of the first half of second year, at that time, was The Book. The Book was a semester-long project for our design class, which was more or less a history of design from about 1800 to the present, and over the course of those months we took notes and had to compile our own textbook, of sorts, with interesting facts, quotes, pictures related to the period. Halfway through, we had meetings with our teacher to go over The Book thus far and check on our progress.  And I remember two things about that meeting - one, that I had a date after, and as soon as he found that out he cut our meeting very short, but two, that his main feedback on my book was that the picture he got from it was "A very neat girl, but interested in a lot of things," and he suggested my book needed more focus. The thing is, I always have been and probably always will be a very neat girl interested in a lot of things. My brain is organized chaos.

By the second semester of my second year, I was torn between "project track" and "performance track." I stubbornly wanted to do it all. I ended up choosing "project track," mostly because I wasn't the biggest fan of our acting teacher that year, but I still had acting once a week, still took voice and speech (that was the stubborn bit) and was taking first year movement for a second time, because I just loved African dance too much. So I remained divided. Still acting, directing, and designing up a storm. And, that semester, stage managing twice, because I'm a masochist, I guess.

Ironically, even though my directing teacher was not a fan of my directing style, I ended up as a directing student my third year. I figured it was rare to have production resources just handed to you, with guaranteed rehearsal and performance space, and so I seized upon that opportunity. I directed two shows, lit several more (never tell people you're a lighting designer unless you want to be asked to light literally everything, especially in school), and somehow squeezed in acting in one production. I think I averaged six shows a semester that year, in one capacity or another. I refused to narrow my focus, no matter how much the program wanted me to. (I kept taking voice and speech, too - the only directing student to do so.)

 
 

Top row: my first directing project, I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix, an early Tennessee Williams play; bottom row: my second directing project, A Fable, by Jean-Claude van Itallie (click to enlarge)

My last year started with a semester abroad in Madrid, essentially taking a liberal arts selection of classes, my only connection to theatre being a course on Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet and playwright. When I returned to my final semester at Playwrights, I was supposed to be in the fourth year acting company. But I got a call, a week before the semester started. There weren't enough students for the track. The head of the studio said something along the lines of "I know you directed before, would you like to direct something else? Or I know you took playwriting, do you want to create a playwriting project?" And I said that no, the whole point was that I wanted to actually be in the acting track for my last semester, after spending so much time as a "project kid." Long story short, after a mess of scheduling conflicts that also meant I couldn't do the third year acting practicum show (the track I hadn't done my third year), my schedule became a hodge-podge of performance and project classes: I took acting with the third years, a dance class I had never had with second years, and repeated a voice and speech class I'd already taken (because you can never. have. too much voice and speech training), but I also took producing, a class only offered to fourth year project students (and me).

The beautiful thing about being the only student in that producing class who was not, in fact, in the process of producing a fourth year show, was that I had to make one up, for the sake of the homework. Fresh from my semester abroad, I decided to make up a play about Cold War-era Berlin, as seen through the eyes of two contemporary college students. That idea, for which I generated a budget and grant proposals and press releases and posters, developed into the early stages of a real play by the end of the semester. My senior year producing class, in which I was the lone weirdo not producing anything, became the birth place of the play I've been developing for almost four years now, Scars Over Berlin

So here I sit, in 2016, an actor and a playwright who sometimes designs lights, and hasn't entirely ruled out directing again someday. There are certainly downsides to my wide range of experience - my acting resume is certainly shorter than most NYU drama grads, as I didn't throw all of my energy into auditioning for and performing in shows, distracted as I was by directing projects and almost blowing up a theatre I lit my junior year (I did blow all the circuits on the floor). I don't have the same level of audition experience or confidence as my roommate who also went to Tisch, but in a different studio. 

But here's what I know about myself. I'm not interested in being in a play simply for the sake of having something to act in. Maybe I don't love acting enough. But I want to devote my time and energy to projects I care about. That's why I'd rather spend four years writing a play I love (and sometimes hate). I went through a phase about a year ago where I wasn't sure if I did still want to be an actor, or if I just felt obligated to be one because I went to an expensive theatre school. My quarter-life crisis, if you will, really threw me for a loop - if I didn't want to be an actor, the one thing I had wanted to be since I was nine, the thing I had gotten a quarter-million-dollar (YEAH) education to be, what did I want? I didn't seem to want anything else either, unless you count being a rockstar. I guess you could say all the points I get for passion I lack for practicality. But one day I woke up to a message offering me a role in a student film; one of my stage combat teachers had recommended me. And when I was handed an acting opportunity, without the mess of "the business" in the way - headshots and monologues and auditions and callbacks et cetera - I was so excited at the prospect. And though I ended up not working on the project, I was given the gift of certainty. I was certain I still wanted to be an actor, still wanted to work in theatre. And that's way better than being in some random NYU student film.

So here's what I know about myself. I'm a very neat girl, who's interested in a lot of things. And while that may have been said to me at first not as an insult but at least as a critique, I'll take the bad with the good. I love acting, and lighting, and fighting, and writing, and also reading tarot and collecting vinyl, listening to David Bowie and reading Harry Potter, and my bed is always made, and I know a thing or two about whiskey and I'm a pretty good cook. I've got no complaints about any of that.

 
 

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Not What You Signed Up For

A series of related things happened recently:

 

  1. I went to Israel
  2. David Bowie died.
  3. I got my second tattoo.

While the second two may be clearly related to each other, on the surface they seem to have nothing to do with going to Israel, and all together they still wouldn't appear to have anything to do with making choices about my acting career. And yet, going to Israel helped me become the woman in the picture below, which in turn helped me realize the kind of artist I want to be.

 

 

While I was on my birthright trip, I found myself saying to my new friends something I've said occasionally over the last several years - that if I weren't an actor, I would look like such a weirdo - covered in tattoos, with short hair constantly dyed some weird color (purple is first on the list). And I realized, during a conversation about tattoos with a few friends on the trip who had some, that I didn't want to continue pursuing a career where I didn't feel like myself.

David Bowie, my great artistic inspiration, the inspiration to freaks and weirdos and aspiring weirdos of generations, died on January 10, 2016. I found out early in the morning of the 11th, before 9 am Israel time, while America was sleeping. Our group was sitting in a national park while our guide told us about a former military outpost we could see on a mountain in the distance. He pulled out his phone to look up a specific detail, and, upon launching the internet, proclaimed "Oh fuck, David Bowie died." That was how I found out my hero, the Starman, the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, was gone from this planet. I suppose we were only borrowing him from somewhere else.

On the bus after our hike that morning I was allowed to take over the audio system for a while, and played all of his hits for the regular fans, and then played all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust for my own sake. The whole group had seen me silently weeping throughout the morning, not having any way of knowing how much Bowie meant to me. And as much as I wished in the moment that I could have locked myself in my room to mourn alone, I'm so grateful now that I was able to process my grief the way that I did - with his music, surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of Israel.

That evening, we went to a hot spring located right along the Galilee, with incredible views of the sea and surrounding mountains. That was where I finally had a chance to relax, with my Squad, and chat about tattoos and mundane things. That was where I told more of my friends there was a freak trapped in this pretty normal-looking, albeit-red-headed, person. And that was when I decided I was going to let myself be me, and look how I want to look, and do what I want to do, and find or create the theatre projects that support that. 

We spent a lot of time on the bus the next day, driving from the Golan Heights to Haifa to Jerusalem. During one of the quieter stretches, an idea for a tattoo came to me - not any of the three I already wanted, a new one. As soon as the idea was fully formed in my mind, it felt weird that it wasn't already a part of my skin. The picture that came into my head on Tuesday ended up on my body on Friday, the day after I got back from Israel.

My second tattoo, inked boldly on my chest, is the signifier of my decision to be me, and do "the industry" my way. It may have been a decision that prevents me from getting cast in some roles, working on some projects. But that's okay. I have never felt more like myself than since getting this tattoo. The lightning bolt is of course the most iconic Bowie symbol (though it's always associated with Ziggy Stardust when in fact it's from the album art for Aladdin Sane and was never worn on the Ziggy tour). The black stars symbolize his last album, Blackstar, released on his birthday, two days before his death. And the Hebrew says "ho lo ahuva at lo l'vad," which translates to "Oh no love, you're not alone" - a lyric from Bowie's "Rock n Roll Suicide," my favorite song of his, and translated with the help of several people who have made me feel very "not alone" - Elaun, our tour guide who accidentally broke the news, Jack, our security guard and member of the Squad, and my friend Michael, who I met during the RENT party in 2008 and who has always held a special place in my heart for a number of reasons only he can understand.

Right over my heart, a big red lightning bolt is difficult to hide. I have no intention of hiding it anyway. I'm proud that it's a part of who I am. Deeply connected to Bowie, to Israel, to being a weirdo.

My only other tattoo has, for a year now, slightly more subtly proclaimed my self at its deepest level. The "Hope" tattoo, in the Harry Potter title font, was one I thought about for almost four years rather than four days. But proclaiming my lifelong literal middle name in the typeface of a sixteen-year love affair seemed like a good start to proclaiming who I am on my skin. (This photo happens to also feature a length of blue yarn tied around my wrist, still here two weeks after I left Israel, connecting me to the rest of Bus 486.)

 

I posted this last picture on facebook because I felt good about my hair the day I took it, but after looking at it more I realized it really summed up me at this moment in time. I subtitled it "Not the granddaughter my grandparents signed up for, but the only one they got." No one expects, when a baby is born, that she is going to grow up to love classic rock and dye her hair bright red and get big tattoos and be a weirdo. But I'm awful proud of the weirdo I've been, and the one I'm growing to be.


Will you stay in our lovers' story

If you stay, you won't be sorry

Cause we believe in you

Soon you'll grow

So take a chance

On a couple of kooks

Hung up on romancing

-- David Bowie, "Kooks" Hunky Dory


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