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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Goethe's Window

This week, I left behind much of the news cycle. I was in Door County, Wisconsin, working on a new musical I am writing which is being developed at Northern Sky Theater. I was on the computer every day, it was mostly to write new lyrics or dialogue.

What a wonderful week. I met people I hadn't known before, connected with people I knew and overall got disconnected from whatever chatter was going on in cyberspace. After a day, I stopped checking my emails and facebook and started seeing what was around me.

I was also fortunate to have a ride to Green Bay Airport from a man whose daughter in law works at Northern Sky. He lives in the county and built a wall (pictures here) on his land. He laid each stone and the archway - and showed it to me before we left.

He said building the wall was therapy in difficult times. I could only think that no matter what kind of times I was living through, I could never build anything half so beautiful. I also thought about growing up in a suburb of New York, and how I always wanted to live either right in the city or out in the country.

Door County would fit the bill. Perfectly.

I just had to share a little bit of that with you, because (a) I didn't have much time to prepare anything in particular for you this week and (b) there really is something about land, sky, trees and writing. I think Goethe said one must always write looking out a window, and never facing away from the world.

I'm not facing the window in my workroom and even if I did, it looks out on the wall of the house next door.

I've just got to fix that. Soon.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Green Dress: Changing the Story

I was wearing a green dress. You know this.

It was a mini-dress and zipped up in the back. It had long sleeves and a scoop neck.

This is a story you know.

I was in an apartment in New York City, because depending on where you are, auditions are sometimes held in people's apartments or hotel rooms. I was 23 years old and the producers conducting the audition offered me some wine.

I accepted, trying to be what I thought was adult. We talked a while about the film they were trying to make, or hoping to make, and the kind of character they were looking for.

About half an hour later, I was lying in bed with one of the producers. I had started to feel sick and he brought me to the bed and got me into it. After a little while, I realized he was unzipping my dress.

It took every ounce of strength I had to get out of that bed and get out of there. Whatever was in the wine they gave me made me feel pretty dizzy, but I realized it was either get out or get assaulted, one way or another.

I was lucky. I got out of the door and into the elevator without throwing up and took a taxi to a friend's place. I was also lucky my friend was home.

You know this story because you have lived it, or lived something like it, or you know someone who has. This is only ONE of my stories. I'm sure you know that too, because the entertainment business if full of stories just like this one.

Of course, sexual assault is everywhere and can happen to anyone. But I think the entertainment industry deserves its own special star of distinction for this.

I started out in my career as an actor, and then became a playwright. Part of the reason I did that is because I love writing, and part of the reason is that I wanted to write more interesting roles for women than what I was seeing. And then there is the other reason, which is that I didn't want to be seen anymore as someone's piece of meat.

For nearly two weeks, we have been learning about the predatory habits of one of the most powerful producers in the business--Harvey Weinstein. Celebrities who have mostly been harassed before they became famous are coming forward to say they too have experienced sexual assaults. Our business is sick, and unfortunately, it has gone on for years and years and years--for as long as I can remember.

This is our story, and it belongs to every man and every woman and every child in this business. While woman are the majority of people who are harassed, men are too. Both men and women who experience sexual abuse are often under the age of consent.

If there is a silver lining, it is that young people are speaking up more than anyone has before. When I started working in this profession, I was told there were a lot of predatory people and I had to figure out how to deal with it.

Somehow or other, it was made clear to me that I was on my own if someone was hitting on me. And that's what I believed, and why I was scared for many years just going to auditions. Because people like Harvey Weinstein are not isolated figures. They are everywhere, and entertainment is one of the worst platforms for sexual abuse that I have ever seen.

It is institutionalized. It is rationalized. It is encouraged. Sometimes it is even applauded. Sexism is part of the industry's culture in ways no other profession would tolerate. Example: in casting auditions for the film Dangerous Beauty, women were asked to bare their breasts to determine if they could be selected. I know about this because I read an article in which the film's director talked about how his producers told him to check out each woman's chest before hiring them.

And that's just what we see publicly. The other stuff--groping, drugging, assaulting and raping--goes on behind the scenes all the time.

This is a story we all know, and it is a story we all have known for quite some time. I am not talking years; I am talking generations. I am relieved and pleased and even thrilled that a new generation is saying, "Enough! We want no part of this!"

Actors, hairdressers, makeup artists, technicians, stage managers, playwrights, singers, directors,  screenplay writers and all the talented people who make up this industry  deserve to be treated with dignity. The fact that we have to fight for it as hard as we do is appalling.

But as a playwright who is frequently rewriting,  I can promise you that it's never too late to change the story. If we continue to speak up, we may be able to revise this narrative and create a less dangerous, less humiliating environment for people in our profession.

My thanks also go out to the parents who are teaching their kids to stand up when they see injustice and protest. You did it.

Raised 'em right.

Green dress photo:  Alexandra_s93

Saturday, October 7, 2017

House Adventures: an anniversary tale

This week, I'm celebrating two special occasions: my wedding anniversary and the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, (pronounced Sue-Coat), which means booths and commemorates the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years.

During this holiday, you are supposed to put up a sukkah (booth), (pronounced Sue-Kah), which is a VERY impermanent structure with a roof made of branches and leaves. The idea is to spend as much of your time as possible inside--eating meals there and even sleeping in the sukkah if you can.

The two interesting things about this (to me, anyway) are that my husband is not Jewish - I was originally married to a Jewish man and we have a son together - but my husband Pete jumped in anyway to build a sukkah with us, which always meant a lot to me (and still does).

In a way, the first one I put up with Pete was our first house, because we were living in a rental for the first couple of years of our marriage. This year, we are having HOUSE ADVENTURES, which haven't been great ones, to tell you the truth.

We are now in the process of being reluctant renovators, and praying and hoping our renovation goes well. (You know you're in trouble when big men are coming into your house to do big things.)

At the moment, though, I am a bit nostalgic for those good old, easy-peasy rental days. And in that spirit I'm sharing the blog post I wrote about our first sukkah house, built on a rainy night in October, because it makes me realize (yet again) how happy and how lucky I feel to be married to this wonderful guy.

I wrote this blog for TC Jewfolk, and hope you'll visit the site as there are lots of great writers there. Here's my story, if you're up for it.

Monday, October 2, 2017

New York Snippets

In honor of my character Ruby Tabeata and her New York life and family, I'm sharing some New York scenes of my just-got-back-from weekend:

1. Sign in subway:

"Some New Yorkers are born. 
Some are made.
All are welcome."

Seeing this somehow makes me remember my favorite subway sign when visiting the city years before:

"Hold onto your hopes, your dreams and the handrails."

2. 59th Street subway, #1 train uptown platform cordoned off with tape, forbidding us to enter. Sign says they are working on the tracks and if I want to get uptown I need to go downtown to 42nd Street and catch the #1 train THERE.

I realize it is the weekend, and I have officially entered Subway Hell.

2. Woman directly across from me on #1 train going uptown. She smiles. I smile back. After a while, she wrinkles her nose and looks at me. "Do you smell that?"

I nod.

"Some kind of chemical something."

I agree.

3. I momentarily panic, thinking they changed the train to an express instead of a local and I will miss my stop at 110th Street. It IS an express up to 72nd Street but thankfully changes to a local after that.

4. I finally get out and get to where I'm going. My friend meets me for dinner and we go to a restaurant called Henry's. Sunday night in New York; warm, loud, scads of people everywhere but no one bumps into each other, my friend and I chatting away a mile a minute, and the street lights so bright you can see everything you'd see in daylight. Almost.

5. On a bus to Middletown NY, I drag my suitcase up into the bus, find it is too large for the overhead compartment, see another woman put her bag on the seat next to her and decide, "This is New York," before doing the same. There is enough room on the bus, no no one notices.

6. Returning from Middletown where I was visiting my son (student, high holiday visit), HE puts my suitcase on the bus while the driver sits and watches. When I get back to Port Authority, someone else gets my bag for me while the driver sits and watches AGAIN.

7. Taxi TV, advertising new Broadway shows and everything else.

8. Fear of bedbugs, which are still, as they say in the city, available.

9. People talking to you at the drop of a hat, passionately, impassioned. People ignoring you completely.

10. Hiding in plain sight; a river of faces, bodies, foods, boots, car horns, drivers, all divided by concrete and Central Park. Welcome to the Apple. Welcome everyone.

Grand Central Zodiac: Ana Paula Hirama 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Winner Takes All: Billie Jean King

My very first "real job" brought me face to face with one of my heroes: Billie Jean King. I had landed a staff writing position at Scholastic Choices Magazine and though it was primarily home economics, somehow or other Billie Jean was visiting during my first week--and I was assigned to an interview.

I don't even think it was for Scholastic Choices - but honestly don't remember. What I DO remember is wanting to ask her everything I could. Unfortunately (for me, anyway), we had only a short time so I was limited. 

I knew my audience was middle school kids and wanted her to address them and what they might need to know growing up. My recollection is she said they would need to take care of themselves and not depend on others, as past generations of women had. I always thought that was spot-on advice.

Some years later, I met Billie Jean King again while working at another job at Melpomene Institute for Women's Health. I asked her to autograph a tennis ball at my son's request. He was about 10 years old and avidly collecting autographs. She graciously and gracefully signed the ball, which we still have.

What I most loved about both these experiences was how wonderful it was to see a woman who was totally comfortable in her own skin--(and who, by the way, looked as young as a teenager). I had not been involved in much physical activity when I was younger, and it wasn't until I was a full-fledged adult that I started really engaging in exercise (besides dance, which I always loved).

The idea of being physically active never extended to team sports for me, but using weights, hiking, walking and swimming have really saved me in some pretty big ways. I truly think I would be a much more depressed, bad-tempered person with a lot more physical problems if I wasn't exercising. And while Billie Jean King wasn't the deciding factor that pushed me to become more physical, she was a shining example of surpassing expectations about who women are and what we can do.

That includes winning a match against a (pretty arrogant) guy, while the world is watching.

For that, I will always be grateful. And yes, going to see the movie.

For more information on Billie Jean King to share with your sons and daughters:

The True Story Behind the Battle of the Sexes Movie
Billie Jean King's Battle is for "Equality, Period"
Billie Jean King Won for All Women

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Looking for His Theater: Back from Vietnam

It was a warm night--even for New York--and I was in a showcase play (where you try to get agents to see your work). The play was called Dark Ladies, Bright Angels and was a collection of Shakespeare pieces. The opening involved the actors going onstage and talking with each other, to get into character.

There was only one person in the audience when I emerged, and he didn't seem at all to be there for Shakespeare. He was quiet, thoughtful, and seemed very serious, even sad. After a moment or two watching the actors, he said he was looking for a theater for Vietnam vets.

Some of the actors ignored him, and then someone told him this was a Shakespeare play. That was the end of our communication with him, and we began trying to get into character--chattering, laughing and saying a few of our lines. I have always regretted it, though.

Because I really wish we had at least talked to him, character or no. He seemed to need to be there -- in a theater with his peers, others vets, people who had experienced what he had. As it happened, he waited for a little while and then left.

This weekend, Ken Burns' long-awaited documentary on the Viet Nam war is beginning to air on PBS. This summer, my husband and I have been watching China Beach, for no particular reason except that we'd always wanted to see it and never have.

I do remember the era and the protest marches, and then later, the vets coming home, and generally not being treated very well. The night this particular vet walked into the theater where I was working seems part and parcel of that, somehow, though we were not intentionally being rude or mean.

The bright spot in all of this is that I did see him again at the theater, because he found the group of vets he was looking for. I said hello, but not much more than that, because I had to get to my performances. And to be fair, he was busy with his group too.

And yet, and yet.

So much that happens in wars changes the people who experience them. And I believe artists have a real obligation to learn from and listen very carefully to the people who lived through wars and traumas. I wish that night, we had taken the time to listen to this man. Or even ask about the theater company he mentioned and go to one of the shows.

We could have learned so much.


Resources for you and/or your kids:

Soldier photo: Manhhai

Saturday, September 9, 2017

First Rule of Storytelling? No Rules

Now and again, I try to remind myself of a few of my favorite storytelling rules.

1. There are no rules.

2. If there were, rule 2 would be not to write about writers writing unless you can be spectacularly interesting about it. Which is hard. If you're going to break this rule, make sure writing is a very small part of a much larger and more interesting story.

3. Wait. Don't just start writing a story because you want to sell a book, play or idea and don't write because you're hoping for a best seller. Let the idea haunt you and needle you and obsess you until you absolutely NEED to write it out. Wait for the idea that won't let you go, because in my view, that's when you have a best seller.

4. Make up characters you know. You don't have to know them well; they can be people you talk to once in a while in your neighborhood, but they have to intrigue you sufficiently so you can do a good job of describing them and even more importantly, imagining them. Try to observe people and talk to them and learn their speech patterns. It will serve you well when you are writing characters. And when you start thinking about characters, write down little notes about them until you know everything there is to know--from physical traits to the sound of their voices to the shoes they wear and much more. Because you really do need to know everything.

5. Give yourself time to sit in the dark and stare into space. Empty your mind of everything except your story. Think about what would happen if you were the protagonist and navigating the particular life you want that protagonist to have. Then figure out what needs to happen in the story to move it forward.

6. Think about the worst day you've ever had. What happened? How did you navigate it and what did you learn from it? Is there a way to tell that story as a novel or a play?

7. Think about what you want most and how you tried to get it. Make that part of your story too. The more difficult it was to get it, the better your story will be. If you didn't get it, your story might be even better.

8. Don't think about the ending while you are writing. Let the ending find you, rather than trying to find it. You'll know when you're there, and in the meantime, your story needs to keep winding, like everyone's story.

9. Be patient and go slow. We all want to be done with stories and books and plays after we've been working on them a while. But rushing shows up in your work, and makes it sloppy. If you get half a page done a day, so be it. Make that half a page count and you'll have done a good day's work. I mean it.

10. Pick one or two people you trust and share. When you're ready, share your work with a trusted reader or two and get away from it for a bit. I have always found doing that makes my work stronger because I can get comments I never expected about stuff that's really important. So don't be afraid to share.

If you have rules for storytelling and want to share them, feel free! Maybe you have rules about what you read? THAT... would be even better.

Writer photo: Alan Weir