About Me

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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Things That I Love: Biking


Of all things, biking is a new and altogether unexpected discovery. When I decided, upon returning to Albuquerque, to ride my bike everywhere in an effort to save 1) money, 2) the environment, and 3) myself from my terrible driving skills, I didn't expect to hate it, but I certainly didn't expect to love it so completely.

Space is expansive on a bike; there is so much more space than you would ever think possible in a car or crowded subway. And it's so quiet. No radio, no voices, no incessant chatter of your own thoughts. On a bike, you only think of two things: where you are, and where you are going. There's a peace, a simplicity, a communion with oneself. On a bike I feel wholly myself and wholly my own.

But it's not just a communion with oneself, it's also a communion with place. I'm grateful for all the moments I've spent on my bike for how intimately it's allowed me to reacquaint myself with my hometown. I don't just get around the city, I see it. I see every dip in the road, every blade of grass poking out from the asphalt. I see every house, every storefront, every park I pass. I see the other bikers, the people on the sidewalks and those in their cars. I feel a part of this city, not just something moving through it. The first time I stepped on stage, I felt at once utterly alone in the universe and completely connected to everything in it. This is sort of like that.

A little over a year ago, a boy I used to work with was hit by a car and killed. I've dealt with death before; maybe it was that he was so young like me, or living so far away from home like me, but ever since I saw that boy lying in his coffin, I've felt the knowledge of death bearing down behind me. I go about my business - nothing has changed, really - but I always feel it, it's always there. On my bike, though, I'm not afraid of death anymore. I would be okay, somehow, if these were my last moments. Strong and active and proud of my commitment to myself and my world.

It also occurs to me how many problems would be solved if we all just biked everywhere. The obesity epidemic, for one, oil dependency, climate change, and, based on my own experiences, maybe even depression.

Is it just me? Or is this really important? It feels important.

So I've contacted BikeABQ the local advocacy and education outreach group. No, there's no paying job in it and it's not where I intuitively feel comfortable spending my time while unemployed. But that's the point.

I offered to volunteer in any capacity needed, but especially event-planning and marketing and communication because of my theater experience. The organization emailed me back immediately and said they could definitely use my expertise as an event planner. It's the first time someone has said they have use for my particular experience and skill-set in a long, long time.

And it felt so good.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why Breaking Dawn Is the Worst Movie Ever

I'm taking an immediate break from my new task to find what I love to do in order to tell you why Breaking Dawn was the worst movie I've ever seen in my entire life.

That is not a hyperbole.

Watching it, I kept thinking, I can say with absolute confidence that this is THE worst movie I have ever seen. And I've seen all the other Twilight movies. No, seriously, there is nothing right about this movie.

And let's just talk about the problems with the movie. Let's not go into my problems with the source material. Let's not re-hash the fact that Bella is basically THE WORST ROLE MODEL EVER for adolescent girls because not only does she seem to have no interests, ideas or identity beyond her sparkly boyfriend, but she actually ceases to be able to function when he's not around and repeatedly puts herself IN MORTAL PERIL just to hear his voice. Or how annoyed I get that she acts so superior to her classmates and all their silly, childish thoughts and interests when, in fact, they are the ones who seem to be living healthy, active, grounded lives. Or how impossibly frustrated I become when I think about the fact that this book is lauded as having a positive message for teenage girls just because it promotes abstinence until marriage, completely overlooking all the other poor decisions it glorifies, like getting married at 18; obsessive, co-dependent relationships; and, oh, I don't know, WILLING TO DIE FOR A BOY. I mean, SERIOUSLY people, she wants to sacrifice her identity, her life and her SOUL to be with Edward. And this is a good thing? We're supposed to LIKE this girl?

Oh, whoops. I guess I did end up talking about it. Sometimes I start ranting about Twilight and I just can't stop.

Anyway, back to the movie, which could have been four short, expository scenes:

Bella and Edward get married.

Bella and Edward go on their honeymoon. They have hot, if slightly kinky, sexy-time.

Bella finds out she is pregnant, possibly with a scary demon baby. Everybody worries.

Bella gives birth to aforementioned scary demon baby, and subsequently becomes a vampire.

Done and done. If you're wondering how they stretched these scenes out into an excruciatingly long two hours, save your money, cause I'm about to tell you.

Let's start with scene one.

Bella and Edward Get Married.
She walks down the aisle, they look lovingly at each other, they say I do. THE END. This is EXPOSITION, folks. This is SET-UP. THIS IS NOT PLOT. And yet, it takes up maybe the first third of the movie.

Because we have to have a detailed reaction to the wedding invitation from every single person that Bella or Edward has ever met ever. (Relatedly: if you happened to be betting on how long it takes Taylor Lautner to shed his shirt, if you guessed longer than two seconds, you totally lost.) And we get a weird wedding nightmare where Bella finds herself atop a pile of her bloody, mutilated friends and family. Why? Don't know. The idea that Bella's loved ones are in danger never ever factors into the movie again. Not even vaguely. Though it does explain the otherwise completely inexplicable look of panic/indigestion that Kristen Stewart sports throughout her walk down the aisle and basically the entire rest of the movie.

Everyone else, go about your business for a sec. Grab a snack. Check your email. I need a quick word just with K-Stew. Kristen. Listen. You are ALLOWED to have more than one expression. In fact, I would say it's ADVISABLE. It's not good acting if you always looked distressed. Especially if you're supposed to be ecstatically happy. Shhh. Trust me.

Okay, everyone, you can return. Back to the wedding: we also get (most unbearably of all) an impossibly long, overwrought walk down the aisle, punctuated by long, overwrought stares at each other - which mean that they're in love - underscored by an overwrought, emo/hipster soundtrack. All of which culminates in a kiss where (originally) everyone watching disappears, and is SO long (and tongue-y) it made me feel awkward not only for myself, but for every fictional person in attendance at that fictional wedding.

This is pretty much the entire movie

The long, overwrought, entirely unnecessary pauses between every line of dialogue and deep, meaningful looks that I can only assume are supposed to communicate the deep emotion that Bella and Edward feel continues as...

Bella and Edward Go On Their Honeymoon
First of all, I have NEVER seen anybody look so pissed off to unexpectedly be on vacation in Rio. Seriously, Kristen. It's not bad acting to smile once in a while.

Second of all, I can almost forgive unbelievably drawn out staring and sighing and plaintive music here because at least it's kind of sexy. Except before we get to anything even remotely resembling sexy-time, we get what feels like LIFETIMES of them staring at each other, and then staring at the house, and then staring at each other some more, and then staring at the bed, and then staring at each other some more. And this is AFTER the taxi ride during which they stare at each other, and then stare pensively out the window, and then stare at each other some more, until they get to the boat in which they...

You get the point.

Additionally, after a night of enjoyable, if rough, passion, Edward decides that he will never touch Bella again, even though she's literally begging for sex. "Last night was the most amazing night of my life," Bella says at one point. "Why don't you believe that?" Hmm, I don't know, Bella, maybe it's because you only have ONE EXPRESSION and you currently look like you're about to puke.

But Edward is having none of it; he can't risk hurting her as she is SUCH delicate flower, unable to make decisions or assess risks on her own. I'd be annoyed at the chauvinism here, except, Edward, I can't say I blame you - Bella hasn't exactly asserted herself as a strong or independent woman.

So, anyway, you say a drawn-out, overwrought chess-playing montage can't be done? I say nay! Because it happens here, and we don't even get the sexy to make it palatable.

(Oh, and PS, maybe it's just the Sarah Lawrence feminist coming out of me, but I find the entire idea of sex and sexuality in this movie to be almost offensively patriarchal. "Last night was the most amazing night of my life"? Please. Why is (first-time!) sex by its strictest heterosexual definition so A) important and B) earth-shatteringly, life-changingly ah-maz-ing? I'm pretty sure they could have reached some sort of compromise, if-ya-know-what-I-mean, that in reality Bella would have probably found more satisfying. And also? I find it hypocritical and gross that despite (or perhaps because of) its message of abstinence, sex is treated as this be-all, end-all of relationships, the holy grail of two people being together. It's such a disgusting exemplification of the simultaneously overly-puritanical and over-sexed society we live in.)

... Sorry.

Anyway, eventually...

Bella Finds Out She's Pregnant, Possibly with a Demon Baby. Everybody Worries.
This scene comprises the bulk of the movie, and can basically be boiled down to the following: everyone in the world gathers around Bella because she is So Special, and commence stroking her face and looking concerned about her.

That's it.

Okay, Jacob and his band of werewolves briefly pop up. And, to be fair, Jacob occasionally surfaced in the previous two scenes as well, largely to repeat the some variation of the line: "I'm worried about Bella's safety and wish I could kill Edward." In scene three, he accidentally sics his werewolves on Bella (oops!), but then he goes over to warn everybody, and they invite him into their circle of face-stroking and concerned looks.

Again: that's it.

Bella Gives Birth to Aforementioned Scary Demon Baby, and Subsequently Becomes a Vampire.
You'd think this part would be exciting, because the demon baby (which is not actually a demon baby at all, snooze) breaks her back and then Edward eats it out of her stomach.

You'd think.

But no, this part of the story is shot from Bella's point of view who, in true Twilight fashion, blacks out during the most interesting part.

The werewolves come to kill Bella too, which you'd also think would get interesting, but right as the fight starts to heat up, Jacob comes out and tells them they all have to leave and they just do.

Seriously?? Has anybody involved with this project ever even read a story? Do you not know how this works?

So anyway, that's that. The movies pretty much over at this point, except for the part where it's really not at all. Bella is basically dead and Edward has... injected vampire venom into her heart? Um, sure, okay. The point is, WE ALL KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING. DOES ANYBODY NOT SEE WHERE THIS IS GOING?

And yet, before Bella can turn into a vampire and the movie can end, we need at least ten minutes of Edward looking sad, and Jacob looking angry, and back to Edward trying to save her again, and back to Jacob looking sad. And then a weird CSI-inspired sequence of the vampire venom inside Bella's body, and then more of Edward looking sad, and Jacob looking angry, and Edward trying to save her, and Jacob looking sad and oh my sweet lord we all know that Bella is going to turn into a vampire please for the love of god just make it happen. Look, I'm not a playwright, but I'm pretty sure it's not suspense if everybody knows what's going to happen.

And then, when you think you just can't handle it any longer, then and only then do Bella's eyes open all red and vampire-like and the worst movie in the entire world is finally over.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Next?

Something I read while meandering the interwebs struck me recently. I thought it was from this poster, but I guess I'm reading/latching on to way more inspirational garble than I realized. Anyway, the sentiment that struck me was something along the lines of, "Do what you love and the money will follow."

I suppose it makes since that a thought like that would stand out to me, as I've been back in New Mexico for about a month and a half, and did not expect to be jobless and adrift for so long. (Being jobless and adrift is why I left New York, people!) So you could say I am currently deeply ingrained in the process of figuring out how to make the money follow and, if we're being totally honest, what exactly I love in the first place.

Upon reflection, here's what I think: if I had read this in New York, I would have been angry, because doing what I want to do without working about the money was a luxury I simply didn't have. I wished I had it a million times over, every time I saw an internship I couldn't apply for, a volunteer opportunity I couldn't make time for, a class I couldn't take. And now I do have that luxury. Having that luxury is a big part of why, at almost 30, I moved back in with my parents.

So why am I worrying so much about getting a job?

With that in mind, I've been thinking about things that I could do, would do, if I weren't worried about making money. It's time to change my attitude. Full speed ahead.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rose in Harlem

Look up and just a little to the left. Unless you’re reading this from an RSS feed (in which case, hey, thanks for adding me) you’re going to see a little picture of a yellow rose winding out of a city window. This icon is my avatar for both my blog and my Twitter feed. I love this icon. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t think I would ever want to change it.

The picture itself was snapped by me back in 2006. My roommate (one of four of us, squeezed into a little apartment up on 145th) had brought the plant back from work one day, a heavy, green, sickly thing. She told us it was a rose “bush,” although from the wilted sight of it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. She was determined to nurse the tiny plant back to health; I predicted it would finish dying by the end of the week. But my roommate was gentle and attentive: she pruned back its dying leaves, repotted it, gave it food and water and what little light our alley-facing kitchen could afford. Within a few months it became a sturdy stalk, waxy, thorny and altogether definitely resembling the plant from which roses grow. Still, despite its metamorphosis, I could not have been more surprised the day I saw a little yellow bud appear on the stalk, a bud which proceeded to bloom, expand, and wind itself across our window.

The image of a little yellow rose bud blooming against all odds has been a powerful symbol for the life I persevered toward in New York. It is to me, a sign of hope – the possibility of life, of beauty, even through the smog and sulfur of that impossible city. The visible proof of what enough care and dedication can do.

When I started thinking about my move back to Albuquerque, I thought briefly about retiring the icon, wondering if the “rose in Harlem,” image really made sense anymore. But its depiction of hope and my wish to find and nurture beauty even in unlikely places still held true. So, so far, it’s stayed.

There’s another reason, though, that I chose to let a picture of a rose represent me online. I’ve always liked the idea that my face is more or less invisible to the general virtual public. When I first started working as a director in New York City, I found that my biggest handicap when it came to finding work was my youth. Not my inexperience, my youth. People didn’t even want to talk to me. They didn’t want to get to know me long enough to find out how inexperienced I was. My face told them all they needed to know. I went through a phase where I made a deliberate effort to “dress like a 30-year-old,” (whatever that meant) under the wisdom that one should dress for the job she wants, not the job she has. People ten years older than me were getting the jobs I wanted, I thought logically, so I should dress ten years older than I am.

That was a long time ago; I was barely past 20 then, now I’m nearing 30 for real. But I still have a very young face, and a very soft, girlish look. When I started talking to other artists online, I sort of relished the idea that I would be judged solely for my ideas and not for the way I look. Nobody would be able to say to me, “You’re too young, too cutesy, too blonde to contribute to this conversation.”

But I’m not in New York anymore, nor desperately seeking theater work. I’m looking for new kinds of work now. I want to find the community; I want to find and nurture the beautiful local arts, business, and culture we have here. And I’d like to write, really. I’d like to turn this blogging, which I’ve enjoyed so much, into something more.

And I’m new here. Maybe it’s a good idea to put a face to a name. That way, I might see somebody on the street or at a party and they’ll say, “Hey, I know you. You’ve got that amazing blog I’ve been reading. Here, have a job.”

It will happen exactly like that.

In any case, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a help or a hindrance to have my face a tiny bit obscured. And I’m wondering if it’s worth it to part with my beloved rose.

What do you think? Are you ever judged, correctly or incorrectly, on the way that you look? Have you ever hidden your face (or put it everywhere) as a strategic move?

Monday, October 31, 2011

It Is What It Is.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter whether New York was a toxic prison or spiritual haven or both.  It's New York.  It simply is.

One of my favorite books is the Time Traveler's Wife (trust me, it's nothing like the Nicholas Sparks knock-off the movie makes it out to be).  In it, the two lovers, Clare and Henry are madly and passionately devoted to one another.  But I remember thinking that despite their purity of their love, the two seemed incapable of doing anything but making the other inadvertently miserable.  You can't help but wonder, as you read the book, if perhaps they both wouldn't have been better off if they had just never gotten involved with one another.  But then you have to ask yourself, when would they have made that choice?  Because of the circularity of his time travel, when Henry meets Clare for the first time, she's already in love with him.  And when she meets him as a child, he's already married to her.  There really was no beginning to their love.  They love each other because they've always loved each other. 

Likewise, there's no qualifying my love of New York City.  It simply is.  I asked myself for a long time, "Why do I love this place so much?  Why do I stay here?"  It's dirty and it's loud, it's expensive and it's hard.  And though there are a lot of answers you can give to that question - the theater, the museums, the food, the people - none of them were strong enough reasons to explain why I was there.  And then I realized: I love New York because I've always loved New York. 

For a long time, I thought fell in love with the after a vacation with my family when I was 12.  It was only a 2-day trip, but it seemed like every day I lived in the interim, from age 12 to age 18, was spent with a yearning and determination to get back to New York City.

So when I finally came to New York for college, I was already in love.  I loved the city because I could remember being knocked breathless by it as an adolescent, so many years ago.  But I think, when I fell so hard the first time I visited, it was because I could already see myself there.  I could imagine my life in New York City, working and struggling and making and seeing amazing art because I was compelled - because there was nothing greater. 

I love New York now because I can remember myself then, at 12, loving it so much.  But I loved it at 12 because I could see myself now, at 27 still loving the city, still bound to it.  There is no beginning and no end to my love of New York.  It's always existed.  It simply is.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Closing Doors

On Saturday, September 25th, I shut the door and switched off the lights for the very last time in the place I've called my home for the past four and a half years.

After we left, Andrew and I stood on my roof quietly for a moment, watching the lights of Harlem twinkle in through the dark patches created from the neighborhood's newly-constructed high-rise condos. 

My roof.  I had my 25th birthday party up here.  I brought up milk crates, and we sat on them in the glow of a string of twinkle lights and some cheap tap-lights from the 99-cent store.  I brought my sisters up here to watch the fireworks on the 4th of July that they visited.  I drank beers here on a blanket with my best friends.  I did yoga up here.  We kissed up here once, on a grey day after we saw St. John's Cathedral.  In the dark I could still see its massive silhouette on the hill, stacked on top of us. 

"I've never left something so permanently before," I told him.  "Really?" Andrew said.  I kissed him again, like I did on that grey day, and we went back downstairs.

Since leaving, I've experienced a curious mixture of grief and elation.  Sometimes I'm struck so intensely by the strangeness and the sadness of the fact that I'll never again enter that room, with its bare window, cheap Ikea daybed and the TV tray doubling as a nightstand.  Other times, I think about the fact that I'm utterly unattached, unbeholden to that space, to its particular dust and clutter, its mice and its rent - and the thought makes me giddy. 

I always meant to buy curtains, replace the TV tray with a real nightstand, but somehow never got around to it.  It wasn't a priority.  During my tenure in NY, I encouraged in myself a sort of monk-like asceticism; I had neither the money nor the space for a lot of stuff.  But as I shut the door on on my room for the last time, a thought came to me, spontaneously and unbidden: never again.

Never again do I want to live so impermanently, in the empty expanse of a space I always meant to make my own.  Never again do I want to live the the shadow of promises I've made to myself. 

It's funny.  Through my self-imposed asceticism, I thought I was cultivating an appropriately monastic spirituality.  New York, I thought to myself, was teaching me how to detach from materialism.  I thought about the spiritual lessons New York was teaching me a lot.  Patience.  The value of hard work. 

In hindsight, though, I wonder if these things that I thought were teaching were actually tearing down: all those moments waiting for a subway or walking behind someone slow were wearing down my patience to a tiny, raw, nub.  All the times I had to work so much harder for what I wanted than I would have anywhere else... maybe it just made me tired.  And I wonder if my bare personal space actually set me adrift in some way.  I wonder if we need things in the same way we need stories - to tie us down, to tell us who we are.

I go back and forth like this, wondering if New York strengthened me or unmoored me - or maybe both.  I guess I'm about to find out.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Benefits of Twitter, Part 2

Slowly but surely, I'm coming out of my fog and getting back into my old groove. The first loose end I want to tie up here: finishing my little manifesto on Twitter.  A little over a month ago, I started talking about why Twitter is awesome, and I found had so much to say that I couldn't finish.  But so much that has been so illuminating should not go unsaid.  So, to say that Twitter changed my perspective would not be saying enough.  Without question, it changed my understanding of what the word networking meant, and my intention in seeking an artistic community.  But, let's face it, words in digital space can only go so far, and if my Twitter experience had remained confined there, I think I would have eventually gotten frustrated.  But what was really uplifting about my Twitter experience was how it broadened my actual, physical theater community, too.

It started simply enough.  I was connecting with artists virtually and learning about new companies and projects all over New York City.  All of the networking and connecting and conversing was making me hungry to get out there and start seeing and supporting all the great stuff I was hearing about.  One particular person whom I was followed was the artistic director of a theater company that looked pretty cool.  The company had an intriguing show coming up, so I decided to go. 

The show was great, and after it was over, I spoke to the artistic director.  "Hi,"  I said, "I just wanted to introduce myself.  My name is Leigh Hile, I've been following you and your company on Twitter."

"Oh yeah," he said.  "Leigh.  I've been reading your blog, it's good."

I have to admit, that was a pretty sweet moment for me.  At this point, I had been living and working in New York for about four and a half years.  I had seen a lot of cool theater and introduced myself to a lot of artists I hoped to work with, many of whom I'm pretty sure forgot my name as soon as I spoke it.  This was the first time I had ever introduced myself to one such cool artist to find that he already knew my name

It may not seem like much, but for me, it was the beginning of a whole new way of making connections, finding a community, and becoming a part of new and exciting projects.

The artist I had been following was August Schulenburg and his theater company was Flux Theatre Ensemble.  I quickly came to find that Flux had a kind of artistic integrity that was deeply refreshing.  In addition to being incredibly talented and dedicated, the Flux community turned out to be some of the nicest, most inclusive and supportive group of theater-makers I met in New York.  Working with them brought back a sense of community and a love and excitement for creating theater that I had started to lose. 

After that, things just snowballed.  Gus first invited me to participate in Flux Sundays, and later, to direct a short scene for Flux's have another series.  There I met James Comtois, an awesome playwright and co-artistic director of Nosedive Productions, who in turn, asked me to direct a play for his theater company that summer.  Well, there must be a reason why James was hanging out with Flux, because the warmth and creative energy that I felt working with Flux just continued with my work with Nosedive.

I had more fun, and felt more of a pure purpose in my last five months in New York than I did in the five years previous; it pained me a little that I had planned to leave just when things were getting so good. 

And it didn't end there either.  I started following Kathryn Velvel Jones whom I had met through 50/50 in 2020, and watching her use social media to connect and innovate broadened my understanding of what social media and new technology can do for the arts.  Seeing her show, Better Left Unsaid, got me thinking about a whole new spectrum of theatrical possibilities.

I went to a 2amt "tweet-up" and met a huge number of artists face-to-face that until then I had only known as username, and a whole other group whom I had never heard of and, in turn, went home to follow and support.  I met new friends, new collaborators, and new theater-going buddies. 

I went to dozens of amazing shows that I never would have known about otherwise.   One such show was TerraNOVA Collective's Feeder: A Love Story by James Carter, who after meeting him in-real-life after the show, became yet another friend and collaborator; when later tweeted that I needed help figuring out how to self-produce on a larger level, James got in touch with me right away and offered his advice over coffee. 

I continued to attend Flux Sundays and other Flux readings and events, where I kept growing my circle of friends and collaborators.  I even met folks that I will be able to continue to collaborate with in New Mexico - like Charles Lucas who, as it turns out, works in New Mexico somewhat regularly.  Or like Larry Kunofsky, a great playwright who has actually written a play he's hoping to tour in New Mexico, a possibility I find incredibly exciting.

And, through James' connection to the company, I even got to see a scene from the play I directed for Nosedive in a Vampire Cowboys Saloon - a form of wish fulfillment on the geekiest level.

In seems sort of incredible.  Really?? Twitter made things so good?  But that's my story.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

But You Can See The Whole Sky

Well, I did it.

I came back.  I don't think I really believed I would do it until I stepped of the plane in Albuquerque.  Maybe I still don't believe it.  I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that there is no apartment, no bed waiting for me somewhere in NYC.  

So here I am in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Gertrude Stein once said, "America is my country, but Paris is my hometown," an affirmation I wanted so badly to be true about myself and New York, I even put it in a poem.  But it turns out, it's actually the other way around: New York is and always will be my city, but Albuquerque is ostensibly, immutably, my hometown.  

It's hard.  It's really hard.  I've spent the past week and a half careening wildly between missing the city so much it blurs my vision, and being really, genuinely glad that I made this choice.  Say whatever else you will, it really is beautiful here, with those crisp fall mornings and sunny afternoons and cloudless skies that stretch from horizon to horizon.

And I swear to God, if you don't know what roasting chiles smell like, then you don't really know what fall is.  

But since I am here, and since I'm also taking a small, self-imposed break from theater (making, not seeing) to figure out the kind of work I really want to do, neither the "scenes" or the "city" part of the title of this blog really makes sense anymore.  Ultimately, that's all right - after I first started this blog, I showed it to my then-boyfriend (a casualty of my move, I'm afraid) who said, "It's a good project, but the title is kind of dumb." 

"What!?" I responded, "No it's not!  It's awesome."  And then, a mere matter of weeks later, decided it was indeed kind of dumb.  Of course, by then it was too late to change it.  

So, eventually, I'll have a new blog with a new title that has to do with... um.... whatever it is I end up doing here in New Mexico.  But in the meantime, I'm not a full-blooded Burqueña quite yet and so, as I stumble awkwardly through this transition, I'll do so PUBLICLY and hold on to this blog.  I've got loose ends to wrap up, anyway, ideas that have been rattling around in my head that I never got to express.  

Here I go.  Hasta mañana, friends.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Benefits of Twitter, Part 1

Last night, after seeing his wonderful show in the Philly Fringe, I went out for a drink with my friend Ben along with the rest of the cast and crew.

 "What's going on?" he asked me.  "I feel like most of our conversations these days are through Twitter."

"Most of my conversations in general are through Twitter," I joked. 

He laughed.  "I think that might say something about you you don't want to be said." 

"Twitter completely opened up my theater world," I said to him without hesitation, embarrassment, or hyperbole.  My friend Sarah, who was sitting with us, thought about it for a second.  "It's true," she said.  "It kind of did."

Ben is not the only person to have given me a hard time about using Twitter.  It seems like the (first) world is divided pretty squarely into people who are really into Twitter and people who are really not into Twitter.  "Ugh," my sisters scoffed when I went home for Christmas last December after I signed on to check my feed.  "I CANNOT BELIEVE you are on TWITTER." 

"It's for networking purposes ONLY!" I defended.

Although I've gotten increasingly more social in tone over the past year, my Twitter account was and remains specifically a tool to broaden and deepen my community as a theater artist.  It's worked surprisingly, spectacularly well.  Go ahead, challenge me on it.  I will sing my love of Twitter to the rafters every. damn. time.

It's a bit reductive to say, "it's not what you know, it's who you know" about making theater in New York, but you learn pretty quickly that it's damn near impossible to do without a strong and supportive network of people whom you can draw on for resources. Finding actors, designers and technicians, getting connected to rehearsal and performance space, borrowing props and costumes,  securing financial support, simply seeking experience and advice, finding a person or company to produce your project, or evening finding the project ITSELF - none of this can get done without a group of people who like you or your work and are invested in your success.

Five years ago, as a cripplingly shy girl who found it difficult just to tell a stranger I enjoyed their show without my heart sort of leaping into my throat, building such a community was difficult.  I sucked it up, bit the bullet, pressed on and eventually got a lot more adept at socializing with strangers, but networking has never been my strong suit.  I've always been looking for new ways to make connections, get involved, and my foray into the theatrical interwebs started as just that - another idea. 

"I've been thinking about starting a blog," I said to a friend off-handedly.  "I think it might, you know, widen my community.  I'm thinking it would be a good way to talk to people I wouldn't normally meet.  And I write a lot better than I speak.  I'm way more articulate."  Plus, I had been moderately aware of the community since the marketing director at Women's Project had asked during me my internship to compile a list of New York theater bloggers for a "grassroots campaign."  I knew for a fact that there were a lot of interesting playwrights and producers writing worth reading and talking to.  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized it was a really, really good idea.

So I did it.  Right away, I started feeling the benefits.  I found I really loved learning about arts, culture, politics and current events through the lenses of people who worked and thought and created like me.  I found dozens of exciting and engaging blogs like Parabasis, CultureFuture, On Theater and Politics, Jamespeak, and of course, 2AM Theatre.  I also found that it kept me thoughtful and engaged and gave me a sense of creative purpose to write on a regular basis.

Except nobody was really reading my blog, except my dad, who to this day I believe remains its biggest fan.  I emailed a friend of mine who had a very successful blog and asked her how to get people to read it.  She emailed me a pretty awesome list of things to do (which, with her permission, maybe I'll post if anybody's interested?) the most salient of which seemed to be Join Twitter.

I resisted.  I did not DO Twitter, I did not UNDERSTAND Twitter, I did not LIKE Twitter.  But saw her reasoning and opened an account.  It took me a long, long time to figure it out.  I remember messaging a friend of mine who was already an avid Twitter-user in extreme frustration, "Can you PLEASE explain to me how a hashtag works???"

I remember I agonized about my first tweet.  What the hell was I supposed to say?  What did I have to say that was important enough or interesting enough to "tweet" it? 

I later realized that the answer to that question is nothing, which is at once the beauty and the terror of the 140-character limit.  Every once in a while, something really profound or worthwhile can emerge, but generally speaking, there is very little one can say in 140 characters that is of any substance whatsoever, or that makes any sense on its own, as an isolated piece of information.  The result, on the negative side, is that Twitter becomes a dumping ground for all manner of inanity that would best remain unsaid.

The cool part of it, though, is that it creates this culture, this environment of not having to think too hard about what you have to say, and all of these random ideas, responses, jokes, and revelations all get released into this big communal cloud of stream-of-consciousness. The worth lies not in the singular but in the collective.  It's not about any one specific person, or one specific tweet, it's about easy, dynamic exchange of thoughts as they appear and are shared publicly.  It becomes about the conversation.

I became immediately obsessed and in love with that conversation.  I followed my favorite blog, 2amt, to the concurrent dialogue on Twitter, even though I had absolutely no clue what a hashtag conversation meant.  The idea of an engaging and supportive community conducted digitally across time and space has never been so fully realized as it has been by 2amt.  I was welcomed with open virtual arms for the simple and undiscriminating reason that I was smart enough to learn to type the characters #2amt before I pressed the button that said "Tweet." 

Through 2amt I met more and more people, and my virtual community began to both expand and deepen.  The experience made me realize that there was a whole facet of this whole "networking" thing that I hadn't understood and had been sorely missing these five years that I've spent in New York: a network that is not just a source of knowledge and support, but a source inspiration.  A group of people whose ideas excite you, and whose questions challenge you.  A group that gets you constantly thinking about the work that you really want to do, because you're constantly seeing and hearing about the kind of work that you really want to do.  It's not enough, I realized, to have a support base of people who want you to do your work, you need to have a support base who make you want to do your work.  These people, these challenging, engaging, inspiring people, I found on Twitter, of all places.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Harlem Grey Gardens

Our downstairs neighbors are gone. Evicted -- I saw the notice go up on their door at the beginning of August, and now, at the beginning of September, they have long disappeared.

I've been meaning to write about their departure since I saw the eviction notice go up, but every time I try to piece together the significance of their going, how sad and strange it is that they should go now of all times, I come up a bit short.

To understand how much their presence marked the time Sarah and I spent in this little apartment, I have to go all the way back to the beginning, to when we first moved in. We become aware of the two women, a mother and a daughter, who lived directly below us almost immediately; they didn't make themselves easy to miss. They babbled and muttered to themselves on the stairs. They averted eye contact when we saw them, or sometimes simply had that bleary look of someone whose vision is not in this plane of space and time. They dressed in dirty, disheveled clothing, the mother's immense dinnerplate glasses permanently skewed across her face. They cursed at us under their breath as we passed them.

In our first few months in the place, we were plagued by a number of pestilences. Mice, bugs, and, most troubling to me, a weird, unpleasant smell that drifted through the pipes. The super blamed them all on the women downstairs. "Their apartment is filthy," he told me. "And they won't let nobody in to clean it." More gossip floated in over the next few months: They lived in complete squalor; the apartment hadn't been cleaned or renovated in years; they had four big dogs that they didn't walk enough and the apartment was covered in newspaper and shit. When people knocked on the door, they never answered.

It's hard to separate the truth from the myth, but I will say that once their door was left open long enough to get a peek inside.  I didn't look squalorous, it looked abandoned.  Wrecked.  It looked like the gutted out remains of a crumbling building before it's completely rebuilt.

Sometimes Sarah and I speculated on the two ladies who were the apparent source of all our apartment problems. Sometimes we swapped unbelievable stories. Once, I ran into one of them rounding a corner and she took a swing in surprise. Once, Sarah let her pass on stairs, ushering her through with a friendly, "go ahead," to which the woman responded, "Don't f*cking tell me what to do, f*ck you."

They were frustrating and tiresome, but mostly just a joke or a crazy anecdote. We called them "Harlem Grey Gardens," a name that fit even more aptly when a neighbor told me the daughter once sang at the Apollo and had been booed offstage. Then in the fall of that year, Sarah again ran into the same woman, the daughter, on the stairs, only this time she not only swung, but made contact, hitting Sarah a couple of times in the head before Sarah could get away. Then they became scary.

We called the company that at the time managed the building, and thus began a several-year-long oddessey of us asking them what they intended to do about the violently disturbed neighbors downstairs and them doing the management company equivalent of shrugging and sighing and avoiding our questions. They told us to file a police report, which we did - now what? They told us to file a police report if we had another altercation with them, which we did - now what? They eventually handed us off to a lawyer who would periodically email us about upcoming hearings that went nowhere and accomplished nothing, guardians supposedly assigned by the state who changed nothing, and would occasionally ask us to be available to "testify" in some hearing or another, but would never follow through.

I went through a very fearful period, as I know Sarah did as well. The daughter, whose name was Denise (we learned a lot about the women in this time - the daughter was Denise, the mother was June and while both seemed deeply unstable, only the daughter appeared to be violent) never hit either or us again, but she did try to attack Sarah once or twice more but both times Sarah screamed at her so loudly she retreated. And she chased me down the stairs a number of times, issuing curses and threats the entire time. It was during this time that I held my breath every time I walked past her door, avoided unnecessary trips up and down the stairs, was afraid to do laundry because of the noise I made dragging my laundry bag.

Eventually, things died down. The daughter stopped accosting Sarah in the hall. Although she would occasionally open the door and hiss as I walked by, she stopped chasing me down the stairs. Sarah speculated that she had been "off her meds" when she had attacked her - it would explain the relative peace after that brief, violent period.

We stopped contacting the lawyer. We both got tired. And I, for my part, decided that I didn't want to have a hand in their eviction. I saw a legal document once that stated their rent, which was $125 per month, all of which paid, no doubt, with some kind of government aid as they clearly had neither jobs nor anybody taking care of them. If they lost this apartment, I doubted their ability to find a new place to live. This is how homeless people are made, I thought to myself.

Things eventually assumed a state of normalcy, although their presence was never really forgotten. The ownership of the apartment building changed hands, but the new management company seemed as impotent as the last on this issue. The women would still occasionally issue threats as I passed their door, I'd ignore them. Sometimes they'd bang on their ceiling - our floor - when they felt we were being too noisy, but sometimes they'd bang on their ceiling when I was sitting quietly on the couch so I ignored that too. I never really stopped holding my breath as I passed their door, never stopped feeling my heart beat in my throat when I heard steps approaching me on the stairs, thinking, is it her? Never stopped idly wondering if someday she'd snap and lunge at me from her door with a kitchen knife or a frying pan.

It's kind of hard to wrap my head around the fact that I know the answer now. No. No, no she'll never snap and come at me with a frying pan because she's gone. I still hold my breath walking past her door and then remind myself I don't have to. And I even start a little when I hear someone on the stairs of a different building.

And it's bizarre, almost confusing, that these women - these women who have so defined my time in this apartment and thus my time in New York City are leaving now, now of all times. When Sarah and I are both vacating the apartment, and my time in New York is coming to a permanent close. It makes things feel frighteningly final, like it's not just me leaving, a whole world is shutting off.

The good news is, I hear they're moving somewhere in the Bronx, not to the street. Sarah ran into our new landlord in the hall, and he told her the story. But it's still a little sad, I think. Sarah also learned from the landlord that both the mother and the daughter are in fact diagnosed with schizophrenia, so I hope this means someone actually is looking out for them, that they'll be taken care of the way the need to be. I hope they do okay in the Bronx, or wherever they land.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sobbing My Guts Out (Or: Observations in Storytelling and Catharsis)

Here's a thing that happened to me during the Lab, that I meant to write about but didn't, because, you know, my life had been swallowed.

On the evening second day off, after nearly 13 days straight of Lab insanity, I made a curious and altogether uncharacteristic choice: I watched Boys Don't Cry. It's a movie I'd been meaning to watch for ages - essentially since the movie came out - because I felt it was an important movie. But it didn't seem like a fun movie; it certainly wasn't a movie I wanted to watch.

Boys Don't Cry is a pretty extreme film by anyone's standards, but for me? Let's just say I have exceedingly low-brow taste when it comes to movies. I don't like sad movies, or intellectual movies, or movies that are too deep or two slow. Oh, and I don't really like any of that mushy romantic stuff either. I used to, and I still make the occasional except for a supreme piece of cornball [crap], like the remake of Sabrina or Love Actually, but basically when it comes to movies, I like to watch people make jokes and blow stuff up.

So why, why on earth would I, in the middle of this blisteringly intense creative experience, want to drain myself even further by watching, OF ALL MOVIES, Boys Don't Cry?

Well, I can't quite explain it, but even so, I think from an artistic perspective it's worth noticing, and remembering:

During that time, I was so tightly wound up, so tense, so stressed from the Lab experience, that I needed a release. I needed, basically, to sob my guts out, and either couldn't or wasn't ready to do it in response to my own inner life.

That's fine; that need for catharsis is understandable and, as an artist, familiar territory. But what interests me is that, while I almost never go for a movie like Boys Don't Cry, I do crave release when I watch my low-brow stuff-blowing-up usual fare. But it's a different kind of release, in response to a different kind of emotional life: I want to get swept away in the adventure and the excitement of an experience that bears no resemblance whatsoever to my everyday life. In July, in the Lab, for some reason I craved the opposite - it's like I needed a sort of adrenaline drain.

So why is it that in one particular situation I craved a certain kind of catharsis, and in another I feel I need a different kind? I don't ask because I'm interested in parsing out the tangled layers of my psyche. I ask because, as a storyteller, I think it's interesting to take note of the different kinds of catharsis that a story can offer. And I wonder: If I can maybe understand better the kind of emotional release that is sparked by a Boys Don't Cry story, as opposed to a, say, a Die Hard story, if I could know more intimately why and when and how people crave release, maybe I could serve them better; maybe I could be a better artist.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Leaving on the Midnight Train. Or More Probably, an Early Morning Flight

This afternoon, I told my sister news which I've known to be true for almost a year, and still the telling of it made me want to double over and breathe into a paper bag.

Yes, I'm leaving New York.

That I am leaving New York has been common knowledge since I stepped foot on its concrete terrain; the idea of living indefinitely so far away from my family - especially my sisters, one of whom the self-same of the above conversation - was too difficult to even consider. I made never made any pretense about making New York my permanent home; I always knew eventually I would have to go back to the southwest, to them.

And that I am leaving soon - like SOON soon - is common knowledge among most of those close to me. Including - not that it mattered - my family:

And so, somehow, more than knowing the lease on my apartment is going to be up at the end of September, more than figuring out what to do with my cat, more than creating and systematically checking experiences off of a "New York bucket list," more talking frequently with friends and colleagues about what will happen "when I go back," this - giving my family if not an exact date then a fairly narrow range of when I'll return - makes it real.

Because, the thing is, everything else I can back out of. I can tell my friends here in New York that I changed my mind! I can find a new apartment on Craigslist! But I cannot, cannot tell my family I'm coming home and then not come home.

I've been avoiding talking about the move on this blog (and with many of my theater colleagues) for similar reasons. I want to pretend that all those shows that are coming up in the winter? I'll get to see them. And all those amazingly cool theater people I've met online and in real life? I'll get to work with them all.

But I won't. (At least not soon - there's nothing to say I won't ever come back for a project.)

I'm leaving the first week of October. It's time to make it real.

I'm excited to move to a smaller community and start putting into action some of the ideas about local theater than I've been reading about and ruminating on for the past year or so. But I'm also devastated (and maybe terrified?) to be leaving a place where the mind-blowing theatrical experiences and brilliant theater-makers and collaborators are infinitely at hand.

I'm feeling an immense pressure to make the most, artistically speaking, of the time I have left here. Which is somewhat difficult and paradoxical, given that I don't actually have a show that I'm working on. But I am still trying to make the most of it.

What am I doing? Well, first (and foremost, I suppose) I'm trying to organize a sort of weekly space for experimentation where directors can bring scenes they've been working on or ideas they've been hatching for work, or observation, or commentary from the group. The idea is in structure a bit like Flux Sundays but geared more for directors than playwrights. The motivation for creating this group is almost entirely selfish: I'm itching to explore some of the ideas and techniques I learned in the Directors' Lab for one, and for another, I still have this hatchling of an idea for a production of Taming of the Shrew that I want to play around with and see where it goes without actually committing to a production. And I want to do both these things with collaboration and advice of some of the people I've met in New York - those amazing and insightful artists I was talking about earlier.

Secondly, but not unrelated to the first, I, along with some other Lab alumni, have been noodling around with the idea of creating some sort of collective, a little along the lines of 13P to basically confront the problem that the only way emerging directors have to do work in the city is to self-produce, and to find an efficient way of offering producing support to one another. This is obviously less selfishly motivated, as I won't be around to see the fruits of my labors, but for some reason I can't quite explain, even to myself, it's really important to me to do this. To feel I had some hand in creating a more sustainable way for young artists like me to do their work - to think that I might have had this support if I stayed.

And then, of course, just seeing LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of theater. I'm determined to be so diligent that I will consider any week that I didn't see at LEAST one show, preferably two or three, a wasted week. This past week I saw Purple Rep's Ampersand at the NYC Fringe and the Drilling Company's Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.

So there it is. Guess it's real now.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

I saw Cowboys and Aliens last week at the drive-in movies in New Jersey. It was my first drive-in movie experience, and despite the beautiful immensity of the movie projected in front of dark shadows of trees from the encroaching forest, the fireflies jumping in the field beneath the screen, the soft underscore of crickets and cicadas, the cool air smelling like the mountains and summer, and the thrilling novelty of hearing the movie through our radio in the privacy of our own car -

I have to say I was disappointed.

I'm sorry, but Cowboys and Aliens just did not hold up to the awesomeness of the title. During the climactic action sequence, my companion turned to me and said, "How are you not in total suspense right now? A kid just stabbed an alien! And you're texting?" (Um, I was tweeting, thankyouverymuch.)

But no, I was not particularly invested, even at the penultimate moment. Despite being called COWBOYS and ALIENS, a name that just screamed of imagination, there was not much original about this movie. The characters were stock characters and (the worser sin, in my opinion) the aliens were stock aliens. Nothing unique or inventive or dimensional or developed about any of them. And the sad thing is, I don't think you even need both to have a good movie. You can have stock characters and interesting, original aliens, OR you can have rich, highly developed characters and standard, run-of-the-mill aliens, and the movie would still work. You would simply get, respectively, an alien movie with cowboys or a Western with aliens. (I wanted the latter, which why I mourn the loss of the good aliens more.)

Sadly, Cowboys and Aliens had neither. And you know what the REALLY sad thing is? This movie, this unoriginal, formulaic waste of a great idea, was written by five - count 'em, FIVE - people.

Which makes me wonder: is this the Hollywood equivalent of a a play that's overdeveloped until it has no teeth? It kind of smacks of another face of the same beast. At the same time, I really, really want to believe that had this been a play, at SOME POINT in the development process (as flawed as it may be) somebody would have said, your characters are all stock characters, there is nothing about them that makes me understand or identify with them as individuals at all, and your aliens are equally by-the-numbers and uncompelling. Right?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

That's Art For You (Richard Avedon, and Failure)

On Sunday afternoon a friend and I traveled out on a whim to the Nassau County Museum of Art. The museum is currently displaying the work of photographer Richard Avedon, much of which quite lovely and striking.

One particularly lovely and striking piece was this photograph:

Which, I think you'll agree, is pretty awesome.

Except that there was also a video presentation that provided information on Avedon's life and work. My friend and I happened to catch a portion of the video in which Avedon was recorded talking about this photograph:

"Every time I look at the photo," he said (I'm paraphrasing), "I don't know why I didn't pull the sash all the way out to the left to complete the line.

Because of that sash, to me, this photo will always be a failure."

To me, this photo will always be a failure. That's art for you, isn't it? You can create something as distinctive and beautiful as this picture is, and yet every time you look at it, to you, it's a failure.


(Oh, and, parenthetically -- the museum also featured a sculpture and photography exhibit by Robert Hite called "Imagined Histories," which had me completely capitivated - so creepy and haunting, like a memory from a childhood dream.)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Favorite Urban Legend UPDATE

This happened a few months ago, and somehow slipped through the cracks, but I feel it's still significant enough to mention:

The dead-dog urban legend has once again been spotted!

That's right. A while back, I talked about a story involving a dead dog and the subway that I've heard repeatedly in my years in the city. And, while every time I hear it, the teller swears they know, or have a friend who knows, the person to whom it happened, the story keeps popping up in places and times and within circles of people who are wholly unconnected. Who is this girl who was mugged for her dead dog? I'd like to meet her? Where did this story start?

Well, no answers yet, but a short while after posting my obsession with the urban legend, a friend of mine texted me to tell me excitedly that someone had just told her the story. I immediately messaged her back: Who told her the story? Did he claim to know the girl it happened to? Who told it to him? But the trail went pretty immediately cold, "Um, he's British," she replied, "I don't think he completely gets what I'm asking."

All right. So, the mystery continues.

Oh hey, but in the meantime - here's another subway story. Not nearly as incredible, but nonetheless pretty hilarious. I'm pretty sure it's true, too, as it was told to me as a first-hand account by an old Starbucks co-worker.

Anyway, according to my friend, she was on the subway one morning when she saw a man on the platform frantically dashing toward the train, trying to make it on board before it pulled away. Well, the doors started closing and it was clear he wasn't going to make it, so, in desperation he hurled his briefcase towards train. So what happens? The briefcase lands inside the car, the doors close, and the train pulls away, leaving the man standing on the platform - not only late, but stranded and without his briefcase, which I'm guessing played an important role in wherever he was going in such a hurry.

In the words of my colleague, "What did he think was going to happen? His briefcase was gonna land in exactly the right spot to keep the doors from closing, buying him just enough time to make it to the train?" I guess if that HAD happened, THEN it would be the stuff of urban legend. But as it stands, that image - that stupendously bold desperate act, followed immediately by the realization, 'Wow. That was just... colossally stupid.' - is just really funny. "I mean," said my friend, "Who did he think he was, 007?"

Friday, July 29, 2011

Tales From an Ex-Waitress

With my waitressing days behind me, as I stumble into the next phase of my life, I'm beginning to suspect that the name of this transition time is: Babysitting. In fact, as I type, I have one eye on my computer screen and the other on a baby monitor in the home of a perfectly nice-seeming family in the financial district.

Babysitting. How odd. I ordered sushi from a nearby restaurant and am basking in the extravagance of their fancy cable TV while the baby sleeps in the next room. The whole thing has rocketed me violently back to age 13. Is this my summer break? Will my parents come pick me up at the end of the night?

Funny thing is, I never really minded being 13, or being on break and - as I'm currently making about treble what I charged as a teenager - the whole thing seems like not such a bad way to make a buck. True, I don't have any aspirations of becoming a full-time nanny, and also true that this whole venture was borne out of the frustration and desperation from the fact that I have apparently Zero Marketable Skills and literally no one wants to hire me. For anything. (Kids, don't graduate from college with a BS liberal arts degree, screw around waiting tables for five years and then try and get a "real job" in the middle of a recession.)

But one thing I will say: it's better than waiting tables.

A few weeks before the Directors Lab started, back when I was in the thick of Captain Moonbeam (Lord, that seems like a million years ago), I got fired from not my first, not my second, not even my third, but MY FOURTH waitressing job. And, mind-bogglingly enough, I got fired for the fourth time for the same vague and inexplicable reason: I'm just not... very good?

That's right. I've never spilled a drink, or dropped a dish, stolen product or money, or undercharged or over-charged or done anything else at any of these jobs that might warrant termination. Just: "You're not that great"; "You're kind of slow"; "You don't smile enough".

Yup, it's about time I owned it. I am not a good waitress. In fact, the next opportunity I have to use a pull quote, it's definitely going to be this one, courtesy of James Comtois: Word on the street is she's a shitty waitress, but I can attest she's a freakin dream to work with in the theatre world.

So, it's time to throw in the towel. No more waitressing for Leigh. Hence, the futile search for a "real" job, hence the desperately turning to babysitting.

Here's something I've been thinking about, though. Despite the fact that I'm making an solid amount of money right now, it's still nothing compared to what I made waiting tables. How crazy is that? I think even on my slowest days I made more, by a very wide margin, waiting tables than I have doing any other job in my entire life. In fact, if you broke it down to its simplest average-dollars-to-minutes-worked ratio, I probably made more money waiting tables than most of my friends have with their "real" jobs.

So... have I always been so poor?

My theory is this: for every hour of wages earned for waiting tables, you actually have to count it as two hours, because that's how long it takes you to recover. For example, say I work a six hour shift and make $120 on top of my $5 hourly wage. That breaks down to $25 an hour. Except it's REALLY $12.50 an hour, because for the next six hours, I will be utterly and completely useless, so drained from the experience.

Which wouldn't be bad if you're the type of person who does your job, comes home, fixes dinner, watches some TV and goes to bed. But the other thing about waiting tables is that you really can't be this type of person. For one, if you're making any money, you're working nights, and with that schedule the work-eat-sleep-watch-TV routine doesn't feel nearly as right. There's something profoundly less satisfying about not getting home till 1am (and not getting to sleep till 2:30), sleeping till 10:30, fixing breakfast and watching Netflix in your jammies till you have to go to work at 4.

For another thing, I've found that as a server, you've got to have something else to keep you busy while you're not waiting. Be it art, theater, music, school, whatever. You've got to have something - you simply have to, no exceptions. And if you don't choose that something else for yourself, it will get chosen for you, and it will probably be alcoholism.

So the 40-hour work week, which is actually an 80-hour work week in waiter hours, PLUS the something else that keeps you going minus regular interaction with non-waiter friends and family because of your wonky schedule equals not possible. So you either suck it up and die a little death of the soul, or you work part-time and you are poor.


And the fact that the math breaks down thusly for me might have something do with why I lost four waiting jobs in a row. And that, friends, is why I'm no longer a waitress.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"I'm Really Into Curation Lately."

I once heard this spoken by one of the members of the Women's Project labs (forgive me, I can't remember who). I was just out of college at that time, and happened to be lucky enough to briefly be in the same room with these people, these talented women on the rise within the profession, sharing some incredible ideas about theater. And when whoever it was that said, "I'm really into curation lately," I thought, Like a museum? What on earth does that have to do with theater? I don't get it. Hilariouly, five years later (I guess I have a slow learning curve), I am finding myself more and more compelled to say the exact same thing.

Not to belabor a play that I saw, at this point, almost a month ago, but I realized there's something else I wanted to say about The Shaggs. Something happened during the intermission which caught my attention: one of the women in the group seated in the row in front of me looked up The Shaggs on her iPhone, and managed to find a YouTube video which see then passed around to her friends. They all took turns listening to the band through her headphones saying, "Oh yes, they're pretty awful."

I actually tweeted about this when I saw it (YES, I tweeted at intermission, another phenomenon that's somewhat relevant within the context of this conversation); it struck me as interesting for a number of reasons.

The first is this: I was acutely aware of the lack of historical context provided by the theater about the band. No dramaturgical note, no time-line, nothing whatsoever printed about the family, the actual facts of their story, or any information about what happened before or after the events we saw on stage. There was such a dearth of contextual support, I HAD to assume it was a deliberate choice.

But was it a wise one? Or, more importantly, a feasible one? Look at me, for example: the only reason I was SEEING the show at all was because I had heard about the "true story" and my interest was piqued. And program note or no program note, nothing could stop me from returning home and Googling "The Shaggs" until my curiosity was sated. But, I'll grant you, there is a big difference between finding out the true story after you leave the theater and having the information while you watch. Happily for the creative team of The Shaggs (if this was indeed their desire), I don't own a smartphone. Unhappily for them, I'm in a dwindling minority. Now look at the group in front of me that night: you couldn't have stopped them from accessing that information, and what's more, these people were on the departing side of middle-age, not a particulary hip or cutting-edge demographic. Which is to say, you can't stop MOST of your audience from accessing information about your show, right in the middle of it. This is especially true for historical fiction and "based on a true-story"-style tales, but continues to be relevant for any kind of story. You audience can now be looking up information about the play, the playwright, the theater, previous productions, reviews, you name it, at any given moment. And if we can't stop our audience from accessing this information, shouldn't we embrace it? What if we tried to curate their experience and incorporate it into the larger experience of seeing the play?

That notion becomes Interesting Idea Number Two, and that's what really excites me. How fun would it be to sift through your program as you restlessly wait for the play to begin and instead of useless reviews of nearby restaurants, there were QR Codes or links to articles, pictures, videos or even music that relates to the show you're about to see?

And what if we could use this new technology to link the production to other related art? Paintings, songs, poems, short films, photographs, all somehow inspired by or related to the show itself, transforming it into a multidisciplinary experience.

I had a similar idea a few years back, although without the technological bent. I wanted to do a production of The Little Foxes and - well, I never quite worked out why and for whom I wanted to do the show, which is why it was never fully realized so I'll withhold the details, as they don't quite make sense. But, sufficed to say, I wanted to do The Little Foxes in a site-specific location, by and for members of a specific community. I wanted to involve the community in the show itself as actors, designers and collaborators, but I also wanted to extend beyond the play itself, encouraging the community to respond to the play through writing, pictures and other various multimedia which would be available for the audience to experience on-site both during the show, and on its own later.

And even though I couldn't figure out how to make it work for The Little Foxes, I'm still keen on this sort of curated community experience. Now I'm thinking of it in relationship to another, well, let's not call it an idea, but an inkling of an idea I'm excited to explore with another director I met in the LCT Lab this month. I'm very drawn to the possibility of using that kind of curated experience to bring a community together, and, through various disciplines, bring texture and dimension to an issue or idea that affects that community in a measurable way.

So that's what I'm thinking about right now. Is all of that cryptic enough for you? Unfortunately, I can't really elaborate, as beyond that the details are hazy even for myself. Anyway, after seeing The Shaggs, it makes me wonder if this idea that I've already been tossing around in my head could move to a whole new level with the inclusion of smartphone technology.

Or the technology it could totally detract from it, I don't know. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Lab is Over, Alas for Mankind.

The Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab has come and gone, and after doing nothing but wrangling with Strindberg's A Dream Play for three weeks straight, now that it's over, it already feels, ironically enough, like some kind of strange dream. People keep asking me, "did you learn a lot?" and I honestly don't know the answer. I certainly took in a lot of information - now time will tell whether or not I'll synthesize it into anything useful. Anne Catteneo, the Lab's relentlessly hard-working director, says that it could perhaps take four years to really process everything that you learn in these three weeks. It was director boot-camp, there's really no other way to put it. Exhausting, challenging, frustrating, eye-opening, and leaving it behind is bittersweet. As we came toward the end, I was running on fumes. The countdown became my mantra: "Three more days. Two more days. One more day." I don't think I moved on Sunday after it ended. But now, I keep thinking of my little yellow ID pass, how I wish it didn't say, "Expires July 17th" so that I could walk through the Lincoln Center stage door again, head to the rehearsal rooms in the basement, and go again.

But Strindberg himself, I think, said it best:

In the moment of goodbye,
When one must be parted from a friend, a place,
How suddenly great the loss of what one loved,
Regret for what one shattered.
Oh, now I feel the agony of existence!
So this is to be mortal...

One wants to go, one wants to stay.
The twin halves of the heart are wrenched asunder.

And I've found that, whatever my difficulties with A Dream Play - and I have many - Strindberg often says it best.

I'm sifting through all my notes, re-typing and summarizing the experience, in an attempt to get a handle on it all before it slips away. I'm hoping to have some more detailed blog posts about it in the near future too - but more on that later. But while I'm processing all that, if I learned anything from the experience it would be:

1. Trust your actors.
2. Trust your collaborators.
3. Always say yes before you say no.

More later. For now, back to attempting to pick up my life where I left it a month ago.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some More Really Good Theater

The Directors' Lab has begun, and after just two days, I am already exhausted, terrified, excited and inspired. But more on that later.

Before I my head goes completely below water, though, I need to mention a few things that have happened.

First, Captain Moonbeam closed on Sunday. I've already gushed way too much about this show, and I think at a point enough is just enough. So I'll keep it brief. I loved working on this show. I am really going to miss it. The people I collaborated with on Captain Moonbeam are some of the most talented, most fun people I've worked with since moving to New York, and the sense of community I felt working on this production is something that I've been missing terribly. I'm really looking forward to having the chance to work with James, Ben, or any of the other folks from Nosedive, or the cast and crew of Savior again in the future.

I'm pretty pleased with the way the show turned out. I ended up using a lot more multimedia, like sound and slides, than I ever have in the past, due in large part to what James called for in the script. And I think the end result looked quite nice.

All of the actors gave wonderful performances, too, which was really rewarding to watch as a director. They put a lot of effort into this project and were fantastic for their parts. This was one of those projects where I found out I was directing it and then found it had to be cast within the next 48 hours. I feel really happy and grateful that I know such talented and hard-working people that I can call on for projects like this. Last-minute casting can be a total disaster, but all four of these actors, including Mr. Playwright himself, who graciously stepped in as an actor, just killed it in their parts.

Of course, it goes without saying that James Comtois wrote an amazing script. And Ben! Lord, do not get me started on the amazing talents of Mr. Ben Vandenboom. He made simultaneously producing, stage managing, designing props, costumes, and sound, and running the show from the booth look EASY.

Okay, I'm starting to gush now, and it's getting gross. I'm moving on. Oh, but one more thing - James also had some really nice words to say about the Captain Moonbeam experience in his blog, so check that out too, if you get a chance.

Now I'm done.

I've also seen some really good theater recently. I saw The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World at Playwrights' Horizons and it was every bit as good as everyone's been saying it is. I won't write a full review, partially because I don't have time, and partially because there's not much I can say that's already been said: the performances are amazing, the story is so compelling and so sad, and the score finds a strange, lovely balance between the music they wanted to make and the music they actually made. It was wonderful; poppy, catchy and somehow profound. It captured all the hope that this sound represented to the girls, their father, and to American culture. And yet it still managed to echo the melancholy of the truth - the reality of their music and their situation. The score strikes the same sad chord somewhere between hope and failure that, I think, their original does. Or does, at least, for me.

In an interview that was distributed after the show, Joy Gregory, one of the creators, also said something about pop music that really resounded with me. It probably goes a little way toward explaining why the score of The Shaggs was so sensitive and so meaningful, but more importantly, it communicates perfectly what I think we were trying to do with the pop music in 8 Women for so long, so I thought I wanted to share it:

I'm super passionate about what a lot of people would call crappy music. I will cry to ABBA. And it's not my generation's default-irony mode. I uncritically love it for its immediate emotional availability. It connects me to a deep place of memory and feeling.

Yes, Joy Gregory!!! EXACTLY!

In any case, it was a really good show.

You know what another really good show was? Nosedive Productions' Blood Brothers present... Freaks from the Morgue. And I'm not just saying that because, you know, I worked with Nosedive on Captain Moonbeam. It. was. freaking. awesome. So creepy, so much fun. I'm always saying I like "shows that know what they are." And - if you don't know what that means, I'm sorry, but I can't explain it today. I've got a Directors' Lab to get to in twenty minutes, you know. Maybe that's a post for another day. But anyway, Blood Brothers knew exactly what it was, and was it with unrestrained, incredibly disturbing glee. I expected to enjoy the show, but I definitely did not expect to leave going, "HELL YEAH! THAT WAS AWESOME!" And I totally did.

Blood Brothers has TWO MORE performances, so go! You really won't regret it.

That's it for me. See you all on the other side.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ajax In Iraq

Flux Theater Ensemble's Ajax in Iraq closes on June 25th, so you still have time to catch this earnest, provocative and visually stunning play.

Ajax in Iraq tells the parallel stories of the eponymous Greek hero of Sophocles' tragedy Ajax and a young female soldier in Iraq named AJ. Ajax, gripped by jealousy and anger and driven mad by the goddess Athena, slaughters a herd of livestock in a violent rage. Meanwhile, in contemporary Iraq, AJ experiences horrors that begin to wage another internal war against her own mind. The two stories weave in an out of one another as both Ajax and AJ lose their grip on their sanity and then their struggle to come to terms with what that loss means.

Themes of our inherent, animal desire for cruelty and brutality as well as the frailty of the line that divides attacker, victim and passive bystander pervade the play. Athena, played with force and charisma by Raushanah Simmons, narrates the play and is the driving force behind it. A force, we discover rather quickly, not to be messed with. Equal parts vicious cunning and disturbing volatility, she is gleeful of her colossal power and ready to turn (against you) on a dime. Here, Athena represents the mind in all its immense power and terrifying vulnerability - its capacity for trickery, treachery, and devious second-guessing. The only thing that stands between us and the disturbing portraits of inexplicable violence we're watching, Athena warns us, is her. That is - the luck and happenstance that has thus far allowed us to keep our frail minds intact.

The play is directed with expertise by August Schulenburg, who maintains an evocative and striking aesthetic from start to finish. Story aside, the play is thrilling to watch for its gorgeous visual tableaus and dynamic uses of sound, rhythm, movement and space. But moreover, Schulenburg builds a lively and compelling momentum that persists even through apparently tangential scenes. One of the most haunting moments of the play is as an unnamed soldier recounts an incident of incredible brutality. The scene is beautifully staged; his confusion and disorientation by the rush of adrenaline and fear, the cover of night, and the distortion of the night-vision goggles are viscerally felt. Because of the strength of this moment, in the fury of the unnamed soldier we understand better the turmoil of both Ajax and AJ.

For the most part, the ancient Greek narrative and its contemporary counterpart work well together. With testimonials from modern-day soldiers in Iraq and the use of direct address, McLaughlin crafts a structure that echoes and evokes the Greek chorus of the original story.

The device of the parallel stories, however, begins to lag as the story progresses. The audience can see from the very beginning that AJ's story will mimic the Greek hero's, so the fun (if you can call such a grisly story "fun") becomes watching the particulars of why and how AJ's undoing will unfold in the context of the modern world.

Problematically, though, the play is too heavy with, well, just a lot of other stuff. There is the concurrent Greek tragedy to contend with, as well as certain unnecessarily political non-sequitors (a prime example: after Ajax/AJ's penultimate moment, the action cuts jarringly to a PSA for a shelter for homeless veterans). The result is that we only meet AJ and come to understand her struggle superficially, perfunctorily. Because the audience spends so little time with her, the horrors she endures feel more like devices, means to a forgone end, than a real journey. AJ is the heart of the play, and she is to often brushed aside.

The play meets further trouble in the way the two stories ultimately play out. In the end, AJ's story is just too similar to Ajax's. It left me wondering, as the two collided at the play's climax, why I needed to see the same story presented to me twice. The play would be stronger if the stories ran apart from one another a bit more - enough to appreciate their differences as well as their similarities. Or, if the conceit of the dual story were dropped altogether and the play instead focused on simply a modern retelling of Ajax. (Although I would be very sorry to see Ajax's side of the story go - Athena is by far the most exciting character in the play, and the dialogue in Ajax's scenes some of the most beautiful, leaving me with a very profound appreciation for playwright Ellen McLaughlin's poetic command of language.)

Still, despite the room for improvement, Ajax in Iraq is a passionate, genuine, and innovative examination of the atrocities of war - a story that needs to be told. Furthermore, the story is brought to justice with an immensely talented cast. In addition to Simmons, there were notable performances by Tiffany Clementi as a distraught wife of a solider suffering from PTSD, and Christina Shipp, in a sensitive and vulnerable portrayal of AJ.

With haunting eloquence, Ajax in Iraq somehow links past and present, tormentor and tormented, and pulls us from our comfortable chairs a little closer to the sting of the desert and the terror of battle. You'll leave rattled a little and questioning a lot.

Monday, June 20, 2011

We're Going Up

Today at 3 we'll tech for Captain Moonbeam & Lynchpin, and tomorrow we open.

I'm really excited. Like, REALLY excited. I can't wait for all of the exciting things we've been exploring in rehearsal to come together, for the actors to finally have an audience, and for people to see what we've been working on.

And I don't want to get all gross and gushy here, but I don't think I've been this excited to open a show since maybe high school. Something... feels very high school about this. In a good way! Not in terms of the quality - James has written a fantastic show, and the cast and crew (and by crew I mean our multi-talented producer/stage manager/designer/generally all-around awesome guy, Ben) have been doing amazing things. I mean that there's been something communal, passionate and energetic in the room with these people that feels almost young. The kind of zeal that usually accompanies the novelty of being a part of something so legitimately awesome as a play for the first time. Or maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just the fact that I haven't had so much fun working on something AND been so proud of the result in a long time. I've had a lot of fun working on shows. And I've been very proud of shows I've been a part of. But not BOTH, at the SAME TIME. Not like this.

In any case, I'm all a-twitter about tomorrow's show. I feel like parents should be bringing flowers! SOMEONE BRING ME FLOWERS! Just kidding. Not really. Okay, just kidding.

And there's more good news! The theater company Vampire Cowboys has asked James if we'd like to perform an excerpt of Captain Moonbeam for their upcoming show on Saturday. The show is a farewell to their rehearsal/performance space The Battle Ranch, which they've had for the past four years. (Although that's not good news. That's pretty sad news.) I know I've sung the praises of Vampire Cowboys here before, but I'll say it again: they're amazing.

I first became aware of the Vampire Cowboys three, maybe four years ago when I went to see their play, Men of Steel (also about comic books, coincidentally enough). My friend and frequent playgoing companion Teresa and I sort of stumbled upon it, completely accidentally and incredibly serendipitously. At the time we had resolved to see more theater, and had been meeting up once a week to see a play together. Or, we had in theory. In practice, it hadn't been working out. This was, I believe, our third week of trying, and every time so far for one reason or another (sold out tickets, we got the wrong time, etc.) our theater plans had been thwarted. When we met that day, we had an entirely different play picked out and, for the THIRD time in a row, for some reason, it didn't work out. At that point, our attitude was more or less, HELL NO! We are SEEING a show TONIGHT. It doesn't even matter what, our only criteria is that a theater is involved. No, not even that. As long as somebody, at some point, called it a play, it sounds like a winner. Our asses WILL be in seats this evening.

So we flipped open the Village Voice and pointed to the first show we could find in a price range we could afford with a curtain time we thought we could make. It was Vampire Cowboy's Men of Steel. We walked in with almost no idea what to expect. I remember at some point we were at the Times Square tourist information center (don't ask, weird things just sort of happened to Teresa and I during this theatergoing period) and I think the guy there thought we were poor, helpless Midwestern tourists about to stumble into some raunchy adult entertainment thinking we were going to a "Broadway show." He kept asking us if we were SURE Men of Steel was what we wanted to see.

Anyway, Men of Steel turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and inspiring evenings of theater I've had in New York City. It gave me a whole new perspective of how inventive, original, and exciting New York theater can be. I've been an avid Vampire Cowboys fan ever since, and I've always held them up as a standard of excellence for downtown theater and theater in general. Their work has been something I aspire to for almost as long as I've been working in New York.

And while a part of me knows that Nosedive is quite friendly with Vampire Cowboys, and that James, and the rest of us by proxy, are doing this as a favor between friends, another part of me is going: OH MY GOD. A VAMPIRE COWBOYS SHOW. Work that I directed is going to be in a Vampire Cowboys show. It's kind of amazing, and incredibly gratifying, and a little part of me is squeeeing on the inside right now.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Nothing But Filler

In Boston this weekend, while visiting with old friends, one of them asked me jokingly about my blog, "Do you ever begin posts with the line, 'Sorry I haven't posted in a while...'?"

"I have to curb that urge all the time," I told him. "It's like, who am I apologizing to? Who is out there with bated breath, expectantly awaiting regular updates from Leigh's theater blog? Who is so shocked and disappointed to discover that I've missed a week?" It's so silly, really. But the urge is totally there.

So, sorry I haven't pos..... nooooadsfk,xdiueahriesdfoxijkkghresreszd

No. I'll resist.

Though, really, this entire post is a big long "sorry, I haven't posted," because instead of actually writing, I'm just going to talk about all the awesome things I'm GOING to write about.

I haven't written a review in a while because, frankly, reviews are HARD. I don't know if this is true for others (does Ben Brantley have this trouble?) but reviews are by far the longest and most laborious posts I write. I pore over the details; I want to make sure I've communicated the spirit of the show and my interpretation of it absolutely precisely. And since I've been so involved with Captain Moonbeam (which you're going to come see, right?), I've let quite a few shows slip by without comment.

But that's all going to change! I have a TON of shows that I'll be seeing in the next couple of weeks. And then I'm going to write about them. Because it's been too long. And seriously, guys, I'm sorry I haven't posted in -

Just kidding. Among the shows I'm seriously excited about catching soon are:

Nosedive's Blood Brothers Present... Freaks from the Morgue (obviously)

Flux's Ajax in Iraq

Blue Coyote Theater Group's Standards of Decency 3: 300 Vaginas Before Breakfast - because with a name like that, why would I *not* go?

The Shaggs Philosophy of the World at Playwright's Horizons. The premise to this show is utterly fascinating and every review I've read of it so far has been positive. I'm into it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Because it's my birthday week and I wanna see Harry Potter sing and dance.

I'm sure there's more, but those are the ones I skimmed off the top of my head. Thoughts? Suggestions? Any others I should see during this theater whirlwind?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What Happens in the Rehearsal Room

Rehearsals for Captain Moonbeam & Lynchpin began this week. Things are going great so far. Our first full cast rehearsal is, I believe, tomorrow night, which is something to look forward to. In the meantime, we've had one read-through and a couple smaller rehearsals with a few specific actors.

One of the things I love about directing is that it's such a learning process. Even when I think I've got it figured out, something sneaks up and changes the game. I'm constantly observing and adapting to the different ways my collaborators process information and spark their creativity.

Take, for example, our most recent rehearsal. We spent (or rather, I spent) a lot of time agonizing over a particular conversation between two of the characters and how it influenced the dynamic of their relationship. The conversation involves a girl, and while I knew the subject was laced with tension and inarticulated issues between the two characters, I was wrestling with finding something more specific than that, and scene was suffering. It felt flat, meandering, and unclear.

We talked a lot about why the situation might set one character on his guard, or create anxiety for the other, and the ideas we tossed around helped, but the conversation still seemed a bit aimless and vague.

I tried to liken the situation to two friends I knew way back when who had something of a falling out and no longer speak to each other. Before I knew it, I was telling my cast the whole tale - moral and all. "Gather 'round, kids," I said jokingly at one point. "It's time for life lessons from Leigh..." My story DID have a point, but it seemed a little like a distraction to be sitting there, regaling them with the whole sordid history of these two friends.

But then we ran the scene again. And guys, the difference was night and day. It was suddenly dynamic, engaging, nuanced. I could tell there was a clear and complicated history between the two men and I was actively curious to find out more.

It's a constant and joyful surprise to discover how the mind processes information and emotion. I would have never guessed the difference between a discussion that begins, "It's possible your character is experiencing a lot of anxiety or frustration because..." and one that starts, "Oh my god. This situation is SO much like this girl I once knew who got SO upset at one of her friends..."

Why is that? Is it because it gives the emotions definition, context? A cause and also an effect? Or maybe because it takes the pressure off trying to personally define and internalize the conflict, and instead provides the opportunity to step back, understand and empathize with the situation from another angle?

All I know is I'm constantly surprised and amazed by what happens in the rehearsal room.