Friday, January 1, 2016

The Hateful Eight
For some reason, I feel like Quentin Tarantino's newest film, The Hateful Eight, isn't getting as much buzz as his previous movies have. Maybe because it's three hours long, not counting an intermission that is included in the 70 mm version (which sadly was not screening at the theater I saw the film at. Which is a damn shame). Maybe because it's Tarantino and Hollywood seems really fickle when it comes to paying attention to his work (and anyone's work in general). Or maybe because this film is incredibly uncomfortably through its tense composition and doesn't leave viewers any pleasant space to linger in.

Tarantino was one of the first directors for whom I started paying specific attention to style and authorship. A friend from high school was a fan and introduced me to his work. Because of her, I saw Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 and decided to see Inglourious Basterds at a midnight screening. There's a certain edge and grittiness to all of Tarantino's work and masterful storytelling. He takes characters that you otherwise wouldn't want to spend time talking to, let alone be stuck with in a room for three hours. But that's exactly what he does. And not only does he convince you to spend three hours with these people you'd hate on any other day, he makes you care about them. The Hateful Eight is one of the clearest examples of that.

Let me give you a run-down of the film. And note, this will not be spoiler-free, so be forewarned. Major Marquis Warren (played by Samuel L Jackson) is a bounty hunter and former soldier of the American Civil War. When we first meet him, he's killed three men and is bringing them to claim his reward in the town of Red Rock. But he's lost his horse and flags down the coach of John Ruth (Kurt Russel) who's got a bounty of his own - a woman named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee) whom he's chained himself to so she won't escape. It isn't clear what Domergue's done other than being a murderer but boy does Ruth hate her - and she hates Warren due to his race. Immediately this world is clearly laid out for us in terms of ugly racial slurs and sexist epithets. The characters are immediately interesting and personable, but there's no easy way to empathize with them in the ways audience members are accustomed to. It's difficult to pick a side - the sexist and kind of racist Ruth, the sexist but otherwise seemingly moral Warren, and the racist but continually battered Domergue. Joining them is the racist and sexist new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who is a former Confederate soldier with a firm belief in "frontier justice" and fondling recalling the work of the rebel troops.

The four arrive at Minne's Haberdashery, a frontier trading post of sorts to wait out a blizzard that's rolling in. However, Minnie is nowhere to be found and the place is already full of more suspicious characters. Tensions rise as the cast slowly reveals none of them are exactly who they appear to be but agree upon an unsteady truce to ride out the storm. It all falls apart as Senor Bob (Demain Birchir) plays "Silent Night" on the piano (a moment seeming to recall this song's usage in the truce of World War I, despite the anachronistic reference) while Warren describes to General Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly Confederate, how he knows Smithers' son and how he raped and killed his son, describing it all in excruciating, vivid detail. As the morality initially assumed of Warren falls away and another takes its place, the first shots are fired and death comes knocking at the cabin's door. While Smithers is killed by Warren, someone poisons the coffee, killing Ruth and coach drive O.B. (James Parks) in what is now my worst nightmare (dear Quentin Tarantino, you took my two biggest phobias of blood and vomiting and paired them together. I both admire and despise you for that). Sheriff Mannix is almost poisoned as well and Warren teams with him to find out who of the remaining living cabin members is the poisoner. Domergue knows, having seen the suspect poison the pot and also happens to be working with them. In fact, she's working with all three suspects, as well as a man beneath the floorboards who chooses an opportune moment to shoot up through the floorboards at Warren and Mannix. The hidden man is Jody (Channing Tatum), Domergue's brother, the ringleader of a gang that is known for absolute destruction. Each one of Daisy's collaborators all have a price on their head and bargain with Mannix and Warren. However, no one gets out of this alive and in the end, we're left with a shot of Daisy's hanged body while Warren and Mannix slowly bleed to death.
It's a tragedy in the most basic and complex sense. Tarantino creates deep, heavily flawed characters of which you can presume nothing, leading us on a detective story that ends in epic bloodshed. While certain reviewers found the film tedious, I felt time fly by as the story slowly unraveled, caught up in character interactions and complicated notions of morality. There is no clear hero in this film and, while Warren is certainly the closest thing we have to such a figure, it's going to be a long time before the description of killing Smithers' son stops echoing in my ears. While violence is heavy in this film, it doesn't become the plot and serves instead to heighten tension and utterly unease the viewers. The carpet is swept out from under our feet after Warren reveals his dark side and we never stop falling until the last scene.

While the film is exhilarating, it is also difficult to watch at times. This is intentional. The racial slurs and sexist language used throughout the film is repetitive but never loses its jarring intensity. You can argue whether including such language is acceptable and good arguments are had on both sides - yes, because it is historically accurate; yes, because the world that is created shows these characters more vividly by using language as they would have actually used it (I'm pulling this strain of thought from Stephen King's On Writing); no, because no white male filmmaker should use these words even in the context of a certain universe; no, because the true power of these words is misunderstood and misconstrued. I won't make a call on this because I can't. It's not appropriate for me to. Instead, I'm going to recognize it as part of the film and discuss its implications in the film, leaving the broader idea of such usage in culture to you the reader.

Warren and Domergue are both trapped in a dance of trying to gain power in this film. Warren, with his (falsified) letter from former President Lincoln, uses it gain leverage and respect from white men who otherwise would not give him any notice at all. Domergue doesn't have a letter or much of anything left to give her power - except for her ever-watchful eyes, her intimidating looks, and her hiding associates waiting to spring into action. It sounds like quite a lot compared to what Warren has, but ultimately, Domergue still gets the short end of the deal. She's treated roughly by Ruth and is called a bitch by half the men in the haberdashery. We're led to believe that, like Warren in response to racial epithets, she's heard much worse, but it's hard to get images of Punch and Judy out of mind after Ruth punches her in the nose, drawing blood.

Domergue is a fascinating character for me, because female criminals are incredibly interesting. They aren't often discussed and aren't often recognized and are either highly villainized or excused and pardoned. A reviewer from the New York Times sees Domergue as scapegoat and her character as one that leads the film into "elaborately justified misogyny." The treatment of Domergue is misogynistic, but my take-away from this film was very different and, while I can't guarantee that the very enthusiastic men sitting next to me who chuckled when she got punched saw it the same way I did, I don't believe that Tarantino is supporting misogyny and in fact is arguing entirely against such sexist ways of thinking, the same way in which he argues against racism. However, it's not the clear-cut pretty ways we're used to seeing, where characters come out and say that racism is bad and sexism is wrong. No one says that in this film because they don't live in a world where that is possible. Life is literally put into terms of worth, in terms of bounty and those who are seen as "unimportant" and not worth as much - the poor innocent people who run the haberdashery, a majority of who are women of color - are killed and discarded down a well. It is brutal, it is ugly, but it is still clearly too relevant to our real world. The characters don't think in terms of racial equality and feminism  - we the viewers have to instead, and the view of the camera (aka the director) allows us to do so. We know that the usage of the n-word against Warren is disgusting and inappropriate. I believe the usage of "bitch" is the same - but for some reason, a lot of us don't see it that way. Unlike Mad Max: Fury Road, which I heard people hyping it of breaking stereotypes in film and making a feminist action and didn't live up to my expectations, Hateful Eight never promises to do anything of that sort. Instead, it extorts misogyny, to the point where it breaks it. In the moment after Ruth punches Domergue, making her nose bleed, Warren laughs. And Domergue looks at him and winks. Warren immediately stops laughing, utterly shocked. Her knowledge of her situation and her reaction to it allows her to gain the upper hand. Domergue is not surprised by her treatment - and sadly, neither am I. Perhaps what's most unfortunate about Daisy's character is how real her situation is - women have been scapegoated in crime rings, beaten while imprisoned, considered not real women after having committed murder, and portrayed as more obscene for having killed than if a man had throughout a lot of American history. It's painful to have this forced in our face and perhaps even more painful to know that there is nothing Daisy can do about it - she's in the hands of the law now, and it's a very biased law. All this being said, this doesn't make any of Daisy's actions excusable. She laughs while those around her are dying and she's horrifying and brilliant. Creating these fascinating, twisted people is what amazes me about Tarantino. It reminds me of reading Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and being horrified that I was so enraptured by such terrible people. Except I'll take Albee's messed-up dinner party any night rather than being trapped in a cabin with any of Tarantino's characters.

When Daisy is hanged at the end, there is a certain way of seeing the view as very voyeuristic, as two men winning a battle and glorifying over her dead body. But the very last shot changes this perspective. While a dying Confederate soldier and a dying African American bounty hunter bleed to death, taking one last look at the Lincoln letter as Mannix reads aloud, "We have a long way to go" while Daisy's body hangs in the foreground, it's clear that any idea of "frontier justice" is ineffective and wrong. All have died - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and the world waits for true justice to arrive.

Of course, that's just one reading, one interpretation of this film. There's hundreds more and I look forward to reading and hearing more of them. The Hateful Eight may not be the sort of entertainment we're used to, but it's important and difficult and requires a lot of focus and thinking. Something I couldn't help but pay attention to was the audience around me in theater. There weren't many of us there on a Tuesday evening at the end of December - maybe about fifteen, at the most. But what intrigued me was the diversity - in age, race, and gender. For such a small audience in Minnesota, I feel like that really says something. Say what you will about Tarantino - he brings a large variety of people together to see his films. And that's just as important as the film itself.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Is Mad Max Feminist?

I realized it's been a while since I wrote any pop culture posts so I think I'm well over-due on my meanderings in film and book reviewing. So I'll lead myself back into this with an area I could discuss for the rest of my life: Hollywood and feminism.

After all the hype it got this summer, I finally watched Mad Max: Fury Road over Christmas. Online, everyone seemed to be celebrating how important it was to have an action film that primarily focused on women (especially as the film made heaps of money and did well across the traditional action film audience, proving that, yes, you can put women in important roles in films and men will still watch them) and that it dealt with feminist subject matter. So I gleefully approached this film, hoping it would fill my little feminist heart with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow for Hollywood.

Except that it didn't really. I was utterly underwhelmed and not very impressed. There was very little dialogue throughout the film and (as a writer) I was pretty disappointed by this. Limited backstory is not always a drawback but for a film that throws you into a bizarre, apocalyptic world, I wanted more than I got. When special effects take up more time than storytelling, I am also disappointed and Mad Max certainly did this.

At the end of the film, I wondered: Was it feminist? It wasn't not feminist - it certainly spoke out against degrading women and treating them as objects, but it never put men in a very strong place of supporting women. Max and Nux certainly aid Furiosa and the "wives" but more for their own survival than because they see the women as equals (although they seem to come around by the end). The women other than Furiosa didn't seem to have names (if they do, I never caught them) and they have little in the way of individual identities - but it is the apocalypse. It's not like we're learning great details about anyone here. Still, I struggled to identify them by anything more than physical characteristics and thought this was pretty lack-luster if we're going for feminist action film. If you're going to star women, then give us women, not facades.

What leads to the great escape road trip is Furiosa's aiding these women - the "wives" as I've decided to call them since breeders (the name given to them in their society) makes me break out in hives - to escape the fate of forever bearing sons to the war-mongering Immortan Joe, tyrant and creepy misogynist. "We are not things" they say and paint on the walls of their escaped prison. But does the film ever really give them the opportunity to act as more than things? The one "wife" who begins this rebellion (and here there be major spoilers) is killed while the others struggle to continue on without her and most hover in the background while Furiosa, Max, and Nux retaliate. So much of this film is focused on car wrecks and disastrous crashes, amping up the exact violent environment the war-mongers we're meant to be pitted against thrive on, which sends a bit of a mixed message. These guys want to die violently and go to Valhalla - which is exactly what they get at the hands of Max and Furiosa, while the mothers' society women who join them seem to be there only in order to die. The "wives" do want their freedom, but they seem to hover more in the background like damsels in distress than empowered people. Yes, I know they've been imprisoned for their whole lives, but that doesn't mean they aren't motivated to do something. Maybe it's their clothing - the flowing rather scanty white attire that makes them look so damsel-like. I can't help but think that their attire is entirely meant for the male gaze and less of a representation of what they are leaving behind (especially with the first look we get at them from Max's point of view, rinsing off in their revealing white like some kind of male fantasy. Maybe the fantasy as this moment for Max is the rare and treasured water, but that is not what the camera shows us). This immediately puts them on a different ground than Furiosa, who from the moment we see her is a tough tour-de-force, a rig-driving disabled badass who is not afraid to commit treason to help those in need. But even Furiosa is a bit disappointing - there's so much more that could have been given to her as a character and she's played by Charlize Theron, who's an incredible actor, but isn't given much beyond her shooting and driving abilities - and while there clearly is something more there in terms of her past, we're not granted that in this film and apparently have to wait to find out in a sequel. This film did make a killing in the box office, but if this is the best we can do in terms of feminist action films, we still have a long way to go.

Of course, this is all my opinion. The issue in critique films is that they can be read in so many different ways - there's how the director wants you to see it, the studio, the actors, the screenwriter, and then the audience themselves. I didn't see it as all that feminist - maybe because I was expecting so much more after the hype. Fighting back against men who are violent and warring isn't all that interesting to me - it's been done before. Let's do something new. However, it does get men to watch mainstream movies that teach feminist concepts. And maybe that's a bigger deal than I allow it to be (I think back to the ads for the new Fast and Furious film and how women are only allowed bikini-clad torso shots that surmise that they are pretty objects to be ogled and fondled, not allowed part of the action. In that respect, Mad Max does blow them out of the water).

Still, I can't help but compare it to Sucker Punch, a film that didn't gross as much but I think does a better job of putting women in an action role. The issue is this film can be read as sexist - the way the women are sexualized throughout the film, how seduction and assault become part of the narrative. However, I think this is actually really feminist and, like Mad Max, can trick men into watching a feminist piece. Women are scantily clad, but they choose their outfits in this fantasy-escapism where they fight their own tormentors in their mind and in actuality. Emily Browning leads the brigade but each character is allowed a fully-formed fleshed-out role - and when you lose one of them, you lose a full character. It questions the male gaze throughout by showing these women dressed somewhat provocatively while they fight against men who see them that way - the men who imprison them and torment them. It's almost a metaphor for women fighting to gain control in fantasy/sci-fi genre itself - how to we retain our own personal definitions of femininity without being seen as catering to men; how we strive to tell our stories while those claim men aren't interested because it's about women. It's directed and partially written by Zach Snyder, who did 300 (a pretty good film) and Watchman (a movie I will never see because everyone I know has told me it's awful). So it may not be the best made film or intentionally feminist. But the line, "You have all the weapons you need. Now fight" - speaks to me. It's all about finding strength within and that you as a woman are strong enough. And what's a more feminist message than that?

I think what really disappoints me about Mad Max is just that I gave into the hype and expected more than I got. And that I wanted so much more from the script - I thrive on dialogue and there wasn't much to be had in this film. For me, it doesn't say enough - or maybe it doesn't say it in the right ways for me.

Regardless, I hope to see more films like Mad Max and Sucker Punch, because it's about damn time that people realize women can hold their own - both in film and in real life. Directors like Quentin Tarantino (a favorite of mine, though not free from my critique) has said Mad Max was the best film he saw in 2015. Which coming from the creator of Kill Bill is an awesome compliment. However, (and this is getting back to my parenthetical comment about Tarantino not being free from my relentless critique), while I really want to champion him as someone who can write really powerful women, I'm not convinced that his characters are free from misogyny either (I'm thinking of this review from the New York Times I recently read about The Hateful Eight and now I'm really going to have to see it and see if I agree with the review or not). But are any of us entirely free of sexist comments or thoughts? I'm not perfect - I certainly have slipped up in the past and probably continue to do so. How am I failing in how I see my own world? And down this path lies the realm of cultural studies crisis where nothing can be truly feminist and we're all doomed. So I'm going to stop that before I begin because that took up way too much of my college career.

Ahh, this is why I stopped writing about pop culture. Because it's impossible to resolve anything. It feels good to be back.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Asking Why

Note: So this draft has been sitting in my "to post" pile for a bit and is a little behind where I'm at. So I'm getting it posted now before I get any further behind and try to use the next post to catch up. Enjoy.

For the most part, I'm not a mystical person. Horoscopes tarot, dream interpretation are all fascinating and use bits of pop psychology to seem relevant to our lives and personalities, but aren't logical or legitimate. However, things have been weird and illogical as of late, especially in the realm of my dreams. Yes, yes, I know other people's dreams are boring, though I've never found them so (who said that? Was it Oscar Wilde? It seems like a sort of Oscar Wilde thing to say), but just bear with me here. I dreamt that a friend of mine was angry with me only to have the feeling that dream gave me actually occur during a conversation with them. I had this sort of half-awake dream that a former coworker of mine was engaged and found out that she recently had become so. And for some reason, I'm being asked again and again why I do what I do (in dreams and in my waking hours). Overall, my dreams have been making me question myself which has made the last few weeks rather interesting.

This isn't a post on mysticism or dreams or anything of that nature - I can't explain that and who knows if it's just coincidence or something more. What I'm intrigued by is the sudden onslaught of the question "why" and how fundamentally important it is in what I'm doing right now.
I've always been the person who was too curious for their own good - badgering my parents with questions, talking to professors - well, professors who made me ask "why" - during their office hours, over-analyzing everything and wondering what makes us do things certain. But when it comes to my writing, I haven't always asked myself "why" in the same terms. I know why I do dramaturgy - because I love collaboration and theater and research and history and, to steal a line from "Hamilton" I want to be in the room where it happens - the rehearsal room, in this case. Writing, however, I've been doing a lot longer. Since I was eight or nine. The first thing I remember writing was a retelling of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in a sort of fan-fiction thing. Writing is something I just started doing because, to use my child logic, I had a lot of words in my head and I needed to do something with them. I started asking, "What if?" with stories and ran with it. It was something I enjoyed and a way to do make-believe on paper and find a way to entertain myself being an only child in a neighborhood of older adults with no young children.

I'm far different person than I was all of those years ago. But writing has remained. It's taken on a whole new meaning for me, one I haven't given much thought in recent years. I write because I write, simple as that. Except it's not.

For those of you just tuning in, I've gone through a huge change since last July. Along with the hurdles of other baggage I was going through, I found myself not wanting to write, not caring about writing, and, well, not caring about a lot of stuff in general. For the first time in really clear, powerful terms, I faced the belief that I was a crappy writer head on. Not from an outside critic, but from myself. This wasn't a new issue - all creators of any kind struggle with ideas that they aren't good enough or wasting their time or bad at what they do. But this was the first time, in regards to writing, that I no longer wanted to do it. I couldn't find a way to express what I was going through, to care about the characters I created. I believed that all my stories and all my characters were dry, boring clones of each other and that I was incapable of writing anything new or interesting or original. (There are certain trends - I tend to have an emotional-repressed females who think they're awkward struggling through something and care strongly about feminism. And often there's an otherworldly element). Worst of all, I felt that those around me didn't see me as a writer but as a silly person with lots of ideas but no where to take them that no one cared to read if I did ever get them down, likely in a sloppy, ill-formed way. For the first time, I wondered what it would be like if I stopped writing. Everything sounded so blasé and bland and boring and I believed that I couldn't write diversity and I couldn't write about anything interesting because a writer can only write what they know and I don't know anything and haven't done anything with my life.

This is a huge steaming pile of shitty lies, though it never sounds like it when I hear it from myself (as Andrew Solomon says, "The truth lies"). I wouldn't have blogged for so long and have people who read this blog if I was an utterly terrible writer. While there are certain trends in my writing that stay the same, my female characters are likely not all the same. And while things get all muddled when you're stuck with them in your head, that doesn't mean that my ideas are boring or uninteresting or not different.

So I've been working through that on my own, while also finally showing my writing to people in a playwriting class, a medium of writing I (sadly) hadn't much explored since high school. This boosted my creativity and got me writing again. And then, just a few weeks ago, I ran into a former coworker of mine on the light rail. I was talking about my writing (I think I'd mentioned my playwriting class) and she asked why I wrote. I was stumped for a moment - why did I write? Wasn't this the very question I'd been struggling with earlier? My coworker was wondering what the point was - if we're all going to die, why do we strive so hard to create something in the hopes that it might outlive us? Doesn't it all feel a bit pointless?

Yes, it does at times. I wonder about that often. But I took Emily Dickinson's quote, "If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain" very much to heart very young. I haven't succeeded in sparing broken hearts, I fear (especially my own) but I write in the hopes that if one person reads and learns something from my writing, or sees the world in a different way, then I've succeeded. Ideas pop into my head and I feel compelled to write about them because I think they're interesting or important or they just won't leave me alone until I've penned them down. I mainly hope to give voice to something different, to strive for diversity and work through issues, to better understand the world.

I also write to fight against problems I see in the world. Lin Manuel Miranda said this in a recent interview and, because he said it more brilliantly than I ever could, I'm going to quote him:
What I can tell you is that works of art are the only silver bullet we have against racism and sexism and hatred… Art engenders empathy in a way that politics doesn’t, and in a way that nothing else really does. Art creates change in people’s hearts. But it happens slowly. (x)
On top of that, writing is a bit like breathing for me - I don't really know how to not do it and live. There is a vaguely destructive and all-consuming edge to this, as writing is not breathing, but as long as I'm doing a little each week, things are generally okay.

Along with all of this pondering, during coffee with an actor/artistic director I'll be collaborating with next year, the importance of why was brought up again, this time in regards to Simon Sinek's book and TED talk about starting with why:

I might have posted this video. I know for a fact that I've seen it before - half-way through watching it, I realized I'd seen it during my ill-fated time at Globe University, thinking I wanted to become a paralegal in my post-undergrad soul-searching. Now that this video has come back to me in a completely different framework from a completely different person at a completely different time in my life, its ideas are even more important and I have a completely different reason to be asking why.

The actor I spoke with said to try and summarize why you do what you do in a short phrase or two words if possible. I've been thinking about this while waiting for phone traffic to pick up in the box office and realized what it is that I've been trying to do for so long. I'm interested in other people's stories, in hearing what they have to say, as well as finding a way to convey my own stories. In short, I want to give voice - especially to stories that don't always get told. I've been a fan of Studs Terkel since I was a college sophomore and when I heard about his gathering of stories for the book Working, I was mesmerized. I wanted to find my own way of doing that and I think I've finally found a way to make that happen.

Asking why is such an important question, beyond even what Simek describes in his video. As an artist, I have to ask myself why because people are always going to ask me. But I'm also going to ask myself. In the dismal days of last summer when I was wondering why I bothered doing anything, it would have made things easier if I had better ammunition to support myself with. When you doubt your own authenticity, it's important to have a strong foundation to pull from and prepares you for criticism from others. And, while I constantly search for acceptance and approval from others, I'm not often going to get that. More often than not, I have to provide it for myself, and give others a reason to care about why I do what I do. And it's time that I give myself what I need to make my why happen.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Being a Novice Dramaturg

If someone were to ask me, "Hey, so you dramaturg. How do you become one of those?" I would laugh hysterically and apologize for being the worst person in the world to tell anyone that.

It's true that I'm a dramaturg. If you've never head the term before, let me explain what it involves. It's often attached to literary departments in theaters and to playwriting, and involves researching historical and cultural contexts of shows, providing information on past productions, finding and writing scholarly and journalistic criticism, as well as providing writing aid and structural advice in the creation of new plays. As a professor of mine once described it, it's like being a midwife - you don't have the baby and you're not the doctor, but you're there to help the whole birthing process along. In terms of that comparison, I'm like a nursing student who just started her residency program. I've worked on couple of shows and proudly use the word to describe my career path (or at least career attempts) since others started using it rather than deferring to my box office "day job". But I don't kid myself and establish that there is a distinct difference between dramaturgs who a more professional career in the field and my endeavors. Let me break it down for you:

1) Experience: When people around you say, "Yeah, I've worked on over 300 shows," you can't help but feel really green. I'm new to the field. I know that. The bio I wrote up to be printed in the program of the show I just worked on might be the shortest bio I've ever seen in any theater program ever. So when people treat me like an expert in the field, I appreciate the respect, but I worry that they'll discover just how new I am. Likewise, being continually treated like I have no idea what is going on is equally worrying - because it makes me wonder at what level I have to reach to be considered a pro. Shouldn't it be the caliber of my work that can help make up for lesser experience? But I understand I have a long way to go.

2) Training: All dramaturgs I've spoken with have MAs or MFAs. Two did particular training in dramaturgy. While I now have plans to pursue further education, I've decided to go in a slightly different direction. After looking at dramaturgy programs, I feel pretty comfortable with my research skills, my ability to write critically about theater and plays and discussing them in our current cultural moment, and to work with scripts that need special attention (such as the works of Shakespeare). A great deal of this falls into the fields of my undergraduate work. What I'm not as comfortable with is my ability to provide help to new plays in terms of writing advice and play structure. At the same time, I'm looking to improve and my explore my own playwriting abilities and start calling myself a writer, damn it, instead of always adding it as an afterthought. So I've decided to start looking into MFA programs for playwriting. And the best part about MFA programs? Most of them don't require you to take the GRE. Which is seriously why I've avoided looking into grad school until now.

3) Reimbursement: Of course, one of the clearest divide when I talk about my work to others is the fact that I continue to work as an intern or on a volunteer basis. During my playwriting class, I described this to one of my classmates and he was aghast that anyone would work for free. I explained to him how this is kind of the norm in the fine arts world, especially in dramaturgy. After being told of grad students and those with masters degrees still working for free until they can get to whatever magical job or experience level grants them monetary reimbursement for their work, I'm not terribly surprised that I have (and likely will, for the foreseeable future) be working without pay (though I along with it rather grudgingly most of the time). I'm getting people interested and managed to get work - and that's a far more difficult hurdle. What's far more frustrating is seeing the reaction of, "What do you mean, you work for free?" and that this is so far off the radar for many people while it's been a reality in my life since I first started applying for internships in college.

4) Dramaturgy in practice: I admit that I have not exactly take the most orthodox approach in my pursuit of this field. I don't have much of a performance background in theater, I haven't done much scholarly writing in the field, I haven't worked directly in writing aspect of a new play, and I haven't done much public writing about plays as of yet. What I have done is a lot of visuals - putting together a book of photos for the cast creative team on a show, posting quotes and photos for another show for the same audience, and creating display boards for audiences to look at. I'm really interested in audience engagement and, as this is something that theaters are beginning to look at and find more important, is something that can really help me along. But it's not always the first thing that comes to mind when dramaturgs are asked aboard for a show. So I've got my own personal interests - how to better engage audiences with show, how to give them more background about productions and scripts and historical context - to contend with when approaching opportunities. And a lot of this falls on me to say, "Yes, I'll do this AND I'm also interested in doing this, if you'd like." Thankfully, my box office and front of house experiences helps me out a lot in these respect.

Clearly, I have a lot to learn. But here's what I do have: a lot of compassion - for people, for theaters, for subject matter plays deal with; a whole lot of curiosity - I'm one of those people who look up one article on Wikipedia and spend two hours jumping from topic to topic; and a knack for research - I've been fortunate enough to have a liberal arts background that's begun to help me out in the long run. I also have the privilege of having family and friends that supports me and the fortuity to be around the right people and in the right places at the right time. Also, I'm used to listening rather than talking - I love hearing people talk about what they are passionate about and what they care about. Which is very helpful - dramaturgs do a lot of listening and a lot less speaking during the whole rehearsal process. Though we aren't recognized for our work the way that actors and directors are, there is a certain reward in knowing someone has learned from you and that you've helped a production in a unique way, filled a certain void that others may not have even known was there. And for me, that's accomplishment enough.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Into the Unknown

If someone had told me last November that the next twelve months would be the most incredibly changing months of my life thus far, I probably wouldn't have believe them (and then been worried for the next twelve months at what exactly they meant). But they have been profoundly life-changing. Where I'm at right now is an entirely different place from where I was just a year ago.

Let me catch you up a bit. Since just September alone, I've gotten a new box office job (back at one of my favorite theaters in town, the Guthrie), landed a dramaturgy gig with a show that opens this Friday, gotten two leads on further dramaturgy work, seen a hell of a lot of theater, read some plays, took a playwriting class, started writing a couple of new plays, and began looking at MFA programs. I've been doing nothing but theater and I've never been happier.

Don't get me wrong, it hasn't been a walk in the park. I've had the usual experiences - perpetual fatigue, no social life, a diet based mostly on carbs and protein-based substances (lots of eggs and lots of pizza) that when expressed is generally preaching to the choir. And then there's the idiosyncrasies of any production - the show I dramaturged was a big learning experience and an insight into the complexities of the production process. And then there's the crippling self-doubt - also unfortunately commonplace - in which I wonder why the hell am I doing this. During tech, it's not unusual for actors to proclaim that they hate theater. It's a little hard to not go through it all and not have a small bit of hatred for what you love. As messed up as that might sound to you, trust me that you learn to deal with it and it often makes the successes all the more important.

What I'm struggling with on some level is where I am, where I'm going, and how I got here. In my head, I'm still that kid who grew up in the suburbs and is trying to get a grasp on what I'm doing with my life while in actuality I'm pretty urbanized by now, know what I want to do, and am more or less doing it. It just keeps boggling my mind, as one of my good friends from high school who did theater for all four of our years there and studied and performed in Chicago and New York is now a flight attendant for Delta, while I've pulled a 180 and jumped into the theater community through an open window. We're both happy but it just goes to show that, as John Lennon so eloquently put it, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

Why am I saying all of this? Because I've changed - and this blog is changing along with me. Never fear, I still plan on being the same nerdy, fandom-focused person I've always been. But there's going to be a lot more theater posting, I figure. I'm trying to get a grasp on how I want to discuss theater beyond my work and this is likely the testing grounds for it all. So bear with me - this, as it always has been, is a work in process.

Let's go.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


And now for something completely different... (sort of).

A thought struck me today while watching Doctor Who, as tends to happen when watching that show. It was "The Snowmen" episode when Clara is introduced (re-introduced, I suppose, but not as a Dalek but a Victorian barmaid/governess). When asked by Madame Vastra to describe in one word why she followed the Doctor, Clara replied, "Curiosity." And I don't know why but at that moment I had a grand epiphany.

Just recently, in one of the many job interviews I had, I described myself as having a lot of curiosity. It's true. Being an only child, I had find ways to entertain myself and developing a broad sense of curiosity was necessary. It's led me to pursue writing, dramaturgy, and personal hobbies, as well as collecting a lot of information that will never be useful but sure is fun to know.

My epiphany, of sorts, was this: curiosity, while a great driving force in my personality and artistic work, also has a dark side. For as much as it leads me to discover and do great things, it also leads me to ill.

I'm fascinated by people. I always want to know more about them, to know what they think and how they see the world. It's largely why writing is so compelling to me - I love nothing more than creating and interacting with characters. However, there's a line at which too much curiosity turns into worry - and anxiety. I began to yearn for knowledge I don't have - but worry about what would happen if I did know it. I want to go out and explore more of the world - but I fear what it will reveal to me. I begin to fill in the gaps of what I don't know - about people (especially people I care about deeply), about places, about the world - with stories and hypothesis and ideas. Sometimes they're proven right. Sometimes they're proven wrong. Sometimes they begin to blur and I can't quite tell where the fact and the fiction begins. And it's a little bit scary. And so the anxiety begins to roll in. 

This isn't Anxiety with a big A like I've talked about previously (though there's a link, I'm sure) but human anxiety, things we all fear. We're alarmed about the fact that we can never completely know a person, even those we love. We're all worried about learning something about a person that shatters our view of them. We're scared that our world view will fall apart when we see something we don't like or didn't expect. We don't like it when our own interest and passion in things leads us to something we don't like to know or that challenges what we do know.

The thing is, this happens. And it will happen again. And again. Our perceptions of the world will be tested, broken, reformed, and blended. And while it can be scary, it can also be grand and brilliant and beautiful. I've been going through some of my old writing, trying to see if anything can be salvaged from it to be rewritten or made into something new, and seeing how much my view of the world has changed in just a few years is incredible. I always strove to be a deep, understanding, insightful person in high school, but I think this sort of backfired and made me melancholy and a bit pretentious. But when I stopped focusing on becoming this way and reached out to people and let them reach out to me, sought out new experiences and let impulsive actions sweep me away from time to time, I became a lot more understanding and knowledgeable than when I was trying so hard to be.

The tricky thing is learning to accept all the beautiful and difficult and ugly and mind-blowing things curiosity reveals to us. There are things I wish I didn't know about people and things I wish to know that I will never learn, just as I have revealed to much of myself to others and not enough to some. Or have revealed the wrong parts and hidden away the right. Simply put, being human is hard, and because we aren't as lucky as all of those telepathic Doctor Who races who can express exactly what they're thinking and feeling through thoughts, communicating is often difficult.
Thankfully, we have art and science. I completely believe that art helps us say what we could not otherwise and science helps us discover and understand concepts that we would otherwise wonder about for eternity. Both of these areas are spurred by curiosity and, in curiosity, there is hope. I grew up hearing the idea that "curiosity killed the cat," as a warning about being misled by our own passion and interest. Which is fair - curiosity can be dangerous. But it can also be the one thing that keeps us going and keeps us trying new things. Too often we forget the whole saying: "Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back." Because even when curiosity can lead us into danger, it can give us new insight, new knowledge, new understanding. While it can also scare us and worry us, it can also heal and inspire us.

And so, I'm a creature of curiosity, meaning I'll go wherever the winds take me and create a thousand endings and beginnings. I'll always be looking for something knew to learn - about the world, about myself, and about everyone in it. I may not always like what I learn, but I'll take it all in, knowing there's always something new around the corner. And, to put it all in one word: Geronimo.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Monster Under the Bed

I've decided to write a follow-up to my last blog post, not because I want to really, but because I need to, as I keep coming in and out of one of the worst mental health spells that I've had.. well, probably ever. There's a reason for this. I just lost my job (for complicated reasons I won't discuss here). I found out my best friend has been in the hospital since June 9th with a very rare health condition and she can't have visitors. I was supposed to be adopting a cat but things seem to have fallen through. I have a lot of spare time to think about what's happened in the last few months and frame it terms of only messing up, and I have even more time to convince myself that I've come nowhere in the last year. I have a lot of issues from years past I've shoved aside but haven't yet worked through and it's all put me into a deep, dark well of depression. With my anxiety accompanying it, it's like having a pair of nasty, revolting monsters sulking through my mind.

Of course, many of my feelings about myself are an outright lie. Anxiety and depression love to lie to you. They like to make untruths and impossibilities seem like perfectly reasonable things and all the while convince you that this is the way things are, that you're just awful and wrong and messed up. It's been described elsewhere as constantly fighting a battle against a foe who's entire strategy is to convince you that there is no war going on at all. It's a battle I've unknowingly been fighting my entire life and I'm only now beginning to see. It does, however, help to explain my great fascination for stories that describe fighting some great dark force, be it magical or entirely too human, that have great psychological effects (Harry Potter, LOTR, Wheel of Time, The Hunger Games, etc), as well as stories that contain a lot of internal conflict in their characters (Jane Eyre is the first to come to mind and finally I can begin to better understand my mad obsession with that novel).

I'm struggling now to keep moving forward. In the last few weeks, I've managed to find plenty of things to keep my busy - job searching and interviews, watching movies, reading, writing, and attending the Minnesota Fringe Festival as well as other theater grousp and seeing as many theater shows as possible. But Fringe ended over and things slowed down down. And I felt that darkness roll back in like the tide. Not that it ever was gone - I just managed to keep it at bay, at least until the last day of Fringe when I missed most of the day because I was feeling so down. I spent large parts of the day crying for reasons mostly unknown. Little things would set me off - seeing a post online about Chris Evans and his anxiety, seeing a friend comment on something on Facebook and wonder why they so rarely comment on my posts, interpreting things (from people's comments to social media interactions) in such negative ways I had no clear idea of what was actually going on, hearing a song and bursting into tears because it's so hopeful and I feeling like I've got nothing. Even when I did have better days, I could feel the sadness floating underneath, coming and going in waves, waiting for the tide to overtake me.

Overall, I'm exhausted - and largely because I've been trying to pretend things are okay and getting better. Right after I'd lost my job, the bulk of my anxiety disappeared and I thought, "Well, maybe it was largely work related." Wrong. It's just changed and made itself more subtle, like it was before. Just today I told my parents things were fine until I had a meltdown over dinner. Anxiety has now teamed up with its dark twin depression and reared its ugly head in a way I don't have much experience with.

I've struggled with depression since I was young and I knew it was issue but never thought it was something I'd have to actually clinically face. Even more than my anxiety I brushed it off, telling my therapist I just have "blue spells." I was wrong. It is as much an issue as anxiety, perhaps more so, because I don't know how to deal with it at all. Anxiety, in my experiences, talks to you and vocalizes in metal processes how awful you are. But depression is silent. It creeps up on you and is all the sudden there when you wake up in the morning or read something or drop something while making dinner. It's like a poison and you have no idea what antidote you need to neutralize it. Even when you think you're doing better it comes back and you relapse like someone trying to get over the flu. If anxiety is the elephant in the room, depression is the monster under the bed.

This comic from Hyperbole and a Half is one I've related to for years but here recently have related to even more so. Her depiction of depression and its affects are spot-on for me, especially in terms of talking about it. There's no easy way to tell someone you've had thoughts of self-harm - and this is a terrible time and place to admit it. But I have no idea how else to address it. I've never acted on them - I'm too scared, which is a mercy. When these thoughts appear, I get nauseous and terrified and I know immediately I need to do something to get out of these thoughts rather than let them overwhelm me. I don't know why or how it works - it just does. But the thoughts are still there and are no less disturbing.

I'm afraid of being a burden to people. I don't want to be that person who shows up and mopes around. I've gotten lucky - the last few times I've seen friends, it's been on good days. Yet I know I'm not always going to get that lucky. I'm worried that I'm beginning this trend of "oh, she's feeling down because she lost her job," which isn't it at all. Yes, losing my job sucked and yes, I've complained about it quite a bit. But it was just part of the trigger for a larger problem that's much more difficult to finagle. Even after having two successful interviews, the whole vicious cycle continued as I wait to hear the results.  I also struggle with the fact that most of the time I do pretend I'm fine. I can usually put on a smile even if I feel like I'm falling apart inside. In short, I internalize anything and most people are never the wiser.

I want to be more honest about how I feel, but we don't exactly live in a society that prizes honesty in our feelings. I'm trying to be more direct when people ask me how I'm doing rather than just saying "fine" or "good." But I worry this will cause people to avoid me because they think I'm doing poorly or need space or, my biggest fear, that they think they're responsible in some way. I want to be social but I'm worried that no one wants to hang out with me because of what I'm dealing with. I'm not even sure I'm any fun to be around right now. Even though I have a good handful of friends, I feel like it's often up to me to contact and make plans and, while I never used to mind, it's hard for me to feel empowered to do this right now. So I sit in my apartment mull over all the junk I mentioned previously. I need help but I don't know how to ask and I don't know what I need.

So I'm writing this damn post instead. The good news is that I think I'm through the worst of it and I never want to let myself get this bad again. However, I can also feel it lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for me to weaken again. The end of July was like my immune system getting weak and all of this finding an opportunity to break in. Realizing that I haven't been the same semi-confident person that I was last winter hurt even more and made things worse. But I remember how I was and how I felt and I want that back. These problems are all my own and I'm not going to stop fighting.
And I've found support in a place I wasn't expecting - a horror movie. I watched The Babadook a few weeks ago just when things were starting to get bad. I was impressed at the creepy, suspenseful elements and good plot. But most of all I found the allegory of the Babadook interesting. In the film, he's represented as character in a horrifying children's picture book come to life to torment a grieving woman and her son. However, in the end, it's less important that the Babadook is a physical monster and more that it represents grief, sorrow, and depression in life - and how trying to ignore these issues or letting them take over can have terrible consequences. "If it's in a word or in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook," is a line that from the scary book that is repeated and becomes integral to the story. You can't get rid of depression once you see it, you can only learn to live with it. It's the real monster that waits in the dark and the only thing you can do is face it and fight it and learn to understand it.

Knowing the monsters I've always feared are real - at least mentally - is kind of a relief. Now it's just learning how to deal with them - and how to fight.