Monday, July 29, 2013

The Beautiful Now

The Inconvenience's The Fly Honey Show 8/1-3 at The Chopin
Dav Yendler said something interesting last night in the basement of the almost 100 year old Chopin Theatre on Division and Milwaukee after the dancing that ended the sexiest and most artful burlesque this side of Lake Michigan was done.
      The DJ had stopped playing and the lights were turned on and we all milled drunkenly from the dance floor into the gilt and incandescent lounge on our way up the stairs and onto the street. I was sweaty from from all the dancing - my feather earrings, Shannon had said, were curling - and I was happy from all the drinking. I was wearing new heels and, surrounded by all the vivacious burlesques, felt sexy.
        Dav was covered in glitter - big, fat, audacious glitter all on his chest and up the side of his neck. "How wonderful to be covered in glitter on a Saturday night!" I said. We laughed. We were loose and happy. 
     Dav said, "You know those old people who were young in the Jazz Age and they say 'Oh we used to have parties, and we danced, and we drank all the liquor, and we were young(!), and everything was beautiful!'?"
     I understood him exactly. "It's now!" I exclaimed.
     "Yes! That's now for us, like, now! And when we're like them, we'll look back and remember this and how everything was so beautiful!"
       And we smiled and knew it was true and looked all around us at the beautiful now.
     I drank my last drink, and under normal lights, the world began to set in again, and I grew tired. Now, in my last year before a certain age, I stand, one foot in a glittery place, and one foot somewhere else. One foot has on a strappy high heel, ready as ever for the dance and the romp; and the other wears something stylish but sensible. The other foot is moored and stayed, and I shift from one to the other, unsure of the ground. I shift and look back, remember the time getting high on the dorm room floor and the refrigerator was so funny, remember setting out on that little boat on the vastness of the Pacific and how there were whales. I shift and look forward, remember all manner of dancing, and remember, too, the time I met my soon step-daughter, and shaking her tiny hand. I shift and look around and there is much still that I hope to remember.
     Word of an after-party circulated. The Zebra Lounge, Dav said. I sighed. Maybe I'd go, drain the cup. But then again, for me, the night had been good and was done. I had drunk and danced, and it was enough, and I walked out into the street-lit night, feeling my way toward home and sleep, sated, happy, and with no need to cling too much to the glittered, vivacious night.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"You make a living doing that?" and Other Musings on the Acting Life. Part One.

"So...what do you do?" the conversation begins.
Since I was fifteen, hardly a day has passed that I haven't contemplated theatre in one capacity or another. Since then, even on days that I'm not working on a production, preparing an audition, or reading a play, I've mused over its place in my life, its place in society, its function, its validity.  And, after years of study and work, I still find it difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with the field exactly what it is that I do. 
An acting career remains a pretty unconventional way to do life, and this truth is perpetually reinforced, whether trying to explain the project-oriented nature of your work to colleagues at your day-job, or filling in the blanks on your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles with "John Stageman worked at Actor." 
Introductory conversations usually begin like this:
            So what do you do?
            I'm an actor.
            (Raised eyebrows) ...Oh really?
At this point, the conversation has the potential to go in a dazzling variety of directions. There are the garden variety, well-meaning, but slightly condescending responses such as:
            Oh, so you want to be a big movie star!
            So you want to be on Broadway, huh? How long 'til I see your name in                   lights?!
Sigh. This is real life, folks, not Fame. And when someone tells me they're an accountant, I generally don't ever say, "Ooo, so you wanna be a big accountant for Bill Gates?!" or whatever the movie star equivalent is for accounting...I don't know. 
Then there are the responses that are straight-up insulting and warrant no further contact with the responder ever in life:
            Acting, huh? You make a living doing that?
      Or worse:
            So you're an actor, huh? Don't you mean 'waiter?'
      Thank goodness one also gets the occasional thoughtful response: 
            Oh wow. What kind of acting do you do?
     Oh wow. I have a friend who's an actor. It's a hard life, but she              can't imagine doing anything else.
It's remarkable to me how misunderstood this field is. Most of us grow up with the idea that we'll get an education, learn a trade, and get one job with one company for the next however-many years, climb the ladder a bit, and take some cool vacations. On this trajectory, the measure of success is often how much one makes and how prominent one's title. 
It's a little different in the acting life. There's no one path; some fall into it late, some pursue and practice it their whole lives through. And the rubric for success, unlike what some may think, is not whether you're on Glee or Girls. Yes, SAG scale (i.e. lots of money, potentially) and an esteemed venue (i.e. The Goodman, The Public, The Guthrie, etc.) are, so nice. 
But, really, the success rubric is intensely personal and varies actor to actor. For some, success is using Shakespeare in a program to rehabilitate convicted criminals,* for others it's the ability to lighten weary hearts and minds for an hour and a half by giving a killer performance in a great musical in a Chicago storefront. Both are totally valid and totally important. (More on that later).
When someone in, say, finance asks me what it is that I do, my goal is to express the breadth of these ideas, to impress upon the inquirer that, while what I do can indeed be "fun" as they have helpfully noted, it's also hard work, and legit work, and important work, and here's why, and that even when I'm not "working," I'm working. But, more often than not, that's the start of a much longer conversation than the inquirer intended when s/he innocently asked, "So...what do you do?"
Back to the drawing board.
* The Shakespeare Behind Bars program offers "theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to the incarcerated, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure the successful reintegration into society." Here's a great article about it:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I can't promise I won't puke before I walk down the proverbial aisle.

Above: My parents, Lew and Mary, in the early years of their relationship  
I'm getting married in September.
In the meantime, I'm understudying a role in Belleville at Steppenwolf Theatre here in Chicago. As understudy gigs go, this is a pretty sweet one. And the play is a fascinating one - a deeply psychological look at the relationship between Zach and Abby, two American expatriates in the early years of their marriage, living in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris.
One of the currents that runs through the play is the idea that even in marriage - one of the most intimate and complex relationships into which one can enter - so much goes unknown about the other. The play implies that, even after years of marriage, what each doesn't know about the other could fill a book and, for Zach and Abby, the ramifications of these secrets and the shadows of their personalities are devastating.
This is curious play play in which to be involved just a couple of months out from the start of my own marriage which, for the record, will be the second time around for both of us. I know first hand the astonishing difficulty that "unknown variables" can cause in marriage. And even when most of the cards seem to be on the table, even when it seems the biggest problems seem brought to light, it's impossible to know how even those will evolve and come bear two, five, 30 years down the line. It's impossible to know.
      Part of my vows will read:
      I take you to be no other than yourself,
      loving what I know of you,
      trusting what I do not yet know...
Marriage is a crapshoot. There are some unknowns that will always be thus - sometimes x and y will always be x and y. That's the nature of people, and therefore the nature of relationships. And that's scary. I can't promise that I won't puke before I walk down the proverbial aisle. But isn't that one of the most beautiful things about marriage anyway? (The unknowns, not the puking). Think of it; if you already know how the story's gonna go, why go? 
One of the coolest things about life is that you can't plan it. You can try, and good luck to you, but this ride is ever-shapeshifting and ever-evolving, complete with unavoidably wretched moments and moments of unfathomable splendor. 
So it is with marriage. At best, you get a decent idea of what you're getting yourself into. Then you get into it. You try to grow and change together with as much grace as you can. You make and take the revelations in stride. You fear not what's yet unknown.

Doing Better Starts Now.

My people are from Alabama and my grand-mother worked cleaning white ladies' houses and looking after their children.
She also had her own home, and ten of her own children - Ruth, Dorothy, Pete, Evelyn, Sidney, Mary, Diane, Stephen, Conrad, and Laura. My grandparents were poor, but worked hard, tried to raise their children right. My grandfather - who died before I was born - bought some land near the water in Mobile, and my 93 year-old grandmother lives there today, in a house that her son, my uncle, Conrad built.
     While my grandparents were building and sustaining a life for their family, all around them, the country was again in revolution, and the American South was the staging ground. My mother Mary and my father Lew were in their formative years in the 1950s and 60s when separate water fountains and the Back of the Bus was not just common practice, but law. My parents grew up in a world where lynchings were not just stories of how things used to be, they were real and they were the next town over - where one could not fathom going to school next to white children, where the sting of the hose and the bite of the dog were here and now, where they were "Sir" and you, a full -grown man -  were "boy," where you hoped no one had planted a bomb in your church, and where a black boy minding his business could be cut down for an even lesser offense than seeming "threatening" and it would be no big deal. Maybe the killer would be afraid of that black boy. Maybe the killer would just hate him. Maybe both.
        I feel so far removed from these realities that, in fact, are not so long gone. Sometimes they seem like old movies, like black-and-white pictures in a library book. I'm glad to say that I've never experienced racism to those extremes. Sure I've been subject to prejudice in the many smaller ways that any person of color in America has been; I doubt I know a single black person who hasn't the felt firey resentment that comes at being followed around a shop, passed over for a job or an apartment, or pulled over for DWB. 
      I have my grandparents to thank for their hard and humble work, and my own parents and their relentless sacrifice for the comfort and success I enjoy in my own life. I have to thank as well the steely spirit of so many whom I'll never know who Freedom Rode, who sat-in, who marched, and who faced the angry, spitting throngs with peace and courage, who faced and met death for my sake and for yours. I have to thank the kings and queens who crossed an entire ocean in a hold, those who were strong enough to survive so many lifetimes of dehumanization and enslavement, who were brave enough to run away, or to risk their lives to learn to read, who faced down so much unjustified fear and hatred, or who - with pride and anger - refused to back down from a lone menace seeking to put them in their place.
        Our collective history has brought us to this moment, and the suffering endured and sacrifices rendered in the past were for the hope that this moment might be better than the ones that came before - for the sake of me not having to clean white ladies' houses for a living, for the sake of us all having a chance for a decent education, for the right to go where we want to go, dress how we want to dress, be black, and not have to answer to anyone for it. And to certainly not get shot through the heart because of it.
        This is not what this moment is supposed to be. This is not the moment that they, our mothers and father's before us, worked for. This moment is not the moment that they, our mother's and father's before us, died for. 
       Doing better starts now - in careful self-examination, in the examination of legacies of privilege, in the examination of laws that uphold those legacies, in the examination of the true nature of fear and hatred, and the repudiation, person by person, of the atmosphere that inculcates that subconscious yet pervasive fear and hatred and gives rise to travesties such as these recent ones, and that, today, should be no more - that render all that those before worked and died for pointless and in vain. Doing better starts now.