And yet, in my own way, I can with some pride closely identify with the ancients when they say, 'et in Arcadia ego.' I often feel as though I wander in a kind of wilderness, quietly delighting in the deliciousness of bewilderment, a willing exile, as it were. The treasury of the imagination thrives on the small things, the simple crumbs of inspiration become feasts on a barren table, and it is through this vein that I've come to love the soft, endless hills that illuminate the interstate.
In this context, restlessness has become something of a blessing.
Beyond this, the rest of my life can simply be taken to be a matter of detail. Names and places, dates and ambitions become like so many objects, so many curious little things to be gingerly inspected with insatiable fingers, and maybe all of these little things might stand up to scrutiny, and maybe not. They are important to me, yes, and they exercise a great deal of influence upon my course, but yet on a deeper level I am quite gratified to survey my surroundings with a serene interest, like how I would imagine the gas giant Jupiter surveys its many little moons. Isn't that cute...
In recent days, a lot of people in my life have been extraordinarily generous with me. Generous with their time, their forgiveness, their love. Thoughtful things like care packages stuffed with clif bars and emergen-c, or the lending of a Christmas tree stand, or the gift of a massive thing of caramel corn, or indulgent forgiveness.
As many diligent polyform readers will well know by now, I've been somnolent and sloppy lately, seldom updating, and that's the least of my faults. Too often I've been bogged down by details, paralyzed by guilt and self-righteousness (surprising how the two are so closely linked), plain exhausted. In many ways, nothing short of large-heartedness can possibly tolerate this monster during this season.
(My nose has been bleeding a lot again. It runs in the family; this time of year, a number of male Susi's are expected to be bleeding every time we sneeze. There was a time when I was diagnosed as borderline anaemic, but that was back when I was donating blood regularly. Now, I think it's simply my body clamoring for a spot of quiet. Spots and spots of it, as a matter of fact.)
So I little know how to say Thank You. It's a problem.
I'm pitiably awful at graciousness. I tend to shift and squirm uncomfortably under the attention of gift-giving. I wring my hands and stare at objects. I change the subject with less than deft poise.
But I am Deeply Grateful.
* * * *
I was driving home the other day, lost in thought. Snow and ice had suddenly pounced on Portland on Sunday, but by Tuesday the ice was gone, leaving torrents of slush and gravel in its glacial wake. Stopped behind a pizza delivery car, I glimpsed a pedestrian making to dash across the street. To my left, cars were accelerating from a stop light behind me, but she was looking in the wrong direction, thinking to make it across before the oncoming traffic could cut her off. It's an awful place to be, where one can see the imminence of disaster and be utterly bereft of the means to avert it.
I saw her shoes go flying, and her hair thrown by the impact. I heard, (though I could not have heard,) the collective gasp of everyone around me, the sharp intake of breath that signifies collective incredulity. I think I might even have said something, as though the potency of an event could be mitigated by the earnestness in my voice.
I flew out of my van and into the street, stabilizing her head as I was trained to do. I asked others in the growing crowd to direct traffic around us. She had not lost consciousness, which is a very good sign. I would guess that the car that struck her was traveling at less than 25 mph, which is also a very good sign. No immediate fractures were visible, no blood or other evidence of physical trauma. We could see that she was lucid and aware of what had happened. The driver of the car was at her side, as well, and she, too, was quite shaken.
That day there were three off-duty EMT's at this crash site, myself being one of them, and the driver of the car was herself a Firefighter-Paramedic. The victim was taken to the hospital, but as far as we could tell, she'd gotten off very lightly, with only a few nasty bruises. Moments after the ambulance pulled away, life on my street returned to normal.
* * * *
It's so strange how everything can change so quickly, so profoundly. The kaleidoscope turns, and lives and buildings are dust carried off in the wind, lost in the thrum of traffic, halted by stoplights and chance.
* * * *
Our last school show this year was in Salem, the state capitol. Our show was brought into a large, relatively new school with a substantial Latino population, courtesy of a wonderful organization known as the Salem Assistance League, who sponsored us.
These were the most excited, the most enthusiastic kids we'd ever seen. They were loud, they were antsy, they squealed and giggled and talked to our puppets, they jumped and hollered and wouldn't stop carrying on. It was wonderful. Half of them wore DARE shirts, which made it difficult to distinguish between kids who were trying to ask us questions.
At the end of the show, we took our time taking things apart. It is the custom of the Red Mare cast to take stock after each show, noting what needs to be repaired or restored, going over details or developments in the performance, preparing for the next show. In this case, our next performance will not be until the New Year, and so we felt we could afford to relax a bit. A gentle and proper way to end this first half of our tour.
One of the teachers caught my sleeve on the way back from the bathroom;
Teacher: "Great show, the kids are talking nonstop about this, we really hope you can come back next year, would you like a Christmas tree?"
Me: :blink: "What?"
T: "It was a great show. Would you like a tree?"
T: "We really need to give away our last Christmas tree. A local non-profit gave us a bunch of trees to give to our kids, and we got one left that no one can take. Can you help?"
We drove back from Salem with a ten-foot spruce stuffed into the puppet van.
* * * *
So I have my own Christmas Tree, for the very first time since I was 12. I borrowed a Christmas Tree stand from my girlfriend's grandmother. I strung some lights. Sadly, I can't even find the one tree ornament I know I have somewhere, but that's alright. I've got my own tree now. Surely this is the point in the computer game where I gain crucial immunities and proceed to the next level of play.
My purely Secular Humanist side takes great faith, ironically enough, from discoveries such as these. There have been recent breakthroughs with technology that can actually read burnt papyrus from ancient Egyptian trashheaps, or the quasi-petrified remains of Roman libraries in and around Herculaneum. In the October 20th edition of the NY Review of Books, Anne Carson published a new translation of a Sappho fragment, whose nearly complete text had been recovered, in all seriousness, from the scrap paper used to wrap a mummy.
To me, it is heartening because of how quietly reassuring the great company of humanity can be. Nothing can be truly immortal, but echoes and ripples endure even when all of their original energy was long since spent. My actions and my accomplishments today reflect the impact of Diomedes and Seneca, just as the tiniest drop of residual cream will influence the strongest coffee poured in a cup.
To me all of these old voices are painstakingly making their tortuous ways to us to say, "Yes, I've been where you are now, and yes, it's hard. This is how we managed. Hold on. It gets better."
These holidays are never a simple proposition for me. There are far too many obligations to be juggled, too many conflicting interests to be navigated, between the one family that is relatively privileged, and the other that is not; and there are old, old disputes that still haven't been resolved within and between them for however many decades now.
Much as I love my families, I can't begin to say how often I think of disappearing from them. At best I keep a tenuous connection to them, having been raised almost entirely outside of their circles, ignorant of the languages and the cultures and the stories. But, as the first of my generation born in the States, and as the son of the current patriarch of the clan, even some of the uncles defer to me in matters that I scarcely know what to make of. Tonight I was supposed to be leading a Rosary prayer in memory of my Grandpa, but, thankfully, my Grandma's zealous friends chose to lead their own prayers in the dialect.
This night I remember what it was like to hold my Grandpa's hand as he died, and to carry my little cousins through the concourses of Aquino International Airport, and how lonely these experiences were, and still are. My uncles and I hover around the dinner table, little cousins scampering around everyone's legs, and put on brave faces around Grandma and the Aunts.
In other news, my housemate S. performs a hilarious impersonation of Isabella of Castile forcing the last Emir of Granada to give up the Alhambra, set to the music of Andres Segovia. (Isabella speaks with a pronounced Castilian lisp.)
I have enabled the anti-anonyspam defenses. Yes, it's true, even my patience has limits.
* * * * *
You have to sail across a channel on a ferry to get to Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound. Swathed in mist, the freeway slowly sprouts lanes blazing with strange signs and weird imprecations commanding commuters to line up for ferry traffic, strange in that such traffic was largely invisible up until the ferry itself was ready to leave. For much of the time, our van was rolling slowly through the fog in a spectral, desolate world. Larger signs, and skeletal archways loom suddenly, as traffic patterns diverge and then converge again, all haloed in feeble lights that somehow seem bravely vulnerable in the fog. And the water is grey and still, like a lake, except the Sound opens directly onto the ocean in the far north, and you can taste the ocean air carrying hints of spices and an archipelago far more vast than these mere shores. Seagulls stand on lampposts watching things, and waiting for the ferry.
The ferry itself is a massive, robust affair of steel and pavement, essentially a parking garage set on a boat hull. The dock supports a causeway, lined with riveted girders and wooden piles, and the lip of the causeway rests on the deck of the ferry, with the traffic lines and the seams of the paving lining up like the teeth of a zipper. Inside, heavily insulated ferry employees wearing watch caps and reflective surfaces quickly usher in the crowd of vehicles that suddenly materialized in the mist, and as the lines are cast off and the ramps are roped closed, a curious restiveness settles on me, and I know how seagulls feel when they reluctantly fold their wings and wait for the right wind.
The ferry sails so slowly and so steadily that the dull, thrumming murmur in the distance, and the slow progression of seascapes glimpsed through the open girders of the boat, are the only signs that the ferry is under way. The dock and the forested hills recede into mist behind us, and soon there is only the still water and the billowing fog. Beside us, the seagulls keep pace so perfectly in the air that they seem not to move at all, but rather it is the world beneath them that is slowly gliding past.
And inevitably you think of ferry literature, of Charon and his cold coins, the Moor's last sigh, hobbits scrabbling away from Ringwraiths, Egyptian crocodiles and Israelites hidden in the bulrushes, pale arms wielding magical swords breaking the mirror-surface of the water.
Ahead of me, Whidbey Island slowly resolves out of the stillness of sea and mist. Pilings and moorings heavily festooned with large reflective surfaces seem slowly to approach us, as though our ferry were the island anchored in the water, and the rest of the world were afloat. Ukiyo-e, the Floating World again. Dew mists the windshield and shines on our sleeves. The lights of the island are pale and clear. The trees are so thick that they melt into the mist, as though tree and fog were merely distinctions of shade on the watercolor canvas before us. As we arrive, the seagulls settle onto their lampposts, and wait for the next ferry.
* * * *
L. kind of looks like Tom Wilkinson, except L. is paunchier, he's got little hairs on the tip of his nose, and he's hearing impaired. Salt-and-pepper hair, and that open, forgiving, almost naive look about him, something so genuine and endearing that you're afraid just looking at him might ruin it.
He ranges about with surprising swiftness, and he grins like a six-year-old. He's quick to hold doors open, and to offer coffee, or muscle, or useful flatboards on wheels that can haul stuff. He has that knowing, ant's-eye-view expertise about the Boise School District, and even through the accent of his speech pathology, you can hear a kind of blue-collar, easy competence, a snap precision, like what sergeants, nurses and paralegals have. He savors attention and kind regard, the way a parched man savors water, and he's three years away from retirement.
A fourth grade class sits down with us after the morning crowd raucously departs, and L. stands with them, everyone drinking in the details of puppet repair, performance triage, life on the road. As usual, the kids are everything that makes this tour exceptionally magical; they are incisive, they are genuinely curious, they ask the strange questions, and the hard ones, and the easy ones, and they won't stop asking. L. shadows the group, ostensibly pushing a broom around, poking the puppets alongside the mop-headed boys and the prim little glasses.
L. easily finds excuses to hang around us as we take things down. We swap stories about schools and touring, we could be a couple of union guys in our heavy-gauge work clothes and our calloused hands on our hips, we crack wise and nod sagely and do all those grown-up papa bear things.
Pretty easily L. starts talking about retiring, how he's ready, how he's worked hard and done well by the school district, and the time is about right. And then he does what every kid does when they stick around and try to glean more and more from us after the show; L. shares his dreams.
He wants to see more of the country. He's been in Idaho all his life, hasn't so much as stepped out of the state. He wants to get a comfortable car, find a woman who likes to travel, and, God willing, see things he's only ever heard about. And he wants to learn how to play the guitar, except that he doesn't hear so well (and he says this without any shred of self-pity), so when he listens to the radio he just imagines himself playing along and that's almost as good. He fell off the roof of the school maybe twenty years ago, and only just now found out that there are a couple of broken bits in his neck that need to be fixed, and he knows how blessed he is, how much cause there is for him to live fully and with hope.
And I tell him that he can get earphones and an amplified guitar and still learn, and that his dream of wanderlust is a great one. Because this is all I can say without bursting something inside, because this is such a good man and I hardly even know him.
As we saddle up to leave, he impulsively grabs our shoulders and prays for us, perhaps the most truly Christian gesture I've ever experienced, and he does this without pride or prejudice, he does this with honest compassion. And now, I feel blessed.
I stay here when I'm in Boise because Elsa is a fabulous host and I get to sleep in a roomful of empty bunkbeds, with big picture windows opening onto the cold Idaho stars.
The Rockfish Grill in Anacortes make excellent beer, and a damn fine fish and chips, to boot. I even like the logo.
Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham poured the best pint of stout I'd had in a long, long time. God, I love alcohol.
David Millstone is a dedicated, powerful actor, a very smart and perceptive man, and a fine friend.
To break any incipient stagnation, I went for a run today in the horse pastures outside of Boise. The sky was broken, the daylight pale and limpid. Pairs of dogs loudly paced their grounds as I trotted past, not exactly spoiling for a fight but not shrinking from it, neither.
I kept coming to these desolate crossroads, mud and broken asphalt affairs dark and fresh from the rain, whose roads run straight along the compass lines as far as you can see. The emptiness, the chill of this season swiftly sweeping past me, the snow limning the mountains that could almost be clouds, so far away are my horizons--all of these things curiously and strangely warm me even as my ears redden and my fingers quiver. I can almost watch myself as I round the corners and plod past the staring horses, a speck of color on a black line in an empty landscape of fields, lightly speckled with farmhouses and the hesitating rain.
"Fair is too foul an epithet for thee...
With hair dishevell'd wip'st thy watery cheeks,
And, like to Flora in her morning's pride,
Shaking her silver tresses in the air,
Rain'st on the earth resolved pearl in showers
And sprinklest sapphires on thy shining face"
More as time and circumstance permit. Good night, and good luck.
- "Um, what does it, um, feel like?"
- "What movies have you been in?"
- "What's your favorite puppet?"
- "My Grandpa looks like that."
- "Do that again."
- "How much do you make?"
- "If the, um, the one. Where... the...?"
- "But how did you do it?"
- "Can I have that?"
- "Where are you from?"
- "How old are you?"
- "You look like my brother."
- "You're funny."
- "How did you do that thing with the thing and then the guy with the hair said that he, um, he wanted the other thing and then that guy said something and then you did that one thing?"
- "Where do you live?'
- "Can I touch it?"
- "Take me with you."
There was an Aplomado Falcon, and a Eurasian Eagle-Owl (I want to be an Eagle-Owl!!), and a stately California Condor with wings that could shade half my family. There was a Bateleur Eagle from Africa, with a bright red mask and a piercing squawk that somehow managed to say, "What the fuck?" and "Hey, how you doin'?" both at once. But really, really loudly. Thanks to the really engaging, foul-mouthed grandmother conducting the tours, I now can't look at so much as a pigeon without imagining a Peregrine Falcon diving out of the sun at 242 mph, making straight for this flying little mid-day snack, knocking it out with its knobby talons and grabbing it mid-air, "to take it home for the missus and the kids."
* * * * * * *
The pace of this tour has settled into a relentless gear, the kind that does the high-pitched rattle on the freeway all the time. My poor castmate has just gotten floored by bronchitis, and feeling the descent of this show's energy, even in spite of my best efforts, is painfully expensive to sustain. You can only punch up the energy so far, you can dig down only so much; beyond which there's this wall you hit and then you can see the kids fidgeting in the shadows, you can hear their restive sighs, the older ones start giggling and you realize your puppet's feet are facing the wall while his eyes are looking at you, and your hood is up or your glove is caught on something or the tripod just tipped over in the middle of the show. (Most of these things haven't happened to me onstage... yet.) And then you realize something of what Clinton must have felt as he stepped out of office and sat down to watch the Middle East collapse like a domino stack of folding chairs.
Right now I write from Boise's airport, a plastic little middle-American affair, soft tones of grey in the air-conditioned chill. We cancelled today's shows to let the antibiotics take a whack at things. I'd planned on spending the weekend back in PDX, anyway, and today ended up being a much-needed breathing space.
My flight's overcrowded and, predictably, delayed. My hands are sore from my puppets. I need new boots. Military jets roar past from the Mountain Home AFB, not far from here. I watch the sun go down as the luggage conveyors rumble past, and the ground crew with their light-up wands flag away the massive, lumbering planes. Babies are crying, blond children stare at me, the air turns chill in the sudden evening. I'm going home.
Angels and ministers of grace defend us,
Two shows in two different--very, very different--schools today. I try to catch them and write them down as quickly as I can, because they all start to melt together within moments; I remember
- Penny, the music teacher in pinstripe pants who wouldn't stop smiling
- The Custodian, a tall, wizened old man with the ZZ Top beard and the tired, stooping, loping gait, who appeared and disappeared very suddenly (aka "Gandalf")
- Acres of children galloping with energy, tumbling over themselves. You need geiger counters and oven mitts to deal with these kids.
As opposed to the second school, where
- the gym was bedecked with championship flags from some
- National Competitive Rope Jumping tradition at this school, which after our performance brought out acres of teenage and middle-school girls and three boys (heh), who then proceeded to skip rope for two hours under the watchful, baleful guidance of a microphoned, be-whistled coach
- we set up diagonally for electrical and basketball hoop voidance purposes. And It Was Cool.
I'm sipping orange pekoe tea and scheming about how to call home, and bone-tired from a long-ish day. I promise, o gentle reader, better ordered notes soon enough.
i can't get next to you baby,
There are two identical beds in my room, and a large picture window opening onto a view of a stagnant reservoir set snug in the soft brown hills. A few miles down the road there is the mother of all potato manufactories; piles and piles of dull russet things tumbling everwhere day and night, piles higher than grain elevators, acres of them in the open night air.
The road to my motel is a winding gravel affair, beset on both sides with abandoned semi's and derelict 24-hour greasy-spoon cafes. But inside, the motel is pristine, its Jackie chic vacuum-sealed since the Cuban missile crisis, soft pinks and faux-wood paneling, bare light bulbs and mod-ish curves and angles everywhere. Shiny, shiny.
The name of this strange, strange place: American Falls.
* * * * *
Today I performed and taught some workshops and generally squeezed out every spare ounce of energy with my puppets (damn things keep busting all over the place) and these kids. Lord, these kids, each of them bursting with the energy of a thousand suns, chaos theory incarnate, flesh and blood distillations of the passions and ambitions of generations of toil and rural sensibilities and migrants in the night, brought forth to torment and delight and provoke and endear the likes of me. I talked about Live Theatre and How to Make Your Puppet Live ("It's ALIIIIIIVE!!!") and such like.
Sample questions from Mrs. S's 5th Grade Class:
- "How did, um, the, uh. The one, where, uh. ...?"
- "Are you married?"
Every direction you look, rippling formations of birds are popping over the horizon, slender V's gingerly groping through the sharp October air, like so many frail ribbons in the breeze. It looks like so much courage, and so little in the face of mountains and hunters and exhaust fumes. But there they are, peeling off from some tired little marshland, stripping away like leaves from the trees, little more than dustclouds in the setting sun. I want to be a goose when I grow up. A silly, silly goose.
Reading: "Henry Adams and the Making of America" by Garry Wills; "The Divorce" by C.S. Lewis; "Go Down, Moses" by William Faulkner. Listening to: Jack Johnson, The Blues Scholars, The Four Tops, Vetiver, Liz Phair, Kanye West, Lucinda Williams. Eating: Mandarin Chicken and Spanish Chow Mein(?). Missing: The Hottie at Home.
reporting live from the interstate,
* * * * *
I'm touring "Ride the Red Mare" with Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre at the moment. This trip takes me into the heartland of Interstate America, where ranch-style prefab architecture reigns, where everyone speaks and eats in a culture of Super-Sized bonhomie, neon bright with potbellies and bleach-blondes and HBO and bumper-sticker patriotism. This could be Ohio, or Florida, or Oklahoma, or Nevada. Last night my castmate, my director and myself walked down a busy street somewhere off I-82 and picked up rolls and mangoes from a Mexican paneceria, while the low single-story skyline glowed and shone with purples and ochres. Las Siete Mares, Mexican Seafood. Black Angus Steakhouse. Les Schwab Tires. Motel 6.
This won't come as much of a surprise to you, but I've realized now more than ever how much I love and rely on my French press-pot and my stainless-steel thermos, my fancy little ipod and my seals and stamps for my letters. Traveling blurs the lines of my self, peeling back the sooty layers of complacency and poking the new bits to grow and change, and I'm finding how invaluable the small tokens--toys, really--are to this process. My pocket watch. A squirt gun. Rice paper. I need these small things to hold on to while the bigger stuff shifts and moves, like Howl's Moving Castle picking up and crawling a hundred miles up the freeway. I need to write my letters and walk in the dusty daylight, without which the indescribable sadness of these endless overpasses and off-ramps and barren homes and empty eyes would kill me.
We've had our first couple of performances with real-life audiences now; 500+ grade school kids per show, enthralled and rapturous to see live puppet theatre coming into their gyms. Today, after a show here in Kennewick, I walked into the principal's office to wrap up some paperwork and a cluster of 3rd-graders looked at me like I was Elijah coming down from his fiery chariot. Make no mistake; the expression on their faces alone is reason enough to get up every morning at the very nub and hint of daylight to haul a van full of lights and puppets halfway across the state. These are the most honest and engaged audiences ever: they're like the groundlings in Shakespeare's Globe, talking back to the characters and advertising their affections and distastes with wild abandon. They squeal and giggle and moan, their whole bodies shake and dance with emotion. I love kids. Who knew children's theatre could be so much fun?
Listening to: Lucinda Williams and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Beethoven string quartets and Koko Taylor and Jack Johnson and Ray Charles. Reading: When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: Islam under the Abassid Caliphate by Hugh Kennedy; Tamburlaine Part II by Christopher Marlowe; Same Difference and Other Stories by Derek Kirk Kim. Eating: plums.
I'm in the Tri-Cities now, performing 5 shows in three days. This weekend I'm back in Portland for about 48 hours, and then it's off to Idaho. Send me your snail-mail credentials if you want a letter from the road; likewise, let me know if you'd rather not be bombarded with these occasional mass e-dispatches. You should know how highly I regard you, how much I miss you, how I wish things could be better for us all.
love lifts us up where we belong,
This is strictly an experiment, I'm making no promises. Since I'm on the road so much again, I need to streamline the mass e-dispatches once more and it just makes sense. Also, I'd like to think that things have settled and healed and moved along since the harsher depredations of the summer. We shall see.
I spent today in Hood River, touring 'Red Mare' and teaching puppetry workshops to grade-schoolers; this was great gobs of fun, except for the physical toll of getting up at 4:30 in the morning and hauling all our gear up a cruel flight of stairs and setting up, performing, and performing again all before noon. Still, great gobs of gooey fun. I Love Kids.
Hood River is a beautiful town on the Columbia River Gorge, about an hour east of Portland. We saw mist wreathing the hills on either side of the River, making floating islands out of tree-lined hilltops.
I am exhausted, and behind, and poor. But undaunted, and much smitten. Allons,
I pray you, in your letters, when you these unlucky deeds relate, Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.
I think it's time to bring Polyform to a close.
The last month of work on this site has seen a startling and painful trend, of defensive pettiness on my part and growing hostility from the Anonymous Commenters. This serves no one. And it makes me not want to write.
I love writing. I do not need any more bitterness in my world right now.
THIS IS JUST A BLOG. If I or anything here have offended you, I am truly sorry, but there are seriously quite a number of other issues out there more deserving of our time and attention. Pursuant of which, Polyform ends.
No further posts or comments shall be forthcoming. I'll keep this place around for the next week or so, for archiving purposes. After which I'll shut it down proper-like.
It's been lovely and illuminating, all the same. Thank you. My best and warmest to you all.
paul j. susi
All closings, as I've said before, are bittersweet, this one especially so, as I knew full well that several of my castmates were not pleased with this production, and I myself had ample cause (see below) to be dissatisfied with my own performance. But in spite of all and everything, I love this play desperately, and I am very proud of what we all brought to this place, everyone digging deep and pulling out the best and the brightest they had to offer.
There was a moment, early in Act I, when my face is buzzing as my voice opens up with the first set speeches, the blood is up and the pulse of the verse takes it up a step, and I was immediately and keenly aware of how scared I was. Othello is defending himself carefully at this moment; the Duke and the Senate of Venice, assembled in haste to deal with a rising Turkish threat to Venetian possessions in the eastern Mediterannean, have called on Othello to lead a relief expedition to Cyprus when, quite suddenly, Senator Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft in seducing his only daughter. So. Yes, a degree of fear is appropriate for Othello here, and this is present in the careful measure of the verse and the demonstrable consideration Othello gives to his own words. Paulmonster the Actor is scared, though, because he's bloody well playing Othello in front of a growing crowd of strangers and loved ones and his nerves are shot from weather-watching and book-slinging and various rehearsal regimes.
The verse holds me just as I hold the verse, a life-preserver in an ocean of emotions. The currents buffet and swarm around me, but it is the reassuring thread and cadence of Othello's passionate intelligence which carry me through from Act I all the way to the bloody end.
No one was hurt, nothing caught fire that shouldn't have, thank goodness. We had some interference from helicopters and the like late in Act IV, but that's the way of it.
I will be unspooling more of this business as time and temper permits; I slept twelve hours that night and I'm still exhausted by Othello, now two days since closing.
My warmest thanks to everyone--those who came, those who commented here, those who think ill of me--you were all instrumental to the construction of this exquisite sandcastle we built. I'm in your debt.
But if you keep this up tonight,
I WILL END YOU.
[this has not been the best of weeks for this monster, i'm warning you. i have no patience for any more double-dealing. mess with me and mine and you will rue this day, i promise you.]
It seems so silly, so trivial. This great fiction that we live, this presumptuous fantasy of words and characters, all of it just so much exhaustion, so many long nights and grinding days, the stuff of ourselves just poured out. Just poured out into an imagining of a mightier self, that somehow is what I myself try so hard to be, but never am.
I could just walk away. I could just snuff out the lantern, drop my stupid little knife, and let this play just end. Only these little birds would care to notice. Every night that "WHY" question pops up, and the prospect of simply leaving slowly stirs, kicked up by the wind like so much dust in the corner of my innermost self.
I stare at the birds, who now stare at the light of my lantern. The ducks tuck their heads under their wings. Onstage below, the boxes are scraping and the voices are trailing away, meaning my cue's coming up. The trees whisper their urgent, rasping language of leaves in the wind. Lights wink out in the apartments around us.
For some time I've been wrestling with these contradictions, ploughing the rough sod of these doubts and petty disasters over and over again, driven by those great questions of intent blazing away here and elsewhere. And yes, I can say with conviction that I am, in fact, nearer to the true Othello now than I was weeks ago. Caught up in a torrent of verse, great gobs of it in my pores, in my guts, breathing and sleeping verse, verse, gripping verse.
When I write, even in mass e-mails/blogposts like this one, it's as though I were sitting here with a piece of chalk in my hand, and I'm sketching the details of my true self in the air. Just the salient features, more of a suggestion than anything else. It's an imagined truth, an imperfect ideal, something that's not quite real but made exquisitely so just by the hope of it. The hope of it is what anchors me here.
The hint of a hope is enough for me to catch my cue, stand up and step into this imagined chalk outline of myself in the air, with my lantern and my silly knife, play-acting again. The verse takes hold. It is the cause, it is the cause.
I invite each and every one of you mighty, valorous, lovely rockstars out there to come see Othello this weekend. If my castmates rocked any harder, you'd have to wear a helmet. We perform Friday the 8th and close Saturday the 9th, the conclusion of our boisterous 4-week expedition. Lovejoy Fountain, SW 3rd and Harrison, just east of PSU on the Streetcar Line. 8 pm, free, bring chairs and blankets. www.portlandactors.com. Find me out afterwards and I'll buy you a drink. Stop talking pansy, you ill-mannered Turk. Come see.
pink cadillacs and plush velvet seats,
Listening To: Taiko drums.
Watching: Fireworks and the sodium-lit night sky.
Writing: If we could take everything we say, write, and do, everything we inflict on each other, everything we grace our friends and ourselves with, would that summation truly express the extraordinarily complicated--nuanced, shifting--mass of color and sound that our lives are?
Am I really these words, pecked out of a jumble of letters, thrown into so many bits and made to flicker here, in front of your eyes? Or am I these other words, learned and tempered in the furtive alchemy of the theatre, these other words that I only speak two nights a week and then never the same way again? Or am I rather this picture, or that overheard word, or the faint impression in a passing stranger's eye? Who the hell am I? Who are you?
As we age, does the accretion of memory resolve the contradictions--tie up the loose ends, uncover the hidden destinations, regain that which is lost along the way--or do the unfinished bits simply multiply, in that blunted part of our hearts where the regrets are kept in check...? Is it all of these things at once, the totality of so many meanings far, far more than anything we could even begin to consider?
It's never been easy to accept my mistakes, which I make altogether too often. It's far more difficult to pass judgments, based on these individual mistakes, upon the totality of my self, which constitutes so much more. The enjoinder to learn, to grow ourselves from the lesser to the greater, from inexperience to experience, is in this light something moot and patronizing. Such things will happen beyond the conscious will to do so, or they will not. (I do not, in fact, fear the dreaded possibility that we--I--may be doomed to forever repeat the same mistakes over and over again, with only the slightest gradations of detail to distinguish the passage of time and place. I don't fear this because ultimately even this would not really be that which it seemed.)
Ani DiFranco sings of goldfish, and their little plastic castles. Virginia Woolf wrote about that alphabet of learning, in which certain priviliged lights make it all the way to X or Y, whereas the rest of us are lucky to toil and sweat blood only so far as Q. I think of these questions, as I sip my cold tea and watch the fireworks.
- I couldn't resist. I spent $60.00 at Powell's the other day. I work at the Library, I have 36 boxes worth of books already, and I still blow the bulk of my paycheck into more books. I'm such a loser. And it's so worth it.
- I'm riding down the Long Gentle Slope of SE Hawthorne on my bike, knees tucked in and my torso low over my handlebars, slightly off the seat to take the knots and whorls of the buckling roadway. I'm daydreaming about rare books and watching the colors painted on the sky, and, yeah, okay, maybe I was watching one or two beautiful women walking by. A white Toyota Corolla bucks out of its parking spot looking to make a U-turn across the breadth of the boulevard, and the grey Honda Civic immediately to my left, in the next lane, swerves but takes the Civic's left front fender on the back quarter. I swerve and hop onto the curb like Steve McQueen on his motorbike in the rolling Swiss hills. And I notch another tally on my Near-Miss count. I stick around, direct traffic around the disabled vehicles for a little bit, wait for the police to show up. Which they wouldn't have, since, thankfully, no blood was spilt, except a cruiser happened to be passing by as the insurance and phone numbers were being exchanged, and we waved them down and made it all official-like. Made me late for everything that day, but that's a small price to pay for the grace of Providence...
- Am reading a beautifully moving book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which recently won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. I literally cannot put it down. Go. Get it and read it, with all deliberate speed. Obey, I say.
- Last night I was told, at the last minute, that I was not called for that evening's rehearsal. Suddenly, an entirely unoccupied evening sighed open before me. I almost danced a little jig, for joy. Then my roommate G. and I impulsively decided to go see "The Great Escape" at the Laurelhurst Theatre-Pub, arguably my favorite drinking establishment in this fair city. Hence the McQueen reference above. Due to the deteriorating quality of the 1963 print, the last 20 minutes of the movie's sound were about 5 seconds behind the action, which made for a surreal experience after two beers, three slices of pizza and a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Irregardless, I highly recommend it. Richard Attenborough is a bad-ass rockstar. I love to hate Gestapo assholes, with their leather trenchcoats and their supercilious, portfolio-snapping, sinister obsequiousness. Who knew Charles Bronson could act? Impulsive adventures are the best kind.
- My Swiss pocket-watch stopped. I'm unmoored and deeply perplexed, lost and adrift without my redoubtable timepiece. (Ha. Ain't no way I've ever been punctual in years, timepiece or no timepiece.)
- A phrase and some sentences from some recent letters I've sent, of which I'm most proud:
- "...coloring the colorless in shades of grace..."
- "I think of setting off in search of my Grandpa, to speak with his shade in the tunnels and the deep caves facing the ocean, to ask the questions I could never ask of him, sharing a bottle of his favorite gin with his grave."
- "[The books in my Library truck] sit packed in crates, color-coded and securely strapped, held in readiness to be deployed, like so many NASA satellites, into the dark, wild universe of our Library's patronage, a multitude of lonely little volumes bravely illuminating our barren hearts."
- Wandering Housemate S. was telling me some weeks ago, about how she was describing me to some of her castmates in northern California, one of whom, unbeknownst to either of us, happens to know me from elsewhere. "Is he hot?" they ask. "Well. Hm. He's kind of like a Filipino-Superhero-Bear, all in one." Without missing a beat, the Unbeknownst Acquaintance asks, "Is it Paul Susi?"
Last night's performance was, perhaps, the strongest I've enjoyed of Othello. A crowd of nearly 180 saw the first half, and of those only 20 or 30 departed at intermission, driven away by the unseasonable cold as much as anything. In numbers like these, for an outdoor performance in a public space, I've been quite surprised. I'd only expected audiences of 20 or 30 per night.
I noticed, as I readied for the final scenes by the pool immediately above our playing space, that the pair of ducks who live in this Fountain were gone this night. They sleep with their heads tucked under their wings, a tender pose that always strikes me with its vulnerable, trusting quality, the tumultuous world around them as familiar and comforting to them as the sheets on my bed. In the dark, their low, still forms almost disappear in the shadowy reflections of the pool. I'd looked for them every night of rehearsal here, a kind of reassuring stillness that readies me for the catastrophes of the final act.
This night, I suppose our chill evenings have driven them elsewhere for the time being. I hope they have not left our Fountain because of us.
Act 5 suffered none of the small disasters that plagued our previous night's performance (dropped lines, errant lights, missing stage elements). I'm happy to say that in each performance I succeed in discovering and exploring further nuance, further elements within the rudimentary structures built in rehearsal, enough to enervate and challenge me profitably each night. Always an important sign, at the end of the show I felt especially exhausted by the effort of it. It's a tremendous thing to engage the collective energy of so many in the audience, in addition to the prepared engagements with castmate and text. I forget, sometimes, not to understimate this. Understimating the audience is like underestimating the Power of the Dark Side (or suffer your father's fate, you will).
This morning, driving my truck with my load of books, doing the rounds, listening to the radio and sipping my coffee; a kind of exhausted contentment settled on the knots in my shoulders. A satisfaction at having invested myself as wholly and completely as I've succeeded in doing. My books reach their appointed places. Othello travels his catastrophic journey twice a week now, which is as it should be, as I doubt I could sustain much more in addition to the hours I spend at the Library. The cold clouds and the the grease on my hands and the thrum of the truck's engine and the stacks of books strapped down behind me, the bridges over the dark river and the sleeping Libraries and the balletic flow of traffic, all of this resolved into a hushed satisfaction, a small, tired smile under my growing beard. "If, after every tempest come such calms, may the winds blow till they have wakened death..."
The ducks came back this afternoon. I came by to check on them after finishing up at the Library and with rehearsal for my next project. They stared at me, with their heads cocked at the slightest of angles, a silent, quizzical regard common to small birds, monkeys, scientists and quiet children.
We haven't seen each other in nearly a year, and we both agree this is frankly untenable. We amble along, exclaiming at the proliferation of silly hats and the sad disappearance of legendary establishments. I teach her how to tie a bow tie. She helps me find a sash for Othello.
I'm looking for boots. Dark crimson, 14-eye boots with which I could strike out into the wilderness, or drive Library trucks, or storm the hills on my bike. We find some near misses, but nothing quite right.
She's looking for sneakers. E. is remarkably adept at narrowing the wide panoply of colors and prices and fashions and qualities into a single, magical pair of sneakers, that would serve equally well in her running kit and her party dress. We ramble for hours, over beers and tater tots, hashing our love lives and work anxieties and the general dross of being grown-ups. And eventually, fitfully, I come around to my worries about Othello.
E. quietly encourages me out of my moping, desultory mood. "'Othello' will be great," she says, "even if it isn't."
My friend the playwright S. echoes this same advice. "It is impossible for you to fail because it's impossible for you to succeed." He agrees with all of my reservations, my anxieties, my insecurities. "Of course you're too young. Of course you're too inexperienced. What better way to gain what you lack than by doing it?"
S. and I are sitting on a bench outside of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream store on Hawthorne, near where I live. S. is dressed in black, with a black-banded straw hat, rather like a post-modern G. K. Chesterton complete with umbrella-(sword?)-stick. I'm in my cycling kit with my lightning-streaked helmet and my REI knickerbockers.
We're talking about Kurosawa films, and how the only "concept" productions of Shakespeare plays that have ever been notably successful have been the samurai-zations of King Lear and Macbeth, that are 'Ran' and 'Throne of Blood', respectively. Since they could not directly render iambic pentameter into Japanese, Kurosawa's ideas and visions about those plays were liberated into the dynamic, thrilling, violent, frenzied films that they became. They are not definitive productions--indeed, they are more properly sui generis works than they are versions of Shakespeare. But they are entirely worthwhile in their own right.
And it brings me around to reaffirming that my interpretation of Othello will only succeed by embracing the fact that I am not what I am (a la Iago). Theatre liberates the artist by frankly embracing other identities, and it is the magical paradox of being and not being, both at once, which most inspires and catalyzes everyone's imaginations, artist and audience alike.
We're opening tonight. The weather threatens everything. There is much that I'm nervous about. Ain't nothing to it, just to do it, rocking and rolling, roller-coasting, stepping on out on the good foot.
You're all invited, front row seats, compliments of the house.
I have much to speak of, and much I would share with you, but I am so utterly empty, so spent right now. We open in one week. My pride is swelling with wounds.
A favor to ask; those friends of mine, here and abroad, please indulge me, and send me something in the mails, I beg of you. I have much need of your encouragement. A card, a token, a postmark, just a postmark is all I need. It is so much to remember who I am, what I'm doing, what I'm about, I'm so easily lost in a maelstrom of petty bickering things, made brittle by these exhilerating, consuming challenges. Two plays, now, rehearsing concurrently. An opening to focus on, as my work schedule and my family overwhelm me with their quotidian demands.
Those of you who would criticize me now, please wait just a moment. I know my lifestyle and my means of going about doing what I do upset you, I know, I know, but wait please. We must all of us engage in small, daily miracles to make our imaginations true and real, to live lives that transcend the sad heartbreaks of our imperfect worlds. I need every miracle I can get.
Yes, the internet is a funny place, isn't it?
I should step up and say right now that I'm quite familiar with Patsy Rodenburg's works, I've read a number of her books, including her latest, and I've trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and the British-American Youth Festival Theatre in San Diego. I've performed in regional professional theatres here in Portland, OR, at Berkeley Rep in the Bay Area, at Vermont Stage Company, and with Stacja Szamocin in Poland. My respect for verse is as deeply rooted in training and experience as I believe it can be, at this stage in my development.
In this discussion, I think it's important to distinguish two distinctively compelling theatre ethics at work in my perspective: the first and foremost, rightly so, is my loyalty and passion for this Text, which it's evident we both share. On this point, I believe we actually don't have much to disagree on. What you find provoking, on the other hand, is what I interpret to be the secondary--but nevertheless important--sense of loyalty I feel to this individual production.
It is my job as an Actor, to serve two masters--my text and my director. Now, since the director serves the text, too, this presents no difficulties on its face. The director is always my Caesar; where s/he commands, I obey with alacrity. I dig deep and bring out the everlasting whup-ass whensoever they beckon it. I'm not a mindless automaton; but I do believe that demonstrating consistent discretion and trust makes those moments when I do question my directors that much more compelling.
Now, critics and audience, artists or not, are entitled to call things as they see it, and, as you mentioned, it's not unknown for directors to revoke their trust. Hence why I distinguish the two masters.
My purpose in these posts has been primarily to elucidate, for myself, the causes and courses I pass as we inch ever closer to Opening (within two weeks' now, Christ on a stick!).
I rely heavily on these posts. Written words, language, the stuff and substance of ideas and imagination made manifest, these are the voices of Whitman's multitudes pouring out of all of us. Of course there are contradictions, of course there are inconsistencies. I say that I serve two masters, but the point of all of this is to say that really, at the end of the day, I only serve the Text.
I have negotiated every unavoidable cut. I have strived to preserve as much of the verse as possible, and I have been at particular pains to protect the scansion. Every hour in rehearsal is accompanied with twice as much working alone on my text, exploring the wilderness of scholarly criticism, listening to BBC recordings of Paul Robeson and Olivier and so forth.
I would love to have more training. But I'm not going to shy away from serving this play solely because I'm not fit for it. Of course I'm not fit for it. But this makes me no less determined to serve it.
Thanks for commenting, and please keep commenting as you see fit.
I do not deny the primacy of the verse. I do not pretend that the verse is in any way unnecessary or superfluous to the acting, nor the action of the play.
My (albeit poorly phrased) intention was to address the problem caused by the number of awkward, intricately tangled constructions in Othello’s verse. His passions contort and inflate even the most straightforward of his sentiments to truly epic proportions.
The problem becomes one of pacing, and of that which is possible. I am the first to admit that I’m nowhere near the capability necessary for this role; the fact remains that I was cast purely out of necessity—there are perhaps 4 actors of color in this city—and the fact that I’m about two decades too young doesn’t help much, neither.
Act 1 Scene 2 Lines 17-24 read:
Let him do his spite;
My services, which I have done the signiory,
Shall out-tongue his complaints. ‘Tis yet to know—
Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,
I shall promulgate—I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached.
Our script simply has,
Let him do his spite;
My services, which I have done the signiory,
Shall out-tongue his complaints.
I’m certainly eager and willing to play the former. But I recognize the necessity of reducing it to the latter. If, by attempting to articulate the necessity of reduction, I inadvertently tossed my paddle over the side of my kayak, why then I suppose I’ll just have to learn how to swim, now, won’t I?
I suppose I’m a bit provoked by your comment, Nigel T., if only because the last several weeks have seen a number of steady rearguard actions conducted in defense of Othello’s verses, against powerful voices in my cast who advocate further streamlinings, further economies in the script. I’ve been very anxious to preserve the integrity of Othello—the integrity of the verse, of the characters, of the actions, etc. It is not willingly that I have drifted beyond the balmy currents of Patsy Rodenburg and her venerable ilk.
The cuts in the script have been judicious. Being an outdoor performance, beginning at 8 pm, we absolutely must bring this beast in at no more than 2 hrs. and 15 minutes, including an intermission, due to neighborly considerations. Hence, some cuts. Painful, but necessary (I'm an Actor, yes, but at this point not even I can play "declin'd into the vale of years"). Othello loses some pretty definitive bits, but not nearly as much as Iago, who just doesn't stop scheming, the little bastard.
I believe in a Living Text, I believe in a playable text, and I believe that not mine nor any individual production of this text will ever be The Definitive Production. At least, not yet. Much better to always have room to improve, and add things as our pace improves, than to sink under the ponderousness of weightiness from the outset. For myself, I'm confident I can play the nuance of the verse in many cases more effectively than I can speak it. I recognize that this is a dangerous and modern trick, but I often feel it necessary. We can always do museum-piece authentic performances; it's the rare, movingly effective performance that I'm aiming for.
I'm feeling cautiously positive about things, all in all.
If I spend more than two hours at a time on my lines, something breaks loose and I don't rightly retain whatever comes after. Actually, this becomes an obstacle only in that I constantly want to spend more time poring over these verses.
Much has been made of how Othello's language and usage are unparalleled amongst the passionate tragic heroes. There is an unusual number of one-and-only coinages in his text--words that appear nowhere else in the Canon, or in the English language, for that matter. Words like agnize, unbonnetted, antres, out-tongue; phrases like ocular proof, exsufflicate and blown surmises, goats and monkeys--these distinctive usages and combinations, taken with his distinctively awkward thought-lines, make for a verse that's tumultuous and visceral, erratic yet unstinting, powerful in its awkward heft. When I work through this Verse I feel like I'm slinging an intricately carved sledge hammer, crafted of teakwood and adamantine.
In working on Othello, often think of images of U.S. Grant, with that wearied, tenacious, piercing stare half-hidden in his thick beard. I think of matadors and toros bravos (I am a Taurus. Iago the Toreador= Santiago Matamoros=Iago the Moorslayer). I have images of Chinese Army soldiers training as UN Peacekeepers, and of ancient Assyrian lioness-demons (Desdemona=Beloved of Demons).
I still have a pile of ten more scripts to read, for more staged readings tommorrow, in a high school, this time. I just finished writing a very surprising letter for a very beloved friend. Portions of said letter may soon appear here shortly. Go, Now, buy and read Paula Vogel's latest, "The Long Christmas Ride Home (A Puppet Play With Actors)." It joins Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice", Joseph Addison's "Cato: A Tragedy", Christopher Marlowe's "Massacre at Paris" and Naomi Iizuka's "36 Views", and, of course, that which I'm currently working on, all of them Plays I Would Trade Portions of My Everlasting Soul to Perform.
Gather ye rosebuds,
This is getting ridiculous.
First you take away my favorite German scarf. Then, my indispensable Book of Days. Then my excellent and well-beloved Thermos (but I know precisely where that is and I'll be retrieving it tommorrow, you petty excuse for a kleptomaniacal meta-cosmic abstraction). Now, my cell phone...?
If you want a piece of me, you come on down here and face me, you pansy-colored ass-hat.
I. Will. Eat. You.
I think this has something to do with how immediate and genuine the work tends to be. Usually, I'm handed a script, of perhaps a scene or so, written by a teenager or a cancer- or PTSD-survivor or what-have-you, and, with maybe a weeks' worth of time to review the scribblings, in we go to stage a reading with as much pluck as we can muster, with the usual rag-tag thrown-together cast of exceptionally talented and brave actors, amongst which I stick out like a dandelion in a field of chrysanthemii.
This week, I've been working on not one but three batches of these things, each batch averaging about 5 or 6 scenes' worth of material, each with different casts, split from two different theatres, on top of the Othello rehearsals in the evenings. (And I've been having lots of inexplicable nosebleeds lately, so in between my cousins visiting from Canada and poring through these great drifts of scripts in my Portable Airborne Oceangoing Office-Pack, I've been sleeping a lot and consulting physicians.) (I think I'm going anemic again.)
But the great privilege of these things is how much of a workout they can be. I try things and learn things that months of dedicated work would not let me remotely consider, within the structure of these one-off, staged-reading events, performing in a variety of spaces with playwrights as well as random types in the audiences. It's more than just dialects and physicalities; it's about living and being in a vibrant space, voicing something out of nothing, stitching breathing images out of the faintest webs of someone else's imagination, made possible by the judicious application of a little bit of my soul. I think of film developers in their crimson darkrooms, mixing precious drops of corrosive chemicals to suddenly coax the most complicated ghosts from their empty sheets of photostock.
The experience is heightened, I think, by virtue of the limited and daring nature of the staged-reading format. It is generally understood that we have permission to limit our performances; I'm not afraid to suck, since I've got these pages in my hand to hide behind. And these things only live, by and large, for a single night. The trick of it is, that having the Permission to Suck Ass also comes with a Secret Mandate to Rock the Fucking Casbah, and, in the hands of compassionate, insightful and energetic directors, such Mandates are hard not to carry through.
In the last several days, I've played Othello, a noble and jealous Moor; Angel, a Latino gangster; Patrick, a nervous fiancee; Jack, a dead body; Toe Fu, (too much to explain); Alberto, an Antarctic explorer; Sven Circleson, a scheming corporate geomancer; Jake, a caring brother; John Jr, a slain high-school basketball star; John, his coach and father; Marcus, John Jr.'s drug-addled friend (those last three all in the same scene, I might add)... The schizo-frenzy of it all makes it very easy to build up a simmering head of steam with which to carry it all along.
The weather has been breathtaking here. My Desdemona is utterly, smashingly lovely. I spent far too much money in the bookstore again. I saw an old friend again for the first time in many months last night. 55 days to the next Harry Potter book.
I'm about twenty years too young to be playing the Moor. How apt, to be so worried about growing old and stale, while living my waking life impatient with my youth.
I'm so stoked to be him. I'm scared shitless. As you may recall, my particular bete noir, my peculiar affinity, at this stage, is for a Theatre which deals explicitly and directly with Race. I'm not saying that all Theatre should do so, I'm merely nursing an appetite for something with which my culture deals far too seldomly. So to be playing Othello right now is a bit of a coup in quite a number of ways. To put it lightly.
Right now, we're immersed in tablework, hammering out and pounding away at textual and contextual questions. Scholarship, matters of Quarto and Folio, questions of intent and scansion. The meat and potatoes, the dry fiber of Shakespeare that puts off a great many modern actors, but also brings out gloriously, devastatingly intelligent talents. And here's where it gets tricky--my Desdomona and my Iago are both very intelligent and far more experienced than I. They are local actors of reputation and skill. To be honest, the only reason I was cast as Othello is because there are practically no actors of color in this city, a product of the aforementioned tendency for my culture not to deal with Race constructively. So I'm feeling a substantial degree of entitlement-anxiety, compounded with the assured evidence that I'm substantially outclassed by at least two of my principal castmates.
This is most apt. Here I am, usually the one castmate always arguing for more intelligent discussion, more research, more tablework, much, much more--and now to be so singularly and comprehensively outclassed, undereducated, inarticulate compared to half a dozen brighter lights in this cast, and this when all eyes are on me to hold forth and carry a greater momentum in the discussions than anyone else, save the director (and, yes, granted, Iago definitely should be talking more than me, too).
How the hell am I supposed to hold my own, much less dominate, much less deal with them on an equal basis? I can't hide out in my removed, rarified, misanthropic manner, seeing as how my character's name is in bold print everywhere. And these people expect me to lead this cast. This of the guy who couldn't lead a line of kindergarteners without getting tied up on the monkeybars by the little snotrags.
That said, I do have some faith in my own abilities, in my training and in my book-learning. More importantly, faith in the fact that I LOVE THIS TEXT. I may not be as assuredly expert in its workings, but the power of the verse can and does speak through me, I do know this. Paul Robeson has always been one of my sainted heroes, and the resonating recordings of his performance certainly inspires me. I approach this experience with humble determination, mindful of my inadequacy yet all the more devoted to serving this powerful text. It is the cause, it is the cause, o my soul. These glorious lines, these sweeping, heaving, billowing verses express the scale and pitch of utter heartbreak, and they are so very, very beautiful to hear and speak. I've never tired of them. Lear and Hamlet are too overmuch. Mac lacks scope and depth. Richard II is too weak. But Othello, now here's a fellow of some soul.
I'm looking ever forward to getting off book as quickly as humanly possible. Quick's the word, and sharp's the action. Expect to read a great deal about this in the next few weeks.
In other news.
I saw Revenge of the Sith tonight. Because I'm Better Than You. An advance-advance, hush-hush deal. Finally, AT LONG LAST, a great Star Wars prequel. (Excepting the bits when people are talking) ("Younglings"? Please. Luckily, this movie is all about the lightsabers.)
I discovered the name of a librarian, for whom I've long nursed a passing infatuation. Salt-and-pepper hair, wan smile, distant and pale eyes, a languid sweep in how she handles the curve of her hips. As usual, no hope in this for me whatsoever, just the deliciousness of a simple, small, hopeless crush.
I remembered to water the plants.
The Fuente Ovejuna cast had a party the other night, in a beautifully restored mansion in NW Portland. We took lamps and candles and explored the highest and darkest attic to discover a door to the roof, with a breathtaking view, hills and bridges illuminated in the cold spring night.
I've befriended a number of spiders. They have no idea where my Book of Days might be.
I've searched my briefcase. I've upended the messenger bag. The contents of my knapsack are now strewn across the floors of three rooms in my house. I'm very, very worried that it may in fact be lurking somewhere on my hopelessly ruined Desk. This is the Desk that makes the destruction of Gomorrah look like an informal tea party. Animals and small children squeal inconsolably when brought within a two-mile radius of its noxious maw. Grown men crumple and weep, women run wild screaming weird imprecations, ravens croak, horses froth and foam...
The whole reason why I keep all my stuff in my briefcases and messenger bags is so that I don't have to deal with the morass of misery that is my Desk. I've put off looking for it long enough to realize just how totally screwed I am.
It's a black notebook, 9 cm wide and 14 cm tall. It's got a sticker of a penguin on the front, with the legend, "KEEP FROZEN", and an "I [Heart] Fencing" sticker on the back. My vitals are listed on the inside cover. Come back to me, come back, I beg of you.
If you think you might hold the Key to My Universe, please contact me without fail. I'm going to go sit in the corner and gnash my teeth now.
To tell you the truth, it is as much a point of pride as anything else. I'm uncomfortable in settings where I have nothing to bring to the table; it highlights how out-of-place, how unintended my presence seems. There is so very little in my personal life which I can relate to the experiences of those around me; you try finding peers who happen to have 27 other cousins in their generation, or families riddled with rice farmers, poisonous doctors, Army officers, dying nurses, bankrupt accountants...
So in many ways, and especially when I was younger, Theatre represented a plausible excuse for indulging in the company of others. Usefully so, even. Personal identities are superfluous to the work at hand. Improvised camaraderie and ingenuity are affectionately regarded.
Now that I'm a "Grown-Up", as it were, things are a bit more complicated, as they tend to be. Theatre exerts as much of a misanthropic influence on my behavior as my family does. I've been emotionally trained to regard the people I respect and admire as ephemeral, here in this cast today, on the other side of the country tommorrow. I, too, have a penchant for being distant from those who may seem to want me around, although in truth I would be surprised if anyone falls within that category, given my strange construction. (Me: "Oooh, look, guys! It tastes like applesauce!" Them, whispering: "Just back away slowly, and try not to make eye contact with it." "Woah. He's turning pink.")
Today, while cleaning, I came across an old notepad in which were kept rough drafts of letters from back when I used to write rough drafts of letters. (It seems I once was blessed with substantially more time than I am these days.) And while I could readily recognize the strange and self-absorbed pogue behind the inkstained lines, there was much that was fresh and nearly forgotten, that I never realized I'd left behind. I'm saddened to think that my self of four years ago was much more open, much more impulsive and rash, yet also more expressive and somehow richer, than the self I see in my words now. There was simply more to me then, than there is now.
In this regard am I apprehensive of growing older. I worry that the loss of what I describe above is the effect of a kind of slow decay, like bread left to grow stale on an uncovered shelf.
But a Remembrance of Things Past I am not. I emphatically espouse the principle that my best days are always ahead of me, irregardless of whether or not they actually come to pass. It is in placing the emphasis of one's memories as a predicate of what may come that their greatest potential is realized. These nagging doubts are what they are, the distractions of an honest mind. Be that as it may.
PS--By the way, some of you Anonymous Post-ers out there, I have no idea if you're laughing with me or at me. I don't really mind either way, I just want you to know I have no idea what your deal is. Yes, yes, I'm silly that way, I know, whatever. That's all. Carry on.
On this day in 330, Byzantium was named the new capital of the Roman Empire, and styled Nova Roma by Constantine the Great. But everyone just called it Constantinople. Except for the Greeks, who began referring to it simply as, "The City" (tea polis). (It turns out, the Turks renamed it Istanbul as a corruption of 'Tea polis'. But that's nobody's business but the Turks'.)
Baron Munchausen was born, probably on the moon or something.
Salvador Dali was born in Catalonia on this day, in 1904.
Richard Feynman was born in 1918, in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Explorer Robert Gray first sighted the Columbia River on this day in 1792.
A swarthy, strange, foul-smelling monster with an apalling appetite first made his appearance at the Good Samaritan Hospital in NW Portland, a bit overdue, as usual, 24 years ago today. The world has never been the same since.
A poem for today:
I have accepted my longing for you.
It’s comforting to me,
To live with a fading memory of
I might interpret
as a beckoning smile of yours,
the merest shred
of an exchange
that only barely qualifies as a conversation,
words like pennies in the dirt, that’s all.
This is enough
for me to paint your lips
across the canvas of the best hotel sex ever
imagined as a memory relived
in the crush of a pink cadillac’s
crushed velvet seats
Those pennies in the dirt
are the seeds of a garden so lush
that I don’t have to know its fragrance
to remember it
It comforts me
so much that it aches.
Be well, do good work, and keep on the good foot.
The necklace is a tear-shaped pewter pendant, suspended from its string with the point of the tear pointing to the ground. It is adorned with spare, elegant art-nouveau facings and engravings where the string meets the pendant. It feels heavy and fits snugly in the palm, like something that's meant to be held.
I imagine this pendant suspended above a tablet of blank sand, describing ever narrowing circles as it slowly comes to a centering of stillness. In my own way, by clumsy fits and fumblings, I try to still myself just so.
And without pausing for so much as a cup of coffee, as soon as I'm done here I fly straight into the theatre for yet another rousing night kicking rebel scum around Fuente Ovejuna.
I'm worried about my Grandma, who got out of surgery yesterday and who I still haven't gotten around to seeing yet. I'm worried about my Uncle, dodging suicide bombers in his humvee in Iraq. And my Mom pisses me off to no end these days...
Othello rehearsals start on my birthday, next week. There's talk of Ashland adventures in August. I have no less than 9 pending letters in my kit right now, half-written or waiting for their seals and stamps. NOW IF ONLY SOME OF YOU LOSERS OUT THERE WOULD MAYBE WRITE BACK, I might apply some swiftness there, now wouldn't I?
I think I will risk a small delay, and stop for a cup of coffee en route to the Theatre tonight.
It's nice to be performing in a play which works, largely succeeding in that mystic alchemy of cast and crew and production values and writing. As I've pointed out before, any one or several or even all of those factors might be irreproachably, impeccably superb, and still the production may fail. Odds are further lengthened upon the involvement of the likes of me ("SM, this is Stage Left. Susi is bleeding again"). And yet, because of the enormous heart everyone has brought to this process, and in spite of the odds against us, this show has succeeded in tapping something which a lot of people are reacting positively towards. And that's quite satisfying.
A perfect production this is not, of course. Everyone has stories they could tell, liberally leavened with lighthearted and punch-drunk giddiness.
A giddiness, incidentally, closely akin to what I am now experiencing, having just returned from (for me) an unusually exciting audition process.
I attended Call-Back auditions for a production of Othello, to be staged in the park this summer. I've done Shakespeare in the Park before; I played Don John in their production of Much Ado About Nothing four years ago, and it was, of course, great fun. But frankly, of late, I've been little moved to audition again for them, as the quality of their work is often constrained by circumstance, like, say, unruly barbarians in the audience, or sunstroke, or rival productions of the same work in this small city. But this year I was moved by the presence of two talented directors new to their organization, and a summer season consisting of the oft-paired Othello and As You Like It, excellent plays both.
But more than this, I visited the proposed playing space for Othello late this evening.
And. I. Was. Floored.
Imagine, o reader, late this evening, drizzling rain stippling the concrete pavement. I'd just finished reading for a number of characters, with a number of talented potential castmates. I'm up for the big O himself, but I consider this a long shot, and would be quite content with worthy Michael Cassio or some such. (The director, damn him, had me read for Iago even though that villain is already pre-cast. And which do you think I had the most fun with, of course? How can you not have fun with the "Put money in your purse" speech? But let that pass.) All I knew was that the performance space was to be a fountain in the downtown area, and that, contrary to tradition, this production would not wander the parks all over the city but stay rooted in this fountain, effectively converting the public space into a true theatre.
There are a number of exquisite fountains in this city--exquisite for no real reason other than the uniform affection with which I hold each and every one of them. These are the sites of flowering or failing affections or sunset-to-sunrise birthday parties, or lonely nights under a lamppost with the latest treasure from Powell's clutched in my grubby meat-hooks.
Making out at the Ira S. Keller fountain. Watching babies playing in the Jameson Square fountain. Finishing the Bridge Pedal and doing the obligatory champion's lap through the Salmon Street Springs, showered with glory and recycled water. Eating Elephant Ears at the Pettygrove Arcade fountain. Reading Marlowe plays in a twilit Pioneer Square. The stuff, I tell you, of pure loveliness.
So when I heard this production was to be staged at one of these fountains, immediately my interest was piqued. Would the ochre sandstone of Jameson Square stand in for the rough, arid fortifications of Cyprus? Or would the beetling concrete casements and the cascades of falling water at the Ira Keller Fountain adorn the Doge's Palace at Venice? I instinctively assumed the latter, as I knew of no other fountains in the immediate downtown area that fit the meager descriptions I'd had to go on.
During the auditions, they told us that the fountain in question is known as the Lovejoy Fountain, and I was no little surprised to realize that I knew nothing of this place. You see, I'm a native Portlander; I've traversed the West Hills and the far reaches of both Gresham and Hillsboro on my trusty bike. Downtown Portland is more familiar to me than any childhood home. To hear of some new, numinous place embedded somewhere in this eminently familiar place is entirely unheard of.
Wonder is a rare and deeply prized treasure, but especially and principally so when in the world of the familiar. Frankly, it's easy to give oneself over entirely to wonder when travelling. Seeing, experiencing or passing through the foreign opens myself to wonder without any effort. But in the familiar, wonder ceases to easily flare in me--I notice it's harder for me to write while comfortably ensconced in the familiar--and so the opportunity of wonder beneath the seeming facade of the familiar is not something I dismiss lightly. Correction: it's never something I dismiss. I will always lace up my boots, check my pack, take a deep breath and jump.
Like a Spanish conquistador (except without the rapine, smallpox or religious fanaticism), I set out on foot to find this mysterious fountain in the stippling rain of the night. What I found surpassed my wildest imagination for an outdoor playing space.
I found a wide plaza nestled in an urban amphitheatre, surrounded by high-rise apartments with balconies overlooking the gently sloping space, by turns concrete and greensward. The fountain itself is a pool of still water, fed from a complex of concrete levels "upstage", like a hyper-kinetic version of the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. They rise to a dramatic height dominating the square, and are divided by passages and level spaces that rival each other for the eye's attention. There is a large, covered space behind, and intermittent pools of still water at the heights as well as below them. As a whole, the space forms a cohesive unit ultimately by refusing to provide a single playing surface that outmatches any of the others; I would say that half-a-dozen playing spaces are each nested within each other here, and that while there is an obvious 'upstage', 'downstage' or 'center-stage' is much less apparent--and therefore, for me, far more interesting as a whole. Most interesting of all, a series of concrete steps crosses the largest pool at its widest, connecting the various playing surfaces and completing the processional path of the dividing channels from 'upstage'.
I don't know if I'm describing any of this to you such that anyone will understand a word I'm saying. But take my word for it, I'll hold a fucking spear for five acts just to get a chance to play in this space. It's setting alone, surrounded by high-rise apartments in the midst of downtown Portland, is enough to remind me of Elijah in Poland, except with some trees and some water.
I'm so stoked.
I have no idea how I never found this place before. I do not understand in the slightest why somebody hasn't staged something here before now. I fully intend to make many, many pilgrimages to this place, irregardless of how things go down in Cyprus.
This concludes tonight's long, rambling Polyform post. Please refrain from operating heavy machinery, and consult a physician if swelling, redness, nausea, vomiting or wanderlust persists.
It's a strange season. Friends and loved ones all over the place are telling me about aching limbs, soaring temperatures, stolen purses, lost wallets. I went to the beach with a couple of friends and poured an offering of rum to the sea. The Library's Sort Center is a smoldering wreck, hit hard by the balmy weather (which somehow induces everyone and their mothers to return more books) and the weeklong absence of one or two of the regular veteran staff.
One of my best friends in this callow world sent me a lovely letter.
I haven't finished writing a letter for someone else, for far too long, now.
We've gotten grand reviews that have broken some people's hearts in my cast.
I sleep too much. I should do this early morning thing more often.
The six-year-old in me likes to think of these insomniac evenings as though they were deeply important nocturnal missions; someone, after all, has to check the roads and make sure they're still there. You never know when these ornery and lonely roads might up and decide not to be there anymore. Best to check them periodically, do the rounds, as it were, flash the hi-beams about and keep an eye on things.
Roads, solitary bus-stops, and incandescent lane stripes all strike me as tremendous acts of faith, in the middle of the lonesome night. I sometimes forget, in this ongoing malcontent, that there is such a world around me, and it is when I'm alone on the road and in the dark that I see these things and wonder at what a world there is. This road leads through so many places. Buses pass that post, and sometimes people pass that way. These lanes are kept, even when there is no one to keep them, and I follow all these things like a ghost, for whom they were all laid out just so.
These are tokens of a numinous and intimated world that I do not know; different from their appearances in daylight, because then they are something different--perhaps lesser, perhaps diminished and mundane, but also perhaps simply something else entirely--whereas tonight, in this light, these lane stripes and that bus stop hint of a sleeping reality that isn't mine, not even in daylight, and perhaps my longing for this other world is an expression of my lingering malcontent. Perhaps.
Thank you for your expressions of concern and support or otherwise; I assure you I am quite alright, thank you very much. I'm just rambling on now, and I'm not looking for help or attention or anything of the kind. To clarify and/or reiterate; the purpose of this site, amongst a great many other purposes, is to act as a mode by which I engage the world around me, and maybe harness/hone my craft as a writer in the process. I am not needful of anything in particular from anyone. Which is not to sound ungrateful, for of late I have received a number of e-mails and/or random acts of kindness/strangeness in my waking world, of which it has been my privilege to be so honored. (I spell this out more for myself to read, in truth.)
Last night I was talking with my roommate when quite suddenly, and apropos of nothing, a longing to once more visit the Hopi Reservation came upon me. And in describing to her what I was longing for, I very nearly walked out the door and into my car, in order to find again that magical memory in my waking world. To watch the sunrise from the lip of the high mesa, to smell the baking flatbreads and the roasting sweet corn, to feel the rhythm of the kachina dolls drumming in my feet and in my chest, to see the vastness of this world enclosed in the limitless horizons of the Arizona desert and the San Francisco Mountains and the endless stare of the Hopi Creator glancing into my core.
There is a post office on the Reservation, in the village of Kykotsmovi, where I used to send and sometimes even receive mail via General Delivery. I sometimes wonder if perhaps there is not some letter still waiting there for me, in the dusty antique mailbox. And that perhaps I ought to go and retrieve it...