April 26, 2009

This is an edited version of a monologue written by a playwright at the BPP circa 2004. See my original backstory for this script.

Nobody knows I have Mama’s white gloves, but I do. I was thirteen when I first saw them. Before that, I’d only seen them in the pictures.

The week after Mama’s funeral, Daddy and the boys were packing up all of Mama’s things. Daddy said it was too hard to have them in the house. And there they were, lying right there, on top of that box.

I think Mama would’ve wanted me to have them.

Sometimes I sleep with Mama’s white gloves under my pillow. Those are the nights when I have my favorite dreams.

I am looking through a keyhole, and on the other side is a glorious ballroom filled with men and women waltzing, almost as if they’re floating. They are all so well-dressed and look so stunning. 

I see Mama. She is the most beautiful one there. She dances about and the music flows through her body and drifts through the keyhole and whispers into my ears. Mama smiles.

Tomorrow, I have to wear my own white gloves. Grandmother bought them for me. I don’t want to wear them, though—I’d rather wear Mama’s. I try my gloves on and my arms suffocate. It is horrible. When I wear Mama’s gloves, I am alive.

Tatiana’s story

April 26, 2009

This is a backstory I wrote for the monologue Tatiana, written by an unknown playwright at the BPP. The monologue is about 2/3 page long and only hints at the recent past. I wanted to place Tatiana into a more extensive context, so I wrote this. Some of Mama’s history is drawn from the story of Irina Skariatina.

It is 1963. Tatiana sits in a tearoom in her Mississippi hometown, across from her maternal aunt. It is the day before her wedding. Tatiana is about to disclose a secret she’s never told anyone. For her aunt, the secret has much more resonance than Tatiana will ever know.

Tatiana has been raised as a Southern belle: polite, charming, well-behaved, and controlled. She had a very close bond with her mother (“Mama”), who died when Tatiana was 13. All Tatiana knows about her mother’s past is that Mama came from Russia a long time ago with Aunt and Great-Aunt and that they were part of the aristocracy in some way.

What we know:

Mama was raised in a large, aristocratic family and was a minor princess. She was born in 1906, the fourth of six children. After the Revolution, her family moved from city to city, trying to find a safe place. First her grandfather disappeared into Bolshevik hands, then her father. At that point her remaining family determined to attempt emigration. Great-Aunt went first with Mama and Aunt. Mama was 14. It was 1920.

Great-Aunt and the girls settled in Paris among the large Russian emigré population. Unbeknownst to the girls, Great-Aunt was pulling every string she could to try to get the rest of the family out of the Soviet Union. They had agreed to try to meet in Paris before deciding on a permanent home. Much to Great-Aunt’s frustration and fear, she heard nothing whatsoever from the family; indeed, she never heard from them again.

Great-Aunt and the girls stayed in Paris for two years, during which time Great-Aunt insisted on the girls’ keeping up their education and grooming for “polite society.” After seeing how quickly her finances were being exhausted, Great-Aunt determined to move to America in the hopes that she and the girls could leave the chaos of Europe behind and live comfortably within their means.

The threesome traveled to the United States, where Great-Aunt was drawn to the South for its culture of gracious hospitality among the well-to-do. She was actively grooming Mama, who was now 16, for a good marriage to a (preferably) wealthy man. While each of the threesome held onto mementos (photos, jewelry, clothing) from their past, they never spoke of Russia or the Bolshevik terrors again.

Even though Great-Aunt worked very hard to erase the girls’ Russian accents and replace them with a more Southern drawl, her efforts were only moderately successful. It took some time to break into polite society but their impeccable manners and air of mystery aided them.

Great-Aunt’s dream was realized when Mama married Daddy in early 1929. Mama was 23 at the time. Daddy was a landowner-turned-industrialist. Most importantly, he was rich. Great-Aunt and Aunt lived nearby until Aunt made her own, less “successful” marriage two years later.

The stock market crash and Depression didn’t affect Mama and Daddy’s social set to the extent it did so much of the nation, but they did recognize that times were tough. Still, they continued their old traditions of balls and debuts.

Mama gave birth to two boys (much to Daddy’s pride) and then, later, Tatiana. What no one but Mama ever knew was that Tatiana was named for the beautiful second daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra.

Daddy was never much interested in Tatiana. Mama, though, bonded strongly with her. She would sometimes show Tatiana the photos she had smuggled out of Russia, naming each stiff, unsmiling, gorgeously arrayed relative until Tatiana could name them herself. It never occurred to Tatiana to ask where these people were. All she knew was that her mother was glamorous and beautiful, with a wonderful voice and impeccable manners that people still commented on.

Mama died unexpectedly after a brief illness when Tatiana was 13. Almost immediately, Daddy packed up everything of Mama’s, including the old photos, and took them away. It was during this process that Tatiana recognized a pair of white gloves from the photographs. She immediately stole them and hid them from her family.

What Tatiana does not know is that the gloves belonged originally to her maternal grandmother, then to Mama. Mama was to wear them at her formal presentation to court when she came of age, but the Revolution intervened. Her mother made sure that Mama took the gloves with her when she escaped the U.S.S.R. Tatiana has seen them on her maternal grandmother in those faded old photographs that Mama showed her, but is not conscious of it.

Tatiana’s Great-Aunt had a large, dominating personality which was matched only by Tatiana’s paternal Grandmother’s. When Great-Aunt died a few years after Mama, Grandmother filled whatever vacuum was left. Tatiana’s Aunt was more quiet, sympathetic, and sweet—a Russian-Southern angel. Aunt never talked about Mama but didn’t stop Tatiana from doing so.

All parties were determined to raise Tatiana as a proper Southern belle. Daddy didn’t bat an eye as Great-Aunt and Grandmother took Tatiana in hand after Mama died. Tatiana wanted to please them all. More than anything, she wanted to capture the elegance and grace of Mama. She idolized her memory and tried to do everything as she imagined Mama would have done. This sometimes brought her into conflict with Grandmother, who inevitably won. Tatiana confined her acts of rebellion to dancing with Mama’s gloves or sleeping with them under her pillow.

When it came time for Tatiana to think of marriage, she was oddly reluctant. She did not self-examine too closely. She just said that all the boys she knew were “boring.” The pressure from Daddy and especially Grandmother continued to mount until both said they would cut her off without a cent if she didn’t marry within the year.

By then, Tatiana was 26 and running out of options. She’d had a decent education but she was primarily trained to be a decorative ornament for her husband. After reviewing the few candidates remaining to her, she chose Frank, a middle-aged widower with plenty of money. Frank placidly accepted a year-long engagement but the day of the wedding is finally come.

Tatiana and Aunt are having tea in an establishment patronized by the wealthy of their town. About 15 years from now, Tatiana will rebel against the strictures of her society and her family and lead her own life, but today she is shocking herself giddy with a mad confession long held silent. She knows that she will squeeze her arms into her own white gloves tomorrow and be a beautiful and dutiful wife, but she is comfortably numb about exactly what that will entail.

Aunt is safe to confess to. She’s never been completely accepted by the family, partly because of her more gentle personality. Tatiana knows that her secrets will be safe with her. She is also subconsciously trying to reach out to Mama on this day before her wedding and reclaim some of that old wistful magic. To Tatiana, it feels like tomorrow is the end of her life.

Read the monologue

First audition in 23 years

April 26, 2009

Today I auditioned for Cardinal Stage Company. It’s a general audition for the season rather than for a particular show. I’ve been rehearsing non-stop for 6 weeks in preparation. 

I did the last 25 bars or so of Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar for my song. For my monologue, I used a short piece entitled Tatiana that was written back in about 2004 by a playwright at the BPP—a playwright who neglected to put her name on the manuscript.

I worked with the lovely and talented Mr Richard Perez to go in with the best possible delivery I could within the time constraints I had. Rich is a great director—he hints at broader ideas or asks questions that lead you to a deeper understanding of the character. Many directors just focus on blocking and line delivery.

We had a breakthrough on Wednesday when I made a new connection with my character’s motivation and ended up sobbing for an hour afterwards. 🙂 I just worked on the song and the monologue lightly after that, knowing I wanted to keep that emotional connection raw.

So of course I went in there and couldn’t establish a connection at all. If I could have paused for about seven or 89 minutes mid-monologue, it would’ve been fine! But alas, alack, and Alaska, the show must go on.

Beforehand, I kept sliding back and forth between terrible nerves and a kind of steely calm. By the time I got in I was trembling all over. Fortunately both my audition pieces are intense, so the trembling worked in my favor!

The audition panel consisted of Mike Price (in whose talent I stand in awe), Randy White (in whose artistic abilities I stand in awe) and two other Cardinal Stage official-types that I’ve seen before but could not place. There was about 5 feet between me and them. I’d been expecting just Randy and maybe one other volunteer hanging out in the audience, with me 25 feet away on stage (this was at the MCPL auditorium). Let’s amp up that tension, shall we?? 🙂 

I did fine on the vocal side of Gethsemane but didn’t communicate the message as deeply as I wanted to. The monologue was the real heartbreaker, though, since I’d been able to play through the sobbing with Rich but had nary a tear in the audition. So while my mouth and body keep going, my brain is spinning at a zillion miles an hour, saying, “Remember, Rich said to just try to re-connect with that trigger” and “Should I fake the crying?” and so forth. Not conducive to calm delivery, but this sort of thing happens all the time in live performance. I thank all the people who taught me “the show must go on” in all its forms!

Talking with BryBry today, I realized it’s been about 23 years since my first “real” audition. Previous to that I auditioned all the time for school and community theatre, but my last high-pressure audition was at the IU music school. I had made the cut to get in, but this audition was with Robert Porco, head of the choral department.

I often think of that audition because he took the time to work with me. My audition piece was Care Selve, a gorgeous Italian aria. He had me go back and sing it again, this time singing the second half “as if you are singing to your beloved.” I knew immediately what he meant—my delivery had been technically flawless but emotionally void. I fell into the song and he nodded yes, yes. 

When we finished, he leaned hard on me to join The Singing Hoosiers (IU’s premiere choral group) but I had a class conflict that couldn’t be avoided. He kept at me again and again. I suppose it’s a sign of my idiocy that I couldn’t find a way to get where he thought I should go. The first of many “bad career moves” in the music school.

As I walked home today, my mind was racing with a deconstruction of every single note, word, and gesture from the audition. I just kept telling myself, “I did the best I could.” That was true. I wish I could’ve done better. But, as I told myself, the only way to get better is to do a lot more auditions! I had no idea until tonight that it had been as long as it had. No wonder I was a wreck!

All I want is to be good enough to make it into the chorus or to get a bit part. I know if I’m given a chance, I’ll get better from there. Each audition was one at a time so I have no idea how others did or how I stacked up. Since it was a general audition, I won’t even hear anything back from them regarding callbacks or rejections for some time. How’s that for I-Hate-Ambiguity Lass?? 🙂

I thank Brighid and Grandpa for sustaining me, and especially Rich for opening up whole new creative vistas! I pray for more opportunities—successful ones!

The family photo

April 19, 2009

Another entry inspired by Nell’s IMT workshop.

We sit at the dinner table, the three boys on one side, the three girls on the other, pater at the head and mater at the foot. We sit up straight to avoid the shame of having a yardstick put down the back of our shirts. We keep our elbows off the table lest we receive a sharp jab with a fork.

Shannon trots happily around the table. A Shetland Sheepdog, she is convinced we are her flock. Her nails click-click-click on the floor as she goes around and around. To break the monotony, one of us will quickly reach down and shove a hand in front of her muzzle as she comes around. She pauses a moment, puzzled, then turns and immediately resumes her click-click-click in the opposite direction.

The table is long and heavy. The walls are patterned with huge blue flowers. The tablecloth is noisy and patterned with blue. Macramé plant holders hang from the ceiling. The polished china cabinet, almost the length of the table, holds the special spot where today’s mail is deposited, next to the chair where pater sets his briefcase. 

Everything in its place.

Above it all presides the family photo. It is renewed every year like a promise to ourselves. We are dressed in our polyester best—the boys with wide collars and loud stripes, the girls in mater’s fine home-stitched double-knit hand-me-downs. Boys, girls, mater, pater. Positioned against the Olan Mills mottled blue-grey background, Sears smiles on our faces. A happy family.

One year I break tradition and appear with a Han Solo half-smile on my face, looking slightly deranged. But in the next year, and the next and the next, the old smile is firmly fixed in place. 

The photo is our idol, our talisman. It protects us against consequences. Consequences of arguments that turn into fights that turn into something twisted and toxic. Consequences of threatened abuse, of terror, of Terrible Secrets that we all ignore. Our mantras give the talisman power: “Well, at least he doesn’t beat me.” “At least none of our kids are on drugs.” “At least no one’s divorced in our family.” Like blood sacrifices to a thirsty god, we recite the “At Least” prayer to give the talisman power. Power to protect us against consequences.

I’m fourteen and the photo is nagging me. Someone’s missing from the family photo. I count the inhabitants of the frame. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. I must be wrong. I count again. Someone is missing. I can’t figure out who it is. Someone is missing—and I suddenly realize that someone is me.

No matter how many times I count the members of the happy family, I cannot find myself in the photo.

At least.

There are lesser photos, of course, like saints that intercede between us and the talisman god. Every festive occasion has candid and posed portraits. But these images allow some cracks to show: sullen teenage faces, cotton blouses with long sleeves, eyes filled with steely boredom. We call these “bad pictures” but we hold onto them nonetheless.

We no longer take family photos. Of course, there are the holiday pictures of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but there is no photo of the boys, the girls, mater, and pater. That talisman broke long ago. I can no longer recall if it shattered in one devastating blow or crumbled through neglect. I suspect it broke into pieces each time I spoke The Truth.

Tante Austra

April 9, 2009

This is a compilation of written and performed work from Nell’s IMT workshop tonight.

Tante Austra is a delicately boned, white-haired woman with a Germanic accent. Her skin is wrinkled white, like porcelain gone through a meat grinder and magically turned into translucent rubber. It all holds together.

She is very old now and has spent the evening singing Latvian songs in celebration of Janitsfest (the Summer Solstice celebration). She sits placidly in skirt and blouse and flower wreath on Angela & Jan’s tin-roofed front porch. The rain is pouring down, causing a din that’s almost impossible to speak over. I am twisted up in my chair, straining towards her with my digital recorder, trying to capture every precious word falling like jewels from her mouth.

She calmly switches between Stalinist purges and Nazi attacks and tales of her husband. He has been gone a few years now; the Stalinists, longer. Which is more immanent in her mind’s eye? In her heart?

Her job as a young girl, as the open truck rolled away from her village for the last time, was to pull the pin on the hand grenade and throw it at the Nazis as hard as she could if they came any closer.

She knows she is of a dying race at the end of her days, her husband gone and her family not prone to listen. She asks me if I am married. I say no, I came close once but he went away. “Such a shame,” she shakes her head. “Such a nice girl.”

Tante Austra is like fine china with a core of steel.

I am in the presence of living history and she is at peace.

Kaia at Farmers’ Market

April 5, 2009

Kaia got to kick off this season’s Farmers’ Market yesterday with an hour-long set. It’s the longest we’ve sung so far with this group (no break) and I think we did pretty well. 

Parks & Rec must have gotten new equipment or else they configured it really well. It was the best sound we’ve had so far (usually we can’t hear ourselves in the open air). Of course, we still over-sang! My lower register was just about gone by the time we finished.

We did a pretty good job, especially since we could hear the cloggers just down the way and we had the usual distractions of lots to look at and conversations to overhear.

The crowd response to “Death Came a-Knockin‘” and “Not One More Day” was terrific — the biggest got during the show. “The Farmer” was also a favorite, as usual. Also as usual, the slow songs lost the crowd. I made the mistake of putting 3 lullabies together, which dissipated the crowd almost entirely.

Probably my favorite part of the show was seeing 5-year-old Goddessdaughter #1 singing and clapping along with “Maquerúle,” which is no mean feat, considering the rhythmic complexities!

We’re building up our stamina in hopes of being asked to do Lotus, at which we’d do a 75-minute set — yikes! Big yikes, considering most of our songs are about 2 minutes long. It’s a big repertoire and each piece needs to be finessed mucho. I’m hoping to find out in a week or so about Lotus. Cross your fingers.

We sold a number of CDs and brought in over $100 in sales and donations! I love Bloomington. People can be so generous. It was a beautiful day, the kettle corn was right behind us, we remembered most of the words, and we had a great time. Who could ask for more?

All Around The Kitchen

April 5, 2009

On Friday I had another recording session with Kevin and Lara, this time to focus on “All Around The Kitchen,” an old Woody Guthrie tune. As usual, Lara’s funked it up with a jaunty beat and Kevin’s rockin’ acoustic guitar accompaniment. 

My part is to sing a counterpoint harmony and remember the bloody words! It’s one of those “put your hands on your head, put your hands on your shoulders” kind of tunes and I keep forgetting that hips exist. 

We had about 40 minutes to throw it together and it’s possible that the last cut was a keeper. We’re using the Zoom H2 (enthuse, enthuse) and it really picks out Every Single Thing you sing. I finally cupped my ear to make sure I could hear myself and hit my notes more squarely.

We end with this funky “all around all around all around” bit that I came up with and then Lara smacks the drum. Am hoping we nailed it to her satisfaction. I love these stolen Friday lunch sessions. We’ve got about 10 more songs to go and so little time to do them in!

Kevin’s tidbit for the day was that he knows a woman whose sense of pitch is so keen that, even if his guitar is not perfectly in tune, if it’s tune to 439 instead of 440, she’s in agony. I also have a dog’s sense of hearing, but this level of tuning is a curse rather than a blessing! 🙂