Still a fighter

May 14, 2014

Last Saturday I took an acting master class with Constance Macy at Cardinal Stage Company. In one of the exercises, two people took the stage with a set of keys. Person A was supposed to try to get the keys from Person B. Their only line was, “Give me the keys.” Person B could speak if they wanted, but they were not to give up the keys. It was an exercise in seeing how many interpretations could be brought to a single line. It was also an exercise in responding to what your partner gives you, similar to the “Yes, And” improv game.

There were two pairs who went before me and I saw them being clear, powerful, wheedling, seductive, and threatening. But nobody was doing what I felt in my gut. I jumped up at the next chance and took the keys. I would be the “no” character. My partner was a tall, middle-aged, talented man who is currently working on Les Mis at Cardinal. I felt a little intimidated because I’d seen him in a few things and he definitely knows his stuff.

Unlike the people before us, he’d come up with a reason for wanting the keys: I had had too much to drink and he didn’t want me driving home. This was a good reminder to me to give lines a context. But I was immediately belligerent. “No fucking way. You want the keys, come and get them!” He circled around me (everybody did that, it must have been the most obvious character choice) but I stayed hostile and kept my distance.

Then I followed my instincts and got right up in his face. He was yelling at me and I was giving it right back. I felt adrenaline coursing through me and I was on a kind of high as I prepared to fight him. I held the keys in my right hand up near his face, taunting him. He grabbed that arm really hard and stared me down, really angry, really wanting the keys, yet not willing to take it to the next level and hit me. I then did something quintessentially me: I tossed the keys from my right hand to my left hand right in front of his face. No words, just the motion that said, “Ha ha, I am in control here, I’m going to show you how puny you are.” I felt like I was a teenager. He squeezed my arm even harder (Method, anyone? I thought for sure I would bruise, it hurt all day) and we just continued staring each other down, right in each other’s faces, until the instructor called “Enough!”

I found it fascinating that it was so easy for me to go back into that part of myself. After I was raped repeatedly by a friend’s father when I was between 8 and 10, I started beating up boys. I had all this rage inside of me and I resented the societal order that gave all the privileges to men. I never beat up girls; rather, I was their protector. Especially as we got older and the boys started making unwanted sexual advances on the girls, I would call them out after school or at the football games (I eventually was banned from the games for fighting so much) and I would beat the crap out of them.

I was under a lot of pressure to stop fighting. My parents, the principal and vice-principal, the teachers—all the adults in my life wanted me to “stop acting like a boy.” They wanted me to be “ladylike.” My vice-principal said, “Carol can’t decide if she wants to be a boy or a girl.” The pressure just mounted and mounted. I still feel it as a physical weight, pressing me down.

And so I snapped. The same year I stopped fighting boys, I started cutting myself. That was acceptable. That was ladylike.

For most of my life, people have been uncomfortable around me. I have been a polarizing figure. The way I look, the way I talk, the way I move, the way I think, the values I hold dear, are all threatening to a lot of people. And they try to disappear me. Self-mutilation was a good thing for them because it could always be ignored. I could come to the dinner table swathed in bandages and not a word would be said, but if I punched a boy in the face there were his parents to contend with. Better that I should be docile.

When I was 17 I started fighting again, only this time it wasn’t physical. And it was against injustice in general, not just men. I protested with words and deeds but I had been converted to non-violence and civil disobedience. My family didn’t respond well to that. We were a classic alcoholic family and I was threatening to disrupt the lie that we were happy and normal. They turned against me in the end. It got physically violent. My therapist says that was their fault but I still feel responsible because I was so provocative.

There was one time where one of my brothers and I were in a room yelling at each other. He reached his limit and tried to flee. I dashed over to the door before he could get there and, just like on Saturday, got right in his face and taunted him. He grabbed me by the throat and threw me across the room. I got up in a flash and charged after him down the hallway, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!” It was true and I was reveling in the freedom of finally yanking the rock up and exposing the sordid underbelly of our family dynamic. By “forcing” him to be violent towards me, I had exposed him. And I was on cloud nine.

There were other incidences, all following the same pattern. It was not pretty. But I actively wanted them to be violent towards me, to break the lie that said we were a happy family. I hated the deceit of the dysfunction we were living. There came a moment where my life was in danger and all I could think was, “Do it.” Not just because a part of me wanted to die. More than that, it was so that it would prove, once and for all, that we were not the controlled, polite family projected in Sears portraits on the wall. I would rather die than perpetuate the lie.

And apparently that impulse is still somewhere inside me. Don’t piss me off. 😉

Live Aid 1985

May 10, 2014

I just finished watching the four-CD set of the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia from 1985. Hands down, the best rock-‘n’-roll concert of all time.

Bob Dylan
David Bowie
Mick Jagger
Paul McCartney
Elton John
The Who
Eric Clapton
Neil Young
Beach Boys
Tina Turner
Bryan Ferry
Dire Straits
Bryan Adams
Joan Baez
Keith Richards
Ron Wood
Tom Petty
George Michael
Hall & Oates
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Phil Collins
Style Council
Black Sabbath w/Ozzy Osbourne
Status Quo
Elvis Costello
The Cars
B.B. King
Duran Duran
Simple Minds
Alison Moyet
Paul Young
Boomtown Rats
Spandau Ballet
Albert Collins
Patti Labelle
Teddy Pendergrass
Ashford & Simpson
George Thorogood & the Destroyers
REO Speedwagon
Nik Kershaw
Cliff Richard
Judas Priest
Thompson Twins
Nile Rodgers
Adam Ant
Kiki Dee
Kenny Loggins
Howard Jones
Eddie Kendricks
David Ruffin

Whew! I watched mostly the Wembley Stadium acts, since the British New Wave defined my teen years and I still love that music. Most of the acts played their most popular songs and almost everybody went for upbeat, danceable music rather than Serious Pieces.

I was amazed at the technical prowess of the teams there — there was every kind of mike in use for every kind of instrument and I only heard one instance of brief feedback and nobody tripped over cords even though the musicians were all over the stage and lead singers would routinely jump down in front of the monitors to be closer to the crowd.

Several of the singers shortened their songs (like Bohemian Rhapsody, though everyone in Wembley knew every word) and some changed the pitches to avoid potentially rough high notes, but I doubt the crowds noticed.

Watching U2, I saw something I forgot they used to do — Bono would pick women out of the crowd (always women) and dance with them, then give them a kiss on the cheek before returning them to where they’d been standing. It was so gentlemanly you’d think you were dancing with the pope.

It was so amazing to see these artists in front of the enormous crowds playing to the back rows, apparently not fazed in the least. Really at the top of their game, totally ready for the moment. No fancy lighting, limited to two or three back-up singers, no pyrotechnics — just the body and instruments to work with. And they maintained constant engagement with the crowd, though the London crowd was way more responsive than Philly.

I cried when Howard Jones sang his beautiful “I hope you find it in everything, everything that you see.” I remember watching that when it was first broadcast on TV and just falling in love with the light shining out of his face. And then there was Paul McCartney leading Wembley in choruses of Let It Be (which I think should be required in Catholic hymnals).

The big emotional wallop came with the Band Aid finale at Wembley where you had the stage packed with artists crammed around mikes and singing at the top of their lungs with the 90,000 people all screaming, “Feed the world! Let them know it’s Christmastime again!” That song has special meaning for me but that will have to wait for another post. Everyone was just ecstatic. It just lifts you up via the TV screen and transports you to a better place where we believe we can make a difference.

As a performer, I have to remember these are all seasoned artists who probably started in little venues like we do, playing to crowds of 50-100 people. They transitioned to stadiums over time. How to be compelling when you’re so far away from people? The cameras and huge screens make up for it, I suppose, but these people were just giving it everything they had. It was awe-inspiring to see. A huge regret that I missed out on the Wembley show when it actually happened. I would’ve been in the Land of Bliss.