Story Play debut

November 11, 2012

Last night was <trumpet flourish> my debut doing Story Play, Nell Weatherwax‘s pioneering art form of story, improvisation, body movement, and theatre. It was a free show in Indianapolis at the Pine Cone Yoga Center. It’s a clean, intimate space and we had a full house.

Barry Callen opened the show with some great music—as Nell’s partner, it’s no surprise he’s a master storyteller in song. I then did my piece, we had a short break, Nell did a full-length piece about her mother’s funeral and attendant family craziness, and then we broke for Q & A.

My piece was a lighthearted frolic about death and funerals. The art form is based in improv, so ideally you like to just move with the moment and shape the story as it comes to you. But since I was very conscious about not going over my time limit, I did a couple dry runs in the afternoon. These were interesting because I was aiming to hit my main points and purposely trying to forget what linked them so I could be open to whatever came up in performance. As I suspected, I was over my time, so I was able to have an idea of what digressions I should steer clear of to stay on-target.

Story Play is all about telling true-life stories in such a way that you bring the audience in with you. As I mentioned in the Q & A last night, it’s about being “universally specific.” This term comes from the greeting card industry, where you find a card that says exactly what you intend—and thousands of other people feel the same way. It’s a universal message but expressed in such a way that everyone feels like it’s a personal expression.

I began my piece with the story of my great-grandmother’s funeral when I was five. It’s a very clear memory, probably my longest continuous memory from those days. I was standing in front of her coffin, staring at her chest, waiting for her to breathe. I had never contemplated death before and I couldn’t quite grok how she could not be breathing, not be holding her breath—she was in this new state I had never witnessed before and I had no way to file it in my undeveloped brain.

There was a series of windows up and to my left, and there’s something in there about a robin. Did I see a robin? Unlikely, since the trees through the window were across the street. More likely it was a song in my head. Maybe the song my great-grandparents brought from Ireland over a hundred years ago:

Poor Robin is dead and he lays in his grave,
Lays in his grave,
Lays in his grave.
Poor Robin is dead and he lays in his grave,
Oh, oh, oh.

Or more likely, the Jackson 5’s Rockin’ Robin. Regardless, there’s some association.

I turned around and was looking into the vestibule, “golden light pouring in through the door like angels,” to see a low bench upholstered in “inoffensive green.” My grandfather sat there, “so familiar I don’t have words to describe him.” He had his arm around my grandmother who was leaning into him, “already well on her way to being the quintessential little old lady.” It was the first time I’d seen them touch. And her face was covered in a white handkerchief as she sobbed into him. It was the only time in my life I saw her cry. “Every year for the rest of her life, she will mark this day in her diary—this day when her mother left her.”

I then moved into my experiences of funerals growing up. My mom and dad, “being good Capricorns,” believed that if anything happened to them, we should know what to do. We had a large extended family, many of them old, so people were dropping like flies. We went to funerals All. The. Time. I didn’t put this in the story, but it got to the point where I was afraid of having a good time. There was one time when I went to the mall with friends and spent the day laughing my head off. But I had a sense of guilt and foreboding. Sure enough, when I got home I found out my uncle had died. I never understood people who hadn’t been to a funeral until their twenties. Funerals were part and parcel of my formative years.

When I say “funeral” I really mean three sections: the wake, the funeral service itself, and the funeral feast. Each has a different flavor. I loved wakes. I had a blast with my sisters and cousins. There was one funeral home in Hammond, Indiana that had a downstairs area with kitchen and lounge, so we would congregate down there. And they had, miracle of miracles, a fridge full of free Coca-Cola. Zing! We weren’t allowed to have pop except on special occasions, so we took full advantage of the sugary goodness. We would tear around those two rooms playing hide-and-go-seek, which is not hard to do in such a limited space. When I think of wakes, I think of being hot and sweaty. Which tells you how seriously I took the things.

A Catholic graveside funeral is a thing of beauty. Pure catharsis. I didn’t even have to know the person. I would be beside myself with grief. These days when I see the frenzies of funeral processions in the Middle East, I am reminded of the ancient Egyptians who hired professional mourners and I think, yeah, I could totally do that job.

After the funeral, we would race in our cars to the church, “where the pleasant church ladies in their pleasant cardigan sweaters would dish out comfort food like mashed potatoes.” Heaven. And a great way to ground after the hystrionics at the graveside.

Death is a great black bird which blots out the sun and enfolds me in her sooty wings, pressing down until I am in the stillness of her mystery.

The last funeral I went to was earlier this year. It was for my cousin Mike. “I didn’t know Mike as an adult but I did as a child. I was nine and he was maybe nineteen. He was six foot 12 and a million, and hugely buff from working construction. He was my Teutonic knight, with long blonde hair (this was the ’70s), a long blonde moustache, and a bright white smile that could light up the room.” (As I said that line I wished I could come up with a better phrase than the hackneyed “light up a room” bit. But we work with what we have in the moment.) My sister was afraid of him but I felt safe around him.

And he went into the house that he had built from memory, no blueprints, built with his own two hands, and burned the house down around his head and put a bullet through his brain. And the first thing I thought of when I heard the news was, “At least I know it works.” I have fingers that itch for the trigger.

That last is not my wording—it comes from a poem one of my beloveds wrote about me. It still amazes me that she captured me the way she did. She is a talented artist. Anyway, this line transitioned me into the last portion of my piece, which was the story of her leaving me, going on thirteen years ago now.

She is sitting in the driver’s seat of her small car, her hand plastered against the window, freakishly white in the florescent glare of the light which shines down on us. Her huge brown eyes stare up at me full of questions and anguish. Her pale white face, her small cap of brown hair, her pointed chin. I place my hand over hers against the glass, but there is this barrier between us.

I had wanted to say how this barrier put her beyond the Veil, how it was a permanent separation for the moment. I can’t remember if I said that “this is the parting that will not just break my heart but rend my spirit.” It broke me as a human being, and I have never been the same since.

But this time I will change this script, I will not be the one left, so I turn my back [I turned around] and I [I walked away].


At the end of every performance, whether it’s a song or a scene, I think it’s really important to hold the space. It’s not a freeze exactly, because there’s still energy flowing. You just hold the space in stillness, letting the final words and emotions seep in before you relax into applause. Silence informs a lot of what I do artistically. It has been brought home dramatically to me by Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility (and later live in London in his performance in Antony and Cleopatra) and demonstrated masterfully by Richard Harris in Gladiator. I use silence and stillness in Story Play to mark transitions between stories and themes. It’s much more effective than a tidal wave of words which the audience doesn’t have time to absorb.

All of the above storytelling is done in the present tense, which makes it much more immediate. The full body is brought into play to illustrate themes, not just individual words. And sometimes words just go out the window as sounds are substituted instead. Story Play is not about being a stand-up comedian trying to be impressive and witty. It’s about fully inhabiting the story in a theatrical way to create a transformative experience for the audience. (For an example of Story Play in action, see this hilarious story from Nell. And to see how a story can be told by two people simultaneously, check out this fabulous duo she did with Marielle Abell.)

I am deeply grateful to all the people who set up this event and made it happen, and especially to Nell for giving me the space to share my stories. The audience was stellar, just so warm and appreciative, right there with me as I led them on the journey. Nell is working on a Bloomington show for January, and has invited me to participate. I am in! Story Play feels so authentic, so purely theatrical (in the “Greek ritual” sense of the word), that it is one of my favorite modes of performing. Praise Gaia!

Possible Story Theatre show

March 23, 2011

Thanks to my tax refund, I was able to make Nell’s Story Theatre workshop Saturday at Janiece’s. It was invigorating as always. Everyone wants moremoremore. Meryl wants us to do a show (“Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”), maybe in July, maybe at Rachael’s Café. I love the concept but fear the execution. I mean, it’s one thing to be up in front of people, improvising, in a small room where the crowd is hand-picked and pre-disposed to love you. It’s another thing entirely to be up in front of strangers who may get hives in the presence of performance art. Plus I’m always afraid I’ll run out of stories. Horror of horrors, what if that happened 5 minutes into a 20-minute set?? Horrid Dada-esque stumblings about would ensue. Ack!

Nell and I have a separate thread going about a possible Story Theatre intensive for a hand-picked crew, possibly in May. I’m not sure my tax refund goes that far. But I do know that I seriously want to develop artistically in this form. And Nell’s got the goods! She changes what she teaches at every workshop, so there’s always something new happening. My challenges include staying in my body, using similes, and using sound instead of words. If I could get those to be more regular denizens of my creative toolbox, I’d be much more effective as a performer.

So much art

May 24, 2009

Nell’s class

What a week. Started another round of Nell’s classes on Wednesday. Good group of people. I hurt my back while doing an exercise called “architecture” and was very bummed to have to sit out until we switched the form.

“Architecture” shows how little you have to do onstage to be interesting. You just pose your body using straight lines. Like standing upright and holding your arms bent at the elbow at 90 degrees or lying with your back on the floor and extending arms and legs upward. Three of us went at a time, which created fascinating relationships and negative space. She’d stop us periodically and have the viewers name the current tableau.

Auditions for Vintage Scenes
Right before Nell’s class, I scooted over to the BPP for Vintage Scenes auditions. This is a collection of short (3-page) scripts that are some of the favorite mini-plays from years past. I’d rehearsed 3 of the 6, so of course the ones we got asked to do were parts I hadn’t worked on.

I’d spent the day traveling and in high-stakes business meetings, so was completely fried. No idea what I wrote on the audition form. Wasn’t fully present. That contributed in part to my lack of nerves, which was disappointing. I need more auditions where I’m nervous so I can get used to that. It also helped that I was better than my partner—that doesn’t mean I was good, it just means I was a bit better! That helps build confidence. I left feeling disappointed that I hadn’t given my best.

I got the email next day that I’ll be playing a Southern lush in one of the plays (what non-typecasting! :-)) and “C” in a funny scene where A is trying to kill himself and B is just trying to smoke a cigarette—on the 30th floor. I’m looking forward to getting started.

Deadbird—almost done
That was Wednesday night. Friday I met Kevin and we recorded the latest iterations of Deadbird—oops, I mean Redbird. It’s not perfect but it’s close enough for the songwriting contest we’re entering. I really like working with Kevin—he knows So Much. The song has come along nicely. Hard to believe how depressed I was when I wrote it.

Saturday morning was Goddessdaughter #2’s blessingway, done at the UU church by Bill Breeden. It was a short and simple ceremony, but sweet enough to make me all weepy. (This bit obviously doesn’t count as performing arts, but I want to throw it in.)  I gave her her gifts, but of course her favorite thing was a bundle of bread, salt, and coin that she could carry around. I love the ring I got for her. I hope she will, too, someday.

Staged readings
After a “I’m so stuffed” blessingway lunch at Opie’s, I burbled off to the BPP again for the staged readings of some of the plays for the ’09/’10 Bloomingplays. I read the part of Daisy in The Good Daughter.

It was interesting because I’d rehearsed with the voices of the 4 other characters in my head, but of course those parts weren’t read the way I’d heard them internally. So some of my stuff didn’t come out right, because I wasn’t reacting quickly enough to what was given me. It was a lot of fun though—theatre’s a helluva lot easier with a script in your hand!

Bob Berry of The Actor’s Workshop in Indy came up afterwards to ask me to read a part in his play, which will be read in August. I was terribly flattered and got a nice big bloated ego over it until I found out he’d asked 3 or 4 others, too! 🙂 A good come-uppance for me.

The final play was Kindred, the one I co-wrote with Lori. Margot read the part of Pam really well; much better than I could have done. It was so interesting to hear these parts that I’ve spent 4 years writing come out of the mouths of different actors. They find different things than I intended, which is a great experience for any artist to have. You let your creations out into the world and they take on lives of their own!

A group of us (rather raucously) went for drinks afterwards (which translates to “water” for me). Had a really good time with Gabe, Holly, Heather (in from NYC; I’d heard her do cabaret at Nell’s Midsummer Night’s Romp), and Rich. I feel like I want to get as much time with Rich as possible before he leaves in August.

This morning a larger group of us met for brunch at the Uptown. More hilarity, but with that bleary-eyed quality that comes from too many late nights. Gabe’s mom told a “I will embarrass you now” story about how he was born with bruised testicles. Perfect conversation for breakfast.

Robin Hood
I wrapped up the day with a viewing of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood at the Buskirk-Chumley, accompanied by Hesperus. The advertising said the event was free but tickets were actually $25! I thought it was outrageous but paid anyway, since I’d so looked forward to it.

It was great fun to see him on big screen and especially to hear people hissing when the bad guys came onscreen and then cheering when The Hero Gets The Girl. The picture wasn’t filled with as many stunts as I expected, but it was good fun. I was also impressed with how much Errol Flynn’s version was clearly influenced by this version. What pressure there must have been, trying to walk in Douglas Fairbanks’ footprints!

I had to nap when I came home and then have quiet time with a book to calm my jittery brain. Now I’m off for some movie-watching, though I’m really in the mood for playing a game with friends like Scrabble or something. I get tired of trying to fill the hours but oh well. (Today’s another day where I think I might be depressed but the damn meds have altered my symptoms.) Onward!

Beltane Bash Snapshots

May 3, 2009


Raising the power

Raising the power

I’ve just woken up on Sunday morning after a late night at the Webtor Beltane Bash and my head is filled with little video snapshots. In no particular order:


  • Krista in her red sequined gown with slit up the front and black top hat, looking like a particularly sexy lion tamer
  • Amy holding out her white hand to me while we sang Travelers Prayer
  • Mike Redman looking like The Hermit from tarot
  • Amanda Biggs singing an aria from Tosca in true diva style
  • Tristra’s husband Ian, who we thought was just coming along for the ride, working the bonfire like a demon
  • About twenty-five people trying to figure out how the hell to wrap a maypole, with Krista, Ian, and others all shouting directions at once
  • Meryl in her little black skirt and high spiked black leather boots
  • Green George doing his totally unselfconscious, raucous version of The Doors’ Light My Fire
  • Grooving in front of the hot bonfire, flames shooting up 15 feet, sparks and debris showering down on me from 30 feet above, while hearing the message again and again: “It’s time”
  • Resisting the impulse to scarf down every single deviled egg in a five-mile radius
  • Not resisting the impulse to scarf down every dessert within snatching distance
  • Talking to “Dave” over the food table, his googly eyes pushed back on his head and the red of his shirt drenching the aura around him
  • Gentle Jana as a combination Robin Hood and dryad
  • Faith with her luna moth wings, mirrored sunglass “bug eyes,” and adorable pipe cleaner antennae 
  • Tristra’s beaming face as she danced the maypole, pregnant belly bulging fecundly
  • Dancing to Curtis and Janiece’s I Can See Clearly Now, wishing I wore something more nimble than Doc Martens!
  • The incredibly scary clown on stage right that would occasionally not just slowly nod its head, but move its shoulders up and down—I kept expecting a peal of diabolical laughter
  • Glancing up, surprised to see the moon for the first time in weeks, admiring her waxing self amid the watery clouds
  • Ned with his kitty nose mask, dark glasses, and especially his Spock ears, reciting his fabulously lascivious poem
  • The roller derby dancers
  • The roller derby pole dancers—voof!
  • Dana in her sex toy tent, a huge pouf of red of red tulle surrounding a small white face covered by a huge round red metallic wig
  • Janiece gently gliding on the tree swing
  • Robert in his wild man make-up, perfectly toned body ready to dominate the stage at any moment
  • Nell laughing continually at the latest outrageous joke and contributing plenty herself
  • Laughing our way through the 5/4 Full Moonlight Dance, falling apart every time we tried to listen to each other—every other lyric was “fassa fassa”
  • Steve Mascari in his fur pimp coat and zoot hat
  • Trying get a groove going with Janiece and Amy Roche around the fire
  • Amy Roche drawing out her groove, slim silhouette against the fire, graceful body matching liquid voice
  • The silence surrounding Travelers Prayer as we sang praise to Sister Moon
  • Remembering My People all night long as I basked in the scent of Lily of the Valley and re-kindled the fire in my heart
  • Stopping at evil McDonald’s on the way home for chicken McNuggets because I knew I’d fall asleep before I made my own—BBQ, mmm….

A fabulous evening under the clouds, surrounded by glittering stars of our earthly firmament.


Tristra, Cairril, Amy sing "The Farmer" (photo by Michael Redman)

Tristra, Cairril, Amy sing "The Farmer" (photo by Michael Redman)

Here we come a-wassailing

December 18, 2008

‘Tis the season for caroling and I’ve had the good fortune to get my fill.

Monday night I went to Diane Kondrat‘s for her zillionth annual “sing loud and fast” caroling fest. The group included Busman’s Holiday, Nell Weatherwax, Janiece Jaffe, and a goodly group of others I’m too tired to enumerate. But we all sang loud and fast!

Diane’s lyric sheets were from the days when she used to carol outside bars, so she learned that slow, pretty songs tended to lose the audience pretty quickly. But she graciously acquiesced to such lovely classics as Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, O Come O Come Emmanuel (my fave), and Janiece’s sweet rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star.

We also collectively massacred My Favorite Things and a few others, but had a great time doing it. We got through my second-least-favorite carol, The 12 Days Of Christmas, in record time. (My least favorite carol is the insanity-producing Carol Of The Bells. I swear it was written to drive people out of their minds.)

After all this raucous holiday cheer at Diane’s (they went for almost four hours; I arrived late but ate my share of fudge), the next night’s excursion couldn’t have been more different. The fabulous Rachael Himsel had lined up a caroling gig at the grand opening of a business in Renwick’s Village Center. She had 6 singers and was trolling for a few more. Since I was attending the opening anyway (Renwick is a client of my alter ego), I was in!

The weather decided to turn icy, pelting people with sleet and making travel hazardous. Surprisingly, the event had a great turnout and people crammed into the little offices to see What Was What. All the other singers had skipped out for various reasons, so it was down to me and Rachael! 

We took our place near the front door (Rachael, bless her, put herself in the way of the icy draft so I wouldn’t freeze) and started in. We sang for over an hour as dressed-up businessfolk passed by on their way to see the sights and find the wine. The air was so dry it felt like my voice was actually being pulled from my lungs; it got painful by the end. (I’ve had that happen once before and fantasize of carrying a humidifier with me to all gigs.)

Luckily, Rachael’s voice and mine were a great match. She has a lovely voice and a very nice timbre that stays pretty constant throughout her range. I attempted some harmonies here and there but, between the giant sucking sound leaving my lungs and the din of too many people crowded into a small space, I’m afraid I wasn’t as deft as I would’ve liked.

Patty Pizzo turned up and helped us out on a few tunes, which was a delight. We scarfed a few treats down (we’d been pressed into catering service when we arrived early) and marveled at the harpists who were playing outstanding music in other rooms. 

I discovered that I’d had my fill of Christian carols a little too soon into the gig. I felt uneasy at singing the explicitly Christian messages at a business event. It wasn’t until afterwards that I was able to explore my feelings; I’m so used to being in charge of everything about a gig, I didn’t know how to respond when this one started feeling uncomfortable! Definitely something for me to work on. Rachael was a rock and would’ve done some secular songs if I’d asked, but I just kept thinking, “This isn’t my gig” and stopped myself from even considering to ask. What a moron. Sheesh.

So now that I’ve had my fill of caroling, I’m prepping for a trip to sunny California, where I can escape the Christmas hype and do some serious loafing with friends. I just hope the ice thaws by then….

A Midsummer Night’s Romp in the Woods

November 23, 2008

Summer 2007. Nell Weatherwax, Krista Detor, Robert Weber, George Murphy, Carmen Meyers, Rachael Himsel, Janiece Jaffe, Scott Jones, Carrie Newcomer, Marielle Abell, and many more. An invitation-only performance extravaganza wherein people wandered through the acres of George’s backyard and came upon different types of art: sound, vocals, dance, and performance art. I sang with the chorus, was featured in Janiece’s circle sing, and led The Water is Wide.

Improvisational Movement Theatre (IMT)

November 22, 2008

AKA Improvisational Story Theatre, 2007-present. Taught by the not-to-be-missed Nell Weatherwax. What the heck is IMT? Nell begins a summary with “You allow your body to remind you of a memory that leads to an image that becomes a story.” It’s performance art, but not the tedious, self-absorbed, angst-ridden sort (unless you like that sort of thing). As a performer, it’s one of the greatest creative highs you can have. Especially when performing with others! If you get a chance to take a class, go!