CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

Yesterday I went upstairs to look for my notebook, walked into the room where I write, and couldn’t remember why I was there. It happens. Often. At this point in my life.

And, yes, it is comforting to believe that my mind is now so full of all I have experienced, all I have felt and thought, that it’s hard to access any kind of information—especially a recent acquisition in the cluttered library stacks of my brain. Still.

I read recently, somewhere—maybe in an AARP magazine, maybe on Facebook (source of quantities of information and misinformation) that one particular kind of memory lapse has to do with moving through a doorway, passing into a different space. A portal seems to cause the brain to push a re-set button, forgetting the recent past and starting over. Although my previous attempts at mindfulness and meditation have been unsuccessful, I am starting a new practice of chanting the name of an object or errand as I pass through a door.

I am thinking of all those stories about passing through portals into a whole new world. Alice walking through the looking glass or falling down the rabbit hole. The children entering the land of Narnia through a wardrobe. The van door sliding open to reveal the Delorean that will take Marty McFly back in time.

In ancient societies a threshold represented a major transition. Anthropologists have written about “liminal” spaces (a word derived from the Latin term for the board at the bottom of a doorframe). In rituals, such as the “rite of passage” from childhood to adulthood, there are three phases—the identification with the old status, the space between, and the new status. That space between—the liminal space—is unsettling territory, a test, representing uncertainty along with new possibilities, fear as well as hope.

In my daily life, I am not good at crossing thresholds. Once I begin an activity—whether it is working puzzles, pushing a lawnmower, reading a novel, or answering e-mail—it is hard for me to stop and move on to something else. If I get deep enough into the task of writing, I can lose myself in that place where I do not feel time passing. But eventually I need to get up, move around, and return to “the real world.”

I was not conscious of any previous fascination with portals and thresholds. But I now realize that the first play I ever wrote told the story of two girls who fell into the previous century through a door in the town depot. And one of my most recent plays is a variation on the myth of the heroine’s journey, tracing the small and large steps that a woman must take to move from one kind of life to another. Its title is “Rhonda’s Rites of Passage.”

At the age of seventy, I am aware of another doorway in my future. My brother and one of my best friends are now negotiating the passage from this life to whatever lies beyond. It is my hope that I will have several new spaces to explore before I cross that final frontier. If I can muster the courage and confidence to step across each threshold.

 

 

 

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FOLLOW THE LEADER

In the past few months, Donald Trump has gone from being a joke, to being the scary monster under the bed, to being the likely Republican candidate in the next election and possibly the next president. How did this happen? What has Trump tapped into?

Bernie Sanders has spoken about empathy. “When your child is hurting,” he said, “my child is hurting. We’re all in this together.” I believe that human beings have the capacity for this kind of empathy. But I also believe we have other, darker tendencies—part of the survival-of-the-fittest mind set developed when our species began to walk upright.

One of these traits is the tendency to fight fiercely for what we believe is ours when resources are scarce. Another is the way we identify one tribe as our own, while identifying others—on the basis of eye or nose shape, hair, skin color, or “talking funny”—as the enemy. Donald Trump’s rallies have appealed to both these instincts.

And there is a third consequence of our ancient struggles for survival. When we sense danger, our prefrontal cortex shuts down, activating a fight-or-flight response. We have a desire to join forces, to form a flock or herd, and to follow the leader—someone who keeps things simple and speaks confidently, someone who promises to take care of everything—a figure like Donald Trump (or like Hitler or Stalin or countless other demagogues in recent and ancient history).

An article in the Atlantic Monthly last summer asked whether successful business executives are more likely to be nice guys or jerks. In times of extreme stress, it concluded, employees prefer jerks who, they believe, will look out for them. We are living in a time of stress for the middle class, especially those whose jobs used to involve manual labor. They have been suffering for years, and they have been forgotten. We also live in a time of fear—especially of terrorists. If there is another terrorist strike on US territory or another stock market collapse, watch out. If panic sets in, our instincts will tell us, “Find someone who projects confidence, someone who promises protection. Follow the leader.”

BARK

I finished a revision of my play BARK, based on what I learned from its performance last summer at the Levering Orchard. Phloem is an arrogant, privileged New York artist who creates installations of bark, vines, spray paint, and epoxy, wrecking gallery walls in the process. Elwood is a peculiar hermit who once carved a walking stick with an axe. Both invade the gallery of Gwyneth Price and the office of social worker Beth Ann Evans, placing a strain on their longtime friendship. The two artists face off at the hermit’s encampment in the woods. This hour-long play can be performed on stage as a one-act, or as a full-length site-specific play moving from place to place. Here is a short video promoting the play: https://vimeo.com/139766025

A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS

Starlings are singularly unattractive birds.
They brashly strut, off-kilter.
Their hoarse racket rattles our ears
As they invade our backyard feeders,
Leading us to curse the fool
Who first released these European emigrants
In Central Park, in honor of Shakespeare.

But in early spring, at dusk,
Large flocks form a murmuration,
Kaleidoscopic patterns
Coalescing and dispersing—
Not the purposeful forward motion,
Of geese in Vee formation,
But almost, not quite, random,
Like a wash of water colors,
Like the incoming tide,

Whether they cruise above
A field of wheat, a grassy bank,
Or the inhospitable pavement
Of the strip mall by the interstate,
Their endlessly malleable comings and goings
Fascinate and mesmerize.
I cannot take my eyes off these invaders
As my heart cries, “Welcome. Welcome home.”

A beautiful article about murmurations by Jerry Dennis:
http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/a-murmuration-of-starlings-zbcz1603.aspx

Watch a video of a murmuration:

Improv Workshop

Improvisation is not just a tool for actors. It can be very helpful for writers of prose as well as scripts. Do you sometimes have trouble discovering a distinctive voice for each character? Does your dialogue sometimes meander without getting anywhere in particular? You may discover that the theater skill of improvisation will help you break through these barriers.
In an interview on the audiobook of Lean Mean 13, the writer Janet Evanovich was asked whether she heard the voices of her characters in her head. Here is what she said: “I took some acting lessons and had an opportunity to get up on the stage and do some improv, and this is how I actually learned how to write dialogue, how I learned how to hear people talking in my head. I still use this, and when I sit down to write. . . I hear them, I see them moving around.” Although a workshop based on improv cannot guarantee you the financial success of Janet Evanovich, it may introduce you to a useful tool for writing.
Winston-Salem playwright Grace Ellis has used improv to develop a dozen plays with students and adults. She will offer a workshop for writers, practicing some basic improv skills and using them as a method for expanding the imagination and resolving problems in fiction or drama. The workshop is open to members of Winston-Salem Writers and for all others who are interested.

February 6,10-12:30

Offices of Authoring Action
624 West 6th Street

You are invited to bring with you several pages of a scene you are working on, as well as one article of clothing for a costume and two items that might be used as props in a play.

ANNIE BAKER

Annie Baker’s plays unfold slowly. We get to know characters gradually, with small revelations spread out over time. We wait and watch while nothing important seems to be happening. But unlike the stream of events in our ordinary lives, the plays are very carefully plotted. What happens at the end of has been carefully set up at the beginning. And because of Baker’s almost invisible but careful selectivity, the characters’ interactions may revolve around a single theme. In The Flick, that theme is betrayal.

Baker is famous for her dialogue, which reveals the hollowness of most playwrights’ claims to be representing “natural speech.” Real conversation is rarely the back-and-forth exchange of one liners that prevails in theater today. Annie Baker told an interviewer that she used to record conversations on tape and transcribe them, learning the rhythms of cryptic comments, rants, and pauses.

But what moves me most about the way characters speak in Baker’s play, is what they do not say. Annie Baker—more than any playwright I know—writes scenes in the style of Chekhov. “Subtext” has become a major topic in playwriting seminars, but few writers have mastered it as Chekhov did. Baker’s people have big, important things that they need to say to each other, and we strain to listen as they talk about something else, something trivial, as Chekhov’s characters do. For example, in Uncle Vanya, Vanya’s relationship with his friend the doctor has been strained to the breaking point. The doctor will not be visiting again. They talk about the weather. The two young men in “The Flick” have reason to be angry at each other and an urge to forgive each other. After an almost unbearably long pause, they play one more game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

I was not surprised to discover that Baker wrote an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Baker told an interviewer:

[Chekhov] taught me a lot about offstage action, offstage characters, and how important it is to have dialogue that does not appear to forward the plot. His characters are spontaneous and strange and do things we wouldn’t expect them to do and yet they also never really change.

Those comments explain some of what Baker does in plays like The Flick. Her playwriting runs counter to many current “rules” for theater. But if a viewer can be patient, the effect is spell-binding.