Category Archives: Theater

Fallout

When I was born, I had bright red hair, just like my grandmother. Or so I am told. In one of life’s petty cruelties, nobody bothered to take any baby pictures of me. On the other hand, my mother says I came out bright red and screaming, covered with a rash to match my hair. Several of the delivery room nurses ran away screaming. One of them fainted. Maybe I should be grateful that there aren’t any pictures.

Six months later, my mother picked me up out of my crib and my flaming hair remained on the pillow. I am told I was bald for a few months, then my hair grew in pale blonde and straight as a board. By high school, it had started to darken and curl and by my late twenties it was its current somewhere-between-blonde-and-brown. A few years ago, Mother Nature started tossing in grey as well. Tokyo humidity gives it a texture that varies from corkscrew to afro. Most of the time, I like my hair.

Now it’s falling out again, thanks to the toxic waste being pumped into my arm each week. Knowing this was coming, I got it cut very short a few weeks ago, thinking that would make the transition easier to handle. It didn’t. The change is devastating. It’s not just vanity; there’s more to it than that. They’ve taken so much from me already and they’re still not satisfied. Now they want to take my hair and, along with it, the last shred of my privacy. Unless I get a few tattoos and some extra piercings, I don’t have an exotic enough look to pull off bald, so the fact that I have cancer will follow me around like a spotlight on a darkened stage.

Sharing that stage with me is Anne Frank. Her story is currently in production and opens next week. I spent Sunday making aprons for her mother and the other woman who shared that spartan attic in Amsterdam.

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As I sat there stitching and shedding, I thought about Anne and her family and the millions of others who were devastated by that war. I’ve seen pictures of women in the camps, naked, their heads shorn. I have no business likening my situation to theirs.

My yoga teacher started our last class with a quote from Richard Bach: “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.” I am a firm believer in silver linings, in trying to be positive, in always looking for the good, even if it means having to look really, really hard.

I also believe in gratitude, in reminding myself each day how lucky I am. I have so much: plenty to eat, a warm bed, family, friends, money in the bank. And it was not so very long ago that a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. So I should be grateful for that, too. I should be grateful for the bounty in my life and that I was born as who and what I am, grateful that in my life, at least, there has always been peace.

I will try, but deep inside me there is a red-headed, red-faced baby banging her fists and heels against the floor and screaming in protest. I think I’m entitled to that.

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The River Flows On

Big River closed last Sunday. While a major production like that is never easy, it was a joy and a challenge which I welcomed.

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All through high school I was in a theater group called Guerilla Theater. The group was all high school students but our directors were grad students from the theater department at Carnegie Mellon University. They were very good: young, creative, energetic. In my first production with Guerilla, I played a sacrificial virgin in Dracula. For the opening scene, I lay down over Dracula’s casket looking at the audience backward and upside down, then someone cut my throat with a fake knife and fake blood dripped down the side of my face. One night, a piece of makeup fell into my eye, and being dead and all, I wasn’t supposed to blink. But the makeup hurt and after a few seconds, a tear fell out of my eye and slid down my cascading hair. A friend was sitting in the front row; I saw her eyes go wide and her face turn pale. Now that’s good theater.

We did a lot of productions. I once played a character named The Richest Girl in the World. We also did an acted-out radio show and some Moliere farces. Cool stuff. The group was vibrant and the productions challenging. But by my senior year, the community center that hosted us suddenly veered toward the conservative and chose some kid’s mother as our director. Most of us quit when she announced that the next play would be You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

I did a little acting and a lot of costuming in college and always enjoyed the camaraderie of the costume shop, but once I left the States, I never went back to the theater. All these years, I had imagined the Tokyo International Players were a group of bored expat housewives with nothing better to do; thoughts of them evoked frightening visions of Charlie Brown inside my head. But then a friend was in their production of Avenue Q. I went to see it and was astonished. I’ve seen several other productions since and they’ve all been really excellent. Not a bored housewife in sight, these are dedicated, talented professionals who do these productions not for money but for love of the stage and everything that goes into bringing a play to life.

Theater people tend to be a tad kooky, but usually in the best sense. I loved interacting with the actors and crew, our hearty laughter and quick moments of reaching out, the gentle companionship of fellow costumers stitching away under the stage as we listened to the singing and dancing going on above us.

Hannah and Lensei

This is our director, the lovely and talented Hannah Grace, with her charming husband who shall remain nameless and faceless because he’s secretly a member of AKB48 or something like that; I didn’t really understand the explanation of that. I didn’t understand the explanation of the pink jackets, either, but Hannah is the reason I got involved with the production in the first place and I hope she knows how grateful I am.

All in all, it was a great experience. I managed to connect with a lot of wonderful people. I reconnected with parts of myself I had nearly forgotten about and found strength I didn’t know I had. I was reminded that there’s more to life than work and getting paid. And, as icing on the cake, I got to see how cute my monkey looks when he’s wearing a mop cap.

Monkey Mop Cap

 

Amazing Grace

Karen and Ra
That’s Karen raising her magnificent voice toward the sky. Ra is standing at the back.

When I walked into the theater last night, Karen and Ra were in the hallway outside the dressing rooms. Karen plays Miss Watson and has all the heart and soul you might expect in someone from Northern Ireland. Ra is the gentle giant who plays Jim the escaped slave.

When I walked into the theater last night, Karen and Ra were in the hallway outside the dressing rooms. They were singing Amazing Grace, a song I have always loved. Karen has the kind of voice that reaches inside you and turns you inside out and Ra’s is deep and warm and flows like the Mississippi River. Everything shy inside me turned to quivery jello. My first impulse was to smile and walk away, leaving them in peace.

When I walked into the theater last night, Karen and Ra, both of whom I liked instantly when I met then, were in the hallway outside the dressing rooms singing Amazing Grace. I joined in and sang it with them.

The jello melted.

Twain quote

There’s one more performance tonight and two tomorrow. Last chance!

Costumers Don’t Eat Gummy Bears

I sat in the auditorium for the final dress rehearsal of Tokyo International Players’ Big River. I was looking for costume problems, but instead of problems, I saw this.

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The dress, apron and cap, all made by me, were worn by a woman with one of the finest voices I’ve ever heard, the kind that enters your ears and then kisses your soul. And she is just one note in the score of talented people who orchestrate the life of this play.

When the rehearsal ended, I returned to the dungeon below the stage where we elves work our magic. Kazuko, Jeanette and I were consulting when a woman entered, bearing the largest bag of gummy bears I’d ever seen. She offered them to us but I smiled and said, “No, thank you. I don’t much care for gummy bears.” My colleagues nodded in solemn agreement. The woman narrowed her eyes and said, “You’re all costumers, aren’t you? Everyone else said yes.” We three exchanged glances that felt like a secret handshake.

I’m not sure what that says about costumers, but it reminds me that those of us below the stage are very much a part of the magic that happens on it. I am honored to be involved in this production.

Big River runs through Sunday evening. Definitely worth a look-see.

Sewing D’Lite

Through a series of coinkidinks and a quirk or two in the space-time continuum, I found myself volunteering to help out with costumes  for the Tokyo International Players’ upcoming production of Big River, a musical adaptation of the Huck Finn story set in 1840.

I felt pretty confident; I’d done costumes all through high school and college, even had a couple of professional gigs, so I dove right in, thinking it’s just like falling off a bicycle. You never forget, right?

First thing was to procure a sewing machine. I’d been wanting one anyway so went online and found what I thought would be good enough, the Janome Sew D’Lite for about $60.

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It is very important to remember that you get what you pay for. I sewed a couple of seams on a curtain for practice and the stupid thing jammed. And then jammed again. And again. In time, I found myself buried up to my neck in bits of thread as I tried to convince the D’Lite that it could, in fact, sew. When smoke started coming out of my ears, I put it back in its box and took it to the neighborhood Janome store where then nice lady took it apart and poked around inside, then put it back together, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with this machine except that it’s a pile of crap.”

Huh?

She pointed over her shoulder to where my Sew D’Lite’s twin brother was sitting. Next to him was a similar machine with a Hello Kitty design on it. The nice lady shrugged and said that it was a mass market model, not designed to sew through anything more challenging than a Kleenex. If I was intending to make costumes, she said, I’d need a professional quality machine. And then she recommended a $600 model.

Uh…let me think about it…not.

Instead I went back online and found a Singer for about $150. My mom had a Singer zigzag machine she won in a lottery and used to teach me. Among my childhood gender-appropriate toys was a Singer that only had one stitch, but it could sew through railroad ties. I’m not normally brand-loyal, but I have good Singer memories.

Ain’t she a beauty?

IMG_0927The next day, I met with the costumer who handed me a pile of cut fabric and a pattern…

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…for a prairie dress and apron.

When I got home, I laid the stuff out and had a brief but very convincing panic attack. “There was a time when I knew how to do this, but it’s been more than 30 years since I’ve even tried! Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. I don’t even know where to begin! I’m going to let everyone down and look like a total douche canoe. What was I thinking?”

But then I studied the pattern and saw words I hadn’t used in so many years: bodice, yoke, interfacing, raw edges, seam allowance, gather, pin, baste, stitch. A wave of memories rushed over me, memories of my mother passing on the wisdom her mother had passed to her.* My fingers began to remember how to manipulate fabric. I rediscovered the coordination among eyes and hands and foot that allowed the machine to run smoothly.

And then my senses came alive, hearing the contented hum of the sewing machine motor, smelling the warmth of freshly ironed fabric, feeling the brief but exquisite pain of a finger jabbed with a pin. The only thing that had changed from those happy childhood sensations was the need for magnifying glasses to thread the needle.

I can’t claim to have done a world class job, but I got it done and the world is now richer by one prairie dress and one apron. And through the process of creation, I realized that I spend too much of my life looking for what’s in it for me. It felt really good to do it for the sake of doing it, and in the end I got the satisfaction of seeing through a seemingly hopeless task and fulfilling a promise. I also got to explore a part of me that I’d nearly forgotten.

One more thing: I discovered something my mother didn’t teach me. A stuffed monkey makes a very good pin cushion indeed.

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*During the great depression, my grandmother worked as a seamstress at a department store in Chicago. As more and more people in her department got laid off, she learned how to do their jobs so she could keep hers, and in due time, she taught my mother what she knew: lost arts.

 

The Bucket List

Spending an evening tending a bar has always been on my bucket list. Tending the bar with a goth masochist in the lobby of a theater in Tokyo during a production of The Rocky Horror Show on Halloween was not on my bucket list. It was not on the list because things like that just don’t happen…until they do.

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I had been to the movie at least a dozen times back in high school and could toss a slice of toast with the best of them, so when I got an email asking if I might be interested in volunteering for Front of House for the production, I jumped at it. If I agreed to do at least two, I could watch the show for free. Sounded like a good deal to me. I had never really done much volunteer work and I liked the idea of being at least marginally associated with the production.

So I did opening night where they had me handing out programs and generally making myself useful. And I got to see the show, which was at least twice as much fun as I had thought it would be. I mean, I hadn’t done the Time Warp in over thirty years, but it’s just like falling off a bicycle.

Although throwing things is an integral part of the experience, I didn’t. This is Tokyo, after all. Audience members were only allowed to toss the items in the goody bags available for purchase at the bar. They included confetti (instead of rice) for the wedding scene, a sheet of newspaper to keep off the rain, two playing cards, a rubber glove and a (Styrofoam) hot dog. At times I’m an old fashioned purist; if it wasn’t a real hot dog, it didn’t count. Shouting obscenities at the appropriate moments was enough.

I did both shows on Halloween, wearing a minimalist costume of tiny witch’s hat and chin wart. For the matinee, I took tickets and reminded people to turn off their cell phones. I guess I did a good job because I got promoted to the bar for the evening performance, which being on a Saturday night AND Halloween, was pretty crazy. And a lot of fun. Theater-goers tend to be very thirsty.

There was a director’s talk after the matinee and there I learned just how special the experience was. It is very difficult to get a license to produce the show; only the director’s persistent whining made it possible (his words, not mine!) And the cast, all talented actors and singers who were willing to don corsets and fishnet tights and march around in front of a bunch of strangers…well, all I can say is yet again I was blessed with a one-of-a-kind opportunity. They are the salt in my food, the wind in my willows, the breath in my lungs.

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Perspectives

I went to a performance of Perspectives by the Tokyo Artistic Theatre Ensemble. It was a selection of performance pieces reflecting inspiration from this lovely painting by Frankie Cihi.

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The delightful undulations of the leaves and flowers in the painting gave physical form to something new in my life. Every now and then, at unexpected moments, I see tiny twinkles of light. They appear in the corner of my eye, almost out of view, grabbing my attention away from whatever else I might be doing. What are those twinkles? Some sort of energy? The souls of fireflies past? What’s left behind after a baby’s first smile?

I began to wonder if they might be spillover from some sort of parallel energy universe that we can’t see but is all around us. There could be a constant cascade of sparkling light pouring from the spout of my tea kettle. Perhaps when I close my eyes, the lights appear, and when I open them they are gone, like some sort of cosmic game of Peek-a-boo. Perhaps it’s where brownie points come from and where they go when we redeem them. Perhaps we are constantly surrounded by great swirling masses of multicolored light and hope and good intentions but we just can’t open our eyes wide enough to let them in.

I find comfort in believing that could be true. Some people believe in the Tooth Fairy. Which is more likely?

Finding Balance

Give me tuna or prepare yourself for the consequences.
 Give me tuna. Now. There is no “or else”.

There’s something going on in the balance of the celestial energy and it’s having a perverse effect on me. I think it began in June when Twitchy arrived. I’ve lived with cats on and off for most of my life, but had never taken on a feral one. Neither of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. People who have recently quit smoking should not be expected to have this amount of patience, but six months later, we’ve come a long way. I have very few scratches on my hands and arms, she hasn’t peed in the bed in ages, and when she’s in the mood, she’s almost aggressively cuddly. This is GOOD.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERALast week, Karlina came to visit. We’ve known each other for about fifteen years but had never met, I had never even heard her voice. She was my main contact at Sesame Workshop when I was liaison between New York and NHK. As she put it, she inherited me when Veronica (who it turns out is NOT Jewish) got promoted and we were in nearly daily contact by email. She’s been going to Cambodia, where she does good things, now and then for the past ten years and decided to drop by on the way home. We had a grand time, as I knew we would. This is GOOD.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve also started going to the theater again. I love the theater but had been badly disappointed and painfully overcharged a few times in recent years so pretty much gave up. I knew there was English language community theater, but assumed it was a bunch of ex-pat housewives with zero talent and too much time on their hands. I was wrong. There are some truly gifted actors out there doing it simply for the love of the art and I’ve been lucky to see a good bit of it in the past year. Pictured above is the lovely and talented Rachel Walzer who recently appeared in God of Carnage. I’ve had the pleasure of directing her in narrations but had never seen her perform live. She was GOOD.

A friend and I had a discussion about whether there is energy because there is life or there is life because there is energy. I’m a supporter of the former; I believe energy is created when life begins. My friend believes energy continues when life no longer exists. I’m starting to think maybe he’s right, but not in a reincarnation sort of sense. Maybe when life is gone, its energy goes someplace else. Maybe it does create new life. That’s possible, but maybe it does something else. It might become an idea or inspire someone to do something great. Maybe it makes the bread rise or the rain fall or the flowers bloom or the sun set. Or maybe it inspires just the right amount of empathy and kindness at just the right time to make a difference in someone’s life. That would be GREAT.