Saturday, October 11, 2014

Grasshopper Guidepost: Back to Basics

In my previous post, I talked about a near nervous breakdown I had that I am only coming out of. To say this place wasn’t dark and scary is a lie. I began to hate the very thing I loved, entertaining others and making them laugh. On top of that, I got so into my work, that I neglected to spend time with my friends. I was less like a ventriloquist, comedian and writer and more like a mad scientist.

In my line of work, they always talk about chronic unemployment. There is the actor/waiter cliché, or the comedian/doorman, the lesser known one but more or less understood here in New York. Sure, everyone talks about how fabulous it is when the phone starts to ring, the calendar fills up, and things start to happen. You are the party guest everyone wants to suck up to.  They always talk about the good stuff. Don’t get me wrong. Being a working performer is a gift from God. Being able to make others laugh is also a gift as well. I am lucky to have been able to put both together this year.

However, they never talk about what happens when things get busy. Yes, when the work comes in faster than you can handle it. Or when you rip up your closet looking for a wardrobe piece and stub your toe. The worst part is, you have no clue where the wardrobe piece is and you need it with the greatest of urgency. They never talk about the crazy hours and how they don’t cease. Then here you are, successful. Everyone is congratulating you. As your bathroom looks like a drag queen vandalized the place because there is so much damn glitter, you realize again, yes, you are working. Yet no one ever told you that you would be too tired to enjoy your success, because you are constantly moving and running like you are in a never ending marathon where you are forced to sprint. 

An opera singer friend of mine from high school, Deborah, who is a soprano that tours the world currently, read my blog. She told me she was at the same place, feeling the same way. This was good to know, because truth, I felt like a huge brat for even feeling tired. Studying her whole life, Deborah got her BM from Eastman School of Music and her MM from University of Texas. Each year, she sings with the Wagner Festival in Germany. Yes, she too has chased her goals, is reaping the reward, and is too tired to enjoy it. I felt like I wasn’t isolated and terminally unique, but it is an odd place to be that no one ever talks about.

Perspective is the key. I remember as the meltdown was happening, I actually started weeping on the phone to my mother. She told me that yes, she has always wanted a pool and now that she has one, she can hardly enjoy it because she is so busy having to maintain it. My folks also remodeled a rental property in South Carolina. While the renovations are beautiful and the view is beach front, my mother more or less has to deal with the upkeep, renter drama, and real estate agency. She reminded me of this too. Every rose has it’s thorn I suppose.

A year and a half ago, I was having the same type of meltdown but on a much smaller scale. I was in the midst of a project in a recording studio, and the telegrams were picking up. Of course I was scheduled to be Marilyn Monroe, had to curl my hair, and was crippled without my hairspray, and I was on a tight schedule. I went to the pharmacy, and there was my former dance teacher from college, Madison Kahn, having a meltdown because they couldn’t find her son’s much needed asthma medicine in the computer.

To give you an idea, Madison is a former Rockette who is still beautiful even in her 40s. She has also been Anita in West Side Story on Broadway. I still remember having her for class. Point blank Madison explained, “I was a Rockette, then I was on Broadway, now I am a mom.” Some found her mean, probably because she wanted people to take the class seriously. I, on the other hand, was always inspired by her love for teaching and the generosity that she so freely gave the knowledge she had. Madison wanted these young actors to know that her class was just as important as their four hour Method Acting Seminar that they attended twice weekly, and it was. You never know when being able to dance might get you the job.

Madison recognized me, and we began to talk. I told her I was losing my mind too, because my work schedule was crazy. Without missing a beat, she reminded me, “Never complain about working.” Now I remembered why I loved this woman. #RESPECT.

Recently, I have found myself thinking of her and all my teachers from college. I realized history unfortunately repeated itself in a way. When I was 18, I had a similar meltdown where I had moved to New York and felt overwhelmed by the demands of my classes. The city was big, I knew no one, and all my school mates were trying to make their mark. Stressed, I was losing my mind. After a diet of coffee and nothing caused a neurotic fit in dance class with the notorious Joelle Edwards, I was sent to talk to someone at my college because they were "concerned."

I still remember Sarah Bowman. She had been adjunct at Yale and taught at Howard where she was dean of drama for a bit. Sarah said to me, “You got in here, you are talented. Let’s get that out of the way. That being said, you want what you want and you want it now. It’s a process. You need to trust the process.”

Sarah Bowman me pegged. And as I was melting down, screaming that my hard work was never going to pay off her words echoed through my head. I still saw the shaking, crying basketcase so eager to please. I thought time and some self-esteem sent her packing. Guess not. Guess she was living here rent free the entire time. Guess she was waiting to come out as this past year saw me working like a dog to advance to the next level, seeing some almosts that were not meant and crying every step of the way. Not being able to let go of anything that came my way, but rather having my bloody claw marks on every little thing. Oh and not only was coffee becoming a food group, but I also think at this point it might have been my blood type. 

After remembering my dance teacher Madison’s words, and Sarah’s frank talking to, something told me the answer to my problems was just at my finger tips. In my apartment, I still have the notes from all my old college acting classes. They were written in my crazy 20 year old short hand. Some were notes on how to take care of my voice. There was a lot about breathing from the diaphragm that I thought to be useless at the time but did anyway. Oh and then it was breathing, breathing, breathing. At the time, breathing was the Goddamn bane of my existence.

Then further along were notes from movement teachers on how to relax, slow down, and take care of my body. After which were notes from my singing teacher, more breathing. Not to mention notes from my acting teachers about relaxing my devil brow, the thing I inherited from my father. Lastly was a note from my dear playwrighting teacher about trimming the fat in my well written script. A little bit of a wake up from the past call since the blogs I write have been verbose as of late.
At that stage in my life, I had loved the Strasberg Method. However, my mind raced like that of every BFA student with the question, “When the hell am I going to use this? When will I get to the good stuff like Shakespeare?”

Add in the young attitude iconoclastic mantra about breaking all the rules because they were old and useless. Truth, one must know the rules before they break them. And why fix something that is actually pretty good? More truth, when people tell say that theatre school does not teach you how to be a working performer, they are wrong. Actually, they are goons. While you cannot control how you look or what mood the casting director is in, technique is the one thing you can control. If you shine as you show up, eventually you will be noticed. Technique also gives you the ability to shine during a long run or film shoot. 

Then I remembered my vocal production teacher Aaron, a Broadway vet who also toured the world with several operas, that in order to be a working performer one had to be in good physical shape, eat sensibly, and take care of their bodies. This too was in my notes. Yes, it was there in black and white under some more notes about breathing and not using my throat I had from a midterm jury. Now I knew why I was flipping out, feeling lousy, and losing my voice. Aaron’s class could be cumbersome to be at sometimes, the bane of my young performer existence. Yet here he was digging me out of my current quandary.

Of course in between class notes were jokes I had written. Some were on the bus or subway between classes. Others were scribbles of ideas that came into my head as others did scene work and I kept myself occupied. Most young actors doze off in general when others are working on scenes, which isn’t good. Still, I was off task in a constructive way. A lot of what I wrote was terrible, but some were gems that I still use.

Then I realized something very important. All these notebooks were before my puppet children and I got on television for any reason. This was before I had fans and fan contests. These scribbles were from the days where I inhabited mildew filled basements in New York by night earning my wings. I didn’t have an ego, I knew I hadn’t earned one. Rather, my only aim was to be funny onstage, a good actor all around, and a heck of a writer.

Since that time I had been on television, acted on stage and screen, and even wrote a book. Yet I felt like I had no steam and if everyone who supported me knew, they would be so disappointed. I was so drained, cynical and jaded. I had nothing left to give, and wasn’t going to get where I needed to go. Why keep going? There was always someone doing better than me. That is when it clicked, if I wanted to get out of my black hole I had to go back to basics.

To inspire myself, I am reading plays again by playwrights who inspire me. When I have downtime, I am taking webinars and watching films that inspire me. I am also leaning on my network of performer and writer friends, who gently remind me that I am not alone and that there is help getting to the next level. With me, I have notebooks where my ideas are jotted down. I am getting onstage again. When I am not onstage, I am in front of my mirror perfecting my ventriloquism and puppet work. While it’s good, I have developed some terrible habits over the years that need to be killed in their tracks. Through my notoriety, I have used that, resting on my laurels, and have developed some very bad habits. So I am fixing them.

I wanted to take my new found zeal somewhere. As if there was an answer to my prayers, someone messaged me with a spot. Excited, I went down, had fun, and made people laugh.

As I graced the stage, there was a part of me that was nervous because during my semi-nervous breakdown I was not getting up early as much, and didn’t feel as sharp. Stepping behind the mic, I heard the voice of my old friend Barry Lawrence, the one who had literally been my big brother from a different mother. Yes, poor Barry. The one who should have been on Letterman but drank and coked his way out of a promising comedy career. Calling me from the past, Barry’s voice whispered, “Just be yourself and the jokes will come, April.”

Yes the memo to be myself again. Yes, myself. Not the girl on TV, the one fans recognized with her puppets, or the too smart feminist who somehow published a book. Yes, myself, not this idiotic persona I had adopted as I saw some success. Yes, myself, not this desperate neurotic who had to prove to the world she deserved to be a working performer. They didn’t hire me because they made a mistake. My audiences didn’t laugh just to be nice. I deserved what I was getting because I was hard working and talented. At that moment, I decided I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. And I began to riff and got a laugh. The rest of the set rocked, and so did all my fellow comedians.

When I got offstage, I was greeted by my comedy peers. I felt like I was a part of a community again, and not some outsider. Sure, the jealousy and politics had poisoned what I loved, but I had let it. When I got offstage, I spoke to some friends of mine. We had all done a talking head video shoot for a television program the week before. One friend, Sarafina, told me they had spoken about how funny I was after I left. This was a feather in my cap and made my night. Mind you this was after finding out I had a surprise royalty check in the mail that morning from my book.

Yes, this video shoot was last Friday when I had stumbled across my old college notes. My teacher Laura Steinberg was right. It’s amazing what happens when you breathe, relax your brow, and don’t mug at the audience. When you are where your feet are, anything is possible.

As I thought of Laura I thought of Michael Roy, my movement teacher from Australia and an ex-Merce Cunningham dancer. He had told me during my school days I would do well because I was both “gorgeous and hysterical.” Michael had reminded us that we only got one body, and so it was our job to take care of it. The man had always given me “A’s,” but if he could see me now he would give me a big old “F” for fail on that basic life test.

After Michael Roy came the thought of my actor ex, Ben. Before doing New York, Ben had done Chicago. While a spoiled trust fund idiot, Ben said one thing that stuck with me, “You picked the hardest profession there is. You have enough against you. Don’t give yourself anymore problems.”

Here I was, thinking I had come so far when really I wasn’t so far from the same mess I was when I was a little fireball starting her journey. Maybe the little fireball wasn’t all bad, she got me this far and she proved a lot of dissenters wrong. That same little fireball grew into a working performer and published novelist. Not many of her naysayers have the same bragging rights. Not to mention a lot of her old teachers are proud when she tells them she is a working performer. They might question why she speaks in third person, but she knows she had a lot of people cheering for her and still does.

Being a working artist is a gift, and so was turning 30. I know I am finally hitting my stride after an arduous climb and a lot of hard work. To keep on track, I am becoming educated about nutrition and am painstakingly eating sensibly. I am accepting things don’t happen when I want. Maybe it’s why I am a puppeteer and writer, it gives me my control fix. However, when one receives a gift they should say thank you. So I thank the universe by eating well, getting plenty of rest, and taking care of my body.

Somewhere, an old studio teacher of mine, probably Rob who taught Thai Chi, is laughing and saying, “Ahhhh grasshopper.”

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