Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Uncomfortable Truths Part I: George Carlin and Seven Words of Rain

"There are seven words a politician would never say:  'Truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, and motherfucker!'"

Yes, NYC's Councilman Mark Levine actually dropped the MF-bomb to honor the unveiling of our long-awaited George Carlin Way (W121st Street between Morningside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue -- a block from where Carlin grew up "because," according to the NY Daily News, "the Catholic Church did not want his name displayed on the stretch where Corpus Christi Church is located."

That line was written by the great comic Eddie Brill, one of many comedians, family, and friends of Carlin who braved rain and wind to watch the Way's unveiling, and got a huge laugh from a crowd who knew all too well that George Carlin was a great champion of truth, exposing hypocrisy, and challenging dubious assumptions and boundaries:

This country was founded by a group of slave owners who told us "all men are created equal." That is what's known as being stunningly -- stunningly -- full of shit!!

Yet he was not always a notorious truth-teller.

He began his career with clean-cut material, matched by his clean cut hair, suit and skinny tie, where he delivered innocuous routines like Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman.

In 1971, with the release of his boundary-thrashing grammy-winning album FM & AM, he put the "Old George Carlin" to rest, and unveiled the "New George Carlin" -- or rather, the REAL George Carlin -- who made up his own mind, said what he thought without apology, pulled no punches, and changed the world of comedy and media forever.

He is best known, of course, for his infamous Seven Dirty Words routine on his 1971 album Class Clown where, like Lenny Bruce before him, he challenged assumptions about what was OK to say or think -- what "certain words" meant -- and why so much thought had gone into what can't be said.
We have more ways to describe dirty words than we actually have dirty words. That seems a little strange to me. It seems to indicate that somebody was awfully interested in these words. They kept referring to them.
They called them bad words, dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, coarse, in poor taste, unseemly, street talk, gutter talk, locker room language, barracks talk, bawdy, naughty, saucy, raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, lascivious, indecent, profane, obscene, blue, off-color, risqué, suggestive, cursing, cussing, swearing, and all I can think of was "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits!" ... That was my original list. I knew it wasn't complete. But it was a starter set.
Unlike the countless comics since who pad their mediocre humor with nervous laughter elicited by those Seven Words, Carlin's biggest laughs come not from the words themselves, but from his observations about them -- and about our use of language, what we allow and what we prohibit and why -- in short, the values we profess and impose on others, as opposed to the values hidden in our actions.

In Class Clown, he points to contradictions, hypocrisies, and the arbitrariness of labeling certain words as "bad":

"There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television. What a ratio that is! ... They'd have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. ... There are no 'bad words'... [there are] bad thoughts, bad intentions ... and words...!"

In Occupation: Foole, his 1973 follow-up to Class Clown, he further prodded at why we believe these words will "infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."

"Fuck," he observes, "leads a double-life. ... It means 'to make love' ... the act that begins life. So there's the word hanging around with words like 'love' and 'life' ... And yet it's also a word that we use to hurt each other with... It's one you save toward the end of the argument...'Fuck you and everyone who looks like you!'"

It was this more nuanced version of the "Seven Dirty Words" routine that WBAI aired uncensored exactly 41 years ago on October 30, 1973 that launched the landmark case and ruling which to this day governs free speech in broadcast media.

We can never underestimate Carlin's spirit to always question morality handed down to us by others:

If a thing is deemed "bad" ask why. Is it truly "bad/hurtful" or is it an arbitrary device to control others?  And if it is hurtful, then ask whom does it hurt and how? And what exactly is doing the hurting? Is it the word, or the intention behind the word?

And, as Carlin, Brill, and Levine would concur: always, always look for the underlying truths beneath the surface of what we are told, no matter how uncomfortable these truths may make us, no matter how much they show us what we'd rather not see, no matter how much they may rain on our parade.

Because a little rain can wash away a multitude of ills. And George Carlin fans aren't afraid of a little rain, anyway.

To be continued...

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Readiness Is All -- So YIP to It!!

"I find bad poetry to be extremely motivating...."

Thus quoth our beloved Mary Crisman, of YIP Podcast fame, in response to my eager plea for a new podcast (her pod-partner, Tammy, had informed us that the long-awaited cast was ready, but that Mary was "holding it hostage").

Drastic measures were necessary.

I warned Mary that I "once wrote Karim Nagi a limerick for his birthday and he has never fully recovered..."

To which Brave Ms. Mary replied: "Bring. It. On."

That was in April.

I toyed with a few ideas for a week or so, glanced through RhymeZone for some ideas ... Nothing "clicked" and I put it in the back of my mind and secretly hoped the YIP ladies would forget the offer altogether...

Back in High School I'd learned a bunch of Shakespearean sonnets for a contest and got hooked on iambic pentameter. So I tried my hand writing them and found I had a knack with rhyme and meter.

I'd write them as gifts for friends, or random silly stuff -- which went over much better than my usual overwrought musings.

But somewhere in my late twenties I pretty much stopped writing.

Each year, I wrote less stuff -- bits and pieces now and then, an occasional poem, a monologue or short play or two. I'm not sure whether this was because my main focus had switched to performing, or that I had started to lose confidence in my writing ability.

In '96, I took a class in writing a solo show and hated everything that came out of me -- the writing, the way I performed it. To this day I have never watched the showcase performance video.

There was a lot happening with me emotionally and psychologically at that time, but the bottom line was that my standards were getting higher and higher -- way beyond what I was able to produce. So I found myself mercilessly crushing even the beginnings of any idea that flickered in my mind.

And this thinking seeped into other areas of creativity: I increasingly doubted my ability to act, improvise, or even do stand-up comedy.

In other words, wanting to create good art demolished my ability to create any art. And since I was too afraid to suck, I stopped.

There is an excellent talk by Ira Glass that is variously referred to "The Gap" or "On Taste" that addresses this kind of creative block, where he says:
For the first couple of years, what you're making isn't that good ...but your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making ... is still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that point ... they quit. 

So he advises anyone who is stuck at that phase to just crash on through and create a lot of work, and remember:  "It takes a while .... and you just have to fight your way through that." And even though Ira himself was still finding his feet on This American Life at that time, I had heard similar advice from other artists.

But at that point I didn't know if I wanted to write or act or go back to comedy.

So I started to bellydance.

And it was in dance, and with encouragement from various teachers and fellow students whom I admired, that I found myself moved by the music and the juicy bellydance moves, that I couldn't help but dance!

And second, I began first to develop a tolerance for "The Gap", and for not caring so much if I was "good" yet.
Ranya Renée, photo by Lina Jang

Ranya Renée, who is most responsible for transforming me into a professional dancer, challenged us:  "Dare to be boring!"

In her Performance Prep workshop series, she encouraged us to come from a place of feeling, not worrying so much about how we looked but focusing on connecting to the music.

And, most importantly, she helped us lose our fear of sucking.

"Because sometimes," she'd grin, "You have to let yourself suck if you want succeed!" We groaned, but the message was clear: Work hard, do your best, but don't get stressed if you're not as good as you want to be.

You'll get there.

And slowly, the paralysis melted ... I began to take Dancemeditation classes, where Dunya encouraged us to connect writing to dance. I felt awful and awkward ... but I wrote.

And then I started blogging ... then writing and performing some comedy again ... even doing a little Shakespeare now and then.

And I took classes in comedy, sketch writing ... and creating a solo show.

So here it was April 2014, I had every reason to be confident in my writing abilities.

And once again I was stuck.

Months went by. Then in late June the YIP Podcast thread on Facebook picked up again. Other listeners started griping:

Where was the darned podcast?!?!?

Mary quipped, "I'd like to blame my glacial pace on Carol's blatant refusal to furnish me with a bad poem...."

She promised the next YIP would be forthcoming, regardless of my poetic lapse. But as I read through the chain of endearingly silly comments, I started feeling inspired.

After all, this was YIP Podcast for crissakes -- the best, funniest, most appreciative audience around -- specifically asking for a bad poem.

Yes -- BAD!

Laughing, I sat down around 11pm on June 24 and, in about a half-hour, banged out fourteen lines of perfect iambic pentameter Fakespeare silliness:

O why hast thou forsaken us, dear YIP
When but a snip or quip would surely sate
Our thirst for podcast YIPpage?? Yet your grip
Still fiercely holds the treasured aural bait!
You tempt and tease your audience too much
Dear YIPsters -- we grow barb'rous at your gate
And rain upon you thund'rous cries--as such
Demand that you RELEASE THE YIP, lest Fate
Confound you with a YIP-borne curse so dire
That all the goddesses of YIP would weep
To plead on your behalf; but we require
The long awaited YIP held in your keep
     And thus will not relent till it is freed.
     For once released, the YIP brings joy, indeed!

A few days later, I read it to my parents who got a kick out of it, and remarked that it was strange took such a short time to write. "Sometimes it can take days or weeks to finish a poem," I said. "Even though it's only fourteen lines, it's kind of like a puzzle. It can take a while to fit it all together."

"Well, maybe you had been working on it all along," my father said. "Like with any problem. You focus on it a bit, and then walk away for however much time is necessary. Then a while later the solution comes to you all at once."

This, I think, is true, not only with this bit of poetic silliness, but with what I had experienced for years as a "blocked artist; perhaps it wasn't simply that I was "blocked" -- that I could have pushed through it with a blast of willed confidence -- but rather that I wasn't ready.

But I was getting ready ... slowly.

As I focused on developing more external aspects of my personal and creative life -- on the craft and technique of dance, the basics of joke writing, improvisation skills -- my unconscious was gradually assembling larger works which emerged quickly once they and I were ready.

To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet: "The readiness is all."

And while that context had more to do with fatedness, I prefer to think in terms of patience and trust: First -- try to sit down and do the work. If I can't work, then I don't force it. I'll do other things. Or do nothing for a while.

But I continue to listen, and trust that whatever I'm trying to create is brewing.

And once it's ready -- and I'm ready -- it will let me know.....

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

James Gandolfini, Peter Jensen, and the Importance of Acting from Wholeness

Ten years ago, James Gandolfini was interviewed on Inside the Actors Studio. He spoke candidly about emotional honesty both onstage and off -- particularly dealing with intense and taboo emotions like rage.

And although it took a few years to sink in ... his words changed my life.

I have found myself revisiting those words over the years, in daily life and in my performing work -- most recently in my current scene class at the esteemed T. Schreiber Studio, with my teacher Peter Jensen. (Yes, I'm totally psyched to be working with this studio again!)

Here is the full quote (the first part can be seen here starting at 7:50, and the last bit is continued here) but I've highlighted the sentences that stuck with me:
James Gandolfini on "Inside the Actors Studio"
One of the major things in an [acting] class... is to get up in front of people and just start to be able to make a fool of yourself. ... I remember one thing [my first acting teacher] did for me that ... got me to a new level was--  I had such anger back then... When you're young ... everybody does. You're pissed and you're not sure why. That's probably why you're all sitting here [at the Actor's Studio], because you want to express something and you don't know what it is. And she kept telling me, "Go ahead, go ahead." And I never wanted to. ... Something happened ... 
I think she told a partner to do something to me, and he did it. And I destroyed the place, you know, just all that crap they have onstage. And then she said at the end of it -- I remember my hands were bleeding a little bit, and the other guy had gotten off -- and she goes, 'See, everybody's fine ... nobody's hurt. This is what you have to do. This is what people pay for. If you don't want to do it, get off. But this is what people pay for to see. They don't want to see the guy next door...'  And that was a big step for me because then I could start to go to where my anger was ... and realize that I could control it.
Although I had not done theater for a while -- and didn't plan to as I'd started bellydancing -- I thought of this interview again and again. It became a heartening refrain for emotional, psychological, and creative integrity:

"Be able to make a fool of yourself."  Go ahead and lose it, because "this is what people pay to see."

Years later, when I returned to scene study class, Peter echoed this refrain, encouraging us to allow those behaviors and qualities most repugnant to us, because "the character is basically yourself under certain circumstances."

James Lipton of "Inside the Actors Studio"
In acting, we often forget this.

We get so involved with "creating" a character, that we forget that all we have to work with is ourselves.

Even if we are portraying a character that is wildly different from us -- so wholly anathema to the person we'd like to be that it frightens us -- onstage and off we are still always ourselves.

We must reach inside ourselves to find an authentic seed of the character, or we'll end up faking our way through each line, hoping the audience doesn't catch on.

Even if they don't notice or don't care because we've turn in an entertaining "fake" performance, it won't be satisfying  because we know it's fake. And we know the audience deserves better than that.

So this is what I've been working on in class -- finding those uncomfortable "seeds" in myself and letting them be felt and seen.

A few weeks ago, Peter assigned a scene from Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind between a man who had just beaten his wife to the point of brain damage, and the man's mother ... me.

Like much of Shepard's work, it's a twisted comedic melodrama that nests disturbing emotional truths within extreme characters and interactions that stretch plausibility. In our scene, my character is spoon-feeding her grown son "your favorite [soup]... Cream of Broccoli I made it special in the blender ... just how you like it!", as he lies tight-lipped in his childhood bed.

She babies, then bullies him, then goes on about her own life, and babies him again until he explodes. And she explodes right back. And it becomes very clear very quickly that she made him into the monster he is.

This woman combines the dark, needy manipulation of Livia Soprano with the saccharine maternal cooing of a Mommie Dearest who will do anything to get what she wants -- and what she wants is to make her Golden Son stay with her forever and ever and ever and ever.

In short: she is everything I hate about women.

Peter, I think, knew I was less than comfortable with this character; plus the scene started with a massive page-long monologue that would take me a while to memorize, so he suggested that my partner Adam and I improvise a scene that occurs sometime before the action of the play.

Peter Jensen
Peter Jensen in the indie film "A Memory"
So we went about six years back, to the evening Adam's character decides to announce to his mother that he has asked his girlfriend to marry him. This, we figured, would hit every button for the mother.

As the scene began, I had no idea how I would react to this news, and I was surprised to find my/herself simply choosing not to hear him (this, I later realized, was my grandmother's strategy -- if you hear something you don't want to hear, just block it out and continue with your own narrative).

And the scene became a nasty little comedy -- of him trying to tell his mother how much he loves his finaceé ... and of her going on about Wheel of Fortune, and how he should find himself a pretty girl like Vanna White. In short, invalidating -- annihilating -- him with each exchange.

And when he finally gets upset, she/I innocently asks why he is upset, "and maybe this is why you can't find a good woman!" At each turn she forces her own reality down his throat until he threatens to leave.

And then her threats came out:  "If you leave, don't think about coming back" -- anything, anything to get him to stay.

When finally, through sheer, brute force, he slams his own reality (as in the real reality) down her throat so that she has no choice but to hear it ... I felt a desperate, searing, percolating rage ... I bellowed like a beast and raised my hand to strike his face.

His eyes flashed wide and the other students held their breath. And in that moment I felt a rush of power. He had backed down!! ... But then I saw my partner, Adam -- not my wayward strikeworthy son.

And immediately, I realized, "Whoa ... so that's why people do this -- bullying, intimidating -- anything to control the other person." And then an impulse to rein it in reached up inside me, not wanting to hurt, not wanting to control ... And my hand stopped.

But then I realized that this is what made me not her. We all have these rages, these screaming, struggling infant needs to make the world into ourselves -- but most of us have the impulse not to hurt, while this character does not.

And I needed to let go of that part of myself if I was going to be true to her.

So as my hand was raised to hit him, I felt an inner hand release control. And I ripped into him again.

And his eyes flattened back into his character's cold defiance. He battered me with maelstrom cruel truths and stormed off. I wailed for a moment and then, realizing he was gone, true to character calmly brushed myself off and went back to Wheel of Fortune.

Of course the moment the scene was over, and I was myself again, I was teary and shaken through the feedback session. After a breath, Peter began, "Both of you ... went somewhere new here."

We glanced at each other, nodding "yes."

Tears slid from my eyes as we continued -- partly because I had frightened myself by losing control (even though I hadn't fully lost it), partly because I had never consciously allowed myself to experience that level of destructive rage, but mostly because I finally understood this character and felt her icy echo in myself.

And although I have seen this behavior in others, I had never understood the impetus behind it -- never felt it fully from the inside.

So to be able to say -- "Yes, I have this in me too" -- was a blow to my ego, because I would like to believe I am for the most part kind and goodhearted and well meaning, that I would never do what this woman does.

And yet, as an actor, I must do those things; I must truthfully allow those forbidden parts of myself.

I must be my whole self.

When we perform, our audience needs that -- anything less and both they and we are gypped.

Part of the reason we prize actors like James Gandolfini so highly is that they reach those hidden, forbidden parts of the self; they express what we can't, fully and without reservation. They both express extremes cathartically for us, and reassure us that such powerful emotion can be erupt fully, truthfully, and safely -- invoked within the containment of a theatrical play, and deeply humanized through a character with which we empathize.

And in this way, a great performance opens something in us, gives us access to those parts of ourselves that we dare not see, much less express -- allowing us, perhaps, a path towards those uncomfortable emotions that we try to deny, granting a sliver towards our own wholeness.

Because when we deny uncomfortable emotions, attempting to crush their very existence -- that is when they do become dangerous, looking for breaks in our armor through which they can erupt with with all the vengeance of a repressed creature. And we become afraid of ourselves (and, consequently, afraid of others).

Theater -- great storytelling of any kind -- expresses, metabolizes, and humanizes what seems most foreign to us, and in so doing brings the performer and audience to a greater understanding and wholeness.