Stepping into Magic: an actor's journey…

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them" ~William Shakespeare

Archive for the month “March, 2015”

The Actor vs. The Unknown.

image      I recently read a blog post, An Actor’s Dilemma by Bobby Steggert, that reflected a lot of my same feelings on my journey as a theatre artist. What affected me most was reading it while unemployed and going through an experience with a surgery in my family. I’m always drawn to the concept of art imitating life and vice versa, I find that many challenges and obstacles that the actor faces on stage and in their craft are those that happen in “real life.” My partner showed me a short video with Dame Judi Dench sharing advice on acting. What she expressed about working on a character sounded like advice that could be given to anyone having a hard time figuring out who they are and what exactly they are doing on this planet.
When faced with a struggle on stage (what does my character want) and off stage (am I going to be eligible for health insurance) the actor is consistently wrestling with uncertainty. This uncertainty is prevalent in the human existence, and those tools we use as actors to face this beast (living in the moment, listening, breathing, flexibility), can also be used when dealing with matters concerning “real life” struggles, including the health of a loved one.

Many of us have experienced a hospital waiting room at some point in our lives, either for ourselves or others. A few blessed people may never have had to sit for extended periods of time, waiting, wondering, pacing… the hospital waiting room is filled with the unknown. You go to a hospital for a procedure and even though it may be the most routine and highly successful procedure, it’s still scary as hell to wait to hear if your family member got through it all okay. There are constant pokes and prods from your imagination and you have the choice to talk and listen to those around you, or be quiet and sit still with your thoughts, distract yourself with your phone or a book, drink cups of coffee and/or walk laps around the hospital… It’s a time to reflect on relationships and inner strength or go batshit crazy.

image      I will admit, there was a part of me that was constantly intrigued by the hospital staff and the hospital itself while waiting for my Mom to undergo surgery. My father and I received all of the updates and information, before, during and after the procedure. I made sure to memorize and learn everything they told us. I was also doing my best to be the point person for family and friends who were inquiring about the progress of our dear patient. These actions were what helped me through the period of the unknown, being active. (Another admission, I am a loyal fan of Grey’s Anatomy, so every once in a while I would watch the nurses and doctors and decide if they would make good characters on the show, or if they reminded me of anyone on the show.) When we were finally given the green light to visit my Mom after she was out of surgery another form of uncertainty took place. We watched her progress like hawks, absorbing all details the ICU nurses could give us. Watching the monitors for her heart rate and oxygen levels. Listening to her voice and watching her face for signs of pain or discomfort.

My cousin is an ICU nurse who spent a lot of time with me and my family explaining things and even interacting with hospital staff on our behalf if we needed. I watched her patience, humor and intelligence with awe. In her life she is responsible for so many lives and feelings and knowledge. I wondered if I would have made a good person of science and health, if I could have been a nurse or a doctor. I have a really good memory and a lot of patience. But then I remembered how my stomach flips at the sight of blood, probably the same way some people feel about walking out on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Another person who was like a rock for my dad and I was my mom’s sister who is a chaplain at another hospital. Her peaceful energy and knowledge of all things hospital helped us feel like everything was going just as planned. ( My Aunt, Angela Varela has a fantastic Blog of her own called Simple Faith.) She also deals with lives at fragile and transitional moments and has had her experience with loss, tears and uncertainty with her patients. During our week in the hospital taking turns with my mom, making sure she was comfortable, I reflected on how their lives in the hospitals were not that far from my life as an artist. How health and surgery and recovery force humans to deal with the unknown, uncertainty and reality. What helped all of us during this process was communication, listening, breathing (especially for my Mom after the procedure) and flexibility. Things did and didn’t go as planned. There were quiet moments of peace and tense moments of alarm.

We brought my Mom home to her sister’s house for a week before taking her back down to New Mexico. While she rested and recovered I spent a lot of time reading and reflecting. The Denver weather was beginning to warm and my aunt’s backyard was a place for solace and fresh air.

image    Outside of my Aunt’s house there is a wild cat named Uno, who has been visiting my Aunt and Uncle since he was a kitten. They feed him and talk to him and sometimes if he lets them they can get a few pets in. He lives in a life of uncertainty, an alley cat, living on the streets. I would watch him from time to time, his grace and confidence that could quickly turn to fear and skittishness if someone approached too fast. He lives completely in the moment. Then there was a day with the squirrel. I watched for about an hour, entranced as if I was watching a nature show on television, this delicate dance between two wild creatures trying to get food. At first Uno wasn’t having it, he chased the squirrel up a tree and around the yard. But the squirrel never gave up. Eventually Uno sat on the grass, away from the food bowl and watched as the squirrel munched on the cat food. Finally, there was a point when both squirrel and cat were sharing a meal. I walked over ever so quietly with my phone to capture video and photos of this unlikely lunch date.

I bring up this Denver “wildlife” story because of the lesson I got from it. These two creatures were both fighting for what they wanted and needed, food. To nourish oneself is an act of survival at the most basic level for all living creatures. The squirrel was willing to face off with a beast that probably could have taken him out, but he has courage to follow through on his objective. This tenacity caused tension, conflict and drama between Squirrel and Cat. The feline antagonist in this story had a choice to make, deflect the squirrel’s constant moves towards the food bowl or to eventually settle down and accept that they both could share a meal. It was the acceptance that moved me in this backyard theatrical show. That moment when there was a peaceful understanding between these two hungry beings. I was reminded of struggle, of challenges, hardships, wants, desires. Every living thing deals with these, and with these situations come uncertainty and the great unknown. Sometimes after what can feel like a perpetual struggle, a moment of acceptance can be a breath of fresh air. Sometimes strength can come with surrender.

image   Bobby Steggert, in his blog post An Actor’s Dilemma, shares: “I come up against a very powerful wall of fear every time I approach the end of an artistic process, and I’m encountering a particularly daunting one right now. It’s because the end of an experience marks such a peculiar confluence of endings — the money, regularity, responsibility, personal and external validation, and sense of purpose all wrapped up into one confusing ball of human angst.” What happens to us when we are faced with struggle and what happens to us when we overcome it?

As an actor I am faced with struggle on and off stage. I can fight for what I want and desire as a character, keeping my objectives in mind but also being accepting of what the other characters on stage are sharing. I must listen, I must breath, I must be flexible. In “real life” I am dealing with student loans, unemployment, exhaustion, physical stamina, being away from my family and a relationship that sometimes has to be long distance depending on where I am working. There is so much uncertainty in my life, but that is part of everyone’s life, not just the life of an artist. Those working in the health field, those facing health issues, those covered in fur and living in the trees and alleyways… all living creatures face the unknown. It’s how we deal with it that makes the difference. So far the tools that I have been given in my profession as an artist (breathing, listening and flexibility) have helped me face these situations as well as an acceptance of uncertainty. My Mom’s health still needs to be monitored, she is still recovering, but we made it through. She is dealing with her own unknown and I continue to face mine. Existence is dynamic, always changing always progressing, full of action. The unknown is scary, sometimes feels impossible, risky,  pointless… yet the struggles, the challenges, the facing of fears are what can continue to enhance our search to find out who we are. It sure isn’t easy…but would it be worth it if it was?
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Reflections on the Ravine and Special Guests!

The revival of Chavez Ravine by Culture Clash at the Kirk Douglas has come to a close. Every night we had people on their feet during the final bow and I could feel a rush of emotion, knowing that this important story was heard. This was a story that hit close to home for so many people in that theater, on the stage and in the seats. Night after night audience members would share memories of that time period, current practices of eminent domain in their communities, comments about their thoughts on the production, thanks to the cast for their storytelling and questions about the process of the production. It was a town hall every night, a staff member would moderate the discussion and one or two cast members would attend as well.

On the nights that I went out I was pleased to meet a variety of young women whose parents had brought them to the show, ranging from 8 to 15 years old. These were young Latina women who reminded me of myself, their dark brown hair and eyes, their shy smiles. I always thanked the parents for bringing their daughters and would tell the girls “This play was written for you, you are the next generation of Maria’s.” This is why I do the work that I do. To know that the next generation of change makers were in the audience, listening to a story about history and politics and family and land, reinforced the reasons why I am an artist.

Read an interview I did for USC’s Digital News “Neon Tommy” by clicking HERE!

Among the youth, the LA theatre goers and the folks who maybe entered a theatre for the first time, we had some very special guests in the audience. We had local actors and politicians, activists and artists, celebrities and veterans and even people who lived in the area of Chavez Ravine during the time period in which the play takes place.

TO watch a promotional video created for our production of Chavez Ravine click HERE!

To watch a promotional video created for our production of Chavez Ravine click HERE!

Lila Downs, a dynamic and beautiful musician, attended the show with her husband/collaborator Paul Cohen. I had the chance to meet them both in the green room after the show, my cheeks were burning from smiling. The music that this woman produces has been a part of my life for some time now. I first encountered her sound while working with Las Meganenas, an all female theatre troupe that I am a part of in Albuququerque, NM. We performed version of her songs in our production and would play her music, along with other Latina greats (Mercedes Sosa, Chavela Vargas, Lhasa) in the house of the various theaters we performed in. Her songs are haunting, folkloric, traditional, bilingual, earthy and full of magic. Her voice is like no other and her version of La Llorona is one of my favorites. She appeared in the movie Frida along with Chavela Vargas and I have always been in awe of her beauty and talent.

Vaneza Mari Calderón, Lila Downs and Myself In the green room after the show!

Vaneza Mari Calderón, Lila Downs and Myself In the green room after the show!

On another evening, unbeknownst to me, the widow of Frank Wilkinson was in the audience. The character of Frank Wilkinson is essential to the story of Chavez Ravine, his integrity and later his downfall are displayed by the heartbreaking performance from Richard Montoya. In his final monologue he says: “My name is Frank Wilkinson. I died in 2006. I was 92. One thing I know for sure, I outlived most of those crooked bastards. I love you Donna!” That night, as I watched him from my place on stage I heard Richard’s voice crack with emotion and he delivered those lines in a way I had never heard before. I have to follow his monologue with my own, but before I could speak I had to steel myself before speaking my lines, his delivery has really effected me. As we were taking our final bows we were instructed to stay on stage and Richard pointed to a woman in the audience and said “Is that who I think it is?” She nodded and he continued “Ladies and Gentlemen Donna Wilkinson is here with us tonight!” I just about fell over. She had been in the front row the entire night. She participated in our talk back sharing her thoughts on how necessary housing is still needed in LA, thanking the Culture Clash boys for their truthful and powerful work, and especially their portrayal of her late husband. She is a force, in the small time I was able to speak with her she embraced me and raved about the play. I was deeply honored to have performed for her, to have been on that stage presenting a story in which a her husband’s life was a profound part of.

With Donna Wilkinson at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

With Donna Wilkinson at the Kirk Douglas Theatre!

When I first began my journey into Latino Theatre I was at the University of New Mexico in a Chicano Theatre class. I was reading Jorge Huerta’s books (Chicano DramaNecessary Theatre) and a collection of Early Works by Luis Valdez. We also explored the work of Carlos Morton, Cherrie Moraga and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, to name a few. I was particularly drawn to one play by Luis Valdez called Bernabe. The main character of this play, named Bernabe, is in love with the earth and the entire play is filled with beautiful magic and heartbreak. I had just begin to explore theatre and acting but in the department there didn’t seem to be enough productions that included Latino/Chicano artists. Some of my classmate in the Chicano Theatre class wrote their own one act plays in the style of Luis Valdez’s actos and they were terrific. I submitted a proposal to the department to direct a show that had three of my classmate’s plays in the first act and Bernabe in the second. I had a cast of 25 actors, most of whom were Latino, and we presented Almas: An Evening of Latino Theatre. Now close to 15 years later I have worked in plays by a number of incredible Latino Playwrights: Lorca, Jose Rivera, Jose Garcia-Davis, Luis Alfaro, Tanya Saracho, Karen Zacarias, Quiara Alegria Judes and now Culture Clash. It’s been an incredible journey that I have ridden with pride and wonder. To have had the opportunity to share my work with one of the Godfathers of Chicano Theatre was a major milestone for me in my career. I was thrilled to share with Luis and Lupe that I directed one of his plays back in the day, during my first steps towards my development as a Teatrista.

With Lupe and Luis Valdez at The City Tavern after a show!

With Lupe and Luis Valdez at The City Tavern after a show!

Living in the story of Chavez Ravine since December 29th was an honor, a blessing, a challenge, a joy and a very necessary part of my path as an artist. I learned from Culture Clash the importance of comedy in storytelling and how much research goes into working on a piece involving untold and untaught history. I am forever thankful to the artists involved in this show, from the actors and musicians on stage to the dressers and crew behind the scenes. I am especially thankful to the producers, education departments and staff at Center Theatre Group for believing in Chicano Theatre being produced at such a high level and with great outreach to the community and students. There is great work being done at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and I am proud to have played that stage.

The marquee at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

The marquee at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (photo found online HERE)

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