Each project that you get involved with as an artist feels a little bit like a new baby, doesn't it? The idea is the conception (or being cast if you are an actor), you feed it with ideas, you nurture it with rehearsals and meetings, you give it as much love as you can, and even when you can't see into the future you try to shape how it will be born into performance.
Last January, we started on a journey with no idea where it would take us. Now 9 months later, it is ready to be born.
We started as a group of 10. Inspired by the fact that the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was coming up, we watched documentaries and movies, researched people, and looked at everything from the abolishment of slavery to Wounded Knee and the Gay Rights Movement, and learned about ways that our lives have been impacted by the Civil Rights Movement that we don't even think of. We also watched documentaries on form and style, design, performance icons, and music, in order to get a sense of what style of piece we wanted to create.
And we wrote.... lord, how we wrote. Each documentary, each song and picture, was inspiration for a writing exercise. We wrote scenes, monologues, dance pieces, songs, and carney freak puppet shows!
We rehearsed and performed them for each other. We put them on film to watch later.
One exercise involved making a list of the non-realism styles of theatre, some of which included: Vaudeville, Burlesque, Clown, Circus, Minstrel, Puppet, Hip-hop, spoken word, carnival, acrobat, TED talk, masque, radio/soundscape, kara walker-esque cutouts, standup/comedy, grand guignol, farce, agitprop, mystery play, satyr play, zar/funeral encantation, flamenco, kabuki, Sanskrit drama, street busking, medicine show... and then being given prompts to create in those modes that we were most intimidated by. Some of these were styles I had never even heard of! But it led to incredible risk-taking and bravery on the part of the artists involved. Because to talk about the Civil Rights movement is to explore some very serious issues. Hard topics that open centuries of wounds. And the trust in the room allowed us to do that. To talk openly, to share, to be silly, and vulnerable, and brave.
Much like the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn't one event and it wasn't always the same people. There was a core group that was there from beginning until now, and then there were people that joined and left along the way. There were fights about what we were trying to accomplish. There were split feelings about what we were trying to say. We wondered who was navigating. There were times when we wanted to give up, or wondered if it was really going to happen at all. And then there were times when we would see the most beautiful piece of art created, that it made it all worth it.
It really has been a hard labor; sometimes breech, sometimes having the umbilical cord wrapped too tight, or feeling like this baby was swimming around aimlessly with no sense of how to get out. And the next three weeks are going to be all about sculpting, crafting, and molding what is being born on October 25 to give it the best life possible and with the goal of letting the audience explore with us how far we have come in our fight for freedom and equality, and how far we still have to go.
But I have been changed by this process, and I am not even part of what is going on in rehearsals. I can't imagine how much it has impacted the artists who have been involved the whole way through. Nine months is a long time- ask any expectant mother. But what you have becomes a part of you for the rest of your life.
So, we're not REALLY having a baby... But just like a baby, you feed a play, you nurture it, give it your best, and hope that all of your hard work pays off. You hope the audience becomes a part of that journey and learns, grows, thinks, challenges, and experiences the best parts of what you have been laboring towards. We hope you come see it, and share with us your experience.
Me: Hey, Tony. I’m happy to write a blog post for you guys leading up to the [Alcyone] festival.
Tony: Great. Write a blog post explaining why you decided to write play about astrophysics.
Why did I decide to write a play about astrophysics?
And I do mean long. I didn’t mean for this blog post to go on and on, but it did.
As for answering the question, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to see if I can do so without including any spoilers. But, dear reader, if you’re up for it so am I.
It started with an image.
This is how most plays begin for me, as a moment of visual inspiration. I was watching television. Yes, playwrights watch television. The broadcast was abruptly interrupted by an Emergency Alert and as its message scrolled across the screen an image arose in my mind: a girl and a man in a motel room.
I knew two things immediately. First, this image was a play. And second, I did not like the set up. Meaning, I did not want to write a play about a child in the clutches of a predator.
So then, why? Why were they in the room together?
And this, dear reader, is where we teeter very close to spoilers so you will have to forgive me for not giving you a direct answer. But I will say that I found my answer by turning to science.
I grew up with a lot of science in my life. My father taught Earth Science at my local Jr. High. So I participated in science fair from kindergarten to high school—and let me just say that volcanoes are not proper science experiments. Sorry, but after 13 years of applying the Scientific Method, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
But yes, lots of science.
As a child I saw Haley’s Comet through a telescope in a dark Austin park with hundreds of others. I’ve walked the rim of a dormant volcano. Stood next to dinosaur footprints. Marveled at the beauty of stalagmites and stalactites. Was disappointed that Meteor Crater is fenced off and no, you can’t go down into it. Witnessed multiple lunar eclipses, solar eclipses and the Perseid Meteor shower.
The Perseid Meteor shower holds a special place in my heart. It happens every year mid August and the first time I saw the shower was a spectacular experience. I mean, the shower varies from year to year but the first time I saw it was special. Special because despite the light pollution in my small town (not a lot of light, but usually any lights from town or houses impede viewing) didn’t matter. That year there were so many meteors that streaked across the sky. Their tales were so wide I could hardly believe it. And they seemed so close, as if you could reach up and grab a hold of them.
Now, because Heart Shaped Nebula was using a scientific principle to explain why Amara (a 13-year-old girl) and Miqueo (a 36-year-old man) are in the same motel room, I decided that the third character—Dalila—was going to be an astronomer.
And that’s when Heart Shaped Nebula became a love story. And to be honest it’s a love story on many levels. I put my love for astronomy and Greek mythology into the play. I put my nostalgia [read love] for my home state of Texas into the play. And I put personal, almost autobiographical, love into the play.
So the long answer is, I didn’t “decide” to write a play about astrophysics. It was almost as if the play sorta made the decision. And more than once it’s felt like the stars were aligning for this play in a mysterious and wonderful way.
For example, the title Heart Shaped Nebula. When I first began writing this play I struggled with figuring out a potential title. But then while working on a monologue for Miqueo—a muralist—I found myself describing one of his murals. I was scribbling notes when I wrote down “heart shaped nebula.”
Is there a heart shaped nebula?
That’s what I wondered as I looked down at the phrase. I mean, I knew there was a horse head nebula. A crab nebula. So I immediately went online to do a google search. Lo and behold there is a Heart Nebula.
Gift number one from the Universe.
But not only is there is a Heart Nebula, there’s also a Soul Nebula, too. And it turns out they are both located in the Perseus arm of the Galaxy.
As in the Perseid meteor shower. The meteor shower has that name because the meteors appear to come from the constellation Perseus. And coincidentally both the Perseid meteor shower and the constellation Perseus are important elements in the plot of the play.
Gift number two from the Universe.
I mean, it sounds like I planned it. Like I knew in advance. But I didn’t. Instead I merely uncovered the connections that already existed. And all on chance. All on the happenstance of stringing three words together: heart shaped nebula.
Turns out those three words unlocked the play. And as the tumblers fell into place it felt like the entire Universe opened up to me in that moment and gave me a brief glimpse of something very special. I hope you’ll come see for yourself.
This is when I rub my hands together and say “Ooooo....Where to start? How to begin?” With every new project, each new cast, it is always the first question when rehearsals start.
Do more movement or dissect the language? Work on relationships or start with pacing? Every script needs something different, and each actor has a different way of communicating. And sometimes at the first read through, you still aren’t all the way cast! It’s always a little nerve-wracking, and for me, always very exciting.
The festival poses another challenge, in that sometimes as a director you don’t have your play for a long time before getting into rehearsal, so a lot of preparation needs to be done very quickly.
In my case this year, we have been looking at Emperor of the Moon for a long time, but I wasn’t looking at it as a director. And it was written in 1687. To take place in Naples. So there is a lot of language to be gone through, research to be done, and decisions to be made about whether to keep the time and place as written or change them.
The whole point of the festival is to focus on the playwright. When we are working with a contemporary writer, we stress the importance of continued dialogue with the playwright throughout the process, and making sure the playwright’s choices always take precedence, even if that means the director has to put their own vision or needs on the back burner.
However, another portion of Halcyon’s mission comes into play when dealing with a playwright who has been dead for over 400 years. Recasting classics can mean this;
Recasting classics can also mean this;
meaning, to reshape and mold a piece to keep the playwright’s original intentions in place while showing how the piece still resonates today.
I am choosing to set Emperor of the Moon in 1930, keeping it in Naples. I looked at many different time periods, both before and after we landed on the moon, and decided 1930 would be a great fit because of the similarities with 1687 and now in terms of financial and government instability around the world, the fascination and mystique of astrology and space travel....
AND it will be so fun! The whole end of the play is a big charade, and what better place to do that than in a SPEAKEASY! There is tons of music and dancing, and maybe a guest appearance by Katy Perry... we shall see...
I hope I am right, and I hope you agree. I can’t wait for you to check it out and tell me what you think.
We’re gearing up for the Alcyone Festival again. This year is a little later in the year than last. It’ll open September 7th, instead of in mid-summer as we normally do.
I’m pretty excited to say we’ll be performing this year’s festival in Albany Park, which has been our home base for a while now, even though we’ve been doing most of our public performances in other parts of the city. With the new location, we took a little more time for planning.
Performances will be at Christ Lutheran Church, where we’ve been rehearsing for the past two years. I also love that it’s where Albany Park Theatre Project started. They’re one of my favorite arts organizations in the country, so I’m happy to be performing where they began.
In addition to the new performance location, we’ve also made a lot of internal changes. Our organizational model is completely different, we’ve added awesome company members and the artists-in-residence program and a lot of really exciting new programming that’s about to go out of the lab and into the world in the next year.
So with all that, it seemed a natural fit to have this year’s theme for the Alcyone festival be “A New Dawn, A New Day.”
This year’s lineup includes a pretty great mix of plays, from classical farce to new plays being developed in the festival.
The full lineup includes:
- The Emperor of the Moon by Aphra Behn, directed by Jennifer Adams
- Heart Shaped Nebula by Marisela Treviño Orta, directed by Juan Castañeda
- One Week in Spring by Kristiana Colón, directed by Tara Branham
- The First Woman by Nambi E. Kelley, directed by Alexander St. John
- MAY 39th by Callie Kimball, directed by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary
For me it’s also a great mix of people we’ve worked with for a long time, people we’ve wanted to work with for a long time and great artists we’ve meeting for the first time.
As we get closer to the festival, each of the plays and their processes will be talked about more here, but I’m really excited to be able to share these with you.
Greetings from New York City! I recently started my own blog and want to share this post comparing completing a big item from your To-Do list to finishing dessert.
How to Accomplish a Big Goal
or How to Eat a Costco Pumpkin Pie by Yourself!
I’ve got a number of projects on my mind and am determined to finish each one, but I get overwhelmed if I try to do them all at once. Even if I’m working hard, I spread myself too thin and end up making very little progress in any direction at all. Then I get discouraged and wind up giving up or at least spending a lot more time and energy stressing than necessary. So recently, I’ve been making my daily and weekly goal lists smaller – only 3 big items per day (and maybe 2 or 3 other little things). The keys are to focus on one thing at a time and to break down the big goal into little steps.
I liken it to buying and eating Costco desserts when I’m shopping for one: dessert-loving ME.
1. Focus on one goal at a time:
If I buy two desserts at Costco, like my favorites, the pumpkin pie (12-inch pie crust, $6) and the All-American cake (the biggest rich and moist chocolate cake you can buy for $17), I simply will not be able to eat them both in a timely matter without making myself sick. They take up a ton of room in my fridge and will sit on the middle shelf reminding me of my failure to shop wisely every time I open the fridge.
However, if I only buy one dessert at a time, let’s say the pumpkin pie because it’s marginally healthier and a party in my mouth, then I can focus on finishing that pie before it goes bad at a pace that won’t make me gain 5 pounds in a week. Totally doable. And delicious.
2. Break down the big goal into little steps:
While I might be tempted, I’m not going to eat the pie all at once or…even in thirds. I’m going to tackle consuming the pumpkin goodness in smaller pieces. Every time I have a slice, perhaps one for breakfast and for a snack or dessert, I cut only a small piece and put it on a small plate. Not only do I enjoy it more – a nicely cut piece presented on an appropriately-sized plate is much more special than eating forkfuls of pie from the container while standing at the counter – I also don’t get tired of eating it and don’t stuff myself to self-loathing.
Accomplishing a big goal can be just as enjoyable (and without self-loathing). Focus on one big goal at a time.* And break down your goal into smaller steps; write out the steps if there are more than you can count on one hand! For instance, when I’m creating my new reel, I might break it down to the following:
- Decide which clips I want to use and in what order.
- Gather all of the clips into one place on my computer.
- Work through the clips, deciding which parts to use for the reel, and add them accordingly for a very rough cut.
- Edit the clips and transitions to a rough cut
- Add opening and closing pictures/videos
- Add titles
- Review the rough cut to the final version
- Upload the reel to my website and my casting profiles as desired.
- Publicize my new reel through twitter or facebook, etc.
Writing these steps out will also help you foresee issues or think of additional steps that might be needed. For instance, maybe I thought I had all of my clips I decided to use (in Step 1), but I realized I have two only on DVD. So I have to create an extra step – 1.5 – to figure out how to get my DVD videos onto my computer. (FYI: I used Handbrake. No Mac the Ripper required!)
Without breaking down (and writing out!) these steps, “make new reel” on my weekly goals list is such a big undertaking that I probably won’t get anything related to it done. And it can get pretty disheartening to see “MAKE NEW REEL” on your list every single week.
So learn from my discouragement!
Focus on a single big goal, like editing a new reel or creating a new habit, and break it down into steps, just like eating a Costco pumpkin pie. I like my pieces toasted and with whipped cream. Mmmmm…accomplishing a goal and eating pie without stress: delicious!
In case you want more, here are two articles from NerdFitness:
*Caveat: If you find that the project needs a lot of time between stages, like paint needing to dry between coats, you can have another project to switch to…but only if you REALLY get bored.
The original post from June 13, 2013.
What I’m about to say may get me in trouble. But it’s true.
Last night I went to Silk Road Rising, looking for a fight. They were hosting a panel discussion called Building a Theatre of Inclusion, with Eliza Shin, Jamil Khoury, Danny Bernardo, David Henry Hwang, and Chay Yew1. The discussion was to focus on challenges faced in building a diverse community in Chicago and in the US, recent controversies in casting, and issues faced in the casting of Asian stories and Asian-American actors.
My upbringing has ingrained in me a stubborn, do-it-yourself, don’t-ask-for-help attitude. As I’ve followed the recent controversies in “multi-culti” casting, I’ve had extremely mixed feelings. Perhaps the most shocking of those feelings is, “Ah, stop whining”. I haven’t always felt accepted by the Chinese or Asian communities (a distinction I sharply draw, by the by), and there have been times in my life and in my career where I’ve felt that if I wasn’t seen as a member of a community, it was my prerogative to not care about that community’s problems. And if Asian-American actors had a hard time getting roles, I thought, maybe they could imagine what it was like being told you weren’t Asian enough. They could damn well make their own opportunities, as I had always struggled to. And on and on.
This was not the ideal headspace to be in, as I settled in to a seat in the front row at a discussion on diversity and casting.
The discussion took a while to get started, as additional seating needed to be rustled up, latecomers were made room for, and the omnipresent technological hurdles had to be navigated. I took out my ubiquitous little moleskine book and scribbled down things I’d thought about in the days leading up to the event. “Inclusion as Exclusion”. “No Chinese advertising for Chinglish”. “Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s conscious decision to alienate”.
I craned my neck constantly, appraising the audience, the ethnic breakdown, the friendly chatter, the camaraderie, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. There were friends and acquaintances and collaborators there, and I smiled, but part of me dreaded the beginning of a discussion on Inclusion, wherein I feared I would feel more of an Outsider than ever.
The discussion and filming began a few minutes later. Malik Gillani introduced Danny Bernardo, who would be leading the discussion. One of the first talking points was the most recent series of casting controversies that the Asian theatre community in Chicago has been talking about; the trifecta of La Jolla’s Nightingale, Circle Theatre’s Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Orphan of Zhao. Danny got the ball rolling by going down the line and asking each panel member to say a word about each controversy.
My heart sank. “Arrogant.” “Wrong.” “Irresponsible.” It seemed as though my fears were to be concerned. Everyone onstage in lockstep, a united Asian front that was out for revenge. A discussion of anger.
And then: “Heartbreaking,” said Eliza, the actress on the panel, in response to the RSC’s Orphan casting. She spoke about living in Europe, and about the difficult reality that it is another world on that other continent, and the kind of racism faced there in the most mundane and idyllic settings. David was asked to talk about the casting controversy of Miss Saigon that happened “So long ago”, and he said something that hit me. “It was just one week. But it was kind of a big week. It scared me.”
And the discussion really began. When you ask people to give a one-word reaction to something that’s insulting, yeah, you get a wall of angry or dismissive words. But that’s just an icebreaker. Once Chay started talking about the importance of a theatre that is truly American, an idea which Jamil talked about as being “polycultural” rather than “multi-cultural”, and Eliza was open about the double-edged sword of racial casting on film – “I have absolutely benefited from my color when it comes to casting on film” – I began to believe that this was a dialogue. That this was not a rally like the ones I have known, of us versus them, but a rally of us altogether.
Danny and Chay both spoke about not understanding themselves as anything but American. Danny didn’t categorize himself until, at age 10, his agent told him that he didn’t get a part based on his look. Chay thought nothing of his decision to write a play where all the characters were Caucasian; until he saw David speak at Brandeis after a production of M. Butterfly. David talked frankly about his big break coming from a political maneuver of affirmative action, and his being in the right place at the right time, and about hearing, years after the Miss Saigon controversy, that the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer came down, not to racism, but to nepotism. “’He was our friend, we wanted him to come with us’. You go to Broadway, you want to bring your friends, you all know each other from college and you want to help each other out.”
I can’t deny that that one hit home, considering I co-founded and run a theatre company with my college friends. As the panel speakers told their stories, it became personal for me. This was about progress, not recompense. My major takeaway was this: GET A DRAMATURG. Invest in your communities. Honor the text. Do the work, show your work, prove that you made the best effort you could to cast as responsibly as possible, because as David says, “the burden of proof is on the theater, and most of the time they’re just lying.” Another controversy of sorts was discussed, the decision by Lifeline Theatre to make their production of Bridge of Birds, which was based on another Chinese story, “multi-culti”. And how the theatre was willing to deal with the Asian community’s response to that, and open up communication, and work to make it right. Members of the Lifeline theatre were there that night, in the audience. It wasn’t a rant. It really was a dialogue.
It was honest, too. Danny said, “It’s tough when we spend so much time just being thankful we have work.” Jamil talked about investing in your community, your polycultural community, even when you speak to the Philippino and Chinese communities about polyculturalism and they say, “You do know we hate the Japanese, right?” Chay talked about that, saying that the theatres need to mingle their DNA, and that we all know what happens when you only stay in your own corner of the gene pool. Eliza spoke about the reality of tokenism, where Asian-American actors will be used for minor roles, but the protagonists are invariably Caucasian. “Realize what you’re doing when you do that. I’m sorry. You guys get the basketball like… 90% of the time,” she said, and it was exactly the kind of statement I’d been scared to hear, but it was real, it was true, and there is no reasoned argument against the feeling of being heartbroken.
As the panel wound down, I listened, rapt. This wasn’t about the jilted minority, clamouring to get privileges for Asians, it was about people who were in a position to make change, getting rights for Americans. It was about being authentic to more than just the mythology of Asian stories, but to the reality of an American theatre scene. Danny opened the discussion up to the audience, and the responses were equally frank, provocative, and insightful. I looked at the things I had written in my book, before the discussion began, and I looked at everything I had frantically scribbled down during the last hour and a half. I kept my hand down.
I had my concerns still. I’m wary of the dangers presented by the ubiquity of “Asian-ness” as a concept. I’m still thinking about Inclusion as Exclusion. I still wonder about my place in all this. But what I had taken away from the discussion was positivity, and a measure of peace. I’ll pester them with contentious emails a-plenty in the future (and I daresay that this piece itself, if read, may encounter some mixed responses) but at the end of last night, I wanted to give back the good things that I had taken away for myself. I listened more, and wrote down more, and after the event ended, I shook hands, and thanked the speakers for what they had shared, and for being there. I spoke to the people I knew, and I thought about the future.
You can sit alone and have your thoughts, they can be well-reasoned thoughts, they can be shocking, earnest thoughts, you can lecture and argue and rage in your own mind. And then you can walk into a room, sit down, and have your mind changed. I’m embarrassed by what I brought with me when I walked in to the theatre last night, but I’m willing to share those dark thoughts and feelings so that you understand what a 180 last night was for me. And to the people who showed me that, I should maybe apologize, but I’m not going to apologize for who I am and how I feel.
Instead I will say, Thank you.
Update: Video from the panel is now up
We are so proud to welcome our 2013 Artists-in-Residence!
Victoria Alvarez-Chacon, Sophie Blumberg, Gail Gallagher, Heather Jencks, Alexis Martino, Arielle McAlpin, Kelly Opalko, Cary Shoda, Dani Snyder-Young, Alexander St. John, Danielle Stack, Laura Stephenson, Noelle Velasco, and Charlotte Woolf as our 2013 Photographer-in-Residence.
We are so excited to have you on board, and we are excited to get to know you better!
Halcyon Theatre would like to give a huge thank you and congratulations to the first group to complete a year of the Artist-in-Residence program: Mikah Berky, Cynthia Caul, Fin Coe, Rafa Franco, Denise Hoeflich, Natalie Hurdle, Noe Jara, Ebony Joy, Jin Kim, Sarah Laeuchli, Dylan Parkes, Maren Rosenberg, Anne Serine, Riso Straley, and Leah Tirado.
Halcyon Theatre is also proud to welcome Mikah Berky, Fin Coe, Denise Hoeflich, Noe Jara, Sarah Laeuchli, Maren Rosenberg, and Riso Straley as Halcyon company members, with Sarah Laeuchli in the role of Director of New Play Development.
You are all incredibly talented artists, and have become part of the Halcyon family. We can't wait to see what the future holds!