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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Gamechanger: A Conversation with Tony-Nominated Composer and Master Teacher, Craig Carnelia

Could you share a little bit about why and how you began making music?

I was 14 and in a folksinging group. One of the other members of the group wrote songs, and it occurred to me that that was something I wanted to do — so I went home and started writing songs.

They weren't very good at the start.  It took quite some time before I wrote a good song.  It wasn't really until my early 20s that I got good at what I do — I started to write in my teens because I had two parents who had no interest in who I actually was, and I had this big secret.  The secret was my true nature.  I didn't know that's why I was starting to write, but that's why I started. Just to have a place to fully experience who I was.

So while, as I said, the songs weren't all that good, they were expressive of something, and the something they were expressive of is who I actually am, as opposed to "the role I would play for my parents," which was a less vivid, less passionate, version of myself.

Can you put into words the person that you really were?

Yes. 

I always had a vision that turned deeply inward, so I was extremely introspective, but I also had (though I didn't know it at the time) a vision that pointed outward.  I was interested in everything and in other people.

My father's pathology was that of depression and the things that depression fosters — a glumness, brooding and an occasional outburst.  As for my mother, she never said what she meant. So everything meant something other than the words. And I became interested in subtext before I even knew what it was, because it was the very first thing I was trained to do —which was to understand — or try to intuit — what the person actually means.
 

You say you had an introspective vision as well as an outward one. Is that outward vision most keenly in place as an observer or as a participant?

Neither. As an empathizer — because it's observing, of course, but then feeling for the other person's situation — which is one of the ways we make writing and acting, for that matter. There's imagination and intuition  (and spookier things, like just being able to do it), but empathy's a huge tool. I didn't even know that that's what it was, but it is feeling for the other person.

Were you always able to delineate between your own feelings and those of another person?  Or do they overlap, like maybe you walk into a space and felt sadness and later realized it's somebody else's and not your own?

No. I've always been peculiar, but it's not to the point where I can't tell the difference between what someone else is experiencing and what I'm experiencing. No, I've always had a clear idea of what that delineation was.

There were certain touchstones or mile markers where you said your writing got good. Were there particular events that precipitated that?

There were some natural jumps that I made. One when I was 22 and just started writing better. There were two others that I can actually see the cause of.

One was earlier, when I was 20, 21. I wrote four musicals before I got good, and I had occasion to play one of them for Hal Prince. We've since come to know each other very well. He doesn't actually remember this event, but it was huge for me —  to play him this score — it was 1971, I think. That would make me 21. And he listened to the whole thing very respectfully, and then he tore it apart in terms of the craft. It was sloppy. It was sloppy and full of good ideas and he told me to work harder, so I did. And that was a huge leap. It's the first time I'd ever talked to anyone about my work. The world today is full of musical theatre writing programs and mentorships, people being taught and people being guided. Back then, there was much less of that and I was feeling my way by myself. It was a very important moment.

The next thing that happened that signaled a huge move forward is that, from the age of 22 to 25, I worked on a musical that was the best of my early shows, but it was about something that didn't mean anything to me. It had been suggested by a friend who wrote the book, and we toiled at that for three years. We actually got optioned for Broadway twice, and I'm really glad it never happened. But during that period, I didn't realize it, but working on that thing that meant so little to me, my craft had gotten better. 

The minute I was done with that, I started applying the craft I had acquired to things that actually interested me and I wrote a bunch of really good songs in the space of a year, and it was actually those songs that got me Working in the late 70s. And my work has been generally good since then. There are things I like better than other things, but I've been a good writer since I got done with that show and started writing songs because I wanted to say what I wanted to say.

So one leap was in 1972 for no good reason, and the others were hearing a valuable piece of advice from Hal Prince and getting out of an artistic prison, but finding out I had been building muscle while I was in prison.

That moment with Hal, what was your response to that kind of criticism?  Did you love it because someone actually saw you and wanted to be frank?

I didn't love it, I was actually shocked because I didn't know the work was amateurish. I really had a voice, but I didn't know how much I didn't know, so I was surprised by his criticism. Once I then started doing what he said, which was just working harder, it made a world of difference. No — it didn't feel good — and I'm so grateful for it. No one had ever had the courage or vision to do that. So, it was most welcome.

As a writer or composer, or both, who spoke for you as you found your own voice? Also, was there anyone you read and felt — wow, he or she know what I feel?

There are people whose work excited me, and who influenced my work early. And then there are people who did a level of work that was serious — in such a way that I wanted to emulate it if I possibly could.

Early on, I had lots of influences: The Beatles, Jule Styne, all theatre. And then I would say as a person who shows us the way — Lynn Ahrens said recently she believes we're all descended from Sondheim, all of us who write today — and indeed I think we are. And I think when he wrote Company, he invented the contemporary musical. We who strive to write serious, contemporary musical theatre are all descended from that.

That has changed, of course, from when I was young, partly because when you're 20 or 25, you're looking for an identity and I don't need to look for that anymore. I've actually always had one and yet didn't know that. There's a something unique we each have to bring to our writing, and I've actually been good at allowing that to be there since I became a good writer.

What is that thing for you?

It's not a particular feeling... 


I don't care for small talk in life, and I also have no talent for it. So I think I'm only interested in those things that interest me. And the things that don't interest me, I don't even seem to have an ability to do — which is sometimes unfortunate. Now I could make a virtue of it, or claim that it is one, but it's actually not — it's a deficiency. 

While I was working with Marvin Hamlisch, we often were called upon to write something — not for the two shows we had produced, but for the couple of other projects that we explored — that I wasn't excited about personally, and was able to do it with varying degrees of success. I was surprised in that period at how versatile I was, because I'd always had this belief that if it didn't interest me, I wouldn't even be able to function. And I was able to function doing things that didn't fascinate me.

But where I am now in my life, in my 60s, there isn't any chance I would give time to anything that didn't fascinate me. There isn't a chance of it — that I would go toward something that didn't actually excite me.

What is the nature of a successful collaboration?


For me, a successful collaboration is one that produces good work. If you're talking about happiness and compatibility, I think it's the same kind of magic that happens in one's personal life, when one finds a partner who you're just very happy to see every day. But those are two different things.

I've had a number of very good collaborations.  I'm having two good collaborations right now with book writers. It feels good if it feels like a friendship, but it doesn't need to. There needs to be a common respect for the other person's autonomy and the other person's distinctive vision, or voice, that then get melded by these two people into yet another distinctive vision.

I'm working on two shows right now. One was just produced last summer at Williamstown, called Poster Boy. I'm writing that with a young writer named Joe Tracz and enjoying that a great deal. I have another collaboration working on something with John Weidman and we are just having a blast being in the room with each other, it's just such fun. I'm enjoying both of those collaborations, though they're very different.

How did teaching come about?


I always felt I would be a good teacher and I always felt it would be something I'd like to do. And I had a very clear idea of what I would teach because, having been in production on a number of shows, I found myself always gravitating toward actors and interested in their process.

In the audition process, I was struck before I was a teacher, by how few people are acting and singing at the same time. Even, sometimes, ones who are doing work on a very high level would often just be vividly inhabiting an attitude. So I began teaching about 25 years ago; I started with one class and built to four (I still have four). And I came to it as something I always wanted to do. On one hand, it's a sideline, meaning it is part of my earnings. On the other hand, it's something that's quite symbiotic with the writing. The two really feed each other and feed off each other.

Have you ever seen performances that embodied that fusion of acting and singing onstage?

I see them all the time. 

Any single performance that changed your life?

No, I didn't have an epiphany in the theatre, but I've always known the difference when I see it, even when I was a kid. There were so many things I knew the essence of before I knew their names. Writing has been a lot like that. But acting — I've always known the difference from my earliest days of going to the theatre as a teenager. I've just always felt the difference... It's whether I am pulled toward the person or simply watching. It's a huge difference.

As teacher, you have a sort of shamanic quality about you, perhaps a psychic ability (obviously there are different words that one might use for that). But just as a good actor can be a shapeshifter, or "an empath-by-trade," I feel like you're able to "loan yourself" to the experience of a student so you don't shame them into transformation, but meet them and help uplift them. It doesn't also, seem, like there's a lot of noise in you when you teach.

The absence of noise has something to do with being focused and being present, which is simply something I do in everything I do. It's the way to live.

Something came to mind when you were asking about the degree to which anything psychic is involved. I was involved with a woman in my early 40s and she had a two year-old daughter from a marriage that was breaking up. The first time I met the daughter was in a sandbox — I went and met the woman and the daughter in the sandbox, and the woman introduced me to the child, the two year-old, and she looked at me and then she looked back at her mother, and said, "Does daddy know him?"

I think we're all psychic and that we lose it. There's a lot of life, a lot of school, that teaches us to not be as attuned to what is very clear to us, so I do think I might be a little bit psychic. I suspect I am, but just noticing things can make us have an awareness like, "Does daddy know him?" She knew what I was doing there, that little girl. 

Do you think your diet has anything with your perception?

(Laughs) Are you talking about the fact that I've been a vegetarian since I was 22? 

Because in my vegan days, I certainly noticed a lot of valves opened up, in terms of compassion —

I think being a vegetarian is useful. I think in my mid-60s, it's especially useful, having not been eating meat all those years. I also never felt comfortable eating animals.

Why?

I didn't want to hurt them — ever. It always made me uncomfortable. I don't know that that creates a greater availability or understanding, I really don't. I think when I eat well, I feel better, but I can eat badly within my own vegetarianism... You know, there's a vending machine in our building and while my wife's been away for a couple months, I've been having a great intimacy with that vending machine!

You've seen a lot of students come, stay, go. Can you afford to care about students?

Yes, absolutely. I care a whole lot. What I find happens when I'm teaching is that I'm much more interested, or rather — I'm never drawn into what they're feeling, ever. I'm always interested in what they're doing and how I can possibly help them. But I'm never drawn into their feelings either in the scene or in something they're talking about. I'm able to keep a distance that will allow me to make use of what I've learned... Not to compare my job with things that have to do with life or death, because this isn't life and death, but I think anybody who does something they care a lot about would run the risk of taking their issues home, but I never take teaching issues home, ever.

When a student comes into class and presents, whether consciously or not, an "alias" version of themselves that they would like you or the class to receive, and you can see where they truly live inside, is the process of fusing those two things — of giving them a direct encounter with themselves, of who they really are — is that purely intuitive?


It is. It's intuition and experience, a combination of the two things, of how to help the student move towards something more genuine.

Anybody can watch a performance and think, "This is what I don't like about it." Some people can actually think, "This is how it can be better," but those of us who are good teachers and good directors, I think, find a way to speak to that particular person that will not limit, but that will actually open a door to, an experience that is more vivid.

How foolish it would be if you went to the doctor with a cough and the doctor said, "Stop coughing!", and yet very often you'll hear a director or a teacher say, "Well, you shouldn't move your arms like that." You know — that's not your job. Your job is to diagnose why they're doing the thing that is questionable. Your job is not to say, "Never sing that song." Your job is to help them to feel really good about themselves while guiding them to better work.

If you could say a couple of brief things toward young people who want to make their lives about singing in the theatre, what would you say?


Be yourself. Don't try to please. Forget people-pleasing and "niceness."  Kindness, warmth, interest in others, openness, readiness, these qualities and behaviors are on a long list that can serve you well.  "Niceness" is just a way of erasing yourself.

One thing I've taken away from you class is, every experience we've ever had, every pain, every wound and every glory as well, is useful if you choose to make art of it.

Absolutely. 


/ / / 

CRAIG CARNELIA has had four shows produced on Broadway.  Working with composer Marvin Hamlisch, he wrote the lyrics for Sweet Smell of Success, with book by John Guare, and Imaginary Friends, with Nora Ephron.  Hamlisch and Carnelia received Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations for their score for Sweet Smell of Success, and Carnelia received a Drama Desk nomination for his lyrics in Imaginary Friends.  As both composer and lyricist, Craig wrote the score for Is There Life After High School, and contributed four songs to Studs Terkel's Working, for which he received his first Tony nomination.  Off-Broadway, he wrote the music and lyrics for Three Postcards at Playwrights Horizons, with book by Craig Lucas, and contributed to the review, Diamonds, directed by Hal Prince. Regional premieres include The Good War at Chicago's Northlight Theatre and Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre, both written with playwright-director David H. Bell.  Craig has won a number of major songwriting awards, including the Johnny Mercer Award, the first annual Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Musical Theatre Award and the prestigious Kleban Award.  His best known songs include "Flight," "What You'd Call a Dream," "Just a Housewife," and "The Kid Inside."  His new musical, Poster Boy (book by Joe Tracz), premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in July 2016, and is slated for a production at the Public Theatre in New York.  He also has another new project in development at Roundabout with bookwriter John Weidman.  Craig has been on the council of the Dramatists Guild since 1995 and is married to actress Lisa Brescia. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Actors' Notebook: Confessions of an Audition Reader

You walk into an audition and greet the casting director, director and producers with that strange, pheromonal cocktail of fear and excitement, hoping that this might be the job that changes your life.

There's another figure, perhaps less noticeable, sitting in the corner. It's your reader — and very likely the only other actor in the room. In this case, let's call that person "me," because it very well may have been. It's okay if you don't remember me because if I did my job well, I was invisible and you shined. 

But I remember you — and for as many actors as I've seen book that life-changing job, I've seen many others not shine as brilliantly as they could — or else shine brilliantly in their work, then somehow manage to sabotage it before leaving the room.

Because I am familiar with the blood, sweat and tears that go into preparing for an important audition (and often, into obsessing over it afterward), I offer these, my Ten Commandments of Auditioning, for your amusement and hopefully, your booking!

~ ~ ~

1.  Greet Everyone

Sounds simple, but a mysterious thing happens when some actors enter the room. They say hello to everyone they think can give them a job. Inevitably, a few folks get left out. Considering how often the whole room is polled to see if any of us have worked with the auditioning actor, it pays to be universally courteous.

2. Embrace Your Nerves


Everyone in the audition room is scared. Actors are afraid they won't get the job, casting directors are afraid their choices won't align with their producers', and producers are afraid their show won't be a hit. Unfortunately, actors are the only ones everybody's watching!  Our job then, as professional empaths, is to avoid the trap of absorbing and refracting everyone else's fear and instead — be the peace that heals it.

3. Prepare

Once I was a reader for a historical drama and ten out of twelve actors had not researched the characters they were auditioning to play. These were well-known figures who would be easily recognized by an audience — and even easier for an actor to research on YouTube.

Yes, I know we're all busy. But if you don't have five minutes to make that investment in your career, who will?  It's no one else's job to dive into that mass of infinite potential known as "our talent" and pry out an interpretation. That's our job — in fact, that's the privilege of our profession.

4. Don't Apologize

Ever been on a date with someone you looked forward to meeting and the first thing they said was, "Ugh, look at this pimple!"? You hadn't noticed it before because you were taking in the entirety of them — but now that pimple is all you can see.

Similarly, actors frequently enter audition rooms and apologize for their "pimples," sometimes real, mostly imagined. Since no one behind the table knows how to deal with such confessions, the usual response is some version of, "No, no, you have a beautiful complexion!" 

Now, if we're honest with ourselves, perhaps that is what we really wanted to hear. And for one person auditioning, that might be a reasonable concession to make. But imagine how tiring that exchange becomes, actor after actor, hour after hour?  By 4pm, the auditors feel depleted because they have been rendered your caregivers instead of your collaborators — and, above all, they're looking for collaborators.

You were invited to audition. Take pride in that fact by showing up as who you are today, knowing that you are enough.

5. Cancel If Necessary

You just got the sides, flew in, didn't have time to learn the music, are sick, going through a lot...  believe me, I understand! These are real life problems and I've experienced them all. But heard throughout the day, the folks behind the table start to wonder:  You're a professional. If you're not able to put that aside and show up fully, then why did you accept the appointment? 

After all, if you went to a cardiologist for quadruple bypass, would you enlist her services if she reiterated that she hadn't slept and couldn't tell the left ventricle from the right? Probably not!

Better to give your slot to another actor who would happily leap at the chance to audition than aim for a badge of bravery. There's grace and self-respect in that decision — for you as well as the room. Trust that another opportunity will present itself, if not for this show, then for another.

6. Keep It Clean

Over the years, I've noticed that the great and mysterious Universe has a magical way of cornering us with our unfinished business. It's no surprise, then, that once an afternoon or so, an actor walks in and suddenly turns very pale, realizing that someone they never expected to see again is now in a position to hire them!

I could go on with my personal philosophy about keeping our affairs clean and current, but perhaps it is best summed up by the wise words of director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun: "Handle every situation as you'd like to remember it."

7. Keep On Truckin'

An actress came in to audition, knocked her song out of the park, but didn't get the job. I saw her a few weeks later and she was still beating herself up about it.

Six weeks later, she came back for a completely different project, knocked the same song out of the park, and booked the job.  This actress didn't "fail" the first audition and "win" the second; it just so happened that she fit perfectly into the jigsaw puzzle the creatives were assembling the second time around. 

In my observation, when it's not our show, it's not our show, and there's nothing we can do about it. But when it is our show, it's ours — and there's nothing we can do about that, either!

Trust that there is a plan in place for you.

8. Have Something Lovely Planned For Afterward

Have a big audition? You've probably busted your ass for hours preparing for it. Be sure to plan a sweet outing for yourself afterward. Grab an ice cream, take a walk, catch a movie — whatever it takes to shift your focus and acknowledge your own efforts. This stops us from becoming "actor machines" and helps restore our humanity.

9. Be Happy For Whoever Gets The Job (Including You!)

Years ago, Carol Burnett was up for a musical she thought would mark her Broadway debut. Instead, another girl got it.  After a moment of sadness, she said to herself, "Well, it was her turn.  Maybe next time, it'll be mine." And whaddaya know?  It was!

I've pined over "lost" shows, only to realize after seeing them that that part I was sure was mine was never meant for me. I've also gotten gigs, failed to savor them and consequently, missed out on their riches.

Ingratitude is a disease which eats away at the heart of an artist. I believe it is an attempt to shield our tenderness from the unpredictability of this business. The key, then, might be to appreciate exactly where we are today, knowing that it could all look differently tomorrow.

10. Stay In Practice

My friend, casting director and audition coach Amy Jo Berman, introduced me to Jeff Olson's brilliant book, The Slight Edge.  Since then, I've subscribed to its simple philosophy:

Do a little of what you don't necessarily have to do each day to enrich the quality of your life. Soon, like the water hyacinth growing silently beneath the surface of the water, your efforts will have canvassed the pond.

What shows up when we audition is all that we have addressed in our lives when there was no urgency to memorize those sides and that new song. The cumulative impact of these "slight edge" endeavors — from tending our talents to cultivating our inner peace — is what stops auditions from becoming "special events" — and allows our lives to become the work of art instead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Style Profile: Ilona Royce Smithkin

 


At 96, Artist and Style Icon
Ilona Royce Smithkin
Shares Her Wisdom 
with the World

Ilona Royce Smithkin has worn many hats during her first 95 years – visual artist, 
fashion icon, chanteuse and most recently, 
wise woman. Now, as the petite dynamo 
turns 96, she shares five tips 
“to make life more agreeable”:





1.  Comfort – "You have to have comfort. Comfort within yourself, comfortable clothes, comfortable shoes — or you cannot give all of yourself to another person. You also have to have people around you with whom you are comfortable."

2.  Balance – "Work alone is not enough; a person must have things which relax and enrich the mind. The arts — theatre, music, poetry, dancing — all of these things are part of the balance of life."

3.  Compromise – "If we are by ourselves, that is one thing, but when we deal with other people, they have their own needs and ideas, so we must learn to compromise."

4.  Contentment — "We always feel we should do something better, or that this isn’t good enough. Contentment is the ability to look back at what you have accomplished — even if it’s a good cup of coffee that you made that morning — and give yourself credit. Our lives consist of hundreds of small things — be grateful for them. The big things come along only once in a while."

5.  Awareness — "When you walk down the street and think of something else, you don’t see there’s a step in front of you, fall, and it costs you a lot of time and money to fix it. While you are walking, think of what you’re doing. Whatever it is that you do, be conscious in that moment... Your body is like a child you have to take care of, particularly as you get older."

How did she arrive at this wisdom?

"When I was 20, everything was a hardship. I was trying to find my way — I didn’t know who I was. Now, everything I touch and look at is much clearer."

She encourages her younger friends to put down their cell phones and “communicate with each other face-to-face… and learn the idea of priority. Namely, if you have two choices — either a big party or a wonderful sundown — learn what is important to you,” and reminds them that, “even the simplest things can have meaning, if your spiritual door is open.”

She also urges friends to forego the allure of instant gratification: “Everything takes time. A baby takes nine months; you can’t rush it. Of course, they’re speeding everything up these days, even strawberries. They make them bigger and faster now but they have no taste, no flavor. But go to the woods and find a wood strawberry. Even though they are very tiny, they have a wonderful flavor. Everybody strives for the superficial effect today, foregoing the essence of  ‘the real thing’ with their fastness.”

Ilona Royce Smithkin is, undoubtedly, the real thing. Subject of the documentaries, Ilona, Upstairs and Advanced Style, she is featured in Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, released today by powerHouse books.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Never Hurry," aka How I Learned to Love in Winter

Dear Friends, 

While completing the La Jolla Playhouse run of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I felt deeply compelled to return to France (where I attended clown school in 2012) for reasons I couldn't explain. 

My bank account was not reflecting that of a jet-setter, yet the moment I arrived at Kennedy Airport and was switched to first class due to an overbooked flight, my journey as a spiritual millionaire began (or, perhaps, continued) — one of the most serendipitous of my life, with each bend in the road leading me toward the clues I had sought for playing Clopin, King of the Gypsies (or as they are more appropriately known, the Romani or Gitan people).

What follows is a glimpse of some of the gems that sparkled on that road from December 31 to January 15. 

Love,
Erik

 ~ ~ ~ 

January 5
 
Amazing encounter of the day (one of many):


While walking through a strange part of the city I had never been yesterday, I felt overcome by the sudden urge to piss! Not able to find a bathroom anywhere, I said a silent prayer and within a moment, a Port-o-Let, sitting on a truck and soon-to-be-transported, turned up to my left. 

I zipped in (or rather, unzipped) in a hurry, and saw a wallet strewn about the (makeshift) sink. I sensed someone had been robbed, picked it up and realized this was the billfold of a high-ranking official from the office of the Prime Minister. 

Through a series of hurdles, I located the gentleman. He called me back before I left for the Palace of Fontainbleu today (the Château of François 1, King of France). We arranged to meet as soon as I returned, and I could tell he was a bit nervous... wondering if it was perhaps I who had purloined it! 

When he recognized it was not, he was so touched, he gifted me with a very rare bottle of wine by the same vintners who made the sole vintage that King François I himself would drink.

I love following the trail of life's little (and big) surprises. 

(N.B., I drank the wine with my Couchsurfing host in Arles [Mathieu] and it was delicious!)

January 7
 
This odyssey grows richer by the day, like a tapestry revealing itself panel-by-panel.

First, poet extraordinaire Margo Berdeshevsky happened to see a Romani circus the night before we met, which I then saw (she was also given an exclusive glimpse of this nomadic culture in Eastern Europe, which she had photographed and shared with me). 


Spent Epiphany, aka "The Feast of Fools" (January 6th, which incites the action in Hunchback), eating Galette du Roi pastry and touring Notre Dame Cathedral where I prayed and saw gargoyles I'd played with eight times a week in La Jolla. 

After attending a poetry reading by Margo at Shakespeare & Co., my dear and beloved clown teacher, Philippe Gaulier, invited me to his estate in the marshlands an hour south of Paris to discuss the nature of bouffon and complicité — as well the power of an actor's "shit" to destroy their beauty. The whole encounter was the rarest of honors.

I felt moved to leave Paris a short breath before the Charlie terrorist attack this morning, which stopped our train but granted me a free ride through the Camargues' marshy plains. Along the way, saw wild white stallions, hawks, a flamboyance of flamingos and horned bulls streaking the Provençal countryside. Upon my arrival in Arles, I stood on the stage of their destroyed amphitheatre, hearing myself whisper from the audience, then visited a Santonniere show filled with gypsy miniatures in the cloisters.

It just so happens that Mathieu, my host, is not only a Clopin fan but also of Romani descent, so he brought me to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the site on the Mediterranean Sea where gypsies make their annual pilgrimage celebrating Saint Sarah, the "Black Mary" who walked with Mary and Mary Magdalene after Lazarus left them in Arles. 


Mathieu then gave me two books on Gitan culture which I could not find in the U.S., one of which portrayed gypsies as hedgehogs. I had no idea that they have long been personified as such — their spines making them difficult to touch though their bellies are soft.

Before the attack today, I said a prayer asking God not to make me blind to the things that matter most. Everything I could not have possibly planned has lined itself up succinctly (this is just in the past 36 hours), and I am more sure than ever that there is an unseen architecture which embraces and sustains us all the more bravely we move toward it. I also recognize that this time, this place, will never happen again in the same way, so I'm keeping my eyes, ears and heart open to all of it. 













January 9 

Awoke this morning haunted by an image I'd seen yesterday of a toreador in prayer before heading into the arena. Unable to locate it in town, I make a split-second decision to visit a museum my host had encouraged me to avoid. When I walk in, I literally awaken the staff; no one is present in these halls but me and figures on canvas waiting to live through others' eyes.

The first painting leaps towards me is called, The Vision of Jacob, exactly the subject of the book I have just written with my father, Jacob. The second is an answer to prayer: the very essence of Clopin (by way of Picasso) hidden in a darkened corner. 


One miracle after another: drawers filled with images of gypsies dancing, marrying. I bound through the rest of the rooms so as not to miss my bus.

Scurrying past one of the many "Je Suis Charlie" signs on doors, this one was fastened to that of a drama school. Next to it, a window with full view of a class in session. Watching these young actors learn to speak the unspeakable, to defy terrorism of the soul, my eyes well with tears. 


Around the corner, the image of the matador presents itself.

/ / /

Yesterday I climbed the mountain to Les Baux, a glowing white village sequestered atop all others in the region, abandoned, for the most part, in winter. I remember a friend telling my sister, who then told me: It is easy to love in summer and spring, but to be an adult, one must learn to love in winter. The bare bones of this town offer themselves to me for loving, and I accept them*.
 

Hitchhiking back to Arles with a gorgeous 24 year old housekeeper, I am moved by the simplicity of our contact, faces and gestures, the odd word threatening to disturb this charm. At home, my host and I welcome another Couchsurfer from Korea, and we make a meal together, relating through Google Translate, passing a laptop as if it were a joint. Remembering again the delicacy of first contact.

[*While in the fortress atop the village, I notice two images which illustrate how soldiers fought intruders: by pouring hot oil through tiny apertures in the wall, and by throwing interlopers from the highest of walls, both methods used in the climax of Hunchback.]  

 / / /

Barren fields, which flank the bus to St. Remy (from where I write this), demonstrate hope more than fulfillment — seeds of promise — and are of comfort to me. The white horses of the plains turn to schoolyards filled with boys and I think how lucky they are to live here. Looking skyward, I understand Van Gogh's clouds. I walk his footpath from the sanitarium where he was hospitalized, touching a tree he painted as a sapling 123 years ago which now offers shade to dozens of other trees. It is all unspeakably moving.

I pass a shop window with a sign which reads:  Accept the Mystery. Walking inside, the tiny boutique is filled with old maps, advertisements from 19th century magazines and illustrations from antiquated childrens' books. I ask the shopkeeper au francais: "Do you have any images of gypsies? Bouffons? Harlequins?" Three nods to the negative. 


Something pulls me to a tiny stack of gravures. Three images into the pile, there sits "Clopin Trouillefou, King of the Gypsies," an original 1844 gravure from Hunchback of Notre Dame.

///

I am beginning to think that "trying" might be the greatest insult before God, an accusation of a lazy universe unwilling to meet us. Every step of this journey has proven me otherwise.
















January 14

Over the last six days, I have traveled through 15 villages in the south of France and, in the process, found what was looking for me.

The past three days, in particular, have held a special magic as I rode my bike through five of these tiny jewel boxes, from the halo of dawn through the hush of dusk, entirely alone, save for white goats and geese I fed, and blackbirds by the hundreds who swarmed the ashen skies. With no map, my eyes entered my feet.

The landscape, a combustion of color in summer, exhales only ghosts of lavender now. The power of nature's intention is never more palpable than in winter; the power of human memory never more viable than in such a present. An echo so resonant it carries my thoughts greets me in an abandoned abbey where human voices seem designed to reach God directly.

Doorways — mint to periwinkle — crest these villages, the distinction in color being the axis on which Impressionists built entire careers. Candlelight laps at the panes of a tiny bistro, the first I have seen open in days. I sit by a fire as an elderly couple sends coffee to my table while three men test 14 vintages at the next, sending me their unfinished bottles.

To travel, I now realize, is to stay young, which is to say, curious. Unfettered by past breakage, we grow privy to the whispers our soul utters as it works its magic in reverse: fooling us into feeling lost, it coaxes us toward our destiny. The future, it seems, feathers our present.










January 16

As I watch the sun slowly rise over New York on my first morning back, I am reminded of a quote I once read indicating that we have only one choice: "Great art or great life." Sadly, I believed this for a while.

Actor friends (hell, all my friends), please, never put your soul on hold by thinking you can either "be successful" or "live your life." The two are, in fact, synonymous. I have been offered six jobs since following my calling to go to France and I suspect that without the enrichment of this voyage, I wouldn't have been able to do justice to any of these opportunities.

One of my teachers, Monsieur Gaulier, said ever so piquantly: "You can say, 'I am an actor! I am an actor!' Yeah, you are an actor, but first, you must be a beautiful human person. If you just say, 'I am an actor! I am an actor!' but are not a beautiful human person first, then you are just a pain in the ass." In my own, gentler way, I said to a student recently, "You've got to have something to sing about."

I think the quote should be amended to read: "Great courage yields great life which is great art."
 














Epilogue

Before leaving France, my poet-friend, Margo, related a story that forged the credo of her life:  "Never hurry." 


Now I, too, have adopted it.

We must constantly remind ourselves to slow down enough to see what we can see, hear what we can hear, and touch who and what we can for this brief moment designed not only for our savoring, but for our evolution itself.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gamechanger: Seriously Funny Philippe Gaulier

Philippe Gaulier is one of the world's foremost teachers of clown and its inverse, the bouffon. Author of The Tormentor, he has taught Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Roberto Benigni, Simon Amstell and Complicite's Simon McBurney. I was fortunate enough to study with Mssr. Gaulier last summer, and had the chance to speak with him by Skype on the eve of his first workshop in Los Angeles.


It's good to see you!

Did you see me?!

(Laughs) I sent you a couple of students. I hope you have fun with them!

Not boring?

A little boring... but maybe you help them be not boring!

Ah! Ya-ya-ya! (Laughs)   

I have questions —

Yeah, but it's normal for an interview... If you don't have questions, eh... it's a bit strange!

How did you start to be interested in being an actor or a clown? 

First, I wanted to travel.  That's it.  I did not want to do any job.  I wanted to travel or I wanted to be in the commercial navy — but not military, because I don't like military people... One day, I went to a theatre which was also a school [École Charles Dullin*] in Paris. It was a really great theatre and I thought, It is beautiful, so I did this school. And I was actor. I started when I was 17, 18; for ten years I was actor.  And after, I decided to stop and to do Lecoq school*.  In Lecoq school, everybody said I am really funny and I started to be clown with my friend Pierre Byland. And we were clowns ten years. We played a show and broke 200 plates every night. It was very funny. Voila.

*École Charles Dullin's counted among its students Antonin Artaud, Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau. Julie Taymor, Isla Fisher and Geoffrey Rush were among the many pupils of Jacques Lecoq at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.

When did you start to teach?

Lecoq asked me to teach. By me, I didn't want to teach because I don't like teachers.  But I accepted, and after, people they say, Ah, but you are a good teacher. So...

What do you think is the most valuable thing that Mssr. Lecoq taught you? 

Lecoq was a great, great teacher, and the first year, anytime I wanted to do an exercise, he say, Not you, Gaulier, stay sitting! (Laughs) He was tough like this, but he was waiting for me... he knew, You are not yet on the level of my idea about theatre, but it was good... And after second year, I was good (not with Greek tragedy, because I was always ridiculous with Greek tragedy) but with games, with mask, with commedia dell'arte, with clown. I was an actor. 

When you teach, Monsieur, your teaching is different than Lecoq's?  You have a big philosophical difference? 

Lecoq was a... serious teacher. Oui, serious. Boring not... but serious. Alors, serious... is it boring when someone is serious? Or is he serious because he is a bit boring?  I don't know!  But he was serious... Lecoq, he asked me to teach, The Style of Lecoq, and always I say that this style was a piece of shit, I won't teach this horrible shit! (Laughs) Every student who did Lecoq, we recognized, you know? We saw a show and we say, Ah, but it is Lecoq School... I was really, really furious against that. So, no, we had a lot of... we fight quite a lot, yes. But we stayed friends.

The principle I remember most in studying with you was always to have pleasure in what you do. Is that something that's your philosophy, or Lecoq's?

No, Lecoq was not pleasure, he was Protestant... Pleasure is not specialty of Protestant! No, no. Pleasure?  Bah... the engine of an actor is pleasure. The engine of everybody who stands up is pleasure. If you lose your pleasure, you're depressed and you could commit suicide... So you ask, You're so deep, you discovered pleasure? (Laughs) No, I didn't discover anything. It's not deep at all... it's life! 

Jacques Lecoq

Could talk a little bit about the use of the insult in teaching?

First, it's not an insult. When what you did was a pile of shit, and we say, That is a shit, it means, You can't do anything with that... It doesn't mean, Ah, it's bad, we don't love you, you are outside, you are outcast. No! You are allowed to make a big shit every morning (laughs), but my job is to tell you, With that, we can't do anything; with that, never you will get a contract. 

If you stop having love — or having sympathique — because the student is bad, you, as a teacher, you are a piece of shit, because you choose between the good or the bad! And everyone is allowed to be bad.

For people who live in Paris, you can see on every street the little shit of a dog (laughs). In Paris, we have so many dogs who shit on the corner of the street, so when we say, You are a little shit of a dog, everyone understands better! And we say with a sort of humor, we don't say that in a nasty way. It's a good fun.

Have you ever been to Los Angeles?  

No.

Well, you're in for it, because there's a lot of shit!

Ah, ya-ya-ya!  (Laughs)  

What would you like to bring to the students you teach in LA?

It could be good if we have good fun; lots of clown. I come back from Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia], I was last week, it was fantastic but it was not clown, it was neutral mask and Greek tragedy and it was bouffon, but it was absolutely fantastique what we saw — and every day! So I hope we are going to discover the beauty of the clown, the beauty of the idiot who feels he is funny, but he is not. 

Is that your favorite thing to teach, clown?

Depends on who is the student. Sometimes we teach clown in Montreal... and sometimes it's not a piece of cake!

Do you feel there is any relationship between art (or acting) and spirituality?  Is there any way you feel connection to something greater when you do this work? 

When you do this work, we try to find something beautiful, and something beautiful is when exercise start and we have the feeling, Ah, for this five seconds we saw a miracle! So, if we are not looking for this moment... for something absolutely beautiful... you are not an artist, you are just a seller of theatre recipe. 

Who are your favorite clowns or comedians?  This guy? 


Yeah, of course. This one is fantastique. Because his humanité is fantastique. Because he was totally vacant... He had all the qualities to be great friend of Beckett. Normally, this one is top level of a human being. We see on the face — he's not a piece of shit! 

You and I spoke about The Marx Brothers once, and you mentioned something about the Jewish people having a special spirit. Do you think there is any relationship between people who've known suffering and an ability to be funny or create art?


I know just one thing... When we are in Spain, Italy or Czechoslovakia, we are more light than when we are in Denmark, Norway or Germany. Why, I do not know exactly... But it is true, to suffer so much gives more humor than to be the best son of God... You are half-Jew or total? 

Total.

Tonight we are going to eat with Sacha Baron Cohen.

He's amazing!

He is amazing, yeah-yeah-yeah! He doesn't stop!  He has Jew humor, too, eh?

Yeah.  How long ago was the last time you visited? 

He visited us a year ago, or something like that. 

Sacha Baron Cohen as the bouffon, Bruno.

When your students leave, do you miss them at all? Is it hard to see them come and go, or do you just keep moving? 

I am happy when they succeed — really happy, of course! People — you have to meet your life.  You have to live your fantasy!

Thank you for your time, Philippe. 

It was a great pleasure.

You know you really changed my life? 

Thank you. I change the life of people who want to change their life.  I don't change the life of a good German who wants to stay German. I change the life of people who accept to be tramp in the mind.


Philippe Gaulier teaches at Fixt Point (www.fixtpoint.com) in Los Angeles now through September 6.  Listen to a bit of Philippe himself here. For more information about Gaulier's year-round courses, visit www.ecolephilippegaulier.com.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Game Changer: Carrie Manolakos

Photo credit:  Kevin Thomas Garcia

Born in Syracuse, singer/songwriter Carrie Manolakos attended NYU's CAP 21 program and booked the national tour of Mamma Mia! before graduating. After touring for a year, she completed college, then made her Broadway debut in the role of Sophie.  She later toured with Wicked, which proved to be a very different experience.  As a standby for Elphaba, she spent most of her time in the dressing room. Here, she shares a bit about that journey, how it led to her debut album, Echo, and her cover of Radiohead's Creep, one of the most successful YouTube videos of all time.

Getting to play Elphaba was totally exhilarating when I got to go on. The challenge in being a standby is that you never know when it's going to happen, and sometimes it's six weeks between shows.  As the only standby in the show, it could also feel very isolating — not performing much and being away from home wasn't a great combination for me. But I'm grateful for the hard. The hard is what makes it good.  In fact, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had more time than I have ever had in my entire life and I knew I had to use it somehow. So, I started teaching myself guitar, revisiting piano (which I had played poorly as a child) and writing music. Now I really feel that that's what I'm supposed to be doing. It was such a gift. 

What was the first song you wrote?

The first song, which I don't really ever play, is called "Soar."

"-ar" or "-re"? 

Ooh, "-ar"... but I should write one with "-re"!  It was about spreading your wings and taking flight.

And it hasn't seen the light of day? 

Not really. I played it at one of my very first gigs. 

This is sort of an ineffable question... but where does the voice come from?  Not the singing voice, but the songwriters' voice?

I never thought I had anything to say. It was always sort of a, "Yes Sir, yes Ma'am," fitting-in type of thing, so I never realized I had a voice. But once I started writing music and performing it, I realized that me being myself was the thing people were responding to... Some people really connect with playing a character, something totally different than what they are — I found the opposite to be true. Being myself, a goofball connected to my music, was the best thing I could be doing with my instrument, my training and my voice. I just started writing a song a day when I realized that it's something I actually have to be doing because I have things to say.




Did that "other" voice ever come up a lot, saying, "Who am I to write a song?"

Oh yeah!  I still know, like, six chords on guitar. I don't actually know what I'm doing, but as I'm writing more and more, my songs are getting more interesting, my piano playing is getting better...  If you had told me four years ago I would be writing songs, I would've laughed in your face. I was like, "Oh, I want somebody to write for me, and I'll just sing it," but then actually doing it on my own... I remember the first moment I went up to my friend and said, "I think I wrote a song."  She was like, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, Can I play it for you?" I remember playing it for her for the first time, realizing I had created something out of nothing instead of interpreting someone else's work, which I had done my whole life.


Photo credit:  Kevin Thomas Garcia

 You "made a hat."

<Laughs.>  Exactly. 

So there must have been a different kind of... responsibility you felt. 

That's a good word. A long time ago my dad said that I had a responsibility to use the blessings I was given. It was very powerful to discover I could create my own art and do it for myself — that I was the only person I had to say yes to. 

Are you a spiritual person?  I always feel that with great art we're somehow "borrowed."

I do feel like a vessel, which actually takes the weight off my shoulders... It then becomes about doing what I'm born to do, versus what I'm "supposed" to do. I try to think of it as a job, my responsibility every single day, to share what I'm doing with the world... and it's been challenging! 

For a long time, I thought of myself as an artist in terms of getting jobs that gave me some sort of "clout." Like, "Being on Broadway — check." Doing this has totally changed my life, because I feel like an artist in a whole new way.

When that "Creep" video happened, it was the last song of the best night of my life. Somehow, everything was aligned and it was captured on film, and I felt like I actually reinvented myself at that moment. 


Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia

Let's talk about that. 

The wildest thing ever. 

We rehearsed it very little, but there was something in the room... I remember being onstage, really scared to do it, but did it anyway. I like doing things that scare me, because then I start feeling fearless. Actually, the first moment I went onstage to do my own music was THE most frightened I have ever been in my life, ever, and I have done a lot of crazy stuff!

But I was so grateful to everyone in that room for showing up, everything felt right in the world. My heart just like, exploded, and then [my bandmate] Julian was just making stuff up — he didn't know where I was gonna start, I didn't know where he was gonna start. He just landed on a chord, and it was... one of those moments. I remember feeling like my most powerful self, as if the universe just aligned.  And then all I did, literally, was put it on my Facebook.




All of a sudden, I was getting all these messages, "Carrie, you're on Gawker." And then it was the most popular story on Gawker, then it was picked up by the New York Times, Huffington Post, Daily Beast... It was so crazy because it all happened, like, within a week. And I don't have a PR team! I just put it on my Facebook and it happened... I'd put my phone down for ten minutes, and there's be 50 e-mails.  It was the wildest thing that ever happened to me. But it's actually given me a lot of faith in the world, because I didn't have a cute puppy or a naked video. People just liked the song. (N.B., To date, "Creep" has had over 1,100,000 views on YouTube).

I heard Alec Baldwin picked it up on Twitter?

He just started Tweeting, "Carrie Manolakos should be on Girls."  We ended up talking and he connected me to some people, he was so cool, the greatest!  It has been sort of the gift that keeps on giving... like being invited to a different kind of party. 

Is there any kind of shift you might support in people who are looking to step into their power as artists?

First, if you're at your lowest low, there's always some sort of lesson or gift there. When you're stripped of everything you think you are — or what people say that you are —then you find out who you really are.

Second, if your gut is telling you to do something, you cannot wait around for a single person to do anything for you because nobody will. I spent years wanting this and that, and that just does not happen. You have do it for yourself because you wanna do it, and if you're doing good work, if you're at your best, then good stuff happens.

Having this album, the show, having the video explode, it was like the universe saying, "Go ahead, Carrie, keep going." Even though the music business is really hard right now, the messages has been, "Just keep going." And that was the sign I needed.

So it's really about answering the call when it's a whisper, not a scream. 

Yeah... I like that.


On New Year's Eve, Carrie crowned what many people would consider the year-of-a-lifetime joining Phish onstage at Madison Square Garden.  Her upcoming shows include Philadelphia's World Cafe Live on February 5 (click here for tickets) and February 28th at the Cutting Room NYC (here). To learn more about Carrie, visit her website, www.carriemanolakos.com

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