Sunday, August 28, 2016

Stories Starring Women



Stories Starring Women
  The Bechtel Test
 Celebrating the Everyday life of Women
Something monumental in social and artistic history happened last night.  Despite my body being on Greenwich Mean Time from a month in the UK I awoke before dawn in California this morning with the sure knowledge that I needed to write about last night’s triumph at BATS.

Lisa Rowland, fast becoming a major voice, player and teacher of improvisation on the west coast and internationally, produced and directed a two night run of improvised stories about women.  She assembled a seasoned and talented cast of seven improvisers, including veterans Rebecca Stockley and Barbara Scott. Representing the Millennials was Lisa herself and Rebecca Portesky and Kimberly Maclean.  As supporting members of the ensemble she chose Dave Dennison and William Hall.  Seven improvisers bounded on the BATS stage with the promise of exploring how a few guidelines which tilted the balance of power in the direction of women might result in an evening’s entertainment before a live audience.

For anyone reading this who is a follower of improvisational theater in the Bay Area (and worldwide) knows there is groundbreaking artistic work being done here.  Among the dozens of long form theater groups experimenting and evolving new forms are the notable “3 for All,” “Awkward Dinner Party,” “The SF Improv Playhouse,” the LA based ”Impro Theatre” and “Noir Unscripted.” These currently active groups are part of a succession of twenty years of development in theatrical forms preceded by “True Fiction Magazine” and “Pulp Playhouse” to name only a few.  Someone needs to write the history of this movement, which is largely unknown to the wider theater going community.  Even in enlightened environments such as Stanford University “improv” is still looked upon as that comedy stuff.  This is a topic for a longer piece, but I need to return to the purpose of this essay: to talk about Lisa Rowland’s experiment this weekend.

Her company of improvisers, including the legendary musician, J Raoul Brody and lighting improviser Ana Nelson, did something last night that I had never seen in 50 years of theater going.  I may overstate this when I say that the “holy grail” of long form improv is to create authentic theater capable of bringing an audience to tears, touching the heart and mind and delighting us all with its freshness and clarity.  In the past year I have seen increasingly skillful work that has moved the genre of long form into a new level.  Last night tears flowed as I watched a group of ordinary characters, women, who were struggling with everyday challenges.  In the two-hour performance no one got shot or blown up.  No one screamed and raged for attention or power, and mostly everyone got along.  The agonies and triumphs were little things . . . like overcoming social anxiety or accepting the imperfections of ones parents.  Characters talked to each other, often quietly.  I never once noticed an improviser going for the quick joke or laugh.  What was riveting to me was just how dramatic ordinary life (among women) could be.
There was a kind and persistent boyfriend played by William Hall who gently worked to give his intended “space” in order for their relationship to continue.  In another simple scene Daisy (Kimberly MacLean) has an audience with a kindly banker, played by Dave Dennison.  She is seeking a loan for a business venture to build a community center for at-risk youth.  Her unabashed surprise when she gets the loan of $40K was moving.  Characters mostly helped each other and listened to one another.  The entire arch of the show was character rather than plot driven.  This choice provided spaciousness for everyone to be themselves and share the stage with a series of “ordinary miracles.” 

Rebecca Poretsky’s character, Wally was a scientist with a lot of control issues.  A particularly skillful scene was a meeting with her graduate assistants to discuss research.  Each character seemed fully developed and involved.

Near the end of the story a particularly moving scene involved the two aging sisters, Annie (Rebecca Stockley) and, I think it was Maureen played by Barbara Scott.  Maureen leads Annie into her room with the line.  “Come sit down, I need to ask for your help.”  After a long pause, she continues:  “I’m dying, Annie. And, I need a kidney.  You are a match because of our DNA.”  And, Annie throwing her arms around her sister, begins a deep and soulful acceptance of this offer.  “Of course  I will.  You NEED me.  That is the most important thing in life: to be truly needed (sobbing into her lap)”  (I fear I do disservice here to the actual dialog but I hope you will forgive me.)  It appeared to me that Rebecca’s character had real tears flowing too.

And, before I leave the impression that crying on stage or in the audience is the summum bonum let me say that this emotional reaction is just a measure of the kind of human story that was unfolding on stage.  Lisa’s show parameters provided a crucible for these kinds of stories to be told.  In the after show talkback we learned that the “rules” governing this run were simple and hearkened to the Bechdal Test.

1.     These would be scenes and stories by and about women who talked to each other
2.     The structure began with three monologues
3.     All characters would be living in the same contemporary time zone
4.     The two men in the cast would play supporting roles only

The result of these restrictions was dynamic.  Until we encounter its opposite we cannot really know how a cultural bias (e.g.  Dramatic stories are about men.) is skewing the onstage world. 

The improv stage for long form ensembles has always struck me as a political space.  Five players get an audience suggestion and begin constructing a play in our presence.  Who becomes the hero, the villain, the sidekick, the foil?  Usually in the first five minutes of a show there is a subtle power grab for who will dominate or control the evenings destiny.  Over the years I have watched with interest how some actor/improvisers are “drivers”  . . . that is, they tend to dominate the space.  Over time it has been a pleasure as an audience member to see many of these “givens” change.  What fun to see a player who usually grabs the spotlight now “hang back” and serve the narrative as a support instead of a primary.  Looked at carefully all of this jockeying for control onstage is a natural part of the art form.  In “The Bechdel Test” last night the two male cast members were simply instructed:  “Play support.”   William Hall mentioned that this instruction gave him a new perspective.  As a performer he could actively choose NOT to take control, no matter how interesting his idea might be.  “Stay in your place”  was a helpful guideline.  And, once this agreement was in place the five women could breathe deeply and see what developed between them as the stories unfolded.  The result was deeply satisfying.

Perhaps as a woman audience member I’ve had a longing for women’s stories that I didn’t even know existed until last night when this dream was fulfilled.  Thank you Lisa for your vision and for creating an environment for us all to see the power of women’s stories honestly told.  Looks like you got an A+ on your Bechdel Test.  I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Patricia Ryan Madson
El  Granada, CA

BATS Improv August 26 and 27, 2016




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Managing negative chatter



On the weekend of April 7-10, 2016, The Stanford Improvisors had a glorious 25th Reunion.  Over 130 students showed up to celebrate their memories of what it meant to be a SImp. They were there to reminisce, to perform with each other, to share life stories and to improvise songs around a piano. It was fascinating to watch the mix of old students (in their forties now with families and mortgages) with the new crop of undergraduates, so shiny with energy and creativity. What they had in common was the training as improvisors which predisposed them to be positive, helpful and supportive.  It was miraculous to watch old and young perform together on stage, making up stories and getting into mischief together.  My heart sang to see all this cooperation.  In a world where our legislators can't manage to do anything together it was heartwarming to observe how much fun got done with a room full of strangers, choosing to play together.  What a miracle.  Being a SImp meant that your team mates "had your back" and would accept whatever nonsense you might put forward.  Nothing like being around 100+ YES sayers.

During the breaks I had a chance to catch up on the lives of some of my old students now living as grown ups in the real world.  One special friend shared stories of recent disappointments at work.  She was struggling not to let the setbacks and annoyances in the workplace get her down.  A new mother, she was missing being with her gorgeous baby daughter since coming back to work from the pregnancy leave.  She found herself having been demoted and now working for a boss who was at best unappreciative of her work. 
Bummer.  I listened and attempted to console her.  "Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place."  

After the weekend I sent her a card which said:  "The life we're living is not the wrong life." This is a John Tarrant quote that I find comforting.  

A week later I got an email from her which provoked the following exchange.  Perhaps some of this advice can be useful to others who are struggling as well. 

Student: "I received your cards, thank you so much, and thank you for listening to me during our visit.  Life is constantly a series of trials to test my ability to stay positive and do what's needed.  You gave me those skills all those years ago to get through tough times.  It is definitely no small thing."

Teacher:  "You are so right that life seems to be a series of trials. It is for us all. Sometimes if you can find a way to frame the notion of “trials” (which makes sense) into simply “events” it can help ease things.   The Buddhists talk about two kinds of suffering:  1. The shit that happens (pain, disease, death, unfairness, accidents, bad luck, etc.) and 2.  The suffering on top of suffering that our mind creates.  “This isn’t fair.”  "I’m never going to get the respect I deserve.”  Yada yada.  If we can begin to train our minds to not let this thinking run the show we can minimize suffering, at least, I believe."

Student: "What do you replace #2 thoughts with? Because I have many of those thoughts, they are very loud."

Teacher:  "An excellent question.
  
Well, here’s the thing:  we have zero control over when or whether these kinds of non-supportive thoughts “show up.”  They just appear, and if we give them any juice at all, they will stay and propagate and become creative.  It’s sort of like a bum showing up on the doorstep asking for a handout.  We notice, acknowledge, and maybe even empathize, but we don’t invite him in for a cup of tea. We often do this with our "yada yada" thoughts   by calling someone and complaining for an hour.  Or bitching to our spouses over the injustice of the world.  It's so easy to get the record stuck on: “It’s not fair.”  We get into a long legal debate over the merits, etc.  Our mind is obsessing over the injury or disappointment.  We will never win that case. 

Redirect your mind.  

So, I think the best strategy to dealing with the “suffering on top of suffering” thoughts is to #1. NOTICE what they are:  “Hmm . . .  seem to be having that “life’s a bitch, it’s not fair” paragraph rumbling around in my mind.”  Once you’ve identified a “non supportive thought train”  you are already in some manner detached from it.  The next step, rather than getting into the legal argument is to say, even out loud:  “That’s interesting.  Now what needs to be done?”  Then turn your full attention to something that needs doing and put your mind and body into that:  changing baby’s diaper, going to the store for milk, cleaning out a drawer, writing that thank you note, working on a brief.  Or even finding the “gift” inside the problem. (The asshole boss is also the one who signs my paycheck which allows me to life comfortably.) Tasks that use large body movements are especially good at redirecting the mind.  The trick with yada yada is to REPLACE them not with a counter argument, (that just continues the "having a cup of tea with your misery" metaphor).  Replace worry and chagrin with ACTION:  Doing what needs to be done.  And while this may not permanently get rid of the crapola thoughts, it allows you not to let them ruin your life. Remember “YOU are not your thoughts.  And, at least you get the kitchen clean or the brief written.”  

The longer I live the more I see that life's biggest challenge is learning how to work with the mind around negative and non-supportive thoughts.  I'm not a Pollyanna.  But I am able to see that "Life is good, even when it isn't."  It's helpful to be reminded.

Every moment a new one.  "The life you are living is not the wrong life." wise words from John Tarrant. And good luck redirecting the yada yada into constructive action.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

You Decide



YOU DECIDE
November, 2014

The name on her Deli Counter Employee badge said Linda.  I judged her to be right around my age  . . . just pushing into her 70’s.  There was a light in her eye as if she had just won the lottery.  “Having a good day?” she almost sang as I pushed my cart down a slender aisle near the Deli.  “I am,” I replied, “and it’s clear that you are too!” 

“Oh, well. It’s easy,” she beamed,  “You decide. You decide to be happy.  I mean, everybody’s got their junk, even the folks who seem to have it all. But you can decide to be happy, ya know.  That’s what I do.  And, her whole body virtually glowed with the truth of her simple idea. 

I’d been rereading Victor E. Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning again and Linda’s point has reinforced his proud comment:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It’s important to remember that we decide how we look at life.  We attribute meaning to the world.  It’s easy to forget this as we encounter life and notice all the things that make us unhappy.  Like a magnet the mind goes to the negative.  Linda reminds us to turn this bad habit around.  Decide. 

Notice the gifts.  Notice all that you are receiving.  Notice the ease most of us have.  And, even for those with life challenges, notice how much help there is. 

There’s a Buddhist saying:  “Every day is a good day.” 

You decide.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Turning around the crazies




This was the third call to the Stanford University IT Computer helpline.  Isabella, my technical rep this round had been on the phone with me for just under three hours.  The issue was Stanford’s new Encryption software that is required of all users who have a sunet ID for the University’s email server.  As the world continues to go mad the pressure to secure our cyber identities goes up.  Stanford tries to stay ahead of the curve in Security precautions and programs that protect us from any kind of cyber terror.  While I don’t spend much time worrying about my data being secure (perhaps I should) I do always obey commands to update software and security protocols.  For reasons unknown installing the new encryption program on my MacBook laptop had become a nightmare.  The rep who was helping me continued to try new things to make the process go successfully.  Both of us began to take long, deep breaths attempting to still the rising anger and frustration that only a dysfunctional Apple device can provoke.  “All morning, I’ve spent all morning trying to make this procedure work.”  Each time we would go around the circle of downloads, proffering of logins and 24 character passwords, followed by the same set of questions asked and answered.  Nothing was working.  My devices manager continued to read “Non Compliant” no matter what we tried. 

I was fuming and felt ready to pop off expressing my most profound annoyance at this personal inconvenience.  You know that moment when your blood rises, and you just want to let expletives fly!  But something different happened: instead of giving in to that impulse to vent my mind did a 360 degree turn.  I changed what I was noticing, and I began thinking about the gift of our technology. I began reflecting about what was right about this moment while we were attempting to solve the security issue. So, changing my voice I exclaimed to Isabella:  “Despite this glitch, aren’t we lucky to have this amazing technology?  Isn’t the Internet a miracle?  Aren’t we blessed to have computers and the ability to connect and find the world’s bounty of information and knowledge?"  As I spoke I could sense immediately Isabella’s mood and voice change.  “Yes,” she declared cheerfully, “it is a miracle.  All that Stanford provides us with is such a great gift.”  We both clearly began to feel better and our former annoyance had been replaced by wonder.  Of course, the technical problem didn't disappear, but our relationship to it had made a dramatic shift.


I hope I can remember this “technique” if you can call it that.  When I feel ready to burst with anger and frustration instead of giving in to that useless emotion I should turn my mind to a catalogue of what I am receiving at that moment.  What are the everyday wonders and miracles that sustain us and console us and enrich our lives? 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Four Friends and Teamwork

Bhutan is a tiny country with a big heart.  One of their claims to world fame is the adoption of the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as the governmental measure of all things good.  The quality of life is prized over material wealth.  When I visited this cultural paradise in 2011 I kept noticing an image that was everywhere.  It’s the picture of “The Four Harmonious Friends” and it’s a symbol of the importance of cooperation.  I brought home a hand painted thanka with this image because I wanted to be reminded of this story. The values represented in the image are of key importance to the Bhutanese. It is often seen in Buddhist iconography as shown here.

The story of the four friends recounts how working together can produce not only harmony but also sustenance. Their combined forces allow them to obtain a continual supply of food. The peacock on top first found a seed and planted it in the earth.  The rabbit watered it, the monkey fertilized it and the elephant guarded it. When the fruit was ripe the tree was so high that no one could not reach the top on his own. The four animals made a tower by climbing on one another’s backs, and plucked the fruit from the high branches.  Then they shared the bounty.

Teamwork leverages both individual gifts as well as acts of cooperation.  As an improv teacher I am often called upon to help cultivate and develop teams.
It is often a focus in the study and practice of improvisation. In their recent bestseller Team Genius, Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone’s make the scientific claim that teams with diversity are more likely to perform successfully.  The quality most needed in our changeable world is that of maneuverability. In their words: “Maneuverability is the capacity to turn, even reverse direction, quickly, to deal competently with whatever new change—technology, market opportunity, or competition—has just burst onto the scene, and to do so without losing internal cohesion and breaking up.” (p. 70)  


Improv teaches maneuverability.  Scenes and stories happen in real time and actors must be alert to new directions; they must change on the dime in order to make sense out of the moment.  There is no time to stop and have a committee meeting to vote on some possible future.  Improvisers create the future in real time, using their individual gifts and talents while pulling together to “get to the top of the tree to pluck the fruit.”