SEA WALL / A LIFE : Notes on Listening and Monologues.

 

 

I walked into this Broadway play, Sea Wall / A Life, starring both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge without any major context… the play is currently running at the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street in New York City, NY; just off Times Square.

 

And what did I find?

 

I discovered, first of all, that the balcony of the Hudson Theatre is actually a nice spot – it’s not too far away from the stage and since the play’s set is a two-tiered it worked really well to watch this one from the balcony. The balcony is cheaper too! The Hudson’s balcony doesn’t feel like a remote bird’s eye view though; it still feels near to the stage for some reason. In my opinion from my experience at the matinee on August 28th, 2019.

 

I also received a lesson in performing monologues; and I took special note. The play’s structure opens with one man, a photographer, Alex, discussing loss (played by Sturridge). The next half of the play juxtaposes another man, a music producer, Abe discussing his own experiences with birth and new beginnings (played by Gyllenhaal). As I said, I had no expectations, but I found myself listening very intently to the monologues. The language was very metaphorical, illustrative and expressive.

 

My main purpose of being in New York City was personal and fairly self-centered so I didn’t expect to be writing a theatre blog post. In preparation for Fall; I’d just spent two days improvising in actor masks and a whole morning reading a science fiction script I wrote –  this means I’d been listening intently to language and considering what sorts of combinations of words might express each character’s point of view and purposes better than before.

 

Perhaps that work was a perfect primer for listening to monologues, I may have been desperate to escape my personal life for a few hours, or maybe it was because there was no dialogue in the play, only monologues; but for some reason after watching this play I found myself drawn to writing these few words because I was compelled to listen to Sea Wall/ A Life.

 

Either way, the truth is that I let the world quiet from my mind for a few hours and began to feel as if the characters were talking to that large New York audience. I learned about listening. We were active participants in the theatre. Hidden in the balcony, eavesdropping, I felt the relationship that developed between the actors and the audience became special that day.

 

I remembered what an NYC teacher, Austin Pendleton, often states about monologues in the classroom – you’re not alone – you are always talking to someone else – and it is important to remember that in performing a monologue you must still be in dialogue with another person. There are a lot of situations, in classical plays such as in a Shakespeare’s soliloquy, where an actor must talk on stage alone. In theatre school and in auditions we are always learning monologues too. I suppose we all live amidst a never-ending inner monologue in our minds each day as well. Anyway, my point is, because the actors in this play were personalizing the text and speaking to a live audience the words also came alive! In turn, very rich imagery and emotions were able to be evoked in the audience (myself included) and it was a beautiful experience fuelled by language.

 

The other thing that struck me was that these were male actors on stage. The monologues were about two men expressing their thoughts and emotions. In fact, spilling out their thoughts and emotions to all those compelled to listen.

 

It was interesting to note that their expression allowed the audience greater insight to understand the human experience  – and to understand loss and birth through their lenses. Rather than hiding behind masculinity or their own human experiences; these male characters seemed to be opening up and letting the world into their experiences. For example, an experience that should have hardened Sturridge’s male character (loss of a child) actually seemed to open his character because his private thoughts were being made public through the monologue.

 

In that dialogue with the audience I saw people that I recognized and heard male voices that were expressive, human and in line with female experiences as well. You might call that a point of connection! I recognized that relationship between the characters and the audience – a bridge between two people regardless of gender. Therefore, I found myself listening.

 

I won’t give away the play or the plot. However, I will make a few notes about what I learned from watching these actors work (for any other actors geeking out at the play): I felt that Sturridge’s strengths included his use and integration of destinations and stillness. I say this because his movement never distracted from his storytelling; in fact, his movement fed the story. Gyllenhaal provides a lesson in an actor’s use of breath, character work and humour. Both actors were skilled at building relationship and personalizing the text. I would have seen the play again; however, circumstances will not allow it.

 

I am sure I must also credit the writers (Simon Stephens/ Nick Payne) and the director (Carrie Cracknell) for the play’s success. I ‘googled’ and read that this play was remounted from time spent at The Public Theatre. I am so happy for that production decision as my watching this play has left me inspired!

 

Signing off,
Not-A-Monologue!

 

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A DOLL’S THOUGHTS

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By the time this afternoon rolled around I had checked off everything on my week’s errand list. I found myself with an afternoon of freedom. On this afternoon to spare – I immediately retraced my steps to a theatre I’d passed a few times on my walks about Toronto. I remembered that I’d seen a production of A Doll’s House Part 2 was playing at the Mirvish – CAA Theatre on Yonge. There was indeed a matinee and I did indeed attend. I will now retrace some of my thoughts about the play I saw.

 

This play is first and foremost about a woman named Nora.

 

Nora is a character who has been re-imagined from an old Henrik Ibsen play called, A Doll’s House. A famous feminist play about a woman who walks out on her family because she does not want to feel like someone’s possession anymore and has lost faith in marriage.

 

Ibsen’s play is confusing and the controversial topics tend to leave unanswered questions within the minds and hearts of the audience. Whenever I’ve been in a theatre classroom, or with actor friends, I’ve always said, “in my mind Nora takes the kids!” or “if the play was written by a woman Nora would have taken the children?” My instinctual comments are usually met with a very thoughtful pause, after I say that, and the conversation tends to stop and we usually move on to another topic because there is no real answer to my question. After all, the play has already been written!

 

I guess that’s the whole point. Nora removes herself from the equation and slams the door so that she can work on her own health and well being. The play is meant to let us wonder about why and how her decision came to be. Further, how it makes us feel that convention has been shattered by a woman and a mother.

 

Now, part two of the play, written by Lucas Hnath, is about Nora’s return.

 

Nora returns in her own clothes and with her own thoughts after shedding her husband Torvold’s clothes and thoughts fifteen years before. Nora returns as a writer by profession. The plot revolves around Nora’s return because her subsequent experiences in the world forced her return in order to beg for the maintenance of her own independence. In this play Nora negotiates her way through relationships, answers to her past, and grapples with how she can shape her future without slamming the door once more. The characters pose options at each other; desperately looking for ways to move forward without needing to hang onto the past. They all want a choice; but can no longer control each other’s choices.

 

The stark difference about the new play is that, whereas we saw Nora is crisis mode before slamming the door in A Doll’s House, we now see her in repair mode upon her return. The characters claim to have all moved on emotionally; but they still find that they need each other in order to maintain everyone’s independence or ability to move forward. The daughter wants to get to married, the parents may need a divorce, the house-keeper wants peace. None of the characters can be granted their wishes unless they work it out with each other. Their collective actions, spilled out into a transparent room, have resulted in everyone wondering how to make the rules written outside the doors reflect how each of them feels on the inside?

 

Hnath’s play contains dialogue that seems to keep moving forward steadily and roll over the past. The language is very contemporary and is also one of the stark changes that is noticeable in comparison to Ibsen’s classical play. Despite the tonal shift that results; the language leads the actors into emotional bouts as well as quiet and contemplative moments.

 

I attended a discussion after the play. The theatre and two actors were generous enough to extend their voices and time for a few questions. We spoke with Kate Hennig (playing Anne-Marie – the housekeeper who ends up raising Nora’s children after she leaves); and Bahareh Yaraghi (playing Emmy – the grown up daughter of Nora and Torvald).

 

I asked whether, in having performed the play and worked on these characters, the two women have experienced any changes or alterations in how they view the role of women.

 

Both actresses suggested that playing their roles have increased the respect they have for all women. Hennig further recommended reading that is informative of the society from which all the characters in this play originally sprang from (Emma Goldman – a controversial female writer and extreme activist who played a role in shaping the feminist ideas and movements that Ibsen wrote about in his play). These feminist concepts and ideas are all still being played with today as evidenced by Hnath’s play. It seems that women’s roles and the ability to create equality between the sexes is still relevant.

 

I left the theatre asking myself if I’ll ever understand what this all really means; and what I even want it all to mean? Does freedom mean being single and female – strong and self-sufficient – or does freedom really have to do with loving relationships that allow you to feel and be equal? I’m feeling that it might be a bit of a balance among extremes – and that is exactly what the character’s in Hnath’s play were saying to each other all along. What do you want? How can I help? What will make this better? Why can’t we figure it out? Why am I so angry now? What would equal even look like? Do we really have to talk about it? And now that we’ve got all this collateral damage what would mend our future? All the characters, ironically, also imply, “I still love you” for some reason.

 

Unlike the feminist issues the character’s grapple with; the set is very simple. There were light grey walls and very tall doors that let in light when opened to let people in or out of the room. From afar the whole set resembles a room in a children’s doll house. The only furniture are the three chairs that are moved about the room often. A simple, light, white wooden chair and two heavier, twin chairs covered with red fabric. In fact, on this set, all the characters tend to resemble dolls next to those tall grey doors and moving chairs, and under the bright lights. It almost felt like being a Charles Dickens novel where I got to feel like an omnipresent stranger, peering in and trying to discover and unlock the secrets hidden in another set of hearts.

 

The more I see in the theatre I feel that I become more enlightened about other people and about myself. I definitely haven’t left this play with any clear answers about feminism or the equality of the sexes; but it did make me spend more time on these thoughts. I have four brothers and we’ve actually had conversations about what the difference is between us without ever resolving on any clear answers either – except that we’re all human beings. I did, however, leave the play with more resolve to work at raising women’s voices and views. Step one was putting my own voice out into the universe. And look at that – I couldn’t separate my own voice from thoughts about my family?

 

Until my next post…. signing off… INSPIRED again!

 

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STRATFORD BY BUS, TEMPEST BY PERCH

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I finally made my way to Stratford, Ontario, Canada to attend the Stratford Festival to take in a Shakespeare play! In my thank-god-its-friday excitement I felt quite happy as you can see:

 

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Now, however, I feel a little bussed out. As we made our way into the town passing by a lot of signs with the word Shakespeare in them I knew we were nearing the action. It took me 5+ hours from Ottawa to Toronto on a Greyhound to pick up my company for the trip (and to have a place to crash for the weekend). A bus trip in Ontario looks a little something like this:

 

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Interspersed with many bales of hay, a few grazing animals, barns of various shapes and sizes, a few rocky hills and many, many trees… the route also looked like this:

 

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On the very convenient two hour coach to Stratford from Toronto I am so happy I wasn’t alone. Irena and I have studied in the same classes so we got to spend the ride home rehearsing our next future fictional gig! We also discussed inspirations. Fellow actors Sarah and Mat were rehearsing for a scene. Woohoo!

 

It’s funny. While we were reading the scene it started to sink in – Irene and I spent a few months in New York rehearsing a scene from Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and playing sisters. I was so excited I got to step into the shoes of older sisters by playing Joyce to Marlene (to my excitement since I usually ‘play’ the kid sister in life). A modern play was able to evoke very human and deep universal emotions once we did all our homework, trusted the text and rode the wave of emotions that rose as a by-product of our rehearsals and actions. How interesting how that humanity-thing works. Woohoo!

 

As for Stratford… I had NO IDEA what to expect! As we approached the festival I found myself hiding excitement. The main reason for going out of my way to attend this year was to see one of the Stratford stage veterans, Martha Henry, return to play Prospero in The Tempest. The Tempest happens to be one of those plays that resonates with me heavily. I discovered the play long before discovering King Lear, or Cymbeline, or A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. It turns out, “according to my research”, that Henry (Prospero; or Prosper-A?) earlier played Miranda at Stratford; and has come full circle to the titular rule she finds herself playing now. Such is the stage her dreams are made of!

 

The set was minimal and I thought this set looked like it would be nice to act upon. It was easily convertible from ship to castaway island. We found Prospero sitting on a perch above home (or hut) conjuring the storm to sweep Ferdinand and past woes to shore. At one point a large bird (I think it was a Pheonix) takes the perch over – although this element could have been distracting – I enjoyed that part. It made me think about the cloak that Prospero wears. At points she drapes it over Miranda like a wing. Without turning the metaphor into overkill, Henry was able to subjectively evoke a sense of protection and pathos through gesture. In some way I understood their relationship a little better– the parent who does not rest while the child sleeps. I was reminded of my own mother’s patient resolve.

 

There were a few moments within this production that I didn’t expect and am left wondering about. Mainly it was an interlude, perhaps a flashback, with several women dressed in very elaborate gowns singing as if from another dimension or consciousness. I got a distinct sense that Prospero and Miranda were separate from the fantasy being recounted. Maybe it was my comparison of the play to other productions (Shakespeare in the Park) or my own bias because I love the story, or perhaps some knowledge I don’t yet understand… but the interlude was just not resonating with me.

 

I didn’t really want to leave the theatre at the end of the play. Although the seats in the balcony were experiencing slight overcrowding and could use a little more leg room… all the seats offer very good views of the house and I felt nested as I was peeking over at the events unfolding on stage.

 

Once Irena and I had travelled back to Toronto we started to think and to talk.  Irena and I had a conversation that led to us asking: At the end of The Tempest, why does Prospero reason, take off her cloak and return the powers she was lent from the island? Perhaps it was watching a female Prospero, usually played by male actors, that made us question the conclusion of this play; I am not quite sure. Unfolding was the same action that always serves the same plot of this famous Shakespeare play that has been renewed for centuries – the returning of the cloak and the alchemical power of the island. This time I questioned the ending a bit further. Why does Prospero let go? At the beginning of the play, upon Miranda’s sympathetic pleas to allay the storm, Prospero stands ground.

 

I actually started to sense the letting go and I started to understand it a bit more subjectively, as opposed to intellectually, up there in my balcony perch. Prospero learns from her past; she builds a nest; she raises her daughter Miranda knowing the world that must be navigated; she prepares and prepares and prepares and watches and waits and nurtures and carefully makes sure Miranda is prepared; and then ensures that Miranda responds to her environment; and then she lets go – but not a second before. Prospero chooses Miranda, loves Miranda, supports Miranda – her offspring. Prospero functions as Miranda’s wings until she doesn’t technically need them anymore. Sounds kind of cliché (leaving the nest etc. etc. ); but for some reason this play repeated over time with life’s lessons woven in helped me to sense the phenomenon strongly this time round.

 

 

And then what weekend getaway doesn’t just go smoother by clicking the right lucky shoes? I was thinking to myself, “There’s no place like sparkly shoes!”.

 

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In the spirit of resolution, as with The Tempest, and in dedication to the fragile little bird within all of us……. the saying actually goes:

 

There’s No Place Like Home!

 

…In particular, we will ask to what extent it is possible to use recent scientific discoveries about the Earth to develop a deep reverence for our planet home so that we can then engage in actions consistent with this reverence, for science is a dangerous gift unless it can be brought into contact with wisdom that resides in the sensual, intuitive and ethical aspects of our natures. As we shall see, it is only when these other ways of knowing complement our rational approach to the world that we can truly experience the living intelligence of nature… (Animate Earth, by Stephen Harding).

 

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THE PLAY AND THE PROPS

I have played in community theatres and used theatrical property as an actor… but this spring (if you can call it spring because it won’t stop snowing) I had the opportunity to learn how to be a part of the props team at a very old community theatre in Canada’s capital city – The Ottawa Little Theatre.

 

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A production of the classic Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire recently took place. I found myself as one of the theatre rats making my way stage left and stage right behind the stage’s backdrop… to help arrange the items that find their way onto the stage as the play moves forward. I found the no-pressure listening backstage to this play to be very rewarding because this very well written play tends to evoke new ideas each time I hear it. When listening isn’t ideal, there are two screens to watch the players on stage – one is in the greenroom (next to cookies a steady stream of coffee/tea) and the other is stage left with the oompa-loompa cueing lights etc. etc..

 

The ideas that the play evoked in me were about the treatment of women, the role of women and the function of “sisterhood”. Having several siblings myself, (six in total), and two of those sibling being sisters- I can’t help it. My siblings offer lenses into the world and human behaviour that I otherwise would be blind to- and for this I am eternally grateful. One of my sisters happens to usually my buddy-in-crime on other film and theatre sets:

 

Being from a large family tree, with close-knit siblings, this play is particularly difficult for me to watch and listen to. In our circumstance, we’d have been the rascals on the playground making everyone we come into contact with accept each other… but as much as Stella and Blanche attempt to do so- therein lies the tragedy of the play. These sisters are faced with such environment and life choices that they are unable to protect each other from the harms of the world whether directly or indirectly. I feel like this is where the characters become universal. Where Stanley becomes a metaphor for environment, and the sisters a symbol of sisterhood and friendship. The play tends to be quite funny, and this production was funny, but listening backstage I got a different sense of the language. The play really is about love as odd as that sounds. The humour is written over immense conflict and tragedy of people’s ability to lose the homes (and the people) they love – and I guess that’s why we continue to put on Williams’ plays. He always seems to plug in a reminder that people are quite fragile underneath circumstance, environment and the masks they wear to protect themselves from others.

 

Blanche endlessly alludes to poetry, runs it over Stanley’s head, Stella endlessly remembers and identifies the ‘children’ in both Stanley and Stella. In my gossip with the rest of the props team, we whispered once or twice about how theatre is a nice place to escape and flesh out conflicts like these, so that we recognize them in our lives. In my experience, this play always makes me want to squeeze my siblings and never let them go- and I do! It feels like yelling, “Rummy!” in a card game, which happens to have been my first line on a community theatre stage! (I completely relate to both Stella’s weakness for childhood memories and Blanche’s weakness for tying poetry and escapism into the conflicts she finds herself in). By contrast, in reality, this play is just that- a method of escaping for a few hours and devising ways to ensure that nothing like that ever happens in your own life (the use of literary tools associated with irony and humour).

 

Anyway, enough of that- I highly recommend volunteering a little every once in a while. It is easy to fit into life, it allowed me to be a part of a team, and I noticed that The Ottawa Little Theatre is a really nice, standard, theatre. And now I’ve gotten to know the theatre from the inside out! Which, apparently is sometimes the only way to work!

 

My souvenir? (shhh, don’t tell Stanley) The props team took the breakables – mine is a little blue cup from the dinner table that I may turn into a planter this summer:

 

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FARINELLI AND THE KING

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For some reason I may have been taking the Belasco Theatre for granted. I have seen a few productions there over the last few years. On Saturday I made my way over to West 44th to check out a production called Farinelli and The King in New York City. I found a pretty reasonable ticket too (under $40 USD) – yay!

 

This time I took another few glances at the molding, the classical figures painted into the walls, the many unique stained glass light fixtures and the detailed ceilings. I noticed that this theatre really is nice to look at as other audience members flooded into the orchestra and characters began to form a world on stage. I was reminded that environment can affect a theatre going experience!

 

The real reason why I found myself inside the Belasco on Saturday, however, was not for the murals or light fixtures or gold paint. It was to (once again) spy on Mark Rylance from seat E15. This time round Rylance played the character of King Philippe V.

 

I wasn’t sure if I’d like this play about King Philippe V and his musical muse Farinelli (Sam Crane). I did though (like it). Unexpectedly.

 

What did I like?

 

The treatment of mental illness was portrayed with sympathy and humour (for starters). The Playbill insert by David Cote explained that “[t]hroughout his rule, King Philippe V suffered from what we now call bipolar disorder”. Although “unhinged”, as only a King would, he still possessed a uniquely high level of understanding and training around what has been expected of him. Even while he hides and shirks responsibilities, King Philippe V floats through his present and past life experiences in order to cope with an environment and social interaction that he finds overwhelming. King Philippe V becomes unmotivated and forlorn until his wife, Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove), provides him with a type of musical therapy. In any case, with the mental instability and the musical therapy, King Philippe V maintained his rule for approximately 50 years (1683-1746).

 

When King Philippe V makes a commotion or harms other people it is difficult to understand whether he possesses appropriate judgment that could have prevented the harm. His eccentric, unique behaviour is funny and entertaining. Every so often it is becomes clear that he is not in control and a sinking, disheartening feeling lingers while we peer through the audience at a man coping with mental illness.

 

In moments of mental clarity, as the King is told of his behaviour, his feelings about his actions differ. The King either sees his actions as justified in stopping an overwhelming environmental trigger (a person that is too close for comfort, a decision he does not want to make); or else he looks back at his actions as unbelievable (harming his wife). At one point in the play the King faints due to the concept of how little control he had over his mental state.

 

A very compelling dilemma unfolds for any dramatic or comedic character – and even more compelling when that man wears a crown! In the moments of mental clarity the audience watched the King utilize his knowledge to govern; but in other instances we see that that responsibility weighs too heavily on him.

 

An interesting aspect to this production was the breaking of the fourth wall. In the second Act, the characters turned the theatre into a forest. The audience members sitting on the stage and in the balcony were suddenly sitting high up in trees tops. I had the great fortune of suddenly feeling as if I was sitting on a forest floor and peering at several lanterns through tree stumps with an unlit forest behind me. The characters on stage noticed us and acknowledged the fact that we were watching them before carrying on. I felt like a wood gnome – or a time traveller. At any rate, it became apparent that we were in the same space – although different realities – but yet still on the same page? At any rate, the fictional characters continued talking and the audience members continued watching.

 

Compelling productions and actors guide the audience through an emotional journey based on the circumstances of the play. These emotional journeys occur on smaller scales within scenes; and on larger scales within the course of the play. Rylance has an interesting ability to make you feel what his character is feeling from moment to moment on a stage because he takes a physical and emotional journey with the character. With Rylance it is not necessary to fill in the blanks at all – he somehow lets you feel what his character feels as the play moves forward.

 

Life goals as an actor – to be that kind of conduit – to understand a character so well in order to portray another human being on stage with empathy and intelligence – through an emotional journey. Therefore I humbly spend the next 2 days in classes learning more about how to be that conduit…

 

King Philippe V starts the play hiding away in his castle room as if it were a nursery due to his mental illness; but by the end of the play has made progress in overcoming the symptoms of his mental illness. It was clear that Philippe V developed a relationship to music, to nature and his self-esteem recovered in moments of mental clarity; which impacted his ability to hold a role in society – a role that happened to be “King”.

 

It can be useful to approach problems from different angles – and life often presents those opportunities to us. I made my way into New York City from a friend’s place in New Jersey:

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Looking over the New York City skyline took my mind to broader thoughts of how to navigate the city. It is a very different perspective to take a look at the skyline, and then enter the city for a specific purpose. As compared to what I am used to doing; which is to occasionally look up while navigating familiar subway routes and NYC avenues with a destination in mind. It made me think that is what King Philippe V was often forced to do with his rule – find different pathways into his decision-making. Most times he would navigate his ‘job’ through routes with unique obstacles by stopping at familiar experiential comfort zones (riddles about clocks and time, hide and seek games in the castle). These stopping points helped him to explain his needs and give direction to his wife and other kingdom dwellers. In moments of clarity he would see the broader picture and was able to connect information to make conscious decisions. It was compelling to watch his wife find ways to support his ability to do maintain power.

 

The play moves forward with musical arias by Handel creating a more subjective experience for the audience in between dialogue and events that unfold on stage. The characters in King Philippe V’s life, such as his wife and Farinelli, are also portrayed with skill and empathy.  They are people who are demanded to support a flawed man maintain a large amount of power. I left this play having witnessed aesthetic pleasure, but also a greater ability to empathize with people who experience mental illness and their families. Although a dark topic I felt emotionally taken care of as I left the theatre due to the use of humour and comic relief!

 

Blast from the past when Rylance played Olivia at the Belasco:

 

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I wonder what’s next?

 

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PERSONAL HISTORY, THE POST

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“From the start, I very much wanted to write this book myself, although I realized I wasn’t a real professional.” The words above were chosen by Katherine Graham to open an autobiography she entitled Personal History. Of course, she was keen enough to enlist the help of a researcher, Evelyn Small, and an editor, Robert Gottlieb. The opening line pulls to the surface an all too familiar self-doubt that it is hard to imagine exists in some of the most successful people gracing the pages of books, magazines and newspapers. The ensuing pages account for self-doubt overcome through experiences and memories of Katherine, a past owner of The Washington Post. She tends to allow the reader to make his/her own conclusions about Katherine Graham’s ability to tell a story. Needless to say, I am meticulously making my way through the pages and details of Personal History. A book I became aware of through recent Meryl Streep interviews regarding the latest Spielberg directed move, The Post. It is inspiring to note that even with the existence of self-doubt great achievements are possible.

 

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The Post film captures the journey of Katherine Graham as she learns of leaked top-secret information on the history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and makes a choice to allow The Washington Post to report on them, risking imprisonment, in order to maintain freedom of the press.

 

Katherine Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, bought The Washington Post for $825,000 in a bid in 1933 – a paper he’d been attempting to acquire for quite some time and had previously offered $5 million dollars for! The paper was deemed a failure by the time he bought it, and he eventually passed it on to Katherine Graham’s husband Philip L. Graham. Upon Philip passing in 1963 Katherine became owner of The Washington Post. The first female CEO of a fortune500 company:

 

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Katherine recalls her father insisting on the principles that a newspaper should uphold in 1935, and she lists them in her autobiography:

 

  1. That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained;
  2. That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
  3. That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
  4. That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old;
  5. That the newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner;
  6. That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
  7. That the newspaper shall not be the ally for any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men. (Ch3, p63)

 

Although Katherine states that these principles were at the “heart and soul” of her father’s convictions, “how to translate them into action was the challenge”. Little did she know that she would be put to the test with the Pentagon Papers and that her father’s sentiments would echo the principles of America’s Supreme Court to uphold the freedom of the press. In 1971, Katherine would gulp… and ‘okay’ the exposing of years of government decisions leading up to a controversial Vietnam War; in which many Americans remained deployed.

 

The journey of Katherine Graham was entrusted to Meryl Streep in the film The Post. An energetic journalist and Graham’s close confidant, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), encouraged the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. I woke up on Saturday morning, trekked out in the snow (and didn’t dress warm enough grrr argh), took a bus and watched the movie. I was cold and sleepy, but I am very happy I made the effort. WHO AM I KIDDING THOUGH? I’d been waiting to watch The Post and I’m a total fan-girl of all the ‘professionals’ involved in making it (gulp). It is one of those films made enjoyable because it enlightens the viewer in addition to making the viewer feel sad, and happy at times. I learned a little bit more about the world!

 

I left feeling the importance of a person’s ability to ‘find his/her voice’. I realized that a voice is impacted by a person’s ability to ‘know’ and that it is very interesting to watch someone strive to learn what is true (so far as what is true can be learned). I empathized with that struggle as a woman and as a citizen. The barriers to Katherine finding her voice were not financial, physical or intellectual; her barriers were environmental and in relationships. By virtue of the time Katherine was consistently spoken down to due to her gender regardless of her prominent position. I was especially struck, towards the end of the movie, at the depiction of Katherine returning to a habitual stroll among her printing machines… just getting back to work… newspapers flying on belts towards the ceiling… legally publishing government secrets! 

 

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**

 

MEASURE 4 MEASURE

M4M pic

Sometimes computer actions become applicable to my life… “force quit! … FORCE QUIT!” I state at my laptop computer while an article on my website browser decides not to allow me to shut… IT… off.

 

My behavior is probably tied to a control issue on some small scale – probably linked to aspects of my world that I feel like I can’t shut off – informing my behavior. Be like subway train cars that have no air conditioning in July; be like sleepy eyelids closing when all I want to do is stay up and work – or watch YouTube interviews; be like my miniscule budget when there are so many good shows right now waiting to be watched on Broadway and even beyond the Big Apple.

 

Well, so be it. I love having that “Force Quit…” option though. It hides there waiting to be clicked behind the bitten apple icon on the top left of my 13” screen. I guess that’s how we might illustrate freedom on some scale nowadays. So many options – one happens to be “Force Quit…” thanks to some computer engineer answering necessity somewhere in the universe.

force quit!

Perhaps on some scale that’s the seed of Isabella’s issues in Measure For Measure. Control. A non-virtual, perhaps emotional, ‘Force Quit’ of IT – whatever it happened to be to Isabella. Control over… her own body and free will to choose whether to use her body as a trade to save her brother’s life – or whether to allow herself an ability to remain ‘chaste’. In the sense of this Shakespeare play, a definition of chastity extends to Isabella’s ability to maintain her preparation to become ‘married to God’ as a nun. This would require her to keep all hands off her body and refrain from expressions and receptions of sexual desire – including those of a judge named Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) who offers pardon of her brother’s life up in return.

 

Well… now… what a dilemma for a woman like Shakespeare’s Isabella (Cara Ricketts) – or really any person living in that time or ours. To come to the awareness that what is right in her mind, heart and body are in connection to a higher power and faith that she strongly connects to; and that this internal connection is weighed outside of her body very differently by various people – even people she loves and respects deeply. A favorite monologue of mine happens to be an Isabella monologue that I learned in school – it gets right at the crux of the plot issue when Isabella is forced to choose between her chastity or giving it up in order to save her brother’s life (good ol’Bill with those high stakes). Isabella speaks through the problem out loud and alone by reflecting on Angelo’s proposition (good ol’Bill with ability to create irony – I was on the sidelines urging her to be feministic about it all at the end of Act II scene 4…):

 

Thought 1:

 

To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,

Who would believe me? O, perilous mouths,

That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,

Either of condemnation or approof;

Bidding the law make court’sy to their will;

Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,

to follow as it draws!

 

Whenever I hear those words I have a strong inclination towards ‘ouch!’ right in my heart center. It would definitely make the character Isabella want to shut off her other energy centers (head & hips). The poetic words of the play speak to me and make Carrie Robinson want to kick, push and curse on Isabella’s behalf. I remember in my classroom setting at school watching my friends/ classmates start to cry when I spoke those words for Isabella. And as an audience member on Wednesday night in the professional theatre setting, I watched Ricketts tap all of those same inclinations into her still body and decide to reason through the injustice she has discovered before moving to…

 

Thought 2:

 

… I’ll to my brother:

Though he hath fall’n by prompture of the blood,

Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour,

That, had he twenty heads to tender down

On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,

Before his sister should her body stoop

To such abhorred pollution.

 

I heard Isabella consider the effect of her decisions on her brother’s behalf – and wonder what he would have done for her. What if he had his free will and fair use of his body and mind, and was not fall’n by prompture of the blood? She believes that he would have fought for her or used his body to prevent a sister from having to give hers up. And so her dilemma widens and deepens in her love and belief attached to her brother’s ideas around ‘honour’.

 

If they had a shiny coin – would Isabella be heads or tails? If she chose ‘heads’ and began to represent the coin’s minted face as landed up towards the sky – would she let her twirling tail on the other side of her coin, having fallen down, dictate the future? So Isabella reasons further by daring to spin into the dark abyss of her dilemma toward a solution:

 

Thought 3:

 

Then, Isabel, live chaste and brother, die:

More than our brother is our chastity.

I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,

And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.

 

So it’s hard enough to be a judge and decide whether to let a person who has been convicted of a crime face a sentence of death or to go free (I would imagine from my measly time as a mock Chief Justice in law school). But this play begs the question of how it would feel across the chessboard if the judge turned a responsibility granted by Shakespeare’s god-fearing Italian government into a trade for his own use; effectively hooking his power and responsibility granted by law to pull a female body closer to his own plate for sexual purposes. Of course, he attempts to keep his arching line invisible as it contravenes the very laws he’s meant to keepsake. The play then begins to tick around the Duke (Jonathan Cake) discovering his role in preventing injustice within a realm and system that requires him, due to birth status, to rule and oversee the governance of.

 

Jonathan Cake delivers a fine and compelling illustration of the Duke’s character arc in discovering and being compelled by Isabella’s experience to use his knowledge, intelligence, power and privilege towards allowing a woman to have control over her own body. What a concept to be written into a play when a society, like Shakespeare’s, still prescribed that women were not considered people; let alone people capable of making decisions on their own bodies (be virgin or not!) without a male kin’s stamp of approval. At this point in the world’s history women weren’t even deemed capable of having the right to ask for control over their own bodies!

 

I watched Cake/Duke pick apart the problem with rebellion, with language, with observance and reflection, with dialogue, with a Friar’s disguise, with tears and laughter, with love and with reasoned control and I fell a little in love with the Duke from the audience. He took a variety of action on stage that compelled me to see the whole problem and to want to resolve it – just as he found himself wanting to resolve it. Having worked the Isabella monologue in school, I’d never put myself in the Duke’s position before. Isn’t that funny – what a bit of gender neutrality occurs nowadays as a female watching the play – many women are now in a position to relate to the Duke as a person in control over people, governance and even homes; as well as to Isabella as a woman with threats to the control of her body.

 

It’s easier said than done nowadays even with progressions to women’s rights – the system Isabella found herself in indicates the root of some systemic ways of thinking about women’s rights that we still struggle with today across the globe. It occurred to me that Shakespeare’s text only compels my emotions nowadays because it is still relevant. So the emotion can be translated into a metaphoric “Force Quit…” button on my laptop – but on some scale, depending on where a person lives in this world, the dilemmas and threats in this play still ring true. Isabella matters and her brother Claudio matters (Leland Fowler)  – people facing problems that be like Isabella and Claudio’s matter – life isn’t as simple as flipping a coin to let heads and tails dictate an outcome. Just as the Duke discovers this – I was able to reflect on this in the audience – and I thought – well maybe that was the intention of the playwright then:

 

For, though his line of life went soon about,

The life yet of his lines shall never out. – Hugh Holland on William Shakespeare.

 

Measure for Measure.

 

Its very rhythm, within a title granted by Shakespeare, teeter-totters to our ears and forces us to place and balance similar consonants with similar vowels. The carrying out of the play forces us to place and balance right from wrong in our consciences and our understanding of humanity. It is both black and white; both cruel and kind; both male and female; both true and false; both high and low; and it matters. What a unique and balanced title from the Bard collection:

 

Measure for Measure.

 

Consonant for Vowel.

 

Ding for Dong.

 

Tick for Tock.

 

Teeter for Totter.

 

virgin statue

Enthroned Virgin (by Goro di Gregorio (active ca. 1300-1334) – statue on display at The Cloisters, New York City.

Last, but not least, if I could time-travel… I’d sit in on Meryl Streep’s Isabella in 1976… if only that were possible!

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