Shotgun’s Events is phenomenal, thought-provoking theater

Wow.

I’ve been a theater-goer for decades, a choral singer on and off throughout my life, and more recently, a playwright. But last night I experienced theater in a completely new and transforming way. I was both audience and performer in an incredible play at Shotgun’s Ashby Stage, and I have to say–it felt amazing to be part of it.

Scottish-born David Greig wrote The Events in response to the 2011 massacre in Oslo that left 77 people dead. Though the circumstances differ, Greig explores the painful aftermath for one particular survivor of a mass shooting, Claire. Part of Greig’s vision of the play was to include actual community choruses onstage–a different one each night.

Which is how I got involved. Shotgun put out word that it was seeking both intact community choruses and people with choral music background to learn songs and perform them in the role of the play’s choir. One large four-hour music rehearsal introduced us to the songs back in late April. Then we were on our own to learn and practice the music, using mp3s that were sent to us, although presumably some of the choirs used their own practice time as well.  But for those of us who responded to the call as individuals, we didn’t practice together until the night of our performance, in a two-hour rehearsal that also included blocking, cues, and the addition of a few spoken lines.

Claire, exquisitely portrayed by the talented Julia McNeal, is a minister and leads a community choir. (And having been in a few choirs myself, I think she did an admirable job of conducting us onstage.)  While her partner and her therapist want Claire to focus on herself, Claire is driven to search out anyone whom she thinks may be able to answer the one question she has–why?

The Boy (Caleb Cabrera) Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Caleb Cabrera takes on the twelve other roles in the play, which includes the young perpetrator (known only as The Boy), but he also portrays her partner, a cab driver, a journalist, The Boy’s father, a friend, a classmate of The Boy, a choir member, a politician, her psychiatrist, a man named Gary, and even a baby. And he does so, quite effectively, without costume change, without props, and without gimmicky affectations. Although initially confusing, the blending of characters highlights the omnipresence of The Boy in her thoughts. In a particularly chilling scene, Cabrera flips back and forth between portraying The Boy and Claire’s partner, Katrina, putting us in Claire’s head, which, of course, is a confusing place to be. As The Boy, Cabrera leaps, runs, climbs, and even does jumping jacks, in what is certainly a taxing physical performance.

Director Susannah Martin made some bold choices for this production but never left the audience hanging. For example, she extended the boundaries of the stage by having The Boy climb ape-like alongside the audience.

Angrette McCloskey’s set was simple, focusing on the choir’s practice room, which allowed multiple settings without disruptive scene changes and also kept Claire essentially trapped in the place where her life changed forever. The particular challenge of creating a space for the choir that was both practical and not too intrusive was creatively solved with a slightly recessed nook.

Because Shotgun stuck to the playwright’s vision of using a different choir each time, it was a huge job to wrangle numerous singers, schedule rehearsals, and patiently explain the same blocking to a new group every night of the performance. For that, Choir Captain Brady Brophy-Hilton deserves a special award.

Claire (Julia McNeal) Photo by Jessica Paloponi

And for being the true musical director beneath the dramatic surface, Lisa Quoresimo was an effective leader in a quiet, unobtrusive way, performing a miracle–taking 16 to 20 different singers each night and pulling from them polished, moving renditions of eight songs whose origins varied from traditional to Kanye West. Bravo!

The script was intricate and thought-provoking, the direction was creative while remaining respectful of the playwright’s vision, the acting was stellar, and the music that was written for the play was hauntingly beautiful.

But what really took hold of me was the thought of being part of something so great in a number of ways: the camaraderie of fellow choral members (most of whom I’d never met before that night), watching the play unfold before me while I was onstage myself (singers were not given scripts so that they could experience the play as a true audience), and knowing that the journey that Claire was on is not a fictional occurrence because unfortunately a growing number of people are sadly going through similar recoveries. And some are not recovering.

And the speech that I got to recite about humankind’s relationship to apes and bonobos, which seemed oddly out of place during our tech rehearsal, may have been what made the most connections for me after I rolled it all around in my head after the play.

But I don’t want to give away any more details than I already have because you should see this play for yourself if you possibly can. And after you do, let’s talk!

The Events has been extended through June 4 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.

Should so much depend on a bath mat?

Its early life, hanging on a towel rack

Some months ago, we were having dinner at a friend’s house. At some point I made use of the facilities. Little did I know that I would fall in love.

It was just hanging on the side of the tub–so pristine and white that it drew my eyes to it. I reached out to touch it, and it was everything I’d imagined and more. I didn’t want to leave the bathroom without it. I felt the need to share the tactile heaven I’d experienced, so I carried it out to the group assembled around the dining table and exclaimed to our host that it was the most exquisite bath mat I’d ever felt. Then I actually offered the other guests the chance to feel it for themselves. (I may have already had a few glasses of wine by this point, but it honestly didn’t feel like odd behavior at the time.)

Our host admitted that it was indeed brand new. He’d just gotten it at Ikea that day. Ikea? I thought it must have come from some high-end bath boutique where the toothbrush holders cost a day’s salary. But if it was from Ikea, it was probably reasonably priced.

But we’ve been on belt-tightening mode for several months now, not purchasing anything but food and the basics in order to pay the mortgage and property taxes (you know, so we can remain in our beloved home). So I didn’t really consider buying a new bath mat, especially since we don’t even need one. Both our bathrooms have somewhat worn but perfectly serviceable rugs in place.

A few months later, Dave had to replace something–I don’t remember what–and he casually asked me if we needed anything from Ikea. The memory of that soft, pebbly fabric washed over me. First I resisted. Then I broke.

“Well, if you happen to see a bath mat like the one Andre has–I mean, if it’s a really good deal. We don’t have to have it, but…”

My unfinished sentence hung in the air like a pitiful wish.

“Okay,” he answered noncommittally.

Despite the lack of its necessity, Dave brought one home. I was beaming when he handed it to me. It was kind of ridiculous how much I loved it.

I love, love, love Ruby. But she has fur to spare.

The next question was where to place it–upstairs where I would get to enjoy its softness on my bare feet every morning and night? Or downstairs where guests could appreciate that luxury under their shoes? Downstairs is also the bathroom where Dave washes our dog Ruby every morning when they return from Point Isabel (where Ruby inevitably goes swimming and rolls around in sand and mud). I started to feel a bit possessive, almost protective of the bath mat. If I put it on the ground, it would get dirty. With people tromping all over it, it would lose its cottony cushy goodness. I decided to hang it on a towel rack until I could find it a good home.

Since then, we decided to rent out a room in our house to help pay the bills. So we moved the office out of the downstairs bedroom into the nook of the master bedroom upstairs, which previously housed all my books, yearbooks, photo albums, and boxes of photos that I’d always planned to put into albums. And of course the downstairs bedroom, though small, is quite a bit larger than the nook where the office was being relocated. Bottom line? We had way more stuff than room to put it in. Our bedroom became stacks of books, boxes, files, and an excess of office furniture. We also had to relinquish use of the closet in the downstairs room in order to rent it out. (Tenants don’t usually like landlords barging into their room to access shipping boxes or out-of-season shirts.) So more stuff had to find a home. And the shed in the back yard is already full of Whereabouts Press inventory since we stopped paying for off-site storage.

Basically, we were living like hoarders, clearing paths in order to travel from our bed to the bathroom. This was not the sort of place that deserved a beautiful new bath mat. And since we’d let our housekeeper go last year, the bathroom is cleaned somewhat irregularly. It would look ridiculous to put down a new, white rug when dog hair was just going to find it anyway. So the bath mat remained clean and perfect on the towel rack.

For weeks, most of our available energy was going toward making the downstairs room attractive and livable for a tenant–painting, cleaning, etc.

Once our tenant moved in, we started to focus on our bedroom. Luckily, 24 years ago I gave birth to a master organizer who lives with us once again. Kylie’s work hours–and let’s face it, OCD tendencies–allowed them the time and talent for projects such as going through all the office supplies and getting rid of items we’ll never use. (Maybe it’s because my dad lived through the Great Depression and raised me to be frugal or maybe it’s because I taught elementary school for so long, but I have a hard time getting rid of perfectly usable containers and extra highlighters.)

In any case, our home is starting to look once again like a home.

      

So I thought it was time. Our house is not perfect, and neither are we; but we deserved to feel that soft, fluffy bath mat beneath our toes. Because life is too short.

And besides, it’s only a bath mat.

Chipotle lost but then regained my customer loyalty

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, and Chipotle had a buy one, get one free special offer for all teachers. I hadn’t gone grocery shopping and it was a particularly hot day. The last thing I wanted to do was cook, so I decided to take them up on their offer.

I’d put my pay stub in my pocket to prove I was an employee at Prospect Sierra, so at 6 pm, shortly after the last child was picked up from After School (where I’m the director), I headed to the El Cerrito Chipotle, which is on my way home from work. The parking lot was a madhouse. People were stuck, trying to get out, and cars were coming in through the exit, making it even more congested and confused. I drove a block and a half away, found a spot on the street, and walked there. The line was as long as I’d ever seen it, but I was content to play Two Dots on my phone while I waited.

Twenty minutes later, I finally arrived at the counter and pulled out my pay stub to show the server.  He didn’t even look at the paper I was holding in front of him; he just called over another guy who told me I needed to show a school ID. I explained that my school didn’t issue ID cards. He looked skeptical, as if that just wasn’t within the realm of possibility, so I must be trying to scam him. I told him I taught at a private school where we didn’t need IDs. He shook his head and said the only way it would work was if I could show him an ID. He didn’t even say he was sorry. I was angry, but I walked away without causing a scene.

I got in my car, vowing to never go to Chipotle’s again. But I was really hungry too. Then I got an idea.

I called the Chipotle in West Berkeley–the one I’d visited often when I worked off Gilman. I told the man who answered that I was a teacher and had a pay stub to prove it, but the El Cerrito Chipotle wouldn’t honor the special offer for me. Then I asked if I came to the Berkeley Chipotle, would my pay stub be enough to prove I was a teacher. He said he thought he could make an exception and asked my name.

“When you get here, tell the person at the counter your name, and I will make sure you get your free burrito,” he assured me.

So I drove to the Berkeley Chipotle and waited in line again, but only for about ten minutes this time. True to his word, the Chipotle employee made sure I got the teacher deal. I thanked him and changed my vow to never frequent the El Cerrito Chipotle, but the Berkeley Chipotle would continue to get my business.

I took home dinner for my husband and me and didn’t have to cook. Thank you, Berkeley Chipotle!

Strauss shares his tale of OCD, mushrooms, and cacti

Adam Strauss is a stand-up comic from New York. But right now at S.F. Marsh, you can see his one-man autobiographical show, The Mushroom Cure, which focuses on his personal struggle with OCD. Funny, vulnerable, and engaging, Strauss is willing to laugh at his own flaws, share painful moments, and offer up his darkest fears in what feels less like a monologue in front of an audience than it does an authentic self-portrait in progress. He reminded me of a younger, more intense Marc Maron with a bit of Paul Rudd thrown in. I was moved by his honesty and impressed with his stage presence. He’s a talented performer who doesn’t seem like he’s performing. Which is the best kind, right?

Don’t be fooled by the title–it’s not a tale of how to successfully treat a seriously disabling condition with psychedelic fungi, though that is a major plot point. It’s a man trying to find his way who allows us to watch part of that journey.

Definitely a thumbs up. I hope to see more of Adam Strauss in the future.

Science marches on!

The three of us–Dave (my husband), our friend Peggy, and I–headed to Justin Herman Plaza via BART and arrived just as the speeches were starting. I don’t know how many people were there, but it felt pretty full. We looked in vain for the rest of our group, Indivisible Berkeley, but settled on a spot on the steps where we could sit. We figured we could join up with them later.

There were scientists, teachers, engineers, and just a lot of people who appreciate science cheering on the speakers. It’s crazy that in this day and age we have to march to show our support of science, but it was encouraging to see that plenty of folks still value it in the Bay Area.

And the Clif Bars company had people handing out free Clif Bars to everyone. Thank you, Clif Bars!

As the speeches were ending, Peggy, Dave, and I moved to the back of the plaza where we found our group with the Indivisible Berkeley banner unfurled and ready to go. About a dozen of us positioned ourselves behind or alongside the banner ready to march. And we waited. Because we were at the back, it took quite a while before we actually got to move, but we had fun taking selfies and pointing out all the great signs.

In fact, I think the signs were my favorite part of the march. So much creativity, thought, and humor went into them, and many were handmade and unique. Several used scientific language and symbols to bring home their points.

I loved one that read “You know it’s important when even introverts march.” A girl of about five years had a sandwich board-style sign on her front that read “Be part of the solution” and one on her back that read “Don’t just be a precipitate.” But I hadn’t seen the one in front and couldn’t actually remember what a precipitate was, so I was puzzled until Dave explained it to me.

I saw a sign that was just a cut-out of the Lorax, one that featured two stranded penguins, a few that read “I’m with her” and pointed to Earth, and lots that just pointed out the ways that science is a good thing. I liked the simplicity of the one that said “Hug a science teacher,” held presumably by a science teacher.

Some people, like me, were there as part of a group and proudly held banners or wore matching t-shirts. Others came with friends and/or family. A group of elementary-school children chanted jubilantly WE LOVE SCIENCE!

 

There were atheists and religious people there with different views of god but who marched together for science.

The dynamic duo–Bill Nye & Neil deGrasse Tyson!

 

 

Of course, as at any protest, a few people used the opportunity to spout their particular beliefs. Hence the sign held by a guy sitting on the side of the march route that claimed “9/11 was an inside job.” To which my husband, Dave, replied, “Well, the planning probably did take place indoors…”

 

 

 

But most of the signs were on point and even spelled correctly. And everyone was in a pretty good mood, despite looming climate change and the impending decimation of the EPA.

I saw one person in a polar bear suit and another in a brown bear suit. Luckily it was a cloudy day, and the temperature stayed in the low 60s. Otherwise, those would have been some hot bears…

Alongside the marching route was a trio portraying some of Trump’s cabinet picks, some people selling homemade baked goods to hungry marchers, and some people who preferred to watch as the parade went by rather than march in it.

We landed at the Civic Center where there were tents set up and a Brazilian dance group was just starting to perform. But we were tired, and we’d done what we’d come to do. So we found the closest BART station and headed home.

It’s tiring having to march for something that should just be a given. But if it makes any difference at all, it was worth it.

 

 

Go see Summer in Sanctuary. NOW!

Al Letson is the Peabody Award-winning host of the insightful radio show and podcast Reveal, but his show, “Summer in Sanctuary,” is not investigative journalism. Currently at the Marsh in Berkeley, Letson’s one-man show is an autobiographical account of his summer teaching creative writing to at-risk teens.

He takes us on his journey, one he began somewhat reluctantly but in the end was life changing. It could not strictly be referred to as a monologue because although he was the only one on stage, he embodied several people in addition to himself. He begins his show with a short video to introduce some of the kids he will be talking about, but he doesn’t really need to because he does a fine job playing each one distinctively, sometimes even when they’re all talking in quick succession.

The language Letson uses is often poetic, and he repeats lines to emphasize, clarify, and bring home certain points but never in a gimmicky or overdone manner.

Humor is mixed in with heartbreak, and he expresses both with raw honesty.  I admit that I did not remain dry-eyed, and neither did Letson. But his tears were not those of an actor eliciting an emotional response from his audience; they erupted naturally from the memories he was sharing with us.

This was not a passive sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show kind of theater experience–I was engaged from the beginning and hung on each of his words until it ended with a well-deserved standing ovation. I highly recommend this show.

I kinda met my challenge?

On Tuesday, March 21, the second day of spring, I undertook a 21-day challenge, inspired by Eddie Moore’s 21-day challenge to create habits for myself (see post from 3/26). I enthusiastically created a social justice action log, giving space for the day/date; four columns for Read, Watch, Connect/Engage, and Act; and a space to note what I had done specifically.

On March 22, I supported my local librarian whistle-blowers by showing up at the library and holding a sign asking to recall the library trustees. And then on the 28th I spoke during the public comment portion of Berkeley’s City Council meeting. And I’m not saying that I influenced anyone, but the council did unseat two of the trustees soon after that…

At first, I was either able to check more than one box or do two or three actions each day. I bemoaned the lack of space I had to write down all that I had read, signed, watched, or accomplished. But after a week, I was usually just checking one box, and there was plenty of space to take notes.

On April 2 as I was in bed ready to go to sleep, I realized I hadn’t done anything, so I got out my cell, hit 50409 and typed in “Resist.” ResistBot sent eleven o’clock fax to Dianne Feinstein to implore her to join her colleagues in a filibuster against Neil Gorsuch becoming our next Supreme Court justice. It was so easy–ResistBot already had my info because it had already sent my senators faxes on my behalf asking them to do what they could keep Trump from axing Planned Parenthood, the NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

And I have to say I felt genuinely proud of Dianne when she committed to filibuster along with many of her Democratic colleagues. I’m sure it was my urging that pushed her to do it.

But it didn’t work. Sigh.

I called TIAA-CREF to move my tiny bundle of retirement money to their Social Change option, but now I think I should do some more research on what they consider socially conscious investments.

Then I forgot to do anything on April 3.

But I tried to make up for it on April 4 by going to a special screening of Mirrors of Privilege at Redwood Day School, which was amazing, by the way.

Noam Chomsky

On April 5, I kind of cheated. I was proofreading a Noam Chomsky book for work, so I counted that as my action for the day because of course I was reading it

On Sunday, April 9, I have a check in the Act box, but there isn’t a note by it. So I don’t know what I did, or if I actually did anything.

So Monday, April 10, should have been the last day of the 21 days, but I’d missed two days, so I kept going an extra two days to make up for it.

Today is April 12, and I have spent 21 out of the last 23 days reading articles, attending an Indivisible Berkeley meeting, watching documentaries, holding up a sign at a protest rally, speaking at a city council meeting, and signing lots of online petitions. I learned a lot.

Then I remembered that this was supposed to be a habit-building project, and I hadn’t done it for 21 continuous days. So the question is whether I start over or not. Did it count? I figure if I could forget, then it isn’t really a habit yet. And I admit that I relied heavily on the online petitions toward the end of the challenge. Which are too easy to feel like I’m really doing something, even when I share them on Facebook in an effort to spread the news.

So I’m going to keep going on my action log for the time being, and see how I feel about it after a full month. Maybe I just need to continue keeping a log indefinitely…