Archive for the ‘Origins and Influences’ Category

“This Is The Wisdom I Have Learned”: The Power of Memory

William Goyen’s House of Breath: Black White opened on November 4, 1969 at Trinity Square Repertory in Providence, Rhode Island. Every year I celebrate this play on this date. Why? Two reasons: it was a theatrical production ahead of its time, and it marks the occasion I fell in love with Roger Morgan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Directed by the brilliant Adrian Hall, with sets by Eugene Lee, and lighting by the above-mentioned Roger, House of Breath was a powerful, poetic piece about an East Texas family in the early twentieth century. The production pioneered non-traditional casting before the term even existed, and explored trans-gender issues in flamboyant Adrian-Hall-style. The late great Ethyl Eichelberger (known at the time as Jim) played the role of a sexually repressed young man whose imagination transforms him into a black showgirl. I played Jim’s dead sister Jessie, brought to life through the memories of her family. 
We knew the play was groundbreaking, but Roger and I were caught completely off-guard by the depth of our connection (each of us thought it must have been the high of the production that swept us off our feet!) We now know, having celebrated decades of November Fourths, is that the collaborative experience of that project provided the foundation upon which we subsequently built our lives.  
There was one particular moment in the play Roger always loved: young Jessie (my character) remembers her brother BerryBen dressed up as a King in a pageant, and Jessie declares with great wonder: “This is the wisdom I have learned!” referring to the power of memory.  “This is the wisdom I have learned” is one of those code phrases that pops up in our marital dialogue as a sort of  “duh” realization; and recently, the phrase has come to represent the collaboration, risk, and belief that we’re doing something that matters: three of the Principles of Theatrical Intelligence. 
The spirit of the work at Trinity quickened the pace of our courtship… of course we fell in love that night! What we didn’t know at the time was that it marked the beginning of a collaborative, creative and frequently improvised life. I shall be forever-grateful that Roger and I fell in love in the middle of the wonder that inhabited House of Breath and Trinity, because within that context our lives changed forever.
House of Breath photo by William Smith

On Mothers Day: A Letter From My Daughter

I received this beautiful letter today from my daughter, Abigail, who lives in Los Angeles. She asked my permission to share it on her acupuncture blog, MAMAFLOAT. Of course I agreed. I’m bursting with pride as I write this and forgive me, I asked her if I could post it here. Thankfully, she also agreed. (This post is not part of Theatrical Intelligence except by association with me.)

1981Dear Mom,

On this 39th Mother’s Day since you became a mother, I am writing you a love letter. You know I love lists.  So here’s a Love List!

I love you for patiently waiting 43 weeks for me to make my arrival, and for giving birth to me naturally, bravely ignoring the 12 men staring at your vagina in that teaching hospital.

I love you for rocking and nursing me in the Stickley Chair (which I now have in our living room), calmly convinced that it was normal for a baby to cry for 6 months straight. Colic. How did you survive?

I love you for introducing me to chocolate peanut butter cups.

I love you for loving lilacs.

I love you because of the way you always look me right in the eyes when I have something to say, your head perched between index finger and thumb.

I love you for saying about my spirited child: “he just has a hard time getting through his day. Like you did as a baby.”

I love you for saying “yes, and…” when everyone else said “no.”

I love you for making Fiesta Ware our everyday dishes.

I love you for raising me and Sam in Manhattan, where the nuts come from.

I love you for sending me to the Bank Street School.

I love you for flying 3,000 miles to meet my firstborn, arriving when he was a mere 20 hours old, and arranging fresh flowers in my bedroom every day.

I love you for taking G to the museum while I labored with L… and getting to meet her just a few hours later.  Her middle name is your first.

I love you for showing me what marriage can be: you and Dad, after 43 years, make it look easy.

I love you for introducing me to Shakespeare.

I love you for your curried chicken salad, which is totally delicious and just a little bit weird.

I love you for showing me the value of two simple beauty products: Yardley’s lavender soap and Keri lotion.

I love you for letting me fall asleep with your nightgown on the nights you and Dad left us a with a sitter.

I love you for my annual birthday gift of a trip to the Town Shop (for real or online) for new ladythings.

I love you for the cheesy way you always say “This is God’s country!” the moment we open the car windows on the drive into Keene Valley.

I love you for finding your writing voice as a Woman of the Fourteenth Moon.

I love you for suggesting I apply to Bard College.

I love you for inspiring me to become a woman business owner.

I love you for your many scarves; I always said I’d never wear them.  Now I have 14.

I love you for showing me that motherhood could be the most important job you (or I) would ever have.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.  I love you!

YLD,

Abigail

Written by Abigail Morgan, L.Ac., all rights reserved.  Photograph (1981) courtesy of Roger Morgan.  This post was inspired by a writing project I’m part of called 40 Love Letters in 40 Days.  Special shout-out to Stacy de la Rosa.

 

Falling In Love With A Theatre

This article is revised from our Studio Newsletter archives in honor of World Theatre Day.

World Theatre Day

What makes someone fall in love with a theatre? I asked a bunch of theatrical colleagues to name a theatre that they love and say why they love it. Here are some responses:

“There are so many! But the one that comes to mind is THE GUTHRIE when it was being built and I was going to be playing Hamlet in the inaugural production. Tony [Tyrone Guthrie] and I walked into what felt like Yankee Stadium and I was terrified. How was I going to fill that space? Then when we walked down onto the stage, suddenly it was only half as big, and I did manage to fill it; over the years it was as if I was playing a dearly beloved instrument.” George Grizzard, Actor

“GLYNDEBOURNE, the famous Opera House in England. My husband and I had a private tour, and I stood on the stage alone and sang into the empty theater. The acoustics were incredible – I got the chills hearing my voice ring out like that… it sparked my imagination!”
 Melora Hardin, Actress

“THE MUSIC BOX, on Broadway. It’s a theatre of reasonable size and seating capacity, yet it manages to feel intimate. Rounded boxes flanking the proscenium are a particularly pleasing feature. It is a theatre that really helps the director.”
  Ed Sherin, Director

“IL TEATRO PIU’ TEATRO PICCOLO DEL MONDO (“the smallest theater in the world”) in Umbria. What a gem! It was built in the early 1800s by the families of Monte Castello di Vibio who wanted a place for social gatherings. The mindset at the time was of concordia tra i popoli (concordance between the populations) so the theatre was named Teatro Concordia. It is a space with perfect proportions; a space where you can feel the history of elegant and probably melodramatic performances in that tiny town.” Marianna Houston, Theatre Educator

“I love various parts of many Broadway theatres: the Tiffany stained glass fixtures and wood paneling of the BELASCO THEATRE; the inner lobby of the MAJESTIC and its grand house; the ingenious combination of new and old to combine two theatres into one dazzling space as the HILTON THEATRE [ed: now the FOXWOODS]. And I want to add another gem of a building Off-Broadway, the WESTSIDE THEATRE’s building, lobby and interiors are remarkably beautiful.” Bob Reilly, Company Manager

“THE VIGSZINHAS (Vigszínház) THEATRE in Budapest, Hungary – a magnificent 19th-century horseshoe shaped house with four or five balcony tiers. The stagehouse was completely re-built, and the stage is so deep – it covers a whole city block – with the loading door smack in the middle. For Six Characters In Search of an Author the city agreed to close off the street to traffic every night one half hour before the performance, so the audience saw the cast enter from the city beyond. That 19th century magic was made possible by the 21st century rehab.”
 Peter Frisch, Director

“THE BARTER THEATRE in Abingdon Virginia because it’s where I fell in love with my husband of 50 years! Barter inherited the seats and the curtain from the old EMPIRE THEATRE on Broadway, which gave it a certain mystique, and by the way, probably fostered more romances than any other theatre in America!”
 Diane Hardin, Acting Teacher/Coach

“I love lots and lots of theatres. At the moment I love the McCARTER in Princeton because Emily Mann and everyone there is so wonderful and willing to do anything I ask.” Eugene Lee, Scenic Designer

What is YOUR favorite theatre? Please share it!

 

When Work Is Play: A Postscript

NOTE: This post was originally published in 2009, when I launched my blog. It has been slightly revised. 

When my son Sam was about five – oh, so many years ago – he and his best friend Alex had a conversation in our neighborhood sandbox about the different kinds of work people do to make a living.

I strained to hear as they listed all the jobs they could think of, and the specific work each job required: teachers, doormen, policemen, pediatricians, bus drivers (can you tell they were city kids?) the green grocer, our neighborhood barber… their descriptions were straightforward and accurate.

As they ventured into unfamiliar territory such as street-sweepers (Mayor Ed Koch reached everyone) deep sea divers and astronauts, the job descriptions became expansive. The little guys’ imaginations were limitless as they discussed what they might do as grownups.

A photographer-in-the-making

When Alex’s mom came to pick him up I re-capped my favorite quote of the day regarding our sons’ versions of our work: 

Alex: My Mom’s a writer. She writes. 

Sam: My Mom’s an actress. She auditions. 

Later that night, Sam and I reflected back on the sandbox conversation.

Mom, when you go to work, you do a play, right?  

Yes, I told him.

There was extended silence as he thought this through.

That’s what I want, Mom… a big smile. When I grow up, my work is gonna be play. 

There it was. At 5 years old he had established a vision for his future.

 

Sam with 4x5 MAINE Sam w Digital @ NMAI

As Sam grew, he continued to explore work as play: he was never without a camera, loved playing the drums, developed a hunger for travel and architecture (like his dad), always enjoyed collaborating, and founded a rock band with some buddies. 

Above Left: on the island of North Haven, Maine, preparing an onsite shoot of a Community Center project

Above Right: photographing the theatre at the National Museum of the American Indian, on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Below Right: experimenting with his new 4×5 camera, taking shots of his family in New Hampshire

Sam w 4x5 HANOVER

It has been 25 years since Sam declared that his work would be play. He is an architectural photographer, a back-up drummer for a bunch of bands, and he has launched a photography company that is growing rapidly: The Photo Booth Party.

As I think back on those years watching him exercise his theatrical intelligence (before I had even come up with the term) it’s no secret that I was embarrassingly proud.

These days if you observe my son hard-at-play, his joy is impossible to resist. It is positively contagious.

No wonder.

His vision: “…my work is gonna be play” is now his reality. 

 

Holiday Greetings from Theatrical Intelligence

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yuletide, or any other Holiday, may it be filled with abundant creativity and joy! 

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s wishing you and your loved ones a Theatrical New Year!


My Mother’s Gift To Me… Via Frank McCourt


Jeanne O’Sullivan Sachs  (15 October 1920 – 19 July 2009)
Francis “Frank” McCourt   (19 August 1930 – 19 July 2009)


My mother was always a mystery to me. The oldest child in a large, Irish Catholic family, she was a brilliant beauty whose musical gifts inspired everyone around her.

I was the polar opposite: scrappy, frizzy-haired, cross-eyed, born to bluntly question and challenge the world. I was convinced throughout my childhood that I was adopted; how  could I possibly be related to such a refined, remote, creature?

It became a lifelong quest for me to make sense of the distant dynamic between Mom and me.

My mother was a gifted cellist, a child prodigy who grew up outside Boston during the Great Depression and became a soloist throughout central New England.

Awarded a scholarship to a prestigious music conservatory after high school, she chose instead to work as a secretary in a Harvard cancer research laboratory to help support her younger brothers and sisters. It was there she met her future husband: a young doctor of German-Jewish heritage who shared her love of music. It was the first of many sacrifices she was to make over the next 60 years of what she always termed a happy life. I never experienced my mother as happy. She always seemed far away to me – detached – as if she wished she were somewhere else.

It was probably no surprise that Mom gave up her solo career when she married; and that she played very little music during the years she birthed and raised six children. I struggled for decades to understand the irony of the life she chose as opposed to the life she might have built.

When I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1996, it opened a window of understanding that changed my view of my mother forever. Never has a book had such profound impact on my daily life. Not that Jeanne O’Sullivan and Frank McCourt shared similar childhoods… When young Frank was growing up in Limerick, as he wrote in the first chapter of Angela’s Ashes: “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Jeanne’s childhood was poor, Irish and Catholic, and filled with with the joy of music. As Mr. McCourt memorably wrote: “Happiness is hard to recall. It’s just a glow.” Those were the words that connected me to my mother.

It is somehow fitting that Mom and Frank McCourt died within hours of one another. As the Irish American journalist Pete Hamill wrote in The Irish Central (July 22, 2009): “Irony, as practiced by the Jews and the Irish, can be wielded as a weapon, but it is above all a kind of armor… Irony creates distance, a certain knowing detachment, while acknowledging membership in the club of human weakness and folly.” That was Jeanne O’Sullivan Sachs.

During her final days Mom kept her children laughing while whispering again and again that she loved us and was grateful for her happy life. I didn’t know that Frank McCourt was dying at that exact time. I wish I had thanked him for teaching me about the kind of happiness that is so unquantifiable that it just glows. Because that is what I treasure most about my mother: however far away she seemed to me, she always glowed.

Happy Mothers Day, Mom. And thank you, Mr. McCourt.

I’m imagining the two of you conversing, one more eloquent than the other, and wondering if you arrived at the gates of heaven together. Yes… I think magnificent music must have welcomed you as you danced your way into the kingdom.

Woman Of Wisdom: A Ritual

In January my husband and I prepared to move for the first time in 37 years. We had to reduce the size of our library to fit into a smaller space, and deciding which books to keep became a crazy-making endeavor for me. There were hundreds of books I couldn’t bear to let go.

Day after day I thumbed through pages that once introduced me to worlds unknown. My gushing tears seemed disproportionate to the activity, as did my frantic scribbles of words I somehow had to hold close to me.

Just as I thought I might actually be losing my mind, it struck me that I was simply doing something I’d loved since I was a child: collecting meaningful quotes I never wanted to forget.

This simple act unintentionally launched a ritual that now brings joy to my daily routine: once a day I post a beloved quote on Twitter. Most of the quotes I collected were – no surprise to me – from women, so using the ubiquitous Twitter hashtag, I label each #WomanOfWisdom.

A sampler of wisdom selected from the past 30 days is listed below:

#WomanOfWisdom Maya Angelou: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

#WomanOfWisdom Emily Dickinson: “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.” (1878)

#WomanOfWisdom Bella Abzug: “I prefer the word ‘homemaker’ because ‘housewife’ always implies that there may be a wife someplace else.”

#WomanOfWisdom Lena Horne: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

#WomanOfWisdom Madeleine l’Engle: “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

#WomanOfWisdom Rebecca West: “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat.” (1913)

#WomanOfWisdom Zora Neale Hurston: “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”

#WomanOfWisdom Ellen Parr: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

#WomanOfWisdom Emma Goldman: “Women need not always keep their mouths shut and their wombs open.”

#WomanOfWisdom Wilma Mankiller: “I’ve run into more discrimination as a woman than as an Indian.”

#WomanOfWisdom Shana Alexander: “The sad truth is that excellence makes people nervous.”

#WomanOfWisdom Sarah Bernhardt: “Life begets life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.”

#WomanOfWisdom Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

#WomanOfWisdom Indira Gandhi: “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.”

#WomanOfWisdom Abigail Adams: “We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”

This ritual has eased the process of giving away my books. Over the past three months I’ve donated boxes and boxes to schools, libraries, bookshops, Materials for the Arts, and to my children and grandchildren of course.

A little piece of each book will be with me forever. And my hope is that the books will touch the hearts and minds and spirits of many who might not otherwise have been exposed to them. I love thinking about that.

How long do you suppose it will take to run out of wisdom?


On Writing and Handwriting

I’ve always had beautiful handwriting. With minimal effort on my part, penmanship was the only subject for which I consistently received an A+. Learning the Rhinehart Handwriting Method in third grade felt to me like initiation into adulthood: I was writing cursive clearly, I was grown up.

Since that time, I’ve hand-written countless invitations at the request of friends, “penned the place cards” for many events, and if there is ever a call for a designated scribe, I’m it. Clear, legible handwriting was just something I did; I never even thought about it.

During a recent Theatrical Intelligence Workshop a distant memory crept into my mind about winning a United Nations Essay Competition for high school students in New Hampshire. I had forgotten about this honor for 45 years and as I was pondering the reason why, it suddenly struck me: I was convinced that I’d won because of my handwriting. Every one of the judges commented about my beautiful writing*, yet it never occurred to me that they were referring to content, or style, or ideas in my essay. Of course I forgot the award – the reason (I thought) I had won it had no meaning to me.

If you had known me in high school you would have known I was obsessed with the theatre. Jeezum crow (as we used to say in New Hampshire) everyone in in my whole town knew I was going to be an actress – I had a reputation to uphold! At no time in my first seventeen years did it even cross my mind that I might do anything else. I discovered my passion early, and pursued it with a vengeance.

For twenty-five years that’s what I did; until I didn’t want to any more.

Readers of this blog are familiar with my belief that we all come into the world with Theatrical Intelligence and it often goes underground as we morph into grownups. Imagine my delight when my own theory provided insight into one of my own roles.

That role is writer. And the task is writing. Not handwriting.

*Truth be told, one out of the five judges did use the phrase “old fashioned penmanship”. That’s the only one I remembered, of course.

A Childhood State-Of-Mind (Or) The Power of Blizzards

What is it about blizzards? That they’re so mind-bogglingly dramatic? That they surprise us even though we know they’re coming? I mean who isn’t talking about “the blizzard of the century” this week?

Growing up in New Hampshire, I faced real danger in snowstorms and pulled off highways numerous times to wait out hazardous conditions. During one such wait many years ago I found myself wearing a giddy grin and giggling. What was the matter with me?! My goofy state did not indicate a grasp of reality. In fact, I was fully cognizant, it’s just that blizzards make me feel as if I’m 6 years old.

When a snowstorm hits, some mysterious force takes hold and I’m flooded with memories: jumping off the roof of my childhood home into huge powdery snowbanks; building snow forts that rivaled castles in my mind; making snow angels and praying that the dogs wouldn’t… y’know. Those memories stimulate fantasies that range from prehistoric cave dwellings to trekking cross country in a covered wagon to – you name it. To me, snowstorms mean that anything is possible.

This week’s blizzard unleashed word inventions such as “blizzicane” and “snowmageddon”; blizzards can be a catalyst-for-craziness. Proof? My snapshot of a dear friend leaping barefoot through snowdrifts in a completely transparent negligee.

What a gift is a blizzard! If we choose to embrace it, it has the capacity to release the genius that is hiding in all of us. In this way it is similar to Theatrical Intelligence. Whether your dominant role (or mine) is Actor or Technician, I am confident that our gut responses to blizzards are worthy of our attention.

Why? It is revealing to capture that place in ourselves that’s willing to leap into unexplored terrain. That core of our being is often ignored in favor of our more practical parts. Finding it can be fun; sometimes even transformational. And you don’t have to have grown up with snowstorms to experience their phenomenon.

Next time a big blizzard is forecast, what the hell? Get ready for an emotional adventure – hidden worlds are waiting for you and your imagination to discover them.

Where Inspiration Spreads Wide Its Glorious Wings*

* Inscribed (in french) on the proscenium of the old theatre in the Carnegie-Mellon School of Fine Arts, my alma mater.

Once again I have returned to Baker Library in the town where I grew up: Hanover, NH. This is the place I wrote my term papers in high school…

The place I Iearned from a classmate in 1963 that Oswald had been shot.

The place I found a desk with a secret drawer filled with treasures.

The place of many flirtations.

The place “where Inspiration spreads wide its glorious wings”.

The place I am from.

Of the many rooms I love in this library, I’m drawn once again to the Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) “imaginative place to study!” Must be something about unleashing the imagination of my childhood.

Voices from long ago join me, yet it is silent and I am alone. An exhibit in the hallway about the history of printing and binding of books reminds me of my brother Jim (who invented the electronic book).

I ponder an illustration from Dr. Suess’s last book, published in 1990: Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and I can’t imagine a more perfect place to work.

It’s time to disconnect: no tweets, no emails, no calls.

Over and Out.