If I’m gonna die, I’ll life the live that frees me

Four years ago today – rocking out with my friends. It was the closest I’ve ever had to that fabled, only-in-the-movies experience of “being in the band,” where you throw yourself into the music and the lights, and the headaches are many but worth it, and you spend far too many late nights and too much money in the bar, not because you’re trying to drown your sorrows but because you want to have as much time as you can with these delightful people who are somehow all here together.

I’ve spent the past few days incapacitated by rage and also regret that I did not punch somebody in the face.

It was just a few days after the happy memory from four years ago that we went to a nearby bar following tech rehearsal. My assistant and I were the last ones to arrive (par for the course for stage manager – first ones in, last ones out), but as we approached the table where we saw our colleagues, we could tell that something wasn’t right. The place was surprisingly packed for a Wednesday night, even in Hell’s Kitchen, and the energy was… charged. And not in a good way.

You know how difficult it can be to remember more than snippets of dreams? And how the parts you tend to be able to remember are whatever have the most narrative coherence? Because it’s a challenge to hang onto things that just don’t make any sense. So I can’t tell you many specifics of what we overheard being said. But it was enough to, in the moment, put together that we were in the middle of a bar packed full of Proud Boys.

Yes, those Proud Boys.

It wasn’t clear if this was their event itself or some sort of hangout following a meeting. Either way, we heard all varieties of offensive things, ranging from simply bizarre to simply hostile.  

The feeling of violation was visceral. Intellectually you might know that “it can happen anywhere,” but it’s a hard slap to the face when it actually happens, especially if you’ve had the privilege of being relatively sheltered from the blows of the world. Or maybe there’s a special sting with the awareness of how harsh things can be elsewhere – “at least here, in this place of my own, I find safety.”

Eventually, they noticed us gawking at them. That’s when things threatened to get ugly. One man began aggressively getting in the face of the largest white man in our group, demanding that he answer if he was “a Republican, a Democrat, or an American.”

I can’t remember if that was the trigger. I can’t remember if it was another trigger. I can’t remember if the trigger was anything in particular or just a final straw landing on the camel’s back. This is something that I know about myself – I’m very precipitous, a stretch of even ground that’s almost too extensive to be able to see where the cliff drops off. Simply as a matter of personality rather than any sort of conscious decision, I don’t do warning shots. So all I know is that at some point, I saw red. And that was when I felt someone grabbing onto my elbow and pulling me outside.

My friends and I absconded to a nearby little hole-in-the-wall gay bar. (Has that refuge survived the pandemic, I wonder?) We got many drinks and shouted our outrage to each other. When I got home that night, I couldn’t sleep. I grabbed my iPod classic, put on clipping.’s Splendor & Misery, and went for a 3AM run in the (technically closed) park near my apartment. If anyone had had the foolish idea of messing with me, it wouldn’t have ended well, but that part of my night, at least, passed without incident.

A few days later, I put on my cowboy boots and returned to the bar to demand answers. The owners weren’t in, but the bartender, who was outraged on my behalf, took my information, and the owner called me later that day. He affirmed that that wasn’t what their establishment stood for and that such gatherings wouldn’t be tolerated in the future. A week after our incident at the bar (although unconnected to it, at least specifically), the Ghostlight Project gathered theatre practitioners to pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone – to create a light in the darkness.

What a fine, fine resolution that all was.

All I’ve been able to think about over the past days is that I should have just fucking punched someone in the fucking face.

Continue reading “If I’m gonna die, I’ll life the live that frees me”

Grief be nimble, Elliot B. Quick; or, I’m still not over it and now there’s a fucking pandemic

I lost a friend a little over a month ago. After weeks of processing, I shared some thoughts about him with our mutual acquaintances. They probably won’t mean as much to someone entirely outside of our circles, but I wanted to put them out to the world anyways. Both because I’d love to talk about him to as many people who will listen, and also on the chance that anyone else who is experiencing the conundrum of grief, where something vital has been lost and yet the affairs of the world somehow continue on, especially in a time so heightened as this, might find something here to be shared.

Other people have eulogized Elliot B. Quick so wonderfully that it feels uselessly performative of me to do so at this point. You were either lucky enough to have known him or you weren’t. He was brilliant, passionate, kind, and funny. He gave great hugs. He had a magnificent laugh.

I hadn’t wanted to make this loss about me and my grief – not when it’s the person who has passed, of course, who should be at the center of this all, and not when there are those who were so much closer to him. But it stopped being a thing that I could just keep to myself without affecting others when all of my wrestling with myself led to more and more days passing without my getting in touch with folks I’d meant to get in touch with. And “Sorry I haven’t texted you about getting together, I’ve been kinda depressed since my friend died in a freak accident” seems like an awful lot to throw at a person. Maybe just a little rude.

It was unexpected. It was a shock that literally knocked my legs out from under me.

And then it’s a series of small events. Being found sobbing in the bathroom by the assistant director after you get off the phone with the friend who’s been centralizing the information. Solidifying arrangements to miss work on the projected day of the memorial service. Finding out that the memorial service will actually be on a day when it’s impossible to miss work. Reading the obituary: “He was 35 years old.” Each chipping away a little more at the world that existed where he was around; each one more brick in building a world without him in it.

There’s also an odd feeling of unfairness that’s uncomfortably founded on privilege. It’s not as though this is a wake-up call to seize the moment and follow one’s dreams, a reminder to not put off one’s passions because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We were already doing that. My circle of friends and I, we have the gift of doing this work that we love, often together. So it’s not as though I can say, well, he might be gone but this has inspired me to reexamine my priorities and devote myself to what I believe really matters. We were already doing that, for fuck’s sake. So… good job, don’t change anything, keep carrying on? Where’s the narrative arc in that? Terribly unsatisfying.

I first worked with Elliot on a keen, vigorous production of The Seagull at Yale. Not that every production doesn’t have its challenges and emotional stakes entirely unrelated to the material at hand, but this one was particularly juicy, what with being scheduled so that we reached that dreaded Week Three of rehearsal (i.e., when everyone is feeling like absolute shit about their work) right at the end of first semester, when most of our cast also had large projects due for their classes. Everyone was exhausted and at their wits’ ends, and that was before even uttering a word of the text. It was the dead of winter, and so dark and cold outside. The production design had the audience sitting onstage facing the house, and the heat in the building was definitely not built to accommodate that, so the production team in tech was bundled up in coats and running space heaters. As we began our very short tech process, the director (fearless leader Alexandru Mihail) realized that he wanted every door to open magically each time a character entered or exited, instantaneously creating dozens of new deck crew cues (all called). At one point, a crew member was wheeling a full tea cart across the stage when a wheel of the cart fell off, and we all got to watch in nightmarish slow-motion as the entire fragile tea set went crashing to the ground. This was, of course, after we had already earned the ire of the entire props department by possibly setting a record for the most furniture broken during rehearsal, a streak which we would continue to build upon throughout the performances because true winners never stop winning. The post-production seminar class, during which the entire technical design and stage management departments had a post-mortem discussion about the recent process, became a debate of theatrical pedagogy between the heads of the two departments who were seated on the far opposite sides of our onstage house, the rest of us stuck between them like spectators at an immersive tennis match that was also a surprise production of No Exit.

That play was beautiful.

My main memory of the production was during one rehearsal in the lovely, warm-hued Room 221 at 149 York Street. Alex had proposed some idea, the exact nature of which I have absolutely zero recollection. What I do remember is that Elliot vehemently objected to it on fundamental artistic grounds. “But no, I want to do it,” Alex insisted (please be sure that you have applied the appropriate Romanian accent to his words). “Sure!” Elliot nearly shouted back with the incredulous smile of a man absolutely mortified and offended by what he was witnessing. “Sure, you can! I’ll just never speak to you again!” Alex was undeterred.

We took a break. Alex went downstairs for a cigarette. Elliot went with him. When we got back from break, Alex thoughtfully reported that he had ceased pursuing his original idea but we were going to try something else. The rest of the room breathed a collective sigh of relief that mommy and daddy hadn’t gotten a divorce.

If I had to pinpoint any one thing as being a turning point in my understanding of the meaning and potential of artistic collaboration, it would be that show. And it would be because of Elliot and the artistic family that could not have existed without him. It was possibly one of the most valuable things that I took away from my three years of graduate education.

We went on to bring most of that production group back together for another production that was, again, absolutely bonkers, both onstage and off: The Last Days of Mankind at Bard College. For most of the process, Alex, Elliot, and I were the daily presence together in rehearsal with our cast of delightfully unique undergrads. Alex and Elliot were roommates in some weird shed-turned-lodging situation. I lived alone in an isolated house of taxidermied horrors where I wasn’t allowed to leave my toothbrush in the bathroom. I remember the three of us going out for pizza relatively early in the process as the realities of our situation sunk in. One thing we did determine at that dinner was that I was, unquestionably, a heavy eater.

Something that was so interesting about The Last Days of Mankind is that Karl Kraus began writing it in 1915, while the Great War was still in progress – indeed, while it was just getting started. He finished it in 1919, one year after the war ended. That’s been on my mind as the COVID-19 pandemic has been working its way around the world, devastating lives and also upending an entire artistic landscape like a high-magnitude earthquake that has stricken permanent changes into our fundamental topography and whose aftershocks are just beginning. (Canceling a memorial service. Making a chip. Laying a brick.) We have no choice but to live it; we have the choice to also write it.

It’s a very self-centered thing, but for me, I feel like the blow of our current circumstances has been a little softened by the fact that my preconceived notion of the future, which I hadn’t even been aware that I’d held, had already been shattered just mere weeks earlier. It certainly wasn’t the first loss I’ve had in my life, or even nearly the closest, but it was the one most sneakily threaded into That Which I Had Assumed Would Be. When that ripped apart, I realized that my hands were clenched in ways that I hadn’t been aware and that I needed to open them still further in order to let go. And then I found myself with a framework of thinking that left me more prepared than I otherwise would have been to process what came next.

And then I think: oh, fuck you, Elliot.

Most of this ran through my head as I stood at the second highest altitude in Manhattan, a stone-walled overlook where you can regularly hear the seagulls circling above. The connection was so easy that it felt almost cheap. But sometimes, one thing just naturally leads to another. We’re always collaborating with our pasts, whether it’s building upon them or fighting against them. I’m still mourning for the in-person collaborations that won’t happen – to say nothing of the late-night drinks and the too-indulgent pizza dinners and the entirely too-niche jokes and completely universal laughter. But I’m never going to stop working with him, whether I want to or not, because I’d have to stop working with myself for that to happen.

I can hear the seagulls right now from my room. Farther away, and I can’t see them through the buildings that block the view from my window. But even though I’m crying again, I’m also smiling. And I’m looking forward to gathering with any and all of you again, in whatever forms that takes.

Nothing like summer in the city: a dispatch from off-Broadway

Now is the summer of our discontent made mind-numbing winter by the air conditioning of the Public Theater. No, seriously, I was getting cold urticaria on my hands the other night. It feels like a horrible thing to complain about when last week was hot enough to drive Lin-Manuel Miranda and Shockwave to release the third installment of their hex-annual “Hot as Balls” NYC Heatwave series, to say nothing of other discomforts such as Scarlett Johansson colonizing yet another demographic, precedent for the revocation of naturalized citizenship being set, kids in cages (some resources to help listed here), and the threat to the Constitutional rights of vulnerable citizens for decades to come via hostile takeover of the judicial branch of the United States government. But sometimes, it’s the little things that are just insult to injury.

 

 

 

I’m currently on Day 18 of my 39-day long streak without a day off. By far not the longest that anyone will ever have gone without a day off, let alone at jobs that they love and completely voluntarily agreed to. Still, I’m undeniably glad to be almost halfway through this bed that I made to lie in. Five and a half weeks of 74-hour work weeks (and that doesn’t count the two days per week where there are hours between shows when I’m technically not working but am physically stuck at work) is a lot of time, even for something that you enjoy, to say nothing of the resultant trashfires that are my apartment (there’s an actual tower of unopened mail on my desk) and also me (#tfw it’s a predicament situation between sleeping and showering… but at least showering is less of an urgent matter because it’s not like I’ve been exercising).

In other words: kids, this is why they say “don’t do it unless you love it.”

The first few days of this period of time, one of the jobs was still being done remotely, as it was the pre-rehearsal preparation work. I was starting to experience some mounting anxiety, which is normal for me during any prep week, especially if I haven’t worked with anyone involved. People sometimes jokingly refer to first rehearsal as the first day of school, but as a description, it’s not all that off. Who are these people? Will they like me? Will I leave a good impression? Am I prepared? Have I taken care of everything that I need to? Sure, I may technically be holding the same position, but everything is still entirely new and different – will I do a good job? Do I even know how to do my job anymore?? What is stage management??!!

Knowing that I would have the personal challenge of starting this second production while still running the first just added to my anxious energy. It was like I was getting pushed closer and closer to that pool where you know that the water is freezing cold and your legs suddenly stop listening to your brain because you  know the pain that lies ahead of you – only in this case, whether my legs were listening to me or not didn’t matter because I stand upon the relentless treadmill of time that’s carrying us all to our eventual biological deaths and erasure from memory. Barring apocalypse, the day of first rehearsal would arrive even if I did finally suffer that nervous breakdown and go running for the Adirondacks to live the rest of my life as a hermit. I might as well stare it dead in the eyes and meet it like the honorable warrior that I am in my very active fantasy life.

The production that I already had running is Ma-Yi Theater’s Teenage Dick by Mike Lew, currently playing at the Public Theater. (Yes, the Public is the Hamilton people.) Commissioned by the Apothetae, a theatre dedicated to productions that explore and illuminate the disabled experience, the play is a reimagining of Richard III set in high school – a Shakespeare high school AU, so to speak. Richard is now a teenager with cerebral palsy who has his sights set on the senior class presidency, with a tongue no less agile, charm no less entrancing, and mind no less dangerous than his namesake. Gregg Mozgala, the actor playing Richard and artistic director of the Apothetae, noted that part of the impulse of making the show happen came from the experience of all of the uncertainty and physical indignities of adolescence amplified by the realization that, unlike most of one’s peers, one’s body wouldn’t grow out of this phase to become “normal.”

Another part was having the play titled Teenage Dick.

Continue reading “Nothing like summer in the city: a dispatch from off-Broadway”

What’s cold and flat and white all over? Fargo, don’tcha know.

“So how was Fargo?”

“Cold. Flat. White.”

“Yeah, they were still getting snow, weren’t they?”

“No- I mean, yes, but- I mean… white.

There are times in your life when you are in tech in Fargo, North Dakota when, a week before that moment, you had expected to be in neither tech nor Fargo, North Dakota. I’d been sitting in a stage manager friend’s work apartment in New Haven, getting ready to finish up my overnight couch-crashing expedition with some of that mashed potato pizza at Bar and a visit to my old grad school office, when the email came in, asking me if I was by any chance available to leave in three days for a week-long work trip to Fargo because their stage manager had a medical emergency that might preclude them from traveling.

My brain immediately slammed on the brakes, because I’d had plans for the next week. Granted those plans had been for a second week of “unpaid vacation” – the only kind of vacation that you get when you do gig work is unemployment between jobs – but writing regularly, playing the piano, doing my own personal exercise bootcamp, catching up on watching a series that my friends were on my case about, and generally spring cleaning my life was something that I’d been kind of looking forward to, particularly given that I have a busy summer (#grateful) ahead of me. And most importantly, I’d had plans, and I’m not sure about you, but my brain is naturally pretty reflexively resistant to course changes, even when for the better.

But the fact was that I was available for that week, if just barely – I’d need to go straight from the final performance to the airport so that I could be in rehearsal the next afternoon – and I’m a goddamn sucker for playing hero. The doctor had not yet given final word, but I agreed to be on deck for them.

“Sorry, I take back what I said last night,” I re-commented to a friend’s post. “Probably can’t make it to Smorgasburg on Sunday because I’ll be in Fargo.”

At this point, my brain had shifted to accepting this as a win-win situation. If the doctor cleared their stage manager, I got to enjoy my originally planned Spring Cleaning Week and watch Mob Psycho 100. If the doctor nixed it and I was called into action, then I received money, adventure, and glory.

So much in life comes down to having the power to say “yes” and “no.”

Not two weeks before that, it had been the day before St. Patrick’s Day. The fact that St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday meant that my plans were to have my own traditional corned beef and cabbage at home and not leave the neighborhood all day, and so hopefully avoid the unruly drunken throngs. Just as I was about to go to bed on Friday, I did one last check of my Facebook feed… and saw a friend’s post with a ticket available to see Sleep No More the next night. Despite close friends having been pushing me to see the show for something like two years, scheduling and finances had created a higher barrier of entry than my interest level could top. But for there to be a ticket opportunity presented to me? There was a minute or two of hemming and hawing as I considered the motivations underlying my original plans and imagined the horrors of the St. Patrick’s Day evenng crowd downtown, but my answer really could be nothing but: yes.

I had a great time – and I was able to see a friend perform.

Not sixteen hours before that, my stage manager friend and I were getting good food and terribly slow service in a restaurant in New Haven. At that rate, we were going to be late for the show playing at Yale Rep, for which my friend had complimentary tickets due to being a guest artist. Noting the time, my friend commented that the last of the student Shakespeare series was having its final dress rehearsal that night, and it didn’t begin until 8:15pm. A professional play at Yale Repertory Theatre or a rehearsal for a student show in a blackbox… I’d already mentioned my plans to attend the former, but I knew which one I’d rather see.

It was a pleasure to get another chance to consider A Winter’s Tale, and to say hello to faculty who were present in the audience.

So by the time the initial inquiry had had the chance to settle in for a couple hours, I had shifted again into the Land of Yes.

(And what would you know, but not 48 hours after that, I received a text from another stage manager friend telling me that I absolutely had to – had to – come see the workshop at the Public that they were working that night because my life would be significantly better for it. I had about 18 hours until I would be boarding a plane at LaGuardia, and I’d planned to have a leisurely evening of finishing packing and prepping for the show and getting to bed early but…

Get your tickets to Ain’t No Mo by whenever and wherever it ends up having its world premiere, is what I’ll say to that.)

I landed in Fargo near the end of April Fool’s Day, when the live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar was just wrapping up. At the baggage claim, I opened up my suitcase and took out the winter coat that I’d been about to pack away for the season a few days ago. After bundling up, I headed out into the 40-degree temperature drop from when I’d left New York.

So yes, it was cold. And the landscape was, indeed, very flat. Heck, even the topography of the grocery store was flat – the aisle shelves were short enough that I could stand at the entrance and see across the expense of the entire store, from wall to wall.

And then there was how the only Asian people I saw the entire week were the violinist that was part of our New York production team and the sexy beast that I saw in the mirror each morning.

If you’d given me a pop quiz about the demographics of Fargo prior to my going there, I probably would have been able to give you some pretty good guesses. Something like my hometown, maybe, where “The racial makeup of the town was 97.66% White, 0.45% African American, 0.29% Native American, 0.28% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.28% from other races, and 1.02% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.81% of the population.” I was still caught off-guard by the feeling, though. My hometown has the advantage of familiarity, of course. But also, my hometown is a literal single-traffic-light tiny hamlet in the middle of the woods. This was the largest metropolitan in the state, where we were working at the state university.

Also, there were my multiple encounters with still-current use of the word “oriental,” which dropped on my brain like a record scratch each time.

“I think that I’m single-handedly shifting the vocabulary of the racial discourse in Fargo, ND,” I texted my director at one point.

These people were kind and generous and did not have bad intentions.

That didn’t really matter.

If I go for a drive and accidentally run somebody over, as far as that person’s medical condition is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether or not I intended to hit them with a car. Sure, it matters in determining whether or not I’m a psychopath who should be charged with murder, but in regards to the well-being of the person underneath my car, there are so many things that were more direct contributors to that moment than whether I was literally thinking “I’m going to hit a motherfucker today because I want to cause harm”: how well I knew the traffic flow and road conditions where I was driving, if I was paying attention to my surroundings, if I was driving too fast.

Again, none of this changes the medical condition of the person underneath my car.

And yes, I will judge a person if they speak of certain things in certain ways, even if it’s just a matter of education or the lack thereof. It’s not a condemnation but a judgment made for my own well-being. Things like “oriental” tell me how much I can trust a person – which is a different thing from judging the trustworthiness of their character. There are many good, upstanding, trustworthy people whom I wouldn’t trust to, say, take me skydiving. If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, I’m not going to trust you to push me safely out of an airplane. Likewise, if you haven’t bothered to learn not to call a person like me “oriental,” I’m not going to fully trust you with my well-being in this world. If you’re still running Windows ME and haven’t even installed any patches for the past decade, I don’t know if I’m compatible with your system or what malware you might have been susceptible to. The OS that I observe throws up red flags for how you might be processing me.

And I understand that you might not have an out-of-town Asian guest to be your personal tutor and gently hold your hand through these changing times. But there are books. There are movies. There’s the internet. There’s literally the entire world. It’s within your power to stop being comfortable and passively consuming only what has been hand-fed to you within your own bubble.

As a person belonging to various non-dominant demographics within U.S. society, I grew up being trained in empathy for those unlike me for my entire life.  I’m overjoyed by all the little straight white boys who are now being presented with more growth opportunities than were easily available merely ten years ago: Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Love Simon. These things aren’t “niche” and irrelevant to straight white boys any more than Indiana Jones was niche and irrelevant to me and my taste in hats. Embrace these growth opportunities being presented to you. And if it feels a little uncomfortable – well, maybe that’s just growing pains.

Meanwhile, I’m back home. And by “home,” I no longer mean my hometown, although I still call that “home,” too. I’m back in NYC, where it’s warm, crowded, and I’m often out of place but only need one ride on the subway to feel that everyone is at least a little bit out of place and a little bit connected in this big, tiny, crazy world.

(Post-Script: I do have to give special shout-outs to the amazing Drekker Brewing Company and Proof Distillers, as well as the Toasted Frog in downtown. Highly recommend all if you end up in the area.)

Listen to the tune that keeps sounding in the distance

This is the dream I dreamt…

I was carrying on with my own business in a small local town. There was a sense of impending threat. There was some sort of war going on, a factional one, and our community was at risk. We told ourselves that

But as we were walking through the forest, I looked up and saw a dark object in the sky, tiny and far away. From it came hurtling a bright spot that rapidly grew larger enough to discern as a fireball. It struck what probably was the next neighborhood over. I just knew that there was another one coming, so I began to run, keeping my eye on the sky – and sure enough, before I even had the chance to get much of anywhere, another fireball appeared, aiming straight toward us.

We all ran.

I was in a traditional-feeling, wood-and-paper-constructed shop of some sort with others, and we knew that after those bombings, the actual invaders couldn’t be far behind. There was a loud tumult outside, and I ducked into the bathroom just in time to see the ruling faction march in and begin rounding up my friends the shop people. I stayed tucked in the bathroom for a while.

When I peeked back out, my shop friends were being paraded back into the main shop area as prisoners and the invaders were being installed s the new bosses. I slipped outside and began walking briskly down the street. A white woman with a high quality camera was passing by, so I latched onto her and began asking her technical questions so that I would hopefully be less noticeable.

It wasn’t until after I woke up that I consciously realized that one of the strange things about the dream was how the people populating it were mostly Asian. And that spurred the realization of how that stood in contrast to what was apparently usually the case.

I thought about that dream as the airplane carried me from Osaka to Seoul, and I found that my personal anxieties (of not fitting in, of facing hostility) had disappeared when faced with the more mundane bigger picture. This was a people. This was how life went on in the face of nuclear geopolitics.

Descending below the clouds to finally see the bridges stretching across the Han River, a swell of emotion reminded me of my first international flight (that I could actually remember), when I was 20 years old and went to England to do research for an academic project. Back then, I’d been caught off guard by a fierce gut reaction to seeing the lights of Newark International Airport shrinking below me. I felt a strain on that binding tie that resists disloyalty, like I was abandoning someone and needed to articulate, if only to myself, that this was not goodbye, that I would be back. Now, I again felt something on a very physical level, a relationship between body and land, only this time, it was the surreal experience of making the return to somewhere I had never known.

I thought of the dream again a couple nights later. After spending the day swanning about in hanbok at Gyeongbokgung Palace, I’d found some maduguk for dinner (#goals) and was going to hop onto a bus back to the boarding house where I was staying for this leg of my journey. But when I got to the bus stop, I changed my mind, remembering that there had been an impressive statue in the large boulevard leading toward the palace.

And so I kept walking.

As I continued into the city, I heard music, amplified but live. It was a mesmerizing blend of traditional and wild, the spirit of jazz flowing through a drum and solo instrumental voice that would not allow itself to be called a melody. It was not far at all, still well within the sight of the palace where the wide boulevard was lined by art museums, that I discovered an outdoor concert, where the musicians onstage were powering a calligrapher wielding a giant brush who was painting hangul writ large. Indeed, I recalled, it was Hangul Day, the holiday celebrating Korea’s literacy of its own creation. I concluded that this must be some sort of public concert held in celebration.

I joined the crowd, standing on the plaza off to the side yet also right up front, because how great was that, stumbling onto a free concert? But as I stood there looking at all of the people, my dream returned to me, and all I could think of was watching those balls of fire in the sky, so tiny at first but growing larger and larger and larger as they approached their inevitable targets.

This is how I’m going to die, I thought.

As it turns out, I did not die at a hangul concert in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace. And after that night, my dream drifted back into the realm of curiosity rather than looming as prophecy. How much of that really, I wonder, was actual Korean nuclear anxiety and how much was it an American import of the Las Vegas massacre that had occurred just days before? (Oh, the irony of my grandparents’ fears for my safety traveling abroad, I had thought, when the real terror lived at home.) Was it, like me, just some neurotic blend of the two?

A couple weeks ago, I had myself a two-show week at the Public Theatre. First, I was fortunate enough to see my friend Ceci Fernandez playing the lead role in Tiny Beautiful Things, regularly played by Nia Vardalos. While I wouldn’t call the play a life-changing work of dramatic writing, it was a wonderful, heart-expanding communal experience, like a church service comprised solely of homilies.

But what was unsurprisingly disturbing and yet, more prominently, unexpectedly affirming for me was Julia Cho’s’ Office Hour in the tiny Martinson Theater a few days later. This energizingly theatrical work explored the story of a college professor trying to get through to a student in her writing class whom her colleagues have warned her has all of the signs of a school shooter. Notably in this extremely American story, both the professor and the student are Asian.

On my way out of the theater following the play, two older white ladies walking in front of me were discussing the show between themselves and one commented about how she felt that all of the guns were confusing and distracted from “the cultural issues.”

Reminder: this was a play about a potential school shooter.

But I could only guess that the faces that woman was seeing could only belong one story, that of the “culture clash.” Indeed, in one conversation, the professor discusses how her parents didn’t want her to become a writer – ah, yes, of course, the strict and traditional Asian parent! Clearly this was what explained these two lives in crisis that we were watching. Whence could the rage – the rage that was so shocking to see depicted on stage but the existence of which was so viscerally, familiarly real – come but from that? Those people and their culture issues!

I left those people behind me but kept the story with me as I walked out of the theatre.

(You still have a little time left to catch both shows – Office Hour runs through December 3 and Tiny Beautiful Things through December 10. And while I highly recommend Office Hour, please do heed the production’s warnings about gunshots and gun violence.)

I miss the mountains

On the night before Halloween, my last night visiting my family at my childhood home before finally, after more than a month, returning to my own apartment in New York City for long enough to justify unpacking my suitcase, I had a lot to get done. And so I picked up a folder of paperwork to sort through and spent about a half-hour sitting on my bedroom floor and staring at the wall in blank despair. Realizing that this was accomplishing nothing, I very deliberately flopped flat onto my face and fell asleep drooling onto the carpet.

I suppose you could say that the process of returning to regular life has had its challenges.

I’d thought that I’d pushed through the worst of during the prior week, when I’d spent a twenty-four hour period maniacally re-obsessing over the entertainment of my college days in a self-aware but completely unironic attempt to find comfort in the familiar, winding myself up into an increasing tizzy until my brain at last rocketed into outer space, passing beyond the realm of reality’s grounding pull to that weightless expanse with no secure anchor. That evening was a memorial service that, as unhappy as I was that it was necessary, I had been grateful that my schedule would allow me to attend.  From my friends on the internet, I crowdsourced a chorus of echoes that yes, I should go to the memorial service. My lovely friends encouraged me and assured me that I would feel better for having attended, which then made me feel bad for having led people to assume that it was the person’s untimely death that was giving me so much angst and not just my own solipsistic doubts about the objective existence of reality.

(Side note: this is called anxiety. Specifically, anxiety manifested as depersonalization and derealization episodes. If you feel yourself experiencing this, it is a condition, not you, and it can be addressed.)

The memorial service did make me feel better, if not for the expected reasons. It was a service for a theatre man, largely for the theatre community. As such, the service was naturally followed by a reception with a lot of, for lack of a less gauche term, schmoozing. And I am, if anything, a natural schmoozer. With a cup of red wine in one hand and some brie on multi-grain bread in the other, I felt myself coming back to life as I cruised the room – not on auto-pilot, no, but able to fall back on habit, able to do something that came easy to me.

Honestly, “schmooze” makes it sound a lot tackier than the reality of the situation. In the theatre industry, unless you are one of the rare birds that works as part of a resident company, much of one’s life consists of forming close professional and personal relationships with people over the course of a month to maybe, for those on one of those few long-running shows, a year and then being uprooted to start a new project in a different place – maybe across town, maybe across the country. Staying in touch with people you like as an adult can be difficult enough to fit in around everyday responsibilities even when everyone is working on a relatively similar 40-hours-per-week schedule. When you regularly work 54-hour, six-day weeks and don’t necessarily have the same day off (and also live in New York City, where public transportation means that it can take you over an hour to go to a friend’s apartment 10 miles away — if the MTA happens not to be breaking down), socializing beyond those with whom you’re currently working in the same physical location can become quite the arduous task.

(Which isn’t to say “boo hoo, boo hoo.” It’s a trade-off, of course. But just because a negative trade-off is accepted doesn’t magically make it be not negative.)

As a result, when there’s an occasion for a mass gathering – whether it be an opening or a rally or, you know, a memorial service – one takes advantage of being present with others and being able to reconnect. Sure, that might mean “please remember that I exist so that I come to mind when there’s an appropriate job opening,” but even that desire to pay for rent and groceries has some element of “I want us to be in the same room together.” Or at least “I wouldn’t mind being in the same room together.”

Trust me, after a certain volume of experience, one encounters those who don’t meet that standard.

But it also didn’t feel inappropriate for the celebration of Michael Friedman’s life and the shared grief at his death to have a post-show reception. “Even after,” I remarked to a colleague whom I hadn’t seen in a while, “he’s still bringing people together.”

That was something that struck me about the service. While naturally there were performances of his songs and mourning for all of his music that we would never hear, what people talked of most was how he made them feel. Not with his artistic creations. Just with himself: watching him, talking with him, being with him. It was inspiring to hear people articulate how they could be so deeply moved by simply knowing a person.

Something that I’d been struggling with since returning from my travels was the end of the freedom of accountability from anyone. The last week of my trip had been completely solo, and for an intensely introverted person such as myself, the experience of being accountable only to myself and my own time – and in a foreign country, no less, where I didn’t know the language, so no one could speak to me, even if they wanted to  — was a beautiful thing. In the words of every “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”  description, being alone “recharged” me. But despite the energizing implications of the word “recharge,” it also calmed me. The muscle underneath my right shoulderblade that had been twitching for nearly a year loosened up, and I’m pretty sure that the overall height of my shoulders dropped by about half an inch due to lost tension. Maybe the “What careers should you consider?” computer quiz that we took in my junior year of high school was on the right track when it recommended that I should look into working at a funeral home.

Hearing about Michel’s impact on people, however, was aspirational. Imagine, being a person like that! To have such a positive effect on people’s existences! And while of course Michael was an extremely singular individual, what he did as a friend and brother did not require being an athlete or a genius or some other characteristic determined in the lottery of birth. To be good, to be loving, to lift people up in your interactions with them – those were things that could be developed and were within reach.

Of course, as evidenced by the first paragraph, this didn’t solve everything for me.

Even now, I can’t tell if the experience of that memorial service tempered, albeit briefly, or further inflamed the rabid bite that had attacked me suddenly in my travels and been festering since: the conviction that all art is bullshit.

(This thing is a problem when you: 1) work in the arts, and 2) aren’t paid enough money, 3) for something that you don’t have to be doing.)

I mean, I’ve long been of the conviction that art is not inherently worth taking so seriously. This is, I should qualify, different from the capital-t “The”” capital-a “Arts,” in my mind. The Arts are, of course, an important cultural means for developing good humans, which as a result contributes to having a good society. And I’m not talking about didactic art teaching proper lessons (though art is an effective teaching tool), but of the practice of art, as creator or consumer, being a method of developing self-honesty, empathy, critical thinking, and communication. To say nothing of the value of bringing delight and beauty into people’s lives. Hell, I’m even a supporter of bad art, in the same way that I’m a supporter of “useless” research: sometimes you need the space to have the misses in order to be able to have the hits.

At the same time, if you don’t get a scene just right, the fact is that nobody is going to die. I mean, unless you’re working for Cirque de Soleil and being off by an inch actually does mean that someone might literally die. But I’m talking about not having the money to get the prop that is precisely the correct era, not having a lighting cue land with exactly the right timing, not having a transition run perfectly seamlessly. Of course one wants to respect both the artists and the audience by doing the best work possible. At the moment, however, that humanity begins to be the price paid – when the body-harming sleep deprivation starts, when the anger and abuse boil over, when the spirits of those involved are diminished – it seems proper to remember that what is being performed is not open-heart surgery with someone’s life directly and immediately in our hands.

It turns out that too much hiking solo up mountains and lurking around Buddhist temples wormed something into my brain. I’ve long been what one might call a positive nihilist (i.e., nothing inherently means anything existentially speaking, so it is both our power and responsibility to give and determine meaning), so maybe it was where I’ve been heading all along. As I wandered down stone pathways accompanied only by the sounds of the wind and distant chanting, I found myself feeling wearied at the thought of spending so much time and worldly money on… what? What were we pretending to understand or presuming to try to understand? Doing this, doing that, adding on, adding on, adding on… It all seemed so unnecessary.

I was able to largely put this to the side when my life consisted of solitary exploring, but this increasingly troubled me as I returned to Real Life, the life that revolves around the art that people do.

Granted, it is normal for me that the approach of a first rehearsal brings with it the anxiety of the unknown, even after all these years. In a normal state, however, that manifests itself as merely a hyper-energetic neuroticism, like that first day is an approaching freight train that I’m driven to climbing up the walls in an effort to avoid being crushed. Normal, too, is a certain measure of avoidance. (Note to reader: just answer those emails even if it’s been “too long,” you’ll feel a lot better and you know it.) But this time, it was as if the walls were gone, and rather than being successfully avoided, the push just sent me tumbling into a void.

And that was how I, a thirty-something professional, ended up face-down on the floor, inhaling the pink synthetic fibers of the rug that had been picked out for me when I didn’t even know the words for colors.

First rehearsals come; first rehearsals go. The immediate crisis is over. Like with the memorial service, upon finding myself actually in the situation, familiarity bred competence. And having some sort of sure footing allowed me to feel more human, rather than merely a well-dressed fleshbag full of screaming. The present situation is not one that I can merely deal with, but one that I’m grateful for and honestly, one that I am sure that I will enjoy. I know where I’m going with this. I just can’t say that I know where my path will take me once my current itinerary runs out. Maybe I’ll just continue in the same direction, and maybe it will be with purpose or maybe it will be out of ease of habit.

Or maybe I’ll finally succumb to that voice that has for years whispered into my ear: run away, run away, run away.

I’m not sure from what. I certainly don’t know towards where.

I went away, and I’m not sure if I returned with something more or if I left something behind.

You gotta grab something, grab something

And so then Michael Friedman died.

I didn’t know him very well. He probably wouldn’t know me from a hole in the ground, and not due to any inattention on his part. I was a production assistant on the stage management team for the Off-Broadway production of The Fortress of Solitude, an adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel, with a book by Itamar Moses and songs by Michael. I’d also been the assistant stage manager on a workshop of the show that past summer. There had been a previous production in Dallas, but it very much was still a new show with constant development and re-writes, all the way until opening. As such, the writers were there almost constantly. It was a show of moderate size, with the stage management team alone having five people, and I was just one of the many new people on board at this new stage of the journey, whereas most of the core creative team and cast had been attached to the project for years.

I was, however, the person on the stage management team in charge of script maintenance and printing, meaning that I kept the constantly changing document both up-to-date but also properly archived as well as being the person who made sure that everyone got the correct new pages. While the music team took care of the score updates in the files themselves, I was still the person who would do all of the physical printing and distribution. So despite Michael and I not interacting directly, I’m finding that I’d developed a perhaps outsized feeling of connection from having his work pass through me before even making it to the performers.

Michael, I killed so many trees for you.

Even besides all that, he was an undeniable sort of person. He wouldn’t so much enter a room as vibrate into it. You could feel the energy radiating from the source, affecting everything in its path.

And then there’s just that sense that you’ve lost someone in the family, even if you didn’t know them well personally. The theatre community forms densely branching networks by virtue of how employment happens. For the most part, you work very intensely with a group of people for a while. Then that project ends, and you do the same with another group of people. Rinse, repeat. As a result, you get to know so many people, and on at a more personal level than many workplace environments demand. Eventually, you almost always know someone who knows someone. Or know someone who knew someone.

And then there’s the art.

For better or for worse, we find something there. Artists create and articulate things that connect us to ourselves and others. These people somehow reach inside of us and touch us in such close places – even though we often have never even met them, we get to know them and they somehow magically seem to know us. It becomes such a personal relationship, even if you wouldn’t recognize each other if you passed on the street.

Granted, not much time had passed, but I found myself thinking of him again when I got off the phone with my grandparents Sunday evening. I had called to wish them a happy Grandparents Day, and I’m pretty sure I left them feeling worse than before because I had refused to promise them that I wouldn’t drink anything that didn’t come in a sealed bottle manufactured by Coca-Cola while I was traveling abroad. Now, I am one-hundred percent prepared to not get asked and to not tell, or even to gracefully elide certain happenings. But being asked point-blank to make an unreasonable promise that I knew that I wouldn’t keep was beyond what I was willing to do. Especially given the underlying xenophobia (only trust U.S. corporations!) and racism (I hadn’t been asked to make a similar promise when I was going abroad in Europe), no matter how well-intentioned it was.

But also, I couldn’t stop thinking “But the world doesn’t give you nothing for free and life can quickly pass you by…”

Our time is so limited – how could I countenance having opportunities that others are never afforded right in front of me and refusing to reach for them because I was keeping my hands and feet inside of the vehicle at all times? Of course there’s going to be risk. But to have your house swept up in the twister and land in Oz, only to refuse to set foot outside of your door – you may never meet the witch, but you’ll never see the wonders.

It also happened that when I opened up my secondary browser that day, the newsfeed popped up that Troy Gentry of the country band Montgomery Gentry had been killed in a helicopter crash. There’s something particularly sad about the death of an eponymous duo to me (see: Siskel and Ebert). I’ve also mentioned before that I’m a country music fan, and, as much as I reject some life actions by the people involved, a couple of Montgomery Gentry’s songs are among my personal favorites.

Like most mainstream country music, the sort of life that’s usually prescribed (or simply assumed as a given) is definitely neither mine nor something that I want. But the spirit of taking pride in living a life of purposeful integrity, no matter what other voices may tell you…

…that’s something that has always called to me loudly. And while I try to make it a continuous, conscious practice, I can’t help but be pointedly confronted with the imperative at instances like these.

Goddamn, but Michael had a life he could hang his hat on.

 

Sweetest tune I know is

I’m almost near the end of my string of quick switches. After finishing up my show in New Hope, I landed back in my apartment for a whopping 30 hours – enough time to repack my suitcase, go on a Caribbean dance party cruise on the East River (highly recommended), and sleep once in my own bed – before heading upstate to visit family for two weeks. After that, I arrived back home on a Sunday evening ahead of starting rehearsals for a two-week workshop on Tuesday morning. Right now, I’m starting the second week, which ends on Sunday – and then have rehearsals for my next show starting on Monday.

This is hardly a complaint. Maximizing time with family and having jobs booked back-to-back is pretty much the ideal. But it can be a little hectic, and specifically, it didn’t give me a chance to really unload about my time back upstate.

I’ve made my professional career in theatre, and I love it. I’ve made my home in New York City, and I love it. But what made me into who I am was the local theatre scene where I grew up.

The first professional show that I ever saw was the national tour of Meet Me In St. Louis at Proctor’s. I have no fucking clue why we went to see Meet Me In St. Louis. Probably because I was finally old enough to attend a Real Show, it was there, and it was age-appropriate. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it, but, judging by the results, it was a positive experience. For living as literally in the middle of the woods as we did – they still don’t offer cable to our area, there’s not enough people – it is amazing to think that we have a huge national touring house just a 25-minute drive away. As a kid, I had no idea how lucky I was to have Proctor’s. I do now. I was able to see so many professional productions of current theatre. I was able to see the touring casts of shows that I had seen on Broadway. I was able to talk to people who did “the real thing” at the stage door, see that they were just other people.

(In a “small world, isn’t it” moment, I once struck up a conversation with a man I met while I was running through the park near my apartment. We’d come together in common cause when we’d both spotted another man lying unresponsive on the path in an ambiguous context and been concerned, and he hadn’t had his phone on him, so I called 911. He recognized the theatre logo on my this-was-somewhere-I-worked t-shirt, and we, of course, discovered mutual acquaintances via becoming Facebook friends. And in hindsight, I am pretty dang sure that I saw him as Javert at Proctor’s when I was a kid.)

It wasn’t just the big professional shows, though. After having been hooked by my grandmother’s vinyl cast recordings and my mom’s Premiere Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection on CD (which could only be played on the high-tech stereo system in the house), my favorite time each year would be mid-spring: high school musical season. My grandmother would save the listings in the newspaper for me, and I’d plan out our viewing itinerary. And that was how I got to know so much of the musical canon. I saw Grease when I was way too young and really didn’t understand why I was told not to sing “Greased Lightning” in public or to call somebody a hooker, but I wasn’t really a rebel, so I just went with it. I saw too many productions of The King & I that never should have happened the way that they did. (You know why.) I saw Annie Get Your Gun with a cast of upwards of 50 people, all under the age of 18, because everyone who auditioned was given a role. I saw The Goodbye Girl. Who sees The Goodbye Girl?!

There was also life outside of high school. I accompanied a friend’s highly inappropriate audition for a local production of Blood Brothers. It was inappropriate merely due to the fact that both of us were no more than ten years old, but they were very impressed that she brought her own accompanist. That audition was for the Schenectady Light Opera Company, which was another vital part of my childhood arts exposure, ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to Follies to The Robber Bridegroom. I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of the productions that I saw there – there are a few wisps of memory floating around, but the moments are too insubstantial, more impressions than images, to be described to another in words – but the proof is in the peas pudding and saveloys.

As I got older and finally reached the fifth grade, I began participating in shows myself. My summers were filled with NYSTI theatre camp and performing with the Timothy Murphy Playhouse in the incipient years of its revival. (Shout-out to mom for driving me back and forth between the absolute opposite ends of the capitol region within the same day.) It’s no small or coincidental thing, I think, that a number of us who were doing community theatre out in the central New York farmland, with the five-minute set changes and completely illegal script changes, are now in the field professionally, in New York City and all across the country. One might view that as basis for saying “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up in the theatre.” But for whatever challenges the shapes of our lives might bring us, just from superficial observation, I’d say that we’ve all managed to end up pretty darn happy and fulfilled, and via bringing happiness and fulfillment to others.

If you don’t mind negotiating the poverty line, it’s not such a bad deal.

I saw two local shows while I was home this July, both of them free productions presented outdoors in a park, one of them an 100% amateur Fiddler on the Roof by the Not So Common Players and the other non-union/semi-professional Ragtime by Park Playhouse.

Continue reading “Sweetest tune I know is”

By Monday I’ll be floating in the Hudson with the other garbage

Wednesday – is it really Wednesday? There’s a reason that I have post-it notes with the days on the week stuck to the wall above my desk in my bedroom with a smaller post-it that I move to mark which day of the week that it is. When you not only aren’t on the standard Monday-through-Friday that is reinforced as the temporal norm but also do scheduling as a large part of your job (meaning that your brain is often working on a day other than the one that you’re in), there’s a non-negligible risk of losing your place, so to speak.

My current disorientation, and tardiness, however, is due to a more specific occasion: starting a new show.

A stage manager is generally involved in the rehearsals and performances for a show. The week of lead-up to the first rehearsal is quite the busy one, as one might expect for the launch of a new project. The last couple days before starting (and the morning of), in particular, tend to be very full, as in an ever-evolving work, you want information to be as up-to-date as possible (which means that front-loading or evenly distributing the workload isn’t always best), and oftentimes the physical rehearsal site is not yours until the day before (or even the day of), so all preparation of the space must happen then.

And, of course, I need to have my standard miniature nervous breakdown the day before.

I am a professional stage manager. I have a terminal degree in my field. I’ve accumulated, if I do say so myself, a respectable resume. And yet in most instances as I approach the first day of rehearsal for a project, I am seized with the panic that I have forgotten how to stage manage.

Having discussed the feeling with a couple other friends (a director and a translator), I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not an uncommon aspect of the freelance experience. Although I’ve been fortunate enough not to have many gaps in between projects, when it comes to theatre, the job changes dramatically depending where you are in the process. The job that I’m doing at the start of a rehearsal process is very different form the job that I’m doing at the end of a run of performances. And if it’s a long-ish run, with maybe a small break afterward, it could have been a couple months since I was last in rehearsal. Not only that, but the nature of the work can vary greatly from project to project. (Is it a physically-challenging large classic musical, with almost everything set and mostly a lot of people wrangling? Is it an experimental art piece with a lot of non-traditional problem solving? Is it a straight play with a small cast but a very intense emotional toll?) And going from employer to employer, the organizational environments can differ greatly as well. (What is the budget like? What is the scale of expectations?) Given all of these variables, even though the position may technically be the same, it actually is not dissimilar to starting a new job… every couple months.

Being the professional that I am, I generally go absolutely neurotic for the 36 hours preceding the first rehearsal, frantically switching back and forth between being obsessively focused on my job and obsessively focused on anything but my job.

My kitchen looks amazing right now. And the writing that I planned on finishing one day late is now instead two days late, due to my collapsing into uselessness on Tuesday night, after two days of insufficient sleep.

For all of this rigmarole, the job that I started yesterday is lighter than many for me, as it’s just a two-week workshop for the writers – there isn’t any performance, and thus no production elements (props, lights, etc.) to manage. However, it was an instance where we did not have our own office space (so printing had to be done via Staples and picked up the morning of) and got our rehearsal room only two hours before starting for both all of the room set-up and all of the assembly of the aforementioned printing. Did I mention that this is a music theatre piece? There was music printing. Those who have been there know what I’m talking about.

None of this was unreasonable on the part of the producers. The theatre is based outside of the city, and for a short development workshop, you want to work in a central location to most of the team rather than shipping everyone out somewhere. And real estate in NYC is not cheap, so it would have been nonsense for them to have rented the rehearsal hall, which is now completely ours straight through to the end of our workshop, starting any earlier. But it was simply a set of circumstances to be tackled. Were the results a textbook-perfect example of stage managing? Hell, no! Especially since I hecked up understanding our printing capabilities within the room and, as a result, small-batch printing didn’t get done until after rehearsal actually started. But was it a disaster? Did the world end?

No. No, it did not. The planet spins, and the world goes ’round and ’round.

The needs of and expectations for this project are vastly different from what has become my usual. But I still have the foundational skills. And most of all, I still care about things being done correctly and well. I still value people being treated with courtesy and compassion. I still believe in the importance of creating good art.

I don’t know many people, and especially not many stage managers, who enjoy making mistakes. But I’ve said before that I feel like knowing how to make mistakes is one of the most important skills for a stage manager to develop. Because no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes. Knowing how to recover, how to make things right, how to learn, and how to move on are invaluable. Like when you’re at the piano and giving a concert, the worst thing you can do is get hung up on a mistake. Of course don’t fucking make it again. Life isn’t going to stop moving forward because you made a mistake, though. So you have to let it go and just be better. You don’t win points by punishing yourself. Anyone for whom punishing yourself earns points isn’t someone worth earning points for.

I heard that it rained today. As lovely as our rehearsal space is, there isn’t any window access, so the stories of weather happening and time passing seemed strangely distant.  (“It’s raining,” one person commented. “Where?” another asked. “Outside,” the first replied.) After rehearsal, I tried to get part of my work to-do list done tonight, but the person ahead of me in line at Staples turned out to be buying about 20 gift cards and I had a dinner reservation with friends. So I moved it to my to-do list for the morning, and I left. I had a delicious meal with a couple of friends (one of whom I was meeting in person for the first time – the excitement of internet-based hobbies!) at The Eddy And on my way home, with two cocktails charming me (the Sherry O’Cherry and the Honey Badger, both highly recommended), I encountered three darling friends playing as a portion of The Good Morning Nags in the 2nd Avenue F train station.

There are times when “I’ll do it tomorrow” is procrastinating. And there are times when “I do it tomorrow” is absolutely the right answer.

Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. But all the more reason to take the time to enjoy a song tonight.

America, you great unfinished symphony

Aside from being just barely twenty-four hours out from running a 102-degree fever while fully medicated, this evening is about as perfect as can be. I’m once again in a rocking chair on the porch, with fireflies starting to glow in the twilight. A neighbor across the street has country music radio playing. As much of a city slicker that I am now, I grew up a moderate country bumpkin, so it does make me feel nostalgically at-home. I was from the sort of area where one could reach a decent level of suburban civilization (for instance, a grocery store) within a half-hour drive in the correct direction, but ten minutes in the other direction would land you in a cornfield. Summer was about county fairs. Autumn was about not getting shot by deer hunters. I was about a generation and a half removed from shooting squirrels in the backyard for dinner. And I could probably count the number of black people I’ve ever observed in town on one hand.

(The Asian population felt more prominent, thanks to a couple just down the road who had both an adopted Korean child and an adopted Vietnamese child, as well as the number of mirrors in our house. I couldn’t have pointed out any other Asians in town, but proximity and frequency can be hella amplifying.)

These days, I feel much more comfortable in non-homogenous spaces. The tyranny of the majority can be truly insidious, having a negative effect even when there is no active malice or ill intent. Nevertheless, I do have great fondness for my hometown. Established in 1772, it was originally envisioned by the eponymous leader of its original settlement as the possible capital of New York state. A bit laughable now, given that it still doesn’t even get cable, but I do believe that growing up in a place with history can affect you.

Pretty much everything I ever dreamed of came together in the musical Hamilton.

Not that Hamilton fever had gone away, but you might have noticed a definitely spike this week. First, a new Prizeo fundraiser sweepstakes was launched, where donations are rewarded with entries to win tickets to the opening night of the U.S. tour’s Los Angeles stop. The #ham4all viral campaign took hold, with people donating and singing their favorite song from the show, then challenging others.

As if that weren’t enough, they also dropped a music video for “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” a track (and my personal favorite, actually) from the Hamilton Mixtape album.

My own Hamilton story risks being yet another tale of my unbelievable good fortune, but that’s pretty much been my life, so why not lean into it?

Colonial and revolutionary U.S. history had always been a favorite of mine. In addition to my general interest in political and revolutionary history, it was also local history to me. It wasn’t until I was older and more exposed to the world that I realized that my awareness of things like the Battle of Saratoga or the intricacies of the French and Indian War were geographically-specific and not general knowledge. I also was, quelle surprise, a huge theatre geek from a very young age. One of the highlights of my amateur theatre career was playing the Anti-Federalist murder victim in a site-specific interactive murder mystery dinner theatre piece called “It Spoiled His Constitution.” (For you fellow Hamilton fans, the specific site was Schuyler Mansion in Albany.) This shit was running through my veins.

So when I heard that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of the recent In The Heights, was working on a project that was a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton, my favorite founding father?

I immediately refused to get my hopes up so that my heart wouldn’t be broken when the show got mired in development purgatory or, at best, had a critically-acclaimed and very short off-Broadway run, becoming a piece of elitist theatre nerd trivia. Even as the project expanded and each new bit that I heard excited me, I purposefully tried not to get too involved.

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It was surprising and joyful to me, then, when I heard that it was being produced at the Public and selling very well.

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Selling too well for my freelancing ass, in fact. One of the downsides to being a freelancer and working on a gig-to-gig basis is that I generally only know my work schedule a few months ahead of time and don’t have the luxury of being able to take time off. This can make being able to commit to future events, such as buying show tickets, quite difficult. With Hamilton at the Public being sold out months before it even opened, I pretty much gave up hope of ever seeing it.

And then one night in late January, I was alone in my bedroom of my apartment shitting around on the internet like the antisocial millennial that I am, when  friend messaged me, asking me if I was busy tomorrow. Well, I hedged, I was meeting another friend for brunch that day, which was way up on the Upper East Side, so that would take a while, but other than that, I wasn’t doing anything, what was up?

It turns out that her girlfriend had misremembered the dates of when she would be visiting family in California when she had bought them their Hamilton tickets. Her being in California? Now. The date for their Hamilton tickets? Tomorrow.

I threw myself into my computer keyboard to tell my friend that I was actually free as of six hours ago and would be so for the next week.

And so the next day, my friend and I caught dinner at Duck’s Eatery, which I highly recommend for Public-proximity dining, and just barely slid into our seats as the lights dimmed and the now ubiquitous first seven notes played. We didn’t even have time to read our programs or scan the audience around us, which would have told us that we were seeing Javier Muñoz (the current Broadway Hamilton) performing the role for the very first time and that Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the house with us, his first opportunity to see his work from the outside. The show wasn’t yet open – they were still in that preview period where they would rehearse during the day, integrating any changes from the writer or creative team, and perform the updated version of the show that night. So what we saw was not quite the finished version of the show’s off-Broadway incarnation.

Finished or not, it was one of the most moving, electrifying theatrical experiences of my life.

Shortly after seeing it, the production’s third and final extension was announced. My upcoming work schedule miraculously had one performance that I would be able to attend, so I sneakily bought a pair of tickets while at work and later called my mom to inform her that she was coming to see a show.

It was important to me for her to see it. Not just because I knew that it was a brilliant work of theatre that would be historically notable to have seen. But also because in many ways, the show was me.

I had been obsessed with immigrant stories as a child. In my American Girl phase, Felicity’s Revolutionary War and Kirstin’s immigrant stories had been my favorites. I heavily favored historical fiction of tales of coming to America. Fievel was g-ddamn important to me. I would scream that Neil Diamond song at the drop of a hat.

And yet, despite there being the obvious commonality of, you know, coming to America, I had never considered myself an immigrant.

But Hamilton made me realize that maybe I am, and that felt right.

The night that my friend had messaged me had actually been the day after my arrival day, or the anniversary of my arriving to the United States. Maybe making the journey hadn’t been  my decision, but had it been for other young immigrant children? I just hadn’t had anyone in my immediate family who shared that particular experience. In hindsight, now that I’m older and understand more, I wish that I could have spoken more with my maternal great-grandparents, as logically impossible as that would have been. (I was either very young or not yet born when my great-grandmother died; I was still barely more than a toddler when my great-grandfather passed.) They were Armenian and had immigrated in the early 1900s, as one was wont to do. I wish that we could have shared more of that.

And that was a slightly more specific personal epiphany on top of the more general sense of reclamation of American history and identity that has been expressed by many.

Which isn’t to say that I discount criticism of Hamilton or its place within our culture. I can’t blame those who have no wish to claim part of an identity that was violently forced upon them. I understand those who would prefer see the stories that truly are untold (Hercules Mulligan smuggling information? more like his slave, Cato) rather than recasting the ones that are already floating in the American historical consciousness. But I think that Hamilton is just one exceptionally well-crafted show that has never intended to be the one answer. It’s not the show’s fault that the collective culture enjoys seizing upon a singular answer to all of our woes. Hamilton has clearly had a positive impact on many people who haven’t generally been the beneficiaries of such artistic, emotional, cultural bounties. What we need, then, is to treat this as the opening of the door to more stories.

I’ve written before (at great length) about the impact that Les Mis has had on me. Among other things, I recollected how I had unironically imagined a future career for myself in which I graduated through all of the roles in The King & I. Seeing Lea Salonga in the Tenth Anniversary Concert on PBS changed all that and literally changed my life. That was my first huge epiphany of identity, immediately and directly concerning my theatrical pursuits but also seeping into my overall being in more generalized ways. Having a place is something that was neither destined nor has always been expected. With my life of good fortune, I’ve always had that little bit of constant immigrant awareness of gratitude for simply being here. I know that the dice have not rolled so favorably for everyone, including those with originating circumstances similar to mine. But the elements of chance and change involved have left me all the more incredulously thankful for how my story has played out.

And so yes, may America sing for you. It’s a dark time for many who live here or are otherwise impacted by this nation’s actions. And it’s certainly not the first dark time, or even the darkest. But I claim this identity in defiance of those who would challenge my legitimacy, and I am determined to continue to strive toward those ideals that mean so much to me, even when we fall lamentably short of the very words declared by no less than the Statue of Liberty. We’ve always fallen short. We always will. But let’s do so while striving for something higher.

And that’s the story of tonight.