Monday, October 13, 2014

the typographer's dream at portland center stage

Friday night at Portland Center Stage, after all the applause, as my hands were trying to stop stinging from clapping so hard, Stephen turned to me and said, "I don't know what the hell that was, but it was delightful."

Three people on stage, sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs. What was the setup of this play? Was it a job fair? A convention? Career day at some school? In a way, I didn't care that I didn't know what the setup was in The Typographer's Dream. It was what it was. Three people sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs - which doesn't sound like the recipe for an amazing evening of theater, but Stephen is right when he sums it all up with the word delightful.

It was also smart and surprising and hilarious and thought-provoking and fast-moving.

So fast-moving. Whip-crack dialogue and pingponging themes and concepts - and all I kept thinking is, this is my kind of play. Which is to say just so slightly over my head but in a way that leaves me breathlessly fascinated.

I want to pay for another ticket for another go-round (and if you know me, you know I'm painfully cheap). Not because it was so fast moving and just so slightly over my head, but because I just want to see it again.

As a theater junkie, I can enjoy a play that has so-so writing if the players are terrific, and I can enjoy a play that has so-so players if the writing is terrific. I can like it fine. Portland Center Stage's production of The Typographer's Dream, produced with intimacy in the Ellen Bye Theater, is terrific on both counts.

And with the material as it is, the actors easily could have gone over the top. Laura Faye Smith as Annalise the Geographer easily could have been too chirpy, easily could have been irritating, but no. Delightful. And when you think you know every note of her character, she gives you new sides - care, sadness, a fabulous rant - with that same just-at-the-edge-but-not-too-far energy. And she plays an excellent drunk.

And Kelsey Tyler as Dave the Stenographer. He easily could have gotten one-note with the sweet way he keeps pulling the conversation back to what is so great about stenography. And he easily could have been the annoyingly stereotypical gay man I see so often in plays. But no. Delightful. Funnily vulnerable and real.

And Sharonlee McLean. Well, she's always delightful. I've been following her career for years, and no matter how varied her characters are, there's always something Sharonlee about it. Quirky and particular. But not in a way that takes away from the individuality of the part she's playing. She has this fabulous way of being very real (her dialogue at times feeling almost adlibbed) while she's also so beautifully odd. Her Margaret the Typographer is, I think, one of my favorite performances of hers.

I'm going to try to stop saying the word delightful now. But seriously, you guys, this thing was delightful. I laughed way more than you'd expect about a play about three people sitting behind a long table, talking - raving - about their respective jobs. And of course the play is about far more. One of the devices that I think worked really well to illustrate that far more was the creative use of the fourth wall. Through the fourth wall, the players weren't just talking to us. They were vying for us. The audience's attention became a prize they were each fighting for. Which is intriguing to me as an audience member, but also says something about the themes of the play.

I think part of what playwright Adam Bock is saying in The Typographer's Dream is that we believe we have these connections with each other, these relationships, and we can even profess to love these relationships and be terribly moved by them (as Annalise is when she talks to Dave about his partner Bob, a truth Dave doesn't want to hear), but inside we're all just vying for the spotlight. We're all about our own story.

And what is our story? A lot of the time, it's our job. I've wondered over this fact myself, the urgency with which we identify ourselves with our jobs. In the Marketing Department at Powell's Books, just taking care of business, I catch myself sometimes feeling some silly, unfounded sense of importance. I talk about being graphic designer for a small press just to enjoy that sense of importance - there, I just did it. It's a way to manufacture an identity, but it's more. When we're coiling ourselves up in the cushy security of these personally manufactured identities what we're also doing is using that love to avoid the truth about ourselves.

It's a bleak outlook that emerges from Adam Bock's The Typographer's Dream. At least in my small-brained interpretation of it. A chilly perspective on the human condition, happily, ironically served up in the midst of a delightfully funny evening of smart, smart theater.

The Typographer's Dream runs through November 16th. More information is here. Photos were courtesy of Patrick Weishampel.

Monday, October 6, 2014

art, writing, and trying to grow a backbone

A while back, Stephen and I were contacted by a publisher about collaborating on a coffee table book of sorts pairing a number of Stephen's paintings with flash fiction inspired by those paintings.

The biggest thrill for me was being asked by the publisher to curate the group of writers, each of whom would take one of Stephen's paintings and use it as a prompt to write a tiny original story.

Right away, lists started in my head. Who would be good candidates for my writers (they would be my writers - for this project they would be my writers):

Writers I admire
Writers Stephen admires
Writers who admire Stephen's work

This project was perfect for me. I mean, I personally knew so many remarkable writers.

Writers who excel at short fiction
Writers who excel at working from prompts
Writers whose sensibilities seem to fit with Stephen's aesthetic

Lists and lists and lists, and of course I realized somewhere in there that I couldn't invite everyone.

Oh no.

Maybe this project wasn't for me. I mean, I personally knew so many remarkable writers. Too, too many remarkable writers.

Making a new computer file and combining all the names into a master list doesn't help. It just makes it easier to see that you have four times the number of writers than you can squeeze into one book.

Part of being a good editor, if I was going to be a good editor, was narrowing down the list. All I had to do was remove a few writers here and there, just whittle down my incredibly long and beloved list, just hack it to pieces, leaving writers I admire, leaving friends in my wake.

A Friday night, Stephen and me at the hairdresser's, me with the big glass spaceman-suit bowl breathing hot air over my head, and my master list in my lap.

Next to me, Stephen named names and made comments that I couldn't hear over the drone of my spaceman-suit head. We decided against one of the names, someone we both know well, and running my ink pen across that name was like running that ink pen across the face of that friend.

Backbone. That's what you're suppose to have if you fancy yourself an editor of a book. If you make your decisions based on personal consideration, you're not editing a book, you're just fooling around.

Backbone. That's one of the benefits I hope to get out of my role in this project. Don't ask me how I got to the point in my life where I'm taking things on for the right reasons, but the aspects that scare me the most about doing this - are why I need to be doing this.

Under the drone of my spaceman-suit head, I crossed another name off. The friction of the pen moving across the paper was a bee squirm at the base of my spine. Each and every name I had to cross off, people who I knew would be great for the project, people I'd long admired, each and every name... hurt.

Great writer but better for nonfiction
Great writer but maybe too modern
Great writer
Great writer

Sunday, September 28, 2014

dreamgirls at portland center stage

Friday night, Stephen and I saw Dreamgirls at Portland Center Stage. As excited as I was, I'll admit I worried about the pastiche aspect of the musical. Dreamgirls, which premiered in 1981, tells the story of a Motown-to-Disco-era singing group, and more often than not, when a musical imitates an earlier style, the music comes off sounding like a spun-sugar version of itself. Too sweet, too simple, not enough there. 

Also, I'm a jerk when it comes to musicals, at least musicals written after, say, 1965. I usually don't like them. Period. Especially musicals from the eighties, onward. That thing that I think of as That Modern Era Musical Sound - I kind of hate. 

Luckily for jerk me, the pastiche in Dreamgirls not only overrides That Modern Era Musical Sound, it works its pastiche well. The songs performed by our heroes the Dreams and their companion James "Thunder" Early (not to mention other fictional groups and soloists spanning the real world eras of Motown, R&B and Disco) feel authentic and particular. They're also full of beautiful, at times surprising, harmonies, which here and there made me involuntarily close my eyes out of pleasure. Part of that pleasure - and the pleasure of all the rousing numbers in this show - comes from the score, but part of it comes from the live band and the huge chops of every single singer on that stage.

If I had to pick a standout, for both music and acting chops, I'd choose David Jennings as James "Thunder" Early, who was impishly funny and energetic and sexy and vulnerable and kooky - with a voice for each of these moods. Also, Nattallyee Randall as Effie, able to go from bust-a-gut diva to quietly, tenderly human in one breath. I also loved Dreamgirl number three, Lorrell, played by Lexi Rhoades with her clear, versatile and beautifully en pointe voice. But as I said, every singer in the production is terrific. 

Portland Center Stage's Dreamgirls is nonstop music, nonstop dramatic tension, nonstop Motown-funk-disco-showbiz glamour. Check out these costumes!

The writing in Dreamgirls is on the simple side, with characters a little broad and lyrics that can run a bit cliché, so a good production has to make up for this with its staging and cast.  Portland Center Stage does this, with its choreography and lights and flashy costumes, with its well utilized set and turntable (used beautifully in the montage "On the Road - Cadillac Car" in the first half), with fun, droll allusions to Sixties and Seventies culture, with directorial touches that subtly add dimension to the characters, and of course with the powerhouse cast - all of which combine to create a hell of a music-filled hoot of an evening

Dreamgirls runs through November 2nd. More information is here. Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photographs.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

guest post: folding cranes

One of the most lovely experiences I've had working on book design was collaborating with Laura Stanfill on the cranes for Kate Gray's book (whose official pub date is September 1st) Carry the Sky. I photoshopped their backgrounds out and arranged them, but Laura made them. By hand. Lots of them. And photographed them for me in various positions. Whenever I'd need a new color or a slightly different angle, she'd make more.

This is a book publisher I'm talking about. Hand-crafting paper cranes for the cover and interior of her book.  Not only is that dedication, there's something so personal about it to me. The care with which she ministers to her stories.

I asked her to write about the sweet circumstance in which she became the hand-crafter for this book, and she wrote me a beautiful, little essay. Here's Laura, talking about folding cranes.


In fifth grade, I changed schools. From public to private, elementary to middle. An older girl, during the morning rush of bodies in halls, during the first unnerving week, said “Nice backpack.” She had the same one as me. L.L.Bean. I knew enough not to know whether that was a compliment or an insult.

Before that, I made things. At home. An only child, not lonely at all, with popsicle sticks and glitter and pompoms, staples binding my own handwritten books. I made vending machines. I made a paper toilet that one of the neighbor kids used for real. I made cities. It fit that, when offered an array of after-school activities that fifth-grade year, I chose origami over soccer, and began folding neat squares of thin paper into neater, smaller, intricate objects.

I learned how to wash hands so as not to soften the paper, how to run a fingernail over a crease to make it sharp, and how to read a pattern, when I wasn't doing homework or practicing my flute, I taught myself to work smaller, taking little blots of paper, cutting them into sharp-edged squares, and folding them. I filled a Tic-Tac mint box with tiny origami cranes. Ones that still fly, if I tilt the clear plastic container, open the white plastic spout, and pour a few into my palm.

Many years later, as a small press publisher, I found Kate Gray’s debut novel, Carry the Sky, in my submission inbox. In the boarding school within the pages of her book, teachers are required to wear J.Crew or L.L.Bean. I thought of my backpack and that girl in the hall at my new school, feeling buffeted by all the bodies, feeling unsure. Kate describes the rush between classes as rapids.

As a fifth grader, I didn't have community yet, didn't know the teachers and students who would shape me, fold me, into someone willing to take risks, to continue exploring creativity, to make mistakes, to study hard. Another school, or another set of friends within that school, might have landed me in a world more like the one Kate writes about in the unblinking look at bullying that is her debut novel. I might have continued second-guessing what people said. But I found the right people, teachers who value thinking and creativity. “Nice backpack” was intended as a compliment, and that girl became one of my best friends. Is still one of them.

There’s quite a bit of origami in Carry the Sky. Bugs, dinosaurs, a rowing shell, cranes. When Gigi started working on cover ideas, I mentioned my long-ago training, and she asked me to fold and photograph a few examples. My fingers remember how to fold cranes, can still crease paper the way I was taught in fifth grade, and I fold them for my daughters now, offering them a choice of puffed or flapping. They want the ones that move. Gigi wanted the puffed ones, for that extra sense of dimension.

The same week Gigi asked me to fold, my husband brought me a package. My inlaws hosted foreign exchange students over the years, when their children were high school students. One of them presented a pack of small squares of origami paper, and flat splintery chopsticks. A date in the packet says 1984. Kate Gray set Carry the Sky in the fall of 1983. My mother-in-law had no idea I was working on publishing this boarding school bullying novel, no idea that I needed to fold cranes. She was cleaning out, moving on.

Nobody had ever opened the cellophane. The origami paper was fanned out with perfect symmetry, paperclipped, and preserved for thirty years in one of their closets.

I broke the seal, picked one plain bright square, and began to fold.

Carry the Sky debuts September 1st. The launch event takes place at Powell's City of Books (downtown) on September 5th. You can check it out through Powell's here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

anniversary show off - a retrospective

On Friday, the day before the weekend before the week of our wedding anniversary, both of us busy with projects, Stephen said to me, "Can I ask a question?" He looked like he wasn't sure he should ask. "Have you started working on my anniversary card?"

I said, "Oh my god, no!"

"Me neither," he said. "Everything I thought about working on is lame."

I said, "Oh my god, everything I thought about working on is lame too!"

Raised eyebrows and a half smile can go from tentative to relieved, back to tentative so fast. "What would you say," he said, "if just for this year," he said, "maybe," he said.

I reached out and, without saying anything else, shook his hand.

Of course, as relieved as we both were that we could let the tradition lapse for a year (it's not really a year, of course. We make personalized cards for Christmas, for Valentine's Day, for each birthday...), we've been feeling the expected letdown that comes from not being able to get up in the morning and show off the apparent brilliance of our personalized anniversary cards (because isn't showing off what togetherness is all about?). So, I decided what needed to happen was a retrospective of all the silly anniversary cards we've labored over since we started this tradition.

Because I'm not as organized as Stephen, and can't find my file for the card I made him in 2007, we're going to start with him.

2007, his to me. The outside.

The inside.

Neither of us has whatever the heck card we did for each other in 2008. So, we move on to...

2009, his to me.

2009, mine to him.

OK, I don't have that one either But I assure you it must have been terribly clever.

2010, his to me.

2010, mine to him.

2011, his to me.

2011, mine to him.

2012, his to me. I still think this is my favorite of all time.

2012, mine to him.

2013, his to me. This is the first anniversary after his fall.

2013, mine to him. The outside image.

The inside image.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

true love scars

Recently, I was given a sneak preview of a book that's out this month by music writer Michael Goldberg (who was a senior writer at Rolling Stone among other things). It's Goldberg's first novel, and I've been excited to check it out. Years ago, he spent time in Tom Spanbauer's basement, workshopping this very book, and I've missed his runaway freight train of a voice and the story I got to know so well, but which I never got to hear the end of, since Michael moved out of state and out of the Dangerous Writers workshop before finishing the book.

As it turns out, I still have yet to get to the end of the story, because that breakneck freight train has turned into a trilogy. True Love Scars is book one in the Freak Scene Dream Trilogy, a story about Michael Stein, a 19 year old "freakster bro" at the brink of the seventies, doing drugs, obsessing over music and pining for his "Visions of Johanna Chick" - Visions of Johanna after the Dylan song. Dylan is God to Michael Stein, a god almost as important as the narrator's quest for what he calls the "authentic real" - or his quest for the perfect woman:

Ahab got the whale, which is a huge symbol for some unreachable mammoth goal we yearn for, and Columbus gotta prove the world ain’t flat, which is mammoth too, and he runs right into America, and if that ain’t mammoth, nothing is. And Gatsby got Daisy, who’s pretty much the same deal as the whale and America. No disrespect to Daisy, but she’s a symbol too. Well daunting as any of those three might be are my trials regards my Visions of Johanna. I needed a chick bad that fall day. And I’m not talking about getting laid. This was way deeper. I was searching for the key to the rest of my life. If only I could find my Visions of Johanna chick, she’d do for me what Sweet Sarah once did, mirror back to me who I am, and once again I would stand tall. Once again I would be the last freakster bro standing, guns a-blaze.

This is sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, folks, which normally you probably wouldn't think would be my thing, but Goldberg's book is full of a voice that is so breathless and particular and, what attracts me the most, innocent. There is such a sweetness in the narrator, such youthful naive charm under all the F-bombs. (There are lots of F-bombs. Sometimes when he read pages in the Dangerous Writing basement, we'd count the F-bombs.) Michael Stein knows everything there is to know about music and the music scene. He's a walking encyclopedia of rock 'n' roll. But there's so much that he doesn't know. And it's in what Michael Stein doesn't know that the story finds its heartbreaking charm - and, of course, its danger.

I didn't know the hellfuck of what the next years would bring. You can’t know. If you did it would be too much to bear. There’s this Chet Baker album called Let’s Get Lost. Well that year, the year that began that day I met Lord Jim, we were all looking for a way out. Me and Lord Jim, and the others. You’ll meet them. None of us ready to feel. The drugs and booze and cigarettes and coffee and music and sex—all the ways we didn't feel. Well there were times when the future leaked out. When we had to feel something. Mostly it was let’s get lost. We tried so hard. To feel nothing.

True Love Scars is a crazy ride. And a thoroughly dead-on look at what it was like to be young and yearning and out of control and freakster hip in the late sixties and early seventies. You can check it out here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

a moment in the day: picking up nicholas

Finally home from our trip to Seattle, we sit on the hard, wooden benches in the little waiting area at the vet's, staring at the open door just past the reception counter. We've paid the bill for Nicholas' boarding and now it's been five whole minutes, and they haven't brought us our dog yet. And that couple. The guy in the brown slacks and the girl in the jeans and sandals and qué será, será tattooed on the side of her foot. They're standing in my way. Between me and the door where, any second now, one of the ladies is going to appear with my precious doggy.

Tattoo foot lady is completely blocking my view.

I should say what will be will be, but goddamn it, I've been waiting for this moment.

I lean over and whisper in Stephen's ear, "She's blocking my view!"

I shift on the bench and try to look around her, but even though I can see through the door when I'm slanty (see through to where the ladies in back are milling around and decidedly not rushing to bring me my dog), it's ticking me off that I also have to have madame qué será, será right there in the almost middle of my vision. In a moment, I get up and move down to the next bench, where I have a clean shot again. Fuck you, qué será, será. 

Stephen laughs, hesitates, finally joins me on the second bench. We sit and stare at the open door.

We sit and stare at the open door.

Under his breath, in a very quiet sort of low growl, Stephen says, "Give me my dog."

Qué será, será takes a couple meandering steps and suddenly - yes, of freaking course - she's standing right between me and door AGAIN.

I lean over and whisper in Stephen's ear, "Oh my god, oh my god."

Under his breath, "Give me my dog."

Now one of the ladies appears in the angelic light of the open door. For one tiny moment, I'm filled with joy.

Then I see that it's not a beautiful caramel-colored perfect-miniature-deer-like Chihuahua but some scruffy, bedraggled runt of a fluffball being returned to Qué será even though we got here first.

"There, now," the vet lady tells Qué será and Mr será as she lifts over the dog into the woman's arms, "keep a good eye on this tube. It's to drain the fluid. But he should be just fine."

"Oh, what a good boy," Qué será coos at him, "what a brave boy."

OK, I am a jerk.

The couple step toward the exit, and once they're gone, I've forgotten them and whatever their plight may have been and I'm back to staring at the open door.

Low, under Stephen's breath: "Give me my dog."

I mean after all, we've been away from Nicholas for one whole day.