Home appraisal day. Yet another day along the process in which our hopes and expectations surrounding buying the house could crumble. But how amazing and impossible to have gotten this far. At the same time, I've been building a book. Which has meant reading submissions, choosing stories, rejecting stories, editing stories, ordering stories, all of which felt impossible this time last year and here I am on the other side, in final discussions about titles and subtitles with the publisher as the galleys are being prepared.
I walk Nicholas in the morning. Down the marble stairs, through the grand entryway of the apartment where Stephen and I have lived for ten impossible years. Can it really be ten years? Out though the front door, and we turn to the right, stepping under trees. There's a curious sizzling sound, like rain in the tree leaves, but that can't be. I stop and try to figure out where it's coming from. I finally bother to look down. Tiny spots all along the pavement. Step out from under the tree and put my hand out, and there it is, no question: impossible rain coming down from this sky.
OK, now listen to me. If you get a chance to see an Anonymous Theater production, GO. I wish I could tell you all about it and at the end post a link to information about other performances, but this was a one-night-only affair. All I'm going to say is, be on the lookout for the next. I have just had the most fun I've had in a long time.
Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound is such good material, you kind of can't go wrong, but couple it with Anonymous Theater, and you add an extra layer of serious fun. If you don't already know what it is, an Anonymous Theater production is staged entirely with the actors (as you can probably figure out from the name) anonymous. This means not only does the audience not know who the actors are as they sit right there in the seats until their cues, but the actors themselves don't know who they're playing against. All the rehearsals are performed one-on-one with the director. So by the time the cast comes together for the one-night-only performance, it's just as fresh and new to them as it is to you.
Director Darius Pierce (who's also a fantastic and well-known Portland comedic actor) started things off with some remarks and some thank yous, an explanation of Anonymous Theater for any uninitiated, and when he was done speaking I leaned over to my friend and date for the evening and said, "His talk alone is worth the price of admission." Already we were laughing more than you do watching some comedies.
Then the show started. A darkened theater, the sound of birds, and suddenly out of the audience, up pops our first actor. The applause turns to laughter as she goes running down the side of the theater to take her place on stage.
Along with The Real Inspector Hound, we were treated to the ten-minute play On the Porch One Crisp Spring Morning, by Alex Dremann. You think maybe the extra ten-minute play is going to be a throwaway. Oh, but contraire.* It was a hilarious mini-drama between a mother and daughter who happen to be... spoiler alert... spoiler alert... double agents. Or triple agents. Maybe. Or maybe not. It's one perfectly convoluted thing after another, and the two women in the piece (sadly, I can't remember their names, and of course the names are not on the program!) played it with a lovely mix of energetic rage and subtlety. My date for the evening is a writer who has just finished a gorgeous memoir that deals a lot with her own very odd mother, and it was such fun to hear her laughing with relish through the whole piece.
Seriously, when The Real Inspector Hound began, I was worried that it wouldn't be as funny as On the Porch. But the whole evening was smart, clever writing and laughs all the way through. And as I said before, the Anonymous part of it adds a lovely extra layer of energy. I was actually nervous as the lights dimmed and we waited for the first actor to pop up, as if it might turn out to be me. Then, with every actor who jumped up in his or her seat and started running to the stage, I just felt more and more energized.
The way the actors all ran down the aisles, grabbing their props from tables at the base of the stage as they went, added to the liveliness of an already fast-paced, lively play. At times the actors had some fun with the Anonymous-Theater-ness of it all (for instance the housekeeper finding that the apron she'd just picked up from the prop table didn't fit, and finally chucking the thing), and you were never sure if these moments were improvisations or moves planned out between actor and director. Here and there, the actors, witnessing the show fresh, couldn't keep from smiling, themselves.
Stand-outs among the actors. For me, they were... well, unfortunately, again, I can't remember any of the names that were announced at the end of the show (partly because the audience was applauding so vigorously I couldn't always hear). The woman who played Mrs. Drudge. Beautiful timing, sharp-as-a-tack delivery. And the guy who played Simon Gascoyne. Fabulous, particular physical comedian. I so enjoyed watching him that I was very disappointed when he... um, spoiler alert... died.
Or... spoiler alert... the first of him died.
You see, halfway through the show... OK, wait. I suppose I should explain some things first. The Real Inspector Hound is a play-within-a-play kind of play. At the beginning, you're introduced to two theater critics sitting in an audience. You get a bit of their story as they wait for their show to start and then the play, a murder mystery, starts to unfold in front of... both you and the critics watching from their seats at the side of the stage. Hilarity ensues - or continues to ensue... it never stops ensuing - and in a crazy, but beautifully orchestrated twist that would take entirely too long to explain, halfway through the show, the play-within-a-play starts over from the beginning as one of the critics gets pulled into the production. He is now Simon Gascoyne. The murder mystery goes forward a second time with this new Simon.
What audacity, to stage most of an entire play twice in one show. And how fascinating. The Real Inspector Hound is a player's play. An actor's delight, especially when the actors are witnessing the thing fresh, themselves. How interesting to watch two completely talented, completely different actors play the same part.
Actors playing actors, actors playing theater critics playing actors, critics discussing tropes and tropes discussing the world, love, mystery and murder. Layer upon layer. And as I said: especially when produced by Anonymous Theater. Not only is it a play within a play, but it's like an Anonymous Theater within an Anonymous Theater. I started to fall down a laughing vortex, a rip in the space-theater continuum. Here I was, a blogger playing a theater critic, Watching and laughing and trying to find meaning while the audience (and I) laughed at the theater critics trying to find meaning. And the meaning was nothing more than (and most importantly nothing less than) an evening of uproarious laughter, shared with a theater full of people and a good friend. The music of her laughing all tangled up with mine all tangled up with everyone else. There's nothing better.
For more information on Anonymous Theater, check out their website here.
*Yes, I know the phrase isn't actually, "oh, but contraire." It's a family thing.
On Monday, Stephen and I will be seeing The Real Inspector
Hound at the Gerding Theater. I'm so excited. With my editing the next short story anthology for Forest
Avenue Press and our working to buy a house (!), this will be the first play
I'll have the privilege of writing about in a long time. Now, we were lucky enough to
have a chance to get out last Saturday and see a bit of Shakespeare in the Park—A
Midsummer Night's Dream with the multitalented Kallan Dana as Hermia—but unfortunately, I just didn't have time to sit down and write a thorough post
about it. But I will say it was a total delight, with a bit of modern spice
thrown in, and lots of zaniness.
Interestingly, there was a tiny bit of parallel between A
Midsummer Night's Dream and Monday night's The Real Inspector Hound. That is,
of course, that both plays were written by Tom Stoppard. No. But from where we
sat on lawn chairs in the park last Saturday, we had a good view of the back of a big guy
in the audience sitting in his own lawn chair, laughing delightedly and
periodically shouting something funny at the players on stage. Then in the
middle of the proceedings, up he pops—and here was Puck, tricking us already
by pretending to be an audience member.
The Real Inspector Hound is being put on by Anonymous Theater. I saw one of their productions once before and LOVED it. In an Anonymous Theater production, all the actors
are sitting anonymously in the audience and you have no idea if you're sitting
right next to one of the players until he or she suddenly pops up and delivers
the first line from right there in the seats. No matter what play you're
seeing, there's this added excitement that comes from the not-knowing—and also
this lovely sense of inclusiveness, like the entire theater is part of the
The Anonymous Theater production I saw before was Macbeth
and I was pretty sure the friend who invited us, the immensely talented
Christine Calfas, was going to be in the show. Little did I know she was
playing Lady Macbeth herself. It was a total thrill when she popped up and called
out her first line, but the most interesting moment of the evening, beyond the
beautifully presented play itself, was when the actor playing Macbeth jumped up from his seat in the house and Christine, still sitting next
to me, let out a gasp and involuntarily pounded her chest with her fist because she was so
excited to find out, right then and there, that the man she was playing
opposite was an actor she knew and loved.
Yes, even the actors don't know who they're playing against.
Which means they have NEVER rehearsed together. This is so fascinating to me. Rehearsals for The Real Inspector Hound have been going on two-by-two. Just one actor and director
Darius Pierce, going through lines and blocking and only anticipating the rest of the cast. It's quite a feat to mount a production like this, and Anonymous Theater does it masterfully—giving you, in the end, a show that is amazingly tight but full of a freshness that comes from top-notch actors pushing their limits right in the moment.
If you're intrigued, check it out. Monday night at the Gerding Theater, 7:00. Along with The Real Inspector Hound, you get the ten-minute play On the Porch One Crisp Spring Morning by Alex Dremann. More information on Anonymous Theater is here.
I had more than the usual excitement and anxiety starting work on the book cover design for the upcoming Forest Avenue Press title The Remnants by Robert Hill. A first for me: it's a book I've known for quite some time, since before FAP signed it to be published. Robert's first novel, When All Is Said and Done (Graywolf Press), was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Award and is a knockout. And The Remnants is one of the most unique and beautiful books I've ever read.
So you get a better idea of the themes I was mulling, here's the description of the book:
The town of New Eden, peopled with hereditary oddities, has arrived at its last days. As two near-centenarian citizens prepare for their annual birthday tea, a third vows to interrupt the proceedings with a bold declaration. The Remnants cartwheels rambunctiously through the lives of wood-splitters, garment-menders, and chervil farmers, while exposing an electrical undercurrent of secrets, taboos, and unfulfilled longings. With his signature wit and wordplay, Robert Hill delivers a bittersweet gut-buster of an elegy to the collective memory of a community.
Finally, I started thinking about what the title really means. The Remnants. It's such a perfect title because it means one thing and it means one thing more and it means one thing more. The people in New Eden are definitely remnants, the last vestiges of a larger community. Broken-off pieces of a larger world. But in the lives of these people, too, memories are half-forgotten remnants. Old wishes and longings are half-buried remnants. Here at the end of things, there's not much left that isn't fractured and mostly lost. But even so, you can see the persistent power of life reaching up even as the last of New Eden is crumbling away.
As the wind picks up and the sky grays over, Kennesaw trudges the remaining miles into town, catching his breath by the hole in the stone wall at Nedewen Field where dust returns to dust. He passes the broken stone markers that show their old age like chipped teeth in a mouth full of mourning, and lays to rest the memories of those who have gone before him. He continues on down the gravel road and crosses the tangled patch that had once been the village green, and past the strip of acre beside the barn behind True’s house where the prized row of Granny-Macs once stood. It’s taken him all of the morning and most of the afternoon and much of the last ninety-nine years to reach here. The weather is due to turn calamitous. Kennesaw runs a moist hand across his moist scalp as he continues on his way to True’s. He approaches her plain front gate where he rests a moment before starting up again and making his way up her walkway and onto her front stone slab, which is only a pebble less settled than his.
One arm pumping and then the other. One leg shuffling and then the other. One ache and then another and then another and then another. And this is how the aged walk into heaven.
He’s ninety-nine. It’s been a long journey. Tea sounds good to him.
The Remnants will be out March 2016. For more info on this and Forest Avenue Press' other titles, check out their website here.
Recently, I had the privilege of designing the front cover for Liz Prato's upcoming collection of short stories, Baby's on Fire, due out in May from Press 53.
What a great title. I knew they didn't want actual fire in the design, and I agreed that fire would be too on the nose, but I had an instant thought about what I'd do as soon as I started mulling things over.
Here's the original photo I used for the design, which I found at the very wonderful Morguefile. You'll see I rotated it and added some more to the background and then altered the wisp of smoke at the top. Oh, and got rid of the candle or stick of incense or whatever that is, along with its shadow.
Really, it was three things that gave me the inspiration for the cover design. One was the quality of Liz' writing, and I think you'll get what I'm saying when you see the design. The second was the fire in the title, for sure. Third had to do with one of the elements you find on the covers of most books of fiction out there. I don't know if there's a term for this thing. The tiny text placed somewhere on the design, which says, "a novel" or "stories."
Not long ago, I had some back and forth with publisher Laura Stanfill (for whom I design book covers for her press Forest Avenue Press) about this element in book covers and whether it's necessary, helpful, a waste of space, a distraction from the design or what. Personally, I like it. It's cute and does help a reader know the kind of book they're buying - but mostly I like it because often book designers use it in fun, clever ways.
With Baby's on Fire, I used the tiny word "stories" as, not an incidental, tertiary part of the design, but one of the most important elements of the cover, which I hope conveys the power of these stories. Because it's not just Baby who's on fire; it's these stories.
Here's a sample from the book, to show you what I mean. Spoiler alert: f-bomb coming:
...and while he fucks Shelby she looks up at the sky and notices it for the first time: you can see stars here. All of them. Every star that was ever made, whether it still exists or not, looks down at Shelby in the back of the brown pick-up truck, and they don’t twinkle or glow or any of those other things you expect stars to do. They just burn. Baby's on Fire will be out in May from Press 53.
The lovely Valentine's Day breakfast Stephen made us is all eaten and both bowls licked by a happy dog, and we sit up in bed, glasses of mango juice and cava. He hands me the card he made me. I hand him the card I made him. We open them simultaneously, laugh and start making comments just about simultaneously. Read the sweet notes inside. Nicholas curled up in the hole made my Stephen's half-crossed legs. We talk about the cards. Share a quick clink of glasses.
"So," I say. "Is it time to go show off?"
As Stephen said when he posted my card image on facebook: "Oh, yes, it's that time again, because our love ain't real if it ain't shared on FB!"
And my blog, apparently. Here's a little more detailed post to show off even a little more.
Stephen's card to me started with this glamorous and iconic picture of Marlene Dietrich.
In a way, our cards to each other are like his paintings and my writing - a way to be what we wish we could be, and a lot of the time, it's all about glamour.
Speaking of glamour, below is the original image he used for his second element in the card. La Crawford.
[as a side-note, often when i type the name joan crawford, it comes out crawrod. i don't know why.]
He eliminated Crawford this time around and just nabbed that lovely, very old-Hollywood plaster column shaped like feathers. The finished product:
Of course, he's lying when he says I never neglect my glamour. It's lovely to have a husband with such skillz, to Photoshop me some glamour now and then.
The detail (Can you tell where I end and Dietrich begins? Nope.):
For my card this year, it was easy to be timely. Stephen's been spending the last couple weeks on stage at the Keller Auditorium supering for the opera Carmen. Tonight is closing night, in fact. I found this lovely old theatrical poster from 1896.
Had to do some work on her very interesting hairline and remake some of the letters to get his name in there. What was the most fun about doing this was that the original picture of Stephen was in black and white and I had to work to colorize it the way I wanted so that it would blend in with the poster. Then I remembered we originally took the picture in color. Oops.
We had fantastic seats for The Portland Opera's dress rehearsal for Carmen at the Keller Auditorium. Front row, pretty much center in the first balcony. Perfect to get a wide view of the action and great for my date for the evening, a friend who's a musician, because we also had a great view into the orchestra pit. Waiting for the performance to start, we were talking his expertise: percussion, tympani, the exactness of rhythm. He told me of the importance of the tambourine. He gave me beautiful insights into, and way heightened my appreciation of the triangle. Seriously. When the show started my body plugged into the current of that rousing first overture and ran circuits directly to the gorgeous little ping of the triangle and the smash of the cymbals.
I'd never seen Carmen all the way through but after having supered in The Portland Opera's last production of Carmen, this show felt equal parts completely new to me and like an old friend. I knew the story inside and out and not at all. Not, at least, as a viewed-in-chronological-order thing. Seeing it this way, from the outside, all the way through, with those gorgeous sets and costumes and lighting, wow what a show.
Even though it was dress rehearsal, the singers were for the most part singing full out, and beautifully. I thought Sandra Piques Eddy's rich, hefty mezzo fit Carmen's role really well. All the singing was beautiful, particularly Chad Shelton's Don José - and the fabulous chorus whose voices filled the Keller up. It's a production all about bigness - all those voices, the lovely sets, the added touches like the flamenco dancers (who did a fabulous percussive turn during the changeover from act three to act four). There's also a whole lot of sexy in this production. Sandra Piques Eddy is very sexy as she taunts Don José, particularly in a moment when she's sprawled out on the steps of the factory, tied at the wrists, a prisoner who's nevertheless turning that rope into something extremely seductive.
Of course, my star of the show, or at least the performer I'd really come to see, was Stephen, who got to super in this production (his second Carmen) (jealous). When the solders came marching down the ramp from the top of the stage in their big hats and orange plumes, both my friend and I leaned forward in our seats, trying to spot which one was Stephen. He'd told me his was the only hat with a brass button on it, and yep, there he was: I could see that button flashing into the balcony.
But I would have had an absolute blast at Carmen had I not had a husband in the show. It's a huge, gorgeous, beautifully sung, beautifully played, beautifully staged production and of course one of the most accessible operas in the world to boot.
[Look! There's Stephen dead center in back, tallest of the picadors.]
There are two performances left: Thursday and Saturday. More info is here. If you go, look for a brass button and listen for the triangle.