Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Play at Home at Portland Center Stage


During this time when packing into a theater isn't a smart and safe option, Portland Center Stage has been finding creative ways to keep the theatrical arts alive. One cool thing they've gotten involved in is Play At Home. Here's what they say on their website about the program:

Play at Home was developed to inspire joy and connection during this period of social isolation. More than 100 playwrights have been commissioned nationwide, resulting in $50,000 paid to playwrights during this difficult time when we can't gather together in theaters. The plays are all available for FREE at playathome.org.

I love this idea. Not only is it a way for playwrights to continue working their craft, but anyone who wants can read the play scripts or even put on a show in their living room or stage a reading across Zoom screens with these brand new short plays.

If you're missing the theater, check these out: four short plays up on Portland Center Stage's website. There are even a couple performance videos you can watch. I took them all in and it was a really interesting experience. Each of these short plays was written during social isolation and they all reflect our times in different ways. Since it's been a while since I've had a chance to see and share my thoughts about theater, I thought I'd say a little about each of these.

Three Love Songs by Anya Pearson is as much poetry as play, an anthem to survival and to silence and to voice. Although it was written before the current rise in awareness and action surrounding Black Lives Matter, it speaks to this moment:

In some houses, children are taught that lack/fear/loss/less is their birthright 
The way some children are taught that privilege is theirs.

And farther down:

If you are feeling hopeless or enraged 
because you are a person of color and you are tired of having to explain WHY our lives should matter, 

or because this all could have been handled better so that people didn’t have to die, 

or because you are a survivor and you live each day waging war on silence and stillness and the night
and this whole thing feels so fucking familiar, and yet 
the outcome is already assured, 
and sometimes you just feel a bit hollow where faith should rest...

(I know I didn't let the author finish her thought, but I just love that last bit of language: a bit of hollow where faith should rest.)

Pearson packs many important topics into her examination of quarantine lifeincluding a focus on the way our stresses dampen the creative spirit and, conversely, the way the creative spirit can save the soul during these stressful times.

A Wing and a Prayer by Josie Seid is a modern feminist fairy tale that turns the Cinderella story on its head as a group of women on their way out to a lecture get sidelined by an unexpected visit from a behind-the-times fairy godmother harboring a wish of her own.

It's a bubbly story full of humorand by god, we need humor right now. Along with the play script, this entry has a video you can watch with a cast of characters performing via Zoom. It's a good example of what you could do if you got a group of friends together (together in air quotes) to put on some theater of your own.

There's a very interesting shared element between A Wing and a Prayer and The Third Prisoner by E. M. Lewis. I'm not going to disclose it because spoilers, but reading these plays back to back, I loved discovering the serendipitous overlaps, and this one in particular.

The Third Prisoner takes our anxieties about pandemic life and places them in a literal prison where two, and then three, prisoners are held captive together. I loved the surreal tone of this play, and the dialogue is snappy and smart and funny.

PRISONER #8836729 Wake up. 
PRISONER #4588930 I don’t want to wake up. 
PRISONER #8836729 I don’t want to be alone anymore. 
PRISONER #4588930 You can talk to me while I sleep. Quietly. Very quietly. 
PRISONER #8836729 I want you to talk back. 
PRISONER #4588930 I hate you. 
PRISONER #8836729 I know. 
PRISONER #4588930 I was trying to have a dream. 
PRISONER #8836729 Was it working?

In the middle of the witty back-and-forth and the wonderfully quiet surreality of the situation, The Third Prisoner explores topics of anxiety and identity and asks the question what would be worse: being stuck together forever or always being alone.

Joy Frickin’ Hates Her Dumb Stupid Room: A Trapped Little Play for Trapped Little Times by Sara Jean Accuardi examines quarantine life in a different way: through the interactions between a thirteen-year-old girl and her hamster who may or may not also be the fifteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.

I loved the inventiveness of this play, and it's funny throughout, even down to the stage directions, like this description of the character Joy:

Can be played by absolutely anyone who sorta feels like they're 13 and really over this whole thing.

Show of hands of people who could play this one?

Within the deadpan humor and the wackiness of the premise, Joy Frickin’ Hates Her Dumb Stupid Room gives us lots to think about, and deftly allows us to share our frustrations and our stress surrounding these strange shelter-in-place times while at the same time reminding us of our privilege. 

With humor and poetry and smarts and lots of different kinds of magic, the four plays that have come out of PCS's partnering with Play at Home are a great way to get a little bit of theater back into your life. Reading these scripts reminded me of what a particular experience it is to read, rather than see and hear, theater. I like that the writers put personality into even their stage directions, and I like that sets and casts started to materialize in my mind as I read. Side note: my husband and I have been binge watching the show Pose, and somehow as I was reading A Wing and a Prayer, the lines started to come out in my head as recited by characters in that show, and I think Dominique Jackson would make a great Begonia, just saying.

If you want to check it out, links to all the play scripts and playwright bios and more info on Play at Home is up on Portland Center Stage's website here.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

in honor of father's day: a couple old diary entries about my dad

In honor of Father's Day, I thought I'd look back into some of my early diaries and pull out some passages about him, like I sometimes do. But I think I've used up all the fun material I have in my kid diaries about him so I thought I'd look through a few from when I was an adult, and I found two passages to share. The first, from 2012, was about a phone conversation he and I had when I was writing an ebook about how to be an accountant. One of the things I had to do in writing the book was interview three different accountants and edit the interviews to have them tell their story in their own words. I can't remember whether Dad didn't want to be one of those profiles or if I chose not to use him because we have the same last name and that would look like cheating (probably the latter) but I called him to get a good rundown on the subject.

The second entry, from 2007, was from when Dad and I discovered the computer game Second Life. Actually, I misspoke in the entry and called it New Life. If you don't know what it is... well, I think I explain it well enough in the entry, actually, that I'm must going to shut up and let my thirty-eight-year-old self do the work.

~

July 24, 2012
I forget what day it was, but I had a long conversation with Dad, like an hour, about accounting. He explained so much and make things actually kind of clear to me—his way of explaining was so good, and I wished I could have interviewed him. Because he was that good—he explained it so well but also made it interesting, was voicy about it. Was kind of the perfect combination. He called himself a one-stop-comptroller… or something. A quote I actually pulled and used in my intro. The way things morph and change, who knows if all the work I did on the book so far will even stay, but it felt good at the time, finding an intro out of the blue, after talking to Dad. And just a nice time talking to Dad.

October 9, 2007
So I couldn't call Dad on Saturday but we had a long conversation. So nice. I keep thinking about how little I see him. Well, he's got this game he's playing right now, on computer, called New Life. Where a world is created and you get to be a character and go around in this world. Well, it seems there are over 9 million people in the Linden world. And Dad's one of them. And now I am and now Stephen is. 
 
It's too cool. A lot of fun and interesting but also, and for me mostly, it's this way to hang out with my dad and it's almost like being with him. The first morning I was on Orientation Island and just walking around but then Dad friended me and sent me a teleport to the house he's building and all of the sudden I was "there" with him. He was all gray at first. Took a while to fill in. But then we were talking. And for me, instant messaging is pretty foreign, so this was a big step up from email. And talking back and forth about this thing he's interested in, and he was showing me his windows and how he'd made the texture in Paint Shop Pro. 

We wanted to find out if my body would just sit there in suspended animation when I logged off, so Dad logged off and then came back. He's Lundon Little. I don't know how he got Little for a last name and there was no Little in the list when I chose. I chose Willikers Littlething. Willikers for the old nickname he had for me and still sometimes uses.

My brown-haired purple shirted character stood there and waited for him and when he returned he seemed to sort of leap into existence, and at first he was gray and at first he had a woman's body and these prominent boobs. Then it morphed into the character of Lundon Little and the color came in. I told him about the boobs. He said, what, I had boobs? And I laughed. You click one thing and the character puts her hands on her belly and throws her head back and laughs. You hear it. That was so funny again I had to say something about it like, "Oh my god, that is so funny!" And then Lundon Little laughed. Hands on the belly and head thrown back and laughing. The two of us laughing in real life and laughing in cyberspace, sharing a laugh together.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

a moment in the day: delivery


Nicholas is barking in the hysterical way he barks when there's a knock on the door, and I follow him quick down the stairs, hoping to pick him up before Stephen answers the door.

Normally these pandemic days, I'd be afraid to answer the door, but I did order some Vegemite, and I got a confirmation email that it was on its way. They'd just knock and leave it on the porch.

Still, doggy in arms, now, I stop. Stephen and I hesitate, neither touching the knob.

"It's probably just my Vegemite," I say.

When Stephen opens the door and we peak out, there's a small box sitting on the porch. On the top it says, "Fat Cupcake."

I say, "Kathleen!"

Now I understand the cryptic text my friend sent me about a "delivery" a little earlier in the evening. Cupcakes from her and from my writing group. For my birthday.

In these fraught times, the gesture gives me a slug of pure joy in my belly.

In the street, a house and a half down, a car is making a U-turn. What kind of car does Kathleen drive? Neither Stephen nor I have our glasses on. I wave big as the car makes its turn and comes back to pass in front of our house. Stephen tells me the driver is waving so I wave bigger, making thank you gestures, and then they're gone.

I take my cupcakes inside.

"I think that was a man," Stephen says.

Yeah. I'm pretty sure I just blew a kiss at the delivery man.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Anxiety Society pin


I recently had a design job that was very close to my heart. I was asked to design a pin for one of my favorite organizations, Create More, Fear Less. I can't say enough about Create More, Fear Less. It was inspired by Kathleen Lane's experience with anxiety and the connections she made with kids she met while visiting schools with her book The Best Worst Thing. Through workshops both in-person and remote as well as through projects kids can do on their own, Create More, Fear Less inspires kids to explore, create, share, and find their way through fear.

Check it out. It's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

The pin I designed is a limited-edition membership pin for members of the Anxiety Society, a community of supporters who help fund the great things Create More, Fear Less does.

I knew this would be a simple design, mostly text arranged within a shape, but sometimes the simple stuff can take some doing. How can you get the most out of the smallest space, the barest of elements?

Graphic novelist Jonathan Hill, one of the many artists and writers who have designed and executed workshops for Create More, Fear Less, suggested that the pin be reminiscent of old secret society pins or decoder rings. I loved that idea.



We looked at symbols that might suggest this type of thing. The eye of Horus, stars, radiating lines, hands, triangles, keys, wings... We liked the idea of an eye because it might symbolize imagination, the mind, vision. I thought radiating lines would be a great visual element and also communicate light, growth, something positive coming from something else. Kathleen suggested an icon that might look like both a paintbrush and a torch. Maybe emerging from the eye.

It was really fun collaborating with Kathleen on this design, lobbing ideas back and forth and refining as we went. I started by spacing out the words Create More, Fear Less in a ring around the outside and placing the main text Anxiety Society in the middle. Seeing that the words Anxiety and Society each have the letter I at their centers, I tried lining those up and connecting them, turning them together into the torch/paintbrush. It took some work because the letter Is were not dead center and did not exactly line up. In the font I was using, some letters, like X were wider than others, like E and T. I had to convert the letters from live font into shape and then tweak them. Then I decided to go with a different font and started that process over again.

As is not uncommon in my design work, the idea got more and more distilled as I tinkered. The icons were looking too clunky and getting in the way of the important message of the words. It was hard to make the paintbrush/eye combo read. In the end both the paintbrush and the eye went away and just the radiating lines remained, with a few stars as accents. We'd started with a concept that was embedded in the past and ended up with something modern that still has a hint of its secret society roots.

Some samples along the journey from beginning to end.


After a lot of discussion on color, we settled on our design.


These babies are now newly-minted and ready to go out to members of the Anxiety Society in thanks for their support of Create More, Fear Less. I'm so honored to have been able to contribute a little something of my own. If you're interested in being part of the Anxiety Society and helping Create More, Fear Less do the wonderful things they do (and getting one of these pins to boot), there's more information here.










Saturday, May 9, 2020

On the occasion of her fiftieth birthday, some passages about my cousin Heather in my old kid diaries, with the spelling and punctuation errors intact


[When I talk about "towns," it's a game we used to play where we each had a tiny town made up of tiny toys. When I talk about the McLittle Theatre, that was what we kids called ourselves when we performed plays and made the grown-ups watch.]

1978

May 13—today I went to Magic Mtn. I went on the revalusion. We saw a lady and a man fighting seamed like killing. Heather came too and Shena, Mara, Edina. Heather's birthday party.


1979

August 28—Dear Mandy, I went to the beach with Heather, Edina, Ryan and Tom. I cought 5 sand crabs. Heather caught 55.


1981

April 14—I am at Heather's house. I went to Swensons with her then to rolar rink. We spyed on people and we played shoot the duck. My spy person was in back of me. Heather spyed people. first one went off. Heather spyed the other. She went off. They were sisters or they liked each other.

May 24—Heather came over and we had a party. We played towns and our town adopted 2 kids Kitty cats had a baby.

June 25—Today's Mara's Birthday. I invited her to my party so she invited me to hers. Heather's at our house. She and I are making a book. it's really good. Maybe we'll get it published. Wish us good luck. 

December 28—Heather is here. We found out that our favorite Beatle Paul McCartney's 1st name is James.


1982

August 5—I went to "Marie Calenders" restraunt. I had stew & boysinberry pie mmm! My town is having a musical. I love most of my songs & most of the play..it's called "Best of Friends." The "Twilight Zone" today was good, about a dead man going to heaven. "Heather's town" is doing a musical too "not just another Monday" A song in my musical is Johnathan and its so pretty.

August 10—I saw "E.T." for my 3rd time. I laughed and cried so much. We (Heather & I) are writing letters to Henry Thomas, Stephen Spielburg, Drew Barrymore and other people in "E.T." I sure hope-wish-that we get letters or autographed pictures of them.

November 2—Morning: I remembered how Heather was singing "Johnathan" & "Remember Me" in school & her friend liked it so much that she asked for the words & always sings it. I'll try it at school. Night: I did my gene's report. I put words to some tunes I have. "Why can't there ever be a way," "Fortune & fame" & "What about me?" I made up a new story of how Gayle, Kristin, Tanya & I start a singing group.

December 30—Heather & I made contracts & screen tests for Edina & Frankie for McLittle theatre. We made a logo. We want to get buisness cards made. We're going to pay employees. 


1983

January 15—I saw "Time Bandits" a movie about a little boy who goes back in time. I loved it! We thought of a whole new plot (play) "ERA" (When women take over the earth & Heather & I (men) take a space shuttle & hit a time warp.)

January 21—...Heather & I went downstairs (Almost 12:00) to make a special drink for the McLittle Theatre's party. Dad came down & Heather saw his Head Around the door & screamed. I turned & saw Him & screamed. Our drink is milk vanilla extract & sugar.

March 1—My life is like a musical. A long time ago I sang a circus song. Frankie & his friend were making a circus for Heather & I to see. I got up and started singing about what you need for a circus. Heather joined in on a 2nd verse and we sang just like a musical. I loved it. I've sang about what to do (A song called "What shall we do today", I've sang about when Mom wouldn't understand me (A song called "What do you mean by that) etc. I always just sing. My life is a musical.

May 29—We swam in the lake again. Today I lost one of my ear plugs in the water. Heather & Frankie made up a "Star Wars" presentation & after it we came home. Tonight, Mara & Heather spent the night. We swam in the pool. We watched part of "The Blue & the Grey", I turned it off & I went to sleap.


1984

April 22, 84. Heather came over Sat. She had a great time. We watched 'Carrie' and then at night, we closed the window shades, turned off the lights, and watched 'The Shining'. That was such a scary movie that today mom told us she was lying in bed in her room listening to us scream. Heather & I clung together for dear life and dear sanity. It was maybe the scariest movie I have ever seen.
(June 7) Well, last night was the N.O.W dinner with Barbara Streisand. First, mom & I rode down to Heather's house with our clothes and everything. We got dressed & made our selves beautiful. (I went & got a dress at the mall with mom) at Heather's. A long, blue limosine picked us up and we started for the place. There were 4 seats in the back, 2 facing each other and the other 2 facing each other. We drank virgin Marys from the limo while Mom & Kathy drank champagne. It was raining. People would watch to see if we were anybody famous. We walked in after leaving instructions with our shofer (however the hell you spell it), Rob. The place was packed. I had a ginger ale & we found our seats. Dinner wasn't very great. We had dry chicken breasts with the bones still inside and some rice. Heather & I got served white wine with it. Then Heather & I decided to walk to the bathroom. In the bathroom, Heather was waiting on a stall and out came Barbara Streisand. I brushed her arm slightly as she rushed past & Heather sat on the same toilet. 
 
(Oct 7 8:53 (AM) ...After I finished clearing the table, Kathy, Mike, and Dad began to talk about something and Mom, Heather, and I began to talk about ourselves. Mom said I was intelligent, friendly, introverted, thoughtful, and that I don't exactly know who I am yet. She said Heather was intelligent, nice, and shy in that she hides her shyness behind Paula Pokrifki and Jane Barnhart and all the other names she uses. Everything Mom said was true.

Dec 8 9:10 AM. Right now, I'm over at Heather's lake house. We all went to Louise's last night (except Edina who was too sick) and Heather and I sat a little two-table. I was telling her all about Tricia and about my meditating and my self hypnosis. She told me that once, a long time ago, she was trying to telekinetically move a cup (as I always do) and she thinks she jiggled it! I like being able to talk to her about this kind of thing. Because, I can't talk to Tricia about it because it's more of a game to her (Tricia).

I have to write, now, about one of the things Heather and I discussed. The only E.S.P. I happen to possess is shared with Heather. When I was writing my first version of Toybox, Heather was writing another book of the same plot. Toybox is about some people who find out about the world going to be destroyed and they build a shelter under ground and wait the war out. Heather, without knowing anything about my book, started writing the same sort of story except her people hid out in a space ship. That is #1! I hadn't told her about it all! Next, I was writing Armistice and there was a character called Shark who was really mean and called people names like ''flea's snot'. Heather, at the same time, was writing Chapter 1 in which there was a sleazy character who was in the story for about the same amount of time and who spoke the same way. Thirdly, When I wrote my rat story, Heather was writing one and the main character happened to be named Cissy and one character in my rat story was named Sissy (same name, different spelling) but that's not all! Cissy went to work in a soda shop owned by a man named Mr. O.Reily who was an irish man, described almost exactly like a man in my rat book named Mr. O'Malley. Mr. O'Malley owned a restaurant called (I think) O'Malleys where the star, (Loraine) of the rat story worked. Also working there was Sissy, Mr. O'Malley's daughter.---

Sunday, May 3, 2020

book cover: wife | daughter | self


In designing the cover for the upcoming Forest Avenue Press book Wife | Daughter | Self, by Beth Kephart, I got to work with some really elegant art.

Here's what the publisher has to say about the book:

Wife | Daughter | Self is an exploration of the composite self—and the people we become in relationship to others. Married to a spectacular Salvadoran artist with fantastical stories of his youth, Kephart, in Wife, sets out to understand what makes love last. A near replica of her father—his face, his discipline, his crippling anxiety—Kephart, in Daughter, takes a journey with him into heartbreaking transitions—loss of spouse, loss of family home, loss of health—and emerges with deepened affection and respect. Finally, alone with a page and pen, Kephart, in Self, comes to terms with the person she wishes she had been and the person there might be room, still, to become.

For the cover, it felt natural that we feature art by Beth's artist husband William Sulit, who is such a prominent figure in the book. He gave me these beautiful pieces to work with:


(With the backgrounds already photoshopped out—thank you!)

He also gave us some lovely art for the interior, which included some captions in an elegant font I really loved, and which I figured should also be used on the cover.

So there I was with the art and the font just gifted to me. My task was to figure out the best way to use them: how to lay it out, what colors to use. It's a little nerve-wracking working with another artist's art. Is what I come up with going to honor that art? How do I marry my own vision to his vision, not to mention Beth's vision as writer and publisher Laura Stanfill's vision as publisher?

I worked in threes a lot when tinkering with this cover. There are three parts to the book, three selves that Beth explores. When I worked with that top image, the flowers with stems, I generally arranged three on a page, and when I worked with the mandala-like flower, I gave it three different colors, or three distinct shades of the same color, for its three different layers.



There is something so modern about the upright lines punctuating the title of Beth's book.

Wife | Daughter Self. 

Yet something old fashioned about the lovely font and beautifully rendered art. When I first started tinkering, I wasn't sure these elements would work together on the cover. I was pleasantly surprised when they did.

Side note: just now when I went to write the above, I thought, does it feel negative to use the term old fashioned? I paused and looked up some synonyms to see if I could find something better:

antiquated, historical, olden, traditional, moldy, obsolete, rinky-dink, fusty, moth-eaten, hoary, musty, stodgy, fossilized, antediluvian...

Um, no.

What I was trying to get at was something more like what this artwork is, which is timeless. And the perfect complement to Beth's writing, which is both spare and lush somehow, also timeless somehow.

It was a joy to work with William's art, to arrange and rearrange across the page. Here are some of my samples. As you'll notice, there were a few layouts I came up with that I really liked that only used two flowers, but in the end, the rule of threes seemed most suited.


Once we had a consensus as to which layout to go with...


...we went a little deeper into color. Beth and William liked blues. We consulted with our distributor and they liked the blues but favored deepening the background color. In the meantime we got a real blurb to replace my stand-in, and I played around further with the placement of the secondary text so we could add a mention that Beth is a National Book Award finalist (!).

And one last important change: I took the stems of the trio of flowers and intertwined them. After all, these are three selves intertwined in one.


Wife Daughter | Self is due out in February of 2021. More info can be found on the Forest Avenue Press website. And more info on Beth Kephart and her wonderfully prolific career can be found here. Some more art by William Sulit is here. Here's a little taste from the book.

You have blunt bangs, too-big teeth, uncurvy lips, scabbed knees. Your brother is the genius one. Your sister is the last. You are in between and unspectacular and (besides) no longer good, and so you riddle things up, you confuse them with your tattling elongations. Though you must confess that you have never gotten used to thisyour heart still pounds and your face still heats and maybe your eyes still acquire their demonic glow (you’re not sure) whenever you do lie. Easy to do but not easy to live with, lying is, and the lies are changing, the lies are changing you. You’re getting older. You’re weaving a web. The web is sticky, sometimes it catches you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

a moment in the day: bird


When I step downstairs to get a glass of water, I hear, out through the open back door, a bird singing in the trees. Its song is sharp and clear.

Twee-twee... twip-twip-twip... sweeeeee.

Each time it sings, the song is different. Sometimes little buzzy sounds at the edges of things, sometimes a long, lilting whistle at the end.

Barooo-twip, twee-twee... bip-bip-bip-bip sweeeeee.

It's unlike any bird sound I recognize. I go to the door, stand in my bare feet, try to find the bird hiding among the leaves in the high branches that frame the yard. I used to fancy myself a birder, but I could never find them no matter how hard I looked. My brain tries to bend this moment into a fantasy, something like those fake stories of the dolphins cavorting in the canals of Venice because humans aren't there to push them away. You hear a lot of stories like that right now, that this pandemic is giving nature a little breather while we're forced into hiding. I want to think some of those stories are true. Animals going where they usually don't go. Things growing. The air sweeter. It only stands to reason. And wouldn't it be lovely if something good happened for this earth, at least for a little while.

It could be true. Some of it could be true.

I've never heard a bird like this in my yard before.

Bip-bip-bareee-twip, beewee-beewee... bip-bip-bip-bip swareeeeee.

Off to the side, through the open door to the studio, Stephen is painting in a shaft of electric light, listening to a podcast about ancient history. The announcer explains that the Aztecs were "hemmed in." That this once proud empire had nowhere left to turn.

"The men," he says, "were forced to make their last stand."

Poo-tee-weet?

I can't find the bird. I turn to go back inside as the podcaster continues musing on how civilizations crumble and fall.