A writer friend of mine, Zach Ellis, is in the middle of experiencing his first acceptance of a piece of his writing. Not only does he get the thrill that brings, but today he gets to read his piece in a big event at the Centre for Contemporary Arts.
He lives here in Portland. When he entered the writing contest, he joked that if he were chosen, maybe he'd make the trip out - and when he was chosen, his friends and his writing community got together to send him there. He's been all over Glasgow, soaking in the culture and scenery, going to museums, and is just four hours away from the big event when he'll read his piece - which you can read an excerpt from here.
[Update: you can listen to the podcast of Zach Ellis' reading, and the rest of the LGBT In Our Own Words event here.]
Following his adventures has gotten me thinking about first publications and how many different ways those experiences can be special. Mine was just four years ago, a short story in the book Portland Noir - and the experience was huge. Alright, I didn't get to go overseas, but I got to sign copies at a packed reading at Powell's City of Books. Got to dress up noir-style in a vintage dress [and crazy lovely vintage hairstyle whipped up by Stephen] and read at a super cool lit event at the Blue Monk. Got to watch the book sit on the Powell's bestseller list for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was the perfect experience for a first publication.
Granted, there was that other time back in 1997. My first picture book, Wright Vs. Wrong. But I didn't used to count that one because the book was put together by what I thought back then must be the smallest publisher ever - and my experience that time around was mostly me wandering through bookstores all across the country and never seeing a copy.
And there was the time back in 1992 or thereabouts when I sold an idea to Gibson Greeting Cards. When I got the acceptance letter I tried to count that as my first publication, but a greeting card is kind of a stretch when you're trying to call yourself a writer, especially when it contains only like ten words. And you never see a copy and seriously have a hunch that they never printed it and the president of Gibson might have accepted your idea just to be nice since he knows your husband.
And there was the time back in, oh, 1984ish when my poem was accepted for publication in the very prestigious American Poetry Anthology - accepted only on the condition that I shell out forty bucks for a copy.
Which I did.
No, I don't count that one either. I do count the picture book, now, though. Getting other, bigger publications has somehow given me a better chance to appreciate that, small as it was, yes, Wright Vs. Wrong counted - and was a sweet, lovely experience for me. Also knowing more about small presses and micro-presses, knowing about things like chapbooks and online journals and reading events and all the myriad ways a writer can have his or her work recognized and enjoyed - I appreciate those early experiences all the more.
That's my story about my first publication[s]. What's yours? Pop over to the comments section and give it to me.
People who know me won't be surprised to find that if I were going to build myself a husband, I'd start with Joan Crawford. I mean the glamorous Joan, not the whole Mommie Dearest thing.
But would I start with young Joan?
Or older Joan?
In putting together this year's Valentine's Day card for Stephen, I went with both. My main image was the early Joan with the heart-shaped hat. I so wish I knew where that lovely photo came from and exactly what year it is. After a long while of looking through pictures of Stephen as Madeleine Prèvert, I found one that seemed to match, angle-wise and lighting-wise, and tipped the face in over Joan's.
But he looked a little sad. Plus, I wasn't completely happy with Joan's hair. Maybe he wasn't either. Which is where the photo of older Joan comes in.
I got a nice, smooth bit of hair from photo number two and then Photoshopped young Joan's mouth back in, plus some shadow along the face from the hat and various tweaks to make it look its best. I wanted the card to be reminiscent of fashion ads from the twenties, so I took the image into Illustrator to finish it off. I love the way a lot of the photos in those old ads are framed.
In his Valentine's Day card to me, Stephen's creativity came from a very different place. I don't have any in-progress versions to show off all the intricate Photoshop work he had to do on his, so I'll just give it to you as I saw it.
And a detail on the inside.
Stephen as Hercules.
By way of I Love Lucy.
Plus, as he's pointed out, he kind of looks like Mandy Patinkin from Sunday in the Park with George.
Greek god or Hollywood goddess, lovely or wacky, that's my husband.
When I told Stephen I was getting tickets to the Portland Center Stage production of Venus in Fur, he said, "I hope it's not so sexy it embarrasses me."
I hadn’t thought about that. I’d just heard that Venus in Fur is a play about a playwright / director who’s auditioning actresses for his own play Venus in Fur, based on the nineteenth century novelVenus in Furs (notice the s) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. That sounded innocent enough. Then, working, as I do, at Powell’s, I decided to make a see-the-play-read-the-book shelf tag to post along with copies of the novel in the stores, and I looked up which section the book is kept in.
So: yipe. Sexy embarrasses me when I'm all by myself - I hated to think about what it would do to my wussy self in public.
Come Saturday night, Stephen and I were two prudes off for a night of saucy theater - but the play about the play about the novel that gave masochism its name turned out to be a smart, funny and fascinating study on the subject of power.
Yes, it was also sexy.
The play starts with a crash of thunder and a flickering of the lights in the theater. It's the end of an unsatisfying day of auditioning actresses for his production of Venus in Fur, and director Thomas (David Barlow), alone in his studio, is set upon by the very-late-for-her-appointment actress Vanda. Wet from the downpour, she makes her entrance shouting f-bombs and shaking her fist at the sky, "Thank you, God, once again!" Though Thomas is dead set on not taking one more audition, Vanda begs and banters and charms - and powers her way into reading for him, and Venus in Fur becomes a play within a play, exploring not only the master/slave sadomasochistic relationship in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel but power play in general.
Vanda is hells bells theatrical, a daffy motormouth, a character who, if played just a titch differently, could easily be annoying. But Ginny Myers Lee is spot-on funny, and her performance, as it moves through the plot, gets more and more complex and subtle as our perceptions about who she is and what she's doing there change. Both Ginny Myers Lee and David Barlow are really strong actors, and the writing is smart and funny and full of tension.
Pretty much nonstop tension. Which the periodic bursts of thunder and flickering of lights from the storm outside complement nicely, reminding us not only of the physical tension in the air but the power play between gods that seems to arc over the entire play. As Vanda and Thomas banter and struggle and flirt and fight through their own power play and the characters in Thomas' adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's novel move through their own power play, the gods themselves - evoked in Thomas' script and in Thomas and Vanda's dialogue - thunder overhead.
I have to say, if I could see this one again, I would. It was that fascinating. Every turn of the two characters was another way to think about power, to examine and reexamine a subject that's far more complex than you'd think. Beyond the drama and humor and downright entertainment of this play, what I loved most was how it took that theme of power and put a magnifying glass to it - and then a kaleidoscope - and reminded us how every interaction we have is some sort of power play.
The question of power is in more than just the slave-master dance performed by Thomas and Vanda as their reading of Venus in Fur spills out beyond the audition. It's in, for instance, the way Thomas answers his cell phone when his fiancée calls. It's in the simple fact that in her high spike heels, Vanda is taller than Thomas. It's in the tiny feeling of naked in the middle of my chest as I watch Vanda and Thomas disrobe, Vanda into her black leather bra and mini skirt, Thomas simply taking his shirt off. I question myself throughout the performance. What does it mean that that wussy self I mentioned before is more embarrassed when it's the man who's disrobing? What does it mean that I feel embarrassed for the man, in particular, when he's playing the submissive role (a reaction I'm ashamed to admit)? As watcher of the play, how passive do I feel as the one being served the story? How powerful do I feel as the one smart enough to think all the smart thoughts I've been thinking about power while I watch the play, safe in my seat?
As you can see from this post: pretty damn powerful.
Venus in Fur is playing now through March 10th at Portland Center Stage.
The camera is aimed at the back of my head. I stand next to Stephen, posed casually, or what I hope looks casually, staring at the cellists while the crew rolls film. The location is the Blue Sky Gallery, and Stephen and I are working as extras for Northern Flicker Films' first full length feature, The Black Sea.
It's scene seventy. I know this because every time the woman claps that clapper thing she says it's scene seventy.
Stephen and I were the first extras called into the scene, a fact that to me feels very important. Our job has been to step across the gallery with the camera following us and then stop here and watch the cellists while the camera continues on. Between takes, Stephen lifts the back of my hair out from where it's fallen down the neck of my jacket.
Does every kid want to be a movie star?
I was eleven and on a camping trip at a place called Campland on the Bay, and a small film crew was taking shots of the beach for a commercial. I guess we kids were bugging the film crew a little too much, because they gave us a job building a pile of sand for "Friendly the Wolf" to sit on. I was so excited. People watching the commercial were going to see a mound of sand touched and shaped by my own hands. My life was complete. I was a TV star. A little.
I was thirteen and I received an envelope in the mail addressed to me by Steven Spielberg. I was so excited. I'd written a fan letter in hopes of starting up a dialogue with the famous director since I was writing a script for the sequel to the film E.T. When Mr. Spielberg accepted my query, I hoped to star in the film. Inside the envelope was a form response and an invitation to join the E. T. fan club.
I was twenty-two and in Tokyo, Japan, performing as a clown with the circus - well, sort of performing. We were supposed to do a firehouse gag, but the little fire truck hadn't arrived, so Tim was doing a clown number with his trumpet and I was mostly selling programs in the seats and then joining the cast in the ring for finale. I wanted to be in the trumpet number too, but Tim said he didn't need me. After a while, the director of the show came to our little dressing room and asked, hey, why isn't she working? The director spoke to Tim and not to me. My face went hot with shame and hope. So Tim agreed to put me in his trumpet number, where I tromped around the ring and clapped my hands as he played. At some point during the month-long Tokyo run, the entire program was filmed for Japanese television. I was so excited. When we watched the show, I saw a tiny glimpse of myself taking a bow during finale.
The camera is on my back as I pose, staring at the cellists. What is my motivation in this scene? Are my hands clasped behind my back in a way that conveys just the right amount of art-patron-enjoying-music? Has my hair fallen back inside the neck of my jacket? I act casual and pretend I'm not excited. In front of me, facing the camera, the cellists pantomime playing a piece that will be dubbed in later, the touch of their bows soft against the strings, making only a whisper of music.
Find out more about The Black Sea movie and Northern Flicker Films here.
There's a funny article about the marketing of Friendly the Wolf here.
Quote number one from our night at the opera on Wednesday... This was as we were leaving the theater and driving home.
Stephen: Everyone's always like, "Puccini? He's no Verdi," but I'm like, "Fuck that!"
The opera was Tosca, produced by the Portland Opera, conducted by Joesph Colaneri, performed at the Keller Auditorium.
I was glad Stephen enjoyed the show - glad we both enjoyed the show but most glad for Stephen, since originally he was supposed to be in the show as a super but was cut for being too tall. To thank him for volunteering for the production, the nice folks at the Portland Opera gave him two tickets to the dress rehearsal. Luckily, the part he was going to play would have lasted all of ten seconds so it wasn't that big a loss. When it came down to it, ten seconds of pointing a fake gun at Cavaradossi wouldn't have compared to getting to see the whole performance - one which has special significance to us both since it was the opera we saw the night we got engaged.
I won't go into a long, drawn out review of the performance because my time is pretty tight right now. I mostly started writing this because I wanted to quote Stephen's comment above. [Which I will say he followed up with all sorts of fascinating information about Puccini and Tosca, with nary another f-bomb.] But I will say it felt to my layman's brain like a strong, solid production. The orchestra sounded great, Cavaradossi [Roger Honeywell] hit lovely high notes [he wasn't as strong in the lower range, although to be fair, this was a dress rehearsal, so he may have been marking], and Tosca [Kara Shay Thomson] sang with not only beauty but the power the role expects. When Tosca was enraged or horrified, her sound was huge and chilling.
Luckily for me, I've got a brain like a colander, so even though I'd seen the opera before, almost every moment in the story was new to me. I remembered how it began and how it ended, but some of the other big moments sneaked up on me - like the close to the first act, which was out of this world. If I had to say I was disappointed in anything, it was the tiny moment just before ... well, the thing that happens at the end. Maybe it was because it was the one big moment I remembered and had been waiting for, but it didn't have the impact that it did the first time I saw Tosca.
If I had to say I was disappointed in anything else, it was the giggler who sat behind us. There were two gigglers, really, but one was the real offender. There's a lot of nice humor in the first act of this production of Tosca, so in the beginning the giggling didn't bug me too much, but it started to build - along with whispered conversation back and forth - and didn't seem to want to taper off even once the mood of the opera moved into deeper and darker places. At first intermission we looked back to see who our giggler was, and she was sitting there looking at her cell phone with one leg crossed over the other like a man watching football, gauzy green dress draped across her knees, and I think if Stephen had had any plans to say something to her about the giggling, that evaporated in the moment of nearly looking up her skirt.
We were able to find new seats for the third act so we could at least watch the climax in silence, but the above brings me to my second quote for the evening, which I'll leave you with. Our short discussion about the things Stephen imagined doing to the giggler.
Stephen: Number one - grabbing her cell phone and running into the men's room and throwing it in the trash. Or number two - you saw the way she was sitting? Pulling her shoe off and running into the men's room and dropping it in the toilet.
It's not the drama of murder and death by firing squad, but we all have our own stories to tell.
Tosca plays today at 2 o'clock, Thursday the 7th at 7:30 and one final performance on Saturday the 9th at 7:30.