There is much news to share in the coming weeks, as I’ve been directing the premiere of PATIENCE BOSTON at Player’s Ring, which opens September 15, and I’ve recently taught a mask workshop for theatre KAPOW. But for now, I want to share a little piece of joy we took time for this afternoon. Hope you enjoyed your view, wherever you are!
On May 4th, The Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., came to UNH campus to spend five days. I had the honor of joining UNH’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee in pulling this event together. Denny Byrne had gotten the ball rolling and remained an integral part of the huge team effort required, but I had plenty to do as I coordinated with Paul and Kim Chen, the Moving Wall team who drove the memorial to us from Michigan, as well as with many offices across UNH campus and in the Durham and Portsmouth communities who helped create, promote and execute the event.
I thought I would write about this extraordinary experience sooner, but I have been at a loss for words. But I’ll just start now. Two important men in my life served in Vietnam: my father Jonathan Pasternack; and my mother’s longtime boyfriend, Gary Delong. Both are lost to me now. I have never visited the Wall in D.C. but I have been aware of its significance, controversy, and beauty. The Moving Wall, while only half the size of the original, allows people all over the country to experience the profound impact of the memorial’s design, which currently displays 58,315 names of those who died in combat in Vietnam. Its reflective surface allows the viewer to see him or herself reflected, as well as anyone else simultaneously looking, as well as the surrounding environment. The names are not arranged alphabetically, but in a circular chronological order by date of death, with the earliest deaths in the center of the V-shaped memorial, and the dates moving outward to the East, then jumping to the far West edge and working back to the center. The V becomes a circle in which the end is the beginning all over again. I did feel deeply shaken by the reflections of people, trees, clouds, and my own frowning face overlaid upon the names engraved on the Wall. And I did mourn for the circle of combat-related death that is still turning in its groove.
The long weekend of the Wall’s visit was an emotional rollercoaster. It was inspiring to see the crowds brave the rain to show their respect and confront their losses–Paul Chen estimated that we had 8-10,000 people come through during the installation. It was also heart-warming to work with so many volunteers, from on-campus and across NH, MA and ME, who made it a point to honor a generation of veterans who suffered terribly in combat and when they returned home. I also met and talked to many veterans and their families and heard their stories. A key part of the job for anyone bringing the Wall to their town is providing guidance to visitors looking for names to see, to touch, and even do a name rubbing to bring home. Many people don’t realize how hard it will be to navigate among all those names. So we had one paper directory, two laptops, and several Wall apps on our smart phones, which helped us locate the panel and line number for a specific name. Not everyone could find the name they sought–only combat fatalities are on the Wall, so sometimes after looking we’d realize the veteran in question had died of combat-related injuries after coming home. (At the D.C. memorial there is a plaque dedicated In Memory of some of these deaths, and loved ones can request that their lost veteran be added to it.) Other times a veteran would be horrified to realize he knew his buddy’s nickname but not his full name. Sometimes we could play detective and narrow things down by the birth city or state of the loved one. Several times, I found a fallen warrior’s profile information on the computer database after a prolonged search, only to have his buddy dissolve into tears at my side when a picture popped up, inevitably a grainy black and white of a 19- or 20-year-old boy. “He didn’t have nothing,” one man said to me through tears. “He had nothing until he joined the service. And then he got himself together, he even got married, and then he went over. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his cheeks. “He was my best friend in high school.” We took him to the Wall to see his friend’s name.
That’s how it was. At night, there were beautiful lights pointed at the Wall, provided by UNH Facilities, and lights on the flags, provided by the NH Patriot Guard Riders. Overnight security and quite a bit of daytime camaraderie was provided by several motorcycle clubs–so huge thanks to the NH PGR, Combat Warriors MC, and the Blue Reapers, as well as individual bikers who joined the procession or signed up for overnights. UNH ROTC cadets were on hand and the UNH Trumpet Studio played gorgeous, stirring Taps each night. There are too many people to thank, but you can read the brochure I designed for more information and acknowledgements.
For more about the DC memorial’s history and design, click here. For more about The Moving Wall, click here. And for a marvelous video created by DCAT’s Phil Kincade, click here. Let’s keep this generation’s awful losses in mind as we consider how we deploy our troops in the future, and how we will welcome them home.
It’s been a busy fall and at some future point I will post updates about the great MAKE SURE IT’S ME and COMMUNITY STORIES events I’ve been hosting, as well as my fascinating (and sometimes funny) work with POWER PLAY. But today I mourn the loss of Gary Delong, my mother’s longtime boyfriend. He died yesterday after a terrifying six weeks during which he learned he had bladder cancer and succumbed quickly. His nephew Jim and I coordinated his care, doing all we could to minimize his pain. I send huge thanks to Jim and his family for their warm support at this moment of crisis and loss. I know they are a large and tightly knit clan and I have enjoyed learning more about the Delong family history, in spite of these sad circumstances. My love and respect goes out to them.
Mom and Gary were “an item” for almost 30 years. He taught me to drive my car with a trailer hitched to the back. He argued with me (and everyone) about politics. He attended my plays and always found thoughtful critiques to show me how closely he was paying attention. He could talk for hours with my husband about engineering and computers. And he was deeply in love with my mother, for which I was enormously happy and grateful. He was one of those guys who chose his own moment and his own way to say “I love you.” You would never get a holiday card from Gary, but you might find that a new generator mysteriously appeared in your garage. He wasn’t big on birthdays, but he knew my Mom got blue in the dark days of winter, so he would send her a bouquet of yellow flowers in late February or early March with a card that said, “Spring is coming!” He wasn’t quite sure how to help during the years when Mom was dying, partly because she was so independent. But he was steadfastly present and loving. Early on in their relationship, when I was still a twenty-something, I started calling Gary “Bear,” first as a teasing rhyme on his name, and then because he seemed to like it. It suited the Gary I knew: he could get angry at times, sure, and he was increasingly grizzly, but he was also a big, huggable, powerful man. I loved him and I will always cherish his memory.
Here are some pictures of Gary, with me at my wedding; with my dog Boris; and with my Mom. Enjoy them, and thank you for taking this moment to honor Gary with me.
I’m honored to be holding a discussion with Terry Farish of her glorious book, Either the Beginning or the End of World at the Hampstead Library on October 27 at 7 pm. This free presentation, called “Coming Home,” will focus on how combat veterans and civilian survivors of war struggle to re-integrate into our communities. Sponsored in part by the New Hampshire Humanities, our talk is part of Community Stories: Soldiers Home & Away, a nine-week event series of book discussions, film screenings, historical talks and performances focused on veterans’ experiences.
I first met Terry during my 2013 development and run of MAKE SURE IT’S ME at the West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth. She is one of many audience members and supporters of that project who work with veterans and military families to heal from war trauma. But she also works closely with refugees in our communities, and with school children of all backgrounds to explore cultural diversity and self-expression. Terry’s first job was with the Red Cross in Vietnam during the war, and she has worn numerous hats as an advocate, educator and author since then, so she combines a lifetime of “boots on the ground” experience with a deep wellspring of compassion. When I learned she’d written a novel set in Portsmouth about the daughter of a New Hampshire fisherman and a Cambodian refugee who herself falls in love with a veteran recently returned from Afghanistan, I was intrigued. But once I began reading the book, I was positively enthralled! My husband and I loved the book so much that we took ourselves on an afternoon tour of all the Portsmouth locations Terry mentions in the story. Please join us for our discussion at the Hampstead Library on the 27th . . . and even if you can’t attend, give yourself a real treat by reading EITHER THE BEGINNING OR THE END OF THE WORLD!
2016 has been a busy year, so busy that I haven’t been writing on this blog too much. Most of the work I have been doing involves upcoming events supporting veterans and their families. I’m thrilled to say that my traveling version of MAKE SURE IT’S ME will return to the Manchester Vet Center on September 29th. I will be joined there by a cast of 5 veterans to read dramatic scenes from Kate Wenner’s play, as well as VA Manchester clinicians to help me address questions about Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD. Then, on October 20th I will take it to UNH, where my readers will be members of the Student Armed Forces Association, joined by some Theatre majors. That promises to be a winning combination! The research and treatment options for TBI and PTSD keep evolving, so whenever I pull this presentation out I retool my framing material to reflect recent developments. It’s also extremely fun for me to work with the coordinators and readers as different venues, as well as to meet the audiences and mediate the conversation on performance day. So I’m looking forward to both of those events.
I have also had the honor of serving as Humanities Expert for Community Stories: Soldiers Home & Away, a nine-week event series celebrating, commemorating and supporting veterans and military families across 8 libraries in Southern NH, as well as Timberlane School District. The event series runs September 16 through November 12. My duties to this project have included helping the amazing group of library officials on the committee to write the grant proposal for the New Hampshire Humanities (which was successful, thank you NHH!); helping to identify presenters and keep a “humanities” angle across the event series; and I’ll be contributing to the “after-action” report to NHH about how Community Stories fulfilled its mission. I am also involved in three of the events: I will present a brand new presentation, “Staging War: Veterans’ Voices in Post-9/11 Theatre” at the Plaistow Public Library on October 4; I will mediate a book discussion of “Either the Beginning or the End of the World” will the glorious author Terry Farish on October 27th in Hampstead; and I will be co-presenting the final keynote presentation on November 12th, “War Trauma: A Changing Story”, with neurologist Dr. James Whitlock. That final presentation will include some readings from MSIM, aided by veteran and former Vet Center counselor Al Porsche.
So that’s a lot of exciting work I’ve been putting together, with fantastic and inspiring collaborators.
I have also been invited to do several more ongoing projects: The NHH Humanities To Go program has selected my new presentation for their catalog. In response to their feedback, the title is slightly different from the one in Community Stories, but it will be effectively the same format: “Speaking of War: How Theatre Gives Voice to Combat Veterans.” (It’s always tricky to figure out appealing titles.) Once the presentation is in the catalog, it remains to be seen if anyone wants me to bring it to their library or meeting hall. So stay tuned!
I have also been hired as an actor by PowerPlay Interactive Development. PowerPlay was founded by UNH Theatre Department Chair David Kaye. It is a UNH sponsored business that uses Applied Theatre techniques to address issues like corporate culture, gender bias, harassment, and diversity for clients who include university departments, nonprofits and corporations. So far, I have worked on four improv-based workshops for Easter Seals in Manchester; in November, I will be traveling to the University of Virginia to present a combination of scripted material and improv addressing biases and potential conflicts in faculty hiring. This is extremely challenging, fascinating work! I am learning a lot and, once again, working with a great group of people that includes David Kaye, CJ Lewis and Susan Poulin.
Lastly for now, I am pleased to have been cast in New Hampshire Theatre Project‘s winter show, METAMORPHOSES, directed by Genevieve Aichele. Rehearsals begin in November. Phew, that’s a lot!!!
In the meantime, my Board work for HAVEN is ongoing, so don’t be surprised if I tap your shoulder in a fundraising campaign. Best wishes to all as we move into Autumn!
On May 21 I held a workshop on “Finding Mindfulness Through Clown” at Yoga in ME to benefit HAVEN. This was an experiment to see if I could bring my ideas and interpretations of clown to non-theatre audiences through the yoga setting. Well–and I actually laugh out loud whenever I think about this–the answer for now is a resounding NO! We had a marvelous time working for three hours with our host, yoga teacher and Yoga in ME owner Nancy Garnhart, and several of my dear friends from the theatre community, who were eager to explore clown through the particular lens of mindfulness.
Yogis and HAVEN supporters stayed away in droves, attesting either to the difficulty of picking a good day for a workshop during graduation and wedding season . . . or to the ongoing hard sell that is CLOWN in a world haunted by real-life Bad Clowns like John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King’s fictional predators. (Lately I have been noticing that some people in law enforcement or who create fictional police procedurals call criminals “bad actors.” I agree that bad acting can FEEL criminal when you watch it, but it isn’t technically illegal. And all actors must do it in the course of their careers,a t some point.)
So I’m accepting any suggestions for the Great Clown Re-Brand! The term “Physical Theatre” sounds kind of clinical, but “improv” misleadingly points to other forms of theatre. I probably need to repurpose an innocuous word like “skylight” or “purple.” Please give it some thought and get back to me on that, will you?
But the workshop was a blast and I loved every minute! We explored physical leads and their relationship to status, we created soundtracks as well as physical “zeroes” for our clowns, we allowed clowns to meet and have little status battles, and we wound up the afternoon with classic solo turns interacting with the environment and a prop. Everyone brought some new character to life over the course of three hours–it’s my favorite kind of theatre to watch and I’m always thrilled to make a space for that work.
Thanks to Nancy Garnhart for hosting and for publicizing the event to bring more attention to HAVEN in Southern ME and Portsmouth.
A few days later, I was honored to help represent HAVEN at the Seacoast Women’s Network’s networking night. I joined Joi Smith, Lori Waltz-Gagnon and Debra Altschiller. I really love spending time with every member of the HAVEN Board of Directors and Staff. I look forward to meeting more of you in the future!
Happy and healthy summer to you all, and I’ll keep you posted on my next adventures . . . MAKE SURE IT’S ME will be popping up in various ways in 2016!
Last fall I shared with you my work exploring the connections between Yoga and Clown. I was working with Giving Tree Wellness in Haverhill to bring a workshop there. Well, it didn’t quite pan out due to Holiday Madness! But I have found a home for the debut of Finding Mindfulness Through Clown at my dear friend Nancy Garnhart’s studio, Yoga in ME.
The workshop will happen on May 21 from 1-4 and all proceeds will benefit HAVEN. To learn more or sign up, click here. And I have great hope that I will bring the workshop to Giving Tree at some point in the near future.
Here’s a video Nancy shot after our “preview” of the workshop of me discussing Clown. That’s probably enough hyperlinks for one post, so I’ll wish you happy springtime for now.
I am delighted to share the news that I’ve been invited to serve on the Board of Directors for HAVEN NH, the new umbrella organization formed when SASS (Sexual Assault Support Services) and A Safe Place merged last November. My Mom was a SASS Board member for many years and I have hoped to find some way to contribute my energy to their cause. Now I’m thrilled to help them pursue their mission of protecting, sheltering, advocating for and educating New Hampshire families grappling with domestic violence and sexual assault. HAVEN provides a crisis hotline; advocates who can escort victims to emergency rooms or shelters; classroom educators who use puppets and role play to discuss body safety, boundaries and other issues; and a shelter for women and families in need. While HAVEN is based in the Seacoast, they also coordinate with the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to help families across the state.
I will be learning much, much more about this great organization’s past successes and plans for the future, but for now I refer you to their website at HAVEN. Also, I have jumped feet-first into the No More Challenge fundraiser, in which HAVEN is competing to win $50,000 from Verizon to further their goals! If you’d like to contribute, I have made a fundraising page linked to HAVEN’s CrowdRise campaign, and you can find it HERE.
I’ll leave you with a great picture of two HAVEN educators, Emily Murphy and Rhiannon Duke, in the classroom with their puppets, a heart-warming image to balance out the seriousness of the cause. Love to you all!
In the last week of January I went to California to attend the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival presented by the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre. I went because my playwright mentee, Keith Sanders, had a play in the festival. He could not attend himself because he is incarcerated in Rosharon, Texas.
Keith’s play is entitled Rock, Paper, Scissors. It was directed by Evan Hunt and featured the talents of Matt Clarke, Scott Kravitz, Adrian Miller and Gail Borkowski. SCAT Artistic Director Wilma Chandler corresponded with me and Keith throughout his application to the festival and the subsequent rehearsal period. And, as is always the case with established, successful festivals like the 8 Tens @ 8, there was a substantial team of actors, directors, designers, stage crew, and front of house people working together to make the whole event come together. I was extremely impressed with the entire experience!
The festival was held at the Center Street Theater in downtown Santa Cruz. It is part of the Santa Cruz Art Center, a lovely building with gallery spaces and small arts-oriented businesses in addition to the 89-seat performance space. The theatre itself has a raked auditorium which is cozily carpeted and the sight lines were perfect for the well-lit stage. Rock, Paper, Scissors is an intense and enigmatic short play that was quite unlike anything else in the festival lineup. Set in an execution chamber, Keith’s script specifically calls for an African American woman to represent a prisoner being prepped for execution, while three guards trade quips about religion and philosophies of responsibility. The set-up of the execution requires two guards to push one button each simultaneously, in an attempt to provide a kind of anonymity as to the identity of the actual executioner. But two of the three guards play Rock, Paper, Scissors during the course of the play, in an attempt to subvert the absurdity of the “anonymity” and just assign the job of execution to one person. This appears to be their routine, but it is unclear what the stakes are–will the winner get to kill the prisoner as his reward? Or is the prize a “get out of killing someone today” card? In a flurry of movement at the play’s climax, the winner turns out to be the one who pushes the buttons which execute the prisoner.
The ending of the play is ambiguous as written–do the guards want to win the game so they can be the one to commit the act of execution? Or are they playing to get out of the responsibility, but the “winner” changes his mind at the last minute? The director and cast invited me out for drinks after the show to discuss the script’s challenges and the discoveries they had made as they staged it. In exploring their back stories, the cast had come to a kind of consensus that the guards were essentially good people who did not want the responsibility of executing prisoners, and so had developed this game of chance to give someone an “out” every time they had this duty. But they interpreted the actions of the “winner” to mean that, at the last minute, he did not want the “loser” to have the execution on his conscience, so he pushed the loser out of the way and pushed the buttons himself. I was intrigued by their optimistic read on the script. I had thought the script had an essentially pessimistic view of the guards, in their callous treatment of the silent prisoner and their focus on the game. In my reading, the winner got exactly what he wanted–to be unambiguously responsible for the prisoner’s death. The “why” of his action is elusive, but it could be a lust for power, a desire to see guilty people punished, the rush of competition, a means of fighting boredom . . . it could even have its roots in the specific race of the prisoner.
The cast and director made some phenomenal choices that increased the disturbing power of the script. The intro music was Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” From the moment this track started in the dark scene-change interval between shows, the music announced that Rock, Paper, Scissors was probably not a meet-cute story or mild dramatic meditation about race-neutral (read “white”) themes. The cast also had some technical challenges with the set-up: Gail had to be strapped to a gurney held at an angle on a temporary platform, so this took time and careful attention to arrange safely. Evan and the actors decided to start the guard’s dialogue while they were still strapping Gail in so they could have full stage light and all the time they needed to assure that she was safe. Gail told me in an email after my trip that this flexibility came in handy during the final weekend when her straps got bound up and took a long time to arrange. It took so long, she was wondering if she should plan a jailbreak! I actually love watching actors work out this kind of problem, because that’s what people do all day long–fix snagged equipment or pick up things they’ve dropped. Watching people mentally and physically adjust to unexpected changes in the onstage environment is fascinating to me.
Gail did some research on cases of African American women who have been executed and learned that they sometimes sang hymns at the end. And so she added an element to her performance that was completely unexpected to me from Keith’s script: after the guards received the phone call instructing them to follow through on the execution, Gail, who had been completely silent throughout the play, began to sing. It was chilling and sad and massively magnified the tension in the theatre. In keeping with her singing, Evan chose for his outro music “I’m Free” by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, a soulful track that sounded like a funeral dirge in this context. I don’t know for sure how everyone around me was feeling, but I’m pretty certain that this audience hadn’t expected to bear witness to a black woman being strapped to a gurney by white men and then hear her sing hymns of praise and hope in the moments before the white men killed her. This was just a ten-minute play, but the audacity of Keith’s writing and the courage of this cast to stage it as written made a huge impact on me.
I have been able to talk to Keith a bit on the phone about the show, although there was a problem with the phones cutting out and we kept getting interrupted. I wrote to him at more length about my response and about the ideas and questions of the cast. I’m waiting to hear if he has more to say about it. I know Keith is proud that his work was represented at the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival, and it was enormously rewarding for me to participate in his collaboration with the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre. Kudos and thanks to Wilma, Evan, Matt, Scott, Adrian and Gail for their time and talents!