Open Studios at Lemon Punch!

For several years, I’ve been aware of “open studios” at various mill buildings in the NH Seacoast area, when artists open their doors and display their work for holiday shoppers and the curious community. Now that I rent studio space at 14 Cedar Street in Amesbury, MA, I get to be part of a huge, lively Open Studio Tour tradition! So, over Veterans’ Day weekend, I had the studio open, the masks on display, and the cookies freshly baked for whatever visitors came my way. It was so busy! I barely stopped talking all day, between introducing, explaining, demonstrating my masks, handing out class flyers, and enjoying the company of friends who came by . . . plus my lone wolf brother, who dropped in unexpectedly and made my day (see him below on the right, chatting with James Grillo about classical piano).

Some of my favorite interactions included the tiny girl who announced that she did NOT need acting lessons because she already acts out all the parts at home, even if no one sees her except her mom. You go, girl!

The smirking guy peering into each corner turned out to be a previous tenant of my very studio, whose art medium of choice went unstated, who said he got “booted” for having a full-size pool table that made too much noise. Pesky pool tables, they get up to no good when your eyes are turned. What could I say, other than, “Sorry for your loss, but I’m thrilled to be here! Have a cookie!”

While I had a good number of folks sign up on my mailing list and express interest in classes, by far the most common reaction to my lack of purchasable goods was a suspicious look, a grab for the cookie platter, and then, upon leaving, the startled comment: “I love your refrigerator! Where did you get it?” $199 at Home Depot, people.

It was a great weekend, and I only wish I’d had more time to visit with my talented neighbors in the building. Thanks to everyone who visited. See you in the Lab!

Acting from the Ground Up!

Here’s my first few pictures of class at Lemon Punch Theatre Lab! I’ve been doing private coaching, script consultation, and workshops there since July, but finally got my friend, theatre artist and photographer Deb Barry, to come into my acting class and take some snaps. With me here are the marvelous, open-hearted actors James Grillo, Michelle Mombrinie, Brad Ritchie, and Rowan Dunning. It’s been hilarious and moving to work with them on both physical theatre techniques and scene work. Our last class together is this week. Can’t wait for more!

Every warmup must include a booty shake!
It’s always fun to talk script analysis and juicy verbs with James!
With Rowan, exploring the 4th wall in RABBIT HOLE.
With James and Brad as Lee and Austin in TRUE WEST. Yes, I get intense, especially when we work on Sam Shepard!

Lemon Punch Theatre Lab is LIVE!!!

I am absolutely delighted to announce the opening of my new teaching and theatre making endeavor, Lemon Punch Theatre Lab LLC! Located at the artists’ mill building at 14 Cedar Street in Amesbury, MA, the Lab features lots of light and space and . . . its own rest room! Woo hoo for Studio 207A! I also have a marvelous landlord and many great artist neighbors there. Stay tuned for more Lemon Punch Theatre Lab news. For now, visit my new website to learn all about my class and workshop offerings for Fall 2019! And enjoy a couple pictures of the space, complete with special guest to demonstrate the scale of it!

“The Little Frauds”

I had a marvelous conversation today with friends about my doctoral research from years gone by, which focused on 19th-century theatrical female impersonation. This topic seems increasingly relevant as people play with gender identities on stage and in life. One of the acts I wrote about was Harrigan and Hart. Edward Harrigan is frequently credited as the “father” of American musical theatre, as he was among the first to combine songs and sketches into an extended entertainment with a (somewhat) unified plot. Harrigan wrote the sketches and lyrics, while composer David Braham provided the music. But his performance partner, Tony Hart, was absolutely beloved for his quick-change artistry, portraying multiple roles of both genders and numerous ethnicities in one show (or even in a brief sketch). Tony was also pretty-faced and sweet-voiced, so his female impersonations caused many people to swoon, regardless of their gender. Sadly, he had an unhappy personal life and died young from syphilis. Harrigan continued his robust life and career and was celebrated in song by George M. Cohan.

My interest in Harrigan and Hart was piqued by the haunting extant photos of them, in which Hart’s blue eyes have that ghostly lightness that can still pierce you. But when I dug into the files at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, I found a promotional poster for their early duo act, “The Little Frauds,” that really puzzled and excited me. It’s a lithograph of a quite recognizable Edward Harrigan and an exceedingly feminine companion in girlish dress and coquettish pose. From the ribbon on her hat, through her long curls and hourglass shape, and down to the pointed toe of her buckled shoe, Harrigan’s companion is all girl. The image is captioned: Harrigan and Hart. I was frozen when I first saw this: circa 1872, the duo’s audience saw the image of feminine perfection and called it Tony Hart! And they packed the theatre, blew kisses, and roared for more. Although Harrigan’s descendants were concerned about whiffs of homosexuality clinging to Tony, none of the contemporary press seemed confused by a beautiful boy playing both male and female roles. Nor did their fans. Yet these same actors also employed blackface and other derogatory ethnic images. And this same society was rife with gender inequality, immense poverty and brutality to openly queer behavior. So many contradictions. But in the right theatre, with the right mix of talents, under the right lighting and with the right costume, gender play was a thrill ride and a total hoot. So sad that it’s over a hundred years later and we’re still struggling to bring these mysterious joys into the light. Below is the lithograph that stilled my heart. Enjoy!

another great MSIM day!

On March 7th, I had the good fortune to present the traveling version of Kate Wenner’s MAKE SURE IT’S ME at the Manchester VA Medical Center as part of Brain Injury Awareness Month. Thanks once again to Nina Romano and Erica Rowe for organizing the event, and to John, Matt, Martin and Kim for reading with me and sharing your reactions and personal reflections on the challenges of coping with combat-related trauma. As always, it wouldn’t be possible without playwright Kate Wenner’s permission to use her work royalty-free in support of the veterans grappling with TBI and PTSD–Kate, you are still my hero! I have to let my bias show now by saying that one of the best parts was the company of Jasmine, a service dog specializing in mitigating the effects of PTSD. She certainly helped soothe the atmosphere as we discussed troubling topics. Here’s a picture of Jasmine getting ready for the presentation, to help smooth your way today!

A rapid expertly run!

Sadly, we bid adieu to New Hampshire Theatre Project‘s MEN ON BOATS, which enjoyed numerous sold out performances and engaging Saturday night talkbacks.  We also helped NHTP overshoot its 30th anniversary fundraising goal for the fall!  Thanks to Gen Aichele for her direction, Kate Kirkwood for crucial assistant direction in the crunch period right before tech week, Quentin Stockwell, Fran Bechtold, Robin Fowler and Catherine Stewart for their design work and Brennan Donnell for running crew.  My enduring admiration and gratitude to my onstage colleagues: Helen Brock, Sandi Clark, Becky Fowler, Monique Peaslee Foote, Kathy-Ann Hart, Kolby Hume, Ollie Lane, Mary Langley, and Stephanie Lazenby.  Thanks to Monique’s husband for sneaking this photo of Powell and Mr. Asa. Love love love to this amazing crew of WOMEN in MEN ON BOATS!  I’m not saying goodbye, folks, I’m saying see you next time!

how the West was won (at WEST!)

Kathy-Ann Hart, Monique Foote, Stephanie Lazenby, Ollire Lane, Leslie Pasternack, Sandi Clark and Mary Langley in NHTP’s MEN ON BOATS. The cast also includes Rebecca Fowler, Kolby Hume and Helen Brock. Costumes were designed by Fran Bechtold. Photo by Catherine Stewart.

This fall I’ve been part of a marvelous crew bringing to the stage the story of John Wesley Powell’s first (disastrous) expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon.  Powell’s 1869 adventure is the subject of MEN ON BOATS by Jaclyn Backhaus.  The show, directed by Genevieve Aichele and staged at WEST, is part of New Hampshire Theatre Project’s historic 30th season producing in Portsmouth. (Read more about NHTP’s season and about our show here.)  Backhaus’s play intrigues on several levels–she includes seven scenes of the men riding the rapids, including plunging down waterfalls and capsizing with men overboard.  So that is fascinating to stage!  But the most notorious aspect of the script is Backhaus’s specification that the MEN ON BOATS, all ten of them, be played by non-males (cis-women, trans women or gender non-conforming actors).  So I have the great privilege of portraying John Wesley Powell himself in a production with nine other actresses also playing male characters.  Each of my cast mates is brilliant and uniquely talented, not to mention upbeat, supportive and funny.  I’m absolutely thrilled to be sharing this experience with them.

Leslie Pasternack as John Wesley Powell in New Hampshire Theatre Project’s MEN ON BOATS, by Jaclyn Backhaus. Photo by Catherine Stewart.

Reviewers of the show in New York and regionally have been entertained but a little puzzled by the casting requirement. Is the play a satire on masculinity?  The playwright has said she was intrigued by the story but wanted to give people like herself the chance to play such adventurous roles.  No overt political message concerning gender is implied, although there is some pointed criticism of the violence and greed of white settlers as they “discovered” and stole possession of lands from the native people.  Our director’s approach to all of this was to focus on each individual character’s strengths, weaknesses, motivations and relationships, without getting too hung up on gender, and while allowing the racial component to speak for itself.  (Our cast does include two non-white actors and we’ve had numerous conversations in rehearsal about the nuances of the racial issues.)  Gen did urge us to lower the pitch of our voices and reduce the melodiousness of our line delivery in creating these men, and we had a good time figuring out how to take up more space physically while standing, sitting, or miming the work of climbing, portaging, and navigating the rapids.  Aiding us in our focus on the physical was a near-total absence of props or set.  Using only rehearsal blocks as our boats, rocks and stumps for sitting, and even to build a mountain top, we were backed by projections of photographs from Powell’s second, successful expedition.  The projections were created by Catherine Stewart.  Quentin Stockwell designed our lighting, which he built on the black-and-white palette of the photos by eschewing added color and using footlights for a 19th century vaudeville feel.  Robin Fowler designed the sound, using fantastic music of the period, along with lots and lots of rushing water.

I had to navigate some challenging obstacles to find my version of Powell.  First, I researched him almost to a fault–sometimes the playwright left out aspects of Powell’s history or logic in how he led his expedition and I would feel frustrated by what I could not say!  I had a good couple of weeks when an inner voice was saying, “Powell would say that he damn well knows what it’s like to have men die on his watch, he served in the Civil War, leading an artillery battery both before AND after he had his right arm shot off!”  So I had to back off of the research, mentally tip my hat to the enormity of Powell’s personality and accomplishments, and just focus on the character Backhaus had created, who is only one part of a diverse and entertaining ensemble.  My next obstacle was physical: I am the shortest member of the cast–there are two other short folks, Mary and Ollire, but as the leader of the expedition who needed to project an air of authority 99% of the time, I had to fight the fact that I was dwarfed by some of the other actors.  Sometimes I can’t even see their faces from under my hat brim!

An illustration of Major Powell hanging from a cliff in the Grand Canyon. This incident did happen (and others like it) and is re-enacted in MEN ON BOATS. Mary Langley plays Bradley, who pulls me to safety!

Additionally, there is that issue of Major Powell’s missing arm. The playwright emphasizes in her stage directions and the lines themselves that Powell’s movements can look “awkward” and that a faction of the group begins to find him “useless.”  I looked at many, many pictures from other productions and could find no magic theatrical effect to help me–I was going to have to put one arm away for the duration of my time on stage, holding it either in front of or behind my body.

I began rehearsal with my right arm held in front of my body and began trying to do everything with my left hand.  In our production, Powell has the only real, tangible props: a journal and pencil stub which I keep in a satchel.  So I had to figure out how to repeatedly remove and replace my journal from the satchel, not to mention write in it.  When I began wearing the naval-style coat chosen by the director and costume designer to help hide my arm, I felt lost in its huge, square woolen shape.  Having my arm wrapped around my waist was tiring, because no sort of sling arrangement was working, and I also was distracted by feeling my soft, feminine tummy under my hand.  I also tried leaving my arm by my side, with my hand hidden by my sleeve, but not using it at all. Gen let me know pretty quickly that that choice didn’t work–it was just impossible not to activate that arm when moving, especially in the rapids scene.

I had a breakthrough one week before opening during an extra rehearsal with our assistant director, Kate Kirkwood.  I confessed that I was having trouble gaining and maintaining status when I felt like Spongebob Squarepants or Hugh Jackman’s ten-year-old son dressed up as The Greatest Showman.

Kate said, yeah, the arm’s not working, so let’s play!  And we quickly found the solution: I have claimed my dominant right arm back, so I can competently, confidently use the one arm I have.  This seems right in spite of not being historically correct, as Powell worked enormously hard to adapt to using his remaining arm (and to cope with the painful neuropathy in his stump).  He would have been confident with his hand, rather than fumbling and weak. He climbed Pike’s Peak in a blizzard with that one arm!  So, I am using my right arm.  Next, in spite of the mild stress it puts on my shoulder, I am wrapping my left arm behind my back.  Putting the arm in back automatically makes me puff out my chest and pelvis in a more masculine stance.  I can hook my hand in my waistband and then allow the arm to relax, instead of holding it up the whole time. And, my lower back is probably my thinnest and most muscled body part right now, so it’s less feminine feeling for me to touch than my waist.  As soon as I made this change, my ability to take status in the group skyrocketed.  Thank goodness everyone was supportive of the change as we barreled into tech week and opening.

We’re in the second weekend now and we’ve packed every house and sold out several performances.  I love being onstage with this crew and fielding the questions of my friends after they’ve seen it. But MEN ON BOATS is not a seamless escape from the concerning realities of the day.  As our Powell declares, “My friend, the [effing] President of the United States, needed a better knowledge of the arid lands of this nation.”  The goal of these expeditions was to explore the geology of this previously unmapped region, to understand if it could sustain populations of settlers.  Powell brought his answer back to Congress:  proceed with caution.  There is not enough water to settle the West as thickly as we have settled East of the Mississippi.  Over-population will cause drought and water-rights wars.  Congress didn’t listen.  Unfettered growth, the conquest of natural resources, and the fulfillment of the white man’s destiny in North America were too important to worry about dust bowls or catastrophic fires decades or centuries in the future.

So here we are, surrounded by fire and flood as the current Congress squabbles.  There is much more I could say about John Wesley Powell, his prescience about climate change, and the ways his story intersects with the physical and cultural hegemony inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the United States.  But you can read about that elsewhere, particularly in John F. Ross’s The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and his Vision for the American West.

Until then, MEN ON BOATS runs at WEST through December 2nd.  Join us for this wild ride! Ticket information is here.  And many, many thanks to the cast and crew of MEN ON BOATS for their artistry and good company throughout this project.




“old friends” meeting new friends

Well, I did it! I successfully self-produced CLEAN ROOM at WEST, with all ticket sales and a few on-the-spot or after-the fact donations turned over to HAVEN to support their mission. I had great houses and a marvelous team to help: Tomer Oz designed my lights; Kate Quisumbing helped me rehearse, ran my boards, and shared my house management duties; HAVEN staff and board members helped with ticketing and box office, secured food donations, and made lovely curtain speeches; and my husband came every night and did all the glamorous work like taking out the garbage and–before I could stop him!–Windexing the bathrooms. NHTP served as perfect “landlords” for WEST and I deeply appreciate their support in making this happen. In the audience were friends and colleagues returning to visit with Brighina and Stupino, as well as those making their acquaintance with these characters for the first time. My friend Penny said that seeing the characters again was like spending time with old friends–what an honor to hear! And newcomers have been asking questions and engaging with the writing and performance in ways I find endlessly fascinating. I had a blast performing and was reminded that, although sometimes life presents obstacles, most often things get themselves done!

I learned two interesting things about my relationship to this show:  1) I don’t have to be so anxious about it if I self-produce. It is such a simple show technically that the fewer people in the room with me as I prepare, the more relaxed I feel.  2) I had been preparing to retire Brighina after this performance because I had been feeling too old to continue playing her, but folks told me emphatically NO!!!! The mask does the work of suspending realism and I seem to effectively use my body and voice to communicate Brig’s youthfulness. So, at least for another few years, I just might get away with it.

But I would like to let go of the story she tells in Act One of CLEAN ROOM.  It is sad, and it has been told. So the quest begins for a new story for Brighina to tell. As for Stupino? The dude abides! Thanks to everyone for your support, and for supporting HAVEN!!!

clowning around Dartmouth

I had a delightful visit with Dr. Laura Edmondson’s Theatre History class in late February to demonstrate mask work and how the tools of commedia dell’arte can serve us as theatre makers today.  I was joined in the masks by a couple of Laura’s fearless students, Holden and Ellie. Enjoy!