BLUE: An Obituary

Happy September, all!

I’ve had the great fortune this summer to begin a new collaboration with Laura Cleminson, founder of the Pre-Dead Social Club, a Seacoast, NH-based organization whose mission is “to make having compassionate conversations about death and dying a bit easier, less burdensome and more tenderhearted before it’s too late.” It’s a fascinating group, and I suggest you check out the site to see all the events in store. But, for the next two weeks, I’ll be on deck leading the PDSC’s DEAD-LINES, a Creative Obituary-Writing Workshop!

I’m sure I’ll have more to share with you about this whole experience, but in the meantime, one preparation I’ve made to lead this workshop is to write an obituary myself . . . for my first clown character. I was casting about for a subject to write about that felt pertinent and emotional but not too vulnerable, and I also happened to be reviewing digital footage of my year in clown school. I realized, Blue is dead, and I mourn her. So I marshaled my skills to tell her story, truthfully, but with a bit of humor. Enjoy! And I’ll report back to you on the workshops after their done.

BLUE: An Obituary

The feisty, mercurial clown character known as Blue was declared officially dead on April 27th, 2023, after a decades-long decline spent mostly out of the spotlight. 

Blue was born fully-grown in the spring of 1995 in Blue Lake, CA, at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre. The exact date is unknown, as her birth was multi-phasic and included several abandoned makeup designs. In her heyday, Blue was known for her daring-to-the-point-of-reckless acrobatics, which often surprised audiences distracted by her curvaceous frame. Blue sported a vertically striped baby-doll dress worn over flowered bloomers and a gleaming teal unitard that screeched “80s fitness craze” at the top of its thrift-store lungs. Yes, tights from thrift stores are somewhat sketchy, but Blue was unafraid of where that thing had been. She was unafraid of so much in the early days. 

Blue’s brother Max was her partner in art, with their career-making performance arriving in the summer of ‘95, just months after their joint birth. In “Maximum Blue,” the pair danced jitterbug and viciously laid hands upon one another: Blue clawed Max in the privates, and he responded by bashing her face into the wall once, twice, then one more time. As for so many siblings, this violence hinted at disturbing erotic undercurrents, to the delight of Blue Lake audiences. 

After that giddy summer, Blue found herself the proud owner of both lumbar and cervical injuries that only worsened in the coming years. When acrobatics became too difficult, she allowed herself to be mostly subsumed into the mask character, Brighina. Brighina’s use of speech allowed Blue to perform less extremely physical performances, although she still danced. Indeed, Brighina’s greatest work, Clean Room, which expanded on the themes of love and violence within the family unit, was greatly served by Blue’s mischievous facial expressions and poignant gestures of the wrist. But it was hard for Blue to see her contributions go unacknowledged as Brighina’s star rose, and she fell into a depression that never really lifted.

Throughout the aughts, Blue periodically attempted comebacks, pushing herself through grueling training sessions which resulted in additional injuries and debilitating pain. Hobbled, she attempted to practice acceptance and content herself with watching from the wings or the audience as other artists ran, jumped and flew. But, in the back of her mind, Blue repeatedly thought, “Once I’m better, I’ll be back up there.” This delusion persisted until April 2023, when rheumatologist Daniel Kunz pronounced her death sentence: “You cannot do those things anymore. Ever.” Within the span of an hour, Blue had died, in a flood of tears in the overheated car, still parked in the lot behind the hospital.

There is archival footage of Blue at the literal peak of her powers, standing tall on the shoulders of her brother, Max. She reaches out her arms, elbows hyper-extending as she strains to grasp an enormous rainbow-colored lollipop suspended from the ceiling. When Blue finally plucks it into her hands, her astonished grin is so wide that her teeth resemble fangs ringing the black cavern of her mouth. With shining eyes, and with syrupy stage blood staining her lips, arms and hands, Blue’s joy swirls together all the pleasure and all the pain of the moment, until they are indistinguishable. You can see her eyes dart to the audience and hear the laughter rise and rise. And then, as she leaps to the ground, you hear the applause. 

That’s me as Blue with my partner, Chris Whalen, as Maximum Damage.

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!

 

 

MSIM returns–and much more!

MSIMVetCenterflyer162016 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.

CS logoI 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!!!

HAVENlogoIn 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!

clowning for HAVEN!

clownteachOn 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, at 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.

HavenSWNA 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!

Spotlight 2015 nomination news!

DVphoneI’m giddy to announce that I was nominated for Best Actress by the Seacoast Spotlight Awards committee for my performance as Dorothy Vaughan in Saving Portsmouth.

Even better, my actor Eliot Johnston was nominated for Best Actor for his performances of Bernard One, Bernard Two and Michael Black in A Number! Congratulations to us, and huge thanks to everyone involved in both shows, and to our audiences (and patient loved ones) for all their support.gameofthrone1

I have a feeling we are each dark horses in this race, but it is marvelous to know that the panel thought so highly of our work in 2014. As they say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” I will let you know how it turns out!