TALKING ON PAPER

Singapore Redux

In the first place, I had no idea I would ever be in Singapore and in the second place, I had no idea I would ever return. Almost year ago, a young man from Singapore, Kamil Haque who had been a student of mine at AMDA here in LA, returned to Singapore to open an acting academy. “It’s been my dream,” he said.

He phoned last fall and asked if I would come there and teach. I am retired from forty years as an actress and now teach creative writing workshops. This made me unsure what might be a good fit for Kamil’s population of students. Should it be acting or writing? I eventually landed on story telling. Actors benefit by using their own stories as jumping off places for scene study, for creating monologues and developing their own performance material. I said yes to going. After all, who am I to say “no” to a section of the globe I had never visited: Southeast Asia? At 75, how many opportunities, with wings, would come headed my way?

I remember asking about Singapore when talking with Kamil about his plans. “Does Singapore have a lot of theater?”

His answer: “Well, not really. Everything has to be approved by the government.” Approved? I got a chill. This seemed from another time and for sure, something I had never bumped up against. What did it even mean? My next question which remained un-spoken was “Well then, why would you open a school for actors if there isn’t any acting.” But I wasn’t the Singapore expert and he was.

Once I agreed to go, I read up a little on this sub-tropical city-state established in the early 1960s. I packed a bag with my summer cottons even though it was January in LA and loaded my Kindle with books for the twenty hour flight, the thought of which made me want to stick pins in my eyes.

Kamil had said he was putting me up in Little India a section of town true to its name. I had a nice hotel room on a second floor opening onto the street where I could watch the foot traffic and smell the spicy fragrance of Indian cooking from the open café on the corner.

The streets were lined, shoulder to shoulder in small shops of all stripe: electronics, tea shops where you buy warm tea in an easy-to-carry plastic bag with a straw, Internet access, hawker stalls serving up chicken rice and hand sized pieces of Naan. (By the way, I tried conquering eating with my fingers and, predictably, I was an instant failure.) Men wearing western shirts and sarongs scuffed in sandals along the narrow streets, expertly navigating their way around the cars and vans threading through the narrow streets. Caramel skinned women in saris lifted their skirts with one finger to step onto the curb. Small altars holding an orange or plastic flowers hung from cement pillars or held their stand on street corners, humble reminders of how human the many gods are.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or what to offer in a program. To attempt a weekend seminar on creative writing principles seemed not quite right since I wasn’t positive who I might be working with. So I decided on story telling knowing that the basic impulse driving art is stories.

This turned out to be a better choice than I could have imagined. In the two weekends I worked with an amazing mix of twenty-five people. There were a few actors studying with Kamil, but also a businessman, an Indian woman who was an accountant, an ex-pat from South Carolina who facilitates corporate workshops, a photographer, a banker and so on. Actors turned out to be the least of it. As it turns out that is representative of what I came to love about Singapore: the variety, ethnically and culturally that make up this population of 5.5 million on an island created and designed specifically to make money. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Muslim blending all shades of skin, splashes of brightly colored fabrics, languages in the air like water coursing over stones.

Singapore gained independence and separated from Malaysia as the Republic of Singapore on 9 August 1965 led by Lee Kuan Yew who became Prime Minister for the next fifty years. His goal was to make this city the financial hub of Southeast Asia. The emphasis was on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, limitations on internal democracy, and close relationships with China. This established it 9th globally on the Human Development Index including education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Everyone and everything is provided for. It was this construct that, for me, made the city opaque. Still, there is no crime and drug traffickers are put to death, so there’s that.

It was the first time in my travels where I couldn’t identify with the character of a city. The city itself, lacked personality and definition. Thousands of thousands of residents live in towering apartment complexes outside the middle of the city. They reach on and on covering the skirts of the island. They are mostly identified by number and are indistinguishable one from another. I felt as if I was in a scene in INCEPTION and couldn’t get out. I lost my bearings.

In contrast, the downtown, though I can’t honestly name it that since there is not a feeling anywhere of “town.” More, it is simply the center of the city

Massive and dramatically modern architecture swoops and curves over the skyline reflecting the rays of the sub-tropical sun. They could be a set for a sci-fi city. These buildings, humped like giant animals are circled by high-end malls, 24 hour power plants of product: Cartier, Louis Viutton, Armani, Harry Winston, Boss, Dior, Tiffany. Celebrity chef restaurants and beauty spas dot the corridors. I couldn’t get outside soon enough.

Singapore treats its plant life like movie stars. Stunningly lush gardens are tourist destinations. They are magnificent, exotic but everything is planned and trimmed, cultivated and arranged. Almost color coded. And yes, though I thoroughly loved wandering through the heady fragrances of Plumeria, Jasmine, Sweet Mimosa still it struck me that there was no wildness, no random beauty. There simply isn’t room. The use of land is restricted and there is little that is undeveloped lending a kind of claustrophobic feeling to this island.

For the two weekends, I planned to talk about the elements that make up stories and show how they move toward resolution and transformation. I brought examples and we discussed what made them work. I coupled all this with straightforward writing exercises to put us on common ground. Everyone loosened up. Soon, ideas were flying around the studio. I suggested we would each tell a true story from our lives, spend the next day writing them down, then with help from me and with reading aloud we would refine them down to six to eight minutes in length. On Sunday night they could invite friends and studio members to hear their stories read out loud. At this, I could sense a frisson of fear. Over the years in my work I have found there is little that can fill the heart with more terror than reading aloud. But what I know and is completely true, at the same time, there is nothing more rewarding and empowering. Onward.

That’s how it went for two weekends with two different groups of people. They found a story that was true, wrote it, said it to a roomful of people and lo and behold, they had written. The stories ranged from hilarious to vulnerable and brave. The evenings were exactly what I had hoped I could offer. Everyone was thrilled and full of thanks to me, but what they didn’t know, was how they were the ones who should be thanked for taking the steps, for trusting the truth, for telling a story out loud. Out loud is where stories belong, not trapped inside our memories and our heads. They have been told that way since fire was discovered. It’s how we find we are not alone.

So. I was half a world away from Los Angeles in a place unknown to me, but the people and their stories obliterated the geographical distance, the ethnic and religious differences, the language, the customs, even the censorship—all gave way to this larger more intimate community we established through stories in such a short time.

I came back to LA cursing air travel and airports and cursing seats designed for a child of six. I spoke in fragments and ran into walls until my jet lag ran its course leaving me flattened. Thank goodness, sez I, I don’t have to make that trip ever again.

A group of around eight from those weekends asked if we could Skype every so often. “We want to keep writing,” they said. I burst into tears and said “Of course.” We did so for a few months until that same group said they wanted to give me something. “Not something like a vase. We love you and want it to be something you really want. So what would you really, really want?” Bursting into tears again, (something I do with happy regularity) and before I could stop myself I said “I want to come back to Singapore. And be with you. We should be writing.”

I just got back three days ago and it’s only 5:00 p.m. Ruby the dog is baffled by my odd behavior, but I have to go to bed.


Read this, you will thank me

book cover final

 

If you were on a long demanding trek across the Andes then it’s possible you haven’t heard about Annabelle Gurwitch’s book, I SEE YOU MADE AN EFFORT. I am privileged to call attention to it. Still, I am well behind the       first wave, for it was launched in May. I can only hope this might reach some of you who have just returned from the Andes, thereby giving rise to yet another wave.

This is an often hilarious and always self-deprecating look at women shakily hovering around fifty. I worked with Annabelle as a reader/editor and cautioned her from the start that I had little sympathy for fifty being well on   the north side of that number. So, often I found myself stifling a snort while managing to keep an objective eye.  To her credit, she was patient with me and together we were a good team, committed to finding what worked best and why.

I often do overview edits on projects, tracking structure, developing character and keeping the story in motion.  I am careful to not re-write, but instead uncover what is on the page and what is not. It is my job to shine a light on what’s in front of me with clarity and focus, not to change it. Why rob the author of the priceless “Aha!” when they see what’s needed and dig back in to make it happen? So, know that a great deal of care and effort has gone into this book and yes, it may look effortless…don’t be fooled, it never, ever is.  But it’s the caring artist’s job to make it seem that way.

A side note: I just returned from a week long writer’s conference at Squaw Valley Community of Writers up north near Tahoe. I cannot say enough good things about this week. The critiquing shakes up your material and energizes you with possibilities previously unseen. I also worked with writer Steve Almond (CANDYFREAK) whose work I didn’t know and now will eat with both hands.  His notes turned me completely around with grace and insight. Whew.

I say, go online and order his very small book THIS WON’T TAKE BUT A MINUTE HONEY essays on this and that and most stunningly, on writing.

 

 

 


That Was Then and This is Now

I was just eight years old in 1947 when my parents and I drove up from Florida to Massachusetts to race our greyhounds at the Taunton Dog Track just outside of Boston.  Dad took a wrong turn and we found ourselves trapped in Manhattan traffic on Times Square. The twenty or so dogs in the trailer we were pulling were fretting and restless no more so than my father who gripped the steering wheel as if he might wrestle it completely off.

“My golly, my golly, my golly. How in the Sam Hill are we going to get out of this, ” he said shakily.

Mother, our usually calm and authoritative navigator had a road map unfolded covering almost the width of the front seat and had fallen uncharacteristically silent.  I, however, cranked down my back window and looked up at a movie marquee with shiny black letters, ringed in small flashing lights right next to a turquoise and orange Howard Johnson’s sign: Ice cream 28 flavors!  People circled right around our car and trailer as if we weren’t even there. Some of them were eating hot dogs while they walked! Imagine that. I could have reached out and touched them. I could smell the asphalt all hot from the sun. Car horns blared. High up on the other side of the street was a Chesterfield cigarette billboard with a giant face of a man, puffs of mechanical smoke jetting out of his mouth. This place is the place for me, I thought. Of course I was going to be an actress but now I wanted to live in New York City almost as much.  Maybe more.  So, many years later, when I was nineteen that’s exactly where I landed.  For thirty years.

First, a studio apartment on the west side which I shared with Adele Imperati who I met in summer stock in Minnesota.  She was from Queens so I figured her for a street-wise New Yorker.  What she was, was an enthusiastically  demonstrative Catholic.  Her idea of décor was bleeding icons on every available wall space.  Before anyone I knew came over I managed to slide them under the fold-out sofa. Sometimes I didn’t get them back in the right places and Adele huffily retreated to Queens after just two months.

I moved then, to a rent-controlled walk-up tenement in Yorkville around the corner from Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s house.  This was also called Germantown a far cry from the exotic and sophisticated New York I had fantasized.  Most indelibly stamped in my memory is  the New Year’s window display at the Schaller and Weber the big German Deli on 86th St. I was alarmed, yes, but yet equally riveted by the two large pig carcasses, eyelids sewn shut,  one dressed in Lederhosen and the other wearing an embroidered apron, propped up on small chairs at a poker table holding playing cards attached to their little hooves. Or whatever.

Later, when I was married and having children, I moved to a houseboat on City Island for five years. My parents were stunned speechless but managed to keep their very  valid trepedations to themselves for fear of alienating me, their only child.

The winters were mercilessly cold with winds screaming down across the bay causing swells that impossibly lifted the barn of a boat up, then slammed it back down with spine jangling results. With all that, the summers were seductive enough to keep my husband and me attached to the concept. Maybe not the reality, but the concept.  Besides, no one in their right mind would buy the white elephant of a boat from us. Still, on summer nights from the bow I could see the skyline of Manhattan no bigger than my thumb in the distance and the planes to La Guardia hovering over the bay waiting to land, while schools of fish slapped up against the hull running from schools of  even larger fish.  The cold finally got to me as did my flawed marriage.  I divorced and, taking the two boys moved off the houseboat, then landed on West End Avenue, the upper West Side, paradise to actors, singers, playwrights, musicians, ballet dancers and a multitude of really, really old, even ancient artists reminding us daily of our very very young, even naive dreams. We were in perfect harmony.

That’s why when Googling on the internet I was stopped by a glossy ad for upscale condos in pre-war buildings in my old West End Avenue neighborhood like the one I left behind almost twenty years ago when I moved to California. Those buildings were gracious and stately, with maid’s rooms and servant’s bells that no longer worked.   A photo of the blocks I had walked slammed me with sensatios. The smell of the Hudson a little brackish and salty overlaid with the fragrance of coffee seemingly generated by the pulsing neon Maxwell House Coffee sign on the Jersey side.  The sound of garbage trucks gnashing and grinding ten stories down.  How nicely empty West End was in the early mornings when I waited under the canopy for the school bus to pick up my youngest son and watched my older boy rounding the corner to the 103rd St stop.  The Korean deli around the corner, Ginko trees, circling to find a parking place, the satisfying sound of the elevator doors sliding open and closed that I could hear from inside my kitchen. Voices in the hallway as people got home from work. And in that moment in front of my computer in Los Angeles, I wanted to be there again. But did I, really? Did I really truly want to move back to New York City, the same place I yearned for when I was eight?  The upper west side, the speed, the clamor, the demanding cold and wind ripping down the tunnels of buildings off the river, the rain sometimes slicing sideways. No cabs.  Lugging groceries, my dry cleaning slipping away and dragging on the sidewalk.  And that last difficult marriage?  All over again?  Late at night, taking a paperback book with me and getting on the M-104, riding down to Columbus Circle and then back, hoping he had passed out by then.

No, what I wanted in that moment was for my sons to be little boys again with skateboards and Matchbox cars, their latest haircuts and Walkmans.  Homework. Swim meets, and I even wanted to be folding their laundry.   I wanted to be forty one and wearing big earrings, good boots and size ten jeans in my mink coat. A working actress; audtioning, singing, booking jobs, flirting. I wanted to be young and doing it all over again.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. At my house here, outside at night, the light falls down on the top of a long table under a lemon tree.  On the table is a white lace tablecloth hanging down on all sides.  On the tablecloth is a vase of dead sunflowers and Queen Anne’s lace. There is a clear bottle of water on the table and the light is reflected deep in the middle of it.  I smell the honeysuckle that grows on top of the garage.  I look back into my house through the open French doors. Cool night air skims my face, my shins, the tops of my feet under the table.  My dog lies with her side up against my foot. Her breathing flutters against my instep.

I hear a hum of cars from the avenue a block away.  On the table are two coffee mugs, milk and sugar, Equal, a thermos, spoons in a green glass jar.  Four cookies. Two bunches of grapes with only a few left on the stems.  The naked stems look like drawings from a textbook of capillaries and veins.  I have just finished teaching a workshop.  There are three yellow pads on the table.  A pen.   “Best American Essays of  2010,” “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” “Writing in Restaurants,” “Letters to a Young Poet,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and a “Far Side” cartoon.  Harpsichord music plays from the stereo.  I am drinking a glass of Zinfandel because, though it is pink, it was the only wine that was cold.  I eat popcorn.  The boys became men. One is middle aged, married with five children and living in Chicago. The other son lost a long terrible struggle with depression and is gone.  Wherever I have lived is marked by what I wanted and then, by what I got;  love, loss, mistakes, money, no money, gains, sorrow, blame, forgiveness, creativity, art.

I am in am in my seventies. I have no doubt that if I get another fifteen years, I will be remembering Los Angeles just as bitter-sweetly as New York and remembering quite simply that I was younger. There will always be a time in which I was younger.