Chasing the Firebird…OR, Being an Artist

I’m going to start in an odd place.  Once a student of mine, who had been a professional actor for ten years at that point and worked at LORT theatres all over the country, told me that when he graduated from college he told himself that if he could just make a living in theatre, he’d be happy.  If he could work consistently and find joy in that, it was enough.

He was not chasing the firebird.  He was living a daily life.  What he said struck me because it was so unlike my own attitude, and unlike most of the artists I’ve known.  I have made a living as an arts teacher and artist for over 20 years, but I pursued the firebird, dreamed of catching it, dreamed of fame, money, the most prestigious prizes, the most enormous impact.

This is what we do.  I’ve watched the auditions for American Idol, with all the young artists crying, saying, “This has to happen, this is my dream,” and the sheer numbers of them have caused me to see the firebird whirling over their heads.  She’s beautiful, elusive, often impossible.  They see her so clearly; she calls to them like a siren.  They know if they touch her, they will be Dave Matthews, or Prince or Beyonce.  It will happen, they can feel it.

There’s a short story by Lorrie Moore that I love, called “Becoming a Writer.”  In it she talks about writing, in the middle of the night, the sweat staining the armpits of your shirt, when you know you are a genius.  (Paraphrased…too lazy to go look it up.)

I would like everyone reading this to know that I am, in fact, a genius.  I knew this when I was 15 and smoking pot every day more clearly than I do now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe it.

I am an artist.  As inescapable as breathing, the way creativity flows out through my skin, my voice, the beating of my heart.  I can’t stop making things.  Even this blog–when I’m making nothing else, I have this thing to make.  (And don’t even ask me how often I keep track of the stats of how many people read me.)

I knew that I had to write when I was twelve (I knew about acting at 3, but that got bullied out of me in grade school, so it took a long time to find it again).  I smoked cigarettes and drank wine with poets and painters in Arizona, in Europe, in Asia.  I thought we were a breed apart, somehow better than the rest of humanity.  I thought we were deeper, freer…that we were seekers of truth, that we saw beauty other people missed.  I imagined an artist’s life to be completely unconventional–and I wanted this, because I had always felt so different from everyone around me.  I thought our vision was bigger, less provincial, more catholic in its tastes (not the religion!  the adjective!). I couldn’t understand how anyone, anywhere, would choose another life.

I believed so much in this that I was willing to live with the absolute fact that mostly we were poorer, that we lived on the edge of poverty at times if not always, that we lacked all kinds of safety and security that money brings.

But now, here I am.  Not rich or famous, with the vision of the firebird more a taunt than an inspiration.  Studying Eastern religion to see if or when I went wrong.

I mean, nevermind that I have had so much of what I wanted–travel, adventure, inner seeking.  And more than that–that I have woken up in the morning eager to enter my day, with so much passion for the work and the teaching that I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsal, or class.  I mean, much of my working life I actually couldn’t wait to get to work and couldn’t believe people would actually pay me to show them how to get free, would pay me to talk about what I loved so much–beauty, truth, how to find these things.

But I have gone wrong.  In the last 7 years especially, I have come to see that the name of the firebird, at least for me, is “only rich and famous will do.”  I mean, truly, the realization began to creep up on me somewhere around 2000.  I’d been so ambitious about publishing my novel, with so many “almosts.”  I drove myself mercilessly, revised, revised…and then woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to go to the computer any more.  It was self-punishment rather than joy; I didn’t know how that had happened.

I stopped.  I told myself I wouldn’t write again until I couldn’t wait to get to the computer.

It took a while, but the time came.  Writing is joy now.

But here’s the thing–in one of the yoga/Buddhism books I’m reading, Stephen Cope talks about this pursuit.  He explains that there are two aspects to it–our ideal of who we should be and our ideal of what our life should be.  For some people it’s chasing the perfect love (those people better not come to my house, where neurosis and laughter often dominate).  For others, it’s the dream of being an artist–not a working artist, not someone finding joy in it, but a famous artist.  Angelina Jolie.  Julia Roberts.  Leonardo DiCaprio.  Toni Morrison.

And hell, the truth is, I’d really like to have more success in the future.  I have trouble accepting what my partner says–that I’ve had more than many people and it really should be enough.  I want recognition and to be heard, and I can’t beat that out of me.

So.  It’s okay to want it.  It’s just not okay to say nothing but the firebird will do.

I have learned that the only thing that matters is getting into this moment, right now.  And if I’m creating, and finding joy, if I’m rising up, if the beam of light from the window suddenly locks in and becomes poetry, then yes, I’m an artist, this is what I live for.

The great irony is how the chase for the firebird can make even that moment of living poetry not good enough.

And an even harder truth–making art won’t save me from death, or loss, or betrayal.  It helps me to make meaning from these things, but I still have to learn how to accept them and have peace.  In the end, if I sit with what is, and hold it, then I can hold being an artist, its challenges and joys, much more lightly.  I can want my stories to be heard, I can want to embody what I’ve lived in the characters I play, and I can be here, or anywhere, okay with what is.

Being an artist fills life with joy and light like pouring water into a cup.  But the drink turns dark and bitter so easily–when you can’t pay the rent, when retirement looms and you’re unprepared, when you don’t get the role, when the book doesn’t find a publisher, when you haven’t reached the should in your head for what life will be.

Oh, how life surprises us.  How it wants to strip us down to our own essential immanence and nothing else.  How peace is found when we just let it.

So I return to the student who taught me that a daily life fills you as the firebird can’t.  And I imagine, for those who have caught her, that her touch warms, heats, gets you very high…and then burns.  Which doesn’t mean if she slips away, you won’t crave her again.

I hope I teach my students the joy of the moment–on stage, on the page–as immanence, as the place where light can flow out of us.

And here’s the greatest irony:  the more I let go, the more success I have.

What is with that?

What Do I Want to be When I Grow Up?

I thought this question got answered once and then that was it.


And it’s not like I’m one of those people who didn’t know.  I mean, every once in a while, when I’m fantasizing about this easier life that fits more of the status quo expectations, I remember that it was never like I had much of a choice.  Until I started teaching, I stayed at jobs for an average of 1.25 years if that.  I got bored.  I moved on.  I shed office jobs, 9-5 work weeks and other things that didn’t fit fairly quickly.  I know that parents–particularly those of my own parents’ generation–have this idea that you can force yourself to work at jobs you hate.


And it wasn’t like I was ever not creating.  I mean, outside of my run-ins with writer’s block in my twenties, but really, even then, I was always making something.  I kind of couldn’t, and can’t, stop.

What I didn’t know is that it was possible to run out of road even with things you love.  For example, I found I LOVED teaching.  I mean, lie on the bed wondering how I could even deserve to do something that made me that happy kind of love.  Especially in the arts.  After not sticking with any job for more than 2 years, tops, in my life, at 30 I started teaching Creative Writing in all its forms and that lasted for about 11 years.  But when I stopped learning new things to teach in poetry and fiction–meaning that when my artistic life started to turn to theatre–I started to be bored.  I know it’s all so mature to say that I have a choice, but even if that’s true, teaching something that’s already past for me isn’t a choice I like to make.  I like to teach on my own growing edge, because I truly love teaching and the best teaching happens exactly at that place, where I am teaching what I need to learn, or what I am learning, or what I have just learned, or what I’m incorporating, synthesizing, into my artistic aesthetic or world view.  Teaching is so alive and creative, then.

So what do I want to be when I grow up?

First, let’s debunk the growing up part.  I have already reached my full height–I’d gained most of it by age 13 (I was taller than the boys in 7th grade)–so literally, it’s just not happening any more.  And I agree with Shonda Rimes–there are no real adults, just children with larger bodies.

But what do I want to be?  Well, present, alive, kind, moral, loving, joyful, peaceful, creative, spiritual…I could start with that.  And end with it.

The only reason the question is reappearing is because I have sworn, once again, to give up producing theatre.  Honestly, if there was a 12 step program for theatre producers, I’d do daily attendance.  One day at a time, I will not produce theatre.

Did I mention how much I dislike producing theatre?  Of course there are rewards–getting to pick the projects, getting to create the organizational structure, setting the standards, establishing a mission.  But the drawbacks–you know, I have never truly enjoyed producing theatre.  I enjoy directing, acting, writing, teaching, creating, collaborating with colleagues (especially people like my friend Jeannie Marie, who is brilliant), but I do not enjoy producing.

The fact that producing paved the way for some of the best teaching I’ve done in my life is not lost on me, but.  But.

And now, the Meisner technique, which I love, love, love, isn’t enough.  My growing edge is now movement theatre, collaborative work, bringing the connection of Meisner to the body.  Opening actors to levels of creativity beyond the script, which is the Meisner technique in some ways, but addressing it directly so actors become true artists–that’s the work that’s calling, rather loudly.

So, I’ll be a certified yoga instructor by the end of the summer.  I may travel to New York to train with Faye Simpson some more.

And, I applied for a teaching job.  In a school community.  Which would keep me doing all of the above with no producing.

There’s never any guarantees–that they’ll call for an interview, that it will be a match, that I won’t be applying elsewhere.

But change is in the wind.  It’s been blowing through my life for the last three years.  Loss, illness, training at Celebration Barn in 2010, listening to these weird intuitions.  The weirdest:  I have had a feeling that when I quit dyeing my hair, I’d be my true actress self.

I DO know what I want to be when I grow up:  present, kind, moral, honest, loving….

I DO know that I can’t not be an artist and teacher.  It doesn’t seem to be in me.

I DO know that I don’t want to produce and I do want to study yoga and I don’t know what I’ll make next, but it won’t be something I’ve done before or in the last ten years.

And I know that when change is in the wind, it’s best to be curious, it’s best to have a sense of adventure.  Surrender, accept, let the wind take you, because fighting is misery and there’s enough of that around without creating more for yourself.

I am here to see what happens.

I Have Been Replaced!

No, no, not in couples therapy.  I know that would make for great drama, but not such a happy life for me so NO!

And, to be honest, I won’t really be replaced until 1/1/2012, but today it’s official:  the new Artistic Director of Another Country Productions to take over in 2012 is Lyndsay Allyn Hicks.  Here’s her FB page:

You have no idea how happy I am.  Now I can be the actor-writer-acting teacher person that is ME.  I’ll still be on the board, but in a very supporting role.  Leadership is Lyndsay’s.  Imagine cartwheels on this page!

Lyndsay directed me in ACP’s Boston Theatre Marathon play by Melinda Lopez this year and I fell in love with her then.  I was already impressed by the three plays she’d directed in SLAMBoston, and by her acting in the slam and staged readings she’d done with us.  She is super-collaborative, very funny, and her directing is so clean, her character work with actors so rich, her ability to find timing so amazing…and her values so in line with the original mission of Another Country, I count myself unbelievably lucky.  She’s directing this weird expressionist piece I wrote this summer for the upcoming SLAMBoston, UNCENSORED.  The piece is very centered on movement and constant transformations of reality, and has a distinctly Buddhist flair (now there’s a surprise).  The lead is an 11 year old girl with more stage presence than God.  I’ve only tried to explain the nature of existence in this 7 minute play, so it’s not in the least ambitious, but you should probably take a look at it anyhow.  I have no idea how well it will fly, and that kind of creative risk is just so fun.  I don’t mind falling on my face once in a while.  For one thing, it makes the necessity of blogging about my faults so much less.  And, the possibilities for hitting something out of this world only come when you lay everything on the line.  So, there we are.

Everything changes.  Especially in my life, as I look for the next adventure, which may be just acting, just writing, just teaching, just being in one moment at a time, but these particular moments of expression, of opening, of holding the door so one student after another can walk through.

Just to mention…today in the Full Training about half the class cried.  They said they wanted to learn how.  So, you know, I try to deliver.

But it was totally intense.

Metta for all açtors crying in Meisner classes.  And for everybody else, not trying to learn to cry on demand.

Saint John the Divine in Iowa–To Be or Not to Be

I am discouraged.

Which is not to mention tired, sick (I have a cold) and emotionally spent from writing about rage even though I STILL don’t have back pain.

So I am considering next moves.

Certainly I should meditate and not let feelings decide.  Only, there’s some intuition stirring.  There’s some letting go calling to me.

I love this project best of any I’ve ever done.

And I am discouraged.

It happens to the best of us.  In this business, a lot.

Metta, unconditionally.  I am allowed to be discouraged.  And go back to bed.  I’m allowed to do that, too.

Writing about rage seems to mean I am insisting on not being perfect.  With a certain amount of ferocity, even though obviously I am a very gentle soul.  Who is occasionally ferocious.  But not as often as you might think.


What the @*(%& is with Re-entry Realizations?

This seems to be the personal growth summer.  I have just returned from Arizona.  While I was there, I hiked Bear Mountain in Sedona, attended a workshop for couples (with my partner, duh!), then did a 5 day workshop on…what was it on?  My usual and not-so-usual craziness.  Then I hiked partway up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, saw a friend I’ve known for 20 years (and really love) and then took the night flight back to Boston, where, waiting for me, was an email saying an agent wanted to assign me a book doctor to make my non-linear memoir more commercial.  If you’ve been reading along, I don’t think you’ll need 3 guesses to nail my response to that one.

Before I left I spoke to a living Reverend Alex (from my screenplay).  Of course, her name isn’t Alex, but she’s an Episcopal priest who reminds me a great deal of the character and she is now on the long list of people I am in love with.  Since the list includes gay and straight men, as well as gay and straight women, I can safely say that there is rarely anything sexual about me falling in love with people.  It’s just…sometimes humanity is as wonderful as it is crazy and why not love if you can?

I have had very little sleep.  I have no idea what I might say today.

Except that of course I am not going to rewrite my memoir to be more commercial. DUH!!!

But–and this is probably a surprise–I am going to step down as Artistic Director of Another Country Productions and give up producing theatre.  I like film better.  Frankly, I like just about anything better than producing theatre.  It is completely 1,500,000% safe to say that I hate producing theatre, and now that I’ve worked with the lovely and talented Marc Ewart for over a year, I can really say that I hate producing theatre, because Marc has made producing almost bearable and if working with someone so fabulous doesn’t make you love a job, you should really quit.  (Marc is very high on the list of people I’m in love with and I regularly tell him I adore him, which is very easy to do.)

Like I said, personal growth summer.

It’s kind of hard to say which thing in the last two weeks had the greatest impact on me.  Sitting in a couples workshop (which I happened to be leading), next to my partner of 24 years, listening to her admit the very worst of her faults in relating to me?  That kind of honesty is…moving beyond belief.  How often do we really say…or how often do we even know…how hard we can be to reach?  It’s so exciting to be next to someone who is cracking open in that way.  Of course, hiking up Bear Mountain in Sedona, with the red dust staining my shoes and socks, and the silence of the desert building as the hours went by and I found myself on the mountain, completely alone, scaling the steep places, stopping in the rare shade, with the desert’s searing light and dramatic spaces, and the wonder and terror of the solitude…climbing down with my knees wrapped because I blew them both running down the Grand Canyon twice week for three months when I was 23…slipping twice, the heat building as the day crossed into afternoon, how small my body was against all that space.  Or perhaps in the we-will-make-you-less-crazy workshop, listening to the love men have for their fathers, knowing that is something I will never have, knowing it more the longer I listened, because I was afraid of my father and these men were not afraid of theirs…or on Camelback, looking at the steepest climbing section and turning away, for once, from a physical challenge, because I was too tired to have my natural balance…a simple choice: I have limits, and I will not pretend I don’t.  Then sitting with my friend, the warmth of that kind of long-lasting easy connection, haven’t seen each other in a year or two, and knowing anything can be said, history is known.  And you know what?  I could listen better.  I could admit that I have the same faults as her partner.  I could tell more of the truth to someone I’ve always told the truth to.

So, no, I am not going to change my memoir.  I am going to hold my own opinion of my work, and I am not going to think I could have done better, or I should fit in more.  Because why tell yourself lies?  There is no room in the desert for anything but survival and truth.  I used to live there, and I always hiked alone, and I loved it for its fierceness.

Lessons everywhere.  Really.  It’s all about paying attention.

I am also going to say, on August 8 of personal growth summer, that this blog is about spirituality because it means more to me than anything else.  I would rather meditate and do yoga and lead workshops on intimacy than produce theatre.  Of course, I would rather act, create beauty, be close to my partner (and friends), do yoga and meditate than anything else, period.  There is such wonder in the world.  There is such terror.  We are all searching blindly for a way to love and be loved, and we are all clawing away at some unnamed, invisible adversary who stands in our way.  It’s just so interesting.  I mean, even pain is interesting, even suffering.  I want to keep learning.  Making a movie, which is what I am supposedly writing about, is only one small part of personal growth summer.  As it should be.  I am too enraptured living in the great I am to be held by any one thing.

I am…

Finish the sentence.  I am enraptured because I am alive.