Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The quality of mercy

In which our Diva has been doing some listening and pondering

Being acquainted with a number of industry people on the other side of "The Pond," as well as a fan of various British TV fare, I've had quite a few conversations in the last few years that touch on the differences in acting education and career shapes between the US and UK. The broadest is that over here, we're much more likely to be specialists, whereas traditional British drama-school training assumes that you'll be doing a bit of everything -- theatre, film, TV, and what is arguably the most specialized in this country, audio.

British friends are often surprised when I explain that straight-up, studio-produced radio drama has been absent from American airwaves for decades, with a few NPR offerings recorded in front of live audiences as the closest thing that remains. Happily, there's been a resurgence of the form in the explosion of podcasting. Nobody could have predicted the runaway popularity of Welcome to Night Vale (which, after listening to it for nearly a year, I still think is most conveniently described as "News From Lake Wobegon with Cthulhu mythos," though that doesn't quite cover it), and the likes of Pendant Productions and Decoder Ring Theatre are making a pretty respectable showing too.

Meanwhile, though, Auntie Beeb never stopped putting original drama on the radio, and these days you can stream or download a lot of it online. (Unlike most of their video, BBC iPlayer radio programming can be played outside the UK.) Some programs are also delivered by podcast; I've been subscribed to the one for the Drama of the Week for a while now.

Sophie Lancaster smiles in front of a Harry Potter poster
Which is how I came to find Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster (sadly not currently available) in my digital media library in March. It sat there for weeks on end, un-listened-to, for precisely the reason it turned out to be even more interesting to me than it otherwise would have been: I was in the middle of rehearsals for The Laramie Project, and wasn't quite up to another dramatization of a hate crime against a young person by other young people.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How far would you go to find your soul?

In which our Diva will be heard but not seen, and is totally okay with that

Exciting news today! Voice of the Vespers, the independent sci-fi feature for which I did the opening narration and some other voice acting, will premiere in just four weeks' time!

I think I've posted the trailer before, but it's super shiny and I'm bursting with pride for writer/director Matthew Van Howe and the whole cast and crew, so here it is again:

The premiere will be held at 9:30 pm Friday, May 30, at the Classic Cinemas Ogden 6 in Naperville. Tickets are just $5. Check out the deets over on the Classic Cinemas website.

Please come on out and celebrate with us!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

And all that we can be, not what we are

In which our Diva assembles another inspiration playlist

If you've been around me or my blog long enough, you know I usually put together a playlist for my theatre or film projects, of music that, for whatever reason, strikes the right emotional resonances for my character's journey. With The Laramie Project's ensemble nature -- eight actors playing 60+ people -- I had to approach things a little differently, and came up with a mix that speaks to me of the play as a whole.

Since there have been a number of songs directly inspired by and/or dedicated to Matthew Shepard (at least 61, as collected by JD Doyle at Queer Music Heritage, whom I thank profusely for sharing the fruits of his research online), I could have made multiple CD-length mixes of those alone. Paring them down to the handful that made the cut -- alongside other music that resonates with the play for me -- was a highly subjective process, and I encourage you to check out the whole collection on the QMH page.

In the end, this is what I came up with (click on the title to buy the track and support the artist!):

Randi Driscoll, "What Matters" - Written in 1998 in response to Matthew's death and released as a single to benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Not only is it lovely and haunting in its own right, it spared me the agony of choosing what version of "Amazing Grace" to include.

Meredith Brooks, "Bitch" - Both on her website and in her book The Whole World Was Watching (which would be an amazing read even if I weren't in the midst of interpreting on stage several people in her life), Romaine Patterson describes this as Matt's favorite song and recalls him singing alternative lyrics they made up.

Peggy Lee, "Run For The Roundhouse Nellie" - The closest thing my research could turn up to Marge's "Run  for the roundhouse, Minnie." Either she knew another version of the song (more than possible), or she just substituted her mom's name and it stuck that way in her head.

W.G. Snuffy Walden, "One Will Fall By the Way" - It might seem weird to include a selection from the soundtrack to The Stand, but Matthew's murder coincided with a period when the Sci-Fi Channel seemed to be running the miniseries every two or three months, so it's part of my emotional wallpaper from that time. This track is the fullest realization of a melody that crops up again and again, always underscoring the inextricable tangle of sacrifice and hope. As Tom Cullen might say (and as I can't help thinking of every time I hear Doc O'Connor's "H-O-P-E" speech in The Laramie Project), "M-O-O-N. That spells hope."

Tara MacLean, "Evidence" - I discovered MacLean's album Silence at a record-store listening station (remember those?) in Bozeman, Montana while on a theatre tour in 1997, and the CD was still in heavy rotation in my listening habits when Matthew's murder dominated the news in late 1998. This particular song has always resonated with the event for me.

Melissa Etheridge, "Silent Legacy" - Etheridge actually wrote a song dedicated to Matthew (one of several titled "Scarecrow" in reference to Aaron Kreifels at first mistaking the unconscious Matthew for a scarecrow when he found him), but this raw, heartrending classic was the one that cried out to be included.

Andrew Spice, "Matthew" - One of the songs I discovered through the Queer Music Heritage page that particularly spoke to me.

Colleen Sexton, "Scarecrow" - Another gem from the QMH page. I decided I should really only have one song with this title, and with all respect to the great Melissa, the choice was a pretty easy one.

Elton John, "American Triangle" - I figured I probably shouldn't cross off all the big stars who wrote songs for Matthew. Sir Elton won the toss.

John Denver, "The Eagle and the Hawk" - I grew up on John Denver, and this song in particular feels like home, like my mountains. It was one of the first songs I chose to include, as a representation of the particular Western sense of the land that crops up several times in The Laramie Project. When I read on Romaine Patterson's FAQ that Matthew liked folk music, "John Denver and shit like that," it instantly became the centerpiece of the playlist.

Dashboard Prophets, "Ballad For Dead Friends" - At the time of Matthew's murder, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was already a surprise hit but not yet a game-changing cultural phenomenon. Its soundtrack is a handy source to mine for a bit of the indie-rock sound of the late 90s, and if it seems incongruous with TLP, remember that it's a modern parable of how ordinary people, particularly young people, can work together to save the world.

Indigo Girls, "Galileo" - I don't really have an explanation. It just feels right.

Sarah McLachlan, "Angel" - In honor of Angel Action, and a nod to Matthew's struggles with depression.

Jessica Weiser, "After the Rain" - I think this is my favorite among the many beautiful songs I discovered through the QMH page.

Magdalen Hsu-Li, "Laramie" - Much like The Laramie Project, though in a different way, this one is about the murder rebounding on the town, at least as much as it is about Matthew.

Jewel, "Hands" - "In the end, only kindness matters."

Orchestra of St. Lukes, "After Laramie" - From the HBO film version of TLP.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, "Make Them Hear You" - As much as I love Ragtime (read: a lot), this one wouldn't have occurred to me on my own, but it seemed obvious when I ran across this video about the Ford's Theatre production of TLP and heard it sung at the vigil they held on the 15th anniversary of Matthew's death.

Sarah McLachlan, "Prayer of St Francis" - May we all be instruments of peace.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The lights of Laramie

In which our Diva returns to GreenMan Theatre in rather a change of pace

This is probably the latest I've ever blogged about an upcoming show, but that's partly because we have a bit of a compressed rehearsal process before our April 4 opening..

With a play like The Laramie Project, that's a lot of emotion packed into about six weeks.

In the fall of 1998, when Matthew Shepard's horrific murder captured the world's attention, I caught the news coverage in between rehearsals for the production of Macbeth I was directing in Columbus, Ohio. In New York, playwright Mois├ęs Kaufman and company members of his Tectonic Theater Project prepared to travel to Laramie and, ultimately, create a very different narrative from the one constructed by the 24-hour news cycle.

The play is assembled from over 200 interviews with the people of the town, as well as public-record texts and journal entries by company members. That last category of insight, as woven into the show's opening moments, reveals the chroniclers' own prejudices and apprehensions about what kind of people live under the wide high-plains sky. About what kind of welcome they might find.

I can't help chuckling a bit at those passages, but I can't blame them either. They were city-bred strangers, some of them gay, venturing into the relatively small town where a young gay man had just been beaten to death. More than that, they had been inundated with the same media narrative as the rest of the country, the one that turned the romantic literature and folklore of the American West inside-out and hung it up as ironic backdrop to darker truths.

It's a narrative I know all too well, and one that sets my teeth on edge every time it finds its way back onto my TV. Every time the worse angels of human nature manifest themselves somewhere in the vast portion of this continent so often dismissed as "flyover," the old romantic notions are trotted out and tied to the pillory for the mocking, as if no one has ever challenged them before.

Those people over there, far away from us in our enlightened sophistication. There is the stagnant pool where society's diseases fester, the ignorance and hate that infect our world. Those rednecks, hicks, zealots, bigots, so foolish as to be surprised when these terrible things happen there.

As I watched the news from Laramie unfold, my shock and grief at what had been done to Matthew Shepard sat alongside distaste and growing resentment for the way the story was being told.

Yes, I said "resentment," and I chose that very personal word deliberately. From sixth grade until I moved out of my parents' home, I lived in Bennett, Colorado, some two hours south and east of Laramie, with less than a tenth its population. Wikipedia will tell you it was home to "Colorado Spam King" Edward Davison and to the late Tim Samaras of Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers.

It will also tell you, in a single dry paragraph, about Bennett's fifteen minutes of national attention a few years ago, when the elementary school music teacher faced firing for showing her first graders a 30-year-old episode of the PBS series Who's Afraid of Opera? It won't tell you about the most ignorant possible quotes plastered all over the news reports, from people (not all of them even parents) hand-wringing over  the subject matter of Faust as if the kids had seen the entire opera instead of a sanitized excerpt.

It won't tell you how sad I was to read those news reports and be reminded forcefully of a similar kerfuffle the summer before my junior year of high school, when plans to implement a "global education" curriculum were scuttled by the outrage of parents, largely stoked by John Birch Society activists from out of town who turned a public forum about the issue into a circus. Not enough of one to catch national attention, but a Denver news team did drive out to grab a few sound bites. School hadn't started yet, so I think they were just looking for B-roll of the building when the cheerleaders came out of practice and gave them some (as I recall, from my 16-year-old perspective) pretty succinct and cogent comments about the misinformation going around.

When the segment aired that evening, though, the one and only resident who appeared was a woman saying "Well, I think it has a Communistic or a Satanistic background," and the tone of the entire piece was "Look at this backward, benighted town." So when "Operagate" came around years later, and all my arts friends were looking at the coverage and shaking their heads, I didn't much relish the awkwardness of simultaneously standing up for my former hometown and being sad that such reactionary elements can still disrupt everyone's lives there.

Bennett is lucky: It's had its embarrassing media moments, but not because anyone died. The humiliation of Laramie on the world media scene, the painting of an entire community as backward and destructive and rotten, the implication that everyone was as culpable as the actual murderers, shook me on a level I still can't adequately express.

Fear makes monsters, and fear is learned. We learn from our community. There's no disputing that, and no disputing that the vein of fear and hate that made monsters of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson was mined from their families, their community. Their world.

But the "let's all shake our heads at the benighted hicks" narrative places their world somewhere outside our own. It encourages us to believe we're different, to sit back in our self-righteous blue-state complacency and ignore the tar pit of unexamined assumptions and privilege bubbling under the foundations of our own homes.

Kaufman and his colleagues did a brave thing in turning away from that narrative and seeking the truth. The people of Laramie did a brave thing in agreeing to share their truth, with all its awkward pointy angles, with yet another set of strangers with tape recorders. Between them, they created something that isn't easy or tidy, that sometimes presents more questions than it does answers. They created a way to tell the story as it was, and as it continues to be.

In The Laramie Project, Father Roger Schmit, the priest who hosted the first vigil for Matthew Shepard as he lay in intensive care, urges the company members interviewing him to "deal with what is true... You need to do your best to say it correct."

I'm humbled and honored to be part of telling that story.

The Laramie Project runs April 4-13, 2014, at GreenMan Theatre in Elmhurst. Details and ticket information can be found at their website.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Nesting instinct

In which our Diva has been putting her winter restlessness to work

As you may have noticed, or at least heard (and heard, and heard, and heard -- the meteorologist on the local news sounds very tired of having to say this stuff!) it's been an awful lot of cold and snowy lately. Now, yours truly -- despite being made entirely of northern European barbarian DNA and having moved to Chicagoland on purpose -- is not a fan of this winter business. Not one little bit. Well, maybe a little bit. A couple weeks of pretty fluffy snow viewed from the nice warm indoors would be fine.

But what's going on this year is more than a little wearing, and I've been combating it by tackling some long-overdue rearranging and organizing and decorating. My house dates to 1908, an American Foursquare that the former owner (a contractor and carpenter himself) updated in all the right ways, keeping intact its beautiful Craftsman woodwork, including the dining room built-in with its original leaded glass.  I fell in love with it the moment I walked in the door just over nine years ago, and promptly dove into research, dreaming of how to bring out its historic character before even making an appointment with a home inspector.

Other pursuits always seem to take precedence, of course, and for the most part those dreams go unrealized. But in the last couple weeks, I've mostly finished overhauling the spare bedroom, a process that started several months ago with expanding the existing shelving to accommodate the lifelong collection known as Val's Personal Doll Army.

Along the way, I've done a lot of thrift shopping, a little painting of shelves thus acquired, some rejiggering of the closet configuration, and spent basically a whole day sitting on the floor devising a new filng system for sheet music that wll actually keep it neat this time, darnit! (That last resolution will be helped by the sad fact that Elgin Opera is no more, which means I'm not tossing another concert's worth of pages on the "I'll put that away later, really I will" pile every few months.)

Probably my favorite design inspiration is one that didn't cost a dime: A pair of vintage blue suitcases that belonged to my grandparents brought up from the basement and stacked into an instant nightstand that perfectly suits the height of the bed and the color scheme and quirky cottage feel of the room.

With only a few small details left there, I've turned my attention to the bigger challenge of organizing the basement, which includes my sewing room and new (and for the moment somewhat makeshift) recording studio for audiobooks. It's not as creative and fun as taking a room and making it pretty and welcoming, but it's the logical next step (at least in the way the house and the stuff in it all goes together in my head) necessary before making the rest of the rooms as pretty and welcoming as they deserve to be.

It'll be a while, for instance, before I can even consider anything involving paint in any way, let alone anything on the order of what latter-day Pre-Raphaelite muse, artist, and blogger Grace has created in her Catty-Corner Cottage. (Hubby and I have been saying from the beginning that this house deserves a name, but we've yet to come up with one. Maybe that'll finally arrive this year too!) Especially the Twelve Dancing Princesses (one of my favorite fairy tales too!) in procession around her dining room walls.

On both that blog and her wider-focused one Domythic Bliss, one of the things I love is how much of it involves making your home fairy-tale beautiful with everyday resources. The trade-off for not spending a lot of money is time, of course, but for many of us that's part of the fun.

When William Morris designed Red House, both money and time were involved, not to mention the talents of Morris' illustrious circle of artistic friends. Recent conservation work has uncovered ever more of the extensive decorative painting throughout the house, including some figures thought to have been painted by Elizabeth Siddal.

I'm not far from that phase of Lizzie's life in writing Unvarnished, and am just realizing how I've set up for it in some sections that talk about their paintings as a world of their own creation. Red House was a truly an entire little world of Morris' own creation, realized with the collaboration of his wife Jane and their friends. (A Twitter conversation last week with Dinah Roe reminded me that there's a great deal that needs to be said about Jane's artistry with an embroidery needle and how it gets largely ignored, but that's a tangent for another day.) What an amazing way to fill hours and walls! Sounds like a party to me.

Funny thing -- when I was fifteen, and all this Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts obsession was still several years in the future, I got it into my head that I wanted to paint a full-wall mural in my bedroom. By that time we lived in a house we owned, after most of my Air Force brat childhood spent living on base, so it was technically not out of the realm of possibility.

Of course, no sane parent is going to turn a fifteen-year-old loose on an innocent expanse of white interior latex, but someone (I don't remember whose idea it was now) came up with the brilliant compromise of tacking up an old white sheet with plastic sheeting behind it. I spent a good chunk of my summer filling it with a rainbow, pot of gold, and flowers, and loved every minute. Once it was finished, I could wake up every morning, put on my glasses, and look at the big window onto a world I had made with my own hands and imagination. Kitschy and derivative imagination, sure, but all mine.

It was an amazing feeling. Making something special always is. I'm hoping to have that feeling a lot more by the time I've finished realizing the dreams for my grownup Arts and Crafts haven.

Speaking of making special things, here's a footnote more related to the previous post: Last week, on a Wombat Friday whim, I put together a "Wombat's Lair" Etsy treasury for the enjoyment of the Earnest Damsels Collective and other wombatophiles. One of the featured crafters, Isobel Morrell of Coldham Cuddlies, messaged me a lovely thank-you for the inclusion, and shared her coinage of the phrase "a wonderment of wombats," (as well as some nifty insights into her crafting process) having decided that the standard group noun, a mob, just wouldn't do for the purposes of her adorable plush creations. I have to agree, and have resolved to refer to our Wombat Friday assemblage as a "wonderment" forever more.

Friday, January 17, 2014


In which our Diva is a most earnest damsel

It's Wombat Friday again, and high time I gave it a nod in this blog! In one of the sillier corners of the Pre-Raphaelite blogosphere (adjacent to such delights as Raine Szramski's Pre-Raphernalia cartoon series and Chiara Moriconi's chibi Rossettis and muses), each Friday sees an increasing array of plush wombats posed with (mostly) Pre-Raph-related books, prints, and objects, not to mention the occasional tea and/or cake. Cake is important. I finally joined the party in September; you can check out all of Lady MacWombat's adventures over on Google +.

As the brilliant (and often unashamedly silly) Kirsty Stonell Walker explained more thoroughly in this blog post, this meme came about as a lighthearted commemoration of one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's many eccentricities, the small menagerie of unusual animals he kept in the garden at Cheyne Walk, of which Top the Wombat was somewhat famously the most beloved. (I'm not sure whether it was Top or one of the other wombats who departed this mortal coil 100 years to the day before I was born; unfortunately, the poor things were all doomed by yet another iteration of Gabriel's enthusiasm exceeding his practical knowledge. Which is disastrous enough when painting murals, but genuinely tragic when living creatures are involved.)

This bit of fun has its detractors (also brought to my attention by Kirsty) for reasons none of us are quite able to take terribly seriously, due not so much to the original blog post as to the anonymous commenter who demonstrates that a sad little dudebro fanboy crying "fake geek girl" is always recognizable as such, regardless of idiom or area of interest.

Mr. Anonymous, however, did unwittingly hand us the newest in the collection of varyingly unofficial names for our inclusive association, which already included the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (somewhat more official owing to Stephanie Pina's wonderful site by that name) and the Wombat Collective. Mr. Anonymous wrote disparagingly of us as "these earnest damsels," and so -- after we collected ourselves from fits of giggles on the floor -- the Earnest Damsels Collective we became. I've been down with the flu all week, so I totally blame the fever for opening up Photoshop and pressing Rossetti's The Bower Meadow into service to represent us.

In any event, as Wombat Friday passes its first birthday (as observed by Stephanie in this post, complete with an archive of everyone's Wombat Friday photos from 2013), let's celebrate the furry and fabulous, literary and loopy, gloriously and goofily Pre-Raphaelite little critters who brighten up the end of our week.

It's more fun than a barrel of wombats!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The wolf is waiting

In which our Diva sees a little action

Just after Christmas, I got a Facebook message from Nathyn Masters: "Are you available Friday or Saturday?" I've worked with Nate on a couple projects, including his epic supernatural action feature Epitaph: Bread and Salt (which, in cast you missed it, you can view in its entirety on YouTube), so I happily went pretty much straight from traveling to getting my Black Widow-esque assassin on to shoot some enigmatic scenes for him with gifted actress and good friend Anita Nicole Brown, as well as meeting some new-to-me faces among what I've come to think of as the TimeCode Mechanics Rep Company.

This was a bit of an experiment, cooked up in Nate's fertile brain during a break in production on his main current project, The Perfect Letter, with no script and minimal direction. I was given the gist of what I should communicate in improvised dialogue, as well as a nice little chuck of Nate's signature comic-book-style fight work.

A few days later, it had a title - Crisis Function - a Facebook page, and a trailer:

I still know only as much as this will tell you about what it's about (and yes, I felt a little bit like I was back in the Resonance-verse - definitely in a good way!), but I'm looking forward to seeing it all play out!