Friday, June 27, 2014

Becoming Dulcinea: life lessons of a kitchen slut

Being Aldonza is really hard. If you've seen my Instagram feed lately, I've polluted it with brag photos of my bruises, cuts, scrapes, and matted hair. 

But being Dulcinea is something altogether indescribable. I've been gushing to anyone who will listen lately-- including a nice reporter (article here)-- of the soul-stirring, redemptive powers of the creative process of developing a character for the stage. Boy oh boy. 

Whenever I get on one of these pontifical rants, Jacob tells me, half-earnestly, half-mockingly, that I should write a book called Life Lessons Learned from Theater: An Actress's Wisdom, or something like that, and include all my philosophies of the power of art and the letters I've received from audience members and whatnot.

Well here's my start, dang it, because my life and my soul and my person would not be what they are without theater, without art, and without the possibility of becoming Dulcinea.

Here's my full interview. Read it and weep. Or, better yet, come to the show and weep. Tickets here.

How did you first get involved with this project, with ‘La Mancha’?
 I've loved working with the Hale Orem in the past, and had just finished doing Les Miserables with Dave TinneyWhen I auditioned, I had almost no exposure to La Mancha, but I thought it would be a fun challenge. I had no idea!

Please briefly describe your character’s personality? How is it similar to your own? 
It's funny you should ask that, because one of the reasons this has been such an incredible learning experience for me is because Aldonza is so different from Anna. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, Dave said we were going to have to bring out my "inner animal". This girl has lived a terrible life, and she copes with that through grit and violence. But I'm the most passive, docile person you'll ever meet! The beauty of Aldonza's journey, though, is that you see her entire rollercoaster-- that verneer of toughness and control, the breaking of it, her exhaustion and depression, her desire to hope for a better life, and her ultimate redemption. Everyone goes through that rollercoaster, to some degree, and I've had to learn to empathize with and understand her experiences so I can make them truthful. I just have to translate her language into my own. Dave and Rob have helped me feel comfortable just being me as Aldonza. And because I'm a very un-Aldonza-like sensitive person, one thing I can do is bring home that tenderness at the end. What's been so difficult for me has been learning to let myself be ugly, dirty, wretched, and completely vulnerable in front of an audience. I talk with my mouth full. I get drunk. I scream and cry and froth at the mouth. And the audience still (hopefully) accepts me! This has definitely been the hardest and most rewarding role I've ever played.

What is it like performing in front of a live audience? Talk about what it takes to connect with an audience?
 Everyone loves working in this theater, because the audience is literally right there with you (It's a constant effort not to step on their toes or sit on their laps). Connecting with the audience, then, isn't a problem as long as we, as actors and crew, are connected with each other. Rather than beefing everything up for a giant stage, we have to work for subtlety and honesty. When we do it right, it's incredibly powerful.

Does your character experience a turning point in the story? If so, when? And is there a scene that you are especially anxious for audiences to see?
  Because of the intimacy of the theater, Aldonza's journey into Dulcinea is a brutal thing to experience-- which makes it all the more moving. My favorite response is when I've had audience members -- usually women-- just come to me in silence and embrace me. Often there's no need for words . Violence against women is a sickeningly relevant topic-- in the 1500s and today-- and when the audience sees Aldonza try to maintain control, then hit rock bottom, and then ultimately find peace and hope with Don Quixote's help, I think it's a character arch that everyone can relate to.  Luckily other characters provide plenty of comic relief, but my job is to make the audience uncomfortable, sad, and ultimately triumphantly hopeful. Ha! No pressure.                                                                                     
Please comment on how the performing arts are kind of universal language and using the arts as a way to share a message.
 Humans need a safe place to come together and feel. That's what the theater is for.

What message or feeling would you hope audiences leave with after seeing your performance? After experiencing and seeing your character on stage?
 I hope they (as I do) feel a little less lonely in their own journey, and confident that no matter who they are or what they've done, they matter. They are worth more. Every human soul has the potential for beauty and greatness.

How have you approached your character in Tinney’s rendition of “Man of La Mancha?”
 I've tried to approach Aldonza with complete empathy and vulnerability. It's a very scary thing to do, as an actor and as a person.

Any other thoughts or comments? Or something you would like to point out?
Come soon, so you'll have time to come back!

Love, fake blood, and the old man after the show that took my hand in tears and whispered "Dulcinea del Toboso...",

Friday, June 6, 2014

paying attention.

I have some really good things in my life. Don't believe me? Here's a smattering of examples:
  • Dr. Jacob Andrew Rennaker (Yeah, he's a Doctor of Philosophy now, which makes the predicament below even more obvious and degrading). And he just texted, asking if he could bring me an Old Fashioned donut. I almost cried. Now, that's matrimonial bliss, people!
  • My apartment is only $500 a month, and it's a perfect apartment. I'm serious.
  • The BYU Creamery wasn't out of Graham Canyon ice cream last time I went, therefore, I have the comforting knowledge that there it is, deliciously waiting for me in the freezer, at any given moment.
  • I'm working on the most personally difficult role  I've ever had (Aldonza in Man of La Mancha) and it's zapping my soul energy, fraying my nearly non-existent nerves, and it's really, really, rewarding.
  • I'm really good at distracting myself. I find teeny, unnecessary tasks extremely fulfilling and can spend the whole day doing them: copiously dusting my blinds, color coordinating my bookshelf, looking at every green colored item on Modcloth.
With that nice little list compiled, here's the other thing about my life:
I CANNOT, without exception, concentrate on anything academic right now. 
Big deal, Anna! It's Summer! You don't even have a job! Right? WRONG.
I'm not new to the whole being a student thing. Actually, I haven't stopped being a student for the last twenty years. Straight.

And yet... here, so near the finish line, My brain has turned into an Alex Mack puddle (without the benefit of having its own TV show), my motivation has dried up, and my ambition has retired to a nice Senior Center in Orlando or something.

I am entirely finished with my graduate school coursework, with the pathetic exception of a final exam (don't be fooled by the innocent title-- it's actually a twenty-page essay exam) and a paper (likewise-- don't be fooled) for a class last semester, for which I had to receive an Incomplete grade from an undeservedly magnanimous professor because my brain was starting the liquification process at the time. Oh, and I couldn't get out of bed, except to drag myself to my Les Mis performances, have a couple diet cokes, and then crawl back to bed. For a few months or something. But that's all over! Now that Incomplete work is all due, um, today.

And besides those little things, which feel huge but are, actually relatively small, all I have left is my thesis:
Look at him, all graduated. It makes me sick. JK.
But really, though.
Write it. Defend it. BOOM-- I'm a Master! Everyone else in my program is doing it! But here I am, on my sixth diet coke in the last couple days, puzzling over how to click on the file and open it. Let alone fill it up with words.

Here's what I just texted Jacob:
"...But my soul is cracked! My motivation is malfunctioning. I've lost all my student skills. I am a walrus."
Yeah, I'm not sure what that means either.

Any suggestions, besides Adderall? Because I can literally accomplish nothing all day, and feel totally occupied. 

Hold on, I have to go organize my nail clippers.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I'm past overdue 
in thanking the world
for the overwhelmingly empathetic and generous response to my last post, "Mother".

I had little thought in writing down my feelings about miscarriage and motherhood other than to hopefully make some sense of it. But the grace and openness that flooded me in return was... humbling, to say the least. There are so many truly good people out there, and, if you're reading this, you're probably one of them. 
So thank you.

Thank you for the blog comments and Facebook comments and for sharing the post with others who could relate or who wanted to be able to.
Thank you for the texts and calls and e-mails and messages and mailed cards and in-person hand squeezes.
Thank you for opening up and telling me of past and present pain.
Thank you for telling me about tragedies much more tragic than mine.

Thank you for being vulnerable and, simply, being kind.
I can't thank you enough or express with these meaningless syllables what it means to me, so thank you.

Today I was up and at my office before nine. This never happens because, lately, getting out of bed is a four hour or so process. But this morning I did it! And whether it's healthy or just a little sad, I felt pretty accomplished.

And here's the part I want to tell you. Today is my very first time being at my desk early in the morning, and I have to wear sunglasses-- even with the blinds down-- because of the angle of my window and the power of the sunlight. 
It’s kind of beautiful.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mother (or, finally writing about my miscarriage five months later)

December, 2013
"I think I might be having a miscarriage. I have many feelings:
-fear, that it will hurt; that I killed my child somehow.
-guilt, that at first I thought of this possibility as a kind of possible 'solution'- that maybe, somewhere, I even hoped for it a little.
-guilt guilt guilt. What did I do wrong!? I went off my medication cold turkey. I've been sleeping a lot. Haven't missed a single pre-natal.
And yet, it may be nothing to worry about... just the waiting is terrifying..."

As Mother's Day fast approaches and I start to feel sorry for myself-- because, if circumstances were different, I would be very close to being a mother right now-- and I stop feeling happy for so many friends and relatives who have brand new little ones or are about to, I figure it's time to finally release into the blogosphere some of the pain and beauty and grace and agony I've experienced recently, in relation to becoming--and being-- a mother.

Yes, I had a miscarriage, and yes, it sucked, and yes, it was the ugliest and most emotionally painful experience of my life. To go from having so much hope and joy and expectation for the Little Bean inside of me, and then so quickly and so gruesomely to lose it all: to give birth to death; to be haunted by the guilt and the relief and the "what did I do wrong?"s and the incessant, constant, brutal re-livings of the most unceremonious burial imaginable for my first born-- an insultingly impersonal flush down the toilet... well, that was my purgatory for a long while.

A beautifully-written article in the Exponent II magazine resounded a little too well with me. The author, Heather Sundahl, writes, 
"I'm not saying it's the worst thing in the world. But don't tell me it doesn't suck to carry a life, make physical and emotional plans for that life, and then have it basically disappear, with nothing to hang on to. No memories. No photos. Nothing."
What I feared most was publicity. People feeling sorry for me. People acting weird around me. Trying to comfort me. Telling me that it would be okay. That we could try again. That It's really common. 

I hunkered down into a little shell of isolated self-sabotage and pathologically kept myself "busy". My mom asked me, concerned, why I sounded so "normal" on the phone. My guarded, maybe even slightly cheery tone was understandably unsettling. After all, it was one of the biggest days of my life-- my graduate thesis reading exam, and I had calmly walked to my professors first thing in the morning and explained that I wouldn't be taking the eight hour essay test, because I was pretty sure I was losing my baby, and it seemed logistically a little difficult. Oh, and, by the way, I was pregnant.

Why wouldn't I cry and scream and sob to my desperately empathetic mother who had experienced her own fair share of pregnancy loss? It was because I wouldn't be able to take the compassion and grief that would inevitably be thrust at me if I showed weakness. I told hardly anyone and thus refused to give them the chance to say the right things; well-meaning comfort is so acutely painful sometimes. If anyone had told me that it would be okay... Well, I didn't want it to be okay, okay!? If I tried to get better, if I tried not to mourn, it would only increase my guilt a million-fold, I knew it, and it would surely negate the  importance of the little life-that-was.

 Of course all those things are true-- about being okay and trying again for another one---  but didn't this one matter? Doesn't it still? I wanted to keep my grief private so I could really, really grieve and thus, somehow, make the grief mean something. For the small amount of time we were together, it had  changed so much about me-- for the first time in my life, my life-- my body-- was no longer my own. I was a mother... wasn't I? Didn't that count for something?

I wrote a poem for The Bean when the first waves of unbearable nausea hit that inevitably rendered the abstract idea of "pregnancy" into a strikingly new concept, so real and exciting: the idea of"Mother."

I Have a Secret (Words for Eve)

It's roughly the size of a sesame seed
this week.
I call it "Bean"
and sing to it in the shower.
I call it "her"
in my heart.
I will be her Mother.

My secret is Eve, she is first born.
She is my hope and my joy and my heart-gripping fear.
She is my nausea and my inexpressible "glow".
She will be born into a world of paradoxes--
heavens and hells; "women" and "men";
and endarkenment.
I will be her mother.

She will learn about her name
and the pain and fear and
centuries of weight it carries.
She will learn about her name
and the Mother of All Living.
She will learn that "mother" is not
synonymous with "rib"
or "sin"
or "hearkens".

To her, "mother" will mean

To her, "father" will mean

My secret sesame seed
will grow into a tree
with roots back to the sixth day of Creation--
with branches to a brighter day--
with a name that means
And she, too, will be mother.

 As the disgustingly ironic way of things would have it, that big, big day also happened to be the opening night of the show I was in at the time, Joyful Noise. And, as the sadistic fates decreed, my character's central conflict in the play was having her little daughter ripped away from her. 
I had no understudy. I had to perform. 
I had to waddle around in Depends, amniotic material still flowing out of me, and deliver every blessed line. I had to not tell anyone, because it might make me burst from the ache of it, and I had to sing the Coventry Carol ("lully lullay, thou little tiny child").

The reviewer that came that night said she didn't sympathize with or care for my character because I "cried too much." And that, my friends, was the cherry on top of the knee to my proverbial, achy groin.

Going to church was torture, and I had to leave more than once, choking down sobs as what seemed like every single other woman around me sat with their hands resting on their beautifully healthy, 8-month-pregnant bellies, or rocking their newborns, or chuckling at their toddlers. I tried not to feel sorry for myself, but, in a large way, I mostly felt sorry for my baby. Why didn't it get to experience life? Why didn't it let me love it longer?

But all this woe, this painful, painful woe-- was it all for naught? Of course not. I'm getting to the hopefully inspiring part. But it may not be all that inspiring after all, because I'm not especially wise, and I haven't figured this all out yet. I'm not going to pretend that I have. 

But I learned some things. I learned an awful lot about opening up. I learned how desperately and completely I love my husband-- that he's actually, literally, an angel (for Valentine's day, he wrote me a poem about Mother in Heaven and loss and motherhood that would make anyone weep. It's my prized possession). I learned that it's okay to let others in on your grief. I learned that sometimes the best thing to say to someone who's in deep, wordless pain is what my dear sister said to me: "I'm not going to say it's okay, because it's not. And I'm not going to say to feel better, because you won't for a long time. But I love you and I'm so, so sorry."

 Most importantly, though, I think I learned a little bit more about what it means to be a mother. Yeah, I consider myself a mother now, because I had a little life in me, and that little life came out of me, even though I don't get to help it keep living. But that's not motherhood. 
Mothering, is, well, loving someone so purely and completely that they are, for all intents and purposes part of you, whether it's in the literal sense that many lucky ladies get to experience, or whether it's in the simple, beautiful sense of unconditional love. Motherhood is love in its purest form, and pure love, in my belief, is the love of Christ. And if He can gather us up like a hen gathers her chicks, can't we all mother in that same way? Can't we all love purely and absolutely and so wholly that we become one?
I certainly think so.

This Mother's Day, I'm honoring literal mothers everywhere, because they do great things and beautiful and selfless things. But I'm also honoring the mother-like love that every human being can cultivate and experience. Sometimes, unfortunately, we can only come to really recognize it through pain or grief or, even, loss. But it's so alive and so real, and because of that, I have no choice but to smile.

Love, hope, and happiness.


I want to carry you
and for you to carry me
the way voices are said to carry over water.

Just this morning on the shore,
I could hear two people talking quietly
in a rowboat on the far side of the lake.

They were talking about fishing,
then one changed the subject,
and, I swear, they began talking about you.

Billy Collins

that's all, folks


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