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Hamilton: For the Love of Theatre

June 19, 2016

hamilton desktop

This story was originally posted on my Facebook page, May 20, 2016. 

Word on the street is that Hamilton tickets are difficult to acquire. In mid-March, the box office said 4-14 tickets are released every day and sold at face value. The 10 or so people that day began lining up at 6am. A scientific method for obtaining tickets. Arrive early enough and you’re in!

Then Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer. Then the show broke records with 16 Tony nominations, of which 4 were for him. Michelle Obama called Hamilton: “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life.” Ben Brantley’s New York Times review suggests it “might just be worth” mortgaging your house and leasing your children to acquire tickets. People began camping out in tents on the street to acquire those 4-14 released seats. Professional line standers appeared. Rules cracked down. No tents, no chairs, no leaving the line, no substitute line holders.

Wednesday, May 18 was my Hamilton day. I wrote it into the family calendar weeks ago. Lin-Manuel Miranda was scheduled to perform. Warm enough to wait on the street for 14 hours with comfy, cushioned seat and snack foods packed along with a dense book (The Hare with Amber Eyes), I set off at 5am.

I arrived to find a line at 5:50am. The first 4 people had been waiting since 2:30pm on Tuesday. The next 4 had arrived at 11pm Tuesday night. Surveying the line, it was a toss up whether I should stay. I would have tickets 15&16, if that many were released on a 2-show day.

The guy in front of me, a student who left CT at 4:00am by car, convinced me that I had an excellent chance and that it would be fun waiting together. One of the women who’d been waiting all night bought bagels and cream cheese for everyone. A Russian grandmother from Brighton Beach joined the line at 6:30am. She saw the show in March, she said. After standing in the ticket release line on a freezing cold day, she was offered a single premium seat for $477. “I was jumping up and down I was so excited. It was for Orchestra row L which was very far away. But it was worth it.”

Uh-oh. What would I do if I was offered 2 seats for $477? Would I kiss $1,000 goodbye to see a play I could listen to at home for free any time? Not to mention the investment of a day of my life. Am I a lemming?

Then, my husband Steve joined me for the lottery which took place at 12:30pm for $10 front row seats. We didn’t win. At 1:55pm, the first 6 people got matinee released tickets. A couple of them were standing room (after being up all night) for $40 a pop. We were now tickets 9&10 for the 8pm.

Two of the people in front of us were professional line standers. With the new box office crackdown to eliminate professionals, the box office ended up releasing tickets after 7:55pm. At that point, it was too late for these guys to notify their clients. So at the last minute, they paired up to see the show together, which moved us to positions 7&8.

At 7:57pm, the first two people in line were ushered inside for tickets, then the second two. We were now positions 3&4. Then the box office asked for only the next person. One ticket left? Former professional line stander #1 went in. A minute later his partner in crime disappeared inside. Steve and I discussed. We were next, if there was a next. What if only one ticket was available? We can’t turn it down. No way! Who goes? He said I should go since I’d been waiting 6 hours longer.

“Next in line. Only one of you.” Steve pointed to me.

It’s 8:01pm. I go inside and approach the window.

“How many?”

“Two,” I hear myself say.

“$354 please.” I fumble for my credit card, give it to him, he hands me a receipt to sign, I sign. He gives me the tickets. I go outside.

Steve is waiting #1 in line for the next single ticket. It’s 8:02. I hold up the tickets and motion for him to join me. The Russian grandmother thinks I’m holding a ticket for her, too, while Steve hesitates, not understanding. I motion again. Confused, he follows me. “You got TWO?” Yes.

We rush in, hand the tickets to the usher at the entrance. “Sharp right.” We make a bee-line right. I expect to see stairs to the nose bleed seats. After all, these are $177 tickets. The door leads us to the orchestra. We must be in partial view seats off to the side, I think, as I hand the tickets to the next usher. She points to the Center Section, Row G. I drop my stuff, the 2 professional line standers are next to us. They’ve never seen the show.

I climb over them to get to the bathroom. The bathroom attendant tells me the show is starting. I return just as the lights are coming down. I’m in my seat as the first actor walks onstage. I’m breathless. I don’t know if I’ll faint or cry. I can’t believe these seats! Row G is raised above F so that not a single head blocks the periphery of the stage.

Act 1 is bliss. At intermission I can’t move. I stand up to let people out, still stunned by the experience. The lady behind us tells us this is her 23rd time seeing Hamilton. “I come every two weeks. I’m a little embarrassed when so many people can’t see it and I’m on #23. The presidential candidates should be required to see this show. When people ask me how many times I’ve seen it, I tell them, ‘not enough times.’ This is why I got rich. Some women buy designer high heels, some fancy cars. For me, it’s so I can come back and see this. At 3 o’clock this afternoon, my seats were over $3,000 on Stubhub. By 6:30pm, they dropped to $1,500, so I bought them. I do that every time.”

At this point I’m very curious about how she got so rich. She asks our names. We tell her. “I’m Rosie. This is my daughter and it’s her 3rd time seeing the show. What do you do?” We tell her. Violin is her favorite instrument. She bonds with Steve over the amazing violin in Hamilton. She tells me she produced a one-woman show downtown at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre. Had I heard of the show? It rang a bell. I’m very much doubting this lady got rich producing a one-woman show. She tells me she’s thinking of doing her own one-woman show. Her background is comedy, stand-up. She won a talent search award on TV when she was 20. She hosted a TV talk show for six years on VH1.

“Is that how you got rich?” I ask. Yes, she says. She’s made a few movies, too. Comedy. Next week she’s opening for Cyndi Lauper.

 

She tells us about “Hamiltome,” the book in which Lin-Manuel Miranda explains it all. “It’s like open source,” she says. “He does this brilliant work and explains how he did it so you can do it too. Incredible.” The show is starting again. We drop to our seats. The two pro line standers come back. They flip when they see Rosie as the lights come down. She promises they can have their photo taken with her after the show. They’ve already gotten shots of themselves with Steven Spielberg.

Act II is perfection to the millionth power. The show ends. Steve rescues a Hamilton memorabilia cup somebody left under their seat with half a drink. Rosie taps our shoulders and says, “Nice meeting you.” We head out into the night dizzy with wonder.

The Baby Nurse

November 30, 2015

Baby nurse

“Did you include the story about how Mother and I got out of Austria?”my dad’s cousin Julius asked yesterday over brunch at his house in Half Moon Bay.

Did I include that story? It’s the culmination of the play Felicitas I’m performing on Tuesday at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse about the life of his mother Felicitas Sofer, an infant nurse from Vienna. He will see the play for the first time Tuesday – the play in which I portray his mother, based on stories he told me, accompanied by Steve May’s mandolin music.

Felicitas Sofer was my great aunt “Lizi”. Her nursing territory included my Northern New Jersey hometown. In fact, she was the nurse who attended my home birth.

My mother describes how when she was in labor, Aunt Lizi instructed her to walk up and down the hallway of our home, periodically dropping with her hands around Aunt Lizi’s neck to hang with full weight dangling for a minute, then back onto her feet to walk some more. I was expected the same day as one of Aunt Lizi’s other baby clients, but conveniently waited an extra day to accommodate the other baby.

After writing two shows about Lizi’s older sisters – my grandmother actress Lilia Skala and great aunt, dancer Elizabeth Polk – it seemed hard to conceive of how a baby nurse might prove to be a worthy subject for the stage. Lizi’s work and life were very private. She never talked about her baby cases. I saw her only at Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. I couldn’t remember the sound of her voice or accent.

What was there to write about?

In 2007, I interviewed her son Julius hoping he might shed some light on her life. There were a couple of clues indicating she had a story to tell. One was that although she called herself Mrs. Sofer, she had never been married. Interestingly, the brief interactions I’d had with her on holidays were almost always about marriage.

“There’s no reason why you can’t marry a prince. Grace Kelly was an American girl like you and she married Prince Rainier. It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is to fall in love with a poor man,” she said.

When I was five, I remember mentioning that my feet were sweaty. “Your husband won’t like that in bed,” she warned.

It was only in junior high that my mother mentioned Aunt Lizi had never been married.

“But she has a son!”

“If I’d known about the skeletons in your father’s family closet, I would have thought twice about marrying him,” said my mother.

When cousins came for the holidays, Lizi pointed out that “it’s perfectly legal to marry your first cousin in many states.”

Aunt Lizi once bought a wedding dress on sale at Filene’s Basement for her 16-year old niece Grace, even though Grace had no thought of marriage and hasn’t married to this day.

Was Lizi so focused on marriage because she regretted not marrying?

“No,” says her niece Grace, “she was focused on marriage because that’s how you get more babies.”

When I asked Julius about his mother’s life, a fascinating woman of selfless nobility emerged. He filled me in with juicy details about what motivated her decisions, who his father was, how he left Austria with her in 1939. I recorded and transcribed everything.

And yes. These stories in addition to those from Lizi’s baby nurse clients will be revealed in Felicitas Tuesday night.

Creative Brief – My Story

May 13, 2015
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Q&A with Libby Skala and Val Lieske after a performance of Lilia! at Fire Exit Theatre in Calgary. Photo by Tara Whittaker Photography.

After years of hearing about the value of career coaching, I decided to take the leap and sign up for six months of coaching with iCadenza, a performing artist consultant group. Before beginning, I was asked to answer a number of questions to help define my values and mission so that the next steps would become clear. Here are some of the questions and answers.

Your Personal Story

 

What brought you to this point? 

My love of that special connection, communication, stillness, spontaneity, joy, wonder, discovery, listening, aha! that occurs both in individual and collective consciousness during a live performance. That intangible back and forth between performer and audience where mundane cares of everyday life are forgotten and people are lifted up, transported, and breath as one. The joy and wonder of taking people on a journey, holding their hand and guiding them along to view new vistas.

 

Why are you doing what you’re doing? 

When all of the outside and inside nagging voices are silent, deep down it’s because I know I CAN do it. When the work is coming from that deep place without the woulda-shoulda-couldas, without trying to please or impress- without the drowning voices of inadequacies, when all is one, then I sense or know a greatness that is so freeing, rare and precious there simply is nothing else. When I feel that, it is felt by others and reflected back. The result is beauty, clarity.

 

Were there any clues early in your life that you’d end up doing this type of work?

I began piano classes when I was 5. I loved helping children in class understand what we were learning. It made me feel smart and helpful. In first grade, I delighted in playing piano for my elementary school classmates. I loved their awe and excitement when they recognized a piece. In second grade, when I began writing reports, I remember how engaging it was for me to write what I’d learned, intrigued by my own interpretation of the subject as it poured onto the page, conscious of my reader’s amusement as I wrote. At that moment, I felt like an adult and knew I could be a journalist reporting on subjects of my fancy to a wider audience as a supplemental job. I wanted to primarily be an artist because I loved making artwork and saw how much pleasure my artwork brought to the adults in my life. One day when I was home alone, the distinctive voice of a family friend came out of me. I began talking in her voice and entertaining myself. I never shared that ability with anyone until I began developing my first one-woman show at the insistence of my teacher Gary Austin.

 

What’s holding you back the most in your work?

Forgetting who I am and why I’m here.

 

What is your proudest accomplishment?

There are many highlights. The most recent was developing, marketing and performing a new show with my musician-husband in 8 weeks, about a subject most said wasn’t stage worthy. We had a packed house, the audience loved it, many said they liked it better than my first two shows. My sister called the next day in tears saying she was so proud her daughters have me as an aunt.

 

What’s a major obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Feeling unprepared to perform a brand new show for the first time when there were reviewers in the audience who ended up panning it. With wise guidance from friends, I was able to build in more rehearsal time to perfect the show, invite each reviewer back, get back on stage and make it work. 

 

What’s your superpower? Love.

 

What are the top three highlights of your life? 1. Marrying my husband. That may actually be my proudest accomplishment, as well. 2. Having an elderly man in Hutchinson, Kansas come up to me after a performance of Lilia! with tears in his eyes and say he had never been so moved and that to make a man cry was really something. 3. Dallas Travers’ “Actors Breakthrough” workshop. I’m going to add a fourth: seeing tears running down my mother’s face during an early incarnation of Lilia!, then telling me it was because she’d never thought of me as beautiful before. This makes me think of a fifth highlight: An elderly gentleman telling me after a performance of Lilia! in London that it was one of the most beautiful evenings he’d ever had in the theatre. He then identified himself as a former lead dancer in Diaghilev’s Ballets and toured with them for years. I’d just visited a Diaghilev exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum and what he said meant a lot to me.

 

What’s one random thing you know a lot about? The stories of my forebears.

 

Where can you be found when you’re not working? What’s your favorite way to spend a weekend or a Sunday afternoon? At a museum. I love the way a curator puts together an exhibition, framing the subject and communicating it with a unique spin to the public. Plus, I love learning about the subject matter and getting an in-depth understanding of it.

 

What do you love to talk about more than anything? The stories that have brought us to where we are today, that have shaped and formed our lives, that have guided and changed us.

 

Your Artistic Project’s Brand Story

 

Why does it matter that your artistic project exists in the world? 

My artistic project connects us to one another. It connects us to our own histories – where we came from, where our parents came from, who they are, how their stories affect who we are. My story is your story because I’m giving it to you, now it’s yours to compare and contrast with your own, to add to your repertoire and experience. You have lived vicariously through it, too, as I have lived through the story of those parents and grandparents whose stories I share.
 
What do you know about your artistic project that you wish other people knew and understood?
It’s portraiture in the same way that Cezanne painted his wife and child again and again applying his artistry to a subject he knew and loved intimately. Only this portraiture is in 3-D with light, sound and moving gesture, but is (at its best) as much a framed portrait as the Cezanne on the wall of the Metropolitan museum, only crafted with different tools.
 
What makes your artistic project unique?
At its best, it’s animated with a spirit that is an authentic expression of my love. The intangibles are what make it unique, and those are the very things that are difficult to articulate. The best articulation is by an audience member I’d never met who wrote this after a performance of Lilia!:
  • “The magnificent character and the story could have been easily romanticized. I’m not religious, but thank God it wasn’t.  It’s not easy – especially at this moment to write or dramatize God, light, gratitude, love, humanity itself. Because we tend to gravitate to perversions, degradations and the anarchy of the human spirit, soul and mind.  We’ve become children of conditioning, a culture of followers, and in doing so we’ve mugged our very identity. Bless your grandmother and bless you for having the daring to dramatize her life, her being, her forever evolving identity. One of her greatest qualities was that she never allowed herself to become a victim. She had many reasons, but she never succumbed to them. Victimhood has become one of our greatest religions. No one is responsible anymore. No one is at fault. Our very thought has become infected. That’s why this play is needed, and to be dramatized to the full extent of its potential, the actor can go as far as the play and the playwright allows us. And in this play one can go very, very far. Allow me to say that this play allows you to go as far as you want. You’ve already dared so much. Now, keep daring, keep trusting, keep evolving. It’s nothing more than the essence of this wonderful story about a most wonderful, complex, spiritual human being.”
How do you want presenters and venues to feel about working with you and presenting your project?
I want them to feel joyful, justified, remunerated and rewarded artistically and financially. I want them to feel like the show exceeded their expectations by not only fulfilling their mission as presenters, but by meeting the artistic and cultural hunger and intellectual curiosity of their audiences beyond measure.
 
What’s the philosophy behind your project?
That we are all one and yet embody infinite individuality and uniqueness, forever evolving, growing, becoming more and more self-aware and aware of the world around us. Sharing our stories and living through the telling of others’ stories illustrates this.
 
What’s your message to your fans/audience?
My message is: We’re all alive right now here in this moment of infinity together and share a common humanity. I’m teaching by demonstration – even as I’m learning it for myself in the moment it’s happening – how to live, what life is, what love is, what substance is, what resonates most deeply. Let’s embark on that journey together for the next hour or more.
 
Why do audiences need to hear what you have to offer?
To be reminded of who we really are. We get so distracted by the fears and obstacles we encounter as we work our way through life, that it’s helpful to see the lives of others laid out before us on stage objectively. To be able to watch and live vicariously through these stage characters and their experiences, realizing that even in their imperfections, by hook or by crook they triumphed over obstacles. Audiences need that joyful, entertaining, moving, inspiring nudge reminding them that they can do it, too, and fulfill a life of purpose.
 
I want my artistic project(s) to be known for …
Their insightful truthfulness, honesty, authenticity, their affectionate depiction of mankind.
 
I want my fans/audience to feel …
Comforted, inspired, reassured, encouraged, moved… to feel understanding, to feel enlightened, engaged, committed… to feel recognition, to feel curious, thoroughly entertained, full of wonder, amused, uplifted, focused, recharged, refreshed, renewed, delighted.. to feel joy and bliss.
I see my work as a means to …
Give something of value to the world from my heart that is a unique and authentic expression of who I am. I see my work as a means to learn, to grow in my understanding of life and the world around me, as a way to connect with others. I see it as a means to expand my perception of possibility in myself and others.
 
My project will resonate with people who are …
Sensitive, artistic, creative, perceptive, intuitive, imaginative, hungering for hope.
 
I cherish working with people who …
 – Have a big vision, love people, love ideas, are effective and creative at executing their ideas. 
 – Are intelligent, courageous and perceive the infinite potential in people, places and things. 
 – Are tenacious, persistent, patient, energetic, curious.

Remembrances and Resiliency

October 16, 2014

resiliency

Bas Bleu Theatre asked me to write a few sentences for LEST WE FORGET: A Weekend of Remembrances and Resiliency, in which my play Lilia! is featured. Here’s what I wrote:

When I think of resiliency, I think of bouncing back, of something that can’t be held down. It’s driven by a desire to live and a belief that life is worth living, even in hardship. My grandmother Lilia Skala was very frank with me about the darkest hours of her life – when she felt doomed in Nazi-occupied Austria, when she was hopeless in America about ever having an acting career again, when facing divorce. But she also said the blessing of tribulation is that it’s like a furnace separating the dross from the gold. It either makes you or breaks you. It never leaves you where it found you.

When she arrived in America, she promised herself to never look back. She acknowledged past events, but disciplined herself to live in the present and to avoid ruminating. She chose to be grateful for good instead of viewing a glass half-empty. As a result, after 25 years, her career blossomed with Oscar, Emmy and two Golden Globe award nominations well-beyond standard retirement age.

One of the many things she taught me is the significance of gratitude. During a low point in my life, she wrote me: “I often think, ‘What could I do to make her happy, what could I give her?’ And then I remember from my own experience, happiness is within us. And gratitude is an almost primitive means of making me aware of what I have. Above all, I have the capacity to think. I could have all the world offers and if I couldn’t think, if I could not be consciously aware of it, it would be nonexistent for me.”

I love being reminded that resiliency is a choice. It is a healing concept. My deep desire is that sharing the remembrance of my grandmother, alongside Susan Polis Schutz’s film and Susan Cernyak-Spatz’s book – will collectively bring a ripple of insight, inspiration and joy to Colorado audiences.

Libby Skala performs Lilia!, a one-woman show about her relationship with her grandmother actress Lilia Skala, alongside Susan Polis Schutz’s film Seeds of Resiliency and Felice Locker’s play “Jostled,” directed by John Moore starring Wendy Ishii, followed by speaker Susan Cernyak-Spatz, author of Protective Custody, Prisoner 34042 at Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins, CO. www.basbleu.org.

Putting Elizabeth Polk officially on the Map

October 8, 2013

Lisl Plaque

In 1938 and 1939, my dad’s family arrived in batches as political refugees into New York, leaving forever their homes in Vienna, Austria.  Great Aunt Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk (subject of my show A Time to Dance) was the first to arrive with her husband Harry in 1938. They were largely responsible for acquiring affidavits for the rest of the family.

At first, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem, which they shared with refugee friends Illa and John Banner. Illa was a fellow dancer who quickly made it to Broadway, while John was a mostly unemployed actor.  Aunt Lisl said, “That was a happy marriage, Honey! Every day, when Johnny came home from work, he lifted Illa off the floor into his arms and declared, ‘This woman’s feet should never touch the ground!’ Then he began to eat. Illa would say, ‘Stop eating so much, Johnny, you’re getting fat.’ He would reply, ‘When I get fat, I’ll be successful.’  They divorced. He got fat and eventually became famous playing Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes.”

Aunt Lisl began scouting for a new neighborhood to settle in with Harry and the soon-to-arrive extended family. She rode the 7 train daily to work at Waldes zipper factory in Long Island City, a company her father helped build from Europe. One day, she took the 7 train past her regular stop and spied a station called 46th/Bliss Street. “Bliss!” She got out and discovered blocks of charming English-style brick houses with community gardens. This was Sunnyside Gardens. She and Harry found an apartment there and by 1944, purchased a house on Bliss Street, 3 blocks from my grandparents’ home.  “Sunnyside” and “Bliss” promised them the solace they yearned for after a dark night left behind.

A dance school was opened in Aunt Lisl’s basement for neighborhood children dreaming of becoming ballerinas. I look daily into its large, framed mirror now hanging on my living room wall. One day my grande-dame-actress-grandmother Lilia said to her, “Lisl, do you want to spend your life in the basement? Is that why God put you on earth – to live and work in the basement?”

Lisl thought about it and realized someday she’d have to answer for what she’d done with her life. Did she want to say she’d taught neighborhood children in her basement? Or rather that she’d contributed to society in a larger way by helping those in need? She chose the latter, which led her to The Lexington School for the Deaf where she began a career teaching dance to special-needs children. She went on to help found the National Dance Teacher’s Guild and the American Dance Therapy Association.  She left teaching when she was 90, and three years later, in 1995, she received a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Therapy Association for “chief pioneer in the dance therapy field.”

In 2005, I began writing A Time to Dance, a play based on her entertaining life stories, using music from Wake UP! Calm Down, a set of LP records she produced and sold to members of the dance therapy field.  In 2006, A Time to Dance opened at the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival and in 2007, it won “Best Solo Performer Award” at the London Fringe Theatre Festival. That year it came to NYC where Herb and Liz Reynolds of Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance saw it with a group of neighbors. A month later, thanks to their devoted efforts, Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Sunnyside Gardens a NYC Historic District.

Which bring us to last month. On September 21, 2013, a National Register of Historic Places plaque was unveiled on the former home of my great aunt Elizabeth Polk at 39-48 46th/Bliss St, Sunnyside, Queens. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer presented her daughter Grace with a framed Proclamation of her achievements and community service. Former dance students and colleagues celebrated alongside neighbors and the charming new owners – the McKnight family with their 8 children. The day was capped with a performance of A Time to Dance at Sunnyside Reformed Church where Pastor Neil Margetson welcomed guests and provided refreshments. It was a memorable day indeed, and I was proud to take part in this historic event. Photos are below.

On Saturday, October 26, 2013, my grandmother actress Lilia Skala will be honored with a National Register of Historic Places plaque and a special tribute by Sidney Poitier in honor of the occasion at 39-19 49th St in Sunnyside, Queens, 3 blocks away. I’ll perform LILIA!, my play about her life at Sunnyside Reformed Church, around the corner. Refreshments will be served. Admission is free, donations are welcome.

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Neighbors and colleagues gather at the former home of Elizabeth Polk for a National Register plaque unveiling, 2013

Grace Polk and the McKnight twins unveil Elizabeth Polk's National Register of Historic Places plaque

Grace Polk and the McKnight twins unveil Elizabeth Polk’s National Register of Historic Places plaque

Elizabeth Polk's daughter Grace Polk, accepts a Proclamation from Councilman Van Bramer.

Elizabeth Polk’s daughter Grace Polk accepts a Proclamation from Councilman Van Bramer.

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The Unexcused Hour, 1937

February 25, 2013

The Unexcused Hour, 1937

I came across this 1937 film still of my grandmother’s early work in Vienna: “The Unexcused Hour” (“Die Unentschuldigte Stunde”). Pictured: Hans Moser, Dagny Servaes and Lilia Skala.

Revisiting ‘A Time to Dance’

January 4, 2012
A Time to Dance Poster

Upcoming NYC shows presented by The Times Square International Theater Festival

Written 9/20/11 on a plane to Calgary to perform A Time to Dance at Fire Exit Theatre with Corps Bara Dance Theatre.

As I revisit A Time to Dance for the first time in a year – not having looked at it, performed it, or had it at the forefront of my thought because I always think of Lilia! as my primary piece which seems like the easy sell. The grandmother-granddaughter relationship, the Academy Award nominated actress, etc.

As I revisit A Time to Dance, I am so touched by that piece – the heart of the story, the life of my aunt Lisl.

Do you ever feel like the good in your life gets clouded over with distracting cares, irritations and annoyances, by the little foibles and imperfections in yourself and those around you?

Well, my Aunt Lisl was like that. She could be scary sometimes. She’d have these sudden outbursts accusing my cousins and me of being spoiled, for instance. She’d endured tremendous hardship as a sickly child without parental affection. And when she saw parental affection expressed toward us, and the slightest hint of parental disrespect in return, she would explode. These explosions tried to color my view of her.

In writing the piece, I included an explosion, and the feedback I received from those who heard the excerpt was so discouraging, I realized people don’t want to hear about that stuff. She was so delightfully charming without it. They couldn’t get enough of the other side of her.

My portrait of Lisl is very much an idealistic view. Perhaps her own take on her best self. It’s not dishonest so much as how I imagine she would like to be viewed, how she views herself and frankly, how the public would like to view her.

So, in having weeded out the negative scary part, I’m left with the ability to hear her stories, her perspective, her life from the purest standpoint. I suppose, it’s how we all would like to be remembered and thought of – with our faults behind us, dropped from the record – the way we really are – or would like to be.

As I hear her pure story without distractions of the darker moments, I’m struck by how much beauty there is. Because the good is all true. None of that is fabricated. It’s just with the bad struck from the record. Condemned, cast out.

This is not only how she would like to be – but how I would like to be. When I review my history, I want only to recognize and acknowledge the good in it, and discard the less than stellar, have it struck from the record, unable to haunt or cause rumination. To be there only for the purpose of the lessons to be learned.

Her words, as I go through the script this time around, hit me. “To move is to live, to express life, individuality, vitality!” she says.

I’m humbled by that. Especially as I think of the seductiveness of a sedentary life in front of the computer. And how video games have people going on virtual adventures. But is there actual movement – expression of Soul in a virtual adventure?

I’m struck by Lisl’s premature birth before incubators were invented, and how everyone sat around waiting for her to die. “But I won’t die!” she muses.

That absolute spark of life. That vitality that animated her always, that made her entertaining company until her last day on earth, that prompted her to dance the Macarena at her hundredth birthday party —  That drive to live, to move, to instigate children (who didn’t know they had a foot or an arm) to gain dominion over their limbs and bask in the joy of rhythm and movement with her – to discover the life that animates us all — (winning her a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Therapy Association) —

I’m so moved by that, as I’ve spent so much time over the last year in a sedentary position with my laptop, answering the fire hose deluge of emails, learning to forgive myself for not keeping up with them despite heroic efforts.

I’m moved by Lisl’s description of her papa Julius who viewed her as an extra mouth to feed, and in his desire to feed it, sought opportunities beyond familiar territory to build bridges, resulting in wealth for many people through the manufacturing of snap fasteners. The expansion of that business enabled the extended family to come to America when their lives were threatened in Austria.

That spark Lisl embodied, that desire to live – opened the way and built lives for so many others. Her life, when distilled, truly is an illustration of Life in its most essential form and meaning. Giving – doing – being. Thriving. Forgiving. Learning from mistakes. Being able to laugh along the way. All those things are true about Lisl.

A Time to Dance will be presented by The Times Square International Theatre Festival on January 17, 20, 22, 2012 at Roy Arias Theaters, Off Broadway Theater, 300 W. 43rd St. & 8th Ave. in NYC.  Click for tickets.  Festival info:  www.tsitf.com

Performing Lilia! in London – part 2

August 25, 2011

To read the first installment (Performing Lilia! in London – part 1), click here.

TECHNOLOGY

One of the first items of business to accomplish, after being greeted warmly by Barbara and Peter in their flat near Victoria Station (discovery spot of the infamous handbag in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”), is to acquire a SIM card for my old AT&T cell phone for press and publicity purposes.

We find a Vodafone store a couple of blocks away. The trick is to successfully unlock my phone using AT&T’s unlock code, emailed instructions, and a new SIM card within three attempts or the phone will permanently lock, requiring the purchase of a new one.

The store clerk is friendly, helpful and after deciding on the best calling plan, Steve reads the instructions aloud as I carefully make the first attempt to unlock the phone – in vain. The store clerk offers to make the second attempt, and also fails. Steve offers to make the third attempt, but the stakes are so ridiculously high at this point, I can’t bear to jeopardize our marriage. At least if I fail, he’ll temper the blow with kindness. So with a prayer and perspiration, I successfully unlock it on the third try. It’s one of the most triumphant hours of the trip!

Then, there’s the question of WiFi access. On previous trips, I’d tried everything to access the Internet from my aunt and uncle’s flat, including climbing out of my bedroom window onto the sixth story rooftop, only to find a dozen secure networks I couldn’t access. I’d walked up and down the street clicking the “view wireless networks” button on my computer every few feet as I held it high and low for the best receptivity to quickly download and upload emails.

This trip, Steve brought a wireless router to plug into Peter and Barbara’s DSL connection. Then, he ingeniously discovers that, unbeknownst to them, they have one already installed with network password printed on the back. In a flash, he has our computer and iphones connected, which means practically free local and international calls throughout the flat over Skype – a major contribution to the production budget!

INTERVIEWS

With technology in order, I’m ready for press interviews.

The first is a dream in North London’s Ham & High board room with a well-researched journalist, whose thought-provoking questions reflect a deep respect for the subject of my play and my work. She remarks how well-located the show is for North London’s enclave of theatre-going German Jewish refugees, then asks for several photos, and promises to send a reviewer to opening night. I walk out refreshed and excited, with a renewed sense of purpose. She does not disappoint. Her beautifully-written article is a full-page with three photos.

For the second interview, Steve plans to come with me and hang out at a coffee shop. I email him our destination address, and we set out for Victoria Station during the morning rush.

Once underground, I make a b-line through the crowd, toward the turnstile and onto the escalator, New York-style. Only then do I look back to find Steve nowhere in sight. People are packed on behind me.

Did he get ahead of me? I look down the jammed escalator, but don’t see him. Could he have gone to the wrong train line? No, he knew where we were going. At the bottom, I pause to study the crowd above. People pour past me. Maybe he’s on the platform already. I search. The train comes. What to do… I can’t be late for the interview. He has the address. It might be ages before another train. What kind of a wife am I? I knew he would wait for me.

I thought of Katharine Clifton in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, who perishes in a cave waiting for her lover to return, determined to prove her devotion. Would Steve want me to do that? No.

I board the train and trust he’ll meet me at our destination. At least they speak English in London, should he run into trouble.

I emerge from the Camden Town station and find a free WiFi espresso shop a couple of doors down from the newspaper. With moments to spare, I dash inside to email Steve an apology, then head for newspaper reception.

The tousled reporter eventually appears, gives me a limp handshake and looks toward the door. “Let’s go for a cup of coffee, do you mind?”

“No!” I reply with as much energetic charm as I can muster, grateful for the opportunity to patronize the espresso shop.

He turns in the opposite direction, and we walk a couple of blocks around the corner to a fluorescent-lit falafel place with two brown Formica tables. “I know the guys here,” he explains. “Coffee?”

“Herbal tea, please.”

“We only have black,” says the moustached man behind the counter.

I order black tea, we sit down and my companion pulls out a steno-pad.

“I have no idea why you’re here,” he states matter-of-factly.

“Oh! You didn’t get the press release?”

“It’s probably somewhere. We’re bare bones at the paper. Thursdays we work on the art pages (today was Thursday). The other days we work on the rest of the news.”

I shower him with appreciation for taking the time to meet with me.

He remains unmoved. “You’ve got a good publicist. He’s always after me about something.”

I explain why I’m there – to perform a solo show about my relationship with my grandmother, Austria’s first female architect who fled Hitler and became a factory worker in America, then an Academy Award-nominated actress.

OK, I noticed his last name is Jewish, and I was really hoping he’d tap into the Hitler refugee aspect of the story, but I’m not sensing it means anything to him.

Then he off-handedly drops that his grandparents emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1938. He’s half-American, raised in the UK.

Bingo a connection!

“Are your grandparents still alive?” I ask with sincere interest.

“They live in the same nudist colony in the Southern part of the States that they’ve lived in since immigrating.”

A nudist colony. I should be interviewing him.

“Are you close to them? Do you ever visit them?” I ask.

“No.”

Dead-end on that topic.

I can’t imagine anyone in my family living in a nudist colony for a day, let alone 70 years.

He asks why I think anybody would be interested in seeing a play about my Austrian grandmother. My response prompts him to write a couple of stenography lines on his blank pad, before announcing he has to get back to the office. I leave behind all but two sips of my tea.

Steve’s waiting for us at reception. The very sight of him blots out the weight of a lack-luster interview. I introduce the reporter who nods and disappears through a door.

I have much to learn about personal and professional prioritizing.

It turns out Steve’s Oyster Card ran out of money at Victoria Station, so he’d turned back to top it off. He forgave me, and I promised to keep a better eye on him.

The interview result is pleasantly surprising. It’s a cleverly written, highly engaging 8-sentence piece, with small photo of me at the bottom (and large photo of the reporter at the top).

Now that preview articles are out, I call the theatre to arrange a tech meeting. The artistic director answers. “The phone’s been ringing non-stop with reservations for your show!” she gushes. “I’ve never seen anything like it. In 40-years, we’ve never had this many advance reservations.”

My heart leaps for joy. The bow of promise stretches as far as the eye can see.

We set up a meeting…

… Continued in part 3 of Performing Lilia! in London

Performing Lilia! in London – part 1

August 16, 2011

At long last, the tales of my adventures performing Lilia!, the play about my grandmother Lilia Skala, in London are here. There’s so much to tell, I almost don’t know where to begin… Here is the first installment.


THE SEND-OFF

In the wee hours before our plane took off from San Francisco to London Heathrow last September, google alerts notified me that Spoonfed, an online London events publication, had featured Lilia! as one of the five “biggest” London shows opening in October. This came as a welcome ray of hope after a series of bumps in the road leading up to this production run.

As we boarded the plane I was further awed by the fact it had been chosen alongside the stage version of a film my grandmother had starred in: Flashdance The Musical opening in London’s West End.

Flashdance had been a pivotal career move for my grandmother, introducing her to a new generation of movie goers in the 1980’s. It was her first R-rated film, much to the bewilderment of her church-lady contemporaries, but thrilling to the underage me. “Libby’s grandmother is in Flashdance.” The kids at school were wowed.

“Apparently there’s unappetizing language in it,” Grandmother mused, “But I don’t understand the meaning of those words. I was drawn by the character who is a positive influence on the young girl.”

Upon arriving in London, my excitement is heightened when I discover that David Mamet’s stage version of his film House of Games, in which my grandmother originally starred, also is running in the West End. A scene in Lilia! is devoted to the story of her experience working on that film.

The synchronicity is striking. Yes, the time is ripe for Lilia! to be welcomed with open arms by London audiences.

Indeed, the red carpet was lovingly rolled out by my uncle and aunt, Peter and Barbara (Lilia’s son and daughter-in-law), who’d been rooting for a London production since its UK debut at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They were hosting Steve and me in their glorious apartment while promoting Lilia! to their extended network of friends.

Equally awesome was the groundwork laid by my English friends Neil and Brenda who happened upon my play while vacationing in New York. Neil researched prospective London theatres for me, hand-delivered scripts and press packets to artistic directors, and made initial introductions which led to my 2008 UK tour to Manchester and Leeds, and now this three-week run.

SECURING THE THEATRE

In 2009, while visiting London, Neil and Brenda invited us to a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at the small Hampstead (London) theatre, which became home to Lilia!

Tickets were cash-only at the door, sold by the founding artistic director who’d been running the place for decades. Incense pervaded the space and theatre seats were piled high with cushions of various sizes, shapes, patterns and textures. The walls were adorned with old photographs, posters, diplomas and props. The place teemed with character. Beaming with pride, the artistic director reverently delivered her introductory curtain speech.

Afterwards, Neil introduced me to her as the American playwright/performer whose play Lilia! he’d dropped off the year before. She nodded warmly.

“When can I see your play?” She queried. I returned the following morning to perform it. Her response was: “Let me know when you’ll be over here again. I’d love to produce Lilia! for a week.”

I was delighted, but told her I was looking for a run long enough to be reviewed.

“True, press won’t come unless it’s a minimum of three-weeks,” she admitted. “But a one-woman show doesn’t generate audiences. Believe me, people don’t like them over here. They think one-person shows are boring, just a talking head with no interaction. I can’t get audiences in the door even when the show is good. One week or nothing. I’ve got overhead to pay.”

She finally agreed that if I paid her overhead upfront, she’d run Lilia! for three weeks. Fair enough, I’ll get sponsorship, I thought, to cover overhead, a publicist, airfare, technicians, promotional materials, etc.

Easier said than done. Asking for money is hard. My “fundraising letter” produced many “Congratulations you’re going to London!” responses. I suppose I was trying to avoid another note like one I’d once received saying: “Here’s a little something to tie you over until you get a part-time job to support what you love.” That’s the ethic with which I’d been raised. “Earn a decent living by making a positive contribution to society. Don’t give a man a fish. Teach him how to fish. Never expect a handout!”

My non-profit sponsor Artistic New Directions, on the other hand, had taught me that friends and family love supporting our artistic projects, and that fundraising is a normal part of working in the arts. Half-subscribing to both points of view, my letter request shyly hid behind a burst of exciting news.

The Austrian Cultural Forum in London nobly stepped forward with financial support and included Lilia! in their event mailings. A few other shining individuals came to bat, as well. Thank you! All contributions totaled just over half of one week’s theatre overhead. Tempted to be disappointed, a dear friend encouraged me to expect ticket sales to cover the rest.

I loved that idea. After all, didn’t I believe Lilia! was a show worthy of audiences? In Edinburgh, nearly the entire production was paid for by donations beforehand, but sometimes I had only one or two audience members in a 140-seat theatre. How much better to have full houses than financial assurance!

It’s tough taking on the role of producer. At heart, I’m a practical business person. And one of the basic rules of business, as I understand it, is balancing supply with demand. If you produce a widget, put it out there, and no one buys it, it’s easy to conclude there’s no demand for it. So you rethink your approach and your product, find out what consumers need, and figure out how to supply that instead, or look for a new career.

It takes patience and persistence to produce a show like Lilia! and to keep it going year after year. It contradicts every ounce of business sense I have.

So why do I do it? I suppose I could be producing widgets to sell. People might pay me, use them, come back for more. We’d exchange pleasantries.

Yet, Isak Dinesen writes: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”

With Lilia!, I feel that I’m giving something of who I am, something more soulful, profound and unique than a widget I might produce and sell. The heartfelt exchanges I’ve had with audience members continue to inspire and reverberate to my core.

(With all due respect to the innovative suppliers of widgets essential to our lives!)

So in the end, after a mighty struggle, the artist in me wins out over the practical business person.

And at the moment we arrive in London, my heart is full of expectation for good. There’s so much promise! The Spoonfed top-5 inclusion is great. On top of that, my publicist has lined up interviews with:

All signals say, “Green light, go!”

… Continued in part 2 of Performing Lilia! in London

Moving toward the heart of the matter

May 4, 2011

Why do I do what I do?

Because it delights me to no end to experience how people respond when I perform. I am naturally not someone who puts myself in the public eye. I tend to be quiet and retiring, and relate best to people in small groups of 4 or less.

However, in larger groups, beginning with the first acting class I took when I was 14, I discovered something magical occurred when space was drawn for me by the audience of the class. I seemed to have the ability to enable the audience to live with me through my experience on stage. Their perception of what I was going through seemed to affect them on a profound level. It had something to do with the pause that hung in the air. It came from the stillness. Out of the stillness, the deep listening.

The focus that came as I applied myself to the work had a contagious effect. It drew them in to forget themselves and their situations and join me on the point of a diamond. ThereWithMe. Fwump!

That focus which we all felt gave me infinite freedom to go anywhere uninhibited. Because we were all right there on an adventure together. Sitting on the precipice with infinity before us, ready to fly through and to and from infinite possibility.

In those moments, on stage in class at The Neighborhood Playhouse, there was no beginning and no end, but the eternal now. And I felt everyone’s breathlessness, perched on the edge of their seats.

There was no ego. Only wonder and discovery and exploration and adventure and freedom. Yes. Freedom. To fly. When I felt this from others in those moments… that this was happening… when I felt their focus and all of our forgetting ourselves for the purpose of what lay before us, it was then that I knew I must continue with this work.  In this way I could know people as they really are, feel the very heart of them without layers of personality and social pretense, but our pure self-forgotten essences.

It is that purity, that energy which feels to me like true beauty. To feel what it is to breathe together. Inspiration. Expression. That realm of freedom and possibility where limitations are lost and we all become present in the room. At one. Together.

Those are the moments worth living – the moments apart and aside from individual personal accolades and glory and achievement and superiority and inferiority. Those are the moments of the naked soul. Where comparisons no longer exist. Status goes away and we are all refreshed, washed clean. Baggage dropped.

I do what I do because I can. Because I feel what that’s like and it feels so deeply like truth itself. The truth outside of location – palace or slum, street or 91st floor. It feels like a pulsing, living, vibrant existence that means more than all we could ever accumulate.

It’s the opposite of accumulation. It’s a shedding. A simplicity. A heart to heart communication where we remember we have a heart and simultaneously understand that everyone possesses compassion, humanity, understanding. Unnecessities are shed.

It’s this that I’m passionate about. That I feel deeply about. Having the opportunity to do this makes me feel alive. It makes me love humanity and myself.