Tuesday, January 31, 2012

First Read Through

We did our first full read through last night where all the actors sat in a circle in our green room and did a dry read through of the whole script. It’s a rough, un-produced, baby of a play in that sense, but it’s already growing into something bigger. The words themselves, and the simple sound of the actors’ voices reading them out loud, already lends itself to fledgling characters, emotions, and revelations which will rock the audience once the final production comes out. And those are just the words.

By the time we finish there will be costumes, physicality, props, a stage that has been built and lit and interacted with as if it were a real home and all of us will have spent our time and energy making that come to life. The ‘birthing’ of a production is a very real thing in this sense; it’s based on input from different sources that will lead to the creation of a unique, one-of-a-kind production. And just like real births, the basics will be the same but the quirks, characteristics and impressions will be matchless.

I’m so enthralled by all this that I’d honestly be pleased just to a be a fly on the wall and watch this thing come to life. But knowing that I’m gonna be a part of it, that one piece of it will be mine, is just that much more astounding.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pride and Prejudice (Final Review)

I had hoped to be writing this review with lots of new insights, observations and enthusiastic descriptions of the book. My expectations going into this were rather high, after all. It’s been labeled as one of the top 100 most loved books of all time and touted as Austen’s best novel by several friends of mine who count themselves as fans of hers. So I really wanted to love this and to be able to say that I, too, was a proud Austen fan at the end of it.
Alas, I cannot make that claim. The key points that stuck out for me are not that different at the end than they were only a few pages in.

First Point: Language. The language remained a buffer between me and an in-depth involvement with Austen’s world throughout the entire book. Whatever insecurities I may have about admitting that point it doesn’t make it any less true. And what’s more, I think I would have been able to see past all those words that required me to go back to the dictionary yet again if there had been more passages, lines or witty observations that I loved. But in the end my copy is riddled with highlighted words and written-in definitions with a shockingly small number of passages or lines that were highlighted because I thought they were great for whatever reason. For those of you who like numbers I will sum it up thus:
Number of great passages, lines or descriptions I highlighted because I liked them: 17
Number of words I highlighted because they required a dictionary look-up: 59

Now again, I am fully aware that this book is written in proper English which is shockingly different than the slang-laden, over-conjugated hybrid Americanized version of English that I speak. But in the end it did not flow the way that books I label as “great books” tend to flow. And to emphasize this I will point out that I’ve read a decent amount of Charles Dickens who also wrote in proper English and I don’t recall having that much trouble with him. I recall sitting down and reading David Copperfield for hours at a time and being captivated enough that there was actual flow to the reading. I never got that sensation with this book.

Second Point: Characters. Elizabeth is terribly witty, no one is going to argue about that. And her arc is somewhat engaging since we see her go through the various emotions one would expect a well fleshed-out character to go through: the titled prejudice, the feelings of inferiority and embarrassment, the guilt, the accompanying self-blame, the hope and counter-acting realism, and, at long-last, the love which is, of course, the entire point. But I would not put her in the same company as some other characters that I have loved over the years. I just didn’t connect with her on that level.

And the only other character who even gets a chance to be multi-dimensional is Darcy who, for all his soul-bearing letters and plot-advancing background remains relatively mysterious throughout the book. And that is simply because we’re following Elizabeth’s point-of-view most of the time. We don’t get to see what’s going on behind Darcy’s stern looks so we just don’t get the chance to connect to him.

The rest of them? While they certainly have entertaining elements, they’re all way too one-dimensional for my taste. Jane is sweet and kind without a negative word to say about anyone and remains so (save for one tiny conceding statement about the irredeemable quality of one character) till the end. Mr. Bennet never stops being a recluse who is terribly irresponsible in regards to managing his family.  Mrs. Bennet never stops being an exploitative twit.  Lydia never learns anything above superficial obsessions, nor does her new husband Wickham.  Mr. Collins never stops being the worst kind-of self-righteously judgmental asshole and Lady de Bourgh never learns to see anyone outside of the qualities assigned to them by their station. (And the other characters don’t even get enough pages to be anything other than passing names.)

And don’t get me wrong- I understand that Austen’s main point is that they don’t change, they don’t learn anything from the events of the book and therefore they don’t grow. I assume she’s demonstrating that often people we see in everyday life have the same lack-of growth. And that’s a valid point. But it doesn’t make for an interesting read.

Third Point: Austen’s quirks, I guess you would call them, as a writer are… well, rather annoying to me, to be perfectly honest. The whole not identifying the speaker thing got on my nerves like there was no tomorrow. And her habit of making the reader painfully aware of how irritating a character is for prattling on incessantly about inane topics by having them prattle on incessantly about inane topics for pages seems like a waste of ink. I will quote myself here: "Really? Like we couldn’t tell after the first paragraph? Does Lydia or Mrs. Bennet really have to keep going on for another… two pages?! Ugh!"

And this bugs me most of all: it seemed like there was almost a shift of POV sometimes. We’d be following Elizabeth’s train of thought, and then there’d be this background information that Elizabeth had absolutely no way of knowing just sort-of stuck in there with no transition whatsoever. Where did that come from? Who is actually narrating this thing? In the very last chapter there is a sentence that begins “I wish I could say” when talking about Mrs. Bennet’s appraisal. Who the hell is the ‘I’? And why haven’t they said anything before the second to last page? What is that?!? I understand third person omniscient but saying I is first person observer, isn’t it? And sure, you can change POV if you want to. But you have to do it with purpose, not just stick it in there with no warning and no stylistic meaning to demonstrate its value! That drove me crazy!

Final Point, and this is the big one: Austen’s whole world is simply one that I don’t want to be in. If I thought that a good marriage was the most important thing that could ever happen to someone in their lifetime then I might have been on the edge of my seat over Elizabeth and Darcy finally getting their heads out of their asses. But I don’t think that. I am far more interested in the challenges that people surmount and the reason they make the choices they do and the struggles involved in real growth than I am in anything having to do with marriage. And this book has none of that. It’s all very surface level proper English parlor-room tea-time discussions, no depth.

Hell, we don’t even know what these people do when they’re not having discussions about marriage. No one seems to work in this book- no one has a job, no one even has interests! I mean, we see Elizabeth reading books and playing the piano but she doesn’t seem terribly interested in either of those activities. I’m not saying that passion is the most interesting thing in the word, but it helps. And it tends to lead to desperation which is an amazing motivator that can get characters to make huge shifts that are fascinating to read. There’s way too much composure and propriety for my tastes. Too much marriage, not enough actual love.

And yes, I get that this is the world she was writing in. In Austen’s time if a woman was not able to secure a financially stable matrimony then she was, for all intensive purposes, irrevocably doomed. And I understand why Austen was so intent to make that point in her writings. But as a woman who values all the things that now exist in my life because society doesn’t function that way anymore I find that horrifically depressing to read about.

So in the end, I am not a fan of Austen. I do not like reading about the matrimonial concerns of woman in the world of the landed gentry, I do not like Austen’s writing style and I therefore do not see myself trying out Sense and Sensibility, no matter how many movies they make about it. But, I am proud of myself for having read this because if I hadn’t I would have missed this behemoth of a figure in classic literature and not known what all the fuss was about. I wouldn’t have known about all of those dislikes and I wouldn’t have known what I now know about myself. It’s a point well made that what we dislike says just as much if not more about us as what we do.  And it's good to know that from first hand experience.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Still Only Human

So I’ve been writing quite a lot about my attempts to be more zen in everyday life and how they seem to be, for the most part, working out rather well. But I have to remind myself that regardless of how many moments I have in which I could freak out like old times and don’t, I am still human. I still have moments, collections of moments comprising common measurements of time, even whole days sometimes where the old patterns still persist. I lose my temper, I lie, I do the lazy thing, I don’t do the healthy thing, I get the “fuck its” and toss the whole after-work plan. And those judgments and criticisms which are the main things I’m trying so desperately hard to rid myself of still pop up reflexively. And I don’t always dismiss them with that calm zen attitude, I feed into them and get down on myself. It still happens.

But- and this is where I have to be so conscious of the change less I miss it entirely- those collections of moments don’t usually last quite as long. I wallow in self loathing for just a little bit less time than I used to, I take action to change my mood just a little bit quicker than normal, I consciously choose not to feed into it with just a little more awareness. I must constantly remind myself that this is a life long change I’m trying to make here, not a magical moment wherein I reach Nirvana and stay there. And like all those who have gone through this personal struggle before me I have to always remember to keep my sense of humor up about it. The monks taught us that, I think. The great spiritual leaders. Not every moment can be calm and peaceful, sometimes you just gotta laugh at yourself for being an asshole.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Play's the Thing

I’ve been fascinated with theater for a long time. As a child, I indulged in daydreams about becoming a famous actress. In high school I tried out for productions in school and various community theaters. I even got cast a few times. In college I took acting, playwriting, stage design and wrote papers for my social psychology classes that bordered on dramaturgical essays. I was a regular in stage shop, learning how to use all sorts of cool power tools to build the sets and tinkering in the lighting closet to build new plugs and hang lights for shows. I even had two internships in two very different kinds of theaters, learning everything from how to make Javanese shadow puppets to how set counterweights for a fly system.

When I switched majors to psych, something I thought I could practice as an actual career in the “real world”, I largely gave up on the world of theater. But I never stopped thinking about it.

So about five, maybe six years ago I tried again. I had a string of unsuccessful auditions in local community theaters. I really gave it my all- reading whatever I could about the play, sometimes even the whole script if it was available online. And each audition went the same: I’d be so nervous I could barely speak without stumbling over my own lips and in the end I’d always be told something like “great energy” or “nice spirit” which in theater terms equates to “thanks, but no thanks”. I ended up on stage crew for a production and spent most of the time thinking I could have done one or many of the parts better if I’d been cast. (I.E. preventing myself from enjoying anything about it because of my own negative thought process.) I was so disappointed by the whole thing that I swore off theater for years, focusing instead on my karate and friends to keep me occupied.

Fast forward to last week when I got a notice about auditions being held for a local community theater. (Because I’m really bad about forgetting to cancel subscriptions to things I’m no longer actively using.) Normally I’d just send such a notice to my trash folder but I wondered if perhaps all this work I’ve been doing on self acceptance would impact how I might pursue something such as community theater. If I could audition without any expectations whatsoever of being cast, no disappointment or self criticism upon that not happening, and no other cognitive distortions to prevent me from just going and having fun with it. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought, “If I could just go and have fun without driving myself crazy?” So I decided to give it a shot.

The audition went far more smoothly than any other audition I’ve done in the past. My nervousness was reserved only to the few moments during which I was up reading a scene- before and after was marked by an unusual calmness on my part. And sure, I left there thinking that I’d done rather poorly and assuming that this was the reason I’d only been asked to do one reading. I even told my boyfriend when I got home that there was “not a chance in hell” of me being cast. But here's the change: I didn't beat myself up for it.  Instead of going over every little thing I thought I’d done wrong, or swearing a massive amount of negative conclusions about myself, I had a perfectly enjoyable evening at home and just let it go. That- the not torturing myself thing- is a pretty big change for me.

Perhaps that is why when I checked my e-mail this morning there was a note from the director offering me a part. Granted it’s a small part, only one scene. But that’s perfect for someone like me who hasn’t done this stuff since college. Besides, I’d left there thinking that I didn’t have 'a chance in hell'. Needless to say, I was shocked.

But then I started thinking: It’s gotta be something about this new perspective thing. I must have had more confidence cause I knew I had nothing to lose. I must have sounded like I knew what I was doing because I wasn’t running through a billion negative thoughts in my head saying that I didn’t. I must have performed it differently than I would have if I was listening to that same old negative voice burying me under an avalanche of criticisms. Something must have been different.

I didn’t make up a list of goals this year like I have in the past.  This is partly because I’m trying so hard to release all expectations on my life.  But it's also partly because if this all works the way I hope it will, I won’t be able to plan for everything that will happen. I certainly hadn’t planned on auditioning in order to somehow break into community theater. And yet, when I let go of wanting that so badly, that’s exactly what happened. I have to believe that this is how it’s supposed to work. Cause it feels really good to think so.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Power of Perspective

When I was younger… every problem was a crisis. My body would become a prison, out of my control and reacting to the chaos. Things were, in a manner of speaking, always the end of the world. And no one could possibly know what I was going through.

Now I am learning… life transpires and I continue. My breath is always there and I can master the beat of my heart if I focus on it. Tomorrow always comes, no matter what happened today. Problems are ordinary, insignificant and surmountable- most of the time. And even if crises occur, I know I’m not the first person to move through this particular hic-up, nor will I be the last. And I remain connected.

When I was younger… I held myself to such strict standards, disregarding that which did not match my narrow worldview, criticized myself and others for not living life according to plan and was confused as to why I could not follow the small, blind path I set out for myself.

Now I am learning… to allow myself space to be without doing, feel without thinking, observe without judging. To welcome new perspectives and recognize how singular and unique my own human experience is, and how vastly different others are. There is no plan other than to live and my path is unknown, but my eyes are open.

When I was younger… I was full of passion and fire, ideals and expectations, fears and doubts, criticisms and judgments. I knew everything and could not be taught. The world was a place to conquer and control. People were categorized, filed and assumed.

Now I am learning… To be forever full of wonder and awe, thoughts and simple clues, faith and comfort, welcoming and openness. I know nothing, but have gained so much perspective. The world is a place to be a part of and nothing but gratitude is an appropriate response. People, even those I know best, are new and different everyday.

When I was younger… the world was cold, harsh and full of dangers and traumas. Life became a series of let downs and disillusionments. I had to be on guard, protect myself. Experience was a cruel teacher.

Now I am learning… the world is a place of wonderment, if I look at it the right way. There is beauty and joy, even in the darkest corners of life. I become just a little more graceful with each breath and the best is still to come. I must be open, teachable, grateful. Experience rewards me richly with understanding and wisdom.

When I was younger… life was beautiful… if I was standing on top of a mountain, or looking out at a tropical sunset, or viewing the vista of rooftops in Florence, or feeling the ocean spray on my face as waves crashed violently into the shore, or standing in a silent forest.

Now I am learning… life is beautiful during the quiet, ordinary moments. Sitting in the terribly familiar space of my own room. Or snuggling in bed on a Saturday morning, curled up against the one I love. Or having a conversation with a friend during my lunch break.

And I am so grateful.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Pride and Prejudice: First Thoughts

So I’m only 20 chapters in and already there are a few things that I just have to comment on.  Since I am still so early on, the bulk of this will not pertain to the story but rather to the first things that struck me about this classic book. 
1) The language is NOT what I’m used to.  It’s not quite Shakespeare- I don’t need an English lit teacher to decipher every line, but there’s a lot in common with Shakespeare.  First off, there are quite a lot of words that simply don’t exist in modern vocabulary anymore.  Shew is used instead of show as in “a women had better shew more affection than she feels” and "chuse" is used instead of "choose".  And they sometimes sound like Yoda.  “Are not you…?”  “Will not he…?”  I’m sure it was common place at the time, but it trips me up a little as I’m reading.  Secondly, there are a lot of references to things that I’ve never heard of- like ragout (a heavily spiced stew) or loo and piquet (card games).  These fit perfectly well with the story but require me to keep a wikipedia page open whenever I’m reading.  Not that I couldn’t guess by the context and be close, but my curiosity dictates that I know just what it is, not approximately.  Thirdly, and this I hate admitting, but there are simply quite a large number of words I just don’t know because my vocabulary is sadly limited.  I have been looking up the definition for at least one word per page.  Indolent. Panegyric. Laconic.  Iniquitous.  These words do not exist in my daily vocabulary and without my dictionary next to me I’d be perpetually lost in a sea of near understanding.  All in all, I hate to admit, it kind of takes me out of the story.
2) The conversations are a little hard to follow.  Not because of all those words I’m not familiar with, but because Austen is not a fan of ending sentences with “Elizabeth said” or “Mr Collins remarked” or in any other way denoting the speaker.  Which, in a conversation between two people, alone in a room, is not a big deal.  But in a conversation of four people, or five or six in which two were talking when a third piped in and then was interrupted by a fourth who was making an offhand comment from their conversation with a fifth it gets a little hard to follow.  Luckily, the characters are strong enough that you can usually tell who’s speaking by the third or fourth scene with them, so I suppose it’s not the end of the world.
3) There are some timeless universals which, I believe, are what make the book so beloved despite the somewhat dated language.  The embarrassment one feels when one’s mother is speaking overzealously in front of one’s friends, or worse- the object of one’s affection.  The efforts one puts into sounding smart or witty or well-educated when presenting oneself to a new group of people.  The intricacies of a specific family: the pecking order, the comic relief, the pontificating one, the stupid one, the secret (or not so secret) favorite.  The near-death feeling of having decidedly put one’s foot very far down one’s throat in front of someone one hates.  All of these come through brilliantly clear in Austen’s writing and make me feel silly for being at all annoyed by all those obsolete words I trip over.
4) The English parlor room must have been a truly magical place.  From what I can tell, every manor of repute had one and it was the place where every major thing that ever occurred in a manor took place.  Quiet evenings spent reading books by the fire, card games where stately men squabbled over politics, tea parties where women discussed the merit of a proposed marriage and meetings of the two proposed that determined whether or not the all-important proposal would come about.  It could be calm and comforting or a battle field strewn with the corpses of civilized conversations.  Having never been in an English manor I can’t imagine what having one of these magical places inside of one’s own home must have been like, but it seems like it would have been the source of endless excitement.
5) Literary professors and English scholars who know a hell of a lot more about classic literature have already written countless essays on this so I’ll keep my point brief by simply agreeing that the first line of the book is one of the best first lines of any book ever.  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Bam!  The entire world, described in one single sentence.  The name of the game is marriage.  And every single person is playing that game, whether they want to or not.  If they’re not actively moving around the pieces on the game board they are being positioned by those playing.  I’m not sure I’ve encountered something so simply yet beautifully summed up so quickly.
 As I said, these are simply my first thoughts.  I’m sure I will have many others to share as I wade deeper into this pool of matrimonial monopoly.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

NaNoReMo 2012

A few days ago, I was reading my friend John’s blog and found an entry on National Novel Reading Month.  How red did I turn when reading this, for I have never even heard of NaNoReMo before John pointed it out to me.  Well, I did a little investigating and, according to all the sites I could find with a title of National Novel Reading Month, I’m actually already two weeks behind.  Ugh!  I discover something I didn’t even know existed and already I’m late on a dead line?  Well, that is far too much pressure for the very first day of a year in which my every goal comes under the umbrella of acceptance, so I’m tossing the rules of NaNoReMo as they are written and simplifying things for myself- no four novels in four weeks and no trying to cram two into the two remaining weeks until January 15th.  Nah, I’m just gonna go the simple route and read a novel.

John has suggested looking over one’s bookshelf for a classic- something highly recommended by many that you bought because it was on sale or was given to you by a friend which you always meant to read but somehow never quite got around to.  Well, I took a look at my bookshelf and what should I find but one that John himself was contemplating reading: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  I picked it up and thought “Wait- I’ve already read this, haven’t I?”

I have seen many different film versions of Pride and Prejudice (like, at least three).  I’ve heard references to it in so many different forms of media that I can’t even list them all.  The names of the main love interests- Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy- are so familiar to me that I list them among other characters too well known to forget.  And yet, what should I discover when I open that first page that there’s nothing- not a dog ear, not an underlined passage, not even a crease in the spine- that indicates that I’ve ever actually read the thing.

Needless to say, I was appalled.  How on earth could I claim to be a lover of the written word when I’ve never even read what is arguably the best-known novel from one of the best-known authors?  I’m so ashamed I feel I cannot go on one more day without repairing this horrific mistake.  So I’m going to read Pride and Prejudice.  And, of course, blog about it. Stay tuned.