Posts filed under Education

A magical moment of empathy: Inside Out & Back Again

Krystle Piamonte, who plays lead character Hà in the current production of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, recently shared this story on social media, and it was so sweet I just had to include it in my blog:

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"Today after our first matinee performance, I received the most precious note/gift from one of our littlest audience members. A mom and daughter duo came to see INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and handed this to me after the show. The mom said her daughter felt bad that I was having a rough day (I cry about 3x in this play) and that she wanted to write me a note to make me feel better. She also included this cute lollipop. I’m overwhelmed by this little girl’s empathy and kindness. It’s these kinds of interactions that remind me why theatre is a powerful way to connect to our humanity. Thank you, little girl. You made my heart so full today."

A special performance of Nightingale

For the most recent production of The Song of the Nightingale, Town Hall Theatre had received a few grants to put on student matinee performances for local elementary schools. These special daytime performances would be an opportunity for children, many of whom may not have seen a live performance before, to see a shortened version of the show. Unfortunately, one of those schools - Shore Acres in Pittsburg - could not attend due to air quality warnings in the wake of the Sonoma County fires last month.

 Actors Minseob Yeom, Chris Juan, Pauli Amornkul, Isabel To, and me performing at Shore Acres Elementary.

Actors Minseob Yeom, Chris Juan, Pauli Amornkul, Isabel To, and me performing at Shore Acres Elementary.

The lovely folks at Town Hall decided to coordinate and reschedule with Shore Acres to do a special on-site visit. We polled the cast to see who might be available, and once I knew who we had, I created a 20-minute reader's theatre presentation of the show which featured 5 musical numbers. We had no set, no props, no band (save for me on the keyboard), and minimal costumes. However, as soon as we began to narrate the story, we could tell we had the kids' attention! As Artistic Director Susan Evans put it, "They were rapt!" It was a delightful sight to see the faces of the kids light up and stay so engaged. Of course, this makes sense. Nothing is more powerful at painting the picture of a story than a child's own imagination. Even though they didn't get to hear all of the songs from the show or meet all the actors or experience all of the production elements, they still tracked with the story of the little bird who saves an entire kingdom with her song.

Bringing Movement into Playwriting

 Me, trying to be "movement-y" with Michael Mohammed.

Me, trying to be "movement-y" with Michael Mohammed.

Recently, I've been considering how I can access more of my right brain while writing. This might sound redundant to some, since writing can be a creative act, and thus would tap into right-brain energy. However, I often feel that writing can become a very left-brain act for me, as I focus a lot on linearity, logic, and building a concrete structure. These aren't things to avoid, necessarily, but I do feel they can sometimes limit where I take my thoughts creatively. As I begin writing the script for Calafia, which occurs in a realm of fantasy, I want to allow my right brain to do some more conjuring without letting my left brain get in the way.

One way I thought of doing this was through movement. So, this week, I met with director/choreographer/teacher Michael Mohammed (director of the recent Town Hall Theatre production of The Song of the Nightingale), who gave me some ideas about how to connect movement of my body to the work I have to do as a playwright. Michael guided me through a handful of movement and gesture exercises. One of the most insightful was imagining the space I was in as a gravity room, where center stage has normal earth gravity, stage right has 200% gravity, and stage left has 0%. Walking back and forth, I was invited to explore the heaviness or lightness of my body. Then we layered on another gradient: emotion. What if stage right was anger at 200% gravity and stage left was joy at 0%? And what if you swapped the emotions? What if we tried fear or sadness?

For me, this opened up a new way of fleshing out my characters. I have already taken the exercise home and worked on it with some of the roles in Calafia. I'm discovering through posture and gesture what priorities or desires might exist for my characters. For the titular role of Calafia, for example, I learned that she would much prefer to stand in the middle with chest and head held high. And if circumstances cause her to head toward either the 200% or the 0% directions with her body, she begins to feel out of place or exposed. Her priority is to retain the status quo, but it might also be a cover-up for deeper emotions that she does not wish to express for fear that it will make her look weak or out of control. I don't think I would have learned this about her this quickly in another way, and this leaves me feeling very excited to continue bringing movement into my playwriting process.

Posted on October 24, 2017 and filed under Creative, Dance, Education, Research, Story, Thought, Writing.

Historical Context for Inside Out & Back Again

I recently finished all 10 episodes of The Vietnam War, a new Ken Burns documentary on PBS. My primary reason for watching was to understand more about the conflict which is an integral part of the setting of Inside Out & Back Again. The documentary is quite an achievement, and there is much that I could write about it. But I'll focus instead on how the documentary contributes to my work as a playwright. During a recent dramaturgical meeting about Inside Out & Back Again, I realized I had more informed thoughts about what could be happening for the characters after having watched Ken Burns' work. Here are just a few of those insights:

War was "normal" life: After our first table read of the play, a question was put forth as to whether we could show more of Hà's "normal" life before the Fall of Saigon. That it felt like we were too quickly into the war without a sense of peace. However, historically speaking, ten year-old Hà has never known a Saigon without war. And with attacks like the Tet Offensive in 1968, Hà has already seen terrible events, or at least been nearby. For Hà, war has always been present. Even if Saigon has seen days of peace, the threat from the north is always imminent.

The Fall of Saigon was imminent: The eventual Fall of Saigon is laid out very clearly in Thanhha Lai's book, but it didn't dawn on me just how frightening that specter might have seemed to a mother of four living in the city. In early 1975, the North Vietnamese were making their way south, taking city after city, and it would only be a matter of time before Saigon would succumb as well. Understanding this helps me begin to grasp the desperation of the predicament Hà's mother finds herself in, figuring out whether she should flee or stay.

The white American perspective dominates our narrative of the war: One criticism I have of the documentary is that it definitely gives more airtime to the experience of white families affected by the war. While there are interviews with Vietnamese from the North and South side of the conflict, the more emotional through-lines of the series center on white Americans. This gets me excited about working on the stage version of Inside Out & Back Again. This play will be a chance to turn the focus onto a Vietnamese family and their experience and journey. Hà's family ends up in the U.S.A., so it is still very much an American story. We'll be inviting our audiences not to view the Vietnamese as an "other," but as the main characters of a story that all can relate to or at least empathize with.

These might all sound like things that I should have known already, and I kinda did. But it is one thing to know the facts of the war, and quite another to be brought into the emotional experience of it, and I think Ken Burns' documentary helped do that for me. It is worth noting that the documentary focuses heavily on the American perspective, and most of the personal stories in it are focused on a predominantly white narrative. The breadth of Vietnamese perspectives (of which Thanhha Lai's book is one) is barely covered, so I will be doing some reading of Vietnamese accounts as well. But I still highly recommend watching it, if only to learn a bit of the overview of events, and especially if you don't know much about the Vietnam War to begin with.

 

The Joy of Listening

Because I was a Music Major, I put a lot of pressure on myself to "be on top of" music. I have lists of music (ranging from classical to jazz to musical theatre to pop to film score) I SHOULD listen to -- and not just listen to, but analyze and form intelligent thoughts about. "Maybe I'll rent a score from Cal's Music Library and map out a symphony's harmonic structure! For fun," I tell myself. But the inevitable result is that I feel defeated and then don't want to listen to anything.

Recently, I listened to Michael Ian Black's podcast "How To Be Amazing" and someone was talking about the best way to experience an art museum. Instead of trying to see everything in a museum, a more enjoyable experience is to realize the amount of time you have and focus on a few select exhibits appropriate to that amount of time. Of course, a moment of discovery might occur that takes you off your path, but going into the museum with the goal of seeing everything is a fool's errand. Sure, you may see everything by the end, but will you actually have enjoyed the experience? I've found that by around the two-hour mark in a museum, my mind is completely shot -- and I haven't even seen half of what's on display! Why not select the things that I think I might actually be interested in?

So, I'm trying to approach listening to music this way. Try to listen to things I might actually enjoy. And if I don't enjoy it, that's OK. Move on. And of course, stay open to surprise discoveries. This is a far cry from feeling like I need to put myself through self-inflicted grad school. I believed the lie that I had to academically analyze every piece of music I listened to. And by doing so, I sucked the joy out of listening to music entirely.

Last week, I started listening to Stravinsky, because I remember that I enjoyed his work in college. And I've found, I indeed enjoy his work today! This guy is dope and a little cray! I don't have his scores in front of me, and I'm not going to write an essay about what makes his music so great (other than to say he's dope and a little cray). I just ENJOY it, and I'm trusting that somehow I'm unconsciously picking up on why. Maybe one day I'll dig deeper, but again, the motivation should be because I actually enjoy doing so - not because I feel like I have to please the Asian academic gods in my head.