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It’s the Journey

This March, in 2019, marks 20 years since I first stepped onto a dojo mat as a student.

My first thought upon making this realization is, “I really should be better at this by now.”  My second is, “Who the hell could’ve predicted that?”

To be fair to myself, I had a long way to go. Growing up I was one of the smallest kids in my class, never did any sports, and PE was pretty much a nightmare. I was terrified of the kickball. I never could serve a volleyball over the net and I still have physical scars from the basketball unit. After I hit the tennis ball over the fence and out of the court three times, my father gave up. Badminton was more my speed. I liked dance, but I didn’t have a dancer’s body nor the flexibility for dance or gymnastics, though I did learn to turn a mean cartwheel. Backbends were never going to happen for me.  Even my ‘movement for performance’ teacher in college didn’t think much of me as a mover.

But life takes us on strange and wonderful unexpected journeys when you stop worrying about what you are good at and just do what you like. I’ve studied three styles now and earned a black belt in each. I have stories I doubt I will repeat unless copious amounts of alcohol are involved. Each time I stopped training in a style, I swore I had no intention of starting again.  My current instructor told me once he recognized me right off the bat as a “Lifer,” so I’m pretty sure by now this is something I’m supposed to do, though to what end, I sometimes cannot fathom. I’ve never been, nor do I expect to be, any kind of national champion with a room full of trophies. I’ve known some of those folks and they are amazing martial artists, and I am nowhere in their league.

So, what have I learned in 20 years? I mean, aside from multiple ways to inflict bodily harm, what have I really learned?

I’ve learned to own my space. The space my body takes up, the space I need around me to feel safe. I’ve learned not to apologize for taking up space. To hold my space, advance and take my opponent’s space, control where I want my opponent to be to give me the greatest advantage. I’ve learned not to freeze when my space is invaded, how to turn that invasion to my advantage.

I’ve found my voice. Not just the one I always had, the one that can recite Shakespeare or sing a show tune, but my wild, ferocious voice. The one women aren’t supposed to use. The one that can initiate an attack like the roar of a lion or fortify my torso when taking a blow. The one that yodels out strange mysterious sounds as I practice, a cacophony of synchronized breath and movement, impromptu. Unplanned. Weird. Powerful.

I’ve learned to let go of perfection. Not the pursuit of it, but I’ve learned to let go of the crippling disappointment in myself when I can’t achieve it. Knowing I’m only in competition with the woman I was yesterday. Accepting the joy in improvement for improvement’s sake. Understanding it’s a journey, and every day is just an opportunity to get better.  

I’ve learned how to face fear – how to breathe through it, accept it, let it pass through me, let it become information, a passenger in the car but not the driver. Fear is a part of life, but like ambition, fear is a good servant but a bad master.

I’ve learned to take charge of my education, even if I have to annoy people to do that. I’ve learned to be ok with the possibility that I might be annoying. To ask people to show me things, not to assume they will get to it, eventually, one day.  To ask them to repeat it, until I can see it, understand, replicate. And I’ve learned how I learn, how I need movements to have names, how I need to write them down, how I need to organize my thoughts. And that my way of learning is unique to me, and others may learn differently.

I’ve discovered that a black belt is only as meaningful as the work you’ve put into it. There are so many differences between styles, schools, and the requirements for a black belt, that your black belt is really only truly meaningful to others within your martial arts community, as they are the ones who really understand what you put into it.

I’ve learned the highest ambition in martial arts isn’t really to be the best fighter (despite what Hollywood likes to tell us). If that were the case, we’d all have to be demoted after age 40 as Time does his wicked routine on our speed, strength, joints, and stamina. (Although, I have seen a diminutive 80-something-year-old grandmaster drop a young buck to the floor with a single touch – it’s creepy as all get out).  No, the highest goal in martial arts is to become a teacher, able to pass on what you’ve learned, help others making the same journey.

Which of course brings us to the question: what is the goal of the journey? What is it we pass on? The great masters knew, have always known. Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate, said:

“Through physical discipline, mental and spiritual discipline becomes the most important aspect of the martial arts.”  

Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate, said:

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

Spiritual discipline. Perfection of the character. That’s the true north.

And it’s only taken me 20 years to figure that out.

The Irrationality of Love

It’s 3:00 pm on a Saturday and I’m sitting in a loft of a church that’s been converted into a theatre. The space holds seating for 27 audience members, and the seats I’m sitting in were installed in their current configuration by my husband (with the help of a crew of actors). It’s warm and since there is no air conditioning in the loft/theatre, the windows are open. We have to be mindful of the neighbors to the west; if we get too loud, we’ll have to shut those windows. It’s May in North Hollywood, so the temperature is only in the low 90s. We won’t be performing in this space this time—we’ll be taking this production to the Hollywood Fringe Festival  to a larger (88 seats!) theatre, with air conditioning. We’ll have one two-hour technical rehearsal in that space. The space we are rehearsing in is sublet from September through June from the theatre company downstairs, who rents from the church. They specialize in musicals, so when they leave their doors open, strains of Sondheim float up to us.

But they have AC, so their doors are shut. There will be no serenade this afternoon. I’m directing this time. We’re working on a new play. It’s based on Schnitzler’s La Ronde, and it’s called Sleeping Around, a name given to it by the current producing company (Theatre Unleashed) with the blessing of the playwright. The playwright is the best friend of one of the actresses cast in the show. There’s no “favors” at work here—the script (and the actress) are solid. The Artistic Director (also cast in the show) was thrilled to be able to get the script, the playwright was thrilled to get his work produced. Everybody is thrilled.

Before me are two actors in their twenties. I am not in my twenties. We’re working a scene that involves a break up—so we’re exploring betrayal, misunderstanding, the pain of losing the fairy tale, the pain of taking some one’s fairy tale, the irrationality of love. To help my actors grasp a particular moment, I describe something from my own past, something personal, private—and for a moment, I’m twenty-something again, confused and in anguish. Could I have imagined then that all these years later I would be sitting in a small theatre in Los Angeles exploiting my youthful heartache? I am caught in time—past and present exist simultaneously in my mind.

And then I’m back. Back in the small, hot theatre with two actors looking at me with the gracious impatience the young afford the nostalgia of their elders. (When exactly did I become an elder?)

But this is what we do. We theatre artists. We playwrights, directors, actors—we pick apart our past, mine it for the true things of our human experience, repackage those discoveries and tell new stories with the bric-a-brac we’ve collected. Sometimes we clothe our truths so they are unrecognizable as biography, and sometimes we toss them to the world almost naked.

This is why we keep coming back to classic plays like Romeo & Juliet. Almost everyone remembers the excitement, the passion of young love. While the text of Romeo & Juliet remains constant, I change my aspect to it every time I see it. As a teenager, Romeo & Juliet was romantic, as an adult, it is nostalgic. And maybe a bit silly. But I become a time traveler into my own past, remembering what it was to be so young and so certain of love. I know my experience, though uniquely mine, was also shared by a man who lived 400 years ago, and also shared by everyone else who has had the fortune to see his play. I am still unique, yet I am not alone.

The play I am working on now in no way resembles Romeo & Juliet. It is urban, contemporary, full of slang, at times crass, and uses current cultural signifiers to explore a range of relationships. (I suppose an argument could be made that when Romeo & Juliet was first produced, much of the above could have been said about it as well.) But, like all good plays, this new work sinks its teeth into human experiences we recognize.

A few days ago, I found out that the play I directed last year, Friends Like These, is getting published. This work was developed entirely in small spaces, and I am so proud to have been a part of its development. My own plays have been going through the development process with the assistance of the intimate theatres. Our stories might be modern, or they might be hundreds of years old, but all over Los Angeles, they are all created by the magic of the true things contributed by the artists that work on them.

At this time in the midst of the 99-Seat Waiver Wars many of us working in the intimate spaces in Los Angeles theatre search our souls to explain why it is so critical for us to keep going, to continue to create work when we can’t get paid, can’t possibly make a living. There are rational arguments in support of the LA small theatre scene, and better minds than mine have made them. You can read about them at the Ilove99.org website.

Like love though, the answer is sometimes irrational: We are theatre artists. We make theatre. This is what we do.

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Info for Sleeping Around:

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