Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ten Years Older Than God

Damn, I'm old...

Sometimes I feel even older, because my parents were old enough to be my grandparents, and their stories go back farther than most.

These days, when people talk about The Good Old Days, they are usually referring to the mid 20th Century.  My parents were born in the first decade of the 20th Century.  Both remembered the First World War, were adults during the Great Depression and just when they thought things had settled down, along came WWII, and the shit hit the fan all over again.  Dad enlisted in the RAF (though in peace time, he would have been too old).

They came from very different backgrounds.  Dad's family were middle class merchants, having a wines and spirits importing business, complete with what Hyacinth Bucket referred to as "a Royal Warrant," which was A Thing in Edwardian Britain.  During the Depression, the company went bust, but before that, they were classy enough that my grandfather got to marry the daughter of County society.  My Granny and her two sisters were known as "the Three Belles of Brecon."  Mom, on the other hand, was raised in America, born to a family that was never well-off.  Her mother died when she was 9, and she and her three siblings were shunted around from grandparents to aunts, because their father was a timberman, and spent a lot of his time in logging camps.

A story my Granny used to tell involved herself as a child, attending a party in an elegant house.  Granny loved raisins and currants, and had picked them all out of her cake to enjoy after the cake-y part.  The butler, thinking she was finished with her dessert, whisked away her plate, dried fruit and all.  She used it as a lesson...take what life brings and enjoy it, because if you save the best for last it might not be there when you are.  I always thought, "Who has a butler serving a kids' party?"  This is the same Granny who, when Dad took Mom home to England, made excuses for her by saying, "My daughter-in-law is an American, you know..." as if that covered a multitude of social indiscretions.

Mom told stories of being six and enduring cold baths, because it was supposed to toughen children up to force them to undergo such physical shocks...and being sewn into her wool "union suit" in October and having to wear it till May, no matter the weather.  A warm autumn or spring was never taken into account.  In spite of cold baths the rest of the year, nobody bathed at all (except for sponge baths) over the winter.  She started life in upstate New York and then lived in Ottawa, Ontario until her majority.

Neither had graduated from high school--Dad's education was cut short due to lack of funds, and the alternative presented to him by his father (the army) was not something that interested him.  He Ran Away to Canada, and did not return to England until after his father died.  Mom failed math, so couldn't graduate in Canada, foiling Aunt Ethel's plan for her to teach.  She went into nursing instead (the requirements were apparently much less strict in the mid 1920s than they are today), and did that until she married my dad.  Like most careers for women in those days, nursing was for single women only.  Dad had got a job in Vancouver, working for his cousin's firm, Courtauld's, where he stayed through several location transfers (Vancouver, BC to Cornwall, Ont, to Coventry, England) until 1957.

So the stories I grew up hearing span an extra generation.  From a time when not having to share a bed was a luxury for a child, let alone having one's own room.  From a time when one had a family crest engraved on one's flatware.  One's sterling flatware, mind you; not (shudder) plate.

It's no wonder I'm a little weird...

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Ultimate Time Suck

I used to write, frequently.  Before Facebook, I wrote almost every day, either here or on other blogs, and I spent time reading blogs.  Since, I've been hearing people say that blogs are dead.

I am on Twitter, but rarely use it, except to troll asshole politicians (but that's another entry).  Aidan set me up an Instagram, but I don't even know what that's for.  I am on LinkedIn and Pinterest, but don't use either.  I had MySpace, back in the day, but all the twinkly GIFs wore me out.

But Facebook I took to like a duck to water.  It's the first thing I do in the morning, and the last thing at night.

I'm not into posting pictures of my dinner, or myself (all that much), but sharing memes and news articles and discussing political (and other) issues with friends and strangers is all sorts of fun.

It took me a while to figure out how to find out who all those people are who "follow" me (there are over 200 of them), without being friends, and when I did, I was surprised.  I've blocked quite a few...I'm sorry, but I don't speak any Asian languages; or Hebrew, Russian, Arabic or Elvish, so if your name is not listed in an alphabet I can read, I'm blocking you.  Likewise if your name sounds Kling-on.  I am assuming a goodly (yuge?) number of these are bots of one sort or another.  Who knows...I may be on Trump's "naughty list" by now.

I don't accept friend requests unless we have friends in common, or I recognize the name from a discussion thread somewhere...or if it's someone I actually know.

I've had to block a few real life friends who, while very nice in person, are flaming Tea Party Patriots on line.  I don't mind disagreement, but telling me to go back where I came from, or that my gay friends or immigrant friends deserve "whatever they get," will get you unfriended and blocked in a heartbeat.  The only person allowed to launch ad hom attacks on my wall is my daughter Chandra, whose most frequent comment is, "You're a fucking idiot."  I find that OK, as she has done that in real life ever since she was a kid.

Still, the Book of Face has become something of an obsession and I think I need a new hobby.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Down the Lane of Memory (Again)

I went to a Catholic parochial school from halfway through 4th grade to almost the end of 7th.  My parents were C of E, but we lived out in the boonies and the Catholic school was within walking distance (barely) (down a logging road) and getting to the public school was a pain, requiring transfers from bus to bus and a VERY early start.  Turned out that, poor as we were at that time, it was worth the $10 a month tuition to avoid that daily hassle.  

For 5th and 6th grades, I was in a combined class taught by Sister Mary Mercy.

Sister Mary Mercy had passed her sell-by date a long time ago.  Looking back, she was probably menopausal and questioning the value of her life.  Trapped daily in a class that contained a fair sized herd of unruly boys (George Carlin's stories of parochial school come to mind), with her only refuge being prayer, she tended to go from Sweet Nun to Raving Lunatic at the drop of a hat.  She could peg a kid in the back row with a blackboard eraser or a piece of chalk or a Missal with unerring accuracy.

But I was One of the Good Kids.  Oh, sure, I used to hide a library book in the bathroom and excuse myself when class got boring (they probably thought I needed porridge), but that was the extent of my rebellion.

So, one day (late in the day), she wrote the formulae for calculating the area and perimeter of a rectangle on the board, and she labelled them backwards.  Ever the helpful child, I pointed that out.


THWACK!  The yardstick came down on my shoulders, and THWACK again!  Damn thing broke the second time.  Sister Mary Mercy ran out of the room, ululating sadly.

About ten minutes later (I was ululating a bit sadly myself by then), Sister Mary Olive came in (she was the Sister Superior...I guess we didn't rate a Mother) and we spent the rest of the day on our knees, praying for our sins.  Fortunately, it was last period.

I don't remember telling my parents about the incident...if I did, they probably pointed out that correcting one's teacher was never a good idea, no matter how wrong she was...because, back then, it was OK for school officials to hit children.  It was usually done in a more organized manner, with a strap, on the hand, but whatever.

That was the only time I was physically punished in school.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Goodbye to Sam Bass Theatre

As theaters go, the venue isn't fancy, but the theatre owns it, so there's that.  It seats 50 (52 in a pinch, if it's a small cast and the fire marshall stays away).  It hasn't always been in Memorial Park in Round Rock; when I first auditioned, it was downtown, next to the spot where the City Hall parking garage is today.

It was 1982, and they advertised auditions for The Odd Couple.  With my built-in English accent and thirtyish look, I could totally see myself being a Pigeon Sister...Gwendolyn or Cecily, it didn't matter.  Unfortunately, they didn't get the six men required, so they chose a different play.  They did, however, ask me to return in the spring and audition for Ten Little Indians, which had several female characters, all of whom had English accents.  That time, they got enough men and I was cast as Mrs Rogers, AKA corpse #2.  I was terrified, but I had the time of my life..AND, was bitten hard by the acting bug.  I loved the positive reinforcement I received (something I had been lacking for a few years) and being someone besides myself.  It didn't hurt that we did a couple of scenes live on local TV.  In short, I was hooked.

A friend and I co-costumed the next show I worked on, and I acted in the one after that.  By then, SSS had had enough and cut me off at one show a year.  As we had two small children at the time, I agreed, though with very bad grace.  He was a volunteer fireman at the time, and got to take off with his volunteer fireman buddies whenever he liked for training and practice. Sauce for the goose, I said.

Right before my second foray into acting, the theater was moved from it's location off Main Street to its current location, where it has been for 33 years.  Slowly, it grew.  A deck was added to the back when it was still downtown, and that was closed in to make a backstage area.  The annex was built.  Jim Prior, who I eventually married, was instrumental in all these construction projects.  In the late 80s, he and Jim Grisham cut an entrance through the side of the building, and the Side Stage grew around that.  A deck was added, connecting the back and side stages.  A barn and costume shed were built, and another shed.  Sometime in there, the courtyard was paved so we weren't wallowing in dust and/or mud.

There were great shows, and great parties, with much barbecue, booze, and all sorts of fun.

People came and went...moving here, moving away, moving on.  One day I looked up to realize there were only a few people still around who had been there when I started, but there were other people who had been there an only slightly shorter long time.  And I understood continuity.

A few years ago, a lot of new people came in fast.  They were welcomed, as new people always are, even though the first thing the first person did was try to tell me I didn't know what I was doing with a particular set design (I was designing my own set for a show I was directing).  He was willing to design my set, and I did manage to insist he do it my way, but it wasn't easy.  The set looked beautiful, and close enough to what I had envisioned...but still.

A couple of years later, these people were firmly ensconced on the Board of Directors, and ripples of disquiet were rumbling through the theater.  I could see that they saw us old timers as relics who just couldn't quite manage to get the place to make money.  I should probably say that we had never really striven to make money, ploughing all that we made back into the next season, like all small non-profit theaters do.  It is very true that, as Round Rock had grown around us, we had not kept up, and were serving an ever-shrinking percentage of the population.  But we produced good theatre.

I noticed that fewer directors were asking me to costume their shows, but I had been costuming in Austin, and getting paid for it, so it was no big deal.  I was very happy to see others interested in trying to organize the immense collection of costumes shoehorned into a small space.  But the last time I auditioned, I was required to audition privately, and to memorize the sides in advance.  This was not usual for Sam Bass; no one else in the cast was asked to do that.  The director had worked with me in years past, when I had trouble memorizing lines for a role I was less than comfortable with.  He needed proof that I "still had it," as he said.  It was a bucket role, so I did it.  That's the last time I have auditioned there.

I could understand why my next directing submission didn't fly; the show was Wait Until Dark, which requires a fairly elaborate set including stairs and working appliances (practical, as we say in theatah, dahlink).  The last play I directed had made no money, as it was a dark piece that didn't attract a large audience.  The Artistic Director did, however, ask me to submit something else, suitable for production on the outside stage they had just built in the courtyard.  To go up for one weekend.

Dearly Beloved, I am far too old to enjoy rehearsing and performing outside in the Texas summer heat, 50 ft from a major state highway.  Let alone putting in all that work for three performances.  So, no.  All prospective directors were also informed that the Board would now have the last word on casting, something that had been strictly left to directors under the old Sam Bass Theatre SOP.  So I left the meeting and have not submitted anything since.

The Board has also changed the audition dates and times.  The new schedule makes it almost impossible for me to audition.  Did I mention that cast and crew are required to sign an agreement that they will say only nice things about Sam Bass for the duration of the production?  Yeah...that happened.

The straw that broke the camel's back came when I asked said Artistic Director if I could borrow a couple of capes for a show I was costuming in Austin.  I've always borrowed costumes from Sam Bass (I made quite a few of them), and often from the Artistic Director himself.  My work at Sam Bass was never paid; it is an all-volunteer organization.  I had also given Mr AD quite a few costumes outright for his own projects, separate from Sam Bass.  He said he didn't feel like helping me, as I had slighted him on Facebook.

They are changing the theater, and, maybe it was necessary.  Nothing stays the same forever, but I had somehow expected my 34 years of blood, sweat, tears, and support would earn me a place by the fire for as long as I could totter up there.

I owe Sam Bass a lot...the skills I've learned, the talent I learned to recognize, the joy and terror of acting and directing, the friendships, the applause, and the love.

It's a shame it's over.  I wish them well, really...but it's like they say:  not my circus; not my monkeys.

Not any more.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ten Years

Ten years.

Ten years in which I have learned to keep busy, and the sense of accomplishment from that, alone, is a sort of partial compensation.

I get a twinge when anyone makes any reference to "putting a gun to your head," or any visual reminder of such.  A concealable reaction, so it's all good.  Can't expect people to walk on eggshells around me forever.  It's not always could be a line in a script or a gesture by a character in a movie.  I can live with it.

I also wince a little when I see a bald pate, fringed round with silver.  Silly, I know, but I can live with that, too.

I have mostly managed to replace my memory of his last few moments with memories of the times we had fun, so...yay me.

We had that epic trip in 2003--the one where I learned to love driving.  A lasting joy.

He would have been an articulate voice against the chaos.  And a reasonable one.  The shoulder that used to shield me from the terrors is gone, and I have learned to deal with that.

Once again, I thank from the bottom of my heart the friends who rallied round in so many ways...I would not have got through it without you!

I miss him.  I expect I always will.

Slàinte mhath!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Another Chapter Finished

Jack Randall Biggs June 9, 1947-May 18, 2017

For years, I referred to him here as "SSS," short for "Son of a Siberian Sasquatch."  His real name was Jack Randall Biggs.  "Jack" for his father and "Randall" for his dad's army buddy.  Everyone knew him as "Randy."

He was a slick sum bitch when we met, and I was a vulnerable potential victim.  You know the type...nice car, nice clothes, superficially really pretty awesome.  Great dancer, knows his cocktails, plays guitar...Mom and Dad liked him.

He turned out to be abusive in that subtle way that you can't quite put your finger on, but one day you realize you are not the same person you were, and not in a good way.  Gaslighting, they call it.

At some point, maybe 25 years ago, he dragged his alcoholic self to a 12-step program, and called me up, wanting to apologize.  I let him come over and say his (generic) piece, and then tried to tell him some of the specifics.  I figured that, if he was going to apologize, he might as well know what he had done.  He maintained that he didn't remember any of it.  I guess, after years and years of 12 beers a day and half a bottle of Jack, he probably didn't.  It didn't help that he appeared to think I was making it all up.  So not satisfying...

We had been separated for so long that it was a bit of a shock when Jim proposed and I realized that I was still legally married.  Tried for a do-it-yourself d-i-v-o-r-c-e, but, even then, when we had been apart as long as we were together, he had to throw a spanner in the works and counter-sue for the return of all the court-mandated child support he had been forced to pay.  He actually got a lawyer who was willing to sign off on a letter saying I had "misappropriated family funds" (i.e., child support).

So yeah...I really don't know how I feel about this.

Relieved, mostly, I guess, but sad for what could have been.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

An Honour and a Privilege

Well, Dearly Beloved, the curtain comes down on For the Love of Mahalia tonight.

It has been an honour and a privilege to work on this show.  Cast and crew have been unfailingly helpful and cheerful, and actors have been very patient with costume elements not appearing until the last minute, and with hats and dresses that need adjustment.

We have a couple of nice reviews, which I will post in full, as well as provide links, as links go dead after a while.  The first, from Broadway World, reads as follows:

Fledgling theatre company, RKJB Entertainment's production of an original work by Robert King, Jr, FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA, currently playing at the Boyd Vance Theatre, has problems, but ultimately its message is poignant and important.
Mahalia Jackson, born in New Orleans in 1911, rose from poverty to become the voice of American gospel music. She staunchly refused to sing secular music, choosing instead to use her powerful voice in service to her beliefs. FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA mixes real events and fictitious characters to tell the story of Jackson's life and her pivotal involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Julie Matthews (Marett Hanes) is a young journalist looking for her first big break. While her mother Lily (Linda Myers) wants her daughter to be a housewife, Julie pursues magazine editor, Mr. Banks (Frank Benge) who dismisses her as a bothersome girl. She hits upon the idea of an interview with Mahalia Jackson (Jacqui Cross), who is a friend of her mother's housemaid Ruth (Kendra Franklin). Paying her own way from Montgomery, Alabama to Chicago, Julie meets the legendary singer and they become fast friends. We soon meet Martin Luther King, Jr (Robert King, Jr), Ralph Abernathy (Jeremy Rashad Brown) and Coretta Scott King (Kiarra Hogan) as Julie becomes involved in the struggle to end segregation and achieve equal protection under the law. The play with music is punctuated by Jackson's moving songs and a show stopping number from blues icon Bessie Smith (Sonia Moore).
FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA has enormous potential as an important voice in the continuing struggle for civil rights that has given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. The production has problems but none of them are the fault of the performers. As a child of the 1960's I vividly remember hearing Mahalia's stirring voice on television and I swear that I saw her reborn through Cross' performance. Her portrayal is deeply heartfelt and her unmatched vocals gave me chills. Sonia Moore's rendition of Bessie Smith's Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer is fabulous in every way. As Martin and Corretta King, Robert King and Kiarra Hogan are warm and loving in their depiction of the civil rights leaders. Frank Benge is wonderfully irascible as Julie's boss, Mr. Banks, barking at her and picking his teeth with one of her submitted stories. As the young writer, Marett Hanes is perky and sweet but lacks the depth of the nuanced characters surrounding her. Music director and pianist Mattie Robinson deserves top marks for her performance and getting the absolute best performance from every song. Costumes by Veronica Prior are excellent, especially the beaded flapper dress for flashback with Bessie Smith. In general the script is uneven, sometimes lacking focus on what gives the best moments. A musical style song and dance with Julie and Ruth seems oddly out of place in a show that is obviously not a musical. Direction by Roger Thomas fails in providing a transitional thread between scenes, creating a choppy feel in a show that deserves so much better. Lighting by Ashley Sandal is haphazard, often leaving actors in the dark and the color scheme is questionable at best. The use of projections is powerful throughout the performance, the images are well chosen and evocative. All in all it's easy to overlook faults when Jacqui Cross sings, she truly embodies Mahalia's hope that her music could "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country".
I recommend FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA for the pure joy of seeing Jacqui Cross give an utterly brilliant performance. Robert King's play may need work before it can be the momentous endeavour it has the potential of becoming, but it is certainly powerful in its current incarnation. I for one, will be watching RKJB Entertainment, their future looks very bright indeed.
The reviewer was there at final dress, which was a Murphy's Law of a night if I ever saw one.
Another review, this time from Central Texas Live Theatre:
Several theatrical productions in town now, on stage or just closing, give or claim to give important messages about activism, resistance, gender, and race relations in America in our current time of turmoil. Perhaps the clearest and most moving of these activist guidebooks is about to pass under the radar, but it is not to be missed by anyone. For the Love of Mahalia sings its vibrant song at the Boyd C. Vance Theatre at the Carver Center for one final weekend.The show focuses on the life of gospel/soul singer Mahalia Jackson (played by Jacqui Cross), and of course it is a thrilling musical. The show was written by local playwright Robert King, Jr. and directed by Roger Thomas. Production is by the brand new RKJB Entertainment Company.  

(photos via RKJB Productions)
(photos via RKJB Productions)

 Mahalia Jackson is one of the most intriguing background figures in modern history, particularly of the Civil Rights Era, not so long ago.  She sang gospel songs to huge crowds in Europe and America, all and only to the glory of God.She placed her powerful faith in Him to help her people get over there. Much is meant by the phrase “over there,” as described in the play.Its meanings of equality and civil rights came to the fore in her support for Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by Robert King Jr) and Ralph Abernathy (played by Jeremy Rashad Brown) of the Civil Rights movement. She hosted their kitchen table Bible studies and counseling sessions in her home in Chicago. MLK, especially, relied on her. The story is told of the 1963 March on Washington where he expressed his doubt that he could even speak to such a throng, the image of them around the Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument being so overwhelming. Mahalia Jackson leaned out of the group of dignitaries on the dais with MLK and said (paraphrasing): “Tell them about your dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.” So inspired, MLK found his voice and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest speeches of any kind in the twentieth century.  
 For the Love of Mahalia centers on 1965 and Julie Matthews (Marett Hanes), a young college graduate in journalism. She goes on a quest of sorts to interview Mahalia Jackson (Jacqui Cross), about whom little is known in the popular press. Jackson was extremely personable, easy to find if anyone could afford travel tickets to Chicago. Without giving anything away, it can be written that Julie wrote much about Jackson but discovered far more about herself. Julie’s story is an updating of the story of Baby Moses, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s Daughter.  
 The songs of Mahalia Jackson are given equal weight with the narrative story by and about Julie Matthews. They are sung by Jacqui Cross as Mahalia, with one duet with Ms. Cross and Marett Hanes. Bessie Smith (Sonia Moore) sings in flashback one of her powerhouse 1920s torch songs, attired in an authentic 20s flapper costume. Credit goes to Veronica Prior for all the 20s and 60s costumes, and Jennifer Gross deserves much credit for the period-perfect wigs and hairstyles.  
 The well-produced theatrical march across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma in March of 1965 highlights the exceptional video design of the play, with gut-wrenching archival photographs of the actual police riot by Alabama state troopers that broke up the march, killing one. The staging of the march in For the Love of Mahalia is superior to that of the same event in a vastly better funded theatre across town.  
 As a musical, For the Love of Mahalia is essentially a star vehicle for singer Jacqui Cross. Ms Cross is a veteran of several Zach Theatre musicals and is a founding member of the relatively new Spectrum Theatre Company. Ms Cross is a worthy bearer of the musical legacy of Mahalia Jackson, and this is not an overstatement.  
 In every good play there exists a corner of the plot inhabited by a character who throws all the other characters into sharp, clear relief. In For the Love of Mahalia, that corner and that character is inhabited by Frank Benge as Mr. Banks, the cigar chomping, whiskey swilling, cursing, slovenly editor of Image Magazine. Julie Matthews seeks him out to pitch her article on Mahalia Jackson. Mr. Banks says nothing but “no” to her, yet somehow he manages to send her out on her quest, thus impelling the story. Benge (Death and the MaidenThe Suicide, countless other stage presentations) embodies with glee the character of Mr. Banks.  
 Stage management was by the very efficient Taylor Moessinger (The Great American Trailer Park Musical), but certain annoying sound and lighting glitches lay beyond her control. Specifically, one of the props was a metallic or glass-bottomed food tray. The tray reflected the scenic lighting as large, wiggly figures onto the scrim upstage. They continued to wiggle and distract throughout the scene in Jackson’s Chicago home. As we are into the last weekend of the run and the error has not been caught, the insufficiency approaches inexcusability.  
Still and all, For the Love of Mahalia is the best recent theatrical call to social activism, keeping its eyes on the prize of racial justice in America. Mahalia Jackson always sang from her deepest heart, and so does For the Love of Mahalia.  The show runs until March 5th, 2017 at the Boyd C. Vance Theatre in the Carver Center in east Austin.  
I have to say that I don't really like the slightly snarky comparison of our show with one produced by another Austin Theater.  This is not a competition.  This is two different playwrights, each with something to say about events from fifty years in the past and how they relate to the present.  We all have different visions, as well as different budgets, and we all do the best we can with what we have to work with.
I can only say, "Thanks, y'all, for letting me play!"