Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sisu by Rebecca Tourino

Freehold facilitates an annual residency at three separate Washington Corrections facilities, in which we enable the participants to write, direct, rehearse, and perform their own show in a five-month period. Residencies guide participants through the creation of an original performance based on an exploration of the archetypal hero’s journey. Participants invite their peers, friends and family to watch their performance at the culmination of the residency. The residency performances at the Washington Corrections Center for Women will be on April 8th.

The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win.
- Time, January 8, 1940


Robin Lynn Smith taught me that word. It’s Finnish, and it has no direct English translation. It has been used to describe the Finnish spirit – what makes the Finns the Finns. I don’t actually know any Finns, but I think “sisu” relates to what my grandparent’s generation might have called “character.” It means possessing the determination to persevere in the face of near-impossible odds. Say that it’s stormy, dark, and freezing. Say you have no shoes and the ground is covered with jagged rocks. Say you’re carrying a vial of medicine for someone who needs it but you’ve already fallen six times and you’re eight miles from your destination. If you’re the stubborn sonavabitch who keeps on walking, you’ve got “sisu.” As I mentioned, Robin taught me the word; the Engaged Theatre Residency at the Washington Corrections Center for Women has taught me what the word means.

This is the first year I’ve been a part of the WCCW Residency. When I agreed to participate, I had only a small idea of what I was getting into. I’d never created a play from scratch with a group of other people before. In fact, writing a play “by committee” has always sounded, to me, like a version of torture. Add that I would be collaborating with a group of incarcerated women, and I could see that the whole enterprise had the potential to go south quickly. And yet when Robin asked me to participate, I didn’t hesitate. I have often referred to theatre as a form of medicine; I reasoned that surely a prison would be full of people in need of it.

But that’s only one-half of the transaction, actually, because I forgot that I was in need, too. In fact, this process has given me loads more than I’ve given it. I’ve been taking my artistic medicine for five months now. I feel much better, thanks.

In prison, I’ve met some of the most powerful writers I’ve ever encountered. These are women who have been to hell and back and are actually willing to tell you about it – a phenomenal feat when you consider how many times they’ve been shut down; how many ways they’ve been told they’re stupid, worthless, and wrong. Women who grapple with violence, addiction, PTSD. Hilarious, heartbreaking women. Thoughtful, patient women.

Theatre under regular circumstances isn’t glamorous; theatre in a prison, much less so. Our play will take place in a gymnasium under fluorescent lights. Our actors will wear their prison grays under costumes from Value Village. An actor-playwright (that’s me) will be running the soundboard. It’s not exactly the West End! And the whole shebang could be yanked out from under us at any moment.

Still, my colleagues return week after week for our medicine, because it's clear that the women inside have a lot left to share with us. They're just getting started. How can I possibly describe what I'm writing about here -- what these women have to offer? These are women who can make lasagna out of the contents of a vending machine. Women who adopt courtyard slugs as pets. Women who hold a puppet like a baby.

Resourcefulness. Generosity. Courage.


Photo above: Monument to the Finnish Sisu. Photo by Aleksi Ollikainen ja Juho Heikkinen.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Freehold Faculty Upcoming Shows


Amy Thone, Darragh Kennan, Marya Sea Kaminski will be in New Century Theatre Company's The Trial running from April 5 - April 28 performing at Inscape Arts. More information here.



Gin Hammond will be in Book-It Repertory's production of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored running from April 16 - May 12. More information here.

Sandbox Radio LIVE show: Fools Rush In will be on Monday, April 29th at West of Lenin in Fremont with new plays by Paul Mullin and Elizabeth Heffron including Annette Toutonghi, Sarah Harlett with Dan Tierney performing in the Sandbox Radio Band. More information, here.

Matt Smith will be performing My Last Year with the Nuns on April13th, Saturday at Hugo House, cost: $100/ticket to raise money for the making of a film of the monologue. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Meeting Nemesis by Ana Maria Campoy

I met Gin Hammond in a stage reading that we did over a year ago. At the end of the play, we talked about possible future projects we each had in our midst, when she brought up Nemesis. “It starts out at a party after the Trojan War, when a tipsy guest stumbles in. She’s charming and funny, you instantly like her. She begins to gossip about the party, acting as the various guests. And then she begins to pulls the rug out from under you…” (There is of course more to this story within the play, but I’m not spoiling the surprise.) She was so enthusiastic as she talked about it, telling me the various ideas she had in directing this play. “We should do this together. We just have to find the right place for it,” she said. I went home thinking about the challenge of working a one woman show, knowing that it terrified me. The following week, we both went back to work, back to classes at Freehold, back to working on other projects. I thought the conversation had ended.

When I got the first email about the Incubator Studio Series, I forwarded it to Gin with one comment: “Nemesis?” I received a resounding, “YES.” Now, to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t read the play, but knowing how driven she was to work on this and how she described it, I had a feeling it was a good script. I was wrong. It is a GREAT script. Within the first couple of rehearsals, Gin brought Melissa Topscher on board as assistant director. We rehearsed every Tuesday afternoon, at Freehold. Tuesdays quickly began my favorite day of the week because it meant I got to step into Nemesis and her complicated world.

Rachel Aspinwall, the playwright, has created an interesting, funny, conflicted character. She is someone who is hyper-aware of how others see her, sometimes even losing herself to their perception as an escape from the person she knows she is. One of the best things about this play is that this is a story that is female focused and female driven. Since it’s a story about war, it questions what we are afraid to lose and what we gain as the result of conflict. We discussed and explored the various types of friendships and alliances that arise during war time. The women that appear through the play are smart, adventurous, and generous. I can say the same thing about working with Gin and Melissa, who helped me overcome my fear doing a one-woman play. To me this was the biggest challenge, having never done it before. That in the end it’s you alone in front a black box with people watching, no one else on your side. Gin and Melissa helped me create invisible allies to have on my side when in that black box. Some rehearsals we danced, others we played with our vocal ranges, unlocking characters as we went. Though I was still nervous (okay, I’ll admit it: still scared), I was very excited for the Studio Series. I was excited for others to meet Nemesis and my other invisible allies.  

Both nights of performances had packed audiences, who were receptive and energetic. I felt like I was dancing underwater, it was hard, focused work, but yet I could feel like I was gliding through.  I couldn’t be more thankful for Freehold and the wonderful, supportive Freehold community to have given this opportunity to myself and other artists to dip our toes in the deep end with new material that inspires us. I’m now even more excited to continue with this project and see where it takes Gin, Melissa, and I. Do not worry if you didn’t get meet to Nemesis; she’ll be back.

Ana Maria performed Nemesis this past weekend at Freehold's INCUBATOR Studio Series.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Diving Into the Unknown by Valerie Mannucci

I tricked myself into taking Solo Performance with Marya Sea Kaminski. And I’m so glad! If I’d known that the process would bring such levels of insecurity and angst, I doubt I would have gone through with it (I have to add that these were offset by the safe environment Marya set up for us, the respect that the students had for each others’ work, and the dedication that everyone showed to the process).

But still, after just the first class, I wondered what I had gotten myself into: our first two-page draft was due in one week! I wasn’t a writer! I mean, I’d been excited to register for the class that finally meshed with my schedule and life, and I had a vague little vision of what I wanted to do, but had put zero thought into how I would get there. And I definitely didn’t expect that we’d have to produce something in a week. As I drove home that night, I vehemently promised myself I would not quit this class. The reason I needed to make this promise? Oh, just the shrill voice of fear screaming in my head.

A two-page draft. Ok. I can do this, I thought. Our first class included several writing exercises and Marya gave us plenty of structure to guide us in the task of writing. I was a good girl and did my homework. I wrote something every day. Freewrites. Looked for found texts as inspiration. Watched Spalding Gray on YouTube. Fine! I was generating material. Awesome. There was just one problem; it didn’t really fit together. There were bits and pieces, but they didn’t blend into a coherent whole. Like I said, I wasn’t a writer. Well...I certainly had never identified as one before.

I was blindly writing away, generating that precious material, but had no idea where I was going with it. You see, the subject I’d chosen to write about was the loss of my mother. Oy! Just a light little theme for my first time out. I knew the potential pitfalls.

I was terrified of creating something self-indulgent. Something heavy with no “in” for an audience. But I had seen several autobiographical solo pieces with similar themes and they were really good: thought-provoking, inviting, with universal appeal...but I was struggling to shape my raw writing into something, anything, like that.

At our second class, we presented our drafts. Emotions running high for most of us. Was this fear or excitement!? No idea. Both? But Marya offered great tools to help us learn how to give feedback too. “What questions do you have for the playwright” and “What stands out for you” were two questions she gave us that were very helpful in being able to provide something more than just ‘I really liked it’. But the insecurity and angst were still part of the process, for all of us, it seemed. It is just so very vulnerable-making to get up there and show your work. You have no idea if it’s any good. That’s the part I hadn’t realized would be there, and like I said, probably better that I didn’t know beforehand.

The weeks zoomed harrowingly by. We became editors to our playwrights. I wrote and rewrote. Cut and pasted. But I still knew in my gut that it wasn’t “it” yet. I had chosen something too personal, perhaps...I was too close to the material...I was stuck. But I kept at it. Week to week, I agonized, and with two weeks left until the final class (a showing with a small invited audience), had a minor meltdown and gave myself silent permission not to do the showing. I would still keep working the piece, but if I didn’t have something that was stage worthy, I would be there only as audience and tech crew for my classmates, but not show my piece.

But meltdowns can be really helpful: afterwards, in a burst of inspiration, I changed the piece dramatically. I did some restructuring, and I also took my mother out of it and replaced her with a fictional character. This might have been disappointing, but it totally freed me up. It was finally something I was proud of. I had to trick myself (again!) into writing the piece I’d wanted to write. At the showing, the piece was only two weeks old - a mere babe - but I was proud of it, and felt like it had a message to offer the world.

When I heard about the Studio Series, I was excited to try taking the piece to the next level. What the heck does that really mean though, anyway...well, that’s exactly what I’m finding out now. As I write this, I’ve had 4 rehearsals so far with Emily Testa, my fine director who was a fellow classmate in the Solo class. I made the decision to put my mom back into the piece since that was really my goal all along. It also needed plenty of other tweaking, and the script has again changed a great deal (as Emily puts it, we’re taking the training wheels off the first version). I’m diving into the unknown, again, but I trust the process, and am excited to see what happens this time around.

Valerie will be performing her Studio Series piece on Thursday, March 28 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, March 30 at 10:00 pm as part of Freehold's INCUBATOR Studio Series.