Monday, June 10, 2013

For Alma

A friend from my days at Skidmore College, Naomi Vladeck, has asked me to write something for her Creativity Matters website.  To quote her website, Naomi is a "Creativity and Writing Coach" with the goal of coaching "individual artists on artist statements and writing personal narratives," and providing "professional and creative coaching to artists, arts professionals and art entrepreneurs."  She asked me to consider writing something regarding finding inspiration through writing or any other art form, possibly relating stories concerning a challenging moment in the creative process and how those challenging moments can become inspiring ones.

 Simultaneously, we, along with many hundreds of fellow Skidmore Theater department alum, students and teachers, have been faced with the tragic news of the death of one of our most beloved directors and teachers, Alma Becker, who succumbed to cancer this past Sunday after what I believe was a several year battle.  Simply put, I've been crying for a couple days now -- Alma was one of the finest people I've ever met, never mind a great artist and teacher.  I loved (and love) her dearly.

I've decided to attempt to combine the two subjects; the challenge of finding your personal creative voice and inspiration in the arts with the loss of one of the most inspirational creators I have ever known. we go.

For Alma.

Inspiration can come from anywhere.  Absolutely anywhere.  Take me literally.  If you're not inspired, you probably are just being lazy.  Open your eyes and look around you!  Life is infinitely inspiring.  That's what life does.  That is the nature of life, of the creative force.  Life Creates.  As Obi Wan Kenobi guided Luke Skywalker during the younger man's fledgling Jedi days, "Feel the Force flowing through you."  Be that creative force and you will know inspiration.  It's almost too easy.

Heartbreak can be a great motivator.  A harsh and simultaneously radiant muse.  I've been listening to her whispers for years.  I've received some of my best songs from my Heartbreak muse, experienced the most sublime and potent moments on stage and screen with my dear Heartbreak leaning on my left shoulder.  She's tricked me into sketching a thousand perfectly troubled faces along the edges of my notebooks,  taxed me into searching for the most exquisitely dented love song verses I could muster, and pulled the most so-wrong-they-are-just-right strained and broken notes out of my imperfect singing voice.  My Heartbreak muse has led me to literally wade through rivers (actual rivers) in hopes of capturing the most epic shots possible for a rebellious, no-budget feature film.  She has left a trail for me to follow all over the United States and the continent of Europe, while I foolishly hiked on, hoping she might just put me out of my silly misery and let me hold her in my arms for a little while.  My Heartbreak muse has even left me alone on stage, standing on my head with tears running the wrong way down my forehead and onto the trampled stage floor below me, waiting for the final crossbow shot to snap closed and send me flailing to the ground, a sad little clown, his mission finally over.  Curtain falls. 

 She has done these things for me.  

In this last example, my Heartbreak muse is named Alma.

I find myself now realizing I am one of the lucky hundreds (maybe thousands?) of actors, dancers, singers, writers, directors, teachers, and technicians to have the blessing of being directed, taught, guided and challenged by of the most inspiring Artists I have ever known.  Director, Teacher, Friend to All -- Alma Becker.  Only yesterday (Thursday, June 6, 2013) I learned that Alma had finally passed away from cancer.  She actually shed her mortal coil this past Sunday.  Today, upon reflection, I realized that, if I'm not mistaken, I had experienced the loudest momentary ringing in my ears while sitting on my brother's kitchen floor in Echo Park, LA.  As if a giant bubble had expanded inside my head and demanded I realize that something was up.  Very peculiar.  This was also on Sunday.  Though I could be mistaken.  My memory is not what it used to be.  Maybe it never was 'what it used to be' in the first place.  The spacey folks in esoteric circles say a ringing in your ears is a spirit passing through you.  This was undoubtedly the loudest momentary ringing I've ever experienced.  Was this Alma saying goodbye?

Wait wait wait.

Alma's dead?

I can, without reservation, assure you that my Heart, who knew and loved Alma probably better than the rest of me ever could've hoped to, is absolutely.  Infinitely.  Irrevocably.  Broken.

Right now I can see Alma in my mind's eye, looking at me sideways, arms crossed, saying "Oh come ooonnnnnnn.  Gimme a break!"  Alma wasn't fo no bullshit.  "Ok Ok," I quickly brush off her suspicions of me.  "Bear with me.  I'll get back to this.  Hang on.  I've gotta stop crying first...."

I've been an visual artist since I was 4 years old.  I started acting when I was five.  My first role -- the White Rabbit in 'Alice In Wonderland.'  I started playing drums in 5th grade and began writing rock songs with my buddies Mike, Dennis, Dave and some others in high school.  I've never wanted to be anything else but an Artist (with a capital 'A' for all of the arts).  I have lived, breathed, and often ignored the twin forces of Inspiration and Heartbreak for nearly 40 years.  It has not been an easy life.  Very little financial reward or stability, no health insurance, poor living conditions, a depressingly varied and spotty employment record, many many failures and disappointments as a man, as an artist, as a human.  No true love to share this confusing journey with me.  At times, the disappointment piles up and I start to feel a rogue mutant creature roaming the city streets, shunned by a society that never wanted me, never planned for me, never needed me.  Like Rutger Hauer's replicant from 'Blade Runner' -- powerful and hated, stinging with the emotions of an adolescent who desires to know one more day of real living inside a stunted, precious life.  

 Quote Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain." 

 Like Roy, my lost journeys as an adult Artist on Earth have led me to see things that maybe no one else may even dare to see, know heights and depths many may not have even guessed exists.  Lost it all and won it all and lost it all again.  Won it all for a moment onstage in the dance theater at Skidmore, improvising speed blues rhymes in front of a rabid audience until my consciousness stood two feet above my body, watching with everyone else to see what my mouth might say next.  Lost it all, dressed as Kaiser Wilhelm, insane, balancing on the edge of a wall near a castle in Prague, the wrong move meaning a 40 or more foot drop, trying to scream as my cue demanded, failing to scream because I was simply too scared to scream.  Lost it all, singing with a band in the basement of a coffee shop in Albuquerque, NM, for an audience of no one, soon to quit and drag my tail between my legs to NYC, capital city of losers who can't make it there or anywhere.  Won it all, talking to a homeless Blackfoot Indian man after an earthquake, his actions duplicating the sequences I had drawn him performing weeks before in a comic book through some kind of meta-textual-time-defying-uber-haze.   Won it all and lost it all, standing on my head on the main stage of the JKB theater, the tears running the wrong way down my face.  For Alma.  

Won it all and lost it all.  For the Art.

I have burned to be this man.  An Artist.  Besides the desire to be a good man, a great man, and great lover, He is all I have ever needed to be.

I realize I'm romanticizing this quite a bit. 

Over the years I've tossed around the vague notion that I could combine all my disciplines and inspirations into a single, all-satisfying project.  In 2012, I think I may have finally cracked that code.  At least, gotten a foot into the code-door, so speak, and to speak in poorly worded mixed metaphors.  Let me explain.

It all focuses around a song called 'Good Ache.'  Written by oldest friend Mike Gordon (I known him since kindergarten!) and yours truly (Mike on guitars, me on vocals and lyrics) for our on-again off-again power pop/psychedelic rock band the Troy Westfield Experience, 'Good Ache' is a summertime love song about (you guessed it) Heartbreak from the perspective of a person who's been around the block enough times to know how to appreciate experiencing something as pure as love while simultaneously trying not to get caught up in the layers of illusion surrounding it.  Let me explain.

While acting in a short film in San Francisco in 2010, where I played a sullen young office worker who falls in love with one of his co-workers, I started to recognize that, during the rehearsal and shooting process, I may actually be falling for the woman playing the love interest from the film.  It was a great feeling.  It was exciting, and surely it was informing my performance for the film.  But I was only too aware that, while the feelings seemed genuine, I was in the midst of cultivating them in the service of a small group of film makers who were busy creating a story that was, of course, imaginary.  It wasn't real.  I knew it wasn't real.  It wasn't real, right?  Right?

The Feeling sure felt real.

Sometime after the shoot ended, I realized this puzzle, the feeling of something pure and honest in the midst of layers of illusion, would make a perfect song.  This feeling of wonderful Heartbreak represented something I'd coined months earlier, something I'd called the Good Ache.  A Good Ache is any time you hear, see, feel or know something so wonderful, so beautiful, that it hurts.  Something that makes you feel alive, feel inspired, on the edge of the unknown.  Yet inside that wonder and beauty is a feeling of separation, or sadness, or impermanence.  Perhaps this is how moments when you feel most alive make you all too aware that someday you will die.  These are divine moments of creativity, and extremely potent.  A life without a series of Good Aches is a life not truly lived.  In my experience.  This is probably why I pursue Art, and I'm sure its the unbearable lightness of being that many many Artist chase their entire lives.   The Heartbreak muse.  The Good Ache.  A beautiful, horrible gift, waiting to be opened in this moment.  What's inside?

So I told Mike I wanted to write this song about my Good Ache experience for our new album, and Mike got it right away, and came back with the perfect tune.  His talent, or one of them, is seemingly knowing how to translate my cockamamie ramblings into a coherent series of chords in melodies lasting 6 minutes or less.  Its extraordinary, and I'm not sure he realizes his own unique genius.  After listening to his demo for a while, I wrote the lyrics and the vocals and emailed them back to him.  And he loved it. 

Recorded along with 5 other songs in the dead of winter, 2011, in NYC at Maze Studios, the recording studio of TWE band member/producer, great friend and fellow Skidmore alum Allen Towbin, all the pieces came together and yielded what Mike and I consider one of the best songs we've ever written.   But I'll let you be the judge:

In the summer of 2011, I was invited to act in an independent feature film called "American Epitaph."  Headed up way way off the grid in the Vermont wilds by a group of shaggy upstart filmmakers called the Young Ruffians, "Epitaph" is the story of a group of 20 somethings confronted with a vast and mysterious war on American soil that is winding their way to their front doorsteps.  I played "Eliot," the only one of the core four or five who decides to go fight the war and look it dead in the eyes.  Consequently, I spend most of the film AWOL, running through small towns, rivers and forests in search of my friends and my home.  Its was an brave and harrowing 40 days of filming in the middle of nowhere.  It was a film about growing up, friendship, and coming to terms with death.  

I decided this would be the perfect place to implement the next two phases of the recording project I'd embarked on with Mike;  I would not only paint the album cover for our upcoming e.p. 'Business on the Lanai: a Refresher Course,' but I'd also use downtime to try my hand at directing and shoot my very first music video.  A music video for 'Good Ache.'

The video concept:  I would use one of the scenes from 'American Epitaph,' a scene where I convince an kind young nurse to help me escape from the makeshift MASH hospital, and interrupt it with the song itself.  This would break the fourth wall of the 'film,' and I'd start performing the song in the midst of the ruined shot, then leave the set, wade into a river nearby, and float downstream, all the while performing the song until I washed up on the shores of Brooklyn, where the rest of the band would be already playing the song on the rooftop of the recording studio in Greenpoint, BK.  There we would finish performing the song, all the while referencing the actress playing the 'good ache' interacting with the river in my absence.  My hope was to create a narrative both in and out of linear time, with the river symbolizing the river of consciousness that leads us all through life.  All the while I'd be showing behind-the-scenes shots, revealing the inherent layers of falseness to the scenario.  Hopefully, some kind of more beautiful truth would arise through all this subterfuge.

I had no money, no cameras, only the kindness of filmmakers, actors and musicians who volunteered to help make this thing happen on both ends of VT and NYC.  I didn't even meet the actress who would be playing the 'good ache' until the second to last day of a 40 day shoot.  Fortunately, she was smart, charming and beautiful, and game to help with the music video.  We shot all the footage of the song interrupting the shoot first, after we shot the actual scene for the film.  We only did two takes.  

The next day, myself, cameraman Justin Epifanio, and video co-director Alistair Redman (also from Skidmore), filmed all the footage in a river nearby.  Justin would shoot me lip-synching the song as we both floated down the river (he, floating backwards) as Al held an ipod and small pair of portable speakers in his sling (he had broken his ribs and shoulder in a car accident only days before) while shouting directions from the shore.  

Both of these scenarios in the bag, and after the film itself was finished shooting, I left for NYC, narrowly missing a superstorm that flooded out VT for miles, more or less destroying the entire area where the whole shoot took place.  In NYC we shot in the Hudson river as well as on the rooftops of Allen's studio with the band: Allen, Mike, and Mike's young son, pretending to play drums, with the help of cameraman/filmmaker and fellow Skidmorian Matt Kalman.  Now all that was left was to gather the footage and edit my first attempt at directing a film.  Easy, right?  

After a year of trying to gather together all the disparate camera footage, I came to realize it would be impossible to get my hands on the footage of the actual film scene that gets interrupted by the music video.  Back the drawing board.  In the summer of 2012 I approached Alistair and our 'good ache,' actress/filmmaker Logan Howe, to shoot new footage for the beginning of the video.  They both agreed.  Alistair went to Logan's home in VT, they set up in her garage, and we shot several hours of improvised dialogue between her and I, with me talking on skype off screen, as I was back in San Francisco.  The conversations proved to be extremely funny and engaging.  I collected all this footage, along with shots of 'Good Ache' drummer Michael Parillo (also from Skidmore) playing the song in his basement, as shot by his wife Margit Herb, and sorted through it to edit together a 16 minute music video-- 10 1/2 minutes of storytelling combined with 5 1/2 minutes of song.  This is my first attempt at film directing.  This is my first attempt at editing.  The flaws and inconsistencies are all too apparent to me, but I did what I could with what I had and what little I knew, and, in the winter of 2013 it resulted in "Good Ache, An Epic Music Video."

Good Ache from These Are Dreams on Vimeo.

By the way here's the album cover for "Business on the Lanai."  the waterfall that the fire-winged tiger is sitting on was in the backyard of the house the entire crew of "Epitaph' lived in during our summertime 2011 shoot.  The water was very clean and very, very cold.

So 'Good Ache' became my first ever attempt at combining acting, writing, singing, poetry, directing, producing, editing, recording, and painting.   All for a song about Heartbreak.  It only took 3 years to make.

Where do you find inspiration?

I don't think I would have attempted a project this hair-brained without the influence of Alma Becker.  I'm hoping this doesn't reflect badly on her.  No, I hadn't seen Alma in nearly a decade, and no, I'm sure she had no idea what I might be up to.  In hindsight, she was probably suffering from cancer for most of the duration of the project, which is odd to think about, to say the least.  By the time I'd started on this journey, Alma was not a part of my life.

The thing is, Alma was one of the first people to ever give me a chance to show others (and myself) what I may have actually been capable of.  Not a great sentence, but a true statement.  Let me explain.

Alma was responsible for giving me one of my most important artistic experiences ever.  I don't know if she knew this, I'm pretty sure I never got to tell her.  I like to think it was important to her, as well.   When I was a sophomore at Skidmore, Alma cast me as the lead of a 3 1/2 hour epic main stage production of English playwright Peter Barnes' dark comedy masterwork 'Red Noses.'  In Red Noses, I played a monk, Father Flote, who, when confronted with the mass death of the populace of 13th century France due to the plague, has a spiritual conversion into a clown, and sets out to gather together an oddball band of miscreants to entertain the sick and the dying.  Alma could have cast other more experienced actors in this lead role.  After all, Father Flote would be on stage for nearly the entire 3 1/2 hours.  But for some reason, she chose me, maybe because she saw something in me that I had always felt I'd possessed, the burning need to express the deep desire to live and live brightly in the face of overwhelming adversity.  I admit it, I was very angsty back then.  I like to think we both shared an empathy for humanity, and I tend to believe we both lived with a Broken Heart.  If there was anyone who could identify a Good Ache, it was Alma.  

I don't think I ever knew Alma the person too well.  I don't know where she was from, what she did before coming to Skidmore, who her friends were, what her real dreams were, what her middle name was.  I realize I really know virtually nothing about her.  But my interactions with her -- well, with Alma, you knew you had found someone who was present with you, a listener, considerate, deeply intelligent, funny as shit, open and guarded, playful, strong willed, very patient, and able to make decisions from her heart as well as her head.   Alma was all heart.  She could make you feel special, understood, accepted, and loved.  Ask anyone.  They will tell you the same.  It was one of her true gifts.  I don't know to what degree she knew she was doing this, but Alma was too aware a person to not consider how she affected everyone.   With Alma, she wasn't just your director, or your teacher.  Alma was your friend.  Ask anyone.

I have to admit now that I have very few actual memories of interactions with her while creating 'Red Noses.'  So strange what gets lost to the years and one's own indiscretions.   Alma was certainly handling a huge project, with a giant cast and crew, an orchestra, over three hours of text and staging, and an challenging mix of satire, dark comedy, and deadly serious social commentary.  A few things I do remember from the rehearsal process:  

1. One day I had my wallet stolen, losing what little money I had for the next month, and came to rehearsal rather dejected, only to later find friend and fellow cast member Billy Rubenstein had collected the sum from donations from all of the cast.  It was such a rare moment of generosity that, embarrassed and choked up, I couldn't even bring myself to say thank you. 

2.  I remember crossing the stage early, on a missed cue, during one rehearsal and kissing Jennifer "Jema" Lumley, who was disguised as a leper, her mouth covered in gauze.  I was wrong in my cue, but Alma really liked something about the movement and she said "let's keep it' and changed up the staging accordingly.  It was nice to watch an experienced director turn accidents into art in the moment.  

3.  Another moment, perhaps in a dress rehearsal, because I could swear I watched this from the audience, was seeing '30 Rock' producer David Miner, then playing the role of a blind juggler, lose a piece of a pre-broken plate in mid juggle, and watching it shoot straight out into the audience, nearly missing the head of a woman sitting directly in front of him in the first row.  

More little or odd moments.  That seems to be how my memory works these days.  Whoever I was back in 1990 (1989?) is nearly a stranger to me now.  I think I've died to that kid at least a few times over the past 20-odd years.  

What I do remember, however, was the potency of this piece of theater.  The focus on the importance of loving acts during bleak times.  The gravity and scope of the production, and how moving it was for to all who saw it.  The focus on love and joy over cynicism, nihilism.  The importance of laughter in the face of death.  The bawdy, dark humor.  The struggle of the few to change the hearts of the powerful.  The heart.  The heart.  The Heart.  This was Alma.

Alma was all heart.

She loved freely.  She accepted you for all your flaws and sought to show you they were your strengths in waiting.  I got the feeling she knew her own flaws all too well.  When I'd speak with her, I could see another conversation going on inside of her head, some kind of internal negotiation, and most of it would remain unspoken.  This was a quality I really enjoyed.  Alma was just as willing to bite her tongue as speak her mind,  perhaps in order to let whatever judgement she might have about whatever she was being confronted with take a backseat to the possibility that the problem in this moment just might work itself out in the next one.  This is an exceptional quality.  It can only be achieved by someone who has admitted to herself that perhaps she doesn't have all the answers, hasn't seen all the possibilities, and that something higher might just have a solution no one could have considered.  This is the quality of someone who will trust in the face of doubt, and has made a friend of the unknown.  If Alma did have solutions, they were her alchemies, her personal tomes, kept at bay with an expression that was mysterious, mischievous, amused, careful.  Words were her magical soldiers, she'd let them out with wisdom of a leader who's maybe seen the scorched earth of her own opinions once too often, and was now resigned to wield power properly, selectively, responsibly.  If Alma knew the answers, she knew the joy in self discovery, and she didn't want to ruin the ending for the rest of us.  She was a cool lady.

Most importantly, in my experience of her, Alma seemed to Trust me.  I have often felt, as a performer and creator, that my intuitive instincts would lead me to the correct, or most interesting, discoveries onstage or anywhere else.  I think Alma trusted this intuitive unveiling of the path in a similar way, and she walked it in process.  Perhaps she could tell I was keen on figuring out my role on my own, and I knew she trusted me to make at least some of the right choices.  This level of freedom combined with the responsibility of bearing some of the weight of driving this giant ocean liner of a play led me to a place of being able to inhabit the depths of Father Flote's burden.  He was ultimately a madman, a holy clown, driven on his messianic fool's quest to lighten the hearts of all who suffered.  A man of god who's gnosis drove him to defy the entire structure of his faith, all for the laugh.  I think his character was far less selfish than my own, though perhaps at 19 I was still ego-less enough to approximate a man who has given his bearings to the voices in his head that insist on doing the right thing.  And 19 years of Christianity had mind wiped me into wanting to be a martyr.  Still, what I might have lacked in character personally was solved in the fact that I had someone else to guide me, someone who would have understood all of Flote's choices enough to know why a play like Red Noses was worth doing, and doing right.  I had Alma.

Together we could maybe heal this fallen world for the stretch of an eighth of a day through a message of Love.  Love in the face of pain.  Love in the face of power.  Love in the face of death.  These were the Good Aches, the Noble Disappointments.  To Love with the full knowledge that, through the kindness of death, each one of us was born to lose.

What I consider to be my most important moment performing Red Noses came to me at the end of the final show of the run.  For two weeks, the play would end (for me) with Father Flote's showdown with the Pope, the latter wheeled in to this confrontation in a glass box surrounded by armed guards to keep him safe from the plague and the people.  Knowing Father Flote's execution was imminent,  I used this last gasp to lash out with all I had at the figurehead of the people's oppression.  Every night I'd lay into my final monologue like a hel-god possessed, filling every sentence with pointed rage, words as truth-daggers, in a string of bitter pills.  This was finally my chance to go for it and go hard, all rage and tears and justice.  Honestly, I felt like I'd earned the catharsis.  When the speech was finished,  I'd stand on my head and wait for the sound effect of a crossbow firing to know I had been shot down.  The clown martyr reaching his apotheosis.  I'm sure my delivery lacked quite a bit of subtlety, but I hope my enthusiasm carried the gist of the thing through to good effect. 

But on the last evening, (was it a Sunday afternoon?)  as I leaned in to the monologue, something caught in my throat, and I couldn't yell.  The final lines of my final monologue in the final performance fell out of my mouth  gentle and ordinary.  "...absurd, like me."  I assure you, I had no control over what was happening to me.  I imagine, for the audience in that moment, Flote would have appeared to realize his own absurdity, his own hypocrisy,  as his vitriol suddenly gave way to a man's self realization of humanity and frailty, a man who knew he was just about to die.  This was my last chance to make a grand stand, and I'd lost control of it all right at the end.  And then I'd stand on my head one last time, tears running down my face the wrong way, and wait for the crossbow to fire.

After the performance, Alma told me this version of the final monologue was her favorite.  I don't think I totally understood why at the time, maybe I did.  Now it seems obvious:  Flote had found the last piece of his humanity by accident, and knowing he was about to die, didn't need to conquer anything or anyone.  He was ordinary in that moment.  He was at last a real man.

What blows my mind is considering that this final delivery was what Alma must have been hoping for the entire run of the show.  What if, in her eyes, I'd been doing it wrong the whole time?  Instead of showing me my error, Alma left me to my ego-stained catharsis, maybe at the cost of her artistic intentions for the play.   She waited for me to find it, and perhaps in this last show I did.   To consider the sacrifice of that gesture.  It is surely a sacrifice Alma would have made.  Out of Patience, out of Trust, out of Love.

I nearly flunked out of school that year;  three Fs, a D, and a B.  All my mind, heart, and soul had gone to Alma and Red Noses.  But I would have flunked out of a 1000 schools for a theatrical experience that pure, and I would have thrown away a 1000 futures for Alma.  Its only now, with her death, do I realize how insanely lucky I was to have this great, short time to play pretend with her beautiful spirit.  And to get to share a stage with a woman that kind, that patient, that trusting and loving, perhaps despite her own misgivings, and certainly despite my own weaknesses and ignorance.  Alma, I lost track of you over the years.  Can you forgive me?  I Love you so....

This is dedicated to Alma Becker, an important Artist and an amazing Human Being.  Ask anyone.  They will tell you the same.

Are you feeling short on inspiration?  What are you willing to do to find it?  Open your eyes.  Open your heart.  Let the world in.  Let others teach you how to be human.  Put the pen to the paper and give something back.  Let the world in and give something back.  Let the world in and give something back.  Have a thought, make a sound, spit something out.  Anything.  Trust this life.  Act from Love.  Find your Good Ache, make it your friend, feel it, and let it show you the way.

It's what Alma taught me.