Filtering by Category: Artist Life

Notes from the Wardrobe: My Mother, My Closet

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One of the interesting things about working on a show that seems at first glance to be a collection of scenes and monologues is that when you look closely enough you find that there is, in the best of them, always a structure. This is absolutely the case with Love, Loss & What I Wore. As I have dissected the script I have discovered that the stories are divided into sections based on subjects. The first section is all about mothers and daughters. This makes sense to me.

Mothers and daughters and clothes are often the first battles in our war for independence. Deciding what we want to wear and how we want to look are the first steps we take away from our parents and into ourselves. It can be an acceptance of the roles and expectations laid out for us or it can be a rejection of them. These battles run deeper than fabric. They have everything to do with how we see ourselves, how we want to be seen, and our deep desire to claim a place for ourselves in the world.

When I think of my own mother and clothes the words that come to mind are impeccable and conservative. My mother loved beautiful clothes, something she definitely passed along to me. She loved nothing more than a beautifully cut suit, with a skirt not too short and a heel not too high. She never left the house without her lipstick on and perfectly placed accessories.

In her gentle way she encouraged her daughters to emulate her. Cheap fabrics, clothes from tacky teen stores, and anything too short, tight or garish was absolutely discouraged. Appropriate was the word when it came to clothes. You didn’t wear pants to church or a job interview and you never ever bragged about wearing a new outfit. Naked attention seeking was tacky and embarrassing. And always, always make sure your hair has some height to it. Having me for a daughter meant that there were more than a few skirmishes over clothes. From the three piece pantsuit she made me wear when I was five to the stiletto heeled sandals I insisted I wear to my sixth grade graduation (I won that one, thank you very much).

It’s taken me a long time to understand that my mother’s feelings about clothes, her desire for conformity and appropriateness were about a lot more than mere appearance. My mother grew up dirt poor in Mississippi. The kid of poor where you go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier. Where you live in a place with walls so thin that the wind blows right through them, and you hate it, but you realize that you’re lucky to have even that. On top of that she was born with Marfan’s Syndrome, a congenital birth defect. One of the main hallmarks of Marfan’s is elongated fingers and toes and a tall extremely lanky frame. (For reference both Abraham Lincoln and Jonathan Larson had Marfan’s.

Dire poverty and a disease so rare that most doctors can go an entire career without seeing a case of it made my mother a marked woman. She was treated as an oddity by doctors who would bring their colleagues around to examine her without a thought of asking her permission. Her peers mocked her and called her Olive Oyl. It was not a happy childhood.

For my mother to marry, have a house in the suburbs and a closet with lovely clothes was a triumph. Clothing was her armor. To conform, to be “properly” dressed was security. It meant that no one could make fun of her. It meant that she would be see as something other than an illness. If she did’t stand out in any way she would be safe. She didn’t want her daughters to suffer the way she had and so she tried to pass on these things to them.

What makes me sad is that it took me so long to understand this. In many ways my mother would be absolutely shocked by a lot of what I wear. I worry much less about attracting attention to myself and more about what pleases me on any given day. And as for my flat hair...well, the less said about that the better. But because of things she sacrificed for me I get to indulge in the privilege of being a non-conformist. And it is a privilege.

She also left me with valuable lessons. Appropriateness to the occasion is just good manners. LIfe is too short too wear bad fabric. Always look your best when leaving the house, it will make you feel better. And never underestimate the value of a well cut suit.  In these things I think she’d be proud.

  

Essentially Me

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I went to Facebook last week and posed what I thought was a simple question - who are your top three essential female songwriters? Turns out it wasn’t quite so simple. At last count I had over one hundred comments and even now several days later people continue are still opining. There were names going back to the very beginning of musical time, names from musical theatre, jazz, pop, country, rock and even punk. It also sparked a vigorous debate or two. Most of the names were familiar to me, but one or two sent me scuttling off to learn more. It was exhilarating!

One name seemed to be the common denominator on the list- Joni Mitchell. She was mentioned far more than any other writer. There’s no mystery there. Her voice as a writer is distinct- no one sounds like her- in her use of language, her vocabulary she is sui generis. Her emotional reach is astounding, every word transmits itself straight from her soul to the listener’s heart. 

 A few years ago my friend Laurel, suggested Ms Mitchell’s Night Ride Home to me. It is the type of song I’m not known for doing, an unabashashedly joyful moment in romantic time. I loved it. Michele Brourman and I put it with Anne Caldwell and Jerome Kern’s Once in a Blue Moon. Going in to the studio to record it with Michele and Stephan Oberhoff was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. It is a piece I will happily sing every chance I get.

In Our Own Words...

Michele Brourman  & Me Photo by Cindy Banescu

Michele Brourman & Me Photo by Cindy Banescu

So, you may have heard...I’ve got show coming up (September 16th you can check out the details HERE). Not only does it reunite me with Michele Brourman, but it gives me the chance to celebrate the work of female songwriters. Why female songwriters?  

I’m a storyteller at heart. I was raised in a world of women sitting around a table sharing stories. Family lore, ghost stories, things that happened every day, men who disappointed, children who misbehaved in public and embarrassing ways- each story sparking another one, voices overlapping and rising making it impossible for little kids not to listen. And listen I did. I still remember them. Even the most horrifying anecdotes would be salted with so much laughter and humor that it was years before I realized what some of those tales were really about. 

The more time that passes the more I return to my roots as I’ve realized that as far as we’ve come as women we still are not always the ones in charge of telling our stories. Terms like chick lit and chick flick get thrown around and are used to dismiss stories that are seen as being too small, too domestic to be universal. Stories not told from a male perspective. 

But those stories I heard growing up were not just fluffy, funny anecdotes. They were about survival and problem solving and standing up for yourself in a world that makes it almost impossible. It told me that I could do hard things. That what does not kill me gives me stories (I find myself saying this more and more often these days. As regular readers of this blog will note.)  And most of all that in sharing them we create bonds, and community. They are meant to be shared. In the words of Maya Angelou, There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

This is why I chose female songwriters in this moment. I think they often go places where male writers fear to tread. They fearlessly take on subjects others would see as too small or mundane and use them to illuminate a larger truth. They (to quote my friend, director & performer, Shellen Lubin) created their own sounds and poetically documented their lives and hearts. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about excluding males from my audience. And there are several songs that I’m working on that have male co-writers.  I want men there just as much as I want women there. There has been so much ink spilled over how men and women are incapable of understanding each other. We speak different languages, inhabit different planets..blah, blah, blah. I don’t believe it. Maybe if we could listen to each other’s stories in our words, we’d learn not about being male or female but being human. 

Hitting the High Points...

This summer has been one of constant motion - I joined the board of Pioneer Productions, produced (and had a cameo appearance in) a musical and hit two very big milestones. One was inevitable and the other came through more than two years of blood,sweat and blisters.

The first biggie was my birthday. Whether it was divisible by five, ten or three hundred twelve I will leave you to guess. I’m not ashamed of my age but I also don’t feel the need to advertise it. I have officially entered my IDGAF Years. You have been warned.

The other was that I moved from Bronze level to Silver in my dancing. In my studio you start out at Bronze one and work your way through four levels until you reach the Silver level. Basically the Bronze syllabus is what most colleges use in their ballroom dance majors so finishing it is the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. It took two and a half years and a whole lot of toil but I did it and I’m proud of it. 

I had no idea when I started it but studying dance has been the best decision I could have made. It has made an impact on almost every other aspect of my life. In an odd way almost everything that has happened in my career in the last couple of years can be traced back to this decision. 

Dancing did not make me a different performer/person but through it I have become more myself than I have ever been. I am finally at home in my own skin and that has given me confidence both physically and psychically. The skills I already had when I started, the ability to create a character, to perform, to engage an audience, to tell a story have only grown stronger. Added to that are new ways of expressing myself and different ways to explore and understand music. Also, because ballroom is an art that is dependent upon working with another person it has enhanced my ability to communicate with a partner.

I have always been great with words. Words have been my salvation throughout my entire life. Dance has enhanced my nonverbal communication. I can take the stage without saying a word and that is a powerful tool to own.

It took me a while to come around to seeing it this way, but Dance has given me the gift of being a beginner again. You can never fully master an art unless you allow yourself the time and space to be bad at it. It’s not just how you conquer your craft but what teaches you empathy and patience. Knowing this makes me a stronger performer and a better teacher of performers. (This will really come in handy when I teach my Solo performance workshop in October. A plethora of shameless plugs coming soon.)

Finally, there’s the wardrobe. It hasn’t really changed that, it’s just given me even more opportunities to break out the sequins, fringe and corsets. This is the most excellent thing of all! 

 

Who Knew...

Photo by Denise Medve -  Penguinmoon Studio

Photo by Denise Medve - Penguinmoon Studio

Once a teacher said to me after a performance, “Well, who you knew you had that in you?”  And then went on to wax rhapsodic about all they had done for me, and how lucky I was that they gave me this wonderful gift. I smiled sweetly, said thank you, and walked away. But it nagged at me for a long time afterward. Because I didn’t answer the question. 

I did. I knew. Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that I have been extremely fortunate in having teachers and mentors who have nurtured me and believed in me, and to whom I owe more than I can possibly say. Their advice and instruction was invaluable, but it was I who did the work. I who chose them because I knew who and what I wanted to be, and then sought out the people who could help me become the performer (and human being) I knew in my soul I was. 

It was I who took every lesson home with me and thought over it, and cried over it, and then put in the hours of practice it took to master the material. I was the one who sacrificed the time, and money (oh, so much money) to learn as much as I could to be as good as I could. It was I who ignored friends, and family and housework (not the greatest sacrifice) to devote time to my craft. I was the one who tormented myself by constantly wondering if what I was doing, what I was, was enough.

I didn’t do it because I needed a hobby. I didn’t do it because I wanted attention. I did it because I had a vision. I was called to it. And. I. Knew.

On Worthiness

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There are days when I struggle with the idea of being worthy. I was not raised by artists, my family didn’t know anyone who made their living from art and so I was a bit of an outlier. “It’s a nice dream, but not many people make it, what makes you think you’re talented enough to do it?”  I’m not blaming them, the world is a scary place and the last thing you want is to see your child struggle. You want them to be safe in an unsafe world. They were voicing the same ideas that many people have about pursuing a career in the arts. “Who are you to  think YOU are enough to do this”?

Even now I get comments from “well meaning” friends and complete strangers - “Well, it must be nice to.....” or “aren’t you lucky...” Luck has nothing to do with it. I’ve worked and I’ve sacrificed to be able to do the things that I do. It’s taken me the better part of three decades not just to be good at what I do, but to look another human in the eye and admit it . It is false humility to brush off compliments and pretend that the things I am able to do came about through any means other than sheer toil.

Truthfully, I wish I had learned this year’s ago, but maybe I wasn’t ready yet. My career path hasn’t looked like anyone else’s and most likely never will. There have been times when I’ve made it harder on myself than it needed to be, and times when I allowed someone else’s opinions to divert me. For a long time I refused to use the word artist in reference to myself because I thought it wasn’t up to me to declare myself one. It turns out I had it backwards. 

I am an artist, and I am worthy of a career in art. This is my declaration. I have put in the time and the effort to become one, and no one can take that away from me unless I let them. And that ain’t gonna happen.