wet earth

An Anonymous Gift

One of my favorite artists died two months ago and I’m still thinking about it.  I never met John Rousseau, who peacefully passed away in his sleep on July 2 at the age of 64, but two of his performances still linger in my mind, nearly a decade after having seen them.  Rousseau was one of the mainstays of PacRep in Carmel, not only as an actor and director but also as a light and sound designer and a builder of stage sets.  I came to appreciate Rousseau’s brilliance over the course of two summers: in 2002, when he portrayed Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and in 2003’s beautiful production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a powerful piece of chamber theatre about ghosts, hidden wounds, and vulnerability.

The dictionary defines a weir as “a barrier or dam to restrain water,” and the metaphor is apt for McPherson’s 1997 play about characters who hold in their emotions in order to survive.  One night, at a small pub in rural Ireland, a boozy group of men try to impress Valerie, a newcomer from Dublin, with some neighborhood stories tinged with the supernatural.  As it turns out, she has a ghost story of her own, one considerably more serious, involving the death of a child.  The mood in the bar changes, and a man named Jack, played in that 2003 production by Rousseau, is prompted to share his own story.

Jack is a gruff mechanic, “an auldfella,” he calls himself, who lives alone on the outskirts of town.  Valerie asks him, do you wish you had married?  “Sure who’d have me?” he replies.  “A cantankerous old fucker like me.”  But beneath his rough exterior and all his talk about “freedom” and “independence,” Jack is a deeply lonely man, full of barely disguised hurt and yearning.  The story he tells to Valerie and the others involves a woman he was with as a youth; after they’d been together for awhile, she wanted to move to the city.  Jack chose to stay where he was.  She becomes engaged to another man, and as a guest at their wedding, Jack is struck by the realization that he no longer matters to her.

I can still remember, nearly a decade on, how meticulously Rousseau brought us into the character of Jack, whose layers of self-protection gradually disappear as he tells his story.  “And she just looked at me like I was only another guest at the wedding,” Jack says.  “And that was that.  And the future was all ahead of me.  Years and years of it.  I could feel it coming.  All those things you’ve got to face on your own.  All by yourself.  And you bear it ‘cause you’re showing everybody that you’re a great fella altogether.  But I left the church like a little boy.”

Jack goes to a nearby pub, where the barman senses Jack’s troubled mood.  “And the barman asked me if I was alright?  Simple little question.  And I said I was.  And he said he’d make me a sandwich.  And I said okay.  And I nearly started crying—because, you know, here was someone just ... and I watched him ... I’ll never forget it ... And, just someone doing this for me.  And putting it down in front of me ...  And I took this sandwich up and I could hardly swallow it, because of the lump in my throat.  But I ate it all down because someone I didn’t know had done this for me.”

In this, the play’s crucial scene, Rousseau conveyed with heartbreaking accuracy the looming gap between Jack’s self-isolation, his low opinion of himself, and his need, his burning hunger, for connection.  For all these years later, Jack, too, is haunted by a ghost: the ghost of his younger self who chose solitude over love and is still living with the consequences.

Rousseau bared the raw and broken heart of a broken man in that production, just as he did in Henry IV when Falstaff is spurned by Prince Hal and banished, their old friendship cast aside for the sake of ambition.  I still recall the tears in Rousseau’s eyes, glittering in the stage lights, when Falstaff realizes that his friend and companion, on his way to becoming king, no longer has room in his heart for him, for their old wild and rollicking ways.  It was more than acting, it was life, it was real, and it was thrilling.

I always assumed that some day I would find the opportunity to tell Rousseau just how much his performances meant to me.  Now that won’t happen.  Artists, writers, musicians, actors may never know how much their work has touched another.  Sometimes art is like that sandwich given to Jack: an anonymous gift that nourishes beyond all measure.  Rousseau’s deeply memorable performances manifested a rare alchemy of vulnerability and craft, sensitivity and skill—a model for all performers and creative artists.  I’m grateful to have witnessed his artistry.  Rest in peace, John Rousseau, and thank you.

Expecting the Unexpected

A cursory glance at the following titles—“The Banks of Green Willow,” “The Watermill,” “The Black Lake”—might lead one to guess that the titles refer to paintings or poems about water.  The guess would almost be accurate: the creators of these three works, George Butterworth, Ronald Binge, and Patrick Doyle, respectively, did aim to tell a story or suggest an image involving water, but instead of words or pigment their creations evoke the idea of water through the use of musical notes, instruments, and performers.

If you haven’t heard of composers Butterworth, Binge and Doyle, don’t worry, because Joe Truskot has, and every week on 20/21, his Tuesday evening radio show of mostly modern and contemporary music on KUSP, Truskot offers to the radio-listening public an astonishing array of just such musical juxtapositions and connections.  In addition to the titles above, his program on “Freshwater Music,” which aired last June, also included works by the 20th-century greats Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber, as well as more contemporary selections by living composers like Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon.

“ ‘Modern music’ is not just one thing,” says Truskot, who began hosting 20/21 regularly last February.  “There are many different spokes to that wheel.”  Some classical music stations broadcast only mainstream, unchallenging repertoire—nothing that calls undue attention to itself—in order to create an unruffled background soundtrack for shopping or driving.  Truskot is after something else.

“20/21 is a show with a point of view.  It’s not an educational lecture but a real program, something you listen to.  And it’s not all squeaks and pips.”

Truskot (photo at right) studied guitar in grade school, but admits he did not have the temperament to be a musician.  It was later, in high school and then college, that he discovered classical music and what would become his lifelong passion.  As a young Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, he traveled to Iran with a cassette player and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky tapes.  While working for CARE in Belize, he would go to Chetumal, a Mexican border town several hours away that had the only record store in the region.

Now, the ease with which he is able to locate and listen to a vast array of music, from the standard to the obscure, would have been unimaginable back then.  Each playlist that Truskot curates for a 20/21 show may draw from his own collection of over 2000 CDs, the significant KUSP library, and Internet programs like mp3 Rocket, which allow him to sample new music without committing to buying it.

He also receives recordings sent by the business managers of such composers as David Del Tredici and Charles Wuorinen, connections he forged while working nine years at the League of American Orchestras and twenty years for the Monterey Symphony.  Interacting with living composers has kept his musical imagination fresh.  One of Truskot’s favorite living composers is Kevin Puts, recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize, whose Arc of Life commission by Chamber Music Monterey Bay will be premiered this October.  “His music is accessible and warm-hearted,” Truskot says.  “There’s such brilliance in the music, it draws you in.”

Amy Anderson, CMMB’s Board President, describes Truskot’s 20/21 shows as “creative and fabulous.”

“Joe’s programs are just brilliant,” she says.  “His music choices for each program are eclectic, connected to each other, and just delightful.”

Past programs have included a diversity of themes, including insomnia, women composers, 20th-century violin concertos, and France.  He is currently working on a show about birds.

Although Truskot is a fierce advocate for the music of today, his favorite composer is Haydn. 

“Haydn worked under extraordinary circumstances,” he says, “creating a vast amount of music under really constrained circumstances.  The music budget was under the kitchen department, which meant that in fact his boss was a chef.  His music is so full of surprises, it never does quite what you expect.”

Thanks to Joe Truskot and KUSP, the tradition of the musical surprise, of expecting the unexpected, is alive and well on the Central Coast.

Visit http://blogs.kusp.org/aeolianimpromptu/ for links to Joe Truskot’s archived blogposts, playlists and podcasts of 20/21, which airs every Tuesday evening 7:00-9:00 on KUSP.

The Mystery of Her Mother

Ellen Snortland’s name alone is enough to get anyone’s attention (“with a name like that she’d better be good,” the writer, performer and human rights activist likes to say), but growing up with a silent, stone-faced Norwegian-American mother from North Dakota, Snortland faced the ultimate challenge: getting her mother to laugh.  Snortland, who lives in Altadena, California, and who will perform her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-nominated one-woman show “Now That She’s Gone” this weekend in Carmel, says that she turned herself inside-out in a lifelong attempt to draw her mother out of her shell.  Her show, which she has performed to acclaim throughout the world, including the Edinburgh and New York Fringe Festivals, is a funny and poignant exploration of that relationship, inspired, as she says, by “the universal hunger to be understood by a parent.”

“Now That She’s Gone” has been described as “Garrison Keillor meets Lily Tomlin,” a memoir piece featuring sex, drugs, Eleanor Roosevelt and lutefisk.  In a recent phone interview, Snortland says that when she began writing the piece, it was a way for her to unravel a relationship that had mystified her her entire life.

“Just consider what this one woman’s life was like,” Snortland says of her mother.  “She only ever kissed one man, and barely.  I was the opposite.  I did all kinds of outrageous things, trying to get her to react.”  Straddling the two sides of a divide marked by the women’s liberation movement, significant social and cultural changes, as well as the mysteries of personality and the generation gap, Snortland and her mother’s lives could not have seemed more different.  Yet they found common ground in their passion for human rights; Eleanor Roosevelt was a particular focus of Snortland’s mother.

In the course of writing the play, Snortland also uncovered information that helped her see her mother in a different, more compassionate light.  “This show is not about holding grudges,” she says.  “It really heals families.  As an example, a man in his 70s came up to me after the show and held my hand as tears streamed down his face.  He’d never been able to forgive his father until he saw my show. I am profoundly moved by the number of e-mails I get from people from all walks of life who have told me that seeing my show has helped them heal old family wounds.”

Snortland is bringing “Now That She’s Gone” to the Cherry Center after a conversation with her friend Riane Eisler, international peace activist and resident of Carmel, who had read the play and loved it but had not been able to see it.  Snortland is always happy for the opportunity to perform her show.

“I just did it thirty days in a row in Scotland,” she says.  “It’s so fun to perform, I really sail with it.  It’s so yummy!  I love the feeling of being completely present with the audience.  I don’t have to worry about me.”

“Now That She’s Gone,” at the Carl Cherry Center, 4th and Guadeloupe, Carmel, August 24 at 7:30 pm, Saturday August 25 at 7:30 pm, and Sunday August 26 at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm.  Call (831) 624-7491 or visit the Center’s website for tickets and information.