wet earth

No One Is Alone

Most actors learn their lines, rehearse their scripts, perform their roles, and then move on to the next gig.  But what if the role you’re playing is yourself?

Two upcoming shows will give audiences the opportunity to see the transformative power of live theatre, up close and very personal.  Next week, at the Studio Theatre in Salinas, Hartnell College drama students will present “Can I Get a Witness,” a series of monologues based on personal material, written and performed by the students themselves.  Five years ago, Jeff McGrath, Production Manager at the Western Stage, was given the task of coming up with an event for the spring.

“It was during a mountain bike ride in Fort Ord,” McGrath says.  “I was remembering a conversation I’d had with a professor about what drives us to do theatre.”

McGrath says that when stories are compelling, we in the audience can identify with the story’s characters and its conflicts.  “This can give credence to events in our own lives.  We become a witness to those things that are important to us, which can make our own lives seem more real.  There’s a corroboration: someone saw this.”

And seeing something, really seeing it, can often be the first step toward letting go.

Since the inception of “Can I Get a Witness,” Hartnell students have braved the territory of personal writing and performance to offer pieces about fear, isolation and prejudice.  This year, the theme is regret.  The performances are monologues, but the students deliver them to another individual on stage, who may improvise a bit of dialogue; the other students are also on stage, as witnesses.  This year, there will be seven pieces, including one by a young woman who had a misunderstanding with her sister in Japan over a single word; a student who voices regret to a director; and one who will speak to a brother who took his own life.

Bringing such stories out into the open heals not only the performer but the audience as well.  Here are some more stories: a lesbian mother speaks in loving amazement to her son; a father struggles to understand the death of a child; a woman wonders why she’s had so many strange encounters with the police.  These and other compelling personal stories will be performed on stage this weekend at Spotlife, a solo performance class taught by Clifford Henderson and Dixie Cox in Santa Cruz.  (I’m one of the performers.)  The eight-week Spotlife class takes eight participants through the process of developing an original monologue; the eighth class is the performance.

On the first day of class, those who had taken Spotlife before offered us newbies some helpful thoughts: trust the process; one can always find humor even in the darkest places; the more personal the story, the more universal its appeal; and no one is alone in this.  At the theatre, everyone is a witness.

“Can I Get a Witness,” Saturday March 24, 7:30 p.m., Sunday March 25, 1:30 p.m., Hartnell College Performing Arts Building, Studio Theater (411 Central Ave. Salinas).  Admission by donation.

“ SpotLife,” Saturday, March 17, 2:00 p.m., Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, one block south of Ocean St., Santa Cruz.  Suggested $5-10 donation.

A Genuine Investigator

“But I believe that mysteries surface in unexpected forms, and if I am to be a genuine investigator, then I must follow what I feel needs investigation.”

These words are spoken by a character in a short story by Aimee Bender, but they could just as easily apply to the author herself, whose four books investigate in dazzling prose the mysteries of human emotion.  Bender, who will read from her work and discuss fiction-writing on Thursday at MPC (see below for details), writes stories that are hard to summarize.  A boy whose fingers are keys?  A woman whose children are potatoes?  A girl who is unable to eat food without experiencing the feelings of the person who made it?  When I first heard about Bender’s writing, I didn’t think I would care for it: I thought it might be too sci-fi, or wacky, or whimsical for my tastes.

Boy, was I wrong.

In her two novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) and two collections of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), Bender writes in an utterly unique voice that marries narrative realism with elements of fantasy and the absurd.  Yet the surreal detail is never really the point.  Yes, a boy is born with keys for fingers, but the story is about finding one’s purpose in life and trying to answer the question “what is the greatest mystery of your family.”  (That is quite a question.)  Yes, the girl can taste her mother’s secret feelings, but is this really so strange?  As children we absorb into our bodies the stories and feelings our mothers and fathers absorbed from their mothers and fathers.  Bender’s surrealist details shine an imaginative light on that which can’t be measured yet may be the truest thing about us.

A major theme running through her work is a hunger for transformation, which can lead some characters to extremes: disfigurement, self-mutilation, the desire to dissolve or pierce through the fixed boundaries of self and escape the burden of loneliness.  In one town there are “scar people.”  The narrator asks, Does it hurt?  “And the scar people nodded, yes.  But it felt somehow wonderful, they said.  For one long second, it felt like the world was holding them close.”

To be held close, cradled, by hurt, comes close to explaining the rich appeal of Bender’s work, which is beautifully written and often quite moving.  In one story, a tiny creature looks at a larger man who is both cruel and forlorn, and cannot understand “the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.”

Bender’s writing unbuckles our hearts.

Aimee Bender will read from her work and discuss the writing of fiction on Thursday, March 15 in the Sam Karas Room at Monterey Peninsula College. This MPC Guest Authors Series event begins at 7:00 p.m.; tickets ($10) will be available at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.  This MPC Guest Authors Series event is made possible with support from the MPC Humanities Division and English Department, the MPC Foundation and The Arts Council for Monterey County.

Performance Art

A fine day was made finer last week when I serendipitously parked my car next to the fabulous new mural taking shape on Alvarado Street, in downtown Monterey.  Created by Khalid Hussein, whom I once interviewed years ago for an article about a high school poetry contest, the mural occupies a 200-foot-long construction wall that will one day—officials say 2014—give way to the Monterey Market Hall.

When I praise the mural, which features large glowing fruits and vegetables triumphantly emerging from the future Market Hall and floating above the Monterey Peninsula, Hussein is quick to mention the mentors who helped to guide him on the path of a successful artist.

“Norm Muhl, my art teacher at P.G. High School, was awesome,” Hussein says.  “He stood behind every wacky idea I had.”

Hussein received further support at Youth Arts Collective.  “At YAC, it wasn’t just the space, or the materials, it was the gentle way that Meg Biddle and Marcia Perry slowly imparted a world view.  It was true communication across the generations.”

Hussein went on to study art at UCLA; he now divides his time between Monterey, Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where he shows with the Renegade Art Gallery.  He hopes that the Market Hall’s mural, scheduled for completion on March 14th, opens up new possibilities for further involvement with the community.

During the short time I spent talking with Hussein, I noticed that the mural received a lot of attentive interest from passersby, especially children.  Recently, a large and enthusiastic group of current YACsters spent the day painting with Hussein.

He says that making art in such a busy area makes the work a public performance as much as a job.  Several people have asked him if he’s getting paid; some even wonder if he’s homeless.

“We are professionals,” Hussein says.  “This isn’t just a hobby.”