Tag Archives: artist

Good Night, Sweet Prince

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So, Prince died. And I’ve been crying on and off since yesterday. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m sad that he’s gone, or that I was too sick to go to Brooklyn last night for Spike Lee’s block party. All these people are dying. Famous people I never met, folks whose work meant a lot to me, inspired and touched me in personal ways that are hard to describe. And then there are the deaths of people in my life – family members, friends, whose silence still rings loud in my ears and in my heart.

Prince Michael Ochs Archives

Photo credit – Michael Ochs Archives

These endings, these reconfigurations, they are inevitable, I suppose, and a normal part of life. But as I grow older, they seem to increase in frequency, and their resonance with my own sense of impermanence, the reality of my own eventual demise, becomes more acute. I feel vulnerable and more alone.

I remember back in the days when scanning through the calendar of events in the Village Voice made me feel small and insignificant. There was always so much going on, so many scenes that I was not a part of, so many shows I would miss, performers I would not experience firsthand. Rather than feel enticed to choose something fun to do, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, the out of reach amount of money required to do all the things that called to me. I often got paralyzed into doing nothing.

These days, I scan my Facebook and Instagram pages. I see all the pithy descriptions of parties and shows and other events, I get the invitations, I scan the guest lists, I see the pictures afterwards. I am connected to all these people, yet not part of the group selfies, not part of the behind the scenes moments, the preparatory meetings, the after-parties. And yet, I am fooled into thinking I am part of all these things. I see the pictures, I read the remarks, I comment and like and share. But I am home, alone.

When I do go out, I have a great time. I meet old friends, new comrades, new besties, crushes, potential collaborators, business partners. I speak my mind, I tell jokes, I flirt and sparkle, I flash my teeth, I share drinks and other things. I am part of my world, wherever I go. I am not afraid.

But the people keep dying. I keep getting older. The world keeps shifting, as loved ones leave us, change the geometry of the landscape, the energy, the dynamic. I knew who I was, and then Maya Angelou died. Michael Jackson died. Amy Winehouse died. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. They died. Why then? Why them? My parents. Gone. My husband. Gone. Friends have lost children. Unthinkable. Bowie, Prince, gone. These losses, they seem arbitrary, random. They are unexpected. It’s hard to imagine a world without them.

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Only my husband, who took over twenty years to slowly slip away from me into the grips of his chronic illness – only he took his time. And that deconstructed widowhood, it took me over slowly, taught me to feel every molecule of loss, taught me to understand the gradual letting go of our partnership, our plans, wishes and dreams, taught me to look to myself for strength when everything pointed in the direction of abandonment.

There are things we may not want to admit to ourselves, such as the fact that we will all be dead someday. When one of our luminaries crosses over, and the world changes, I want to hold onto something that feels more permanent, more robust and hearty than my own fragile sense of myself. I want hugs, kisses, maybe adoration, maybe sex, the grinding of body against body a reminder of my physical existence, my presence here on earth right now.

I’ll bet it would have been great to be crushed up against a sea of strangers in Brooklyn or Minneapolis or Harlem last night. I’ll bet it would have been great to cry out loud into the night with the soundtrack of a genius playing in the background. I’ll bet it would have been great to get high on collective grief and inspiration. Instead, I cried myself to sleep, grateful for the drowsy escape from sore throat, sinus congestion and a deep cough.

I remember now that every great artist knows a profound sadness and uses it to fuel his or her art. I remember, as any good Buddhist will tell you, that suffering breeds compassion. I remember, as my husband used to say, that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And I remember that the grief I feel over anyone’s loss is a tribute to the love we shared, whether in person, or through the magic that was their art, their music, their words.

So I guess things are as they should be…

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Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

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Last August, my longtime friend Deb Margolin performed her magnificent play “Good Morning Anita Hill…” at the Todd Mountain Theater Project, a summer theater festival in Roxbury, NY that was founded by another old friend, Suzanne Pred-Bass. Having written previously about this play, I thought it would be a hoot to go see it again in its latest incarnation, and hang out with both of these women whom I’ve known for so many years.

I thought I’d share with you this letter I wrote to Deb when I was still thinking of going.

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Dear Deb,

I will tell you a funny story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

About six years ago, Suzanne produced Anne Bogart’s play Room at the Todd Mountain festival. In a fit of synergistic ecstasy, I decided that since I knew both women for many years from completely different tracks of my life, that I should drive up to the festival and review this performance, in the context of the larger implications for me and my creative life.

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Ellen Lauren in SITI Company’s “Room” – image courtesy of SITI Company

The Saturday morning of the show, I had taken Josiah [my son] to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party in a big playground in Stuy Town, in Manhattan, where he fell on his face and shredded it to pieces. Not to be deterred from my great creative moment, not to mention mom’s first sleepover away from husband and child since childbirth (he was 3 at the time), I decided it was only a flesh wound, and we could still go forward with the “boy’s weekend” (Dad, Josiah and Uncle Hector with pizza, movies, etc.) while Mom drove upstate for a weekend of creative and professional ecstasy. I even carried my bloody child in my arms around the aisles of Best Buy, purchasing the DVD’s I’d promised to bring home…

Despite Ivor almost having a heart attack upon seeing his wounded child and a very traumatic washing of the face that took all three adults to hold my son down in the tub, I remained steadfastly and completely disassociated from any maternal instincts and persisted on leaving for the trip.

Of course, I wept most of the way upstate, and ended up being late for the performance – never a good idea for an Anne Bogart show. She is a former army brat and notoriously strict about classes, rehearsals and shows starting on time. I was lucky I was able to gain entrance.

My interview with Anne went well. It was a great reunion. She and I knew each other back from the early 80’s when I appeared in an accidental production of a deconstructed version of A Streetcar Named Desire, called Sehnsucht, that came about when an earlier show we had been rehearsing lost its funding. It was a post modern tour de force, in the great tradition of Jerszy Grotowski and Squat Theater, occupying an entire three story vacant building in downtown Northampton, MA, where I was living at the time, both inside, in various rooms, looking out to the street from the glass storefront and then at the entire building from across the street. I played one of ten Blanches. Several years later, I was part of an experimental theater workshop we organized with Anne at St. John the Divine, and then still later I took a directing class with her at Playwright’s Horizons, where I was promptly declared one of her weekly favorites. So our history ran deep to my sense of what theater could be and who I could be in it. I was thrilled to catch up with her on the last decade plus of our lives.

That night, I guiltily enjoyed the opening night reception, chatting up complete strangers while trying to ignore the fact that my family was without me in the Bronx, and then even managed to indulge in a bottle of wine with Suzanne and a couple other members of her inner circle who were also invited to stay with her at her residence that night. I was totally immersed, a theater person, dammit, just like I thought.

I drove home the next day, filled with grand thoughts about how I would roll out this post-modern tale that wove together so many strands of my life. And when I arrived, I found grief, relief, and silent judgement. By the time the next morning rolled around, Josiah’s face wounds had become infected, dangerously close to his eye, and we had to take him immediately to the doctor. A round of topical and oral antibiotics later, disaster was averted, eyesight saved, but my conscience deeply, perhaps permanently scarred, like my son’s cheek, that still bares the faint outline of the injured swath of skin that ringed around the outside of his right eye in the shape of a #7.

I never wrote that article. I was never able to complete it. Instead, I was blocked by the guilt of choosing my own need to be an artist over the welfare of my child (an artificial and untrue dichotomy to be sure, but try and tell that to a guilty conscience). I also carried the sense of failure of having promised a piece of journalism to two creative people whom I admire deeply, who took time to speak to me about their life, their craft, their work, and expected me to deliver a story in return.

To this day, although I have pages of notes from my journal before, during and after that trip, the interview I did with Suzanne, the two I did with Anne, one upstate and one in NYC at a SITI Company rehearsal, I have never been able to bring myself to articulate the story I wanted to tell about how everything came together from my past and present to bring to life a show based on Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, whereupon a woman finds the joy of speaking her voice and baring her artist’s soul. Can’t you imagine the possibilities? With so many layers of symbolism, and parallel realities, and art imitating life imitating art??

So, you can understand why the fact that you are now doing your wonderful show up there stirs up certain desires in me to reconnect, bring the story to the present.

It’s actually not a very funny story. Not funny ha ha. But you know what I mean… Maybe this is just where it all led…

xoxoxo

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It turns out, I did not get up to see Deb’s play again last summer. Instead, I am left to share the vestiges of a vision where art and life intersect in many layered splendor, the desire to re-connect with old friends in this unique configuration relegated to a letter that describes what could have been…