I think something is starting to jiggle loose in my mind. Maybe it’s because of the piano. I took a solo day (as each of us does about once a month) to Salt Point State Park and stayed overnight. On the way back, I stopped at Portuguese Beach, put on my Teva hiking sandals, and went down to the shore level to check out my magic cave at low tide. I was overwhelmed by how powerful it felt to stand in the mouth of the cave and let wave after wave wash over my feet and legs, feel how the sand caressed me on the way out, and just be there in that place of power.
And then words jumped into my head. “Feeling good about where I’ve been.” OK, that was true. I’d had an exceptional time at Salt Point, visited the seals and had a magnificent camp-cooked dinner. But this didn’t feel like a random brain-bubble, it felt like the beginning of a song. It’s been years since a song has come calling. Very soon a second line joined it: “I didn’t always know where I was going.” Aha. I realized this was bubbling up from the memoir, which was nearing the end of a first draft. (Finished that today, first draft of Volume I of three.)
This is a strangely big deal for me, the possibility of a new song. It means my creative mind is waking up after a long Covid nap. Today while we were having our Sunday ocean picnic at a new site (a keeper), a wig-bubble splatted me. Yesterday, at our regular Oral Tradition poetry gathering, I recited a short poem by Jo Carson from her book Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet. I’d recited a couple of her poems over the years, and the response has always been warm. Years ago I played the role of Jo Carson in her play Daytrips and came deeply into her writer’s heart, and suddenly I had a thought. What if I made a solo piece from these poems and called it “Diner?”
Jo had a serious hearing disability and had a pretty high-powered hearing aid. She loved sitting in a booth at the end of a diner, cranking that puppy up, and listening to everybody talk. That’s the feeling of all these poems: listening to real people talk in their own voices. Back when we were in Lancaster PA, I did a massive solo piece based on the poems of Pamela White Hadas, Beside Herself: Pocahontas to Patty Hearst, so I’ve been there before. I’d love to do this.
I have no idea whether we can start touring live performance again, but I surely want to do it if it wouldn’t mean a death sentence. House concerts are good. I don’t know whether we’d do book readings or perform or both. Jo left this plane in 2011, but I think her spirit just came to say she’d be willing to come along. Howdy, partner.
I would like to be kind.
I don’t think I’m cruel, not often hurtful, sometimes sardonic or cutting, rarely ad hominem. But kindness is much more than absence of cruelty. It involves reaching out, sensing what’s felt and trying to ease it or at least acknowledge it—at least let it be known that you hear it.
My instinct is that of a repairman: see something wrong and fix it. That was my shortcoming the few years I was teaching: you build from the positive, not from knocking down the negative. I could get caught in that trap as a director, but the best times were when I was able to evoke something in the actors and the actors in me. My best times have been when doing interviews for public radio series we produced: just being able to promote the flow of people’s stories. Not to cure them or promote them: simply to midwife the voice.
I’m a very shy person, and it’s worse with age. I see few people, talk to few beyond “Sixteen ounce Americano, room for milk.” Facebook is a snare. Good that I connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise have an excuse for connecting with—being hyper-reclusive—but difficult in that it evokes my dentist’s instinct for going after cavities.
I perpetually get into hassles with people whose politics I agree with totally but whose language or tactics I feel are counterproductive. They seem to have no tolerance for anything less than violence: if you don’t counter hate with enlightened hate, you’re part of the problem.
That’s another conversation entirely, but I state it here because it traps me into a tone I don’t want. In the long run, I think it’s greater service to say “Happy birthday,” and when you can, to commiserate with someone, to say, “My heart is with you.” Even (very sparingly) to risk advice. To share yourself.
I don’t disparage Facebook activists, though I sometimes wonder whether their activism is confined to posts on Facebook. But far be it from me, whose service to humankind involves writing novels that few people read, to criticize ANY means of improving the human condition, or even that of rabbits.
My focus is simply this: how can I be kind?
One interviewee on our last radio series had founded a hyper-grassroots charity, finding ways he could make a difference in people’s lives (in other countries) with gifts of $100 or $50 or $5. He spoke of a frequent criticism (from friends) of his efforts: it’s a Band-Aid, it’s one family, it does nothing to address a world of suffering. Yes, he said, true, but for that one family, it’s goddamned meaningful. Words can do the same.
And a friend wrote a play that we produced. ACTS OF KINDNESS. And at our last horned-moon ritual, I praised my mate Elizabeth for her kindness to many—not something that came naturally to her but evolved over the years. Those words were themselves a kindness. I hope for more.
I’m close to the end of my current first draft of the memoir, which appears to have declared itself to be a three-part opus. Too many events have happened in eighty-one years to be crammed into one volume. This first section climaxes with the discovery that our dream of parenthood, after years of learning to accept that it would never happen, happened. Two years later came our painful recognition that the theatre company we’d left our planned academic career to embrace was not, could not be the core of the rest of our theatrical life. In the process of being rocked by that grief of separation, another baby began, born into the cold Chicago winter of our first year as a solo duo, and the rest of our life’s pattern was set.
In 1971 we’d learned that Conrad’s faculty position would not be renewed, and quickly decided not to look for another academic post. The theatre collective we’d helped bring into being showed promise of finding a life, and indeed Theatre X had a thirty-five year run. March 4, 1972 was the grand opening of the building that became our theatrical home, the very public declaration that this was our committed path. That same night, fertility blessed our choice.
What followed was a local season of new work and an ever-growing roster of touring performances. Our creative work was the company’s core, but in order to be able to put full-time work into that very demanding process, salaries were essential. Salaries meant money. Money meant touring. We worked on self-promotion, and some college-circuit showcases turbocharged our efforts. At the beginning of 1974, we cashed in with a ten-week tour of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and made a lot of money. But it was seven people and a toddler in a van for two and a half months. You can’t make new work under those conditions.
With one exception. In West Virginia, we made another baby.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about conception. What opens the gates? Our first time, it was in-your-face obvious. Our whole life together, up until then, had been single-mindedly focused on going as fast as possible toward the Ph.D. and the faculty jobs to follow. It was damned hard work but it was right—until it wasn’t. Being part of a collective that made significant new theatre cast a harsh light on the reality of academia: cranking out productions that lived for five nights and vanished, cranking out students with degrees and no work. We found ourselves willing to set sail into a life for which no Ph.D. prepared us, and once there was no going back, life said, “OK. You’re ready now.”
I was astonished. I’m still astonished. Remembering the doctor saying, “You’re probably about six weeks.” Remembering the quickening, bored silly on a ferryboat ride across Lake Michigan and suddenly feeling that tiny flutter. Remembering how it feels to have the milk come in.
And most of all, marveling at these two miracles, offering themselves just as we were caught in our lives’ most turbulent white water. Conceiving as we were reconceiving ourselves.
I have a friend who’s an artist. He does wonderful abstract drawings and paintings, but also some monumentally brilliant funny stuff. Some years ago, he did a very wise thing: he split his identity. The abstracts are billed under his own name. The nutty-monkey work is the creation of an artist named Unique Fredrique.
The reason is obvious. Like our hamburgers, we need our artists, our singers, or our writers “branded”—i.e. constituting an unique brand. We want to know what we’re getting, and more: we want an image of the artist. If he/she changes, it needs to be in gradual increments or, like a comedian in a serious role, something that recognizes the norm through the contrast.
Certainly artists go through phases: one decade of Picasso isn’t like the last, ditto Dylan, even ditto Andy Warhol. But they tend to be consistent within that phase. If not, they adopt a pseudonym for the “inconsistent” work, e.g. Unique Fredrique.
To our disadvantage, we’ve never done that in our writing or staging. A transparent comedy sketch is followed by opaque myth or kitchen-sink realism. When we ran “subscription seasons” at our theatres in Philadelphia or Lancaster PA, they were perhaps the most unbalanced seasons in American theatre history. It was a standing joke in the office about the guy who was so enamored of a lightweight dance piece we staged that he’d call up regularly for a reservation, inquiring if there were any barefoot women in Waiting for Godot. To his credit, he came anyway.
We’ve added the further complication, since 1982, of claiming dual authorship. That has different forms depending on the piece, but above all it means that we both sign off on the result, acknowledging joint parenthood. But while joint authorship is commonplace with filmscripts or TV comedy, plays and novels (unless pure genre) lose value in the public mind unless we can see them as the unsullied emanations of solo genius.
It struck me as odd, though predictable, that the revelation that John LeCarre’s novels were written in heavy collaboration with his wife was headline news. It contradicts the tradition of the genius working solo, as friends and family offer, at most, a grim patience. Bertolt Brecht at least had the virtue of publishing his plays listing all his collaborators, but the gears grind and we only know his name and certainly not that of Elisabeth Hauptmann. That doesn’t affect the quality of the plays; it only reflects the nature of the fame machine.
We need our heroes, and the corollary is that their fall can be mighty swift. If a politician’s views change over the span of 30 years, he’s labeled either a “waffler” or a hypocrite. If popular novelists’ political views don’t match ours, they’re seen not only as traitors but retroactively as bad writers. The baby and the bathwater are one and the same.
For myself, I don’t feel contaminated by reading Knut Hamsun’s novels despite his Nazi sympathies or by appreciating the virtues of a friend despite his despicable flaws or idiotic moments. I don’t reject Michelangelo’s Pieta or Bach’s music because of the millennia of perverse crimes of the Christianity that inspired them. But that’s just me: your mileage may vary.
What does concern me is the realization that my friend is following the only practical path in separating his “serious artist” name from his Unique Fredrique persona. But personally I see his great value in having those seemingly contradictory dimensions.
I grew up with a baby grand piano. When I was little, my mother took lessons and practiced sometimes, but I have no memory at all of ever hearing her just play the piano. When I was about five, the piano teacher was giving her a home lesson, and I chirped in when I heard a wrong note. The teacher perked up, played some notes and asked me what they were. Turns out I had absolute pitch and musical ability. That was the beginning.
All through high school I chose showy, flashy pieces to play at the state contests and always came home a nervous wreck with a little gold medal. Then, my second summer at Interlochen National Music Camp, something changed. I played my flashy Ravel and Debussy pieces for the man who would be my teacher for eight weeks, and he said, “Very good. You have learned Jello very well, Now it’s time for meat and potatoes.” He assigned me a bunch of Bach and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I dutifully started practicing the Bach and thought it was awful. It was full of empty space and open architecture, and it was anything but flashy. I hated it.
Unlike practicing at home, I was alone, nobody heard me. We all had little chilly stone cabins in the woods and signed up for our hours. After a while, I started listening to what I was doing, really hearing the music, and something happened. It wasn’t about flashy or not flashy, it was about the sound, that starkly beautiful architecture. The E-minor three-part Sinfonia was the one that not only turned my head around, it took me to a space of grace and peace that was astonishing. I’d sit down to play it and I couldn’t stop. It took me into altered space and left me shiny.
When I married, the baby grand came with me, and when we moved to California in 1963, it came along. In 1966 when we were moving to South Carolina, I sold it and wept. I bought an upright when we got there, then brought a better one when we moved to Milwaukee. After seven years, when we had left UWM and Theatre X, I bought a Fender-Rhodes electronic piano for our new duo touring, and when we moved to a Chicago basement apartment the upright piano became history. No space, no money, no real piano, and that was the way of it for three years.
When we moved to Pennsylvania we’d been doing OK supporting ourselves with tour gigs, and our first little house had a living-room big enough for an upright. I could play with my whole body again. It wasn’t until 1999 when we moved to California that I became totally piano-less, for twenty-one years. I continued composing, but now it was on synths and computer multi-tracking. No body involved.
Now, magic has happened. A Steinway baby grand was a gift to my cross-street neighbor, and he gave his Apollo to me. It’s in our studio, which we thoughtfully sound-proofed shortly after we moved to our Sebastopol house. Some years ago I gave away most of my piano music, but I kept a few things. Yes, Bach. And now I can turn the lights out except for the one over the piano, open the book to the E-minor Sinfonia, and come back to the space that’s been waiting for me.