Friday, September 28, 2012

The Pillowman: An NRT Production

Forum 111, Friday and Saturday 8pm. Completely Free.

Pleasure from extraordinarily gratuitous violence: I don't like it in my theatre.

That being said, "The Pillowman" facinates me as a play. My intro to it was excerpts performed by a troupe in one of my reading theatre courses. It was played in a classroom with a lot of restraint. It was facinating.

Last night I attended the No Refund Theatre production. This group consistently impresses me with their student productions pulled off in less than ideal situations: scattered practice locations, transitory classroom spaces, "hell weeks" before 3-4 showings on a weekend.

I had never read the full play before but had remembered most of the pieces.

So I'm torn in my review of this play. There were several moments of brilliance. Jim Dickey (who, oddly enough, played Katurian in the class I was in) did an amazing job of the restrained, oddly unfeeling and human Katurian. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, to be honest.

But the production seemed to range from the gratuitously creepy and overdramatic to the restrained horror. I prefer the latter. The best moments of horror came in the most human moments like between Katurian and his brother (played by John Reddy). The moments that felt unnaturally gratuitous were the demonstration of the stories, often behind a black scrim. The scrim prevented most of the stories from being seen and sometimes distracted from the calm, engagingly narration that Katurian offerred. The sequence of "The Little Jesus" was forced and almost awkwardly horrific. The Pillow Man was terrifyingly painted rather than the sympathetic, huggable Michelin Man I imagine in my head.

Audience dynamics could have affected that. There was tense laughter through much of the production, increased by long scene changes and technical difficulties where we were neither audience nor crew. There was laughter at some good moments but when the play tried to become in-your-face about the horror, the only affect was restrained, tense giggles. Which I'm not sure they were going for.

It is also totally in keeping with the play's content to demonstrate our sick facination with stories like the ones Katurian writes and are shared in the play's plot. So perhaps my tension for the huge range from restraint to over the top horror/surrealism makes sense. Max Simone, the director, does have a tendency toward horror as he has demonstrated in past performances such as Iago in "Othello" (a stellar presentation!) and in his performance in "MacBeth" (also an eerie/horror laced production) last spring.

But the shout outs have to go to Jim Dickey at Katurian. He never looses a nearly detached, normalcy to his role, even in when he looses his temper with his brother. John Reddy plays an adorable and affecting Michal, one that I never really grew upset with but really wanted to run and hug at several moments. Tupolski (played by Bryan Keith) was also phenomenal. I've seen Bryan play several more slapstick roles with NRT before but he did a beautiful job portraying the humanity and the brutality essential to this manipulative character.

The tension for me in watching this play performed by Penn State students also comes in it being largely about an extraordinary, long term cases of child abuse. It's poignancy to the events in recent State College and Penn State history was unsettling to say the least. Which made the moments of bloody sheets and laughing parents behind black scrims unneccessary and seemingly disrespectful. But I've never really had a taste for the surreal so I'm willing to be argued with.

PS. Major shout out to all my classmates from the English Department. Luke Miller, Max Simone, and Jim Dickey are all former classmates of mine. Hurrah for English!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Back to Dancing

I'm re-orienting my relationship with Dance.

I love ballroom dancing. When asked what my hobbies or interests are, I go straight to ballroom and salsa. I took the intro course in Spring 2010. I started competing in Fall 2010, the first semester of my senior year. The last night of my first competition, two days of dancing and running around the University of Maryland, our team stopped at a restaurant and ate together. We cleared the tables and Jolene played songs and had different couples dance to their best moments from the weekend. I remember dancing with James to a jive and two stepping with Melissa and watching a vwaltz by Seth and Ali and Sam and Matt Schmizu show off. I kept thinking, "I can't believe I get to do this. What a beautiful senior year moment."

Then I stayed the next year for a job and kept dancing.

As with all relationships, Dance and I aren't static. We are either growing closer or farther apart. But what I didn't realize was that the quality and nature of that relationship could change. I could grow closer to dance in ways I hadn't before even as one aspect of my ties to it are different.

I've been navigating being semi-sans-partner since last January. I say "semi" because I've had someone that I've practiced with consistently. But it certainly changed the flow of dance life once James left. And my job became quite central.

It's been reorienting.

The greatest way that it's been changing has been in learning to teach. For the first time, I'm getting to TA the advanced classes.

I love it.

It is the happiest I've been on the dance floor during this in between season. I'm not practicing all the time and I'm not measuring myself based on how I place next month at DCDI or Big Apple. This is not to say that measuring oneself based on competitiveness is a bad thing. It isn't necessarily. But the change of pace has been good for me.

Instead, I get to work really hard on trying to verbalize just what my body is trying to do in a natural spin turn. I pay close attention to how Tal and Vlada instruct in latin so I can replicate it and I observe how Jolene structures her classes. I'm aware now that I'm obsessed with the rib cage and arm positions in standard (because of a lesson w/ Igor) and that my fellow TA Carl is obsessed with foot placement (also because of a lesson w/ Igor). I get to go to a student who is giving up mid step and have her repeat, "I can do this" with me; if anyone knows what head trash can do to you on the dance floor and in life, it would be me (as Partner James can confirm this). I also love the moments that I can hear the folks who TAed my classes coming out of my mouth: Cherry's timing in chacha, Sam's encouragement and frequent use of "dude", Cecilia's liberty in physically moving whatever part of my body offended her into an acceptable position.

Life looks different. I'm still in White 133 every day of the week. But the changes are sinking in and I'm loving it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Not Anymore

The reading was by Rae Armantrout. I know that I not in the writing world anymore because I did not know who she was. I had never read anything by her. The description online said that she had won a pulitzer. Later, I heard my friend's eyes grow wide over the phone when I told her who it was. "Oh! She's really big right now!"

For the first time, I did not recognize any of the graduate students. All of the ones that I had recognized either through passing along Burrow's hallways or through Poet Friend had graduated. Even Poet Friend has entered a different season.

The reading was forgettable. Rae Armantrout seemed bored or ironically skeptical of readings. She read page after page. I can remember none of it.

I did know a professor. I just typed that other sentence and wrote "my professor". When does a professor stop being in the possessive? She directed a year long writing project, the one where I said I wanted to look at the intersection of faith and art but really wanted to know if God was still good after my parent's marriage had fallen apart. She had helped me with language and clarity and structure and speaking in an uncensored voice. Her directorship had been no small gift.

At first, I felt too strangely shy. I was all the way to the rotating door exit in Paterno Library before I realized how absurd it was that I didn't say hi. I went back and interrupted a conversation with someone in order to say hello, the distance of several rows between us.

Me: "Hi! So good to see you!" Prof:"Yes! Good to see you! How are you?" Me:"I'm doing well and you?" Prof:"Yes I am well. (pause) You look very happy, that is good to see!" Me: "(pause) Yes, I am happy."

And there was nothing left to say.

I walked home, feeling alien. But alien can be comfortable if you know that is what you are. I didn't know. I was in a space I had once felt comfortable and familiar, with lots of small conversations to hold and thoughts to have about a reading by an author whose work I had just read in class. What do I do? How do I re-enter spaces that were once comfortable and be a stranger? It is worse than not knowing anyone.

Things change. But the places that used to fit me/ cannot hold the things I've learned / And those roads were closed off to me / while my back was turned. -Sara Groves

I don't want to be absent from the creative writing world forever. But I now see that re-entering it means Not Being Here. It means starting somewhere new. For now, I can still go to readings. And I can still think with gratitude on the people and places that I carry with me, even when I cannot return to them as I once was. Not anymore.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hobbit Evening

Butternut squash soup of my own devising. Multigrain bread. Apple crisp and ice cream. Apple cider.

Food makes the evening, in many cases. Just as a hobbit would say.

I'm thinking this evening about a book that stole my heart in fifth grade. The cover was so intriguing that I insisted we started reading it right away. Mom read it aloud to me and Hannah.

I started to look for signs of hobbits on our property and on walks.

"The Hobbit" was a gift. It opened a door into a genre of writing that I had known a little of before but hadn't really explored. I was obsessed with the maps in the book, trying to see where this troupe had come from and where they were going and trying to imagine the specific places they went.

It's a story that stays with you.

I've probably blogged about Tolkien before. How I read The Fellowship when I was 12 and starting middle school. How reading LOTR and dressing up like an elve and obsessing over the movies got me through those years. How Sam's words "Well, I'm home" rounded out everything I felt about not moving to Texas. How I read "The Hobbit" to Gretchen while eating banana muffins on a plane on the way to Texas, giving everyone a different voice (though Beorn and Gandalf required such low voices that they blurred sometimes).

Last year we threw Bilbo a party. A grand one. With cake and beer and lights strung on the trees. It is colder today than it was last year. More rain and wind. But I do think of dear old Bilbo today and wish him a happy birthday. Him and Frodo. It's a world I'm grateful I have.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Mathematics Colloquium: Also known as "How to Love the World"

"So a Writer walks into a Math Seminar..."

Sounds like the start of a joke, right? From a 3rd person perspective: what could be a more interesting and hilarious than sending an English Major into a room full of mathematicians for a presentation on math?

Dr. Roe has been the faculty advisor for Calvary Elements for a long while. He's spoken for our Monday night gathering a few times. He worked on the planning team for a one day conference called Faith for Thought. He makes a mean, improvised sea food and veggie stew and enjoys punning.

He's also very wise. And very British.

So when he invited me to attend his colloquium in which "no mathematics higher than algebra will be used," I decided to go. I wasn't sure what a colloquium but it didn't seem like it would hurt me at all.

114 Macalistair was very, very full. It is the beginning of the semester and the beginning of many graduate student's first years. Everyone was in attendance and all of the food was long gone by the time I arrived.

The presentation was titled "Sustaining Mathematics". It was, in a sense, an open letter to the new department head and to the community of mathematicians at Penn State. It addressed the value of sustaining math in four places:
  • Personally
  • Math Culture
  • Public Support
  • World
What I loved the most about this presentation was that the ideas in it could be applied to almost every area of study. It was about loving something well. Loving math well. And loving the world better by loving math. 

He talked about the necessity of "feeding joy" in one's work. To not stop loving math because it is beautiful to you. "This theorum gives me goosebumps every time because it is so beautiful," he said as he took the room through the second pythagoreum theorum. "What could it mean," he later asked, "if math was taught like a joyful intellectual adventure?"

"Sustaining Mathematics" made it feel possible that my learning experience with math could have been different--that I wouldn't have given up somewhere in fourth grade so that I was stubbornly, seriously behind in my understanding the whole way through college math. The lowest math I could take at PSU, get the credit I needed, and still get an A was Math 022. I took it (unhappily), passed, and never looked back. Not till Thursday afternoon.

Towards the end, it began raining quite hard outside and created quite a clatter on the roof. Then it began thundering and all attention was lost. Mercifully, Dr. Roe didn't seem too bothered by this and graciously permitted all the attention to rush to the window where it was hailing violently.

I am grateful I went. It was an hour shot through with ideas like redemption and restoration in the world, just by loving one's work and loving it well. But sustaining a way of thinking, a "playground" that the world needs.

Who knew math could be so inspiring?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Geography of a Week

I tweeted yesterday that I was "thinking about the Geography of my week and what it would take to change it."

Kaitlin texted: "See the sunrise tomorrow? Meet me at 6:15. Geography change."

I hate mornings. A lot. I hate the grogginess and the lethargy. But I needed a change (see previous post Stuck). Drastic measures must be taken. New ways of seeing. Changing the order. New thoughts at a new time of day.

I woke up several times in the night to check the time and make sure I didn't miss my alarm for 5:50am. Kaitlin and Mel and I met in the Spikes Stadium lot by 6:20 and drove into the fields where tailgating happens. We waited facing east towards Mt Nittany and Tussey. And waited.

If you were awake this morning, you'd have seen that the storm clouds from last night gave way into fog and mist this morning. No sunrise.

But we sipped on our caffeinated morning beverages and talked about plans and goals for the year--to, as Kaitlin put it, "Suck all the life I can out of State College this year, do all the things I missed last year."

Changing our geographies.


What do I mean by geography?

A mapping of time. A mapping of space. My week is broken into slots. I have a semi-set schedule that comes out of the first few weeks of the semester, into which I slide certain tasks like books onto a bookshelf. The order and arrangement largely reflects my job as a campus minister. This brings me within certain circles for certain amounts of time. On Mondays, I am always on campus for the Elements meeting Monday night.  I am in Henderson building and I am with my students, a relatively set group of people. On Tuesdays, I am at the church office for meetings. etc etc. I see certain kinds of people in a certain contexts only.

My interactions are both established in time, in person, and in content.

This means I walk a beaten track through State College. Through relationships, through time, through space. A set geography.

I'm a creature of habit.

Routine is good. I crave routine when it is missing. Without it, weepiness and frustration and rising panic ensues. But the slots I have open or closed in my week do not always reflect the values I wish they did.

 The Commonplace is a new project this fall that my current geography does not reflect. I want to 1) connect artists/makers together so they are encouraged and challenge in what they do and 2) speak to the tensions and contradictions individuals feel as both artist and person of faith. To do this, I need to get a lay of the State College arts scene. I need to start showing up in bars and visiting student gallery openings and concerts and dance recitals. There is far more than I could ever conceivably familiarize myself with. I know this. But I also see how my current geography prevents me from naturally finding my way into these places.

An example: last year, I missed most English department readings because I was leading a lifegroup for work. My geography prevented me from being somewhere, like being on a side of town without a bus system that routes the right direction at the right time to get me to the other side... if I even knew where I wanted to go. Right now, I don't even know where I want to go.

I'm not sure how this works, uprooting my comforting routine enough to be in new places. I'm not even sure quite where to start looking.

At the very least, I know I can get good beer at Zenos. There could be worse places to start frequenting.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


My mind has been consciously and subconsciously centered on one thing:

I'm writing an application. The personal statement is killing me slowly, surely, by ebb and flow of tides of procrastination.

But I'm finding the words are stuck. I'm stuck. My thinking is stuck. My body is stuck. My imagination is stuck. My heart is stuck.

Things have been stuck for a long while.

This is an understatement.

This is coming from inside me. (I have been taught never to use "this" in such a way but to always define it. That is not as much fun or evident when one is stuck)

I had tea with a poet friend last week. We talked about being stuck. In life. In words. She just recently started writing again. "Bad poems" she called them. She is really happy, in a relieved, "Oh my gosh the morphine just kicked in and the pain has disappeared" kind of relief. You only know it if you've experienced it: the hopeful expectation that, just perhaps, that pain will never be felt again. It had been an entire summer without writing a single piece. If you knew this friend, you would know how scary a change that is.

But now she is writing bad poems and is happy.

She said, "I stopped thinking about all the bad poem's I've written. I stopped remembering them and became afraid that I would never write anything good again. But I'm glad I did [write bad poems] because they got me somewhere. They taught me something."

I'm currently watching some pieces of my life play out like bad poems. I wrote the whole damn thing. Now I'm watching. Stuck.

But I am learning.  And I'll be someone worth being on the other side of Stuck.