Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kaushika question

While reading earlier posts, I came across a comment of Colista's that answers my question about Kaushika and whether or not he may have become more compassionate after succumbing to the temptation of the nymph Menaka. The answer is clearly, no, he abandoned his very own daughter.

This is also an interesting theme for parents and teachers, and all of us who in a sense are parents to the new generations of young people who come after us. How do "we" as parents, elders, shame, judge or abandon people? What makes us turn our heads and walk away from things or issues we don't want to see about ourselves or others?

We don't hear about Kaushika again, so we don't know if he ever experiences regret or a change of heart that would make him a more compassionate human being. But we can look to see how we abandon and what we abandon and we could ask ourselves why do we abandon.

Shakuntala: human and divine

I was reading Colista's post as well as other people's comments from Nov 27th, and I decided to create a new entry in response.

I think it's important to remember that Shakuntala is both human and divine. She was born from a nymph who took human form to tempt the sage Kaushika away from his concentration in meditation because the Gods were jealous that his power was beginning to equal their power.

This point alone is quite inviting. Shakuntala's entire existence is the result of one man seeking spiritual liberation through meditation. What ever happens to Kaushika? What does it mean that the gods are jealous? How would Kalidasa or anyone claim to know what the gods think? I do believe, however, that when a person seeks spiritual liberation, they will come up against every obstacle that remains a personal hindrance for them. It is not so much the gods' jealousy, as it is Kaushika's own struggle with his judgments about sexual intimacy and passion. A beautiful person is born because of Kaushika's so called "weakness" in succumbing to the temptations of the nymph. Is Kaushiaka made a more compassionate person as a result of doing the thing he believes is wrong? How many good things come from our own humanity? Does grace constantly transform our shortcomings into something productive?

When Dushyanta learns about Shakuntala's birth story from her friends, he responds, "This quivering lightening flash is not a child of the earth." This is an essential detail. Shakuntala is different from her friends and from the other hermits at the hermitage in that she was born from a relation between the human and the divine.

This spiritual endowment empowers Shakuntala in a way that other women living and working within the cultural norms of 5th Century patriarchal Hindu society could not have experienced. She is different from the queens, she is different from her friends. I feel that she represents this "difference" that we all are called to be, but so often fail to be.

She lives out her truthfulness and transparent existence even in the face of complete rejection and humiliation from both Sharngarava and the King, and she is saved. This act of grace is incredibly powerful, more powerful than any human force of ego or desire. I think we are being reminded of the necessity of becoming our best selves and of living from this place even in the midst of great adversity.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Welcome to any of our audience members who may be logging on to this blog for the first time. You can scroll down the dates of the posts to read thoughts and views that have been a part of our ongoing conversation. Be sure to click on the "comments" of each posting so you can hear the broader scope of ideas as well. We would love to hear your impressions: they teach us so much. To make it easier for you to share your ideas I am creating this post so you can just click on "comments" at the bottom of this message and add your comments in the text window. You can check any box to "sign" your comment. Anonymous is fine, Name/URL is fairly easy, and I still have not figured out what open ID means... but you might know better than I do about that! You can also comment on previous posts also by simply clicking " comments." Thanks for joining our conversation!


One of the things I hear myself saying again and again in the classroom is that the act of articulating something is an act of freedom. The clear expression that results from the demand of deliberate and chosen words teaches us something in the very act of articulating.A friend asked me in an email about my vision for the piece and here is what I wrote back:My vision truly stems from three things:
1) the music of Rudresh Mahanthappa, a rising star in the Jazz world who has given us his blessing to use his music in the show 2) The hand gestures of Bharata Natyam (classical Indian theatre) and 3) The creation of different worlds big enough to hold a fairy tale and real enough to show us ourselves. The last phrase really helps me understand what it is that we are trying to do with the creation of our 3 worlds. Each world will have different demands. Each world will have different solutions.I am excited in seeing what is coming out of the audience feedback from Thursday. I look forward to trying some of it in our showing today, and in getting new information from our audience.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why do we train?

I was speaking to someone recently about our training process-- the fact that we meet once a week or more year-round, even when we are not in rehearsal for a specific project.

So, why do we train?

In most North American productions, actors are cast in a project shortly before rehearsals begin. Projects are usually scheduled to have between 3-6 weeks of rehearsal, with most rehearsal schedules lasting about four weeks. Actors in any given show may come from many different schools of thought regarding theories of acting, different attitudes about the rehearsal process, with different artistic backgrounds and wildly disparate vocabularies.

Obviously this doesn't mean that wonderful theatre cannot occur even under these circumstances, but it does mean that these rehearsal processes have to cover a lot of ground. Sometimes it is hard for actors and directors to communicate with each other when they come from different educational backgrounds or have different ideas about the way theatre should work. Actors are asked not to "give notes" to each other or talk in a critical way about the scene when they are not in the presence of the director, as egos can be easily bruised. Actors are usually powerless within the casting process-- they can audition, but beyond that they must simply wait, hoping that they will be "picked."

With Magis, some of us have been working together for more than 6 years within the group, and for as much as 14 years total, dating back to the founders' days in graduate school at the Columbia School of the Arts. In fact, the main idea behind the founding of the company was based on the wishes of the founders to continue some of the group activities and exercises we had learned at Columbia and to discover new ways of combining these training modalities to make new connections. After we had been working together for a few years, we started the process of formalizing as a company, but training has always been at the heart of the company's mission. Training brings us together as an ensemble and gives us a common vocabulary we can use during the rehearsal process.

For instance, Margi Sharp Douglas and I have each played parts, some large, some small, in all of Magis' productions so far. She has played my mother, my father (check out the pictures of her in drag as the Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale!), my sister, my rival, my disapproving aunt-in-law-to-be. The relationships we create on stage are of course going to be richer because of our long history together. But this is not just because we have known each other for a long time. We have taught each other in class, discussed what we wanted for the company, sometimes argued and sometimes competed, and over the years we have developed a vocabulary to talk about any issues that may arise. Sometimes in a joking way, sometimes in a serious way, we can say, "Oh, this is like that scene in The Great Divorce," or "Remember the exercise with the tabla rhythms?" Training together has given us a great respect for each other, and a history that we can each refer to when questions come up. We can give each other feedback without being afraid of offending each other.

When projects are considered, we can look at a script, and think about what parts might be good for different members of the company. I can say, "Oh, that would be a great part for Wendy" or "Does this part have to be played by a man?" or "I know I wouldn't usually be cast this way, but I'd like to read for the villain." While the final casting decisions always rest with the director, we try to make room for actors to put themselves forward for specific roles-- to have some agency within the process. We are going to be starting our formal rehearsals for Shakuntala in January, but we have been experimenting with the play and learning Indian storytelling techniques since September, and thinking about the play for several years. Training year-round gives us an opportunity to play around before making final casting decisions.

But beyond the benefit for the ensemble, training is also beneficial for me as an actor in any venue. In the past, I often felt totally unsure about whether I would have a good performance on stage or not. Some days, I would feel like "the muse" was with me. My timing would be on, my energy would be good, I could feel a real connection with the audiences. Other times, I would stand up on stage and feel like I had nothing to give. My performance would meet acceptable minimum competency standards, but wouldn't be anything special.

Training gives me a way to encourage the muse to show up more often. At an audition, in rehearsal, or in performance, I know that I have been given a set of tools that will enable me to do my best. Sure, there are still times when I feel especially "on," and days when I may not be as brilliant as I might be on another occasion, but I know that I can trust my training background to be there for me. I can choose from the many ways we have worked on text in our classes to help me through any challenge. By training, I am clearing the way for the muse, and while she may not show up every time, I am better prepared than if I had not given her room to arrive. I am setting a place for her at my table, and opening the door.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Looking forward...

Just a quick post to say that I am really looking forward to getting feedback from our audiences on Thursday and Sunday at the workshop presentation. It will be very interesting to see how much audiences understand, how they react to the use of the mudras, perhaps to hear from the composer about our use of his music!

Even more so, I am looking forward to the presentation of the show in February. As some of you know, I had a difficult summer for various reasons, and for the first time in a long time I really started to consider leaving the city, questioning my skills as an actor, contemplating a future that was feeling extremely uncertain. As I sat in the room tonight, I felt a real sense of ensemble-- I am especially impressed by how generous the newest company members have been as we embark upon this adventure together. I thought at one point about taking myself out of the show, as I will miss some important family gatherings in February that conflict with our run at La MaMa. But I was just too excited about the possibilities for the show, the chance to reconnect with my almost-forgotten training as a dancer, the opportunity to present this story on a grand scale that a venue like the Annex presents. Thank you all for your brilliant heads and open hearts. There will (no doubt) be bumps along the way but I am looking forward to the journey and the road ahead.