Wednesday, August 5, 2015

My Life in Illinois: Update for May

Classes ended, I got a job as a page at the local public library, and I visited Baltimore. The library job is only part time, but it's just enough to pay the bills. Plus I like being back in the library regularly. I've also checked out more books and movies than I'd ever have time to read/watch during the school year (or even now that school has ended; admittedly I've returned a few things unread). It's an easy job -- put books, movies, and CDs away, shelf-read and clean up -- though they've started giving me more to do now that I've caught on to the initial job. There's a whole army of pages -- a couple dozen -- who range in age from high school to grandparents; in fact, most of them seem to be in one category or the other, though there are a few closer to my age.

I went back to Baltimore to see the UB MFA reading and thesis presentation and to visit friends that still live there. I flew in from Chicago on a Thursday and stayed with Maureen for the weekend; I hadn't made any real plans with anyone in advance but managed to find a friend from the library to hang out with for the evening and then met up with another friend/former classmate, Roger, for wine in Little Italy Thursday night. I was quickly reminded, trying to get back to Maureen's, of the public transit's shortcomings; the free buses stop running at 9pm on weeknights, and the light rail by 11pm. It became a recurring problem throughout the weekend, and even trying to get to the airport on Monday to fly home (luckily for me, my flight was delayed a bit). I had forgotten how hard daily life in Baltimore is in general -- not just getting around, but having to pay attention and to constantly be aware of what's going on around you. Nothing bad happened; in fact, with the riots having occurred so recently, there were more officers and security guards around than usual. It was a bit weird walking into the Rite Aid I used to go to all the time and seeing a security guard hanging out at the kiosk by the door. But it was a reminder in general of how different life is in a city like Baltimore vs. a town in the Midwest.

I was reminded of some of the good things too; I visited campus and saw former professors and classmates at the reading, and ate at my favorite pizza place in my old neighborhood with my friend Dave. Maureen and I spent Friday afternoon in DC at a WWII commemoration and visited a great market and used book store there with her friend Nora. I also got to spend some time writing at one of my favorite coffee shops Saturday afternoon and go to Maureen's birthday party that evening (where I caught up with a friend I hadn't seen much of even the last couple years I lived in Baltimore, which was an unexpected surprise). On Sunday, I had brunch with my friend Mike, then Maureen and I made it to the beach (though it turned out to be a private beach, so we didn't get to swim; it was a bit too cold anyway). I went back to the shop on Sunday night to hang out with Maureen and my friend Dewey.  And Monday I had brunch with my friend (and former Spotlight UB supervisor) Kimberley before heading to the airport. 

It was a good trip, and I'd like to visit again, but I think I'll rent a car next time. I don't think I'll ever move back to Baltimore, though. It definitely felt like that chapter in my life had closed, at least for now.

One other less exciting thing happened in May; on the night of my last final exam (for theatre history) I was driving my new car to meet my friends Nick and Sami in Urbana for a celebratory drink, when the battery and gauge lights came on and I lost power/power steering. I turned off the busy road I was on and mostly coasted on to a side street while the engine sounded like it was struggling to stay running. I turned the car off, and it wouldn't turn back on after that -- it acted like it was out of gas. It was, in fact, leaking gas onto the road. I called Jake and he came and checked it out and called a tow truck; in the meantime, I talked to Sami and told her what had happened. "Do you want us to come hang out with you?" she asked. I told her no, thinking it wouldn't be very fun for them to hang out on a side street next to the apartment complex where I'd stopped, but a little while later they showed up anyway. Which, I discovered, actually meant a lot to me, that they were willing to stay and keep me and Jake company while we waited. It was sad to watch Fiona be towed away, but we found out next day that it was only a bad fuel pump -- a relatively inexpensive fix, in the grand scheme of things. I had my car back by noon on Friday.

Also in May, most of my stage management friends (so basically all of my friends here in Chambana) went off to their various jobs and internships out of state (or at least out of town), so I got really good at spending time by myself. I did work my first Krannert event -- commencement, actually -- as an events stage manager, which took up most of the day on Sunday the 17. The university had one huge commencement on Saturday in the football stadium, then department-specific commencements scattered throughout Krannert Center's theatres the next day. I got acquainted with both the Great Hall and a couple of the other Events SMs. The job mostly involved me telling students when to walk in and occasionally opening the door to the stage for a guest speaker or musician; I spent a lot of time during the actual ceremonies (I was there for three of them) reading Sherlock Holmes on my phone.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Jake and I met my mom, her husband, and my sister in Indiana and drove out to Pennsylvania with them, to visit my grandpa and step-grandma where they live in a tiny former mining town called Wyano. It'd been probably 15 years since I was there last and almost that long since I'd seen my grandparents. It was interesting to catch up with them and see the town (if you could call it that -- about all it has is a post office and a truck repair shop) as an adult. We went out Sunday and saw the site where United flight 93 went down (it is quite literally a patch of grass in the middle of nowhere, though they've built a memorial and have broken ground for a huge Welcome Center. I have mixed feelings about that). We also saw the site where they rescued the miners at Quecreek (it's more or less in someone's yard) and drove past the house my mom lived in as a kid. It was generally a relaxing weekend, though we spent a LOT of time in the car. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

My life in Illinois: Update for March and April

All of March and most of April were spent working on Tennessee Williams' "Not About Nightingales," which ran April 9-19. It went better for me than my first show did, of course: I liked the story of the play itself, I had a better sense of what I was supposed to be doing, and the director was really easygoing (plus he rarely kept us for the full 4-hour rehearsal period -- in a six-day work week with 15 credit hours, every hour makes a difference). It was in the Studio Theatre, with a much different set layout (and no 10 out of 12 -- in fact, with no complicated transitions, tech went really well). I also worked with a few actors that I knew from "The Skin of Our Teeth," and the stage manager (who of course I already knew from class and worked with on Feb Dance) and I ended up becoming pretty good friends. I kept track of props instead of costumes which was more complicated in some ways (it was a prop-heavy show) and simpler in others (no constant back-and-forth with the costume shop trying to work around everyone's schedules). Unfortunately my Theatre History paper (10 pages) was due three days after the show closed, so I was drafting and reading articles in the pit between my ASM cues. 

In March we also had a week off for Spring Break (which helped make up for the fact that we had tech on Easter) and I decided to fly down to Florida to visit my grandparents for a few days. They spend winters in central Florida (a couple hours away from all the major attractions) but there were some excellent thrift stores and flea markets. It was nice to just spend a couple relaxing days away from the hectic schedule of school and I was really glad to be able to spend some time with my grandparents and great aunt (since for the last few years I hardly saw them, especially when I lived in Baltimore). My grandpa took me to this crazy huge outdoor flea market one morning (after it had been raining) and there were rows and rows of tables and pavilions (he said there were even more on clear mornings). We found all kinds of interesting things -- he collects those old-fashioned oil lamps (which they had, at a few of the booths) and I found a bunch of little odds and ends -- a new purple watch, a pair of cheap sunglasses, and a new writing notebook, to name a few. My grandpa also plays in various bands and at various jams around his community there and he hosted one the second afternoon I was there. He was worried about how many people would show up but of course there was a full circle (at least a dozen) of guitar players and banjo players and bass players. 

My last full day in Florida, I did borrow the car and drive out to Indian Rocks Beach to meet some school friends (who were also on Spring Break in FL) for the afternoon, which was a lot of fun. I took my first swim in the Gulf AND we saw a dolphin. We also collected a few sea shells and I had some fish tacos at Krabby Bill's. It was a perfect day for the beach weather-wise and not too crowded.

When school started back up again we moved into onstage rehearsals and I announced my official decision to quit the stage management program. I realized that while I was enjoying working on Nightingales, it wasn't what I wanted to make a career out of, at least not in the capacity of stage management. I didn't really have a plan for what was next; I was thinking maybe some time off from school and then back for some other theatre-related discipline. But then my advisers (who were amazingly supportive -- it wasn't exactly surprising, but it was touching nonetheless) suggested I stay at UIUC and talk to the chair of the Theatre Studies MA/PhD program. To make a long story short, I did just that, and after filling out a petition and having it approved, I made the transfer to the MA program with a concentration in dramaturgy and playwriting. I start in the fall. (I also start a teaching assistantship, which I'm a little nervous about, but I've felt like the universe was slowly pushing me toward teaching in some capacity for awhile now. I don't know that anything big will become of it, but I no longer rule out the possibility). Meanwhile, I finished out my stage management classes and helped out with auditions and callbacks for the fall plays.

My mom, her husband, and my youngest sister came down the first weekend of performances to see Nightingales, and after some shopping (at a couple of book sales/stores) and some Skip-Bo, I got the chance to check an item off my bucket list: try ice skating. The university has its own ice arena (of course) and they were hosting a public skate, so we caught the last half hour of that. My sister, who's been ice skating before, was the only one to accompany me on the ice, and despite never having done it I think I did pretty well -- I didn't fall once. I have been rollerskating and rollerblading since I was a kid (with a number of long hiatuses, but still) and some of those skills transferred over. My mom took lots of pictures (and a video or two, I think) to commemorate the occasion, ha.

The second weekend of the show, my dad, stepmom, and other younger sister came down for the afternoon and brought me a long-awaited (well, since February) purchase: a burnt-orange 2004 Sunfire which I promptly named Fiona. After about four and a half years without a car (most of which were spent in the heart of midtown Baltimore) I decided that I needed one in my life again. Living in the Midwest is much more challenging without a vehicle, even in a town with as good a bus system as Champaign's. It took me awhile to get used to being able to go wherever I want, whenever I want (I'm not sure I'm all the way there yet) but I did drive myself to the final performance of Nightingsles in it, which was empowering. 

My family also had Chicago-style pizza for the first time ever [at least in my sister's case] while they were here.

So, the show ended with a successful run and, with my afternoons and evenings now (mostly) free, I got back to the business of completing my production assistantship hours and catching up on school work. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

But my heart is in Ireland

Since I lied several posts back and never published anything about my 2014 trip to Ireland, and since the 2015 Armagh Project is currently in full swing, I figured it would be fitting share a few photos from last year. I was super lucky to go as a teaching assistant this time around (which meant all I paid for was my flight) and even more so that one of my best friends, Maureen, got to come along. We were both part of the group that wrote 10-minute plays to be performed at the JHISS, and we got to visit Belfast, Giant's Causeway, Galway, the Cliffs of Moher, and Dublin together. It was a lot of fun for me to see what had changed and what hadn't, and what I still remembered. It was also interesting to feel how much I've changed since my first trip in 2012.

Armagh City

We got to tour the former Armagh Gaol...

Rumor is they're planning to turn it into a boutique hotel.


The view from our hostel window in Belfast, not far from Queen's University

Me, contemplating life, the universe, and everything from the cliffs near Giants Causeway

After the end of the program, Jake flew out and met me in Dublin, and we did a whirlwind tour of that city, plus Cardiff, London, and Paris.
Our view of London from the plane (we flew in from Dublin)

The Blue Cock in Trafalgar Square (in front of the National Gallery)

The National Theatre, where we saw Billie Piper in "Great Britain"


Paris from Le Tour Eiffel

Notre Dame, Paris
We toured the opera house in Paris... it was gorgeous. This is the lobby.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Finally, some updates!

The next several posts will hopefully fill in some of the gaps of what's been going on in the last 10 months or so. I've been doing some life-reflection lately (at least in part because I'm turning 30 in January) and internalizing the lesson that I'm not going to get where I want to be without putting in the work. Seems so obvious in a large context, but it's the day-to-day, "do I force myself to go write now, or watch another episode of Smash first?" that actually makes this challenging.

Anyway, one of the goals on my "30 Things to Do Before I Turn 30" bucket list (disclaimer: items on list subject to change) was to get this blog back up to date. So the next few posts are going to be compiled partly from emails and writings done elsewhere in order to get a sort of complete record, and then hopefully in the next couple days I'll have another post about what I'm doing right now.

My Life in Illinois: Update for January and February 2015

The spring semester started up on my birthday, but I started working even before that. Back on the weekend of January 10, UIUC hosted an Illinois High School Theatre Fest where high schools from all over the state came and put on shows all over campus. It was a long, exhausting weekend, but it was fun, too -- each school had about 5-6 hours to load in their set, set up all their tech (lights and sound), perform their show, and tear everything down. We had shows back-to-back Friday (three total), plus one on Saturday before our strike.

A couple days after that, we started onstage rehearsals for the February Dance concert, for which I was an Assistant Stage Manager. The dance shows here are nice because we don't have to go to all of their rehearsals; we join the process once they move onstage. Then we're responsible for sweeping and mopping the dance floor and basically just being present to make sure they don't need anything. As an assistant, I didn't have to be in the room the whole time (I traded off with the other ASM) and thus could work on paperwork in between. That show had its performances the weekend of February 7, and there were only three, so it was over pretty quick. There were five dance pieces total in the show, ranging from about 6 minutes to about 20, and I was mostly responsible for overseeing the crew during the transitions -- we moved in and out platforms and curtains and a fog machine and lights... in some ways I liked it better than theatre, because there was less sitting in between doing stuff, and the whole show was shorter than a play (it was about an hour and a half including intermission). I only got a few days off between the end of that and my first rehearsal for my next show, "Not About Nightingales," which started Thursday, Feb 12. We get Saturdays off, which is nice, and only have a short rehearsal on Sunday afternoons, but my schedule through the week will be a little crazier, especially on Thursdays and Fridays when I have class/meetings starting at 9am. Every day, though, I have a block of free time between 3-6pm, which is nice. 

I've also been searching for internships, and have been focusing on the ones that don't take up the whole summer (so that I can do some travelling too, and/or spend some time in Chicago with Regina). I've found a couple that are June and July only, but I've been horrible about applying. The biggest thing I would like is to be paid, and to get experience relevant to theater (housing -- which many of the theaters provide -- would be a nice bonus). In fact, it doesn't even necessarily have to be an internship; even a temporary summer job is fine. There are a lot of festivals and such that do theater over the summer; I've been looking especially at the ones in east-coast states -- Maryland, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, etc.-- since I think that's where I'd ultimately like to go after I graduate.

Admittedly, though, I've also been debating the idea of quitting my program. I still love theater, and the more I learn about the job of stage management, the more I enjoy aspects of it, but my show assignments combined with all the class work doesn't leave me any real time for creativity, and I'm definitely feeling the void. There are a couple classes in particular which I have to take every semester that just feel like busywork and a waste of time.

But, we also got our show assignments for next year, and they're putting me on the show 1984 -- I really liked the book and it was the one show I wanted to do of the 2015-2016 season, once I heard about it... so I'm conflicted. I figure I'll see how I feel once this semester is over. Either way, I do want to get some theater experience this summer outside of school, to get a sense of how other places do it and how I would (or wouldn't) like it without school work to worry about too.

I had a good conversation with my assistantship adviser about it, and she suggested that I look into things like arts administration. I had a talk with my program director about it too and she reminded me that my coming here was an experiment, and that while she really thinks I have the qualities that would make a really good stage manager, we knew it might not work. She of course wants me to stay, and wants to help me work out a schedule that does leave me some free time, and she gave me some good advice about time management that has helped already. But I also know that she wouldn't be upset with me if I did decide to quit, which does take some of the pressure off. 

I have been starting to think about where Jake and I would go next if I decide not to continue at UIUC, and like I mentioned, I would really like to go back to the east coast. Not necessarily to Baltimore (or to New York City, because I don't think I could handle that pace of life every day), but somewhere not too far from the ocean, and not super cold. This winter in Illinois has been particularly miserable, partly because I've been spoiled a little by the mild winters of Baltimore, but also because Jake's car hasn't been working reliably, and I've had to walk to and wait for the bus in some particularly frigid temperatures. On top of that, our apartment has these really inefficient baseboard electric heaters, which means that warm for us is 60 degrees (we have a space heater that we use in the living room, which helps too, but we use our robes and blankets a lot). It doesn't help that we have all hardwood or tile floors (the basement isn't insulated) and several windows that are particularly old and drafty. Even if we did stay here in Illinois next year, we'd definitely be finding a new apartment (preferably one where heating is included). 

I have made some friends here, though. The whole Level 21 part of the theatre department (which consists of the design, production, and technology programs -- stage management, costume, set, and prop design, and technical direction) consists of about 40-45 MFA students (seven of whom are stage managers), and we all interact with each other pretty regularly on show assignments and in one of our classes, which makes it easier to get to know people. The three of us admitted as first years in stage management this year formed our own little group, which we started calling Tray 3 (as sort of a joke, after one of the paper trays in the printer, but of course it stuck). But one of the other group members ended up being dismissed from the program somewhat unexpectedly and thus Tray 3 is no more, at least in its original form.

I have made a few friends outside of the stage managers, too. Back in November I helped with a student residency at the Armory Theatre. One of the costume designers (who was the designer for "The Skin of Our Teeth") created short plays based on Chekhov's short stories and asked me to help with the adaptations, since she knew that I was a writer. I didn't end up contributing all that much, in the end, but I went to some of the rehearsals and got to know a couple of the other actors and costume and set designers, and the show turned out really well. 

There's a handful of MFA actors (nine this year, though after they graduate a new batch will be admitted in the fall) and dozens of undergrad actors at UIUC. I've met a lot of the undergrads in my Theatre History class, and there's a pretty wide range of talent. I think sometimes that it'd be fun to just audition for parts in local plays every now and then, and maybe someday I will, but the talent and dedication you need to become really great, and to stand out among all of these people who are pretty good, or even very good, is huge. Not to mention, you have to have a certain look/body type to get cast into certain roles (in my case, not a lot of roles call for really tall women). I have no idea how easy it is to make a living as an actor these days -- especially on stage, as opposed to film -- but it's also clear -- and inspiring -- how much some of the actors really love what they're doing and how much effort they put into it. 

The Russian ballet was at UIUC the week of my birthday, so on January 21, Jake and I got free tickets to see their performance of "Cinderella." I loved it, of course -- just looking at the costumes and the pointe shoes was enough for me, but the story and the dances were engaging too. I think that's one thing that I really do love about UIUC and the Krannert Center, is that they bring in these performers from all over the world, and we get to see them (if we're not in rehearsal) for cheap or sometimes free. Plus they perform in the same spaces we get to work in, and we see them and their costume racks in our hallways. It's pretty inspiring as well.

The weekend after my birthday, we had portfolio reviews on the UI campus in Chicago, and I stayed and spent the evening and part of the day Sunday with my friend Regina; we had lunch downtown together and she bought rush tickets to see Stomp with me for my birthday, which was a lot of fun. Jake and I had gone up to Chicago for New Year's Eve, but it had ended up being a pretty big group of people so it was nice to have some one-on-one time with her. Our friend Maureen came in from Baltimore for a few days in mid-February, and the three of us went out dancing together at this industrial club which was a blast (I hadn't been out dancing in months before that), We also went to the best bookstore in the city and I bought more books even though God knows I don't need them.

My Life in Illinois: Update for December

Thanks to our close(r) proximity to Michigan and the fact that neither of us work retail anymore, Jake and I were able to go "home" for Thanksgiving this past year (for the first time in about three years). Once again, we played the Family Shuffle, wherein we try to see both sides of my family and also his in a short span of time. Fortunately we were also able to go home for Christmas (where we did the Shuffle all over again).

Earlier in the month at school, we did some preliminary stuff for IHSTF (meetings about assignments and later light hangs in a couple of the theatres, which was something I'd never done before). The semester ended with some study sessions and a final exam in Theatre History and then everyone dispersed. Closer to Christmas, I did have a really fun day in Chicago with one of my fellow stage management friends; we took the Greyhound bus up for the day (in my case; she stayed longer) and toured a couple of the Chicago theaters and got rush tickets for Cinderella. We also walked around downtown (a LOT) and took selfies in front of the giant Christmas tree at an outdoor market that smelled like delicious cinnamon almonds.

Jake and I went to my mom's for Christmas Eve; she hosted a little party with my youngest sister, my grandparents and Dave's parents. My uncle Lee (whom I hadn't seen in years) also made an appearance. We stayed the night at my mom's then went to Jake's family's in Holland for Christmas morning (though it ended up being closer to early afternoon by the time we had breakfast) then over to my other grandparents' in Charlotte, but by then we'd already missed my dad, stepmom, and sister. So we had dinner with my grandparents then went back to my mom's to spend the night. We played cards and on the day after Christmas my mom and I went shopping a bit for some of the half-off deals. I believe it was that evening we made it up to my dad's to have Christmas with him, my stepmom, and my other sister... We also made up to Saginaw, briefly, but it seems most of our MI friends have sort of dispersed (or were already busy with other plans). I guess after five years, it's to be expected, but there's one or two people (like our friend Dan) who always seem to come through for us.

It's still weird sometimes to think that we'll probably never all be in the same place again -- especially not in Michigan -- and every now and then I wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed, or been able to visit more, though I've never once regretted my decision to leave. I wish I'd been able to do a better job of convincing some of those friends to come and visit us, though.

My Life in Illinois: Update for October and November

I'm enjoying school a lot, but it's keeping me even busier than I was before. For most of September and the first half of October, I had classes and meetings and rehearsals six days a week (plus the occasional Sunday event) and on my longest days I was busy from 9:30am to midnight. But once our show opened October 16, my schedule got a little less hectic. The show itself was bigger than anything I'd ever worked on before, with some pretty complicated transitions that I was in charge of orchestrating; we had a couple of platforms on my side of the stage that were originally intended to be automated, but the automation was scrapped fairly early in tech and we had to move the platforms manually between acts. (I also had my first 10 out of 12 -- which is actually more like a 13 out of 15 for stage managers -- which I'd never even heard of until September). I learned an incredible amount about the theatre space itself and what goes into executing a big show.

I liked most of my classes; I had a history of theater class, a Principles of Stage Management class, a class about dance and opera management, a stage management seminar class (with grads and undergrads, where we talk about the shows we're working on and stuff related to that). I also have a class called colloquium every Friday with the rest of the grad design and management students which is usually (at least so far) boring, though we sometimes get visits from performers who are doing shows in one of our theaters, which is really cool. One week we had a group of British puppeteers give a talk/presentation of sorts; they were hilarious.

After my show closed, I tried to catch up on a lot of the things I wasn't doing -- like my assistantship hours. I've been assigned as the Production Manager for the black box theater we have on campus called the Armory Free Theatre (it's in the ROTC building on campus and has been converted from a tank repair facility, I'm told). We schedule student residencies in the theatre, where students submit proposals for show ideas and, if selected, they get a small budget to produce them. It ranges from fairly famous plays to plays that the students write themselves. I've been to a couple of the shows so far, and it's pretty impressive how creative they get in the space with limited resources.

I also already have my show assignments for spring semester -- a dance show that runs one weekend in February and a play by Tennessee Williams called "Not About Nightingales" which runs in April. Both have started having meetings every couple of weeks, and department-wide auditions (for the theater productions) happened in early November.

And I have a 10-page research paper for my Theater History class due on December 1, so I've been trying to motivate myself to work on that. I'm doing research on the development of the Commedia dell'Arte. The public library is only a block away from our apartment, which is really convenient, and we live about a mile and a half from campus. I've been trying to find time to read and write some non-academic stuff between everything else, but it's difficult. Fortunately, we get a full week off for Thanksgiving and it's coming up quick.

Being back in the Midwest has its ups and downs; it's nice to be in a familiar atmosphere (having grown up in Michigan) where for the most part people are nicer and there are trees and grass in abundance. I do sometimes miss the pace of life and the connectivity of Baltimore (not to mention the milder winters), and I imagine we'll end up back in a bigger city once I finish up here in Illinois. I do wish I'd explored more of the east while we lived there -- the beach and the coast, the state parks and Appalachian Mountains. But from here, we have easier access to places like the south, and we're only about six hours from the Michigan family, instead of 10.5.