Category Archives: Event

It takes a nut

My most recent venture in community theater hits on a topic that has always been dear to my heart:  the overuse and vulnerability to abuse of psychiatric labeling and “psychotropic medication,” from tranquilizers to anti-depressants, from anti-psychotics to social anxiety alleviators.   

I was “trained as a psychologist,” meaning I got a doctorate in Clinical Psychology (NYU).   Back  then, ages ago,  when I was a graduate student, I lamented that so much of “therapy” devolved to the prescription of a psychoactive drug and a series of a few brief contacts with a “mental health professional” (psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker).   The situation is far more extreme today than it was then.

In my college and graduate years, the criticism of the “medical model” was on the ascendancy.   The logic seemed compelling:   critical elements of the terminology and structure of medical philosophy and practice simply did not apply or, worse, misled us when applied to human problems.   Was it every really possible to speak of “cure” in the medical sense that a seriously troubling personal problem could be effectively “treated” to the point that it became simply in the past, like a successfully removed appendix?  Did concepts like “prognosis” make much sense psychological problems?  Wasn’t medicine at best a rather inaccurate metaphor, a very weak fit, when transferred to talking about people’s problems in living?

Today, the medical model is more engrained than ever.   We have all been well-trained to believe that psychiatric diagnoses accurately define our psychological problems;  when we think of solutions, we immediately think of “medication,” — meaning a pharmacological concoction dreamed up by a megalithic drug company.   We even have images in our mind of how these drugs work in our brain, increasing or decreasing “serotonin uptake” or increase or decrease electrical activity is some part of our brains.   If the problem is personal, psychological, then the solution is chemical.

This is not to say that some drugs (no, I do not call them medicines;  they are no more “medicines” in the strict sense of having a specific effect on a specific disorder than the old patent medicines that used to be 75% alcohol!) don’t benefit some of the people some of the time, as Honest Abe might have said.   There’s no doubt that many people find themselves at least partially satisfied with how these pharmaceutical creations affect them.

But my experience is that, for all their fancy names and labels, theytend, in varying degrees, to either shut you down or speed you up.   Every one has side effects, some of which are pernicious, such as the agony many report in coming off a particular “medication.”  None have the kind of specificity that’s ascribed to them by their manufacturers.  None, that is to say, simply relieves specific symptoms and otherwise leave you well enough alone.  Tranquilizers slow you down and the “major tranquilizers” or “anti-psychotics” slow you down a whole lot more.  The uppers, whether to “help kids concentrate” or alleviate depression, zip you up.   The claims that this particular chemical composition has that particular psychological effect because of this particular thing that it does to the brain are largely pharmaceutical company hype.

So a psychiatrist will make a best guess about what’s most wrong with the patient and what pill is most likely to have a positive effect without creating some dramatically awful side-effect, counter-effect, or effect when the patient has to stop taking the pill for whatever reason.  And if the results are not good, then the doctor will prescribe something different and see if that seems to “work.”  Meanwhile, the patient isn’t talking to anyone about how to change their miserable relationships — or lack of them — let alone how their past miseries might be overcome at least to the extent that they stop screwing up their current life.

A lot of this comes out in the play we’re about to do (Nuts by Tom Topor). A person is accused of a crime.  She is convinced that she can demonstrate her innocence to a jury, but she is being held in a psychiatric hospital as crazy instead of being allowed to stand trial for the crime of which she is accused.   She is loaded with powerful anti-psychotics against her will.   She refuses to be forced to hide behind and be trapped behind being labeled “incapacitated,” nuts.

The play unveils the potential for abuse:  when small minded people are entrusted with power far disproportionate to their capacity for compassion and understanding of human nature, they can use the tools of psychiatric diagnosis and forceable treatment to impose their personal will on others for their own personal reasons, like their egos and or worse.

The point is not that every doctor who ever prescribes psychoactive drugs over the objection of the patient is an abusive, power-loving psychopath (Though who can forget Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the behavioral psychologist from A Clockwork Orange?).   Certainly their are some doctors who are legitimately and consistently compassionate;  there are some patients who definitively need something before they do some serious harm; but self-aggrandizing, self-righteous, mean-spirited, empathy-deficient mental health professionals do exist, and the danger of abuse is all too real.

Not all abuse is as dramatic as that depicted in film and theater, but the chronic overuse of attaching scientific-labels and calling them “diagnoses” is itself a form of abuse. Psychological problems, our difficulties-in-living our lives that limit our human potential, are too complex to be reduced to a set of “symptoms,”  a shopping list of behavioral symptoms that are very roughly connected to each other to form a modern diagnosis.    It becomes all to easy to call someone “a schizophrenic” as though this diagnosis defines who the person is.   It becomes all to easy to say that a person “is ADHD” or “has Attention Deficit Disorder” as though this were who the person is, as though this defines the person.

Labels are a double-edged sword.   On one level they are simply descriptive words, words that help us communicate about what’s wrong.   It is not that these words mean nothing:  the are often very evocative.   When we say that a person is clinically depressed, we are likely saying something real about the person.   But if we stop there, it is as though putting a label on a problem defines the problem.    

I have many times heard people, especially parents of troubled children, express how relieved they were to learn that their child was some specific diagnostic category, because it “now all made sense to me.”  Now the troubled person or the parent of the troubled person, has a word, a category, a definition, a name to call the problem. It is no longer a problem,  it is a  “condition.”

And with this “identification of the disorder,”  there ensues a terrible loss of responsibility. Terrible because people are nothing without responsibility for themselves.   It is responsibility that makes us human rather than automatons.   Whatever we do, whatever we feel, that is who we are.   If we deny our own responsibility for being who we are, then who are we?

 

For the record, I’m playing the abusive psychiatrist.   (Nuts by Tom ToporVermont Theater Company; Hooker-Dunham Theater, Brattleboro, VT;  January 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, and February 1 and 2; Fridays/Saturdays 7:30;  Sundays 3PM)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wigged out

Probably the most frequent question I got after playing Madame in VTC’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maid, was why I didn’t wear a wig.   The early publicity photos showed me with a frumpy blond wig that we ditched at a dress rehearsal, instead opting for my bald head in all its glory.

Whether we fully succeeded or not isn’t for me to say, but what we were going for was a Madame who clearly a male playing a woman, but not pretending to be a woman.   We thus presented three very different sexual images on stage:  Claire as an attractive female female, Solange as a male transformed into a female, and Madame as a male woman.

Madame, as I played her, is not a transvestite in the popular understanding of that word.   No one, not even for a moment, would wonder if I were really a man or a woman.   You wouldn’t need to look at my Adam’s apple.   Nor, again at least what we were trying for, would it be a wolf-in-grandma’s clothes or J. Edgar Hoover in a dress kind of fake.   It was just a direct man playing out this bizarre woman’s role.   She had to come through for herself.   And the man in Madame as himself.

Playing absurd theater — my personal favorite genre — means bringing forward extreme contrasts.   The audience is confronted repeatedly by jarring contradictions.  But it is these very contradictions that make absurd theater emotionally real, psychologically accurate.   Real life is full, for example, of words of hate spoken as though they were love.  Disgust and desire, hope and despair, fear and fearlessness do not exist in separate universes, but mingle and intertwine.   Our rage at ourselves turns outwards and our rage at others turns inwards.   Our desire to show ourselves honestly and our desire to hide everything beneath an impenetrable facade co-exist.

So I/we chose Madame to be strong and vulnerable, determined and utterly dependent, cruel master and, at the same time, victim of the same system that enslaves her maids.      Addicted to her clothes and to her domination, she has lost her humanity yet is all the more human, even if a rather despicable human.

Oh, what fun!  Fun, because Madame is also a laughable exaggeration of a “woman of society.”   I consider myself truly blessed to have a had a chance to stand on the “catwalk” the set designer built into the cave known as the Hooker-Dunham Theater and declare, gesturing wildly with my French manicured nails, how “Outrageously happy!” I was because my lover’s imprisonment had “only made me aware of my attachment to him.”   And equally happy that I managed to clomp my way off that platform without breaking my goddamn neck!

 

Madame and her faithful MaidsMy heart will beat with this terrible intensity

Howard Wagner’s real identity

In an odd and delightful twist of fate, I have gone from being Howard Wagner, the “business is business” boss who fires Willie Loman in Death of Salesman to playing  “Madame”in Jean Genet’s The Maids.

So I’ve gone from backstage at Next Stage/Apron Theater with “Charlie”, learning, for the first time in our lives how to tie a bow tie, to Madame, by far and wide the strangest role I have ever played in my life.

Charlie (Ray Mahoney) ties his bow tie

Charlie (Ray Mahoney) ties his bow tie

Put it down, I'll drink it presently

Madame

High Wire Act

Hire Wire Act

 

Playing Madame in our local southern Vermont production of Jean Genet’s The Maids is definitely, for me, a high wire act.   Start with wearing thin high heels and replacing my normal fingernails with a French manicure, something I never even knew existed until a couple of days ago.   Then put me on a platform about four feet wide that juts out into the cave that is the Hooker-Dunham theater.  I can see nothing but bright light shining at me and all blackness anywhere else while I’m uttering convoluted, absurdly histrionic lines with intense emotion and flamboyant gestures.

Not just for me, of course.   What Genet’s play asks of the young actors playing the two maids is most definitely a high wire act also.  Xoë and Tyler, who play the maids, both have to reach a frightening intensity to make their roles work and, IMHO, they do so magnificently.   All three of us are way out there on a long limb.   That’s part of the thrill.   For both the actors and the audience.

Genet’s play is challenging on so many levels:  The flowery language, the intense themes of desperation, murder, incest, and suicide.   The perverting of human nature by the master – servant relationship.   The absurdist exaggeration that makes every thing both unreal and hyper-real simultaneously. By having Tyler and myself playing women’s roles hopefully adds to this dimension of contradiction, of the uncanny.   In Tyler’s portrayal of Solange, the older sister maid, and in my own, the audience has to deal with two very different versions of a man playing a woman’s role.   With Tyler, it is possible to forget that he is not a woman;  with me, this is definitely impossible.   My “maleness” is as much a part of my character as my high heels and my beautiful French manicure.

 

“My most beautiful dress.  It was designed for me by Chanel, especially.”

Chanel oscar red dress heidi klum

Heidi Klum in her Chanel dress at the Oscars

But I do love my nails!

French Manicure

French manicure

Last four performances:  Thursday, Halloween night (October 31), Friday Nov. 1, Saturday, Nov. 2 (7:30 PM).  Sunday, Nov. 3  matinee at 2.  Vermont Theater Company.  Hooker-Dunham Theater.  Brattleboro, Vermont.

The show runs a little over an hour.

 

Roles: From King of the Entire World to Genet’s The Maids

My all-time favorite is still playing The King of the Entire World, an original play for kids about a king who thinks his little Island is the entire world and finds out there’s a much bigger world out there.   I got to sing great songs before hundreds of kids.  One time we did a “road show” at a school in Chinatown.  600 excited kids jammed the elementary school auditorium.   They loved the play.   Best theatrical experience of my life!  Still brings a tear to my eye to remember it!

Fond memores too of playing…

…A newscaster doing a striptease in front of a mirror (just down to his underclothes and suspenders.  Funny, not racy.) as he gives the evening news.

…A samurai a la John Belushi speaking completely nonsensical Japanese-sounding syllables.  I can’t remember what the straight-man in this skit was supposed to be.  Definitely fun, though sometimes it just didn’t work.

…Charlie.  A guy at a bar with just two lines in a drama in an extremely early venture into playwriting by a man (Richard Price) who went on to be a successful novelist and screenwriter.  I liked being Charlie and I got to smoke a cigarette.

And since I’ve moved to Vermont

Ulrik Brendel:  A decrepit man who appears in scenes near the beginning and end of an Ibsen melodrama, Rosmersholm, who has wild hopes that are overpowered by deeply his engrained despair.

Henry Ford.  As he really was: a quick-witted and even witty man, but at base a bombastic, unpleasant son of a bitch driven by a lust for power at any price and by his hatred of Jews.   He’s funny, at first, but once you see who he is, it’s hard to laugh with him.

Sidney Bruhl:  A wonderfully-crafted caricature of a murderer.  A playwright who will kill, apparently to have a successful play, but actually to get rid of his wife and have his gay lover move in.   Sidney, despite his homicidal faults, is a lot funnier man than Henry Ford.  A fantastic role!

My second favorite role ever is Mr. Smith in Ionesco’s absurdist The Bald Soprano.  I played him in the late seventies and again a couple years ago.  What a delightfully insane character!

Howard Wagner:  The “business is business” boss who fires Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.   Hard as rock.   Abotraight a role as I’ve ever played.

And now:  Madame in Jean Genet’s The Maids.  That’s what I’m rehearsing now.  What a role!  The three of us are me, an eighteen year old female and and a seventeen year old male playing a girl.   It’s quite a spectacle.  Seven performances, the first of which is three days from today (Ii.e. It opens Friday, October 25, 2013).   I hope audiences really enjoy it.  It’s challenging stuff, but it’s been unbelievably exciting to take on the persona of the  phony, vicious, narcissistic, shallow, controlling, aging bitch who is my take on Madame and the two young maids, Claire and Solange, are a delight to work with.   (For more on Madame, read my previous post.)

Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman meets Genet’s The Maids

As the run of Death of Salesman has just come to a close, I’m now immersed in non-stop rehearsals of Genet’s The Maids.    My roles couldn’t be more different.  I’ve gone from playing Howard Wagner, the uptight, “business is business” boss who fires poor Willie Loman and now “Madame,” Jean Genet’s haughty, exaggeration of the mistress of the twisted servants in his absurdist nightmare, The Maids.

Though few would mention Death of Salesman and The Maids in the same sentence, they have much in common:  Both are classics, dealing in profound ways with fundamental human conflicts.   Both have been performed innumerable times by some of the theater’s most respected actors.  (The Maids recently had an acclaimed performance starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert).  Both plays explore how the relationship between master and servant, boss and underling, owner and worker, warps the humanity of all concerned.   Both, though in very different ways, have important threads of sexuality at their core.   Both are vitally concerned with how the disturbing aspects of parental figures wreak havoc on those who depend on them.  Both deal with death by suicide.

And both are theatrically adventurous plays.  Not only did they break new ground when they originally appeared, but both continue to challenge audiences with powerful emotions amidst a complex, shifting reality.

If Salesman sometimes blurs the line at times between fantasy and reality, The Maids disrupts our sense of reality almost entirely.   Are the maids insane or is their mistress?  Or are all the characters lost in unreal worlds?   At one point Madame says, “You both must be quite mad…unless you’re saying that I am.”  No one is sane in this play.   If Salesman deals world in which decent people are crushed by the harsh realities of business, The Maids contends with an unreal world in which human cruelty is all too real and pervasive.  Where Salesman deals with the consequences of infidelity, The Maids raises the yet more disturbing sexual issues of incestuous love and hatred.

The Maids, particularly as performed by VTC’s ensemble directed by Josh Moyse, plays with sexual identity.  Genet originally conceived of the maids’ roles being played by young boys, though most productions have had these roles played by women.   The current production twists gender identity by having two young people, one male and one female, play the maids with a male playing the maids’ mistress, Madame.

This is a new experience.   Though I briefly played a transvestite in an off-off-broadway comedy revue, in The Maids I’m playing Madame as a man playing a woman.   The way I envision the role is neither the Shakespearean attempt to create the illusion that I am a woman nor as a gay cross-dresser a la La Cage Aux FollesWhat I’m going for here is the jarring effect of someone who is obviously male playing a role that is obviously female.  To me, this fits perfectly with the absurdist aesthetic.   Since the master-servant relationship is commonly, in our culture, a male-dominated relationship, my “maleness,” hopefully, amplifies the perversion of human interaction that is the relationship between the mistress and her servants.

Genet’s The Maids is a study in how far human relationships can be perverted by differences of wealth and status.   Power and impotence, love and hatred, adoration and disgust, delight and revulsion, are tightly intermingled.   Each of the three characters is both victimizer and victim, abuser and abused, dominator and dominated.

As an actor and, hopefully, for an audience, what could be more fun?   All is exposed, laid bare with crushing simplicity.   A brilliant set design and visual projections transform Hooker-Dunham theater in Brattleboro, Vermont, into a jewel box dollhouse, perfect for the discordant, clashing realities that mirror than twisted minds of the mistress and her maids.

The Maids opens Friday, October 25 and continues Saturday, Oct. 26, Sunday, Oct. 27, Thursday, October 31 (Perfect for Halloween!), Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, November 1 thru 3.   All except Sundays are evenings at 7:30;  Sundays are matinees at 3.   Hooker-Dunham theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, Vermont.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check out Flat St. Rising!

If you’re in southern Vermont, this coming Gallery Walk (first Friday each month) will feature a street fair we’re calling Flat St. Rising! to commemorate the one year anniversary since Tropical Storm Irene devastated our area. Samirah Evans will sing a song she wrote about her home town, New Orleans, and it’s recovery from Katrina with proceeds going to flood relief in Vermont. The group I’m in the Buzzards Brass Band will make our usual racket.

The purpose is to draw attention of youth to cool after-school stuff available to them. Like the one I’m involved with In-Sight Photography Project, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Brattleboro, the New England Youth Theatre, the Open Music Collective, and the Brattleboro Music Center, and many more.

This is the first time in my life I tried organizing something on this scale and hopefully I will have learned my lesson and not try it again, though there’s talk of making it an annual event. Sounds great! But next time I don’t have to coordinate it!