Though, with only two more performances at The Marsh Berkeley, that fun will soon end. And by home, I mean not just to the Bay Area where I live, but to the Marsh Berkeley where the creative journey to My Stroke of Luck began. Although the show did not premier there, The Marsh Berkeley is where I began developing the script with David Ford, Artist in Residence, and where much of the initial workshopping was done.
Hard to believe it’s been 3 years since I first presented a full length version of My Stroke of Luck. After 1 year writing random seemingly unconnected bits, I finally realized what story I was telling. 18 months later, I had what I thought was my show.
So how does a performance piece like mine come together?
Pieces and artists vary, but I begin with writing. I have watched others develop scripts through stand up, impromptu storytelling or through movement. But me? I’m an introvert. Much easier to share my thoughts in private, with pen and paper or computer, than any other way. So, I wrote first thing every morning, after only eating enough to sustain me through 2-4 hours of writing. And at the end of each week, Sunday (for this gal who grew up church going, easy to substitute one chapel/sacred space for another) I read my week’s work to my fellow David Ford students. His and their feedback informed my edits and the next week’s new writing. His guidelines for feedback: What did you respond to? What did you want to know more of? What confused you? Where did you lose interest? That provided a clear framework, for diving deeper, expanding the work.
Interestingly those guidelines, which include no “criticism”, are similar to thoseAnne Lamont established in my first ever writing workshop, in the mid 80’s in Sausalito. She was one of I think 3 authors leading sections. I was assigned to a section of a famed male writer, which, as a newbie, having published only a couple of personal essays in the Chronicle, I was feeling pretty good about! But at the close of the opening general session, a man about my age stepped in front of me. “You need to be with us in tingAnne Lamott’s group.” Jerry had read my recent SF Chron Sunday Mag piece. Two women on either side of him, each of whom also mentioned reading it, nodded, grabbed my elbows and steered me into Lamott’s room.
What an introduction to creative writing instruction!!! I was a psych major, pre med, no time for english lit or creative writing, At the time, Lamott had published only the novels Rosie, Hard Laughter and Crooked Little Heart. Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird and her non fiction works were nearly a decade still to come.)
That week long experience was so powerful a sub group of us continued to meet for 10 years to share our writing, disbanding only when enough life intervened – children- for me, Logan - jobs, moves, completed work. We nurtured each other in so many ways. 2 published books and one filmed testimonial in the Shoah project way understates the sum of our many, many beautiful stories, explorations, growth and creative sisterhood.
I later heard from those in the section to which I was initially assigned. They had been encouraged to critique each other’s work, including what they felt was missing, wrong, or misguided about what they heard from fellow participants. Many left discouraged, and never wrote again.
Object lesson in how to kill the spirit of a budding creative.
So jump more than two decades to David Ford class.
Every few months, at the end of 10 classes, we performed 15 minute excerpts for an audience. David, exquisitely tuned to audiences, would then interpret the audience reactions in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of our pieces and performances. He is a genius director, and has the omnipotent eye, able to intuit and decipher the whys or tease out the variables.
(It took me a few years to even begin to sense when the audience is with me, and when not!)
I still remember his comment after I performed my very first piece. Piece was about the long night of waiting for the juvenile emergency transport agency guys to take Logan to Wilderness Camp. And it became the ending of what would be My Stroke of Luck.
“You need to find a better way to connect with the audience from the start.”
Those words were my North Star as I continued to write: CONNECT WITH THE AUDIENCE!
And write meant plumbing the depths. Often painful, sometimes left me in tears or knotted in anger, but layer by layer, diving down. But it was a full year, 4 performances of 20 minute excerpts, and I’m not sure how many pages, before I finally realized the story I was writing was the story of my stroke, not the story of parenting a difficult teen. (What can I say?)
As the piece evolved, I wrote way more than I could ever share in class. So, I began working with a group of fellow performers, most of us former or current David student, performing to each other in living rooms. Not that we were exclusive. But we had gotten to know each other in his class, were steeped in his guidelines, and so had an immediate intimacy and trust. We were family. Along the way we added others one or more of us knew. Some of us completed full length pieces and had runs, some worked on short pieces to perform at The Moth and story slams, some reworked books. But we all grew as artists, in no small part by observing and contributing to the growth of others.
It really does take a village! We are so lucky in the Bay Area. There is such a thriving solo performance scene, with many talented, generous creatives willing and eager to support each other. Playwrights use actors doing table reads for perspective on their work. For solos, an audience is crucial.
The next step was performing excerpts to larger audiences, audiences with no prior knowledge of the work. Luckily again, there are a number of established venues which support works in progress, including Monday Night Marsh, Tell it On Tuesdays at The Marsh Berkeley, Solo Sundays at Stagewerx. But we also found coffeehouses and other venues for one off performances. And each performance opportunity provided another opportunity to grow the piece.
Some of my fellow creatives have seen my full show in various venues over a dozen times and still offer helpful feedback each time!! Thank you, Irma Herrera, social justice Activista, attorney, playwright and performer of the wonderful solo show - don't miss if it comes to your city- Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name ! (Why indeed!) . And the rest of you - you know who you are -thank you!
As I was nearing the completion of the full script, David encouraged me to apply to the Canadian and American Fringe Festival Circuit . The Fringe Festival movement originated in Edinburgh organically, a spontaneous, artist directed movement, codified in 1958, as a non vetted, non curated performance festival. The Fringe was conceived to bypass gatekeepers, with all work welcomed, admission strictly by lottery.
“If you don’t mind traveling, Fringes are a bit like out of town premiers. You get a chance to test the material in front live, varied audiences of strangers,” David explained. So, I applied to a number of Fringe Festivals, and continued writing as I awaited the lottery results.
At the end of the 18 months, script done, time for a full read through in front of a test audience. I invited fellow creatives, some I’d been working with, others who had not seen any of the work in progress, medical colleagues (including my savior, colleague and former trainee, Dr. Stephen Weiss), writers, editors, performer and other friends, aiming for an eclectic mix willing to share their reactions.
David Ford opened: “We never really know what we have until we have an audience. So thank you for coming.” I think he outlined the guidelines for the feedback session to follow, the same as in his classes and workshops: What did you respond to? What did you want to know more about? Where were you lost?
Though I had memorized nothing, planned to sit as I read, and knew 90% of those gathered, I was a bundle of nerves -anticipation, excitement and fear. Perhaps that comes with self revelation: my labor of love about to be shared, about to be judged. But as read, I swelled with a sense of accomplishment, readiness for the next phase of the journey. And the audience was attentive, open and responsive. Finished. Applause.
There it was! Out into the world!
To be continued. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.
Below with creative posse L to R: Elaine Mcgree, (Pussy Grabbing Revenge and Holding the Edge), the late Barbara Selfridge ( Grace, Zero Tolerance: Sex, Math and Seizures), Me, Andy Mock (The Moby Dick Diaries), Irma Herrera and photobombing us, Steve Budd (What They Said About Love)
Below, me with Miss Pearl Louise!! Probably the most naturally gifted storyteller I have ever known! Thanks to you, Mr. Ford, as she insists on calling you! Still can't believe I finished my piece before she did!