Tag Archives: middle-aged woman

The Coming-of-Middle-Age Story: “The merit in trying to communicate what it means to be human”

"Heart Song" at the Fountain Theatre

Mid-life journeys in “Heart Song” at the Fountain Theatre

by Rachel Ditor

I have read countless coming-of-age stories. As a teenager and young adult many of those stories were lifesavers. I still struggled but I didn’t feel alone anymore.

I’m discovering now a subset of this genre, the coming-of-middle age story.

I don’t feel I was adequately warned about this stage in life. Not sure who to complain to about this, but where are the educational films and pamphlets? Why don’t we have special parties that celebrate compromise as a significant achievement? Where are the guidebooks and diagrams that explain feeling conflicted is not a fleeting emotion but a way of life?

And that this isn’t actually bad. It’s challenging but it’s fascinating.

Plus, this whole thing about life having a definitive beginning and end is misleading. It cues you to think linearly. I’m not finding this very helpful. What if I conceive of the journey as a maze instead of a trajectory?

(An interesting, intriguing maze. No Minotaur.)

Our personal lives have many markers of progress. Most of these relate to our physical age—able to bear children, not able to bear children; can read the directions on the pill bottle, can’t read the stupid tiny directions on the fucking pill bottle.

Our professional lives (ok, mine) seem to lack definitive markers. What does “forward movement” really mean mid-career?

If I were motivated by money, I would have chosen another field, just about any other field. But I chose theater. So “escalating earning power” is not the definitive marker on the trail of progress.

“Artistic freedom.” Is that the next step forward, mid-career? But artistic freedom to some degree has always been part of the package as a theater artist, from the start. (Partly because we’re not perceived to be a threat to the mainstream.) Constraints of any kind often spur us to make theatrical discoveries we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Rachel Ditor

Rachel Ditor

I’m not even going to bother considering whether fame and acclaim are critical markers. First, I’m Canadian and we find that kind of striving a little distasteful. (It’s also distasteful to admit that.) Second, we put so much of ourselves into our work that outside opinions have limited impact. If you feel good about your work, someone may disagree with the value of the product, but that can’t tarnish the value of an experience that likely evolved over years. And likewise, a great review or pat on the back can’t redeem your experience of a shitty process and a disappointing product, one that also likely evolved over years. Years that you will never get back.

I’m getting off track. To be honest, my surprise at mid-life, mid-career is to discover I’m passionate and knowledgeable about my work, but uncertain about where to meaningfully expend my energy in what feels like a finite timeframe in a way it hadn’t before.

The only way I see to move forward with this uncertainty is to go back and ask myself: what gets me out of bed in the morning? (Beyond habit or gratitude.)

If I can name it, I can nurture it.

The merit in trying to communicate what it means to be human is being reaffirmed for me. I’ve recently felt the importance of ritual and the necessity of story to help us parse life. My experiences, personal and professional, have made me suspicious about the idea of acquiring or holding on to anything mid-career mid-life—just when acquiring and securing seems to be all the rage.

In my second coming-of-age it’s live performance that reminds me I am not alone in my struggle, and in my joy. I love that we make community simply by bringing people together in the same room at the same time to hear the same story. Maybe I’m finding the creation of fleeting community life-affirming because it is both temporary and meaningful. In a maze I can revisit the existentialist I was at twenty, but with more compassion. That might not be forward movement, but it is an interesting place to be. For now.

Rachel Ditor is the literary manager at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver, BC.  Her post appeared on HowlRound.

Pamela Dunlap Dances to a Flamenco Beat in ‘Heart Song’ at the Fountain Theatre

Dance in a graveyard

“Heart Song” at the Fountain Theatre

by Cynthia Citron

“I have a long history of flamenco,” Pamela Dunlap says — her tongue firmly in her cheek.  And thereby hangs the tale.

“Actually, I’m not a dancer,” she continues.  “I’m dragged kicking and screaming into flamenco class” as the lead in Stephen Sachs’ new play Heart Song, now having its premiere at the Fountain Theatre.

Playing Rochelle — a middle-aged, out-of-shape Jewish woman who’s undergoing a crisis of faith — Dunlap is persuaded to join a flamenco class for other middle-aged, out-of-shape women. The production unites two of the Fountain’s specialties — plays and the subject of flamenco (the Fountain is presenting Forever Flamenco at the Ford on June 15).

“It’s an all-female cast,” Dunlap says, “and the camaraderie is great.  It’s a wonderful journey.” Shirley Jo Finney is directing.

When I suggest that it sounds a bit like Steel Magnolias, a perennial favorite, she says, “Oh no, it’s not anything like Steel Magnolias!  In this play nobody has diabetes, nobody’s getting their hair done, and there are no cranky old women.”

Pamela Dunlap

Pamela Dunlap

She should know. She was in a Salt Lake City production of Steel Magnolias, playing the role of the former mayor’s widow, who describes the new mayor’s wife as looking, while dancing, “like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.”

Dunlap confesses that early in her career she taught Latin dances — the cha-cha, the merengue, the samba — at a Xavier Cugat Dance Studio in New York.  “Cugat was the Arthur Murray of Latin dancing,” she says.  “He had dance studios all over.”

Dunlap is herself a New York woman from Flushing and Jackson Heights.  Currently she considers herself bicoastal, with a home in Manhattan and another in Van Nuys.  In Southern California, she has performed at the Ahmanson, South Coast Rep, and LA Theatre Works, but this is her first appearance at the Fountain.

In New York  she has been seen on Broadway in Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Redwood Curtain, and Yerma, and in several Off-Broadway roles. Recently, she appeared at Theater Raleigh in North Carolina as Mattie Fae, the nagging sister of Violet and mother of Little Charles in August Osage County.

On TV she has been featured on How I Met Your Mother, NCIS, Law and Order SVU andCommander in Chief, but her most visible role currently is as Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law and abominable baby-sitter for Betty’s daughter Sally on AMC’s Mad Men.

About her role as “Sally’s fiendish baby sitter,” she calls her “a woman with a great sense of entitlement, exactly the opposite of the woman I’m playing in Heart Song — a woman who is struggling to find her sense of entitlement.”

In Heart Song, Rochelle is “a woman who never married, whose mother recently died, and who has very little support.  She’s in a painful place of transition, dealing with mortality and trying to find her own identity,” Dunlap explains.

Flamenco teacher Katarina (Maria Bermudez) and Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap).

Flamenco teacher Katarina (Maria Bermudez) and Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap).

Questioned about her identification with the characters she plays, she says, “acting allows us to play so many different characters, but we can always find something in ourselves that is like the character. The play mirrors the struggles we all go through, and we find a common history that we didn’t suspect we have in common.  A common history or something that connects us to that character.”

On the adventure level, though, she has had a few experiences that aren’t reflected in any play she has appeared in.  For example, when her son, Trevor Morgan Doyle, an anthropologist doing research in Finland, decided to marry a Finnish woman, she traveled to the wedding, driving a car for 10 hours above the Arctic Circle.  “The car was chugging along because the fuel was freezing in the tank,” she says.

She also reports that the bride’s family, “obviously testing my mettle,” invited her to swim with them in weather that was 70 degrees below freezing.  They dug a hole through the ice and then kept scraping the ice off the top of the hole as it froze on contact with the air.

Did she do it?  You bet she did!

“Actually, they claim it’s a cure for depression,” she says.  “You’re shocking your whole system.  I’ve never felt so alive in my life!”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, she has ties with Ethiopia.  She is an active member of the Salt Lake City-based Children of Ethiopia Education Fund, a non-governmental organization that provides schooling for girls in that country.

Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings and Pamela Dunlap.

Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings and Pamela Dunlap.

When not rolling naked in ice holes and visiting schools in Ethiopia, however, she has taken a few moments to accept awards.  She has received three Drama-Logue awards, has been an honoree of the New York Drama League, and has won an OOBR (Off-Off Broadway Review) award.

As for the future, she has very definite ideas about whom she would like to work with.  Before the question is completely posed, she answers enthusiastically, “Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He’s the real deal.”

But for the present, she is delighted to be working with director Finney, choreographer Maria “Cha Cha” Bermudez, and a cast consisting of Juanita Jennings, Tamlyn Tomita, Bermudez (through June 14), Denise Blasor (beginning June 15), Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou and Sherrie Lewandowski.

Photos by Ed Krieger. Cynthia Citron writes for LA Stage Times.  

Heart Song Now to July 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE