Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

Forget Your New Year’s Resolutions, Count Your Blessings Instead

Actress Wonjung Kim, Raise Your Voice.

by Terri Roberts

 “When you’re worried and you can’t sleep
 Just count your blessings instead of sheep
 And you’ll fall asleep
 Counting your blessings…” 

Happy 2021! At last, 2020 is in the rear view mirror, and the hope and opportunity of a new year are before us.

Traditionally, this is the point where people try to start over. They make vows to lose weight/stop drinking/quit procrastinating/give up cigarettes, etc. However, a December 31, 2019 post on Psychology Today.com refers to a Scranton University study that found just 19% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. Most folks give up within a couple of weeks.

So might I suggest something different this year? Limit your focus on the negative, and consciously expand your focus on the positive. There are countless studies that show developing an attitude of gratitude has great mental health benefits. And when things get as dark as they did in 2020, it’s even more important for the stability of your head and heart to acknowledge those blessings and not take them for granted or ignore them.

Every winter I look forward to watching, once again, those classic holiday movies that remind us to believe in magic and miracles, and to be thankful for all the goodness in our lives – regardless of the darkness that may, at times, obscure it. A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas are not just great, inspiring movies, they are the reminders we need in the chill of winter that warmth still exists, that hope for the better is ever present, and that love, actually, is all around us.

More than any year before it, 2020 made it near impossible to believe any of those uplifting perceptual changes could still occur. The year was memorialized by death, devastation and incalculable loss as the result of, among other things, a raging pandemic, a crashing economy, exploding racial tensions, and a dangerous, defiant political landscape. Where could we possibly find magic and miracles, comfort and joy, goodness, hope and love in all that? Where were the blessings that Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sang of so sweetly in White Christmas within the tragic year we have just left behind?

I think the very simple answer is this: like love, the blessings of 2020 actually were all around us. They were in the voices and music that rose heavenward from balconies. The drive-bys to celebrate birthdays and lift sagging spirits. The evening outbreaks of applause for first responders, and the celebratory cheers from doctors and nurses when their patients could finally go home.

Blessings were found in the kindnesses of strangers who secretly paid for our coffees, the essential workers who stocked, sold and delivered our food, and the folks who checked on neighbors who could not leave their homes. They were in the gratitude for the outdoors as we took our daily walks, the extra time we suddenly had to clean out closets, learn to bake bread, write a story, or to develop a new skill. They were in the new-found appreciation for the teachers of our children when school became a learn-at-home project, and for our children themselves – even when they clamored for attention while we were Zooming with clients or co-workers. And blessings certainly lived in the medical workers who held the hands of the scared and dying, and used their own cell phones to allow those patients to say goodbye to their loved ones in the only way possible.

Within our theatrical communities, blessings were evident in the sheer resiliency and tenacity of theatre artists everywhere to keep our art alive. Witness, for example, the moving rendition of “Sunday” from the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Sunday in the Park With George, and how it affected both actors and audience. The surprise pop-up performance by out-of-work Broadway actors was staged on the red TKTS steps, and delighted unsuspecting tourists and native New Yorkers alike. Theatre can happen anywhere.

Back in March, when our marquees went dark and the only lights that shined were the ghost lights on our stages, theatres turned, en masse, to Zoom to keep connected to audiences, to each other, and to keep telling stories. Conversations, readings, previously filmed shows and newly created hybrid performances filled our screens and kept us going. Despite its challenges, Zoom emerged as one of 2020’s biggest blessings overall. Now clearly, watching a great play on Zoom or speaking to family members highlighted in their own Hollywood Squares, will never surpass the thrill of the live experience. But with social distancing a necessary part of life, Zoom became a safe, protective means for the literal, and metaphorical, show to go on. Businesses still met, doctors still consulted with patients, support groups were still able to be present for each other, friends and families still stayed in touch. How could that be anything but a blessing?

Terri Roberts

Personally, I think it is part of the work of every human being to observe and acknowledge such blessings every day, both the commonplace and the extraordinary. And it is also part of the work of the theatre to present such stories, among others, to an audience. (Even White Christmas was eventually adapted for the stage and is now a holiday staple for regional theatres across the country.) Storytelling is an innate part of the human experience. We’ve been sitting around campfires, drawing on cave walls, and creating ceremonies and traditions since the beginning of human existence. The stage is wherever we make it. Last year, Fountain productions started out, as always, on the physical stage of our intimate theatre. And as the pandemic took hold and changed our lives, we changed as well. We adapted. We shared our stories from our living rooms, in parks, in shopping centers, and yes, even on Zoom. The blessing is that theatres everywhere found ways to carry on. To keep art and creativity alive. To stretch ourselves beyond what we thought possible. Growth, perseverance, fortitude…these are all good things. They are blessings, every one.

As we leave the anguish of 2020 behind and step into the fresh air of 2021, let’s keep in mind that, as terrible as it was, 2020 was not all bad. In the midst of despair, there was still hope. There was bravery in the face of fear. There was beauty that rose up out of ugliness. There was strength to stand and adapt. And there was an urgency to create and make art that burned bright in the midst of chaos. That perceptual change was there for us to find.

So if you become worried or anxious and you find you cannot sleep, take a cue from Crosby and Clooney. Count your blessings instead of sheep. You’ll be asleep in no time.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

Inner Voices of a Playwright: Characters Talking or Demons of Fear and Doubt?

EM Lewis

EM Lewis

“I want to keep writing more courageously and living more courageously.”

by EM Lewis

All my characters are trying to wrestle the narrative away from each other right now. When it first happened, when I was working on “True Story,” it was disconcerting, kind of shocking and violent, really, but I went with it. And I doubted myself, because… well, who doesn’t, but I trusted the voices and followed them out into the deep, dark places, because I’ve really begun to understand, these last few years, that that’s the only way to do it.

It’s been a nice couple of years. I got a fellowship, and then another fellowship, so I quit my sensible day job and moved across the country, far away from everything I know, and my family, to New Jersey (!), and have been writing full time. And it’s been nice. It’s been… Madeleine L’Engle used this word “deepening” in one of her books, and that’s how I’ve felt, like I’ve been deepening, finding my true voice in a way that I’ve never–

(How am I going to pay the rent this month?)

–come so close to doing before. And I’ve been writing so much more than I ever ever have. New full lengths, and short plays, and a one-man show that cut so close to the bone I pretty much had a panic attack when we read it in workshop. Maybe not a full panic attack. I don’t know, I’ve never had one before. But all of a sudden my heart started pounding so loud I couldn’t hear Stephen reading anymore. But then I could hear again after a while, and I stayed really quiet there in my chair, and I don’t think anybody noticed. You’re not supposed to talk during the response period anyway, so I–

(don’t know how I’m going to keep doing this. I’m 42 years old, and what the fuck do I have to show for it? no husband, no kids, no house, no — is this a mid-life crisis? How fucking trite that would be. Jesus.)

[why is my internal voice so profane when I never swear?]

–shut up and listened. Is it a good sign when you give yourself a panic attack from something you wrote? It’s probably not a sign at all. But it was a hard play to write. It’s about guns and gun control.

Not really.

It’s about me and my husband, and how he died.

Which makes it really no different from any of my plays, which are all about me and my husband and how he died, except the rest of them cleverly call all the characters by different names and are set in different places, so I don’t think people realize that they’re all about us, that I’ve been writing about us all this time.

It’s called “The Gun Show.” It’s the first thing I’ve written in first person in a long time. It’s written for a guy to read, but he’s playing me, and at a couple points during the play, he points a flashlight at me, picking me out of the audience so they know I’m there and they can identify the guilty party, the one who wrote this thing, the one who… I took out the puppet. There used to be a puppet, and I used to have lines, talking back to the actor who is playing me, but I took them out, because it was already in there, in the text, everything I needed. And I put a clause in the notes about some time, maybe, I’ll be brave enough to read it myself, but that’s probably bullshit. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do it. Maybe I want to wrestle the narrative away from my actors and claim my own words. Maybe I want to confess my sins.

(maybe I should move back home to the farm in Oregon)

[you’re gonna have to do something if you can’t pay your rent this month]

Into the woods. It’s a good metaphor. It was good back in fairy tale days, with all the romance and darkness, and it’s even better after Mr. Sondheim mucked about with it, because he added the complicatedness that we’ve all run up against, and said, “Yeah, the woods is that, too.” I just saw the show the other day, over at the McCarter, and the lyrics have been sounding in my head like a bell.

“Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood.”

(Yeah.)

“Nothing’s quite so clear, now. Feel you’ve lost your way?”

(Yeah.)

But I’m getting closer to something as an artist, I think.

(Is that bullshit? That sounds dangerously close to–)

Those terrible true things. The small personal true things and the larger global true things. I feel like I’m getting closer–

(But how do you ever know? Some people like my plays, I’ve had some productions and such, but how do I know if any of this means anything? If it’s the right path? Maybe I should have–)

[–been a helicopter nurse. I know that sounds like a radical notion, but there was a moment, back when I was at Chemeketa Community College, when I was nineteen, when I seriously considered it. Flying around and saving people. What’s not to like?)

(–done something different with my life, gone down a surer path.)

[What’s surer?]

{Accounting?}

[I’d be a terrible accountant. I can’t event calculate the tip properly.]

(There has to be something surer than this.)

[Is that even a word? Surer?]

I could die tomorrow.

(I really could. It’s been ages since I had health insurance. Looking both ways at the intersections only gets you so far.)

At a certain point… at this point, I guess… you start to ask yourself, is it worthwhile, what I’ve done with my life, what I’m doing with my life? What do I have to show for my life?

(The job hunt hasn’t been going well. I don’t need much, but I need something. I’ll mow lawns. I’ll wash windows. I’m not too proud to do anything, but I can’t even get a call back on most of the jobs I’m applying for. What am I doing wrong? Or does the economy still just suck this bad? Maybe it’s just that nobody wants me.)

[Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all. You’re a playwright, goddamn it, you shouldn’t be washing fucking windows, you should be writing plays.]

{easy to say, but then maybe when you get back from that play festival in Fayetteville you find all your stuff out on the lawn and they’ve changed the locks on you, and there’s no power outlet for your laptop out on the lawn, girlie-girl.}

(Sometimes I’m terrified, sometimes I lie in the dark and wonder what the fuck I’m doing–)

[–but that’s okay, because you’re a writer, if you weren’t fucked up what the fuck would you write about?]

{yeah, tell yourself that}

(Do you lie in the dark and wonder what the fuck you’re doing sometimes?)

Stop, already! Just stop!!!

(A moment. A Pinter pause.)

This is me, trying to take control of the narrative. The writing narrative and the life narrative. And realizing that you never can, and you always have to keep trying, and you always have to keep trying, and you never can.

There is no “surer” thing than this. Nothing is sure. And we have to figure out why we should push the rock up the hill anyway, and how, and if we can keep a roof over our heads while we’re doing it.

This essay was supposed to be about artistic innovation, but I’m writing about my rent money instead. Because they are inextricable from one another. Both require all of our courage and all of our humility.

I don’t just want to be a braver writer, after all.

I want to be a braver person.

Here’s a funny story. I got an email from someone I didn’t know the other day. The woman said that she’d come across my play “The Edge of Ross Island” on her way to Staunton, and thought it was really interesting. I emailed her back, thanking her for saying so. And I asked her where she’d “come across it,” because… that was a funny way to put it. And it turns out she’d found it on the sidewalk. Laying there on the sidewalk in Staunton, Virginia, for no apparent reason, and she bent down and picked it up, and read it, and in her second email, where she told me all this, she said that she couldn’t put it down.

Something about that whole story makes me laugh, and makes me want to keep going.

Oh, world!

Courage, I guess, is the word I’ve been looking for.

I want to keep writing more courageously and living more courageously. Whether I do that in New Jersey or Oregon, while washing windows or making plays, while voicing my own words or asking actors to do it for me.

The boldest innovations came from people who acted bravely. I want to be brave.

(“Things will come out right now. We can make it so.”)

Be brave.

EM Lewis received a 2012 Fellowship in Playwriting from the NJ Council for the Arts, the 2010‐2011 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for Song of Extinction and the Primus Prize for Heads from the American Theater Critics Association. Her plays have been produced around the world, and published by Samuel French. Recent: Song of Extinction at the Guthrie and Hostos College; Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday at HotCity Theater. Upcoming: Heads at The Rep in Pittsburgh, and the world premiere of True Story at Passage Theater in Trenton.

This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas.