Saturday, December 31, 2016

Celebrating Silvester, Whoever He Was

I've been writing for Berlin Loves You and they asked me to write up an alternative guide to New Years Eve. I started with an introduction to why New Years is called "Silvester" in Berlin, but it was too long for the article. I cut it down but in the final article, it got cut even more. I thought maybe some people would be interested in the full expanded trivia, so here it is, expanded even more with annotations and everything. The Berlin Loves you article can be found here in case you're curious about the cut or looking for last minute non-techno things to do in Berlin for New Years. 

In America, Sylvester is a tuxedo cat with a bad lisp. Sylvester is an Eye-talian knucklehead who made a couple of boxing films. But in Berlin, Silvester is what the locals say when they mean New Years Eve. So who the heck is this Silvester guy? I finally looked it up and it turns out that he was the pope who converted the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity.

If you google this Pope Silvester guy, you'll immediately turn up rumors that he and Constantine were both rampantly anti-Semitic but that’s just hearsay. There's plenty of evidence of anti-Semitism in the middle ages so I have no idea why an alt-right website feels the need to make this up. Maybe the writer is a sourpuss who wants to pour cold water over New Year celebrations? (I went on a google dive and apparently there are conflicts in Israel over Rosh Hashanah vs. everyone else's New Year.) You'll also find a source that says Silvester was black and a few other sources about him slaying a dragon. So if you believe everything that's on the internet, Silvester was the first black man to slay a dragon and became pope. That's a way better rumor to spread around and I'm very happy to help you do that. But sadly, it doesn't serve anyone's agenda, so I doubt if it will gain much traction.

The truth is that no one knows anything about Sylvester except that he was too sick to attend the Nicean Council and he happened to die on December 31. That was right in the middle of a 12-day pagan festival to banish evil spirits called the Rauhnächte. Germanic tribes throughout Central Europe believed that during those “Rough Nights,” the sun slowed down to a crawl while Wotan led a band of bellicose ghosts on a wild hunt through the dark skies. In response, the Teutons filled their houses with smoke, banged kitchen utensils, beat on trees with flaming cudgels, and rolled burning wooden wheels down mountainsides. Good times. Naturally, sourpuss early Christians disapproved and they set about convincing pagan Germans to fête Silvester instead. In the late 1500s, Europeans countries began to move the first day of the calendar to 1 January and the feast day for Silvester gradually turned into celebrations for a new year.

***
  Like in NYC, there are a billion things to do in Berlin tonight. I might lay low after two days of going out and performing. But everyone keeps telling me that Warschauer Strasse is like a warzone of fireworks. That sounds amazing to me after 20 years of fireworks restrictions in NYC. And my dad comes from Yanshui, a small town in Taiwan whose claim to fame is that it hosts the craziest fireworks festival in the world. People literally wear full face helmets and hazmat suits. I've never been to Asia during Lunar New Year and I probably would hate Yanshui's fireworks, but I am all about down home street celebrations. Maybe I will go and take some photos of Berliners making a big ruckus for Silvester like it's 330AD.

Running out now to get groceries before all the grocery shops close for two days. Leaving you with this video of Joshua Samuel Brown in Yanshui a few years back.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Miles in Berlin

[Written on Sept 15th but I didn't have a chance to post until just now...]

I'm waiting at the airport for my son. His flight is about half an hour late and of course I got here way too early. Most people in Berlin don't know that I have a grown son. I had him way young (actually it was an immaculate conception when I was 8 years old but no one believes me). It's weird to me that he's an adult and that I had this whole other life when I was a mom. So when Miles said that he bought tickets and he was coming to visit me, I started to tell people that my little brother was coming. Partly because I'd have to really open up to everyone here and I'm not sure if I'm ready to do that. (It's so refreshing not to be in your hometown where everyone seems to have known you since you were an angry 14-year-old.) And also, I knew everyone would instantly wonder how old I am.

Two years ago, I somehow got involved with a much younger guy for a very brief moment in London and when he dropped me for no reason, I wondered if it was because I was ten years older than him. Not that we ever had a discussion about this. But it did seem that our understandings & experiences were so different simply because of the different times that we came of age. The way I realized that he must be way younger was a discussion when I mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall & I realized he had no personal memory of it.

I've never been anxious about my age before. This is a whole new thing for me. I was at a gal's 28th birthday party and a mutual friend told her that she had to start lying about her age. (Yes, I know, craaaazy...) I'm a lot older than 28 but this thought never entered my mind until the incident with that guy in London. 

My whole life I've been hampered by things I have little control over: my gender, my ethnicity, my lack of money. And now, great, let's add age to this list. Well, actually, age was an issue when I first began working in theater since I was too young to be taken seriously. And now I'm too old to still be "emerging." I never seem to be able to do anything when I'm supposed to.

But after a few weeks of telling people about my "little brother," I'm thinking, to hell with it. I was a single mom and it was damn tough. And I was a good mom even though I had no idea about parenting from my own parents who were never around and treated me terribly. Miles calls me and says he misses me, so I must have done something right to have a son who actually wants to spend time with me. And he's a huge reason why I am who I am today. Before he came into my life, I didn't know that I could be loved. So not mentioning that I have a son just feels like I'm denying a huge and essential part of myself. 

And Miles still kicks my butt. On my own, I mostly don't care that I have barely enough money to eat. On my own, I rarely want to buy anything unless it's something for a show. But for Miles, I want a nice place for him to stay and enough money to take him out to dinner and I can't wait to go out dancing with him and his lovely girl. I've been hustling these last three weeks in a way that I've never done before in Berlin. 

I'm also a little nervous meeting him and feeling sentimental that he's now an adult. My beautiful little boy who used to gaze at me with such adoration. I envy more stable parents that they kept their child with them through their teenage years. We lost our home when he was 16 and since then, I've never spent more than a day with him here and there. Even after I found a new place for us to live, he decided to stay at his father's friend's place, perhaps so he wouldn't be a burden on me. 

He's older now than I was when I had him. So our relationship will be different than when I last spent time with him. And we'll be together almost every day for nearly a month. I hope that we can be good friends. I hope I can make it up to him for losing our home and sending him out in the world before he was really ready. 

[This is when Miles tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hello, mom."]



Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fifteen Years Later

This is the article I wrote two weeks after 9/11 for www.edreams.com The website was really new and they had a section where writers gave local travel advice. I was their New York correspondent. I was also the Development Director of Theater for the New City at that time. That's the theater that is mentioned in the article. 

Re-reading this article is really poignant. It was a strange time in New York, sort of like being in a funeral with 8 million other people. I think people in 1963 who watched JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on television must have had the same experience. Our hopeful illusions about the world were suddenly dashed. Suddenly, we woke up and saw how much things had changed. Suddenly, there was a new sober reality that we all had to face. 

I still think of the gathering I attended the day after 9/11 in Union Square. This is the usual place New Yorkers rally and without facebook or twitter or even any word of mouth, everyone instinctively knew to go to Union Square and bring a candle. In fact, there were no candles to be found in any bodega south of 23rd Street. So I went to the basement of the theater and scrounged around in the prop area, emerging with three dusty orange candle holders that had some meager stubs of candles in them. With these in hand, my co-workers, my little boy, and I set off for Union Square. We arrived to find it jam packed. I've never seen so many people in one place. Just going the one city block from Union Square East to Union Square West literally took an hour. I swear there must have been 50,000 people there. And no one said a word. All 50,000 of us walking silently through the park carrying candles. MISSING posters plastered on every available wall....A deep sense of unity....A sobering sense of loss. That was 9/11 in NYC.
______

My brother called from Tokyo at 8:55 in the morning on September 11th. I was lying in bed, enjoying the sleep of someone who had worked HARD the night before on a benefit that was pretty terrific, I must say. The answering machine picked up and I heard my brother say, "I hope you're nowhere near the financial area. I know you probably aren't but I thought I should call." And then he hung up before I could get to the phone. What the hell is he talking about? I wondered. I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. Outside a few people screamed about something. I put the pillow over my head. The phone rang just as my cat curled up comfortably next to me. I was loathe to get up. The machine picked up again and it was my friend Mark yelling, "Wake up! Wake up!" So I got up, got the phone and very grumpily barked,"WHAT???" He replied, "One of the World Trade Centers just fell down."

Needless to say, I turned on the telly and watched with the whole world as the World Trade Center turned to rubble. Only two channels were being transmitted; television had been shot down like the stock market. Another friend called. He didn't have a television so I spent the next half hour describing to him all the terrible images on the screen. At noon, I finally went to the theater where I work, walking in bright, beautiful autumn sunshine, with many confused and dazed people. There were lines in front of every telephone kiosk and lots of people just standing around in shock. From every store you could hear the same news blaring. Channel 5 coming from every shop and restaurant. At the theater, the news was on too. I found it impossible to work, to type out what suddenly seemed utterly mundane grant applications for this or that artist. We closed early, at 3, and I went to fetch my little boy since his dad was working across the water in New Jersey and wouldn't be able to get back to New York in time. (Turns out it took him 14 hours to get back home.) I spent the rest of the night watching TV with my boy, wondering what terrible precipice we were now on.

After that crazy day, there were candle-light vigils practically every night in Union Square Park. New Yorkers are a bit more somber than usual. I still can only get a few channels on the television. And of course, the skyline is missing its two front teeth. In many ways, though, this tragedy has shown what a great place New York is. For goodness sakes, where else can you imagine 40,000 people running from two collapsing 103 story towers and NO ONE is trampled to death??? Incidents of racist attacks are much less in New York than anywhere else in this country. There have been none in my neighborhood, despite the many Arabic newsstands and falafel shops that dot the Lower East Side. Our local mosque locked up on the day of the tragedy but they haven't been attacked. Despite New York receiving a solar plexis blow, we are still standing and still reaching out to each other.

For those of you who may be worried about coming to the city, I want to reassure you that New York does not look like blitzed-out London now. The lower west side area south of Canal and west of Broadway was cordoned off for a while, but lower Manhattan is now open except for the few blocks immediately around the disaster area. While you can no longer visit the World Trade Center, parts of Battery Park will be open and you can still take rides on the Staten Island ferry for one of the most beautiful views of New York. I love this city and I feel, like most New Yorkers, that I've been dealt some kind of great psychic blow. But New York is still beautiful, it's still bustling and still bountiful to people of all nations. We've been exposed as being vulnerable like everyone else, despite our tough talk and fast walk, but in our vulnerability, we're relearning that our real strength isn't in big buildings or economic institutions, our real strength lies in unity and love. And unity and love is something New York has plenty of.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Shaking a Spear at Delta & BoA

I've been out of the loop with theater in NYC for a lot of complex reasons which I may write about one day... but I feel compelled to write about Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrawing sponsorship from the Public Theater for their production of JULIUS CAESAR.

For my friends in Europe, you might not know that the Public Theater is where HAIR, A CHORUS LINE, and HAMILTON premiered. (No, Broadway is NOT where plays premiere; it’s where plays go to cash in on their success.) If you've ever enjoyed the songs "Tits & Ass" or "Age of Aquarius" you owe something to the Public. In fact, if you've enjoy any American theater in past 50 years, you owe something to the Public. It's one of the theaters that birthed the American nonprofit theater system for better or for worse. It’s where Meryl Streep got her start. It’s where New Yorkers have seen Shakespeare with stars like Streep (and Al Pacino and James Earl Jones and John Lithgow, etc. etc.) for FREE every summer for nearly 60 years.

Like any great theater, of course, the Public would mine JULIUS CAESAR for what the play has to say about the world today. Thank GOD the Public has a freaking perspective on the play instead of just tossing together another dusty old toga party. That’s what art is supposed to do, for chrissakes – give us perspective, context, a lens through which we can see the world from an angle we hadn’t considered. If it’s safe and reassuring, then it ain’t art.

I’m posting this because the theater community is teensy and we’re always preaching to the converted. But I’m in Europe where no one knows what the Public Theater is. I haven’t heard people here talking about boycotting Delta. (Bank of America doesn’t exist, so they can’t boycott it here...)

It's a slippery slope. Theater doesn't have enough funding as it is and corporate sponsorships is one of the hardest money to come by. The Public is probably doing okay with HAMILTON raking it in on Broadway but Shakespeare in the Park is free to the public. Entirely kostenlos except for like 50 seats that are impossible to come by. So the entire summer season needs to be subsidized somehow. Delta and Bank of America pulling out absolutely bites. If they're being swayed by Fox & Breitbart, then people who give a shit about art should give them a piece of their mind.

-- Here is an article about the debacle in The NewYork Times, which repeats incendiary quotes by Fox News and Breitbart, but gives the reader very little idea about the actual Public Theater production. 

-- In contrast, here is what a smart friend of a friend says, who has actually seen the play. He makes the very good point, “If there ever were an ANTI-assassination play, this is it.”

Thoughts on Brexit

Like everyone else in the wake of Brexit, I’ve been thinking about the UK and wondering what led to such an astounding vote. Obviously, there is massive dissatisfaction with the EU. But this is being expressed in the wrong way. You may not agree with everything in the Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland but I think this is a very articulate statement (the bold type by me):
The EU is just one of the many ways that capitalism is maintained; it's fundamentally neoliberal and imperialist and if this was a referendum for it to be destroyed we be calling for it to be. That's not the case though, no matter how much people want it to be. Claims that we should leave in order to smash Fortress Europe are complete ludicrousy - smash Fortress Europe by creating Fortress Britain and reinforcing borders? We know the freedom of movement stuff generally only applies to white europeans and we're not insisting otherwise but more borders and another fortress is not going to destroy Fortress Europe. This is a racist referendum, even getting to this stage of a referendum is a massive victory to UKIP, the BNP, Britain First and all the other racists, fascists and xenophobes; the very people who will undoubtedly benefit from a Leave Vote…
And here’s a very interesting post-Brexit assessment by Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail (I know, I know, but it’s a really coherent article even if it’s in a tabloid):
This was not merely an electoral earthquake. It was a popular revolt by vast swathes of England and Wales against the political, financial and cultural elite…
For me, this vote is very emotional even if I’m not British. It just serves to reinforce the message I got last year when I was refused entry to the UK. The reasons stated were that I had been traveling back and forth too much for their liking and that they didn’t believe I had enough money for a three-month stay. Apparently, you have to be rich to go to the UK and only travel once per year on the two or three week vacation permitted by your employer. And was xenophobia or racism also a part of the decision by the border control lackeys? I’ll never know but several London friends are quite upset at what they perceive as the growing right wing isolationism in the UK. And the only other people detained that night in the airport were all brown men.

So what will the UK do next? All the artists and art organizations are worried about what this means for the funding and exchange that is so vital to the field. There are calls for another referendum. It seems that Scotland is poised to leave and perhaps Northern Ireland too. There are even calls for London to leave.

What everyone seems to understand is that the UK needs to patch up their deep divisions somehow. And I think the Brexit vote is a canary in a coalmine for America. We’re also deeply divided around much the same issues and it’s possible that in our next election we could veer terribly off to the right.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

I Am a Vase

This is the first of three articles about art modeling. 

A filmmaker has asked me to be part of a documentary about art modeling. And after talking to him, I’m peeved enough to express my own views. What irritates me is his prurient idea that nudity is what art modeling is about. Um, no, art is what art modeling is about. Anyone can take off their clothes. I bet that at some point in the past 24 hours, you too took off your clothes! Okay, perhaps you’ve never disrobed in public, but the novelty of that lasts for all of like two seconds. And then your neck has a horrible crick but you can’t move for another Ten. Long. Agonizing. Minutes.

Everyone has a body. The point of art modeling isn’t the nudity of a body, but the structure of a body.  Drawing from a nude model allows an artist to go back to basics and understand the architecture of the human form. It’s just easier to draw a naked person than one enveloped in clothing.

I would think this is obvious but from the conversation I had with the filmmaker, it seems that some people can’t see beyond the nudity aspect. It’s hard for me to grasp this but I think they must have a deeply internalized Puritanical morality through which everything is viewed. For them, a nude body isn’t just a nude body. For them, nudity is inseparable from sexuality and/or shame. To be nude in public is terrifying or daring or provocative.

But an art model isn’t there to purge their internal issues or to get someone worked up. Nude or not, an art model is supposed to come up with an expressive pose and sustain it for a certain length of time. This is a lot more difficult than it seems.

First, you need to have a varied physical vocabulary. Especially if the session is comprised of several short poses. Being a dancer helps. Seeing lots of artwork helps. And having the schizophrenic ability to view yourself from the outside is rather instrumental. The other thing that is required is the strength to hold a position. Even the most comfortable reclining pose becomes unendurable after a while. The body is just not really meant to be still.

So it might seem like something anyone can do, but there is actually an art to art modeling. A good art model has the uncanny ability to find a pose that is interesting from at least three different angles, while accurately calculating how long it can be held. Anyone who’s ever art modeled knows this is not easy. Even if you’ve posed for artists as long as I have, you still make mistakes and find yourself in pins and needles, with your arm screaming to be moved.

I started posing for artists when I was about 17 years old. A photographer approached me on the subway and asked if I would model for him. He paid $25 per hour, a small fortune to a teenage runaway. It might have been him who introduced me to the Art Students League of NY, which kept me decently employed for the next three years. Looking back, this was probably one of the best places to learn about art modeling. Put all your weight on one leg, I was told. Turn your body slightly. Tilt your head. A pose is more interesting if it’s asymmetrical. And then for a while, I was the lecture model for Gustav Rehberger and learned a lot about anatomy from being his guinea pig: the three planes of a foot, the difference between a man’s neck and a woman’s, the complex parts that make up an eye.

At the Art Students League, I got experience posing for all kinds of mediums, including sculpture, where the modeling occurs on a giant turntable. The instructor comes and turns you every so often like a plate of bok choy on a Chinatown banquet table. “I am a vase. I am a vase,” I found myself thinking. I was desperate to keep my mind occupied since I had a standing pose that was incredibly painful.

Quentin Crisp said once that he never had thoughts about anything while posing except for the pose itself. But I find that thinking is one of the keys to being still. Not only can you quickly pass the time, but I’ve also developed the ability to drift away in my thoughts, leaving my body relatively immobile. I’ve composed entire essays in my head, won heated arguments with my parents, and come up with an amazing set design for a production of Agamemnon. I actually find art modeling rather meditative. Either that or it’s just contributing to my ultimate mental collapse.

During breaks, I usually wander around the room. Partly, this is to get some needed circulation in cramped up body parts. But it’s also interesting to see the work that is being produced. Not because oh look, it’s me me me me me! Well maybe, but I like to think that I’m more fascinated to see the same pose from 10 different angles as seen by 10 different people. It’s the Rashomon effect on a page. And it’s so interesting to see that most pictures look a lot like the artist. 

There was only one time that I ever saw an artist draw me as an Oriental stereotype. Like literally, there were slanted lines where my eyes ought to be. It was in a beginner’s class but I’ve posed for high school students and never once have I ever seen a picture of me with chinky eyes.  Interestingly, it was a black guy on the outskirts of London who drew that picture. I think maybe he was a recent immigrant and hadn’t been exposed to much of the world yet. Every other artist I’ve ever encountered draws from what they see, not what they think they should see.  

This is what I think is the most radical thing about drawing from life. In order to depict someone accurately, an artist has to see beyond preconceived ideas and break everything down into geometric shapes. It’s the great equalizer. No matter what our size, gender, or race, we’re really just a bunch of spheres and cylinders hanging on a skeletal frame.

But it seems that some people like the filmmaker and that black guy on the outskirts of London can’t get beyond themselves to see a body just the way it is. For that black guy, I’m Asian so I must have Mongoloid eyes. His unconscious racism makes him incapable of seeing that I do have eyelids. For the filmmaker, I’m nude so I must be an exhibitionist or a libertine. His body issues make him incapable of seeing the eloquence of a pose, the uniqueness of a particular position, the expressiveness of a gesture. To him, I’m just nude. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to Solve the Yellowface Problem

It’s great that everyone is making noise about Scarlett Johanssen being cast in Ghost in the Shell and #whitewashing in Hollywood and in major regional theaters. I'm totally with you all but excuse me while I chime in with a thought.

Yes, actors are the recognizable face of the business and everyone else is behind the scenes. But it’s the producers, directors, and writers who are really the driving force of a project. If we really want things to change, we can’t just bang on the door of the gatekeepers. We’ve got to support our own producers and directors and writers. And we’re not doing it.

I’m going to keep this short. I’m not going to dwell. And perhaps a few sour grapes are in the mix. But I’m in Berlin because I don’t feel any support for my work in New York. And it’s not like I’ve been dilettanting around and just threw in the towel after being a little miffed. I’m a lifer who has about ten ideas for Asian-American pieces that can’t get a start. (Yes, go ahead, ask me.) The sad thing to me after nearly a year here in Berlin is that my stories will probably continue to be Asian-American and New York. Even though it hurts to write and hurts more to produce these theater pieces that can’t seem to find a home anywhere.

#MyYellowFaceStory is probably not one that you want to hear. Because it’s about how the odds are stacked against you even in your own community. One of the final straws that led me to pack up my bags? A theater company that I adore had a residency with a bunch of Chinese-speaking writers from Asia that culminated in a series of readings. I didn’t find out about this until they sent out the newsletter even though I’d been volunteering there for over three years. They know my work, they know I speak Chinese, but they didn’t think to call me. The two Asian-Americans that were involved in the program were Filipino and Korean. And male, if that makes a difference. I think they’re both fantastic, but they certainly don’t speak Chinese. And to be blunt, what they know about Chinese culture could fit in a thimble. I sent a note to the Artistic Director expressing my chagrin. He apologized and connected me with the woman who was running the program, whom I slightly know. She never emailed me at all.

I felt very slighted by the whole thing. I still do. Okay, fine, maybe they don’t like the work I do. Maybe they don’t think I’m that talented. But sheesh, you would think that I’d at least get a stab at a program simply because I can sort of talk with the writers. And this is just one of the examples I’ve had that no one really wants an Asian story with depth. They want a sanitized middle-class version of Asian-America, which is not the Asian-America that exists in my writing or my work.

Like I said, I don’t want to dwell. But I see so much energy being put into storming the gate of the lord up the hill and not any at all in sowing the field. There are plenty of fantastic Asian-American actors and a healthy growing group of Asian-American writers. But where is there support or mentoring for Asian-American theater producers or directors? Where is there funding for Asian-American theater or film? I already wrote about this years ago. And it’s still the elephant in the room. We can’t expect writers, directors, and producers who aren’t Asian-American to put our stories on the screen or on the stage. Why the hell would they? It’s just not their story. So the most they can do is add Asian-Americans to their consideration. Which is quite significant, but it will largely be tokenism and window dressing. If we want things to really change, we have to support our own. And how are we doing this?  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gone but Not Forgotten - HOT KEYS

I tossed 20 years of theater files but that doesn't mean they're gone gone gone. This is a series of articles with photographs and musings of some of the more special items.

Here's the flyer for HOT KEYS by Jeff Weiss, a serial soap opera that won an Obie Citation. (Click to see it enlarged.)

Jeff Weiss ala Humphrey Bogart.

"...until Jeff has had enough..."

I met Jeff through Tony Nunziata, also known as Tony Fish, who was part of the gay musical trio Hot Peaches. Sometimes I think how funny it was that all the people who looked out for me when I was a snotty teen were all gay men. But then, if you grew up in a downtown NYC theater in the 1980s and 1990s, everyone you knew happened to be a gay man. I didn't know Tony very well but he asked me to be part of a reading. It was at that big building on 10th Street and Broadway across from Grace Church. The apartment was fabulous, one of my first instances of seeing a place decorated with incredible taste. I stared in awe at some gorgeous Greek theater etchings on the wall and then Tony came over and informed me that they were early works by Picasso. Well, the play was something about a Vietnam vet written and starring Jeff Weiss. I was in the last scene with Jeff, playing a Vietnamese woman encouraging him to eat pig's balls. Apparently, I knocked the scene out of the park, since he invited me to be part of his new project HOT KEYS.

I still think what a genius idea this piece was. It was another iteration of Jeff's serial theater pieces with a different "episode" every week. We got the script for the scene(s) we were in on Monday or Tuesday, rehearsed on Wednesday and Thursday, and performed the episode on Friday and Saturday. Repeat the following week. The only constants were that each "episode" began with the Rodgers and Hart song Where or When, and somewhere in the middle of the episode one character would sing the gorgeous ballad Please Let Love Pass Me By, written by Jeff's partner, Carlos Martinez. The perverse and sprawling storyline was something about various murderers who go on the lam and end up in Disneyland.

Jeff wrote the part of Mary Lois for me. At least I think he did. I was 18 and I had a slight reputation after living in TNC's cages. In HOT KEYS, I played a wild teenage party girl from South Jersey who murders the milkman. Or maybe it was the postman. My mother was played by the amazing Kristen Johnston, whom some of you might know from 3rd Rock to the Sun. And my boyfriend Wesley was played by Neil Pepe who later became Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theatre. Here's the first page of my first scene with Wes.

From the sexy & perverse imagination of Jeff Weiss.

I turned down a part in a regional production of M BUTTERFLY that would've gotten me an Equity card to be in HOT KEYS. Sometimes I think maybe that was a bad career move, but I was 18 and it seemed like a helluva lot more fun and interesting to be in HOT KEYS. And in a way, I was right. I met some amazing people and I was part of an Obie Award winning production. But I did learn a hard lesson about the pitfalls of being poor.

There was a peculiar rich/poor or uptown/downtown divide in HOT KEYS. I think Jeff knowingly set it all up, being the mischievious imp that he is. Almost all of the actors came from four theaters: Naked Angels, Atlantic Theatre, La Mama and TNC. For those of you who are unfamiliar with NYC's theater landscape, Naked Angels and Atlantic are tonier theaters in Chelsea with more experienced actors. But Jeff gave the juicier roles to people from the scruffy East Village theaters La Mama and TNC. The actors from Naked Angels and Atlantic mostly played talkative cops. This made for a rather tense environment but I think Jeff liked it that way.

At that time, I was a teenage runaway and homeless. By the time I was in HOT KEYS, I was no longer living in TNC's basement, but I was drifting around various SROs in New York. For those of you who don't know, SRO stands for Single Room Occupancy and they were teeny tiny cheap hotel rooms for single people set up after World War 2 mostly for returning vets. If you were poor, SROs were a great option since they were about $100 a week. They were usually segregated by sex and in the 1980s and 1990s, the best ones for women were the Allerton and Martha Washington. But I also stayed at skeevier places like the Kensington and the Lincoln, which to my consternation turned out to be a whore hotel. The Lincoln was later knocked down and it's now the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

Well, being poor, things happen like you suddenly can't pay for your phone service. I turned up at Naked Angels one Wednesday for rehearsal as usual and to my shock, I discovered that I'd been replaced. It seems the stage manager had tried to call me and wigged out that I couldn't be reached even though I had been attending every week for like three months. The East Village folk understood how you could have your phone shut off and they were livid. For a moment, it seemed the rich/poor divide in HOT KEYS would implode. But I didn't want any part of it. I left the production and never saw Jeff again.

Shortly after HOT KEYS, Carlos became ill and Jeff took him home to Allentown, PA to take care of him. Sometimes I think about Carlos' beautiful ballad Please Let Love Pass Me By. I wish I remembered more of the lyrics. There was recently a 3-night retrospective of Jeff's work at The Kitchen. Don Shewey's blog has a lovely review of the event (scroll down). And Jim Moore of Vaudevisuals posted a video of one of the songs sung in HOT KEYS. It seems I can't embed it, but the link is here.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Goodbye Old Life

Decluttering has become something of a trend lately, with promises of a simpler more fulfilling life once you’re free of all your junk. But I’m not purging my things because I need more space. I have no space. I’m letting go of an entire lifetime of things because I have to.

Yesterday, I tossed 20 years of files on theater work that I’ve done since I was a teenager. Flyers from shows at LaMama and Theater for the New City and Synchronicity Space and Ensemble StudioTheater. Contact sheets from a 10-hour anti-war festival I organized back during the first Gulf War with phone numbers for Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith. All the scripts and playbills and research for the 30-odd staged readings and short film screenings I produced for my company Direct Arts. Hard copies of grant applications, rejection letters and a few acceptances. Each file was a milestone in my life, a small symbol of accomplishment. The only file I kept was the one for my old friend James Purdy.

Today, I’ll be selling nearly 500 books. Most people know that I didn’t finish high school and I never went to college. My parents never once spent an evening working on homework with me; they can barely read English. These books were my education. Here are the books that taught me about literature, art, design, film, mythology, global politics and history. It's because of these books that I speak and think and write the way I do. The only real difference between me and immigrants working low-end kitchen jobs are these 500 books.

There are also about 5 boxes of clothes, mostly vintage and tattered. This is another way that I’ve been able to set myself apart from my immigrant roots. For better or worse, I was born with a mutant aberration that gave me a sense of style. But without any money, I’ve always had to scrounge around to realize any kind of look. So all these torn and wrinkled dresses and jackets from the 1940s and 1950s represent mild triumphs for me. A way for me to thumb my nose at consumer culture and homogeny and economic class all at once.

At times the ghoulish part of me thinks that this would be a great time for me to die or commit suicide. No one will need to clean up after me. Everything I have is gone. But sheesh, that’s depressing. (And no, I'm not that ready to end things.) 

I know that these papers and books and dresses are valuable to no one but me. And they're only valuable because they inform who I am. If all the evidence from my theater history is gone, you can't take it away from me, but how can I prove it to anyone else? But then again, why do I need to prove it anyway? I’ve always loved that random pieces of paper in an archive is called “ephemera.” Like a theater production, everything we have is ephemeral. The curtain closes and the next moment, something else is on stage. So what’s next now? The stage is swept and empty. I'm jonesing for opening night.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Rambling Notes on Being Nuyorasian in Berlin

My facebook feed is full of friends in America proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter and #Justice4Liang and most recently, the whole debacle of #OscarsSoWhite. I’m following the stories but here in Berlin, the battle for racial justice is in a galaxy far far away. 

Yes, the refugee crisis is everywhere and racism is definitely part of the problem. But refugees are newcomers fleeing from war or famine or extreme poverty; they’re not citizens battling for justice and equity within entrenched systems. In Europe, the race issue is over having enough pieces of cake to give out, while in America, the bakers are wondering why they just get crumbs.

Obviously, I don’t face the discrimination that refugees confront here. People don’t think I’m dirty or looking for a handout. But being Asian-American has its own weirdness in Berlin. I think this has a lot to do with how few Asians there are. People from the Middle East are the only sizeable minority and they’re only 9% of the 3.5 million people in the city. Asians are just 3% of the population. There is no Chinatown. And Germany never had an Asian colony so there isn’t a history with all its inherent baggage.

On the one hand, this is rather liberating. There isn’t really any fetishization of Asian women here. Germans don’t look at me and see a geisha sex kitten, ready to dispense koan-like wisdom and a tea ceremony. And my added American-ness just confuses them. It seems no one knows what to make of me; an Asian-looking woman with some kind of vintage style who speaks perfect English. I definitely don’t look like I work in a nail salon. I also don’t look much like a student. “I’m so surprised,” a rather drunk friend of a friend kept repeating after every sentence I said. I’ve seen a room full of lonely guys check out every girl in the room but their eyes pass right over me like I’m a table or a chair. It’s definitely not the States, where a recent study of 25 million OKCupid members showed that Asian women are the most desired race of women in online dating. Because, you know, geisha sex kitten.

At times, I rather miss being fetishized. Well, it’s not all that pleasant being looked at from the ass-end of a telescope, but at least you’re looked at. In New York, I often found myself in an intense political conversation and then caught the guy beaming at me with a paternal look that seemed to say, “Aww, it’s so cute. It’s even talking.” Here, the look is more one of utter consternation, “Ack, it’s talking?!! In English??? What is it?!” I wonder which is worse. Or how this compares with Asia, where the general reaction is skepticism tinged with disapproval.

But while there isn’t much of a fetish for Asian women, that’s not to say there aren’t Asian stereotypes in Berlin. I danced at a Chinatown-themed party on New Year’s Eve. All the white bartenders dressed in cheongsams with chopsticks in their hair. I had an interesting conversation with a white guy trying to ignore that he was all done up like Madame Butterfly with a kimono, white face, and slanty-eyed makeup. I think I must have been the only one to notice or care that the only Asian music at the so-called Chinatown party was J-pop.

My feelings about cultural (mis)appropriation are very very mixed. I’m not always offended. It’s the other way around too: I see Asians all the time trying really damn hard to be Americans through some token surface means. They bleach their hair blond, wear blue contact lenses, get a nose job. Or they wear baseball caps backwards and low-hanging pants. For Asians, it does seem to come from some kind of inferiority, as if by dyeing their hair or wearing that hat, they can assume a power they wish they had.

For Europeans aping Asians, it’s definitely the other way around. Here are white people, with all their privileges, trying to find a way to be “other.” They wear Native American feathered bonnets and get all tribal or they put on blackface like this lady attempting to bring attention to those poor African tribes. It's a misplaced magnanimity, thinking they can embrace another culture by adopting traditional dress or other surface representations. The line here is kind of fuzzy. Painting your face another color and taping your eyes in a slant and dancing around a teepee: no no no. But antique kimonos are beautiful and I'm glad some other people appreciate them as long as they're not bowing and shuffling like they're Princess Yum Yum in the Town of Titipu. It's interesting to me; this desire to be the “other.” Most people who come from marginalized communities will basically agree that it sucks and if there was a way to erase all the marks of being "other" and still be true to yourself, then YES PLEASE.

I guess this is what I find hardest to relate to: Germans are not underdogs. I’m generalizing very much of course -- and things were different fifty years ago for half of the country -- but at this particular moment in time, Germans don’t know what it means to live with limited opportunities. It’s rather enviable, actually. There isn’t an entrenched class system here like in England, so they don’t know what it means to be on the bottom even in an economic structure. And women are not considered the low end of the social heap here. Germans can choose to identify with the poor or with outcasts of various sorts, but it’s a choice. They can drop that shitty end of the stick anytime they want. This is part of why I think Germans can't sing the blues.

Sadly, my opportunities are a lot more limited. Yes, having good English and being articulate does give me a freedom that some immigrant Asian-Americans may envy, but being Asian and a woman is definitely a handicap if you want to be taken seriously as a writer or director. It's nearly impossible to get past the gatekeepers. You’re constantly fighting cultural stereotypes that relegate you to a tiny dusty unobtrusive corner of the playing field. 

What’s interesting is realizing how much I am defined by this, like a painting created from negative space. My whole life, I’ve resisted stereotypes about my gender and ethnicity: I’m not a math whiz or a model minority or an immigrant or subservient or kawaii. But without these expectations to oppose, I have much less of a defining edge. I know what I’m not, but I’m not sure what I am.

It’s also interesting that I find myself a bit on the opposite end of my stance in America. Back in New York, the great majority of Asian-Americans in the arts are second generation and college educated. Most of them have only been in Asia a few times. Most of them barely speak the language. I’m different in that I do have language skills and my mother is a barely educated immigrant from a rural area. So in New York, I’m often bringing attention to working-class immigrant Asian-America. But here in Berlin, the general stereotype is that Asians work in restaurants and nail salons and speak very bad German and no English. Being Little Miss Mary, I find myself reminding everyone that the model minority is real and I’m (sort of) it. 

But in Berlin, "second generation" and  "model minority" are really foreign concepts. Am I Asian? Am I American? How can I be both? I suppose maybe liminality is what this rambling article is ultimately about. Not to toss a high-faluting five syllable word around, but liminality is such an interesting idea in terms of mixed ethnicities and diasporas. 

The idea was first applied by an anthropologist in the early 1900s to the middle state of rituals. Now it’s also applied to societies and history and individuals. It’s the state of being between things. It’s the moment when something is being dissolved and something else is being created. The anthropologist Victor Turner argues that liminality is a state of great tension that can’t remain for too long. That might be obvious but it’s an important thought. Another interesting thought is the liminal being, a creature between two different states. In fiction, that would include shape shifters, tricksters, and cyborgs. And in reality? Teenagers, transsexuals, people of mixed cultures. 

We’re the people at the threshold. We are the future. Everyone else just has to get used to it. All that racist hostility in America? Howls of a dying beast. It's inevitable that one day, everyone will be of mixed cultures and race will be totally moot. Until then, my mutant powers of invisibility seem to have developed a weird and interesting tangent here in Berlin. I wonder if there's any use for it. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Life in Planet Berlin

Lately, Berlin has been touted as the best place in the world for creatives to live. See here and here and here. Well, it’s been about one year since I made the move to London and somehow ended up in Berlin and I'm still not sure if this is really the place. In London, I had a coherent idea of what I could do: link the Asian-American and British-East Asian theatre communities, make experimental theatre, take a few more steps in film. But I’m in Planet Berlin where (because of language and culture) these options don’t really exist.

For one thing, in Planet Berlin there are no Asians. Or black people except for African drug dealers in Gorlitzer Park. Berlin is 82% white.  This is a wildly different reality to New York, which is only 44% white.  Or London, which is 60% white. All that concern elsewhere about the underrepresentation of minorities in mainstream media? Completely moot here. The minorities are so minor they barely exist.  There are good things and bad things about this. I’ll write about that more fully in another essay.

But living somewhere predominantly white isn't entirely unfamiliar. European culture is something we all know, even if we grew up in a place where it co-exists with other cultures. What is completely weird and alien in Planet Berlin is the strange lack of pressure. It’s like getting used to a different gravity. I’m still floating about, trying to figure out how to put my feet on the ground and actually take a few steps. Most of the Americans and Londoners I’ve met also grapple with the same challenge.

In Planet Berlin, the cost of living is so low that you no longer have to scramble to pay your rent. You can find an entire (huge! gorgeous! central!) apartment for yourself at €600 per month. I know people who paying €250 for a decent room and sharing with only one other person. I can see my New Yorker friends reading this with their mouths open. Say what??? Yes, it’s true.

 And groceries are ridiculously cheap. If you hit the Turkish market (open on Tuesday and Friday) at around 4:30pm, the grocers are all getting rid of fruits and vegetables. 2 kilograms of oranges can be yours for €1.  That's like 20 oranges. (I’m still trying to finish the oranges from my last shopping foray.) You can also eat nicely at a restaurant for less than €15, drinks included, since a glass of wine is only about €4.  If you’re a beer drinker, well eine kleine bier is only €2.

So economic pressure is way way way reduced. If you’re an artist, you really can have a good quality of life working a P/T job.  Though it’s not really possible for most of us to rely solely on artistic gigs here since the pay is like half of what you get in London or New York. A lot of performers I know get themselves booked in Switzerland or London, where the money is. But it’s still so much easier to survive as an artist. And so much more possible to live primarily on your artistic work.

The other thing that is way reduced is commercial pressure. In New York, your work has the distinct possibility of being the next new thing. The platform is much more public, much more visible. And of course, much more competitive.  I think everyone in New York feels like they’re dancing like a chicken while juggling eight balls and shouting the Gettysburg Address trying to be seen and heard above the ruckus of performers around the world.

But in Planet Berlin, you don’t feel the eyes of the world on you in the same way. There is something rather isolated about Berlin. Spaces are plentiful and cheap. You can do anything you want.  But it’s all up to you. And without economic or commercial pressure, there’s only a fire under your butt if you make one yourself.

So here I am, trying to remember why I do what I do. Which is, I think, what confounds most people from New York or London. In those two cities, there’s no time to reflect. You just have to do it. Now. But here? I can really do anything I want (well, almost anything...) so what is it that I really really want to do?

After six months here unable to write and trying to figure out where I might find a community of like-minded radical vintage literate geeks and weirdos, it seems I’m being cleaved in half between a “serious” writer/director known as Victoria Linchong and a wacky performance artist known as Viva Lamore. Which is maybe what it should be.

I know that I really can’t exist without being on stage. How I ended up off the stage for so long is a mystery to me. Well, a smart theater friend did explain a few years ago, “Once they find out you can produce theater, you’ll never act again.”  I wish I’d known that when I was 17. And what I used to be known for way back when I was 17 was comedic performances. That’s something that Bill Murray said that resonated with me, “If you can be funny, you need to be funny.”

So maybe the lack of gravity in Planet Berlin has resulted in a 360° double me or Victoria 4.0, the Viva Victoria version.  And maybe in this alternate atmosphere it’s possible to live cheaply while creating theater and film and performances that somehow gain a modicum of traction. I’m slowly adjusting to the lack of hustle, though I still wonder if I will ever get used it. You can take the girl out of New York but can you take the hustle out of the New York girl?