Losing my Dad

 

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There is something that I’ve been trying to hide that I don’t want to hide anymore. I’ve been sad. I’ve been so unbelievably sad. There’s been a gnawing hole in me every day. Losing my dad is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through since I was in my early twenties and a different kind of tragedy occurred. The difference is, I can’t disappear from the world, or drink it away, or hook up with randoms to numb the pain. I’m an adult now. I have to pay bills. I run a theatre company. People are depending on me.

While I received so much support after losing my father, grief doesn’t go away in six months. It doesn’t feel as vast now. It’s pointed. It’s honed. It attacks me with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel when it hits. The last six months are a a blur. I don’t like rain as much anymore. I don’t enjoy singing like I used to. I stopped wearing makeup. I don’t cry at sad movies. I haven’t listened to Hamilton since he died.

I was frozen to whatever spot I was in, sometimes for hours. It was hard to get out of bed…out of my house…out of my car. I spent a lot of time sitting; paralyzed, willing myself to move, knowing that I had responsibilities. Sometimes it was a triumph that I checked the mail or washed my hair or did the dishes. I was barely holding down a job. You can’t call in “sad” so you go to work and you try not to fall apart.

You try not to let on to others that you are not well, but they can tell. You break down in a client’s closet because it’s filled with men’s dress shirts. You go into a grocery store to pick up a couple things and leave 45 minutes later in tears because you couldn’t decide what you wanted…because you want nothing.

On the good days you forget to cry. You forget you ever had a father and laugh and sometimes you even feel good. And then you feel guilty. You feel so guilty. If you don’t cry for a few days you feel so guilty.

My father and I didn’t have the best relationship at the end. He was a very difficult man and he put me through a lot and towards the end I was keeping him at an arm’s length. I was worried that if I let him in, he would see how angry I was with him and I didn’t want to hurt him. And by “not hurting him” I hurt him so much more.

When I started blogging about body shaming and misogyny and lack of diversity in the theatre world my dad reached out to me with this.

Getting combative and going rouge is going to put somewhat of an ending to your efforts to make it big in the theatre. You are going to be viewed as a rabble rouser by many. I am not worried about you. You have to live your life as you see fit. But you aren’t going to change a thing. The theatre business is what it is. The people that you really want to listen to you won’t. And it’s a shame. But go ahead and try if you are feeling it this strong. We have your back and always will.

It hurt me so much. I never responded. I was furious. Now that I re-read it, I see the part that I missed. “We have your back and always will.” I wish that I had HEARD that. Because of this email, I didn’t want to share my new theatre company that I was launching with him. He’d ask me how it was going and I’d just say, “fine,” not wanting to share that part of my life.

He knew I was depressed after getting off the national tour of Sister Act. He knew I felt like my theatre community had forgotten me. I couldn’t even get a callback at The Marriott for Sister Act, the very same show I had just done for a year. The same doors that had always been closed to me hadn’t budged an inch. I was bitter and sad and angry.

I could never hide what I was feeling from my father so I would avoid him. I didn’t want him to know. I shut him out. I turned off all emotion when he would try to talk to me. I turned cold. He was trying to connect with me. He knew he was nearing the end, even if I didn’t.  I was so pissed at everything he’d put me through in the last 5 years that I refused. I have to live with that. I have to live with the fact that he died suddenly and  alone. I have to live with the fear that he died feeling unloved. Our last conversation was a battle over Trump and Hillary. We raged at each other, but calmed down at the end. The one thing I hold onto for dear life is that my last words to him were “I love you daddy.”

I was in rehearsal when I found out. I looked down at my phone. My mother and brothers were trying to get ahold of me. I saw the words “he couldn’t keep anything down…he died…” I threw the phone on the floor. I knew it was my dad even though my grandpa is ninety-six. I remember someone asked me what was wrong. I remember them hugging me. I think I cried? I remember going to the bathroom and sitting on the floor. I talked to my mom. I called Eric. He told me to come home. I tried to return to rehearsal but they had me go home after giving me a hug parade. I called Danni on the drive home. I called Kate to tell her I didn’t think I could work the next day.

I went to Virginia. I dealt with my one brother raging, my mother deflecting, my other brother trying to have a stiff upper lip. I watched my tough brothers sob while they gave their eulogies for my father and I sang for him without a tear or a catch in my throat. I saw my brother eye me suspiciously, like I wasn’t having a strong enough reaction. I held my other brother’s hand like it was a lifeline, turning purple from the tension, while he sobbed next to me as I sat there blank and numb.

At my mom’s house, we laughed, we reminisced, my brothers picked me up and tossed me back and forth like I was a rag doll. We cooked and did jigsaw puzzles. There was life in that house for the first time in a long time. But when I was alone I broke down. I chewed xanax like candy.

I came home and opened a show a day later, and launched a theatre company, and produced a benefit, and opened another show, and produced another benefit, and opened another show, and produced another benefit…and now I’m getting ready to open another show. I’m in pre-production for two more benefits. I’m in pre-production for my theatre company’s first season. It’s only been six months. And I’m trying to hold it all together. And I am succeeding, but I haven’t taken care of myself in a long time.

I have to start forgiving myself. I have to forgive myself for not forgiving my dad before he died. Sigh. It’s complicated. I forgive him now. And I know he would forgive me. He always did.

I also have to forgive myself for not having it together this past 6 months. I know I’ve let some of you down. I know I’ve said I would do some things and then didn’t do them. I’ve quit jobs, missed callbacks, skipped appointments, not got back to people. And I am sorry, but I also forgive myself. I’ve been barely functioning living a high-functioning life. And it’s been hard. And I have to give myself a break.

I don’t regret having an imperfect relationship with my father. What makes me sad is that I didn’t have more time to be imperfect. More cold stares, and rash outbreaks, and difficult talks, and messy holidays, and hugs, and long talks, and movies with him, and exploring the world. More of all of it. I don’t wish it hadn’t been messy. We fought and struggled so much because we loved each other. Because we wanted to get through to each other. We wanted to understand each other. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I treasure every complicated and unpleasant moment with him because I still spent it with HIM. I would love to have a fight with him right now. Or a hug. Or both.

The main thing you realize when you are going through deep grief is that you are not the first person to feel this way. Almost everyone you know has lost someone. We are all suffering, sometimes silently sometimes not. It’s a shocking revelation. It doesn’t make sense. It feels so insurmountable that surely no one else is feeling this too. But they are. And everyone grieves differently. There is no rulebook. The 12 steps of grief is bullshit. There are no steps. There is no method. You just get through it as best you can and put one foot in front of the other. And love the life you’re given for as long as you’re given it. And that’s all.

I will love and miss my dad forever. And it’s heartbreaking, but oddly comforting that this feeling will never go away. I wouldn’t want it to. I want it to still hurt when I’m 80. The pain feels good because it means there was love. And no one can take that away from me.

 

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Wake Up Calls

Do-the-best-you-can-until-you-know-better.-Then-when-you-know-better-do-better.

“Stop making your POC friends be your 101 class because we are getting exhausted.”

-Deanna Myers

This was a plea from an artist of color at a recent town hall held to discuss the casting crisis we find ourselves in in Chicago theatre. Recently there have been a number of scandals in the Chicagoland area about white actors being cast in latinx roles. The most recent one being the casting of a white Usnavi in Porchlight Music Theatre company’s production of In the Heights. Many of my brilliant, hardworking, empathetic friends who are artists of color are getting bombarded with requests and demands for clarity on the issues of inclusivity, diversity, erasure, and authentic casting. They are completely worn out and understandably frustrated.

Well, I am of the belief that it isn’t their job to educate us white folk on how all this works. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reach out and learn from and more importantly COLLABORATE with artists of color to gain better understanding. What I’m saying is…do as much research and learn as much on your own before you do so. You wouldn’t jump straight to an advanced class on a topic you know nothing about, right?

Before I get into it, I have to apologize. I am one of the ones who has stayed quiet about the Porchlight controversy. This one hit close to home. Some very close friends and collaborators are involved. I truly thought they had made an unfortunate, unintentional mistake that they couldn’t walk back from by casting a white Usnavi that they thought was Latino. I assumed that everyone had learned their lesson, that this was a wake-up call for the actor, and that it would NEVER happen again with those on the artistic team.

And more than that, POC members of the cast had reached out to me telling me that they were having an authentic experience. Who was I, as a white woman, to tell them that they weren’t? To take that experience that they were excited about away from them? So I stayed quiet watching it escalate and escalate. Every time I thought that it had passed, it reached a boiling point again. It is my privilege that allowed me to sit back and “wait for the storm to pass,” justifying to myself that I had spoken out on many other scandals and many other issues and that I’d just sit this one out. I was silent because I felt like to speak up would betray my friends. But what I’ve realized is, to not speak up is to betray my community. Being woke is a constant job and we can’t be lazy or we’ll fall back asleep. Also, I think I can help. I have a somewhat unique perspective. I’m a white woman who has more experience with authentic and inclusive casting than most.

The first thing I’d like to talk about are the various wake-up calls that I’ve had while casting. The first one happened on my very first casting gig. Bailiwick Chicago was casting Aida and I had my eyes set on the role of Amneris. I emailed the director and the casting director telling them that I would love to audition for Amneris, but that if they didn’t see me in the role I would love to help with casting. Casting had always been a bit of a fascination with me and I cast things in my head all the time.

They told me that they were going in a different direction with the show but that I could help with casting admin. under the tutelage of Lili-Anne Brown. I heard through the grapevine that the “different direction” was that they were going to try to employ a full POC cast. I felt a tiny bitterness raise up, they wouldn’t even let me try for the role because I was white? Wasn’t that taking things a little too literally? We started casting and that sentiment felt foolish. I was dead wrong.

Aida is set in AFRICA. Which I knew of course, but up to that point the show had been traditionally cast with the Nubians played by black actors and the Egyptians cast as white. I never questioned it. It had never dawned on me that it wasn’t appropriate to cast white people as the Egyptians. It slowly became OBVIOUS that this was the way to go. Watching Lil cast the show and watching how the actors fulfilled these lead roles better than any white actors ever could was eye-opening. The story was so much more powerful cast in an authentic way. Bailiwick Chicago also hired Deeply Rooted Dance Theater to choreograph the show. It was beautiful and was a huge success, selling out and extending. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and I learned that there are some stories that aren’t yours to tell.

My love affair/obsession with authentic, inclusive casting was born. Lil and I worked together casting many shows after that and when she became artistic director of Bailiwick Chicago, I took over casting. My first job was casting Mahal, a play by Danny Bernardo. This was my second wake-up call.

Mahal is about a Filipino family. I had seen the reading of it and I loved it so much. I was honored to cast it and determined to get it right. I called in everyone I could think of that might be of Asian decent. Thank goodness I had Danny on call helping me along the way. There were a couple of close calls where I almost called in someone completely inappropriate. There was a WHITE GIRL that almost fooled me. To be fair she almost fooled Danny too. That headshot was crazy. Anyway, I realized that I was completely uneducated, not only in what our Asian-American Chicago theatre talent and resources were, but in (I’m ashamed to say) being able to differentiate between different types of Asian actors.

I could have hidden behind my ignorance and been afraid to ask questions. But I didn’t do that. I had two Filipinos in the casting room and I leaned on them heavily and they had the patience of saints while I negotiated my way through the casting process. And we put together a beautiful cast, where the entire Filipino family was played by Filipinos. This would not have happened without having Filipino artists in the room.

One thing about me. Trade secrets! When I’m casting, I choose my battles. There’s usually one casting choice that I feel passionately about where I will devote all my energy and advocate strongly for that actor. I was leaning toward a non-Filipino actor that I loved for one of the roles and it was the role I had decided to fight for. So I dug my heels in a bit, trying to make headway in the discussion. Danny turned to me and the director and told us in the nicest way possible that it wouldn’t be authentic and might be borderline offensive to a Filipino audience. And it dawned on me. I hadn’t thought about them. Not once. Not for a second. I hadn’t considered the audience. And the actor we cast instead of my pick was absolutely brilliant AND authentic. I was dead wrong.

After Mahal, Lil and I got into a rhythm. When the show called for authentic casting, we made sure to cast appropriately, even if it took extra effort. When race wasn’t a major part of the plot, we would strive for as inclusive a cast as possible, re-purposing roles that were traditionally cast as white for actors of color. These two practices I have carried with me into every project I work on.

I’ve had many more discoveries and wake-up calls along the way. I am constantly learning and constantly trying to do better the next time. In the end, I am still a white woman advocating for actors of color in the casting room. I try to be a good ally. And I am a big ole fan of our rich embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors of color in Chicago and I try to spread my enthusiasm to those around me in positions of authority. But hear me. I am a great part of the team but… HAVING ME IN THE ROOM IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR HAVING AN ARTIST OF COLOR IN THE PROCESS.

I know this is all really confusing. I know that things are changing really quickly and it’s hard to keep up. I know that you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Hell. I’M afraid of saying the wrong thing most of the time. I know that people are having strong reactions to casting situations that didn’t seem to be a problem a couple years ago. The goal post is moving farther and farther away and getting more and more specific with what is acceptable and what isn’t and you might feel lost.

Start with those two practices. Go back to the text every single time. Pour over the script. Does it call for a certain non-white race in the script? Is that integral to the plot? Cast it that way. It is no longer acceptable not to. Is race ambiguous or not integral to the plot? Find opportunities for inclusivity. Every project is an opportunity to cast in a way that looks like the world around us. Broaden your mind past our preconceived notions to include actors of color, more women, different body types, trans actors, disabled actors, etc. It will enrich your shows. It will enrich the experience. More of the audience will see themselves on stage. It can change the world. We literally have the power to change the world if we just move past the discomfort of having to admit we’re wrong.

That’s what we need to do. I confess, I think I’m right most of the time. But when I’m proven wrong, I will admit it. For the white actor playing Usnavi to respond to the question of whether he’d do this all again with, “one hundred percent. I now stand more firmly in my own beliefs than I did before all this,” is insanely disheartening. Up until that point I thought as a community we were making progress; that we were getting through to people. How this young man could watch the same town hall that I watched and not want to do better next time is beyond frustrating. I REALLY hope that that quote was taken out of context. I’d like to see the paragraph it belongs in. Because if that’s IT, then this experience which could be a serious wake-up moment for this actor has gone to waste.

Up until this point I had chalked it up to youth on his part. I mean… I thought it was appropriate to do a monologue from MEDEA when I was 15. I was always a little dark, kids. Anyway, my point is…we do dumb shit when we’re young before we know any better. I really wanted to give him a pass. How would he know this is inappropriate? In college we are taught to audition for anything and everything and not take no for an answer. He’s straight out of school. This was his mess up. We all get one, right? But you have to LEARN from it. You have to grow. That’s the whole point of making mistakes is that the next time we don’t make the same mistakes. And what is becoming glaringly obvious is there are many that don’t think anything is wrong.

So how do we move forward? As artists? As a community? When so many have put so much work in and still can’t reach someone? We keep trying to change hearts and minds and stay available for those that want to learn and change.

But if that doesn’t work? I have faith in what’s new. I have faith in the changing of the guard. I do hope that the established theaters in town come along for the ride, but in the meantime those of us that can’t let the status quo continue will be making our own art. We are going to be casting in rooms with people who are just as excited about inclusion and authenticity as we are. We won’t have to convince people through shame and threats of poor optics to be on the right side of history. Because there is an army of like-minded people who are coming up right now. Literally none of us are doing this for the money. None of us. But we are passionate and we are loud and we will not be denied. If we can’t change the old guard we’ll create a new one.