I spent this February working on a production of “The Marriage of Figaro” in Quincy, IL. I usually hate February, but this year, stepping into little Cherubino’s shoes, his many costumes, and his thoughts about ladies…well, I had a hard time hating anything. Even February.
When I left to study German in Bamberg, Germany for a month in 2005, I couldn’t even count to 10 in German. I had studied German diction in grad school and had sung in German, but I didn’t actually know how to say anything beyond memorized text. As a result, the teachers in the language program I attended were a little taken aback when, with my extraordinarily elementary communication skills, I would pull out the German word for “sorrow” or “weeping” or “trout” or “brook.” To a singer, there’s nothing surprising in knowing those words. You learn them the first time you sing a Bach aria or Schubert art song. To a language instructor who is accustomed to working with the average business man or tourist, well, it’s unexpected.
I remember learning words in elementary and high school in a similar, indirect way. I had already been exposed to terms like “dynamics” in children’s choir before learning about “static vs dynamic” in science class. When I learned “tiempo” and “fuerte” in Spanish 1, they sounded like and shared similar definitions to “tempo” and “forte,” common music terms I had been hearing for years. Concepts reappeared as well. Turns out, time signatures are little math equations. The labels used for musical forms are similar to those used in analyzing poetry. Organizing and understanding musical sections of a piece is just like outlining a research paper.
Community theatre productions taught me a great deal, too. My director explained what “polysyllabic” meant when I was part of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland when I was 10. The Caterpillar sings about using “a polysyllabic word, or two.” I remember when that word showed up on a standardized test. The stage taught me about Hans Christian Anderson, the French Revolution and Cervantes, about reading dialogue, developing characters, thinking empathetically and understanding conflict and resolution. In the meantime, technical theatre nerds like my fiancé were spending hours learning and applying geometry and physics by hanging lights, considering color temperatures, and designing and building sets. They were managing people, props and scene changes. They were developing leadership skills.
I started thinking about this while spacing out in bed this morning. I am recovering from pneumonia, so my job is currently to do just that, space out in bed. Really, I was thinking about pneumonia, about the pains in my back and side, most likely some form of pleurisy, and then it occurred to me why I already knew that word when it was first mentioned as a possible cause of my pain. I said a version of that word night after night when playing Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” a couple of years ago. Laura is a girl who suffered from pleurosis in high school, which was mistakenly heard as “blue roses” at the time by her present day gentleman caller. ”Blue Roses,” he nicknamed her, melting her heart and solidifying her lifelong crush on him. I looked up the word when prepping the role, and still it sits, like so many other learned concepts, somewhere in the back of my mind, ready to be pulled up at a moment’s notice. You see, the learning never stops, and it never gets old.
I arrive at my point.
Dear Principals who doubt the value of artistic study, you are wrong. I, like so many choir and theatre kids, began my education with music and theatre. I, like so many professional and socially conscious adults, continue my daily education through music and theatre. I cannot think of a single reason why your kids should not do the same.
I have already been asked multiple times if I plan on taking my fiancé’s last name when we marry in May. Since we still have half a year until that big day, I imagine I’ll get the question another hundred times, or so. He has a nice last name, he does, but it’s Scottish, not French. And what with my affinity for France and the music it has birthed, well, it’s hard to part with the current version of the name my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandfather brought over from Normandy in the 1600s. Call me sentimental. Call me nostalgic. It’s in my genes. Seriously. You should have met my grandfather. And it’s what makes me step on stage each night.
That sense of sentimental nostalgia will make me step on stage next month, too, when I present my first solo cabaret in Chicago. Robert de La Berge, I hope you’d approve.
I was just searching for a quote I’m sure I heard on NPR years ago about Aristotle and naps and some sort of validation for staying in bed longer this morning.
I didn’t find the exact story I was thinking of, but this is close:
In the end, I really didn’t need the validation, because I had already decided to stay in bed longer today. In fact, I required it of myself. And in doing so, I relaxed enough to contemplate a few things, and then I answered some of the lingering creative questions I had about my upcoming Paris cabaret. All from my bed. I feel like a million bucks.
My advice? Next time you feel overwhelmed and unfocused and just want to think, make yourself stay in bed an extra hour or two. If you need permission, just ask Aristotle.
I was talking to a doctor friend the other day, telling him a story that involved a guitar player I met at Starbucks. The doctor, a man who spends his time fixing children in hospitals, asked me how that works. How do people with books and computers and cell phones actually meet each other in coffee shops?
It’s a good question, and not one that I would have been able to answer before moving to Chicago, which will eventually be the key to my response.
I don’t regularly make friends in the coffee shop or on the street or in the park…except when I’m traveling.
When I travel, I am 100% open to anything and anyone. If the Ecuadorian taxi driver wants to take my boyfriend and me to the Casa del Arbol on top of our hotel’s volcano, we go. If the local Spaniard wants to tell me every single detail about his town’s bullring, I ask more questions, just to keep him talking. If the sweet man listening to a busker on Granville Island’s wharf wants to share the occasional glance and short observation with me, I sit patiently until he does it again. It’s the traveler’s mentality. Nothing is trivial and every person is an opportunity for human interaction.
I love it.
When I moved to Chicago, local friends shook their heads at me when I said, “everyone is so nice here!” I felt silly for a moment because maybe I was missing something and Chicagoans weren’t really very nice. All the evidence I had collected supported my case, though.
Here’s the reason, as best I can tell: I was acting like a tourist. I was 100% open, and people responded kindly.
So, that’s my answer. When you approach life as though you are merely a traveler, you meet nice folks in coffee shops.