An Alternative Walking Tour of the Downtown East Side

There’s been some kerfuffle recently about a Vancouver company offering tourist walking tours of the DTES. That’s the origin of the title of this piece, although I didn’t learn about that particular controversy until after I had this experience, and after I first wrote it down. The experience and opinion stands on its own, or should, although it’s also relevant to current events.

The other day, in the Downtown East Side, I walked a man home. He was too weak and dizzy to do it on his own.

I was on my way to run an errand, and I saw him crouched on the sidewalk, leaning on one arm for balance. A clean white plastic bag lay next to his feet as he waited. He could have been resting, but the set of his body suggested endurance rather than repose, so, just in case, I stopped to ask.

He had vertigo, he thought, from a bike accident that threw him face first into a cement wall, about six months ago. No, there was no one I could call. He was all right. This would pass. This hadn’t come on so strongly ever before. He was all right.

A young native guy, wiry and tattooed and bouncing with taut energy, stopped to ask if everything was okay. Yes, it was. He didn’t need help. Thank you, though. The young guy nodded and strode away, rolling slightly on the balls of his feet. Almost immediately he was back. Could we spare a beer?

No, I don’t think I can do that. I need all of these for myself.”

A pause, a bobbing, disappointed nod, and the young guy was on his way again.

I waited with him, talking about random things, letting the conversation wander. He remembered talking to me before, and he seemed familiar to me as well. It must have been two years since we’d spoken, another brief encounter, another conversation.

A white-hoodied student, the sides of his head shaved and the top a riot of tightly coiled black curls, stopped to ask how he was now, speaking to him by name. Still the same. Thanks. They’d spoken earlier. The student seemed a little at a loss, wanting to help, not knowing how, wanting to move on and knowing that he shouldn’t.

No one to call. No ambulances. No emergency. Just a helplessness that frustrated someone used to independence. There was a pause. We waited. Nothing happened, nothing changed. The student shifted.

Would you like me to walk you home?” I said. It seemed the obvious solution.

Yes. If you’d like to do that. Yes.”

The student helped him up. It took some effort, on both sides. I took his arm. I turned to ask the student if he’d like his other arm.

I’ll be going now,” the student said. “You’re ok now, then.”

It wasn’t really a question. The student seemed relieved, left, looked back once. Somewhere to be, then: a class, maybe, or a life away from helplessness and poverty and age.

And we walked. Eight blocks took almost an hour and a half. I carried his six pack so he wouldn’t have to. Sometimes I steadied him. Frequently, I was half-way to carrying him too. It’s hard physical work, supporting the weight another person. My forearms ached for days afterward. So did my legs.

He stopped frequently, leaning heavily on my arm until he could reach a wall or a railing or a post and prop his hands against it, leaning head down and bent while he breathed. He wasn’t tall to begin with, so every time he stopped, I went down with him. That way, I could see his face. That way, I wasn’t standing over him like a disapproving parent, an awkwardness I think I felt more than he did. It’s odd to tower, when you’re not used to the height. It’s a position of power and intimidation, the antithesis of human connection, and it fit uncomfortably on my soul.

Practically, too, I’m allergic to dust, an inescapable irritant, and my ears are generally at least a little stuffed up. Conversation is awkward when one’s contribution is mostly made up of Pardon? Crouched myself, I could hear him better.

He did most of the talking, and I most of the listening. He said sorry for talking so much, but I didn’t mind. His stories were interesting and I said so. When people open windows onto their own experience and offer you a view of life outside yourself, it’s an experience not to be lightly thrown away.

We chatted most of the way, when he had breath to talk. He told me he came from Oshawa, that his dad had worked in a GM bumper factory and played horseshoes at a national level. He told me he’d been a teacher, but got fired for doing things like letting the children sing songs together all morning, right through recess, because that’s what they wanted to do.

He told me he’d played lacrosse for Baltimore for 18 years after he left teaching.

He told me the most beautiful girl he knew got him through university, because he didn’t believe he was smart enough and each exam she’d tell him he was, and help him through.

He told me he didn’t like walking past a muscled, angry man who periodically shouted obscenities as he jerked and thrust his way up the street, on drugs he didn’t need or off ones he did. This man was unpredictable, he said. If he got mad, he’d hit people, and you never knew what would set him off.

He told me the couple scuffling at each other over the top of a stroller on the opposite sidewalk did this every day. He told me that the lady who drove past on her motorized scooter and called “Hello, dear!” to him as she passed did this every time, but that he didn’t actually know her.

He told me that the night before, he’d watched a group of young men try and fail to steal a car in the street for quite some time out of his bedroom window. The number of young men and the hours they took varied from telling to telling. He forgot things. He’d start a story and then stop and say, “I probably already told you about that.”

Sometimes he hadn’t. Sometimes he had.

He told me that only a few nights ago someone, or someones, overturned a car down at the park by his building and set it on fire. It didn’t explode, though it did burn right down. The firemen did a good job of cleaning that up. The news folks didn’t do a good job of reporting it.

He told me that park had a horseshoe pitch, and that he played sometimes. Although he wasn’t much good, thanks to his dad he did know how to play. He was the only one in the neighbourhood who did know.

He showed me the way his hands shook, and stopped to rest every twenty meters or so, leaning up against each convenient wall or post to try to catch his breath. He didn’t think he was having a heart attack he said, he just couldn’t catch his breath and it was beating so hard.

He told me he didn’t want sympathy. He told me that he hadn’t told his friends what was going on because he didn’t want them to worry. I told him they’d probably want to know anyway. He apologized every time he had to stop. He apologized every time he had to take my arm again to keep going. I told him there was nothing to apologize for. He kept doing it.

A couple of times, as we walked, people asked me if he was all right. A couple of times, people asked him. Once, as we crossed the street on the home stretch, someone yelled across to ask if he was my sugar daddy. He said, “Ignore that guy. He always yells stuff.”

He asked me how doctors treated vertigo anyway. I told him I didn’t know, but that I thought it depended on what caused it. He asked me if we could talk again sometime. I said sure. I wrote down my number and said, “I’m not really a phone person, but leave a message if I don’t answer.”

He may or may not call. He doesn’t own a phone, and he loses things easily. He’d already forgotten where he’d put the scrap of paper I wrote on by the time we’d gone from outside the building into the lobby. I told him it was in his pocket.

A minute later he asked again. I told him it was in his pocket.

Maybe he’ll find it there. Maybe he’ll look at it and remember who I am. Maybe not. Even the best of us are absentminded sometimes, and I never actually told him my name.

He told me he couldn’t have made it without me. He took his beers back and I told him to go in and rest. We smiled at each other. He waved as he walked unsteadily down the hall of this building inhabited mainly by people who don’t talk to their neighbours, who don’t want to be known, who have run up against the law before and sometimes still do. I waved back. Then I left.

I’m not telling this story for praise. I don’t want it. I didn’t do anything special. I’m not telling this story for sympathy either. He didn’t want that. He’s not an object of sympathy. He’s a human being, with everything that entails, and I’m a human being as well. He needed help. I had time, and a free arm. I’ve used someone else’s arm before, when I needed it. I may need to again. This time I was the one who could say, “Lean on me.” So I did.

That’s the point, really.

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Léonie does…Dexter!

Neither reshoots nor lost technological devices nor strange updates that changed all my program functions could keep this video from seeing the light of day! The third Léonie Does video is officially up, and I’m even posting it during daylight hours. Hooray!

How to Kill Writer’s Block Deader Than Dead

I’ve been working on this one for a while. I’m not sure if it’s ironic or expected to have writer’s block about a post on how to bear writer’s block, but apparently that’s how I roll. With all the writing I’ve been doing lately, what with my still nebulous 2014 potential hour-long fringe poem, non-Fringey poetry, a neat little set-in-Vancouver web series I’m working on, and my occasional blog, I’ve been doing a lot of staring at a blank page*, and I’ve come to some conclusions about the bugger.

There’s a romantic image of the writing process as the product of a single inspired session with the quill pen and the blank page, as the river of inspiration overflows and the writer is carried along helpless on the torrent until ‘The End’ is reached in a final flourish and an exhausted and slightly baffled writer is left to wonder what on earth just happened. If one can’t sit down to write and immediately, the theory goes, one is royally screwed in the creative linguistics department and should probably go pursue a career in tax accountancy instead.**

There are in fact steps between the idea and the brilliant finished product. Many of them. And there are many ways to combat the inevitable Dread Dragon of Flat, Empty White Spaces: writer’s block.

Give yourself brain space:

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of workshops on how to create stories out of physical movement exercises and the pictures one can make with one’s body (think tableaux). I’m not entirely sold. Generally, I find the idea less than productive because when a person is contorting oneself around the living room, it’s impossible to actually see what is occurring***. It’s got its place certainly, especially if you’re doing site-specific work or want to break in a new pair of yoga pants and don’t feel up to getting out to the studio. Physical movement gets you out of your head and into your body, which can allow you to bypass those pesky mental roadblocks. However, for those of you who want something less cringeingly self-embarrassing to try, don’t despair. Simply taking a walk around the block can be enough to settle the mind and get the creative juices flowing again. Sit down with a cup of tea or get up and do something that doesn’t require your mental attention, keep your project generally in mind, and see what happens.

You see, a lot of writing time is spent not writing, and believe it or not, it still counts as productive. As long as you’re actively focussing on your project, the time you give your brain to percolate ideas through its various filters of cogitation so that they can be funnelled out through your pen is time well spent. Brainstorming doesn’t have to be all that stormy. Gentler mental weather can be useful as well. The practice of allowing one’s brain to wander off, sort through its sh*t and report back is vital to the creative process. Call it writers’ yoga. It’s the reason why so many brilliant ideas have snuck up on their progenitors in their night clothes, generating incidental embarrassment all around. Nighttime is for many people the one time of day they let themselves just stop, and the brain rewards its uncorseting with correspondingly fuller-figured ideas.

Pick up a pen:

The traditional bubble-style brainstorming one learns in grade school holds no appeal for me. I never know how much space a growing bubble needs. It’s agony. Instead I list, and then I sort the list****. I’m a very linear person, really. This may work for you, and it may not. Maybe you really like bubbles, or maybe you naturally think in triangles. In the end, it’s all about getting the ideas down where you can see them without judging them first, and then trying to find sense in the result. It can be fascinating to see how ideas that appeared to be totally isolated are actually part of the same story. The actual shape of the process is unimportant. Figure out how your brain flows, and write the diagram that works for you on the surface of your choice, using whatever furniture you deem necessary to help you along.

Automatic writing is another tool touted for its brain-loosening qualities. In its purest form, it involves taking up a pen(cil) and, for a set time period, writing without stopping whatever comes into your head – up to and including many repetitions of “this is stupid I have nothing to say I don’t wanna.” I will neither confirm nor deny the original authorship of that last. Needless to say, I do not like this technique. Yes, it works the non-censorship muscle, and yes, a person can come up with ideas they never knew they had if they just let their mind babble, but I find it incredibly frustrating. Writing without direction is like baking without a recipe or measuring tools. If you empty everything into the bowl and stir, you might end up with a cake, but you’ll more likely end up with a mess. Set yourself a topic or a problem and see what comes out.

As with bubble (or not) brainstorming, the key is not to stop and censor. Even writing about having nothing to write about can move you forward. What starts out as an unpunctuated rant about how much you hate your project right now can lead you off in a direction you never thought of. Part of uncensoring is giving yourself permission to air the bad stuff too, and without the pressure to perform that comes with product-focussed work, the brain is freed to move in a new direction. Again, I find this tool most useful when I point my mind at a particular problem, but even if you do it just to practice and with no definite aim in mind, give yourself a direction. Write about your chair, or the corner of your room, if you have to. Write about the really awesome sandwich you had for lunch****. The more specific you get, intuition to the contrary, the more there is to work with. The wider the net, the more time spent searching for fish.

Change the view:

My ideal study includes a full wall of chalkboard, schoolroom style…and a HEPA filter, because my gosh, those things are dusty. Brainstorming is a messy process. I do this best either on my feet or sprawled over every available inch of floor. (Desks and I do not get along, except for when l need a place to store the paper heap.) I write on the computer, in notebooks, on looseleaf, on my whiteboard – really, wherever there happens to be space to make letters. It can be difficult to keep track of what I’ve written where, especially when combined with my unfortunate habit of putting things down somewhere, it was just here, no I swear I had it a minute ago…, but at the same time, I find it a really useful trick for circumventing whatever writer’s block demons happen to be haunting me when I sit down to write. A change in venue, so to speak, can be enough to jog the brain out of its loop of unproductive, idealess panic and allow you to settle back into the groove.

Option two, the logical extension of this, is to actually change venues. Go write on the porch, or in the loving room. Pick up your notebook or laptop and wander down to the neighbourhood cafe. Write at the park, or the beach. If you’re one of those creative types actually lucky to have money (or rich friends), spend a weekend in a cabin somewhere communing with nature and the Muse. Physically unsticking yourself from your personal hell-hole of stagnant creation can be enough to unstick the brain as well. As an added bonus you end up with fresh air, or caffeine, as well.

Give yourself a break:

If all else fails, give yourself permission to just walk away. Not forever, of course, but for long enough to let your brain reset and to get a bit of distance. Go do something else. Think about other things. Breathe. Even if it’s just ten minutes for a cup of tea and a quick constitutional around the yard, because hooray deadlines, give yourself a bit of space and recharge. Sometimes writer’s block is nothing more than overworked-brain cramp, and not writing for a bit is the best thing you can do******.

 

Ye Footnotes:

*and then metaphorically running off in frustration to play phone sudoku or internet flash games instead.

**I do my own taxes. Actually, it’s kind of fun.

***unless you have an inordinate amount of mirrors in your living room. In which case, you are either vain or kinky.

****Yes, sometimes I also tilt to the side a bit. Especially on or near large bodies of water.

*****Who knows? Perhaps “The Cheese and Onion Sandwich in the Corner of the Room” is a blockbuster whose time has come, and we’d never have known it if you hadn’t sat down and given your brain the space to play.

******Of course, it’s far too easy to let “just a little break” turn into a full-blown case of procrastination. If you notice yourself slipping into this phase, take a couple of fortifying breaths, listen to your sneakers and just do it. I believe in you.

The ‘Léonie Does…’ Project

I’ve started a new project. It’s called ‘Léonie does….’ The recipe for this project goes something like this:

  • 1/2 cup Acting is fun.
  • 1/2 cup Watching acting is fun.
  • 3 cups I want to act things
  • 2 tbsp There are lots of good actings out there
  • 1 pinch Late-night fear; to whit ‘All the good actings have already been taken.’

Mix well, and leave to ponder.

Thus, ‘Léonie does…’ was born. A light-hearted, occasionally tongue-in-cheek video tribute to some of the roles and projects I enjoy, and think that maybe, in another time, another place, I might have done. Here is my first video.

This is what actors do in their spare time. Be afraid.

Musings on artistic vanity

One of the hardest things to do as an artist is to separate oneself from one’s creation. Be it acting, painting, writing, music, dance, whatever it is that we create, that little voice in our head – the one that worries about not looking stupid or unattractive, saying something unflattering, being judged and found wanting – is, I think, the single hardest thing for an artist to overcome. Yet, it is only when we can let go of our self in our art and allow our creation to stand as its own entity, complete and without shame, that we can begin to create something worth sharing, something with a voice of it’s own.* To be an artist is to embrace looking foolish, because the art doesn’t care about the vanity of one person. Art is bigger than that, and art is shameless.

*…Something, perhaps with fewer run-on sentences. So my creative voice is occasionally long-winded. That’s it’s problem.

Should Artists Get Paid? A Quiz.

There’s been a lot of internet debate going down lately about whether or not to pay artists, actors, and other creative professionals for their services. I find myself in the tricky position of fully and firmly wanting to get a pay check, while having just produced two entirely unpaid productions. So, I  thought about it for a bit, and I’ve come up with your basic “Should YOu Pay Your Artist” quiz.

 

Here goes.

1) Is anyone getting paid?

If the answer is no, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your artist to work for free. Your artist is perfectly within his/her (its?) right to turn you down. Artists have to make a living, too. However, if you have a neat idea, a great cause or an interesting experience to offer, and your artist’s schedule is less than full, you may just get lucky. After all, most artists become artists because they love what they do, and will happily collaborate to create for the kicks of it.

If the answer is yes, then pay your artist. Artists are no less valuable or professional than your technical people, and shame on you for thinking it. If you want someone to do a job for you, you pay them.

Simple, really.

 

Neighbors (a poem)

Neighbors – by me

Two blocks over, three blocks up.
Close enough to walk by every day
if I walked that way
but I didn’t, because the traffic was bad and I never liked
the smell of burning gas.
 
Two blocks over, three blocks up.
Spare a dime? Spare a dollar? Spare a cup
of coffee? Spare a ciggarette? Spare a light?
Make a buck; make a bed; make a life
of sorts, ’cause when life got too bad he ran away to the streets.
Not enough to eat there, but the pain was less
and the voices couldn’t find him in the sound of traffic
in the shadow of the dumpsters
in the clouds of gas fumes blowing past
the places where he hid from his.
 
Two blocks over, three blocks up.
We were neighbors of a sort
but we never saw each other
never spoke;
but hey, that’s city living for you. Everybody puts up walls
against the day the neighbor they refuse to talk to
in the hall turns out to have
a gun. Or a gas can.
 
Two blocks over, three blocks up.
The convenience store counter guy
remembered his name when the police came and
I read it in the paper – but I must confess that I’ve
forgotten it.
 
I think that when they found him, he was still alive, but
it’s hard to survive when you’re burnt that badly
and you’ve been living hard. And hey
This is LA,
where you’ve got to get bent if you can’t pay
and I’ve never seen
a thousand dollar bill
in a street guy’s cap or beat up coffee cup.
 
Two blocks over, three blocks up
close enough to the place I slept you could have seen it
looking north and east
if the other apartment buildings in the way wandered off to play
somewhere else
like he should have done that night
when a couple of guys
in a public-minded spirit
gave him a light
and then stood and watched him burn.
 
 
The Story Behind the Poem

When I was in my second year of theatre school in LA, I lived in a studio apartment in Koreatown, on Kenmore Avenue near 6th street, Flanked by a Korean gospel church, a parking garage, and a lot of pigeons. It wasn’t a bad apartment; it had a full bathroom, an everything room and a tiny kitchen, complete with a gas stove that constantly oozed a low-grade odour of rotten egg, taps that regularly ran green or orange or (on one memorable occasion) both at once, and a friendly resident mouse who regularly traversed the ledge under my window to get from his hole in the kitchen to his hole three feet over in my living room.

It also had no air circulation whatsoever and, being on the top floor of a four floor building, was unbearable in the LA summer heat.  I have very unfond memories of schlepping to the nearest 7-11 in my pajamas at one in the morning to buy bags of ice to cuddle, in the hopes of finally becoming cool enough to sleep.

Despite the half-gentrified, half-incredibly sketchy neighbourhood, the only crime associated with my building (yes, I looked it up) was an unfortunate incident in which a gentleman, involved I believe in a drug deal, received a bullet to the testicle and then sued for pain and suffering and residual impotence. It’s hard to take that entirely seriously.

Then, one day, I picked up the paper and read about an incident that had occurred the night before. In the small hours of the night, a local homeless man, a schizophrenic who slept in the parking lot of a little convenience store on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Bernardo, had been doused in gasoline while he slept and then set alight. This was someone’s idea of an evening’s entertainment.

This bothered me deeply. You DO NOT do this to another human being. Also, I’m a small-town girl. Crime doesn’t happen this close. The murder by slow roasting of this man whom everyone had forgotten was inside my space, almost (if I’d had one) in my own backyard. There are crimes that are understandable  – for personal gain or personal safety, driven by fear or vengeance or some other identifiable motive. This was different. This crime was driven by nothing more than boredom, and a pleasure in the act. The men who committed it stood over the body of their victim while he burned alive and watched it happen, just for kicks. I am not generally one for wholesale condemnation, but I will label this without hesitation an act of evil. Near enough to my apartment that if I’d been awake I might have heard him scream, someone had done this thing, and a man had died. I felt violated and guilty.

Needless to say, this stuck with me. The article in the paper talked a little bit about the man who had died – he had family in the city, but had drifted apart from them as his illness worsened and he lost himself in the streets. The people who worked and shopped at the convenience store knew him by name and occasionally gave him free coffees with their few extra coins. This smallest of the little men, who’d led a life of suppering and pain and had died the way he lived, had mattered to someone at least a little bit.

This is his memorial.

Creative Specificity (for actors); or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the script work.

 I’ll tell you a secret. The title of this entry is a lie. Script work still totally freaks me out. As an actor, that is. Script analysis when I don’t have to be in the damn thing is easy as heck. 
 
There are several reasons for this. One reason, I think, is that it is much harder for me to be objective in script analysis for the same reason that we always know how to fix other people’s problems but can’t solve our own to save our lives. It’s too personal. It’s the nature of the beast that actors are the characters we play. It can be incredibly easy to see the flaws and foibles of our characters as personal judgements, or to say ’I personally don’t like people like that, therefore I don’t want to be like that, therefore I don’t like my character, and therefore, essentially, I don’t wanna.’ Too bad. Take a moment to pretend you’re the director if that’s what it takes; step back however you want to. You’ll thank yourself for your forced objectivity when you have to go back in and make it personal again.
 
Another reason I have trouble with traditional script work is that my mind works intuitively, not analytically. Going into a scene, when that scene or that character is something that I don’t automatically connect with, becomes a nightmarish experience for me because getting from point A (first readthrough) to point C (audition or performance) is somewhat of a challenge when I can’t find point B. As much as I slog through verbs and objectives and what I’m trying to do to the other person, that doesn’t help me when I get up on my feet and try to act. That’s not how my brain operates in real life, and trying to translate those traditional cornerstones of acting technique into my own work only pulls me out of the scene and, honestly, makes me suck.
 
So what, when we get right down to it, is script work for?
 
People (some of them, anyway) get into acting to ’be other people’. I wanted to become an actor to live different lives, because life’s too short to let us live more than three or four, tops. I think that this is a much more accurate way of looking at it, because what we do when we act, all that we can do when we act, is be ourselves. However, we are ourselves as shaped by a (perhaps) wildly different set of circumstances than those of our own life. This is where the tricky bit happens. We know the circumstances of our own lives intuitively, immediately and intimately, and this is what allows us to react spontaneously to everything that happens to us. 
 
If we want to be able to create that same spontaneity in our acting, does that mean we need to know our assumed lives and relationships down to the last stupid detail? Well, yes and no. The details are important, yes, and every clue and reference the script gives us should be delved into and understood. Story structure (and my goodness, is it important to understand story structure) is a darn useful guide to what’s going on with your character in any given moment, and understanding your character’s external raison d’être can be a big help in figuring out those moments that really don’t make sense in your head when you read them. ’What do I want?’, the actor’s favourite question, is a lot easier to answer when you’ve figured out the answer to ’why am I here?’. (CHEESY LIFE METAPHOR ALERT!). No character is in a script just for kicks.
 
However, the given circumstances are no more than tools to help us understand what we FEEL about each moment. Whichever way we get there, the goal of all that script work is to create a living, breathing, spontaneous slice of existence. As long as we know our lines, know our place in the story, and know what we want – and know these things so deep in our bones that we don’t have to consciously think about it – it doesn’t matter how we get there. The techniques we are taught are simply tools. Teachers can give us insights, but if what they say doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us; they may just not be the right teacher, and their technique may not be the one we need. There is no one true way. If it works, it’s the right tool, and if it doesn’t then give yourself permission to put it back in the box. Your work is your own. Own it.

She’s baaaaaaaaaack…

Well, golly. Who would have thought that producing, directing and acting in one’s own play would eat up so much time and energy? Turns out, not this girl! I’m sure you all aren’t surprised, but I’ll admit that I was. So: apologies for my unexpected hiatus and we are back up and running. Promised post on doing your creative work (ha) to be up by the end of the week, followed by some musings on the creative process and building a show. Fun times all ’round, and happy reading! 

 

Meantime, here is a kick-ass picture from my show.

Image