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The Story of Mildred’s Umbrella, the Evolution of Houston Theatre, and Why I Chose Samuel Beckett.

As most of my friends are aware, I founded a theater in 2001 with a friend of mine, John Harvey. I was acting, and he wrote a play and wondered if I might be interested in helping him produce it. Like most actors, I really didn’t have a full concept of everything that had to happen to actually produce one. If I had, the story might have turned out differently. 

Long story short.. I figured it out…. I lost 20 pounds, wasn’t sleeping and almost lost my mind, but a show happened. We called the company Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, after a poem by Gertrude Stein that was in a textbook John was using for a class he was teaching, and we liked the sound of it. 

Our theatre was small scale, and there wasn’t a ton of theatre in Houston back then.  The things we did were edgy, gritty and everyone involved got their hands dirty making it happen. Also, it was cheap. People who owned bars would let us use their upstairs, or another theatre would rent to us for $500 for the run. We often had to tear down our set every night after the show and get out before 10pm so the band could set up to play in the bar, or have someone guard the door so a tipsy bar patron didn’t crash into the backstage area looking for the bathroom. But we had nothing to lose.  John was writing experimental black comedies that we would (as a group) tweak and adjust along the way to create a show. 

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From Mac Wellman’s DRACULA, 2004 (photo by David Brown)

Nothing we did was about getting press (although, we were thrilled if that happened, we didn’t care if it didn’t). It wasn’t about selling a lot of tickets (we didn’t have enough money invested to lose anything) or getting personal glory from it. 

Often someone in the press would sort of ‘assign’ someone as the star, and we’d  laugh about it and roll our eyes, because it really always was an organic, collaborative effort, and no one person ever truly deserved that title. I’ll admit, sometimes it made me mad because I was doing a lot of the creating and would sometimes be left out of things in favor of the men I was working with, but that was just the way it was. They seemed to feel the need to do that, and we couldn’t stop them. I guess not a lot of people really understand collaborative art. We were punk rock. We didn’t need a star. 

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From Mac Wellman’s A MURDER OF CROWS , 2006. Photos by Anthony Rathbun

Over the years, the city grew, and the theatre scene grew with it. Spaces are expensive and hard to come by.  We can’t just throw something up in a warehouse or the fire marshal might shut us down. We can’t just throw up some pipe and drape curtains and do a fabulous performance in front of them without someone criticizing us for not having a set. We have to pay actors and designers decently now if we want the best people,  because theatres with more funding are able to do that. Don’t get me wrong, paying artists is a good thing. Our stipends are still too low for what the artists deserve, but I’m pretty sure percentage-wise, my company pays more of our small budget to artists than anyone else in town, so I’m trying. I STILL don’t get paid for my full time work in the theatre, but I do always make sure the others do. It’s just hard to raise the money for it all. 

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from NEEDFUL CREATURES, 2005. I”m in this one!

We were nomadic for the first 11 years. Then we had leased space  for a while, and the rent payments almost broke us. I was non-stop raising money for overhead, and it had gotten to where I could no longer really participate in the art. I was farming it out and doing a lot of projects other people wanted me to do.  I started forgetting why I ever did it in the first place. So now… 19 years later, we are back to being nomadic. Full circle. 

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RED DEATH, 2014 , photo by VJ Arizpe

Our budget is still very small. Producing full shows on a shoestring is hard, and I have to personally pick up slack in every area we can’t afford to pay someone to do a job. I have to choose people I know can create within our very restricted budgets, and they often don’t truly understand until we’re pretty far into the process what that means.

 

 

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ROME 2015, photo by VJ Arizpe

So, recently, I was trying to figure out a project we could do without a lot of frills. I needed a show that I could really create and not kill myself with the non artistic side of things. Our mission has evolved (through urging from local funding sources) to a focus on women.  A lot of the things I find interesting and writers that do the experimental work that I love no longer fit into our mission. Fair enough. There’s a lot of other stuff that works. But then my husband suggested some shorts written by Samuel Beckett that are specifically written for female actors to perform. Not only does that fit our mission, but it’s in my wheelhouse. I was excited at the idea so I contacted two of my friends, Greg and Jeff, (Greg was with me back in the trenches and was a key person in the collaborations we used to have), and we all decided to do it together. 

Together, the three of us chose the actors and discussed our plans. Then, without competition or conflict, we each took the lead on specific plays in the series and brought it together as one show.  We did it in a small, awesome, edgy little space downtown. We built the “set” ourselves out of whatever we found lying around (and some borrowed pipe and drape). The money spent was almost all focused on the space and the performers and not on a bunch of stuff that is going to go in the dumpster afterwards due to lack of storage. We each did our thing and helped each other when one of us needed something. Everyone involved in the process had a hand in the creation of this. We didn’t care if anyone came.

NOT I, ROCKABY, FOOTFALLS (from the Beckett shorts), 2020, photo by Gentle Bear Photography 

We have been largely ignored by the press for it, in spite of the rarity of this kind of thing happening, which only makes me think they just don’t care or understand this kind of work. Whatever. We didn’t do it for them. The one that did came gave us a glowing review, as have many of our patrons and theatre peers, so that was nice, but it wasn’t why we did it. We did it because it was art that needed to happen. We did it because it was in us and had to come out. And we have gotten more polished since 2001. So this show is just fabulous, and if nobody said anything about it, I would still know it. 

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COME AND GO (from the Beckett shorts), 2020, photo by Gentle Bear Photography

Here’s that review, in case you’re interested: https://www.houstonpress.com/arts/things-to-do-a-review-of-samuel-becketts-ladies-night-at-mildreds-umbrella-11418453?fbclid=IwAR0mmyRJ6BzFQgoi_FEeOGy3gANvIwHG3Xx_ppKyGc1MpRXZHipU-46Dzqo

I have missed this. It is making me remember why I do it. I want to go back to doing this all the time.  I don’t know how it will happen, but I think it needs to happen. At least some of the time. The whole experience has renewed my reasons for being in all this in the first place, and I don’t  want to let it go. 

Cathy Power!!

I haven’t blogged in a while, because a lot of stuff has gone on for me recently, but I’m overdue for a post about an amazing woman I have the privilege of knowing.

This one is about CATHY POWER.  Power is her name, and she lives up to it as an artist and as a person.

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First of all, she is an incredibly talented musician. In addition to all the instruments she can play, she’s a beautiful singer.  I remember the first time I heard her singing voice. I was helping a band called THE MISFIRES get gigs, and she was the singer on their recorded demo CD, and I thought she had one of the prettiest voices I’d ever heard. Then I saw her in a couple of shows at Infernal Bridegroom and later Catastrophic, and it turns out, she is a good actress, too. I’ve gotten to know her a bit since then, and I’ve discovered that she’s also just a really good person. She always jumps in to help when she can, and she is kind and compassionate. Recently, she jumped right in to help me find a way to re-home some cats because she is just good-hearted. 

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Here is her official bio: 

Cathy Power is a multi-instrumentalist and singer. Cathy composes and performs with Two Star Symphony when they play as an eight-piece band. She recently worked with them on a new composition for Dominic Walsh and Whim W’him Dance Company to be performed live in Seattle in January 2016. She also recently contributed as a composer and performer to the critically acclaimed album Seven Deadly Sins, which was released in 2015. Cathy also performs and records with the band, Merel and Tony and The Woe Woe Woes. Cathy was a member of the Infernal Bridegroom Productions company and orchestra for over ten years and is currently a member of The Catastrophic Theatre Orchestra. Among the many highlights of her career are playing Laurie in Speeding Motorcycle, a rock opera based on the life and work of Daniel Johnston, being named “Best Spectacle” in 2001 by the Houston Press for her work as a performance artist, being a musical presenter at TedX Houston, being recognized with Two Star by TALA as 2012’s Artist of the Year, and winning awards two years in a row working as a composer with Hot Pixel Action for Houston’s 48 Hour Film Project.

 

I totally recommend checking out her work. She will also be playing with one of her bands, Houston’s A.S.S. ( an accordion cover band), at Mildred’s Umbrella’s WOMEN ROCK! Fundraiser at Rudyards on Feb 22. 

 

Here is her website. 

https://cathypowermusic.wordpress.com/?fbclid=IwAR2JqzKJKkKhT6hUhvrnojmZYl6RethJCwsdAb5tFpv34xi_oCxM5DVvXWg

 

Getting rid of toxic relationships.. sort of a partial book review of “I’m Judging You.” by Luvvy Ajayi.

As we finish out yet another year, I have been reflecting on the things I’m very thankful for, and the things I need to let go of going into 2020. One big area of cleaning house for me is relationships.. It is important to let go of the ones that are dragging you down so you can make room for people who enrich your life and lift you up. 

I was reading this book called “I’m Judging You” by Luvvi Ajayi, who is a hilarious, yet wise internet sensation. I follow her on Facebook, and she’s a queen. In her blog and in her book, she tackles racism, plastic surgery, homophobia, anal bleaching, rape culture, social media, fake news.. You name it. She is a ‘take no bullshit’ wise woman, but she says it all in the most witty way. I laughed out loud through her book.  

513zHZtPqKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Here’s the Book…

She claims that we are the sum of the 5 people we spend the most time with. When I think about that, I agree with her. With that in mind, shouldn’t we be very particular of who we let in that inner circle? I know that since I’ve done some house cleaning, my life has definitely been so much more positive.  

Here are some people that Luvvie says we need to lose.  I know some of these people. Some of them have been among my 5 from time to time. I’ll highlight the ones I’ve dealt with. 

 

THE COMPETITOR 

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

According to Luvvie, “Their superpower is being able to make any good news you have into something about them and you will eventually realize that they do not wish you well.” 

They will also badmouth you to someone who admires you or someone who can lift you up in your career to make sure they stay top dog in the relationship. I’m sure this is all based on insecurity, which is sad for them, but I don’t need it, and neither do you.  Kick ‘em to the curb and find people who cheer you on. 

 

The SOS PAL

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

“They’re broke, you get a call. They need a job, your inbox blows up. They’re sad that day, you get a sad emoji in your texts…In good times, you only find out what they’re up to via social media’.. You go from bestie to follower, fast.” Oh yeah. This is the toxic friend I attract the most. They have lived with me rent free, only to ghost me when I”m no longer needed, borrowed money and then bailed from my life except to pop up now and then to be contrary on my Facebook page.The one I most recently freed myself from was actually a constant drama stirrer, with conflict after conflict where she was the victim of terrible abuse by bosses, husbands, former friends…literally anyone she had to interact with for very long.  I’d wake up to pages of texts when she fought with her husband in the middle of the night, be interrupted in meetings with  messages venting and asking for support and validation. When the crisis was over or when she didn’t need anything, I didn’t hear from her for weeks or months sometimes. The minute I put my foot down and refused to engage in her drama, I was cast as the abuser and the target of an online smear campaign. 

I’m selfishly hoping someone else pisses her off soon  so she will forget me, but at least I can block most of it, which is a huge relief. Sorry if it’s you, but I promise to defend you if it is.  Listening to problems.. that’s what friends are for, but there should be blessings as well as burdens in a friendship. If a friendship is one-sided, ditch it. I promise, it only hurts for a minute, and then your life is so much nicer.  Just make sure to block them on all your stuff so you don’t have to see the retaliation. I”m convinced most of these types have serious unchecked personality disorders. 

 

THE ADVENTURER 

(the friend who will one day get us arrested)

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Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

‘Captain of team no-chill’ because they are constantly spontaneous, and any ordinary brunch can turn into a wild story with them,” says Luvvie.  To be honest, I had a couple of peripheral friends who were like this, and one of them passed away at a young age because of her reckless behavior, unfortunately. I think I  tend to shy away from getting too close after that one. If you have one of these, don’t let them get you arrested. 🙂 

 

THE LANNISTER (the friend you can’t trust)

History keeps you together. Maybe you’ve known each other since kindergarten.. For some reason, even though you can’t trust this person, you’ve kept them in your circle. Luvvie also talks about a type called ‘The Frenemy’. I see these two as kind of the same. They share your secrets, ruin your reputation for entertainment or their own benefit, and never defend you when someone else attacks. I work in the theatre, and I have come across many of these. One of them regularly makes sure to denounce me to  people who could lift me up professionally, I guess so she will look superior in their eyes. It always gets back to me. I thought it was insecurity at first, but I’m not really sure it’s not just jealousy and meanness. People can be forgiven a couple of mistakes in this area, in my opinion. Sometimes you let something slip because you’re mad or just having a bad moment. If it happens regularly, get them out of your business. 

 

THE HOLY ROLLER

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Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

Luvvie makes this one about religious people, because that is who she has in her life, I think.  They are people who are always judging everyone else’s morals.

In my life, this friend is the Holy Roller’s tattooed cousin, ‘The Better Than you Liberal.’  You will never be as up to date on the proper language for literally anything social or political like they are. Even if you’re using the language they schooled you about last week, you’re probably going to be wrong today.

If a well meaning person says something that isn’t up-to-the-moment politically correct,  the Best Liberals generally say things like “sigh. Why are people so ignorant?” and then either attack the person as an enemy or have long, public conversations with other ‘best liberals’ about how people like that are just wrong (making sure the person can see it and is properly shamed). They wouldn’t dream of giving the erring person the benefit of the doubt to gently teach them the right language. That wouldn’t show their friends how exasperated with the world they are. Their heart is in the right place, but they are exhausting. I’m not even going to give any real life examples because I don’t want to be forced into a conversation with any of them about it.

Anyway, these are just a few of her examples, and I don’t do it justice. Check out the book, if you’re into such things. She has a lot of wise and hilarious advice. She does not suffer fools or take any shit, and neither should we.

Surround yourself with people who enrich your life. Happy Holidays!

 

Here’s a place you can buy it. https://www.amazon.com/Im-Judging-You-Do-Better-Manual/dp/1627796061

 

Wonder Woman, or Leighza Walker?

I was working on another blog post, but it was getting a little negative, and being that it is Thanksgiving weekend, I want to do something positive, so I’m going to tell you about another amazing woman I have the pleasure to know.

Her name is Leighza Walker, and she runs Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company’s (the company I founded in 2001) short play festival, Museum of Dysfunction. She took the festival over a couple of years ago and breathed new life into it after a couple of years of me phoning it in because I was too busy with our other productions.  For this, I am eternally grateful to her, but that’s not the only thing she does.

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In addition to running a play festival, Leighza is  a performance artist, actor, director, storyteller, set designer, producer, and award winning playwright who studied with Edward Albee. Her play Fishing (which she also directed) won the Broadway World Editor’s Choice Award for Best New Play in 2013.  She’s performed in many plays as an actress, directed many others and Her one woman shows, Leighzaland: Declaration of a Sovereign Nation, Observations from the LeighzaSphere, and Welcome to the LeighzaHood premiered at Station Theater in 2015 and are being developed for touring.  She was selected in 2012 by the Houston Press as one of “100 Creatives” and is the Executive Director (and Queen) of Leighzaland, a non-profit organization dedicated to producing new work and supporting artists in their endeavor to create art.

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Here is a picture of her being a goddess.

She is also a mom and an amazing friend. Seriously, if she loves you, nobody had better mess with you, because she will go after them like a mama bear until they leave you alone.  She is not scared.

I’m not trying to out her or anything, but I have never seen her in the same place as Wonder Woman, so I’m going with the assumption that they are one and the same.

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See what I mean?

So, this blog post is to honor Leighza in a public way to thank her for letting me know her and for being my friend. Here’s her Leighzaland Facebook page if you want to see more stuff about her. https://www.facebook.com/Leighzaland-Productions-153087758081832/

 

 

 

The Amazing Ronlyn Domingue!

Today  in ‘Fabulous ladies I know’, I want to talk about Ronlyn Domingue, who is my oldest friend, and who is a very successful novelist nowadays. I am very proud of her. 

I met her when I was 10 years old. I’d just moved to Lafayette Louisiana, and was going to a new school there. I was used to new schools because I  generally went to a different one every year. It was the oil boom in the 80’s, and every time the wind shifted, we moved. I learned to make friends pretty quickly, and to move on just as quickly when it was time to leave a place, but there was one person that I stayed friends with through all that chaos, and that was Ronlyn.

Ronlyn

 She welcomed the new girl that first week, and we’ve been friends ever since. We didn’t have social media or email then, and getting kids to keep in touch through letter writing was always a long shot, but when I moved back to Houston, Ronlyn always wrote to me, and even when I sometimes got lazy about writing back, she persisted until I did. 

That’s her on the left, and me in the back (somehow, I’m the tall one!).  Laura, a friend I lost touch with (Ronlyn didn’t, of course!) is in the front. 

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Even when Ronlyn was 10 years old, she was going to be a writer. At the time, I decided I was, too,  and we even wrote a book together. It was terrible, and nobody but the two of us ever needs to see it, but it still exists. Over the years, I didn’t stick with writing in a dedicated way, but she did.  Now she is an internationally published author of four novels, as well as essays and short stories. Her first novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, has been published in 10 languages and has been nominated for big book awards.  It’s a beautiful book, if you’re looking for some good holiday reading. 

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She is also a fabulous cook, a lover of nature and animals, and one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. I am enormously proud of her, and I’m so glad we have remained friends. 

 

If you want to see more about her or read her books, it’s all on her website: http://www.ronlyndomingue.com/

 

 

Facebook Rage and Kindness

 

 

In the last month,  I’ve seen something that triggers me a lot.  Someone lashes out or vents about something  on social media that is obviously distressing them, and other people will say  scold them or even diminish their vent (‘you’re so negative,’ ‘get over it’, “cheer up’). Now, we all know it’s best not to emotionally vent on social media. It’s not necessarily dignified to air dirty laundry when you’ve just been fired or you’ve been dumped or  are just having a mental health crisis. However, because this is a big way we communicate now, it happens to the best of us, and I think it is important to be mindful of how we respond.

 

 

 

A few years ago, I was having a totally crap time of it. I was getting divorced right after turning 40, and immediately panicked that I was suddenly alone, falling into a series of very wrong relationships that made me feel like I would never feel worthy of respect again. I was also suddenly paying twice the bills I’d had previously, and very stressed out working full time as a college teacher, while also running my non profit theatre, an extra full time job that I don’t get paid for, and rarely get personal validation for doing. I felt like my brain was in absolute chaos for a long time, and I felt totally isolated in my misery. 

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We all have our own responses to trauma, and I responded to that one by drinking too much wine and lashing out in my Facebook posts. Hardly anyone asked me if I was ok. Most people responded by either deleting me as a friend, telling me I was negative and needed to ‘cheer up’, or just ignoring me, which I guess was the kindest of the three. Some people would ‘like’ the post, which I guess meant they were at least trying to be supportive. One or two would reach out personally and let me talk to them about it until I calmed down and felt better and felt more positive for the moment, but afterwards I usually felt ashamed that I needed that. That wasn’t my real personality. I was temporarily in distress. Occasionally,  I felt like just giving up on life, and that was my scream for help. I ended up struggling through it, and coming out on the other side, after a lot of time and work on myself. I thank the people who tolerated me and stayed my friend through all that. I owe you one, and I will remember it if you ever find yourself in a similar position. 

This article on NPR’s website describes how a person who was lashing out in anger was turned around completely when the object of his venting responded with kindness, instead of retaliating with more angry words. 

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/02/25/697052006/anger-can-be-contagious-heres-how-to-stop-the-spread

Inspired by this exchange, I recently saw a person I don’t know that well posting angrily about how his life sucks, posting things like ‘what the hell is the fucking point?’ a few times over several days. People were doing the usual ‘cheer up’ and ‘why are you so negative?’, which was making him more angry and the conversation got really nasty a couple of times.  Scrolling through the person’s page, I saw that he’d been unemployed after losing a job, and he’d been forced to move in with relatives because he was having trouble finding employment. I didn’t feel like I knew him well enough to reach out with a message and offer help, but I tried some supportive comments on the angry posts, commiserating with him, rather than criticizing him, and he immediately opened up to me and started sharing what was wrong. We had a  conversation that ended with him seeming much calmer about it all. If I, a relative stranger, could find that information within a few minutes and react with kindness, why couldn’t someone who knows and sees this guy in person take him aside and say ‘I’ve noticed you seem to be in distress. What is going on, and how can I help you fix it?” I suppose sometimes a person is just a negative person, and reaching out won’t help, but I’d be willing to bet most of the time it’s not that. The person just needs a friend to vent to and doesn’t have anyone they feel comfortable reaching out to directly. It’s worth taking the chance to find out.  If you can’t do that, unfollow the person until the crisis is over. That’s the least you can do. 

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Recently, I’ve had 2 different people say to me in some way, ‘you’ve really come a long way with your attitude’. These are people who don’t really see me in day to day life, but seem to have defined what my personality and attitude is like based on a short time period of watching my facebook posts during a terrible time in my life and judging me accordingly. No, I haven’t changed as a person. I was always this person. I was just having a really hard time for a little while, and now my life is much better. Maybe next time you see someone lashing out, try to see if they need help instead of deciding they’re just too negative to be around.  React with kindness and you might find that you can help be a solution to someone’s real problem, instead of just judging a whole person based on Facebook. 

Elizabeth A.M. Keel, The Fabulous!

For the November 2019 installment of the ‘Fabulous people I have the privilege of knowing’ series, I would like to tell you about Elizabeth A. M. Keel! 

 

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Courtesy of Elizabeth A.M. Keel

Elizabeth is one of the most multi-talented people I’ve ever met. I knew her first as a playwright who had studied with Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson at University of Houston. In 2010, the theatre I founded, Mildred’s Umbrella, produced her play ‘Notions of Right and Wrong’. She was involved in the process of it, so we got to know each other in that capacity a bit.

A couple of years later, we acted together in ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.’ So, yeah.. She can do that, too, and afterwards, she offered to write a play specifically for Mildred’s Umbrella, which you can catch in the spring at the DeLuxe theatre (details at mildredsumbrella.com ).  Her work has also been produced by several other theatres in Houston and beyond.

Since our original meeting, I discovered that she is not only a playwright and an actor, but also an accomplished dramaturg, a fabulous teacher, a director and even a novelist!

Recently, she has become the literary manager  and resident playwright for our company, and I’ve discovered that not only is she artistically talented, but also organized, reliable and someone I can trust to get a job done if she says she’s going to do it. Do you even know how rare that is? She’s like a freakin’ unicorn. 

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Stages Repertory Theatre – Young Actors Conservatory 2019

All of this…. and the cherry on the top of her wonderfulness is that she is one of the most photogenic people I’ve ever seen. There is never a bad photo of this woman. 

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If you want to know more about her, you can read all the stuff here. Her accomplishments are endless: elizabethamkeel.com.

I just wanted to tell everyone about her!