Monday, January 15, 2018

Powering Through An Identity Crisis

A common trope for many people is to claim that, in a critical moment, their entire life flashed before their eyes. That sounds like a grand way to fantasize about a sudden return to the womb or, perhaps, the cue for making one's final exit from the world stage. However, sometimes the feeling that one's life is flashing before one's eyes accompanies the realization that a long-held assumption has been proven wrong and it's time to reassess one's future choices.


What could happen if, instead of assuming impending failure, people chose to embrace success? Those of us who have attempted various diets might learn that positive results can be accompanied by confounding side effects. Although our physiques may have changed for the better, our emotions basically remain the same.
  • I can still remember the parking attendant who, 50 years ago, told me that I wouldn't be so funny if I lost a lot of weight. And then, of course, there was the roommate (and supposedly close friend) who stated "I guess it's okay to be seen with you now that you're not so fat."
  • Whether one is straight, gay, male, female, out of the dating market by choice, or recently widowed, the realization that another person is checking you out can deliver a rude or extremely pleasant shock.

Two recently-visited monologues were based on the life experiences of performers whose long-held assumptions about themselves got blown to bits without any warning. One was hilariously upbeat, self-deprecating, and told with the ebullience of a young gay man who loves to push the envelope as far as he can. The other was the much more sobering tale of a middle-aged single mother whose career was sidelined and family life upended after she suffered a stroke.

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One would be hard pressed not to enjoy Ginger Nation. Written and performed by Shawn Hitchins, this vastly entertaining hour-long film (which will be screened during San Francisco's 2018 SFIndiefest) captures a performance of his monologue. As a gay redhead who can't stay out in the sun for very long, Hitchins is quick to mine punch lines from his multifaceted minority status.
"I was born in a hayfield, educated in a swamp, and still have all my own teeth. I live in constant fear that I have food in my teeth, that my handwriting makes a grocery list look like a death threat, and that every day I leave the house dressed like a member of a women’s curling team. I’ve made a career by oversharing the sordid details of my life. Almost weekly, my gender is openly questioned by some asshole stranger on the street. When not grazing the stage, winning awards, and garnering rave reviews, I’m writing works of neurotica™ and donating my semen to select lesbians. My next big life goal is to create a celebrity fragrance that combines my two favorite scents: white vinegar and the Bulk Barn."

An extremely affable performer with a keen sense of timing who obviously enjoys working a room, Hitchins debuted his one-man show entitled Survival of the Fiercest at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he made an offhand joke about the need for redheads to have a "Ginger Pride Day." While riffing on how redheads could become an endangered species (Hitchins claims that Denmark refuses sperm donations from "Gingers" because nobody wants the ginger DNA that they already have in inventory), he was shocked to discover some Scots taking him seriously. The rest, as he explains in the following interview, is history.


Although the red-headed Canadian comic's new book (A Brief History of Oversharing: One Ginger's Anthology of Humiliation) is available online, the bulk of Ginger Nation is dedicated to Shawn's hilarious tale of how he became a sperm donor for two close lesbian friends who wanted a child. Among the horrors he encountered were having to jerk off in bathrooms whose aesthetics could challenge any gay man's gag reflex as well as the emotional trauma of being required to donate a load of sperm on command whenever his lesbian friend's hormones were surging. Shawn's surprise at realizing he is about to become a father (coupled with his mischievous delight at being able to shock his conservative parents while visiting their farm for Thanksgiving) adds greatly to the ribald joy of his storytelling.


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The transition between the first two movements of Ottorino Resphigi's 1924 symphonic poem, The Pines of Rome, is marked by a darkly melodramatic shift in mood. As described in Wikipedia:
“The first movement portrays children playing by the pine trees in the Villa Borghese gardens, dancing the Italian equivalent of the nursery rhymeRing a Ring o' Roses’ and ‘mimicking marching soldiers and battles; twittering and shrieking like swallows.’ The Villa Borghese, a villa located within the grounds, is a monument to the Borghese family, who dominated the city in the early 17th century.”
“In the second movement, the children suddenly disappear and shadows of pine trees that overhang the entrance of a catacomb dominate. It is a majestic dirge, conjuring up the picture of a solitary chapel in the deserted Campagna; open land, with a few pine trees silhouetted against the sky. A hymn is heard (specifically the Kyrie ad libitum 1, Clemens Rector; and the Sanctus from Mass IX, Cum jubilo), the sound rising and sinking again into some sort of catacomb, the subterranean cavern in which the dead are immured. An offstage trumpet plays the Sanctus hymn. Lower orchestral instruments, plus the organ pedal at 16' and 32' pitch, suggest the subterranean nature of the catacombs, while the trombones and horns represent priests chanting.”
Directed by Rebecca Fisher and developed with the help of David Ford, a poignant monologue by Diane Barnes entitled My Stroke of Luck deals with her experience of suffering a stroke in July 2005 and subsequently being forced into a startling role reversal as she became a helpless child whose adopted sons would cook for her while she embarked on an extensive course of rehabilitation.

Having grown up in New York (and graduated from Stanford University and the Yale University School of Medicine), Barnes decided to adopt a child while in her late thirties. Although, as a single mother, she had hoped to nurture an exceptionally bright child, her son Logan began to show signs of having special needs. Her second adoptee, Takeshi (T.K.), turned out to be a gifted child.

Prior to the July 4th weekend in 2005, Barnes (who is also a sculptor and silversmith) was driving 14-year-old Logan to the Novato Horsemen Ranch while battling what felt like the worst headache of her life. As a board-certified specialist in diagnostic radiology employed at the Kaiser Hospital in San Rafael, part of her daily work included diagnosing brain hemorrhages in patients who had suffered a stroke. However, as a devoted parent, the 55-year-old physician decided to "power through" her responsibilities to her sons and take care of her headache later.

A scene from My Stroke of Luck (Photo by: Harris and Mattei)

Doctors have a reputation for being difficult patients and Barnes, whose medical training taught her that the average patient loses 1.9 million brain cells for every minute that a stroke goes untreated, didn't arrive at the hospital until 20 hours later. A CT scan revealed a hemorrhagic stroke in her brain's dominant left hemisphere. From that point on, her life was radically changed. For a long time, the word salad coming from her mouth made no sense to people around her, even though Barnes was crystal clear in her own mind about what she was trying to say. At a certain point she had to return to work on a part-time basis (a move dictated by her insurance company).

In 2010, Barnes took an early buyout from her employer and began a course in writing and performing at The Marsh. Although her initial efforts were focused on her story of a single mother who adopted two children, she came to realize that much of what she was writing also involved her experience as a stroke victim. The first time she performed a fragment of what would eventually become My Stroke of Luck was on December 13, 2013. Beginning in May of 2016, Barnes worked on performing and refining her monologue at fringe festivals.

A scene from My Stroke of Luck (Photo by: Harris and Mattei)

Now a Meisner-trained actor, Diane completed The American Conservatory Theater’s Summer Training Congress (modern and classic) and studied with Anna Deveare Smith, Ann Randolph, Keith Johnstone, and The D’ell Arte School of Physical Drama. As she describes the shock and isolation she felt as a high achiever who was suddenly deprived of movement and speech, Barnes crams a great deal of medical information into her 80-minute monologue.

My Stroke of Luck details the internal anguish and confusion Barnes endured while trying to regain control of her mind and body as she watched her two teenage sons drift away from her  emotionally when she needed to be there for them as a mother. A deeply moving part of her story details how a call to a professional colleague saved her oldest son from falling into a "thug" lifestyle. As she explains on her blog:
"My show is really about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds -- of how love triumphs over adversity and how you can turn anything into an opportunity. Take it from a brain injury survivor: life is FAR too-o-o-o short for one-year plans! Not that I don't have vision, but I'm wedded neither to the steps, nor the outcome. As an introvert, promotion goes against my grain. But now I need to do it. I'm grateful that I learned a lot about self promotion on the Fringe circuit with My Stroke of Luck (including cultivating some of that shamelessness)."
"Last year, I decided I would count my gratitudes. For a while, I wrote them daily, and stuffed them into a clear cookie jar. If I'd started out to write an award-winning solo show of my experience of stroke, I doubt that I'd ever have done it. But by being open to the unfolding, writing what compelled me, running through open doors, and taking chances, here I am -- more successful than I'd dared to dream."
While Barnes is far from being "a stage animal" (her performance is not overly histrionic), her stage presence glows with her personal warmth and the inner strength of someone who has worked hard to recover from a brain injury. Performances of My Stroke of Luck continue through February 3 at The Marsh (click here for tickets).