Sing It That Way, Suzanne

Sing It That Way, Suzanne

Thoughts on Creativity and the Broken Brain

 

I recently watched “Love and Mercy,” the biopic on Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys, and last week took a look at “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch.

I am reminded how torturous it is to watch people who are inherently genius, yet are so deeply troubled that they have to suffer for it their whole lives. I am also reminded of a conclusion that I’ve held for years:

Maybe this is an intrinsic part of being brilliant.

Maybe you have to have a few things missing from your brain in order to have quite enough flexibility day dreamfor all that cool stuff to happen as it does. Maybe authentic creativity requires a brain that does not function like a normal person’s. Creativity is in fact a side-effect of impairment.

Not to categorize myself as Miss Brilliant, but I’ve always had an affinity for the tortured artist type. I’ve felt my brain on occasion go to off-beat places because it had to, because of aberrant dyslexic flashes where I can’t put two and two together. The signals in my brain don’t make the jump from one synapse to another like a regular Joe’s. It skips over the traditional thought process and crafts a new way to interpret stimuli.

I’ve sometimes remarked that all my creative impulses may be one big, undiagnosed dyslexia symptom.

Scary thing is, my brain is so good at compensating that there have been times I have surreptitiously seen and heard and things that weren’t there. (Or sometimes didn’t see something that was there.) Usually I hear something musical, or narrative, where a story or a melody start running in my head.

There are scenes in Love and Mercy where Brian Wilson lies down and hears things… people talking, melodies and harmonies singing, sounds in the background. I’ve had instances of that. I’ve lain back, or dropped half-asleep, and heard songs playing or people speaking dialog that I’d never heard before. I hit a state where things start writing themselves, and I sit back and listen. It’s a weird and beautiful experience. It is magic. But sometimes it is spontaneous enough that it takes you by surprise and makes you wonder about your reality.

My husband insists I fabricate these kinds of things to position myself as special. It’s not true. I’ve walked through my life seeing certain things backwards or further away or closer than they are. Or sometimes I don’t see an object in front of me at all—it blanks-out and fades into the background. Yet my brain bridges the gap.

No one has ever really asked me, but this is my life:

Have you ever had that moment when you pick up a glass, and you think it’s full but you’re mistaken?

You lift it, and the glass goes flying and you spill water because your muscles were bracing for a different level of heaviness. You were fooled. Your brain misperceived it.color leaves

That’s my existence. I walk past a door jamb or a coffee table, and my brain tells me it is twelve inches from my body when it is actually only three inches away. I smack my shin on the table or bang my shoulder against the molding. I have dealt with unjustifiable bumps, bruises and scrapes my whole life. I am a grown woman who walks into things.

One day when my brother and I were in a band together, we were practicing in his room. He played the bass line to The Police’s “Roxanne.” I said, No, Jim, wait—you’re missing a couple of cool notes here, that’s not how it goes. Where are those two other notes?

“What two other notes?”

I mouthed the bass line. “You know, DAT DAT – dat dat… DAT DAT – dat dat… Loved you since I knew ya’…”

He said, No, what are you talking about? That’s not how it goes.

I said, oh please, I’ve listened to this song a thousand times.

I sang it again, and he argued. Finally he sat me down with my ear next to an enormous speaker and played the record. He turned up the bass on the equalizer. He said, “I want you to take a deep breath and listen.”

Wait, I said, where did those other bass notes go? I swear they’ve been there all this time.

He said, “YOU WROTE THEM.”splat guitar

“What?”

You wrote them, Sue. You hear them in your head because you wrote them into the song.”

And then there was the day I sang in my high school talent show. A fellow theater student played piano behind me … and then he just stopped. I kept singing, because that’s what they teach you to do when something screws up on stage. You keep going. The piano kicked back in.

After the number I went to the accompanist and said, What happened?

He said, “What do you mean?”

“You stopped playing. In the middle of the song.”

He gave me the face. The expression people deliver when I inadvertently admit I’m not experiencing quite the same world as they are.

“I never stopped playing,” he said.

I asked another friend in the show, What did you hear? Did he stop playing?

There was the look again. The tilted head and squinty eyes. “Of course he didn’t stop playing,” she said. “He was fine.”

I thought to myself, Jesus, it’s me. My brain stops perceiving things sometimes. Yet I always push on.

Flash-forward to the few weeks I tried to learn piano. A friend in a band gifted me his cast-off Moog keyboard. I commandeered some rocker guy with long, carbon-black curls to give me keyboard lessons at Focus II Guitars in Babylon, NY. He made me practice scales, and sent me home with a few measures to learn.

Next lesson, I swung open my workbook and banged out the piece. It was a lovely bit of music.

Rocker guy scratched his head. “That was nice,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“What was it?” he said.

???!!

I pointed to the sheet music. “It was this.”

He tried not to do the face, because he otherwise kind of liked me. “No,” he said. “It was pretty and all. But that wasn’t the music I gave you.”

He stood behind the keyboard and played the measures as they were written.

A whole different piece. I had developed my own version.

I never did learn to play keyboard.

There was also a rehearsal for “Godspell,” the first show I ever did outside a school production. I was eighteen. The cast sat around a table so Eddie the director, who also played Jesus, could teach us the harmonies to “Prepare Ye.”

“Do you know how they go?” he asked.

Oh, yeah.” I had in fact had been listening to the original Broadway soundtrack on vinyl since fourth grade.

He said, “Okay, Kerry, please sing the melody and Suzanne, you sing the harmony.” I sang it the way I’d been doing since I was 10 years-old.

“Cool,” Eddie said to me. “Where is that from?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who taught you that part? Is that from the movie soundtrack?”

I shrugged my shoulders. No one taught it to me. “I just thought it was pretty. Isn’t that what’s on the album?”

“No,” he said. “This is what’s on the album.” He and Kerry sang the harmony that was written for the show. Which completely diverged from what I’d been singing half my life.

He said, “Now you sing your part with us,” and I chimed in. It was gorgeous. Suddenly, we had three different parts going, one of which had never appeared in any other production.

Eddie said, “Sing it that way in the show, Suzanne.”

Way to make dysfunction work.

rain keys

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Never Skinny Enough

NEVER SKINNY ENOUGH:

Recalling a Brief Career as an Actress/Singer/Whatever

 

I am reminded now and then that I wasn’t always a writer. A few things happened:  I recently watched the film “Birdman.”  And I read my writer friend Kathryn Craft’s lovely novel The Art of Falling, which deals with a modern dancer who has body image issues. As a big show-off, I loved performing like nobody’s business in my youth. But these two pieces of work reminded of how screwed up it was, trying to be an actress/singer/whatever, especially in Manhattan.

This is what they taught you in theatre classes (I minored in theatre at Pitt, and I later actually went to the Lee Strasberg acting school in Manhattan for a semester, so yes, I actually trained somewhat for this stuff):  They said, subscribe to Backstage and send your headshot for absolutely everything.  Apart from getting naked, take every little thing you can get.

Whatever they ask you to do, say you can do it.  If they ask if you can ride a horse, you say yes.  If they ask if you can tap dance, say YES.  Do you model? Yes. Do you do improv? Yes. Would you dye your hair? Would you relocate to Guam for three months?  Can you bounce on a pogo stick and read the news while eating a yogurt?  Yes, yes! (I can actually do that.)

Then if you get the job, you immediately LEARN to do whatever it is they hired you to do right away.  You learn to tap dance ON the horse if they ask you to.  And you do it in the one week they give you before you leave for the job. So, I took the photos, and I sent out the headshots to EVERYTHING.

I got called for auditions to model shoes, because that’s supposedly what petite girls do.  But I was too small even for that. The shoe models were all size a six, and I was so tiny I was barely a size five. I still had trouble finding adult shoes to fit me at 23 years old. Besides that, two different shoe companies told me that my right foot was bigger than my left; I am sadly asymmetrical. I got one modeling job my whole life (in approximately seven years of auditions), for a Redken hair products industry trade show.  Some semi-famous cosmetologist from London cut my hair live onstage, and I walked his runway in the finale.

tie die adjustedHere’s a rock-and-roll promo shot, taken by a photographer named Michael Haus, who was based in Stony Brook, NY.  I met him at a showcase and he invited me to do a couple of test shoots; he was young and trying to break into fashion photography. Wanted to be the next Francesco Scavullo.  We became friends. He was quite talented, and was responsible for the one headshot I had that everybody called on.  Directors would sometimes hold it up in the air and rather than say, “Who’s this girl?” they’d wave it and call, “Who did this headshot?”  I gave out a lot of endorsements for Michael.

I’ve tried to look him up to see how his career turned out. I hope he changed his name or moved to Milan and is outrageously successful.  At the time, he was trying to drum up high profile projects to kick-start his career, like a “Girls of Long Island” calendar. As a day job, he was the guy who took public school pictures.  When he pulled a few of his backdrop screens down behind me, I recognized them from high school photos.

Tough business.

I was 112 pounds, and the dress I wore to the hair show audition was a Victoria’s Secret size three.

Yet when I asked my friend Michael if I could get involved in his Girls of Long Island calendar, he said:

Do you know what kind of shape you have to be in to pose for something like that?”

This is why young women in the performing arts develop eating disorders. I was one of the tiniest girls I knew.  I did aerobics like a hyperactive machine at least three times a week. I still was not skinny enough for this industry. (Note I have never had an eating disorder, unless eating too much is a disorder. At worst, I could be classified as one of those yo-yo dieters, losing and gaining the same 4 to 8 pounds for 20 years.  But I get it.)

Tough business.

I did some decent, leading roles in regional musical theater, though:  on Long Island, in Pittsburgh, in Florida.  I was good live; I had a big voice.  And when you are physically tiny in theater, you “read” younger than you are, and you fit into the ingénue category. I was still playing 16 year-olds at 28.

As an alto, I was usually a “second lead”; the first singing lead is typically a soprano. But no kidding, second leads have a lot of fun and get good solos, sometimes multiple songs per show. You always get paid better than the chorus. And you don’t have to be as good an actress—it doesn’t require as much dialog as the main lead. I was fairly lacking as an actress, disappointing more than one director, although I might have improved with time had I stuck it out.

I worked hard.  I was all-business on stage.  I got pissed off at the people who fooled around.  I danced on tables and risers and fell off them and got bruised. I stayed at rehearsals until 11:00 at night.

My character was murdered on stage three times a week at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, NY, during a scene that called for my throat to be cut.

That theater had a miniscule dressing room for the girls, and an expansive one for the men, so I did my make up daily in the guys’ room in protest. When the boys complained about changing in my presence every day, I flashed them, after which time they let me stay.

The joke was on me, however. Once that production got underway, I had such a rapid costume change that I had to stand in the wings and literally jump out of one dress and into another in front of not just the actors, but the entire stage crew.  Two cast mates stood off-stage holding open my next costume, zipping down the back of one dress as I climbed into the other and ducked back on stage before the lights came up. We had about a twelve count to make the transition.

model cropI played a string of ethnic, singing peasants in Brigadoon, Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof. I learned the whole production of Fiddler in only six days, as I was hired as a replacement for one of the five sisters who had quit the show.  I sang at nursing homes, in restaurants and in parades with a roving production of Godspell, led by an aging hippie and ex-heroin addict who portrayed Jesus Christ. I sang with several different cover bands that barely made it out of the garage.

I choreographed a community production of Annie, and my little girls performed “It’s a Hard Knock Life” at the Suffolk County Arts Council Awards presentation. When one of those girls grew up, she reproduced my choreography in her high school production.  I choreographed three numbers at Pitt’s “Greek Sing” for the fraternity where I was a little sister, and our guys won first place.

I was an extra in David Johansen’s “Hot Hot Hot” video, although a magnifying glass is required to identify the blur that is me. People still dance conga lines to this song at weddings. At the time I never imagined anyone would hear it. At a new artist showcase, I lip-synched to a recording of a song I co-wrote, in a little Manhattan joint called the California Club, where I later learned that Sandra Bullock supposedly was a bartender that same year. I hope she was present that night.

I also surprisingly got hired by an improv troupe in New York City. I fell asleep on the train on the way to the audition and forgot to apply eye make-up. So when they called to say I got the gig, I thought to myself, maybe this one isn’t just because they think I’m cute. So I screwed up my courage and got on stage with this bunch of WILDLY talented people who cracked me up every minute of rehearsal. I was by no means the stand-out of that crowd, I was the novice.  But I learned I could think on my feet, and be amusing and spontaneous if I said the wacky things that popped into my head. I held up my end of the skits, God dammit. That was amazing training — for everything, not just for stage work.  Thank you, cast of The Improvables circa the early 1990s. I have put this skill to work in public relations incessantly.

Of course, the parts I didn’t get were much better than the ones I did.

  • I was called to audition as a cable TV talk show host with a fake Australian accent, who was scheduled to interview Bridget Fonda.  For comedic reasons, my male co-host was required to be shorter than I was.  I listened to hours of early Nicole Kidman movies to prepare and showed up in my highest spike-heeled boots. They announced that they loved me and rehearsals started Monday, instructing me to call such-and-such on Friday for details. Then they never got back to me.
  • I auditioned for a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady where the directors looked so bored, one almost dropped off to sleep at his card table. They shouted THANK YOU!!! with fervor in the middle of my song, like you see in the movies.  That shit really happens.
  • I seriously contemplated going to the open call for the original Footloose on Broadway, even though I had just found out I was pregnant with my son.  I figured they wouldn’t realize for a few months.
  • I rocked a Paula Abdul number at an audition for a cruise ship singer/dancer troupe until the dance captain gave me moves to follow in a mirror and I got dyslexic.
  • An executive from Polygon Records described my voice as “wedding pop” in a rejection letter.  Around that time, I was dating a long-time studio drummer who played with the original Broadway company of Godspell.  In response to that rejection, he said to me, “Do you know how long Pat Benatar did weddings?”
  • I stood in line at 8:00 a.m. in Manhattan with 800 other girls to audition for VH1’s “Be a Diva” program, in the pouring rain, my babies at home with a sitter. I got so disgusted after four hours of the line not moving, I gave away my call sheet and number (something like #786) to the nice girl behind me who had temporarily departed to buy dry stockings right before they passed around the sheets. I got back on the train and went home.
  • I was called by the Vanderbilt Planetarium in Huntington, NY, to play 1920s tap dancer Ruby Keeler in a stage biography.  However, they didn’t mount the production until two years after I auditioned, by which time I was about to move to Pennsylvania.  I’d lied about knowing how to tap dance anyhow. I figured I’d learn.

But I really can bounce on a pogo stick for nearly five minutes straight, people. I swear. I inherited one of those from my cousin Valerie when I was eleven. I should have put that on the theatre resume, which also notes that I can giggle on cue.

During the time I was doing stage work, I had several simultaneous careers on the burners. I wrote fiction, which had been my major at Pitt. I did journalism. And I worked at an ad agency in both local broadcast radio production and PR.  I made a pact with myself that I would follow whatever trail panned out first—no regrets.

Hence I became a public relations director.

It’s a hard job, and I’m good at it. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I continued to pour the same amount of energy and blood and tears into acting.  Or novel writing, from the start. Because if I can be successful at PR, which is a dang challenging profession, maybe I could have been just as successful in one of those other disciplines …

Note that goes against the No Regrets policy, however.

If you were not whatever you are now, what would you be?  Tell me…

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