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This is the type of winding road that makes strong men double over and cry for their mommy. We are sitting in the back seat – correction: we are crammed into the back of an extra cab truck – a very nice truck from what I’ve seen in Thailand. However, at 6′ tall, Western bodies are not made for the tool bench now being used as a back seat. His knees are literally up around his ears. My quads are screaming mercy as is my stomach, as we wind up, up, up the highest peek in Thailand.
After two and a half hours in this extreme zig zag fashion, we stop to let our guide, Jing Jo, out to vomit. Again. I take a walk along the finally still road, gazing over forever mountain tops covered densely in high-altitude rain forest. There is an elephant on the side of the road rocking back and forth, back and forth – the telltale signs of mental illness. Having worked with elephants, I recognize this instinctually, but a visit to almost any US zoo or circus will confirm to any attentive tourist that and elephant head bobbing or rocking forward and back is a high stress creature gone mental – not unlike humans at all. Our guide, Dino, asks two Thai men nearby about the elephant, whom appears between the age of 6 – 9 years old. I hear him translate that she is going through the pajan, the “spirit breaking ceremony”, that her mother died, and this Karen Hill Tribe has more elephants than any other in Northern Thailand. They speak in Thai and for the first time, I do not need translation to understand.
We stuff back into the truck cab and zig zag down the mountain for an hour and a half more, to my and Jing Jo’s motion-sickened demise. There are five of us piled inside: P Pun the driver, Dino the guide, Jing Jo the motion-sick guide trainee and two volunteers from the United States; Teddy and myself. The covered bed of the truck is loaded with five 5 gallon jugs of clean water for the week, vegetables, rice, soy milk, cookware, backpacks and the foreigner essentials: toilet paper and little pillows.
Once we’ve completed four hours of a simultaneously sickening, uncomfortable and beautiful drive away from Chiang Mai, we suddenly turn of the paved road and I discover the true definition of remote. A dirt road with extreme jagged rock lining stretches out before us, which our skilled driver, P Pun can navigate at no more than 5 – sometimes 10 – miles/hour. We pass cabbage and potato fields at the lower altitudes, and every time we go over a body jarring bump in the road, Dino exclaims, “Oh, potato!” and has everyone in stitches. We stop to share the road with families of water buffalo – their eyes are tentative, lovely and seductive. Higher up in altitude, deciduous forrest replaces fields and the air is notably cooler. We pick up a hitch hiker whom decides to ride the top of our caravan, since we are overcapacity inside. I fear for his life, as we essentially off-road over cliffs and chasms washed away by monsoon rains, but decide that riding the top of a truck likely ain’t no thang for our passenger when your training is on elephants’ necks over the same terrain.
He hops off the truck at the next village and eventually we get out to stretch our aching legs and backs and pick up Thai mattresses and blankets from the villagers whom apparently hold them for our infrequent project. Emerging from shack, home, jungle and pen, the elders and the children of this tiny community all come out to watch us as if we were aliens. I, the only blonde they’ve probably ever seen, both foreigners towering at over 5’7 in height – we must look like grotesque, light skinned giants to them. I expected the children to point and laugh. Instead, the entire 100 person village just … stared.
We have another 16 miles of rocky mountain off-road to survive before we find our hill tribe. We will be staying on the floor of one of the most remote Karen Hill Tribe family’s homes. They will not speak English. Some will speak basic Northern Thai, I am told. All will speak Karen. Their huts will not have electricity nor running water. This is the real deal.
When tourists come to Thailand, they want to experience the elephants or the Karen Hill Tribe, but they end up riding elephants or watching elephants paint or perform at camps. Tourists end up hiring a tuk tuk to visit the most convenient Karen Hill Tribe to the city. I truly feel and hope these tourists mean well, but they don’t take the time to actually learn about Thai culture, politics or ecology – and their trekking ends up supporting the most horrific abuse of an endangered species I have ever seen. Their visit to the Karen Hill Tribe visit turns into a shopping spree at a commercialized village. If I could only share my experience at the Elephant Nature Park and this project, the Journey to Freedom, with these well-intentioned tourists. I am convinced all tourists, with a little education, would rather bathe with an elephant than break their spines under the weight of their riding bench. I am convinced that tourists would rather live with the Karen Hill Tribe rather than exploit them. They just need to know where. Guide books only present the abusive and exploitative tourist options. Local travel agencies receive commission on sales of elephant performance packages. I, though, have nothing to earn from sharing my experience with you. I am giving my perspective of my experience to you for free. This experience is already changing my life forever. It is my hope that you may share it with others. It will change your life, too.
We pass a river running over the road with nine naked children playing and washing in it. We continue for many more miles.
photography by Teddy Yonenaka
I look at it this way; instead of getting a baby sitter for me while they rehearsed and did theatre, they just had me audition, too! Really, though, I think my parents intended for the community theatre experience to be a family experience. It certainly was. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my whole family singing and dancing our parts together in the living room.
I was only 6 years old when dad and mom brought me to the community theatre audition for Oliver. I was pretty young, but I was already used to the structure of creative play from two years of tap dance classes with Joan VanArsdalen. I took to the theatre really well. In those beginning years, my roles were always children, but I remember my dad being funny as Mr. Bumble and all the sneaky pranks the adults played on each other for closing night (like the baby powder in the trumpet – when it blew, it blew smoke!) – that’s the community in the theatre. And that is my upbringing as to what theatre could be: family, community, fun, creative play. Pretty much everything good in life.
I was hooked. I did a play every year while I was young – Bye Bye Birdie, Babes in Toyland, Annie Get Your Gun. At 7 years old I was only appropriate for little kid parts, like following my mom around on stage in Falling Moons, but don’t you think that my girlfriend Heather and I didn’t memorize all the choreography and vocal parts to the adult roles in Anything Goes. We weren’t old enough to book those adult roles in that musical, so instead ushered every show and watched a lot of them. But we actually had more fun acting out our own Anything Goes during the show in the lobby. We were stars to the cars passing by!
I got older and since I could handle bigger kid roles, I did more theatre and landed parts in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Hello Dolly! and Finnians Rainbow and friend, Sean, quickly became a favorite actor to perform with. It didn’t hurt that my best girlfriends were in the theatre, too. At a certain point in my teen development, I noticed that what was happening socially backstage was quite more interesting than what was happening on stage! Mandy and Tansley and I – community theatre hooligans! – practiced hypnotizing each other and guided each others’ out of body experiences in the dressing trailer, waiting to dance the obligatory dream ballet (or was it the ensemble piece opening act two) of Carousel. Mandy got bad press on that one. Someone in the town thought her bear costume was perverse and wrote the paper. Let’s do a Jungian analysis of that one, perversion finger-pointer. Perverse bear costume? We just thought the costume was stifling, what with every inch of her body covered in fur and a complete face mask!
We had cast parties at Pizza Hut and 21 Scoops ice cream joint and I remember we theatre hooligans tried to race the other kids stuffing our faces with yes; 21 scoops. We tried to crack the mysterious safe door in back of the theatre as I’m sure every person had before and has since. I helped my dad paint the sets and even helped him when he built that huge addition to the back of the theatre – I walked on the roof frame when it was only 2 x 8’s.
There is so much community and family in the Hillsdale Community Theatre, it’s easy to talk about all the things that surrounded the theatre performance without even mentioning being on stage. But honestly, the beauty I found in the art of theatre changed my life (and career) forever.
Theatres really are magical places. Human beings enter within the sacred space expecting magic to happen. We know the laws of nature are suspended inside these blacked out walls with velvet seats and we use the suspension of reality to our advantage. One spotlight can change an entire world. For me, theatre reflects the noble human desire to understand someone/something else so completely, we are willing to (temporarily) sacrifice our entire person to understand them. The performer wants to believe so badly, they become.
The realness and honesty of looking out at a human audience, whom responds and appreciates touches a performer’s soul in ways no television show or blockbuster film could. I am more human because I have sat, before a show, alone behind the proscenium curtain and listened to the house conversation go from one guest with distinguishable banter, to 200 audience members, now just a sea of anticipatory conversation – nothing distinguishable – just the sound of human energy. My childhood theatre meditation involved sitting and listening to the audience fill up from right behind that closed curtain. I learned to say my ABCs backwards on one of my pre-show listening sits. Now my ABCs backwards is a calming, centering meditation for me still today.
Stage presence is almost a spiritual axiom for me – how to not upstage, how to counter, throw focus, ect – and I learned it on the Hillsdale Community Theatre stage. You’d be surprised how many improvisers I perform with at Second City in Hollywood and how many film actors don’t have the gift of stage presence. Heck, you’d be surprised how many people at the super market don’t have the gift of stage presence. To me, stage presence is the fungi shui of human movement. Stage presence, whether used on stage or at the bowling alley, is a way to physically respect others and one’s environment. Stage presence is the ability to flow within one’s world. I’m thankful for it’s natural presnece in my life.
When I was on tour with STOMP or Kenny Rogers, many of my community theatre friends came to see me at our Michigan performances. I felt like I owed it to them to be good on stage. And I knew that I couldn’t NOT be good on stage because I had learned the art of the stage with them. And I had found the essence of creative play with them. And I am lucky to get to play and perform art for a living still today. I am grateful and know how special it is.
I’ve gone on to perform in musical theatre in Chicago, concert dance and Off-Broadway in New York City. I’ve performed in casinos in Vegas and on network television and blockbuster films in Hollywood. I’ve toured in theatre and with famous musicians and been flown all over the world to shoot music videos. Now, I am the She-EO of two companies that service the major motion picture/tv industry in Hollywood. Performance has quite literally become every aspect of my life. And it all started overlooking the orchestra pit on the Hillsdale Community Theatre stage.
In Los Angeles the walls have ears, I like to say. I discourage friends from shit-talking and bellowing out their creative ideas at cafes or even at my apartment because you never know who is listening. My neighbors alone are assistant directors, camera operators, musicians and more, working in fields as diverse as special effects, post-production and fashion design. And these folks aren’t fantasizing about those careers. These are real, working entertainment and creative arts professionals who make their living producing work that tours, screens, broadcasts, shows and sells.
I’ve actually seen a film story my best friend and I concepted get produced and distributed theatrically without consulting, inviting or crediting me (he got credit). I’ve had my writing published web-wide without author citing. I’ve had my photography show up on fliers promoting bands I don’t even know. I’ve had my costume designs appear on stage before I finished my own rhinestoning. I’ve had weirdos pattern their public personas after my personality and life hackers create social accounts posing as me.
It’s how we create and credit after inspiration that identifies us as honorable or as thieves.
This is all my creative property. My ideas, my talent and my personality are my commodities. So nowadays I use my inside voice for emotional rants and creative concepts. The walls have ears.
Many years ago, I was in a Chicago hip-hop class taught by Kirby Reed, a choreographer I admire. He addressed the concept of stealing another artist’s work with finesse when he busted out one of his signature moves. He said something like (I am paraphrasing—this was many years ago), “I know this move is gonna show up everywhere. If you can pay me; do. If you can’t pay me, then make me a legend by saying my name every time it’s used.” I did indeed use many of his moves in choreography for my students, but every time I did, I said, “This is the Kirby Reed.” My students knew his name as if he was famous. And to us, he absolutely was.
The longer I am a professional artist, the more I realize that people will be inspired by my art and I will be inspired by the work of others. It would be vain and egotistical to think that anything I create is genuinely original. We are always inspired by, riffing off of or embellishing something, whether the inspiration comes from a hike through Muir Woods, a sensual kiss from our lover, or a jaw-dropping Nine Inch Nails concert at Hollywood Bowl.
It’s how we create and credit after inspiration that identifies us as honorable or as thieves. And let’s face it, pay is great and puts food in an artist’s mouth. But accurate credit builds our future careers. And speaking our names to everyone creates legend status which gives influential privileges even after death.
Here are some methods of creation coupled with appropriate crediting. In the end, remember that speaking the name of an artist costs nothing and offers legend status, which is always appreciated.
Artists and producers can be inspired by the morning sunlight as well as a conversation with their dad. Thank yous and shout outs are the appropriate recognition for inspiration. “Shout out to the blossoming jasmine, my inspiration for this next piece.”
I actually did see Nine Inch Nails at Hollywood Bowl last week. Not only did I leave inspired in general, but specifically, the band used movable shadow screens I’d like to embellish in an act of mine. If I am taking any specific idea from another artist, it is required that I embellish it so much with my new concept that the other artist’s work is unidentifiable as the inspiration. This is called riffing or embellishing. If you do not embellish, then you are re-creating or just plain stealing. It’s appropriate in a situation like this to acknowledge and recognize the inspiration you’ve embellished. “I saw Trent Reznor use shadow screens at the Hollywood Bowl magnificently and that’s where this act started.”
The difference between re-creating and stealing is entirely in the crediting of a work. Re-creation is when you take someone else’s work and cover it exactly—with credit. Stealing is when you take someone else’s work and cover it exactly—without credit. I have a dear burlesque friend who I watched steal another burlesque performer’s act verbatim without giving credit. My friend’s version was better because she’s a better performer and dancer, but that’s not embellishment—the act was performed verbatim and no credit was given, so it’s stealing.
I personally think the only reason to do a re-creation is in honor of the original show or artist. For example, I have a re-creation act of Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1943 performance in the film Stage Door Canteen. I’ve been in musical theater productions where we re-create the original Broadway choreography for the big production numbers to honor first production. And ALWAYS, when re-creating, the production cites the original choreographer in the program. Before my Gypsy Rose Lee re-creation, the emcee says exactly what I’m re-creating.
If you don’t give public credit for a re-creation, you are stealing. Which is tacky and risky because the walls have ears (and eyes) and someone is going to recognize your re-creation and you will look like you aren’t creatively competent.
A tribute act is like an embellishment or riff, but instead of embellishing the act enough to make the inspiring concept unidentifiable, it is methodically keeping popular elements identifiable to benefit from and honor the reputation of the inspiring legend. Usually tributes are performed in honor of a legend (see my Lili St Cyr and Shirley Temple burlesque tribute acts) and crediting the legend is required ethically, plus it assists audience enjoyment through education and association. Again, a tribute is built on another artist’s popularity, so if you don’t credit them, you’ll look like an asshole professionally because their work is recognizable to much of the world.
Dedications are works dedicated to someone or something. Dedications are defined by the credit of “dedicating this song to my late grandmother” or “dedicating this performance to the newly freed circus animals of Peru.” The work being dedicated can be any of the aforementioned creative methods and should be credited accordingly in addition to the offered dedication.
Again, with certain artistic media, purchasing rights to reproduce, republish or cover is a clearly viable option and PAY is always the most honorable appreciation! But with performing arts like dance, burlesque, circus, comedy and other live stage shows, rights purchase is not always as clear, so ethics go a long way in one’s long-term professional reputation. A shout out, credit roll or permission request will keep you in good standing with the community and ensure a long-term devoted audience, hungry for your next creation!
Richard McDonald, an artist from FL whom I met on G+, creates the practical way – by hand with charcoal and paper. It impresses me what depth of shading and emotion charcoal can offer. Richard has chosen two photographs of me to work off of and in both, it’s the softness and life in the lips that impresses me most. Check out Richard’s G+ page and support his creative process.
based on photo by Bjoern Kommerell
based on photo by Marti Matulis
Burlesque is not a dance style. Burlesque is a performance art which demands the performer explore what they are personally good at and incorporate that into their acts. If you make costumes, then wear a stunner. If you are a comedian, make’em laugh. If you sing, raise your voice. If you juggle or mime or tap dance or write poetry, well for goodness sake, do that! To some degree, I personally do it all. But my foundation will always lie in dance. I am good at dance. So I include dance in my burlesque most of the time and here is a clip from my favorite #dance based #burlesque solo to #PinkFloyd’s #Money: