The Singing Room: A Playwright’s Thoughts

I’m taking a break today from my usual neurosis today to write about my new play, The Singing Room which opens here in Denver on April 27th and runs through May 18th. It occurred to me that even though I rewrote the show itself about 13 times, I’ve never actually written about the show itself. What was it about a story that revolves around a birthday party in karaoke bar that I was drawn to?  How did this play start out as one thing and morph into something else? And why was I obsessed with writing a show about karaoke?

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I guess should first explain what the play is about. The central plot revolves around April, a fashion writer celebrating her 25th birthday at Sunshine’s Singing Room with her friends- Dan her timid  co-worker, Leslie her controlling but out of control childhood friend and Ava, her actress neighbor with a surprise of her own. This birthday party mixes with the regular barflies at Sunshine’s Singing room including Leroy, a karaoke legend in his own mind, Ruby a former, would-be rock and roll goddess and the owner of the establishment as well as our salty emcee for the evening Sunshine, herself. My own tireless research in bars in Los Angeles helped inform these folks, naturally.On the dubious occasion of her birthday, April finds herself at a crossroads and before the night is over thanks to the help of some friends and some strangers, her life might just get turned upside down. I was compelled to write about April mainly because that moment in a person’s life when you start to see through the cracks of how you live and start to think “Hmm. Maybe this doesn’t work for me anymore” is one that interests me very much. In my own life, I needed a series of those moments to happen before I made a change but since we’re trying to make an entertaining little show here, April gets to experience it in two acts. Lucky girl. But leaving the people and things that don’t work or that are no longer good for you isn’t always a happy ending either. Therefore, the story since its inception has never been clear-cut and the ending in my mind has always been ambiguous. This decision gave the show from the first draft to the last what we in the production have been calling “funny-sad”. You know, that hilarious yet kind of real and heartbreaking quality. The first few versions were primarily focused around just the birthday crew and April’s conflict. While funny and entertaining, there were parts that  read like a bad episode of “90210”. Something else was needed to give the story an edge. After toying with even more rewrites, we figured out that the story really needed more of the bar folks to help express the themes of love, disappointment and transformation. Duh. They were sitting at the bar the whole time.

As far as karaoke goes, I’m a huge fan. I love that normal people  can get up on stage and rock out, whether they suck or not. Karaoke is less about vocal prowess and more about selling it to the crowd. It’s also huge to face your fears to just get up there and do it. I myself, suck at singing but it doesn’t stop me from having fun and being ridiculous although now that I’m sober it takes a little more coaxing than it used to. Go figure. But these themes of fearlessness and self-awareness were interesting things to infuse in the script too. We spent a lot of time at karaoke with our casts from previous shows and we both always thought that a karaoke bar would be a great setting for a play. Just the very nature of karaoke gives real life this musical/music video quality which is otherwise impossible to achieve. Also, karaoke is so random and sporadic and putting that energy on stage was an exciting and terrifying proposition. A little terror, I find, is a good thing and certainly keeps the work fresh.  Since karaoke is different every time so is The Singing Room. The characters all have a set of songs they’ll be performing throughout  the run and the show will have songs by the audience too.

My husband, Michael Emmitt, who is also directing this crazy show (bless his heart), talked me off ledges, reorganized the script and even wrote some of the shows best lines. Like April, we recently had to look at things that weren’t working and make huge scary, changes. This winter, we both finally left the theater company we built. It was painful but as April discovers, it was even more painful staying in something that we didn’t feel good about. Yet, The Singing Room has survived! From rehearsals in our living room to last-minute cast and script changes, the show, like most of them do, has gone on. We’ll be performing in an incredible theater space that we were blessed to find. Miraculously, it feels like the show we always wanted to make. And when it comes to life and art you really can’t ask for more than that.

Bjork, Nachos & God

When I used to fall into a tricky little hole called depression or the neighboring, less threatening hole named sadness, the tool I used to get out was my old pal liquor. Liquor, I thought, could make a ladder to help pull me out. What it did, though, every single time was fill the hole with more chaos until I was not only stuck in a hole but also drowning. Recently, the ladders I had to use to pull me out were of a different variety to say the least.

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Sometimes pop music transcends pop music and while listening to “All is Full of Love” by Bjork, I finally heard something I have needed to hear for weeks. Like a lot of incredible songs in my life, this one showed up in my headphones and out of nowhere it told me the truth.

You’ll be given love
You’ll be taken care of
You’ll be given love
You have to trust it

Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions
You are staring at

Twist your head around
It’s all around you
All is full of love
All around you

I’ve  heard this song a million times but it wasn’t until now that it really shook me to the core. After a difficult month involving a creative breakup, some financial uncertainty and a batch of sad news, I had fallen down a hole. I knew it too. My first instinct was to panic and freak out and try to frantically dig my way out. I’m sober and I always thought feeling sad or being depressed was who I was and not who I am. But the truth is, I am a human and sometimes my life is sucky or hard or fucking sad. And this last month was one of those times. What I did know is that I needed to go through it, no matter how long it took. I have been relying on meetings, bad TV and nachos to pull me out. But mainly, and not to sound like some horrible coffee mug that you’d get at an inspirational bookstore, I’ve needed God as my ladder. (Country song idea #51: God is My Ladder) The fact is that all of this seemed to heavy or too overwhelming and too fucking much.I kept up my prayer and mediation practice even when I didn’t want to get out of bed because I knew that this was going to eventually pass but I needed some supernatural non-human aid of the higher powered variety to help it along.

And just like that it did. After a month of pushing on and feeling my feelings, it happened. I was lifted out of that hole that seemed too deep and too scary and neverending just a few weeks ago.  As this lovely song, now added to my “Play it at the Funeral” playlist, filled me with gratitude. It made me realize that my life, holes and rough patches included, is good. That I am taken care of.  It is full of love and it is all around me. Even when I can’t see it. Especially then, I think.

Nashville: A good television show about country music & a terrific one about alcoholism

My jaw-dropped at a particularly brilliant piece of writing during a recent episode of ABC’s Nashville. “I know a dry drunk when I see one” quipped Juliette Barnes, the pampered country diva, who shows up to help her friend Deacon Claybourne out. Claybourne, for those who haven’t been watching the ridiculously good musical-drama, is a sober guitarist whose life is still unmanageable, thanks in large part to a super dysfunctional relationship with his ex, the queen of country music Rayna Jaymes. Juliette goes on to tell her friend that even though he hasn’t picked up a drink in years, he needs to be taking care of himself, doing what he loves, and going to meetings. The exchange is written not in the ‘very special episode’ manner that recovery used to be handled on television but with  realism and humor. Nashville creator Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for Thelma and Louise, knows her way around this subject and doesn’t back away from it. And why should she? Recovery makes for great drama.

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As a kid from an alcoholic home who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I didn’t ever see my family on TV. Other than the occasional episode of Facts of Life or that random after-school special about ‘angel dust’, TV like the rest of planet avoided talking about how ugly and complex alcoholism and addiction really were. Besides, we tuned into shows like Knight Rider or Charlie’s Angels not to be bummed out but to be entertained. Corny television shows aside, my childhood was probably not the different from the fictional Juliette’s. See, our little country star does know a lot about this disease as her own mama struggles to get and stay clean. In Juliette, Khouri has created a difficult, temperamental, strong willed and ultimately sympathetic character. Like a lot of us from alcoholic homes, Juliette pretty much raised herself and was lobbed disappointments by the bucketful since an early age. As a friend of mine in the program recently texted, “Juliette’s not a bitch. She’s just an ACA!” The character even admitted on a recent episode that she wanted her mother to die after she screwed up her ninth birthday party.  Played by Hayden Panettiere with tart combination of heart and steel, Juliette Barnes might look like Taylor Swift to tabloid reporters but to kids who grew with drunk parents, she certainly looks an awful lot like one of us.
But back to that line about being a “dry drunk.” This zinger left a mark on me because not only had I grew up like Juliette but at four years sober I know thing or two about dryness also. Deacon may have the ready-for-primetime problems like the “is he or isn’t he” the baby-daddy to Rayna’s oldest daughter that I thankfully don’t know anything about. Yet like him, I know the struggles of staying emotionally sober and how tricky self-care can be. Since my second year of sobriety, I’ve vacillated with great regularity between being a happy, respectable sober fellow and a dry uncomfortable mess. Staying sober is a tough and tricky task that isn’t always met with the drama of relapse. A lot of the time, the drama comes with just staying afloat and getting back to the things that saved our lives in the first place. The character of Deacon seems to confirm what many of us in recovery have discovered. Just because we got sober and our lives got better, it doesn’t mean this whole life thing ever gets easier.
Leaving drugs and alcohol out of a show about country music would be a mistake. Country music might be the soundtrack of America’s heartland but it has a long tragic history with alcoholism and addiction. What alcoholic can’t relate to famous country songs like Whiskey River, Friends in Low Places and I’m so Lonesome I could Die?  Legends like Hank Williams, Keith Urban, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis and even Saint Johnny Cash are as famous for their problems with drugs and alcohol as they are for their music. Just last month troubled country singer Mindy McCready lost her decade-long fight with addiction and was found on her porch by her neighbors. McCready had shot herself and in sad country song fashion, she also shot her ex-boyfriend’s dog.

While Nashville the city is still turning out the hits, it’s hard to say if Nashville the television show will last. Can normal, non-country fans relate to a show dedicated to the juicy side of the music business? Probably not.  Viewers need to identify with what character’s are going through, even on the most remote level. Most of us don’t know what sleazy managers are like or how to deal with slumping record sales. What might keep Nashville on our television sets for a few more seasons, however, is it’s no apologies and distinctly human look at an epidemic that continues to rock country music stars and everyday people alike.

Nothing More Than Feelings

“Just because you’re feeling it doesn’t mean that it’s the truth or that it even matters,” he told me at a few months sober. Basically, this friend of mine was telling me, whatever it was that I was feeling, it wasn’t a big fucking deal. Clearly, he didn’t know what I was going through. Because everything I’ve ever felt is a big fucking deal, thank you very much.

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In those early days of recovery, feelings raged bubbled up inside of me like hot lava and I couldn’t control where they spewed or what they destroyed. All I knew is after not feeling anything for decades, I was now in the middle of an emotional natural disaster.  There was never a middle ground with me and emotions. I either ignored my emotions or I let my emotions rule my life. Both ways were totally out of control ways to live. If I ignored whatever it was I feeling, eventually my insides would start to ache and I’d need something to take the edge off. A bucket of blow and a kiddie pool full of tequila usually did the trick. If however, I let my emotions drive the bus, I was in for a wild and unpredictable ride and so were the poor folks I dragged onboard.  I felt like people were out to get me. I felt like I need to control the way people reacted. I felt like I needed to be happy so I concocted bullshit stories to help sell this lie. I felt, I felt, I felt and it all felt crazy and therefore a drink would help fix this way of living too.

When emotions take over in sobriety, that is when things get tricky. The drama of feeling depressed, angry, victimized or heartbroken is another drug entirely for me. Something in my addict mind tries to convince me that if my life is hard or bad than I have a reason to check out. “He hasn’t left his bed in days but can you blame him?” is what I hope people will say. In reality, people don’t care if I feel good or bad. People, just like me, are too wrapped in thinking about themselves to give two shits about my mental state. My emotions and what I feel have turned out to be what that friend said they were: not a big deal. In this no-big-dealness, I just get to feel whatever it is I’m going through. The good, the bad, the unfabulous. I feel it, I acknowledge it and I move on. And sometimes I feel crappy for a while and this is okay too.

As I talked about in the post below, my life hasn’t been easy lately. I had nine days solid of a lot of drama of the boring professional nature. While disheartening and annoying, it has proven to be just that. I’m lucky that my health is good, that I get paid to do what I love and that my husband has my back no matter what. Mainly, I don’t drink when shit is uncomfortable or when feelings do show up. Today, I get say when somebody asks, “I feel like shit.” And I get to say that with no remorse or drama attached. I say how I’m feeling now because it isn’t a big deal but ignoring it is.