Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Have Braids Will Travel

In my travels around the Bay Area I add new cultural sensibilities to my inner terrain and learn some profound leadership skills at a Director's Lab.

"I like your hair," said my colleague, Deb, when I met her for lunch at a local Thai restaurant. She was referring to two small braids on either side of my face framing my long hair. 

"I was afraid I wasn't ethnic enough," I said. She laughed a delightful laugh of appreciation for this comment on the fluidity of identity. 

"You'll never not be ethnic," she said. She herself was sporting her usual head of salt and pepper ringlets falling past her shoulders that complemented her Jewish identity.

"Oh phew, I was beginning to wonder if I was becoming too white." I joked. She laughed again. 

"I was actually going for the look of the Faeries in Lord of the Rings," I added, "but it didn't turn out that way". More delighted laughter. Yes those Faeries are definitely ethnically white in the palest European sense, but they did have long hair decorated with beautiful silver jewelry. 

I was happy with the Native American look I ended up with. I became visible to people who never noticed me before. Latina women smiled and wanted to talk to me in the wealthy houses where we worked. I had somehow transcended my race. (Thai women never braided their hair.) Interior designers in those same houses wanted to know my name. The New York closet designer I sometimes worked for loved my new look and because she was such an arbiter of taste that pretty much clinched it. I was confident that I had achieved a definitive style worth cultivating.

My hair redo was prompted by a shift in the demographics of my environment as the streets of Oakland became a part of my geography. Oakland is a black city, famously so, and the historical home of the Black Panthers. It is across the bay an hour's drive away, but it might as well be another country. Not too many Asian people visible there if at all. Further south, but still in the east bay, the suburban town of Fremont was the home of Asian immigrants with entire school districts full of college bound, 4.0 Asian students. On my side of the bay Silicon Valley offered a diversity of brown immigrants drawn to the tech industry, but very few African Americans.

The economy on the east bay side is different from Silicon Valley's upwardly mobile, moneyed tidiness; it is possible to drive through miles of shabbiness in Oakland that look third world in comparison. The run down houses on small lots marked off with cyclone fencing. Junked cars up on blocks, household furniture left outside in the yard. 

Seldom did people on my side of the bay speak of going to Oakland. There is a resistance to crossing bridges in earthquake country; you can get stranded. Plus downtown Oakland is so cut up by freeway exits that you can't get out the same way you got in. 

When I started going to Oakland for sessions with Lenore, my shamanic counselor, I would take BART in, arriving at the Ashby station. It being Saturday, the station parking lot was given over to a flea market with chiefly black vendors. Some stalls sporting reggae flags and dashikis. The open air display of used items and new household goods reminding me of open markets in other parts of the world. A sensibility not without a certain cultural pride fleshed out by street musicians. No street musicians on my side of the bay. Not allowed without a permit. 

Barbara Ehrenrich wrote a book about the suppression of communal celebration called Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. She noted that when the rich and poor celebrated together in the streets, then so too does social injustice become personalized resulting in commentary and cruel satire from the have nots. Feeling threatened the haves of the Middle Ages separated themselves from their common brethren and fearing further violence towards them, made laws to forbid certain aspects of carnival traditions. Street musicians remind me of this ongoing suppression. 

I braided my hair so I could belong on the Oakland side of the bay too, hair being such a marker of tribal affinity. While searching for silver cuffs with which to decorate them, I found a site discussing how to emulate the hairstyles of the characters in The Hobbit. Hobbits were all over the braided hair look, even braiding their beards. An Etsy seller in Australia was recommended who was selling Nepalese silver cuffs. My hair quest was going global. (Also recommended were latex hair bands to fasten the braid over which the hair cuff would slip. A useful tip.)

Director's Lab

Shortly after my lunch with my friend Deb I was scheduled to attend a director's lab for filmmakers wishing to learn how to work with actors. I did not have any plans to work with actors. I was not a writer of fiction, but the opportunity presented itself and I stepped up to the plate and applied because of my work with Lenore. She regularly introduced me to new information and her interests were now mine. My admiration and love for her forced out fear and cut through ambivalence. Because of her inspiration I wrote on more dangerous topics, pieces I knew could get me in trouble and took much more effort to get right, but her support alone was enough to make it worth the risk. (This love being a projection on another of what I hadn't been brave enough to own for myself yet. And as I took these risks so too did it allow some of my readers to feel supported. Some also questioned me, thus broadening my horizons further into these challenging topics.)

I applied to the director's lab because I wanted to see what was involved in directing a movie. Plus it was completely free courtesy of the San Jose Arts and Cultural department. I heard about it through the Media Center. The same outfit where I had taken the video filmmaking class in order to learn the skills needed to help Lenore videotape the backstory play she put together last Spring (or which I had also built sets). 

And so I took myself, braids and all, to the Mexican Heritage Plaza deep in the heart of the Latino community in San Jose (once affectionately known as the armpit of the Bay Area given it's location at the southern most point of the Bay). Alex Mundoz, the director who had offered to teach this lab was a local boy who had gone to USC to study film, had done some short films and was now working on a feature. We would work through a couple of scenes from his script. The twenty-two winning applicants who arrived for the workshop were also largely minority—mostly Hispanic and Asian. A handful of white people rounded out the group plus six actors (of different ethnicities) to help with the scenes.  

When we introduced ourselves, three of the white people turned out to be Europeans with foreign names and foreign accents. For the first time in perhaps my whole life in the Bay Area I felt part of the majority—a brown majority. I still felt obliged to explain where I came from and why I had an English accent, but the effect was of being of the same general migratory trajectory as everyone else in the room. It allowed me to assemble at the same starting point as the rest of the group whereas I usually occupied a bubble by myself content to do my own thing, but nevertheless apart from the group. This acceptance within a group enhancing my experience.

Alex told us how his first class at USC was so intimidating that he almost quit. He didn't want us to feel that way so he explained everything clearly and started with the heart of the work, how to motivate actors by giving them internal thoughts. I felt welcomed into his artistic process right away. We saw what a collaborative creation a play or film became because of the interpretations of the actors. And by the end of the day we understood something about bringing human emotions and relationships alive.  

The next day we started off with an exercise to memorize everyone's name. The first person said their name and added to it a gesture. The second person repeated that name and gesture and added their name and gesture and so on with each person repeating all the names of the people before them. I was last in line so I had to name all 29 participants which I was able to do with only one prompt. Having named everyone I felt like part of one big family. 

We then went on to watch an exercise that demonstrated the arc of an interaction. Alex explained how his scene had a point of ignition, a moment of crisis, a point of no return, a moment of surrender and reconciliation. He marked the floor off in sections. Each section was assigned a different emotional piece of the scene. The first mark was the start of an argument, the point of ignition. The second contained the back and forth of the argument and so forth. Then he directed each pair of actors to improvise wordlessly through the scene using the section boundary lines as points of transition. As each pair of actors walked down the length of the room we watched an argument unfold, then escalate in a period of intense back and forth followed by what looked like a change of heart and a reconciliation. I was oddly moved by seeing this movement within a relationship.

In the next exercise we all paired up and were given secret instructions to guide our interactions with our partners. We were to dance down the room with our partners, but one partner was told that if they did not maintain eye contact with their partner they would not be able to breath. While the other partner was told that if they so much as made eye contact with their partner they would turn to stone. This of course made for an intensely interesting dance as we moved about trying to get our needs met. I was in the group who wouldn't be able to breath without eye contact and such a set of gyrations I went through that I appeared to be doing a form of break dancing and the room laughed at my movements. This exercise, Alex told us was called the Dance of Avoidance. And he used it to show us the underlying motivations of a scene.

Watching these two exercises back to back I had such compassion for us poor misinformed humans that I came to a new understanding of story and relationships. Here we were moving through time according to the narrative of whatever story we stepped into, motivated by secret needs we had not yet acknowledged. How like life! At the same time I saw that nothing was locked down—stories played out—people had changes of heart. This was an example of IMPERMANENCE, one of the key teachings of the Buddha. Yet somehow I had not understood before how impermanence connected with story. But here sitting in the director's chair I saw that a situation could change, had to change. It was the nature of things. And I realized that if we were so stuck in a story we were telling ourselves then we could simply tell another, reveal unacknowledged motivations, cast ourselves in different roles, renegotiate terms. 

This kind of power over one's own story was a very Western concept; one I had resisted. When things came at me I was so well trained by my Buddhist culture to accept what was. Over time I had studied how to be more prepared for events and been drawn to concrete ways to be prepared (even literally by becoming a prepper—preparing for the apocalypse and other emergencies), but I had not yet approached the front end of the story. Looking at story from such a director's point of view, I saw how stories were vehicles that created interactions and roles to be played out. But I didn't have to accept the story that seemed to be coming at me. What was a story after all, but a narrative going on in your head? 

I had not worked with theatre since college acting classes. Revisiting this territory took me back to my nineteen year old self and connected me up with that abandoned thread in my life. Abandoned in part because an acting teacher had told me I couldn't do a monologue I'd chosen because it was written for a male character. That I was restrained to gender roles and character roles written by long dead playwrights in a time when women spent their time railing against limitations set on them by men. (At least more so than in my life). But here in the director's lab the playwright was there and everyone was allowed to bring to the story something of themselves. Alex was thrilled with how his actors fleshed out his story and said he would add to his movie what he just saw happen. In his lab a story was a living container for collaborative work.


These revelations led me to book a session with Lenore at her Oakland consulting office. We had been meeting in coffee shops to discuss her film and the last meeting was so off it made me question if our relationship would endure and Lenore wrote me to apologize for not having a more focused agenda. During the director's lab I so saw the two of us caught in the Dance of Avoidance. Our motivations at cross purposes. I could sense that we had attributed emotions and motivations to each other that got in the way of working together. Lenore, having been cast into the role of crush object by me, was going to avoid giving me any information to feed the crush, but she still wanted my help with her movie project. While I had more to talk about than would fit in a context limited to discussion of movies, but it wasn't my place to occupy our time with such randomness so I had to shut up and we both shut down the part of us that would naturally connect. Our story had run aground, but luckily I had another one to turn to. One I could ask for and monopolize completely with whatever I needed to say.

I gathered together talismans, amulets, little trinkets I could use to represent different aspects of my life around my relationships, around my recent experience of writing about race in America, my grief about the planet given a recent oil spill on a favorite beach, my shamanic practice and my life as an artist. I picked an antique gold charm—a heart shaped padlock to represent the unlocking of my artistic aspirations inspired by Lenore herself being in my life. All the things I wanted to be seen in the shamanic way of being that Lenore embodied that also included shared political values and a life driven by artistic expression, by storytelling itself.

At my appointment I laid the objects out on a stool between us and talked about everything that had been going on, picking up each talisman as I picked up all the bits and pieces of scattered narrative that was my life. And as I talked I put it all into a fresh narrative, on the way correcting whatever I felt needed a more truthful representation, people I had complained about but now felt I had represented unfairly, things brought up by all the new territory I had explored of late. What artistic projects I would turn to next. What she meant to me as a mentor. 

Story telling like this allowed me to get at the front end of the story I was living—become the director of my own life. And I could see by Lenore's expressions that I was being heard, that things were being aired and ironed out that needed to be, that my story was lining up with my intentions in a way that would allow us to work together free of hidden projections. And I also recounted to Lenore, my life with Catherine, acknowledging how she had acquired a grace and wisdom after her cancer journey. How she was able to listen without judgement to my occasional rantings. How she had stopped worrying about death and had decided she was here to help people with their own similar journeys. And in the days following my session I saw improvements in all these aspects of my life. And when Catherine and I went away that weekend to our favorite zen monastery at Tassajara for a much needed retreat we were able to reconnect on a sweet and profound level.

It was ironic that in the context of learning how to direct drama I had learned some powerful leadership skills that allowed me to step away from the components that created drama. Instead of a point of ignition I now had a point of inspiration. Instead of a point of no return I had a point from which to go forward. A period of crisis could now become a period of collaboration. And while surrender and reconciliation was still a part of my story I could also see celebration and exaltation being the end point. I just had to watch how I let the story unfold and direct it towards the most optimum outcome.

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