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(Personal Essay) The Muse and the Mirror: Performance, Acceptance, and Reclaiming the Creative Voice

Grandma knew I was an artist. I was four when she observed my building worlds out of paper stacks on her kitchen table, crafting kingdoms from the stories we told at lunchtime. I drew myself over and over, one day supplemented by fantastical prostheses and the other stretched or warped by whatever wizardly powers I decided I possessed in that hour. My sense of self existed solely in my head and in my hands. I wrote story after play after poem, and she told my mother and father, “Camille’s an artist” before the serving of soup at suppertime. I was raised as an only child playing in a magical forest with borders as boundless as those of my head, isolated from extensive social interaction, in the solace of imagination, and desperate for performance.

I do not know my body. I have never known my body. In my early years, it was nil but a vessel transporting my innermost whims to the physical world. At thirteen, it became a medium. At fifteen, I let the medium take me over and I bought my discount paints at Shoppers Drug Mart. I merged from writer to player to Greek sculptor, etching my physique to perfection, chipping away at my unique physical deformations as if they were scum on the edge of a Donatello. I have never known my body. I have never been comfortable in my body — not only in its appearance and sexualization, but in my physical sense of self in the social world and how vulnerable it is to critique. I spent my adolescence herding my selves into normalcy, striving to ignore my bodily confusion, my conscience sifted through the influence of popular media and gender-biased sexual education. I grew in a world where my body became the most important canvas to explore and decorate, the most important craft to perfect, always living in need of constant improvement and decoration. I found my self-expression dwindled, and so I began to craft narratives under which to frame my desired state of living, hell-bent on pleasing the social masses, attempting to reprogram isolated parts of my psyche and throwing others into stark neglect. I inhaled desirous need, exhaling falsehood.

But I was an artist. My body, my face, and my social media profiles all supplied an outlet to perform, and perform I did. I cut my hair when I was eighteen in an emotionally deviant frenzy of expression, in a cry for freedom from myself and from these bounds. I told myself, more so than ever, that I was comfortable with the affections of young men; I wasn’t. I’m still not. I directed my personal expressions outward, desperate to write and perform for an audience that would take my creations to heart or to mind. I wanted praise, not for myself, but for what I was able to create. I performed all the time. I performed online, I performed in casual conversation, and I lost my audience. I began performing for crowds of social pseudo-cynics. I still perform for them.

And I fear womanhood. I speak to and work with and know so many young women, and I worry for them. I fear for the future of the online social market and further communication of unconscious lies. I fear for the omnipresent influence of biased education, and false dichotomies between science and the arts confining self-expression and limiting artistic pursuit. I fear for the future of expression itself, in my case chained by stigmatic conceptions of womanhood and sociocultural norms into which I do not fit. In those harder years, the more I dabbled in creation, the more I yearned to abandon it for fear of social mockery or unjust critical reception. I felt jeered at and mocked by the woman in the mirror. And yet I still created. I created my own limits. I let my artistic impulses reign over me, not by choice but because they boiled in my blood, thirsted (and continue to thirst) for the bile beneath my skin. At eighteen, my entire life revolved around the element of performance, and whether or not I could maximize it to its full potential; at eighteen, I moved away in search of an escape either from the toxicity of my surroundings or from myself. Or both. All my life, the voices and lessons of my peers and attackers echoed like sermons. The women in my life and I, we were taught to neglect the hungers of womankind, and submit with naive compliance to the dominant gender; either consciously or subconsciously, we did.

And so my days rained puzzle pieces for awhile, whopping down to my window in torrents, and I frenzied around, desperate to pick up the pieces — force them together in a muddled yet quasi-complete cohesion. I surveyed the pieces: my romantic interests. My wants. Expectations of me. My anxieties. My sexuality. What I say versus what I feel. My socio-critical reception. The edges do not fit. The puzzle is incomplete. Even when I moved away from home, settling down in a city still struggling to find a voice — fitting, isn’t it? — I became happier. I found people who lived me. I tried to insert myself into communities I thought would best suit my involvement. I thought about the people I had hurt back home — those I deceived, knowingly or unknowingly, and those I longed to forget. I think of them constantly, even now. The pieces still did not fit, even in that new and magical place. As much as I feared living under false premises, expectations, and allusions, I still perpetuated them in my mind and appearance. In the midst of so much change and triumph still lurked bold and unwavering happiness.

So I stopped performing. I pursued a liberal arts degree. I started writing again. I started reclaiming the body, which at that point felt more of a stranger than a compatriot. I picked my own mind. I thought of things I wanted to think of. I began reclaiming every inch of myself I’d lost to the world, and the world responded in buckets of gratitude.

I reclaimed my mouth with words that better reflected my opinions, and not with the words of others carefully rearranged to fit the carefully constructed self I wanted to become.

I reclaimed my mind, on my nineteenth birthday, with some mental health diagnoses and one hell of a good smoothie…. and some books that my professors recommended I read. I am reclaiming it constantly.

I reclaimed my scars, not just emotionally — but the physical ones that have manifested all over my face and body — the remains of a turbulent adolescence. I call them my Battle Wounds. I love them now, even if they’re finally fading.

I reclaimed my anxieties, my sadness, and my sporadic feelings of isolation and self abuse with names, and with proper understandings. I still work on this one every day.

I reclaimed my aesthetic appeal with turtlenecks and flouncy pants, grown out curly hair and vintage glasses frames. Still in progress, but I feel great.

I reclaimed my words, channeling every inch of self I abused, lied to, hated, and perpetuated into my first play, Anonymous. I watched in horribly anxious fury when the script made its way back to my old high school and was sent around, selected portions tying inspired-by-semi-true-events to the story completely omitted from thematic/contextual ties and snarked at. I was reminded of the toxicity in my life before this fall, both in people and environment. I stand behind my accomplishments with unwavering pride. I’ve learned my lessons.

I reclaimed my body, which I viewed for so long as a good to parade, a valuable commodity on the hot market available on display for rental and/or taking. I now see it as its own trophy, one that celebrates its hardships and rewards its physical and emotional strength.

And, for the first time, I feel absolved from the limits I tortured myself with. I now spend my time learning, rebuilding the mediums I lost in vain, and creating and performing now not for public acknowledgement or acceptance, but for the sake of contributing a brushstroke to the world’s artistic masterpiece.

I’ve always found extreme comfort in attempting to navigate the chasms of my mind, this summer more than any other. My diagnoses and I are good friends now; we help each-other daily, and recognize each other’s weaknesses. I spent the month of May darting through European cities of my dreams, finding myself in every corner of every museum, gallery, and historic landmark, every colossal church which affirmed my beliefs not in the presence of a higher power, but in the ultimately delicate nature of people. We hurt one-another and we love one-another. We exploit for personal gain, we make mistakes, and we destroy — but we’re all we have. Sufficient to stand, yet free to fall. I learned to learn for myself. I learned to enjoy without documentation, and live without the world tracking my every movement. I love my family, my friends, and my beautiful puppies. My life is art in itself, and I love to be holding the brush.

There has been no greater personal quest than the reclaiming of my own body and mind.

I am tired of performance. Not the kind I have reclaimed in artistic expression, but performance in the social world. The more I come to despise specific chambers of the internet, the more I scorn its diluting of our already fragile understanding and perceptions of communication. I am trying to reconstruct my online presence in a healthier way, and document the highlights of my life via scrapbook or collage or notebook. Most of the greatest adventures of my life remain offline now and forever. I can continue my life as an emotional vagabond in the depths of the world without a like button. I look forward to improving on my self (and worldly) awareness… I of course use the term “self-awareness” loosely, for so much of my understanding wallows in the subconscious, lurking like a trout in the shadows until a cold hook thrust from the depths of collective reality brings something else to light.

My Grandma was right. I may not be an artist in the professional sense, and am unsure what path I will take, but I have always been an artist beneath the skin. So long as there is creation, I will fear its absence.

But my voice is not yet clear, both artistic and personal. My body knows itself no less than it knows the streets of London, and my mind will never be superlatively familiar to me, or to anyone else for that matter. I am still performing every day. I force myself into a clown suit in acts of anxious self-concealment and protection. I am not free from my anxious or depressive bonds but, again, we coexist. As women, artists, and inhabitants of this miraculous world, perhaps we are forever bound to exist in fragments, or worry of a future with no synthesis, no ultimate reassurance in fate. But we have our minds, our hearts, and each-other. There’s a lot of merit in that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed me tossing another scrap to the hungry muse in my heart’s crevice. Thank you to everyone who’s put me here. Never stop looking.

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Community Arts, Education, and the “Legitimacy” of Creation

“The unfed mind devours itself.” – Gore Vidal

My inspiration starts here: I spent my first St. Patrick’s Day as a 19-year-old University student at the local museum, sitting in on a lecture by award-winning Newfoundland director Jillian Keiley entitled How to Make the Performing Arts Thrive Locally, Regionally, and Nationally as a part of the “Public Matters” series (Museum London). Keiley has reached national audiences for years by bringing pieces of Newfoundland into every show she directs; right now, she is in the midst of producing a piece (reworked to be set in her homeland) for the Stratford festival. She spoke of LePage and Tremblay, and the importance of setting in art — to be universal, in the words of Tremblay, we must be local.

This hit home for me — enough, it seems, to take time out of my hectic finals schedule to write an extended blog post about it. First of all, I’d been interested in Tremblay ever since appearing in a production of Albertine in Five Times as a part of the Sears Ontario Drama Festival (we went to Provincials!) in 2014. I began thinking of all the renowned Canadian works that were set or inspired by a specific town or landscape… Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches…, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees… Tremblay’s La Maison Suspendue… the list is infinite. Even the most celebrated of plays are set in a very specific atmosphere and location — think A Streetcar Named Desire. This got me thinking about my local environment, and the artistic communities thriving around it…

Keiley spoke a lot about popular arts, and how difficult it is to promote Canadian theatre to the masses in the shadow of “Ed-Mirvish-Toronto/New-York-City-Broadway-Musical” culture. This reminds me of a discussion I had back in February with Top Girls director Vikki Anderson after attending a lecture on campus about the play’s adaptation for the Shaw Festival. People go to the theatre to feel cultured — more or less promoting an illusion of being cultured — not necessarily to contribute to the ever-growing theatre scene in Canada. We come to the theatre for the experience — for the grand period costumes and intricate period sets, more like it — but we leave dispirited, with ignorant criticism and expressive distaste for the modernizing of Shakespeare and Wilde. As Canadian (and/or global) theatre-goers, we are constantly exposed to modernized adaptations of Shakespearean classics — just look at elements of the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet. The Stratford Festival takes especially creative liberties with its productions — I have heard many things about its past production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I remember hearing about these modernizations — liberties with costumes, time periods, and gender-bending — and questioning the authority of the directors and producers to make such bold changes. Why? Easy — I wanted to think myself cultured and feel it in my blood and guts. It’s all part of the (I hate this word, but I’m going to use it) pretentious “know-it-all-because-I’ve-read-A-Doll’s-House” attitude surrounding popular theatre culture. I myself was included in this for a long while. Shame on me.

I also remember being in tenth grade and hating Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) which, despite its mixed reviews, is quite obviously a “fan favourite.” I looked down on all of these adaptations, as did most of the people I surrounded myself with at the time, and now here I am at University, writing and directing my own material for the first time, expecting artistic perfection and fearing anything but.

We so often think that “modern” adaptations of classics (or just modern works in general!) are not intellectual, or that they are not legitimate; we so often undermine the work in our community for New York City and travelling-musical-theatre-companies-coming-to-Toronto. But how can we ever expect the arts to thrive in our communities if we are not in constant support of them? I have come to realize, from all my years dabbing in arts communities, that creative competition is one of the largest threats to the ingenuity of local artists. If we do not dare to create in our home cities or use our immediate environments as inspiration, then how are we ever to achieve this universality in our art? Community support is something I strongly admire about the new and developing Theatre Studies program at my University (in which I will major along with an Honours Specialization in English Language and Literature). I look forward to learning more with each passing year, and sharing it here with an anonymous sea of internet-stalkers and blog surfers.

As artistic entrepreneurs in our schools, cities, and communities, it can become habitual to succumb to jealousy (or, in some cases, crazy Darwinian “survival-of-the-fittest” attitudes when it comes to competing for roles — I’ve seen it all, trust me) when there is so much competition in the field. I feel that I was lucky to mature in a school environment rich in arts education and promotion, however I also feel that it fostered a sense of entitlement in me, and perhaps in others in my program. I was guilty of over-competitiveness at times and, in some ways, still am. Auditions were always about who was the best, who was the worst, who knew the most, and who was the most “educated” in theatre. Ridiculous, I know, for a band of high school students, but hey — I’m not exerting myself from this! It’s not until you come to University that you realize how little you know, and how little you’ll probably always know.

At the end of my twelfth grade year, as I’ve stated before, I made the decision to abandon a possible career in the arts to pursue political science; this, as we know from my Love Letter to the Muse, lasted about three months. Whereas many people that I know have gone on to study the dramatic arts at nationally renowned institutions, I have gone on to study English Literature and theatre in a city with a strong sense of community where so many new and exciting projects/endeavours are being cultivated. I am so fortunate to be where I am, and would not want it any other way. My now-local community has secured a real sense of home in me, something that I’ve never before experienced in an arts environment, where people are encouraged to grow — critiqued but not discouraged — and where there is a secure sense of belonging, of wanting to contribute to a bigger picture.

It is so easy to be ignorantly critical; this is something I am still working on in myself. Let’s be real — eighteen and nineteen-year-olds have limited experience to just about everything; at this stage, all we can do is put ourselves into our learning and hope for the best. This reminds me of 1960s pop art and just postmodernism in general, people going into art galleries and seeing modern paintings and saying, “I could do that!” Well… you didn’t. You didn’t do that. So why not reward those who did, abandon this sense of artistic entitlement, and reward yourself for learning something new about a work?

I look forward to devoting the next 3+ years of my life to learning, to expanding the environments that have given back to me so much over a period of just seven months, and to fuelling new projects and contributing to the arts on a wider scale. I only hope that others will continue to do the same because, together, our achievements can be limitless.

Crafting and Conquering “Anonymous” – A Reflection

“everything worthwhile ends. we are in the perpetual process now: creation, maturation, cessation.” — john logan, red.

“write, write, write… i cannot escape myself, though i feel that i am consuming my life.” — anton chekhov, the seagull.

“risk! risk anything!… do the hardest thing on earth for you. act for yourself. face the truth.” — katherine mansfield (journal entry, 14 october 1922)

2016 begins here: I spent my January/early February in rehearsals for my show “Anonymous,” which I both wrote and directed as a part of a one-act University play festival. Here is what I have to say about the process… 

It’s been two years since I saw John Logan’s Red down at the Pearl Company, and when I began my first draft I was constantly thinking of the relationship between Rothko and Ken — the power in dualism between two actors onstage. I was adamant that my script have underlying feminist vibes, and with Chekhov’s The Seagull (and also Hedda Gabler — Ibsen, I love you!) being two of my all-time favourite plays, I made a point to work on crafting strong and/or atypical female characters. I thought of how much I loved Caryl Churchill and 19th century theatrical realism.

I wanted to write a little more on seeing my own words come to life — on the experience, the triumphs and pitfalls, and what it means to open yourself up to vulnerability. I believe as artists, and I touched upon this in my earlier post about the ingenious Marina Abramovic, it is our duty to transgress personal and social boundaries for the sake of creation. It has taken me awhile to craft this post — I intended to publish it earlier, but after the performance I found myself overwhelmed with anxiety and needed a week to compile and organize my thoughts… now, they are ready to be written and shared.

The Writing

I told my high school drama teacher and long-time mentor, Mr. Iachelli (who continues to be a driving force in all that I do) that writing and directing a play was like having a child and putting it up for joint custody with a family of strangers. He appreciated the analogy. I thought I’d start with it here.

“Anonymous” came to me during rehearsals for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I can’t remember what I was reading at that point — I think it was Vonnegut’s Mother Night, but by then my interests were with the San Francisco Renaissance and that wasn’t about to change. I kept the project a secret until it was near impossible; I even went so far as to send the script in under a pseudonym, “James/Jamie Cavanaugh,” and I have to admit that I fairly enjoyed playing God for the short while that he was alive. Every second was a big, dumb, self-deprecating thrill.

It’s not much of a secret that I write. What with my zany blog articles circulating around the web, writing and directing a play wouldn’t seem like that much of stretch to the naked eye. However, when the majority of your cyber-published content is photojournalistic and comically self-reflective (and often deprecating), you feel in a sense sheltered from your literary ambitions which often transcend WordPress… this was the kind of writing I never shared. It was something I wanted to explore, and something I can continue to develop confidently having opened myself up to this kind of experience.

The Concept

Here’s my pitch: “Anonymous” is about an electric young woman (appropriately named) Imogen who, upon reconvening with an old childhood confidant overseas, discovers that her friend has been furiously writing a novel about a woman he’s fallen in love with. The writer, Gabriel, intends to submit the book for publication, partially to establish himself in the literary world but mostly so that the woman of his desires will read it. As this “love story” advances, three characters dressed entirely in black (and called “the muses”) come alive to perform monologues, each revealing more about Imogen’s life and what brought her to Gabriel’s loft.

Without giving you the full SparkNotes version, the play ends as each character’s illusions become shattered: Gabriel finishes the novel prior to realizing that the woman haunting his thoughts is nothing like he envisioned her to be, and it is revealed that Imogen has been lying about her whereabouts and living a wild life travelling the globe with stolen funds in a desperate attempt to escape modernity.

The play ends up being a question of what in the hell kind of conditioned routines we’re stuck in in this world, what control we have over our emotions, what complications exist between our desires and reality, what pitfalls prevail of being or having a muse, and what faces we share (or choose to share) with the world — are we all really “Anonymous?”

That being said, capturing all of this in a 30 minute time slot, especially in a venue traditionally associated with slapstick comedies and light-hearted political satire, was a challenge. I feared the thought I was trying to provoke would not come through, and whether it did or not in the end speaks to where I have yet to grow. I want to learn more every day.

Art as Autobiography

They tell you to write what you know, but never to give yourself away. I came into the project already knowing that I was too close to it. Not only had I chosen to write and direct, but the stories I’d used for the muse monologues (/extensions of Imogen’s thoughts and experiences) were real. It was easier this way; for someone who has spent so much time journaling and writing travelogues, it was fun to craft my experiences into works of fiction. I was proud of the monologues, but I felt that I became overly attached to the characters as a result and I fear this may have clouded my judgment in the rehearsal process. If I ever rewrite or reboot the show, I might have to kill a select few of my darlings. I would never want anything I create to turn into a vanity project — that would be my worst nightmare.

Art as a Collective

Like I said, I came into “Anonymous” knowing that I was very close to the script. I was curious in what my actors thought of it or of the characters. Rehearsals became really interesting because, through their interpretations of specific lines or bits, we began recreating the roles and the significance of certain parts I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. It was unbelievably eye-opening, despite the fact that I would come to rehearsal to get intensely psychoanalyzed everyday (remember — those are my real stories!). When your own script is out there and on the line, it’s hard to not become a totalitarian director. However, I’m glad I felt that my cast was able to fuel the interpretive process.

My lead male actor asked me how I would describe his character (Gabriel) at one the first ever rehearsals. I remember saying (half jokingly, but with serious undertones) “Easy. His favourite book is Catcher in the Rye. (and if you’ve read Catcher in the Rye, you’ll get the joke). At the second to last rehearsal, in the middle of the scene, that same actor reached into his back pocket and started reading a copy of Catcher in the Rye and incorporating the novel into a select few of his lines. It was hilarious and perfect; that’s one of my favourite stories. The little jokes and inferences weren’t just mine anymore; they belonged to the cast. That was one of the most heartwarming moments for me.

Art as Truth

What I failed to realize at first was this: through “Anonymous,” I’d created an inescapable paradox. The story is about writing — about what kind of truths can be created or recognized through fiction, and about how we can use art as means to justify our insecurities or idealizations about the world. …Well, if art is fiction and authors are prejudiced, then what does that say about me as a first-time playwright? Who am I to write about knowledge and truth and art when I may barely know myself? Are we all really “Anonymous?” Who am I to make that claim? A blonde girl in a red dress, teasing a canary…?

“Anonymous” was the light at the end of the long wintry tunnel that was January. It kept me sane and focused during the storm, which included a course overload, a busy musical rehearsal schedule, and coming to terms with a recent metal health diagnosis… it wasn’t easy. Looking back and now understanding what Professor Bentley was talking about in that “therapeutic culture” lecture on Wordsworth, I know that giving myself so fully to the project and often being terrified of possible repercussions was worth the scare — to have others come into my world, if only for thirty minutes, was more than enough. It was therapeutic.

All of this being said — I need everybody to know that I was so insanely proud of the unbelievably talented group of people I got to work with for this project. My actors killed it up there and, now whenever I look back through the script, they’re all I can envision. Everybody was so dedicated and sweet. I couldn’t have wanted anything to go any differently. I hope they know how grateful I am and how much I appreciate their hard work.

I am always my own worst critic. I’ve returned home until winter classes resume in six days, and I feel at rest finding the steady balance between the chaos that is first year University life and the peace that comes with rejuvenating back home (Oh my God! — I feel like Jack Duluoz in Big Sur! …Sort of). I believe it is so crucially important to create your own work, not for recognition or for some kind of resume-booster, but to contribute to the local art world and — I don’t know — just be a human being. It’s good to feel like one sometimes. Whatever the future may hold for me and my ridiculous wants, “Anonymous” will stay with me forever.

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