Thursday, July 9, 2020

Creating Theater in the Age of Covid-19

Ft. Huachuca Cast
Is it possible to create theater during a pandemic? Yes.

Recently, my husband and I were having drinks with friends in New York. That is, we were in Los Angeles, our friends were in New York, and the four of us were on a Zoom meeting enjoying beverages and conversation. Lately, this is our new reality.

We caught up with each other's lives as we discussed life during lockdown in our perspective cities. I mentioned I was in rehearsal for a play. My statement paused the conversation.

"A play? Now? How's that possible?"

I understood. Theaters across the United States, the UK, and around the world have closed until 2021. Many theaters have closed their doors permanently. The idea of rehearsing a play sounded absurd. 

My journey to creating theater during the Covid 19 pandemic began like many other acting gigs, with a casting notice on an actor's casting platform.

Casting "Fort Huachuca." Synopsis: Set during World War II in segregated America, five African American women enlist in the army to train as nurses. They are sent to an army base camp in Arizona where they are set to encounter the biggest challenges of their lives.

My uncle, Sergeant Allen
This  period has always fascinated me. My father and uncle were both veterans of WWII where they served in the segregated army. My father served in the European Theater. My uncle served in Europe and Asia; he was part of the "colored" unit that participated in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. He did not talk about his experiences at Buchenwald until the 1990's. 

 And now, something new had been presented to me; there were Black women serving as nurses in WWII. The thought never occurred to me. I did a little research. When the war ended in September 1945 just 479 black nurses were serving in a corps of 50,000. A quota system imposed by the segregated Army during the last two years of the war held down the number of black enrollments. I found photos and newsreel footage of Black women in uniform which inspired me.

Us Army Nurses arriving in Scotland, at mail call in South East Asia, and training in Indiana

The next day I shot a self-tape (an audition shot at home.) This has become common practice for actors in these last few years. During the Covid 19 crisis, most auditions are conducted this way. A few weeks later, I was offered the role of Lt. Susan E. Freeman in Fort Huachuca. The play is one of the offerings in this year's SheLA Summer Theater Festival, the premiere festival for new, original, creative works by women playwrights and composers in Los Angeles. 

The actor's agreement was standard, save for one phrase: It will be 100% digital.

At first, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept, imagining the play being performed in a theater and recorded for viewing. I soon learned 100% digital meant that I would be rehearsing and performing from my home. For me, this meant my dining room. 

At first, my preparation was no different than it would be for any other theatrical production. I began memorizing and studying the period, which included researching the segregated army. 

For the first time I was portraying a real person. Lt. Susan E. Freeman was the chief nurse at Ft. Huachuca. She commanded the first unit of Black nurses to serve overseas at the 25th Station Hospital in Liberia. She would be the first Black Army nurse to be promoted to the rank of Captain. I needed to find her connection to the new nurses at the Fort Huachuca.

At our first rehearsal, I realized this was going to be like no other production I'd ever done. Our director, Ani Marderosian, described the production as “a step above a staged reading.” I was working with an amazingly talented cast of actors in three states and two countries. My stage was a 3x5 space against the back wall of my dining room. My proscenium was the width of my laptop screen. We met via Zoom.

For me, the most challenging aspects of the production were technical. At the first rehearsal, and despite the fact I'd done several Zoom meetings with no issues, my microphone was not working. I was able to fix the issue, but at subsequent rehearsals had a backup laptop and my cell phone nearby just in case. I had to remind myself to look at the lens of the camera to connect with my fellow castmates and the audience. I ran Zoom meetings with myself to get comfortable with entrances, exits while operating my camera and microphone. I spiked my laptop, lights, and dining room table with gaffer's tape for consistency. Wardrobe was simplified to what was in our closets. No special makeup  was needed, though I replicated a period hairstyle.

During our recording process, I had the same pre performance butterflies I experience before any production. Now that our final taping is over, I'm experiencing bittersweet satisfaction I feel after the completion of any other play. 

Is it possible to create theater during a pandemic? My answer is a resounding yes! I am grateful to have had this experience.

It is essential that we continue to tell our stories. I remember the industry after the Commercial Strike in 2000. Things changed. The next year there was another large change in the industry after the events of 9/11. As a result of Covid 19, we, as artists, are seeing our venues close and opportunities dwindle. Many have lost livelihoods. Tragically many have lost friends and loved ones to the virus. 

Now more than ever it is vital that the artistic community remain supportive, positive, and yes, creative.

SheLA is the premiere spot for new, original, creative works by women playwrights and composers in LA. This summer, we're going digital!


by Ailema Sousa
Directed by Ani Marderosian

World War II. Arizona. African American nurses arrive on an army base camp for the biggest challenge of their lives: inequality, growing racial tension and a society that does not acknowledge their efforts, when all they want is to fight for their country.

Cast: Naima Herbrail Kidjo, Brittney McClendon, Brittany Shonka, Nicole Sousa, Casterline Villar, Donna Allen, Camille Mallet de Chauny, and Gilbert Roy.

Tickets are available at:

Friday, June 5, 2020

A Memory of Civil Unrest

Recent events made me remember a spring night from my childhood...

When I was growing up, I lived on a tree lined street  in a mid western city with my mother, father, and little sister. My life revolved around school, Barbie Dolls, and playdates with my best friend.

A few days before, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Tensions in many US cities were high.
On the night of April 8, 1968, dinner was over, the kitchen cleaned, and my sister and I had joined our mother in her bedroom to settle in for a night of television. I don't remember what we were watching, but I remember when program stopped abruptly.

"We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special report."
On screen was a reporter from the local CBS affiliate. He reported that rioting had
broken out in Avondale, a predominantly African American neighborhood.

This was a different time. There were no twenty-four-hour news networks, no cable,
no satellite trucks, no computers or cellphones. Information was slowly coming into
the station. There was no film footage or photographs, just a report of escalating

The TV reporter asked us to stay tuned, saying he would be back with more details as
On vacation in Plymouth MA
the story developed. Regular programming resumed as the phone rang. 

I don't know who was on the other end of the phone, but whoever it was delivered more disturbing news. The last thing my mother said before hanging up was, "I need to call your father."

My dad had worked late and was still at his office near the University. I think she tried to dial the familiar number on the rotary phone three times before the call was connected. She yelled into the phone. "You need to come home! They're rioting in Avondale!" She ended the conversation saying, "Whatever you do don't go through Avondale!"

There were several routes from my dad's office to our home. His drive home should have taken no more than fifteen minutes. An hour later, my mother went downstairs to wait for
my father, trying to conceal her fears from my sister and me. This was becoming increasingly difficult as more people were calling to say what they were hearing or seeing. 

With my dad & sister on Easter Sunday.
Finally, we heard my dad's car pull into the driveway. 

My sister and I ran downstairs to greet him as we usually did when he came home from work, but the acrid smell of smoke stopped us at the top of the landing. 

"They're burning down Burnet Avenue! I didn’t see any police and people are running wild; breaking windows, looting, and I heard gunshots. It's a war zone!"

My father had ignored my mother's plea to avoid Avondale, and instead drove into the
middle of the riot. In retrospect, and remembering the strong smell of smoke on his clothing,
I’m guessing my father parked his car and walked into the melee. He knew several business owners in the area. Knowing my dad, he would have wanted to help.

I had never seen my parents disagree about anything. But on this night my mother yelled uncontrollably. "I told you to stay away from Avondale! You could have been killed!"
For the first time in my life, my sister and I saw my mother cry. We quietly went back

My world no longer made sense; my city was burning. People were shooting. My
dad used the word war.

I was a child. 

I was scared.

Through adult eyes, I realize my mother, while angry, cried tears of relief that my dad
had made it home safely.

My sister and I went to bed early, but I couldn't sleep. I was terrified that the
rioters would come to our house miles away from the chaos. My mother assured me they
would not. I didn't believe her. 

Early the next morning my mother called the Reverend Mother at Sacred Heart
Academy, our school, to say that my sister and I would not be coming to school that
day. The Reverend Mother said, "Mrs. Allen, we've made the decision not to open
today. We too, are devastated about the events in our city and in our country."
Sacred Heart Academy was closed for the rest of the week.

That afternoon, my family piled into our green Chevrolet and headed to Burnet
Avenue. The day before this had been a thriving business area. I remember an A&P,
two dry cleaners, a greengrocer, beauty and barber shops, a Rexall Drugstore with a
lunch counter, and a Texaco Gas station. There were offices of doctors, dentists
and other professionals. 

I knew this area, but on this day, it was unrecognizable. Things were quiet now as
residents and shop owners were cleaning up and assessing damage. Some buildings
had been burned and several families displaced. Other buildings had broken windows
or were in the process of being boarded up. Some buildings had the words Soul
Brother painted on the plywood boards covering the windows. My parents knew several
business owners on Burnet Avenue, and on this day, we visited several.  

I remember stopping at a dry cleaner. When the owner gave my sister and I a lollipop,
I asked, "Why do so many buildings have Soul Brother painted across the front?"

He explained. "The businesses that say Soul Brother are owned by Black people. This
lets the rioters know not to damage our property."

I was confused. "But it's okay to damage the other buildings?"

My dad answered. "No, it's not right! But people are angry.,"

My five-year-old sister asked, "But why are they angry?"

The adults looked to one another.  

My memory stops there.

Over the years, there would be many discussions about Martin Luther King Jr., the
Civil Rights Movement, racial inequalities, and being Black in America. But those
discussions would come later. On this day, my family became witnesses to a dark
chapter in our city's history.

In the days after the assassination of Dr. King, there were riots in several major US
cities.  It was the greatest wave of social unrest the United States had experienced
since the Civil War. The riots in my mid western  city lasted for two nights. The National
Guard was called to restore the peace.  More than two hundred people were injured
while almost three hundred were arrested. Two people were killed.

I had not thought about this incident until the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the
acquittal of the police officers accused of using excessive force and beating Rodney
King; an event which had been videotaped and viewed in television broadcasts. 

While I had been in Los Angeles for seven years, my parents didn't like me living
alone in such a big city. I called my parents to say I was fine and far away
from the rioting. This was not true. I watched the fires on Hollywood Boulevard from
the safety of my apartment building's rooftop in a residential area. I was close enough
to hear the voices of the looters and rioters just blocks away. Smoke was in the air for
days. Just like that eight-year-old girl, I was scared.

I'm reminded of that incident from my childhood today. I'm not scared. I'm angry,
stressed, and hoping this time, just maybe the message of racial inequality will be
heard. This is as I listen to the sirens and helicopters around my home in response to
the protests over murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

At my sister's backyard wedding
I've imagined myself going back to visit myself as a child the night the riots started.  I'd hug her, then assure her that she will be safe. I'd let her know that this will not be the last time she'll experience civil unrest in her lifetime. I'd remind her to be safe and smart as she moves through life. I'd tell her to see the best in people while remembering that nobody is perfect. I'd tell her to agree to disagree, and to always
keep an open mind. I'd explain that she'll have to accept the fact that some people's minds will never be changed. Then, I'd ask her what she would like to talk about. We'd have an honest conversation about things important to a child, even the difficult messy subjects. 

Most importantly, I'd let her know, it's okay to be scared because sometimes the
world can be a scary place. 

We got through 1968.

We got through 1992.

And despite everything that has happened this year, we will get through 2020.

I believe this. I must.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Remembering Samuel French

During quarantine, my mind has been wandering to places I'd like to visit. Unfortunately, one place no longer exists. 

One of the first places I went when I moved to Los Angeles was Samuel French Theater Bookshop on Sunset Boulevard.

I was familiar with Samuel French. While studying at Emerson College in Boston, I visited Baker's Plays (their Boston store). When I was in New York I went to their massive two story store in Midtown Manhattan that had everything for the working actor. 

The Boston store closed years ago. When my husband and I were visiting New York in 2017, I was shocked to learn that the Midtown store was long gone - I didn't see how this was possible. The woman at the Samuel French office said the only brick & mortar store was in Los Angeles. At that time New York actors still had access to the Drama Book Shop. 

When we returned home I made a special trip to Samuel French, simply because I could. In the back of my mind I feared this store would also be closing. The closing happened sonner than later in March of 2019. Many were robbed of a final visit when the store was vandalized two weeks before the scheduled closing; it never reopened.

Like many others, I have many memories of the Hollywood store. When I first moved to LA, I purchased books, guides and directories for actors relocating to Hollywood. I was thrilled that Samuel French was walking distance from my new home. Later, I remember giving the name of an obscure play to an employee who climbed a ladder that reached to the ceiling; a few moments later he returned with the play. Once, I needed a peice of sheet music for an audition. Hollywood Sheet Music (another place long gone) had sold out. They told me to go down the street to Samuel French who, of course, had what I needed. 

Samuel French had been a part of the Hollywood and acting community since 1947. The store lives on online. 

When the LA store closed, there was one last brick and mortar store in London. It too has closed for good. The Drama Book Shop in NYC was also on it's way to closing peranently. A group including Lin-Manuel Miranda purchased the New York Store. "The Drama Book Shop" was open for nearly 100 years, but had been forced to close its West 40th Street location.The Drama Bookshop was scheduled to reopen in March 2020 on West 39th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. The store's reopening will be something else to look forward to once New York City reopens. 

Many actors, writers, filmmakers and others in the performing arts community often dropped into Samuel French not only for books, but for inspiration and a sense of community. It was a place to go before or after an audition in the area. Later, a small performance space was added. I always looked forward to visiting the store the day after the Tony Awards to purchase new plays for my library. 

Sure, you can still find most items online, but it's not the same. Samuel French Film and Theater Bookshop is now a part of Hollywood's history. I along with so many others will and miss it, and remember it fondly.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Concluding A Book Series: It's Personal

About ten years ago I had an idea for a short story that rumbled around my brain for a couple of years. When I finally sat down to write my story, Time for Coffee, it had grown too long to be a short story; I had a novel on my hands. Several drafts later, a friend and mentor asked me if I had ever considered turning my manuscript into a series. That's when my stand alone novel morphed into a four part series I entitled, Fall Again.

Had I started out to write a series of  novels, I doubt I ever would have started writing. Then, the thought of writing a single novel was overwhelming since my original idea was for a short story. I probably would have forgotten about the project. Thankfully, I had been writing for several months and had strong story and characters. Once I started thinking in terms of a series, the division of my material into separate novels was easier than anticipated. 

Fall Again is a contemporary romance series set in the world of actors and other working artists. It's the story of Marc and Lauren, and their closest friends. It is set in New York, Los Angeles and a few points in between. The story spans twenty-two years. There are four books in the series:
Beginnings An Unrealized Romance - Marc & Lauren meet, fall in love and separate without closure.
Lost Boy Marc the Interim Years - Marcs life and career during his separation from Lauren.
California Girl-Lauren the Interim Years - Lauren's life and career during her separation from Marc.
Reunion A Romance Realized - Marc & Lauren reunite years later.

Four novels now allowed me to delve deeper into the characters lives and experiences.
For me, writing came easily. I could always make time to write. When I experienced blocks, I was able to work through them fairly easily by remembering who my characters were and staying true to them. During a couple of blocks, new characters introduced themselves and guided me through the block as I incorporated them into the existing story.
One of my favorite characters was discovered this way.

Since my story takes place over two decades, I had to be attentive to details. For example making a phone and air travel have changed drastically from 1989-2010. I enjoyed the creative part of the process.
What I never enjoyed were the technical aspects of self publishing. Formatting and uploading files became easier over time, though I freely admit I wanted to throw my laptop across the room on several occasions.

For me, the fourth and final installment of the series was the most difficult to write, because it was the most personal. In 2013, my father became ill. I was able to be with him at the end of his life. This was a difficult time for me and my family. Late at night when I couldn't sleep, I worked on my manuscript, escaping my own reality and finding sanctuary in the world I'd created. One night after an especially trying day, I wrote a scene that took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). My characters are dressed in cocktail attire and sipping champagne on what is to be an important night. The scene ends in a romantic moment at the Urban Lights Sculpture just outside of the museum. (  Later, when considering images for  REUNION's cover, the Urban Lights sculpture seemed like a natural choice.

A few nights later, I was  at my dad's bedside as he slept. I was  reading and making notes on a hard copy of my manuscript when he woke up, saw what I was doing and asked, "Is that a book?" I was able to tell him about the project, not knowing this would be the last conversation I'd ever have with him. When he passed a few days later on April 15, 2013, I promised myself that I would see this project through to it's completion. The first novel was published in 2015, while the second and third installments were published in 2016.  REUNION, the final book in the series, was published on April 15 of this year, the fourth anniversary of my dad's passing.

As a new writer, I've learned several lessons during my journey. These are all things I'd heard before, but still had to experience on my own for them to fully make sense. For those of you beginning your writers journey, and especially to those who will be self publishing, here are a few things to keep in mind:

- Believe in the strength of your story.
- Always be true to your characters. You know them better than anyone else.
- The more you write, the better writer you become.
- Find Beta readers who will give you honest opinions.
- Find an editor, and be open to their suggestions. Remember, you still have the final say. 
- Publish only when you're ready.
- Market your book, but do some studying first to save time money and energy. Remember,
- Marketing is a Rubix cube. Find what works best for you.
- Some will read and enjoy your work, while others will not.

The most valuable piece of advice I could give to anyone who's contemplating a writing project, start writing. Stephen King said it best; "The scariest moment is always just before you start."

I began thinking about this project as a short story almost ten years ago. I began writing the original stand alone novel in November of 2012, and completed the series with the fourth and final installment this April. It's been strange not constantly thinking about my story and characters. (Yes, I continued to make minor changes until I published.)

 The last few days have been rather lonely; I'm experiencing a sort of  writer's empty nest syndrome. I'm toying with the idea of spinning off two of the supporting characters from Fall Again into their own independent story. I also have a first draft of something completely unrelated to Fall Again that could one day become a stand alone novel. In the meantime, there are many non-writing tasks I could do, like cleaning house; something I've neglected since I began writing. Or maybe, I'll just sit back and relax for a while. I think I've earned it.

Fall Again: Beginnings An Unrealized Romance
Fall Again: Lost Boy Marc the Interim Years
Fall Again California Girl Lauren the Interim Years
Fall Again Reunion A Romance Realized

Thursday, March 9, 2017

My Life and Times with a Cultural Icon: My Friend Barbie

The spring 2016  Barbie "Fashionistas" line will include dolls with petite, tall and curvy physiques.

An old girlfriend of mine was in the news last year. Her name is Barbie: the perfect-I can-do- anything-girl with the unattainable figure. She made headlines because she's received a major--or should I say several makeovers. The spring 2016 Fashionistas line of dolls will feature four body types (including its "original" version), seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. Now, many little girls, (and I'm sure a few older girls) will have the opportunity to have a Barbie doll that more accurately reflects them.

Mattel's Barbie has been on the market since 1959 and has been a presence in the lives of millions of  girls worldwide. She has been connected to 125 careers, has wardrobe pieces designed by some of the world's top fashion designers, and has perfected the art of perfection. Barbie is a cultural icon. At age fifty-six, she looks fantastic!

The Barbie doll was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler (co-founder of Mattel), whose own daughter was named Barbara. (Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, was named after Ruth's son.)

Barbie's German influence, Lilli
Barbie was inspired by a German doll, Lilli. This doll was definitely not for children. Lilli was a flirtatious and brazen high end call girl. Originally, she was  created as a comic strip character for a Hamburg newspaper in 1956. In the comics, Lilli was witty, irreverent and sexually uninhibited.

The Lilli doll was originally sold as an adult novelty toy that could be purchased in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores. According to Robin Gerber, the author of Barbie and Ruth, “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.”

The dolls eventually became popular with children. In 1956, one of the dolls caught the attention of Ruth Handler's fifteen year old daughter, Barbara, while on vacation in Switzerland. Three years later, the first Barbie doll was unveiled at the New York Toy Show. The full name of the first doll was Barbie Millicent Roberts, from Willows, Wisconsin.  Her job was that of teenage fashion model. And the rest as they say, is history.

A few years ago I shared Barbie's racy past with my mother who replied, "I knew there was something I didn't like about that doll! My first instinct was to never let you play with those things!" To say that my mother was overprotective would be a gross understatement. I'm grateful she never knew of Barbie's German counterpart until recently. I know several women, who as children, were never allowed to play with Barbies because of her sophisticated and sensuous appearance.

My own relationship with Barbie began when I was old enough to take notice of the Saturday morning commercials that aired during network cartoon blocks of Saturday mornings past. Remember, the fact that these cartoons entertained children was secondary to their primary purpose, which was to sell toys.

I remember the Barbie commercials that featured the exciting life of this plastic superstar. Barbie had the perfect house, an outfit for every occasion and a boyfriend. She was beautiful, confident and led a glamorous life full of adventure. I wanted to be a part of that world.

At age five, I received my first Barbies (Barbie, her friend Midge, and a carrying case of clothes), hand-me-downs from my older cousin. My world changed forever!

My father always regretted never purchasing Mattel stock back then. Over the years my younger sister and I would accumulate about thirty dolls,  Dream houses, carrying cases, vehicles and many outfits. As a little girl I had plenty of beautiful baby dolls. But after Barbie came into my life, I never looked at them again. I joined the Barbie Fan Club, read Barbie Magazine and Barbie novels. (This was in a pre-internet world.)

For  me, Barbie would become more than a doll. She became a friend and mentor. I'll stop short of calling her a role model. When I was seven, my family moved to a new house. The move meant that I was no longer able  to see my best friend Beverly everyday as I had since we were toddlers. There were no kids my age on our new street. In school, I was shy and introverted. Barbie filled a void.

With Barbie, I elevated make believe to an art form. My Barbies took vacations to the Caribbean, Asia and  Europe. One summer a few of my Barbie dolls went on an archeological dig in my backyard.

While my Barbies always worked as teenaged fashion models, they explored different careers. At one point, I had a doll who was a news reporter, one who was a makeup artist and another who was a teacher. I had dolls who were rock stars, photographers and artists. A couple were attending college. And yes, I even had one doll who was a wife and mother. One of my Francie dolls (Francie was Barbie's Modern cousin from California) was married to Alan, Ken's best friend and the only male doll in the line I ever had. (He was a gift from my grandmother.) Together, they were the proud parents of a Little Kiddle. These miniature dolls were not part of the Barbie line, but my sister received one for a birthday. We condensed Francie's pregnancy to an afternoon one summer.

There were times when the dolls accompanied me to school as part of elaborate dioramas. I considered dioramas "acting jobs" for my Barbies. Little did I know I was foreshadowing my own future as an actor. The detailed tableaus were done as parts of book reports in English, a report on Paris in French, and once, Barbie portrayed Mary Magdalene in a religion class project (I went to Catholic school.) My projects featuring Barbie always earned me A's, and maybe a little extra attention from my teachers and classmates. 

Contemporary Christie

Christie was introduced in 1968 

In 1968, I received a Talking Christie for Christmas. Christie was Barbie's black friend, and the first full sized African-American doll in the line. (Black Francie in 1967 was the first.) I honestly don't remember thinking that this doll that resembled me. I do remember thinking she was beautiful.

There were two items in Barbie's world that my parents never purchased for my sister and me: a wedding gown, and Ken (Barbie's longtime boyfriend.) I don't know if these were conscious decisions  by my parents, but in retrospect, it makes sense. My parents constantly told us that our educations should be the most important part of our young lives. Perhaps thoughts of boyfriends and dream weddings would be bright shiny diversions. Later, when we became teenagers, dating was never encouraged because boys could distract us from our studies. (I didn't have a boyfriend until I graduated from high school.) My parents were raising us to be independent, intelligent and confident women.

Barbie remained a constant in my life until I was twelve, a little longer than most girls. On the first day of seventh grade I met a new girl, Amy, who'd transferred to my school. Seventh grade is a rough place, especially for a new girl. I saw her sitting by herself and introduced myself, which was a small victory in itself considering my shyness. We spent that first day together as I showed her the campus and helped her navigate the large school. Amy was confident, outgoing and fun. She wore makeup, had great clothes... and a boyfriend. I quickly realized that Amy was a cool girl. It was only a matter of time before she found her way to the cool clique, though we'd always remain friendly.

But after that first week, and influenced by Amy's example, I began to pay attention to myself.  I was now interested in clothes for myself instead of Barbie. I started experimenting with makeup and reading Teen and Seventeen magazines. I was growing up and developing opinions and a style of my own.  Most importantly, it was becoming easier for me to make friends. I no longer needed Barbie. Our friendship had lasted for seven years, but it was finally time to go our separate ways.

For years, my dolls were stored in the attic of the house where I grew up. When my parents sold their house and moved into a condominium, I lovingly packed up the dolls and their extensive wardrobe before shipping them to my home in California. They're currently in a plastic storage container in the back of a closet in my home office.

Teresa Barbie's Latina friend in 1988 
Teresa Now

Many times, while shopping at retailers who have entire aisles dedicated to Barbie, I find myself looking at the new dolls. For me it's like visiting old friends. The Barbie universe has become quite diverse. For several years you've been able to find Barbies with different complexions and hair textures which reflect different cultures and ethnicities. For example, Teresa, (Barbie's Latina friend),  joined Barbie's world in 1988.

Over the past few days I've read different responses to the new petite, tall and curvy Barbies. Most are positive. Many comments come from mom's who are glad their little girls now have dolls that project more realistic and varied body images. Some little girls called Curvy Barbie "chubby."  (Poor Barbie. Her figure has been a topic of conversation for decades.) In focus groups, little girls have overwhelmingly gravitated to the doll with blue hair (think Katy Perry.)  To me, they're all just  pretty dolls.

The Classic Figure
Over the years, cruel insults have been hurled at Barbie. She's been called too skinny, too busty and  far too sexy for a child's toy. Many have called her a bad influence and a poor role model. Honestly, isn't this a bit much? Shouldn't little girls look to their mothers, teachers and other prominent--and real women in their lives when looking for positive influences and role models? While Barbie may be a cultural icon, in the end, she's only a doll.

As a little girl, I adored Barbie. She served a purpose by helping me imagine the world of possibilities ahead of me. She was a devoted friend and was always there when I needed her. When the time was right, I put her away along with my other childhood toys, and said goodbye.

I never thought Barbie was too thin, busty or sexy.  I never worried or cared that I'd never attain her perfect figure, have her flowing long hair or be successful in numerous careers. I accepted Barbie just as she was...just like she accepted me.

Here are some additional vintage commercials that were too good not to share! The 1970's spot features Maureen McCormick; Marcia Brady from THE BRADY BUNCH.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

It's Personal: Your Story, Your Way

I’d like to share a childhood memory. I had just turned seven and was on vacation with my family. We’d spent a week in New England where my sister and I saw the ocean for the first time. Before we returned to Ohio, we spent a couple of days in New York City.
Even as a child, I loved New York and had looked forward to this part of our vacation. On this, my first visit I enjoyed the hustle, bustle and excitement of the city. I loved going to the top of the Empire State Building, riding the subway and the extravagant show at Radio City Music Hall.
However, there was one thing that bothered me on this visit to the Big Apple--and the incident has continued to bother me for years.
The incident took place during our visit to Liberty Island. It was a hot summer day, but the ferry ride across New Yok Harbour was very pleasant. The views of the city were spectacular, while Lady Liberty left me awestruck. Once we arrived on the island, I remember the smells of hotdogs and popcorn. I also remember a very long line to board the elevator that took visitors to the top of the statue; something I'd dreamed of doing ever since I'd learned this was possible. My parents said it was too hot to walk to the top of the statue, so we’d admire the statue from the ground. While disappointed, that’s not what upset me.
There were a lot of people on the island that day, including a large group of children who were playing in a grassy area and speaking a different language. I was fascinated by what could have been either Spanish or Italian. Close to the children was flock of pigeons. I watched these children run into the pigeons who quickly took flight. For a few brief moments the children and birds became a single energized unit. For a seven year old from the Midwest, this was an amazing sight. In my excitement I pointed to the children and the scattering pigeons as I pulled on my mother’s skirt.
“Mom! Look at the flock of children!” My choice of words was deliberate, and in my seven year old mind, quite clever.
Instead of looking at the children, my mother was looking at me and shaking head. “No, Donna. The word flock refers to birds. You should have used the word group in referring to the children.”
And that reprimand was what ruined my trip to Liberty Island.
Of course, I knew the word flock referred to birds. But in this case the word flock was better way to describe the children in this heightened moment as nature and humanity combined to create a few moments of sheer joy. And I was joyful-- until I was corrected for describing an event as I saw it that hot afternoon. At seven, while making a rather keen observation, I was not equipped to take on an argument about vocabulary and usage with my mother, a teacher and perfectionist when it came to the English language. For years, I refused to believe that my choice of words was wrong.
Years later in junior high school English class, I first heard the word, metaphor; a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Finally, I felt vindicated. My use of the word flock so many years ago had been correct in my own personal interpretation of an event.
Of course, my mother denies any knowledge of the pigeons and Spanish-or-Italian-speaking children on Liberty Island incident. But to this day, I still gloat over the fact that I was right in describing the incident- or telling the story my way.
As an adult, and now as a writer, I firmly believe that your story is just that; your story. You should always tell your story in your own voice, honestly and in your own unique way.
To some, freeing yourself to spill the essence of your life experiences and emotions onto a page may seem like an exciting adventure. To others this same idea is terrifying.
Years ago, a mentor gave me the following advice. “When you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a world full of unique characters and situations. It’s your world, so who’s to tell you what’s right or wrong. Be true to your characters and their integrity. This is especially true when as you’re writing dialogue. Allow yourself to tell your story in your own voice and point of view. And don’t worry about breaking any of the traditional rules of writing from time to time.”
While the advice sounded simple and a tad rebellious, I took his advice and immediately noticed a change in my writing. First of all it was easier to write as the words flowed more easily from my imagination and onto the page. My characters became stronger. And once I released myself from the notion that I had to follow all the rules, I began to enjoy the writing process more. I was willing to take more risks, and as a result have become a better writer.

While this approach has served me well, I’ll admit that sometimes I’m hesitant to push through some of my remaining walls. In the second novel of the Fall Again series, Lost Boy, my editor suggested using a word that I originally felt uncomfortable using. While I had considered using the word (bullshit) as I originally wrote the section, I opted for a weaker word which, as a result, weakened the scene. My editor advised me, “You have Marc telling a boldfaced lie to a friend in a situation that is relaxed and casual. Why don’t you, as the narrator, call his lie what it is?” In the end I realized that he was absolutely right. Had I been true to myself initially, I would have followed my instincts and used the word early on. I feared I might offend my readers. My reliable beta readers told me the scene was funny and real, which was my intent all along.

In the third novel of the series, California Girl,(available this summer), I explore some difficult subjects, including an abusive relationship. At first, approaching these subjects was challenging, and I briefly fell back into trying to tell my story "nicely." Needless to say this approach didn't work. My characters, and especially my heroine Lauren, lost integrity. When I dismissed thoughts of what  I feared others might think and remained true to the subject matter, my writing took on an honest and emotional quality that had been missing.
Weaving words together to create worlds and people is a talent and an extraordinary gift. Trust yourself, your talent, and please, trust your readers. Give yourself permission to freely explore your gift and artistry. Give yourself permission to embrace your own flocks of children- whatever that means to you!

By telling your story in your own unique way, you’ll allow your voice to ring through true and clear, while becoming a better writer!



Saturday, March 26, 2016

So...What Happened to Easter?

Last Friday, I was in a fitting room at the Banana Republic at The Grove in Los Angeles. I had
found the most adorable fit and flare sleeveless LBD (little black dress). It was my size, on sale with an additional 30% off. It fit perfectly. I clicked a quick dressing room photo which I sent to my husband before stepping out of the fitting room to see the dress in the three-way mirror.

A smiling sales associate stepped beside me. "That looks really nice on you. Are you thinking about wearing it next Sunday?"

I gave her a blank stare. "Sunday?"

"Yes. Easter Sunday."

"You must be mistaken. It can't be Easter."

"It's early this year."

Now that I thought about it, store displays were featuring brightly colored displays while I'd seen commercials featuring bunnies and chocolate--but somehow I never put it together. How had Easter completely fallen off my radar?

I was raised Catholic and attended mass every Sunday. I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten through the twelfth grade where I was taught that Easter was the most important day on the Christian calendar.

As a kid I looked forward to visits from the Easter Bunny who made a quiet deliveries early on Easter morning. I never appreciated EB's accomplice, my mother, who was responsible for creating the most beautiful baskets. She filled colorful straw baskets with cellophane grass and a plush pastel bunny surrounded by traditional candies.  Candy was a rarity in our house. My sister and I went trick or treating on Halloween night, only to have our candy stash thrown away two days later. My mother claimed the fun was in collecting the candy--and no, I've never forgiven her for destroying this childhood ritual. But Easter was different. As soon as we awoke we attacked the baskets eating chocolate eggs, bunnies and Peeps--before breakfast.

Usually the Saturday before Easter we'd color eggs which were also in our baskets. During the following week the eggs would make for novelty items in our lunch boxes. Some were turned into  Easter egg salad, which always seemed tastier than plain old egg salad.

For Easter Sunday mass, my mother usually dressed my sister and me in matching dresses which were accessorized with matching hats, lacy anklets, pocketbooks and black patent leather shoes.

Dinner was always a family affair which seemed to be at one of my grandmother's houses. which always smelled of roast leg of lamb, baking ham and homemade cakes.

I remember looking forward to the Peanuts special, It's the Easter Beagle Charlie Brown which usually aired sometime the week before Easter. This special had a weak storyline, but amazing music. Vince Guaraldi composed jazz variations of Beethoven classics.

My most memorable Easter was the year my family went to Italy. On Easter Sunday we were in Vatican City receiving the Pope's blessing. This incredible experience was followed immediately by another as we stepped into St. Peter's Basilica where we saw Michelangelo's Pieta.

When I was a senior in high school, I remember going to Easter mass with my family, then brunch, and then home. That was it. My parents retired to their bedroom where my father took a nap and my mother settled in with the current novel she was reading. My sister and I, having nothing else to do, went to the mall. This is the last Easter I remember spending with my family. I'm sure there were others, but this was a turning point; I was growing up and holidays were beginning to lose their magic.

I rarely came home for Easter when I was in college. I do remember going to brunch with a friend and her parents one year. After mimosas and French toast, I went to a callback for a summer production of  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (I was cast in the production and heartbroken when my parents insisted that I come home that summer. Theater at Emerson College was one thing. Outside of college in the real world was another.)

While living in Chicago, I was the Easter Bunny in Carson Pierre Scotts department store on year. Frankly, I found the costume frightening as did many of the small children who were forced to sit on my lap for photographs. Quite by accident, I developed a trick that usually stopped small children's tears: I wiped my eyes as I pretended to cry. Misery loves company and the child, feeling sympathy, would stop crying to console me. One little girl brought me carrots.

When I first moved to Hollywood, I was determined to get to a Sunrise Service at The Hollywood Bowl. But then I realized how early sunrise actually was and never made it.

For the past several years, Easter Sunday has just been another day at work.

Back at Banana Republic, a chime indicating a text message draws my attention away from my reflection in the three-way mirror. My husband is telling me to purchase the dress, but by now I've decided I don't need another black dress, especially for Easter Sunday. I thank the associate who reminds me that the dress is going for a great price. True. I love bargains, but I leave the LBD in the fitting room,

Earlier today I was in a CVS and saw shelves full of Easter candy. I remember loving the foil covered milk chocolate eggs, but I can't find any. I find Hershey Easter kisses, which are the same thing in a different shape, but I really want chocolate eggs because it's Easter. I leave with nothing.

Tomorrow I'll go to work and look forward to enjoying dinner with my husband and a good friend
afterwards. This year we're doing Italian. I know there will be good wine and conversation. I'll try not to wear black for a change.

After I get home and attend to my pets and household chores, I might watch  It's the Easter Beagle Charlie Brown, mainly to listen to Vince Guaraldi's jazz score. Who knows? I may be able to recapture some of the magic from the Easters past.