The Lake I Love.
When I saw the call for submissions for the first annual Aluminous Flash Mob Short Play Festival, I knew I had to write about the Pergola at Lake Merritt. How many circles have I made around that lake in all my years in Oakland? With friends, with family, alone? I walked it in fear and loneliness from my first apartment in Adam’s Point. I ran there with my husband from our Piedmont Avenue place. From our house in the Dimond I drove there so many times with a dog and a kid in the car—first a baby in a stroller, then a boy on a bike, then a pre-teen who would start running and disappear. Then just with Dave again. And in between, how many out-of-town guests? How many walking meetings? I healed my brain there with walks and talks when I had a concussion.
The Heart of the Heart
The theme of so many round-the-lake conversations was what my next creative efforts would be and how they would manifest. The theme of my private wanderings was what I believe, how I feel, what I want. Around the lake, alone or with besties, I work out my mental struggles. More often than not I come up against my deepest and most familiar pain point: I am forever failing my muses. I will never achieve my heart’s desire to fully realize the scope of my imagination. And somehow, in every walk, when I or we arrived at the Pergola, (which I never called a Pergola; I’d referred to it as the Arcade, or the Columns), my creative heart always lifts up at the views of the lake and the hills, or at the soaring architecture, or at the crowds of people dancing, walking tightrope, playing… being creative. This structure is the pulsing heart of Oakland, where the underground streams meet the bay water, where freeways and byways intersect, near the theater, near the health clubs and the Christmas Trees, near the sacred mud from the Lady of Lourdes.
So I knew what I would write. I would give voice to those hard conversations, and the happy ones. Restricted to three characters, I knew two of them had to be an artist and her muse.
I thought it was the end of July. When I checked on July 17th, I saw that it was July 18th. I had my writing date the next morning, so I parked myself at the lake and wrote, as an exercise, just to see if I could. I couldn’t believe I got a call from the director the next week. I couldn’t believe he picked my script and two others out of two hundred, especially since I’m a slow careful writer who takes a LONG TIME to finish things. “Seeking voices desperate to be heard,” said the play guidelines. Well, I’m nothing if not desperate, I laughed.
Michael French is really cool. I knew him from years before when he’d worked with my son (yes, the one I used to push around the lake) on a provocative play called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. He is also working on Speakeasy, the buzziest theatrical event for years (choreography by Liz Etler of By A Waterfall fame!) To have him direct my first play was a soaring honor. Just as exciting was working with the other (presumably desperate) playwrights, Gina Rose (Mollusk, Not Dead played at the Amphitheater) and Vanessa Flores (That Oakland Monster played by the Boathouse), a.k.a. Lauren Gunderson‘s sidekick! “Yours is the most ambitious of all the plays,” said Michael. A few weeks later, when I found myself rolling around the sidewalks of Oakland in a wheelchair, pushing a stroller filled with props ahead of me, reading the stares of strangers, I got what he meant. It’s the ambition of the naîve. (My specialty.)
Muse Made Manifest
The three actors were surprising, and nicely cast. Madeleine Dunphy, a children’s book author, played my Artist and could completely relate to the pulled-in-all-directions struggle. Sharon Gambill, a comic actor with a small figure and a slight lisp somehow managed to juggle the props, costumes, and body language of five different characters! (Which I narrowed down, in edits, from eight.) I wasn’t sure about Karen Caronna at first; she had the bossy thing down and a classic, ageless look, but seemed to be the least ethereal of the bunch. But when she appeared in her diaphanous gold and white costume, designed with help from her son (drag queen Kim Burly), the muse was IN!
Writing is rewriting
I had a week to do three rewrites and an interview at KALX. The script’s problems got fixed, and I added some extra magic by featuring poetry from another local literary light. The second thing was the final poetic rhapsody, in which the artist and the muse learn to get along. That didn’t come until two weeks into rehearsals. The first hardest thing, oddly enough, was finding a title!
The most important thing I learned was that the art of an actor—memorizing lines, realizing words—is harder than they make it look. Madeleine described it beautifully. “My memorization of your words felt like a piece of knitting, but without the needle holding the stitches in place. Changing a word would be like pulling the yarn. We could then lose more stitches and the piece would unravel. That’s why I couldn’t change the words. It seemed unwise to pull on the yarn.”
The day of the play was a little crazy, since I had been planning a surprise party for an out-of-town friend since long before I wrote the play—and I never expected to win. But muses love chaos, and I did my best to step up, schlepping a roasted turkey in the morning and a movie camera and piles of props later. The glorious upside was a crowd of glamorous onlookers who came over from the party…and toasted me generously afterwards when I went to corral my things.
The sun sparkled on the lake. The Artist whined and the Wino waxed, confusing the heck out of passersby who sometimes walked right through the center of the “stage.” The Muse rose her inspiring arms and surrounded the Artist, and the wind fluttered in, another actor in the scene. The show played for three audiences, some of them soaking up every line and delivering every laugh. Then the angle of the light changed, cars honked. And somewhere…a goose crossed a street.