We Made Something Beautiful.

I woke up today with Damien Rice in my head. His sound is eerie, delicate and bittersweet. And that’s exactly what I felt this morning — bittersweet.

Early November of last year, I auditioned for a little play called, This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. The audition was strange. We were to recite our favorite children’s poem and then participate in a group improvisation exercise. I was intriqued and recited Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I thought Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss were too obvious. For the improvisation part, I recall pretending to cry and collecting my tears in a mug. In any case, I got a part, a main part, and yesterday was closing night, our last performance.

Today, the realization that it was all over had set in. Bittersweet.  That word is such an oxymoron. But alas, all good things have to end right? The transient part of it makes it all more special to me, makes me grateful for the people I met, the personal evolution I developed as an actor/person and the pride I felt in creating something magical. I was a part of something bigger than myself and it made me happy. Days weeks months lived well.

The play, written by Finegan Kruckemeyer, is about three girls who are sisters, who are triplets. They’re related and so close in age but so so very different. They get abandoned in the woods at age 12 by a broken hearted father who was influenced by the evil step mother. The oldest, Albienne, is all about venturing out and moving forward, discovering the world and new places (This Girl Laughs). The middle child, Beatrix, wants to go in the other direction, back to search for Father as to why he could do such a thing (This Girl Cries). As for the youngest, Carmen, she stays in the woods (This Girl Does Nothing). The play follows the girls in their decision and their journeys that were set forth from that fateful day in the woods until the ripe old(er) age of 31.

Damn. I’M 31 RIGHT NOW. I AM 1 OF 3 DAUGHTERS. MY SISTERS AND I ARE RELATED BUT SO DIFFERENT. This play pulled at me in so many different ways and I felt I could play almost all the characters. I related to Albienne because she was the oldest. I’m the oldest in my family. She’s also about taking charge and being a leader. She’s an extrovert, meeting people and building communities. ALL ME. I related to Beatrix because of her attachment to the father. I have a wonderful relationship with my dad. He is the most interesting man in the world to me and I’ve walked the Sai Gon river with him.  I wanted to be the narrator of the story, because I’m a storyteller and a substitute teacher, and this play was written almost as a poem/children’s story in which I slay every day in the classroom. The only role I could not see myself in was Carmen. And guess which role I got. CARMEN.

 

Developing the Character

It was a struggle to figure out Carmen. She literally stays in one spot for YEARS, for the whole friggin play (the most I ever stayed in one spot was a month and that was a mandated isolation due to tuberculosis). I am not about that and despise people who are inactive and lazy. I saw Carmen as weird, not being curious of the world. I saw her as selfish because she didn’t want to help others anymore, she just wanted to help her own kids. That’s another thing, she gets married and has kids. She’s a mom. I’m soooooo far from that in my life right now.

I asked the directors, Bekkah and Lauren, why the eff did you choose me for Carmen? What did you see in me that resonated Carmen? Bekkah told me that I had a seriousness to me. Carmen has the most practical, blunt lines in the play. She usually has the last word in the scenes, the punctuated, emphatic end of a poem, because she’s wiser beyond her years, though she’s the youngest, she makes the most perceptive observations. She sees things the way they are and acknowledges them.

Is Bekkah saying I’m old? Alright alright so Carmen’s deep. But how do I show that? Bekkah gave me a note at the beginning, “Thi, your character does nothing, but you have to show different ways to do nothing.” MIND BLOWN. Bekkah kept posing challenging questions that really helped me get to know Carmen. Because how else could I? Carmen doesn’t respond when I talk to her. All I have are her words in the script, and that’s limiting. Bekkah asked, “What have you learned? What would 31-year old pregnant mom Carmen tell her 10 year old self?”

It took me 4 months to develop Carmen and I’m proud of what I came up with. But I really couldn’t have done it without the directors. Bekkah’s direction and notes made me more aware of things I could discover for Carmen, from her mannerisms to her internal expression of emotions. Lauren, the assistant director really gave me the encouragement that I was heading in the right direction in developing the character.

Al Pacino was asked once and I’m paraphrasing, “Which out of all the characters you’ve played, is most liked you?” And he answered, “Well, all of them. They’re my face, they’re my voice. It’s just some characters highlight different facets of me more than others.” Objectively speaking, Carmen is the least like me in personality, but what I’m most proud of is that I found myself in her emotions throughout the play. I felt everything she felt, because they were my feelings and I bared it all on stage. I grew as an actor because I was able to do that. I grew as a person because I found relation to someone that was so unlike me.

 

The Team

The play was produced by this 2 year old theatre company called Flat Tire Theatre Company. I had reservations coming into a group of people that all knew each other from college. Also, the average age among them was 25. What do they know? A WHOLE LOT. I was astounded at their skill set, their organization, their creativity, their work ethic, their kindness and their humility. Shae the stage manager, knew every cue, every set piece movement/change, she knew our meaning even when we were speaking gibberish. Martin, the publicity guy went all out to share about the show to the point that we had 5/6 sold out shows! The design team, Sam and Michael, and their resourcefulness and creativity managed to create a magical, imaginative world and tone with limited resources from dyed cloths, lights, free music and shadows.

 

photos courtesy Flat Tire Theatre Company, cast and crew

 

Something Magical

I have a lot of trouble with self promoting or even talking myself up. I think it’s due to years of Catholic guilt (I’m flawed and forever a sinner), first generation guilt (can’t validate your parents struggle as a broke ass actor), and Eastern values (it’s not about you, it’s about how you can serve the group). When I was a younger actor, I struggled with telling people about the shows or things that I had done or were a part of. There was a sense of shame that my acting wasn’t good, why would I want to burden people with that. I had social anxiety that it wouldn’t entertain people and they wasted their time seeing me. I was a coward, I couldn’t bear for people to see my art and judge it. So, I didn’t tell people. And when things I had worked on got unnoticed, shows I was in where no one I knew was in the audience, I felt sad.

I need that validation. I’ve always known that. But now in my 30s, I finally accept that part of me. But it’s not even about validation. It’s about being seen, being heard, being understood. Even if it’s with someone I don’t know. There’s an experience that was shared, a memory created and perhaps remembered forever.

No one in this production got paid. Cast and crew committed a lot of time and work and effort into this. Into something that closed yesterday. Something that is now gone.

After our first run through, day before opening night, Bekkah said something that really hit me that I was a part of something magical. She said, “We made something.” It’s not easy to make something. In a world of instant gratification and fatalistic destruction, it’s easy to consume, to destroy and to forget. What we made may have been temporary, but the fact that we made it, not for money, not for fame, but simply just to share it, has bred endless possible connections. Connection between performers and audience, connection among strangers through shared emotion and experience or time and space. Connection between colleagues, friends, and/or families. Those connections can be lasting. Those connections can be forever and even transcendent.

To me, those connections are something beautiful.

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Just Keep Swimming

And so lying underneath those stormy skies
She’d say, “oh, ohohohoh I know the sun must set to rise”

This could be
Para-para-paradise
Para-para-paradise

This song came on my shuffle today and it got me thinking about some recent events.

Yesterday I got to be on set (whoo!), but not as an actor (whoo?).  As a Rubik’s cube solver.  Yes, one of the many useless skills I have on my resume.  I can solve the 3×3 Rubik’s cube with an average time of 2 minutes.  I’m not a genius, I just memorized the directions when I was a kid.

My friend Ross Ching (he sat across from me in homeroom in the 6th grade <3) was directing a music video for a YouTube star named Jason Chen.  Ross really tries to stray away from the mainstream, concentrating on things that haven’t been done or featured before into his projects.  Through time lapses, dominoes, light fixtures, yarn and with his most recent work (this video) Rubik’s cubes, Ross is always letting us see things in a different paradigm.

This video uses Rubik’s cubes to substitute pixels in a photograph.  From close up, it looks indistinguishable, but as you back out, you begin to see an image take shape.  He had posted an instagram picture of all these Rubik’s cubes in his apartment and I had commented if he needed help solving any of them, just for fun.  He never responded until maybe a week later, asking if I would be able to help out on the video.

To play with Rubik’s cubes all day, get free lunch and snacks, and network?  Uhh yea! Of course I’m there!

Looking at the call sheet (a spreadsheet with the schedule for every person involved in the production of the project), I have to say I never expected to see myself on it as a “cube solver”.  How nerdy. I always expected to see myself on any call sheet as cast. But since I haven’t really booked anything lately, this was as close as I could get.

Being on set was so fun.  Everyone was really nice and I made some Facebook friends.  Even chatting it up with the star of the video, I found him to be very approachable and grounded.  He was really a sweet kid.  After we wrapped, he came up to me, gave me a hug and thanked me for my work. I was just grateful to even be included.

But anyways, seeing the whole concept come to form, I found it to be a metaphorical reminder.  In the midst of all the chaos, I’m usually fixated on the problem and blinded from the bigger (and almost always much more beautiful) picture.  To relate it back– fixated on the fucked up individual cube and missing the whole image.

On set yesterday, my role was to be that guy ^, the one manipulating each cube to form the final piece.  By having a clear view of the full picture in my mind at all times, the task to make it happen became fun.  I really enjoyed the process, sitting there and playing with 500+ Rubik’s cubes.

In my last post I had voiced my worries toward my career track.  Because I hadn’t booked anything as an actor, life began to suck and I had doubts to “just keep swimming”.   I wasn’t having fun anymore in acting class.  My part time jobs that allowed me the flexibility to go on auditions became unbearable.  Living check by check and eating McDonalds was annoying.  I questioned to myself, is it really worth it?

By fixating on the problem, I lost sight of the bigger picture and it began to affect everything in my life negatively.  But reflecting back on how I felt yesterday on set, I realized that yes, in the midst of all the chaos, I must never forget the dream, the full picture.  Because if I do, I wouldn’t put it pass me to give up prematurely and never make or contribute anything beautiful.

To really reiterate this point, I went to Death Valley this past weekend.

death valley

The picture above is Zabriskie point, one of the places to check out in the Death Valley national park.  Anyways, death valley was formed by the erosion of sentiments and the unpredictable movements of the earth pushing up and out away from the valley over millions of years.  “Erosion”, “unpredictable”,  “pushing up and out away”, even “death” are words that sound pretty problematic.  But if the earth had stopped doing what it was doing, would something so overwhelmingly stunning exist?

True, the earth didn’t have a clear image of this in the back of its mind when it was moving about, but there’s something to be said when you give in to the feelings of uncertainty and unpredictability.  Yes, you might not know what is going to happen, but is that so bad?  Could something greater happen that is beyond our human intellect and imagination?  Absolutely! Why not?

3storybunkbed

image

My parents are awesome.  Sure it’s taken me almost 26 years to appreciate them, but nevertheless, better late than never.  Last weekend I was supposed to go up to the bay for a family outing in sf.  This was in the calendar for weeks and I was all set to go until my manager calls me a day before and tells me I have a meeting with an agent (I’m getting a new commercial agent because my old one is leaving her agency due to internal turmoil within that agency — she doesn’t want to work for a shady owner in which I respect, but leaves me with no agency representation) on a Saturday afternoon, the Saturday right smack in the middle of my bay trip. 😦 I couldn’t find a ride out after the meeting so I couldn’t go back to the bay.

I was really upset when I realized my trip wasn’t going to happen and I called my mom to let her know.  She was wonderful about it.  She said every opportunity matters and that she and my dad understood.  She said I could always come home whenevers.

That’s so sweet.  Even thinking about it makes me feel loved.

I had some friends ask me once, “are your parents proud of you?”  In which I answered, “not yet.”  My parents worked really hard to get to the states, my dad fighting in the war, my mom staying in refugee camps.  With the help of my aunt on my mom’s side, they managed to find each other and rent out a one bedroom apartment in good ole east side San Jose.  My dad’s first job was a janitor and my mom’s was a teacher’s assistant for many years. Because it was such a struggle, they wanted their kids to have a secure and successful life.  So of course my mom pushed me and my sisters to be scientists, doctors, dentists, etc. (the Asian American dream).

But here’s where they fucked up.  My mom was a teacher and brought home tons of books, especially music and art books.  My dad was a computer techie and brought home huge empty computer cardboard boxes and Lucas Arts computer games (role-playing games that were rich in characters and story.  My all time favorite is Monkey Island and I will name my first dog Guybrush Threepwood).  They took us to museums, made us take piano lessons, encouraged reading and movie watching (i.e. Indiana Jones and Star Wars).  With a one-bedroom apartment, my parents had to be creative in thinking how to use their space to raise 3 girls.  Thus the 3-story bunk bed (picture above).  That in itself was utopia for the imagination.  We laid blue sheets and blankets on the carpet and draped it off the first story bed and pretended it was a pool or the ocean.  Underneath the makeshift desk was our hidden cave.  We draped a beach towel over the bunk bed ladder and it became a mail chute where we delivered old valentine cards.  We used lawn chairs, the cardboard boxes, and a toy clock to make a time machine.

So it was no surprise that I’m trying to do the acting thing, my hipster sister doing the starving artist thing (typical of hipsterdom: she recently graduated with a BA in fine arts), and my youngest sister, a senior in HS is contemplating between being an engineer or a musician (she was the best out of us 3 on the piano).  My mom actually says that the youngest sister is her last hope — she rather my sister became an engineer.  Hahaha

So no, my parents are not proud of me yet.  It’s not that they’re ashamed of me either.  They’re just worried.  My mom especially.  I think she’s in denial of what I’m doing with my life and thinks it’s just a phase.  My dad is a fan, but only in “secret,” he’ll ask me about my progress and just listen nothing more.

Here’s the thing: I want to make my parents proud.  They worked really hard to get where they’re at and it’s admirable: my mom’s a teacher with tenure, my dad is an engineer, and they live in a 4 bedroom house that they own in the suburbs of San Jose.  They made it where my sisters and I can choose to be a starving artist.  However, I want to succeed not for the fame or fortune or whatever that may mean, but to succeed would justify their struggle and hard work.  I want to succeed for them.