Sunday, April 13, 2014

Words for a Melancholy Season

This Dark Branch
by Ann Hudson

It's ten pm; my breath is foggy in the April air.
It takes three long city blocks to find a fallen branch.
I bring it in, and jam the end into the narrow throat
of a lemonade bottle I've rinsed and saved
on the kitchen sill since summer. It's nothing fancy,
but just enough to hang the miniature wooden ornaments on:
painted eggs, bunnies, ducks, butterflies, birds.
My mother cut down flamboyant boughs
of forsythia each year, but this dark branch will have to do.
Tomorrow over breakfast my daughter will laugh
to see it there, and exclaim, We're pretending
the branch is the whole tree! And that's the secret
to these cold spring days that feel like winter still.

You can find more of Ann's poetry at

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sad News: Barry Kimm

Sick. Sick with the awful truth I don't want to accept: Two friends died this week. Good men. Artists. Suicides.

The first news came on Wednesday and then another blow came the very next day. I can't stay standing next to Randy when he is telling me about Jerry Smith. I run out of the room, sit down, rub my forehead over and over.

I walk to the lake but I keep forgetting how to breathe. The air gets caught in my tight chest.

I go to my advisors, John Keats and Peter Mattheissen, for words to help me with mortality, to help me express what I can't comprehend. "My heart aches," writes the boy who died at 26. "Broken-brained and wholly broken-hearted" says the man who died, also this week, at 86.

Jerry. Uh, I can't write about Jerry right now.

I need to tell you about Barry Kimm. What a sweetheart. What a talent. Barry and I were at film school together in Iowa City in the 80's, then we reconnected at a reunion there in 2008. As our group walked the shady streets, looking for and telling stories about our old shabby apartment buildings, Barry told me in his serene way about the films he had made since Iowa, the 3-D IMAX movie about the sun that seemed too astounding a project to be real, but sure enough. I told Barry that Randy's company had just opened up a production department and he should give him a call. Barry did. And he got hired and directed several shoots for Optimus, for which I was inordinately proud to play that tiny part.

The last time I saw him was at Optimus's block party two summers ago. We talked in the cyc set on the fourth floor and once again, I was struck by his warmth, sweetness and calm in a room full of drinking ad people. And that was the last I heard until this week. The rest I have learned from mutual friends: when Barry's wife Susan was diagnosed with cancer, the two took a road trip around the country, taking photographs, their shared talent and love. Susan passed away the first week of April and Barry was not able to live without her.

I cannot judge Barry's choice. It brings so much pain to so many people, but his was worse. 

The memorial service that was planned for Susan will now be for them both, in Minneapolis, where they lived and loved each other.

Here is one of Barry's last projects. You can see see his goodness and wisdom in every frame.

Tattoo Underground from Barry Kimm on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

That's Weird, Grandma Made Me Choke and Cry

We started celebrating our Spring Break a little early this year with super fun in Andersonville!

That's Weird, Grandma! is a riotous song/dance/skit collection from the creative writing of Chicago public schoolkids. The actor-educators of the Barrel of Monkeys company workshop with the kids in the schools and after school programs to bring the students' words to life, then give them a second life on stage at the Neo-Futurist Theater in Andersonville.

When I read "Space Horses in Space" and "Sad Microwave" from the program to Mia and Nora before the show, we were intrigued, but not sure how the Monkeys could make interesting theater from early-reader efforts such as "the dog was dead. He Hit His Head and He come Back to life."

Oh, were we wrong. From the first dancing meatloaf skit to the rapping grannies, we were giggling, grooving, hurting our hands in wild applause and screaming cheers for the gorgeous music and hysterical jokes. When the cast of fourteen emerged in choir robes and rocked the house harmonizing "Abe Lincoln helped the people to see!" while their girlish "Abe" hammed it up and down the aisles, I was choking with laughter and tears.

Such inventive stagecraft -- you must see what the Monkeys do with a pair of bike handlebars and an empty picture frame in Giovanny's "There Was Nothing."

The presence of the show's young writers is palpable. The performers, who are also the writers' teachers, credit them before each song and their admiration for the work is obvious. There's a stream of Montessori child respect here that deepens the pieces and makes me want to see more. Luckily, every That's Weird, Grandma performance showcases different work, so we can return to more fun.

Don't miss the March shows on Sundays at 2:00!

Ticket Hotline:


Theater Address:

Neo-Futurist Theater
5153 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640

Monday, March 17, 2014

Variety Show Withdrawl

"What else is in the suitcase?" asked Mia the morning after the closing of our show (Variety, that is, McKenzie Elementary, 34th Annual.)

It took me a moment to figure out that my fifth grader, who seems so grown up these days, wasn't offering to help unpack my costumes and props; she wanted to play dress up.

"Go ahead," I told her and so she and her little sister ran off and became a NASA scientist and a Mongolian wall builder, an 1890's schoolmarm and her boyish student (Mia checked the web to see if the baseball was anachronistic.) They bent their knees and chanted "Going to the Moon" to the tune of "Hungry Like the Wolf," just like me and my cast mates had done the night before and I laughed with delight to see them because these children are the true reason for the show.

It's a truth that may be easy to forget when we are spending so many rehearsal hours away and finding so much riotous fun and satisfying improvements on stage -- especially our Wall of China number that resembled the Keystone Cops more than a well-oiled machine all the way to dress rehearsal.

Before I figured out which props should enter from which off-stage wing, we had moments when wall-building blocks knocked into other blocks, when the rakes to scare off the Manchurian samurai swung dangerously, when a crew member handed one of my Workers a block for the wall and she, looking for the inflated dragon head instead, tried to hand it back to him in what turned into a push-me-pull-me comedy of errors where I was laughing so hard I could barely keep singing.

But we figured it out and when the Alumni Night audience applauded the first appearance of the blocks, the perfect picture in my head of Rockettes-type symmetry might as well have came true.

And when that same lubricated audience also applauded a simple four step walk during "McKenzie is Our School" that I had dreamed up during the soft-shoe dances of a Frog and Toad matinee, I was done. That was all I needed to feel like a million bucks, like a rock star, like a director.

Beside the satisfaction of improving over time, the joy of making better and better theater together, there was the sheer silliness that so often made me and my casts dissolve into unstopping giggles, like when I told Sheryl to make a big leap into position and someone said, "Like Kramer coming through the door on Seinfeld!"

Or when I told Michele to use 1890's slang and we all drew a blank, then for the next five minutes all we could come up with was Arrgh-ing our lines like pirates.

Or when Kathy's China Wall line "What should be call it? It's really GREAT!" became on stage "What should we call it? It's really INTERESTING!" and then on the last night, "I don't know, what do YOU think we should call it?" times three.

And then the outrageous fun of the cast party when the shouty karaoke, the mass dancing to "The Time Warp" and the Worm and Kid 'n' Play and karate kicks and married grinding and Cupid Shuffle all made middle age seems as foolish and fun as college, only with less vomit.

The next morning I was sore and stiff from jumping in heels to Timberlake and Pink and Macklemore, but Nora in the samurai hat and Mia's suitcase question were their own kind of joy, no less deep than applause, a reward of the best kind and a welcome home.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Winter Soundtrack

Laura Marling from the UK, when I'm hungry for Joni but Joni won't do.

The Flirtations' "Nothing but a Heartache" to toast my frozen toes after another round of shoveling. Thanks for the link, Girl Group!

Brazilian bossa nova from Joao Gilberto plus George and Ira Gershwin equalsmarvelous.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman's "Slow Boat to China"

From "The Master," a perfect scene of longing and regret and uncrossable distance.

So many brilliant performances, so many unforgettable characters, but not enough, never enough. I saw a photo of Hoffman at Sundance last week and felt a familiar thrill at his beautiful expressive face.

"What is his next magic?" I wondered. And now there is no more.