Back with Anthony and Casey: Workshopping and New Roles

In 2019, I was given the opportunity to conduct a series of interviews on The Girl With the Red Hair, a play by writer/director Anthony Laura. Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?

As the cast and crew prepped The Girl With the Red Hair for a limited run in December (a run that received great praise and fanfare), I had the pleasure of discussing the process and direction of the play with Anthony and Casey, as well as supporting actors, Viven Cardone, Samatha Yestrebsky, and Alexandra Rooney. This not only offered the opportunity to discuss each actor’s approach and vision for their character, but also offered the rare opportunity to follow a work as it progressed from script to the stage.

But, now I have more questions! What happens to a play once a limited run is complete? Where does it go from there? What happens when a play is workshopped?

Fortunately, Anthony has been gracious enough to allow me to continue to follow the cast and crew as they prepare the play for future runs. Through interviews, video chats, pictures, and more, we’ll have a seat at the table as cast and crew develop, prepare, and rewrite The Girl With the Red Hair for future runs on stage.

So … Let’s begin where we started, with Anthony and Casey. 


 

Back with Anthony and Casey:

Workshopping and New Roles

First and foremost, congratulations on a successful run of The Girl with the Red Hair! The reviews certainly spoke highly of the story, and most definitely of your performance, Casey. On the heels of that limited run, where is production now?

Anthony: We’ve been diving into the scenes that we felt worked well over the past two runs and I have been writing new scenes for us to explore, both in terms of some that will appear in the play and some that will only be used for backstory purposes. It’s been interesting to explore the dynamics that don’t exist on the stage, such as how each person relates differently to Doctor Watkins and how their relationships to characters outside of Hayley inform the environment of the hospital.

Casey: Thanks so much! I’m really proud of the work we did last year. Now, we are working towards returning with a larger off-Broadway run this fall. So, beginning with a workshop of the current script, story, and characters, we’re playing around with what we want to keep and what we might want to change in order to adapt the script to tell the story in an even more effective way. So we’re workshopping the play for the first half of the year and then are planning on putting it up in the fall, depending on what happens with the theaters and scheduling regarding the covid-19 virus. Right now we’re keeping a positive outlook and an open mind and focusing on the workshop first and foremost. 

Recently, Face to Face films added the role of Creative Partner for you, Casey. What does that role entail? 

I will be working with Anthony on various productions not only as an actor but also doing various production tasks, sometimes helping with producing or giving feedback on scripts and stories and characters. We just want to be creating and telling stories that we care about … Anthony and I have found that individually as artists we each focus on similar types of stories. About women and taboo issues. So it’s great having a creative partner that you trust who you can just spitball ideas with and create projects that you both genuinely care about. It just so happens that the projects I had been creating independently correlate well with the themes and message that Anthony and Face to Face Films has been trying to get across, so why not work together? 

Anthony, since Casey mentioned the company message, what can you tell us about its focus?

Face To Face Films is focused on female led work and bringing voice to stories about people that are not regularly understood. We have an incredible group of talented Resident Artists in the company, as well as a brilliant behind the scenes team, which also includes Casey, who produce, curate and help promote the shows and films we do. It was always important to me to tell stories that were about people who inspired me and who I wanted to see represented on screen. In addition, I also wanted to create a company with people who I’m inspired by and who believed in each other, just as much as the work we were doing. I believe that the works that audiences respond to are the ones in which the people creating them are as beautiful, kind and as vulnerable as the characters you respond to on the screen or stage. It’s been a privilege to find that in everyone that is working within the company.

Casey, how has your new role changed the way you work with Anthony? What’s been the greatest challenge?

Well, I’ve always felt seen and heard whenever I’ve had an idea about something while working as an actor with Anthony, so now working with him as a creative partner on the production and writing side of things it doesn’t necessarily feel like too much has changed. I guess I’m more comfortable stating my thoughts and opinions about each project that we’re working on knowing that he trusts me as a creative partner in that way. It can be challenging as an actor when you have thoughts and opinions on a project you’re working on because you don’t want to overstep any boundaries with the writer, director or other crew members. There can be an insecurity about that as an actor. So with this new role as a creative partner with Face to Face Films, I feel like I don’t have to apologize or feel guilty about stating my opinions knowing that Anthony actually wants to hear those things from me. Acting can sometimes make you feel like a puppet in a way, so it’s always a gift to work with someone who sees you as a full person and values your opinions and ideas. 

When people work together on artistic projects, it requires an aligned focus and passion. What is it about the two of you that makes for a great partnership?

Anthony: One of the main reasons I asked Casey to become a Creative Partner was because of her passion. When Casey and I first met about a year and a half ago, we immediately connected on the types of stories we wanted to tell and we both felt similarly about the ways we hoped to see women on screen and stage. 

A part of Face To Face that has always been important to me are the relationships of each of us working together. Casey is someone I consider a very close friend outside of work and it’s a privilege to work so closely with someone that you also have that connection with. That’s one thing I love about the company we’ve created, that we are surrounded by close friends in addition to having created a family environment, both in and outside of work.

In terms of acting, Casey is brave, resilient and has an incredible grasp on text. I recently wrote a new monologue for the play that we began workshopping. I had asked Casey to read it blindly, and she nailed every single nuance. I think she understands the way I write and can give every comma, and every word the desired effect I had intended without us having spoken about it. It’s rare to come across an actor who silently can understand and deliver your intentions so beautifully and effortlessly.

I think, for me, what makes us great partners is the way we listen to each other, trust each other, have each other’s backs and the way that, even in the midst of working on something so challenging, we can still find ways to laugh and challenge each other. As similar as our viewpoints are in work, we also differ on many things and that’s a big reason I wanted her as a partner. She consistently challenges me to think deeper about characters I’ve created and thought I knew, and the result is always electrifying.

Casey: We met over a year ago when I auditioned for a film of Anthony’s, and since we started working together it seems like we just felt a connection and a mutual understanding and respect for one another. It’s hard to explain because I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when our collaborative relationship also felt like a friendship, but when you feel like you can trust someone while doing such personal and vulnerable work you want to continue that partnership. We definitely end up on some pretty funny tangents while working together, but it’s knowing that we can do the work efficiently and also laugh and have a good time that makes the work environment so comfortable and effective. I know I’ve made comments or suggestions that I’d be too embarrassed or insecure to mention in other work environments and they actually ended up being suggestions that we’ve gone further with. It’s being able to trust one another that allows us to put forth ideas that might feel far-fetched in our minds but actually bring about so many other wonderful ideas

In reviewing the characters from the December run, what stood out to you both the most? What changes did you feel were necessary?

Anthony: I think we are still figuring out exactly what changes were necessary.  However, what stood out to me was the ways in which the audience was affected emotionally in certain parts of the show. I think there are particular moments, such as Cortney’s monologue in Act 2, Hayley’s monologue discussing her past (in Act 2 as well,) and the surprising revelations that the story has as it moves along, that have always packed a punch in the rehearsal room and we hoped the audience would feel what we felt. Yet, there were other moments that the audiences also became affected by in terms of Coury, Tabitha, and of course, Young Hayley, that allowed me to understand how people were connecting to other characters in addition to Hayley and that immediately became exciting for what I wanted to explore as the workshops progressed.

Casey: We have so much love for these characters so we really just wanted to dive further into who each person is and the relationships they have with one another and particularly with Hayley. We felt an importance in showcasing Dr. Watkin’s vulnerabilities more and how hard it is seeing your patients struggle. There’s also been a lot more to explore with Young Hayley, Pamela, and Cortney and I wanted to see more of Eve and Hayley’s friendship as well. Dixie’s character of the Singer as a hallucination has changed a bit, too, so I’m really excited about that. In shortening the length of the play, we also had to think about which character might be able to be combined with another one. That’s definitely been the hardest part of this process because we love them all so much. 

What takes place when a play is being workshopped? What do you hope to gain from it?

Anthony: Every workshop is different, depending on your desired end result.  Right now, the work being done with Hayley is helping to explore and bring out elements we haven’t seen yet, such as who she was outside of the hospital and what her hopes and dreams are that still reside in her.  We are also exploring scenes that will not exist in the play and are using those as exercises to help deepen certain relationships. Based on the current state of the world, we have moved everything to become virtual, so the workshop is also adapting to that, knowing that we are not able to do anything physically or in terms of blocking. This allows us to take a little more time around the table before we are ready to come back in the same room with each other. I think the gain will be in understanding these characters in ways we didn’t have the opportunity to before and, hopefully discovering new elements to work into the play that wouldn’t have been possible without this work.

Casey: Anthony has been writing scenes for each of us actors individually and we read through them, act them out, and feel out what’s working and what’s not. Anthony and I have also gone through the entire script and decided which scenes we feel could be omitted or are necessary to be kept in. It’s fun seeing new scenes mixed with the old and seeing these characters evolve. All I can hope for is that we’re continuing to tell an honest story that we really love about characters that we care a lot about and are continuing to protect the humanity of these characters as the story of the play evolves.

What was the most unexpected and exciting discovery from the limited run?

Anthony: For me, the most exciting part was the audience. Watching how differently they reacted each night and the different points of the play they connected to. I love watching these actors work every night and seeing how they adapt to different energy and how deeply the story affects them. It brings me to tears watching their dedication to each other and the story. Also, though it wasn’t unexpected because of her talent and LITERAL ADORABLENESS, the audience’s reaction to Alexandra Rooney, who plays Young Hayley, was really moving to me. She became such a central part of the story we were telling that I had hoped the audience understood the journey we were going for with showing the dichotomy of both Hayley’s, so I felt proud in the way that landed and touched people.

Casey: Honestly, what comes to mind was how much the cast and crew had each other’s backs during the December run. Not that I wasn’t expecting it at all, but the depth of it was a nice reassurance. On opening night I suddenly felt nauseous after intermission and when I had a brief second backstage, I let Sofia, our stage manager, know before running back on with a quick, “I might have to puke.” I was mentally preparing for a safe time to run to the toilet but when I went offstage the next time, Sofia had a garbage can and ginger ale at the ready. I didn’t puke, FYI. Another actor felt nauseous during a different performance and we just knew that the other actors would be ready to adlib if one of us ever needed to run offstage quickly. I think that support and bond was a weird little exciting discovery among the group that we have working together. Knowing that that trust is there makes the work we’re doing onstage ten times better because we feel supported and covered in case anything crazy happens during a performance. 

From the onset, through the limited run in December your relationship was strictly director and actor. With Casey’s move to Producer, how has that influenced working together?

Anthony: I think from the onset of when we began collaborating, Casey and I have always worked closely and exchanged ideas. Now, I think there is even more of a freedom to discuss and explore different areas that fall outside of just acting.  Casey is extremely well read and the ideas she puts forward come from a very intellectual place, in addition to an emotional and instinctual place. That’s been pretty exciting to me, getting to explore the ideas that we are both passionate about outside of just the themes we are dealing with in the current work. I think that informs us in how we want to develop what projects and characters excite as we think about creating future work together.

Casey: Being asked to move into a producer role has allowed me to feel more comfortable giving input and sharing my ideas and opinions. As an actor, you don’t want to overstep those boundaries, even though Anthony has always been very open about hearing ideas from his actors. We’ve been on the same page with pretty much everything that’s come up during the workshop so far, which is lucky.

For those of us who have never been through the process, what is it like working through this stage of a play’s life? What does an average day look like?

Anthony: At this stage, it’s a lot of talking and playing with scenes. I’ll write a scene and we will read it together, and start going bit by bit through it to discover intention and why we think it works or doesn’t work in the body of the play. Sometimes, we will revisit scenes that already exist in the play and discuss portions that may no longer fit with the new pages we’re creating. It’s a lot of back and forth as we slowly build parts of characters that the audiences will never see, but hopefully, will always feel.

Casey: The workshop is fun because each session where we’re working together, which now has to be virtually through FaceTime, Anthony has written new material for me to work on. It’s exciting to take these characters through new small adventures within the same world with each new scene we work on. We’re usually reading through new scenes, analysing the scenes and discussing how they would fit into the world of the play and where it might go in the script, which scene it could replace or be added to, and so on. Then, of course, we’ll take time to discuss production details–the producing side of things–such as theaters we’re looking at, our timeline and potential schedule for the fall, and so on

As a writer or actor, every character brings with them lessons that can carry over. You’ve both been immersed in the journey of Haley Jones for some time now. What has she taught you?

Anthony: Kindness and compassion. Hayley has grown into what Casey has developed her into and I always walk away with the lesson of compassion. She’s one of the bravest characters I’ve ever written and I think courage through kindness is what defines Hayley to me.

Casey: I’ve learned so much from Hayley. I think the biggest thing she’s taught me has been that we don’t have to be alone in whatever it is we are going through. Seeing how many audience members felt personal connections to the play, it felt like I was learning this more and more everyday as Hayley was. She’s also taught me more about self-acceptance and self-awareness than anyone I’ve ever known in real life, I think. Hayley does have an awareness of what’s going on with her mental health, even when it feels as if she’s lost control of it all. She’s also proven to me how important it is to accept what you’re going through and not be ashamed of who you are because you can’t move on until you’ve accepted wherever it is you’ve found yourself at the moment and can use that to learn from and grow even stronger as you move forward into the next phase of your life. No matter how scary that might be, it won’t be forever

You mentioned expanding the role of Young Haley. What inspired that choice and what can she add to the overall dynamic of the play?

Anthony: (SPOILER ALERT) The dynamic between Alexandra and Casey is fascinating to watch. The love they have for each other becomes very present on stage. Having dealt further with the sexual abuse that Hayley suffered, bringing Young Hayley to the forefront has allowed us to show the moment in her life before her innocence was taken away and how it effected the trajectory of the rest of her life. There’s a moment, a shift, and I think it happens whether we’ve experienced trauma or not, where we no longer look at the world through childlike eyes. Our responses become more measured, and we become more aware of how other people perceive us. I was really excited to further explore how Hayley has grown or been held back since that moment of trauma occurred.

Casey: Anthony’s addition of Young Hayley has been really effective, I think. It’s so heartbreaking seeing that divide between the carefree, playful nature of Hayley’s youth and the pain and hurt that Hayley is feeling trapped in as an adult. I think most people experience something that can quickly steal the naivete of youth right out from under their noses, and the feeling of that is universal even if we’ve blocked out whatever it was that made that happen for us. I think seeing Young Hayley can help audiences connect Hayley more with her full humanity rather than just viewing her as someone who has completely lost her mind, because she is still the same person as she was when she was young. She still has that beauty in her. She’s just working through some new circumstances.

Casey, given the sensitive nature of Hayley’s story, what kind of reaction did you receive from the audiences? 

Vivien (Cardone) hugged me before the curtain call one night and said, “Every single person in that audience is crying.” Some people were speechless because the play hit so many people pretty hard. Friends and strangers were coming up to me afterwards telling me how they each personally related to the story, whether it was themselves going through something similar or someone they love. A friend of mine said how good it felt to finally feel represented onstage in a story like this. After our final performance, I found myself hugging and crying with a young woman who I had never met before but I suddenly felt so close to. She said she finally felt seen and accepted. It was so powerful and I said to myself, “We can’t stop. We have to keep going.” People I had known for my entire life who saw the show were suddenly sharing very personal things with me that they had never opened up about before. It was very powerful to see how universal this topic really is and how many people it affected in various ways. 

Before we bring this interview to a close, I wondered if you could both speak to your hopes for the company, as well for the work you will create as collaborative partners?

Anthony: I am very excited for what the company has on its slate for the next couple of years. In addition to The Girl With the Red Hair having another couple of runs, we also have several web-series in development.  One of them, Kara, featuring Casey as the title character, deals with the effects of a school shooting survivor and the impact it has had on her mental health and relationships. We are also establishing a reading series with our company members in which we will put on readings of plays and screenplays, both produced and unproduced. Vivien Cardone, one of our Residents who plays Doctor Watkins, and I are also developing ideas for a web series in the  future and Samantha Yestrebsky, another Resident who plays Cortney and Azura, and I have also spoken about branching off the Azura character in other works.

I really enjoy writing for Casey and finding roles that intrigue the both of us and now, to have her on board as a CP, it feels even more invigorating to have her as a bigger part of the process and put out these plays, web-series and films that we both connect to so deeply.

Casey: I hope we can continue to create work that we care deeply about with people who have a similar love for the stories we want to tell and the humanity of the characters we want to convey through these projects. I just think it’s important to be telling the stories you really want to tell and are passionate about because when it comes from a place of love and care, no matter who sees it or where it gets shown, that is always the most rewarding work you will do and the work that makes you feel the most alive.


 

A Time Like No Other

I wrote this as a version of a PR release for Broadleaf Writers. Though it was sent to writers in that growing community, I feel it’s appropriate for (and meant for) everyone.

Hang in there folks. Stay safe. Be smart.

Feel free to share any thoughts, comments, worries, fears, hopes, etc that you may have.

Z

After the attacks on September 11th, 2001, our country fell silent. The skies were empty, roads spotty with cars, work ground to a stop as schools and stores closed. We waited. For what, we weren’t entirely sure, but we knew a moment was required to pause, reflect, regroup, and plan for the future.

Today is different. Today, while stores may open and work will continue–whether from home or a place of business–the waiting comes with an unknown endpoint. We aren’t recovering from a singular moment. We’re watching it unfold in slow motion across the globe. We’re not facing off against a radical segment of humanity, we’re settling in for a war with a pandemic.

Like any war, it requires a great deal of sacrifice, a willingness to do what must be done in order to save as many lives as we can. It requires solidarity, a desire to lift one another up as we fall, to stand together, as one nation, as one species. It requires faith and hope and an unwavering focus on the day when victory is acheived and life begins anew. Reformed, driven by an experience that reshapes our perspective.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. But there’s darkness to walk before we get there.

But we will get there.

As a writing organization, Broadleaf Writers is designed to influence and inspire writers, to educate and offer instruction in a skill that assists in taking that which is brain-bound and giving it a voice on the page. We are meant to function as a community, to help one another learn, grow, and realize our dreams. I will always believe that we–as humans, as a community, as a collective of like-minded individuals, etc–are only as strong as those we stand beside. So, I encourage you to buckle up, do what you must do to benefit us as a whole, and be prepared to jump in feet-first when it’s time to reset our world (no matter global or the world of your home). Be mindful of others, be mindful of those you love, be mindful of yourself.

And if you find yourself with an abundance of time–as it seems we all may–write. Dig in. Pour your soul onto the page. Take all the fear and worry and concern and hope you’re experience right now and write it out.

As to our slate of 2020 programming, we’re monitoring the virus and recommendations for public gatherings. At the moment, we’re holding a place for our April 11th Write Now program, while moving forward with the open of registration on April 1st for the 5th Annual Broadleaf Writers Conference in October. By then, I’m sure we’ll all need a breakout weekend of fun and community.

For now, stay safe. Follow the recommendations of the medical field and stay home unless you absolutely need to get out. You may be able to withstand the nastiness of an exceptionally powerful flu, but you can’t be certain others you will encounter can. Write. Read. Be with your family. Find reason to laugh as much as possible.

The darkness is temporary. There will be light. Walk the tunnel together and we’ll see what the world looks like when we get there. Then we’ll adjust accordingly.

If you want to share any thoughts–on writing or otherwise–or have some material you’d like feedback on, feel free to reach out. You can email me at zach@broadleafwriters.com, or find me on Facebook or Twitter.

Be well. My thoughts are with you all.

Once Upon a Retail Dream

I worked for Barnes & Noble many many moons ago. For the better part, it was a good job. I made a number of friends I still have to this day, learned a great deal about bureaucracy, came to grips with the fact that some people suck, and got to see the world of books from a side that was more terrifying and heart-wrenching than I could have ever imagined.

Working in a bookstore is a blessing.

Working in a bookstore during Christmas is soul-crushing.

One night I was the manager-on-duty during an overnight inventory. This involved a lot of wandering, answering questions when the inventory team (an outsourced company) had them, and an abundance of idle time.

I took some of that time to pay homage to one of my favorite stories of all time: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I had it memorized at one point, though I doubt I could remember half of it now. To the beat–more or less–of The Grinch, I wrote about the experience of being in retail this time of year.

I was idealistic once, as well. My first Christmas at B&N put that to rest.

Final note: I’m not a poet. Generally, I’m an idiot. No need to edit my work here. Just enjoy, and maybe–just maybe–be a bit more kind to the folks working retail. It. Is. Hard.

Once Upon a Retail Dream

In a town, once there was, not so far from the fuss

of a city that travelled by car and by bus;

crowds of people who would pounce

and then pay no heed,

to the stories and literature they were told to read.

 

And in this small town was a store that sold books,

a place of joy and good will where friends and family alike

would come to browse and to gawk and to look

for stories upon stories to warm their bleak hearts,

for those in need, for those not quite right,

for those so eager to read by fine light.

 

And to this store one day, there came a man,

whose smile brought good cheer to this place in demand.

He came with a box full of ribbons and bows,

full of doo-dads and papers and puppets for shows!

They welcomed him warmly, this boss who promised the most,

and granted their allegiance as he took this fine post.

They cried, “Hooray for this man, who brings with him hope!

He seeks our redemption, he may right our doomed boat!”

 

But the man formed a grin, a strange little smirk.

“What do you mean?” he asked,

“This store is a blessing, not the slightest known quirk.”

The employees, they did laugh,

most simply shaking their heads;

then one spoke up light, her fair voice so sweet,

she bit at her lip and said, “Oh, brother, we’re dead.”

 

“Surely, you jest,” said the man still aglow,

“Let me show you the heart of the customer flow.”

He walked to the door with a bounce in his step,

his face full of joy, his hum full of pep.

He reached for the lock, those in wait staring long,

for a moment he paused, his mind waging within,

they looked so intense, unhappy and withdrawn.

But he drew his best smile—a patented grin—and parted the door,

which they pushed open so quickly,

he was knocked to the floor.

 

“We told you,” the workers said,

as he wiped dust from his pants,

“They’re maniacs, they’re mad,

they’re retail’s life-sucking ants.”

“Just anxious,” he said, with notable doubt,

“They needed their coffee, a few simple gifts,

they needed exercise books to workout.

They’ll get what they need,

then they’ll hurry right out.”

 

But the customers did linger, they plopped into chairs,

they scattered books and they slept,

and they bumped tables without care.

Signs fell to the floor, the children’s section was trashed,

the café was pillaged, and displays were crashed.

The carpet—once as neat as his bed—was littered

with pastries that were mangled, half-eaten and mashed.

“What are you doing?” asked the man, his hands wringing with fear,

“This is a store to buy books! There’s no carnival here!”

But the people paid no mind, they hurried instead,

their faces intent, eyes glossy like pearls,

they rummaged through clearance racks and filled him with dread.

 

“I don’t understand!” he cried, but to no great avail,

“You’re supposed to come shop, not barter for sales!”

And the man who did smile as he walked through the door,

with boasts of good fortune and scores of good cheer,

suddenly realized that retail was a little bit more

than selling to people who know what they want.

“They shop without purpose, they shop without heart.

They shop without discounts or knowledge or carts!”

 

And what did they hear on that cool winter day?

Those customers and employees, well, in whispers they say,

that the man with the smile and promises of more,

screamed and he screamed

as they carried him out from the store.

He screamed like a child, in the white jacket he wore.

An Interview with Writer/Director Anthony Laura and Actress Casey Hartnett

As a writer, and as founder and Executive Director of the Broadleaf Writers Association, I’m often given the opportunity to preview work before it reaches the public. Generally, that means a manuscript that requires editing before it’s sent out on submission, or an advanced copy of a book to be published. But I’m also fortunate to know a number of writers, producers, and directors working on either plays, screenplays, or both.

One of those is writer/director Anthony Laura, an artist I have come to admire both for his emotionally provocative scripts as well as the passion in which he brings them to reality. One of those works, The Girl with the Red Hair, is a play currently slated to premiere this winter, and I was honored to not only get the opportunity to read the script, but to interview both writer and lead actress.

Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?

With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.

An Interview with Anthony Laura and Casey Hartnett

 

Writing about or portraying an individual suffering from the ramifications of sexual abuse requires both accuracy and a gentle, yet firm, hand. How did you both prepare for this sensitive subject?

CASEY: We talked a lot about Hayley’s backstory and the specifics of what actually happened when she was nine years old. Then in my own crafting, I thought about the specifics of what happened right afterwards. Did I tell anyone? What did I say? How did those words come out of my mouth at such a young age? Who did or did not believe me? What became the dynamic in my family after all of this happened and how I did I deal with that as a teenager? All of these specifics had to be well-thought out in order to be as truthful as possible. The scariest thing is the idea that someone in the audience could really relate to having something as traumatic as this happening to them, so being as truthful and specific as possible with every little detail was really important to me.

ANTHONY: In both preparation and execution, we wanted to honor the specific difficulties of experiencing and continuing to live with such trauma.  The seeds of Hayley’s suffering with the abuse is sprinkled throughout the play, but the reveal happens quite late.  Due to this, Casey and I spoke about the physical manifestations and how the emotional repercussions were specific to Hayley.  I think what was most profound about Casey’s portrayal is how deeply you felt her pain, yet it always remained a bit at bay and hidden.  Many survivors suffer silently for years, whether it be from shame or fear, and continue to relive their trauma internally.  We wanted to illustrate the debilitating effect that repression can have and how much courage it takes to make the decision to speak it aloud.

The girl with the red hair is a pivotal character in Hayley’s journey. What does she represent to you?

CASEY: The girl with the red hair represents everything that Hayley wishes she could be. She represents this fantastical perception of perfection that no matter what Hayley does, feels so far away from being able to be achieved. There’s a hopefulness but also a hopelessness all at once in the girl with the red hair, and that combination is really heartbreaking.

ANTHONY: Azura has always felt like a bit of a guardian angel to me.  Through her optimism and innocence, a sense of hope is ignited in Hayley.  It’s one of the few times in the play that we’re left with Hayley at the end of a scene feeling at peace.  However, Hayley winds up putting her on a pedestal, believing her life would be better if she existed as her, until Coury accurately points out “Why can’t you just be yourself?”  It’s a feeling I think we can all relate to in viewing people in terms of their best qualities and assuming we are defective for having problems of our own and not maintaining our own expectation of perfection.

Despite the sensitive and emotionally raw nature of the script, there remains a good bit of humor. How do you manage to convey a sense of comedy in moments that are so deep in despair and pain?

CASEY: I think sometimes we have to laugh and find the humor in unsettling situations in order to maintain our sanity. I guess it’s almost like a defense mechanism that Hayley uses to hold onto what little control she does have of her situation. If she can tease Dr. Watkins maybe she’ll start speaking to Hayley as an actual person rather than a patient. If she jokes around with Nurse Janice, the time might go by a little quicker. I feel like in Hayley’s case, humor is used as an escape mechanism; an escape from the mania and the depression and the utter sadness that has enveloped her entire being so harshly for so many years. Sometimes laughter is a better cure than any medication.

ANTHONY: For me, levity tends to exist very often in the most painful of situations.  In fact, in my experience, the more painful the situation, the more we yearn and strive to make people laugh or help us laugh through the hard times.  We crack jokes to ease the tension every day.  Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias always had a line that stuck with me.  “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

Actors and directors both work to interpret a script into their vision of character, which is ultimately a collaborative effort. What have you gained the most from working with one another?

CASEY: Honestly, I think the biggest thing I’ve gained from working with Anthony has been a greater sense of trust and confidence in myself as an actor to go out there and tackle heavy material like this play. I’ve always been so subtle as an actor that being driven out of my shell to truthfully portray those moments of Hayley’s mania and heightened emotional life has given me the confidence to expand on the types of roles I want to play; and the roles that I actually believe I can play now. Because of this, when working on script revisions, if he asks me if I’d feel comfortable trying something new with Hayley, I have no reservations against saying, yes, yes let’s try it!

ANTHONY: I remember the first time I sat down with Casey and she told me her interpretation of Hayley.  I recall being in such awe of her empathy.  In the past two and half months, she has shown me a world within Hayley I never imagined.  A lot of that comes from how open and vulnerable she is on stage and how deeply invested she is with Hayley, but more importantly how giving she is with the other actors (and characters) around her.  Overall, what I continue to gain from working together with her is trust.  I think we both listen to each other with full attention and when that happens, the possibilities are endless.  There’s absolutely nothing more thrilling than exploring a character or situation together with a new and exhilarating idea that only comes from wanting to hear each other’s input and make the best possible product.  She always makes the work better.  Plus, she’s one of the kindest actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

Azura, the girl with the red hair, visits Hayley at one point and mentions the sadness in the song Puff the Magic Dragon. She says Hayley is like Puff without his roar. What do you think she’s trying to say to Hayley?

CASEY: When Azura tells Hayley she is like Puff without his roar and that she needs to get her roar back, I think she’s trying to tell Hayley to not let her current situation get her down and to embrace her flaws and her past because without all of those facets of Hayley, she wouldn’t be Hayley and that’s what makes her so unique and special. Maybe embracing all of these parts of Hayley instead of trying to bury them away will allow Hayley to feel whole again. I think Azura is just reminding Hayley that despite everything that has happened, it is possible for Hayley to feel happy again.

ANTHONY: Going back to the guardian angel comment earlier, Azura is letting Hayley know that everything she needs to be her best self exists inside of her.  Sometimes, especially through trauma, we lose a part of ourselves that even we forget existed.  Azura wants to assure Hayley that whatever she seeks in right within her grasp if she allows herself to fight.

Writing a play of this emotional magnitude is a challenge. What challenged you the most?

ANTHONY: I think the biggest challenge was in balancing and withholding.  I wasn’t interested in telling a story about these issues that would be too operatic.  I wanted it based in reality and, for me, in real life, we hide instead of show.  The other challenge, which I still strive for in the new run, is accuracy.  Many people who suffer from mental illness, whether it’s on a large or small scale, continue to feel inadequately represented when the portrayal is romanticized or emotionally inaccurate.  I think it further adds to the stigma that only elicits more shame and fear in those who suffer.  Maybe this is an obvious statement, but I think it’s important to treat everything as a documentary and show realistic portrayals so people suffering feel seen.

Bette Midler makes several appearances to Hayley. Was there any particular reason you chose her for the script?

ANTHONY: One reason is the difference in Ms. Midler’s presence on and off stage.  She always puts on a great show and makes you laugh with everything she does.  Yet, if you watch more of the intimate interviews with her, you’re overtaken by how candid she is with her struggles and how different her personality actually is from her stage appearances.  I think Hayley responds to the comfort of Bette, what she wants her to be, and that further enforces the theme of controlling ourselves and others.

Hayley has endured experiences that pushed her beyond her breaking point. Through her suffering, you tackle the issue of mental illness. What message did you hope to convey?

ANTHONY: We all know what it’s like and how easy it is to isolate when we feel others can’t understand how we’re feeling or what we’re going through.  I’ve experienced depression to the point where I would stay in my room and not eat for days.  As hard as that is, it’s also hard on those around you.  We want people to feel less alone.  We also hope that people who are on the outside of the disease can see this and understand that sometimes all you need to do is listen, that your support is all anyone needs.  I hope that we are able to articulate what people suffering have gone through and continue to go through and make them feel like the heroes they are for fighting this fight everyday of their lives.

Each character holds a key to unlocking the truth of Hayley’s journey. Was this something you planned, or did it come about through the writing process?

ANTHONY: A little of both.  There was definitely a lot of discovery during the writing process and the rewriting process.  I know that in my life, a lot of the truth I’ve learned about myself has come from the people closest to me and I wanted to show how each character had an effect on Hayley, whether that was manifested or based in reality.  The story is essentially about Hayley’s growth and acceptance of herself, but the underlying theme for me was that it’s never weak to ask for help.

What advice would you give other writers interested in writing about characters suffering through mental illness?

ANTHONY: I have always found that the most honest writing comes from finding a way in, knowing what your personal reason is for telling the story.  I don’t think that means you have had to experience mental illness but understanding the reason behind why you want to tell the story and who you want to reach can help in always having a foundation when the writing process takes its crazy turns.

As an actor, finding a sense of empathy for the characters you play is an important facet. What was it in Hayley that you were able to connect to?

CASEY: I was actually able to connect to a lot of parts of Hayley, including her sense of feeling misunderstood and her longing to be heard and believed. That’s probably a common thing for everyone, this desire to be understood and not judged for who you are and what you’ve been through, but I have both seen in others and personally felt a strong desire for that sense of understanding firsthand so I felt like I really wanted to take care of Hayley right off the bat. I wanted to let her know through my portrayal of her that hey, I see you and I understand what you’re going through and I’m going to protect you.

If Hayley could leave the audience with one message about mental illness, what would it be?

CASEY: I think Hayley’s message about mental illness would be just to not judge others or act like you really know what someone else is going through but to just be there for them and support them. To allow them to feel normal.

How has portraying Hayley adjusted your view of others, especially those suffering through despair, pain, and mental illness?

CASEY: Portraying Hayley has definitely made me more cautious of the way I speak to and about others. I’ve worked with very vulnerable populations like the homeless, so knowing those people and now knowing Hayley, I am just much more aware of when I am having judgmental thoughts and how to push those thoughts aside and really try to see and hear what other people have to say and learn about their perspective.

The progression of Hayley’s journey takes her further into paranoia and delusion. When dealing with portraying a character falling deeper into a broken mind, how do you walk the line between reality and parody?

CASEY: As Hayley falls deeper into her broken mind, everything feels real to her so by living in her world during the play, it’s portrayed as if everything is actually happening because the distinction between reality and fantasy has been blurred. So, if Hayley believes that this is all a reality, then I wanted to portray those instances as if they were real and not overdo them or make fun of them in any way.

What has challenged you the most about playing Hayley?

CASEY: I think the biggest challenge has been giving an ultimate truth and honesty to Hayley’s illness. It was really important to me that I understand mental health and sexual trauma as thoroughly as possible because it’s one thing for a character to feel misunderstood, but it’s another thing entirely for an audience member who identifies with Hayley to see a play and feel even more alone than when they walked into the theater.

Hayley struggles with sexuality on many levels, including her own sexual orientation. Given what you know, and have learned, of Hayley, how do you portray that sense of exploration beyond her dialogue?

CASEY:  Portraying Hayley’s sense of sexual exploration goes beyond her dialogue in the way of subtle hints in the underlying emotions during her interactions with several characters. She and Cortney have a few unspoken moments of attraction that act as saving graces for Hayley in a way; they comfort her and scare her all at once. With Coury, she is trying to find her sexual desire again but she has become numb to intimacy and can’t really understand why. Since she can’t explain it, it can’t be explained through the dialogue but Coury seems to acknowledge that it’s okay without ever having to say those exact words.

At one point, Hayley has a literal knee-jerk reaction to being touched. In another scene, she rebukes Eve’s advances by asking her to view her as a nine-year-old girl. How do you convey those moments to the audience, so that they see the connections to her past?

CASEY: Conveying those moments of Hayley still being affected by her past sexual traumas to the audience comes through in the emotional preparation of the work. I could ask Eve in a hypothetical, playful way to think of me as a nine-year-old girl, but that wouldn’t necessarily lead the audience to believe Hayley has actually been abused. Hayley’s quick temper and the way she gets so upset by Eve’s hyper-sexuality is evidence in itself for the audience to (hopefully) understand that something terrible happened to her when she was so young and it’s still greatly affecting her today and is most likely the cause for Hayley being in a psychiatric ward in the first place.

In Act Two, Hayley says, “Everything is so far away,” a perspective to which many can relate. What makes this perspective unique to Hayley? How is her “far away” different than everyone else?

CASEY: When Hayley says, “Everything is so far away,” her perspective has been radically shifted from feeling in control of the people around her during her manic phases to a total loss of control after Eve points out how she has betrayed all of them without her even realizing it. It’s like everything has taken a 180 degree turn in the wrong direction and Hayley feels completely lost and confused with no sense of an explanation as to why this happened. I would say that Hayley’s “far away” is different from everyone else’s because her mind literally cannot recall the exact details of what got her to this point. Her mental illness has created these blocks in her brain, it’s as if she blacked out and did a lot of regretful things that she can’t remember and therefore can’t apologize for.

The Grief Monster

Often, I feel alone. Not lonely, but alone. A great bit of this is my own fault. I’m a solitary creature, an introverted writer drifting in and out of the space-time continuum. I spend a great deal of time in my head with worlds and people who are very much real, albeit without any physical nature to them. They are, to me, no different at the heart than the people and places I see in this world. Imagination and reality are the same. There’s a comfort to it. Not an escape, but a pleasant dynamic of creation and satisfaction in discovering people and places that inspire me. It allows me to feel more human. More whole. Less alone.

In my everyday world, it’s a different story. I work alone 90% of the time. I’m not much for chatting on the phone. Texting is communication, and I prefer it, but it hardly leaves one feeling accompanied on a journey of any sort. Social media offers an opportunity to connect, to be a part of something, and certainly gives me the daily chance to broaden the Broadleaf community of writers. But, in the end, the world gets quiet, the sound of the fridge running filling the void when the air conditioner doesn’t. Whether on the patio or at the dining room table or sitting at my desk there is an abundance of silence.

Then, I am truly alone.

My only solace during these times, as I have not been so fortunate as to have children, is of the furry four-legged variety. For the past six years, the constant love and attention I’ve received from the ever-present Molly the Cavatese Muppet Dog has given me a healthy dose of what it might be like to have a mini-human in my life. For thirteen years, my cat companion Maggie has been by my side. Through the closing of my bookstore (long live Wordsmiths Books!), to divorce, to break-ups, loss, and moving from one rental property to another. More moves than most cats could endure, I’m sure. Mix those two in with the friend and family member (and mother to the fur babies) that the Moss has become and there is something daily to remind me that I am not entirely alone. They keep me balanced, humored, and moving forward through the worst life has to offer.

But now Maggie is gone. In a flash. Bone cancer took her one week ago. In retrospect, I can see she dealt with it for far longer than I knew. But from diagnosis to the end was a mere ten days. Ten days. The last three of which were filled with dread and horror, sadness and disbelief. I feel cheated. Stunned. Above all, heartbroken. Finding my way through the days that have followed has been challenging, with more breakdowns than I should probably admit.

Some, I know, don’t understand how losing a pet can rival the loss of a human. All I can say (and have said) to those folks is that, aside from believing that all life has equal value, Maggie was never a pet. She was a friend, a confidant (though I’m sure she spilled the beans to Molly far too often), and a loyal and loving companion through my everyday attempts to live. The void that remains is profound. It is intense. I can’t brush my teeth without staring at the spot on the vanity she would perch, tail driting in and out of the sink, not so patiently waiting for her next round of food or treats (and, I like to think, ensuring I wasn’t left alone). She’s not there to keep me company at night, sprawling out on more bed at my shoulder than I should allow. She’s not there in the morning to climb upon my chest, work her claws into my skin as she makes biscuits, and give me a slice of joy to start my day. She’s not there while I work, while I write, while I sit on the patio and take the world in for a few minutes. There’s no chirpy greeting when I come home, no soft tick, tick, tick of claws on the floor as she moves from room to room hunting her next spot to nap.

She’s just not there anymore. And I feel more alone for it.

Grief often carries one into anger. I can’t feel angry about it. Weird though it sounds, I’ve actually tried. She was suffering, in pain, her liver and kidneys failing as the cancer spread, as she quit eating. She’s at peace now, and I can live with that. I’ve quoted Albus Dumbledore more times this week than is reasonably sane, but it speaks to my beliefs on life and death: “Do not pity the dead. Pity the living. And those who live without love.”

That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t curb the unyielding waves of calm to agony in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t bring her back. But it helps.

As it happens, I’m working on a project now that this experience broadens. About a young boy dealing with the loss of his older brother. I understand the character far more than I did a week ago. Much like him, I would do just about anything to have Maggie here again. To fill that void created by her absence. And to ultimately come to terms with the fact that she’s gone. That life goes on, just differently.

There will never be another Maggie. In the physical world her uniquness lives only in memory, in picture, in video. In the other world within the walls of my mind, in the realm of imagination that houses worlds and people that keep me company, she prowls and talks and sleeps and plays as she did here. She watches over me, fusses when I’m not attentive enough, gives me that whisper of a meow when I wake her up kissing her head, and stays by my side always.

It doesn’t take the hurt away. It doesn’t remove the fact I’ll never be able to pet her, to pick her up and put her over my shoulder, or to watch her sleep by my feet while I write. But it’s something. And, somehow, that will have to do.

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The Manic’s Guide to Connections

 

The moment he took the taser out of the case, I sat down and waited. I knew what came next. In that inexplicable sense of destiny, or fate, or the complete and utter understanding of my best friend/meta-sibling’s personality, there was nothing I could do to stop it. It took only, “I wonder what it feels like?” to inspire him into action. For three seconds, he held the charge against his arm, smile twisted in a blend of shock and amusement. Anyone else and I’m running to stop them. But this is the guy who covered his face in shaving cream in order to act like, I don’t know, a rabid Frankenstein or something, then wound up screaming his way down the hall because he hadn’t expected it to burn so badly. This is also the guy who filled a plastic container with butane, stuck his hand through the opening, lit a lighter, thereby (shock!) rendering his arm hair to curled, horrible smelling, reminders of what once was.

This is the smartest guy I know. No, truly, he’s brilliant. In fairness, this all took place over twenty years ago, so perhaps his judgment merely lost its battle against youthful curiosity. A fight we all remember losing more often than not.

I, myself, have lost that battle numerous times, predominantly in the pursuit of the ideal connection (a.k.a. Twoo Wove, a.k.a. Aphrodite, a.k.a. Zach’s Insane and Somewhat Naïve Quest for Completion). The trick—the part I always lose myself within—is getting beyond the initial connection and immediately attempting to translate that into some state of permanence. Some might call this a, “relationship”. I have called them, “oops, nope”. Still, I persist. After all, life can be whittled down to nothing more than an ongoing series of connections, right? Like the charge through my friend’s arm, we absorb the shock and it fills us. It enlivens the mind and heart; and, sure, it scares the hell out of us, but we do it anyway because stopping seems as likely as travelling through time in a DeLorean.

Speaking of which, I read an article regarding the activity of particles in relation to time. The prevailing theory the scientists presented stated that particles show behavioral patterns based on future events, working then backward through the complexity of what we know as “time” in order to reveal their true nature. Now, I have neither a chalkboard, chalk, nor Doc Brown’s manic energy to explain any of that; but it did get me thinking about the connections (and disconnections, for that matter) I have experienced in my life.

Perhaps, in this context, connections are actually echoes from the future. Perhaps we know we’ve met someone important in our lives because—as with the nature of particles—we’re seeing the result that will be instead of the emotion of the moment. Perhaps all of this is utter nonsense and merely an escapist means by which to avoid the reality of the patterns in my life.

Until recently, that pattern has gone like this: I find a connection, I feel alive. I have a sense purpose, completion, and a dingle-dangle twinkle of the ever-elusive surge of happiness. I dive headlong, the connection following my lead. The connection is strong, the pairing complex yet thriving on simplicity, the bond like, I don’t know, every metaphor for love ever stated. Something with flowers and sunshine, probably. Or waves across an otherwise silent beach. I could probably invent one that has to do with tacos, but it might make me hungry and then I’ll spin off into some tangent on cheese.

Mmmmm…cheese.

Anyway.

The point. Right. The non-cheese point is that every new connection thrives on the euphoria of discovery. The newness, the elation of two people sharing commonality and dreams. Ultimately, this wanes in favor of reality, personality, behavior, and the truth that some people just like to shock themselves with tasers to see what happens. And that’s okay. I didn’t know that. I was under some deluded impression that every connection required permanence. It had to last forever, otherwise what was the point? Not quite a shock to the arm, but I did do it to myself and marvel at the results.

Sometimes you meet someone, you share a connection, it feels ridiculously good, then the river of life leads you to drift you apart. Or, sometimes you meet someone, you share a connection, it feels ridiculously good, then no matter how much you want it to continue, the one you’ve connected with drifts away on their own, leaving you to wonder what in the hell of hells you did wrong.

And that’s okay too, I suppose. Everyone deals with this stuff in their own crazy ass ways.

I’m no atomic particle travelling backward through space and time, but regardless of outcome, I’ll take the connection, no matter the result. Sure, I have wants, needs, dreams I can’t shake no matter how hard I try; but I can’t be without connections. Which means I might need to fill the container with butane and burn my arm hairs off from time to time. I might need to shock myself just to see how it feels. I might even need to act like a rabid Frankenstein just to see who runs away first.

Life’s a crazy thing. May as well be a little crazy with it.

I Have No Idea

Let me just hit you with a bit of shocking, unedited, truth so we can move on: I have no idea what I’m doing. Ever. I’ll give you a moment to digest that. It’s big, I know.

All good now? Maybe keep a glass of the bubbly handy, if not. In testament to my general lack of direction and understanding, I’m just winging this. Kind of a stream-of-consciousness type thing, if you will. That can be problematic for me.

I make no secret of the stupid things I’ve done in life. I’ve listed many of them here over the years and had a good laugh at myself in the process. Should you wish to know more about me and the stupid things I’ve done, take some time out of your busy schedule, keep the glass full, and have a read. I don’t know whether that’s a wise recommendation, or not; but as that keeps with the theme of the day, we’ll go with it.  Have fun. I’m a bit of a likable idiot, in that, “Oh, my, what brand of stupidity will he be a slave to today?” kind of way.

I don’t plan much of anything. Sure, I dream and fixate, handle my desire as if it were the most valuable gem in existence, then fall apart when it drops and smashes into cosmic dust; but I never truly have what one might call, “a plan”. As I understand it, life takes a good bit of prognostication, should one wish to excel within it. Ask me how the Braves will do this year, and I’ll give you a prediction. Ask me how my latest book, venture, or attempt at a relationship, will go and you get ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. My father asked me, after I graduated high school, to draft up a five-year plan for life so he could go over it with me. I moved out the next day. Not a plan. Just a reaction. Pure gold.

There is a reason I identify with Tigger

So, as we sit here together, please do keep in mind I have no actual plan for this. Any of this. I tend to operate better at this stage in my life if I cling to each word and watch where it takes me. Any effort to create a visual end point will only carry me off track. We don’t want that. Well, I don’t want that. I can’t presume to speak for you. You’re not here. I can’t see you. I have no idea what you’re thinking at this moment. Perhaps if I did I might consider my words more carefully, or generate something more akin to a point. Something like a plan, maybe? A loose sort of dangly string of a point? Something you can wrap your fingers around, just as a reminder there is a point to it somewhere? I don’t know. Just spitballing.

I’m a patient person. I can’t say this developed from my lack of planning, or if my lack of planning developed out of my patience. There’s a link there, I’m sure. One seems as connected to the other as an appendage to the body. You’d think they would work in concert at all times, but it wouldn’t be true. Truth is my patience is more like this … whatever it is I’m doing now. It has an end, somewhere. Could be the next sentence, could be another 1,000 words from now. Depends on what fuels it, how the line of Reece’s Pieces leads it from the shed and into the house. I would prefer the line of candy, honestly. Hell, I guess I’d prefer anything to nothing.  It’s a great deal easier to be patient with something guiding it, right? Regardless, I am patient because I want to see the point of it all. I want to watch the sunset to the day, to feel the warmth of the sky as the horizon blankets the light, as the clouds blush, as night takes the stage. That’s why I wait. Who needs to plan for that? In the moment, you just get to be in it. Sure, there’s the potential for clouds to move in, for the sky to diffuse the brilliance of the sun’s farewell, for any number of distractions to prevent full enjoyment of the moment; but I’ll take any chance on the potential for a glorious sunset I can find. The payoff is worth it, even if disappointment and life’s persistent clamor can occasionally blunt the joy.

That may best sum me up, actually. I’m looking for the perfect sunset. I believe it will happen at some point, but I may need to see far more sunsets than I can process to get there. I have no idea how many. For that matter, I have no idea what ‘perfect’ is. I have no idea what I’ll do in the moment I realize I’ve found it. I can wait, however, because the sunset keeps trying. I can be patient because each day I know it will return and try again. I can put effort into waiting on it because I know it will put effort into setting. And when the moment comes, when the sun and I find perfection together, it will own me and every ounce of my passion for it. That’s as much planning as I can muster, and in the end it’s less planning than it is a fait accompli. In the context of time and space, it’s already happened. I’m just bumbling my way toward it.

I tend overthink that which I do not know. It’s a product of an imaginative mind contemplating a path to the perfect sunset. I’ve tried to stop it, but the theater of dreams won’t close. I’m not sure how I afford it. The power bill is staggering. Most of my life I’ve overthought situations, emotions, interactions, you name it. Anything and everything beyond the bounds of what I know as fact. I don’t profess to have the answers. I have no idea what will happen next. I only know I want to find that perfect sunset; and when I do, I’m willing to make the most of every second it offers.

In the meantime, until I know what I need to know, I’m going to patiently do and say a lot of stupid things.

Just so you know.

An Accidental Identity Crisis

Twenty-three seconds into the accident, the nascent writer Joshua Alexander jumped for joy. Concentrating on the significant damage to the bumper of my Explorer proved challenging amidst the ever-maddening screams of “THIS IS MY MOMENT! I HAVE ARRIVED!” The poor kid who pulverized his car with my bumper, some student from George Washington University home on break, apologized repeatedly for his lapse in attention; though to be fair, I’m still not sure if he directed it to me or to the crumpled remains of his car. I consoled him, insomuch as I was capable with all the celebratory screaming coming from Joshua. To his credit, the kid remained stoic, clearly at war with the beside-himself-father in his head, taking complete blame when the officer arrived, while I stood at the back of my vehicle analyzing the damage.

“This is great. Fantastic. The best thing that could have happened.”

I countered that, citing that car accidents are not great watermarks of joy for anyone. Not that Joshua cared.

“This will pay for the conference. You should thank that kid.”

I hadn’t considered that. Granted, my bumper looked a bit as if the horrors of life had consumed its soul, leaving its remains to melt into a perpetual frown.

“It’s just a bumper. What do you even need it for?”

As far as I could tell, the moment offered an example as to the primary reason bumpers existed. If I learned anything from Bumper Cars as a kid it was to never play Bumper Cars with my older brother. He had this fixation on ejecting me from my car, or better, the entire ring. Of course, he also had a fixation with swinging me in circles from an arm and leg until my glasses flew off and I started crying, so maybe the Bumper Cars weren’t the issue. In the moment, however, I found my first appreciation for the lessons those ricocheting cars offered.

Still, I had a hard time arguing the point. It was just a bumper. What’s a bumper in comparison to a week’s worth of writing education that would certainly land me a contract with a publisher? Three days later, when the Insurance adjuster handed me a check for $1,100, Joshua’s elation caught up to me. The internal war began. Bumper vs. bills vs. writing conference. Bumper lost in the opening round, if for no reason than it shut Joshua up for a while, and the worst it could do was follow me wherever I drove, its downward slope of sadness perhaps warding off any other unwanted visitors. Bills … those were a trickier obstacle. Apparently, those are supposed to be paid? That’s what I’ve heard. Somewhere.

I guess I should probably mention I had quit my job three months prior in order to write a book. That seems important, in context. Bills and all. Sudden money at hand and the like. A lack of employment certainly made income a pestering nuisance in relation to actually paying for things. You know, the important things like bills. Food. Collectible Star Wars figures. Even writing conferences. Especially those lasting a week long and costing a thousand dollars. An amount I happened to have in my bank thanks to a careless kid fiddling with his radio at forty miles-per-hour as his car rudely greeted the stopped Explorer in its path.

Maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job, I thought for the one-hundred and thirty-first day in a row. As decisions went to this point in life, it ranked up there with the best of Not Good. Sure, I finished a first draft of the book (two if you count the less than stellar 1st person draft I finished in 21 days), and by the time the conference rolled around two months later I would have a good edit complete. The timing fit. The conference–my first ever–would offer me a chance to pitch it to agents and New York Times bestselling author David L. Robbins, who would be the judge in a fiction contest. My book, Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO was good, by my estimates. Okay, so I thought it was perfect. Something to behold. To cherish. To love and to squeeze and to call George. Surely the agents would agree and the whole suffering for my art thing would be worth it, just as I had envisioned. That singular dream in which I quit my job, wrote a book, went to a conference and BLAMMO … agent. Agent would become Publishing Contract. Publishing Contract would equal Advance. Advance would balance out Voluntary Unemployment. Success would follow.

THIS IS MY MOMENT.

Did I have a choice? Sure. I had many. Many, many, many, many of which began the day before I quit my job. Did it feel like it? No. No, between Joshua’s screaming and my inability to see the world of possibility as more than a single light at the end of a short road, the Universe basically sat on my head, declared itself the Master of My Destiny and urged the chariot onward. All of this wouldn’t have happened otherwise, right? Everything happens for a reason, after all.

RIGHT YOU ARE UNIVERSE!

Fueled by the need to risk it all, to bypass sanity in favor of chance (LIVE NOW FOOL!), I registered for the conference and submitted the first fifty pages of my manuscript for the contest.

Sort of.

Technically, yes? Officially … not so much.

The thing is … the thing I should mention is how incredibly tired of me I had become. I saw myself every day. In the mirror, staring back for that brief flash before looking away, lest I thought myself some kind of creepy pervert offering longing glances from the other side of the glass. I talked to myself incessantly daily (yeah, yeah talked … that’s the ticket), whether I wanted to hear me or not. I cooked for myself, cleaned for myself, got sick of my needy self and needed a break.

So, I sent Joshua Alexander to the conference. I’m not sure if I thought he would generate better results, or if it would simply be nice to not be me for a week. Truthishly, I can’t really recall a specific thought of why I should do such a thing. Maybe I took a back seat to the process and Joshua jumped in. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m just weird like that, I suppose.

Regardless of reason–and likely absent it as well–I made my way to the conference full of cheer and lofty dreams, toting my completed manuscript in a wooden box as if it were the lost Ark of the Covenant. I checked in under my name since Joshua, for all of his robust enthusiasm, still lacked both an ID and a bank account, settled in and made off for the Opening Remarks with another hundred plus writers. All of whom were likely themselves because they were smart that way. I sat next to a behemoth of a figure–a tall, muscular man stretched out across two chairs. As I have established, socializing is not my strong point. Joshua, on the other hand, seemed to have no issue with the complexity of Hello and jumped right in.

“Hi. Joshua Alexander.”

Good for you, Josh. Well done.

The man shifted, shook my hand, introduced himself as David L. Robbins and immediately launched into praise for my submission, about how he had planned on finding me to discuss it, and stating his wonder at the luck we would sit next to each other.

It’s possible, at this point, I considered dropping the Joshua persona to ensure Mr. David L. Robbins, New York Times bestselling author, knew who I really was. I offer the possibility of such a though only because I don’t particularly recall if I though much of anything at all. Not with Joshua in charge.

THIS IS MY MOMENT.

So, I let him run with it. Let him talk throughout the Welcome, carrying the conversation onward into my work, its strengths and weakness, the nuances of the craft of writing, echoing David’s belief that conferences were vital to the growth of a writer, and I don’t know, tacos or something. It went on for hours. The next day David even invited me to go watch him golf in between sessions. I became the envy of the entire conference, buddied up to David like a excitable, loyal, puppy. Everyone knew my name, curious about what I wrote, how I had managed to so quickly win the favor of such a notable author.

They were the best two days of Joshua Alexander’s life.

They were, in fact, the only two days of Joshua Alexander’s life.

On day three, David woke up and decided to invite good ole chum Joshua to breakfast. Strange thing though. The front desk had no room for a Joshua Alexander. David insisted they were wrong. Had them check and check again, taking potential misspellings into account. Nope. No Joshua. Confused and slightly embarrassed, David fell into full research mode, following the trail of Joshua Alexander to one Zachary Steele, in room whateverever. He called me. He grilled me. Questioned what reason a man with my name would possibly have to go under any other name, then laughed at me. For the rest of the week. As he told each and every person about the ludicrous tale of Zachary “Joshua Alexander” Steele. For the next few months, as we kept lines of communication open. For the next few years as our friendship grew, as he became a mentor to me as a writer. To this day, some sixteen years later, as the memory pops up and he needs a good laugh at my expense. His last words on this planet to me may very well be, “Tell Joshua I said hi.”

I will always accept life as a never-ending ride of Cause and Effect. For instance, I make really odd decisions, the effect of which tends to rail off into the deep recess of Shitsville. I get to relive them, marvel over them, and perhaps even grow from them, but damn. Just damn.

Every once in a while, despite myself, I get to follow a train of Cause and Effect that isn’t all bad in the end.

I quit my job to write a book, with the express purpose of getting said book published, thereby jump starting my career and minimizing the damage caused by Voluntary Unemployment. In order to facilitate this, I decided I should go to a conference to get noticed. Unable to afford said conference due to having no job, I made use of accidental money to fund my way. I changed my name for no reason, met the author I wanted to meet, made a sizable impression both due to my work and the fundamental identity crisis masquerading as me, and made a friend of David L. Robbins. David created James River Writers in Richmond, Virginia, invited me behind the scenes, to their conference, gave me time with other notable authors (um, hi there Tom Robbins) and awesome people, and taught me the craft. All of which made me a better writer. Fueled by the need for more, the hunger to be better in all aspects of life, I made other questionable decisions, one of which netted me a bookstore I called Wordsmiths Books. During my tenure as owner of Wordsmiths, I met a publisher interested in Anointed. She published it. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a good review. My career as a writer found first gear.

THIS IS MY MO … oh, wait. No.

SEVEN YEARS FROM … is that right? Seven years? Sevenish years, you say? Right.

SEVEN PLUS YEARS FROM NOW WILL BE MY MOMENT.

Sometimes the wrong way can be right. Just, like, way longer.

The Silent Note of the Running Boy

In the words of the reality firestorm that is renowned chef, entrepreneur, cheeky Brit and Tantrum King of the World, Gordon Ramsay, “Here’s the thing.”

I know I’m not dumb. I am, I will acknowledge, a few sprinkles shy of a full spread of shredded cheese on the taco of common sense, but I’m not dumb. Hey, I made all A’s in fifth grade. Not exactly A Brilliant Mind level accomplishment there, but it’s notable. Sure, I misspelled parsley in the school spelling bee, denied the notably visible crush I had on a girl who liked me quite a lot—to her face no less—and chartered my socially awkwardness bus of one onward to middle school with no sign of let up, but I made excellent grades. What did you do?

Point is, I rather like the mad festival of characters that comprise the committee of my brain. I would prefer they come to some consensus on what they ultimately want of me, but they do entertain me so. That has to count for something.

The problem is—the thing that has made my journey through this life so frustrating—I chastise my brain regularly as if it operates individual of the Me that is me, while moving through each moment like a spastic terrier in a thunderstorm. Can’t really blame the brain if I’ve soundproofed its walls, right? I’ve developed this utopian idea of what the world around me should look like and, ignoring my brain’s insistence I step clear of the cabin and move to the back of the plane please sir, I’ve gone ahead and bypassed the computer in order to pilot from the toilet.

In no aspect of my life has this whimsical spontaneity of questionable choice (see? not dumb … questionable … whimsical spontaneity) been more apparent than in my desperate quest to find the perfect woman. I want to say love here, rather than woman but it doesn’t fit the mold. Because, like any good writer, I’ve embodied this woman with a character, a persona, a name by which I might better define her. I call her Aphrodite. I know. Clever, right? Real original. She’s been at the forefront of every decision I’ve ever made, deeply ingrained in every story I’ve ever written. Moreover, she’s become a beacon to the greater dreams of life, thus rendering the name Aphrodite to a branding effort of all things I desire. Primarily, I seek her companionship. Tragically, every aspect of my life has fallen miserably short. Allow me to demonstrate. This tidbit is the into to my current work-in-progress, tentatively titled On the Market:

     When night comes she falls asleep on my couch, hand tucked between face and pillow, crumpled folds of cheek powdered and soft in the moon glow, and I see Aphrodite. There’s a peaceful chaos to her hair, a darkness that betrays the night, finds refuge across a pale canvas of forehead and slips unnoticed behind an ear. She smiles, not much, a simple turn now and again, just a glance behind the curtain. Not enough to comprehend what is seen, but enough to know that whatever it is beats whatever dream I may conjure behind closed doors. 

      She’s a queen of beauty and magnificence when she sleeps, this Aphrodite before me. Time can only grant me a glimpse, I know, until sleep has abandoned her, until her body goes rigid, arms outstretched, fingers flexing, uncoiling, reaching for a heart that is not my own. Then she’ll flash that smile, say my name and never realize how much she makes me quiver. I’ll go weak in the knees, and know that I will love her forever.

Though I understand now how this image has trickled down into every nook and cranny of my desire, I channeled it all for years into this hopelessly romantic ideal of a perfect mate. I simply had to find her. I had to be complete. I put it all on the unwitting shoulders of every woman in my life in order to make it so.

From pretty, shirt-signing, Lori in third grade onward, every female I’ve fallen for has been unwittingly and unfairly compared to this image.

Hey, did you know my relationships haven’t gone well? I wonder if there’s a link? Probably not. Just life stickin’ it the man.

man-around-wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great irony is that, as a child, I went about pursuing every girl I liked as if things would work out fine, as long as I just never ever talked to her ever ever. I mean, I made no secret about liking a girl. If my repeated stares didn’t cover it, my insistence on giving said girl a note to define said liking then sprinting off as if I had just dropped a ticking time bomb in her hands spelled it out without question. Granted, in the few instances in which I spilled my soul to a girl who actually liked me, the resulting connection was one of her trying to talk to some paralyzed, non-responsive, version of myself. I swear ladies, I thought you all were a different species. I feared any measure of contact, verbal or heaven-forbid physical, would result in complete annihilation of self and soul. This lasted all the way through high school. It got mildly better as an adult.

To deal with this, I began subconsciously (I’m leaning on hope here, otherwise I have to admit it was by choice) sabotaging my efforts to find a girlfriend by fixating on girls who clearly had no interest in me (if they even knew my name in the first place, which most didn’t), while simultaneously ignoring any girl I truly liked. I wrote notes to girls I knew would never respond. I wrote one to a girl who—I was told by a friend sitting near her on the bus—laughed her way through it with friends. Yay me! I actually spoke to girls with whom I clearly had nothing in common, fishing for any kind of attention, blinders set to the rest of the school’s female population in order to maintain my focus. I was thirty-five before I learned most of these girls actually liked me. You know … liked me liked me.

In tenth grade, I moved in with my father. The shift from small town Florida to small town Georgia wasn’t much of a transition. Leaving the one friend I had behind hardly registered. In fact, I don’t even remember being at all fazed by the move initially, other than missing my mother terribly. My brain might have had issues with it all, but I wasn’t listening.

My first day at school I made my way to First Period, drifting down the hall of a foreign land like a fading cloud against blue skies, ducked into class and found a seat in the second to last row, three seats from the front. I would have tucked all the way into the corner had other students not beaten me to it. About two minutes after I sat, a girl walked in the room. The second Lori life offered for me to crush on. Dark curly hair, incredible smile, piercing eyes, absolutely beautiful. To this day, I still think she’s one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen. She sat in the last row, two seats further up. First bell hadn’t even rung and there she was. Aphrodite.

Any normal kid might have thought about talking to her, introducing himself, finding some way to at least say hello. After all, we were going to be in class together for a few months. Plenty of opportunity to get to know one another, right? Nope. I sat there through that class learning everything I could about her without ever saying a word. I mean, I didn’t say a word. To anyone. I managed to channel my inner-chameleon just to ensure the teacher never called on me. What a crushing blow to the universe it would have been had she actually heard what my voice sounded like.

Though I carried this quiet crush through the whole of the next three years—we managed to be paired in exactly zero classes going forward—I never spoke to her. Sure, I watched for her, put myself in positions where I could see her from afar (ahem, yes I will cover the football and basketball teams for the paper, conveniently watching from seats near the cheerleaders, ahem), but I didn’t do that whole Hello, my name is Awkward how can I make you run away? thing I feared so much. Instead, I actively pursued all the girls whose primary talent or hobby seemed to be syphoning my soul into a tin can and crushing it whole. There really were a lot of them. I got quite adept at it, in fact. Practice does indeed make perfect.

Now, this isn’t meant as a lament. I don’t regret not talking to this one girl. Well, I do, but for different reasons. I don’t fear I may have lost my singular chance with Aphrodite. Rather, I want it to serve as the foundation for the stories that follow. Though I’ve made my life into a continual barrage of “whimsical spontaneity of questionable choice”, they’ve all been tied to this quest for Aphrodite, how that became a greater symbol of all that I desired, and every single one is relevant to this moment. This one instance in which I didn’t talk to a girl I liked, while actively talking to and pursuing girls I liked far less (and who all bested my less than like with none at all). Or, as an adult, choosing women unavailable, be that emotionally, physically, or romantically and attempting to force them into the wedge that defined Aphrodite no matter how much they subconsciously protested.

As I said, I’m not a dumb guy. I just want a designed perfection in life that defies true definition and requires only one possible truly glorious and dream-worthy outcome in order to pacify my need to be happy.

That’s normal, right?

Oh, right. I forgot you were here.

I’m a bad friend, blog. What can I say? I tease you with my company, then vanish for months on end. But I have an excuse this time! It’s Broadleaf related. AND WRITING RELATED! That’s good, right? And, well, it’s life related too, but that’s none of your business, so don’t ask. Just accept it. It wasn’t intentional, I swear. I just got … busy.

For instance, yesterday we launched the event site for the 2016 Broadleaf Writers Conference registration! It opens Monday, April 4th. It’s kind of absorbed most of my time lately, if you follow. So much work. But the committee folks are awesome people and they’re really making it happen. I mean, what, we talked about this more than two years go, right? And it’s happening. Really, really, happening.

Writing? Yeah, well, I’d obviously like to be doing that more often, but my time has been limited of late. Still shopping The Storyteller, hoping that someone sees the passion I’ve infused in a project that began seven years or so ago. I’ve worked a bit on the YA project that I wrote about here, but hit a wall. I walked away from it, to get some clarity, and found I wasn’t all that pleased with what I was doing. So I tinkered a bit on another project for a while just to clear my head. But I recently was granted an idea I’m very excited about. One that puts me back in Middle Grade fantasy, where I want to be. One that keeps me in a universe I love. One that I’m not yet ready to talk about. Jinx or something. I don’t know. Right now, I’ll just say it’s a series called The Kindred. About half the size of The Storyteller, an idea that hasn’t been done, to my knowledge. I’m always more comfortable there anywhere. There and satire. And someday I’ll get back to that. I have a killer idea that takes us a bit before Anointed, and allows me to reset that universe, should I ever want to do anything with the rights I have back to Anointed and Flutter.

And life. That.

So, see? It’s not you, it’s me. I’m sorry. I won’t make some blanket promise that I’ll be here more often. I won’t. It’ll be a lie. I’ll disappear again, then come back and update you. It’s who I am. My priorities are rather focused right now. I have shit to do. Good shit. Just trying to reinforce the point. Sorry for the language. I promise I haven’t hanging around any bad seeds.

So, that’s that. Gotta go, blog. Take care. Keep a watch on my brand, or whatever it is I’m doing here.