Monday, October 22, 2012

Wonder Woman's Nephews are Jedi Knights


I'm in San Francisco, visiting my sister and my three nephews. It is the youngest's 4th birthday--he's turning 4. He's not 3 anymore. But he can't wait to be 5.

He's obsessed with BeyBlade, which says 8+ on the box, but he has two older brothers and doesn't want to play with baby games. It's this wind-up contraption where you insert a "key" that looks like a zip-tie with teeth into a piece of plastic and then attach what is essentially a glorified top. You wind the top a few times, pull the zip-tie key, and release it into a plastic stadium. If you were actually 8+ then you would play with a friend and battle your tops in the stadium, the last one left spinning being named the winner.

But he's just turned 4, so the appeal is in making the top spin really fast and light up. He instructs me that you must turn the top 3 times. I told him that since he's 4 now he should turn the top 4 times.

"And when I'm 5 I'll turn it 5 times! And when I'm 10 I'll turn it 10 times! I'm going to have this toy forever."

What is forever to a 4 year old? Probably the time between realizing that you're hungry and getting a snack. Forever to me? A little more complex.

After my meditation retreat, I decided to see my family more. I have a sister and 3 nephews in San Francisco, a sister in Sacramento, and parents in Chicago. Being Seattle-based, that makes seeing them complicated--but certainly not impossible. I'm seeing one sister now, just saw the other when she came to see my show at the Seattle Fringe, and I booked a trip to be in Chicago for a whole week over Christmas (the first time I've been back for the holidays in 5 years). I want to be a good sister, a good aunt, a good daughter. Because I know that people aren't around forever.

When did that realization come? I'm not sure. It's something that I've accepted over time, kinda like the knowledge that Santa Claus wasn't real: it wasn't some earth-shattering, childhood-innocence-smashing event. (I realize this is not the case for all, and I apologize if reading this blog just served as the medium for that experience.) I do know it now, though, and despite the fact that humans are blessed with the ability to forget their own and others' mortality for the majority of their waking hours, it does affect my encounters. Not to say that I spend my days fatalistically thinking that every interaction with my people may be the last--but it's just that every interaction with my people may be the last.

So I'm trying to make it count. Is every moment a Kodak moment? No. Have I taken a page from 12 step programs and gone back to apologize for all real (or perceived) wrongs? No. Do I conduct myself in a way that ensures that those around me right here and now know exactly how much they are loved? Yes.

Or at least I try. I know--Yoda says there is no try. Maybe I say I try because I'm sure there are times I fail. But I do my best to love.

Why? Because I've been on the receiving end. I know what it's like to be in the pitch black and have a familiar voice call my name and tell me it's okay, I can't see you but I am looking for you...and I'm going to find you no matter what, even if it takes forever.

Maybe that's it. Maybe for me forever is the time between feeling I'm lost and remembering I am sought out, I am missed, I am loved. So it varies, mimicking the human experience: some of our forevers are 37 years, some are 37 seconds. What matters is what fills that time.

In this moment I am filling my time playing with $1 glow swords from Target. Their glow may not last forever...but their short lives are filled with light.
My Jedi Knight Nephews!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Interview with TheSoloPerformer.com

Thank you to Brad McEntire and his awesome site TheSoloPerformer.com for this opportunity to talk about my process and work!
Photo by Charlie Ainslie
Q: Please give us a brief bio, where you are from and how you started
in theatre/performance?

Growing up in Chicago, my parents took me to a lot of theater. They had subscriptions to the Steppanwolf, the Goodman, and the Opera. I'm not sure why, but something about seeing Evelyn and the Polka King at the Steppanwolf in fourth grade just stuck with me--that show solidified my decision to be a performer. I can't remember the specifics but I do remember the feeling of watching it and knowing in my heart of hearts that I wanted to be on stage, doing what those performers were doing.

My first big play was A Midsummer Night's Dream my freshman year of high school. I continued to act and ended up studying Drama at Stanford University. In the summers I studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London and at American Repertory Theater (ART) and Moscow Art Theater School (MXRT) in CambridgeMA. After college I completed the Classical Acting Course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and then moved to Seattle, which has served as the home base for my professional performing career.

Q: What event or desire brought you specifically into the world of
solo performance?

I scored a 9 week touring gig to Australia in February 2010 with a Seattle company called theater simple. When it came time to go home, I knew that I couldn't leave Oz without knowing that I was someday going to come back. We were touring with a cast of 7 people--a logistical and financial challenge, to say the least. I knew it was more practical to have a smaller cast and most practical to have a cast of one: one person to accommodate, feed, and transport. So I thought, "I'll write and tour my own show." So I did! (And I'm heading back to Australia in February--not to perform, but to be an audience member at the Adelaide Fringe. The money I made touring my show this summer made my trip back a reality!)

Q: Could you tell us about some of your solo work?

The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter, the solo show I toured to the MontrealWinnipeg, and Seattle Fringes this year, is a romantic comedy based on my mother's life. She once said, "I'm not interesting enough that anyone would ever write a book about me." That stuck in my mind for a long time. When I was in Australia and batting around ideas for a solo show, her story rose to the top of the list. My mother has seen so much in her 69 years. It was a bit surreal to write the show and realize: her story is my story. Change the clothes and hair and names and you still have a young woman hopeful for love and recognition in a world that glorifies a different ideal.

I'm currently working on my sophomore piece, I Think My Heart Needs Glasses. It's about love and my relationship with my vision, both physical and perceptive. It's very much in a zygote state right now...but on track to begin touring in Spring 2013.

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?
My solo performance is based in story. I'm not a huge fan of elaborate props, costume, or set--in The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter I don't even have water for myself on stage. I have a theory that props always want to play themselves, just like an actor who may only have one line so they do something odd with it to make it stand out. I've had too many fans drop or glasses break or hats go akilter to trust props. :)

I strive to make shows that I would personally want to see and I usually gauge a show by how much I care about the characters. If the character dies, the audience should have a reaction. If the character gets super close to getting their heart's desire and it eludes them at the last minute, I want the audience to feel that goal slipping through their own fingers.

Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?
By far my favorite thing is the feeling of having the audience in the palm of my hand, safely transporting them to a different world and back again, leaving them wondering where the past 50 minutes have gone. When you're the only performer on stage, the audience becomes your scene partner; each audience in their unique way is going to ebb and flow as the story progresses. It is terrifyingly thrilling to be at the reins for the ride.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself
motivated?
Never before in my training or career have I felt so connected to a piece or received such positive feedback from audiences as I have performing my own work. Knowing that I am successfully reaching individuals who see my show keeps me on track to continue to create. It can be lonely at times, especially during the rehearsal process. But the joy of putting the piece up in front of excited people--that's the prize.

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting
together a new project? Do you create a lot on stage, improvising? More on paper?
Tape or video record? Hold readings? Go to a mountain top?
I brainstorm and write a lot before I get up on my feet. I don't necessarily know where I'm going to end up when I begin my development process, but I have a rough idea of what I want to achieve with the work. With The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter I interviewed my mother and transcribed the interviews. It turned out to be 68 pages. I read and re-read and re-read the pages until I got an idea as to what could serve as the anchor for the play--in this case it turned out to be my mother's wedding day. There are a lot of ideas that swim through my head for seemingly ages before something tells me to write. It comes in bursts--I'll write 5 pages in one sitting and then not write for a week. When I have a rough script I push the dining room furniture to the side and start playing with it on my feet, editing as I rehearse. Once the play has a nice shape I perform it for a select number of colleagues. I ask them to tell me what they see--as a solo performer who self-directs, it's invaluable to get someone in there to tell me if what I think I'm doing is actually what I'm doing! More edits and rehearsal follow until the show is ready for an audience.

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden
you?
I'm endlessly inspired by the women in my life. Obviously my mother, but also my friends--they are the most wonderful, talented, driven, gorgeous, intelligent, and fun people on the planet. Sometimes I get overwhelmed at my fortune to be surrounded by such grace and love. My family and friends listen to every new idea and potential project with open hearts and have no doubt that I'll do whatever I set my mind to. It's wonderful to strike out boldly into the world knowing that you have this army of supporters rallying behind you.

Q: How do you bridge the gap of the business side of theatre?
Creating that bridge is one of my big projects this year. I'm launching my production company, Radiant Moxie. It's been quite a learning experience this past summer, taking my show on the road and paying for it essentially out of pocket. I'm seeking out help in the business side of things and ultimately hope to make my living creating and performing my own theatrical work.


Q: Any advice for some aspiring artist just starting out in solo
performance?
Henry Ford said it best: "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." Solo work distills the performance experience down to essentials--there is nowhere to hide. Embrace that bravely. For me, once I did that, it was the best time ever.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.
At the end of my Canadian tour this summer, I flew into Vancouver from Winnipeg and LaChrista, my friend from Seattle, came to pick me up. We hadn't seen each other in months and painted Vancouver red our first night out. There is a giant buffalo sculpture downtown (at least I think it's a buffalo!) and we decided it was a brilliant idea to climb it. It was hard to get a good grip and a lovely lady passing by gave me the foothold I needed to shimmy up in my strapless dress. It was a moment of triumph after many hysterical and loud attempts to mount the sculpture (my sweaty hands kept squeaking down its metal side.) Moral of the story: I owe much of my success to the kindness of strangers. And short skirts and riding buffalos don't mix.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you
personally as an artist?
I think solo performance is going to continue to grow in popularity. Overhead costs are low, which makes it very appealing to producers. And audiences never tire of hearing a deeply personal story, which is at the heart of much solo performance. For myself I see more work in the vein of The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter: a woman's story told frankly and openly. If I touch the hearts of audience members and remind them of the beauty and hope in all of our stories, then I consider myself successful.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine


When I performed "The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter" in Chicago last Spring, the room at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art was filled with people from my past: friends of my parents who hadn't seen me since I was missing all my front teeth and in my Easter dress at Church, high school friends who hadn't seen me perform for a decade, and my fourth-grade grammar school teacher who also happens to be Ukrainian.

Everyone wanted to be in Mrs. Kosyk's class because she taught how to cross-stitch a pillow. We got to pick the colors of the thread we used and when we were done with the pattern, she took them all home and turned them into pillows. One might wonder why she taught this craft to a bunch of 10 year olds; at the time, I just thought it was fun. In retrospect, now being a teacher myself, it was an amazing way to get frenetic kids to sit still, focus, and have tangible evidence of their work at the end. Eighteen years later, I still have the pillow--and the ability to sit down, focus, and get the job done.

So it was a big deal to show Mrs. Kosyk what I had done with my play, my life's-work-so-far cross-stitch pillow, so to say. She's a soft-spoken woman and she expressed how much she enjoyed the show. She also said to me, "I'm just very surprised that you turned out to be an actress. You were always so quiet in class."

Expectations are some of the most powerful forces I've ever encountered. Those put upon me by my family have always been high and, frankly, I never had any desire to find out what would happen if I didn't fulfill them, so I made a habit of exceeding them and calling it a day. As I've gotten older, the intentions behind my parents' goals for me have become more and more clear; security and stability with a heaping spoonful of happiness is nothing to be scoffed at. What's also become clear as I've gotten older is that there are a lot of ways to skin a cat--and me becoming a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or marrying one of the three are not the only ways to reach the expectations had of me and those I have of myself.

It's a challenge though. Not being able to carve myself into this mold has been frustrating. It's like meeting someone who is just fabulous on paper (educated, driven, employed, good-looking) but then meeting them and the, well, je ne sais quoi just isn't there. I would love to wake up one morning and be thrilled at the idea of going to law school and becoming a well-paid lawyer in America who defends corporations and their rights in the marketplace. But I don't want to do that. I want to teach kids how to write plays and I want to get up on stage and tell people a story and I want to spend 3 hours pressing repeat on a YouTube tutorial on how to play the introductory riff to a country song that I love on the guitar.

I don't know when this happened--me turning into a West-Coast-dwelling, meditation-retreat-attending, organic-chocolate-hawking guitar-playing artist. But it did, and I am. So...okay. I guess that's the way it is.

I might have started as a studious, quiet, cross-stitching daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, expected to...well, I don't really know anymore.

But now...I'm the internationally-acclaimed-Montreal-spirited-CBC-best-Seattle-audience-pick-Star-Trek-obsessed-bee-tattooed-loudest-laugh-in-the-room.

And if it's cool with Mrs. Kosyk...it's cool with me.
Exceeded my own expectations by winning Best of Seattle Fringe. This little ostrich was my prize. I named him Mervyn...because any being with eyebrows like that is, of course, named Mervyn.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hello Class, I'm Yana, it's like Donna with a Y


Today I did something terrifying. I've never done it before, though I've thought about it a lot. And imagined in my head how it would go. My friends have done it, some of them a bunch of times. I wanted to try. I thought--this might be fun. Or it might be the end of me.

Today I began a 10 week, twice-a-week session of teaching 7th graders how to write plays.

Excuse me? Am I actually in a place where I can TEACH this stuff? And--gasp--get PAID to teach this stuff? Apparently so. And teach it well, even--I got an email from the classroom teacher that I had done a fabulous job. So despite my initial fear...I succeeded.

I've been doing a lot of things lately that scare me a little. Well...scare me a lot. I switched departments in my day job, reducing my hours to next to nothing but staying with a company I respect (translation: living on savings for a bit) and leaving me lots of time for writing. Which I'm going to need since I'm currently writing my next play, "I Think My Heart Needs Glasses." It took me 2 years total to create "The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter" that toured this summer. I have 7.5 months left for this next one to be audience worthy for Montreal (holy kites!).
I think my heart needs glasses...green glittered glasses.

"I Think My Heart Needs Glasses" is the product of a lot of different ideas that came together when I did a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat at the end of August. I'll tell you this much: keeping quiet is the easiest part. It's like after a show, when an audience member comes up to you in awe and says, "Gosh, how do you remember all of those lines?" and you just smile kindly and say, "A lot of practice." The biggest challenge of the retreat isn't silence: it is living in your head with absolutely no distractions--no talking, no books, no music, no journal, no internet. It's a trip. If you want to know more, check out my play next year.

I also: decided to apply to graduate school, started taking guitar lessons, got set up on 2 blind dates, and cut bangs into my hair. I've been busy since I last wrote a blog.

In addition to all that, "The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter" opens in the Seattle Fringe on Wednesday. Which shouldn't phase me at all--I've performed my show countless times (okay, 16 times) this summer. I'm fairly certain that I've got it down--but I also feel like every time I put this show down for a bit it feels completely different when I pick it back up again. And maybe those differences are only visible to me (or to my friends here in Seattle who have seen my show 2-3 times already--bless your souls!). But they are unnerving, every time.

However, perhaps that nervous feeling about my show is a testament to my connection to the piece. I'm not on autopilot for it. Yes, I feel I could recite it in my sleep, but acting it--that's a different story. Every time I start it up again I get the same feeling I did today in front of my 7th graders: that there is a very strong possibility I am going to fall on my face.

I hope that feeling never goes away. The day it does is the day I stop performing.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

So, this Priest Walks into a Theater...


As Shane would say, "Holy kites." I can't believe my Canadian tour is over. This journey, the planning and realization of which saved me from the chaos that was raining on my life, has reached its conclusion.

Now what?

I'm having one of those typical 20-something moments (although whenever I mention it to someone older than me, they say it happens pretty much your entire life--AWESOME) where I'm standing at a fork in the road. Except it's one of those really fancy forks with lots of tongs. Do I keep acting and producing my own work? Do I go back to school and pursue a Master's in Psychology, or maybe even Creative Writing? Do I expand this play into a film--or a novel? Do I apply for a Fulbright to Ukraine to study my ancestry? All of the above?

I had the craziest experience yesterday hanging out with a priest. His name is Walter Klimchuk and he baptized me in Chicago 28 years ago. He was the head priest of the church I grew up going to and he's originally from Winnipeg. Fr. Walter moved back home when his mother got sick. He heard about my show from my parents and other Chicago friends and he came to see it. He found me afterwards and invited me to come take a tour of Winnipeg with him.

It was a beautiful day, my favorite part of which was the lovely conversation we shared about spirituality, the power of crystals, and the importance of finding your soul purpose in life. Fr. Walter is unlike any priest I've ever met. He said that he believes real miracles happen when you create an environment of positivity and that he strives to create that environment with his parish and in all his encounters.

I expressed to him my nervousness to return to Seattle and be faced with the decision of which path to take, especially since it had seemed so clear before I left. The plan was to do the tour, then go back to school and become a drama therapist. But it's hard to go back to that plan after performing my show 16 times and realizing, deep in my bones, that telling stories is my calling.

I got asked on 3 separate occasions in Winnipeg if Yana Kesala is my real name. I was really confused at first because, if anywhere, it should be in Ukrainian-rich Winnipeg that people understand my name. But then it dawned on me--when you pronounce my name as written in English, it kinda sounds like the Ukrainian phrase, "I didn't tell." In the Cyrillic alphabet this wouldn't be the case, but all of my publicity materials are in English. I got a little peeved at this--I mean, what storytelling performer would choose a stage name implying that they don't?

But looking at my name again, it could also be "Yana told." Perhaps the direction I'm supposed to take is plainly written on my notepad, my email address, my driver's license. Yana is supposed to tell--and perhaps the miracle of this discovery was only realized in the positive tour environment that I've been steeped in for 8 weeks.

Plus, Fr. Walter told me that he sees me in Hollywood. And when a Catholic priest who calls out the rose quartz on your necklace as the love stone and expresses his desire to return to Sedona for more singing bowls tells you he's had an insight about your future, you listen.

I'm never going to get to "Yana told" tomorrow if Yana doesn't tell today. So here goes.
The sun sets on my Canadian tour...good thing I'm a star!


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fringe Fairies


Opening night in Winnipeg. The stage is dark. A spotlight comes up on a woman in a blue dress looking out into the distance. A funny memory crosses her mind and she laughs at the recollection.

"Big breath. You'll be great," responds a lady in the front row. I hadn't asked for audience participation but heck, if this stranger already knows I'm gonna be great, who am I to argue?

It's not the first time someone has misread the beginning of my show. The other time was in Chicago when I performed for an audience of people who have known me since diapers. They assumed that I had seen them, forgotten my lines, and laughed. At first it made me question whether I was acting well enough, or if the moment was unclear, or if the audience thought I was unprofessional. But it's none of those things. The audience just wants to be involved, to be in on the secret. They want to watch and see something of me in the performance. They are doing what all the best audiences do: They are relating to the performer and putting themselves into her shoes.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I do what I do.

I often get asked if I want to get into acting for film. I've thought about it, but not for long, partly because I haven't pursued that skill set and have no desire to attempt losing 50 pounds. But the main reason I don't do film is because I love performing in front of a live audience. Early on in the process of writing my solo show, the audience became my scene partner. Which can be scary, considering that they are different every time. But it's also beyond exhilarating. My script stays the same, but each audience reacts so differently. Some think I'm hilarious and give me lots of laughter (these are usually the audiences full of people with demanding mothers who relate all too well to my character) and others are just silently rapt (until, like last night, the final blackout came and people gasped!). There are the ones, thankfully not too often, that just don't get it and can't wait to leave and get to the beer tent already.

And then there are what I like to call the Fairy Godmother audiences. They are full of people who are rooting, with every fiber of their being, for you to succeed. Usually it's in your hometown, like when I last performed in Seattle and had a sold-out house to friends who were sending so much love my way I almost got knocked over. But sometimes you are lucky enough to have that in a new town with a room full of strangers, with the Queen Fairy Godmother telling you right at the beginning that you're gonna be great. And who's gonna argue with her? 

Nobody. Especially not this little Tinkerbell, who needs applause to live.


Oh the irony: the Ukrainian dentist's granddaughter with missing teeth!


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Winnipeg: Coming Home to a Place I've Never Been


The moment I touched down in Winnipeg, I felt at home. Which was unexpected, considering that I've never been here before.
The saying goes, "Home is where the heart is." Home has been a lot of different places for me over the years: suburban Chicago, northern California, London UK, Seattle. Plus lots of tours travelling the world in between. It was a shocking moment when I realized that there was nowhere I could move where all my people would be. Home, and the hearts that make it, are all around the planet. A blessing and a curse, home being everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. 
I wear my heart on my sleeve. Usually it translates to making friends easily, but it means getting hurt easily, too. Thankfully a career as an actress, where you hear, "No," so much more than you hear, "Yes," has toughened me up, and the hurts don't ache as long as they used to. Winnipeg also wears its heart on its sleeve. It is home to a lot of people who spent a long time hearing, "No," and decided to go somewhere they would hear, "Yes."
My play, "The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter," is based on my mother's life: her immigration to the States at age 6, falling in love with my father, molding an identity, and striving for her dreams. What I don't address is my grandmother's story: a 20-year-old Ukrainian woman with a 2-year-old baby during the Second World War who persuades her older, established dentist husband to leave it all behind to immigrate to North America. She was sick of the Communists telling her, "No." She was tired of the Nazis telling her, "No." She was going to find her place of "Yes."
Winnipeg is home to the largest population of Ukrainians in Canada. I walk around here and feel like I'm at a family reunion: it seems like everyone could be my cousin or my uncle. My technician at my venue is Ukrainian, complete with two z's and a y in his last name. Heck, the Winnipeg flag even looks Ukrainian! 

It's the Ukrainian flag cut on a diagonal!

I am in endless awe of the courage and sheer determination possessed by my grandmother and all the people who made that journey across a continent, an ocean, a language, an economic class structure. I'd like to think that some of that courage also runs in my veins. Though my grandmother would shudder to wear her heart on her sleeve, perhaps she would be proud of my tour across Canada. I certainly can't compare my journey to hers, mine being temporary and for artistic realization while hers was permanent for the survival of her family. But I very much can relate to the impetus for the journey's initiation: we both wanted to find a place that would say, "Yes."
I think a lot of Fringe artists feel this way. As an actor, you mostly spend your time saying other people's words in a strictly directed way. Many times those words and stories are unimportant to you, and the real acting challenge is keeping up the veneer that you actually care. That's assuming that you get the chance to say those words in the first place. Auditions have to be successful for that to happen, and most actors hear a lot of rejection for every positive result. I have been lucky, earning great roles in companies that took me across the US, Canada, and Australia. I've become a bit spoiled, only wanting to perform pieces I care about.

Why am I so happy? Because I LOVE performing my show! Photo by Charlie Ainslie
On the Fringe, if you don't really care, then you would not be here. Many of us are performing our own work and doing all aspects of production and marketing. We are living out of suitcases for months at a time, hauling sets and costumes across the country. At each Fringe we circle our wagons, cross our fingers, and go out and tell our stories. Sometimes we take for granted how lucky we are, that such a circuit exists, that we won the lotteries that said, "Yes." But most of the time, treasured in our heart of hearts, is the knowledge that we have found a place we can do the work that we care about.

That caring energy permeates Winnipeg. You can see it in the lineups outside the venues, in the marking-up of the Fringe programs, in the packed houses (even on opening night!). You could say it's because Winnipeg is boring the rest of the year, or that it's the Prairies, or that Ukrainians love art and beer. Those things might be part of it. But I think the real reason that this city embraces Fringe is simple: people here know what home means. Many are descendants of those who traveled very far and worked very hard to establish homes and lives very distant from where they began. They are opening up their hearts, their houses, their wallets, their schedules. Winnipeg is looking at Fringe and saying, "Yes. You are welcome here. We are so happy you came."
Thank you, Winnipeg. This Ukrainian dentist's granddaughter will do you proud. 

The Ukrainian dentist's daughter and granddaughter, 1990.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fringe, the Final Frontier


You've probably figured out by now the overarching theme of my posts: I'm on a journey, not just to perform in various cities across Canada but to see how this Yana girl adapts to the solo, nomadic, on-the-road life. I should inform you that until about 5 years ago, I thought camping was staying at a Super 8 Motel. So to travel alone for 9 weeks, living out of a suitcase, batting my eyelashes to sway airport check-in employees to let me through with 14 extra pounds of baggage without extra fees (Fun Fact: Did you know that if you wear a shirt with sequins, you show up as a completely blank space in the scanning machine at airport security?) has been new and challenging. Each day I meet new people and situations that test what I think I know about myself and the world.

And then it struck me: My life is Star Trek.
Live long and prosper.
This revelation may have been slightly influenced by me finding an Original Series gold uniform on the clearance rack at a costume store in Toronto. The store employees jumped in response to my "SHUT UP!!!" exclamation at the discovery. It was sexy and pretty accurate (but it came with pips, which I thought was weird, and if you also know why that's weird then you have stolen my geek heart forever!) So I tried it on. And it fit! And I bought it!

But wait, it's gold. In the Original Series, that means commanding officer. On The Next Generation it means engineering, security, or ops. This got me asking: Which rank am I? What era am I in? Why is this skirt so short?

I'm on this crazy trek to explore strange new worlds because...well, because I can. Because I want to. I have the insane luck to possess the 24th century ability to better myself through exploration and interaction with cultures and beings different than myself (and though Canadians on the whole look very similar to me, believe me, it's a different planet here!). And thankfully I have wonders of technology on my side, like Skype and Facebook, that keep me connected to the people back home. Sometimes I feel like I'm floating aimlessly in space and those little interactions do wonders to put me back on course. And of course my Fringe Family, who are ever-ready to meet me at 10 Forward (aka the beer tent) to laugh, to reassure, and to play "Guess my Fringe Crush."

I remember in 8th grade the popular thing to write in someone's yearbook was, "Don't change!" I understood the intention--You're great, I like you, don't go to high school and become an asshole--but every time I saw it written down I was all, "But I want to change and grow! Change is the only constant and without it I'm dead! Are you writing in my yearbook that you want me to die?!?"

I was a precocious kid. But I knew even then that I wanted to push my boundaries and never be stagnant. That stopping meant the end. So maybe in this moment I'm not sure exactly where I belong on the Starship Life. Thankfully I still have some time to explore before I have to make that choice.

And why is the skirt so short? Easy access...to my phaser.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Time out, TO


I had heard that bashing Toronto is a cultural pastime in Canada--Toronto and the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) receive the brunt of the digs between cities, especially from Montreal. While I was in Montreal there were actually some people who made an "ICK" sound when I said I was going to visit Toronto in between performing in Fringes.

"Why would you want to go to Toronto? ICKKK, it's just awful there."

Any time people express something so extreme, I figured they had personally had a bad experience and that had colored their opinion in a negative way. I looked forward to seeing it myself and coming to my own conclusion.

Conclusion being: I have never visited a more unfriendly, rules-obsessed city in my life.

Toronto doesn't like me. Which surprised me. I'm very nice. As a matter of fact, I have won awards for being friendly and approachable and considerate. Customer service is a personal passion. And I enjoy rules: stop signs are awesome!

I first knew that Toronto hated me at the poster sprint. I'm not performing my show in this Fringe, but I have friends who are and I offered to help one of them put his posters up. It was supposed to start at 4:30. After 20 minutes of orientation speeches in the baking sun, the artists and their helpers literally line up to wait for the "Go!" as the staff encourage them to push, shove, and unabashedly plaster their posters up in the approved area as media wielding video recorders and cameras cover the event. (Yes, posters were allowed only in the approved area which, oddly enough, is nowhere near where anyone actually passes through the Fringe Alley, making this bizarre pitting of artists against each other even more upsetting.)

I'd been told that Toronto Fringe exists for Toronto artists, which I can appreciate, especially in a huge city where I imagine getting work produced can be a challenge. But taking that into consideration, shouldn't that create a comradeship, a commiseration between artists trying to get their work seen?

Okay, I thought, so maybe it's that the people I've met so far aren't representational of Toronto as a whole. So I ventured out to explore the city, with my map and my subway tokens and my smile to lead the way. The CN tower is so tall! Lake Ontario is so beautiful! And there are trams with bells in the road!

A little tip from me to you: ALWAYS HAVE A TRANSFER WITH YOU. If you miss your stop, your lovely tram driver will lecture you about the rules of public transportation and berate you with a guilt trip that makes Catholic school seem like sleep-away camp on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. He will imply you are stupid and make you cry. When you say that for a city that prides itself on diversity, it's not friendly at all, he will answer, "If you say so."

I do say so, Toronto. You don't like me. Fine. Go ahead, have your pigeons expel the entire contents of their bowels on my face, shirt, and pants as I have a beer at the Fringe Club. Thankfully I've surrounded myself with wonderful friends who will bring me wet paper towels, laugh with me, and give me hugs (after I've wiped all the excrement off myself, of course.)
Perhaps if I'd kept this poncho I would've been protected from the poo bomb.
And if you actually do pride yourself on diversity, I challenge you to put those open arms in action. You're giving the Canada I love a bad rap. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A la prochaine, Montreal...


I honestly didn't expect to like Montreal. So many of my friends loved it SO MUCH, were so convinced that I was also going to love it SO MUCH. And I've been on enough blind dates that didn't live up to the hype that I've learned to keep my expectations low. And, of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ugh, I thought, it's just so French here, I don't understand what anyone is saying. And what's with the obsession with cheese- and gravy-covered fries?!?

I feel like I'd been on a couple dates with Montreal and wasn't sure how I felt...and then Montreal kissed me. Montreal and I spent the night together. It was hot, sweaty, and I woke up with an echo of a hangover and a big-ass smile.

How could I not love Montreal SO MUCH? I mean, first thing, there is something to be said about a city full of people who are just so stinking happy to be in Montreal. And it's really beautiful here--the buildings are old and there are lots of turrets (I feel like I'm in a fairy-tale!). And there is something delightfully quaint about a city named after a hill that everyone calls the Mountain (sorry guys, I love it too, but it's not a mountain.) But I think what I like best is the inner child of Montreal. I have never before been to a place that is so ready to say yes. I've heard it said that each city in the world can be summed up in a word. Rome is "Sex." New York is "Achieve." And for me, Montreal is "Play."

And no, not only because I performed my play here. The friends I have made have an energy of adventure and possibility. I feel like Montreal is my playground, full of awesome mates who constantly ask if I want to join them in their game. Everyone's invited! Jump right in! Let's go to Jazz Fest! Let's play on the Mountain! (Okay...maybe it IS a mountain!) Let's dress up like Circus Carnivale! Let's go to the Star Wars Exhibit! Let's drink sangria until our lips turn red!

The best relationships are the ones where you learn something. I learned that a diet of gyros, beer, and Diet Coke will sustain me...but only for 3 days. I learned that if you let your Nerd Flag fly you will attract amazing people (INFINITY FRIENDS!!!). I learned that "Poutine au legumes" does not mean "cheese and gravy-covered fries with peanuts" (I mean, it could, right? Because a peanut is not a pea nor a nut, but a legume? Anyone?).
Infinity Friends! Left to Right: Kathryne Radburn, Yana (me), Al Lafrance, Shane Adamczak.

Maybe it's just Montreal in the summer, where everyone is just so glad to not be stuck inside, combined with the post-coital glow of a successful Fringe that makes this city's pheromones irresistible. Or maybe, just maybe...this is something special.

Love always comes from the most unexpected places. And at the most unexpected times. So until next time, Montreal...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's gonna be a bright, sunshiney day


My week dawned at Cirque du Soleil, whose headquarters are located here in Montreal. Having listened to French for the past 8 days, the meaning of their name suddenly springs into my mind: Circus of the Sun. I'm loving this. I'm also loving that as I'm taking a tour of their facilities, it is very clear that art is made here. It reminds me of the costume studio in my high school, but on a much larger (and more technically savvy) scale: The edges seem a little worn and there is lots of laughter.
                                                                      
I feel like I'm performing my very own Sun Circus in my venue during this heat wave. Without air-conditioning and under the lights, I start my show sweaty and end up soaking wet. The audience is pretty much the same. I start to worry about what I look like. After one show I looked in the mirror and a raccoon looked back at me--all my eye makeup was UNDERNEATH my eyes. Okay, no more makeup for the show. Also, the slip I wear under my costume has ripped up both the sides from sticking to my legs and staying there as I continue to move. This slip is dear to me--an heirloom from my mother when I performed in my first play. You know the saying, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" for what you're supposed to wear at your wedding? Well since my play takes place on my mother's wedding day, an old blue slip seemed appropriate. But, okay, nothing that a needle and thread can't fix.

But I'm so hot that I start to feel sick, and I start to be concerned that I can't bring to the stage the emotions I need to tell my story. Are people still liking the show, or are they coming to simply gawk at me melting into a puddle on the floor? If I'm not doing the story justice then what the heck am I even doing here? The high-noon heat spirals in my brain and cooks the doubts so they expand like a souffle. I go to the beer tent and find a table of friends. And I crack. I let it all come out in a wave of tears and sweat.

And then I get my first 5 star review. The Link says, "In the boiler room known as Scene VOIR Stage, a quiet was present during this show that said, 'Everyone is listening.'" Perhaps my light shines brighter than I give myself credit for.
Me and my Fringe brother, Shane. See you in Montreal next year!

As the sun sets on this Fringe, everyone gathers at Caberet du Mile End for the Frankie Awards. The venue is filled to capacity, 600 people. My show wasn't nominated for anything, but it did get a shout-out from one of the jury members as a favorite of hers. And then at the end of the awards ceremony, when all the staff are on stage, the festival director surprises me and calls me up and says that I have been named runner-up for the Spirit of the Fringe Award. The staff decided that I embody what Fringe is about. And they offer me a guaranteed spot in next year's festival. My heart expands like a supernova. Perhaps that's why I needed to crack earlier in the week--to make room for all the wonderful to beam in.

So I will see another Montreal Fringe. With a new show, which I am so excited to start working on. But tonight, we are young. So let's set the world on fire, we can burn brighter than the sun.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Everyone's first time is a tad...awkward


Montreal is a city that's pretty easy to navigate, thank goodness--lots of nearby Metro stops and relatively perpendicular streets. And my billet is downtown, so that makes it extra simple. The Ukrainian area, though, is not conveniently off a Metro stop. And I am determined to hang posters in all things Ukrainian in Montreal. So that means: Bixi.

Bixi is the rent-a-bike system with stations all around town. For $15 I can rent a bike for 3 days, making sure I check it back into one of these stations every 30 minutes. It's super smart. All the accessibility and cardiovascular exercise of cycling, none of the hassles of bike ownership. But wait--I don't have a helmet. How am I going to stay safe and keep the cars from getting too close?

Legs.
I know: short skirts. Platform sandals. And my killer legs. Brilliant. So I postered the Ukrainian churches, nursing homes, scouting organizations, bank, and Federation. Yes, we have a Federation. Star Trek style.

Fast-forward to Saturday, opening night. I'm ready to show Montreal my box. And, like any first encounter in this vein, it's a little...awkward. For one it's stickingly hot, so much that I am extremely aware of the sheen of sweat that I'm leaving behind on the floor. But heck, if it's not sweaty then you're not doing it right. My audience was with me, I had them in the palm of my hand. You could hear a pin drop.

And then the lights stop changing three-quarters of the way through. A climactic spotlight continues (rather anti-climactically) as the only light for 10 minutes. Annoying, yes, but I could tell that I could still be seen on stage. Not the end of the world. And eventually the lights get back on track, with about 5 minutes left.

The final and most dramatic moments of my show come to the one and only sound cue in the whole piece--and instead of my sound cue, my pre-show music comes on. The technician quickly realizes the error and turns off "Fly Me to the Moon." But my sound cue still doesn't play.

There is a breathtaking moment when you realize that you are performing your heart and soul out, you've just begun the most important tour of your career, and the only option you have in this moment is to leave the stage. So I do, and the eternity that follows (in reality probably 10 seconds) comes to an end with my sound cue. And I reenter and finish the show with a slightly altered ending.

Afterwards I felt dazed, like I had just taken a blow to the head. I treated myself to an ice-cream cone and headed to the 13th Hour, which is the nightly party that starts at 1am. I wanted to go home and sleep opening night away but I was slotted to perform at the party. So I put on my fake-it-til-you-make-it face and prepared to play a game with the 13th Hour audience.

When my turn arrived, Kiki the host introduced me. She said that she was excited because she had had the good luck to see my show that evening. She said it was her first cry of the Fringe and that she was touched deeply by its simple storytelling. She recommended it highly.

I was floored, not only because I respect this woman's opinion (she is a Fringe favorite and a talented actress), but because--it turned out okay. Actually, even better than okay--I achieved my main goal in sharing this story. I touched an audience member's spirit.

Each time has just gotten better and better (again, as it usually goes with these things.) And I've actually received great reviews, both in written and verbal form. So I guess I'm learning to navigate not only the streets of Montreal, but the avenues of my play. The story is stronger than I gave it credit for. Sometimes I'll be able to use the Metro, sometimes a Bixi bike. But I will get my audience there, regardless of potholes or detours.

And they might even catch a little leg along the way.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

If you come to my show, I'll show you my box


I'm now in Montreal, and of course I brought my box with me. I dragged it from Seattle to Philadelphia to New York to here. Sometimes I got asked if I needed assistance, but I told those helpful gentlemen that I only let very special people near my box. 
Horsing around on my box.
Photo by Charlie Ainslie.
At first my box was really stinky and I had to air it out on the back porch. It was also a bit tacky to the touch, but once I started working on it a couple of hours every day, it was just perfect--supported a ton of bouncing around while still looking fresh and clean.

I think my favorite thing about my box is how it blends into the background. At first you don't notice it. It doesn't make an impact until WHAM! All of a sudden you realize that my box has been there the entire time.

(Get your mind out of the gutter! I'm talking about my set.)

I have pet peeve about theater that is littered with set and props--I think it's a hindrance more than a help. Frustrated directors throw extraneous props at scenes that aren't working in a desperate attempt for something to be happening. Plus carrying a whole bunch of stuff on tour is illogical. So I designed my show to be performed in one costume with no props and a single black actor's block as the set. I let the audience use their imagination.

And audiences love to play. One of my favorite questions to ask people after they've seen the show is: What did the wedding dress look like? The protagonist of my show is dressed in a wedding gown for most of the show, but the costume I wear is a bright blue wrap dress. I've gotten such a wide variety of answers, from white strapless to cream silk to long-sleeved chiffon--and no one has ever said that they thought she was just wearing the blue dress. 

That blue dress is currently hanging my billet's living room magically having its wrinkles released by Montreal's humid, sweat-inducing climate. Good gravy, I haven't been this hot in years. I had heard that Montrealers spend their summers consistently sporting a sheen of sweat and I can report back that yes, that is a true statement. Thankfully there is beer. And today I learned that my venue, #4 Scene Voir, is next to the FRINGE beer tent. Like, literally next to it. WIN! How did I get so lucky? Seven shows, awesome venue, and best billet ever? No joke: there is a hamster at his place. A hamster named Vera. Yup, not only is Wonder Woman Ukrainian, but so is the hamster.

And no, I'm not letting that hamster anywhere near my box.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Oh, didn't you know? Wonder Woman is Ukrainian


Adventure is the word I use for what I'm taking on--an 8 week Canadian tour of my solo show The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter. It's self-written, -produced, -directed, and -performed.
                                
(Clearly I like hyphens. And wearing a lot of different hats.)

I toured a shorter version of this show to the Victoria Fringe last August. I drove up from Seattle, took a ferry, and landed in a city I had never been to before and where I knew no one. When I approached the beer tent for the 80s themed welcome night, I actually felt shy. (You who know me scoff but YES, I can actually be shy!)

So I took a breath (a shallow one since I physically could not sit in the purple taffeta 80s Prom dress I was wearing) and decided to make some friends. And what friends they were. Not only were the next 2 weeks filled with spontaneous adventures like scooting about town on red Vespas and examining jellyfish off the breakwater (here's looking at you, Al Lafrance) but also with inspiring performances and epic dance nights (Victoria Laberge--you better get your dancing shoes on, sister!).

I knew I had really made it, though, when Rose Jang, who I thought didn't like me at all, said, "Yana, you're just the right amount of woman. I thought you'd be just be a pretty girl but you like Star Trek and tell dick jokes."
Young Maya from "The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter"
Photo by Charlie Ainslie.
Oh, right, I also performed my show! I started calling it a "chick play" because the ladies, especially my mom's generation, just ate it up. My mother is actually the inspiration for my show. I'm the Ukrainian dentist's granddaughter. I got to chat with audience members after performing and I can't count the number of people who told me that my play resonated with them.

When Fringe was over I rode a giant wave of adrenaline and laughter home to Seattle and then...life hit me really hard. Nope, rephrase that: death hit me pretty hard. I lost my best friend 2 weeks after I got back.

Getting up in front of strangers and telling them a story seemed like the stupidest thing in the world in those first couple months. But then again, me just still being here seemed kinda ridiculous, too.

So I expanded my show. I added 15 minutes and what was left of my heart. And I remembered that I'm a storyteller and it's my job to tell the tales of what makes life...life.

And the Universe didn't forget me. I won the Montreal Fringe Lottery (a festival already full of the aforementioned friends) and the Winnipeg Fringe Lottery (where the largest population of Ukrainians in North America lives). And the sun began to break through the clouds.

My friends at home didn't forget me either--I am traveling simply dripping in talismen. There's the miniature cocoa pod from LC, a reminder of all my cherished friends at the job I left. The handmade turtle charm bracelet from LaChrista for good luck. The silver necklace from Carolyn and her mom for strength. The rose quartz necklace from Melinda for positive energy. And from Keira McDonald, the silver bracelet she wore when she toured her play The Bridesmaid across the Canadian Fringe in 2007.

I have magic jewelry. I am Wonder Woman.

I come to Montreal absolutely thrilled to explore the city, reunite with my friends, and tell the story that only I can tell. People have asked me, "Aren't you nervous to be doing this all alone?" And I tell them, "I'm not alone. I have an invisible jet full of my friends cheering me on."