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...