Friday, July 29, 2011

Fictionless Friday: Defining Definition

Definition creates separation. We are all, as individuals, seeking definition in our lives, our souls, our relationships. I myself am filled with definitions. I am Asian-American, I am a fangirl, I am a foodie. Defining my character traits helps me feel self-aware, confident, and acknowledged.

But it doesn’t stop there. I know other people place definitions on me as well. Some based on simple observation, others based on years of conversations and shared experiences. It’s a natural part of relating to someone – trying to understand who they are and how they fit in this world.

Then there are the definitions that hang in society – liberal, conservative, green, pro-life, anti-gun – categories in which we can be grouped and counted. You are this or you are that. Middle grounds are also categorized. You are never without definition.

Yet all of this defining creates separation from the universal truth that we are all one. Scientists have determined that the variation in human beings comprises less than 1% of our makeup. All the different skin colors, hair textures, heights and weights don’t alter the fact that we are all, at our core, basically the same.

But how can anyone anchor this truth in a world where the contrary thrives? People wear their definitions with pride. Look at the entire bumper sticker industry. 4 x 12 banners that announce who we are to an unsuspecting auto world.

The entire dilemma is a question for the ages, I suppose. Can we be unique individuals while also knowing we are connected as one through time and space? Can we choose to shift back and forth through this knowing, celebrating our differences in one moment and returning to our center truth in another?

This movement is probably the texture of life. Humans shift through definitions until they discover what it’s all about, then spend the rest of their days trying to balance the two. Am I one being or part of the being of one?

I feel this conflict most when I walk into a Chinatown. Doesn’t matter which city – they’re all the same. Being there causes my definitions to swirl around me. I sense the eyes of non-Asian visitors and know they’re looking at me thinking, “She fits in here better than I do.” Yet I look at the bakeries and bookstores and remind myself, “I am not Chinese. I am Taiwanese.” A subtle yet powerful distinction that’s deeply rooted in my identity and causes me to never buy anything made in China. And still, the steamed pork buns and lo mein are all things I ate growing up, so maybe I am of this place. Ultimately, I don’t feel solely defined by my ethnicity, but being in a Chinatown makes my ethnicity seem glaringly obvious.

Will there ever be a day when I can walk through the decorated, cacophonous streets of a Chinatown and feel like I’m simply a global citizen coming to experience the wonders of a specific culture? Perhaps. Can I walk through a Chinatown and not be seen by others as separate from themselves, no matter what their ethnicity may be? Less likely.

We are a world defined. It’s what we do. What reason do we have to let go of this comforting activity and become a global community? The promise of peace? The energizing vibration of a higher consciousness? Sell that to Sarah Palin.

I cannot change the way people think. It is neither my place nor within my power. But as an individual, I continue to move toward releasing my definitions. I can only hope that by doing so, I can inspire a similar response from others. My vibration affecting others. That is the dream.

And for me, letting the black and white shades of my identity go is a relief. The less I hold on to, the more room I have for the spiritual truth of this world, which is love. Love, love, love. It is everywhere, and yet I don’t always feel it. The hope is that by letting go, I’m making room for it to flood in, fill me up, and surround my life.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Got Canned Heat in my Heels Tonight, Baby…

I love to dance. Or should I say loved to dance.

As a child, I dreamed of being a Fly Girl or an opening number dancer for the Oscars. The glory of VHS technology allowed me to rewind and play dances over and over until I learned every step. I leaped, twirled, and dreamed hard, but ultimately my professional dancing career became a dream unfulfilled as I set out to fulfill expectations instead.

As I tearfully explained to Debbie Allen when I met her on the set of Grey’s Anatomy last year, “Dancing wasn’t meant for me in this lifetime.” She hugged me and said, “Oh honey, that’s what they told me too, but I just did what I wanted.”

But I know it’s too late for me – the Heather Morris’ of the world are rising fast and my body just doesn’t move that way. I watch videos from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and I’m blown away by their talent. Was I ever that good? Who knows.

So I watch dance videos on YouTube whenever I’m feeling nostalgic for what might have been. I watch the iconic dance performances (Hot Honey Rag, Music and the Mirror, anything by Gene Kelly), marvel at Beyonce’s body, and dream privately in my seat.

Lately I’ve become intrigued by dance films. Not films made of live performances, but dances created specifically for being filmed. A unique sign of our intersecting media times.

For example, we all know Irish dance innovators Up and Over It from their popular hand-dancing video:

But I’m also amazed by their dance film Alles Gute zum St Patriks Tag, described as an exploration of “the perception of Irish Dance and the global proliferation of carbon-copy 'Irish Dance' shows.” Bizarre, captivating stuff.

Another stellar example of dance meets filmmaking is this video featuring Melinda Sullivan of So You Think You Can Dance:

Does anyone have other examples to share? Post links below! There can never be enough dance in my life. Especially now.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fiction Friday: Seeing America, Part 2

Click here to read Seeing America, Part 1

Fortunately, we didn't have to experience going west because an RV came rattling down the road toward us. Dad stepped into the road and started waving his arms to signal we needed help. As if the station wagon fireball wasn't enough to give them a clue of what happened.

"Hey!" Dad yelled. "Over here!"

The RV rumbled to a stop and a white-haired, red-faced man wearing a red baseball cap stuck his head out the driver-side window.

"Boy, you must have been mad at your car!" he laughed. I laughed too, finally, until Mom shot me one of her death stares.

"Yes, we've had some trouble. Could you give us a ride to the nearest town?"

"Sure," he nodded, "hop on in!"

My mother started shaking her head, muttering, "No, Bill, no..."

My dad just picked up the suitcases, tucking the smaller one under his arm and said, "I'm not staying out here with you two anymore."

We walked around to the passenger side of the RV, dragging our things, when the side door flew open. A black man wearing some sort of ethnic garb smiled at us, the corner of his lips clamped around a short cigarette.

"Welcome aboard, folks!"

My dad stopped in his tracks. Oh God, I thought, my dad and his stupid fear of black people are going to leave us stranded in the desert with a fireball that used to be our car.

I couldn't see my dad's face, but I knew he was staring at the man's skin, weighing his options. Get on the blackmobile or wait for another car to come by. And how to tell these people that we'd pass on their generous offer.

My mother, for once, saved the day. "Well hello there!" she called brightly. "What an interesting dress you're wearing!"

"It's a dashiki," he drawled, pulling the cigarette from his mouth. "Belonged to my dad."

"Your dad wears dresses?" I asked, genuinely curious.

"Lizzie!" my dad hissed at me. But the man just laughed, his white teeth gleaming in the sun."

"Not exactly. But enough about that - let's get you folks on the road."

(to be continued...)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reality Check for a Multitasking Lunatic

We had this saying in college –
MIT: Work. Play. Sleep. Pick Two.
Ah, the self-deprecating humor of overachievers...

I always loved this because it captured the dilemma of an engineering school life overflowing with demands. Can you guess which two I picked?

Almost 15 years later, my list looks like this –
Work. Create. Play. Sleep. Pick Three.
Because doing all four is utterly impossible. “Work” is a 40-hour a week day job. “Create” encompasses the multi-faced acting / writing / producing / directing career I’m attempting to develop and move forward. “Sleep” includes all the aspects of self-care – doing laundry, getting the oil changed in my car, buying groceries. “Play” ends up being stolen moments with my DVR after midnight or a meal with a friend I really want to see more often. I have no idea where a relationship would fit in. Or exercise. What’s a champion multitasker to do?

Stop multitasking.

Up until now, I’ve just been going going going. Doing a million things from day until night, juggling as best I can. If you read my Writer’s Diet Experiment blog posts, you’ll see just how much I can pack into each waking hour. And even though I’ve been doing a million things at a time, I’ve constantly felt guilty about the million other things I haven’t had time to do.

The most pathetic thing is that I took pride in my on-the-go lifestyle. I had 24 different windows open on my work computer the other day and I finished everything by quitting time. I’m invincible, right?

Wrong. Two things happened this past weekend that changed everything. One, a friend pointed out that I’ve been saying troubling things like, “I need to stop sleeping so much.” Two, I discovered my blood pressure was 137/98.

I’m multitasking myself right out of my life! It’s all about your health, and if my health is suffering because of my frickin’ to do list, it’s time to do less.

So...I’m slowing down. No more hyper-multitasking. One thing at a time. What a concept.

The hardest thing is going to be letting go of my overachieving paradigm that tells me doing more is better. After all, overachieving has gotten me this far. (I was in 10 or 12 clubs & activities in high school – my blood pressure must have been astronomical!)

But sometimes less really is more. Let’s hope I’m slowing down in time...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Casting Director Workshops

Today, I’m going to teach you about three of the most controversial words in showbiz – casting director workshops.

For the uninitiated, these are workshops featuring a casting director who works in TV or film. Typically the session starts with a group Q&A, after which the CD will hand out sides, often from the project they’re currently casting. Everyone gets 10-15 minutes to look them over, then everyone performs them in front of the class and the casting director. Sometimes actors are paired, sometimes they read one on one. The good casting directors give terrific feedback and acting advice. The annoying ones are dry as dust and say nothing but a flat “thanks.”

There’s a huge backlash against them because some people think actors shouldn’t have to pay to audition in front of a casting director. Opponents say it’s just another way big bad Hollywood is taking advantage of eager actors. Ask any actor about casting director workshops – everyone has an opinion. Here’s mine…

I like them. I enjoy the opportunity to work on my cold reading skills and getting to know a casting director in a casual environment. They’re especially useful for me because I’m focused on television work. I also find it valuable to see other actors act. I don’t think they’re scams and ultimately I think they’re harmless.

(Pausing to wipe off the rotten tomatoes mentally thrown in my direction…)

Because here’s the thing – legitimate casting director workshops only cost $35-$45 dollars tops. That’s less than I’d pay for a shirt at J.Crew. $35 is worth it for me to show a casting director my talent, learn inside tips on auditioning for their office, and just plain have a chance to perform. It's a win-win!

Workshops are an opportunity to connect in a disconnected town that's saturated with actors. Casting directors are way too overworked and underpaid to spend time finding talent in the old ways of going to theater or showcases, especially if they work in television which is already ridiculously fast paced.

So please don’t go all berzerker on me because I go to casting director workshops. I hate scams too. That “school” that offers “classes” for $2,900 for a chance to be seen by “top Hollywood agents?” That’s a scam. $35 is probably what you spend at Starbucks in a week.

If you’d like to give them a try, here’s my advice for doing them right. First, know that there are several places that offer them and they’re pretty much all the same. Just find a place that's close to where you live that offers workshops in the $35-$45 a class range. I go to ITA Productions in Culver City because it's close to where I live, though I used to go to One on One Productions in Studio City.

Next, make a list of all the TV shows that you think you could be cast in. Look at the Production Listings on Backstage to figure out which shows shoot in LA. Consider which shows often use actors of your type as well as shows that cast a lot of actors in each episode. If you're in the 18 to Look Younger category, you'll definitely want to add the Nickelodeon & Disney shows.

Once you find a place and have your target list, you can start looking at their calendar and sign up to see the casting directors that cast the shows on your list. That way you're not wasting time and money on a casting director that doesn't need your type. I limit myself to two a month, which forces me to choose only the workshops that are most useful for me.

If you’ve been wondering about casting director workshops, I encourage you to give them a try and decide for yourself which side of the controversy you stand on. Just remember, casting director workshops don’t equal jobs. Being a good actor gets you the audition and the job.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fiction Friday: Seeing America, Part 1

By the time we pulled over, the station wagon was on fire. Mom and I screamed from the car as dad flipped up the hood and flames pushed him back onto his elbows on the rocky gravel. This was before the days of cell phones and AAA. We were seeing America in our brown station wagon, and right then, America looked like a brown station wagon with flames pouring from the engine.

Mom crawled into the back seat with me and together we crawled out the back door. Dad helped us pull all of our stuff from the back. I remembered the library book I'd tucked under my seat, but there was no going back for it. My school would just have to do with one less copy of Ramona and Beezus.

I used to joke that the wood paneling on the station wagon was ridiculous. Were we trying to trick people into thinking the car was made of wood? Well, it might as well have been wood the way it burned up so completely. We stood there, suitcases and beach bags and an ice chest at our feet, watching our family car turn into a fireball. It was a sight. I remember wanting to laugh, it was so absurd. All of our memories in that car literally going up in smoke. A cathartic bonfire we didn't know we needed.

But I didn't laugh because my parents couldn't have looked less amused. Mom was crying, no doubt terrified at the thought of being stranded in the desert. Dad paced back and forth, hands on his polyester-clad hips, muttering under his breath about his no good black mechanic. Dad wasn't very PC back then.

I hated that station wagon. The way my hot legs stuck to the vinyl seats on a summer day. How hard it was to crank the window down. I was always afraid the handle would break in my hand and I would be trapped without any fresh air in that brown backseat dungeon.

And God, the color. Brown, brown, brown. Like a big loaf of bread on wheels. Mom called it comforting. I always felt like I was riding around in a fat turd.

As we stood there watching our sole mode of transportation warm up the Arizona countryside, my Dad clapped his hands together.

"Let's go," he said with purpose.

"Where?" my mother cried desperately. "We're miles out of any town!"

"The pilgrims made it all the way to California, Joan! So can we!"

It didn't seem the right time to correct my father's misuse of the term pilgrim, so I picked up the ice chest with both hands in anticipation of our trek.

Click here to read Seeing America, Part 2