Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What is a mentor?

My mentor died last week.

It was not unexpected. In fact, it was one of those long goodbyes. But the loss cuts deep. There are some people who, no matter how much water under the bridge, will always have that tidal effect.
Shireen Strooker

I use water imagery for a reason, but what’s more immediately appropriate is – she was and is a star. The writer/director/producer/actor of hundreds of plays in the Netherlands, Europe and the US, some with the radical theater company Het Werkteater, many after that with her own company and others.

I was in my last year at Berkeley, and two of my actor/director friends, Karl Hamman and Andy Myler, had gotten a grant to bring Shireen over from the Netherlands to teach a company acting class, culminating in a play. The demand was so high that two classes were formed. We were theater students. Ridiculously young, impressionable, ambitious, pretentious. It was ages ago, now. Many of us are best friends to this day. Those of us still in theater and film trace our inspiration back to that class. No one who took it was not transformed in some way.

I’ve always loved that Kafka quote: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Shireen was an ice-axe.

She was brutal.

Like many great artists, she didn’t have the time or the patience to be encouraging or supportive. She didn’t sugarcoat anything. She went straight for the jugular.

The very first day she walked into our company class, the very first improvisation she had us do, she cast me as a child molester.

I’ve written before that one of the defining and traumatizing moments of my life was being approached at nine years old by a sexual predator who tried to grab me off the street.

Did she know this about me? Of course not. We’d never met, and it wasn’t something I could articulate at the time. That took a lot of therapy, later.

But I did the scene. You didn’t say no to Shireen.

After the improvisation, which I don’t remember much about except that it didn’t go well, she yelled at me for facing upstage for most of the scene “So we couldn’t see your ugliness.”
It became a theme between us. I’m not sure if that was a theme of hers in general or just what she was determined to bring out in me, particularly. But I heard it over and over from her. “Where’s the dirt?!” “Show me your ugliness!”

Or this gem: “You sit there like a giant spider in your web, always watching everyone.” I was twenty years old. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear about myself.

I hadn’t grasped the concept of Beauty and Truth.

Shireen demanded Truth.

Would she finally have been satisfied with the dirt in the Huntress series? Or am I still not being quite ugly enough? I’m getting enough hate mail these days from people who are disturbed by my last book. But still, I wonder.

I do know that however far I’ve gone in the Huntress series, she wouldn’t think it was far enough. For her, that was the whole point of theater, of play-making. To cross every line and shatter every barrier.

And to that effect, she wanted her players raw.

I don’t know if it was a deliberate strategy or an unconscious one: to break actors so that they would do ANYTHING you told them to do on command. Much like the military.

I teach, on occasion, and some of my students see me as a mentor. I ask myself sometimes if I am being too easy. If I wouldn’t do better for promising students by being more cruel. Being easy is the easy way out. Cruelty is no way to raise children - but maybe it’s the way to shape a professional artist.

It’s definitely what she did. She said horrible things to us. Horrible because we believed in her so absolutely. We wanted so desperately to please her. And the lessons weren’t all brutal, though they were always shattering.

One priceless lesson I learned from her is synchronicity. That when you start a play (a book, a film, a dance piece) – EVERYTHING that happens is relevant and belongs in the play. I heard her say hundreds of times, “But we MUST have THAT in the play!” And so it was.
"Dare to be bad" was another concept. When you think about it, what's the worst that can happen on stage, or on the page? You can suck. Furthermore, you're going to suck. Guaranteed. Sometimes you just suck. But once you get over your fear of sucking? That fearlessness translates into a confidence that takes you places you were always afraid to go, before. And once you've made a bad choice, you've eliminated something that doesn't work and are one step closer to finding something that does work.

She taught me not to care about what anyone else thought. She was loathed and mocked by the mostly male and casually, devastatingly sexist professors of the Department of Dramatic Art. It was abundantly clear that they were terrified of this feminine force. It made us love her more.

Everyone else around her was profoundly influenced.

My friends Jess Winfield and Reed Martin – Jess, author/screenwriter, tv and theater producer, one of the creators of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Reed, who became part of the later RSC company and went on to co-write, produce and star in numerous other RSC shows. Phil Abrams, an actor all of you know from television, whether or not you know his name. Nina Ruscio, my brilliant production designer friend (currently designing Shameless and Animal Planet), who taught me one of the most career-making lessons in visual storytelling that day when I tagged along with her into the depths of Zellerbach Hall, to the prop warehouse, to create the look of our play Ondine. Stan Lai, now the most famous theater writer/director/producer in Taiwan.

We were a cult, really.

Shireen and I became very close that year, which was in a way unlikely.

Our company class was rehearsing an improvisational adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine.

I was quite possibly the worst actor in the class. I just never cared as much about what I was doing in my own role as I did about the big picture. I’d wisely given up acting completely for writing the year before, and was only reluctantly persuaded into the ensemble by Andy and Karl (for which I owe them more than I will ever be able to repay).

But Shireen needed an assistant (actually she needed as many as she could get) and I knew I needed to hear – or observe - WHY she was doing what she did.

I didn’t get praise from her. I got assignments. But for Shireen to turn to me and say – “You will write this for us to do tomorrow” was better than praise. It was a specific acknowledgement of what I could do.

And the lessons went on and on.

Including one I teach in all my own workshops: The Dark Moment. All is Lost. The Dark Night of the Soul. In other words, you must lose everything before it all comes together.

And in almost all mentor narratives, in Act II:2, the mentor goes away.

Which is what Shireen did, a few weeks before Ondine opened. She had another play on in Amsterdam that she had to get back to. But we all threw ourselves into rehearsing ourselves.

The night she came back and saw our run-through, she ripped into us as I’ve never been ripped into before or since. She ranted at us for what seemed like an eternity, saying we’d unraveled all the work she’d done with us. She told us we’d have to cancel the performance.

I’ll never be sure if that was what she really thought or if it was another way of getting what she wanted from us.

Because in effect, she terrified us into working 24/7 for the last week before the show. (I’m remembering now that for the first and only time in my college career I told one of my drama professors I’d have to turn my final paper in late because of rehearsal. This highly mediocre professor was one of Shireen’s detractors and told me that if I didn’t get the paper in on time I’d fail the class. I was pretty much a straight-A student, Phi Beta Kappa, and I’d seen him give extensions for performance to any number of his students - it was a theater department, after all. He refused. I told him to fail me. It didn’t occur to me to take the issue higher – I simply didn’t care. I don’t think he actually failed me, but I do have those dreams, you know… that you realize you never actually graduated from college….)

We lived in that theater for that week. We slept there, some nights.

And the show was – beautiful.

Shireen's 210 company class in Ondine

For all Shireen’s talk about ugliness (maybe only with me), Ondine was a shimmeringly romantic fairy tale. There were moments so poetic I heard audience members gasp aloud. There are whole scenes from that show I will remember in entirety for the rest of my life.

My favorite moment was neither artistic nor poetic. Among other roles I played the Queen, and there was a royal court scene that the whole cast could never, ever get through without collapsing into hysterical laughter. A lot of this was because of the King, Reed  (he of the Reduced Shakespeare Company), a brilliant comedian who every rehearsal went out of his way to find new ways to make the rest of us break.

But of course you always somehow pull it together for opening night, and we did several  performances without a hitch. And then - one night when King Reed stood in all pomp and circumstance from his throne, one of the pearls from his ermine robe caught on the mesh train of my gown. And as he started walking downstage, both our robes rose, grandly enormous, filling the stage like the wings of giant swans.

Well, the courtiers almost lost it. The audience totally lost it. But we were professionals, or aspiring, anyway, and the courtiers got hold of themselves and somehow Reed and I did a little shimmy and two-step to get unhooked, shooting each other marital looks of annoyance, and we resumed the scene. 

And it happened again. Same pearl, same mesh, same swan wings. 

It was pandemonium. We could not stop laughing. Literally. Could. Not. Stop. I know from this moment what it means to be rolling on the floor laughing, because half of the actors on stage were, literally. I was doubled over on my throne, laughing my guts out. Reed was collapsed in my lap. The audience was shrieking. We could hear Shireen out in the house just wailing with laughter. It went on for minutes, which on stage is eternity.

I don't know how we finally pulled ourselves together, but somehow we did. And after the show I have never had so many people thank me for the best laugh of their lives.

And Shireen told us backstage, “That is the BEST gift you could have given me.” It was the most pleased I ever saw her.

That moment was something so much more than theater. It taught me that precision is nothing, compared to the truth of a moment.

I can only remember one spoken compliment I ever got from her. Not a compliment, really – a validation.

It was when I sold my first screenplay, for an enormous amount of money to me, and enough fanfare that I, a complete Hollywood outsider (and a woman, one-fourth as likely as a man to get paid for it) suddenly had a screenwriting career.

I visited Shireen that winter in Amsterdam and she said to me, “I knew you had this in you. From the first day, the moment I saw you, this was all there.”

Was that true? I wonder. It’s so easy to say in retrospect. But I like to think that she saw that in all of us.

Because we do all have that in us. I will always believe that.

But some of us are lucky enough find a Shireen to hack it out of us.

With an ice axe.

-       Alex


Anonymous said...

I could not resist commenting. Perfectly written!

Jess Winfield said...

Thanks for this, Alex. Shireen would approve.

Funny, though...she was always pretty nice to ME. ;-)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, I noticed.

Julia Buckley said...

This is such a lovely tribute. Thanks for sharing it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank YOU, Julia! Hope to see you this year!

Yves Fey said...

This was a beautiful testament, and a challenge as well. Thank you.

Ellen said...

What a stunning tribute. I'm truly sorry for the loss of someone so important to you. What a huge impact she made.

Rhonda Lane said...

My condolences, Alex. A lot of artists would've crumbled under her scrutiny. It's wonderful and amazing you all dug deep and boosted your drive, allowing you to look fondly on her criticisms. BTW, actors weren't playing child molesters back in the day, not even as "Oscar bait." Having a young female student--not a stretch she'd been on the "receiving end" of such harrassment--peer through that particular set of evil goggles is kinda chilling, like wing-it Shadow Work without a net. With the wrong student, it would've been reckless, and maybe it was? But I have no doubt in my mind, Shireen was midwife to Kara. My deepest sympathies for your loss.