How is a performance and a post-show creative writing workshop sparking a national discourse on grief? This and more when memory artist Nancy Gershman sits down with playwright and comedian, Ann Randolph to talk about her one-woman show, LOVELAND – and the transformative and healing power of writing about grief. Learn more about Randolph’s week-long “Write Your Life”workshops, by visiting Ann at www.AnnRandolph.com.“When you’re dead jokes” can be conversation starters Ashes exposed can bring strangers together With nothing left to lose, liberated behaviors surface Writing about grief in a group setting forms “community” Turn your inner critic into a character you can stand up to
We remember the dead because their sayings were musical Your To Do List
“When you’re dead” jokes can be conversation starters
“I’d often hear my parents talking about death. My mother, Patricia liked to talk about death in a very irreverent manner. She’d say stuff like, “We’ll put your ashes in the buffet bar at The Golden Corral” to my father. There was no taboo at the house as far as talking about death was concerned. Both my parents were orphans; maybe that had something to do with it …
I remember Dad would say to Mom: “You got me dead in the grave before I’m even dead!” But she was convinced Dad was ill. Wonderfully empathic people, both of them, but as Dad aged, he moved more and more slowly. And in Mom’s mind this was huge; he was declining. She kept saying to him, “You’ve got something wrong with you. You’re blind not to see it!”
To relax her nerves, my mom started to drink wine. She then had a stroke (believing it was due to the stress of taking care of my father). However, ironically when she had the stroke, Dad took care of Mom.”
Ashes – once exposed – can bring strangers together
“I won’t give away what happens, but the theme of my latest one-woman show, LOVELAND, is that exquisite beauty is formed from loss. The play takes place on an airplane as Frannie Potts, an oddball misfit flies back for her mother’s memorial. I wrote Frannie’s character as an alter ego – as a way to speak about loss and grief in a way that felt truthful to me. I wrote the show on a plane flying back and forth between LA and Loveland, Ohio, my hometown.
As I looked out the plane’s window, I would see all the places my mother and I visited over the years. We both are nature nuts and visited almost every national park, so these scenes would come to me as I looked out the window. And so would the grief. Although my mother hadn’t died, she had a stroke and I felt a huge loss, as did she. I didn’t think I would be able to come to terms with her death.
I had what therapists called “anticipatory grief” and I found that writing about her death – before she was even dead – was quite healing for me. It’s morbid, I know, but it helped me tremendously. My mother even came to the show and saw that at the end there is a eulogy. She was in the front row of the audience, crying her eyes out. Aftewarrds, she came up to me and said, ‘I just cried at my own funeral.’ And she did.
LOVELAND is a dramedy. People are laughing outrageously one minute and crying the next. I think the comedy comes from Frannie’s impulsive, unhooked behavior. As some people escape into food or drugs as a way of dealing with grief, Frannie escapes with a sexual fantasy: having wild sex with the captain of the plane. In the act of imagining it, the pain of losing her mother goes away.”
With nothing left to lose, liberated behaviors may surface
“As with every one on the planet, I have experienced a lot of loss. There’s a poem by Rumi called “The Cook and the Chickpea.” Chickpeas are being cooked, and the chef says to the chickpeas: You’re not done yet; you need more boiling. After each new loss, the chickpeas get more character and a bolder flavor.
This happens to me all the time. Tragedy gives me faith and fearlessness – and it is this layering of the two that ensures that tragedy doesn’t sink me. Instead, I would say, tragedy makes me roar. It makes me blow the lid off of whatever I’m doing. Suddenly, I’ll do anything … say anything because when things are really bad, I feel liberated because there’s nothing left to lose.”
Writing about grief in a group setting forms “community”
“Creative expression is truly the way of healing. There are many ways, but creative expression is our birthright. I believe we are all creators and creative beings. And I believe Frannie Potts, the main character of LOVELAND is so vulnerable, so exposed, raw and outrageous that she gives the audience the permission, the courage to speak their truth.
The “Write Your Life” workshop came about by happenstance. I was performing across the country, and audiences would wait in the lobby to tell me their own stories of grief. I thought, Well, why not do it in the theater immediately following the performance? And what happened was remarkable: people started sharing their stories of loss right there in the theater. And they also began to feel better after writing and sharing.
The way it works is that immediately following the performance I take a 5 minute break and then come back to guide the audience through a visualization. I ask them to remember someone or something that they have lost, and ask them to write about it for 7 minutes. I start with:
Put your feet on the ground, close your eyes … Drop into the scene with all five senses…. Now, tell me what you see. What time of day is it? What do you hear in the foreground? The background?”
I look out into the audience and they are all writing. Afterwards, some of the audience members will volunteer to read out loud what they wrote. It’s incredibly powerful because there’s a sense of community that forms immediately around people having the courage to speak about their grief. We realize we are not alone in our grief. At the end, we stand in a circle, holding hands and recalling loved ones and specific moments with them that touched our lives. I know it might sound a bit New Age-y, but to me and audience members, we are doing what we done for thousands of years – sharing our selves, our vulnerability, our humanity.
I know that I felt tremendous relief after writing LOVELAND. Now I share that same sense of relief with my audience.”
Turn your inner critic into a character you can stand up to
“As a playwright and actor, I’ve found it extremely helpful to create a character based on my inner critic. I can distance myself from that critic if I think of it as just another character. I’ll play with exaggeration and distortion. I’ll give it a name, a voice and let it speak in whatever twang, pitch, tone or accent it wants.
Playing with it as if it’s a character means also letting it have its own fantasy life. But if my character becomes comic, it’s not because I pushed them. You can have a very profound experience whether your character goes comedic or incredibly dramatic. As far as writing goes, I just encourage people to see if there is a place in their scenario where they can have a relationship with this character — meaning that they can have a real dialogue with it. Yes, even out loud! It’s a good way to lessen the hold your inner critic has over you.”
Sometimes I’ll say to people, Take that critic and put them into a scene. Send them on a date; make them return something to the store – basically put your critic in any environment they’re not familiar with.
We remember the dead because their sayings were musical
“My memories of people who have died are always tied to music. Mom’s favorite music is church music – Handel’s Messiah. Dad’s favorite music was the Strauss waltzes which, turns out, is LOVELAND’s pre-show music. I think about him often when I hear that music.
But also Frannie, the character I’m playing in LOVELAND, is Dad. I feel a lot of him in me. And people who know my dad will even say “That’s your dad on stage!” even though I’m a woman.
I also think about my dad in sound bites. There’s this one phrase he used to use: ‘That’s all I got.’ It was how he hung up the phone.”
Your To Do List
Ann Randolph reminds us that we’re all creative beings, and that creative writing about grief can bring catharsis. So let’s try a little experiment that exercises both our memory and our song-writing muscles. Yes, this exercise involves our ears but you don’t have to be a musician to play.
Here’s how it works. Think about the person whose death broke your heart and:
1. Try to remember an expression they’d use when they were mad as hell. Sarcastic. Or ecstatic. Maybe it just was an idiosyncratic way of saying thank you or the way they would end a letter (more likely an email these days).
2. Now, say the phrase out loud – just as they would have in the heat of the moment – and then hum it – exactly as they’d say it – but without the words so you’re left only with melody.
3. Find the notes to this melody on a keyboard (you can do it, even if you’ve never studied piano). Or sing the melody to a musician friend who can write the notes down for you and then play it on an instrument so you can record it. Or sing the melody into your smart phone or computer and record it there.
4. Now challenge yourself to write a line of lyrics that fits the melody. Challenge yourself to write a second line that follows the first, and maybe even a chorus.
You now have the beginnings of a song dedicated to the one you love that you can carry with you everywhere, in your head and in your heart.