Collecting No’s

collecting no's

“I was looking to get a regular performing gig set up in Philadelphia,” I told my friend as we walked along South street back in 1999.  “So I spent the entire day on Saturday collecting no’s.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“Well in business I have heard that you need to reach out to 10 potential customers every day in order to get one who will sign up for what you’re selling. I have also heard that if you try to get 10 of those to say a flat out no, that it’s harder than you think and it becomes like a numbers game.”

“That’s funny,” she giggled.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I was determined to leave my materials with 10 places and I did. I don’t know if they will be interested or not, but I feel unattached to the outcome and just proud of myself for trying.”

“That’s great,” said my friend, who is a good friend.

“Why don’t you go into the Starbucks and try?” She suggested.

So we walked in to the Starbucks at 4th and south and I asked the barista if they ever had entertainment. She quickly deferred to her manager, Steve.

I stood there and pitched Steve on my talents as a comedian. “I do funny characters, and could just work for tips.”

“No, you can’t work for tips here,” Steve broke it to me. I was about to chalk it up to another no when he added “I can pay you to entertain the customers though.”

And there it was! A regular comedy gig in Philadelphia twice a month. I used the venue to develop and try out new material. I even got a feature in a newspaper about my performing there which led to a spot on the local ABC chat show. It was an ideal gig and a great transition to bigger venues which could sometimes be a cold impersonal environment such as a casino. After performing for strangers of all kinds I gained a stronger stage presence. I got better and better at that venue, and got paid to boot.

If we shift our focus to being unattached and just trying to get those no’s we can gain results that surpass expectation or anything we might have dreamed up for ourselves.

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Wynton Wisdom

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As I watched the segment on Wynton Marsalis, the master trumpeter, jazz innovator, and educator, part of the documentary series “Iconoclasts,” I was struck by a moment Marsalis recollected. As Wynton was leaving home to go off to college, packing just some tapes and a few possessions, his dad turned to him and asked “Are you okay now?” He meant with not a lot of material things. “Yes dad I’m okay,” he replied.

His dad said “Remember that, so when you have a lot you won’t be scared if you lose it because even if you do you will always be okay like you are now.”

Imagine if we could all be blessed with this sense of security and self-assured attitude! I love this story because his father is teaching him so many things all at once: to be grateful even when we don’t have much, to live in gratitude, don’t scare yourself, and trust the process because change is part and parcel of the creative process. We may have a lot or not a lot, but it’s the awareness that we are okay that means we can make our own music and march to our own beat.

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Straighten Up And Fly Right

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When we fly we stock up on movies for Lily who’s eight. For our most recent flight in April Michael chose The Horse Whisperer, a film which depicts an awful accident. A girl, played by a young Scarlett Johansson, goes horseback riding and she and her friend slam into each other, one horse goes down and the girl is crushed underneath. Once the horse is upright it wanders into the road only to be hit by an oncoming truck.

My daughter is scared shitless.  The girl, loses her leg, the horse’s chest is gaping open and its nose is torn. Yes, it’s a family film. It’s too scary, she tells me shaking. So we turn it off and put on an Adam Sandler movie, which only seems to scare me.

To add to her trauma, the news was on a lot that week with the story of the German plane whose copilot steered it into oblivion. With all this on her mind, Lily somehow manages to fall asleep.

So there we were.

35 minutes later Lily wakes with a start.

“We’re all going to die, we’re all going to die!!!!” she cries emphatically. She is certain. She is a great actress and she has everyone believing her too.

Anyway it’s that part of the flight where everyone is finally sleeping. And she is screaming “We’re all going to die.” So like any good mother I do my best to muffle her and shut her the fuck up. “Shhh shhhh shhhh!!!!” I cover her mouth. “We’re gonna die!!!” I try to reason with her, “you’re just having a nightmare”. “We’re gonna die!!!”  I shake her. I slap her. I slap my own child. It accomplishes nothing. “We’re gonna die.” I point to all the people on the plane.  “No one is dead, see?” Who knew I would ever say something like that as a way of comforting her?

“We’re all gonna die!!!!!!!!!”

The stewardess comes running down the aisle from 20 rows away. That is how loud Lily is.

“Is she okay?”

What the fuck? Does she look okay?

“No. She is having a nightmare.”

“Does she want some juice?”

What the fuck does that have to do with the fear that we are all going to die?

“How about some water?”

I picture this stewardess using this technique for a variety of emergency situations: “Oh, your arm is bleeding, how about some snacks? Oh you may have a fracture, don’t worry, this flight has complementary beverage service!”

Lily screams “We are all going to die!” I tell her “No, the plane is safe and we are all going to be fine.”

But the truth is we are all going to die. It’s something I think about about 20 times a day. Maybe Lily’s defenses have come down and now she’s thinking it too. And should I lie to her?

I tell the stewardess she had a nightmare, and all she needs is for me to hold her.

“Look,” I firmly grasp Lily. “You have woken up all these people!” I make her look at all the blinking exhausted eyes cast into our row. “This is a time to sleep and you’ve disturbed all these people.” This quiets her down. Shaming her silences her! And that basically is the teachable conscious parenting lesson. Shame is more powerful than anything to get your kids to straighten up and fly right.

I cradle my 8 year old, who will always be my baby. She settles down onto my lap again. She gets back to sleep, dozes deeply for the remaining two hours of the flight and I am left counting the minutes until I can run off the plane and escape the psychic pain of carrying the mortality alarm clock on board the flight.

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JENNIFER BLAINE PLAYS 1 WISECRACKING GRANDMA AND 7 FAMOUS FEMALE ACTIVISTS IN SOLO SHOW DIRTY JOKE – Performances at Annenberg Center on March 6 and 7 as part of Women’s History Month

JJF_9911.NEFJennifer Blaine, Philadelphia’s acclaimed solo performer, comedienne, and playwright “whose comic genius is like Lily Tomlin and Tracey Ullman” (Philadelphia Daily News) will perform her one-woman show Dirty Joke as part of the 2014-2015 By Local series at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. 

Performances will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, March 6 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA. Tickets are $20-30 and available at www.AnnenbergCenter.org or by calling 215-898-3900. The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ By Local Series spotlights artistic talent that thrives within the Philadelphia community.

Jennifer Blaine has performed with the likes of Chris Rock, George Carlin, and Joe Piscopo, and has brought her smart, irreverent humor to premier venues and festivals nationwide. Jennifer is renowned for her extraordinary ability to shift between characters across age and ethnicity; her shows are a balm for those craving some comedy, candor, and inspiration.

Jennifer is thrilled to bring Dirty Joke back to her hometown of Philadelphia, after premiering the show to sold-out audiences at the 2013 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. According to the Philadelphia City Paper in their review, “It’s comedy with a conscience…Blaine is warm and thoughtful, never pushy or pedantic, and of course there’s all those dirty jokes.” 

Dirty Joke centers on one of Jennifer’s most popular characters: Ruth, an elderly Jewish woman with a penchant for off-color humor. Ruth sings, dances, tells jokes, and makes light out of the dark moment in which she finds herself — struggling to hold onto her apartment. As Ruth convenes the first live “Superwoman Conference,” Jennifer portrays 7 real-life changemakers who have made a significant impact on our world:

  • Madeleine Albright: The first female U.S. Secretary of State, who advocated for democracy and human rights;
  • Arianna Huffington: Chair, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group and author of 14 books;
  • Kiran Bir Sethi: Pioneering Indian educator who founded the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, focused on engaging young people and making cities more child-friendly.
  • Majora Carter: Founder of Sustainable South Bronx who coined the term “Green The Ghetto,” and the recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship;
  • Cindy Sheehan: American anti-war activist who protested outside of President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch after her son was killed during the Iraq War;
  • Wangari Maathai: Nobel Prize-winning Kenyan activist who, as founder of the Green Belt Movement, planted millions of trees with women’s groups.

As Jennifer explains, “When I craft a character, I start from an inner sense of who the person is and what motivates them. I study their history, listen to them speak and zero in on their gestures, posture and gait. Then there comes that shift from being just a snippet of a person into a living, breathing tribute.”

Dirty Joke marks Jennifer’s fourth collaboration with director and fellow Wesleyan University graduate Vashti Dubois — who produced the critically acclaimed Philadelphia performance EvictionProof PeepShow Home. Vashti co-founded the Mumbo Jumbo Theatre Company in New York City, championing female artists of color such as playwrights Lynn Nottage and Adrienne Kennedy and actresses Lisa Gay Hamilton and Hazel Goodman.

It’s no coincidence that Jennifer’s latest show features a “Conference of Superwomen.” In addition to keeping a busy schedule as a solo performer and comedienne, Jennifer is the founder of The 5,000 Women Festival which showcases the creativity of women artists in all media. For more information about Jennifer Blaine and The 5,000 Women Festival, visit www.jenniferblaine.com.

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Linda Grace

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“So when did you break your tailbone?” Linda asks while palpating the lowermost reaches of my spine.  I flash to a possible moment, more than twenty years earlier when I’d fallen down a steep flight of steps in Amsterdam.  The pain at the time had been excruciating, but my parents tend to err on the conservative side when it comes to physical discomfort, so they didn’t take me to a doctor.  It wasn’t personal though. My Dad once shrugged off a bad cold for weeks, only to finally realize it was pneumonia. No one in my family ever realized that I’d broken my tailbone. Now it all made sense.

Linda Grace is my Rolfer. I have a long history of both practicing and patronizing the healing arts. I have been to brilliant massage therapists, chiropractors and shiatsu masters, but Linda has provided the most singular and reliable remedy for anything my family or I have ever thrown at her.

When my husband overdid it exercising and rest did nothing to resolve the anguish of his lower back, Linda even came to our home.  She asked him to walk around. When he howled as he tried to move, she stated matter-of-factly “I’m not touchin’ that.”  She recommended consulting orthopedic doctors, predicting (correctly) that it would heal on its own if given at least 7 weeks.  As she left, knowing how driven my husband is and that rest would be his best prescription she looked me in the eye and said “Good luck keepin’ him down.”

When our daughter, Lily, was tiny we decided to have Linda Grace work on her.  Linda would hold the infant patient, cradling her head to coax her neck to release tension, or working the insteps of her feet to give her greater mobility. There was nothing wrong with Lily but the transition to life from the womb can be a challenge for any of us and Lily benefitted from the magical touch. Thanks to Linda, with each visit there was more and more that was right.

I have referred countless friends and coaching clients to Linda. Whoever follows her advice sees amazing results. My friend had an issue with her sciatic nerve which cortisone shots and physical therapy would not resolve. After just 2 sessions with Linda she was completely healed. I am not overstating Linda’s powers.

Last month I was somewhat immobilized by a few false moves at yoga on Monday. Linda had me lay on my side. She worked around the iliac crest, attended to where my thoracic and lumbar spine meet, and completed the session by applying pressure and then friction to one of the insertion points for my psoas muscle. With her hand firmly inside my upper thigh I asked if she ever tried this move with anyone on the first date. “No, and with some people I wouldn’t ever dare to do it at all!”

Being the primary caregiver plus being a full time life coach and one-woman show, it’s hard for me to call out sick. Many of my responsibilities can not be done by someone else. Linda gives me back my time, my well-being, and best of all my self, so I can accomplish what needs to be done and go on with my life.

My profound gratitude for the incredible Linda Grace!!!!

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Two Heroines

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Two Heroines

For her birthday my 10 year old niece from Colorado asked her friends to donate to Doctors Without Borders instead of giving her a wrapped gift. And, if you’re wondering,   this was all her idea.

Coincidentally I happen to to coach someone who works for the French counterpart of this organization, médecins sans frontières, or MSF. I mentioned to my client that my niece had come up with this thoughtful gift which honors devotion, service, and the altruistic spirit. So my client asked if she could write a note of appreciation to my niece…

My client sent an amazing letter. She reported that she’s been in CAR (Central African Republic) and that she has an incredible team that assists her with distributing essential supplies. She did not mention that she spent last year continuing this work in the middle of a war in which 700,000 Muslims either fled or were massacred, some right in front of her, and that her staff chose to walk through the carnage everyday to get to the hospital and assist in saving lives. Hearing this I was profoundly inspired by their bravery.

My niece has since asked whether my client gets to choose which country in which is placed. I wonder how my client will field that one.

I am very touched by my niece’s kind-heartedness, thoughtful questions and generous gesture. I am also impressed by the fact that my client has devoted her life to helping heal the world. In my book they are both heroines.

Who are some heroines in your life?

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Jealousy As A Force For Good

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Yes, jealousy can be a force for good.  You heard me right!

Jealousy can be a fantastic way to energize, enliven, and motivate. We think of jealousy as being a base emotion and associated with unpalatable behavior, but jealousy can also be a way to tune in and figure out what we desire most. Once we know, we can think about how we are directing our energy and,  possibly, make new choices, ones help us reach the desired goal that gets us back on track.

For a half a year in my late 20’s I considered not acting anymore, just packing it in. I was new to Philadelphia, and, contrary to what I pictured in my mind,  no one was lining up, excited to host my one-woman show at any theatre. I had a favorable review of my one woman show in Timeout NY. I clutched the press clipping in my pocket folder as I banged on doors, yet failed to get a single appointment. No one was impressed or motivated to showcase me. I was pretty deflated.

Maybe I will just be a healer and forget about acting and writing, I mused to myself. So I tried to going that route. I promoted my coaching services and I was successful in finding clients who benefitted from my services, many of whom then referred me to their friends.

Then Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the Oscar for Good Will Hunting. I loved the film, especially the writing, and I marveled at how these two friends had made this vehicle to showcase their talents.

I was undeniably jealous. They were not much older than me, they were talented, they were successful, and they had not given up on their dream. That’s when I first realized that jealousy is there to remind us when we really want something and must not give up on honoring that. That is a critical component to realizing what we want in life. One of those aha moments.

The trick is to decipher what the qualities are of the thing we are jealous about that deep down we wish we could have for ourselves. If we are willing to be flexible and have some of those qualities in another form, we stand a good chance of getting at least some of what we want and continuing to build from there. The painful part of jealousy when it hypnotizes us into believing we cannot have it. Once we change from this self defeating one, to a self-honoring one we can then take actions to actually realize our dreams.

I still get jealous, but now I know how to use it to be an energizing tool that actually works in my favor.

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Manifesting

Leaking Pipe

Last year was a particularly challenging one for Michael and me.  We offered a temporary home to some family members and, as a result, found ourselves with even less time together, less privacy, and less money.  But when it came time for the winter break, we still wanted to take a trip to someplace special. We researched cities – okay, Michael did all the research —— finally deciding to go to Toronto.  In December.  When it is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re lucky. “Why?” I asked. Michael said it had museums and yoga and didn’t I want to stay at this adorable historic Art Deco hotel where we would hole up and rarely leave the bed?

So we went to Toronto, even though we did not have the money to pay for this lovely hotel. The trip there was challenging too. The landing was delayed. They had to de-ice the plane. Because the night before we arrived Toronto suffered the worst ice storm in decades.  Luckily our hotel was one of the rare spots with power and was a good base from which to explore.  We slipped along the icy sidewalks, ate Indian food, looked at art, and watched a movie daily. This went on for four fabulous days. On Christmas Eve we snuggled together watching the French film “Amore.” Then the fire alarm started blasting. We quickly dressed. Put on our parkas and headed downstairs.  There we discovered there was no fire, just water!  A pipe had burst in the dining room and water was pounding the vinyl-covered seats, then geysering onto the gorgeous art deco marble dining room floor. “Oh no!” The attendant shouted as he got on the phone to the fire department, the hotel owner, and generally scampered about – the alarm blaring at a seemingly increased decibel with every second.

Then the Canadian fire men and women arrived with their industrial strength overalls carrying hoses.

“You got a pipe burst here, eh?” one of them asked. One by one they left the fire engine, examined the dining room, quickly filling up like a swimming pool. “No need for a fire alarm here, eh?”

The hotel attendant finally turned off the alarm, the fireman turned off the water in the hotel, and we all stood around, peering at the mess.  “Guess you won’t be staying here tonight, eh?” One firewoman observed.

So we packed up our things, and were shuttled to another fancy hotel, and were pleased when the first one covered the bill. The bathroom had radiant heat in the floor, the robes were cozy, the bed king-sized and featured down pillows, a featherbed and comforter. We longed for our funky place, but were happy to have the experience of two hotels on our brief getaway.

The attendant told Michael there would be no charge, considering our hardship at their hotel, and then having to leave. Upon returning to Philly, Michael corresponded with him again, and we realized that it wasn’t just that night that was being comped, but rather our entire time at the hotel! In fact there was no charge for anything!

We found a way to have an amazing trip and didn’t have to pay for the hotel. So when people say to me they don’t have money to pay for what they really wish they could have, I remind them that if they are willing to create it,  there may be a way to manifest it, albeit in an unexpected or soggy way.

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Excited And Trepidatious About My Annenberg Show

Performing Ruth At Essene, November 2014

Performing Ruth At Essene, November 2014, Photo By Alex Lowy

When I was 16 years old my mother took me to see “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life,” starring Lily Tomlin.  As I watched Lily inhabit multiple personae, the audience absorbed in the many layers of her invented world, I heard a voice from deep inside me  say “I do that!”  For the past several years I’d been performing  on the Speech and Debate team at Stuyvesant HS, inhabiting a number of characters in 10 minute play excerpts as an opportunity to show off my range. But watching Tomlin inspired a whole new possibility of what was possible for me as a performer.

Thus began my 27 year journey to what may be the most important one-woman show performance of my life. In March 2015 I will be performing Dirty Joke, at The Annenberg Center For The Arts. I was chosen to perform in this prestigious venue because this year they are featuring the solo performer. So far the first one-woman show has been presented starring Mary Tuomanen, next they will feature dancer, Amy Lynne Barr, and in February poet, Ursula Rucker. The purpose of the series is to put an end to the idea that one person shows are not engaging.  I will be the closing act in this By Local series and although, it is not until March, I need to start preparing now.

I have been performing full-length, original one woman shows for the past 20 years. My first at The Samuel Beckett Theatre on theatre row featured characters based on the type of people that I grew up with in my neighborhood. “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” also debuted one of my original characters that has become a central character in various shows, Danny.  Danny sexually harasses women in the audience verbally and more often than not, they turn the tables on him, leaving the audience laughing at his comeuppance.

I left NYC to live in Philadelphia 18 years ago. When the original reason for the move no longer existed, I realized I was not done with Philly.  It was the perfect place to live as an artist and create new works while also enjoying a comfortable lifestyle. I loved the fact that I could perform for such appreciative audiences.  As a highly  practical person, I stayed!

I created a new show just about every year from 1997-2006. In addition, I toured throughout the country, to colleges and women’s theatre festivals. I performed a mix of stand-up comedy and original characters. I made strangers laugh and reflect on challenging issues with my shows. I loved to tell people “I am a one-woman show.” I loved to entertain, educate and inspire people and I often did.

Then I had my daughter Lily. Guess what? She is not named after Ms. Tomlin, but rather my grandfather – who was named Lily! Okay, his name was Lou, but you get the point. I devoted most of my waking moments to being with Lily and creating our incredible relationship.  During this time I also continued to coach women and men all around the world, book voice overs, while producing three original, one woman shows and a play with a cast of seven actresses.  I have not, however, fully devoted myself to sharing my solo work on the level I’d like to achieve.

This booking at The Annenberg Center represents so much for me. It represents going to the next level, it represents being valued as an artist in my city, Philadelphia, it represents being a leader and inspiration for women, the elderly, activists and artists since the show champions all of those, and it represents my paying homage to my incredible grandfather who told me many of these dirty jokes starting from the time I was three. I am using the dirty joke as a way to bring attention to the inequity suffered by women, the elderly, and activists who I believe are heroes meant to inspire all of us.

I always said I wanted to have a show great enough to tour and eventually have a run in NYC at a reputable theatre. This engagement represents that, and now that it is getting closer I am feeling excited and nervous. What if I can’t get ready in time? What if the show is not as strong as I want it to be? What if I am not as good as I want to be? What if the audience does not come? What if this doesn’t change my career and I still live in semi-obscurity? What if this changes everything and I begin at last to really contribute to empowering people in a bigger way with my art and entertainment?

I am overwhelmed by all these questions, my fears, my hopes, my doubts. And on some level I am ready to begin this process too. I have been training for decades to be the woman and performer I am now.

The Annenberg Center show is not just a booking to me. It is the beginning of my biggest dreams coming true.

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I was never interested in being a teacher, not me!

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I grew up in a house with parents who were teachers for the NYC Board of Education. They both worked hard. Yes, they had summers off so they could write, but the rest of the year I watched them struggle with thankless jobs. My Dad was out of the house by 6:00am and on the subway to his job as Assistant Principal at a city high school. He tried his best, dealing with substandard teachers during the day and grading papers at night. My mother was a second grade teacher and put in her time until she was able to log enough years to collect a pension. She earned a PhD at 50 and is now a psychotherapist, which is work she loves!

As a child I often felt like I was in a classroom. We read poetry aloud at the dinner table. Every point mattered on an exam. (My mother still edits this blog!) My grandmother, a public school teacher herself, also knew German so I went out of my way to learn it in college. No one told me to do any of these extras, I just felt that it was expected. If your parents are teachers you just internalize being a good student. I never once thought of being a teacher myself.

But guess what? As I stood at the Kimmel Center last semester to greet my students for the Spring semester of the Showstoppers! program, I realized I can’t pretend that I’m not a teacher anymore. I am a “teaching artist,” (just like the other amazing staff: Reggie Pindell, Jaquetta Colson, Manisha Modi and Carol Frazier) but guess what? That means I AM A TEACHER. In fact I am always teaching in coaching sessions, and I’ve had to teach during all the years I taught theatre in elementary schools, prisons and colleges. As a mother I am explaining and teaching countless times every single day.

There’s something about the current group of SHOWSTOPPERS! students that is really rare. They are so talented, keen to learn, and have the best spirits. I adore working with them. They watch us set the bar very high for them. They freak out. Then they surpass the goals we set for them. They have made me so proud that I want to shout from the rooftops “I teach these kids!”

I never realized that I could be a teacher on my own terms, where I enjoy every moment of the experience. I love learning, engaging in ideas and debate, but I always called it other things. Now I realize it is a bigger part of me than I ever acknowledged before — and I love it! This is both shocking and exciting to me.

Is there something in your life you have rejected as part of your identity? What if you could take just the good parts of it and leave the rest? If you could integrate that into your life now, what would it be?

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