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

Image

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?

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dinner Together

I heard some therapists speaking on NPR. They reported that dinner with family was the most important thing you can do to foster a positive relationship with your kids and keep them off drugs. I immediately felt guilty. 

It’s hard for me to have dinner with my whole family. I drive my 6 year old daughter, Lily, to her acting class 2x a week which cuts into an early dinner time. My husband often travels, or works late so he is not around. I have coaching clients from 5pm-8pm. As it is my stepdaughter and granddaughter have to eat at 4:30 before I go to work so as not to disturb my work schedule.

So I can’t have family dinner, which made me mad at the NPR therapists. What do they know anyway? I start building a case for why they’re wrong: what if family dinner consists of “Hey asshole, pass the creamed spinach.” How is that good? Or what if you have to answer to “Why did you wear that awful sweater??!” And after a long day what if the family says  “I hate this food, why don’t you ever make something I want?” And if everyone is on their mobile devices I might lose it and scream “Look at me when I’m talking to you!!” Will that make them want to talk with me about the inner machinations of their lives? And I can picture Lily with her head in her hands sighing: “These meals are always such a disappointment.”

Is that really  going to keep kids off drugs or send them reeling to them?

I think there may be more to it than just getting everyone together for dinner. At least that’s what I’m telling myself so I can feel a little bit better.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

New Year’s Resolution

My 6 year old daughter Lily and I were sick all last week. We caught the bug from my granddaughter who attends pre-school, or as I like to refer to it, the petri dish. We got sick of being sick inside so we ventured out to Whole Foods to infuse ourselves with the illusion of well-being.

We spied an employee dishing out cupcakes, and as Lily dipped into the chocolate raspberry confection the woman, Joy, explained. “My New Year’s resolution is to have no meat!”

I told her, “I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.”

Lily confided “My mommy has been a vegetarian for 28 years.”

I shared some tips for how to keep meat free and Joy was delighted.

That night I declared I was done being sick. It had been an excruciating week.

“Is that your New Year’s resolution?” Lily asked.

“You mean like Joy’s is no meat and mine is not getting sick?”

She nodded. Smiling knowingly that she’d somehow gotten me to make a resolution after all.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Showstoppers!

In late September, when my series of shows for FringeArts was over, my attention turned to another exciting project on the horizon.

This past April I was blessed to perform at PIFA (Philadelphia International Festival of The Arts) which is hosted by the Kimmel Center. As a result, I was invited by the Kimmel Center’s Education Department to serve as a resident teaching artist.

Carol Frazier (manager of education), Manisha Modi (education administrator), and I met several times over the summer, and decided we wanted to address budget cuts and how they affect arts education for students in the Philadelphia School District. Twenty-three schools have been closed and innumerable teachers and staff laid off, and the arts appear to be a luxury that is vulnerable and easily cut from budgets.

So we decided to devise a presentation to funders, championing the Kimmel Center as a place to keep arts education alive and well in Philadelphia. We’re calling the program “Showstoppers!” 

Staff includes the incomparable Reginald Pindell (Professor at U of Arts, and Broadway veteran) for vocal instruction, Jaquetta Colson (Living Arts Dance and international dance ambassador) for choreography, and me for acting, comedy and script development. After rigorous auditioning of dozens of students from all kinds of high schools over the last 2 Saturdays in September, the chosen performers met for the first time this past Tuesday at the Kimmel Center.

What a thrill! 45 students who can sing, act and dance who together are performing a show about how they are artists and are going to change our city. Jaquetta Colson inspired students to lift others several feet off the ground to “defy gravity,” Reggie Pendell energized the group to resonate with 45 booming voices, and I encouraged the students to experience what it is to be a committed actor and laugh along the way. I leaned over to Carol Frazier, an accomplished pianist and vocalist, and whispered “There is such a great feeling of spirit in here.” She nodded and smiled with pride. Every one of the students was doing their best. They want to dazzle, make a difference, and learn.

Sometimes people ask me what will allow them to truly be happy. They look to things, accomplishments, and family. I did not go looking for this experience, but it is a natural high I cannot quite describe. To make a difference in the face of negativity, despair and poverty consciousness — to affirm the creativity of young adults while they still believe their creativity matters, and to collaborate with such high caliber artists as these teaching artists and staff, has me feel that we are indeed changing our world. 

One review of my “Dirty Joke” show said I provide “comedy with a conscience.” This week I feel gratified to indeed marry social justice and comedy in this way, helping to activate these students and make a lasting difference in Philadelphia.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

9 Short Days Away From FringeArts “Dirty Joke”

_MG_7937

Today was a typical day in my life, 9 short days away from the FringeArts performances of “Dirty Joke:”

7am: Get my daughter to her first day of school.

8am: Coach my first client.

9am: Leave for an audition.

10am: Have audition at Voicebox.

10:45: Back to coach another session.

11:45 Pick up my daughter and enjoy play time during which we make each other laugh.

1-4pm: Rehearse my show “Dirty Joke.”

4-6m: Fun/Play time with Lily who insists on dancing one particular number from my show 33 times. I then make her, my husband and myself dinner.

6-8pm: Coach 2 more clients

8pm: Write this blog.

In the midst of this (4:48pm) my stepdaughter’s boyfriend asks “Jennifer, how do you stay positive all the time?” This really took me off guard because I don’t believe that I am positive all the time. When I admitted as much he said “Seriously, I would pull my hair out over just half the things I watch you go through everyday.”

I received the recognition and explained “Well we have to give without expecting anything. If we do that it becomes about the giving and not the getting. And I know that it will probably require 4,788 actions for me to achieve just one of my goals. With that in mind, I proceed, knowing the smaller goal is to do just another thing on the roster and whittle that 4,788 things to do down to 4,787.  Sometimes I get freaked out  that I don’t have enough time, so I just do my best to proceed, knowing I I may not be able to do anything to change it anyway.”

He said “Jennifer, I wish I could be like that. I wish I were patient about it all like you.” I told him, “Start collecting evidence for how you are all the things you wish you were. Get aware of how you already are patient. Notice how you are reliable right now. The biggest dirty joke we play on ourselves is thinking that someone else has what we ourselves wish we had. So start affirming that you do indeed have it, and over time it will start to take root in you and you won’t have to work so hard to see it inside yourself.”

I admitted that I also get a lot of energy from the fact that I am just 9 days away from my show at FringeArts. Today in rehearsal my director Vashti taught me how to speak “like a black girl who went to private school,” and I was able to pull it off.

Hope you can make it to my FringeArts show to see how I pull everything together. Tix at www.jenniferblaine.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New picture and new Press Release for the 2013 Philadelphia FringeArts

Image

JENNIFER BLAINE PLAYS 1 WISECRACKING GRANDMA AND 8 FAMOUS ACTIVISTS IN TIMELY NEW SHOW DIRTY JOKE

 July 24, 2013 – Jennifer 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 newest one-woman show “Dirty Joke” as part of the 2013 FringeArts festival. 

 Performances will take place Saturday, September 14 (4 p.m.), Sunday, September 15 (5 p.m.) and Tuesday, September 17 (8 p.m.) at the Off Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 and available at www.jenniferblaine.com

 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. 

 “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” (which also happens to include a man), Jennifer portrays 8 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: President and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group and author of 13 books—twice named to the Time 100;
  • 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 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;
  • Muhammad Yunus: Nobel Prize-winning “banker to the poor” who established Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, fueled by the belief that credit is a fundamental human right.

Beyond celebrating each individual’s incredible accomplishments, Jennifer brings to life their lesser-known and very relatable struggles, fears, and insights. 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.”

Inspired by one of Jennifer’s relatives, the character of Ruth challenges the audience’s expectations of what an elderly person will say or do. Although she is deeply attached to her home and her intention to keep it, she willingly enters into other character’s worlds and worldviews. Ruth provides the throughline of comic relief because, as Jennifer explains, “Laughter is a gateway to talking and thinking about larger social justice issues.”

“Dirty Joke” marks Jennifer’s fourth collaboration with director and fellow Wesleyan University graduate Vashti Dubois — who conceived of and produced the critically acclaimed 2012 Philly Fringe show “EvictionProof PeepShow Home.” Vashti co-founded the Mumbo Jumbo Theatre Company in NYC in the 1980s, championing female artists of color such as actresses Lisa Gay Hamilton (Beloved) and Hazel Goodman (Deconstructing Harry), and playwrights Lynn Nottage and Adrienne Kennedy. 

Explains Vashti, “’Dirty Joke’ allows us to see what Jennifer does best, which is inhabit the personalities and stories of ordinary and extraordinary people to connect all of us to some of the most interesting thinking that’s out there.”

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 Festivalwhich showcases the creativity of women artists in all media. In that spirit, for FringeArts, Jennifer and Vashti are employing as many women artists as possible including the set designer, publicist, make-up artist, stage manager, and costume designer. 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What It Takes To Be A Success: Cultivating Tenacity, No Matter What

Last summer I was invited to audition for a series of voiceovers for an Atlantic City casino (I won’t be naming names). It was during the worst heat wave of the summer, 98 degrees in the shade. But I was committed to getting there to audition, and I got permission for my daughter, 5, to accompany me because she is interested in learning about the business of acting.

I got the script and it was inventive and playful. I gave an initial read of the copy (an insider’s term for script), took feedback, and did my best to give the producers what they wanted. I looked at my daughter and her stuffed animal through the glass of the recording booth. She held up a thumb’s up. Everyone was really happy with my work. The studio kept me there, requesting various multiple reads. I felt great about my chances. It turns out I was the only person even asked to audition for the part.

Guess what?

I did not get the part. No one did. If you visit the website you can see an infomercial which features gorgeous models shopping, going to the spa, gambling, and getting into bed, along with fun upbeat music. But there is no voice to read the fabulous copy I used at the audition.

So what lesson can I take from this ego-bruising experience?

Sometimes we do our best and it doesn’t pan out. That is part of the process. I think the word process is key here. The universe sometimes puts events in our lives to just see whether we are only committed to getting results, or if we are committed to continuing to show up and be in the process, no matter what. If I look at it in terms of process, I am honored to have been able to audition at all. I am glad I got to take my daughter to work. And I am grateful for the opportunity to lend my voice, be part of a creative process.

Sometimes the reward is just showing up and giving. If we do that with grace we develop the tenacity to be able to stay in the creative process for the long haul.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Focus

I am a fan of The National Theater in London. Laurence Olivier was the first artistic director and its main stage is named in his honor. Productions at The National are unrivaled for classic, modern, and avant garde theater. In the summer of 1989 I was watching a production of The Misanthrope by Moliere, a particularly astounding performance. The air-conditioning unit rattled mid-performance, and the actors pressed on, improvising new verses, such as an ode to the air conditioner, so as not to break the reality of the play, but rather to incorporate the distraction. The result was that the play extended out beyond the confines of the stage. I was impressed with one of the actor’s ability to keep the audience focused, even as he struggled to maintain his own.

When the curtain came down, the audience began to applaud. The actor held up his hand to halt it. He said, “We have just learned that Sir Laurence Olivier has died. Please join us in a minute of silence.” We all sat there in the place Olivier had created, appreciating the magic of these actors. It was only later that we discovered they had learned Olivier had died during the intermission. They had to focus and perform, all the while knowing that the person who had made this production, and perhaps even their life paths possible, had just died.

We need to focus as actors as if performing our material is a matter of life or death. I marvel that these artists could do that whether it was in fact a matter of life or death or just a rattling air-conditioner.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The journey begins

ImageOkay. I’m going to declare it here on January 30, 2013. It’s a new year, and I really do have a resolution. I had a great premiere of my new show, DIRTY JOKE, at the end of 2012. I was pleased that the audience “got” the show. They enjoyed Ruth telling dirty jokes, as well as the real-life sheroes whose stories were featured in the play. But once the smoke cleared, I knew that I would have to do all kinds of re-writing and reconceiving in order to make the show what Vashti Dubois (my director) and I believe it could be: the show that best represents my work as a one-woman show, one that combines comedy, diverse characters, and social justice into a perfect Jennifer Blaine cocktail.

So what is the resolution? The resolution is to make the show ready for prime time. I am embarking on the journey to take this show to NYC for an extended run.

NYC is my original home. I grew up on the theater in NYC. Vashti Dubois also grew up on NYC theatre. We are both from Brooklyn, and although we have made our homes in Philadelphia, we still speak Brooklyn. Having our work of art run in New York City is our grand vision. This is the big dream, and we are moving toward it.

Over the next months, and perhaps years, I will be updating everyone on my progress on this journey. So far I am immersed in taking the show apart and completely re-writing it with Ruth’s story woven into the text. As Vashti commented, “up until now Ruth has hidden behind her jokes. No more of that.” There is now an additional storyline I am integrating into the play, as well as including whatever else Ruth wants the world to know.

I had originally wanted to take the show to NYC this year, but my publicist Karen Gross cautioned me to be really ready before doing so, so I decided to focus on re-writing, then perhaps performing it for an invitation-only-audience in the late Spring, and then in the Fall rolling it out for a proper Philadelphia run at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I thought if I do all that, then perhaps I will see whether the show is really ready, or may need some further tinkering and touring to get the kinks out.

But guess what? Last Friday, as I drove my daughter to an all-day camp so I would have a writing day to work on the show, I received a call from Vashti that “Dirty Joke” was being considered for The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. I hunkered down and wrote my proposal and hours later I was confirmed as having a place in this prestigious festival hosted by The Kimmel Center. I felt like I was back in the saddle. Prior to having my daughter almost 6 years ago, I would tour and partake in festivals. I can feel that old self coming back to meet me, like a friend who is ready to walk the same path together after being separated for so long. I will write more about the performance and workshop as it approaches.

I am not sure how this goal will ultimately resolve itself, but I will keep sharing the process. So far, so good. If all goes as planned, perhaps at the end of the winter, this caterpillar will emerge from its cocoon, holding her show with one wing, marketing materials in the other, and be ready to fly — though in a form she might not recognize herself.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Penthouse Truck

There are a number of mobile ads for strip clubs that circulate throughout Philadelphia. Some are for the Penthouse Club, some are for Delilah’s Strip Club, some are on the sides of buses, some are actually vehicles with a designated billboard devoted to advertising the venue, but no matter how many times I see them, I am shocked.

It was one thing to see magazines on newsstands when I was an adolescent growing up in NYC. I might spy a woman, breasts on display, demanding I peek to see what else might be available. The fact that “woman as sexual object” was largely confined to the newsstand gave me some kind of comfort. Nowadays I am invaded by images of these women in their fantastically clad but still pornographic poses. There I am driving, thinking about some truly important problem, and along comes (no pun intended) the Penthouse truck, and I swear it hijacks my attention. It actually stops traffic, it causes children to point and ask premature questions, and most importantly as a woman artist it makes me lose my train of thought. I even start devoting a blog post to the Penthouse truck! I start to wonder, “Is that young woman in the picture getting paid well for having her image/ass paraded throughout Philly?” “Or is she paid a flat rate?” “Does her mother know she’s on the truck?” “Did she have to beat out a lot of other ‘girls’ for this job?” “Is she an actual stripper or just a model?”

And of course I think of my own child, and the fact that these women on the truck are gorgeous, and that my daughter, also gorgeous, loves fashion, seeing attractive women in pretty outfits, and has not yet asked what these images are all about. We sometimes pass the window display for a clothing store, and the grand gowns beckon her. “I love that Mommy,” she says “can’t you just see me in that?” I don’t want her to make the same leap when she sees the strip club ads, and gets the notion that that is what it’s like to be a beautiful woman. I know it’s just a matter of time before she brings up the Penthouse truck.

Apart from the fact that it feels like a gross invasion of public space, what really upsets me about the Penthouse truck? I wish there were images of women like Sonia Sotomayor, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the side of the truck. I wish we walked down the street and could learn about Elizabeth Caddy Stanton by reading the side of a bus. I wish we would hear the stories of what it took for these women to really achieve …… in the world, and could learn about the myriad paths women take to make a difference in the world. I want to hear and see the stories about women that are so beautiful in what they are DOING that I can’t stop staring at them and how beautiful they are. And so I guess I have to admit, that when it comes to these ads, I’m not really bothered by the nudity, it’s the narrowness of how it teaches us to look at women’s beauty, when the reality is we could never exhaust its true depth.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized