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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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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9 Short Days Away From FringeArts “Dirty Joke”

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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

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New picture and new Press Release for the 2013 Philadelphia FringeArts

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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. 

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