Interview with Musician Heather Schmid About New Album Transformations

 

Heather Schmid is a classically trained opera singer who has worked around the globe as not only a singer but also a television host, philanthropist and spokesperson. She recently released a new album, called Transformations, that serves a beautiful reflection on the last three years of her spent touring Pakistan.

“The songs highlight the heart-stopping experiences, true grace, life, death, and humanity as she promoted world unity throughout Pakistan.  The lyrics on the album were written by Pakistani legend Anwaar Magsood and the melody by Ashaad Mehmood.  Phelay Hum Pakistani Hay fused the American pop rhythms with Pakistani regional instruments and local musician melodies.  … Heather is a new-breed, millennial performer. Within our extant global community, Heather envisions her music as the bridge that can span cultural differences and connect people in their over-arching sameness.”

Heather shares more in our interview:

heather-schmid

What does Transformation mean to you?
Transformation to me equals change so dramatic that you are never again the same. I think of Life never being the the same after a transformation. To me, transformation is growth. That’s why I named this album Transformations. After the past three years, I was transformed. I will never be the same person. I am changed forever because of dramatically positive and dramatically difficult struggles that I faced and I hope I am strong and better because of it. 
How did you come to spend the past 3 years in Pakistan?
When I was a sophomore at Boston University as a music student, I went to Kenmore Square to learn how to meditate in a hotel conference room. As it turns out, on this night there was only one other person who also wanted to learn how to meditate. That was Rafay, and he was originally from Pakistan. Rafay and I are soul mates that traveled thousands of miles together and plan to travel thousands more. We were married in Pakistan among all of our relatives and I have traveled there ever since. Three years ago we decided to create a Unity Project in Pakistan to talk about Unity and celebrate the positive aspects of the nation. It was our hope to reignite a peaceful dialogue between our two nations. 
Amazing! What is one stand out experience in Pakistan that has affected you?
There were moments in Pakistan that were quite harrowing, but that is never what I focus on. I remember the deeply rewarding positive interactions with everyday Pakistanis. Finishing the Unity song, performing in Pakistan, meeting and hearing the positive responses to the music is the greatest, most rewarding thing of my music career. 
After the Unity song was released and become popular on the radio, TV and social media, I started to hear from people on the streets of Pakistan. Many talked about how the song was meaningful to them and how much it meant that in the middle of such negative press about their country, this was something that they could feel proud of. I was in a hotel lobby when a few medical school students eloquently expressed their reaction to the song. They detailed their feelings of despair with the current environment in Pakistan, how dangerous it was because of terrorism. Students credited the song with helping to ease their feelings of helplessness and shame. 
What global issues are of most concern for you personally? 
Access to Education is a very important issue to me.  I mean… I can’t solve the world’s problems but I can help with education. In Pakistan, I see firsthand how lack of education perpetuates poverty. Kids that cannot read street signs are taken advantage of. Parents without enough education take their children out of school to help feed the family. Education is a pathway for a better life for generations. Even for me, educated myself about the cycle of poverty provides a much deeper understanding and hopefully keeps me from perpetuating subconscious biases. But nobody want to hear from a singer how she “educated myself out of my biases” blah blah blah… I was never the popular girl I will tell you that!
You were educated in music through Boston University. How has your classical training at BU influenced your career? 
Classical Training means freedom and autonomy to me. I never had to rely on a producer to arrange a track for me. I could read music, write and arrange parts and open up pro-tools session and do it myself. If I had a great musical idea, I could write it down and arrange the parts mentally and sketch out the idea to see if it was any good. 
I could sing any style of music because I had the classical training which provides a solid foundation vocally. I have the range to sing any part because I trained my voice for so long. I never had to wait for a song to come along that I could sing on. I never had to beg a producer to work with me. As an artist, when inspiration strikes, you want to be able to fulfill your musical vision. That is all possible with my classical training. 
In China I learned and wrote music in Mandarin because of the language learning in opera school. When I was asked to perform and sing with an orchestra, we spoke the same language. Rhythms, beats, measures and notes was our universal language. 
The other thing is, I own all of my own music. If I could not write, produce and arrange, which I learned from my classical training, I would be at the mercy of the owner of the tracks. 
You also had a TV show in China, right? How does your TV show influence or tie in with your work as a musician? 
The Ambassador was a show on CCTV in China. It followed my live shows, meeting locals, exploring the fun local tourist spots, also the charity that each show benefited. It was so friggin’ cool. I loved every minute of my touring life in China. It was basically a travel show, combined with a reality show, combined with my life as a touring artist. I learned how, as the only American in a region, you become a Music Diplomat almost by accident. It definitely seemed like local people were judging my actions to form their opinions about all Americans. I learned I better watch what I say! I definitely learned about music diplomacy through this show. It is what influenced The Unity Project in Pakistan. 
transformations
What is your favorite song off Transformations?
Journey. That cello line seduced me. I am the snake with swirls in my eyes slowly uncoiling from the charmer’s wicker basket with that cello line. I’m done. The lyrics are brutally honest. I feel my own relentless anxiety fade away into peace through that song. It’s like a therapy session. Then I go back into my wicker basket and say “what just happened?” 
What is the process of working with Anwaar Maqsood and Ashaad Mehmood on these songs?
Working with Anwaar Maqsood and Ashaad Mehmood was like being in the presence of greatness and just trying to soak it all in. They call Anwaar Maqsood the Shakespeare of Pakistan because he is such a legend. He is brilliant and smart and hilarious all at the same time. He has produced TV shows, songs, movie scripts, poetry for more than 40 years in Pakistan the whole time poking fun of the government  in a smart articulate way.
It is no easy task to be an artist in Pakistan.  There is virtually no support for artists in the nation. In a country with a history of martial law, military takeovers, widespread corruption, and terrorism; artists struggle on every level. Their forward-thinking mindset is welcome and persecuted at the same time. How can anyone think of inspiring, articulate, creative phrasing when they are worried about road closures and whether their family is safe? Ashaad Mehmood runs the only Cultural Arts School in the whole country. The stories they told as artists in Pakistan were inspirational, difficult to hear, and deeply moving all at the same time. 
So powerful! What do you hope listeners will take away from the album?
Transformations is about connection … higher connection, universal connection, ancestral connection, spiritual connection. I hope the words, struggles and resolutions are universal. It is what helped me recover from failure, struggle and disappointment. I hope we make a connection through the music. 
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San Francisco Fringe Festival Plays and Performances

fringe program cover 5.5x8.5

I went to a Fringe Festival play the first year that I lived here in San Francisco. I had met a potential date online, on Craigslist because it was used for it back then, and we met for a play. I recall that it was some kind of science fiction thing that also had to do with Elvis and that I didn’t like it at all. I recall even less about my date who I didn’t see again. But even though the date was a flop and the choice of play a miss, I loved living in a city with Fringe Fest. I remember that I took the cable car home from my date, because I lived in North Beach then, and I felt like there was nothing more romantic than wearing high heels, hanging off of the cable car, going back to the place where I lived with my best friend.

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2016, Fringe Fest

I hadn’t been back to Fringe Fest since, despite loving and attending many local theatre performances throughout the years. Sometimes I think Fringe Fest just passed without my noticing it. Other years there was just too much going on – school or petsitting or travel. Often, there were just other things on the calendar; San Francisco is filled with events through summer and fall and you can only do so many of them in a given year before your emotional and psychological well is too full and you need to rest your mind. So somehow ten years went by and I didn’t attend Fringe Festival again … until this year.

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A Mathematician at Play

The first day of the festival was last weekend, and we went and checked out a performance at Exit Theater called A Mathematician at Play, in which magician / mathematician Greg Tobo shared some inside secrets about how math can seem magical … while also performing magical feats like multiplying huge numbers in his head and filling in a  soduko style puzzle at an advanced level in front of our eyes.

fringe fest

It Came From Fukushima, from Fringe Fest on Flickr

Last night we went and saw two more performances, back-to-back, at PianoFight. The first was It Came From Fukushima, a play inspired by Godzilla-style movies. It has the feel of old detective films with some martial arts and socio-political statements worked in. The program includes the old style of red/blue paper 3d glasses, and although they turn out not to be so necessary, it is fun to put them on. The play begins and ends with intensely beautiful live saxophone music. And it includes a monster. :)

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Queer Heartache

Mathematician and Fukushima were both good enough performances. I didn’t think that they were outstanding but I didn’t dislike them either. I thought they were entertaining. I liked them. But I LOVED Queer Heartache, which was the third performance we saw. New York-based Kit Yan (formerly Laura from Hawaii) is a slam poet sharing his story through spoken word in one of those performances that touches on the political through being in touch with the personal.

queer heartache

Kit uses vignettes from different stages of his own life to reveal to the audience what it has been like to be moving along the gender spectrum, learning about self-identity, figuring out what that means in relationships from dating to family … particularly as a person of color. He shares snippets of life as a child growing up in poverty, as an older sibling trying to set an example for a young brother, as a straight man attending speed dating events, as a genderqueer man dealing with body hair and injury … as a human in various ages and stages approaching life with both seriousness and humor. Warning: this show has some graphic sexuality and even more graphic emotion oozing from between the lines. Raw and honest, sometimes funny, continually authentic, definitely a must-see in my book.

San Francisco Fringe Festival runs for another week. Queer Heartache has two more performances. There are also tons of other great things to see. The fabulous thing about Fringe Fest is that there is something for everyone. Each of the works are unique and different … and they are affordable enough that you can take a risk on a play that is out of your normal comfort zone. Support local theater.

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Impressions From Every Year, One to One Hundred

100-years-book-prager

100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers on Every Year of Your Life is a book that has short quotations about every year of life from birth through age 100. I had flipped through it a few times, checking out the selections for my current age and the ages of some of the people I know and some ages that seemed to be important milestones in my life. But this morning I sat down and read it from cover to cover and discovered that there is something in the reading of it this way that offers more than the sum of its parts.

Joshua Prager carefully curated the selections in this book to meet the criteria that each passage directly state the age it is describing and have information about being that age. Each author in the book is represented only once. In the introduction, he describes how some ages were, of course, easy to find many sayings about and others much more difficult. He also describes how the overall collection reveals the passages of life we all go through, despite individual differences in experience.

Having sat and read through all of the quotations, I saw that clearly. Two passages that sit side-by-side in age may be very different from one another (affected by gender, the era of the author’s life, and individual experience), but taken as a whole, there are clear trends and similarities to what most of us experience in any given age range. We see the ups and downs of childhood and adolescence and twenties and thirties and into eighties and nineties … and we struggle with the same human issues. We struggle with those issues in new ways at seventy compared to forty or twenty, and we have a different understanding of them, and there is a commonality among the shifts between perspectives of different ages.

One thing I thought was interesting was that the selections are all very individual reflections on the experience of being a specific age, without a lot of significant reference to loved ones. Interesting because I think certain ages tend to be equated with family; youth with the impact of parents and middle age with the concern over children, for example. Being 36 and without children myself, seeing so many of the people my age attending to their kids as their primary focus, it struck me that the book reflected individual inner experience rather than an outer concern that may or may not be universal. Either approach would have been suitable; this one struck me as an intentional choice and one that offers broad appeal because the parent could still relate to the thoughts and experiences of the individual inner world.

The book is a beautiful book. It’s got a coffee table book feeling to the design even though it is the size and shape of a hardback novel. There are different colored pages throughout the book. It’s not that each section is a certain color (blue for example can be seen throughout, and each decade has different colors within it) but there is a trend across all of the pages towards certain colors for certain phases of life. Lighter in some areas, brighter in others, black reserved for the very eldest years that are closest to death. There is a lot of white space on each page, a different font/ design for the beginning of each decade (as compared to the years that do not mark decades), and a slight shifting of word placement towards the end of the book. This all leaves an emotional impression about aging that, as I said before, offers more than the sum of the parts.

We all have feelings about aging, feelings that change and shift as we do age, and this book reflects that very human experience in a ways both direct and subtle.

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Katara’s DNA Results Are In. She’s a …. Dachshund Mix?

I got Katara‘s DNA test down (Wisdom Panel 4.0) out of curiosity as to what it would say. Imagine my surprise when I opened the information packet for my 80+ pound dog and the first thing I saw was that she is 12.5% dachshund. Short-haired miniature dachshund to be exact!

katara dna

It was really interesting to take a look at the breakdown. It goes back three generations. At that level, on one side, one great-grandparent is bullmastiff and the other three are unknown mixed breeds. This makes a lot of sense since I know she’s a Tosa (Japanese mastiff) mix and that breed itself was created from a mixture of many other breeds. It probably goes back too many generations to figure it out … could be some bloodhound, Dane, mastiff, pointer … no way to know.

katara ancestry tree

It is the other set of four great grandparents that is know but mixed. On that side, she is equal parts Bulldog, Staffie, Akita, and Dachshund. A lot of that makes sense. She was from a meat farm in South Korea where there are a lot of Asian dogs, obviously, so the Akita comes in there. I can see lots of boxer/ pit bull style traits in her so Staffie makes sense. And I learned something interesting about bulldogs from the ancestry info:

about bulldogs

So it was super interesting to learn about that. And then to see that supposedly her bulldog family member mated with a mini dachshund. Hm. I’ve told her that all 12.5% must have stayed in her ears :) But actually, if this is true, then her keen nose probably comes from the dachshund part of her. And her super unique coloring on her back is more likely to be from the dachshund than any of those other breeds. So interesting!

Whatever she is, she’s 100% lovable. And my life is so much better for having her in it. In fact, I’ve got a post up this week over at Fempotential about how great she has been for me:

katara pet therapy

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Interview with Cabaret Singer Carly Ozard … MORE SHIFT HAPPENS

carly ozard

Carly Ozard is a cabaret singer originally from the Bay Area who is returning her for a one-night only performance of her new show, MORE SHIFT HAPPENS, on August 18th at Feinstein’s at the Nikko. Learn more about Carly and the show from this advance interview!

Carly postcard Webb - More Shift Happens 8-18-16

How does it feel to be returning to SF for this show? 

First of all, thank you so much for granting me this wonderful interview. It feels very welcoming!! I’m really excited to be coming home to the Bay because this collaboration is going to be one of the best we’ve ever had. We have Musical Director Rick Jensen and me from NYC, Drummer Brandon Walters and Guitarist Terrence Brewer and back-up vocalist Jennifer Haber all from San Francisco, and back-up singer Francesca Camus from Las Vegas all on one stage!!!

Is being back bringing up any fond memories? 

My favorite memories about singing in San Francisco are usually with the Richmond Ermet AID Foundation. It’s always such a great evening for a fantastic cause and Ken Henderson and Joe Seilor (the show’s producers) are the best. I also loved working with Russell Blackwood and Scrumbly Koldewyn in the Thrillpeddler’s last season in the Untamed Stage (2016) and want to come back and do a role for them again, like, yesterday.

What are some of the things you’re making sure to see/do/enjoy while you’re here?

While home I’ll frequent Martuni’s and any solo shows or musical theatre productions that I can see as well as score a brunch at Café Klaus!

Awesome choices! There are a lot of local “cabaret” groups and singers … what does this term mean to you? How does it fit your identity as a musical performer?

Truly, I think it’s fantastic. We can always be inspired by people and check out what others are creating. I’m inspired lately by Kat Robichaud’s Misfit Cabaret, and anything that Joe Wicht is involved in is always going to be top notch talent. The Cabaret Showcase Showdown is a wonderful breeding ground for local talent. Oasis has unbelievable projects going on all the time! People are challenging themselves and I think it’s fabulous.

My identity onstage is always evolving (as it is offstage as well); I learn, I grow, and I make mistakes. I learn from them, and build in a different direction. There’s so many more bells and whistles that performers are encouraged to pursue. It’s no longer a singer on a stage with a piano. You need a band. You might need video projections or a costume change, a small set…. Or in NYC, sometimes a theremin.

Yes! Your work is a blend of many things! Mostly, it seems to be a blend of music, comedy and confessional. What can you tell us about the process of writing More Shift Happens? 

My director Kristine Zbornik and I took a lot of self deprecation out and made the first half of the show more of what I call My Own Personal Chorus Line experience. I’m not a dancer – but I am a vocalist who has built a new instrument since moving to NY, and with it, I’ve been able to launch myself towards opportunities that my old singing voice wouldn’t have gotten me. I’ve been in the room where it happens, so to speak…. For Broadway and National Tour Casting, and it’s SCARY. I also think it’s important to enlighten your audience and share with them about the process of graduating from nightclub personality to actress, singer, taking on scripted roles for the first time. That’s the first half of the show. The second half takes us through some travels I experienced as a working performer for the first time. There are wonderful stories, some really tough ones, some that shake you up, and some that reveal some good juicy NY stories. I’m really looking forward to it!

carly ozard photo

Sounds so exciting! So it sounds like your work/ voice changed in the past decade since you launched?

I left San Francisco with a pulled larynx, and atrophied muscles around my chords. I was taken on by Bill Schuman who trains mostly opera singers, and we built a whole new voice. I can belt a high A now comfortably, which has gotten me callbacks for really big projects. I’m in the process of becoming a real honest to God dramatic soprano.

In terms of other changes, the terror I used to experience onstage hoping I would make it through the evening doesn’t happen anymore. The fear has subsided and now I actually can be present onstage and focus on my craft. Acting is hard. I had never been trained. I think a lot of people assumed I knew things when I never really did. When I lost my voice, I lost my identity. When I got my instrument back, it taught me to be grateful for something.

Also, Teachers. If you can’t find the teachers who have your back, KEEP GOING until the best ones find you, and then there it all will be for you….. the right time to learn and the best time to go forward in your next personal steps of growth.

Lastly, NEVER APOLOGIZE. I used to apologize for myself. I used to be insecure with what I brought to the table, and I used to pull an imaginary chair up onstage with me for all my baggage and self hatred. I’ve learned from some pretty blunt and honest influences while living in NY that it’s not helpful and really stunts your growth as well as shuts people out. NEVER APOLOGIZE for who you are onstage today. Accept who you are today, and do your JOB.

Well said. Hard to accomplish but so important. Wonderful! Changing subjects a bit, what is your preferred method of listening to music (other than live)?

I’m LITERALLY blasting my Spotify right now. I will soon be available for streaming, showcasing some great covers with the incredible San Francisco based Ben Prince as well as with EDM engineer Leo Frappier. Also… living in Washington Heights now, I’m blocks from Central Harlem where the best reggae is blasted on the streets and I walk blocks with my Shazam on automatic and get all my favorite beats and get lost in those selections. I love dance and reggae.

What a great experience! What else have you been listening to a lot lately?

Right now, I’m really into some Electric Dance Music like Kaskade- they’re fantastic to listen to, and I love Aloe Blacc, Avicii, Armin Van Buuren, and Local Drag Phenomenon Pollo Del Mar turned me onto Zoe Badwi. I also flood my playlists with a lot of Burning Spear, Bob Marley and the Wailers and underground reggae artists who I discover left and right now that I live near Harlem. OH AND PAROV STELAR. Have you heard his music???? It’s like…. Swing Techno. It’s my FAVORITE THING to blast when I’m getting ready for some Burning Man or Drag Event that needs a costume.  I’m also becoming more familiar with Country Music. I’m really into Reba, Carrie Underwood, and of course following my favorite show Nashville. I’m also really getting into Aretha Franklin. I’ve been singing a lot of her hits with a huge band at the Friar’s Club here in NYC.

What a terrific collection of different influences. … More Shift Happens includes back up singers, directors and musicians … how do you approach collaboration with other creative people?

I’m so excited that Francesca Camus is joining us. She’s really a solo artist but I’m so grateful to work with her again. We went to college together and she is another one who has built her voice up to be a MACHINE. Jenn Haber besides being my bff is always the most professional backup singer and she gets it DONE. Both girls know how to SING. How I approach collaborations is with a lot of drop box and voice memo recordings, lol. We get parts plunked and sheet music pdf’d, and then I pay everyone everything. Rick Jensen is one of the most seasoned professionals in the business and he used to play at the Plush Room at the York Hotel with the infamous late Nancy LaMott so I am honored to have him in the music director seat. Terrence Brewer is a notorious guitarist in the Bay Area, so it’s really a gift to have him onstage with me. Brandon Walker and I haven’t met yet but I hear awesome things about his drumming skills.

Fabulous. It’s so great how the various technologies available to us today can be used to make so many things come to life. What is something you want us to know about More Shift Happens before we go see it?

This is one of the hardest shows I’ve ever done. I’m taking you to Broadway. I’m taking you to Nashville, Puerto Vallarta, San Francisco, back to NY all on one planet, while simultaneously acknowledging huge life-altering circumstances that come to shake us all up. It’s really a more universal project than it is about me me me. Come relate, enjoy and be entertained.

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WhimSea! And Kat Robichaud’s Misfit Cabaret Album on Kickstarter

kat

Last week I went to a beautiful performance at The Great Star Theater, my favorite theater, to see Kat Robichaud and the Misfit Cabaret. I loved every moment of the Thursday night Whim-Sea show, and it was my intention to do a post at the time to let more people to know that they must go see it that weekend before it closed. Good intentions, and all that … all I managed to do was get a few social media posts up hoping to send people to check it out, and to share the photos that I took with a reviewer from SFist. But it’s not too late to share, because the two original songs that Kat performed were my two favorites of the night and they are going to be available on her next album, which is in Kickstarter funding right now. So, let me tell you a little about the show and then some more about the Kickstarter.

WhimSea

whimsea

Whimsea was a cabaret performance inspired by the sea so it was filled with mermaids, modern sea shanties and references to underwater-related things from olden times to pop culture. The whole thing was hosted by Kat who was the undeniable star of the show but gave great stage space to a variety of other performers.

(If you’re asking yourself is it that Kat Robichaud, yes, of course it is her because there could be no other. She did perform on The Voice where she did a great job but it’s really much, much more of a joy to see her up close and personal where she’s doing creative stage work in a way that seems so much more authentic to who she is. Not that I know her, but that’s the sense I get from watching her perform.)

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From Kat’s Instagram

In any case, I absolutely agree with Joe over at SFist when he writes,  “Her act seamlessly fuses the jazz chanteuse and screwball comedy genres that have no business working so well together.” And I agree with the two star acts he named – Carnie Asada is endlessly hilarious and Frankie Fictitious is stunningly beautiful – but I disagree with his assessment that the other variety acts were somehow not up to par. The music from Rabbit Quinn and Justin Seagrave couldn’t be more different from each other and yet somehow they worked in the same performance, separated by various acts, loosely hanging together with a theme of the sea, each lending their individual musicianship to the overall perfect ebb and flow of the night.

carnie asada

But, as I said before, Kat is really the star of the show. Her voice is amazing, and it’s not just that, it’s that she is a true performance artist. She’s funny and charming and sassy and her costume changes are fabulous (plus she supports local artists and costume designers with them). She created two new original songs for the show, both of which I fell in love with. One is in honor of David Bowie, and it has the perfect tune and lyrics to exactly express why he should be honored. The other is The Last Waltz of The Wrights, which was amazing not just for the song but for the Whimsea stage performance in which two dancers dramatically perform a rock waltz about a romantic murder-suicide. It gave me chills.

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From Kickstarter

I loved it. I love everything about Kat and her Misfits and I love everything about Great Star Theater, where they will be performing again in October for a two night show called A Very Bloody Misfit Cabaret.

Kickstart the Album

And as I mentioned, the two original Whimsea songs that I loved are going to be on an upcoming album currently on Kickstarter. It includes eight other songs from different performances. I was only able to pledge a small amount to get the music and some small bonuses but there are some awesome artistic and performance prizes at the higher donation levels … and I happen to know firsthand from my own crowdsourced funding, first through Indiegogo for Hook to Heal and now through Patreon for ongoing work, that even the smallest amount you are able to donate is truly helpful to individual artists in getting their work out there. Support amazing creative work!

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Female Veterans Surviving Homelessness Together – Low Hanging Fruit is a Compelling Play

low hanging fruit poster

Compelling. That is the word that keeps coming to mind as I think of Low Hanging Fruit, the play I saw last night at Z Below that tells the stories of so many people through the characters of just a few.

I described Low Hanging Fruit in a preview post last month, based upon a press release I’d received and what I could read about it online. As I look back on that post, I see that it was surprisingly accurate. Typically, when I see something, it differs considerably from the press release but in this case, a lot of what I felt during the play was already captured in that initial writing. This speaks to something I loved about the play – that care was truly given to each detail of the work, all the way down to the press release description. Everything  worked perfectly together – from the characters to the space to the makeup to the music selections. It seems no detail went unnoticed in the making of this play.

Compelling. I come back to this again because it is the one thing that couldn’t be conveyed in a press release. And although I’ll try to capture it here, it’s the thing that you really have to go see the play to understand. I see a lot of local events – theatre and comedy and burlesque and circus and music – and I generally find most of them enjoyable. I laugh and I think and I get inspiration … but it is rare that I find something truly compelling, see something so gripping that I am taken out of the whirling that is my mind, pause my thinking to experience the intensity of the moment – only to be filled with thoughts hours later of moments in the play. Low Hanging Fruit did that for me.

You can learn the plot of the story from my earlier review, so I won’t repeat that here, but do want to note that a surprising number of themes and issues and metaphors and experiences were conveyed in the short amount of time that these characters took the stage. Four of the characters are female veterans, and we learn about different experiences that happen in wartime, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the return to life afterwards. Some of these experiences cross generations, as hinted at but the Joni Mitchell music and folk songs early in the play that harken back to the struggles of Vietnam War. Some of these are unique to this generation of soldier, and more unique still to the experience of women in the military. As Cory tells her story of sexual assault at the hands of her superior, I immediately think of a recently Viceland Woman episode about the epidemic of rape among women in the US military. Her story is one story and many stories.

In addition to (and within) the multi-faceted layers of the military story, the play conveys stories of homelessness – stories of addiction, of the red tape of trying to get help from the VA, of prostitution, of childhood abuse and abuse in adulthood, of runaways, of women who are mothers and daughters, of PTSD and generalized trauma and flashbacks and wanting to remember and wanting to forget. Each of these women have their own ways of dreaming about a better future while fighting for their immediate survival.

The women live together in an encampment they’ve created for themselves, for women only, veterans only, to stick together because there is “safety in numbers”. They are a family of sorts, a family caught in the kind of high stress environment that leads to dysfunction. Through various scenes we see the utmost tenderness and care between them, and we also see terrifying violence amongst them. You can see that they hate to have to need each other and hate what they see in one another that is a reflection of the self but they love that they have one another and share a compassion for one another born out of similar experiences and needs.

low hanging fruit

Heather Gordon, Cat Brooks, Livia Demarchi in Low Hanging Fruit. Photo credit: Mario Parnell Photography.

I can’t say enough about the talents and skills of each of the individual women who play the four veterans. They embodied their characters so well it is difficult to believe they were ever anyone else off that stage. Each unique, each sharing her story in her own way, each so powerful.

The character of Canyon, the teenage runaway who comes to stay and causes some friction amongst the group, is an interesting one. In the first half of the play, she is adorable and you can’t help but feel for her. As time went on, I began to find her character saccharine and got almost annoyed with her naiveté, a story that didn’t ring true for me as I mused upon the young teenage girls I’d known in similar situations. Then her character takes a turn and the whole thing makes sense again. Well done. And I have to note here something I should have said at the beginning – actress Jessica Waldman has a stunning crystal clear voice that opens the show with song.

The lone male character in the play, a young pimp, brings another dimension to the narrative. The play is about the women and their lives and relationships; but women’s relationships rarely exist outside of the stories they have intertwined with men and so this character’s small role is a critical one. And although his own story is never addressed, one has to wonder how he came to be where he is as well, a man among women who could easily be his mothers and sisters.

The play is captivating. But it’s not always easy to watch. My heart raced many times. The characters yell with passion, the sound effects get loud (appropriately, rightly, like in a movie theater where it has to be this way and it makes it impossible for you to think of anything else). A police shooting scene caused a change to my heartbeat and breathing, too  poignant amongst the news of today, too real. This is what makes the play compelling.

And thankfully, this is broken up with occasional humor, with music, with dancing. Interludes of slam poetry create pauses in the story. The poetry has its own gripping depth but it changes the pace of the play and makes the intensity more bearable. In these moments I could catch my breath, as one imagines a homeless women must catch her own breath throughout the day in those pockets of safety and necessary laughter. I could look around the theater and notice that the space for the play (an underground theater) worked perfectly and the characters worked the whole space, moving off of the main stage and towards the audience without ever breaking the fourth wall. I could notice the details in the makeup, scars important to the story that looked real even from a few rows away. And then I could be drawn back into the intensity of the story, having had a little relief, well calculated by the playwright in bringing the story to the stage.

Compelling.

Low Hanging Fruit runs through July 30, 2016. You can go see it:

Thursdays and Fridays @ 8pm

Saturdays @ 2pm and 8pm

Saturday July 30 ONLY @ 2pm

Sundays @ 2pm

Consider attending on Thursdays when you can arrive early and learn about a Bay Area organization helping with issues related to the play (a different organization each week). Learn more about this in my original preview post.

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Low Hanging Fruit … A Play by Robin Bradford

JulianGreen_JessicaWaldman-Photo_by_MarioParnellPhotography

I’m excited to have the opportunity to see and review a play next month, and I thought I’d share a preview with you here from the press release for the event.

Low Hanging Fruit

3Girls Theatre Company (3GT) presents the San Francisco premiere of Bay Area-based playwright, Robin Bradford’s Low Hanging Fruit, which tells the compelling story of four homeless women struggling to survive on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. All military veterans, the women face nightmares brought on by their combat experiences and cluster together for quasi-safety in a small tent encampment they’ve nicknamed “The Taj Mahal.”

Low Hanging Fruit is a response to the dramatic rise in homelessness among women who have served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The play focuses on the aftermath of war as seen through the lives of four homeless women veterans struggling to survive on the streets of LA. The term “Low Hanging Fruit” refers to a person that can be persuaded or manipulated with little effort, suggesting that the individual is on the bottom, the easiest to reach.

Interspersing traditional dialogue with slam poetry and music, Bradford’s play catapults the audience from the present lives of the homeless characters into the devastating memories of their lives as soldiers. The play draws our attention to the shameful treatment of our returning vets and more specifically to the returning women, who are not often the subject of post war dramas. Living in a tent encampment under a freeway in LA are: Cory (Heather Gordon), a lesbian with physical as well as emotional battle scars; Maya (Livia DiMarchi), a Latina poet who dreams of a better life; Yolanda (Cat Brooks), an African American prostitute, drug addict, always looking for her next “hit’;” and Alice (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel, reprising her role from the LA production), an African American mother hen who watches carefully over her brood.

These women have created their own encampment under the freeway with a handmade cardboard sign that reads “Taj Mahal.” Shared military experiences equals trust in their world, and they respect one another enough to exist semi-peacefully. That is, until Cory befriends a 14 year old runaway named Canyon (Jessica Waldman) and invites the girl to stay with them at the Taj Mahal. This immediately tests relationships, pushes boundaries, and raises painful memories. Cory, in particular, who is desperate to make a lasting connection with Canyon, relates a story of war that is truly horrifying, involving not only foreign enemies, but also a commanding officer, thus shedding a light on the vile treatment that some women have faced in the military.

The play doesn’t try to explain why these veterans are homeless: it’s simply a fact given our society’s acceptance of homelessness in America. There isn’t outrage, no character rallies against the poor treatment of the returning women soldiers, but rather they accept it. It is this acceptance that makes the biggest statement. Watching these women struggle, fight, and cling to some kind of hope for themselves, we are watching the reality that perhaps no one cares, or cares enough. In the absence of societal action, these women draw strength, love, and empathy from each other.

As the play moves forward, and each character is faced with possible life changes, whether it’s Cory’s budding relationship with Canyon or Maya’s hope for getting off the streets and taking her friends with her, “Low Hanging Fruit” never relents from its central message: there is always hope, even when it seems the world doesn’t care. After serving in combat, too many of our veterans return home with varying degrees of trauma and literally fall through society’s cracks. This play seeks to open up conversations about what happens after we say “thank you for your service.”

The play premiered in LA in 2014 and went on to present month-long runs in North Carolina in 2015 and Michigan in 2016. It plays at Z Below in San Francisco from 7/6/16 – 7/30/16.

Community Nights

I am thrilled to see that there are community nights associated with this event. Four different organizations will be featured, so people attending the play on those nights (each Thursday, at 6:45 pm) can learn more about our important local San Francisco organization. There will be donations accepted for these organizations throughout the run of the play; they aren’t asking for money but instead for the things they really need to support the community.

Thursday, July 7                   North Beach Citizens, requesting new socks / underwear and other gently used clothing

Thursday, July 14                 Compass Family Services, requesting hygiene products

Thursday, July 21                San Francisco Suicide Prevention, requesting tea

Thursday, July 28                 Coalition on Homelessness, requesting blankets, socks and diapers

Play Schedule

July 6 – July 30, 2016

Previews: Wednesday, July 6 and Thursday, July 7 @ 8pm

Opening Night: Friday, July 8 @ 8pm

Thursdays and Fridays @ 8pm

Saturdays @ 2pm and 8pm

Saturday July 30 ONLY @ 2pm

Sundays @ 2pm

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