Nobody's suggesting Ph.D.s should be something you can send away for after collecting so many cereal box tops (if wishing made it so...).  But let's just take a moment to quantify the level of difficulty involved in one aspect of attaining this terminal degree: the exams doctoral students in my program have to take, apart from regular end-of-semester exams.

The first thing you need to know is that there are a lot of them.  There are FOUR before you even get to dealing with your dissertation proposal defense.*  And these milestones are deceptively branded.  The "First Exam" is really two exams in one.  The "Second Exam" is really four exams in one!  And if you think these grading events (a term I adopted from a favorite college professor) assess graduate-level theatrical knowledge, you're only partly right.

Sure, a successful examinee has determined what information she needs, sought it out, acquired it, memorized it, and become fluently conversant in it---over and over and over again in the course of exam prep, as moles of ignorance keep popping up, asking to be whacked-a.

But.

All of the above effort is only meaningful to yourself and the exam committee if you can access it in such a way that also demonstrates that you're a badass motherfucker who deserves the institution's resources in pursuing your Dream.

And that is my struggle.

This is not necessarily universal.  J. K. Rowling's version of the folkloric Boggart is probably the best metaphor for program exams.  Here, in the interim period between the two parts of my First Exam, I am becoming acquainted with the shape of my own exam experience, and graduate school experience overall.  And it's really a long time coming.

 

 

The hardships I dealt with on the way towards earning my bachelor's degree at twenty-four?  Positively Dickensian.**  Okay, they weren't that bad, but just off the top of my head: I had jury duty,*** a car I was borrowing got repossessed, and I missed a crucial financial aid deadline because I was busy being treated for wanting to kill myself.****  So it was more Dickens than Disney Channel.

I could go on and on but the point is, this would be a list of the things I overcame.

And the circumstances under which I've been attending graduate school seem so much less oppressive, even with a relapse of major depressive disorder thrown in last year.

But still the smallest setback infects me with a sluggishness that's hard to shake.  And lately, I've often found myself wondering why I'm even doing this.  In more resigned moments, I wonder what it was that got me through my bachelor's degree, and if I can somehow access whatever it was.

...and, guys...

I think I know the answers to those questions!  It might be more accurate to say that I remembered the answers to those questions.

A dude named David Rees reminded me.

You can watch Mr. Rees on the National Geographic Channel show "Going Deep with David Rees" (also mostly on Hulu if, like me, you wish to limit your business dealings with Time Warner Cable).  It is superb, and its initial ten-episode run is oeuvre enough for anyone looking to make a good impression on the aliens picking up our broadcasts.  But he first drew my notice a couple years ago thanks to his book How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. I walked over to it in a bookstore because it was a nice shade of yellow (think about it).  And I left the bookstore with it because of its epigram:

The simple physical artifact
multiplies the power of the individual.

---Henry Petroski, "The Pencil: A History
of Design and Circumstance

Henry Petroski's pencil book is a revelation.  I came across it shortly after graduating from high school.  My formal education was on hold, and I glommed onto this book for dear life.  I sped-read it.  Then I went back and read every single word.  Then I just carried the book around for awhile, as if it were a security blanket.  And the work is totally worthy, in a way that thick description can only cheapen.

I mean, this is a book whose eighteen-page index includes six entries under "'Best,' relative meaning of."

Blows me away.

And Mr. Rees' pencil book makes a thoroughly earnest companion to Mr. Petroski's pencil book.

 Two of my favorite books (although only one of them has an index).

Two of my favorite books (although only one of them has an index).

Over the course of watching Mr. Rees' television show, it dawned on me...

The imaginatively rigorous spirit of inquiry manifested in Mr. Petroski's book?  That is what I was responding to with every cleared hurdle as an (aspiring, if un-enrolled) undergraduate.  I was moved by a bottomless and indiscriminate interest in the world.

For example: I could have taken any old math course to satisfy my school's requirements.  But I signed up for calculus.  At least twenty students were there on the first day, and by the last day, there were eight of us---just me and some science majors (this was before I transferred to a school with hardly any math courses but an abundance of performing arts courses).  I stuck it out because it was a good opportunity to practice making my integral symbols more consistently attractive.  And because calculus is damn near the most fun I ever had with graph paper.  And maybe also because it was calculus, and it was okay to get a "B."

Graduate school, in my experience, is a good place to go if you're into being shackled by a fear of failure.

Thing is, it's also a good place to go if you've got a bottomless and indiscriminate interest in the world.

But funnily enough, graduate school is not absolutely necessary in order to exercise that interest.

So, especially as I continue to study for the oral portion of my First Exam, I'm going to try (and fail, and try again, probably all within the space of several minutes) to let go of outcome-obsessed fearfulness.  According to Mr. Rees, this is a lesson pencil sharpeners must learn.  Under a section headed "The Importance of Maintaining a Healthy Attitude Towards One's Practice in the Face of Broken Pencil Points, Physical Exhaustion, Societal Disapproval, Sexual Impotence, and Financial Ruin," he has the following advice to offer:

We must learn to live with---perhaps even savor---the uncertainties and imperfections that attend every pencil point, even as we continue to strive for their ideal form.  This is not an admission of futility so much as a considered reflection on the vagaries of human experience and the importance of appreciating one's circumstance even as one seeks to improve it.
It is in this spirit that I invite the reader to heed the following words, not in my capacity as a pencil sharpener, but as a friend:
The only perfection available to you without compromise is that of intention and effort.  If you endeavor to be the best pencil sharpener you can be, and tailor your actions accordingly, you can be certain all else will be forgiven in the final accounting.
With these words I have solved all psychological problems.

My goal right now is to assiduously work towards being able to talk about theatre history with as much humor, verve, and awe as Mr. Rees displays when talking about lighting matches.

This upcoming oral exam is merely a chance to say, "Hey, I know this really interesting thing, and it's so cool I've just GOT to tell you all about it!"  And were my graduate studies to end here, it wouldn't be my last chance to excitedly share what I know.

Now, I'm going back to digging up good stuff to spout at my professors!

 

 

*You read right---they make us defend the dissertation while it's still just a twinkle in its parents' eyes.  And let's just skip ahead to the part where I'm forced to admit that that is the least apt expression for this situation.

**Band name.  I call it.

***Actually, I got to be foreperson and it was awesome.

****Unrelated to the car.

Posted
AuthorMaria Cristina Garcia
Tagsexams

I’ve been meaning to update this blog (said everybody ever).

From the Independence Day cooking accident that gave me second-degree burns to participating in my first international theatre conference, there’s been a lot to share.  But there’s also a big exam coming up and I’ve been trying to reduce distractions, such as the Internet.

And then I casually check in, and see that this terrible thing has happened to a man, to his family, and to almost everyone who has been a pop culture consumer for the past several decades.

There are accolades everywhere.  But my Twitter feed is also overflowing with variations on “Get help.  Get help.  Get help.”

This is a valuable entreaty, to first-time sufferers and chronic ones alike.

But let’s be clear: suicide is not a failure to get help.

I could describe the struggles and triumphs of a person living with PTSD and chronic depression since pre-K, but like Jenny Lawson has pointed out, talking too much about depression and suicide is a pretty powerful trigger.

But I will say that when Jonathon checked off “in sickness” four years ago, he did so with the full weight of experience, and unfortunately, he’s had frightening opportunities since then to prove he wasn’t just temporarily blinded by my bridal radiance at the time.

As I waited up for him to come home from rehearsal last night, I kept thinking: if suicide gets me one day, Jonathon might feel like he didn’t do enough to help, or like he didn’t help me in the “right” way, and I wouldn’t be around to set him straight.

So I want it known—to him, to my family, to my friends, and to people who might misunderstand this fucking illness—while I am healthy enough to articulate it: asking for help is the best thing a depressed person can do, and being a friend to someone in need is an important intervention…but depression kills, through no fault of your own.  It just does.

Look.  Maybe I’ll be a casualty of some kind of uprising, be it the warming seas or sentient robots.  Or, since I live in New York, violent crime and/or the Chitauri, if the media is to be believed.

But so many parts of this mind/body have it out for me.  My appendix tried to kill me once.  I can’t digest gluten.  And I’ve spent several weeks being suicidal over the course of my short life.

I know depression is coming for me, just like the cancer we may or may not be getting from cell phones.*  All I’m trying to do is keep depression in remission long enough for my organs to deteriorate first.

This isn’t some kind of fatalistic pessimism.  Family, friends, medical professionals, and even people in administrative positions at school always do what they’re able when I need them to.  Nobody’s throwing their hands up and saying, “Well, you’ve had a good run.”

But sometimes people don’t outlast depression, and at a certain point “help” isn’t that huge a factor.  At least not compared to the fucking magnitude with which depression fucking fucks with a person.

There are scores of tributes and remembrances and career retrospectives for a man who earned worldwide admiration.  At least one asserts that “[w]hat hurts the most about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams is that as much as he achieved, he died in his own mind unfulfilled.”  Forget the wild romanticizing speculation contained therein.  I’d like to suggest that what hurts the most is that he was receiving help.  And he (and his family) still lost.  Does anyone seriously believe that a career filled with more consistently suitable vehicles for his unique talent could have saved his life?  That misunderstanding hurts too.

Anyway.  Get help.  Give help.  Please do.  It makes a difference.

But let’s be careful of conflating suicide with a failure to get help.

I’m going to sign off with this excerpt from a Lucille Clifton poem:

                       come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

 

 

*I see one study, then a counter study…I honestly don’t know what to believe anymore, except that we are all participating in an unprecedented longitudinal experiment.  One thing I do know for sure: vaccines are harmless.  Okay, I take that back; my grandmother died from a rabies vaccine, but it was the 1950s and she had a weakened immune system.  But she didn’t get autism, so, there’s that.  Wow I'm failing at keeping this light.

Posted
AuthorMaria Cristina Garcia

I'm trying to conduct a study, but I can't do it alone.  Like almost everybody in theatre, I need a stage manager.  Several, in fact.  I need them to sit down in front of a mic and tell me how they experience the various stages (hah!) of their job.  I hope they will help me out, because theirs is a story that does not get told in academia.  And in one month, I have the opportunity to tell it at an international conference.

So, if you or someone you know can answer "yes" to ALL of the below questions, please get in touch with me as soon as possible.  I can fill in more details and distribute consent forms before any interview plans are made.

Kindly note that the criteria is only meant to standardize the study subjects as much as possible.

HAVE YOU...?

  • Served as a PSM or SM on at least three Broadway shows?
  • Accumulated at least nine months of experience as a PSM or SM on Broadway?
  • Been the originating PSM or SM on at least one Broadway show?
  • And finally, are you currently in New York City?

My sincere thanks in advance for sharing widely and/or volunteering.

Posted
AuthorMaria Cristina Garcia
CategoriesAcademia

It's 1921, and an amnesiac Great War veteran has become the German Chancellor under the name "Siegfried," adopted from Germanic legend.  He intends to transform the country by building a modern centralized government.  But a political opponent with a more folksy vision for Germany discovers that "Siegfried" was once "Jacques"...

 GIF found  here .

GIF found here.

This play is self-reflexively metatheatrical.  Like, a lot.

Take this Act 3 passage.  Baron Zelten is about to be banished for fomenting an unsuccessful revolt against Siegfried.  Generals Waldorf and Ledinger are ready to escort him to the border (though they'd rather do worse). But before he goes, Zelten alludes to the secret that Eva, the field nurse who rescued Siegfried, has been keeping all these years.

ZELTEN: Dismiss your generals.  I have something to say to you alone.
SIEGFRIED: I am not in the mood nor do I have the right to have a private conversation with you.
ZELTEN: Let them stay then.  You are the only one who will suffer.  In any case it is quite right that they should be here.  Every time destiny prepares to strike she has a rush of blood to the head and crowds her target with men in uniforms.  When Oedipus learned that he was married to his own mother and that he had killed his father, he tried to rally around him all the senior officers of his city.
WALDORF: We are general officers, Zelten!
LEDINGER: May I put an end to this farce, your Excellency?
ZELTEN: Look at Eva's face, Ledinger, and you will see that this is no farce.  The lips of the heroine are pale, a minute wrinkle runs across her brow, her hands are joined but they do not seem to know each other---these are the marks of tragedy, not comedy.  Why, this is the moment when the stagehands fall silent, and the prompter lowers his voice, and the spectators, who naturally have guessed everything before Oedipus and before Othello, shiver at the prospect of learning what has been known from the beginning of time.

Zelten is summoning the most awesome play about discrepant awareness in the final moments of Siegfried's ignorance.  Then Zelten drops the mic ("Germans love metaphor.  However, I shall avoid it henceforth with you.")  and leaves Eva to explain herself to Siegfried.  Once enlightened (though still suffering from amnesia), Siegfried/Jacques faces the choice of how to proceed with his newfound knowledge.  Eva argues for Siegfried to stay, to revitalize the post-war nation that has embraced him as a hero.  Genevieve, the fiancée who had thought Jacques dead before Zelten put her wise, argues for Jacques to resume his quiet life as a poodle-loving French journalist.*  She's the lampshade-hanging voice of a Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) who doesn't even care:

I don't deny that it's dramatic that one man should epitomize the conflict between the only two nations which stand not only for two different ideals of beauty and two different ways of doing business but for two different concepts of good and evil.  But dramatic as your situation is, Jacques, it does not matter for the moment.

I wonder if these and other self-consciously metatheatrical moments can trace their lineage back to Giraudoux's process of adapting his 1922 novel Siegfried et le Limousin into Siegfried, his first play.

Obviously, there's an interesting geopolitical angle here, since Siegfried is an interwar piece involving Germany and France before anyone knew the other shoe was going to drop (talk about discrepant awareness!).  But I'm more interested in what the play has to say about identity.

In Act 1, Siegfried presents himself to a group of German parents whose sons went missing in the war.  It's a regularly scheduled event---an opportunity for Siegfried to be recognized and claimed.  His servant explains that Siegfried will be downstairs as soon as he's finally done dressing.

He can't make up his mind.  He doesn't know whether to cut off his mustache, as he did last time.  I left him standing in front of the mirror.  I know he's wondering which way he'd look more like himself.

Whereas Genevieve, afraid of waking a sleepwalker, actively avoids self-resemblance upon having gained an audience with her former lover in Act 2.  She explains to her linguist friend Robineau (through whom Zelten had gotten in touch):

I didn't have the heart to put on any of the jewels he used to know or one of the ones he gave me.  I didn't choose the perfume he used to love.  Fortunately the fashions this season do not have any specific character.  Never before have the couturiers dressed us as they have this winter, for eternity.  I've had my hair cut short since he saw me.  This is the first time I've been reduced to looking so little like myself.

And after warmth, protection, and cultural standards of modesty, isn't that what we usually dress for?  Looking like oneself?**

Geography makes a person, too.  Siegfried/Jacques, distressed upon learning the truth, laments Eva's lack of persistence in the German hospital where he regained consciousness.

Ah, when I lay there, why didn't Eva force me to ask again and again for water!  Why didn't she force me to repeat it, even if my thirst became unbearable, until she could tell if I pictured a blue sea when I called for water or a mountain torrent or a lake and thus revealed my native country.

When I picture water, it is the narrow creek running through the woods behind the school I attended as an eight-year-old midwesterner.  It's so strange to imagine that one day I'll have an eight-year-old to whom water will mean the Reservoir or the East River.

There's a lot of literature out there (scholarly and less so) about multilingualism and identity.***  While the play often pits stereotypical Germany against stereotypical France, language doesn't necessarily come to bear.  I mean, whether Siegfried is speaking German to Eva or French to Genevieve, it's all English to me (because I read the Phyllis La Farge and Peter H. Judd translation).  Practically speaking, does this mean a multiplicity of accents in performance, in addition to more subtle shifts indicative of the different cultures?  Wouldn't it be something to see a multilingual production (with supertitles)?

One last thing, because it's so late and there's a yoga class in the morning that I'm perilously close to skipping... Giraudoux's style here is a bit much, but I do treasure the Act 1 scene when Zelten and Robineau meet again for the first time since their days at university together.  It captures something of warfare being personal (as it may never be again in an age of armed drones).

The two men remain apart for a moment, studying each other in silence.
ZELTEN: Is it you!
ROBINEAU: Is it you!
ZELTEN: Is it you, Robineau, Hippolyte-Amable?
ROBINEAU: Otto-Wilhelmus von Zelten-Buchencach, it is I.
ZELTEN: Is it you, O dark brachycephalic, overweighted with lorgnettes and knitted vests, terrible in the attack?
ROBINEAU: Yes, O essence of culture, distillation of carnage, son of Arminius, it is I.
ZELTEN: I feel as if I were talking long distance on the telephone, Robineau, with a a very bad connection---Speak right into the telephone!  Still, I see you.  You haven't changed.
ROBINEAU: Nor have you---But what have you been doing these last twelve years, Zelten?  You, who loved springtime, music, joy, peace---what have you been doing?
ZELTEN: I have been fighting.  I made war against thirty-five nations, but I was locked in combat with only one.  And you---mild, bespectacled, freedom-loving inhabitant of imperial or royal libraries--you, my dearest friend, what have you been doing?
ROBINEAU: Fighting, making war against you---
ZELTEN: Fortunately we were so unskillful, Robineau, that we missed each other.  Were you aiming at me?
ROBINEAU: Several times, during an attack, I raised my gun, thinking of you, and fired at the sky.
ZELTEN: So you did that too!  It's probably still over Germany, your bullet, pursuing its course.  But, you know, I had an idea you weren't intent on killing your old friend.  Every time a bullet missed me, I said to myself---that's good old Robineau firing!  I couldn't help thinking that every bullet which hit an object for which it wasn't intended---such as a bottle or a pear still on the tree---was yours.  That's what your words used to do.  My adjutant was hit in one cheek of his buttocks; everyone laughed---I thought of you.  [He approaches, and assumes the tone of ordinary conversation.]  Hello, Robineau!
ROBINEAU: Hello, Zelten.
ZELTEN: How are you?
ROBINEAU: All right.  And you?
 

 

*It's übermensch vs. Clark Kent, a decade before Detective Comics brought us Superman!

**This week, a friend asked if I'd mind if she bought a shirt that she knows I own.  I told her to go ahead.  Our affinity for each other springs from the parts of ourselves that appreciate this shirt enough to spend money on it.  I would not be less myself for her wearing it, anymore than I am less myself for her friendship.  That said, of the two people who went to Homecoming sophomore year in identical flocked taffeta column gowns, I definitely wore it best (you know who you are, copycat).

***Here's a recent blog post on the topic by Arturo Hernandez.  Anecdotally, I know my mom is more likely to hug somebody if she's operating in Spanish than if she's operating in English.