Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Only 2012 New Year's Resolution: Be More Fearless

In 2001 while residing in Cincinnati, I auditioned for The Movement, a made-for-television movie produced by Dreambuilder Celebration and sponsored by Procter & Gamble that was aired in January 2002. At the initial audition, I was called in for one of the leading roles that of Jayni, a young social worker or homeless shelter volunteer (I can't recall which). As I picked up the sides laid out on the table for this character, I noticed sides for Young Mrs. Wallington, a school teacher. Mrs. Wallington was another main character, but she was a retired school teacher. Young Mrs. Wallington was a supporting character, but I thought it would be wise to audition for that role as well, so I scooped up those sides and prepared for both while sitting in the waiting area.

When I walked into the room, the director and producers were all there. I did my read for Jayni, they gave me some adjustments then I read again. Before I left, I asked them if I could also read for Young Mrs. Wallington. The director responded that this was only a small supporting role in a flashback scene. I told him that I didn't care and that I'd really like to read for it, so they granted my request.

A couple days later, I received a call from my agent saying that I had a call back for the role of Young Mrs. Wallington. 'That was a good call on my part,' I thought.

When I arrived at the call backs, I scrutinized the ladies they were casting for both old and young Mrs. Wallington. I was trying to determine which older women I most closely resembled. The stressful aspect of this call back was that they were casting each role on the spot. As I watched the older actresses being eliminated, I was assessing my chances of being cast as her young counterpart. In the end, the woman I most thought would work with my physicality did not get the role. The woman who was cast, I felt looked nothing like me; however, I was determined that my assessment would not interfere with my audition.

Next, the director came out and informed us that all the Jayni candidates would be considered for Young Mrs. Wallington as well. 'Great,' I thought, 'my competition just doubled' (there were eight Jaynis and eight Young Mrs. Wallingtons). So began the most grueling audition I've experienced to date.

Prior to reading for the role (every round) each of us was positioned next to retired Mrs.Wallington so that the director and producers could examine our physical similarity. As the elimination process began, the pressure began to build. Those casting brought us all in at once, after having discussed who would not be advancing to the next round, and dismissed those they did not want to see again. To say it was nerve-wracking as the names were read is an understatement. I did not want to hear my name.

The first audition round included all sixteen us, after which four Jaynies and four teachers were eliminated. In the next round, two Jaynies and two teachers left the group, which left two actors for each role. They cast the role of Jayni first then Young Mrs. Wallington. The two of us being considered for Young Mrs. Wallington were waiting patiently outside the room to hear the decision. My competition was an attractive young woman who was probably eight years my junior.

Finally, the director appeared and looked at both of us. My heart was racing and the tension was mounting. He turned to me and said, "Deborah, we'd like for you to play the role of Young Mrs. Wallington." Inside I was jumping up and down and screaming in jubilation, but on the outside, I remained cool and calm because the woman who did not get cast was sitting right next to me. However, once she left, I let loose, thanking them all for the opportunity, and as I walked to my car, basking in the euphoria of having landed the role. (I later found out that they'd auditioned actors in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Lexington and Louisville, and that knowledge made me feel even more honored to have been cast and prouder of my accomplishment.)

It was because I dared ask to read for that supporting role that I had the opportunity to perform it. That was the last time I asked to read for a role for which I was not brought in to audition. In the years since, I've left many auditions thinking I would be better suited for different roles yet have not had the courage (or even the thought) to request to read for them while in front of the casting directors.

Asking for what we desire is difficult for most of us.  Sometimes, we feel we do not deserve what we would like—a promotion, a raise, a role, a date, an interview, you name it. In my case, I don't want to hear the word "no" or feel the sting of rejection (I get rejected enough at auditions).

Fear of not having enough money is also a major factor in determining what I pursue and to what extent I pursue it. Money is a barrier that prevents many people from pursuing their passion, but it need not be with a little planning. I am a financially responsible person, and if I want to focus more on acting and to travel globally, I need to figure out how to make those happen within my financial security boundaries so that I'm not freaking out about my money situation.

I have always professed to being a cautious risk-taker which has served me well, up until now. Goals and dreams have been met to a certain degree and at a certain level over the years, but it's time to "up the ante", as they say  (whoever "they" may be). To do that I will need to be more audacious and self-confident (even if I am only acting "as if").

This year my one resolution is to be more fearless by taking more risks in pursuit of all my goals, asking for what I want, and refusing to take "no" for an answer. I hope to report positive results on December 31, 2012.

May 2012 be a happy, healthy, prosperous, and fearless year for you, dear reader. Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Careful What You Wish For...

“You know what the most incredible thing would be?” I asked my friend Yvonne one day at Cigna when we were at lunch in the fall of 2001. “Right when I am getting to leave for New York, Cigna eliminates my job and I receive four-months of severance pay!” I never thought in a million years that it would happen, mainly because the managers seemed so helpless without us assistants.

Four months of salary would definitely be a helpful financial cushion as I started my new life. I had decided earlier that year, after my positive experience meeting Lanford Wilson, that it was time for me to make the move to the New York market. I wasn’t getting any younger and if I were going to do it, it had to be then. So I started planning for a move to take place at the end of August 2002. Once I had set the end goal, the stars began to align in my favor.

I was cast in two films (one of which still occasionally pays a small residual fee) and a commercial that cemented my membership in AFTRA—I had to join the union. These jobs expanded my resume to include film and commercial work. I was also networking and collecting names of people I could call on once I arrived in New York as resources in the industry as well as for familiarizing myself with the city.

My plan was taking shape, as I researched apartments, neighborhoods, casting directors, agents, theatre companies, anything I needed to get my life started there. It was a bit intimidating because the financials of it all made me very nervous. How would I ever afford to live in that area and pursue acting, too? I began searching for temp agencies and marketing and promo jobs, whatever work I might be able to do that would allow me the flexibility to audition during the day. The financial fears made me ask: would I be ready to move at the end of August?

The summer of 2002, I ventured to Puerto Rico for a very memorable and exciting vacation with some of my closest friends. The day I returned to the office at Cigna, there was a nationwide conference call that required participation of all the assistants. I thought it was going to be the run-of-the-mill technology call outlining process changes for submitting RFPs or organizing policies.

What we discovered was that Cigna planned to downsize in the upcoming months. There would now be one assistant per region. Instead of my region having a couple assistants in Cleveland and a couple in Cincinnati (servicing Columbus and Indianapolis) there would be one assistant working all four offices. The offers would be made to those they wanted to retain and the rest would be let go with severance packages.

I sat there holding back a gleeful smile, knowing all the other women were panicking because they were about to lose their jobs. Unbelievable, I thought. This is exactly what I had wished for—the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

When the call ended, I nearly ran to Yvonne’s cubicle, plopped down in the chair next to her desk and exclaimed, “ You are not going to believe what just happened!”

I told her and she responded excitedly, “Oh, my God, it’s meant to be!”

“I know!” I replied.

The only fly in the ointment was that I was one of two top-ranked assistants in the region. I didn’t want them to offer me the job because if they did and I turned it down, I would not receive my severance—at least that was my understanding. So I had to do some quick thinking. I decided honesty would be the best policy, so I called my manager, who was located in Philadelphia, to explain my situation to her.

I am very thankful for her. She made sure that I was not offered the job. I left Cigna at the end of August 2002 and headed to the Northeast on August 31, crying as I drove away from Cincinnati. As excited as I was to be starting a new life, I was sad to leave my friends and my sister Karen, who had been my apartment mate the previous nine years. Plus the unknown is always a little scary. Still my wish came true and now there was no backing down or delaying my departure date because I didn’t have the lure of job security to prevent me from pursuing my dreams. Once my wish was granted, I was then responsible for doing something about it, rather than ignoring it.

It’s been an adventure these last nine years. It was a positive move, for so many reasons. So a word of caution: careful what you wish for, it may come true.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baby Steps: My Key to Achieving Goals

“ Honey, you want to go to the john and get one of those glasses before you leave, you look like you could use a drink.”

That was my closing line of The Moonshot Tape. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson* clapped and smiled then rose from his seat, walked over to me, and hugged me warmly. He had loved my performance, which I’d just given in Ovation Theatre Company’s (OTC) warehouse where we built our sets, stored props and costumes, and often rehearsed. This had been a private performance for Mr. Wilson, along with my Ovation colleagues and a couple of my closest friends, by special invitation. I would go on to perform this 55-minute solo show a week later during Ovations’ two-week run of An Evening with Lanford Wilson. We staged four of his one-act plays during Cincinnati’s Lanford Wilson Theatre Festival in May of 2001.

                              After the performance - Lanford Wilson giving me feedback.

It takes a great deal of courage to get onstage and perform alone for that length of time, but I did not find that courage overnight. It took years of accepting bigger and more challenging roles to be comfortable (or as comfortable as one can be) in a solo performance situation.

I did not begin acting until I was twenty-three. By that age, many of the young actors I was studying with had been performing for years—on stage and in front of the camera—in grade school, high school, and college. I struggled with confidence—and still do to some degree—because I let all their years on the boards or in front of the camera intimidate me. Still, I wanted to be an actor, so I pushed through the fear and insecurity.

My first time on stage was a production of original one-acts in Bloomington, Indiana, that took place in a tiny, freezing theater—actually a warehouse. I memorized my lines and my acting partner’s and basically responded by rote, not engaging in the moment to moment actions and emotions based on what my acting partner was giving me. Learning how to react appropriately, develop my inner monologue, and trust in the moment all developed over years of training and experience.

As I took on leading roles in plays, I learned to connect with the other actors and to trust that my lines would be there when it was time for me to speak. I didn’t have to think ahead to what my next line would be, but rather merely listen to what was being said to me. Acting is reacting. Plus knowing what you are thinking as someone is talking to you onstage is like in life…we always have thoughts running through our minds; so it is the same onstage, which adds to the life of the character.

I was cast in my first two-person play as Aurelia Plath in Letters Home the summer of 1992. It was scary but I managed to tackle it pretty well for a novice actor. Once I left Indiana University, I moved to Cincinnati where I was involved in community theatre prior to co-founding OTC, a semi-professional company. My first audition landed me in the role of Vera Claythorne, the leading lady in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. The video performance of that play is a testament to how significantly my acting has improved since then.

Shortly after Ten Little Indians,I was involved in a fifties/sixties-style musical review that East Side Players orchestrated before their production of West Side Story. I’d always wanted to sing in public and knew I had a decent voice, but again, lacked the audacity to do it (except for a talent show in eighth grade, where, with some of my girlfriends as back-up singers, I sang “The Rose” and “Midnight in Memphis” from The Rose soundtrack, and that was along with the actual recordings).

I found the courage to audition for the revue and got cast. A few months later, I performed the role of Grace Farrell in Annie in which I sang a solo and some duets. That eventually led to my being cast as the Witch in Into the Woods, and I loved, loved, loved playing the Witch—one of my favorite roles. (Thank you, Lisa Hall Breithaupt.)

My performance trajectory is as follows: supporting roles followed by leading roles then two-person shows—one (Parallel Lives) that included an eight-minute monologue and my playing fourteen different characters, eventually culminating in my one-woman performance of The Moonshot Tape. The revue, led to musicals then to cabaret performances that I wrote and performed—two to three sets per show. My acting and singing solo performances were built on the foundation of taking risks with more challenging and scarier projects over time. When I succeeded at each level, I moved on to the next one.

Meeting, performing for, and receiving excellent feedback from Lanford Wilson was the pivotal moment in my decision to make the move to the New York City area to pursue acting professionally, which I’d wanted to do for ten years. Once my mind was made up, I set the wheels in motion, and how they turned in my favor. That story is for an upcoming post. Stay tuned…as the saying goes: be careful what you wish for…

* Lanford Wilson (April 13, 1937 – March 24, 2011)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Back to the Stage

I will be back onstage for the first time since the summer of 2003 when Isle of Shoals Productions, Inc.'s Romeo & Juliet opens November 3. This absence has been mostly by choice. I have auditioned for very few plays since my cancer treatments, and the acting work I have booked has been in film, commercials, and television. I was recently cast in the role of Lady Capulet. It has been amusing that a number of people have suggested I might be Juliet by asking: “Are you playing Juliet?” While that question is flattering, I am way past the age of being cast in that role, considering that Juliet is 14—16 in the adaptation in which I am performing. However, I play mothers well, although Lady Capulet is hardly the ideal mother. She had very little involvement in the daily upbringing of Juliet; the childrearing responsibilities were designated to the nurse.

My Lady Capulet is independent and a bit headstrong; definitely not a woman subservient to her husband. Though she is a product of and adheres to the cultural mores of the Victorian era (in which this adaptation is set), she has a mind of her own as well as a sense of humor. I love that I was cast in this role for my reemergence on the stage because it is a perfect one for me.

Tonight is our first preview performance. This week has been a bit rough technically, slogging through the orchestration of light and sound cues and set changes. The previews will be essentially dress rehearsals with an audience. Yet in all the years I have been doing theatre, productions amazingly come together in the end, no matter how chaotic or stressful tech week may be.

Lance Hewett, my director, is a joy to work with. He has given the actors enormous creative freedom to experiment with acting choices and to make suggestions; I don’t think I’ve heard him give one line reading, which is quite refreshing. Of course, if he thinks something does not work or isn’t true to the character, he lets us know.

The cast is quite talented, especially for one with so many young actors, most of whom are in their early to mid twenties. I get a kick out of listening to them talk to each other, and yes, I’m one of the older members of the cast, but that’s okay. The generation gap isn’t too wide, and they are all funny, smart, lovely people. Chelsea, who plays Juliet, is adorable. It’s easy to portray her mother, and perhaps my interpretation of Lady Capulet is too loving and attentive to the teenage Juliet, yet that act of maternal betrayal remains.

I have been asked if I am nervous to perform onstage again. I am a little nervous, but in a good way. Nervous energy helps me to focus and be in the moment, especially when I know people who are in the audience—family, friends, co-workers. Right now, while I am writing this and thinking about it, a twinge of unease is churning around in my solar plexus. I think if I weren’t nervous, I’d be worried. One of the greatest actors of all time, Sir Lawrence Olivier, experienced intense anxiety before every stage performance. So if Olivier had to fight nerves, then I am struggling right there with the best of them.

Sometimes, I think my need to be out in front of an audience, acting or speaking, is a form of self-torture because there is always a slight element of fear simmering beneath. Some may call it narcissism, and in some instances, perhaps it is; but I see it more as the intense desire to express myself, whether through a character or as a cancer community or political issue advocate. As someone who as a child was shy and didn’t speak her mind and rarely took center stage, once I found the courage to do it, I discovered a freedom of expression I never knew existed.

Some of my need for recognition stems from the desire to please and be liked, but at the same time, it is scary to put your talent and ideas out in the public, where there is the possibility to be criticized—sometimes harshly. Not everyone is going to love or like what you do or say, but to do it anyway, to take a risk, is brave, and has many times reaped personal and career-related rewards for me. Despite the fear, it's the love of creative expression and the desire to communicate that drives me to take the stage or approach the podium.

So yes, I am excited to be back onstage again. Who knows what will happen out there in front of a live audience. I’ve definitely experienced my share of mishaps onstage, and I will try to share a few of those in a future post because they are worthy of retelling. The unknown of what may happen between actors onstage is frightening, yet thrilling, and ultimately, an adventure. My next adventure begins tonight and runs through November 20.

For performance and ticket information, click Romeo and Juliet - Isle of Shoals Productions, Inc.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Blood Cancer Awareness Month...Sharing My Story and Some Information

June 1, 2004

As the day wore on and the time approached for Barbara’s stem cells to be transfused into me, sorrow replaced anxiety. I am losing a part of me as her stem cells replace mine and begin producing her blood in my body. My blood type will change from O- to O+, which is Barbara’s blood type. This changing of blood type is somewhat unsettling to me. However, I also view this day as one of rebirth—another birthday to celebrate. It is extraordinary how this whole bone marrow transplant process works. It is truly miraculous. And not only is this a physical rebirth, but because of all the self-reflection and positive changes I’m attempting to make in my life, it is a spiritual and emotional rebirth as well. So despite feeling melancholy over what I am losing, there is excitement and anticipation about what I am gaining. I thank God for the new stem cells that will generate new and healthy blood in my body and grant me a second chance at life.

Around 3:30 p.m., Dr. Hsu administered the blood transfusion. The transplant was a slow, intravenous infusion through my catheter of the bone marrow collected from my sister Barbara. My friend Karen B was already stationed at my bedside and my sister Karen waltzed into the room just minutes before the doctor began the procedure. The transplant, which took all of twenty minutes, was uneventful except for an intense scratchiness in my throat caused by the preservative in the blood. I was given Benadryl prior to the transfusion, which quickly sent me off to la-la land. Meanwhile, my sister and friend sat vigil, watching my blood pressure rise and fall—sometimes significantly—on the monitor. The nurses assured them that this was normal. ~ Excerpt from Rebirth

I am a leukemia survivor. September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, so I am sharing my story in order to put a face to those who have had, or are currently living with, a blood cancer diagnosis. I was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) December 18, 2003. I went through four rounds of high-dose chemotherapy (for which I was hospitalized 4-5 days each time) and total body irradiation twice a day for four days prior to my bone marrow transplant, which took place June 1, 2004.

Overall, I dealt well with chemotherapy. I did not experience vomiting, mouth sores or any major infections. My discomfort was mostly due to extreme fatigue and some nausea. And of course, I lost my hair, which I thought would be devastating, but it wasn’t. I knew it would eventually grow back, and it was rather interesting because how often does a girl get to see what she looks like bald?

As my doctors and I began discussing BMT, additional drama was injected into the situation because my bone marrow donor match was my sister Barbara who was pregnant with her second child. Rarely is a pregnant woman an acceptable stem cell/bone marrow donor, and there is very little information available about pregnancy and bone marrow donation, which made this an even more difficult, agonizing decision for her and her husband. They knew this would greatly increase my chances for a successful outcome, but what impact would it have on their unborn child?

In the end, twenty-eight weeks into her pregnancy, she agreed to do the bone marrow harvest. A needle was inserted into her hipbone about seventy times in two hours with a spinal only. To ensure the baby was not put at additional risk, she opted not to have general anesthesia, which is normal protocol for a bone marrow donor during a bone marrow harvest. She saved my life that day; she is my hero. And today, that baby is a gorgeous, healthy, smart seven-year-old boy named Andrew.

Andrew at 1 month old (with me)

Andrew and I (present day)

Going into chemo, radiation, and transplant I knew there had been considerable advances in the treatment of blood cancers over the past few decades, and that knowledge gave me hope. Blood Cancer Awareness month is a time to focus more intensely on educating the public about the types of blood cancers, providing information about cancer research and the need for funding said research, and highlighting the resources available to survivors and their families as they navigate their way through treatment and recovery.

Harry’s September 15 post outlined some statistics related to blood cancers and survival rates, and while survival rates in some blood cancers have increased substantially, there is still much work to be done to eradicate cancer. Maintaining funding levels for cancer research is vitally important, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) provides millions of dollars every year toward research and the development of new medications. Gleevec, FDA approved in 2001, and Sprycel, approved in 2006, are two therapies proven quite effective over the past decade in treating chronic myelogenous (or myeloid) leukemia.

In 2008, when I first heard about Sprycel, I was talking to my oncologist about it and he informed me that Sprycel had also been found to be effective in treating ALL when the Philadelphia chromosome is present. I thought that was pretty amazing—that a drug found effective in treating one type of leukemia was then found to be effective treating another one. The added value of drug research is that these therapies are often found to treat multiple diseases—Gleevec is now approved to treat ten different cancers.

In these tight economic times of government budget cutting, it is vital that cancer research be funded adequately so that advances in the treatment of blood cancers will continue to result in improved survival rates. Light the Night is one program (of many) the LLS has implemented to raise money that is then allocated toward cancer research and patient services and education programs. Next month, I will be posting in more detail about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and their Light the Night program. Stay tuned…

Thursday, September 01, 2011

September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month

December 18, 2003
At about 5:30 p.m., Dr. Alter entered my room, and I knew immediately the news was going to be life changing. He sat down and informed me that the bone biopsy came back positive for leukemia. A jolt of panic surged through my entire body. I took a deep breath, pursed my lips together, and tried to hold back the tears. I parted my lips slightly and released my breath slowly. I glanced at Barbara, and clearly, she was upset. I had suspected as much, but actually hearing it was shocking.

Dr. Alter informed me that Dr. Stuart Goldberg, my oncologist, would be in later to talk to me more in depth about what I was facing and the treatment options available. He also said that another bone marrow extraction would be performed the following day because the one today had produced no marrow and that is needed to determine the type of leukemia I have as there are several varieties.

 ~ Excerpt from Rebirth: A Leukemia Survivor’s Journal of Healing during Chemotherapy, Bone Marrow Transplant, and Recovery

That is the day I began my blood cancer education, in particular as it pertained to acute lymphocytic (also known as lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL). It was determined a few days later that I had adult ALL. ALL is the most common form of blood cancer found in children and today has a cure rate of about 90.8% for children five and younger, per the National Cancer Institute. Long-term survivor statistics aren’t quite so rosy, about 66%, when factoring in all ages. I am seven years post-bone marrow transplant and consider myself quite fortunate.

Blood cancers include leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes, and myeloproliferative diseases. Within each of these cancers there are several variations.

Over the next month I will be posting information about blood cancers that the reader may find useful. I am an Advocacy Network and First Connection Volunteer and speaker for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), the largest voluntary health agency dedicated to blood cancers. The organization’s mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families. The LLS is a terrific resource for patients, caregivers and health care professionals.

A list of additional national cancer charities and foundations can be found on the Resource4Leukemia site.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Finding Inspiration from a Movie

“He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. He does not shy away from the sword. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.”   ~ Penny Chenery Tweedy, owner of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown Winner

These are the words Diane Lane (as Penny Chenery in the movie Secretariat) speaks as the viewer watches in a moment of silence, a brief reprieve from the pounding of hooves on the track and the cheering, screaming fans in the stands, waiting for Secretariat to storm around the final bend at the Belmont Stakes to secure his 1973 Triple Crown win. Chills run up my spine then the silence breaks as Secretariat rounds the turn toward a record-breaking 31-length victory. To this day, no horse has come close to his margin of victory or his record.

I did not see the movie when it opened in 2010, but purchased it recently from On Demand. I watched it and when it ended, immediately watched it again. The horse, the owner, the trainer, the jockey, the groom, the secretary…these people made an amazing team. The story of Secretariat is more than just that of an exceptional horse, but also one of a woman determined to see her father’s life's work through to the end despite the obstacles. Ms. Chenery was determined, confident, persistent, resourceful, loving, supportive, and demanding when necessary. She was an example to her children that if you have a dream or a goal you do not back down, which is a valuable lesson for anyone.

Sometimes it is easy to give up or become discouraged when setbacks occur or people refuse to help or provide needed support. In the end, it is only ourselves who can make sure we stay on track. Fear of failure, rejection, or the unknown are the biggest reasons people do not take the risks involved in changing careers, moving to a different city, pursuing a romantic interest, traveling around the world, or any other adventure.

I am a calculated risk-taker, I wish I weren’t quite so calculated, but I like to know where I’m headed; I always have a game plan. Still, if I could just get past the fear of rejection—my biggest fear—I might be more confident approaching casting directors and agents in order to potentially move my acting career along faster. I don't have a fear of rejection at auditions (I'm used to that by now) but it's the fear of asking for what I need or want: representation or more auditions. I am working to overcome this fear and am always encouraged when I hear a phrase or quote that truly resonates with being fearless, and the above quote does just that: Don’t be afraid, don’t shy away, and don’t stand still.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Lucky Seven...Years since BMT

Andrew & I  - Christmas 2010 in Tell City, IN

Today I celebrate my second birthday. I am seven years old. The anniversary of my bone marrow transplant is always a time for celebration, even if it’s only me celebrating. It is amazing to me that it has been seven years because I remember so much of it quite vividly, yet at the same time, it seems an eternity ago. So much has happened in those seven years since I wrote the following:

Excerpt from Rebirth:
June 1, 2004 - Tuesday, Transplant Day (Rebirth Day)  Day 0

As the day wore on and the time approached for Barbara’s stem cells to be transfused into me, sorrow replaced anxiety. I am losing a part of me as her stem cells replace mine and begin producing her blood in my body. My blood type will change from O- to O+, which is Barbara’s blood type. This changing of blood type is somewhat unsettling to me. However, I also view this day as one of rebirth—another birthday to celebrate. It is extraordinary how this whole bone marrow transplant process works. It is truly miraculous. And not only is this a physical rebirth, but because of all the self-reflection and positive changes I’m attempting to make in my life, it is a spiritual and emotional rebirth as well. So despite feeling melancholy over what I’m losing, there is excitement and anticipation about what I’m gaining. I thank God for the new stem cells that will generate new and healthy blood in my body and grant me a second chance at life.

Around 3:30 p.m., Dr. Hsu, another physician in Dr. Goldberg’s oncology group, administered the blood transfusion. The transplant was a slow intravenous infusion through my catheter of the bone marrow collected from Barbara. Karen B was already stationed at my bedside and Karen waltzed into the room just minutes before the doctor began the procedure. The transplant, which took all of twenty minutes, was uneventful except for an intense scratchiness in my throat caused by the preservative in the blood. I was given Benadryl prior to the transfusion, which quickly sent me off to la-la land. Meanwhile, my sister and friend sat vigil, watching my blood pressure rise and fall, sometimes significantly, on the monitor. The nurses assured them that this was normal.

I’ve always been a little superstitious about the number seven—in a good way. I was born on the 7thand 7 is believed to be God’s number—there are many references to it in the Bible. There are many references throughout history about the origins of lucky number seven. Many of my family members’ birth dates are multiples of seven: my nephew Andrew was born on the 14th and he will be 7 in August. He is my life marker since BMT because in a way Barbara gave birth to both of us in 2004—she was my bone marrow donor while pregnant with him. There is a very deep connection between me and that little boy, who is gorgeous and smart and funny. 

I feel lucky and so blessed to have not just lived, but thrived these past seven years. I don’t know why I survived and other cancer survivors I’ve known did not. All I know is that my life is a gift, and with that gift comes a responsibility to give back. I also try to enjoy and appreciate every day I’ve been granted since my cancer diagnosis. I wake up every morning, giving thanks for another day on this glorious planet, even when I’m highly disgruntled with current events in this country and around the world.

Even if suffering through an illness is not one’s fate, not one of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so don’t put off doing activities, taking trips, or being with the people who are most important to you; or taking a risk to accomplish a long-desired goal that you have been too scared for one reason or another to pursue. Life is scary; taking risks is scary, but I’ve more often times than not found those risks to be more than worth it.

I heard someone the other day say that life is not fair, and asked why do bad things happen to good people? Life is not fair—bad things happen to good people and wonderful things happen to terrible people; sometimes there seems to be no justice. However, and as much as I want justice, fairness and equality to prevail, it’s not the justice that matters. What matters is how you play the cards you are dealt. Do you fall apart and live with anger and fear, or do you embrace [accept] what is and figure out how to live your life in the best way possible for you and for those who interact with you at any given moment?

One of my favorite stories that Thich Nhat Hanh includes in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness is Leo Tolstoy’s “Three Questions.” Versions of the story vary slightly, but it is summarized below an the excerpt  from Rebirth.

April 6, 2004 – Tuesday

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh recounts a story by Tolstoy about an emperor searching for the answer to three questions:

1. What is the best time to do each thing?
2. Who are the most important people to work with?
3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The answer is this:

Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.

Often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all.

To this day, seven years later, I try to remember the answers to those questions and to be present whether I am with work colleagues, friends, or family members, especially those nieces and nephews whom I was not sure I’d live to see grow up, or even see some of them born. Lucky number seven…it has been for me anyway. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Perfect Gift

April 21, 2004
11:25 p.m.
I shouldn’t have done it, but tonight I retrieved one of my transplant books and reread it. The pre-transplant section includes suggestions for “Getting Your Affairs in Order.” I don’t have a will, and even if I did, I don’t have a thing to bequeath to anyone. But it made me think. My family would need to know the location of my life insurance policy, I want “The Prayer of St. Francis” and “Amazing Grace” sang at my funeral, and I want to write a message to be read to family and friends after the sermon. (This is the performer in me—even my funeral will be a production!) The passwords of e-mail and various financial accounts need to be shared with family. The addresses of friends who don’t have e-mail (or whose information is not stored in my cell phone) need to be noted so that in the event of my death, they can be contacted. And the most important loose-end is Aidan. I am his godmother, and I long to remain a presence in his life. As a Catholic, he will celebrate many sacraments as he grows into an adult and beyond, and I want to be sure he receives cards and messages from me on those special occasions (as well as high school and college graduations) regardless of my presence in this world.

Thinking about all of this has made me incredibly sad, and I’ve been sobbing for almost two hours now. Part of me wants to organize all of this information, and another part feels that if I do, then I am preparing to die. On the other hand, if I don’t put these things in order and I do die, none of my wishes will be known. I don’t want to die and I’m afraid that by doing these things I’ll be saying, “Okay, I’m ready,” and I’m not ready, and I’m so scared.
(Excerpt from Rebirth)

I posted the above journal entry on my blog the following day and shortly thereafter received a box in the mail from Karryn, a co-worker from my Cigna days in Cincinnati. I opened the package and inside was a floral filing box, about 5” x 9” x 12”. I removed the top and saw that the box was filled with greeting cards—probably more than fifty— for every occasion, even for Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Penance and Reconciliation, and graduations. Karryn had read my blog post and decided that I needed a supply of cards.

I never did prepare all those cards with notes to Aidan in the event of my death. I couldn’t make myself do it, mostly because I refused to envision a future in which I was absent from his life. I suppose had my situation gotten worse and death looked inevitable, I would’ve written the messages and given the cards to his mother for safekeeping.

I have nearly exhausted that supply of cards. I used all the Baptism ones for Andrew, Grace, and Alexa (I had to purchase one for Nathaniel), but this is the first Communion one I've needed. Aidan, who was about sixteen months old when I wrote the above entry, is now eight and will make his First Communion this weekend. It is not only an important day for him, but also a joyous milestone for me: In April 2004 I did not know if I’d live to see him receive this sacrament, yet here I am, seven years later, still an integral part of his life.

I haven’t spoken to, seen, or even corresponded with Karryn in many years, but I will always treasure her gift of greeting cards; it meant the world to me. She saw a need and filled it. During that turbulent and uncertain time, it was the perfect gift.

What perfect gift have you received?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Writing to Heal - Part II

“I feel as if I have healed myself with my own words. I am making myself well. Writing is my cure.”  ~ Carole Buvoso (diarist, writer, director)

The above quote reflects my sentiments about writing, especially during my leukemia treatment period. I was writing to heal/cure myself, so when I designed my journal writing workshop for cancer survivors, I named it Writing for Your Life, because I felt I was indeed writing for my life.

In a workshop last fall, one of the writing exercises I assigned was to write about "an unresolved issue or a person who has hurt you whom you need to forgive." One of my participants had brought her laptop with her because she found it easier to record her thoughts and feelings this way. I suspect, like me, her brain kicks into overdrive and it is easier to keep up with her thoughts via a keyboard than with a pen. I could hear and see her clicking forcefully away on the keys, indicating to me that there was purpose and intensity to what she was typing.

Once the exercise was finished, she leaned back in her chair, ran her fingers through her hair and exclaimed, “Wow, you are right, that was cathartic!” I smiled. I have always found writing to be emotionally cathartic, though curiously, that is one benefit of expressive writing that Professor James A. Pennebaker and other researchers have found little evidence of, unlike the evidence of physical benefits such as reducing stress and blood pressure, decreased pain and increased health in cancer patients, fewer days in the hospital, improved mood and cognitive function as well as improved liver and lung function, to name a few.

Perhaps it is more difficult to assess or measure the emotional health benefits of expressive writing, but I read and hear from writers (of journals and blogs) all the time about how writing is an effective means of dealing with emotional stress. I’ve experienced it in my writing for years. Sometimes it takes as little as one time to write about a hurtful or stressful event and I feel infinitely better; then at other times I may have to write about a topic for months, as the issue surfaces repeatedly, disturbing my emotional equilibrium.

I found myself many years ago over a three month period writing constantly about a manager who made me feel insecure and incompetent. I would leave the office every evening seething with resentment. I felt I could do nothing right. Finally, after months of writing about my frustration and anger, it hit me: I must stop taking this personally. This person behaves this way with everyone, and he doesn’t even realize it. Finally, when I started standing up for myself and pushing back, our relationship began to change. My manager was unaware of how his actions were impacting me adversely. Admittedly, I allowed him to negatively affect me, which is something I know I have control over. However, until he was made aware of how I felt, he couldn’t make the necessary changes and I couldn’t expect him to—he’s not a mind reader.

I am a big believer that people treat us the way we allow them to treat us. Writing exposed the lack of confidence I possessed to stand up for myself, and how I was allowing someone else to adversely affect my emotional well-being. Furthermore, I examined how he behaved with everyone, not just me, and discovered this was not personal, that he did not hate me. Writing provided me a way to vent my frustrations and anger without having to involve another human being…though I must admit I did do a little of that, too. I'm all about expression—written or verbal.

I have used my blog as a journal as well. As referenced in my March 24 post, I recently came upon the article, “Writing to OvercomeTrauma,” on the Military Officers Association of America website. It discusses how soldiers in Afghanistan (or in any overseas mission) use blogging to “take control of their emotions.” Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper says it has played a part in his PTSD recovery. The article further states that writing is a common outlet for service members and veterans dealing with traumatic and stressful experiences. One of the largest blogging sites by American service members,, listed 2,763 military blogs in 44 countries, as of October 2010.

For cancer survivors, some blogging communities can be found on the following sites: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Cancer Society Cancer Survivor’s Network and CaringBridge. To find other topics organized around blogging communities, I suggest using Google search.

Obviously, I am a big proponent of writing as a means to heal both emotionally and physically. For more information on the healing benefits of expressive writing, you can read my recent article, “Journaling Through Cancer” in the March/April issue of Coping with Cancer magazine or my book Rebirth provides a practical example of how I used writing to heal during my cancer treatment and recovery period. All you need is a pen and a notebook to get started. Happy healing!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Journaling Through Cancer

My article, "Journaling Through Cancer," is in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of Coping® with Cancer magazine.

Excerpt from article:

Numerous studies have confirmed that expressive writing produces health benefits, such as a strengthened immune system, increased lung and liver function, increased cognitive function, reduced stress and blood pressure, improved mood, decreased symptoms of arthritis and asthma, and increased well-being in cancer survivors. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if the writing topic is positive or negative. Healing benefits are derived as long as you involve the emotions. Therefore, journaling is a wonderful self-therapy tool, though not a substitute for professional help, if necessary.

Read the entire article here.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Lanford Wilson Tribute

With Michael Morehead and Lanford Wilson, reception at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (May 2001)

Rarely is an actor on my level presented with the opportunity to work directly with or perform for a playwright she greatly admires. I fell in love with Lanford Wilson’s work when I auditioned for the role of Sally Talley in his Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Talley’s Folly, in college. The role went to an MFA student, but from that time on, I longed to tackle the role of Sally.

This audition ignited my desire to acquaint myself with Wilson's body of work, so I purchased many of his plays. I bought a hardback anthology of one-act plays when I was 27 and serendipitously discovered Wilson’s one-woman play, The Moonshot Tape, which was the last play in the book. I was riveted by this complex, deeply flawed, yet vulnerable character and longed for the chance to conquer her harrowing monologue (in performance it timed out to about 55 minutes).

The play revolves around Diane, a famous short-story writer who has returned to her hometown, Mountain Grove, MO, after a long absence to help her mother settle into a nursing home. While in Mountain Grove, she stays at a dumpy motel and is interviewed in her room by a high school reporter for the school paper. Jackie Demaline, theatre critic and writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, summed up the story briefly in her critique of the show: “The eager, invisible interviewer has dutifully submitted a list of innocuous questions along the lines of “How has growing up in a small town prepared you for living in a large urban city, or not?” As Diane swills vodka and chain smokes, her stream-of-consciousness answers deepen into an outpouring that’s more than the kid bargained for.”

Diane - The Moonshot Tape
Ovation Theatre Company
Photo by Rich Sofranko

Diane's tough, devil-may-care attitude disguises deep emotional scars and resentment from years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and a longing to be loved and protected by a mother who didn’t know how to love or protect. The character is vastly different from me and my family experience which is what attracted me to her and is what made the character exciting to explore. Our similarities were grounded in being creative, small-town girls, longing to escape the confines of our rural communities. After reading The Moonshot Tape, I vowed that somehow, someday, somewhere I would play Diane. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to accomplish that, but I was committed to making it happen.

In 1997, as I was forming Ovation Theatre Company with my four partners (Lisa Hall Breithaupt, Scott Sponsler, Joe Stollenwerk, and Mark Sumpter), I was cast in the role of Sally Talley by Michael Morehead. Talley’s Folly was performed at Village Players, a community theatre in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. The entire experience was wonderful—the beautiful story, working with two talented men: Mike and my leading man, Ed Cohen, and all the designers and technical crew. Before Talley’s Folly opened, I gave Mike a copy of The Moonshot Tape and told him that I wanted him to direct me in it someday.

With Ed Cohen in Talley's Folly
Village Players

Four years later, May of 2001, not only did Mike direct me in Moonshot Tape, but I had the privilege of doing it with Ovation Theatre Company, the company I’d helped create. Ovation staged four of Lanford Wilson’s one-act plays during the Lanford Wilson Theatre Festival. The following plays were also staged in Cincinnati during that time: Talley’s Folly by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (celebrating Lanford’s twentieth anniversary of receiving the Pulitzer Prize for that play), Sense of Place by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, Redwood Curtain by Know Theatre Tribe and Burn This by IF Theatre Collective.

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park hosted a reception, a few days before the opening of Talley’s Folly, for Lanford and his long-time collaborator and director of most of his shows, Marshall Mason. I met both men that evening which led to Lanford coming to Ovation’s warehouse to see my rehearsal (our show did not open until the following weekend, when Lanford would be back in New York). Marshall had told me that The Moonshot Tape was one of Lanford’s most personal pieces, so we should make sure to get him to a rehearsal; so we did. Thankfully, I was performance-ready. It was a private performance for him as well as a few select friends of Ovation.

I was terrified at first but quickly found my groove, alone there in the performance area. It was an amazing and exhilarating experience. Afterwards, Lanford gave me a huge hug and much praise, then even offered a few acting notes. It was a pivotal moment for me. Mr. Wilson’s praise was the validation I needed to find the courage to take the leap to pursue acting in the New York City market.

Ovation rehearsal space...after performing, getting notes from Lanford Wilson.

I will always be grateful for my encounter with him; he will never know what a positive influence he had on me. Unfortunately, I was never able to professionally capitalize on that moment, but I will forever treasure it.

One week ago, March 24, Lanford Wilson passed away from complications of pneumonia. He was only 73. There were wonderful tributes written in the New York Times and many other publications, but I felt compelled to write my own tribute to a man who helped change the trajectory of my life—giving me a much-needed boost of confidence.

Thanks for the inspiration, Lanford.

Corrections made 04/01/2011: Village Players is in Ft. Thomas, KY; I'd written Ft. Mitchell. The day of the reception has been brought into question, so I've changed that as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writing to Heal - Part I

“Writing to heal” is a phrase and title of books, articles, and workshops I see repeatedly in my research about the health benefits of writing. I have personally experienced those healing benefits—emotional, spiritual, and physical—throughout my years of journaling, but especially during my cancer treatments from December 2003 through December 2004. (Five years later, my journal of that time became my book, Rebirth.)

When diagnosed with leukemia on December 18, 2003, I knew that my journaling would be an essential weapon in my healing arsenal. I used it to record all my medical information so that I could refer back to my notes should I have any questions or concerns; to assess the pros and cons of different treatment protocols; and to explore my emotions, which spanned the spectrum of fear, sadness, anger, joy, and hope. I wrote about dreams and goals and strategized plans for the future. I detailed my experiments using self-healing techniques such as guided imagery, affirmations, meditation, and prayer.

However, the greatest benefit came from mustering the courage to face past hurts and resentments, some that occurred decades ago that were still negatively affecting my life, mostly unconsciously. I was given many books about how biography can become biology, how holding onto past hurts and resentments can adversely affect our health. There is much research in this area, and though I’m not convinced I caused my leukemia, as a self-professed control-freak, this was a very empowering idea because if I made myself sick, then I could make myself well.

So I set out on, what I refer to as, the archeological dig into my past; much was uncovered. The entire essay, “I’m Enough,” is in Rebirth. Following is a brief excerpt:

Three childhood memories particularly stand out as contributing to my fractured ego: my best friend rejected me after she became a cheerleader, which translated in my mind to my no longer being popular or pretty enough to be her friend; a boy commented that my nose was big (I had no self-consciousness about my nose prior to that moment); and a friend’s grandmother gave me a backhanded compliment about how attractive I was at fifteen in spite of my “having been such a homely child” (I’d been homely?). These unkind actions and comments sparked the obsession with my appearance, which only intensified as I transitioned from grade school to high school. Reading fashion magazines and watching glamorous celebrities parading around on television made me achingly aware of my physical inadequacies. I longed to be one of the beautiful people and thus began a two-decade quest for the perfect makeover.

This quest included years of exercising, not out of the joy of moving my limbs and generating health but rather, to achieve a svelte, sculpted body. I failed at many diets because it was absurd for me to be on a diet in the first place.

Writing has always been an emotionally healing exercise for me, whether I was working through a conflict with a family member or friend, mending a broken heart, mourning the loss of a coveted role, or emotionally reeling from that tragic day on September 11, 2001. Writing was my emotional life-line through leukemia treatment and recovery. I named my journaling workshop for cancer survivors Writing for Your Life because during leukemia treatments I felt I was writing for my life. Furthermore, as my interest has grown in the field of writing and healing, I’ve discovered research conducted over the past two decades that support what I have experienced myself.

James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology, at the University of Texas, Austin, is widely accepted as the father of successful studies of the effects of writing on health. Some of the health benefits that he and other researchers have found include: reduction of blood pressure and stress, strengthened immune system, improvement in cognitive functioning, improvement of mood, improved lung function and liver function, decreased symptoms in asthma and arthritis, decreased pain and increased health in cancer patients, and fewer days in the hospital.

Writing is not only a tool for navigating through a physical illness, but it can help a person deal with the emotional upheaval associated with a traumatic event. For instance, in October 2010 the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) posted on their web site an article by Stephanie Rodrigues Melson, “Writing to Overcome Trauma,” that reveals how writing and blogging* have helped servicemen and women deal with the emotional and physical stressors of combat, or of working in a war zone, and how it is a form of therapy., one of the largest blogging sites for American servicemembers, listed 2,136 military blogs in 44 countries as of October 2010.

I am a huge proponent of writing about one’s experiences, of transforming internal energy and thoughts into external expression. The healing benefits of expressive writing will be explored during my Creative Writing Workshop at the OMG! NYC 2011 4th Annual Cancer Summit for Young Adults on April 17. There will be a presentation followed by written exercises. As an added treat, Lisa Bernhard, journalist and co-host of The Stupid Cancer Show, will stop by to share her experiences with writing and healing. For information about the conference (April 16-17), visit

*James W. Pennebaker cautions that research on the benefits of writing have not included blogging.

If interested in reading more about this topic, check out Dr. Pennebaker’s article Writing to Heal.

Stay tuned for Part II…

Monday, March 14, 2011

Joan Goble – A Small Town Teacher with Global Reach

Photo: Dec. 28, 2010 - Mom's retirement party; Me, Joan Goble, and Mom (Nancy Ludwig)

“My little school system of Cannelton, Indiana, has not only given me the opportunity to see the world, but given me the tools and the support to share the world with my students!"  ~ Joan Goble

A blond-haired woman walked into the back room of the Perry County News office in Tell City, Indiana, where my mother’s retirement party was taking place on December 28. I recognized her instantly. It was Joan Goble whom I met at my book event/signing at the public library on December 19, 2009, and have since become friends. I smiled, she smiled and when we got to each other, hugged. Joan is a fellow cancer survivor; she has chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

March is Women’s History Month, so I wanted to profile at least one (of the many) women I admire. Joan was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Reading her answers, I discovered what an amazing, inspirational woman she truly is; I had no idea. She is a teacher—a transformational teacher who has implemented ways to inspire and challenge her students with innovative projects that have led to international collaboration opportunities and travel. She is not only an example of the kind of educator U.S students deserve, but also a reminder (to legislators and superintendents across the nation) that we cannot afford to lose teachers of her caliber.

Deborah: How long have you been teaching and what made you want to go into that profession?

Joan: I have been in the teaching profession now for 32 years. I have taught at Cannelton Elementary for 30. As a child growing up I was always in awe of my teachers. I totally respected them and wanted to please them. I had great teachers throughout my school years, and they inspired me. I felt that they made a difference in my life so I wanted to make a difference too. I had debated between going into the medical field or the teaching field. As a freshman in college I made the decision to become a teacher.

D: What grade do you teach now; in the past?

J: My first real job was substitute teaching for a year, all grades. That is how I landed my job at Cannelton Elementary. I had substituted quite a bit for Cannelton and when a job opened up that summer I was offered one. It was a third grade position. I held that position for 28 years. My school system is very small. We only have one class per grade, so I was THE third grade teacher at the Cannelton School System for those 28 years. I think third grade is such an exciting grade to teach. Children of that age are just starting to really think beyond their classroom and are so eager to learn.

When our school became an "online" school in 1996, I decided to start an after school media club. I began working with older students up to sixth grade. I found that I enjoyed working with them just as much. Then, two years ago the 5th grade teacher retired, and I asked if I could replace her. I did, and I totally enjoy it.

D: You teach in a very small community, how has that impacted you as a teacher with regards to the resources the Cannelton school system has?

J: I love teaching at Cannelton. I feel that even though we are small, we have made our voices heard. We Cannelton teachers all involve our parents and community in the education of our students. As in the old saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," I think that includes the education of children as well. Cannelton is very proud of its school system and so there has always been a lot of support. I have felt that first hand many times over the 30 years I have taught here. Any time my Media Club has needed support from the community it has been there 100 %. I know that we could not have achieved what we have without that support.

D: The population of the city of Cannelton was estimated as of July 2009 to be 1,130. How many students are in the school system?

J: Cannelton Elementary has one class per grade, and the average class size is around 20. The Junior/Senior High School is the same as far as size of classes. I am not exactly sure of the whole entire school system's size, but I would say it averages around 260 to 280 students, maybe more some years. (Joan was right about the size.)

D: You have developed several programs for your students. What are they and how did you go about implementing them?

J: Our school has had many programs set up for the students to get involved in. One program that our school was involved in that helped us to make a connection with other schools not only in Indiana, but nationally and even internationally, was the state program called The Buddy System. This program, beginning in the very early 90s, allowed our school to not only become an online school, but gave every student in grades 4-6 an online computer to use. It was the beginning of networking, and we were in on the ground floor for Indiana public schools. At that time I taught third grade, which was not a part of the program, but I benefited as well due to all of the teachers getting an online computer.

Then in the summer of 1996, I went to a summer class on using the Internet in the classroom and I was hooked. The following year I decided it would be nice if our school had a Media Club, so I started it that year. We mostly connected in online projects where we could collaborate with other schools.

Our first collaboration was with a school in Australia on a research project about trees and forests. That project has led to many connections with schools around the world. Unfortunately, the Buddy Project has lost state funding and is no longer around, but it definitely gave our school system a basis for future collaborative projects.

I am mostly a project-based teacher. I love to involve my students in active learning, so anytime I can involve them in a project where they can take ownership for the process, as well as the product, I go for it. Examples include many online projects/websites. There are many that are my favorites, but I will share a few here.

One that continues to this day to give us learning opportunities, and "fame" even, is "Our Wonderful Moon Tree." It is really involved, but in short it allowed us to make connections with NASA in paying tribute to Moon Trees, living monuments to the Apollo Space Program. It was also written about in a BBC article that also aired on BBC radio in 2005. Last month, the story appeared in USA Today. It mentions our school and our involvement in initiating the search for all of the Moon Trees.

Another project that helped us to broaden our horizons beyond Cannelton, beyond Indiana and even beyond our nation's borders, was TENAN: The Endangered Animals of the World web project. I worked with Rene de Vries, a teacher from the Netherlands, to create this project. Schools from all over the world were invited to research endangered animals from their regions and send in their reports for us to publish. TENAN was active from 1998 until May 2007. We had to end it for various reasons, mainly due to our schedules becoming too busy—not enough time to devote to keeping the project active. It broke both of our hearts, but we had to. However, we have kept it online because we feel it has been and continues to be a good resource for students.

One great opportunity that was a direct result of this project was when the United Nations Environmental Program contacted us (Rene and myself), inviting us to send a delegation of our students who worked on TENAN to the UNEP Millennium Children’s Conference on the Environment in May 2000. This is also an excellent example of how the community of Cannelton, and really all of Perry County, Indiana, supported us. We were able to raise enough money to send 9 students to this conference held in Eastbourne, England. Rene was able to send 11 of his students too. Not only was it a thrill to get to see England and meet students and teachers from nearly 100 countries, we were able to meet our partners in the project for the first time. We had worked for over two years on this project and finally students from each school could meet face to face!

Because of my work in online shared learning, collaborative projects, I have been given many opportunities to share what I have done and learned with teachers in Indiana, several states in the USA, and I have also traveled and presented in London and Brighton in England, Copenhagen, Denmark, several parts of Japan including Tokyo and Asahikawa, and even traveled and presented in Tianjin, China. My little school system of Cannelton, Indiana, has not only given me the opportunity to see the world, but given me the tools and the support to share the world with my students!

D: You also volunteer and are involved in your community outside the school?

J: Yes, I have been on our Perry County Museum board since 1998, a board member of the Perry County Animal Shelter since 2008 and am currently the Secretary. For ten years I was on the board of We the Youth of Perry County. I have served on various other county committees, most recently the committee for the 50th Anniversary Memorial Service (a wonderful event) of the 1960 Plane Crash.

D: You are a cancer survivor. How did you discover you had CLL and when?

J: The cancer was a shock...totally had no idea. I had gone to the doctor because my left leg was losing some muscle mass. Several doctors looked at it and some tests were ordered, then finally a CBC (Complete Blood Count) was done to see what that might show. There was no evidence of muscle damage in the blood, but it showed a critically high white blood cell count. I was then sent to a specialist (oncologist/hematologist) who did more blood tests and diagnosed me with early stage CLL. That was in late August 2009. I am in what is called the "watch and wait" stage—no treatments at the moment. Every four months I go back to the oncologist and he does a CBC, checks my lymph nodes, and asks questions to see what symptoms I may have.

D: How has that impacted your day-to-day life?

J: I would have to say mostly it has made me take better care of myself. I am more aware of my body and try to keep myself from getting sick. It is a challenge, since I work with children every day. I try to keep my stress level as low as I can, and I use (and have my students use) hand cleanser constantly to keep colds and flu at bay. I try to enjoy each day that I am well.

D: How is your support system?

J: My support system is great. First I have my husband and my two children are very supportive, and patient! At home I can have my days when I just want to whine and feel sorry for myself and not worry about the consequences. I get it out of my system and no one at work or out and about is the wiser. (Well, until now that is...ha ha!)

At work I have much support as well. I have not told my students of my illness because I feel there is no need to worry them. I also have, of course, friends like you and the online friends I have found at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, as well as a wonderful Facebook group, CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia).

I highly recommend to anyone with any kind of illness like this to find a group online to join. There is a lot of love and support out there, and it can be so comforting and reassuring to know that you are not alone in fighting the good fight!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

My Love-Hate (Mostly Hate) Relationship with Auditions

Photo: Diane in The Moonshot Tape - Ovation Theatre Company
Photo credit: Rich Sofranko

Saturday, walking to One on One studios to attend a class with a television and film casting director, for one brief moment, I felt the urge to turn around and flee, to just blow off the class, even though I had paid $125 for the 90-minute session. I had spent the week preparing the scene and felt confident about my choices, yet a feeling of dread hung over me. I am much more comfortable these days than I’ve ever been in the past when auditioning, yet there remains a slight twinge of fear—fear of completely messing up, fear of making a fool of myself, fear of not being as good as the other actors in the room.

Fear—hate it. Yet despite the fear, I forged forward. The last time I attended one of these classes, it went very well. What I like about attending class at One on One is that all the actors are talented. There isn’t an obvious gap between the beginners and the pros, mostly because the One on One staff screen actors (audition and interview are required) before allowing them to become members, then a one-time membership fee must be paid.

I arrived a few minutes early. The class size was small—eight of us. The casting director had a very warm personality and she gave us excellent feedback on our work. We each got up and performed our scene on-camera (with a reader) and then were given adjustments before doing the scene again.

These classes and meetings are ways for me to introduce myself to industry people, and since I do not have a legit agent, it behooves me to meet as many casting people as possible, especially those who are casting television series and movies because that is where my real interests lie. These sessions are also a way to stretch myself and take risks with the character choices I make.

Taking risks is scary, but it is in the very taking of those risks that we grow and discover what we are truly capable of doing. After each small victory, we become increasingly confident to attempt something even scarier. A couple examples from my life of when baby steps led to accomplishing larger goals were performing a one-hour, one-woman play and writing and singing cabaret.

The confidence to perform solo began with being cast in leading roles. There was Vera Claythorne, in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians in 1994 followed by Rita Boyle in Prelude to a Kiss in 1995. Then came the opportunity to perform in two-person shows: the first (and one of my favorites) as Sally Talley in Talley’s Folly and then with my dear friend Lisa in Ovation Theatre Company’s (the company we founded with three other friends) inaugural production, a two-woman play titled Parallel Lives: The Kathy & Mo Show. In that show, I braved a harrowing monologue that was nearly 10-minutes long. That monologue provided me the experience of commanding the stage myself—no one else was there to save me should I forget a line or lose my train of thought.

Then in May 2001, a dream came true; a spark of creative desire ignited eight years earlier suddenly became reality: The opportunity to play my dream role, Diane in Lanford Wilson’s The Moonshot Tape, was going to happen. This one-woman, one-act dared me to own the stage for fifty-five minutes. It was the scariest yet most exhilarating challenge I’ve undertaken to date. Other challenges coming in at a close second are publishing my book, Rebirth, and performing cabaret shows.

The cabaret performances started their evolution years before the actual ones took place. I auditioned for some musicals after my first year in Cincinnati and was cast in Godspell (I sang a solo), My Fair Lady and Working (in the chorus), Annie as Grace Farrell (one solo and some duets; I wanted the role of Ms. Hannigan desperately, but that role went to Lisa, who is mentioned above) and finally Into the Woods as the Witch, the most amazing musical role I have ever worked on (bestowed upon me by, you guessed it, Lisa). That role cemented my confidence as a singer and my longing for further singing opportunities.

I’d always loved the old standards and felt drawn to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, and Peggy Lee, to name a few. One evening, while my friend Robin and I were at The Cabaret, a small club located in Over-the-Rhine, just north of downtown Cincinnati, I mustered the courage to sing, while the singer booked for the evening was on break. I requested the accompanist play Linda Ronstadt’s version of Someone to Watch Over Me. I was quite nervous but made it through the song beautifully, not one weak note or crack in my voice. When I returned to my seat, a gentleman at the next table asked me if I was going to sing again. I told him no; but from that moment, I was hooked.

So over the next year, I booked a couple performances at The Cabaret, where I sang two short sets during each performance. Finally, I decided to expand to a larger venue, Upstairs at Carol’s, and with the help of some of my genius marketing friends – Karen, Nelson and Lori—drew some sizable crowds and expanded my show to include three sets of music. My last cabaret performance was in Cincinnati in 2002 with my friend Joe. I did the first set, he sang the second set, and we performed the third one together.

So with these achievements under my belt, why am I not doing those things here and now in New York City? Granted, I have been less than enthusiastic taking the initiative to make contacts and pursue jobs the way I should, lacking the intensity that I see in other actors; or developing my own projects the way I did in the past. Excuses are plentiful: “I went through cancer, then I wrote a book (and I love writing, too, so I do that on a regular basis), I am a volunteer with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and have developed a journaling workshop for cancer survivors and caregivers. My life is extremely full. I have myriad interests, so my focus is all over the place.” Still, I long for those meaty, leading performance opportunities of yesteryear.

It's not that I haven't worked in acting since 2002 because I have. I've done stage, commercials, and independent films, but for a couple of exceptions, not at the level I had hoped to work. It’s now or never time to up my game—time to meet as many casting directors as possible, submit myself for all projects of interest, and seriously network with other actors. I'm even writing a cabaret performance for possible staging this fall.

In this insane business, I’m largely responsible for my progress, or lack thereof; I get in my own way. I must say yes to more auditions, even if I’m not overly excited about them. For example yesterday, I had an audition for a low-paying commercial. The audition was an open call, which I hate—I prefer to have a scheduled appointment. To top it off, I was submitted for the role of a person battling incontinence. (Oh how quickly one goes from being the young mom to the incontinence sufferer!)

Surprisingly, I had a blast in the audition—it was funny material and the casting director loved me. Here was a chance to meet a casting director as well as practice auditioning and making interesting choices with the copy. Each experience should be about learning something useful for future auditions, expanding what I am capable of doing, and building confidence. The casting session I approached with a negative attitude, ended up being quite a wonderful experience; just like on Saturday when I was feeling less than enthusiastic about my class, yet it was great. I even received a response from her after I sent her an email thank you on Monday. That has never happened.

Maybe things are looking up. Regardless, I’m trying to adjust my attitude and see every audition as a chance to perform because then maybe I won’t hate them so much. I’ll keep putting myself out there, taking chances, even at the risk of falling flat on my face. No risk, no reward—that’s what I’ve consistently discovered over the past fifteen years. My love-hate relationship with auditions will not end immediately, but I hope soon to feel more love for them than hate.

What do you have a love-hate relationship with? What is holding you back in achieving your goals?