Archives for the month of: September, 2015
Autumn Butterfly

Autumn Butterfly

Today, exactly seven months after the injury, almost to the hour, I drive myself to a follow-up appointment with the surgeon. It’s my first solo trip, as I couldn’t walk the distance between parking and the foot and ankle center office until now.  The new school year is just starting to establish a more regular routine, and on this beautiful autumn morning, at the very start of the season, I park my vehicle and walk carefully up the sidewalk of a short, but very steep hill. I’m clearly still injured, visibly limping, though no longer wearing a brace or needing crutches.  I know I look older, aged by the pain still showing in the wincing muscles of my face; I’m trying to be patient with my progress, so differently vulnerable in ways I could never have predicted before the fall.  There’s a weariness etched in my spirit, but also a wisdom earned from the many months of recovery from trauma and a long healing process still ahead.

I watch my steps with focused attention, and I acknowledge that even a month ago this incline would have been impossible. The pain would have been too great, the steep hill too challenging, but today there is a greater strength in my stride. The movement of walking is more fluid, less wobbly, and with significantly less of the rocking side to side motion which I referred to as my  “Ar2D2” walk. Despite the uneven surfaces below my feet, I make decent progress across the short few blocks, passing the medical staff in the shadow of the underpass where they gather to smoke at the outer boundary of the hospital grounds. I walk through the front door of the main lobby, and as I pass this familiar gate, I remember the complicated arrangements it took to get me to my past check-ups and surgeries here; the adjustments my boyfriend and close friends and family made to their own schedules to bring me to appointments. Sometimes, I coordinated shifts of support, one loved one dropping me off at the front door, helping me get on my way with crutches under my arms, and later someone else meeting me after the appointment to bring me home or back to work. For weeks after the accident my car sat in my work parking spot where I parked it the morning of my fall on that icy campus path; there it remained a visible marker of my absence until it could be brought back to finish winter in front of my house. Finally, there was a day, now months ago, when I was able again to drive myself short distances, parking in the handicapped spaces on campus while struggling with the crutches and a series of therapeutic boots. Those previous appointments with the surgeon brought anxiety, cresting in the days just before the return, fearful of being scolded for making slow progress, despite my active efforts in physical therapy, and worrying about the boundaries of the next steps.  On my own with the surgeon, a cheerful but concise man younger than me, I often forgot to ask questions about needed information, or couldn’t remember the answers provided amidst the overwhelming emotional and physical realities of surgeries and pain and recovery. It was a learning process of advocacy and self-care while navigating the tangles of doctors and insurance, workers compensation, medical leave and then a return to work, relationships and personal needs, while trying to prioritize healing.  My body continues to heal…

Today, returning for what might be my last appointment with the surgeon, I feel more agency. Through regular physical therapy and diligently doing my exercises, I’ve regained activities that would have been impossible not too long ago. During my recent physical therapy session, at a fast walk on the treadmill, the very edge before a light jog would be required, I took that push up at the start of jogging, and stepped down into an immediate sharp pain that shot all the way up my leg from the ankle. The pain cried,  “Hell, no! No yet, no way!”  The leg didn’t buckle under me, as it surely would have earlier in the recovery process. After the initial shock, I resumed the fast walk pace with the “usual” pain levels. I described my progress to the physical therapist as, “same pain level but doing more.”

Today, the surgeon is basically finished his work with me. We talk about my ongoing pain levels and the clear progress in flexibility following the second surgery. I ask about the activities I did before the accident: yoga, running, and work-related choreography and stage blocking. I’m to be my own judge of what I can do now, monitoring the pain and working with the physical therapist to regain activity, retrain my body to walk correctly, and resume my “normal” life. He reminds me, again, that pain and swelling is to be expected through a year following the injury and initial surgery. With the permanent addition of the plate and screws in my ankle, he predicts about a 95% return to normal activity, but it’s going to take more time to get there. On my walk back to the car, I feel both relief and hope, but also grief and anger and sadness.

Set from Owl Gate Theatre's production of

Set from Owl Gate Theatre’s production of “Mr. Paradise” by Tennessee Williams

I just started my twenty-sixth teaching year. Directing educational theater, with the exception of a short few years when I went back to grad school, is a consistent, anchoring component of my adult life.  Thinking back on theater as both a student and teacher, I realized that since the third grade, when I took part in a Bicentennial performance piece at my elementary school, I’ve been in some kind of rehearsal process for a large portion of almost every year since I eight years old.

I remember a lot of really great teachers.  My experience as an older student back in grad school was one of the best gifts I ever gave myself as an artist and educator, providing a degree that I needed professionally, but more than that, a revitalization of my art practices.  Not too long ago, a large gathering of peers from my undergraduate college days came together to hold a scholarship fundraising event in memory of a beloved theater director and teacher.  I never had the opportunity to study or work with him in the ways that many of my closest friends and artistic collaborators did, but the event was certainly a tribute to his legacy and the institution itself, a very progressive Vermont arts college, which greatly shaped our experience as theater artists and produced an exceptionally strong caliber of professional artists, writers, performers in many, many competitive arts professions, especially for such a small student population.

I wasn’t always a great student; in my younger days, I was an interesting, creative, but undisciplined student.  I loved being in theater, initially it was a place where the misfit-me found a sense of belonging. I loved performing, but the path to the stage wasn’t always easy for me.  Though the theater itself felt like a home, it was also one of the places I felt most negatively judged by some of my theater teachers.  In my teens and twenties, I was a rather flamboyant gay actor (during the mid to late ‘80’s), and sometimes the least nurturing of my teachers were other gay men, older men I wanted to be mentors and allies. Comments were made to me by drama teachers/directors that I would never, never, never imagine saying to my own students. I was told I was uncastable, despite finding professional experiences out of school, and I steered myself towards performance art, dance, directing, and costume design when the criticism and lack of opportunities seemed insurmountable.

After I graduated from college, I arrived in New York City in an era when so many gay men were dying of AIDS. I remember the awe of seeing queer characters on stage in Broadway productions of Angels in America, Rent, Love! Valour! Compassion. I found community in activism, and we took to the streets to fight for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. I applied my theater skills to giant props for street actions, and making costumes/painting scenery for original or reworked plays for the small, ultra-progressive school and summer camps at which I was first hired to teach. Teaching theater was an anchor in the midst of great changes including gentrification of New York pushing the artists, unable to withstand the rising rents, further and further away from the city itself. Eventually, I moved to Baltimore, where I could still buy a home on a regular school teacher salary.  In the peak of my New York years, I directed more than ten school productions a year, designed costumes professionally, and ran successful theater programs during summers and after school programs.  My own progressive education instilled a belief in theater that is inclusive, diverse, and participatory; these qualities are at the heart of my work all these years later.  

Now an educator and administrator at an all-girls school, my background in gender and feminist studies is a central, core foundation for my leadership in the arts.  I am deeply committed to supporting the work of women playwrights and an advocate for more inclusive diversity in theater.  These values inform actions, such as an ongoing search for the right plays so that my students are empowered, as well as challenged as performers and thinkers. I am mindful of the importance of making visible the stories too seldom told.  I work diligently at discovering age-appropriate material for a wide range of grade levels, and we’ve added a community theater program that provides students an opportunity to work with local performers.  Many of my former students are accomplished performers way beyond my own professional performance career, and others are also teachers, or in professions where their art backgrounds are a vital part of their jobs.

At the start of my twenty-sixth teaching year, I share these thoughts from a life of learning, both on and off the stage. I am grateful to have shared many wonderful theaters with thousands of students and many amazing colleagues over the past twenty-five years, and next week, rehearsals start for the first musical of the new school year.

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