Saturday, September 5, 2009

Notes from the Field (XVIII)


QUESTION: “So, how is it you got into storytelling?”

ANSWER: “After many years of dancing in musical theater tours, I was seeking a performance outlet that I could control. One where, I would be my own boss, create my own work that would encompass my dance, acting, clown, and maybe even my American Sign Language and stilt walking. Something where I wouldn’t have to spend soooo much time on the road, away from the guy I loved. And, one day, I went to something called a storytelling festival. I watched a woman named Carmen Deedy hold an audience spellbound for an hour, and just like that, I knew I had found what I was looking for.”

While the information above is absolutely, positively, 100% true – it is not, as so often is the case, the whole story. It is more like the little paragraph on the back of a book jacket, the quick, polite response given to a stranger at a party; an outline I might use before I flesh out a folktale, turning it from a five second anecdote to a ten minute story. All those elements were there, all the facts correct, but there was one other thing that powered my transformation from musical theater gypsy to storyteller. It is the little bump on my right vocal cord.

Looking back, the first indicator that my vocal cords weren’t the strongest part of my anatomy was when, just before my grammar school choir’s Christmas concert, half the seventh grade got sick. Where upon most of my classmates were still able to sing – I lost my voice completely, and stood standing amongst them, in my white turtle neck, and black pants, just mouthing the words.

Fast forward five years, when during my first professional summer stock job, I discovered that I would have to sing, as well as dance. While I knew I could carry a tune, I didn’t know anything about vocal technique, or how to hold onto my harmony line, while being surrounded by others singing different parts – and dancing. After a few days of rigorous rehearsals, I realized my voice felt, well – tired. It was to be the first of many times I would feel that way.

“Get some training, and you’ll be fine,” all the older and wiser performers told me. And so I did. I found a voice teacher, and did as I was told. Being a dancer, I was disciplined and used to hard work, so I learned to breathe with my belly, instead of just my chest. I stayed away from dairy, dust, smoke, and caffeine. No matter how little singing I had to do, I did my full warm-up. And my vocal abilities grew – I was able to sing, even getting solos from time to time. But the “tiredness” always came, sooner or later. There would always come a day, when my voice wouldn’t do what I asked of it. From time to time, my speaking voice would grow a little raspy, but it never deserted me the way my singing voice would. It would simply disappear. Normally, staying quiet would bring it back, but one winter, no amount of rest seemed to help.

As usual, my speaking voice was fine the day I walked into the throat doctor’s office that very first time, so he seemed puzzled to see me. It was only after he stuck a long strobe down my throat, while holding my tongue with a piece of gauze, that I saw IT, and heard him say, “Aha!”

I don’t know how many people have ever seen their vocal cords, but they are sort of alien looking, and if you have any mucous going on that particular day, it is just plain freaky! But, even in that realm of the odd, I was able to see something different about one of my vocal cords. On the right one, there was a ridge of sorts, right in the middle – right where the two cords meet. It was that day that I heard the words polyp, nodule, and node.

Apparently, if the vocal cords, or folds, as they are actually called, come together with too much force, they swell. If over time, the swelling isn’t brought down, a polyp is formed, and if that hardens, and calluses, it’s a nodule, or what singers refer to in frightened hushed tones – NODES!!! My swelling had progressed to the polyp state, so I was ordered to a week of silence, and given tiny white pills called prednisone – a steroid, whose anti-inflammatory skills are REALLY potent. That week was one of the longest of my life! This was before emailing, and texting, so I had to turn my back on everyone, and be deemed rude of not saying, “Sorry,” if I bumped into someone on the subway. There was a peace to it that I liked, though, and, being an avid reader and writer, I chewed through several books, and filled many a journal page.

Some people might have been scared hearing this diagnosis, but for me, it felt like the beginning of the end. I had seen what was wrong with me, I had MEDICINE, and when this week – just one measly week was over, I would be okay.

And I was – for a while, anyway. For though the swelling did go all the way down that time, it would resurface time and time again. I did speech therapy, warming up even to talk – even though my every day speech almost always sounded fine. When I was on the road with shows, I NEVER went out afterwards, always retreating to my room, and SILENCE. I watched with envy while others smoked, drank, yelled, but then had high, crystal clear voices at 8AM.

And I got by. The cord would swell, then go down, swell, and go down. It was a bit like Jekyll and Hyde. One day I had a pretty singing voice, on the next it was a growl – nothing I did seemed to be able to stop it. I cursed that tiny sack on my vocal cord, I cried, I prayed, I visualized, and I was silent – A LOT. But what I didn’t realize at the time, and only grudgingly admit to now, is that that little swelling was one of my greatest teachers.

Always creatively inquisitive, I used my “silent times” to explore other modes of expression. It was because my singing voice was gone, but I spoke just fine, that instead of going to a musical theater audition one day, I went to one for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and got the role of Puck. When I heard of a way to dance and use movement that did not require me to sing, I found my way into the world of mask, mime, comedia, giant puppets, stilt walking, and clown. American Sign Language became a way for me to talk to people, without breaking my times in the “cone of silence”. That little bump on my vocal cord taught me when it was time for me to stop doing, and to just BE. Being blessed with abundant energy, I could power through aches, pains, colds, and heartaches physically – but when my cord was swollen, NOTHING, and I do mean NOTHING I could do, could make it move. It was only being quiet that could heal it. The bodily awareness I developed around what was happening in my throat, I have never been able to top – even now, as a yoga teacher!!

And it was this acute awareness that told me something was VERY, VERY wrong with my voice ten years ago. For one thing, I went hoarse in an instant, always before I could feel it tiring, and for a while compensate, to get through a show or an audition. But this time, I went from have to have not. Even my speaking voice, which was rarely affected, sounded as if it were “covered”, as if there were a giant piece of phlegm I couldn’t swallow, or cough away. Knowing I was in deep dodo I found my way to the office of THE BEST throat doctor in New York City. What I saw when he pulled my tongue out with gauze, and put that strobe down my throat, made me burst into tears. The swelling that I was prepared to see was there – bigger, and badder than ever, but this time it looked like a red tear drop hanging off the side of my right cord. I had hemorrhaged. Even now, that word makes my stomach ache. With even my speaking voice so impaired I thought it was the end of any sort of performing career for me. But then, Dr. Scott Kessler, the hero of this part of the story, pulled out a photograph of two vocal cords that were as red and chewed up as raw ground beef. “I fixed that,” he said, with a kind calmness I’ll never forget. “And I can fix you.” And he did.

It was during the time of silence that followed the surgery that Dr. Kessler performed on me, that I went to the New Victory Theatre, and watched Carmen Deedy stroll on the stage. It was then, when I was without a voice, that I found one, that I knew that I had found what I was looking for. Something that was creative, that would encompass all the skills: dance, clown, acting, even American Sign Language, into performances I could do for all ages. It was then, that I became a storyteller.

So, that is the FULL story of how I came to tell tales for a living. And like a lot of other stories – it goes on. That little bump is still there, much more manageable, but still there, still teaching me to listen to myself, to take care of myself, and that sometimes silence is REALLY, TRULY is golden.

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