Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics, essay 4 of #52essays2017

Two winters ago, I got a call from my agent in LA to tape an audition for
Hannibal, and it led me on a journey from stars in my eyes to a brand-new appreciation of smell.

I was, as an actor, thoroughly green. I did not even know that for TV/film auditions you sit or stand still with the camera in your face and speak the lines with all the emotions your head can muster. You must have your lines memorized or virtually memorized. If you can see, you can bring in your sides and glance at them if necessary, but if you are blind, like me, you cannot rely on this visual blankie.

Speaking of blankies, I did not know that props are generally pooh-poohed, because I’d not yet read Marci Phillips helpful book The Present Actor until after the fact and learned that:

“Whatever people normally carry around with them is usually regarded as acceptable. A cellphone, iPod, blackberry, bottle of water, briefcase, bag, magazine, pad, pen, jacket, etc. are all fair game…. If you’re eating in a scene and you choose to bring actual food into your audition, make sure that you’ve given this a few trial runs at home first.”

I did not bring actual food into my audition coaching session but rather an eraser on a plate, which I mimicked eating like it, were pie with an actual fork.

It is difficult to say how terrible my self-tape audition would have been if my agent had not found me a professional coach with whom I could work for an hour (and film the self-tape) on the Sunday before the Monday when the tape was due. For those non-actors out there, I was lucky to get a couple extra days to memorize and rehearse because the call came on a Thursday night. As gently as possible the coach, Jonathan Hammond, took my eraser-plate away from me and told me that props came across as a little bit amateur.

I had received two scenes and both were familiar because I’d seen/heard the film Red Dragon many times, and read the novel at least twice when I received the call to audition. Reba McClane is one of the best blind characters ever to grace a novel, let alone a screen. Reba was created as a round and nuanced blind character–a rare and precious thing–by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, the first of the Hannibal series, from which the films and then the TV series developed. Hence, I admit I was pretty excited and honored to be asked to audition. I tried not to think about how awesome a job Emily Watson did in the role.

The first scene I’d been given was the scene where Reba invites Francis Dolarhyde into her home, offers him pie, and tries to draw him out. It was different from the film. Reba’s memory of a cougar at the zoo reverted back to the original llama of the novel, but in each incarnation, the scene has a quirky charm driven by Reba’s rambling.

The second scene for my audition was totally different, scary. Dolarhyde has Reba tied up and she tries to understand his anger. Having done a little bit of theatre, I embarked on my home rehearsals by clinging and pleading melodramatically. Thankfully, Alabaster–who was helping me memorize my lines–told me to sit down and act tied up.

With rehearsals through the weekend about every couple hours, I had gotten it pretty good, but my real nervousness combined with the fact that Jonathan was a pro, took this scene to a level that gave me great insight into acting, and made me realize (once again) that I do not have the stomach for it.

Jonathan told me that the one who got the part would be the one who breaks the casting director’s heart. That was a revelation. I did it with him the second time to such an extent that I had to keep myself from crying after we were done. Alabaster had walked in and was like “wow.” It was so intense; I still remember the feeling of my heart pounding and the need to sob with wonder and amazement. I get why actors are fucked up. Feeling that intense for no reason does not feel any different than feeling that intense for personal reasons–the heartrate still skyrockets, and the body says fear or love or whatever. When it was over, I was confused. I’d never felt that intensely for something that was not a product of my own rumpled psyche. I suppose one taps into one’s own psyche to get there, but still, it was strange to feel that intensity while “acting”.

I can’t say that the taped third try was as good as that second one of memory, but for an untrained actor, I was proud to have pulled it off. In my own mind, I was working very hard to send a tape to my agent that was good enough for her to pass on to the casting director and not dump me. Just good enough to impress her. the idea of actually getting a part in one of NBC’s hottest dramas was impossible, though it’s hard after it’s all done to not have some stars in your eyes, and since I sent off my two scenes in the week before Christmas, I had three weeks to contemplate how the experience would change my life.

Poor Alabaster had to watch (and describe) the entire first season and part of the second of the horrifically graphic Hannibal. (The mushroom-feeding episode is one neither of us will ever forget.)

Also in those three weeks, I started thinking about and researching on-camera classes and found a super little school called MN Acting Studio. I read Matt Newton’s book and signed up for an on-camera class with Joseph starting the end of January.

And, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but this was also the time that started me Googling DIY beauty. I think it was that I thought if I had another audition, I should probably do a little more with the way I looked. My outfit choice for my first big audition was more about the character I knew from the books than what they were probably looking for in a supporting role–the love-interest of a starring serial killer. I don’t think I gave my makeup or hair much thought.

Cheap beauty tricks led me to DIY facials, which led me to discover essential oils. I started buying essential oils and was amazed how smells that I’d smelled before now suddenly had names.

I read the monographs–part historical, part botanical–with wonder and excitement. I calmed my heart with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and my allergies with German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). There is something quite powerful in discovering chemical constituents for fun light self-medication. The new-discovered enjoyment of naming ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) and putting a smell to the laurel (Laurus nobilis) of Apollo’s poets and prophetesses cannot be over-estimated.

It may be that reading through all the Hannibal books for the third time primed me for my smell explorations, as Hannibal Lecter is of course a olfactory -aesthete, but whatever the reason, reading about essential oils struck a nerve. Although two years is probably not enough time to gauge such things, I feel like this exploration has changed the course of my life.

I’m not saying that I plan on setting up shop as a serial killer, but I do appreciate the fact that Hannibal recognizes the beauty and importance of the oft-neglected sense–the fallen angel, as Helen Keller puts it.

Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella fragrance bar

In Harris’s novel Hannibal, we follow our favorite serial killer into the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, and relish with him the olfactory symphony:

“The air was music. Here were pale tears of frankincense awaiting extraction, yellow bergamot, sandalwood, cinnamon and mimosa in concert, over the sustaining ground notes of genuine ambergris, civet, castor from the beaver, and essence of the musk deer. Dr. Lecter sometimes entertained the illusion that he could smell with his hands, his arms and cheeks, that odor suffused him. That he could smell with his face and his heart.”

I did not get the part; they decided to go with Rutina Wesley (not blind) of True Blood fame. I can’t say I was not disappointed, but I’m happy to have been asked to audition, to be a part of a new and important entertainment revolution, to have people with disabilities represent themselves onscreen.

One of the dreams I nurtured during my three weeks of waiting was to go on talk shows and educate the public about the important but still nascent trend that will shape the face of entertainment as surely as it has been changed before. Soon having anything less than a deaf actor cast in a deaf role, or a blind person cast in a blind role or a wheelchair person cast in a wheelchair part will perhaps reveal itself to be as shameful and insulting as blackface. Until then, I open my nostrils to the tears of frankincense and the shy flowers of mimosa and imagine how sweet will be the revenge!

 

*This is #4 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Check out my previous essay The Voice of the Turtle here*

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Sewing Blind, Refashioning perceptions

My blind sewing adventure began about seven years ago when on a whim I searched for, and found, sewing needles at MaxiAids, a website that sells disabled people gadgets. As with so many of the great things that have happened in recent years to enhance my life as my sight fails, the technology inspired the activity and the activity inspired creation.

I bought two kinds of needles. The first I use all the time for general sewing they come in a rainbow pack of sizes, but each needle, from fat to skinny, share the ingenious feature of a slit at the top wherein you push the thread and it gets trapped by a little hook. The other needle is perhaps more clever but less sturdy and more prick-prone. It is called “Big-Eye” and this is not false advertising. The eye of the needle splits the slender flexible steel from one sharp end to the other. This is the needle to use for beading and the like because it is so skinny, but of course it tends to get bent out of shape with little provocation. With these two needles and my dress form, I have made all my best loved dresses.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and say that nothing I’ve made has turned out a sequined monstrosity, or deny the sad existence of more than one vintage-lace carcass, seem ripped beyond all repurposefulness. But there are a solid handful that have been successful enough to garner many compliments and become staples of my performing life.

 

The Little Black (Furry) dress

 

One of my first major successes was the little black furry dress AKA the sexy teddy bear dress. If you want to be petted, this is what to wear to your next cocktail party! Because of course, in the end, it’s all about texture.

I whittled away countless hours of listening to epic novels while creating this one, which consists of individually knitted patches of black eyelash yarn sewn onto a dance dress. You can see it in action in the behind the scenes portions of the Proto Trailer for The Star of Happiness, my one-woman show about Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville.

 

The burgundy corset Ensemble

 

Worn by Marie Antoinette in The Spectator and the Blind Man, my play about the very sexy history of the invention of braille, and removed by her over the course of her heart-breaking monologue, the Burgundy Ensemble has had a lot of performance wear. Come to think of it, it is not only my clothes that get repurposed. I refashioned Marie Antoinette’s monologue into a flash fiction piece called Nothing Can hurt Me Now, which has, I’m delighted to say also been published at Quail Bell!

The burgundy corset dress also features in the short film The Kerfuffle in which I play Sam, a blind floozy who gets busted for two-timing a couple of amputees… Oh just watch it; it’s cute! Even my mother thinks so.

The materials at hand, whether tawdry or elegant, shiny or shabby, provide inspiration for my sewing creations. In this case, several gorgeous yards of butterfly and flower embossed satin, given to me by my best friend when I visited her in Memphis, presented the impetus. The ensemble consists of A corset top and skirt with enormous pockets. I put pockets in all my designs because girls should not have to be encumbered by purses!

For the underskirts and halter ties, I used some opaque burgundy curtains I’d purchase years before. (It is likely that Scarlett’s green “Curtain Dress” in gone With the Wind is a significant design influence!) Finally, in an adventurous mood, I bought a handful of rhinestone flower ribbon decorations on EBay which cost $2.50 and took three weeks to ship from China, but which worked perfectly as accents on the bodice and the skirt.

The top’s foundation, an old and unattractive corset, came into my possession during an unfortunate performance on a boat in which I did not win a certain “Miss Demeanor Pageant” despite my first round sweep and my lovely assistant Millennium, my black lab guide dog! Anyway, somewhere in the madness of the dressing room I ended up with someone else’s corset that became the shell for my corset top. I draped and sewed the burgundy satin over that top and over a little side zipped skirt that I used as the skirt base. You see,   I am a very lazy sewer. I like to do the fun pretty draping designing stuff and the mindless stitching, but refuse to waste my time putting in zippers!

In fact, I think that even if I’d not lost my sight, I would not have kept up with the conventional sewing I learned in grade school. I could see quite well back then and, although I made a few cool things, the precision and patience of patterns and darts and button-holing was just not for me. So, oddly enough, I think that my blind sewing is something I’ve come to as a culmination of who I am as an artist and a blind person, not as an approximate adaptation of the former behavior of my sighted self. The spirit of blindness infuses everything I do and makes it, if not always better, at least more interesting.

 

The Crocheted Chimera

 

This one is comprised of no fewer than seven clothing items from decades of life and death. It began with fashioning the lacey waist-cincher pocket accoutrement out of several items bestowed to me by my mother’s friend who died and left me all her clothes from her seventy odd years of collecting/hoarding. I fastened that odd device, which on its own looked a lot like a holster, to a knee length circle skirt to which was added the real bells and whistles of the ensemble: a gold-threaded crocheted wrap that, although very glamorous, had always been too scratchy to use. I wear the skirt with a lacey crocheted top kept from my long ago wild days in New Orleans whose sleeves were cut for the heat. But, hot as NYC summers may be, one must have some portable sleeves to beat the arctic AC. Et voilà, enter the slightly bell-sleeved black crocheted half sweater with iridescent threads that ties under the boobs.

The whole ensemble looks good enough that I adopted it as my audition outfit. Good enough to prompt an ABC Casting director to say when I walked in the terrifying audition room, “What a beautiful dress!” Good enough to momentarily disconcert her, and boost my confidence, when I said, “Oh thank you. It’s my latest creation.” Herein lays the joy of wearing clothes made by you when you are a blind person: it confuses sighted people, which is often just what’s needed to refashion perceptions!

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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