Ensemble member Carolyn Faye Kramer recently returned to Chicago after five months studying in Israel. Here she shares her experiences abroad – and jumping right back into life with Filament. See Carolyn as the title role in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, coming to the Lacuna Artist Lofts April 20-May 29.
Remember when you were little and you would try and sit at the bottom of a pool? Cross legged, blowing bubbles through your nose, pushing your arms up against the forces of not-gravity in order to keep yourself planted. In this space, if you open your eyes, the whole world is blue. And if you listen to the words of your best friend as she passes you a cup of imaginary tea, it sounds like a strange, muffled, far away, almost-but-not-quite song. Your hair lifts off your neck, the stinging of the chlorine subsides, and you can see things as they must be seen from the eyes of a fish (a fish who happens to live its life in a swimming pool). Coming up from your tea party, your eyes burn from the shock of the chlorine, and your shoulders are cold from the wind, and you are so relieved to be taking in this familiar atmosphere: air!
Coming home to Filament was an experience similar to that of coming up for air.
In October of 2010, I made my way to Pardes Hanna, Israel, jumped in, and swam at the bottom of that pool for five months. Everything in this new place was stirring and strange to me: the sounds, the tastes, the rich red color of the dirt and the shape of the trees (the best of which looked like Jurassic Period heads of broccolini). At night, bats would furiously wing their way through the cover of the branches. My favorite houses were the ones without roofs that solitarily stood in abandoned fields or orange groves – peeling cement blocks that nature had decided to take back, so that trees and vines grew wild through their windows and up towards the sky. Strangers invite you into their homes for Friday night dinners and offer you cup after cup of nana tea, a kind of mint that grows wild in virtually everyone’s backyard. For the first two months, whenever I opened my mouth to speak a word of Hebrew, I would immediately begin to speak in Spanish (a language that I had not explored since high school).
Before I arrived in Israel, I decided to study dance, movement, and performance at a school called Artness, and so spent most of my time in a
sun filled studio, finding strength I did not know that I had, and experiencing the biggest moments of frustration in my life so far; “Don’t explain to me what you are doing with your face. Use your body.” So, each day I would enter the studio and try, try, try, to steer away from the form of expression to which I was most accustomed. Soon afterwards, I came to realize that my words were not something I could rely on either: when I chose to use them, so much of their significance was lost in the translation of things. What I did have was my body. So I learned to swim – metaphorically, that is.
To say that landing in Logan airport in late February was a bit disorienting would be a great understatement. As soon as I returned to the States, I experienced reverse culture shock in a major way. Starbucks and shopping malls, and business men reading English newspapers – English newspapers! For the first time in months, I could read the news – I suddenly went from sounding out street signs, to communicating with the world around me in a way that I had taken for granted my whole life. Furthermore, the in-flight movie on my way home was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. This is not to say that these things do not exist in Israel – shopping malls, coffee chains, and consumerism of all kinds – but, I had been living in such a way that I did not interact with them nearly as much as I do here. I was in class for most of my time and living very simply the rest– with few belongings, attachments, and little spare cash to spend on anything other than bus and train fare – in what could be described as a green, bohemian, “Artness” sort of atmosphere.
What’s more, I had not “acted” since the summer. Fears and doubts peeked their way between my ribs and up under my collar bones, but I swallowed them as best I could. I was scared. Towards the end of my time abroad, I would speak with my family over the phone and find myself feeling like English was my second language. What if I had forgotten? By this, I mean everything: how to interact with English speakers; how to be in a rehearsal process; how to approach a script; how to return to everything I had loved and worked towards before I left. My shape had changed. I knew this. If I were a cookie (surely snicker-doodle), I would not fit into the same shaped cookie-cutter as I did before. So, how would things be different? How would I be different in this new, but familiar space?
What I did not anticipate, was just how much returning to Filament would be like returning home to a family. It is simply the truth, as cheesy as it may sound. And I do not say things that I do not mean. It was as relieving, joyful, and necessary as coming up for that first gulp of air. Filament is a group of the most open hearted, positive, kind, capable, energetic, spirited, passionately and limitlessly creative individuals that I have ever met. Again, this is just the truth. The first meeting of the Eurydice and Orpheus design teams, production teams and casts, was a pancake-breakfast-potluck party, held at the “Crow’s Nest” – artistic director, Julie Ritchey’s, second story apartment that has a Neverland-esque whimsicality to it, rocking between ancient Pirate Ship and the Lost Boys’ Home Under the Ground, with as much over arching greenery as would be imagined if J. M. Barrie had decided on a house above the ground instead. Twenty-five people tucked their way into the living room, on couches, floor cushions, chairs and laps.
That afternoon went on to be the warmest welcome back to Filament and the Chicago theatre scene that I could have imagined. After everyone had their plates piled with pancakes, syrup, fruit, chocolate chips and the like, introductions were made and designers passed around sketches and shared lap-top slide shows of their plans. A few hours later, Julie, Peter, managing director, Christian Libonati, and I braved the wind and
the chill at North Shore Beach, in order to capture the beaming sun and the storybook-like, cloud-filled sky for Eurydice’s promotional photos. The day concluded with all of us going out for sushi and seeing a show down town (the first play that I had seen since being in Israel!). In the morning was our first rehearsal/read through, followed by more promotional photos (this time in a comparably toasty elevator) and cozy soup and sandwiches at the Birchwood Kitchen, before we all fell asleep at the Crow’s Nest. We woke up from our power-two-hour-nap (unfortunately for Christian, in whose lap I feel asleep on the couch, I woke up in a small puddle of drool), rested and ready for the Ensemble meeting that was called for that evening. Kettle corn, oranges, and tea kept us going into the wee hours of the evening after our meeting “ended”, and we split off into separate teams in order to work on press packets, website content, grants and the like. I arrived home at 3am exhausted, satisfied, and grinning like a ninny. Those two days were epically fun, and I was finally in the right place. I was home.
If it is not quite obvious how much Filament welcomed me under its wing as part of a family, I will break it down: in those two days we spent virtually all of our waking hours together, shared all our meals, had family nap time, quality bonding time, played (not board games, but theatre games!), helped support each other, and challenged each other to do better work.
Filament’s mission statement emphasizes their commitment to sustainability, asserting, “we strive to make choices that have a long-lasting
positive impact across a broad spectrum, and not just ‘pieces in isolation.’” This theme of seeing the whole picture, especially from an environmentally aware perspective, is quite different from the bleak, first impression I had of the United States upon my return, one which highlighted the wasteful, utilitarian, self-serving qualities that are indeed present here. However, I am pleased to report that my culture shock has mostly subsided. With the help of some family, I can see that strip malls, fast food, and unconscious consumption do not occupy the landscape of the States as much as I felt when I first arrived. I also realized that my fears about remembering how to interact with the world as I had known it prior to living abroad were unfounded – Yay! I discovered my voice again, and not only as a theatre artist (my ability to socialize and communicate was not as stunted as I had anticipated it would be – Yay times two!). Filament welcomed me home with support for where I had been and encouragement for where I am now, asking me to share my experience in Israel and honoring the newly shaped cookie (okay, last reference to the metaphor, I promise) that I have become.