IRENE accepted, beautiful and bittersweet

Bittersweet victory is not unusual. Accomplishments are often hard-won, satisfaction often comes at a cost. On August 26th of this year, at 3:15pm PST at the Blue Mouse Theatre in Tacoma, WA, that cost will be the absence of one of the greatest champions of independent art I have ever known, and the impetus behind the production of IRENE: Mollie Mook-Fiddler.

Mollie, my lifelong friend and partner in all things good and mischievous, was meant to be with us on set in Silverton, CO, in June of 2016. She was meant to have picked me up at the Durango airport, drive me over the horrifying pass to Silverton, lead production meetings with me, help me dress the set, she wanted to learn camera work under IRENE director Sinjin Jones’ mentorship, we were meant to have drinks at Montanya and catch up and laugh until it was too late to walk through the streets of Silverton without seeing a nighttime bear rummaging through the dumpsters, as we did the last time she and I created art together in Silverton.

A phone call a week before the production put an end to all those plans. Her cancer had returned and she was compelled to fight it, in her way, with all her knowledge of the disease and with all her might.

Still, the production went on. There were a few texts back and forth to let her know all was well. Producer and A Theatre Group secretary Louis King, also a dear friend of Mollie’s, was my go-to for long talks over wine in her absence. We set the shoot. And then we shot. And the brilliant performances from actors Rebecca Krebbs and Ben Mattson, the extraordinary control of lighting and framing in direction from Sinjin Jones and the dedication of sound and camera team James Richard Padilla and Tressa Lynne Smith all took my breath away. The result was an absolutely beautiful 10-minute short film, IRENE.

We submitted it to one festival, The Destiny City Film Festival. This was the festival that, several years earlier, awarded IRENE’s inspiration, BLUE BUNNY, the best short script award in its screenwriting competition. There was a meaning and a weight behind our submitting it there. And it was accepted.

So now IRENE has its first laurels, and we have something to show Mollie that we succeeded in her physical absence, though her spirit was constant, even as she fought for her life. We will have to trust that, somehow, she knows.

In November of last year, we lost Mollie.

In one text she sent me while I was in Silverton, she asked that I visit a ‘secret waterfall.’ “Sinjin knows where it is” she texted. Shooting and cutting and editing a film in less than three days, however, does not leave much time for a trip to a waterfall. The week came and went and I did not see the waterfall. “It’s okay,” she texted. “I’ll take you there next time.”

There would not be a next time, but now I know how to find my closure in the wake of her passing and how to, really, find her. A goal of mine for the summer of 2018 is to return to Silverton to, among other things, visit the secret waterfall.

When I do, I will wear the ring she left me, a 1970s Navajo piece that she must have remembered I admired. And I will wear her lipstick. Far and away, the most certain I have come to her actually no longer being with us physically on this planet is when I held her lipstick in my hand. One tube half-used, one yet unopened. I will forever be grateful to her husband for having the strength to send that to me.

A huge congratulations to the IRENE team, a giant thank you to A Theatre Group, to The Animas Bed and Breakfast for hosting us, and endless love to Mollie for being who she was, who she still is, and for bringing us all together.

The Hilltop Action Coalition, Offering a Unified Voice in the Community

My son Ellis is not necessarily an easy kid. School was difficult for him from the beginning. Not for lack of desire to learn, definitely not for lack of ability. More for lack of patience, for the visceral need to control situations. More for his symptoms of ADHD, though we’ve never managed to get him diagnosed anywhere ‘on the spectrum.’ His former inability to make a day at school WORK was never for lack of my trying to figure out just why it was so hard for him.

After the horror that was our attempt at kindergarten, I home-schooled him for two years but, in classic Ellis-style (sensing something before I do), he knew at age 8 that he needed to be among other kids. So we tried again. I can’t tell you, especially now (as I am now a Special-Ed para-educator with Tacoma Public Schools), how frustrated I am that his third-grade general education teacher gave up on him so easily, and am, in retrospect, amazed at how hard I had to fight to learn about the program (TLC, Therapeutic Learning Center) that would give him the support he needed to stay in school for full days. Before that, I received phone calls EVERY day to pick him up, get him off school property. Once I arrived to find the (now former) principal restraining him by holding his wrists in the corner of her office. He once told me that, when he finished his work early and told his teacher he was bored, she dumped his desk and said “clean that up, now you have something to do.” I have had a difficult time not reaching out to that particular teacher personally, to let her know just how far he has come.

Last Friday he, an avid writer at home, read an essay he had written on his vision of the future of Hilltop, a historic, and storied, Tacoma neighborhood, to a large group of strangers at the Inaugural Hilltop Action Coalition Luncheon. He was among four students, all who had submitted to the HAC writing contest, that were asked to do so. He had never done anything like that before, he was nervous, I watched as he self-calmed then read it with only slightly, and understandably, wavering authority to a wonderful, supportive crowd. The look of pride on his face when he was finished, as he returned to his seat in the wake of applause, was something I’ll never forget. The other students were equally amazing, and there were tears in the room, for pride and joy in this movement to, not simply maintain, but sustain and uplift this special corner of Tacoma, Hilltop.

The Hilltop Action Coalition is a place to connect the Hilltop community with the services and benefits available to them. It is also the venue, virtual and, in this case, literal, for those who may have a more difficult time finding their voice among misunderstanding, presumption and unfairness.The HAC was that for my son.

This was another step in his journey to rebuild his self-confidence, broken as it was after being called a ‘bad kid’ and a ‘problem student’ for those who did not take the time to look deeper the way his current educators do. The way Hilltop Action Coalition did when they invited this ‘problem student’ to address dozens of supporters, Tacoma fixtures, community members, etc., at their luncheon.

For this, I thank them. Here is the transcript of Ellis’ speech, written solely by him, age 10:

2025. The future of Hilltop, nobody knows… what will happen? The beginning of the end, the end of the beginning. Like me, it will not stay the same.

My school, McCarver Elementary, is new, but also old. Renovated about six months ago, it is the daily education spot for many students and, of course, me, also growing up with Hilltop after stressful days and nights in the Park Place neighborhood.

I am in TLC and attend one hour daily regiments of general education, having gone through three schools that were not a fit: Fawcett, Roosevelt, Stanley.  At last, I found McCarver.

Whatever happens, I know I can rely on Hilltop.

I feel, in 2025, Hilltop will be more loved, more like its intention. An incentive is what the readers think I’m hinting at, but it is not that. It is not about profit, but determination. The only incentive is Hilltop itself. I believe in a future foundation of support for Hilltop. Foundations of support are not plentiful, in fact there are very few compared to those only caring for and supporting themselves. Hilltop supported me and, no matter what, I will support Hilltop. The real money-maker is what is in the heart…

Ellis, pictured with Kristopher Brannon (Tacoma’s The Sonics Guy) and actor/filmmaker and writer Gregory Marks. Ellis is holding a copy of the Hilltop Action Journal. In their quest to give EVERYONE a voice, the Hilltop Action Coalition published every single submission to their youth writing contest. Bravo!

Here is a link to a beautiful short video about Hilltop that brought down the house.

END SCENE: A week in Silverton with IRENE

I’ve only been home for a few (swirling, intense, holiday and firework-filled) days, and already my week in Silverton witnessing the creation of IRENE and working with budding screenwriters feels like a dream. A vivid dream, thankfully, not a fading one.

My last evening found actor Ben Mattson and me in the van of workshop-participant Jason Nelson who kindly offered us a ride through the drizzle and yellow mud-colored puddles to Silverton Town Hall. We stepped into this beautiful century-old building and found many of the folding chairs already filled with locals. Louis King had set up refreshments and mic stands. The screen was pulled down and the projector set up.

I was all nerves and pride as the scenes submitted by workshop participants were read before the crowd. Our youngest participant, Belen Roof (she’s, maybe, 11 or 12?) agreed to read the part of the young girl in theatre veteran/newbie screenwriter Deborah Runion’s piece about a sixty-something eccentric artist helping her granddaughter deal with the effects of her grandmother’s cancer. Belen, or Bear, as she is known, also volunteered Silverton teen Blaze to read the part of the young boy in her own piece, a spectacularly creative piece about a young girl raised by a tiny dog and the boy who discovers her. Cassandra Roof’s scene, which revolved around a teen girl dealing with her mentally disturbed aunt, achieved the perfect balance between raw pain and sensitivity. Jason Nelson’s scene, based on personal experience, about a young couple stifled by a mysterious illness, drew empathetic murmurs from the crowd. Judy Graham’s scene, two sisters hiking toward their vehicle after encountering a bear on a camping trip, coming to terms with the complex dysfunction only two sisters can have, was both tense and elegant. These scenes were created in two days, during just three days of two-hour sessions of screenwriting instruction. I was blown away by the willingness and bravery of all who took part. Many thanks, for the millionth time, to Ben Mattson and Rebecca Krebbs, who agreed to read and bring life to the words so that the authors could experience them from the outside in.

Creativity seems to spread as fast as wildfire in Silverton. IRENE, shot Wednesday between the hours of 8am and 3pm. Edited Thursday between the hours of 11am and whenever director (and editor) Sinjin Jones was finally able to get some shut-eye, and premiered Friday after the readings of the scenes, turned out beautifully. I would say “turned out beautifully for having been shot and edited in two days.” But I don’t have to. It just, simply, turned out to be the lovely, poetically shot, sensitively acted piece that it is. It screened to our Silverton audience, and cut to black in the wake of a round of applause.

There is a line, spoken by Irene, in the film, that resonated audibly with the viewers. When Irene describes the Matisse sketch, discovered abandoned in a stairwell, now hanging in her living room that, because it has no signature never was found to be of any importance, she says “…so here it stayed. Where it was loved just the same. Where it had value.”

If there is one thing palpable in Silverton, CO, beyond the majesty of its surroundings, the history of its buildings and the welcoming nature of its residents, it’s the appreciation for art and creativity, spirituality and community. This appreciation, this ability to see value in such things, is alive and well in A Theatre Group. I am so thankful to have, once again, been a small part of it.

So many thanks to A Theatre Group, the ATG board, particularly Louis King, Judy Graham and Steve Fearn, to the community of Silverton, to Steve Lowrence and the San Juan County Sherriff’s Office, to my workshop participants, to IRENE cast and crew Sinjin Jones, Rebecca Krebbs, Ben Mattson, James Richard Padilla and Tressa Smith.

Most of all, endless gratitude and love to my dear, my beloved, my beautiful and goofy, sharply intelligent and deeply emotional, endlessly professional and unwaveringly natural in her vision for art, lifelong friend Mollie Mook-Fiddler, who organized this project with Lou and who assembled this incredible team. The best compliment I received all week, and I’m proud to say I received it from several people several times throughout my stay, came from those who have known Mollie for nearly two decades: “You grew up with Mollie? I can tell. You remind me of her.”

On that note and others, I would call the week a success. 

Silverton. Day Four.

Yesterday, Thursday, was Day 4, the first day I was able to wake without an alarm, the first day I had an opportunity to hike (up to the Christ of the Mines, which I had been gazing at through my bathroom window and wondering when I could find my way up there) and mosey around the town, buy a few souvenirs (including one for myself, this beautiful Navajo squash blossom necklace from the same pawn shop where I bought my favorite ring in 2012) and play piano for nearly an hour in the beautiful parlor at The Wingate House.

It was also the last evening of the workshop.

I can’t express enough my appreciation for and amazement of the workshop participants. Everyone was invested, everyone was open, everyone was patient with the fact that we were behind on our itinerary. I added a bonus session for tonight, Friday, just before the reading and screening. The deadline for submitting scenes to be read at the event was this morning at ten am, and I am proud to say that I received five beautiful scenes written by brand spanking new screenwriters.

I had made a plan to meet friend, A Theatre Group man-of-all-hats and IRENE producer Lou King for drinks at Silverton’s The Rum Bar after the workshop. Director Sinjin Jones who had spent all day, the day I had spent so leisurely, editing and correcting and creating a short film, grabbed me on my way out the door and asked whether I’d like to see a rough cut of IRENE.

Yes. I think I’d like that.

So actor Ben Mattson (Dennis), workshop participant Jason Nelson (who had been hanging around chatting with us after the workshop) and I gathered around Sinjin’s laptop to catch our first glimpse of the film.

And with one click of the mouse, it began.

Sinjin left the room, but seconds later drifted back in to watch it with us. I sat, hand over my mouth, in awe. I held it together until the final black out, at which point I stood up, tears in my eyes, and tried to express my gratitude with some awkward hugs as I fled the scene. It was too much. I am so proud of what this team has put together in so few days. I cannot wait to see it on the big screen. I absolutely cannot wait to show it to Mollie and say LOOK WHAT YOU MADE HAPPEN.

I spent THIS morning printing scripts at Lou’s home, a home very sadly a little emptier now as he had to say goodbye to his beautiful dog of ten years, DVD, yesterday. She greeted me on Monday when I arrived and let me run my hands through her thick white fur while I, of course, showered her with compliments on her beautiful coat. Lou had mentioned that was odd for her, and that she had been acting…funny. I am sorry to say that she left us yesterday. I hope she is frolicking with my beautiful Edith girl and every other beloved, missed and mourned four-legged friend. Like a show-must-go-on trouper, Lou was in the kitchen, just the same, whipping up all the amazing snacks for the screening and reading event. The house was filled with the smell of curried cashews and rosemary almonds.

So, back to last night at The Rum Bar. Lou and Ben and I toasted DVD, drowned our sorrows a bit in their amazing Maharajis and Pina Coladas and talked about the insanity and magic of the week. The creativity and the rush. The beauty of Silverton and the joy of being immersed in creating a piece of art that we will share.

Tonight.

Silverton. Day Two. And three (so far).

Yesterday, Tuesday, I was chauffeured in Lou King’s big silver pick-up truck through a downpour three blocks to The Wingate House to transfer my bags (otherwise I would have walked, it’s just rain, maybe some thunder and a little lightning) and boxes of props and dressing for the film shoot. Which is being shot RIGHT NOW, AS I TYPE, in the room above me. In fact, it’s being shot in the room in which Rebecca Krebbs, the actor portraying Irene, is staying. 

I finally had the pleasure of meeting Sinjin Jones, director, Ben Mattson (Dennis), Rebecca Krebbs (Irene), and crew James Richard Padilla and Tressa Smith yesterday afternoon, if only briefly as the first session of the writing workshop was, also, yesterday. Also, in the living room at the Wingate House, which is also now torn apart, dressed for a scene that will be shot in two hours. It will then have to be put together for session two of the workshop, which begins at 5pm.

Are you dizzy yet?

I am. But I’m blaming it on a combination of Silverton’s extreme altitude and my total joy that this is all taking place.

With ten attendees, this is the largest writing workshop I’ve led on my own. Two straight hours of ME talking? I was anxious. However, that is not how it went down. All the participants, ages 12 through older than 12 (early seventies?) and everything in between, were so incredibly invested in our first exercise that we didn’t quite make it through half of what I’d lined up on the itinerary. With all the excitement and the creativity flowing, I just couldn’t put a stop to it, managed to stay on topic, all the same, and simply rearranged the homework assignment for the evening.

Bonus, since I have to redesign tonight’s itinerary, this writer only dressed the set and is not ON set. This is a good thing as the set that is Irene’s bedroom is tiny, hot and claustrophobic as it is. Plus, actors out there, is it nerve-wracking to have the writer on set during a tight shoot? My instinct was to make myself scarce.

Still, I can hear them above me, and it’s thrilling.

The morning culminated in a private tour, led by the artist herself, of Wingate House owner and host Judy Graham’s art studio. The painter side of me was green with envy over her beautiful workspace and inspired by her moving oil pieces, landscape after landscape, full of depth and wide strokes to leave room for the imagination.  Aware of the shoot going on not far from where she paints, she whispered to me the inspiration for her next series.

These are moments I won’t soon forget.

I hear applause upstairs. Guess that scene’s a wrap!

My endless gratitude to Judy, by the way, for opening her home and business to us this week, a notoriously busy week for tourism in Silverton. And to Silverton officer Steve Lawrence for bringing us some much needed props, and for sticking around during the shoot to supervise our use of the (unloaded!) gun we had on loan. I am really feeling Silverton.

Silverton. Day One.

Arrival in Silverton yesterday! Many thanks to Lou King, who picked me up, frazzled, disoriented and filthy as I was (having spent the previous hours sleeping on a plane AND on the floor of the DFW B terminal, gate 49, and trying, without success to sleep on a second plane, the short connecting leg from Dallas to Durango). Lou found me at baggage claim and swept me up the winding road to Silverton, sometime during which the extreme altitude made me dizzy enough that I hardly noticed the thousand-foot drop inches from the edge of the road. I spent more energy marveling at the beauty. It is so nice to be back.

The day was spent planning for the shoot as much as was possible without everyone else yet being here. A few more participants signed up for the workshop which was nice and Lou’s and my idea of driving to look at stars from Molas Pass was thwarted less by a light cloud cover and more by my not being able to keep my eyes open over dinner. It was lovely to meet Steve Fearn, the brother of A Theatre Group founder Marianne Fearn, who, unfortunately, passed away 8 years ago. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to refer to Marianne as mentor to the greatest theatre teacher I have personally known, Mollie Mook-Fiddler. Marianne’s presence has been felt over the past day.

And Mollie, just eight hours away in Denver, is in my thoughts and actions during every step of this project. Her powers of coordination are ever-present, even without her presence!

Still I will readily admit to missing her terribly as the only time I’ve spent in Silverton has been with her. I should be hanging out with her, catching up over a long-awaited glass of wine, here, at Rudy’s, where we sat just four years ago in 2012, the first time she asked me to work with A Theatre Group. 

I am very excited (and I gather, so are the others) to make this project something special and so happy to be working with the great group of artists Mollie has assembled. Looking forward to finally meeting Sinjin Jones, our director, for the first time in just one hour, then a brief hello to our cast, Ben Mattson and Rebecca Krebbs, before I head to Day One of the workshop!

And now, our IRENE.

Last March, when Mollie Mook-Fiddler and I sat  in a hotel room in Seattle, hatching this project over a bottle of wine, one of the first things of which she was certain was the actor who should play Irene.  Mollie had recently directed  a production of The Diary of Anne Frank and was blown away by this actor’s performance as Mrs. Van Daan. 

Here is a little character sketch I wrote for Irene last year during our fundraiser for BLUE BUNNY, the short script that inspired IRENE. Mollie was certain that this actor would be more than able to walk the fine line between vulnerability and stubborn strength required for Irene. 

I’m thrilled that Mollie’s choice, actor Rebecca Krebbs, in The Diary of Anne Frank production shot above, top left corner, has agreed to contribute her talents to our title character. We shoot one week from today in Silverton, CO.

Rebecca Krebbs’ bio, here:

Rebecca Krebbs makes her living as a theatre technician at San Juan College in Farmington, NM, where she also teaches a number of theatre classes including Acting I and Introduction to Lighting. Rebecca is a veteran stage actor. Her most recent appearance as Mrs. Van Daan in “The Diary of Anne Frank, under the direction of Mollie Mook-Fiddler was one of the most meaningful performances of her career.

Actor/Director/Teacher Ben Mattson: Bringing Dennis to Life

Introducing one of our two actors, Ben Mattson. As you’ll see below in his bio, he has embodied some seriously classic and challenging roles on the stage. I’m proud that he is adding Dennis to his list. Here is a character sketch I wrote for Dennis during our fundraising campaign last year, when BLUE BUNNY had yet to shift its gears and become IRENE. Very excited to see what Mr. Mattson brings to the table.

Take a look, here he is now:

Ben Mattson is a theatre artist who performs and directs in the four-corners area. Some of his credits include Tom Collins in Rent, Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd, and Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror and he co-directed The Fantastiks at San Juan College with Mollie Mook-Fiddler.

Most recently Ben has become the theatre Director for Durango High School, where he gets to pass his love of theatre on to a new generation of immensely talented artists.

Directing IRENE: Sinjin Jones, on the Scene

And now, announcing the director of our project!

I am very much looking forward to meeting him, as he was hand-picked, with praises sung, by Mollie Mook-Fiddler herself. Sinjin Jones will be bringing the short script IRENE, truly a lost scene from BLUE BUNNY, to life, shooting June 29th in beautiful Silverton, Colorado.

In fact, here is a shot of Sinjin in beautiful Silverton, as well as his bio:

Sinjin Jones is a writer, director, and performer for film, theatre, and multimedia production. He is Co-Founder and Head of Operations for Perplexity Pictures, a Denver-based production company that specializes in story-driven narrative and music video work, and Artistic Director for Otherworld Collective, a new nonprofit multimedia collective dedicated to immersive, multimedia theatrical experiences in Denver. To date he has directed several short films and countless music videos. Recently, he has been developing and performing in a series of theatrical productions centered around veterans’ issues entitled Operation Parachute. His first feature film, SUN, MOON, STARS, RAIN, had its premiere for cast and crew in March of 2016 and is headed into the film festival circuit this fall.

Mollie Mook-Fiddler, artist and catalyst and friend

As mentioned in my previous blog, the brilliant Mollie Mook-Fiddler is the catalyst for my good fortune in being a part of A Theatre Group. She is a longtime friend of mine, and I have had the absolute pleasure of watching her grow in the theatre arts from a student with a natural gift and a hunger for the stage to a performer, director, teacher and mentor who has made, and continues to make, an indelible mark on the lives of others.

As part of my series on this upcoming week in Silverton, CO, I would like to present the bios of the main players. Naturally, I begin with Mollie because she is the one who brought us all together. And here is her bio. While impressive in its scope, it does not touch the magic that she is. You’ll have to meet her, be in a room with her, experience her work firsthand for that. And there she is, on the left, a shot taken just last March when she flew to Seattle and took me to see a new play at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Mollie Mook-Fiddler is a director, actor and producer. She currently serves as the chair of theatre at San Juan College in Northern New Mexico, while concurrently serving as the Artistic Director of Silverton’s A Theatre Group, an organization dedicated to the development of new work by American playwrights.  

Mollie received her BA in theatre from The University of Colorado, and her MFA in Acting from the University of Iowa, a program that inspired her love of new-play development.  She has directed and performed in regional theaters in the U.S. and Russia.  Favorite projects include acting in The Nina Variations at the Alexandrinski Theatre in Saint Petersburg Russia and Anton Chekhov’s estate in Melikhovo.  Mollie has workshopped and developed numerous new works, including  adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, adapted for the stage by Anthony Garcia.The play won The Denver Post’s Ovation Award for Best New Work.  She has served on the theatre faculty at San Juan College, Actor’s Academy for the Performing Arts, and The University of Colorado at Denver.  Awards include Meritorious Award in Directing from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, and The Tarpley Award for Teaching Excellence.