Of Chekhov, Home, Kindness and Friendship

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There are very few things that make me happier than finding a way to combine my passion for theatre with my love for traveling. Except maybe when the play I intend to see happens to star someone I admire very much and always wanted to see in person. A huge advantage of these kinds of fangirl adventures is that they are usually planned very early and pretty much set in stone. Convention appearances are often scheduled pretty close to the date of the event (at least for those of us who have to come up with the money for overseas flights) and are always tentative, as actors may have to cancel at short notice due to professional commitments.

Theatres plan a lot further ahead, making it much easier to arrange for days off, coordinate dates with other fans, and save up for a trip. That’s what I did when I learned that Mary McDonnell would appear in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in Philadelphia. Okay, so the theatre wasn’t exactly in Philadelphia, but that didn’t seem to be relevant at the time.

That trip was be the first since London 2005 that I would go on without firm plans to meet with someone I already knew. Well, not really, but that’s another story. I knew that an Australian fandom friend was planning to see the play on the same day I did, and we decided to meet up.  Slowly, others checked in, saying they would be there at the same time. All that time, Jen, my Texan twin, was cursing the fact that she couldn’t get any time off work to make the trip. That is, until her boss got tired of her sad face and let her have a long weekend – the same one I was going to spend in Philadelphia. Let’s say there was a lot of excitement about finally meeting each other.

I was almost as excited about my visit to New York City as I was about the play. There is something about that place that captured my heart the very first time I got there. Being able to come home to it again after two years felt so very good, and getting to be there without the pressure of having to play tourist guide for a traveling companion was extremely relaxing. A lot of walking was done in those first few days, resulting in what might possibly have been the world’s largest blister.

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One of my room mates at the hostel was a sweet Russian girl who had a two day layover in New York and didn’t have any idea what she could do. In addition to that, she was a little scared of being out there all day, because it was very, very cold and she hadn’t packed for that kind of weather. As I had no specific plans other than walking around, I offered to take her on a tour. We ended up walking pretty much all over Manhattan.

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The next day, I took the bus to Philadelphia. At first, I had planned to stay in a hostel in Philadelphia’s Old Town for all four nights, but when Jen decided to come, she booked a room in a hotel in Malvern and offered to share it, leaving only the first two nights for me to stay in the hostel.

Malvern, a small town a little outside Philadelphia, was where I had to be to see the play. Getting there without a car was a bit of a problem, especially when you rely on Google maps. That first trip there was quite an adventure and only had a happy ending because of several very kind people. From the guy who, when asked for directions, offered to give me a ride to the theatre, to the sweet couple who offered to take me back to the station after the play, to the kind guy who paid for my coffee for no other reason than it having been my first visit to a Wawa, to the guy at the hostel who gave me the 30 day SEPTA pass he didn’t need anymore, I encountered nothing but kindness and generosity that day.

That first night, it took a while for me to truly arrive at the theatre and get my my mind focused on what was about to happen. I would see Mary McDonnell on stage! By the time the play began all worries were forgotten for the moment. I think it is no secret that stage and screen acting are two very different things, and seeing someone perform in a film or on TV does in no way prepare you for experiencing them live on stage. That was definitely true for Mary. She has an amazing presence on screen, but the moment she walked onto that stage, she took over the entire room. Her energy is breathtaking.

The production was fantastic. Stage, costumes, lighting and music were beautiful and set the perfect mood. I had read the play before and thought it rather humorous, despite the tragic topic, and I was very happy to see this humor reflected in the production. And yet there were many moments when I was not able to stop the tears. It was a great production with so many fantastic actors and I wish I lived close enough to see more plays at this charming little theater.

What I love most about being able to see a play more than once is the subtle differences that can be spotted from one performance to another. Mostly it is about energy, which is already enough to change the entire experience. Sometimes it is also possible to make out small changes or slip-ups, or even the odd costume failure. All of this is usually unnoticeable to people who see the play for the first time.

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Production photos © People’s Light and Theater

On the three nights I saw the play, I got to experience three unique performances, mostly because of subtle changes in individual actor’s energy. On the second night, there was also a slight wardrobe mishap if I was not completely mistaken. At one point, a certain leading lady’s underskirt seemed to develop a life of its own, resulting in a little discrete fumbling to secure the misbehaving item until the end of the scene. The next day, there was a certain amount of suspicion towards that underskirt, as hands kept checking its status.

It takes a lot of skill and nerves to get through a problem like that without anyone noticing that there is something wrong and it usually leaves you a little paranoid for quite a while. (Let’s just say that it took me a long time to regain my trust in on-stage door handles.)

Getting to see this great production and having the pleasure of seeing Mary McDonnell on stage was no doubt amazing and it ranks at the very top of my list of fangirl adventures. What made it even more special was meeting so many wonderful ladies, some of whom I consider close friends now. From identifying a fellow fangirl by her Captain Raydor glasses to stacking 6 fangirls into a car to shopping trips, bacon breakfast and exploring Philadelphia to the best tip for a dinner location in history, it was a perfect experience.

Okay, best tip for a dinner location? Well, yeah. Malvern is small and not exactly buzzing after 10pm. As we were looking for some place to get together for a drink and a bite to eat after the Friday performance, we asked the helpful receptionist at our hotel and he sent us to a very nice place with good food. It also happened to be the place where Mary McDonnell went for a drink with Major Crimes guest star Tom Berenger whom we had spotted at the theater earlier.

Despite what people might say about crazy fans and their tendency to harass the people they admire, we at least tried to appear as if we could behave. As much as we all would have liked to walk up to the bar and tell Mary how much we had enjoyed the play and her performance, we did not think it appropriate to bother her. It was awesome enough to sit there and catch the odd glance. Besides, we had so much fun chatting and being silly that it was not too difficult to resist the temptation to be a nuisance.

Sadly, even the most epic of fangirl meetings must come to an end eventually and it usually does so at an airport. As I said goodbye to our Texan delegation (the Twin and our roomie/driver), the prospect of another few days in New York City was not much of a consolation. At that point, I did not know that it would only be a few months until we would meet again.

The memories of this weekend, the kindness of complete strangers, and the wonderful friendships that began in Malvern will be with me for a very long time. They made my life richer and fill me with gratitude every day.

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So much life – So much love – So much beauty

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Sometimes, when you least expect it, everything comes together in the most beautiful way. In my ten years of being a travelling fangirl, I have done some pretty crazy things – some of which I have yet to write about – but this latest trip to Phoenix Comic Con definitely made it to the top of the list. Earlier this year, I was already so very lucky to get to see Mary McDonnell, her incredibly talented daughter Olivia Mell and the great ensemble of the People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern, PA perform The Cherry Orchard (that post will hopefully follow soon). Until only a few weeks before it happened, I didn’t expect to go on another amazing adventure.

When it was announced that Mary would be at Phoenix Comic Con and my darling Texan twin decided to go, there was absolutely no way I could’ve pulled off another trip to the US. Maybe there is an angel for fangirls, because four weeks before the convention, things changed and what seemed impossible before was only sort of crazy and maybe slightly unwise. Since I am really big on being crazy, and the twin is a terrible enabler, I ended up booking the trip. Flying in on Friday and leaving on Monday to arrive back home on Tue afternoon (stupid time travel!). It sounds like a lot of trouble for just two days of convention fun, but it was so absolutely worth it!

By the time I decided to go, most of the details had already been worked out. The twin had booked a hotel room that, at the time, she was sharing with one other lady we both got to meet briefly in Malvern earlier that year. A friend who lived in the area had volunteered to play the driver. All that remained for me to do was book a flight and the tickets for the convention and the photo ops. And I had to find a way to tell my mother about that trip, because we had plans for a short trip only a day after my scheduled return from the US. To prevent any awkward conversations in case something went wrong on the way back, informing her could not be avoided. She took it a lot better than I had expected, accepting “meeting the twin” as a good enough reason. Somewhere along the line, after hearing many stories about the twin who got dropped off at the wrong house by a confused stork, she had decided to pretty much adopt said twin.

It is interesting how some things come together sometimes. As it happened, my two roomies for the weekend and I arrived in Phoenix within half an hour of each other, which was very convenient for our darling designated driver. The three of us had met before, so it was no surprise that it felt comfortable and familiar when we finally found each other at the airport. Although, the twin and I did scare our friend a little when we pretty much dropped our stuff and ran the moment we saw each other. I suppose that’s what happens when you put an ocean between twins.

The real surprise came when we met our driver, got into her car and started chatting as if we had done nothing else for years. I don’t think I’ve ever connected with people as easily as I did with the amazing ladies I spent that weekend with. Maybe this has something to do with being older and more comfortable with who I am, but my memories of other first meetings are full of awkwardness and doubt.

There was my dear twin Jen, Allison, who we had met before, Dee – the poor sod who had to drive us around all weekend, Krista, who decided to do a last minute road trip to Phoenix and ended up sharing our room, my wonderful beta Robin, and her friend Donna (aka HashtagDonna). Over the almost three days we spent together we had more fun than was probably legal, and even if the convention had ended up being a total let-down, which it definitely wasn’t, it would have been more than worth going, just to spend time with those ladies. We talked, we drank, we almost got lost several times (Donkey Kong Navigations is THE thing, people!), we drank some more, we laughed, and we played Cards Against Humanity. And yes, we also went to the convention and got to see Mary McDonnell, Edward James Olmos, Katee Sackhoff, and others.

As a wonderful bonus, Mary had brought along one of her Major Crimes co-stars, the sweet, funny Phillip Keene – much to everyone’s delight (especially Jen’s). In addition to that, we got to meet the amazing Stacey K. Black, who had decided to attend the con and took some time to chat with us.

So, Mary McDonnell…

With 10 years of convention and stage door experience behind me, I tend to be careful with my expectations for these kinds of events. It is too easy to come up with all these perfect scenarios in which the person you came to see spends long minutes talking to you, giving you their undivided attention and you’re actually capable of forming coherent and eloquent sentences. It is also way too easy to put people you admire on a pedestal, to always expect only the most perfect behavior of them. Doing that is a guarantee for being disappointed, however. Most often it is due to circumstances that expectations can’t be met. Too many fans, bad organization, bad timing, logistic problems or company policy can prevent an event from being what we imagined. And sometimes the person we dreamed of meeting simply has a bad day. They are human, after all, and thus just as entitled to bad days as the rest of us.

Maybe my reluctance to hope for too much colored my experience of that particular convention, but even thinking back, I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. The organization was better than at many other conventions. The time we spent standing in line was minimal, and even when there was a delay and we had to wait a little longer, it was fun. The lady who managed Mary’s line was absolutely amazing and we spent a lot of time chatting with her. She had a great way of dealing with the waiting fans, keeping everyone happy and in a good mood.

That very first time coming face to face with someone you’ve admired for a long time is rather daunting. I still remember very vividly what I felt like when I first met Kate Mulgrew and how I was incapable of coherent speech. To say I was nervous as I stood in that line would be the understatement of the century. And yet, when it was my turn, it was everything I had imagined and more. Mary was sweet and kind and took her time to chat. The program from The Cherry Orchard that I handed her for signing prompted a small chat about the play and how much we had loved it. She even connected us to a card she had received. Afterwards, it took a while for me to comprehend what had happened and that, contrary to my expectations, I had not lost my words.

A funny thing that came up whenever she saw me was the fact that she loved my earrings. They were just these cheap things I had found while shopping for clothes, but they sparkled so nicely that she kept admiring them.

I could fill endless pages with all the memorable run-ins with Mary and EJO and Phillip, but I was hoping to finish this entry at some point. Some things need to be mentioned, however.

  1. Mary really is the sweetest person alive and it was an absolute joy to get to talk to her. Also, her eyes… OMG, her eyes! *swoons*
  2. She is very appreciative of her fans’ artwork. She pretty much fangirled over Jen’s Darth Raydor art, recognizing it from a twitter post and she also admired the piece I brought for her to sign.
  3. Although her personality and energy hides it very well, she is an incredibly tiny person. Note to self: more workout before the next convention!
  4. Phillip Keene is even more adorable in person than I imagined. So many people hear me speak and think I’m from Australia for some very weird reason (I have never been there and I had very little chance to listen or talk to Australians), that it actually made me happy that he correctly placed my accent. An accent I take great pains to hide, mind you. Of course he recognized Jen when she mentioned her twitter name and seemed very excited to meet her in person. It was great fun talking to him!
  5. Stacey K. Black is awesome and I am convinced that she will accomplish great things. Also, check out her music! It is AMAZING!
  6. EJO has the most stunning smile and he’s such a charming guy.
  7. Mary and the podium = love!

Other useful convention survival tips:

  • Breakfast is for sissies. As long as there’s coffee, everything is going to be fine.
  • You will NEVER stick to the budget you set yourself, so don’t even try.
  • A bunch of ladies playing Cards Against Humanity while drinking rum might want to think twice about having their cellphones close by.
  • If, after the aforementioned happenings, there should be leftover rum, it must not be wasted. It makes for fantastic emergency courage and a really good breakfast. Simply remember to bring a suitable container in which to carry it.
  • Have a camera in hand when the kid snatches candy out of his mom’s purse and realizes that it is in the shape of a guy – and be glad he’s old enough not to be traumatized by the sight.

No matter how much you wish it weren’t so, at some point a weekend such as this comes to an end. The last autograph is collected, the last photo taken. Just one more walk around to catch one last glimpse of the people you came to see, a quick stroll through the dealer’s area with the realization that the world is full of too many things you need want, and then you find yourself at the airport, saying goodbye to your friends. It is this part of any such trip that is the hardest. You never know how much time will pass until you will meet again. It always hurts and, at least for me, there are always tears. It does prove one thing, however. Friendships that start out online are no less real or deep or rewarding than the ones you form in the “real” world. The only difference is distance.

 

Old friends, new friends, powerful theatre and another convention

the exoneratedWhen you live in Europe and admire an actor or actress who is based in the US, chances are you probably won’t get to see them live on stage. Unless they get involved in a project in London, that is.

Riverside Studios in London staged “The Exonerated”, a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen in Spring 2006. They did it as a stage reading with a cast of several regular and some changing actors. One of the guest actresses was Kate Mulgrew and of course many of the European fans wouldn’t miss that.

The play itself is absolutely worth seeing – or reading. I think there’s even a film version now, starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, among others. It follows the stories of six people who have been wrongfully sentenced to death from their arrest to the time after their eventual release years later. It’s not exactly light entertainment and not really appropriate material for children, but it deals with relevant issues in a way that makes it impossible not to look a little harder at those ideas we have about the justice system.

The London production was a very basic one in terms of set design, as would be expected of a stage reading. What it lacked in fancy sets and costumes and movement on stage, was more than compensated by the amazing performances of all actors and actresses involved. Light and sound design helped create the right mood for the dramatic tale and made for a very emotional experience.

The entire trip was going to be a big adventure once again. Many of the people I had met the year before had made plans to go see the play on the same weekend – the weekend of Kate Mulgrew’s birthday. As a birthday present from her fans, two ladies organised a fundraiser. Many fans contributed through donations and auctions, making it possible to present Kate with a sizable check – money donated to the Alzheimer’s Association in her honour. That night, the small theatre bar was packed with excited fans who wanted to sing Happy Birthday and see the look on her face when she got her present. It was an amazing moment that showed me how much can be accomplished when a few like-minded people put their heads together.

The day before, my friend Michaela and I had arrived – separately – and met at our hostel. This time we had arranged to stay at the same place. In the evening, we walked over to the theatre to meet a few of our friends for drinks. We hadn’t seen each other for about a year and had a lot to talk about. At some point Kate Mulgrew came over to our table to say goodbye before she left, as she knew at least one of our group – the woman who had organised the fundraiser. It was one of those slightly surreal experiences that, even years later, make me blink in surprise and wonder if that really happened.

The two days after that were a little less relaxed, as hordes of fans descended upon the venue to watch the play and celebrate Kate Mulgrew’s birthday. Michaela and I originally only had tickets for the Saturday night performance, but we liked it so much that we got tickets for the Sunday matinee and, later, the Sunday evening performance as well. At some point in the chaos that was the Sunday night stage door hype, we even got an autograph.

We all got to spend a lot of time together, drinking wine and chatting with people from all over Europe as well as most members of the cast. They were an amazing bunch of people. One of those sweet guys was Martin Freeman. Yeah, I’ve got an edition of that play with his autograph in it. At that time, he was just a sweet guy and a talented actor in a brilliant cast and we had a really nice chat about being a travelling fan with him.

The following Monday, many of us went to a small, rather weird town north of London for a convention. They had set up a huge vendor’s area in a large shopping mall, placing autograph tables all around. It was a little unusual, but fun, as fans and regular shoppers crowded the place.

Apart from Kate Mulgrew, the only other guests I can recall are Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton and an extremely bored Robert Pattinson. Back then he had just been one of those dudes who played a part in one of the Harry Potter movies. I’m still a little bummed that I didn’t get an autograph. I could probably have sold it for a fortune now when they went for something like £10 back then. Oh well, live and learn, I guess.

As it happened, I was far more interested in taking photos and getting autographs of Kate Mulgrew. As far as convention experiences go, this one was not particularly outstanding. It was cheap and fun, but there were no talks or photo sessions. Before we headed back to London, we did run into Kate Mulgrew, though. We even had a chance to exchange a few words and tell her how much we had enjoyed the play the previous weekend.

Despite all the excitement around Kate Mulgrew, the most vivid memories of that weekend are of the effect that play had on me and of the warmth and friendship I experienced. And that time I actually saw a little bit of London. If I ever find out where I put the photos of that time, I’ll update this post.

 

And so it begins…

The first trip you make without your parents is always a little exciting, I suppose. For me, that happened in June 2005. I had been a fan of Star Trek: Voyager for quite a while back then. Kate Mulgrew, who played the captain of the Starship Voyager, had captured my special interest. She portrayed a strong, independent woman in a leadership position, something that very much appealed to me – and still does. Apart from that, she is a fascinating and inspiring human being and I was eager to meet her in person. The opportunity to do just that presented itself when it was announced that she would attend London Film and Comic Con 2005.

Several of the people I had met online through various fan sites had declared they would be there, so I decided to go. I had never met any of those people in person and apart from our shared fascination with one woman, we didn’t know much about each other. Regardless of all these uncertainties, I booked a flight and a bed in a hostel dorm, made arrangements to meet some of my online friends, and hoped I wouldn’t regret it.

The first online friend, a girl I had met on a fanfiction board, waited for me in front on my hostel when I arrived. We bonded over a cup of coffee and our weird sense of humour and have been friends ever since. Almost 10 years and many meetings later, she is still my best friend, even if our interests have moved on from a shared fandom.

Later that evening, we met with a large group of Kate Mulgrew fans, sharing stories and making plans for the following two days at the convention. Over the course of the weekend, we got together for drinks and photo sessions and chats, and many of the friendships that were forged that weekend still exist. Some may only involve exchanging Christmas cards, others I keep track of through social media, and a select few I get to meet every now and then when the crazy strikes once more and we all end up at the same event.

The convention itself was an amazing experience. Kate Mulgrew and Garrett Wang were the guests I was interested in, because both had starred in Star Trek: Voyager. The thought of meeting Kate Mulgrew was rather terrifying because there were so many expectations riding on this one short moment. The first encounter on Saturday was very brief, long enough for her to sign a book I brought for that purpose and exchange a few short words. It was also long enough for me to find out that this woman had a rather astonishing effect on my ability to form coherent sentences. Astonishing as in I don’t think I managed to string together more than two words while standing in front of her. That didn’t change much during the other times I got to meet her at that convention. There was another autograph session the next day as well as a short talk where fans could ask questions. That was the one moment I managed to be at least partly coherent, even though I wasn’t able to pose my question in a way that lead to the answer I was hoping for.

Talking to Garrett Wang was a lot more relaxed. My friend knew him from another convention and he remembered her. We had a nice chat about Star Wars, completely free of nervousness.

KateandmeMost of our time was spent inside the convention centre, so a bag full of touristy photos was not among the things I brought home that time. It was a memorable weekend filled with so many new experiences that I doubted, at that time, anything would ever live up to it. As it turns out, I’ve done far crazier and more memorable things since, but this weekend will always have a special place in my heart, because it was my first time as a travelling fangirl and it was the beginning of many of the friendships I still hold dear today.

Has it really been almost 10 years?

A few days ago, I talked with a friend about all those adventures I got to experience and I realised that the first of those happened almost 10 years ago – in 2005. Since then I have visited many places, some of which I didn’t even know existed, got to know countless people, made some amazing friends and grew a lot as a person. Thinking back on those years, my life up until now has been incredibly full and the beauty of it is that it’s a gift that keeps on giving. People move from one fandom to the next, they lose interest in an actor or actress who once was their favourite, but friendships and memories remain. Those are the things I cherish most about being a fan – all the people I met, all the friends I’ve made and all the memories.

This blog is supposed to be a collection of those memories and maybe the odd post about what else might occupy a fangirl’s mind.