Category: learning new things
Flight School: Ursula Aloft
As some of you may know already, I’m reprising one of my favorite roles this summer: that of Ursula the Sea Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This time it’s for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL. It’s always fun to revisit a role, and here’s the really fun part this time around: Ursula gets to FLY.
(Bear in mind that since Ursula is an octopus – sort of – that her scenes are water scenes. This means that her flying is actually more of a grandiose floating, a wafting, a gentle settling on the ocean floor. At least that’s the goal.)
I’ve always wanted to learn the art of stage flight, but I’ve never been cast in a role that called for that special skill. Fortunately, the director for this production of Mermaid, Geoffrey Sherman, is a man of singular vision and exquisite taste – meaning he agreed with me when I said I thought Ursula’s first appearance should be aloft.
Five of us will be flying in the ASF production of Mermaid: me, Michelle Pruiett as Ariel, Billy Sharpe as Scuttle the Seagull, and ensemble members Danielle Marie Gregoire and Andrew Eckhert, who are the stunt doubles for Ariel and Prince Eric and will also be performing some aerial gymnastics in “Under the Sea.” Michelle has flown before, but the rest of us had not, so there were varying degrees of nervousness involved as we all gathered early one Tuesday morning for “Flight School.”
Our flying director was Daniel Kondos of ZFX Flying Effects, who spends some 300 out of 365 days of the year traveling from venue to venue to instruct actors and crews in the fine art of stage flight. First we were all fitted for harnesses: Michelle, Andrew and Gabrielle were put into somersault harnesses, which gives them the freedom of movement they need for their swimming sequences (as well as allow them to rotate 360 degrees!). Billy and I were fitted for simple seat harnesses, which will basically allow us to be raised and lowered.
The harnesses had to fit good and tight. Once we thought we were well and truly buckled in, we were required to squat and the straps were tightened even more. There was a certain amount of wincing and groaning as we all got used to binding in unusual places. One’s flabby bits tend to get shoved up around one’s ribcage or down by one’s thighs. The somersault harnesses were trickier to fit, as the center of balance has to be just so.
Billy was first in the air: with Dan’s instruction and the assistance of fly crew, he performed some basic up-and-down, back-and-forth action and then hurried off to dance rehearsal (Scuttle not only flies, he tap dances!).
Next up was Michelle, who was very relaxed and graceful in her rig (she’s played Ariel before, as well as Peter Pan). She took a few practice twirls and somersaults before determining that the swivels weren’t in quite the right position, so while her harness was being adjusted, I got ready to become airborne. It would be fun to say I was nervous and jittery, but to be honest, I felt like a little kid at Christmas – I was so thrilled I couldn’t stop grinning. Here’s my first flight, with Dan directing:
The original idea for Ursula’s entrance was that I would get rigged up off stage left and be lifted above the proscenium level. Then I’d be flown into position above the set (out of the audience’s line of sight) and be lowered in for my Big Entrance. Unfortunately, with all the lights in the way, I couldn’t be lifted high enough to be hidden. A rethink was in order, and while that was going on, Danielle and Andrew took their first spins in the harness (literally: Dan had them do a couple of somersaults to see how their rigging fit). Here’s a look at their maiden voyages:
It was great fun watching everyone dipping and swirling around the stage, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the air again. Finally the big set piece representing Ursula’s Lair was brought into position and after a brief confab with Geoffrey, Dan and the flight crew, I was lifted into the rafters off stage left (about 30 feet up). With a slight up-and-down motion reminiscent of an octopus bobbing through the briny, I was lowered to the stage area just to the left of the Lair.
It was good, but not quite good enough. After another confab, we repeated the journey, only this time I alighted briefly on top of the Lair before being lowered to my landing spot on deck. Much more effective! When we added the entrance lines and music, plus my rehearsal skirt just to get a sense of how it would all look, I think everyone was happy:
So this old dog learned another new trick and is feeling pretty happy about it. I can’t wait until we get into tech, so I can get back in the air again. I’m eager to experience what happens when I’m completely tricked out in Full Ursula, tentacles and all. Meanwhile, my dreams are all full of flying!
Becoming Ursula, Part One – Getting A Head
I’ve been fortunate to have had a long and rewarding career in musical theatre. I’ve done Broadway, a National Tour and countless regional theatre productions. I’ve appeared in world premieres, revivals and revisals, in roles dizzying in variety. In 2014 alone, I played an aging stripper, a Jewish mother, an amoral British money-lender and the mother of artist Georges Seurat.
But there’s one kind of role that’s always eluded me: a shrieking, mugging, scenery-devouring, terrifying-funny psychotic. I’m talking, of course, about playing a Disney villain. More specifically, a villainess – since the few major Disney bad guys pale in comparison to their female counterparts.
So when Olney Theatre Center announced that they were producing Disney’s The Little Mermaid as their 2014 holiday show, I was beside myself. I love Ursula. She’s a slinky, slimy, sexy sociopath. Her big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is brilliant. (Side note: Ursula is one of the few Disney villains who actually sings.)
Since the role is such a plum, naturally many of my fellow actresses were interested in it as well, but I was shameless in letting the good folks at Olney know that I really, really, REALLYREALLY (really!) wanted to be seen for the role. To their credit, they did not shy back in horror at my eagerness, and when auditions rolled around I was called in to read. As it turned out, shameless was exactly what director Mark Waldrop was looking for. To my delight, I was offered the role, and accepted with greedy alacrity.
Becoming Ursula, though, was going to take more than just me being eager. The Sea Witch is a grand creation: part human and part octopus, she’s an undersea nightmare that has to be translated from the anything’s-possible world of animation to a flesh-and-blood actress treading the all-too-solid boards of a theatrical stage. It’s a major challenge, but when I discovered that Pei Lee was going to be designing the costumes for Olney’s production, I knew I was in good hands. Pei and I have worked together in the past (that’s some of her work on Olney’s 2012 production of Cinderella to the left) and I’m a huge admirer of her creativity and attention to detail.
Because Olney’s PR department wanted to do a publicity photo shoot in October, Pei got in touch with me in late July to start work on the Ursula costume, specifically on the character’s headdress, which would be featured in the photos. We met so she could make a wrap of my head (a complicated process involving plastic wrap, scissors, felt-tip markers and a LOT of tape), and approximately a month later I went out to Olney for a fitting.
Even unfinished, the headdress was amazing. It had the shape and flow of Ursula’s hair from the animated feature because it’s made of a lightweight fabric called FossShape (which can be sewn and then “frozen” into place using heat). It fit like a dream and was even comfortable. Pei had included details like reversible sequins (which can be shifted from white to black) and during the fitting, roughed in “sideburns” to complete the look. We were both tremendously pleased with the results.
Since the photo shoot was going to focus on head and shoulders, we also had to do a makeup trial. The day of the shoot I came in early, and we played with both water and creme-based makeups for about an hour. Rather than the purple-skinned Ursula of the cartoon, Pei wanted a paler version with just some gray-lilac shading beneath the cheekbones, with teal, black and purple around the eyes and bright red lips. While we liked the translucency of the water-based makeup, applying it with a makeup sponge was tricky and the results somewhat uneven and streaky. Since the photos would be edited and the publicity team, along with our Ariel, Laura Zinn, were waiting, we decided we’d revisit the makeup issue down the road. I got into the now-completed headdress, a rough mockup of the Ursula costume (which was far from ready) and we did the shoot. The photos turned out great.
Our second makeup trial happened during the third week of rehearsal, when we needed to shoot a green-screen video for a special-effects moment which occurs late in the second act. The costume was still being built, so the rough mockup was called into play again. For the makeup, we had a little more detail this time, including some whacked-out tinsel false eyelashes I happened to have in my kit. However, we still weren’t happy with the streaky results of the water-based foundation, but didn’t want to sacrifice its translucence for a smoother but opaque creme-based makeup. (We also decided that the lashes, while fun for the video shoot, were a bit too pale and fragile for eight shows a week.) After the video shoot, I scrubbed my face and went to rehearsal. While talking over the shoot with fellow cast members, I mentioned the makeup issues and our dissatisfaction with the streaky application. One of our Mersisters (Gracie Jones, who plays Andrina) looked thoughtful. “Why don’t you try airbrushing?” she asked, and on being quizzed further, showed me photos of airbrushed zombie/ghoul/ghost makeup designs she was currently producing for Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson, MD. (Great article about the Forest here, if you’d like to know more.) “I’d be happy to do your makeup,” Gracie added.
Well, you can bet I pounced on that offer. I texted Pei, and 48 hours later we were into Ursula Makeup Trial #3. Pei, Gracie and I (well, Pei and Gracie – I just sat there) experimented with the airbrush technique for a good hour. The application process was super-smooth and even, and took half the time of the previous sponged-on trial. Our first version ended up looking a little too ghoulish, so I washed off and we started again. This time I pincurled my hair, as Pei wanted to see the finished makeup with the headdress.
With a little lighter hand on the shading, Gracie was able to produce the results Pei wanted. She was also able to lay down a base of teal and purple for the eyeshadow, and using a template of Pei’s design, even swooshed in Ursula’s wildly arched eyebrows. The smoothness of the application, not to mention the time saved, was cause for celebration.
With Gracie’s work done, she cleaned up while I added the fine details (yes, I actually did something more than just sit there the whole time). I finessed the brows, applied a thick, sturdy set of lashes, lined my eyes a la The Black Swan, gave myself a full cupid’s-bow mouth in bright red, and for the finishing touch, added Ursula’s signature beauty mark. Pei brought in the headdress, we popped it on and voila! URSULA!
(Side Note: One of the problems we’d struggled with in earlier iterations of the design was my own eyebrows interposing themselves into the mix. Using my brows as the line of demarcation between the teal and purple shadows, along with Gracie’s airbrushing, made that problem literally disappear.)
To say we were three happy campers would be the understatement of the year. At last Ursula’s face was in place!
Up next: Tentacles, et al.
Good Ol’ Collards
I’m sorry to report that the vegetable garden this year has been almost a total bust.
Right after John and I got the garden planted, I had to go to Tennessee to help my mom get re-situated in her house after several months in rehab recovering from a broken hip. I was away from the garden the entire month of June, and when I got back it just didn’t look as vigorous as I’d hoped. It may have been the weather, which was cool and pleasant for the first part of the month and then soggy with rain in the second. It may have been that I wasn’t there to keep an eye out for stressed plants or bugs or whatever. More than likely, it was just the Will of the Garden Gods.
But I’m blaming the deer.
I’m accustomed to losing part of my garden to gray squirrels and chipmunks. There’s no way I can keep the little buggers out of my yard – I have oak trees, after all, and oak trees mean acorns, which scream “BUFFET!” to my rodent neighbors. But this was the first time I had to deal with deer.
We’ve had ’em in the yard this past fall – pretty things, but they kept eating the hosta and our baby fruit trees. Then we had a long spell of not seeing them, and I assumed they’d moved out of the neighborhood. Silly me. I first realized my error when the fifteen lovely Italian green bean plants I’d put in were about four inches tall. I had come home from my show on a moonlit night and had stood for some time looking at the plants, thinking it was time to stake them. The very next morning I walked out the back door and discovered all but five of them had been bitten off short, with a lovely clear deer hoofprint to show just who the defiler was.
They moved in on my tomatoes next, elbow to elbow with the squirrels and the chipmunks. Even my beloved birds got in on the act – I looked out my kitchen window one morning to see a Northern Flicker clinging to my Black Cherry, pecking one of the beautiful, just-short-of-ripe fruits. I scared it off and picked what I could (delicious – the bird had good taste), but it was a foreshadowing of things to come. I think I’ve gotten less than a dozen tomatoes off seven plants this year.
Every morning I’d come out to find plants uprooted, bitten off and broken. I had a brief rush of lovely little cucumbers and baby patty-pan squash, and several big spaghetti squash ripening on the vine, but then the deer moved in on those, knocking the fruit down and taking big bites before rejecting the rest. Then some kind of wilt carried off all three plants, and that was that.
The one bright spot in all this misery have been the collards. This was my first year planting collards, and I guess the deer don’t like them because they’ve left them alone, along with the brussels sprouts (which may change now that those plants are starting to put out buds). I finally got around to harvesting some collards a couple weeks ago. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat them all, so I cast around on the interwebs for how to freeze ’em, and now I pass that on to you.
First, go out and pick your collards. You can just snap off the leaves and leave the plant in the ground; it’ll keep producing well into the fall (I have a friend who says he’s harvested collards he had to shake snow off of). Pick a LOT of leaves, because they cook down a lot. I probably got about a peck from my three plants without stripping them. Then you’ll want to give the leaves a good wash, because there WILL be dirt and outriders on them. I filled one of my sinks with cold water and gave the harvest a good soak, then ran each leaf under running water before stripping out the center stem.
Some people use a knife to cut out the stems; I don’t see the need. Just fold your leaf in half, grab the stem and strip it out, like so:
The process goes fast, and in no time you’ll have a pile of stems and another of leaves ready to process. I tossed the stems in the compost bin , then piled the leaves up on a cutting board and chopped them into biggish pieces – about palm-sized, because I like big pieces, but you can cut them as small as you like. Some people cut the leaves up after they’ve blanched them, but to each his/her own.
Set a big pot of salted water to boil. Make a place for your blanched greens to dry; I covered a couple of baking sheets with clean dish towels and then placed a layer of paper towels on top of that (to keep the greens from staining them). Have more paper towels ready to lay on top of the processed greens.
Once the water’s at a brisk boil, drop in your greens, a handful at a time, then set a timer for three minutes. (Other greens take only two minutes, but collards are tougher and need that extra minute.) Once the three minutes are up, take the greens out of the boiling water and spread them on your drying surface. I used tongs for this, along with a flat mesh strainer to catch the smaller bits.
Cover the blanched greens with a layer of paper towels and pat them down to blot up the excess moisture. Leave them for a bit so the water will soak into the towels and the leaves will cool down. I let mine sit for about thirty minutes.
Once the leaves have cooled and the excess water absorbed into the towels (the leaves won’t be completely dry), put them into freezer bags, press the air out of the bags, seal, label and freeze. I got four quart-sized bags of blanched collards out of this harvest – enough for several servings, although I’m perfectly capable of eating the entire bag myself. I do love collards.
I love them so much that I kept back a handful of fresh greens to cook for a quick snack. I sauteed some garlic and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes in some olive oil, added a little chicken broth and brought it to a simmer, then put in the fresh greens and tossed them in the cooking liquid until they were limp, about four minutes. I put them in a bowl, hit it with a shot of vinegar and then enjoyed a bowlful.
Those deer don’t know what they’re missing.
Adventures in Bread Baking Part 2: The Baguette
For my second whirl with the Vatinet baking book, I wanted to try something a little more flavorful but not complicated (I wasn’t quite ready for the Kalamata or Beaujolais recipes just yet). I also wanted to try out my new couche, so I decided on a whole wheat recipe flavored with just a touch of honey, shaped into baguettes. This involved a certain amount of flipping back and forth between the recipe and the baguette-forming instructions, as well as some adjustments on my end to make up for my less than industrial kitchen. For example, Vatinet wants you to bake the baguettes on a big stone, but a big stone I hava no. What I did have was a brand spankin’ new Chicago Metallic baguette pan, so that was going to make its debut as my baking vessel of choice (I also have CM’s French bread pan – damn those Amazon “frequently bought together” deals).
The dough creation process was more or less the same as in making the boule. The big difference was the addition of whole wheat flour and that little touch of honey. My honey had crystalized, so it needed a brief nuke in the microwave and then time to cool before it could be used, so I reviewed recipe, kneading technique and proper baguette formation and assembled the ol’ mise en place while I waited.
Because of the whole wheat flour, the dough was a good bit stiffer and took a little longer to work this time, especially using Vatinet’s pinch-and-pull kneading method. The results were still very pleasing – this dough smells good. I popped it into its floured bowl and left it to rest. Once again, it didn’t rise as much as I thought it should (this could be because John and I keep our house on the cool side), but after an hour it had doubled, just barely, so I forged ahead.
Forming the baguettes was fun. First you form the dough into a rectangle (and Vatinet is very specific about how you do this, just as he is specific about every step in the baking process), then you use your fingers to create a kind of dog-bone shape, and then both hands come into play as you roll the dough longer, into the traditional baguette shape. I wished for a larger working surface, such as a big table, but I was NOT going to prep bread on the Stickley. The longest counter top in my little galley kitchen had to suffice. Then I put the two baguettes on the couche, lifting a couple of folds between the loaves. The couche was big enough to then cover both baguettes for the second rising.
(A note. Every time I try to type couche in this blog, I type douche instead. I don’t know what that says about me or my typing skills, but it’s making me giggle.)
The baguettes didn’t rise a whole lot, but then, they’re baguettes and compared to the boule recipe, use very little yeast. They looked adorable – so adorable that I spent time admiring them instead of taking their photo, once they had been panned and slashed with the trust razor blade. A photo of the brand spankin’ new baguette pan will have to suffice. Pretty, no? I wish you could have seen those baguettes cuddling in it, side by side. Adorable.
Since I didn’t want the baguettes to over-bake, I used my instant-read thermometer to test them for doneness. They baked very quickly and smelled spectacular when I took them out of the oven to cool. Well, in theory they were supposed to cool, but when I showed them to John he demanded hot bread, then and there. Vatinet does NOT want you to eat hot bread. He wants you to let it cool completely before you eat it. Well, in our house Vatinet was swiftly outvoted and John and I ate one entire baguette, hot, and it was DELICIOUS AND WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN. We had half of the second one with our dinner, cool, and it was delicious as well but not DELICIOUS.
So I highly recommend A Passion for Bread to both the novice and experienced baker. I did find some of Vatinet’s methods a little too persnickety for a casual (and often irreverent) baker like me – I did not bother with a dough log, weighing the ingredients or tasting the dough for salt, for example – but I found his kneading method effective and will probably use it again. The banneton, couche (yep, did it again), Chicago Metallic pans and even the humble razor blade did their jobs well, so they were worth the not-much I paid for them and have been added to the plethora of specialized cooking implements in my already stuffed-to-the-rafters kitchen. I’m looking forward to trying more involved recipes, just as soon as that confluence of time, ingredients and inclination hits again.
Adventures in Bread Baking, Part 1: The Boule
I’ve been baking bread for more years than I care to count, usually with the help of my trusty edition of James Beard’s Beard on Bread. I was introduced to the book by my older sister Julie, who used it to create such delicacies as Monkey Bread, Sally Lunn Bread, Swedish Limpa and just plain ol’ homestyle. The book, with its delicate line drawings by Karl Stuecklen, has an intimate, “I’m-sharing-this-with-you-alone” tone that I’ve always enjoyed, and my copy bears the stains of a tried and true cookbook.
For Christmas, however, I received a new bread book: A Passion for Bread by Lionel Vatinet, an artisanal Master Baker based out of North Carolina. It’s an autographed copy obtained for me by my sister Margaret, who is President of the Board of Directors of Yates Mill Associates, which operates a fully-restored 18th century gristmill in Raleigh, NC. The connection? The mill provides cornmeal for Mr. Vatinet’s La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC.
Mr. Vatinet’s book is a beauty – a hefty tome lavishly illustrated with full-color photos. It made for mouth-watering holiday reading and I couldn’t wait to try some of the recipes, although I knew it would be some weeks before my schedule would allow me the leisure time to experiment. The delay gave me an excuse to buy some new bread-making gear as part of my foray into artisanal baking. Rubbing my hands with greedy glee, I went to Amazon and purchased a banneton, a couche and a couple of baking pans. (I stopped short of buying a special lame, contenting myself with a simple razor blade for scoring the dough.)
It was almost March before a confluence of time, inclination and ingredients found me in the kitchen with Vatinet’s book before me and my mise en place…well, in place. I opted to try Vatinet’s Country French Bread recipe first, which makes a single boule. I had my yeast and my flour and my salt and my big mixing bowl and my measuring implements and my digital-instant-read thermometer ready because by gum Mr. Vatinet’s instructions are mighty specific. I had already rebelled against one requirement – the creation of a dough log to mark down all measurements and times and temperatures involved with the baking process – but otherwise I was trying hard to stick with his methods, which are a lot more technical than Mr. Beard’s.
The biggest difference was in the mixing and kneading. Bread is mostly yeast, flour, salt and water. Vatinet cautions you against letting the yeast and salt even touch each other before the mixing process starts, whereas Beard couldn’t care less about such familiarity. Vatinet wants you to use your exquisitely cleaned hands for the mixing process (unless you’re using an electric mixer) whereas Beard advocates a wooden spoon. Following Vatinet’s instructions, I kept my salt and yeast strictly segregated until I plunged one hand into the mix while with the other, slowly added the warm water (82-84 degrees, thankyouverymuch). Vatinet wants you to turn the bowl steadily while mixing and pouring, and I wished very much for an instructional video on how to do this as it seems to require a third hand. Beard doesn’t seem to give a flip how you incorporate the ingredients.
Once the ingredients are incorporated, you turn the sticky mass out onto your work surface and start the kneading. This is where things get tricky. Beard advocates flour on the work surface and adding more flour as you knead, using the traditional fold-press-quarter-turn-and-repeat method. Vatinet wants you to use as little additional flour as possible, and his kneading method involves jabbing your index fingers and thumbs into the mix, pinching them together to form an OK sign, and then pressing the pinched dough up and into the middle of the dough mass. It was very sticky business at first. I was working on a plastic work surface which kept lifting up every time I worked the dough, so I had to holler for John to come take it away while I continued kneading on the kitchen counter (which, fortunately, I had scrupulously cleaned beforehand). I confess to some doubt about this method, but after several minutes of hard work (and it IS a lot harder than the old-fashioned kneading method), the dough began to come together in a very pleasing fashion.
I formed the dough into a ball, popped it into a lightly floured bowl (as opposed to the buttered bowl Beard likes, but then Beard is a big butter fan) and covered it loosely with plastic for an hour-long rise in a warm, draft-free spot. It didn’t rise a great deal – it barely doubled in bulk – but I moved on to part two: shaping the dough into a boule. This was actually kind of fun. Placing my hands in a v-shape, I rolled the ball toward me on the counter, putting pressure first on one side and then on the other. The dough smelled good and was nice to work with, and the method almost as therapeutic as old-fashioned kneading. Beard doesn’t do anything special with his boule formation – heck, he doesn’t even call it a boule.
Next came the dough’s second rise, in the fancy new banneton (to your right, over there). Isn’t that the prettiest thing? You have to dust the banneton with flour before you use it, making sure you get flour into all the crannies so the dough doesn’t stick. I dusted the dough’s exposed bottom with a little more flour, covered it lightly with plastic wrap, and then moved it back to its warm, draft-free spot to await its second rising. The really beautiful part of the banneton use comes after the second rising, when you turn the dough out onto a cornmeal-dusted surface (and yes, I used Yates Mill cornmeal because I Have A Connection). The top of the risen boule will be imprinted with the concentric rings of the banneton, which gives it that lovely artisanal look. Using your razor blade (or your lame, if you’re fancier than me), you can score the dough following those rings, or be more decorative and score across them. Vatinet says you should develop your own special scoring pattern, but I wasn’t feeling that arty yet.
The dough went into the oven on a preheated baking stone (I actually owned one of these already, from the days when I used to make pizza at home), and following Vatinet’s instructions, I popped a large metal bowl over stone and boule for the first ten minutes of baking (this has to do with creating a steamy environment for the first part of the bake). Vatinet recommended 25-30 additional minutes; in retrospect, my boule probably could have come out a little earlier, but I was trying to stick with the recipe. Here’s the finished product:
When the boule had cooled, John and I had a slice. I thought it was a bit on the chewy side, with the flavor just a trifle bland. Nevertheless, we devoured half the loaf with some good olive oil for dinner. Next time I will score it a bit more deeply, reduce the baking time a hair, and perhaps add some flavorings (I’m dying to try Vatinet’s recipes for Kalamata Olive bread and Beaujolais bread).
Next up: the Baguette!
When Worlds Collide
It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged anything of substance, and for that I apologize and offer the usual excuse that I’ve Been Busy. I’ve already mentioned the industrial work that took me right up to a flurry of workshops, cabarets and one-night events, not to mention the start of rehearsals for Gypsy at Signature Theatre; what I haven’t mentioned is that on November 1st, I started writing a new book.
See, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo which happens every November. Essentially, you pledge that you’ll write 50,000 words of a brand-new novel during the 30 days of November. They don’t have to be polished words – in fact, you could be writing utter crap – but the idea is to just get yourself to put words on paper on deadline.
Now, you would think for someone with a journalism background that putting words on paper on deadline would be dead easy, but it ain’t so. I am a persnickety author with a very strong Internal Editor so my M.O. when writing is to write a few sentences, edit them, polish them, and then move on. It works for me (after all, I’ve already got two completed novels under my belt) but sometimes you’d like the Editor to back off a bit so you can just let the words flow. I thought trying NaNo this year would help me achieve that goal, and I’d made tentative plans to write a light romantic comedy for the competition.
Problem was, I was so busy in the weeks leading up to November 1st that I wasn’t able to do the necessary planning for the rom/com novel. Hadn’t anything but the roughest idea of a plot, hadn’t decided who the main character would be – in other words, all I had was a title (it’s a great title, though, which I will share once I write the darn thing). So I was a little panicked by mid-October.
I was already about 30,000 words into the third book in my fantasy series and was running into a series of hiccups with it, mostly centered around motive and personality for my lead protagonist and antagonist. Just as an exercise, I’d written some material about both characters’ childhoods and upbringing, and I was growing more and more interested in exploring that further. Why not write that book for NaNo? I asked myself, and myself, feeling exceedingly harried and irritable at the time, responded “YES YES DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”
So on November 1st, in the midst of an extraordinarily busy week, I started writing a new novel. It was helpful that I had a good clear idea of where I wanted to go with the story, but it was hard making myself just spew the words rather than stop and polish. And I did need to spew. In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write at least 1,666 words per day. That’s a lot of words, particularly when you don’t have a lot of focused time. So I squeezed in the writing whenever I could, sometimes getting up a few hours early, sometimes writing while I ate, sometimes grabbing a spare 20 minutes between rehearsals, just to get the words down. There were days when I couldn’t write at all and had to make it up the next day; there were days when what I wrote was so heinous that the Internal Editor leaped in before I could stop her; there was a particularly awful morning when I discovered that I had somehow neglected to save my work properly the day before and had lost some 1300 words that I then had to recreate in addition to that day’s quota.
In spite of all this drama, what I was writing wasn’t half bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Maybe all these years of writing means that the ratio of Junk Spew to Decent Spew has tipped in favor of useable material. Once I got past the first couple of weeks, it started to come easier. Part of that may have been that when Gypsy rehearsals began, I wasn’t called all that often so I had more time. Part of it may also have been that I’d disciplined myself to grab those precious free minutes to write, rather than cruise the Internet or sit in front of the TV (or sleep). I actually ended up crossing the 50,000 mark a few days shy of the deadline and was able to call myself a NaNoWriMo Winner. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to log in my word count on the NaNo website that day and see this screen pop up on my computer.
Of course, that didn’t mean the book was finished, not by a long shot. I continued writing through December, difficult as that was what with the holidays and all, but since I had a great deal of downtime in Gypsy, I was able to write in the dressing room and log in several hours a week that way (witness the photo at the beginning of this blog). I continued the pattern in January, with a helpful push from like-minded writers at Absolute Write. I made myself a new, easier goal – to write 500 words a day – and a few days ago I was able to write THE END on my NaNo novel. I did a quick editing pass on it and put it aside, intending to give it a week to percolate, but impatience got the better of me and I rewrote the beginning, made another editing pass, formatted it into chapters and fired off an email to my faithful beta readers to see if they’d be willing to give this new book a go. It’s shorter than my other tomes – a mere 71,000 words – but I’m pleased with it.
The question yet to be answered is if this book is going to be right for the series. In other words, will I need to position it as the first book in the series and try to get it published that way, or should I view it as an interesting exercise and put it aside? Only time will tell. In any case, as Grand Experiments go, I’m calling my NaNo experience a success, and I’m already making plans to participate in the 2014 event. I still have that rom/com to write, you know.
As the Days Draw In
It’s getting to be that time again: when you’ve been rushing around, busy with your little everyday busies, and you suddenly realize that it’s nearly November and it’s gotten abruptly colder and Halloween is nearly on us and the rumbling wheels of Thanksgiving are right behind that and beyond that looms the madness of the holidays…
For the past week, I’ve been busy shooting an industrial. For those not versed in ActorSpeak, that means a film used for instructional purposes, frequently sponsored or funded by a corporate or government entity – in other words, not for consumption by the general public. In my case, the industrial involves ethics in research, and I’m playing a character who has a lot of long speeches containing much industry jargon and client buzzwords (which explains why this paragraph is so wordy).
In any case, filming this industrial has meant some very early mornings and some long drives to location shoots, sometimes before the sun has risen. It’s interesting work, but it’s a completely different discipline from the stage work I usually do – virtually no rehearsal, filming scenes out of order, filming scenes over and over again, from different angles – as well as trying to memorize all the aforementioned jargon-y speeches alone, in what amounts to an artistic vacuum. All this is a long way of saying that when the “Freeze Warning” from WeatherBug popped up on my cell phone today, it took me by surprise.
I’d already begun to get a bit panicky the day before, when I finally got around to buying my Halloween pumpkins and realized I was probably going to have to carve them ahead of time due to my schedule. I hate carving my Jack O’ Lanterns ahead of time because my neighborhood is rife with squirrels and chipmunks. What begins as a beguiling array of perfectly carved Jacks rapidly turns into a rodent smorgasbord – and what the squirrels and chippies don’t get, the ants will, and then there’s the potential for frost and mold and by the time the trick-or-treaters arrive your Jacks are gnawed beyond recognition, or gross with bugs, or turning rotten. I figured if I HAd to carve in advance, there had to be ways to thwart my Jacks’ early demise. I did a little online research and found some articles claiming that a couple of common household items can help extend the life of your Jacks. I thought I’d give the methods a whirl, and bought a small, extra pumpkin to experiment with.
Ingredient #1: bleach. Carve your pumpkin, then fill a bucket with enough water to submerge the pumpkin and add some bleach (two teaspoons for every gallon of water seems to be the formula). Let the Jack soak for eight hours, or overnight, then pat dry. In theory, the bleach will both preserve the pumpkin and discourage mold. I gutted my pumpkin and gave it a quick, simple carving, then plunged it into the bleach bath and left it, not just overnight, but well into the following day, as I was called to a shoot location in Baltimore and that ate up the morning and the better part of the afternoon.
When I took the little Jack out of his bleach bath, I noticed something odd and kind of wonderful right away. The cut surfaces and interior flesh of the Jack had gone from a rich yellow-orange to dead white. It made a bright contrast to the orange rind. Once Jack was dry, I moved on to Step 2: petroleum jelly. Smear a thin film of petroleum jelly on the cut surfaces of your Jack as well as the rind. The theory here is that the petroleum jelly will discourage nibbling creatures, as they don’t like the taste. I would think the bleach alone would do the trick (the Jack does have a distinct public-swimming-pool scent), but regardless, the jelly does make Jack look as if he’s been buffed to a high gloss. That, and his startlingly white flesh, gives him a rather debonair air. I put him out for a brief while late this afternoon, and when I brought him in this evening (as I doubted either bleach or jelly will prevent him from freezing), he was, as yet, untouched. I’ll report back on his condition as Halloween approaches.
My mind then went to my baby trees, planted back in the early summer. I figure the cherry trees will do okay – they’re pretty hardy – but I was worried about my little fig, which has weathered both Japanese beetles and marauding deer with aplomb. A little more internet research led me to set one of my large rectangular tomato cages around the tree (which is about thigh-high), then wrap the cage in burlap, then cover tree, cage and burlap with plastic trash bags. I pinned everything down with clothes pins, so it’ll be easy to cover and uncover as the weather does its usual seasonal flip-flop from warm to cold and back again. Once the leaves have fallen from the trees I’ll take off the plastic, fill the empty spaces between burlap and fig tree with dead leaves, and then wrap everything back up in the plastic and seal it in for the balance of the winter. We’ll see what’s happened to the fig once spring rolls around again.
Adventures in Dehydrating – Part 2
For the big Fruit Experiment, I decided to start easy, with apples and bananas. I did more reading on the topic and realized I’d need some kind of anti-browning agent for the apples. I knew I could use lemon juice, and some recipes called for dipping the apple slices into a combination of honey and water, but I decided to use a powdered ascorbic acid mixture, which, I was assured by my online research, was readily available in supermarkets. Off I went to the local mega-grocery, only to discover that canning supplies, so plentiful two weeks ago, had been shunted aside to make way for Halloween candy and were nowhere to be found. I finally asked at the desk; a clerk was dispatched and turned up a few minutes later with what he assured me was the one and only jar of ascorbic acid mixture left in the store. With it, two bright yellow bananas and a pair of lovely organic Gala apples, I went back home and started the second experiment.
I read over the section on fruit dehydrating in my Nesco manual and then set to work. First order of business was to make the ascorbic acid dip for the apples; there was nothing in the manual about the proportion of water to acid mix in the manual, and indeed, nothing on the acid container itself, but I found the info online and wrote it on the jar so I’d always have it.
I made my anti-browning bath and set it aside, then peeled the apples. According to the Nesco’s manual, the optimum width for apple slices is 3/8 of an inch, hence the ruler. (Lest you think I am so anal that I measured each and every slice, let me assure you that the ruler was only to check the width of that first cut.) I sliced up the apples and tossed them into their little bath. While they had a little soak (about 5 minutes), I peeled and sliced the bananas. Two large bananas filled two racks; two large apples filled three racks, so the Nesco was at full capacity when I started it up.
The apples were done in roughly five hours; the bananas took an hour or two more. Because the pieces were so uniform, it was a little less painstaking than drying the tomatoes, which can vary widely in moisture content and shape. The dried fruit makes a fairly dull snack, though. All I did was dry them – I didn’t add any sweetening or seasoning or oil or anything – and while they were tasty enough, there’s a certain lingering chewiness to the dried fruit that is okay in small doses, but not conducive to cries of delight. I haven’t tried rehydrating them yet; I want to do more research into other drying recipes.
Next up was kale. I like kale chips (but for their tendency to leave tiny green bits clinging to one’s teeth, they’d be a perfect snack) and I’ve made them in the oven, so I was eager to try them out. I found a recipe that called for mixing a bunch of washed, dried and torn kale with two tablespoons of olive oil, half a teaspoon of sea salt and a quarter teaspoon of smoked paprika. It didn’t seem like a lot of seasoning for so much kale. The kale was done in about four hours and I was glad I’d resisted the urge to add more seasoning; some leaves were overly salty. I wasn’t really happy with the results of that recipe – the dried kale has a sort of dull, metallic tang and after storage, it lost some of its crispness. I used red kale for the recipe and am wondering if curly kale might be a better choice. I’m not ready to give up on kale in the dehydrator, but I’m definitely going to look for other recipes.
Yesterday I dehydrated a second batch of tomatoes, this time using only a little kosher salt, oregano and basil. The results were really nice: beautiful color and a nice, bright flavor. John is lobbying for me to try making jerky next, but I’m feeling a little less bold about that, as I know there are more steps involved and a greater possibility of food poisoning. There are still other fruits and vegetables to dry, as well as herbs; I planted a eucalyptus this summer and the plant is nearly five feet tall, so I may try drying that as well. I’ll keep you posted!
Adventures in Dehydrating – Part 1
It’s been a banner year for tomatoes in my vegetable garden this year. I’ve made tomato sauce, tomato jam, tomato chutney and tomato soup, and still the tomatoes keep on coming. Even the squirrels and chipmunks seem to have reached the point of satiety and are no longer robbing me of my crop. At this writing (early October 2013) my remaining plants are producing about a half-dozen tomatoes a week.
Since I only have a small freezer, and since it’s just my husband and me to eat all this bounty (and he really only likes tomatoes as sauce), I was running out of ideas to use up and/or preserve so much goodness. As an experiment, I made a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, but while they tasted good, they turned somewhat brown and unattractive and I didn’t like running my oven all day long, either. I started to wonder about dehydrators.
I spent several days researching recipes and looking up reviews on various models, and eventually ordered a Nesco 600-watt dehydrator. According to Amazon, it would ship within a week, so I began to stow away tomatoes like a squirrel hoarding nuts. For some reason shipping occurred later than anticipated, so by the time the Nesco arrived, on a Friday afternoon, I had a refrigerator bin full of lovely ‘maters ready to go.
I tore into the box, eager to get going. Amused, John cautioned me to test the equipment first and retired to his basement workshop to tinker. I read the instructions carefully (pretty simple), assembled the dehydrator (even simpler) and set to work cutting up tomatoes. I had mostly Beefmasters, Lemon Boys and one or two Old Germans (an heirloom that produces lovely yellow and orange- striped beauties), and I quickly filled two of the dehydrator’s five racks with tomato slices about a quarter-inch thick. I gave each a shot of vegetable spray and a scattering of Penzey’s Sandwich Sprinkle, then stacked the racks into the unit and plugged it in.
The dehydrator let out a racheting whine that sounded like someone running a power saw. John hollered up from the basement: “Is that the dehydrator?” “Yes,” I yelled back. “Is something stuck in it?” “No, I don’t think so.” “Unplug it and bring it here.”
So I trotted the top of the unit (that’s where the heating coils and the fan live) down to the workshop. John examined it, and I guess he could tell from my expression how disappointed I was. “Some of the reviews said it was noisy, but that seems really excessive,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to send it back.” John said nothing, but he got out a screwdriver and began to take the top of the Nesco apart. “Something is rubbing in here,” he said, but the innards of the machine revealed only a little plastic fan and the heating coils. After examining everything, he determined that a piece of metal shielding the wiring was slightly bent, throwing everything out of true. “Bring down the rest of it,” he said, bending the metal back into place, and I brought down the base, the three empty racks and the two full ones. John eyeballed the prepped racks and shook his head. “I thought you were going to test it first,” he said. “This IS a test,” I answered. “Yellow tomatoes and red tomatoes.” (I really am a bit of a dullard at times.)
We reassembled the stack and turned the dehydrator on. It whirred breathily, like a box fan – a rather pleasant sound. I took everything back upstairs, filled the other three racks, set the temperature on the unit for 135 degrees and plugged it in. I set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and went off to do something else. When the timer buzzed, I reversed the order of the racks in the unit, set the timer for an hour and left the Nesco to do its thing.
I knew it was going to take anywhere from 6-12 hours to dehydrate the tomatoes completely. Every hour or so I’d unplug the Nesco and rearrange the racks, so they all got a turn being nearest the fan and heat. By bedtime, the tomatoes smelled wonderful, but most of them were still moist to the touch – which meant they still had a ways to go. A few of the smaller slices were nearly dry, though, and I sacrificed them to the God of Testing – delicious. I’m not comfortable running appliances through the night, so I turned the Nesco off and put the racks in the refrigerator for the night.
John had to leave quite early the next morning and was gone by the time I rolled out of bed, but when I went into the kitchen to make my morning tea I discovered that he’d gotten the racks out of the refrigerator and started the Nesco for me. Within two hours about half of the tomatoes were dry; I took those out, set them aside and continued the dehydration process with the remainder. One or two of the newly dried tomatoes had moist patches, so I ate them. Did I mention that they were delicious? Dried tomatoes have a wonderful tang, and the little bit of seasoning made them even more delightful. Every time I checked on the dehydrator, I’d have myself a little taste. It’s a wonder any of them made it into storage, but eventually I had a sandwich-sized baggie full of yummy treats. They were really pretty, too – none of the browning I’d experienced with the oven-dried version.
I still had plenty of tomatoes, so I decided to slice up another batch. By the time John came home, they were nearly done, and I was quite smug about my accomplishment and was already planning Phase Two of the Great Dehydrator Experiment: fruit.
Mill Ruins: A Labor Day Weekend Jaunt
The old mill wheel is silent and has fallen down
The old oak tree has withered and lies there on the ground
– lyrics from “Down By The Old Mill Stream” by Tell Taylor
For years I’ve driven past an intriguing stone building located just off I-66 near Haymarket, Virginia. Nope, not just years – decades. Every time I’d drive by I’d think, “Man, that’s an interesting old building. I wonder what it is? Maybe one day I should stop.” And yet I never did. One day I drove past and was astonished to see that the building had been gutted by fire. That time I may have actually pulled over on the shoulder and taken a photo – I have a memory of doing so at one time or another – but I still knew nothing more about the mysterious building.
In February of this year I drove past the ruin again, and this time I thought, “enough of this procrastinating; I’m going to find out about that place.” I was fairly certain what I was seeing was the ruin of a mill, so I Googled “mill ruin I-66” and bingo! I had my answer. What I’d been looking at were the remains of a gristmill, built by the Chapman family in 1742, enlarged in 1758, enlarged again a century later, burned during the Civil War, restored in 1876 by the Beverley (or Beverly) family, closed in 1951 and burned again in an arson fire in 1998. At eighty-three feet (seven stories), it’s believed to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States.
(Most of my information about the site comes from the Turn The Mill Around Campaign’s website. The non-profit, which now owns the site, is raising funds to preserve and restore the mill.)
This Labor Day weekend, John was less inclined than I to get out and about, so I decided to make a solo jaunt out to the country to see the mill at last. Although the mill is clearly visible from the highway, you have to know where you’re heading to actually get there – fortunately, I was running a GPS program and found the place without a problem. I was surprised to find that it’s cheek by jowl with the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, which has a number of nice hikes in the area – as evidenced by the numbers of runners, dog-walkers and day hikers parked in the area. Most of them were headed onto the trails, but I parked right by the mill gates, grabbed my camera and walked about a quarter mile to the ruins.
I was a bit surprised that everything was wide open and unattended (although I did see a police cruiser come through at one point). I was able to stroll around the entire site – nothing was gated off or locked, although there were a few warning signs. I stuck my head into the Stone Mill Store, which was empty but for a couple of busy wasp nests, so I didn’t linger there.
When you step into the ruins, you immediately see two things: a lot of very interesting gears, and overhead, an internal reinforcing framework. The juxtaposition of the steel beams against the stacked stone is surprisingly pretty – almost like modern sculpture – and the rusting gears and other mechanical detritus add interesting textures. Up close the mill doesn’t seem quite so imposing as it does when you pass by on the interstate, but it’s still impressive. I was pleased to see that it hadn’t been trashed or graffiti’d or otherwise defaced. The weeds growing out of cracks in the walls and the vines winding in through windows made an even more picturesque site. Normally ruins like this make me feel a bit melancholy, but the beauty of the day – sunny, with fluffy white clouds – combined with the obvious care that’s going into the restoration, made me happy.
I wasn’t dressed to climb up on things and probably wouldn’t have, anyway – it seemed disrespectful, somehow – but I did poke my camera here and there to get photos. Broad Run, the stream that runs past the mill, seemed very low and muddy, so I didn’t feel the urge to plunge down the embankment and have a look at it (normally I can’t resist running water – I always want to go paddle in it). The oddest part about taking these photos in this rustic setting was hearing the traffic roaring past on the interstate.
There was a lot more gearage and bits of mechanism scattered all around the site. Not far away from the mill ruin was a large, overgrown area where I found a cache of rusted parts that were clearly some of the interior workings of the mill, and there were foundations here and there of what must have been outbuildings. You can’t really get around the back of the mill; it’s fenced off and there’s a railroad track, still in use, that goes right past it, which must have been handy back in the mill’s working days but seems uncomfortably close now.
I headed back out to my car, but the sight of people heading off to hike was enticing. I wasn’t dressed for hiking (jeans and sneakers), but a look at a map at the trailhead kiosk showed me that there was a trail that ran right behind the ruins. I figured I’d get some good views of the mill from behind, so I entered the Conservancy, crossed the railroad tracks and bore west along the Fern Hollow Trail. The trail had a gentle rise, and before long I found myself looking down at the mill again.The ruins looked even smaller from above and had more of a ghostly air. I thought about making my way down closer, but without proper footgear I was afraid I’d fall (the wife of a friend recently took a tumble down a much smaller embankment, resulting in a hospital stay and months of therapy ahead, which made me even more cautious).
I encountered only a few other hikers on Fern Hollow Trail, which surprised me, as there are even more ruins to be seen as you travel this route:
Once the ruins were behind me, the beauty of Fern Hollow Trail kept me moving forward. The trail turned and headed in a more northerly direction and I followed. Before long all the traffic noise had faded away and I was surrounded by woods. I felt like I had the place all to myself; the few hikers I had encountered along the way had either headed back to the trailhead or gotten off the beaten track entirely. I kept on walking but started to get winded. I had grabbed a map from the trailhead kiosk before I’d started my walk, and when I consulted it I realized I’d been walking for nearly a mile on a steady uphill grade. But it was sure pretty:
I thought I might continue north to a scenic overlook, but at the intersection of Fern Hollow Trail and Chestnut Ridge Trail I encountered a couple on their way down. They told me that although the view was pretty, it was a pretty steep hike, so I decided to head back to the car. I took a little different route down, one more populated by hikers, dog-walkers and runners. I was sorry I hadn’t brought a bottle of water with me, and was glad I had left the remains of a fountain drink in my car – it was watery from the melted ice, but still refreshing.
I’d like to make a return trip to the mill ruins in the fall, before my theatrical season gets going and I have no time at all. I bet it’ll be pretty with all the autumn colors, and a lot cooler for an uphill trek. If I wear proper hiking clothes, who knows? maybe next time I’ll make it up to the scenic view!