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KEY CHANGES
Change is hard – even if it's welcome, and especially if it's not. How do we react to it, and why? What does it show us about others and ourselves? When the ground shifts under our feet, what are we capable of doing? We all have our stories. Here is one of them:

Escaping a trap

Mark Dawidziak

Mark Dawidziak found success at a young age. He didn't want it.

 

At least, not that kind of success.

 

Dawidziak, a former television critic and author of the recent, Agatha- and Edgar-nominated book, A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe, had gone to work for the Associated Press, a news-wire service, in Washington, D.C., after studying journalism at George Washington University. That was an accomplishment in and of itself. First, good journalism jobs were scarce in 1978, with many evening papers having gone out of business across the U.S., leaving hundreds of seasoned news people unemployed. Second, AP required job candidates to pass a tough test – on editing, news judgment and much more – before they could be hired.

 

Still, Dawidziak had passed ("You never knew what you'd scored on it. You either got hired or you didn't") and AP had made the New York native a city wire editor. It sounded more glamorous than it was: Wire services were important sources of information, but they were also news factories that created and sent out endless – endless – streams of stories to papers everywhere.

 

"You got a raise every few months just for surviving," Dawidziak recalled.

 

So there he was: only 21 and yet possessor of a coveted news job in the nation's capital, working all the hours he wanted, making decent pay. He had a health plan and an apartment in famed Dupont Circle. He had done it. He was on his way.

 

"Except I was miserable," he said. "It was all grunt work."

 

Perhaps more important, it was news work far removed from the arts journalism Dawidziak had focused on in college. He loved theater, film, literature. Still, he couldn't see giving up his hard-won AP post. There didn't seem to be a solution.

 

Then one day at work, another editor came over and suggested that Dawidziak take a breather from the wires. This editor, an older fellow redolent of vanilla from the Captain Black tobacco in the pipe he smoked, said "'Mark, this isn't really what you want to do, is it? Take a walk with me.'"

 

Together, Dawidziak said, they strolled the newsroom, stopping near the man who was the national editor. The pipe-smoker asked his young companion, "How old do you think Carl is?"

 

Dawidziak said he answered, "I don't know, 42?"

 

"No, 32."

 

"We went around the bureau like this," Dawidziak remembered. "Everybody looked 10 years older than they were."

 

Finally, they stopped near a man whose age Dawidziak was absolutely sure he could peg – the guy looked like an emaciated white mouse, smoking his cigarette with a shaking hand while he coordinated incoming sports scores.  

 

The young man guessed 70.

 

No, said his companion – 56.

 

"And then," Dawidziak recounted, "he said two words to me: 'Get out.'" Get out before you get trapped by the good pay that will turn into golden handcuffs. Get out so the grind won't make you an old man before you're 40. "It was the best advice I'd ever gotten."

 

On top of that, he added, every good thing that happened afterward confirmed the wisdom of his decision to leave, starting with a new job: On the recommendation of a friend who was a reporter at the Bristol Herald-Courier on the Virginia-Tennessee line, Dawidziak soon had a job at that paper as arts editor, overseeing the Friday entertainment magazine at two-thirds the salary he'd been earning at AP. But the money didn't matter.

 

"Yankee Boy from New York was in heaven," he said gleefully.

 

The greater Bristol area occupied a beautiful corner of the South, was home to lots of professional and alternative theater, and Dawidziak spent four years writing arts stories and managing arts coverage, doing what he really wanted to and learning to do it well. Word spread and, before long, another good thing happened: The Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio called, offering him the position of television critic. But Dawidziak said no thanks. He was happy where he was.

 

Yet "nothing makes you more attractive to people than turning them down," he said with a laugh, and the Beacon Journal kept phoning. The third time they rang, Dawidziak agreed to come for an interview. He ended up working there for 16 years, eventually moving to the region's other major paper, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, for another 21 years of television coverage.

 

His decades of award-winning journalism work in Northeast Ohio led to the two other occupations that Dawidziak has long pursued in parallel with his day job: writing both books and plays, and acting. Many of his books explore aspects of television history and characters, such as The Columbo Phile: A Casebook (1989), and later volumes including The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute (1997) and Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone (2017).

 

His lighthearted love of TV and horror has a flip side, though. Dawidziak is a serious (sometimes not-so-serious) scholar/devotee of Mark Twain, whom he resembles. He has portrayed Twain many times, along with other historical authors such as Charles Dickens, in plays he writes, produces and performs with his wife, Sara Showman, through their Largely Literary Theater Company. Off stage, Dawidziak has been the visiting scholar at Elmira College's Center for Mark Twain Studies four times. He has also presented papers and served as keynote speaker at many literary institutions and official Twain events across the U.S.

 

His latest book concerns Poe and the detective work that scholars and scientists have undertaken to figure out how and why America's greatest writer of horror was found dead, in somebody else's clothes and in the wrong city. This work has brought Dawidziak a new level of attention and respect from the literary community.  

 

Clearly, that decision to leave AP changed everything for him. He wasn't even scared to make it.

 

"I think I was too young to have qualms," he mused. The only time he felt daunted was at the very beginning, before the AP hired him, he said, when all his job queries met with silence or rejection. "That was the most worrisome moment."

 

Since then, "I've gotten more friendly to change," he added. More specifically, "I've become a lot more welcoming and accepting of fear. Fear is a good thing."

 

Especially the fear of writing books.

 

Dawidziak laughed again. "They do frighten you. And they should."

 

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Playing new roles

Gary Briggle

Gary Briggle's big change happened twice. Decades ago, he faced it as a young man just starting to seek his path as an actor and singer. And recently, he confronted it again as an older and far more experienced performer, a theater veteran whose resume has expanded to include directing, writing and instruction.

 

It arose from the same question, perhaps more painful the second time: Who am I as an artist and where do I fit into this profession?  

 

The latest answer seemed to be a stark "done and nowhere," since Briggle is now beyond the age when many people retire from their jobs. Older actors often find fewer and fewer roles open to them as time goes on. And age isn't the only issue: Over the years, theater and American culture have changed, with more roles going to actors who have the specific ethnic, national, regional and other backgrounds that describe the characters – a good and too-long-delayed change, overall, but one that leaves many actors feeling that they can be cast only as who they are in real life, not who they have the skills to play. As a white man over 65, Briggle saw his options dwindling. He thought maybe his performing life was over.

 

And then he thought, "Oh, hell, no," he said – he wanted to keep doing everything. What needed to change, Briggle realized, was not his profession, but his approach to it. Rather than relying on others to give him jobs, he needed to create his own opportunities. He realized that the change would come "by way of evolution and not seeing dead ends, not seeing shut doors," through self-generated work and "the ongoing doing of it."

 

As a student performer, Briggle had had an epiphany, suddenly understanding that his professors were giving him chances to experiment that – even though he didn't feel at all ready for them – he should take. "I needed to wake up to the fact that opportunities were being put before me by people who understood my talent in a different way than I did," he said.

 

Afterward, rather than heading for New York after graduation as many young actors typically do, Briggle spent his subsequent career taking on big challenges – Shakespeare, opera, directing, arts-company executive positions – that pulled him into work of ever-greater quality and visibility. He gradually built an enviable reputation in such regional theater centers as South Florida, Cleveland and his home city of Minneapolis.

 

His credits include serving as artistic director and principal tenor for Lyric Opera Cleveland (Ohio), artistic associate for Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach, Fla., and ensemble member of the West Palm Beach-based Stage Company of the Palm Beaches (and its later iteration, Florida Repertory Theatre), Minnesota Opera Company, the Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis and the Arizona Theatre Company. Along the way, he has developed a passion and special affinity for Gilbert & Sullivan and Noel Coward, won a South Florida Carbonell Award for his role as Bunthorne in Patience, and portrayed characters ranging from Dr. Watson to Falstaff. He's even done television

 

Briggle took every opportunity he could and worked hard to be ready for new, more difficult ones.

 

It was, he explained, "a kind of goal-oriented, product-based" achieving that would help him attain his first goal: "Getting over my largely made-up sense that I was disappointing everybody by not being a hit on Broadway." Eventually, Briggle discovered that that kind of splashy success wasn't what he wanted or needed; being able to choose fresh roles and paths was.

 

"I needed to make choices that kept me learning, growing, expanding, that took me out of my comfort zone," he said, rather than letting people make him keep singing the same few roles over and over again. He didn't want to keep doing endless productions of The Barber of Seville. "I needed more adventure. And I've never needed to be the star."

 

That same realization came back to Briggle decades later, just when he thought his life on stage had ended. At that moment, he understood that it was only his apprenticeship that was over. Now it was time to take what he had mastered and give it to young people. Though he's reluctant to call himself a teacher – he's seen how brilliantly his life partner, Twin Cities theater artist-educator Wendy Lehr teaches, "and that's not me" – he's found that he can sit in a room full of kids and engage with them, offering them artistic methods and tools that have worked for him.

 

To help a young person become a more expressive and holistic artist: Briggle said exuberantly, "I discovered I could do that and I loved doing that."     

 

But he's doing it his way: Burned by an attempt at joining a university faculty that turned into what he called a "staggering experience, professionally," of politics and backstabbing, Briggle has acted on his second epiphany by constantly creating his own professional opportunities. He mentors young artists at his own home studio; still acts in and guest-directs musical productions in the Minneapolis area and elsewhere; and has become a writer/adapter of stage works. These range from a chamber opera about 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton to a piece about early-20th-century stage artists Coward, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt that was picked up by NPR. They also include a hit version of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II called The Rogue Prince (and also based on the related Orson Welles film, Chimes at Midnight) that Briggle co-directed with Lehr for the Twin Cities' Theatre Coup D'Etat.

 

He acknowledges that doing his own work this way makes being a theater artist – always financially dicey – even more precarious. But "I just enjoy it so much," Briggle exclaimed. "It's so pleasurable because I have no expectations for it. And when it turns out that people are excited about it, I'm just amazed. It's a joyful alternative to waiting for somebody to write something for me to be in."  

 

It turns out that change has taught this lifelong learner something powerful. When circumstances alter what you are, have or do and there doesn't seem to be any choice left, "make something up," Briggle urged. "Something that gives you the greatest joy."

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Change or die

Kasumi
Photo by Robert Muller

"I had been a musician," said Kasumi, "a full-time musician, and I was getting weaker and weaker and weaker. And I didn't know what was wrong."

 

Now a highly regarded visual artist, experimental filmmaker, computer wizard, Guggenheim Fellow and former Cleveland Institute of Art professor whose recent work includes digital pieces built on patterns of movement to evoke memory, Kasumi had started out as a lute player who performed internationally. After 15 years of living and working in Germany and Japan, she moved to Cleveland to raise her young son on her own, but her health mysteriously started to fail. She had so little energy, all she could manage to do was take her child – a theater kid who grew up to be film and television director Kitao Sakurai – to rehearsals and sleep. Her hair was falling out. She made her will.

 

At last, she reached the end of her strength. Kasumi was in the front room of her house with a friend and fellow lute-player, talking about doing a program together.

 

"I was standing about two feet from the wall and I felt that death was that close to me," she recalled. In that instant, she thought, "I don't want to be doing lute duets for the rest of my life. I have to find a new way to give my life meaning. It's now or never."

 

Though her doctor finally recognized that Kasumi was suffering from an extreme but treatable thyroid condition from which she eventually recovered, her sudden urge for change had lasting impact.

 

"I think that moment opened up a whole new avenue for me," she said. "I think it brought a kind of clarity about how I should be living my life. It was like an epiphany – it had that kind of life-changing feeling. Like, 'this is the last time I'll ever…'. It was palpable."

 

The intense mix of desperation and elation she felt revealed to her only that she had to do something better, something bigger and more important, with her time alive – not specifically what that something would be. Instead, she slowly discovered it through many small, logical steps that she willingly took.

 

They started with the audition tapes she'd been shooting for Kitao. She had thought, "Man, if I could just edit these …." She had recently begun learning how to use a computer and decided to get some editing software. That proved hard to master, but with her health improving, she began to understand the computer's artistic potential, "and it was just mind-blowing." Soon, she began exploring a visual version of the theme-and-variation approach she had used so much in her music.

 

That work has taken Kasumi far. From her split-second of crisis have come unending new skills, ideas and applications that she might never have tried if she hadn't regarded her near-death sensation as a door opening for her. The experience "sort of symbolized getting out of a rut," she said. Because of it, she added with a laugh, "my rut-extraction techniques got better."

 

Now, Kasumi deliberately shakes her life up from time to time. "I don't fear the change as much. It can be like walking off a cliff," she admitted. "But wow, yeah: Change is good."     

 

     

To learn more about Kasumi and her work go to:

 

kasumifilms.com

Guggenheim

shufflehead.com

Instagram

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