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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:

They called him 'nothing.' He found another class

Jeffrey James Keyes

Playwright and author Jeffrey James Keyes grew up even more different than different.


It wasn't just that he was effeminate as a child and that he was bullied throughout his youth. What made his life unbearable was being labeled mentally slow by his parochial-school teachers. That assessment followed him from grade to grade until, one day, he couldn't stand it anymore. When he was only a high-school sophomore, Keyes took his life in his hands.


But not to end it. To begin it. On the day he sat in his guidance counselor's office and had to listen to her tell him that all he could hope for in life was work on a farm or in a factory, Keyes hit a tipping point: He made up his mind to change schools.


"I believe I became an adult at that moment and took control of my life," he said. "I learned to advocate for myself."


That may sound like a small step to those who have never been harassed and misjudged by an entire buildingful of people for 10 years. But it was huge for Keyes – after hearing from teacher after teacher that he was sub-par intellectually, he wondered if even his family believed it. But his parents, a hospital-records worker and a construction employee who were separated, loved and encouraged their son. Though he didn't feel he could really talk to his mother then about being gay or being tormented by his classmates, he could talk to her directly about his future. So when he came home and told her that he wanted to attend a different high school, Keyes remembered, "She was all for it. I think she was impressed that I had a plan."


It was true that he had been a poor student as a child. He read slowly, and still does. He earned low grades. His teachers decided early on that that was who he was.


"I had classes that inspired me, for sure, and teachers that inspired me," Keyes noted, "but I had a D on my shirt, for dumb." When your permanent scholastic record classifies you that way, he added, "you carry that information that people have about you all the way through … high school. I was bullied a lot. I saw no way that I would ever make it to the next year if I stayed at that school."       


The courage Keyes found in himself to change his fate had been fed by one day of attending a local theater school, the First Stage Theater Academy in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wis., where he went as the guest of a friend. At the end of the day, he broke down in tears. When the leader of the school, Ron Anderson, pulled him aside to ask why, the young Keyes explained that he had loved the class, but his parents could never afford to send him regularly. Anderson promised the boy that if he were willing to help out at the school, he could be an intern and attend class for free.


Keyes was and did. He had found what he needed. He ended up working and studying at the academy summers and weekends throughout high school, taking a vast range of classes including stage combat, improv, voice and speech, classical/contemporary scene study, mask work, and in-depth Shakespeare and Chekhov classes.


"It changed my life," he said. "That gave me the confidence to understand that, just because you're dealt a hand," you don't have to just accept it. "That place helped me to see that there was more to me than what that guidance counselor saw."


But at 15, he still felt desperate about his high-school situation. Keyes knew that some of his acting friends attended a different Catholic high school, one with a strong arts program. He decided that that was the school for him, so he and his parents went there to talk with a counselor. The counselor – named Jeff, like Keyes – took them on a tour of the school and sat with Keyes through the assessment test.


The test results led the counselor to enroll the teenager in classes that were all AP – advanced placement. He said, Keyes recalled, " 'I think you're not being challenged at the school you're in.' He was like a guardian angel for me."


A perceptive angel, at that: Keyes made straight A's, his natural high intelligence stimulated and thriving at last. In his final year at Milwaukee's Pius XI Catholic High School, he decided to try out for the theater programs at Emerson College and Boston University. Having played Mercutio in a production of Romeo and Juliet, Keyes had chosen that character's famous "Queen Mab" speech as his audition piece. But on the way, he impulsively decided to stop by Fordham University, a Jesuit-founded school in New York City: Not only had some of his high school friends decided to go there, but his "guardian angel" counselor had taken a job there, as well. Once on the campus, Keyes was invited to audition for Fordham theater professor Eva Patton and Lawrence Sacharow, head of the university's theater program.


Keyes performed the Queen Mab speech. The instant he finished, he recounted, Sacharow leaped to his feet. "You're in!" he exclaimed. Though Patton quickly warned her colleague, "You can't say that!" – there was, of course, an admissions process to be followed – the university did end up accepting Keyes to the program, based at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, laying the groundwork for his later MFA studies in playwriting at Columbia University uptown.


If Keyes's high school and college records would likely shock – and humble – some of those early teachers of his in Milwaukee, his professional record since completing his MFA would astound them all. Now a senior administrator at a New York-based foundation, Keyes has for years balanced meaningful day jobs with a wide range of writing projects and successes. While working in earlier positions including theater-program administrator and student-affairs officer at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Keyes has generated a wide and eclectic array of creative writing, including plays, films, journalism, and a best-selling James Patterson book, Killer Chef (2016), on which he earned co-author credit.


His plays have been presented at many festivals across the country, such as the 2013 and 2016 Samuel French OOB Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival. His award-winning short film, Uniform, for which he was both screenwriter and executive producer, made the official-selection rosters of over 20 festivals from Los Angeles to Atlanta. And Keyes's many magazine pieces – lots of them written for LGBTQ+ publications and websites, have included interviews with a host of notables including Sandra Bernhard, James Ijames, Ani Di Franco, Billy Porter, Mo'Nique, George Takei and Elaine Stritch.


In the middle of all this activity, Keyes also won the 2020 L'Engle/Rahman Prize for Mentorship from PEN America, which honors participants in its long-established Prison Writing Mentorship program – a testament to Keyes's constant efforts to help others, whether students, fellow artists or those at risk.


What he may be proudest of, however, is serving as an example of a self-sustaining artist. To Columbia students and others, "I think I really showed that I'm able to be a stable, creative person, put food on the table without outside help," he said. Keyes believes aspiring artists need see that they can both create art and survive, not just barely, but decently. To them, he's demonstrated that "I'm still writing – it doesn't really matter what I do during the day" to earn money.          


All of Keyes's achievements, past and to come, came close to never existing at all. What helped him, starting in Milwaukee, was community – the family, friends, theater artists and others who supported and assisted him along the way. Keyes continues both to rely on community and to be community for others, and he wants his fellow artists to not forget to value those magic circles of people who share experiences and ideas, who lift you up.


"They encourage me to write. And they come out and support me," he said of his creative friends. "Who's going to read your stuff if you don't have a community? I work with people in my communities to clear the path." Since that crossroads moment with the guidance counselor, "I've learned to listen to my gut, but also to really trust people," Keyes observed. "I'm not a climber, but I do lean into people who are authentic, totally good, kind people, and look for those open doors. I'm grateful that I advocated for myself and was blessed to walk through so many open doors."


Cover of Book Killer ChefCover.jpeg


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Stroke of Luck

Susan Russell

When enough time has gone by, some people find they can be philosophical about what change did to them. Susan Russell took that step earlier and more literally than most of us.


She had been an actor. Her years of theater and voice studies in her home state of North Carolina and at Florida State University had led to decades of regional-theater work and recognition, including a South Florida Carbonell Award for best actress in a musical. After performing with the San Francisco company of The Phantom of the Opera for several years, Russell joined the Broadway production, playing the character of Madame Giry, the ballet mistress, and also understudying the role of Carlotta, the opera diva who runs afoul of the Phantom.


For five years, she performed with that company, frequently singing the Carlotta role, meeting a fellow cast member who became her lasting love, living the life of an artist in New York. She was at the top of her game. Then two things happened.


The first seemed like the worst: 9/11. In a single morning, the city that was the locus of America's theatrical industry and of Russell's greatest success became a nightmare place of fear, destruction and death as terrorists crashed jet airplanes into the World Trade Center's twin towers. Though she and her fellow Broadway actors somehow rallied, continuing to perform the shows that had suddenly turned into symbols of New York's staggered yet unextinguished spirit, life there changed profoundly. Normality had been shattered and it didn't feel as if it would ever be restored.


The second thing was much smaller at the start but, on a personal level, even more cataclysmic: She went to see a chiropractor about problems with physical tension. Something went wrong during the manipulation of her neck, badly wrong – she could feel it. Three weeks later, she was standing on the Majestic Theatre's stage as Carlotta, singing the first of that character's high E's, when "there was an explosion in my brain," Russell said. She experienced no pain, just a sense of light, and heard a voice in her head ask her, "So you've been dying to sing, have you?"


She thought, "Oooohhh nooooo."


With only about 30 seconds before she had to sing again, she turned upstage, away from the audience, still hearing the voice, which said, "If you want to stay, it's going to be really hard." But Russell had just found Beth, the woman she would eventually marry – she had to stay. She would stay.


And it was hard. Doctors later discovered that Russell had two concussions from the neck adjustments and that one of her vertebral arteries had likely slipped between two vertebrae and gotten nicked, causing a brain bleed. Russell had followed the chiropractor visit with five shows singing as Carlotta before suffering the onstage brain injury triggered by the bleeding. Afterward, her eyes wouldn't work; the left one drifted. Her larynx stopped working, too: first, her top notes went, then she became unable to sing at all. She had constant migraine headaches. She had to stop performing.


And she lost her suit against the chiropractor because she couldn't prove that what he had done to her had caused her traumatic brain injury.


"That shift was a monumental shift from everything I had worked my whole life to achieve," Russell noted.


Everything was different – her sight, her hearing, colors. The universe had just delivered a colossal "f--- you" to her and she knew she had to get past it. But what do you do with a change this size? "What is on the other side of 'f--- you'?" she wondered.


Her answer was to return to school. This is what her family had taught her to do: Turn to books for information and other people's ideas and experiences. Still recovering, and with Beth continuing to work in the cast of Phantom, Russell went back to Florida State and in five years earned her Ph.D., becoming what her new brain wanted her be, she said – a scholar, an historiographer and a philosopher-poet. But especially a teacher.


Penn State University's theater department quickly hired her. Reunited with Beth and living in Happy Valley with her in their first real house, Russell taught courses in literature/criticism and playwriting, but soon began taking performance studies in innovative directions that coincided with her readings in ancient and classical works of theater, myth, religion and philosophy.


Before her retirement at the end of 2022, Russell had created Cultural Conversations, a collaborative community program that used storytelling through music, dance, theater, and visual arts to help young people discuss current social issues; authored the books Body Language: Stop the Violence, Start the Conversation and Body Language: Cultural Conversations Reaching Out and Reaching In; served as the 2014-15 Penn State Laureate, connecting all of Penn State's campuses in an ongoing, systemwide conversation about dignity; co-founded and directed the university's Center for Pedagogy in Arts and Design, a tech center and studio than uses arts-tech equipment and presentation approaches to enhance onsite and remote learning; and instituted in Penn State's College of Arts and Architecture a program called the Moral Moments Project, an open conversation – using storytelling techniques and rooted in the community values of morals, ethics, action and faith –   that explores current issues through questioning and decision-making.


To say that Russell had taken on a mission vastly different from playing, say, Gilbert & Sullivan characters would be both an understatement and misleading. Exploring human nature and human dilemmas though feelings and ideas has always been the tacit purpose of the arts. But Russell's approach to that purpose had indeed changed drastically. Her focus had moved from her own story and growth to the lives and development of others – a switch that not only changed what she did, but also the internal atmosphere in which she did it, she said. Call it a change from constant participation to contemplation.


"The beauty of moving into silence after such a loud life was, I could choose to take the change that happened to me and define it through a different iteration – and that iteration was teaching," she explained. For her, the question was, "How can I take what I know … and teach a kind of erudition of the heart, of the soul, of the human journey?"


An experience with a Jesuit silent retreat helped her along the way. "I had to learn to think, but not to intellectualize – to absorb an idea without rationalizing or distancing it. To let it in. That, to me, is poetic thinking."


After all she's been through and all she's learned, Russell realized, "all you want is the cessation of sensation, for all the chatter to stop. It was a blessing to become quiet."


There was another blessing, too – choosing love. "Beth Nackley is the reason that everything I went through in rebuilding myself through love and peace was worth it," said Russell. "I thank myself every moment of my life."


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Shot at a new life

 Debi Kops / Photo by Carolyn Jack

Debi Kops was minding her own business.


A Scarsdale, N.Y., native who had studied at Parsons School of Design, she was coming home one day in 1978 from her job in Midtown Manhattan as a mechanical-production artist for Random House, as the publishing company was called then.  She had overcome a childhood torn up by her parents' divorce and a stint of being sent away to a boarding school far from home. She was doing well, she thought. And now she was just walking to her loft apartment in Chinatown. 


"I made a turn, and all of a sudden I heard a pop in the wall beside me," she recalled.


Kops realized someone had shot at her. She yelled, "and they shot at me again. They got my hair and the collar of my coat."


Unhurt, but livid with anger and in shock, she made her way to a police station, where officers heard her story and walked her back to the spot where it happened. The shooters were still there, sitting in a car: kids with BB guns.


"Chinatown was known for street gangs back then," Kops explained. "They weren't safe neighborhoods."


After the youngsters had been brought to the precinct and written up, Kops was asked to return to the station to identify them. But the arresting officers hadn't been careful to protect her identity, she said.


"At that point, it became a full-blown trauma for me," she said.


Sure that she would be targeted by gang members, she asked for police protection and got it, but only for a couple of nights. Soon, Kops became certain she was being followed. She didn't feel safe in her home anymore. Eventually, she felt forced to move out of the loft and leave a neighborhood where she had been getting bookings as a performance poet and success had seemed possible.


"I had to give that up. I felt like I had to start all over again," said Kops.


Uprooted once more and feeling fragile, she tried to get therapy, but couldn't. She didn't believe she could talk to friends or acquaintances about what she was going through – no one she knew had ever been shot at. Kops quit her job and took gigs in the food industry, working catered events while trying to resume her poetry performances.


"At one point, I thought of suicide, I was so upset and depressed," she admitted. And then one morning, "I had an epiphany: The sun came through the window and I said, 'My gosh, I think I'm back in my body again.'" She understood that she wasn't ready to die. "I had to reclaim myself."


She decided to go into comedy.


This might seem an odd choice for someone so full of insecurity and rage. "I kept journals all my life because of the lack of emotional communication in my family. I also read a lot," said Kops. But it took the trauma of being shot to make her realize that "comedy was dark, but you could laugh. I felt much better laughing than being distressed and angry."


Not that comedy as an industry didn't inflict its own kinds of trauma on women. Discrimination, sexual harassment, audience hostility – Kops has seen and endured all of it. But in performing around the city in venues such as the Gotham Comedy Club and Al Martin's New York Comedy Club, as well as with comedian/impresario Gladys Simon's showcases, Kops discovered confidence.


"There were times when I was very sensitive to being alone onstage," she acknowledged, "but there was a part of me that enjoyed being in control, in the driver's seat. As an emcee, I was very quick on my feet. And I had support. It all stems from growing up without much of a voice, a way to express myself. It's always been this desire to speak up and speak out."


Having had her epiphany, Kops found she could live and do her work with less stress than before. "I just had a way of going about things," she said. After trauma, "You're not the same person. Your karma is different."


Though she left the comedy circuit 16 years ago and relocated to Harlem, her new occupation as a popular New York tour guide/historian makes good use of her performance abilities, her sense of humor and her passion for New York history, especially the history of Harlem and of Black artists. Kops now crafts specialty tours that range in topic from architecture and Harlem Renaissance poetry and music to the legendary ghosts of Manhattan.


"It all came to life when I was shot at," said Kops. "I was reborn. It wasn't by choice. But it changed me."




Tour guide Debi Kops reads a Langston Hughes poem at the Schomberg Center for members of one of her New York City "Welcome to Harlem: Harlem Rhythm & Rhyme" tours in 2023.


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A move to the flip side

G'Ra Asim / Photo by Kate Hoos

When assistant professor, author and punk musician G'Ra Asim was in the third grade, the world as he knew it turned upside down. Seeing everything from a startling new angle switched up the course of his life.


During that year, his father accepted a new job. In what felt like an instant, a "bifurcation" happened, splitting his life into before and after, Asim explained over the phone from St. Louis, his hometown, where he teaches English at Washington University. He said, "I actually think about that moment a lot."


Before the change, Asim and his family had been urban dwellers, "living in a part of town where Black folks are relegated," he said. His dad, a journalist, worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; his mother ran the Pamoja Theater Workshop. They sent their son to private school. Then the Washington Post hired his father and the family moved to Silver Spring, Md., an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C., where young G'Ra went to public school.


The change shook the child deeply. It wasn't just that being uprooted felt scary to an eight-year-old, that he couldn't imagine at first what the new place would be like or how his family would live. It was that, once in Silver Spring, his view of himself completely flipped: Used to living a culturally rich life in an economically straitened neighborhood, used to feeling he belonged, Asim suddenly found himself among strangers in a largely White, well-off community that saw his color but, weirdly, didn't credit him with having had a true, Black, inner-city experience because he spoke differently than the stereotype they expected.


"I was made aware right away that I wasn't a credible representative" of the Black urban community to them, he said. To his classmates, his family's education and tastes meant that he must have come from a rich, privileged place, "an idea that was hard to pop." Believing him wealthy, the people around him talked about the Black community he had been part of in a way that "other-ized" it, Asim recalled.


So though he felt very different from his classmates in some ways, they didn't see that difference: They saw a Black person, but not the Black person he actually was. The surreal effect of this was to make Asim's quasi-acceptance by them another kind of rejection.


The effects proved lasting. Always a person who tended to keep his feelings private, he outwardly adopted a neutral expression, his default setting in the face of what he heard and saw from those around him. "It sort of led to my inclination to suspend judgment," he remembered, "because I have so much experience with people who couldn't reconcile" his image with his experience. "It made me more skeptical of the cover of a book as a basis for judgment."


In short, "I think I retreated," he observed. "I became a lot more interior." As an emerging writer and musician, he felt there were benefits to this. "Being a person who is tune with their interior thoughts is good for an artist." But, "I think it took me a long time to figure out where I felt comfortable."


It came as a surprise to him that academia might be the place. Though he said he regards himself as having been less that a great student as a youth, Asim clearly had intellectual and artistic leanings, having been raised in a house pervaded by his parents' enthusiasm for, and expertise in, writing, performing, musical theater and current events. But feeling misplaced in Silver Spring, he saw himself as better off outside of institutional structures and believed he could operate best as free-ranging intellectual.


"Obviously a bit naïve," he said, wryly.


Still, he gave it a try. Punk music helped. It appealed to that rebellious, not-taking-your-word-for-it side of Asim's nature. He had always liked music, but had never participated in it until his father brought home a guitar that one of his friends didn't want anymore. At 15, Asim taught himself how to play it. At about the same time, he began to understand - thanks to what he calls punk music's attitude of "moxie over mastery" - that he could contribute to music even without being thoroughly trained in it. That summer, he scraped together a band and they all learned enough material to put on a house show in his basement.


"I've been doing some version of that ever since," he said.


The punk band he's in now, called babygotbacktalk, is thriving. So is Asim. But as that 15-year-old, his situation in Silver Spring continued to mess with his head. He pushed back at teachers' accepted wisdom, refused to comply with the routine demands of his studies, made poor grades. Yet eventually, after trying college a time or two before it really took and experimenting with some writing jobs, Asim realized that he needed to be in a community of people like himself who were asking questions and maybe looking at the world in unusual ways. Academia does tend to attract outliers, he noted: "I just followed the 'Eccentrics This Way' sign." 


Being forced to see himself in the (not-so) fun-house mirrors of other groups' misconceptions made Asim an acute examiner of his own thoughts and reactions about society and its issues. That and his love of words led him to the MFA program at Columbia University in New York City and the stream of up-to-the-minute, sociopolitical essays he's had published since, in media ranging from Guernica and BOMB magazines to Salon.com, Slate.com and the Boston Globe.


Most notably, his changed perspective generated his first book, Boys n the Void: a mixtape to my brother (2021), that laid out for his actual youngest brother his perceptions and cautions about growing up in the dangerous nowhere-land where American culture and society have tried to keep the young Black people they view as a dark, scary, faceless mass – a land where the skeptical punk-music counterculture may offer a young Black man the only path out and toward the freedom of his own individual, creative, intellectual selfhood.


Writing and music have given Asim two different ways to tap his insights. His writing process is the more cerebral. In writing prose, figuring out what he thinks seems to be a totally present-mind exercise, he said. But when he writes songs, "things come out that genuinely surprise me. That process tends to excavate stuff from the subconscious." For him, the tune comes first and then the words pop up, expressing thoughts that make him go, "'Wow, I can't believe that was percolating in there.' It's like the thoughts of someone else."


Change has galvanized him intellectually, but it has also matured him emotionally. Over time, he's learned that he can cope with big change more effectively than he used to, whether it's going back to college at 24 – and finishing magna cum laude – or returning to St. Louis for a job after many years of being away ("a strange homecoming – hard to get a bead on this city this time around").


No matter how uneasy new circumstances make him, he said, now "I feel like I can absorb that much more calmly because I know the first part's always the hardest. If you've decided that you're a person that's interested in growth … you see discomfort as sort of the price of growth."


You have to leave your comfort zone and make a new one, Asim added. Doing the familiar "is not in the service of self-improvement."   




G'Ra Asim plays bass with the band babygotbacktalk.

Photo by Michelle Menonna

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Bend or break

Lucineh Hovanissian / Photo by Sam Hubish

Lucineh Hovanissian has a fractured elbow.


That's a serious problem for a pianist. It's not a great situation for a composer, poet, translator, or artistic explorer of spiritual and scientific ideas, either. And Hovanissian is all of those. She needs two functioning arms to perform the imaginative artworks she travels the world to research and create, including music albums, film soundtracks and multimedia works.           


After two surgeries and more than seven months, she still hasn't fully healed from the bad fall she took, thanks to an illegally parked scooter, while walking to the bank in her hometown of Yerevan, Armenia. Her frustration has grown.


"I cannot work," she lamented on a Skype call from Yerevan in February. "This is the biggest challenge I've ever faced."


But it's not the biggest change Hovanissian has had to navigate. She came to that crossroads when she was only 15.


A gifted musician from an early age, Hovanissian had already spent years playing piano, singing and composing by the time she was of age to apply to secondary schools. She had even won a significant piano competition two years in a row ("It was one of the most important for teenagers") and was considered a top student. The Romanos Melikyan Musical State College was where she wanted to go next. So she applied, going through the system set up by the Soviets who controlled Armenia at that time. And then …


"They didn't accept me," Hovanissian recalled. "Because my family was not musical, they said. 'We have a very strict number of places and so you cannot enter.'"


The authorities expected a bribe, she explained, which her father could not pay. "It was my biggest dream, to become a real musician, to compose," she said. "I was crying the whole day. That changed my life forever."


Irony filled her eyes: "Years later, in 2014, the same college invited me to have a master class in the same hall where I was stressed as a child."


With her hopes crushed but her bright mind needing a suitable focus, Hovanissian chose to study dentistry, earning her medical degree with honors and a specialty in children's dental care. She practiced for a number of years. Yet she never let go of her artistic goals.


She kept composing and playing. Forced to cut her own path, musically, she found and made opportunities to perform, helped immensely by a financial award bestowed on her by the UNESCO-Aschberg support program for young artists that enabled her to apply for and accept artist residencies in other countries, including the U.S. Inspired by her faith in the Apostalic Church – the national church of Armenia, which is considered the oldest Christian nation in the world – and by the work of lyric soprano Lucine Zakaryan, a mid-20th-century Armenian star who championed her country's traditional sacred music during Armenia's troubled, Soviet-oppressed era, Hovanissian began combining ancient regional tonalities and compositional forms with classical and modern styles. Her original compositions have also come to mix acoustic and digital sounds that reveal both deep spiritual roots and cutting-edge inventiveness.   


Before long, Hovanissian was creating choral works using her own poetry as text, combining musical exploration with scientific topics such as Nikola Tesla's idea of creating an artificial aurora borealis. She experimented with video, began writing music for films and has most recently started directing. Like her own nature and training, Hovanissian's path has branched again and again while remaining one with her intellect and emotions.   


Her many influences and eclectic work have made her a crossover artist and a polymath on a world scale. This same woman who has studied brain science at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, undertaken independent research in disciplines ranging from neurophilosophy to human ecology and can speak five languages has established an artistic career that's taken her on tours of Europe and North America and to such residencies as Villa Straeuli in Winterthur, Switzerland; Visby International Composers Center in Sweden; Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France; and, in the U.S., those of Ohio's Cleveland Foundation and the Manhattan, N.Y., arts center, Symphony Space.


But, for now, Hovanissian remains stranded at home with an ailing elbow, worried that she may have to postpone or cancel important upcoming trips to Iceland and France and enduring with her fellow Armenians the fallout from the recent war with Azerbaijan, the latest chapter in a conflict that's been going on for decades. It's a lot to deal with, on top of the life interruptions that Covid-19 visited on the whole world.


"It's horrible," she said.


In the latest violence, which happened last September, in 2023, Azerbaijan attacked and drove out 100,000 inhabitants of a traditionally Armenian enclave – called Artsakh by its residents and Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijanis – that was located within its borders. People have flooded into Armenia with nowhere to live and no means of support. A family of eight is now trying to live in the studio apartment next door to Hovanissian's. The situation, happening so soon after the pandemic, has done something to the Armenian spirit, she fears.


"Something changed – art is just…" her voice trailed off. People aren't supporting art the way they used to, she explained later, perhaps because they're confused and distracted by all the upheaval.


Certainly, coping with societal change this big and pervasive has been hard for Hovanissian and other Armenians, and the effort is ongoing. Suffering and struggling under all that pressure, Hovanissian even thought about leaving Armenia, but couldn't abandon her mother and brother. When bad went to worse with her fall and her lingering injury, she became desperate.  


"I started to doubt my faith," she said.


Her search for answers led her into an exploration of Eastern Buddhism. Since then, she's been making her way back to Christianity, she said, but in the meantime, she realized something: She doesn't think her fall happened by chance.


"You know why it happened to me?" Hovanissian mused. "When I think it over, I think it was my reluctance: I knew I had to change, and I didn't. You have to change, like water, [flowing] with the times. Life is change. If we are reluctant to change, then change happens to us in an ugly way, a brutal way, like with the Covid, because humanity was reluctant to change. It will force you.


"But if we accept, take a little step every day, then you won't have big catastrophes. Natura non facit saltus – nature does nothing in jumps. Because of the stress, I made an unwise choice," she said. "And was forced."

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Learning to pivot

Afi Scruggs / Photo by Jef Janis

The path that Afi Scruggs has been following takes a lot of left turns. Even before she faced what she considers her most profound upheaval in life, her instinctive reaction to barriers, reversals and dead ends had been a rare one: When she couldn't find any way to get where she wanted to go, Scruggs didn't wear herself out by hammering for years on unyielding walls or trying to cut through the maze. Instead, she swung around and chose a whole new destination.


Over and over, she taught herself how to do something surprisingly different. With a Ph.D in Slavic languages from Brown University, she understandably started out as a university professor, but when that career got stymied, she went to work briefly for the YMCA. Then she became a newspaper reporter. Then a graphic designer and photographer. Then an author of a children's book, a memoir and a collection of essays. Then a professional musician and teaching artist. In every case, she bravely figured out what skills were called for, got proficient enough in them to get a job in that field and then mastered the work as she did it.


Scruggs has become her own best retraining program. She needed to be that unstoppable learner, especially when the biggest change came. "For me, it was all about survival," she said of her many self-reinventions. "My transitions were practical."


A native of Nashville who started playing keyboards at age six and grew up making music in church, Scruggs got her first career job teaching at the University of Virginia. But she wasn't on the tenure track. Concerned about her earnings, she decided to leave the position and look for something higher-paying, something for which she wouldn't have to wait the usual year or 18 months it often took to find another academic role. So she consulted a career counselor, who suggested that Scruggs try cocktail waitressing.


If her mother and grandmother had heard she'd taken a job like that, "They would have driven to Virginia and killed me," Scruggs said, laughing.


While casting about for another profession, she took a job at the Y that revealed to her how much she liked writing and photography - especially writing, because the overhead was so low. Scruggs began freelancing and, with the help of a friend in journalism, learned movie and music reviewing. Before long, she had a full-time job at the Charles County, Md., newspaper.


There had been no plan, she recalled. "This was just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks."


Journalism stuck. Once she realized that reporting was just like academic research, except you interviewed people instead of staying holed up in the library, she was hooked. "It makes you fearless and courageous. I got to talk to people, I got to go places. You're always looking for answers," Scruggs said. As a general-assignment reporter, "I could reach more people with one story than I could with a lifetime of academic research. Intellectually, it was much more satisfying for me."


She moved on to other papers in other states. Eventually, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, came calling, and though she was reluctant – " I didn't want to come, it was cold!" – Scruggs finally accepted. She grew to love the city and the paper, the sheer variety and unexpectedness of covering news there. "I had planned to retire from there, 'cuz  it was just so nutty," she recalled. "Cleveland has so much to offer."


And then, after not quite eight years, it all fell apart. "I did not get a merit raise at The Plain Dealer. My dad always said, 'If they pass you over, leave,'" she noted. "They told me to wait. And I said, 'Well, I ain't going to be here.'"


Though Scruggs had dealt with change many times before, this was different. Bigger. Deeper. It wasn't just her beloved job situation that had imploded: Journalism was also imploding. By 2001, the year she left, the internet had started reshaping the industry, slowly, almost imperceptibly, and then all of sudden. Advertising disappeared from print pages, moving online what seemed like overnight, and papers were hemorrhaging money and jobs. With news outlets downsizing and so many reporters being laid off nationwide, Scruggs found that she couldn't get back into the industry. Life had suddenly become uncertain again. And no other job felt as if it could be as rewarding and worthwhile as news. It had been a calling.  


"Journalists are very idealistic," Scruggs explained. "It was hard to figure out what else to do. I had a lot of skills there was no place for."


But she wanted to stay in Cleveland. What Scruggs realized she had to do was learn how to apply those skills to whatever work she could devise for herself in the Northeast Ohio area. So she got busy and creative. She taught a little on the college level, discovered a real liking for design, resumed freelancing as a journalist.


And then, "By chance, I was playing some old-time music, hanging out with some jams," said Scruggs.  That led to her going into the public schools as a teaching artist. While her skills as an educator of children grew - helped in part by a visiting workshop leader from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. - so did her interest in composing and performing music. As usual, Scruggs didn't hesitate to take the steps she thought necessary: She found a temporary content-migration side job that paid decently, spent the money on a bass and learned to play it.


"I was just looking at the bottom line," she said about the resulting music gigs that helped her cash flow.


Once again, Scruggs had studied and practiced her way out of a career dilemma and into a whole new way of working. Bass (and mandolin) in hand, she expanded her reach, playing for Antioch Baptist Church, increasing her art-teaching gigs and forming bands, starting with a group called Timbara. Now she leads Afi'n the Mix. Recently, she was commissioned by NPR to write four songs for its program, "This American Life." And at the end of December, she joined Cleveland's Djapo Cultural Arts Institute on an enrichment trip to Gambia, where she studied balafon, a xylophone-like instrument made of wooden keys and resonant gourds.  


Between music and freelance journalism, Scruggs has gotten by, though a bit precariously. "I don't know – I'm still very insecure about making a living," she admitted a few days into 2024, and then whooped out a big laugh. "I'm traumatized!"


Two weeks later, her life changed again: All that learning and daring paid off when the Music Settlement in Cleveland announced that its new Creative Aging Department within its Center for Music would be headed by Scruggs in an important role that will use all of her experience as a communicator, teacher and artist.  


On never-say-die trying, learning and finding good work, she mused, "It's just being able to turn on a dime. If you did it more than once, you can do it, you can figure it out. I have faith in myself. My grandmother is my role model, she was bigger than life  – she lived her best life until she couldn't." 


Scruggs wants to be like that, doing all kinds of things, she said. And the nonstop learning is easier now than it was for her grandmother, she added with a wide smile in her voice. "You have YouTube now."

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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

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:







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