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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:

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-RaAsimBWPerfShotMichelleMenonna.jpg

 

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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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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