VOTE, VOTE, VOTE!

By Leah S. Abrams

“Wow. Most people don’t register on their birthday.”

That was the remark by the pleased city clerk who handled my voter registration when I turned eighteen. The primary had passed, but I’d be eligible to vote that fall in the Presidential election, for a candidate I’d early on written off as a yahoo who sounded like a TV evangelist. In my freshman dorm room, six months later, I wept joyously as that candidate – one Bill Clinton – claimed victory to a favorite Fleetwood Mac tune, replacing the first President Bush, whose election had inspired in me other kinds of tears and an all-black outfit (and I was not the cool Goth chick).

My university campus, back in 1992, set up voter registration tables throughout the early fall, though I can’t say they were pushy in the way I’m reassured they’re being this time out. Maybe, back then, it was already clear that I’m part of “Generation Apathetic” and so no one dared count on us for anything.

I remember the shock of learning that my roommate / oldest friend / best college bud had not registered prior to school starting, having quite forgotten that she’d have been in the midst of moving into our cramped dorm room right around her birthday and was thus away from our hometown’s city hall and just a wee bit preoccupied. Wanna-be-lawyer that I was back then, I suspect I made an unnecessary argument to her about the importance of playing our role in Democracy, about the fact that our gender had been “given” the vote after my grandfather and her grandmother were already born, about how it took until just a decade before we were born to get a voting rights act passed. We visited one of the tables, if only to shut me up.

Funny. That memory of my own and my dear friend’s registrations are so much more vivid somehow than of casting our first vote. I’ve not thought much about those early days in some time, especially because I’d eventually go on to fourteen years of San Francisco Bay Area voting where you need a college credit course at every cycle to make sense of the countless ballot initiatives, blotting out all other voting memories. I’ve been thinking back on those early days lately as a result of making various get-out-the-vote calls.

I recently spoke with a man, older than I am, who confessed to me that he had never voted, had never even registered. Until now. He didn’t require prompting to tell me that he felt it was pointless, that all politicians are alike – out for themselves and not about doing anything at all for the people they represent, that his vote doesn’t even seem to count. We talked about my own similar discouragement. So, why, he wondered, do I bother? And he wanted genuinely to hear this response because, after all, something had already inspired him to be a first-time registrant.

To his point that all politicians are the same, I was in a prime spot as I was calling on behalf of a senatorial candidate who spent over twenty years in the military and, later in life, became a minister. Here, I easily argued, was someone who represented everything he – the caller – and I are all about: community service. And, I noted, there are others, including so-called career politicians, who are of the same ilk, and that we just have to be willing to find and focus on them.

As to why, in my frustration with a system so unbearably broken, I bother at all? That’s an easy one as it has always been – it’s my voice. Countless people who came before me fought and died so that those of us who are not land-owning white men have that voice forced into being heard. If I don’t cast that vote, I am complacent.

The man on the phone was interested. He registered as a Republican because it’s what he’s always assumed he is, but he is fed up and can’t believe Trump is the President. Here, I saw an opening: “The Republican party is one I no longer recognize,” I offered.

And that is true. When, in 2018, Carl Bernstein spoke at Symphony Space, he dashed any of my remaining hope that the rest of the Republican party would come to their senses, explaining to us that things had been very different with Watergate because it was Nixon’s own party members who helped bring things down and that it is now too polarized, too much of a cult – my word, not his.

When, after a long chat about retiring to rural living, neighbors taking care of each other, mandatory civil service work for all citizens, and the like, it was time for me to end our call, the man on the other end thanked me and told me that he was going to visit the senatorial candidate’s web site to read more about his policies and background. Finally, and this made every hang-up and agitator worth the call-making, he said that, while he’d registered Republican, if he does end up voting – which was now more likely – he may well end up voting the Democratic ticket.

I did not actually tell the man to vote for a particular party. In fact, I’ve sincerely told people who shout at me that they’re not voting for my candidate that I’m just glad they’re voting at all. And that is the truth. If you want to voice your complaints with our mess of a government, go right on and do it, but only if you go to the polls, only if you take that simplest action of weighing in, no matter which way you lean politically.

Do I wonder where your head is at if you support the current administration? Absolutely. But this isn’t a blog about whether Americans or the human species at large deserve to continue existing if this is the behavior they endorse; it’s a single message blog to tell you to, please, get out and vote!

Small Is the New Big (How a Wedding Caterer Survives Corona)

By Rossi, AKA Chef Rossi

All my life, I’ve yearned for the big things. When I was a kid, adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Especially teachers. That seemed to be the chosen greeting for grammar school teachers, “and what do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer for many years was the same, “I want to be president of the United States!” Back then, I believed, as many of us did, that president of the United States was a job for which you needed qualifications and experience. I figured I’d start with local politics and work my way up. I’d go for mayor of our little New Jersey town first.  

When I was a tween, I’d watch the Academy Awards with my family and dream that it was me winning the Oscar for my brilliant acting. I’d acted a teeny bit in community theater. I was anything but brilliant, but that didn’t keep me from dreaming big. A few years later, after the writing bug bit, I dreamed of winning an Oscar as a writer for best original screen play. When I started writing my memoir, I dreamed it would be a New York Times bestseller, adapted for the screen and then win the Oscar for best picture. 

When I decided to cook for a living, I did time for a year in culinary jail, working low-paying, supremely crappy internship jobs while I learned. As the lowest on the rung in a big commercial kitchen, I got to do delightful things like skewering 3,000 shish-kabobs and forming 3,000 crab cakes. I dreamed of snagging the job of the head chef, who mostly seemed to sit with his feet on his desk, drinking whiskey and looking over order forms. I managed to skip over many years of low-paying servitude and lied my way into a chef job at a small catering company. I spent three years as head chef hiring sous chefs to work under me who actually knew how to cook and then learning from them. I would look at the petite, bouncy woman who owned the company and seemed to be perpetually out having cocktails with friends. Yes. I could be the owner, not the employee, of a catering company. 

When I opened my own very small catering company, I shared commercial kitchens with other companies. I cooked this way for well over than a decade while my small business grew. I dreamed of having my own super swank kitchen with all the perks the shared kitchens did not have. Air conditioning was on the top of the list. 

Sixteen years ago, when I came upon a supremely dilapidated out-of-business pizza joint that had been vacant for years, I heard the Oscar Goldman voiceover from The Six Million Dollar Man in my head. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.” It took a year of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but at long last, my beautiful Shangri-La kitchen was ready to fly. 

From the moment I signed that lease, the first 25 weddings I catered a year were just to pay the overhead. Luckily, business was booming. We struggled to get through the 2008 economic dive and Hurricane Sandy. Unlike corporate caterers whose budgets can rely on the stock market, weddings continue in down economies. The budgets were lower, but the weddings marched on. 

Over the years, as I’ve adjusted to how expensive it was to bring in kitchen staff and pay for food and fuel, I realized that just to open my gate, I had to establish a food minimum. Gone were the days I’d travel to Jersey to cater dinner parties for four people. We were catering elaborate affairs for 200. When it came to catering, my mantra was “Bigger is better.” 

In March 2020, after Corona swept over life as we knew it, the CDC made the announcement barring gatherings larger than 50. I knew we were sunk. Our 2020 wedding season evaporated overnight. We didn’t have a single event booked that was smaller than 100 guests. That’s when the unsolicited advice started pouring in. “Why don’t you do deliveries like the restaurants are doing?” Factoring in my food and labor cost, I’d have to charge about $50 for an order of pasta. Taking on an entire new profession as a take-out joint was not an option. There was no way for us to compete with the thousands of eateries willing to make pasta for a whole lot less than the 50 bucks it would cost me. 

The only way forward was to keep with who I am, and simply think small. Thinking small goes against my DNA. I’m an Oscar-winning, former president of the United States, for crying out loud! But to push through and keep my company alive, I’d have to see small as the new big. I’d have to come up with a name for my mini catering venture. My company is called The Raging Skillet. I decided to call our new tiny dining experience “Mini Skillet.”

First step was a gorgeous e-blast to all my favorite friends, clients and followers. Almost immediately, two gay male couples whose weddings I catered years ago wrote back. One of my grooms asked if I could cater their anniversary dinner for just the two of them.” Another of my grooms asked, “Could I cater a special birthday dinner with 8 guests?” Lordy. I love my gay boys. When the going gets tough, they are still up for a fabulous dinner. Then came an email from a fantastic party planner who I’ve worked with for years. Could I cater her birthday party in her Brooklyn apartment? Hell yes! Tiny dinners mean tiny budgets. There would be no waiter, no dishwasher and no prep cooks. I couldn’t bring anyone to help me except my sous chef Glory. Trust me, Glory lives up to her name. 

We prepared a beautiful six-course tasting supper of mini plates: Moroccan tomato soup with zaatar croutons, heirloom tomato, burrata and basil salad, black cod ceviche in blood orange, jalapeno and lime with pearl onions, “Pasta Rustico” with oven dried grape tomatoes, Korean barbecue beef with cucumber mint salad, a palate cleanser of grilled peaches with balsamic glaze and the finale, sea salt and caramel ice cream with pretzel garnish. I don’t think I ever put so much love into a meal. Just beautiful. My birthday boys wanted to have an amazing meal outside in a park, so I prepared a picnic menu. Grilled Santa Fe chicken, black bean and barbecued corn salad, rustic pasta with oven dried tomato and fresh basil, churrasco Portobello steak with chimichurri rojo, Rice Krispy tahini treats and yummy chocolate chip cookies, plus a large gourmet cheese display of triple-cream, savory and farm-house cheeses. I threw in a trashy favorite, peanut butter and bacon tea sandwiches.

We packed up everything to go. After years of cooking for hundreds of people, I simply do not know how to cook for 8. I sent them off with enough food to feed Pittsburgh. They were thrilled, of course. Everyone enjoyed the picnic and then took home lots and lots of leftovers. The food and love for our first week of Mini Skillet was overflowing, but alas not the money. When I added up my expenses, my profit was less than I would have paid my dishwasher if I’d hired her. But at least there was a profit. It was a beginning. 

In 32 years, I don’t think I’ve ever prepared better food. Even with budgets 100 times higher. In the last two decades I’d been so busy selling and running my business, I had to delegate a lot of the cooking to my chefs. Now, I have the time and the mental clarity to truly throw myself into it; a little more toasted coriander to the tomato soup; a bit more garlic in the Korean beef marinade, sprinkled with apple smoked sea salt and imagination. 

So what’s the moral of this story? Oy vey. Who has times for morals in this day and age? We’re too busy trying to stay alive and relatively sane. (I said relatively.) Losing a year of business has been painful, scary and surreal. It’s also been humbling. But I find a layer of myself has peeled away. Leaving something fresh and alive underneath. I’ve been thinking a lot about the first few years I was cooking. I was giddy with excitement every time I learned how to make something new. I was open to the all the possibilities of food; where it came from, how to prepare it, how to cook it, how to serve it. I felt like a wide-eyed kid entering the first grade. My eyes are wide again. Not sure how long I’ve been sleeping. But I am awake now. And for the record, pretzels are fabulous with sea salt and caramel ice cream.

Celebrating Launches & Openings!

The Jean Moye Dark Fund kicks of its campaign for a magical space, “A Strange Loop” cast album is released, and a Chelsea space safely brings back live entertainment!

Today, we share some exciting news from three of our arts organizations: the Jean Moye Dark Fund for Black Women / Femmes + TGNC Artists, Playwrights Horizons, and the cell. In the midst of ongoing uncertainty for our ravaged communities, our artists continue to imagine and create and shine warm light on those of us fortunate to be open to receiving.

If you’ve been to any of Undiscovered Works’ virtual events these last six months, you’ve heard me talk about the Jean Moye Dark Fund and, in the spring, we were fortunate enough to host a presentation from Nia Witherspoon who created the fund, named for her great grandma who was discovered to have been a writer only after her death. Now, on Tuesdays, you can hear Nia read from Jean’s work!

There have been many wise folks encouraging Nia to dream forth the reality of her extraordinary vision for a different, sustainable future. The result, I am thrilled to share, is the launch of phase 1 of a capital campaign fundraiser to develop a space that nourishes the human spirit – a collectively-imagined residency space that centers Black Women (Cis and Trans), Non-Binary Folks, and other Transfolks to be artists, world-makers, healers, and visionaries.

When Nia talks, I see a Brook Farm for the future: a balanced community- based approach to not just sustainable, but thriving existence, in balance with the land we humans seem determined to destroy; a space for Black Women/Femme + TGNC Artists  to safely, boldly dream and pursue that dream. I urge you to please check out the fundraiserwatch the video to learn exactly why Nia inspires us all so much. If you’re in a position to contribute, please consider a tax-deductible donation.

Before NYC theatre went dark, something extraordinary unfolded at Playwrights’ Horizons, one of my personal favorite theatres in town because of their devotion to bringing to life work that challenges more traditional theatre-going audiences. In their 2019/20 season, they premiered a ground-breaking musical called A Strange Loop, by Michael R. Jackson.

My friend and U.W. frequent contributor Rona Siddiqui was the music director on this Pulitzer Prize winning ensemble-driven journey that featured some of my very favorite local actors. Together, the cast and creative team won an Obie Award in the midst of the pandemic for their masterful work. We are giddy to learn that the cast album we’ve been eagerly awaiting has been released! You can support some of NYC’s hardest working theatre makers by getting your copy today!

Finally, for this week’s community celebratory news, if like me, you are desperately craving live entertainment in a safe environment, may I recommend the cell in Chelsea. This gallery space that presents and produces art installations / shows, plays, concerts, and more, is open again! They’re now offering backyard musical and visual arts presentations as well as appointment-based installation visits in addition to their ongoing virtual programming.

For me, it is fitting that my first official show (beyond Harlem Late Night Jazz up the street on Sugar Hill that’s been entertaining me all summer) will be at the cell – the first place in the city to provide me and what would eventually become Undiscovered Works and the monthly storytelling series with an artistic home.

So, please, go forth – visit the cell, listen to A Strange Loop, and support the Jean Moye Dark Fund. And, PLEASE… VOTE!!!

Gay and Jewish

By Rossi, AKA Chef Rossi

When we were toddlers, my mother taught my sister, brother and me a prayer to say every night before we went to sleep. It was modeled after the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Torah and to the Jewish people. I promise to live a nice Jewish life and to marry a nice Jewish boy.”  My brother’s prayer ended with “girl.” Seriously, that was the prayer.

It was so ingrained in me that I said it every night without thinking about the words. It became part of my DNA, brush my teeth, recite my bedtime mantra. At age 6, I had yet to meet a Jewish boy I could fathom marrying, nice or not. I rather liked the idea of marrying my first grade teacher, Mrs. Mahon, but my mother said that was silly. 

The shul (synagogue) we went to was Orthodox, so the men and women sat separately. The rabbis and everyone else going to the podium were men. It was never a woman. I didn’t mind. It was easier to sneak out as a girl, because so little was expected of you. I’d say I had to go the bathroom and run around the back yard looking for trouble to get into. I always found some. 

When I was 7, my father was honored by being called to the bema to read a few lines from the Torah. I sat next to my mother, who was kvelling, so proud she could feel it in her kishkas. I leaned over and whispered to my mom, “Why can’t you be up there? You read Hebrew, too!” 

“Slovah. The men are in charge in shul. The women are in charge at home.” 

It wasn’t flying with me. “I want to go to a shul that lets the women get up there, too.” 

“Shhhh. I’m pretending I didn’t hear that.” 

As I got older, my budding feminism was usurped by practicality. I was 14 and realized that while my brother was held captive at shul, I was free to hide behind the bushes and smoke cigarettes. The other teen girls caught on and joined me. “They’ve got prayer. We’ve got Marlboro!” I kissed my first girl when I was 15. I’d kissed loads of boys by then. Some had been relatively pleasant experiences, some about as enjoyable as a root canal, but none had elicited the passion of my first gay kiss. I was smitten. 

I ran into my sister Yaya’s bedroom and announced, “I think I might be gay!” 

“Why do you think that?” she asked taping magazine cut outs of the “Bay City Rollers” on her wall. 

“I have no interest in having sex with guys. I only want them to take me out and pay for everything.” 

Yaya laughed, “You’re not gay! You’re a Jewish American princess like me!” 

The paying-for-things waned pretty fast, especially when Moishe Silverman asked for a “golden shower.” “A what?!”

My parents sensed something was different about me. My sister obsessed about cute boys in teen magazines. I obsessed about “The Bionic Woman.” 

“Would it kill you? To find a nice Jewish boy?” my mother screamed.  

“The last Jewish boy you pushed on me was Moishe Silverman!? Is that the kind of Jewish gold you want for me?” 

“Gold shmold! You need a doctor, lawyer or accountant!” 

The more my parents pushed, the more pink I put in my hair and the more safety pins went into my leather jacket. They wanted a mensch. They got a mosh pit. Being a bisexual rocker chick suited my image, but still, there were all those pesky penises to contend with. At first I thought, “Maybe I just don’t like nice Jewish boys.”Then I thought, “Maybe I just don’t like any kind of nice boys.” While that part is true, the not-nice bikers and rockers I dated still left me feeling like the only one locked out of the candy store. Where was my Almond Joy? 

I didn’t come out as gay until I was 18. I needed a few more years of horrible dates with men and fantastic dates with women to set myself straight, or rather gay. But I did come out with a vengeance, hooting and hollering everywhere from Fire Island to New York City’s gay pride parade. 

One night when I was 19, I crawled in next to my gorgeous Dominican girlfriend Carlita (got my Almond Joy at long last) and started to whisper my nighttime mantra. When I got to “and I promise to marry a nice Jewish boy,” I stopped. “What am I doing?” I said a bit too loudly, waking Carlita. “What’s wrong honey?” she asked. “I’m gay and Jewish! That’s what’s wrong!” “Go back to sleep. You know you can’t eat spicy food.” “Exactly!” 

It wasn’t enough to date women, I wanted to get as far away from nice Jewish boys as I could get. Carlita and I lasted two years. My Grenadian girlfriend Ally and I lasted three. Then I met a six-foot-two German Amazon named Heidi. Heidi ate steak tartar for breakfast and went to dinner dressed like a dominatrix. She seemed to be as far from a nice Jewish boy as I could get. But one morning while I sipped my coffee watching her devour a bowl of raw beef, I thought, I want white fish salad on a bagel! Who am I hurting here? The day Heidi asked for Russian dressing on her pastrami sandwich was the day, I knew our days were numbered. Pastrami and mustard are the law. I’m pretty sure it’s written in the Bible somewhere. 

I met Shoshanna while she was on line at a Jewish deli. “Chopped liver on rye with mustard and sliced red onion, two half sour pickles on the side, please.” I was overcome with nostalgia. All the Almond Joys and steak tartars in the world couldn’t measure up to one perfect chopped liver sandwich. Shoshanna and I stayed together for almost five years wrapped in the comfort of matzo balls and gefilte fish. We parted friends. She still brings the gefilte fish and horseradish on Passover. People come together for a reason. My reason was probably to find out that working so hard to fight against my mother’s mantra was forcing me to miss what we all want … home. 

I’ve been with Lydia for ten years now. She’s an Italian Catholic (non-practicing). She loves matzo balls, haggling with fruit vendors and going to our shul, which has a female rabbi, for the high holidays. Nobody since my mother has kvelled for me like Lydia.  She’s not a nice Jewish boy, but she is nice. I don’t have a nighttime mantra anymore. I always fall asleep while Lydia watches Steven Colbert. But if I did, it might go like this. “I pledge allegiance to being true to who I am. I promise to live my life that just so happens to be Jewish and to marry whomever I want, so long as she doesn’t put Russian dressing on her pastrami.”  

L’Shanah Tovah Everyone! A sweet, healthy, happy, peaceful New Year. Corona, you are not invited to the new year!

Think NYC is Dead? You Don’t Know This City’s Lifeblood

By Leah S. Abrams

She is anything but dead, this glorious city of ours. If you think life here is all about the hustle-bustle of tourists cluttering up Times Square with their toddlers of all things and selfie-sticks, the all-night bars and clubs, the overpriced Broadway ticket, you’re missing what is at the core of all of that. The energy doesn’t come from that; all that is fueled by the pulse that is the city and its true inhabitants themselves. If your soul belongs here, there are gifts to be found in this time of shutdown.

We are an enclave for musicians who have never stopped giving us live concerts – from rooftops, distanced and masked throughout every park, pumped out of speakers propped in apartment windows, even from their living rooms and broadcast via this crazy technology that lets you view while sunning on your fire escape. The musicians are my essential workers – these artists who, more than any other group of people, drew me to this place my grandmother said her father never could stop feeling was home even long after he’d settled our family in Boston.

Theatres may be on six months closed, but storytelling has exploded on multiple platforms. For folks like me, the recent outpouring of podcasts (which are, let’s face it, just the modernized version of the radio shows my dad grew up on and handed down to me via cassettes released in my youth) is like a little piece of heaven. There are nights when I’ve listened to three or four short plays over dinner.

From my couch, I’ve seen Madhuri Shakar’s “In Love and Warcraft” cleverly adapted for Zoom, a new Deb Margolin piece that played as though we were right there in her living room, and a reading of Amina Henry’s “Burn” that I both could not believe was featuring actors all in their own homes and was one of the most complex and powerful stories I’ve seen this year.

One arts medium is returning indoors as art museums and galleries open to limited, masked crowds, patiently waiting in socially distanced lines for entry and happily succumbing to temperature checks and contract tracing lists upon entry.

A city of artists and service workers does not so easily succumb, no matter how hard and long you beat at her.

My caterer-writer-performer friend who has weathered her business through the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis? She’s reinvented again, of course and, throughout these many months when there were no events at all, managed to feed her community of employees and neighbors. My corner caterers, theater people in their previous lives? They shifted gears to partner with a local non-profit to instead make and serve that delicious food for our neighbors in need. We are a plucky, adaptive bunch, we artists.

Most of us New Yorkers are walkers by nature. Exploring more neighborhoods on foot, rather than always swishing by underground en route to some destination or other, is a sensory overload. For those of us who swoon over the architecture of old, every stroll brings a new find. We live in the NYC not of my childhood, but of the era where parks and paths and green space and trees were prioritized; we should be taking this time, more than ever, to revel in that, to every day be actively grateful it exists and determined to preserve and expand it, especially for those communities still lacking vital access to the physical and mental health benefits it bestows.

If you thought NYC was your town and you’ve fled, proclaiming our island now devoid of all the things that made it so special, good riddance to you. For the song-makers, writers, actors, dancers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, laundresses, nurses, and so many more who remain, thank you for ensuring our great story relentlessly persists: you are this city’s life and I feel our heart pounding, our blood thick and flowing like the rivers that frame us.

There’s no place like home

By Jennifer Dean

I was seven and a half years old when my parents separated.  Separated, not divorced, because of course divorce is the legal end but inevitably there first comes a separation, and in my parents’ case, it was the separation of an ocean.  My mother moved me back to her parent’s house in Bromley Kent, England – several thousand miles away from my father who was left in a cheap stucco house in the suburbs of Northern California.  I remember the evening before we left – sitting in the living room in front of our small television watching “The Wizard of Oz” with my father.  Nothing was said.  My mother told me we were going to visit her family for a bit.  Once we arrived in their very English home with my grandfather, Poppy and my Uncle Ken, she told me I was going to go to school for a bit since the summers in England are shorter than the summers in the States.  I remember thinking, “why do I have to go back to school just because everyone here is still going to school?”  I soon figured out that we weren’t going home.  We were there to stay.  I don’t ever recall my mother telling me – I just deduced it as would most seven year old detectives once they were stuck in a class and their mother was heading out for job interviews and such.  It would be several months before my ruby red slippers would bring me home again … because … “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

I start mid-term at Burnt Ash Elementary school to study.  I have Hello Kitty stuff which makes me extremely popular on the playground – for a short time anyway – until I open my mouth and my funny accent makes them not want to talk to me.  I’ve got to get rid of that quick.  I can sound like they sound no big deal.  Unfortunately they still don’t want to be my friend.  My teacher reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the East.  She looks like Maggie Smith in the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” with flaming red hair and the cold features of an English schoolmarm.  I am nervous and awkward in my new surroundings, feeling completely like a fish out of water.  We are told in no uncertain terms not to use an eraser – EVER!  We are being taught penmanship and, even though we are to use pencils, our mistakes should remain evident.  I make one.  I look around me.  I have to fix this.  I can’t be seen as the inadequate American.  I use my own saliva to get rid of the lead and rewrite the letter.  Mrs. Smith sees me out of the corner of her eye and asks me to the front of the class.  I’m trembling.  I feel the blood rushing to my face….. she knows.  “Listen class,” she tweets with her proper upper crust English accent “our new student has been vulgar enough to use bodily secretions to mask her mistakes.  You shall not do the same.”  I want to crawl into a hole and stay there.  Unfortunately it is not yet time for me to go home to America so I simply have to continue down the yellow brick road.

Poppy takes me to school in the morning in his car that smells of petrol (he runs a trucking company), only he starts driving before I am fully in the seat.  “Poppy wait!”  The next two characters I come upon are a pair of twin girls in the changing room for gym class.  There is ice on the ground outside but we must still change into our shorts.  The girls corner me.  They are HUGE!  They come from the secondary school.  I don’t know how they ended up in the locker room at the same time as me.  I don’t know why I am there alone.  But they did and I am – and I can only hope that I get to run away when the bell rings.  Somehow I manage to escape the monster twins and head outside to run laps.  What a relief!

Coming from California I have never seen a storm before.  It sounds like the sky is very angry.  It is booming and throwing electrical currents through dark grey clouds.  My Mummy is out at her new job and I turn to Poppy to ask if she is coming home or if she will get taken away by the storm.  After all, that is what happened to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Poppy assures me she will be home soon enough. I don’t know that I believe him because Dorothy had to go through a lot before she got home.  Uncle Ken and Poppy start teasing me about the English runner who has won some race.  According to them he is the best runner in the world – proving of course that no one can run faster than the English – certainly not the Yanks.  Of course I point out how do you know he is the fastest runner in the world?  He hasn’t raced everyone.  He hasn’t raced my Dad.  Maybe my Dad is faster than him.  That doesn’t stop Uncle Ken and Poppy from bringing it up.  It makes them laugh that I get so riled up.

My Mum made it home – without the ruby slippers – maybe I will too.  I am going there for a visit to see my Dad.  I always wondered if Dorothy went back to Oz after she got back to Kansas.  I mean it would be sad if she just left and never got to go back.  At the airport the woman who works for the airplane assures my Mum that I will be just fine on the plane by myself. I feel quite grown up.  My Mum keeps telling me I have to eat something on the plane but she knows I won’t.  She gives me a bag of grapes for the trip.  They are the only things I can eat because the smell of the airline food makes me nauseous and I end up throwing it up anyway, so what’s the point?  I try to be asleep whenever they serve food so I don’t have to smell it and they don’t ask me if I want any.  Of course, they end up waking me up anyway.  

When we land I have to go pick up my luggage.  It’s really warm in the airport but I don’t want to take off my English winter coat because then I have to carry it and will probably lose it.  So I just leave it on.  The luggage is going round and round on the conveyer belt.  I’m looking at it and don’t quite know what to do because it’s as big as I am so I can’t really get it off.  I guess I’m not that much of a grown up.  It has wheels so as long as I get it to the ground I’ll be fine… I’m just not quite sure how to do that.  Luckily there’s a nice couple from the plane who were sitting near me and ask me if that’s my bag and would I like help getting it off the continually circling metal contraption.  I quickly respond “oh yes please”.  I must have had quite a perplexed and distraught look on my face so they knew I needed help.  Once it is on the ground I am able to wheel it to the customs area.  I see my Dad looking down on me through the glass windows from the flight above – just outside of customs.  I wave.  He waves back.  

A few months after that trip my Mom moved us back to California.  I didn’t need a Wizard – just a brave Mother.  Of course, when I got back I had a funny English accent which all the kids teased me about.  The one slight I recall is “you sound like a frog”.  I’m not quite sure why but I quickly adapted back to my original way of speaking.  Hello Kitty wasn’t going to make me any friends in California.  It is true that there’s no place like home.  I am sure I would eventually have made England my home, but without my Dad it wouldn’t have been the same. 

Community Blog

By Leah S. Abrams

Welcome to our Undiscovered Works blog! What’s it all about? We want to create a new communication medium by which we can support and grow our community – an extension of our mission to share stories, to promote work that we think should have the chance to grow, to develop, to find a voice and an audience.

As we launch this newest program, I’d like to offer up a bit of an origin story…

Where it All Began

According to friends from elementary school, I have been producing theatre since the second grade, when my mother and I moved in with my grandparents. There were earlier theatrical projects – always singing for folks and a poem recitation about a turtle who lived in a box (he swam in the puddle and climbed on the rocks) at kindergarten graduation, but the bug really hit when we moved and I began spending every day with my grandfather who had been an entertainer himself, who gave me my first public speaking lessons because the new school required weekly show-and-tell presentations.

An old classmate pointed out to me that I’d started pitching a production of “Annie” for us that same year I arrived in town. Eight-year old me even approached the manager of an old local movie theatre (it had a stage!) to pitch a variety show featuring local talent, representing people of all backgrounds and ages.

 In the fifth grade, I penned a terrible play for my friends to perform called “Broadway Dreamers,” full of song and dance numbers reflective of my bizarrely eclectic tastes at the time – ranging from Fred Astaire to George Benson. Call me an early adopter of the jukebox musical.

Alas, none of my crazy childhood production ventures came to fruition. Still, the desire to make stories come to life did not dissipate, even when I pretended an intention to drop it.

My dad was a driving force behind my ultimately pursuing a life in the theatre. When I was heading to college, intent on focusing all energy on pre-law endeavors, he was adamant that I choose a school with a strong theatre department and opportunities for student productions. When I graduated college, he was the one who helped me set up the non-profit theatre company I’d go on to manage for two decades, first in Boston and then in San Francisco. In the final years of that endeavor, for multiple complicated reasons, running a company had worn me down, had made believe I’d grown to hate my passion.

A New Start

New York changed all that. A theatre person arriving here cannot help but fall madly in love with the thing all over again. From the moment I arrived in the city nearly a decade ago, I picked back up with a small group of producer and artist friends with whom I’d collaborated in my previous life across the country and, through them, was reminded that the whole point of theatre was to inspire, to collaborate, to discover voices – in short, to be a community.

I’ve been truly blessed by this city, the theatrical hub that I’d spent my whole life longing for. From the moment I decided I wanted to get involved, people gifted me the opportunity.

Kira Simring, whom I’d known for a single show in the early 2000’s, brought me into the cell where she’s long been its artistic director – there, she helped me launch what has become the Undiscovered Works monthly storytelling series, co-produced with me a piece I’d longed to do since college, and got me my first G.M. gig on a show that introduced me to Marianne Driscoll who is the kind of person that makes you think there are indeed angels walking among us.

When the cell’s programming got so full that we needed a new home for the reading season, the seemingly unlikeliest of places took us in – Ryan’s Daughter, an upper east side bar where, at the time, one of The Irish Rep Theatre’s most beloved artists, Mick Mellamphy, was involved before he took to full-time acting. He and partner Jim Gerding gave us a home for five years, until we accepted an invitation from Dixon Place to move the series to their lounge.

With that last move (prior to our current reality of online programming) came the full realization of the potential of Undiscovered Works. Our focus is on community – on giving life to stories, often in their infancy, in the belief that we learn and grow and empathize not through facts and statistics but through listening to someone else’s experience. Where do our differences converge?

What I essentially wanted was to invite people to my parlor to share and support one another as we find our voices. I wanted a place where I could welcome the people who care for our neighbors to share their work and so we have our non-profit partners. As for those full-scale productions that were my focus for so long, there is still space for them. If a writer has something to say, something our society needs to hear, then I want to help it be heard. Productions will happen – they are already planned. They are the kinds of pieces I used to be proud and excited to let loose on the world, and the kind I am passionate about supporting. 

At Undiscovered Works, we believe, at the end of the day, that theatre should be about bettering our shared world. And we’re proud to play our small part.

Our Blog Endeavor

Moving forward, we’ll be featuring a wide variety of content here on the Undiscovered Works blog, including new work, interviews with creators, opinion pieces, information about artistic happenings, and just about anything else our community can come up with.

We’re excited for this new launch and we believe it will provide more opportunities to connect, to share, to learn, to develop ideas. Many of you will be hearing from our team directly to solicit your contributions, but please feel to contact us at with ideas, suggestions, or proposed topics at info@undiscoveredworks.org.

March 29th: Community Spirit Abounds

In these trying times, community is, as always, our foremost thought.

As I sit down for my fifth attempt to write to you, it is a positively beautiful Friday afternoon here in New York – clear, blue skies; birds orchestrating; flowers and buds emerging from slumber. You’d hardly think we were in the middle of a national emergency. And yet, here we are – quarantined for a fast-spreading pandemic that, this time at least, is receiving some government response. In fact, between this morning’s draft and this moment’s editing, I received notice that Congress has passed the CARES Act, offering real financial support for our colleagues, including unemployment insurance for the countless numbers of us who would not normally be eligible. 

Here at Undiscovered Works, we are dedicated to keeping the stories going and staying connected with all of you. We’ve been busy navigating technology to bring you our monthly storytelling series and, this past week, we’ve been focused on… auditions! We managed to hold over 70 “live” auditions with actors who not only entertained us in these trying times, but who were an absolute inspiration in kindness. We would especially like to thank those who had to move things around based on their work in emergency rooms, paramedic teams, and other critical positions taking care of our neighbors.

I have stalled in sending this communication, in part, because I’ve been somewhat at a loss for what to say. We have had many conversations on our end about the importance of the arts to be a source of light and support, recalling what NYC’s entertainment industry was able to do for our collective spirit after the Sept. 11th attacks, but we find ourselves in a scenario more closely aligned with the days of The Plague as we’re wisely forced to socially distance ourselves.

We are watching our friends and colleagues, including some of Undiscovered Works own team members and presenting artists lose their livelihoods. Many of our non-profit partners and the city’s vibrant non-commercial theatres face uncertain futures. All of this is in the midst of people falling sick and even dying at alarming rates. We are humbled by our own sense of helplessness. BUT we must soldier on – that is what artists of every age have been asked to do and we are determined to do our part in continuing that tradition!

On Monday, April 11th, at 7:30pm (east coast), we will be virtually hosting our monthly event – details coming next week! This will, naturally, not be a paid-ticketed event, but we will share info. on how to support our friends and colleagues throughout the arts and hospitality industries. 

Please know that you are in our thoughts – ’til we gather together once more, may you be healthy and well and able to lose yourself in stories of all kinds!

With much gratitude,
Leah and Team Undiscovered Works

March, 2019: Kicking off a new Storytelling Series

March Films & Filmmakers

306 HOLLYWOOD

On March 10th, we gathered at Ryan’s Daughter for a pre-screening of Elan and Jonathan Bogarin’s 306 HOLLYWOOD, an official Sundance Selection now available on iTunes, along with Heather Pirnak’s animated short THE COLORS OF LIFE.

We followed the viewings with a discussion with Elan and Heather who both shared experiences of creating their films and answered thoughtful questions from our audience.

I was particularly struck by an inspiration shared by Heather Pirnak, the animator and director of the short film THE COLORS OF LIFE. She spoke about coming to New York as an artist and living on the lower east side and so she went to The Tenement Museum – one of my personal favorite places – and was inspired by what it must have been like to have come here during that time. The journey she created as a result is poetic and musical and perfectly captures the era and ever-changing city that sparked the film’s creation.

Elan shared a driving thought behind the evolution of 306 HOLLYWOOD that will always stay with me – she said they started from a place of the idea that the ordinary could be extraordinary, giving us a way to look at all of our histories. She also spoke of the inspiration of her Venezuelan roots, of magic being a part of the language and the culture – the same is absolutely true of this extraordinary film.

On Making Their Films:

It’s like driving at night with your lights on and you can only see just ahead of you where the lights shine and you just keep going knowing you’ll get there.

Elan Bogarin

You take a chance – journey to a new place.

Heather Pirnak