Stories from the Stage

S4 E13 | FULL EPISODE

Close Quarters

Sharing space with others can test our limits. And sometimes, bring us joy too. Chuck and his girlfriend learn that small spaces can make problems bigger; Mariela feels trapped in the safe space she created; and Áine battles her claustrophobia in a tiny recording booth. Three storytellers, three interpretations of CLOSE QUARTERS, hosted by Theresa Okokon.

AIRED: March 29, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

CHUCK KARVELAS: And I hear this blood-curdling scream

and I jump up; I'm stumbling.

I get to the bathroom, I turn the light on,

and there she is, wedged into the toilet.

MARIELA MARTINEZ: I wiggle my shoulders

and pull my wrists to my mouth.

It loosens, and the rest is a piece of cake.

ÁINE GREANEY: I've always been a little bit claustrophobic.

I kept my eye on those walls,

because it was only a matter of time

until they started closing in.

THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Close Quarters."

Sometimes, by choice or by circumstance,

we all end up having to share space.

Now, it could be with a friend, or a partner,

or family, or a complete stranger.

At times, this time together ends up being the thing

that we've always dreamed of.

And other times, it is a complete nightmare.

Well, tonight's storytellers are bringing their true tales

of the moments when they ended up in some close quarters.

KARVELAS: My name is Chuck Karvelas.

I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts,

and I'm a dad of two amazing boys and a beautiful wife.

And I work as a learning professional in a biotech

here in Cambridge.

Oh, wonderful. - Yeah.

- Can you talk to me about what role storytelling plays

in your work in biotech?

Oh, it's.... So I'm the director of learning for a small company.

And really what I look at is, storytelling is sort of the core

of what we're trying to do, because a lot of people

think of biotech, and they think medicine, right?

But really what biotech is about

is, it's about helping patients right?

And how you connect with patients

is by understanding their stories.

And that's really what gets people inspired,

by changing the world through medicine,

is understanding the stories and the struggles of patients

and then finding ways to help them.

So that's really what I try to do every day,

is connect the work we do every day to the stories of patients.

That's wonderful.

And how long have you been telling stories

on a stage like this?

Ooh, telling stories on a stage.

That's a tough one.

Most of my stages were around kitchen tables in holidays.

My dad is an incredible storyteller,

and I try to model him every day.

My background is in theater,

if you can believe it, that's where I kind of started.

- And so our theme for tonight

is "Close Quarters." - Mmm.

Can you tell me about what that theme means for you?

I think we're all feeling that a lot right now.

But for me, what I'm most interested in this idea

of close quarters is space's impact on time.

And I'm not a science guy, right?

But when... I'm curious to see how time

can be compressed by space.

Christine had the most amazing red hair.

I mean, she was your quintessential leading lady

and she was way out of my league.

Now, I know it's hard to imagine,

but I had to work really hard

to get women to pay attention to me.

I always used the tactic of humor,

and luckily for me, Christine thought I was funny.

We were on this hike one day after class as,

just as friends, and we're walking along

and it's this beautiful autumn day,

and the leaves are falling and the sun's in the perfect spot.

And she's walking ahead of me and I crack a joke,

and she smiles and turns, and the light hits her hair

and she is on fire.

She's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life.

And there's this little voice in my head and it says,

"Whoa, she could be the one."

And with a lot of persistence, a little bit of luck,

over time, we started dating.

It was perfect.

Now, fast-forward to graduation, we're still together,

and we're young, aspiring actors leaving school

and we're looking for our first gig.

Now, Christine and I had an opportunity of a lifetime

acting together, working for a theater company for children,

where we went around to elementary schools

and we taught them about classic literature.

It was going to be great.

Think about it-- two twentysomethings

in a young, romantic relationship,

24 hours a day together, seven days a week for an entire year,

just the two of us...

living in a van.

What could go wrong, right?

But for us, we didn't even think about it.

We just jumped in with both feet.

We rehearsed the plays, we loaded the van with the costumes

and the props and this really sad old futon,

and we hit the road.

The first few weeks were amazing--

singalongs and mix tapes,

all the fast food that we could eat.

And the shows? Two a day.

We would give Oscar-worthy performances to these bored kids

sitting on the floor of that sticky cafetorium.

It was our Broadway.

But things got bad fast.

The van, it started to smell-- bad--

the combination of sweat-soaked costumes and stale French fries.

It made us drive around all the time with the windows down,

no matter what the temperature.

But then, from the passenger side, I'd hear, "Oh, I'm cold,"

so we'd roll the windows up.

But then it would smell so bad that I would go... (growls)

Roll them down.

And I did all the driving, because traffic scared her.

And she did all the navigating, because apparently

I have no sense of direction.

So we're in New Jersey and we're driving.

We're stuck in traffic and we're late.

She looks up from her map and says, "Take a soft left."

And I'm, like, "What's a soft left?"

And she slams the map down

and she does this thing with her hands.

So I look over and the gesture

clearly doesn't match the geography.

So I take the wrong left.

Now, for any of you who have driven in New Jersey,

you know the wrong left could add hours to your trip.

We missed the show.

And she didn't speak to me for the rest of the day.

Things got worse from there,

and in some grand romantic gesture, I decided,

"Hey, I'll splurge for a hotel room."

So we're laying in bed, I'm sleeping,

and I hear this blood-curdling scream, and I jump up.

And I'm looking around in the dark, I'm stumbling.

I get to the bathroom, I turn the light on, and there she is,

wedged into the toilet.

And she's soaked and she's very upset.

So what do I do?

I started laughing.

And I immediately realized this is the wrong reaction

in this particular moment.

And then I start panicking, and I'm saying,

"Hey, listen, I can't be held responsible

"for toilet seat protocols,

because I grew up in a house full of boys and my..."

And then I see her face and I stop.

And for the first time I think to myself,

"I don't think we're gonna get through this."

Isn't it funny how the littlest things can feel so big

when you squeeze them into a small space?

We were changing.

That naive excitement was being replaced

by real-world relationship stuff.

She didn't think I was funny anymore 24 hours a day.

I still thought she was beautiful,

but she didn't smile at me as much anymore.

We fought, we argued, but we couldn't even hold on

to that anger or frustration, because the next morning,

we had to get up and perform that show for a bunch of kids

that didn't know what was going on backstage.

We just got into a routine.

We just sort of played our parts.

Now, the tour ended, thank goodness,

and we headed back, unpacked the van, and handed over the keys.

It's been over 20 years since I did that tour.

And just the other morning, I was having coffee

with my now-wife,

and the TV is on in the background

and we're talking about the pandemic, and she said,

"You know, this thing, it's causing so much stress

"for so many relationships.

"We're all just stuck together

in these little spaces for so long."

And I smiled and I said, "Well, if you want to know

"if you can spend your entire life with somebody,

"no matter what the world throws at you,

try spending a year in a van with them."

And she smiled and she looked at me and she said,

"Worked for us."

MARTINEZ: My name is Mariela Martinez.

I am a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Uganda.

I served there in 2017 and 2019.

I am currently a graduate student at Brandeis University

studying public policy and conflict resolution.

I understand that you're new to storytelling.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved

in this practice, this art form?

When I was in high school, I did slam poetry,

so I'm used to doing poetry

that's a little bit more interactive and rhythmic.

And so, as I went to undergrad and then graduate school,

I focused a lot more on my story in a more personal way,

and kind of explaining and dealing with my life

and my family's experiences through what I was studying,

my research, my advocacy, all of those lenses.

So if there was one single insight

or one single a-ha moment that you're hoping

that people take away from your story,

what would you, what's your hope for that?

I think beyond the immigration lens that my story lends,

I'd hope that people are able to reflect more on the trauma.

I don't want to say that everyone has trauma,

but I think so many people have experienced difficult moments

in their lives that we often try to brush off and not dwell on,

because we think that somehow dwelling makes us weaker.

Yeah, I think that for so many of us

who have experienced trauma in, in any different number of ways,

we get used to telling the quick story about it.

And a stage like this, and storytelling as an art form,

allows us to tell, like, the actual longer-form story

that allows us to figure that out for ourselves

and then also share that for others.

Really reflecting and digesting our experiences,

trying to understand what were some of the causes

for having decided to immigrate to the U.S.--

all of those things happen for a reason,

and just having experienced them is not enough.

We have to process and reflect on them.

So I ask everyone to do a little self-care and reflect on,

on their own stories, their own experiences,

and what ripples they might have on their own lives.

When in question, use teeth.

My hands and feet are tied.

My dad is looking at me expectantly.

He knows I can be faster than this,

but he tied the knots tight this time.

When in question, use teeth.

I wiggle my shoulders and pull my wrists to my mouth.

Use my teeth to pull at the rope.

It loosens, and the rest is a piece of cake.

My dad pats my back and walks to the kitchen table.

We sit down around my mom'smole.

He poses kidnapping scenarios to me as we eat dinner,

preparing me for the unexpected.

He knows life is always waiting around the corner,

and it is better to be prepared then taken aback.

There is a backpack in the corner

containing jump rope for tripping bad guys,

marbles to make them spill while I run away,

and pieces of paper with my initials.

In case I can't, I need to leave breadcrumbs.

I am nine years old and this is my reality.

My family is from Juárez, Chihuahua, México,

once the murder capital of the world.

Everyone I love lived there.

I grew up there.

I had my first kiss in a bouncy house when I was five,

I learned to read in a Catholic private school,

and my dad has his very own car body shop there.

But Juárez isn't as welcoming as we'd like to be.

It's often riddled with violence.

Women are discarded like tissue paper in the desert,

raped and abandoned.

Businesses are forced to pay off police and cartel,

going into poverty to starve out violence.

When I was seven years old, my dad was shot three times

during an attempted kidnapping.

Thankfully, he survived, but our life in Juárez did not.

We picked up everything, my family and I,

and we immigrated to the U.S.

We knew that it was better to be together than apart.

Growing up, I was a violent kid.

I bit everything,

and I wouldn't even do tentative love bites.

I would do full-clenched jaws,

leave-bruises-and-open-skin bites.

Never made many friends.

My dad had always trained me to fight.

And so when I would see boys playing police and spies,

I would ask, "Why couldn't girls?"

They would tell me, "Girls didn't know how to fight."

So I would kick them in the groin

to show them we did. (chuckles)

Did not make many friends growing up.

Boys thought I was too violent,

and girls thought I was too mean.

My dad always told me

being able to protect myself would make me better able

to protect the ones I loved.

But the older, more unapologetic and violent I became,

the fewer people that were around me.

When I turned 24, I decided to go to Peace Corps.

I thought, "This is a place where

it is great to be prepared."

My mom and dad decided to come together

and come up with a plan

in order to know if I was in danger ever.

They would ask me, "¿Extrañas a Jack?"

"Do you miss your childhood dog?"

If I answered yes,

then I was in danger.

If I answered no, then I was safe.

That was all we ever had.

All we ever knew.

Somehow, my dad would travel to Uganda,

do aTaken version of Liam Neeson, and find me.

(laughs)

Did have-- did not have any of the plans

on how that would be feasible,

how they would find me, none of that.

Just that question.

"¿Extrañas a Jack?"

As I've got older and lived on my own,

I would spill things when I would leave the house

to see and know if someone had rifled through.

My doors would have bells and string

to see if someone tried to turn the knob.

I would make sure any place I lived

had more than two exits that I was willing to use.

I lived in close quarters with my fear,

my paranoia, always afraid,

knowing it was lurking right around the corner.

Sometimes I am angry at how much my dad trained me for.

How afraid he made me of the world.

But I always tell myself, it must have been for something.

I dwell with violent scenarios

of things that could happen-- to myself, to my loved ones--

and get comfort from knowing I am prepared.

I am able to react.

So today, when I go running,

I make sure I round corners from a distance.

If I see open doorways, open cars,

groups of men, I walk.

I walk fast, I run. (chuckles)

I take comfort in knowing that I'm prepared,

but I get fear from thinking of what I'm not prepared for.

My parents told me these skills,

these abilities, because of their own.

They lived through it, although most don't.

They experienced these things,

although many don't know.

And though it makes me angry to think so,

I know I'll be prepared for when it happens.

People like to call my family and I illegal.

They call me greedy.

They say we came to the U.S.

to steal jobs, to steal free education.

They don't want to hear about the complex history

of Mexico and the U.S.

They don't want to hear about cartel violence

and how it sprawls.

Talking about post-traumatic stress disorder

is only easy because it's post.

Talking about ongoing stress, ongoing trauma,

is too difficult for us to process,

too difficult to reflect on

when so many undocumented people of color in the U.S.

continue to experience that.

I am paranoid.

I'm hysterical.

Other.

I feel it building inside of me and then clearing,

burning me out, but giving me precision.

I hope to be careless one day, to forget.

But there are days when it is 3:00 a.m.,

and I'm fighting the violent urge

to break into all of my roommates' rooms

and double-check that their windows are all locked.

I understand my parents told--

taught me these skills

so that I could be prepared for the world.

I reflect on the love,

the love that motivated them to train me,

to give me the skills to defend me myself.

But I continue to live in fear.

Though I try to be hopeful and find light in the darkness,

I am always afraid.

GREANEY: My name is Áine Greaney,

and I'm originally from Ireland.

I've been in the United States for over 34 years now,

and I've been in Massachusetts now for about 22 years,

and I'm a writer.

Can you tell me a bit about your writing?

And also about if you feel like it's easier

to tell a story on page or on the stage?

Well, I've been writing, like, most of my life, really,

but I never sent anything out to a publisher till,

till I landed in the United States.

I think I just didn't have the courage, you know.

And I write both fiction and nonfiction,

and I also teach writing.

And in answer to your last question,

it's far easier to do it on the page,

way easier.

Because, you know, I'm naturally a narrative kind of person,

and the page is just so much easier for me.

But that said, when I'm editing my own work--

and including work for work, you know, for my day job--

I tend to read it aloud.

That's the best edit, is to read it aloud.

And I never send it out to any editor,

or I never send it out until I've read it aloud

and taped myself reading it.

So I am listening for the sound.

- So, can you tell me about

how you found your way

towards telling a story on stage in this way?

This is only my third time.

The other two times,

I did it for a fundraiser for a non-profit,

and I got an email at 3:00 in the afternoon at work

saying, "Somebody backed out.

"I'm begging you to fill in.

I know you're a writer."

So, you know, my first instinct was to say, "Absolutely not."

(Okokon chuckles)

And then I thought, "Well, I know this woman.

I really like her," and I liked the cause,

and, you know, "Go and have some courage

and go and do it," so I, I did it.

One winter night,

a young man stood waiting for me

outside a small-town radio station in Upstate New York.

It was February, and it was one of those nights

when everything inside your nostrils freezes.

"Yeah, are you Annie?"

he called across the parking lot at me.

"Um, Áine," I said.

But he'd already turned back around inside,

and I followed him to this tiny little recording booth

that smelled of old cigarettes and fresh body odor.

Now, I'd gone to that radio station

because, a few days earlier,

a liquor store owner had heard about

this new Irish girl in town.

And who better to record

the St. Patrick's Day advertising spot

than this 24-year-old kid from County Mayo?

Six weeks earlier, I had immigrated from

my native Ireland to New York.

I came here for, you know,

all of the main immigrant reasons,

but also, I really longed to

live in a very, very big country.

And one of the things I coveted

and that I still love about America

is that there's a lot of it.

You know, there's a lot of square footage here.

And by contrast, in the 1970s and '80s in Ireland,

there wasn't much of it.

It's a small country,

and also, it's small enough where

your accent, your home parish,

what your father does for a living,

and where you went to school,

these can instantly and permanently,

like, brand you and put you in a box.

But here I was, and here was the radio man,

and he told me how it would all go down.

He said, you know, "You read your script

"and then I'll count you in, and let's count on

being out of here by 9:00 tonight, right?"

And I said,

"Right."

And then he left me there, behind enemy walls.

Now, I've always been a little bit claustrophobic.

So as I read through that script,

I kept my eye on those walls,

because it was only a matter of time until

they started closing in and kind of creeping.

And I also kept my eye on my radio fellow, up there

in an elevated office behind a plexiglass wall.

And when I was a child, that's how I imagined God.

Like, up there, always looking down,

always eavesdropping on your every thought

and your every word.

And then through my headset, here came the God voice.

"Three, two, one."

(squeakily): "Bailey's Bourbon Guinness.

This St. Patty's Day, you and your family can get your..."

Oh, head shake left to right, like that, and then...

(sighs): "No, give it more oomph.

Jazz it up." "Okay."

"Three, two, one."

"Bailey's Bo..."

"Mm."

(sighs)

So I tried again and again.

We had more retakes.

And all the time, those walls had crept a little closer.

"Give it more Irish," he said.

"We need to hear that brogue!"

"What? You need to hear what?"

Now, I come from a bilingual family.

Three girls and two boys.

All of us speak Irish and English.

And even if we didn't, everybody will tell you that

a brogue is a shoe.

Like asiopa bróg is a shoe shop.

(speaking Irish)

Haven't you lovely shoes?

And there wasn't one mention of shoes in that script.

And then I-- it came to me.

I thought, "Oh, he meant give it the shoe,

like, accelerate it, the oomph thing."

So I bellowed into that microphone.

(loudly and quickly): "Bailey's Bourbon Guinness.

This St. Patty's Day, get your Irish on and..."

You know, this time I made it

nearly all the way through,

and then I looked up and there was the head shake again,

only slower this time.

And this time he was drawing his finger across his neck

back and forth like this.

Well, what did that mean?

Now, I had been on my convent school's debating team,

and one year, we beat the socks off

the Christian Brothers' debating team.

So how bad could I be?

Like, how much of this was I getting so wrong?

And now, was he-- had I hit his rage button?

Like, was he coming down here to,

to slash my throat?

And I was all alone in a radio station.

And then I heard the voice again:

"We're all done here.

Yeah, I'll come down and let you out."

So I pulled off my headset, I buttoned up my coat.

I followed him out to that door outside,

my nostrils froze back up again.

And as I crossed that parking lot,

this little question inside my head:

"Have you just been fired?

"Have you been fired?

"Like, failed the test of Irishness,

or enough Irishness?"

A few weeks later,

I actually got to hear that advertisement.

I was riding in the car with somebody,

and here came this American man's voice,

I'd say late middle age,

and he was telling us all to get our Irish on

in this accent that was somewhere between

Lucky Charms breakfast cereal and Irish Spring soap.

So I had my answer.

Yes, I had been fired, yes,

I had failed the Irishness test.

34 years later,

I passed a much bigger test,

and that was the test to become a U.S. naturalized citizen,

which requires you to actually learn

and know a lot about America.

And in three decades, I also learned this:

no matter what country you live in,

no matter what city and what town,

there will always be people who listen to how you sound,

look at how you look, and put you in a box.

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