Diane Karagienakos – The IM Chat We’re Fashioning Into An Interview

This is Diane Karagienakos. She lives in San Francisco. We’ve known each other something like three years, introduced through a mutual friend I went to high school with. We’re the consummate online buddies. Diane and I have never actually met in person. In fact, until last Friday night when I watched the 2008 movie in which she co-directs and stars, Come Fly With Me Nude, I had no idea what she even sounded like. The only reason she might know what I sound like is because of little Facebook videos I used to make with my daughter Lucie, or sometimes by myself after a long, often pointless night of forced amnesia. That’s neither here nor there, I just needed something to plug.

We’re both writers. Diane, however, actually has something to plug: A new two-act play entitled It Is What It Is, which I read in two sittings last week. It’s being presented down in S.F. at the Exit Theater April 13-29 as part of a twin bill of short plays that also features Christopher Barranti’s The Watch Tower.

It Is What It Is, on paper at least, is a multimedia piece that examines the ways we compartmentalize our communication and arrange our emotional countenance: most obviously via technology, but also through functionality, deferral, and the dream of memory. Key dialogue takes place onscreen, with e-mails and instant messages projected over the characters’ heads like thought bubbles. I am trying to sell my baseball cards to afford a ticket to come down to San Francisco to see this show, because what I read was impactful and extremely touching. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in live presentation – or maybe I will see for myself, if my 1988 Will Clark card has any influence.

Given the technological bent of Diane’s show, it seemed appropriate that we have this interview on Facebook’s Instant Messenger, a forum neither one of us cares for that much, but is instantaneous enough. This is also the closest Diane and I have ever come to having a conversation in real time. Next time we’re going to anchor a couple boats in the San Francisco Bay about 200 yards apart and wave naval flags at each other.

Diane promised that we might go off in at least one or two tangents in this format. I could not be more thrilled about finally collaborating with Ms. K. I wonder if she minds if I call her Ms. K. Anyway, here’s our mutual bout of furious typing, all for you. At 2pm, on the dot, the day we moved our clocks forward.

Paul: You there, Karagienakos?

Diane: Hello, Pearson. Aren't we punctual!

Paul: We are. And on my least favorite day of the year, no less!

Diane: Don't get me started. I closed the bar last night -- and had made plans to meet a friend for brunch this morning. So please forgive me if I meander incoherently a bit...

Paul: No problem, incoherent meandering is a way of life for me. I never have good days when I lose an hour. I already misplace hours on a weekly basis as it is.

Diane: I have to confess to being a bit nervous when logging onto this. Last time I IM'd here was when I was brand new to Facebook and (sort of) stalking the "Jay" character in my play, just to see if he was online. Then one day he dropped me a "Hi." I totally felt busted and never went onto IM after that. I see the privacy settings are different now... I can choose who can see me. And I chose only you!

Paul: I am humbled. Instant messaging and I never get along well. I feel like a schmuck if I don't respond immediately, so I inevitably do. Before long I'm sharing links to JPGs or Huff Post articles and I've lost an hour and a half.

Diane: Oh, at some point I want to hear more about Vivisection of the Inorganic (I can do research too, ya know!) I'm intrigued. Organic matters.

Paul: I had this great writing approach last week and felt inspired to do something about it, which I did not. But there's still time. Things have been a bit busy over here in the last month. But enough about me. This is all about you, you, you.

Diane: At the risk of sounding like Madonna talking about herself "as an Artist" (cue the eyelashes fluttering),"organic" is, I realized, the only way I can operate. I think that's why I can't have a writing job. I just can't whip it out unless it's, you know... organic.

Paul: I feel the same way. I don't need growth hormones to whip it out, anyway.

Diane: Oh, and congratulations on YOUR latest creation, young John Stevland! (See, I really did do my research!)

Paul: Thanks! Again, another example of my whipping it out, naturally.

Diane: Um, I don't know if I like the seg... DAMN you just beat me to it!!! I was going to say the segue of "whipping it out" and... oh, never mind.

Paul: Those of you who had 11 minutes for your over/under as to when we'd have our first phallic joke, you've won a blender.

Diane: I just laughed Bellini out of my nose. 

Paul: Bellini shouldn't have been there anyway. Some people have no sense of decorum. So! Tell us about your background, Diane.

Todd Pickering (top) and Diane (bottom) in a
promo shot for Come Fly With Me Nude
Diane:  My background... Jesus Paul, I can't tell a short story. You may want to narrow that down a little. I'm a girl. Two older hockey-playing brothers growing up.. Brooklyn born, Vegas raised. I can dance. I can cook. I can tell a story. I can make you cry. I can make myself cry.

Paul: You were raised in Vegas? That I didn't know. Another friend of mine was also raised in Las Vegas, and you two are eerily similar. Both performers, very dedicated artisans. What was a childhood in Vegas like?

Diane: It was a small town when we got there, late 60's. Three kids from Brooklyn, we thought we died and went to heaven, all that desert and lizards and horny toads to hunt. My childhood looked JUST LIKE the movie Casino. My parents even looked like them. We moved there because my father (a bar/restaurant man) was going to run the front of the house, while "Joe" (not his real name) conducted "business" in back. "Joe's" restaurant was the one in Casino where Pesci took out a guy with a ball-point pen, if you'll recall. I told you were were from Brooklyn. So growing up in Vegas for me was sort of fabulous: my parents entertained and were glamorous and there was always a hushed tone when they talked about "adult" things. I was so intrigued, I wanted to be 30 when I was four.

Paul: Las Vegas seems like a place where you'd either have to grow up very quickly, or commit to being a kid for the rest of your life. I've never been there, actually. What drove you to writing and performing?

Diane: I did both as a kid (performing as a figure skater and dancer, not acting), never taking it seriously. I was super good in school, so people like me became doctors, lawyers, and business people, I thought. I didn't know anyone creative, so it never dawned on me that was something I could actually pursue.

It wasn't until my first midlife crisis in my mid 20s -- working in Bally's Casino Marketing office in San Francisco -- when the office closed and they offered me a better job to come back to Vegas. I realized I'd rather be unemployed in San Francisco than wealthy in Vegas (by the age of twelve, I couldn't wait to get out of that place and return to New York or some other fabulous city).

So I stayed, became a cocktail waitress, and took classes that actually interested me, for the first time in my life. Screenwriting, directing, editing, acting. One thing lead to another project, person, class, or curiosity. It was all very organic, if you will.Then life started imitating art and/or vice versa, I suppose.

Paul: That last sentence seemed to be kind of the theme of Come Fly With Me Nude. The heroes are trying to make their art be their lives. And then they react differently when other parts of the world turn out to accept them.

Diane: Clearly I'm no Bella Hagen -- I'll start the bidding if you want to buy what I'm selling! But I do think the two always, always overlap. If you're honest in what you do. Anything that stands the test of time is honest -- people can smell dishonesty a mile away. Think about the songs that really get you in the gut. I made a quote as Bella: "Art is the only true history book." And after I said it (as her), I realized that there really is a lot of truth to that.

Vulva Fervor, leading a life of danger
Paul: That's a great quote. Say, would you like to read my introductory blurb about your play that's going to be part of this post?

Diane: Yes, please!

Paul: "It Is What It Is, on paper at least, is a multimedia piece that examines the ways we compartmentalize our communication and arrange our emotional countenance: most obviously via technology, but also through functionality, deferral, and the dream of memory."

Admittedly, I just copied what I wrote about Norbit and changed the word order a bit, but still.

Diane: I like! "The dream of memory." Mad props, as the youth say.

Norbit? Is that a geek thing? I don't speak geek, though I am a geek magnet. Probably my Astroboy tote bag.

Paul: It's best that you don't know what Norbit is. It's the film that cost Eddie Murphy the Oscar a few years ago.

Diane: Eddie Murphy... Oscar... Let the digressions begin...

Paul: When I first read the title of your new play, I thought of an old co-worker of mine who used to say "It is what it is" when describing what we did for a living. What was the inspiration for your play?

Diane: My dad dying. Spending a month sleep-deprived watching that, seeing my brothers everyday for a month for the first time since I was 16. I had no intention of writing about it. But when you're sleep deprived and sitting in a care facility with one crap channel, no internet connection, a National Enquirer you've read cover to cover, and a crossword puzzle you've nearly (but can't quite finish) -- AND your dying father, in various stages of death is saying the most surreal shit -- what do you do? You write it down, of course!

Those texting scenes really did happen. It wasn't until months later I saw my brother and we had both saved the messages. It was what we had to hold onto of that time. After a while I just had so much stuff from that period, I had to do something with it. A play seemed obvious because of the immediacy of these things, the texting, for example. Live felt like the way to go. As for the title: I never used that expression. My brothers never used that expression. But over the course of that month, and what we were witnessing and experiencing, and feeling, it was said a million times a day, without an ounce of irony.

At some point near (what I thought was) the end of the writing of It Is What It Is, I realized I needed more info/material on the male (my brothers') characters. I had a lifetime of experience as a girl to flesh out the girl character. But the boys eluded me. So I took some time off work to fly to Vegas and "interview" my brothers.

I assumed all the soul-baring and story-sharing the we did for the first time ever when our father was dying was "the new us." I was wrong. I tried to get them to open up again. I made dinner. Twice. Nothing. Whatever bonding we did during that month was it. But there was one thing: My oldest brother had found among my father's belongings a shoebox filled with every card, letter, everything I'd ever written to our father since I was ten years old. In chronological order (I was documenting life at a very early age apparently). I read through it all. I remembered every detail of every moment of which I'd written, some of them over 30 years ago.

I wondered about the lost days, the days I hadn't written about... where were they? I had a vivid memory of an August day in 1974 (a butterscotch & marshmallow sundae at the DQ in Penticton, Canada, watching a Dinah Shore movie late at night and something about the president -- Watergate! -- on the news that day)... yet I had no recollection whatsoever about the day before. Or the day after. There was no postcard, no documentation to remind me.

After that "failed" visit, I flew back home to San Francisco, not sure what I was going to do with what I'd gotten -- or didn't get -- from that visit. And that night there was this man I was drawn to like I can't begin to describe, sitting at the bar where I worked. I won't go into much detail, other than to say that for the first time in my life, I struck up a personal relationship with a customer. It was my first new relationship with a man since my husband, with whom I'd just ended an 11-year relationship.

He and I started emailing... I became very aware very early on about how carefully I was curating my words. I'm good at making things sound spontaneous and off the cuff; at making myself sound that cool. Actually, I was terrified and raw and smitten and filled with desire and fear of rejection. You'd never know it if you went back and read my emails. If I hadn't been so aware of this because of my writing the show at the time of this relationship, I guarantee you that if I found those emails 10 years from now, I'd say, "Wow, I was so together then!" So not the case. Just like you'd never know I went through a chubby phase if you went through my photo albums -- all those photos are long gone!

So that's something I wanted to bring into the play, how we shape our memories and even our self-perceptions (Photoshop is helpful in this capacity as well); by choosing what we document about ourselves. Facebook is the perfect forum for this; how we present the sexy/cool/compelling/deep/how-we-want-to-be-seen versions of ourselves to the world.

Paul: And in IIWII, technology's not only a way to shape messages: it could possibly drive the characters' feelings as well. You and I are roughly the same age – cyber-culture was not a gigantic part of our lives or communication when we were kids. Do you think technology has instilled or dictated new sets of feelings? This is a chicken-or-egg type question. We'll accept "chicken" or "egg" as an answer.

Diane: I'm not sure about feelings, but certainly about behavior and expectation... and yes, the processing of feelings. Maybe feelings; you hear about people for whom breaking up via text -- which to me seems very cowardly and insensitive -- is the way to go. Easy and convenient.

I'd like to think parents are raising kids to value sensitivity to others’ feelings. I think it's like the remote control -- it's so easy to switch to something else when we don't or are bored with what we see. But I don't think people -- or maybe just girls -- can switch their feelings that quickly. That's a really good question. You've got me thinking about that now.

Paul: You hit upon the reason I asked the question... now that it's easy to hide behind onscreen identities, cowardice seems like a valid option. You see the same things in online comments or message boards now -- people say something inflammatory, get folks all riled up. But then if you happen to meet them in person offline, they sort of shrink back. I am totally guilty of having done this before.

Diane: Ah yes, the balls of anonymity...

Paul: And I wonder, well -- is that how people really feel? Or did the sudden availability of this medium just enable them?

Diane: I honestly don't get it. The only place for anonymity is if you live in a country where they'll cut out your tongue if you speak out against a corrupt government system. Otherwise, if you don't have the balls to put your name beside your word, then you don't get to speak. Period. I know someone who has two Facebook profiles. One his real identity, one anonymous. He's very opinionated and thoughtfully presents his views. But anonymously, he makes Limbaugh look like a pussy. I've never brought this up to him, but it makes me view him differently, as a "friend."

Paul: That's one of the reasons I named the blog after myself - I kind of made a resolution not to write anything I might take back later. It can be trouble. I hate waking up in the morning with the thought of having to do damage control. In fact, I'm hoping -- probably pretty vainly -- that cyber-culture will someday get us back to the cycle of applying thought processes before we have an opinion. I have no idea how that will actually happen. But I'm figuring after Gutenberg invented his little printing press, some people went all apeshit as well.

Diane: You’re funny. I'm lucky, I have a conscience the size of Chicago that pretty much keeps me from saying anything I might regret or that might hurt someone. I'll hang up the phone or walk out the door or throw a glass at your head before I say something I can't take back. That's a hurt you can't take back. And it keeps coming back. The pen is mightier than the glass to the head.

(a pause in the proceedings)

Diane: Sorry, I was topping off my Bellini (hey -- it's my day off!)

Paul: Understood. I tied a couple over last night myself. I mean tied a couple on. Drinks, that is. Not an actual couple. Although I went out with a couple. I did not tie them. They emerged unscathed. Anyway --
Lately I've been missing San Francisco a little bit - I especially got melancholy the other night when I saw Mario's and Spec’s in your movie. What does the city contribute to your art?

Diane: I think it's just the spirit of all the ghosts that are so wonderfully inspiring. Many parts of the city (North Beach in particular, where Starbucks is not allowed) look like it did back when Kerouac and Ginsburg immortalized it. It's contagious. Like I said, when I got here I was working for a casino. Being here, sitting in those dreamy timeless cafes and dives alone on a foggy evening or morning... It’s a romance you just have to experience it to understand it.

Paul: By the way - one of my favorite web things ever, in the whole history of the medium, is The Saga Of Gray and Nameless. I love that series. I have this feeling that, when it comes to projects, you probably multi-task. Is that accurate? Do you have something else going on as well?

Gray (L), Nameless (R)
Diane: I love The Saga of Gray And Nameless!!! They are the reason I now have my pup Picard -- who has taken up much of the time and imagination that was devoted to Gray & Nameless. Honestly, that project is very responsible for getting me through the toughest period of my life. That and The Adventures of Vulva Fervor. Clearly the two came out of opposite sides of my brain. At the time I'd experienced death, divorce, and unemployment -- and betrayal (see "Jay" in IIWII) in a short period of time. I didn't much like or understand what my world had become. So I created and escaped into worlds I liked and could control. One (G&N) pure, innocent, and happy; the other (VF) sexy and glamorous and filled with adventure.

There’s of course my blog, www.myadultland.com. You've read the play so you know where the title comes from. Though my brother said that to me two years before the events in the play; I thought it was a pretty character-defining line.

Paul: I have to scoot off to make dinner for my malnourished family, but I'm thinking this little exchange might be a good recurring feature. Monthly or bi-monthly, something like that. I think we have some pretty high-quality IM's. We should riff. Especially in an election year. Does that sound okay with you? And I'm trying to see how I can get down to San Francisco for the play -- can't promise it, but I'm looking into it. Like Peyton Manning.

Diane: I'm in! I love a good, lively, intelligent discourse. That's what's wrong with politics today; gone is the art of discourse. You can watch old debates and see there was fun, they enjoyed outsmarting each other. Even when they were of opposing views, there was a glint of fun in the winning of a debate. But I digress. I'd absolutly be thrilled and honored to continue... Let's raise the bar of online banter!

Paul: Exactly! We'll have the best double entendres in the business! Let's do it. I'll get started on the logo.
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