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Jan 06
Arts and Poetry
Becoming Marilyn Monroe

Alice as Marilyn, photo by Drew Barillas

Alice as Marilyn, photo by Drew Barillas

Last Summer I lived Twelve Hours as Marilyn Monroe

by Alice Toohey, Los Angeles

I did this on August 4, 2013 – the 51st anniversary of Marilyn’s death. I created a bedroom, inspired by photos of her various bedrooms in a performance space in Los Angeles. The project was called Room One – Becoming Marilyn Monroe and was the culmination of a year’s worth of research and a physical transformation from me to Marilyn. I started at 9:00 am in front of a live audience and a video feed which was broadcasting across the country. By 9:15 am I was completely panicked. I couldn’t pick up the handle, the phone, the truth, the fullness of it. I had no way of managing the situation, no place to hide. Furthermore, I created nothing, I had nothing to show…just the space, me, her, and the invited audience. I had no plan.

As was her custom, Marilyn arrived late, meaning that I was this weird herky jerky thing for the first hour, not sounding nor moving at all like her but also not entirely like me either. Sometime after 10:00 am I put on Frank Sinatra and started to dance around the room, and suddenly she arrives in full force, wild, angry, sad, lonely, manic, loving and so vulnerable. Emotions arrive suddenly like giant waves and then are gone.

In the emptiness I am hyper-aware that all my usual ways of coping – making a cup of tea, snacking on something, checking facebook – none of these things are available to me. I have stocked the room with three record albums, a record player, three books, some personal papers, champagne, and about four outfits. I quickly explore these things in the first three hours, reading from books, listening to the albums and getting dressed and undressed as I get in and out of bed restlessly.

The gold orange walls, made of fabric pulse as folks walk the outer perimeter of the room. I have created a womb and jail cell for Marilyn, a cage of golden pulsating light.

Hot mess. Hot boredom.

Alice before the transformation

Alice before the transformation

Throughout the whole day I am haunted by the questions: What if this was my last day? How would I spend my time? There is this itchy feeling of waiting for time to pass, yet knowing that time is short. At one point I ask the audience, “How do we make this time matter?” They are quiet, eyes wide open…my partners in silence.

Less than a year ago, my father died. I spent the last week of his life with him and watched as he let go of everything, day by day, until all that was left was love. And love wasn’t even tangible, didn’t seem real, but we all recognized it in the way the cats slept by his side, the flush of his cheeks, the patience of the hospice nurse, our wide awake eyes…seeing and seeing and seeing.

I knew that a photographer from the LA Weekly would be coming to the performance space around 6pm to photograph me for an article. He and I had agreed ahead of time that we would do the photo session as part of the performance. As the day moved along, I began to feel great anticipation for his arrival. I felt certain that having someone else in the space would save me from the nothingness. It would go like this: he would be there an hour, chatting, directing and clicking away and the rest of the night would fly by.

He left after 10 minutes. Alone again. I felt the full crush of loneliness, disappointment and despair. I finally gave up on trying to create something and surrendered to moment after moment after moment. I listened to the entire Beethoven album, feeling the music flow over and through my body. I curled up on the floor and listened, allowing the audience to be with me at last.

Alice after the transformation into Marilyn

Alice after the transformation into Marilyn

It’s sad joy to live in this world, knowing that I will have to let go of everything. I always resist that truth by building up my identity, my schedule, my agenda, my goals, never letting go enough to just be seen and loved by others, always proving something. In that twelve hour space and time with Marilyn, I experienced all the messiness and beauty of being human, all the expectations, the neediness, the wanting to be loved, the mystery and the itchy terribleness of staying there all the while, with just these three albums, these three books, this cactus and this champagne (which wasn’t even real, by the way, so there was no escape there either).

I think this is what Marilyn offered as the gift of her lifetime…or at least this is what she gave to me. The most beautiful things that life has to offer: sensuality, beauty, sex, and playfulness. And the messiness of being human, the not being able to hold it together, the addictions, the drama, the holding on too tight for too long, the self-hatred and closing off from others. The waiting for time to pass, waiting to get it perfect, the forgetting about the preciousness of this experience and feeling overwhelmed by all there is to accomplish. And the moments of complete surrender, where life is only what it is and that is good enough.

Alice as Marilyn

Alice as Marilyn

One of the greatest gifts that I received that day was the full stop that happened when I played the Beethoven album and did nothing but listen. Afterwards I thought about the fact that I haven’t done anything like that in so long. Music accompanies tasks, sure, but to stop and listen…feel the swell of the music through my body? Usually I am just too busy for that. But I am finding these kinds of stops are so necessary. When it is my last day on earth, I know I will want to listen with my whole heart.

Alice Toohey is deeply grateful to the Shambhala community, especially the LA sangha who made up much of the audience that day. She lives in Glendale with her husband and is about to embark on Room Two, the second installment of her performance project. She is a Shambhala Guide and helps to lead the Healing Circle at Shambhala Los Angeles. You can find her at www.alicetoohey.com

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6 responses to “ Becoming Marilyn Monroe ”
  1. Now this is really cool.. you gave me the feeling for a sec that she is still alive :) good luck

  2. Thank you for so beautifully articulating your experience with the groundlessness of the creative process. You put your heart out there and brought your audience with you–I applaud your courage and aspire to it.

  3. Anne Saitzyk
    Jan 7, 2014

    Brava, brave warrior of the heart.
    Thank you, Alice.

  4. Brave and beautiful, thank you for it.

  5. How beautifully vulnerable, transparent and insightful of your experience of that day and how you incorporated the process into your life or was it your life into the process? Perhaps a bit of both. Thank you for sharing with all of us. You were amazing throughout your journey into Marilyn. Looking forward to Room Two, Georgia O’Keeffe.

  6. Very cool. (:-)

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