Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016: My Year in Review

2016. There's a lot of talk about how much it's sucked. I see that; I understand.

A lot of artists that truly impacted my life died this year. Not to be insensitive or pessimistic, but it's not going to get better in 2017. See, age happens. Every day, we all come closer to the end of our lives. That's just how it is. Those that we look up to are generally older than we are, so we're bound to witness the end of some lives. It's no fun, but it's not because 2016 sucked any more than any other year. I'm trying to remind myself that birth is as common as death, and think of all the people born this year who are going to change the world. That's comforting, and vitally important. We are responsible for making sure they don't lose the creativity that's inherent in all tiny humans.

My own personal 2016 has been a mixed bag too. I started it with a severe ankle sprain and broken wrist bones, and so spent a lot of time with doctors and therapists. The good things that came from that include the lesson of asking for help (again), the knowledge that I hate Vicodin (though it does take care of that pesky pain), and the massive fun of telling every student a different story when asked me what happened (including "BMX," "ostrich racing," and "rival caroling gangs").
Also, the nurse who made my cast responded to my question,
"I only get to choose one color?" with, "Nope."

So there's good, even inside the bad.

And on that note, here are some of my personal/professional (because they're the same thing, in my life) accomplishments for the closing year:

I directed:
- Project Pride's Gears and Queers (co-directed)

Project Pride is one of the best things I've ever done. I love these brave and loving young people so hard.

- Mimi Dafoe: True Confessions of an Aging Starlet, by Kevin King, for KC Fringe

Starring Devon Barnes and Bonita Hanson. They are insanely beautiful,
intelligent, talented, hardworking, funny, kind, and generous people. I love them.

Also, the lovely and talented Julie Denesha interviewed me about my love affair with Fringe.

- Almost, Maine, the fall semester school play. Yes, it's sweet. It's also deeply moving and hella smart. I'm going to have to direct it again. And I'm beyond proud of the dedication of these students, and their growth as actors and technicians.

I performed in:
- "Now Grieve, Now Stop," my brilliant friend Laura Isaac's performance piece
- Baddest Auditions, at KC Fringe, in which I continued to evolve a character from the previous two installations.

My character went by the name "Dysmenorrhea."
Two people understood the joke. One was my mom.

I wrote:
- "MegaDamnGurl," a script for a devised scene in Gears and Queers
- "Clickbait" (ditto)
- "The Lost Generation" (ditto ditto)
- "Blood Moon II," a short piece of a larger piece that doesn't know yet what it's going to be when it grows up.
- "Royals" (same)

Yeah, no scripts, but I've been researching some story ideas that are flittering around in my brain.

I A'ed some Qs for:
-The Unicorn's staged reading on our newly-expanded script for Sexing Hitler.

I drew:
Among other random things...

It's What I Could Do for My Country at War, Tara Varney, 2016

Childhood is Where the Die is Cast, Tara Varney, 2016

At the Feeder! Two of Them!, Tara Varney, 2016

I've also been working on a mural at school, in the hall outside of the theatre, in my "spare" time.

Don't judge! It's not finished!

I sang:
For my - I don't know - twelfth? season, as a Dickens Caroler.

I love this job. And these people. And this Santa.

I taught:
- Intro to Theatre (middle and high school), at Kansas City Academy
Yeah. I don't even know.

- Theatre Study (HS), at KCA
High school theatre students taking a test. Because you might as well be comfy. And/or in a box.

- Theatre (MS), at KCA

Okay, this isn't a picture from theatre class, but sometimes you just need a puppy break.

- "Search the Sea," a Coterie acting exploration class for 2nd-4th-graders
- "Ready, Set, Act," another Coterie class for 5th-7th grade actors
- "Acting for Dancers," a workshop conceived with my inspiring friend Amy Hurrelbrink
Amy is intelligent, talented, gorgeous, professional, imaginative, and courageous.
And a goofball. In other words, perfect.

- "Audition Lab" - actually two sessions - a Coterie summer camp
- Two "Fantasy and Gore Makeup" sessions, also a Coterie summer camp

A glutton for self-makeup-punishment.

- "Summer Term at Hogwarts," Coterie summer camp, and ohmygod, so fun! (But then, I'm a Ravenclaw, so...)

Oh, the potion ingredients were all perfectly edible, and even tasty... at least, separately.

Potions class.

- "Legends and Mythmakers," a Coterie spring class
- "Magic Tree House," Coterie - pretty much entirely devised by the 2nd-4th-graders in the class. Fun, but so. exhausting.
- "Scenes with Sherlock Holmes," Coterie

...which brings my count, since 2012, when I thought to start keeping track, to 964 acting, stage makeup, theatre exploration, and playwriting students. Dang. How is that possible?

I'm currently spending most of my time researching lesson plans for my spring classes at KCA and The Coterie, but I have some script ideas that need attention too. If anyone has an extra couple of hours per day they're not using, I swear I'll fill them up with good, solid arts education and thoroughly-researched original scripts.

What I Did on My Winter Vacation

I'm ignoring the fact that I'm their only theater teacher.

May your 2017 be bright.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Unicorn Theatre's Staged Reading of "Sexing Hitler"

The year is 1941. German soldiers in occupied territories are contracting syphilis from prostitutes in astounding numbers. The disease threatens the stability of the Third Reich. To solve the problem, Adolf Hitler orders the creation of inflatable pleasure dolls that the soldiers can carry in their packs to satisfy their urges.

Yes, this is a true story.

Some businesses did not particularly want us to put our poster up. Go figure.

Bryan and I wrote Sexing Hitler to present at the KC Fringe Festival in 2012. When we started gathering the team to work on it, we knew we were taking a gamble. It was based on a great historical tidbit, but what we were planning was new ground for us.

First, we asked our good friend and previous cast member, dancer/choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, if she thought that it would be possible to tell the story of various relationships/sexual fantasies solely through dance. She answered, "Ummm... I don't know. Let's try it."

Love that woman.

The scantily-dressed one. That's Doll Amy in action.

Then I thought, Wait. Does it make sense to create original choreography, for an original play, and cram it into previously-recorded music? No, no, it does not.

Knowing the style we were going for, I approached Alacartoona, a local band with a fantastic pseudo-German cabaret style. Not everyone was available for a project that Bryan and I couldn't really describe anyway, and I'd just barely met them to begin with, but Christian Hankel and Kyle Dahlquist decided to jump in.

Andy Garrison, as Himmler, talks to Christian Hankel, as one of the many experts of eugenics of the time, with musical accompaniment by Kyle Dahlquist, Richard Walker, and Sergio Moreno. And their drinks.

At the same time, we were putting the cast together. We wrote the script with the voices of Marcie Ramirez and Parry Luellen, both beautiful and giving actors, in our heads. We knew them to be reliable, supportive, challenging-in-a-good-way, and ready for just about anything.

Concentrate... look at ME... not the doll's... parts...

Then, Andy Garrison, an actor and acting teacher, whom we knew and were friendly with, and had seen perform, but had never actually worked with before. Previously, though, he'd been fairly brutally honest about another play of ours that didn't quite work for him, and we so appreciated that he took that risk.

Okay, great, but we needed someone to play the Soldier. This turned out to be really, really hard. We needed someone who could play several different characters, and dance. Dance well. And be available.

We auditioned so many people, but none of them were the right one. I contacted an actor/dancer that Amy and I had worked with a few years before, Eric Tedder. Turns out, he has just gotten back into the country, from shooting a movie in Hong Kong, and was looking for a project. I auditioned him. He was everything we'd wanted. And more.

I'd like to introduce myself: I am your dream come true.

Bryan and I had written the script, but right before the first read-through, he suggested that we not give the cast the climactic scene. If this was to be a true collaboration, he said, we would let the team come up with the ending. I was scared, but he was right. Ultimately, the team came up with a much, much stronger ending than the one we wrote.

From left: Andy Garrison, Amy Hurrelbrink, Eric Tedder, Marcie Ramirez, Parry Luellen, Kyle Dahlquist.

The first read-through was stressful for me, because hell, I didn't know what we were getting into. It turned out that Christian and Andy both knew a thing or two about WWII, and they were asking questions that made me nervous, because even after all of my research on this particular topic, they knew more about the war overall.

Ohgod, ohgod, they know I'm a fraud. I don't know what I'm doing. They're going to quit, and this will never happen, and I'll be exposed as the amateur I am, and my career (what there is of it) will be destroyed, because I'm stupid and talentless and misguided and an impostor.

Spoiler Alert: That didn't happen.

From left: Parry Luellen, Kyle Dahlquist, Richard Walker, Sergio Moreno, Eric Tedder, Andy Garrison

Christian was writing music, and came to me to say that he needed more musicians. I got scared, because of all the mouths to feed: the smaller the team, the more money we could pay each of them. More to the point, we had a pretty solid collaboration going already, and I was worried about messing that up by adding people that I'd never met before.

Sergio Moreno, percussion, and Richard Walker, keyboards, joined us. They were a perfect addition. Along with stage manager, Ryan Puffer, and the lighting designer, Shane Rowse - who made it better what I was even hoping for, while still admonishing me for costuming everyone "in aggressively gray-scale" - we embarked on what was to be probably the most challenging and beautifully collaborative artistic experiences of my life.

Fortunately, for everyone else on the team, too.

I love all of these people. So hard.

We are fortunate that Sexing Hitler may still have another life. The Unicorn Theatre, here in Kansas City, is presenting a staged reading of the freshly-expanded-into-a-full-length play, with about 30 minutes of new material, this Sunday at 7:30pm.

I'm very excited, very honored, and kind of scared. It's not only a brand-new script, it's also a brand-new creative team. The original production is so very, very close to me. Those people. That experience. The playwright/entrepreneur in me is beside myself with enthusiasm for this possibility of national exposure, but I'm also selfishly clinging to the memory of what it was.

Of course it will be different. It should be different. I'm afraid that, if I go to rehearsals (which Bryan and I have been invited to), I will try to make it was it once was, not let it grow into what it could be.

But I need to let it go. I need to send it off into the world and see how it fares for itself.

The Unicorn team:

Director: Ian Crawford
Brian Paulette as Heinrich Himmler
Amy Attaway as Haschen, the Doll, Francis Galton
Logan Black as Arthur Rink, Puppet, Oliver Wendell Holmes
Laura Jacobs as Senta Schneider, Puppet, Margaret Sanger
Andy Perkins as The Soldier, Puppet, Madison Grant 

Join us. It'll be great. I know it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Death of Artists

Time. You know?

December 31 and January 1 touch each other, yet we start over measuring time on January 1, and then lump it in with all of the following 364 (or 365) days, and judge it as one good or bad year.

So far, I'm hearing that 2016 sucks.

David Bowie died. I reeled from the shock.

Then Alan Rickman, and I cried.

And Doris Roberts. I was sad.

Last week, Prince. I wore purple for three days straight. I painted my toenails with paisleys. I wrote "Rest in Purple" on my arm.

Did you think I was kidding?

And I, like so many others, thought, "Why? Why so many artists who made our lives so much more enjoyable, who taught us so much - why so many, seemingly all at once?"

I don't follow celebrity gossip. I refuse to click the star bait, on principle. They're just people, for crying out loud. Their jobs happen to make them very well-known, but they don't deserve to be pestered like they are.

But these artists - they're important to us. For whatever reason, they insinuate themselves into our lives, and inspire us.

Maybe we want to emulate them. Because, somehow, by being a famous artist, they're cooler than we are. Maybe emulating them is one of the ways we learn who we really are, by trying on others' outrageous hats, and through that, slowly discovering what works best on us.

Maybe we like the escapism, and are grateful for them to create a world in which we're happy to get away from ourselves.

Maybe we just want to feel. That's what artists do best. By exposing their truth, they move us. Maybe we need their art to get through a tough time. Maybe it reminds us of what's important in the world. Maybe they make us want to dance, laugh, think, cry, howl at the moon, have sex, relax, smile, reach out to someone, get off our collective asses and do what we've been dreaming about.

So it hurts when they're gone. Partly because we never knew them, though it seemed like we did. It seemed like, through their work, they let us read their diaries. They played a big-enough role in our lives that, somehow, we should have known them.

And I caught myself thinking that 2016 sucks. Look at all the brilliant artists we've lost already, and it's only April. Next year's Oscars will cut out all acceptance speeches just to make time for the "In Memorial" segment.

In a whirl of trying to find something positive to hold onto, I thought, "What's the opposite of an artist's death?"

An artist's birth.

The first time I ever babysat a real baby (as in, not just a child), I think I was twelve. Maybe thirteen, who knows. I do remember watching this infant, just a few months old, and starting to cry because I realized that everything that was happening to him, he was logging somewhere, and creating his story of the world. I remember realizing that his brain was literally forming, and that weirdly, distantly, in a way he'd never remember, and that I'd never know how, I was helping to create the world he was experiencing. And I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility about that. If I was part of forming his world, I'd do my best to make that small part loving and fun and accepting.

We don't know which of the babies will grow to be our next Great Artist - the one who will inspire another generation to do more, feel deeper, and create new. They've already been born. You may already know them. They might live in your house, even. Or down the street. You may stand behind them in line at the grocery store. Maybe they'll catch you singing at the top of your lungs in the car, when you think no one is watching. Maybe you'll ask them about their favorite book, as they wait, with their parent, at the oil-change place. Maybe you'll see them pretending to be a frog in the middle of the department-store aisle, and maybe you'll tell them how cool frogs are.

Maybe they won't be an artist at all. Maybe, a scientist. Maybe the President. Maybe an inventor.

Maybe a teacher.

It's funny how thoughts and memories and connections all pile up and slam into you in a single moment, then you try to tell someone - or blog it - and it seems so long and tedious, but the thought, "an artist's birth" and the realization that I am an arts educator collided in a big beautiful emotional explosion.

And I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility about that.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It's a Beautiful Day for Good News, Vol. 9

Hey, there! I know, I know, it's been awhile. I missed you too! Oh, it's just been a crazy, CRAZY, few months. No, actually, a lot of it wasn't good. Or maybe it was, but it was in disguise, and I'm still trying to discover its secret identity. Of course - there have been lots of good things, too - really good things - but most of those came about by going through the bad stuff and making it to the other side. Or at least a small clearing.

I carry this Winston Churchill quote around in the corner of my mind, for such times:


Eventually, you will come to the end of your hell, but only if you don't stop and sit there. You've got to keep moving.

It's so much harder to avoid taking an indefinite journey in hell if the media is telling you that there is no end, that if you find your way through this hell, there's another waiting for you, and another, and another, it will never end. You should be scared. We have lots of "reasons" to be scared - look, here's another! Bet you hadn't thought of that one, huh? That's right, go hide under the bed. That's the only place where the monsters can't find you. Oh... oops. Sorry. I was so worried about making sure you were scared of the Out There Monsters that I forgot about the In Here Monsters. So many Monsters! They're everywhere! Aren't you terrified?

Personally, I battle the Dark by looking for the Light. It's there, always, but most people seem to be so fixated on the Dark, that it's hard to remember that if it wasn't for the Light, the Dark wouldn't even be there.

So here is the ninth installment of my semi-regular post of Light. Seems appropriate for this time of year, seeing how we just passed the solstice, and are on our way to longer, warmer, and (literally) brighter days.

I just noticed that all of these stories are about children. That's also a lovely coincidence with the holiday season.

A child leaves a note of apology in a book at a Toronto library.

Another child calmly, silently confronts a shouting bigot with a symbol of love.

A seven-year-old donates the contents of his piggy bank to a vandalized mosque.

A touching father-and-son moment happens on-camera after the Paris attack.

An unbelievably eloquent six-year-old describes how she wants her parents to behave after their divorce.

Happy holidays, everyone. Keep going. You'll make it.

"I'm trying to focus on the good stuff here, people! Lalalalala! I can't hear you!"

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's a Beautiful Day for Good News, Vol. 8

Yes, terrible things happen in the world, but I contend that more good things happen, they just don't bring in the ratings. The "We Have Twenty-Four Hours to Fill" news programs would have you believe that the world is terrible, people are mean, and everything's either currently on fire, or will be soon.

So, in my tiny little attempt to balance that out, here's some Good News for you.

High schools students cancel their senior trip plans for something even better.

A single mom has her lost purse, and all of its contents, returned to her - by the homeless man who found it.

This eight-year-old girl receives gifts from her unusual friends.

Over fifty years into their relationship, a couple is finally able to tie the knot.

The Girl Scouts return a $100,000 donation, because it was not intended for all of the girls.

After both of his parents die, a six-year-old decides that the world needs more smiles.

And to wrap it up, let's laugh at a kid. Actually, I feel bad for the little guy, but his deadpan reaction kills me.

If you set your mind to it, ALL THIS can be YOURS!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Reflections on Opening Night(s)

First of all, I'd like to thank my doctor and modern medicine. This has been the most manageable tech week ever for me, and I opened THREE shows last night.

"Silver: A Noir Ballet" opened at 6:00. We had to hold the house for ten minutes, because there were so many people buying tickets. Fringe necessarily keeps a very tight schedule, but I knew the running time of the show gave us a little wiggle room.

The way Fringe tech works is this: Every company gets exactly three hours in their performance space to get everything technically ironed out. Considering most theatre companies, who don't share a venue with seven other shows running in rep, have at least four or five days, and sometimes even weeks, in the space to make sure everything goes smoothly on opening night, this is virtually no time at all for anyone to create a well-oiled machine.

But that's part of the charm of Fringe. The audience knows it's different than anything else they're likely to experience, and there's a hectic party atmosphere to the entire Festival. It's really as if the audiences are part of the team. Everyone is very supportive, and everyone's ready to have a good time.

I've never done any show EVER that didn't have some hiccups on opening night - or even, every night; it's live theatre, ladies and gentlemen!

The house for "Silver" was packed. I didn't get a house count, but this is my eighth year doing Fringe, and I've never seen an opening night that full. Composer Christian Hankel has poured everything into this show, and I was so happy for him, to have such a large audience on Day One.

After the show, I packed up props as quickly as possible (remember, each company shares the space with several other companies, so there's no leaving things out for tomorrow's show), and ran across the hall to the planetarium for the "Voyage to Voyager" opening at 8:00.

NASA confirmed that Voyager 1 has left the solar system. Voyager 2 is on the cusp.

I was rather scattered at this point, to be honest. Words were hard for me to find, and I felt frantic and awkward before the show. I'm very grateful that the "Voyager" team is extremely capable, and so I could be a blathering idiot without fear of the entire thing falling apart.

And again, I was shocked at the turnout. Audience members were in line before I even got there! I had to ask the audience to move toward the center of the aisles, so the people who hadn't found seats yet could actually sit with the people they came with. What a great problem to have. It was very close to being a sold-out performance. I'm still reeling with gratitude.

Tara Varney's photo.
I celebrated opening night with some fun, sent to me by a secret admirer, who obviously knows me extremely well.
Afterward, I had about 30-45 minutes of downtime, which I chose to spend eating the crackers, cheese, and tomatoes I had packed. And then, I was off to City Stage again - this time to perform in "Badder Auditions" at 10:30pm.

Except for the getting-pretty-for-the-stage-after-hours-of-sweating part, I was pretty relaxed. The show is mostly improv; each actor in the revolving cast (I'm doing all of the performances though) has the barest outline for what might happen during their "audition" onstage. There aren't lines or blocking to memorize, there are no tech cues, you just have to go with the flow. As with all improv, sometimes a joke just doesn't land. Last night, I estimate 90% landed. And that is a pretty darned good percentage. I laughed out loud very many times, and my jaw dropped more than once at the sometimes-R-rated antics onstage. I like to see envelopes genuinely being pushed.

And then, it was over. The night I was so stressed about. History. On to the next.

Today, "Badder Auditions" is at 3:00. Director Kevin King and I have some sort of interview with Channel 41 before that, but I don't know when it'll air or anything. "Silver" is right after, at 4:30. Then I get to actually SEE a show or two before "Voyager" at 9:30.

I don't know. Maybe I'll have dinner too. We'll see.

The Fringe website has all the info you could want, or ever need, about the festivities. This year, there are 116 performing groups presenting over 480 shows at 20 different venues. You WILL find something you like, for sure. Unless you only like naps and bratwurst. I don't think you'll find those there. But you never know.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Voyager Mission and the Pale Blue Dot

When I was a kid (I now include teendom in this category), I would look up at the night sky and try to wrap my brain around the knowledge that those points of light are the past. They are so very far away that what I was seeing was literally many years old. (The closest star to us is Alpha Centauri, which is nearly four-and-a-half light-years away. This means, just in case you're unsure of the definition, that the light from Alpha Centauri takes almost 4.5 YEARS to be visible to us.) It was stunning to me. Most of these stars were bigger than our sun, but they're so far away that they're easily obscured by streetlights. How tiny is Earth? How tiny am I?
"When I was a kid." Ha. I still do this, constantly.
Voyager I was launched on September 5, 1977. Its primary mission was to study the gas giants of our solar system. Its secondary mission: send a message of peace and understanding into interstellar space, to be found, hopefully, by intelligent life. The form this greeting took was what became known as the "Golden Record."
When Voyager I passed Saturn in 1980, Carl Sagan, head of the Golden Record committee, asked that the spacecraft be turned around to take one last photo of Earth. He knew that the photo would have no real scientific value, because it was too far away to make out any detail, but he thought it would be an important image for understanding our place in the cosmos.
Most scientists on the Voyager Mission team thought it was far too risky, that taking a picture of Earth, so close to the sun, would irreparably damage the camera. It took ten years for the Voyager team to agree that it would be worthwhile, to recalibrate the instruments, and smooth out other assorted bumps.
On February 14, 1990, Voyager I was 6 billion km/3.7 million miles/40.5 AU from Earth when it took this photograph:
The remarkable "Pale Blue Dot" photo. Yet another gift from Carl Sagan.
See that tiny point of light in the far right sunbeam? That's the Earth.
In his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot, Sagan wrote:
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

I can't possibly add anything to this. Sagan was far more brilliant and eloquent than I'll ever be.

I suppose some people might find this depressing: we're so insignificant. I find it exhilarating: we're so insignificant. That's amazing. That's freeing. That makes all one's worries and disagreements and fears and mistakes even tinier. If you try something big, and you fail, it means nothing, compared to the vastness of the universe. If you confess your love for someone, the risk is infinitesimal. If you embarrass yourself, no one will remember it by the time the light of Alpha Centauri reaches the Earth.

This is us. We have to take care of each other, because this 0.12 pixel is all we have.

Voyage to Voyager, a multi-media play about the creation of the Voyager Golden Record, opens at the Gottlieb Planetarium in Union Station on Fri, July 17.