Friday, January 5, 2018

The DeVos Debacle, Part 2

Introduction to Part 2

If you're new here, I would recommend reading the intro to Part 1, and save us both a bunch of time. In fact, read all of Part 1, otherwise, you'll probably be very, very lost. I know I was, and I was there.

If you're continuing on this journey, here are the next installments to my DeVos diary. The dates are when I originally posted them on Facebook.


Thurs, 9-21-17

Episode Five: Saved by the Betsy

In our last episode, Tara was talking to US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. With no one else speaking up, Tara started the roundtable discussion by asking DeVos' about her plans for Title IX, referring to the a appalling announcement she'd made in a 30-minute speech one week before. Tara asked the question twice, and DeVos continued to give non-answers, so Tara decided to be direct:

"Okay, so, do you know you're not answering the question?"


"When the person I'm looking at stops moving their mouth,
that's when I say the memorized sound bites, right?"

DeVos paused slightly. "Well, I... I think I am," she stammered. "I think that, very broadly, every student needs to be in a - "

Oh, not this shit again. I once more interrupted her.

"Well, very broadly, but that includes, you know, being able to report when they're not safe and making sure that that's taken seriously. It's already difficult enough - for people who have been harassed and abused, et cetera, it's already difficult enough to be taken seriously because we are undeniably living in a rape culture, and by making it more difficult to make those complaints heard, and take those complaints seriously, then the children that you say deserve to be safe, are no longer safe. I shouldn't say 'children,' I should say 'young people.' Really, it's all of us, actually."

There. Dodge it again. I dare you.

As if this was an entirely new spin on my previous four attempts, DeVos started, "But if your question with regards to Title IX is specifically with regard to sexual assault - "


"Well, that's what you've been talking about recently." ... you spineless little...

"And I have applauded the last administration, " she said, "for really raising this issue and wanting to address it in a very comprehensive way, and continue to believe that sexual assault needs to be taken very, very seriously, and never again swept under the rug, and at the same time, it is also important that due process is taken seriously."

Hm. Sounds familiar. Oh, right. That's some of the exact phrasing she used in her speech last week.

"Do you feel it's not?" I asked. I mean, there are countless rapists out there, who actually got charges pressed against them (rare), were put on trial (very rare), found guilty (almost unheard of), only to be released because the court decided that such a conviction might ruin his future. It's absolutely sickening.

"It hasn't been, in a lot of circumstances," DeVos asserted, "and, in fact, a lot of students who have been victims and survivors become re-victimized because we have situations where due process has not been followed, and then they have to be re-adjudicated, and they become victims again. We really need to have a balanced approach where everybody's rights are taken very seriously and respected."

"Okay, but it seems - "

I was interrupted by a very worried-looking faculty member. "I think we need to give some other people a chance to ask some questions, and actually, Secretary, I have a question for you: Have you ever been in a school this small before?"

Later that night, at a bar with many KCA community members, a teacher who was sitting across from me during the meeting told me that this was the point at which my knees started jumping up and down in a furious tempo.

"Furious" is an excellent word for it.

Actual photo of a KCA classroom. Apparently.

Sat, 9-23-17

In our previous episode, Tara was asking US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about her plans for Title IX. DeVos gave long and involved non-answers, and Tara called her on the dodge. Tara continued to press and then...

"Okay, but it seems -"

I was interrupted by a very worried-looking faculty member. "I think we need to give some other people a chance to ask some questions, and actually, Secretary, I have a question for you: Have you ever been in a school this small before?"

Later that night, at a bar with many KCA community members, a teacher who was sitting across from me during the meeting told me that this was the point at which my knees started jumping up and down in a furious tempo.

"Furious" is an excellent word for it.


I was not angry at the suggestion that someone else should have a turn to speak. Not at all.

I was angry that progress finally seemed to be made, and she was "rescued" by the change of subject, apparently so she wouldn't feel too uncomfortable, or leave with some sort of bad feeling about KCA. She doesn't need protection from us; we need protection from her.

I was angry that the interruption was cloaked in the lie that  "other people" should have a chance to talk, and then this same person took that time for themselves.

But I was absolutely livid, beyond compare, that the interruption of a time-sensitive and dangerous conversation, like changing federal policies on dealing with campus sexual assault, came in the form of a question of astounding vapidity. "Have you ever been in a school this small before?"

How insipid. How denigrating.

And DeVos answered it. "Um... I have... Probably more in my hometown area, in Grand Rapids, in years past..."

I'm totally not mentally pairing this image with an evil scientist laugh.
Another teacher then introduced herself as having a long career in public schools, and asked DeVos if she was planning on visiting any of those. DeVos named exactly one. The teacher went on to say that she implemented a lot of her observations of KCA, from when her child was a student here, in her public school classroom. She expressed confidence that some of these methods would work in a public school setting, and asked how DeVos planned on supporting that.

In her 30-second reply, DeVos twice used each of the following: "Rethink School," "community," "changes," and "embrace." I phrase it in this way because there wasn't really an answer in any of that.

So, the teacher asked, "But how will the United States Department of Education support that, those efforts?" She listed a number of requirements, such as time and money, to make this happen, and also slipped in the suggestion that we do away with some of this "onerous standardized testing." (This is when I would have turned on the APPLAUSE sign.)

Oh, don't mind me. I'm just sitting over here with my HELL, YES.

DeVos answered that the "Every Student Succeeds Act, which all of the states are putting plans together right now, takes an important step in that direction. Congress' goal was to return flexibility to the states and to, you know, undo a lot of the burdensome regulation" ...I admit to a snort of laughter at this, but no one seemed to notice... "oversight from the federal level. I'm very much aligned with that, and think that states and even all of the state commissioners and superintendents, and all of the leadership at the state level - I'm encouraging them to grant that same kind of flexibility to local districts and even local school buildings. I think the change is going to happen the most significantly at a grass roots, local level, where communities address the needs that they have, right there, and if they can do that, free of a lot of burden from higher up, it's going to allow it to happen much more quickly."

The count for that last answer:

"State"/"states": 5

"Local": 3

"Federal": 1

It seems pretty obvious the significance that the US Secretary of Education puts on the existence of the US Department of Education.


I've come to the end of what I wrote in the days following the visit. I will consult my detailed records of the visit, and be back with the rest of the story as soon as possible. Though I think it's really important to share the story, it's hard finding time for this; I'm a teacher, you know.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The DeVos Debacle, Part 1

On Friday, September 15, 2017, controversial US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited our school, as part of her "Rethink School" tour. She's a billionaire, with no experience that one would think would be necessary for this job (but then, the one who appointed her has no experience necessary for his job either), and has made it very clear that she is terribly disconnected from the reality that non-billionaires live in, nor how her plans would impact children, families, or society as a whole. She's also demonstrated a clear disdain for LGBTQ equality, an ignorance of science, reinstated heavy financial penalties on students who've defaulted on their loans (because that makes sense) and, the week before her visit, announced her plans to basically gut Title IX protections of sexual assault victims on college campuses, because the accused perpetrators have been so unfairly treated.

I could go on and on, but you have Google.

We'd had a couple weeks' notice that she was going to come. We were told to keep it under our hats for a few days, probably because she's received so many threats in her first seven months in office that she now travels with armed US Marshals.  Just a guess.

Anyway, when it was made public, I got a flood of questions and information requests about the visit, from friends, many of whom are public school teachers, artists, queer, and/or any number of other traits that she's shown clear disrespect for. I knew little: arrival time, a rough schedule, and departure time.

That, and a group of organizations had pulled together to organize a protest. I only knew about this when I was invited to attend.

But I couldn't, really, because I had asked to be part of the "roundtable discussion" with DeVos herself that day.

The days leading up to her visit were very tense. Generally, our students are very politically astute. They'd been waiting to hear about her confirmation in February, and got very angry when it happened. They knew her positions. They did their research. They knew she wasn't supportive of them. They wanted to make their positions known, so some teachers found themselves in positions of dropping everything to come up with a positive way of expressing their views.

Student self-"expression boards" included statements and images of what's important to them. In this collection: Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, no racism, transgender rights, DACA, toast (because, come on, toast is great),
and the strangely moving "All 3 of these Pokémon have no gender."

"No More Families Torn Apart," "Protect DACA," Black Lives Matter, "Obama!", puppies, Canada,
"If it's not your body, it's not your decision," breast cancer awareness ribbon...

"The people start to think," "Embrace Creativity,"  "We're all full of gooshy red stuff," "Why can't we all just use one bathroom?", "Am I go forward...or am I go back?", "Born in Violence,"
and possibly the truest statement ever made, "This world needs weirdos."

I was in on a little of that, but mostly, I found my own classes so full of questions about DeVos, and protests, and armed guards, and her policies, and her impact on our school, her impact on other schools... And anxiety. Lots of anxiety, worry, tears, "What if," and so much else. I ditched all my lesson plans, because students were consumed with concern about the visit. I thought that the most important thing was making sure they felt safe, and addressing their fears was way more important than learning where downstage was.

So very many people in my life wanted details. I, too, was overwhelmed - before, during, and after - so I wasn't able to just sit down and say what happened that day in one fell swoop. Small chunks was the only way I could deal with it, so I posted installments on Facebook. The following are those installments, including the original post dates, in their entirety.

Please note: I'm not finished with these diary entries. I'd already scheduled auditions for the school play when we got the news that she was coming, for earlier that week. Between DeVos, trying to get my classes back on track (I figure I lost easily a month of instruction time, because of all this), my other jobs (because I teach at a tiny private school), rehearsals/performances of the school play.... I had to put the rest on hold. I'm hoping to finish this week of winter "break," which, all teachers know, only means that you work in your pajamas, but do at least as much as when school is in session.


Sun, 9-17-17
I'm having a hard time getting started. I'm still trying to process. Maybe I can do this if I take it in small chunks.
I am, weirdly, still shaken up by the events on Friday. I was hoping I could catch up on work yesterday - the work that I'd shoved to the side for a couple of weeks, in order to prepare myself and my students for Betsy DeVos' visit to our school. But apparently, yesterday was made for staring into space, rocking back and forth, and taking unexpected naps. This thing depleted me. 
It was obvious from the beginning, of course, that she was not interested in listening to us (students, teachers, parents). I couldn't completely figure out her angle, though, until the press release. At that point, I knew for sure that she was using our loving school community to twist into sound bites and photo ops to further her agenda. I know, I know... But I had this silly little Pollyanna flicker of hope that maybe she really did want to learn. 
I've more or less stopped wearing makeup, but you know, the press was going to be there, and who knows what was going to happen, so I thought I'd go all out and wear eyeliner *and* mascara. The whole time I sat in front of the mirror, I felt like I was putting on war paint. I was preparing for battle.
I really had no intention of actually saying anything. I wanted to give the precious little time we had with her to students and parents. But when it was time to start, no one else spoke up. So I did.
By then, I was so worked up with worry, anger, excitement, a fierce sense of protecting that which is precious to me, a barf bag full of anxiety, a strange air of desperation, and the distinct feeling of betrayal... well, I don't think I was terribly successful at easing into the conversation. I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad.

I wasn't alone. Protesters outside KCA.
Mon, 9-18-17
My apologies. I realize now that I should have started earlier in the story of De(Vos) Day.
I fretted a long time over what to wear. If nothing else, if I did not speak, I knew that my choice of attire could stand as communication of my views. Several teachers had decided to wear black, in protest, but I'm not that subtle.
I finally settled on one of my KCA t-shorts, the one that has a huge orange square on the back that says WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY? Seemed appropriate, but I underlined "YOU" in sparkly stick-on gems, just to be sure I clearly communicated the message. I also put on the black armband that I've been wearing on and off since January, and nearly every day since school started last month. I wore rainbow earrings, for my LGBTQIA students, and took the buttons that I usually have on my purse - "#illgowithyou" over a trans flag, and the one with Fannie Lou Hamer's quote, "Nobody is free until everybody is free." -  and pinned them to my shirt, along with a safety pin (signifying "If you need help, I am a safe person"). I slipped on my Human Rights Campaign bracelets, and one I just bought in Atlanta earlier this year inscribed with  Laurel Thatcher's Ulrich's famous quote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
Then I packed my pussy hat. I didn't want to wear it before the meeting, just to be sure I wasn't going to be told to take it off before it started. 
A friend had invited me out the night before, but I declined, wanting to go to bed early, as I anticipated not being able to sleep. Good decision. I was awake at 4 a.m.
I was in knots as I drove up and saw all the police officers walking around the school grounds. I parked, and invoked my white privilege to unhesitatingly ask one if we were (please please please) expecting a boring day. He said that they weren't worried.
It was about 7:15 a.m. Protesters were gathering across the street. Some friends had asked me to live-tweet the day's event as it happened. I knew I also had a ton of people on Facebook who were awaiting details, so I took a photo of the early crowd: "It's started."
Walking in to the school - a side door, rarely used, was our point of entrance - was like walking onto a movie set. Not that appearances were different, really, but there were small groups of people all over school, going over plans, and a strong air of anxious anticipation. If you didn't know something big was about to happen, you would still know that something big was about to happen.
I used the restroom. My zipper broke. Because why not? I was about to be in a roundtable meeting with the United States Secretary of Education, so of course I'd meet this billionaire with my fly down.

Tues, 9-19-17

Prequel, Part 2:

From the last episode: Tara was minutes away from a roundtable meeting with billionaire Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education, and the zipper to her thrift-store pants had just broken...

It apparently wasn't actually broken, but stuck down inside the little pocket at the bottom of the zipper. I left the stall (and washed my hands!) so I could have more room to maneuver. Another teacher walked in on me, wrestling with the damn thing, in the middle of the bathroom. She suggested I go to my office, where I could actually take my pants off to fish out the zipper pull. She led me there, walking in front of me "to cover" my crotchal area. It was all so ridiculous, I had to laugh.

Office. Pants off. Zipper fixed. Pants on. Down to the meeting room.

I walked into the room at the same time as one of the student representatives to our school board and another teacher. I jokingly said, "I need to sit next to someone whose hands I can squeeze when it hurts." They laughed. Wait, did I say it was a joke? Yeah, okay, maybe it was.

Most of the teachers and students who were coming to the meeting were there. I was so nervous, I felt sick. I figure that, at these times, other people are feeling similarly, so the job I've taken on in my life is that of comedy relief. So I asked all of them so come together for a photo, and said, "Show us how you really feel." The result is a picture with mostly smiles, although a couple seem exaggeratingly tense. One person is sticking their finger down their throat. One person is making an expression that I can only describe as "angry Barney Fife in the headlights."

This is not that picture. This is more like... a Tuesday.

A couple more minutes of milling, and one student rep came in and said, "She's here." 

Places, everyone.

I put on my pussy hat.

I had taken a seat on the far side of the room. When Betsy DeVos entered, she started around the circle of tables, shaking hands with each of us, in the direction that put me toward the end. I suddenly remembered that we'd been given advance notice that she was up for selfies. When she got to me, I shook her hand (a good, firm handshake, by the way) and introduced myself, then whipped out my phone for a photo. The first one was pretty "normal," in that she's smiling at the camera, and I'm making my usual selfie face, which is an overly-excited, open-mouthed expression. Then, I realized that this was the billionaire US Secretary of Education, who was working to dismantle our public school system and take away protection rights of a large percentage of students, so I didn't want a "normal" selfie. So I immediately made a stupid face at the camera, and she glanced at me, and click. That's the one I will share.

BFFs. Obvs.

We all sat down, and she asked our principal if he was going to join us. He said, "I hadn't planned to, but since there's an extra chair..." which happened to be right next to her, so he sat down at the circle of tables.

She made pleasantries, and asked about the school garden, stuff like that. The principal said, "So, does anyone want to start?" and opened it up to the floor, specifically inviting the students to talk. There were murmurs of "nothing right now" and "I don't think so." I was sitting between two student reps, and one of them is the most outspoken person I know. Neither said anything. I had already resolved to keep my big mouth shut, if a student wanted to talk. This is about them, after all, and I wasn't going to eat up any of our precious 25 minutes (more like 20, if you take out the intros and the garden talk) if they wanted the time with her. They're not dumb. They're very savvy. They know what's going on in the world.
So, now I think I'm caught up with the first installment of this story, the one that starts with, "I'm having a hard time getting started. I'm still trying to process. Maybe I can do this if I take it in small chunks." It ends with:
"By then, I was so worked up with worry, anger, excitement, a fierce sense of protecting that which is precious to me, a barf bag full of anxiety, a strange air of desperation, and the distinct feeling of betrayal... well, I don't think I was terribly successful at easing into the conversation. I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad."

I wasn't the only one who wanted answers: Protesters outside KCA.

Wed, 9-20-17

Episode 4: Back to the Present (which is actually the past, but at least it's not a prequel)

In our last episode: "I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad."


DeVos looked at me and stated, "About Title IX."
"Yes. Title IX. Go ahead."
"Okay," she said. "Well. I will take a step back and say, more broadly, I think every student should have an opportunity to find their place in a school that is right for them and works for them, so I'm really excited - I know this is a non-traditional school in, you know, the rest of the world's review, but I think this is terrific that you guys have found a place that is right and fits for you, and I couldn't be more happy and pleased for that, and really want to see that opportunity for all students across the country. We've been on a Rethink School tour this week, starting in Casper, Wyoming, and making our way across the heartland of America, visiting lots of different schools that are doing things creatively and differently, and the encouragement is really to rethink school, because for too many kids, they're starting their academic year in a setting that is very similar to what they did a hundred years ago, and that doesn't work for everyone. So we're highlighting and learning from a lot of different schools that are doing things to meet students' needs and help them find their way and become everything they can be, And so, again, I'm really pleased to be here at Kansas City Academy."

And then she stopped. And looked at me. 

It was a stock answer, obviously memorized by rote. It was practically a press release. But maybe she just forgot the question? Did she get so wrapped up in the introduction of her big tour that she went off the rails and didn't know how to get back on? 

So I figured I remind her. "Great. So what about Title IX?" 

And she asked, "Well, what about it?"

Really? Is she saying that she answered my question? Does she think she did? It was one week ago that she made the incredibly controversial announcement that Title IX "wasn't working" in sexual assault cases on college campuses, and that she intended to overhaul it so that the accused got the benefit of the doubt. Which they overwhelmingly, obscenely, nauseatingly do anyway. I mean, she gave a 30-minute speech about it, citing a handful of anecdotes as proof that the thing needs to be torn down and built up again from scratch. The story was everywhere. The public was furious She couldn't be that dense, right? I strongly believe that she's tragically unqualified for the position she holds, but it didn't occur to me that maybe she actually lacks intelligence. Or focus. Or both.

So I said, "Well, okay: What are your feelings? What are your thoughts? What are you wanting to do about that?"

"Well, I - again - I think that every student should have the opportunity to be in a school and in a
learning environment is that is welcoming and is nurturing and safe and that every student should
be able to pursue their learning in a place that is building up of them and - "

At this point, it's obvious that she's just playing dumb. She's trying to avoid answering. She's dancing around the subject, in a little presentation called "How Could I Possibly Know Which Part of Title IX You Were Asking About?" She's using the tried-and-true hot words, like "opportunity" and "different" and "individual," as well as her catchphrases, which include "learning environment" and the ever-popular "rethink school." 

Politicians love this. They love talking and not actually saying anything, because they want to get reelected, so any chunk of the population they might piss off, by saying something actually honest, is precious to them. So no pissing off allowed, which is why election campaigns sound overwhelmingly alike. 

It's a lame ploy, and it makes me really angry. Stand up for your beliefs or shut up and give someone else your time. Even more lame though: DeVos was not even elected. So she hasn't polished up her evasion tactic. She isn't good at it.

Whereas before, I was confused and only somewhat annoyed, she's now removed all doubt that she's trying to play me. Play all of us. Does she really think she's that clever?  Does she really think that I think that she's saying anything of substance? She sucks at this game, and I won't pretend to play it anymore.

So screw it. Screw her. If she insisted on playing cutesy, then I owed it to my students, all students, their parents, and my fellow educators to nail her to the damn wall. I was done playing nice. 

I interrupted her. "Okay, so, do you know you're not answering the question?"


To be continued...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A toast! To ensemble!

Allow me to rephrase an old saying:

Those who can, do.
Those who can't, often still do.
Those who teach - my god - it's doing, only multiplied by 1000.

I can, and I do. I can, and I also teach. Doing and teaching doing is... a lot. A lot, a lot.

I teach at a tiny private school in south Kansas City, Missouri.

Not this tiny.

(A quick geography lesson, for you non-natives: KCMO is the big Kansas City. The one in Kansas - colloquially referred to as "KCK" - is a quarter of the size of KCMO. Also, for added confusion, it's just across the state line from KCMO. The Greater Kansas City area encompasses both, sort of like an egg with two yolks, only one yolk is way bigger than the other. Many a famous rock musician has pissed off the entire area by playing a large KCMO venue, and yelling, "Hello, Kansas!" We burn effigies for infractions like that.)

Okay, so I teach at a tiny private school in south Kansas City, Missouri. It's called Kansas City Academy, and it means the world to me. Focus is on individual expression and responsible freedom, which is all I ever really wanted, since I believe that our job as educators is to help mold responsible, compassionate, and productive adults.

I'm the entire theater staff.

Since we're so small, I can't choose to do plays that require big casts, unlike most schools. No Little Shop of Horrors, no You Can't Take It with You, no Midsummer Night's Dream. So, this past semester, we did Over the River and Through the Woods. It has six characters. Four of them are Italian grandparents. Old people played by teens - now that's comedy!

Rehearsals are closed. This student wandered in, and I let him watch part of one rehearsal,
mostly so the cast would know that they were funny to people who weren't just me.

Actually, the entire cast did a great job, especially those who were exploring the physicality of elder characters. For one, it was the addition of a cane. For another, it was the shoes (ALWAYS the shoes!) and s-l-o-w-i-n-g down. For a third actor, it was the hat that did it, and another discovered the magic of the psychological gesture.

Nan, this is Nan. Gramps, meet Gramps.

That is my own personal hat. Actually, so are those glasses. I'm quite the fashion plate.

But it was how they all came together as an ensemble that was the very best part for me to watch.

In my classes, I probably work on team-building more than anything else. It's vital in the theater. You can't do it alone. Everyone needs each other. It's not about you, personally. It's about the common goal. Each person is a magnificent cog in a magical machine. Remove that cog, and the machine stops working.

Everyone relies on everyone else to do their job at best they can.

EVERYONE relies on EVERYONE else.
Look at all that relying going on!

For one of the cast members of Over the River, this was his first play. And he had a major role. Understandably, he was really nervous. Most of the rest of the cast had two and three previous shows under their belts, so they're old pros. ;-) This new-to-the-stage cast member, when given a note, defaulted to literally saying, "I'm dumb."

I, and his castmates, jumped on that, and tried everything to remind him that not knowing is different than being dumb, and he just didn't know these things yet.

But don't listen to them if they tell you that wearing paper on your head is all the rage.

But it wasn't until an older cast member said, "Listen. Every time you feel the urge to say, 'I'm dumb,' say 'I'm learning' instead." That was followed up quickly by the musings that that statement was equal parts cheesy and actually really good advice.

So he did it. Every time he felt he screwed up, he started saying, "I'm... learning." And the rest of the cast would congratulate him. Once, he corrected himself on the fly, and called himself a "learning-ass."

Did it make an actual difference in his feelings, his relationships in the show, his actor work, his performance? I have no idea. But the impact on everyone else was evident. The whole reason "I'm learning" even came about was because they were trying to make him feel comfortable, that mistakes happen. And in reminding him of this, they reminded everyone else. Including themselves.

That's ensemble.

I tell my students, "Be the person that you hope you have onstage with you when something goes wrong." Then I share the story of how I showed up to a performance, years ago, and was told that I was going on for a sick actor. I was not the understudy. I had less than 90 minutes to learn her part, including one of the best-known songs from the show (solo), get pinned into her costume, and also figure out which scenes I could portray my regular character, so as not to throw off any choreography timing. If it weren't for my dear, trustworthy castmates guiding me during that performance, it would not have gone well, at all. They were exactly who I needed them to be.

I learned that that is who I want to be for others, when I'm onstage. And that is what I try to emphasize to my students: Be the person you want to have onstage with you, to help you when you need it. Know the show so well, that when something goes wrong - and something always goes wrong, it's live theater - you can do your part to get the machine running smoothly again.

And then I got to watch it happen during a performance.

When I see audience members before curtain for a show I direct, they often ask me if I'm nervous. I'm not. As a director, my job is over by opening night. It's all them, the cast and backstage crew. If something goes wrong, there's very little I can do about it. They have to rely on each other.

In the tech booth, I flip to the next cue in my prompt book. But the student next to me, running sound, was following along in the script. When she looked at me in shock and informed me that two of the actors had actually traded lines onstage, I hadn't noticed. It was seamless.

She's smart and follows along in the script, so when I tell her "go," she makes the excellent decision to ignore me.

What had happened, they told me later, was this: Actor A was watching Actor B. Actor B was having difficulty with a prop, and was a split-second late with their line. So A jumped in with B's line. So B then completed it by saying A's line. And the scene went on.

I don't think they realize how beautiful that moment was. B needed help. A was there. B took the help, then followed it up to make everything make sense. Perfect.

Of course, it made this theater teacher's heart proud. But it also moves me on a human level.

A was watching out for others.
B needed help.
A saw the need, and was there.
B accepted the help, so everyone (not just A and B) was able to proceed.

If A hadn't been watching out for others... or didn't offer help... If B hadn't accepted the help... or hadn't kept the momentum going...

Extrapolate this, to a global scale.

My friends, this is why arts education is so vital.

To cranberry juice!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

I am a Failure.

Now, don't argue with me on this title. I am a failure. I've failed. I will continue to fail. I will always, always fail.

At least, I hope so.

Not this kind of failure, though. This is a whole new level.

Variations on a Theme closed Saturday. We did not win Best [Average Attendance] of Venue. That's happened before, and it's usually a fair bet that we will. We did not place in the Top Number/ Percentage of Total Attendance of the Festival. We had six performances: The first two were decent, attendance-wise, the second two were small houses, the fifth was good, and the sixth was strong. Those two in the middle hurt our chances of winning Venue, irreparably. But that's not what I was upset about.

I was upset because I was working hard to get people to come see our show - my first solo-written production. I was upset because these people who agreed to join this project are remarkable, as people, as friends, as teammates, as skilled creatives, and I wanted more people to come appreciate them and their hard, hard work.

And it was hard, hard work.

There are productions where everything falls into place simply and beautifully. The schedule is simple, the work comes easily, and everyone loves each other and is ready to commit 1000%. Those productions are very rare.

This was not one of those.

There are productions where not everyone is on the same page, and even if there's plenty of politeness and such, some people just aren't excited to be there, and it rather casts a pallor over the entire experience. Those happen fairly often.

This production was not one of those, either.

There are productions where everything *should* be the right combination of people, schedules, temperaments, material... but they somehow just don't jibe. Those are not uncommon.

Not that either.

The rehearsal process for Variations was difficult. To begin with, the schedule was really hard to set. In fact, it was in constant flux. It was no one's fault, really, we're just a bunch of busy people with our own personal struggles that can't NOT affect what we're doing.

A partial list of various Life Hurdles dealt with during this rehearsal process:
Child care
Rehearsals for other shows
Commercial shoots
Physical illness
Physical injuries
Mental illness
Mental/emotional injuries
Medication mix-ups
Moving residences
Day jobs
Relationship difficulties
Co-parenting difficulties
Transportation troubles
Out-of-town work trips
Out-of-town family obligations

These are not excuses. Everyone experiences this stuff. It's just life. But during this process, I became keenly aware that everyone single one of us who was putting this show together was going through extremely trying - life-changing, in fact - times. And yet, we all made it to rehearsal. Well, most of the time. I think everyone had at least one rehearsal that Life crushed as a possibility, for whatever reason. And then, there were lots of revised rehearsal calendars floating around, for a bunch of the other reasons.

So it was not an easy rehearsal process. In fact, it was difficult. But we had this one thing going for us: Everyone wanted to be there. Even if depression was gnawing some of us from the inside out, we beat it back for a few hours to come to rehearsal. Even if someone had to go to one rehearsal for two hours across town, come to our rehearsal for three hours, then go back to the first one, they did it. I can't count how many time I hugged people, either as they showed up to rehearsal, or as they left, and one or both of us ended up crying.

Because it's hard. Theater is hard. Life is hard. The two together can be almost impossible to navigate.

But these inspiring people... They wanted to be part of this project. They wanted to be there, often to support each other, even if that was a blankets-over-your-head-because-the-world-is-too-big day.

After the show opened, and I was away from everyone, I cried, because I'd failed: at publicity, at house counts, at review-receiving... at everything I could think of that measures success. I wanted this to pay off, at least emotionally, for my team, and I didn't think it was. Every single other show Bryan and I have ever done was in the Top Ten Best-Attended; we had THE best-attended show in 2010 and 2014. Nobody was coming to see this show, and it's surely because I'm a crappy writer with delusions of grandeur. (Mind you, others surely think that I have delusions of grandeur. I really far way away a lot don't feel that at all.)

One day (okay, at least two days... um, three...), mid-run, I was in the shower and crying again. I suck. I can't do anything right. I've disappointed my cast and crew, I've disappointed the audience, I've disappointed the Fringe, I've disappointed myself. I don't know whether anything I've written is any good. I've blown it as a director, and I've absolutely tanked as a producer.

Then I heard my past self tell others, "Fringe is a great place to fail."

I've said it so many times. I've been quoted in articles as saying that. I even said it to another Fringe artist, just before the festival started this year. But I hadn't failed. All of our shows have done really well. All of them, since 2008. We took risks, sure, but they'd always paid off, some better than others. But I could say in bios and interviews, "All of our show have been in the Top Ten."

Because that's success, you know.

And saying that Fringe is a great place to fail, when you can say "blah blah blah, Top Ten every year," well, that's a little on the hypocritical side.

And that's also an extremely narrow definition of success. In fact, it's not even my definition. It's how I think others will define success, and I claim it, so I can appear successful to them. Like, trying to be the cool kid at school, so others will like you. I hate that. And it never works anyway.
Image result for something inspiring funny brosh
The answer is always yes.

Sometimes, a student will ask me if I've ever been on Broadway. It feels like I'm being tested: Anything less than Broadway, and you're a hack. But truly, I never wanted that. No, I've never performed on Broadway. I don't even want to live in New York. But that's not the true measure of my success, because it never even sounded that appealing to me.

I told myself, with the shower water running down my face, I need a new definition of success. Because I'm hearing beautiful things about this show. Not like people are going to tell me that it sucks or anything, to my face, but they're holding my hand... looking me straight in the eye... hugging me... whispering in my ear... tears welling up... This isn't being polite, this is being moved.

It means something to them. The words I wrote, the team that created this production... This is important. This is what I love about theater. This team is creating a space for people to laugh and cry and think and feel. This is why we do what we do.

This is my definition of success.

But this is what failing apparently looks like, because house counts, "Best of," et cetera.

So my success often looks like failing to others.

To people who are not me, it's easy to see that I'm not a "success," by the standard definition. I'm an individual, doing my own thing, with a few select, sincere, passionate, and hard-working friends surrounding me. They believe in me, and with their considerable help, we're able to create things that inspire others.

Image result for I failed michael jordan
Yeah, but can you explain the significance of the coin in
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? Didn't think so.

When I got out of the shower, still crying, but for different reasons now, I found a flood of texts from my dear friend, and Variations cast member, Marcie. At the very same time I was reframing this experience, she was too. Her new definition of success complemented mine. So I mashed them together.

I am proud of this play. I am proud of my beautiful, tender, gentle, loving, hilarious, hard-working, tough team. I am proud of their work. Of our work, together.

Was it perfect? Aw, hell, no. It never is. That's why we keep doing it. But was it meaningful? Very, very definitely.

House counts (which I never had any control over anyway) aside, I reached every one of the goals that I hadn't realized I'd set. That's because I'd set them my senior year in college, 1994.

I was auditioning for the Kathleen Turner (yes, that one) Performance Scholarship. It was a big to-do: two monologues, a song, an essay, and an interview with the panel. I had no chance. I was up against the biggest deals in the department - people who are now on TV and in movies and, of course, on Broadway. But what the hell, right?

During the interview, which took place with me still onstage after performing my audition pieces, I was asked something to the effect of, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" (I hate that question. I have never been able to wrap my mind around it.) I answered that, if no one hired me, I'd create my own theater, even if it was "in a closet, with a friend shining a flashlight on me."

I left the audition feeling good. I didn't know why. Because that certainly was not what anyone wanted to hear about my big plans for the future. But, screw it, theater was the important thing, no matter how it happened. I had no chance at this scholarship anyway. Right? Why try to sugarcoat?

When the department head came down to where I was working in the scene shop a couple of days later ("Put the paint can down first, Tara"), and told me I'd won, I screamed and jumped up and down and hugged him and laughed. It was just so preposterous. How could that even happen?

One of my instructors (and panel members) caught me a few days after. She told me the reason that she voted for me because of my interview answer. I couldn't believe it. I'd been so... unambitious. She explained: "That's the attitude you have to have. That's exactly it. Create it yourself. Do it."

What I thought was unambitious was actually very ambitious. I see that now.

This production was a success in a hundred different ways, most of which people will never know about. Some people, maybe those who had shows in the Top Ten, might consider Variations on a Theme a failure. But that's an awfully narrow definition.

The cast of Variations on a Theme: Mike Ott, Amy Hurrelbrink, Parry Luellen, Marcie Ramirez.
Not shown, because he's backstage, striking props: the lovely and talented Michael Golliher.

Friday, June 23, 2017

"Variations on a Theme." And "Variations on a Scene." Two titles, because two shows.

We're baaaa-aaack!

After taking last year's Fringe Festival off (actually, not really - we just helped others with their projects), Bryan and I are plunging headlong into 2017's Fringe... with two shows.

And I wrote them both.


We're producing (and I'm directing) my play, Variations on a Theme. Bryan is heading the second project, Variations on a Scene. I expect many people to get confused by the titles as they travel...  I mean, flock to... nay, storm the theatres to see them both. So I shall explain.

Variations on a Theme
It all started the summer of 2009. I was preparing for Lingerie Shop rehearsal, our second foray into creating our own theater, via Fringe. I was putting out some snacks, but had to wash some dishes first. As I suds up a spoon, the thought hit me, very hard: These people trust me to wash dishes the way they would wash dishes. That seems like a given, I suppose, because everyone wants clean dishes, but I know some people who have displayed questionable dish-washing skills. I realized my cast assumed that I was going to do it the way they expected me to. I also realized that they would be rather upset with me - and for good reason - if they discovered that, say, I'd washed the dishes without using soap, or with cold water, or that I kept them in the hamper with dirty laundry, or something.

Bryan and I had been living together for a couple of years at this point, and suddenly, any arguments we'd ever had (there aren't many to choose from, really) made sense. I learned to make oatmeal with milk and brown sugar; he makes oatmeal with water and butter. Clearly, he is wrong.

This is a silly example, of course, but it essentially applies to everything that we disagree on: we are different people, with different experiences, but we assume that there's only one way to make oatmeal, because that's what we know. There's one way to wash dishes correctly. There's one way to raise a child. There's one way to best get to your driving destination. There's one way to make a grocery list (his is just a list of stuff, mine is a list of stuff in the approximate order in which you will encounter them in the store - which makes way more sense, duh).

However, we do agree on the really important stuff.

I discovered a link between this observation and a recurring stumbling block I encountered teaching acting classes. There's a standard improv game called "What Are You Doing?" It goes like this:

ACTOR 1 ties her shoes.
ACTOR 2: What are you doing?
ACTOR 1: I'm making lasagna.
ACTOR 2 starts "making lasagna."
ACTOR 3: What are you doing?
ACTOR 2: I'm vacuuming Jupiter.
ACTOR 3 starts "vacuuming Jupiter."
ACTOR 4: What are you doing?
ACTOR 3: I'm fishing for compliments.
And so on...

Sometimes, someone would say something that had multiple meanings, like "I'm painting a house." That could mean, "I'm using this paintbrush to apply paint and change the color of the exterior of this house." It could also mean, "I'm standing at an easel, with a palette in my hand, using this paintbrush to render an image of a house on this canvas." Which one is the correct interpretation? Both are, of course. The conflict arises when Actor 1 would tell Actor 2 that their interpretation was not the one they meant, and should change it to reflect the intention. No, no, no, Actor 1. Actor 2's interpretation is correct. You just assumed they would know what you meant. Hence, the link to my observation of different life experiences (and ambiguous phrasing!) leading to breakdowns in communication.

Then, of course, there are outside reasons for communication issues as well: to-do lists, schedule conflicts, phone calls, emails, project deadlines, current surroundings, literally speaking different languages... and dark moments in one's past, such as abuse, a house fire, a car wreck, the death of a loved one, divorce...

So this show's theme variations = road blocks to communication. Which isn't as heavy as it may sound, I swear. I mean, Three's Company ran for eight seasons, and every single episode was based on a misunderstanding.
Image result for threes company
For real, though: There are 47 ways to interpret this photo alone. 
Variations on a Theme is nine unrelated two-person scenes, and in each, someone has something they need to say, but for some reason, can't. Most are funny. Some are not. For a couple of them, I challenged myself to write completely outside of my comfort zone.

There's a cast of four incredibly dear, smart, dumbfoundingly talented people: Amy Hurrelbrink, Parry Luellen, Mike Ott, and Marcie Ramirez. Also, Michael Golliher is my assistant director, and is currently keeping me sane, because making theater, folks. It's nuts.

Variations on a Theme will be presented at the MTH Theater in Crown Center as part of the Kansas City Fringe Festival:

Fri, July 21 at 8:00
Sun, July 23 at 5:00
Mon, July 24 at 6:30
Tues, July 25 at 9:30
Thurs, July 27 at 8:00
Sat, July 29 at 6:30

Variations on a Scene
I remember when I was doing my first play in high school, my dad asked me why it took so much time. I mean, every night? For weeks? I tried to explain about learning lines, and music, and choreography, and scene changes, and how that all multiplies by x-number of cast and crew members. Truly, at that point, I didn't know the half of it.

Most non-theater people are pretty ignorant of how a production comes to be. Being ignorant is not a bad thing. I'm ignorant of what all goes into brain surgery and carpet installation and the stock market and making a soufflé. All of those things (and so many more) mystify me. And I'm not inclined to learn about those things either. Other things want my time and effort.

Bryan thought people might be interested in peeking in on the actor's process. Makes sense. I'm asked about it all the time. (Particularly, "How did you learn all those lines?!") But, you know, an abbreviated actor's process. Because other things want your time and effort.

Now, if only we had a play that was made up of several short, stand-alone scenes... aha! Variations on a Theme will work just perfectly, thank you.

So Variation on a *Scene* puts two actors, Jay Coombes and Caroline Dawson, onstage, without having any idea what script they're about to be handed. They read it cold for the first time onstage, and the rest of the performance is them, rehearsing the same short scene, exploring the script, and making character and relationship choices.

We did a test drive of this concept several months ago, using different actors and a different script.
We got some good feedback. As it turns out, non-theater people did find the acting process interesting. As did the theater people we'd invited. It's interesting to note that each group thought the other group might not find it as compelling as they did, themselves. Hm. Assumptions based on past experiences, anybody?

Scene is improv, but with a script. The words on the page are the only boundaries. Everything else is up for interpretation by the actors - many interpretations. Jay and Caroline will be given a different script for every performance, and they're not allowed to see Theme until after their last show. They have no idea what they're getting themselves into. *maniacal laugh*

Scene will be performed at MTH's Stage 2 in Crown Center. You don't even have to leave the space to see Scene AND Theme! We totally did that on purpose, for your convenience. (No, we didn't. But it's awfully nice that it worked out that way.) Show times for Variations on a Scene are:

Mon, July 24 at 6:00
Tues, July 25 at 7:30
Wed, July 26 at 9:00
Fri, July 28 at 9:00
Sat, July 29 at 4:30

Tickets for all shows are $10, with a one-time purchase of a $5 Fringe button, that's yours to keep forever! (All the cool kids have one.) Tickets and buttons are available at the Fringe office on the lower level of Union Station, and at all venues.

I'll be there, possibly at the bar, staving off my anxiety with Shirley Temples and popcorn. I'm so hard core.
Image result for shirley temples drink popcorn
I can't believe I actually found an image that fit that search.