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.


Friday, April 14, 2017

It's a Beautiful Day for Good News, Vol. 10

Oh, I'm so ashamed. It's been far, far too long since I've posted good news for you (and me).

If you're new here, this is the reason for this section of my blog: Everything sucks. At least, that's what the news would have you believe. That's how they make their ratings/money. Americans, in particular, looooove drama. Twenty-four-hour news, I suspect, now takes the place of soap operas, where we used to get our drama fixes. (That's a super-scientific claim, BTdubs. I have all kinds of memories and superficial observations to support it.)

I need to remind myself that, really, there's far more good in the world than is popular to report. And maybe you need that too. And that's why "It's a Beautiful Day for Good News."

I'm going to try to make a little change, due to recent feedback I've gotten regarding this blog. I'm told that posting many links at once - no matter how great they are - can be a little daunting to get through. So I'm now going to experiment with limited my shared stories per post, but then hopefully post more often.

We'll see. If you have feedback - on anything of this - I'm happy to hear it.

Strangers leave server a $400 tip - and that's just the beginning.

Officials wouldn't allow a teen athlete to box in a hijab, so her opponent protested.

Dads show their love and support by participating in their daughters' ballet classes.

Bonus: cat comic.
Image result for cat cartoon head "good place to sit"
Marcie sent me this, because my face is evidently a comfy place for my cat to relax.