September 18, 2016

The Wizard of Oz

If Cub Scouts skits were my first entry into theater, The Wizard of Oz was the first participatory theatrical experience to have a conscious impact on me. 

In the fourth grade I had two wonderful teachers, Margaret Anne Lozuk and Shirley Holland (now Roper). Mrs. Lozuk taught fourth grade. Ms. Holland taught fifth grade next door. They collaborated regularly. For two years I had the benefit of learning from both teachers.

They co-directed The Wizard of Oz. This meant, of course, that fourth graders and fifth graders would be involved in the production. I probably had my heart set on playing the Lion or the Tin Man or, my favorite, the Scarecrow. But those roles went to fifth grade girls, which I understood at the time to be logical even if disappointing. My down-the-street neighbor Diana Harris landed the role of the Scarecrow. I thought Diana Harris was particularly deserving of her role – she was very tall and seemed somehow as sophisticated as she was beautiful. (When walking to the bus stop I always wondered if she would be there...)

The Wizard at work
I was cast as the Wizard. Reflecting on this production, this casting seems genius. The leads we're all tall, brunette, mature (to my mind then) young women and the "man behind the curtain" was a much smaller, Southern-California blond 4th grader with a flair for the dramatic (even if he didn't yet know it himself). I don't know if there were any other options to the casting as the pool of student actors was limited, but it sure worked.

I don't remember a lot from the production, except what I "remember" from the photos – thankfully my mother took a lot of them.I do remember, however, one of the rehearsals. I believe it was my first rehearsal with my cape. (The wizard's cape, as brilliantly crafted by my mother, was made of red and gold satin-like material and had magical shapes of stars and moons on it. I loved it. I loved wearing it.) During rehearsal, even before running actual scenes from the play, I walked on stage if I was on a fashion runway, swirling my new cape as I hit the hard pivots on my comical rendition of a catwalk walk. This made Mrs. Lozuk and Ms. Holland laugh so hard.

The image of Ms. Holland laughing was particularly memorable. stayed with me for a long time. I did not yet know Ms. Holland as well as I knew Mrs. Lozuk and saw her as more reserved than Mrs. Lozuk, but there she was, in peels of laughter! She was doubling over with unadulterated guffaws.

I loved that. I loved being able to make people laugh. I still do. There's nothing quite like making people laugh, especially on the stage.

I learned a great deal from that experience and from those teachers about my love of theatre and about teaching. They were willing and able to laugh while also maintaining rigorous learning in their classrooms. I remember the assignments in their classes more than any other year. In my journey as a theater educator, I strive to create the same environment, a disciplined environment in which we all learn and laugh a lot.

The Robot Inventors

We move apartments more often than we would like. When moving, I regret that I am so sentimental, that I keep so many physical manifestations of memories. But today I am grateful for it. In one of the many boxes that my mother shipped to me years ago as she was trying to clear out the garage (she is as sentimental as I am), I discovered an artifact of my origins in theater: The script and the "production photos" of The Robot Inventors.

Most of my memories about skits are about Boy Scout and Cub Scout camp outs and sixth grade camp through school. As I remember, the camp crowd was an easier crowd to perform to. They loved these skits. Campfire skit audiences were boys drunk on s'mores and the anticipation of someone unexpectedly getting doused with water. Boy Scout camp was an environment in which the Lord of the Flies doesn't seem like a novel, it seems like a documentary.

The Robot Inventor in all his self consciousness
The Robot Inventors was a skit performed in another venue, the Cub Scout Pack Meeting. The Pack Meeting is a monthly gathering of all the Cub Scouts in the Pack (divided into Dens of 8 or so boys which have weekly meetings) and their families. A ceremony at which awards are given, each Den reports on their activities over the past month. There was also food and entertainment. They were held in the cafeteria at the junior high, a big space for an 8 year old to perform in.

One of my entries into things theatrical was performing in Cub Scout skits. I have a memory of really enjoying being in Cub Scouts skits. I even have a vague memory or sense that I was more willing to rehearse the skits than my fellow Cub Scouts. The skits were always comic sketches with a definite punchline. I think that I was pretty aware of this. I wanted to make sure that we got the maximum comic mileage from the skit. To do so meant rehearsing the timing and specificity of the set up of the punchline. I wasn't thinking of this consciously, of course, but I believe that there was some sort of intuitive understanding and interest in doing so.

The script (which felt long at the time)
This interest has only deepened and evolved. My skits just happen to be full length plays now. Rather than act in them, I am directing them (as perhaps I wanted to do with those skits). My audience has expanded from parents and peers who are obligated to watch the skit. In the best case scenario I receive something more than a "good job" after I direct one of my skits. (Something like, "David A. Miller knows what to do with wacky." as Theatre Jones wrote.)

Some people have a very specific story of one event or one experience that started their journey to become a theatre artist. For example I have heard many origin stories that begin with a trip to see a particular Broadway musical. (That's likely more specific to this region – the area surrounding in or surrounding New York City.) There's a fantastic episode on This American Life about folks who caught the drama bug. I don't know that my origin story is starts at one single moment or experience, but there are certainly some significant milestones along the way. The Robot Inventors marks a mile.

July 13, 2016

The Artistic Impulse

Cindy (2013) by Chuck Close 
"It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another."

Wil S. Hylton, The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close

I love this quote because it captures so eloquently a familiar feeling. I love going to galleries and museums to see the manifested impulse of other artists. And I am fascinated even with my own impulses. I don't know "where they come from" as they say—a phrase that conjurs the image of an immigrant idea or a mysterious pipeline that ends at one's heart like some sort of interior creative water park.

As a playwright I sometimes try to articulate where an idea for a play comes from. Sometimes I know the seed, like the painterly book that illustrates Nabokov's synesthesia that led me to the winding path of research that grew to become Mystic in the Savage State. But sometimes the idea just presents itself somehow—it arrives. This is true of the idea for the play I have been writing for the past 6 weeks. There have been very clear points of inspiration on the journey: The premise for the play seemed to just reveal itself during a creative daydream as I drove to the coffee shop. Because I did not know how long the idea would stick around, I was sure to start writing notes as soon as I parked. The title came to me on another drive, but in a more physical presentation from the universe. On the license plate for a large truck were the words Semi and Permanent, side by side. The play is set in the wake of a young man who commits suicide. Creative daydreaming led me to understand that the character used to say that life was just semi-permanent. The title became Semi-Permanent. (It's a working title, so it too may be only semi-permanent.)

When I witness visual art pieces I regularly wonder to myself, consciously or not, "What inspired them to create this?" In this current reflection, I realize that I am more curious about what impulse drove them to this creation. What did they love about the materials, the lines and shapes and textures, the concepts of the piece? What were the moments of inspiration like—did ideas arrive quickly or slowly? Did the impulses intrude or were they invited in?

I often am fascinated to learn what artists say about their own work or, better yet, about their process. But sometimes I am happy not to know any background whatsoever, because my imagination becomes a playground for all the possibilities that their artwork stirs in me.

October 23, 2015

The lessons of the cemetery

Downtown Bloomsburg from the point of view
of those who lived and worked here.
I first learned the term "experiential learning" as a piece of jargon or buzzword. It was eduspeak. For a time, perhaps still, it was a way of communicating to funders and others about the value of what we did as theatre educators. The term was valuable to them as a way of understanding not what we were teaching, but the way we were teaching. Our teaching methods were not as recognizable as rote memorization, the drilling of on-paper exercises, or reading the test-approved texts. 

I don't know what the official definition is now, if there is one, but I have learned more about my own definition. My approach to teaching college students includes a focus on experiential learning. For me it's about getting out of the classroom and about doing stuff when we are in the classroom.

This week I took my Bloomsburg University playwriting class to the Rosemont Cemetery. (It wasn't the first time I took students to a cemetery. I also took one of my acting classes a couple of years ago, but for different reasons. They were performing pieces from Spoon River Anthology, a series of poem-monologues spoken by the residents of a cemetery. Published in 1915, many of the permanent residents of the Espy, PA cemetery lived and died around the same time as these characters.) This week's lesson theme is "How can a playwright find inspiration in current events, history and research?" Our artist research sometimes include traditional academic methods of delving into books and other scholarly sources, but the research is also going to places in reality and in one's imagination to mine inspiration. 

The culminating project for student playwrights is writing a 10-minute play inspired by Bloomsburg town history. In class we looked at the fantastic resources of our own Andruss Library Archives and the Columbia County Historical and Genealogical Society archives. We traveled to the cemetery to find more immediate and visceral inspiration: the people of Bloomsburg. 

Playwrights conclude their research session
and return to life-in-progress.
The names on the stones are fantastic. Inspiration in themselves. Catharine Kressler, Philip Unangst, Margaret Metz. The fact that the Sheep and Peacock families are buried so close to one another.  The numerology of the life and death of Augustus Mason: b. Feb. 17, 1817, d. Feb. 17, 1879.  The students saw the names of the buildings on the university campus –  McCormick, Waller, Hartline. And we were all impacted by the many stones that read "Infant child" or a name with only one year indicating that the child did not make it past one year old. 

I encouraged the playwrights to take in the names, but also the entire atmosphere of the cemetery and it's relationship to the town around it. I asked them to ask questions, to become curious and investigative. What else would they want to know about these people? This cemetery? This town? It didn't take much encouragement to set them to exploring the cemetery. They had inspiration all around them.

I am looking forward to hearing the first reading of their plays. 

September 30, 2015

To be authentic

"So much has been written about how far Trane stretched the improvisatory dimensions of jazz that I would prefer to focus on the extraordinary spirit that powered all that searching. Whenever we talked during his last years, Trane would always bring the conversation to the unyielding need he felt to keep going as deeply as he could into his feelings, his very soul. He often used the word "cleansing," for what he sought was an order of inner peace that transcended passing worries and vexations. But he knew there was no easy way to get there - one had to continually scour oneself, confront oneself, and in the process try to connect with the unity at the source of all life. It was this concept of going through stages of self-knowledge which accounted in part for his interest in Eastern religion and philosophy. And it was the fulfilling of this concept in his music that accounted for its seizing, spiraling intensity and also for its passages of uncommon calm and grace.

For all the unsparing passion and necessary tension in his music. Coltrane in the last years was an exceptionally gentle, patient man to talk to. There was also in him a huge generosity of spirit. Many young musicians have witnessed to the encouragement he gave them, the time he would take with them. And although I expect he was dissatisfied with whatever stage he had reached-always needing to look deeper and higher - I can say that he was one of the exceedingly few men I've known who did not feel in competition with anyone, who bore no malice to anyone, and who lived the conviction that man is perfectible, that man has only just begun to realize his capacities to open up himself and the world through satyagraha - truth force."

- Nat Hentoff, excerpt from liner notes to The Best of JohnColtrane

I was blown away by Nat Hentoff's liner notes. I read them. I looked up. I said "Wow..." several times. Out loud. By myself. 

Heaven and Earth by Anselm Kiefer
It's an album from 1970. It's a CD I've had for more than 20 years. But I read the liner notes this week, maybe for the first time. I discovered them in the process of (finally) getting rid of my many, many CD jewel cases. (I am far too sentimental about these things. It's difficult for me to let go of something that once had so much meaning to me, even if it's a seemingly unnecessary artifact in our digital world.)

I don't know John Coltrane's music very well. But I do love it. I know that I love this album. I know that I connect to his music. I hear the artist in this music. I love that there are no words, but there is a story being told. With every note. With every absence of a note.

I wonder, does any great artist set out to be an influence? I doubt it. S/he sets out to make music. Or perhaps, more to the point, s/he sets out to do what s/he was driven to do, what s/he had to do.

Many of the artists I admire most have a common quality. The common quality is not on the surface of their work. They don't seem to be the same "type" of artist. But when I learn more about the artist's path, I discover that they are all making art their own way. Their path is personal and unorthodox.
Visual artists including Anselm Kiefer, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse. Theatre artists such as Robert Wilson, Julie Taymor, Mark Rylance. I am in awe of their artistic voice. It's authentic. In music, The Smiths, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Built to Spill. The voices of these artists. I don't hear them trying to sound like or look like anything or anyone.

How can we strive to be our authentic artistic selves? To be bold. To be confident. To be authentic. That's the goal.

September 18, 2015

Directing skills are life skills

There so many times during my teaching that I think and often say out loud to my students, these are not just theatre skills – these are not only directing, acting, playwriting skills – these are life skills. 

Some of the skills that I teach are simple rules that apply to the course and to life: Don't ask your professor for stapler; Don't explain that you were confused by the guidelines when in reality you didn't read the guidelines (or you didn't read the guidelines closely enough); Don't use comic sans. But the bigger lessons are the ones that I find more fascinating. For example, how are directing skills life skills? I am interested in this question perhaps because I continue to learn the lesson myself. I know that my "director's toolkit" is available to me in my day-to-day life. I may not use it as often as I would like, but it is always available to me.

An visual and textual
approach to Neighborhood 3,
a directorial unifying tool.
A successful director unifies the group. They do so by balancing a strong vision with incredibly active listening. They honor the creative ideas around them and ultimately serve the project more than themselves. They are, in short, effective leaders. An effective leader/director asks lots of questions. The most important question is, "why?" This is a question asked of oneself as well as one's fellow artists. We make a choice on stage – an acting choice, a design choice, a blocking choice. How is that choice serving the intent of the playwright and the specific approach we are taking in this production? How does this integrate with the other choices that we are making? Are we excited about the choice or are we excited about the fact that got choice is right for this play and this production? An effective director must be a conscientious choice maker and lead others to be conscientious as well.

An effective director must integrate their heart into the work. Theatre practitioners are, after all, human. Directors are humans, leading other humans. As J. Donald Walters reminds us in The Art of Leadership, "Genuine leadership is of only one type: supportive. It leads people: It doesn't drive them. It involves them: It doesn't coerce them. It never loses sight of the most important principle governing any project involving human beings: namely, that people are more important than things."

We must be reminded that our stumblings as leaders are allowed and expected. We too are human. We too are concerned that we do well. But as a good director, and by extension, a good human, we concern ourselves with the fears and insecurities before our own.  "Assume that everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror." says Frank Hauser in Notes on Directing. This will help you approach the impossible state of infinite patience and benevolence that actors and others expect from you."  It's good to think of the other point of view. That's a directing skill. That's a life skill.

July 12, 2015

What A Day

I love this song. There's something about it that's just so pure. It expresses something, expresses a moment, expresses an experience for Greg Laswell. He sings his heart. And I love how this video expresses the lyrics of the song. It's literal. It's the words. But it's not narrative literal; it's not showing us the story of the words. It's showing us the words themselves, expressed in a specific and personal visual form that makes us understand them more deeply, or at least differently.