I entered the professional world of theatre as a Stage Manager, then Production Manager, and now Managing Director. It was a very logical progression in the sense that the scope of my responsibilities went from a small circle to a medium circle to a very large circle. That’s how I always describe it to incoming apprentices each year – my history at Touchstone in circles – with appropriate hand motions included.
Last month, I dove headfirst after six years back into the “first circle”: Stage Management. It was an interesting feat and felt a lot like remembering how to ride a bike. I remembered what I was good at, what I wasn’t so good at and why I was drawn to stage managing to begin with – being at the center of theatre creation.
The first week of rehearsal for Journey: Dream of the Red Pavilion was at the end of January and began with development rehearsals. This is the time when the playwright and/or director and actors “play” with certain sections of the script, improvising dialogue from Point A to Point B or a movement sequence with a specific objective in mind, in order to get a sense of what might work. For Journey, the playwright and director are the same person, Mary Wright, so that can expedite development time nicely (unless the director half of the brain and playwright half don’t agree, that is!). After this development time, Mary went away for two weeks and worked the rough draft of the script into the final draft, now including discoveries made in the development rehearsals.
These two weeks were a welcome break from rehearsal for me; time to catch up on those pesky administrative duties in that larger circle.
In mid-February, the “real” rehearsals began with a “finalish” script in hand – changes always happen when rehearsing an original play, inevitably something is discovered now that there’s new life being breathed into it by the actors. We’re in our third week of rehearsal now, having worked through most of the script at least once and set the blocking (movement of actors on stage), and are preparing for a Stumble Through (the first run of the play from start to finish, appropriately named because inevitably we will “stumble” and need a reminder of an exit or placement of prop, etc.) this Monday. Monday also marks the day I hand off Stage Management duties to the Apprentices, who will Assistant Stage Manage from now on and be the ones in rehearsal instead of me.
It’s a relief and sad to be at this place now. A relief in that I am waaaay behind – in part, due to our pesky winter weather, but also, due to the time spent in the rehearsal room and away from my desk. It’s quite sad too, to get a taste of the rehearsal process again and need to give it up so quickly. I’d forgotten how much I missed it and how much I enjoyed it until now. I usually relish the time when everyone else is in rehearsal; it’s quiet in the office, and I can get work done without interruption. So with a slightly conflicted heart, I’m jumping back out of the Stage Manager circle and back into my Managing Director circle. But now I’ve been reminded of “the other side”. The struggle to juggle deskwork and rehearsal room work AND the joy of creating.
With this title, I’m betting most of you are thinking that I’m going to eulogize Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps that’s been done enough. I’m not saying that with indifference either; I just kind of feel really weird inside, sometimes, about the way we deify junkies and suicide cases and just skirt over the death of uber-talents who managed to live full lives and die of old age.
I’m certainly not qualified to tell you whether that kind of living is a disease or just plain selfishness, but what I do know is that this week two major talents passed naturally after living full lives and contributing to society more than most ever will. I’m guessing neither of them are going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Thanks for the laughs!
This meditation grows out of my son, Sam, who is now 33 years old, having given me the latest version of XCOM Enemy Within, for Christmas. Ever since, I’ve been struggling with my conscience over how I spend my “spare time”. Sounds like a simple problem right, a “first world problem” as they say? But I don’t think so.
It was Thoreau who scoffed at us with the ever-abiding: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” I wouldn’t want to injure eternity or even get it a little disgruntled if I could avoid it – especially these days when my impending disappearance from this realm is ever more on my mind. (I hit sixty-three last December.) Even if Albert-the-genius-Einstein was right when he said that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”, it’s the only one I’ve got. So, joy is precious, but frivolity? Maybe not so much. Wasting time? Definitely not. As Seneca assures us: “True pleasure is a serious business.” And I take it all very seriously, but where do you draw the line between a destructive Puritanical oppression and Hedonistic excess?
Case in point: when Sam was a child, we got rid of the television set because we knew that hours in front of the boob tube, for the most part, insured verifiable boobiness. There’s always the exception to the rule, but staring at a burning candle, nay, watching someone collect the garbage, strikes me as more likely to be a useful expenditure of time than an endless stream of laugh-track small-mindedness perforated by “buy-this”, “buy-that” 30-second promotional spots. Not that the information locked into the television set itself – the wires, the screens, the electricity – isn’t a natural/man-made marvel or the extraordinary intelligence that went into making all those mind-numbingly mesmerizing messages.
I remember my father used to take me to play golf. Now, that was a productive use of time I’d say – though we didn’t do it very well. After all, we spent more time agonizing over our own inability to hit the ball straight or feeling shameful over some particularly bad judgment (at least I did) than communicating with each other. But at least it was a way of pushing back the onslaught of an ever more demanding world to make a place and a time for the two of us to be together, to allow our relationship to evolve in whatever course we could manage. It was healthy exercise; and besides, there’s nothing more aesthetically pleasing than the graceful arc of a golf shot well played – though, that never seemed the main reason we played.
So, though I didn’t really approve of computer games – they being like a high tech variation of all the boobiness of television – when Sammy got into XCOM – UFO Defense (a science fiction video game franchise featuring the titular fictional organization tasked with countering alien invasions of Earth), I decided to play along with him (like golf, kinda) to set aside the time or place we could be together. That was about 1994 and we both played pretty much non-stop until he went off to college. And now, twenty years later, when MicroProse comes out with a new updated and awesome (I use that word advisedly) version, I can’t play it (and it can deliver hours and hours of excitement endlessly) without feeling like I’m wasting my time. It doesn’t pass the frivolity test if I’m not “doing it with Sam”.
What is it that makes pleasure justifiable? Must it have a utilitarian value? Or is pleasure simply its own justification?
Certainly for a theatre artist, this is a fundamental consideration. I remember looking at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago on television, and the same patient but slightly concerned voice of, “Bill, you’re wasting your time,” came over me.
It wasn’t just what I know to be the brutally demanding rigors of show business underneath the made-up, constantly self-aware performances and public parade for the cameras necessary to satisfy the industry and the very fickle popularity business, that fascinated and irritated me – all of which can be as intoxicating as Cinderella’s night at the ball and at the same time, a waste of time, maybe even worse. Who’s in the lime light now isn’t as useful a question as to where the light should really be focused in the first place. Who really is the most worthy acting talent in the land? No one’s under the opinion that these events really deal with that in any effective way are they? This is by no means to denigrate the talent that surrounds money and the focus of attention like moths a powerful light.
Show business! It’s got a lock on our eye-balls. You’ve heard that the top 1% of the people in this country own about 35% of the wealth or the top 20% own 90% of the wealth—leaving, what, 10% of the wealth of this nation to sustain the rest of us 80%. It’s not unreasonable to argue that the distribution of power around the encouragement and recognition of talent is similarly skewed. 1% of those who are talented are receiving 90% of the opportunities, attention, and financial return. I mean, really. I love him too, but is Tom Hanks all that talented? He’s a good guy and all that, but really. See, I’m struggling.
I feel a little like Little Red Riding Hood, but there’s not just a wolf in the woods, but a wolf, a couple tigers, a lion or two, and at least half a dozen snakes… and that’s before I leave the house. The “media” is hyperbolic and everywhere, aggressively working to “capture our time, our eyeballs”.
And then I wanted to go see Frozen, Walt Disney’s new animation that came out Thanksgiving, but I just couldn’t bring myself to it; I mean, it is “for kids” right? I finally gave in, and went to it by myself – this musical animation for young girls based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the Ice Queen. Now, I am very fond of children’s literature, fables, and believe it to be fundamentally important to keep my inner child alive and healthy, but what was I up to? Wasn’t sharing the experience with anyone. And what am I learning, of what utilitarian value is seeing Frozen going to provide? Looking around the matinee audience, me being a single sixty year old man in the midst of families and little girls? “Grow up, Bill,” my voice said.
But another voice argued back, “sometimes you just need to let it go, Bill,” and when the Ice Queen runs out of the castle longing to leave her kingdom behind, free at last from having to worry about hurting others – I was so there!
That’s me. I so identify with that fierce passion, desiring freedom with all its heart and to hell with being pretty for the crowd or well-behaved for the authorities, roaring with righteousness. I’m the Ice Queen storming off into the maelstrom, making my stand in the wilds of nature, with only the wolves to hear my howls.
But I struggle, as do we all, I’m sure. To do right, live right, and not to waste my time with frivolous, mindless diversion and egotism. Justice above all, and know, our choices make a difference.
Here at Christmas City Follies Central Station, however, we’ve been officially into that Christmas music mindset since the end of October. We’ve been caroling and carrying on in the Christmas spirit for going on six weeks now. To some degree, it’s easy to get tired of that, deliberately immersing ourselves in Christmas from end of October onward, but I don’t know. I have too many fond memories of Christmas music to hold that much against it.
On the second day of rehearsal, we all brought in our respective musical instruments and muddled through “Silent Night” on the snare drum, uke, bass, flute (please forgive its piercing loudness), trombone (or Mary singing through the trombone part), oboe, sax, and keyboard (I think). Take a listen to our fledgling first efforts as a Follies band.
And I love the way it reminds me of the completely different rendition of “Silent Night” that we did last year, with lights dancing in the darkness while we sang, a little out of breath and constantly checking ourselves to make sure the choreography was right and that our lights were lit but knowing that the effort of nitpicking was worth the result.
And I love the way it reminds me of singing “Silent Night” in high school choir, simple a capella, hauntingly lovely, with the whole audience raggedly singing along, and that incredible feeling of unity granted through simply singing together.
And beyond that, I love the way that the Follies score doesn’t restrict itself to Christmas carols, reaching out to include Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Journey. Any song with a word or three about love and joy is rendered seasonally appropriate in the hands of the cast, because love and joy are what’s seasonally appropriate.
Tonight, we open a new Follies, rife with humor and heart, costume quick changes and ridiculous props, new characters and old. And music – lots of wonderful, beautiful, silly, delicious, epic, intimate, absurd, sweet music. We hope you’ll be there, sitting in the front row, humming along, singing and dancing all the way home.
Last Thursday, Touchstone finished up four arts-in-education residencies – two Building Bridges programs and two Young Playwrights’ Programs. Building Bridges Theatre culminated with 16 students performing theatre games, mask work, and original scenes for a gymnasium full of classmates, teachers, administrators, and family. Building Bridges Media found 10 students listening to songs they’d written produced by Artistic Director Jp and watching the newscast film they and their teachers starred in edited by Apprentice Mallory deForest. The two Young Playwrights’ Lab (YPL) sessions closed with teaching artists performing all the student-written plays over the course of the residency for the students, teachers, administrators, and family.
It’s rare that we all finish on one day, but the stars aligned! And the energy in the office between 2:30 & 3pm on Thursday was electric – that’s the transition time between Bridges (the in-school program) and YPL (the after-school program). The sound of the photocopier working overtime as the last scripts and certificates were printed, alongside the shouts of a favorite play or play titles like “The Best Play Ever” or “Great Friends and Great Times, or Fun is because of Friends” intermixed with stories of favorite Building Bridges moments and quotes like the title above “Art is great and so should we be”. It was a fun half hour, a bonding time for us all as we shared the successes of the day and anticipation for the afternoon.
As soon as I heard the quote above, I fell in love with it. Grammatically not the best sentence, but the sentiment is perfect. Art IS great. It can do powerful things on stage and certainly in the classroom as we often witness. And so should we be. I see the Touchstone team continually try to BE GREAT and often times excel through the success of a student. A story I heard the next day from Kyle demonstrated this: a YPL student’s parents came to see the play reading the day before and were shocked to see that their child, whose second language is English, had written a play, was interacting with his peers, and had excelled in the program.
I love stories like this and all the ones I experienced myself or hear throughout the office. It makes the days when you think you’ve made no progress or are really behind on office work and could use the time to finish up GREAT and totally worth it.
There is a color-copied image that still hangs on an office wall at Touchstone that I put up more than ten years ago. It is an enlarged image of what in reality was a fairly small puppet of a child holding a flute. At the time I was the marketing person for Touchstone, along with several other hats (that is always the way at small non-profits). The original came in a press packet from a small puppet theater in Vermont that we were presenting that season.
I was entranced by the photo, so I enlarged it and hung a copy by my desk. I’ve done some puppet theater myself (hand-puppets and marionettes in particular) where the puppeteer hides behind screens and pretends s/he doesn’t exist. I’d never seen a puppet quite like the one in the photo. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t ever seen a theater company quite like the one about to perform on our stage.
That puppet theater company was Sandglass.
The play was The Pig Act and had a circus theme. It was a play about the risks we take and the acts we are willing to perform for our soul’s survival. It was funny. It was frightening. It was compelling. It was gorgeous. What I remember most from the performance I saw was being spellbound by the artistry, the writing, and the amazingly glorious artistic precision required to create the kind of performances we saw from both puppet and puppeteer. Long before The Lion King and War Horse made puppetry in theater “cool” on a grand scale, Sandglass Theater was doing its thing. And doing it with simple, stunning beauty.
A few years later I left Touchstone for a while. When I returned to the fold five years later I was amused to find the image of the little creature from The Pig Act still hanging in its pride of place by the desk where I had sat. Amused… but not surprised. Things of transcendent beauty have a tendency of lasting long after the people have left.
I can’t wait to see what Sandglass has in store for us this time. And I wonder which image will be left on our office walls and in our imaginations for years to come.
In January 2015, a little over a year from now, The Charter Arts High School for the Arts is planning on moving to a new facility at 321 E. 3rd St., one block from Touchstone. With them come close to 450 students in the arts and 70-some faculty members, AND two new theatre spaces – one a small black box, another an approximately 375-seat, beautiful auditorium. If you’ll note the map above, they’re moving into the center of an area that is already full of arts institutions – Touchstone, Godfrey’s, Zoellner, Pennsylvania Youth Theatre at The Banana Factory, Mock Turtle just across the river at the Ice House, and the Bach Festival at Packer Chapel. There’s no doubt that the temperature is about to be turned up on the arts/culture stew over here on the South Side. Things look to cook. The students at the Charter Arts High School have a terrific attitude of curiosity and service, and I find them performing or just plain helping out everywhere! This is not only excellent for their education, it’s excellent for the health of the arts and life here in the Valley.
Still, it is very difficult for an individual artist to earn a living here in the Valley. There’s simply not enough paid work. Many of the artists that Zoellner, Touchstone, and Godfrey’s bring to the stage come from outside the Valley. What is going to happen to these talented youth when they graduate only to leave for the big cities, where there is a bigger arts marketplace? And what can we do about it?
Anyone out there with an answer or answers? How can we keep them here? These youth are our most precious resource; they carry with them a sense of belonging and rootedness that is essential to building an authentic local culture. In the arts, we find answers to who we are and how to move forward as a community facing ever more complex challenges – IF our artists reflect the local culture and aren’t simply entertainment machines. And through creative education, we build a work force that has what it takes to deal with all the inventiveness required for ever evolving manufacturing and business entrepreneurship. This is our challenge.
So, I have an idea, a hunch, a way forward, and it involves rethinking, even further, the role of art in our lives.
It appears to me, if we step back and look at the huge cultural changes we’re going through, that there’s a trend towards, we’ll say, “democratization” of the arts, and just about everything, actually. I’m not going to try to prove this, but for me, when I look at Reality TV and how it seems to acknowledge that all our lives are essentially dramatic, or YouTube videos being as open to a teenager as a TV mogul, or the dissemination of news through Twitter and Facebook and the teetering of media powerhouses like NBC or the Philadelphia Inquirer – what I see is the decentralization of not only media power but “the center” itself. The “center” is getting spread out among us all. And I suspect that this change is in our favor- that we can have some of “the center” here, here in Bethlehem, the Lehigh Valley; no need for young people to run off to find it. It’s not as important to be in Philly or New York as it once was. Certainly online education and work at home trends support this. But how do we need to change to encourage this trend? To help it along?
Stay tuned. More to come, and comments are very welcome.