“I blush and stammer badly.”

The greatest success requires the greatest risk. Human beings are innately afraid of embarrassment. One of the greatest blocks artists, nay, PEOPLE, face is the fear of being embarrassed. We will do everything possible to avoid the loss of control that accompanies embarrassment. But if we don’t risk embarrassment, how will we ever grow? This aversion to embarrassment can be as simple as not raising your hand in class because you don’t want to give the wrong answer, or as great as holding back your undying love for someone for fear of being rejected.

I’m currently in the unique position of accompanying movement classes at a small private school in Mill Valley, CA. It’s a required course for all students, grades K-8. I observe the students’ embarrassment daily. It seems to start around fourth grade. These students are becoming painfully aware of their egos and bodies. Rather than actively participating in the class, the shuffle about, cross their arms, giggle at every motion that the teacher demonstrates, and chat at every possible opportunity. And NO ONE wants to volunteer to give an example. These classes are frustrating and slow. The teacher is unable to progress and really introduce them to the freedom of movement because the students are so crippled with embarrassment. Heaven forbid that they do anything that might expose them as being less than totally cool and aloof.

So, how do we reach these students? How do we create a safe environment in which they are comfortable with moving outside of their comfort zone. I’ve learned that the greatest personal and artistic successes come from living in the danger zone. It took time and, yes, many moments of embarrassment to learn this. But, look! I’m still standing and thriving today. As far as I know, no one has actually ever died of embarrassment, as the saying goes. Maybe we should make a concentrated effort to change that phrase. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all start saying, “I tried that new step in dance class and fell flat on my bum – and then I blossomed with embarrassment!”

Or should I be embarrassed for even suggesting something so scary?

Wake Up Call

I’ve spent most of my spare time this week digging into esteemed director, Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares.  Every page has been absolutely enlightening and I can’t believe that I am only now encountering this text for the first time.  Bogart’s straightforward, logical approach to the artistic process is a refreshing and inspiring.  In college, where we were required to read text after text of the same regurgitated and watered-down versions of Stanislavski and Meisner, I would have welcomed a book like Bogart’s.  She acknowledges the forefathers of the dramatic methods, but she also paints the dramatic process in a realistic light.  There is no sugar-coating or overly high brow language.  Bogart gets down to brass tacks, breaking down what she perceives to be the seven main areas of art-making: Violence, Memory, Terror, Eroticism, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. 

Today, I’d like to focus on the section on Violence.  Bogart is not referring to overt physical violence.  She is instead referring to “The decisiveness, the cruelty, which has extinguished the spontaneity of the moment…” (Bogart, 45).  Theatre is an art of consistency.  We set everything, from entrances, to the angle of a chair, to moments of physical action.  When we set an angle or a gesture, we take away all other possible options.  We are violently denying the actor any other choice, but the one that has been established.  If we leave more of the choices intact, we are delving into the world of improvisation, which is entirely different form of theatre.  In a staged and scripted production, however, we are required to set circumstances and parameters for the actors.  It is only once these violent boundaries have been drawn that the actors can begin to do the real work.  As Bogart says, “they accept this violence and work with it, bringing skill and imagination to the art of repetition” (45).

Perhaps the true art behind acting is how to behave naturally in unnatural circumstances.  Actors are violently denied all but one option for every moment in a performance, yet they must find a way to make the discovery of that set option seem organic and spontaneous.  Working with young actors is a wonderful study of this paradox.  I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve said something along the lines of “Just be normal.” to a young actor in a play.  To an inexperienced actor, the act of decisively limiting options can be almost paralyzing.  You put a normally lively and engaging young person on stage with a set traffic pattern of blocking and movement, and he or she instantly turns into a robot.  The young actor is so violated and stunned by the limited choices, that he or she instead chooses nothing.  Most of my work with young actors is about getting them to re-engage.  We must wake up the imagination and begin to explore ways of enlivening the given circumstances. 

Another fascinating aspect of Bogart’s chapter on violence is the section on distortion.  To distort something is to awaken it, and “the function of art is to awaken what is asleep” (53). Of course!  An awakening is at the center of every show.  How many plays have we all seen about taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary circumstances.  Let’s think about the last 5 plays that I’ve seen:

1. Chinglish by David Henry Hwang at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkeley, CA) – A humdrum American business man from Cleveland must overcome huge cultural and language barriers in order to forge a deal in China that will save his family’s business and, ultimately, his life.

2. Urinetown by by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann at Music Box Theatre Co. (Danville, CA) – Poor, regular folk must scrape every penny and band together in order to survive during a water crisis which forces everyone to pay to pee.

3. Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine at Shakespeare in the Park (NY, NY) – An ordinary baker and his wife must undergo a series of extreme tests and fulfill a witch’s demands in order to conceive a child.

4. Onceby Enda Walsh at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (NY, NY) – An Irish vacuum repair man and a Czech single mother come together to produce a record that will change (and save) both of their lives.

5. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo and Nick Stafford at Lincoln Center Theatre (NY, NY) – A poor farm boy runs away from home to join the army, facing countless terrors and challenges on the European front of World War One, in order to save his beloved horse.

In each of these shows, the central characters are ordinary people who are woken up by an event or series of events in their lives.  The awakening is not easy.  It is fraught with peril and violence., but it is this awakening that propels each of the central characters into action and leads to the ultimate catharsis which leaves both the characters and the audience feeling satisfied. 

When I first read the synopsis of Anne Bogart’s book, I was skeptical as to the true value of violence in the artistic process.  I didn’t understand what she could possibly be referring to.  As soon as I began reading the actual text, however, it became immediately clear.  Change is a difficult and scary thing.  It is for this reason that Bogart views actors as heroes.  Actors willingly throw themselves into violent and difficult circumstances where options are limited.  When you are on stage, it is like being locked in a cage with only a small, set toolbox of words and props to help you safely escape.  The risk is high, but the thrill is huge.  As any good playwright will put their characters through a massive, violent awakening, the actor must go through it twice – once as himself and once as the character.  It sounds almost impossible, yet some of us willingly undertake this task every day.  Call it what you will – crazy, thrill-seeking, impossible, eccentric, heroic. Perhaps it is foolish to subject ourselves to such violence in order to expose some sort of greater truth.  But audiences are still paying to come on the ride with us, so perhaps we theatre folk are really the greater fools.

“There’s a lot I am not certain of.”

I spent the day today subbing in on lead keyboard for a local production of A Chorus Line.  Being a sub is an interesting predicament.  Most of your energy is spent on staying alert, giving cues, being cognizant of tempo, and praying that you play all (or most) of the right notes.  The predicament lies in the fact that, as I see it, the job of the Music Director or First Keyboard (which are often one in the same), is to support the actors. 

What is support?

In singing, we spend a lot of time talking about the ever-ambiguous concept of support.  When I teach voice lessons, I do my best to demystify the term.  Support, in terms of the voice, is the use of breath and musculature to literally support the production of sound.  Breathe in.  Engage the abdominals, intercostals, and back.  Slowly release your breath as your simultaneously create sound.  Use the muscles to be in control of this release.  It is an expansive, beautiful process.

I approach music directing in much the same way.  Technique, tempo, and cues are all a part of providing the singers and musicians with support.  Moreover, though, comes musicality.  The best musical directors will breathe into every phrase that they play.  There is so much that is contained in a single breath.  That one breath equals infinite possibility. 

“Inspiration” has many meanings.  Most commonly, it is used to refer to influence.  It also, however, can mean that act of breathing.  A moment of breath is a moment of inspiration. 

I’m afraid that my playing today was not very inspired.  I played most of the right notes, did my best to uphold the music director’s tempos, volume, and cues, and I did not run into any major train wrecks.  But I wasn’t breathing.  I was holding my breath for the entire two hours of the show.  Nerves ousted musicality.  I let small disappointments and flubs unravel me.  Most alarmingly, I wasn’t listening.  I’m sure I will write a later post on the value of listening in regards to both music and life.  Today I forgot to listen.  Listening to the singers and the other musicians will always right your ship and point you home.  Closing them out, holding your breath, and only focusing on your own piece of the puzzle will only leave you with a few edges.  Even on stressful, “I’m subbing in on a show I’ve never played before” situations, heart and integrity must guide the way. 

The good news is that I’m playing the show two more times next week.  Hopefully, next time, we’ll all breathe together.

A Word to Change the World

“In the beginning there was the Word.”

The state of the arts is frighteningly dismal.  Theatre companies across the country face countless challenges every day as they struggle to keep their doors open.  More and more companies are folding under the weight of this struggle.  Four Bay Area theatre companies closed their doors this summer, two of which – California Conservatory Theatre and the Willows Theatre Company – had been forces in the community for over thirty years.  Other small professional theatres are having to make tough choices in order to optimize their capital gain and patron satisfaction.  How do you cut payroll expenses and increase cashflow?  Some companies are electing to run shorter seasons, choosing two or three shows that are sure to sell, and throwing all of their resources into making them outstanding productions.  Diablo Theatre Company and Contra Costa Musical Theatre (both housed in Walnut’s Creek Lesher Center for the Arts) are producing My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra and Singin’ In the Rain; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Sound of Music respectively.  These company’s ticket prices range from $35-$53.  The Bay Area’s larger production houses, such as American Conservatory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre offer broader seasons filled with New York Actors.  Their ticket prices, however, start to soar up toward $90 for orchestra seats.

When I go to the theatre, I do my best to acquire an industry comp, or take advantage of any available discounts for ticket buyers under the age of 30.  I don’t mind going to the theatre alone. In fact, this is sometimes the only way to get squeezed into one of those last remaining seats for a popular performance.  I wouldn’t love the arts as I do today had it not been for family outings to the theatre that began when I was a very young child.  I’d like to think that if I had been born in 2005 instead of 1985 my parents would have been able to provide me with the same formative theatre going experiences, but with today’s staggering ticket prices, I’m just not sure.  An outing to the theatre for a family of four can easily exceed $400 when you factor in ticket prices, “convenience fees,” and parking.  If we are not exposing young audiences to theatre, how are we ever going to change the world?

Modern Physics largely embraces something called String Theory.  String Theory proposes that “everything in the universe is composed of tiny vibrating strings of energy. In this view, every particle in your body, every speck of light that lets you read these words, and every packet of gravity that pushes you into your chair is just a variant of this one fundamental entity” (Kaku, 2005).  The world and everything in it is made up of infinitesimal vibrations of energy.  Ages before the development of String Theory, physicists had already determined that sound travels in waves.  Sound travels in vibrating waves.  And the universe is simply an enormous set of vibrations.  So, one could argue that each sound can change the world.

John 1:1 tells us “In the beginning, there was the Word.”  A single word has the ability to set the wheels of change in motion.  We see this every day in modern politics.  Think of the great orators of history – Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama.  They all influenced enormous change through the power of their words.  Could it be said that this was not brought on merely by the the text they were delivering, but by the sound of their voices?  A powerful, resonant, vibrating voice can be extremely influential.  During World War II, the world was gripped by Adolph Hitler’s terrifying speeches.  Families from Chicago to Liverpoole would huddle around the radio to listen.  Whether or not they understood German, Hitler’s message and intent was made abundantly clear simply through the tone of his voice.  A more positive example would be listening to opera.  With or without translations, it is impossible not to be moved when listening to Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni sing the finale to the first act of La Boheme.  The conclusion is clear.  Connect a powerful sound with comprehensible words, and the speaker will hold immense power.

The need for theatre arts has never been greater.  Young people today are growing up in an extremely enabling digital age.  Everything is instantaneous.  There is no drive to work or – horror of horrors! – WAIT for anything.  Everything can be accomplished with a tap on a screen of the click of a mouse.  Interpersonal communications are floundering as well.  Most of my students these days don’t ever pick up the phone to make an actual call.  Are we really comfortable with the idea that within the next thirty years some of the most important decisions in the world might be made via text message?  We have a duty to teach our young people how to SPEAK.  It is not just about finding ways to make the arts accessible to youth.  Yes, the high ticket prices and diminishing theatre community are certainly going to make arts access more challenging to families and youth.  But before we can even talk about how to make theatre and art financially and geographically accessible to young people, we have to figure out how to make young people WANT the theatre.  I haven’t given up on human beings’ innate need to gather together and share stories just yet, but it will be a quickly dying flame unless we find ways to make art more exciting and enlightening.  A word is so powerful, yet there are so many uninspired words being produced.  If I had my way, I would take every student to see last year’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park.  But how do I convince a twelve-year-old to see “This wickedly funny and fiercely provocative play about race, real estate, and the volatile values of each.” when she could go see Bring It On: The Musical “With a colorful crew of characters, an exciting fresh sound and explosive dance with aerial stunts”?  There must be a way to combine the two.

Now the appeal must go out to writers, producers, directors, actors, and teachers.  In order to see our beloved art form thrive, we must do something to make it viable AND important.  It is not enough to simply produce commercially successful spectacle.  It must be commercially successful spectacle that has a heartbeat.  Otherwise, parents will not shell out $100 a ticket when they could go see commercially successful spectacle at the local AMC for $18.50 a ticket. Flash-in-the pan bubble gum shows are a quick fix, but they won’t make the art form endure.  Writers have the create new work that is sexy, relevant, and important.  Producers must be willing to take greater risks on new work or new concepts of old work.  Directors must find a way to revitalize classics, while also injecting truth and beauty into new works.  Actors must approach every project with the reverence they would pay to Shakespeare.  Teachers must advocate for their students and help them find their voices.  Above all, we must all agree to work together, rather than forever being at odds.

“In the beginning there was the word.”

Let’s make some noise to carry us toward the future.