Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lies & Truth in the Theatre

from William Franke, Director of Development & Communications

Much has been made in the past few weeks of Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, particularly the truthfulness of it.  Perhaps none of this would have come up had it stayed in the theater and not been presented as truth on This American Life, where it transitioned from theatre to journalism.

(Full disclosure: I have not seen the live performance at the Public Theater. But like many people*, I was enthralled with the half hour excerpt of Daisey’s performance presented on This American Life. I was equally captivated by the episode that they ran last week, “Retraction.”)

I know some people who find it ridiculous that Daisey is being lambasted for being less than truthful. They repeat Daisey’s defense that he is an artist of the theatre and that his monologue—a piece of theatre—does not need to meet the same rigors that a piece of pure journalism does.

The reason this sticks in my craw is that it reminds me of a refrain I’ve heard over and over again: that actors = liars. (A few examples: A friend of mine was told by her in-laws “We can never be sure if you’re telling the truth, because you’re an actor.” I was once approached by a former coworker to pose on the phone as her grown daughter’s boss to give a glowing recommendation to a potential employer. When I refused, she said “C’mon, you can do it. You’re an actor.”)

My understanding is that, while Daisey created a theatrical piece, he did so as a storyteller, purportedly relating stories of his actual experiences without caveat, without footnote. Instead, what was brought to light was that he made much of it up to manipulate the emotions of the audience.

Yes, actors in any play are up there on stage saying things they don’t mean, things they may not personally believe, pretending to be people they aren’t. But when actor and audience enter the theater, there is a contract, an understanding between both parties about what is going on. Even with plays based on historical events, audiences understand that liberties are taken: historical personages and events are merged for the sake of dramatic expediency. The irony of this situation is that in a room full of people sharing an evening of these agreed-upon lies, something transcendent often occurs. Greater truths are discovered. That is the power of theatre when everyone is in it together.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Meltdown on the Mountain

Meltdown on the Mountain—It’s the getting back up that counts (with a little help from our friends).
from Christa Kimlicko JonesAssociate Artistic Director, Director of Programming: 

Building a theatre company isn’t easy.  There are many long roads, hurdles, and often mountains to climb. There are fears and doubts. There are big leaps. There are setbacks. Sometimes it even seems that it would make more sense to just not do it. It would be easier, safer, simpler. But, then, miraculously we get back up. We leap. We dive. We push through. Somehow we find strength in each other, in our dreamsand in you, our supporters. Not really sure how exactly it happens, but it doesand we thank you for it.

This past week, I went skiing for the first time EVER. And, needless to say, it proved to be more than just a skiing trip. I think I discovered myself and perhaps even conquered myself up on that stupid not-so-easy "Easy Street" course—with a little help from my friends. The leading up to it was fine, I guess. I would mention what I was doing for Spring Break, look around with saucer eyes for any sort of insight (people didn't realize that I was really looking for magical ANSWERS!) and mostly it was the same: people giving me advice, saying "you’ll be fine!" and telling me "just keep your skis in 'pizza.'" Telling me what boots or pants or jacket I needed. And of course I just said, "Okay!" because really, I had no idea about any of it. I had no context (except what I've seen on TV, and those people aren't doing 'pizza,' I don’t think. These "bits of advice," however, could IN NO WAY prepare me for what I was about to do. I suppose "keep it in pizza" was something I used the most! But, seriously, folksalmost 40 and first time skiing?? This brain and body are a bit different than my 5-year-old nephew who literally got to the top of the mountain and just went. No pausing. No questions. He just went. And survived. And went back for more. There is a lesson in that, I’m sure!  But, my journey was a bit more…um… involved.

So, first things first, I got my outfit—I looked like I knew what I was doing (that’s half the battle, right?!). The next morning, we started our road trip to Vermont. We got to the lodge after our gorgeous drive and met up with family. We were staying in the Trapp Family Lodges in Stowe, VT. Over dinner, there was discussion about the snow and the slopes and "Stay on the bunny..." "Okay," I said. Next morning—got dressed, good breakfast, and off we went! Another gorgeous, peaceful drive to the slopes. After getting all set up and looking around I thought, "I can do this!" Then off to lessons. We started slowly. Scooting along, learning about weight, etc. We learned how to get on the lift (much appreciated!), and then got to the top of the bunny slope. I honestly don’t remember my first time down. I was just following. Just trying to stay up. And I was doing great! We did this several more times until the class was over. Success!! I was able to do this! I only fell a couple of times (trying not to run into children—a very smart objective, I thought!). But I was good! We then had lunch, and back to the 1pm lesson: Intro to Turning. We graduated to "Easy Street." However, Easy Street wasn’t so easy. Anyway, it was fine, reallyat first. With my class, I was able to follow my teacher and my other classmates. I fell mostly every time going down, but I learned how to get up. In fact, I got really good at that. (Maybe that’s the moral to the story, really?!) Up and down. Falling, yes, but getting back up! Had a great afternoon, evening of restmuscles very sore. Jud said that I’d probably wake up tomorrow and think, "I don’t want to go, I’m too sore" (he was right), but, "getting up and going is key!"

Next morning, VERY sore. Could hardly walk. But, was determined to push through. Stretched out. Got dressed. Good breakfast. Nice drive there, but this day…this day was different. I had a feeling in my stomach. Of dread. The day before, I knew nothing. But today, today I knew what was about to happen. And I, in no way, trusted myself. But, on we went. ‘Easy Street’, here we come! Lift was good. I was a pro at this! Got to the top--the top of the mountain that I had skied many times the day before. Turned the corner, looked down. And FROZE. My legs had no idea of what to do. People zooming past but I froze. And then I started crying. The meltdown on the mountain had begun. I tried to move, scooted a bit. But just couldn't go. Or let go. Isn't interesting how just a little bit of knowledge will keep you stuck in one place? Anyway, I tried to follow Jud, but just couldn’t go. I cried, I yelled at him for bringing me up there, I started scooting down on my bottom—but that wasn't really working. The people on the lifts got a lift and a show! And I didn't care. I was going to die on that mountain (it was a very dramatic moment). I had to keep taking my goggles off because they were fogging up from crying. I tried getting up and kept falling over and then no energy to get back up because I was cryingI mean, sobbing. It was quite a sight, I'm sure. Jud standing there, all the while, trying to give me pointers. I certainly didn't want to listen. But he stayed. And then, after probably 20 minutes or so of this, I'm not sure what happened—something in me?  Something in the fact that he was still there?  Something in the knowledge that I had to get down? Something in the knowledge that I did it just the day before? I don't know. But I stood up, had a moment with myself, looked straight ahead, and went forward a bit. I stopped. Then turned a bit, went the other way. The next thing I knew I was traversing down the mountain—slowly, but I was going. Bit by bit, and then somehow, I was down the mountain. It wasn't like I just said "Okay…GO…" and I was down, which may be the way for some. For me, it was slowly, bit by bit. And the most bizarre thing—when I got down, I had the thought of, "I want to go again." Why in the world would I do that to myself?  Bizarre. So, I went down again. I fell every time—but less and less. Most importantly, I kept going. Learning something about it each time down.

On that day, I realized that looking straight down the mountain didn't work, but focusing on just the task at hand—that I could handle. I learned that if I keep going, eventually I will get through.  And, at some point, I might even enjoy myself! I learned that it’s okay to be cautious, smart in fact. It's okay to be a bit afraid. It's most important that you take that breath and you try. And if you fall, learn how to get up. And surround yourself with those that love you, care for you, believe in you, will stick up for you when others try to push you down, and you will actually enjoy the scenery as it goes by. You might even be able to improve your technique each time you go.

Just like building a theatre. Just like anything in life, really. Those things that are most worth it will be hard, but they are possible. I’m certainly not ready to do blue slopes yet, but I am willing to go back again and get more bruises in the process. Thank you for being those supporters on the mountain of building a theatre company. We literally could not do it without you. It's scary at times for sure, but it's definitely possible. And the bumps and bruises are worth it. We will keep diving. Taking leaps. Taking chances—with you. Looking forward to seeing you up there on that mountain again and again. Together we can do this!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

We Are Family

from Todd Eric Hawkins, Managing Director 
In school, I was constantly bullied; I was ganged up on, beaten, and terrorized on a regular basis. Or at least that is how it felt at the time.

On my first day of sixth grade, I transitioned to a middle school in Norman, Oklahoma. It was the first time I wasn’t able to walk to school; I had to ride the bus.  This concept to me was terrifying. At 11 years old, I was already almost 6 feet tall and I was painfully shy—a combination that would prove to be a liability.

I sat on the bus that first morning, scared of the new experience. To soothe myself, I held my books to my chest, trying to make myself as small as humanly possible. I can only assume that I thought that if I stayed still, none of the other kids would notice me and, therefore, wouldn’t pick on me. My height made this impossible.

One of the boys on the bus asked if I was a boy or a girl. I, of course, told him that I was a boy. At the time I didn’t realize it, but the next move would be the beginning of my many encounters with bullies. He told me that he thought I was a girl, because I carried my books like one. Everyone laughed and that was all it took, I was called a fag for the first time in my life.  At the time I didn’t even know what the word meant, let alone whether I was one or not.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. When I look back on that time and the events that followed over the course of the next six years, I am oddly thankful. Without that teasing I wouldn’t be the person I am today, nor would I have found a home in the theatre.

In the Drama Club, I found my allies, a merry band of misfits who were all looking for some kind of escape from the cruel, unjust world that we were forced to inhabit. In the auditorium after school, during countless hours of rehearsal, I felt like a valued member of the team. That feeling gave me the strength to ignore the name-calling and fight back when pushed.  I discovered who I was.

The theatre has always provided me with a sense of family. Whether it was high school, college, or Theatre East, the people who surround me when I am actively engaged in the art of making theatre are the best people I know. 

I think much of it has to do with the collaborative nature of the theatre. Nothing can get done without everyone involved doing his or her job. Success depends upon it.  Even when things don’t seem to be going well, the show, as they say, must go on, and the players must pull together and do whatever it takes to make it happen. That lesson may be the most valuable thing I have learned from the theatre.

I am honored to be a part of the Theatre East family, and as part of that family, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to make it a success. Thank you for welcoming me and above all for your continued support.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

When Life Gives You Lemons

from Judson Jones, Artistic Director

When life gives you lemons, make saturated calcium hydroxide1 
We’ve all heard the old adage before. And while we know it to be true, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The year is 1990. I’m a junior at Whitehouse High School. And for some reason, in the infinite wisdom of a 17-year-old, I opted to sign up for Physics class. Why? I still don’t know. I could say that I truly wanted to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Most likely there was a cute girl in the class; at 17 you tend to follow certain parts of the body more than others. So there I was. I had already plastered my textbook cover with my favorite bands, I had my new Chuck Taylors on (which I think the cute girl noticed), I was ready for some Physics. Then Mr. Tom Young walked in. You know that look on your face when you smell something but you can’t figure out exactly what it is, and you kind of turn your head one direction and then another to see if you find the source? That was my face for the next 50 minutes. Who cares about Bon Jovi? Who cares about red canvas Hi-Tops with black laces? Who cares about the cute girl?! I’m going to fail Physics!!! After school that day I went and drowned my sorrows in a tall  suicide2 Slush from Sonic.
As I lay in bed that night two thoughts kept creeping into my mind. Over and over. Incessantly. No matter how hard I tried, my mind was plagued with fear and grief. One: Cop Rock. Really?! From the same mind that created Hill Street Blues?! It made no sense! That was the problem with the ’90s! Things were too good! We left the depressing, gritty, cocaine-filled, recession-induced dramas with the ’80s! We didn’t want to see a brooding cop with a dark past who nurses a bottle of Scotch each night just to blot out the nightmares of the streets arresting some arrogant drug lord that had the cop’s partner taken out in an undercover sting that went bad two weeks ago! We didn’t want to see that! Instead we wanted to see the same brooding cop and the same arrogant drug lord SINGING AND DANCING TOGETHER! Ugh! It was such a rough time. Oh, and the other thought that kept penetrating my mind was sitting in Mr. Young’s Physics class for the remainder of the school year.
But much to my surprise Physics class got better. There was something incredibly special that Mr. Young brought to class every single day: Passion. And it was contagious. He loved teaching. He loved his students. He didn’t try to make science cool, instead he simply showed us how cool it was. Listening to him talk about quantum behavior or how a Dunking Duck works was like listening to a master painter talking about a piece of art. He was the myth buster before MythBusters came along! Plus he always had assignments you could do for extra credit. This was the secret to me passing. (Oh, and after the 11th episode—“Bang the Potts Slowly”—Cop Rock was canceled.)
We were getting close to midterms and we were each directed to conduct an experiment and document the process FULLY. This would count for half our grade. The stakes were high. So I chose the old lemon-powers-the-digital clock experiment. I already had a head start: we’d bought my dad one of those setups years ago for Father’s Day and my dad keeps everything! I had my digital clock, my piece of copper, my galvanized nail, my wiring, and most importantly my lemon. It went off without a hitch! Then I had to write about it. What was the chemical process that made it work. Mind you, this was before one could just Google it or go to Wikipedia to find out that it’s just an electrochemical reaction caused when oxidation and reduction occur. (I’m still not certain what that means.) Anyway, I pored over texts and labored over my predicament for days. And the night before it was due I found myself staring at the blinking colon on my lemon-powered-digital clock. Then an idea struck me. Partially because I’m stubborn and partially because it’s rumored that I’m a smart ass…I would write a play. Which Way Did He Go George could be called an homage to Of Mice and Men with a Frankenstein twist. It centered around an ill-fated lemon named Lenny and the painful choice that George would have to make. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but yes, George kills Lenny! Sorry. But then George decides to resurrect Lenny in spectacular fashion and thus documenting my experiment began. I finished my masterpiece, went to class the next day, and handed in my death sentence with a smile.
When we came back from the break Mr. Young promptly started handing out our graded term papers. All but mine. He simply asked me to stay after class. Great. I was going to get an F and a lecture. I could hear it already: “You don’t apply yourself.” “Was this supposed to be funny?” “You’ve learned nothing in my class.” After everyone left the class I slowly made my way to his desk and was prepared to lay prostrate and receive my lashings. Mr. Young handed me my paper. B. “I would have given it a higher grade but I felt like the plot sort of fell apart towards the end. And it seemed a bit contrived at times.” I just stared at him. Oh my God, I’ve fallen asleep again. That’s what’s happening. I’m asleep at my desk and at any moment something is going to wake me up and I’m going to spring back and let out something like, “Uhwoodowha?” That didn’t happen. I was indeed awake. Mr. Young broke the silence, “You probably think I'm teaching you Physics don't you? I’m not. I'm teaching you that when you're faced with something and you don't know what to do or how to move forward…you don't close the book. You don't give up. You DO something.”
In this business of theatre, we are told “No” so many times. Whether it’s seeking a role, funding for a production, a home for a play, presenting a design or a score, we will hear “No” many times before we will hear “Yes.” And all too often it makes us want to throw up our hands and simply close the book. Over the past couple of weeks Mr. Young has come to mind often. Every time I think I can’t send another email, I can’t reach out to another possible funder, I can’t chew another TUMS…I take a moment. Breathe. And think, “Don’t close the book.”
Thank you, Mr. Young for that gift. It has made all the difference. What you put in motion…has stayed in motion.