February 29, 2004

Solace for Teen Angst Found in Musical Theater

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:18 pm

Crowning the walls of the chorus room at Acalanes High School are student-designed plaques commemorating the annual musicals produced by the department. Decades of choral classes comprised of hundreds of talented and creative individuals are represented by those plaques. With only a few exceptions, there is a repetition of Broadway titles that have become high school production staples over the last 50 years. A lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics are on that wall, and “Guys and Dolls” pops up every few years.

I was a student in that choral department from 1986-1990. “Les Misérables” was the hottest show in London and on Broadway at that time, and for me, a musical theater lover, the world was forever changed. The completely sung libretto, the romance, the violence, the emotional extremes all entranced me and the original cast recording became my constant audio companion.

I used to stand in the Acalanes chorus room and wish we could do “Les Misérables.” At the same time, it saddened me to think that someday my beloved “Les Miz” would reach the point in every big show’s life when it becomes fodder for high school students to learn the art of stage production. I would look at one of the “Oklahoma” plaques and try to imagine what that mighty show must have been like in its heyday before it became a high school musical. Then I would cheer myself up by rationalizing that “Les Miz” was far too technically difficult and too long to ever become a high school musical. Besides, if it did become a high school musical, it wouldn’t be for a long, long time.

I hadn’t thought about any of this for 14 years, and then I heard Campolindo High School was doing “Les Misérables: School Edition” as their musical this year. I couldn’t believe the time had come for teenagers to take over the story for a show that has become a Broadway legend. It was a rude awakening to realize that time had moved on and the “Les Miz” of my youth no longer existed.

I also realized that I hadn’t given “Les Miz” a lot of thought for a long time. I saw “Les Miz” 10 times over a 10 year period, and then just stopped having the need to go anymore. What changed? I thought of a comment John Lithgow once made on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” saying that he thinks people take from the theater what they need at any given time. I completely agree with him. When I saw “Rent,” I wept for the disillusioned bohemians because I was one year out of film school and had chosen to get a real job rather than eat rice and beans in a rundown apartment in Los Angeles. Part of me envied my friends in L.A. who were still collecting rice and bean recipes, while the other part realized that I wasn’t cut out to suffer that much for my art. “Rent” was cathartic for me at that time.

I saw “Ragtime” when I was a month away from giving birth to my son. When the character of Colehouse Walker, Jr. sang, “I see his face/I hear his heartbeat/I look in those eyes/how wise they seem./ And when he is old enough I will show him America/And he will ride on the wheels of a dream,” I became a sobbing puddle on the floor of the theater. That sentiment suddenly meant much more to me than when I had seen the show for the first time three years earlier.

I have realized that “Les Miz” was my pop outlet for teen angst, providing the same function James Dean or The Doors had for previous generations. While my peers were sharing their growing pains with The Cure or Depeche Mode, I connected with a 19th century novel about revolutionary France set to music. Now, I find it wonderfully poignant that a show which served such a need in my teens and early 20s is in the hands of teenage artists. Fate is such a clever dramatist!

February 17, 2004

The perfect baby gift

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:35 pm

Our first nephew, Nathaniel Terrence, was born February 9 and my husband and I are ecstatic to become an aunt and an uncle. For years we have envied our siblings’ relationships with all their various nieces and nephews. It seemed like they were all having such a good time. We finally get to experience this special relationship from the inside.

At the baby shower for my sister-in-law, Heather, I got to see the quilted bedspread she made in honor of the baby. She called it “an attempt” at quilting, but it is much more than an attempt. It is a beautifully vivid patchwork piece in a pattern of geometrically-inspired tulips. The same tulips are stenciled as a border on the wall of the baby’s room.

I admired the quilt because I loved the use of color, I loved the pattern, and I loved the quilting. I’m the type of person who likes to finish a project in one weekend before I get bored with it, so the patience it takes to quilt a bedspread is something I am awed by.

My brother-in-law, Mike, also is artistically represented in the baby’s room through a wonderful bedside lamp in the shape of a pump. Pull the pump handle and the light goes on and off. Very cute. He made it in junior high, but when he found it in his parents’ garage, he realized it would be perfect for the baby. And it is.

I left my first viewing of the nursery feeling like all was right with the world. A new life is coming into the family, and his parents are welcoming him with a hand-crafted room. What a gift of artistic expression! It wasn’t until I was reflecting on the room a few days later that I was struck by the profound human compulsion to create art while we await a newly created life. Parents often decorate a baby’s room themselves with colors and patterns they would never dare try in the living room. Parents who have their reasons for not decorating the room themselves hire someone to bring a creative eye and hand to the baby’s room and let loose with a design that would never be allowed in the living room. Babies seem to unleash a creative freedom in us. It may be part of the “nesting instinct” expectant parents are supposed to exhibit. Wouldn’t it be interesting to prove that artistic expression is an integral facet of nesting?

When Heather made her quilt, she was doing something new mothers have been doing for eons and generations. Of course, there used to be a practical need to make a quilt to warm the baby. But now, we can buy a fleece blanket at Macy’s for an iota of the effort it takes to make that quilt. But Heather chose to make the quilt, distilling the purest expression of her love through art.

Fathers make pump-lamps, grandfathers make cribs, grandmothers craft Christmas stockings, great-grandmothers crochet blankets, uncles paint pottery, aunts create cross-stitch banners celebrating a child’s names and birthday, best friends knit baby bonnets. No doubt your child has something handmade by someone near and dear to the family that is unique. When I was born, my grandfather made two guardian angels for me through his mosaic art. He died five months later, but those angels have hung in my bedroom, wherever I have lived, for 32 years. Through them, I see my grandfather every day.

I know my kids were richly blessed at birth with handmade artistic gifts from those closest to them. They, with their new cousin Nathaniel, are surrounded by a pantheon of artistic guardian angels.

February 2, 2004

Reformed Hypocrite Learns Lessons from Youth Theater

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:41 pm

Winter. A time for nature to prepare for its Big Spring Opening. But Mother Nature is not in production on the only show in town.

Countless children and teenagers are busily rehearsing for their own blooming season when schools and young theater troupes pack our local stages with plays and musicals galore. Plus there are the myriad band concerts and competitions in the spring. And don’t forget the spring recitals for everyone studying music privately.

Of course, young showmanship is on stage all year round, but the period between March and June is particularly packed. If you don’t have kids in the school system anymore, you may not realize that the traditional high school musical is now joined on the calendar by the middle school and elementary school spring musicals. And there are so many wonderful extracurricular children’s theater programs in our area that it isn’t fair to list them since I’m sure some will be forgotten.

Every production with young people wants the same thing: an audience. And they want an audience consisting of more than parents, grandparents and truly loyal family friends. Some shows and concerts are lucky enough to get newspaper coverage. Many are listed in the arts calendar. But the truth is, it is hard to convince people who don’t have children in the production that it is worth their time and money to come fill a seat. Even those noble souls who want to support young creative endeavors have trouble bringing themselves to spend two hours watching something that may be quite good, but also could easily be, well, um, shall we say, an effective reminder of how the process is ultimately more important than the product.

I know of what I speak because I will extol the virtues of supporting our young people in performing arts, but I have trouble going and physically being there when the curtain goes up. My kids aren’t old enough to be participating yet, so that isn’t a draw for me. I admit, I’ve seen enough bad theater and heard enough bad music done by even professional adults that I tend not to want to put myself in a situation that could easily tip toward the horrific.

I’m lucky because I get to write a lot of those newspaper articles that preview the youth pursuits and supposedly spur readers to buy tickets. I can almost let myself off the hook thinking I’ve done my part for the next generation, but that’s a lie. I struggle with the hypocrisy because, apparently, there’s not enough consternation in the rest of my life.

It was Tyrian, my enlightened three-year-old, who helped me find my way in the darkness. We recently took him to a play that we thought he might enjoy. Coincidentally, the play had a cast full of children. Tyrian watched the play blank-faced, and after the curtain call, he asked if we could go home.

Later that night, we performed one of our bedtime rituals with him, which is writing a list of things in his Blessings Journal for which he is thankful. The first item on his list that night was, “The children made me happy in the show.”

Countless people have told me about the impact young people on stage have on young people in the audience. It’s been easy for me to give lip service to that, but I had never experienced it. It was pretty powerful to hear Tyrian say those words.

So now I know who needs to be filling all those audience seats – children. And kids, get at least one adult to go with you. Often, people who won’t do something for their own good will do it for the good of their children.