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.

September 30, 2003

Casting Call for Respectful Audiences

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:38 pm

Today’s lesson is on the importance of being a good audience member and, in particular, cultivating the next generation of audience members.

I’m not sure if those who choose to be in the audience of live theater and concert experiences fully realize how important they are to the success of a show. Performers and creative talents want people to buy tickets to their shows, but the ultimate goal is not to sell tickets so that the artsy types can get a beach house in Malibu. In actuality, those on the stage are only half of the equation in a theatrical experience. The audience makes up the other 50 percent.

It’s a big responsibility to be an audience member. I’m sure we’ve all been to a performance of some kind where the chemistry between performers and audiences was sadly incompatible and the whole thing felt flat. And we’ve seen performers with whom we connect so closely that at the end of the night, we feel like we could just pick up a conversation with them as if they were old friends.

It was during a recent music class in which my son and I participated that I got truly worried about how our children are being brought up to be bad audience members. We were in quite a large class of caretakers and toddlers and our teacher decided to do an exercise where each child gets a turn accompanying a song on the drum.

Because the class was large, the teacher gave the kids who were not playing the drum some shakers to beat time along with the drummer. For the first three or four kids, everyone respectfully sang along with the soloist and clapped encouragingly at the end. But as the drum was passed along the circle, more and more of the adults checked-out of the exercise. Some stopped singing and stared into space. Most turned to the person next to them and started talking about something that I’m sure was so important, it couldn’t possibly wait until the class was over. My kid happened to be at the tail end of the circle that day, and he and those three or four directly before him mostly got support from only their mothers and the teacher.

To me, this type of behavior is a bigger offense than simply being impolite. I believe it is being disrespectful to the arts. What kind of a message are you sending to my son, as a performer, by talking through his song and failing to clap when it’s over? You are saying there are more important things than his pursuit of creative expression. What are you saying to your own child about their role as a supporter of the arts? You are saying that unless they are the star, then their participation in the artistic process isn’t important.

This artistic felony is perpetrated by adults throughout our community. Every week at the Orinda Library’s toddler lapsit storytime, adults chat away while the librarian reads books and leads songs for our children. When was the last time you went to a show at the Lesher Center and people actually sat silently through the overture? Even at the San Francisco Symphony, some people seem to think that because a piano concerto or sonata for strings doesn’t have lyrics, then they have the right to talk through it. I’ve been on earth 31 short years, and I actually remember a time when, in a theatrical or concert setting, people shut up once the performance began. So in my non-scientific estimation, the degeneration of the audience’s perception of their role has happened within the last 30 years.

I’m not saying this is only a local problem. I have seen theater elsewhere in the Western world, and the trend is happening just about everywhere. But this is not an area where we need to keep up with the Joneses. We can be better supporters of the arts than the Joneses by changing the world one audience member at a time.

January 22, 2003

What I Did For Love

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:49 pm

My husband and I went to see the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “A Chorus Line” a couple of weeks ago. My sister-in-law, Heather Benner, had the lead role of Cassie. As a local FYI, Heather’s singing and dancing resume includes the choral program at Acalanes High School and the California Academy of Performing Arts in Moraga.

I have seen “Chorus Line” several times over the years. The first time was when I was 14. As I often do, I had memorized the original cast recording before seeing the show and had eagerly awaited the touring company to hit San Francisco. That was in the middle of the Broadway show’s then-recording setting 15-year run and the buzz from the show’s multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize had put “Chorus Line” on my “to see” list for a long time. The morning of the performance, I woke up with the unmistakable marks of chicken pox on my neck. I felt fine, so I wore a turtle neck and didn’t tell my parents until the lights started to go down at the Golden Gate Theatre. You should have seen their faces!

My favorite song from the show both then and now is “What I Did For Love,” but I realized when I saw the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production that all these years I have completely misunderstood what that number was all about. Perhaps because I learned the lyrics with the sensibility of an immature 14-year-old mind, I have always thought the song was about what a person does for the kind of love that comes from adulation. It didn’t occur to me until last Saturday that that famous first verse — Kiss today goodbye/ The sweetness and the sorrow./ Wish me luck, the same to you./ But I can’t regret what I did for love, what I did for love — was about what someone does simply because he or she loves to do it. It’s really a love song to oneself about having the courage to follow a passion without regret, no matter where the journey might lead.

My sister-in-law told me that in the rehearsal process for “Chorus Line,” the director asked them all to consider what they would do if they no longer could do that one thing they love. The context for the song in “A Chorus Line” is that one of the auditioning dancers in the show severely re-injures a knee, which every dancer knows could be a career-ender. Heather said the question led to an extremely serious and through-provoking discussion among the cast.

On the drive home from Davis, I had the same discussion with myself. What is the one thing that I do purely for love, and what would I do if I could no longer do it. It took longer than it should have, but I realized that for me, singing is the one passion I pursue strictly for my own happiness. I asked my mom if I could join a church choir of older kids when I was only four, and have been singing ever since. There was a very dark period of five years during grad school and immediately following when I wasn’t part of any choral group and I longed to find a choir to sing in again. There literally was an emptiness in my life, and a kind of desperation to fill the void.

But I had to find just the right a’cappella group who liked to sing the same repertoire I do, and it had to be comprised of people who weren’t afraid to challenge themselves with tough music. I tend to enjoy pre-20th century composers, and I especially like the music written for the great cathedrals of Europe when the Christian church wasn’t afraid of pomp and circumstance. Chanticleer has most recently made this kind of music and singing famous in the U.S., but would you believe there aren’t a whole lot of us out there looking to be in a glorified church choir?

Amazingly, three years ago I found the Lamorinda-based Chorus Cappella right in my own backyard. It’s group of a little over a dozen — although we would love to grow larger — educated and exacting musicians from a variety of backgrounds who like to spend a couple of hours every week pretending St. Stephen’s Church in Orinda is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and querying what Monteverdi or Lotti were intending when they wrote their masses.

I was very fortunate that Chorus Cappella eagerly and warmly welcomed me and my husband (yes, I married another oddball) into their fold and we’ve been happily making music every since. I find that while other activities slip in and out of my life, especially since becoming a parent, I bend over backward to keep the singing spark alive.

The question of “what I do for love” was definitely worth pondering and made me grateful for the gift I have and the people with whom I share it.

What would I do if one day I could no longer sing? I have absolutely no idea.

September 25, 2002

Savoring a Bit of Guilty Theatre

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:28 pm

I interviewed Orindan Roy Powlan about his vintage player piano collection a few years back and he handed me a phrase that has become part of my personal lexicon. He said, “I believe in ordered coincidence.” I had a run-in with ordered coincidence recently that left me invigorated and saddened simultaneously.

My family was packing to move, and as I cleaned out my writing desk, I came across the batch of scribbling that I call notes from an interview with four Saint Mary’s College graduate students on the eve of becoming the first graduating class of the college’s Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting Program. I have written hundreds of stories and this was one of my top five favorites. I interviewed the four women a week before their thesis plays were to be produced at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts as a grand finale for completing the program. They were nervous, excited, scared, exhausted and very ready to conquer the world. They were acutely aware that as women, and as the inaugural class, they represented the future of American playwrights. They welcomed and relished the honor and the challenge.

I wrote the story and the ladies quickly became a memory as I changed gears to churn out the next week’s 4000 words of copy.

Literally a day after cleaning out my desk at home, I picked up my mail at the Sun office and there was a black folder forwarded on to me by my editor. A sticker on the front had an illustration of a pig-tailed gal driving off into the distance with the words, “Pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip” below her. Then I noticed the name “Guilty Theatre” at the top of the folder.

I opened the press packet with a cursory eye, expecting it to be another announcement about a new avant-garde San Francisco theater company which I can’t cover in the Sun because they don’t pertain to our coverage area. But when I opened the folder, onto my lap dropped my article from 1999 about the Saint Mary’s playwrights.

My path was crossing again with Kristina Goodnight, Beth Hyjek and Nicole Schlosser of that memorable class of ’99, and I was about to meet an MFA playwright from the class of 2000, Lorien McKenna.

So what happened the day after graduation? The women kept their day jobs, actively submitted plays to theaters and festivals to get produced, started a collection of rejection letters, and continued to get together once a week to critique each other’s writing and give moral support. As they continued to inspire one another, they realized they were building an environment to start an organization to produce their own work, and the work of other unheard playwriting voices.

The Guilty Theatre was born, named after a common theme the women found they were exploring through their plays, although Lorien assures us their works portray funny, not maudlin, guilt. The company opens October 10 at the Rhinoceros Studio Theatre in San Francisco with Goodnight’s “A Perfect Human Being,” her thesis play from Saint Mary’s which went on to win the June Anne Baker Prize for a female playwright who represents a new comedic or political voice.

I was so excited to hear the next chapter of the women’s story that I was completely unprepared to learn that after graduating a total of nine MFA’s in Playwriting, the Saint Mary’s program was discontinued. Lack of funding and support were the usual reason.

Lorien looks on the bright side, saying the Saint Mary’s program was great for the women of the Guilty Theatre because they all got to meet each other. Coming from an MFA program myself, I can attest to the fact that art is not created in a vacuum and it is the collective brilliance in a room full of original thinkers that provides the meatiest lessons. We can all celebrate the magic I have no doubt these women will conjure as a creative team.

However, I mourn the potential partnerships, or simple exchanges of inspiration, the world has lost with the discontinuation of the MFA Playwriting Program. Who knows which souls would have met on the Saint Mary’s campus on their journey to enlighten the world in the domino game of ordered coincidence?