Just a Technician (or… The Importance of the Individual) – Part II

As promised, I continue to highlight the jobs done behind the scenes by our technicians who are so very essential to our success.  Please remember, what you read here is just a basic overview of what these hard-working individuals actually do during the production season.

In costuming, the designer will deliver the renderings and research to the costume shop manager and crew.  They must then work together to pull items from stock, to rent from reputable warehouses, or to pattern and construct a new costume from scratch.  Most of the time, it’s a combination of all three approaches at ETBU.  Costumers’ work can also include dyeing, distressing, and altering.  Every detail on a new build, from the fabric to the trim, from the buttons to the thread color, is carefully considered in conjunction with a director’s approach, the actor’s complexion, and the lighting and scenic designers’ mix of colors.

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

The show is then handed off to the wardrobe crew who must plan, rehearse, and execute any quick changes that a play may demand.  Nothing is scarier than an actor who misses an entrance because of a wardrobe malfunction, so great care is taken to ensure a timely and complete change.

Cast members line up for costume parade, when the director approves the work done by the crew so far.

Cast members line up for costume parade, a time when the director approves the work done by the crew so far and addresses any problem issues

Makeup, Hair and Wigs
Makeup, hair, and wigs collaborate with the other design areas, especially costumes, to complete the look for an ensemble.  Once a designer has submitted drawings for each character, crews must work to fit the design to the theatre.  Lighter makeup is used in intimate spaces and more intense makeup is used in larger venues.  The designer and artists must work to balance foundation with the actor’s skin tone, execute special effects (which may include age, injury, or creature makeup), and master prosthetic additions like large noses or extended chins.  Wigs must be built or styled from stock.  And, if working with an actor’s natural hair, appointments are made to predetermine the preferred look.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency

Properties and Set Dressing
Properties and set dressing involve both hand props and those used to decorate the set.  Often these demand extensive research, especially for period plays.  Props are pulled from stock, borrowed from friends or family, purchased, or constructed from scratch.  Property crew members must set up tables backstage where each prop is labeled and stored during a performance.  Often props must be “tracked” as they change hands or make numerous exits and entrances in the course of a play.  Additionally, the props crew is responsible for any perishable foods needed for a production.  This may include cooking every night before a show as well as clean up after the performance has concluded.

Run Crew
Run crew (alternately called stage crew) are the individuals whose work is predominantly featured during the actual performances.  They move set pieces and furniture, man the fly rails to raise and lower scenic drops, open and close the curtains, and operate any special effects equipment including fog machines or special trap doors for the set.

Publicity and Box Office
We take great pains at ETBU to make sure that all our promotional materials present the necessary information in a professional manner.  This includes all our posters, programs (a good program can spark curiosity and conversation about the department), voice mails, web sites, and press releases.  Our front-of-house staff has responsibilities that can include design, proof reading, distributing posters, writing press releases, answering phone calls and emails from patrons, tabulating head counts, and totaling box office receipts.  The box office crew—and by extension our house manager and ushers—are the first people our patrons encounter whether for reservations or for will call pickup.  Naturally, it’s important to us that our guests be treated with courtesy and professionalism.  Positive word-of-mouth reviews about the entire experience are essential to our success.

A sample of posters from our productions.

A sample of posters from our productions


Let me close by saying that we do not believe in sexist assignments.  Our female students learn to be confident carpenters and electricians, and our male students are expected to know how to handle a sewing machine and apply make-up.  Sometimes, when a student faces a challenging assignment in an area they have little experience with, he or she stumbles upon a hidden talent.  New confidence is found, new skills are discovered, and an opportunity avails itself for future employment.

Theatre truly personifies I Corinthians 12:15-19.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

I think of these verses often when I look at how many different specializations there are in the world of theatre and how these individuals must all work together—with respect for each other’s gifts—to create something completely dependent upon the ensemble.

There are many talents, but only one goal.


You teach???

Ah, the two word question that I have found myself answering for the last four or five years… “You teach?”

I think I first encountered a version of this question as I talked to my sister about my new job here at ETBU in 2011. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’ll be the Manager of Instruction & Information Services for ETBU.”

Sister: “What do you actually do in that job?”

Me: “Well, a large part of it involves teaching students about information and the library.”

Sister: “Oh no, you’re going to be like that boring library lady that used to come to our college classes.”

That exchange has become a part of my narrative when I venture out to classrooms and introduce myself to students for the first time. I always let them know that one of my goals in any instruction session is to not live up to the “boring library lady” stereotype. I think sometimes I succeed… other times, it may be a toss up!

All that to say, that yes, librarians (especially instruction librarians) teach.

I’ve mentioned before the I tend to acquire random things in my travels. One such trinket is a small, brown paperweight that occupies a space on my desk.

This paperweight has high expectations.

This paperweight has high expectations.

Full disclosure, I purchased this as a reminder for myself when I was still teaching language arts in the middle school classroom. That’s right… you can’t scare me. I taught middle school and I liked it. At the time, I think I probably used this as an encouragement that what I was doing mattered and was somehow to contribution to the world. But today? Some would say that this belongs with my boxes of classroom teacher stuff now that I’m a librarian. While my role has shifted and the “teaching” often happens in a different context, I keep this out to remind myself to reflect on what it is that I’m doing and how it makes an impact on the world around me.

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

To answer the “you teach” question, let me first acknowledge that some of the impetus behind that question stems from a general misunderstanding of the librarian’s role in the 21st century. Back in the day we were the gatekeepers – we had the stuff and you had to come through us to get it. We amassed literal towers of information in areas that were referred to as closed stacks – just in case you didn’t get the picture. Now the gate has been flung wide open and there are even places where the fence is down. Perhaps it is because I’ve only been a librarian in the time that is sometimes called the Information Age, but I am excited about this shift (although, I’ll admit that having the title Official Keeper of Information would be pretty great).

While some seem to think that the Information Age has made librarians obsolete (HA!), the truth of the matter is that if anything, having a librarian there to help you navigate the tidal wave of information is that much more important. The extensive changes in the ways we access information should be giving librarians a more active and vital role within the context of learning and the research process. For today’s student, the research process has gone rogue and is full of moving parts that can simultaneously make it the most accessible and daunting time in our information history.

We librarians used to be the keepers of the information… now we are more like the guides in the information jungle.

When do librarians teach? It seems obvious to say that instruction librarians teach when they are called upon to provide information literacy instruction to students. We generally are asked to teach what we call “one-shot” sessions in which we attempt to provide customized information literacy instruction that will enable the student to make key connections with their own research questions, their discipline’s epistemology, and the specific information landscape for their discipline. But what about the other times that a librarian teaches? Librarians teach one-on-one (sometimes saying the same thing many times a day) with students when they meet with us at the reference desk (or on our chat service, or by text, or by email…). One of the things that I love about this job is that on any given day I could have taught someone something about the information in nursing, business, and biology all in the same day. If I could count the number of one-on-one citation formatting sessions I’ve taught… well, let’s just say the APA and MLA manuals and I are good friends (Turabian and I are still on an acquaintance level in our relationship).

Is it the same as being a classroom teacher? As one who has done both, I’m comfortable with admitting that it is not the same… but it is still teaching. Do I refer to myself as a teacher? Not usually. Despite the misunderstanding of the evolving librarian profession, I still find that the title of librarian fits what I do best.

But do I teach like the world depends on it?

That’s the goal. Maybe not the entire world. But my little corner of it? I hope what I do and how I teach makes an impact on the world. I keep this little brown paperweight on my desk to remind me as I build my lesson plans or meet with a student individually that I believe this to be true – the world depends on the information concepts that we librarians teach. And, hopefully keeping this sentiment in mind as I teach helps me steer clear of becoming “that boring library lady.”

What about you?Do you teach like the world depends on it?


Belief Matters, Part 1: The Bhagavad-Gita and Belief

In my World Literature course my students spend some time reading excerpts from texts that represent the top three religions on planet earth: Augustine’s Confessions (Christianity), The Bhagavad-Gita (Hinduism), and Al-Quran (Islam). I would like to spend two blog posts discussing what we talk about in our literature class pertaining to those texts.

Today, I would like to share just a little about some of what we discuss when we read the Hindu text of The Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad_Gita_LgThe Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) is a Sanskrit poem from the first century B.C. in which a warrior is instructed in how to fulfill his sacred duty (to shed blood in war) and still continue on his spiritual path to enlightenment.  The Gita is a well-known Hindu text that has influenced poets such and Henry David Thoreau and important Indian leaders like Ghandi.  As a work of poetry, it certainly possesses a distinct sense of aesthetic beauty, and as a piece of literature it utilizes some important rhetorical devices.

We examine the text from both of those aspects. Yet, as part of my student’s exposure to important sacred texts of the world’s largest religions, we also spend a good deal of time on the theological aspects of the poem.

Here are a few of the questions we consider:

What does the text teach its readers about humanity?

Just as the embodied self

enters childhood, youth, and old age,

so does it enter another body;

this does not confound a steadfast man (2.13).

This stanza verbalizes the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Hindus believe that the soul or “embodied self” is reincarnated by changing bodies like we change clothes. Furthermore, when the warrior expresses grief over killing his blood  relatives  he is reminded that, because the self is eternal, “He who thinks this self a killer fail to understand; it does not kill, nor is it killed.”  In other words, those who kill the body are not killers because one cannot kill the soul.

The warrior is also reminded that his purpose in life is to fulfill the sacred duty of the caste to which he belongs. As a warrior his sacred duty includes waging war when necessary to protect his people and defend the faith.

What does the text claim about who god is and what god is like?

In the Gita Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu the supreme god, appears to the warrior in order to instruct him and encourage him to fulfill his sacred duty. At the end of the conversation, Vishnu reveals the “true majesty of his form” to the warrior.

It was a multiform, wondrous vision,

with countless mouths and eyes

and celestial ornaments,

brandishing many divine weapons (11.10).

Arjuna (the warrior) saw all the universe

in its many ways and parts,

standing as one in the body

of the god of gods (11.13).

The supreme Hindu god is a henotheistic divinity. Unlike monotheism, which claims that there is only one true God, and polytheism, which claims that there are a host of gods, henotheistic religions believe there are many gods who are all parts and incarnations of the one, supreme god. Additionally, in the teachings of the Gita the reader understands that all of the universe is part of the god of gods. Creation, including all the eternal souls of men, are inseparable from the body of the supreme god.

What does the text communicate about good/evil, right/wrong?

The sins of men who violate

the family create disorder in society

that undermines the constant laws

of caste and family duty.

The standard of right and wrong is based on the laws that govern the caste system. Doing good means fulfilling the sacred duty of your caste system.

Additionally, when a man gives up desires and is content with only fulfilling his sacred duty, then his insight is sure, or he is on the path to enlightenment, which will eventually end his cycle of rebirth.

How do these theological claims compare or contrast to your own beliefs?Slumdog-Millionaire

It is important for my students to consider the aspects of Hindu belief that contradict teachings of the Bible. While in Hindu teaching humans are eternal, disembodied selves, the Bible teaches that humans are created at a specific time and, while our souls will live on after our bodies die, our bodies and souls are uniquely bound to each other. No reincarnation in Christianity.

Furthermore, the God of the Bible  is the only God and he is holy, separate from his creation. He has always existed, but the universe was created in a particular space and time apart from Him. All the elements of creation, including us, are not God, or even part of God. Only God is holy and perfect.

Finally, there is a moral standard of perfection that is expected of all humanity. That standard is the same for everyone, regardless of race, socio-economic class, language group, geographical location, or gender. And, we have all fallen short of that standard.

We illustrate the reading of the text with a viewing of the film Slumdog Millionaire. The primary reason I show that film is to give students an exposure to the sights and sounds of modern India. For students who have never left U.S. soil, it is impossible to imagine the abject poverty of India and the regular daily occurrence of socio-economic injustice that characterizes life for the vast majority of Indians.

I want my students to understand two simple things. First, despite what our pluralistic society teaches us, all paths to “God” are not the same. There are important, significant, and contradictory differences between the world’s major religions. Second, what you believe really does matter to real people. I know that what I am saying is not politically correct, but I believe it with my whole being. Life experience and scripture both confirm to me that your religious belief and practice makes a real and significant impact on the everyday lives of normal people.

When my students see the children swimming in a dirty river full of garbage or being sold into slavery as professional beggars, I want them to know that those things really happen and that the foundational belief system of Hinduism allows and even encourages those injustices to happen.

There is no doubt that people of religious faiths may stand up and object to human rights’ abuses, and that human rights’ abuses happen on every continent regardless of the prevailing religion. However, India is the way India is in large part to its prevailing religious belief. What you believe makes a real difference in the lives of real people.


Just a Technician (or… The Importance of the Individual) – Part I

What goes on behind the scenes of a production is far more important than most anyone outside the world of theatre realizes.  I’ve spoken a little on the actors’ work with the director.  I now want to highlight the often unacknowledged work of the carpenters, costumers, painters, purchasers, organizers, electricians, and board operators.  So the next two blogs will focus on the absolutely essential work of our technicians.

At ETBU, our theatre curriculum is structured in a way that emphasizes the well-rounded student.  We don’t believe that any one of our majors should be just an actor or just a technician.

In fact, I’ve come to loathe the word “just” as qualifier for any of the work we do.  Our students are not “just” actors, nor are they “just” technicians.

Therefore, we immerse them in as many different areas as possible.  No star-system here.  Rather, you’ll find a group of students who work day and night in a myriad of specialized jobs.  For example, we’ve had several instances where a student might play the lead role in a production and serve as master carpenter behind the scenes.  Or, a student might be the director of one of our main stage shows but still be required to handle all the publicity for the play.

So, here are abbreviated descriptions of the different areas that support every production you see on campus—Part I.

(I thought I could fit all of this into one blog.  Nope.)

The Scenic Elements
The scenic design, once completed, is given to the technical director.  The technical director is in charge of taking the ground plans and elevations and turning them into working drawings.  These are the drawings that illustrate the engineering behind the build—how a flat or platform is to be constructed, where the supports and braces will be mounted, where items should be rigged for hanging or fasteners added for attachments.  It depends on the design, which could include all sorts of challenges like multiple levels, plumbing, secret trapdoors, or intricate detail.  These working drawings are then passed on to the master carpenter who oversees, with his or her crew, the construction and installation of the set with all its working parts.

Casey Papas works on a scenic element for our spring show.

Performance major Casey Papas works on a scenic element for our spring show.

Obviously, most scenery is painted, stained, or treated.  The scenic charge artist carries the responsibility of using the scenic designer’s elevations and perspective renderings to replicate a certain look on the set.  It can be a very time-consuming effort when large drops or floor treatments need painting.  Colors for the set are deliberately chosen with respect to the director’s concept and the choices made by the costume and lighting designers; this will keep elements from clashing or blending together onstage (unless, of course, that is the intention).

The paint crew sent me this picture of their "battle scars."  Photo by Natalie Oates.

The paint crew sent me this picture of their “battle scars.” Photo by Natalie Oates.

The lighting designer works closely with the master electrician.  The light plot indicates not only what type of instrument will be hung, but where it is hung, how it is cabled, and if it is to be colored with a gel (incandescent lights).  Technology is constantly changing in this field; LED and computerized lighting are gaining popularity, and they come with a whole new set of cabling rules and programming.  We have to be careful, no matter what lights we use, that we don’t overload our circuits; instruments must be patched correctly into the dimmer and assigned appropriate channels in the board.  Once everything is hung, the lighting crew has to focus each light on its designated area, give it a hard or soft edge, and add the color or gobo pattern if needed.  Then each cue is built and recorded into the board for the show—an effort that requires an empty theatre and plenty of uninterrupted time.

Design/tech major Laura Stokes works to cable a light for our spring show.

Design/tech major Laura Stokes works to cable a light for our spring show.

A sound designer is not only in charge of the music for set changes and curtain call, but also for all ambient sound and scripted needs.  Depending on the director’s vision and a play’s requirements, sound can heavily pervade the entire production or be very minimal.  Shows with complicated designs require hours and hours of recording, timing, editing, mixing, and playback to make sure everything works cohesively with the final product.  This is not a single software endeavor; there is usually one computer program used for editing and another used for playback.  Crew members may also, according to a production’s specific needs, be in charge of amplification for the actors.  Additionally, the sound crew must decide where the speakers will live and how to mix the sound.  Finally, they must organize the edited files on the playback device (usually a computer); then, during performance, they have to know how to equalize the sound board and adjust the gain and volume as necessary.  And for what it’s worth, live sounds made by crew members offstage are always an option as well.

Because the blogs actually come with length limits, I must end here.  I promise the technician discussion will be continued in the next entry.

I would, however, like to conclude with this observation: studying these details and personally knowing the individuals behind the work makes me appreciate collaboration in all its forms, even those outside my discipline.  It never ceases to amaze me what beauty human beings are capable of when we work together.


The characters who change us

The conversation usually starts out like this:

“What types of books do you like to read?”
“I only read nonfiction.
Fiction is a waste of time when there is so much to learn from nonfiction.”

or worse –

“What kind of books do you read?”
“…I don’t.”

Quite honestly, the latter seems to be the more common response. Both of these responses worry me, and no, it isn’t just about job security. Recent studies have done work to confirm what we fiction readers have been experiencing for decades – reading fiction changes you.

via Book HavenOne of the more recent studies that found a correlation between fiction and empathy was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York. Using a variety of Theory of the Mind techniques, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction, specifically, enhanced the reader’s ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. There is much debate about what constitutes “literary fiction” and the study authors are hesitant to pin down their own definition, but the study seems to suggest that readers learn empathy skills from novels that focus more on the psychology and emotions of the characters themselves. Whereas popular novels tend to be plot-driven with formulaic characters, literary fiction presents us with characters who challenge our stereotypes, interrupt our perceptions, and teach us how to understand those who are different than ourselves.

Reading fiction allows us to experience other worlds from a safe distance. When we are immersed in the lives of characters, we can listen in on their internal dialog. Where else are we invited to eavesdrop on the inner conversation that takes place in someone else’s mind?

The Bearing Rein – Nature vs. Art in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

Oddly enough, as an animal lover one of the first books I can remember reading that helped me “experience” the life of another was not that of a human, but that of a horse in Anne Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. Told in the first person voice of a horse, I was around age ten when I read the story for the first time and I’ve never been able to forget Beauty’s description of the use of a bearing rein:

“York came round to our heads and shortened the rein himself — one hole, I think; every little makes a difference, be it for better or worse, and that day we had a steep hill to go up. Then I began to understand what I had heard of. Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs…Day by day, hole by hole, our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on, as I used to do, I began to dread it.”

Since then, my reading has branched out to considering the stories of humans. When I read Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, I was forced to grapple with the desperation of a German single-mother living in Nazi Germany. I felt the pangs of hunger coupled with the intense desire to exert control when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s telling of a young girl’s excruciating battle with anorexia in Wintergirls. When my children’s lit professor wanted us to know what it felt like to be a student with ADHD we were asked to read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even now, as I’ve wandered the roads of East Texas in the past month I’ve entered the world of Noa P. Singleton, a women awaiting what she refers to as X-day as she sits on death row, as she tells me her story via audiobook in first time author Elizabeth Silva’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. In fact, I’ve noticed in recent years that especially when I listen to audiobooks, I get so involved in the character’s story that I often find myself making the same facial expressions that I imagine the characters would have while telling their story. Again, odd, but what can I say? These fictional characters somehow become a part of me as I read them.

books_23Another study conducted by Mar, Oatley, and Peterson (2009) also explored the connection between reading and empathy. When observing the relationship between narrative transportation (the ability to “lose” ourselves in a novel’s world) and empathy they stated the following: “It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental states.” The authors point out that more research is needed, but for now, it seems that reading fiction has “important consequences.”

Honestly, the list of fictional characters that I’ve learned from or reference when I encounter a life experience different from my own could go on and on. These stories stay with me in a way that influences how I interact and empathize with the people around me. One of my all-time favorite literary characters taught his young daughter about empathy when he asked her to think about what her teacher must have felt like on her first day of school:

“You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

- Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

d8a2f6aba69c3cab4037e74dd53d6eb9Reading fiction allows us to try on the “skin” of a character and walk around in it. For every time that I rejoice in a student’s new-found appreciation of a scholarly journal article or climb on my soap box about the value of information, there is an equal part of me that gets excited to talk to people about the place that stories should have in our lives. The next time that you find yourself struggling to understand someone different than you, I encourage you to find a work of fiction with a similar character. The people in our world need us to read fiction so that we can feel with them.

I’ve just scratched the surface on the stories that have influenced me. What about you? What stories have you read that have helped you empathize with someone?


The Priesthood of the Crossed Keys: Grand Budapest Hotel as Hagiopic

Most movie-goers are familiar with the hagiopic, whether they know it or not. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2003) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are both recent and fairly well-known examples, particularly among evangelical Christians.  The hagiopic, a term coined by Pamela Grace the author of The Religious Film, is a “saint” picture, a biographical film devoted to a holy person. It is a film genre that is distinct from the biopic because the film is “concerned with the hero’s relationship to the divine,” and the world of the conventional hagiopic is  a place where “miracles occur, celestial beings speak to humans, and events are controlled by a benevolent God, who lives somewhere beyond the clouds” (Grace 1).

As a specific genre the hagiopic offers its viewers a kind of ritual experience. The experienced viewer, familiar with the conventions of the hagiopic willingly joins in on the events that describe the suffering holy figure. It is an important film genre for offering religious experience to viewers because the hagiopic typically deals with important and universal questions of “suffering, injustice, a sense of meaninglessness, and a longing for something beyond the world we know” (Grace 3). Furthermore, those questions are not framed simply by giving pat, orthodox answers, but by dramatizing the inner conflicts of the holy protagonist in ways that are universal to human experience.

Wes Anderson’s  The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is anything but a religious film by any stretch of the imagination. The film’s protagonist, a liberally perfumed concierge who “goes to bed with all” his friends, would not be considered anything even akin to the word holy by audiences that hold that term in high regard. Yet, the film utilizes the conventions of the hagiopic to achieve its depiction of the kind and charming M. Gustave  as a priest serving his disciples in the last vestige of human civility on earth, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest is, according to Zero, “an institution”–a temple, if you will, to the religion of civility where the staff devotes their lives to serving their guests. As concierge, M. Gustave is the chief priest placing the needs of others before himself. While the guests feast on champagne and lavish dinners, Gustave eats cold cereal in his tiny, sparsely furnished studio.

There are a number of essential elements of Grace’s holy picture that are upheld by Anderson’s film and represented by the character of M. Gustave as a priest.


First, Gustave, as the high priest of the institution of the hotel and a member of his profession’s holiest and secret order The Society of the Crossed Keys, serves and ministers to the congregants of the hotel. He delivers sermons on Sunday to his staff. He ministers to widows (the elderly women at the hotel) and orphans (Henkels and Zero). He spreads the verses of his scripture (Romantic poetry) to those who are in need of comfort during moments of tragedy or those who wish to commemorate instances of celebration.


vlcsnap-2015-03-27-14h56m33s963Second, Gustave administers sacraments to those under his care. He gives blessings to other priests. He accepts alms to light a candle in the Sacristy for his congregant. He administers the Eucharist of fine food and drink to those whom he ministers to–Mendl’s pastries and champagne are his body and blood of choice. And, he officiates the wedding between Agatha and Zero.



Finally, Gustave suffers and dies for the sake of his ideology and service to others. He is beaten a number of times over the course of the film, usually as a consequence of defending those in his service or upholding the ideals of his calling. Then, in his final act, Gustave sacrifices his own life for his successor and brother in arms, Zero.

The question for us as viewers is, why? What is the meaning of using conventions of the hagiopic as a subtext for The Grand Budapest Hotel? Why is important to have Gustave depicted as a representative of a kind of priesthood, a saintly figure who ministers to others through the institution of a grand hotel?

The answer is simple, really. Because, how you treat people in life really does matter.

Gustave represents the forgotten world of people who offer “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Gustave is a kind and charming servant who regularly puts the needs of others before himself. In our current global situation in which religious zealots cut off heads of their victims live on the world wide web, or a depressed man commits suicide by flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain, or children kill other children with automatic weapons, don’t we all wonder what went wrong? And, for those who live in the Post-enlightenment, Post-church, Post-modern western world where both God and the author are dead, there is little doubt that we still ask the question.

Hence, Grand Budapest’s Gustave reminds us that, even though, the grand institutions that used to provide us with answers are slipping away (The Hotel or the Church),  there remain certain ideals that we should cling to. Gustave’s ideology can be summed up in the words of Christ, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NIV).



I Can’t. (or… I Have Rehearsal.)

Maybe you’ve seen the t-shirt.

I can’t.  I have rehearsal.

It’s true, too.  Few people realize what a sacrifice it is to actually be a theatre major or practitioner.  There are so many events, opportunities, organizations, and televisions shows that we give up because rehearsals take precedence.  And in educational theater, we often start one show the minute we close and strike the previous.

Rehearsals are as unique as the production they are supporting.  I almost hate to catalog it here because there are infinite ways to mount a play.  And the hours will look different based upon the producing organization.  High schools will typically rehearse 8-10 hours a week.  Professional companies will rehearse eight hours a day.

At ETBU, we typically rehearse four hours each evening.  This is on top of the standard academic work day.  And every show receives 4-6 weeks of work, depending on its complexities and specific needs.

The calendar order looks a little something like this:

Table work.  This is the time when the actors and director (and possibly other support staff) read through the script as a company.  Often these rehearsals are used to discuss changes in rhythm or mood.  Difficult passages may be the focus or even correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words.  Dialects are honed.  Some directors limit this work to just a couple of days.  Others may spend a few weeks at the table, making sure the actors are comfortable with the text prior to staging.

Blocking rehearsals.  Visual storytelling should support the text.  As Hamlet advises the players in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  If you see a play in a foreign language, the movement alone should give you an understanding of relationships, power, and conflict.  So you cannot underestimate the importance of good blocking.

Our rehearsals at the university tend to start off organically.  This means the actors are allowed to explore the space and define their characters bringing their instincts, preparation, physicality, and research to each scene.  We can find some really lovely moments this way, as they come up with their own ideas for motivation and action.  As a director, my job is to guide them into the strongest choices.  I always have to keep in mind what the audience will see and how they will interpret our spatial relationships.

Fine tuning the blocking can last throughout the entire rehearsal process.  Some moments are really difficult to stage, and choices made early in rehearsals may be scrapped entirely and reconstructed in an effort to make the emotion and storytelling stronger.

A dance rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.  Produced by Baylor University.  Dr. Marion Castleberry, Director.  Photo by Sarah Chanis.

An early dance rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Special rehearsals.  Typically, these work days focus on a production’s additional needs such as choreography or set changes.  If a play is dance heavy, then choreography needs to be the focus early on so that each subsequent rehearsal reviews and polishes.  The same could be said for fight choreography.  It’s essential to commit these to muscle memory early so that later additions such as lighting, costuming, and an audience don’t distract the actor and result in injury.  Additionally, scenic rehearsals facilitate quick set changes and prevent the loss of the audience’s attention.

(Side note: I saw a play mounted at Actors Theatre of Louisville that had a twelve-minute fight scene involving sixteen actors.  When I asked members of the company how long it took to rehearse the fight, they replied 40-50 hours.  Respect.)

BW Rehearsal 02

A polishing rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Lines-off rehearsals.  No more scripts on the stage.  In addition to the work put in for academics, production work, and rehearsals, actors have also been carving out time to learn their lines.  This takes discipline and several weeks to master—depending upon the size of the role.  During these rehearsals, actors are allowed to call for “line” and the stage manager will read it to them.  Hopefully they immediately pick up and go with it.  However, sometimes these days feel like one step forward, fourteen steps back.  It all depends on how prepared and confident the actors are.  At some point, usually about a week after the first lines-off rehearsal, we institute a “no-more-line-call” policy.  It’s sink or swim.  It’s vicious.  And I like it.

BW Rehearsal 03

A dress rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Polishing rehearsals.  The last few days prior to going into tech rehearsals are where some of the best work happens.  The blocking is set.  The lines are solid.  Now the actors work on emotional truth and connection.  New discoveries are made and new risks taken in almost every rehearsal.  It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the entire process.  The really difficult scenes may get a lot of work here; in essence, everything is done to make sure the performance of the actor is worthy of an audience.

Because our goal is to tell a good story.  Always.

Later, in another blog post, I will talk about tech and dress rehearsals.  Those are beasts in and of themselves.  But for now, if you see a theatre major, ask them if they are in rehearsal.  Ask them what they are doing in rehearsals.  Ask them how many hours they put in.  Be invested in the work they do.

Just to have that work–those hours–acknowledged is reward in and of itself.


Stop, Collaborate, and Listen…

We’ve all heard the teamwork phrases before -

There’s no “i” in team…
Two heads are better than one…
Teamwork makes the dream work…

- and still yet, as an introverted K-12 student (and probably as a college student), no words inspired more fear and trepidation than the infamous phrase: “Class, today we’ll be working in groups.”


Learner confession? I hated group work when I was a student. On further reflection, I think that my dislike for group work was in line with the reasons that student still give for not wanting to work in groups. It takes longer, someone always seem to get stuck with the majority of the work, things might not go my way, and on and on. You’ve heard (or said) the same things.

Teacher/Librarian confession? Despite my own experiences, I often ask my students to work in groups because I recognize that the exchange of ideas is vital to the educational process. Thank you, Lev Vygotsky… and Socrates.

I’ve also learned to look forward to opportunities to work with others within my professional career.

This past Friday Cynthia Peterson (Director of Library Services) and I were able to attend the meeting of the North Texas Library Assessment (NTLA) group hosted by SMU libraries. If you are thinking, “What a fun way to spend a Friday,” then you would be correct. What’s fun about library assessment? Besides the obvious, talking about ways that we can improve the methods that we use to highlight the impact that libraries have on our communities. This particular group’s mission is to “provide a venue for communication and collaboration for library professionals interested in assessment.” Basically, NTLA is a group of people who love libraries and are committed to assessing a variety of aspects about them in order to convey their value.

One thing that my discipline is particularly good at? Sharing ideas.

For instance – at this particularly meeting, I learned that UNT libraries are working to implement a grid of heat map sensors in order to find out what areas in the libraries are most heavily used. How cool is that? Tarrant County College Libraries are offering free information literacy classes and are considering using a badge program to encourage participation. I’ve latched on to the thought about a badge program and have plans for it somewhere down the road.

Working with librarians has taught me to love collaboration.

Sharing ideas, working together, listening to each other – it makes all of our libraries better. While every idea isn’t scalable or applicable, just hearing what others are doing and thinking about how it might impact what we are doing in our own library provides an opportunity to think from a different perspective. It’s probably why I’ve signed up for more webinars, podcasts, journal alerts, listservs, and rss feeds than I care to think about.

I’m also a fan of collaboration within the university. Every information literacy session that I’m able to teach comes out of some amount of collaboration with the teaching faculty. We work together to develop assignments, craft learning outcomes, and ultimately help students to engage with information specific to their discipline. As I’ve said before, reference and instruction is at it’s best when I’m able to collaborate with teaching faculty.

Even as I process my growing appreciation for teamwork, I also realize that working together can be tricky. Perhaps collaboration is somewhat difficult because it requires a certain amount of humility. We can’t do it all ourselves. Reaching out for help reminds us that we don’t know everything. It also requires that we are vulnerable with other people. There’s also the feeling that I can get something done faster when I work on my own. Collaboration is certainly not what I’d call an easy sell.

That being said, the more that I am willing to reach out to my friends and colleagues, the more I’m finding these days that we can do things better together.

Dog & Cat Teamwork Meme

Dog & Cat Teamwork Meme

Case in point: Last week the students in Dr. Ray’s Business Research Methods class needed to learn how to conduct a focus group. My friend and colleague, Dr. Emily Prevost was asked to lend her expertise and teach the students the ins and outs of focus groups. If you know anything about focus groups, you know that it helps to have a client or a problem on which to focus. Cue the librarian. Working together with Dr. Ray and Dr. Prevost, I was invited to engage with the students as a “client.” These students met with me and Dr. Prevost last Thursday to develop the questions about the library that they would be asking their participants. Tomorrow these same students will actually conduct a focus group for the library based on the questions that they developed. Students will be given a chance to conduct a focus group and I’m (hopefully) able to glean some qualitative data about the library and student research skills – isn’t that quite the deal?! By working together with Dr. Prevost, Dr. Ray, and the BRM students, we are able to accomplish much more than we would be able to do independently.

As I reflect on collaboration, one particular chapter of scripture continues to ring in my ears:

“…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!…” 1 Cor 12:17-21 NIV

So whether you are the eye, the ear, the fingernail, or even the elbow, you’ve got an important part to play. We need you — you need us! This week I challenge you to think of ways that you can collaborate with those around you. What skills have you observed in them that would pair nicely with some of your own goals? What insights could they bring to that stale project that you haven’t touched in a few weeks?

What could you create together?


Don’t “Let it Go”: Why I Wish my Five year-old Daughter Would Watch More Frozen

A few weeks ago I was flipping through our movie collection asking my five year-old daughter which movie she would like to watch. When I came to Frozen I was shocked that she turned it down with a hint of disdain in her voice. I was surprised because until that moment Frozen had been her most favorite movie, by far.

Now, probably much like every other parent of an elementary aged child, I must admit that I know every line of the film by heart because of the sheer number of times we have viewed the film. I should be overjoyed that she has grown weary of Elsa, Anna, and Kristoff’s adventures.

Yet, I find myself quietly disappointed that she has moved on from Frozen.

Let me explain why. Unlike a number of Disney princess films Frozen avoids the objectification of women.

The objectification of women, as my World Literature students know, is a common motif in literature and it has been since the oral story tellers of Gilgamesh first began recording their story on clay tablets in the second millennium B.C. Women have been objectified in the ancient writings of Mesopotamia through the Greek epics and tragedies and on and on until the advent of godaddy.com commercials.

Literally the term objectification is more than a catch word for the ideology of feminism; it is simply the act of making a woman into an object. As such, women in literature are typically depicted as either maidens, mothers, or harlots. The three roles are interchangeable between stories. Hence, the motherly character of Ninsun in Gilgamesh is very much akin to the wise goddess of classical Greece. The unfaithful wife in A Thousand and One Nights has much in common with Circe and Calypso in The Odyssey.  On the other side, though, the male heroes Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Oedipus all have rich character traits that make them unique from one another. Let’s face it, the one story of the world’s greatest literature is by and large a story of masculinity.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) by John William Waterhouse

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) by John William Waterhouse

I want my daughter, though, to embrace female heroes that possess rich characteristics, women of literature like Scheherazade, who saves her nation by telling stories, or Tagore’s  Chandara who would rather die than live under oppression. Ultimately, I want my daughter to grow up wanting to be a strong, independent woman who is an active participant in her own story, very much like the kind of woman her mother is.

When we think about Disney princess films, though, more often than not they are stories of princess objects—characters that are interchangeable with one another, characters who lack depth and uniqueness. Most Disney princesses are passive characters led along through the story in order to find the prince. They rarely take an active role in their own story.

Let’s take Snow White as an example, the first Disney princess movie, and the model of princesses that came after her. In the final, climactic scene of the film in which our princess overcomes the crisis and fulfills her potential Snow White is objectified. She is depicted sleeping with arms folded across her chest in a chaste repose awaiting the prince to come and bless her with the kiss of true love. She becomes the princess object simply by passively receiving a kiss and waking up to marry the prince. The mise-en-scene objectifies her as a chaste, even angelic, maiden in the shot below. Snow White is anything but a subject who is active in her own story. 


In contrast is the climactic sequence of Frozen. In the scene Anna, who dreams of becoming a Snow White-like princess finding love at first sight, instead chooses to turn away from her chance at uniting with her love interest, Kristoff. She makes the choice to turn from romantic love and actively sacrifice herself for her sister. The subtext of the Snow White princess motif is subverted when Anna chooses a true act of love—giving her life for her sister. This is the “true” love that is celebrated in Frozen. And, that is the type of love I want my daughter to strive for, the kind of love also modeled by Christ. 


Don’t get me wrong, I like Snow White as much as any other dad. And, in our home all manner of Disney princess movies will never go out of style. Yet, if there is a Disney princess I want my daughter to emulate, it is the princesses of Frozen, the princesses who take an active role in giving their life for others.


Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day (or… The Creative Process)

The creative process is a fickle phenomenon.

As artists, I firmly believe we are compelled to create.  It’s more than just a passing interest—it’s a consuming need to express our world, its beauty, its hardships, its messed-up-murky-monkey business… all in an attempt to make sense of it…

or tell a memorable story…

or inspire change…

or wrestle with the dark questions.

I believe our ability to create—following the example of our great Creator—is an amazing gift.  It’s also incredibly hard and humbling.

A friend (and fellow performer) once shared this description of the creative process.

This is awesome.
This is hard.
This is awful.
I’m awful.
This might be okay.
This is awesome!

That so perfectly sums it up.

We are often terribly excited to begin a project… and then we quickly realize how ambitious it is.  How intimidating.  Too much to do and to get right.  Questions and doubts begin, asking whether or not the work will ever come together.  At points, we may even loathe the process, fearing that it will never reap the beauty we hope for.

Then we start blaming ourselves.  Maybe we’re the reason it’s not coming together.  Maybe we’re the reason everything is terrible.  Personally, I’ve been a part of near 100 productions in my lifetime, and the pattern has never changed.  We never seem to remember, in the throes of a creative process, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Rome.  Lovely. "Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commonshttp://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Na_Koloseum_i_K_Franciszki_Rzymianki.JPG#/media/File:Na_Koloseum_i_K_Franciszki_Rzymianki.JPG

Rome. Lovely.
“Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, we push through… and it gets a little better.  A little sharper.  A little stronger.  We start to see glimmers of the huge potential this project has.  And we sprint towards that goal.

Personally, I never want to tackle a production that is too easy.  I’m constantly looking for a play or musical that will challenge the students, our limited facilities, and our budget constraints.  I don’t think we grow as artists if we stick to the same old routine.  I don’t think we educate our audiences either if we just give them some rehashed product they’ve come to expect.

Part of the love/hate relationship with mounting a production is the thrill of tackling something new compounded with the effort and energy it takes to make it a realization.  Uncharted territory is exciting.  However, if fear takes over and we settle for status quo, then our art suffers terribly.  I have known several directors who routinely return to the same production they did a few years ago.  Their repertoire seems to be limited to about 15 plays total.  I will never understand why they do that, especially when there are so many incredible works which have been available to produce since the dawn of time, the written word, and Aeschylus.

I exaggerate a little, but you understand my point.

We must overcome our fear of the difficult, of the unknown, and of our limits as created beings.  Let me be clear.  I’m not advocating some unwise regimen of extremist behavior here.  Our art cannot be our idol.  I’m talking about removing the chains of the “what ifs” and exchanging them for the satisfaction that says, “Look what we did!”

To create is to be brave.  To step out in faith and exercise the gifts we have been given by the Father.

There are so many subsets of the creative process contained within a production… so many ways to be brave.

  1. The playwright’s work to create the world of the play
  2. The director’s approach to realize that world
  3. The designers’ renderings, presentations, and models
  4. The technical director’s oversight of the build
  5. The actors’ wrestling with the characters and motivations
  6. The choreographer’s interpretation
  7. The scenic charge artist’s detail and nuance
  8. The stitcher’s embellishment
  9. The composer’s/sound designer’s aural story

And on and on and on.  Everybody creates!  Everybody works to contribute their special skill or gift to this GINORMOUS—or, honestly, it could be “simple”—product that will invite hundreds of others (spectators!) to judge their work.



Why on earth do we exert so much effort, engage in vulnerability, and invite criticism?

Because we cannot keep our work to ourselves.

Theatre is communal.  It loses its value without an audience.

This is where I think television and film fall short.  Though an audience may engage with the material presented on the screen, there is no give and take that is reciprocal.  The film doesn’t change based upon how you react to it.  But the theatre…

Every performance is different.  Connection.  Inflection.  Chemistry.  Comedy.  Rhythm.  It’s so wonderfully dynamic.  You know exactly where you stand with an audience for each performance, and it is always some place new and unchartered.  You know when you connect and when the crickets are chirping.  It’s an unbelievable exchange of emotion and thought that goes both ways.  You share space.  Air.  Energy.

And, at the end, polite applause.  Sometimes ridicule.  Silence.  Judgment.  Questions.  Strong opinions.


Praise.  Like-minded excitement.  Dialogue.  Thoughtful consideration.  Enthusiastic exchange of ideas.