The Silent Head Shake (or… Audience Etiquette)

To be a member of an audience for a live performance is to hold a certain amount of power.

Think about it.

Actors prepare weeks in advance to bring the public their very best.  Their work is exposed for the audience to either praise or pan.  The energy a full house brings to the performance can lift the spirits of those on stage and behind the scenes or. . .

…it can create a bitter enmity.

The same show across multiple performances can see quiet and defiant patrons as well as laughing and appreciative audiences.  And the comments backstage will reflect the actors’ read on the participants in the seats.

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This house is AWESOME.  They get the jokes and applaud after every scene!”

or. . .

“Did you see the girl on her cell phone?”

or. . .

“Why are they SO DEAD today?”

or. . .

"Albert Guillaume Au theatre" by Albert Guillaume - Bonhams. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Albert Guillaume Au theatre” by Albert Guillaume
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

“I thought we were sold out.  Why are there so many empty seats?”

Because of the amount of work and personal investment that goes into every performance, actors, directors, and technicians tend to get emotionally involved in the response.  We LOVE a committed, attentive, and receptive patron.  We loathe the individual who strolls in late, yawns a lot, looks around, checks their social media, and leaves at intermission.

A few years ago, in an attempt to curb some inappropriate behavior emanating from our house, we published suggestions for audience etiquette in one of our programs.  Here are a few excerpts from that production’s bill:

Thank you for your attendance this evening.  We are grateful for your support of our theatre department, and we hope that tonight’s experience is a wonderful one.  In addition to our commitment to the students, it is part of our mission to inform and educate those who attend our programs.  To that end, please note the following guidelines regarding audience etiquette.  Many are not aware of the distractions that can occur during a performance that will hinder the work of the actors and/or diminish the experience of other audience members.

  1. TEXTING – Texting or checking social media is a major no-no.  The light in a dark house will catch an actor’s eye quicker than a falling set piece, and any distraction is dangerous.  It can also irritate those around you.  We also know when you try to hide it in your hand, cupped to your stomach, beneath your legs, or in your purse.
  2. HARD CANDY – Unwrapping hard candy or cough drops in the middle of a performance can be heard throughout the hall.  The sound of the plastic wrapper in your hands as you struggle to free the immovable treat takes those around you out of the illusion of the play.  It can kill an emotional moment: the lovers are about to kiss… and crack, shuffle, crack, twist, crack!  Unwrap before the show begins.
  3. BABIES – University theatre, unfortunately, is not for infants and young toddlers.  Some of our plays contain content that is for mature audiences only.  We tend to panic when we see a patron bring in his/her youngest family member.  Times are tough, and we know that hiring a sitter is not always an option.  We will be understanding as long as you sit on an aisle and exit as soon as the child becomes an interruption.
  4. UNPLANNED EXITS – Emergencies happen; that’s okay. For your comfort, we always note in the program how long an act will be before you get a break. Please look for this and plan accordingly.

    "Albert Guillaume Les retardataires" by Albert Guillaume  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    “Albert Guillaume Les retardataires” by Albert Guillaume
    Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. SLEEPING – Frankly, we’d rather you nap at home.  Not all shows are exciting all the time; we know this well.  But, we simply cannot afford to bring you an action movie in play form, and the students are working to learn the art.  Your kind attention is deeply appreciated.
  6. MAKING OUT – Eww.  No.  Just… no.  We are committed, however, to bringing you realistic kissing scenes when the script calls for it.  Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Have I seen each and every one of those happen in one or more of our performances in my time here?

Yep.

And sometimes we just feel like giving up on humanity when audiences do not practice good manners.  For example, in a recent production, a couple brought in a baby.  Our front-of-house staff tried to dissuade them from the show, explaining the loud noises and mature content (which was clearly stated on all our promotional materials and website).  The couple insisted on attending.  Our house manager asked them to please sit near the exit door in case the child should wake and cry.  They declined, insisting that the infant would sleep through the show.  They sat on the other side of the theatre, where they would have to cross the stage to exit.

"Emil Mayer 043" by Emil Mayer - Damals in Wien.   Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Emil Mayer 043″ by Emil Mayer – Damals in Wien.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This was also the one performance we had planned to film after receiving written permission from the playwright.

I’m sure you can guess what happened.  And instead of carrying the infant out the two times he cried, they turned to their fellow audience members and proclaimed, “We’re not leaving.”  The video?  Ruined.  The performance?  Strained.  The audience?  Antagonistic towards this couple.  Our faith in humanity?  *silent head shake*

All this is to say, we do this, in large part, for you—our audience!  We would be nowhere without our patrons.  We thrive on your attendance and participation.  We listen carefully to your feedback and response.  We pour ourselves out for you in the hopes that we can awaken an appreciation for the art form, for the issues addressed in the text, and for the talent and growth seen in the students.

Without you, our work is just another rehearsal.

And respecting the work . . . that’s just good manners.

TEL

Belief Matters, Part 2: Al-Qur’an and Belief

Ten years ago, after the terrible tsunami struck the Northern tip of Sumatra, I found myself serving as head of a small group of volunteers attempting to improve the water quality in neighborhoods of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I will never forget the day I met my most devout Muslim friend, Imam, as I was cleaning out debris and salt water from the ground-water well outside his home.Now, it is important to note that I had come to Indonesia originally as an English teacher. In fact, I had just finished my Master’s degree and was about to begin my doctoral degree when I was given the opportunity to serve the victims of that terrible disaster that claimed approximately 200,000 lives. It was because of my past experience teaching English in Indonesia that I had been chosen to lead the volunteers there. I was familiar with the culture and, as you will soon understand, I knew enough of the language to get around and get myself in trouble.

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

I will never forget the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Imam because that is the day I learned how little Indonesian I really knew. The submersible pump  I was using to rid the well of salinized, dirty water had become stuck on some debris.  When Imam came out of his house to help me he asked me if the pump was stuck (machet). I became a little concerned when I thought he said there was a corpse (mayet) in the well.  Of course, things got even more confused when I replied, “No, there is just a human head (kapala).” I meant to say, “There is a coconut (kalapa).” So, because of my poor language skills, we were both convinced that the other person saw a dead body in the bottom of the well. In point of fact, it was some palm branches, a pair of shorts, and a couple of coconuts.

Looking back at it today, it seems humorous. But, at the moment it was anything but funny.

We must remember how devastating it would have been for Imam and his family to deal with a body in the bottom of their well. For them, it is so much more than an issue of sanitation. Imam and his family are devout Muslims, and a dead body is a ceremonially unclean thing. Its presence would have had a significant negative religious impact on them.

It was this moment that Imam and I first became friends. And, we would get together a few times over the course of the next couple of weeks and have conversations, largely about religion. In those conversations, it became clear to me that there was a great distinction between Imam’s faith and my own. One of the most powerful differences was that Imam’s faith gave him no assurance for where he would spend eternity. And, as we sat on his tsunami-damage porch surrounded by neighborhoods destroyed by the earthquake and its aftermath and talked about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, several of whom were close to Imam, there was absolutely no comfort for him and his fellow Muslims that those souls would be in Paradise. “If God wills,” was the only possibility of hope.

This fact struck me as particularly tragic. For, had the tsunami hit my hometown, grief-stricken though I would be, I would have some measure of comfort that my family and friends who had passed would be in a better place. Isn’t that one of the simple and profound aspects of our faith that comforts us all, all of us who have lost some dear?

quranI tell this story to illustrate one of the characteristics of the Muslim faith that we discuss in my World Literature class. The first Sura of the Al-Qur’an says this:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,

The Compassionate, the Merciful,

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!

You alone we worship, and to you alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.

We can learn a lot about Muslim theology from this first Sura, a passage that is quoted daily by Muslims around the globe.

What does this text teach its readers about humanity?

The people on earth are divided into two groups: 1) the favored and 2) those who have incurred God’s wrath. Those who are favored are those who have followed the straight path. Those who incur God’s wrath are those that have gone astray.

What does this text teach its readers about who ‘God” is?

God is the Lord of Judgment, judging people to either be deserving of his favor or deserving of his wrath. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe. The god of the Qur’an is not a god who acts on our behalf. He sits and judges.

What does this text teach its readers about right or wrong or how to appease God with our actions?

As humans we must attain God’s favor by following the straight path, lest we incur his wrath instead. For Muslims, this verse, recited during prayer five times a day, is a constant reminder that the only way to win God’s favor is to stay on the straight path. Their ticket to Paradise is not dependent on God’s mercy or Grace, but on their own righteous works.

How does this faith contrast with our own faith?

Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that we have all gone astray. In the biblical view, all are deserving of God’s wrath. But, the verse also reminds us that Jesus has shouldered all the iniquities for us all. This is the great assurance that the gospel gives its followers. It is that we know that we are deserving of God’s wrath, but through his grace we have been spared that wrath.

In the 21st century, as we witness the atrocities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, my students have a lot of questions about Islam. And, although I am unable to answer all of those questions in one class period, I hope my students understand this one thing: one primary belief that motivates a segment of the Muslim population to do such horrible things is the simple understanding that they must win their way to Paradise. They must prove their devotion and righteousness to their Allah. Muslims are literally scared to death that their good deeds will not outweigh their evil deeds and they will spend eternity in hell. At its heart, the problem of militant Islam is a spiritual problem.

Once again, as we observed in our reading of the Hindu Gita,  we are made aware that what we believe informs what we do. Faith matters.

DS

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.

Costumes
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

Phew.

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.

TEL

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.

Lighting
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.

Sound
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.

TEL

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.

Whoa.

WHY DO WE DO THAT?

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.

Or…

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

Communion.

TEL

Connection (or… The Void)

This week one of my colleagues suggested I discuss how we connect with a production.  And, in reflection, each one has a different… love story.

Initially, we certainly hope to be touched by the narrative itself.  We all have our favorite novels, short stories, movies, or television shows.  There is something about them that we delight to revisit every now and then.  Maybe it’s the action or the setting.  Maybe it’s the language or the character relationships.  Maybe it’s the big mess of feeling we are left with at the conclusion.  Perhaps there is something satisfying or redeeming about the work.  Surely, it’s some fantastic combination of all of these.

In order to spend several months on any particular work, we must find something we desire to be a part of.  Something much bigger than ourselves.  Something that speaks to our own need for connection.

Connection.  That’s a huge reason why we do what we do.  And it starts with a connection to the playwright’s voice.

We are constantly reading.  New plays appear on the market all the time.  We listen to suggestions from friends and critics.  We seek out historical work with a timeless message.  The search is relentless for that one play or musical that grapples with our heart strings and illuminates a part of our own journey.

Connection.

When I set out to find my thesis play–a work I would spend months researching, rehearsing, and ultimately writing a 200+ page thesis on–I knew it must capture my soul.  It had to combine characters I would adore with a journey that would rend my heart.  I found it in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.  Every single act ended with a page-turning climax.  The characters were both noble and flawed.  And their over-arching desire was to be loved.  To be loved.  Loved for who they were… in spite of who they were.  Battlefield skirmishes, honorable sacrifices, swordplay, poetry and unquenched desire set in seventeenth-century France?  What’s not to love?  It grabbed hold and would not let go.  It filled that void inside me… a need to be a part of something bigger than myself.  Something nobler than myself.  Something more beautiful.

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac (Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac
(Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

Cyrano and I connected.  And I poured myself into the process.

As a director, designer, playwright, or actor, so much of yourself goes into a production.  When your work is torn down or criticized, a little piece (or a huge chunk) of your confidence goes with it.  But I know of no other way to honor the work than to fully invest my own self in it.  Because I’m asking every one of my collaborators to make a personal investment as well.  So the choice must be to select something that feeds your creative soul.

So what happens when you don’t have a say in the choice?

You still have to find your way in.

When ETBU’s School of Fine Arts decided to do Sunday in the Park with George as its huge centennial celebration production, I didn’t really know much about the show.  However, people I trusted loved it and recommended it.

All throughout the summer prior to casting and rehearsing, I tried and tried to connect with it.  I read it over and over.  I researched it.  I watched the original Broadway production repeatedly on DVD.

Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  I wasn’t connecting to it on any level.  Not the story.  Not the music.  Not the message.  Not the characters.

We finalized the design.  Nothing.  We held auditions.  Nothing.  We started rehearsals…

It wasn’t until I saw the students grapple with the difficulty of the piece that I found my way in.  I would come to love this show because I loved them.  Every one of them.  And I think we were all a little terrified of the challenge before us and deeply grateful that we were not alone in the process.

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George (Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Sunday in the Park with George is ultimately about the sacrifice and work it takes to make great art.  It’s about the compulsion to create and the need to make our mark through excellence.  But it doesn’t sugarcoat the end result which is often marred by the struggle to find balance and priority in the midst of the creative process.  It can get ugly, gritty, short-tempered, and self-absorbed.  George is also about connection and, conversely, disengagement.  Somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about the cost of art… and what happens when we mix up our priorities and fail to invest in those who invest in us.

Disconnection.

It’s odd, really.  We examine all kinds of human disconnection through this unique collaboration we call theatre.  Play by play we look at selfishness, fear, manipulation, rejection, and neglect.  Play by play we also examine generosity, courage, perseverance, grace, and sacrifice.  And we apply what we learn to our own lives and worldview.  We know intimately the God-sized hole in our own hearts and the many things we try to fill it with.

So by the end of my time with both Cyrano and George, I had become acutely aware of the respective sacrifices and hardships they explored, and my own life became the wiser for it.

We are made for connection.  And theatre, through its timeless tales and characters, connects people across history, across miles, across the curtain line, and across the stage.

…yet another reason why I love this discipline so much.

TEL

You Should Do Shakespeare! (or… How We Choose Our Season)

Once, after a performance of a contemporary play, a patron told me, “You should do Shakespeare.”

Sometimes it’s hard to find the grace to respond with kindness when I’d rather be banging my head against a wall.  Repeatedly.  Then I remind myself… they don’t know the whole story.

ScriptsChoosing a production season for any theatre, whether professional or educational, is a painstaking process.  We can agonize over it for months before we commit to next year’s work, essentially because there are several criteria that guide our selection of a play.

I’d like to share those with you.

1. Is the cast size consistent with the talent in the department?

It is folly to choose a show we have no hopes of casting.  Though our productions are open to the entire student body, we have found that only those who have a deep love for the theatre are willing to commit to the demanding schedule required of any show.  This limits the size of the cast and, as a result, the type of shows we can do.

2. Does the production have academic and thematic merit?

We are a university committed to the intellectual growth of our students.  If we say we want them to think critically, then the material must demand intellectual inquiry through skillful storytelling and ask the participants thought-provoking questions regarding the content.  Wrestling with great literature helps our students think and problem solve beyond everyday expectations.

3. Has the play been recognized for excellence?

This is closely tied to #2.  Usually those plays that have been popularized through strong word-of-mouth reviews, legitimate awards, or favorable critiques provide the richest academic and artistic challenges.

4. Will the demands of the show exceed our budget or workforce?

Selecting the wrong show can sabotage an entire department in one of two ways: we can break the bank by committing to a play that demands too much of our budget or we can break our backs by selecting an overly ambitious show that will drain our workforce.  With a season of at least four shows, we must find a healthy and economically sound balance.

5. Will the experience stretch, challenge, and grow our students (both on stage and behind the scenes) in a way that prepares them for professional or graduate-level academic work?

Students should experience a wide range of genres, forms, and styles from across history to better understand the discipline.  We must also prepare our students for the real world by engaging them with the work out there now.  They are challenged to make bold choices, take risks, engage their faith, and set their boundaries.  It’s not all black and white, and our students must know how to dialogue about their limits in a profession that won’t necessarily sympathize with them.

6. Does the play reflect the faith and values of the institution?

This question is best answered by our Theatre Arts and Christian Worldview statement found on our website and in our programs.  In short, we absolutely want to maintain the integrity and mission of our university.  We love to discuss the redemptive, cautionary, or unresolved conflicts found in the work we do.  As a result, we often schedule talkback sessions after particular performances to help answer the difficult questions.  Our goal is to balance the needs of our students with the expectations of our patrons.

7. Is it something we personally want to work on for 6-9 months?

That’s about how long we spend on any one show, often overlapping the various needs as the schedule demands.  While one show is in performance, another is being designed, while another is being researched and conceptualized.  If we aren’t passionate about the work we have chosen, the end product will suffer.

2014-15 Production Season

2014-15 Production Season

I love Shakespeare’s work and would welcome the opportunity to produce any one of his histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances if we can do the play justice.  However, large cast sizes, multiple male roles, few female opportunities, lengthy run times, multiple sets, iambic pentameter (with numerous variations), difficult thematic content, and some of the most beloved stories ever told make his work a significant challenge for a department of our size.

So we work to grow.  We try hard to recruit top-tier students.  We train them in voice and movement, acting and design, analysis and history.  We build our stock of period clothing, weapons, and props.  We dream big and problem solve within the limitations of our facilities.  We press on in the hopes that one day we will do Shakespeare.

But until that time comes, we strive to meet the immediate needs of the department in a way that gives students opportunities that are just as rich and rewarding.  Maybe it will be Miller, Ruhl, Brecht, Molière, or Sondheim, but it will be just as worthy.

TEL

Composition and Coffee beans: How owning a coffeeshop made me a better professor

PaperFew here in East Texas are aware that when I held an assistant professor position at a sister university I owned a small coffeeshop in downtown Plainview, TX. My wife and I had a grand idea to purchase and remodel a mid-century diner to take on new life as a gourmet coffee shop and local hang-out. Just as she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Texas Tech we purchased the building, completed renovations, and opened in time for a new school year. I would maintain my full-time teaching job while she ran the family business.

Two months later a small hiccup left me running a new business fulltime, teaching a full load, and my wife at home with severe morning sickness that left her bed-ridden. Her aversion to strong smells—coffee being her least favorite—forced me to actually strip down and jump in the shower before I was allowed to greet her from a long day at both jobs.  So, I became the sole proprietor while my wife took on the equally challenging task of a mother to one, and then a year later, two children. Even though those six years number among the most challenging years of my life, I learned a number of important things that have made me a better equipped college professor.

Now, there are a few obvious elements of owning a coffeeshop that may well serve an English professor. The endless supply of fresh and delicious coffee left me with all the energy I needed for late night grading and early morning classes. The proximity to the lives of students who frequented my shop and were employed as baristas allowed me a unique role in educating and training them in and out of the classroom. And, my position as a small-business owner allowed me a unique perspective by which to teach my freshmen students the ins-and-outs of professional writing.

Yet, the most valuable thing I learned from owning a coffeeshop is something that is more profound, but less obvious.  It is a lesson that plays a critical role in my approach to teaching at a small, faith-based university.

When my wife and I first opened our shop, we, like most independent coffeeshop owners at that time, found our inspiration from Starbucks, the world famous coffee purveyor that introduced the American public to Italian-styled coffee drinks like the espresso and the cappuccino. We set our menu options and our prices to reflect our similarity with the chain. We were proud when customers compared us in a positive way to the coffee giant. And, even while we strived to create products that were superior in quality, we knew that we owed a great debt of gratitude to the big guys for every dollar put in our cash register.

However, over the course of our six years in the business things changed drastically, not just in our coffeeshop, but in independent coffeeshops around the nation.  These coffeeshops adopted what has become known as the “third wave.”

latte artThe “third wave” approach to artisanal coffee is characterized by promoting sustainable growing practices, purchasing beans directly from farmers—a practice that pays fair prices and cuts out the middle-man—and pursuing careful roasting methods that enhance flavor without burning the coffee (Most third wave coffee is lightly roasted).  It is also associated with alternative brewing methods, like the pour-over, that celebrate the inherent uniqueness of each coffee variety. Baristas began pouring latte art and talking about the specific flavor qualities of single-origin beans—beans from a specific lot of an individual estate rather than beans from a given nation, like Columbia.

Small coffeeshops took on practices that not only produced the best product but were healthy for the local and global community. And, those small, independent shops are really the only places capable of providing that level of quality and that amount of positive community interaction.

Small, independent shops that embraced the “third wave” approach have become so numerous and popular that the large corporations are now trying to emulate them. Starbucks now has pour over coffee and serves a “blonde” roast. Chick-Fil-A now serves coffee that is advertised as purchased directly from small, family farms. And, latte art now makes regular appearances in Hollywood blockbusters and on the packaging of grocery store creamers.

So, as a professor at a small, faith-based university, this observation is the most important thing I have learned from the coffee business. It is the observation that a group of purposeful, highly-trained and creative individuals that dedicate themselves to their craft can operate a successful venture and provide a valuable and satisfactory service to its proprietors in ways that challenge the establishment. What if the small, faith-based university could approach education in the same way that independent coffeeshops approach coffee?

As a professor at ETBU I know that if we embrace the best practices of education we can provide the highest standard of education to our students. But we must also ask ourselves what we can do better. How can we best utilize our role as a small school that has a high teacher/student ratio to provide better small-group instruction? How can we push the educational envelope in fresh and meaningful ways to provide students with a quality of education that they can’t get at one of the big guys? In what ways can we use our model to train our students and give them hands-on experience for service to both the local and global community? How can we make the small university education cool again?

DS

Life Hacks for … Life?

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

Do you have a big project that you’re trying to finish before the end of the semester, the year, or the decade?

Maybe it’s a big paper at the end of the semester, or to graduate from college. Maybe you signed up for the Bible in a Year program and, like me, have fallen off the wagon a bit. Maybe you have big plans for your career or grad school or writing a book. Maybe you’re working up to sharing Christ with a friend.

I recently read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about working on a writing project: Scholarly Writing Hacks

The idea is that you have to set aside a time every day to write, and that you need encouragement from other writers to keep you going. Then you will achieve success and come out with at least a solid draft of your paper/book.

About a year and a half ago I finished my biggest writing undertaking: the Dissertation. Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuun.

Photo Credit: chnrdu via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: chnrdu via Compfight cc

I can’t say that I purposefully did any of these tricks, but looking back on it I can see that I did try to write a little most days and I did have others to talk to about it with. So maybe it does work. Maybe I’ll try it out on my next paper!

The point that really struck me about this though is that these tricks would work for anything – not just writing.

If you’re trying to read the Bible in a year, setting aside time to read every day is important. Otherwise, you’ll never make it. And if you’re trying to finish a big paper, putting if off until the last days WILL NOT WORK!

In either of these situations, you need people around you to encourage you, keep you going, and give you guidance.

It works for scholarly writing, and it works for being a Christian.

You can easily see in the Bible that there are many references to the need for community and accountability partners. Like in Hebrews 10:24-25 -

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have days that I would like to just relax and be lazy… not calling that friend to check on her, or not keeping up with my Bible reading.

by Jimmie @ Flickr commons

by Jimmie @ Flickr commons

I also have times when I struggle to make the right decision, or need some help deciding what to do. And that is where community comes in!

I hope that everyone here at ETBU has found a sense of community and that we can lean on each other in times of need. But it’s hard to be vulnerable!

Sometimes all we can do is open up to that one special person, make sure we listen for God’s guidance, and surround ourselves with community. If we work on it every day and talk with others walking the walk we just may have a chance at finishing the biggest project of all - following God’s plan for our lives. 

AL

And the walls came tumbling down…

Something extraordinary happened yesterday in my Biblical Interpretation class. Yes, this is the same class I went all she-hulk on last month (see self worth image psalmWhen Empathy Backfires…).

We had recently returned from a chapel service focused on transparency and confession. Several of my Religion students had given short testimonies during the service and had laid bare their souls, recounting their sordid stories and sins, their insecurities and their struggles. They then challenged the chapel attenders to do the same thing, writing their sins and insecurities on themselves with markers as a physical act of confession and honesty.

It was inspiring and thought-provoking and I wanted to make sure that the moment for openness and learning did not pass us by.

self worth image orange guySo instead of lecturing on the grammatical-structural relationships in biblical prose, I asked the students in my class to share the words they had written on their arms. And I went first.

After I explained my struggle with the sinful attitude of selfishness, I confessed that my biggest recurring insecurity is that I feel “other” as a woman called to and gifted for pastoral ministry in a culture that only affirms the pastoral position for men, a fact that continues to ignite resentment and bitterness in my heart toward the church.

And then they shared. In front of their peers, they talked about their feelings of inadequacy, they revealed dark parts of their pasts, and they confessed sins and weaknesses that usually remain  hidden in the locked parts of our souls. They praised God for the healing and deliverance they had experienced in some areas while also recognizing the work that still had to be done. They were raw and real and honest and vulnerable and so incredibly brave that it took my breath away.

It made me think of Jericho.

In Joshua 6, we read the story of the fledgling Israelites who, after having crossed into the land God had promised Abraham generations before, came upon the strong-walled city of Jericho, the first major barrier between them and God’s promise. God gave Joshua and the people detailed instructions that included marching around the walls, blowing trumpets, and shouting in success over the Lord’s promised victory.

We tend to emphasize the great faith that Joshua and the priests and soldiers showed and we celebrate their obedience to God in the face of impossible odds. But we sometimes forget that in order to obey, these Israelites had to be shockingly brave and illogically vulnerable.self worth image

For seven days they marched outside the heavily fortified city, aware that at any moment arrows could fly over the walls to pierce through their bodies and tear away their hopes of entering the promised land. Yet they continued to put themselves in that vulnerable position, with no rocks or walls to hide behind, in order to breach the walls that God told them they would destroy.

Yesterday, my students were as brave and as vulnerable as those Israelites outside Jericho. They put their hearts in the line of fire, exposing parts of themselves to potential arrows of judgment and ridicule and rejection. They did this because they knew they could only experience victory over their sins and their insecurities if they exposed them.

And in the wake of their vulnerability and brave shouts of confession, the walls came tumbling down.

The walls of pain, protection, and pride that guarded their hearts from the world. The walls of denial, competition, and fear that prevent true community among peers. The walls of decorum, distance, and doubt that serve to separate teacher from student. These all started to fall and I realized that I had much to learn from these millenials, these students who both exasperate and inspire me.

Yesterday, my students taught me that true community cannot exist without healing, that healing cannot begin without trust, and that trust can only be earned through vulnerability. They taught me that the toughest battles are not fought with weapons and strategy but with trust and transparency. They taught me that as a community of faith we have many more walls to tear down before we enter the promised land, that kingdom that God has promised us of love and healing, of unity and rest.

jgb