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