In the Dark
My last entry was about the predilection of modern playwrights to rely upon blue language. My next entry was going to be about how this trend is making it more and more difficult to bring relevant theatre into the world of budding young theatre students and vice-versa.
But then something happened that made me drop my jaw on my keyboard in complete and utter disbelief: Music Theatre International has announced that a rated PG-13 version of “Avenue Q” is now available for amateur licensing.
To quote Seth Myers of SNL’s Weekend Update: REALLY ?!?
The obnoxiously funny puppet show for adults that works because it turns upside-down the notions that puppets are for kids and musical theatre can never be anything like a “South Park” episode (well, at least before Parker and Stone’s “The Book of Mormon” opened on Broadway this year)…sanitized so that the family can now enjoy it? And it’s even titled “Avenue Q: School Edition.”
From the Music Theatre International website: “Because the original AVENUE Q has some content elements that previously made it a difficult choice for some high school productions, MTI has worked with the AVENUE Q authors to … make it more appropriate for high school audiences and performers.” Forgive me if I'm mistaken, but I thought that the whole beauty of this show was just how INappropriate those puppets could be.
Difficult choice? Not difficult at all, if you ask me. There are some shows that just need to be understood as being off limits for high school performers. There are some shows that should be ‘Adults Only’ …and that’s perfectly okay. Understand, though, that I am not just considering the language factor. A friend and I were having the conversation recently that there are some plays that high schools (and even middle schools) attempt to produce because they are ‘classic’ that are really beyond the emotional scope and experience of the average 15 year old. “Our Town,” the most widely produced high school play in America is really not a play for teens – its perspective of memory can only be fully realized by actors who are actually old enough to look back on their formative years from a distance of more than a grade or two. Many popular musicals that have no objectionable content are really not written for amateur singers or musicians, and yet so many attempt them.
I have a confession: when I was a high school theatre director I felt the pressure to “keep up” with my fellow high school directors in terms of the hipness and cool factor and up-to-date relevance of my play selection. A few years of distance allows me to see that I made some choices that were not in the best interest of my students, but were more likely about being cool, hip and edgy among my colleagues.
Sometimes I wonder about the motives of my compatriots when I see them making choices that are surprisingly ‘adult’ – not just in language or content, but in the emotional scope and skill required by the performers (Sondheim, anyone?). What is the purpose of secondary level educational theatre, after all? What are we trying to accomplish with those choices for our students? And is “Avenue Q: School Edition” really the answer? Because if it is, then if I were still directing high school theatre I'd be singing "It Sucks to Be Me."
For a playwright, words are the heart and soul of a character. My drama students are currently (hopefully) learning this as we delve into scene analysis before we even begin thinking about performance. The words are the key to all dramatic action – every impulse, every look, every gesture has to grow from an understanding of the playwright’s words. The actor serves to bring those words to life with full import and understanding.
So why in tarnation can’t modern playwrights offer us something not so liberally seasoned with salty language?
Last month I saw Neil LaBute’s play “In a Forest Dark and Deep” at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. It was a play worthy of merit for many reasons: a perfect example of Aristotle’s principles of unity of time and place, a well-crafted exploration of a dynamic relationship, a play with characters and subject matter that would entice people to the theatre who might not normally think they like theatre. Two fine actors that most people recognize from their television work – Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams -- were yet another reason to like this play. It’s the kind of work I’d love to point out to my students as an example of what theatre should be, or recommend advanced high school students use for forensic competition or scene study…but I can’t.
My reluctance isn’t so much a reaction to the references to drugs and sex (the characters are adults, after all) as it is held in check by one simple distracting element: the language. Billy, the brother played by Fox, is limited to a vocabulary that uses 4-letter Anglo-Saxon crudities in every possible grammatical form. Betty’s language is only half as seasoned as her brother’s, but then her character is a professor of English.
In fact, it seems like so many modern playwrights and screenwriters have fallen into the vulgarity trap that it is becoming increasingly challenging as a person who loves words to find anyone who can still turn a phrase or craft a delectable sentence in a film or play with modern characters that does not involve cursing. Is this because playwrights are holding to the adage that ‘art imitates life’, and, if so, is this really what our modern life has been reduced to? Have expletives become so much more acceptable in social discourse than I remember from my teen years just two decades ago? I can wield a blue phrase with the best of them, but am still amazed to hear so many people younger than myself using such language with no hesitation about time or place or present company.
I’m no prude – I just think language should elevate our thoughts, especially language used in performance. What the playwright gives to the actor to craft a character should be richly layered with meaning and nuance. A four-letter epithet now and again should add zest and spice to a character, or give us a momentarily enhanced glimpse of that character’s world view, but should not be the main ingredient around which actors are forced to craft an entire performance.
Next: thoughts on what this means for educational theatre
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” This flawed adage has suddenly found new life among those in the private sector who have discovered the “enemy” among public workers, especially teachers. The idea that the country’s pool of teachers comes primarily from a slew of failed private-sector workers is baffling. I recall a strong majority of my college cohorts in the school of education being like me – fresh out of high school and full of enthusiasm at the prospect of one day being just like the teachers who inspired us. At the tender age of 18 or 19, none of us had any ‘real world’ experience from which to fail that made us ‘fall back’ on teaching as a second-choice profession. Sure, there were non-traditional students among us who had decided to become teachers after leaving a first career. That choice was not made because they ‘failed’ in the private sector, but was made because they saw a better use of their skills: teaching students to become passionate about the same interests that drew them into the private sector in the first place.
I once overheard a fellow actor say “all high school theatre teachers are just failed actors.” After I sputtered a moment with indignation at walking in on such a loaded statement, I replied that “Some of us become theatre teachers because we want to inspire others to love the performing arts as much as we do,” and then promptly left the room before I said something I would regret. I never tried to ‘make it’ as an actor, as much as I love performing. My high school theater teacher was less than inspirational. I decided that if I wanted to inspire people to love the arts, being an actor would be less effective than being a well-trained theatre teacher.
As for the idea that teachers are people who cannot make it in the ‘real world’ – our classrooms bring us face to face with the realities of our society every day. Teachers deal with the real world effects of poverty, hunger, medical attention (or lack thereof), social legislation, cultural trends, influence of families, and economic policies in a way that very few private sector jobs would. Especially at the middle school, we see students beginning to define themselves and develop ideas of who they will become and what kind of citizens they will be – we see the future of our nation taking shape. Unlike many private sector jobs, our job in the classroom affects the future of all aspects of our society and economy.
Teachers are very much in the ‘real world,’ and some of us do find out sooner or later that teaching is not our true calling. Let’s revise the adage: “Those who can…teach. Those who can’t…have to settle for trying to make it in the private sector.”
I breathed a hesitant sigh of relief a week ago when the school board announced its plans for budget cuts. Face it, the task was so daunting that NO decision they made would make everyone happy or protect all of the programs that impact the quality of education for kids. However, despite some stipend cuts that will have an impact on our secondary music programs, the majority of our arts education programs remained intact...for this round, at least.
We all know the importance of reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but how many of us know that the state of Kansas considers fine arts important enough to require arts education for graduation? Education should not only be about teaching kids to make a living, but education should also teach kids how to make a life. Unfortunately, the fine arts have historically been the first to go in school districts across the country when budgets get squeezed too tightly.
It's like the young Thespian/football player said at the International Thespian Festival two summers ago when asked why he chose to do theatre instead of football -- he said "I realized I'm not going to change anyone's life by running a ball down the field." We can't live without the arts, and a solid educational experience in the arts makes for better citizens, better workers, better community. So thank you, USD 497 BOE, for doing what you can to uphold the idea that arts are essential, not extra.
Let's work to encourage our state legislature to support education so that the BOE doesn't have to make further cuts harmful to the quality of education for our kids.
School plays are exciting events, especially if it's the first one that your friends or relatives have participated in. Most of us like to capture those magic moments for digital perpetuity with cameras, cell phones, and video cameras. If you're taking the camera along to an elementary school event, you can expect that pretty much everyone else in the audience will be snapping lots of photos and that's just part of the experience. However, when those kiddos get to junior high and high school, the rules of the photo game change. There are three major considerations: audience etiquette, respect for the performers, and legal issues.
Junior high is where we begin introducing theatre as an art form -- it's more than just getting kids involved in the 'school play.' It's also about teaching them all the conventions of theatre, including audience etiquette. We recognize the unique quality of the audience being in the moment with the performers on stage depends on not being distracted by things such as crying babies, ringing phones, crinkly candy wrappers, loud conversations, people arriving or leaving in the middle of scenes...and the electronic tones, whirs and illumination of a digital camera being readied for a shot. That glowing LCD screen is a distraction to those around you, and might even be blocking someone else's view.
Junior high students have so many distractions in their moment to moment existence. We directors spend six to eight weeks trying to focus them and move them beyond those distractions to create believable characters and captivating stories...which they do quite well until they are faced with the reality of going on stage in front of an audience. The flash of a camera can take the actor on stage out of the moment and bring a startling reminder that someone is watching very closely. These young performers take on a demanding task -- they only make it look easy, that's why it's called acting. They deserve to have their work seen by an audience who is practicing what the students have been taught about audience etiquette.
The last consideration is the least popular and most difficult one to explain to anyone who is not in my position, and that is the legal issue of copyright. Face it, most everyone is baffled by the complexities of copyright laws. Let me make it simple: I sign a production contract that gives me the right to produce a playwright's work. I do not automatically gain the rights to reproduce that work in electronic or recorded form (it says so right on the contract and on the inside of the script). A representative of a publishing company told a group of theatre teachers at a conference I attended that the theatre director would be the person held responsible for any breach of that agreement. My school board has a policy that says it won't be held liable for any monetary damages incurred by a teacher in any legal matter. In short, people take photos or video during a performance I direct that get shared and discovered by a publishing company and I am the one who pays the thousands of dollars in fines and possibly won't be allowed to get any further production rights from that company. That would not only be a blow to my family's personal finances, but also put a crimp on being able to do my job selecting plays for my students.
So, if you go to a school play and the printed program has a notice or the director makes a speech that requests no photos or videos be taken during the performance, please take the request seriously for the reasons mentioned above. If you desperately want photos, contact the director a couple of weeks in advance of the performance and ask to take pictures during dress rehearsals. Offer to share the pictures with the director, cast and crew and you'll ingratiate yourself like you can't imagine. Besides, when 'the play's the thing,' you should be enjoying the show from a wider vantage point than an LCD screen or viewfinder.
During our school theatrical productions, I am usually backstage managing students. My assistant supervises the students in the booth running sound and lights, and so has a great vantage point when it comes to seeing what is going on in the audience. After opening night of our spring production, he made the following plea to our teenage cast and crew members: Tell your friends that they at least owe you the respect and courtesy to not sit in the audience and text while you are performing your heart out on stage.
I echoed the same plea to the audience during my pre-show curtain speech that night, and got a round of applause -- from parents, I assume.
Seems like we as a society just can't put the cell phone away, or even bear to turn it off. I could understand if people in the audience were super-duper top secret government agents and had to rush off to save the world on a moment's notice, or even if parents kept their phones on to be in quick reach of a babysitter at home, but let's face it -- most of us don't have any real life or death need to be in constant communication with the outside world for the time it takes to watch the average play. See, what makes theatre unique is immersing oneself in the experience of the here and now, which one cannot fully appreciate when deciphering the latest "hey wt r u doin?" message flashing in the dark. Not to mention that everyone next to and behind the person with the phone is distracted by the blue light illuminating that area of the darkened house.
It's disruptive! It's disrespectful to the audience as well as to the performers! And, despite what some people think, it really does interfere with some of our sound equipment in the theater (which I found out firsthand last fall during a dress rehearsal). So to those who feel they ought to be hard-wired into life outside the building they're in: stop and think about the moments happening in front of you that you're missing out on while you stare at that little blue screen. And have a good answer when your friend asks "Hey did you see me on stage when I...?"
The Spider-Man Broadway Musical proudly announced that it has a title -- "Turn Off the Dark" -- and it goes into previews January 2010. Say ....wha???
Yep, here's the official website: http://spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com/
And there it is...the poster in all its glory -- proclaiming the music written by Bono and The Edge and directed by Julie Taymor. Say it ain't so, Spidey, say it ain't so!! It's enough that producers on the Great White Way don't seem to want to bankroll any musical production that isn't based on a movie, play, book, or something that has intense marketing potential (must've taken a seminar from Disney or something). Now I have to look on in horror as my teen musical idols sell themselves out to one of the most unnecessary pop-culture adaptations of a super hero story? So here is my plea to them, in lieu of fan mail that I never sent...
Bono, Edge (and Adam, Larry)...I've loved you since that rainy day in 1981 when I defied my mom and watched some MTV while waiting for the school bus and heard for the first time that glorious sound that defined the rest of my adolescence and early college years. I defended you when everyone said you'd sold out during the Zooropa Tour. But to have it come to this? I'll just download "War" and "Joshua Tree" to my mp3 player and mourn for our lost relationship in morose silence.
And Julie -- you had me at "Fool's Fire." And the "Lion King" design still makes me weep every time I see it on stage. I was going to watch "Titus" but now...oh Julie, why? Why???
Look, I know that the two of you found "Across the Universe" a thrilling escapade, but couldn't your Broadway debut have been on a project more worthy of your talent? Something classic, something edgy..."The Tempest" or perhaps "Crime and Punishment"?
Wait...what's that ad on the right side of the Collider.com entertainment web page where I read the story of your demise? "High School Musical 4" now casting...
...Oh, the inhumanity...
So there I was, willingly craning my neck at an angle that my chiropractor would cluck her tongue at and allowing Hannah to apply hot wax onto my bare skin. I braced myself and raised my eyebrows as she pressed strips of paper into the wax, then pulled. Ouch! With a few sure rips, my landing strip eyebrows were tamed into a graceful 1930s arch. “Oh,” I joked, “ the sacrifices we make for art.” But it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. After all, no one told me to get my eyebrows waxed into shape to play the teacher, Miss Shields, in the LCT production of A Christmas Story. It just seemed somehow…necessary. I’d done everything else I could think of to prepare to play this character – I did my character background and objective work, I developed movement based on an animal and a couple of teachers I knew (wonder if my high school Latin teacher ever thought she’d be the inspiration for character development?), and researched hair and makeup styles of the time period. I even watched The Wizard of Oz so I could emulate Margaret Hamilton in one of the fantasy scenes. Something seemed to be missing, though.My students frequently comment on my repertoire of amusing facial expressions, most of which involve some comical contortion of my eyebrows. I perfected the looks that garnered the most response from my students, and incorporated them into my character. The final touch! There was only one thing that would make my eyebrow work really stand out.And that’s what put me in the salon chair a day before our tech rehearsal, in search of cosmetic perfection that I hadn’t even pursued for my wedding day. I’ve only had my eyebrows waxed one other time in my life, and that was 1984 when I was a contestant in the Miss Kansas National Teen pageant in Wichita. Groomed eyebrows weren’t enough to distract everyone from the fact that I was the only contestant in braces. But that’s another story.I thought about the sacrifices I ask my students to make in their appearances for our productions. Most are minor, like asking that they don’t cut their hair without consulting me. Moms hate me for that, especially around family portrait time. Sometimes I’ll ask someone to get a haircut to fit a certain character, or sometimes students will have to wear layers of uncomfortable special effects makeup. Sometimes I have to ask students to sacrifice by holding off on radical hair color changes. “I’m fairly sure there were no blue mohawks in Dickens’ London,” I explain. Several years ago I knew I’d never last as a high school director when I had to add a “No new facial piercings or visible tattoos” clause to my production contract. Whenever any high school tackles a production of The King and I, the ceremonial shaving of the lead actor’s head always seems to make the hometown newspaper. My eyebrows are not nearly so newsworthy, but no less important in my own process of fully realizing my character. And an indulgence that made me feel – for a little while – like a pampered actor.
Think back to your high school days, and the buzz among the artsy performer types at your school as the selection for the year's musical was announced. Chances are, if you were in school more than a decade ago, you heard classic titles such as "Fiddler on the Roof," "South Pacific," "Hello, Dolly," "Guys and Dolls," or that quintessential musical of musicals "The Music Man." Every year, the Educational Theatre Association releases its "unscientific" survey of what musicals high schools across the US are producing. This year, about 830 schools responded to the survey, according to the EDTA's website. Usually there are no big surprises from year to year:until this year.Here's the survey URL if you're interested: http://www.edta.org/publications/annual_survey.aspxNo "Oklahoma." For the first time in who knows how long, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic (which many agree is definitive in marking the beginning of the American musical genre) did not make the top 10 list! "Anything Goes" is also:gone. Two standards of high school musical theatre ousted by:ugh:Disney shows. "Beauty and the Beast" ranked #1 on the high school survey; "High School Musical" was #8. The thought of hundreds, thousands more students across the US brainwashed by the insipid stereotypes in "HSM" makes me shudder...but I digress.Choosing material for high school musicals is challenging you have to find the balance between commercially successful and community-appropriate; balance the need to challenge students' artistic growth with the need to give them material they can perform successfully; and find a show with more than 2-3 major roles (yeah, good luck with that). But I loved seeing high schools take on some more modern choices over the past decade or so "Little Shop of Horrors," "Footlose," "Titanic," "Les Miserables," "Aida," "Hairspray," and yes, even "Urinetown." By now, even some of these titles are dated.Granted, the oldies aren't always goodies many of them have outdated social views about gender and race that pose their own eyebrow-raising problems; some of them have music that is written impossibly difficult for anyone but the most seasoned high school performers. But when faced with the Disneyfication of musical theatre both in high schools and on Broadway I can't help but long for the good old days of just a decade or so ago when musical choices were more:gutsy. I am not advocating that we confine our choices to the classics. Many new works have artistic merit and feature younger protagonists, making them excellent choices for high schools. But one has to ask the question: if high schools aren't performing the "classics," and opt instead for the cute and commercially successful, when and where will our students be exposed to some of the greatest works of American musical theatre?
...the taste of sno cones, cotton candy, and popcorn mingled with late summer dust in the air......the smell of grease, the creaking of metal and wood, turning round and round and repeatedly glimpsing the grin of the clown......waiting, holding dad's hand, summer sun beating down making sweat trickle down my back until the cowboys finally duel it out on "Main Street"......feeling that rock of fear in my stomach burst into a thousand fragments of excitement as I make it onto the Tilt-a-Whirl, alone, for the first time......evening creeping slowly in until the incandescent bulbs burst to life, outlining the gentle curves of the white wooden roller coaster...I grew up in Wichita. I was a kid in the 70s. Like those of my generation and those a generation or two before me, I remember Joyland in its prime. I read today in the LJWorld that this once-beloved place where my father and I spent many a summer afternoon and evening is now overgrown with weeds and the target for vandals. It is soon to be sold and most likely razed for an office park.I remember hearing, though I cannot confirm, that the roller coaster was one of the last operating wooden coasters in the US. My friends and I congratulated ourselves every time we survived the coaster without catastrophe, considering all the stories of dry rot and termites we heard over the years. There was also the rumor of the reckless teen who stood up at the top and fell to his or her death. I think this cautionary tale had more impact on our behavior than those horrid accident films we would see later in driver's ed.I can't ever forget the mechanical maniacal grin of Louie the Clown, forever in motion, keeping time to the Wurlitzer at the carousel. Louie is apparently missing, whereabouts unknown, the object of a lawsuit. Even though he haunted me as a child, I hate to think of Louie being dismantled or discarded, that painted grin chipped or just...gone.Over the years I have been to many amusement parks. However, any time I have a dream set in an amusement park, it always resembles my faded memories of Joyland. I haven't lived in Wichita for 20 years, and only go back once or twice a year, so it's not as if this news is life-changing. But somehow, knowing that the place is going, going, gone is yet another reminder of how impermanent the past truly is. Unsettling to think a fixture of my childhood no longer exists.