As a theatre artist, I’ve got “issues” with other people. Or maybe it’s just “as a person”—who doesn’t? One of the reasons I went into the arts was because I couldn’t stand the world as it was, didn’t trust people or institutions. It was the 60’s, early 70’s—for those of you who were there, you remember: we were going to change the world, right? Love! Freedom! Peace! Justice! …and also, unfortunately, Drugs! and a lot of irresponsible and self-absorbed behavior.
On my little blue stage in the garage behind 908 E. 5th Street, I tried to work it all out. The basic problem for me was clear: I didn’t fit in. For the most part, I didn’t like what was going on all around me or what I was expected to do in order to get along. How could I take the truth of that, who I was and the way I saw the world, and still be “useful”? Build some kind of a life. I was escaping as well, of course, throwing myself into my work in a sort of addictive trance of creation in order to avoid “reality”. I’ve still a lot of issues dealing with people in large groups, traversing the edge between me and others, but I’ve learned a few things over the years—that working to cross that edge is crucial to growth and success; that creativity isn’t just for artists; that people are, for the most part, doing the best they can to get by—they’re scared too, they’re lonely too; that we’re all better off if we can push back those forces that make us want to shut down and hide, and instead make the effort to connect, work together. I think that’s something we all know, but it’s easier to know than to do.
Let me not just pontificate; I’ll tell you a story. When we moved to Little Pond in ’96, the arts retreat my wife, Bridget, and I founded now, 20 years ago, we went around to all the neighbors with flowers to say hello, sit down and talk. Tried to ease their fears about what craziness they might imagine we were up to. Our nearest neighbor up in the corner of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks (we’ll say), were very nice. Over the years that followed, we didn’t have much reason to visit again.
A couple years back, I’d heard that Mr. Brooks had died, his wife moved to a retirement home, and their son, an “unstable Vietnam Vet” I was told, had taken over the property. Not long after, I got a phone call in the middle of the night from someone who didn’t identify himself– “Do you have a rifle?” he asked me in a muffled voice. And after I replied vaguely, he hung up. Later, there was an altercation with a guest, Susan, on our property as she ran the pathways of its perimeter; she’d gotten into a yelling match with the son. There was a volleyball game where the ball went across into the property and he yelled at them to get off his property. There were stories, when having a campfire at the top of the hill, of a strange figure sneaking up on the group, hiding in the shadows. Music began to come from up in that corner of the Little Pond property, keeping our guests awake at night—strange garbled radio music, golden oldies. Then heavy metal– so loud I had to close the windows in our bedroom, over a half mile away, so Bridget and I didn’t have to listen to it all night. “Reality” was getting harder to ignore.
I was afraid to do nothing–things might get worse, but it wasn’t right to let my neighbor offend me unanswered. Still, I knew the folks who used Little Pond made noise quite often. Perhaps he was just saying, “If you make loud noise till 10 p.m. and be a bother, so can I!” I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Maybe, like a spoiled child, all he wanted was attention, and I don’t like giving a spoiled child attention; it only reinforces the bad behavior. I didn’t want to call the police unless it was really necessary.
Finally, I felt overwhelmed–just a general feeling of incompetence at dealing with the problem. “Screw it!” I thought –and started heading up to the edge of the property, the house on the hill where he lives, determined to do “something”, but I didn’t know what. Well, there’s a tent there, in the woods between his property and mine, and I’d heard he actually spends all his time in the tent.
Up the hill I walked. What was I going to do? He might shoot me. I’d be on his property; it would be his right if he felt threatened. I don’t want to make a mess of this. “Well, O.K. then, he’ll shoot me,” I thought, “but this has got to be done. I’m not calling the police.”
“Hello!” I called on arriving at the edge of the Little Pond property. I was barefoot, in jeans and a t-shirt. “Hello?” No answer. No answer from the tent in the woods. I gingerly picked my way across the wood and small trees that had been pushed up and stacked to make a clear, dividing edge between his property and ours. I wasn’t in my own territory anymore. Slowly I walked up to the house, thinking to myself how much I didn’t want to be there. Beat up, scrawny, stray cats peeped out from under bushes and around corners. I made it to the porch and knocked. Rang the doorbell. I think it actually worked. I heard his voice. He mumbled something loudly. I said, “O.K.!” just to let him know, at least, that I’d heard and then backed away from the door. If he had a gun I wanted to be able to run. There seemed to be a garden, and everything was growing unhindered for the most part by the human hand. I heard him banging around in the garage. The garage door clanged as if it were going to open. I thought he was getting his gun; why else would he go in there? And then I heard his voice around the side of the property. He wasn’t coming out the front door…
I peeked around the corner of the building, and there he was. About my age, long hair, cigarette in one hand, limping–it was clear his leg was really messed up.
S: Wha’da’ya want?
B: Hi, I’m Bill George, I live just over the way…
S: Wha’da’ya want?
B: …and what’s your name?
S: Maybe I don’t have one.
B: O.K., well, I’m your neighbor and I just wanted to make sure everything was O.K. between us. Can we talk?
S: (pause) Ah… yeah… let me get a chair.
He pulls a plastic chair up and another one for me. And slowly, we talk.
I’m not going to take you any further into this story but to say this. It turns out he did have a name… which I won’t share here to help preserve his privacy. And it turns out it’s us at Little Pond who scare him, when we come running by his property. He’s alone up there. And he’s jealous, he says, when lots of folks are having a good time… he wishes he had friends, could be with us. I learn his knee is swollen, constantly painful, but he won’t go to the hospital because he doesn’t trust them doctors—and who would take care of the cats? He says he’s lonely.
So I ask him to come to dinner. And he comes, and we talk some more about movies and the internet. And as he leaves he says: “No one ever invited me to nothing before. I had to come. Wouldn’t have been polite to say no. I’ll keep that music down. Thanks for askin’ me.” And I say: “No, thank you. I just don’t know why it took me so long to ask.”
It used to be I had issues about “other people”; I still do, but I’ve learned a few things along the way about that wall between me and others, the “edge”; we need help– all of us, not just we sensitive artsy types– to cross it, to get outside of ourselves, our fears, our projections. And when we do get across it, successfully, we grow; we become more; our lives take on greater meaning and beauty, and, dare I say it, our art does too. How could it not?
[Re-posted from August, due to internet monkeys]
We’re coming down from a whirlwind and wonderful summer that started with our adventures in Europe and finished with a great month of summer education programming, with a lot of planning for the future in between. Now, it’s officially the second half of August, and we’re most of the way through our transitioning-into-the-season season, and maybe it’s the lack of gelato from earlier this summer, but it feels like a strange transition this year.
The entire trip was great, and Hungary was a great experience (good friends, good food, entirely too much beautiful architecture), but our time in Italy in particular was an incredible gift. During the bulk of the year, there’s so much split attention between this administrative task and that rehearsal, this education work and that development work, and it’s hard to be truly present; but when we were hanging out with our good friends from Teatro Potlach for twelve days… well, it wasn’t any less divided, and it was still hard to be fully present, but the focus was entirely on our work as artists. We would sweat it out in workshops all day, listen (via interpreter, who was a godsend) to presentations by our peers, watch shows (ranging from comedy to melodrama) each night, and further personal and professional dialogue amongst the members of our international theatre artist family (including a 3am jam session that I won’t soon forget). To be able to focus solely on that work – the work of the artist, in all of its many forms – was a luxury and a dream.
We have awesome plans for the coming year (and beyond – stay tuned later this season for the unveiling of our next community-based work, which will premiere in 2019) that we’re all eagerly anticipating. Jp’s vision for the company is strong, lucid, and exciting, and we’ll be sinking our teeth into some rich artistic material in a very satisfying way. But we’ve definitely woken up from the dream and are back in the land of graphic design, website maintenance, corporate development, curriculum development, combing through schedules, long strings of emails, and going home each day feeling slightly fuzzy-brained with all of the details.
So how do you balance it? How do you make sure that there’s still room for the art? How do you support the “real work” you’re doing while not losing sight of that “real work”? (Musical theatre nerd moment – Sondheim does a great job playing with some of this in song form with “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park with George) There’s no good answer, of course, except to keep that question present in our minds and hope that remembering to ask the question is enough to keep life in balance.
At any rate, we’re in variable states of vacation for the next week or two, after which we’ll be heading full tilt back into the melée of busy season. There will be periods where we’re swamped with logistics and meetings, and glorious moments where we get to “just do art”. Both are crucial to making the theatre run. Check out the new season details listed on the website (and keep an eye out for brochures next week) – we’re honored and grateful for the opportunity to do this work, bumps and all, and the opportunity to share it with you.
The Background: We leave for the Bhudoo tour in one week. As we prepare to pack everything– personal and production-related– and divide it up between the folks traveling, it’s clear we need a hard-shelled suitcase for the three ukuleles. No one in the company has one, so it needs to be purchased.
The Weird Thing: I went to Marshall’s with an empty uke box, both airline luggage dimensions, and a tape measure. In the process I had almost a dozen suitcases down testing if they fit three ukes and then measuring them (why are the measurements not clearly on the luggage label?!). Definitely received some looks, but ultimately this is not that weird of a thing to do… or maybe I’ve just done worse?
In the name of art, I’ve gone into Home Depot and, in an aisle, put pieces of pvc together to make sure I could create a large enough circle with them that was the size of a human and could roll easily (cannot remember what show I did that for…); I’ve been asked, “What are you doing?” in a fairly accusatory tone, when I was in a higher end clothing store taking pictures of outfits (I like to walk around stores and get ideas first, whether it’s a full costume look or just checking out materials in arts & crafts stores before I attempt to create something, like the Bhudoo flower power holster); I’ve used the phrase: “This may be a weird question, but I work for a theatre and wondered if…” many times, most recently when I asked the pharmacist at CVS if I could have an empty pill bottle for a Bhudoo prop; I’ve bought multiple sizes and colors of a similar article of clothing because I wasn’t sure which would work best and then returned all but one, and I’ve also bought the same exact article of clothing in multiple sizes to fit each cast member (both of these were, on numerous occasions, for Follies).
Not to mention my “weird” online presence; Etsy still thinks I love large costume fish heads because I bought one almost two years ago for Follies and weekly sends me links to new fish heads to buy and related fishy items like scale leggings or fish jewelry. Amazon is very confused by my and Jp’s profile, which, after the Young Playwrights’ Festival and Bhudoo, ranges from costume sunflower heads to Hawaiian leis to a kids leprechaun costume to uke stands – the “featured recommendations” and “recently viewed items” are pretty hilarious to view.
We’ll be off in two foreign countries soon with the Bhudoo tour, so at least if I need to do any of these (or other) weird things overseas, chances are very slim I’ll ever run into the same people again!
So… I’m running late for work and don’t have time to eat breakfast at home, but wouldn’t ya know it… I’ll be passing a Wawa. I stop and again, wouldn’t ya know it, it’s April, so it’s Wawa Sizzli special month! You may recall my previous posts, one from when we were mounting A Resting Place and one last year when we were mounting Journey from the East, and how I’ve explained that the 2-for-$3 Sizzli special is a life saver when you’re neck-deep in launching high-intensity outdoor productions, and wouldn’t you know it… on this day, I was on my way to rehearse at an outside venue for our current production of Bhudoo!
But after years of the 2-for-$3 Sizzli special, it appears to be a page in the history books, or my blog entries.
Yep, they raised the price. C’est la vie. But as they say, “Nothing lasts forever,” including my broken heart, which was assuaged by the sight of this beauty in the warmer!
Dios mío! This thing was (expletive) delicious! That’s the thing about change: it’s uncomfortable at first, but ya never know what kind of awesome it can bring. Viva Chorizo!
In the journey of learning my art, one of the most influential and dearest teachers I have ever had the privilege of working with is Paul J. Curtis, Founder of The American Mime Theatre (TAMT). I studied with him, off and on, from 1976 to 1981, but he continued to be a confidant and friend for the rest of his life.
The American Mime Theatre is a professional performing company and training school based in New York City founded in 1952 by Paul J. Curtis (August 29, 1927– April 28, 2012). It is the oldest continuing professional mime company in the USA. The theatre ran under the direction of founder Paul for 60 years.
Its 64th birthday was a few weeks ago. Happy birthday, AMT.
Paul created the medium known as American Mime. He is missed by thousands of students and audiences throughout the world, whom he moved deeply with his teaching and performances… Paul J. Curtis, a man who lived moment to moment with unwavering uncompromising untamed deepness of heart.
Paul said, “American Mime is a complete theatre medium defined by its own aesthetic laws, terminology, techniques, script material and teaching methods. Basically, it is a medium for non-speaking actors who perform, in characterization, the symbolic activities of American Mime plays through movement that is both telling and beautiful.”
Born in Boston, Paul served in the Navy in World War II. He studied with the notable German director Erwin Piscator from 1947–49. Later, he went to Paris and studied with Etienne Decroux. In the 1970s, Curtis founded American Mime, Inc. and International Mimes & Pantomimists. In addition to teaching at his own school, Mr. Curtis was chairman of the Mime department at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, 1956–71. He also taught American Mime at many institutions including Cornell University, Bennington College, Goodman School of Drama, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and The Leonardos in Paris.
Just to put it simply, I miss him. Deeply.
The Company and School continue Paul’s work under the direction of Jean Barbour at their studio in New York City, and information is available on their Classes and Performances at The American Mime Theatre, 61 Fourth Avenue, Floor 2, NY NY 10003 212-777-1710
We’re well into the search for next year’s apprentice class (speaking of! If you’re a recent college grad with an interest in physically-based, community-inspired theatre, come audition!), and in the process of that recruitment drive, I find myself looking back at the apprentice classes I’ve known over my time at Touchstone.
At time of writing, our 2015-16 apprentices, Julia and Raven, are in the process of developing their first draft of Fresh Voices material to share with the ensemble – and in just the blink of a few months, I’ll be adding their pictures to a collection like this, as they take their place in the apprenticeship hall of fame. But in the meantime, outreach to the apprentices of the future continues – and promises to be just as rewarding.
I remember being told as a senior in college that my generation would change not just jobs but careers roughly five times throughout our professional lives. Reflecting on that bit of info which, for some reason, I retained for the last 15+ years, I consider myself quite fortunate that I found a home with one theatre company in my post-college professional life. Though, to be fair, within this company, I’ve filled many jobs: stage manager, grant writer, lighting designer, marketing coordinator, costume designer, managing director, director, special events coordinator, production manager, facilities manager, teaching artist, box office manager, etc.
Alternating between artistic and administrative roles within that list was an intentional choice. If I ordered chronologically, it would start on the artistic side and gradually shift to the administrative with little blips of artistic peppered in. A slow transition over time, like the frog that doesn’t jump out if you put it in a pot of water and gradually turn up the heat, but will if you drop it into boiling water. Perhaps not the best metaphor, but it’s kinda accurate. I remember resisting more responsibilities on the administrative side at first and then at some point, falling into them more and more and leaving the other side behind.
At an arts event last week, all the attendees were asked to put themselves into smaller groups – artist, administrator, business owner, patron – wherever they fit best. I found myself briefly wanting to go to artist, but heading towards administrator. Also last week, we kicked off our latest community-based production – a revisiting of Steelbound set for 2019 – with the six core artists at Touchstone, complete with popping the cork on a bottle of champagne and toasting to the future project. A exciting beginning to an exciting project, but when asked how I wanted to be involved artistically I could only think of development, marketing, house management, and box office. All important and often creative roles in the project, but not ones that flex my weakening theatre art muscles. And then the clincher came a couple days ago, when an email came in from Trinity Rep that read “Great Writers” in huge letters up top with “Harper Lee and James Baldwin” written smaller below next to a picture of each…and what did I read? “Grant Writers”. It took me a few seconds to realize that these two authors were, of course, not also grant writers. Why did I read it that way? Maybe because my mind lives in the administrative world and not the artistic, or maybe because I’m often moving quickly and taking in info based on my perception of things and maybe not reality (yikes, that’s a big one!), or maybe there’s an option three that I haven’t quite figured out yet.
Whatever the case, I know I’m happy to serve an arts organization I believe in whole-heartedly, through the various and sundry roles of administrator and artist. Now though, I think I owe it to myself (and the company) to be more aware of how this shift from art-focused to admin-focused has affected my work, who I am now, and how I perceive things. I also need to remember to recognize the creativity that exists in my admin work, like crafting the language for a compelling grant or orchestrating the flow of a fundraising event. And unlike the frog, I’m aware of the pot I’ve chosen to boil in and will boil on in the name of good, transformative theatre!