Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We Have Nothing to Fear ....

Last Friday morning, I woke up with a lot on my mind.  It was the final day of speech camp, an intense three-day workshop an alum and I had set up to prepare my team for the upcoming season.  It was opening night of the summer one acts my Drama kids and I had been working on all summer.  I had a field trip the next day to take my Drama kids to see The Pirates of Penzance.  One thing I knew for sure about my weekend was that I would be unable to see The Dark Knight Rises, and I was bummed.  I have recently come to terms with the fact that I love superhero movies, a fact I'd kind of shrugged off before but which gets harder and harder to dismiss with the increased Hollywood output of some pretty amazing comic book superhero films.  Out of all superheroes, I love Batman the best -- a love that goes back to my childhood and watching Adam West, to my late adolescence and Michael Keaton, and to adulthood and Christian Bale.  I've seen every Batman movie on opening weekend (except for the Adam West version from the 60's due to the whole not being born thing), so it was disappointing to miss out on this final installment of a trilogy that renewed my love for the Caped Crusader.  But I reminded myself of the whole "grown up responsibilities" thing and consoled myself with the fact that seeing it Tuesday afternoon would mean a less crowded auditorium and cheaper ticket price.

As I was getting ready to go to speech camp, I did the same thing I do every morning when I'm getting ready for work -- I turned on CNN.  Within seconds, the horror of what had happened early Friday morning in Aurora, Colorado.  I struggled to process what I was hearing.  Who would do such a thing? Who would walk into a theatre and just open fire on people who were there to just watch a movie?  I thought about how excited the people in the theatre must have been as the lights dimmed and that Warner Brothers logo appeared on the screen and how confused they must have been when the attack started and how scared they must have been as the events unfolded.  In my mind, I kept seeing my local theatre and imagining the scene unfolding in the auditorium where I've seen so many films. To say I was horrified would be an understatement.

Over the course of the weekend, more stories from the attack came to light and left my mind reeling.  I won't lie -- as much as I rolled my eyes when I saw people on Facebook expressing fear of going to the movies in light of what happened in Colorado, I was a little nervous myself this morning when I woke up.  It wasn't that I was afraid of an attack happening here in my little town.  It was more the idea that the peace and sanctity that I associate with movies was shattered.  The movies had always been a place of escape, where I could experience any range of things -- romance, adventure, terror, triumph, but it was a place where I could experience those things safely and vicariously.  When James Holmes walked through the emergency exit with his arsenal and opened fire on the innocent audience, he stripped away the vicarious and brought the horror of our world into the sanctuary.  He let us know that there was no place where we were truly safe anymore.  When the notice came on screen reminding us to check for our emergency exits and to exit safely should the need arise, I thought of those people in Colorado.  The film features several scenes of villains storming crowds and innocent people coming to face to face with horrific violence.  I imagined those scenes playing out behind Holmes's rampage (as reports indicate it took quite some time for the film to be turned off in that auditorium).

Instead of being scared, though, I grew angry.  I am angry the actions of one sad, sick little man are casting a pall over the art of storytelling.  I am angry that my stomach dropped a little when Bane blew up the football field rather than thrilling in the spectacle of an intense scene.  I am angry that future film releases are being sent back to bay for fear that their dediting epiction of violence may be deemed insensitive or "too soon", as is the case with the upcoming Gangster Squad, a film that features a pivotal movie theatre shootout that will likely be excised from the film even though Entertainment Weekly refers to it as a "key scene."  I am angry that DC Comics is pushing back the release of Batman Incorporated because, as artist Chris Burnham said on Twitter, "There's a specific scene that made DC and the whole Bat-team say, 'Yikes.'  Too close for comfort."  I am angry that a pretty spectacular film (and The Dark Knight Rises is a pretty spectacular film) will probably forever have this shadow of senseless violence over it.

What James Holmes wanted to do last Friday morning was strike fear into hearts.  What we need to do now is channel that fear into anger and defiance.  Don't let him and other lunatics like him take away our art -- whether it's film or music or literature.  Don't let ourselves cower to the tyranny of fear.  There is a scene in The Dark Knight Rises that rang powerfully with me today -- Bane has reduced Gotham to a sort of anarchistic police state (if that makes any sense).  The Gotham police force gathers together and begins marching toward Bane's headquarters, marching into a situation that is sure to be dangerous, that may likely resuilt in their death, and yet they do so courageously, defiantly, proudly.  Now is the time for moviegoers and concertgoers and readers to be courageous, defiant, and proud.  Don't cower in fear but reclaim what is ours and embrace our arts even when they force us to confront some scary things, whether it's real-world violence or yet another Tyler Perry movie.  That movie theatre is ours -- never forget that.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Discerning Eyes of an Adult

A couple weeks ago, my sis and I were watching a Saturday Night Live re-run featuring One Direction as the musical guest.  I'm not overly familiar with their work, but having spent two weeks teaching theatre at College for Kids, I know that they are considered pretty dreamy amongst the tween set.  As I watched these boys do their thing, I was kind of struck by how rather unspectacular they were.  I turned to my sis and said, "Is it just me, or are these guys not all that cute?

My sis sagely replied, "Go back and look at the New Kids on the Block ... with the discerning eyes of an adult."  (When I pointed out that I was in college during NKOTB mania and therefore never fell victim to their alleged allure, she amended her comment to Duran Duran.)

This summer has actually been a bit surreal in terms of my kid passions colliding with my adult sensibilities.  I've discovered several "retro" channels lurking in the midst of my digital cable packages that have allowed me to take jaunts down memory row with some shows that have held special places in my memory.  And filtered through the "discerning eyes of an adult," these shows are entirely new experiences -- for better and for worse.

Batman:  I can remember giddily sitting down weekday afternoons to watch Batman on WFLD-Chicago.  It was bright, colorful fun to six-year-old me.  Now?  Well, first of all, I can't help but be distracted by the sort of pervy undertones of the Bruce Wayne/Dick Grayson relationship.  (I mean, to become Robin, the kid has to slide down a pole labelled "Dick."  Think about that for a second and tell me there isn't something sort of weird about that.)   The writing is stilted, the acting painful, the design work shoddy, the plots formulaic.  I still watch it, but I watch it in more of a Mystery Science Theatre kind of way rather than with that love I felt as a kid.

Family Affair:  Unwatchable when you know the fate of Buffy.

That Girl: Ann Marie seems a bit dim.  How did she ever survive living on her own in New York City when she barely seems capable of dressing herself in the morning?  And I suspect Donald is using her as a beard.

The Brady Bunch: Um, the Brady kids are douches.  Seriously!  Marcia is a snotty bitch.  For all her insecurity, Jan isn't much better.  Cindy....well, Cindy is sweet but I think Mike and Carol might want to get her tested for some learning disabilities.  Greg is an arrogant jerk.  Bobby is a total weasel.  The only decent one is Peter who seems resigned to being the lone nice guy surrounded by these narcissistic jags  he calls "family."

Mork and Mindy:  Robin Williams's mugging makes this unbearable.  What seemed hilarious when I was eight seems self-indulgent to a 40-year-old who spends a fair portion of her career working with comic actors and helping them learn to straddle the line between funny and over the top.  Clearly, Robin never had such a teacher -- or he was a really poor student.

Facts of Life:  After watching an episode where Natalie and Tootie are vying to play Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (at an all girl's school.....did Jo play Emil?) following auditions that would have left my music director and I struggling not to either laugh or cry, I decided it was time to turn the channel.

Of course, some things hold up better than you might expect.  There are the classics that have stood the test of time -- I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore are deserving of their legendary status.  The first episode of Three's Company is pretty beautifully constructed (although the "smear the queer" kind of humor that is employed -- particularly by Mr. Roper -- throughout the rest of the series can be a bit offensive to more enlightened 21st century audiences).  Get Smart, too, remains hilarious and, while campy, not nearly as mired down by datedness as you might think.  Laverne and Shirley may render watching 2 Broke Girls impossible this fall because Max and Caroline have NOTHING on those two brewery workers.  WKRP is even better than I remembered, although the layout of the station's offices makes absolutely zero architectural sense.  (Seriously, there are windows everywhere!)

There is something sad, of course, for seeing behind the curtain of these shows that held such treasured spots in my pop culture memory, but there is also something sort of comforting.  I've grown up, and I owe a lot to those shows that led me to seek better and smarter entertainment.  These shows taught me things that I didn't necessarily realize when I was a kid -- how to be independent, how to get along with others, how to be kind and generous.  They also filled my childhood with a lot of laughter.  With many of these shows, I make a conscious decision when I sit down to watch.  I turn off my adult filter and spend a half hour giggling at the lunacy and ignoring the inner eye rolls that inevitably come when Adam West says something dripping (now) with double entendre or when Jan Brady shows up with that hideous wig at Lucy Winters's party.  And then I click into my DVR and appease my more sophisticated tastes with the latest episode of The Newsroom.  Don't let your adult tastes kill the childlike joy of these old shows.  Surrender to the silly and ignore the logical flaws that riddle the shows....and maybe forget you read this post.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mento Becomes the Manatee

I am a high school drama director.  Well, that is one of many hats I wear throughout the course of my days, but it's a part of my job that brings tremendous reward.  I love watching my students bring life to the words on a page, watching them grow over the course of a production or over the course of their four years with me.  Sometimes, I think that those moments when my kids are on the stage and I am standing at the foot of the stage guiding them through a tricky scene are when I am at my best not just as a teacher but as a human being.  Not to get all Drew Barrymore up in here, but there really is something magical about kids in the arts, and the relationships I get to forge with them inspire me daily.  We have seen each other at our best, and yes, we have seen each other at our worst, but the bonds that are forged in our little (well, not so little) Drama Club are pretty incredible.

And I am their fearless leader.

Most of the time.

A few days after our spring musical closed, my music director came to me with a proposition.  Our regional office of education had received a grant that funded before and after school programs to reach out to kids both at risk and kids who just needed something to do during those time periods.  As summer approached, the program director wanted to spin the program off into a summer program to keep kids connected to the school during the off months.  A hypothetical idea that had been floated when he sent an inquiry email out to the faculty mentioned theatre.  I saw the email and, to be honest, deleted it.  I had just finished a pretty solid nine months of directing and coaching speech.  I needed a break.  I was looking forward to a summer off for the first time in several years -- no outside teaching, no acting, nothing.  My music director saw this proposal, though, and was intrigued.  He wanted to do some sort of summer theatre program.  My initial reaction?  "Absolutely not."  Like I said, I was pretty wiped out.  Add to it the fact that, to be honest, I wasn't quite ready to do theatre without my group of seniors who were graduating.  I was dead set against this whole thing.

And then I thought about it.  I thought about how much I love working with my students, how much fun it could be to do theatre with them without the added "burden" of homework and lesson planning.  Within a couple hours, I was standing in front of my music director and saying, "I'm in."  We came up with the idea of doing two one acts -- I would direct one, and he would direct the other.  And then he floated another idea -- what if we did THREE one acts with the third show being directed by a student and starring.... the two of us?  He was itching to act, and I have to admit I was, too.  (I try to do some sort of acting once a year to kind of keep those muscles from atrophying, and the deadline was approaching for me to get onstage again.)  We immediately decided that my assistant director, a young woman who has been my AD for the past four shows I've directed, was the only logical choice for this gig.  Luckily, she said yes AND was agreeable to us presenting her with a show that was already cast ... with her teachers.  

And so I've spent the past month directing six of my Drama Club kids in Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and appearing onstage as Susan in Durang's short Funeral Parlor.  Directing Actor's Nightmare has been on my personal wish list for years, and having the opportunity to work on it with six pretty tremendous kids was a dream come true.  I loved watching them find different shades to the absurdity.  I gave them a lot of freedom to explore and craft their characters, a freedom they took to heart.  I had one girl come to me and ask me if it would be okay for the actress she was playing to have a Southern accent whenever she wasn't playing a character.  I had another boy come to me with some ideas for his character's costume based on research he had done.  Every day was a new adventure for us.

And then when that rehearsal was over, it was time to take off my director's hat and become an actor.  I will not lie -- the first rehearsal with my student as my director was a little intimidating.  Suddenly, I had to walk the walk and do all the things I always tell my kids to do -- cheat out, listen actively, project, be fearless.  I had to put it all on display.  What if I didn't have it?  What if I revealed myself to be one of those people who couldn't do and so had to resort to teaching?  

Once I got over those fears, the experience became a bit surreal.  It was weird to stand on the stage that my kids had stood on and getting that sense of joining in the legacy of our program as a participant and not just the director.  Add to it the fact that at times, it was sort of like being directed by ... well.... me.   My young AD/Director has only ever worked with one director -- me.  What she knows about the creation of a show came from working with me.  She used my vocabulary, she employed a lot of my style, and as an actor, it was pretty darn cool.  There was also nothing quite like the pride that comes from seeing someone you have mentored over the years blossom into a confident, thoughtful leader in her own right.  Getting to be in her first show was an honor that I know I will cherish. 

Tonight was our performance, and it brought some new fears, particularly when the lights came up and the front row was filled with my students -- past and present.  I looked to the wings and saw several of the kids who had been in the other one acts standing in the wings to watch the show.  No pressure!  But then I heard the words I've said to so many kids over the past several years and knew that now was the time to walk the walk and to "go all in."  

When people roll their eyes and ask me how I can stand working with teenagers all day, my answer lies in moments like these when, to quote Tracy Jordan, "the mento becomes the manatee."  This summer was filled with those moments -- seeing new leaders for our program emerge, watching a director be born, witnessing torches being passed and accepted.  There aren't many jobs where you get to experience things like that.  Many of my peers were a bit horrified that I was giving up my summer to direct yet another show, and yet, when push comes to shove, I know that there was nowhere else I would rather spend my summer than in that auditorium with those kids.