Thursday, January 7, 2016

Once More Around the Bend

Wow.... it's been nearly three years since I sat at the computer and wrote an entry for my "Files."  What can I say?  Life sort of got in the way of snarky pop culture commentary.  The past three years have been filled with teaching, designing new courses and revamping older ones to align with Common Core standards, directing multiple shows, coaching a speech team, a dream come true trip to New York City which included seeing multiple Broadway shows (and multiple big stars onstage), buying a house, and more.   But last night, as I curled up on the couch to start the final season of American Idol, which had been such a huge part of this blog when it was at its most active, I began to grow nostalgic for the ol' blog and thought maybe, just maybe, the way to deal with my mounting Idol grief was to write about it -- revive the blog and bring the Ginger Files back to life.

And so here I am.

Did you miss me?

Is anyone even still out there?

Am I the only one who even cares that American Idol is ending?

Let's clarify that a little.  Yes, I care that American Idol is ending.  I'm sad.  American Idol has been a huge force in our culture for 14 years and a huge part of MY cultural landscape for just as long (with a year or two off here and there in protest).  I can still remember tuning into the very first episode with the intention of doing what we now would call Hate Watching it.  I figured I'd waste an hour or so of my bored summer (my first summer off after my first year of teaching, the first summer where I didn't have a job because I didn't NEED the job), mock what looked to be a horrible show, and that would be that.  By the end of the first episode, my sister and I looked at each other and almost ashamedly admitted that we actually LIKED what we had just seen.  We were hooked.  Idol became appointment viewing at our house for many years.  And then it wasn't.  And therein lie my feelings as I began watching the final season last night.  I'm sadder about the show ending in that it marks the end of a certain era while at the same time I recognize that it's probably time for the show to end.

The show isn't what it used to be.  You could argue that it never recovered from the departure of Simon Cowell, although personally, for me, the real downfall started when they started tinkering with the judges' panel, adding Kara Dioguardi and Ellen Degeneres and driving away Paula Abdul.  They started shooting for star power on the panel, often at the expense of sound critique.  (You can say what you like about Simon Cowell, but the guy was right more often than not.)  Not that the post-Simon years have been a wasteland.  I enjoyed the Jimmy Iovine mentorship years.  I think that the current judging panel of Harry Connick, Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban is terrific in that they give intelligent, thoughtful critiques that are designed to create better musicians.  And while the show hasn't really produced a true star in years (I would argue the last "great" winner was Phillip Phillips in  season 11), there has been an increased sense of musical diversity in the finalists that has led to stronger and more engaging performances week to week.

And so we begin our final season last night.  I was reminded how much the show has changed.  Gone are the delusional train wrecks and freak show auditions.  Not that every audition is successful or talented, but at least everyone is treated with a sense of compassion and kindness.  Idol knows how to milk the backstory -- whether it's superfan Michelle Marie (whose "Blue" was nice, but you know she's not going to survive Hollywood) or the formally fat but still fat-girl soulful Lindita (whose chances are a little better than Michelle), we get to know the handful of contestants whose auditions are highlighted.  Yes, there are auditions that fall flat.  Big ol' Billy Bob tries his hardest to charm J-Lo and the boys, but the voice just isn't there.  The closest we get to an old school bomb of an audition is from delusional Joseph Kohlruss, a 15-year-old who claims he's classically trained.  As soon as he said that, Sis and I both were like, "NOPE!"   And then he comes in and gives this bloated, self-indulgent performance of "Hello" followed by that weird "scale" he tried to show off his range, and we were in hysterics.  But it was still a far cry from the William Hung days.

So after last night, who stands out as a possibility?  My sis has dubbed young Lee Jean (he of the dead brother) as her pick to click right now, and wouldn't it be nice to see Idol go out with a diverse winner?  After so many years of white boy winners, it would be the perfect capper to the series and its legacy to see someone win who doesn't have white skin.  I'm not as sold on Lee as the sis is, but there is definite potential there.

My favorites from last night include Sonica Vaid whose performance of "Look at Me" was nearly flawless and off-the-grid hillbilly Jeneve Rose Mitchel whose cello-driven performance of the Band Perry's "Chainsaw" was one of the coolest auditions I've seen in a long time (and reminded me a lot of the band The Recipe).  Sonica probably has the strongest chance of surviving Hollywood, but Jeneve's quirky factor may keep her afloat longer particularly since this judging panel is more open to a diverse lineup of finalists than in years past.  (Can you imagine someone like Joey Cook getting past Simon Cowell?)

All in all, if this season premiere is any indication, Idol is determined to go out in style doing exactly what it should be doing, celebrating the fact that talent comes from all walks of life in this country and is lurking around every corner.  And on that super treacly note...... see you tomorrow for round 2 of auditions!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Madness!

It's Oscar weekend, friends, and I've come out of hiding to make my picks and predictions for tomorrow night's festivities.  For the first time in a long time, the major studios have actually released some quality pictures that racked up a bunch of nominations, so instead of spending this weekend scrambling to see little indie films that never came anywhere near my small town multiplex, I'm relaxing.  I've seen seven of the nine nominees, and I'm probably going to see one of those this weekend before the ceremony.  (Beasts of the Southern Wild is on DVD -- might as well see it!)  This is the most relaxed I've been on Oscar weekend in years.  Thank you, Hollywood!

With that, I'm ready to make my predictions with a much more solid knowledge base than I've had in a while, too.  I'm making my predictions, but I'm also sharing how I would vote if I were lucky enough to be a member of the Academy.

The nominees:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty 
WHO WILL WIN:  About a month ago, I kind of thought Lincoln had this thing locked up.  And then a funny thing happened.  The Academy snubbed Ben Affleck for his beautiful direction of Argo.  It was a dick move on the part of the Academy, and the industry reacted passionately.  First, Argo took Best Picture at the Golden Globes, an award decided before the nominations came out.  Then, Argo just started winning EVERYTHING.  I think it might have even won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club.  The general consensus is that Argo is unstoppable at this point.  
IF I COULD VOTE....:  This is a really tough one.  I loved Argo, but I also really loved Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook.  All three are smart, funny, engaging films that stuck with me for days after I saw them.  If I could vote, though, I think I would cast my vote for Silver Linings Playbook.  I love the heart at the core of this film.  It never wallows in sentimentality but creates real, flawed and yet still lovable characters that you root for.  There is an optimism in Silver Linings that is infectious.  Plus, wouldn't it be nice to see a comedy like this take the award?

Bradley Cooper/Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis/Lincoln
Hugh Jackman/Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix/The Master
Denzel Washington/Flight
WHO WILL WIN:  I have a hard time imagining a scenario where Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't win this.  His performance is a master class in character transformation.  He is absolute perfection in this role.
IF I COULD VOTE.....:  Yeah, I'd vote for Daniel Day-Lewis.

Jessica Chastain/Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence/Silver Linings Playbook
Emanuelle Riva/Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis/Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts/The Impossible
WHO WILL WIN:  Here is where Silver Linings will get its acting victory.  Jennifer Lawrence pretty much owned this film, and this gives the Academy the chance to recognize the Next Big Thing before she either loses her heat (ala Hillary Swank) or gets sucked into crappy box office fare that dulls her shine (ala Angelina Jolie).  Besides, J.Law went toe to toe with Robert DeNiro and ROCKED it.  How do you not recognize that?
IF I COULD VOTE....: Again, I'd go with Lawrence here, although I have a feeling if I'd seen The Impossible, I might be pulling for Naomi Watts.  (The previews for that movie KILL me!)

Alan Arkin/Argo
Robert De Niro/Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman/The Master
Tommy Lee Jones/Lincoln
Christoph Waltz/Django Unchained
WHO WILL WIN:  I think this is the toughest of the night to call.  I think Tommy Lee Jones was the early favorite, but it seems as though things are cooling off for him whether it's because of his surly demeanor or more people seeing the other nominees.  Christoph Waltz won the Globe, but I could see the Academy shrugging him off here since he just won three years ago for his mesmerizing work in Inglorious Basterds.  Lately, it seems as if pendulum of love is swinging toward Robert De Niro.  It's been more than thirty years since De Niro went home with an Oscar (for Raging Bull) and twenty since his last nomination (for Cape Fear).  Granted, it's been a twenty years filled with a lot of questionable film choices on the part of the man many consider the greatest living American actor (Little Fockers?  Really, Bobby?) and lately, he seems more like he's doing a poor man's imitation of DeNiro on screen rather than acting.  His work in Silver Linings, though, is pretty gorgeous and the first time in a long time where it felt like DeNiro was actually enjoying his work and not just cashing a paycheck.
IF I COULD VOTE....:  This is a tough call, but I'm going with Jones.  I absolutely loved his work in Lincoln.  I thought it was impassioned  intelligent, and provided an emotional gravitas.

Amy Adams/The Master
Sally Field/Lincoln
Anne Hathaway/Les Miserables
Helen Hunt/The Sessions
Jacki Weaver/Silver Linings Playbook
WHO WILL WIN:  Does anyone really think it won't be Anne Hathaway?
IF I COULD VOTE....:  I really loved Sally Field's work in Lincoln, but Anne Hathaway had be spellbound.  What she accomplished with her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" is overwhelmingly beautiful.  I felt every ounce of Fantine's pain.  She proved that musicals can have grit and passion and are more than just pretty people singing pretty songs.

Michael Haneke/Amour
Benh Zeitlin/Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee/Life of Pi
David O. Russell/Silver Linings Playbook 
Steven Spielberg/Lincoln
WHO WILL WIN:  I initially thought Spielberg might get Oscar number three here, but I'm leaning more toward Ang Lee who accomplished a lot of major miracles in bringing the seemingly unfilmable Life of Pi to the screen.
IF I COULD VOTE...:  Well, I'd write in Ben Affleck who is quickly becoming one of our finest working directors.  But since the Academy doesn't allow write-ins, I'm going with Ang Lee if only to prove to him that I've forgiven him for Hulk.

Friday, November 23, 2012

An Afternoon with Lincoln

There are many reasons why I love this time of year.  I love the feeling of putting on a thick, comfy turtleneck sweater and sipping hot chocolate.  I love waking up on cold Saturdays to spend the day coaching my incredible speech team.  I love that peppermint is used to flavor everything from coffee to ice cream.  And I love the fact that there is suddenly a glut of great movies to track down and see.

Granted, the demands of work don't often leave me with a lot of time to go see movies.  Since the start of the school year, I've only had time to go to the movies once -- stealing away the weekend after my birthday to go see the brilliant Argo.  (Seriously, Ben Affleck is an incredible director.)  With a long holiday weekend, though, comes the opportunity to carve out a little time to hit the multiplex rather than the Black Friday sales. (Of course, I DID spend a little time carving out some deals, too.)  Today, while the masses were pushing and shoving their way to cheap video games and high def tv's, I spent a couple hours with Abraham Lincoln.

Going in, I expected greatness.  When Steven Spielberg puts his mind to it, he is capable of great filmmaking.    Sure, there are times when he indulges his more sentimental side and times when his impulse for film as spectacle outweighs his impulse for film as art.  There are definitely times when Spielberg's desire to make films of great importance yield preachy, treacly works where entertainment is lost in the sermon.  At his best, though, Spielberg can walk the line between art and entertainment in a masterful way unlike many other directors out there.  Fortunately, Lincoln shows Spielberg at his very best.

Part of the success of the film lies in the choice made by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner to eschew the trappings of the standard biopic.  We don't get shots of young Lincoln splitting rails or stealing Mary Todd away from future political rival Stephen Douglass.  Instead, the film begins in the last months of Lincoln's life.  With the end of the Civil War clearly in sight and the Southern states poised to return to the Union, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis in a spectacular performance) realizes the window is quickly closing during which he can pass the 13th Amendment which will end slavery.  The film tracks the backroom deals that Lincoln, his staff, and his allies in Congress (led by Tommy Lee Jones as crusading abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens) used to win the 2/3 vote necessary to amend the constitution before a Confederate delegation can arrive in Washington to negotiate the terms of surrender.  At the same time, Lincoln faces his own personal issues with his emotionally turbulent wife Mary (Sally Field) and the desires of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to join his contemporaries in the war effort rather than wasting away in college.

There is so much to love about the film.  Let's start with the performances.  Much has been written already about Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, so there's not a lot I can add to the deafening praise other than to say that it is a completely brilliant performance.  Day-Lewis completely immerses himself in the role and creates a Lincoln who is part political strategist/part civil rights crusader/part folksy professor.  I could have spent hours just listening to his Lincoln tell stories.  There is a beautiful blend of gravitas and humor to this Lincoln that gives us both the legend as well as the man.  If Day-Lewis doesn't win the Oscar for this, I can't wait to see the performance that beats him because it will surely be breathtaking.  Also sure to be Oscar nominees (if not winners) are Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field who turn in the best work of their careers.  They are surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of "Oh, that guy is in this?"  James Spader, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson are among the many supporting actors who create what has to be the strongest ensemble in years.

Kushner's script gives this cast a lot of meat to chew on and rich characters to develop.  It can't be easy to create suspense in a biopic.  Ideally, the audience all knows how things turn out, and yet there I was biting my lip with anxiety, wondering if the vote to end slavery would actually come out in Lincoln's favor.  Yes, intellectually I knew it did.  I know my American history and my constitution.  And yet I found myself tallying right along with Mary Todd Lincoln as the number of needed "ayes" left dwindled down.  I love, too, that Kushner and Spielberg sidestepped the "big moments."  We don't get the Gettysburg Address beyond a couple starry-eyed soldiers reciting it to Lincoln, who seems a bit uncomfortable with the celebrity adoration.  We don't get the assassination or even the collective grief following Lincoln's death.  We get private moments or alternative views, learning of Lincoln's shooting through his young son Tad.  What I loved about this approach is that the script assumed its audience's intelligence, assumed we knew the details of the assassination and the other "big moments" in Lincoln's life.  It's so refreshing to not have Hollywood pander for once.

Spielberg's attention to detail, as always, dazzles.  Even in his worst films, you can't deny the guy has an eye for truth and accuracy.  The art direction is gorgeous, even when portraying the often grimy reality of every day life in 1865.  Historically accurate recreations of Lincoln's office, White House rooms, and Congressional chambers and offices immerse the viewer in this world.  It is a beautiful film in every sense of the word whether we're seeing beautiful White House quarters or grim battlefields.

There's a reason why this film is already being spoken of with such reverence and leads many critics' lists for top Oscar contenders.  It is proof that great American filmmaking is still possible, that movies can still mean something more than blowing stuff up or keeping the kids entertained.  Spielberg doesn't need gimmicks or 3D glasses to enthrall.  He just needs Abraham Lincoln.

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.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Beatles: The Great Social Uniter

Earlier this week, my nerdy need to demonstrate my grasp of useless trivia reared its ugly head.  Because I knew the date of the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan (February 9, 1964), I won two tickets to see a Beatles cover band that was playing here in town.  What else was I going to do on a Saturday night?

As my sis and I took our seats, we looked around and kind of marveled at variety of people assembled in this one place.  There were the fan girls wearing their Beatles t-shirts and who seemed so excited that I kind of wondered if anyone had told them that the guys about to take the stage were not the REAL Beatles.  There was a large number of senior citizens, which seemed weird until I pointed out that the original Beatles fans are all eligible for social security.  I mean, Sir Paul did just turn 70.  There were hipsters, aging hipsters (a category my sister danced around placing me in), little kids there with parents (including one adorable little girl who spent most of the show dancing in the aisle), and my favorite concert-goer -- the obnoxious drunk.

This diversity is a testament to the music of the Beatles.  Can you imagine that kind of diversity at a Justin Bieber cover band concert?  It's not unusual, though, to find Beatles fans of any age.  As a music lover, I've always just kind of thought of the Beatles as a band you had to love if you love music if only out of appreciation for what they did to push music to develop.  They were musical auteurs, taking ownership in their music the way no other pop/rock acts ever had before.  They experimented with sound.  They played with orchestration and instrumentation.  They wrote these lyrics that had depth and poetry.  The band made their debut on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and were kaput by 1970.  What they accomplished musically in those six years is kind of mindblowing.  As I said to my sis during intermission last night, it's sort of incredible to realize that the band that recorded "She Loves You" would eventually produce songs as gorgeous and sophisticated as "A Day in the Life" or "The Long and Winding Road."  (My sis, of course, pointed out that drugs probably helped the process along, which made me wonder what would happen if someone kidnapped Justin Bieber and dosed him with some really crazy acid.....)

It's easy to take for granted the miraculous growth of the Beatles, particularly for people like me who have never lived in a Beatles-less world and yet have never lived in a world where the Beatles were still together.  (I'm really too young to even remember living in a world where it was possible that the Beatles could reunite -- I was 10 when John Lennon died.)  It's easy to kind of shrug them off and cling to one of the bands that rode the Beatles' coattails over to America.  For example, I always include the Rolling Stones on my top five band list but rarely include the Beatles, and yet every song that was played last night brought a smile to my face as a voice in my head gushed, "I love this song."  If spending an evening with a bunch of old guys in questionable wigs (but lovely costumes) did nothing else, it reconnected me with those songs and the memories attached to them -- and gave me the opportunity to twist and shout with a bunch of very excited elderly women.  That alone was a priceless Saturday night.