Archives For July 2016

I thought I’d write a bit about Harry Potter, because everyone else is today.

Over in London the new stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child officially premieres, although previews have been running since before I was there last month. I badly wanted to see the show, but tickets were long sold out before I had made my summer travel plans.

Tomorrow the script version of the two plays (yes, two) is published, and it’s being treated as quite the event, bringing back the magic (sorry, got a better word for it?) of the midnight release parties that occurred ever few years during the first decade of this still-young century. I went to quite a few of those and they were a lot of fun. My own professional career as an educator and theatre director is bonded heavily to the Harry Potter series. The first book was published during my first year as an elementary school teacher, my students would beg me to read the books aloud in class, and summers doing theatre with Limelight was often paired with a release of a new book. I shared the love and enthusiasm of Harry and Hermione and Luna and Snape, Snape, Severus Snape with students, actors, fellow directors and teachers, and friends.

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Oklahoma! and the Half-Blood Prince, Summer 2005

It is probably the last great series of epic, youth-oriented stories that I will fall in love with, as I slide deeper into middle age. Well, save the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is currently knocking it out of the park with each and every film they release. But that is based in a childhood (and a lot of my adult years) spent reading a lot of Marvel comics.

So a lot of articles floating around the internet today are asking questions about the Potter franchise and nostalgia and whether or not we need any “new” Harry Potter stories, and if this will simply tarnish the brand.

(Ugh. I just used the words “franchise” and “brand” in that last paragraph, and that’s not what this article is about. Go elsewhere to read that kind of story.)

I think it’s important to be aware of what today and tonight are not: this is not the eighth novel, and this is not written by J.K. Rowling. It is a two-part script written by playwright Jack Thorne. And so it is foolish to try and treat this as a case of nostalgic time travel to those moments from a decade or so ago. We had seven books (and eight films), and that was it. After you make that midnight purchase, remember that you are reading a play script, based on an idea by Jo Rowling, and that the experience is going to be a little different. You may not be able to hear the bell anymore, to reference another classic of youth literature.

I think the real magic (sorry) is happening to those people watching a new Harry Potter story be told on stage, something that has never happened before. The reviews of Cursed Child have been overwhelmingly positive, and my Twitter feed has been filled with gushing fans walking out of the shows excited and amazed. It’s a shame we all can’t experience that together in one great shared moment like we did with the books, but that’s what makes this 2-part play special. They are trying something new, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Harry and Ron and Ginny and Draco are now middle-aged, stressed and tired, and for the first time I will probably find myself identifying with them more than I did in the past. (I was always a Remus Lupin man, that kind, lonely teacher of Hogwarts.) But it will not be a case of going back to the well of nostalgia, and I reject this notion that writers are putting out there. This is not the Star Wars prequels, or even The Force Awakens. And it is certainly not the travesty and outright-lie of Go Set a Watchman. 

Harry Potter is not “back,” because he never went away. It’s only been five years since I saw the last film with my niece. Harry Potter marathons on cable still stop teens and twentysomethings in their tracks. Every Halloween my school is filled with boys and girls dressed as Harry and Hermione. My fourth graders spent an entire school year writing their own Harry Potter-esque play for a creative arts assignment.

What J.K. Rowling created is a story for the ages. It is Star Wars for the generation or two that came after me. And yes, franchises aren’t allowed to end anymore, and so what? I’ll read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child mostly to find out “what happened next” after the epilogue in Deathly Hallows, knowing it’s not the full story, and you better believe I’m getting ready to head back to London to see the story the way it’s meant to be told. And I hope I get to share that experience with some of you.

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Act Five: Dublin Is

July 19, 2016 — 1 Comment

(After Stephen James Smith)

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Dublin is a waking dream. Terminal 2 at dawn and no sleep and a fumbling mobile top-up in W.H. Smith.

Dublin is waiting.

Dublin was.

Eleven English nights and a cheap Ryanair back across the Irish Sea.

Dublin is.

Dublin is getting collected from the airport by a friend.

Dublin is tea, not coffee. Milk in first.

Dublin is endless conversation about politics and Brexit and elections and revolutions.

Dublin is being told “Welcome home” again.

Dublin is a lie.

Dublin is a lie and a truth both at the same time.

Dublin is.

Dublin is the number 9 bus into town, was the 46A and the one-four-five. The DART and the LUAS.

Dublin is reading the paper and a pint in Neary’s. Friends and fancy cocktails in a pretend speakeasy. A lie and a truth at the same time.

Dublin was Johnson’s Court at Christmas. Wise words from writers. Frank and Conor. Theatre fest and the smell of hay.

Dublin is laundry on the line in the back garden. Butter and milk and eggs and ham from Tesco.

Dublin is Irish and English both at the same time.

Dublin is curry in Firhouse and Prosecco and chianti and limoncello and a mad sprint to the bus stop.

Dublin is knowing the spirit of 316 still lives in the countryside.

Dublin is a run in the sunshine and a run in the rain.

Dublin is playing tourist with Is at Dublin Castle and the Queen of Tarts.

Dublin is plain and unadorned and is nothing and everything all at once. Farwell pints in O’Donoghughe’s and the ghosts of Ronnie Drew and Phil Lynott.

Dublin was home, Dublin is home, Dublin will continue to be home. A faraway home, when I am not at home.

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I’m getting a ride to the Stratford rail station by one of the guys from Enterprise Rent-a-Car. He’s telling me his story. Went to a nice school on a rugby scholarship. Served in the British army, trained special forces in the U.S. for a time. Had to leave service when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and now he’s in the Enterprise management program. We’re talking about the London theatre scene. “The West End. That’s my thing,” he says. “Have you seen Billy Elliot?”

He’s a nice guy, and I appreciate the lift to the station. He recommends walking down the road to a supermarket to buy my lunch. Cheaper than anything I get on the train. We don’t mention the impending Brexit vote. No one does. It’s strangely absent from conversations and the London streets. 

I suppose it’s time to talk about Randy.

I’m in London to see Belle & Sebastian play the Royal Albert Hall. In honor of their 20th anniversary, they’re playing their first two albums (both released in 1996) on successive nights. Tigermilk tonight, If You’re Feeling Sinister tomorrow. I have tickets for both shows, purchased almost a year ago at 3 in the morning.

I am here because of Randy.

I had a blue cassette tape that I used to play in a small white car I have long since sold. Randy gave it to me one summer, a long time ago. A new band he discovered and thought I might like. “Tigermilk”, the cassette’s label reads.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975

I was puzzled by a dream that stayed with me all day in 1995

The opening lines of “The State I Am In” introduces me to the songwriting and voice of Stuart Murdoch and his Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian. I am in love.

To detail what this band has meant to me over the past (almost) twenty years would take far too long and would get way too personal. They often get pegged as overly-precious, something shy art school girls listen to while writing in their journals and clutching their favorite childhood stuffed animal.

Do I have an aspect of my personality that is shy and artsy and feminine and writes overly-sensitive entries in fancy journals while my favorite childhood stuffed animal looks on? Umm. Maybe. I’ll wear it proudly. They have been my favorite band for a long, long time, and I have shared them with many important people in my life. I have danced on stage during “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and I have skipped a show due to a mild panic attack during a rough spot in my life.

Randy was my best friend for a long time, until he wasn’t anymore. The rough spot had its consequences. I wasn’t listening. But I learned, the hard way, and I moved into a better place in my life. You had to earn your friendship with Randy, and you had to work to keep it. But the times we spent together were good times, and I loved him dearly. He had a profound impact on my life, and ultimately, he made me a better person.

I ran into him shortly after I moved into my current home, riding his bike. We said hello and caught up a bit. He was back living nearby. I wanted to apologize to him, find a way to make things right and start again, but I figured I would see him again and I would have the chance to make things right.

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The band walks onto the stage and those opening lines from “The State I’m In” fill the Royal Albert Hall, this amazing, iconic English place, where Bob Dylan played at the end of Don’t Look Back, “the vanishing American,” shaking, joking with Bobby Neuwirth, “give the anarchist a cigarette!” Transformed.

A year or so ago I was sitting at home on a Saturday night, watching a film. A cold February night. I heard an ambulance go by and looked out the window, wondering if it was headed to my neighbor’s house again. It wasn’t.

Mike called me the next morning. Randy had a heart attack and died last night. He was gone, and there would never be a chance for apologies and buried hatchets. The sirens I heard last night were for him.

I once gave him a poster of the Tigermilk album cover, from a set I had ordered from the band’s website. He still had it in his apartment. It’s now on my wall.

The band has played the entirety of Tigermilk and the final verses of “Mary Jo” are wrapping up. It’s never been one of my favorites. (The flute at the beginning is unfortunate evidence of that preciousness I mentioned earlier.) But it works as a closing song amazingly well, wrapping up the journey the shy and damaged characters have taken through the album.

 

Mary Jo, you’re looking thin
You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”
But oh, it doesn’t help at all

Something hits me. The tears are starting to roll down my face as it all becomes a bit overwhelming and the last fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years of my life collapse and collide and I wonder if I’ve learned anything from my life, all my highs and lows, my successes and my disasters. You think you’re fine, but there it is again.

Because life is never dull in your dreams
A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it
Life is never dull in your dreams
A sorry tale of action and the men you left for
Women, and the men you left for
Intrigue, and the men you left for dead

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The show continues and I am dancing to “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” I am happy. for a day at least.

You can’t outwit depression. It never really goes away. Fear and anxiety and sadness and the loneliness and this plague I carry in my head. I want it to stop I want it to stop I want it to stop. I want to be transformed, like Dylan in the movies, don’t look back as I cut through the park, walking briskly on Carriage Drive as the rain starts to fall on my way back to the hotel. I want it all to stop.

It’s someone else’s turn to go through Hell
Now you can see them come from twenty yards
Yeah you can tell
It’s someone else’s turn to take a fall
And now you are the one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them all

 

In which we come to my favorite portion of the trip.

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It’s time for a road trip.

The first time I rented a car (and drove on the left) was in 2009. I drove from Dublin Airport to Galway on the Irish M6 and then turned the car over to my buddy Eric, who was more than happy to do the rest of the driving. I was content to navigate and look out the window.

The next summer I was in Scotland and had planned to wander the highlands. Twenty minutes after leaving Glasgow Airport I popped a tire after driving too close to the curb. Always had trouble guessing how far to the left I was supposed to be. I ended up driving on a spare and had to restrict my travels.

I like trains.

And yet, they can’t take you everywhere. Trains don’t get you to the best parts of the countryside. And I love to drive, so I had to summon some courage and rent a car. Pro tip: renting a car out of a smaller city like Stratford can reveal some fantastic deals. A “premium” car was only a few pounds more per day than a standard sedan, and so I found myself behind the wheel of a lovely 2016 black BMW.

The first leg only took me an hour south, into the green hill country of the Cotswolds. The A road became a B road which became a town center and then a larger city and then a parking garage. Test after test. Lunch in Cheltenham and then to my B&B, the Malvern View. A walk up Cleeve Hill, a shower, and then a short walk to The Rising Sun for dinner. This is the only place within walking distance for dinner, but it serves nicely. Abbot Ale while reading a book about the Back Room Shakespeare Project.

I wait out a short downpour (with another pint) and then decide to walk back. It’s almost 9 PM but there is still another hour of light in the sky. I stop and watch the sun setting, the lights of Woodmancote and Bishops Cleeve in the distance, mist rising from a wet field. A man in Wellington boots appears and walks through a gate and disappears down a footpath, a line of sheep waiting to greet him.

I took this photo. It’s got an Instagram filter on it, but only to better capture how I experienced that light, those colors, and that moment.

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You can’t get here by train.

*    *   *

The next day was spent walking the Cleeve Hill Ring. Through farmland and wood, up a hill and down a hill. Green fields and crackling power lines overhead. Words and pictures will never really describe what I saw, or how I felt during this walk or the ones that followed in the Lake District. All I can really say is that walking in Great Britain is pretty much my favorite thing in the world. They do it better than anywhere else on the planet as far as I’m concerned. The British have something called “right to roam”, which gives walkers the right to walk through privately-owned lands, whether it’s a sheep pasture or a country estate. It is simple and democratic and perfect.

But let’s get back to that car.

I left the Cotswolds via a narrow one-lane road, passed through Bishops Cleeve one more time, and then found myself on the M5 and the M6, driving to the North and to the Lake District. By now I was feeling more and more comfortable behind the right-side steering wheel, and I finally found that sweet spot that told me how to center the car in the lane. Google Maps and Bluetooth and turn-by-turn directions meant that all the guesswork was taken away regarding my navigation. My favorite music played through my phone, and all I had to do was enjoy the ride and the precision steering of the Bavarian Motor Works.

I have been following The Herdwick Shepherd on Twitter for a long time now, and recently finished his wonderful book The Shepherd’s Life. And so the Lake District had a new fascination for me. I also have a Beatrix Potter story I’ve been wanting to tell, but this entry is getting a bit long so we’ll save that for another time.

It rained all afternoon and evening, and so I spent a long while lingering over beef bourguignon and Cumberland Ale in the hotel bar. My hotel room had no wifi and no phone service, and so the only thing waiting for me back there was spotty TV reception and the Sunday Observer.

At least the local ale is good.

The Lake District seems to attract all the wealthy walkers. The parking lot is filled with Mercedes and Jaguars, a strange contrast to the spartan condition of the hotel. Everyone has “proper” walking gear. The right shoes, the right packs. I find a launderette in Ambleside and chat with a B&B owner for a bit while I run a load of clothing. I have lunch in Bilbo’s Cafe, because why wouldn’t I, and then the afternoon is spent wandering the Cumbrian Way. The weather is glorious and I want to walk and walk and walk forever. A couple I meet along the way is surprised that I don’t have a map with me, but the way is marked easily enough, and I have a good sense of direction. I know my way back. And there is good beer waiting.

It all ends far, far too soon, and the next day I’m back on the road. Signs marked LEAVE dot the landscape as I head south. The vote is in a matter of days.

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For me, the greatness of Britain isn’t defined by family ancestry, its political history or imperial might, as fascinating and checkered as that topic can be. Rather, it is Britain’s cultural contributions that continue to entertain and inspire me. The Beatles and Belle & Sebastian, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course, Mr. William Shakespeare.

It is 2016, and that means that William Shakespeare has been dead for exactly 400 years.

It is my second night in England, and I am watching a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. A Play for the Nation.

I listen to the lines of the play roll out from the actors’ mouths. I recognize Peter Hamilton Dyer’s voice even before I see his face. “Full of vexation come I, with complaint against my child, my daughter Hermia.” I am pulled back suddenly to the Globe, in London, and it is 2002 and Dyer stands at the edge of the stage, as the Fool, Feste, verbally sparring with Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night. It is a warm summer’s night and I am on my first solo trip to Britain.

“How now, spirit? Whither wander you?”

Puck enters. The words continue to ring out, familiar and comforting, this most familiar of plays.

We are backstage in a bombed-out theatre, apparently sometime in the 40s, during the war. The fairies resemble child evacuees, sweater vests and brown leather shoes. Titania and Oberon otherworldly and exotic, India and Africa, reminders of Britain’s colonial empire.

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The Mechanicals scatter. The Lovers battle.

Nick Bottom dreams.

It is 2003 and I am directing my first show by Shakespeare. Titania and Oberon spar over a child. The Mechanicals rehearse. The Lovers wed.

Bottom dreams.

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It is 2012 and I am again in the wood, with the fairies and the lovers and the actors. “It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.” It is 2014 and I am back at the Globe, saying hello to one of my British heroes, Mark Rylance. It is 2011 and I am directing Feste and Olivia and I am saying goodbye to the only family I created.

It is 2016 and I am in London at the British Library, walking through ten acts of Shakespeare. Vivian Leigh stands imperious and commanding as Titania. Peter Brook strips everything away but the truth and tells his Midsummer in a white box. In the next room I stare at Rylance’s original costume for Olivia.

It is 2016 and I am again at the Globe, watching another performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this play for the nation, England or Britain, a no-longer united kingdom that today has voted to leave the European Union and bring about its eventual destruction.

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Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and yet his life and his work lives and breathes everywhere I look. His words transport me through my own life, across stages and classrooms and cast parties. He reminds me over and over again about the importance of art and dreams and stories, and the responsibility I have, with my own small talents, to keep telling those stories to new audiences. He reminds me to give dreams to people.

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

Bottom wakes.

It is 2016. I am behind the wheel of a brand-new BMW 3 Series. I am driving on the left. I am terrified and I am exhilarated all at once.

I am heading north.

 

We begin in an airport bar, as stories like these usually do. I am sipping a beer and writing in a notebook, watching hot, tired, and cranky people pass me by. I can’t tell who’s starting their trip or ending it. Airports generally bring about the worst sort of resignation in people

And as all stories about me and my wanderings go, we must begin with exposition and a soliloquy and establish internal struggles.

I have a job. I teach mostly math, and a bit of reading, to gifted kids. I am now known as a somewhat-expert in the field of gifted education. Endorsed and whatnot. A while ago I told myself it was time to start specializing in things, pick a lane and go. Gifted was one, drama another, history is in there somewhere as well. The gifted thing is fine, but these days there is little room for drama and history in gifted education. The era of STEM.

And so I teach Math. And I find ways to be creative. My fourth graders wrote a play, and it was wonderful. The kind of thing worth getting out of bed for in the morning.

It is time to board my plane.

I stare out the window at a darkening sky and I fly east, as a continent rolls away and a great ocean stretches endlessly before me. I sit in silence. I read, a little. Try to sleep, and fail to do so. The plane is dark as the people around me sleep and dream or pretend to sleep and dream.

I am thinking about a conversation I had with a former student the other night. A former student, a former member of my theatre company. No – I am the former member. We are recreating a scene from a play I wrote 13 years ago. She is giving me counsel. She, like so many others, is wondering where I’ve been. I have barely left my house in three weeks.

I have not been myself lately. Or, more to the point, I have been too much of myself lately.

I am on a train. I am in England. Green, lovely England.

I have been awake for over 24 hours. But I’ve done this many, many times, and I can function well on autopilot. Grab my bag, find an ATM, top up the local SIM-card-with-unlimited-data-in-Ireland-and-the-UK.

It is sunny in Stratford-upon-Avon as my bag rolls along the cobbled high street and I pass the home where William Shakespeare was born. I arrive at my hotel only to find out Google Maps has directed me to one of TWO hotels in Stratford with the name Premier Inn, and so, sweating and becoming more and more exhausted by the moment, I walk another ten minutes and finally arrive.

There is time for a shower and a meal in the hotel restaurant before I collapse in a wide bed with white sheets and soft, plush pillows.

It is nine pm, and I sleep deeply, and I dream.

Tomorrow a woman named Jo Cox will be murdered on the street while visiting her local constituents as an MP of the British government. It will be the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.