Archives For Theatre

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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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.

 

I mentioned in my last post (Part One of this trip to London) that I was over to do some “independent study” of theatre. That’s quite true. Since I don’t see myself coming up with the cash and time off work to finish the degree I was working on in 2012, the next best thing is to continue my studies on my own. And since all that was really left was the massive research paper, which I didn’t want to write anyway, I’d say traveling around and going to actual shows is the next best thing.*

So aside from living the quiet life in Terenure, I’m also here to see a massive amount of theatre. Here are three I saw in June, along with a few brief thoughts of my own.

The Drowned Man, by Punchdrunk Theatre

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This was the show I was most excited to see, and the one I was most disappointed with. Punchdrunk stages their shows in massive spaces like old hotels and abandoned warehouses, and transforms them into interactive worlds where the audience and performers share the same space. All audience members are masked at the start and then set loose to wander through multiple floors of an imagined Hollywood film studio in the mid-20th Century. Few words are spoken, and most of the action is done via dance and mime. You are encouraged to wander freely through the space, creating your own version of the show, which will be different than everyone else’s version. Some audience members attend multiple stagings, searching for new scenes and clues, dissecting everything on Tumblr, desperately trying to figure out what it all means.

But, as many a rabid fan of shows like Lost or Twin Peaks (which The Drowned Man owes a lot to) can admit to, obsessing about the forest oftentimes means missing out on the trees right in front of you. I had no idea what the show was supposed to be about**, and instead just enjoyed the intricate set design, the expert choreography, and the overall spooky mood of the show. There’s something interesting about the audience members wearing masks, and how the anonymity allows you to, in a sense, become part of the show. My own movements became a bit more smooth and sinister as I moved from room to room, stumbling upon a scene in media res, or surprising a couple of audience members rifling through desk drawers, searching for those ever-elusive clues.

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In the end, though, a little of that type of show goes a long way. After a while you want some Story to suddenly step in amidst all the artful clutter and creepy straw men. The same basic conflict was repeated over and over again, and I grew bored watching couples flirt, fight, and murder each other.

King Lear at The National Theatre. Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Mendes

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Now this was more like it.

There’s a reason these 400-year old plays by Shakespeare are still being performed in the West End, on Broadway, in parks and schools and studied in classrooms around the world: the man knew how to write a good story.

Lear was directed by Sam Mendes. You might know him as the guy who directed American Beauty, and Skyfall, but he’s got a rather extensive theatre background as well. This was at the National Theatre, the one with the statue of Laurence Olivier out front, so you walk in with certain…expectations. And boy were they met. I’m fairly new to Lear, having never been assigned it in school or seen it performed live before, or even on film. The closest I came was my old gig as Colin Firth’s stand-in for A Thousand Acres, a forgotten film based on Jane Smiley’s novel (which is based on Lear the stage play) about a farmer who divides up his land amongst his three daughters.

In the original, though, Lear is an English king who divides up his kingdom amongst his three daughters, and then everything falls apart. Lear quickly succumbs to dementia and madness, is cast out, and by the end of the play most everyone is dead. Typical Shakespearean tragedy.

There’s lots I could say about the show, but I figure most of my readers started to fast-forward once I busted out the phrase “in media res”, so i’ll wrap this up and just say I thought it was great, and Simon Russell Beale, as Lear, was heartbreaking. As someone who has seen a grandparent suffer and die from Alzheimer’s, I can say very truthfully that he got it. 

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Julius Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe, Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of The Globe.

Later that night Kevin and I attended the third show we had booked, a Renaissance-staged production of Julius Caesar at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. I could probably write an entire post just on The Globe, and maybe I will someday, because I need to give a proper telling to the brief hello I was able to give Mark Rylance that night. Chills and butterflies, people.

Anyway, what the Globe does best is show how well Shakespeare’s plays work when presented in their original setting. There are no lighting tricks, no real scenery to speak of, just a bare stage where the actors make the words come to life. It’s all you need with him. Story is everything.

Not much needs to be said about this one. Most people know the plot, and I’ve directed it in the past, so part of the fun was seeing how the pros do it, compared to my own (former) youthful company of players. We didn’t have actual seats, but went the cheap route and bought groundlings tickets and stood stock-still the entire time. The air gets rather close inside that wooden O, and a few people had to leave because they were about to faint. One guy fell right to the ground right next to me, but that might have been because of the “blood” in the play.

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There’s Kevin! Actual proof that he and I were in London together.

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I have more to say about this remarkable place, and more about the London trip in general, so I’ll write more tomorrow. I’m heading back to London next week to see three more shows, including Antony and Cleopatra back at The Globe.

This time I’m sitting down, though.

 

*I bring this topic up, partly because I wonder how many people look at my time over here in 2012 as a sort-of failure. “Ah, he ran out of money and didn’t finish the degree. Poor, poor Brian.” It’s hard to control the narrative of your life, but I’ll tell you, it was the smartest move I could have made. I avoided a LOT in student loans and got the credits I needed for a theatre endorsement (which is all I really wanted or needed.) I had a lot of pining away for more time over here, though, and that’s why this summer has been so enjoyable. I’m filling up the cup nicely.

**I mean…I do, but I won’t bore you with all of my theoretical thoughts on a show no one else saw.

 

The Magic Carpet

October 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

A year ago this week I hopped on a train and spent a few days in the quiet town of Carlingford, just shy of the border of Northern Ireland. We were off school that week, so I took some schoolwork with me and took walks and worked on a play and read some books on theatre theory. Made this video to document the trip, for those that never came across it, and like shots mostly filmed out a train window:

One book was buy a guy named Peter Brook. Now, most serious people will have heard of him, and I remember learning a bit about him back in my undergraduate theatre courses. But when you spend a dozen years or so doing youth theatre you don’t talk much about famous European theatre practitioners. You’re more concerned with just getting the kids close enough to the microphones so the audience can hear them.

But a big reason I took all that time off was so I could go study Serious Theatre, and that’s certainly what I had the chance to do. And Brook was brought up over and over again in class by multiple professors. The big quote I remember came from Patrick Mason, about how Brook knew “how to cut to the heart of something, and strip everything else away.” I heard firsthand accounts of his famous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Cherry Orchard, and after reading two of Brooks’ books, I’m starting to get an idea of what he was after. When it comes to teaching, at least, I too prefer to get rid of anything that isn’t essential.

Brook could have taken over directorship of any of Britain’s (or even Europe’s) most famous theatre companies, but instead he spent part of the 1970s wandering Africa and the Mid-East with a small troupe of actors and a bare carpet. They would lay the carpet down in a public space and begin performing different works of theatre. He was trying to distill the magic of theatre down to its essence, and along the way reinvigorate himself and his love of the craft. After his travels, he settled into a run-down theatre in Paris called the Bouffes du Nord and there produced many of his legendary productions.

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Carlingford, Ireland. October 2012.

Many people ask me what I’m up to, theatre-wise, these days. Some want to know if I’m going back to Limelight. Some wonder if I’ll take over a junior high program, or go to a high school, or start a new company. And I don’t really have an answer for any of that. I suppose at this point I’m traveling on my own magic carpet, working with different groups of kids here and there, studying overseas with some lovely and talented people, watching and learning from the different productions I occasionally attend. I applied for, but did not get, a high school position that was open. There were some certification issues I can’t really overcome at the moment (it’s a bit tricky to jump from elementary teaching to a high school scenario), but part of me wasn’t really sure it was the job for me. At a high school, theatre is about The Spring Musical, and in my final interview I told them that I wasn’t really a musical guy. Sure, I’d do a great job, but I didn’t have the passion that others have for that particular kind of theatre. If they really needed me, I was their man. Whatever’s best for the program and the kids at that school. But if they were interviewing someone that loved musicals, I told them that they should hire them. And so they did.

You see, I’ve done that already. I’ve directed a few musicals in my day, and produced many more, and I just don’t see any challenge in it. Limelight offered an infinitely more interesting canvas on which to paint. You could do a kids’ show one year and write a personal story with high schoolers the next. And while I miss it, I’ve also done as much as I probably could do with that organization, at least in its current form.

So for now I’m just spending my days with the fifth graders, and taking it easy in the evenings and weekends. The short theatre class I taught at Northwestern this summer was a lot of fun, and gave me an idea of where I can go with all of this talent, old and new, I have stored up in me. And so I’m following Mr. Brook’s observation he gives in his essay “There Are No Secrets”:

“We prepare ourselves by the options we reject until the true solution, which was already there, suddenly comes into the open. One lives within a pattern: to ignore this is to take many false directions, but the moment the hidden movement is respected, it becomes the guide, and in retrospect one can trace a clear pattern that continues to unfold…As always, one has to go into a forest and back to find the plant that is growing besides one’s own front door.”

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Writing in Carlingford, Halloween 2012.

The Hero’s Journey

October 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

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Once upon a time, I took a job that I thought I always wanted.

Almost ten years ago I left my fifth grade classroom at East View and I became a “gifted” teacher. I would spend all day, every day, pulling small groups of very intelligent children out of their “regular” classrooms and I would challenge them with higher concepts and more rigorous assignments. I was assigned two schools, two subjects, three grade levels each: Math and Reading, third, fourth, and fifth grade.

And I ended up hating it.

I only saw the kids an hour, maybe two a week. I was off by myself in a small room with no windows, in two different schools. There was a weird attitude that came with the job, a sort of “Oh, well you’re gifted, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you anything.” That very American kind of disdain for the intellectual set. The assumption that just because I taught “the smart kids” meant that I thought I was intellectually superior to everyone else around me.

(Those that know me well are welcome to now chime in and give me a lot of crap. That was an alley-oop right your way.)

It was a difficult three years of my life, partly because I had a lot of other stuff going on in my life, and partly because the job just didn’t wind up being what I had hoped it could be. It felt like a Band-Aid type of class, something to appease the parents of gifted children that really wanted something deep and different. My teaching job with Northwestern’s summer gifted program this summer showed me what it could be like, when I had a bunch of junior high kids devouring Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard in a matter of days.

But I’m getting off-point. What I really want to talk about is a group of students that became some of the most important people in the world to me.

In early September of 2005 I had recently returned from a disappointing trip to Ireland (although, ironically, that’s the summer I met The Dubliners, now also some of the most important people in my life), bought a house, and was starting Year Two in the gifted job. (We tend to call it A.T., for Academically Talented, but to be honest I hate both names.) I like to sum up the start of that year with this story: One day I headed into work, walked into my classroom and discovered that it’s been turned over to the School Picture People. The principal never bothered to tell me. So I took a sick day and went home to unpack. I had just bought a house a few days earlier and things were a little scattered in my life.

Sometime around then I met a group of five third graders and my life was never quite the same again.

(Before I go any further, I hope any other former students or former actors reading this know that EVERY student/actor I have matters to me. Don’t think I’m playing favorites. I could probably write a million stories about a lot of other students I’ve had, but tonight it’s about these five.)

Right away I knew this group was special. They loved talking about stories, and had a good head for the classic tales of Luke Skywalker and Rocky Balboa. They were officially assigned to AT Reading and AT Math. Two hours a week. That was it. Before long, though, we decided to add a third course that wasn’t on the “official” AT curriculum. They gave up their lunch and recess and we met for a weekly, unofficial AT Writing class for the next two years. We focused on that type of story Joseph Campbell referred to as “The Hero’s Journey”, and we learned about The Call to Adventure, The Ordeal, and The Reward. I gave examples of the best kind of storytelling, the deus ex machina, and I threw out the assigned reading curriculum to delve into Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.

That time we spent together became the purest example of what can happen when you’re left alone, you throw out the rulebook, and you let the kids help decide what they’re going to learn.

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During one of our final sessions together we took a few photos and shot some film, some of which you can see in a video I made last year. I try to keep it quiet, but it’s a good summation of my life of travel and teaching.

I can’t even remember why we decided to take the photo* above. I do remember our last day together, reading “Instructions” by Neil Gaiman, having some tears, and understanding that there was a lot of love in the room. I was going to head back to teaching fifth grade, so I could have one school and one group of students. It was a rough, rough farewell, since we could have spent one more year together in that room.

Despite the traumatic goodbye, all five of them ended up joining my theatre company at one point or another over the next couple of years, so it wasn’t really goodbye. Although, as I look at that picture of us, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Morgan, and Cammy moved away to Ohio years ago. Attrition happens, and it’s down to Sam, Tyler, and Sydney these days.

So for the next several years we did plays together, or separate, and I vowed to Sam that I wouldn’t leave her twice. And then I went and did just that and left Limelight four years after I quit being her A.T. teacher. I knew I was heading to Dublin soon, and had to start making my farewells.

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After Hamlet at OEHS. Sam played Ophelia after starring as Olivia in my final Limelight production of Twelfth Night, summer 2011.

Life moved on. Dublin had to wait for a year, so I did some theatre at a junior high and reveled in teaching them Shakespeare and Cleary. I prepared to start a (temporary) new life in Ireland, and during one of my final days in the states, I met Tyler, Sydney, and Sam for ice cream. They spent most of the time being giggly high school kids, but at the end they gave me this:

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It had been five years, but they took the time to take the story they had worked on, collectively, for two years in our unofficial writing class, and had it professionally bound.

I took it with me to Dublin, and it sat proudly next to my copies of Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Friel.

And so now here we are in the fall of 2013. They’re juniors in high school, writing their own musicals, reading Jane Eyre, and obsessing about One Direction. Tonight we reunited and hugged and laughed and we were joined by so many others, Limelighters and Grande Park Grizzlies and Hermia and Helena and Oberon and all these kids I’ve known from so many different places. We were all there. Together again. I was called Life Coach, and Wizard, whatever that means. Sydney showed me the sketch of the tattoo she wants to give: “Deus ex machina” across the top of her foot.

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So, so awkward in this photo, trying to crouch to match their height.

Sam and I have a shared love of The Lord of the Rings, so she’ll be the one to most appreciate these final comments. Oftentimes my friends and family probably get frustrated with me, wondering why I’m not around and available for them like others are. And I never know what to say to that. I’m a bit of an introvert, and after a day or week or month of teaching more often than not I just want to have some time by myself. It’s not that I don’t love my parents and my sister and my uncles and aunts and my grandmothers and my nieces and nephew and my friends old and new. Sometimes there’s just nothing left in the tank. Apparently I’ve got a gift, so I spend it on the people who need it the most. And so I end with this:

“Onen i-estel edain, u-chebin estel anim.”

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An impromptu recreation. Cammy and Morgan are missed.

*As an appendix: If, for some reason, I die before I have the chance to weigh in on my own funeral, I would like this photo of the six of us to sum up my years as an educator. It doesn’t say everything, and certainly doesn’t feature the hundreds and hundreds of kids I’ve known through teaching and directing, but it encapsulates enough of what I was trying to say as a teacher. So print a big copy or display it on my tombstone or digital urn or whatever crazy stuff will be available when I shuffle off the ole mortal coil.

To the Elephant!

October 24, 2013 — Leave a comment
Shakespeare in the Park

Sitting in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens, watching The Tempest with a few friends.

 

It’s fall play season for most high schools, and tonight Oswego East debut’s She Stoops to Conquer, while next week OHS will put on You Can’t Take It with You. I saw the latter done by OHS way back in ’95, but I’ve never seen the former done around here, so fair play to OEHS for choosing something reasonably obscure. Both plays will be featuring many performers that were part of my old acting company, and hopefully I’ll make it to both of them to say hello and show some support. This time of year is always tricky, though, because oftentimes my sister and her family come up for Mom’s birthday. And… it’s harder than one might think to see some of your old gang in plays that aren’t your own. Difficult to explain, but it’s just how it is.

Most likely each group has had a great experience working on their shows, although the last week or so of rehearsals are always very stressful, when everyone wants to quit the show and they’re all sick of each other (and the director), but then the curtain goes up and the show goes on and they take their curtain call under the lights and after the show they scream and hug and get flowers and then that show becomes The Greatest Show They Ever Did. Until the next one, which will then most likely become The New Greatest Show They Ever Did.

I am not directing anything at the moment. I seem to be in a state of semi-retirement from directing theatre, but it’s only temporary. We’ll get into that another time.

Last Friday I wore my show shirt from the last play I did with Limelight, and the kids asked, “What’s ‘To the Elephant! mean?” As you can see above and below, it’s emblazoned onto the front of the shirt for Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare comedy I directed in the summer of 2011 about love, mistaken identity, and the dangers of pomposity. One of the characters, Malvolio, is taken down by a Fool and a couple of drunks for his tendency to chastise others and flaunt his intellect and virtuousness. (Watch The Colbert Report tonight and see Stephen Fry talk about playing Malvolio on Broadway, in the same production I saw eleven years ago in London. Probably my best theatrical experience ever. I’ll tell that story another time as well.)

Anyway, the shirt! The cast and I were trying to decide what to put on the shirt, and that summer most shows were going with famous quotes from the play. With Shakespeare, and theatre in general,  it can be real easy to get real pretentious, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that once or twice in my career. We debated various lines from the play, such as “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” It’s a good line, but it wasn’t my style. Instead, I gravitated towards this exchange:

Sebastian: I’ll be your purse-bearer and leave you for an hour.

Antonio: To the Elephant.

Sebastian: I do remember. 

That’s it. It’s just two people talking about where they’re going to meet up, at a pub called The Elephant. I found it kind of ridiculous, and so I decided to put it on the shirt.

What it really was, though, was my farewell message to my company. “To the Elephant!” had become a rallying cry for me, said at the end of rehearsals or before a performance, and it summed up my state of mind at that time. To the Elephant: to new places, to new adventures, and to new ways of thinking. Don’t sit around and do the same thing for the rest of your life, and for pete’s sake, don’t take yourself too seriously. Get out there and see what that big ole goofy world has waiting for you.

 

 

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Ian and I (sort of) in Prague.

Wise Sam

October 19, 2013 — Leave a comment

Now that I’m feeling back to almost-normal, I’m beginning to socialize again. Caught up with some friends tonight, and saw their new baby, but I’ll save that story for tomorrow. Tonight, I’ll tell a quick story about my lunch with Sam.

Sam was a member of my theatre company, and was my leading lady for my last few shows. She was a great Olivia* in Twelfth Night for my final show with Limelight, and stuck with me through the difficult production of All These Will Be Worthless. And she’s recently returned from a semester study abroad in France.

Marty and Co. out for a night on the town.

Marty and Co. out for a night on the town. (Sam’s on the left with the awesome stink-face.)

Had I been living in Dublin last spring I could have shown her around when she came through for a visit, or I could have bopped over to France to see what life in Angers was like. (Side note: for as cultured as I think I am, European-travel-wise, I really don’t know my French pronunciations.) That’s one of my bigger regrets of not being able to live over there the full year: I never got to have any visitors. Plenty of people I know were in Europe last spring, and I know others had vague plans to come over and see me. Le sigh.

I hadn’t seen Sam for almost two years, and back then she was a high school kid, so there wasn’t much conversing beyond casual chit-chat in-between rehearsals and performances. But she’s a seasoned European traveler now, and deep into her studies at school, so we had a long, long conversation about our travels, the experience of living in another country, the cultural differences, and the truths and falsehoods in this New York Times article.

Whenever people ask me about my time abroad, they’re usually happy with a couple of sentences and then they’re ready to move on. And I get it. While everyone else was busy working and raising a family, I was off having adventures and learning theatre from some fairly legendary people. But they were transformative experiences, and sometimes I’m just dying to talk about them, in detail, and what they all meant. And Sam’s the same way, so it was comforting to be able to open up and really talk about it with someone. We could look each other in the eyes, after telling a story, and we understood. And the one thought that kept forcing its way to the front of our conversation was always, “When are we going back?”**

*I was lucky enough to have two wonderful actresses named Sam play Olivia in Twelfth Night; I’ll talk about the other one another day.

**I will admit, there are many days where I feel like this guy…

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Nutmeg and Spice

October 4, 2013 — 2 Comments

I decided to stay home today, to get some rest and try and get over this thing. Chest was pretty congested when I woke up, and I thought about going to the doctor, but so far I haven’t made it past my reading chair.

Of course I have a reading chair. Which is different than the one where I watch films and the televised programs of broadcast and cable. It’s one of those POÄNG chairs from IKEA. Cheap, but comfortable, and perfect for reading books. A chair that almost helps you not nod off to sleep.

Since I’ve been ill so much of the past two months, I’ve spent a lot of time in that chair working through a stack of books I’ve been meaning to read. So much of the past year was spent reading plays and theatre theory and the stack of “other” books to read has gotten rather high. So this is what I’ve been reading lately:

I started James Joyce’s Dubliners unofficially as part of my theatre reading last fall. The Corn Exchange in Dublin was premiering a new production based on the famed short stories and it was a highlight of the 2012 Dublin theatre fest. I never found the time to get them read, unfortunately, and I wish I had, as it would have deepened my appreciation for the Corn Exchange’s play. Anyway, I finished them a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed them quite a bit. I don’t think I’m quite ready to tackle Ulysses, though. Someday.

Another volume I’ve been slowly working through is a collection of Tolkien’s short stories, mostly centered around the theme of wandering into the realm of Faerie. Tales from the Perilous Realm includes all those stories with lovely titles I never got around to reading when I first fell in love with his works: Smith of Wooton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Leaf by Niggle. There’s also the haunting poem “The Sea-Bell”, and his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which I’m about halfway through. Once I complete this book, there won’t be much left of him for me to read.


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After meeting Bill Kelso I read his book on the Jamestown archeological dig, and I wish I could do more with it in class, but 4th grade handles early American history now. I tried dipping into it
in class, but no one was biting.

I’ve tried to work through Ken Robinson’s The Element, thinking that it might have something interesting to say about education and the arts, but it’s mostly self-help nonsense. Best to stick to his TED talks I guess.

A bit of comfort reading has been necessary as well (if Tolkien doesn’t already count), and so I picked up some X-Men comics for old times’ sake. It’s one of those multi-issue crossover things that I usually don’t care for, but so far this one has been decent.

Books that stare out at me waiting to be read include Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, and Savage Continent, a new book about the aftermath of World War II in Europe. Not really anything that relates to fifth grade, but I haven’t had much interest in reading kid lit these days. I think about all the books and stories I haven’t read, and wonder how I’ll ever find the time to fit them all in, so my reading time has been devoted to books just for me. I can’t keep up with the latest “hot” books for elementary students, nor have I much interest in books on whatever trendy educational models people are reading. No Daily Five for me. Though, Summerhill School, by A.S. Neill recently wound up in my Amazon cart. Certainly not a trendy or recent book, but one that keeps niggling away at the corners of my brain.

Ben and Sarah and Emily

October 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

This is one of those posts that talks about how awesome life can be.

I wish I wrote more of these. But I’m mostly tired and cranky these days, so occasionally I get sentimental and reflect on some of people I’m lucky to know.

When they write the book on me, I hope they give a good chunk of it to a couple of kids named Mike and Liz. Mike and Liz just had their first baby together.

Mike and Liz were both former fifth grade students of mine, too. That’s the awesome part. I talk about them all the time, and tell their story often, but I felt it important to lay it down properly.

I came home for their wedding last year. A year ago almost to the day, I think. Last minute thing. Didn’t think I’d be able to make it back from Dublin, but things worked out and I got a chance to get this picture taken:

Mike and Liz wedding

Liz I met first. My first job teaching full-time was as a 4th grade teacher at East View. Liz was in that first class. Liked to do theatre. Used to give me pictures of her dressed up in costume from her plays. Here she is helping me pack up the room at the end of the year.

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I moved up to fifth grade next year, and Liz came along for the ride. There was a new student to East View that year named Mike. Here he is with his D-Day project he made. “A BECH ASSAULT.” Mike, we need to talk about your spelling, pal…

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Fun Fact: The blond girl behind Mike? She just got a job teaching first grade in my building. So now we’re co-workers.

That summer I started a theatre company for the park district, and Mike and Liz both joined up. A couple of years later I wrote my first, full-length play, and they starred in it. The Last Dance, about a group of junior high friends. Loosely based on my own youth.

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(There are way too many people that I love dearly in this photo, but this is for Mike and Liz, so I’ll just stay focused on them. But hey, Renee and Freddie!)

Five years later, after many shows and even some ups and downs, we did one final one together. They played Ben and Sarah again, the same characters from The Last Dance. It was about goodbyes, and a journey. Most of my plays are about goodbyes and journeys.

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(From left: Mike Arney as Ben, Liz Husted as Sarah, Freddie Zimmer as Stuart, and Kim Skibinski as Amanda. All former fifth grade students of mine.)

Shortly before Liz had their baby they stopped by my house to drop off some paint supplies I had lent them while we were painting their new house. I was making dinner and invited them to stay. We told stories and quoted The Simpsons, as we’ve done for over ten years. We talked about baby names, and of our fondness for simple, traditional names like Sarah, Elanor*, or Kate.

Last Wednesday Mike and Liz welcomed their first child into the world. And they named her Emily. Perfect.

*I recently decided that had I ever a) bothered to start a family and b) really embraced my nerdy love of The Lord of the Rings, I would have wanted to name my daughter Elanor.

Institutionalized

March 19, 2013 — Leave a comment

Okay, enough with the the wanderer-is-lost repetitive business. Let’s look at this thing from another point of view. Because when all you have is time to think, it’s very easy to see things from many different perspectives. Why, sometimes I’ll have six different opinions on something before breakfast. (Apologies to Lewis Carroll for that one.)

Recently, I had to make a decision about what I’m doing next year, and deliver it in writing to my employers by March 1st. To say that I was conflicted about that decision is an understatement. I even had two letters written up, in case I changed my mind at the last minute. Which is typical of me. Sometimes I have a tough time deciding on something.

We’re not going to get into which letter was turned in, and what I’m doing come fall, because that’s a long ways off, and a lot could change between now and then. And while living in this strange ghostly limbo life has its downsides, it’s also kind of awesome. Let’s unpack that a bit, shall we?

1. I have a lot of time to myself.

I like to write, I like to read, I like to create websites. I also like to get lost in my head when I’m going through some big decision-making, and right now my lifestyle has a lot of room for all of that. Subbing in a high school room? While the kids are taking a test or watching Patton, I get to debate with myself different options for my future. Maybe write a bit. And read practically all of the Internet. I haven’t worked for the past two days, so I got to overhaul BrianFauth.com and finally create a theatre portfolio/personal website I’m pretty pleased with. And I got caught up on The Walking Dead.

2. I get to drop everything and go wherever I want.

When my buddy Drew suggested I go to the presidential Inauguration with him, it only took a few minutes before I said, “why not?” Free place to stay in South Carolina? Hey, why not drive down there and hang out in the south for a few weeks. Explore some historical sites and cities and listen to a lot of podcasts while crossing the Appalachian mountains. Not a bad life. Granted, I still have to pay for gas, food, and the occasional hotel room, so I’m a bit broke at the moment. And not getting a call to work for the past two days is putting a bit of a damper on possible future road trips.

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The Shenandoah Valley

3. This is all part of a Grand Plan even I can’t really explain. But I’ll try.

Let’s not forget the simple fact that I got to live in Europe for six whole months. My time in Dublin and at UCD was fantastic; we all know that. But it was the living over there that really taught me something; I only get so much from sitting in a classroom. Thomas Jefferson, when he founded the University of Virginia, didn’t want to issue degrees; he wanted it to be a place where you could go until you felt you had learned enough, and then you could move on with your life. Del Close, the famous Second City teacher, once said to Jon Favreau (the director of Iron Man and Elf), “Why would you go to school to learn about theatre?” He thought it more important to learn about philosophy and life and finding The Truth.

(I needed a certain number of classes to get a theatre endorsement, so there was a practical element to taking classes over there, but it was really about living a different life and spending time with some dear friends, while I could. Get a little bit closer to The Truth.)

I want to become a better theatre director, but I also want to become a better teacher as well. For the past few years, I’ve started to get honors and awards, and the phrase The Best Teacher I Ever Had starts getting thrown around a lot. And all of that is great, believe me. But the more you do the same job, in the same room, with the same lessons and jokes and stories, it’s very easy to become an institution. Mr. Fauth and Viking Day and the impressions and the Simpsons jokes.

I’m not really interested in being Institutionalized (in any sense of the word!) I wanted to kind of blow up everything and start over. Give away everything in my classroom, sell half of my possessions, start over somewhere else. Learn how to do it all over again. And subbing? That strips you back to the essentials real quick. No one knows who you are when you walk into that room, and you’ve got 41 minutes, or 48, or maybe a day to win them over. You aren’t The Famous Mr. Fauth. You’re just Some Guy, and if you can get a room full of bored high school kids to listen to you, then you can do just about anything.

So wherever I go and whatever I do come fall, even if it’s right back in the same 5th grade classroom, hopefully I’ve reset myself enough that I can bring something new into the room, and keep myself fresh and energized for the next round of this thing called life.

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To the Elephant! My personal motto for living life.