Archives For Limelight

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.

 

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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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.

The Sea-Bell

March 17, 2013 — 5 Comments

Today I drove around for a couple of hours, to nowhere in particular. I do this a lot lately.

Trying to stay in one place for a bit, save some money for the next round of wandering. But I tend to get in my car a lot and just drive, mostly the back country roads, so I can listen to the radio and get lost in my thoughts for a while. I’ve driven these roads countless times over the years, so I’m always searching for a new, unexplored route.

I bounce from classroom to classroom during the week, a different teacher every day. Some days I sit in the corner of a high school class while they watch 40-year old films to learn about World War II. Some days I entertain eight-year olds and they think I am a god.

Often I see former students and former Limelighters, and it is always a happy reunion. Still smiling about the bear hug I got from an eighth grader I had a few years ago; he stopped by my room every passing period of the day, just to keep saying hi.

On one of my drives I swung by my house, where another man now lives, where my neighbors are complaining of branches that are creeping across the divide into their patio. I forgot to bring any branch cutters, and so the small tree continues to grow and trespass onto another property.

Sometimes I stop driving and I walk inside a school and I sit in the back and watch my former company of actors and directors move on without me. During the intervals new ideas flood into my head and I scribble them down in a small black notebook. I have lots of ideas these days.

I continue work on a new play I started last fall, back in the writing course I took at UCD. I dust off an old one and I strip it back to only what’s necessary. I outline, I write dialogue, I collect pictures and think about color palettes and light plots and scene design.

And I think about teaching, the real job, and I wonder what I’m going to do with myself.

The old life is right there, if I want it. I can move back into my old house, my old classroom is waiting for me, and all my old friends are here. Everything could go right back to the way it was.

One of my best friends mentioned something about “getting it out of your system” when I moved to Ireland. My grandmother said the same thing. A lot of people say things like “Well, now you can say you’ve done it, and you’ve got no regrets.” Like it’s a box I wanted to just tick off on the Brian Fauth Bucket List.

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Once upon a time, I could have settled down and loved a woman and raised a family, and maybe that would have been a good life.

Once upon a time, I got on a plane and I flew across the ocean and I saw great cities and I met lovely people and I climbed green hills and I watched a continent pass by my train window.

Once upon a time, I thought I could go back to doing what I did before, and what I did better than anyone else, and I thought that would be enough. But that was a long time ago.

I’m like one of those guys in the old stories, the ones who forget the instructions and accept the gifts of the Fair Folk. There’s always a price to be paid when visiting the Twilight Realm; when you return home, nothing is ever the same again. You drift through life as a shadow, and try as you might, you can never find your way back again.

And so I drive and I drive and I drive, through the end of a bleak and cold winter, and I watch the snow melt along the roadside, and I stare out into the horizon, searching for a new route to take me home.

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A Prairie Home Companion, 1987

Sometime close to when I graduated high school, my Uncle Doug played me a tape of the final performance of Garrison Keillor’s public radio show A Prairie Home Companion, which currently broadcasts new episodes most Saturday evenings on WBEZ radio in Chicago.

Yep, you read that right. The final performance. And the show is still going strong.

How can a show that is still on the radio have a last show? And wait: wasn’t there also a movie about the “last” broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion?

Yep. I’ll explain all of that “last show” business in a minute.  First, I need to tell yet another story about how much of a nerd I am.

While most of my friends were listening to Bon Jovi, Guns ‘n Roses, or the more alternative stuff like The Pixies (and eventually Nirvana and Pearl Jam), I went through a phase where I listened to that last show almost constantly. Filled with old folk and gospel tunes and goofy radio bits and Stevie Beck, the Queen of the Autoharp, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Like I said: I’m a real nerd like that.

There were other reasons I fell in love with that last show. I started listening to it less than two years after I had returned to Illinois, after living down in Florida for a few years. It was filled with this warm celebration of everything I loved about the Midwest. The dry humor, the lack of pretension, the simple directness and honesty of it. This is the last show, Keillor said, and we’re gonna spend the next two hours singing sweet sad songs about endings and goodbyes and no one can do anything about it. Heck, we’ll even go over the two hour time limit if we want!

Keillor likes endings. As do I. Endings are important, goodbyes are important. They put a proper punctuation mark onto an event. My folks got divorced around that time, and during my grief at the ending of what I knew of as family I romanticized small towns and Lutherans and tried so very, very hard to find meaning and comfort in my tape-of-a-tape copy of that last show.

Keillor delivering the News from Lake Wobegon in 2012.

I lost that copy of Uncle Doug’s tape of that final show a long time ago. but thanks to the miracle of the internet, found it on iTunes. And hearing “Brownie and Pete” after so many years just about wrecked me. (Yes, it’s sweet and sentimental, but it’s also got Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke playing on it, for crying out loud.) It’s so good to hear those songs again, and it takes me right back to the last time I was away from home, living in a foreign city, spending my days in class and my nights watching old black and white films by John Ford and Wim Wenders, wondering what I was going to do with my life.

Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!

It’s been a quiet week here in Dublin…

It got down below freezing for the first time last night here in Dublin. The roads were slick, and Linus took a bad tumble off his bike. On our last day of class, people were talking about Christmas, and our upcoming trip to London. I’ll be leaving a week from today for Prague, to see an old student and his family, and then I’ll wind my way through Europe and its many Christmas markets for one last tour until I join everyone on the Embankment sometime on the 13th.

Limelight’s getting ready to put on their yearly radio production of It’s a Wonderful Life, a show I directed and even performed in for a number of years. I’ve started listening to Vince Guaraldi and The Chieftains and The Waitresses, and that brutal version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland, with the original lyric “someday soon, we’ll all be together/ if the Fates allow/ Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”.

I’m eating yet another meal made from packaged pasta, thanks to a refrigerator that died last Saturday. I’m looking over the last of my assignments, and hoping I have the drive to write a decent research paper, when all I want to do is tell stories on this thing.

I’m looking at an empty corner of my apartment and picturing a small tree that could have gone there. And I’m starting to think about home, and the Midwest, and my family and my friends. And I’m realizing that I miss it a great deal. When I got here, I tried to not think about home too much, lest I get too homesick. And I put it out of mind, in a sense. I lived my life here, and I tried not to look back.

Like Keillor, I ended my show, and I moved far away, looking for something different and exciting. And I have seen many things and enjoyed moments I couldn’t have if I was back in Oswego. And I know those will continue, in the years to come, as I return to visit and explore and catch up with dear friends. But now it’s time to head home, and get back to doing what I do best.

Keillor ended his show in his mid-40s, when he married a former exchange student from his high school and moved to Denmark to start a new life. He lived there for three years before returning home, divorced, but back on the air with a new, New York-based radio show called “The American Radio Company of the Air.”

Three years later he renamed it “A Prairie Home Companion” and moved it back to St. Paul, Minnesota. He knew what he did best.

 

Tiu’s Day

November 20, 2012 — 3 Comments

The Two-Headed Mr. Fauth, created by Emily, a former student.

A few years ago I started really feeling the pressure and stress and consequences of trying to teach 5th grade all day, and run a big theatre company on the nights and weekends, directing shows and overseeing others and preparing for our yearly massive summer season. It got so bad that I actually took a couple of weeks off from school to rest and recharge, lest it all lead towards me turning into some sort of lunatic. (Well, any more than I already am.)

I referred to the two careers I had, and the war between them, as The Two-Headed Mr. Fauth. The teacher, Mr. Fauth, and Brian, the director. I loved doing both, but they were taking its toll. In the summer of 2011 I stepped down from running Limelight, but couldn’t stay away from the stage, electing to direct a pair of shows at a local junior high. I went with a pair of shows I had directed in the past, to save creative energy, but I felt like I was cheating a bit by recycling sets and ideas from the past.

And that brings me to Dublin, where I’ve taken a break from being Mr. Fauth to concentrate on developing skills as a theatre director, to add tools to the toolkit, as they say. And it’s been a great experience, but it still doesn’t solve the lingering equation: which one am I going to be?

Tonight I wrapped up my fall director’s project: a staged read of Chekhov’s The Proposal. Not his most famous (or even his best work), it’s a 20-minute farce about two people who let petty arguing and their shallow principles stand in the way of their potential happiness as a married couple. Tonight went very well, and I’m happy with the results, for what they were. (It was an exercise, not a proper “show”, so no real sets or lights or anything like that.) And I found I had to “teach” a lot more about theatre than I would have imagined, and it was gratifying to see that my skills were needed.

My goal is to leave this place with that great war settled, or at least at a cease-fire. Being away from the classroom has quickly made me realize how at home I am in it, and I’m anxious to get back to doing what I do best. And theatre? Well, I have deeper thoughts on my relationship with trodding the boards, but we’ll save that for another post. I suppose the easiest solution is to figure out how I can teach theatre full-time, and merge the two heads, but that has its own hurdles as well.

To be continued…

The sky as I left for my director’s project.