Tag Archives: Theatre

From the Archives: Wendy’s “Walk of Fame” Intro

In the fall of 2018, m’luv Wendy was inducted into our local community theatre’s Walk of Fame. She gave me the honor of introducing her that evening. As I was going through some old files this weekend, I found the text of the introduction that I prepared and delivered that night. Please indulge me. I’d like to post this tribute to Wendy so that it will be preserved on the world-wide interweb until, and perhaps beyond, the apocalypse. She deserves that.

“I have taken a billion photographs of Wendy. I take a lot of photographs period, and over the years I’ve noticed that I have this mysterious internal catch in my spirit when a certain photograph rises to the level of a personal favorite. I don’t always know why. I just know it’s special, and I have to spend time with it to figure it out. This photograph of Wendy is one of those. I’ve meditated on why it’s special and I’d like to share a few reasons why.

The first time I saw Wendy Hall was in the same place this photograph was taken. Our daughter Taylor and I were new residents of Pella and had been cast in USP’s South Pacific. We sat at the back of the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium as Wendy, Prop Master for the show, made her way to the front to make an announcement. I saw her from behind just like this photograph as she strode with purpose and intensity up the aisle toward the stage. First impressions. Oh my, that hair – which I’ve come to love as metaphorical of the wild-child, the explosion of passion tinged with red.

Wendy stood on that stage and gave the well-known rule for all large cast shows filled with children and teens: “Look!” she said, “Rule number one! If it’s not yours, DON’T TOUCH IT!” That little bit of a thing with the wild, red-streaked hair spoke with such assured, intense authority. I knew in that moment I was NOT going to touch a prop that wasn’t mine. I was a little scared.

In this photo, we see Wendy in the off-stage darkness, which is where I first got to actually know Wendy Hall during South Pacific. What I learned about Wendy back stage is that she knew theatre, she cared about doing theatre well, and in her arena of responsibility things were going to be done well down to the minute details. While on-stage as Captain Brackett, I had to eat a sandwich.

“What kind of sandwich do you like?” she asked me in one early rehearsal

“Why?” I asked honestly, caught off-guard by the question.

“If you have to eat a sandwich on stage it might as well be something you like,” she responded as if it was the most logical question in the world. 

But as a stage veteran, it wasn’t the most logical question in the world. Anyone who’s been involved in theatre of any kind, especially in community theatre, knows that props are thrown together at the last minute using whatever is expedient by half-hearted volunteers who aren’t sure what they’re doing. I expected a sandwich that was two slices of cheap white bread hastily purchased at the Dollar General before tech rehearsal two weeks ago and by opening night it’s dry and crusty with hints of mold.

But Wendy Hall was in charge. She was Prop Master. You’re going to have a freshly made sandwich, a real sandwich that is something you like. Because, I was Commander Bracket (dammit!), and Commander Bracket would eat a sandwich he wanted prepared for him by the mess cook. 

In one of my South Pacific scenes, I had to sit on stage for a period of time while action and dialogue were focused elsewhere. During the final weeks of rehearsal, each night I found on Captain Bracket’s desk clipboard different things to read. A Shakespeare sonnet one night, a list of corny jokes the next, a Robert Frost poem. Prop Master Wendy Hall figured if you have to sit there on stage looking at a clipboard you might as well have something interesting to read. I’d never met a Prop Master or Stage Manager who cared about the actors and their experience down to the smallest of details. 

An unknowing person looking at this photograph is likely to see only a dark, contrasting figure. A two-dimensional shape: “Female figure in black.” Over the years I’ve observed that people who don’t really know Wendy, this is what they see. A simple figure contrasted by her intensity, her strong opinions, her kick-butt and take-charge attitude which is so easy to dismiss just as simply: Female figure in black. 

I look at this photo and observe she is not in the spotlight but in the shadows off-stage because Wendy, the amazingly capable and talented leading lady, has no need for the spotlight. In fact, she does her best work on-stage during the rehearsal process. Her best work off-stage is in the shadows where she is intensely focused on what’s happening on-stage and thinking of every detail that will make this production sing – not just for the audience but for the actors and the crew members. She cares, not just for the show that takes place on stage but the experience of the entire production from the first audition to the post-production cast party. Those who only see and hear an oft intense director demanding exactly what she expects and exactly the ways she wants it do not see her on the couch at home obsessing about actors not having to be at rehearsal if they don’t have to be, parents being able to count on a well-thought-out rehearsal schedule that will make for worry-free planning, or people having a great experience from first to last.

When I look at the woman in this photograph I see someone who knows what she’s doing. She’s standing tall, intensely focused, doing the work, orchestrating the action; Pen in one hand and the other hand open and ready to edit the show and the production if they are the right changes to advance the quality of the show and the good of the whole.

From 2003 through 2017 Wendy has been credited with 43 roles in USP productions, only 12 of them as an actor. Seven of those 12 roles I had the privilege of playing opposite her, and there is no one I would rather be on stage with than Wendy because I’ve rarely met another actor who shares my passion for the process of bringing a character to stage. Thirty-one of Wendy’s roles were off-stage roles: Producer, Director, Assistant Director, Front of House, Make-up, Costumes, Props, Publicity – she’s done it all and that doesn’t count some 15 years of continuous service on the USP Board of Directors, organizing Award Nights, helping organize Drama Camp registrations, Picnics,  Costume Shop help, and of course making lots-and-lots of cheesecake.

The final thing I want to point out in this photo is the mystery it makes me feel. You don’t see this woman. You don’t really see her. You see just an impression of her. When I look at this photo, I both enjoy the mystery and experience the selfish satisfaction of being a secret keeper. I do know her. I have been granted the privilege of seeing what no one else sees. 

My theme song for Wendy, and I’m not sure I’ve ever shared this with anyone, contains these lyrics:

Tonight as I stand inside the rain
Ev’rybody knows
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl

In this journey of theatre with Union Street Players I have shared her public triumphs and wiped away her private tears. I can tell that both spring from love: love of God, love of doing things well, love of theatre, love of this crazy organization, and most of all love for each of you with a depth and passion you likely know not – from this two-dimensional, female figure in black.

May I present to you my leading lady, my best producer, my life director, my muse, and my partner on Life’s journey. M’luv! And the newest member of Union Street Players Walk of Fame, Wendy Vander Well...”

Poet, Chorus, Character

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

One of the things that I love about acting is the opportunity to bring a character to life. The first step in almost every rehearsal process is the “read through” in which all of the actors in a play sit down with the director and simply read the script out loud around a table. Then, over the process of a few weeks, those words are transformed as the actors embody the characters, are transformed by the costumers and make-up artists. Finally, they give action, expression, and relational interaction within a detailed setting on the stage.

One of the difficult parts of reading the ancient Hebrew prophets is that they often used different devices in their writing for different effects. In today’s, chapter, Zechariah begins with poetry just as he had in the previous chapter (vss 1-3). He then switches to prose and relates the message God gave him concerning a shepherd and a coming time of destruction (vss. 4-6). Zech then switches to writing in the voice of first-person. Much like an actor, he embodies the voice of the Shepherd.

Much like the prophet Isaiah whose prophesied the Messiah as a suffering servant (Is 53), the prophecy of Zechariah foreshadows a Messiah-King who is rejected by the flock. His payment is thirty pieces of silver. Historians say that this was the common price for a slave, and represents an insult.

Anyone familiar with the Jesus story will immediately recognize the foreshadowing of his final week in Jerusalem. The chief priests and leaders of the temple in Jerusalem were supposed to be shepherding God’s people but instead were running a religious racket that oppressed the people and made themselves rich. They reject Jesus (who, btw, claimed the mantel of “The Good Shepherd”) and they pay one of his disciples 30 pieces of silver to betray him. Judas later laments his decision and throws the silver back to the priests.

The description Zechariah gives of destruction, devastation, and even cannibalism is an accurate picture of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the city and the temple in 70 A.D. The historian, Josephus, records that cannibalism did occur within the city as food supplies ran out during the siege.

At the end of the chapter, the “worthless shepherd” (a corrupt ruler over the people) is struck in the arm (arm is a symbol of strength) and his “right eye” (right is metaphorically associated with favor) is blinded. I can’t help but be reminded that in destroying Jerusalem, the Romans also torched all of the Hebrews’ genealogical records. Without being able to see and confirm direct descendence from Aaron or Levi, they are blind to who can offer sacrifices and run the sacrificial system. The sacrificial system of Moses was effectively ended. Without being able to see and confirm direct descendence from David, they are blind to know who can ascend to the monarchy of Judah. The earthly monarchy of David was effectively ended, as well.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again fascinated by the prophetic. It’s artistic the way Zechariah switches style three times within a chapter. He starts as a poet, then becomes the chorus, and then takes on character as he accurately envisions events that would occur some four hundred years later.

Once again, I’m reminded that there is a flow to the narrative of the Great Story God is authoring from Genesis to Revelation. There is a Level Four storyboard. I am endlessly fascinated by the mystery of it and repeatedly encouraged to know that the story is being played out, even in the crazy events I observe in the world news each day.

Chorus to a Tale of Pain & Purpose

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah…
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Daniel 1:1a, 21 (NIV) 

In the history of theatre, Greece was the first great age. The Greeks developed several theatrical conventions that are still widely used today including the use of what was called a Chorus to prepare the audience for what they are about to watch and to narrate the events. Shakespeare used the same convention widely in his plays, as do many modern productions.

The first chapter of Daniel is the literary equivalent of a Chorus. The author, traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, uses the opening of the book to provide a quick lay of the land with regard to the background of the story and introduces us to the major players. The fact that the chapter describes Daniel and his companions as being learned young men who were then given a thorough course in Babylonian literature and culture, is ironic. It seems to me that the chapter itself gives evidence to this in its structure and content.

In the next year, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers will be studying the theme of exile. I’ve written in previous posts about the theme of wilderness throughout the Great Story. The exile of God’s people in Babylon is one of the major examples and many casual readers don’t realize just how many characters, psalms, and books come out of this period. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah are all books that chronicle parts of the Babylonian exile and return.

In today’s chapter, Daniel provides bookend dates of the story he’s about to pen. It starts in the “third year of Jehoiakim king of Judah” and ends the first year of King Cyrus. A little study shows this to be 605-539 B.C. In other words, Daniel was an educated young man from nobility in Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. His hometown is destroyed in a long Babylonian siege in which Daniel watched people starve to death and, according to the prophet Jeremiah, reduced to cannibalism to survive.

Out of this horrific event, Daniel is taken captive by his enemy. He is torn from his family, his people, and his hometown which has been reduced to rubble. He ends up in the capital city of his enemy, Babylon, and finds himself subject to indentured servitude to his people’s enemy number one: King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s own name is taken from him and he is given a new name. He is forced for three years to learn everything about the history, culture, and literature of his enemy.

A young man of God forced to live in captivity and exile and to serve his enemies for about 65 years. Welcome to the story of Daniel, whom many people only know from brightly illustrated children’s books in the dusty Sunday School memory bins of their brains.

But the real story is far deeper and more complex than that, as Daniel tries to tell me as a reader in his opening Chorus. It is the story of a young man who finds a way to survive. He courageously maintains and lives out his faith in the midst of the unbelievably difficult circumstances that make up nearly his entire life.

In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the common misperception I observe followers of Jesus often have, and that I confess I find myself unconsciously falling into from time to time. It’s partially driven, I believe, by the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic. If we believe, work hard, and live good lives then life should be a breeze of material blessing and pain-free existence. But as I journey through God’s Message I find that this has never been the message. Daniel fires an explosive shot across the bow of that notion from the very beginning of his story.

Trauma, suffering, starving, captivity, bondage, indentured servitude, and life-long exile in the land of his enemies serving a mad king.

I find God’s purpose in my pain. That’s the message Daniel foreshadows in the Chorus of his book, and the one I’ve been reminded of over and over again on my life journey.

 

Amusement in Absurd Conversations

When caring for someone with Alzheimers or Dementia, you learn  that conversation is a lot like an improv exercise in theatre. You can’t control what the other person is going to say or do. You simply say “Yes, and” then go with the flow no matter where the absurdity takes you. As a care giver you can let it bother you, or you can choose in to the amusement.

Our daughter, Taylor, is working and writing for a company in the UK that provides web applications that help Dementia and Alzheimer’s care facilities called Storii Care. The following is a post she wrote on their blog that I’m reposting here with her permission.

Confessions of a Carer: Finding Amusement in Absurd Conversations

I used to work as a CNA in the dementia unit of a long-term care home, located in a small town in Iowa. 

I haven’t worked as a nurses aide for many years now, but have continued to be around people with dementia both personally and professionally. 

If you are reading this, you probably already know that having a conversation with someone in the later stages of dementia can be completely nonsensical. In the moment, inside their mind, they are often in a completely different time and place than you. 

The fact that I sort of delight in having these wacky conversations feels like something I must confess (as opposed to simply telling you), because I am fully aware that the confusion and distress that someone may be experiencing in their mind is real and concerning. It is sad when someone endures the loss of their memory and grows increasingly disoriented from reality. There is no doubt about that. There is a time and place for indulging in illogical chat and there is a time and place for redirecting. One has to know when to make that judgement call. 

But, why not meet people where they’re at? That’s all I’m saying. It can be refreshing. Even fun. Especially if you have a flair for the dramatic arts. 

Scene I

Case in point…one time working as a CNA, I passed by the TV room where Lois beckoned me to come over. 

When will the valet bring the car around?

The valet? You see, this is like being in an improv scene where the situation and your identity is provided only through prompts. 

You car should be here shortly, ma’am. 

Oh, wonderful. Thank you, sweetie. And the luggage? Will they bring the luggage down?

Ah, it appears we are in a hotel. 

Yes, I will make sure every item is loaded in the vehicle for you. 

Even the two horse saddles?

Horse saddles?! Alright, then…

It might be a tight squeeze, but we will do our best to make it fit. 

Yes, Gerald spent a pretty penny on those, you know.

Oh, that Gerald. Has to have the best of them, doesn’t he? 

She touches my arm. 

Isn’t that the truth? 

Then Lois chuckled and turned toward the TV, seemingly happy to know everything was in order and would be just fine. 

Scene II

Another time, a different resident approached me. 

Excuse me, could I ask you something?

Sure, what can I do for you? 

She brings my head down so that she can whisper in my ear. 

Do you happen to have any sanitary pads? You see, I’ve just gotten my period. 

There is absolutely no way this 82 year-old woman is still getting a visit from Aunt Flo, but I go along with it.  

Don’t worry, dear. I have some in my purse. I’ll just go grab you one. Would you like some ibuprofen as well?  

She nods and winks at me, mouthing a silent “thank you”. Sisterhood.

I come back with a pad and she stuffs it in her cardigan pocket with the stealth of covert ops mission. 

Later, when I went into her room to start the bedtime routine, I found the pad open and stuck to her nightstand with an oatmeal raisin cookie lying on top. Well, you know, I’m glad she found a use for it. 

A New Perspective 

Sure, these exchanges are illogical. However, at the time, I was invited into someone else’s present reality. Even though it involved being a bit off the wall on my part, the result is that these women stopped worrying. Their demeanors shifted. All was right once again. Who wouldn’t find a little joy in that? 

Building up life stories is such a large part of what care staff focus on in senior homes. When the opportunity presents itself, perhaps you can be part of a resident’s life story by acting out a scene with them. You both might like it.

AuthorBio: Taylor Vander Well heads up Best Practice + Communication for StoriiCare. She lives in Edinburgh, UK with her partner and son. 

A Spiritual Lesson from Acting 101

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James 2:18 (NRSV)

I’ve always believed that acting is the creation of an authentically believable character from the inside out. It is not just the manipulation of body and voice but the understanding of internal need, intention, motivation and thought which then translates into words, movement, and action.

My theatre professor in college taught us that one of the most important tools for the actor is observation. Watch people. We were sent to the local mall to watch people. Really watch them. It’s the Sherlock method of beginning to understanding character. What do you deduce from what you can readily observe in people? What can you tell about that couples’ relationship by the way they walk four feet apart? What does it say about them as a couple when she’s carrying on a conversation but her eyes are always looking over his shoulder at the people walking by? What is that teenager trying to say when he walks with that pronounced strut? Look at that old man, shoulders hunched over as if he’s protecting his soul, shuffling slowly with his eyes glued to the floor as though he’s afraid to look anyone in the eye. What in life led him to walk like that?

James’ discussion of faith and works in today’s chapter has created firestorms of controversy among theologians throughout the centuries. Some have even suggested pitching James’ letter from the canon of scripture altogether. Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, and that it’s not of works. But James writes in today’s chapter that faith without works is worthless faith. So, which is it?

I’ve never been that stressed out about seeming contradiction. Following Jesus is a journey fraught with paradoxes. You have to die to live. You must lose in order to gain. You must give away to acquire. Faith and works is just another spiritual paradox in God’s economy. Theatre learned long ago the spiritual principle required for holding the tension. It’s called “Yes, and.” Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, and yes, faith without works is worthless faith.

James was simply tapping in to Acting 101 class. Watch yourself. Really watch yourself. I should observe myself as others do. What do my words say about me? What can someone deduce from the way I treat my employees, my family, or as James suggests, the poor and needy? My inner spiritual realities are evidenced in my outside behaviors. If I really believe what I say I believe, the internal faith will continually work itself out in my words, actions, and relationships.

This morning I am feeling convicted. The process of honest self observation is never comfortable. Though I’m quite sure I have blind spots, I know most of my major shortcomings acutely. A self-inventory leads me to uncomfortable conclusions. And, I think that’s also ultimately James’ point. Discomfort prompts change, which creates movement, which propels me further in the journey towards Life. Comfort prompts apathy, which creates stagnation, which eventually becomes death.

Faith or works?

Yes.

The Challenge of Words

“You shall not profane my holy name….”
Leviticus 22:32 (NRSV)

Wall Street Journal columnist, Ben Zimmer, writes a weekly piece in the newspaper’s weekend edition that explores a different word or phrase that has been in the news that week. It’s one of my favorite columns to read over coffee on Saturday mornings.

I have become increasingly fascinated with words as I’ve continued in my life journey. I’m fascinated with their origin, how they become part of our vocabulary, their meanings, and how we use them. I’m intrigued with how our society perceives words as positive or negative, good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.

Wendy’s and my adventures in community theatre often take us into debates about words. Should we use a word that will likely offend our audience here in rural Iowa? Can we legally change the copyrighted work by using a different word? If we do have the actor use a different word, will it change the play’s character and how the audience perceives him or her? Why would that word offend the audience? Should we risk the offense and challenge our audience to consider their notions about vocabulary? They are challenging questions that prompt fascinating and equally challenging discussions.

Toward the end of today’s chapter God tells the Hebrews not “profane” His name. I was given a definition of the word profane by a professor in college that I’ve never forgotten: “to empty something of its meaning.” I can still remember the word picture as the professor stood in front of the class and mimed turning a cup over in his hand, emptying the contents of the imaginary vessel on the ground.

I’ve always found that an apt understanding of God’s zealous protection of His name. It’s really no different than we as human beings. We don’t like people making fun of our name. We don’t want our name mocked or “drug through the mud.” In Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, John Proctor tells the witch hunters in Salem to go ahead and kill him unjustly but then begs: “give me my name!

Of course this opens a fascinating and challenging conversation about the name of God. As a child I was taught never to use the word “God” as in “Oh my god.” But, “god” is a impersonal noun that could refer to your generic pagan idol as it could refer to Yahweh (the name God gave Himself to Moses in Exodus 3). The name “Jesus” is much more specific and it packs all sorts of meaning and power. Jesus told His followers to do all sorts of things from prayers to exorcisms “in my name.” History records many signs and wonders that happened “in the name of Jesus.” If I then turn and use “Jesus” as an exclamation of disgust when the restaurant brought me the wrong order it certainly appears that I’ve taken something of spiritual power and authority, emptied it of its meaning, and used it for common swear word. I’ve profaned it.

This morning I’m once again thinking about words. It’s fun and challenging to debate the particulars of words and their usage. Despite the hairsplitting, it’s obvious that throughout God’s Message I’m reminded that words have power to heal, encourage, and build others up. They also have the power to sully, divide, tear down, and profane. I am reminded that the words we choose should be gracious, wise, and kind. May the words of my mouth always exemplify those basic guidelines.

chapter a day banner 2015

featured image by dorkmaster via flickr

The Latest 02-28-2016

It was one year ago today that Wendy, me and a small army of friends, moved our stuff into our new house. It was a typically chilly February day in Iowa and the snow was falling ere we finished lugging in all the boxes. What a difference a year makes. It was 70 degrees and gorgeous yesterday as Wendy and I walked around the neighborhood. We sat on the glider rocker on our front porch, soaked in the sun. We reminisced about all the ways VW Manor has taken shape over the past twelve months, talked about our queue of things we still need to do, and dreamed of possibilities way out in the future. Bottom line is that we are continuing to feel extremely grateful and blessed.

Drinks, Cuban Cigars, and treats on the patio at McQuade Pub!
Drinks, Cuban Cigars, and treats on the patio at McQuade Pub!

The weather was warm enough last week for Kevin and I to enjoy the year’s first cigar on the deck at McQuade Pub. I had been given a precious gift of Cuban Cohiba cigars late last year and have been itching to have one. Miss Linda prepared a lovely tray of goodies for Kevin and I to enjoy as we quaffed and puffed away in the bearably chilly evening. The Cuban contraband was awesome (thanks, Matthew!).

The past couple of weeks has been marked by concern for my folks. Dad has had a long struggle with his heart going out of rhythm. Meds haven’t worked to remedy the problem and last week he was scheduled for a heart ablation that was abandoned after it began when his heart abruptly went from atrial flutter to atrial fibrillation. He spent three more days in the hospital as they tried yet another nasty med (when they require hospitalization for the first three days of taking it, you know it’s not aspirin). While Wendy and I were with the folks at home on Thursday afternoon his heart went back out of rhythm again and now there’s a big question mark regarding what’s next. Dad’s string of health issues from cancer to cardiac arrhythmia, coupled with mom’s slow but unstoppable descent into Alzheimer’s, has layered life with  a certain worry-tinged melancholy. Nevertheless, we’re so thankful for their supportive and loving community at Woodlands Creek, and we’re looking forward to taking them out for dinner tonight!

One of the things that I’ve learned as the father of young adults is that they will incessantly make a liar out of you. Two weeks ago when I wrote my last installment of The Latest I reported that Madison was staying in Colorado Springs and had made application for an apartment there. A few days later she called to report that she’d decided to make a counter-offer on a job she’d turned down in South Carolina and it was accepted. So, Maddy Kate is making plans for a move to Columbia to work as a territory manager for Laura Geller cosmetics. Well done, MK!

Taylor has continued to make inroads with the Alzheimer’s Association as she passionately pursues her creative calling to tell the stories of those with early onset Alzheimer’s. She continues to apply for positions on both sides of the pond and to do whatever she can to make ends meet and pay the bills. We were so blessed that Taylor was able to (put that CNA training to work) help out with grandpa and grandma this past week.

Playhouse high water mark
The line of dirt across the yard and sidewalk shows how high the flood waters reached over the holidays.

I made a business trip to Tennessee this week, taking the opportunity to make the drive and make an overnight visit to the lake on both the way there and the way back. It was great to check on the Playhouse and make sure all was well. There was record flooding on the lake back during the holidays and it was fascinating to see the dark line of debris across the yard marking the high water. It was good to be there, even if was only for a few hours. It means summer is coming and we’ll soon be grilling out, taking sunset rides in the boat, and enjoying listening to Pat and Ron calling the Cubs’ game as we sip our drinks on deck and/or dock!

Director Kevin McQuade directs Spence Ver Meer and Jana DeZwarte in USP's "Almost, Maine."
Director Kevin McQuade directs Spence Ver Meer and Jana DeZwarte in USP’s “Almost, Maine.”

Rehearsals for Almost, Maine continue. We’re just over six weeks from opening night and are off-book. Wendy and I continue to relish the opportunity of working with our friend and director, Kevin McQuade. Our fellow cast members have been focused, hard working, and a joy to work with. It is going to be an amazing show! Do yourself a favor right now and mark your calendar for a date night on April 14, 15, 16, or 17. Make a trip to Pella for dinner and a really inexpensive evening of  really good live theatre. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Theatre Central "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Speaking of dinner and live theatre, Wendy and I enjoyed a night out with the VLs on Friday night and last night we had a date night ourselves with dinner and a performance of Theatre Central’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Pella Opera House. We then enjoyed drinks and conversation after the show with the McQuades and a few of Central’s profs.

 

The Latest 01-31-2016

January was an unusually busy month for me. Along with two business trips there was a lot of extra-curricular activity that filled our evenings and weekends.

Rehearsals continue for Almost, Maine. Wendy and I have really been enjoying the 3-4 rehearsals each week. The fellow cast members are awesome to work with and we’ve loved the ensemble. Our friend, Kevin McQuade, is a blast to work with as a director. Wendy and I play three scenes together as three different couples. We’re loving the challenge of developing completely different characters and quickly moving from one to another. On Thursday night Kevin called an early halt to rehearsal and took the cast to Kaledra for drinks. He knows how to keep his cast happy! Almost, Maine will be performed here in Pella April 14-17.

Taylor will be moving out next weekend. She’s decided to move to Des Moines and live in the Catholic Worker community full-time. She’s working on a couple of different creative projects and has taken up gaining a more in-depth understanding of photography. She and I took a couple of hours this week to play around with light and lenses in my office studio.

Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.
Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.

My friend Matthew Burch and I have been doing a four-week series of Sunday morning messages in the Third Church auditorium on the subject of shame (audio here). The messages were a microcosm of our men’s workshop, More Than Conquerors which we then presented at Westview this past Friday evening and Saturday. Wendy and I headed to Des Moines on Friday. While Kevin Roose and I were at the workshop, she and Becky enjoyed some girl time and Wendy helped Becky organize their basement storage room.

The More Than Conquerors workshop uses Shakespeare’s trilogy about King Henry V as a backdrop to discussing issues of shame. We loved our time with the 24 guys who attended. It was a great journey. How did it go? I think the answer to that question is in the picture (above) I snapped of Matthew sitting at a table of guys who stayed well after the conference was over to ask more questions and continue learning. When men give up their weekend, sit for almost 12 hours listening to you, and then want to stay for more…I’ll take that as a good sign.

Wendy and I are looking forward to a quiet day today. Here comes February.

The “Sui Generis” Moment on Stage

It happened last night at rehearsal for Almost, Maine. It surprised me. It’s early in the rehearsal process and, while it’s not unheard of at this point in that process, it’s relatively rare in my experience.

The Latin term “sui generis” means “one of a kind,” and there is an experience that occasionally, mysteriously happens on stage that I find to be sui generis in life. It is an experience I have found unique to the art of acting, and actors who experience it once usually long to experience it ever after. It is a moment on stage that is other worldly, when actors cross over into another dimension, into the reality of the scene they are playing. It doesn’t happen all the time. You can’t predict it and there is no formula for conjuring it. But, when it happens you never forget it.

When this moment happens, when you cross over, you feel the emotions your character feels and think the thoughts that are flying through your character’s brain. You are at once in both dimensions: being two actors on the community center stage in Pella Iowa, and being two characters in a living room at 9:00 p.m. on a dark winter’s night in northern Maine.

It is an indescribable experience. It is sui generis.

Wendy and I were rehearsing our scene Getting it Back last night. We haven’t rehearsed it many times. Our lines are not memorized, we don’t have all our props, and we’re still struggling to remember our blocking. Yet, as our characters began to argue and things escalated between Gayle and Lendall, it happened. We crossed over. It was incredible. When it happens, I can sometimes also feel those watching being ushered into the moment with us. That happened last night, too.

Wendy and I often comment that we love the rehearsal process almost more than performances. Last night was an example of why. It is in the rehearsal process that you do the work of excavation and exploration. It is in rehearsal that you seek out the doorway to that sui generis moment. Like the portals into Narnia the portals to those moments can mysteriously appear and disappear. The same entrance can sometimes usher you to that moment multiple times. Then, suddenly, the way is shut and you pick up the quest once more.

The quest for that sui generis moment is part of the mystery and magic of acting. It is what draws me back again and again. And when the moment surprises you, like it did at rehearsal last night, it is a one of a kind experience of Life.

I can’t wait for rehearsal on Thursday.

Power of the Art of Acting

I have observed along my life journey that acting is largely misunderstood and under appreciated as an art. To many who have asked me about my experiences on stage, acting is perceived to be nothing more than adults engaged in a child’s game of make believe. That notion certainly contains a nugget of truth, as good actors tap into a child-like sense of play and imagination. It does, however, fall short of the whole truth. One might equally say that a painter is simply “coloring” or a composer is simply “making up songs.” In every one of these examples the notion falls far short of understanding both the art form and the work of the artist.

Acting, to steal a term used by Tolkien and Lewis with regard to their writing, is a form of sub-creation. It is the art of creating an individual being, from the inside out, in all of his or her (or its) infinite complexities. Think how intricately layered each one of us are in our unique experiences, gifts, talents, intentions, thoughts, feelings, desires, quirks, flaws, handicaps,  strengths, and idiosyncrasies. What a Herculean task to start with nothing more than words in a script and attempt the creation of a living, breathing, believably real human being on stage. Even more challenging is the fact that the actor must fulfill this task utilizing his or her own existing body and voice. Imagine a composer being asked to take exactly the same notes, key, and time signature that exist in one piece of music and rearrange them to make a uniquely different work.

An actor’s task is made even more difficult when his or her creation must interact with others on stage whom they do not control.  Your creation, in all his or her uniqueness, must react and respond to others in the moment without the assurance of knowing exactly what will happen or be said (or not said) in that moment. Like all other artists actors put their creation out there for all the world to see. It is a courageous act fraught with the risk. Unlike artists in other mediums, actors are, themselves, the canvas, the composition, the sculpture, the sonnet. When actors step on stage they present their own flesh and blood as part and parcel of the art itself. The risk is more personal and more public than almost any other art form.

In the process of creating this living, breathing creation on stage, the actor becomes psychologist, historian, private investigator, sociologist, theologian, and priest. Actors become among the world’s most accepting and empathetic inhabitants because they are required to find understanding and empathy for some of literature and history’s most heinous villains. In this pursuit of the embodiment of a real person on stage, an actor comes to embody love and grace that believes, hopes, and endures even for the most tragic of characters.

As with all art mediums, there exists in this wide world of actors a diverse panacea of education, talent, experience and ability. You may not find Olivier, Hoffman, Streep, or Theron at your local high school, college, or community center. You may, however, be pleasantly surprised if you take the risk of venturing out and buying a ticket. You will find courageous actor-artists stepping into a real world created on the other side of the fourth wall. They will transport you to another time in another place. You may just find yourself swept up in a story that not only entertains, but also causes you to think, laugh, weep, and feel. Your disbelief may be suspended just long enough for you to care, truly care, about these characters, these persons, these living, breathing, real creations and their stories. That is the power of the art of acting.

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Preparing for a Role: The Rehearsal Process
Preparing for a Role: How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?
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Theatre is Ultimate Fitness for Your Brain!

 

Photo: Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Karl Deakyne rehearse a scene from Ham Buns and Potato Salad. Pella, Iowa.