Sunday, May 31, 2009


Beth and I took our kids to see a production of "Annie" at the Elgin Opera House last night. Delightful production and fun for the whole family. I particularly enjoyed the impish orphan children who spent every spare minute subverting authority. There was also some racy dance choreography featuring suggestively swaying bums and pelvic thrusts performed in pairs and trios. The villains were no account bums, especially the abusive, liquor swilling supervisor at the orphanage who was never more than a step or two away from her bottle even in full view of the little ones. My daughter, Tess, asked me why the woman so much medicine. I told her it to wait and see. Tess looked at me rather doubtfully but didn't press the issue. Had she followed up though, I was ready with the closing argument: don't worry about her, she's going to jail.

Biggest laugh line that evening was when Warbucks, who has just secured FDR's agreement to come for dinner, asks his assistant to find out what Democrats like to eat.

I went back to congratulate the cast afterwards and the man playing Warbucks, someone who had been a visible supporter of the effort to ban Picasso, saw me. Savoring the glory of the moment, as he should have been, he seemed surprised, then pleased to see me. I congratulated him on a good show.
"I still love you," he said.

I couldn't help but feel like he meant, "in spite of what you did."
"Why wouldn't you still love me?" I said smiling back at him.
That's when it hit me. The nicest among them are the ones who have forgiven me and who want me know that they're ready to put it behind us.

It's awkward, seeing as how I don't wish to be forgiven. I gave him a hug anyway.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Hoisted by their own petards

Here's today's GOP doing the Dems' dirty work for them.
The topic: Sonia Sotomayor

Leading off, G. Gordon Liddy:
"Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when [Sotomayor]'s menstruating or something, or just before she's going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then."

Batting second, Newt Gingrich:
"a Latina woman racist."
"she shouldn't even get a vote, and should be withdrawn from consideration."
"Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist"
Hitting third, Rush Limbaugh:
she's a "hack"
"She brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court,"
"That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive."

And in the clean up spot, Tom Tancredo:
"an organization called La Raza, in this case, which is, from my point of view anyway, nothing more than...a Latino KKK "
If I were given to conspiracy theories I'd have to wonder if these guys aren't actually in deep cover working for Obama. Rope a dope indeed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Message from Paris

In another example of how this story of the Picasso affair traveled around the world, Mme. Melanie Herment, who teaches English to French high school students in Paris, has been using the Picasso affair as classroom material in some of her classes.

She has given her students news stories, some of my blog posts, as well as Steve Martin's letter to read. She recently sent me some photos of the actual Lapin Agile in the Montmartre district of Paris. They were taken by one of her students who while strolling in the area had the idea of taking the pictures and sharing them with us.

Melanie is about to launch a theatrical production of her own titled "Once Upon a P.C. Time". It's based on the James Garner Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Here's the link to her educational website.
To Melanie and all of her students, Break a leg!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The difference a day makes

On Monday we break out the inflatable kayak, strap it to the top of the Westfalia camper bus and head out into the heart of the Grande Ronde Valley for a leisurely float down Catherine Creek. The water is quite high and very cold right now, and the prospects for bird watching are outstanding. Unfortunately, my camera which was lost last week remains AWOL so I have no photos of the wonderful things we saw. Our inflatable Tomcat easily holds all of us, though there is no room for our dog Sammy.

We put in near Union and begin what will turn out to be a four hour excursion. No difficulties to speak of, except for the odd, low hanging branch. The water level is so high that we are able to survey the surrounding landscape, mostly farmland. The kids try their hand at paddling, "oaring" they call it. Under their steerage, we drift lazily in circles, getting a slow 360 degree pan of the area. Here and there we see a tractor, or a loading chute for cattle, mostly though we slip quietly down the meandering channel bounded by tall grasses and stands of trees. Once the hot weather hits and the water level falls, all you will be able to see from the water will be the banks and the tall grass, the sky overhead...and the birds.

They are everywhere, yellow headed blackbirds, red winged ones too, swallows, owls, hawks, ducks, geese, cormorants and blue herons. There's a spectacular variety of plumage and color. Along the dirt cut banks are dozens of small round holes out of which flutter small wren like birds (I need to look them up). An impressively massive owl glides across our bow pursued madly by several of these small birds. Ducks and geese beat the water with their wings and head elsewhere in the marshy valley floor. But the stars of the day are the herons. When one of these birds is startled into flight out of the brush along the banks of the channel the sudden unfolding of wings can be both startling and mesmerizing. A heron's takeoff looks improbable at first and then by degrees it becomes almost balletic.

We pass snacks amongst us on the kayak. Tess and Colm chatter ceaselessly, like birds. They have not yet absorbed the idea of passing quietly into a new world and of patiently waiting for discoveries to unfold before them. They crawl forward and backward, trading spots on the kayak, sometimes sitting in our laps leaning back into us, sometimes perched on the ends of the kayak peering into the cold water, craning their necks to catch up with birds we've startled into flight.

By far the highlight of the afternoon is floating beneath the heron rookery strung along the creek in the middle of the valley. These are places where tall stands of trees live. Because the water level is so high right now, we can navigate almost anywhere we wish amongst them. Indeed, we sometimes lose track of where the channel is and we have to watch the water carefully to see signs of the current. The herons' massive nests are built high above the water in the tops of branches of old trees. Sitting quietly on our boat, we see at least a dozen dark nests in a single stand of trees. Several such stands populated by both herons and cormorants wait for us.

The herons themselves look prehistoric, long, angular and ungainly until they swoop into flight. Tess and Colm are delighted when they spot a pair of baby herons peeking over the edge of a nest, their mother sitting above them in profile, imperious. The cormorants who share this habitat with the herons appear more familiarly birdlike, black and sleek. It's midday and most of the nests are unattended. The effect of seeing so many nests and so few big birds at home is akin to having wandered into a ghost town. The few natives at home are fascinating and largely indifferent to us. The ambient noise is subdued, sepulchral. I wonder how different this rookery must be in the early morning when all the nests are occupied. As we drift along, searching through the flooded lands for the channel we see more and more nests. It is magical.

At the end of our float trip, we put in at a spot where Catherine Creek intersects one of the gravel roads that crisscross the valley farmlands. It is a low bridge from which Beth and the kids can hike about three quarters of a mile to the pick up car while I deflate the kayak and ready the gear to be stowed. The kids know that at the end of their walk will come a short drive and then ice cream cones at the burger stand in Cove. I watch my family walk leisurely about a quarter mile to a point where the road turns at a right angle. Tiny figures, they walk across my line of sight until they're obscured by roadside brush.

The roads are straight lines with perpendicular intersections. The creeks by contrast meander in intricate, looping patterns, nearly forming oxbows at every turn. We could have paddled to the car but it would have taken us a lot longer and we've been out for four hours already. Occasionally, I see a pickup go by on the road Beth and the kids have turned onto. Seems pretty likely they'll get a ride from someone, a farmer in this area. I watch one go by and trace its dust plume into the distance. I'm satisfied but tired and looking forward to being home and out of the heat and dust.

It occurs to me that if I get atop one of the wooden posts supporting the bridge's guardrail I might be able to see something, my family, our car, the passing pickup. The land is so flat here that just a couple of feet altitude represents an advantage. I place my left foot atop the post and push hard, lifting myself up. For a moment I'm on top, the valley briefly opens up before me, then I feel my balance shifting back. I realize I'll have to step back down and try again. Without much thought or care, I bring my right foot back down to the ground, but my weight has shifted subtly back and to my left, causing me to lean heavily against the guard rail. I realize with alarm that the guardrail is blocking my effort to regain my balance and is instead causing me to topple backwards over it. It's the same kind of leverage me and my boyhood friends used to when we'd sneak up behind each other on our hands and knees and then signal someone else to push the unsuspecting victim backwards.

I fall, slowly, my entire body reversed on the fulcrum of the rail. My feet fly up in the air, the left one scraping the metal rail hard on the way up, my back and shoulder hit the gravel road. As falls go, this one feels and, from a distance, probably looks theatrical, as if I'm pretending to have been shot. As I go down, I groan, then yell, then curse loudly, flat on my back in the middle of a lonely road. My foot throbs where it scraped the rail; there is a nasty gash there and the blood has already spread along the length of my foot to my heel. My back feels scraped and bruised. But mostly I'm pissed off. I get up and cut loose with a few primal swear words. The empty space around me swallows up my complaint utterly.

Eventually, I recover my equilibrium, wash off my wounds and ponder the ridiculousness of what has just happened. I decide to get back on the post and complete the maneuver that began this absurd interruption in what had been up to that point a glorious day. This time I ascend easily to my perch, and bird-like, I scan the distance, looking for a dust plume. When at last I see our car I hop down. Through the dusty windshield I can make out Beth in her distressed, straw cowboy hat. She's wearing the same smile she's had on since we got on the water four hours earlier. Peering out from behind her, craning their necks to see me are Tess and Colm. The novelty of seeing me out here alongside the road, not in their car with them, seems to amuse them, as if I were one more odd bird to add to their collection of sights this day.

Their faces capture some hidden light, three lovely orbs glowing in the swirling dusty air. I can't help but smile back. As I start loading gear into the back of the car, I say, "You'll never guess what happened while you were gone." Beth looks at me quizzically. When I tell her about my fall, she shakes her head as if to suggest that it's not safe to leave me alone anywhere. Soon enough we're all licking vanilla and banana ice cream swirls in cones. After finishing those we drive back and retrieve the camper bus and we caravan home, about fifteen miles.

Back at home, with the car and bus unpacked, the kids playing tether ball in the back yard, and Sammy wiggling delightedly amongst our legs, Beth notices a spot on the living room window. She asks me to remove the storm window, a large heavy one about four feet square, so that she can clean off the spot. The afterglow of the day's excursion is still strong with both of us and I consent. I'm still in my shorts and barefoot. We remove the window easily enough, popping it out and resting it on the porch. Beth has it cleaned in a jiffy and is feeling pleased about it. I lift the window back up into place, resting it on the sill as I try to get control of the unwieldy thing. It's harder going in; it doesn't fit easily. I get three corners in but the fourth seems stuck. I pop it out again and start over. The window is so heavy that it's hard to manipulate. Finally, I ask Beth to get a screw driver from the kitchen thinking that I can maybe lever it up on one side and get it to slide in.

Standing there alone with the window, I decide to try once more. I scoot the metal base inside the frame and then reach up with both hands try to slide in the top. The bottom of the window kicks out and, before I realize what's happened, it slides straight down like a guillotine and lands on my bare foot, the right one this time. The shock and surprise is such that the pain is rivaled for a second by the thought that I may have just lost my toes. I look down and see that they're still attached but now that pain has crested and I yell at the top of my lungs. I keep yelling as I move the window off my foot. I yell even more as I limp about in small circles on the porch. In my peripheral vision I see an elderly woman walking on the sidewalk across the street. I'm yelling, "Fuck! Fuck! Goddammit" over and over again. She pauses, then seems to think better of it and continues.

Meanwhile Beth and the kids come running. I fight to get a hold of my reactions. The kids have never seen me in pain before. I can already see the concern on their faces. I hobble to a chair, straining with every breath not to curse aloud. Colm and Tess see my foot, and the bloody crease running across the base of my toes. Colm gets close to me; he puts his arms around my neck and lays his head on my shoulder and just remains like that. He doesn't let go. Beth is beside herself, feeling guilty about the window, unsure of how serious this injury really is. She runs for ice. Tess asks me questions. What happened? Does it hurt? Is it bleeding? Do I have to go the hospital? Why are you making those sounds? I ask her to get a towel. Instantly she's off in search of one. Colm hold on, pressing his cheek into my shoulder. Don't worry, I tell him and I stroke his hair. I'm just trying to breathe through this pain. Tess and Beth bring the ice (actually frozen blueberries from the freezer) and towel. We elevate the foot, and then my body begins to shiver. It feels like the onset of shock. I ask for a blanket and Colm and Tess both spring into action. Within moments they're back and I'm swaddled on the front porch. The pain has dulled somewhat, but I'm still finding it hard to breathe.

Beth asks me about going to the emergency room. I decide to ice the foot for twenty minutes or so and then take a look before deciding. I do a quick check online for foot trauma and get a site where I can look at the bone structure of the foot, specifically the metatarsal area where my injury is located. I discover that broken bones in this area require about eight weeks of immobilization. The thought pierces storm window equals one summer. It's intolerable, more intolerable than the pain. I decide to go and get x rays and find out what my fate is. Beth is miserable at the thought of what might be in the offing. The kids though seem to have rebounded, especially Colm who now seems assured of the fact that I'm not dying and so is newly buoyed and fascinated by the prospect of going to the hospital. "Awesome," he says.

The family loads up again in the car and we make the drive of six blocks to the hospital. I get out and leave them in the car. Beth has to feed the kids and get them to bed. I hop on one foot into the ER, my injured foot wrapped in ice (we saved the blueberries). About two hours later, I get the broken bones, just a deep and purplish laceration, and a numbness that will subside in time. I will play with my family after all this summer. In a day filled with good and lovely things, it's the best news I've had yet.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Call for scripts!

Okay everybody. I'm ready for suggestions for next year's school play. Lay'em on me in the comments section.

Reflections on the Picasso Affair...The Incurious and The Unserious

First, a fact or two. Three shows over May 16-18 drew a grand total of 11oo people. As a result, somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four thousand dollars was donated to a scholarship fund for LHS students.

Not one person supporting the ban on the play consented to appear on the Sunday panel discussion. Whether any such persons attended the play is unknown; certainly the most public figures in the controversy ie... superintendent Larry Glaze, complainants Melissa and Bret Jackman, school board candidate John Sprenger and pastor Tim Gerdes did not even though I had entreated each of them personally to do so. The latter individual did telephone me the day after the show closed asking me when the show was going to open and where he could get tickets. Incredulous, I collected my wits and informed him that the show was over. He paused and said rather weakly, "Well, I hope the dialogue can continue." Indeed.

While I freely concede that the decision to go to a play is a personal choice and should not in and of itself be made some kind of litmus test, in this case I am struck by the irony. The aforementioned persons and all of those who stood with them were united in their determination to prevent members of their community (1100 of them it turns out) from staging and participating in a high school theatrical experience which they felt would be worthwhile and educational.

Presumably, the play banning crowd would have stayed away under any circumstances, but since they advanced in a very shrill and public way the argument that the play was terrible, that it was unfit for high schoolers, that it would corrode the moral development of the young people involved, one would have thought that at least some of these people, moved by intellectual honesty and a desire to have all the facts would have at least subjected their claims to the test of experience. Not one of these people will ever be able to speak from first hand experience about what the play actually turned out to be, even though every one of them had the opportunity to do so.

Alas, it seems that the actual experience is irrelevant to such people; it seems that they would rather cherish their prurient, sensational and speculative claims about the experience to the more nuanced and unmediated thing itself. I have begun to think of these people as the The Incurious and The Unserious. It is not that TIATU are incapable of being serious. They are in fact most grave about certain matters of doctrine and policy, but they are wary and mistrustful of experience. The TIATU prefer to manage and massage experience, to make it conform to their expectations rather than be surprised or (heaven forbid) enlightened by it. They prefer their educational objectives to be sanitized, bureaucratized and, if at all possible, measurable.

We are, it seems to me, at an epistemological stalemate here. Notwithstanding the enormous amount of support shown for the play by the hundreds of enthusiastic community members who gave the actors standing ovations and who applauded not just their performances but their educational odyssey, there are members of the TIATU highly placed in our educational establishment here in La Grande, including the middle school, the high school, the school board, and the university who are committed to preventing such educational experiences in the future. These people both espouse and model a view of learning that is divorced from the world of experience and the spirit of inquiry. There's nothing new under the sun for them to learn; it's already been written down and there are no new chapters waiting to be authored.

But a lot of the young people I work with are animated by a belief that there are discoveries to be made, that their gifts and talents may serve to bring something new and beautiful and meaningful into this world. I could, I suppose, just remind them that there is nothing new under the sun, and urge them to do a quality reprise of some old standard (and sometimes I do just that) but nothing beats going an adventure into the unknown with an intrepid group of young people. It's impossible to predict in advance just what the lessons of such an adventure will be, but, if there is an integrity of purpose and if there is good faith, one can trust that the lessons will be worthwhile for all involved. Chief among those lessons will be the importance of integrity and good faith in our dealings with one another.

It is always illuminating and often poignant to witness high schoolers grapple seriously with difficult and complex problems. Putting on Picasso at the Lapin Agile afforded me an extended opportunity to observe and sometimes shape my cast and crew members' approaches to solving problems. Because they are young, they are prone to mistakes of judgment, to lapses of good sense, and to impulsive and sometimes intemperate behavior with other people. But given the opportunity and the time, they learn about such things. One of the great rewards for any coach is the opportunity to witness such growth. They are not exactly the same at the end of the journey as they were at the beginning. And even if they are not radically different individually, they have been transformed as a group. What they have learned, however, is more than they can tell. They cannot yet verbalize it for it resides within a deep experiential level that is not easily reduced to words.

The skeptic might be tempted to say, "How convenient! An outcome that cannot be verified or evaluated and therefore beyond or above any attempt to dispute it." To which I would reply, "Fine. Don't trust me; trust your own eyes. Go to the play, watch how the kids perform, appreciate the scope of their effort and the quality of the results, and see what the evidence suggests to you.

That would, of course, require a curious and a serious mind.

We educate children, but we graduate adults. We adults would do well to reflect on just what that means.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Steve Martin... a grace note

As those of you who have been following the Picasso affair already know, Steve Martin wrote a check to fund our stage production of his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. What you don't know is that when he received a communication from my principal, Doug Potter, informing him that the school district had cut my drama coach stipend by one half when the play was banned, Martin also wrote a check to me for that amount. It came to me without warning, completely out of the blue. Thanks to Doug Potter for advocating for me, though he had already done enough in that department, and thank you to Steve Martin for displaying the kind of grace and goodwill that both surprises us even as it confirms our belief in human nature.

As an aside, Beth and I watched Steve's banjo performance on American Idol last night. I have to say that the musical number he performed was both classy and beautiful.

Grace - you've got it, Steve Martin.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Walking Picasso...the prequel resumed

Note to readers:
This post marks a return to a series of posts I began earlier. It's out of sequence and maybe out of date, but it's part of the historical record of our project.

Friday, May 15

Tonight is the speed-thru at 7:30 p.m. followed by the cue-to-cue for light and sound effects. There is a music event in the McKenzie this evening so we're meeting in the Green Room before going somewhere else, where exactly I'm not sure.

The weather is gorgeous. Seeing the sun and the blue sky causes me to imagine an afternoon without the play. What did I used to do? I've got three hours after work until rehearsal. While getting dressed I ask my son, Colm, if he'd like to go golfing with me after school today. He nods vigorously. It's a date. Tess chimes in; she's coming too.

On my way to work I enjoy imagining being on the golf course with the kids, giving each of them turns steering the golf cart. It occurs to me that I need to have a more concrete plan for tonight's rehearsal, but I am unable or unwilling to focus on anything except the sensation of soft warm air washing over me through the window of my VW camper bus.

After work, I hurry home, collect Tess and Colm and my golf clubs and we drive to Buffalo Peak Golf Course. I feel like I'm playing hooky, like I should be at the theater doing something, but the happy chatter of my kids chases those thoughts away. I haven't had a weekday afternoon with them in a long time. Besides, the play opens tomorrow. There's a limit to what I can accomplish with my cast at this point in time. The ball is pretty much in their court.

The kids and I get around nine holes without incident, no golf cart mishaps, no lost balls, and no squabbles. On the drive home, I am last able to focus on the upcoming rehearsal. Last Wednesday's rehearsal had driven home to me the critical need for better pacing and articulation; Thursday had provided evidence of some progress; tonight needs more of the same, only this time in a different venue. The progress we need to make will spell the difference between a run of the mill high school production, the kind only relatives come to and even then fight to remain awake during, and something impactful and impressive. The thought that this show will be little more than high schoolers dressing up in their parents' clothes scares me. That's when I have an idea.

I gather the cast in the Green Room and give them their marching orders. I gesture toward the exit. You're going out there, you're going to run your lines out there, together; you're going to take a walk together. Here are the rules: you must all walk together; if you have a line you must try to deliver it from the front of the group; if you have a monologue, you must lead the group while reciting it; if you are in dialogue with one or more persons, then all of you should be at the head of the group; lastly, you may walk anywhere outside on the campus that cars are not allowed. Focus on pushing cues and on articulation; figure it out and come back when you're finished. They look at me. Go, I tell them. I'm not coming with you. We'll begin the cue to cue when you return.

They file out the door. I follow them to the sidewalk and then watch them stroll off into the campus of EOU, my quirky little troupe of actors. The group as it migrates down the walk and under some large maple trees coheres loosely, like some amoeba. They don't know where they're going, but they're going there together. They have things to say to each other, and they have things to listen for and to imagine which should make the time pass quickly. They should be gone for just about an hour. It will be getting dark then. Then we'll come inside and experiment with light and sound in a darkened auditorium.

Before the kids come back, Sam is able to get in the light booth and begin programming light cues and gelling instruments. There is no way he'll be finished in time for us to begin the cue to cue on schedule. Pizza will keep the actors occupied for awhile. It's delivered to the Green Room and is waiting for the cast when it returns. The actors' cheeks are flushed from their early evening stroll. As they eat, the light and sound crew continue to try to get a handle on things. It's after ten o'clock when we finally are ready to begin. There are only about seventeen light cues in this show, and about half that many sound cues, but the pace is slow. Again and again we restart scenes until we're satisfied that we've got it.

Some of the actors who've never experienced a cue to cue begin to show signs of impatience, not overtly, nobody is short with anyone, but their body language discloses a weariness that is getting close to the bone. They don't realize that the tech crew need repetitions just like actors do.

As the cue to cue drags on towards midnight, actors begin draping themselves over tables and curling up under the bar as if trying to steal a wink here or there. What with the empty liquor bottles and ashtrays (props), they look like bedraggled urchins.

The final cues which constitute the most visually dramatic moments of the play take a long time to sort out. Choreographing the transition of the art slides with Elvis' pelvic thrust proves to be a tricky proposition. First we try manipulating the powerpoint transitions in an effort to match up better with his gyrations but after burning valuable time we listen to the actor who has been suggesting all along that he can cheat upstage and coordinate his movements with those of the slides on the scrim. After that, it goes much smoother. We finally finish the cue to cue after midnight.

Tomorrow morning we have a tech rehearsal scheduled for nine o'clock in the morning, followed by a break to get in costumes and then the dress rehearsal. Hopefully we'll be done with dress by two in the afternoon. The show opens at eight that evening. Get some rest I tell them. As they straggle out, I wonder if they will. We're done walking Picasso; it's time to run it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Picasso at the Lapin Agile ...completed

Note to readers:
I edited this post after publishing it earlier, because I discovered that the pictures were linked to my web gallery of photos of the show, and I had not intended to make available to the general public these images (not because of content but only because I don't wish to presume that everyone wants photos of them posted online.) Once I fixed the picture problem, I ended up editing the text too, so it's different from the original.

I apologize for the disjointed and nonlinear manner in which I've been blogging about the play this past few days but events have consistently outpaced my ability to keep up. I'm going to temporarily abandon the narrative I started on the last post and cut to the chase...the play that is.

Opening night was a huge success in every way. The actors delivered their best performances to that point (by far) and the audience was highly amused and very keen to laugh. The actors had to deal with being interrupted by laughter... a nice problem to have to solve. The show looked good too. All the productions elements worked smoothly, with only one minor glitch that probably nobody besides me, the crew in the booth, and the cast noticed.

In general the light and sound effects were very effective, none more so than the moment when the roof flew off and we watched Picasso, Elvis and Einstein gaze at the stars.

Sunday's matinee was hard work. Quiet crowd. Muted laughter. Actors working hard and wondering what the hell is going on out there. Really though, still a good, solid show, and very positive reactions from the folks who attended.

Closing night was dreamy. I saw actors relishing their characters in ways they had not yet done. Their focus was absolute.

Every photo I captured showed evidence of actors in character, listening and watching and reacting. Even though the theater was unbearably hot, the audience couldn't seem to get enough. The comedic synergy between cast members and with the audience was on a level that frankly surprised me. I came away terribly impressed by instincts these kids displayed.

Watching the show also put the script in a new light. Steve Martin has created a play in which every actor, right down to the smallest part, gets a chance to shine. Every one of my kids had at least one moment where they took stage and got a laugh for their trouble. Some of them did far more than that.

The more we did the show the more we got in synch with Martin's comedic sense. The actors began striving to set up jokes in order to collect the payoff laughter later. The hilarious non sequitors that Martin injects into the script became favorite moments for the cast.

For me, listening to many of the lines about creativity and aspiration as they came out of my cast members' mouths, I couldn't help conflating their real identities and aspirations with those of their characters. As people and as characters, they were all deeply engaged in the act of becoming...that's a lifelong project, but an ephemeral experience like a theater production can sometimes render it's value and it's complexity and it's pain in unforgettable terms.

Five months in the making, a long and in many ways a difficult birth. It was poignant for me to watch them cast about for answers, to listen to them butt heads against their own limitations, and those of their fellows, to witness their uneven and even spasmodic progress, and then finally to be amazed by their resilience, their transparency, and their fearlessness under the scrutiny of the public eye.
I got misty eyed on closing night watching them write another episode in their young lives.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Picasso...the prequel cont.

Thursday, May 14
We only have two hours on a bare stage and then we have to get off in time for a music event to be staged that evening. We're doing a speed-thru. We're going to push cues, and focus on precision and accuracy of speech and enunciation. I tell them that at the end of rehearsal I'll select two prize winners and give them the dessert treat of their choice. The criteria for winning is excellence in both areas.
The rehearsal opens with Freddy the bartender laying down the gauntlet in front of the other actors. He pushes cues so hard that Gaston and Einstein find themselves fighting to keep up. It's fun to watch this kind of competition and to see how they rise to the bait. Some of the actors are lapsing into the trap of talking fast as opposed to pushing cues, and then in walks Sagot. Every word that comes out of his/her mouth (Sagot is a male character played by a girl, Madison) looks like it's being birthed. She stretches and contorts her face to the extent that some of her scene partners are at risk of breaking character. Clearly, Sagot has decided to shift the focus of competition to the area of enunication. I applaud her performance, and, as if on cue, the other characters, especially Freddy, take up the challenge, each one making faces and sounds that have been heretofore unseen and unheard. The effect is salutory. I can hear them, and I know that since I am growing deaf, if I can hear them, everyone else will hear them too. Everyone is smiling now and that too brings a certain element of delight to their performance. Interestingly, some of the actors begin to lose their focus on the enunciation while keeping on top of their cues. It's as if they can only focus on so many things at a time.

We wrap it up an hour later. I call the actors to the edge of the stage. From the pit I announce the winners. For overall combination of all elements both pace and accuracy and for a general willingness to compete, I select Freddy the bartender(Jeff). For taking raising the bar concerning clarity and for showing the rest of the cast how to reach that bar, I honor Sagot. Everybody claps; there seems to be universal recognition of their merit. I ask them to name their treat. Jeff orders a cotton candy soda from Sorbenots and Madison asks for a vegan chocolate bar from the local health store. Okay.

Before we call it a night, I tell them how much easier it was to understand them, how much more interesting it is when the pace is lively. Tomorrow night I tell them to meet in the Green Room. We're going to do another line-thru though I'm not sure where since the theater is unavailable, and then at 9:30 p.m. we're in the theater for a cue-to-cue rehearsal for light and sound cues. I tell them that if things go well the cue to cue should be over in an hour or so. I am so in denial. I send them home; they seem happy.

Picasso...the prequel

We opened Saturday night to a packed house of about 400 people. Here's the plot went beautifully....I lost my camera, but the play went beautifully, and people laughed a lot. But I feel a need to widen the frame a little and chronicle our process leading up to opening night in greater length, so before I tell you about the actual show, let me tell you about the preceding 72 hours.

Wednesday, May 13
A tiny window in the McKenzie Theatre schedule allows us one day to hang and focus lights and install our set for Saturday's production. Everything we do has to be stored out of sight until then. Fortunately, the McKenzie is well furnished with an ample fly space and lots of bars from which to hang things. The set design I've settled on calls for seven large picture frames to be suspended over the stage, flanking a rather large L shaped bar unit. A grey, ten foot square theater scrim made of Chameleon is hung about seven feet behind the bar. The scrim is framed by a traveler curtain. A few feet in front of the back wall hangs an enormous white cyc. On the floor, against the wall sits a digital projector. A twenty five foot cable runs from that projector to a laptop computer in the winds stage right. All of these elements can either be flown up into the fly space overhead and kept out of sight until they need to be flown in for the production or they can be packed up and stored in a closet. The L shaped twelve by six foot bar unit can be carried back stage and stored in two pieces, along with three cafe tables, and six chairs. Props and costumes will arrive in the evening and be squirreled away in boxes and on portable racks.

No school for me this day. I'm taking my last personal day. I arrive at the McKenzie at 7:30 a.m., my VW Westfalia camper bus, loaded with picture frames, tables, the scrim, materials, tools, and some donuts and bagels. My light designer, Sam Jacobson, arrives shortly afterwards. Sam who works in construction and is recently unemployed is a former colleague at LHS. He has a degree in lighting and a can-do attitude. We are joined by Doug Kaigler, a professor of Art, who is similarly endowed. He along with fellow artist and colleague Peter Johnson have constructed the bar unit. We carry the two piece unit into position onstage, just to see what it will look like. It will anchor the set and be the locus of most of what happens in the play.

We have until seven that evening to get the space ready for the cast who will have their one and only rehearsal in this space and on the set before opening day. Up to this point they've been doing the show in a small room in a place we call the White House because that's what it is. When they walk out into this large proscenium space, it'll be different to say the least.

The one unknown, the mystery variable, upon which I have, perhaps unwisely, staked the integrity of the entire set design, is the projection scheme for throwing the images of paintings on the scrim behind the bar. Elaine Green, an artist living in Corvallis, Oregon, has donated a painting which she's created to the specifications of the show...sheep, meadow, fog. She has done so in the full knowledge that her work of art will be the subject of intermittent derision and ridicule by characters in the show. She's created a impressionistic piece that seems perfectly calculated to trigger Picasso's anitpathy. The only question is, will the audience be able to see it projected digitally on the scrim when the stage is lit? Near the end of the play, a different image, that of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, will magically replace Elaine's painting and serve as a window into the mind of a young Picasso on the verge of making his creative breakthrough. The scrim needs to work. That doesn't mean it will of course.

I unfold the gauzy fabric and spread it on the stage floor. Up close it looks like its made of industrial strength spider webs. We slide a couple of ten foot pipes into the sleeves on the top and the bottom; we run a cable through the top pipe and hang the scrim. Gibb Pollard, the university audio visual specialist shows up with the projector and laptop. After fiddling with it for awhile we finally throw Elaine's painting up there. My initial reaction is almost panic. I can't see it, but I'm standing only five feet away. As I back up it comes into focus. By the time I reach the seats in the audience, my fears have abated. If Sam can cut down on the bounce of light into the scrim from the playing area, we'll be okay. Then Gibb brings up the slide of the Picasso. Sam dims the house lights. It's breathtaking. We all just sort of stand there with our mouths agape. "Cool."
Sam nods. Now that we know it will work, we can get busy.
It's ten o'clock in the morning.

During the day the occasional theater student wanders in to lend a hand. My job is to hang the scrim and the picture frames while Sam repositions and recircuits lights. The frames are what remain of large mirrors that I found at WalMart for about twenty dollars apiece. There's roughly one hundred and forty years of bad luck waiting to go up into the fly. The idea behind the frames, aside from their portability, is to evoke the presence of art or more precisely, the potentiality of art, seeing as how they are empty frames.

At about two in the afternoon we sit down at one of the cafe tables and eat sandwiches. The frames are almost all up. Sam has gotten a handle on what instruments he can use and where. He's mapped out areas on the stage. We have the rest of the afternoon to put the lighting plot together. Working with Sam is like a tonic. His competence puts my mind at rest. I can feel us taking concrete steps in the right direction.

Sam and I are aiming lights on one of the electrics over the stage when the cast begins to wander in. It's about six in the evening, some of them are carrying, others wearing their costumes. The look in their eyes as they encounter the set is a bit like Christmas morning. One of the things that I realize, as I watch them feel their way around the bar unit, stepping in and out of pools of light that appear and vanish withhout warning, standing on the edge of the stage looking out into that dim and empty space where the audience will sit, is that we cannot go back to the White House anymore. I decide to inquire into the possibility of finding a couple of hours in McKenzie on an empty stage. The house manager informs me that nothing is going on from 3:30 -5:30 the next day.

At seven o'clock we start rehearsal. It's our first chance to view the set, the actors in costume, and the lights all together. Visually, it's definitely encouraging. Sam and I sit and watch and listen. I already know that this will be painful. The kids are not used to filling up a space larger than a living room. Actors are inaudible; they don't articulate; they leave words and phrases unfinished, they turn upstage and become invisible. The pace is too often intolerably slow. There are still physical bits that need work. Even worse still, some of the cast are still struggling with lines. Actors are fiddling with props like they are new toys, which in a sense they are. Einstein can't seem to stop straightening his wig. Mental note to self...the wig has got to go. Elvis' fly is open, his trousers have a broken zipper. On the other hand, the costumes generally look fabulous, we've gotten through the entire thing from beginning to end without stopping and the blocking scheme seems to have held up in the larger space.

I ask myself at the end, what tone do I strike with the cast? How do I want to leave them? I look at them and I can see that many of them already know that what they've done so far isn't nearly enough. They've been rehearsing this show since the end of January. Time, which once seemed to stretch infinitely far off towards a performance date that often seemed more hypothetical than real, has suddenly clamped down on us and caught us wondering how it is possible to have arrived here at this point and still not be ready. And always niggling at our thoughts...people are coming.

I don't want them to panic, but I do want them to worry. Worry enough to try something different. But I also want to show them that there's a very real path to getting to where we want to go. So I give it to them straight, just the way it appears to me. I finish by telling them that we will not run the play onstage again until Saturday morning. Instead we will do a speed through Thursday and Friday with a simple objective, push cues and finish words and phrases. If the pace doesn't sizzle, the audience will go to sleep; if they can't hear hear or understand the actors, the audience will go to sleep. The cast in general seem keen on the idea, partly because they know they can zip through this play in about an hour if they really push cues. When I tell them that tomorrow's rehearsal will be in the McKenzie they are visibly encouraged. It's clear to me that they just want a chance to figure the space out; they know they can do better.

I leave them with an anecdote. I collected this while in Stratford-on-Avon, England, while participating in a summer NEH seminar on Shakespeare. A group of us, all teachers, attended a workshop there given by a very famous voice coach (whose name I've forgotten alas), an elderly and diminutive, grey haired woman with hawkish eyes and a sharp wit. During a question and answer period, one teacher asked the woman, "What are the most important words for an actor speaking Shakespeare...are they the verbs, the nouns...?"

The woman eyed her questioner in silence for a few seconds. Then she seemed to magnify herself as she drew in a breath. It seemed to me that she might have been about to sigh, but instead she said in a voice as clear as a cold mountain spring, "Every fucking one of them."

I paused for effect. My cast smiled when they heard this. We enjoyed our illicit moment together. Then I urged them to take the story to heart.

"You have the words the playwright's given you. Speak them. Speak only them. Speak them all. Don't piss them away."

I got home around ten o'clock that night. Pretty good day, all in all.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Bouquet

The skies cleared up this weekend and we took advantage by going first to a May Pole fairy party and barbecue celebration in Wallowa County. There was marimba music, drumming and good food, plus lots of fairies and elves about, mixed in with regular folk.

After the party we went back to Cricket Flats. The next day was Mother's Day which meant a long leisurely walk down through the meadows for some spring flowers. Whether you were looking down around your feet or scanning the snow capped mountain peaks on the horizon, there was plenty to be intrigued by.
Mothers Day 2009

Friday, May 08, 2009

Who votes? Who cares? School Board elections

La Grande school board elections are in the home stretch. There appears to be a well organized and funded sign campaign in support of a couple of candidates, John Sprenger and Mike Berglund. Not much visible signage for any of the other candidates. For what it's worth, I'll be voting for Mark Gomez, Rebecca Hartman, and Jason Peterson.

Each one of these three candidates risked answering the question when asked by the local paper about the controversy surrounding the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. All the other candidates fell back into policy doublespeak or pleaded ignorance.

I'd like to think that we'll see an independent streak from voters this time around, but I suspect that apathy will lose out to an energized and organized bloc of voters who want their schools four square and their art squarely inside the box.

Go ahead, La Grande, prove me wrong!

Aggravated by error

I sent the incorrect information to the poster designer for our show and didn't realize it until I had the printed posters in my hands yesterday. Maddening. Fortunately we're reprinting them today so no harm done. See if you can spot the error.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Picasso at the Lapin Agile...ticket info

Here's new ticket info for folks wanting to reserve seats for any of the three performance dates: Saturday, May 16 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 17 2:00 p.m.
Monday, May 18 8:00 p.m.

EOU Theatre Box Office located in Loso Hall. Call (541) 962-3757

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sagot cubed

Madison (Sagot)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Picasso cubed

Richie (Picasso)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Cuting up a la Picasso ....more cast portraits

Nick (Gaston)

Doug (Schmendeman)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Eight the Fashionable Way

On my previous post I mistakenly quoted Tess as having chosen the theme of "Fancy Girls". It was "Fashionable Girls". This is, I am told, a distinction with a difference.

As usual, Beth took inspiration from her child's wishes. In the living room she set up the "Stop Sign Design Shop" (the octagonal icon signaling eight). Here the kids created doll clothes and Beth sewed each girl a custom purse.

In the dining room we created the Octopus Cafe. The menu was legit. One of the girls who came, Rosie, being older than the others sort of gravitated toward the adults and ended up serving tables like she'd been doing it for years.

The rain which had been falling all day, abated, so I took the three boys outside to shoot some hoops for awhile while the girls made outfits. Later, with the sun shining brightly, we all got together in the back yard for a May Pole dance. Every year this time we give this a try. Every year we get a few seconds further around the pole before we experience a May Pole train wreck. This year was no different; see for yourself here. Far from being a catastrophe, it simple serves as a pretext for giggling and then a lot of running around playing freeze tag. One day we may witness something resembling an elegant rite of spring, as my lovely daughter and my beamish boy joined by other sprightly youths weave demurely among one another and festoon the May Pole with delicate rainbow colored ribbons...I'll probably be nodding off in my rocking chair when it happens.

Then it was time to eat in the Octopus Cafe. Rosie took orders and pretty much commanded everyone's awe and respect, which in a perfect world is as it should be. A couple of kids got up and showed off a tune on the piano. Nobody stood up and recited poetry...maybe next year.

Everyone had pizza and icecream. We sang happy birthday to Tess. She opened her presents and thanked everyone without any prompting from us...I so love watching her grow.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The wait for 8 is nearly over

Our house has been a twitter with preparations for this weekend's birthday celebration. Tess has chosen the theme of "Fancy Girls" for this year. She's crafted handmade invitations. I'm not sure what my role in this one will be...Beth will let me know, as usual.
Yesterday, at the breakfast table, we brainstormed words that rhymed with "eight". This morning I tried my hand at a little birthday verse...

for my daughter, Tess, on her eighth birthday...
(first photo taken one year ago, the second a few weeks ago)

The Weight of 8

by Kevin Cahill

When you were 7 you couldn't wait,
you hated the wait for birthday 8.
The kitchen calendar you marked the date -
did I say "hate"?... I exaggerate!
Impatient at the rate Time did frustrate
you. But remember, that was then
you were but a wispy thing of seven,
though truth be told, seven was heaven.
7 served us art upon an empty slate
taped to the walls the things you did create.
But 7 glides away on slippery skates,

and in its wake a trail of figure 8s.
No, you didn't hate the wait for 8,
but at your bed while I would relate
tales of clever maids and secret gates,
in your unsleepy eyes I'd spy the trait
of dreaminess, late at night, dreams of 8.
How great it would be to wake up 8,
how you'd grow so tall and straight,
how you'd find a cookie on your plate,
and how you'd get to stay up late.
Now you're 8, and life is great,
even better than when you were 7.
Imagine how you'll feel when you're 11!
But let go all haste, simply enjoy 8,
Let Fate run on. Here with you I'll wait

and learn to bear the weight of 8.