Tech & Trust

We have moved into the Lucie Stern Theatre for our Four Immigrants Tech rehearsals! While reflecting on this phase of the rehearsal process, the word that keeps coming to mind is "trust." With the exception of some minor tweaks here and there, the script and score are set for this production. So now, one of my primary tasks is to trust the rest of the team to do what they do. Thankfully, the design and technical teams make that an easy task. Since I am not a particularly craft-y or tech-y person myself, I am continuously finding myself in awe of the theatre magic I am witnessing in the show's sets, props, costumes, sound, and projections. I know my show is in good hands, and I can't wait for the show to open with all of its storytelling elements in place!

My First Time in a TV News Studio!

Yesterday, I was invited to talk about The Four Immigrants on local station KPIX's Bay Sunday TV show. The segment will air tomorrow. Here are a few photos I was able to capture while I was there!

Posing with a vintage CBS television camera!

Posing with a vintage CBS television camera!

Beautiful view of the Bay Bridge from the Lobby.

Beautiful view of the Bay Bridge from the Lobby.

Interviewed by Roberta Gonzales.

Interviewed by Roberta Gonzales.

Another Quick Update on Four Immigrants

L-R: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan), and Fred (Sean Fenton). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

L-R: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan), and Fred (Sean Fenton). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Week 2 of rehearsals started off with a rough run-through of the show on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the cast, Leslie (director) and I went on a walking tour of Japantown, San Jose, which brought us all a bit closer to the history behind Henry Kiyama's comic story. Publicity photos have been released (as you can see above)! And as of yesterday, the entire show has been blocked! Now, it's time to review, tighten, and clean up what the actors have already learned, as well as make necessary changes to the script and score along the way. We have our work cut out for us, but everyone in the rehearsal room is a delight to work with! There's a real spirit of collaboration that is exactly what a new musical needs.

"We're Here!" Four Immigrants Rehearsals have begun!

The rehearsal room is set for The Four Immigrants! I don't have too much time for a full blog post, so I'll keep it short and sweet. Yesterday, we had a giant meet-and-greet with the cast, designers, and TheatreWorks staff and supporters. I was overwhelmed by how much excitement in the room to see this show on stage! Afterwards we dove right into music rehearsals and a cursory read-thru of the script. Today, we start by staging the opening number! It all feels a bit unreal that something that has only been performed in front of music stands will get a full production! I'll try to post more each week.

My Favorite Under-Appreciated Songs from Disney Animated Feature-Length Films By Decade (Part 3)

1990s: "I2I" from A Goofy Movie (1995)
Patrick DeRemer & Roy Freeland; Performed by Tevin Campbell


OK, for those of us who grew up watching A Goofy Movie, the immediate reaction might be "Under-appreciated?! I LOVE that song!" But have you ever met someone who's never seen A Goofy Movie, let alone seen it a thousand times? They just don't get it. But here's why I think it's so great. Not only is the song emblematic of mid-90s pop music with some amazing animated dance moves, it also serves as the climax of the film. Without giving away too many spoilers (because I know y'all wanna see it!), by the time this song occurs in the film, every plot point has been resolved except for one - one that gets addressed quite awesomely through the course of this number. And even though the song occurs diegetically, its lyrics accentuate the core relationship between Max and Goofy:

If we listen to each other's heart
We'll find we're never too far apart
And maybe love is the reason why
For the first time ever we're seein' it

Runner-up: "If I Never Knew You" from Pocahontas (1995)

2000s: "Little Patch of Heaven" from Home on the Range (2004)
Alan Menken & Glenn Slater; Performed by k.d. lang

A movie about cows voiced by Rosanne Barr, Jennifer Tilly, and DAME JUDI DENCH? Plus Cuba Gooding Jr., Steve Buscemi, and a yodeling Randy Quaid? How could it bomb? Oh-ho... did it ever. To the point where Home on the Range signaled the death knells for Disney's 2-D animation (save for the unsuccessful attempt to revive the practice with Princess and the Frog). I have to confess - I kinda like this film. It's so quirky and wacky, if you don't expect too much from it, it can actually be fun! But whatever your feelings about the film, it at least birthed this lovely gem of a country song performed by k.d. lang. I dare you to listen to this song and not smile or tap your toes. Glenn Slater's lyrics are so quaint yet visually evocative, aptly suited to Menken's playful melody:

Hummin' birds flutter
In utter contentment
Every darn daisy
Feels lazy, you bet
Even the skeeters an' the fleas
Say "May I," "Thanks" and "Please"
Why, it's just as close to perfect
As you can get

If you're ever in need of a song to lift your spirits, turn this sweet little ditty on!

Runner-up: "Great Spirits" from Brother Bear (2003)

2010s: "When Can I See You Again?" from Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)
Adam Young, Matt Thiessen, Brian Lee; Performed by Owl City

"Huh?" you ask. "There was a song in Wreck-It-Ralph?" You may have actually heard this end-credits song if you were able to catch the "Paint the Night" Parade during Disneyland's 60th anniversary celebration two years ago. With some minor lyrical changes and infused with the original Electrical Parade anthem, it served as the base music for that parade. I gotta admit, there's no strong dramaturgical reason why I like this song. I just think it's infectious and fun and always makes me want to move (it's in my Spotify workout playlist). The lyrics are a little nonsensical (or poetic?), but Owl City's electronic bubbly scoring is a great choice for a pop song from this film. Of course, the decade's not over, so who knows what's coming with the upcoming sequels to Wreck-It-Ralph and Frozen?

Runner-up: "Logo Te Pate" from Moana (2016)

Well, that was fun! Now it's time for me to head into rehearsals for Four Immigrants. But I'll keep thinking of more silly-fun blog ideas for the future.

My Favorite Under-Appreciated Songs from Disney Animated Feature-Length Films By Decade (Part 2)

1960s: "Sister Suffragette" from Mary Poppins (1964)
Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman; Performed by Glynis Johns

I had to stray from the animated films because the '60s brought us only three animated Disney films, none of the songs from which I felt were truly under-appreciated gems. So, I'll hop on over to the very slightly animated Mary Poppins. No one can deny that Mary Poppins is "practically perfect in every way" precisely because of its star Julie Andrews. However, we often forget that the charismatic Glynis Johns was also in the film. Her character unfortunately takes a backseat to David Tomlinson's Mr. Banks. In the film's first minutes, though, we are treated to a rousing call-to-arms for a woman's right to vote by the fervidly political Mrs. Banks. It's the only song that really delves into any sort of historical context for the film, and it does provide a reason for why Mrs. Banks is so preoccupied that she needs a nanny in the first place. I find the song stirring and Johns' performance so charismatic, it makes me want to be clapped in irons right alongside Mrs. Pankhurst!

Runner-up: "That's What Friends Are For" from The Jungle Book (1967)

1970s: "Someone's Waiting For You" from The Rescuers (1977)
Sammy Fain, Carol Connors & Ayn Robbins; Performed by Shelby Flint

Sadly the only entry in this list to feature female songwriters, this heart-breaking song occurs right when all hope seems lost for little Penny. It's an unassuming '70s pop ballad that simultaneously evokes faith and hopelessness. The encouraging lyrics are in direct contrast with Penny's dire on-screen situation:

Be brave little one
Make a wish for each sad little tear
Hold your head up though no one is near
Someone's waiting for you

The thing is, Penny is an orphan. So, there isn't anyone waiting for her. So, the song really drives home just how alone Penny is in the world. Also, cool cameo of Bambi and Bambi's mom during the sequence. Of course, those memories don't necessarily evoke happy thoughts either. Damn, this song is sad!

Runner-up: "Little Black Rain Cloud" from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

1980s: "Why Should I Worry?" from Oliver & Company (1988)
Dan Hartman & Charlie Midnight; Performed by Billy Joel

Before the so-called "Disney Renaissance" took off with The Little Mermaid in 1989, the oft-forgotten Oliver & Company was released. In this loose adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist, a Jack Russell terrier named Dodger (as in, "The Artful") takes over the screen with this infectious pop-rock New York-loving anthem. Who else to sing this song than Billy Joel? Through the song's lyrics, we understand Dodger's outlook on life (a precursor to the more popular "Hakuna Matata"); through the song's music, we understand that Dodger is just so cool! He even literally stops traffic by rallying all the dogs of New York to strut with him!

Runner-up: The rest of the soundtrack from Oliver & Company
I think Oliver & Company actually features some great songwriting. It's just a shame that the story itself isn't quite so compelling. But with moments like Better Midler's "Perfect Isn't Easy," or the touching tune of friendship "Good Company," the song list for the film is fun, varied, and contemporary.

Let me know your picks for under-appreciated Disney songs from the '60s, '70s, and '80s! My choices for the most recent decades will be revealed next week!

My Favorite Under-Appreciated Songs from Disney Animated Feature-Length Films By Decade (Part 1)

We've all tapped our toes to "The Bare Necessities" or covered our ears when "Let It Go" was playing, but there are some great gems of Disney songs that sadly have not received much popular attention - and not because they're bad songs! So, even though no one asked for it, here are my favorite under-appreciated Disney songs from (mostly) animated features by decade!

1930s: "With a Smile and a Song" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Frank Churchill & Larry Morey; Performed by Adriana Caselotti

It's no surprise that the song chosen from this decade would come from Disney's first feature-length animated film, because it was the only one released in the '30s. I enjoy its light-hearted melody and its laid-back pacing. It also serves an important function in the film. After facing death and rescue at the hand of the Huntsman and running through a terrifying forest, the young princess finds encouragement in a little bluebird's song. Through "With a Smile and a Song," she finds a renewed spirit, however vapid or trite it may seem to us. It's also, in my opinion, the only true moment of empowerment that Snow White finds for herself in the entire film:

There's no use in grumbling
When raindrops come tumbling,
Remember you're the one
Who can fill the world with sunshine

OK, it's no feminist manifesto. However, with those lines, the message of the song takes what could be a rather inane message and turns it into one where each individual is responsible for their own happiness. Not bad for someone who's about to break into a house belonging to strange men so she can clean for them...

Runner-up: "One Song" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

1940s: "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo (1941)
Oliver Wallace & Ned Washington; Performed by Mel Blanc, Thurl Ravenscroft, and The Sportsmen

The '40s brought a string of Disney films consisting of unrelated animated segments that showcased movie magic that only animation could accomplish. Some of this was art-driven (as in the case of Fantasia), and some of it was created as a result of World War II budget-constraints (as in Make Mine Music). In Dumbo, however, we get a particularly noteworthy segment of experimental animation that is incorporated into the larger story plot - however weakly. In "Pink Elephants on Parade," Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse inadvertently guzzle down alcohol which has some incongruously psychedelic effects. The sequence is bizarre and amazing. The song that accompanies it is odd yet catchy. The jaunty beat belies a more menacing presence with the score's minor chords and foreboding lyrics:

Look out! Look out!
Pink Elephants on Parade!
Here they come!
Hippity Hoppity!
They're here and there!
Pink Elephants everywhere!

The song is terrifying for no apparent reason, except perhaps to warn young ones about the dangerous effects of alcohol? The song is featured in Fantasmic, but I still feel like it doesn't get as much attention as it deserves.

Runner-up: "The Three Caballeros" from The Three Caballeros (1944)

1950s: "Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale" from Cinderella (1950)
Mack David, Jerry Livingston & Al Hoffman; Performed by Ilene Woods and Rhoda Williams

Cinderella is probably my favorite classic Disney film (read: pre-Little Mermaid era). And there are some amazing songs that are not only well-written, but well-woven into the story. At first glance, "Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale" seems to feel like a random diversion from the story. I would argue, however, that it is actually one of the more moving sequences in the film. First, we hear Drusilla rehearsing the song accompanied by Anastasia's flute. Their cat Lucifer can't stand the noise, so he steps outside only to find that Cinderella is also singing the song while scrubbing the floor. Of course, she sings it beautifully, and soon we see multiple reflections of Cinderella in floating bubbles, and hear four-part harmony (all voiced by Ilene Woods). What I love about this song, beyond its wistful melody and moody harmonies, is it unveils something of Cinderella's emotional state without being too on-the-nose about it. The singing is sad and yet somehow resolute. It is as if Cinderella knows that there is no way out of her "bubble," so she does the best she can and sings herself through it -- a far more poetic version of "Whistle While You Work." And this beautiful moment signals the end of the film's first act, because there's about to be a knock at the door -- a messenger bringing news of a ball at the palace.

Runner-up: "All in the Golden Afternoon" from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Let me know what your favorite under-appreciated Disney songs from the '30s, '40s, and '50s are! I'll share my picks for the '60s, '70s and '80s next week!

A Turn-of-the-20th-Century Kind of Guy

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Robert Delaunay

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Robert Delaunay

I've written before about how I'm trying to listen to music that I actually enjoy. I've been noticing a trend when it comes to listening to classical music. My heart seems to respond the most to pieces that were written around the transition into the 1900s. And these can be by composers who range from the tail end of the classical period, to the thick of the romantic period, to the first half of 20th century music: Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Copland, and even Joplin's ragtime music leading us into early jazz, and the likes of Kurt Weill and Cole Porter in musical theatre.

I'm trying to put my finger on what exactly stirs me up about these works. I think it's because from the Romantic period onward, deep emotion and self-expression became strongly appreciated in composition. Composers began to break from the conventions of the classical era, all the while utilizing all the "tricks of the trade" to create works that were at times epic and sweeping, at others solemn and introspective. Programmatic music became really popular at this time as well, with composers painting scenes or telling stories through their music - Beethoven's 6th and Stravinsky's Firebird come to mind. This emphasis on emotion carried on into the 20th century world of Expressionism, though I often feel a bit emotionally alienated by the exploration of atonality by Schoenberg and others. And while I appreciate a lot of the deconstructive work of late 20th century composers, I often find that I don't necessarily want to sit and listen to their work.

Not sure if Fantasia 2000 ruined or revitalized Respighi's Pines of Rome for me...

Not sure if Fantasia 2000 ruined or revitalized Respighi's Pines of Rome for me...

Now, I'm NOT a musicologist. There are probably all sorts of exceptions to everything I wrote above. And, of course, emotion and self-expression have continued to be a compositional value to this day (just listen to film scores!). But there's this turn-of-the-twentieth sweet spot for me; I really identify with what the major composers were trying to accomplish. They were using the existing musical sensibilities and conventions of their day to capture listener's hearts. What could be more musical theatre than that?

Thoughts on Diversity in Broadway Musical Storytelling

Travelers on diverted planes in the wake of 9/11 find themselves in and around the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

In an attempt to fit in, a high schooler tells a lie that gets completely out of control.

A zoom lens is taken to a section of Tolstoy's War and Peace as we follow the romantic story of two outsiders who find each other.

A weatherman is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

These are very roughly (very, very roughly, since I haven't seen any of them!) the plots of the four Best Musical Tony 2017 nominees, which are also the four nominated for Best Original Score and Best Book: Come From AwayDear Evan HansenNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; and Groundhog Day. I love how different these stories are from each other. It's evidence that musical theatre as an art form has really branched out beyond any particular template of storytelling. And it has been like this for a few years now. Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Grey Gardens, Fun Home, Hamilton, Waitress - the subject matter of contemporary musicals is so varied from show to show — even on Broadway, which can often be seen as a purely commercial venture with great potential to fall victim to cookie-cutter producing. This trend is heartening to me, because it shows that commercialism need not win over storytelling. Or even, that good and diverse storytelling can lead to commercial success on Broadway. Something that doesn't seem to ring true for Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet, amidst this diversity of stories is something worth noting: All of the musical theatre writing teams (and even the directors) of the four musicals listed above are white. Of course, I acknowledge that "white" is a largely diverse group in and of itself. The writers come from different countries, and undoubtedly bring different perspectives to musical theatre. But if you look over the Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lyrics Tony nominees over the past twenty years, you'll see that writing acclaimed musical theatre is a very white thing to do (and more often than not, white male). Writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stew are the exceptions, not the norm. And as an Asian American, it's not particularly encouraging that the few times that Asian Americans are heavily featured during the Tony Awards ceremony is due to revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and, this year, Miss Saigon - all stories written by white men. (For the record, I view those shows as simultaneously beneficial for Asian American actors in the industry AND problematic for the perception of Asian Americans in musical theatre as a whole.)

I don't write this to place blame. Or to inflict guilt. The point is observation. All but two of the actors and actresses nominated for performances in a musical this year are white. Who gets to write the stories affects who is represented on the Broadway stage. Who gets to write the stories influences the kinds of stories that get told. I don't necessarily have any magical solutions to this problem, other than to buckle down and write, compose, get better at my craft, learn from other musicals, collaborate with amazing people, and keep advocating for diversity in storytellers as much as diversity in storytelling. Maybe I'll make it to Broadway, maybe I won't. But I hope that no matter where my work gets performed, I'm tilting that dial of representation to better reflect the actual diversity in the US.

The Joy of Listening

Because I was a Music Major, I put a lot of pressure on myself to "be on top of" music. I have lists of music (ranging from classical to jazz to musical theatre to pop to film score) I SHOULD listen to -- and not just listen to, but analyze and form intelligent thoughts about. "Maybe I'll rent a score from Cal's Music Library and map out a symphony's harmonic structure! For fun," I tell myself. But the inevitable result is that I feel defeated and then don't want to listen to anything.

Recently, I listened to Michael Ian Black's podcast "How To Be Amazing" and someone was talking about the best way to experience an art museum. Instead of trying to see everything in a museum, a more enjoyable experience is to realize the amount of time you have and focus on a few select exhibits appropriate to that amount of time. Of course, a moment of discovery might occur that takes you off your path, but going into the museum with the goal of seeing everything is a fool's errand. Sure, you may see everything by the end, but will you actually have enjoyed the experience? I've found that by around the two-hour mark in a museum, my mind is completely shot -- and I haven't even seen half of what's on display! Why not select the things that I think I might actually be interested in?

So, I'm trying to approach listening to music this way. Try to listen to things I might actually enjoy. And if I don't enjoy it, that's OK. Move on. And of course, stay open to surprise discoveries. This is a far cry from feeling like I need to put myself through self-inflicted grad school. I believed the lie that I had to academically analyze every piece of music I listened to. And by doing so, I sucked the joy out of listening to music entirely.

Last week, I started listening to Stravinsky, because I remember that I enjoyed his work in college. And I've found, I indeed enjoy his work today! This guy is dope and a little cray! I don't have his scores in front of me, and I'm not going to write an essay about what makes his music so great (other than to say he's dope and a little cray). I just ENJOY it, and I'm trusting that somehow I'm unconsciously picking up on why. Maybe one day I'll dig deeper, but again, the motivation should be because I actually enjoy doing so - not because I feel like I have to please the Asian academic gods in my head.

Musicals can be Civic Service too!

What hazards await in this beautiful city?

What hazards await in this beautiful city?

Last year, I was commissioned by the San Francisco Unified School District to create a musical that would teach fifth graders who were transitioning to middle school how to get to school safely on their own. I took on the gig for practical reasons: 1) After living in the world of The Four Immigrants, it would be a nice change to write some contemporary pop music, 2) I wanted to gain more experience creating my own accompaniment tracks in Logic, and 3) It was a writing gig that paid well! It wasn't going to be a passion project, but something that I could grow and learn from at least.

A city rife with danger around every corner.

A city rife with danger around every corner.

However, as I started to write the show - now titled Step Up Crew, it hit me that the topic of "traffic safety," as boring and bureaucratic as it sounds, is actually a very worthwhile cause to write a musical. In thinking back to school assemblies I watched while growing up, I realized that I have retained some of the knowledge gained from those presentations. "Evaporation, Condensation, Precipitation!" and how the nervous system transmits a signal from your hand touching a hot stove to your brain and back again. I now look back and see that those creative, interactive, and musical assemblies were probably made by someone like me. A playwright or artist who followed educational guidelines to create a theatre piece, never actually knowing the impact they were having on kids' lives.

Step Up Crew is not going to move people to tears or make them re-examine their preconceived notions about existence. It might, however, remind kids how to stay safe while getting to school. Perhaps a child will remember bus etiquette and become a better citizen for it. Perhaps a child will remember how to cross the street safely and won't get hurt. I don't want to over-dramatize the impact the show could have, but thinking about Step Up Crew in this way brings a little more heart and a little more meaning to the project than before.

Creativity Quotation #17

“If you cry at the end of a book, it’s not necessarily because you think it’s true. It’s because the illusion is so gorgeous that you can believe in it. And to me that’s what’s interesting about fiction. That’s what’s beautiful about fiction. I think that’s why people keep reading.” — Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Author.

Starting is the hardest part

I was feeling some stress in anticipation of my primary work task this week: revise the piano score for Four Immigrants. The show is getting a developmental reading next week, and I also need to hand off all of the music to my orchestrator. Just before the weekend, I made sure to plan out my week as best as I could so that I had plenty of time to focus on this task. I was gearing up as if this were going to be a challenging and grueling undertaking.

Hello again, Old Friend...

Hello again, Old Friend...

Since starting on Monday, though, I have found that jumping back into the score, while definitely challenging, isn't all that grueling. It's actually fun. For the past two days, I found myself in a focused flow that's engaging and enjoyable. This is often the case. My stress rises before I have to begin a task, but once the task has begun, the work is surprisingly not stressful.

I think planning my schedule ahead of time is a big part of this. The fact that I gave myself the time to focus on the task meant that flow could happen. But there’s something to be said for how I can make a mountain out of a molehill. Sure the molehill is work, and can be difficult. But the molehill is also something I get to create as a writer. The molehill is my craft, my art. It enlivens me.

Posted on April 12, 2017 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Writing.

Weekly Blog Challenge

For years now, I've been telling myself that I want to write more on my blog. I think I'm finally going to commit to it. Committing to writing something every day will be difficult for me, so instead, I'm thinking I can commit to every week. It might be random thoughts, a review of a book or movie, it could be a short play, or even (gasp!) some poetry if I dare. I think I need to get myself into the practice of writing out my thoughts as an exercise. It might seem like that's what I do as a playwright anyway, but there are often weeks when I'm not actively writing -- I'm researching, I'm scoring, I'm recording, etc. It all depends on where I am with the life of any given project I'm working on. So, here is my first weekly blog post, short as it may be. I've started. Hopefully, I'll write something else on Monday next week! (Or maybe I should give myself until Tuesday realistically... stay tuned...)

Posted on April 3, 2017 and filed under Creative, Thought, Writing.

Story Explorers: A Post-Production Reflection

When people would ask me prior to the opening of Story Explorers what creating theatre for autistic children looks like, I would lay out specific elements: emphasis on sensory experience, less reliance on verbal storytelling, more reliance on moments and patterns, inviting and non-constrictive seating, loose script and song structure that allows for interaction, etc. Now that the show has closed, I believe all of these elements can be encapsulated into two words: openness and flexibility.

Creating a theatre experience where autistic children and their families felt welcomed meant letting pre-conceived ideas about theatre get challenged and revised. It meant creating space for ticks, interruptions, outbursts; for runners, dancers, sing-alongers; for kids who loudly and unabashedly share their opinions about the show mid-performance. It meant making it easy for parents to exit the space if needed without feeling like hundreds of eyes were watching them. It meant structuring the show in such a way that if a moment really connected with a kid, we can linger there just a bit longer than rehearsed.

Me, as Clayton - who loves to play with clay and pretend it's different things!

Me, as Clayton - who loves to play with clay and pretend it's different things!

In order to accomplish all of this, it was paramount that we assemble a team of actors who worked well with children, who could improvise and think on their toes, and who were open to a collaborative and often amorphous creative process. In short, we needed actors who were also teachers. Director Hannah Dworkin and I both decided early on that it made sense for us to be two of the performers, since the knowledge we had gained from the research and in-classroom workshops for the show seemed inextricable from the final performance. This didn't feel like a show to "hand-off" to actors. We found excellent collaborators in Anna Smith, André San-Chez, and Austin Zumbro, each of whom contributed ideas, talents and hard work to bring the show to fruition. We also had a ton of fun, playing and joking around along the way - another form of being open and flexible with each other!

Even though there was a script, we all understood that the show could change depending on the moment. If a child vocalized or spoke, we responded or repeated back what we heard. If a child seemed keen to help us perform part of the show, we invited them to the stage area and encouraged them to do so. If a child backed away from us, we respected their space and didn't insist on interaction.

One particularly memorable exchange I had was with a boy who made it very clear at the beginning of the show that he would provide his unfiltered commentary throughout. For example, of Sharky, the Story Shark, he declared "That's not a shark! That's a stuffed animal!" One of my tasks in Story Explorers was to float an inflatable astronaut around the room during our outer space sequence, asking kids to high-five it, which would result in a "Whoosh!" and the astronaut floating away. When I asked this boy to high-five the astronaut, he said, with a rather serious expression on his face, "I'd rather high-five one ounce of atmosphere." So, I pinched my fingers in the air, as if I had grabbed a speck of dust, and held my hand out to the boy. "Here," I said, "One ounce of atmosphere." I knew I had successfully made contact when a small smile crept onto his face. He high-fived my pinched fingers, and I released the ounce of atmosphere back into the... well, atmosphere.

This is just one of the many magical encounters we all experienced throughout the run. These moments would not exist if we were insistent on keeping the show running on one track every single time. Because the actors had practiced openness and flexibility with each other during rehearsals, everything flowed quite well when needing to practice it with our audiences. A visible transformation would occur where parents - who at the beginning of the show would be tense and concerned with monitoring their kid - would discover that they could relax a bit, and that their kid's behaviors were neither shocking nor disruptive in this theatrical space, but rather accepted and incorporated into the show experience. I think the cast (and our stage/house manager Chris!) would agree that performing Story Explorers often left us speechless and moved.

Of course, this does not mean that we got everything right. Being open includes the strong possibility of getting things wrong, which is why we are conducting post-show surveys and encouraging our audiences to get in touch with us and tell us what they thought about the show. We want to make sure that we stay connected to the community we're reaching out to, instead of simply patting ourselves on our backs without a second thought.

The journey of Story Explorers isn't over - we are looking at future opportunities for the work, possibly turning it into a local touring show. Personally, I want to carry what I've learned from the experience about openness and flexibility into my other work. As a writer (indeed, as a human being), I can fall into the trap of rigidity, whether it's having a narrow viewpoint or only wanting things to be executed my way. While there's something to be said for asserting oneself and one's boundaries, there is also great value in balancing that with an open spirit, one that can loosely grip instead of clutch; one that can have intense, critical dialogue without it turning into a fight about who's right. I also want to see my life as full of open possibilities rather than merely consisting of set tasks and goals. As Shades, one of the characters in Story Explorers, raucously tells us:

"Your life is your own story,
A story to explore,
Your life is your own story,
A story no one's ever heard before,
Now you can tell your story,
A story to explore,
Yeah, you can tell your story,
A story no one's ever heard before!"

Story Explorers: Meet Sharky, the Story Shark!

Rehearsals for Story Explorers have begun, and for the past two weeks, we've been able to visit special needs classrooms to try out elements from the show. We've been getting positive responses from the students and teachers, as well as helpful feedback as we continue to craft the work together.

Sharky with actor Austin Zumbro.

Sharky with actor Austin Zumbro.

One element of Story Explorers we are really excited about is Sharky, the Story Shark! Sharky is a soft, friendly puppet who serves many different functions in the show. First, Sharky is a sort of buffer between the children and actors, in case the human-to-human interaction proves undesirable. Sharky straddles that line between person and object, which can be more inviting for a child with autism. He was intentionally constructed with a singular facial expression, so there would be no need to read emotional or social cues. Sharky also verbalizes in a nonsense "shark language," sending the signal that in our theatre space, everyone can communicate in their own way, without needing to follow the norms of verbal language.

Every interactive element in the show is offered to Sharky as well as the kids, turning the puppet into a sort of example or guinea pig. If a kid is feeling uncertain about a moment in the show - say, playing with clay - they might look over and notice that Sharky seems OK touching the clay and decide they will as well. Sharky is also very huggable and pettable. Lots of kids enjoyed interacting with Sharky in our classroom visits. In a few classes, they also immediately called out his name "Sharky!" when they saw him enter the room - which made me think I named him well.

Posted on February 3, 2017 and filed under Creative, Performing Arts, Research.

Never Doubt

Artmakers and storytellers - write books, draw comics, paint paintings, do stand-up, code video games, make movies, become a YouTube sensation, craft poetry, animate short-films, make documentaries, design fashion, sing original songs, choreograph a number, create theatre!

Make us laugh. Help us grieve, heal, and breathe. Challenge our notions. Engage us in social dialogue. Teach us to be kind and empathetic. Remind us who we are. Show us who we can be.

Let's keep inundating our culture with our varying narratives and perspectives. We're playing a cultural long-game here - centuries in the making. We can be influencing tomorrow's voters in profound ways today. There are short-term horrors to be concerned and grappled with to be sure, but never doubt the power of your craft to shape the country in the long-run.

(Oh, and do drag! Lots and lots of drag!)


I posted this on my Facebook timeline on November 9th, 2016.

Posted on November 15, 2016 and filed under Creative, Performing Arts, Thought, Writing.