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!)

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

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

A Dramatic Dream

I just had the most dramatic dream I've had in a long time:

I was a guest artist at a theatre conference for young actors put on by a group called CTE - Children's Theatrical Entertainment (any resemblance between this dream organization and an existing entity is purely coincidental). We were in a long hall filled with tables of about 6-8 young actors, ranging from ages 10-22. Each guest artist was assigned to a table, and was to facilitate a discussion and answer questions about career paths in theatre.

One kid at my table had done quite well for himself. He shared how excited he was that he was now going on a national tour of a show, after having done the Broadway run. I encouraged him to keep working hard, being disciplined, yada yada yada, the stuff you say to the kids who don't really need much advice. It is interesting to note that this kid was Asian, so there was some pride in seeing that he was doing well for himself.

Then another kid spoke - a scrawny, white, gay dancer-type, who looked very despondent. He asked me "Should I just give up?" He went on to explain that after what felt like years of "putting in the time," things didn't seem to pan out for him beyond community theatre gigs. He said he was in one Broadway show, but afterwards, nothing seemed to work out for him.

I started to give him the typical talk of "sticking with it," and "getting your name out there," but then I thought of something else to tell him. I decided that it would actually apply to the entire hall, so I stood up and addressed everyone.

"I have something to say that I think will apply to everyone here..."

"STOP!" came a yell at a nearby table. It was a scowling man, perhaps only a few years older than me, who was a facilitator as well. "Don't say another word!"

I walked over to the man. "Do you even know what I was going to say?"

"Yes, I can take a guess."

"I think it's something that needs to be said."

"No, you were supposed to focus on your table, not the whole group."

"Are you serious? What is your problem?"

In an odd moment of honesty, the man replied "I'm CTE's bitch," which - because it was a dream - I knew meant that there were some strict organizational rules that this man felt compelled to enforce. The poor guy also looked completely miserable.

My response was straight out of a Hollywood speech: "Instead of just being their bitch, why don't you let them know how miserable you are and that your misery is spreading to all of these young minds who you're actually supposed to be helping?!"

He only scowled back, and then smiled this menacing "You have no idea what you're talking about - just wait a few more years" smile.

I angrily walked back to my table and addressed the scrawny kid again.

"OK, here's something else you need to do..."

The kid had his pen at the ready to write down this paramount piece of advice.

"HAVE FUN," I said.

The kid laughed - his face no longer seriously sullen.

"Have fun! You didn't become a theatre artist to be miserable, right? So don't let anything suck the FUN out of it!"

He wrote down the advice and smiled at me.

Then I woke up.

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I posted this on my Facebook timeline on August 23rd, 2016.

Posted on September 8, 2016 and filed under Career, Creative, Performing Arts, Thought.

My Day with Oily Cart

Oily Cart's tour van. What a great motto!

Oily Cart's tour van. What a great motto!

Last month, while in London, I had the privilege of visiting with Oily Cart Theatre, one of the few companies dedicated to creating productions for young audiences living with special needs. Specifically, Oily Cart focuses on children with autism spectrum condition (ASC) and/or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). While developing Story Explorers, I knew it would be paramount to visit with and learn from an organization that is already doing the work - and Oily Cart has been creating this work for over 30 years.

My day started with Oily Cart's Artistic Director Tim Webb picking me up from my hotel and driving me out to South Ockenden where we would watch performances of Light Show, the company's latest offering. On the way (to and from), I was able to barrage Tim with question after question about what goes into the creative process for sensory-friendly work. He was very patient in answering all of my questions and adding insight that I would never have considered.

The very awesome audience seating set-up.

The very awesome audience seating set-up.

The performances of Light Show were captivating and eye-opening. The artistic concept of the piece was paper, so everything from the set to the seats to the costumes to the props were made to look like white sheets of paper. The three actors - Plane, Fan and Hat - were all objects that could be made from paper. The story of the show was a day at the beach, and was sectioned into different moments about the beach. Each moment centered around a brightly colored object. Orange heated pads were brought out to simulate the heat of the sun. Then came sun tan lotion in bright orange containers. There was also a segment with a large, elegant silver and blue raincloud, followed by a mischievous purple raincloud that sprayed water at the audience. The show featured original music accompanied by a double bass. Each song was thoughtfully composed, but remained lyrically simple enough for all of the children to follow.

One of the paper-themed costumes. This was actually their stage manager!

One of the paper-themed costumes. This was actually their stage manager!

It's difficult to capture in words what the experience of watching Light Show was like. And perhaps that's the point. The work that Oily Cart does is to create theatre that does not rely on verbal language or abstract concepts which must be followed in order to be enjoyed. While there is a structure to the show, the audience doesn't necessarily need to track a protagonist's emotional or social journey, nor is there a pressure for audiences to "understand the plot."  Light Show put more emphasis on moment-by-moment experiences than on laying out a linear storyline. Each performer is trained to respond in the moment to a child's reactions. Tim described it as a "grand communication system," where the actors are hoping to connect with each audience member in a language that makes sense to them - be it lights & color, music & sound, the feeling of suntan lotion on the skin or drops of water on the face.

This doesn't cover half of what I learned from my visit with Oily Cart, and unfortunately, I didn't snap any photos during the show, because I wanted to take in the show live as much as possible. But suffice it to say, I came away from that visit feeling more equipped and prepared to venture into my first sensory-friendly work. I'm excited to think through ways to tell stories that my neurotypical brain doesn't often consider. I can't wait to explore and develop and learn more and be corrected. I am entirely indebted to Mr. Webb, their wonderful touring company, and all of Oily Cart for allowing me to be a fly-on-the-wall, and to witness one of their magical productions.

Calafía Begins

In December 2013, I learned that the State of California was probably named after a mythical Island of California which appears in 15th and 16th century Spanish lore. In the most popular story by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, the island is occupied by an Amazon-like race of dark-skinned, warrior women whose queen is Calafía. I found myself fascinated by this fictional woman - the leader of her female-only tribe. I was fascinated that someone who was both a woman and a woman of color was presented in such a mighty, awe-inspiring, and typically masculine way.

Unfortunately, the story of Calafía doesn't end the way I would like. She converts to Christianity in the end and marries a man, ultimately showing that the ways of the Lord can subdue even the most brutish of savages. No. Thank. You.

Fortunately, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo himself gives me a way around. The backdrop of Calafía's story is the battle for Constantinople between the Byzantines and the Ottomans in the 1400's. History tells us that the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines in 1453 and took back this important city. However, in Montalvo's story, it is the Byzantines who are victorious. Read: it is the Christians who defeat the Muslims in his version.

I figure, if Montalvo thought it fit to change history in order to suit his storytelling desires, then I don't particularly feel the need to stay absolutely true to his story. Read: In my adaptation of Calafía, she will not be submitting to a man or converting to Christianity. I actually don't yet know what Calafía will be doing in my adaptation. But one thing I do know: I want the show to feature a "wall of women" as its primary musical source.

So what does that mean? A month ago, I had only vague notions. But in May 2016, I invited eight incredible female actors to join me for what I called a "voice and sound exploration workshop." Thanks to support from the Playwrights Foundation, I was able to get time and space to conduct the workshop. Since this will be a story about a race of isolated women who never actually existed, I was intrigued by how to find sounds that were simultaneously primal and other-worldly.

califia2.jpg

We often typify women's voices as higher-pitched, softer and sweeter. But women's voices are so much more dynamic than we give them credit for. Sure they can soothe, squeal and scream, but they can also shriek, groan, grunt, moan, command and overpower. And let me tell you, these actors did not hold back in exploring all of these sounds unabashedly and freely. I found myself utterly speechless at moments as I beheld what the eight of them could bring out from within them. I am utterly thankful to these colleagues for being willing to experiment, be vulnerable and weird, and to let me listen to them for three hours.

I'm not entirely sure what this all means for the next steps of Calafía. I only know that I've now taken a huge creative step forward by having this sound workshop. Calafía is officially my next musical theatre project.

Zootopia and Research

A fascinating look at the research that went into Zootopia. I'm inspired to continue my research for Story Explorers and Calafía, remembering that so much of writing actually happens before writing!

Posted on May 26, 2016 and filed under Research.

A Letter from the Kiyamas!

Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to the descendants of Henry Kiyama (author of The Four Immigrants Manga) introducing myself and expressing my gratitude for letting me adapt Henry's work for the stage.

And they wrote back! (Translated by Frederik L. Schodt)

"We are very grateful to what Min-san is doing, and wish him success in his project.  We are sure that Yoshitaka's life in America, and the history of Japanese immigrants, are not easy to turn into a musical. But we are very honored that he appreciates Yoshitaka as an artist, and we
would love to meet him and thank him sometime. We cannot speak English, unfortunately, but we would still love to see the Four Immigrants Manga musical some day.  Please convey our appreciation to him."

I am very honored to have heard from them and to receive their blessing for this project!

They also sent me some Four Immigrants merchandise used to help promote Kiyama's hometown of Neu!

They also sent me some Four Immigrants merchandise used to help promote Kiyama's hometown of Neu!

Cookie of Creativity

Thich Nhat Hanh shares in his book Peace Is Every Step about a memory from his childhood when his mother would bring him a cookie, and he would eat it with joy and in peace. "I did not think of the future, I did not regret the past," he writes. Eating the cookie was a truly serene moment for Hanh, and one he channels now as an adult when he eats.

After reading this, I've tried to think about an equivalent memory from childhood when I was so attuned to the present moment; a time when I so enjoyed what I was doing that I was freed up from worry. I realized that for me, these were moments of creative work.

Once, in high school, over a three-day weekend, I created a stop-motion animation film set to the song "Zero to Hero" from the Disney movie Hercules. No one told me to do it. There was no deadline I was trying to reach. I simply conjured the idea up in my head, set up the camera and figurines, and did it! This happened a lot when I was a kid, whether it was making comic books or the guide map to my made-up waterslide park or recording songs I had written. I would have surges of creativity initiated from within, when I just needed to make something and my mind would enter a sort of zen-zone, flowing and engrossed in the project.

The heretofore mentioned stop-motion animated film.

As an adult, I often find it hard to enter into that zone. There are a lot more "grown-up" things like logic, deadlines and social obligations that need tending to. But remembering my childhood bursts of creativity helps me feel more motivated to get going on my projects. Hopefully, when I'm in the midst of a rewrite or drowning in books for research, I can channel the "cookie of my childhood" and find that place of joy and freedom once more.

Posted on April 27, 2016 and filed under Creative, Influences, Thought.

Orientalism & The Mikado

EVEN MORE RECENT UPDATE: Brad Erickson, Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area, wrote an excellent follow-up article after watching Lamplighters' The New Mikado. I just happened to be in the audience with him on the same day, and I echo his sentiments in the article.

MORE RECENT UPDATE: Lamplighters has announced that its production of The Mikado will be recontextualized in Italy. This decision does not come without its naysayers, but I feel it is a creative solution that is worth a try.

UPDATE: Lamplighters has shared an apology and their plans to produce a significantly revised version of The Mikado. I'm looking forward to what this yields.

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Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company has recently shared an open letter about an upcoming production of The Mikado at Lamplighters Music Theatre. You can read and sign the letter here. The following is something I posted on Facebook, detailing my thoughts on orientalism in the Gilbert & Sullivan work.

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My two cents (or three, or four): Gilbert & Sullivan's score for The Mikado has its moments of brilliance. I can hear why people love the music, because it indeed soars at times, titillates at others. But all that lovely music cannot mask the orientalism of the work - the portrayal of Japan as other, or "queer and quaint" as the lyrics themselves attest. And perhaps in 1885, Japanese-ness was other, new, novel to Great Britain. But more than a century later, in today's America, I don't think it makes much sense to continue grasping onto the show without questioning its construction and sentiments.

Producers of the work often argue that The Mikado is not about the Japanese; it is a satire about the British. But that's exactly the problem. By claiming The Mikado is not about the Japanese, they may as well be saying "Your culture is just the set dressing for our story." On our stages and screens, Asian cultures are often relegated to the background or not considered with sensitivity at all. Yellow-face is still performed without a second thought.

But regardless of how one chooses to set or direct the piece, you can't look at the TEXT of The Mikado and say it's NOT about the Japanese - or at least about a 19th-century (read: outdated) perception of the Japanese. The opening lyrics of the work are "If you want to know who we are / we are gentlemen of Japan" (Now imagine a group of white men dressed in kimonos singing it loudly and proudly). You can't take a line like "You forget that in Japan girls do not arrive at years of discretion until they are fifty" and say that it is not making an oft stereotypical observation about Japanese (and other Asian) women. You can't hear names like "Yum-Yum," "Nanki-Poo" and "Peep-Bo" and pretend like they aren't meant to mimic and mock Asian names, even if they are based in English phrases of the day.

Press Photo from Lamplighters' 2008 production of The Mikado.

Press Photo from Lamplighters' 2008 production of The Mikado.

Another argument for the work is that Japanese people aren't offended by it. Indeed, a group of Japanese actors once even performed the piece in the UK. While that makes for an interesting and complicated tangent, it is not germaine to a discussion about The Mikado's history of racial re/presentation in the USA. Yes, perhaps a Japanese person might attend a production of The Mikado and think it's silly and not that big of a deal. But that same production for many Asian Americans is loaded with a history of being pushed into an "other" by our society.

After some back-and-forth with Ferocious Lotus, Lamplighters has now announced that they are re-setting the show in England. As a lover of dramaturgy, I can't see how this will work. I can't see how they will ignore ALL references to Japan - whether textually or musically - without severely splicing up the show. The very title "The Mikado" is an archaic term used by the British to refer to the Japanese Emperor. This choice of re-setting leaves me curious.

I would be interested to see how audiences react to a Mikado that has been "de-Japanified." Would they find it just as charming, masterful, delightful? Or could it be that the very thing audiences cling to so fiercely about The Mikado is its "queer and quaint" orientalism?

Posted on March 29, 2016 .

Story Explorers: Being Open to Openness

Now that the in-class sessions for Story Explorers are over, I have the task of taking the stories and artwork generated by each class and transferring them into a new theatre piece. What exactly that means is entirely nebulous, which is both a wonderful and terrifying thing. Before I even attempt to put anything onto the page, I’ve entered into “research mode” for the work, soaking in stories and perspectives from as many sources as possible. Recently, I was able to watch two eye-opening films that got my mind and imagination churning. This blog post is about the first. I’ll share about the other film in a future post.
 

BECOMING BULLETPROOF

This documentary follows the film-making process of Zeno Mountain Farm, a non-profit organization that hosts camps for people with and without disabilities. Their LA camp offers a unique film-making session during which camp participants star in a fully-produced film. For most of the participants, their disabilities mean they won't be accepted into mainstream Hollywood fare. Zeno offers them a chance to live out their movie star dreams.

Becoming Bulletproof walks us through the entire process from actors’ acceptance into the camp to casting to filming and, finally, to the movie premiere of Bulletproof Jackson, a classic-style Western. Along the way, we see the struggles that go into any film-making process as well as the unique challenges that come from working with a cast comprised of folks with a variety of disabilities. The documentary does an excellent job of showing the huge heart and dedication of both the production team and the cast as they work hard to make the film a reality.

Through this documentary, I observed that the process of creating film (or theatre or any performing arts, for that matter) with a cast of disabled players isn’t necessarily all that different from working with those who are labelled “able.” Every actor has their particular difficulties to work through in their craft. Some thespians are hopelessly tone-deaf. Some singers can’t dance to save their lives. Some dancers aren’t able to emote in the same way an actor can. And yet, we don’t think of these performers as disabled. They simply have a particular skill set in which they excel.

What I saw while watching Becoming Bulletproof was individuals working with their disabilities with the help of a very open-minded production team. In a wheelchair? They will make it work with the character you play. Having trouble with verbal clarity? They will hone in on your emotive facial expressions. Not able to recall your lines well? They will modify the lines in the script without compromising the story or switching you out for another actor.

These kinds of decisions require an open mind and heart as well as a deep respect for the dignity of each person in the room. It got me thinking that maybe some of the “rules” of theatre that I operate by are actually just “norms” that can be revised or redacted as needed. I need to enter into the creation process for Story Explorers, and indeed every play I write, with a similar openness to the Zeno film camp. My goal may be a little different with Story Explorers: we’re creating a sensory-friendly work for children with autism and other behavioral/cognitive needs to enjoy with their families as audience members. However, there is something about how Zeno Mountain Farm goes about its creative process that I want to channel as I continue my development of Story Explorers.

Learn more about Becoming Bulletproof.

Creativity Quotation #13

"This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don't. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete." - Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Posted on February 9, 2016 and filed under Creative, Writing, Thought.

Adapting Bad Kitty On Stage

I was recently interviewed for the Bay Area Children's Theatre Blog about the work of adapting Bad Kitty On Stage. You can read the post here!

(FYI - I'm the Marketing Manager for Bay Area Children's Theatre, and am in charge of posting things on their blog. I mention this because it looks like I wrote the entire thing myself, but I promise that I only copied and pasted it into the blog! ^_^)

Story Explorers: Freedom of Expression

The in-class sessions of Story Explorers finished up this past week. Teaching artist Hannah Dworkin has spent the last twelve weeks helping the kids delve into their imaginations and tell stories, which will then serve as the springboard for a new musical I will write for Bay Area Children's Theatre. I was fortunate to be able to join her for four of these classroom visits - the first two in September and the final two in December. After my eight-week absence, I was certain the kids had forgotten who I was and that I would have to re-introduce myself. Instead, I was greeted with hugs and a few "Where were you? We missed you!"

During the last two visits, Hannah had the children use visual arts to inspire stories. The kids were invited to use crayons, watercolors, clay, and even puppets, and to let their imaginations run wild. When their art projects were complete, we asked them questions about what they had made, encouraging them to create stories from their work. Here are just a couple of examples:

"Light Knight" clay sculpture by Angel

"Light Knight" clay sculpture by Angel

"Black Knight" clay sculpture by Angel

"Black Knight" clay sculpture by Angel

Stunning watercolor and crayon painting by Noorhan.

Stunning watercolor and crayon painting by Noorhan.

Teaching Artist Hannah Dworkin and the Story Explorers act out a scene with bee puppets.

Teaching Artist Hannah Dworkin and the Story Explorers act out a scene with bee puppets.

Even if there was no tangible story attached to their artwork, I found myself quite moved and inspired by the freedom of their creativity. I am now brainstorming ways to incorporate this free expression into the Story Explorers musical. This will probably mean letting go of a strictly linear narrative, and instead embracing whimsy, color and story in new and creative ways. I have no idea yet what that means, but just like the young Story Explorers did in their classroom each week, I'm ready to cut my imagination loose and see what happens!

Five Things I Learned from the Portland Bad Kitty On Stage Workshop

This week, I was in Portland for the first workshop of Bad Kitty On Stage at Oregon Children's Theatre. I have never worked on a co-commissioned piece before, so I didn't quite know what to expect from this sort of dual development process. Over the course of the two days, I learned some new things and was reminded of things that were good for me to remember. Here's just a handful of them:

1. Theatre people are theatre people.
Prior to the trip, I wondered whether I would notice any differences between theatre folks in Oregon and theatre folks in the Bay Area. I guess I thought that geographic and demographic differences meant that I would feel like a bit of an outsider. This was far from the case. As soon as I met Stan Foote (artistic director of OCT) and Dani Baldwin (OCT's director of Bad Kitty On Stage) and the rest of the production team members, I fell immediately into a familiar patter and pattern of talking. We had just met, but the conversation flowed happily back-and-forth between professional and personal topics, and there were some good laughs along the way. There was a lot I didn't know about OCT or the theatre scene in Portland, but I definitely felt welcome and like I was still part of the larger Theatre community.

2. Actors are awesome.
I've said this before, but it's always such a treat when an actor takes what you've written and gives it life, whether on stage or in the rehearsal room. And for a show like Bad Kitty where the characters are mostly cartoon-like animals portrayed by humans, this was a particularly delightful moment. At one point, actors were playing a dog and cat interaction scene which ended up with frenzied barking and meowing while rolling around on the ground. Instead of being hesitant about any of it, they did what awesome actors do: committed to the characters 100%. This continued to happen throughout the workshop, and made it easy for me and the other creative team members to visualize and hear what the show could become.

3. Feedback can be fun.
After each read-thru of the script, Dani and I spent time discussing the script draft with the actors. The environment stayed very positive, but also yielded some very helpful and straightforward critiques. Throughout the conversation, the tone remained respectful and we also shared some great moments of laughter. I think I'm much better at receiving feedback than I was four or five years ago (when feedback sessions made me want to curl up into a ball and give up - but that's another blog post?). I try to listen first and avoid any desire to be immediately defensive, let each person have their opinion and say, and take notice if it strikes a chord with me, or if I'm seeing a similar trend in other responses. The feedback process is no longer terrifying, but feels like just another part of getting the work of writing done. And if it's with a pleasant group of people, it can actually be enjoyable too.

4. Theatre is best experienced live.
My original thought for the music of Bad Kitty On Stage was that I would be creating a sort of "Saturday morning cartoon" score for the piece. I imagined using grand orchestral sounds to create pre-recorded tracks that seemed akin to what you might hear in a Looney Tunes piece. But after the first reading, Stan, Dani and Nina (Executive Director of Bay Area Children's Theatre) were convinced that the music needed to be experienced live. This would mean, of course, that instead of a score with multiple parts, it would most likely come from a single keyboard. However, everyone was willing to trade in the multi-layered, pre-recorded score for a simpler, live one. We talked about how seeing a pianist play while the show was performed would be a unique experience for a young audience member, and it would also add charm and character to the work, similar to the days of silent film. I have nothing against pre-recorded tracks, since I used them for Tales of Olympus. But I have to agree that the flow of Bad Kitty On Stage will feel much more connected and well-timed with the action on-stage if the music is performed live.

5. I love what I do.
I had a few moments in Portland when I looked around and thought, "Am I really here? Am I really in a room with people who are enthusiastically playing domesticated animals? Is my job really where I get to write something, talk about it, then make changes to what I wrote? Will I really see this script I've written on stage with full costume, sets and lights?"  Three years ago, when Tales of Olympus was opening, if you had told me that I'd be flying to Portland for a two-day workshop, I probably wouldn't have believed you. So, when I was in Portland, enjoying this wonderfully new experience of a co-commissioned workshop process, I was reminded how lucky I am to be doing what I love, and loving what I do.