My Tennessee Valentine, Part 1: Invitation to the Party

yoda and glasses menagerie

“The Glasses Menagerie” with Yoda

It’s two weeks until The Glass Menagerie opens and there’s a small tribe of us hard at work over at 10th and Main.

Not that I’m complaining. This is a labor of love. Even the family dog has been pressed into service, listening to me run my lines.

For those of us who volunteer at Richmond Civic Theatre, the benefits are pretty darn amazing. It’s a chance to hang out with friends and make new ones. To face the challenge of giving our best to the audience by painting flats, learning new dance steps or memorizing pages of a script. I’m often gobsmacked at the depth of talent folks have in designing lighting, sound and sets, rustling up props, finding just the right costume, bringing words to life, stage managing and directing—often while working or going to school full time. All this in order to share a play with an audience of friends and strangers alike.

But for me, there’s another motivation for being in a show. Well, not just any show. This show.

You see, I am in love with Tennessee Williams. I fell hard for him when I was in high school. My other misfit friends and I saw pieces of ourselves in his tragic characters and dreamed of sharing an apartment in New Orleans. Turned out moving to Bloomington, Indiana was a lot easier! I love his masterful way with words. (You just wait until you hear Tom’s opening monologue or Amanda’s storytelling!) I am in love with the multi-faceted characters he creates, each one harboring a seed of secret longing that aches to burst free from its casing.

Then there’s Tennessee Williams’ courage in showing us the raw emotion of broken dreams and impossible optimism–and trusting the audience to go along for the ride. The world of The Glass Menagerie is not our world and yet the theme of claiming one’s true identity is at the core of the human experience and one I suspect we can all relate to.

For an actor, the members of the Wingfield family and the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, are not easy characters to play. And yet, the humanity in which Jim, Laura, Tom and Amanda are depicted give each performer the chance to find the heart of his or her character. The character I play, Amanda Wingfield, is a single mother who wants what is best for her twenty-something-year-old children. She is a woman motivated by love. Love for her children. Love for the past. Even love for her husband, a handsome telephone man who fell in love with long distance and deserted the family 16 years earlier. The way Amanda expresses this desire is, well, let’s just say it’s problematic. Hers is a fierce mother-love that threatens to suffocate the people she holds most dear. She can be exasperating and cruel one minute and innocent and charming the next.

Maybe you know somebody like that? Maybe you even see a little of that sweet complexity in yourself?

Tennessee Williams was no stranger to sweet complexity. In his career and in his personal life, he experienced dramatic highs and lows. The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Night of the Iguana are considered some of the best drama every written. Period. I am a fan, too, of his one-act plays contained in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, including “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen”—which has one of the longest titles I know of and which I chose as my first directing project. And then there are the infamous lows: his troubled relationship with his family that we see alluded to in The Glass Menagerie, the heartbreak over his sister Rose’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, his financial troubles, the discrimination he experienced during his lifetime because of his identity as a gay man, and his struggles with drug addiction that eventually led to his death in 1983, some twenty years after he wrote his most critically-acclaimed plays.

To say that he wrote as he lived would be to gloss over the pain he experienced and the pain he inadvertently caused others. I don’t believe that artists have to suffer to create good art; they don’t have to be limited to the category of saint or jerk, either. However, when I read his words, I am so moved by his beauty, generosity, honesty and humor whose source is, I know, hard won. He has captured an aspect of the American experience and given it back to us as art that lasts. And so, it’s in this way that Tennessee Williams continues to inspire me—along with countless others—to wrestle with words, to love, and to live in all its messy wonder.

I am so happy to be invited to the party at the Wingfields’ and hope you will join us there, too!

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RCT Cast: Jordan Wolfe, Chloe Burton, Jennie Kiffmeyer and Dustin Summan

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
September 15-16 & 22-23 at 7:30pm, Sept. 24 at 2:00pm
By special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
Directed by David Cobine
1003 East Main Street
Richmond, IN 47374
Tickets are $18. Box office: (765) 962-1816 or online

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My Tennessee Valentine, Part 2: Three Inspirations for Finding Amanda Wingfield

HOPPER_1939_New_York_Movie

New York Movie. 1939. Oil on canvas.
by Edward Hopper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

 

One of the fun things about exploring the world of the play is finding inspiration to bring it to life. Chloe Burton, Dustin Summan, Jordan Wolfe, David Cobine, Patty Glen and I have shared our impressions of other productions, biographical details from Tennessee Williams’ life, acting challenges and favorite lines. There are some good biographies out there on Williams for those so inclined. And then, of course, there is the play itself which rewards the reader over and over again.

Here are other three things I’ve taken inspiration from in preparing to play Amanda:

When I think of the world of The Glass Menagerie, I think of Edward Hopper’s paintings from the 1920s and 1930s. In one, we get a woman sitting up in bed alone bathed in the uncompromising light of morning. In another, famous image, a couple sitting at the counter at an all-night diner, a way station for lost souls. Reflecting Tom’s hunger for escape at the movies, Hopper even gave us a few scenes from 1930s movie houses where fantasy and reality collide. I’ve picked one here that could be similar to the kind of stumbled upon poetry that Tom escaped into every night.

 

When working on a show, I usually find a song that helps me connect with my character. Music that tends to be private, idiosyncratic, and good for blasting in the car on the way home from rehearsal or listening to as part of my pre-show ritual. This time around, it is Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” a song from her 1989 album, The Sensual World, that gives me the chills. I can imagine the words coming straight from Amanda along with a howl as she pleads for just “one moment more” with those she loves in the hope that maybe this time she can do the right thing. Just because it’s futile doesn’t make it any less real.

 

Finally, I turn to contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, another writer who has written so eloquently about that life-defining moment of when one must choose to stay or go.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

 

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice—

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

room-in-new-york

Room in New York. 1932. Oil on canvas
by Edward Hopper
Sheldon Museum of Art

 

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
September 15-16 & 22-23 at 7:30pm, Sept. 24 at 2:00pm
By special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
Directed by David Cobine
1003 East Main Street
Richmond, IN 47374
Tickets are $18. Box office: (765) 962-1816 or online

What Coaxes: Protests and Poetry

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote:

 I will protest all my life . . . but I’m a person who makes … and I have decided that whenever I protest . . . I will make something — I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something.”

Muriel Rukeyser’s words really resonate with me these days. The urge to protest racism, bigotry and hatred feels so urgent to me. And yet, my artist self doesn’t want to be left out. I figure it’s time to make something: a peach crisp that we take to a potluck. A remounting of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, at Richmond Civic Theatre with a lovely group of people. (More about that later). A handful of words that tell a story.

There’s tension, of course, between grappling with life-and-death problems and creating something tender and beautiful. It can be hard to justify making art when people’s basic needs aren’t being met. But I think protest and poetry alike can be about making space for compassion and humility, calling people out–and calling people in.

Both require moxie to believe in the possibility of hope.

Now, sometimes the art is clumsy and fails to connect to its audience. Sometimes it has a life-span of a mayfly. But it’s through the act of creating that we can imagine a different, better world. One that we occasionally can even dream into reality.

Here is a new poem I’ve been working on this summer. It’s my own way of grappling with what can coax us to open up to ideas or people or places that challenge us. I’d like to share it with you.

What Coaxes

A closed fist can neither
give or accept the gift. Can’t

clasp another hand
to hoist the body out of

its history. Won’t find the way
to a mother’s arm at midnight

as her son bleeds out for want
of holding. Or wave as

my car passes your truck.
And certainly not stroke

the smooth head of a yellow dog
who searches out violets after rain.

This is what Agnes told me
before describing her work with

prisoners in St. Louis
performing Shakespeare.

What entices small petals to
open April mornings or swing

the car door ajar to receive
passengers? This remains a mystery

to the mother who opens
her eyes without seeing,

words in blank verse neatly tied
into two hard knots that lay

in the lap. Fists the same size
as our beating iambic hearts.

What coaxes empty hands
petal by petal, tears and doors?

What act of surprising ourselves with hope
will finally hold?

                                               —Jennie Kiffmeyer

Maybe you feel like making something, too, in the spirit of Muriel Rukeyser? If so, please consider telling us about it here in the comments section. I’d love to read it.

Picture: “Violets in the Rain” by Maia C. (https://flic.kr/p/nCk2Dz)

 

Lift Every Voice and Sing

LEVAS 7

Last week in chapel I got to talk about one of my all time favorite hymns, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. I came a little late to the party–not becoming hooked by the song that millions love and consider the “Black National Anthem” until my late 20s when I started working at Grace Episcopal Day School. It was music teacher, fellow Hoosier and friend, Theolyn Wilson, who introduced me to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (LEVAS) and James Weldon Johnson. Johnson co-wrote the song with his brother, John Rosamond. Since my introduction to his work, I have enjoyed learning more about Johnson, reading his poetry and retellings of Bible stories from God’s Trombones and, of course, singing LEVAS and learning about its place in the Civil Rights Movement.

Fast forward 17 years. Here I am at Oregon Episcopal School and I find LEVAS is not part of the regular chapel repertoire…yet. Our fabulous music teacher agreed immediately to teach the kids the song last month so that they would be ready to sing the song in chapel for the first time this past Monday.

Here is a copy of my talk introducing some members of our school community to the song–and thinking of Theolyn and the great folks at Grace Episcopal Day School and Grace Church who first introduced the song to me. May it continue to inspire all people to lift our voices in solidarity and to work for equal rights for all.

Today we’re going to hear a story…

about the power of a song to be a Power for Good.

The teachers at Stanton Central Grammar School were planning an assembly in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Would the principal, James Weldon Johnson, give a speech, the teachers wondered.

 

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The year was 1900. 35 years after the end of Civil War. 35 years after the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery.

The place was Jacksonville, Florida where memories of slavery were still fresh in the lives of the men and women who lived there. Some of the people who lived in Jacksonville had been slaves themselves and some had been slave owners. Some had fought in the war against the Union soldiers, while others had prayed for justice and freedom for all African and African American people.

LEVAS 2

Stanton Central Grammar School had been named for Edwin M. Stanton, an abolitionist, someone who fought for the end of slavery, and Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln. Some of the children and grandchildren of former slaves attended that school.

LEVAS 3

At the turn of the century, Jacksonville was a bustling place and was considered to be the most progressive city in the Deep South.

LEVAS 4

Mr. James Weldon Johnson, the principal at Stanton Central Grammar School, had been born in Jacksonville. He had even attended that same school and his mother had been the first African American public school teacher in Florida there. Not willing to stop his education after he graduated from Stanton in the 8th grade, James traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where he attended high school and then college.

LEVAS 5

After graduating from college, James returned to Jacksonville and became a teacher at Stanton. A little later, he became the principal.

Like Abraham Lincoln before him, James Weldon Johnson loved justice and decided to become a lawyer. While still working as a teacher, he studied law and became the first African American lawyer in Florida after the Civil War. Like Abraham Lincoln, he believed in listening to people whose opinions were different from his own and trying to find common ground. Like Abraham Lincoln, he believed in hard work and hope. He believed in the power of good to change lives.

Abraham Lincoln had done much to point the country in the right direction, but, as James Weldon Johnson and other millions of African Americans knew, there was much work to be done before America could begin to live into its promise to be a land where all people were created equal and had equal chance to bloom. In 1900 there was still no public high school for African American students. Prejudice fueled Jim Crow laws that kept white and black people separate and not equal.  But still, James Weldon Johnson had hope for a better America and a better future.

Teacher, principal, lawyer, and poet, James Weldon Johnson was a busy man.  Would he have time to make a speech? The teachers wondered. James replied that he’d be happy to—and what’s more, he and his brother had written a song they would like the children to sing. It was called “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” James had written the words originally as a poem. His brother John Rosamond who had studied music at the famous New England Conservatory of Music composed the melody.

LEVAS 6

Though the brothers admitted later that they essentially forgot about the song after the assembly, others didn’t. It spread to nearby schools and churches throughout the South. And by 1920, LEVAS was adopted as the anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP) when James himself was the chief executive officer of the group. Over the past 116 years it has been sung at countless civil rights marches, rallies and in churches and is thought to have inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. when composing his “I Have a Dream” speech. It is included in the Episcopal Church’s blue hymnal and in many other song books in Christian churches.

Let’s take a look at James Weldon Johnson’s words as illustrated by Bryan Collier.

Later Johnson moved permanently to New York. He continued to work for justice through his teaching and writing. A member of the Harlem Renaissance and friend to such writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurtson, Johnson wrote fiction, memoir, lyrics, and poetry. In one poem that he wrote nearly 20 years after “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”  James spoke directly to the American dream. It’s called “To America.”

Now, what’s really cool is that we can even hear James Weldon Johnson reading the poem. This recording was made on Christmas Eve, 1934, when he was 63 years old.

LEVAS 14

Recording: Made on December 24, 1935 at Columbia University, recorded by Barnard professors George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects.

Throughout his life, James Weldon Johnson kept celebrating African American culture and battling racism. But he was also careful to not let racism’s bitter destructiveness destroy his spirit. Around the time he recorded the reading of his poem, “To America,” he wrote out this pledge for himself:

I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.

In “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we hear the words:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

Today we are still singing a song full of faith. Its melody comes to us from the past. From James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. From the millions of people who have since sung this song and dreamed of peace and justice, who have had faith in equality and love. We sing a song of hope and listen for its echo in our lives and in our country.

During our moment of quiet reflection, I would like you to think about how you can lift your voice and sing?

Please join me now in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

LEVAS 17

Bibliography:
Johnson, James W. Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Pictorial Tribute to the Negro National Anthem. New York: Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, 2000. Print.
(Historic black-and-white photographs accompany this version of the song.)
Johnson, James W, and Elizabeth Catlett. Lift Every Voice and Sing. New York: Walker, 1993. Print.
Johnson, James W, and Bryan Collier. Lift Every Voice and Sing. New York, NY: Amistad, 2007. Print.
Johnson, James W, and Jan S. Gilchrist. Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.

 

Out of the Ashes: Ash Wednesday 2016

 

This past week I led my first Ash Wednesday chapel at Oregon Episcopal School for approximately 300 elementary school-age kids, their teachers, and a handful of parents and other OES employees. It was a fairly joyful gathering as Ash Wednesday services go–there was much singing and laughter along with hundreds of brightly-colored alleluia sheets being stuffed into a basket that was then hoisted to the ceiling of the chapel by a beloved 1st grade teacher where the basket will stay until Easter. Even the ashes were an object of happy curiosity. Completely voluntary, most children chose to receive the ashes or a blessing. But first they wanted to see the ashes in the dish. They wanted to know what it would feel like for me to gently trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the ash, (“it’s like a butterfly wing brushing again your skin.”) After deciding to go ahead, one by one, I watched as these rambunctious and charming kiddoes grew suddenly quiet and watchful. They bowed their heads, many closed their eyes, and they took part in a ritual that goes back centuries. And, then, just as suddenly, they popped up and excitedly turned to their friends: “Can you see it? I can see yours!”

As chaplain, I loved seeing their openness and their curiosity to experiencing God in the moment. Likewise, it was a powerful thing to be reminded of all the tender ways all of us are part of this holy cycle of life.

Here are my remarks from the day’s gathering. The words of the closing blessing are also for you, Dear Reader. May this Lenten season be just what you need it to be.

Chapel Talk, 2/10/16

Many faith traditions set aside time for kids and grown-ups to wonder about life. To hit the pause button and ask: what’s keeping me from experiencing and loving God right now? What should I change?

In the Christian Church, this time for reflection and wondering is called the Season of Lent, and it begins today and lasts for 40 days until Easter.

One of the things we do in Chapel on Ash Wednesday is we put away our alleluias and we’re invited to come forward to receive a mark of ash on our foreheads in the sign of the cross.

The ashes are a reminder that sometimes in life we experience loss. We feel sad. Lonely. We hurt or are angry. During those times, it can hard to say happy, joyful words like alleluia. It can be hard to say any words at all.

During Lent, we put away our alleluias as a way of remembering the tough times. Christians remember stories about Jesus and the ways he didn’t forget people who were sad, lonely, hurting or angry. He walked with them and ate with them and prayed with them. He made sure that they knew they were loved by God and that they were not alone. He even experienced death so that he could feel people’s deepest pain and offer everyone healing and wholeness.

The ashes also remind us that each of us is part of the cycle of life. In the story of the “Garden of Eden” we heard last week, God tells Adam and Eve: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We will hear these words again today and each Ash Wednesday as we re-enter that moment in the story.

There are sad parts in the story of life–but they are never the whole story and they are never the end of the story.

We are dust and to dust we shall return. But it is in the returning that we are welcomed home by a loving and forgiving God.

Easter will come and when it does, the basket brimming full of alleluias will be emptied. The words–praise to you, Lord–will be given back to us.

The past couple weeks, 5th graders have started exploring what it means to be awake and aware of the world around us. We’ve talked about the Greek philosopher Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” in which we hear an imaginary tale about a group of people who experience life only as shadows projected on a cave wall and hear strange sounds. They have chosen to stay in a distorted world and cannot live life fully. The students and I imagined what our own caves might look like–and talked about the things that keep us from experiencing reality.

We’ve also started exploring what religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam have said about the importance of being awake to the reality around us. How another name for this Reality can be God.

Christians are not the only ones who believe that ashes are holy. Hindus and Sikhs, too, have special ceremonies that honor the dead and return their ashes to sacred waters. Some Native peoples have had sacred rituals for releasing the spirits of the dead through care of the body’s ashes. Though different from the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent, ashes have been a way for many people to affirm our place as human beings in the cycle of life.

When asked, our 5th graders had their own associations with ashes. Campfires and roasting marshmallows, fire, charcoal, volcanoes erupting, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and death.

Our 5th graders and some of our 4th graders have explored these ideas in art. You can see examples of their work in charcoal and colored pencil on paper during the the imposition of the ashes. You will also see images by other artists who have been inspired by these same stories. Artists who have asked some of the same questions: What is keeping me from experiencing God? What choices have I made that have caused others to feel pain, loneliness, anger and sadness? How are life and death connected? What will rise out of the ashes of my understanding?

Chaplain Jenny, Chaplain Craig, Mother Heather and I invite you now to come up, aisle by aisle, to receive these holy ashes or you may simply ask for a blessing. You are also welcome to stay right where you are, settle into stillness. Let the images wash over you. Be aware of what thoughts and feelings they stir wake inside of you.

Closing Blessing:

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

As we enter into the Season of Lent,

Remember that you are earth–rich loamy soil

just right for new seeds to sprout.

You are ash—the remnant of a crackling fire of

Love and Forgiveness that burns bright for all to see.

You are dust—released from the Big Bang billions of

years ago that eventually became the building blocks of all life.

And finally you are hope—for out of the dust comes new life.

In you, the story continues to unfold.

The Holy One is waiting for you.

What’s stopping you from joining Her?

Ash Wednesday 1.jpg

Trees of Mercy

Tia's treeOne of the things I love about stories is that they can help us explore liminal moments in our lives from the relative safety of a seat on the bus or while propped up in bed. Quest narratives allow us to cross over from adolescence to adulthood without actually getting singed from a dragon’s fiery breath. (Though memories of the middle school cafeteria may give a dragon a run for his money!) Stories that transport us across seven seas in seven ships can give us courage while we make our own journeys to a new home, heal a broken relationship, or enter a new phase of life. Myths, fairy tales and other stories of the “folk” can shine a light on the path we choose to follow–even when it’s a path that leads from one life to the next.

Here is one such story about a woman named Tía Miseria who thumbs her nose at death and, by doing so, brings something unexpected into the world. It is a story about a feisty, unconventional woman that I love to tell! My version here is based closely on the ones told by Harlynne Geisler and Olga Loya.

Once, when I told “Tía Miseria” to an audience of students at Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary, one seminarian named Andrew drew a picture while I told the story. Later he shared it with me. Rendered in colored pencil, a lone, naked figure embraces a bare tree whose branches extend into a sky of swirling rainbow colors. One word is written in between the tree’s roots: misery.

“Miseria” can be translated as “misery,” but I like to think that it is also closely related to “misericor’dia,” or “mercy.” In Andrew’s stunning picture, just as in the folktale itself, we are not given answers. Instead, we are asked to think about the nature of misery, the place of mercy, and the relationship that can spring up between the two. The story itself becomes a tree of mercy, offering shelter while we try to puzzle out lives that may feel like equal parts of bizarre comedy and mundane tragedy. I like to think Tía Miseria is sitting under the tree with us, too, ready to hand over the perfectly ripe pear.

That is, as long as we ask politely.

Happy Listening!

*If you are having trouble with the media player, you may also listen to it here.

Where You Are Planted, pt. 2

Here is part two of my exploration of Robert Gard’s 1955′s  classic book, Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. In it he writes eloquently about the role of place and community in the theatre and in our lives–themes that continue to resonate. Reading his book 58 years after it was first published, I can’t help but wonder, what are ways Gard is offering us a blueprint for making art now?

Throughout Robert Gard’s explorations of theatre in New York, Alberta, and Wisconsin, one thing became increasingly clear: “mediocre standards may be the single greatest drawback to the spread of the living theatre idea as a force in community life” (204). He didn’t say it to be a snob: his understanding of the audience’s experience was paramount to the overall success of a playwriting program. In order to guard against mediocrity, Gard proposed a model of continuing education, feedback, and the recruitment of the best artists and teachers possible.

This vision later expanded with an eye toward sustainability. As he sat at Sugar Bush Hill in Wisconsin some twenty years later, he had a second epiphany that I think is relevant today. In that moment, he realized:

The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theatre departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present at least little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater… (250).

Gard goes on to outline what this might look like: home-grown artists working within their own communities. “What is needed is more idealistic wandering, more work, more ideas, the marshalling of more force for the cultural arts…. It may mean, eventually, a whole new concept of the university in which the backstage [i.e., the continuing education movement] becomes the forestage” (252).

In order for it to work, Gard argues that potential leaders need to be supported and cultivated. Decentralize the arts power structure (i.e., expand it beyond the coasts, seek local funding, collaborate with state universities, and do not rely solely on professional theatres in urban areas) while empowering artists to provide leadership within their own communities. What would this look like in today’s climate? What organizations are already following this model–and how is it working for them and their audiences?

Gard’s observation that the university is producing more theatre artists than can find work within the professional theatre (or the university!) makes me wonder, what if every BFA and MFA program included the kind of community training Gard describes? What if every student, for example, was required to bring his or her gifts into the community in whatever ways were specific and appropriate for the artist?

While Gard was working toward an ideal of the arts in our culture, he was also working against another tendency–that of a depersonalized, mass-produced consumer culture and how it affects audience. It is here that we can again learn from Gard; we are not in such a dissimilar place now. The Occupy Movement may have faded, but the growing clamor over the disparity between rich and poor has not. The great civil conflict of our time may be one of equal access. Class economics expose this gap and show the increasingly destructive differences in people’s access to quality education, health care, meaningful employment and–not insignificantly–the arts. So much of this is determined by where a person lives. Rust belt or sun belt, bible belt or beltway, each geographical location has an enormous impact on what we have access to and to whom.

Perhaps this is why I find the ideas of Gard especially germane in helping artists find ways of doing their art within their community, for their community, and–explicitly or not–about their community. Gard’s vision takes its cue from how we choose to answer the question: who is our audience? The answer depends on who is doing the asking, of course. For Gard, the arts are for you and me and everyone around us. It is the company who chooses the audience it keeps.

Gard concludes Grassroots Theater with this observation:

Whatever the results, the drive, the restless seeking, the searching into dim corners is the great thing. The sproutings of artistic expression, the coming to life in a thousand places, the places where people strive honestly for the spark of an art impulse, are my satisfactions and the results of my search (252).

One shouldn’t overlook the “drive, the restless seeking,” or what others may call passion. For Gard, it is the artist’s greatest strength and, as his daughter notes over forty years later, it is more important than a particular skill or technique. Picking up on her father’s use of the word “drive, she writes:

To what extent is your work only your skills, rather than the drive in your soul? What are your own big ideas, those ideas so terrifyingly pure to you that you are sometimes afraid to say them even to yourself?… Write them down. Dare to say them to someone….

And then, armed anew with your place, your people, your culture, your chronology, create your own ‘Grassroots Theater.’

Through your life, give new life.

Reflect. Burn. Speak. Act. Create (Ewell xxvi).

What she and her father describe is a lifetime’s worth of work but also the work of a lifetime. And there is no better time to start than now.

back stage at the warner theatre

Image: Backstage at the Warner Theatre by Christopher Lane Photography, 2011.

Writing Prompt: How does the place where you live feed your art?

Wanna pick up a copy of Gard’s book for yourself? Here’s the information you’ll need:

Gard, Robert E. Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Print.

You can also download a free pdf copy of the Robert E. Gard Reader: To Change the Face of America, From Writings by Robert E. Gard. Edited by LaMoine MacLaughlin and Maryo Gard Ewell.

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted midweek. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

Top Image: “Old Theatre Seats,” Mackinac Island, MI by JoeyBLS Photography.