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Attend…a REALLY GOOD tale.

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, FAITH, FAMILY and FUN, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2014 by erikball123

I believe the role of a Lutheran teacher is to foster a relationship of trust and mutual respect with a student so that they (collectively) can take advantage of academic, social and religious information, skill sets and opportunities to the fullest. It is then the Lutheran teacher’s job to provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate their understanding of the topic through practical application or performance.

Enter drama teacher, stage left.

The school where I teach and direct will offer SWEENEY TODD as part of next year’s season. The musical by Stephen Sondheim (American theatrical composer, and arguably one of the most influential composers of the last three decades) and Hugh Wheeler (book writer) is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time, garnishing a veritable trunkful of top honors including the Tony Award – Best Musical, the Drama Desk Award – Best Musical, and the Olivier Award – Best Musical (a feat that not even the likes of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or LES MISERABLES could accomplish.) It is a tale of a Victorian-era, London barber, Benjamin Barker, who is incarcerated for life under a false charge, so that a tyrannical judge may covet his wife. Barker, now 15 years later and a pale fragment of the man he once was, escapes back to London hoping to find a loving wife and child, but finds, that the city has changed, in much the same way he has. Finding out through an accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who owns a meat pie shop under his old barber shop, he finds that his wife is now dead and his daughter is being held as a ward in the same Judge’s care. Focused on revenge, Barker, who adopts the alias Sweeney Todd, seeks revenge, and cooks his victims in Lovett’s meat pies…and through a course of sub-plot twists and turns, finds that in the end, love and the cruelties of this world have blinded him. It is a poignant, humorous (oddly enough), telling and relatable tale that audiences love to be a part of. (Much in the same way 13 year-old boys root for the bad guy during a WWE wrestling match. Macho Man Randy Savage was always my favorite.) There is a savageness to the elements of the story….but we all know that wrestling is fake.

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George Hearn and Angela Lansbury in Broadway’s SWEENEY TODD.

 

It’s a ghost story, make no mistake about that. This generation probably won’t be so anxious to sit down to the George Hearn and Angela Lansbury broadway version, because a much more accessible Johnny Depp version (with 3D blood effects) is much more attractive. That particular version is a box-office wonder, no doubt…and I enjoyed it. But Hollywood is not the stage, and movies are not theatre. They can be theatrical…but the human element of creating a stage production is ever present that in order for Sweeney Todd to work, it absolutely must have an audience….like a courtroom full of jurors ready to put to trial this man who will plead for a second chance throughout two acts. I hope the audience judges this show. This is a “musical thriller” that invites audiences to “attend” the tale of Sweeney Todd. Not listen, not observe….”attend.” Become a part of the story. The story itself is masterfully written. I regard it as living, breathing poetry for the stage. It controls, with masterful precision, dark humor and caricatures which would appear to be as superficial as Dicken’s Ghost of Jacob Marley, and yet as real as any neglectful, self-serving icon of today’s media world. Sondheim’s music, which any theatrical scholar or theatre-lover might argue, is nothing short of genius with four-part harmonies (and a one-point, overlapping four-parts of melodies) interweaving themselves into a tapestry of a time we’ve only ever thought about. It’s twisted in the same way our perception of that particular time might be.

So, why, then? Why SWEENEY TODD?

I would argue that the ugliness of this secular world and human nature in general is quite evident in nearly every musical. It’s essential to the conflict and plot resolution. When we presented INTO THE WOODS (another Sondheim classic) we presented questions regarding infidelity, sacrifice, death and greed. In ROMEO & JULIET (another show, well-received by audiences at my school) we examined suicide, betrayal and nearly every other character died a bloody death. In DRACULA (yet another thrilling offering) found us identifying with a monster, who sucks blood and turns into a bat at night. These offerings are not unlike Irving Berlin’s WHITE CHRISTMAS where one theatre patron was moved to comment that the “I Love a Piano” song was all about sexual innuendo. (?!?!?!) I reeled for a bit in disbelief, as I thought WHITE CHRISTMAS to be as innocent as the driven-snow (or in this show’s case, lack of snow) and then remembered that every patron has the right to an opinion.

How theatre is perceived is very interesting to me. There are those that won’t bat an eye at a production of GREASE. (Heck, a year deosn’t go by when our 8th graders don’t perform a lip sync competition to “Greased Lightning!”) One might argue that this seemingly innocent story is a stereotype of a “rebel without a cause” era and therefore “good clean dirt.” I argue, any story “without a cause”, even one that goes against morality, is bad storytelling. Even those hardened atheists out there would have a very hard argument against the fact that the Bible contains brilliant parables about morality.

Perception is often based on an individuals’ relationship to this world. But, you see that’s what’s so glorious about the theatre: people bring their own feelings, relationships and personal insights to the venue. It’s what works within them as they contemplate the story and character’s dilemma. It’s what motivates them to come to conclusions at the end of the show as to whether or not they enjoyed the production. I’m sure there will be some people that won’t categorize Sweeney Todd in their top ten. But it’s this same personal insight that also influences them to choose Fruit Loops over Bran Flakes in the cereal aisle. Fruit Loops are better…and that’s their choice and opinion…and they’re not wrong for feeling that way.

These offerings are essential to the Christian high school student looking to learn more from or make a career in the theatrical arts. I would argue that in the secular works of this Darwinistic world, these are stories worth telling, as they challenge our sensibilities, asking us to decipher good from evil, truth from fallacies and right from wrong. As artists (in design offstage and as performers onstage) it is essential that we find God in our work. As a theatre teacher and director, it is my privilege to put in front of the students productions that I believe will be well-generated examples that would serve this purpose well. Shows like JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, while a wonderful, engaging (and successful) theatrical offering, guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even those who sit in the back pew on Sunday, on the flip side, from a content structure standpoint, it’s a flawed show (in my opinion), as it doesn’t reflect on God’s saving grace, and leaves those who are unchurched little connection to the ultimate goal, which I would assume is to invite an audience to attend the tale of a lost man who is wronged. In that particular story, all ends happily with bright-sparkly jazz hands. Does this make it a show “not worth doing?” Not necessarily. Rather I might argue it is worth the investment, as it provides an opportunity to learn more. As a teacher, it’s a win-win opportunity.

The value of a ghost story about another wronged man that ends tragically and with the villain (which we find ourselves strangely a bit sympathetic with) meeting his end due to his naivety, is equally important. It’s the same reason the Bible story of Job is valuable. (He maintains his love for the Lord regardless of all that happens to him.) In the case of SWEENEY TODD, we challenge the audience to think about what would happen should “Job-y Todd” lose his faith…and instead run from the deliverance of evil in hot pursuit of a revenge he believes he needs.

The world of theatre is an escape from reality and will always be presented as a means by which to discover anew the value of one’s mind, heart, soul and faith. It interrupts the artificial sensibilities we possess, that of a hot-bed media conglomerate, wrought with agenda that interrupts our perception of how and who we should be according to our faith. In the end moments of Sweeney Todd, the ensemble sings “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it and seldom as well.”

SWEENEY TODD is not unlike any other theatrical production. It’s a love story about a man who was wronged and hopes only to return to a reality he once new in the comforts of the only love he had. He’s a killer yes. (So is Dexter, Dorothy Gail from Kansas, nearly every Shakespearean protagonist, David, Sampson, Cain, etc.)  These wonderfully relatable characters serve as foils for deeper meaning. In Sweeney’s feverish pursuit, he forgets that sometimes the blessings we so richly are afforded by a loving God, are right in front of our faces. (“Don’t I…know you…mister…?”) *For those of you who know the show…you know what I mean. For those of you who don’t…you’ll see what I mean.

I look forward to producing this musical. But, more importantly, I look forward to providing an opportunity for my students to practice (through their own skill-sets and sensibilities) delivering a thrilling story that will charge an audience to think about the world around them and their station in it. I will ask them to find God within the work and demonstrate an understanding of why there might just be a little bit of Sweeney in all of us. (“Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?”) It is my hope that the audience might be able to relate to elements in the story, much like I hoped that we might relate with two estranged ogres last year (more fictitious characters). The brandishing of a razor…the flouring of a meat pie….the trapped song bird….that’s all beautiful, symbolic elements of a love story set to the stage and served up with a bit of a jolt. (Like the feeling one gets when they ALMOST has a fender-bender in the afternoon traffic.) I hope patrons leave thinking “Thank God.” We should be so lucky to have a loving God that we can trust in when we are awoken to the dangers of the world.

I appreciate, more than words, that I have an administration that trusts that our production of SWEENEY TODD will be presented with artistic and creative integrity and a clear vision that would challenge students to look beyond the opportunity to merely “play a bad guy”. I hope you’ll attend.

MY CHRISTMAS HOPE

Posted in FAITH, FAMILY and FUN with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2008 by erikball123

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I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong. There’s something to be said for SUVs. I’m the first to toss off-colored banter around whenever a Junior rolls by in a new Hummer. When one of my favorite senior students proclaimed the arrival of his brand new Escalade (he even jingled his keys at me, like announcing the arrival of Santa Clause or something), sure, I scoffed. But, during my long drive to Michigan from the great state of Nevada…I learned to respect the SUV.

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We rented a Ford Explorer. We didn’t really have much of a choice, but then again I don’t necessarily research exotic fruits before venturing into Albertson’s and test drive a Kiwi either. It was roomey, had a new car smell and a big back area for the dogs. I was surprised and happy. So, we loaded up the front-wheel drive sleigh and took off early Friday morning.

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My wife and I drove in shifts. She’d take 6 hours…I’d sleep in the back. I’d drive 6 hours…she’d sleep. I haven’t told her yet…but those books on tape DID in fact keep me up a bit. (But in a good way.) You see, you can drive a bulldozer through the bedroom and NOT wake me up I’m such a heavy sleeper…but getting there….that’s another thing. We stopped twice at Rest Areas and tucked some blankets up into the windows and hunkered down for a few hours before raiding the coffee machines and heading off again. (Indiana has the best coffee machines.)

I can’t say that I was looking forward to the drive. Okay…I totally didn’t want to drive. (I feel better now that I’ve come clean.) But looking back…it wasn’t such a bad drive. I expected to be annoyed by the hulking SUV. It wasn’t so hulking. I expected to tire of the lengthy road trip. It was very engaging and not so tiring. I expected the trip to take FOREVER! We pulled into Jackson, MI after 2 1/2 days of driving. Not bad!

Here are a few things I found interesting during our little trip:

  • Stephen King tends to favor certain names in his short stories. Names like Gage, Vince and Garaby.
  • Never stop at anything called FIESTA MART. Isn’t a fiesta a party? We need to work on redefining some of these gas stations, I’m thinking.
  • Kentucky is brutally honest with their landmark names. Let’s just say the DIRTY RIVER….yeah. Pretty dirty.
  • I found that you cannot truly appreciate cuisines from foreign lands until you’ve actually consumed the stuff. Foods like “CAKESTERS”….(I think they’re French)….yeah, not so good. “BETTER CHEDDARS”….not so bad. “MOONPIES”…..pretty stinkin’ disgusting. And the McRIB SANDWICH. Yeah….that was interesting. First and foremost, I’m STILL finding bar-b-que sauce in the car. (How it got on the ceiling, I’ll never know.) Second…I didn’t know meat could be bouncy. I suppose I should just keep quiet. This is all being brought to you from the guy who has heightened the CHICK-O-STICK to its own food group. Still, all things considered, I’m adding “Colon Flush” on next year’s Santa list.
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Are you jealous of the McRib...or my killer Ear Flap Fleece? Both you can't have.

  • I’ve noticed that public restrooms and restroom etiquette varies greatly from state to state. New Mexico has a LOW cleanliness standard. I suppose the Land of Enchantment wants to keeps things adventerous and mysterious. Arizona is fine. Texas is fine, if you’re wearing a cowboy hat, otherwise you get “looks.” Oklahoma is the “Sooner State” which I didn’t understand right away…but after 7 hours crossing that state….PHEW! I was wishing I had reached that rest area sooner rather than later. My wife felt the brunt of Tennessee when she had to hold the stall door shut for an elderly lady so that she may use the facilities…and then the elderly lady did the same for her. You make fast friends that way…and that’s why Tennessee is the Volunteer State. (This is totally true. I can’t MAKE stuff up like this.)
  • There is a HUGE chain of waffle houses across the southern states. That’s no big deal, I suppose…but what’s funny is that they’re all just called “WAFFLE HOUSE.” That’s like naming a store that sold furniture “FURNITURE STORE.” In hindsight, I suppose this was funnier at 1:00am when I first thought about it!
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So, as Emily and I took turns snuggling down, fully extended in the back of the SUV with our Great Pyrenees, Pug and Chihuahua / Terrier mix, we were able to enjoy many things let alone each others company, which in this VERY busy world, seems to be something we take for granted often. I forgot how much I enjoyed my wife’s company and I’m ashamed I am to have to admit that.

I suppose you could say that we were lucky during the trip. The occasional cluster of dirtied snow on the side of the road outside of the car certainly didn’t compare to the flurry of white dog hair inside the car. My pug served as a surrogate hot-water-bottle sprawling across my lap. Her snoring provided much needed accompaniment to the late night silence. Sometimes I would wander over onto the shoulder’s rumble-stripes to try and fall into sync with her cadence.When we got to Michigan it started to snow hard, and we wound up with three more inches later that night. We just missed the next wave of weather. (That blustery offering turned into the most amazing packing snow in the history of the world. I don’t have my brother’s arm for pitching, but I’m still a dead-eye, it turns out!)

I found that gas prices went down as we got closer to Michigan, and I suppose I’ll trade the more expensive gasoline for three gained hours coming back. It’ll be a wash.

Another thing I found out was that when you are in close proximity with someone, be it your significant other, family or…well, Pug…you wind up complimenting them in some fashion. Not with an everyday verbal gesture, that’s not what I mean…I mean, in character. I think when we were all made, and came into this world…God purposely created us in a way to help others find Him better. Allow me to elaborate. My wife knew I wasn’t keen on the long trip…but she made sure certain aspects that were weighing heavy on my heart, were approached with care and consideration. Her burned CDs featured renditions from Harry Connick, Barry Manilow, Michael Buble and the Muppets. She indulged me to read chapters from “The Princess Bride,” our favorite book. She challenged me to think positively when the two giant Tupperware containers full of gifts in the back of our SUV, kept toppling over in back.  Instead of worrying about tying them up we’ll just “not take right turns anymore,” she said. (She also said that the “change oil” light is merely formality.) I thought she was the crooner and I was the comic!

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My amazing niece Rachel and her crazy Uncle Erik.

In the end, we coasted into the choppy Jackson side roads with a great sense of accomplishment. Our families greeted us and I currently sit across a fire sipping coffee having eaten a chuck of chocolate yule log after Christmas Eve dinner. It’s enough to finally excuse my family for not giving in to my curiosity in allowing me to make some traditional, British plum pudding. (Everyone says it’s nasty…but I HAVE to see for myself!)

You know…I find it super-duper easy sometimes to translate Bible stories and message to my life’s experiences. But occasionally I struggle with notion that we suffer the same types of burdens and feel the same emotions that those who lived long ago did. For example, I can’t imagine Mary and Joseph toiling over grungy breakfast food at a mom-n-pop diner like the HUDDLE HOUSE. I also can’t imagine it was a particularly warm welcome at the Inn that memorable night. I would have been very distraught if I got to my destination and found NO warm welcome. I have it too easy to relate it seems.

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The pastor at the church we went to for the Christmas Eve service talked about Hope. As I sat there in the same church I was married in ten years ago…remembering that day like it was yesterday…looking at the large hand-carved wooden sculptures on the alter (still thinking they look kinda like giant Jesus Jenga pieces waiting to be stacked on top of each other)…I thought to myself as we embarked on our lengthy journey, that the hope my wife and I shared as we looked forward to rolling into Jackson, MI could not compare to the hope Mary and Joseph desired that night. The hope they shared after the baby Jesus was born. I wonder if they were scared about dust storms like I was worried about snow drifts. I wonder if they were worried about Mary arriving to the Inn safely like I was worried about black ice and semi trucks rushing by. They clung to that hope and it helped Mary sleep at night, I’m sure. I’m not sure however that DURING their journey, in such close proximity and against such adversity, Joseph and Mary complimented each other. I don’t know…but I hope.

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How can I even think about that type of hope in Christ? I suppose attempting to connect in any way to the Holy Couple is not realistic. Instead, as I warmed myself in the glow of the candles during the rendition of “Silent Night” at the end of the service…as I look at the same alter that blessed my marriage….as I look at my two beautiful nieces, as I gaze into the bulging eyes of my hot-water-bottle Pug, and as I dote on my amazing wife… I can at least remember that with every mile I put on the SUVs ticker and every Moonpie I conquer …I’m getting closer in my personal journey across my own desert. Everyday…not just Christmas day…I’m growing in my love for the Lord. I’m not perfect. In fact, I’m a paranoid, anxious, ambitious dude who can’t help but hope for the best. It’s what helps me fall asleep in the back of our rented Ford Explorer at night. (It’s no donkey…but it’ll do.)

SUVs have there place in the world I suppose. I know they could use a few more Hummers saddled with snow plows in Jackson, MI! But I can tell you this, just like there is room in this world for the silliest, most impractical SUV you can find…I’m sure there is room in this world for a silly, impractical drama teacher with a hope in the salvation.

Jesus Christ cannot be found at the end of the lengthiest highway in the world…but I bet, that when it is all said and done, and the wrapping paper is out for the garbage and the egg nog has been slurped up….Jesus will still remain steadfast in my heart and I can rest assured that I may continue my journey with a star to lead me.

I don’t need a rest area to settle that into my little brain.

Merry Christmas.

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