Friday, August 04, 2017

How Do You Put Your Pants On?

I wrote the post below in the summer of 2015 while I was doing a stint as Assistant Director at The Guthrie. I post it today as I consider the question of timing and competency from a slightly different perspective.

Today I signed the papers to clear the way for the sale of my property in Robbinsdale, MN, next Friday. The Monday after I will be purchasing The Forst Inn in Tisch Mills, WI. It feels a bit crazy, and vaguely irresponsible, but is fairly consistent with my personal history in regard to risk/reward calculations.

The past decade has been a more or less continuous experiment in calculated risk taking. My willingness to give things a try led me to pursue work in the Educational Development office at Roseville Area Schools, to abandon that work in pursuit of a more focused journey in theatre graduate school, to follow that work across Wisconsin to Manitowoc, and now to toss all my chips into the pot and try and create a community of artists in a unique home.

Still and all, the notion of taking on a 10,000sf property with a leaky roof and infrastructure that's been left somewhat distressed for a period of time when my own personal financial resources are modest definitely resonates as a doubling down of this journey. It could be a great thing. It could be the plot of a screwball comedy. It'll probably be something in between. It feels like something that people with deeper pockets should do.

In any event, vis-a-vis the following post, I oddly don't feel like a fraud. I actually feel like I'm the right person in the right place doing the right thing. The Universe seems to agree, for the moment. Powers beyond my ken brought me here and fate, as they say, is inexorable.

With that preamble, here are some thoughts from July, 2015.


The state of being wherein the artist, or really anyone who is supposed to have skills or knowledge in any realm, feels themself to be a fraud is ubiquitous.  At every stage of the journey from non-participation to mastery there are opportunities to look about oneself and contemplate the innumerable ways in which we might possibly be inadequate to the moment.

Recently I've been intrigued by the legitimacy of the idea that there are 10,000 hours on the road to mastery.  Logging those hours is no small task.  Along that road, no one is immune from the thought, "Do I belong here?"

Five weeks of this summer are being spent observing the process of staging a lovely comedy at The Guthrie. While Broadway may be the pinnacle of the profession for theatre folk in the US, a regional theatre like The Guthrie is about as good as it gets out here in the hinterland. The resources are extraordinary. The professionalism and preparation of everyone involved is inspiring. Still, the core process is pretty much the same as it's been wherever I've done this work: high schools, community theatres, college, smaller professional companies...what works is what works is what works. Maybe that's not a surprise. I mean, it's not a surprise. Of course, it is true that at this level everyone is very good at what they do. That's a difference of sorts. The roster is deep, as it were. And full. There are no open spots on the roster.

But good God what a fantasy of resources. There are tables full of people watching rehearsal just waiting for an opportunity to be useful. The director and actors are continually engaged in processing the text; there is a stage manager, assistant stage manager and stage management intern who are poised to note every element of blocking and technical need. I am there as the assistant director and there is also a directing intern...neither of us having a specific task but should the director have any need whatsoever we are poised to provide it. The dramaturg sat in frequently in early rehearsals and has been available though less present recently. The dialect coach sometimes sits in and has individual sessions with the actors. A fight choreographer was in rehearsal for a time and will return to assist with the handful of stage slaps and pratfalls. A photographer comes by periodically to snap publicity photos. Folks from props, costumes and set shops bring by rehearsal items as well as final elements for approval on an ongoing basis. A sound designer sends in sample clips and accompaniment tracks whenever they are needed. The rehearsal room is large and bright and stocked with coffee, water and comfy chairs for everyone. All of these people are highly experienced and well trained. They are deeply familiar with the behaviors that make someone successful in their select roles.

It is, as you might imagine, fun to watch.

And, also, predictably, folks who clearly have the skills and experience to be doing what they are doing have moments when they wonder, "Do I belong here?"

That doesn't make it irrational to ask the question. After all, examples of people who are not prepared or capable of fulfilling their assigned tasks are also ubiquitous. Sometimes people aspire to things they really don't have the skill sets to fulfill...whether through a lack of training or the requisite proclivities. It's another aspect of the roster being a bit thin. Sometimes you've got someone to stand by the base but they're not likely to actually catch the ball.

Maybe it's good to be asking the question.  It's a kind of self-regulation to prevent...something?  As long as it doesn't lead to debilitating fear or, more painfully, to a kind of insecure defensiveness that expresses itself as arrogance and narcissism. It all goes back to the mastery question. True mastery seems to lead to a very comfortable kind of competence that simply exists without needing to announce itself.

Meanwhile, in this room everyone is delightfully human. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

This is my son...from Wisconsin.

It's been roughly 1,000 days since I last posted. Well, closer to 1,200. That's a lot of days. Those days have contained a steady stream of potentially life changing experiences. I suppose the highlight would be finishing my MBA in theatre, though getting a second DUI and working through my relationship with alcohol was not an insignificant part of the whole. A journey is rarely a straight line.

During the past year I have been working for the smallest of the University of Wisconsin two year colleges in Manitowoc. I have a lot I could say about Manitowoc, mostly good, and should do a post about that, but suffice it to say that landing here was more engaging than I had expected. The universe in its infinite wisdom and with its ubiquitous sense of humor has chosen to present me with the opportunity to fulfill a long held dream in the crossroads town of Tisch Mills, Wisconsin, where I will be purchasing a theatre. A theatre housed in an Inn. So I'll be here for a bit. Thus, at a recent gathering my father quipped, "This is my son, Michael, from Wisconsin."

I've been "from Minnesota" for a long time. I'm not sure I'm ready to be "from Wisconsin" but I guess that's the reality of it. Worse things could happen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Upon Further Reflection

When I was about ten I read the play, Inherit the Wind, and fell in love with it.  At 12 I was passing out campaign literature for Hubert Humphrey in southern NJ.  I don't know that I understand either thing at more than an intuitive level.  I have largely lived my life at an intuitive level, despite a capacity to communicate and rationalize.  I like to think that I am a better person for my attitudes and beliefs, but, of course, everyone thinks this.

My social media circles are filled with folks who are politically engaged and have strong opinions in a variety of ways.  Not all of them align with my own values and attitudes, but, of course, many of them do.  Those circles are also filled with a lot of people who don't give a fuck and wish the rest of us would chill out, which is one of the privileges of living in places and times where the essentials of life are provided in one way or another and the fundamentals of government policy are largely invisible.

Within that context I am often wondering how it is that otherwise reasonable and intelligent people could so completely fail to see the things that are so painfully obvious to me.  Irony alert.  For future reference all ironic statements will be offered in italics.  So there's no mistake.  Cuz, well, we wouldn't want that.

Irony aside, the capacity to even ask that question suggests several things: arrogance, curiosity, ignorance, experience.  There is a parallel within this conversation to another that I was listening to on NPR recently in which it was suggested that rather than ask folks who are struggling with mental disorders, "What is wrong with them," we ask the question, "What happened to them?"  Not in the sense of what event caused them to be broken, but rather in the sense of what accumulation of experiences led them to the place where they think and behave as they do.

I am very much engaged by this question of what is the accumulated experience that leads us to live within the place that we do.  There is much about our own experience and context that drives our beliefs and actions.  David Brooks has some interesting things to say about this in his book, The Social Animal.

My thinking in this area has been perturbed this summer as a consequence of spending four weeks traveling across the surface of Europe.  My engagements were not most cases I spent only about 48 hours in any given city...and largely I was intent on getting a flavor of the various places that I moved through.  What I gathered in that period of flitting, which fits into the nooks and crannies of my prior knowledge about these places, is that there is a difference in how much of the world perceives...what...perceives something?  Life.  Society.  Purpose.  Freedom.

I am reading David McCullough's book, The Greater Journey, which describes the experiences of Americans visiting Paris during the 19th century and it is serving to continue this reflection on how I, as an American, perceive the world...or, perhaps more accurately, how my own perceptions of the world don't seem to align very well with the dominant perspectives in America.

There is a possibly unique characteristic in the American psyche that seems to reject reflection in favor of an irresistible obsession with production and efficiency.  We have made a religion, a God, of the capitalistic work ethic, and in that pursuit something is lost.  It exists within our Protestant, northern European roots, to be sure...but whereas in the lands from which we received it (Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway) this drive is contained within a communal and collaborative effort to build a balanced society, it is untempered here in America.

Recently, the German auto manufacturer Daimler made arrangements for its employees to ensure the sanctity of their vacation by allowing all email to be deleted as it is received while they are on vacation.  All of it.  Deleted.  This is such a foreign notion for Americans that even Daimler doesn't think they could do it in their US locations.  There is some irony in this since in Europe the vacation in question is probably at least four weeks long while in the US we do well to squeak out more than a week at a time.  And we work longer weeks, have lower benefits, etc. etc. etc.

This is a known thing.  It is a given that is recognized.  It is an assumption on which American policy and social structures depend and in many quarters in which it is celebrated.  But it may be a sickness in that the very success of that assumption has led the American experience to a place where it has no need to question its assumptions.  Success rarely breeds reflection.  Success breeds arrogance.  While America has had challenges and struggles, it has never in its short existence completely unraveled and hit the reset button.  As a result, we are able to assume that the system is sacrosanct and the individuals within the system that benefit from it, even those who don't benefit from it, continue to accept its structural defects without reflection.

Stepping off that soapbox and returning to Inherit the Wind, I begin to make some headway in developing an answer to the seemingly unrelated question of why I am driven to work as a director in the theatrical arts.  It seems to me that in my nature there is a connection between certain ideas and values that are existentially fundamental to my perception of myself.  They are existential in that I have repeatedly reconfigured my life to pursue them.  They are connected in that they are more compelling to me when they are grokked than when they are enumerated.  They are in my nature in that they were not chosen nor were then pursued, but rather they exist as a consequence of what has happened to what I have experienced from moment one.

Theatre, I believe, depends not just on its individual component parts, but rather depends on the way that the theatrical experience combines its component parts to create a context that privileges a particular intellectual or emotional experience.  The director's job is to craft the experience for the audience such that the essential idea that is of import to the director is foremost in the presentation.  The director creates a world, a world that exists outside of our own world, that allows us to see and hear and feel and believe in ways that we are immune from within our own world of experiences.  The world is created with the collaboration of actors, designers, technicians...all working together to highlight some substantive element from the original text that begs to be unified in the experience of a new world.

When I read a play, it is when there is an idea that presents itself to me as being worthy of highlight that I get excited.  I may not be able to articulate that idea in words, but there is an idea that is being developed, and the most effective way to develop that idea is through the wholeness of the theatrical moment.  It is intuitive.  It is an experience.  The question is not, "what does this mean," but, rather, the question is, "what have I experienced," and with a little luck, "how does that experience integrate or change what I value?"

In the end, experience is the defining element in who we are, what we believe, and what we value.  Theatre becomes a tool for change not when it articulates an explicit idea that the audience has already accepted or rejected in more didactic environments, but it is a tool for change when it leads its audience through an experience that contributes to the totality of the individuals world.  In the same way that sitting in the ancient medina in Fez or in the Jarden des Tuileries has the potential to affect that same sort of change, art which pulls the receiver of it into its world can be singularly powerful.  It is worth investing some energy to figuring out how to do it well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Oh, God. I'm provincial.

Here's a bit of breaking news for you.  Greek plays work better in Greek.  French plays work better in French.

It's amazing how much of life is spent learning the obvious.  There is what we know, and then there is what we actually understand.  They are not the same.  So I apologize in advance for the painful obviousness of the following thoughts.  The fact that this should not be worth remarking on is the very thing that I am struck by...that is, for the moment, remarkable.  The following statement of the obvious begs questions that I suppose I'll spend some time on.

I consider myself a reasonably open thinker with a willingness to unpack my assumptions and understand the world from other viewpoints.  I have taken dozens of courses in what we call the Humanities and have a strong background in the sources and wanderings of Western civilization.

I have always thought it would be useful to travel and see the world.  Well, sure, of course that's true.

But...who knew?

Time takes on a new focal point.  Although I entered these travels with the intellectual understanding that time need be measured in much larger units than we apply to our new and energetic federation here in North America, a shift has most definitely slipped me off my comfortable stance.

I am an avid reader of historical fiction.  As a young person I loved the novels of the American revolution and the civil war which brought those conflicts to life for me.  I continue to read historical fiction, but also now enjoy the biographies and histories of writers like David McCullough and have read Shelby Foote's lengthy history of the Civil War twice (thank you Barry Edwards, who would like me to return those volumes some day).  In all of that reading the events and personalities of that period of time sat comfortably far off in the distant past.  The nineteenth century was a very effective barrier between the modern and the ancient such that the colonization of North America and the resultant development of a new nation were very much things of a distant, though enormously interesting, past.

Tonight, as I sit reading McCullough's description of Americans in Paris in the early nineteenth century, I realize that these men and women, who were born after the American Revolution and lived into the period of the Civil war, created a bridge of a single generation between the people and events of those two rumbling moments in American history, and that someone born around the time of the Civil War could easily have lived through to World War II, which lands them smack in the middle of the recent history of the twentieth century that feels pretty much like a part of the living history of people I have known in my own

It is a short history.  A history that when measured in complete lives rather than generations is really only the history of three or four lives.  A few heartbeats.

There is something to be said here about the arrogance of our rhetoric and the untested mettle of our political experiment.  History is long and arduous and this experiment has really just barely begun.

But that isn't the real point, however much it might be worth exploring and considering.  The real point is that I have lived my life on the assumption that the center of all things -- politically, economically, artistically -- that although there was this thing out there that I knew about called Greece and that it was the source of something we called Classical Humanities and that it spent several thousand years flowing through Europe before it found its way to my home -- that never the less all things were centered here.  Where I am.  Which, arbitrarily, is in the midwest of North America.

It's not just time.  It's everything.  I have discovered that even though I knew that Oedipus was written by Sophocles in the fifth century BC and that it was written in much as I knew that, I didn't really understand it.  All I knew was that largely I didn't enjoy the experience of reading it or of seeing performances of it my enlightened modern world.  It seemed too broad.  It seemed too direct.  The realities of the characters escaped me.  For what it's worth, I was willing to believe that the problem sat in my own failure.  I didn't understand it, and for the most part it was easier to just dismiss it.

Eureka!  Greek plays make more sense in Greek.  Even without understanding Greek it makes more sense in Greek.  Language is more than just different ways to codify words.  Language speaks to the character of a people.  To the essence of the people who live in a particular place at a particular time.  It is the primal expression of the values and characteristics that make a people themselves.  The sounds of the language speak to the history and culture of a people.  In Hippolytus, a woman can find the deep emotional horror and anguish that comes from a love that is forbidden at the elemental level of society's existential boundaries and express that horror and anguish in words.  In Greek, that emotional eruption rings true and carries beyond the stage and into the souls of the audience.  In English, it really doesn't manage to do that.

Oh, sure, a talented actress or actor can make it work.  They can find the truth in the text and make it real in ways that wring pathos from the stiff necks of an audience.  But I have trouble believing it and it is difficult to fit into the language of a people whose character and values are misaligned with the voice of the story.

And having heard it in Greek, that makes sense to me in a way that it didn't before.  We're just copying something...and it's a copy that struggles to retain the color and clarity of the original.

And Moliere sounds better in French.  And, you know what?  Theatre didn't originate on Broadway.  There's this place called London where if they could keep from burning the damn theatres down we'd be seeing shows in the same place they'd been doing them for over 400 years.

I knew all this.  Still and all, somehow it's something I never really knew.

Friday, April 11, 2014


After a couple month hiatus while I was busily attending to the realities of being in graduate school and living the life fantastic I have been musing of late on the cycles of life that I have observed.  This began a few weeks ago when the extensive winter wonderland that is the upper midwest this year was finally brought to heel by warming winds and intensifying sunlight.  The most striking example of that change comes to me courtesy of the Minnesota river.

This is the first year that I have ever lived in such close proximity to a river.  I lived in Minneapolis, which boasts of its embrace of the mighty Mississippi, but somehow the way that the flow of that great body of water is managed and overcome by the civilizing force of dams and locks minimized the reality of its annual changes.  Yes, the roar of the St Anthony Falls in the spring is certainly impressive, particularly as I have sometimes observed it from the dramatic vistas afforded by the Guthrie's Endless Bridge.  Still, it always presented itself more as a moment of beauty than as an endless cycle of natural change.  What struck me differently in this new environ was the quiet power of that same annual cycle in a place where it is less obviously controlled.

What I witnessed recently is found in a little stretch of highway 169 between St. Peter and Mankato, which I drive several times each day in my commute from home to school.  In that drive I follow a long, lazy curve of the Minnesota river stretching along an arcing, tree covered ridge of high ground.  I moved here last summer, at which time a lengthy period of drought had reduced the river to a narrow, winding channel flowing through sandy bars beneath wooded banks.  At that time what struck me was how little water there was flowing in this presumably significant river valley.  The Minnesota River valley is a place of orchards and farms stretching back through the short recorded history of both native and European settlement.  It is a significant eco-system, and, yet, there just wasn't that much water out there.

Except, of course, that there is.  And, to be more specific, right this moment, as the snows melt and the new year begins, that is to say the seasonal period of Invigoration that follows Mortification and Purgation, there is a whole lot of water out there.  And, presumably, more to come.  Jubilation sits on the horizon.

To be brief, as unlikely as that is, what I am getting at is that when one lives in the proximity of a living river the cycle of the year suddenly comes into clearer and significant focus.  The living river that sits in front of me now is not the same living river that I witnessed in August, and, though I am but a stranger here and cannot speak to the centuries or even decades before and after me, I suspect it demonstrates a change that is available to be witnessed every year.

It speaks to a different kind of calculus.

Slower and inexorable and more willing to succumb to the forces of decay and death.  Mortification, Purgation, Invigoration and Jubilation.

So, as I drove to school one morning and suddenly realized that the essentially empty riverbed was no longer empty but fuller and filling and unconcerned, as I had been, with its annual depletion I felt a deep kinship with this cycle.

I am no farmer.  I have no interest in digging in the soil and toiling to bring forth painfully nurtured life from the richness of ingredients that are intellectually available to me but that I really don't understand at all.  Still, something about this striking example of cycle struck me...and I could not help but reflect.

I have always lived within the comfort of clock time.  I keep a detailed calendar of clock-driven activities and even when I am organizing my own efforts to complete my work I do so within the context of clock driven appointments with myself and my limited attention to task.

Still, within that, cycles call to me.

I have mentioned before the idea of having a driving question that engages a person for a decade or so at a time.  This wasn't my idea.  It was articulated to me by Brian Mertes from Brown.  It is a concept that resonates so deeply for me that it could rise to the level of a philosophy of life.  It is a concept clearly focused on the idea of cycle.

Sometimes when I look around me at the America in which I live I am struck by the predominance of the paradigm of linear growth.  It may have its roots in the industrial revolution that still frames our expectation of social discourse.  Linear growth is essential to the current American paradigm.  Without this linear growth we believe ourselves to be in a world of failure.

And that linear path, which many folks that I know have engaged to their own benefit, is somehow elusive to me.

Instead, I find myself more likely to accept a cycle that allows for Mortification.  For Purgation.  I abandon the linear path, lie fallow, and begin again.

I like this cycle, and, still, after living within it for what is now a sixth decade, I struggle to name and define it.

Hmmm....more on this now doubt as this year continues.

Happy Spring!  Time to pour libations on the gods of Invigoration!