Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Holiday Greetings 2020 - Differently Different

 It's Christmas Eve Eve and after 58 consecutive yules spent with my immediate family this year I am, like many of you, sticking close to my logistical home for the holidays. 

Over the past decade I have been somewhat nomadic, moving away from my children to go to grad school and then to an unexpected extended adventure here in NE Wisconsin. It is a life filled with blessings and joy, and yet it is not the same as gathering with loved ones for the family rituals of Christmas. 

Much has been written and shared about the nature of family and the many ways that it can be constituted through the myriad connections in our lives. I am blessed that there are many cherished circles in my life that have at various times constituted my family and with whom I continue to share a connection that is deep and essential and nourishing. While I might only see those circles intermittently, they are, never the less, family. It's a blessing and it has made my life one filled largely with joy.

Tomorrow I will spend Christmas Eve with someone I love and I hope that you are able to do so as well. If you are with unexpected new connections, with old friends, with traditional family, or with whomever you are blessed to share your day, then seek the love of family there in that space and in that time. Even if you find yourself alone, as so many of us have for so many of the days of 2020, recognize the value of your own company and release yourself to the joy of individual rebirth. The rejuvenation of mid-winter is in your heart and your soul and ultimately has import first and foremost in your embrace of it directly. Gather up your solstice energy and hang on to it as we look for ways to make 2021 something of value.

For myself, my most recent family circle has included the amazing folks in the Mistletoe Musings ensemble. So, here is one of their songs that I particularly enjoy.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, August 28, 2020

Toward A Body Politic

It's been a tough week. Events in Kenosha, WI, have piled on top of a year of increasing economic inequity and racial unrest. The political environment has deteriorated beyond just tribal conflicts to the point where it feels like we are on the precipice of legitimate open civil conflict. I am constantly met with voices that seem to have no interest in finding a middle ground. It is both exhausting and demoralizing. I am normally inclined to assume that things will settle down and find their equilibrium...and while I guess I still believe that it is difficult to be hopeful.

Adding to my own sense of heaviness has been the work of shepherding an arts organization through the times of Covid. The Forst Inn Arts Collective was well positioned to have a great 2020. Diverse season, a robust and growing volunteer base, growing patronage, increased was looking really healthy. Instead, our first show closed after it's first night...stumbled through a few performances in June and the next show had one good weekend and then had two consecutive weekends close due to potential Covid infections. We were fortunate in that we did not have an outbreak sourced from our facility; however, symptoms and positive cases in volunteers caused us to close as precautionary measures. It's a challenge. That isn't to say that we haven't had our successes, but it has been a struggle to maintain focus.

So, I have not posted in quite a while. Partly that's because the few times I was inclined to do a reflective post I have done it within the context of The Forst Inn Arts Collective blog ( More recently it has been because, in my role as a director of an arts organization that has a diverse patron base, I have been reluctant to comment too directly on things political. However, given the state of the universe, I think it's time to be more open in my beliefs.

This is largely because I am blessed to have in my circle a wonderfully diverse community of people who are working to make the world a better place. They have been in a host of groups that highlight important social issues and have been "out there" in their own public persona in ways that I admire and respect. Eventually, one reaches a point where trying to be circumspect and neutral starts to feel like a betrayal of those things that one values and cherishes. I guess I have reached that point where I feel a responsibility to use what little voice I have to support my ideals and those folks around me with whom I share those ideals.

So, for my own mental health, I offer the following thoughts. If you don't care, stop reading. I want to emphasize that there is nothing unique or new in these thoughts. A little research and reading will provide you with information that is much more thorough and comprehensive than my thoughts. I just need to speak for my own sanity.


I suppose this could as easily be headed, REGARDING SYSTEMIC INJUSTICE. It is incredibly frustrating to read social media posts in which folks argue at length about the details of individual interactions between individuals and our social systems. While these interactions are important as exemplars of the injustices and biases that exist, it is easy to dismiss or extol ones own perspective by highlighting specific elements of individual interactions. These discussions are filled with logical fallacies and false equivalencies. 

At their root, however, I believe that systemic racism is deeply entrenched in our educational and legal systems. That does not mean that every individual in these systems is overtly racist; however, it does mean that these systems perpetuate injustices that have plagued our social fabric for centuries. I know that there are amazing educators, prosecutors, and police officers who believe in making a positive impact on their communities. At the same time, implicit bias is a difficult beast to overcome. There is a great piece on implicit bias on the podcast Hidden Brain

Because of that fundamental injustice, large communities of our society are unable to access the ideals that we blithely attribute to being a citizen of this country. Those of us who are insulated from that injustice struggle to see that bias and are unable to truly empathize with their perspective. That difficulty is easily labeled "White Privilege", but as soon as you assign a label objections abound. I believe that the unrest that we are experiencing at this time is not because of these individual instances, but, rather, are an accumulation of deep and significant disenfranchisement and disillusion. Communities are not burning because of a specific event...they are burning because we have left too many of our fellow citizens behind.

Some of what is happening in regard to the destruction of property comes at the hands of those who are trying to make their voices heard. Other instances seem to be coming from groups who see advantage in fomenting discord as a way to disrupt the voices of those who are disadvantaged. All of these participants are speaking from a place of frustration with the status quo.

So, I believe that the current expressions of dissent, whether they manage to stay peaceful or result in the destruction of property, are legitimate expressions of systemic injustice. Most importantly, I believe that the more these protests are resisted with violent suppression, the more they will increase. Portland is the perfect example of how LISTENING is more effective at managing dissenting voices than is violent suppression. 


While systemic racism stands alone as a problem to be addressed, economic inequality that seems to be baked into the capitalistic norms of the United States exacerbates these injustices. A society which allows a small percentage of its populace to hold almost all of its wealth is not likely to long prosper. Simply look at the broad economic trends of the past 120 years and it is easy to see this. After a period of significant inequality, the rise of unions, the introduction of the income tax, and the policies resulting from the response to the Great Depression resulted in a lengthy period of reduced inequality (roughly 1937-1980). This is the period that built the middle class and which many Boomers look back on as the "good old days". Since then, tax and economic policy has allowed a distressing trend back to the years of the "robber barons" which has only intensified in this year of Covid. An individual's perspective on the economics of 2020 are largely determined by whether they are living the economics of the stock market or the economics of low paid wages.

What is important about this is that, I believe, the unrest we are experiencing is heightened by the ways in which it is driven not just by racial injustice but also by the increasing awareness of younger generations that the fix is in. This is fueling the intensity of protests and also adding the unfortunate participation of those who blame their economic despair on those who might need support. It is a confounding brew. Too many of us look around and feel like they have almost nothing to lose.


Conservatives are not evil fascists. Progressives do not hate the United States. Some of us think that a smaller government would be better, others believe that government is an important social good. Compromise is beneficial. Read about how Newt Gingrich created the politics of the nuclear option. And for God's sake, we're all socialists when it benefits us personally. 

Okay. That's all I've got. It's nothing new. For God's Sake, get your news from a reliable source. I have my biases about what that means but if you've never taken a moment to evaluate the reliability of your news sources, please, do so. I will update and add to this as I can.

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.