Friday, August 20, 2010

The power of theater

Here is a column of mine, published in the Claremont Courier a couple months ago, that reflects and explains, at least in part, my passion for live theater. (Okay, I’ve been very busy, and it’s really hot. Yes, this is filler, but I hope it’s good filler!)


"You guys make the world awful!"

There was no doubt about this when, minutes later, the gunshot rang out. The bang was enormous in the cavernous theater, and, with it coming from offstage, it was all the more jarring. Of course, it was no surprise - of course, Tony was going to be shot, leaving his beloved Maria to mourn and to hate - but it was a shock nevertheless.

This was West Side Story, after all - a musical, yes, but not one ending with laughter and the peal of wedding bells. The Claremont High School production of the masterpiece by playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, dealt with the age-old problem of racial hatred and rivalry, set in the gritty world of New York City street gangs in the mid-1900's and with songs that are beautiful and sometimes funny but also cynical and bitter. As Doc, the cafĂ© proprietor, points out in addressing the gang members, it is about everything that makes "the world awful."

This was pretty heady stuff for the high school students. It made the year-end musical production in Bridges Auditorium a couple weekends ago just that much more big-time
No doubt it was a big weekend for Andrew Lindvall and Emily Dauwalder who played Tony and Maria. They shone onstage like the stars on the ceiling of the renowned auditorium. And so did the dozens and dozens of kids who appeared. I was especially impressed with the boys dancing with precise and daring scissor-kicks, choreographed by Daniel Smith, in the high-flying, metropolitan spirit of Jerome Robbins.

As always, these students were supported by at least twice as many others behind the scenes, handling the props and costumes and the lighting and sound, making the show run smoothly. Although none couldn’t be seen, they clearly did an ace job, looking like pros. When I attended on Saturday night, even the sound, which is usually tricky and which always presents a problem in Big Bridges, was pulled off with only the slightest of hitches.

And then, of course, there was, as usual, Krista Carson Elhai, the legendary C.H.S director who, along with Musical Director Joel Wilson, whipped these hundreds of students into spectacular shape. Yes, it may be the case that "boy, is she tired!" after having directed over 250 productions in her 26 years of teaching theater, as her program bio crankily noted, but, as was evident in this production, she hasn’t lost her touch in getting teenagers to do wonderful, magical stuff.

I also can’t praise her enough for having them do mature, provocative work. This show ranked up there with The Laramie Project, the Who’s Tommy and Metamorphisis. Ms. Elhai is confident and isn’t afraid to trust and challenge her students, as well as her audiences, with these brave shows.

Yes, there was plenty to be proud of that weekend. Yes, it was the big-time show in big-time Big Bridges. My one real complaint is that the music wasn’t live. I think these hard-working kids and the beautiful, grand venue deserved to be accompanied and serenaded by a live orchestra.

What’s more, it was a celebration of community, a celebration of a school and of students and teachers supported, encouraged and nurtured by our community. There was a large, slick program loaded with ads and sponsors, and there were lots of cheering parents and friends. This was very much something put on by the community. I kept thinking that it was like a warm-up for our Fourth of July fete.

I also saw this sense of community, of a community coming together and growing, at another play, another musical, I saw a few weeks earlier. It was in Temecula, and it was Rent and it was a delightful surprise.

What was I doing seeing Rent in Temecula? As I discovered a year or two ago when I went to the Old Town Temecula Community Theater, although it is 60 miles away, it takes no longer to get there than it takes to get to a theater in L.A or Santa Monica with the nearly constant city traffic - and the drive is considerably less stressful. Besides, this was the first time I could see this work for less than something like $65 a pop.

Still, I was quite wary. Although the relatively new theater is very attractive and state-of-the-art, the rock opera by Jonathan Larson dealing with prostitutes, druggies and drag queens didn’t seem to fit in this rural (but growing) town with its distinctly western themes, complete with wooden plank sidewalks and country music piped in on the streets. Rent is a long way from La Boheme, although it is based on the Pucinni opera, and Main Street, Temecula, is definitely a long way from Hollywood or Santa Monica Boulevard. It also didn’t help that I had been less than impressed with the previous production I saw there - a victim of a lazy director.

When I entered the theater - late, I’m afraid - I was immediately thrilled, even electrified. Not only was there a live band jamming onstage, there was a young, long-haired man, dressed in the red, plaid pants and black t-shirt of a rocker, singing to a stripper about losing his stash and how he might be falling in love with her. I certainly didn’t think I was in Temecula - or what I think of as Temecula - anymore, Toto!

The play went on from there and didn’t let up, driven by the band, with its stories of people in New York City dealing with eviction, drug use, whoring, AIDS, homelessness, etc. Many of the songs were punctuated with the strongest of profanities. No doubt some in the audience found the work eye-opening, to say the least, but even they had to admit that it had tremendous heart and was being performed, by the Temecula Valley Players, with tremendous heart. I had the sense that the challenging, daring quality of the work inspired the players to do such a fine job with it.

I also had the sense that there was a group of young people in the audience who were cheering especially often and especially loudly. I wondered if they had been to at least one or two of the other performances. I wondered also if they felt that they were finally being heard and understood.

This is the sense I have of live theater and the unique, magical power it has. It can bring a community together. It can inspire a community - all the more so when it challenges the community. And it can open eyes in a community to other communities, other worlds, other ways.

Theater brings us together to build, strengthen, nurture community. Indeed, as everyone sings in West Side Story, "take my hand, and we’re halfway there."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The big question

"Let’s see how fast you are with that."

I was at the local Borders Books, using my new Vmax voice synthesizer to order a book which wasn’t in stock, when a guy came up behind me and said, "Hi, John!" I wasn’t quite sure who he was - not atypical around here where I’m well-known - but he seemed to know me and about the Vmax, impressing the young man who was assisting me, and who was at first a bit impatient although curious, even more. By the time I had the device voice "sweet" and "peace out," which I have pre-programed, after he gave me a receipt, he was laughing, clearly charmed and stoked.

I was pretty fast with the Vmax, which operates using a camera tracking a silver dot now attached to my glasses and which I have posted a few times about getting in recent months, this time, and this adventure with it was a big success. Some adventures, since having the Vmax attached to my chair a month ago (it is easily removable, and I have it removed when I eat, write, etc.), haven’t been so successful, but they have all been a learning experience - really a full-time learning experience - and I can tell you a lot.

I can tell you about...
...the Vmax being placed right in front of my face for the first few days and my having to peer around it when I traveled. Horrified, the therapists at the hospital set it a bit lower and at a slight angle, making all the difference in the world and enabling me to more or less see where I’m going and also to unlock my front door. Also, it turned out that the dot falls off my forehead when I sweat, and it lasts much longer and seems to give me more direct control with in on my glasses. (Also, people don’t ask me anymore if I’ve converted to Hinduism, and my glasses, which also have a bit of foil on them, are now, appropriately, my tiara.)
...going home in my wheelchair and having the Vmax start to fall forward; the clamp had loosened with the bumpy ride (I suspect that typical Vmax users don’t go out like I do). I was scared shitless that the $8,000 device would smash to the ground. The next day, a friend who works at the hospital cleverly devised a velcro strap, which appears to have done the trick. I love the Vmax’s word prediction. It not only predicts the word I’m typing; it predicts, with impressive acuity, the next word, speeding things up all the more. This is one powerful program!
...discovering at a picnic that the Vmax doesn’t do well in the sun. The screen is hard to see, and the camera kind of goes haywire. Bummer - especially at those pool parties and when my wheelchair breaks down when I’m out. My hospital team is talking about devising some kind of shade. I’m figuring out when and when not to have it on my chair. Should I have it with me whenever I go out - even, say, when I’m shopping with an attendant?
...people either being fascinated by it or not seeing it at all. This is weird - how can they not see and be curious about this big thing in front of me, especially when it’s on and glowing? Is it just another high-tech gadget? Are they just used to seeing John - or that guy - in the wheelchair?
...having trouble with the screen coming on at other times, instead of just when I touch it, and with the battery lasting 2-3 hours instead of the 4-6 hours that it’s supposed to last (even that is silly and frustrating to me). The Vmax takes a very long time to power up - impractical when I want to talk to someone - and, to conserve the battery, I have the screen set to go black after 5 minutes of non-use, but it keeps coming on when I look at the camera or the camera picks up something. Do I have a bad battery? Should I get or make a little cap to go over the camera? Meanwhile, I’m having the device plugged in, including when I use it, as much as possible.

There are other issues, but I think the biggest is knowing when to use the Vmax and when to speak. This came to the fore when I attended Pacific Yearly Meeting, a five-day gathering of Quakers from California, Nevada, Mexico and Hawaii at the end of July, where I got a lot of practice and feedback, where I found out I am much better using the Vmax with individuals and small groups than with a large audience (making me nervous and less able to focus) and where, despite having a note in the daily newsletter explaining the Vmax, at least one or two people thought I use it for playing games.

The big question: Would you rather be patient trying to understand my speech or waiting for me using the Vmax?

I think my experience at Borders gives an - but probably not the - answer. I think the thing to understand, including by me, is that this device is not a miracle, but it is a powerful tool that can help, really help.