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Mission: Relaxation June 21, 2011
Every afternoon of summer camp, the younger students are offered the opportunity to join me in the dance studio for a one-hour rest period. This part of the day is for the students who have been dancing and singing all morning to relax before their afternoon rehearsals. The only rules during this time are that the students must lay down and be quiet. Our goal is that they’ll fall asleep and get some much-needed rest. Their goal is to stay awake the entire time and ask me questions. The following is a transcript of a typical Relaxation Period.
All is quiet. The troops are laying down and settling in for their mission, defending themselves against the elements with blankets, pillows and snuggies. The lights are dim, the music is soft. No signs of imminent danger. It appears that Mission: Relaxation will commence as planned.
The troops are settling in nicely. In this dark room devoid of stimulus, a few members of our battalion have turned to books or journals for recreational purposes. No obvious threats to our mission are present.
They have begun to have second thoughts about Mission: Relaxation. A few Officers are strategically chosen by the troops to approach me, their General, and ask for reprieve of some of their duties, namely, laying down and being quiet. All requests are denied. All is calm, yet there is a hint of tension in the air; a sense of ominous foreboding.
The troops are restless. They have begun to organize themselves into small groups, relocating without permission. I fear they may be planning some sort of coup, so I must remain vigilant and not allow my mind to give way to the ambient lighting and singing whales in the background.
There is grumbling amongst the squadron. I go into their midst on a light reconnaissance mission to learn of their tribulations. It appears that Shyla is staring at JoJo, Monique is trying to take Aspen’s pillow, and Kaspar just got a text from Madden saying that Li-Wan and Gerauldo aren’t friends anymore. As these problems are clearly in opposition to our mission’s goals, I order the troops to return to their bunkers at once and resume their ranks.
All was quiet, until a loud burst of laughter disrupted the battalion. Mission: Relaxation will never achieve success with this kind of behavior, and therefore it will not be tolerated. I quickly reprimand the group and return them to silence. The air is thick with the fear of failure if our mission is not completed in accordance to the law.
Another outbreak of laughter. Another reprimand.
A third laughing spell. The perpetrator has been placed in solitary confinement. The others have been warned that similar behavior will be dealt with in the same manner.
Due to the Laughing Episode, the troops are highly alert and fear punishment. They have forgotten the rules of engagement of Mission: Relaxation. As General, I have taken it upon myself to remind them of their duties to lay down and be quiet. They have complied with my requests.
All is quiet.
My men are drowsy. It won’t be long now until the enemy appears. I must stand watch at all costs. Danger draws near.
The enemy has approached. With rations of reading material running low, the squad has resorted to counting ceiling tiles and making shadow puppets. Still, they battle on and amaze me with their overwhelming dedication to fighting the enemy; Sleep.
Aside from the singing whales, there is silence among the ranks. We are truly in the thick of our mission now, deep in the trenches of our selected task. Even as I write, I can see our platoon struggling as they fight Sleep with every ounce of their willpower. But they are strong and have been highly trained to evade Sleep at many Sleep-Overs and simulated Nap-Times. The battle continues.
Just as Sleep was about to take hold, the Chief Hyper-Activity Officer let out a mighty sneeze, rousing the rest of his followers and leading them to victory over their drowsy foe. Still, their fight with Sleep was a hard one, and has come at a high cost. They are disoriented, bleary-eyed, confused as to the time of day, and they all have to use the bathroom.
The troops successfully evaded Sleep for a full hour, with only a few minor snafus in the process. Thanks to their training and the exquisite leadership exhibited by myself, our mission is complete.
To those who succumb to Sleep, or to those who live in fear of Sleep, I ask you to fear no more. Sleep has once again been vanquished, and Mission: Relaxation may be counted as a success. For today, at least.
The Element of Surprise May 29, 2011
___If I have learned only one thing in the past six years of working with kids (and it’s quite possible that I have learned only one thing), it is that children live spontaneously. At any given moment they could laugh, or cry, do a cartwheel, or wet their pants. Sometimes they will do a cartwheel, laugh about it until they wet their pants, and then cry because their socks are wet.
___I tend to see young children when they are at their most vulnerable; immersed in a strange, new environment without warning. They have been yanked from school, thrown on a bus, and taken to an old building that has purple and orange paint on the walls and a dragon coming out of the ceiling. Their teachers abandon them for two hours, leaving them with strangers who demand that they sing and dance to songs about history or grammar, all while wearing an oversized hat that smells like a mixture of laundry detergent and anti-lice spray. But every time, no matter their age or experience, those kids dive into our eccentric world and they triumph.
___There’s a reason that adults don’t go on field trips. No grown up in their right mind would submit themselves to that sort of kamikaze learning experience and live to tell the tale. Adults would never consent to dancing in public and singing songs about compost. Not without having a few martinis first.
___As adults, we tend to shy away from the unfamiliar. Especially if the unfamiliar includes over-caffeinated women like myself trying to get you to do the Macarena. “Hey, everybody! You don’t know me, but you’re going to do everything I say for the next two hours, without question! Sound like fun?! Great! Now act like a monkey on a roller coaster!”
___Kids, however, are made of heartier stuff than we are. They seem to genuinely enjoy the unexpected, which is good because there is nothing mundane about being five. I am constantly amazed at their ability to embrace life, and all of the change that comes with it. Pablo Picasso once said that “every child is an artist, but the problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” For me, the solution is to surround myself with young minds, overflowing with wonder and enthusiasm. And when that doesn’t work, I find a that a couple of martinis will also do the trick.
Magically Shrinking Actors May 3, 2011
___In addition to our proscenium stage, we have a small black box theatre that seats about 90 people. The stage is about the size of a postage stamp, but it’s really great for smaller shows, and is perfect for introducing small children to the idea of performing in front of an audience. When you’re a kid, standing on the floor and singing isn’t nearly as intimidating as standing on an elevated stage with bright lights, velvet curtains and a wall of stadium seating before you. Of course, as an adult, I prefer for the audience to be as far away as possible so they can’t see that I haven’t plucked my eyebrows in the past month. That, along with my dislike for the taste of crayons, is just one of the many things that makes me different from a six-year-old.
___Aside from being a great introductory theatre for kids, the black box is also a great place for us to practice our painting skills. Because of its size, we can try out techniques that would be too tedious to do on a large scale, but that work perfectly in a small space. Last year we painted hardwood floors for a colonial setting, but we took it one step further and did the whole set as a forced perspective, drawing the eye inward and upward. All of the set pieces were angled in, and the back wall was closed off to just one eight-foot section so the whole set looked like it was narrower at the top and wider at the bottom, even though the room is an even square. The painted floorboards began as narrow, three-inch planks, but got wider and wider as they approached the audience. All in all, the effect was pretty neat.
___I tell you all of this so that I can share with you a conversation that I overheard from two of my students. Student A is a brilliant bookworm; he can tell you everything about anything, but he has a wicked sense of humor. Student B has the brains of a flea, but is one of the most talented and dedicated kids I’ve had the pleasure to know. Here is their conversation about our scenic design.
Student A: Hey, did you see the set?
Student B: Yeah. It’s weird.
Student: A: I like it!
Student B: I don’t get why the floor is all messed up.
Student A: It’s called “forced perspective.” It’s used to draw the eye inward.
Student B: …what?
Student A: It’s just a visual trick. Because this is a small theatre, forced perspective gives it more depth. The farther away from the audience something is, the smaller it looks.
Student B: So “forced perspective” means getting smaller?
Student A: Sort of. I think it’s neat.
Student B: I guess. (Pause.) Are we going to get smaller?
Student A: …what?
Student B: I mean, when we cross upstage…are we going to…you know…shrink??
Student A: (Pause. He’s thinking this through. He comes up with an evil plan.) Yeah. Didn’t you get that note?
Student B: No. I don’t think I know how to do that, you know, at least not effectively.
Student A: (With an evil grin.) You should probably practice.
___And he did! He started walking all around the theatre, adjusting his posture to appear “shorter” or “taller,” depending on where he was standing on stage, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Me: Please make him stop.
Student A: But it’s funny!
Me: It’s hilarious, but it’s also mean. You have to tell him.
Student A: Okay, I will. Just five more minutes.
Window Treatments February 21, 2011
___Our business is in an old department store building that has been renovated to suit our needs as a children’s theatre; the shoe storage room has become our prop closet, the finance office has become our makeup room and the dressing rooms have become, well, really busy dressing rooms.
___What’s interesting about working in a renovated building is that everyone seems to remember the original design a little differently. Some people wax nostalgic about how there used to be an escalator in the middle of our lobby, while others reminisce about the cafe that stood where the concession stand is now. One patron even told me that the restrooms in the back of the building used to be for African Americans and that seeing the whites-only bathrooms replaced by our box office brought tears of joy to her eyes.
___There was never an escalator or a cafe, and there were never any segregated bathrooms, but you can’t argue with people about their own memories. There could never have been an escalator in the front of the building, because the front half is only one story. Also, I have no idea how or why we would have removed a whole escalator system. It would have been really convenient if there had been a cafe by the concession stand, because then there would probably have been a cafe counter and some plumbing, which would make things a lot easier. But there wasn’t a cafe, and there isn’t plumbing, and it isn’t easy.
___I tried to explain that the blueprints of the building indicated that there was only one set of bathrooms downstairs, and that they were intended for staff, but the crying lady just shook her head and told me that I was too young to know the truth. Really, our new box office used to be a set of fitting rooms, not restrooms. This was a small store, and they weren’t outfitted with fancy powder rooms or lounge areas. The restrooms were never segregated, and they also weren’t public.
___Still, people see what they want to see and remember things the way they want to remember them. One of the few things that everyone does seem to agree on is the row of lighted window displays in the front of the building, facing the street. Where Belk’s used to display the new season’s collection, we advertise our new shows with three-dimensional renderings of our posters. Some patrons say that they used to have in-store pageants and the winners got to be “living mannequins,” posing and modeling clothes in the windows for hours at a time. Then there was some scandal about teenagers posing in flesh-baring bathing suits who were forced to put on cover-ups to preserve modesty, even though the temperature in the windows during the summertime was well into the nineties. In my mind I see young women dressed in Barbie’s vintage black and white strapless bathing suit, coyly wrapped in sheer white robes. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly seems plausible.
___While our window displays don’t feature live children in costume (yet), they are pretty amazing. We have some truly spectacular volunteers that dedicate dozens of hours each week to creating these large displays that can be seen all the way across the parking lot. They’re big, they’re colorful, and best of all, they’re cheap advertising.
___Of course, every silver lining has a cloud. Whenever we do a popular show like High School Musical or Beauty and the Beast, we get a ton of phone calls asking for the movie times, and a few people who want their money back because “that kid didn’t look like Zac Efron at all.” Once, we were doing a comedy called Lucky Dollar Private Eye, and we had someone walk in and ask to hire a private detective. Seriously. You can read the whole story here.
___Last spring, we did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (which you can also read about here and here, if you are so inclined), with an evocative display that caused quite an uproar. The poster artwork for our production was, in my opinion, brilliant. The background was burnt parchment paper, while the focus was a silhouette of a large hand with puppet strings extending from each finger and each string ending in a hangman’s noose with a body. It was very creepy, very cool and very likely to attract the 15-year-olds who were being forced to see The Crucible for extra English credit. I loved how the image captured the two primary punishments of the Salem Witch Trials (burning and hanging), and alluded to the political motivations of the play (manipulation and censorship). In short, I was in love with this design.
___Within thirty minutes of completing and installing this particular window display, our front office received an angry phone call from someone in the neighborhood wanting to know why the theatre hated black people.
Go ahead and read that last sentence one more time.
___We assured her that we didn’t hate black people, or any people, for that matter. Our irate caller demanded to know why our artwork depicted the lynching of five African Americans. She then threatened to call the news and protest outside the theatre if the display wasn’t removed immediately. Our office manager tried very hard to explain that they were not black people, they were blacked-out images of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, and that if she looked closely, she would notice that the strings and the hand were also pitch black. No, the woman insisted, we were all hateful bigots who were going to rot, first in jail and then in hell.
___Though we knew the point was moot, we tried to reason with her. We explained that the bodies were silhouettes and that all silhouettes are black. We explained that our display of Peter Pan also showed silhouettes of children flying to Neverland, but that it did not insinuate that black children were capable of flight. No matter our attempts at reasoning with her, the woman on the phone just became more and more belligerent.
___After many rounds, it was decided that the window display had to be removed. Just like the woman who remembered seeing the segregated bathrooms that never existed, this woman could not see past the color of the paint to view the image as a whole. She couldn’t see the truth; she could see only prejudice.
___I hated that we were backing down because of the protestations of such a small-minded person, but I understood that her perception of the image was skewed. I hated that I understood the dozens of stupid diplomatic reasons why we had to change our display. Most of all, I hated that we had already spent hundreds of dollars printing full-color posters and fliers that couldn’t be altered or exchanged.
___Several hours after the phone call, when my classes and rehearsals had ended, I turned off the inside lights to the theatre, locked the doors and got in my car to go home. As I backed out of my parking space, I saw The Crucible’s new and improved window design, which was, alarmingly, the same as it had been that afternoon, with just one small change.
The silhouetted image had been whitewashed. Because it’s perfectly fine to hang white people, I guess.
___Seeing the colorful art in our windows continues to be one of my favorite parts of coming to work in the morning. The locals drive by our theatre just to see the displays and to stay in the know about our upcoming shows. Even if our patrons can’t agree on the fabled escalator or the location of the old jewelry counter, they all love to see the store windows filled with this season’s new arrivals, just like the old days. And if there’s ever a problem with the design, be it a young girl’s silhouette in a bathing suit or the silhouette of a hangman’s noose, it can always be covered up with something sheer and white.
UPDATE: After posting this, I decided that it needed some visual aid. Here is a photo of the original design for The Crucible window.
And here is a photo of the “acceptable” display. Sorry about the blurriness and the glare. As you can see, it’s quite watered-down, and not nearly as cool as the original. It also has a paper sign at the top that reads “The Story of the Salem Witch Trials,” just in case people were still nervous.
Exhibit B: Gay Pride Dancers.
And my personal favorite, Exhibit C: Creamsicle People.
I’d Like to Thank the Academy… February 16, 2011
Typically, I write a blog post, publish it and let it be. It’s sort of like putting a message in a bottle and setting it adrift on the sea of the internet. I don’t really know who reads it, except for my mom and a couple of my dearest friends who follow me on Twitter. So imagine my surprise when I logged on this morning and noticed that my last post had 70 unique hits! Wowzahz! I know that 70 views isn’t a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but it’s about 65 more than I ever anticipated. So thanks for reading, whoever you are!
P.S. You should leave me comments. You know, if you want to.
Class Registration February 10, 2011
A typical phone conversation at the children’s theatre, here for all to enjoy!
Me: Hello, this is Jenn. How can I help you?
Parent: Hi! I’m interested in getting my daughter involved in the theatre!
Me: Great! How old is she?
Parent: She just turned four. We had the best princess-themed birthday party! She pretended that she was a princess and bossed everyone around all day long!
Me: Wonderful. We have a class for PreK students that starts in a few days.
Parent: Aww! What do they do in class?
Me: They act out a different storybook each day, and they make a theatre craft project based on that book, like a puppet or a costume piece.
Parent: That’s perfect for my daughter! She just loves acting out. She’s very dramatic.
Me: Well, she’ll fit right in. Would you like to register her for this class?
Parent: Maybe. Will she be the lead?
Parent: In the play. Will she be the lead?
Me: The PreK class doesn’t put on a play. They memorize and act out storybooks.
Parent: Why don’t they do a whole play?
Me: Because they’re four. This class focuses on creative play and imagination.
Parent: But she should be in a play. She sings along to Glee all the time.
Me: Our pre-kindergarten class is an introduction to theatre…
Parent: My daughter is smarter than that. She already knows how to draw stars.
Me: …they explore how to use their bodies and voices to tell a story and express emotions.
Parent: My child doesn’t need to express her emotions; she needs to be on the stage. What other classes do you have?
Me: We only offer one PreK class at this time.
Parent: How old do you have to be to be the lead in a play?
Me: (Sigh.) The students begin staging short musicals in 2nd grade.
Parent: Great! I want her to be in that class!
Me: I’m sorry, ma’am, but she’ll have to wait until she’s old enough. She should begin with the introductory class. It’s a wonderful foundation for…
Parent: She’s smart enough to be in second grade! In fact, we’re having her tested this summer to see if she can skip Kindergarten and go straight to first! If she can skip Kindergarten, can she be in that other class?!
Me: No, ma’am. She needs to be in second grade.
Parent: But you don’t understand! She’s brilliant. I mean, she acts out everything she sees on t.v. Like those insurance commercials! She and my husband act them out every night at the dinner table! He’ll say “do I get all the dag-nabbit coverage I need?” and she’ll say “name your price!” and then we all just laugh and laugh! She doesn’t need a beginner’s class. She’s advanced!
Me: Has she had any previous theatre experience?
Parent: I just told you. She acts things out at home all the time.
Me: If you really want your preschooler to become involved in theatre, I suggest you start with this beginner’s class. It’s the only program that we have for her age group, and it is a very good introduction to live theatre.
Parent: But she won’t be the star.
Me: In order for her to have the skills to audition for a leading role in the future, she will need to understand basic concepts. Like listening…
Parent: What if she doesn’t want to take a class? What if she just wants to be the lead in a play?
Me: Then she will need to wait until she is old enough to audition for one of our children’s plays.
Parent: Okay, what do you have to do to audition?
Me: Depending on the play, you learn a song and a dance, and then you read from the script.
Parent: She can’t read. She’s only four!
Me: Which is why she can’t audition for a play until she is in second grade.
Parent: This is ridiculous! My child has dreams! She wants to be a star, and she wants to be a star now! By the time she’s in second grade, she might not even want to do this anymore!
Me: Then perhaps you should keep her interested by bringing her to some of our plays and enrolling her in our introductory PreK class.
Parent: Listen, I don’t think you understand. I have a very precocious, very demanding, very dramatic little girl who wants to be in a play. She won’t stop bugging me about it and I don’t know what else to do!
Me: I do understand. Unfortunately, the only thing I can offer you is a spot in the 4-year-old class.
Parent: Alright, fine. I’ll sign her up. Anything to get her out of the house.