Tuesday, June 30, 2009


In my over-twenty years as an educator, very few school years have passed where I did not introduce a new course to my line-up of students. I love the vibrancy and urgency of a new course! New courses have an unusually consistent birth and life—in the first year of introducing a new course, I am just thrilled that I survived the ups and downs of the new course; in the second year, I find I am painfully aware of all the mistakes I have made and bothered that I can’t return to the simpler magic of that first year of the course; in the third year of the new course, a little wisdom and serenity and pragmatism prevail, and a calm settles in. Time and again, with courses on United States history, World History, AP this and AP that, a course follows that three-year pattern.

Hmmmm….as I come to the end of June, the end of my second year at KA, and I look back on this second year of this high-flying, high-profile, high-ideals and high-hopes school, it is following that same pattern as a new course.

I looked back in the blog archives to what I wrote in June of 2008. As we came to the end of that inaugural year of our school, there was such excitement and wonder—we had survived the year! Students had improved! Four bad boys had exited the school and we were left with the fruits of our worry and labor—a solid, growing, intellectually stimulating school. We put mementoes into a time capsule, we hugged and shed tears at the summer separation we faced. I reflected on sauntering in the Holy Land. It was all heady and meaningful.

This year—our second year, had bumps along the way. The school more than doubled in size, and of course that changed the dynamics of our little intimate school of 110 students. Several faculty suffered health issues during the year resulting in sudden departures and the need to find new faculty immediately. The school endured the growing pains of adjusting to AP curricula. The school realized that the sports program just wasn’t cultivating a competitive roster of teams. The school suffered from the pangs of economic decline just like everybody else. The school agonized over whether we were a Jordanian or an American school, a day school or a boarding school, a regional school or an international school. The school will lose several high-profile administrators for next year. Towards the end of the year, maybe due to spring fever, the school witnessed a burgeoning growth of inappropriate adolescent behavior—nothing unusual, just a rash of dumb, immature behavior. Several faculty came to the end of their tenure at the school with a resentful, bitter edge.

Yep—exactly like the contours of a new course…much less of a “thrill” to end the year, and more flailing, wondering, and awareness of the difficulties of running a school, any school, even a school with such lovely guiding principles as Respect, Responsibility, Love of Learning, an Integrated Life, and Global Citizenship.

So here I am, at the end of June, and ready for a summer vacation from the blog. After this blogisode, I will take time off from the blog—with a check-in blog entry in July—until I return to Jordan in 45 days.

Last year I created a showcase of the year from A-Z—a little like watching the Tony Awards and enjoying the highlights from the nominated musicals. (Okay, that was just ridiculous—it was nothing like watching the Tony Awards!)

As I look back over the year, I wondered what image or metaphor (or Broadway show or situation-comedy) I would invoke as my emblem of the year. Well, when I was in Egypt two weeks ago with Anne and Martha, I learned of a shocking story about a man killed in early June for water.

Our tour guide Mohammed and I were talking about the story, and Mohammed told me of an important movie in Egyptian cinema, The Good Earth as it is called in English, made in 1962, about the plight of the Egyptian farmers under the British occupation. At that time the soil went thirsty because the British colonists and their allies, the feudal aristocrats, had priority for irrigating the land, at the expense of the small farmers. As Mohammed reminded me, the 1952 Revolution brought to an end the British occupation of Egypt as well as the feudal system, but as has turned out, the fight over water has never ended.

We discussed how shocking it was that a man was killed over irrigation rights. You know, maybe it shouldn’t be shocking—experts have been warning us about the water poverty in the world and the possible eruption of wars over water resources in different parts of the world.

But it seemed strange to me that such a murder would take place near the banks of the mighty Nile with its legendary rich waters and fertile soil. We are so close to what we need, but it doesn’t always get there.

That seems an apt metaphor for us this year at KA—we are so close to what we need, but it doesn’t always get there.

We are parched. I am parched. I left Jordan left week, eager to spend my summer in the United States, parched. Parched for a sense of calm; parched for rigor; parched for civility. How to quench that thirst?

When I come home there is always that week of odd jet lag—I am tired earlier in the evening, and then wake up rarin’ to go—first around 4:00 a.m. and then 4:15 a.m. and then after a week, I arise at a more civilized 7:00 a.m. But in that week I need some good books to get me through that down time when no one else is awake in my circle of friends and family. I always go to the library for a stack of biographies or potboilers to help me make it through the inky part of the night.

One of the books I picked up this last week was a new work about folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. I have heard him perform twice in the last 15 years, and he is a marvel of a leader. When Pete Seeger started traveling and listening to American music in the 1930s, he heard a hundred voices in those stories and ordinary songs of folks, from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music—and he felt the connection to the music. Somehow in those pre-dawn hours I feel a connection to Pete Seeger and his goal to understand Americans. He thirsted for understanding, and he fueled that curiosity with some
19th century and Calvinist habits of mind, blended them with a New England sensibility, sprinkled in some Emerson and Thoreau and finally resulted in a wholly original reverence for nature, regard for human life, something like a scorn for materialistic values, and a belief in the worth of right moral behavior. This biographer commented about Pete Seeger: “His nature is unflaggingly hopeful, but there is a line of melancholy that runs through it.” Hmmm...Pete Seeger himself once said, “I seem to stagger about this agonized world as a clown, dressed in happiness, hoping to reach the hearts and minds of the young.”

I came home from a wearying year in Jordan, aware of the dark corners, aware of some problems, aware that it is neither always an adventure nor a romance, but still buoyed by the hope that this school can make our young people feel themselves to be the elements of a collective identity, can intensify their learning experience—and can enlarge and encourage them and help hold oblivion at arm’s length.

Toward the end of the book, Pete Seeger remarked, “I always hated the word career. It implies that fame and fortune are what you’re trying to get. I have a life’s purpose. These days my purpose is trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race by the end of the century unless we find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with. Whether we cooperate from love or tolerance, it doesn’t much matter, but we must treat each other non-violently. The agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial revolution took hundreds of years, the technological revolution is taking decades. We need a moral revolution.”

I came home parched. I am enjoying that re-charge of batteries that comes with a little distance, an absence of duties and meetings, and I can reflect on how I can be a part of that moral revolution that KA aims to jumpstart. I am also reminded of a great poem, “Directive,” by Robert Frost that a young colleague introduced me to in the spring of 2008. The poem speaks about a road that leads to an obscure house, and an obscure spring. The poem ends with the grand announcement, or should I say, directive: “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

We will get lost, the poem reminds, and the finding-in-losing is the poem’s crucial paradox and climax. We must not be scared of our own desert places. We will find ourselves lost in the generations of humanity. And just when our ordeal seems unbearable, and we are indeed mazed by primitive fears, we learn in drinking where we have been and where we have finally arrived. The poem astounds me because it doesn’t minimize our dashed expectations, and it doesn’t provide answers. It simply stays defeat by bettering being lost.

This would have been a great place to end my blogisode (Happy Birthday yesterday Sue who named it thus!) reflection of the end of our second year. But last night I got an e-mail from Abdullah, one of the most exciting and urgent students I have known at KA. He is teaching younger students grades 6-8 at KA this summer. He wrote me of his frustrations in teaching these younger students:

I’m writing you to tell you that something just happened to me that firstly angered me, and secondly made me really admire you.

Some of the SEP kids, I regrettably announce, have become just like some of the King’s Academy students. They do not appreciate being here and act all snobbish, etc. Well, today we decided to let the 8th graders (the oldest might I add) off play practice (I know, we’re crazy) and play a few games with them instead. These games were theatrical games of course, and so, it involved some sitting down and listening on behalf of the students. Some of them, however, could not sit down and listen. We therefore had to go through the usual “go and sit at the back” and things like that. The kids, however, did not stop. They continued doing things like making fun of the people on stage, who were already too shy to get up on stage in the first place. It even went to the extent where I sat next to a group of them and they started joking around with me expecting me to join them. I was just about to get up and yell at the whole group…In the end I just left the children for the other counselors to take care of them.

This just happened to be the last straw for me after a serious of similar events that occurred today and days before. My patience grew unbelievably thin and I am now locked in my room, trying to escape them.

At this point right now I really really admire you.

All the things one has to go through, whether it’s gauging how angry to be at what moments, or whether or not to let this one slip, or just sending people to they’re rooms. I actually made a little girl cry today! And I wasn’t even angry at her! I still don’t get how I did that! I would also really like to know if you find us as annoying as I find some of them. If so, then I not only admire you, but I feel your pain as well. The clingy annoying children I personally find the worst, even if they didn’t to anything wrong in particular.

I don’t know how you survive it. The real mystery is how you not only survive it, but end up changing them. You actually manage to change kids’ lives and go through all that hell, and I’m finding trouble just surviving two weeks of this. Wow.

Well, I’m terribly sorry that my first email to you this summer is complaining. I do not like to complain much, but it is the “I admire you” part that I really wanted to get across.

Yes, the cycle of the “new course” is continuing—let us look for the wisdom and serenity of the third year. Abdullah has certainly helped to slake my thirst.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Existential Anxiety

For the last few weeks I have been mulling over this phrase: existential anxiety.

I remember when I first learned of the word ‘existential’—I was sitting outside on the quad at Denison, in my first couple weeks of college, and in Dr. Eisenbeis’ class we were reading The Idea of the Holy and discussing its contents. It was a sultry early September afternoon, and our venerable Dr. Eisenbeis had taken us outside to discuss the points in Rudolf Otto’s book. I will admit, this was a difficult book for me. It didn’t have a plot, or a chronology, or even concrete, salient facts. Some hotshot freshman kept making the point that the book was “really existential.” He sounded so smart. And in that knowing way he kept dropping the word ‘existential,’ and others nodded. I was impressed. I didn’t really know what the word meant, and later that day, I checked in a dictionary. Oh. It really means pondering your existence. Okay—I can understand that.

Existential anxiety is a great phrase on a number of levels. One of the levels that has captured my attention in 2009 is back to the topic that never ceases to fascinate in my new home of the Middle East: Israel and Palestine.

In December and January as Israeli troops encircled Gaza Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised “a war to the bitter end” to defend their existence. But as we have seen over these sixty years the application of force does not extinguish militants’ ideological fervor. Then I went to Jerusalem in March, as several blogisodes captured, where I saw how Israel treats Palestinians at/in its borders (by the way, President Jimmy Carter is on record as having said time and again, “they are treated like animals.”) and I got to know two students from Gaza who came to KA in January. These two young men, kind and gentle Muhammad and Omar, needed to leave a day early from school last week because the border was opening that day only and they wouldn’t be allowed in for two more weeks if they waited.

In the last month Isareli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a peace plan that probably sounded like a chord of hope had been struck.

But then if you read Netanyahu’s speech, and if you have seen what I have seen, and heard what I have heard in the last two years, you sigh, and ponder and fear and cultivate a new existential anxiety.

PM Netanyahu arrived in Washington, D.C. about a month ago desiring a “fresh approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Obama has endeared himself in the Arab world by promoting a viable Palestinian state and he has said time and again that a comprehensive peace must grapple with what many in the international community have been saying since 1967: the Occupation must come to an end.

As I read Netanyahu’s speech from an on-line news agency, the prospect of peace seemed dimmer than I could remember. While Netanyahu used the words “two-state solution,” the details of how he envisioned it seemed insidious. As I understood his plan, peace is possible once Palestinians and Arabs become committed Zionists. It is only the failure of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular to commit themselves to the Zionist cause that has caused conflict since 1948. But there is more! Netanyahu explained that “there must also be a clear understanding that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside Israel’s borders.” In other words, Palestinians must agree to help Israel complete what can only be called ‘ethnic cleansing’ since it began in 1947-48 by abandoning the right of return. The plan is ingenious: to have peace, Netanyahu argues, Palestinians would share the Zionist ambition that Palestine be emptied of Palestinians to the greatest extent possible.

But even the self-ethnic cleansing isn’t enough to secure peace according to hawkish Netanyahu. For the millions of Palestinians living inconveniently in their native land, Netanyahu’s peace plan involves a complete “demilitarization,” which is simply an unconditional surrender followed by disarmament.

If the Palestinians are not cowed yet, they will be squeezed more into ever smaller ghettoes so that Jewish colonies can expand and grow. And in line with their heartfelt Zionism, Palestinians will naturally agree that “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.”

Then, as PM Netanyahu explains, conflict will disappear.

I looked at this speech from two perspectives. One, as an American, it sounded so great, Here was an Isareli guy, a noted right-winger, endorsing a two-state solution and explaining how peace could happen. Before the fall of 2007 I would probably have welcomed this speech and looked at it as a credible roadmap to end the annoying conflict in the Middle East. I read that many American talking heads welcomed Netanyahu’s speech as “a big step forward.”

But if I have learned anything in the last two years, one should look a little more closely, and just think about the tenets and points and promises and how others would react to the words. From my new perspective as a visiting resident in neighboring Jordan, I wanted to dismiss Netanyahu’s speech as a ludicrous joke. But—and again, this is from this perspective sympathetic to the entreaties and hopes of ordinary Palestinians—Netanyahu’s perspective is not just a zealot or extremist fringe, it is a dangerous racist, violent, ultra-nationalism fueling a religious fanaticism running a government. Palestinians are viewed as only violent and/or inferior by which they must be expelled or caged or starved, like the 1.5 million in Gaza.

I used to teach a great book by Deborah Lipstadt about the dangers of Holocaust denial, and it has saddened me to realize in my time in the Middle East that Israel has emerged as a society with a virulent anti-Arab racism and a denial of Palestinian expulsion. Is there any hope for an existence of Palestine? Doesn’t that anxiety extend to how much longer Israel itself can keep up its existence?

President Obama recently visited Cairo (and by the way, everywhere I went in Cairo two weeks ago, Egyptians were excited by the hopes that Obama’s attention to the region offered) and stated that the United States is committed to “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Are these just buzzwords? In Jordan, people shook their heads and wondered, ‘when will people refer to inalienable Palestinian rights?’

Where in international law or United Nations resolutions can Palestinians find definitions of “dignity” and “opportunity”? Such infinitely malleable terms incorrectly reduce all Palestinian history to a demand for vague sentiments and a “state” instead of a struggle for liberation, justice, equality, return, and the restoration of usurped rights. It is, after all, easy enough to conceive of a state that keeps Palestinians forever dispossessed, dispersed, defenseless and under threat of more expulsion and massacres by a racist, expansionist uber-power.

Peace. After my trip in March I wondered if it was possible. I thought so before I was in the nexus of the children of Abraham. Last week as I bade good-bye for the summer to my students, especially to Muhammad and Omar, Netanyahu’s speech and vision for peace seems to do anything but usher in peace.

Jimmy Carter was in the region again, lamenting the “Zionist fortress mentality” that has retarded the hopes of co-existence for decades. He despaired that the international community has not pressured Israel more effectively to end the expansion of Jewish settlements and created a Palestinian state.

Jordan and Israel signed a treaty 15 years ago that signaled that peace and a solution to the core problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was imminent. But again, in Netanyahu’s speech he spoke that Israel wants Jordan to solve the problem it created when it expelled Palestinians from their homes and lands in 1948, and then occupied the rest of the Palestinian territories in 1967 shows only how bankrupt and anxious Israeli attitudes towards Israel’s historic responsibility, as well as international law and existential norms.

There are ultimately only two acceptable solutions to this conflict: Palestinians and Israelis agree either to share or to divide historic Palestine. It would not be easy, nor would it happen overnight, but it could be worked out. But according to Netanyahu’s speech, he is unwilling to commit to such a framework. Netanyahu urged that if Palestinians, and Arabs, recognized Israel as a Jewish state, all would be okay. But what about the fact that approximately 25% of Israel is non-Jewish? It is simply not a Jewish state.

Israelis and Palestinians are led by what many of us would call extremists. How to rein in the extremist tendencies? How to imagine a new kind of state? Maybe that is the answer, or rather the problem? We need new conceptions of states, new ways of thinking (thank you Dr. Eisenbeis for encouraging that in me!) This conflict comes from the bowels of a centuries-old European conception of a nation-state, a conception that only caused the kinds of horrors and wars that one would expect Jews, of all people, to fight tooth and nail against.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Just the same…

Two weeks!

It has been two solid weeks since the last blogisode (thanks Sue for the crafty vocabulary word blogisode!). It isn’t summer vacation yet, so I can’t blame the silence on the need to re-charge batteries over the summer. And I can’t say it is because I haven’t had anything to say…

If I had to blame anything for the desert-like silence these two weeks, I would have to say it is the fault of the indefatigable Anne Siviglia!

Two weeks ago tomorrow Anne and our friend Martha arrived for a two-week stint in Jordan. Anne is such a traveler/visitor/explorer/tourist/curious-seeker extraordinaire that whatever time was not spent on school was spent peeking around some relic or archaeological site or new restaurant in Jordan, wringing out every possible ounce of excitement.

All the same, I started to sit down numerous times in the last two weeks to continue the saga of doings here at KA, but Anne’s visit also included trips to Cairo and Aqaba, and there was hardly a moment’s time to rattle off some thoughts. Indeed, during our trip to Aqaba last weekend, I stole away time from snorkeling and sunbathing to write my end-of-year comments for my scholars.

Of course, in a way, this particular blogisode had the makings of TV summer repeats: the play ended, first-guests-ever-for-me-in-Jordan Anne and Martha return to the Middle East, and I went back to Cairo, the first major repeat of a visit here in my new neck of the woods. So I could just shrug off all these incidences with a ho-hum, it’s really just more of the same, anyway…

For example, two weeks ago at this moment, my play Our Country’s Good had just ended. As the three performances unfolded, it turned out that it felt so much like my plays back in the United States, back in Charlotte and Tarrytown. But who knew? With the dress rehearsal backstage drama rivaling the on-stage narrative, who knew if the students would sustain their work and produce a thrilling play?

But two weeks ago, as the performances on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday played out, our play group enjoyed a beautiful calm, a sense of triumph, and an afterglow of a job well done. Saturday had the nervousness of every opening night; there was the added adrenaline of the two new actors who had inherited their parts just 48 hours before coupled with the excitement that 100 audience members were seated just a few feet away in the courtyard to watch our drama of the penal colony in Australia play out.

Since 1996 and going to Hackley, I give myself few, if any jobs during a production. I want to trust the teen-agers to be in charge of everything, on-stage and off-stage, and it was just the same as in New York as my teen-age techies and actors assumed the responsibility and the show ran, intermission-less, and seamlessly, and beautifully for its 90 minutes. At the end of the evening that familiar, and elusive, serenity overwhelmed me as I knew our play had made it to its birth with a startling urgency and power. The audiences were thrilled at what the actors had accomplished, and we looked forward to two more attempts at getting it right.

Way back in 1988, when I directed my first full-scale show, I took on Hello, Dolly! with a cast of 60 in a school that hardly even had a stage. I remember vividly a week before the show opened that I sat with my tremendously marvelous friend Mary (who was also appearing in the chorus to bolster those sopranos) and I wrote out a statement, a contract, I suppose, vowing that I would never, ever direct another show again. It was too hard and just ridiculous. There is a great Arabic word for how I felt then: Halas!! I was through with such nonsense and wanted to make a statement to the world that I simply would not be foolish enough to direct again. Well, during the opening night a week later, Mary and I were stealing peeks at the show through the doors at the back of the gymnasium, watching Dolly! come to life, (and shedding some tears) and Mary asked me if I planned to keep my word. Later we tore up the dramatic contract with the world.

In those intervening years, and the five dozen shows I have directed since, I have created many rituals before and after shows—theater folk love to change the show they create, but keep much of the creative and psychological process in place. So for the pre-show warm-up I introduced my Jordanian actors to the same vocal and physical warm-ups I did at Hackley. I introduced them to my ritual music, Ray Lynch’s “Celestial Sodapop” on the CD Deep Breakfast. Great friend Kess introduced me to this music way back in 1992. I had trouble calming a cast down at the time to give them instructions so I decided to have them lie down on the stage and meditate and then I might have enough quiet and calm to talk to them! It worked and then Kess played this fabulously odd music with the kicky title, “Celestial Sodapop” for me and I thought—oh, that is great to play right before performances. When I moved to Hackley in 1996 a few of the Charlotte actors asked me if I was going to let my new actors hear “Celestial Sodapop.” I decided they needed the boost too, and it became a marvelous sensory memory. I only played it before performances, and it connects all of the actors who have heard that piece with me since 1992. If you did many plays with me, it became a great aural link to the other successes and reminders of hard work and excitement in our theater. I had not heard that piece since the autumn of 2006, and it felt familiar and remarkable to hear that pulsing music again—a signal of a performance.

When I did plays with the great, great Simon in community theater in Belmont, NC one of his rituals was invoking the blessings of the Indian god of theater, Puaba. I borrowed that in that first production of Hello, Dolly! and have used it ever since. Right before taking the stage, the entire cast meets, stands in a circle, and someone, or a small group is chosen to be in the center. There is a laying-on-of-hands from the rest of the cast, and whispered, and then yelled, the name Puaba resounds backstage.

Explaining theater traditions and rituals always sounds more hollow than it ought to. Oh well, it’s like the football team on Friday Night Lights as they chant about pure hearts and minds before taking the field. It is powerful in the moment, but sounds hokey outside of the moment. That’s okay. My Jordanian actors took to all the rituals. As we prepared with the warm-ups, the meditating, the Ray Lynch, the make-up, the adrenaline, it all felt just the same as it had dozens of times for me before.

Performances two and three ran smoothly—seemingly effortlessly even, and the audiences were so excited. At the end of the third performance the students asked me to the stage to thank me. They produced the biggest flower arrangement I had ever received—seriously it looked like the kind of arrangement one gives to a winning jockey and horse in the big race.

And the following day, when I should have just been rejoicing that we had made it through the play, I noted another thing that was just the same as plays at Hackley: that familiar ache that it all had to come to an end. So much of the play process had been just the same. But as we performed outdoors, under the stars and the full moon, there was an added depth to this production. It wasn’t just another production at Charlotte Latin or Hackley. It was in this new home of mine. I don’t know how long I will stay here, but for now it is my home, the center of my work and energies, and I had the divine pleasure of introducing these students to the work and process I have been enjoying for over 20 years, ever since that Hello, Dolly! directing gig had bit me.

Just the same…no, part of what has been so interesting in the last two weeks is seeing how things are running similarly, looking like earlier incarnations of themselves, but not just the same.

When Anne and Martha planned this trip, they didn’t just want a repeat of their March, 2008 triumphal tour of Jordan. It couldn’t be just the same.

We took it up a notch and decided to go to Cairo so we could play around the pyramids.

I had been to Cairo in December, 2007, in that first fall here in Jordan. I thought it might be just the same for me. However, on this trip, with good friend Tristan accompanying me with Anne and Martha, I got sick. I thought it was from the sketchy-looking meal on Egyptair, but I think it might have been something viral. Anyway, I spent most of my time on this trip in the fancy hotel room of the Intercontinental. I blessed the bathroom many times. We ended up hiring a private guide for Anne and Martha since I was indisposed and not available for much touring. It turned out to be great—the guide, this gentle man named Mohammed, was a sensational guide. He is a real teacher, and so smart and patient and calm taking them (sometimes I can say “us” when I got better) around the sights of ancient Cairo, Coptic Christian Cairo, Islamic Cairo, and modern Cairo. See, things are hardly just the same.

Overall, I found new things for Anne and Martha to see in Jordan. New restaurants, new spots for archaeological digging, and new resorts. In the midst of things seeming the same, I also pondered how KA has changed since Anne and Martha’s visit last spring. The facilities are the same—impressive to be sure, but this spring has a decidedly different mood. People feel more ragged, a little disillusioned with problems and imperfections, and wishing for the break beginning very soon. It gave Anne and Martha an interesting perspective of changes and continuities.

This all reminds me of a great moment at the end of a chapter of Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime. I don’t have my copy of the book here, but I think it is the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge who has become homebound from a disease. He looks out of the window at his masterpiece. Of course, it is just the same day in and day out. But one of things he does every day is consciously change the angle and position of his chair, making the adjustment every day, and changing, even though just slightly, his perspective on things. Much of the last two weeks has felt just the same but as we come to the end of this school year, I am appreciating the slightly different perspectives all the time.

By the end of the next evening, Tuesday evening, I will be heading to the airport for my return to the United States. That will be wonderful.

But I have a few more blogisodes in the pipeline, Sue, before I take a summer vacation from the blog. Next time I write, though, I will be stateside. I wonder what will be just the same, and what will give it all a fresh twist.

Monday, June 8, 2009

My Lazy Man’s Blog Entry

I entitled this entry as my “lazy man’s” entry due to the fact that a good chunk of this entry is actually just hitting “control x” to my own “Director’s Notes” from the program of Our Country’s Good.

Two performances down. One to go.

Given the volatility of last week’s hurtling out of control toward opening night—who knew how it would all go?!

Opening night on Saturday was quite good. In many ways it was our final dress rehearsal since we hadn’t had the proper chance to work out all the lighting and sound cues on Friday night. I went out to speak to the audience, yeah, I like doing that, and I shared with them that I have come to the realization that school is really meant to be a laboratory in which we can practice solving problems. Sometimes we have math problems, writing problems, social problems, et cetera. I shared with the audience that 48 hours before we realized two main characters (whoops! I mean actors) were not coming, and that presented us with a problem. Through the heroic efforts of Tristan and Lucy, my adult friends who came to our rescue, we solved the problem. I didn’t name the students. I didn’t even name the adults. But I wanted the audience to know that two actors would be carrying scripts on stage, and since the programs already had the original actors’ names in them, they should be made aware that when we trot out the old cliché, the show must go on, what we really mean is that life goes on, and when problems or setbacks arise, well, you just gotta deal.

The performance was solid—a little rushed, a typical high school actor default when faced with nervousness, and the audience very respectful and receptive.

Last night I cautioned the cast about the perils of a “second performance syndrome,” in which they might rest on their laurels, or give in to the fatigue, or become complacent. But as the second performance began last night, there was an air of command among these students. I stood by the sound and lights guys, but they didn’t need me anymore. I watched these 20 actors from my perch and I noticed that they took seriously my advice to enunciate and project more emphatically.

We are doing this play in an unusual venue. We are in a wonderful courtyard, but it does mean we are outside, and as the night sky filled with the stars, I looked at the full moon and felt such a serenity about where this process had brought us. Our stage is bifurcated by a set for the officers, and a structure for the convicts that suggests several things at once: a ship’s hull, residential shack, a jail, and gallows. We hang enough lights in the corners to adequately light the courtyard and it becomes magical stage in which we portray 1780s Australia. The “house” opens at 7:45 and when the audience comes in, they see the pile of convict bodies on Stage Left. When I went to the entrance to the courtyard at 7:44 to welcome them in, there was actually a group of about 20 who ran in to take their seats on the edge of the courtyard!

Last night's performance had a smooth quality to it—I noticed the actors “inhabiting their roles” more confidently and capably than ever before. The “fill-in” adults actually know about 80% of the lines now and fit seamlessly into the performance. The convicts’ fights became more lurid, the officers became more sanctimonious and pretentious, and the transformation at the end of the play even more poignant. They moved fluidly from scene to scene and frankly, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

The two errant actors came last night to watch the play. I didn’t see them actually until I was turning off all the lights, about 30 minutes after the conclusion of the sterling performance. They were standing there near our stage area, waiting to offer an apology. We three spoke for a few minutes and I commented how brave it was to come and watch the performance. I imagined it had been a little painful since just a few days ago they had envisioned themselves triumphing in the parts and the performance. It felt like a sincere encounter. This morning a colleague who had been in the audience shared with me a story of one of these two boys. She had turned and noticed a student texting not far from her, and just then one of my former actors went over to tell the student to stop texting—“you don’t want to distract the actors,” my colleague heard him say.

Mistakes are made. Problems posed. We gotta figure out solutions. I think he might be on the right track.

So here is the lazy part—I am cutting and pasting my Notes from my program insert for your edification! Here’s hoping tonight’s performance fulfills the promise for my merry band of actors.

“During the 18th Century the conviction began to spread throughout the literate sectors of European society that change and reform were both desirable and possible. While this belief is rather commonplace today, it only came into its own shortly after 1700. The writers and thinkers who forged this new attitude favorable to change and who championed reform were known as philosophes. They were people who sought to apply the rules of reason to nearly all the major institutions and social practices of the day. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), among the most famous of these philosophes, asserted the social equality of human beings, and argued in his Social Contract that the inequality which had developed through the ages, was not “natural.” Although Rousseau did not propose specific reforms, he did outline a political structure wherein the bonds of government might liberate those individuals who were not free.

At the same time that this ideal permeated the intellectual world of European intelligentsia, the world of European governments grappled with burgeoning empires, a growth in crime, and the rise of prison reform. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had raised questions about the treatment of criminals. In response to this, beginning in the late 18th century, the British government began using the penalty of “transportation” to the new, faraway colony of Australia for persons convicted of some serious crimes. Government officials regarded this transportation as a noble alternative to capital punishment. However, a paradoxical conflict arose between those who sought the idealistic goals of Rousseau and those charged with actual punishments who used whippings and hangings as the principle means to reform.

Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, Our Country’s Good chronicles the experiences of the first boatload of criminals sent from England to Australia in 1788. The title refers to the executions perpetrated for “our country’s good.” Commingled in this play the loneliness of the officers, the merits of theater, capital punishment and the humanity of the convicts raise interesting philosophical and historical issues.

The conflict evolves between two sets of officers in charge of the prisoners. One side, led by Major Ross, feels that all criminals are sub-human, that they only respond to the lash and they must be treated harshly. On the other side Governor Philip and Lieutenant Clark think putting on a play will have a civilizing effect on the prisoners. One cannot imagine a more barren ground for the seed of theater than this collection of British outcasts. They are a despairing group of women and men of all ages, severely sentenced for everything from prostitution to filching a biscuit. Hanging has become such an automatic consequence for petty crimes that it has turned into a bitter joke for the prisoners. But this drama demonstrates the faith of two officers in an experiment calculated to heal battered spirits and thus their faith in the redemptive power of art.

Lieutenant Clark chooses George Farquhar’s 1706 restoration-style comedy, The Recruiting Officer for the convicts to perform because he hopes it will not only prick the consciences of the skeptical officers but also of the exiled criminals themselves. As five months pass, we get a provocative view of this cruel and callous world, with a focus on its oppressed and oppressors, on crime and punishment, and on the strange effects working together has on these, the most unlikely of actors. By playing roles of upper class characters, the prisoners acquire the dignity and self-respect of the people they are portraying. Overcoming a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the play goes on. Through the play the convicts discover a creative and positive energy lacking in the British officers who oppress them. It is a thrilling transformation, and as the playwright takes the convicts from brutalization to slow awakening of emotions that they have forgotten or never known, we feel the uplifting and redemptive power of the theater.”

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Away We Go

All right, Mr. Cole Porter—what’s next??

Yesterday, I ended the blog entry with the words from Porter’s anthem, “Another Op'nin, Another Show”:

Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse
Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse
One week, will it ever be right?

The line immediately after that is:

Then out of the hat, it's that big first night!

So the “dues ex machina” in this saga of my actors showing up (oh, for those who don’t know that quirky phrase—a “deus ex machina” literally means a “god out of a machine,” and it refers back to the Greeks and how playwrights would sometimes use the strangest way to end a twisted story, and sometimes produce a god, literally out of a machine to end the action…now isn’t it fun to learn theater history??!) are the two adult actors who jumped on stage Thursday night to allow the cast a decent run-through. With no preparation Lucy and Tristan did a fine job, and in the 40 hours or so since they agreed to take on the two major roles vacated by my less-than-responsible boys, they have virtually learned the roles.

The final scene of Our Country’s Good had never really worked before in our rehearsals—it is a scene in which the convicts are backstage before their performance in front of the gaolers/officers and they express their fears and hopes of doing the play. It is a simple scene really, but it needs the energy, the adrenaline, and a genuine love of the theater to sell the scene. It had lacked a vibrancy and urgency, until Thursday night, when our very play was threatened, and my student actors nearly didn’t know if they would get to do this play at all. All of a sudden the motivation and the intensity were right there. They nailed the scene and captured that inexpressible passion of creating theatrical magic.

Last night most of the elements were in place. Convicts created some mud behind the courtyard/stage and rolled around to get some real dirt on their ragged costumes. The officers tried on their dapper new red-coat uniforms created by a tailor who works on campus. We crossed our fingers about the sound and light cues since we hadn’t had a proper technical rehearsal.

The next verse of Cole Porter’s anthem to the theater goes up a key, ramping up the suspense of the impending op’nin’:

The overture is about to start
You cross your fingers and hold your heart
It's curtain time and away we go -
Another op'nin
Just another op'nin of another show!

The line “away we go” made me think—that was actually the original title of the legendary musical Oklahoma! as it tried out its legs in New Haven, Connecticut back in the fall of 1943. Oklahoma! was a smashing success, in part because of its theatrical genius, but also because its homespun values and escapism allowed a war-weary public a chance to kick back and smile.

But then somehow the phrase “away we go” made me think of the historical anniversary today on June 6th. I turned on CNN this morning, and there they were—a bevy of WWII veterans, much older and stooped of back, but still impassioned for the work those survivors had helped accomplish on 65 years ago today.

Today is D-Day, and I look at the veterans every June who gather at the beaches in Normandy to commemorate that huge invasion. My grandfather went up on the beach on June 8, 1944—as he and his buddies called it, “D-Day+2.” I think about what these men did as they landed on that French beach to liberate Europe from Nazi control.

I remember when Saving Private Ryan came out, and we took the entire upper school to the movie theater from Hackley to watch the film. Just before the film we spoke to the audience of students about how the soldiers must have felt during that pre-dawn channel crossing, and we gave them a facsimile of the broadside that was distributed to those soldiers 65 years ago with the order from Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, exhorting them to do their duty in this momentous landing:

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41.

The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeat in open battle man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground.

Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men.

The tide has turned.

The free men of the world are marching together to victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle.

We will accept nothing less than full victory.

Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

I am not claiming that the preparation for this play is anything like the Normandy invasion, but in both endeavors we have beseeched “the blessings of Almighty God.”
I remember watching the television mini-series, Band of Brothers, when Lieutenant Richard Winters reflected on all he had seen and he said, “That night, I took time to thank God for seeing me through that day of days. . . .and if somehow I managed to get home again, I promise God and myself that I would find a quiet piece of land someplace, and spend the rest of my days in peace.” I thank those men, the men who fell that day 65 years ago, and the men who survived, for enduring the rigors of that battle.

As for me, I had little to do today. I helped those two actors go over their lines. I hoisted a British flag on the upstage side of the courtyard so all will know whose colony it is in the play. I set up the chairs in the courtyard for the 100 or so audience members who will sit and engage in this piece of theater, and I am humming that line again from Porter,

The overture is about to start
You cross your fingers and hold your heart
It's curtain time and away we go -
Another op'nin
Just another op'nin of another show!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Prophetic Cole Porter

Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse
Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse
One week, will it ever be right?

When Cole Porter opened his musical comedy, Kiss Me, Kate! in 1948, he offered one of the richest backstage tours in the history of theater: all the obsession over props, and the wardrobe racks, the demanding precision of rehearsals, the egos—many of the minutiae of how hard it is to ‘put on a show.’ But those three nail-biting lines are some of the best and truest words about the theater—the pessimism of the rehearsal process coupled with the hopes and dreams any thespian harbors.

Well, I meant to write all week and relay the progress of my play that opens tomorrow night. And it wasn’t fatigue that kept me from tap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard. I really kept thinking I was going to get past one of the biggest buggaboos I have faced in the 21 years I have been directing high school theater. I kept saying, “Well tomorrow you can tell the blogosphere how you solved the problem of getting some of the students TO SHOW UP!”

In the best of times, theater productions are never easy—rehearsal periods seemingly drop out of nowhere and consume your life. Be gone other commitments! Be gone trivial and frivolous plans! And shows are costly, and they are such a team-oriented process—if that team is not there, it simply doesn’t work. So cajoling students, helping them understand why they should come to every rehearsal is part and parcel of the game—in fact, it is one of the key things to help them learn.

But it has been raised to new levels at KA!

I won’t go through all the stories, just some of the more colorful and interesting ones that have marked this rehearsal process and caused me to hum those Cole Porter lines in my head far too often!

This bouncy, enthusiastic 9th grade girl made an impression on me as one of the convicts. Since she was the youngest actress, that of course means she is lower on the Drama Food Chain, and I told her that she would have to wait until she was older for a larger part. But playing a convict in Our Country’s Good is loads of fun anyway. Well, she had trouble remembering the rehearsal schedule (let’s see how hard it is: every day after school Sunday through Wednesday…how to remember that…hmmm…what mnemonic device should she employ????????!). Finally, after threats of expulsion (remember she was playing a convict expelled from Britain to the rough lands of 1780s Australia!) I sat this peppy freshman down and we wrote out a contract together. Wait—it’s here in my desk. It reads: I, [name withheld to protect the peppy freshman], pledge and promise to attend the remaining rehearsals for the spring play, or I will be kicked out. I am allowed to stay in the play now because Mr. John thinks I am talented although my participation has been less than perfect. I will let him know if there are any problems with my attendance at rehearsals.

She thought I was strange to write such a contract, but it worked and she came to rehearsals, albeit wondering often if we might leave just a little bit early so she could have a better seat on the bus.

Last Friday she asked me if she could leave our long rehearsal the following day an hour early to attend a graduation. I hemmed and hawed, but finally agreed. The following day, she didn’t show up at all. No voicemail, no text, no e-mail. When I saw her the following day, I showed her our contract. She was out.

But she wasn’t the only one to leave last weekend! On Friday, another student slept through rehearsal, and then didn’t come the following day, figuring I was mad. No voicemail, no text, no e-mail. She pleaded the following day how much she loved the play and she could she not please please please get another chance. But how could I—earlier that week, I had had the same thing with another actress—she missed 2, no 3, rehearsals in one week! Third verse—same as the first: No voicemail, no text, no e-mail. I informed the cast that that behavior was inexcusable. I had also said the week before I was not going to have the “attendance policy” discussion again—we should all know it for memory!

See, about 2 or 3 weeks before there was a group that didn’t show up on a Sunday afternoon (need I tell you what the fourth stanza of our song is???). I sent them a terse e-mail explaining that I would no longer need them in the play. Oh! Each of the four wrote an impassioned e-mail back, apologizing, believing that someone had told me they would be absent. See, later that week there was a fashion show, and they needed to be fitted for the show. The adult who took them for the fittings said they didn’t need an excuse—it was for the fashion show! They did seem to think that adult had informed me—5th verse—and they really wanted to stay in the play. That was when I had the last explanation of the attendance policy. I relented and they stayed in.

So, has there been a victory in any of this with the punctuality/responsibility challenged youth of the play cast??

First of all, of course this is not everyone in the once-27 member cast of the play. Many of them have never caused one of the new gray hairs in my receding beachfront-property hairline. But here is a great story of a turn-around: one young man (of the fashion show brigade too) was routinely 10-20 minutes late everyday. You know how the German planner in me feels about that! One day, shortly after the Fashion Show imbroglio, I spoke sharply to him that if he could not be on time, I did not want him at all in the play. His behavior must change immediately.

That night said late-comer e-mailed me and said he purposely planned to be late for things, he liked seeing adults squirm—“I get an adrenaline rush from it.” Okay…interesting…I wrote back and suggested that he discover new sources of adrenaline rushes, and that actually, achieving excellence in something is one of the best adrenaline rushes. The next day he was on time, and he has not been late ever since. Perhaps purely coincidentally, but his acting has improved immeasurably since.

So here we are—the week of the play…on Tuesday we did the entire play, and 90% of the lines were there—only one scene creaky and unsteady and toothless. But the play was there. I started to head back to the dorm for a night of hall duty. One young man stopped me with the nerve-jangling line, “I need to speak to you for five minutes.” This young man, and another young man, said that they wanted to do the mature thing and tell me they would not be coming to rehearsal, the technical rehearsal, the following night. They wanted to attend a graduation in Amman. They wanted to re-arrange the schedule though so we could rehearse sometime, but they were doing the “mature thing” and not just simply not showing up.

Schedules are hardly simple—we were rehearsing in the evening because of an afternoon concert in which some of our actors would play and sing. We also needed to rehearse on the set in the evening—the time of the performances—and besides, it would be beastly hot in the courtyard in the afternoon. They firmly said the graduation was unmissable.

My head said, “Kick them out!” I mean I had shed four other actors in as many days! However, those other four were “minor” characters (don’t forget the adage, "There are no small parts, just small actors!”). These young men also have had turbulent times this past year. They both had large, crucial parts, and they were on the cusp of real excellence. My heart intervened and reminded my head that if they could learn from the profound themes of the play, they would benefit more. The young men promised me 100% participation of the cast in their new schedule changes.

The next day—yes, hot as blazes outside, we could not practice on the set. Rehearsal was sluggish—exactly what I had feared. It was almost a waste of a day. I looked forward to the cool of Thursday evening to balance out the yin and yang of this rehearsal week.

Would my heart have ever thought those young men would not show up last night? While they didn’t come to school during the day, I could hardly believe with all of their oaths and promises on Tuesday, that they just would not show up. Last night, about 30 minutes into what should have been the start of the run-through the cast decided they weren’t coming. The selfish young men didn’t answer their phones, or answer text messages. You know: Nothing from them. It wasn’t even about the ‘head’ or the ‘heart’—now, how do I have a cast? What do I do?

This is to say nothing of the costumes that needed to be distressed, or finishing the painting of the ship, or lighting cues calibrated, or sound measured and balanced. Would I have actors that showed up?

I called two adult friends on campus who have acted in plays and asked them if they could join the cast. If they could step up immediately—we have an opening in 48 hours and 30 minutes. Would they stand in, nay, join the cast, read from the script, and see if we had enough of a play?

They bounded up on stage, I gave them some blocking tips, spoke to my petrified cast, and said we needed to do this play. There is no time to re-schedule or do anything else. The responsible student actors needed to help the adults out, and as the Governor of the colony says, “unexpected situations are often matched by unexpected virtues.”

We did the run-through.

I will check in with you later to continue the saga…

Did I ever mention I agreed to do this play for free?

Once, when Richard Rodgers was asked how he worked with Oscar Hammerstein, if the words or the music came first, Rodgers quipped, “the check.”

All right, Porter—what’s next??