Category Archives: Theatre Journal

Three Heroes: Miles Davis

I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise. They’d been working on it as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was requested that He be excluded from this particular exercise.

I figured this lends itself to a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have had photos of these three gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible for many years. [see featured image of this post]

The first hero I blogged about was Winston Churchill.
Today… it’s Miles Davis

Those who have followed my blog for any length of time may not be surprised to see Miles Davis’ name on my list. I reference the famous jazz trumpeter on a fairly regular basis and I even posted a review of his biography a number of years ago. Nevertheless, it seems a bit incongruent for this Iowa white boy with little musical ability and strong spiritual priorities to find the heroic in a gifted, conflicted black musician whose demons and appetites led to tragic places. It may not seem an obvious choice.

My exposure to Miles began with a Christmas gift. In fourth grade I began taking drum lessons at Woodlawn elementary school. That year my brothers gave me a couple of record albums to inspire my budding, percussive aspirations. One album was Buddy Rich. The other was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. For those who are not familiar with jazz, it is perhaps the best known jazz album of all time, and for good reason. It sparked a love affair with jazz.

In high school I continued to love jazz music. While my friends at Hoover High School were listening to Def Leppard, The Police, and Journey I was home listening to a wide selection of jazz from Weather Report to Grover Washington Jr. to Chuck Mangione. But, while many of my jazz favorites were flirtations and brief love affairs, I began to realize that Kind of Blue somehow became the true love that always hearkened me back. There was something about Miles that sunk deep in my soul.

Through my post-college years and into my 30s I lost my way creatively in many ways. When I lost my way creatively I unknowingly wandered from the person God created me to be. Unfulfilled, confused, and life-less, the disconnect led me to chase after passions into dark places. By grace, I found the artist’s way back. I began to reclaim my birthright as a child of the Creator.

It was during that journey that I hearkened back, once again, to my true love – Kind of Blue. It was then that he began to emerge as an artistic hero. I began to listen to more of Miles’ music. We were now on a journey together. Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool were added to the list and I began to hear his own artistry evolving through the chronology of recordings. I loved the way he both honored the genius of a classic like Porgy and Bess while layering it with his own artistry. Sketches of Spain made all sorts of artistic connections for me to Picasso and Hemingway and I began to appreciate Miles’ own artistic journeys and explorations. He seemed to fill the well of his soul and music with input from such a broad, rich diversity of sources. I got that. I identified with that. It stoked my creativity and inspired me. Miles Davis, through his music, became a pied piper, a mentor, and a muse for my own creative journey.

As I learned more about Miles the man, I was fascinated. Like many artistic geniuses, he seems to have been a complex person. I don’t think he was particularly easy to be around. Unlike Winston Churchill, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed his company over dinner. Yet, even in his frailties, struggles, and failures I found myself identifying with that basic struggle those of us with artistic temperament have to create something beautiful amidst the ugliness of your own humanity .

Miles was a man of intense passions that he struggled to control. He faced and fought his own personal demons. Temporary victories gave way to repeated defeat. His soul carried scars. He hurt those he loved most. I get that, too.

Perhaps the greatest reason that Miles has become a creative hero to me is the fearless way he opened himself creatively to everything. I have twice posted on his theme “there are no wrong notes.” He was fearless in attempting new things, pushing the envelope, absorbing what others were doing and then weaving it into his own work. He wasn’t afraid to re-invent himself, push into places no one expected him to go, and where few seemed to understand. He was willing to try, to dare, and to explore new horizons. And, as he got older it seems that he never stopped. I hope that I might reflect even a small fraction of that spirit of creation.

 

The Latest 04-24-2016

The past two weeks were dominated by last weekend’s production of Almost, Maine. Wendy and I were cast before Christmas and the curtain finally rose on four performances April 14-17. The play is a series of nine vignettes that take place in on the same night, at the same time, in the mythical town of Almost, Maine. The scenes are all reflections on love and relationships.

The challenge and opportunity for both Wendy and me were to play multiple characters in the show. I played five characters and Wendy played three. It is not unusual for actors to play multiple roles in a show, but the multiple characters are often bit parts or walk-on roles. It is another thing altogether to develop 3-5 fully developed, differentiated characters in one show. From an acting perspective it is an exciting challenge to walk off stage, change costume in less than 30 seconds and walk on as a completely different character. To pull it off and make it believable for the audience was a really, really fun stretch for both Wendy and me.

The show went well. Attendance was slightly above average for a spring show in our community theatre. For both of us, the fun was all about the experience of being directed by our friend Kevin McQuade who is a brilliant director and who pushed both of us to new heights in our acting experiences. In addition, we loved, loved, loved our fellow cast members who were focused, disciplined, and really fun to work with.

Production weekend was fun, but took a lot out of us. The cast socialized after every show. Opening night we had a party here at Vander Well Pub and the last guests to leave meandered out the door around 1:00 a.m. Friday night the cast and crew stopped at the Cellar Peanut Pub and then enjoyed drinks and eats at Monarch’s. Wendy and I enjoyed a nightcap at McQuade Pub and walked home somewhere around 2:00 a.m. Saturday night the cast and various friends enjoyed after show festivities at Kaldera. The closing performance on Sunday was followed by set strike and a cast party at McQuade Pub.

Oh…and I preached two services on Sunday morning in the auditorium at Third Church.

It was wonderful to have Suzanna, Taylor, my folks, Jody, and Emma join us over the weekend to see the show. It’s always a bittersweet experience having loved ones come to town to see the show, but then not having the time or space to actually spend time with them.

McNay Stags Head

We got home from the final cast party on Sunday evening about 9:00 p.m. and I immediately had to pack for a week-long business trip to Texas. I flew out first thing Monday morning and spent five days in San Antonio and Laredo. It was a long week, for sure, but on Friday I got to meet Tim and Kumi for a late lunch at BJ’s Brewhouse between San Antonio and Austin. It was fun to hear about their recent vacation in Japan to visit Kumi’s sister and to see their photos. I also got to spend a couple of hours at the McNay Art Museum before flying out for home.

This weekend has been blessedly quiet. I mowed a crop of weeds on Saturday and tried desperately to groom our pitiful lawn so that it wouldn’t completely shame the neighborhood. Though, our weed infested lawn is an admittedly nicer sight than the apocalyptic wasteland that was our lot last year. We ended Saturday with a wonderful evening on Matthew and Sarah’s deck.

ICubs Game

We headed to the early service this morning and enjoyed the message from Roger DeWaard before making the trek to Principal Park for our first Iowa Cubs game of the season. The I-Cubs sucked wind and got blown out by Oklahoma City, but Wendy and I sat in the sun and got our first sunburn of the season.

It’s a momentous week ahead. My 50th birthday is this coming Saturday. [sigh]

The Latest 04-10-2016

Production week has arrived for Almost, Maine. We open this coming Thursday and will run through Sunday. That means we have been in rehearsals almost every evening. This show has had the longest rehearsal period I’ve ever experienced with a show (it was cast before Christmas). I am ready to be done with the rehearsals and get it in front of an audience!

The long rehearsal period notwithstanding, this show has been wonderful to experience. The cast of seven mature and talented actors have been a joy to work with. People show up on time ready to work. People do what the Director asks. The administration of the show has been professional, well planned, and flawlessly carried out. Our director has challenged, taught, prodded, and pulled out the best in all of us. It’s been a joy. Hope those of you who live in the Iowa area can make it Apr 14-17. Tickets and information can be found online by clicking here.

The Latest 04 10 2016 - 5Our lives the past few weeks have been centered around the show, so I’m afraid there’s not a ton much else to share. We are, of course, excited about the opening of baseball season. It has become a tradition here at Vander Well Manor to don our Cubbies gear, cook up some ball park food, and watch the first game of the season. This year was a bit problematic as the Cubs opened against Anaheim in California and the game started at 9:00 p.m.! We were, however, undaunted. Kevin and Linda walked over from across the street to join us in the celebration. They headed home about 10:30. Wendy and I watched the rest of the game in bed. Well, I watched. Wendy fell asleep. I struggled to stay awake and finish scoring the game at 12:17 a.m. Happy to say Cubs are off to a good start this year. The “W” flag is flying once again at VW Manor!

National Players at the Pella Opera House

This past week we went to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Pella Opera House. National Players is the oldest touring company in the United States and this is the second year that they’ve stopped in Pella. They typically do a Shakespeare in the morning for schools and then a different classic in the evening for general audiences. It was a fantastic show. If you ever get a chance to see a National Players tour near you, you should.

Last weekend we helped host a farewell party for our friends Pat and Peg Moriarity. Pat and Peg have been integral parts of our local community theatre and we’ve been involved in countless productions with them. They have retired and are moving to Arkansas to be near grandkids. It was fun to have the theatre community together to wish them well. I put together a photo collage from my photo archives and USP had it printed, matted, and framed for them. It’s sad to see them go, and it’s a great loss for USP.

madison with the LG crew
Madison with her crew at Laura Geller.

Madison is settling in down in South Carolina. She’s been avidly putting together her apartment and getting to know the area. She is a training specialist for Laura Geller cosmetics. She travels to different stores to train their reps on the product, so she’s on the road around South Carolina a fair amount. At the same time, she’s loving having a set schedule and not putting in the crazy hours of a flight attendant. Prayers continue for her to find and establish a good community of friends there. She plans to be back in Pella for Tulip Time!

Taylor continues the job search. Applications and resumes continue to spread out across the nation. She applied for a couple of jobs in Portland and would love to be out in Portlandia if anything would open up. She has gotten an interview or two, but it continues to be a long haul for her. In the meantime she’s nannying for young Joel and continuing her life at the Catholic worker in Des Moines. She’s also working on a media project with people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. We can’t to see her this weekend when she comes to town with friends for a wedding and to see Almost, Maine.

 

The Latest 01-31-2016

January was an unusually busy month for me. Along with two business trips there was a lot of extra-curricular activity that filled our evenings and weekends.

Rehearsals continue for Almost, Maine. Wendy and I have really been enjoying the 3-4 rehearsals each week. The fellow cast members are awesome to work with and we’ve loved the ensemble. Our friend, Kevin McQuade, is a blast to work with as a director. Wendy and I play three scenes together as three different couples. We’re loving the challenge of developing completely different characters and quickly moving from one to another. On Thursday night Kevin called an early halt to rehearsal and took the cast to Kaledra for drinks. He knows how to keep his cast happy! Almost, Maine will be performed here in Pella April 14-17.

Taylor will be moving out next weekend. She’s decided to move to Des Moines and live in the Catholic Worker community full-time. She’s working on a couple of different creative projects and has taken up gaining a more in-depth understanding of photography. She and I took a couple of hours this week to play around with light and lenses in my office studio.

Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.
Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.

My friend Matthew Burch and I have been doing a four-week series of Sunday morning messages in the Third Church auditorium on the subject of shame (audio here). The messages were a microcosm of our men’s workshop, More Than Conquerors which we then presented at Westview this past Friday evening and Saturday. Wendy and I headed to Des Moines on Friday. While Kevin Roose and I were at the workshop, she and Becky enjoyed some girl time and Wendy helped Becky organize their basement storage room.

The More Than Conquerors workshop uses Shakespeare’s trilogy about King Henry V as a backdrop to discussing issues of shame. We loved our time with the 24 guys who attended. It was a great journey. How did it go? I think the answer to that question is in the picture (above) I snapped of Matthew sitting at a table of guys who stayed well after the conference was over to ask more questions and continue learning. When men give up their weekend, sit for almost 12 hours listening to you, and then want to stay for more…I’ll take that as a good sign.

Wendy and I are looking forward to a quiet day today. Here comes February.

The “Sui Generis” Moment on Stage

It happened last night at rehearsal for Almost, Maine. It surprised me. It’s early in the rehearsal process and, while it’s not unheard of at this point in that process, it’s relatively rare in my experience.

The Latin term “sui generis” means “one of a kind,” and there is an experience that occasionally, mysteriously happens on stage that I find to be sui generis in life. It is an experience I have found unique to the art of acting, and actors who experience it once usually long to experience it ever after. It is a moment on stage that is other worldly, when actors cross over into another dimension, into the reality of the scene they are playing. It doesn’t happen all the time. You can’t predict it and there is no formula for conjuring it. But, when it happens you never forget it.

When this moment happens, when you cross over, you feel the emotions your character feels and think the thoughts that are flying through your character’s brain. You are at once in both dimensions: being two actors on the community center stage in Pella Iowa, and being two characters in a living room at 9:00 p.m. on a dark winter’s night in northern Maine.

It is an indescribable experience. It is sui generis.

Wendy and I were rehearsing our scene Getting it Back last night. We haven’t rehearsed it many times. Our lines are not memorized, we don’t have all our props, and we’re still struggling to remember our blocking. Yet, as our characters began to argue and things escalated between Gayle and Lendall, it happened. We crossed over. It was incredible. When it happens, I can sometimes also feel those watching being ushered into the moment with us. That happened last night, too.

Wendy and I often comment that we love the rehearsal process almost more than performances. Last night was an example of why. It is in the rehearsal process that you do the work of excavation and exploration. It is in rehearsal that you seek out the doorway to that sui generis moment. Like the portals into Narnia the portals to those moments can mysteriously appear and disappear. The same entrance can sometimes usher you to that moment multiple times. Then, suddenly, the way is shut and you pick up the quest once more.

The quest for that sui generis moment is part of the mystery and magic of acting. It is what draws me back again and again. And when the moment surprises you, like it did at rehearsal last night, it is a one of a kind experience of Life.

I can’t wait for rehearsal on Thursday.

Power of the Art of Acting

I have observed along my life journey that acting is largely misunderstood and under appreciated as an art. To many who have asked me about my experiences on stage, acting is perceived to be nothing more than adults engaged in a child’s game of make believe. That notion certainly contains a nugget of truth, as good actors tap into a child-like sense of play and imagination. It does, however, fall short of the whole truth. One might equally say that a painter is simply “coloring” or a composer is simply “making up songs.” In every one of these examples the notion falls far short of understanding both the art form and the work of the artist.

Acting, to steal a term used by Tolkien and Lewis with regard to their writing, is a form of sub-creation. It is the art of creating an individual being, from the inside out, in all of his or her (or its) infinite complexities. Think how intricately layered each one of us are in our unique experiences, gifts, talents, intentions, thoughts, feelings, desires, quirks, flaws, handicaps,  strengths, and idiosyncrasies. What a Herculean task to start with nothing more than words in a script and attempt the creation of a living, breathing, believably real human being on stage. Even more challenging is the fact that the actor must fulfill this task utilizing his or her own existing body and voice. Imagine a composer being asked to take exactly the same notes, key, and time signature that exist in one piece of music and rearrange them to make a uniquely different work.

An actor’s task is made even more difficult when his or her creation must interact with others on stage whom they do not control.  Your creation, in all his or her uniqueness, must react and respond to others in the moment without the assurance of knowing exactly what will happen or be said (or not said) in that moment. Like all other artists actors put their creation out there for all the world to see. It is a courageous act fraught with the risk. Unlike artists in other mediums, actors are, themselves, the canvas, the composition, the sculpture, the sonnet. When actors step on stage they present their own flesh and blood as part and parcel of the art itself. The risk is more personal and more public than almost any other art form.

In the process of creating this living, breathing creation on stage, the actor becomes psychologist, historian, private investigator, sociologist, theologian, and priest. Actors become among the world’s most accepting and empathetic inhabitants because they are required to find understanding and empathy for some of literature and history’s most heinous villains. In this pursuit of the embodiment of a real person on stage, an actor comes to embody love and grace that believes, hopes, and endures even for the most tragic of characters.

As with all art mediums, there exists in this wide world of actors a diverse panacea of education, talent, experience and ability. You may not find Olivier, Hoffman, Streep, or Theron at your local high school, college, or community center. You may, however, be pleasantly surprised if you take the risk of venturing out and buying a ticket. You will find courageous actor-artists stepping into a real world created on the other side of the fourth wall. They will transport you to another time in another place. You may just find yourself swept up in a story that not only entertains, but also causes you to think, laugh, weep, and feel. Your disbelief may be suspended just long enough for you to care, truly care, about these characters, these persons, these living, breathing, real creations and their stories. That is the power of the art of acting.

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Preparing for a Role: The First Rehearsal
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Character
Preparing for a Role: The Rehearsal Process
Preparing for a Role: How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?
Preparing for a Role: Bits and Moments in the Grind
Preparing for a Role: Production Week
Preparing for a Role: Keeping Focus When Siri Joins You on Stage
Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance
Theatre is Ultimate Fitness for Your Brain!

 

Photo: Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Karl Deakyne rehearse a scene from Ham Buns and Potato Salad. Pella, Iowa.

“Almost, Maine” Rehearsals Begin

Last night the rehearsal process for Almost, Maine began in earnest and it killed me not to be there as I’m traveling on business all week. Wendy and I were cast as part of the ensemble back in December and the show will be performed in Pella April 14-17.

Almost, Maine, is likely unknown to many people though in a short period of time it has become arguably the most produced play in schools and community theaters across America in the past few years. It is a wonderful script.

The setting is a moonless night in the dead of winter. The action takes place in the mythical, unincorporated small community of Almost in northern Maine. A solar storm has kicked the the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis into a spectacular display of heavenly fireworks. At exactly 9:00 p.m. there is a magical moment for several people in Almost.

In a series of eight scenes (plus an ninth story that acts in an overarching theme) we meet and witness that magical 9:00 moment for 18 people who are all searching for and struggling with love. The show is poignant and thought provoking. It’s the perfect show for a date night or a small group evening out to the theatre.

A few reasons I’m excited about Almost, Maine:

  • Wendy and I get to play opposite one another in three different scenes and there is no one I enjoy being on stage with more than Wendy. We’ve had precious few opportunities to actually act together, and I’m so pumped to work with her.
  • The show is being directed by our friend, Kevin McQuade, whom I love and respect as a fellow lover and student of the stage. I am really looking forward to being directed by Kevin, exploring the world of Almost, Maine, and putting together an awesome show.
  • The ensemble cast and crew are a spectacular group of talented individuals. Some I’ve worked with before and a couple people are new to me. It’s so much fun working with a great team.
  • In the course of two hours I get to play five different characters. While I’ve occasionally played dual roles, often that means one or more characters are smaller, secondary roles. In Almost, Maine I get the challenge of creating five fully developed characters and presenting them to the audience in a way that their unique differences are distinct and believable.

featured image by Mat Kelly