Just a quick post this morning. For any who follow my chapter-a-day posts I want to let you know that a rather insane business travel schedule coupled with it being production week for my play Ham Bunsand Potato Salad is going to make my posts a bit sporadic this week.
There is, however, a bit of irony in the way things have unfolded which I’d like to share. In all my travels around the country and and around the globe, I’ve never been to New York City. Late last week I found out I had to make a quick business trip to the Big Apple to visit a client. So after a long day of meetings today I’ll fly to New York for a day full of meetings tomorrow at my client’s office…on Broadway.
The day before my play opens in Pella, I’m going to be standing on Broadway for the first time. :-)
We are a couple of weeks into rehearsal of Ham Buns and Potato Salad, which is a play I’ve written and re-written over the past five years. It will make its stage premiere April 10-13, 2014 in Pella, Iowa thanks to the hard work of Union Street Players.
FYI: I do not have a part in the play. I am working with the director, Ann Wilkinson, and am enjoying the luxury of observing the process as writer and playwright. Most rehearsals I simply sit back and watch and document things with my camera. I’ve had to make some small changes to the script, and have chosen to make others. Ann consults with me once in a while on whether I think this or that choice will work. She and the actors are doing a great job, and I’m anxious to see the finished product.
Here are five things I’m learning in the process of watching a script I’ve written be produced:
The contribution of others makes it stronger. Over the past five years Wendy and I have hosted a number of readings in our home with a number of different people. I’ve received a tremendous amount of feedback and have revised the script based on that feedback. I also had the privilege of taking the script to the Missouri Playwrights Workshop at the University of Missouri where I received incredibly valuable feedback from objective sources who understand the writing process much better than I do. What I’m discovering is that not only did the feedback allow me to make my script better, but all of the readings allowed friends and community members to feel a vested interest in the piece. They’ve had a hand in it. They feel a sense of ownership and responsibility that I find humbling.
You can’t please everyone. Because I received a lot of feedback, I had to make very thoughtful and sometimes difficult decisions about which feedback I wanted to embrace and which I wanted to respectfully leave alone. In the end this is still my vision, my story, my characters, and my script. I have to be true to the voice inside of me and what I’m expressing.
It will never be exactly what you envisioned in your head. I can picture the little town of Hebron. I see the houses, the yards, the porch, and the swing. I envisioned these characters. I heard their voices saying their lines in my head. Now that the show is in production, I’m finding that the set doesn’t look like I envisioned. The characters aren’t always saying the lines the way I heard them in my head. Sometimes the director and actors don’t get the things which I just intuitively know and understand about these characters and this story. Perhaps a movie script writer can storyboard, direct, shoot, manipulate, and edit the video to get exactly what they envisioned. The stage is a messier artistic playground. The bottom line is that I have to accept that I will never see on stage exactly what I envisioned in my head.
There’s more there than you ever knew or intended. At the same time, I am finding that Ann and the actors are finding things in the script and characters that I never envisioned and that’s a good thing. I’m finding that there are layers to the story and the characters which I didn’t consciously write into the script. In the hands of capable artists the script takes on a life of its own. Things emerge. I’m blown away by it.
You’ve got to let go. A professor of mine, and a playwright, always spoke of the process of writing in terms of birthing. You conceive an idea, it grows and is knit inside you, and then you give birth to it. The birthing process can be scary, painful, and messy. As with parenting, you’ve got to let go and let your baby become the person it was meant to be. Trying to cling and control will ultimately only serve to harm all parties involved.
Ham Buns and Potato Salad will be produced by Pella, Iowa’s award winning community theatre, Union Street Players, and performed April 10-13, 2014 on the stage of the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium in the Pella Community Center, 712 Union St., Pella, IA. Tickets are $8 in advance for adults ($10 at the door) and $6 in advance for students ($8 at the door). Tickets are available on-line. Click here to order tickets online.
This past Saturday night I had the fun and privilege of participating in a father/daughter dance with my friend Megan for the third straight year. Megan and her family became our friends through theatre. In 2006 when Wendy directed The Christmas Post, a young Megan was on stage with her mother and brother, and her dad was the show’s accompanist. Back in the spring of 2010, Megan’s dad passed away and it happened that she was, at that time, capably playing the role of my character’s daughter in the show K.O.L.D. Radio, Whitefish Bay.
Megan joined the PHS dance team, Forte’, when she got to high school and at the team’s annual home performance the girls always do a dance with their dads. It’s been my honor to be asked to play the role of her honorary dad each year. Talk about dancing with the stars :-)
Thanks to Wendy for her exemplary job behind the camera!
When teaching my course on creativity I have discovered an almost universal truth: My students all have an intense desire to create and express themselves through their chosen art medium(s) but they almost all don’t do it. As we journey through the course we attempt to excavate the reasons for their artistic timidity, and without fail I discover that most are plagued fear.
Fear of doing it wrong
Fear of not being good enough
Fear of failing at it
Fear of what’s deep inside of me, fear it might come out
Fear of looking silly
Fear of what my parents would say
Fear of what my friends might think
Fear that it will be bad
Throughout the course, as I talk about expressing yourself creatively or artistically, I incessantly quote jazz great Miles Davis:
“There are no wrong notes.”
I was reminded of this yesterday in a Wall Street Journal interview I read with another jazz great, Herbie Hancock, who recently gave a lecture about the wisdom of Miles Davis at Harvard:
Mr. Hancock recounted, for example, one extraordinary moment in Stockholm in 1967, during a performance by the [Miles Davis] quintet. “This night was magical,” he remembered. “We were communicating almost telepathically, playing ‘So What'”—one of the group’s signature pieces. “Wayne [Shorter] had taken his solo. Miles was playing and building and building, and then I played the wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. In an instant, time stood still and I felt totally shattered. Miles took a breath. And then he played this phrase that made my chord right. It didn’t seem possible. I still don’t know how he did it. But Miles hadn’t heard it as a wrong chord—he took it as an unexpected chord. He didn’t judge what I played. To use a Buddhist turn of phrase, he turned poison into medicine.”
Wendy and I talked about this story over breakfast and she reminded me that Davis was simply applying to music a concept that she and I know well from the stage. It’s the concept of “Yes And.” Like a song, a stage performance is usually meticulously orchestrated. Lines and movement are carefully prescribed to deliver the intended effect to the audience. Sometimes, however, something happens on stage which you didn’t expect:
An actor moves to a different place on stage than was rehearsed
An actor completely blanks and can’t remember his or her lines
In the moment of performance when you stand on that stage with the audience watching you can’t stop the performance to shout “No, but wait! That’s wrong. Let’s go back and try it again.” When the unexpected happens, actors are taught to say “Yes, and I’ll go along with it. I will respond to what just happened so as to make it work into the scene. The concept of “Yes And” is particularly critical for actors who learn improvisational theatre in which there is no script or blocking to follow. You must say “Yes And” to whatever the other person on stage is doing and respond.
When Herbie Hancock played the “wrong” chord Miles Davis said “Yes, and I’m going to change the notes I’m playing to envelope that chord and redeem it. I’m going to make it right. There are no wrong notes.”
I have learned that the concept of “Yes And” goes much deeper than jazz and stage. God, the master artist and Creator, has exemplified “Yes And” in my entire life journey. When I have totally screwed up time and time again God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to let you learn the hard lessons that come from your choices.” When I have wandered from the path into dark places God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to ultimately use your experiences to teach you wisdom.” When I make foolish choices God has responded “Yes, and you will find maturity in the dissonance your decisions create.”
“Yes And” applies to the art of daily life. When the fourteen year old says, out of the blue, “I want to go to Thailand next summer” I don’t say “No!” I say, “Yes, and I’m going to help you figure out if you’re really supposed to go.” When friends, spouses, children, or co-workers do the unexpected, there is wisdom in learning to say “Yes, and I’m going to give up my misguided notion that I can somehow control you, make you do my will, or know God’s prescribed path for your life.”
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Obviously, parents have responsibility to teach our young children well and to protect them with appropriate rules and boundaries. Relationships, like the flow of music or the blocking of a scene, require a give and take between those involved. I have found, however, that when it comes to relationships we are often tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit. We are deceived into thinking that we are the god of our children, our spouses, our friends, and our co-workers.
“No, but I AM the only one who knows what’s best for her.”
“No, but I AM the one who will choose the path for him.”
“No, but I AM the one who has judged correctly.”
“No, but I AM to be obeyed.”
“No, but I AM right.”
I love Herbie Hancock’s story and the wisdom of Miles Davis. When we are raised and enmeshed in the rigidity of a black and white “No But” world we quickly learn to stuff the creative impulses that Creator God knit into our souls when He sculpted us in His own image. We learn to fear the “No, but” which we have been taught will inevitably follow when we play “wrong” notes, paint the “wrong” way, draw outside the lines, or miss an entrance.
When I was younger I thought that the sad result of the Garden of Eden was that we all choose to do “wrong” and “bad” things. The further I get in the journey, the more I’ve come to realize that the true tragedy of The Fall is not the bad things that we do, but our failure to fully realize all that is good and pure and powerful and possible as children of the Creator who said “Yes and let us make man and woman in our image, in our likeness.”
It was about five years ago that I first sat down at my lap top and began tapping out some lines based on a few loose ideas in my head. What eventually emerged was the script for a stage play in two acts which I entitled “Ham Buns and Potato Salad.” I finished the first draft of the play two and a half years ago and it had its debut at a table reading around our dining room table with some members of a creative small group and their spouses.
It’s been a fascinating creative journey for me. The script has undergone three major revisions, has been “workshopped” at the Missouri Playwrights Association, and we’ve gone through three more local readings with different voices. A week from this Sunday our local community theater will hold the first of two auditions and the play will be on its way for its first (and perhaps last – you never know) production.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions from family and friends, so I thought I would answer a few FAQs regarding the play.
What’s the play about?
It’s about secrets, scandal and relationship in a small Iowa town. Twelve years prior to events of the play, a local girl found herself pregnant at the time of high school graduation. She has never said who the father is, which has become a legendary source of speculation for the town’s residents. One of the prime suspects of paternity, Tommy Prins, left town right after high school. Tommy went to college, became a famous writer, and has never once returned home. When both his parents die in a tragic accident, Tommy must return home for the first time and the heat is turned up on the simmering town scandal.
Why is it called “Ham Buns and Potato Salad”?
When I ask most people around here what they think of when I say “Ham Buns and Potato Salad” the response I get 90 percent of the time is “a funeral.” Exactly. In small towns around Iowa there is a traditional “lunch” that is served at practically every funeral reception. One slice of ham in a buttered bun (the Ham Bun) along with potato salad, potato chips, ice tea, coffee, and water. The dessert is likely a choice between brownie and Jello-cake (sometimes referred to as “poke cake” because you poke the top of the cake with a fork before pouring the liquid Jello over the top to let it seep in). The events of the play surround a funeral, and it is the funeral which forces Tommy to return home and face his past. Sometimes, you have to return home whether you want to or not.
How did you come up with it?
Writers are always told “write about what you know.” Much of the play is written from my experiences and observations of small town life while living in Lynnville, Iowa for three years. It’s combined with memories and recollections of regular visits to my grandparents’ home in LeMars, Iowa growing up. The characters are a loose amalgam of people I knew, people I know, and people about whom I’ve heard stories. My family and close friends will likely catch little details that come out right out of old memories and personal experiences.
How many characters are in it?
Five adult males. Four adult females. One girl the age of 11-12.
What kind of play is it?
People have had a hard time labeling it with one clear genre. There is a lot of humor in it, so it’s kind of a comedy (you will laugh). There’s also a very serious undertone, which would make it kind of a drama (bring a hanky, ladies). There’s a romantic story involved (great for a date night or girl’s night out). There’s also a few cliff hangers and twists which would make it a bit of a thriller (you’ll like it too, guys). Why don’t you come see it and tell me what you think it is?
Are you going to be in it, or are you directing it?
The play is being directed by our friend, Ann Wilkinson, who teaches Theatre at Central College. Wendy is auditioning and will likely have a part. My hope is that we will have enough men try out so that I can sit back and watch it come to life on stage without having to be in it. If we don’t have enough men audition, then I will likely be on stage as well. That is usually the case with community theatre.
When is it being performed? How do I get tickets?
April 10-12 at 7 p.m. and April 13 at 2 p.m. at the Pella Community Center. Tickets can be purchased on line starting in mid-March by visiting www.unionstreetplayers.com.