Tuesday, June 19, 2012

At long last a return

It has been an age since I last posted.  It is my hope to return to actively writing on this blog.  I look forward to rejoining the writing world and will make necessary changes to the scope and parameters of this blog to best match my evolving interests and passions.

In anticipation ....

Monday, October 27, 2008

Now Is The Time

Now is the time to look forward to the future and what it will hold. I will quote from a not-so-randomly placed sample of graffiti that was stenciled onto a concrete column at an underpass/intersection here in Seattle. It sums it up quite nicely I feel.

The quote reads, "Vote your hopes, Not your fears."

Try to vote early if you can. Refuse provisional ballots, and pay very close attention to your vote and that you mark your correct box carefully and thoroughly or that your electronic vote appears and registers the correct choice. There have already been numerous reports from several states that the electronic machines were flipping votes of Democratic voters to Republican candidates. PAY ATTENTION.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Progressive- adj. 1 moving forward: going ahead by a series of steps [the progressive improvement of our city] 2 wanting, bringing, showing, or working for progress or improvement through social or political reform [progressive laws; a progressive senator]

n. a person who is in favor of progress or reform, especially such a person who is involved in politics

More than ever, now is the time to teach our children the importance of this word. With all the crazy tumult, uncertain financial turmoil, fear, apprehension, anxiety; the young people around us, whether your own children, your students, your nieces, nephews, or whomever—these young people need understanding just as much as the adults do. We owe them as much. They don’t need to know the minutiae of economic collapse, of dwindling 401ks, of long lines at gas pumps, of panic stricken parents at the check out counter at your local grocery store. You want your children to feel safe—to know that things will be okay. That it isn’t something for them to worry about. But they do. And with our words of encouragement, we offer them hope. This little glimmer of something intangible that, overtime, manifests itself by the tangible things that we do . . . whether as an individual or as a community or, as we are experiencing now, as a nation.

And it is in this manifestation of hope that I am reminded of the true definition of the word progressive. What children need to understand is that this word, this idea, should not be something bad. It isn’t something to be ashamed of or scared of. It is that which nourishes hope for change, for a repairing of all the things that are terribly wrong with our society.

We should allow our children to dream of a better world for it is their world that we are ruining with our uncontrollable pollution, our deforestation, our poisoning of the air we breath and of the water that is the life source of this little bit of earth we call home.

We should allow our children to know that their ideas and their dreams may be just the thing that sustains us a little longer and that has the potential to guide us to a better world.

It is this idea of a larger dream, the potential for change that we can, and must make a choice to turn around our potential as a country and as a people and reclaim the respect and dignity we so richly deserve. We must take these steps, moving forward . . . progressing toward a common purpose of change . . . to do the right thing for not only those of us here now, but for all those who will come after us.

I had the opportunity to view pictures of a friend’s recent trip to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Nat’l Park. There were no appropriate words to describe the beauty of some of those images. But what those images did for me was bolster my resolve, and renew my own hope that we won’t lose sight of what God or whomever or whatever higher power you might believe in has given us. I want my six month old nephew to have the opportunity to travel down a river in a canoe and see what has been wrought by nature. I want him to know what a polar bear is and not have to know this by only seeing it in a picture book. I want him to know that the sky is blue and not grey and smokey with pollution. I want him to be able to go outside and play in the sun feeling the warmth on his skin knowing that our atmosphere will still protect him from harmful UV radiation. And I want him to grow up knowing that no man or woman has the right to tell him when God or said higher power is about to destroy the world as we know.

I believe in the power of community to come together in times of adversity. I still get choked up watching “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” on television each year when the voices of the citizens of Who-ville rise up in song. I believe in hope. I believe in the potential of change . . . for the better.

In other words, I am a Progressive. I am proud of this fact. And I approve this message.

Post Script:

I encourage you to register to vote before the official deadline. Volunteer to work for your candidate of choice. Do your own homework when it comes to the facts. Please take advantage of early voting if necessary, or schedule time on November 4th to go to your local polling place. And please, be diligent about the documentation of your vote. Ask for a paper ballot when you can. Report abnormalities at your polling precinct--not only to the precinct captain, but to the press and to your local party headquarters. I stress all of this because of the outcome of the last two major elections and the proven discrepancies that occurred.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Perpetuation of the Preciousness of Children’s Theatre

I was reminded of the lingering misconceptions and prejudices against children’s theatre the other day while sitting in a class I am co-teaching this semester. The class in question is a junior level class geared to teach fledgling designers how to work in a collaborative setting utilizing two differing scripts throughout the course of the semester. The first play the students will be designing will be HOLES by Louis Sachar based on his award-winning book.

We began the discussion by asking the students to share their initial thoughts. Some commented on the cleverness and authenticity of the voices of the young delinquents that feature prominently in the story—others about the pacing. But what made me grit my teeth was their unanimous agreement that it didn’t seem like children’s theatre. When asked to elaborate on their comment, the answer was that the story, themes and actions went against their preconceptions of what children’s theatre was or ought to be. After each of the faculty grappled with this in their own way coming from their own experiences, I felt compelled to give a bit of historical context and to thrash into oblivion their assumptions so that they might never again have need to ‘pre-conceive’ what theatre for young audiences is or ought to be.

What was exciting about this discussion was seeing an awakening to the vast potential that awaits them in the world of theatre filled with audiences comprised of adults, those comprised of children and those comprised of families.

It is the first time this class is utilizing a theatre for young audiences script and I will continue to expand upon the field not only with the students I will be mentoring, but to all the students and faculty as to the relevance and importance of our work.

But today, I was reminded of the pitfalls of our field when I glanced again at the production photo of Dallas Children’s Theatre’s production of Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse. Here, in all its creative glory, was a picture of three of the actors, portraying three of the primary mice characters, dressed in precious white mice costumes with big round ears made of terry-cloth. Designed, no doubt, as an homage to the illustrations in the popular children’s books; I could not be dismayed at the feeling that we just took a step back into the precious realm of pre-conception, children’s theatre of yore, of purple dinosaurs that dance and sing. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for this type of theatre and all theatres produce this type of work (see my review of Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Goodnight Moon.) But it only affirms my own commitment to share with my students how tya can and is so much more.

The larger regional children’s theatre companies must by necessity craft a repertoire that engages all ages and affirms for the young parent, nay, even justifies that theatre and the arts are important to their children. I can’t help wonder though what would happen if children saw the same amount of theatre without the use of even one terry-cloth animal costume. Would their imaginations be any less developed? Would they suffer a lapse into preciousitess (that rare and inscrutable malaise brought about by a lack of cute, cuddly and cloying theatre?) I seriously doubt it. But being reminded of the preconceptions that still linger about theatre for young audiences, it is only natural to ponder these great mysteries.

I can only say for myself that I did not suffer from preciousitess—having experienced much theatre that was draped in terry cloth, velour, feathers and fur in my day. I survived, relatively unscathed; my psyche undaunted. I can only wish that there was a magic spell, a fizzing elixir that we could slip into the coffee and tea and soda of everyone that still believes that all children’s theatre holds talking mice, bean stalks and evil stepmothers in a land far, far and away.

Politics, The Art of the Possible

For the last several months, I have been debating the pros and cons of voicing my opinion regarding the upcoming election for President in 2008. However, I feel that we, as a nation, have reached a tipping point. The title of this post is a nod to a lyric from Webber’s musical Evita. It resonates now, because I feel that as an advocate for children, the arts, and most importantly a well-rounded humanist and liberal arts education; I can no longer sit quietly idle while the maelstrom of the political race swirls around me threatening to spin our nation into a further spiral of doubt and despair.

The proverbial straw that broke the camels back was the announcement of Sarah Palin for Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican ticket. To say I was dismayed at John McCain’s record was a mere trifle when I heard his choice for VP and her record (if one can call it that) began to emerge. She was a diabolically clever choice by McCain and I immediately heard the voice of Princess Leia in Star Wars when she is brought before Governer Tarkin on the Death Star, “ . . . I thought I smelt your foul stench when I was brought on board.” The foul stench here could very well be that of Karl Rove, the poster child for the evil Empire of the Star Wars franchise or one for the Slytherins if you have a more literary bent. In either case, the choice stinks and we should all be concerned. Not that the Republican ticket will win on merit, but that the Democrats will lose due to complacency and the fact that the majority of Americans are stupid enough to buy into the GOP package that is cloaked in a thick fog of lies, deception and inherently insidious framing that will beguile and lead the witless masses to vote a certain way.

For those of us in the field of liberal education, the arts, or any that support and encourage the creative and intellectual freedom of children should be storming the walls of the fortress and rallying our colleagues in support of Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential candidate. His education platform, although not perfect, lays the groundwork for a sensible re-tooling of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which has been an utter failure during the last two administration cycles with the GOP in charge. It was doomed to failure from the start, but the Republicans mismanaged its implementation and guidance to the extent of allowing school districts all over the country to hemorrhage, not only from lack of funding, but the mandates set forth by the standardized tests required by NCLB.

Here in the Seattle area, we have a neighboring school district’s teachers on strike for the second full week of classes. At issue, more pay, and freedom to teach to their strengths rather than the dictates of NCLB and the standardized tests.

VP Candidate for the Republicans has a track record of supporting issues that go against basic civil liberties, the rights of women, gays and lesbians, marriage equality and has been proven to inculcate religion into her governance of Alaska. And most terrifying are the reports that she may have supported censorship in the libraries of Wassila, Alaska while she was Mayor. This alone should be enough to disqualify her from candidacy.

We need only look to the wise words of Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 when he cautions, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. All you have to do is get people to stop reading them.”

Let us all rally in support of a ticket that will support the people, not a privileged few. Let us support a candidate that has a proven record of community engagement. Let us support a candidate that will work to provide health care for everyone (we need only look to the Europeans in how this can be done effectively.) Let us support a candidate that will fight to end our dependence on foreign oil and subsequently help to ensure the children today have a sustainable world to live in tomorrow.

I believe, that as artists, we have the ability to see the potential and be change agents for a better world that can unite us. Our art, whether it is visual, digital, musical or performative, can, and does, allow the witness to understand the world and themselves and to see the potential in everything.

Get out the word! Be vigilant! Be compassionate! Be a participant!

In the words of Barack Obama, “Yes We Can.”

Monday, February 04, 2008

It’s Not Rydell High, But It’s Pretty Darn Fun!

The recent Fall 2007 production of Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Disney’s High School Musical, was a euphoric trip down nostalgia lane, harkening back to the great innocent beach blanket musicals without the implied sexuality.

I admit that before attending the production I had been quite dubious as to what all the hype was surrounding this production. I had not seen the television movie or any iteration thereof and was aware that SCT was one of only a handful of professional theatre for young audiences companies that had been granted the rights to the production. The official national tour was on the road and would be hitting almost all of the major metropolitan cities over the next year or so. And heaven forbid that the Disney Co. allow someone else to produce a title they held the rights to, but the clever negotiating and reputation of SCT must have been enough to assuage any concerns by the Disney suits.

Overall, I was highly impressed. The large scaled production was as high a caliber as any large scale touring production with a clean, effective design, slick staging and choreography and a cast that was blessedly gender, age and ethnically diverse. The set design by in-house SCT staff member Edie Whitsett utilized the high-school gymnasium as the framing device with smaller flying and rolling set units that were used to delineate the smaller scenes. The cleanliness of the design aided with the fluidity of the staging by Linda Hartzell and choreography by Kathryn Van Meter. The knockout number by Ms. Van Meter had to be the “Get’cha Head in the Game” which required the male ensemble members to sing, speak and sign an extremely intricate number staged as a basketball warm-up and game. It was executed flawlessly and received a well-deserved ovation from the audience.

The cast, numbering thirty by my count, only utilized eight Equity actors. The rest of the enthusiastic ensemble was comprised of many younger actors, most of which came out of the SCT’s Summer / Young Actor training program. If this production were any indication, there are bright things on the horizon for future SCT productions.

The production featured several notable Equity performer from past SCT productions—Khahn Doan as the over-indulged rich girl Sharpay Evans and Jayne Muirhead as Ms. Darbus, the quintessential drama coach of the show’s fictional high school both recently seen in Sleeping Beauty and Goodnight Moon respectively. As Sharpay’s brother, Don Darryl Rivera nearly stole the show as the foil to his over-bearing sibling.

The evening I attended, Linda Hartzell shepherded in a small delegation from the Disney Corp. including the writer and composter. From my vantage point a few rows behind and across the aisle, they thoroughly enjoyed the production and were highly impressed with many of the performances not the least of which were the actors mentioned above.

After watching the show and really paying close attention to the audience, I began to realize why this production has received so much hype. It is, for all intense purposes, the Grease for the Generations Y & Z . There is an exuberance that is contagious with the waves of sound and energy in the larger group numbers. It is “Up With People” meets American Idol, meets Teen Beat magazine. But with the feel-good vibe and energy come some very important messages targeted no doubt to the parents and older audience members—‘exposure to the arts in any way’ as touted by Ms. Darbus, the drama coach; the disparity of funding between arts and athletics; the status quo; and the most important message shared by several characters in the show . . . ‘you have to allow yourself to risk’—these were and still are fundamental truths of growing up as a teenager and making it through the dark tangle of high school.

Each generation has a movie, theatre piece or film that speaks to their own teen angst. This is one such production. We had Frankie and Annette, Bye Bye Birdie, Danny and Sandy, followed by films like Sixteen Candles, Clueless, Heathers, Mean Girls and now, for this generation, we have Disney’s High School Musical. It may not be new material, but the delivery is fresh and for its time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Defense of the Dark Arts: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imagination

As the dog-days of summer arrive we are assured of several things, mosquitoes, heat-index warnings, summer blockbuster movies and the arrival of the seventh and alleged last installment of the famed Harry Potter series by author J. K Rowling. What would summers be without good movies to envelope us in the dark and cool auditoriums, our shoes squishing and squeaking over the remnants of popcorn and soda; or our local bookstores hosting midnight release parties and events surrounding the wizarding world of Rowling’s imagination? It’s a rhetorical question I’m asking because we all know what it would be like—unimaginative, with our brains languishing in the summer heat falling into a stupor with only the humming of the crickets or cicada (for those in the south) to lull our flagging humors.

This is an extraordinary aligning of events—the aforementioned movie and book releases. And as my inner-child began to fidget with excitement, I went back and reread the last five chapters or so of the Order of the Phoenix and pulled another waiting book off my shelf at home—Breaking the Magic Spell-Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales by Jack Zipes, noted scholar on folk and fairy tales and someone whose opinions I quite admire. But after reading his essay from his new revised edition from 2002 entitled, “The Radical Morality of Rats, Fairies, Wizards & Ogres: Taking Children’s Literature Seriously,” I felt that I had something to say since part of this essay related to the Harry Potter franchise.

In his essay exploring in more detail the modern fantasy writer, Zipes cites examples from writers that he feels exemplifies the best in fantasy writing for young audiences. He summarizes for his readers the points that he make from another book of his Sticks and Stones identifying attributes of children’s literature all of which are valid, but for this essay, I will touch on just a few. He points out that , “Children’s literature is often class, gender and race specific even when it is not intended to be that way,”. . . That most readers of this genre would fall into, “. . . middle-class white America,” and that, “. . . books are expensive commodities.”

I think I would agree with him up to a point, but since his lens seems to be targeted at U.S. audiences only, it would be important to note that the Harry Potter books alone have been translated into close to 10 languages globally reaching untold numbers of ethnic groups.

He notes that, “To read critically and imaginatively is a long and arduous process, and though a child can be turned on to reading through one book or a series of books, the child will not automatically become and remain a good reader. What is a good reader anyway? Isn’t a good reader someone who learns to question what she/he reads instead of buying into it without reflecting on what she/he is buying and reading?”

Within the context of his essay, it sounds like he might mean to lay waste to the credibility of the Harry Potter franchise and even at the end of the essay, it is clear that he is dubious to the merits of the series or their place in the canon of great works for young audiences. I take issue with this for several reasons but primarily because it is clear that children do reflect on the nature of the story of the young boy that doesn’t fit in and is forced into a world or a situation that is foreign to him and not of his choosing—or the young bookish girl that is vilified by her peers for being too smart—or the son of a family that is considered “less-than” by others even though their familial unit is the epitome of wholesome, nurturing and loving life that many children yearn for. Their reflection and understanding that the world of Harry Potter is imagination and not real is clear, however appealing and exciting it may seem. We need only examine the efforts by the Christian Conservative organizations and other orthodox religious groups that gleefully mount their soap boxes to lecture the public as to the satanic messages found in the wizarding world and how the books will indoctrinate our children into a life of moral decline and devil-worship while off to the side can be found a group of young children who will merely roll their eyes and giggle to themselves at the silly adults who don’t ever seem to ‘get it’. They know. As do all the other sensible adults, parents and educators that these books, as do all of the great and wonderful works of folk tale, fairy tale and fantasy literature, give us metaphoric lessons about life, the human condition and ourselves. It’s really that simple.

Books are expensive, and the Harry Potter books with the exception of the first two, have been veritable tomes. If children wish their parents to buy them in hardback, the cost could range anywhere from $15.00 to the list price at some of the smaller independent bookstores, but even these businesses will often take a hit financially to get their customers in. Sure, they know that by doing this perhaps the parent or guardian will walk out with something for themselves, but they also know that they are building a base of repeat customers.

It was so exciting to see children buying the fourth book Goblet of Fire. I remember vividly their saucer shaped eyes as they would lift the largest book to date in the series. But these children would begin reading before they were even out of the stores. Some were just sitting and reading on the floor of the bookstores. It’s not every book that can garner this kind of excitement.

Zipes also gives his opinion regarding the evaluation of children’s literature as “Indicat[ing] no more and no less that certain markets and elite groups in America have determined that particular books are worth reading, and they have successfully marketed their products.” One of Zipes’ ongoing gripes with children’s literature is its commodification. This is certainly true and the Harry Potter books are a good example of this, but the end result, justifies the means, meaning that if you can get children to read and get them excited about reading, then it becomes increasingly easier to engage them in further reading. Maybe I’m wrong in this assumption and perhaps Zipes is correct, but that becomes a larger discussion to be had at another time.

The caveat to this argument though is that even books that have been awarded The Newberry which is this countries most prestigious award for children’s literature; these books are often denigrated by the Conservatives and even banned from some libraries. The most recent case being the uproar over the use of the anatomically correct term “scrotum” on the first page of The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron this year’s Newberry Winner. Not only were parents outraged, but sadly, even some librarians felt the need to censor the book either of their own volition or from threats from their administrations or PTAs. This is a sad tragic state of affairs and one that needs to be addressed. Censorship and our children is a prickly issue that will no doubt continue but a cautionary tale that bares further examination. Perhaps we should throw Ms. Patron’s book onto the fire with all the Potter books? Or perhaps those of us, who really care, should buy extra copies and donate to libraries and schools that can’t justify to buy them for reasons mentioned above.

Zipes wrote his essay in 2002. At the time of the printing of the book, only four of the Harry Potter series had been published. The essay examines the Potter franchise but also compares it to writers and works that he feels are far superior—Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, William Steig author of the Shrek books; Donna Jo Napoli that writes modern interpretations of classic folk and fairy tales and Francesca Lia Block writing contemporary fairy tales for teenagers. Of these, I am only familiar with a few, Pullman chief among them. And even though I agree that Pullman’s books are far more complex theoretically and thematically, I also feel that Rowling’s series will ultimately achieve a far greater place in the overall pantheon of children’s literature. As did the Tolkien books that were initially perceived as somewhat less than adequate when first published; they have since achieved a mythic status.

Zipes criticizes Rowling’s books (1-4) because the characters and events, “remain basically the same and repeat the actions and gestures in novel after novel.” He criticizes her treatment of evil as simplistic in this day and age. But knowing that only the first four books had been written, I wonder how Zipes will examine the overall journey of the young boy marked by fate to destroy the evil Voldemort or be destroyed himself. It is ultimately a hero’s journey in the style of Joseph Campbell. Not only does Harry grapple with the idea of vengeance, but what he must ultimately face within himself—the potential for evil. What will be revealed in the final book will undoubtedly show not only the young readers, but Rowling’s critics like Zipes that Harry’s journey may lead to the ultimate sacrifice of either himself or someone he loves. There were critics of Disney’s The Lion King when Simba’s Father was killed. Some parents felt that the images and manner of his death were too scary and too shocking for young children. The real truth is that we lived in a completely benign society. Until the Oklahoma City bombing and then the attacks on the World Trace Center in 2001 we spent the majority of our time looking through life through rose colored glasses. We sheltered ourselves and our children (and I will boldly state here that I am referring to white middle-class America) from grief, poverty, death and disease. The fact that Disney showed the death of Simba’s Father was an event that would shape the young cub to become a responsible brave adult. We can only hope that the outcome of the seventh and final Potter book will do the same without a hint of rose-colored glasses. Without anthropomorphized animal characters, the record of Harry’s epic discovery of self-identity becomes even more tangible to young readers. Visually, the film treatments have showed this as they become darker not only in their storylines, but also in the visual world of the art direction.

The books have become increasingly dark, with the stakes rising ever faster. The loss of major characters such as Harry’s Godfather Sirius Black; the death of Albus Dumbledore at the hands of Severus Snape have all lead the audience on an ever-increasing tension filled, emotional rollercoaster. I envy the young reader experiencing these books for the first time. As an adult, the effects and emotional responses resonate on a very different frequency.

I am eager to see the film, and will eagerly await the arrival of my copy of the last book. I will, like so many others, open the front cover with a bit of trepidation. After the emotional blow of the death of Dumbledore, and the rampant rumors of at least two characters dying in the last book, I enter the wizarding world with a sense of dread . . . and a sense of hope. It is this hope that drives the characters. A “fool’s hope” as Dumbledore might call it. But J. K. Rowling has given our contemporary children an iconic symbol of three young people who must grow, struggle and ultimately make decisions that will change their world forever. But they do this in their struggle for good.

Therein lies the hope and the lesson to be had—the ability for an individual, and in this case a young boy as protagonist, to lead by example facing his fears and playing a part in restoring balance in the world. The great mythic characters from literature and film of the past century have done no less—Frodo, The Pevensie children, et.al., Luke Skywalker, Lyra, Harry Potter among others. Let’s hope that authors keep writing these stories. The journey is part of the growing.