Thursday, May 4, 2017

No Rhetorical Questions

To say that I had fun watching Charlotte's Web is an understatement.  I got to see three showings over two days, and it was just cool.  But before the first performance, Caroline warned me that I might not be getting what I expected, and she was right.

See, when we were growing up, Grandmother Lawton would take us to the Bob Jones theater.  Say what you want to about the politics of the school, but those guys really invested in their theater productions.  Spectacular sets, glorious costumes, powerful voices, good direction, and casts and crews that knew their jobs.

And so, as a kid, when you went to the theater in my household, you got a stern warning ahead of time.


There wasn't even any suggested punishment offered as a quid-pro-misbehaving-quo.  You put on the coat and tie, shoes that pinched your feet, and went out to spend an evening with the grown ups. Often, but not always, the choice of play was Shakespeare, performed with lofty accents, and the expectations were every bit as high as the 'culture' we were getting.  The expectations and limits were clearly delineated.
  • No crawling on the floor.
  • No climbing on the back of the chair.
  • No talking - not even in a whisper.
  • No kicking the back of the chair in front of you.
  • Eyes front.
  • No, you cannot go to the restroom; you'll have to hold it.
Usually these rules were meted out one at a time for me throughout the performance, as though both my parents and I were checking off our own Thou Shalt Nots lists.  And by the end of the performance, I would inevitably feel my bottom to be strangely warmed (John Wesley reference, for those of you who would appreciate it).

As I grew older, and saw more theater in different places, I knew the rules - they had been inculcated into me early in life, and they stuck.

So Caroline was warning me to be prepared for something a little different.

The theater at Wheelock is very big.  I had expected a smaller, more intimate setting from which to watch the play, but the seats were comfy and there is not a bad vantage point in the entire stadium-seating theater, so I settled in pretty quickly to enjoy.

The first showing was a matinee.  Afterwards, Caroline said that it was a remarkably well behaved group of kids.  I looked at her.  "Huh?"

"I SAID THAT THE AUDIENCE TODAY WAS VERY WELL BEHAVED.  THE BEST WE'VE SEEN!" (She had to say it twice, so that my dazed brain could focus enough to actually hear what she said.)

The kids were out-of-their minds excited by everything.  Like the audience of a rock concert the moment before the opening chords, the audience of 600+ kids (and three adults, by my count - the rest, I suspect, were hiding somewhere under the seats) vibrated with unbridled energy.  And when the play started, they screamed their roar of delight at a decibel level that would make an ground controller at the airport look for a replacement pair of ear protectors.

To my utter fascination, the kids were engaged completely in the performance.  Not just appreciating the performances, as I was taught to do, but living the moments.  Excited honking back and forth between friends while watching the physical comedy of the geese perform on stage.  Bleating in imitation of the speech patterns and physicality of the sheep and lamb.

And answering the questions.

When the newly-hatched Wilbur comes out on stage (What?  I'm no farmer - I don't know how these things work), he asks 'Who am I?  Where am I?'  The existential questions of every philosopher-poet ever - from the bowl of petunias to the sperm whale.  And the line is intended to spur the remainder of the monologue.

No chance.  'Who am I?' was immediately met with a chorus of 600 screaming kids YOU"RE WILBUR!!!!!!

'Where am I?'


During the intermission, kids stood up and replicated dialogue.  They inhabited the characters they had been watching.  They shouted, ran around, pointed, and climbed.  They lived the performance in a way that I have never done.

The second performance was, if possible louder and more energetic.

CW run-through before I inserted the ear plugs.
The third performance was an evening performance, with parents and kids.  And I liked it.  I caught snippets of dialogue that I had totally missed out on for the cacophony of audience voices that accompanied each action of the cast.  I saw subtle physical cues between cast members that reinforced the relationship of the characters: a reassuring touch here, a side-eye there, an unconscious mirroring of actions between animals standing side-by-side.

The richness of the show is incredible, and much of that richness I missed in the first two performances.  With the overwhelming sensory overload that comes with 800 screaming schoolchildren, your senses have to focus on very specific sensory inputs to be able to follow.  You have to listen carefully for the dialogue, or you will miss it.  You have to watch for the spider's descent, or you will miss it. Whatever is outside of the direct focus of your attention gets lost in the roar and the wiggle.

The evening performance allowed for the audience member to pick up on a lot more that is unavailable to the school matinee audience member.

And it was, by comparison, boring.

Not that there was anything different about the play - the actors nailed their performances and I loved the play.  But the audience participation - especially in that uninhibited way that children play - is simply not going to happen with a mostly-adult crowd.  The rules will be explained, and the limits will be set (and tested) and somebody's bottom will become strangely warmed halfway through the first act.

But the audience is separated from the action.

Just before the first performance, I leaned forward to the girls sitting in front of me and said, "You want to know a secret?  That (pointing to the program) is my sister."


And for the rest of the show, every time Charlotte made an appearance, they would both turn around in their seat and whispersqueal "THERE SHE IS!"  ...and then turn back around and interact with the play, fully committed to the action.

When it came to the 'adult' play, there were some titters and oohs and ahhs, and some appreciative laughter.  And conversations during intermission.

But not a single bleat or honk.  And I found it terribly disappointing.  Are we adults just not as affected by the majick of theater as we were as kids? Has the venue become a holy sanctuary, where we dress up and whisper in hushed tones and worship at the altar of an amazing performance, only discussing it afterwards?  Have we moved from 'play' space into 'sacred' space?  Is there any way to infuse the experience with the spirit of a thousand kids?  (OK, maybe a thousand is too many.  But the idea is still the same...)

I think I'll start the trend of interacting with the cast members during the performance.  Who's with me?  Maybe in Romeo and Juliet, I will respond when she asks "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" with:


*Yes, I know what 'wherefore' meant....

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

High Flying

The lady in the theatre stopped me and said, "Your sister is so amazing."

I went to Boston this week to watch my sister in her play at Wheelock Family Theatre, Charlotte's Web.  And Holy Hammer in Hicksville, she is awesome.  The play is amazing, and the whole cast grabs you and doesn't let you go for the whole ride.  Templeton is snarky spectacle in her pure rattiness.  Wilbur is humble and radiant.  The goose and gander make me laugh every time they are on stage.  The baby spiders are ridiculously cute...

Gary Ng took incredible shots of Charlotte and Wilbur.
But the woman was right.  The high flying Caroline Lawton is amazing.  Her aerial maneuvers display an incredible strength and show off her dedication to learning new things - she just started circus school a few months ago when she was cast.  And she is mesmerizing - you simply can't take your eyes off of her when she is on the set.

But the performance was not what the woman stopped me to talk about. She continued:

"Your sister is so kind on set.  She has really just set the tone for the whole play, of one of kindness, and the way that she has been with my daughter...."

The woman looked away to giver herself a moment to gain control of her voice again.  "Caroline has been so wonderful to all of the kids.  Your sister is amazing."

The play Charlotte's Web is about what it means to be a friend.  What it means to go from thinking only about yourself to thinking about the needs and wants of somebody else, and figuring out how you can help them.  The theme, woven throughout the script, is of selfishness versus selflessness.  Charlotte embodies the latter characteristic, and Caroline inhabits that part of the character completely, both onstage and off. 

The moment of triumph in the show for Charlotte is not the moment in which she saves Wilbur's bacon (#sorrynotsorry), but the moment when Wilbur comes to the realization that he needs to look for ways that he can be nice to others. When the gift of received friendship causes someone to move outside of self interest and find ways of doing something for others - that is the climax of the story.

How often do we do that?  Not me.  I am focused on getting my memo through the bureaucratic hoops.  I am worried about my Wednesday briefing, and how I am going to survive the next week of meetings?  I am aggravated about the paperwork, frantic over the emails, concerned about how overwhelmed I am feeling....

I.  Me.  My.

What if my focus instead were on the people around me?  What if I looked to see what Jenny is struggling with, and acted out of kindness, instead of just looking to use her to get my projects done? What if I stopped by to talk - really talk - with Brenda, instead of only leaving my desk to deal with the crisis at hand, exploding with anger that yet another memo had been hijacked and delayed?

What if I practice kindness?

I want to be amazing.  Just like my sister.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Just Sing.

Sharon Penley is the choir director at First Pres in Vicksburg.  Every week, as we choir members go to do the Sunday morning anthem, Sharon will make eye contact with whoever happens to be looking up, and will mouth the words, "Just sing."

And we do.  We are a pretty small choir, but the level of musicality is - for a small group of singers in a small town church - fairly high.  We work pretty well together, with a decent balance.  Our sound is made even better by the work of the virtuoso organist, Barbara Tracy, an unsung hero working a lovely pipe organ to its fullest potential.

This past week during rehearsal, Sharon clarified what she means by the phrase Just Sing.  During the rehearsals, she said, we are working on notes and rhythms and rests and blending, and all of the mechanics of singing.  During that time, we become aware of the physicality, and we work to make the song sound like it was intended - meeting the intent of both the composer and the director.

It is hard, she explained, to make the transition from rehearsal to worship without moving it into the performance realm.  And what we are doing, when we sing in the church service, has nothing to do with performance.  It has to do with worship.  "You are worshiping in rhythm and notes," she explained.

This week is Holy Week, and predictably, this past Sunday's church service had a huge number of powerful songs - Palm Sunday is a time for singing loud and joyfully.  There was a lovely duet between organ and piano.  Children's choir singing their hearts out while processing with palm branches.

After the Lord's Prayer, my friend Paul leaned over to me and said, "Have you heard her sing this one?"  I shook my head.  It was a powerful tune called The Holy City, and it was one of my favorites when I was a kid.  The late Doyle Langley, uber-tenor in my home church in Greenville, would sing it from time to time, and I would listen to his voice soar impossibly higher and higher, providing awe-inspiring counterpoint with the Pendleton Street organ.

(I heard the words wrong, of course, and my 10-year-old self could be heard singing my own mondegreen version for the weeks following Doyle's solo.)

This Palm Sunday, as Sharon took a breath and began, I glanced over at the other choir members, all of whom had unconsciously leaned forward in anticipation.  The song - a tone poem of sorts -starts out as recitation of a dream.  Low and deep, as if sharing a secret, Sharon built the image of children singing, and the power of her voice rumbled through the verse, a powerful engine building to the refrain.

And when she hit the refrain, her voice soared and the raw power of her song ran through the whole congregation like electricity.  Next verse, the same thing.  Impossibly, the organ increased its volume, and Sharon's voice did, too.  By the time the third verse was concluded, every eye - congregation and choir - was open wide, and every body leaned forward, not wanting to miss a single note.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  Sing, for the night is o'er.
Hosannah, in the highest.  Hosannah forevermore!

Sharon sang a duet with the full organ, effortlessly matching power and timbre, instrument to instrument.

It was thrilling.

In that dead silence that followed - the long beat between the last note and the universal congregational 'amens' - Paul leaned over to me and gave a stage whisper that the whole choir heard.  "That, Crorey, is what she means when she says, 'Just Sing'.

Our anthem was a beautiful, powerful piece that we all sang with wild abandon. We worshiped God, as Sharon says, through notes and rhythm.

There exist in my own life so many places where I get worked up about the song, the notes, the pitch, the breath, and the phrasing.  Through all of the overthinking and focusing on the mechanics, my voice comes out weak and timid, for fear of making a mistake.  I forget to Just Sing.  It shows up in a lot of areas of my life.

My faith is tentative, and sometimes I am uncomfortable sharing.

My work, where I fret over decisions instead of just taking the lead.

My friendships, where I worry about saying the wrong thing, and instead just remain quiet.

Some of those times, I need to hear those words from Sharon, and simply join my voice to the organ.
And just sing.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cheese Straws as Family Trait

"I couldn't find the piece that holds the top of my pastry extruder on, so I made the cheese straws the way that my mother did, and it was so wonderful just reliving that memory."

My mom was sitting in the back seat of my wife's car, on the way to the airport.  Caroline, sitting in the front seat, looked at me strangely, apparently because of the look that had crossed my face when I overheard the conversation mom was having in the backseat with Kathe.

"She never measured anything.  She just took the block of cheese, and then added butter, and then added  flour until the consistency was right.  And it really struck a chord in my memory, because she would let me help with the mixing things together.  It really was a wonderful memory."

It was the strangest sensation.  All my life I had heard about my Nana's kitchen fiascoes.  The installed ceramic tile in her kitchen, with personalized designs from family members, one of which said:

Because Nana was, well... famous for burning things in the kitchen.

Family legend has it that my uncle Richard didn't know that scraping the burnt part off of the toast was not part of the toast-making process.  So much so, that one time when the family went out to eat, he demanded that the toast be sent back to make it right.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Put your hands in the air like you do care

Christmas Eve, 2016.  Vicksburg.

Kathe and I went to the candelight service at the church we have been attending.  It was a packed house, and we stood against the back wall.  Several people made moves to allow us to sit together, and we shoehorned our way between the end of the back pew and a lovely couple from Colorado Springs, who had just arrived on the steamboat between New Orleans and Vicksburg.

The service was lovely.  There were kids everywhere, and the joyous laughter rang out throughout the service.  There was no shushing, there was no embarrassment that the kids were not sitting silently.  And there certainly were no trips outside, with the stern promise of a more severe spanking when we get home.

But I digress.

There was lots of beautiful music - organ, violin, solo, piano.  The old, familiar carols.  The children's choir, singing one I did not know.  Then a  children's sermon, with fifty children all joined at the front of the sanctuary.

And then Sharon Penley got up to sing.

Sharon is our choir director, and she has a passion about music that is very nearly unrivaled.  When we first spoke, she told me that when she sings, it is like she gets transported to heaven.  And when she directs the choir, it is like bringing her best friends to go there with her.

I believe her.  She is amazing, and lets us be amazing with her.

She has a beautiful, powerful mezzo soprano voice.  And when she stood up, and the organist began the opening arpeggio of O Holy Night, I got excited.  This was going to be special.

It was.

I closed my eyes, savoring the beauty of the full sound, all the way back in the back of a church designed for acoustics.  And just after Sharon got to "Fall on your knees. Oh! Hear the angel voices" I got a nudge from Kathe.  I opened my eyes and looked at where she was indicating, and saw the most amazing scene.

About six rows up, there was a darling little girl - maybe 18 months.  We had admired her earlier during the children's message - how beautiful and well behaved she was.

When Sharon's voice reached its powerful crescendo, this tiny girl stood up in her mother's lap, and reached her hands to the sky, as if to make herself bigger so she could hear the notes better.  Her entire little body became an antenna for the sound Sharon was making, and this child was giving it back with every thing she had. Hands up in the air, then clasping them together as if to hold on to the sound, keeping it from escaping.

Oh night when Christ as born.  Oh, night divine.  Oh, holy night.

Without question, it was.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Two Days and a Wake-Up

Counting down to Christmas was always fun.  Mom would come in and say, "Only ten more days and a wake-up until Christmas morning!"

Nine more days and a wake-up.

Eight more days and a wake-up.

With each day, the anticipation would build just a bit more, culminating in a fever pitch on Christmas Eve. The 23rd was Grandmama's birthday party at Charlie's Steak House, with the most incredible steak in existence, followed by a single sample of Dad's annual gift (the 23rd was his birthday, too) of a box of Andes chocolate mints.  And polished off with the free Tootsie Roll at the door.  The 24th was Christmas Eve party at Grandmama's house.  All of the sugar and candy imaginable, and the first salvo of opened presents.

Then the ride home, where we would watch out the window for any chance sighting of Santa.

Finally, the glorious wake-up.

The countdowns are fewer these days, with more stress piling up as I strike through items on my ever-expanding list.

Present for wife, check.
Rake the leaves that fell since I last raked, check.  Kinda.
Plants on the porch for the winter, check.
Visqueen up on porch to help protect plants (especially important with the coming 70 degree temperatures), check.
Report draft, check.

The countdowns are now about getting things done before, rather than looking forward to something with anticipation.  Work lists that are getting ticked off, gift lists that are getting ticked off, me getting ticked off, and the countdown to a Merry Christmas just seems to lack some of the anticipation of days of yore.


But this year, my sister and my mom are coming to spend Christmas at my house.  They are flying on Christmas day, and will be arriving in Jackson around noon.  I then get a week of showing them around my town, doing all of the things I love.  Things that usually get put off, because I am making these lists, and checking the items off.  Sometimes twice (those thrice-blasted leaves!)

And I have found myself excited for Christmas.  Looking forward with great anticipation for the time when at least part of my family is together.  Counting down the days.

Texting my sister each morning, "Three more days and a wake-up."  And today:

"Two more days and a wake-up."

May your Christmas be filled with the love of family, and the joy of advent.  The excitement and anticipation of the arrival of the babe in a manger.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

You Gotta Squint to See Better

A year ago, I had traveled to central Massachusetts to attend a conference for work, and when it was over, stayed an extra day to visit with my sister.

While I was there, she had her Christmas tree delivered.  It was a lovely spruce tree, and it immediately made the room smell divine.  Later that evening, she began a slow waltz of placing lights on the tree, stepping back, then stepping in again to adjust, and then placing the next swoop of lights.

Confession:  I have never enjoyed the decorating part.  I love having the tree, but the act of decorating has never given me joy.  But I love my sister, and so I helped.

My helping normally involves handing the lights around the back of the tree, and then pulling the slack.  The idea of adjusting is so foreign to me that it had to be explained.

The real trick, explained Caroline, is to squint.  If you step back for a second and squint your eyes almost shut, you can see the areas of the tree that are still dark. Then you can adjust the lights to fill that void.
Tree by James Wade


"Try it", she said.

Now my family has a long history of telling one another stories with the sole purpose of making the victim do something and look ridiculous, so that we can mock them.  It was definitely not out of the realm of possibility that I was being set up.  But I was also curious, so I tried it.

And I gasped.  "Are you kidding me?  Where did you learn that?"