Open The Box

JIm Marsh of the band, Mom's Chili Boys, tuning up for rehearsal.

JIm Marsh of the band, Mom’s Chili Boys, tuning up for rehearsal.

It is often the simplest of actions that rock the world. I had one of those moments yesterday. It was a threshold moment. Its power took me by surprise. It changed me and all I did was open a box.

We flew to California to work on a play. I’ve worked on dozens of plays and performance pieces in my life but this one is special because it’s not an abstraction. It’s not a made-up story. I’ve lived it and lived with it for nearly a decade. The event, the catalyst of the play was the discovery of a box, a time capsule plastered into the walls of a ranch house over 130 years ago. Tom found the box. It held the possessions of an ancestor, a small boy who died in 1885. The boy’s mother, Isabelle, put his clothes and toys in a small trunk, wrote notes, some brief anecdotes about the boy, and then hid the box in the walls of the house.

Nearly ten years ago, we began creating the play when, late one night during a visit to the ranch, Tom asked me to help him. He asked, “What am I supposed to do with this box?” At first, much of the body of the play amounted to organized transcription. During each visit I recorded hours of conversation with Tom, hours of late night storytelling, and then flew home and transcribed the recordings. I wanted to catch the cadence of Tom’s vocal patterns. I wanted to catch the rhythms of his extraordinary voice and gift of storytelling. The play was his to perform; my work was simply to craft it, to draw a clear story-path for him to follow. The play, a one-man show, was ready for production when Tom’s health failed. He died a year ago.

During Tom’s decline I rewrote the play so that I might narrate the story and added another character to the piece. The Chili Boys had a battery of new music for the play so we gathered in Stockton to integrate the new music with the new text.

When we arrived in California, we visited Tom’s widow, Marcia. She gave us the trunk so we might photograph the clothes, toys, and notes. I’d seen the artifacts many, many times. Tom and I wiled away many nights unpacking the box and reading the notes, talking about his family stories. When our rehearsals were finished, sitting with Kerri and Jim moments before driving back to the airport for our return flight, we decided to open the trunk. Kerri had never seen the artifacts. As I lifted the lid, as I opened the trunk, I realized it was the first time; Tom had always opened the box. Tom had always reached inside, removed the shoes, the tattered coat, the hobby horse, the diary that contained the tracking notes of a fever that killed the boy. This boy was not fiction. Tom would say, “Look at this. Look at what she wrote on this.”

I opened the lid, for the first time, reaching inside, pulling out the shoes, the jumping jack, saying, “Do you see this? Someone must have made it for Johnny. And here, this is the notebook that Isabelle kept of Johnny’s fever. Look at what she wrote.”

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Determine The Value

The Lost Boy (one of many) sitting on a mule.

The Lost Boy (one of many) sitting on a mule.

Last year Skip taught me that crowd sourcing sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo were great ways to test the viability of a project or product. If an idea is valuable, people will invest in it. If not, not. If an idea is viable it will attract support.

As an artist I’ve had a wonky relationship with the valuation equation. Generally, the economics of art live outside the norms of the marketplace. For instance, I’ve run or consulted with many theatre companies; it is virtually impossible for the product of a theatre company – the live performance of a play – to pay for itself through ticket sales. Unlike other products, things like cars or bananas, arts organizations and the products they produce are made possible through grants, donations, patrons and this weird mechanism called “non-profit” status. The costs of producing the play (the art) usually outstrip the capacity of the “product” to generate a profit.

When I first met Skip he asked me a question for which I had no capacity to answer: “How can you scale up?” His question brought me to the concept confusion that lives at the very heart of the economics of art: bananas, cars, and iphones can be mass-produced. They are meant to be consumed on a grand scale. They are built to break down, to be replaced by the newest, latest, and greatest. The arts, to be living, to be vital, are rarely capable of mass consumption.

The arts serve personal (and, therefore, communal) transformation. They are not meant to break down, to be replaced by the new; they are meant to sustain, to renew from a deep irreplaceable wellspring. If the iphone, banana, or car is the fruit of the vine, the arts are the root system, that which brings nutrient to the fruit, that which holds the identity of the culture. Pluck the fruit and the vine will replace it. There will always be more. Pluck the root and you kill the plant. There is only one root. The fruit is meant for consuming. The root serves a different purpose.

Places of worship and education face the same value confusion. The sacred stuff, like art, is not consumable so how does a consumer culture determine its value? Learning is an ongoing personal process, an irreplaceable relationship with the world. Both education and worship, like a living art, are experiences rather than products. They are meant to be valued differently than a new countertop or a pair of shoes.

Some forms of art are capable, through the miracle of technology, of mass consumption: movies, music recordings, art posters and prints. Technology can do many things but it cannot replace presence. It allows us to see. It cannot replace touch. It allows us on a mass scale to see a reproduction of a painting by, let’s say, Van Gogh. We can appreciate the painting through the print. However, we cannot experience it. Nothing can replace direct experience, the personal moment of standing with the painting. A live performance is…live. It is alive, inclusive, and meant to transform through presence and participation in a shared moment. The economics of valuation confuse the greater valuation.

I am testing Skip’s notion with the viability of a project. I’ve launched a Kickstarter – my first – to fund a play. It is a heart project, personal to me and I think relevant to my community. Take a look. If it looks like it has value, you’ll know what to do.

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title_pageGo here to buy hard copies (and Kindle) of my latest book: The Seer: The Mind of the Entrepreneur, Artist, Visionary, Innovator, Seeker, Learner, Leader, Creator,…You.