Answer The Question With A Question

carrying on the tradition (and my heroes): mike and sabrina bartram

carrying on the tradition (and my heroes): mike and sabrina bartram at Changing Faces Theatre Company

Many years ago at the start of my career I bumbled into running a summer theatre company. It would become one of the great gifts of my life. At the time I decided that it would be my laboratory. I’d be able to experiment with directing processes and actor training techniques. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I would also be running an experiment in business and, more importantly, how to create a community mindset of support and empowerment (and, therefore, achievement). I was free to succeed because I gave myself permission to focus on the quality of the process instead of worrying about hard and abstract words like ‘achievement.’ My bottom line was the inner growth of everyone in the company, the inner growth of the community that we served.

When the company was up and running, when it was mature, company members swept the parking lot because they knew it would make the play better (improving the audience experience always impacts the performance). The people running the box office prided themselves on their kind service and efficiency because they knew that it would make the play better. The actors understood that they were in service to the play and not themselves. In fact, everyone in the company was in service to something bigger than themselves. That was the culture of the company. When pushed to articulate the success of what we created together, I’d say, “We’re focusing on the important stuff.”

Yesterday with great intention I sent that phrase (focus on the important stuff) out into the e-stratosphere. I lobbed it in association with the company that Kerri and I are in the process of creating to see what would come back at me. Like the summer theatre company, this new venture is our laboratory. What came back was the question, “What’s the important stuff?”

Sometimes the only way to answer a question is with another question. Take a look around your world. Take a moment to look at the difference between what you say and what you do. What do you see? What do you want to see? Big power comes to people when, like my company members (students) of so long ago, they realize that their “seeing” isn’t passive. The greatest single power any human being has is to choose where they place their focus. The greatest single revelation any human being has is to recognize that what they see impacts everyone around them. No one does this walk alone.

the very first painting in the Yoga series. It was an experiment, a walk of discovery. It's also about being alone

the very first painting in the Yoga series. It was an experiment, a walk of discovery. It’s also about being alone.

It’s easy to place a focus on an obstacle. It’s very easy to fix a gaze on the problems. It’s easy because, left alone, believing we are alone, that’s where most people default. Place yourself in a community that knows there is something bigger, something more important to see and serve, and the field of possibilities becomes easy. My company members of so long ago didn’t know what they couldn’t do so they did everything they imagined. That was only possible because they imagined it together. So, answering a question with a question, to you, what’s the important stuff?

 

Step Into The Field

photo-5[continued from “Jump!]

I wrote this phrase: “The one facilitates the journey for the many.” And, today, I would add: the one facilitates the journey for the many so that the many can experience the one. This little phrase is the point and the purpose of the theatre.

I’ve come to believe, at this stage in my artist life, that all processes of art-making are actually exercises in presence. And, presence, for me, has come to mean transcending any experience of separation. For instance, when I am fully engaged with painting a painting, “I” am nowhere to be found. Time disappears. There is only rolling creation. To use a cliché: something comes through me. Language is incapable of grasping what really happens and all we are left with is “something comes through” – a statement of separation.

A week ago today we were preparing to perform the closing of The Lost Boy. This play is unique in my experience for many reasons (it would require a book or two to explain the many layers of this cake), one of which was that we only had two performances: an opening and a closing. We hit our stride on the closing – and by that I mean we let go of thinking, preparing, adjusting…, and entered presence. We stepped onto the stage with no thought of “what’s first” and “what’s next.” The play happened with no effort. The Chili Boys played like never before. We were, to use another cliché, in the flow. I have never felt more alive, more connected, more present. It was fun!

50 minutes before stepping onto the stage

50 minutes before stepping onto the stage

Years ago, I had the opportunity to assist Jim Edmondson in a series of plays and I riddled him with questions. He introduced me to the notion that the art of acting was the art of presence (though he used a different language). He taught me that words like “focus” and “intention” are merely tools for cultivating the capacity to be present. Presence is the portal and the actors’ (artists’) job is to step into presence so the audience can join them. Literally, join with them in the field of the present, the place of common story. To be. Together, in a single story. And, although he did not say it this way, he taught me that “to be” is infinitely more powerful than “to become.” “To be” is not an arrival platform; it is an experience of the many recognizing itself as the one [could you ask for a better definition of art!].

Mike, our stage manager extraordinaire, came down from the booth and told us that our performances were different than the first night. We were more potent; we found nuance and greater depth. He was right. We were finally able to surrender to the work, get out of our own way, and step into the field of shared story.

Hear The Voices

photo-2This is the most unusual rehearsal process I’ve ever navigated.

First, I wrote the play and in preparing to perform it, I’m discovering it anew as if someone else wrote it. There have been brilliant and funny moments when I ask myself, I wonder why he wrote that? The good news is that I remember whom to ask.

Second, the play was originally meant for Tom to perform and since the story is Tom’s family narrative, I wanted the language and syntax to be Tom’s. In development, I recorded hours of conversation with him. Much of the first draft was a transcription so that I might capture word-for-word his language choices and speech patterns. Those structures survived the several rewrites that happened after Tom’s death. In preparing to perform the play I’m wrestling with the language. I’m wrestling with his language. It is almost as if I am discovering my own speech patterns and syntax – in telling Tom’s story I’m finding it necessary to tell it my way, not his. Essentially, as is true in all good storytelling, I am finding myself, my voice, through his story.

Tom and me a long time ago.

Tom and me a long time ago.

Finally, the music is a character in the play and the musicians, Mom’s Chili Boys, are madly rehearsing in California while the actors (Kerri and I) are rehearsing in Wisconsin. The internet is a beautiful thing as, each day, we pass notes, record voices, email questions; we will only be together in the same room 3 days before the first performance. We’re essentially workshopping the play from two locations. It is akin to rehearsing a symphony in parts and the parts only come together in the final day. They get to experience the whole symphony, the fullness of their music as played through all of the voices, only in the final hour. And that will be true of this play.

Each day I rehearse and I hear Tom’s voice in my head, telling me the stories that comprise the play. I am reminded that, whether artist or audience, art is a living thing. It is a relationship and ultimately that relationship is with your self.

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Untitled by David Robinson

Untitled by David Robinson

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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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Step On The Stage

My performance with the Portland Chamber Orchestra of "The Creatures of Prometheus. I wrote and performed the piece for PCO.

My performance with the Portland Chamber Orchestra of “The Creatures of Prometheus.” I wrote and performed the piece for PCO.

Craig is laughing at me and with good reason. Through a post he asked a simple question about people building boxes around themselves. He issued a singular challenge: to apply what I found in his post to my writing. I’ve had more ideas and random ruminations than I know what to do with; he opened a big can. Before I let it go, I want to wade into the last part of his question: when did I know to create my stage?

Craig positioned a stage (showing up) as the polar opposite of a box (hiding) so I read his question as asking when I decided to show up. I’ve learned that a stage can be a strategy for hiding, too, so “showing up” means much more than just being visible.

Many actors get on the literal stage because they are seeking appreciation or approval from the audience. When anyone mounts a stage, either literal or metaphoric, to seek approval, they split themselves. By definition, they must hide their intention (to seek approval) and in so doing, give away their power and potential. Young teachers often pass through a growth phase in which they seek the approval of their students; they want to be liked and their need for appreciation neutralizes their capacity to teach. Ironically, in both cases (actors and teachers), the moment they cease splitting their intention they become great at what they do and their respective audiences can’t help but appreciate them. That’s the way power works.

Several years ago I was working with a corporate client who was upset because he felt uncomfortable with what he’d learned from my workshop. I told him that I could either serve him or please him but I could not do both. I understood that my job was to help him grow and that necessarily required discomfort. If he wanted to be pleased he needed to hire someone else.

I hid for years. I split myself for decades. My dear friend Roger once said that one day in his middle 30’s he realized that he was no longer becoming someone. He was someone. Everyone navigates the “becoming.” It is a necessary and vital growth phase and is often filled with fears of inauthenticity and split intentions; everyone wants to be appreciated and everyone sacrifices their primary intention in a mad dash for approval until one day, if they are lucky, they realize the only approval they need is their own. My revelation came when I was preparing to go on stage to perform. I realized that I was steeling myself against the audience (preparing to hide). I was assuming that they were going to judge me, which is a form of approval seeking. It was like a cold slap. I’d never had a bad experience with an audience. I’d only ever experienced appreciation and support and wondered why I was steeling myself against the very people I was there to serve. My need for approval dropped like a stone. I went on stage, perhaps for the first time in my life, present and powerful. I didn’t need anything from them. I was bringing life and my gifts to them and that was all that was required. My whole world flipped. No armor. No mask. No need other than to offer my gift on that day to that specific group. Whether or not they accepted my offer could no longer be my concern.

I’ve since learned that discomfort is a very valuable thing. It is present anytime learning and growing is happening. In fact, if there is no discomfort, there’s no learning. And that is the plaque nailed to my stage.

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