Thursday, December 18, 2014

An Old Fart's Holiday

I posted this on JoeMyGod and liked it enough I thought I share it with those of you who don't read that incredibly worthwhile blog.  Anyway...

Off-topic: "White Christmas" was first heard on Christmas, 1941. Although written in 1940, Bing Crosby introduced it on his radio show two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "I'll be Home for Christmas" was written in 1943, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in 1944. Both were written to help ease the holiday for those whose loved ones were overseas fighting in World War II.
There is a toast "to friends no longer with us." A few decades ago, with so many friends gone each year, there seemed little to celebrate and much to mourn. This year, many of us here at JMG have lost family and friends, both human and pets, and celebration may be tough...or at least tinged a bit. I offer these songs to you. I may sound like Debbie Downer, but I'm not. The songs are tributes to those friends no longer with us but live on in our memories and dreams.

That's the extent of it.  In my 25 years of directing choruses, I came to truly dislike this time of year.  It never goes away.  You might get January off, but by February the publishing companies are starting to make suggestions in their year 'round catalogs.  In March, the PR person wants information for that year's Christmas concert with a title for the concert and some titles.  Then there's going through the files for Christmas music you haven't done for a couple of years.  By the end of May, you have to decide what new music to order, since if you order it from the music store by a certain date, you get a pretty good discount.  Over the summer, you make up rehearsal recordings so the chorus members can practice on their own.  The music comes in sometime in August, and all of it has to be together for the first September rehearsal...and you have Christmas music in your head until January 1.

Yet I always tried to get one of these songs in the concert.  The holiday season is fun for a lot of people...lots of food, lots of beverages, lots of presents.  It's also a time of year when some people don't get lots of food, lots of beverages, lots of presents.  It's a heavy-duty family time of year; if you don't have family, you feel left out.  And if you've lost friends, whether human or animal, or members of your family of choice or blood family, it's difficult to be without them.  I always hoped one of these songs would offer a little consolation, a little hug, a little "I understand what you're feeling" to someone in the audience.

White Christmas:
I'll be Home...
Have Yourself...

Wishing you the best for your holiday season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Prayer Problem

My problem with prayer is most certainly of my own making.

I don't believe in coincidence.  I have no idea what the next part of personal theology leads when based on that concept.  It implies Someone/Something In Charge.  It implies that such a being cares about us.  It implies a Creator, and that's where I have to stop.

I think I can believe that we are the result of a creation, but I think there is a real evolution component to that.  It is possible that the Holy If Mad Scientist who started it all created up to the dinosaurs.  As with so many inventions, it started big.  Huge.  And lessons were learned.  So the Holy If Mad Scientist discovered that living creatures could be made smaller, much as player pianos went from around 70 keys to the full 88, as computers went from occupying a full floor of a building to being fully portable, as recordings went from wax cylinders to iPods.

The  Holy If Mad Scientist killed off most of his/her/its living creations and started over. But then I fall apart in my thinking.  If the Holy If Mad Scientist set things in motion and checked in from time to time, how do I explain "no coincidences"?  Or if he/she/it stuck around to see how things progress, then why does he/she/it seem to take a hands-off maintenance?  Has he/she/it created angels to intervene on his/her/its behalf?  Is that one-to-one or is it like a social service agency with one angel looking after a thousand people?

I haven't a clue.

I have a certain guilt about prayer.  Having been raised Presbyterian, I was taught to "take it to the lord in prayer."  And that's fine, except that it completely clashes with another way I was raised:  You don't ask others for help.  Because of that, I find it difficult to ask the Holy If Mad Scientist for anything.  Especially anything personal.

I always feel I'm asking Santa for what I want.  No matter how I try to phrase it, it boils down to "I want."  That's not how I want to talk to him/her/it.  Even if it's a need, it still feels like a wish list and I don't know how to get around that feeling.  Who am I to ask for something?  I'm supposed to work things out on my own.  I hear prayers by The Truly Religious and it's all "gimme gimme gimme."  I read prayers and see "gimme gimme gimme."  There's "I want" or "give me/us" or "kill those people" or "please don't let...happen to me."  Or prayers for others, but it's still a do this or do that approach.  With a "please" attached, but it's still a do this.

One of the few things I distinctly remember my favorite minister talking about concerned the hymn "In the Garden."  He quoted the chorus with emphasis:  "He walks with ME and he talks with ME and he tells ME I am his own."  He thought that was not particularly a good approach.  I agree.  But then, how do I talk to the Holy If Mad Scientist?  What is appropriate to ask?  How does one approach asking without sounding like a Santa wish list?

My mother used to remind that "God answers prayers, but he may not answer the way you want."  The thing is, I don't even know how to ask.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Would you run sound..."

Recently, I was asked to design and run sound for a production of A Christmas Carol. This is perhaps my least favorite of all seasonal stories.  I view this season as Scrooge did prior to the arrival of the Spirits.  On the other hand, I designed the original sound plot for this version of the play, and the idea was to have a reunion reading of it as a benefit for the theater.  Their original production premiered many years ago.  It became an annual affair; I always got someone to be board operator.

I was a sound designer and/or board operator for perhaps a little more than 12 years. (Alas, that's getting a bit fuzzy.)  During that time, I worked on almost 100 productions.  I was beginning to feel tired, that I was approaching the end of my run, that it was time to go.  And I think I was right, but as I wrote in another blog, I miss it.  I just hadn't realized how much until the night of the first rehearsal.

The performance was to be a reading.  Actors did the characters they originated once again, except they didn't have to memorize their lines.  Last Monday night, it clicked how much I missed that wondrous atmosphere in a rehearsal room.  The jokes and seriousness, the anticipation and the memories.  I also noticed that more sound cues had been added through the years.

I was around for the transition from mini-discs to computer programs.  In fact, toward the end of my time, everything was done by the touch of the space bar.  The computer program (SCS) was designed by someone who worked in community theater and understood what it was like, what demands were made of the designer, and how the impossible had to be done nightly.  The resultant program is a sound designer's wet dream.  A cue can be programmed to fade out automatically or fade out after another cue has started and trigger yet another cue.  One production I did had 53 cues in a 12 minute segment, something that would have been impossible if done manually.

We loaded the sound cues into the computer Thursday and did a rather crude attempt at getting cues in...hearing what was there as opposed to what I needed.  The real fun came Friday and Saturday, when I had to program the laptop.  It had been years since I did that, and at that time the main programming was done by my editing engineer.  Plus, I was now working with a "new and improved" edition.  Remembering and learning...with the performance on Sunday.

Naturally, I got better/faster at programming as I went along.  Because it was a reading and not a fully-staged production, some of the cues that were designed to cover action onstage had to be shortened.  The director wanted to add this and take out that.  By the time I finished Saturday evening, I had a list of 50 cues for a 90-minute reading on two files, because one file holds on 80 steps or tasks.

We had a final read-through Sunday afternoon.  Some cues had to be changed.  Music to fill a hole had to be re-programmed.  An automatic fade was mistimed.  Details, refining, setting.  And as frustrating as it sometimes was, I was eating it up.  After a short break for dinner, spent by me in transporting the laptop from the rehearsal room to the theater and setting up the soundboard, we had a cue-to-cue rehearsal.  A cue-to-cue is exactly what the phrase implies...the actors read up to a cue, which is then executed, and they continue until someone tells them to stop.  Readjustments are made, mostly with timing.  It was strictly a lights-up-lights-down show, so the cue-to-cue was for sound only.

The cue-to-cue ended around 6:30.  The performance was set to start at 7.  The cast was in the green room...resting, joking, reading, whatever it is actors do.  I, meanwhile, was in the theater making (literally) last minute adjustments for timing or volume.  At 7, when the cast walked onto the stage and took their seats, I had two files, one with 80 steps, nearly 40 on the other, for a new total of almost 60 cues.

And it came off almost perfectly.  What made me smile at some point during the production was that the actors were reading.  Their books were in front of them, they acted with their voices and a little with their bodies, but not really doing any movement.  The set was that of the currently running play.  There were no lighting effects, no costume changes.  Meanwhile, I was doing what I would have been doing for a fully-mounted production.  90 minutes of "being on"...and loving every second.

It felt so good to sit where I'd sat many a night for many a year, running the sound that I'd plotted and my engineer helped me prepare.  Decades ago, Gene Autrey sang a song, "Back in the Saddle Again."  I was.  And it was wonderful.  There's that line from the prologue to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:  "The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of Comedy and Tragedy."  It felt very good to be back in the temple one more time.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Lancaster, City of Light

Growing up in the country made anywhere with a lot of stores and houses and traffic and noise and air that doesn't smell like a barnyard a city.  When I was growing up, Lancaster was my city.

Lancaster was never new to me.  Mother took me to movies starting at a very young age, and Lancaster was where the movie theaters were.  Three theaters were on the same block:  The Capitol,  The Grand, and The Colonial (which became The Boyd).  A fourth was built several blocks from downtown.  The King was built in the early 1950s with CinemaScope and stereo in mind.

North Prince Street, West King Street, East and West Chestnut Street, and North Queen Street were the center of my universe.  (This included East Orange Street.)  Downtown Lancaster was always both reliable and exciting.  There was always a newsboy on the square shouting, "Pay-PERRrrrr."  I can't say I envied him his job, but it was a reliable part of every visit, as were hot soft pretzels and the diesel fuel smell of the buses.

My interest in music has been lifelong.  Lancaster had two music stores.  One was a small one on East Orange Street, near the gorgeous if spooky Episcopalian Church.  The other was Troup's Music Store.  Composer and jazz musician Bobby Troup was from Harrisburg; his family owned the original store on Market Square in Harrisburg; the one in Lancaster was the branch.  (He lived on the West Coast.  Julie London was his wife.  It was always news when he'd come back for a visit, especially if he visited the Lancaster store.)

I loved Troup's.  They had a huge selection of popular sheet music.  They also had books of "serious" music.  Sometimes they had complete scores of musicals.  Instruments were always on view and, under the watchful eye of a clerk, could be touched and even handled.  I don't know when I first became aware of Handel's Messiah, but I owned the recording with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, and vocal powerhouses soprano Eileen Farrell and bass William Warfield.  I wanted a copy of it so I could follow along.  I sent them the right amount of money and a little more so they could send it to me.  It didn't come and it didn't come, so next trip downtown, I went to the store to ask about it.  They couldn't find the letter or a record of the cash.  I was bummed.  The clerk walked over to the rack with all kinds of scores, picked up a Messiah, and put it in a bag.  "A young man can't be without his copy of Messiah," he said as he handed it to me.  I loved Troup's.

Uphill from Troup's (literally) was where the newspapers came from.  Lancaster had three...The Intelligencer Journal in the morning, The New Era in the afternoon, and The Sunday News.  We got the afternoon paper, the Republican paper, and the Sunday paper.  The building had large store windows on the street.  They had pictures of events and what we now call flip chart paper with the latest headlines hand-printed on them.  I wasn't entirely sure what went on in there, but I knew it was filled with typewriters and people were being paid to write.

Across from that was (to me) the lesser of the two department stores, Hager's.  I don't remember it well, but I seem to remember there were different levels on the first floor.  It was all right, but it never particularly captured my imagination.

The real department store was Watt & Shand's on the southeast corner of the square. For this gayling, it was fabulous.  The store windows showed excellent men's clothes, gorgeous women's dresses and gowns, furniture, candies, that put all other stores to shame.  I can't say that I felt a gay vibe when I went in there...I wouldn't have known what that meant.  I knew, however, that it was an excellent store, beautiful merchandise of all kinds,  Plus, it had escalators.  And then there was Christmas.

Watt & Shand's and Christmas went hand-in-hand.  Watt & Shand's was our Wanamaker's and Macy's.  The Saturday after Thanksgiving, a single engine airplane flew over Lancaster County.  It's flight path and flyover times were well-known.  Santa was the passenger.  It landed at Lancaster's airport and Santa arrived downtown at the end of a parade on board a hook and ladder fire truck.  The fire truck positioned itself, erected the ladder, and a far braver than I Santa climbed up to the top floor, sack on back, and entered Santa-land through a window.

We always waved at the airplane but never saw the parade.  Not live, anyway.  WGAL-TV televised it, and watching Santa climb the ladder was a nerve-wracking experience. However, since this was the era before urban flight and countless shopping centers on what was once farmland, we'd go Christmas shopping in downtown Lancaster.  I was always awestruck by Watt & Shand's windows.  They were worth a trip to the city all by themselves.  Lancaster was open Friday evenings, so we'd get to see the windows with lights, not just daylight.  Watt & Shand's windows had figures that moved, lots of trains, dolls and stuffed animals and I can't remember what.  Lancaster was my city, and Watt & Shand's, especially at Christmas, was paradise.

We had our choice of two record stores.  One was Stan's Record Bar on North Prince Street, near the Fulton Opera House.  Stan's had albums and 45s everywhere. Something about it gave the illusion of dirty...absurd, I'm sure, but I didn't like going there.

The better was Darmstadter's.  Darmstadter's was a dry goods store.  It was all right and nice to walk through.  I walked through it because the record department was at the rear of the store, and it was magnificent.  For one thing, they had somewhat sound-proof listening booths.  This was before plastic shrink wrap.  All of the people who worked that department seemed incredibly knowledgeable, and I had two favorites, a man and a woman.  Apparently I came in often enough and had memorably odd tastes in music, so they knew me.  It was there I bought the Goddard Lieberson-produced Porgy and Bess. I bought the D'Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (and many of the other London G&S recordings).  More than likely, Darmstadter's was where I bought the album of Messiah.  I bought all my Original Broadway Cast recordings there.  And that's where I bought Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as described in another blog.

No doubt I'll come back to Lancaster again.  The theaters deserve to be mentioned, since none of them survived the century.  Downtown Lancaster no longer exists, I'm told.  The buildings are the same, but they've been re-purposed and the businesses don't sound nearly as interesting.  I didn't mention the markets, Woolworth's, the Greist Building, or the dangerous underground bathrooms.  Someday, perhaps.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Kid's Imagination Meets Edward Albee

1963.  Night.  The parents have gone to bed.  Both my brother and sister married and now have families living elsewhere.  I am the last chick in the nest.  I'm a high school senior in the wilds of eastern Lancaster County, PA.  I've tried my wings a couple of times and feel more and more ready to fly.  Still, ...

The only light in the living room is the from the control panel of the Grundig-Majestic AM/FM/ Stereo.  I've put the records on the spindle; the first record is about to drop onto the turntable.

I'm not a stranger to theater, although I'm a lot more familiar with movies.  Still, my drama club has taken me to several productions at Franklin & Marshall College's Green Room Theatre. I was spellbound by All the King's Men.  I loved a comedy about talking scales. Lancaster's Kiwanis Club (I think) annually put on a musical.  I have acted in several of my high school's productions and stage managed others.  I like and am comfortable with the theater.

I'd read about the controversy over this play.  Since people were upset about it, I wished I could go to New York to see it...especially since others defended it as one of the best plays of the 20th century.  I'd also read that a recording was to be made with the original cast.  I was prepared to camp out in front of the record store in Lancaster, not unlike people do now for new Apple products.  My favorite clerk at the record store knew I'd want to know the release date.  He said he'd make sure there'd be a copy for me.

Original Broadway Cast (OBC) recordings were standard.  Traditionally, they were recorded the Sunday after opening night.  Even musicals that wound up being flops were recorded and, to try to recoup their money, the records would be released anyway.  But these were recordings of the music, not the full show, and they had to fit into the limitations of the 12-inch vinyl disc -- about 25 minutes per side -- so the dance breaks and sometimes entire songs were cut.  It was extremely rare that a new play would receive a full recording.  And it would be on 4 LPs.  I started saving money.

I turn on the turntable.  The sound is turned way down...I know the parents probably would not approve.  Still, ...  I rest my head on a pillow facing the stereo.  The dog watches, ready for me to lie down.  Thump goes the needle, and my perception of the theater changes within seconds.

A woman's husky laugh.  The handle of a door rattles, and as the door (presumably) opens, the woman, still laughing, nearly shouts, "JEE. ZUS. H. kir-REIST!"  A man tries to get her to lower her voice.  "Sh.  Martha.  For god's sake, it's 2 o'clock in the morning." "Oh, George," she replies.  The two characters are perfectly limned within the first minute of the play.  I've memorized the pictures on the cover and in the inside booklet, so I know what they look like and what the set looks like.

I grew up during the tail end of radio as a source of comedy and drama.  By the '60s, all of that  had become TV's domain.  The general public's imagination, I now think, lessened. We no longer had to make up the characters, their movements, the was spoon-fed to us.  Obviously, one watched plays and movies, but that was different.  That was in public.  Radio and television were meant as home entertainment, and as such, imagination became a less-needed power.

Arthur Hill was an actor I somehow knew about.  I liked him.  I saw Uta Hagen's name in the Times' theatrical ads from time to time, mostly in connection with an acting school. George Grizzard made a few movies.  I hadn't a clue who Melinda Dillon was.  And yet with the help of the pictures I'd memorized, the effective use of stereo and sound effects, the words, and those voices -- God, those Voices! -- I had an encounter with theater that truly changed everything.  By which I mean everything.

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of a few major touchstones in my appreciation of theater, plays, drama, and music. I'd seen plays, although few were professional productions.  But this was in a class by itself.  It's a 2-1/2 hour roller coaster ride of language (not just the swearing, but the entire script) and surprise and hurt and hate and love.  I felt guilty laughing at a line during a fight, but why not?  Everything else about this experience was new, why not laughter during a knock-down-drag-out verbal battle?

I had the play pretty well memorized by the time I got to college.  As I've said before, it was a small Christian college for small Christians.  Nevertheless, there were a few people I played the recording for and they were as stunned as I.  Twice, I was part of a reading/performance of it, always for invited friends only and never with the college's blessing or knowledge (although a couple of professors were invited because we liked them).  I played George both times, frequently off book, and knew that I was born to play him onstage professionally someday.  (Never happened.)

One performance was played as written; the other we dubbed as "Shakespearean casting," meaning 4 guys.  Martha was played by a friend who really, truly wanted to play Martha.  Frankly, it was more satisfying playing to his Martha than to the co-ed's Martha. Nick was played by a jock who also liked acting and did a damned good job.  Honey...

Honey is maybe the toughest role in the play.  George, Martha, and Nick are pretty well set, but Honey is kind of out there.  The young woman who played it never really understood her, even after hearing the recording.  The young man who played her also had trouble connecting.  Understand, he was perfectly happy that Nick was his husband, and he knew there was more to Honey than a being an innocent.  It finally clicked.  He listened to the recording again and realized why Melinda/Honey had two infinitely different readings of the line, "I dance like the wind."  It clicked.  And he briefly stopped the show in the third act with his "Why would anybody want to wash somebody who's 16 years old?"  I always enjoyed acting with him.

Liz Taylor and Richard Burton?  Seriously?  I couldn't imagine.  I was somehow forced to go see the movie version....I really didn't want to go.  I hated it.  The script had been re-written so it would be palatable for the American public.  It was a movie, so it couldn't remain in the house.  I saw most of it on TV a few years ago.  I was surprised how much better it got.  Actually, Miss Taylor was pretty good with the script she was given.  George Segal and Sandy Dennis did all right.  Burton?  Not so much.

I've seen two stage versions of it and tolerated both.  In each, the actors (and director) were aware that what they were doing was Controversial and Dramatic.  They were actors who were afraid of letting the characters take over.  Most disconcerting, no one understood the rhythm of the language.  Without understanding that there is a rhythm, a flow, a rare use of English and interaction of each character's words and language, it's just another play, at times not all that interesting.

As with the young actor's revelation about his Honey, I came to understand after the first live performance I saw how different my perception of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was.  It wasn't just that my first experience of it was with the original cast; it was that I had to imagine it.  And free from being mesmerized or dazzled by the acting, I was exposed to the voices, the rhythms, the delivery, the sentences, the words.  It became one of those things that no other production or circumstance could compare, and that's because it was mine to imagine.  I never ever felt cheated that I didn't get to see that cast perform live and in person because I had it live and in my imagination forever.

Even actors who are aware of the once-controversial nature of the play and their characters need to understand the language.  It IS similar to music.  I don't mean Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf:  The Musical, but take the 3 acts as 3 movements in an instrumental piece...I don't like comparing it to a symphony or a concerto because they're too big, and a quartet doesn't fit it either.  But there are distinct patterns in the speeches of act 1, act 2, and act 3, with act 3 being the most amazing.  I don't know that I'd have noticed it if I'd seen it first, but that idea of language being musical is crucial.

Sony has made available a CD reissue.  Mine's on order, finally, thanks to money someone gave me on my birthday.  I don't know that she'd like what her money was spent on, and I don't think she'd appreciate the significance.  Nor can she know how anxiously I anticipate once again hearing a woman's husky laugh, the doorknob twisting, and the woman, still laughing, nearly shouting "JEE. ZUS. H.  kir-REIST!"  Or to hear the towering masterpiece that is the third act.

I have appreciated many of Edward Albee's plays, but Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a one-of-a-kind experience.  Close your eyes.  Imagine.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Movies, Books, Histories...Our LGBT Center

One of the enjoyable things about being retired is not having to wake up to an alarm clock.  Waking up when one's body says it's time to get up has  been a luxury I'd long looked forward to.  And it is what I hoped it would be.

However, three mornings a week I wake up to the annoying beeps of the clock (and the urging of the cat to turn the damned thing off) so I can volunteer at our LGBT Center.  I like to volunteer at the Center.  It gives me the sense that I'm doing something not just for the LGBT community but for central Pennsylvania in general.  Not-gay people come in to ask questions, advice, or to express concerns.  Paid staff is on duty, so if I feel inadequate to answer their questions, I ask a staff person to help.  Nothing hostile has happened yet; I'm grateful for that.

Although it's located in Harrisburg, the LGBT Center is designed to serve the region.  There are some related activities in Lancaster and Carlisle, but there are many other towns and small cities and acres of countryside that have gay people who should know about us.  (It's kind of funny that I'm a volunteer yet talk about the Center in terms of "we" and "our.")

What I find exciting (a word I haven't used in terms of work in decades) is that we're becoming an LGBT resource center.  We already had a reasonably good book library of both fiction and non-.  We also had a few DVDs of LGBT movies.  Not porn, although there is "adult content" in some of them, but gay-genre movies.  Almost all of them are independent, not-Hollywood movies.  The DVD library has started to grow, thanks to donations by two men and the TV series In the Life.  We have most of the episodes from that series and they've proved to be a good resource.

The movies, on the other hand, have generated some interest.  We have documentaries and fiction movies.  Documentaries include 8: The Mormon Proposition, Bridegroom, Word Is Out, How to Survive a Plague, Small Town Gay Bar, and Stonewall Uprising, to name a few.  Regular feature films range from Hollywood efforts like Some Like It Hot, Making Love, and Milk to largely unknown but excellent movies like Cloudburst, Beautiful Thing, Cowboys and Angels, As Luck Would Have It, To Die For, You Are Not Alone, Defying Gravity, Lovebirds, and many more.  We also have several DVDs of short films.

Because of my interest in movies, I've been assigned the duty of cataloging the films.  Some of that is tiresome (making the borrower's cards) and some of it is excellent (taking the DVDs home to watch so I'll know what they're about when someone asks).

There are problems, of course.  We have only two lesbian movies.  One was contributed by a staff member and the other because, well, it's Cloudburst.  We also have very few movies about people of color.  And that brings up a problem the Center is trying to solve.

Harrisburg's majority population is African American and Hispanic.  The Center has practically no non-white representation.  Obviously, this makes no sense, except that both the black and Hispanic communities tend to be deeply closeted.  A black woman from another city, a woman who started that city's LGBT Community Center's African American groups, offered an observation that makes sense.  There are clusters of African American gays in Harrisburg but, because of attitudes, they remain isolated.  However, there is one person who knows people in most of those groups.  We need to find that person and get him/her to advocate for the Center so we can host groups that they want.

Right now, our programs include a women's group, two Aging with Pride groups, an open mic night, an AA meeting, and a youth program that has really caught on.  But whatever the gender or age, it's all so white...especially for a city that's primarily African American and Hispanic.  What to do?

Another exciting project is our LGBT History Project, a collection of LGBT memorabilia and oral histories that, at some point, will be completely accessible on a website and can be seen in person at Dickinson College in nearby Carlisle.  We've all been pretty surprised by some of the objects and stories this project has turned up.

I love my tribe, and I'm delighted I've found a way to serve it...even if it means waking up to the alarm clock (and an irritated cat) three mornings a week.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Of Course I Miss It, Part 2

Music is a vital part of my life.  It always has been.  I can't imagine life without it.  Almost daily I type some of my old arrangements into my PrintMusic program or change an SATB arrangement into a TTBB piece.  While the playback on my computer sounds like various forms of flying bugs, I like having the opportunity to listen to what I've done.  Sometimes, despite the sound, I feel the music deep within.  I need to move; as stupid as it may sound, I need to conduct it.

I listen to CDs incessantly.  Sometimes it's the rock and roll from the '50s and '60s, sometimes the more solid rock of the late '60s and '70s, or maybe disco, or maybe folk, or maybe light symphonic or overtures or full symphonies or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or some favorite country songs or big choral groups or a Wurlitzer band organ or show tunes or big bands or certain jazz or Sacred Harp hymns or ragtime piano, and sometimes I feel the music deep within.  I need to move; as stupid as it may sound, I need to conduct it.

Some people feel the music in their bodies and they dance.  I feel the music in my hands and I conduct.

My parents didn't particularly encourage my affinity for music, but they didn't discourage it.  I was the youngest of three kids and was largely left to my own devices.  I am old enough that I was able to watch Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.  I remember the concert that put it all together for me.  He directed Copland's Rodeo Concert Suite.  I'd heard them perform other music, but there was something different about this.  The epiphany happened toward the end of the first movement, "Buckaroo Holiday."  The orchestra was kind of quiet and then started to build.  The rhythms seemed to be all over the place, the harmonies, too.  And it built and built and the expression on Bernstein's face was a happiness I still can't describe.  That section ends with a restatement of the theme, and then I knew.  I loved this.  The absolute, unalloyed joy on Bernstein's face made me wonder what it must feel like to be in front of so many musicians playing exciting music...conducting it and being the first to hear it.

I went through several decades conducting the finest musicians and orchestras and Broadway musicals, thanks to my stereo.  Then, in 1987, I was offered a church choir.  I didn't know squat about conducting, but I figured I shouldn't turn down the opportunity.  Besides, it was a 6 member choir.  10 people showed up for the first rehearsal.  The choir grew to 20, 28, at one time 42 singers.  I had no training in any of this, so I made it up as I went along, read everything I could get my hands on, watched concerts on TV to observe the conductors.  Fortunately, my accompanist mentored me well.  She was a good pianist and excellent teacher.

The church paid my way to music clinics where I could talk to other music directors and meet choral composers and arrangers.  I tried to absorb everything I could.  Aside from a week's crash course for church choir directors with no training in directing a church choir at Westminster College, Ryder University, I remained a seat-of-my-pants director.  Because the church was Unitarian Universalist, the music palette was pretty much open to both religious and secular; the Unisingers, as they were known, sang Sundays plus originated churchy programs sung at other, not necessarily UU churches plus music program fundraising concerts.  I wrote arrangements for the Unisingers.  Convinced that every community should have a chorus, I also started a community chorus in my town.

Years later, I became Artistic Director of the Harrisburg Gay Men's Chorus.  I discovered quickly that while there is a treasure trove of music for choruses with women and men, there is precious little for men's chorus.  That was about the time I bought my first PrintMusic program and arranged/re-voiced SATB (mixed) to TTBB (men).  It became as much fun as conducting.  I was careful to interfere with the arrangement as little as possible.  I tried not to change the integrity of the piece...the accompaniment always stayed the same, and voice phrases were adapted...the whole thing might have to be transposed (four keystrokes and done), but it was always my hope that the composer would never be offended by what I did.

Then I realized that I had gone as far as I could go.  Self-taught, at least for me, goes only so far.  With the Unisingers, I'd developed a "community" chorus with a wide reputation; with the men's chorus, we achieved a sound that one audience member described as "a group of cellos."  I'd taken the men's chorus as far as I could, but they could go much further.

My favorite part of choral directing was rehearsal.  I don't think I'd be happy about it, but I think I could rehearse a chorus and let someone else direct the concert and be OK with it.  The performance was the payoff, of course, but the explorations and discoveries in rehearsal were exciting.

The choruses' favorite part of my directing was an involuntary smile when everything came together, when we got through a particularly rough section well, when a piece was utterly musical, when there was nothing to be said.  One time I realized it...that something Bernstein taught all those many years earlier.  A smile conveys satisfaction and joy from music denied to words.

I listen to music.  It's recorded.  I once led music live.  I miss it.  I miss the rehearsal process.  I miss the energy that a live performance puts into you.  But I hear music.  It gets inside me, inside my hands, and I must conduct it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Of Course I Miss It, Part 1

Yes, of course I miss designing sound and working in the theater.  I did it for about 12 years and then it felt like it was time to leave.  I still believe that, but that doesn't mean I don't miss it.  I was in broadcasting for more than 35 years...writing, announcing, producing, crew work...and I don't miss it a bit.

I miss reading a script for the first time, pencil and paper beside me, taking notes on what the playwright suggests for sound cues and writing down my ideas.  I miss meeting with the director to go over the cues, to hear what s/he wants, and to propose my ideas.  I miss meeting with the whole creative team for paper tech, the meeting in which we talked through what we're doing.

I miss re-reading the script to imagine the sound.  Sound is not just dropping in a thunder clap because the script says so; sound matches and enhances what's going on.  There's a difference between thunder in a comedy and thunder in a mystery.  What would the accompanying rain sound like?  I miss deciding if a doorbell should be rung offstage by the actor or a sound effect programmed by me.  And again, what kind of doorbell fits the situation?  What should the train whistle in the distance sound like?  When the actor opens the apartment window, should there be city sounds?  And if so, what's the neighborhood sound like?

I miss the time spent in the audio production room working on realizing the sound with the sound engineer.  I've worked with three engineers and two of them I miss greatly.  The third did his job, but the other two took production to a higher level.  What I miss most from those sessions is the collaboration, and I also miss watching those artists in action.  I would tell them what I wanted and they played and worked on and finessed the sounds and tended to come up with something more than I imagined.  I would start it, then sit back and listen and marvel as they created perfection.

The engineer I worked with over the last years was the most amazing.  Fortunately, I had enough sense to let him interpret what I wanted.  I'd read some lines before the cue, tell him what the director thought it should be, tell him what I thought it should sound like.  There were times when I thought we were spending too much time on a cue, only to hear a sonic work of art.  He knew how to be perfect but not upstage the actors.  Plus, we were complete opposites in what we liked to do.  He hated doing live shows.  He was a recording engineer and loved the comfort of having a 7th take.  I loved going live, having only one time to get it right.

I miss tech week.  Everyone says they wish they could avoid it, but it's a week of watching things come together.  I liked having one night that was sound night, in which I could stop the proceedings to go over a cue again.  I liked being able to tell the disagreeable actors that they had six or eight weeks to rehearse and that I have one night.. It is sometimes difficult for actors to remember there's more to a show than her or him.  I can't say that I particularly liked having the director tell me that, despite him/her having heard the cue before, s/he didn't think it worked now that s/he heard it with actors.  Neither the engineer nor I liked having to re-do effects, but the director is in charge.  And it gave me another couple hours working with him.

I miss opening night, waiting in the green room with other members of the crew and the actors.  I always left at 15 minutes call so I could watch most of the audience come in and also (and I don't know any better way to say this) become one with the board.  Also, to keep the curious away from the board and computer.  I didn't need to be with the cast; I liked those minutes to review the script, think about things, quietly make sure the actors' mics were on (there was always a vocal warm-up at 10 minutes, so I could see if any mics were not working), and just generally prepare.  I miss that first time that everyone does everything without stopping, that first time in front of an audience, the first time everything has to happen.

I miss working on shows I knew before.  For example, I always wanted to be in Ain't Misbehavin', the Fats Waller review, but I suspected no one would ever do a white version of it.  As the sound designer, I worked every performance and loved it.  I'd heard of The Laramie Project but never saw it.  To work it was incredibly moving every performance, plus we did it during October, the month Matthew Shepherd was killed, and there were references to specific dates, which made it even more real.  My first two shows as board operator were The Music Man, in which I had maybe 3 cues, followed two weeks later by Angels in America:  Part Two:  Perestroika, which had 87 cues and all of them on audio cassettes.  And I was terrified and lived through it and it was the first of many shows I was sorry to see end.

I miss working the run of the show, finding the rhythm of it without getting into a rut, and even though we'd done 20 performances, being prepared for anything to happen.  I miss pretending that this world of pretend was where I belonged.  I miss the relationships that took place during a run, being ignored by certain actors (usually young who didn't understand the collaborative effort that goes into a performance) and not caring, being acknowledged by and having conversations with veteran actors and crew, swapping stories, sharing news and gossip.  I miss having complicated cues and pulling them off without a hitch.

I miss closing night, especially shows I liked doing.  I'd find myself thinking "this is the last time I'll do that."  While cleaning up, taking down the mics and speakers, and pulling the cable helped me cope with the end and putting the run to rest, it never worked completely and I'd be post-show depressed for a couple of days.  But then there'd be the next show to work on.

I miss the smell of the different theaters.  I miss breathing the same air as the actors and the audience and the crew.  I miss thinking sequences through or inventing bridges from one scene to the next.  I like that I went from reel tape to tape cartridge to cassette tape to floppy disc to CD to computer.  I like that the engineer loved programming the computer and kept my more limited knowledge in mind so I'd hit the cues clearly.  I miss feeling the play, feeling the mood of the moment, nearly the same every performance but not quite.  I miss the pressure of a busy, live performance.

"The theater is a temple," says Prologus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, "and we are here to worship the gods of Comedy and Tragedy."  That ran through my mind nearly every time I entered through the stage door.  I did my part in that worship and was proud to do so.  Yes, I miss it, but when it's time to exit, one exits.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Two Men: The Cautionary Tale

I've been writing some of my memories of growing up in a small town in the 1950s.  I think I've posted others (Rocky Springs comes to mind), so here's another:

Gap had two men who served as cautionary tales.  One was Stewart Fisher; the other was Jonas (no last name known).  Stewart was slow, although, happily, the public had had their fill of picking on him and pretty much tolerated him.  He was a large man who scared me a little.  During WWII, people were asked to record numbers on all railroad cars.  (I’m assuming I’m remembering this correctly.)  Stewart couldn’t serve and instead wrote down every freight car number he could.  He continued taking down numbers in tablets my father gave him.  Father hired him to do odd jobs around the mill.  Although he gave me the creeps, I was assured he was harmless and the Christian thing to do was to be nice to him.

Whereas Stewart was thought of as slow and harmless, Old Jonas was the example of everything dire that could happen to you if you masturbated.  A moment of pleasure equaled a lifetime of whatever it was Jonas was.  Jonas was our homeless person.  I often wondered if Jonas was Gap’s forgotten man, as they were called in the 1920s and ’30s.  Jonas wasn’t elderly, but I could easily see how he was barred from everything.  He was the town drunk, the village idiot, the man nobody wanted.  As far as I could tell, he was beyond Christian Love and Charity.  Mother hastened me out of the way when she saw him on the street.  Some people let him sleep in their old stables or carriage houses when the weather got really cold.  I knew he also lived beside the spring mechanism inside the Town Clock tower.

Stewart was retarded.  Jonas clearly had a history, a history for a young boy not to know.  Jonas was the result of too much masturbation.  Jonas was the result of too much alcohol.  Jonas was the result of what happens when you catch a sexual disease.  Jonas was what it was like to live under the churches’ highly-placed radars.

The first time I thought I had a handle on Jonas was when I read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  I recognized the choir director instantly.  Having smugly figured out the choir director, a notion came to me that maybe being a gay man in Gap would be the same thing.  By the time I’d read Our Town, I was in junior high, if not senior high, and hadn’t seen him in ages.  No one wanted to talk about him.  And, of course, the only books I could find in the Lancaster County Library were so clearly anti-gay that even I could tell I was being lied to.  No Jonas, no discussion, no questions, no answers, no nothing.  There were times I wondered if I stayed in Gap if I’d become the next Jonas.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Not Sean

Yesterday, he stood beside me at the food bank.  I was happy to see he's still around; I'm sorry his circumstances are such that has to get help from the food bank.

I think I've written about him before.  To me he is Not Sean.  Someone on the bus told me his name and it sounded like "Sean."  One day at the Chinese restaurant, I introduced him to Jack as Sean.  He later corrected me.  His voice is so quiet and his accent is one I don't recognize, I don't know what he said his name was.  More than one syllable was involved, yet it sounded like "Sean."

The first I noticed him was a few years ago.  He was going to Harrisburg Area Community College and almost consistently got to the bus stop just in time.  He was astoundingly pretty.  I think he would be hard for anyone not to notice.  Yet so shy.

Spring, 2013, he was jubilant about being accepted at the college of his choice.  He showed me the letter; that surprised me.  This past January or February, he came into a bus shelter.  I asked if his college was having a long break or if he was on independent study.  He said, "College didn't quite turn out the way I wanted."  And it was clear I was not to pursue the subject.  I later gave him my email eddress and told him to get in touch if he ever wanted to talk.

Not Sean is maybe 20.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but he really is one of the most beautiful young guys I've ever seen.  "Twink" tends to be a pejorative term implying the young man is a himbo.  Not Sean is no himbo, although his appearance might give one that impression.

I would hope that his parents didn't banish him because he's gay.  They'd have had to know that by the time he went to HACC.  Maybe he left them.  I wish he'd trust me enough to talk.  Of course, he's maybe 20 and knows about and uses the food bank, so maybe he's getting help -- seeing a therapist or case manager.  I care about they boy.  I wish I knew how to get him to talk and understand that I'm concerned about him.  He may well be suspicious of me.  Perhaps he has reason to be wary about gay old farts.

Yesterday, he made no effort to let me know he was standing beside me.  Was he embarrassed to be seen at the food bank?  Why did he think I was there?  I suspect he was truly hoping I wouldn't see him, and that if I did, I would ignore him.  How could I ignore Not Sean?  I hope he comes to understand that if I see him I will say "hello" to him because I'm glad to see him.  He needs to know that people might like him.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Three in One

Last night, I wrote this on Joe.My.God.:
"What an amazing day. That's all. Just what an amazing day. I mean, when you grow up as the queer, faggy kid in the '50s and '60s in the wilds of eastern Lancaster County, this kind of thing still just blows me away. Good for our young folks who see today's 3 events as being great and about time. To me, it's just so unbelievable. What I was given to look forward to was a short life and an eternity in hell. Things like this...I couldn't even dream about them. And now breakthroughs in weddings, music, and football. Excuse me, please. It's the vapors."

The weddings refers to the first day a southern state -- Arkansas -- legally performed same sex weddings in Eureka Springs.  The music refers to Conchita Wurst winning this year's EuroVision -- probably not the first gay winner, but certainly the first gender fuck winner.  And football refers to Michael Sam winning a spot on the St. Louis Rams -- the first openly gay man to go into a football team; gay men have come out after their careers, but Michael is the first to enter the profession not hiding his sexual orientation.

In a way, it's a good thing that gay young people see this as a "well, why not?" kind of thing.  Good for them.  I like that such achievements are practically a given.  I do wish, though, that they had a better understanding of why this is such a big fricking deal.  And that these incredible "firsts" should happen on the same day is such a big deal.

I don't recall her name, but a woman once observed that she looked forward to the time when there was no longer a need to point out "the first woman to...", that it will just happen.  I look forward to that being true for gay people, too.  Right now, however, it's so important to observe such events.

Same sex marriage in Arkansas?  I remember the first days of integration at Central High in Little Rock in 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education.  Not that I was in Little Rock, but I remember the photos of African American teens walking up to the school with people screaming their ignorant, hateful, racist epithets, refusing to understand that "separate but equal" is a lie.  Separate but equal is why Jack and I will not accept the stupid offer of civil union and won't marry in a state where marriage equality is the law but not honored where we live.  It has to be real, it has to be the law of the land, or it means nothing.  We committed to each other decades ago.

Conchita Wurst?  When was the last time the world saw a bearded man in a dress sing a song that may well become an equality anthem?  I have no idea if Conchita is gay, and it doesn't matter.  His courage to appear as he is, singing a song he believes, gets my absolute respect and joy.

US football has pretty much become the US religion.  Change has come slowly in our sports.  I don't care for sports, so I don't know a great deal about it.  I DO know Jackie Robinson was the first African American to appear in US sports.  I DO remember the yelling and booing he got and the fracas over allowing black men in football and basketball.  And yesterday we saw the first openly gay football prospect be drafted into an NFL team.

It's likely that not-gay people don't understand the accomplishments, the victories that took place yesterday.  Any one of these things would be remarkable; that three such important victories took place in one day completely surpasses anything I might have thought even a decade ago, let alone when I was a kid who knew he was different but didn't know what that meant.  "Our" kids are coming out at younger ages, and good for them.  Many of them know they'll get the support that, unfortunately, is still needed.  "Our" kids will take yesterday in stride...they'll know it's important, but they won't know just how important it is to "their" elders.

Equality.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Son of Dream Center

Dream Center is what I call whatever it is that comes up with dreams that I have while asleep, not dreams as in aspirations.  It is easier for me to write about a dream in the present tense.  Because it's a dream, it does not have to make sense, nor does it have to be logical.  Therefore...

The theater is sort of a Hershey Theatre, sort of not.  I'm crew on this production.  It's a community theater production.  This is the dress rehearsal for the show which will run for one performance only.  None of us is happy about that.  We've been told that a full house in this theater is as many people as would see it in a longer run at our former venue.  I've been assigned to lights.  The control board is an old tower with lots of switches, lots of dimmers, and nothing to indicate what any of the switches and dimmers control.  The main curtain isn't quite down to the stage.  Bright lights shine through the gap.  I don't see anything on the board indicating anything is turned on.  The director angrily asks me about "the crap" against the back wall.  He's somewhat mollified when I tell him there's a backdrop that will hide it.  He tells me what he wants for lights.  I tell him no one's told me how the thing works.  He tells me to do what I can and leaves.  I snap on some switches and play with dimmers.  The orchestra tunes up.  It sounds like we have an audience.  For dress?  Were they charged admission?  Was it reduced, since this is a rehearsal?  Regardless, I'm glad people are out there -- it will make it feel like we've done two performances.  As the show progresses, I play slowly with the lights.  I notice we have a full house, not just "some" audience.  The cast is doing well.  At the end of the act, I hear shrieks of laughter and see feathers flying in from the house.  When the curtain is closed, I walk up to the balcony to look over the rail to try to figure out where the feathers came from  I see a couple of white doves flying around the ceiling and a net over the orchestra pit.  Retrieving the doves is not in my job description.  Then I hear a fight between the director and a younger person, probably the set designer.  Apparently, a lot of fake white doves and some live ones are caged somewhere and are released with some force.  The net is supposed to fly out over them, catch the live birds, drag down the fake ones (filled with helium), and drop them into the orchestra pit.  The director screams what a stupid idea it is.  The designer defends by pointing out that the audience loved it.  The director points at the flying birds.  "Who's cleaning up the shit?  And why didn't the net catch them?  And how did you think you'd get away with dropping that heavy net on the orchestra?"  "We can work on the net during the day tomorrow," the designer says.  As for dropping the net over the pit, "I asked each musician and every one of them thought it was a funny idea."  I notice the net is still over the pit, a few white feathers attached.

Good one, Dream Center.  Thank you.  But where the hell did that come from?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Go, Billy! Go!

All week, I've been celebrating the replacement of my old, broken DVD player with a new one by watching movies I have and like.  Cloudburst, Mysterious Skin, The Ritz, and scenes from others...the tornadoes and Aunt Meg scenes of Twister, the Wicked Witch of the West version of The Wizard of Oz, the first 45 minutes of Victor/Victoria, and so on.

Last night I decided on Billy Elliot, which I haven't watched in years.  I know I liked it enough to buy it, but I'd forgotten how utterly absorbing it is, even knowing the outcome.  The script is excellent, the direction is excellent, the choreography is wonderful, the cinematography is inventive, and the central ensemble are damned fine actors.  However,...

I grow tired of some words.  "Awesome" has outlived its novelty by about a decade.  "Totally" is irritating.  There are others, and one dealing with acting is "chemistry," as in, "They had great chemistry."  Yet I'm hard pressed to find a better description between Julie Walters and Jamie Bell.  The relationship between the two of them is not just convincing, because "convincing" describes the rest of the cast.  Rather, it's electric.  It's acting that I live for, when the performances leap from the stage or the screen and land in your emotions.

The progression from Billy trying to give the hall keys to Mrs. Wilkinson to their blow-up scene as she tries to prepare him for his audition is absolutely believable.  I love that during class there never isn't a shot of her without her holding a cigarette.  And anytime she reprimands one of the girls, it's always her daughter, Debbie.  The scene in which Billy lets Mrs. Wilkinson read his mother's letter sets up even more of a believable closeness between them, and that's followed by the delightful "I Love to Boogie."  She fights for him, she understands the family dynamic, but at one point she demands too much from Billy and bolts.  When she nearly whispers "Shit," it's one of the most revealing moments.  They fight in the changing room, she smacks him across the face, not unlike he'd be punished at home.  And then he cries and she holds him.  They've gone beyond forgiveness; they've reached an essential understanding.

For me, the one disappointing part of the movie is the final scene, Billy's debut in Swan Lake.  It is right that his father and brother should be there.  I love that Billy's gay childhood friend Michael is there with...his lover? his date? his boyfriend?  "I wouldn't miss this for the world," Michael tells Billy's brother.  I understand the logistics:  Billy's father and brother were comped in; Michael probably bought two tickets and they turned out to be beside the Elliots.  And yet it ticks me off that Mrs. Wilkinson wasn't there.  Maybe she died.  Maybe he will give her his house tickets for another performance.  And it's not like teachers always get their due.  However, after the intensity of that relationship, the love, the education, the care, the understanding, it felt to me that Mrs. Wilkinson was forgotten.

Still, it is one of the great movies.  If you think it's just a Broadway show, you really need to see the movie.  It is among the best.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Loves You, Porgy

A few weeks ago I finally borrowed the cast recording of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.  I loved the voices.  I mean, Audra McDonald.  She's arguably the best singer around.  The voices on the recording were excellent.  But something kept gnawing at me.

The story goes that the Gershwin and the Heyward estates wanted to make the classic palatable for a modern audience.  It's something I don't understand, dumbing something down, the assumption that the contemporary audience can't appreciate something so "old."  I can appreciate cleaning up language.  I was quite happy, for example, when Sondheim changed a lyric in Company from "fag" to something else.  I am pleased that Porgy and Bess's racist language could be changed, although productions of the original have been changing those words all along.

But why were the arrangements changed?  Why were the original orchestrations replaced with far less interesting orchestrations?  Obviously, the producers wouldn't pay for a full orchestra, but an adaptation would work.  Instead, a "Broadway" sound was substituted for original intent.  Oh, and let's fuck with the original ending so we can get Audra onstage at curtain.

One of the first record albums I bought was the 1951 Columbia Porgy and Bess, so that's the one that's my point of reference.  After listening to the new recording, I did a search for that one.  I knew Sony released it on CD in 1998 and figured some library somewhere had to have it.  About a month later, it arrived.  Goose bumps throughout.

I read some articles on The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and became kind of horrified.  There was no visible Catfish Row; mostly it was minimal set.  No Catfish Row establishing place.  Minimal sets are OK.  And they save money.  But the background of Catfish Row looming over most of the action is a stark reminder of time and situation.  Some of the voices of the 1951 recording are not Broadway quality; instead, they sound real, convincing.  There's something to be said for that.

But I keep coming back to the orchestration.  For almost any show, the re-imagined arrangements and orchestrations are fine.  The estates did say "go to it," make it a contemporary Broadway show.  The original opera was staged, I believe, in The Music Box, one of Broadway's smallest theaters with a fair-sized but not huge orchestra pit.  Gershwin, for the most part, did his own orchestrations knowing where it would be heard.  So why the simplifications?  Broadway musicians have not become less talented through the years.

Why is it necessary to assume an audience is incapable of appreciating a serious work?  Why did the estates feel it important to update and fuck around with a monumental, if controversial, masterpiece?  Is "opera" always an awful word.  And then there's the South Pacific revival...pretty much as it was originally done and the original score played by a full-size Broadway orchestra which got its own ovation nearly every performance..

When you play around with the orchestration, particularly if the orchestration is by the composer, you play around with the entire tenor of the show.  And it's clear the arranger and orchestrator were charged with making a classic score sound like some show down the street.  The creative team decided to make some wise clean-ups; they also decided to make it pretty antiseptic

I do believe there is a serious intent to dumb things down.  And I believe that those who do the dumbing down are those who don't understand that a symphony is three or four movements, all of which are essential to the work, not just the one with the catchy theme.  I don't have a problem with Rent being a re-imagining of La boheme.  Except for an occasional quote, the story was refashioned for the contemporary audience and the music was original.

Is anyone interested in the 1951 Columbia recording?  Probably not.  It's like an old black-and-white movie.  The production values are different, it's not in stereo, the names of the stars are no longer known, how can it be at all relevant to contemporary audiences?    As Crown sings referring to Porgy, "Ain't there no whole ones left?"

It's sad to think that few people who saw The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess bothered to find out what the original opera was like.  They are happy that it's updated and sanitized, but they don't know how the original presented itself.

Yes, Jews and white people put together an opera about the lives of African Americans, in all likelihood with little subject input and with a certain reliance on stereotype.  How long has that been going on?  (That's not so much an excuse as it is an observation.)  On the other hand, how many operas have even tried to depict African American life?  And how many have done it with such an incredibly rich and understanding score?  When the music hits home, it hits home because it's about humans, about people.  And the orchestra is there to add to the emotion.  When the orchestra has to play dumbed-down, so-so reductions of what was once an incredibly gorgeous and moving score so it can sound like any other contemporary Broadway orchestra, something is seriously wrong.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Grace And Albert

Despite Gap being 99.9% white when I was growing up, I don’t believe Gap set out to be White Town, USA.  I don’t think Gap was consciously or purposefully or actively set out to be segregated.  By the same token, comparing the 1950s and today is even more nonsensical than comparing apples and oranges.
          The black people of the day lived on Zion Hill, the rise between Christiana and Atglen.  It was settled, I remember being told, by people who came north by the underground railroad.  Not all that far from Zion Hill was the site of the Christiana riot.
“On September 11, 1851, Christiana was the site of the Battle of Christiana (also called the Christiana riot), in which the local residents defended with firearms a fugitive slave, killing the slave owner. Southerners demanded the hanging of those responsible, who were accused of treason and making war on the United States, but after the first defendant was acquitted, the government dropped the case.” (Wikipedia)
I understand that Zion Hill is the perfect argument for White Town and the Black Ghetto.  So how can I argue that it wasn’t segregation?  I think that historically people settled in homogenous communities.  In that respect, because there were white settlers, white communities started by default.  African Americans came here under different circumstances and settled in their own communities.
The first two African Americans I had any contact with were Grace and Albert Wilson, my grandparents Walker’s of “the help.”  They were around when I was very young, probably pre-school young.  Honey was a good cook, but a wife and mother in her position, Gap’s upper class, would not have been expected to cook a lot or clean the mansion.  She would also have been expected to dine with company and not interrupt conversation by going to and coming from the kitchen; she’d step on a buzzer the floor to summon the next course.  Enter Grace.
          Albert, whom I remember as being tall and old, had two jobs.  One was working at the mill.  The other, to which he was second to none, was as Five Corners’ groundskeeper.  He had three yards, a rock garden, an eternally long hedge, and an untold number of trees and bushes to tend to, and tend to them he did.  The yard under the trees proper shouldn’t have had grass, owing to the tree shadow.  It was elegant.  A yard surrounded the house.  The two were separated by a rock garden with ivy and flowers.  I remember being with Honey when she and Albert were planting flowers.  Honey would dig a hole, plant the plant, and pack it in, but under Albert’s watchful eye.  The other yard was west of the barn…I imagine an exercise area for the horses.  The hedge started at the steps of the main entrance, ran up the hill to the mill, then bordered the entire length of the property and fenced in the exercise area.  It was always trimmed, as was the grass, as was the rock garden, as were the many bushes around the property.  My arms and back ache thinking of how much work Albert did and how beautifully he did it.
          Keeping the house spotless was no picnic, either.  I didn’t know Grace as well as I now wish I had.  I remember her fondly, though.  A large woman of average height, she was always in a black dress and, I think, maybe frequently a white apron.  Maybe a hat, but I couldn’t swear to it.  My mother would tell me to stay out of Grace’s way when she was busy.  Sadly, “busy” was most of the time.  And when she sat at the kitchen table, she was taking her coffee break and resting and I shouldn’t bother her.  I remember sitting at the table – she had her coffee and she’d give me a Coke or ice tea.  I don’t know what we talked about, but sometimes the conversations or stories extended into cleaning time and she’d invite me to join her.  Honey, Grace, and I would also sit at the kitchen table for lunch.
          I’ve never had great endurance.  I suspect I was more hindrance than help when I was with Albert.  I remember him as a man with lots of talent and skill…and patience.  She baked good stuff and had a laugh that warmed my cockles.  I do remember asking her why the color of her skin and the color of mine were different.  She told me, “Because God wants it that way.”  It made sense to me then; it still makes sense to me some 60 years later.
          Speaking of God, the most wonderful culinary treats happened when Grace and Albert invited my family to their church suppers at Mt. Zion AME.  There was the slight feeling of being an outsider, but what did that matter when food was concerned?  Besides, I could see Grace in the kitchen and Albert being sociable.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t like the food the first time.  I mean, there was nothing even remotely Pennsylvania Dutch about it.  Then I figured that was the point, that it was extremely rare that I experienced such different and surprising tastes in my mouth.  I anticipated those dinners.

          I understood The Help right away.  Grace and Albert were the first adult non-relatives I felt close to.  Especially Grace.  Trying to keep up with Albert was hard.  It was easier to tag along after Grace.  It was entirely appropriate that she was the one who taught me we’re all pretty much the same.  And I’m so fortunate that she shared the music of her laughter.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I Wrote This?

From late 1996 to late 1997 I wrote two novels.  One was a fictional account of my experiences during my one summer of summer stock...doing Amish musicals.  The title of that became the title of this blog.  The other was a completely fictional novel, my fantasy on the deaths of two high school boys.  It came from the actual deaths of two best friend high school athletes who died in a one-car crash.  Matt and Seth was gay fiction.  The father of one of them was a fundamentalist preacher with ambitions to become one of the Big Boys of Televangelism.

I'd re-read The Oh, Pshaw! Follies a couple of times.  I like it, it works, it's long, it got lots of rejections.  And that's fine.  I think it would make a fun gay movie, but I doubt that'll happen.  I hadn't read Matt and Seth since I proofread the manuscript in 1997, 17 years ago.  I mentioned to my therapist that I recently re-read The Follies.  He suggested I find the other manuscript and read it.  After 17 years of hardly even thinking about it, I rummaged through my stacks and found it.  I started reading it and soon it was difficult to put down.  I was surprised.

Follies is mostly for fun.  M&S is drama.  I was surprised by how well I had drawn the characters, how much sense the plot made, but also how well I represented Matt's father, the Rev. Tony Reynolds.  I was 50 when I wrote it and casually knew two young men, and I drew the boys from them.  By that point, I had pretty much decided that hate-mongering, power-hungry fundamentalist preachers deserved no respect.  I'd been the recipient of "Christian love" and knew how they operated.  I had gone beyond having suspicions about them.  The Rev. Tony Reynolds was a conglomeration of every such preacher I knew of.

Follies was written straight through, beginning to end.  M&S was written the way movies are shot...this chapter and then a later chapter and then an earlier chapter and so on.  One of the things that surprised me when reading it 17 years later was how well it worked from a continuity standpoint.  I would not have guessed that it was not written top to bottom.  And aside from some quibbles about language, the one thing I think no one would believe now is that I waited until their senior year for them to have sex.  I mean, they met in 8th grade and became best friends in 9th and started questioning their feelings in 10th and 11th.  Then again, it wasn't written today, so in its own world, it worked.

In the 1980s, I was obsessed with piano rags.  I played them well and wrote a few.  I'm currently trying to put my arrangements and compositions into my PrintMusic computer program.  I wrote one called "'Rope' Rag," music for a production of the play, Rope.  When I played it back on the computer, I was stunned by how well written it was.  I put it in the computer shortly after I finished M&S.  And after listening to it, I couldn't help thinking, Who wrote this for you?

Obviously, my opinion of myself has not been all that great.  My partner is the writer in the relationship.  He liked rags but dismissed them, too.  Although I read a horror novel he wrote, he never read my novels.  I think he pigeonholed me as a copywriter and that was that.  I mean, can you really count copy writing as writing?  I frequently go to his readings.  He never listened to me when I was a radio guy and heard my TV announcing in passing while he waited for a show to start.  I never got an opinion from him on anything I wrote, music or prose.  That's a disappointment, of course, but that's the way it's worked out.

My writing abilities surprised me.  I was so convinced that I was just playing around with writing that, after reading the novels and listening to the rag, I wrote in my journal, "Who wrote this?  Who wrote this for you?"  Well, I did.  Maybe I was good for proofing and editing; maybe I was a creative person who could have done more.

Follies was rejected by agents both respectable and sleazy.  Matt and Seth never got beyond my partner's agent.  She felt it was too long for a young adult novel.  What I should do, she insisted, was to split the book into two novels...and the boys shouldn't die in the end.

At some point, I'd hope, we all get to realize that what we like to create is good.  It may or may not be salable, but maybe it shouldn't be created with that in mind.  I'd hope that all of us who like to create something enjoy the act of creation, discovery, the fact that we're happy with what we've done; it's as good as I can do, and that's pretty damned good.

In answer to my journal question, "I wrote this.  Get over it.  Better yet, enjoy it."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gay Old Farts

Recently I attended my first meeting with other gay old farts at the region's LGBT Community Center and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get there.  I knew some of the men and met other gay men my age.  The representative from the Community Center put in a plug for The History Project, recording older gay people talking about their lives.

I mentioned that from time to time critics bemoan that so many non-porn gay films deal with coming out.  Pity.  As each of us is a different human, as each of us lived in different parts of the world, our coming out stories are different and important and, as our lunch proved, sometimes still pretty emotional.  Admittedly, the current young generation is never particularly interested in their elders' stories, yet what we have to say could be pretty helpful.

The gathering was just fun, sitting at a table and everyone chiming in.  The connection among us was almost immediate.  Usually a wallflower, I was surprised and happy with how comfortable I felt and was pleased I could contribute.

The day's downer came when I talked to the Community Center's interns afterward and asked how they learned of, or if they'd ever been exposed to, gay history.  I knew the answer before I finished the question:  There is no organized way to hear gay history.  The young woman said she knew virtually nothing until she started her internship.  The young man said that what they know, what young gays know, they pick up along the way.  He said he felt fortunate because he has a gay uncle and they talk a lot.

I can understand not pursuing it on one's own.  I appreciate that.  When one is young, gay is friendship and sex.  How much history does one need to enjoy sex?  They have a lot they can take for granted, and that's a good thing.  But if you don't know where you came from, how can you appreciate what you have now?

What does it matter?.

It came to mind when I mentioned Armisted Maupin's The Days of Anna Madrigal and how well it rounded out the Tales of the City series.  The other old farts knew what I was talking about.  The Community Center's host said she remembered it as a TV series.  The interns looked blank.  And it just kind of hurt that they will probably never read any of the Tales and that so much of our literature vanishes.  The interns would never read anything on their own because they have so much they have to read for their courses.

What goes around comes around.  I didn't particularly like listening to my elders' stories, and god knows I didn't know any older gay people to hear their stories.  I remember reading a phrase in a newspaper column about "the great homosexual Thornton Wilder."  Somehow I heard about Charles Laughton and that Elsa Lanchester married him to protect him.  And then Barbara Gittings appeared on  The David Suskind Show and I was amazed to hear her stand up for herself and us.  Because I don't believe in coincidence, I think that important information I needed to know that I wasn't the only one was pointed out to me.

The current young have access to information unimaginable in my youth.  There are histories for them to read if they want to.  It is my fervent wish that they would read Tales of the City and other books about us or with us in them.  I wish that GSAs could serve as the occasional history class.  As important as peer gatherings are simply to get to know other young gay people, I wish the odd bit of history, of what went before, could be part of it.  Or watch non-porn gay/lesbian movies.

All of us gay old farts have stories to share.  I wish we could do that.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Garbage In/Garbage Out

His name may have been Bill or William or maybe neither, but he was Mr. Shirk and at least once a week he’d park his red Ford panel truck in front of the house, hit a bell with a metal object, get out of the truck, open the rear doors, and set up shop…a traveling butcher shop.  The dogs recognized the truck and were impossible to contain once they saw it.  Usually his first order of business was to hack off some bones, which cleverly got rid of the dogs, so they wouldn’t sniff around during his visit.

This is barely the era of air conditioning.  It would be a few years before air conditioning appeared in cars.  Refrigerated trucks?  Unheard of.  And more to the point, why?  Winter wasn’t a problem.  And somehow we didn’t catch horrible sicknesses from the mobile butcher shop’s meat in the summer.  He was our source for fresh ham, chicken, beef, Lebanon bologna, and other meaty delights.  He’d whip out a white cloth and swat the butcher’s block with it, pulled out the meat and the appropriate cutting device, and hack off however much carcass you wanted.  I loved it when Mother ordered hamburger.  Yes, I loved hamburgers, but I also loved to watch Mr. Shirk dive his (bare) hand into the hamburger container, squeeze his hand around some meat, and plop it on the hanging scale.  It looked so wonderfully squishy.

So, yes.  Mr. Shirk would drive to the house, hit the bell, get out, open the door, whack off some bone, wipe his hands on the white cloth that he used to clear crumbs off the block, touch and squeeze and cut the meat, plop it on the scales (which he also cleaned with the white towel), and wrap the meat in butcher paper, all with his bare hands, cleaned by his all-purpose towel.  He stopped at the house toward noon, so the temperature would be in the 70s in the summer.  However warm it was, the smell when he opened those doors is a fragrance I think of fondly and probably won’t ever inhale again.

If Mr. Shirk’s traveling butcher shop’s cleanliness might be considered iffy by today’s standards, Gap’s garbage collection would leave everyone aghast.  This pre-dates plastic trash bags and closed-in refuse trucks by a few decades.  The trash went from the garbage can to the dump (landfill? you jest, right?) via a truck with an open, hydraulic bed, what we commonly called “a dump truck.”  That is to say, open.  Utterly open.  Not even a tarp.  That was so the guy could toss the contents of the garbage cans over the side and into the rest of the haul.

Unlike Mr. Shirk, who would announce his arrival with a couple of clangs, the trash guys said goodbye by leaving the most ungodly smell.  Especially if some garbage juice spilled out of the back when the truck took off.  Especially in the summer.  Odiferous could well be the name of the Greek god of garbage.  His white robe would be spattered with indescribable stains and his body odor would be ferocious.  On the other hand, he’d be kind of swarthy with a farmer’s build and a stubble beard.  One should not use the term “Greek god” lightly.

Driving behind the garbage truck had its protocol…even say, perils.  Except for the very coldest days, it was not unlikely that garbage juice would leak from under the tailgate.  You learned very early on to keep your distance and get around the truck as soon as possible.  Being splashed by the toxic brew was a given if the truck started in an uphill position or pulled out from a stop sign.  The combination of pulling out from a stop sign that was on a grade made men dizzy, women weep inconsolably, and children of all ages barf their brains out. 

Naturally, driving behind the track was a zillion times worse in the summer.  Since this was pre-air conditioning, one drove around with windows down.  Rolling up the windows when the garbage truck came into view was futile.  The stench came in through the air vents, so the windows might as well stay down.  And Odiferous forbid garbage juice spilled onto the car.  The odor wafted in and out of the car until Thanksgiving.

The big clue the garbage truck was around, pre-scent, was a fairly pronounced trickle of dark gunk on the right side of the right lane.  Horse pee was down the center of the right lane.  Right side, garbage.  Forewarned is time to grab a clothespin. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dream Center 2.25.14

The theater is in a little town in the mountains, on a hill beside a railroad…one set of tracks.  Maybe it’s a siding through the week, but on weekends it’s one way we put butts into the theater’s seats – playgoers can ride the scenic trip through a spectacular gorge and be delivered right to the foot of the short rise to the theater.  I work at the theater, but not on any of the productions.  Presently, there are two productions:  One is a professional touring company presenting a comedy; the other is a local amateur theatrical troupe.  The comedy played last night and will be today’s matinee.  The amateur production will take place in the early evening.

It’s well before call.  I like this time in the theater (and, in reality, I do).  All the elements are there, waiting for actors, crew and the audience to create that special magic.  Just now, it’s the potential and me.  I feel engulfed by something quietly mystical.  I could surrender myself to this temple.

In the last scene of the comedy, a man is in bed reading aloud from a book whose cover is flown in on a canvas drop.  During the scene, the drop unravels onto the man.  I think it’s odd that the canvas is still on the bed.  Even if they’re doing the same show again, it’s the usual practice to clean up after the performance.  Besides, if the canvas is still on the bed, might it not get wrinkled?

I hear a noise.  It’s a young woman from the amateur troupe working on costumes.  She’s obviously having a theater fantasy which I don’t want to interrupt, but wind up doing.  She’s embarrassed and I try to apologize by telling her I do the same thing.  That’s what the place is for, right?  Fantasies and make believe.  She gets it and she says we’ll probably bump into each other through the day.  She gathers some costumes, turns, and exits.

I’m back on the stage.  I look around and again wonder why the stage wasn't cleared last night.  I pull up a corner of the canvas.  The actor is still in bed.  I put the canvas carefully back in place, hoping he’s merely passed out.

People are encouraged to bring a picnic basket and some wine with them to enjoy at a little park not far from the theater and almost hiding in the foot of the mountain.  The train remains parked in front of the theater because there’s no train traffic on weekends.

Things are not going well at the theater.  It’s after call and not all the cast or crew have shown up.  I ask one of the crew about readying the stage.  He says no one’s said anything about it and no one knows what to do.  The audience train should be here by now.  Instead, I see a parade of trains whizzing by…an engine and a couple of freight cars, like locals, only locals don’t operate on weekends.  And why so many? 

I’m stopped on the inside stairs by the young woman from earlier.  She is panicked because she’s going to need help and no one’s there.  She gives me a number to call.  It’s not my problem, but I tell her I’ll try.  I’m stopped on the porch for my opinion on a debate over whether small theaters should pay royalties for already published plays or commission originals.  I tell them to consider their budget, the possibility of landing grants, or maybe going halvsies with a similar theater in another city.  I excuse myself.  I walk by a table with an AM radio blaring and mobile phone.  No one is there, so I take the phone and punch in the numbers the young woman gave me.  No answer, so I leave a message.  I head for the park.  I’m in need of a breather.

I return from it and see an engine stopped on the tracks in front of the theater.  I’m very happy to see that, and then take a few steps and see there are no passenger cars, just a couple of box cars.  I walk on and note three automobiles have crashed into the last box car.  One is near the top of the box car, one is smashed into the bottom right of the car, and another is smashed into the rear of that car.  I look down to the street and see lots of police cars, lights flashing dazzlingly, but no cops anywhere.  The young woman stands on the porch, taking it all in.  I give her a “what the fuck?” look, which she answers with an “I haven’t a clue” eye roll.  I want to ask the engineer or the cops when this train can move to make space for our train, but no one’s around.  The flashing lights, however, are impressive.

I go into the lobby and into a small storage room.  There’s a table in the center and I crawl up on it.  I get kind of fetal and then stretch my legs expecting to hit the wall.  I don’t know what my feet touch, but I know it isn't the wall.  I look.  I have pissed off a snake and it’s looking for a place to sink its fangs.  I yell.  I kick at it.  I wake up.  I look to see if I kicked the cat and she gives me her “Hey!  Sleeping here!” expression.