The Art of Collaboration

Cast Meets with Susan Burk

Cast meets via Skype with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation during rehearsals for The Laramie Project – photo by Vince LaMonica

Not soon after I started working at the community college where I teach, I was thrilled that a new degree was added–an Associates of Fine Arts in Drama. The young woman who led the program brought back to life my love of all aspects of theater production. I had dabbled in community theater as a publicist, properties manager, stage director and actor in several places where I lived, but raising a small child and teaching a heavy adjunct load meant little time for this passion.

 

The drama department at the college brought it all back to me. Furthermore, it offered me opportunities to get back onto the stage through small roles that didn’t require a great deal of rehearsal time. Jennifer, the director, always made it doable, and the more I became involved the more I wanted to do. Because her department is small, and she is the only full-time instructor, Jennifer and I, an English teacher, started finding more and more opportunities to work together, forming a cross-curriculum relationship that has, I think, greatly enhanced both departments for the advancement of our students and has sustained us both by allowing us the creative outlets that we crave.

It all started one day, long ago, over lunch at a Chinese buffet restaurant, when we were discussing the upcoming production. Jennifer had decided she wanted to do two one-act plays with her directing one and me the other as I had expressed the desire of getting my feet wet as a director. She had already decided on one of the plays–Blue Window by Craig Lucas, but she hadn’t been able to find a suitable play for me to direct.

Almost as a joke, I said, “Hey, guess what?”

“What?” she said.

“I wrote a play long years ago. It’s called Green Room. How about that, Blue Window, Green Room.” I was almost laughing. I really wasn’t serious at all or suggesting anything, I swear.

Then, she said, “Let’s do that one.”

“What?” I said.

“Let’s do your play.”

“But you haven’t even read it. You don’t know anything about it. It might suck. I mean, as far as I remember it does suck.”

“Here’s the beauty of it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever we don’t like, we change.”

Thus began a truly productive collaboration between two instructors. I can’t tell you what it means as a writer and an educator to have this kind of partnership, which protects Jennifer and her department from isolation and offers me opportunities to stretch the creative side in me–the writer, the actor.

We did produce Blue Window and Green Room. I ended up handing the directing baton over to Jennifer when, two weeks before opening night, one of the leads quit, and I had to step in to act. In addition, Curtis, a student who played a lead role in the play, also composed original music for Green Room and has gone on to collaborate with me, and Jennifer,  on many projects even after he left school.

The next semester I directed my first full length play, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Was I crazy? Of course, I was, but of course, Jennifer was there to help me through the process, and without her expertise the show would have been a disaster. On the other hand, because of my knowledge of German (I double majored in English and German in undergraduate school), I was able to contribute direct translations from the original text when the British translations we were using didn’t work. Also, I have a particular interest in musicals, which Jennifer doesn’t share, so working again with Curtis, we composed original music for the play.

Over and over again, Jennifer and I, along with students like Curtis, as well as colleagues, have collaborated on productions. So many times our ideas came from just seeing plays together in the community or at conferences. Other times they simply sprang from casual conversation or out of a desire to find a special project for a special actor. Here are just a few examples of our working together (in no particular order):

  • A production of Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie Project with student-led talk back facilitated by the public speaking instructor at the college. In addition, Jennifer had frequent discussions with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation and cast members had a teleconference with Burk to prepare for their roles. I acted in the show and wrote two features about the production for the local newspaper. Follow these links to read the features: 1)  Pre-Production 2)  Production
  • BRCC’s participation in the 48 Hour Film Project, winning Asheville’s contest in 2008. See the film at this link: Serial Love
  • Tennessee Williams’ One-Act Play Festival–we had two separate stages, a southern-style picnic and a lecture on Williams by one of our English faculty
  • Pre-show lecture about Lord Byron and the Shelleys before the production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry
  • Pre-show lecture, scenes and short film (produced by drama department) before production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
  • Pre-show lecture by me and an adjunct English instructor before Shakespeare’s Macbeth (we both acted in the production as well)
  • World premiere of A Carolina Story, a musical based on the Book
    Carolina Story 029

    A Carolina Story, April 2012

    of Job, by me with music by Curtis (We produced it a second time as a fund-raiser for the student emergency grant and loan fund)

There have been so many other examples of how our collaboration has enhanced our teaching. Currently, we are collaborating on perhaps our most ambitious project yet, an original stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are attempting to preserve the plot and style of the original while adding exciting multi-media effects to enhance the production.

Most theaters cannot sustain this kind of freedom and collaboration between writer and producer/director. It is educational theater, especially in higher education, that allows for this kind of risk-taking to take place. It is also this kind of educational theater that should be supported with proper funding and promotion because in the end, collaboration between faculty, staff, students, administration and community is what it takes for the arts in education to flourish, teaching us to work together for the betterment of all.

And hey, if you’re near Asheville the weekend before Halloween, come see Frankenstein!!

 

 

 

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England–Day Four–The Day

I did not eat the black pudding or baked beans

I did not eat the black pudding or baked beans’

I’m a day late posting because it was such a big day yesterday. We started off having a traditional English breakfast, just a bit modernized to be healthier. I had bacon, more like smoked ham, with veggie sausage, a poached egg, cooked tomatoes, mushrooms and a pastry. Yum!

Next was a solo trip to Trafalger Square and the fabulous National Gallery of Art where I saw artwork by Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, DaVinci–the British masters, like Turner, Gainsbourgh, Stubbs–and my favorites–the Impressionists–Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Van Gogh. One of my favorites was Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I also liked Geoge Stubbs famous horse paintings. One of my favorite paintings was by an artist I did’t know of a tall, thin knight who had a wounded foot and knee, so he couldn’t fight anymore. Just the look on his face and all the details. It was magnificent.

Wounded Knight by Meroni

Wounded Knight by Meroni

I saw too much to write it all here, but the eras that the gallery spans makes this a great place to visit for just about any book in the English canon that my students might want to make the subject of their travel project. And entrance is free! After I wandered the halls with my trusty audio guide (very helpful and easy to use–only a few pounds), I went down to the gallery cafe and had a pastry pie, a traditional favorite. Then bought a few gifts in the gallery store.Then I wandered around the square a little while, taking in all the sights. I especially enjoyed the musicians playing in the squares and the character actors–Yoda, the wicked witch and tin man.

After I made my way back on the Underground, we rested a while, and it was off for the big night! We took a cab to the Barbican, which is a modern entertainment complex, away from the main theater district. Our seats were fantastic, about five rows back.

When the curtain came up, there was Benedict Cumberbatch, right in front of us, and he was strong the whole way through. The whole cast was good, but my favorites,other than Cumberbatch, were Horatio, Ophelia, and Polonius. The gravedigger always brings some needed comic relief.

Stage early in the first act

Stage early in the first act

The staging was also fantastic. Everything was stylistic, ranging from Victorian Era through the 60’s. The main set was like an Old Victorian Mansion that continued to decline during the first act. At the end of the third act when Hamlet is banished and Cladius is alone on stage, all this sooty material blows through the doors. When the second act begins, there are just piles of rubble allover. It was impressive–one of the best night’s at the theater. I’ve ever had.

England Trip–Day Two

Because of the change in time, I arrived in London about 11:00 this morning. I met up with my old high school friend and we took the Underground to Russell Square. Our hotel, the Hotel Russell is an old Victorian hotel. It’s gorgeous! My room is small and my view is of back alleys and people’s back yards, but I find it charming.

The lobby of the Hotel Russell, Charing Cross, London

The lobby of the Hotel Russell, Charing Cross, London

For students working on travel projects going to London, I suggest looking into purchasing an Oyster card. A seven day card gets me unlimited travel on two central zones on the subway, called the Tube by Londoners.

It took a while to get from Heathrow to Russell Square, so we didn’t have but a little while before going to the theatre (British spelling). We were pretty tired, so we decided to take a taxi, which I wouldn’t advise if you are making plans to travel in London. Because the traffic was so snarled and the cabs charge by the minute, it turned into a pretty penny, but we got to the Garrick Theatre with plenty of time to spare.

Found this on trip advisor, but we were sitting near the end of this row!

Found this on trip advisor, but we were sitting near the end of this row!

The Garrick is an old theatre for which The famous Irish actor Kenneth Branagh is now artistic director. The show was two one acts by the important British playwright Terence Rattigan. The first short play starred the great British actress, Zoe Wanamaker in a one woman show called All on Her Own, about a woman who has recently lost her husband. It was some great acting, but the pace was kind of slow for someone with jet lag.

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The longer one act was an unexpected pleasure. Also by Rattigan, it was totally different in character. It is a funny farce about theatre. Very funny, and I was thrilled that the play is directed by and starring  Branagh. Wanamaker was in that show too. Very funny, brilliantly acted, yet also rather poignant and touching at the end. I absolutely loved it!

The playwright--Terence Rattigan

The playwright–Terence Rattigan

Took the crowded Tube back to Russell Square and struck up an interesting conversation with some locals who were disgusted by the long queue, which is the British word for line. Other fun differences in language are all around. My favorite is coming out of the Tube, instead of exit signs, we see signs that say, “way out.”

Way out sign at Russell Square

Way out sign at Russell Square

Another thing for London travelers to remember is buy snacks and drinks from one of the little groceries that are all over because it is much cheaper than at the hotel bar and many London hotels don’t have vending machines.

Well, it is late and I didn’t sleep much on the plane, so I am going to hit the hay. I will write more tomorrow.

BON VOYAGE!

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Professional development–It means different things to different people, I suppose, but in my mind, I will soon be experiencing the most wonderful professional development a teacher of British literature could ask for. I’m going to England! One of the highlights of the trip will be seeing Benedict Cumberbatch performing the leading role in Hamlet at the Barbican in London.

The timing is perfect because while I am there, seeing Hamlet live, my students will be reading Hamlet and watching a movie version of it. I wish I could take them with me, but I plan to do a video pre and post show in front of the Barbican and take as many pictures and videos as I can to use in my British literature classes.

I also plan to use my experiences to continue to refine the major capstone project in my online literature classes–the literary travel project that I have discussed in previous blogs. I have created sample literary travel projects, and now I can test out my own literary travel plans to further refine those samples, as well as the project directions, and help my students get the most out of their major research project.

Keeping up with all of my classes, seated and online, will be a challenge, but I thought one way to stay in touch with them, and with anyone who is interested in the value of international travel as professional development for faculty. will be interested in my blog posts over the week–STARTING ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23!

The Quality of Mercy

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Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.

To Become a “Miracle Worker” Too

Miracle worker Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962’s “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson When I was a young girl in the 60’s, I loved to watch old movies on Saturday afternoon. Some of these movies made a deep impact on me for one reason or another. I remember watching one of my first Shakespeare plays on Saturday morning–the 1935 version of Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Andy Rooney as Puck and James Cagney, yes, James Cagney, as Bottom. I didn’t know any of those actors then, but I was fascinated by their actions. I barely understood a word of what was said but I was mesmerized by the words. So many movies during those halcyon days, when my viewing choices may have been fewer but have rarely been better, helped form my love not only of film but also of story telling and the theater, psychology and human development, justice and mercy–movies like Citizen Kane and Rebecca, Stage Door and All about Eve, To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men. 

However, there is one movie that told a story which stands out above the rest in my mind, a story that helped solidify a desire that was already growing in me before I was a decade old–the desire to teach. That story is told in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a teacher, but watching Annie struggle to teach Helen, to give some meaning to the child’s dark and silent life by giving her the gift of language and in return seeing her own life change from dark to light, caused the stirrings of desire to leap into a consuming passion.

I was reminded yesterday of this great story and its impact on my career choice when I went to see our local community theater’s production of William Gibson’s play. I’ve seen it several times over the years and the movie many times, but something about the intimacy of the small theater and the fine acting by my friend who was playing Annie and another friend’s young daughter who played Helen, brought back the force the story and its impact on my life in a way I hadn’t felt in many years. This time, however, I have been a teacher for thirty years, a bit jaded about my profession, especially these days, especially in North Carolina, but watching Helen’s face at the water pump as the water flows over her hands and she finally understands what words are, seeing Annie’s face when Helen comes to her with her new found knowledge and signs that special word “teacher” renewed my love of teaching.

One passage in particular especially rang true to me last night. In the scene Annie is discouraged because she has brought Helen to the threshold of understanding language, has struggled mightily to bring her there, but words are still just a finger play to Helen and time is running out. Annie looks down at the deaf, blind and mute child with such yearning and says these words:

I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave. And I know, I know, one word and I can—put the world in your hand—and whatever it is to me, I won’t take less!

Is it any wonder that even way back when I was not much older than Helen was that day the world opened up to her, that my world opened up to me? That day I knew what I wanted to do–help people understand the beauty and power of words. When I got a little older, one of the first biographies I read was Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” I chose that book because I had seen the movie and been so intrigued by Annie Sullivan and how it must feel to teach a child. Reading the story from Helen’s perspective fueled my passion for teaching. In this passage Helen describes that day at the water pump:

I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.*

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

Some people struggle to know what to do with their lives, to find themselves, but I knew long ago as a little girl watching TV on a Saturday afternoon, when I could have been outside playing, that some day I would be a teacher. As much as I have wanted to escape my destiny over the years, it’s clear that I am where I belong, doing what I was born to do. What William Wordsworth said is true, “The child is father of the man.”

Mother of the woman, too.

Today Is What It’s All About

Yesterday, I was discouraged, but today is a new day. Why? I went to rehearsal of my college’s new play. We’re performing a stage version of the movie Clue that is based on the old sleuthing board game so many of us know and love. The movie has an all-star cast, including the late great Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), the fabulous Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren.

At auditions, there were so many fine actors that our director, head of the drama department, decided to have understudies for some of the roles, include a “household staff” that will serve as entertainment between scenes and then get their shot at the big roles during two additional shows. Great idea, and it’s what directors who are primarily good educators at community colleges do–make their lives much more complicated for the sake of their students as well as the community members who are also significant stake holders in their college.

Today’s rehearsal reflects what community colleges are all about–play production students coming early and staying late to work on the set, more seasoned actors helping the newer ones, agreeing with the director without argument, offering suggestions, happy to have them accepted or not, the director’s quick and non-embarrassing corrections when new actors make mistakes, each actor creating a story for his or her character, an occasional harmless joke, the joys of physical humor leading to laughter and a true knowledge of an art form that only comes with actually getting up and doing it.

This is educational theater and the essence of what liberal arts is all about–following directions, creative problem-solving, collaborating and creating. I’m so glad to once again be a part of it.

Also, today–my positive day–I want to give a shout out to the colleagues, support staff, administrators and students who helped me so much during this past discouraging week. I complain sometimes, but I truly just want to make things better for my fellow instructors and my students, especially my students. Nevertheless, I want to find more time to praise the people I work with who also have the welfare of all of our students foremost in their minds. I also appreciate those students and friends who have reached out to me this week, offering me respect and encouragement. Thanks, guys–you know who you are.