Monday, August 29, 2011

The Magic of Theater

Amanda Card-McCoy as Patricia Carleon in Blackbird Theater's production of G. K. Chesterton's play Magic.

There's a reason I don't go see live theater. I'm sick of it. Plus, it's almost always bad.

And there's a reason I can't pay all of my bills every month. I'm an actor. I'm an actor who does lots of Christian theater, no less - a true recipe for financial disaster.

But acting is a vocation - God has made us to do this, called us to do this, and doing this is the most challenging thing on earth. Many of us realize early on, as I did, that if we're ever going to work consistently, we have to produce our own stuff.

And after you've made a living at that for about thirty years, as I have, you realize more than you ever did how hard this business is. It's a collaborative art that requires tremendous talent and dedication at every link in the chain; lose a link here or there and instead of a "hit" you've got something that "hits" the ground with a thud.

This is why much of the stuff Theater of the Word Incorporated has done for EWTN has been a bit cheesy. This is why our production of Magic at the American Chesterton Society Conference a few weeks back was a struggle (we had about one or two rehearsals total, the cast not gathered together until the very week of the show). This is why everything we tour with is no more than four actors, simple props and a black backdrop. We have literally no financial resources and we have clients who always poor mouth us and sometimes stiff us. Given the conditions under which we work, it's remarkable that we come up with stuff that's as good as we do.

Or, as the lead character in Chesterton's Magic (who is himself in showbiz) puts it ...

A man spends his time incessantly in going about in third-class carriages to fifth-rate lodgings. He has to make up new tricks, new patter, new nonsense, sometimes every night of his life. Mostly he has to do it in the beastly black cities of the Midlands and the North, where he can't get out into the country.

Translated into my life, this means most recently we've done 33 performances of 12 scripts in 90 days, traveling 17,000 miles through 18 states - and while not in the "beastly black cities of the north", at least for one night we were stranded in Toledo. And that counts.

I bring all of this up not because I'm griping, but because when it all comes together, when you get it right, when the Magic of Theater happens, it's worth it. We may be starving, homeless and hungry, but it's worth it. It's worth it because, whether we know it or not, whether we're Christians or not, we're doing it for love - we're doing it for God.

Now since I hate to go see live theater, I've had to enjoy these consolations - these moments where everything comes together and the audience is one with the cast and the cast is one with the material - on stage as an actor. But last week - on August 25, the Feast of St. Genesius, Patron of Actors - it happened to me in the audience.

My actors and I went down to Nashville, Tennessee to see Blackbird Theater's production of Chesterton's Magic - the same play the American Chesterton Society had struggled so mightily with in St. Louis three weeks before.

Produced by Randy Spivey with the help of Greg Greene, and directed by Wes Driver, this was the perfect production of this play. Honestly. I don't know how the original West End Production or the two Broadway productions could have been any better.

Now my friends know me as a curmudgeon, as a crabby cynical old cuss who would critique the Second Coming as being "over-produced". I do not rave about anything, as a rule. I am more Belloc than I am Chesterton.

But allow me to rave.

I know Chesterton and his writing very well. He was the man who more than any other brought me from atheism into the Christian Faith. I have been reading him, studying him, adapting him, performing him for close to fifteen years. I know his plays very well. I was the Poet in EWTN's version of his play The Surprise, Father Brown in our TV movie version of The Honor of Israel Gow, Ignatius Press audio book performer of Manalive, gave the keynote address on Chesterton and Drama at the 2009 Chesterton Conference in Seattle. I've even taken Dale Ahlquist out to dinner and made him pay for it!

Believe me, then, when I tell you that this was the perfect production of this play.

We begin with the set. Bradley Jones designed a very attractive realistic Edwardian drawing room set - which made me realize how important the set is to this play. Unlike The Surprise, which takes place in a kind of fairy tale setting, the whole point of Magic is the contrast between the supernatural and the mundane. The eeriness of the magician's tricks and the presence of the demonic only really work if played off against a realistic background. This play is all about normal everyday skeptics confronting the shock and terror of a world beyond this one - and that can only work if the everyday world looks solid and real on stage. Thus a good set can make or break this play, as it's really a kind of set drama. I didn't realize that until I recognized how much we lost by comparison playing the thing with an abstract set in St. Louis.

Stephen Moss' lighting, Hannah Schmidt's costumes, and even the judicious but powerful use of background music all contributed to this effect.

So quite literally the stage is set. A brilliant script, great set, lights, music, costumes - now it's up to the actors and the director to make the dead stuff come to life. Heck, how hard could that be!

This was an unbelievable cast, from top to bottom. One little example: Robyn Berg played the part of Hastings (written for a man, but played by a woman in this production), a throw-away part, a part that's so incidental we gave it to a deacon in our version (after all, deacons don't do anything, as we all know). Now in the climactic scene, Ms. Berg as Hastings has a little moment where she is overcome by a foreboding, a sense of spiritual oppression. She played it by falling back just a bit against a wall, as if she were fighting against fainting. It was a tiny little movement, an exquisite little bit of physical "business", and it was just the thing to set the tone for the climax that followed, a climax that happens after Hastings' exit, no less. It was a marvelous little piece of acting, and it came from an actress playing the least important role in the play!

And from there on up, it was a delight to watch these actors work. Christopher R. C. Bosen played the Duke, the most difficult role in the show, as he's asked to get laughs off of lines that are funny because they don't make sense and his fellow actors stare at him in confusion whenever he says these non-sequiturs. How easy it would be for these lines actually to play this way and for the audience to join in the blank stares of confusion! But Bosen gave the character a character-voice and milked the maximum out of his dozens of comic moments.

Alan Lee played the part I played in St. Louis, the materialist doctor, and was just what the doctor ordered, you might say. He played him more droll and bourgeois than I did, and it worked like a charm.

Another contrast to our production was Daniel Hackman (pictured here), who played the Anglican Rev. Smith. Gary Wells, in our show, played Smith as a kind and balanced gentleman, very even-tempered, whose sanity depended upon his dullness - and it worked. But Hackman kicked it up a few notches and drove the play forward with his passionate portrayal of a man of cloth having a crisis of faith. I was amazed at how Mr. Hackman was able to play the part "big" at moments and yet never so big that he upstaged others or seemed out of place in the context of the scene. Indeed, Hackman made Smith the central supporting character in the show; much of the conflict played itself through Smith in this production, and that was due largely to the astonishing performance of this gifted actor.

Zack McCann as Morris (pictured here) was also very impressive in a difficult role, a role that's a mixture of comic relief, a parody of stage conventions, with a touch of pathos and tragedy - while being at the same time the role of a three-dimensional figure whose skepticism goes dangerously further than that of any one else in the story. A hard part to play, but McCann managed to play it both for laughs and for integrity. I was especially impressed with his ability to build in the scene where Morris goes crazy.

And then there are the leads.

I would marry Amanda Card-McCoy if my wife would let me and if Judge Judy and Beyonce turn me down. She was just right as Patricia. Her accent was a bullseye, her mixture of dreamy innocence and hard-edged practicality was exactly where it should be.

And then there's David Compton as the Conjurer (pictured here). I thought we did well in St. Louis with my buddy Kaiser Johnson in this role (and we did), but Compton was incredible. I was surprised to learn that he had struggled in rehearsal to get to where he got with this part, as he absolutely nailed the character, and nailed both the comic delivery of the laugh lines (of which there are many) as well as the undercurrent of guilt and anger which occasionally rise to the surface, and which are central to who he is and to how the story unfolds. And he did it all in a way that looked smooth and effortless.

And the two leads together - Card-McCoy and Compton - pulled off the most delightful, entertaining and believable love scenes one could ever hope to see. They had a table of teenage girls next to us melting with the delicacy of the romance.

I could rave about the scene they filmed and played as a movie to begin the show, or the strolling magicians who did a pre-show warm-up, but I have to save my final rave for the director.

Now usually a director is kind of like a manager in baseball. He can very rarely help a play, and quite often he can hurt it. In the case of Blackbird Theater's Magic, however, there's only one explanation for why the whole thing worked as well as it did. Wes Driver, the director, understood the play from the inside out. He cast a brilliant cast and then drew from them absolutely every single moment and "beat" that the show needed. The pacing, the character insights, the feel for the show - everything was perfect, and this is a sign of excellent direction.

We met with Wes and some of the cast and crew after the show.

The good news is these are not only good actors and producers and directors, but good people. Blackbird Theater is the resident professional company at Lipscomb University in Nashville, and it's a company well worth your support. Their mission statement reads as follows ...

We want to do the kind of the shows we ourselves most want to see—imaginative, intellectually stimulating, and uniquely theatrical. Not self-indulgent experimental stuff. Not kitschy homespun comedies either. Theater with intellectual heft and humor. Fiercely entertaining . . . with maybe a little to discuss at dinner.

What a wonderful vision for a theater company.

And what a wonderful experience for a group of rag-tag actors sitting in the audience on our feast day. Well worth the five-hour drive down from St. Louis.

For there we sat, feeling as good in the audience as we typically only feel on stage.

As the Conjurer says of himself and his show business background:

My mother was a lady and she married a dying fiddler who tramped the roads; and the mixture plays the cat and banjo with my body and soul. I can see my mother now cooking food in dirtier and dirtier lodgings, darning socks with weaker and weaker eyes when she might have worn pearls by consenting to be a rational person.

Well, actors are not rational people. And while the pearls we do manage to wear are costume jewelry only, they show forth a greater beauty and a deeper truth than real pearls do, especially when there's magic on stage.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Blessed Dominic Barberi

Happy Feast Day of Bl. Dominic Barberi! Here I am on The Journey Home as Barberi telling his story.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Trading a Transmission for an Indulgence

Stranded in Toledo. It was that bad.

After a grueling month that was culminated by my actress Maria Romine falling in Lake Superior, we left the piercingly beautiful city of Duluth, Minnesota for our 18 hour drive to Monroe, New York to perform for the World Youth Day events of the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate and right after passing through the toll booth on the Ohio Turnpike, our transmission went out and we had to be towed fifty miles to Toledo, where I had to rent an SUV and throw our sound, lights and costumes into it and keep driving, as the show must go on - for some crazy reason. (The van is still in Toledo and Karen will have to drive seven hours up from St. Louis and get it once it's fixed.)

The show went well enough, especially considering that most of the ninth and tenth graders there were forced to come by their DREs.

And I sat there in Mass on Sunday, at the sister's charming chapel, feeling angry and bitter and simply worn out. Then the homily - by (I believe) Fr. Glenn Sudano of the CFRs (shown hearing confession outdoors before Mass) - kicked into high gear, and I saw it all, the pain, the travel, the sacrifices, the hassles, the bad money, the foolishness. It all came into focus. "At first Peter was not afraid when he stepped out of the boat," Father explained, "because he didn't look at the waves and at the storm around him. He kept his eyes on Jesus."

Well, naturally, keep your eyes on Jesus. That's why I'm doing this, after all. There's no other good reason to.

And afterwards our fans found us and the consolations flowed.

But it's difficult. It's difficult to keep motivated. It's difficult not to slide into depression when the resistance, both in the world and in your own breast, is persistent.

Today, for instance. As difficult as this Genesian Lent has been (from the Immaculate Heart of Mary til now, when I began this series of posts), today was the hardest. My wife Karen and I were getting hit from all over - financial challenges, difficulties with clients, family trouble - even a friend trying to resurrect the Lying Debate and claiming he'll never see me again if I don't salve his conscience and admit I'm deliberately perverting the Catechism when I say lying is bad. I mean, the devil is the Lord of the Flies because he does his most effective work with thousands of annoying little bug bites - and today the insects had full reign.

There is something about suffering that only the greatest of saints understood.

Look at the similarities between Christmas and Easter. In both cases, God vanished and Faith and Hope seemed to mock us.

When God died on Good Friday and Mary held Him in her arms, all of the universe had ceased to have meaning. Truth and Goodness had been made Ugly by our sins and our hate and the Prime Mover of All Things, the source of all meaning itself, lay without movement in the arms of a woman who should never had been made to grieve. And after He is laid in the tomb, we do not see the moment when death turns to life. It is hidden from us, for it is too glorious for us to understand.

And we all know the magic of a dark Christmas Eve. We all know the hush of that Silent Night. But that hidden blessing comes from God being absent from the eyes of our world-weary vulgarities, unheard by our hungry hungry Herods. God is as hidden in that cave in Bethlehem as He is in that tomb in Jerusalem. In both cases, the silent turning point is veiled and the world turns its bloodlust elsewhere as new life secretly begins.

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 1 Cor. 15:51-52

This sounds like wishful thinking, a child's dream. But on the contrary, St. Paul insists upon it. If Christ be not raised ... then is our faith in vain. Eternal life is central to the Christian Faith - His resurrection and ours can not be separated.

The body of flesh dies and the body of the Spirit is born to a glory unimaginable. But how do we keep our eyes on that when they tend to gape at the storms around us?

We began these posts by talking about St. Genesius, our patron, the only actor with integrity, whose Feast Day is August 25. He, like so many then and now, died for Christ.

We must all die for Christ. "I die daily" as Paul said. And die not only to our sins, but simply die. We must come to that painful awful place where meaning has fled and the One in Whom we put our faith lies dead in the arms of a weeping woman; that painful place where the songs of the angels mock us - we are told He is born, but He is hidden from our eyes, unseen and unfelt by our broken hearts.

When God is dead, Faith becomes true Faith. When our hopes are dashed, Hope becomes true Hope. And when we love a God we cannot see, and who lies lifeless in our arms, Love becomes Love at that moment.

And when our transmission goes out fifty miles shy of Toledo, our vocations are being tested.

Chesterton, as usual, says it best ...

Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and eclipse.


"Great news!" Sister Maria Catherine said. "The Pope has granted a plenary indulgence to anyone participating in World Youth Day activities - anywhere in the world, including here in Monroe, New York!"

Ah, yes, so we traded a transmission for an indulgence, but the hard part is always the condition that makes it stick - renouncing our attachment to sin - including the sin of not seeing the forest for the trees; or not seeing the Jesus for the waves.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Getting In Character

Is the YOUCAT, the Youth Catechism, a work tantamount to heresy, as some on the internet are suggesting, or is it an effective tool of catechesis that talks to young people at their level?

One answer to this question brings up one of the most profound analogies between Acting and the Faith.

But first, let me take a moment to agree with one thing the YOUCAT recall website says. The writer of this page quotes the YOUCAT as stating that the Church rejects "all artificial means of contraception". This is a common but flawed assertion, and it is one that is loosely and wrongly used by proponents of Natural Family Planning (NFP). For a long time this drove me crazy, as I couldn't understand why the Church would object to artificial contraception (such as the pill or condoms) and not "natural contraception" such as NFP. Are we Christian Scientists? I would ask myself. Or worse - are we New Age Pagans, who hate what is artificial and love what is "natural"?

I really was stuck on this teaching because it made no logical sense to me, and this was the biggest logjam I faced after becoming Catholic. Then I realized it: the Church prohibits contraception, period. Natural Family Planning is not contraception at all. It is simply periodic continence, or not having sex if there's a good reason for a wife not to get pregnant. When during the month the wife is fertile, if you don't want babies, don't have sex. This is not wilfully frustrating the procreative aspect of the marital act, which is what contraception is. The "natural" and "artificial" labels are not only misnomers, they cloud the coherence of the argument.

So that point is a good one - but I'm not so sure of the rest of the critique of the YOUCAT, and I don't really want to address that, since I haven't read the YOUCAT (though I have read the Catechsim cover-to-cover) and I'm not really here to talk about the YOUCAT itself, but instead the issue it raises that leads back to Acting and the Faith

So let's stop talking about sex and talk about something interesting instead.

At the Catholic Answers Forum, a commenter named Manualman makes an excellent point; and while I don't know if this applies to the YOUCAT debate, it certainly applies to the Torture Debate, the Super-Disciples Debate, and the Lying Debate.

Manualman writes:

... God is not arbitrary. Sin IS indeed sin. But what sin IS is something that by its nature damages our ability to give and receive love (both human and divine). Not just the commission of an act 'on the list.'

You technically cannot make a list of mortal sins in catholic theology. Even murder might not be a mortal sin if the killer is mentally incompetent. Look it up: mortal sin requires three elements: grave matter, knowledge that the matter is evil and consent.

What Youcat is trying to do here (IMO) is avoid the mistakes of previous generations. Masturbation is grave matter precisely because it twists the blessed gift of human sexuality that was meant to be re-gifted to one's spouse into a narcisstic experience. Youcat explains that to my satisfaction. It's not about 'demonizing' the temptation a person experiences, but helping him understand what is appealing about it and why giving into it is not just a violation of a rule, but a genuine harm.

Another later poster here fails to recognize that he makes my point better than his own: simply attempting to make people be good via following the rules never works. [my emphasis] They always find a loophole. The way to help people to do good and avoid evil is to explain to them what evil IS and how much damage it does. Again, Youcat passes the deeper test. The last thing teens need is a list of rules that appear to be arbitrary to them, have no clear explanation and seem disconnected to their own experience of reality. Youcat avoids that pitfall and speaks to people where they are at.

If you're looking for a rigid, rules based religion that doesn't require you to comprehend, [my emphasis] but only obey a fixed list of rules, then I agree Youcat isn't for you. But perhaps catholicism isn't either.

Yeah, I know, we were supposed to stop talking about sex, and this is all about YOUCAT's teaching on masturbation, the act being both grave matter for sin and also a habit that young men in particular can find almost impossible to break. Apparently, the YOUCAT is trying to acknowledge this by putting the teaching in context (so that it does not seem arbitrary) and by acknowledging the fact that someone addicted to this sin should not heap self-abuse upon self-abuse (as it were) and feel demonized by something they often can not control.

As I say, that's what the argument seems to be about, and whether the YOUCAT should have worded this section differently (see footnote below) I will not address. But what does interest me is the argument Manualman is making.

The argument is really this: Think with the Mind of the Church, which is no less than the Mind of Christ.

Or in other words: GET IN CHARACTER.

Every actor knows the feeling: you struggle with a role over and over again in rehearsal and even in performance and it never seems to click. Then, all of a sudden, a word or a gesture makes the whole character come together for you, and every line you speak in the play makes sense. You become engaged in the role, you discover the part, you get in character, and the organic unity takes care of itself. Suddenly you stop struggling over lines here or there that don't work for you, or looking to motivate certain moments that seem to stick out - for suddenly it all comes together and everything in the play works the way it obviously should, but the way you just couldn't imagine it working earlier in the creative process. Actors know this, and actors pray that this happens for them - at least before closing night!

The Faith is like that. That's why words like "artificial" or "natural" can cloud an issue, as can words like "demonize" when applied to certain sins. The Faith is a whole, the teachings are all one thing. The Church's view on sex, for instance, is rooted in love, marriage and mutual self-sacrifice. Once you see that whole, then you know instantly how wrong something like masturbation is. Outside of that whole, beyond that organic understanding, Church teaching may indeed seem like unrelated arbitrary bits and pieces - which it never is, for it is the Way of Christ, the most whole and complete Way in the world. It is a living teaching.

Thus St. Paul tells us "I will pray with the spirit, I will pray also with the understanding; I will sing with the spirit, I will sing also with the understanding." (1 Cor. 14:15)

Our job as Christians and as Good Actors is to understand, not to follow or mimic from without, but to be transformed from within, so that the whole makes sense, and that with the understanding we will have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:16)

Footnote - from the YOUCAT:

Question 409 (Page 222)

Is Masturbation an offense against love?

Masturbation is an offense against love, because it makes the excitement of sexual pleasure an end in itself and uncouples it from the holistic unfolding of love between a man and a women. That is why “sex with yourself” is a contradiction in terms.

The Church does not demonize masturbation, but she warns against trivializing it. In fact many young people and adults are in danger of becoming isolated in their consumption of lewd pictures, films, and Internet services instead of finding love in a personal relationship. Loneliness can lead to a blind alley in which masturbation becomes an addiction. Living by the motto ‘“For sex I do not need anyone; i will have it myself, however and whenever I need it” makes nobody happy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

God Talking to Me

On Saturday we will present my play The Call at the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate in Monroe, New York. This is a play about vocations, and the difficulty of hearing God's call in a world filled with distractions. I wrote it at the suggestion of our friends at the Institute on Religious Life . And while a show about vocations may sound didactic, preachy and boring like most religious theater, it is anything but that.

In fact, a high school student who attended our premiere performance in Chicago wrote:

I am so glad I got to come and experience this last weekend! You guys showing up in my life has got to be one of the best things that has ever happend! You and your crew has been an inspiration! I saw God shine in every single one of your faces! You guys are wonderful people!

Last night when i got home after 11pm, my grandma and I had a little chat about the conference and of course, about you! I told her how wonderful you guys were and how being with you guys has helped my discernment a lot! I was telling her that whenever I heard a talk on evangelization and missionary work... my heart felt pulled, and also when I watched the show you put on... I also felt pulled. So to sum it all up, I feel God might be calling me to go out and evangelize. I dont know, though, that it could be through talking, acting, singing... Not sure on that part.. But i know your prayers will most deffinately help!

Now of course we're just the instruments of something like this. But the show's pretty good, and that doesn't hurt.

So I've been thinking a lot about vocations lately, and what a challenge they can be. I think this is because we like to think of prayer as "Me talking to God", while a vocation is "God talking to me". And He talks with a voice that, though still and small, is very profound and resonant. It is the same Voice that moved upon the waters before the earth was fully formed, after all - and this same Voice speaks to us in the most intimate and hidden places of our hearts.

And all actors know this. We know this because if we have a vocation to act, and if it's not just a hobby or a pass-time or a way to pick up girls, it stirs us at our deepest and most vulnerable spot.

As my character Sam says at a climactic moment of the play (and as Sister Maria answers him) ...

SAM: (articulating his desperation) You don’t understand! I can’t love! It hurts too much, hurts like writing the great poem that only suffering can produce. And I can not endure that suffering – or the sweetness of that poem. It tears out the core of my being! I can’t live that way! I can’t love God. That would take me past the breaking point. And I’m already broke! I can’t even love the trees, the birds, the sunshine. Good gravy, woman, I can’t even love you!

MARIA: … you know what I think? I think you have a true vocation.

SAM: I don’t even know what a vocation is!

MARIA: A vocation is a call to love, to love past the breaking point.

SAM: You said a vocation was a call to personal holiness.

MARIA: Which is the fruit of loving past the breaking point. When a sister picks the worms out of the body of a man dying on the street of a third world country, she’s loving Christ, with her whole self. When a priest endures torture and solitary confinement out of loyalty to Jesus and service to others, he’s loving Christ, with his whole self. When a wife changes dirty diapers and puts up with a husband like you for better or for worse as long as you both shall live, she’s loving Christ, with her whole self. Past the breaking point.


On this second day of the Genesian Novena, let us recall how glibly we talk to God in prayer and how resistant we are when He talks back to us with that Voice that moves upon the waters.

Let us recall actress and playwright St. Therese who experienced a terrifying urge to flee the day before she made her vows, and whose faith was shaken even as she was granted a share in the heart of the sufferings of Jesus at the glorious and painful end of her life.

Let us recall our general vocation as Christians to go out and preach the Gospel, preaching both in how we live and also with words - a vocation we hardly ever consider, much less answer with any zeal or courage.

And let us recall our audiences, who respond to us (as did our high school fan above) if we respond to Him.


As we hear at the end of The Call ...

SAM: Oh, Sister, tell me one more thing. I can’t hold down a day job. Is that a sign of a vocation?

MARIA: In your case, it probably is.


To book The Call or any of our other shows, visit us at The Theater of the Word Incorporated or call 1-888-840-WORD

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Superior Photo Journalism

Pictures I took on our 2005 trip to Duluth, Minnesota.

This is the Actress.

This is our hero. We'll call him "Ken".

Ken thinks: "I may have to save this Actress' life some day."

The Chester-Belloc Drinking and Debating Society meets on the shore of Lake Superior. The Actress was an Observer, as women aren't typically allowed at the meetings.

The Actress had fun.

Our hero had fun.

The Actress was showing me her dental work.

Time to leave!

Oh, dear! The Actress has fallen into the Lake!

ACTRESS: What happened?

KEN: You fell into the Lake!

"Ken is my hero! He saved my life!"

Ken thinks: "Hmm. Where are my keys?"

The Actress is embarrassed. Ken has lost his keys in the Lake!

We return the Actress to her room.

The next day: I find Ken's keys! They were right where he left them - at the bottom of Lake Superior.

Colin and friend Sam search for rocks. Who is that girl behind them?

She seems to be bending over backwards to get their attention.

But the boys don't notice her - at all.

Well, I notice her and I get it all on film - Superior Photo Journalism.

Meanwhile, it's now 2011 and today during outdoor rehearsal my actress Maria fell into the Lake - fully sober, during the day. I fished her out without getting wet. It was really rather scary, as the Lake can be quite hazardous. Maria, to her credit, dried in the sun and our outdoor rehearsal continued. She's a real trooper.

No pictures, though - too busy saving her.

I am told that over the weekend actress Emily fell into the river.

The only damage so far has been to cell phones .

Today (August 16) is Day One of the St. Genesius Novena. St. Genesius, please keep us safe!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Beyond Spectacular

The problem with the Phineas and Ferb movie Across the Second Dimension is that it’s too spectacular.

Phineas and Ferb (my favorite TV show next to Judge Judy and The Journey Home) is brilliant for many reasons, but these are generally small reasons – humorous moments that are not overdone, a variety of characters that are true to their traits in a variety of situations, complex and interwoven plots that are usually not forced. But when Disney wants a movie, I imagine Disney demands action and adventure and fight scenes and big giant devices and apocalyptic moments – and it all gets way too noisy. What’s good about this show is the contrast between the smallness of the kids’ back yard and the largeness of the adventures that fit into it – and that smallness doesn’t readily fit into a spectacle-sensation-with-pano-vision-and-full-screen-dolby-surround-sound-90-minute-movie.

And this is a problem in show business. When Miss Saigon came to the Fox Theater in St. Louis many years ago everybody kept talking about how an actual helicopter somehow descended from the rafters and appeared on stage. Nobody talked about the show or what it meant, only the spectacle and what struck their eyes and stunned their senses and knocked them senseless. When we saw Richard Harris as King Arthur in Camelot at the Muny, he more or less stumbled through the role until his big final monologue that he played so over-the-top (holding Excalibur in the air and shouting, “Vengeaaaannnncceeee!”) that the rubes in the audience stood up for him at curtain call – this a kind of spectacle of acting, an empty, noisy showing off, not unlike the spectacle of Spectacular Over-Production with props and scenery.

And while spectacle and its literary counterpart melodrama are always elements in dramatic art, to the extent they dominate a dramatic work, that dramatic work is compromised.

Compare the plays of St. Therese, the Little Flower, for instance.

Yes, St. Therese wrote plays. And acted in them. I suspect this is why she’s been involved in Theater of the Word of late along with our patron St. Genesius.

I have been reading a collection of her plays translated into English, and published by ICS. These were written as recreation pieces to be performed by the Carmelite sisters. They all have a pageant-like or presentational feel to them, and being weak on dialogue, one wonders how they would play outside of a recitational setting. But they nevertheless, even in translation, have a stunning beauty of simplicity and a depth of spiritual insight and passion.

Take the very short “Jesus at Bethany”, in which Therese played Jesus and two sisters played Martha and Mary. This play is simply a series of stanzas sung to folk tunes in which Mary and Jesus speak to one another for five or ten minutes, followed by Martha and Jesus speaking to one another for five or ten minutes. The only dramatic conflicts are Mary’s feelings of unworthiness and Martha’s frustration with Mary. In the midst of that we have a bold – perhaps audacious – love scene between Mary (identified as Mary Magdalene) and Jesus – not the kind of love scene hoped for by those Da Vinci Code fans who assure us that Jesus and Magdalene had a thing going and he fathered children by her. It’s not that at all.

It is, on the contrary, much more daring than that. It is a love that goes so much further than that.

At the beginning, Magdalene declares her love for Christ, and St. Therese has Jesus answer

JESUS: From now on, O Mary,
You’ll want to live for Me
And all My life
I will suffer for you

Think about that. What kind of intimacy is this! This makes that Da Vinci Code nonsense Puritanical by comparison.

A few verses later, Magdalene replies

MAGDALENE: Jesus, your very love
Makes my heart tremble.
Your supreme goodness
Increases my pain.

Think about that! What a beautiful line.

Into this rapt declaration of mutual love, Martha inserts herself complaining of Mary’s neglect of work, and Christ, in the course of a few stanzas, gently leads her to the truth. Then the eyes of the active and bustling Martha are opened, she abandons her jealousy and griping, and she declares her intention to match the love of Magdalene, even in the drudgery of her daily chores.

JESUS: You understand the great mystery
Which made me descend to these places.
Yes, the hidden life is dearer
Than all the glory of the Heavens

MARTHA: Jesus, to delight You, I want all my life
To despise honors and human glory.
While working for you I will imitate Mary
Seeking only Your divine gaze.

The paradox of the Hidden Life surpassing even the glories of heaven is something I alluded to here, and is the antidote for all the show biz raz-a-ma-taz and noisy spectacle the dramatic arts are prone to. And the willingness to seek Jesus in the humble and ordinary routine of daily life is likewise an antidote to the hunger for attention we actors are prone to.

But spectacle has a role in drama, even in the drama of profound little things. For example, in her play Joan of Arc Accomplishing Her Mission, Therese includes a fair share of spectacle, notably the fire scene in which Joan is martyred, and which nearly consumed Therese playing the role of Joan in performance when the fire almost got out of hand.

But the play is not about the battlefields of blood and gore; it’s not about the raging fire that consumes the young virgin and spellbinds the audience; it’s not even about the spectacle of saints and angels appearing to Joan in prison. It’s about the Hidden Life of a girl who had faith, who put all of her trust in Jesus, and who was led through the fire and beyond it to Act Three. For, in Therese’s play, the martyrdom of Joan ends the Second Act; the Third Act takes place in heaven and engages Joan in the needs of modern day France, fallen into apostasy. The climax is not the fight scenes; the climax is not the crowning of the king; the climax is not the immolation of the virgin; the climax is in the world beyond, which for now is somewhat Hidden from us.

For while we see through a glass darkly, we must not forget the consolations we receive and the glimpses of what lies behind the drudgery of our daily chores. We, like Joan, are visited by saints and angels, though perhaps in ways we do not perceive – in ways that are Hidden, like much of the life of Our Lord.

It is not the spectacle on stage that concerns us, but the spectacle off. The Drama is about the God behind the scenery and how He is revealed to us through our characters and our conflicts, hidden by a veil that is torn at the crucifixion, revealed at that moment of sacrifice by the great glimpse into a love more audacious than romantic love, the unimaginable love of a God consoling us with His saints and angels and hidden visitations, His little things, His little ways, His little saints, that draw us closer, despite our showmanship, to the quiet and loving Him.

Friday, August 12, 2011

My Wife Married an Actor

So my wife married an actor – me.

I can’t tell you why, as I don’t know myself.

We dated a long time, and she saw all the ups and downs – the years I made a living performing singing telegrams all over St. Louis dressed as a gorilla; the six weeks I made a living as a stand-up comic until the owner of the club got drunk, got on the mike, cursed his patrons and told them all to get the hell out; the summer I was hired as a comic / M.C. on board a riverboat and told three days before the first cruise that I was expected to perform as a magician instead (although I wasn’t one); the tour to Japan, Korea and Australia with four actresses who hated each other until halfway through the tour when they all decided they got along fine because they were united in their hatred of me; and so forth.

So by the time we got married and had Colin, our son, I was going to college to make something of myself, as it was obvious a career in show business – although it was my vocation – was a waste of time and was nothing that would reliably support a family.

But the very week I graduated, this ad ran in the paper: “Seeking comedy improv troupe to perform historical skits at Six Flags.” It turns out a company out of Texas, Living History Productions, had produced a series of cartoons on historical American figures, was setting up outdoor kiosks at Six Flags Theme Parks around the country, and was looking for improv troupes to perform short skits to attract attention to these kiosks.

Now, I had never performed comedy improv, I knew of no one who had, and I certainly didn’t run a comedy improv troupe.

So I had my agent call and tell them how great my comedy improv troupe was. We called ourselves the Fallen Arches, and, according to our agent, we were great.

The audition was set, I gathered a bunch of actors I knew and the day the Texas big wig flew into town to check us out, I told my cast, “I realize we hardly know each other’s names and we’ve never worked together before, but this guy thinks we’re a comedy improv troupe, so we have to pretend as if we’re used to doing these bits.”

Anyway, the guy loved us. “I thought St. Louis would be the last town where I’d find good comedy improv, but it turns out you guys are better than the troupes I’ve found on either coast!” I am not making this up, this is exactly what he said.

So we were hired to perform a full summer at Six Flags over Mid-America, six shows a day outdoors, and I scheduled the entire summer from my pool of actors who were allegedly members of this non-existent troupe. We all had to go to training with the teenagers at Six Flags, we were all issued badges, we all had official picture IDs.

Finally my career was coming together – and though this had nothing to do with my college degree, a good five or six months of paid acting work stretched before me.

The first day came and my troupe and I performed our skit about Ben Franklin outdoors on a hot early summer day at Six Flags. We literally “chilled out” in an air conditioned trailer while waiting to perform our second show. The second show went better than the first, the audiences were laughing, and everything was going great.

We returned to our trailer to rest up for our third show, and found, to our surprise, that the trailer was locked. We got a quick lunch, headed back to the trailer and found a note on it, “Call the front office”.

I got a hold of someone in management and said, “What’s going on here?”

“We do not have a contract with Living History Productions of Dallas, Texas, and you have no permission to be performing at our theme park.”

“What do you mean? You trained us, issued us badges, gave us permission to be here.”

“The contract had not been finalized and negotiations have fallen through. Security will now escort you from the park."

And we were forcibly ejected and asked not to return – at least not dressed as Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson.

I told Karen.

“That’s it! I’ve had enough! I can’t stand this! You have to give up show business. We’ve got a baby now and you’ve got to find a way to support this family that does not involve this kind of emotional and financial roller coaster.”

That fall we began performing murder mysteries regularly at restaurants, wineries and dinner trains around the country. Karen told me it would never work. She was very angry at me that I took the first gig.

That was eighteen years ago and not long after that, Karen was able to quit her job and we’ve been depending on murder mysteries ever since. I write this in Duluth, Minnesota, where we’ve been performing on the North Shore Scenic Railroad for twelve seasons, and where we’ve added a Theater of the Word show to our 2011 tour, a fund raiser for a crisis pregnancy center (and where we just performed to a standing ovation).

And the point of all this is – actors, our spouses often have it worse than we do.

My big suggestion – have a plan. When Karen’s cousin Jenna Fischer moved to L.A. to make it big, she had a five-year plan. She had to hit a number of goals in her acting career by the end of five years or she would return to St. Louis and do murder mysteries with me again, or even work as a secretary in an office somewhere. As it turns out, she’s working as a secretary in an office on NBC’s show The Office, a role she landed in her fifth year in Hollywood.

Have a plan. Don’t leave your wife guessing. Set a goal for the sort of stuff you’d like to be doing in five or ten years and have a B plan and a C plan if your A plan doesn’t work out – which it probably won’t. Remember, this is the hardest business in the world, the most unforgiving, the most brutal, and if you’re in it just to be famous, you’re in it for the wrong reason. Your plan should be about making a living and doing good work – enough of a challenge without mixing in your sad and pathetic desire for vainglory at the same time.

And be ready for the day your wife or husband says, “I’ve had enough. You can never do this again.” And just smile and say, “But, darling, you marred an actor.”

Then run.

The Priest as Actor - or Show Biz where It Don't Belong

Now, the life of a working actor is crazy, but the reason we do this isn’t. The reason we do this is the most sane thing in the world. Or out of the world.

And to illustrate this, I’m going to talk about the Holy Mass.

But first.

Last week was hell week. In a moment of insane weakness I had agreed to co-produce and perform in Chesterton’s full-length legit play Magic at the American Chesterton Society conference in St. Louis, with a maximum three days of rehearsal, and lights, sound, costumes and set provided by Theater of the Word Incorporated – all out of the goodness of my heart (meaning we weren’t getting paid for it).

Then, the day following that performance, I had to drive three hours one way down to Paducah, Kentucky with my actress Andrea to perform Who Wants to Murder a Millionaire at – of all things – a wedding reception. This got me home at 12:30 am, a quick five hours of sleep, and up by 5:30 for a 6:00 am departure to Wichita with Kaiser Johnson, who had forgotten his lines in The Call, our show on vocations, in which he plays the lead, and which we were to perform at 3:00 pm at the Mid West Catholic Family Conference to an audience of three hundred teen agers. At noon I woke him up in the car and coached him on his lines while I was driving. With coaching, he was able to recall most of them (we had only performed the play once and only rehearsed it twice, three months prior); we got to Wichita at 1:30, had a quick sound check, ran lines with Maria and Dave, and then the four of us did the show (this being the third show Maria and Dave had done that weekend, and the third I had done that weekend, six performances of six different scripts between us). To our surprise, The Call went off without a hitch and was received by a thunderous standing ovation from the three hundred middle school and high school kids in the audience – a real triumph.

Then I had to go to Mass.

I was working or driving during the Vigil Mass times on Saturday and from 6:00 am on Sunday. It was now 5:00 pm and I was running out of options for a Sunday Mass. I drove to the church in Wichita where I was told there was a 5:15 Sunday Mass, but the Church was empty. indicated a 7:00 pm Mass at the Newman Center in Wichita, but the Newman Center’s website said they were on the summer schedule, so I wasn’t sure 7:00 pm would be on, either. I then found on my phone a church nearby that supposedly had a 5:00 pm Sunday Mass. I’d be late, but I could still make it.

My GPS (whom we call “Gwen”) directed me to the church, a modern monstrosity a few miles away in a residential neighborhood. The church was packed. I walked in and could find no holy water or tabernacle, only two huge jumbo-trons and an all-black choir gettin’ down to some rock and roll spiritual. “I’m in the black church!” I thought – and sure enough, I was the only white guy there. Then I saw the banner, “Salem Methodist Church welcomes you.” I asked somebody where the Catholic church was, and was directed to the other end of the block.

The Catholic church was also packed. I struggled to find an open space in a pew. I had no idea how late I was, as the music minister (a guy my age only round and squat, built like most middle-aged music ministers, wearing glasses and bopping his head to the not-good-enough-to-be-in-Godspell-or-Jesus-Christ-Superstar hymn he was playing and which paled in comparison to the tune the African American Methodist Gospel Choir were no doubt still singing a block away) droned on an on. The lyrics seemed to be, “It’s all about meeeee, Lord! It’s all about me! It’s all about meeee, Lord! It’s all about me!” I gritted my teeth and tried to figure out where I was in Mass. “This sure doesn’t sound like the Psalm,” I said to myself.

No, it was the Offertory, and presently there stood before us all a figure in glowing and brilliant green. Good God, it was Stanford Nutting! Only better looking, more self-assured, much more effeminate, and tremendously proud to be “on stage”. This was, it seems, the priest.

Every movement was showmanship. Every gesture exquisite. Every other word ad-libbed. I kept praying that the consecration, at least, would be word for word, but it went something like this …

“After supper with his closest and dearest friends, who meant so much to him, he took the cup, gave the cup to his disciples, in a true spirit of sharing and fellowship, and with understanding and compassion said, ‘This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for absolutely all of you, every single one, regardless of your faith tradition, you who mean so very much to one another, so that sins may be forgiven and judgmentalism will end. Do this in memory of me.'”

Thus was Mass. Or maybe it wasn’t Mass. It was really hard to tell.

And I thought of Father Joseph Fessio, our benefactor, who had been at the Mid-West Catholic Family Conference with us, and who has for years been fighting for the reform of the Liturgy, and who celebrates ad orientem, facing liturgical east, facing the tabernacle, facing the same direction we face, offering for us on our behalf, the eternal sacrifice.

“It’s all about You, Lord. It’s all about You.”

I used to think the argument over the direction the priest faces a meaningless one. I used to think the bad art and architecture, the bad homilies, the horrendous music, did more to weaken the faith than the physical position of the priest.

But now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m sure I was wrong.

If the priest faces the people (contrary to the way he’s supposed to face per the General Instruction of the Roman Missal), he’s performing a show – or at least that’s the temptation.

And while we actors must face the audience when we’re on stage performing a show, our inner attitude must be facing not the audience, not even our other actors, but instead must be facing the One to Whom we point and for Whom we are in this crazy business to begin with.

Then I went back to the bar at the Mid West Catholic Family Conference, and continued in the great tradition not only of the Catholic Church but of Drinking Actors such as Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. The cast party (such as it was) had begun. Kaiser Johnson was performing Eddie Izzard routines, Erik Pratt and I were discussing Shatner and the original Star Trek episodes, Dave was laughing and Maria was snorting as we ate and drank and thanked God for The Call He had given us.

And may we all turn ourselves around.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Working Actor

(Takes deep breath)

On Friday, July 22, my actress Maria Romine and I drove the 9 1/2 hours from St. Louis to Athens, Georgia, where on Saturday I gave a presentation on the show business of writing, and where I walked in a nearby cemetery in 110 degree heat index learning my lines for some of the ten different scripts we're producing in the next month and where a security guard stopped and drove me to campus when the cemetery closed, the old guy pointing out where all his family was buried in a Southern accent so thick I could hardly understand what he was saying, and where in the evening Maria and I performed Murder on the Disoriented Express, a show we hadn't done in two years, and then we got up early for Mass on Sunday and went to a nearby church where the Mass was all about some blonde, who stood at the lectern and told us what the homily was going to be about, and then after communion told us what the homily had been about except she dumbed it down to a point where I felt like I was watching Mr. Rodgers and then we got in our car and drove fourteen hours to Galena, Illinois, near Wisconsin, got up early the next morning and performed Mayberry R.I.P., a show we hadn't done in three years, finished, and drove six hours back to St. Louis, where on Wednesday morning I got up at 3:30 am to catch a 6:00 am flight to New England where I performed three shows on a train in Vermont with new actress Jenna Sullivan, both of us exhausted by projecting and running around sweating, with a quick return to St. Louis for a fund raiser performance Saturday night of a double-show of Mayberry R.I.P. (Act One in room A, followed by Act One in room B, followed by Act Two in room A, followed by Act Two in room B, followed by the Solution in room A, followed by the Solution in room B) in Carlinville, Illinois, doing a script I spent all morning adapting with jokes about local Carlinville politics, and during which I ran into the corner of a podium in room B while making my exit, knocking the wind out of me and leaving a nasty bruise and probably breaking a rib, and where we got a standing ovation (in room B), drove home and got up on Monday to begin a week where we try to fit in our only three rehearsals for G. K. Chesterton's play Magic, which we will be performing at this year's Chesterton Conference, before we leave for Wichita, Kansas (a six hour drive) where my cast will be performing The Great Adventure, in addition to the premiere performance of The Body of Christ (which we spent three days rehearsing in mid-July) and where on Sunday I'll join them to perform The Call (which we've done only once, back in April), but before which I will head to Paducah, Kentucky to perform Who Wants to Murder a Millionaire with Andrea Purnell (with whom I've never done the show before)- three hours down and three hours back - heading to Duluth, Minnesota (a ten hour drive) the following weekend to do a fund raiser for the Women's Care Center and a week of shows on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, after which we drive to New York for a performance at the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate - a show in which I play Dave's part, Dave plays Kaiser's part, and Erik plays my part - but today I woke up at 7:08 (because my alarm didn't go off) for a 7:10 interview on the Son Rise Morning Show on Sacred Heart Radio with Brian Patrick, who talked to me about distributism for twenty minutes, even though I thought we'd talk mostly about Theater of the Word.