Yet Another Similarity Between Theatre and Church…

Churches and theatres across the country share a common phenomenon at Christmas time: people you don’t see in those buildings any other time of year walk through the front doors.  I propose that those visitors make their annual appearances at both establishments for some of the same reasons.

I don’t mean to sound trite, but this annual pilgrimage phenomenon is so consistent in the theatre world that we sometimes refer to the Christmas show as our “cash cow,” because we know you will come to that show in droves.  You’ll bring the kids, your employees and their families, grandma, dad and your daughter’s chatty friends.  Not unlike the late December trek to Church, you’ll dress a little nicer.  You will also laugh a little louder and clap a little longer and sometimes you’ll cry softly.  Regardless of the show, the venue or performers, you will most likely enjoy yourself and you’ll be back next year for more of the same.

Much like Christmas services at Church, in the world of Christmas entertainment, relatively little has changed over the years (it seems The Sound of Music has inexplicably slipped into the Christmas movie and music repertoire… but that’s another editorial altogether).  From A Christmas Carol to A Christmas Story, we consumers who love “new” and “better,” find ourselves lining up for “old” and “exactly the same.”

There are three forces converging to make those Christmas shows so special.  First, the stories themselves are wonderful affirmations of humanity and hope.  They are stories of family, redemption, the joy of giving, all-conquering love and of a brilliant little baby’s humble birth.  Whether it is a grand production or a grade school pageant, those stories touch our hearts.

What makes those stories so impactful is the second force at play here: we all want very, very badly to feel those emotions of togetherness, warmth, generosity and the promise of unwavering love.  Let’s face it, we can’t always guarantee those feelings on our own, but we can feel them every year when Ebenezer Scrooge realizes he hasn’t slept through December 25th.  Those warm fuzzies are as reliable as tears at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life every year.

And that brings us to the third wallop delivered by those old stories: we only tell them once a year.  It’s like a fabulous pair of shoes you’ll never get tired of because as soon as you wear them, they get tucked away in your closet for another year.  And by the way, these Christmas shoes never go out of style.

Whether you visit a theatre – or Church – once or several times each year, I’m glad we have this season to affirm our hope and humanity together.  Cherish the stories, relish the feelings and savor the shows.  Let’s hold on to all of it as long as we can and have a very Merry Christmas.

Donna Blanchard is an actor, director and freelance arts grant proposal writer

Art v. Competition (what?)

I had a conversation with a couple of actors one night last week.  The conversation turned to that naughty, eleven-letter word in the arts community: “competition.”  To award or not to award, that is the question.

You see, the two sides of this dramatic coin are publicly PRO: it’s important to point at greatness and collectively recognize that it is good, and CON: competition has no place in the world of art – can’t we all just support one another?

There’s a wonderful little organization in the world of theatre in “da region” known as the Northwest Indiana Excellence in Theatre Foundation.  This group does more than foster competition, but it seems to be known most widely for the “c-word.”

First, I’ll give you the mission statement of NIETF (as we loving call it – though we argue whether the first syllable is dominated by the “i” or the “e” sound): The purpose of the Northwest Indiana Excellence in Theatre Foundation (NIETF) is to recognize outstanding and excellent achievement in regional theatre in Northwest Indiana and to foster a deeper sense of regional theatre cooperation.

When I began participating in theatre in this area, I heard about the cooperation portion of that statement first and thought it was a MARVELOUS thing.  You and I can visit the NIETF website and learn about upcoming performances and auditions, click on links to participating theatres and post a notice that “I’m desperately seeking an art deco chaise for a set” or you “would like to donate a gently used men’s suit from the 1940’s to a good theatrical home.”  There’s also some less productive chatter that can get a little snarky at times, but is always endearing.

NIETF is also responsible for sending elected viewers to performances of participating theatres.  Those viewers judge aspects of the productions they see and an awards gala is held each fall.  That gala and a summer picnic are two events held by NIETF that offer the rare chance for all of us artists to socialize – I and at least several hundred other artists really love that.

But don’t let me skim over the awards portion of this.  Yes, nominations are announced weeks earlier and awards are given on the night of the gala.  I and at least several hundred other artists really love that too.

Just in case I’m not making my side of the debate clearly known, let me say boldly that I think the competition – recognizing outstanding and excellent achievement – is important to do.  In fact, we all do on a small scale anyway.  “Did you see that show?  Those costumes were wonderful, the set was great and the leading lady sublime!”  Of course, we say more than that in day to day conversation, but this gala doesn’t go there…. it serves to point at greatness and collectively recognize that it is good.

I appreciate the reference, the vis a vis, if you will.  And that, is how we learn.  Point all you want, we’re listening!

Donna Blanchard is an actor, director and freelance arts grant proposal writer

A Community… of Artists

If you had a choice between a chance for brilliant fame or guaranteed impactful and lasting – though fairly anonymous – service to your community, which would you choose?

Well, gee, no one put it to me that way years ago when I pursued a professional acting career, but I rather wish someone had.  Yes, celebrities often deposit dollars into their old hometowns, but that isn’t quite the same service to the community I’m talking about.  I’m talking about community theatre, an endeavor that produces art for the community, using community members who themselves, are an ever evolving community of artists.  It’s really a stunning troika when you think about it.

I imagine the promising young baseball player, dreaming of being signed by a major league team someday.  Is it even possible for that young man to dream of the healthy local impact of folks from neighboring towns socializing and soft-networking at the regional softball game in which he plays?  Probably not…

Maybe it’s the mellowing that comes with age, or perhaps just the realization that we all seem to strive for a bourgeois definition of success, that makes me ask such questions.  Indeed, last fall my man and I spent a small fortune to be among the attendees of opening night of The Addams Family musical at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.  We also visit The Art Institute several times a year, but those experiences simply do not compare to visiting local community theatres and area art shows (were I a sports fan in even the smallest way possible, I’d throw mention of a local sporting event here… but I’m completely ignorant of such things).

You may conclude that they don’t compare because of caliber of art, but I would argue that point both knowledgeably and tenaciously.  I mean to say that a place in our community, dedicated to hosting local artists, involved in the experience of assembling art as a community, for the benefit of all community residents to witness, is in a completely different realm than watching The Addams Family or seeing George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as it hangs in The Art Institute.

And so, back to the question: would I rather have fame and wealth, or benefit your community by supporting and participating in an artistic gathering spot?  Don’t be foolish – I’d give my right foot and a portion of yours to star on Broadway in any number of productions.  But while I was in the big apple, I’d hope to find a community theatre and art gallery, where I could invest, hang out and otherwise make wonderful things happen with the rest of the real people in my neighborhood.

The Story of Us, #1

The town of Colquitt, Georgia had problems: poverty, unemployment and racial tension.  Joy Jinks of Colquitt and a Northwestern University doctoral student named Richard Owen Geer, who happened to be working on a dissertation on performance as a community-building tool, met at a New York conference.

What came of that meeting was a musical, celebrating the history of Colquitt.  Stories of Colquitt’s residents, black and white, were gathered by Richard’s team.  Tennessee playwright, Jo Carson, was called in to assemble the project.  Jo travels the country doing exactly this, but with a twist; Jo believes in the power of quantum storytelling.  That is to say she believes in the power of telling the story truthfully, while focusing on the point that elevates it to a passage of life tale.

Named after the soup made in southwest Georgia fish camps from the drippings left from fried fish, along with whatever else is available to throw in the pan, the show, Swamp Gravy opened in Colquitt in 1994.  Through song and scenes, performed mostly by Colquitt residents, the simple struggles and triumphs of real-life individuals became known and understood.

The show brought a sense of pride and humanity to this little, woe-begotten town.  It became so popular, the group was purchased an old cotton mill and reinvented it.  “Cotton Hall” is now home to sold-out crowds of the show.

Cotton Hall also houses the New Life Learning Center, which teaches academic and arts enrichment skills to children in the County, The Annual Swamp Gravy Storytelling Festival, The Museum of Southern Culture, and The Swamp Gravy Institute.

The Swamp Gravy Institute is the consulting and training arm of the Colquitt/Miller County Arts Council in southwest Georgia. As Swamp Gravy brought a new vitality, unity and sense of pride and hope to not only the town of Colquitt, but the entire region, the purpose of SGI is to teach others to do the same for their hometowns.

They have a lot to offer in one weekend.  After all, Swamp Gravy not only raised esteem in Coquitt, but it is the largest employer in Miller County and responsible for a now thriving tourism trade as well.

Gary, Indiana is known throughout the country already.  It was immortalized in song in the show The Music Man, but the rest of the story of late isn’t as charming as that song.

I have no doubt that there is a great deal of beauty to be told though.  I would LOVE to hear and see the stories that outline the heritage of that city.  I would also LOVE to see celebration, understanding and hope brought to this region.

Wouldn’t you?

The Story of Us (in NW IN)

We humans are natural storytellers and story-listeners.  Yes, shelter, food and procreation are our primal instincts, but the urge to talk about all of the above is definitely next in line.  Heck, we can tell or hear a story third-hand and still enjoy it (read: gossip).

If we could harness the power of that primal story urge within our region, would that be the emotional equivalent of NIPSCO unlocking the secrets of cold fusion?

Well hold on to your fusion – cold or otherwise – ‘cause I’ve got a story for you…

A year ago I wrote an editorial for this paper about a creative and successful use of stories (see: “Why Not Create a Show Celebrating Gary’s Heritage” July 19, 2009).  I was intrigued by the idea of creating a Community Story Play in Northwest Indiana and dreamed that Jo Carson, the grande dame of the story play, would do just that for us (dream big or go home, right?).

My editorial in July of 2009 caught the eye of a relative of Jo’s, who wrote to me and later introduced me to Jo (who lives in Tennessee).  And now, Jo and her team are advising me as I hold my first meeting with leaders in our community and introduce to them the concept of the Community Story Play.

“Telling stories of community in creative and elegant ways, is the new avant garde of theatre” says Jerry Stropnicky, founding member and current Producing Ensemble Director of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Bloomsburg, Penn and Story Play director.  I went to one of Jerry’s Story Play rehearsals.  I expected to see something on the order of Our Town, but what I witnessed was much more fresh, innovative and accessible – more like grown up Glee with a dash of NPR and Walt Whitman gracefully sprinkled around the edges.

One of my friends asked me who our audience will be for this work.  I answered that our audience is the people who join us as we plan, then the people who tell their stories, support the program, perform, and finally, the people who watch.  I hope it will be our entire region – participating through patronage as they learn more about their fellow “region-ites.”

The Story is our primal urge we can and should all share (perhaps that’s why we hold that convention so dearly).   I can barely wait to hear your stories about steel work, our lakeshore, our neighborhoods and our families, as I know no playwright ever conjured a world more rich than ours.  I’m sure we’ll find that we have so many struggles and triumphs in common and so much to hold dear in Northwest Indiana… together.

Thanks for listening to my story – I look forward to hearing yours!

Talk is Cheap in NW Indiana Too

I had this weird dream.  I was lounging in the bleachers at a basketball game with Ashton Kutcher and mentioned to him that I was starting a new diet and workout regime.  He said: “it’s too easy to just talk about.”  I awoke from that dream with an epiphany.

It seems the older I get, the more I think about “living in the now” – not only wondering what the heck it really means, but what exactly does it look like in practice – and there was Ashton Kutcher, summing it all up in seven words.  It is sooooo easy to talk about a rigorous workout routine and eating six servings of vegetables a day, but what am I doing in this exact moment that is making a positive difference in my life?

So, ignoring the fact that I’d rather chew off my left foot than sit through an entire basketball game and that Ashton Kutcher is neither my idea of a sage nor viable candidate for my “dreamy” list, I thought about the wisdom of that as-of-yet unanalyzed encounter… which was actually not quite as easy as thinking about my 6:15 am trip to the gym and 21-day cleanse.

Sitting at my computer now, typing and experiencing the thoughts that bump into each other in my brain, is all there is.  Everything else is a plan or a memory – both assumptions of my part in circumstance.

Revelation!  The way in which I behave in my every moment is my powerful vote for circumstances in that moment and the next moment and the moment after that.  This revelation extends well beyond my dress size…

Here in Northwest Indiana, the ways in which I spend my time [and my money], are my “now” votes.  I can talk about improving my community while surfing the net for the best post-holiday bargains from some company in Minnesota or New Jersey, or I can go to that new store I heard about in Hammond and become a part of the revitalization that’s happening there.  I can shake my head over the alarming illiteracy rate in our region or I could donate books to the Church in my town that has an after school tutoring program.  I can explore and celebrate our lakeshore AND visit theirs.  And I can complain about… well, whatever I want… local politics, pollution, traffic, suspected urban sprawl related flooding, but also learn about the circumstances behind those issues and find some little thing I can do right now to not only become a healthier, happier person, but to live in a healthier and happier place.

I frown at my big butt in the mirror, then go for a long, quiet walk on the lovely bike path that travels Lake County… and I think some more…