Being Lights for One Another

There’s something to be said for good endings. They make good beginnings possible.

Our run of Billy Elliot: The Musical at La Crosse Community Theatre is just about over. When the curtain comes down later today, nearly 5,000 people in the La Crosse area will have seen the show. Nearly every performance was sold out, and if we could have gone another week, I, for one, would have been willing.

One of the funniest, subtlest lines of dialog–which I had missed until we reached opening night–is Mrs. Wilkinson (Taylor Haggerty) saying, “Remember the Golden Rule, girls. Never hide your light under a bushel.” This isn’t, of course, the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”), but it hardly matters, given the context of the story. Her misguided reference to Matthew 5:15 is just as important.

A lesson it has taken me some 50 years to learn is how beautifully unique each of us is. We each have our stories, our skills, our failures, our foibles, our weaknesses, our strengths. If we are lucky enough, we have the opportunities and support we need to share these with the world–not as obligations but as gifts. I will never know how living my passion might influence a child or adult I happen to meet, and I want to share whatever of myself I can with the world. (To quote Erma Bombeck, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’ “)

To that end–and harkening back to a previous post or two–I’d like to suggest again that we are called to “look after each other.” Like the miners’ headlamps in one of Billy Elliot‘s closing scenes, each of us can be a light in the darkness by which others might find their way. Even when we are out of each others’ orbits, we might serve as stars looking down, providing a sense of continuity, inspiring others to be their best selves.

Our run of Billy Elliot: The Musical has come to an end. It has been such a gift to have shared this experience with my wife, Ellen, with the production staff, and with the 100+ volunteers who contributed to it. It’s an experience I will treasure always.

So, too, ends ten years’ employment with LCT as I return to pursuing a long-deferred dream of professional ministry. I started out at LCT just looking for a paycheck and was glad to wear whatever hats were needed, but I quickly came to appreciate LCT’s role in bringing stories to life in our community in ways that could change people’s lives for the better. I am proud to have contributed in whatever ways I have to that mission, and I can’t imagine life without community theatre.

LCT’s staff members and volunteers are top notch and can be rightly proud of their projects and productions. It has been a privilege to work with such dedicated, creative, and talented people. If season tickets or a donation are within your means, please give generously. If you can give of your time, I invite you to volunteer. You will be supporting such a worthwhile organization. For details, visit http://www.lacrossecommunitytheatre.org or contact the box office at 608-784-9292.

Thank you for joining me on this adventure as a Billy Elliot cast member. If you would like continuing updates on my intern minister experiences with a 1,200-member congregation in the coming year, please “follow” this blog. 

Surviving Scene Changes

12891540_10153967212425390_5345253520920056274_oBilly Elliot: The Musical condenses one year in the lives of a northeastern British mining community into a two-and-a-half-hour story. Two interwoven story lines involve the coal miners, who go on strike for better pay and working conditions, and 12-year-old Billy Elliot, who rewrites the story of his own life. Rather than become a boxer and follow his father and brother into the mines, he pursues his passion for dance. It’s a beautiful, powerful story.

Through dedication and hard work, other cast members and I have learned a great deal. But after six weeks of rehearsals and one of three weekends of performances under my belt, I still carry a crib sheet in my pocket. It tells me the order of the scenes, when I need to be onstage, or waiting in the wings, or when I can sit to catch my breath and refill my water bottle. It answers the questions of when I need to change clothes, when I need to grab a prop for a scene, and when I have a moment to help someone else with a quick costume change.

As an introvert I have always appreciated transitions, pauses, moments of calm between the action, silent rests between the notes, time to take a breath. But in theatre, the audience experience of a pause in the story isn’t necessarily what’s happening backstage.

Scene changes can be tricky, particularly in a blackout. Cast members exit and enter the stage, crew and cast members move set pieces on and off, thousand-pound walls rise or descend from above. (Way to go, crew!) Light, sound, and music cues happen, too. There is so much involved in these transitions. Thank goodness there is a stage manager or two (thank you, Sara and Lisa Adams!) calling the show, because otherwise these transitions could be a bloody mess.

One of the things I have come to appreciate, in my middle age, is that each of us has a story to tell. Our stories, our lives, too, are made up of scenes. Each stage of development holds experiences most of us share: the self-centeredness and innocence of childhood, the embarrassment and confusion of puberty, strong feelings of affection for someone, the excitement and anxiety of reaching adulthood. Beyond this, our stories may be quite different, filled with triumphs and tragedies, experiences that we regret and others of great pride. It’s the many, many details that make life full and rich.

Our lives also have pivotal moments, times of transition — scene changes, if you will. Sometimes they are obvious and we honor them with a rite of passage — birthday, coming of age, graduation, wedding, anniversary, adoption, retirement, death — but often we recognize their importance only in hindsight. “If I hadn’t learned to swim when I was nine, I wouldn’t have survived that summer.” “That’s when I knew we were finished.” “That’s when I really appreciated my education.” “That vacation was the best time we ever had together as a family.”

Theologically, I don’t believe there is a Great Stage Manager in the Sky calling cues for our lives. I prefer to honor our common humanity and supporting one another through life’s changes. I’m glad that the theatre metaphor goes only so far and that our personal transitions may be simpler, clearer, and more transparent than behind the black curtain (though sometimes they’re not).

I hope that, like Billy, we can find the courage and the support we need to follow our dreams and write our own scripts. (“Everyone is different. It’s a natural state.”Now if only there were a crib sheet for life.

Adjusting to a New Dimension

wp-1461604447500.jpgWe’ve all experienced, I think, something hitting us (literally or figuratively) from “out of the blue,” when we least expect it. It might have been something positive or negative, trivial or life-changing.

I was reminded of this during the past week of Billy Elliot rehearsals. After six weeks of meeting in the Weber Center‘s classrooms, this was our first time on the Lyche Theatre stage. And it was an awesome experience. We saw for the first time the amazing work that set designer and LCT technical director Dillon McArdle and his crew of volunteers have crafted.

The experience that prompts this post, though, is the fact that some of the set pieces are flown in from above! After six weeks of working in two physical planes (left-right and upstage-downstage), we now must adjust to a new, third dimension (up-down). We each must be aware of our position on stage — and where and when each curtain, wall, or pillar comes down — or risk serious injury.

Cast members’ minds — young and old alike — have processed so much new information in the past month and a half: dialog, lyrics, music, dance, blocking. (Kudos again to the production staff for their care in pacing these changes.) Thankfully, we still have days to make this adjustment to verticality before opening night. Last Friday the orchestra and cast members worked together for the first time in a sitzprobe. As we enter “tech week” today, we’ll begin adjusting, too, to lights, sounds, and costumes.

In real life, we often don’t have the luxury of pacing or, indeed, of any forewarning at all.

Experiencing the unexpected can painful — like suffering a catastrophic fire, learning of the death of a loved one, or receiving a pink slip at work — or delightful — like receiving a gift or compliment, witnessing a magnificent example of beauty or courage, or hearing a melody that brings back long-forgotten memories.

How we choose to adjust to the unexpected says much about who we are. Even if we see change coming, it can be hard to adjust to: becoming a parent (happy Mother’s Day!), changing careers, or dealing with a flooded basement. There we all are, singing and dancing, walking and talking through life, when from out of the blue comes a lightning bolt or a half-ton “something” from a completely unforeseen direction.

We might react with shock, dismay, delight, even gratitude — or all of these feelings and more. Like Dorothy coming to terms with where a tornado has dropped her., we might feel many things at once and overwhelmed.

Sometimes adjustment is as simple as cleaning up or replacing damaged items, but often it’s not so easy. It’s helpful at such times to have others near us, as sounding boards, to provide a reality check or a shoulder to lean or cry on.

I almost always respond to sudden change with shock and disbelief (ask Ellen about my learning that she was pregnant). I try to celebrate positive changes as they happen. And I tend to respond to negative changes with gratitude and the Midwestern sentiment that it could have been worse. “Yes, the car broke down, but it could have happened on the freeway during rush hour.”

The only things certain in life, they say, are death and taxes. We are adjusting to changes, new dimensions of life, all the time. If you are able to see Billy Elliot, I hope it will be for you one of those positive experiences that you remember always. I know it will be for me.

Hope in the Face of Loss

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One crucial theme of Billy Elliot is the balance between hope and loss. As a mining community implodes after the miners lose their strike, their future looks bleak: widespread unemployment, poverty, hunger. They will have lost their way of life, the hard work of which they are proud and which has brought meaning to their lives. They feel as if they’ve lost everything.

Every one of us has known loss. Every parent I know aspires for their child’s life to be better than their own. It can be heart-breaking when long-hoped-for possibilities die.

One thing I learned as a hospital chaplain resident years ago is that, even in the bleakest times, there is always hope. That for which we hope might change, but hope itself remains. We hope the diagnosis is positive. We hope that treatments won’t be too painful. We hope our loved one will recover. We hope their last days are pain free. We hope they know we love them. We may hope that our own life will have mattered.

And so it goes with the miners. In the beginning, they hope their strike will lead to better working conditions and pay for all. When the strike becomes real, they hope public support is behind them. When they are out of work for months, they hope they can maintain their dignity and still support their families. When times are tough, they hope they can stay faithful to one another. When they are forced back to work, they hope they will survive the mines another day.

In the end, there is one bittersweet ray of hope left for them: that Billy will break the generations-old tradition of sons following their fathers and grandfathers into the mines and will escape their own dismal fate. They hope Billy can find his dream. They band together — with the scabs and others in their community — so that one among them might succeed. In this way, their lives, too, might be redeemed.

Sometimes that’s the best for which we can hope. And it will be enough.

It’s Bigger On the Inside

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Doctor Who fans may recognize this oft-repeated line as his new companions join him for the first time inside his time/space ship, the TARDIS. A simple British police box on the outside, it holds infinite (?) rooms within, complete with car park, swimming pool, dungeon (?), and more. It’s bigger on the inside.

I have a similar feeling about rehearsals of Billy Elliot, but in reverse. At first glance, the script/score seemed huge, filled with unfathomable notes and text. Songs seemed to go on forever. Getting “off book” seemed impossible.

But the longer we have worked, as we broke it into bite-size pieces, the script has lost its gargantuan proportions. For the first time, this past week, I thought, “I think I can actually get through (sing and dance) this whole song!”

It is a valuable life lesson: When we feel overwhelmed by whatever life throws at us, we need to pause, take a deep breath, assess what we can reasonable handle and what we can ask others to help with, break “IT” into manageable pieces, and proceed.

In this case, it helped to recognize that I am not the only tenor struggling with certain sections of songs, I am not the only cast member having trouble with certain stretches of choreography. It helped having the production team break up scenes and songs and steps for us. Kudos to Greg Parmeter, Ryan Puffer, Diane Foust, Nikki Balsamo, Brianna Herber Frost, and Sara L. Adams for their expertise and attention!

What’s more, as the show stretches into bloom, we are beginning to see it in a new way from inside. Paradoxically, it has become fuller, richer, deeper than it appears from outside. It actually IS bigger on the inside.

At this point I wonder, frankly, how many of the poignant, heart-stirring scenes I will make it through without tears, when we finally get to performances. There is so much to love about this show. I hope you will be able to join us.

Finding Balance

12890943_10153973106715390_2454152746830099978_o“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Practice, practice, practice.

The quality of a stage production depends on many things: the writing, the staging, the music, the acting, and much more. As a layman, it seems to me that not least among these necessary ingredients is the effort given by those people onstage and backstage. (I’m sure that theatre professionals could give you their own recipes for success.)

Frankly, now four weeks into it, I find that rehearsing for a musical as big as Billy Elliot is exhausting — inspiring, fun, energizing, yes, but exhausting all the same. That’s why it’s so important for cast and crew to set healthy boundaries, to exercise some self-care, to carve out personal time with and for loved ones, and to find a balance between one’s commitments. Don’t get me wrong — we must follow through on our commitments to make this an outstanding production. But we also must understand that we’re human.

Would I like to join fellow cast members for a drink after rehearsal? Yes, but after a full day of work and a three-hour rehearsal — Monday through Friday — I am physically drained and (as an introvert) over-stimulated and just want to call it a night.

Do I want to chat about the big game, politics, or the latest scandal? No, I’d rather run through the choreography or music for “that beast of a song.” (I know I’m missing some moves and/or notes, and I’d bet others are, too.)

Do I not want to develop relationships with other cast members? Of course I do, but right now we need to be quiet so that others can hear instructions from the show’s director / choreographer / music director / stage manager / dance captain. How will we ever improve if we don’t give them our attention and focus?  Techniques can be learned. Natural gifts can be uncovered and nurtured. Distractions can be minimized.

It’s all about balance. How loud can we talk or sing or dance without disturbing others using the building (or the same room)? How much necessary shouting can we do without destroying our voices for those long stretches of harmony? How do we pace ourselves so that we can trot around the stage and still have enough breath to sing a note? How do we deliver a line loud enough for the audience to hear but still give it some underlying emotion?

I suspect that I have come to these questions right on schedule, as others have with other productions. We are at the midpoint of our pre-performance work together, and I expect (and hope) that greater precision, stamina, and focus will develop in the weeks leading up to opening night.

I was reminded this past week that we all run the risk of short-changing the people close to us if we are not vigilant about keeping a balance. A person’s got to eat and sleep. A person’s got to remain open-hearted and connected in their relationships. For a little while I was blinded by performance anxiety, of getting everything just right in my role for the show at the expense of getting things right in my other roles in life — as father, husband, brother, son, mentor, and so on.

And so I commit, for the coming weeks, to “practice, practice, practice” — not just to make Billy Elliot the best it can be — but in balancing my commitments, maintaining healthy boundaries, and enjoying as much as possible these experiences that make life so full and rich. I may never get to Carnegie Hall, but the journey, wherever it takes me, will be worth it.

The Synergy of Theatre

LCT-logo-BillyElliot-final-noshadow-487x487My goal in life is to discover unity in diversity. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

After working ten years for La Crosse Community Theatre, I have come to understand that, as with other human institutions, such is the way of theatre.

Beginning with the first rehearsal of Billy Elliot, learning a show this big and complex has been a study in moving from chaos to order, from dissonance to harmony, from stumbling and flailing to actually dancing. Forty-two cast members, ranging in age from 9 to 65, travel up to 45 miles each evening, five days a week — completely as volunteers! — to learn, speak, and do the art of theatre. We are getting to know one another (still learning names), are beginning to rely on and becoming accountable to one another.

The rehearsal process began by learning the music, but not in chronological order. First came the opening song, The Stars Look Down,” but we quickly jumped to the show’s final chorus number, Once We Were Kings.” We then went back to the big dance number Solidarity,” then to the Act II opening song, Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.”

The cast quickly split into specialties. While the chorus continued learning music, the (double-cast) Billys, Michaels, and dancing girls began focusing on their dance steps. Other principal characters — Grandma, Dad, Tony, Mrs. Wilkinson, and such — began learning their lines and songs. Ensemble members split into miners and police officers.

Then came blocking — figuring out where everyone is supposed to be in each scene — and choreography. (Bravo to the production staff for making it all work!) Most of us are now learning dance steps, and some of us are rediscovering muscles we’d forgotten we had.

On any given day, we have rehearsed songs, learned dances, blocked scenes — all out of order — in multiple spaces, with different groups of people, with just a few props, and with just an electronic keyboard. And yet, we are beginning to see inklings of the overarching story.

As in doing a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces are beginning to fit together to reveal more of the picture. There already have been goosebump moments — encounters so powerful or poignant (even to the cast) that hearts ache, we hold our breath, or tears well up. (There are plenty of lighthearted moments, too, of humor, excitement, and joy!) I can only imagine the impact when all the pieces — costumes, lights, orchestra — are in place.

The script and music of Billy Elliot are beautifully written. The story is so smartly structured, so witty, and there are so many heart-touching moments. Just as so many individuals come together to form one cast, the show’s many elements will combine to form one great production. But both it and we are moving from E pluribus unum (out of many, one) to a sense of synergy.

The word synergy was coined in the mid-19th century from the Greek sunergos, meaning “working together.” It has come to describe the interaction of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

The whole of this show will be so much more than the sum of its parts.

It is through stories such as Billy Elliot that we see reflections of truth in our own lives: how each of us is worthy of love and respect; how struggle and loss might build character and compassion; and how love, sacrifice, and forgiveness can redeem, heal, and unite us.

La Crosse Community Theatre’s production — the national community theatre premiere! — of Billy Elliot will be an experience you won’t want to miss. Tickets are going fast and are available online. Enjoy!

 

Looking After Each Other

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Each of us has dreaded the moment we realize that one of our commitments conflicts with another — sometimes as simple as double-booking appointments. We have wrestled with which is the higher priority, have chosen to honor one over the other, have disappointed people, offered excuses, made apologies and amends, and have managed or suffered the damage. Sometimes the stakes were low, sometimes high.

The latest beautiful moment shining with meaning for me from our Billy Elliot rehearsals comes (thanks to a brilliant interpretation by director Greg Parmeter) in a scene in which my character, Big Davey, says, “We should be looking after each other.” It’s a line uttered out of exasperation, in a moment of crisis, as father (Jackie) and son (Billy) — and members of their community — struggle with doing the right thing and staying true to their principles.

In one of life’s many defining moments, we often find ourselves having to balance our commitment to ourselves (and family members) with our commitment to our community and one another. In such times of high anxiety, when we feel vulnerable, we often opt for self-preservation, we decide that we just can’t “stand as one” with others anymore. Our options seem few and we develop tunnel vision, clouded by overwhelming emotion. Sometimes time and solitude will bring relief. Sometimes redemption might come only by intervention from outside ourselves. Resolution may be possible only by the support of another or by our community. Such is the case in this pivotal scene, when the community comes to Jackie’s aid.

It’s not unlike the iconic moment when George Bailey’s existential crisis (It’s a Wonderful Life) is resolved when he comes to understand what he has meant to those around him — and when all the people to whom he has shown kindness over a lifetime return the favor just when he needs it most. Yes, it’s a moment written for the movies and the stage, but it can and does happen in real life. It’s the kind of loving response to which we all might aspire.

I am not a sociologist, but I have spent my life — as we all have — in community. By definition, a community is a group of people who — no matter how diverse individually — share common interests, characteristics, history, or place. In community we look after each other, we look out for our common best interests. When we are not in personal crisis but are strong enough to be our best selves, our own interests often are in harmony with those of our community. This requires trust, compassion, empathy, and a generous spirit. (There are reasons why all the world’s major religions have codified these values into variants of the Golden Rule.)

So, yet again, a facet of the Billy Elliot story has inspired me, and I know it will touch all who attend a performance. If you will be in the La Crosse area in May, I hope you will come see it.


As an aside: When the Wisconsin polls open this Tuesday for the presidential primary, I encourage everyone to vote for the candidate of their choice who reflects these values of trust, compassion, empathy, and generosity. Society, community — our species — is made stronger when we look after each other.

The Energy of Youth

12891540_10153967212425390_5345253520920056274_oThe first thing that struck me as I walked into our first rehearsal of Billy Elliot was the energy in the room. The production’s staff members were up front, checking people in, going over the schedule, chatting among themselves, and answering cast members’ questions. Cast members were checking in, picking up their brand-new vocal scores, and taking their seats in roughly defined voice sections: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.

The excitement in the room was palpable, mostly evident in the waves of sound generated by the tweens’ and teens’ vigorous chatter. The more mature among us were just as excited, I think, but more temperate in our vocalizations, catching up with old friends and making new ones.

I am acutely aware that I fall within the latter group, and that we olders may be largely irrelevant to the youngers most of the time — except in that we outnumber them (barely) and that the miners’ story serves to frame the Billy story. (One fascinating part of the show is how these two stories converge, especially in the song-and-dance number “Solidarity.” Mind you, there is some adult language in the show — rated Theatre PG-13 — so parents might want to discuss that with their kids beforehand.)

The youngers’ energy is contagious and will serve to inspire the entire cast. And, in my opinion, that energy is exactly what Billy Elliot is all about — that by being true to ourselves we unleash tremendous energy we would otherwise spend on meeting others’ expectations. The cast’s experience embodies the show’s tag line: “Be inspired. Be yourself. Be electric.” I’m pretty sure that our audiences will catch the energy and excitement, too. I can’t wait for opening night!

Singing and Dancing with My Beloved

LCT-logo-BillyElliot-final-noshadow-487x487As Ellen and I both have been cast in the national community theatre premiere of Billy Elliot, I am thrilled to begin what I know will be a “full and rich” three months. The play will help me explore themes such as resilience, love, commitment, loss, community, limits, stereotypes, anger, leadership, independence, identity, courage, joy, and more.

After ten years at La Crosse Community Theatre, I am so grateful for this opportunity to leave on my own terms, doing something I love with my beloved–singing (without swords, alas). I hope that as many friends and family members as possible will come see the show (click the link above for details). It truly is something special.

I also hope to reflect further on the themes above in coming posts, particularly as they relate to my ministry. Until then, peace.