Thursday, February 16, 2012

Good Church

The big discussion happening right now in the Unitarian Universalist circles is Rev. Peter Morales' essay on Congregations and Beyond, an essay on the future and growth of Unitarian Universalism. There's a wiki collection of the discussions happening, along with a pretty great storify, summarizing the earlier part of the conversation.

As I read the conversations in the various facebook growth labs, I often want to hand everyone a copy of Michael Kaiser's The Art of the Turnaround. Michael Kaiser is the current director of the Kennedy Center and has been involved with saving multiple struggling arts organizations, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, whose performances rank up on my list of most spiritual experiences. Kaiser is a somewhat controversial figure in the arts community, because while he is one of the most gifted public speakers for the arts, he is also one of the most inept bloggers. (Which is why I would direct Unitarian Universalists to his book or to one of his speeches, NOT to his blog.)

I often feel that the church could learn from the arts and vice-versa. But Kaiser has a pretty intelligent overview on how to grow arts organizations that I believe could be translated for congregations.

It's a simple four part plan.

1. Create Good Art.
2. Institutionally Market Your Art
3. Grow your family of people invested in your art.
4. Use the raised income from your now larger family to create good art.

Of course, there are some more details. Institutional marketing isn't about promoting a specific show, but promoting your organization. Good strategic planning is listed as a part of artistic programming (which falls under the first step). Some of the pitfalls that happen to arts organizations also happen to churches. Instead of using new income from increased donations to make good art, many arts institutions try to build a better building (which Kaiser called an "edifice complex" -- a term that makes me chuckle) or use the money to create an endowment. Instead, resources should be used to create better art, which in turn will grow the amount of people interested in the art, and continue the cycle.

I'm pretty sure that basic plan would work for any non-profit. Do good work, let people know about it and get them excited about what you're doing, use that excitement to create more good work.

I think the simplest answer to grow Unitarian Universalism is to do good church.

We spend a lot of time in growth labs focusing on bad church. And I know from experience that there is a lot of bad church out there. And sometimes you need to vent. I get that; I took about a year off from active participation because I needed a break.

But I think there's so much systematic anxiety about losing the free range Unitarian Universalists, lost to time commitments or bad church or whatever. There's anxiety about naming. There's anxiety about all sorts of things that gets in the way of our ability to do good church.

Of course, the question becomes what is good church. With arts organizations, there are many that do what I find to be quality art, but I'm not a member of their "family" as Kaiser puts it. But there are some arts organizations that create art that touches me so profoundly that I am an evangelist. But you know the groups that you feel passionate about, the groups that make you want to do something you personally loathe just to help them out. It's the groups that provide a profound experience -- and it's a profound experience that would be at the heart of good church. It could be a profound service experience or it could be a profound worship experience -- but good church involves doing the things that really touch people.

But once you find that bit of good church (and I know its happening places because I see people evangelizing Unitarian Universalism the way I evangelize for the House Theatre or Alvin Ailey), keep growing it. Focus on what is profound and moving, on what makes you want to bring others to your congregation, and grow that. Put energy around that, market it well, and see how it grows.

(And seriously, if you can find a talk by Michael Kaiser, go to it. He's really smart. Except when blogging on the Huffington Post.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Yesterday, I was on a panel discussion about blogs and the internet for playwrights at the Dramatists Guild Conference. It was a really great informal discussion led by Robert Ross Parker, and the panel included myself, Tim Bauer, and Roland Tec.

The audience was rather lovely, but there was a comment from an older gentleman sitting somewhere near the back that I wish I had responded more fully to -- even after Todd London's inspiring call to action keynote and Stephen Schwartz's great discussion on musicals.

This gentleman had said that he heard it was better to comment on other people's blogs to get your name out there than to start your own. I responded in the room that I really value authenticity. If you're simply blogging or commenting to get your name out there, it shows and it really drives me batty.

What I contemplated saying in the moment and then left out, lamely repeating that I value authenticity, is that there are studies about the generational divide on branding. (Steppenwolf's Tipping the Culture is one of them.) Boomers and Silents have a much bigger need to control the image and message, while Gen Xers and Millenials have a bigger need for interaction and authenticity.

If you're blogging to sell yourself or your script, it shows. If you're blogging because you're excited about an idea, it also shows. And the former will alienate a younger audience.

But the later has really opened doors for me. My post on the House Theatre of Chicago in April changed my relationship with both the House Theatre and with the Adrienne Arsht Center in meaningful and significant ways -- and all I wanted to do was to publicly state that I love what this theatre does and I want to make sure this kind of theatre happens in my own backyard.

Even at this conference, authenticity has been a strong pull for me. I'm going to see Stephen Schwartz's workshop on creating musical theatre today because his discussion was so lovely yesterday. He was so honest and funny that I'm going to a session on something that isn't as professionally advantageous because I want more of that experience.

I think the most amazing things can happen when you are excited about something. Truly, inwardly excited. Isn't that why we create art to begin with? Because we're excited about an idea. And from there all sorts of possibilities can arise.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Theatre of Joy; or why I am insanely excited about the House Theatre coming to Miami

I've been debating writing this post. The blog, which I haven't updated in six months, could have languished longer. Forever, possibly, while I continued on as an arts advocate/admin blogger at 2amtheatre.

Except my inner child isn't allowing it.

My inner child, or more accurately, my inner 20 year old is bursting from the seams with glee right now.

Because The House Theatre of Chicago will be opening The Sparrow this weekend at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

Now, respectable 28 year old me is an executive director, prominent in the national conversation on 2amt, has sat on a board of directors, known for throwing some great parties (or as Chris Jahn put it, in loving sarcasm parties that don't suck), and is currently plotting how she can best help her organization and her theatre community grow.

This me, 28 year old respectable me, is a little scared about outing herself as a fangirl. But 20 year old me, full of nostalgia and glee, is winning out.

I was in my second freshman year at DePaul University (as a transfer student I always felt I had two freshman years) when my friend Jenny took me to see The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan. At this point, near the end of my first quarter, I was in middle of a crisis of calling. Was this occupation that I had chosen for myself really where my gifts and joy lie? Did I really want to be doing this for the rest of my life? Should I chuck everything and write children's novels?

In that time of crisis, Jenny took me out in the Chicago sleet to go see The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan.

She was bursting with love for the show and had seen it a few times before, dragging new friends each time. She told me that I should wear something comfortable because we were going to be sitting on cushions on the floor. It was a cold night as we trekked out to the Viaduct and I wondered if I really wanted to sit on a cushion on the floor that would invariably end up wet by my soggy, sleet soaked self.

I entered a grump; I came out elated and full of purpose.

I said on my livejournal (remember livejournal?) that it was the best thing that had happened to me that month. In retrospect, it was one of my favorite theatre going experiences. Right up there with the production of My Fair Lady which got me into this profession. Was it a perfect show? No. But it was inventive, funny, delightful, and allowed me to think about theatre in a way that I had never thought about theatre before. Why not have an entire cast become a giant crocodile through the inventive use of fabric and puppet jaws? Why not use magic, dance, music? Why not delight your audience?

It was the first time I had ever conceived a theatre of joy. Not a theatre of light entertainment, but of joy. Deep, resonant joy.

My admiration deepened the following year, when Chris Jones brought Nathan Allen to our theatre criticism class. Nate invited the class to attend a reading of San Valentino and the Melancholy Kid. I'm fairly certain I was the only one who showed up. The company read the script and then there was an hour or so long discussion after on how to improve the script. (I remember I commented on the two-dimensional nature of the female lead.) While I felt the script was flawed; I loved their approach to the reading. Improving the script was a communal process. It was a room without ego, with everyone working together towards the common goal of making the best script they could have. I documented that experience again in livejournal, saying that I wanted to be the House Theatre when I grew up.

I continued on as fangirl throughout my time at DePaul, often seeing shows twice, if I could manage it. Even when they were less than great, I was always excited to get my trading card and absorb the experience. (Instead of programs and tickets, they have trading cards. The idea is for people in the audience to discuss who they have and share their cards before the show starts. It's a brilliant little bit of institutional marketing that I reference when I discuss marketing in a professional setting.)

And when they were at their best, they soared. I still remember the hair rising on the back of my neck from the final image of The Boy Detective Fails.

I moved to South Florida a year after I graduated in 2006. I have found the South Florida Theatre community to be loving, giving, contrary, and full of really great things. But while I love the new work and family atmosphere of Florida Stage and the edgy fun of a MadCat Show or the immersion of a Naked Stage show, I haven't found an experience to equal what I loved about the House Theatre. Where there is a embrace of all the assets of theatricality. That dance, music, film, magic can all be a part of a greater, mythic narrative.

I really agree with what Bill Hirschman said last night at the Carbonells that the South Florida Theatre Community takes a backseat to no one -- but I think we can expand even more by engaging with the vision of others. I want a more artistically diverse South Florida Theatre Community. We have our own takes on Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens -- I want a local House. A local Neo-Futurists. A local Lookingglass. Or something that is completely different and doesn't have a Chicago equivalent. I think the best way to do that is to broaden our horizons, and that's why I'm encouraging everyone I know to see The Sparrow.

I want everyone I love here to have the opportunity to be 20 year old me. Full of rapture and delight. I want more theatre of joy, more theatre that embraces the idea that more is more. We have plenty of understated, traditional realistic theatre -- let us see what happens when we play freely with the primary colors of childhood. What beauty and depth lurks there. As Chris Mathews says in the Miami Herald article, "Without sounding like an arrogant punk, we created The House because we were bored with the state of most theater we were seeing. We were raised on [Back to the Future director] Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. We thought there’s no reason theater can’t be exciting and imaginative.”

In the same article, Scott Shiller of the Adrienne Arsht Center, says that he hopes this is the start of a two way collaboration between the House and the South Florida Theatre community. And since I've now outed myself as a fangirl, I'm going to publicly state that I'm going to do what I can do as the executive director of the South Florida Theatre League to make this happen. I know I've spent past few years saying that I want to create a theatre of joy, and I'm hoping that seeing The Sparrow will be the jolt I need to revive my commitment to make that happen. Because even though I have learned so much in the past eight years, I still want to be the House Theatre when I grow up.

In the meantime, I'm going to be like Jenny Pinson, dragging friends multiple times, awaiting to see what trading card I get next.

(PS -- There better be trading cards.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Finding the Magic

Elsewhere on the internet, Lorna and I were talking about musicals.

Somewhere along the discussion, I went from joking that I can't admit I like musical theatre in my social circle of professional actors and employees past and present of Florida Stage, to developing a manifesto on what I want from musical theatre.

I want from musical theatre what I want from any theatrical experience: magic.

I want to be transformed.

Transformation doesn't have to be gigantic in terms of scale. One of my most transformative theatrical experiences was a tiny production of The Cherry Orchard, where you could see the zippers in the back of the actors' costumes.

Too often we forget about the magic. The way that a show can make us cry, gasp, laugh, dream, change. We as theatre practitioners get bogged down in the practicalities: how much does it cost? Where can we find an audience? Will this offend our subscribers?

And the practicalities are something we should be aware of -- no theatre should go broke in search of the perfect artistic vision.

Outside of the 2amt community, I don't hear most theatre people talk about the magic. (And even in the 2amt community, we often talk about the practicalities.)

I wonder if as creators of magic, we're empty. I often feel spiritually empty and that the magic well has run dry. Some days it is a chore simply to go out and see theatre.

If I think about those magical theatrical experiences, where the light and delight of storytelling came through, I find myself better able to go back to my job. Better able to go back to my keyboard and work on another scene.

How can we find that source of spiritual renewal in ourselves so that we can bring it to our work? What can we do together to find the magic again?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Embracing Failure

As most people are, I'm currently in the process of rediscovering who I am. In April, this manifested as a desperate search for my calling.

Over the past three months, I've realized that at my core, at the deepest part of my being, I'm an artist. For a couple of years, I've been on the outskirts of the artistic community. There were reasons for that, both good and bad -- but I'm now in the process of re-immersing myself into theatre culture: both by becoming a company member of The Naked Stage and by becoming active in the 2amt community on twitter.

The culture of artists, specifically theatre artists, is vastly different than the Unitarian Universalist culture where I've spent my time in these past two years, despite people of both cultures holding very similar views. Theatre people embrace the messiness of life; where as Unitarian Universalists search for order. Neither one is better than the other (and both have flaws), but I naturally fit in more with artists.

One of the aspects that I love about theatre culture is that we have set up a system that accepts failure. It's being encroached upon by the demands of the greater American culture, but we would never say "failure is not an option."


I was raised by a scrappy Shakespeare company in Columbus, Ohio. Instead of belonging to a Thespian society, I fell in with the Rosebriar Shakespeare Company.

One of my favorite stories of my time working with Rosebriar is when we produced Cymbeline. Cymbeline, for those of you not in the know, is the real cursed Shakespeare play, or as I could call it, "the Welsh play."

I signed up to be the stage manager of the production. At the time, I was understudying Mortimer in The Fantasticks at the Fort Hayes Pre-Professional Theatre Program. Fort Hayes is a vocational arts high school, and I went there for the second half of the day, after taking academic classes at my regular high school. Since I was only an understudy, I was bored and thought that adding the duties of a stage manager for Cymbeline would fill out my time. I've always been one of those people who does better when she has five things to do as opposed to one thing to do.

So I asked Valerie Meachum, director and playing Imogen in this production, if I could stage manage. Val said yes, and my time was filled.

Actors kept dropping out. Always for very good reasons: health issues, deaths in the family, etc. I went from being the stage manager to playing one prince to playing both princes rolled up into one role. At the same time, I went from being an understudy in The Fantasticks to actually having the role. It was a stressful time.

Opening night. Pete, the actor who was playing my adopted Father in Cymbeline, came in during tech week. He had been rehearsing with us for three days and I had been rehearsing in my role for about two weeks. Both of us were marginally off book.

Then came the scene where I had to bring in a severed head.

I completely lost it. Here I was, holding this severed head prop, which looked ridiculous, and I could not stop laughing.

In middle of my uncontrollable giggles, I said, in my best Shakespearean English, "Hey, Dad, I chopped off his head."

And Pete responded, "Oh that's okay."

To this day, thinking about that experience makes me giggle. (I hope Val is at that place too. She's a great actor and director and deserved better circumstances.)

It's a perfect example of how by having a "the show must go on" mentality, we embrace failure. Neither Pete nor I nor Val ever thought to say, "this is doomed. We should stop."

If anyone involved in that production had caved to perfectionist tendencies, it wouldn't have happened. There's an argument to be made that it shouldn't have happened, but then I wouldn't have one of my cherished memories of how I bombed as an actor.

Everyone involved in that production was committed to making it work as best we could, despite overwhelming odds. If we had an aversion to failure, we would have never gotten to opening night. The company had a serious amount of endurance, and despite the less than amazing product, I'm proud that I had a chance to work with such people. And I'm happy to have the memory of my worst moment as an actor. (If nothing else, it's a great story.)


In the professional world, we tend to have slightly better circumstances. But even there, we have a system in which we give ourselves the room to fail: rehearsal.

The whole point of the rehearsal processes is that there is room for folks to take risks. And when you're taking a risk, you're giving yourself room to fail.

As a theatre artist, I live for rehearsal. It's where you're allowed to be messy. It's where you're allowed to explore. As a playwright, I can throw scenes up and work on them with actors and hear what's working and what isn't working.

Rehearsal is the process of failing until you get it right. It's a place of constant learning, of constant discoveries.

I'm filled with gratitude that we have this mechanism to work on our art. Most of the world does not have this process built into how they operate: there's only one chance. I come from a culture that embraces many chances, many failures, and knows that you learn from each time you fail.

Now, outside of rehearsal, there is far less room to fail. But even there, we're making strides. For example, the National New Play Network has set up the concept of rolling world premieres. Three theatres within NNPN commit to producing a play, which means that if one production bombs critically in one city, the play is no longer doomed to never being produced again. I've also noticed that local critics mention when a play is a world premiere, suggesting that it takes two or three productions to polish a script.

The outside world's view of failure is encroaching in on the theatre community. Mainly through scarcity thinking. Professional theatres have less money to spend, and therefore are shortening rehearsal periods. There's also an argument to be made that theatres will take less risks in uncertain times, relying on old audience favorites.

But the theatre community has something very unique in our willingness to embrace failure. We should treasure that, and I hope that, we, as theatre artists, make sure that way of thinking is in our everyday lives. And I hope that I can bring the positive aspects of theatre culture with me into my work with Unitarian Universalists. I think the world would be a better place if everyone was more comfortable with failure, more comfortable with messiness, and more comfortable with play.

(This blog post was requested by Rev. Naomi King on twitter. Gwydion Suilebhan requested the Cymbeline story.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Criticism: How We Miss Each Other

Today on twitter Rev. Naomi posted some interesting questions about criticism. As often happens with her broad, open ended questions, a discussion ensued.

It wasn't until we were far into the discussion that it hit home that her definition of criticism and my definition of criticism were two very different things.

Now, I'd like to think that I have an informed opinion on this. I took a year long class in dramatic criticism from Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune Theatre Critic. I've hosted a panel discussion of local theatre critics, I've been to a panel discussion on the role of the critic in new play development, and I interviewed our local critics for The Dramatist magazine. I've also spent countless hours talking about the role of the critic and criticism with my friends.

I came to this discussion with all the following understandings of criticism:

1. Criticism isn't personal. Now, with many artists, we often feel that criticism of our work is an attack on our being. Not true, but it happens. I've been prone to it. That's why I like the Liz Lerman technique, because it allows for that necessary emotional distance to form. A personal attack is NOT criticism.

2. Criticism is specific. It isn't this thing sucks, but this thing is problematic because of x, y, and z.

3. Criticism is informed. If I have an opinion on something I know nothing about, it isn't criticism. It's just an uninformed opinion.

These are my basic tenants of criticism that I brought to this discussion.

I have a suspicion that I was the only one who brought this understanding of criticism to the table. It's been confirmed by Ila's separation of criticism and feedback. For me, part of criticism is the art of giving feedback.

I would like to think my opinion is informed -- I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. But it comes from a very specific cultural background and context.

And now I wonder what I missed because my understanding of what constitutes criticism is so very different from what everyone else's understanding in that discussion.

I wonder if I could go back and have that discussion again where we had one working definition of criticism. Would I have said that I love asking questions if my definition of criticism was the same as others? I'm not sure. I'm also still unsure of what the consensus of criticism means in that context. That definition, from what I can glean, seems to be a lot more personal and negative. To be honest, I'm not sure if that definition will be helpful to my furthering understanding of criticism.

The interesting aspect of this is that it proves that we all come to a discussion with our own definitions, contexts, and biases. If I had this conversation with the 2amt crowd, we would have had a similar working definition of criticism. But we all view the world from a very specific lens.

However, I seriously missed where others were coming from today and I think everyone missed me. We had a conversation, but we weren't able to really understand each other. It's a fascinating case study in how we can miss each other, even with people whom we know well and who know us extremely well.

I once complained that Unitarian Universalists constantly search for concrete meanings for abstract nouns. At the time, I was really annoyed because people were arguing over the term "faith development." I understand the impulse a little more now, but I think the better way to deal with it is to ascertain a common understanding, with the knowledge that concepts mean different things to different people. No one looks at the world in exactly the same way.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writing Advice: Winning the Arguement

"No. You're listening to me, but you're not understanding me."
"No, I'm disagreeing with you. That doesn't mean I'm not listening to you or understanding what you're saying - I'm doing all three at the same time."
- Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing

Everyone has arguments that come up again and again in their lives. Generally these arguments are with our families, our significant others, our closest friends. These arguments may start over trivial matters, but they return to a clash of core values. They return to an essential disagreement that may or may not be insurmountable. But the words used are always similar, the arguments always the same.

These are GREAT fodder for writing, particularly generating raw material.

I recently invested myself in one of those endless arguments, and I went down to sit at my keyboard. And I rewrote the argument. This time I got to say what I wanted to say from the depths of my heart, and I allowed all my messiest thoughts out onto the open screen. This time, I was able to win the argument. This time, I could make the other person listen.

I generated a great deal of good material. It'll need editing, and who knows how much of it will end up in my play...but it was a wonderful exercise in getting to the deep, vulnerable stuff that makes good writing and it also allowed me to have control over the situation, which I never do in real life. I simultaneously lost all control and gained complete control.

So if you're stuck right now as a writer, go back to some essential argument. A place where you fundamentally disagree with someone else's view. Rehash every bit of that argument -- really explore what's there. You might find that you change your mind. You might find that you still believe what you believe in your deepest core. But in the end, you should also have a lot of good material for your play.