What I'm Reading

On Saturday, I went up to the Newton Gresham Library at Sam Houston State University. I love to go dig through their music library for interesting things, and this time I found a whole new section. Over in the corner near the oversized scores, there was a trove of reference books related to producing musicals.

I also went to up to the American Literature section of the library and checked out a few volumes of classic plays by American playwrights: Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. I'm already very excited about what I'm discovering.

The Man Who Had All the Luck by Arthur Miller

This was a quick read from the collected plays of Arthur Miller. Written in 1940, it was first produced on Broadway in 1944. It follows the life of David Beeves, a young man who somehow manages to get everything he wants through what seems to be sheer luck. When his girlfriend's father refuses to grant his blessing, he is killed in a freak accident, leaving the path free. David seems to be blessed in business and relationships, while his family and friends encounter the normal consequences of bad luck and bad choices.

The play has a lot of dramatic momentum, and as David realizes his seemingly impossible luck, he flirts with madness. I was really compelled by this storyline, and I could definitely see it continuing to play well onstage (As I was looking up the publication date, I found it had a few semi-successful productions, including a 2002 Broadway revival.

Little Musicals for Little Theatres by Denny Martin Flinn

This was a surprising book. I was really excited to see it, because I've recently had an interest in smaller, more adventurous musicals. This book contains pages and pages of musicals that don't have massive production values. As the subtitle says, it's "A Reference Guide to the Musicals that Don't Need Chandeliers or Helicopters to Succeed".

The book is split into three sections: book musicals, themed revues, and composer revues. I'm about halfway through the section on book musicals and I've already discovered more than half a dozen musicals I want to explore or maybe even direct.

I don't always agree with his opinions on the shows I do know (such as his low opinion of Falsettos), but it provides plenty of food for thought.

What else is there?

I don't know how far I'll get this week, but here are the rest of the things I checked out.

  • The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller Volume 1 (1944-1961) containing All My SonsDeath of a SalesmanAn Enemy of the PeopleThe CrucibleA Memory of Two Mondays, two versions of A View from the Bridge, and The Misfits
  • The Theatre of Tennessee Williams Volume 1 containing Battle of Angels, The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • The Collected Plays of Edward Albee Volume 1 containing The Zoo StoryThe Death of Bessie SmithThe SandboxThe American DreamWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Ballad of the Sad CafeTiny Alice, and Malcolm
  • So You're the New Musical Director by James H. Laster
  • From Assassins to West Side Story: The Director's Guide to Musical Theatre by Scott Miller
  • Making a Broadway Musical: Making it Run by John D. Mitchell

Can you sense the theme? I don't know if I'll get through it all, but plays are a quick read. 

Coming Together

Somewhere early in Act 1 of Chay Yew's play "Porcelain", the young man at the center of the plot tells his psychiatrist "We're not so different."

John is a young, gay, Chinese man. He is addressing an older, straight, white man. And his point is that he has been made to feel like an outsider because of those differences. This is especially true in early 1990s London, where the play takes place. He cries out for empathy and for understanding, but because he's human he struggles to make himself vulnerable.

I saw the production by Caduceus Theater Arts Company last night, and this scene struck me as a clear message in the show. There were several other scenes that returned to this topic. Near the end of Act 1 John complains about being either ignored or fetishized for being Asian in a world of white men. Or when a TV interviewee pushes back against the reporter's attempts to paint gay men as perverts, unacceptable in society.

It's an incredibly intense show. This intimate production was physically exhausting to watch (and I was actually shaking at times). I encourage anyone who has a chance to see it. But consider it rated R for its intense portrayal of sexuality and violence, and for a lot of swearing. 

We're All Human

One topic that is on my mind a lot these days is empathy. Empathy is the ability to not just understand, but identify with the situation another is in. It is difficult to do, but it's very important in being able to relate to others.

In this day and age, we look for categories. We look for ways to find people we are similar to, and to be away from people who are different from us. We categorize ourselves as "us" and "them". These divisions, whether they be sexual, racial, or political, allow us to feel good about ourselves and judge others.

The problem comes when we decide that not only are we better than "them", but that something about them is fundamentally wrong. It's easy to slide from "I don't like you" to "You are worthless". This slide isn't obvious. But when we use dehumanizing language, when we compare people to animals (pig, dog, or monkey are common), when we describe people in terms of their traits (impugning someone's weight, race, or sexual orientation), we minimize them. They're no longer human.

When someone is no longer human, they are no longer deserving of respect. And when respect goes, so does the ability to talk to each other. And when we can't talk, we can't agree. And when we can't agree, society collapses. It's every man for himself.

How do we develop empathy? We can only do it by observing others and seeing how they are similar to us. Theater gives us a unique insight into people in a way other media doesn't.

Art as a Teacher

Seeing shows like Porcelain, experiencing the trials and pains of someone like John Lee, helps to build empathy. Yes, he's gay, Chinese, and young. Yes, we may be none of those things. But when he describes feeling lonely, we know what loneliness feels like. We share in that. We can share his anger, his pain at being rejected by the man he loves.

And when we are stuck in a room with him, we are forced to confront those emotions along with him. We don't have a barrier to protect us. When he tries not to cry, we have to hold back tears. When he curls up in the arms of his lover, we can both understand his joy and see the visible discomfort in the other man's body language.

This is a strength of theater that's unique. Television has time constraints that prevent it from getting too deep (though it can develop character arcs over the long term of a season or series, if it's not cancelled). Movies often have to have mass appeal, and the sense of scale is a different kind of distancing mechanism.

In a live theater, you have a real, life-size human in the same room experiencing feelings in real time. A good actor or a good play confronts you in a way you can't avoid. A powerfully projected emotion cuts through the facade and the distance that we'd like to create. There's just no denying a man breaking down crying in front of you. Or a woman raging against the injustice just done to her. He is just a man. She is just a woman. No more, no less. Just like us.

In short, what I'm saying is that good theater helps build empathy. And empathy is sorely needed in this day and age. More on that in a future post.

For other empathy building media, check out Queer Eye on Netflix.

I'm Back! (To School)

It's been a bit since I posted on here. Frankly, I've been distracted and there haven't been many developments in most of my projects. 

What's happened this week?

  • Professional development and classroom planning at the school. School starts tomorrow!
  • Continued rehearsals and set building on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which opens August 31 (Click here for tickets)
  • I had a piano lesson and spent time at the gym.
  • I spent Friday in downtown Houston, having a really enjoyable conversation with a friend from college. In fact, there have been several really interesting conversations that I hope to reflect on here, when I can get my thoughts into writing.
  • I saw The Mousetrap at The Alley Theatre in Houston. Fabulous play, exciting twist. If you get a chance, you should go see it, though my performance was virtually sold out.
  • Some time to relax and to reflect today before school starts.

On that last note...

What's coming up this week?

  • More rehearsals! Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is going into the final stages of the show, and it's time for things to come together. This week I hope to add microphones and see the sets come together.
  • The first week of school! I'm excited to see the students come back and begin the new work this year.
  • I'm going to see another show this week. I need to decide what to see. I want to write more about the shows that I see and reflect on the work I want to be doing with my life.
  • More piano practice and time at the gym.

The year in advance

During this first week, I'm going to ask my students to reflect on two topics: what are they looking forward to this year and what are they the most worried about this year. In the spirit, I want to go through the same exercise for myself.

This year, I'm most excited for the chance to push the men's choir. We are instituting evening rehearsals for the first time this year, and that will give me a chance to really dig deep. This is also the first year I will have a group made up entirely of students that I taught. I'm interested to see how this will be different from previous years.

I'm also excited for the chance to expand my piano courses. Last year I offered a second year course in piano; this year that course will have its own class period. It will be more structured and hands on. I'm excited to see what happens.

I am most worried about my personal growth this year. On the one hand, I feel more confident in some things than I ever have. Especially where my teaching is concerned. On the other hand, the long talks that I have been having with friends and colleagues in recent months have left me doubtful of where I stand as a musician.

What I do know is that I need to be practicing piano a lot more, and watching TV a lot less. I'm still figuring out what my path will be, but those are both things I know.

Work helps ease my worry. So back to work it is!