Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sound of Music (Applefest edition)

This is one of those exclusive-to-the-blog posts, because I try to avoid using my newspaper space for plugging projects in which I have a personal connection, but I have no such qualms about indulging myself in front of the somewhat smaller blog audience.

I'm directing the Franklin Civic Operetta Association production of Sound of Music. It is not a show I'm naturally drawn to. It's a show that has become associated with sweetness on the order of a pancake covered with triple-berry syrup under a quart of ice cream soaked in chocolate good with a pound of sugar sprinkled directly on top. It would be an easy show to do without really thinking about what you're doing.

At the same time, underneath all of that, there's a fairly affecting story. Maria is a young woman, orphaned, and when we meet her, hiding from life in an abbey and about to lose that last refuge. Captain von Trapp has been adrift for years, still identified as a navy captain in a country that lost its navy two decades ago. They are a pair of characters who are trying not to face their own lives, but for whom circumstances no longer that luxury.

There is, I think, a natural tendency to want to oversell the story. In theater, as in life, that strikes me as a mistake, revealing a lack of faith in the audience to understand or appreciate the struggles played out before them. It is easy to make Maria so plucky that one can never imagine her defeat, her opposition (both nuns and nazis) so cartoonish that we don't ever feel a plausible threat. At the same time, the Captain's fiancee can be played as so extreme that we see her as a wicked woman and not a plausible choice for him. Max in particular requires a balance of charm and amoral pragmatism.

Like most of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best stuff (though they did not write the book for this), SOM includes some heavy themes without reducing them to simple two-dimensional conflicts (or allowing them to suck the show into a philosophical symposium set to music). How do you balance devotion to God with the need to get a life? How do you find your way back from a life that doesn't really fit you? How do you make difficult choices in dangerous times, and how far can political and personal compromise go?

Likewise, this score of standards is like the pledge of allegiance-- so often heard that it's rarely listened to. Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations are genius, supportive without trying exaggerate or inflate the songs. "Climb Every Mountain" does not have to be a painful piece of bombast being beaten into submission by some over-ambitious soprano, and "Do Re Mi" does not have to be treacle.

If you only know the movie, the stage version offers other treats. Max and Elsa have two songs, one a brutally cheerful piece of pep about the necessity of compromising
with whatever horrid events the world may bring. The Captain's journey is far more fleshed out than in the movie, and Maria has the chance to be a real multi-dimensional character. The song that "Must Have Done Something" good replaced for the movie is a nice little piece indeed, rarely heard (our joke has been that somebody let Little Stevie Sondheim come out of the apprentice's room in the back to write it). And what music director Steve Luxbacher has done with the kids and the nuns is awesome.

Did we manage to pull all that off? I don't know-- I direct a show for six weeks and I undoubtedly lose a little bit of objectivity. I have never worked with a larger cast, and everybody has worked hard and done double and triple duty. This set features one of the most challenging and nerve-wracking mechanical gimmicks I've ever used (I loves me the unit set)-- think two giant 17-foot lazy susans-- but thanks to Ed Ramage and the stagehands, it works and keeps the show moving briskly. I was over-lucky in casting-- virtually every supporting actor in this show has, at one time or another, carried another show as lead. And in good community theater tradition, we have veterans and newbies, old and young-- and the young come from every school system in the county, plus home schoolers.

I aimed to mount a version of Sound of Music that would be pleasing to fans of the show, but which would also be enjoyable for people who have a visceral dread of R&H. I aimed to let the light and happy parts breathe and the dark moments be as dark as they could be, and all of it to play without pummeling the audience about the head and shoulders. Our crowds last weekend responded enthusiastically.

I am really proud of these folks, including the von Trapp children, who have worked hard, sing well, and act just like real siblings. The players are turning in some of their best work ever, and the nuns are, for many folks, a real revelation. The number of hands working behind the scenes is awesome. I wanted to really show people something and not just do one more paint-by-numbers version of this stage standard. Ultimately the audiences will have to judge how well we have succeeded; I'm confident that we won't be wasting their time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Check Your Snopes

(News-Herald, September 25) The invention of e-mail is one of the great advances in recent human history. There is, however, one major flaw in the design. The guy who invented email should have a parade, but the guy who invented the “forward” button should be spanked soundly and repeatedly.

Some folks use these judiciously; I have two friends who keep me regularly supplied with the finest in internet humor. It is the people who feel the urge to forward things that are “interesting” or “informative” who give the world a big bandwidth headache.

But the internet has also given us snopes.com, a website that provides scholarly study and background checks for the flotsam and jetsam of the internet. The folks at snopes use actual research to determine whether the many threads in the tapestry of urban myths are true, false, or undetermined.

Snopes has a handy search feature, so you can log on and immediately determine that no, there is no group petitioning Congress to outlaw breast feeding.

If you like to browse through the many strange items that people have chosen to perpetuate, snopes offers categories from politics through science. There’s also a listing of the top twenty-five myths that people are checking up on.

The current top twenty-five subjects include political figures (no, Barack Obama was not sworn into office on the Quran and no, there is no real list of books that Sarah Palin tried to ban). For people with a real interest in political smoke and mirrors clarified, I recommend factcheck.org.

If we skip the politics, there are plenty of other fun subjects.

No, there are no verified reports of people being dosed by business cards soaked in date rape drugs.

No, your cell phone number is not about to be given to telemarketers.

No, Jay Leno did not write the positive attitude essay that “hits the nail on the head.”

No, the video clip about the Australian official and the tanker disaster (the front fell off” is not real.

And, no, neither Bill Gates, Microsoft, nor AOL are giving cash to people who help test their email forwarding system.

But (yikes) it IS true that the Chinese were discovered to be making hair bands with recycled condoms.

Certain categories can be tough to sort out. Promises that forwarding an email will bring rewards are almost always fake, but when it comes to prayer requests, Amanda Bundy and Brayden Hembree are fake, but Katie Fitch and Kevin Downs are real.

Even forwards that are meant to brighten and uplift someone’s day are not entirely trustworthy.

Charles Shultz did not write a quiz to show the importance of having people care about you. Mel Gibson was not the basis for the movie “The Man without a Face.” Maya Angelou did not write the poem “I Am A Christian.” There is no waiter named Stevie with Down Syndrome who received a large donation from a truck driver customer. The email about aging isn’t really by George Carlin, and Kurt Vonnegut did not deliver “wear sunscreen” as a commencement address.

Snopes is also a place to learn interesting tidbits of useful information. For example. Kentucky Fried Chicken did not change their name to KFC in order to deflect attention away from the friedness of their chicken. Actually, the Commonwealth of Kentucky trademarked their name, so that anyone who wanted to use “Kentucky” owed the state some money. Not only did this spawn KFC, but the Kentucky Derby became The Run for the Roses, and feed stores started selling Shenandoah Bluegrass.

We’re a little more sophisticated than we used to be about the internet (I think people have mostly stopped corresponding from the guy in Africa with the millions of dollars he wants to sneak out of the country), but it seems as if we could do better. After all, when you’re getting ready to forward that e-mail, the whole world of information is literally at your fingertips.

If snopes.com isn’t enough, I can also recommend straightdope.com and the ever-educational Mythbusters as places to encounter actual facts. The internet is great for helping Stupid spread quickly, but it can also be a powerful medium for real information as well. Remember to use it before you hit “forward.”

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What Side Are You On?

(News-Herald, September 18) We’ve reached hard days in topsy-turvy land. It used to be that certain positions on the issues lined up with certain parts of the political spectrum, but it becomes increasingly confusing to figure who’s sitting in which cheering section.

This isn’t new. Being a political conservative used to mean that you believed in keeping government out of various aspects of American life while spending a minimum of tax dollars. But for the past eight years, the ranking conservatives in DC have not supported either of those things.

The nomination of Sara Palin has prompted such an epidemic of ideological whiplash that one begins to worry about political mental health. Conservatives like Phyllis Schafly, previously vocal in their opposition to working moms (“the flight from the home is a flight from yourself, from responsibility, from the nature of woman, in pursuit of false hopes and fading illusions”), suddenly think Mom should hire a sitter and get a job running the country. Liberals who previously opined that having children in no way obligates a woman to change her life a whit are suddenly shocked—shocked!!—that Palin would try to be VP when there are children at home who need her.

And at this point some people have changed their position on the matter of experience so many times that I’m surprised they can remember where they stand.

Of course, for all these people, the major problem is principles—they don’t appear to have any. One of the most insightful observations made by the old John McCain was that the Republican Party had lost its way by valuing power over principle. I do miss that guy.

It’s backwards, but it’s not unusual. Many people like Palin or Obama and want them to win (or dislike them and want them to lose). That judgment comes first, from the gut. After it’s made, political leaders and followers alike will twist their principles into any shape that supports the judgment they’ve already made. Yeah, you can insist that you’ve chosen your candidate because s/he so well represents your principles. Just excuse me if I start to laugh because I can remember what you used to claim your principles were.

That’s one of the great advances of modern politics. A politician can say one thing on Monday, reverse himself on Tuesday, even denying that he ever said any such thing, even though we have it on video. And nobody seems to much care.

Even if one has principles, sorting them out can be difficult. Take McDonalds. The home of the Big Mac used to be an easy target for left-wingers— low paid workers slinging beef that was harvested under non-PETA-approved conditions while making lots of money (never popular with the left) and peppering the American landscape with plastic cookie-cutter arch-laden temples.

Except that now the Golden Arches have crossed the political watchdog group AFA, who have accused Ronald McDonald of making too many friends with The Gays. Actually, the AFA, ever-improving their skills at press-release construction, has accused Micky D’s of “not remaining neutral in the culture wars.” This is a bit disingenuous as the AFA is not exactly noted for the clarion call to neutrality about the “homosexual agenda.”

But the AFA has deployed its political weapon of choice—a call for boycott, which means that tree-hugging vegan PETA fans are now stuck. Do they continue to avoid McD’s for all its alleged sins of the past, or do they break out some “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” bumper stickers and eat at McDonalds as a gesture of support?

At the very least, people who choose to eat or not eat at McD’s should probably fill out a form so that the poor corporate bigwigs have some idea of what kind of pressure each order of fries is meant to exert. Otherwise all of this economic posturing will be wasted. I picture some confused marketing suit poring over figures and emails and scratching his head. “I’m not sure, boss. I think the public wants us to set free all the gay cows.”

The pretzelicious twisting of principle creates many of these challenges. Will voters choose Palin because she has a uterus, will they run from Obama because he’s black, or will some stop to examine candidates’ policies and history? Will they do it with an open mind, or just look for justification for decisions already made? Do you want to make a statement, or are you just hungry for fries?

Monday, September 15, 2008


(News-Herald, May 2004) The Franklin Ministers Forum is in the midst of 40 days of prayer to renew and revive county churches (you can find them at the First Baptist Church tonight at 7:00). The timing is good, because earlier this month, Barna Research Group released results of a survey looking at church involvement in the US. It includes a variety of statistics, but the bottom line is this—since 1991 the number of unchurched US adults has almost doubled from 39 million to 75 million.

How did the church lose so many people, particularly when preachers and televangelists and politichristians were so vocal about a resurgence of faith. Like everyone else, I have a few theories.

I am not, for instance, a big fan of politichristianity. This is the brand of faith in which I declare that God endorses my own personal political agenda. I think we’re on pretty shaky ground when we decide that God wants our country to reign supreme over other countries. When we declare that God supports this candidate or wants Congress to pass that bill, we’re just being silly. Politics is a human invention; to believe that God takes it as seriously as we do is foolish.

In fact, it’s worse than foolish. To claim that a victory for the Wrong Presidential Candidate is a defeat for God is human hubris, a self-important presumption that our political games will somehow change the fate of the Creator of All That Is, Was and Will Be.

So yeah, I think the politichristians drive people away from the church. Whether they’re insisting that God wants Bush II to give people a tax cut or claiming that the Almighty supports the establishment of refuges for rare Lithaunian iguanas, politichristians are so transparently hypocritical that it’s hard not to be turned off.

But I think a more damaging trend is the rise of anti-evangelism.

The traditional evangelical view is that Christians are called to go into the world, bringing the news of God to all people.

But the anti-evangelists would rather not go into the world, in fact do all they can to build a wall between themselves in the world, in the belief that the world is an evil, unholy place and if they’re not careful, they’ll get some on them.

It’s not a new view; the pilgrims were at Plymouth Rock to build a city on a hill, literally an ocean away from the evils of their world. That’s the ideal for the modern anti-evangelists—a place apart from the world and all the other people in it. The milder antis see the world as merely threatening and ungodly; the more virulent antis see the world as their mortal enemy.

They socialize only with people from their church (which they may have changed a few times because their old church was letting too many worldly influences seep in). They home school their children to keep them undefiled by the common herd.

At best, this is just plain lousy witnessing. They set no example because no one who doesn’t already agree with them ever sees them. For example, every home schooled Christian is one less person of faith that students in public schools will ever meet. “Oh, yeah. Christians. I’ve heard of them, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually met one.”

The anti-evangelists become too cliquish, exclusive and elite to ever meet someone who’s beneath them. They’re happy to talk about their faith—but only to the Right People. They may use technology like websites or tv broadcasts and consider that great outreach. But there’s no actual witnessing to live humans, and they’re kidding themselves about who’s really watching.

Of course, the virulent anti-evangelists don’t even want to pretend they’re reaching out. They’re more likely to talk about the need to gather the chosen few together (with a hint of impending End Times).

It’s not that anti-evangelists have forgotten the part of the message about love. They’re filled with love. For people who see things the right way. And while they probably won’t come right out and say it, the underlying assumption is that if you’re not right with God, that’s your fault and your problem. They’ll be happy to talk to you, once you’ve got your head on straight.

Even the least religious folks expect the church to be able to answer this question: how do we love and embrace and get along with people that we think are just plain wrong? If a church has no answer (or, worse, answers such as “Blow them up” or “Burn them at the stake”), people assume it has no more to offer than a country club or a neighborhood bar. And when that happens, the church will have trouble bringing people to the building, let alone to God.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Autumn Anniversary

(News-Herald, September 11) I’m not unaware of today’s date, the significance of this anniversary. I am. But I’m also aware that many real journalists and writers better than I will unleash a barrage of retrospective examination of Our Nation Today.

I don’t think I can add to that. But with each succeeding anniversary of that attack I find myself reflecting that despite the wars, the botched peace, the mis-steps and success, the changes in how we conduct ourselves as a country—despite (or because of) all that, I am still able to enjoy a fine life in a good place that remains undisturbed by much of the post-9/11 rubble. I live safely and comfortably in a beautiful corner of the continent.

Such reflection comes easily in the fall; if there is any better time in Venangoland than the fall, I don’t know what it could be. Winter weather is charming, but it would be a lot more charming if nobody had to go out in it. Spring is an ugly muddy mess. Summer is warm enough, but our heat always seems to come packaged with enough humidity to make mold and mildew grown on air. The best parts of summer are the ones that are like fall.

My favorite weather is shorts and sweatshirt weather. It’s comfy and cozy, nice weather for being active. But it can be easy to overlook the opportunities for fun while managing the excitement of a new school year, so I’m going to remind you of some of the things you should get out and do before things finally turn cold and ugly.

Do some local traveling. Tell the truth—you keep hearing about Foxburg and all the cool stuff that’s down there, but you haven’t gone yet. Check the schedule of performers for Lincoln Hall, or just head down to dine. What better time to be cruising through the hills and rivers than the fall?

And speaking of the river, you need to do that as well. One of the most beautiful resources we have, a massive park that we didn’t even have to build, the waterways of Venangoland are easily accessible and wonderfully enjoyable. Certainly basic safety precautions must be taken; the river deserves your respect as well as you’re appreciation.

My kayak is the best investment in entertainment, mental health and physical activity that I’ve ever made. Everybody should own one. And not only is it not too later to get out there this year, but fall waters are often the most tame and manageable (French Creek actually comes close to being a hiking path at this point). For someone just starting out, this is a great time to start learning the waters, and there are several easy and completely local trips that you can complete in just a few hours.

Equally accessible and rewarding is the network of bike trails. This time of year you don’t have to navigate swarms of bugs and the air is just cool enough to keep you from overheating. The trip south from Franklin takes you through some gorgeous wooded stretches (though I will admit that the old railroad tunnels get a bit on the frosty side as fall comes on).

On top of the usual pleasures of small town and country life, there are often new treats. Next weekend Oil City, Emlenton and Franklin will host a three-day festival of films by regional filmmakers and/or about regional subjects. The first two nights (Friday at the Crawford Center in Emlenton and Saturday at the Latonia in Oil City) will feature two different film line-ups. Viewers will choose the top films which will then go head to head at the Barrow in Franklin on Sunday. All three showings begin at 7:00 with a five dollar admission.

Who would ever have imagined that the region would have its own film festival? And yet here it comes.

There are other things to look forward to—not just Applefest in Franklin, but Oil City’s pumpkin festival.

We’ll be able to enjoy all of these things, these natural beauties and projects of our fellow Venangoland citizens, without a thought about our safety, without a worry about attacks, death, or destruction. Lots of folks will spend today considering the question of whether, seven years on, we are winning or losing. But if one measure of victory is the ability to enjoy the simple small pleasures of American life, victory must look a lot like Venangoland.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Pres 08: Everything but Substance

(News-Herald, September 4) If nothing else, the Presidential election has opened up chances to prod every single raw nerve in the American psyche.

The Democrats started things off by serving up race and gender. It has been a remarkable two-layer conversation. Hardly anyone will come out in public and say, “I won’t vote for Obama because he’s black.” And yet it seems almost everyone knows a person who has said privately, “I won’t vote for any black guy.”

But Obama, like every other raw-nerve prod in the election is two-fer—not only the tripwire of being a black American, but a name that evokes the Muslims that we aren’t quite sure how to address these days.

And he’s young. Like most folks, I define “young” as “younger than I am.” Which means I’m feeling like quite the fossil, because now we have TWO people younger than I am running for high office. How the heck did that happen? And how can we give leadership of this country to either of these children?

And Obama beat Hillary, who many people hate because she’s Hillary, and because her presence drags Bill Clinton, another raw American nerve, back into the public spotlight, leading to yet another tough American dialogue about whether it’s better new history to elect an African-American than a woman. Which of course brings up the issue of whether Obama is African-American enough. Or at all.

But give the Republicans their due. McCain calls up the specter of Bush’s incredibly brutal previous primary campaign (in which the Bushies suggested that McCain fathered an illegitimate black child). McCain is also a two-fer, at least, evoking the war in Iraq and the Vietnam war.

And he’s old. Really old. So now we can talk about how we feel about old people and how much we trust them. Since the first boomer was born, we’ve been beaten tired over the clash of generations; here it is again on our November ballot.

Family values? Where to begin. John Edwards was willing to risk the Dem chances on an affair that he’s definitely, probably, maybe, ended. More or less. What kind of politician would take up with another woman while his own wife was fighting terrible illness? Well, say some, that was McCain, too.

Don’t have enough to argue about yet? Here comes Palin with her daughter, brought up under the abstinence-only education that her mother championed and now pregnant at age 17. Lefties think this is reason enough to laugh Palin off the political stage, failing to understand that people don’t back abstinence-only education because they think it works. They back it because they think it’s right. So lets drag out sex-ed, birth control, and responsibility as topics.

Abortion is not an option for the daughter, as it wasn’t for Palin’s downs-syndrome baby. But that raises another issue—should a woman with so much on her motherly (and grandmotherly) plate be leaving hearth and home for DC? But isn’t it only fair to leave families out of this mess? But if that’s so, is it okay to hold children in the spotlight when they do admirable things like serve in the military? Exactly how much should family be a factor in an election?

The hot buttons just keep coming. How much experience is too much? How little is too little? Are we too racist or too sexist? Should women be expected to vote for a woman, no matter what her policies?

Or we can get into personalities. Is Obama too upperclass, or is that just code for uppity? Are we voting for the new McCain, savvy deal-with-the-devil politico, or the old maverick McCain, who was loose and open with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show (as opposed to Obama, who is only slightly less stiff than Al Gore)? Joe Biden opens his mouth and rambles. Palin is at least photogenic, a passable double for Tina Fey. But once we open those worm cans, we’re into a new discussion—exactly how much do we demand that our President resemble a television celebrity?

What’s most notable to me about this election cycle is how we have managed to shoehorn so many unresolved cultural issues into one simple election. Maybe that’s good thing in that it will spur a lot of thought and debate about significant issues (well, debate anyway).

But on the downside, we have an opportunity to argue so many issues before the election, without once talking about which candidate’s policies and plans would best serve the nation’s future.

From my Flickr