Tuesday, August 2, 2011

“Our Town” An Actor’s Experience

Community Theater is an odd bird. Some people don’t consider it “real theater” because it’s not performed on one of the big-name stages. The productions are often found in high school auditoriums or back-rooms that you could walk right by if you weren’t looking for them . This production of “Our Town” was at SummerStage, an outdoor theater in the middle of Lapham Peak State Park, about 30 minutes outside of the Milwaukee area. It’s a lovely theater, but it’s definitely in an odd location off the beaten path.

Even though I’m over 50, I’m still relatively new to acting. So when a
director casts me I experience a flurry of emotions. I’m initially
flattered since the director is essentially trusting me with the
production. In my short tenure, I’ve seen firsthand how one actor can
jeopardize an entire production. This memory helps the flattery to
fade and I turn my attentions to my next emotion: worry. Can I
actually do it? Can I memorize my lines? Can I really BE this other

Underneath all these questions is the reality that I’m putting much of
the rest of my life on hold during weeks of rehearsal and, finally,
the play’s run. For the next two months or so, many evenings and
weekends revolve around the stage. Actors spend less time with
friends and family; even their careers can get upstaged. Will this
decision affect their long term relationships? My wife wasn’t all
that happy when I took this role because she felt that summer is such
a long-awaited time in Wisconsin and we’d miss out on activities we’d
normally do together. Luckily, after she observed me falling in love
with this play, she became more understanding and supportive.

Of all the plays I’ve acted in, none have made me think more about
being human than Our Town. It’s rather amazing, considering that
during the read through I thought it came off as corny and dated. But
the more I rehearsed and saw my fellow actors assuming their roles,
the more I realized that the play is timeless. Sure, some of the
words we spoke may have been from the early 1900’s but the thoughts
that they expressed still ring true today. How do you feel about a
newborn baby? Or when you discover that the person you love actually
loves you back? How would you feel if both your children died before
you did?

Connie Gehl, the actress who played my wife in “Our Town,” needed to
cry during the performance. Her sorrow was so convincing that I, as
her husband, was compelled to comfort her so she was not alone in her
grief. Her performance pulled me in and, I believe, helped me truly
embody my part as Charles Webb. It was just one of the wonderful
aspects of this production.

I’d like to share two more wonderful memories of this show. I was
moving furniture from the stage to another building. One of the
younger actresses stopped me and we chatted pleasantly for a moment.
She said that she just loved interacting with all these creative
people and she obviously was including me. Still feeling like a
newcomer to the theater, I was inwardly surprised and flattered. Am I
actually an actor? I guess I am.

The other moment occurred during the wedding scene. I play the father
of Emily, the hesitant bride. At the beginning of the scene, she’s
scared and looks to her father for reassurance. After a little
father-daughter chat, I kiss her forehead, drape her veil over her
head and walk her down the aisle. Well, I walked my own daughter
down the wedding aisle about three years ago. This is a privilege
that fathers of girls have enjoyed for centuries and it may be the
only time I ever do that in real life. But because of this play, I
was able to relive the experience during every performance. And my
“real” daughter saw the show, too.

When a show ends, I experience more emotions. Sorrow that the
production is finished. Perhaps, relief too. I commuted about 40
minutes to the venue, but the majority of the actors live out in the
Delafield area so I may never work with or even see many of them
again. I’m wistful when I realize that these people have passed
through a brief part of my life.

Although I do feel sorrow, gratitude is the emotion that over rides
all the others. I’m grateful that Diane Powell cast me in this play.
I’m grateful that I was able to work with Ethan, Mason, Amanda,
Connie and Lance as well as the rest of the cast and crew. I’m
grateful that we had good weather for all of our production dates.
I’m grateful to the audience who usually laughed at the right times.
I’m grateful to my body and brain for hanging in there and allowing me
to physically and mentally handle the part. I’m grateful to my wife,
Brooke, for supporting me in a very personal endeavor. I’m grateful
to Facebook because it allows me to know some new friends even if they
turn out to be temporary.

Well, on to the next audition. I’ve just been cast in a new one act
play, but I’m confident that this production of “Our Town” will stay
with me until I play in my own real life funeral scene.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Give this Chinese place a try!

So, I go to a pottery studio and make mugs sometimes for something fun to do. Recently a new Chinese restaurant has opened up a stones throw from my studio. Since my office is over in this neck of the woods, I've tried this place out a few times...and it's quite good. The name is Huan Xi. I'm not sure how to pronounce that but it's worth your time. Address is 2428 N. Murray Ave just north of North Avenue on the East Side. Their lunch specials have all been good (the ones I've tried, anyway) and they're pretty cheap. I've had the Shrimp with Garlic Sauce, the Szechuan Beef and the Triple Delight. All good. I've scanned the menu here and linked over to a review that I caught in the Shepherd.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will work for food

As many of you know, I'm an Internet consultant. I help people and companies in a variety of ways: Web hosting, search engine optimization, content generation, you get the idea.

Usually I trade out my services for greenbacks. I send out a QuickBooks invoice and I receive a check back in the mail. The check is then deposited into my ecommandos checking account. It's weird because I usually never see the currency.

That all changed a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine decided she needed a website and asked me if I could assist her. My friend Lizz is a personal chef and has performed this way for quite some time. She's made the decision to "up the ante" and will be spending more and more time on the personal chef front and less time in her regular job that she's had for a while. So when I offered to assist her to get her website up and running and to potentially barter the services out for food, she jumped at the offer. So far, my wife and I have received three loaves of bread and two full meals all of which have been delicious and exciting. I never thought the arrival of a different type of currency would be so much fun

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Back from the South and Ex Fabula

Writing a blog only really makes sense if you keep up with it and I've been very lax in that department...I'll try to do better. Perhaps shorter but more frequent entries?

We're back from another round of "wintering in the south". Well, that is, if you consider Asheville, NC the south and it's possibly a discussion.

Not to say the geography is in a gray area...nope, NC is solidly southern and below the Mason Dixon line (listen to the song Sailing to Philadelphia by Mark Knopfler). But Asheville sometimes seems to be a Northern city surrounded by a Southern state. You can be in Asheville and NOT hear any southern twang. You can walk through the town and eat at the restaurants and visit the bars and think you're up north.

But go 5 miles outside of the city and you'll remember your location. That twang is back. BTW, I enjoy the twang, (Esp. MoTwang!) but when you hear that southern drawl, you're almost brought back to reality and you realize why Asheville is so special. First of all, it's a beautiful city surrounded by the some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Want to see some mountains? Look upward and they're probably there to the east.

Want more?
The food is great, the people are friendly, the spirit is willing. Great things are happening there. Just ask Nancy Brown from the Full Moon Wolf Farm. Ask Bob White from the Pisgah View Community Peace Garden. These people have passion and are sharing their passion with the community.

But more about Asheville another time.

Let's talk Milwaukee.

I'm sitting in a technical meeting at Bucketworks last night and my mind started to wander (as it is prone to do...hey, I'm getting old!). So I pulled out my smart phone, which in THIS meeting was a very normal thing to do, and pulled up my Seismic app for Twitter. Jeff Larch is telling me (Ok, he's telling everybody in Milwaukee) to go to StoneFly Brewery in Riverwest and check out Ex Fabula. Ex Fabula? Never heard of it. Research time.

Ex Fabula brings the community together to tell stories. Yes, there's a nightly theme, but it's probably not too difficult to fit your favorite story into their theme (try harder!). 9 people/teams, 9 stories and a very good time that still gets your home well before midnight.

Now, the show was great, but I was made aware of it through Twitter. Not the first time I've profited either socially or financially through this tool. It does take time and discipline to use it efficiently, but in this world of multi-tasking what's one more thing for you to do?

Signing off.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The snow is falling and other evolutions

Looking out my office window on North Ave. in Milwaukee, I have an unobstructed view of Whole Foods. But more importantly, on this day, I have a perfect view of the current level of precipitation: the flurries are falling.

This transition is both wonderful and slightly depressing. The wonder comes in the form of beauty, change, and the excitement that my dog Lafayette experiences when he jumps into the first fallen snow. The depression exists, unfortunately, because the first snow of the season is indicative of several every long months of cold and hibernation.

But let's look at the positive aspect of this whole if I direct my energy to the work at hand maybe I'll actually get something quite interesting done. The OurNextThing.com website, although not a failure, is not exactly a resounding success. It is functional, it tells the basic story, and it is easy to update and modify. It runs on the Joomla CMS system with which I've become somewhat proficient. I'm also following several Joomla experts on Twitter and that has been eye-opening in many ways. The politics of Open Source CMS systems is amusing to behold. Another CMS system, Drupal, appears to be the leading CMS system giving joomla a run for their Open Source money. When I first got into CMS systems, about four years ago, I looked at Joomla versus Drupal and selected joomla as my CMS of choice; not so much because Joomla was more powerful but because it was easier to understand to me personally.

All that is really a prelude to the point I'm trying to make about the OurNextThing.com website. That is, it could use a facelift and, I believe, the ability for visitors to interact with each other as well as with us. We now have quite a few videos available for viewing and said videos are viewed regularly. But the feedback we've received on the website has been virtually nil so it's difficult to know if were on the right track or not. Additionally the enthusiasm that we feel for the project comes from our inner selves and not a resounding "wow" all from the community that were trying to reach.

So what does this mean? I think that a reasonable first step would be to add some sort of social networking component to the current website. I've had some experience with product called JomSocial and it can be added to our current website without too much difficulty. Whether our visitors will read this networking tool by the forums and interact with each other remains to be seen: not sure what I can do to incent this but what I do know is that what we have is not working.

Ideas welcome.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Levels of satisfaction

There's something incredibly soothing about working in a closed pottery studio by yourself. With the exception of Lucky the parrot giving an occasional screech and the gas furnace kicking in every so often, the only sound you hear is the rotating of the pottery wheel.

When I began this hobby about 10 months ago, the creation of a coffee mug that was more or less cylindrical was an accomplishment for which I was proud. Never mind the fact that it was too small, too short, and not exactly round; if I was able to finish said cup, it usually found a home in my cupboard.

But now that I've been at it for a while, I've been informed by the owner of the pottery studio that it's time to put childish things aside. According to her, you've arrived at a new plateau, if you're able to discard (or at least recycle) the clay forms that don't turn out at least close to the original vision. Certainly there are exceptions. If you start out going in one direction and through some deformity y
ou arrive at a totally different piece, but one that has some level of excellence in its own right: mission accomplished. But if you start out throwing a mug or a coffee cup and after 15 minutes you know that you are just having an off day, it's okay to slice off a mutated form that's developed on your wheel and start anew.

It's a new level of satisfaction you've attained when you can screw up, discard your current piece, and take something positive away from the experience. Each small incremental step-up that you've taken helps to build your overall expertise. The mug you started which morphed into a poorly fashioned bowl which just wasn't right, goes back into the used clay bag for subsequent drying out and wedging.

Being an engineer, I find myself thinking in percentages. What percentage of the items I'm fashioning on the pottery wheel are discarded versus those I retain. My ability to increase the retention versus discarded percentage will be a clever indicator of my advancement in this craft.
I have no desire to keep a running total on paper but it's not too difficult to gauge percentages on a
day-to-day basis. Whether other potters do this or not I do not know; I hope not. One of the things that I enjoy about pottery is the escapism factor. I can take off my engineers cap for just a couple of hours and regress: I'm a young boy who's allowed to get dirty again and whose mother just rolls her eyes and smiles. That's what little boys do; they get dirty.

I've been known to start a hobby, get all excited and busy with it, and then discard it after giving it a halfhearted try. This is not unlike my father whose short term excursions into painting, breadmaking, or basketball lasted for a short lengths of time. I have discovered that my attention will last longer if the hobby is designed with convenience in mind. That is, it must be easy to get to and easy to get out of; it won't hurt if the overall energy of the place is positive.

So far so good. Want me to make you a bowl?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The approach of winter

We who live in Milwaukee love to talk about the weather. Good, bad it's all the same but I definitely feel that the trajectory of the discussion is different than in many other American cities.

I'm not at all sure that citizens of other non-Midwestern cities are so intent on taking "the glass is half empty"he approach to the onset of winter. I doubt very much that the people in Dallas, Los Angeles, or Asheville, North Carolina takes such a delight in commiserating that the snow is ready to fly. Or could it be that a different type of precipitation or the relative level of humidity is the discussion du jour in those cities? Do their morning conversations go like this: "hey Harry, it's going to be 90 today and it's gonna be 90 for the rest of the week too. What say we head up north somewhere to take a break from this overbearing humidity".

But I live in Milwaukee so I interact with people who live in that city. It's never exactly that "the sky is falling" unless you're listening to the local weather reports, but it does sometimes seem that the main topic of conversation is what poor weather we have. And, unfortunately, it's contagious. Like the flu that goes around every year which keeps the students and their parents locked up in their houses drinking plenty of fluids, when the first words out of somebody's mouth have to do with the amount of snow that fell last night or how many degrees below zero current lead is outside, it's not too difficult to breathe a sigh of submission and agree with the negative aspects of our geographical home turf.

Let me be clear about one point. I love Milwaukee! I've lived here for about the last 20 years; there's lots of things to see and do, it's close to a really big city (Chicago), which is pretty easy to get to, has almost no traffic and real estate prices are nowhere close to what they are on both coasts.

But I do sometimes have to admit that I'd rather be somewhere else during the months of January, February, and March. The analogy to our fellow mammals, the bear, is not too far off the mark. It seems that we bulk up our insulation starting at about Thanksgiving. Shortly thereafter, we start thinking about hibernation and planning all the things that we can do comfortably indoors. Sure, we venture out a bit to socialize with our friends or to go to a day job but it's not unusual to drive down a Milwaukee Street on a cold winters day only to find nobody visible to the naked eye. Upon further review, you may be able to locate some unhappy motorists kneeling down next to the site of their cars shoveling snow away from the tires. And of course you're going to see the die-hard dog walkers or crazy joggers who have more important fish to fry than just throwing in the towel, staying in and watching a video.

My parents have been snowbirds for about the last 10 years; spending spring, summer, and fall in a small city in lovely Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River while retreating to the eastern shore of Florida to wait out the harsh four months of winter time. The stroke that my father experienced two years ago put the kibosh on that situation. My mother, who would describe herself as petite, doesn't have the energy nor the attitude necessary to assist my father in Florida by herself. She reminds me regularly that Vero Beach (the next city over from the city where they own a condo) is full of life, youth, the arts, and is a damn nice place in which to live. She does acknowledge a bit of selfishness in her suggestion but tries to convince me that once my wife, dog, and I get down there will absolutely love it. Ain't going to happen! I've been to Vero Beach and although it's not a bad place, it's not the place for me. As our friends George and Angela suggested "you should always have friends younger than yourselves. That will help keep you young.". Vero Beach doesn't meet that criteria.

So my wife and I (and our dog to a lesser extent) keep looking for our own winter retreat. Last year was our first exploratory mission; this year we boldly go in the same general direction. It seems like we've put a virtual thumbtack in North Carolina as a place which possesses many of the geothermal and geographical charms that we might just be looking for.

But, at least for the time being, Milwaukee is definitely home. Sometimes my wife and I look at each other and say "what the hell are we doing here". But then the sun comes out, the winter jackets come off, and spring is in the air.