Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Kindest Critic

If you do theatre, you face critics.

How do you feel about that? How do you feel about how you feel about that?

If you do one play, you soar or you crash. A good review and you are Icarus unbounded – and we know how that turned out. A bad review (or even a lukewarm notice) and you wonder how you’ll ever be able to face any living being on the morrow, you are outraged by the vindictive cruelty of the reviewer (who you probably don’t even know), and you experience a Carl Sandberg-like dialogue with yourself about the desirability and viability of ending it all. With any luck at all, you get up, face all the people in your life that didn’t even know you were in a play or that the paper actually reviewed plays, and reached the same conclusion about suicide that Sandburg did; it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

But if you do a lot of theatre, you have to reach some accommodation between yourself and published criticism. Who can live with roller-coasters of life-and-death repeated after every opening night? Not this cowboy.

I think I was still in my teens when it occurred to me the foolishness of allowing one person’s opinion on one night validate or invalidate 6-10 weeks of my life. Hell, they might have had a tough day or a bad meal…you don’t know. Or, the reviewer might be right. So what? Frankly, after opening night, their correct opinion doesn’t help you much. You and your cast mates are pretty well committed to the path chosen by opening night.

Please don’t misunderstand.

A good review is still a boost and a bad review still stings, but the reviews don’t provide either a raison d’être or a raison not to d’être.

It’s interesting to me that most of the actors I know rarely quote their own reviews. Oh, they remember them…word for word. And if you prompt them, after a few drinks, reviews from 30 years ago may come tumbling out. But that’s a genetic flaw in the species and can surely be forgiven as it harms no one.

Yes, the reviews are remembered, especially the bad ones.

I have been reviewed favorably and unfavorably, cleverly, pointedly, accurately and inaccurately. Stephen Sondheim seems apt to quote at this moment; “I’m still here.”

I think the kindest bad review I ever received was no review at all.

I was playing the key character in a drama. Six weeks of fine, engrossing rehearsal had us poised for a successful opening night, and it was. The review came out and it was enthusiastic about the production.

It didn’t mention that I was in the show at all.

Ouch.

I was bewildered…and then angry…………and then grateful.

Obviously the critic was unimpressed by my performance…no, make that bothered and possibly offended by my performance.

The critic could have put that in writing for the world of local newspaper readers to see.

But the critic didn’t.

The silence hurt.

I disagreed with the negative implication of the silence, but I will always be grateful for it.

Part-Time Jobs?

Caught by surprise last November, I withdrew into stunned silence; afraid and ashamed and angry.

The anger faded. It will do no me no good. I will resist every unfair, greedy, and unwise effort I can identify, but I have always done that – it’s a reflexive urge taught to me by my Southern Baptist Sunday School childhood – nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned.

I was afraid of what the results’ results would be.

I was ashamed of my own surprise and fear of my neighbors’ choice.

Why didn’t I know?

What have I missed?

What should I have done?

I will do better.

I will listen harder.

I will seek a better and more useful understanding.

I will act on what I learn.

I will…because I want to be a good neighbor.

But, (isn’t there always a “but”?) …so must others.

I have no answers, but I have glimmers of a suggestion.

If I have lost connection with my neighbors, so have my political representatives…and how could they have not? They must solicit campaign funds 24/7/365. They must run campaigns to retain their offices for six to twenty-four months (President Trump has already declared his re-election campaign’s beginning for 2020). They serve in legislative sessions for months at a time every year. They have homes in Washington and regular living quarters in Frankfort. They are full-time governors and lawmakers elsewhere, away from me, all while they’re supposed to be representing me and Janie on Providence Road.

That was not what was intended by our founding fathers.

George Washington was president, but he also went home to run his farm. He had to listen to and represent his neighbors. The same was essentially true for all elective officials.

I would suggest considering a move back to those conditions.

Rather than point fingers at how little time the Senate and the House of Representatives spend in session in Washington, perhaps we should reduce the length of campaigns and legislative sessions (and the participants’ pay).

Send them home to local concerns.

Perhaps we should rescind the expansion of the Kentucky legislature from bi-yearly sessions to yearly sessions. Have we really been improved by having the legislature meet every year?

Send them home to local concerns.

Make all of them part-time lawmakers and full-time neighbors.

Just a thought…

High Flyin’

I would have been 13 or 14 years old when one day I heard this funny little song about outhouses on the radio. It was Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.” It got a lot of play for a few weeks before local radio returned to its breathless documentation of the British Invasion. Whimsical fantasies about plumbing architecture trends in Appalachia didn’t stand a chance against the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark 5, and that other group.

But there was wisdom in the whimsy. Mr. Wheeler described the title facility;

 

Now, it was not a castle fair, but I could dream my future there,

And build my castles to the yellowjacket’s drone.

I could orbit ‘round the sun, fight with General Washington,

Or be a king upon a golden throne.

 

Life-changing?

Hardly.

But it stayed with me and suggested something I was just beginning to suspect; my imagination and a quiet place might be a powerful antidote to the random adult violence depicted by Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley.

The next year I heard the Kingston Trio deliver with typical Kingston Trio gusto the instructions of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Desert Pete”;

 

You’ve got to prime the pump.

You must have faith and believe.

You’ve got to give of yourself

‘Fore you’re worthy to receive.

 

A simple thought; one I had learned in Sunday school and Cub Scouts, but now had outgrown in my teenage cynicism. I was so much older then…

It wasn’t until I heard Judy Collins on her concert album talk about Wheeler and sing three of his songs that his songs became important to me.

Ms. Collins sang his elegant description of a “Red-Wing Blackbird”;

 

O can you hear that pretty little bird singin’ with all his heart and soul?

He’s got a blood-red spot on his wing, and all of the rest of ‘im’s black as coal.

 

That’s my bird now.

It belongs to me and my part of the country.

I may not be happy about the sombre imagery (“When a man spills blood on the coal…”), but it belongs to my home state.

It’s my bird singin’.

Ms. Collins also sang his amazingly prescient “Coal Tattoo.”

 

Travelin’ down that coal town road; listen to my rubber tires whine.

Goodbye to buckeye and white sycamore. I’m leavin’ you behind.

I got no job and I got no pay – just got a worried soul,

And a blue tattoo on the side of my head left by the #9 coal.

 

This in the mid-60s’ and more true now.

A couple of years later, Wheeler anticipated the coal country environmental anxieties of the 21st century in his “Coming of the Roads”;

 

Look how they’ve cut all to pieces our ancient poplar and oak,

And the hillsides are stained with the greases, and they’ve burned up our heavens with smoke.

 

Is Mr. Wheeler the the Madame Cleo of the Smokies or have we not been paying attention? Perhaps a bit of both.

Grim stuff.

It gets grimmer.

Two of my favorite Wheeler songs speak of the longing to fly…but with a price.

In “High-Flyin’ Bird”;

 

There’s a high-flyin’ bird flying way up in the sky

And I wonder if she looks down on me as she goes on by?

Lord, look at me here. I’m rooted like a tree here.

Got those sit-down, can’t cry

Oh Lord, gonna die blues

 

And the song ends with specificity;

 

And the only way to fly is die.

 

He echoes this thought in “Winter Sky.”

 

Out under the winter sky

Out under the winter sky

Stars come tremblin’ on my eye.

Hand me wings for to fly.

And I feel like somethin’s gonna die.

I feel like somethin’s gonna die,

And me with it.

 

I wonder if once again Mr. Wheeler has accurately predicted, 50 years ago, a mind-set of today. In a geography of few opportunities, no jobs, education possibilities starved of funds, and little hope, how can you fly?

How?

In a geography of dwindling art experiences to spark dreaming of futures and castles and orbiting the sun, how can you even dream of flying?

How?

Well…………of course there are pharmaceuticals.

Tough Time for Heroes

I think my first hero was Mickey Mantle. Then I learned there were problems with alcohol.

Then it was Pete Rose……

Then it was groups; reporters, yippies, writers, comedians, teachers, US bicycle racers, film directors.

It seems the anointing of a hero leads quickly to the toppling of a hero.

Especially now.

Especially this month.

I’m not sure I can live in a world without heroes.

What to do?

Yesterday I attended an event that suggested a couple of places to look for heroes today.

I was flattered to be invited to be in the audience for the Senior Recital of a young singer I met when I did a small role in last year’s University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of RAGTIME. The singer is a fierce, intelligent man of strong opinion and strong voice. I suspect his strong opinions will occasionally get in his way as he journeys through life. I also suspect his intelligence and strong voice will cause people to listen carefully to his strong opinions and we may all made better for it…including him.

That would be OK, wouldn’t it?

He sang a song cycle by a Spanish composer I did not know; Xavier Montsalvatge. The song; “Punto de Habanera” is racy and probably presents a point-of-view that’s far too masculine for this week’s news cycle. “Canción de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito” is a beautiful lullaby with the politically-incorrect sentiment; “Close your eyes, frightened little black boy; the white boogey-man is going to come and eat you.” The songs were sung with passion and control…AND passion and a determination to make things better. That might be heroic enough to withstand today’s 24/7/365 media eye.

He also sang of Don Quixote.

It was Ravel’s song cycle; “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.”

Quixote is a personal hero of mine. He fights dragons that are actually windmills…and loses. He physically defends the honor of maidens that can ill afford physical honor. He sees glory and beauty in the mundane.

Ravel’s Quixote swears to Dulcinea that at her request he will;

  • Stop the Earth from turning.
  • Remove the stars from the sky.
  • Put the stars back in their place.

He will of course fail on all counts……but he will try……for her.

He prays in delight to St. Michael and St. George for assistance in these efforts…for her.

He is, by 2017, a thoroughly vetted hero. I will be very surprised if emails, dossiers, or accusers emerge to shine new, righteous light on his failings. His failings are well-known and they are admired by me.

Whew!

Perhaps this is where we must look for our heroes today;

  • In the past.
  • In the arts.
  • In our fierce youth, beginning their journeys.

I’m OK with that.

Ask Permission

“How can men embrace feminism and still be gentlemen?”

The question was posed by a male Facebook friend just now. I understand the consternation.

I like to open doors for women, especially my wife. They don’t need for me to do it. They’re certainly strong enough to open their own doors. In Janie’s case, she’s probably more capable than I am. She’s strong, like bull – a graceful like the dancer she is.

I love to hold Janie’s coat as she slips into it. She doesn’t need for me to do it. She’s far better at dressing herself than I am at dressing myself.

When we’re out, I like to hold her chair as she sits at dinner. She absolutely has no need for me to do so – strong and graceful, remember?

So.

Why do I do it?

For me.

It’s a feeble attempt to atone for rude and stupid moments from the past. It’s an elementary school level reasoning; “if I’m nice to you today, maybe it makes up for one stupid and rude thing I did yesterday.”

Of course it doesn’t, but for a moment, it feels like my world has been made a smidge better and that I was the agent for that improvement. That’s not a bad thing. A selfish thing perhaps, but not a bad thing.

But Janie and the other women in my life don’t need to participate in my atonement. Indeed, they may feel belittled by my “gentlemanly” actions.

So.

I try to ask for permission.

It may be a look. It may be spoken.

If it’s spoken, it’s a request, not an order. It’s “May I?” not “Let me.”

“Let me” implies “You need for me to do this for you.”

“May I” states clearly “I really would like to do this for you and you’d be doing me a personal favor by allowing to do so.”

Would I want to do these courtly deeds for men as well as women? Yes, but permission from men is seldom given and the request, in any form, is most often resented.

Am I over-thinking this?

Probably.

It’s my gift.

I’ll simplify it.

In every happy and life-enhancing and guilt-free experience I’ve had with the opposite sex, permission was asked. Thus, my two-word answer to the question; “How can men embrace feminism and still be gentlemen?” is;

Ask permission.

Lucky Us

It’s a big weekend for my hometown and my beloved University of Kentucky.

  • The football team won and still has a chance to play for something big.
  • Ditto for the basketball teams – male and female.
  • Ditto for two singers from our nationally-ranked opera theatre program.

Please notice especially that last item.

The District Auditions for the Metropolitan Opera were held in Lexington this afternoon in a lovely room; the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church.

I attended. Let me tell you about my day.

This lovely room is located in downtown Lexington, a few doors down from Henry Clay’s law office, a few blocks away from Mary Todd Lincoln’s home, and about two blocks away from Gratz Park (the heart of old Lexington) and the home of Thomas Hunt Morgan, Nobel Prize-winning brilliant Lexingtonian. The room is wood, and stained glass, and wood, and soaring ceilings, and wood, and memories of the funerals of personally-remembered brilliant Lexingtonians, and wood.

Today, it was all that filled with beautiful young singers singing humanity’s most beautiful songs beautifully all afternoon long…for free.

I watched and heard my friend Cynthia Lawrence, Metropolitan Opera star (I don’t believe anyone has sung with Luciano Pavarotti as often as Ms. Lawrence) lead a large audience in a seismic rendition of the National Anthem. Now we can all say we’ve sung at the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.

I watched and heard Jessica Bayne mesmerize the room with her Bellini number.

I watched and heard Taylor Comstock remind everyone of his recent stratospheric performance in LA TRAVIATA.

I watched and heard my friend Thabang Masango simultaneously charm and inspire the room with his Donizetti.

I watched and heard my friend Zachary Morris stir the room with his “New York Lights” from A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE.

I watched and heard Rebecca Farley force me to resist the urge to warn her of her fate if she believed the blandishments of the Duke in RIGOLETTO.

I watched and heard Mary Catherine Wright break the hearts of the male half of the room with her Handel piece.

Some of these singers were proclaimed “winners” by day’s end and will go on to compete in the Regional Auditions in Chicago in January, but the real winners were those of us in the wooden pews of the lovely room to watch and hear.

The ultimate winner is Lexington which, for a while, gets to be home for these remarkable young people as they mature before leaving to populate the planet with singers.

Lucky us.

The Dylan Thomas & Groucho Marx Meeting You Never Heard About

The Dylan Thomas and Groucho Marx Meeting You Never Heard About

 

It would have been in the fall of 1968.

It was a big night for little Roger.

I was a senior in high school and I was going to see the college theatre guys at the University of Kentucky do a play.

It was a student production of Dylan Thomas’ sublime UNDER MILKWOOD in the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs Theatre). I love Dylan Thomas’ work and I especially love THIS Dylan Thomas piece. It’s told in small town voices that resonate in all the world and in all times. Over the years I have discovered for myself several pieces that do similar services for us; Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO, Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, and Davis Grubbs’ profound and relevant THE VOICES OF GLORY. People talking about themselves…there’s nothing truer…even when they’re lying.

I’m sitting in the middle of the house. The lights dim. And isn’t that the moment?

Isn’t it??

Anything can happen!

Chances are very good that by the closing curtain, you will not be the same person as you were before the lights dimmed.

You will have been moved.

Perhaps an inch…perhaps a mile…

You will have been changed.

Perhaps into……?

I always hope so.

This particular night, I’m facing a darkened middle stage, framed by two lit podiums. The podiums are inhabited by two young actors who intone the opening narration.

The stage right actor reaches a crucial moment…

Wait!

If we could take a moment for a seemingly extraneous thought…

In his exquisite Carnegie Hall concert, Groucho Marx relates how he first got into show business. Please understand, I’m paraphrasing from memory.

“I needed a job. I read an ad in the paper that offered employment. You had to apply at an address near my home. I ran five blocks to a building and climbed six flights of stairs and knocked on the door. A guy answered wearing lipstick and high heels. I thought; ‘How long has this been going on?’”

…end of the seemingly extraneous thought.

Back to UNDER MILKWOOD…

The stage right actor reaches a crucial moment and says;

“We look in on the sleepy town of Milkwood as the dawn inches up…”

It doesn’t.

The actor hurls some serious “side-eye” to the middle of the stage but stammers on. He rambles through various unconnected bits of Dylan Thomas prose, giving the light crew a chance to awake. Finally ready to try again, he suggests;

“We look in on the sleepy town of Milkwood as the dawn inches up…”

Nope.

No joy.

No light.

Only despair etched in our young thespian’s countenance.

To his credit, he drones on. I catch snatches of Shakespeare, Pinter, Lewis Carroll (“The Walrus and the Carpenter” no less), and maybe a filthy limerick or two. Eventually, he closes his eyes and prays. Then the eyes open wide and he shouts;

“WelookinonthesleepytownofMilkwoodasthedawninchesup…”

BAM!

Lights up full!!!

The young actor staggers back under the luminous assault and in a clear state of relief.

The show goes on.

Man!

How long has this been going on?

Pitino Musings

Pitino Musings

 

A “Lexpatriot” friend (temporarily living in the Northwest until he inevitably is drawn back to where he belongs), prompted by recent FBI/NCAA headlines, asked me this week what I thought of Rick Pitino. The quick and easy answer that slipped into my mind was a quote from that source of all wisdom, Facebook;

“It’s complicated”.

But it’s not.

The Italian restaurant incident, the basketball dorm stripper parties, the big-dollar payments to lure college basketball talent, and a couple of un-admirable experiences related to me by local business friends that occurred during Mr. Pitino’s University of Kentucky career are more than enough evidence to convince me that I would not want a child of mine to grow up to be like him. And isn’t that the bottom line of what a coach ought to be?

… << ahem >> …isn’t that what an adult ought to be?

…… <<double ahem>> ……isn’t that what an adult ought to expect from another coach/adult?

…or even demand?

So.

Why is it complicated?

I believe we are profoundly confused about sports.

Except in some movies and imaginary decadent Rome, sports are not existential. They’re games. They’re amusements. We should not be so serious and somber about players kneeling (or not), whether replay is a good thing or not, whether “one-and-done” is the best strategy in basketball or sketchy restaurants. It’s a GAME, ferchrissakes! Nobody’s gonna die…well, maybe at the sketchy restaurant.

There are, right now, possibly existential things happening the world;

  • North Korea’s belligerence.
  • Russia’s clear-to-anyone-with-half-a-mind current cyber-attack on our country.
  • Climate change.

Sports is not one of them.

Yet sports is what we dwell upon overmuch.

I’m guilty.

I find myself living and dying 15 times a night during UK Wildcat games. My seeming life and death held in the hands of five to six young men who were trying to garner a date to the senior high school prom nine months ago. As passionate as I am, part of me knows it’s just me being foolish…and entertained by my own foolishness.

I may alternately rave or moon about baseball and “my beloved Reds”, but that’s just me being romantic and nostalgic…and perhaps…dare we say…old.

But it’s just a game.

Except…

There was a time in Lexington in 1989 when things were about as depressing as things could be. The UK basketball team had justifiably been spotlighted by Sports Illustrated magazine with a cover story headlined; “Kentucky’s Shame”. A player had been recruited to UK’s team with dollars direct. Maybe not the amounts bandied about today, but it was the existence of the deed, not the amplitude. The coach was removed, the athletics director left as well, the offending assistant was ostracized, and the program laden with appropriate penalties. Players left. Gloom and guilt signed long leases in the community.

At an initial press conference, the new AD at UK, C. M. Newton introduced his choice as the new coach, Rick Pitino.

Pitino’s confidence and his demeanor at that first press conference changed everything in my home town. Belief and will kicked gloom and guilt out of their digs. Mr. Pitino took the remaining Kentucky players (who were almost all FROM Kentucky) and over the next 24 months made them into the best versions of themselves. He took them from “shame” to one shot away the Final Four, and took Lexington along for the ride.

No, I would not want a child of mine to grow up to be like him.

But I will always be grateful for what he did for my home town.

It was unforgettable.