Archive for December, 2009

I’m supposed to be making a set list for the show I’m doing tonight at Providence’s Bright Night (like First Night, but without the official name and licensing). Bright Night’s survival is hanging by a thread, having lost its funding from the city and some other sources, and because the weather last year killed the attendance and thereby the revenues. The local artists and the intrepid organizer, Adma Gertsacov, are plowing ahead in the belief that it’s a worthwhile venture, hoping that people will turn up.

So if you’re in the Providence area, please show up – we need you. Not to mention that it will be a good time. (http://www.brightnight.org/)

But getting ready for the show has me thinking of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with many performers – we all are experiencing the continued erosion of attendance at public arts events. For many years, and particularly over the past two or three, I’ve seen a noticeable drop-off in audience size. While some of this can be blamed on the economy and the current concerns about the flu, I think even if/when things get straightened out there, we’re seeing a significant shift in people’s behavior.

People don’t go out.

Every performer I talk to is concerned about it. Major presenters are guessing and gambling on what will draw an audience in. Local musicians find themselves being paid less at clubs than they were ten years ago (if they can find a club that has music). Artists are scrambling, juggling more and making less. And a good percentage of a younger generation thinks art should be free, anyway.

No surprise to any of us, I know. Putting the economy aside, everyone knows that digital entertainment has changed the the way we relate to art and content – the local paper, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, had a front page article about Bright Night, and right below it made suggestions for what movies to curl up with at home tonight. Inertia will win for many, and they’ll curl up and watch something at home. And tomorrow, Bright Night will be gone, but the movie suggestions won’t (if people bother to read the paper for suggestions). The digital media is relentless, and live performance is not so persistent. We don’t have the access or funding.

There are at least two things that are really troubling to me about this.

The first is pretty selfish – in spite of all the things I do (including this blog) I am at heart a live performer. It’s my bread and butter, and I need it to live. So, I need people to show up. Recognizing that things are a little bleak in the performing world, I’m making adjustments. I can survive. Like I joke with my friends – why not brain surgery? I think people still get paid for doing brain surgery.

But the other issue is deeper – What does it say that people do not spend time watching live performance in a room with other people? What’s being lost? We are, in the end, a communal animal (my friend Bob Stromberg says we want to be eagles, but we’re really geese) – not just in the sharing of minds, but in the sharing of warmth and physical presence. And the experience of sharing something communally – some artistic experience – is something we’ve done since we stood up and walked. Are we better off isolated in our houses and cubicles with headphones on, listening to our personal soundtracks?

Eric Booth, in his great book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible says the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment reaffirms what the audience believes whereas art takes the audience outside of themselves. We need both (and it could be from the same song, or play, or book, or movie, or painting), but certainly being at a live performance, in the company of other people, is one good way to take a step a little bit outside one’s self.

So come on out. Now, I have to go make that set list.


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Here’s a story about the holiday season. I wish I could say it was about generosity, but it’s really about greed and gluttony. Best wishes to everyone.

When I was growing up, the holiday season always had a special kind of excitement – there were so many people around, no one could watch everything I was doing.

It’s a weird thing for a kid –the more adults, the less they notice. One adult – police state, ten adults – joyous anarchy.

This meant it was possible to tease my younger brother more, or annoy my older brother more. There I was right in the middle, where I could annoy everyone, and since the grownups were so busy, they didn’t notice me!

And there were parties. Everyone in our neighborhood had parties. We would tromp over to their houses and the grownups would stand in the living room and the kitchen and talk and talk and talk, and as long as no one bled to death, the kids could do anything they wanted.

But we were ignored by and large, and it was very rarely we heard any adult say what they said during the rest of the year –

“What do you think you’re doing?”

There is no good answer to that question.

The only sane response is, “I don’t know.”

The best part of all that confusion and commotion was that there was a lot of food around and no one to tell you not to eat it.

My mom made cookies. There were tins and tins of cookies of all kinds. No one knew who ate them.

I did.

There was all kind of cheese and crackers at our house and other people’s houses.

No one knew who ate them all.

I did.

My grandmother made her famous yeast rolls. They tasted so good with butter on them! She made hundreds of them.

No one knew who ate them all.

I did.

The Christmas I was eight, everyone was coming to our house. All the living grandparents (three). Distant cousins. Strangers off the street. Even my brothers were invited, since they lived in the house. So many people were coming, I would be sleeping in a sleeping bag on my parent’s bedroom floor. My mother spent all week preparing the Christmas Eve dinner, telling us not to eat anything in the house.

Our neighbors, the Sogards, invited us to an afternoon party on Christmas Eve. My mom said we would go around 4 o’clock and visit for a short time, while the ham was in the oven, then come back and have our dinner. We had to put on corduroy pants that made weird noises and dress shoes and tuck in our shirts. (“Tuck in your shirt! Tuck in your shirt!”, they said, like it was the only thing that was keeping civilization from completely falling apart.) All the food was in our kitchen, ready to go. My mom had appetizers covered with plastic wrap. I snuck some crackers and cheese and my mom came in and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

I was eating, that’s what I was doing. Who knew if I’d ever eat again?

At the Sogards, it was almost all grownups, except for their worthless grandchilren – all younger than five years old. You couldn’t even use them as toys – what was their purpose?

Mrs. Sogard started bringing out the food. There were crackers; there was some sausage that was hard to cut; there was a huge block of cheddar cheese – when I cut a piece that must have weighed half a pound, my dad saw me and said “What do you think you’re doing?”

More and more people came. The whole neighborhood arrived, it seemed, and Mrs. Sogard kept putting out food. Soon there was an impossible amount of food – too much to be monitored.

And way too many people for parents to pay attention to me.

And then Mrs. Sogard brought out a very interesting appetizer. They looked promising – tiny little hot dogs, wrapped up in little bits of freshly baked bread that looked like my grandmothers fresh rolls.

“What are those?” I asked.

“They’re pigs in a blanket,” she said. “Would you like to try one?”

“Sure,” I said.

What an exotic food! And they were the perfect size! Why wasn’t all food this size, so you could hold five of them in your hand?

She took a little paper plate and put one on it and gave it to me with a napkin.

“Try one and see if you like it,” she said.

Like it?

I loved it.

It was the perfect food – freshly baked bread and hot dogs. It had all the important food groups in it.

I circled around and had another one.

My older brother discovered them.

“Pigs in a blanket!” he said. “I love pigs in a blanket.”

Not as much as I did. And I believed whoever loved them more should get more.

My brother took one.

I took two.

“Hey,” he said. “Stop eating all of them. Don’t be a pig.”

I kept circling the table, like a Piper Cub practicing take offs and landings. I watched the grownups. Every time they took a pig in a blanket I worried there would not be enough for me. Desire is nine-tenths of ownership, and they all belonged to me. Every time I thought no one was looking I took a couple more. Once I took four in each hand. No one noticed.

Finally, there was just one on the plate. I was standing close to it, wondering what I should do, when Mrs. Sogard came up. “Oh my,” she said, “those are very popular. Would you like the last one?”

Well, since she asked, I took it – only being polite.

“I’ll have to go get some more,” she said.

More? More?

I loved Christmas.

She took the plate and disappeared into the kitchen and came back with another plate, filled with dozens of pigs in a blanket.

Who knows how many pigs in a blanket I ate? Too many to count.

On my last attack of the plate, I took five in one hand. My brother saw me. “Stop eating all of those pigs in a blanket! You’ll spoil your dinner.”

He didn’t care about me spoiling my dinner – it was just something adults said, so he was saying it to me. He cared about the pigs in a blanket.

My mother heard us arguing. She came up and I tried to hide them.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said

“Well, you can’t put them back. Just don’t take any more.”

There were no more to take. It was the first time in my whole life I was allowed to eat everything I wanted to eat. I was thankful there were no more, in fact.

Then we went home for our big dinner.

They put food on my plate. I stared at it. Who cared about food? It seemed the most uninteresting thing in the world. I was totally dazed.

“Don’t you like my rolls?” my grandmother asked.

I nibbled on one. Something about them didn’t taste good anymore. Same with the ham and the mashed potatoes and the chocolate cake and all the cookies my mom had been protecting for weeks. All ruined, somehow.

We hung up our stockings. I rolled out the sleeping bag in my parent’s room and climbed in. My brain was excited, but my stomach was not. It woke me up in the middle of the night.

“Get up,” it said. “I want to give some of these back.”

“You can’t,” I said, “they’re yours now. I gave them to you and you have to keep them.”

“I don’t want them.”

“You have to keep them,” I said.

“No, I don’t,” my stomach insisted.

I didn’t even make it to my parent’s bathroom.

My stomach gave back dozens of them – many of them it had barely even looked at. The crime was obvious and impressive. There they were-dozens of pigs in a blanket on my parent’s bedroom carpet.

My mom was up with me all night, while I was dragging myself on my knees back and forth from my sleeping bag to the bathroom.

“What did you think you were doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said between explosions. My stomach gave back things I had given it months before.

It was a Christmas I have never forgotten. My mother remembered it, too.

Leave it to my brother to make the final comment on Christmas morning.

I could barely open my presents. I sat on the couch with my sleeping bag wrapped around me, my stomach still turning somersaults. I wouldn’t eat for a week.

“What’ wrong with Bill?” one of my grandmothers asked.

“Look,” he said. “It’s a pig in a blanket.”

It wasn’t funny then.

But it’s funny now.

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Murder, sex and racism - too much for a nine year old?

Last weekend I saw a great production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Second Story Theater in Warren, Rhode Island. In spite of myself, having read the book numerous times, I found myself hoping, even believing, that Tom Robinson would be acquitted. No such luck.

I think the power of “Mockingbird” lies in its point of view – momentous events are seen through the eyes of a child. As such, they have much more power and effect than if they were presented from the point of view of some jaded adult.
But is this a story a kid can understand? Are their really kids like Scout – with so much fortitude and perception? What are they capable of processing?

After the play, I had a discussion with Janice Okoomian, a friend whose son was in the play (the kids were great – kudos to director Mark Peckham) and we talked about what elementary school-aged kids understood about the play. Initially, she watched her son Arek carefully as the play was in rehearsal, wondering how he would process and interpret the events portrayed– events which include murder, rape and the outward expression of a violent racism. She was unsure how much he would understand, and how much she would have to explain. How much should a kid know? Mark, the director, assured her after a couple of weeks of rehearsal that Arek “understood absolutely everything”. But even that presents a question – what does it mean to say he understood everything? Who does?

It left me thinking about what children can handle, and when they can handle it.

Arek is a bright kid, raised by very intelligent parents who treat him with respect. Thre’s a large amount of trust involved in letting a kid be in a play like “Mockingbird”. Still, it’s a lot for a nine or ten year old to handle. In that respect, Arek is a kid like Scout, growing up in the same environment as Scout – Atticus treats the children in his life with respect, dignity, and high expectations. In both cases, the children rise to the occasion, and are better for it.

But I’m thinking that a lot of this has to do with context – you don’t subject kids unnecessarily to gratuitous violence or cruelty, but when it happens, you make sure you’re there for them, helping to place those events and experiences in a broader setting. In the case of theater and story, the moral aspect of the work is incredibly important for a children’s understanding and ability to cope– one reason “Mockingbird” has such resonance with us is its incredible moral dimension. There is no outright victory for justice (a hard lesson for all of us), but there’s never a question of who the heroes are. This is not a cut and dried morality, either, but instead the difficult task of developing a sense of what’s important in life and standing up for it. In the case of “Mockingbird”, it’s Atticus’s explanation that “he couldn’t live with himself” if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson. Kids understand that much, and love Atticus for it – and they see what comes from acting on that belief. Being true to one’s self is no easy road, but Atticus Finch gives us a road map. I know more than one lawyer doing public service work who’s a lawyer because of Atticus Finch.

I also think that Arek and other kids like him (Scout included) will come to understand as much as they need to, and not more. When the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together, they’ll make a new puzzle. Hopefully, with our help.

Exposing kids to this kind of experience and engaging in the following conversation is challenging and time-consuming. And it’s a totally different approach from that of a mother a librarian friend told me about – the mom was upset that her children were reading Captain Underpants, but willingly took her first grade daughter to see Twilight.
What’s wrong with that picture?
She was no Atticus Finch.

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For want of a light bulb, the lesson was lost.....

I’ve been thinking about janitors.

Maybe because I’m waiting to hear from a publisher about a book of mine. It’s a picture book a kid and his interaction with the school janitor (er, custodian – more on that in a second). The kid is afraid of Mr. Rumkowsky, but he has to find his hat, and Mr. Rumkowsky (the janitor – custodian) might have it.

Remember your janitor?

It’s a tongue in cheek joke, but it’s often said that the two people who run any school are the secretary and the janitor. They may not teach, but, in addition, hopefully, to the principal, they are the ones who have an overall view of what is going on in the school.

I know from my work as a visiting artist that if the janitor doesn’t feel like helping, I’m going to have a tough job. Where are the chairs? Can you sweep the floor? – someone spilled their cheese curls. The door is sticking. The radiator in Room 17 isn’t working. The food delivery truck can’t get to the loading dock because someone parked there. Any one of those things will mess up a school schedule, and thereby the learning process in a place that has to manipulate four hundred souls for eight hours.

Janitors are key. Actually – custodians. The folks who do all that necessary, often invisible, work would rather we call them custodians. One of them pointed out to me, “Janitors just clean, I take care of things. Don’t call me a janitor. I’m a custodian.”

And custodian is a nice thought – some one who has custody of a place. Someone who cares for it. Every school needs that.

Which is why I scratched my head when a friend of mine, a school librarian in a local elementary school, told me that they have no custodian. In a penny-wise, pound-foolish move, the system decided to out-source the “custodial services”. Now the hired service comes early in the morning, at lunch time, and late in the afternoon and does their work (exactly as contracted) and has no interaction with the rest of the school staff.

There is, I guess, still a little room where the supplies are kept. Children throw up during the school day, and waiting until 5 pm might be a little much. Remember? The smell makes everyone else throw up. There must be a place to get wood chips.

But if one little thing goes wrong, uh oh.

Life is about things going wrong. Like they say, “Man plans, the universe laughs”.

Like my friend’s overhead projector. The light bulb burnt out. It didn’t work and she needed it. There was no custodian to ask. She looked around the school. No one knew where the replacement bulbs were or how to fix it. Someone in the office told her if she needed a new overhead projector, she could send in a purchase order. Easier to get a new projector than a new bulb?

Her husband came to rescue. He looked at the make of the projector, Googled the company, got the diagram of the projector and ordered the $2 bulb, then replaced it himself.

I guess the spouses of school staff count as community. But it would be nice if the school system paid for that kind of thing.


I’ve talked in earlier posts about schools being gift-giving communities, not businesses. It seems to me that a custodian, or caretaker, is an important part of that. At the school I work at regularly, the Paul Cuffee School, the custodian Henry greets all the kids in the morning. I’m pretty sure it’s not in his job description.

I’m also thinking that the contract custodial service companies have no interest in their employees talking to six year olds.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

Stories about custodians? I’d love to hear them. You can call them janitors, but don’t forget how important they are.

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