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Posts Tagged ‘community’

recycling binSome food for thought.

Maybe you’re like me and spend part of your time beating yourself up over things you should be doing.

Like not returning bottles for their deposits.

Rather than redeem them at the store down the street, I chuck them into the recycling bin. Every time I do this I scold myself. Why don’t I return them for the deposit? I don’t know.

Well, actually, I do know. I am a bad person. I am slothful, and indolent. And lazy. And lack willpower and am morally deficient. To get the money back, I would actually  have to put them in a box, put them in a car and take them to the redemption center. Imagine the energy it takes to do that. I am overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a useless individual and total spendthrift who wastes money and time and everything else, my mind comes to rest on my failure to take in bottles to get all those nickels back.

I could have retired by now. Millions of dollars wasted by not returning bottles.  While they are being recycled, I am not being financially responsible.  If there’s one thing that shows my moral failings, it’s my financial irresponsility. I’m sure none of you ever feel like that.

But now, I am content in my sloth and indolence. Sometimes there is nothing like dragging your feet when you’re supposed to be responsible, efficient and frugal. Sometimes it takes while for the purpose of an action to reveal itself.

About a month ago, I dragged out the recycling to the curb. There was a big container of bottles to be recycled (and I don’t want to discuss why there were so many and what had been in them…). I stood there looking at them thinking “You’re a lazy idiot. You should take them in and get the money for them.”

But it was late. And I was lazy. I chose guilt over action.

Something woke me early in the morning – it was still dark, around 5:45. I heard a noise outside. There were bottles and cans clinking and rattling out by the street. An alcoholic opossum? Or dog? A coyote? A squirrel? All these things were possible.

I got up from bed, quietly opened the door onto the porch and looked out onto the street. A car was pulled up by my driveway, its headlights illuminating my recycling bin. Someone was sifting through my recycling. They were stealing my bottles! In a weird, irrational response, I at first felt like I was being violated. Someone was taking my stuff! That stuff was worth something! I should yell at him to stop!

Then I saw the irony in that. By dragging it out to the curb, I had kind of declared what it was worth to me.

I watched the guy get in the car and drive down to my neighbor’s driveway, where he did the same thing. Bottles clinking, him pawing through the recycling bin, earning a nickel with each bottle he found. I got back in bed and lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about it. Then I fell asleep for another hour and forgot about it.

Until the next Wednesday morning, when I was again awakened by the sound of clinking bottles.

And last week, too.  Always the same time, around 5:45, give or take five minutes.

So now I am thinking about the diligence and need of someone driving down my street collecting the bottles for deposit at 5:45 in the morning. I am thinking what a small thing it is, and what it means.

I hope he makes a million dollars. Or buys some food.  Or get whatever it is he needs. It is a small offering, but one I now happily make every Tuesday night when I drag out the recycling bins. My lacksidaisical approach to frugality is someone else’s boon. I can live with that.

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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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Well, it’s taken years – way too long – but I finally have a professional video of one of my song (Not destined to be the video star, I suspect). Along with Rhode Island Public Broadcasting we’ve produced a video of my song “Wash Your Hands”. Working with Maria and Scott Saracen and kids from Henry Barnard School and Paul Cuffee School, we took the song I wrote a couple of years ago and it’s now being played on Rhode Island public television, and hopefully will go to others around the country. The RI Department of Health is promoting it and getting the word out to other state health departments.

If you go to my website, you can download the song for free, and also free posters here.

Making the video, and working with so many talented people, has reminded me of what my work is. I want to make good music, and good art. But I also want to say something. I have never been one for lecturing in my work – I would rather be descriptive of a kid’s experience rather than prescriptive of how they should behave. But in some instances, particularly ones of public health, it just makes sense to tell it like it is simply and directly. This is one of those.

A number of years ago I served on an advisory group for the Harvard Center for Children’s Health. I would go up to Cambridge and sit in a boardroom every couple of months and listen to public health professionals and researchers talk about their findings and then try to figure out how to let people know what they had learned. There tends to be a separation between the academic world and folks on the street and we were trying to bridge that gap. One of the things I learned about public health is that no one ever sees the plague that didn’t happen, and public health programs are concerned with stopping the plague before it happens.

If art (however you want to define that…) helps, so much the better.

This is nowhere more true than washing hands. It seems so ridiculously simple and stupid you almost don’t want to say it. But it has to be said. Over and over again.

As an aside here, I might say, at the risk of grossing out a number of people, I am always amazed at the large number of people (adults, males) in airports who do not bother to wash their hands in the restrooms. Astounding. Eeek. Ewwwwww. ‘Nuff said.

So we can spend billions of dollars on expensive procedures, but health is mostly preserved through simple things. Like washing hands. The problem is no one makes money at it. That’s the problem with our health care system – it wants to make money, not preserve health.

So here’s my offering. I wrote it as simply as a I could. It is not high art. In fact, I purposely used the melody of the typical children’s taunt for the hook in the chorus (na na na na naaa!). That minor third is the children’s interval.It will drive you crazy if you let it. And if it keeps some kid from getting sick (or the adults, too), then I don’t mind at all.

Hope you like the video.

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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-from Tackling the Problems of Appalachia, Theatrically, in the New York Times


Last week there was a great article in the New York Times about a professor at a community college in Kentucky who got sick of reading reports about poverty and social problems in Eastern Kentucky. Rather than issuing one more report or one more set of statistics, he decided to write and produce plays about the communities there and the problems they faced. You can read it here (if you’re not over your Times limit). It’s really inspiring to see how someone has put people’s lives in a context that they can understand, using song and story, and community people as actors.

The articlemakes me think about the many uses and purposes of art. In particular, I was stuck by a quote at the end of the article by Robert Gipe, the professor:

“Somewhere along the line, artistic validity became associated with everything ending in a mess,” he said. “But if you articulate what’s best in us and put characters in front of people who don’t resort to their basest instincts, that’s real, too.”

What Gipe is saying, I think, is that you make a choice about your aesthetic, and the way you view the world, and how you present it artistically. He wants to uplift people, and that influences how he approaches his art. Some artists would say that art shouldn’t have to have a purpose – it just is. Gipe and others (including me, usually) think their art does have a purpose. It’s to show the world in a way that people look at it anew. And it’s to offer hope.

There is a tendency among people who view themselves as artists to not want to make things happy at the end, and a tendency to dismiss something with an uplifting ending as sentimental and cheap. As a result, artists can tend towards the cynical, or dark side. This is a strain that runs through art, and it is something every artist has to deal with. One reason, I think, is that art with positive endings tend to be more marketable, and artists tend to worry about whether they are commercial. Most artists want to be non-commercial and successful (if that seems like a paradox, there it is…) So, if a commercial art errs on the side of uplift, “serious” artists may err on the side of darkness.

The other reason artists shy from positive message is that that kind of uplifting image really tends to reinforce the status quo. “See? Everything is okay!” uplifting art seems to be saying. It’s what sets our teeth on edge with the American movie industry and the Disneyfied portrayal of conflict. “It’s all just individual effort,” such art says. “You can do it!”

And of course, that’s a lie. It is you, but it’s also the world you face. People have their own abilities and will, but they also are handed a set of circumstances that are sometimes overwhelming.

This tension runs through all art. Most artists who labor on their work in the end are concerned about three things: 1) speaking the truth as they see it 2) exploring their craft and artistry 3) making a living. There’s enough tension in those things to keep you up late at night. Believe me.

But the work of this theater group shows the false dichotomy in saying you can’t be uplifting and produce serious art at the same time. I think particularly of the work of Liz Lerman, who goes into communities and has them tell the stories of who they are through dance. It is uplifting and real at the same time.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the world, but I also don’t want to say there’s no hope. That’s my aesthetic. When I get it right.

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On Saturday, Debbie and I organized the second action for the Good Juju Team. Assembling over a hundred people at the Trinity Brew Pub in downtown Providence for a rehearsal, we rehearsed and then proceeded to the Providence Place Mall, where we handed out clown noses, shopped (well, some of us), and led a parade through three flights of stores.

Here we are at the brew pub (thanks to Josh Miller and staff):

It was a bit of a stretch for some of us – a little different from what we normally do. But people were game. We all walked over in small groups and reached the mall. At the appointed time, we put on our own noses and began to hand out the ones stuffed in our pockets. Here’s the beginning – the first sightings of clowns:

At the Apple Store

In the “esplanade”:

Suddenly, we seemed to be in the majority.

The shop owners particularly welcomed the change of scene.


By the end, everyone at least knew about the noses. It was amazing, and interesting to see people’s reactions to a clown nose being handed to them for free. It was, in a sense, a litmus test for how one approaches the world. Amazingly, and joyfully, most people were up to the task. A lot of people marched with us, even more at least put noses on, and many more put noses in their pockets to give to their children or grandchildren.

Or to wear when they got home.

Here’s the video of everything.

We learned a lot about doing these things. What struck me most of all about the day is that all the agents were willing to go a little out of their comfort zone (okay, some LIVE outside their comfort zone) – and when you take a step out of it, you discover that the world is a lot more available and open than you had considered before. After handing out noses, parading through the mall looking like an idiot, and playing “Three Blind Mice” on a kazoo for 15 minutes, a lot more things seem possible in the world. It is, at least, easier to look someone in the eye, smile, and say “Hello!”

Even without a red nose.

Hakim Bey, a sometimes dubious anarchist philosopher, introduced the notion of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or TAZ’s – “a mobile or transient location free of economic and social interference by the State,” (let’s include corporations, too, shall we?) Really, from my perspective, a TAZ is just a little bit of time and place where an open community happens. It could happen anywhere – at a concert, on the street, in a classroom – “wherever two or more are gathered…”. When they happen, it’s a liberating feeling – and that’s what happened when we handed out 1000 clown noses.

More videos up soon.

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Last week, the Rhode Island Committee on the Humanities gave me their Lifetime Achievement Award. I was deeply honored to receive it, and it also really gave me pause – it wasn’t something I expected, and like many people, I have a healthily developed impostor syndrome which immediately made itself known to me. Receiving the award made me think about what I was doing and what the humanities are. Below is the short acceptance speech I gave.

There is an active discussion now about the place of the humanities in society. Stanley Fish wrote a blog piece for the NY Times just about that this past week – it touches on many parts of what I said.

Here’s my talk:

Thanks very much. Thanks to all of you for coming. I give my thanks to the Committee on the Humanities for this honor – to Mary Kim Arnold, to Shea’la, to SueEllen, to Mary Lee Partington and the members of the board.
And of course, my thanks, most of all to my wife and work partner, Debbie Block –my anchor and compass. What I present as an artist is really a shared vision of the way we would like the world to be – those of you who know me, know that it is just not me up here. Who knows what I would be doing without her – certainly not this.

I am still a little concerned about what to do after I get a lifetime achievement award. Now what? I didn’t know that I was finished, nor that I was even eligible. What I am left with is to continue my work and try and show I deserved it. When I look out on this room, I see many out there who are at least as or even more deserving of this recognition – many others have had a deep and lasting effect on the culture of Rhode Island.

Getting this award – totally unexpected, and really a joy – has led me to think about boundaries and borders. People who study systems know that it is at the edges – the borders and boundaries – that the most interesting things occur. A border or boundary is where there is the greatest expression of life. Who would know more about borders and boundaries than Rhode Islanders? The whole state is a border. In giving me this award, the Committee has shown a willingness to extend borders and boundaries in at least three ways.

First – most obviously, to me at least – in giving the award to someone from Massachusetts, they have reached beyond the border of the state. Thirty years ago, Debbie and I moved to the Providence area, and didn’t pay attention to political districts. We still don’t – my car can drive itself to Providence and does so almost every day. And as many of you know, the history of Seekonk, where I live, is a little murky – were we part of Rhode Island once? Was East Providence part of Seekonk? We ourselves are not quite sure where we live. I offer my appreciation for your seeing beyond that political border.

Second – you have crossed the border and reached into the arts. I call myself an artist, although that is a name someone else gives – Martha Graham noted that it’s not our job to worry about whether we’re creating art, it’s our job to do our craft as well as we can and let someone else decide. I have never been able to distinguish my art from my vision of the way I think the world might be if we were to listen and act with greater intention and care. Much of my work is about the great question of how do free individuals live in community with each other. What underlies all of my work is the search for what we hold in common. As an artist, and a student of the humanities, it’s my job to try and make my audience look at the world in a different way. I am quite glad to use whatever tools I have to do that; story works for me, and so does song , but I see no real, solid boundary between the arts and the humanities. Apparently, the Committee is willing to cross that border, too.

Third- the Committee has willingly crossed the border from the adult world to reach into the world of childhood, where I have most firmly placed my work. I was early on influenced by Gandhi and King, and have had it in mind to give my voice to the voiceless. Children and their caretakers are my constituents. Many of you here know that people who choose to work with children often have their work devalued by those who think adult work is more important and of more substance. I, too am often challenged by the choice I have made, and can, in weaker moments, devalue it myself. By giving me this award, all of you here recognize that what happens to a child determines what happens to the world. I thank you for that.

Being given this award has caused me to think a lot about the humanities. It brings me to near speechlessness – (near!)– that the humanities today seem endangered – even elements in higher education perceive the humanities as having a dwindling importance .
It’s not surprising this has happened, I guess – especially as I look at the debate in education. In the movement to measure learning through more and more testing I see a parallel discussion – the tendency to value technical knowledge and “hard” facts over a kind of knowledge more difficult, in fact, sometimes impossible, to quantify.

But for all their “squishiness”, their inability to provide hard data, the humanities – arts and letters, the history of our time here on earth, the strivings and failings of humans – is the proper locus for the study of questions that are increasingly crucial to our life on this planet. They are questions that are hard, perhaps impossible, to answer definitively. As a storyteller, I understand that we are, in the end, contextual beings, creatures of time – our acts, our thoughts, our dreams, bear no meaning without what came before, and what they imply for the world that will follow – this is what we, as humans, as storytellers, do – we live in a context, and make sense of the world through our narrative, the telling of our stories. It is the job of the humanities to listen to these stories and to ask the questions that, as Rilke said, “have no answers”.
Questions like:
“What is the value of a human life?”
“What does it mean to live in community?”
“What is beautiful and elegant and why?”
“What is required of us?”
“What is, what should be, what might be, our relationship with the rest of life on this planet?
And of course, in the end, there is the question of how we should live our lives, and what does it mean to live a good life.
These are questions that must be asked every day. This is our calling – this is our charge – this is what those of us who live in the world of the humanities, should strive to do.
We are better when we ask these questions, and when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we know and who we are to make the circle bigger.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with Phillip and Phyllis Morrison in their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillip Morrison was a Nobel Prize Physicist, at the center of the development of the atomic bomb. He gave the countdown at Los Alamos – an act, he told me, he had spent the rest of his life trying to make up for. He was completely delightful, quite clearly upon my first meeting with him a genius – a man of unending curiosity, who took delight in the workings of the world. At one point in the time we spent with each other, I proposed that the very nature of our understanding of time was changing and we were changing with it, as we divided it further and further, as things seemingly went faster and faster. I thought, in fact a scientist would understand and agree with me. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Our measure of time will always have to do with seconds. A second is how we measure our lives, because a second is one beat of the human heart. That’s the prism through which we look at the world. Always.”
Time in the end, will always be human for us. And the study of it will be our work – the study of the beating of the human heart.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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