The Popsicle Moments

The TEDTalk videos have become a fun way of learning, an easy and accessible way to open one’s mind to new ways of thinking. They’re like some Reader’s Digest version of great tomes of wisdom. The surprising thing is how skilled so many of the presenters really are. That sort of makes me wonder if there isn’t some coaching or directing going on. I want to see a behind-the-scenes-at-TED documentary.

The other day I saw a video about leadership. Really, it was more about inspiration, or perhaps unintentional mentoring. In it there’s a story told of handing a popsicle to a stranger and making a joke to other strangers nearby, and like some butterfly effect, changing the course of a person’s life. The speaker refers to it as a “popsicle moment”

You can see it here: Drew Dudley: Everyday leadership | Video on TED.com

It got me thinking about my own popsicle moments, usually I was the one receiving the candy, but there are other times when I intentionally tried to give one.

A high school teacher’s advice about my college choice for my chosen field.

Befriending a graduating senior when I was  college freshman, who I found inspiring, even though he didn’t realize it then and didn’t remember it years later when I told him the story.

Then in turn I handed advice to a freshman in the final months of my own college years. (I’m happy to know he remembered it.)

I realize that the popsicle moment isn’t necessarily about advice, but it is about the moment at hand and making a choice to do something, so while watching this video one moment from my past came clearly in to view.

Back in the day, as I prepared to leave college, I was offered a possible position with a very important and prestigious theatre company. The job was administrative, not artistic and I was getting pressure from the college to go for it. The problem was, I didn’t want it. I had other plans for myself, artistic plans, in a new city….still the pressure continued.

I turned to a colleague who worked for the company and in fact had held the position for which I had been approached. She agreed that the people I would meet, get to work with and get to know were very important people but she importantly asked,

“Is that the kind of work you want to do?”

No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.

She advised me against taking the job, and I didn’t. At the time I wondered if that was the right choice. I wondered if I could’ve overcome the obstacle of being seen in an artistic capacity while working in an administrative one. I understood the reasons why she advised me the way she did, but I wondered if I might have been the exception.

Of course now, many years later, I understand how things work and know she was right, and know there are few exceptions in the world.

The video made me think about how that decision changed my life. If I had pursued that job how different would my life be today, even if I didn’t stay in it for long? I’d be in another city, I’d be around completely different people, my career would have a very different trajectory, I wouldn’t have the home and family I have now.

So what does this all mean?

Of course we can’t know what choices will lead to what, and there are choices we make every day. But for me it means remaining open to the possibilities that present themselves, every day – at each audition, each interaction. It means keeping my eyes and mind open to the possibilities.

Just like in the rules of improv I need to keep saying “Yes, and…” and someday I’ll be handed another lollipop.

How Peter Pan Changed My Life

Recently I came across a short video about pursuing work that makes one happy. It was  by a college professor who identified it as the kind of advice he’s provided to his students over the years. Its message was essentially “don’t worry about making money, instead do what you’re interested in doing and making money will find a way to happen.” While I don’t think that’s entirely true—that is there’s a need to find a way to make ends meet because that doesn’t happen by magic—it’s a bit of a philosophy which I’ve followed for many years.

When I was 16 I decided I wanted to be an actor and work in theatre because I enjoyed it. I had considered a number of fields, but only because I was a good student with good grades. I was expected to consider things like engineering or law. As I explained to my mother that this was my choice for my college major (a big discovery, by the way: “I can major in acting?!”) I told her how I had watched her and other adults go to jobs that they didn’t enjoy. I remember saying, “If I’m going to put that much time and energy in to something, I want it to be something I like doing.”

Many years later I still thoroughly enjoy it. Now, of course, I know the realities of working as a theatre artist and how that idyllic life I dreamed up when I was a kid is a far fetched reality. But I digress.

My discovery and love for live performance came in what I now see as an unlikely adventure, and were it not for a technical error I might be a financial broker today.

A few years before that fateful life choice, when I was in middle school I went on a field trip to see the Broadway touring production of Peter Pan, starring Sandy Duncan, which had come to Chicago. It was there in the Arie Crown Theater that my life changed.

This was a big, colorful happy musical and we were enjoying it as much as a bunch of kids could. I knew the story, for the most part, and I even knew that Sandy Duncan was a big famous person, so I knew this was something special. But then the moment came for Peter to fly for the first time and things went wrong.

Commemorative program from the national tour

Commemorative program, 1981

The music intro began just fine, the kids asked all the right questions—”Can you really fly?”—and Ms. Duncan raised her arms and said, “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and up you’ll go!”

And she didn’t move.

And then the wire jerked, and she sort of lifted and stopped and landed again, and she began singing, and the wire jerked again, and lifted and dropped, and finally up she went a small ways.

And then the moment happened that I’ll never forget. Sandy Duncan stopped the show.

She stopped singing, she dropped character, started waving her arms about, shouting “Stop! Stop! Let’s go back! Stop!” Directing the crew to put her back down and the orchestra to stop. As they lowered her down and the instruments dropped out, one by one, I became enthralled, because it was all so real. “The fourth wall” had been broken and I didn’t even know what a fourth wall was!

Finally she looked out to the audience and said to us, “You paid good money to see this, you might as well see it the right way!”

I was stunned: This wasn’t Peter Pan on script, this wasn’t planned, this was Sandy Duncan talking to us. This was all happening unrehearsed and live.

She and the kids all got back to their spots, she looked around, addressing the cast, crew and musicians, asking “Everybody ready?” Then pointing at the youngest boy, shouted “Hit it, John!” He piped up with his line, “Can you really fly?!”

And this time with her “…up you go!” Sandy Duncan flew high in the air! And despite our seeing behind the scenes the magic of theatre filled that huge auditorium and we erupted into applause.

I had already dabbled a bit in performing but that experience made me fall in love with the craft of storytelling, the beauty in pretending and the immediacy of a live performance. As I did with most movies I saw as a kid, when I got home I described every moment of the play in great detail to my mother. (I’d follow her around the house, talking and talking….it probably took as long as the actual production.) But I recall that this time I focused mostly on the most remarkable moment of the show—that part that wasn’t supposed to be, the part that was a one-time only, unique, experience just for those of us in that theater on that particularly day.

My program is still in good shape

Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan

I know this only goes to show my naiveté at the time, but I was really just a kid, and I’d never seen anything like it. That moment is still vivid in my mind and thirty-two years later I still tell the story, still attribute it to why I do theatre, and yes…..I still have my “signed” program.

11 Things about 2011

It’s the last day of the year. We’ve been inundated with lists lately, so…..here’s a list of 11 highlights of 2011 for me:

  1. Street Scene: I was lucky enough to be a part of the (massive) ensemble that created a highly successful and beloved production of this Elmer Rice script. The cast included children and a dog and a couple dozen actors playing in an intimate (and, frankly, run down) theater. It was a huge show and we worked very hard to bring it together. Because of the the way in which we rehearsed, wherein many people watched other people’s scenes and we were mostly all there most of the time, we developed a great bond as a cast which went a long way to each of us individually, and collectively, owning this piece of theatre. I hope I’m lucky enough in 2012 to have a similar experience. I celebrated that show with several friends at the Ivey Awards where two statues were given out in relation to the production.
  2. The 3-Cent Stamp: I wrote, directed and edited a 1-minute “commercial” for inclusion in a local theatre’s mock production of Fargo. I had a blast putting this together and want to do more of this stuff in 2012.
  3. It’s not about the money: I got paid. Truthfully, it’s no one’s business but mine (and my agent’s) but a couple well paid gigs this year (primarily a single commercial) made 2011 one of the most profitable years for me as an actor. I’ve put it in savings for a rainy day. And while it’s never about money and there’s not a lot of it, especially in theatre, it’s nice to feel compensated for my time and talents.
  4. Testing my skills: I jumped in to a production of a full-length play that didn’t have a full-length rehearsal, and it tested most everything I know about acting, building a character and, in some instances, how to be a nice guy at rehearsals and not get bitchy. Next time I’ll be more prepared.
  5. Flexing my (imaginative) muscle: I once again joined a holiday show where in a single hour I had to play multiple characters, be funny, run my ass off and charm and ad lib a small group of strangers. And then do it all over again for the next group. And…once again for a third group. It was exhausting and exhilarating and fun, and made me enjoy performing.
  6. Inspirations: I was inspired by many things I saw this year on local stages, and one piece of theatre that keeps sticking with me in my head is Moving Company’s Come Hell and High Water. A beautiful, epic (true) story, done in bold imaginative ways and with the utmost attention to the minutiae of the characters’ lives and details. Steve Epp is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen work. This whole thing made me want to be a better, bolder theatre artist. I was also inspired by the depth of work that goes in to the making of a Scream Blue Murmur piece. I was fortunate to spend some time with these great folks whom I admire so much, and learned a bit more about their process. They’re not messing around. We should all be so diligent.
  7. The Silver Screen: I was twenty feet tall. The short film I shot last year was finished and had a sneak preview at the Twin Cities Film Festival. Seeing myself on the big screen was a bit surreal, especially since it focuses primarily on my character and I open and end the thing. It was exciting and makes me want to get to know the film community even better. (On a side note, the other day I discovered that the film is listed on IMDB, so subsequently I’m finally listed there too.)
  8. Disappointments: I wasn’t cast in many things, including one or two that I really wanted. But that’s to be expected. In one case I was sort of relieved to not be cast (even though I was a bit surprised.) I know this is all vague but why go into great details…I’m not naming names. Let’s just say that I was invited to audition for a play I hadn’t heard of but in researching it found it to be incredibly challenging and exciting. Done, for lack of a better word, correctly it could be an amazing and powerful piece of theatre. What I witnessed in the auditions and callbacks, particularly from the director and the choices she was making, was that this was not a stellar opportunity and in fact could be a complete train wreck. I debated for days whether I’d take the role when offered. I decided I wouldn’t because the “good enough” and lackluster approach I witnessed was…well, I guess it was challenging to my own standards and beliefs. (See Creed if you need to know more.) Yes, this probably makes me sound pompous. Of course, they didn’t cast me anyway. I unfortunately wasn’t able to see the show either due to my own work schedule, so I’m not sure how big that wreck may have been. I’m confident I made (or would’ve made) the right choice. It’s disappointing though because I think done right it could’ve made a huge splash on the theatre scene.
  9. 365 Images of 2011: I shot pictures. Lots and lot of pictures. I challenged myself to post a picture for each day (even if not posted every day.) I don’t think I’m going to make the goal, unless I take and choose another 30 or so in the next 5 hours. Nonetheless, I had fun doing it and found new and interesting images around me all the time. I think some even turned out to be good. I’ll probably add them here over the coming months.
  10. Nook: I read. A lot. Although I haven’t written about it I received a Nook for my birthday, and have subsequently doubled the number of books I’ve read. I never thought I’d have the capacity to read more than one book at a time, and keep things clear in my head about each one, but now…it’s only a matter of the mood I’m in when I crawl in to bed at night (that sounds so wrong, but it’s when I do most of my book reading) and I’ll have two or three different books going at a time. Super Sad True Love Story may have been my favorite of the year.
  11. What’s next: I imagined. I still have a small dream in the back of my head to make a film of The William Williams Effect. I know nothing about making a movie, truly, but I know some people who do. I’ve been thinking of taking a stab at putting together a film script version this winter. (Note to self: talk to co-writer.) Recently while driving through the rolling Iowa fields (strangely empty of snow for December) and listening to a Mumford and Sons album I was struck with some images of what the film might incorporate and how it might feel and flow. I think I’ll make it a longer term goal, but plan to find a project or two to write and shoot this coming year, as practice, as learning the craft of filmmaking, in preparation for what might come next with that story.

Retreat, Regroup, Rebuild

I’m wrapping up a week away at a secluded, lakeside, cabin, surrounded by nature.

I had hoped to make this an opportunity for inspiration and creativity, a place to find time to sit and write down thoughts and ideas, or sketch out scenes for a new play. A place to read.

Alas, it seems as though I needed a retreat to nothingness more than I thought, and I reveled in the beauty that surrounded me.

I didn’t start that play or sketch out that story.

I didn’t read the things I thought I might, as research for a new project.

But I did find some beauty in every day things, and in the autumnal sights and smells that surrounded me.

I took a hundred photos in just a few days.

And for that alone, I should be grateful to have been given the chance and the gift of the experience.

Recharging my batteries

Sometimes getting out of town can be a peaceful and relaxing way to be get re-energized, and being in a beautiful natural setting can be really refreshing. We’ve left town for a few days and headed up to the north shore of Lake Superior – one of my favorite places. I grew up alongside another great lake, and as a child we vacationed in fishing country, and I’ve always been drawn to lakes.

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This lake, Lake Superior, is amazingly beautiful at times. Right now, it’s a picture perfect shade of blue, and mostly

calm with just a few little whitecaps appearing here and there in various places. The sky is clear of any clouds, and there’s a slight breeze.

Earlier this afternoon we went for a short hike in the woods, alongside a creek. I brought my camera along and snapped various pics of the little falls, the rapids, a moss covered bench. Just different things that I thought might make an interesting picture. They’re ok. Unfortunately I discovered my batteries were going low, and only about half the pictures turned out to be on the card when finally looked at them.

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This is an old shed-like structure we spotted as we returned to the lodge’s grounds. It’s actually still in use. That’s why the door’s open. I love old, decrepit buildings like this, and try to snap pictures of such places when I can. They have their own history and value. I imagine how excited or proud the person who built it was when it was finished, and what a great addition it was to the property or business.

Being up here in the north woods is its own kind of inspiring locale. I always feel compelled to write some fiction novel, full of the people I meet in the shops and restaurants in these small towns. I always wonder about some of them – like the guy who stopped off at the general store to buy bait, and left his truck running and his baby daughter in the cab. I was waiting in the car (ironically, because we weren’t going to leave our dog alone in the car while shopping) and I wasn’t even aware there was something there until he spoke baby talk about the minnows and worms and said, “I’ll be right back” and went in to the liquor store for a case of beer. There are tourists coming through town, people you don’t know, and you leave your truck running and the kid inside? Guess we’re not in the city anymore. Then there’s the waiter at Angry Trout, a dockside restaurant. I’ve been coming here long enough to know he’s no townie just by listening to him talk. What’s he doing here? What’s his story? And there’s the guy who just this moment walked past my window. Probably mid-50s, wearing hiking boots, khaki shorts, and a bright green, long-sleeve dress shirt.

I’m sure any story I could write about these people would be horrible, boring, trite stuff, like some horror flick. And I’m no Stephen King. Of course, the only way it would work would be if I could live up here for about six months straight—not really an option.

So I’ll settle for coming up a few times a year to be recharged, and re-inspired by nature.