"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I'm the absolute worst at writing movie reviews. I love almost all of them. I'm just too big a fan of seeing big moving pictures up in front of me to look with a critical eye. For me to find fault, it's got to be pretty bad. I can rattle off a few I've disliked -- Avatar, Happy Feet, the newest Benji movie, but that's about it. And my excitement at it all leads me to fill any discussion with enough spoilers to ruin the experience for others. So be for-warned, if you want the surprises in Frozen to be a surprise, read AFTER seeing the movie.

One of the best things about Frozen is that there actually ARE surprises in store for you, even after a full-fledged Disney advertising blitz. That was one of the things that struck my friend who saw it before me, so I was looking out for it and she was completely right. I don't really recall seeing either of the male lead characters in the ads, nor Marshmellow, nor the trolls.

The trolls. I LOVED the trolls. I suppose you had to figure they'd be in a movie based in Scandinavian myth, and they didn't disappoint at all. They looked like trolls should, kinda like the little troll figures you might have seen on a desk in the 70's, I thought. It was somehow familiar and heartwarming and you trusted them, or at least I did. The trolls also triggered my budding theatrical imagination. It seems all Disney movies are destined for the stage nowadays, especially the animated features. I almost thought this one looked like it was designed to be adapted into a Broadway show. When watching the trolls, I immediately imagined what my director friend would do with them on stage. She's great at involving kids in her shows and I thought these little guys would give her a great opportunity for some child stage time with little ones in rock suits suddenly unfolding into little trolls and dancing and singing away. It may or my not ever happen, but thinking about it made the movie that much more fun for me.

I'll save you going into the whole plot, but just say the movie was familiar enough to be easy and fun and very Disney-like but new and modern enough to seem completely fresh. Disney has had a tendency to be very derivative the last couple decades and I am glad to see them doing new things.

The music was spectacular, from the opening men's number through the incredible "Let It Go" to the end of the film, the music really complimented the story and was performed with incredible beauty and talent. I'll be buying this soundtrack very soon.

Oh, and not to forget the Mickey short at the beginning! I don't know what to say that wouldn't give it away other than it is worth the price of admission itself. I thought Paperman was awesome, and this tops it.

All in all, this was Disney at its best. Mom, dad and teenage son got to share in complete enjoyment of a funny, touching, exciting and absolutely beautiful film. This is what Disney is all about. Walt would be pleased.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Descendants" Coming To Disney Channel

So here's the plot outline from the D23 website:

In a present day idyllic kingdom, the benevolent teenaged son of the King and Queen (Beast and Belle from Disney’s iconic Beauty and the Beast) is poised to take the throne. His first proclamation: offer a chance at redemption to the trouble-making offspring of Cruella De Vil, Maleficent, the Evil Queen and Jafar who have been imprisoned on a forbidden island with all the other villains, sidekicks, evil step-mothers and step-sisters.  These villainous descendants (Carlos, Mal, Evvie and Jay, respectively) are allowed into the kingdom to attend prep school alongside the offspring of iconic Disney heroes including Fairy Godmother, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Mulan.  However, the evil teens face a dilemma.  Should they follow in their nefarious parents’ footsteps and help all the villains regain power or embrace their innate goodness and save the kingdom?

This sounds is to be a movie produced by and for the Disney Channel and directed by the same guy who brought us High School Musical. It's billed as an adventure/comedy, but the director is also a choreographer, so I sort of expect some song and dance involved. I may be wrong, they don't say one way or the other, but it's Disney, there ought to be some breaking into song and dance. It's supposed to premier in 2015.

I was intrigued immediately by this idea and went to read the comments about it on Facebook. Wow. People are downright mean about this one. It may not have hit me so hard if not for the explosion of snark during the recent Sound of Music Live, but coming on those heels, it did. It's almost as if people WANT to be disappointed or upset or even angry. I just don't get it.

Sure, as Disney fans we all feel invested in the culture surrounding the whole Disney experience, from movies to television to theme parks to stage shows to computer games to books to merchandise and on and on. Disney relies on that emotional investment as one key to its success. A lot of that investment is based in nostalgia and fandom for the things Disney has produced in the past, so when Disney "messes" with our memories by removing a favorite ride or changing a menu or re-making or serializing a beloved story, we can get defensive.

But I think maybe we've gone a bit too far. Look at the Disney message boards lately and all you find is complaints. The biggest investment in a Disney Theme Park since Cars Land, the coming Avatarland at Animal Kingdom, was being roundly panned before the first design element was mentioned. The new MyMagic+/FastPass+ system is driving the vacation planning geeks bonkers. And now when a new TV movie is announced, it's pounced upon and torn apart within seconds.

Ok, maybe all the things Disney does aren't for everyone. Maybe they aren't for all the Disney fans, even. But maybe we could give these things a chance before we attack the very IDEAS?

Back to Descendants, I have some questions. I wonder where the heck the Villain children came from? I mean, the heroes often end up paired up, Princess/Prince-style, but not the villains. The image of Cruella De Ville pregnant is......odd. But awesome, in its oddity. I can't wait to see how that's handled. If it isn't handled, if it's glossed over and left for us to wonder who slept with Jafar, then I'll be disappointed. But I'm going to wait and give Disney a chance.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's A Small World Animated Series

 I'm in geek heaven. I just watched a Mary Blair inspired, Richard Sherman scored, Walt Disney cartoon about the Rosetta Stone. Five times. Without stopping in between. It's that good. This episode isn't even counted as a "real" episode, i think. It's sort of a commercial for Rosetta Stone language software, but the best, most subtle and pleasant commercial in the world. And, I would venture to say, the best explanation of basic linguistics for children ever. My favorite class in four years of college was an Anthropological Linguistics class. Did I mention I was in heaven? Not to give the charm away here, but I'm loving the photo the kid takes of the Mexican kids after telling them to say "cheese" and they say "queso." Awesomeness.

This series is apparently planned for six episodes, one and two are available now, and takes children around the world to explore other cultures. It's so well done, I can't say enough about it. It's cute without being annoying, the It's A Small World tune shows up a lot but doesn't smack you over the head, it is understandable to kids without talking down to them. Walt would be very, very proud of this one, I think.

If you have kids, or, really to be honest if you have a heart and soul, you owe it to yourself to check this out!

It's A Small World Animated Series Pilot

It's A Small World--Rosetta Stone

Episode One--Jolly Holi Day

Episode Two--Bricht and Braw

All Episodes on One Page

Monday, December 9, 2013

Let's See The Good Done By The Sound of Music Live

My friend shared a blog post on FaceBook this morning defending the IDEA of NBC's recent The Sound Of Music Live. The blogger, and Jen, were calling out "theatre people" for the vitriol leveled at this performance all over social media. I'll take the liberty of quoting Jen:

I, for one, was really disappointed that the majority of the theater-lovers on my friends list couldn't find the positives in "The Sound of Music Live", and instead chose to post only negative remarks. If theater is going to survive, it has to reach and engage new audiences. As a long time community theater participant, I'm not ashamed to append "by any means necessary" to that sentiment.

And the blogger, Emerson Collins, hit the nail on the head describing the atmosphere on the live interwebs duing the show:

 It quite clearly became a competition to see how creatively each person could say they hated it more than the next person.  I find that disappointing and somewhat sad.

He's right. It WAS a competition to out-snark the other person. My wife and I watched it together and she was reading and sharing the FaceBook commentary as we went along. It was truly sad. And mean. And entirely missed the point.

 I'm going to restate a lot of what Emerson wrote in his blog here, but honestly, reading his post felt like he wrote it after listening in on  Lisa and I as we watched the show and observed the reaction. NBC went way out on a limb to do this show. Live TV just doesn't happen, and people expect perfection on the tube. Very few have ever seen a live theater performance, and they don't know what to expect from one, or how to judge it. This wasn't at all exactly like live theatre. It was certainly a hybrid of that and television, with cameras following the action rather than the scenes being changed in front of the audience. But even given that, it was very different from what the modern television audience has come to expect. It took courage to even attempt such a thing, and as someone involved in community theater myself, I really, really appreciate that.

Given the challenge of drawing an audience to something new, they needed an ace in the hole. They found Carrie Underwood. I'm no great fan myself, heck, I was calling her Trisha Yearwood up until I sat down to watch the show, but lots and lots of people love the woman. She has a built in following and a name recognition (I don't count) that brought an audience to this show that a Broadway actress never could have. Was she a great actress, or even a very good one? Nope. She acted like a pop singer. Because, well, it's what she is. It's fine to criticize her acting, to an extent, but not to criticize HER for her acting. She was giving her all in an effort to make a show come to life for people who may have never had that experience. When was the last time YOU tried to do that, or anything like it?  Carrie Underwood did more, I think, to ensure theater will hang on for a while than the collected casts of all those shows on Broadway that very few can afford to go see. Emerson points out the numbers:

 18.5 million people watched the show, the largest non-sports NBC Thursday night since the Frasier finale in 2004.  (For the record, it would take twenty 3000-seat theatres nearly a year of performing every night of the week to reach that many people.)

Believe me, I  am in a position to fret over the number of tickets sold to live community theatre shows, and those are some stellar numbers. People saw something very close to live theater. It may have made them consider seeing an actual live theatre show in their own communities. It may have made some want to see one in MY community. It made the idea more accessible, I think, and that is important.

It's also what "theater people" tend to be worst in the world at doing themselves. I believe the race to be snarkiest is rooted in the basic elitism of many involved in theater.  I am in the theater, I serve as a board member of Brunswick Little Theatre, actually I'm going to be president of the group in a few weeks, but I am not of the theater. I've been made aware of that in ways blatant and subtle, purposeful and accidental, many times over the last couple years, and particularly during my service on the board. I have definite opinions about the arts and their role in the human condition, but I am hesitant to share them too much for fear of looking like a fool in front of these people. I'm getting over that. 

But I'm not over it yet. This is the closest I'll come to sharing my opinions on this beyond Lisa and my close friends. Jen and Emerson shared their concern about all the negativity turning people off of theater in general, or turning entertainment companies like NBC away from attempting a similar project in the future, but it affected me as well. Despite being as free with my opinions as anyone you are likely to meet, I never once commented on The Sound Of Music the other night. My disgust at the hate-fest was shared with Lisa alone. I've not even commented on Jen's post sharing the blog I enjoyed so much beyond simply "like"ing it. And I won't.

See, because I'm on that board and I have and will in the future advocate for or against performing certain shows or presenting theater in a certain way, I'm paranoid about what my "theatre people" friends will think of my opinion. I didn't want to be the only one out there pointing out the positives of Sound of Music because I feared it would make my opinion even less valid to the board than it is now. I'm pretty sure my fellow board members all put me somewhere on the spectrum between blithering idiot and raving lunatic. Even the ones I consider friends. The condescension at those meetings has been unreal. I am a pretty confident guy, but it has even gotten to me. I mean, I do have very little experience in theater, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. It doesn't mean people that haven't had the chance to experience it couldn't or wouldn't love it.

There is this natural feeling among many theatre people that the "others" are incapable of appreciating a show that isn't as basic and simple and familiar as possible. I suspect these people don't want to challenge audiences, or bring new audiences into the more accessible shows, because they like being an elite, knowing about things others don't. I mean if the guy who framed their house can enjoy and discuss in detail a bare bones, avant-garde production of Beowulf, how does that Masters of Education hanging on their wall make them a better person than him? And yes, I had that discussion with a builder friend of mine.

Art is meant to be enjoyed. It lives more with each person it reaches. Theatre is meant to be seen, it can and should be enjoyed by anyone with a heart to touch. The Sound Of Music did that for some people. We should not only let them enjoy it, but celebrate their discovery of a new genre and invite them into our world.

So, thanks Jen and Emerson. Remember you two, for the same reason that it is particularity hurtful to a show for theater people to hate all over it, the positive opinions of people like yourself influence and encourage the rest of us just as strongly. And we need it.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Disney Monorail - The First Ride At Walt Disney World

We're Disney Transportation people. We leave the car keys in the room while we're at Disney. We take long,
convoluted routes between resorts and parks just so we can use the Disney transportation system. We love the boats and even the buses that move you around the World, but from my earliest Disney memories, I've been totally in love with the monorail.

I mean, if you can look upon that thing, futuristic even though it's as old as the park, and not get excited, you're wasting your money on a Disney vacation. If public transportation was like this, I'd support the heck out of it! I love waiting at the station, peering down the track to see if it will be Monorail Blue, or Monorail Orange, or maybe, just maybe, Monorail Red. I love the silly door warnings in English and Spanish. I love seeing the resorts as we slide past, especially getting to go inside a hotel! I love people watching and seeing what "types" seem to be staying at the different resorts. I don't mind standing at all but I love when we get a whole car to ourselves. I love the whole experience. It's the perfect introduction to the Magic Kingdom, a little magic outside the gates.

So here is a tour of the monorail loop, with stops at all three monorail resorts, the Transportation and Ticket Center and of course the Magic Kingdom. It's shot by my son at almost 13 years of age, so understand you're seeing what he is interested in. Watch for the Avengers Monorail, the docked Electrical Water Pageant and Mary Blair's awesome mosaic in the Contemporary. Enjoy the trees and the parking lots and the glimpses inside the Magic Kingdom. But most all, Please Stand Clear of the Doors.

A Teen's-Eye View of the Monorail Loop

Sunday, November 10, 2013

39 Lessons

Well, not exactly that many, but I thought I'd finally put down a few of the things I took away from my experience stage managing The 39 Steps last month. This was a different experience. Not bad, it had many good moments and on balance I had a really good time, but it I didn't walk away with the same feeling I did from Wizard of Oz, or even Tuesdays with Morrie or the Talkin' 'Bout My Generation shows. I don't think anyone did. Truth be told, this is my second attempt at writing this. I wrote a post about a week ago with the same name, posted it one night and within about 12 hours I deleted it. It was honest and fair, I thought, but after a night sleeping on it and reading it again, I decided it wasn't what I wanted up here. That experience alone tells me volumes about my mixed feelings after this show. But I'm going to try again. Maybe sanitized isn't the right word, but this will be an easier thing for me to read in a few months, I think.

1. Playing It By Ear

39 Steps was my first foray into "calling a show." This is a stage manager duty that entails helping to let the tech people know when to execute a light change or play a sound effect. I was in communication with Gillian, our light tech, during this show using a set of headphones and a mic. This was cool in that I love gadgets and this totally played to my walkie-talkie nostalgia. It always seemed Gillian was asking me a question or telling me something at the most inopportune moments, but it wasn't her fault and it was more amusing than anything else. The tricky part of this was that I had to give Gillian cues based on the actors on stage being in place and ready when I had no way of actually SEEING the stage. I was behind a blackout curtain. This meant I learned to know the pace of the show and the actors and to use my ears to tell what was going on out on stage. Luckily, the hollow stage made every movement quite loud enough to hear, so it wasn't terribly challenging. It was just pretty funny to me that my introduction to this aspect of stage direction was done blind.

2. Community Theater Is Held Together With Duct Tape

Well, maybe not exactly, but it would be much harder without it. I started the show with four rolls of different colors of duct tape and finished with, I believe, seven. Black, white, glow-in-the-dark and my personal favorite, Liz-in-Winter all had uses that required that color and no other. Duct tape held the fog machine pipe in place, kept the knife in Annabelle's back, held the shadow puppets together, let us know where the curtain opening was and kept random wires from clotheslining actors. My stagehand used it in manner not appropriate to discuss on a family blog. Duct tape is my friend.

3. DIY

We had a troublesome prop on this show. A lamp we used in one scene started shocking me during tech week and continued to do so pretty regularly. The tech director and director weren't bothered by this, so I just let it be rather than looking closely at the lamp to see what the problem was and fix it my own bad self. It turned out to be just a matter of replacing the ludicrously tiny light bulb. Anyhow, I didn't and so the completely predictable happened and we ended up shorting out about a third of the building. We blew lots of fuses in control boxes and blew out several relatively expensive light bulbs. The second act of that show featured a rather improvised shadow puppet effect and no fog machine and a darkened stage right and actors had to navigate some very sketchy steps with only little flashlights to see by. I could have prevented this with a trip to Lowes. Next time I will.

4. Dealing With An Off Night

The night the fuse blew was just an off show. I suppose it was good, in a way, that the lamp snafu didn't happen during a good show, but still, having such an off night was troubling. It was awkward and negative from the very beginning, when we all arrived at the theater long before show time. The strange thing was that we were coming off the best show of our run as of that point and had every reason to be proud and happy with ourselves and each other, but it wasn't like that. Anyhow, the important part was that we all came back for the next show and shook everything off and put forth a great performance. That was an important lesson, nothing in live theater is lasting, neither the good nor the bad. A great show doesn't ensure the next will be even better, but by the same token, a poor one doesn't throw the train off the tracks. Every night is a fresh slate.

5. Be Part Of The Immune System, Not A Band-Aid

This is far and away my favorite, and I suspect time will prove it the most valuable, lesson. Director Jen was happy, she said, with my ability to see a problem and fix it quickly. She wants me to learn, however, to slow down sometimes and think of a solution that not only fixes the problem, but does so within the show. I was a band-aid, I need to be a white blood cell. This is tricky for me as this is NOT the way my mind works. I'm not theatrical, but I want to be and I am trying to learn to change the way I think. It's a challenge, but a really fun one. This is why I enjoy working with Brunswick Little Theatre, and one of the best parts of my friendship with Jen. Both push me to open those new doors. And I'm getting more and more comfortable doing so.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Director Jen made up that word, hat-crobatics, to describe a part of The 39 Steps wherein two actors switch between six characters during one short scene mostly by changing accents and hats. The scene is a great representation of this show in particular. Four actors not only portray dozens of characters and undergo numerous costume changes, but they also often act as their own stage crew, clearing and setting sets during the show. That's not to say the stage hands themselves are sitting on their hands letting the actors do all the work. The three of us also set and clear most of the scenes while also performing shadow puppets and running a fog machine. This is a very small operation. It includes only Jen the director, four actors, three stage hands, a dresser, a light board operator and a sound board operator. That's ten people handling the show in total while it's in performance, not counting Jen in the audience taking notes on ways we can improve. We all wear a lot of hats, if the truth is to be told.

But it seems to me in my very limited experience that wearing lots of hats is the name of the game in community theater. Maybe it's not so usual to have the actors play multiple roles or participate so much in the handling of sets during the performance, but it certainly seems to always involve a lot of multitasking. My model for this is Jen. Watching her create a show, because that's what it is, creating, is a lesson on multitasking. I was amazed both during Wizard of Oz and this show at how much the woman manages to keep in her head. She knows the script frontwards and backwards, knows her blocking, develops a vision for a set and keeps track of prop needs all at once. At the same time she's thinking about rehearsal schedules and cast parties and publicity and sound and light cues and finding tech help and creating special effects. I've seen her keeping a notebook full of lists and things getting added and crossed off all the time, but ask her and usually she can pull any tidbit in those notes straight out of her head. I don't know how she does it.

My job on her shows has been as stage manager. I'll admit, when Jen asked me to help her on Wizard as one, I had to come home and Google it. This is what I found on the interwebs:

Stage managers typically provide practical and organizational support to the director, actors, designers, stage crew and technicians throughout the production process....... Once the show opens, the director's work is essentially complete. Now it's the stage manager's job to make sure that every aspect of the production runs just as the director intended time after time, until the production closes. 

There was a whole page of stuff in the middle that made little sense to me. Another website offered the advice that a stage manager shouldn't show too much cleavage. I got that one covered.  Basically, a stage manager wears lots of hats as well.

Jen is a very hands on director, she delegates as little as she has to, I think. Stage managing for another director might be different, but for Jen it's mostly being there when she needs a hand and helping make what she wants to happen happen. During Wizard, I was one of three stage managers. I didn't call the show (more on that later) and another guy was largely responsible for organizing the set changes. I was primarily there to fix problems that arose with the cast and help any way I could. It was a great learning experience as I got to participate in lots of stage manager things without having all of it on my shoulders. Almost like Jen planned it that way....

This time, I'm all she's got. But while it's a complicated show, it's a small cast and crew, so it works perfectly as another step up my learning ladder. I rarely see the cast during this show. The babysitting aspect of Wizard is almost completely absent this time. Now I'm focusing on the set changes and technical aspects of stage managing during the show. It's a challenge that I'll write about after the whole run is over. I'm sure I'll have more and better stories after another three more performances.

The two months of preparing this show saw me wearing a few hats as well. Jen told me at the outset that she'd be asking more from me in terms of time at rehearsals than she ever has of a stage manager before. I ended up at the majority of them doing something of varying usefulness. When an actor was missing, I read his lines, and once even tried acting his part, which in hindsight was probably a mistake. When everyone was there, I was "on book" which meant feeding lines to the actors when they couldn't bring one forth. That's not as easy as it would seem. It's hard unless an actor is well-trained and knows to ask for a line when he or she needs one. We only have one actor of that sort in this show. The others tended to stand there for varying amounts of time struggling until either they bust out with SOMETHING or someone fed the line to them. It was tricky finding a rhythm, jump in too early and you interrupt the flow and step in on the actor's character, but wait too long and it gets the actor frustrated and everyone else feels really awkward. I got better at it, I think, as I got some more practice.

Between rehearsals I got to play at set dresser and prop man. I spent a day searching through thrift stores and consignment shops for just the right armchair. I sent lots of pictures to Jen, anyone who looks at the photo gallery in my phone is going to wonder what the Hell I was doing.  I finally found a good one and talked the seller down a decent bit, which is totally out of character for me. I also created a small prop, a fake newspaper page. That was great fun as Jen only had a couple instructions and let me play with the rest. I helped with a few more things, acquiring a big piece of paper for a map prop and finding fake, throw-able snowflakes.

When we moved into the Amuzu theatre, I got to put my lighting tech hat on.  I had learned the basics of
Scary Ladder. This photo only shows the top half...
lighting during our rock and roll show in the park, so when lights needed to be hung (using the scariest ladder EVER) I was the guy. I got to change gels and hang and focus lights and string extension cords and such. It was fun. Everyone pitches in during load-in, so we all had lots of hats. We painted props and built a screen to project our shadow puppets and installed a curtain to create some small little "backstage" area to work the puppets and store props. We managed to work the wiring so there's been no blackouts and the building hasn't caught fire. As we moved into tech week, we sorted cues and the smoke machine and the puppets and figured out how to (and whether or not to in some cases) move props on and off stage

Aside from my various stage manager duties, I was busy at home between rehearsals with publicity and keeping up the website and managing ticket sales. This is the first show we've used PayPal to sell tickets on our own website, and there have been a few glitches and some second guessing that really annoyed me and complicated things needlessly. Before shows, I have been closing out that day's ticket sales online and printing the ticket buyer lists, contacting the local newspaper editor to beg for space, and stopping for last minute supplies of duct tape and glow rings and batteries and art supplies and such. Nights after rehearsals and shows, I'd find myself downloading and editing pictures, sending photos and writing cutlines to the same local paper and checking sales and putting buyers on lists for future shows.

It's a lot of hats for sure, but it's been fun. I can't wait to do it again.

Hat-crobat. Wonder if I can put that on a resume?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Disney Weenies!!!

Check out all the Weenie pics at Focused On The Magic

Wanna know what a Weenie is (if you don't know and can't figure it out from these pictures)? Ask me tomorrow when it's not Wordless anymore ;-)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Magic For The Middle Child

Sophie is my niece, my sister's middle child. Sophie is sweet and funny and smart and fun to be around. She is also very much the middle child. Her sister is the older one, the one who is already in school and bringing home homework and grades and getting fussed over because she does so well. Her brother is the "baby" at just two and commands a lot of attention because he is never still, and very, uhhh, let's just say he's very persistent and creative. He really commands attention. That leaves Sophie in the middle. She isn't old enough for school (yet, she starts in a few weeks) but she is too old to be the baby. She can do things for herself, but she doesn't have the opportunities to do the things her sister does. It's tough for Sophie.

Sophie is very much girlie. She wants to wear nothing but pink and LOVES Disney princesses, especially Belle. So today, when I saw this photo from Enchanted Tales With Belle, my heart leapt. Sophie was chosen to play the part of Beast during the story, which apparently meant she got to dance with Belle at the end when Beast turns back into the prince. They chose Sophie out of all those kids. Not her sister, not her brother, just her. She got to do something special, she got to take part in her favorite Princess' story, all on her own. I don't know if you can see all that means to her written all over her face like I can, but I can't imagine anyone not loving this picture, a picture of real Magic.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Couple More Steps

I had, briefly, the brilliant idea to write 39 posts on this blog about my experiences helping bring The 39 Steps to the stage. As much as I dislike math, I do like numbers and I sort of thought that would get me writing more regularly. But the last exercise to help me write regularly was an attempt at a Blog Challenge to put up a post for each letter of the alphabet in the month of April. It took me over a year to write 27 (yes, 27. I did two "I" posts. I'm an over-achiever) blog posts. I'm not thinking 39 in a couple months was very realistic. Aside from that, I'm always nervous writing publicly about a play I'm involved in (heh, I say "always" like I've done this more than a couple times) because I'm afraid that in my enthusiasm and excitement, I'll write something I shouldn't or give away something that would be better kept a surprise. So while this isn't going to be the last update from the world of 1935 Britain, I'm not going to turn this into a play diary. But this blog is about what makes me happy, basically, and last weekend saw some small steps forward for the play and one bigger step for myself, and that made me happy.

Saturday we (my family along with Director Jen and her dad, Jonathan, who is building sets/props for the show) visited  the Historic Amuzu Theatre to have a look around. I've been fascinated by this building since we moved here so I was really happy to get to poke around the whole place. The Amuzu was a movie theater begun by the current owner's father, but it's since been remodeled into a venue for live shows. It has a stage and the balcony houses lights and tech equipment. To say it's a bit cramped backstage is a huge understatement, but this show has a cast of four and minimal sets, so it won't present much of a problem. I'm not going to say this is the ideal theater space for any show, but it will work very well for THIS show, we think.

I'm not going to give away Jen's ideas for staging the show, but the fact that the stage features two "balconies" is going to be perfect. We spent an hour or so poking all around (that was mostly me) and measuring things (mostly Jonathan and John) and taking pictures (all the little shots of the Amuzu you see on this post are Lisa's work) and imagining how the show could be brought to life in this space (that was mostly Jen, who is a flat-out genius at that). It was a great morning, getting to indulge my curiosity about the interior of one of my favorite landmarks while watching my friend go into Imagineer mode. Jen's the closest thing to Walt Disney I'm ever likely to meet and I love being there to see how she works through ideas and starts bringing a show to life. Then, when we got home and I downloaded all of Lisa's pictures, I was reminded once again what a treasure she is and what a great eye she has. She shot that place so well, it actually led to me putting a little blurb about our trip on the show's website. Just because I HAD to use a few of her photos.

Also on Saturday morning, Jen shared a bit of news that led to Sunday's fun. The show was cast after auditions the week before, but one of the four actors had second thoughts and backed out before the first rehearsal, scheduled for Sunday. This was to be a "read-thru" of the script. That is just what it sounds like, the actors read the script aloud, each reading his part. It's fun. Jen wasn't too worried, she said. She'd already contacted a couple people and was putting a last minute call out on Facebook with the idea of carrying on with the scheduled read-thru and turning it into a sort of audition if need be. I volunteered to read the missing guy's part if it came to that and no
one showed to try out on short notice.
I guess the idea was already started in my head. I'd had a lot of fun watching the auditions and actually found for the first time being around theater stuff that I wanted to be taking part in what the actors were doing. It was a series of improvisational games followed by readings of parts of the script. I'd read the script twice already before the auditions and found myself thinking about how I'd do it if it were me up there trying out. Not that I wanted to be IN the show, mind you, just that I thought it'd be fun to get to act out this stuff. So, when it looked like Jen might need a warm body to read, I jumped at the chance.

Then, while running errands and walking around Walmart of all things, I got to thinking. That really did look like fun, the acting thing. It seemed, for the first time, accessible to even me. There was no singing or dancing. It was a lot of lines, but maybe I could memorize that. No, I could never do that on a stage, in front of people. Well, maybe. I just don't know. I sent Jen a message reiterating my offer to help read. She read between the lines I guess and understood and said what I couldn't bring myself to say, "Unless you're ready to make your stage debut...." 

Was I? I don't know. I knew for a fact that the guys she contacted to try out would be great and if they showed I was out, I said. Another volunteer responded to her call and said he'd come out. I didn't know his acting background and figured if he was as new to this as I, I would go ahead and read for the part with him. Jen told me whatever else happened, she'd give me a chance to read. I guess she understood what was going on in my head, she's been through this herself as an actor and seen many others go through it as a director. And she gets me
Sunday came and I surprised myself by not being nervous at all. I was happy, really happy. I was imagining my friends and family coming to the show. I was imagining being one of a small cast and all the camaraderie that I figure goes with that. I had myself convinced  it was totally doable for me to remember all the lines. I was excited and happy and looking forward to three o'clock. Then, while I drove to Adrian and Jen's office where the rehearsal was to take place, it hit me. I had been asked that morning to stand up in church and sort of wave "hi" to the congregation as I was introduced as a member of a new committee, and I hated it. It made me nervous and uncomfortable. What the Hell was I thinking volunteering to get up and ACT in front of an audience at a real show that people expected to be very good? I'd freeze and embarrass myself, embarrass the other actors, embarrass Jen. What sort of friend was I to put everyone in that position?  And if I did get the role, that would mean I wouldn't be stage manger, something I've been looking forward to all year. I loved stage managing Wizard, but I was one of three and this time I would be flying solo on a show that presents some real interesting challenges. That, and I love being Jen's helper, part of her production team.


When I got to the office, I saw that the other volunteer, Dan, had come out and I resolved to take Jen aside and tell her I was out as far as trying out. Let Dan have it, good or bad Jen would make him work. But I didn't. I went ahead as planned and read for the part like I wanted it. And if Dan hadn't been as great as he was, and Jen thought I would be right, I'd have done it. Really I would. And that surprised me about myself. I gotta say, I'm proud of me.

As it turned out, everything went about as perfectly as we could have hoped. Before we started, Jen announced I'd be reading for the part, but that she was a bit upset by the possibility of losing me as her stage manager (something that truly never occurred to me, I figured I was very replaceable). Dan and I and the rest of the cast had a really great time with the script. Dan was perfect for the part, he has acting experience and can flip between truly wonderful accents with ease. I know everyone saw that, so after we were finished and it looked like Jen wasn't going to say it, I did. I would be happy to stay stage manager. And I meant it.

The Cast: (l-r) Ryan Joyce, Adrian Iapalucci, Liz Cervantes and Dan Gedman
So, Dan got his chance to return to the stage, Jen found a perfect Clown One and kept her stage manager and didn't have to tell her friend "no, I would rather use the other guy," and I got my chance to audition for a part in a play along with a real actor. And while Dan was clearly much better for the part, and obviously more experienced in acting in general, I didn't embarrass myself at all. It wasn't like "isn't it cute, Jeff tried," not at all. I did well, and I think better than "for a first try" well. It was soooooooo much fun, too! It was every bit as much fun as it looked, I gotta say. 

Big thanks to Lisa for humoring all my crazy ideas and supporting me even though she knows it's going to mean a lot of nights away from home. Big thanks to Adrian and Liz and Ryan and especially Dan for welcoming the rookie and making me feel like I belonged there. And Big Thanks to Jen for understanding, for encouraging and for once again showing me a new door to open. This acting door hasn't been flung wide open by any means, but it has been left ajar. And that is huge for me.



Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With A First Step (or 39 of them)

Tonight I'm going to sit in on auditions for Brunswick Little Theatre's next show, The 39 Steps. To say I'm happy and excited understates it quite a bit. I didn't get to be much of a part of this summer's big musical production of Beauty and the Beast due to vacation and time conflicts (mainly), and with its run finishing up this past weekend, I am getting really itchy to be a part of a show again.

It's disingenuous to say tonight is the beginning, the first steps.  This show began when the director looked into The 39 Steps as a possible play she'd like to propose. She read the script, maybe watched a few YouTube videos and started thinking. There's A LOT of thinking involved in this. She proposed the show to the BLT board, they approved it, secured the rights, secured a venue and off we go.

While auditions aren't the beginning, they are a milestone and this time the beginning of my part in the adventure. My involvement with last summer's Wizard of Oz began at the first rehearsal, so this is a new and exciting thing for me. The director of this show, as if I need to even say so, is my great pal Jen. She is allowing me to try my hand at stage managing again, this time on my own. I'm really looking forward to the experience. This will be a very different show from Wizard; a cast of four rather than 50, minimal props, a small stage with next to no backstage area and at most a handful of crew rather than the 50-some we had backstage last summer. It's going to be a very different experience and I have no idea, in large part, what to expect. That starts with tonight. I don't know who will come (aside from a couple actors who have said they are) or what Jen has in mind for those who do try out. That is the best part, the not knowing. I love new experiences.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mary Poppins On Stage

Outside the DPAC before the show
We didn't make it to Broadway for this one, but the next best thing came to us. Or kinda sorta close to us. Ok, a 3 1/2 hour drive away from us that required a vacation day to make work, but it was totally worth it. A couple weekends ago the lovely and talented Miss Lisa and I made a weekend out of going to see Mary Poppins the musical at the Durham Performing Arts Center, and it was a spectacular experience. I'm not at all qualified to "review" a Broadway style show, but I can tell you about what an awesome experience the whole weekend turned out to be.

This whole adventure started on a whim, like many Stites activities tend to. Lisa bought me the DVD of Mary Poppins for my birthday and one of the extras was a documentary on the making of the musical. I started out watching it by myself, but before long all three of us were glued to it and talking about how much we were able to appreciate better what went into putting on a show after our family's experience in Oz over the summer. During the rooftop chimney sweep scene, the musical features a bit of technical wizardry that had all of us floored. Bert takes a walk up the side of the set, across the top upside down and back down the other side. It's a really impressive piece of work and after seeing that we all decided it would be really cool to go see this show. Lisa wandered off and came back a few minutes later with the news that as luck would have it, Mary Poppins was coming to Durham in February and tickets were still available, but only a very few. We found a few seats for a Sunday night show, the final show as it turned out, and ordered them up.

Our trip went from being a family adventure to a couple's getaway after John's church youth group retreat got rescheduled for the same weekend. We were disappointed but found we'd crossed some sort of threshold in the parenting world. The morning of our last day in Durham we admitted to each other that this time we really didn't find ourselves missing John. That sounds terrible, I know, but it isn't a bad thing at all really. We were in touch with him and he with us all weekend. We were sharing our experiences, though different ones. He was having a blast in the mountains and wasn't missing us one bit either. We are all growing up and I find that it actually feels good. We had a great time as a couple, just us two, and it was perfect that way. I guess it's nice to have it pointed out so clearly that we haven't turned into one of those marriages that stays together for the kids' sake. We'll be OK, more than OK, for a long long, long time, and that feels great.

All it needed was a monorail running through it
So on with our little couple's excursion. Our show was on Sunday night, but since we were without kid from Friday morning to Monday afternoon, we decided to make a weekend out of it. We didn't go nuts and get up early on Saturday or anything, we just left about lunchtime and headed North toward our one bedroom suite just outside Durham. Lisa found that deal as well, a huge suite with a king bed and kitchen for about $85 a night. The girl is good. It was a fun drive through a very rare North Carolina snowstorm. We arrived without incident and found that our hotel looked like the Contemporary Resort in Disney World, without the monorail. Strange, but it amused the Hell out of us. The room turned out to be great, the hotel very nice and situated near a rather large mall/outdoor shopping complex. Off we went in search of dinner and amusement. We found both and spent the night laughing and talking and exploring.

Our show wasn't until 6:30 Sunday evening, so we had plenty of time to explore that day, too. We started the day with a morning bubble in the hot tub, and decided once again that we REALLY need to get one for the house, then headed out to see what we could see. We ended up on the Duke University campus and took in the cathedral (beautiful), some geocaching (unsuccessful), and the gardens. We even tried to find a spot in the gardens to play Pooh Sticks, but there was a sad lack of water in the creek beds. Oh well. Then we headed "into town" for an early dinner.

Oh my. Let me just say that if you go to Durham and are anywhere near the DPAC and don't stop into Bull City Burger and Brewery you must simply hate yourself. The place is awesome. It's a brewpub and they have taken the "sustainable restaurant" thing to new heights. These folks make their own bacon out of pigs fed on the leftover barley mash used to brew the beer. Their website explains it well, and despite it all being very "hipster," I was pretty impressed. And the food is not only delicious, but creative. I had a "bowl of pickled stuff" as an appetizer. Yep. It was like they knew I was coming and designed a menu just for me. We also tried their Bull Nuts, peanuts cooked up with bacon and sugar and rosemary and who knows what else. If you invite us to a party and ask us to bring a munchy, we are going to try making this, just so you know. The burgers were great, using beef from cows raised on a farm just outside the city and served on homemade buns. They probably grew the wheat on the roof or something. The condiments were even homemade. And the beer. Wow. I love beer and this place made me a very happy Jeffrey. We tried barley wine, which is a highly alcoholic, very slowly crafted brew served in a snifter so you feel all fancy-like drinking it. Let me just say that Youngen Horny Barley Wine is one of God's great gifts to humanity.

Nosebleeds, baby! :)
After dinner we were in fine spirits and walked the few short blocks to the beautiful Durham Performing Arts Center. This place was really cool and run very well. It was a sold out show, but the number of people never intruded on our experience. That may just as well be because we were having such a great time with each other that nothing was going to intrude, but the place was run with great precision. Our seats were in the back, the second to the last row of the very top balcony to be exact. We could have had better seats, honestly, but we could have had worse. I didn't mind at all, as being so high gave me a great look at the technical aspects of the show. A bird's eye view, I guess. I helped move sets on and off stage during our production of Wizard of Oz and wondered if I would see little dudes dressed all in black running on and off stage. Lisa said, no, she thought not. But we did, once! And we were very happy.

Mary Poppins was simply breathtaking. The music is terrific and the sets are incredible and the actors sang and danced and acted their hearts out (see, I told you I was not qualified to write a theater review). The Banks house slid onto the stage and opened up like a dollhouse. It was amazing. We were convinced this touring company wouldn't do the Bert walking upside down thing because we didn't see the framework they used in the show we saw on the dvd. Boy, were we wrong. They didn't need a frame, this Bert just walked up the side of the stage and across the top, dancing and singing all the way. We were speechless. Lisa and I are still singing songs from this show all day long, they are that good. All around a lovely experience.

We had taken off work on Monday after the show which turned out to be a good idea as we'd have gotten home really very late. As it was, we just rolled back to the hotel a few miles away, slept a nice night away and headed home at our leisure Monday morning.

Perfect weekend :)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Polynesian Escape

A recent blog post about alcoholic Dole Whips put me in a Polynesian resort frame of mind. Before I go any further, let me just say that spiced rum Dole Whips are the best idea since the wheel and they need to be a permanent fixture at the bars of the Polynesian. Period. I see no need to serve them at Aloha Isle in the Magic Kingdom because the Poly is such an easy trip from the park. That thought is what moved me to write this post.

The Magic Kingdom is my favorite Disney park by far. I could happily spend all day and night in there and not need an escape at all. But the Magic Kingdom lacks two things that make me a happy guy; adult beverages and really good dinner. Maybe the new Be Our Guest restaurant will change that, but until I get back to check that out, I'm still recommending the Poly as a great pop outside the park for a bite and a cocktail destination.

Pool Hoppin' circa 1976. Yes, that's me :)
Any of the monorail resorts would work, and the Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness are only a boat ride away as well, but to me the Polynesian is special. It is the most "Disney" of the monorail resorts to me. The Contemporary doesn't excite me at all and the Grand Floridian seems just too much for me to feel comfortable. Though I've only stayed there once, and that when I was a young teenager, the Polynesian feels like home to me the way the Magic Kingdom does.Until we did stay there, it was our family's dream. We'd take the boat over from Fort Wilderness to eat or go to the pool (pool hopping was fine back then) or to play on the beach. Our week at the Polynesian was pure magic. The place is like being in another world, which is what Walt Disney World is all about to me. And that new world is right on the Magic Kingdom's doorstep, making it a draw for the Stites family.

The lovely Miss Lisa and I have fond Poly memories going back to our first trip to Disney together, a college graduation gift trip with my parents back in the summer of 1993. We were staying in a cabin at Fort Wilderness with my mom, dad and sister. One day we stayed in the Magic Kingdom for Extra Magic Hours and closed the park out. We had to be about the last to leave because we just refused to let the night end. I took what turned out to be my last ride on Mr. Toad (even getting the Mr. Toad car) that night. We watched the Electrical Parade from the crest of the big Splash Mountain drop. It was one of those magical Disney days where everything goes not just right, but better than you could have dreamed and we didn't want it to end. Instead of taking the launch back to the campground, I had the brilliant idea that we take the monorail to the Poly and see if Kona Cafe was still open and perhaps get some dessert. It was and we had midnight (or well past midnight if I remember correctly) sundaes before catching the last boat back to Fort Wilderness. We were the only ones on the bus back to our campsite, it being 2 am by this point, and the driver just drove us right to our site rather than follow the route. It was perfect.

On my family's latest trip last September we worked in visits to the Poly in twice, once planned and once not. We arrived for our trip in the early afternoon of a Saturday and had park tickets for the day, so decided to visit the Magic Kingdom first. We had no reservations for dinner and figured we'd just find a counter service somewhere. As it turned out, we ended up taking the monorail to the Polynesian and eating at Captain Cook's Snack Company. This place gets very little discussion among the blogs and websites and Facebook pages I follow, and that's a shame. The menu is the best by far of the counter service monorail resorts, the others being basic sandwiches and burgers. Captain Cook's features Hawaiian BBQ pork on a sandwich or as part of an awesome nacho platter. There are also very good flatbread pizzas to be had. But the coup de grace is the self serve DOLE WHIP MACHINE!!!!! I mean, come on, is that not worth the trip in and of itself? What a "Welcome to Disney" dinner!

The Lapu Lapu
Our second trip to the Poly was a planned one, and the plan came together perfectly. We'd done a character breakfast that morning before park opening at the Crystal Palace and scheduled dinner at 'Ohana  late enough that we hoped to catch the Wishes fireworks show from the window. We showed up for our 8 pm ressies a few minutes early and requested a window seat. They told us the couldn't promise anything and the place was packed so I wasn't going to be heartbroken if we didn't get our request. I figured we'd have a bit of a wait, so we ordered drinks (the perfectly splendid Lapu Lapu) and settled in at the bar. Before the second Lapu Lapu was ready, they came to show us to our table, a window seat overlooking Cinderella Castle! As we sat down we noticed the strolling ukulele player was singing our wedding song, so we got right back up and danced before ordering. Dinner was family style, all you can eat and delicious. As we forced more and more dessert bread pudding into our already stuffed tummies, the lights went down and the Wishes music began playing in the restaurant and the fireworks began. We had the perfect seat, full bellies, pineapples full of rum and we were IN DISNEY WORLD! It was the beginning of the end of one of my best days ever. I say beginning of the end because after the fireworks, we went right back into the magic Kingdom to ride my son's favorite (the Tomorrowland Speedway) and close out the Extra Magic Hours. Perfection.

Check out more Poly pictures at Pooh Sticks on Facebook

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I Love Adventureland

You have to have a favorite "Land" in the Magic Kingdom, right? While I love them all and could really make a great argument for any one of them being the "best," my favorite is Adventureland. It always has been my favorite, and that's the way Disney should work, I think. The same things that made me love it when I was 5 still appeal to me today. First off, it's home to Pirates of the Caribbean, the bestest ride in Walt Disney World. And the Jungle Cruise. And the Tiki Room. Gotta love that.

I'm a traveler, physically as much as time and circumstances allow, but in my imagination I am a real vagabond. Adventureland feeds that aspect of my soul very well. In one small part of the Magic Kingdom you can visit the Caribbean, Arabia, Polynesia, darkest Africa and the Mekong Delta. You can be spit on by magical tiki drums and a camel without having to walk more than a few feet. You can buy a Hawaiian frozen treat and carry it up into a tree house with a view of a castle. You can leave one boat under attack by cannon fire only to enter another that must navigate hippos and tigers. Animatronic birds shower you with bad jokes across the walkway from the worst pun-spouting boat captains in the world.

Adventureland combines real world and fantasy, present day and history, in a way that just strikes my fancy and makes me feel like an adventurer myself. On our last trip, we walked into Adventureland through the castle hub during the Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween party and heard AC/DC's Back In Black pumping through the speakers. We all looked at each other and couldn't even talk for the pure fun and perfectness of the moment. Finally, we laughed and agreed we were truly in the best place ever.

Check out my album of Adventureland pics at Poohsticks on Facebook :)