"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

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Just Us, No Parks, No Schedule 20th Anniversary 2015 Disney World Trip

This trip was just for us. For my sweety and me. Go ahead, gag, It's ok. She's my sweety though and I'm happy to say so. After 20 years of marriage, we are still very much in love, still enjoy each other's company over others', still giggle over stupid stuff, still love simply being around each other. And where better to be around each other than Walt Disney World?
Spoiler Alert! I got my mug

We even enjoy the car ride. It's a chance to talk :-)
This trip came about in classic Lisa and Jeffrey fashion. I was seeing photos from the newly opened Trader Sam's Grog Grotto and they included a souvenir mug shaped like the Nautilus. I HAD TO have one. We had some friends heading down to Disney World in November so I asked them to try to pick one up for me. But when I told Lisa, she was all like, "Hey, why don't WE go down for our anniversary and get one for you?" The boy told us since it was our anniversary trip, we should go without him. And so the Just Us, No Parks, No Schedule Disney Anniversary Weekend 2015 was born.

We always leave the driving to Disney
Lisa and I grew up in Pennsylvania, so the novelty of being able to leave home at breakfast time and eat dinner in Disney World has never worn off. And probably it won't ever, to be honest. We packed up, took the boy to the bus stop (it was raining) and left the island by 7:00. After a new-GPS-inspired detour to the Kissimmee DMV office, we found Pop Century Resort and were walking in the front doors by about 5:00. We had a plan to do the monorail bar tour Friday night, bum around the pool Saturday morning then hit the brand spanking new Jack Lindsey's Hanger Bar for lunch and cocktails, then have a look around Wilderness Lodge before our 7:30 Artist's Point ADRs and hopefully catching the electrical water pageant from the Wilderness Lodge beach. That was the extent of our plans. They included no parks and only one dining reservation, and that only because we wanted to make sure of a table at a nice place for a sort of anniversary celebration dinner. And this all
worked out PERFECTLY!

Having the window seat meant Lisa was on photo duty
We're on a boat!!!!!!
In the coming days and weeks I'll be blogging about all the different aspects of our trip. For now the short version is this--we completed the monorail bar tour including drinking with a retired Imagineer and experiencing Trader Sam's complete with Nautilus mug, we chilled at the pool reading books, we explored the new Hanger Bar, we loved Wilderness Lodge and Artist Point, we saw both the fireworks and water parade from the beach, and we got some very relaxed shopping time in at Downtown Disney before leaving in time to arrive home by 10:00 pm Sunday night.

We spent about 20 hours driving and pretty much exactly 46 on Disney property. There are those who
Jock Lindsey's Hanger Bar is PERFECT
would think that nuts. But for us it was a dream. We relaxed and unwound after a crazy summer, we enjoyed each other's company talking and laughing our way from doorstep to doorstep, we took a ton of photos, we people watched, we ate and drank without worrying about a DD, we rode the monorail and several different boats, we tried out a new resort and quite a few new bars and restaurants. We simply had a ball doing what WE wanted to do when we wanted to do it.....together.

People can decide to celebrate a big milestone anniversary many ways.

We chose wisely.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stiteses In The Swamp, Part 3: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

That was my mantra for this show. From being asked to participate as an actor/singer/dancer on top of stage managing to losing our tech director to heart troubles during tech week, from watching the list of costumes grow to seeing the size of our set pieces. At every turn, there seemed to be another.....challenge. And go wrong things did. But that's live theatre, ya know? That's what makes this fun and challenging and interesting and worthwhile. The show was great. The audience loved it, every night. The cast had a ball. The crew had fun. All the newbies want to do it again. The actors new to BLT are anxious to be or already are back involved in other shows with us. The whole sha-bang is something for everyone involved to be very proud of. But holy cow was it a wild ride!

I'll be the first to admit I bit off more than I could chew. I said it before in my blog about Lisa and I'll say it again---without her I'd have not survived this with my sanity intact, and the show would not have been nearly as good. She was a port in the storm, and not just for me either. Director Cal pulled her right into his circle and kept her close during rehearsals and after. She was a Godsend. But there were things she couldn't help with. Like the singing and dancing.

I'm not sure I can express this correctly, so I'll start with the simplest statement: I had no idea how HARD performing musical theatre was. I don't want to give the impression I thought it was easy by any means. It was just one of those things I knew I'd never do so I was just content to really admire those I saw doing it and that was that. Until I tried to learn to sing and dance at the same time. It doesn't help that I have no experience or talent in either one. But even so, I was completely blown away by how difficult it is to make one's brain do two things at once. It requires concentration like I've not needed in I don't know how long. I just don't challenge myself that way, which is sad, I guess.

The concentration thing got me. I could "get it" if I was thinking about what I was doing and only what I was doing. My friend Adrian told me in the very beginning that would be the case, at least it was for him. It was what he enjoyed about the exercise; it was a way for him to force himself not to think about his law practice. Everything he said turned out to be true. It was an escape. Rehearsals were so far from what turned out to be a really stressful summer at work that I grew to really look forward to them. Work troubles completely faded away while I tried to remember which foot was supposed to be stepping forward first. It was great.

My problem, and the reason I think I bit off too much, was that I couldn't do the same thing with show concerns. I couldn't force them from my mind during rehearsals....or shows. I guess it's because the two were too close. It's easy to forget routing of a delivery truck when you're in a kick line, but less so to not wonder if the kid a few people down will return to rehearsals in time to learn the choreography. I was too involved in things outside of performance to get the full enjoyment out of singing and dancing away. Cal called me his producer, which I don't like as it connotes some financial oversight, and I neither had nor wanted any of that. But he did include me in about all the decisions during production, from casting to staging to sets and costumes and tech. I love all that stuff, but I wish now I'd have either done that or performed, not both.

I'm sure there are those who could do it all, but I kept getting "Squirrel-ed!!". Even during shows. I remember during our closing number one night, a really fun combo of a bunch of 60s dances, I turned around (as we were supposed to) and happened to see a backdrop that had been giving us trouble and thinking to myself "Hmmmm, now why is that thing getting caught on the way down?". Then totally forgetting what I was supposed to be doing. That happened a lot. I'd be bopping along all fine and dandy then my stupid brain would step in and wonder why the costume chick was walking by ranting just before we went on stage. Or try to look to see if the stagehands needed for the next set change were at the ready (one tended to wander off). Or try to count heads in the audience and do some math to see if ticket sales would pay for this extravaganza. I just could not FOCUS sometimes.

Now, sometimes I could and did and those were the most fun parts of the show for me. When I could just play my little part and know I was doing it right and that it fit in with everyone else and together we were making magic for the audience, that was magic for ME. I just wish, both for my sake and the show's, that I could have done that all the time.

But all in all, Shrek was my favorite theatre experience so far. Having my family so deeply involved in production, having them as fellow parts of a wonderful creative team, made this one truly special. And as exhausted as I felt, and kind of still feel, with the show over, I'm jumping in again. Already. Cal has a plan and I'm back riding shotgun and bringing the family along.

Stay tuned :-)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Stiteses In The Swamp Pt. 2: Full Moon Friday

Lisa was my life-saver during the entire production of this show. I tend to over-promise myself and set a new record for that this time. Lisa was like a little Guardian Angel floating around and taking care of everything I wasn't. I told Director Cal that sure, I'd find someone to do props. That "someone" turned out to be Lisa, who stepped into completely new territory and rocked it. And then there's the publicity. Lisa took it upon herself to get Shrek in the local newspapers, and I don't think any BLT show has been represented better in the press, a big factor in the over 1500 people we had turn out to see the show. One article she wrote, a huge piece in Southport Magazine, is truly not only the best article about a show we've ever had but also a spectacular representation of what ALL community theatres do in putting together a major production. Whatever needed to be done, Lisa was right there either helping do it or totally taking it upon herself. I couldn't have survived without her.

But the el numero uno, very biggest, thank the Lord above for Lisa factor in this show was her debut as a stage manager. I signed on as stage manager for this show early on, then got talked into actually taking a small on stage role as well. I had no idea how much work a small role would be, the dancing and singing was way out of my comfort zone and the work involved in learning to do even that small amount of choreography blew me away. I agreed to the on stage stuff knowing I couldn't stage manage by myself if I was going to be otherwise occupied. Lisa had already agreed to help me stage manage Shrek, but my acting debut would place a whole lot more on her shoulders. On top of the props, she knew she'd be busy, but leapt right into the role with both feet. And she rocked it.

Stage management is a huge job. I'm still learning myself and this show taught me its share of lessons. Lisa soaked it up like a sponge, organizing a crew to execute set changes as well as anyone could have. That's a pretty big deal for someone learning on the job. I could go on and on about all she learned and all she did over a week of tech rehearsals and two weekends of performances, but this particular show offers up one night that pretty much encapsulates everything. It was the Friday of our second weekend, the night of a full moon. I'm not usually superstitious about such things, but may be changing my mind after this one.

Much of stage management involves dealing with "Backstage Drama." Everyone says "leave the drama on stage," but it never happens. It couldn't, really, given you are looking at dozens of naturally dramatic people attempting the near impossible over and over again. Drama happens, and takes one of two forms. The first is caused by, to put it simply, things breaking. Equipment breaks. Electronics fail. Sets break. Costumes fall apart. People are injured. You can count on ALL of those things happening on every show. Some of these things rise to the level of actual emergency. The second, which you can also count on every show, is drama created by people being, well, dramatic about things. Everyone is under a lot of pressure and sometimes what would be nothing in real life makes otherwise sane people lose their minds during a show. Though it can't be ignored, this kind of drama is almost never an emergency and can't be allowed to distract when one crops up. Our Full Moon Friday offers a great comparison of the two, and why Lisa was a great asset to Shrek the Musical.

Some backstage emergencies are actually pretty hilarious. Full Moon Friday offered one of these in the form of the Greatest Costume Malfunction Ever, otherwise known as The Donkey Dong Incident. During one of Donkey's big song and dance scenes, a piece of his costume became unattched at one end causing a strip of costume to dangle between his legs. Yes, it looked just as you are imagining. Dan, our awesome Donkey, could do nothing else but carry on, dancing around with a swinging......thing. Audience members were texting Lisa saying basically, "uhhhh, we have children here...." So much for no one noticing. Some things just can't be fixed until the scene is over, ya know? It was, by the way, fixed by the Donkey's wife. Insert your own Donkey dong joke here.

I wrote in my tribute to John the Sound Tech about our trouble with microphones. Full Moon Friday saw our lead's mic fail, in the middle of a song. Does Lisa freak out? Nope. And thus no one else does. Charles Patton, our Shrek, can project like no one's business, so he did. By the time he had a brief moment off stage, a spare mic had been procured and was hurriedly attached to the ogre. Lisa told John on headset about the new mic, John fired it up and when he went back out, all was well. Emergency dealt with.

Those two are the sorts of happens-every-show things a stage manager has to deal with. Staying calm is essential, something Lisa is very good at. But every now and then a REAL emergency crops up. Staying calm THEN is even more important. On this night there was an equipment malfunction in the tech booth area that escalated to involving the auditorium's two paid managers, then the Brunswick Community College's public safety personnel. It was touch and go for a while and we came very close to evacuating the building. This is NOT the sort of thing that happens every show, I never had anything like this happen on my watch. I never even knew this was happening until after the fact. Thing is no one not on headset had any idea. Lisa handled it like a pro, responding to a scary situation without freaking out, without blowing up and without letting it affect the show or the performances of any actors. She preserved not only the magic of the performance for the audience, but shielded all the actors (who would have not been as calm, I can assure you) from potentially distracting "drama."

So what of the other type of drama? In point of comparison, pretty much simultaneous to the tech booth situation, there were folks behaving much less calmly than Lisa over which of several available dressers were going to help with a costume change later in the show. It wasn't a question of if there was going to be help (which would have been a real problem), that was never in doubt, just who was going to be involved or not. It got needlessly dramatic. Lisa was as ignorant of this......situation.....as those involved were of what was going on in the tech booth. Thankfully.

I can't say enough how thankful I am it was Lisa and her calm professionalism in the wings keeping things under control. She spent the last two musicals in the dressing room dealing with that sort of drama, but she is much more suited for a stage management role. And BLT is lucky she is the one who was filling that role on that Full Moon Friday.

Stiteses In The Swamp Pt 1: J5, the Unsung Hero

I haven't written a word on here about Shrek the Musical. This is strange because because it was such a huge part of the Stites Family Summer 2015, but it's also precisely BECAUSE it was such a huge part of the Stites Family Summer 2015. I've not had time to write much.

My own experience was overwhelming, in terms of what I learned and what I did. But more importantly, and so firstly, I have to blather on about how proud I am of Lisa and John. These two followed me into this whole theatre thing like Tonto follows the Lone Ranger. Two finer companions couldn't be wished for. Let's talk about John first.

John has embraced the role of Sound Tech. The wonderful Katie Deese took him under her wing and taught him the basics on Wizard of Oz three years ago (and stepped up this year to help John with sound checks and teaching him even more about the finer points of sound engineering) and he handled Into The Woods pretty much on his own last summer, so he was a shoe-in for sound guy for Shrek. Turns out we ask a lot from the guy. Hannah Funderburke, John's newest mentor and friend in theatre tech (and source of his J5 moniker), was pretty horrified that we expected John to handle over 20 actors being mic'ed. She said pros would refuse to do that, it was just too difficult. John took it in stride, he had that many in Into the Woods last year after all. This time he had 24 actors (give or take, the equipment was constantly breaking down) with microphones, three choral mics hung from the flies and a reverb effect to deal with. In addition, he played the fart machine during one song, something that sounds funny but required him to basically play a percussion instrument along with the pit orchestra but do so from the tech booth. It was a great gag as long as it was perfect. The actors made body motions along with the sound effects so the timing had to be spot on to work. If it did, it was hilarious, if not, it would have shown. It WAS perfect. Every night. Oh, and I, in my wisdom, saddled the kid with sound effects and a video projector on top of everything else.

John realized what I didn't realize, or didn't want to think about. He had too much to do himself. Now, he was not the only one to be stretched too thin on this show. Our tech director had a heart problem and missed tech week and the first weekend of performances, throwing Hannah and I into the roles of co-acting-tech directors, and both myself and Jen were trying to fill simultaneous production and stage roles. John, I must say, handled it best, far better than Jen and I anyhow. He saw he was in the weeds and asked if he could ask for help from the director, the wonderful Cal Chiang, who was already in the booth watching the show each night. John recruited Cal to run sound and video effects, but had to cue him. But hey, it at least allowed him to keep his hands on the sound board, right? Cal, by the way, claimed John was "bullying" him (and saying so with a HUGE smile on his face). John said Cal kept "leaving his post" and needed to be called back. John is 15 and taking it upon himself to tell the director to keep to his work. Many adults in community theatre wouldn't do that.

John put a tremendous amount of time into this show, showing up two hours before call each day to try to make the sound work with whatever equipment was functioning that night. The mics were old and the replacements cheap. We had some very intense movement on the part of some actors and that was tough on the wires. Every time a mic was replaced, that meant a new place for that mic's actor on the soundboard. So with 24 actors' mics to keep track of, John could never count on all of them being on the same buttons two nights in a row. They never were, not once. And yet, John had the correct mics on and off when they needed to be and kept everything in balance throughout trios, duets, solos and big ensemble numbers. I have no idea how he didn't lose his mind, but not did he not, he was having fun.

John is looking at a career in sound design/engineering. The experience he's gotten has been wonderful, but what I think will serve him best is his attitude. The guy is rock solid. You can't teach that. And I couldn't be more proud of him :-)