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Spring Break in Ireland

I’m officially three-quarters finished with my first year of teaching drama in Saudi Arabia. Spring break has arrived. It couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s been a challenging year in many respects – a good year – complete with unique challenges I had not expected. The show that I’m currently producing and directing – You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – has proved to have more downs than ups with a revolving cast and a myriad of obstacles. It’s been exhausting. I’ve never had a production like this. The show is April 18-20, so what better time than now to take a break from it and go to Ireland? The time away will do me a world of good.

I’ve never been to Ireland, so the promise of overcast, chilly temperatures coupled with the famous Irish green will be a delightful change from Jeddah’s taupe and arid make-up.

What led me to Ireland? I always wanted to have a writing residency. It sounded so idyllic – a time set aside on my own for one singular purpose – creativity. Last fall, I started searching worldwide opportunities since my job here affords me the flexibility to travel where I want at certain times of the year. Perhaps I could find something in an interesting place?

I did. I found a call for submissions from a small arts center in Killeagh, Ireland called Greywood Arts. They were selecting three individuals for their Winter Writing Residencies for poetry, play-writing, and visual arts. My submission was my full-length, yet-to-be-produced play “The Last Bastion.” One delightful November day, I received an email from Greywood that they had chosen that play to be the recipient of their residency program. That was a glorious day. When I proposed to them that I use my spring break for the purpose, it fit their schedule perfectly, so here I come!

Killeagh is a tiny village east of Cork in southwest Ireland.  It has a population of 500. It has a Catholic church, a famous thatched roof pub, a couple other pubs, a river, a convenience store, a Chinese restaurant (!?), and Greywood Arts.

Greywood hosts artists and writers throughout the year, promoting the arts in various creative ways. I’m thrilled to be a part of what they are doing.

But what will I be doing? Writing, mainly. I have tasked myself to finish two full-length plays which have been languishing for a while – one more than the other.  Several years back, I wrote an unfinished play themed on the tensions arising over the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. It’s an interesting two character play which explores evangelical Christianity’s struggle to come to terms with the SC’s decision. I’m convinced that there’s something there in this play. It has some interesting angles, and has been difficult to write in many ways because it’s raw. Grittier than I usually like to go. But it felt needed. Until I abandoned it. But now, it’s time to resurrect it. And finish it.

The next play which I started about a year ago and haven’t got back to is a historical piece related to Nat Turner’s slave uprising in 1831.  I have quite a ways to go on this one, but hope to finish it.

I’m also working on my next ensemble show which consists of a series of similarly themed short plays which I will produce for my show in December. I am mostly finished with this show, but I’d like to spend the week editing what I have and writing any pieces which the show lacks.

Also, I want one more. I want one more brand new idea for a full-length play that I can start during my week in Ireland. I’m waiting on the idea to hit me. Perhaps my new setting will be exactly what I need.

Oh, and if you happen to be in Killeagh, Ireland on April 5, I have an event!

READING @ Greywood Arts by playwright Mark W Sasse

Hope to see you there!

Gearing Up for Greywood Arts Residency in Ireland

I’ve found myself virtually walking main street of Killeagh, Ireland using Google Maps Street View, trying to imagine what it will be like to stroll down it in person. I won’t have to wait too long. That makes me so excited!

Through a submission of my play “The Last Bastion,” Greywood Arts – an arts residency house in Killeagh – awarded me with the Greywood Arts Winter Residency 2018 for playwriting. My reward is a one-week stint at their place to do one thing – write. Yes, it’s kind of like a dream come true. I’ll have my own room plus a writing room overlooking the Dissour River.  Right across the river is the Old Thatch Pub – a family establishment for 300 years – one of the oldest in Ireland, and I’m getting the feeling I’m going to be surrounded by Irish quaintness.

The strangest thing I’ll have to adjust to is my reasoning for being there – writing. I’ve never had a week, let a lone a day, when my only responsibility was writing. I have no other pressures, distractions, or responsibilities. Simply writing. Doesn’t that sound like bliss?

Oh, and I have a reading. Here. Look:

greywoodartsreadingannouncement

I’ll get to present excerpts of what I’ve worked on that week with the local arts community. I’ve been told there may even be some local actors willing to help me out with the reading. How cool would that be?

What will I be working on? I have a lot.  I have two full-length plays I’ve started but have not finished. I’d love to knock them out this week. One is a historical play related to the Nat Turner slave uprising in 1831. The other is a social commentary piece highlighting the conflict between the conservative Christian church in America and the issue of gay marriage.  Third, I am mostly finished with my brand new ensemble show “Crazy Love,” so I’d like to polish off those 8 short plays which comprise it. Other ideas include an embellished play of my childhood which walks through small town America in different time periods of the 20th century.  Oh, and knowing me, a new idea will pop in my brain and perhaps supersede all of these. Who’s to say?

Anyways, I head out for Greywood Arts on March 30.  I will certainly be posting photos and highlights of this week. Stay tuned.

In Production: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

I’m excited to bring this small cast musical to life this April. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a terrific Broadway musical which captures the spunky insouciance of  the beloved Charles M. Shultz characters known collectively as Peanuts.

This particular musical, the revised version, focuses on 6 characters: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Sally, Schroeder, Linus, and, of course, Snoopy.

I have a young, exuberant cast I’m working with, and we will put our best foot forward to bring a rousing, fun show to Saudi Arabia.

Of course, behind the scenes, LOTS of work is on the way. I have two production classes totaling 35 students who are hard at work to provide the backdrops and scenes to bring this musical to life.

Here’s a couple photos. Much more to come.

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The ladies hard at work creating Lucy’s Psychiatrist Booth. Yes, they’re doing an awesome job!
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Schroeder’s Piano Crew. The top of the baby baby grand in the foreground.
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And a sneak peak – the first look at our amazing Charlie Brown. He’s standing in front of an unfinished Broadway flat will eventually create the show’s backdrop. Photo shoot next week. More to come!

Theatre Arts: The Open Art Form

In my estimation, there’s nothing like live theatre. It’s the most intimate art form. The most personal art form. The most human art form. The most ephemeral art form.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture, the theatre arts is an open art form. When was the last time the Mona Lisa changed her smile? When was the last time Michelangelo’s David scratched an itch? In contrast, when was the last time you saw a play two days in a row and it was exactly the same? Never on all three counts. This is the beauty of the dramatic arts.

When I talk about theatre with my new students who have never acted before, I ask them these two questions:

  • At the intermission of a play, what does the audience talk about? Invariably, the answer is “The first half of the play,” or “What they liked or didn’t like,” or “What’s going to happen next.

Then I ask them the follow-up question?

  • During intermission, what are the actors talking about backstage?

The answer to most of them who have never acted before is not as obvious. But if you’ve ever been backstage during intermission, it’s very clear what the focus is on. The actors are talking about the audience. Is it a good audience? Is it a bad audience? Why didn’t they laugh at that certain part? Why did they laugh at that certain part.

Those are fun conversations to take part of because every audience is different, which means that every show is different. In an open art form, the audience impacts the performers and the performers impact the audience. It’s that interaction, that synergy which, in my estimation, raises the theatre arts to a whole new level of artistic expression.

Live theatre displays humanity in all its glory with all its warts. It can reach deep inside someone’s heart and affect them in ways you would not imagine. A few years back, I had a woman come to me after watching one of the shows I had written and directed. I had never seen this woman before. She had tears in her eyes, and she gave me a huge hug, thanking me for what she saw. She said it meant so much to her. I was flabbergasted to say the least. There’s no greater compliment as an artist than to affect change, encourage conversation, inspire action, and impact a member of the audience.

That’s why I can’t understand when people say they don’t like drama. That drama is too boring. To me, it’s the same as saying “I don’t like humanity.”

 

No Costumes + No Set = Terrible Show, Right?

“Honestly, I expected it to be terrible. When you told me that the actors don’t where costumes and that there is no set, that they only use these black boxes, I expected it to be the worst show I ever saw.”

This is what one of my students said to me after he saw my first show in Saudi Arabia. Then he added this:

“But, wow, I was impressed. It was so good.”

Drama, theatre, stage plays, musicals – they are not about spectacle. It is not costumes or elaborate set pieces or impressive special effects that make or break a dramatic performance.

At its most basic core, successful drama connects a story to an audience.

That’s it. All the bells and whistles in the world won’t make a lasting impact if this most basic fact isn’t adhered to.

That is why I have fallen in love with the concept of black box theatre. I’ve been doing it for years and I’m always struck by the fact of how many people tell me its their favorite type of drama performance after they see it.

We do small vignettes or sketches, short plays, actually, that are connected around a certain theme. Our actors all wear blue jeans and ensemble t-shirts, typically black, and we use minimal props and no set pieces at all except for our black wooden boxes. The boxes are 2 ft X 2 ft X 18in high. They have handles cut into the sides for easy movement. The boxes can become anything at all. A single box can be a chair. Two boxes can be a love seat. Three a couch. They can be stacked to create a staircase. Two stacked boxes can be a podium. Add a few more for a counter. The uses for them are endless. It allows seamless scene changes between sketches and provides the audience with more than enough visuals for their imaginations to take over for them.

This type of storytelling gets rid of distractions and allows everyone to focus on the content of what we are trying to communicate.

This type of drama is unparalleled in giving the actors unique and difficult material to grapple with. It’s raw. It’s intense. It’s face-paced. It’s meaningful. It’s griping. The ensemble nature of my shows give all actors challenging and varied roles which gives the terrific opportunities to grow in their skills.

I will probably be doing this kind of drama for the rest of my life.

It’s not all I do. There’s a time and place for elaborate productions and over-the-top costumes. I love spectacle as much as the next drama enthusiast.

But you don’t need spectacle to make an impact, and in fact it may oftentimes inhibit its formation.

Try striping down a show. Go minimalist. No costumes. Only black t-shirts. No set pieces. Only black boxes. Let the story be the focus.

You might just be amazed.

I always am.

 

My First Show in Saudi Arabia

Last week brought a conclusion to my first show in Saudi Arabia. I was really proud of these kids as they pulled it off in ways I wasn’t sure possible. I have a very young new ensemble with minimal amount of experience and we were doing the type of black box genre that no one was familiar with. But it happened, it worked, I survived, and it was a great starting point for the program. Here are a few photos from our second show courtesy of a colleague.

The show was called “For All Generations” – a show I first produced in Penang in 2014. It’s a funny, yet poignant show that has a lot of tender moments. The feedback from the crowd was enthusiastic. The photos going clockwise are: “Jerome, the Malevolent God-King,” “Revenge of the Grandparents” (certainly a favorite), a reprise of the award-winning script “Words to Say at the End of the World,” “What Was It Like?” and my favorite, the kind-hearted  Beatrice who takes in a runaway slave on a cold winter night in 1852 – “If Love is a Crime.”

Up next: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Coming April 2018 in Jeddah.

How to Improve at IMPROV (and Life)

I organized my first official drama event last night here in Jeddah–A Night of IMPROV.

I emceed the event where five members of my new drama group – The Sun & Sand Players – took the floor for a crazy night of improvisation.

A small but enthusiastic group participated, and we pulled in a slight profit to help fund our first real show in January.  Overall, it was a fun night.

The IMPROV performers are knew to the genre. They did a fantastic job – especially when taking into account the few opportunities that they’ve had to perform IMPROV, let alone IMPROV in front of an audience.

There were tense moments when their brains didn’t respond quickly enough, and they were flat-footed, unable to make that leap to the center of the floor to give a response. But that is normal. Natural, really. It’s to be expected no matter what you’re working on. The only way to improve IMPROV is to do it. Try. Jump in. Use the impulses. Feel the nerves in the gut and go for it. Mouth blazing, with little regard for self-censorship or self-consciousness. And as an actor practices, puts herself out there, let’s himself be put into different situations, he or she will improve. It’s a process. Sometimes a slow-moving one. But a process none-the-less.

It’s no different with my writing. It’s no different with life. If you have a goal, if you follow a passion, if you want to get better at something, put yourself out there. Play the fool for once, follow your pride, and jump right back in.

As an IMPROV actor, you might say something that people don’t laugh at. That can be painful. As a writer, I might write a cringe-worthy cliche that unleashes a whole slew of down votes. I won’t improve if I don’t learn to shake it off, learn from the misstep, laugh at myself, and move on.

This is the way life works. You will only attain that which you stubbornly shoot for. You’ll never hit the stars if your standing inside a barn. You’ll never cross the ocean if you don’t get into the vessel. You’ll … yeah, there’s all kinds of other corny saying I could add here, but you know the drill. You only improve at things which you are willing to work at, continuously, religiously, passionately.

That’s the only way you’ll improve at IMPROV, or at life in general.

I’ve got some writing to do.

Make Your Tools Sing

I’m teaching a Theatre Production class and our first project was to make some sawhorses in order to be able to make other items.

Sawhorses aren’t the most glamorous things to make. They are utilitarian, not praiseworthy pieces of art.

But who says you can’t combine both? That’s what we did. We made sawhorses which commemorate famous musicals, so you can say cool things like:

“Hey, bring me Mary Poppins!”   “I need Phantom of the Opera over here right now.”

Here’s a few shots of how they turned out.

catsmary poppinssawhorses

No Self-Consciousness Allowed on Stage

The drama classroom is often times a microcosm of life. We spend a lot of time talking about humanity, genuineness, and authenticity. These elusive words, when manifested correctly on the stage, can bring to life a performance which can penetrate deep into the audience’s consciousness. That’s the magic. From where do we reach in order to achieve these? What can stop our attempts at authentic emotion to slide into gaudy melodrama which makes the audience reach for the phone so they can stream another cat video to forget about the disaster on stage?

Self-Consciousness.

Now while it’s true that the actor must personalize their character in very real ways, that personalization cannot push them into self-awareness on stage. This, in my estimation, is one of the most difficult tasks that young actors in the drama classroom face. It doesn’t take long for one of my students to break a smile when doing an exercise. It doesn’t take much for someone to break character and turn away in self-conscious glee, knowing that they looked ridiculous in front of their peers. Well, yes. Everyone doing drama looks ridiculous. It’s a prerequisite. But to truly grow in one’s craft, you must get over yourself. You must get over what other people think, or how other people react when you are acting.

You have to get in the zone!

When I was a baseball pitcher, toeing the rubber and receiving the sign from my catcher, I felt like I was a lonely soul standing on a lonely mound. I didn’t hear the spectators, or the opposing team, or even my own players, I was in the zone, completely tuned in to the moment, to the pitch, to the mechanics, to the task at hand. In the same way, actors need to get into the zone through concentration and an acute awareness of the task they are trying to complete.

Last year I was put to the test in an experimental theatre piece I was part of. I had to sit in the middle of the stage, with the entire audience standing around me, watching me write the same line on a notepad over and over. I would pause, look up, and even though I saw them, I was not affected by them. I focused on the writing and I focused on the objective that my actor was trying to accomplish. After the show, I had many people comment on how I was “in the zone” and they couldn’t get me to break character. It was tremendously fun. How did I do it? I knew my objective and I concentrated on achieving it, at all costs. I was committed to looking foolish or strange because I knew that was the only way the show would work. It takes commitment and concentration. Do you have it?

I’ve attended many productions where the actors are already in character and on-stage as the audience was entering the theatre. It’s a purposeful mechanism of concentration that allows the actors to remain uniquely in tune to the task in front of them. It’s also a terrific way to tease the audience with what is about to come.

What about you? How do you stay in character? How do you concentrate when you are on stage?

Are you prepared to go unexpected places?

You know how it goes: “If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be such and such, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years.”

I know the feeling. Very well. This notion of unexpected outcomes came to the forefront of my mind this week because I found myself saying that above line nearly verbatim. Mine goes like this:

“In 2002, if someone told me that in fifteen years that I would be a drama teacher in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years. I would have thought they were experiencing severe mental delusions.”

You see, in 2002, I was living in Vietnam, teaching English at the college level to Vietnamese students studying to be English teachers. I was a frustrated, wannabee, writer who never wrote. I was immersed in Vietnamese culture and language, and I had even contemplated (for a few seconds) going on for a PHD in Vietnamese history. I had never acted in my life. I had never been involved in any drama productions. The extent of my dramatic experiences involved writing a play which I read to my mother when I was twelve, and writing a couple small skits which were performed in some low-key settings. Oh, I did act as Forrest Gump in a skit, so I take that acting bit back.

But I had nothing in my background that would have indicated that I was destined to be a drama teacher.

And I had nothing in my background that indicated that I would ever end up in Saudi Arabia.

So therefore, the combination of those two–teaching drama in Saudi Arabia–would have seemed too implausible to even ponder.

However, as I sit in Jeddah on the heels of my first week of teaching theatre at the American school, I am quite taken back at the loops and rabbit-chasing trails my life has gone down in the past fifteen years in order to arrive at this point. And to think it all happened because that frustrated writer sitting in Vietnam became inspired by a group of students in Malaysia.

I’ve told this story before, but I still like it. I moved to Malaysia in 2006 to teach history. (Yes, that’s a whole different story of how I suddenly switched from English to history!) As the drama director at the school was leaving, I volunteered to start a drama-writing group where I would collaborate with a group of students and we would write and produce a play for the next school year.

That was the genesis of it all. The interesting point in my mind is this: what was the impetus for me wanting to write and produce a drama with students? I don’t actually know the answer to this. It’s something that just popped in my mind, and instead of dismissing it, which I can’t believe I didn’t, I embraced and proposed it to the school. That was the crucial moment. For some reason, I stepped in to try something that I had never tried before. If I had not jumped in at that moment, I am fairly certain I wouldn’t be teaching drama in Saudi Arabia. If I had not jumped in, someone else would have eventually filled the drama void at our school and I would have sat in the audience enjoying the shows, never fully understanding how much I loved theatre.

I know now that I wasn’t meant to observe theatre. I was meant to create it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The only advice I have as I look back on my journey is that if you get an itch or an urge that you should jump in and try something, don’t delay. You never know where it might lead you. It could make you change careers in mid-stream and send you to far off lands to do things you never would have imagined but now couldn’t ever live without.

Where might you be in 15 years? I hope the answer surprises you.