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.

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Farewell, Penang Performing Arts Centre (penangpac)! I will miss you!

At the conclusion of my last show at penangpac yesterday, I was highly honored by my friends there with this amazing parting gift. This was completely unexpected. I was bowled over by their thoughtfulness. I have grown my theatre arts background and experience at their famous stage 1 and stage 2 venues. So I thought, as a way of reminiscing, I’d list all the shows I had a part in since penangpac opened in 2011. It’s quite a list, and I completely enjoyed everyone of them.  But first a look at this amazing gift – a commemorative pewter Malaysian kris (asymmetrical dagger). It’s so awesome!

penangpac gift

So here’s my chronological, penangpac drama/musical list. I’m so grateful for everything.

  • November 2011 – Stage 2 – “Romans on the Couch-INTERACTIVE” (writer, director, producer)
  • November 2011 – Stage 1 – “Romans on the Couch” (writer, director, producer)
  • December 2011  – Stage 2 – “RLT Players’ present The Road Less Traveled” (first RLT show ever! – writer, director, producer)
  • May 2012 – Stage 1 – “Life with Stewart” (writer, director, producer)
  • September 2012 – Stage 2 – Short & Sweet Theatre (writer)
  • November 2012 – Stage 2 – RLT Players “Drive All Night) (writer, director, producer)
  • May 2013 – Stage 1 – “Grandparents’ War” (writer, director, producer)
  • September 2013 – Stage 2 – Short & Sweet Theatre (writer, director)
  • November 2013 – Stage 2 – RLT Players “Captured in Time & Space”
  • May 2014 – Stage 1 – “Boardwalk Melody: A Musical” (writer, director, producer)
  • September 2014 – Stage 2 – Short & Sweet Theatre (writer, director)
  • November 2014 – Stage 2 – RLT Players “For All Generations” (writer, director, producer)
  • May 2015 – Stage 1 – “A Tad of Trouble: A Musical” (writer, director, producer)
  • September 2015 – Stage 2 – Short & Sweet Theatre (writer, director)
  • December 2015 – Stage 2 – RLT Players “Tales of Wonder”
  • May 2016 – Stage 1 – “The Secrets of the Magic Pool” (writer, director, producer)
  • September 2016 – Stage 2 – penangpac Black Box Experiments “How to Build a Dictator” (writer, actor, producer)
  • November 2016 – Stage 2 – Short & Sweet Theatre (writer, director)
  • December 2016 – Stage 2 – RLT Players “Tales of Wonder II” (writer, director, producer”
  • January 2017 – Stage 2 – “The Last Bastion: A Staged Reading” (writer, actor)
  • May 2017 – Stage 2 – RLT Players “A Collection of Our Best” (writer, director, producer)
  • May 2017 – Stage 1 – “RLT Musical Revue” (writer, director, producer)

Wow! That’s 22 theatrical productions I had the privilege of being part of at penangpac. I shall miss it all very much.

Thank you, penangpac! Hopefully we shall see each again one day.

 

 

#19

This weekend, I’m producing my 19th full-length theatrical production in the past ten years. This one is called RLT Musical Revue, a compilation of the best musical moments and short musicals that I’ve produced in the past. It’s an eclectic and fun show, filled with talented singers, dancers, musicians, and actors. I’m so grateful for my brilliant co-director Christopher Ramos who actually knows music, while I simply pretend. But between us both, we’ve seen the show come together, a rough dress rehearsal last night notwithstanding, and I’m excited to see what will happen this Saturday. Two shows only. My last on in Penang. I’m going to miss it. Here are a few snippets which will be part of the show. (photos by Jonathan Steffen)

aWomanatWarRLT MusicalTheJingle

The Show Ends

Last night, we capped off an amazing weekend of drama at the Penang Performing Arts Centre. Good responsive crowds watched as my amazing young actors perform everything from comedy, to dramatic storytelling, to hard hitting drama. It’s such an emotional thing for a writer and director to see the work they’ve toiled on for months finally come and then quickly go. But satisfying. So satisfying.

Once again, watching the shows these past couple of days, my belief in teenage drama has been reinforced. I don’t believe in high school drama. High school drama has such a negative stereotype, at least in my eyes. When you put the term ‘high school’ in front of drama, suddenly you aren’t taken seriously. The awards folks won’t look your way. There’s a connotation of inexperienced acting which ends up being nothing more than photo-ops for parents and relatives.

I believe in nothing like that. Actors are actors, whether aged 16 or 45. Whether they’ve have years of training under Adler and Meisner or whether they’re in their first theatre arts class. The requirements are the same. Preparation. Characterization. Mining the script. Making choices about movement, vocal qualities, and backstory. And when it’s all put together, any actor, with the right preparation and the right script, can impact an audience in wonderful and unexpected ways.

That’s what happened here the past couple of nights. And it happened with actors ranging from 15 to 18 with varying levels of experience. When expectations are high, the actors will hit it. I’ve seen it over and over. And the comments are amazing.

“I can’t believe these are kids.”

“They are so amazing.”

Yes, they are. Whether playing a grandpa or a child, a piece of fruit or a government bureaucrat. They rise to the occasion time and time again.

I stand amazed. And proud. So proud.

I’m going to miss this group so much!

At least I was smart enough to realize that doing one show in my final semester here would not be enough. RLT Musical is coming next week. It’s my saving grace. It has kept me from falling into drama depression.

So let’s do this, one more time.

RLT MusicalPOSTER2

 

The World Crashing Down: AKA – “My Show is This Week”

I’m a writer. I love writing.

I’m a director. I really enjoying directing.

I’m a producer. I like producing.

Yes, there’s a distinct step-down there. Writing and directing unleashes the creative demon inside me in very different ways. Producing, well, that’s where the stress comes from.

And this week, four and a half months  of preparation comes to fruition, which really feels like the world crashing down around me. Actually, I’m sitting by the ocean as I type and each of those waves reminds me of something else I must get done before the show date.

Here’s a last minute list:

seating arrrangment – in a black box modular setting and we are still working on configuration.

Promotion – yes, must sell those remaining seats. But  luckily, tickets are going quickly.

FOH – Front of House – oh, this reminds me that I need to arrange front of house staff for each shows. Oops! Forgot this one.

Wednesday is bump-in day. All props, set pieces need to be transported. Then the massive task of rigging and focusing following our lighting plan. Then mic set-up and sound check. Then cues! NO! CUES!!!! It takes so long. Then adjust lights because the director wasn’t thinking ahead and got a new idea once he saw the lights.

Arrange food for the team. This is important.

Transport too!

And then technical rehearsal, and then our ONE CHANCE on-site dress rehearsal. Yes, we only get to perform in the venue once before the show date. It’s a massive challenge.

This, and more, is what I’m staring at this week, thus world-crashing-in felt appropriate.

Producing drama is the most work I’ve ever in any one task. But don’t get me wrong. It’s also the most rewarding. I love it all.

It’s going to be a great week!

RLT FinalPoster2

 

It’s not the words. It’s the emotion behind the words.

I was working with one of my actors on a pivotal scene in our upcoming play. She gives a short speech which spurs on some tremendous societal changes. Yes, it’s a few lines of dialogue which changes the story dramatically. It’s the crucial point in the play.

The actor had not been getting it. The speech she has been giving in rehearsal has been flat and unemotional. Today, I pulled her aside to correct it, and I started by saying: “It’s not the words. Don’t worry about what you are going to say. Work on how you prepare to say the words.”

First off, as a playwright, I was horrified at myself. Don’t worry about the words??? Am I crazy? But as a director, I needed to shift her away from the words because the words were hollow to her. I told her, if she can put herself in the right emotional state, then the words will flow appropriately and I won’t even have to tell her how to say the words. She will say them authentically.

So we put down the script, and we walked through the scene. We focused on the action, the moment, the setting, the character’s emotional connection to what had just happened. Then we designed a set of actions, a slow plodding walk, a purposeful turn, hands coming to her face. We dug deep into the feelings she had, the sadness she felt about what had happened. She forced herself to block our her surroundings and focus on the feeling in her chest.

She walked slowly into position, she raised her hands over her face, she put her head down, then lifted her eyes into the auditorium and started to speak. Her voice crackled, slight tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and she raised her voice strong and spoke the words – words which at the last rehearsal were flat and ineffective. Now they were purposeful, emotional, powerful, and perfect.

Young actors focus so much on the words, wondering how to say the lines. But a little exploration of the scene and some purposeful movement and trigger mechanisms can make the words flow naturally from the emotion and action of the actor. This is when the magic happens.

So, playwright, at times you have to take a back seat because the meaning of the words will only reach peak impact if they are said with the emotion and attitude of the actor.

Well done, young actor. And that was just one short rehearsal. I can’t wait to see the final result.

Good Friday: Dead is Dead

Good Friday is the penultimate day for Christians around the world. It’s a reminder that the first day of the week is coming, the day that brings hope, the day that brings faith. But I’m sure the first Good Friday didn’t feel like it was a penultimate day, waiting for another reveal. Not, it would have had an air of finality about it. After all, dead is dead. Or is it?

To commemorate this Good Friday, I’d like to share with you a short play I wrote for a Good Friday service last year, simply entitled “Dead is Dead”.


 

Characters

Jabez, husband of Naarah, follower of Jesus

Naarah, wife of Jabez, follower of Jesus

Daughter, of Jabez and Naarah

Roman Soldier

Setting: At their home in Jerusalem the day after the crucifixion of Jesus.

 

Jabez is sitting eating some bread, giving it to her child. Child runs off to the side of the stage and is playing in the dirt. The Jabez is standing in a contemplative pose.

 

NAARAH: Do you want something to eat? (He shrugs it off.) I remember the first time I saw him. He had a single loaf of bread in his hand. (in thought) On the hillside. The crowd was massive, and I pushed my way in. I was just curious, nothing else.

JABEZ: Curiosity is better left alone unless you want a dagger in your heart.

NAARAH: I refuse to believe it was all for nothing.

JABEZ: It doesn’t matter what you believe when yesterday is still seared into our memory. We saw it with our own eyes, and that’s the end of it.

(The girl runs up from behind and tugs on the arm of her papa.)

GIRL: Papa, papa. Come here. Come here.

NAARAH: But it doesn’t make any sense. How can it be finished? There’s more to it than just yesterday. Our eyes have seen things, and you know it. It’s not like the first unbelievable thing we saw was yesterday.

GIRL: Papa, papa.

JABEZ: (gruffly to girl) Not now. Can’t you see your mother and I are in a conversation? (The girls runs off and starts digging and playing in the dirt off the side of the stage.) Why did I let you drag me into this?

NAARAH: Don’t blame your lack of faith on me.

JABEZ: Faith is now the last thing we need. We have given everything for him. And now what are we going to do? We’ll be outcasts. That bread in your hand might be some of the last you’ll ever have.

NAARAH: Stop it.

JABEZ: How could we have been so foolish?

NAARAH: I came to you and told you what I saw. That’s all. The rest was your decision.

JABEZ: And what exactly did you see? Perhaps your heart was a little too emotionally involved to see things objectively.

NAARAH: I’m not going to let your bitterness cloud my vision. I was on that hillside, and he took that loaf of bread and a small fish and fed thousands with them. Emotion doesn’t fill an ox cart full of bread. Tears have never multiplied fish. It happened, and you know it happened. Because you saw what he did for the blind beggar. (He turns away disgusted.) Don’t turn away from me. You know what I’m talking about. How many times did you pass him in the streets as he sat near the well in his ragged clothes? And you saw the rabbi heal him. I know it. I saw the faith in your eyes when you came home that day.

JABEZ (emotion) Where is faith now? Nailed to a bloody, wooden cross.

(The daughter comes back over to him.)

GIRL: (pulling on his arm) Papa! Come over here and look.

JABEZ: Not now!

(Daughter walks away again.)

NAARAH: It may not all make sense, but I refuse to believe it was all for nothing.

JABEZ: Yes, I saw with these very eyes what he did to the blind beggar, and I can’t explain it. But those same eyes witnessed something very different yesterday. Stop blinding yourself with reckless faith. Stop seeing what you only want to see. He’s gone.

NAARAH: But perhaps …

JABEZ: Dead is dead. It’s no different if he had fallen into a well or been bit by a viper or the Roman Legion sliced off his head. Either way, dead is dead, and we’d both be much better off if we can admit that fact. Jesus of Nazareth is dead. And life doesn’t come from death.

GIRL: Papa …

JABEZ: Not now!

GIRL:  Someone’s coming.

(He looks and sees a Roman soldier coming at him quickly.)

ROMAN:  Jabez!

(Jabez tries to run, but knocks into his daughter who falls to the ground. He stops to pick her up and Naarah comes to get the girl as the soldier punches Jabez to the ground.)

I should slice you here, and I would if it were up to me.

(Standing over him with a sword to his throat.)

JABEZ: What have I done?

ROMAN: Your neighbors have let it be known that your household was part of the rebellious movement of Jesus of Nazareth.

JABEZ: Please don’t hurt my family.

ROMAN: I am here to make one thing perfectly clear, and let the pointed edge of my sword re-enforce it. The governor of Judaea will crush anyone who perpetuates rumors or prophecies about the Nazarene. He is dead, and all thoughts of rebellion are buried in his corpse, or the likes of you will be buried alongside him. Do I make myself understood?

JABEZ: Yes.

ROMAN: Stand to your feet. (Jabez slowly stands) I just need to make sure you understand.

(He smacks him twice and Jabez staggers to the other side of the stage and falls on his face near the place the girl had been playing. Naarah and the girl are crying, and they go to his side.)

ROMAN: I think we understand each other now.

(The soldier exits.)

NAARAH: Jabez. Are you all right? Oh, God our father help us. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. Jabez. He’s gone. It’s okay. He’s gone. Are you all right?

JABEZ: No matter what happened yesterday, I’m not going to let Roman tyranny rip the faith out of me.

NAARAH (smiling) No, I suppose you wouldn’t.

GIRL: Papa, I want you to see something. Look! (She points out to a place in front of them.) The olive seeds we planted. Remember, you said they were no good. But look, they are sprouting, papa!

(He looks out on the plants and reaches for them.)

JABEZ: That’s impossible. I stopped watering those a month ago.

NAARAH: Look at them!

(Jabez starts laughing.)

JABEZ: A miracle in the desert. Life indeed coming from death.

(Holding on to each other.)

Maybe we should wait and see what tomorrow will bring.