Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Christmas Theme

Many years ago, sometime after the end of my own childhood and the beginning of the next generation, my family decided that we would have a theme each year for our stocking gifts. Everyone would get everyone else a present under $10 within the theme. Creativity is highly rewarded. Over the years some of our best themes have been
- Elements
- Millennial
- Conceal and Carry
- Made in China
- Black and White
- Initials
- From the Heart
One year we had to get everyone else the same thing, and it had to be something useful. Another year we had to create experiences for everyone to do together, including my then four-year-old niece.

This year the theme was numbers. My mother made an elaborate Bingo game using only prime numbers. My sister in law played up her "12 Days of Christmas" plates and mugs. There were gifts of items that had numbers printed on them, such as a card game or crayolas. I did a series of readings from the book of Numbers in the Bible, emphasizing key words in each verse that had to do with the gift. When I read a verse about a pillar of fire (Num 14:14) I gave a pillar candle. I asked each person to give their gift back to the common good, just like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. The candle was joined by a serving plate (Num 4:27), appetizer plates (Num 4:7), a silver trumpet ornament (Num 10:4), and finally a dessert (Num 11:8). I ended with the Benediction (Num 6:24-26). Another memorable Christmas for the record books. (By the way, I used the NRSV - other translations may not have all of my key words!)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


When the last day of school approaches, there are tests to take, classrooms to tidy up, books to turn in or sell. When school ends forever, there is the great fanfare of graduation. When most jobs end, you might have less to do on your last day because you have already delegated many tasks to others or you might be training in a new person to do your job. When you move to a new home, you spend the last week or so packing and living with less of your things. All of these are signals that something is about to change. The signals allow you to slowly ease into your new reality. When a show ends, there are no signals. The day of the last show, you must get up and do the exact same show that you did on the first day. Same lines, same dances, same costumes, same sets. And then, when it is over, it's over very suddenly. We gave our last two performances of Babes in Toyland, and then packed up our costumes and sets just like we had at every venue along the way. And it was over. The little world of Toyland that we had created and brought to children from Wisconsin to New York was gone. We said brief goodbyes to one another, and headed back into our own lives. The end. And the beginning of the next big thing.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Day of Independence

Late on Sunday night, as we traveled back to Philadelphia, we received a message from the Stage Manager: both shows on Monday were canceled. A snow day. There is a special kind of freedom on a snow day because you didn't know that you had it off. Nothing has been planned. You receive the freedom of unscheduled time.

I used my day of freedom to learn about American Freedom. What better place to do that than in Philadelphia. I have been to the historical sites twice before, but I always learn something new. The Liberty Bell is now housed in a big building and cordoned off, much different than when I saw at the Bicentennial when you could touch the crack in the bell for good luck. I learned that the crack was not an accident, but created on purpose in order to tune the bell. I went through another security area and toured Constitution Hall. The park ranger called it the most important room in America. It really is amazing to think that these men gathered to come up with a whole new concept for how to run a country. I can hardly imagine the degree to which they had to "think outside the box". I am also impressed with their courage. When 39 of them signed the Declaration of Independence, they were signing their own death warrant. If they had not won the Revolutionary War, they would be hung for not being loyal to the Crown. Yet they were that committed to the idea of freedom. As he left the hall on July 4, Ben Franklin ran into the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia. She asked him what they had accomplished. He answered, "You have a republic, ma'am, if you can keep it."

I also appreciated Congress Hall which was the seat of government for 10 ten years. After George Washington had served two terms, the country elected John Adams, someone with whom George Washington did not agree. All of Europe watched closely because they did not believe that George would give up all of that power. In Europe, power either transferred to one's offspring or was taken by force. When George Washington stepped aside and allowed John Adams to take office, the park ranger called it the first peaceful transfer of power.

After reflecting on the roots of American Independence, I continued my own day of independence. When one is on a national tour, many of your daily decisions must revolve around the rest of the people with whom you are traveling. On an unexpected day of freedom, it was exhilarating to walk around Philadelphia, shopping and exploring on my own schedule.

All in all, a good snow day.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Union League

The company that books our show is based in Philadelphia. In addition to artistic staff, there is a costumer, production designer, accountant, booking agent, marketer, and other office staff who work with the owner/producer. They were nice enough to schedule the office Christmas party on a day that our tour was coming through Philadelphia and invite us to join them. We did not know much about the venue, other than that we were told that we could not wear "dungarees." As it turned out, it was at the Union League. It is one of the top five clubs in America, according to their website. It is like stepping back in time to enter a place such as this, where a jacket is required on all the men, no exceptions.

It was not my first time in one of these members only clubs, but definitely one of the most memorable. After drinks in the front room, we moved to one of the dining rooms where they were serving prime rib. I don't even eat red meat, but it still looked good. The sides and salads were amazing. Over dinner, we heard stories from the owner/producer of her days long ago when she had her own children's television show. The theme song that we currently sing at the end of every show was something that she actually wrote for the television show. She had a cake made to celebrate 40 years of her touring children's theater company, and we all sang that theme song for her. It brought a tear to her eye, and compliments from people at other tables.

After dinner two of us went upstairs to explore. There were large paneled ballrooms filled with impressive oil paintings and beautifully decorated Christmas trees in each room. It wasn't long until we found ourselves invited to another party. It was a lunch club having their annual holiday party. The Union League has over 3000 members so they are invited into smaller lunch clubs to get to know one another. This one had 40 members and had met for lunch every Thursday for the past 20 years. It was an ecclectic group with a rich history. They had their class clown, their natural leader, and their designated patriarch of the group. They were a sort of family system within a larger system.

My night at the Union League was one of those experiences when I am so aware that I have stepped into someone else's world for a few hours. It's so interesting to start to see the world from someone else's point of view. It also helps me to appreciate my own little slice of the world when I return to it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Number Line

When rehearsing a show, you learn where to move around the stage. Sometimes, especially when it is a dance-heavy show, a choreographer will put down a number line. This is a row of numbers taped to the stage that is near the edge of it. A tape mark at the center is zero, and 24 inches on either side of the zero is the stage left "one" and the stage right "one". The numbers continue, evenly spaced, out as far as needed. Then, during dances and complicated blocking, actors know that they must be on, say, "four" at the beginning of the dance and "six" for the next section and "two" for the final pose. This is how shows appear to be symetrical and organized to the audience. With a touring show, the number line becomes essential. We perform on a new stage almost every day, with all new variables to deal with. The set travels with us, but it must expand or contract to fit each new space. Our choreography and blocking must also expand or contract to fit each space. It could be very disorienting, but we deal with it by expanding or contracting the number line itself. The distance between each number can expand or contract to fit the theater. Actors quickly learn that in a big space, it takes much longer to get to "six" (the furthest point out on each side) so you need to either leave earlier or walk faster, but make sure you get there at the same time you always do. The number line becomes a sort of compass, something to depend on when so many other things change each day. It makes me think about other things that we use in our daily life to ground us as we encounter new situations. We carry around skills, assumptions and habits that provide the sort of map and compass to our lives that the number line provides to the show. What is your number line?

Thursday, December 10, 2009


It's not news that technology, and especially the internet, allows us to do many jobs from anywhere in the world. Not only have many technical tasks and other jobs moved entirely overseas, many companies allow people to work from home.

I have noticed that some jobs go anywhere with you, and some require you to be in a certain place at a certain time. It seems that jobs that travel with you are more cerebral, while jobs that require you to be somewhere are either tactile, such as making a product, or relational, such as teaching or medical. I seem to have melded both types together. I have cerebral jobs as a life coach and writer that I take with me on the road. I also have a career in live theater that requires me to be where the show is. I love the mix. I leverage the jobs that I can take anywhere so that I have the freedom to do the jobs that require me to be somewhere. This mix is what allows me to be an Urban Nomad.

As it turns out, other people have used that flexibility to NOT move around. I read an article in Newsweek at the beginning of October that talked about localism. ( Executives who once moved around to follow promotions through large companies are now keeping their families in one place and doing more work remotely online. Amazing how one technology allows some of us to be less tied to a geographic location while the exact same technology allows other people to be more tied to a geographic location.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

New York City Restaurant

Having lived in New York for over six years, I have close friends and favorite places that connect me to the city, but I found that without a permanent home I needed another consistent commitment to ground me. Thus, I was a weekend hostess at a restaurant for six months. This was not your average hostessing job. This was an intensely busy New York City restaurant. Most of the time when I was working, there were four hostesses on duty, and the wait time was as long as three hours. Early on, I became the exclusive hostess for large parties. I started doing it because no one else wanted to, since large parties were up a long flight of stairs and were also more unpredictable than smaller parties. Over time, four of us gravitated toward large parties: two servers, a busboy and I. We became our own little crew within the larger system of the restaurant. We saw it all. Birthday parties are a competitive sport in New York City, filled with demands from the person throwing the party. On top of that, our section hosted celebrities, some of whom were more polite than others. The extra challenges drew us together. We moved chairs, dishes and food up and down the stairs while appearing calm and accommodating for the guests. We embraced the challenges, learned to communicate despite language differences, and trusted one another to do what needed to be done. By the end of each night, around 2am, we'd take a collective sigh of relief and recount that night's highlights. With the right people committed to excellence, tough jobs become rewarding. Now that I am away on tour, I miss what one of the servers affectionately called "Team Awesome."

Thursday, December 3, 2009


While in Chicago with an evening free, our cast attended a preview performance of a new Broadway-bound musical, The Addam's Family. It boasted famous Broadway stars and a great creative team. There was also the "fun factor" of seeing the show before our friends in New York.

The show started with a great ceremony in the graveyard attended by the family and their ancestors. Gomez, the father, welcomed everyone, "living, dead, and undecided." From there, the show itself was at times living, dead, and undecided. There were places that it took no less than a major Broadway star to hold the show together and make it entertaining. Still, there were a few good songs and a few great lines. For example, the grandma was trying to make a point to Pugsley, the little boy, by referring to Medusa. The boy said, 'Grandma, I don't understand your references." The grandma replied, "Stop with the D@#& texting and pick up a book once in awhile!" Another character said that she was trying to spread something everyone needs and only a few people have. Morticia replied, "Health care?" It stopped the show. Still, songs came out of nowhere, relationships between characters weren't developed, and sight gags went on too long.

It wasn't the first pre-Broadway performance I've ever seen, but it really made me appreciate how hard it must be to write a good musical, and how much work must have gone into musicals that I love. This one has a great team of people associated with it, and I believe that they will be able to bring "The Addam's Family" to life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Al Ringling Theater

Being from the Upper Midwest, I have long known that the Ringling Brothers Circus originated in Baraboo, Wisconsin. We took a mini vacation there as a child, including Circus World, where the clowns taught my brother to juggle. (Two blog posts in a row mentioning clowns? What are the odds?) However, I did not know that Al Ringling used $100,000 of the circus proceeds to build a theater in Baraboo. It is an amazing treasure right in the middle of an average Midwestern town, modeled after the theater at Versailles. Yes, that Versailles. Before the theater was built in 1915, vaudeville players lost a day between Chicago and Minneapolis. Baraboo was well placed along the route, four hours from Chicago and four hours from Minneapolis. It filled in a day for them so that they could perform (and be paid) during their journey between larger cities. The dressing rooms are virtually unchanged from how they were when they were used by Lionel Barrymore, Mary Pickford and the Lunts. After Vaudeville, it was used as a silent movie house, then a regular movie house, and, for one day, Babes in Toyland. What a joy to join the tradition of such an historic stage.
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