Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Mash-up

All Halloween parties are not created equal. Last night a friend and I were invited to a Halloween mash-up party in Brooklyn. When we arrived, the three story brownstone was filled with interesting people who were each dressed as two things. We met Salvadore Dali Parton, Darth Mal Cop, Steamboat Willie Nelson, Mad Men in Tights, Chilean Coal Miner's Daughter, Hill-Billy Eliot and dozens of others. Here are some of our favorites.
Olive Oyl Spill and Gluten Free Tibet
Safety Pin-up Girl and Lady Ga-Gandi
Marie Antoi-Netti Pot and the Wicked Witch of the West Side Story                   

Friday, October 29, 2010

Missouri Photo Workshop

During my second week in Macon, MO, population 5538, the town hosted the Missouri Photo Workshop. 60-70 documentary photojournalists from around the world descended upon this tiny community for one week. This is a highly regarded event that has been going on for over 60 years, each year in a different Missouri town. The mentors were from top publications that we all read, and the students were working professionals or promising university students. Each participant had to identify one subject or person, gain their trust and follow them for a couple days to capture their world. They called it "finding their story."

Everyone wanted to be a story. People in town looked forward to having professionals document daily life in their community. Others were suspect of the outsiders. One photographer from Italy borrowed a bicycle and was traveling from one farm to the next, looking for his story. Soon there was a rumor that he was a spy from PETA. Why else would a foreigner with a camera be riding a bicycle through their community?

Those of us working at the theater thought we would be a story. In fact, we lobbied for it. It is unique to have a professional theater in such a small community. No less than three photographers pitched our story, but their mentors did not approve their stories, just like editors at a publication may not approve a photojournalist's story and they are forced to go back out and find something else.

At the end of the week, the photos were displayed at the local Expo Center. The whole town arrived eager to see a photographic overview of their community. The photos were excellent, compelling ... and didn't represent the town well. The photojournalists had been pushed by their mentors to seek out the outliers, the people who would make a great story but were not necessarily indicative of the town. There were six teen parents in town, and four or five of them were documented at the exclusion of almost every other teen in town. The community includes multiple home school families, but the one that was documented looked somehow out of the mainstream, with little girls wearing aprons.

It turned out that the workshop was preparing photojournalists to document disasters, so they had to learn to gain trust and find the most compelling photo that would sell more copies or lead to more clicks at their publication. They never claimed to do an accurate overview of the community.

Consumers, voters and citizens of the world assume that photojournalists capture the overall spirit of a time or place. We assume that we understand what is going on based upon their reporting yet there is always more to the story. Photojournalists provide a brave and vital service when they capture images of places that most people cannot be. But we as responsible consumers also can't assume that we know everything based upon those photos. Many photos are published with the intention of telling the most dramatic story. To get the whole story, we need to talk to more locals or visit the place. Maybe we need to do a bit more of our own research or admit that we don't know.

For now, the town of Macon is forever captured in photos on the website of the Missouri Photo Workshop, but don't just assume that you know Macon by seeing the photos. You really need to go there to understand its true spirit.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I have just returned from four weeks performing in the show "Church Basement Ladies" at a small theater in Macon, Missouri. I had never heard of the theater or the town before I went there. Instead, the show found me. When casting the show, the artistic director called other directors for recommendations of people he might cast. He asked a director in Illinois that I worked with three years ago if she knew any comedic singers who could pass for a Minnesota Lutheran. She said that she actually knew a Minnesota Lutheran. After a short conversation and submitting my reel, I was offered the role.

I got the job through connections, but the connections did not stop there. I had multiple connections with other actors in the show, one of whom had been doing the show for two years at various theaters. I had connections to the Minnesota Lutheran culture of the show, and connections with the Lutherans who came to see the show. At each performance, we could gauge how many Lutherans were in the audience by the amount of laughter we got as we all said, emphatically, "This is most certainly true" (an important phrase for Martin Luther). If we got a big laugh, we knew we had a connection. If not, people still enjoyed the show, but on a different level.

I even had connections to the props. The show has so many props that the company that created the show rents out the props. We received 10 big bins of shellacked krumkake, lefse, bars and jello molds, among other things. We also received recipe boxes that reflected the personality of each character. An actor friend from a previous production emailed to ask if I'd found her recipe in her recipe box. As it turns out, many of the people who do the show write a recipe for the recipe box, and those recipes continue to travel around to future productions of the show. I wrote my recipe for red jello with bananas floating in it (the secret: refrigerate for about an hour before adding the fruit so that it doesn't all sink to the bottom). In that small way, I will remain connected to the show as the props travel to the next theater.

This is Most Certainly True.
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