To our children we shall say…

There is a piece of music running through my head, and I do not want to write this blog post.

In the early 80s, probably 1983, I ordered a pre-bundled set of Newbery Award winners for the media center at East Coweta High School, because the collection I had inherited in 1980 was particularly weak on fiction.[1] One of the titles that I pulled from that box was the 1982 winner, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, by Nancy Willard.  I was a little nonplussed.

This was a picture book.  Surely the Newbery committee had made a mistake.  Then I opened it.

I will admit that the first thing that I loved about the book was the illustrations.  They’re beautiful, muted gouache paintings with deft architectural fantasies and adorable animal portraits.  (It was 2002 before I realized that Alice and Martin Provensen illustrated my favorite book as a child, The Color Kittens.)

Then I started to read it.

WHEN WE COME HOME, BLAKE CALLS FOR FIRE

Fire, you handsome creature, shine.
Let the hearth where I confine
your hissing tongues that rise and fall
be the home that warms us all.

When the wind assaults my doors
every corner’s cold but yours.
When the snow puts earth to sleep
let your bright behavior keep

all these little pilgrims warm.
They who never did you harm
raise their paws a little higher
and toast their toes, in praise of fire.

I was in love.

I began to set some of the poems to music.  “When We Come Home, Blake Calls for Fire” was first.  I know I did “William Blake’s Inn for Innocent and Experienced Travelers” and “The Tiger Asks Blake for a Bedtime Story” and “The Man in the Marmalade Hat Arrives” before I stopped.  After all, I did not have the rights to create a song cycle from this book, and having received a firmly worded letter from Dr. Seuss’s estate when I asked permission for my one-act opera version of Green Eggs & Ham, I was not about to ask Nancy Willard.  The work went into the “trunk.”

Fast forward to 2002, when I was retiring as artistic director of the Newnan Community Theatre Company.  Having decided to go out in a blaze of glory, I translated The Marriage of Figaro, which was every bit as hard to pull off as you might imagine,[2] so when my lovely first wife came home from her book club to say that Bette had a project she wanted me to work on, I snapped, “Not until November 10!”, which I repeated to Bette herself when she immediately launched into her pitch the next time we met.

The project was to audition/train/accompany a dozen young people, ages 8–13, to an international get-together in our sister city of Ayr, Scotland.  Other than airfare, all expenses would be paid.  Well, OK, sure, why not?

The deal was that the Scottish Opera had this little touring thing, two adult singers and as many children as you could cram onstage, based on their national poem, “Tam O’Shanter,” by Robbie Burns.  They had premiered it the year before, and Ayr was inviting all its sister cities to send kids to take part in it again.  We were there with students from Norway, Germany, and of course Scotland.  It was huge fun.

On the plane home, the adults in the party decided that Newnan could do the same thing, invite all our new friends to the U.S. to perform in some unidentified work.  I remembered William Blake’s Inn.  I opened my laptop, put on my headphones, and gave it a listen.

Hm, I thought, not bad.

When we got back home, we had a meeting of the interested adults and I played for them the pieces I had.  They liked it.  Let’s do it.

But that meant I had to ask Nancy Willard for her permission.

This inn belongs to William Blake…

I printed out the songs I had, made a CD of the fairly shabby MIDI realizations, and wrote a letter pleading for permission—or at the very least, hope that she wouldn’t sic her lawyers on me.

A couple of weeks later, there was email.  nawillard@vassar.edu.  I stopped breathing.  I may have cried.  I opened it.

Dale,  good heavens–of course you have my permission.  What a wonderful
gift appeared in the mail today–all those songs!

And that’s how I became friends with Nancy Willard.

It took me another couple of years to finish setting all the poems to music, and then I had to orchestrate it, so it was not until 2007 that we felt we were ready to put it front of the public.  The whole time Nancy was generous and encouraging.  And then we met her!

We had gone to New York and I emailed Nancy to see if she and Eric Lindbloom, her husband, could come down from Poughkeepsie to have lunch.  They did, and she was exactly in person the way she was in correspondence and in all the videos and interviews I had seen of her: funny, kind, super-smart.

We discovered many shared habits, including that of writing ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS at the top of new work (she used the term WASTED EFFORTS).  Finally, as we were parting, I pulled out the two copies of William Blake’s Inn, my original paperback and the hardback I had bought to put on display whenever we performed (so that I didn’t risk losing the copy I had composed from).

Oh, she said, she’d have to take them with her.  My heart sank.  What if I never got them back?

But no: she needed to take them home with her because she didn’t just autograph them. She painted in them.

Make Believe,
and make it strong and clear…

Finally, on May 3, 2007, we had a “backers audition,” where my intrepid group of volunteers sang the whole work, with what we called a “cardboard and hot glue” staging of “The Man in the Marmalade Hat Arrives” and “Two Sunflowers Move Into the Yellow Room.”  The idea was to get a commitment from various individuals/organizations in the community to actually stage the work for the international thing.

Everyone loved the music.  No one stepped up to take on the project.

I will be honest: perhaps I could have done what I always do, which is to just do it all myself.  But I refused.  For one thing, I had a son in college; I didn’t have the cash to throw at the project (like I did with Figaro just to get it done right).  For another, I was tired of all these “supporters of the arts” not actually supporting any arts.  I was resentful.  So we just put it on the back burner, where it has stayed.

Through the years, I’ve made a few feeble efforts: a friend gave it to the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, who passed it on to the Chicago Children’s Theatre, who passed it on to the Chicago Symphony, where I’m sure it was discarded.  I’ve offered it to UGA, to the Springer, to the Center for Puppetry Arts.  But no one’s interested.  It’s too short (40+ min) for a mainstage show, and too complicated for a children’s piece.  It was written as a song cycle for adult singers.  It can’t really be done with just a piano; the later pieces were written for orchestra without going through the piano first. There is no script, no plot; whoever did it would have to do an enormous amount of development to flesh it out—which I think is the most interesting part about it.  But I know it’s not an out-of-the-box piece.

And so it languishes.

Last spring, I emailed Nancy because I was working on Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy, and I couldn’t remember the term she used for Abortive Attempts. I got back an email from Eric, asking me to call him.  Nancy had fallen the summer before.  She was mostly bedridden and in decline.  I didn’t share with anyone what I knew, because it was clear they were keeping it private.  As Nancy said to Eric, “It’s not like it was before, is it?”

Then a couple of months ago I got an email from a teacher in Idaho.  I-DA-HO, KENNETH.  Could her small charter school perform William Blake’s Inn?

I wrote Nancy to tell her.  And then I wrote her again last month to remind her that although she had always demurred at discussing financial arrangements for when those huge royalty checks started pouring in, I was reminding her that I had decreed that we would make it a 60/40 split.[4]

I got a letter, dated Feb 18, from Eric.  Nancy was resting comfortably, still at home, but in hospice care.

Nancy Willard died the following day, Feb 19, 2017.

Part of my grief at losing her is that we never staged the work completely.  never staged the work completely. We never got to have her as a guest at the dazzling international premiere so that she could receive the tribute that she certainly deserved.  I’m angry at the world, I’m angry at Newnan, I’m angry with myself.  I failed my friend.

Now students at Moscow Charter School, in Moscow, ID, will be performing William Blake’s Inn in May. Are they capable of doing a fully staged production with orchestra?  No, but here’s what I learned from Nancy Willard: if you’re given the gift, you give it again.  Just as I was given the chance to create something new and beautiful from Nancy’s deeply meaningful poems, I look forward to seeing what those students come up with.  I’m hoping to work with them via Skype to bring their ideas to life.

We’ll start our journey as children,/but I fear we will finish it old.

Now “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way,” the great central piece of the entire work, won’t leave my head.  Those opening chords, which return to such great effect in the “Epilogue,” keep up their chime, and the recapitulation at He gave silver stars to the Rabbit, with its unexpected and gorgeous major key take on the mysterious first theme—they’re on permanent loop, reminding me of the beautiful beautiful soul who gave me permission to create them.  I know that if I listen too carefully, I will grieve outright.  I’m okay with that.

My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.

Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.

You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.

—————

[1] My predecessor had righteously sniffed that a liberrary was for research.  If the chillren wanted to read for fun, they could do that at home.  The fact that most of our clientele came from homes without books seemed to be irrelevant to this woman.

[2] What made me think we could even do such a thing? A hugger-mugger performance of Green Eggs & Ham at a Reading[3] several years previously—I stole the joyous ending of the piece from the Act II finale of Figaro.

[3] I’ll explain some other time.

[4] Her resistance to business dealings was extraordinary.  In her original email she pointed me to the rights department at Harcourt, the publisher of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, where they explained to me that they didn’t own the copyright—she did.

Who you gonna believe?

It’s not often you can escape the loop of he-said-she-said-nuh’UH when it comes to the evidence available to us these days.  All those screaming memes on Facebook, convinced that Those People Did This THING, Can You Believe It??

Well, no, you can’t.  I even have posited the Lyles Rule of Internet Fuppery, which I have to deploy so often that I have a macro to type it up for me. Watch: Remember the Lyles Rule of Internet Fuppery: If it’s too outrageous to be believed, don’t believe it.

Remember the Lyles Rule of Internet Fuppery: If it’s too outrageous to be believed, don’t believe it.

Remember the Lyles Rule of Internet Fuppery: If it’s too outrageous to be believed, don’t believe it.

Remember the Lyles Rule of Internet Fuppery: If it’s too outrageous to be believed, don’t believe it.

Enough of that.

However, this recent foofaraw over the attendance at the Current Occupant’s installation has given us a break out of the endless loop.  Let’s recap.

Soon after the installation, this little image started popping up all over the intertubes:

Look, it said: on the left, Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and on the right, the Current Occupant’s.

That’s a pretty stark difference.  Incredibly stark.  Unbelievably stark (but I repeat myself).

Once again, boys and girls: Remember the Lyles Rule of Internet Fuppery: If it’s too outrageous to be believed, don’t believe it.

So my first inclination was to think, you know, I’m thinking that second photo must have been taken much earlier in the morning, before all the loyal Trumpsters found their way out of the Metro and into the daylight.  Of course, the Capitol faces west, and we can already see that the second photo was at least taken… after noon?  So maybe this is after the Trumpsters wandered off?

More research was required.

We will pause a moment here for a short lesson.  That’s what you do, folks, when presented with evidence that makes you cock your head to one side.  You go try to verify it.

But all the evidence confirmed that, sure enough, the man claiming to have swept the election in a “historic landslide”[1] couldn’t even fill up the Mall.

Reaction was predictable.  The photo was taken earlier/later in the day.  (It wasn’t.)  Trumpsters, being the respectable, god-bothering, horny-handed laborers that they are, had to work at their jobs (THEIR JOBS, KENNETH!) and therefore couldn’t attend the coronation.  (Pffft.)

Still, there was no way of knowing, was there?  Hold that thought, we’re going to come back to it in a big way.

Then, I accidentally found this:

And there you have it.  The entire day, in time lapse video.  VIDEO, KENNETH.  No editing, no chicanery, no claiming that a 10:00 am photo was at the moment of actual inauguration.  Even your racist aunt can see that the Mall never filled up.[2]

The reaction by the Current Occupant was completely predictable.  Obsessed with ratings, he went into a rage (which as late as yesterday had still not subsided) about the lying media out to get him blah blah blah.  He sent out his poor press secretary to throw a tantrum in his stead, and Sean Spicer was immediately eaten alive by the world at large, including by people whose job it is to be on his side.

That was followed by the infamous Kellyanne Conway “alternative facts” appearance on Face the Nation, and off we went.[3]

Is this important?  The answer depends on the antecedent of “this.”

If “this” is “How many people were at the inauguration on Jan 20, 2017, as opposed to Jan 20, 2009?”, then no, it’s not important.  Only insecure wannabe strongmen think that kind of thing is important.

However, if “this” is “What kind of relationship to the truth does the current administration have?”, then we have a real problem.

Let me preface this part of the post by saying that we should all keep in mind the principle of Trump’s Razor, i.e., the safest bet where Trump is concerned is the stupidest possible answer.  It’s entirely possible that neither he nor his minions (or puppetmasters) are doing any of this on purpose.

It’s also entirely possible that doesn’t matter, because the damage is going to be the same.

First, the whole #AlternativeFacts thing is not a new phenomenon.  All the way back in 2011 we had Sen. Jon Kyl (Guess which party–AZ) to kick around with his “not intended to be a factual statement” bullshit.  And as I said at the time, what the hell was it intended to be, then?

The answer is that it was intended to manipulate the minds of listeners, and it still is.

And the manipulation it intends is to make you a) doubt whether anything is true; and b) not care one way or the other.

This post is too long as it is, and so to explain my point I’m going to send you off to read the following two articles:

Go.  You have reading for homework.

—————

[1] He didn’t.

[2] Further evidence.

[3] If nothing else, these events seem to have shaken our news media out of their stenographers‘ dreams.

Hi ho the glamorous life

You know how it is, the endless performances and appearances that make life such a grind.  This weekend, for example, I had two galas to attend, both on Saturday night.

Fortunately, they were right across the street from each other.  Backstreet Arts, the dream of Kim Ramey, opens its doors next week, and started its gala at 7:00.  Newnan Theatre Company, my old stomping grounds, started its gala at 8:00.  So this was not a problem, despite the fact that as a performer I was supposed to be backstage at 6:30.

The purpose of the NTC gala was to announce the 2017–2018 season, i.e., the season that begins in August and runs through next year.  I will be directing Rick Elice’s Peter & the Starcatcher, the dazzling, touching story of how a nameless orphan boy became Peter Pan.  It auditions a year from now and opens March 8, 2018.  Mark your calendars.

Here’s my intrepid cast, who performed the Prologue and a slightly modified Scene One:

Rich Aagesen, John Caldwell, JP VanSant, me, Molly McInturff, Chaz Ferguson, Kevin McInturff, puss.

We had a great time slamming it together in two rehearsals, and the audience seemed to love it.  I’ll be blogging about my progress in preparing for the full production over at Lichtenbergianism.com, where I will be showing how the Precepts of Lichtenbergianism are used in practice.

I would offer to share with you the entire season, but for some reason involving schlepping back and forth between the two galas, I didn’t quite catch the whole thing.

Backstreet Arts was actually a two-parter.  There was the gala on Saturday night, then an open house on Sunday afternoon.  The following photos are from the open house.

The gala was swanky and elegant.  The open house was casual and open to the public.  Those of us who are going to instruct/assist/encourage anyone who walks in the door set up sign-up sheets for everyone.  The space is large, clean, beautifully appointed.

And look at these cookies!

Here’s my little set-up:

I got five or six cards, and I’m sure that once Backstreet is fully open for business, we will slowly build a walk-in clientele from Bridging the Gap, the back of whose building we occupy.

And that’s what I did with my weekend.

Backstreet Writers

One of my Lichtenbergian proposed efforts for this year is to develop a writing/writers program at Backstreet Arts.

As with any major project, I have a Waste Book:

I began it back in 2015, on a camping trip on a sweltering couple of days in July.  Kim Ramey and I had been talking about her dream of establishing a free art studio for homeless/underserved populations, and several streams of thought had begun to merge in my life that led me to this goal.

The first was the realization that my life was no longer governed by cycles, e.g., the school year, the GHP cycle, the theatre season.  I no longer knew where I would be and what I would be doing a year in advance.  My life was now linear and it was up to me to plan it.

The second was an exhibit we saw in Asheville that featured the publications of Temporary Services, an organization in Chicago that publishes a broad range of work, from serious authors to folk/street/outsider writers.  I began to think that I needed to be doing something similar here, although I am under no illusions that I am going to end up with a major operation like that.

So yesterday those of us who are going to offer classes/workshops at Backstreet had a meeting to begin shaping what our services were going to look like.  I pulled this waste book out and looked over what I had written eighteen months ago.  It was instructive.

Here are my Abortive Attempts:

It is my VISION to create a space where anyone in the community is comfortable enough to come and tell their story to the rest of the community in printed form.

It will be the MISSION of the Writing Project to produce printed material—books, booklets, pamphlets [et al.]—that reflect the history of members of the community, particularly those who have been marginalized by our society.

  • The art of writing is a political act.
  • Storytelling is innately human.
  • [blank]

I CONFESS THAT

  • In my privilege, I have no idea who the writers may be, nor what their stories are, and therefore
  • I have as much to learn as anyone who comes to me.
  • I have no idea what the needs of our writers may be.
  • The quality of our publications may or may not be “worth” reading, but
  • Every work we publish creates a new center of influence, the ripples of which may affect a reader or potential writer in ways we cannot foretell, and
  • The more circles of influence we can establish, the more likely it is that we will produce works of real value.

Now that I actually have to Do The Thing, I find that these scribbled notes are still valid.  I have no idea of who is going to be coming to work with me.  They may be nearly illiterate; they may already be polished writers.  They may write drivel; they may have a compelling story to tell.  They may be eager learners; they may be obnoxious know-it-alls.

In other words, it will be just like teaching writing in my classroom.

At the moment, pending further reality, I am thinking we may shoot for some kind of quarterly journal kind of thing, perhaps a 16-page booklet, that we can put out at the coffee shops, waiting rooms, etc., to create those ripples.  Having a deadline and a venue for publication [AUDIENCE] is also a great motivator for anyone.

Whatever my plans are, of course, they all have to wait until I actually have writers.  I’ll keep you posted.

Writing, art, and galas galore

You should do these things.

NTC Season Gala

This Sat, Jan 21, at 8:00, the Newnan Theatre Company will announce its 2017–18 season.  I will be directing the big spring show, [redacted].  No, the name of the show is not [redacted].  The name of the show is literally redacted, since it hasn’t been announced yet.  But I am directing it next year and will be directing a scene from it for the Gala.  (I will also be appearing in it, since apparently there are not eleven males who could give up four nights in their total life to do this scene.  I’m not bitter or anything.  Yet.)

Backstreet Arts Gala

Backstreet Community Arts (full name) is ready to open its doors, and to celebrate they too are having a gala.  And how convenient is this?  It’s across the street and about the same time as NTC’s!  (Both were trying to avoid competing with Newnan’s Burns Supper on the next weekend, and so they ran headlong into each other.)  That’s Sat, Jan 21, at 7:00—so you could start at Backstreet and end up at NTC.  I understand there will be a signature cocktail, which I did not create.

a clean, well-lighted space

Backstreet Arts Open House

Then on Sun, Jan 22, 2:00–4:00, Backstreet will have an open house so you can come and meet the artists who will be offering classes/workshops for the target population.  At both events you can give money to help support this group’s mission, which is to provide space, supplies, and instruction for those in our community who would not otherwise have the opportunity to express themselves through art.

I will be there because I will be starting the Backstreet Writers.  Inspired by some of the work of Temporary Services in Chicago, I want to see if I can provide a venue for people to tell their story.  That’s all I have at the moment; since I don’t know who will be interested enough to attend any seminars, nor their skill level, nor anything; all I can do is say that I’m doing this thing, welcome anyone who shows up, and then meet their needs however I can.

You will recall that this project is actually one of my Lichtenbergian Proposed Efforts. I will write in more detail about my thinking about this tomorrow.  In the meantime, here’s a photo of me that Kim Ramey took up against her angel wall:

You see why you want to be there.

Another new day

You may recall that one of my goals this year was to establish a daily work schedule so that I have more structure to force myself into working.

There was no point in trying to do this until this week because reasons, but now I’m on day three of said schedule and I believe it’s working.

Step one: clear the desk — again — so that a) I have a clear view of my desktop calendar; and b) I have an actual work surface for one of my major projects.

What desktop calendar is that, you ask?  This desktop calendar:

Here it is in situ:

You may be astonished that I am using a paper and pencil scheduling device, but I can explain.  This is the desktop calendar I used to use at Newnan Crossing and at the Department of Education to do my planning, and it was very efficient.  Yes, I still put things on my phone or my computer, but this was a handy way to jot down meetings, phone calls, etc.  Mostly it kept me on track.

I used to buy these in pads from Levenger, but they stopped making them, and so I designed my own, if by “design” you mean “recreate exactly.”  I still have a couple in storage, and truly I don’t know why I had this one on my desk here in the study, since I don’t really have a lot to schedule these days.

Until now.  Like all good ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS, it’s a start.  I have created out of nothing a list of things that I want/need to get done, and I’ve faked a schedule: blog here and at Lichtenbergianism.com; work on Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy; eat lunch and do the crossword puzzle; walk the labyrinth; plan for [redacted] and William Blake’s Inn.[1]

That schedule will change, of course, but so far it’s driven me to work without too much procrastination.  I’m writing this blog post, in fact, because the schedule says I must.  Running a little late, but I can whack this out and then get back to work on the chapter on SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATION.

With assistance[2,] of course.

—————

[1] No, there’s not a production in the offing.  I’m just working on it.

[2] For differing values of “assistance.”