I don’t know, gang, everybody may need to get off my lawn

So the books for Into the Woods came in and I signed for my copy.  As I took it over to my pile of stuff, this slipped out:

A blessing for community theatres everywhere, I suppose.  One buys them in batches of six and everyone gets to show off/advertise their production of whatever and add to their ever-burgeoning collection of t-shirts.

Music Theatre International was my go-to source for musicals back in the day, since they had shows that were at the time not the huge, overblown, everyone-knows-this-one shows like the Rodgers & Hammerstein Library’s offerings.  We did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Fantasticks, Into the Woods, Lucky Stiff, and She Loves Me while I was in charge, and since then NTC has done a lot more from the collection.

Two things struck me about this flyer, though.  One is the relentless march of commodification of theatre. Yes, I know the purpose of theatre is to separate the customer from his money, but Broadway musicals in particular are now more product than production.  Not only can you buy these t-shirts, but if you go to the touring productions you can buy hats and cups and wine glasses and CDs and posters and trinkets and all kinds of be-logo’d crap, just so you can identify with this product.  You’re not there to enjoy the creative work of a team of artists, you’re there to sign on to Team Phantom or Team Poppins.

The other thing that struck me was the listing of shows on the back of the flyer.  In a little side box, we are offered t-shirts for the School Editions of the following shows:

  • Aida
  • Avenue Q
  • Les Miserables
  • Miss Saigon
  • Ragtime
  • Rent
  • Sweeney Todd

School editions.  For schools.  For students to perform.

I will be the first to admit that I have done shows with teens that pushed their sensibilities and their understanding of the world around them.

However.  Whenever I selected a show it was the thing itself, not some bastardized version of it—nor did I bastardize it.  That is the problem I have with the “school editions”; I don’t care if the kids do shows with sex, violence, and cannibalistic critiques of capitalism in them, but I do care that those things are watered down. Because: MTI is not doing this watering down (with full permission and often cooperation of the artists) so that more children can explore the beauties of first-rate musical theatre, but because they want to make the sale.  Cha-ching!  More t-shirts!

And of course, they’re making the sale to schools/communities who cannot handle their little darlings saying damn or fuck or explaining how the internet is for porn.  To those communities, I’d say stick to Rodgers & Hammerstein.  Although naturally they probably will want to avoid South Pacific with all its miscegenation and stuff.

(I’m still trying to wrap my head around how you make any of those shows tame enough for sad little communities.  Miserables, Saigon, and Rent still are about prostitututes; Ragtime is still about black people and blowing stuff up; Sweeney Todd still involves meat pies.  All of them are condemnations of the power structure and of rigid, self-righteous moral codes, which alone would get them cancelled by many communities.  Eh.  Who cares? Get off my lawn.)

An interesting development

Here’s an interesting twist to the story of my life: after years of not doing theatre—Spamalot notwithstanding—it seems I’m turning into an actor.

I’ve been cast as the Narrator/Mysterious Man and the Wolf in Newnan Theatre Company’s production of Into the Woods, which should be very interesting indeed.

The Wolf is usually played by the same actor as Cinderella’s Prince.  Indeed, the two share the same set of rhymes in “Hello, Little Girl” and “Any Moment,” i.e., exploring/boring/ignoring (at least in the original cast album; the printed score omits those lines from the Prince’s song in Act II).  The concept for this production, as far as I understand it, is that the Wolf will be a puppet manipulated by me.

I like that, actually, puppets being a longtime interest of mine.  I’m curious to see the design—I do hope it’s a full-size bunraku-style puppet.  I’m also curious whether I’ll be singing the role as the Narrator, or somehow as a different persona.  I’ll find out soon enough: first readthrough is Monday night.

I directed Into the Woods and played the Baker more than 20 years ago, in 1992, and it was a great show to work on.  We had a talented cast, and audiences enjoyed it even if they were taken aback by Act II.

Random memories from that show:

  • After auditions for that production, I was sitting in the breakfast nook trying to nail down the cast.  I seemed to be missing key pieces to the casting puzzle, and The Child, who would have been four years old at the time, asked what I was doing.  I told him, and he replied, “You should play the Baker.”  Click.  It still weirds me out that my four-year-old even understood what “casting” meant.
  • Losing my Jack to health issues and going to school in a quandary—young Ryan Vila was a member of the magazine staff there in the media center, and I asked him if he could sing.  Don’t know, he said, so I took him into the server room where I had a keyboard set up and tested him—he was a natural tenor!  Unfortunately, he had no sense of rhythm, so “Giants in the Sky” was always a bit of a muddle.  I would have conducted him, but I was asleep on the stage in front of him during that number alas.
  • One night, we had a celebrity in the audience (whose name escapes me—Braves player, etc., somebody help me out here…) and that was the night that during the final number, during all those infinitives—“To mind, To heed, To find, To think, To teach, To join”—every single cast member forgot the words.  All of us.  “To… buh buh buh buh… Into the woods!  Into the woods!”
  • Sitting atop a rolling tower, inches from the Fresnel lighting instrument (our ceiling was only 12 feet tall), singing “You Are Not Alone” with Ryan.
  • Cradling the Baker’s infant wrapped in The Child’s security blanket.  It smelled like him, and my tears were real.

Our Milky White was a cardboard cutout, but I don’t think it was as bad as any of these.  Warning: clicking on that link will confirm your status as an awful, awful person.

Into the Woods is a brilliant show, like almost everything Sondheim has ever done, but the thing I like most about it is the multiple layers of mythos: the Hero’s Journey (into the woods, and home before dark!); Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and its analysis of fairy tales as deep structures for empowering children; the reverse of that idea, that “happy ever after” is 1) contingent upon how you got there; and 2) not going to happen anyway; and the interconnectedness of all things.  Truly a beautiful show!

I’ll keep you posted.


But wait—there’s more!

Into the Woods closes on March 29, just in time for spring break, during which we hope to travel maybe, and then, on April 14, I will decamp to Columbus where I will play the lawyer Ed Devery in the Springer Opera House production of Born Yesterday from April 30-May 16.

That’s right: at the age of 60 I am becoming a semi-professional actor.  When the opportunity was offered—you’ll forgive me if I spare you the details—I thought, “Well, this is interesting.  Sure, why not?”

It’s not really a paying gig—a room and a per diem, basically—but how exciting to be asked to join the State Theatre of Georgia!  Again, I have tons of questions about how this all works, but there’s time enough to ask, right?  At the moment, I’m just waiting for the contract/employment paperwork to arrive.

So that takes care of the first six months of 2015…

Well, this was unexpected… and ADORABLE!

So I’ve been roped into teach a weeklong workshop down at Newnan Theatre Company—thanks, Robbie Kirkland—for middle schoolers.  The ostensible topic is “character development,” and the theme is “Villains.”  Bwahaha, and all that.

Actually, not bwahaha at all.  It’s “character development,” and I’m not spending a week teaching kids how to twirl their mustaches.  Just the opposite in fact.  We’re going to develop two villains each, one Disney-esque/cartoony, the other “real life,” e.g., the mean girl at school, the snotty boy down the street, etc.

Mainly we’re going to learn that none of these people think they’re evil.  They just want certain things and they have their own ways to go about getting them.

Anyway, we spend Monday through Thursday working on material, and then on Friday is the obligatory show for the parents.  It will be interesting to see what we come up with.  (Panel discussion about public misperceptions? The Dating Game?  The mind boggles.)

I got home from our meeting at the theatre, and for some reason the idea of an opening number just seized me.

Presenting, “Not Really Bad: a song for villains,” words and music by Dale Lyles | score (pdf) | mp3

It is totally adorable, you guys.  (And yes, 3 hours start to finish—how kind of you to ask.)

Spotlight on… me?

Working on Spamalot has been a treat, but it’s also felt a little strange, and I finally realized that part of the reason why must be that I am in fact unused to performing.

Think about it—since I started directing theatre in Newnan in 1975, here’s a list of the shows in which I had roles:

  • Hotel Paradiso, Maxime
  • Midsummer, Oberon (1979) & Theseus (1997)
  • Twelfth Night, Antonio
  • The Dining Room, various
  • You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Schroeder
  • Love Letters, Andrew
  • Pericles, Gower
  • Henry VI/3, Clifford
  • Into the Woods, The Baker
  • Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva
  • Wit, Dr. Kelekian
  • Auntie Mame, Mr. Babcock
  • Coriolanus, Aufidius/various

That’s it. Out of the hundreds of shows done in Newnan for the past 38 years, I have had roles in fewer than twenty of them, and only five of those could be considered lead roles, and only one of those was a starring role.

And Arthur, King of the Britons, is a starring role, the kind that gets your name up in lights on the marquee if not the top of the Playbill title page. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around, actually.

It’s not because I am unused to being a star, because in GHP Land I am a huge star where hundreds of people whose names I do not know think I am wonderful and gush on Facebook that they saw me at some function or other. (It’s mostly amusing and of course bunches of fun, but even on that small scale I am acutely aware of the responsibility to be perceived as cheerful and gracious to my “fans.”)

That’s not what I’m talking about with Arthur, however. Arthur is not about being a star, about stardom, it’s about handling a starring role. On one level, of course, there’s nothing different about it than any other role—you learn your lines, your songs, your choreography (eventually), and you use your skills to evoke laughter/tears/delight/horror/whatever.

On another level, though, there is a huge difference between being Arthur and being the Third Peasant from the Left. There is a responsibility to the production that does not weigh in the same way on the Third Peasant; if he flubs a lyric or a step or screws up the timing on some gag, hardly anyone but his mother will notice, whereas if I screw up something, it has the potential to wrench the whole show out of its frame.

There is also a curious sense of dividedness inherent in the role. On the one hand, there is a huge amount of attention being showered on me, but at the same time, it’s not really me, it’s Arthur. This is true of any role, of course, and it’s one reason some people have a hard time committing to playing the truths of an unpleasant character, but it’s magnified in a very weird way in a starring role. I can see why some actors would become irritating divas: if you confused Arthur’s “stardom” with your own, you might begin to believe that it was you that everyone loved so incredibly much. That way madness lies.

I’m not sure even now that I’ve adequately explained how odd playing a starring role is for me. I’m sure anyone reading this is likewise puzzled, because I imagine that most people would never associate “shy, self-deprecating modesty” with me. But dammit, I’ve been working on that, and now here’s a stumbling block in my path to enlightenment. Which you can see for yourself March 13-24 at Newnan Theatre Company.

Triumphant return

Yes, it is true. I have been cast as Arthur, King of the Britons, in the first non-touring production of Monty Python’s Spamalot in Georgia, at the Newnan Theatre Company.

And yes, that means that my triumphant return to the Newnan stage is exactly as I left it: singing the lead role in a musical comedy as a clueless aristocrat.

Am I being typecast?

A Proustian moment

I had an odd moment last night at Newnan Theatre Company. Second night of auditions for Spamalot, learning a dance sequence on the mainstage. I happened to look up, and there on the ceiling were some letters of the alphabet, chalked onto the black paint.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my handwriting.

These were the positions of the wings and drops for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, my farewell piece as artistic director of Newnan Community Theatre Company, aka Newnan Theatre Company. Other than an uncomfortable wedging of Coriolanus into the space one night back in 2008, Figaro was the last time I performed on that stage, and that was ten years ago.

From the sublime to the ridiculous…


There is an odd moment in Mozart’s Don Giovanni that perplexes directors and audiences alike, near the end of Act I.  The Don is giving a party, deliberately taunting his enemies, and as he welcomes them he seemingly out of nowhere cries, “Viva la libertà!”— “Hurray for Liberty!”  The others take up the cry, often coming downstage to deliver themselves of this stirring sentiment.  Trumpets and drums, which we have not heard since the Overture, make it a rousing, if confusing, moment, which vanishes as quickly as it appeared.

I was reminded of this as I tootled across the back roads of Georgia on my GHP RESA World Tour recently: my iPhone was set to play my 7500 tracks of music randomly, and that scene popped up somewhere between Statesboro and Waycross.  And that in turn reminded me of my experience at Atlanta Opera last season with their execrable production of Don Giovanni.

Costumes were fine, set was fine, the orchestra was good, and most of the singers were acceptable, although the Don himself was very shaky.  But none of them could act, and it looked as they didn’t have a director at all, because whoever directed it simply didn’t.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I could have blocked that entire three-and-a-half hour show in one rehearsal, one short rehearsal.  Everyone just came on, walked to their spot, faced downstage, and sang. It was excruciating.

Giovanni is a tough nut to crack.  Our main character is an abusive, self-gratifying, self-justifying sleazeball.  His servant Leporello is a codependent toady.  His opponents, the “good guys,” are both hapless and feckless, especially Don Ottavio, the fiancé of Donna Anna, whose father Giovanni kills in the opening scene while trying to escape from Anna’s bedroom.  Ottavio spends the entire opera dithering about who the killer is (Giovanni was masked) and whether or not it might not be maybe Don Giovanni and what he might maybe do about that if he could only be sure.  Maybe.  More about that in a moment.

I’ve never been sure how Mozart means us to take Giovanni.  He’s clearly a not-nice person, but he’s the main character, and the non-evil people are just tools in his hands (besides being simply tools like Ottavio and Masetto, the peasant lout whose fiancée Zerlina Giovanni tries to seduce.)  In the end, he is dragged to hell by the statue of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s dead father, and it’s extremely unclear whether we’re supposed to be smug in our righteous condemnation of the brute, or overcome with admiration at our boy’s proud refusal to repent and to become “other than he is.”

So anyway, Atlanta Opera’s director failed to crack the nut, and the audience’s tolerance of the stage action got increasingly thinner until the final scene, when Don Ottavio rushes onstage, finally ready to punish the vile seducer, only to find that his dead father-in-law has beat him to it.  The audience howled with derisive laughter.

It got worse.  That climactic scene is followed by the lamest ending ever: Donna Anna & Ottavio, Leporello, Zerlina & Masetto, and Donna Elvira (Giovanni’s deluded stalker) all stand and sing what they’ll do next:

  • Let’s get married. (Ottavio)
  • Sure, but we have to wait a year. (Anna)
  • I’ll enter a convent. (Elvira, who has spent the entire opera essentially begging Giovanni to do her one more time.)
  • I guess I’ll find a new master. (Leporello)
  • We’ll go get breakfast. (Zerlina & Masetto)

Mercy.  Then there’s the rousing final sextet, where they all sing how good is rewarded and evil punished.

Sure.  Whatever.  Curtain.

As fate would have it, the next day after this performance I received an email from Atlanta Opera asking me to rate my experience.  With raised eyebrows and pursed lips, I set to it.

After a series of questions asking whether I thought it was appropriate for the Bank of America to be a corporate sponsor—sure, I said, just like a Mexican drug cartel: money is money—they asked what the most enjoyable part of the evening was for me.

I was able to reply truthfully that it was during the curtain call, when I had a vision: wouldn’t it be a blast if while our idiot good guys are singing their platitudes about good always winning out, we see behind them the devils from the finale climbing out of the floor and dusting themselves off; followed by the Commendatore, whose statue costume we noted looked a little ratty when we first saw it; followed by Don Giovanni himself, who pulls out a roll of bills and pays them all off.  He makes his escape while his enemies congratulate themselves on their virtue.

He is the 1%: throughout, he uses his position and his wealth to abuse everyone around him for his own pleasure, and even when they think they’ve got him cornered, he buys his way out of it.  We’ve seen it happen the entire opera, and so when he fakes his own death, we are not surprised.

Why Atlanta Opera doesn’t hire me, I’ll never know.

Anyway, back to libertà.  I hadn’t really given my epiphany a second thought since typing it into the email survey form with such grim pleasure, but when that scene played out on GA-121, it all made sense.  Giovanni, after inviting his worst enemies to a party where he intends to seduce Zerlina right in front of them, distracts them with cries of Liberty! Freedom!  And like the pitiful sheep they are, they sing right along while he moves in on the peasant girl (who never gives in, by the way).

What else are they going to do? He’s the 1%.  Suckers.

Fun weekend, and an addition to the labyrinth

We traveled down Hwy 27 on Friday to Colquitt, GA, where we stayed at the lovely Tarrer Inn, did Colquitt, and saw the famed Swamp Gravy.

It is worth the trip. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and are too lazy to click on the link, here’s the short version: the city of Colquitt decided to rescue itself from its doldrums back in the 90s by applying for some grants and creating a ‘folk life’ play from collected oral history. It was an immediate smash hit, and has been ongoing since then.

The town itself is almost nothing, and their grip on the tourism thing seems to extend mostly to having this fabulous theatre piece for a month of weekends twice a year. The building is an old cotton warehouse, and they’ve renovated it brilliantly, with a museum of local artifacts (without however any contextual explanations of any of the items on display).

The performance space is U-shaped stadium seating around a pit, with permanent multilevel platforms interspersed throughout. There is a large stage-ish area at the end of the U.

Community members from 4 to 70 rehearse the season’s play and then perform it for a month. The arts council collates a new script for October (or goes back to a previous script), and then it repeats in March. They also have a local show called May-Haw, which as the website says, is more for the townsfolk than the tourists.

Anyway, the show was good. This one was stories from the murals which dot the city (another of its attractions), all of which depict specific local events and people. On the whole, I thought it was probably weaker than their usual collections of folktales, ghost stories, and reminiscences, but parts of it were just glorious.

We intend to return to see another show. Yes, it was that entertaining. Plus, it warms my heart to see this tiny community pull off something this good.

I’ve said enough nice things, right? I can be a little catty now, can’t I?


In the window of one of the stores was this poster, for a trio singing at a local church. If you are a Colquittian who has stumbled on my blog, my sincerest apologies because y’all are some of the nicest people we’ve ever met, but this sent us into hysterics:

The lady in blue: exactly what is her hand doing? I promise I have not cut anything off. In fact, I had to redact the name of the group just to make sure I got as much of the thing in.

I hope this doesn’t ruin my chances to be considered as director for some future Swamp Gravy, because I think it would be a lot of fun. (And Swamp Gravy, I have ideas. Ask me how the elephant story could have been a showstopper.)

At one of the shops, an antiques/decor place, we came across this:

It’s bamboo. There was another chair like this, plus a ‘sofa’ and a table. Totally wobbly, so it would have to completely restored. I was thinking skulls on the uprights would be awesome. I could indulge in all my Mr. Kurtz fantasies. I did buy something from the shop, about which later.

This morning we started our drive back to Newnan, and somehow it became a thing for us to swerve off of HWY 27 to go take a gander at any and all small towns off the path. It was actually fun. Blakely—I think—had just had its “Peanut Proud” festival. (Colquitt has the Mayhaw Festival next month.) Bluffton had this enormous and ornate building, a former school perhaps, all boarded up. I wish we had a photo.

We stopped at Providence Canyon State Park:

Better pictures on the intertubes, but it was awesome. To see most of it, you have to hike, and we were prepared neither with shoes nor time, so we had to settle for these glimpses from the outer rim. It’s only 150 years old: settlers in the 1820s planted cotton, stripping the land of all vegetation and plowing up and down the hills rather than across. In 30 years, it looked like this. Can you imagine?

We also plan to return here to hike through the thing. There’s supposed to be a wildflower hike, but the website doesn’t mention it.

When we drove down Friday, we noticed a row of three small white churches off the highway. They all looked well-kept, and we thought it was odd to have three churches in a row like that. We jokingly suggested it was three hardshell Baptist churches, founded by three feuding branches of the same family. As we drove back up, we pulled off to see the Louvale Historical District. There doesn’t seem be an actual Louvale as such, but then we saw the three churches. They’re surrounded by a chainlink fence, but the gate was open, so we pulled up into the gate and looked.

As we looked, a car pulled up behind us, and a woman offered to show us around. Her daughter had gotten married in the Antioch Primitive Baptist Church, pictured above, and she had the keys. She explained that this was the Louvale Church Row, unique in the nation. Three churches and an old school, moved to this site and still active (the school is a community center). The buildings are immaculate, and the Antioch church was elegantly simple. And the acoustics were quite live! I’d love to perform there. (I just discovered that there’s a Historical Marker Database! Woot!)

Finally we made it home and I was able get out to the labyrinth to install my purchase from Colquitt:

Yes, the Apollo Belvedere, a foot-high bronze. For those who don’t know already, here is the skinny on the whole Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic. I hadn’t really been searching for avatars of these two forces, but when I saw this—and the price was right—I had to have it.

Now I need a bronze Dionysus. This is the only even halfway well-known one I might look for, but it seems almost tame, kind of Apollonian. So I just might go for the Barberini Faun. That’s Dionysian.

A realization (minor)

Recently I blogged about big projects, among them the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. I told the personal bit about having been in Stratford during the period they were working on it.

I couldn’t find my copy of The Nicholas Nickleby Story, in which one of the three directors of the project recounts how it all happened. I must have given it to the theatre. (Or it may be possible, since I had the wrong size/color of book in my head, I simply overlooked it over on my shelves.) At any rate, I ordered a used one from Amazon.

I had forgotten that the whole thing started out very cautiously, with a five-week period of experimentation after which the members of the company had the option of not continuing with the work if they didn’t think it was going to work. Five weeks was not enough, of course, so they voted to extend it another three weeks, i.e., after the Christmas break.

That’s when we were there: during the first rush of research and improvisation and figuring out how or even whether they could do this thing. They had just come back from break and were hurtling toward the final reckoning, the fish-or-cut-bait moment when they would either stop the project or continue. Wow.