Browsed by
Category: Vagabond Girl

The Mighty Starmites Are Coming to Pottsgrove, PA

The Mighty Starmites Are Coming to Pottsgrove, PA

The last show that the Vagabond Acting Troupe put up before Aileen merged the company with another theater company was the musical Starmites. This was also one of the first of her shows that I saw after we got together around 2014. Her company used to put on shows in an old church that was out in the country, but since they left the building was torn down.

I remember how enchanting the show was and how impressed I was with the production values and with the talent of the kids. This show was done with kids and young teens! And it’s a tough one, too, with complicated songs with challenging harmonies.

Some set pieces from Aileen’s 2015 production of Starmites

Challenging kids to take on difficult work and discover their power to get it done is Aileen’s specialty. It’s what makes her such a great educator. There’s even a quote from this show that is apropos: “to a Starmite there is no such word as can’t.”

What is a Starmite, you might ask? Well, they’re kind of like a superhero. They kind of live in an imaginary world in a girl’s mind, called Innerspace, and they help her to find her courage and unleash her full potential. So maybe they’re a real part of her, inside?

Do we all have a superhero dwelling in our inner space? Yes, and that is essentially the message of the show. You have to dig deep inside yourself to find them. That’s what Aileen has been doing with young people for her entire career, which is why this is one of her (our) favorite shows.

Another reason Aileen likes this show is because it has a lot of great parts for actors to play. It provides opportunities for many individuals to stand out with a special character, and has multiple strong supporting roles. That’s important for Aileen, because the point of her shows is to be inclusive and give everyone who auditions a chance to participate.

Why have you never heard of this show? Well, it’s not often done. Possibly because it’s so challenging, or because it’s so nerdy. Aileen thinks it needs better marketing. It’s hard to tell from the title that it has a comic book superhero theme. Since those are big these days, maybe it would get more press if it were subtitled “A Superhero Musical.”

Why do I bring this up? Because Aileen is doing the show again! The same group of teens that she did Chicago with last summer asked her to come back for another summer production, and they picked this show. I’m really proud of her for continuing to shine as a theater educator, in spite of the troubles these past couple of years have brought.

The show is going up this weekend at Pottsgrove High School, which is in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to the northwest of Philadelphia. Below is an article about it in the local paper.

This blog is probably not the best promotional platform in the world, but on the off-chance that one of my two readers other than my Mom is in the area, you should think about getting a ticket! You can do it at this link:

https://search.seatyourself.biz/webstore/accounts/theartsbubble/buy-tix

My Board Game Biography

My Board Game Biography

Considering how much I love to play tabletop board games, it’s a little odd that I haven’t posted about the subject so much on this blog. That’s partly because I started In the Zeitgeist amidst the political turmoil of 2016-17, and stayed focused on generations-based political and social analysis. There was a lot going on in my personal life to post about as well. This blog was meant to be part commentary, part diary, and I had a lot to say about what was happening around me, just not about what board games I was playing.

But believe me, throughout all of the troubles and changes of these times, I have been playing lots of board games. It is one of my favorite hobbies, one that I’m passionate about, and it’s a wonderful form of escapism and distraction from the real world. I am a very imaginative person, and love to immerse myself in a game setting and just imagine that I’m off in another realm, playing some other role. And I really enjoy strategy games that make you think, and solve problems.

In this post I’ll relate my gamer biography.

I honestly couldn’t tell you when I started playing board games. It must have been when I was very young, in the 1970s. As a Gen X kid, I would have been exposed to the classic board games of postwar America. I mean games like Monopoly, Clue, Careers, The Game of Life. If you’re from my generation, you played them too. Then at some point I got into the more nerdy strategy board games that were available in that time period. A major company of that era was Avalon Hill, which made board games such as Titan, Diplomacy, and Civilization. I played all of those games with my nerdy high school friends.

When I started college at Virginia Tech, I joined a club called “The Wargamer’s Club.” I met a bunch more nerdy gamers there, some of whom I am still in touch with after all these years. We played games such as Illuminati, Nuclear War, and Cosmic Encounter. These are all games that could be considered “old school.” They had rules that were a bit more chaotic and luck-based than is the norm in board games today. There is actually a significant rift between the style of these older games from American companies and the modern style that began in Europe in the 1990s. More on that in a bit.

Another game that was very popular in my college and immediate post-college days was Axis & Allies, a World War II based wargame. Some friends of mine and I were so obsessed with this game that we ended up expanding it with extra rules and creating our own maps for it, so that we didn’t get bored playing the same game on the same map over and over. The game itself has a great system, and now there are a myriad of versions and variants with different maps, focusing on specific theaters or time periods of the war. But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s we didn’t have these new versions, so we had to make our own.

In the mid 1990s I was still in my college town, working at the University’s Computing Center. It was there that I was first introduced to Eurogames, by a work colleague who started a lunch game day (we played every Wednesday). He introduced some of us at work to a new wave of board games that was coming out of Germany. The first one we played was “Die Siedler von Catan,” which translates to “The Settlers of Catan.” You may know it today as simply “Catan.” It has become quite popular in the United States, and today’s young players weren’t even born when it first came out!

Me holding my 1st edition copy of Die Siedler von Catan

We played other games coming out of Germany in this time period, such as Entdecker, El Grande, and Modern Art. We ordered our copies through a web site called The Game Cabinet, downloading translations of the rules in English, since the games came from Germany and usually only had German rules in them. We all got hooked on these new titles, and would put in big combined orders to save on shipping. I still have all these old German editions of the games in my collection, too.

What was so appealing about these new board games? Well, they tended to have more carefully balanced and streamlined rules than the older ones. There was less luck involved, and more structured play that always took you to an end game in a reasonable amount of time. There was also no player elimination, so everyone got to play all the way to the end. You were trying to optimize your score versus that of the other players, not necessarily trying to tear down what they were building up in a bid to be the last one standing, as it used to be done. This was the beginning of what became known as “Eurogames,” to distinguish them from the American style of games we had been used to.

Over the years since, there has been a veritable explosion of board games in this style. The hobby has taken off worldwide to heights unimaginable back then, and there are so many thousands of titles it boggles the mind. You might call it a board game Renaissance, and even the mainstream media has caught onto it. If you know me on social media, I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds of interesting board game pictures in my posts.

But before we get to the state of board games today, more of my board gamer biography. I left Virginia in 1996, and after a bit of wandering ended up in North Carolina. I met more people there who liked tabletop gaming; I guess it’s just inevitable when you have a certain mindset that you will meet likeminded people wherever you go. One game I remember that we liked a lot back then was Twilight Imperium, which is an epic space exploration and empire game featuring massive space battles. It was really more in the older style of board game or wargame, with rigid turn orders and intense conflict, and it could also take a long time to play. I guess the old style still had its appeal.

At some point in the 2000s I stopped playing games much, and in fact entered a dark period in my life, where I fell into deep depression. I became a complete recluse, never leaving the house except for necessary errands, which included seeing a psychiatrist. My psychiatrist recommended reviving my social life, and suggested that I might have some hobby that could be a way to meet people. Board games was an obvious choice. So, with much personal effort, I got myself back out there and started going to a local game store (“FLGS” is the conventional term) and my board gaming life picked up again. This would have been around 2007.

I met new people, discovered new board games, and even started going to board game conventions in the area. These are gatherings (like any other convention) where all you do is play board games for days on end. There are even bigger game conventions (I’m sure you’ve heard of them) which include other kinds of games, panels and guests, cosplay contests and merchant dealers – they’ve got it all! I’ve been to a few of those, but honestly I prefer a smaller local convention which is mostly people who know one another, where it’s easier to find a game to play and to focus on the gaming itself.

The mid-2000s would have been about the time that the board game hobby was really taking off, as I already mentioned. Meanwhile, I recovered from my mental health issues, bought a house, and progressed in my career. It was like my personal life and the board gaming world were sharing a trajectory of rising growth and prosperity. There was an endlessly flowing cornucopia of new board game titles, and ample opportunity to play them with different gaming groups. My game collection grew and grew as I picked up copies of the new games that I liked the most. I was now heavily into modern style board gaming as a hobby, though I pretty much stopped playing wargames, which I do sometimes miss.

In 2013, I attended my 30th year high school reunion, where I met up with my dear old friend, Aileen. We reunited in life, and started travelling a lot together. Much to my delight, she also likes to play board games. In fact, we had played games together back when we knew each other in high school. She came to some of the gaming conventions that I was already attending, and we brought games with us when we travelled, playing in the hotel lobbies or suites where we were staying. In 2018, I sold my house in North Carolina and moved up to Pennsylvania, where she lives.

Then, in 2020 when the pandemic hit, I moved in with her. We combined our board game collections, which at this point consists of many hundreds of titles. I do my best to keep them organized, by theme and by type of game (for example, abstract or wargame), and by size of box (since they store more easily that way).

Aileen is ready for a game of Stratego

We continue to play board games when we can, though not so much at conventions or game stores since the pandemic began (but just last weekend, we did go to our first game convention in over two years). Mostly Aileen and I play two player games. We’ve even dug out some copies of games that we played back when we first met as teenagers. For example, not too long ago we played the old classic, Stratego. Yes, we have the same exact copy of the game that we played together in high school!

After careful deliberation, I make my move

I also play online sometimes with some of my North Carolina friends. A lot of board games, new and old, have digital implementations, easily accessible online. Sometimes you can play them for free, sometimes you have to buy them like any other computer program. I enjoy online play well enough, but much prefer sitting around the table, interacting in real life with people, and physically manipulating the components. There’s just something especially satisfying to me about that tactile and physical presence aspect of board gaming.

I’m very grateful to be living during this Golden Age of Board Gaming, even though I know I’ll never have the time for all the games that are out there. It’s enough to have time at all for the fleeting pleasures of life.

If you like board games, you probably should check out the web site BoardGameGeek, where you can learn about every board game ever made, and join an online community of board gamers who review, discuss, and share their experiences with board games. You can check out my user profile there to learn more about me, and even see our collection, which I maintain meticulously. I even made a GeekList (that’s a BGG thing) about that Axis & Allies variant that we played so much back in the early 90s. There’s a lot more I could write about my life of gaming, as this post hasn’t even touched on other kinds of games, such as tabletop roleplaying games or collectible card games, which I’ve also played a whole lot in my life. Who knows, they might be subjects of some future post.

A small sample of our board game collection, including some of my old German edition games

Mind Over Matter in a Game of Chance

Mind Over Matter in a Game of Chance

Last Christmas we got a cool new board game, called “The Quacks of Quedlinburg.” Its theme is brewing potions, and its primary game mechanic is drawing ingredients out of a bag, trying to draw as many as possible to score the most points. But some ingredients, if you draw too many of them, will cause your potion to explode, costing you points. You don’t want that! Tension comes from the fact that you need to keep drawing to get points, but you might go too far, and – BOOM!

Good game design requires some feature like this to generate tension, to keep the game interesting. This particular mechanic, in game design terminology, is called “push your luck,” and it is a pretty reliable way to do it. But there’s another thing about this mechanic that I wanted to bring up: apparently some people have more luck to push than others do. I say that because Aileen wins the game every time we play!

We must have played half a dozen games by now, and every time, when she is drawing her ingredients, they come out in a nice friendly order and she scores a lot of points, whereas I draw the dangerous, exploding ingredients and have to carefully consider whether to keep going (push my luck) or settle for fewer points. I end up falling behind in points, and then complain to Aileen, “this game has no catchup mechanism,” to which she usually replies, “you only say that because you always lose.”

Aileen offers an interesting explanation for the disparity in our luck. She says she does well because she doesn’t care what she draws out of her bag, whereas I am motivated by fear when I draw, and so my anxious energy is affecting my outcome. It’s poisoning the potion, so to speak.

Could this be? Could one’s attitude about a random event actually affect the random outcome? This has been studied scientifically, by the parapsychologist Helmut Schmidt. He conducted experiments on mental influence on the results of random number generators (recorded on computer disk), and found a statistically significant deviation from chance expectancy. What’s fascinating is that an effect is shown even with prerecorded events, providing no one inspects the record before the subject attempts to influence the results.

But how can this happen? An answer lies in the primacy of consciousness model of the universe. In this model, mental reality manifests in parallel with physical reality. Mental objects of experience – thoughts, intentions – are quantum objects just like the physical ones that surround us in the material world. They come into existence in the same way that the physical world does – by the collapse of the quantum wave function by unitive consciousness, which is the fundamental ground of all being.

Going back to my game of Quacks, when I draw from my bag, unitive consciousness simultaneously collapses the wave function of my mental experience (carefree or anxiety-ridden) and the wave function of my physical draw from the bag (favorable or unfavorable by the game rules). In my individual ego-consciousness, I experience either exultation at a fortuitous draw or frustration at an unfortuitous one.

But the quantum dynamics of my mental experience – the meaning ascribed by my mind to the outcome of the random draw – is tangled up with the quantum dynamics of the physical draw itself. By worrying about a bad draw, I am skewing the probability distribution of the physical event. My expectation is biasing the result! That is how this is a case of “mind over matter.” I need to learn to be chill when I’m drawing my potion ingredients, to open my mind up to more possibilities.

This model even explains Schmidt’s strange finding that mental influence can affect an already recorded (but not observed) random number generation. The collapse of the wave function (“state vector” as the experimenter puts it) occurs in the moment of conscious observation, and no sooner, as implied by the famous double slit experiment. In other words, until the record on the computer disk is observed, its state is undetermined, just like that of Schrödinger’s cat.

You might not give much credence to the work of Helmut Schmidt, since he was a “parapsychologist,” a field which is generally considered to be pseudoscience. But haven’t you ever been playing a game with dice rolling and experienced the right number (or wrong number) come up just when you needed it (or dreaded it) the most? Maybe in a table top roleplaying game, where the story meaning is particularly entwined with the dice outcomes, where the fate of a beloved character hinges on a critical hit or miss, or on making or failing a saving throw. I know I’ve experienced it.

I’m sure we’ll play Quacks again, and I will try to release my fear and let the flow of good luck come to me. But I will have to fight my own nature. My competitive edge and my ego-identification with the outcome of random draws from a bag is what tangles me up, even though there are no real stakes in the game other than whether or not we’re having fun.

Where do I get this stuff? If you’re interested in learning more about primacy of consciousness as a model of reality, a good place to start is the book “The Self-Aware Universe” by Amit Goswami.

You’re Never Lost when You’re with Your Best Friend

You’re Never Lost when You’re with Your Best Friend

This is one of my favorite pictures of Aileen (one of many favorite pictures of her), taken in a kind of makeshift maze at a Renaissance Faire in Pennsylvania some years ago. She’s peeking playfully at me from behind a maze wall. We’re having fun, even though a maze has danger associated with it. It’s a place where you might get lost. But what does that matter if you are with your best friend? When you’re with the one you are meant to be with, you can’t get lost. You don’t even have anywhere to go.

Aileen and I have been more or less constant companions for years now. It started when we reunited at our 30th year high school reunion. We saw more and more of each other after that, and I relocated to be nearer to her. Then the pandemic came and the circumstances put us even closer together as I moved into her house. It was a test of our relationship – could we stand each other day in and day out for years? Could I fit in with the rest of her family? Turned out we all could. The pandemic was easy on us.

The only thing is, Aileen doesn’t handle sitting around at home all the time quite as well as I do. She needs to have work to do, some project to be doing, or she goes crazy (she’ll tell you she was already crazy). The lockdowns really hurt her industry, which is theatre, and she had to find other work when she could get it. But now that we’re coming out on the other side of the pandemic (maybe) she is deluged with work again. She might be going a little crazy with too much to do! But I know she’s happy for it, and I’m always amazed by her commitment and by how much she can get done. We both keep as busy as we can with multiple projects, like we’re running out of time.

Today is Aileen’s birthday, and I wrote this post to share how much I appreciate her in my life. We’re a couple of old fools getting older together. Ten years ago I never would have thought this is where I’d be in life. But now it only seems natural. We’ve known one another and loved one another since we were crazy kids in high school. We don’t even remember meeting; one of our inside jokes is that we must have known each other forever. Depending on your spiritual perspective, this may well be true.

Happy Birthday to you, Aileen, my dearest friend and my partner in life. Here’s to many, many more years together forever.

Me and My BFF Go to See some High School Musicals

Me and My BFF Go to See some High School Musicals

If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that a lot of my posts lately are about going to see high school musicals. What’s up with that?

In some ways, it’s just getting back to normal. Over the past decade or so, my BFF Aileen and I have been going see lots of shows – professional, community theater, and at schools. This was put on hold for a couple of years because of the pandemic. This spring season, theater is back! At most of the productions that we’ve seen lately, the director’s notes in the program or the curtain speech make a point that it’s the first live show in the space since 2020.

But there’s also a particular reason for going to all these high school shows. Starting this year, I am an adjudicator for the Philadelphia Independence Awards. That means that I’m not just watching, I am judging the performances and technical aspects of the shows, and providing constructive feedback. I am very grateful for this opportunity, which I’d like to think I earned through my excellent writing in the past, though I know that mostly I owe it to the recommendation of my friend Aileen.

In the years that I have been going to live theater with Aileen, I have learned that young people are just as capable and talented as adults. Seriously, we have seen some high school productions that were better than stuff we’ve seen on Broadway. As an educator, Aileen has always believed in teaching children that they can do anything they set their minds to, and the kids at the shows we’ve been seeing have certainly proved her point.

Looking forward to more shows in the weeks to come!

2021 Halloween Scene

2021 Halloween Scene

We wanted proper Halloween decorations this year, and this is what we ended up creating. I say “we” but it was really the rest of the family. Mostly I just fetched stuff, and wrote this chronicle. The background behind this fantabulous scene: it’s largely made up of set pieces from Aileen’s theater productions of the past. She has a storage building out back full of set pieces and bins of props and costume pieces.

The head in the center is a set piece from the Wizard of Oz. It was donated to Aileen’s theater company from another production, though she never used it. I did help with digging it out and transporting it (it’s huge and quite heavy), as well as securing it with bungee cords. It makes a great centerpiece; I think it looks like some mad scientist supervillain.

The gravestones/tombstones are made of styrofoam and were used in Aileen’s production of Dracula in 2016. The urns in front are also styrofoam and may or may not have been used in a set. Those pieces all came out of the attic, where a part of Aileen’s huge costume collection is kept (a lot more is at the theater where she works).

The skeleton on the left was in the storage building, and the reason you only see part of it is that it was a bit decayed. Another frightening fact about it is that when Aileen went to retrieve it, she unleashed a swarm of wasps! Some type of paper wasp had constructed a nest inside that was attached to the spinal cord. She fled the building, then after a bit sprayed the nest, and a day or two later we gingerly retrieved the skeleton and removed the paper nest (the wasps were still in the building, clustering on a nearby window).

The skeleton on the right was a new purchase; it has red LED eyes! The lights in the center were also a new purchase. The flood lights, however, have been with Aileen’s theater company for ages. They are outdoor flood lights, so safe to keep in front of the porch, and it’s a good thing they are, because it has been raining a lot lately. The candles you can see here and there are battery powered and are a staple in Aileen’s productions.

The best part of the tableau is the pumpkinhead guy in the back. That was put together by Aileen’s son Tiernan, who used a mask he wore in a previous Halloween costume, and some orange fabric. It’s sitting on a top of this weird lamp that has plastic strands or tubes lit up by LEDs; I don’t know what to call it. Two of the tubes are twisted up and inserted behind the mask to light up the eyes. The lamp was used as a fairy tree in a production of Midsummer’s Night Dream. Now it’s a spooky pumpkin tree!

I hope you enjoyed this detailed look at our 2021 Halloween scene, which you can see in person if you ever drive through Morgantown, Pennsylvania this month.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Our Recent NYC RETURN where We “Get Down” with SIX Wives

Our Recent NYC RETURN where We “Get Down” with SIX Wives

This is a post about going to see SIX on Broadway, a very popular musical which has just begun performances post-COVID. Tickets are in high demand and very expensive and it was only by good fortune that my partner and I were able to go.

GETTING THERE

Since the show opened in previews on September 17, I had been entering the Broadway Direct lottery to get tickets. I don’t know all the details of this program, just that tickets are offered for a very low price to certain extremely popular shows that might be priced out of the range of many theater goers. But it’s a lottery; you sign up for the next day’s show and some small number of winners are offered tickets at a steep discount. I had entered the lottery for Hamilton every day for a very long time, before we finally went to see the show in Chicago a couple years ago. Every day I would sign up in the morning, and in the evening would get an email wishing me better luck next time. I started doing the same for SIX, expecting the same fruitless results.

Imagine my excitement when an email came informing me that I was on the waiting list. If I was chosen (presumably because another winner had missed or passed up their chance to buy the tickets) I would get another email, after which I would have 60 minutes to purchase the tickets. I waited expectantly and not an hour later a second email came. I had won the tickets! It was two tickets (the most you could sign up for) and they were $30 each. I quickly paid for them, and bragged about it on social media.

Next I had to reshuffle my work schedule, since it was such short notice. I honestly never thought I would win and that this would ever come up. I had won the tickets for the Thursday, September 23rd performance at 8 PM, but I had obligations at work that would normally have kept me late. There was no way to keep these obligations and make it to the show. But I was able to get other team members to take them on for me, so I could work a half day and we could leave as soon in the afternoon as possible.

The next day Aileen and I left at about 3:00PM, driving to New York City. Parking had already been arranged. It was raining heavily, which slowed us down. It took us over three hours to get there, and by the time we parked and made it to the theater we were soaking wet, despite having thoughtfully brought umbrellas with us. We had hoped to eat some dinner first, but it was already after 7 and there just wasn’t anywhere appealing to even grab a quick bite. We decided to get in line and eat out of the concession stand in the theater.

SAFETY CONCERNS

We were concerned, of course, about COVID-19. This concern had kept us from attending other events, and generally limited our going out to do anything lately. But I guess the lure of getting such a huge discount on tickets, and of seeing a show that is the current hype, was too much. Plus they had COVID-19 protocols in place – you had to be vaccinated, had to have proof of such, and were required to wear a face mask in the theater.

In line, everyone was indeed wearing a face mask. Not much of an intersection between the anti-masker crowd and the Broadway theater audience crowd, perhaps. There was a friendly young man who had a badge on identifying him as a COVID safety officer, who examined our ids and our proofs of vaccination. I had the original card they had given me at the drug store when I got vaccinated, and Aileen had a photocopy of hers. We were given the all clear. We had to wonder, though, if anyone might have showed fake evidence. It wouldn’t be too hard to rig up a fake card, especially if a photocopy or a picture on your smartphone were acceptable.

Once in the theater, we discovered that our tickets were in the front row. This was another fun twist. It also made us a little more comfortable from a COVID perspective, because we had room in front of us. The extra room also helped with the drying off bit. I got us some very expensive pretzels and candy from the concession stand and we sat and waited for the show to begin.

THE SHOW

SIX is an hour and a half long show that is basically a rock concert ostensibly performed by the six wives of King Henry VIII. The idea is that they’ve come back from the dead to entertain the crowd with their stories. So since they’ve come back from the dead, they aren’t required to be historically accurate. Their costumes are kind of half way between renaissance dress and glam rock or pop from modern times. It’s an all-female cast, including the musicians, who are also on stage. It’s also cast color-blind, in that the wives are not cast with ethnic accuracy to the original wives: they are black, white, brown and one is Asian. Each wife sings a solo about her own story, and these songs are bookended by ensemble numbers that set up the show and wrap it up with a message of female empowerment.

The Broadway 2021 production is energetic and a lot of fun. The singing is expert, the lyrics catchy and clever (with a lot of historical facts mixed with anachronistic references to the present), and the boots, according to my partner, are “freaking sweet.” Sitting in the front row helped draw me into the celebrity worship aspect, as I sat (and later stood as requested), staring raptly at the performers. I even got a flirtatious glance from Katherine Howard during her number (I think).

Henry VIII is arguably one of the most famous monarchs in history. The play references his fame a lot, and the subsequent fame of his wives and their personal reputations. The wives spend the bulk of the play arguing with one another over who was most maligned by the portly Prince. SIX also questions whether it was Henry who made his wives famous, or the other way around. Although the play (at just around 80 minutes with no intermission) seems short for a Broadway outing, the snarking of the queens feels like it goes on a bit too long. But once it gets to the meat of WHY the queens are famous, it finishes well. These women are, after all, the original “Real Housewives of Hampton Court,” and just as much celebrities as their shared spouse.

Even though the musical is short, it has lingered with us long after those 80 minutes. Since last week, we’ve been really interested in the six wives and their impact on history – which is epic, really, when you think about what happened to England because of their relationships with Henry. The Tudors were arguably one of the most impactful families of that, or any time. So we decided to watch The Tudors Showtime series again, and I started reading a book Aileen has about the six wives.

Well, I can assure you from reading the book that the Showtime series is no more accurate than this Broadway production. But that’s not the point, right? These shows are fictionalized recreations of well known historical figures and events that use facts and invention equally, as convenient. These aren’t really the six wives of Henry VIII, these are celebrity rock star versions. The program for SIX even mentions the specific pop stars after whom each queen is modeled. We’re supposed to treat them like divas.

Is it weird or wrong to worship celebrities? If it’s an all-consuming part of one’s life, I would say that’s not healthy – but for the short duration of an 80 minute diva rock roast, it feels like silly fun to pretend. Theater is a mutual relationship between performer and audience. Each needs the other to generate the emotional tension and catharsis that is the heart of theater and SIX relies on it.

The celebrity worship aspect is also, I suppose, part of why the ticket prices for this show are so high. Young women everywhere are reveling in these empowering tunes right now. That and the simple fact that it’s the current hot thing. If you try to book front row seats for an upcoming performance right now, you’ll find they are going for $500. I can’t imagine paying that much; it’s not that good. I’m not sure that any show is worth $500 to me, frankly. But it was certainly worth the price we paid, even a bit more, and that’s with all the hassle of getting there in the pouring rain. I would love to see it again, but from the back where I could get a better appreciation of the choreography and blocking and those “freaking sweet” heels.

(Full disclosure – Aileen helped me a lot with this one, because she is a theater reviewer. Soon she will be uploading her own blog posts here, so look for that!)

Theater Emerging

Theater Emerging

A year ago we were deep in the pandemic, and my best friend and partner, who works in the theater industry, was not able to work. All of the summer work that she had lined up in 2020 evaporated with the lockdown. She could have just stayed at home for all I cared, but she is too driven and needed to do something, so she ended up taking up a job as a census enumerator. This stressed me out a bit, as she spent the late summer and early fall wandering the area, visiting the homes of recalcitrant people. I mean, people who don’t do their census aren’t going to want to be bothered about the census, right? I thought she was very brave for taking on this job. After that gig ended, she worked for a high school as a Covid safety officer, which entailed patrolling the halls and making sure the kids were following protocols (they weren’t). That job ended with the school year.

Aileen Lynch McCulloch

Now it’s summer, and with the pandemic “over” – or at least “winding down” – she has gone back to work in her field. I’m glad for that, because she is clearly much happier. She just finished running a production workshop for teens, producing the musical Chicago: High School Edition. If you don’t know what this means: a production workshop is an educational program, like a summer camp, where each student pays a fee to participate. Chicago is a famous musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb which satirizes celebrity crime culture in the 1920s. “High School Edition” just means that the script is shortened and cleaned up a bit, so it is appropriate for younger people.

The fees the students pay cover costs like rent to the space, and the licensing fee to the rights holders. This latter cost is substantial – as in three figures – and depends on the number of performances. In this case, there were four live performances (as opposed to streaming online performances, which was a popular way to do it during the pandemic). Rehearsals started while there were still significant restrictions on group gatherings, so they were online at first. In fact, the auditions were all done by having the students submit videos. Note that every kid who auditioned was going to get cast (that’s kind of the point of an educational workshop), but auditions are still used to cast the specific roles.

Once restrictions eased, some time in June, rehearsals moved to the theater space. At first, many kids weren’t yet fully vaccinated, so everyone wore masks while rehearsing, and temps were taken. By the end of rehearsals, almost all of the kids were vaccinated. I got to see a couple of the dress rehearsals during tech week! If you don’t know what “tech week” means, it’s the final rehearsal phase when the lighting and sound is integrated into the show. Here’s a photo from dress rehearsal, of the merry murderesses performing the Cell Block Tango:

The show went up in early July, on the weekend after Independence Day. Audience members were required to wear masks, though the performers did not, except for two who wore face shields. Those were the two cast members who were not vaccinated. Some audience members refused to come see the show because masks were required. This was actually the desired outcome, and it was probably for the best, since the Delta variant is now spreading like wildfire.

Here’s a short review I posted after the first show:

It’s too bad there are only four performances of this show, since the cast and crew have pulled together a tight and energetic production, showcasing the talents of multiple young performers, directors and designers, and you won’t want to miss it. A teen production of Chicago HS Edition, on the heels of the pandemic, was a gutsy choice for director/producer Aileen Lynch-McCulloch, but as is usual for her, she has pulled it off. She demonstrates her knack for finding the perfect cast, and for translating a script onto the stage in a tight time window and with a shoestring budget. Minimalist set and costume choices, on a stark stage with smooth lighting, succeed in conveying the characterizations and the storyline, giving the talent the opportunity to shine. The director’s faith in the ability of youth and commitment to helping them find their voice have once again resulted in an amazing production. Get a ticket if you can!

I wrote this blog post to extol the talents of my good friend, Aileen, and to raise awareness of the challenges facing the theater industry as we emerge from the pandemic. This production of Chicago was slipped right in between the beginning of vaccinations and the surge of the Delta variant; it may have been a fortuitous occasion that can’t be repeated in the near future. In her role as Artistic Director at The Center Theater, Aileen would like to plan more productions, as part of her program called The Arts Bubble, “a healing project created to help audiences return to the live performance spaces.” But obviously this depends on the state of the pandemic.

I’ve been following Aileen’s work for many years, and it really is amazing to behold. She can handle all aspects of a production – directing, producing, costuming, set design, tech, PR, you name it. When she is working on a project, her commitment is total, and she seems to have an endless reservoir of energy on which to draw. But luckily she has people to help her, so she doesn’t have to do it all herself. She only needs to do three or four people’s jobs instead of ten or twelve.

She has people to help her because over her career she has built up a network of supportive friends, as well as young people who want to come back and work with her time and time again. Many of the teens and young adults who worked with her on Chicago have known her since they were children, when they first acted in a show which she directed. For a long time she ran her own theater company, Vagabond Acting Troupe, and she has also worked as an educator in schools and at other theaters. And she hasn’t changed her fees for over 30 years, while others around her have taken her approach and then raised the cost. Many of her students have gone on to Broadway tours, Cruise Ship entertainment and some have even started their own companies.

I mean, just the fact that Aileen was able to get large audiences to see Chicago and all willingly wear face masks is impressive. And if you think that wearing a mask is just “pandemic theater,” then I submit to you this thought: not wearing a mask is “pandemic theater.” Because everything we do socially, how we dress and how we act, is meant as a signal to others; it’s all a performance. Life is theater, and theater is life. As Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

So please join me in congratulating my dear friend Aileen Lynch-McCulloch on another successful theater production. And please get vaccinated, because if we don’t get this pandemic under control, we may all have to climb back into our cocoons, and wait another year before live theater can emerge once more.

Watching You, Watching Me

Watching You, Watching Me

Outside she goes, to explore the planet of the Covidiots. They volunteered her because she’s such a good observer.

***

I worry when she’s gone. The world is plague-ridden and full of hostiles. But at least I have a tracking device with which I can monitor her progress from headquarters.

***

The device in question is our Android smartphones running Trusted Contacts, which lets us always see one another in Google Maps.

***

I had long resisted getting any kind of tracking software for my phone, counting on loved ones to report their location if ever needed. But then my partner got a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Knowing that she was going out and knocking repeatedly on strangers’ doors, in a country that has suffered an implosion of trust (and never much trusted in government, ever), changed the equation. Suddenly getting tracking software became an imperative.

First we tried Waze, but found the interface difficult. Not to mention I couldn’t see her on the map even though I connected to my Facebook contacts. The app isn’t really made specifically for tracking individuals. But then her son suggested Google’s Trusted Contacts, which integrates easily with our Google accounts, as well as Google software like Maps. It requires mutual agreement between two account holders, and then one can see the location of the other in real time.

Now I can see her as she moves about the area. Since her profile picture on Google Accounts is a sunflower, I see her as a flower floating about town. It’s reassuring to watch her moving in the expected pattern, because I can take that to mean everything is fine.

To her, I would just be a floating head at home base, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker, not an essential worker like she is. From where I sit, life is safe and comfortable. She is out braving the dangers of post-apocalyptic America, but at least I can keep an eye on her.

***

So I wait into the evening, watching her on my screen. And have dinner waiting for her return, to her one safe haven in this ravaged land.

The Bear Comes Home

The Bear Comes Home

The culmination of years of events has finally come to pass – I am now officially moved in with my BFF in Morgantown, PA. Depending on how much you have followed my blog and whether or not you know me IRL, you may have been watching the story unfold.

First, she came to visit me from Pennsylvania while I was living in North Carolina. Then we started visiting each other frequently and travelling together, and a new phase of our lives began. I went up and met her kids for the first time; they were boys age 10 and 13. She came down and met my tabletop gaming buddies. She even brought the kids with her sometimes, and they all joined me at gaming conventions.

Sometimes I would go up to see her, and sometimes she would come down to see me. And we went on a lot of fun trips together. She took me on my first trip to New York City, and to my first Broadway show. We’ve seen so many shows since then; I’ve basically become her theater buddy. And since she’s a director, I got to see a lot of her shows. I became her number one fan.

We travelled to Chicago every summer for G-Fest along with the boys’ Dad, who is also my friend. This was a tradition with them since the boys were even younger, and my joining them was part of the process of being enfolded into their family. But I wasn’t completely enfolded yet, since I was still living in North Carolina. The distance between us was kind of fun at first, since it was exciting to see each other again after an absence of a couple of weeks. But the travelling got tedious. It was a seven hour drive between our houses. Flying was an option, too, since we could get cheap tickets on Frontier Airlines, but even that has its inconveniences.

Then, a few years ago, some Water Spirits came and trashed my house, teaching me a lesson about the relative importance of material things, but also helping me to realize what a spoiled bear I am. Some months later my job in North Carolina came to an end. It was starting to look like the Universe was sending me a message. I went up into the mountains to watch a solar eclipse and ponder my next course in life.

I started looking for work in Pennsylvania, so that I could move closer to my BFF and her family. I enjoyed my last months in North Carolina boardgaming with my buddies and performing with my choir. Then I landed a position in Wilmington, DE and in a whirlwind five weeks got an apartment in West Chester, PA and moved on up. My recently renovated house quickly sold, and I’m pretty sure the buyer re-did all the work that the insurance company paid for.

The apartment was expensive and the commute to Wilmington was a pain. It made sense for me to eventually move in with her family, though I would have to find a new job first that would put me closer to her house. I have to admit I was dragging my feet. I have a lot of stuff and I like to control my personal space. It would be a big change for me to move in with someone for good, after more than a decade of living alone.

I did get a new job, which took care of the commuting problem. And then along came a little thing called the novel coronavirus. Suddenly I was working from home, and it only made sense for me to be doing this from my BFF’s house. I brought my essential things over and hunkered down with her. The apartment languished, unused.

As we got used to the routine of living together and sharing her house, it was obvious that I should just complete the move. There was a little wrangling over how we would use the space and where my stuff would end up. I mostly fought to have a place to shelve all my books and boardgames – that carefully curated collection I’ve built up over my many years. Figuring out how to share space is just part of the hard work of building a lasting relationship.

The big move happened last week, and all that’s left now is to clean up the apartment and collect a few final possessions. The lease expires soon. As for my new commute – well, I’m not sure when that will start up. Pennsylvania is loosening coronavirus restrictions, but I haven’t heard anything about going back to the office. So I’ll be here in Morgantown for the foreseeable future.

It’s been a long trip to get to this stage of my life. Along the way I’ve done a lot with my BFF, and our relationship has bloomed. I’ve joined her family and I’ve watched her boys grow up – her eldest is in college now, and has a car, a job, and a girlfriend! And it’s good that I’m living with her now, considering that she needs support at a time when her industry – theater – is so troubled.

It’s also good that we got so much travelling done during the past six years, considering that we’re likely to be homebound for a long while to come. I’m just glad that home is here now, with my girl.

Books and games waiting to be unpacked in the office.