Monday, 21 December 2015

Peace on Earth

The church where I am music director, Faith Presbyterian, recently hosted the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry's Thanksgiving Eve Service, and I was fortunate enough to lead a “super choir” from three different congregations, including our own. Every year the Thanksgiving Eve Service comes around, I start a conversation with someone about doing more interfaith events. This year was no different, and the need feels more pressing than ever.

Our world needs peace. Do you feel it? There is too much fighting, and I don't just mean the wars going on in Africa and the Middle East or the terrorist actions happening globally (even in our corner of the world). There is too much fighting amongst ourselves, in the ways we deal with each other, in shaping our communities and our society. Why does every statement of personal belief have to elicit defensiveness and arguing? Moreover, why are facts and opinions so readily confused? This “I'm right and your wrong” mentality fuels the crises in the world just as much as any ideological or political differences.

My grandfather Rev. Harold W. Story was a Presbyterian minister for many years. He preached at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1960s, which coincided with the race riots there. He doesn't like to talk about that time, but he has written some about it. “I was trying,” he writes, “to work for an inclusive (integrated) church and society while racial tensions increased in that city and across America.” To that end, he did everything he could to bridge that gap, including accepting an invitation to march to Montgomery, Alabama, with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. (He recalls the newspapers calling the group “Communists.” He writes, “In fact, I was with Navy at Inchon during the Korean War—fighting against the Communists!”)

One incident in his account that sticks out to me, given the current climate, involves the Newark riots. He writes, “National Guards were called in to Newark to patrol the streets. On South Orange Avenue there was a black Moslem Mosque which was shot up because it was claimed there were arms and ammunition—which there were not. I had eaten at a restaurant owned and run by Moslems—and was treated with courtesy, given the anti-white attitudes that prevailed.”

We need to be neighbors. We need to eat in each other's restaurants and treat each other with courtesy, despite whatever else may be going on in the world. We are not all going to believe the same things, wear the same clothes, or eat the same food, but we are all still going to be living together in this city, in this place, on this planet.

Members of First Christian Church and Temple Beth Hillel, who sang in our Thanksgiving super choir, sparked yet another fire: that fire of working together to make the world a better place. Music is a great place to start. And so we are working together to put a concert together featuring singers and musicians from all faiths, all backgrounds—including our Muslim brothers and sisters. Perhaps it will be a small gesture made in a small corner of our great city, but it's a gesture whose effects will ripple outward.

This holiday season, reflect on that phrase “Peace on earth; goodwill to all mankind.” As my grandfather ended his Newark remembrance, “What character will you portray in this play of life?”

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Your Silence Is Your Consent

When asking a classroom of high schoolers to weigh in on something—perhaps about an upcoming assignment, or how something will be run in class—the teacher is often confronted with a beguiling silence. After a few of these inconclusive sessions, I started using a phrase with them that I think has deeper societal implications: “Your silence is your consent.”

Our society takes this phrase as its unofficial motto; if no one is complaining, then it must be okay. Anybody want a new luxury apartment building built? (Insert cricket noises.) Okay! How about the eventual destruction of our honey bee population? (Insert the sound of one hand clapping.) No problem! We'd really like to track all your phone conversations, e-mails, and texts. (Insert the noise of planets moving through space.) Great!

I admire the patience of those who can stay silent. It's like those contests to see who can endure pain the longest. In the end, it seems no one wins.

So, I ask myself, being an artist, What is art? Art is, among other things, the act of speaking up and out. The artist is saying, We do not consent! We want change! or, perhaps, Yes! This is good! Keep it up!

I recently attended a performance of a new theatre piece called When Stars Align, based on a book of the same name. In it, racial conflict is explored through the eyes of slaves and free men before, during, and after the American Civil War. The plot is heavy-handed (honestly, it was assembled as if it would be performed for third graders, though its content was strictly adult) along with the message, but it is clearly meant to speak to us today, to say maybe we haven't learned as much as we ought have about equality. We do not consent to the subjugation, to the indiscriminate killing of “black” men, of any man, woman, or child.

What about when the voice is forcibly silenced? I have just learned of a school in New York where the board rejected a proposal by the high school to perform the classic play Inherit the Wind. It is a historical play about what has come to be known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, where creationism and evolution were first put head-to-head in a court of law. This is an irrefutable piece of history which is taught freely in classrooms across the state of New York, if not the whole country, not to mention that Inherit the Wind appears on the suggested reading list for high schoolers. Yet this school district has silenced this play on the grounds that it is too religious. (Incidentally, I performed in the same play at the same school thirteen years ago. How times change.)

I've gotten to a point in my life where I don't have many fears, but I have to be perfectly frank: censorship scares me. It is the idea of someone screaming and there being no sound. It is the idea of a thousand million people crying out for justice and no one hearing. Could you imagine a world where the Romans burned every last document they came across, effectively erasing centuries of history? Where would we be? How would we be?

Your silence is your consent that the old ways are best and there couldn't possibly be a better way. Your silence is your consent that there's nothing we can do about anything so we'd better just give up. Your silence is your consent that the poor will always struggle and die, the rich will always inherit the earth, the wicked will always turn the good, the vain will always win, the over-conceited will always be right. Your silence is your consent. What can you do?

Be heard.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

A Summer of Theatre

My latest trip took me first to Alexandria, Virginia, for my younger brother's wedding. It's an interesting place to be, at a wedding when your own marriage has failed and you're still trying to figure out why and how. It was nonetheless a joyful occasion, fitting for a couple who, by some standards, has everything in order: full-time employment, with benefits; a house and a dog (no pickup truck); plans for family growth. It was nice to see the families all gathered, in their various corners, while the d.j. had brought Long Island with them—full light show, continuous booming four-on-the-floor, video screens, intrusive R's.

The Original Story Brothers
Photo credit Chelsea Anderson
A wedding is a bit of theatre itself. You have your ingenues, your supporting characters, and, perhaps (depending on the wedding), your antagonists. You have your secondary conflicts, your objectives and tactics. Hair, makeup, costumes, tech, stage management, house management. There's even rehearsal. The food and wine make it more like a Dionysian festival, but this one to (one hopes) the god known as Love.

After the declarations, the parties, the speeches, the brunches, I drove north with my mother, her boyfriend, my grandmother, my uncle, and my sister (also younger; all of my siblings and close cousins are younger than me) to New York. Three days later, I was in London to attend the International School Theatre Association's (Ista) Theatre Arts Programme Symposium (TaPS), where I would be certified to teach International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) Theatre. (Whew!)

A video posted by Kevin F. Story (@kevinfstory) on

hang

One of the benefits of that program was we got to see a performance of a new play at the Royal Court Theatre, a three-hander one-act called hang, written and directed by debbie tucker green. (Ms. green seems to eschew the shift key for things like her name and her play titles, but has no trouble using it in her printed work.) It was a wonderfully performed and designed piece, with the direction not unlike a chess game. The premise and foundation of the piece always seem to be just outside the grasp of the audience, as we are never told what is really going on. We can ascertain that a woman has been called in to an underutilized room where she is being indirectly asked questions about something, and needs to make a decision about how some perpetrator is executed. It's a decision she has already made at the outset, but doesn't reveal until well into the play, since giving it away early would make the play irrelevant. Perhaps if certain details were more explicit, the piece would lose some of its suspense, its intrigue, but my thinking is that some slight details might make more impact. Knowing what crime has been committed might raise the stakes even more, and make us more sympathetic to the woman. On the other hand, if we never know the crime that has been committed, the play remains clear of having to make a statement on that particular crime, and then can focus on its singular statement about difficult decision making or capital punishment at large.

What makes this piece a success in my mind is its effect on the audience. We are forced to ask questions, and it is my overall opinion that theatre (and art in general) must force the audience to ask profound questions—some of them unanswerable. This generation is one that must be forced into communication more often than not, as we drift further and further into the digital age of social media isolation; having something to talk about, to argue and discuss, is paramount.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Back in New York after my short London trip, I split my time between the City and Long Island, my native land. Theatre Three in Port Jefferson had hired me once again to music direct their Musical Theatre Factory, a four-week program for ages nine through seventeen, and as a bonus had cast me in one of their children's shows, Jack and the Beanstalk (music and lyrics by myself, book and lyrics by Jeffrey Sanzel, who also directed). The role of Filpail, the cow, is a tough one in that you have only one word the entire show (“moo”, though I did get to sneak in a “the end” at the end) and you have to spend most of your time on all fours. It was a challenge I accepted, and I ended up receiving a very good write-up in the local paper.

Boy (Michael Giordano) and cow (me)
Photo credit Peter Lanscombe
You may think it “beneath me” to play a cow in a children's show after having spent most of last year as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. What I will say is this: The only theatre not worth doing is the theatre you don't have your heart in. Theatre doesn't pay well, it takes some time to put together, and you can never be sure how an audience will like what you do. In my opinion, theatre for young audiences is just as vital, if not more so, as theatre for older ones. Young people are the best at asking questions.

Shakespeare, Sweeney, and A Gentlemen's Guide

I had the great fortune of attending Shakespeare in the Park (finally!), and got to see what I thought was a remarkable production of The Tempest. Sam Waterston gave a fantastic performance (even if he was hard to understand sometimes through the beard) and the rest of the cast (which included Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of Modern Family fame, as Trinculo) did wonderful work bringing this magical piece to life. I balked at first at the printed backdrop, of rough ocean waves, but when the effect at the end was to quickly release it from its frame, creating empty space, I understood and applauded all the more. Great choices all around, and definitely the best Tempest I've seen to date.

Theatre in the outdoors seems natural, even in as urban a setting as New York City. And the Public Theatre isn't the only company doing work au naturel. There is a company in Brooklyn which does summer theatre at the Old Stone House, the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle, and this summer they presented Sweeney Todd. What a thrilling thing, to see an evening of theatre under the stars with a picnic blanket and bottle of wine. A less thrilling thing was the performance given by the title character, and the entire production, while it has some excellent moments, seemed to lack a cohesive direction.

I did get the chance to see one Broadway show, the Tony-winning Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr. What a fantastic show! My only critique is that there wasn't a musical number that really blew me away. That notwithstanding, the performances were all top-notch.

Pop Filter and Punderdome

Jenny and Adam as Simon Never Said
Being in New York allowed me to see friends I haven't seen in a while, which included Adam Blottner and Jenny Pinzari, who collaborate on a quirky comedy music show called Pop Filter. If you're ever in the Big Apple, be sure to look them up. Their spoof groups range in style and character so widely in one evening, it's an absolute delight. Special mention goes to my good friend Matt Tobin, their bandleader-keyboardist-fiddler, for going along for the ride.

Tobin and I have a long history of trading puns, so it's no wonder that I saw him compete in the oddly-successful Punderdome 3000, created by comedian Jo Firestone (whose collaboration with Dylan Marron produced one of my favorite comedy shows, Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite) and her father, Fred. Unlike other pun competitions, this one is judged by audience noise, so whoever gets the most applause moves on to the next round, until there are only two standing. A mighty crowd packed into the small venue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as eighteen contestants became nine became four became two. The amount of wit in one place was staggering, as most contestants really had some good stuff to deliver. Tobin got as far as the semi-finals, but a gaffe in the first round haunted him and he lost part of the crowd—one of the contestants was a transvestite, and Tobin, who was using her to make a transition to the word “hermaphrodite” in one of his monologues, tripped up and accidentally inferred that she was a hermaphrodite. What a drag.

G2K Oklahoma, Godspell Jr., and The Pied Piper

The Musical Theatre Factory at Theatre Three is divided into two programs. The younger group this summer worked on the “Getting to Know...” version of Oklahoma, while the older group tackled Godspell Jr. Both shows in their original versions were groundbreaking in their own way. Oklahoma ushered in the modern form of musical theatre, with its fully-integrated book, music, and lyrics that all help to tell a singular story, making the names Rodgers and Hammerstein reverberate forever. Godspellwas itself a new type of theatre, an abstract blend of Christian parables used to tell a story of creating community out of chaos, and it launched the career of composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Both shows serve as great teaching tools for young performers.

The cast of The Pied Piper
Photo credit Peter Lanscombe
My last day on Long Island saw the opening of a new version of The Pied Piper, a children's show at Theatre Three written, again, by myself and director Jeffrey Sanzel. This show featured, in addition to its adult cast of six, a cast of 45 young people enrolled in classes at the theatre. It's a treat for me to see a show I've helped write, as often I am sending materials across the distance and can't get out to attend a performance. This was a particularly difficult show for the adults, as there is a lot for them to do, and more musical numbers than we usually put together. They did a great job overall, and I am awaiting to see how the rest of the run turns out. My guess is that it will be successful, since having 45 young people in a show practically guarantees a fairly full house of family members.

Looking forward now to the rest of 2015, I feel completely recharged, as if everything I did this summer caused no drain of energy, only resupplied it. I have a number of new avenues to explore in terms of learning about theatre, its theories and its inner workings. I have students to teach and a career to grow. I have ideas, hopes, and ambitions. And I'm really starting to feel like myself again.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea

I don't often write reviews, and I hope this doesn't become a trend, but to all who will read I must say this: See the play Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea.

Notwithstanding that a friend of mine was in it, and notwithstanding that another friend cast the show, this was the finest piece of theatre I believe I've seen in Los Angeles. (Last year's Pope: An Epic Musical was very good, and it's a show I'd like to revisit, but that production didn't have the same polish at Dontrell does. Not by a long shot.) Dontrell is a play that needs to be Off-Broadway. It's a play that needs to be seen and heard by millions; it's a play we all can relate to and, hopefully, glean some inspiration from. Dontrell is a coming-of-age story in a way, but it's also a story about connecting with something deeper, connecting with your ancestors. Sure, that would be enough, but what startles me is how remarkably well-written Dontrell is. The words are more than prose, more than poetry. They are that divinely-inspired thing which only theatre can be; a stream of reality and fantasy and spirituality poured out on stage by seven actors with a minimal set and costumes (which, by the way, are expertly executed—it doesn't feel like minimalism).

Dontrell is a dreamer. The whole play starts with a dream. He talks to the audience via a tape recorder (old-fashioned) to the bemusement and annoyance of his associates. He is us. We are him. The adversity he faces is a family he feels will reject him for seeking something deeper in his family line, in (perhaps) his destiny. He almost drowns, but is saved by a lifeguard who becomes his companion. She has her own quest, her own hang-ups and so on, but in this regard they are perfect for each other. They support each other's mission.

Key to the success of the entire piece is the use of music; specifically, drumming, singing, and rapping. Percussion begins and ends the piece, envelops the piece. Music draws us in and forces us to feel what this piece is about, in our chests. The room moves with us.

We are left with a beautiful feeling, an aura of enlightenment, and a sense of something larger than ourselves. Its premiere rolls on into cities beyond Los Angeles, but I hope sincerely it gets a chance in the big spotlight somewhere in the theatrical pantheon that is Manhattan.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

2014: The Year of Les Miz

One of the first shows I ever saw on Broadway was Les Misérables, and ever since then, it was my dream to play Valjean. What a blessing it was last year, then, to not only play the role, but to play it in two different productions. It couldn't have come at a better time for me personally and professionally, and it's been great to reflect on the changes that have come from filling those shoes, even for a short time.

In the dressing room at the
California Theatre with Javert
(Quentin Garzon)
My first run, we played at the California Theatre in San Bernardino and the Gardiner Auditorium in Ontario. It was two short weekends after only two weeks of rehearsal, and we played for well over 5,000 people. An agent came out of the deal, and I have been blessed to be working with Todd Eskin at Across the Board since then, such a great supporter and advocate.

The opportunity then arose for me to go to Anchorage, Alaska, to reprise my role. What a beautiful city, and such great people! We played at the Atwood Concert Hall, a behemoth 2,000-seat theatre in downtown Anchorage, for thirteen public performances over two weeks. In addition, we went on radio shows, performed at benefit concerts, and held talkbacks with high school and college students.

Setting up in Anchorage, at the Atwood Concert Hall.
All in all, finding Valjean and bringing that story to life has been, for me, life changing. Here is a man who nothing is working for. He steals some bread to stave off his family's hunger, only to be imprisoned for twenty years, then assumes a new identity to create a new, enlightened life. He becomes a light for his world, all the while still running from his past. The story is inspiring, and it's no wonder that it has endured all these years, and that the musical version of it has touched so many lives. What an awesome thing to be a part of, and I hope to be a part of it again throughout my life.