Friday, February 25, 2011

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

I’m one of those people who feels flummoxed when a button pops off. I have no idea what to do. I know the theory behind the needle and thread, but my hands barely fit in men’s extra large gloves and my fingers certainly aren’t up to the task of threading a flimsy piece of cotton through the eye of a needle. Even as an agnostic, I probably have a better shot at entering the kingdom of heaven on the hump of a camel than getting a thread through that absurdly tiny hole. And even if I could, once threaded, I have no idea about how to sew the button or tie the knot at the end, limited again by gargantuan fingers.

Such is the handicap for my vocation as a director of children’s theater. Unlike the well-paid professionals on either coast, my lot is to be in charge of the whole kit and caboodle – set design, set building, lighting, sound, special effects, music and yes, I’m sorry to say, costumes.

For the first three productions I ever directed, my assistant director and I tried to coordinate costumes ourselves. The result was a mismatched collection of ill-fitting clothes: suits too long, shirts too wide, dresses too big. The costumes were a mess.

For production number four – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – I began to learn from experience. I fired myself from costumes, fired my assistant director entirely and hired my friend Jane.

Jane sees the world differently from me. She’s lived with dyslexia for more than fifty years. She sees the world in pictures and gets muddled when she’s tired. It’s easy for her to mix up the names of cast members, especially those with similar names. Jack and Jake confuse her. She would never be a big money winner on Jeopardy where the kings of quick-fire rule.

She has raised three children, almost exclusively on her own, and all three are excelling in the creative arts – Lisa in dance, Reed in theatrical lighting design, Mark in the culinary arts. Jane understands children with learning differences better than any teacher I know. On an instructional level, she simply gets what they need. Yet she drives certain colleagues batty because she communicates erratically and wanders in late to staff meetings, often dragging a large messy bag along with her.

And she has transformed my stage. She has hand-made fat costumes out of hula- hoops for Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. She has dressed a full cast of nearly forty kids in historically accurate period costumes. She handcrafted both the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, breaking a few sewing machine needles along the way. Over the last five years, she has been responsible for over one thousand costumes, each one exceptional and coordinated with its stage mates.

But more importantly than how each costume looks, Jane has made a personal connection with each young actor and made sure that each and every cast member feels good in their attire, is comfortable, and knows the character he is portraying. Jane knows that a child who has had a say in her costume, who has been heard, who feels at ease, will be a better more confident performer. That child will feel successful and will raise the levels of children around her. He will be proud of his work and will naturally go on to greater and better things. Confidence and success are powerful tools in the education of young minds.

With needle and thread, hot glue guns, machines that attach beading and sequins, buttons and zippers, Jane has brought my stage to life. More traditional minds don’t always understand her value and don’t always speak her language. But if they take the time to look past the baggage and the mess, they will get her. Jane has made an enormous difference in the lives of hundreds of children. She is a master educator and a gift.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Books and Integrity

There’s a man living in Boulder, Colorado by the name of Thatcher Wine. He sounds like he should be selling malbecs and chardonnays. But an oenologist he is not. He’s a bibliophile, you might even say a bibliomaniac. He has a passion for books. Collects them. He started out binding books for people, but now runs a business helping the wealthy build their private book collections and libraries. He makes a good living from it too. They say that if you have to ask him what his fees are, you can’t afford him.

Some of his clients are collectors of books themselves, seeking rare first editions or leather bound complete works. Many don’t care what’s inside the book and won’t ever read them. They just want something to look snazzy in their home, a professionally designed attraction to go along with their collector art and their collector antique furnishings. Thatcher selects just the right books for their space – the perfect height, width and color – to enhance at maximum effect their multi-million dollar mansions. Most people he charges by the book – the more rare, the more pricey. But he has a few clients he charges by the foot. People buying books like they buy rope at the hardware store.

He has one client who wanted more books than he has shelves for. A double set. This is a client with a big home and a big checkbook, who regularly holds fundraisers for candidates on both sides of the political spectrum. A client who likes to hedge his bets, sits on both sides of the fence. And he plays his bookshelf cards accordingly. One set of books by the religious right for one set of visitors – Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck; a completely different set for the liberals – Molly Ivins, Teddy Kennedy, Hilary Clinton. Thatcher Wine has designed opposing sets of books for opposing occasions. I wonder if the books are glued together for ease of transportation. And no one quite knows what this client’s actual tastes in reading are because he keeps the books he actually reads in a private corner of his house. He doesn’t want his guests to find out.

I think this is appalling. It reminds me of an insecure middle school child who is desperately trying to fit in with his friends. He works so hard to buy the right clothes, wear his hat at just the right angle in the misguided and futile hope to fit in. As adults we like to think we’ve outgrown that sort of silliness, but it isn’t always true. How often do we show our true colors? Are we always comfortable putting all of ourselves out there for others to see?

When I was a boy growing up in England, I was a big fan of Arsenal Football Club in London, the team that others loved to hate. It was hard to stand up sometimes and tell new acquaintances which team was mine, in fear of mockery. Now, here we all are on Facebook, presenting one very thin slice of our lives to our ‘friends’. At the beginning of the year in which I got divorced, I Facebook-friended an old buddy from grad school. We followed each other’s postings for many months before taking the time to really write and fully catch up. I was living through a rough year of grief and loss and my friend had no idea. It wasn’t stuff I was putting out there for the world to see. I was only showing one set of books. Is this any different from the client who switches out his bookcase?

Another case. About five years ago, I had the opportunity to apply for a big job that I’d had my eye on for years. I knew a lot of the people on the search committee and did my best to tell them what I thought they wanted to hear. I’m not sure I ever presented myself as ‘me’, and I felt out of alignment and disingenuous. I didn’t get the job. I was disappointed and it led to a serious amount of soul-searching on my part.

Now a few years later, integrity is a quality I value most highly in myself. I don’t want to present myself as something other than I am. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you someone else is the greatest accomplishment.” I read that quotation every morning while I’m brushing my teeth. I was recently asked to apply for what might well be my dream job as head of a fabulous school. They conducted a national search and had more than fifty applicants. I knew I could only present myself as ‘me’. There were some tough questions asked at various points along the selection process, but I never once worried about how my answers might be perceived. I gave answers according to my own values and beliefs. And I got the job.

The job is in Boulder. I’m wondering about whether to invite Thatcher Wine to put together a collection for the bookshelf in my new office. Probably not. For one, I’m pretty certain I can’t afford him. But most importantly, I know that every book on that shelf will have personal meaning to me. The dog-eared and torn thesaurus my grandmother gave me for my confirmation when I was 13; some of my Dad’s childhood books, printed in Cape Town, South Africa in the 1930s; collections of some of my favorite essayists; books of inspiration and spirituality; a few outstanding tomes on education and school governance; humorous books; books about baseball. Every one will have been read and loved, several of them read fifty times or more.