The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

A Provo playwright

Sunday was the closing performance of 3, the final play in Plan B Theatre Company’s Season of Eric.  Or perhaps I should put it #seasonoferic, social media being all the rage these days.  I already wrote from the heart about this marvelous year.  But last night we had a staged reading of the first draft of another new play.  And so it continues.

The new play is about 11th century papal politics, and right now, it isn’t very good.  This often happens.  Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and this piece needs a lot of work.  Frankly, hearing the reading, I thought the middle third of the play was just flat boring.  This is not a good quality in a dramatic entertainment.  But the core is solid, the characters work, and all the problems are fixable.  So onward.

I’ve been writing plays, and getting them produced, for 36 years now.  I’m fifty seven years old; I turn fifty eight on Thursday.  And for most of that time, I was living and working in Provo, Utah.  There’s a general tendency for people in Salt Lake to think of Provo as backward, reactionary, conservative, old-fashioned, out of touch.  Hicksville.  All these criticisms/impressions are entirely correct; exceedingly well founded.  I live in Provo because for many years, I taught at BYU; my house is ten minutes from the campus where I worked.  It’s now ten minutes from the campus where my wife works.  I live in Provo as a matter of convenience and necessity.

And yet, I sort of love it.  It’s become home in the most personal sense of that word.  There are many aspects of Mormon culture that drive me bananas. But my ward is characterized by kindness, and my neighborhood is both nurturing and pleasingly eccentric.

Until recently, for example, we had one family in our ward that had these huge dogs; Newfoundlands.  The dogs were trained as therapy dogs, and our friends routinely took them to children’s wards in hospitals to interact with sick kids.  When my daughter was ten, she had to have surgery, a serious back condition, and our friends came to see her in the hospital, and brought their dog.  It was astonishing, to see how that visit transformed my daughter.  We’d see our friends walk the dogs down the street, and it was almost comical; the dogs looked more like bears than canines.  But they were endlessly gentle, the dogs.  I’m still moved when I think of our friends and their hundreds of visits to hospitals, and these huge dogs bringing joy to the lives of sick children.

There’s another family in our ward; good friends as well, from South Africa. And the husband is very active in local politics.  He is, of course, a staunch Republican.  But he could not possibly be more respectful of my heterodox Democratic stance.  He does tease me from time to time about it, but I tease him right back; we’re friends, in every sense that could possibly matter.  And I know he puts in countless hours working with city government on issues that affect our neighborhood.  Puts me to shame, to be honest.

I honestly think that living in Provo has made me a better playwright.  Such is the power of confirmation bias that all of tend to think tribally. And if our political tribe is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ then we tend to think of ideas from the ‘left’ as self-evidently true and valuable and ideas from the ‘right’ as deluded or mistaken or perhaps even actively malicious.  But I have two tribes now.  One is my Salt Lake tribe, the family of actors and designers and theatre professionals who try,as best we can, to do some good theatre from time to time.

But my other tribe is in Provo, in my ward, where people try to raise their families and do their home teaching and find fulfillment in callings and service.

And bad playwriting is polarized, bad playwriting is all about heros and villains and people who are Right in opposition to people who are Wrong.  I’ve done it myself, and been embarrassed afterwards.  I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to live that way.  I want to honor the best of both my tribes.  I’m Salt Lake and Provo.  A pretty conventional progressive and a Mormon high priest.  Both/and.

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.

 

High school theatre

My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged.  Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects.  But I’m back today, and glad to be.

Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition.  I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition.  It was a fun day.  ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’  So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.

When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’  This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play.  I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production.  But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses.  And the characters are all, well, grown-ups.  Would high school kids be able to convey all that?  I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.

We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine.  They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am.  And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.

Some of the show choices were interesting.  One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit.  Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater.  Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver.  Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home.  The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny.  And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too.  I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.

An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice.  It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed.  It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed.  But I thought it was splendid.  Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.

We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar.  Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan.  I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work.  It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.

Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death.  It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter.  Well done.

Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting.  We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’  About the challenges facing today’s youth.  About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers.  And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important.  And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.

And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable.  Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers.  And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.

High school can be full of wonder and joy.  It can also be horrible.  But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.

My high school drama teacher changed my life.  Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life.  I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program.  So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.

American education does face serious challenges.  But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted.  But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.

Opening Night: Clearing Bombs

Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy.  Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street.  And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table.  And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.

So maybe I was a smidge nervous.

Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone.  And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise.  Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics.  And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this.  Never heard of any, at least.  But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.

But that’s what I’d written.  In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs.  That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why.  Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.

But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works.  It was never my intention to write an economics lecture.  I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama.  I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain.  And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned.  And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great.  And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters.  And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.

And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection.  Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s.  (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually).  And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.

So I had great support.  Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed.  None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself.  But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!”  High praise indeed!

But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter.  Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles.  And ideas can change the world.  And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.

In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be.  Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death.  Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths.  Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.

To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed.  Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities.  Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler.  Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards.  Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.

Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized.  A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything.  It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks.  So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.

But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power?  And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.

Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street).  Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny.  But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought.  Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.

What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist.  The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.

But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years.  They, together, wrote the agenda.  And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.

I lucked into a great subject for drama.  I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out.  If the play works, it’s more by luck than design.  But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.

 

 

 

Making Spiderman a Musical

I just finished reading Glen Berger’s Song of Spiderman, his account of his role in creating one of the most famously troubled musicals in the history of Broadway.  I suppose reading it’s an exercise in schadenfreude, the moral equivalent of rubber-necking at a car accident.  I excused myself by calling it an educational exercise.  I’ve been doing theatre, as an actor, director and playwright, for well over thirty years now; thought maybe I could learn something from the professionals. In fact, though, it all felt much much too familiar.

Making a musical out of Spiderman isn’t, on the surface, a completely terrible idea.  Lots of popular and successful Broadway shows are based on pop culture, and many are based on popular movies.  People go to the theater for lots of reasons, at least one of which is to be dazzled.  I’m not a huge fan of Phantom of the Opera, but it does have a few great tunes, and it’s always amazing when that chandelier falls.  We go to see the helicopter land in Miss Saigon, to see the barricade in Les Mis, to see the blue girl fly in Wicked. I imagine the big aerial battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin could be very exciting in the theater.  And you can still see it.  The show’s hardly much of a success, but it is still playing in New York.  Lots of failed musicals hardly even open.

We go to the theater, in part, to see a story unfold (Spiderman has one), to hear great music (Spiderman has music by Bono and Edge–the creative team of U2), to see good actors perform (this is New York; the acting’s always going to be at least competent), and perhaps to be given something to think about (and Spidey is the most introspective and thoughtful of superheroes).  There’s no particular reason for the whole thing to have gone sour.

It also made sense for the initial producers to hire Julie Taymor to direct.  She’d already made one artistically satisfying silk purse out of a pop culture sow’s ear (The Lion King), and she wanted to do Spiderman. The problem is why.  Early in the process, reading early Spidey comic books, she discovered the very minor character of Arachne, the Greek Goddess of spiders, and that’s what interested her.  She wanted Arachne’s story to be front and center in her Spiderman.  She wanted a dark, sexually obsessive Spiderman. She didn’t want to do Spiderman much at all. She wanted to do Arachne: The Musical, also featuring. . . .

In other words, she wanted to make a 65 million dollar musical about a comic book franchise she neither understood nor particularly liked, and she wanted to put her disdain for its fan base front and center.  She created a Geek chorus of Spiderman fans. That’s not a misspelling: Geek chorus. They commented on the action, yes, and provided vocal backing for the music, but they also were there to be made fun of–they were on-line, comic book culture personified.

(I’ve done that.  I wrote a musical once based on a novel I didn’t like or respect.  It was a horrible experience.  It also was pretty successful commercially. I’m not going to tell you the name or circumstances; suffice it to say that as I read Berger’s account, it was with an unpleasant thrill of recognition).

The problem was, Taymor’s vision for the project was always just the wrong side of technically achievable.  Berger describes the production stage manager, a man of infinite patience and humor and competence, who would, daily, ask for a short break, so he could run out and throw up. The flying stunts Taymor and Berger imagined were so elaborate they became unsafe, and the show became plagued with actor and dancer injuries.  The rigging for those stunts was so extensive, there was no place for speakers.  So one of the main attractions for audiences, the music of Bono and The Edge, was all fuzzed out and ugly in the house, essentially impossible to mix.  After the first, all-day technical rehearsal, Berger looked at his script, and realized that over the course of a long and exceptionally frustrating day, they had managed to tech the first 41 seconds of their show.  That’s all.  And, it turned out, that was a pretty good day.

At times, Berger’s descriptions of the show’s many many difficulties can be pretty funny, in a terrifying sort of way.  For example, at one point, Peter Parker is supposed to sing a song mourning the death of his beloved Uncle Ben.  He’s supposed to sing this song while kneeling on Ben’s bed.  So they designed a mechanical, remote controlled bed, that was supposed to come on-stage so it could be sung/cried upon.  Only it never worked.  Peter would hit his mark, and the bed would come careening off in various random directions, with Peter emoting like a madman while chasing the darn thing down.

Here’s the other thing, though, and my main take-away from the book.  The show took forever to tech, and had nearly a year’s worth of preview performances while they worked out various problems–240 preview performances all told.  And the solution to the show’s many problems became increasingly obvious to everyone.  It was narratively confusing, too elaborate, in large measure because it was far too dominated by Arachne’s character.

So Berger sees this, comes up with what he calls Plan X.  A complete re-write.  De-emphasize Arachne.  Have it be about Spidey and the Green Goblin. Cut half the stunts; keep the coolest ones, and give the sound people room on the grid for their speakers.  Have the show be about Spiderman, aerial acrobatics, and the music of Bono and Edge. Cut the Geek Chorus entirely. Cut back on the Arachne stuff.

He writes up a fifteen page treatment, outlining the changes he thinks are required.  The producer reads it: approves.  Edge and Bono love it.  Everyone’s aboard (except the actress playing Arachne).  They meet.  And Julie Taymor goes ballistic.  And wins.  And the endless previews continue, her vision unimpeded.

It’s a rule of theatre–heck, a rule of life–that sometimes decisions get made by the one person most willing to be unpleasant about things.  Sometimes the loudest voice in the room, the voice screaming and throwing tantrums, wins, because everyone else wears down.  That’s wrong.  That’s sad.  But it can sometimes be true.  My brother had a boss once like that.  He was in the corporate arena, and my brother, an entirely decent and exceptionally good-at-his-job kind of guy had a vision for the company.  But his boss won every argument, not because he was right, but because he was horrible.  Grown-up tantrums work.  Would that they didn’t.  But that’s reality–some people win through intimidation, even when they’re wrong.

Bono and the Edge have been the heart of one of the world’s greatest rock bands for over thirty years. You don’t succeed in that business by being easy to cow.  Spiderman‘s producer, Michael Cohl, produced the last Rolling Stones’ tour–you don’t produce a major tour by the Stones by being easy to intimidate.  These are all tough-minded, confident people.  But Julie Taymor achieved it.  She won, time and time again, because she was the Artist with A Vision, and nobody tells her what to do, and her tantrums were essentially nuclear.  She comes across in the book as a bit of a tragic heroine, honestly.  But then I’m not sure Medea would be all that much fun to work with either.

Finally, Cohl had no choice but to fire her.  A new director was hired, and a new book writer.  Plan X was implemented–that’s the show still running at the Foxwoods Theater today.  I haven’t seen it, except for Youtube clips.  I rather like some of the music, but then I’ve always been a U2 fan.

William Goldman is famous for saying, about show biz, ‘nobody knows anything.’  Nobody knew that Spiderman‘s budget would triple, or that the aerial stunts it required would nearly kill a dancer, or that all the other disasters associated with the show would happen.  But great art comes from a single controlling artistic vision, uncompromisingly pursued.  And that’s also where the worst flops come from. And you never know in advance which any show is going to be.  Why does anyone do this for a living?

Terrible people: great art

My wife and I are going to see the Ender’s Game movie tonight.  Ever since it was announced, I had friends who would ask me, sometimes rather challengingly, ‘are you planning to see it?’  I guess because I’m a well-known leftie, pinko commie, and Orson Scott Card has said some things that, uh, suggest he isn’t.

So there’s a boycott.  And it’s the kind of boycott that someone like me seems likely to support.  So do I support it?  Am I going to see the movie?  Let me end the suspence: my wife and I have purchased tickets already.  We’re seeing the movie.

I read Ender’s Game many years ago. I liked it.  I especially liked the triumph of a kid who was victim of bullies.  I could relate to it.  It wasn’t my favorite book ever or anything–I preferred Frank Herbert’s Dune–but I thought it was good.

In recent months, though, OSC seems to have begun, for whatever reason, positioning himself at the Jon McNaughton end of the political spectrum.  His right as an American, of course, just as it’s my right to write long blog posts taking issue with his views. Whatever; he’s a fine novelist and a brother in the gospel.  He also has weird ideas about President Obama, and ideas about gay rights I don’t agree with.  Free country.

But boycott the movie?  No, I don’t think so. No way.  First, because I have no intention of depriving myself of the pleasure of seeing a movie I’ve wanted to see for years.  I’ve read mixed reviews; I have to think, though, that it’s going to be better than the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Lo freaking l.

The larger question, though, is this: do we not see various works of art based on our personal disapproval of the lifestyle, ideas or personal obnoxiousness of the artist.  Pablo Picasso was a pig; does that negate the extraordinary beauty of Guernica?  Richard Wagner was a womanizer and seducer, who held utterly disgusting political views; does that prevent me from attending a performance of Tannhäuser?

When I was in grad school, working on my dissertation, I was allowed a dedicated desk in the library.  It was soon piled high with Ibseniana. The desk next to mine was equally covered with books about Bertold Brecht; the desk of my friend Cynthia, who was working on BB for her dissertation.  One day, we were both up there, and she was reading her stuff and taking notes, and I was reading mine, and she sighed, sat back, and said to me, “what’s it feel like studying someone who was, at least, a decent, moral human being?”  Which Brecht was not.

Except, except.  I’m an Ibsen scholar and an Ibsen translator; I think Henrik Johan was one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived, part of a holy trinity that includes Shakespeare and Sophocles.  So you study him, and sure, he was obnoxious.  Grumpy, irritable, egotistical.  But anyone who studies Ibsen seriously runs, soon enough, into the Emilie Bardach problem.  The Helene Raff problem. And the Hildur Andersen problem. Ibsen, in his sixties, liked young women.  He certainly had an affair with Emilie Bardach–her journal and letters have been recently discovered.  He spent huge amounts of time with Andersen and Raff–teenage girls.  It’s quite possible, in fact, that Ibsen was, by our standard, a pedophile.

And he wrote about it.  Only one character appears in two of his plays; Hilde Wangel.  We meet her as a teenager in The Lady From the Sea, and she reappears as a twenty-year-old in The Master Builder.  And The Master Builder is about an elderly artist, past his prime, who is inspired to greatness again by a relationship with a fascinating young woman.

Here’s the thing: it’s also a tremendous play.  It’s terrific.  It’s creepy and has weirdly pedophiliac overtones, but it’s also brilliant. A good play can do that, can show a mutually destructive and icky relationship between a really old guy and a really young woman, and turn it into art. Does it excuse pedophilia?  Portrayal is not advocacy; the play ends tragically.  So Ibsen as an elderly playwright, has an affair with a teenager, and writes, as a result, a play about an elderly architect who has an affair with a teenager.  And it’s a really good play.

This is my point.  I personally disapprove in the strongest possible terms of elderly married men having affairs with girls young enough to be their grand-daughters.  I think that’s reprehensible behavior.  My favorite playwright–a playwright I have spent most of my life studying and writing about and translating–not only did that, but rubbed our faces in it.  Wrote one of his greatest plays about the very behavior I despise.  How do we handle all that?

We recognize that art is about life–it’s a testimony about lived experience. And that life isn’t always pretty.  And that we sin, we humans, we sin all the time.  And writers write what they know.  Including sins, including, in fact, the specific sins they created.

So Wagner was a womanizer, and wrote these magnificent, sensuous operas about, among other things, sexual longing, sexual attraction, passion and obsession.  And Ibsen was inspired by young women–they fascinated him, and became subjects for his plays.  And Picasso didn’t just live a life of moral relativism, he placed relativism–or at least relativity–as the central organizing theory of his paintings.

Art celebrates humanity, all of it, even the grubby bits. It transforms experience, even even nasty experiences.  We can avert our eyes.  Sometimes, maybe we should. But no, we don’t say ‘I won’t see that; the artist, I heard, was a bad person.’  It’s art.  Honest, it is; it’s not a cesspool.  How can we tell? Take a swim.

New plays

Monday evening, I attended a meeting sponsored by The Dramatists’ Guild, a meet-and-greet for, on the one hand, playwrights, and on the hand, theatre producers in Utah who have and will commit to producing new plays.  Driving home afterwards, I thought this: nobody, but nobody says of the film industry ‘they shouldn’t just film the same screenplays over and over.  They should be producing films based on new screenplays.’  In fact, that’s what basically all movies are: original screenplays (or adapted from other media) mostly telling stories that haven’t been told before.  If we go to a movie, and like it, usually it’s because we liked the story.  But in theatre, producing new plays is seen as exceptionally risky and bold.  My gosh, look at that company!  They did a NEW PLAY!  How remarkable!

Okay, I get that people don’t consume all entertainment products the same way.  People can go to the movies and see five terrible movies in a row, and still, Saturday night, there they are, at the cineplex, ready to see another one.  Hoping against hope.  That this time, finally Adam Sandler will actually be amusing, and not just moronic. (I’m kidding; nobody thinks that).  But going to the theatre is a different thing.  It feels like a riskier investment, of time and money and brainspace.  That’s why, in Utah, the Hale Center does so well–within the fairly narrow range of shows they’ll do, they’re all basically good.  I’ve never seen a bad show there, certainly. 

But that’s also true of Plan B Theatre, the one company in Utah that really does just do original plays by local playwrights.  I’ve seen I don’t know how many shows there–dozens, surely—and they’ve all been good.  Not just good, terrific–provocative, smart, stunning, powerful.  The message, I think, is this: if you decide the kind of theatre you want to do, and commit completely to it, absolute dedication, you’ll end up being really really good at it.  And your audience will learn to trust you.

I think the same thing can be said of the other theatres who came to the DG meeting.  Salt Lake Acting Company has a niche, a certain kind of play they do and do well. Right now they’re doing Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire. My goodness, that’s a lovely play; so glad Salt Lake audiences get to see a first-rate production of it.  They just closed Venus in Fur; a terrific David Ives play.  That’s pretty much who they are.  They do productions of that kind of smart, literary off-Broadway/off-West End fare.  Good for them. And sometimes, occasionally, they’ll take a chance on a new script.  Plus, annually, they make fun of Utah culture with Saturday’s Voyeur.  They know what they’re good at; I take my hat off.

Likewise Pygmalion.  Nice little feminist theatre, doing smart, funny plays in outstanding productions.  They’ll do new work, if it fits their mission statement.  Pioneer Theatre Company is in an interesting place in this discussion.  They have this gargantuan space, and they have to fill it–it actually makes sense to me that they won’t even consider producing new work. Karen Azenberg, their Artistic Director, was in the meeting, and I’m convinced that her heart’s in the right place.  She wants to commit to ‘play development’ (euphemism for ‘staged readings only’), and she said that if she had access to a smaller black box, she’d stage more new plays.  I think she’s telling the truth.  But ‘staged readings’ are really only a useful dramaturgical tool for developing new work–they do not represent any kind of actual commitment to new drama.  And new works are the lifeblood of any art form.

So for a Utah playwright, we can send work out to fill out the pile on the desk of the management of the Lark or the O’Neill, or we can work with local theatres, and thank our lucky stars that there are some that will read our work and produce the best stuff.  And I’m fantastically grateful for Plan B and for the other houses that are committed to at least reading, and sometimes even producing new work.  I just think we’re on the cusp of even greater achievement.  Keep working.

 

 

 

Thor: A Review

Thor: The Dark World opened last night, and my wife and I were in the mood for something fun and silly, and so we went.  We had a ball. It was terrific, an entertaining, exciting, immensely ridiculous movie.

This whole Marvel comics/Avengers/extended narrative thing strikes me as real-life high stakes pop culture gamble.  We got The Avengers.  We got the first Thor movie, the first Captain America movie, three Iron Man movies, a Hulk movie, with many more to follow.  They’re all going to be expensive, which means the franchise can’t actually afford any major flops.  We saw trailers for the next Captain America movie, and a sneak preview of the next Thor, of course there’ll be another Avengers movie.  There’s even a TV series in the same vein: Marvel’s Agents of Shield. They all take place in the same conceptual universe, and they all reference each other.  So in this one, when Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) first sees Loki (Tom Hiddleston), she slaps him, hard, and says “that’s for New York.”  This would, of course, be totally nonsensical to anyone who hasn’t seen The Avengers.  But, of course, we’re all going to see all of them.  Well, I am.  Heck, they’re fun.

What they really are, of course, are just good old nineteenth century melodramas.  Look at the characters: hero, heroine, villain, hero’s sidekick(s), heroine’s sidekick(s), villain’s sidekick(s).  Authority figure character, to represent the moral order of the universe.  Mixture of comedy and seriousness, cliff-hanger scenes, final physical confrontation between hero and villain, won by the hero.  Villain with unseemly designs on the physical person of the heroine.  Who gets rescued by the hero, at the last possible second.  The one big difference has to do with gender politics; our age won’t tolerate a passive, weak heroine.  But audiences still require sexually alluring actresses. So the gender double-bind Hollywood seems unable to escape–we need a heroine who can kick serious ass, but who is also incandescently hot.

Which is a itty-little problem here.  Natalie Portman’s a fine actress, but in this film she isn’t given much to do, and we don’t really get what Thor sees in her.  Especially since he’s got a female Viking warrior BFF, Sif, clearly in love with him, played by Jaimie Alexander, who is arguably hotter than Natalie Portman, quite a bit more charismatic, and who unquestionably would cost the producers a heckuva lot less to hire.  And Natalie Portman is given another love interest!  Chris O’Dowd brings his teddy-bear charm to an ordinary bloke who clearly is into her, in a pretty hilarious date scene.  Love triangles are messy–love rectangles would seem to have a ready-made solution.

This film repurposes Loki from Villain to Hero’s Sidekick, a much better role for him anyway.  And Tom Hiddleston walks off with the movie.  Loki is conniving, deceitful, untrustworthy, but also (when it comes to crunch time), heroic.  And he enjoys it all–in an early trial scene with Odin (Anthony Hopkins, great as always), Loki seems genuinely hurt that anyone would be troubled by his antics in New York.  “Thousands of people died” shouts Odin, and Loki brushes it off–he fully intended to rule benevolently, and the fact that they didn’t want to be ruled at all was sheer perversity on their part.  Hiddleston masters that ‘naughty boy’ smirk, but, under it, there’s vulnerability: he wants To Be Loved By Daddy.

Next to Loki, Thor could come across as a humorless Nordic block of granite.  But aside from looking amazing, Chris Hemsworth brings a surprisingly agile sense of comic timing to the character.  One thing this Marvel series has figured out is this: the movies are going to be expensive to make, and one place you can cut costs is on movie stars.  It’s way more cost-effective to create them than to hire them.  And so it is with Hemsworth–he’s so good looking, and so likeable as Thor, I’ll see anything he’s in, from terrific movies (Rush), to kaka poo-poo movies (Red Dawn).  And so will my wife.

The plot of the movie is, of course, gibberish, but it’s portentous gibberish, lending itself neatly to imposing Middle-Earth-y sets and spectacular effects.  Something about a race of once vanquished Dark Elves, now returned, and a super powerful energy source called the Aether, which they intend to use to destroy the 9 Universes, including Asgard, and of course also including Earth.  One day every several thousand years, the Realms all line up neatly, and on that day, the Dark Elves intend to extract Aether from poor Jane, who for some reason has been storing it for them.  There’s a scene where this reddish fluid-y thing engulfs her, which was pretty cool-looking.  But it means that through most of the movie she looks sort of pale and wan and near-death–a thankless role, frankly, for Natalie Portman.

But this whole 9 Realms Aligned thing leads to a terrific climax.  As scientist Jane explains, this Convergence thing is going to lead to all kinds of worm holes and gravitational anomalies, which she can anticipate and maneuver with this remote control dealie she’s invented.  So the final fight between main Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and Thor takes place in the midst of all these shifts between realms–once depositing Thor on the London Tube, where he catches the train to Greenwich, where the final battle’s taking place.  Meanwhile, remember, Thor has that big ol’ hammer thing, which he both wields and throws.  But it gets lost between worlds, and is constantly chasing Thor around as he fights successively on all these strange looking planets.  A terrific conceit, very fun, pretty funny at times.  I like the imagination of it.  It never quite crosses the line to complete silliness, but it keeps the world of the film grounded in pop culture epic grandeur, which is itself plenty silly.

The movie gets lots of comic mileage from Mad Scientist Erik Selvig, splendidly played, sans trousers, by Stellan Skarsgård.  And from Jane’s assistant, Darcy, a well nigh prototypical heroine’s sidekick, the delightful (in small doses), Kat Dennings.  Best of all, the imposing presence of Idris Elba, so terrific in Pacific Rim, who brings such integrity to the expanded role of the Gatekeeper, Heimdall.

And then, the movie ends, closing credits start.  But don’t leave.  We suddenly get an extra scene, in which, apparently, Benicio del Toro will play yet another creepy looking bad guy in the next Thor movie. Which is, of course, the fun of this series.  They’re not just dessert movies.  They’re movies that promise dessert tomorrow as well, and the tomorrow after that.

A Primary program

In church this week, the program was provided by the Primary, making it my favorite week of the year.  I adore the Primary kids.  For those of you not familiar with Mormonism, Primary means the organization that teaches little kids, ages 3-12.  So every six months, they take over Sacrament meeting.  The kids sing lots of songs, and then, by class, they stand up and recite some churchy thing they’ve memorized.

Of course, they’re little kids. And that’s what makes this so fantastic.  The ‘theme’ this week was “I am a Child of God,” which is both a terrific Primary song plus an awesome basis for a theology.  And the Primary is about teaching kids really basic gospel principles, which then get theatrically performed for everyone in Church.

But they’re kids.  So the ‘message’ that is in fact conveyed is more about the triumph of childish exuberant anarchy over indoctrination.  It’s actually sort of the entire plan of salvation in microcosm.  We’re here on earth, expected to perform.  But we’re bored, we’re excited, we’re scared, we have stage-fright, we don’t actually know the songs all that well.  Well-meaning grown-ups keep whispering in our ear, but we’d rather pull our dresses up over our heads (if female), or whap the kid next to us with our ties (if male), or just generally melt-down altogether.  And yet, somehow it sort of all does work out, kind of.

It’s also about how it takes a village to raise a child.  And yes, I remember when Hillary Clinton wrote her book, It Takes a  Village and how many Utah and Mormon conservatives were outraged by it.  “Nanny state!” “It takes a family, it takes parents!” But in fact, nobody practices the idea of village-child-raising more than Mormons do. It’s amazing to me, to see all those wonderful children up there, on the podium, and their dedicated teachers, people who genuinely care about them. A few years ago, my wife taught in the Nursery.  Little tiny kids, ages 18 months to 3 years.  Now those same tiny kids are 8 and 9; they were in the Primary program.  And we still care about them.  We still get misty-eyed, watching them.

My two daughters, especially, were cared for in the Young Women’s program (ages 12-18).  The women who ran that program were awesome; smart, organized, together, confident.  And good, you know, with the goodness of true compassion.  Because LDS women don’t hold the Priesthood, people outside our community think of them as oppressed.  I’m not going to express an opinion on that subject here.  But the LDS women I know are amazing, and I could not possibly have asked for better role models for my daughters.

So, first up in the Primary program were the Sunbeams–three year olds.  And their teacher is a young woman who is close friends with my youngest daughter.  I thought she did a fantastic job, staying calm and kind.  Her first kid got up, a little girl, got up to the mic and looked at that scary scary crowd and that was it.  She lost it.  Next kid, a boy, got up and gave the audience a huge grin.  And grinned.  And grinned.  His teacher kept whispering his line in his ear; he just kept on grinning.  He then turned to her–we later learned that what he said was ‘I don’t want to do this.’  And that was that.  No one in that class actually said his/her line, but it didn’t matter; the teacher’s endless patient love was the real lesson.

The younger kids generally provided the unintentional comedy.  One kid said, “I can pee my carrot. I try my best every day.”  That can’t have been his actual line, but it’s what both my wife and I (and other ward friends) heard, clear as a bell.  Another kid looked at the congregation and started off by saying, “Jesus. . . .” He then said “Nah”, looking at his teacher for confirmation.  Encouraged, he continued skeptically with “performed many miracles.”  He was followed by the kid who said, confidently, “Jesus was wreck-erected.”

One terribly tragic and weepy little girl said, with a face contorted with sadness, “I love that I . . . can be with my family forever.”  I know that she was probably just dealing with stage-fright, but it did seem like the prospect of eternity with her family was what was troubling her so.  I loved the kid who went “I can follow Jesus’ example by being kind to my. . . ” and then the rest of it was lost, as he couldn’t get off the riser fast enough. A few programs ago, we were entertained by the kid who said confidently “in this life, we can be weak, or we can be violent.” (Teacher whispers in his ear). “Valiant.” Maybe he, too, can pee his carrots.

There’s one kid in our neighborhood (which also means ‘our ward,’ since we live in Provo), who I call the Lemonade Stand Kid.  He’s a tremendous little entrepreneur, from whom I purchased many many glasses of warm lemonade all this past summer, a dollar a pop.  (The listed price was 25 cents, but he did not provide, and did not seem to understand the concept of, change).  He looks like Ralphie in The Christmas Story movie; blonde hair, glasses.  Anyway, the Lemonade Stand Kid stood up there confidently, began his line, lost his place, started all over, lost his place again, started again, and finished with a flourish, then waved delightedly at his Mom.  I love that kid.

And of course, the kids all had to speak into the mic. And some got their faces right up into the mic, so when they spoke, it startled us out of our chairs.  And others were inaudible.  And others waved their faces in front of the mic, so you basically heard every fourth word, very loudly, and the rest hardly at all.

Of course, the memorized bits were interspersed with music, all of it sung with tremendous enthusiasm, and commendable volume.  One little girl (one of my wife’s former Nursery kids) was particularly into the music; she sang like a miniature Kristen Chenowith on Broadway, big beaming smile on her face, almost entirely in tune.  The Primary choristers deserve every commendation possible–whatever they’re paying those people, it’s nowhere near enough.  (Kidding: we’re Mormons, nobody gets paid a dime).

Then came a moment of transcendence.  One of the older girls (probably a twelve-year-old), gave a short talk.  She told about a time when she didn’t particularly want to work at the school library, where she was an intern, because she was really tired, but then prayed about it, and felt she should go after all, and found an entire shelf of books that had been mis-shelved, a problem she then fixed without having to bother a librarian.  It was so sweet and earnest and lovely.  And I could tell that this is a little girl who loves books as much as I do (and did, at her age), someone for whom a mis-shelved book is a very serious problem indeed, well worth God’s personal attention, through her.  I teared up, I’m totally not kidding.  It was such a beautiful, honest talk.

And then, the closing song, a great Jan Perry song, A Child’s Prayer. And it’s a complicated song, really, for Primary kids, with two competing themes in counter-point.  And the kids launched into it with more energy than skill.  But in that glorious cacophany, I could hear, faintly, the musicality they were striving for, just as through the dropped lines and actor meltdowns, I could sense the thoughtful articulation of a Plan, with a Father, and know that I too am a Son.  Of God.

And then a closing prayer, and the teachers, exhausted after a solid hour of kid-wrangling, got to take their hyped-up minions back to the Primary classrooms, and spend the next two hours back at it, teaching kids gospel fundamentals, how God loves us and also how standing up in front of a crowd and speaking is good for you, builds confidence and prepares you for a mission.  For two more hours, the Village continued to help raise the Village children.  Good friends, being there, helping.  Best Sunday of the year.