Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Believe that you can do it, under any circumstances. Because if you believe you can, then you really will. That belief just keeps you searching for the answers, then pretty soon you get it."
– Wally "Famous" Amos

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"If my purpose is delayed, the delay has purpose."
~Pastor Walter Thomas

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Elizabeth Swados's latest work honors anniversary of murdered missionaries

I wrote this feature for National Catholic Reporter.

Her piano is surrounded by folders of musical works in progress. All are important to her, but one in particular stirs her soul. Acclaimed composer Elizabeth Swados, like many people around the world, was touched deeply by the rape and murder of four American church women in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980. Their stories of faith and commitment forever altered her consciousness and now, for the 30th anniversary of their deaths, she is composing an oratorio that will remember the tragedy while celebrating the positive changes it brought about.

Drawing upon stories from family members, from those who continue serving the poor in centers set up in the women’s names, and from the wisdom of Isaiah, Ecclesiastes and John’s gospel, Resilient Souls “is evoking something good from the darkest places,” Swados says. “It’s about strength and resilience. It’s a celebration of ancestry, of things being handed down after 30 years. It’s a family of people who have lived through it.”

Sinking into a large, overstuffed sofa in her spacious book-lined Greenwich Village loft, the petite 59-year-old writer appears almost engulfed by all the space and size around her. With her beloved dogs, a large brown poodle named Billy Bob and Clementine, a friendly multicolored young Labradoodle, lounging nearby, she takes time on a gorgeous October afternoon to talk about the women who are frequently in her thoughts. She never met Sister Maura Clarke, Sister Dorothy Kazel, Sister Ita Ford and Catholic lay woman Jean Donovan, but she developed an intimate relationship with them over the decade she spent composing Missionaries, a choral drama that told their stories --- at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997 and then in churches and performance spaces around the country.

It was her strong Jewish sensibility to never forget that compelled her to write Missionaries and now to follow though with Resilient Souls. That call to remember is also behind the musical she is creating for next spring’s 100th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 garment workers, most of them young women working in sweatshop conditions in a building not far from her loft. She sees similarities in the changes that came about because of each tragedy.

“It changed America, that fire. It made the unions happen (specifically the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union). In another 70 years we’ll look back at those women and how we look at missionaries and dictatorships and what it’s like to die for a cause. We’ll look back and see the four of them were a marker for change, (Archbishop Oscar) Romero along with them. It’s why I wrote Missionaries in the first place.”

What the rape and murder of the women, by government death squads, brought to light in the intense worldwide media spotlight that followed was a recognition of the corrupt governments in Central and South America and the role the United States played in supporting their dictatorial regimes. Resilient Souls will touch on that, while highlighting the missionary spirit that was fired up by the horror, as well as the organizations, schools and centers that have been named for the women and which carry on their work of caring for the poor and oppressed.

“This piece will emphasize that from the deepest darkness a new kind of light is coming as contemporary generations are bravely going into the most dangerous, impoverished countries and putting their lives on the line to give the poor food, schooling and self-esteem,” Swados said.

Unlike Missionaries with its cast of 20 needed to tell the story, Souls will have four leads and a chorus of 10 who also will fill the roles of the current speakers. Songs will alternate between examining the murders and corruption and celebrating the spirit of each woman and the echo they have left for future generations.

“They are so much a part of me,” Swados says. “They have so inhabited me. It was like visiting old friends. It was nice to be with them again. It was horrific to revisit the agony again, but they’ve been such a part of my artistic consciousness. They still get me through if I’m chickening out on something.”

Swados says Missionaries is the favorite of all of her work, and she has quite a lot to choose from. Among her achievements: two of her shows have been on Broadway, Doonesbury and Runaways, which earned her Tony nominations for best musical, best direction of a musical, best book of a musical, best original score and best choreography. No one has ever been nominated in that many categories for a single show. She has written music for movies and TV, published several novels and several nonfiction books, plus nearly a dozen for children.

Money raised from the December performances of Resilient Souls will benefit the MCIF (Maura Clarke--Ita Ford) Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which provides education and economic programs that enable immigrant women to find work. The center was founded by Halifax Sister of Charity Mary Burns and co-directed in its early years by Ursuline Sister Mary Dowd. It was “The Marys,” as Swados calls them, who approached Swados and asked her to write something positive for the 30th anniversary. In spite of a workload that, besides Resilient Souls and the Shirtwaist musical, also included another musical whose subject she doesn’t disclose, the setting of all of Roald Dahl’s poems to music, teaching at New York University and traveling to Abu Dhabi to create and stage an orientation musical for incoming students at NYU’s campus there, she said yes to The Marys without hesitation, and with no expectation of pay.

“I never take money from nuns,” she said.

Getting to know The Marys and other sisters over the years through Missionaries, and having been inspired by the four women, has made her want to work for the poor as well, so much so that she is hoping to go to Liberia to use theatre to help traumatized children.

“My religion is not observant,” she said. “Musically is where I feel the sense of God really strongly.”

Along with the caring for the poor, the commitment of sisters also impresses her. “Their generosity and selflessness and the twinkle, the not being so self-important, help me focus my own beliefs, to not be so self-serious,” she says. “They don’t dwell, they just get on with it. That’s a huge thing to learn.”

Schedule for Relisient Souls

Performance 1 – BROOKLYN - Wed, Dec 1 – 8 p.m.
            St. Francis College – Founders Hall
            180 Remsen St, Brooklyn Heights
Performance 2 – MANHATTAN - Fri, Dec 3 – 8 p.m.
            Church of St Joseph
            371 Sixth Ave. (West Village)
Performance 3 – QUEENS - Sun, Dec 5 – 2 p.m.
            Mary Louis Academy
            176-21 Wexford Terrace, Jamaica Estates, Queens

For tickets visit lizswados.com and click on News.

In addition, Missionaries will have its Boston premiere Dec. 2, 3, and 4. All performances are at 8 p.m. and will take place at Boston College High School on Dec. 2, at The Paulist Center in downtown Boston on Dec. 3, and at the Church of St. Ignatius in Chestnut Hill on Dec. 4. Details and ticket information can be found on the production website at www.missionariesboston.org.

Monday, November 22, 2010


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones: just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate; this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

--Mary Oliver

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same."
– Carlos Castaneda

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Father Thomas Keating and Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative Outreach of New York is sponsoring evenings of spiritual nourishment, contemplative prayer and reflection under the guidance of Father Thomas Keating.  Following 30 minutes of Centering Prayer, participants will view a video of a talk by Fr. Thomas with an opportunity for conversation, questions and sharing.  There is no charge.  Donations gratefully accepted.  All are welcome.

Saturday evenings from 7-9 PM
Nov. 20, Dec. 18, Jan. 15, Feb. 19, March 19, April 16, May 21

The Chapel of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary
325 E. 33rd St., between First & Second Avenues

For more information contact: Richard Kigel, 718-698-7514, interiorsilence@gmail.com

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tommy Tune gives us the old razzle-dazzle

Tommy Tune is a giving performer. For more than 90 minutes, the suave nine-time Tony Award winner sang and danced his way through Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance yesterday afternoon for one show only at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. With no intermission. And two encores. I floated back to the subway.

Beginning with a demonstration of various tap dancing steps, he then burst into the opening number, “Hey, There, Good Times Here I Am” and maintained that buoyant spirit throughout. After more than 50 years in show business, the 71-year-old star is still in love with the stage.

And his closing number, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise with a New Step Everyday,” would indicate he intends to keep on going. Which he did yesterday, returning to the stage to sing about his love for performing in a song set to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” and then back again for Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”

In between he shared stories about his career, a career that includes two Tony Awards as a performer (Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1974 for Seesaw and Best Actor in a Musical in 1983 for My One and Only); four as a choreographer (A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine, My One and Only, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies); and three as a director (Nine, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies).  At the end he said he hadn’t had time to tell us about his years in Las Vegas, Hollywood or London. I wish he had. I would have liked more more “biography” with the song and dance. He’s a charming storyteller. I laughed when he described his early auditioning for chorus boy parts and how he tried to stoop to the size of the others around him. When the director asked his height, he’d reply, “Five foot 17 inches and three quarters.”

One story stood out the most. He told of how while touring with My One and Only he played the straight man for Charles Honi Coles. Giving his line and expecting Coles to follow with one referring to not seeing tall white guys like him around the neighborhood, a line that always brought much laughter, Tune waited but Coles remained silent, sitting in a chair stage center. Tune moved in closer, but Coles said nothing. Then the older man gestured slightly with his right hand in the direction of the orchestra pit. Tune cued the conductor. When the music began Coles rose from his chair and danced his duet with Tune. Then the older man took his seat again and the chair was pulled offstage.

“That was the last time I ever danced with Honi Coles,” Tune said. “That was the last time he ever danced at all. He had suffered a stroke onstage and couldn’t speak.” But when he heard the music, “his dancer’s body” led him through the steps. I would have liked more vivid stories like that.

Longtime collaborators the Manhattan Rhythm Kings backed Tune on many numbers; I liked it best when they tapped with him. I wish he had shared their story. They began singing on the sidewalks of New York City in 1980.  According to theater legend, Tune saw them performing outside of a subway station and dropped them his card.  And that was the start of a beautiful friendship. In 1984 Tune and the Kings collaborated on a collection of songs written by Fred Astaire, and the collaboration has continued for more than 25 years.

I hope Tommy Tune will be like Honi Coles, doing what he loves until he can’t do it anymore. Somehow I think he will be.

Friday, November 12, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird's spiritual lessons

I wrote this feature for the Nov. 14, 2010 issue of The Living Church magazine.

Matt Litton grew up in an evangelical family of educators, giving him an early familiarity with both The Good Book and good books. In that latter category, one in particular, To Kill a Mockingbird, captured his heart when he discovered it at about age 12.

The novel’s messages of compassion and the importance of caring for our neighbors continue to resonate for him. Now 38, Litton teaches To Kill a Mockingbird at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati. In revisiting Harper Lee’s 1960 novel of racism and family life in the American South each year, he began hearing the word of God though the characters and themes.

After a couple of years of mulling over the biblical messages, he sat down and wrote a comparison of God and Boo Radley, the mysterious young man who lives hidden away from his neighbors in the tiny Alabama town of Maycomb. From there he crafted parables of other characters, as well as themes such as religious hypocrisy and the role of women in faith. The result is the creative and inspiring new book The Mockingbird Parables.

To Kill a Mockingbird is so familiar and a part of our culture,” he said one morning during a phone interview from his school. “It’s the most widely read book in secondary schools; more than a million copies are sold each year. It’s a story we’re all familiar with, but it also contains some gospel in it.”

He said he had no feelings of presumptuousness in taking on such a revered classic in his own book.

“It’s not literary criticism. It’s not intended that way. The themes, the characters speak into how we should live our faith out. It’s not meant to be academic. The Mockingbird Parables is a front porch conversation. I saw in To Kill a Mockingbird an opportunity to talk about our connection to each other. Loving God is easy. Loving our neighbor is challenging.”

Still, he didn’t send a copy to Ms. Lee.

“I know she’s reclusive,” he said. “I would love it if she would read it, but I want to be as respectful of her as I can. She wrote the book and that’s enough. She doesn’t owe anybody anything. The Mockingbird Parables is how an American story spoke to me in a kind of faith conversation.”

The novel’s appeal over a half century, Litton says, is that it presents so many different messages -- lessons in how to handle finances in hard times, of compassion, of courage.

“No matter the time period, it’s so rich. We’re eternally struggling with compassion and seeing the world through other people’s perspective. It’s why it continues to be so relevant.”

He hopes in his book readers will hear the gospel’s call to put compassion into action, encouraging them “to walk out your front doors and endeavor to truly know and love each other.”

The Parable of Boo Radley: Discovering Our Divine Mysterious Neighbor.

The 10 parables Litton has developed reflect deep insight into the novel’s characters and knowledge of scripture and the Christian faith. He clearly loves all three. Here are selections from one parable.

Like God, Boo is mysterious. “’Who is Boo Radley?’ may be one of the most haunting questions in the history of American literature,” Litton writes, likening it to our desire to know God.

“’Who is Boo Radley?’ eloquently mirrors the question that underlies our very existence, that should ignite our imaginations and stir us with passion on our spiritual journeys,” Litton writes. “The persistence with which we ask this question defines the vitality of our faith in God.”

In this parable Litton, like the novel’s three children, Scout, Jem and Dill, looks for an answer to that question, making a case for Boo as a loving God looking out for his children. That God is available for all, but too often people are content to label God without seeking to know God, just as the the townsfolk of Maycomb have done with Boo. But the children “are spellbound” by the question of who Boo is and “it is their persistence that ultimately drives Boo into their lives.”

“The children provide a wonderful model of how we should pursue God,” Litton writes. “The children’s act of seeking Boo Radley represents the quintessence of what it means to be people of faith. . . . Scout, Jem and Dill are constantly grappling for answers about Boo that reach beyond the shallow explanations of the detached and impartial town elders.

“The children know Boo is there, but are still seeking, and it is their inquisitiveness that drives them toward relationship with him. It is the wrestling or, more clearly articulated, the seeking that defines a vigorous and burning faith.”

This seeking goes both ways. “Boo Radley is pursuing a relationship with the children, much as God has been chasing after us since . . . well, since the beginning of time.” Boo hides gifts for the children in the knothole of the tree, gifts that “fit the everydayness of the children’s lives, and places them where they will notice -- meeting them where they are.

“I find that God works the same way. When we take the time to observe the day a little more like children do, with a little more inquisitiveness, we begin to see the gifts that God leaves for us in the midst of our routines.”

In the climatic scene at the end, Boo moves from the children’s imaginations into their reality, emerging from his house to save their lives from the drunken assailant who seeks to harm them. This, Litton maintains, reflects a God who still intervenes in the world.

The story ends with Scout and Boo walking hand in hand back to his house. “As she stands at Boo’s front porch, she notices that his view of the neighborhood is completely different from any she has seen. She realizes that from the Radley porch, Boo has a clear view of the ‘entire neighborhood’ -- not just one house. Every place the children frequent -- from Miss Maudie’s yard to their own front porch -- is in sight of Boo’s window. It provides a sobering reminder to us that God’s perspective on our lives is eternal and infinitely broader than our own.

“From the Radley porch, Scout understands not only that Boo’s view of the world is much different than her own, but that he has been vigilantly watching over ‘his children’ season after season.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


 An atheist was walking through the woods. “What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals,” he said to himself.

Suddenly, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look and saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge toward him. He ran as fast as he could along the path. He looked over his shoulder and saw that bear was closing on him.

He looked over his shoulder again, and the bear was even closer .... and then ..... he tripped and fell.

Rolling over to pick himself up, he found the bear was right on top of him, reaching toward him with its left paw and raising the right paw to strike.

At that instant the atheist cried out, ”Oh my God!”

Time stopped. 
The bear froze.
The forest was silent.

A bright light shone upon the man, and a voice came out of the sky, "You deny my existence for all these years, you teach others I don't exist and even credit creation to cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?"

The atheist looked directly into the light. "It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps you could make the BEAR a Christian?"

A pause.

"Very well," said the voice.

The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right arm, brought both paws together, bowed his head and spoke ...  

"Lord, bless this food, which I am about to receive.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional. We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy."
-- Tim Hansel

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Quest of the Sleeping Princess

Congratulations to my friend Mary Sheeran on the publication of her second novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess. Mary’s storytelling gifts are once again on display, this time taking us into the world of the New York City Ballet, the lives of some of its dancers and a young writer whose life intersects with theirs.

As she did in her first novel, Who Have the Power, Mary once again gives us a strong woman character, Susan McFadden, a writer navigating the tumultuous waters of relationships and career in New York City. The sensibility is strongly New York, which I loved.

I also was fascinated by how Mary wove the ballets in as parallel stories. She’s a great lover of George Balanchine and shares her vast knowledge in a way that unfolds naturally with the narrative.

Look for Mary’s book, fresh on the market this month, and read her ballet reviews on my blog. Way to go, Mary!

For more information, see the book's website at www.questofthesleepingprincess.com. When you go there, you can investigate the lives of George Balanchine and the work of Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, as well as watch ballets and/or listen to music.

There are two banners that contain ballet clips, "Tonight's Performance" and "Resources." The first contains ballet clips, music clips, and photos from ballets featured in the novel. The second contains source material and websites of authors featured in the novel and clips from ballets mentioned, such as Swan Lake, Giselle, and, of course, Sleeping Beauty.

The site also features essay on Balanchine and The Sleeping Beauty from the novel and some information on lung cancer, as it does figure in the storyline. November is lung cancer awareness month.

Quest of the Sleeping Princess is a different kind of book from Who Have the Power (not so violent! fewer pages!), but it still celebrates life in the arts and the imagination.

Praise for Quest of the Sleeping Princess:

"Sheeran explores a woman's fascination with the ballet world with a most interesting voyeuristic subplot...The book is impressive in its research into the artistic process, George Balanchine, the image of women in folklore and dance, and the sleeping princess as a motif...and it succeeds." -- Kirkus Reviews

"..intensely spiritual and remarkably feminist..." --  Ariel's Time

"It was wonderful to share these meditations on the Balanchine repertory and Mary Sheeran’s passionate insistence that the ballets belong as much to the audience that reveres them as to those who produce and perform them."
—Lynn Garafola, author of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance

Friday, November 5, 2010

Shakespeare's Globe 2011 Season Will Mark 400th Anniversary of King James Bible

This article by Mark Shenton appears on Playbill.com.

Shakespeare's Globe will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, completed in 1611, as part of its "The Word is God" 2011 season. It will launch with a cover-to-cover reading of the Bible, and also feature a small-scale touring production of Hamlet, affording an opportunity for audiences to experience the two foundation stones of the modern English language back-to-back.

The main new Shakespeare productions of the season will be All's Well That Ends Well, never before seen at the Globe, and Much Ado About Nothing. The theatre will also present its first-ever production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, as well as The Globe Mysteries, offering a fresh perspective on the Mystery Plays.

The theatre will also revive its production of Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn, and premiere Chris Hannan's The God of Soho, which is described in press materials as a wild satire on modern living, set in contemporary suburban England.

Prior to the 2011 summer season, Shakespeare's Globe will present Winter Wassail in January – four special performances from the Gabrieli Consort & Players in a musical celebration of the New Year that will include seasonal pieces inspired by words from Shakespeare, Hardy and Chaucer, with selected readings.

Public booking for the summer season opens Feb. 14, 2011. To book tickets, contact the box office on 020 7401 9919 or visit www.shakespearesglobe.com.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Visiting with Edward Herrmann

I had a lovely day yesterday. I took the train up to New Haven to join my friend Lauren Yarger for Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at Yale Rep. Fortunately it was a gorgeous day (unlike rainy old today).

The nearly two-hour ride up gave me a chance to appreciate the colorful countryside and read another great book from my friend Angela, Bruce Watson’s Freedom Summer. Lauren picked me up at Union Station and we drove around the scenic one way streets trying to get to the Rep. (With all the single direction streets and roadwork, New Haven is a driver’s nightmare.)

I had been to the university before but never to the theatre. What a great space -- a former church, the perfect place for the sacred ritual of theatre. I went to see Edward Herrmann, whom I met in 2002 when I interviewed him for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. I’ve never been an Albee fan and the three long hours of Balance did nothing to change my opinion (I’m tried of alcoholic dysfunctional families. I know them too well!), but it was great to catch up with Ed after the show.

In my book, I quoted Paul Baker, founder and former managing director of the Dallas Theater Center, describing Ed as “always very intense and pleasant, with excellent manners” and “always in a good temper.” That has certainly been my experience. Ed has taken part in two Broadway Blessings, even though he has a two-hour drive each way from his home in Salisbury, CT. Afterwards he always sends me a note thanking me for all I do for the community. I hadn’t seen him since his fabulous portrayal of all the characters in Act II of Our Town at Broadway Blessing 2006. He greeted me warmly and we had a nice chat backstage, then he headed out to get a sandwich before taking a nap to rest up for the evening performance.

Lauren and I crossed the street to Bangkok Gardens for our own Thai meal, then she dropped me back at the train station and I headed home. I even brought back a doggie bag so I can have that delicious dinner again tonight before journeying out to The Scottsboro Boys. Life is good!

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints Day

"It is not weakness or failure that will exclude us from the communion of saints; the danger of exclusion comes only when we refuse to enter into the fray of human existence, when we stop taking the risk of feeling poverty, sorrow, injustice, or persecution for God’s sake and for love’s sake."
-- All Saints Day reflection by a Trappist monk