Sunday, July 31, 2011

“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
-- Joseph Campbell

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Off Broadway award established to honor caricaturist Sam Norkin

I posted this announcement of Sam's award last week and now I am sorry to hear that Sam passed away this morning. God bless you, Sam. I will cherish the caricature you did of me.

To honor his longstanding contributions to the New York Theater—both On and Off Broadway—the Drama Desk Board of Directors has decided to establish a new special annual award in Sam Norkin’s name. Sam has been a superlative caricaturist of theater, opera, ballet and film celebrities for the New York Herald Tribune (from 1940-1956) and for the Daily News (from 1956-1982). His witty, elegant illustrations have also appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Globe, Back Stage and Variety. During his many years of service to the Drama Desk, he designed the original Drama Desk Awards plaque, served as President of the organization, and has been a longtime member of the Board.

The Sam Norkin Off Broadway Award will be given in any Off Broadway awards category (person or production) which the nominating committee designates as worthy of this special distinction.

I was blessed to have Sam do a caricature of me one evening at at Drama Desk party. It's good to hear he's being honored in this way.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent to God, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not a fable or a nice story. God manifests everywhere, in every thing, in people, in things and in nature and in events. You cannot be without God. It's impossible! Simply impossible.!"
-- Thomas Merton

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us."
-- Helen Keller

Monday, July 18, 2011

"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."
-- Nelson Mandela

Happy 93rd birthday, Mr. Mandela!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

From the Dressing Room

In 61 stories, some only a paragraph long, and lovely subtle photographs, Carlos Martinez opens a door into the backstage life of a silent actor in his new book, From the Dressing Room: Reflections on the (Silent) Art of Mime. Having spoken his lines in gestures for more than three decades, this Spanish actor has become one of the most acclaimed mimes in Europe. With the release of this touching 128-page book, he now speaks in words.

Staring with Little Miracle, he shares the awe he feels that people are actually buying tickets to see him perform. I’m sure many artists feel this way.

His anecdotes of his performing life read like meditations. I love the prayerful quality, the respect he has for his art and his audience. The stories are grace-filled, but also often humorous and informative, offering insight into his specific art form.

In Masks, he explains that it takes nearly an hour to paint his mime face alone in his dressing room and “barely 10 seconds and a towel” to take it off, always before his audience.

“Many people have expressed their appreciation for this small gesture at the end of the show,” he writes. “It makes them feel more proximity to me, or perhaps makes me seem more ‘real.’ I suppose a similar thing happens when a priest takes off a cassock, when a doctor removes a lab coat, or when a policeman gets out of uniform. Once the ‘costume’ disappears, it seems like we become nearer and more accessible.”

His contemplation then moves to the kind of masks that all of us put on at times.

“For a mime, the mask isn’t a symbol of hypocrisy but of honesty. In reality, it comes off in a mere 10 seconds. The mask that we must all be concerned about is the one that isn’t painted on with makeup: the one that you can’t see with your eyes, the one that human beings have gotten accustomed to wearing unconsciously. Unlike its makeup counterpart, this one can be put on in 10 seconds, but it takes years of effort to get rid of it. This type of mask penetrates the soul, and all the towels in the world are not enough to get rid of it.”

Many of the narratives are about what takes place in his dressing room -- his preparation, relationships deepened while sharing with fellow artists and the visitors who drop by. For him, the dressing room is “an ally, an intimate space, a waiting room, a decompression chamber, a meeting place and even a small embassy.” Because he learns so much there, he calls one of his dressing room reflections The Professor. And he has had much opportunity to learn, having visited more than 1,000 dressing rooms in more than 30 countries.

In Undress to Dress, he explains that actors need to use their time in the dressing room to strip away all the masks they have worn during the day.

“We have to get rid of all of those other characters that society pushes us to be until we find our true selves, devoid of artifice, clean, vulnerable,” he writes. “The dressing room isn’t a place where the actor puts on a mask, but where he takes it off.”

I’ve never seen Carlos perform, but have been blessed with a couple of his DVDs. I met him and his wife, Jenny Findeis, several years ago when they were in New York, and Jenny and I have stayed in touch through e-mail and Facebook. It is a blessing to reconnect through this book.

To read the first 17 pages of the book, click here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"If everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen."
-- Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Joys of Teaching

Sharing with you Dr. Amit Nagpal's e-interview of me for his blog, The Joys of Teaching. It was a honor to take part. Click here to read.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In "The Magdalene" Mary is Jesus' wife -- not the world's most famous prostitute

I wrote this feature for the July 17, 2011 issue of The Living Church magazine.

Although he grew up in the United Church of Christ tradition, James Olm had no impression of Mary Magdalene until about a dozen years ago when a minister gave him a copy of The Gnostic Gospels and he began reading about the woman wrongly considered the most famous prostitute of all time. Reading the Gospel of Mary revolutionized his thinking, giving him a missionary zeal to spread the word in the best way he knew how.

“Immediately what went up in my mind was, ‘Boy, did she get screwed and I’ve got to clear her name,’” he said.

That’s just what this 54-year-old musical theatre professor from Casper College in Wyoming hopes to do with The Magdalene, his Off-Broadway musical play about the woman The Gnostic Gospels portray as one of Jesus’ most intimate disciples.

“If she was the enlightened one, the apostle of apostles, we should know this and make it work for our belief systems now,” he said. “What would society be like if we had had an example like Mary? It makes Christ even more of a revolutionary. Our whole society would have been different if the Jesus figure had been a woman. We wouldn’t have had the patriarchal society. It doesn’t take anything away from Christ. This was something I had to do.”

Olm (right in photo) shares his passion for an alternative image of Mary while sprawled on the steps inside the Theatre at St. Clement’s, his lean figure clan in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. Up those stairs his play is in rehearsal, five days away from the first preview performance and less than three weeks from the scheduled June 27 opening. He chose this facility after looking at several other Off-Broadway houses, even though he had to wait more than 15 months for it to be available. It was at St. Clement’s Church in Rome that Pope Gregory I declared Mary Magdalene a prostitute, so it seemed appropriate to change that image in this Episcopal church that was gutted in the 1960s to create a theatre and where now both church and theatre reside.

“My thinking is this is where we can clear her name, finally.”

He fully expects opposition to this effort. After the play had a reading in Casper he received hate mail. The Catholic priests he showed it to in town disapproved. It was just too much for some people to see Mary not only lifted to full discipleship, but married to Yeshua (the Hebrew for Jesus) and pregnant with a daughter. (Olm won’t say whether it’s Jesus’ child because that would be giving away his ending.)

“My whole belief system has solidified,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a Christian anymore. I still believe everything he (Jesus) said, but we all have the same potential to do what Christ did, to be enlightened, but we don’t get it.”

The road to this Off-Broadway run began in 1999 when Olm, who has written two other original musicals, Mulberry and Obits, discovered The Gnostic Gospels -- and his calling. He composed the music and co-wrote the book, with J.C. Hanley, who also wrote the lyrics. Richard Maltby Jr. (left in photo), a veteran Broadway producer, director and lyricist, is the creative consultant on the production, which is directed by Richard Burk and is schedule to run through Sept. 4.

Maltby, whose Broadway chops include conceiving and directing the only two musical revues to ever win Tony Awards for best musicals, Fosse and Ain’t Misbehavin’, was attracted to The Magdalene because of his own fascination with The Gnostic Gospels, and he sensed potential in the video he saw of the Wyoming reading, calling Olm a gifted composer.

“It was surprisingly touching and skillfully done,” he said, sitting in the theatre during the rehearsal’s dinner break. “It needed some sort of professional work on it. In musicals you have to follow the action.”

With that in mind, Maltby, a former altar boy who grew up in a nondenominational church, guided the show down to one act, 90 minutes with no intermission, from two acts in two hours with an intermission.

“When we stripped all that talk out, the story really started coming alive and I was surprised at how powerful it was becoming,” he said. “It’s not for nothing that it’s called the greatest story ever told.”

And Maltby knows a thing or two about telling stories for the theatre.

“When you’ve done a lot of shows there are certain things you know to do, usually mistakes you’ve made and learned from,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world more complicated than a new musical.”
Like Olm, Maltby, who studied contemporary religions in college, believes in seeing the historical figures of the Bible differently even if that means a married Jesus.

“The central issue in all Christian religions is that Christ was a man,” he said. “That’s central, and he might have been God. People want to take away the human part of what makes him a man. Sex makes us very uncomfortable.”

He sees this also in the idea of the virgin birth.

“We just want to so purify him of any taint of humanity. I find it troubling. This show returned me to what I believed in.”

For the dozen or so actors, the show may be doing the opposite, taking them from what they believed in. Maltby says cast members have been reading The Gnostic Gospels on their own and their curiosity may be leading them to beliefs that are more relevant to their lives.

One of these who is taking a new look at Mary Magdalene is Linsie VanWinkle, the 28-year-old actress portraying her. VanWinkle (center) grew up Baptist in Oklahoma and never imagined her first starring role in New York would be as Jesus’ wife.

“Not in a million years,” she says with laugh.

The only Magdalene she had been aware of was the prostitute and she’s finding this one much more accessible.

“She’s a strong, feisty woman in touch emotionally but not afraid to get dirty, like me,” she says. “I based it on that. Not to step on faith toes, but it seems more the beliefs I have. He was a human being and she would have been there to support him. It’s such a delicate subject. It’s a wonderful story to tell and I enjoy telling it.”

The pressure she feels is more than just that of a leading actress portraying a character.

“I have a huge sense of responsibility. People only know the stereotype. There’s a huge feminist bone in me to show women who are strong and have a place in society.”

A feminist bone also propelled Olm, a divorced father of three, especially when he learned the Catholic church had rescinded the notion of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute.

“I thought, ‘Why haven’t we heard of this? It’s still being preached. This is not doing justice to women. This is wrong.’”

He hopes people will see his play with an open mind.

“It’s not about preaching at all,” he says. “It’s a story about Jesus and Mary and Mary’s journey in a world that was suppressing her. It’s a story about women’s empowerment and trying to find the answer.

“I’m sure there’s going to be controversy from the ultraconservatives. What I ask for is tolerance. If we could accept everybody’s beliefs we’d have a lot better society.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Natalie Toro to perform at Broadway Blessing

Acclaimed singer/actress Natalie Toro will perform for the 15th anniversary celebration of Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that has been bringing the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season. Toro will sing “Where Is It Written,” backed by the Broadway Blessing Choir, at the free event, to be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street. Reservations are not necessary.

Toro was last seen on Broadway as Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a role that earned her Sarasota Magazine’s Best Supporting Actress Award during the show’s pre-Broadway run. Previously on the Great White Way she played Eponine in Les Miserables and Sally in A Christmas Carol.  

In addition to her extensive credits Off-Broadway and in national tours and regional theatre, Toro has performed as a solo artist at Carnegie Hall and at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland. She sang with a Big Band at The Iridium Jazz club in NYC with Tony Fusco. Her solo show was premiered in February 2009 at The Metropolitan Room to critical acclaim. Her new One Woman Extravaganza, “The Broken Road (Baggage Limit 50 Pounds),” premiered in Hollywood last year. Her CD, entitled Natalie Toro, was released to critical acclaim nationally in 2008, the same week she was honored by the Bronx Borough President, Adolfo Carrion, Jr. as part of Puerto Rican heritage month. “Where Is It Written?” is featured on the CD.

This year’s Broadway Blessing also will premiere a new song by Phil Hall, written in honor of the 15th anniversary that will be sung by Tony Haris. As in years past, Project Dance will perform and Rabbi Jill Hausman of The Actors’ Temple and the Rev. Canon Tom Miller, the Cathedral’s canon for liturgy and the arts, will lead the annual candle lighting ceremony.

More guest artists will be announced in the weeks to come. Retta Blaney is the founding producer of Broadway Blessing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Hope always awake, whispers mercy for a future as sure as a past."
-- St. Elizabeth Ann Seton