31 October 2012

Song Understudies

A few weeks ago at the oh, so pleasurable experience I had in Cedar City, (I can still smell it), I neglected to tell the whole story.  I am here to rectify the situation.

When you are sitting in a theater being accosted by gag-worthy smells (one of my friends was quoted as saying "I didn't realize how fecal it was") - we needed to find a way to distract ourselves.  The four of us left behind realized more or less at the same time that the option of feeling spiritual uplift or the desire to overthrow a government or any other variation of profound thought was a lost cause.  We needed something else to get us through the show.

I'm going to take credit for starting it.  In the middle of listening to Marius and Cosette sing about how much they love each other even though they just met each other and it was crazy, maybe - I got a certain obnoxious song stuck in my head and leaned over to one of my friends to say: "Hey - they should sing this instead."

Friend laughed and replied: "They have understudies for actors.  They should have understudies for songs.  You know.  Because sometimes they just don't want to be sung."

Soooo. . . we made a list.  Sometimes it was something like: "I dare you to find a song from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that will fit in this show."  And sometimes it just came to us.  But we were laughing pretty hard.  I'm sure the people next to us thought we were nuts/sacrilegious or something but whatever.  You gotta do what you gotta do.

The rules, if there were any, were that the song substitutions had to be snarky.  Nothing that would actually fit.  You know - how every show has a love song or an "I'm alone" song so that's just boring.  If you're going to have a song understudy, it should be with some pizzaz.  Sometimes it's the irony of the attitude.  Sometimes it's the lyrics themselves that relate.  But snark is a must.

Here are some of my favorites from our list.  It may help if you know the songs from Les Mis.

May you find as much enjoyment out of this as we did.  I hope.  And if you have any ideas you should send them my way.  Not just for Les Mis but for everything.  We can start a revolution, folks.  This could be big.  Just remember that I started it.

Or. . . maybe you had to be there. 

30 October 2012

Going Out

Sometimes I feel like I live at school.

And considering how huge and spacious and windowed my classroom and adjoining office space are, you'd think that spending said huge amounts of hours there would not be a big deal but today they were a big deal.  I wanted out.  I had thought about staying for the school arts Halloween concert but that was still a few hours away and I couldn't bear to be there for another building.  So out it was.

But out to what exactly?

My ever absent boyfriend/fiance/husband?  (There are only so many times I can watch ((insert BBC TV series here)) before it doesn't count anymore/ever.)

Rehearsal? (Wish I had time for one.)

A cup of tea and the book I've been reading?  (All my books are for school right now.  Too much annotation needs doing to be relaxing.)

A bubble bath?  (Hate them.  Cold, dirty water is not appealing and I don't like being naked.)

My life has become work and more work and. . .more work.  I suppose that's what happens when you're teaching far too many classes and own your own business on top of all that.

After a trip to the store for some half decent frozen pizza (because I'm too exhausted to cook and have worn out all of my other eat-out options long ago - it's what happens when you do theater. . . ) I realized that although I could totally use a night just sitting alone in my room and falling asleep by 9:00. . . I didn't want that.  I wanted people.  But all of my people were at school.

So back I went.  I saw the last half of the concert.  I socialized with other teachers and parents and former cast mates from the YCTIWY crowd and reminisced about the summer and planned for the next few shows on the docket.  And I found again that even though maintaining relationships and contact with people isn't exactly my forte, I am grateful for the people in my life that make it worth living when I would otherwise be drowning in a sea of confused homophones and strangely formatted papers and over pretentious short stories.

The papers aren't going anywhere.  (Seriously, though.  I keep putting off looking at them.)  There will always be more books to prepare.  (Good thing I pick not crappy ones.)  But in the meantime - I'm grateful for friends.

24 October 2012

Like a Veal

This is what they think I do.

Teach.  Verb.  "To impart knowledge of or skill in, to give instruction."

I get mad at my students when they start an essay with a dictionary definition, especially when they are giving a definition that is obvious or doesn't add to what they're trying to say.  But this time, surprising as it may be, it is relevant. 

I have had the following conversation in one form or another on several occasions with parents and students.  It goes as follows:

Student/Parent: I am/my child is dropping your Creative Writing class. 

Me: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.  (Aside: sometimes.)  Why?

Student/Parent: I am/my child is a free spirit.  They don't like being told what to write, they thought they would just be able to write fun stories in your class.  

My response to this is generally a polite "Thank you, hope you/your child enjoys whatever class they transfer into."  My internal response, though, is always rather bewildered. 

Let me explain.  I have been thinking about this for a while because it's kind of bugging me.  In no other class that I can think of do parents or students expect not to be taught something.  You join an art class, you expect the teacher to give you some new techniques to try.  You join a French class, you assume that teacher is going to give you vocabulary and speaking lessons.  Basketball.  You expect drills.  English - you expect the teacher to instruct you in better grammar and organization/presentation of ideas.  Math.  Science.  Theater.  You expect those kind of things. 

But not so with Creative Writing.  People seem to think that Creative Writing is a class in which I, as a teacher, will sit in my rolly chair like a veal and smile and give cookies to students who write stories and put them up on the refrigerator in my office with a gold star on them for all the world to see.  They don't expect me to give prompts, to give lessons, to corral ideas into something manageable in a few pages.  It's the only class I teach where people are surprised that I'm teaching.  Like it's this revolutionary idea that writing well, particularly for beginning writers, requires some instruction.

That kind of teaching would be absurd in other classes.  Can you imagine a parent coming to a violin teacher that has been carefully instructing classes about scales before allowing them to touch, say, Mahler, and have the parent pull the student because the student just wants to play for fun and doesn't care how pretty it sounds?  No.  

Anyway.  Random post for a random day.  Here's another random thought: people tell me I'll go straight to heaven because I teach junior high.  I tell them no.  It's not me.  It's the beginning orchestra teachers.  They get dibs.  And I know this because last year my room was next to the beginning orchestra room.  

22 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy

Disclaimer: This is, as clearly stated above, a review of the new JK Rowling novel, The Casual Vacancy.  Not too many overt plot point spoilers, but read at your own risk. 

To be honest, I feel a little strange writing this review now.  Not, I mean, right this very second.  I mean now, nearly a month since the book came out.  I've never read a JK Rowling book in more than 24 hours before.  Something is not. right.  But, I suppose, if Harry himself has to grow up and take on adult responsibilities than I probably ought to as well.  Gone are the days when I could stay up until well past 4:00 AM with a book.  At least not until summer comes around again, and even then I start falling asleep.  Gosh that makes me feel old.

But in my defense, The Casual Vacancy isn't really that type of book.  Not quite the quick moving, action oriented fare that I'm used to from Rowling.  It's a much more traditional British-style novel with emphasis on character development over plot.  I found myself having to read and re-read sections of the first few chapters just to re-orient myself to the novel.  It looked and felt and smelled like Rowling but something was just different.  It took some time. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure after 500 pages that I'm entirely used to it.  For one thing, the narrative was much choppier and harder to follow.  Potter sits comfortably in Harry's head most of the time.  Vacancy jumps between one character to the next often without much transition making it hard to keep track of who is who.  There are a huge number of characters to keep track of as well - at least 20 to rotate through - I'm not entirely sure I managed to keep track of everyone.  It wasn't as smooth a narrative as I generally see from Rowling.

The Casual Vacancy is, in many ways, similar to Potter.  There is a huge amount of character development that is rewarding and allows for the reader (in a very Atticus Finch like way) to be careful about judging characters too quickly for their actions.  It also has a definite sense of dark humor and an underlying push for good virtues and strong choices in the face of difficult odds that certainly resonated through Hogwarts.  Only there's really nothing terribly magical in the towns of Pagford and Yarvil.  The obstacles to overcome are not symbolic dementors or bad teachers with cruel quills or dragons protecting their eggs- these are very real challenges of drugs and affairs and broken families and children who despise their parents and, in some cases, vice versa.  There was a rather nice bit of symbolism in a different kind of ghost, but that was about as close as the book ever got to the symbolic power of the Potter books- everything is was quite raw.

There's no question: Vacancy is a very adult book.  And by adult, I mean adult.  The language is incredibly harsh and doesn't let up from start to finish.  Most of the characters in this book are leading lives that are not moral at all.  Although I thought the payoff of the book was able to overcome the harsh material, it is not something to be taken lightly if you choose to read it.  It's a far cry from Potter and I'd probably (definitely) get into huge amounts of trouble if I recommended it to any of my students.  I was reading it while working at the BYU football game a few weeks ago and had one game-goer ask me if he'd have to see his bishop after reading it.  Well, no.  I don't think so.  But the characters in the book certainly need to.  Read with caution if you don't like (or can't tollerate) that sort of thing.

There was so much talk before the book was published about how Rowling would never be able to top or compete with herself after the success of Potter, and that's probably true.  It also really doesn't matter.  She can write whatever she wants now and be successful or not successful and it won't make an ounce of difference to her financial situation.  So I can understand her desire to break the mold away from Potter.  I did wonder several times as I read through Vacancy, though, whether or not all that language and crass behavior was really necessary to prove her point, or really all that true to who she seems to be.  I don't fault an author for swearing when the words are right, and I would never presume to tell an author only to write characters leading nice, moral lives.  Some of my favorite books (Lord of the Flies, 1984, Catcher in the Rye) are predominantly about characters with either a poor understanding of what a moral life generally involves or have a blatant disregard for that kind of lifestyle.  But there were a handful of times as I read Vacancy where I wondered if "that word" was the right word, or if "that scene" was the only way to portray what was needed for the characters.  Was she going for shock value?  To prove to people that she can write more than just for children and teenagers?  I think there are better ways to do so than through that much content.  Sometimes it felt a bit like a Disney child star taking on a rated R film just to prove that they're grown up now, instead of just nicely transitioning out of Disney and into other projects.  I wished she wouldn't try so hard to prove herself.

That said, the payoff at the end of the book is worth it.  The final images in particular were so striking that my patience and persistant belief that Rowling wouldn't write something that didn't pay off was certainly rewarded.  It just took much more patience from me as a reader to get to that point.  The best compliment I can pay this book, or any book, is that I am still thinking about it.  Honestly, it's left me profoundly grateful for an atonement that covers not only sins, but also considers the circumstances around us and our own perspective on the choices we have to make.  We are told that the Lord does not just look at the outward appearance - he looks at our heart.  At our intents.  We are asked to become perfect in an imperfect world with imperfect abilities of perception.  We do the best we can with what we know, with what we can see, and can then be incredibly relieved and overjoyed when we know that those times when we fall short, sometimes through no fault of our own, it will still work out.

Overall, I'm glad that I read it.  It was a good, interesting read and I'm excited to see what she comes up with next.  But I'm not quite jumping out of my skin with excitement about it.  Parts of it were completely brilliant.  Parts were a bit overboard.  The flow of the story was weak.  Hopefully her next foray in the Post-Potterverse will be a bit more balanced.

12 October 2012

I Miserables

It was a happy, quiet-ish night at the theater.  After an afternoon of some glorious Shakespeare, I was prepared to enjoy one of the greatest war-horse musicals there is in the beautiful Randall Theater in Cedar City, Utah: Les Miserables.  After visiting the loo, I joined my friends and sat in the very back row, ready to enjoy the musical that Utahns worship as Celestial, even though it's primarily about whores and prostitution and thieves breaking the law.

About five minutes before the show started, an usher came and gestured for three members of our group of seven to come with her.  This was confusing.  Had they done something wrong?  No.  They had been reseated.  Somehow in a completely sold out house, they had managed to scrape free seats on the main floor.  Lucky. 

Ah well.  I moved over, closer to the rest of my group.

"Can't you smell it?"

I was confused.  ". . . smell what?"

"Be glad.  That's why they left." 

Oh.  Well, I couldn't smell it so it didn't matter.  I'd enjoy the show.

But then psychosomatic smells started to taunt my nose.  Then some not so psychosomatic smells.  I was definitely smelling something.  Possibly the group in front of me hadn't showered in a while.  Maybe they were particularly method audience members wanting to give me the true French Revolution experience.  Or maybe they were decaying.  Certainly they had something truly foul for dinner that night on top of these previous offenses.  I pulled out a bottle of peppermint oil from my purse and spread the love to the rest of my group. 

Only that just cleared my sinuses and made it easier for me to smell the others.  Ick.

During intermission we contemplated asking to be reseated as well, but there was no hope.  The theater was booked, and no one walks out of Les Mis.  So we returned to find the great offender taking off her sweater.  This did not help. 

There was only one thing to be done.  All four of us shielded our nose with scarves, coats and shirts.  I was doing double duty like a bat or a vampire with one hand holding up my coat over my nose and one hand holding the peppermint oil bottle a scant millimeter away from my nose at all times.  The others contemplated the benefits of hot tamale nose plugs.  I very nearly shouted to the stage "NO YOU DON'T!" when Thenardier sang of getting used to the smell in the sewers. 

I had to ask those who had dodged the smell bullet afterward if the show was good.  Apparently it was excellent.  Then those of us who had survived the back row regaled our story of olfactory woe to much laughter that was sure to have confused theatergoers who had felt uplifted and edified by the experience.  To celebrate our survival we decided to go buy some ice cream.  I contemplated snorting said ice cream.  Also, I'm probably going to have to put my coat in a plastic bag in the basement for a few weeks like you do with lice so as to avoid the spread of such an accostation of the senses.

Thank goodness I've seen this show before.