Hi Ho the Glamorous Life (Celebrating 40 “Happy” Years in the Theatre)

This weekend, as I sat in rehearsal for Shrek, the musical that I am currently music directing for Christian Youth Theatre of Fredericksburg, it occurred to me that, with the opening of this production, I will be celebrating forty years of involvement in show business. My first play was at the age of six around Christmastime. I played Santa Claus, and the play revolved around Santa considering putting jet packs on his sleigh to replace the reindeer. I remember almost nothing of the experience, save for the fact that it ended with me (pack over back) walking off the stage, stage left, to the cafeteria door and uttering before I exited, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” A star was born. Oh, well, that and throwing up all over my beard once, due to only having eaten a mayonnaise sandwich for lunch before rehearsal.

Me as Santa

Me as Santa, with Karen Zimmerman as Mrs. Claus, in our first-grade play.

Forty years later, I’m on “the opposite side of the table,” just as much as acting, i.e. directing, music directing, composing, and the like, but after forty years I can honestly say that I still love the grand old pursuit or the Fabulous Invalid, but it goes without saying that there are lengthy periods where I hate the business just as much, wish I’d never gotten involved in the first place, and, without question, strongly dislike many of the negative and narcissistic personality types the business attracts. But with that aside, I want to focus on the good times, the special memories, and the unique experiences that being involved in Theatre has given me.

So in celebration of forty years of memories, here are a few of the most…uh…memorable. Almost every one of the following anecdotes is a blog post unto itself, but needless to say, after a forty year run, I’ve seen a few things. Here are a few selected highlights from the long strange trip, all good. I’ll save the not so good, bad, and bitchy memories for another day.

  1. Thanks to the now defunct American Family Theatre, I had the chance to tour parts of our grand country four times. I was to New Orleans before and after Mardi Gras in 1999, put my feet in the Gulf of Mexico, saw Addams Family in Chicago, visited lots of the southern Midwest, and went up and down the East Coast numerous times. With several cast mates from these tours I’m celebrating almost twenty years of friendship. How time flies.
  1. I have performed alongside or worked with a few Broadway veterans, some as acquaintances, others as friends. I have been blessed to work with Sally Struthers, Jonathan Groff, James Lane, Forrest McClendon, Milton Craig Nealy, and Celeste Holm, as well as a few lesser known luminaries. All have taught me something, and I couldn’t be prouder of my time spent with them. And I promise no more name-dropping.
  1. During my high school’s rehearsal period and run of Oklahoma! in 1986, both myself (playing Curly), and the boy playing Jud carried real guns to school in our backpacks, loaded with blanks made in our basement by our parents. The principal knew, and trusted us, and it was a non-issue. My how times have changed.
  1. I have played a Jewish father (Tevye in Fiddler), a woman (Edna in Hairspray), several priests, a movie mogul, a major-general, and lots of “loud-mouthed little guys.” I have been in not one but two productions of Dreamgirls, The Wiz, and Purlie, all with amazingly talented African-American casts. I was the youngest pit conductor to ever make his debut at the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA and once had a production of Annie I directed reviewed favorably by Greenwich Village’s newspaper, The Village Voice.
  1. I choked once on stage while drinking and stopped the show for nearly five minutes while I recovered my voice. Another time, while shooting trap onstage the gun fell apart in my hands. On another occasion my cast of pranksters Vaseline-d all my props so that I couldn’t pick any of them up. Theatre is unpredictable.
  1. When my father played in the onstage pit for Cabaret, a pit done entirely in drag, I had to take him shopping! I can still remember his ugly black sack dress, old lady earrings, and gray wig, all worn while playing his sax. Somewhere there’s a picture. Someday I’ll find it and post it.
  1. I have been in productions where “showmances” escalated into both on and offstage public displays of affection that skirted the boundaries of propriety and decency. And that said, I’m not telling you about any of them, but at the time they were scandalous and fun.
  1. I’ve had a song I wrote sung back to me with affection ten years later by an actor who didn’t realize I was the composer of the song he was singing. That led to my contributing songs to a New York fringe festival musical.
  1. I can name all the Signers of the Declaration of Independence thanks to my love of the musical 1776, and I know the names of more passengers on the Titanic than most people. My general knowledge of world history, cultures and customs, dates and events, has been greatly enhanced by all the plays and theatre history I’ve had to read over many years.
  1. Lastly, and most importantly, my wife Nancy and I met in an acting class at Villanova University. We were paired up for a scene from David Mamet’s Oleanna. I threw a chair at her, and said some horrible things I would never otherwise say to anyone…and she fell in love with me! Life is funny and wonderful that way.

So for all the above reasons and more I say, “Thanks, World of Theatre, for forty wonderful, terrible, illuminating, frustrating years. Here’s to many more together.”

Namaste,

Jason

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The next project – come see it!

Living in Bump’s America

Whatever my personal feelings or biases on the recent presidential election, barring an electoral upset, unforeseen indictment, or revolutionary uprising, Donald J. Trump is going to be the next President of the United States of America. If not the popular vote, the Electoral College is likely to seal the deal. Across our country there is a great deal of concern, unrest, vitriol, Monday Morning Quarterbacking, celebration, and what have you as to how this may have come about. I have my own theories on this matter which I will touch upon at a later time. What is occupying my thoughts at the present is the impact he will have on my three-year old son, John Adams, or as we call him Bup, or as his grandparents (for perhaps reasons of regional distinctiveness) call him Bump. I’m 45, and while any new president’s policies will impact me directly and immediately, they are certain to affect my son much longer and more viscerally.

As a child, I remember growing up under and idolizing Ronald Reagan. He was an actor turned president, so we had career kinship. He brought the hostages home from Iran. He stood up to Russia. He was the Great (charismatic) Communicator. He sang the “Song of America” very well. Children live their lives in emotional broad strokes, and whatever may be known or suspected now concerning his presidency and policies due to disclosure, time, distance, and perspective, it’s hard to shake the childhood notion that growing up under Reagan as a PA suburbanite was to live in a more hope-filled era.

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My Bump envisioning a better tomorrow.

In sharp contrast, I vividly recall the sense of betrayal I felt when Bill Clinton went on national television denied his illicit Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky, and then later infamously uttered those words that began with, “Indeed I did…” I remember being in college and feeling that his actions (again regardless of one’s political bias) dishonored the Office of the President. And I wondered whether, as a result of his actions, future generations of Americans would value the presidency less highly because he had lied to the American people. These were my examples from childhood and adolescence. If you prefer, you may fill in Nixon and Watergate, JFK and Marilyn; it makes no difference to me. Point being: how the president, any president, comports himself (for now) makes a lasting impression on the generation growing up under him. Those two men left lasting impressions on me that to date still filter, compare, and contrast with my adult perceptions and, as anyone alive knows, behavior learned in one’s youth is the hardest to change. So I’m left again wondering, how will Donald Trump’s presidency inform my son’s life and worldview?

Mother Teresa in an interview famously said that she would not march against the war in Vietnam, but if someone threw a march for peace she would be there. Likewise, rather than listing what I may be opposed to in a Trump presidency, I would rather concentrate on what I want for my son; what world I would like him to inherit. Here then is my list of “Fors” that I want for my son, my Bump. I can only hope that Trump can offer Bump something of this. Otherwise, Trump is a chump, and not worthy of my Bump.

  • I am for clean air, and clean water for all.
  • I am for putting an end to starvation and malnutrition.
  • I am for investing in America’s roads and bridges.
  • I am for Universal Healthcare and affordable medicine for all Americans.
  • I am for free undergraduate college tuition for all Americans or equivalent preferred trade school programs.
  • I am for stricter gun control laws, rigid background checks, appropriate waiting periods, and closing all the gun show and other loopholes.
  • Except in special circumstances, I am for the restoration of full voting rights to all citizens who have served their sentences.
  • I am for a minimum wage that also serves as a minimum living wage.
  • I am pro business when that business demonstrates that it is both pro consumer and pro employee, and not just pro profit and pro exploitation.
  • I am for regulation of Wall Street and accountability for all crimes committed there. No one, NO ONE is too big to fail or jail. Period.
  • I am for strengthening our borders, and for appropriate immigration reform that does not target, deport, or inter people based on race, creed, color, or orientation.
  • I am for America’s public lands and national parks.
  • I am for the Endangered Species Act.
  • I am for putting an end to income inequality in all forms.
  • I am for gender equality and for women to have final say on their own bodies.
  • I am for pro choice.
  • I am for overturning Citizens United. Corporations aren’t people. Get real.
  • I am for campaign finance reform.
  • I am for marriage equality. Everyone has the same right to be happy or miserable in love.
  • I am for distributing school taxes equally among state-run districts so that all children have a fighting chance for a quality education.
  • I am for textbooks that are based in science not scripture.
  • I am for a rigorously scrutinized merit-based hiring environment.
  • I am for our space program and sending humanity to Mars and beyond. We have become too complacent and lost our way. It’s time to reach for the stars again.
  • I am for all faiths and all religions that seek no harm to others to flourish and be honored and given equal protection under our secular Constitution.
  • I am for calling out and prosecuting media bias, censorship, and spin that does not fall under First Amendment protections. Give us the facts, not lies and manipulation.
  • I am for the exploration of clean technologies, and for the gradual phasing out of fuels that no longer serve the best interests of our environment.
  • I am for taking the threat of Global Warming seriously.
  • I am for judging people, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Thanks MLK.
  • I am pro child, pro education, pro arts, pro sciences, pro biodiversity, pro peace and pro love.
  • And lastly, and most strenuously, I am pro my son.

     

    I doubt I’ll get to see much of this come to pass, but I can only hope my son will. And that’s my vision for Bump’s America, where all are welcome to live, love, and flourish.

    May it be so someday.

    Namaste,

    Jason

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    My Bup, My Bump, My Little Love

The Purpose of Life – Solved!

At age 45, I find that one question resurfaces in my mind more than any other: What is my life’s purpose? Nancy poses this question to me from time to time as, “What do you want to be doing with your life?” which wife to husband sounds like, “How do you want to make a living?” but I know that’s not the entirety of her meaning. It’s a question that we ask ourselves from little on up, the world hammers in our face, and we struggle to make sense of by either relinquishing its answer to a higher power (God has a plan for me; I just need to find out what that is), or equivocating our financial success and stability with purpose (Wealth = Happiness = Purpose). But ultimately neither mainstream answer proves sufficient. On one hand, I’ve waited impatiently for God to reveal His Big Secret. Guess what? He hasn’t. On the other hand, wealth and stability elude me. I have very little money or security. I do have a beautiful wife and son, and I’ve been an actor, director, music director, poet, composer, educator, father, husband, son, mentor, and assorted other labels, and I’ve looked for illumination in them all to marginal avail. I’ve tried to play the “What is my life’s purpose?” game by society’s rules and I’ve never gotten a satisfying answer to the question. And Lord knows my mother tried to answer the question for me many, many times.

It’s beyond frustrating going through life being told that someone (or Someone) knows what your purpose is, and your sole responsibility is to figure out what they are keeping from you. You’re always chasing rainbows, chasing after the Unattainable Question, and always dissatisfied due to the fact that you can never really know what they – the World Soul, God, Ed, Whoever – is thinking. And you know what? I’m 45 and I’m just tired of playing the game. Here’s a fact: They – whoever they are – don’t know any more than I do, and they are more preoccupied with figuring out their own purpose than cluing me in on my own. SO I QUIT. I don’t want to know what THEY think my Personal Purpose is supposed to be. And, of course, now that I’ve stopped asking what it is, it presented itself to me without effort.

The other night lying in bed it hit me, the Purpose of Life, the answer to the Big Question, the mystery solved. It’s a three point plan with room for revision, but here it is in a nutshell:

The Purpose of Life:

1. Be a Bringer of Joy

2. Be a Facilitator of Healing

3. Be a Provider of Service

That’s it. That’s the whole list. All three foci are about elevating people, assisting people, making people’s lives better. If you’re a performer, comedian, actor, or musician, you are a bringer of joy where there is some measure of healing and service hoped for or implied. If you are a doctor or other medical practitioner, you are a healer who provides service and joy (think relief) in recovery. If you are in any service related field, and you do it with a willing and open heart, you are hopefully making people’s lives better and easier bringing joy and healing. End of story. Mystery solved.

How you choose to implement these three aims is up to you, based on your interests and inclination, and no one, NO ONE, can decide that for you – not your parents, friends, God, or partner. That part comes from you. But instead of concentrating on the vocation or avocation first, ask yourself “How can I be a bringer of joy, facilitator of healing, and provider of service?” to humanity and let the rest spring from your passions and the unique love that you can share with everyone else.

Oh, and one last thing: Joy, Healing, and Service are the real stem careers. They all stem from a place of unconditional love. They all stem from making the world better, easier, more beautiful, more radiant, and yes, godly when they are real and “on purpose.” So you could say then that the real Purpose of Life is Love, and there are three Pathways to Purpose: Joy, Healing, and Service. And the Primary Path you take is up to you, but make sure that the other Secondary Paths are accessible and frequently visited by you as path jumping is essential and strongly encouraged. Leaving any of the Pathways untraveled and overgrown leads to frustration, disillusionment, and a lack of fulfillment, rather than Purpose.

And there it is in a nutshell and yes, other people have said it better than me, but this is my “A-Ha” way of seeing it for what it is. The Purpose of Life is Love given freely by you to Humanity through Joy, Healing, and Service. It’s no mystery anymore. Now go figure out for yourself how your Passions inspire you to embark on one of the Three Pathways leading to your unique version of Life’s Purpose which is ultimately Unconditional Love for all the world.

Good Luck, God Bless, Namaste, and let me know if this makes sense.

Jason

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My son contemplating his Purpose.

What Means This 45?

On Monday, I celebrated my 45th birthday. Many wonderful people via Facebook, texts, phone, and in person honored me with messages of love, well wishing, memes, little videos, and the like. It was all quite wonderful, and I was and am filled with gratitude that so many people chose to remember my special day and milestone. Most of the day was spent taking care of my son, John Adams: he played at the YMCA while I worked out, we went swimming, we went on the slides and, later that night with Nancy, we all went for seafood and had a cake that Nancy and the little guy made just for me. It was a lovely, if exhausting day, taking care of a 2-year old, and held little time for reflection.

Now a few days later, as I’m settling in to my new age, I’m wondering what it all means. I feel different. I feel restless. I feel, frankly, cantankerous. My life has been in many ways in a holding pattern since John Adams’s birth and my graduation from VCU in May 2014. I’m ready for new challenges, new accomplishments, new journeys. I’m ready for a bigger house. I’m ready for an expanded family…that includes a dog. I want to walk the Appalachian Trail and the Camino de Santiago. I want to see the Great Pyramid and Machu Picchu with my own eyes. I want to wash in the Ganges, filthy or not. I want to float down the Colorado surrounded by the Grand Canyon. I want lots of things.

Turning 45 has stirred something in me. I’m restless and less afraid, and ready for “the road not taken”. But two days later, that said, I have no idea what turning 45 really means. I guess I’ll find out soon enough. And I’ll let you know.

Namaste,

Jason

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Steal my birthday corn, will you?!