Doodling, Fuck and Other Four Letter Words

Under certain and very specific conditions, of which my students were all fully advised and aware, swearing in scripts and scene work in my classes was condoned.

Blind censorship does not help anyone to think critically on their own.  Learning how to discern between what is gratuitous or simply added for shock value and what is critical to the character or the situation is a valuable learning skill for artists and audiences.There was one dirty four letter word one word however, that students were never, ever, ever, ever allowed to use in my studio:

SKIT

I became the  horrified drama queen if a student referred to their work as a skit.  I’d gasp. or moan, or sometimes, shriek.

“YOU SAID THE FOUR LETTER WORD!”

What’s so wrong with the word, they’d ask.

“Boy Scouts do skits!  Camp kids do skits!  MATH teachers do skits!. Drama students DO NOT DO or even say that four letter word that begins with an “s” and ends with a “t” – and it’s not “SHIT”!

It was as much fun as the times I’d send them outside the studio to spit, spin and swear for that other taboo word.  Honestly though, like most drama teachers, the hair still stands on the back of my neck when I hear the word “skit”.

After years, I finally came up with an explanation that made sense:

A SKIT IS TO THEATRE, WHAT DOODLING IS TO ART.

So, on this lazy Sunday morning, I stumbled across a great little website http://kerbyrosanes.com/ that made me think of doodles and skits and inspired today’s blog.

Perhaps one can find artistic merit in doodles and skits, after all.

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When I first arrived as Mowat, as Head of Drama in September 1989, I informed our principal (who we shall call Mr. A.) that our first production of the season would be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It had been a few years since the drama department had mounted a play at that school; he simply nodded his head, made a note of the November dates in his calendar and he gave the quick go-ahead.

Two days before opening night Mr. A. apparently in a panic called one of the senior cast members, Jeff Jones, to his office.  He seemed very anxious and asked him how rehearsal were going.  Jeff said they were going great.  After hemming and hawing, Mr. A. finally asked Jeff if the play was “like the movie” which he had finally rented the night before. Jeff assured him that the stage play was considerably different and many of the scenes in Nicholson film aren’t in the play.  Mr. A. seemed relieved.

There were many brilliant moments in the play and that cast – with Alex Pearson, Jeff Jones, Chris Scholey, Jeff Logue and many others – may have been one of the best companies I’ve ever worked with.  The one actor I cast as one of the “incurables” Ruckley was a hulk of guy – well over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. His costume was nothing more than an adult diaper. For most of the play, Ruckley stood upstage with his arms outstretched as if crucified. But at critical moments he stepped out of his catatonia and boomed in a deep baritone voice: “F-F-F FUCK ‘EM ALL!”   It was one of my all time favorite stage moments. The effect was both hilarious and unsettling for the audience.

Opening night sold out and the 700 seat auditorium was filled with students, parents and community members.   We placed Mr. A. in the VIP section of the house and strategically I sat a few seats behind him.  The lights went down and the play begin.   When Ruckley spoke his first line there was a considerable shift in the energy of the audience.  Before the laughter erupted it seemed as if every single person in the audience took their eyes off the stage and turned their heads to see Mr. A’s reaction.  He slumped a couple of inches lower in his seat every time the f-bomb was dropped.  By the end of the show, he could barely be seen from behind. I can’t remember if he stood at the end (which got a full standing ovation every night) but I do know it wasn’t until much later, Mr. A. finally commented about the play and that night.

256_42964335388_3951_nWhen I wished Mr. A. a happy retirement years afterwards, he smiled and asked me if I knew how upset he was with Cuckoo’s Nest. He said that he went home that night and didn’t know what he would do with me, once the dozens of complaints and grievances would pour in.  But much to his surprise,  he didn’t get a single complaint. Not one.

Mr. A. looked me in the eye and said, “I still don’t understand why not.  Can you tell me why nobody complained?”

I do know Mr. A. but if you couldn’t figure it out, I  don’t think you’ll ever understand.

 

 

 

You Deserve a Break Today (or not) at #McTheatre

 

macdonalds I just closed a production in a theatre festival of what was supposed to be about new ideas.  Actually it was a homogenized collection of mainstream scripts.  The play I chose to direct was one of the exceptions. The playwright Gina Femia played with conventions of character, time and setting, as did I in my direction.  Not surprisingly, this was the most challenging piece to grasp and appreciate for the fundamentally conservative audiences.

While we were still in rehearsal, a cohort and friend who (several years ago) was one of my students made the front page of a major paper for distributing allegedly inappropriate material to his students for a stand-up comedy unit.  The story was picked up by other media outlets across the country and Jeff was subsequently and rather hastily and unceremoniously dismissed from his 12 year position as a teacher with the Toronto District School Board. It didn’t matter that students, colleagues, parents and alumni all rallied to support this teacher and to explain that although  Mr. Jones may be conceived as unconventional, it is because he is genuine, honest and authentic that he is so effective as a teacher.  Jeff made a difference in his students’ lives.

 Political correctness.  Cookie cutter education.  Moral sanctimony.  political-correctness_puppet

I belong to a very small minority of people who don’t really enjoy musicals and other forms of big box entertainment.  I can’t count the number of times I went to see a show that got rave reviews from audiences, but I walked out feeling “meh”.  Students and many of my friends are shocked when I announce I wasn’t particularly wowed by Rent, seduced by Chicago or touched by My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.   I understand the appeal of such shows, but the outcome is not much different than the way I feel after I eat a Big Mac.  The two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – all on a sesame seed bun may satisfy billions of cravings, but for me the greasy, salty burger with chemical laden sauce makes me feel a little sick and a lot guilty.  The Big Mac will never, ever have the tender, rich succulent satisfaction of a prime, grass-fed filet mignon.

I do not go to the theatre to have my appetite for entertainment satiated. I need and expect theatre (and literature, film, music, art and dance) to feed my imagination and nourish my spirit.  I expect to be confronted with new ideas, perspectives and questions and I hope my equilibrium will somehow be shaken, and my boundaries be pushed.  Give me theatre that makes me think hard,  feel deeply and it’s okay to make me feel uncomfortable.  I’d so rather attend and pay good money for an unsuccessful production with noble intentions than sit through a glittering, shiny multimillion dollar production that has next to no substance.

I felt the same way about teaching.  It wasn’t about teaching my students to become entertainers – tap-dancing musical theatre performers or God help us, reality television celebs.  It wasn’t about encouraging kids to get an agent so they could audition for McDonalds’ commercials and make lots of money so they could pretend they were actors or artists.

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 What I did try to teach was critical thinking skills.  I wanted my students to create, not imitate, to use the arts as a form of communication for ideas, values and issues that were universally important, and to connect in meaningful ways in order to better understand our shared humanity beyond social class, ethnicity, religion or geographical and political divides.  I wanted my students to listen to others, to empathize with those who may be different, to keep their minds open, to be accepting and to to think outside of the proverbial box.  I tried to show them that creating something worthwhile was always difficult and requires serious work ethic, tenacity, determination, sacrifice and passion.  I tried to create a safe space to explore, where they could be honest and open and real and where it was okay to fail.

So, here we are in 2013 and in many ways the world I live in has stepped backwards.  My friends still teaching in the trenches are now second-guessing themselves and their curriculum because conservative nay-sayers, book-burners, paranoid administrators and witch-hunters are on the loose and empowered by their sense righteousness. Literally, there is a climate of fear.  Based on what has happened to Jeff, I believe we are now entering an age of McSchools and McDrama classes. The best teachers: the daring ones, the non-conventional, the brave and the creative – they do have reason to be frightened.  Theatre too, is becoming increasingly safe and insipid.  Artistic directors have become afraid of punitive funding cuts by conservative governments. While razzle dazzle shows like Wizard of Oz and Cats are still attracting crowds to Toronto theatres, the really brilliant work by  talented Canadian playwrights, directors and actors is only seen and appreciated by a few.

It really is a Catch 22.