Spoken and Written

Not long after my big move to Chicago, I received notification of an open call for pitches for a story show at a prestigious theatre here in the city. The call asked for pitches of twelve to sixteen hundred words around the theme of love. I’ve done a few story shows in the past and have never seen a call for such a long submission before. I emailed the organizer, who told me that, if chosen, I wouldn’t be expected to recite the submission word-for-word; I think they’re most concerned with making sure they can have the highest quality show possible and would like to err on the side of length. I’m welcoming the challenge of combining a spoken art I’ve more recently come to enjoy and a written art which feels familiar and dangerous at turns.

Background: As a theatre major at Ball State University, I was blocked. I didn’t know how to be a good actor. I didn’t even know what being a good actor felt like or how to tell if I was doing it correctly. I still loved theatre and thrilled at each chance to see live actors on stage, and I ached to be one of them. Up to that point, school had always been a matter of reading material, taking tests, and checking boxes, but merging academia with an artistic discipline was an entirely new experience. I didn’t know how to bridge the gap between structure and creativity.

At the same time, I faithfully wrote in my Xanga (hello, 2005!) every day and decided to pick up a creative writing minor. This opened my creative doors. I couldn’t understand good actors because they worked imperceptibly, disappearing into the characters they were playing. But good writers gave me something I could almost touch; I could analyze story structure, yes, but also the physical forms of the words themselves, how they were laid on pages to suggest timing, rhythm, and music. I could also understand how my own feelings and experiences could be translated into words. The terrain of written words was varied and bizarre; there was room for Ntozake Shange and Jonathan Safran Foer along with Jane Austen and Mark Twain. And, I believed, there was room for me as well.

In working on this submission, I’ve identified a few key differences between my spoken work and my written work. When I build a story for a show, I work orally from beginning to end. I imagine myself in front of an audience, microphone in my face, and I trudge through. I pay attention to the showing and telling (as a writer would), moments of action, story structure. I also leave room for humor and little asides, trying to predict what will make an audience laugh and fill in gaps for them. I construct the pieces in this way until I have a complete story of ten to fifteen minutes and then tell the whole thing again, this time paying attention to the lags and awkward moments. As a storyteller, I’m upbeat, funny, intense, and direct.

But my process as a writer is more intuitive and vulnerable. I feel my way toward words and phrases with sounds that I respond to; they can be pleasing or haunting. I pay attention to sentences that communicate heft and silence. I believe that the shapes and sounds of written words are just as important as their meanings. As a writer, I’m melancholy and sensual.

I’m given the opportunity to craft a non-fiction story for possible performance and with that comes the challenge of uniting my humor and energy with my gravity and music. But this is what I came to Chicago for, yeah? To come home to myself as an artist?Written words don’t have the monopoly on the bizarre and dream-like; art is a heroic effort to make connections and merge disparate selves.

Carry on and happy Thursday. 🙂


Spring Awakening: a Review

Be advised: this review may contain spoilers.

Nearly ninety years after its first English production in 1917, Frank Wedekind’s oft-censored-and-banned Spring Awakening was adapted into a musical, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. That musical received eight Tony awards in 2007 and went on to be performed worldwide, even coming back to Broadway in 2015 as a bilingual production performed in American Sign Language and English. It has now found its latest home in Fort Wayne, with a production by Three Rivers Music Theatre.

Spring Awakening is certain to garner mixed reactions, and audiences should be advised that this is not typical Fort Wayne fare. Spring Awakening tells the story of a group of teens living in nineteenth century Germany and their first encounters with sexuality. Intellectual atheist Melchior acts as the protagonist, self-assured in the physical changes he’s going through. The “torturous” sex dreams of tragically studious Moritz are played for laughs early in the show. Hints about Haschen and Ernst’s relationship provide a few chuckles as well. However, it doesn’t take long for the quaintness to wear off and reveal the disastrous consequences of this ignorance and repression. The young people of this community are thrust into a world bursting with structure but short on answers, and we see very starkly where the expectations of the older generation lead them.

Thematically, Spring Awakening isn’t the most original show to hit the stage. It pits its young characters against a repressive society, arguing that sexuality is natural and that sexual expression can’t be turned off. This is exemplified most obviously in Wendla, played by Dana Bixler. Wendla finds out at the beginning of the show that her sister has given birth for a second time. Already having started her period herself, Wendla still doesn’t know where babies come from, and her mother is hesitant to tell her. As the show goes on, however, Wendla comes into her sexuality, though we can see she doesn’t understand it. In contrast, Melchior, played by Jayden Cano, is self-assured and confident in his sexual development, and this is where the story feels too simple for me. Wendla’s character arc is complex. She has found her sensuality but is still at its mercy. She changes incredibly rapidly, but remains essentially childlike. I was uncertain, however, what changes Melchior goes through, if any. It’s not much of a leap to identify with him as the voice of reason, and I would have liked to see that, if his beliefs don’t change, then at least he’s somewhat worn down by what they cost.

But, never fear, dear reader. Even if the themes of the show aren’t new, the execution feels fresh. It would be easy for a show that deals so frankly with sexual assault, domestic abuse, rape, and abortion to quickly slide into cliche territory, but the young cast remain committed to their characters through adult situations—nothing illegal, I assure you—with seriousness and humor in turn. If you’ll pardon my French, I never felt like I was watching a bunch of amateurs masturbate on stage (I mean, except for that one song—wink wink). When tense moments happen in the show, the audience is uncomfortable because the moment is genuinely uncomfortable. And when the characters were in rapture (the song “My Junk” for example), I could feel it too. The tension is offset by the beauty of the music, and the dissonance created by the two artfully sends the audience back to the first days of adolescences: our own first crushes, our own insecurities.

The venue itself adds to the freshness. The play is being performed at Wunderkammer Company on Fairfield Avenue, an art gallery and community organizing space. The painted brick walls, metal beams along the ceiling, and even other audience members are visible throughout the show; no attempt is made to cover them up. What we’re left with is a show composed primarily of actors’ bodies and voices. The staging is minimal; set changes are accomplished by moving chairs and shifting lights. There are very few costume changes, and only two actors portray all of the adult characters in the play. When not in scenes, the cast sits at the back of the stage, watching the action.

Vocally, the cast is strongest when singing together, though sometimes individual actors’ solos and spoken lines were difficult to hear. Some of you will recall that Wunderkammer Company is the renovated incarnation of the old Casa D’Angelo restaurant, and its acoustics don’t serve musicals. In that same vein, the unique staging comes with its set of limitations; audience members sitting on either side of the thrust stage may not be able to see a some moments of the play because of the placement of actors’ bodies. Audience members previously unfamiliar with this show may miss some points the story to volume and visibility issues, and that’s a shame. This show is so full of poignant moments that it’s a tragedy to imagine any of them being lost, especially to basic issues of sound and sight lines.

I would list my favorite ensemble numbers, but it’s easier just to write ‘all of them.’ Even with its imperfections, Spring Awakening is gorgeous in its minimalism. I have two recommendations: please buy your ticket, and please buy it as soon as possible. And, if you’re concerned about moments you might miss to volume and staging, get there early enough to sit front and center.

Please note: triggers abound in this musical.

Spring Awakening runs one more weekend. See threeriversmusictheatre.com for more information.


Okay, so, I’ve read what I’ve just written, and I feel compelled to let you know this is not a suicide note. I have no plans to end my life. On with the words:

This recent nihilism started during the first year of my Peace Corps service, when words lost meaning. I felt like everyone was either telling me I was lying about the things happening to me, the rocks, the words, the constant attention, the garbage, the screaming, the threats–these things are normal, or they’re only being done by people who don’t know any better, and now that you know why, doesn’t that make it all better?–or they weren’t listening. Or I couldn’t tell anyone, conscious of the covert extra listeners over the phone, their clicks as quiet as mice. We invented code words for ourselves, lest we be overheard in public; you never could be sure who might send you home for an unwise word against… There was nowhere to go, I felt, where I couldn’t be heard, couldn’t be found out if I wasn’t careful. When I came home, there was no one to understand my grief, the loss of a language I’d loved as much as I could, my lingering fear, my craving for cigarette smoke, or the dream I’d just woken up from. There were no words for that, and I wish I’d been smarter and stopped talking.

No, this recent nihilism didn’t start halfway across the world, four years ago. This recent nihilism started in an online support group for gay Christian men trying to live out a traditional sexual ethic. Frankly, we were terrible to each other, living out the love exemplified for us by a God whose mercy was borne out in violence: my body and yours, tools of the devil, our tickets to hell, our means of bringing about apocalypse. It started in the perversion of language in those messages: men healed from their homosexuality barebacked their way across the world, ‘gay’ was only a description of how faggy you were, how femme, and the worst thing to be was effeminate. I believed in those days there had to be a way to tell my story, give my testimony, say the right magic words to take away the abomination my skin was. I smoked cigarettes to burn parts of myself away, I really did, as though queerness was something I carried in pink lungs or a soft heart.

Peace Corps was like taking crazy pills and my ex-gay years were a mindfuck. It took living in a country where homosexuality was illegal for me to understand that no one should live this way. It took people telling me that those things were wrong for me to believe it; I had no instinct for self-preservation. I learned from Jesus to idealize obedience unto death, even death on a cross.

I struggle to organize my thoughts; as I’ve said, words lost meaning. I have no common language with the straight Christians I know, those for whom something like homosexuality is an issue we can disagree on. (I don’t think you affirm my humanity. I really don’t. Yes, you. How could I, that summer of 2011 when I knew it would have been better had I never been born, and 2008, when I’d had to decide between taking a vegetable knife out to the beach to stick in my arm and doing the dishes. No, no, these stories will not sway your hearts, and why should they? You don’t even believe in damage.)

I write these things out of fear for the future and of certain destruction and, perhaps, no existence after death. We get one shot, and no one gives a shit.

There is only language to approximate truth, and language is sadly faulty.

What is left for me is to do what most adults probably do when they’re younger than just-shy-of-31 and think about what it is I need and how to get it. What it feels like is I need certainty, and, if there’s no certainty outside me, I need certainty inside. I want certainty again: of words, of feelings.

One certain thing: Christianity has been very, very bad for me. A smarter person would have stopped a long time ago. I’ve tried very, very hard, and, if God is real, I hope He understands that when I die.
Another certain thing: I’m devastated to have lived and believed such a false thing–I’ve sucked down poison, believing it was nourishing me.
A third: I’m no lighter for having seen what truth there might be. I’ve only woken up from a dream.
A fourth: I live in the wrong place and have grown up largely among the wrong people.
A fifth: I left for the Peace Corps in 2012 and never came home.

There may be no life in four years, or there may be. We may not make it out, or we might. And after that?

A sixth certain thing: I don’t want to be alone, but sometimes I don’t know how people could be anything else.

A Question and a Response/A Testimony

A conversation on Facebook about the wider problem of people who are different becoming the enemy: I chimed in a few times, saying the following:

“marginalized people haven’t been listened to, and people who are not marginalized believe that they are. people for whom the stakes are high must be louder and louder to be heard, and people for whom the stakes are low believe the stakes are high. language fails if no one is listening.”

And regarding instances of Christians disagreeing with queer people’s lifestyles:

“in my opinion, even the word ‘disagreement’ can be faulty; it supposes that each side is on level ground with the others. ‘disagreement’ has been the word to shut me down when i’ve tried desperately to tell people how wrong things have gotten in my life. ‘disagreement’ supposes that no one has been wronged.”

The writer of the original post is a thoughtful person and typically uses his Facebook feed to ask larger questions about human nature. So he asked me:

“Why did people want to shut you down?”

And I wrote the following words, words I haven’t put together in such a long string because it’s difficult to operate in the age of failed language:

“i attribute it again to shortsightedness. i’ll take “i disagree with your lifestyle” as an example, not to go after j—, because i don’t know him and i’m sure he’s a good friend to those who do know him, but because that’s one of the most stark examples in my life. and j—, i do hope if you read this that you know i’m coming from a personal place of wanting to tell the truth and connect; these things are hard for me to tell a christian stranger.

“i was ex-gay for a number of years, but, in that time, i learned that what i was actually doing didn’t matter. i was more sexually pure even than most straight christians, but still, assumptions about my life and what i was doing were out there. and i’d hear that from people who didn’t know me: “i disagree with your lifestyle.” i wasn’t doing anything wrong. the support i actually needed at the time had very little to do with resisting temptation and everything to do with how desperately lonely and miserable i was. and “i disagree with your lifestyle” was a clear indication that there was no room for the actual devastation occurring in my heart to come out. “i disagree with your lifestyle” really meant “i don’t know you personally, but that doesn’t matter.”

“the cognitive dissonance was staggering. time and again throughout my life i was held to this incredibly high standard i couldn’t possibly reach. i was being required constantly to reject my nature, feel out of place among queer people and straight people, and heap grace upon people whose unfortunate ignorance about my misery was absolved by the word ‘disagree.’ and i knew this was what jesus wanted, this grace in the face of repeated psychological abuse, and i was so willing to give it to him; it was all i could give him, it was everything.

“when i was twenty-five i finally realized this was going to kill me quite literally. i started to think again and again that it would have been better if i’d never been born. there was hell for me on earth or hell for me after death. and that, too, was covered by the word ‘disagree.’ this is how i was shut down. it couldn’t possibly be true that there was no room for that level of misery to spoken to, healed, or at least soothed in my local congregation or the people i was closest to. but there it was. the rights of those around me not to feel uncomfortable with this blip in creation, to see me saddled with a terribly heavy burden that would crush me again and again and never have to or be able to carry it, were more important than my right to be understood.

“and then a few years after that, i had step away from the whole thing, because, if God exists and he’s the same jewish-christian God i learned he is, he can’t possibly prefer me dead.

“that’s the ‘disagreement.'”

So many of these pearls are cast before those who don’t recognize what they are. Our points of hardness, the things that have been caught just below our skin and covered time and again to become beautiful: we spit them out, no longer willing or able to live with the irritation, and they fall at the feet before someone who’d just as soon trample them into the mud. And this is often involuntary; so many people have attributed the trampling to malevolence when, really, I believe that no one can see well enough. So we go on, spitting out our pearls, leaving a constellation of opalescence, and still nothing to be divined.

I’ve written these things in rebellion against the failure of language. It cannot be valuable to ask someone who simply can’t see well to name the stars. I must daily choose to be on my own side.

i would like an exchange of words please to switch ‘should’ with ‘would like to’ for example ‘i should stop believing that if god exists then he is evil’ becomes ‘i would like to live my life in such a way as to reflect a belief that everything isn’t a trap’ and ‘i should write every day’ turns into ‘i would like to go back to a place of sensitivity where i was vulnerable to the beauty of words where even their sounds linked together like the bases of amino acids to make eyes deeper green than i’d ever seen before and skin smooth and bronze’

having grown up in wonderland

having grown up in wonderland

i can tell you about the rabbit holes

and root systems wrapped in soil
and how soft water hardens over time into stalactites dripping in slow motion from the stone above.

i can tell you about the cool hardness of the womb opening up in bedrock
fish born without eyes and sliding forward into darkness
guided down toward the warm heart at the center of their mother, the earth.

down there in wonderland

i walked quietly and kept my voice low 

careful not to disturb the seeds which slept curled up like babies

and saw how they would stretch their legs upon waking and feel their way up toward the sun

to get its attention.

having grown up in wonderland i can tell you the name of each ancient monster growling down deep in the pit of the stomach of their mother, the earth

(and hunger

terrific hunger and rage).

i heard the scratch of tectonic plates floating above our heads even as their rough hides whispered, rubbing up against cave walls built on the bones of their fathers and grandfathers: a thin, oily line of blood drawn up from her fleshy heart.

i heard scratch

and click

and breath

and stood still enough to feel them brush my face, leather and mohair and smooth obsidian and warm hematite.

down there in wonderland

i was privy to all their secrets:

how trees grow to bind each other up in burmese python and angel hair roots and hold each other steady to trudge through the ages together as through rushing flood water,

how boulders will trickle like tears if you let them melt,

how, in fact, all parts of the body are more river than mountain.

having grown up in wonderland

i can tell you i believe in motion above all things.

“Freud’s Last Session”: A Review

Heavy-handedness would be very easy in a production of “Freud’s Last Session.” To be honest, that was the thing I feared going into the performance Saturday night. “Freud’s Last Session” portrays a fictional conversation between Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, and C. S. Lewis, famed author of the Narnia series as well as a host of books on Christian apologetics and theology. The conversation takes place in Freud’s home in London in the early days of World War II, the exact day, in fact, England declares war on Germany, and just weeks before Freud’s death. The central topic the two discuss is the existence of God, or, more specifically, how one can know whether or not God exists.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of a growing group of people my age who have walked away from our church communities for various reasons. For some of us, the decision to leave was an easy one, but, for others (myself included), it was very difficult. I describe it to non-Christian friends of mine as waking up one day and finding out that maybe your parents don’t exist. My path of faith has been long and winding, full of dark patches, thorns, and wrong turns. Too often, conversations about God’s existence are so cerebral that they overshadow those long and winding paths of faith so many of us have walked; our emotions can be just as influential as our thoughts in determining what is true and what is not. I was conscious, too, of the experience of seeing a play like this in an audience which I assumed to be majority Christian. With these apprehensions, I took my seat Saturday night at the Arts Lab and waited for the play to begin.

The play ran eighty minutes, no intermission, no scene breaks. The set, Freud’s home office, was richly decorated with bookshelves full of books and ancient religious artifacts as well as the kind of chaise longue you’d expect in any psychoanalyst’s office on TV. The two actors, Jeff Salisbury (Lewis) and Larry Bower (Freud), plunged in, immediately establishing warmth between the two characters, though not always friendly intimacy. Along with the temptation to be heavy-handed might have come the temptation to villainize a character with whom you disagree, but Bower’s Freud was well-spoken, convicted, and even charming at times. I was particularly impressed with his handling of a German accent; it was very easy to believe this was an articulate man whose first language wasn’t English. 

Salisbury’s C. S. Lewis had echoes of how I’d imagined him when I was younger: convicted in his own right, some touches of lightness and humor, but also malleable. This was key for me. During the pre-show speech, director Lauren Nichols announced that this is a play about a difficult conversation, and we all might do well to learn how to discuss important topics in real kindness, without judgment. Again, a lesser production might have been heavy-handed, and, if anyone thinks that All for One’s “Freud’s Last Session” is casting C. S. Lewis as the hero, please think again. Lewis’s moments of concern for Freud never felt motivated by a desire to win him over to faith in God, but an example of caring for someone else for the sole reason that care is good.

Many of the points raised for or against the existence of God were familiar: the problem of evil, the existence of goodness, whether or not a universal moral law exists. Frankly, I wish I had brought a notebook to take notes. There were many points during which I would have liked to pause the performance and think things through. This is a production that invites you to ponder, and, hopefully, you’ll come away understanding that controversial conversations should never be about scoring points. Nichols writes in the program, “The playwright has remarked that he doesn’t think any audience member, coming to the play convinced of one position or the other, will go away with a changed mind. But perhaps many of us will be better informed in general, and more appreciative of the achievements of both of these men.”

In past conversations, Nichols has told me that it’s always her desire to bring unique offerings to the Fort Wayne stage which audiences aren’t likely to have seen anywhere else, but which also don’t compromise All for One’s values as a faith-based theatre company. Typical seasons offer a mix of family-oriented, religious, classic, and sometimes obscure offerings. In my opinion, All for One is at its finest when historical fiction is on the stage. In past seasons, the company has showcased some of its best and most imaginative work with stage adaptations of works like Jane Austen’s “Emma,” Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” 

I’ll add this strong production to All for One’s list of exceptional achievements and urge you, please, to go see it. There really is something for everyone in it, theists, atheists, and agnostics alike. It’s refreshing to feel invited to the table, so to speak, especially in a piece that discusses God’s existence (or lack thereof) so directly. “Freud’s Last Session” can be seen at the Parkview Physician’s Group Arts Lab, 300 E. Main Street, September 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., and September 25 at 2:30 p.m. Please visit allforone.org for more information.