Why can’t it be Scout’s story?

Let’s start with one clear, unalienable truth: I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing.

I love SportsNight, A Few Good Men, Studio 60, and of course, The West Wing Seasons 1-4. I haven’t seen The Social Network, The Farnsworth Invention, or Steve Jobs, but I’m sure I’d love them. I mean, this is how much I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing: when I am re-watching The West Wing, which I have done many, many times, I find myself falling into Sorkin-esque speech patterns, so much that I have to stop myself lest my friends think I’m a pompous erudite with way too high an opinion of myself, like so many Sorkin characters. When I heard he was going to write To Kill a Mockingbird for Broadway, I was thrilled.

101032-11And then, I read this article. In his lovely, self-deprecating way, Sorkin talks about how terrifying and difficult it was to write the play, for all the reasons you’d expect when you’re trying to remake something that never asked to be remade because it was epic all on its own. He describes the moment when he figured out how to do it – he decided that Atticus Finch needed to be a protagonist of the story.

I haven’t read the book in a while. After I finish my current book, I’m going to. Because all I remember about it is that it was Scout’s story, and her dad, Atticus, was almost too perfectly heroic. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an accident on Harper Lee’s part.

So when I read that Atticus needed to go on a journey that he didn’t take in the book, at first, I said “ok, sure, that’s storytelling 101.” And then, Sorkin wrote a couple of casual, almost flippant sentences that made something uneasy creep into my stomach.

In the book, Atticus isn’t the protagonist — Scout is. Faced with the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South, Scout loses some of her innocence. Her flaw is that she’s young. But for the play, I didn’t want Scout (or Jem or Dill) to be the only protagonist.

Later that day, I was walking my dog through the neighborhood. Apparently the article was in my subconscious, because suddenly, I stopped walking and said to myself:

WHY THE HECK CAN’T IT BE ALL ABOUT SCOUT? WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE ABOUT ATTICUS (OR JEM OR DILL)?

As I’ve done all my life when experiencing such feminist flareups, I shoved it away as being “too reactionary.” And then, I stopped myself, and allowed myself to really think about it: Why can’t it be Scout’s story? I would LOVE to see what Aaron Sorkin would do with this story, framed by the innocence of a child, in today’s America. Why can’t he write that?

I don’t know the answer, and I’m not going to pretend to try. It’s a free country, and Sorkin can write whatever he wants and I will definitely go see it, and likely be swept away by his words and storytelling.

But I’m not ignoring that little voice that stopped me in my tracks.

It’s the same voice that popped up when I first heard the Hamilton soundtrack, and despite how much I adored it, wondered if the women had anything to do other than be in love with their men.

It’s the same voice that wishes Lin-Manuel Miranda had chosen to cast one of the founding fathers as a girl in drag. He broke tons of barriers with that show, so why not that one?

It’s the same voice that wished the Fellowship of the Ring had included a couple of Female Fellows.

It’s the same voice that has made me always want to play the role of Enjolras in Les Misérables, (other than that brief phase where I was convinced I was Eponine), or at least see some fabulous female play it.

It’s the same voice that wonders what the impact would have been if J. K. Rowling had created Hannah Potter, the Girl who Lived.

Today, also while out walking my dog, that voice piped up with the perfect encapsulating question. Aaron Sorkin begins his essay by sharing that a famous Broadway producer called him when he got the Broadway rights for To Kill A Mockingbird, and asked Sorkin if he wanted to write it. If we’re being honest, we all know that producer was not going to call any of the young, brilliant, not-famous playwrights out there today. He was going to call one of the best and most beloved writers of our age. I get that.

So why didn’t he call Shonda Rhimes? Now that’s a play I’d like to go see.

 

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Where do you find wonder?

I’ve been a bad arts person lately. I haven’t been to see a lot of live shows. A few years back, I lived for going to theater and dance and music. These days I’m lucky if I go to one show every couple of months.

There are reasons for this. One is that TV is so good these days and my couch is so comfy. Another is that I now live in one of the most expensive cities in America, I no longer get all my tickets for free, and I simply can’t afford to go very often.

But there’s a more disturbing reason that I’ve been pondering. Am I outgrowing “the arts” as I knew them in my 20s and 30s? It used to be that I’d go to a show to fill up something in my soul that needed filling. I don’t do that anymore. I wish I knew why.

These days, when my soul needs filling, I go outside. I go to my neighborhood Arboretum, or a hike in the woods, or, when I can swing it, to one of our glorious national parks/monuments.  It’s become a physical and mental necessity, actually; if I don’t get my outside time, I become a version of myself that I don’t like much: puffy, sluggish, grumpy, and convinced that the world is really as bad as it seems sometimes.

Recently, I attended a concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I admit it – it still gives me a little thrill to think that one of the best orchestras in the world is my hometown band, as they say. We were going to hear Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, which, I confess, meant nothing to me other than I’ve heard of Mahler and people seem to think he’s pretty good. On the way, I asked my musician friend why she liked this work, and she said, “Well, because it’s big and loud and interesting…it’s just one of my favorites.” She also mentioned that Mahler is a more programmatic composer, often trying to tell stories with his music, which is speaking my language. It was enough for me to get excited to hear the piece.

The first movement of the work was marvelous. I don’t know what story Mahler was telling, but it didn’t matter; I was along for the ride as the music changed and chased itself and contradicted itself and resolved and made me smile on more than one occasion. I kept trying to remember specific musical moments so I could tell my friend about how they’d resonated with me.

And then, something happened. As the musicians shuffled their music between the 2nd and 3rd movements, I happened to notice a trumpet player, with his instrument, get up and leave the stage. I figured this part of the score required one less trumpet, so that’s was why he was leaving. An idle thought.

The movement began and I don’t remember much about it until suddenly, a trumpet sounded in a clear and poignant solo…in a tone I’d never heard. It was slightly muffled, coming from far away, like an echo of itself, so soft and pure and lovely that it made me sit up in my seat. It wasn’t coming from the stage. My eyes darted around while my brain tried to catch up with my ears, and I looked at my friend in delight and like a little kid whispered, “It’s coming from outside in the hallway!” She just smiled (we’re not supposed to talk at concerts, after all).

The first refrain of the post-horn (that’s what my music friends tell me it’s called) solo seemed to go on forever, and when it was over, I heard the entire Symphony Hall release a collective breath. As the musicians shuffled their music again, I whispered to myself: “Come back, trumpet player, that was amazing,” and the stranger sitting next to me agreed, adding his own whisper: “That was extraordinary.” This was a case where it was just WRONG that we couldn’t clap between movements.

It was a moment of wonder. Complete, unexpected, delightful, awe-inducing, and I realized I have never experienced that in a concert hall during a symphonic concert. Ever. As I took the bus home that night, I ran over the memories of comparable gasp-worthy moments:

  • A certain moment in the Broadway show Next to Normal when the audience realizes a character that we thought was there, wasn’t;
  • The first time I saw Elphaba fly in Wicked
  • The first time I finished the Hamilton soundtrack
  • When I watched Sutton Foster tapdance as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes
  • The first time I saw the work of choreographers Ohad Naharin and Jyri Killian

Now I can add “The first time I heard the post-horn solo in Mahler’s 3rd” to that list.

Wonder, as defined by Google:

a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

Just a few days after this musical moment, I found myself in Joshua Tree National Park. A whole weekend of wonder-full moments, and I realized at least one reason why I’ve been trading my concert/theater time for outdoor time.

See, when you can see stuff like this at every turn:

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It’s easy to get your hit of wonder. Since I started getting obsessed with parks and hiking and being outside, I’ve seen hundreds of these wonder moments and they never bore me. They are always a surprise even though I know they are coming. They always make it hard for me to believe that the bad guys will win.

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I’ve had to look harder for them in the arts lately, and I don’t know if that’s about me or the art. But it’s been easier to find them outside, so I’ll keep going there. But I’ll hold out hope for another post-horn solo moment, because it was really, really wonderful.

Dear Arts Marketers…let’s stop counting occasionally

I’m an arts marketer. This means, among many other things, that I count things. Many things. Everything from website hits to YouTube views to people in the audience to number of times someone asks me “hey, have you ever thought of [insert marketing idea I’ve most definitely thought of]?”.

My job is to somehow quantify the unquantifiable. I’m not allowed to say “that felt like a big crowd,” or “seemed like folks saw our ad”. I’m supposed to have numbers to back it all up.

It’s hard sometimes to get those numbers. In truth, it’s hard most of the time, because once we get them, inevitably we want more and different numbers.

And there are times when this need to justify our existence via numbers puts us at odds with our artistic or education colleagues. It’s not PC to say it, but it’s true; sometimes we speak different languages, even though we’re on the same team.

That’s why I love moments like today. Here’s the setup in its briefest format.

A local public radio station puts on a festival called Cartoonfest. Basically, they play Bugs Bunny on the big screen in Boston’s Symphony Hall, and invite a bunch of local groups to play classical music in various rooms throughout the day. Kids get their faces painted and scavenge for stickers and otherwise run rampant in one of the most hallowed symphonic music halls in the country.

It’s cute. It’s fun. And today I realized that, despite my hopes otherwise, it’s a pretty lousy marketing/PR event for my little non-profit. See, the local radio station doesn’t carry our radio show, and there’s barely any time to try to collect emails or contact info from people in the audience. Half the time, people arrive 15 minutes into our 30 minute set and leave 10 minutes later. There’s no real way to count the audience.

Depressing, if all we care about is numbers. But I left our 30 minute set anything but depressed.

See, the young musicians we work with at From the Top are exceptional teenagers. There’s no other word for it. They are remarkable. And today, I watched a 15- and 17-year-old sister/brother cello/violin duo put on a 30 minute presentation that was more interesting and thoughtful than most chamber music concerts I’ve been to. They poked fun at each other like siblings do. They played Bach, Schubert, Shostakovich, and Piazzolla. They gave charming little intros to every piece of music they played. They THOUGHT about their audience and how to engage them. They were delightful and played like a million bucks. And did I mention they were 15 and 17?

I watched the crowd of kids as they played. A few were bored or squirmy. But more than a few sat rapt, knees pulled to their chests, completely attuned. I happened to catch this little moment with one of the youngest audience members:

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When was the last time you went to a concert and got that kind of connection with the musicians on stage?

I kept trying to count the audience as I was watching the show, until finally, I mentally threw up my hands and said, “No.” The number of people in the room did not even come close to representing the GOOD that came from this little 30 minutes of music. That two busy teenagers would give up hours of their time to write a script and practice together, and do it with such care and consideration, was worth more than any numbers.

That a few young audience members could see people their age, less than 10 feet away, playing with joy and passion and obvious respect for each other and their music, was entirely worth it. To think that even one kid in that audience might decide to keep playing music because they were inspired – that was enough.

For a few lovely moments today, I simply didn’t CARE what the quantifiable result of this performance was. I was just able to appreciate how making music is wonderful, how listening to music is wonderful, and how supporting young people in doing those things is one of the best jobs a person could have. And one of the most important, if we want our country to be the greatest in the world.

Sometimes, we have to stop counting and simply appreciate when good things are happening. When a few good people do something good. I’m glad I got to do that today.

A grand western adventure

There are some vacations that, when they are over, however awesome they were, we are glad to get back to our lives.

And there are some we wish would never end.

Other than a twinge of missing my dog once in a while, my most recent western adventure is one of the latter.

Together with a semi-old (we met in 2009) friend turned new travel companion (this was our first extended trip together), I recently spent 9 days flitting…well, driving…about the American West. Here are the stats:

States I’d never been to:  4 (Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana)
Miles walked/hiked: more than 60
Miles driven: more than 1500
Times we heard “Desperado” on Sirius XM radio: At least 3
Mormons met: 3
Bears seen: ZERO…harumph, and I even got bear spray
Bison traffic jams: 2
Ankles rolled: ZERO (seriously, that’s a big deal)
Cans of Febreeze needed for the car: 1
Times we tried to visit Delicate Arch at dusk: 2
Stars seen over Yellowstone: Millions
Times we didn’t die in Death Canyon: 1

So, yeah, it was quite an adventure. Lakes, mountains, waterfalls, geysers, bison, sunrises, sunsets, Korean barbeque, Mormons, red rock canyons, arches….so many wonderful things were seen. I could write a whole blog post on the experience of traveling as a twosome, but really, you don’t want to hear me rant against how society is biased toward couples. You’ve heard that before.

Nah, let’s just look at some pretty pictures. You can live vicariously and I can try to keep the buzz going.

Day 1: I flew into Salt Lake City and arrived late. Nothing exciting to report there.

Day 2: The first part of the day was spent wandering the city, trying not to sing tunes from Book of Mormon out loud. We were given a tour of the Tabernacle and Conference buildings by several really, really nice Mormons. One was named Sister Hug. I kid not. It was quite the impressive setup.

Salt Lake City

The view of Sal Tlay Ka Citi from the park built on top of the 21,000 seat theater where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs

Then we drove the 4+ hours north to get to Grand Teton National Park. We pitched our tents in the dark and turned in with plans to rise early the next day.

Day 3: And rise early we did. So we could see this.

Grand Teton National Park

And this:

Jenny Lake

We got a few miles in on relatively flat ground at Jenny Lake to ease my East Coast legs and lungs into higher elevations, then decided to do a hike called Death Canyon, which, let’s be honest, was really all about the name. The legend is that some dude entered the canyon and didn’t come out, though the ranger we talked to said he could have just kept going to Idaho. At any rate, I struggled with this hike, although views like this helped:

Phelps Lake

At one point, I sent Shawn on ahead so he could, you know, hike at more than a snail’s pace for a bit, and spent some quality time communing with nature by the side of the trail. Needless to say, I slept pretty well that night despite chilly temperatures.

Day 4: On this day, we were bound for Montana, to check out an arts center called Tippet Rise that has sprung up from the ranchland. You can read about it here; I don’t want to try to explain it when others have done it better. But it was an interesting experience; we heard some incredible solo piano, and trekked a few miles out into the fields to see these sculptures:

Montana (47 of 15)

Montana (49 of 15)

Montana (50 of 15)

But really, the highlight was the locally-sourced barbeque. Yummo. We stayed the night in a totally adorable little cabin, complete with antlers and horses as our neighbors. Get it, “neigh” bors? Cracking myself up over here.

Day 5: For the first time, our drive wasn’t more than 4 hours, and we made our way down to Yellowstone National Park in good time. So began two days that are a blur of wonderfulness – hikes and photos and views and campfires and stars and bison. I’ll just share some photos and not try to talk about it too much.

Yellowstone day 1 (41 of 42)

Yellowstone day 2 (42 of 3)

Yellowstone day 2 (43 of 40)

Yellowstone day 2 (47 of 40)

Yellowstone day 2 (72 of 40)

Yellowstone day 1 (62 of 42)

Seriously, y’all, Yellowstone is a magical, magical place. I plan to go back. Anyone who wants to invite me along next time you go, don’t hesitate.

Day 6: Our drive back to SLC took more hours than it should have due to some nasty wildfires in Yellowstone, but by this point, we were pretty tired and dirty and smelly, so heading back to civilization was worth it. Civilization also meant Korean Barbecue (my first), a long shower,  and sleeping on a mattress, plus yummy Mexican food the next day before we headed south.

Day 7: If being among the craters of Yellowstone felt like being on the moon, Moab, Utah and the parks there felt like visiting Mars. We got to Moab fairly late, but managed to get in a two short hikes, one into a canyon, accompanied by bagpipes…yes, I said bagpipes

Moab (41 of 1)

…and one up to try to see the Delicate Arch. If you don’t look too closely, this is a good photo (no tripod, alas):

Delicate Arch

It was warm and pleasant in Moab, so camping that night was pretty easy. It’s also worth pointing out that this day was the official 100th birthday of the National Park Service. We are lucky that at one point, some politicians decided to do something noble and visionary for all of us to enjoy.

Day 8: On our last day, we ran/drove a gauntlet of gorgeous red rock places: starting off in Canyonlands National Park, where we hiked out to Upheaval Dome, a crazy crater that was formed either by the movement of oceans or a meteorite; we chose meteorite, for obvious reasons.

Moab (4 of 1)

Next up was a walk along the canyon rim at Grand View Overlook, where you can see the Colorado River.  It was indeed a grand view.
Moab (4 of 2)

After lunch at Dead Horse State Park (don’t ask how that park got its name, it’s a terrible story), we went back to Arches to do a 7.5 mile hike through Devil’s Garden. Hiking on the so-called “primitive” trail, we saw a bunch of arches, and also did some scrambling over rock fins and down into canyons. Shawn breezed through, I had some moments of struggle, but it was super fun and the views were incredible. See all those towers/spires of rock down there? We basically came through that to get to where  took this photo.

Moab (5 of 2)

Later, we visited the Windows area of the park, and saw some more arches.

Moab (4 of 1)-2

And then we decided to end the day with a race against the sunset to try to see Delicate Arch at night. That was an adventure I’ll tell you about over a beer sometime, but suffice to say that it involved headlamps, a few curse words (uttered by me) and two different paths to the arch (one for me, one for Shawn), but in the end we both made it up and down in one piece. We then enjoyed what was probably the best burger I’ve ever had, and passed out in our tents for our last night under the Utah stars.

Day 9: With markedly less enthusiasm, we rose and drove back to SLC, where even the shower was less awesome (but still delightful). And then, I flew home.

And that, as they say, is that. If you’re still reading, I really do owe you that beer sometime. Hope you enjoyed my travel ramblings.

 

New York City like I’ve never seen her

Snow days.

Let me state unequivocally that I love snow days, despite the stress they cause my friends who are parents, despite the fact that work-from-home technology has robbed them of their magic. I still love them.

They are for cuddling, comfy pants, sledding, and hot toddies. They are for stews and soups and binge-watching, for slippers and afghans and the rush of blood to cold cheeks once you come inside.

But there’s one key to all of this that I’d never considered before this past weekend. For snow days to work as I laid out above, there’s a requirement.

You have to be at home. If not yours, then someone else’s, but you need to be in a residence of some kind. One with afghans, a soup pot, and preferably a dog or two, if you get my meaning.

Thanks to a rabid and ridiculous media engine, everyone in the entire US knew that there was a big snowstorm hitting the East Coast this weekend. As is typical, they couldn’t say just HOW big, but it was predicted to be big enough to send most folks below the Mason Dixon line scuttling to the store for bread, eggs, chili-fixings, and liquor.

Us hearty Bostonians shrugged a collective meh, since 1) it appeared we’d miss the brunt of it, and 2) we’d seen worse.

But me, I was bound for NYC, for a long-planned theater weekend with a friend I hadn’t seen in two years. Everyone kept telling me to “be safe!” as if I was heading into grave danger, but I, intrepid New Englander that I now am, wasn’t worried. Because surely, the snow wouldn’t be that bad, I had good boots, and Manhattan really can be a winter wonderland when it wants to be. I figured it’d be an adventure and we’d slog through a foot of the white stuff to get where we needed to go.

But Mama Nature and the Mayor of NY had other ideas. The former dumped nearly 30 inches of snow on the city, and the latter decided to shut down the entire transit system in the city on Saturday. So EVERYTHING was closed. And I mean everything. Broadway, Uber, subways, movie theaters, most restaurants, museums, shops…pretty much everywhere that a visiting tourist would go to pass the time during a blizzard.

So my friend and I found ourselves doing the snow day thing on the 36th floor of a Times Square hotel with a bottle of rum and some cable TV. We were cheerful and made the best of it, but I was bummed. This was NOT the way to spend a day in NY, and it was also not the way to spend a snow day.

Around 6pm, I decided we needed to leave the hotel. Really, I just wanted to do something other than ogle homes on HGTV. And considering we’d sustained ourselves on liquor and potato chips for the afternoon, some real food seemed in order.

So we struck out in hopes of finding an open restaurant. Instead, we found a Times Square that few have seen.

Now, I know that most New York locals hate Times Square. I am not much of a fan myself, once I’ve had my fix (an hour or so of marveling at its sheer…well…brightness). But that night, it was transformed.

There were no cars, save the odd police cruiser. No bike messengers. No horns blaring, no cabs dodging pedestrians.

But there were people. Hundreds of people, like us, who had taken to the street. Hordes of winter-gear-clad folks stumbling around aimlessly in knee-deep slush, with nowhere to go or be, looking at first glance like a scene out of The Day After Tomorrow or The Walking Dead. Snowballs flew. Snowmen sprouted up to gaze up at the red stairs of the TKTS booth. Kids scrambled to the top of giant snow piles, then tumbled down in glee. Snowy selfies abounded. Happy chatter, in several languages, was punctuated by the occasional squeal of delight. Snowflakes swirled all around us, changing colors as the billboards, that never-ceasing silent light show, cast their glow over the scene.

It was magical. It was peaceful. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. I wondered if anyone out on the street actually lived in New York, or if we were all visitors, usually neatly herded by schedules and agendas into the various dens of entertainment of the city, but now claiming this place as our own for a few childish minutes.

I hoped there were a few locals in the mix. Because it was a really beautiful moment in this city that never sleeps.

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And PS: We eventually found dinner.