Monday, April 28

Promoting a Passion

I am the Skit Master. Music and dramatic performance speak to my soul.

I fell in love with a musician, poet and 2 time Phoenix Little Theatre actor. I didn't know all this when I generously cast him in a Stake Young Adult skit. I tried to encourage him to play his bit part with enthusiasm. He seemed a very quiet and "shy" returned missionary. I thought I was helping him by including him in my important presentation. He was supposed to interrupt the other actors by piously quoting scripture several times. On cue, he leaped to his feet and then ranted like an electrified Southern preacher ~ threatening the unrepentant with brimstone and a wild eye. We all cowered and laughed until we cried. I decided I seriously needed to get to know him better.

Growing up in the Church Glory-days of real pick-up truck competitive Road Shows, Quartet, Speech and Dance Festivals ~ we were trained “on the job” by some of the best and I loved every minute of it.

Our weekly M.I.A. opening exercises (and ALL our youth firesides) regularly featured a dramatic recitation or musical performance by our peers. We learned how to soft-shoe from Sister LeSueur who once owned a dance studio. Other choreography moves came from a Sister who had enjoyed a long career on Broadway. We learned how to sing in four-part harmony by women who used to perform on the radio, Andrews Sisters style. Talented seamstresses transformed us in crisp taffetas or ruffled calicoes. Our introduction to classic literature and arts themes was considered every bit as ‘gospel’ as the Holy Writ itself.

It was extremely rare when we witnessed a fellow teen deliver a talk in Church with their nose in a paper that they read from – badly. To avoid eye-contact, mumble, utter “uh” or begin a talk with the forbidden, “My talk is about...” was to risk a Divine lightning strike.

Disciplined public speaking skills were also reinforced at school; oral book reports qualified as an art form. More kids than not were studying an instrument, ballet or sang in chorus, and the arts were considered an essential part of proper development. There was a very high standard in how we presented ourselves and wonderful opportunities at every turn to expand our self-expression in the traditions (and budgets) of those former days.

Our children have not grown up in the same world. If I hoped for a stage opportunity for them at all, I had to be the one promoting it.

So ~

I began collecting props and costumes. I frequented the public library for monologues and simple scripts to modify. I coached not just my kids, but other children at church and at school how to speak, to move, to sing and experience the Joy of performance. I gave them excerpts from famous speeches; Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Lincoln, King Arthur, Jefferson, JFK and Chief Joseph. The magical poetry of Silverstein, Langston Hughes, Christina Rossetti, Robert Frost, Ogden Nash, Longfellow and Robert Louis Stevenson were assigned as solo, duet, trio or quartet performances. All of it was what I called, “beautiful language”.

The children came to stand under the lights with varying abilities and strengths, fears and preconceived notions about who they were as themselves, and who they were in front of other people. Three even came with absolutely no English language experience. I gave them an excerpt from The Gettysburg Address. They were ¡fantástico!

The kids wore hats, cat’s eye glasses, bow-ties, roman togas, African wraps, knickers, cravats, vests, a paper maché saguaro and a pinned-in bridesmaid dress. They were awesome. I was surprised and thrilled when the following school year several of these students ran up to me and sang out their former lines, word perfect and at 100 decibels just for my benefit.

Always “in the wings”, my own children were my not so secret weapon. Highly convenient and talented, I employed them to spearhead an act, say something in an accent, sing like an opera star going painfully sharp only on the high note (that’s control!) or deliver the black-out punch-line ~ and they did. (L - R = Asia, Leiland, James, Robin ~ comedy Christmas recitation, & me adjusting the mike.)Their natural sense of timing and stage confidence prompted other kids to be more flamboyant. Ready for anything Amazing Joey McKellar added to the Tanner ensemble made for a winning team. ("Rocky Top" bluegrass tune with my new lyrics honoring our Camelback Ward: L-R = Leiland, Asia, Rachel Blakey & the Amazing Joey. I'm behind one of the 5 guitarists on stage with my mouth wide open. That's Larry Johnson on harmonica and Betty Jo behind him.) (3 of the 4 are really feeling it...)

Although, I doubt if anything could ever top 11 year old Asia playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on the recorder, through her nose at the GW Ward Talent night. Bishop Dudley Barnum almost had a coronary.

There were some truly great times: David in full Phantom of the Opera garb singing “Music of the Night”, or hosting a ward Karaoke night in Las Vegas lounge-lizard tuxedo cummerbund for “Mack the Knife”, “My Way” and “New York, New York”. Then singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in thrilling harmony with his brother at their "Cruise Ship" ward party. When David wheeled in a Karaoke machine and began “working” the crowd – “Hey! How ‘ya doin’? Tell us where you're from? Lookin’ good! (wink) So nice to be here!” the sheer panic on the face of a sister who loudly blurted, “Isn’t this what they do in BARS?!” was absolutely priceless. Sometimes I feel wistful these things are mostly memories now.

Robin moved on to magnify her gifts in student government leadership, choreographing our Stake production of “Women at the Well”, and pursuing a career in Broadcast Journalism. James used a lot of his skills in Scouts; playing trumpet, directing drill teams for formal flag ceremonies and telling dramatic stories for merit badges or campfire programs. Leiland was the only freshman ever accepted into the Camelback High A-Jazz Band on saxophone and competed in a school-wide Rap contest and won. Asia was the only freshman ever accepted into Arcadia High’s ACE choir and is still singing. And Rachel is unstoppable singing to the car radio to what seems like every song on every station.

After all this ~ and for different reasons ~ none of the kids have been on stage yet in high school or college to the extent I sort of thought they might (other than band, choir or dance), and they certainly were capable of. Robin was a dazzling Glinda in a grade school version of The "Wizard of Oz", and in North High's "Mid-Summer Night's Dream". She and Asia both longed to be in a musical, but either the school wasn’t producing the opportunity or there was a serious interference – like surgery. The play James got a part in was canceled the week it was due to premiere. This was after both boys had given me notice they would not be in any more of my projects. I accepted this, believing they would one day heed the call of the stage.

Sometimes my family teases me about my costume/props closet and my thrift store “treasures”. Sometimes my recommendation for costuming or preparation for something they are doing in class is rejected. They are not interested in all the details. They believe my passion for how the presentation could be presented is unnecessary, the audience undeserving and uninterested. They are usually reluctant to stand out from their peers. On a family level, we rarely sing together anymore. (Robin's wedding reception was a wonderful exception; featuring James , Leiland , Asia & their dad as a little family band). I never did anything really remarkable, it was mostly just small-scale...but you hope your children will love something as much as you do.

Then, a few weeks ago ~ newly married, super focused on school and work 23 year old Leiland casually mentioned he and his wife Chelsey were in their Stake’s production of “Joseph and The Technicolored Dream Coat”. Completely shocked, I gasped, “What part do you play?” He answered, Joseph”. I asked him what the director was like – he said, “Mom, she’s really good. She’s like you on steroids.” Wow. I think that’s a good thing. I mean, I sure hope so.
(that's Chelsey flourishing his coat)

Chelsey & her mother, Kaye


two forks said...

i was in wizard of oz and i was in midsummer's night dream! but no i didn't devote high school to drama... (drama kids were a certain crowd!)

i'm glad i got to see leiland & chelsey's dress rehearsal! it was really fun! my pictures of him are on your computer under bi's fotos or something like that in recent photography.

CaliZona said...

I remembered the Oz show but had excluded it because it was pre-high school, but totally forgot about your Mid-Summer Night's Dream! The Makeup made it hard to tell which one you were...

Cynthia said...

I love the Joseph play already. How cool that Leiland was the front and center star! I wish we had been able to go, our scheduling that week was just bad for us to try to go. You posted some great photos and it's fun to be able to see a video clip. Thanks for sharing!

Yaj said...

Personally, I would like also to see a clip of the nose-playing recorder person, on steroids, wearing a technicolor gown and golden shoes. In fact, I'd probably pay for that! For a ward talent night (!!), said nose player had to win the Aluminum Twinkie, or whatever first prize was...

Rachel said...

That is sooo awesome!! Way to go Leiland! Just so you know That is Andy's Aunt Ally in the picture with Leiland. The one above the girls and him. She is to his right!!! So cool!

Rachel E.