Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Archive for the category “Performing Arts”

Thoughts From a Dance Dad

Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.

Early Years

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My Little Ballerina (age 5)

My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.

At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.

As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.

Emerging Talents
1042Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.

From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.

Dance is a Language
This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been marisa-dancewatching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.

Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.

Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est une danceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one  😉 ).

Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I flying-marisaremember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.

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Thanks for reading,

Rich

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The Arts – Polish For the Soul

First off, a quick apology to anyone who follows me for my lack of blog posts. I have been writing them – but they are all sitting in my draft folder. However this one is special.

So this past weekend I went to New York City with my son for a quick trip. We had tickets to see the Sunday matinee show of Hamilton, and at the last minute when we were there we also decided to get tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof. I could probably write a small novel on how awesome it was to spend a weekend in NYC with my almost 19-year old son, but that’s not what this is about.

This is about Art.

In my 47 years on this planet I have learned one thing about humans – we tarnish. Or more specifically, our souls tarnish. It’s not a bad thing – in sterling silver, tarnish is just a natural result of exposure to air. It does nothing to diminish the silver underneath, nor does it change the essence of the silver in any way. What it does is make the shining core progressively less visible to the world. With tarnished silver there are two ways to reveal the shine – you can score the surface where the tarnish is and reveal shining silver underneath, or you can gently polish the tarnish for the same result. Scoring the surface leaves scars, but does not affect the shine. Polishing leaves no scars.

When it comes to humans, we are all born shiny. Like new silver, our souls gleam and light the world around us. You don’t have to be a philosopher to know this – just watch the faces of all the adults the next time you see a little girl on the subway singing made up lyrics about the ads on the walls. Her soul is bright and shiny and we love it. But as we get older our exposure to life adds layers of tarnish. I get that this sounds negative but it really is not. It’s natural. Our light does not dim – it just becomes more hidden. Personally, I’ve seen three things that can bring it out again.

The first is grief. Live long enough and you will get scored by grief – it’s inevitable. It hurts like hell. But something miraculous also occurs. Grief cuts through the tarnish. In the terrible grasp of grief, people return to that vulnerable state of openness and childlike trust. It doesn’t make it hurt less, but it does remind us how beautiful our soul is. It leaves us scarred, but not less wonderful. It also leaves a memory of that vulnerability that was our souls shining where the tarnish was removed. It’s not a scary vulnerability but a precious one. However the tarnish returns, and nobody should ever be subjected to grief as a means of therapy.

The second is celebration. Weddings in particular are where I have seen peoples’ souls shine. Listen to wedding speeches from people who are truly in love – and even the speeches from their families and friends, and you’ll know what I mean.

The third, and to me the most significant in that it can be called upon at will, is art. I really do mean art in all forms (and as an aside, check out my other website where I feature my own drawings: Studio Dlin), but my focus here will be on theatre, and specifically on the shows my son and I saw this past weekend.

Saturday night was Fiddler on the Roof. This is a show I know very, very well. I actually have had the pleasure of performing the role of Tevye in it, and I love the show dearly. Anyone familiar with the show will know that Act 1 is loaded with warmth and humour, right up until the final scene. Act 2 is heavy, with not nearly as much laughter and with a lot of emotional, even painful moments. As you’d expect from Broadway, this cast and the production were outstanding. Because I know the play so well, and because I played Tevye, I was actually simultaneously performing the show in my head as it unfolded. I found myself in the story.

Tevye loves his daughters deeply and tenderly. I loved them too. Tevye loves his people and his town. I loved them too. Tevye suffers poverty with a smile and an honesty that is undeniably human, and I did too. In Matchmaker, his daughters discover how terrified they are of being committed for life to a marriage someone else chooses. I was terrified too. The townspeople suffer at the hands of an oppressive Tzar, and I suffered too. Tevye and his daughter Hodel say goodbye forever when she decides she must go live in Siberia when Perchik is arrested, and I was both father and daughter in that moment. Tevye then must say a much harsher goodbye to his daughter Chava when she decides to marry out of the faith, and his traditions force him (and to a slightly lesser extent his wife Golde) to treat Chava as dead. In that moment I was father, daughter, wife and husband. When all the Jews are forced to leave Anatevka at the end of Act 2, I was every one of them – even the Russian constable who had to inform them of the edict. I laughed, cried, danced in my seat and sang along (in my head!).

Sunday afternoon came and it was time for Hamilton. My son and I have both listened to the soundtrack many, many times. Being younger and possessed of both a greater quantity and quality of brain cells, my son knows the lyrics practically by heart. I also know them very well. Not by rote, like with Fiddler, but well enough to sing along and certainly well enough that I know the whole story as told in the play. From the moment the lights went down to the moment it was time to leave I was once again living the story. Just as it was with Fiddler, every scene placed me firmly in the hearts of the characters. When Hamilton’s mother died holding him I died with her, and I survived with him. When Hamilton, Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette are planning their glory, so was I. When Eliza was anxiously watching Alexander as he is trying to win over her father, I was all three sisters, I was Hamilton and I was Philip Schuyler. When Angelica told the story of falling for Alexander right before introducing him to her sister Eliza, I was all three of them. When Burr presented himself to Washington just before Hamilton arrived in the office I was Burr doing what he needed to do to get ahead, Washington carrying the burden of leadership and Hamilton with his burning desire for glory, not recognizing the real power that set him apart. I was Burr dismissed by Washington and Hamilton not knowing what Washington really wanted him for, and I was Washington seeing it all from the lens of maturity and wisdom and also knowing there’s no way to explain it to either Hamilton or Burr, and knowing that only life would teach them. I could go on.

And I will.

I was Samuel Seabury trying to defend a way of life I didn’t understand was an illusion, getting bullied by someone with more clarity and intelligence but not understanding what I was wrong about. I was King George, unable to see or comprehend a world outside the carefully constructed and preserved cocoon of royal privilege. I was an American soldier fighting for independence. I was Hercules Mulligan and I got knocked down and got the fuck back up again. I was a redcoat in a war decreed by my king, fighting across the sea away from my home. Fighting against people who were fighting for their home. I was Charles Lee, in over his head and not comprehending the stakes – only the glory of my title. I was the British soldier finally given permission by a superior officer to wave the white flag, and doing so with a weariness that permeated to my core.

I was Philip Hamilton showing off nervously for his imposing father, while honouring the lessons of his caring mother, and at the same time I was the father and the mother. I was Jefferson coming home, and Madison celebrating the return and the support of his like-minded friend. I agreed with Jefferson AND Hamilton, and felt both their passion. I was Washington knowing I had to step down, even if I knew that what was coming was not what I would have done. I was Maria Reynolds, so beaten down by cruelty that my principles were skewed to a place where any momentary relief from the reality of my life justified any means to get it. I was the asshole James Reynolds, and it sucked. I was Eliza realizing she’d been betrayed, and that sucked more.

I was George Eaker, cocky and arrogant, and Phillip Hamilton, the child-man. I was the shooter and the victim. And then I was the mother and the father, when my heart was thrown into a wood chipper as we watched Phillip die. I somehow continued to live, as they did. I was Burr campaigning, I was Hamilton supporting an enemy with principles over a friend without. I was Burr driven by frustration and rage, and I was Hamilton ultimately admitting defeat to the price his family had paid for his drive. I was Eliza for 50 years after that.

I was all of this and more, and all in two doses of 2 hours and 45 minutes (Hamilton and Fiddler have the same running time). In those moments my soul was shining thanks to the gentle polish of the performances, and it still is. And as I looked around the theatre after Hamilton it struck me. Hundreds of people had experienced the same thing. The same tarnished souls that had entered the theatre were all shining brightly as they left. The building glowed with it.

Now of course, just as sterling silver does, we will all tarnish again. But here is the beauty of art, and the point of this blog – the polish is always there. You just need to use it. Celebrate the arts. Partake. They are the real expression of our souls.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Les Miserables Movie … My Thoughts

First off, I must tell you I am a Les Mis purist, though not necessarily a fanatic. I’ve read the book. I’ve seen the play on stage three times and performed in it for two separate productions (though neither time a lead … curse you, more talented people!). I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since the late 1980’s, and can literally sing every word from beginning to end, thanks to the release of the Complete Symphonic Recording album in 1989. I am a fan of live theatre, a bigger fan of musical theatre and to me Les Mis is the pinnacle. It’s hard to imagine a musical production that could even come close.

What drew me in at first was the score, shortly followed by the story. I know I’m not alone. So when the movie was announced I was extremely excited about it, but also a little reserved – what if they blew it? It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood let me down. Clan of the Cave Bear comes to mind. Then the cast was announced, and I was pretty happy. I asked the same question everyone asks:

“Can Russell Crowe sing?” And received the answer everyone seems to give:

“Well, he has a band.”

As if being in a band automatically qualifies a person to sing. Perhaps these folks never heard Keith Richards croon?

In any event, I wasn’t really worried about Russell Crowe. I’m a big fan and could easily imagine Maximus as Javert. As for Wolverine … I mean Hugh Jackman, I was quite pleased. He’s one of those actors you just love to watch in different roles. From X-Men to hosting the Oscars, I figured he’d do just fine. No, for me the only person I was legitimately worried about was Sacha Baron Cohen, who I can only see as Borat, a movie I despised from about 10 minutes in, owing largely to the gigantically unfunny ego of Cohen. People told me not to worry though, and assured me that if I had seen Hugo (I have not) I would reconsider.

All in all though, I couldn’t wait. And when the trailers were released I watched and rewatched them, getting chills each time. When the long trailer with the actors talking about how it was to do a movie that was sung live was released I watched it and I got chills again, and when the 5 clips were released it was Chillzville once more.

Because all my friends know I am such a fan, they all kept asking me if I’d seen the movie yet. Today was finally the day. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I won’t comment at all on the story. It needs no comment since the story and the score are the reasons for the huge success of the play.

To begin, I call it a success. The 2.5 hours or so seemed to fly by and if it weren’t for the old dude hacking up a lung next to me I would for the most part not have known I was in a theatre full of people. I was completely absorbed. It is well worth the watch and I will be seeing it again for sure. It had all the things I thought it would have, and more. When you consider that I know the story and the score so well, it was not like watching a normal movie for me. It was more like watching a best friend trying something new and exciting and rooting them on. And them kicking ass. But was it perfect? Not really. Then again, perfection is an ideal impossible to achieve by definition. Here are some detailed observations.

First off, if you’re a Les Mis purist like me, I advise you to do what I realized I had to do about 15 minutes in. Don’t expect a recycled version of the play. This is not Les Miserables, the play. It’s a movie. So forgive the inverted lyrics, the parts they removed, and the added songs. And don’t expect big belting Broadway voices in every song. You won’t get them. That’s not a bad thing, because you can still get those by watching the play, or the concert DVD’s or by listening to the soundtrack. It is what it is. A new movie about an old story. It does what movies can do that stage can’t. Like close-ups for example. Lots and lots of close-ups.

The director clearly made a decision that we should become deeply familiar with the complexion of each of the actors. There were so many close close-ups I think they must have saved money on sets in a lot of scenes because all they needed was about 25% of the screen since the rest was taken up by face. We get lots of great shots of Valjean’s drool and Marius’ freckles, not to mention lots and lots of yellow teeth. Except for the leads that is – they all had nice white teeth. Which leads to my next observation:

Beyond yellowed teeth, if there was makeup used I couldn’t see it. Well that’s not exactly true. There was lots of makeup used to make people look in character, dirty or bloody (or shitty – literally), but none to make people look better. And with all those close-ups this was clearly a choice made to lend realism and honesty to the film, which it did. It added to the emotion and also was refreshing.

Then there were the sets and backdrops. They were, to use a seriously overused word these days, Epic. I mean, the movie starts with the convicts hauling a freaking ship into drydock. Are you kidding me! Extremely powerful and sweeping. I did notice that the director has a slight love affair with the Dutch Angle, which to me is unnecessary and injects a bit of cheese into an otherwise visual home run — when Valjean confesses who he is to Marius the Dutch Angle is so severe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in My Cousin Vinny when Ralph Macchio is being interrogated by the sheriff. That aside though the choices for setting were amazing. Javert’s suicide is actually breathtaking. Both majestic and violent. As it should be.

The big scenes were almost all beyond what I expected. Special nod goes to Lovely Ladies and Do You Hear the People Sing, as well as to One Day More (although One Day More kind of makes itself good). I was not as happy with Master of the House as I hoped I would be. I actually thought the best part of that scene was the young Eponine, who is very cute and funny in all the right places.

All in all from a production standpoint it is almost perfect. Take away the Dutch Angles and you’re there, in my opinion. Not that anyone asked me! Nor are they likely to any time soon …

So how about the performances? Well, I’ll take a look one by one, starting with the strongest, and then in no particular order because I can’t really rank them after that. Everyone is so good.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine. My goodness she is brilliant. Her voice, her acting, her presence. I could find no flaw. I’ve heard better versions of I Dreamed a Dream maybe (Idina Menzel comes to mind), but I can’t imagine seeing a better version. She doesn’t just sing it, she becomes it. It is riveting. I would watch it again and again, if only just to take notes on how to take an audience in using more than just your voice in a song.

Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne. He’s Colm Wilkinson for heaven’s sake! He’s perfect just by being him. I smiled all the way through his performance and when he showed up at the end for the harmonies after Valjean dies (nice touch by the way), I was struck through with chills. Colm is my homie. If he ever met me, I’m sure he’d agree. Maybe he’d recognize me from the 4 times I’ve seen him in concert? Or maybe not …

Hugh Jackman as Valjean. I totally love Hugh. He’s like the perfect dude (and there was only one time when I thought I saw some adamantium poking out). That said, he is not perfect. He is really, really good, but there are parts where I was disappointed. Only a few, and maybe they are minor, but they are there. For example, he has a habit of throwing words away while singing as though he can’t bear to say them. It works once or twice, but he does it way too often. As for his singing, it is very good, but he makes some choices, especially in Bring Him Home, which don’t need to be made. I get that he is acting first, singing second, but honestly some of those songs are the acting, and Bring Him Home is one of them. I would have loved to hear a more pure falsetto, which I began to suspect maybe he didn’t have, until I did hear him use it at the end of the movie when Valjean is dying.

Russell Crowe as Javert. Poor Russell. He had a lot to live up to. Javert is my favourite role and the one I would most like to play (damn you, more talented people!). Did he live all the way up? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that he definitely commands attention, as Javert should. Maximus didn’t win the hearts of Rome by accident. No, in that while he does have a pretty pleasant voice, and most certainly can carry a tune, he either lacks the power or someone told him not to use it. Javert is not supposed to be tender. I actually laughed a bit because at the end of Stars and again at the end of Soliloquiy (Javert’s Suicide) when he’s meant to hit the most powerful notes, the camera pulls up and away at dramatic speed so that his voice trails off when it is supposed to crescendo. It’s like the director thought he could trick us into thinking that since we could still hear him from far away that he must have been singing pretty powerfully. Still, I rank the performance very high. It just would have been nice if Crowe sounded a bit more Javerty (which is officially a new adjective).

Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier. Okay. I’m sure many will disagree with me (my wife and son, to name two), but I was really let down with this one. Perhaps it is my prejudice, but I really think that while he has his moments, he is far too egotistical for the role. Thenardier is supposed to be over the top it’s true. But he’s supposed to be part of the story, not above it. There are times when I definitely feel like Cohen is grinning at the camera, if only with his eyes. I also wonder why, in a movie set in France, Thenardier is the only one with a French accent? We all know that in the play everyone strangely has British accents, and so it is in the movie (a Scot or two for good measure) … except for Thenardier. What’s up with that? It’s weird.

Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier. So, as much as Cohen let me down Carter delivered. Holy smokes is she good! She is subtle when needed, and crass when she should be. My only small criticism is that there are times I find her too pretty to be a Thenardier. They do what they can with the makeup for her to make her look bad, but it is hopeless. Every Mme Thenardier I’ve seen on stage (except my good friend Deena! Who also suffers from being too pretty …) has been made out to be awful. Carter is amazing but not awful. If that makes sense?

Eddie Redmayne as Marius. My wife said he sounds like Kermit the Frog when he sings. I hear what she means but I don’t mind. He does have a tendency to get a bit nasal but he can sing the hell out of me so who am I to criticize? He is very well cast and there are two moments where he is exceptional. One is Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which to me is almost as gripping as I Dreamed a Dream. The other is when he says/sings “I’m doing everything all wrong” in A Heart Full of Love, which, although brief, to me fully captures Marius and Cosette.

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Not many people can play the role. The vocals are ridiculous. She handles them with perfect grace and on top of that delivers a great performance. One standout moment is when Marius tells her that Valjean is the one who saved Marius at the barricade. Her reaction mid song, especially on her face, is one of many “chills” moments.

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras. Again I refer you to my wife, who said “That Enjolras is very pretty.” It’s true. He is. But don’t hold that against him. He is a very effective Enjolras. Perhaps his voice could use more power, but really many songs are undersung in the movie so that may be a directive not of his choosing.

Samantha Barks as Eponine. This woman is unbelievable. She is the Eponine in the 25th anniversary Les Mis concert (opposite Nick Jonas’ Marius and she still is willing to associate herself with Les Mis so that says a lot), and she is possibly my favourite Eponine, though it’s an admittedly tough pack to choose from! She’s beautiful and tortured, as she should be. Her voice is perfect and she made the transition to the screen perfectly, holding her own with seasoned screen vets like Jackman and Crowe. She also has an impossibly narrow waist. In one scene I was sure I could touch my thumb and forefinger around her belt. Her On My Own is probably the most true to Broadway piece in the movie, but does not suffer at all in it’s being well acted for all that. And when she gets shot and dies in Little Fall of Rain … I may have teared up. But only a little.

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Oh my god how cute is this kid! I loved him. He is the best Gavroche I’ve seen (apologies to my friends Michelle and Lisa). I only wish they’d let him sing Little People – even the reduced version. But alas that probably lies somewhere on the cutting floor. Too bad. He’d have killed it.

As for the rest of the cast, they are fantastic. Special nod to the foreman, who is deliciously slimy, and to the lady in the factory who ratted Fantine out, who is spectacularly vile.

So to sum it up I’ll say that it’s going to be a classic. Multiple nods at the Oscars no doubt, and a win for Anne Hathaway for sure. If you love the play, have no fear. If you’ve never seen the play, enjoy, and bring kleenex!

I welcome your comments. I am sure people disagree with some of my thoughts.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Being an Introvert

Hey how’s it going? My name is Rich and I’m what people call an introvert. I’ve been one for 43 years so I’m an expert at it. I decided that today’s blog should be about how that works. I’ll tell you what it means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how I’ve learned to embrace it. I’ll also tell you what you should and should not do with the introverts in your life. I will do so by writing about myself, but the truth is I am writing about all introverts. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. But I hope you’ll read and think about it.

First, I think I’ll start with what it doesn’t mean, and thus dispel a common misconception. I’m not shy. Far from it in fact. I make my living presenting to groups of 20-30 adolescents multiple times per day. I have presented to groups of 200 people and up. I have performed in musicals in front of theatres full of people. I played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. I competed in a bodybuilding competition wearing nothing but a tiny speedo type thing in front of hundreds of strangers.

Rich as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar

None of these things make me nervous. In fact, I thrive on it. The more people there are for me to present to, the happier I am. When I meet people for the first time I always look them in the eye and extend my hand readily. I am happy to have a meaningful conversation with a stranger and I don’t feel insecure in new situations. These things may make you want to conclude that I am wrong about myself. That in fact I am not an introvert. But I can assure you I am. Card carrying and proud, as they say!

What’s funny is that there are a lot of people who know me who are legitimately surprised when I tell them I am an introvert. That’s usually because they have only ever seen me in small group social settings, or because they have seen me perform or present. It means they don’t know what it means.

So then what does it mean? Well it means that I am happy to spend time thinking. A lot of time. I think and reflect and observe and then I do it all again. When I’m in a large group in a social setting I don’t say much. It’s not because I’m shy — it’s because I don’t have anything to say, and in any case I don’t want to compete for attention because I find it draining. I don’t feel the need to engage in conversation simply because it is a social requirement. I don’t like loud rooms because I can’t hear myself or others talk. I don’t understand why they play loud music in many restaurants when all that does it make it difficult to hear what your companions have to say. I like going to parties but I don’t like staying — I find it’s nice to see everyone but after a while I get overloaded with sensory inputs and I have to leave. Don’t take it personally. The fact that I came means I care about you. If you see me at a party you’ll find me in a quiet corner. You may think I am being stand-offish but nothing is further from the truth. Sit down and let’s have a nice conversation about something interesting. I will listen more than I talk, but I will talk plenty. You’ll probably find that refreshing because I am an active listener. I don’t just listen waiting until there’s a break in what you are saying so I can continue to talk about me — I really listen. And when I talk you’ll find out just how closely I was listening. When I leave I may not say goodbye. That’s only because there was so much going on and I didn’t want to interrupt. I know it comes off as rude sometimes but honestly I’ve found it’s easier to seem rude in one instance than to try and break into an activity to say goodbye.

I also like to be fully prepared before I try something new, and I constantly check my progress to make sure things are going as they should. I ask a lot of clarifying questions before I proceed into the unknown. I’m not afraid to try new things, but I like to understand what I’m getting into as much as possible before they happen. When I was a baby my parents laughed at me because when I would turn around to crawl off a chair I would check the floor 10-15 times as I slowly lowered myself to make sure it was still where I thought it was. When I behave this way with you, just answer my questions patiently and we’ll both be happier for it.

Being introverted means I spend a lot of time observing people. I don’t judge quickly because I’ve learned that the longer you pay attention to someone the more you learn and the more layers you see through. This means I understand most people better than most people. It also means that a lot of people think I’m a snob. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called that. My lack of talking comes off as snobby and disinterested. It simply isn’t true. My lack of talking has everything to do with me thinking about what is worth saying. The truth is there’s not much that is. Most people talk because silence makes them uncomfortable. I love silence — it lets me think.

I’ve also had a lot of extroverts try to “cure” me. That’s one of the most uncomfortable things an introvert learns to deal with. Please don’t get me wrong though. I love extroverts. I enjoy watching how much fun they have doing things that would give me no pleasure at all. I love how they can come into a new situation and within minutes be best friends with everyone in the room. It’s cool. Super-cool. But it’s not me and never will be, and I don’t care because I’ve tried it and it did nothing but make me uncomfortable. One of my favourite examples of extroverts’ deep need to cure me is during the Hora dance, which my Jewish readers will be intimately familiar with. For the non-Jews who don’t know, it’s a kind of dance that an entire room gets involved in. The step is very simple and involves everyone holding hands in a big circle, although very often there will be concentric circles when the number of people in the Hora results in a circumference that exceeds the dimensions of the dance floor. When the Hora music starts up, all the extroverts get a fire in their eyes. They leap from their table and charge to the dance floor, grabbing the hands of everyone they pass on the way. It’s like ecstasy in a dance beat. If you watch the introverts though, you’ll see them deliberately not making eye contact with anyone and keeping their arms firmly at their sides. We are not interested in dancing the Hora. It’s not because we’re not happy, it’s because it does nothing to enhance our enjoyment of life and actually makes us uncomfortable. The problem is our lack of participation makes the extroverts uncomfortable. How can someone not want to dance the Hora, they ask? There can be only one explanation for them — we never tried it. If only we’d try we’d find out just what a blast it is. So they leave the Hora, seek us out, and physically haul us onto the dance floor. The Hora is a perfect metaphor for extroversion. If only we knew how much fun it was, we’d want to do it all the time!

Now when I was younger, I was actually convinced that something was wrong with me. I also was way too polite to refuse. So I would let myself be pulled in by these well-meaning Hora Pullers. And then it was always a nightmare. I would freeze a somewhat horrified smile on my face and move around with the others, always wondering when it was going to start being fun. I looked awkward. I was embarrassed. Being in the Hora only emphasized my introverted nature — it did not even come close to changing it. As I got older I realized I was much better off simply politely refusing. I say things like “Nah, the Hora isn’t my thing” and I smile. It’s much better for everyone this way and I am completely happy and comfortable with it.

So my message to the Hora Pullers, Spirit Leaders and Party Planners is this — I don’t need curing. There is nothing wrong with me, and when I don’t participate in your fun it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you either. I like not participating in those crazy socializers. I like watching — it’s how I learn about people and how I experience large group activities. If you want to find out about me, ask me. If you want someone to talk to who will listen, talk to me. If you want someone to help you reflect, I’m your man.

And if you need a speaker for a conference you’re planning, look me up!

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Practice Makes …

So imagine someone comes up to you and says “practice makes …” and gives you that annoying lilty tone at the end that suggests you’re supposed to finish the sentence for them. If you’re in the mood and want this imaginary person to be extra irritating, imagine they are raising one eyebrow when they do it. Got the picture? Good. Now assuming you decide not to punch them in the throat, the word that comes to mind is most likely “perfect”. Practice makes perfect. That’s the saying and that’s what we’ve always been told. Math teachers assign homework to exploit this principle. Gymnasts spend hours doing handsprings for the same reason. Orators rehearse speeches. Singers croon in the shower. The list goes on and is lengthy indeed. There’s only one problem though, and it’s a big one. Practice does not make perfect.

Practice makes permanent.

And there’s a gigantic difference between the two concepts. Now I wish I could take credit for the saying “practice makes permanent” but I can’t. I first heard it at a PD day seminar, and if you Google the phrase (go ahead, open a new tab and try it – I just did), you’ll find tons of bloggers and videos discussing it. I guess I’m just one more in the sea of philosophers on this. But it’s my blog so I have no compunctions about sharing my take, especially as I was very recently stung by this concept, and I should know better. Here is the sordid tale:

3 years ago at the age of 40 I performed in my first ever play, and it happened to be my favorite play – Les Miserables. It was an amateur production, and I was overjoyed just to be a part of it. I had many different roles in the ensemble and the experience was unforgettable. I forged many friendships and have been performing in musicals ever since. The day we finished our last performance of Les Mis, I vowed that if I got the chance to do the play again I wanted to get a lead role – Valjean or Javert. I committed to improving my singing so that when the time came, I would nail the audition. I began singing every day, every chance I got. In the shower, in the car – even just hanging around the house. I do have some natural talent which I credit my paternal grandfather with, since he was a world-famous Cantor. He used to coach me when I was young, before my voice changed. However I had no real formal training and had let my voice decay in my adult years. So I had a long way to go but a foundation on which to build.

Fast forward to June 2012. I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar and, owing largely to a paucity of male talent in the cast, I got the role of Jesus. I was elated but also scared to death. That is a ridiculously difficult role vocally, and would never have gone to me if there had been a tenor around (I’m really a baritone). Preparing for and performing Jesus did things for my technique and range that I had only dreamed of. Working with the director, who is an extremely talented vocalist and teacher, I brought my voice forward light years. My performance wasn’t perfect for sure, and Ted Neely certainly has nothing to fear, but I was pleased. Now skip to the present. Les Mis is back! This is my chance. I am a significantly improved singer and I’m ready to nail the audition. The circle has come full. I will redeem myself and fulfill the dream.

Here’s the thing about Les Mis. It’s been my favorite play since I was 20 years old. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for 23 years. 23 years! I know every word of every song from beginning to end. I can sing the play – all the parts – from memory from beginning to end. And I do. Often. With the car windows down and my kids in the back. They love it. I think.

The thing is though, I mostly do it a capella. Because I can’t play any instruments and my iPhone objects to being used in the shower. So for over 23 years I’ve practiced every song, mostly without any accompaniment. That’s a lot of practice!

OK. So the audition comes. The director asks me to sing a song of my choice and I sang Stars. Then he asked me to sing parts of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Bring Him Home, Master of the House, and Do You Hear the People Sing. I sang them all getting happier each moment at how well my Jesus-trained voice was holding up. I really thought I sounded amazing. This director takes a few days to cast the show after auditions. Unlike Jesus, there is a lot of serious male talent in the cast, so even though I thought I did the best I could, I was prepared to not get the fairy tale of a lead role.

I did not. And the men that did beat me fair and square. They are truly amazing. But I still wanted feedback from the director, who knows me very well. I went to see him the following week and told him I thought it was my best singing to date. He disagreed. He told me my pitch was off in quite a few places.

My pitch? Off? I did not see that one coming.

I’ve had and continue to have pitch problems for sure. It plagues me. But I can always hear it. That’s a good thing, because if you’re going to have pitch issues at least if you can hear it you can take steps to repair it. But I honestly did not hear a single bad note this audition. What the hell? I really had to think about that one. And then it occurred to me. Practice makes permanent. I’ve been singing Les Mis for so many years a capella that I’ve grooved notes into my subconscious that sound right to me without an orchestra, but that are a half-tone off in certain places. And when I was singing at the audition, I didn’t even hear the piano, because I’ve sung these songs so many times it’s like putting on an old baseball glove. I practiced the wrong notes. A lot. And they became permanent.

Lesson learned. The only consolation is even had I been pitch-perfect I still would not have landed a lead, because the male leads are completely out of my league. But it hurt to hear I was off.

Well that’s the story that I wanted to start off with, and as it turns out it tells the tale pretty well. What it all boils down to is that practice is invaluable, but it is imperative that we be sure we are practicing perfect. The saying should not be “practice makes perfect”. It really should be “perfect practice makes perfect”. And the key is to make sure we are practicing correctly. It’s not a trivial thing. How can we know? Some easy tips:

  • Check regularly with an expert (your teacher, your coach, a trainer etc), even if you are an expert. For example, in the gym I’ve often seen experienced lifters consistently lifting with bad form and they don’t even know it.
  • If it’s singing or something physical, record yourself and listen/watch often. Seeing or hearing yourself from the outside is a whole different experience than what you feel when it’s happening. Using mirrors is good, but mirrors lie. Everything you see there is from the level of your own eyes. Most people won’t be seeing you from that angle. Plus, when the person watching you is not you, you don’t have the same constant feedback you use instinctively to correct things when you are looking into a mirror.
  • Don’t get complacent. Sometimes a slight deviation can creep in to something that was on track and though you think you’re still practicing perfect, you’re not.

For me, I’ll continue to practice. But no more singing a capella! It’s a trap and I fell for it. I won’t anymore. Now if only I could learn to play the piano …

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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