Thursday, July 23, 2015

For the PJs Cast and Crew...

To the Cast and Crew of Bye Bye Birdie:

As I sit here typing away just a few hours before opening night, I have a lot of emotions surrounding the journey we all have been on together for the last few months.  There are many things I want you guys to know, and rather than take up time in circle and since I express myself better in the written word anyway, I'm going to say what I need to say here.

First and foremost, I am so immensely proud of each and every one of you.  From the onset of this production, each of you has brought something special to this endeavor and has helped to further realize the overall vision I've had for Possum Juniors ever since I volunteered to take it over three years ago.

You see, I want the Possum Junior productions to be completely and totally the PJs' in every way possible and in every aspect.  It hasn't always been an easy thing for me to know when to step in and when to be hands off - my instincts as a teacher tell me to create a highly structured and controlled environment.  And I can't say I am always able to strike that balance between maintaining that structure with still allowing you room to flourish and explore the possibilities of theater.  But, I am forever enamored at how much you all stepped up to the plate to make Birdie the best production it can be.  And, when all is said and done, I hope you can look back and say, "This was ours.  This is what we accomplished working so hard together."

Now as for the special thank-yous I want to send out:

I personally am grateful for your parents/guardians who made sure you got to rehearsal, who helped out in any way that they could, and who are supporting the PJs by coming to the show.  If you haven't already expressed gratitude to the adults who have supported you through this process, I want to share the following video with you:


Corny, I know.  But, Mr, Rogers' words ring very true.  I thank your parents and family for their support through this process.  And, so should you.

Special mention goes to Deana Lynch and Jill Lewandowski, who have been godsends to me and the rest of the PJs.  I cannot even begin to list the ways in which they've been a help to the PJs, but I want to them to know how grateful I am for everything they have done.

Also, what some of you are probably not aware of is how much the greater community of Possum Point Players has been supporting our efforts.  You may have seen the well wishes posted on the Facebook page and other places, but it was their faith and support at the very beginning that got the show approved in the first place and opened the door for us to have this wonderful experience.  And, we owe a debt of thanks to them for that.

Of course, I cannot forget our music maestros, Liz Messick and Stacey Hartman.  Liz guided you at the beginning and did an awesome job preparing you guys musically.  Stacey took the helm and has led you the rest of the way to opening night.  Many of you have known Liz and how fantastic she is for a long time, and she totally deserves all the praise we can heap on her.  But, I am especially grateful you all have had the opportunity to get to know Stacey and learn something I've known for ten years: Stacey is just plain awesome.

She has done something that to my knowledge has never been done with a PJs show before: assembled a music pit comprised almost entirely of young people like yourselves, adding another dimension to Possum Juniors being centered around young people.  This has not been an easy process for her, and she has been out of her comfort zone in a variety of ways (a feeling with which I can well empathize), yet she came through for us in big way.  I know I tease her about being an evil, soul-sucking redhead (one of the many jokes we have with one another), but she has brought a great deal of heart to this production, and I am forever grateful to call her my colleague and, most importantly, my friend.

Lastly, I have to mention our illustrious director, Logan Lynch.  From the moment he came to me with this grand idea of directing Bye Bye Birdie, I knew we were in for an interesting and exciting ride.  And, he never disappointed.  I have been in awe watching him realize his vision, and I have enjoyed our discussions as he tried to figure out ways to bring about that vision.  I am grateful for his hard work and perseverance.  Logan, working with you hasn't always been easy, but it has always been worth it.  But, please, remember this advice: restraint and subtlety can be GOOD things, too.  Try them sometime.  Ha!

That's about all I have to say, guys.  I won't be speaking during the circle because I want that time to be yours and I am too filled with emotion to say anything worth hearing anyway.  Just know that I am proud of you and love you all dearly.  Now, let's go break legs!  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

With love,
Steve

Monday, July 6, 2015

Living With a Tattoo - Sensei (先生) Vs. Kyoushi (教師)

As of this writing, I have had my first tattoo for a few days.  No itching or peeling yet, but I've already started the regimen of moisturization suggested by the tattoo parlor I visited.  And, there hasn't been any pain, only a slight sensitivity, like a very mild sunburn.  Indeed, there was hardly any pain while I was having it done.  The real test for me will be the itching.  I have a tolerable threshold for pain, but an incessant itch will drive me to distraction.

But, now that I've had a few days with the permanent (for all intents and purposes) addition of color to my body, pangs of worry have begun to rear their annoying little heads, and I have found myself reflecting on the years of thought and months of research I put into getting a tattoo in an effort to recapture the certainty I had about getting inked.  Specifically, I've begun to worry if the Japanese kanji for sensei ("teacher") was appropriate for me to get tattooed on my body.  And, I started to doubt my rationale for getting that particular tattoo and felt the assuredness I had when I walked into the parlor wane ever so slightly.

I knew I wanted to get Japanese kanji characters in a tattoo.  Not for some phony-baloney spiritual reason, but simply because I love the aesthetics of Japanese kanji and how they make language look like art (at least to the eyes of a westerner) even if it doesn't always sound like it or have a very artful meaning.  And, I knew I wanted something that would reflect a truth about myself that would always be true in some form or another, so I chose to represent my love of teaching.  Those things are immutable certainties for me.

Still, some doubts persist.

When I first announced that I would be getting a tattoo, I got the predictable deluge of questions:  What are you getting? Are you afraid it's going to hurt? Does your mother know?  Then one person asked me why I felt the need to get one.  I kind of sidestepped the question because it was a little personal and one that had a complicated answer.  Why did I feel the need to make a permanent change to my body?  Why does anyone feel that way?

As I've already implied, the idea of getting a tattoo has been with me for a very long time.  The desire to get one started when I was finally able to feel that becoming a teacher was actually going to happen for me.  In a story too long to recount here, my path to becoming a teacher wasn't straight at all, and there were times when it looked like it wasn't going to happen.  I had people in my life who supported me through this journey, and I also had people essentially telling me to give it up and find some other path.  Both sides offered love and support, even the naysayers were coming from a place of love, and both gave me the strength and determination to follow the path I knew was right for me.  Becoming a teacher was one of the seminal moments in my life, a moment in which a large piece of me finally came back to the whole, and so commemorating that in a tangible way on my body seems right and proper.

Getting a tattoo isn't the worry for me.  And, "worry" really isn't the right word for what I'm feeling.  It's more concern because I have appropriated a word from a foreign language, and I wish to be reasonably respectful to the word's proper usage in its home language while still signifying the concepts and ideas I want to convey within my own culture and language.  That's why it took me months to arrive at the decision to use "sensei", and why I still continue to have doubts about it.

In my initial research, I found several Japanese terms and references for the concept of "teacher."  Each of them have varying degrees of meaning and different connotations in which they are used, but the two that became sticking points for me were "sensei" and "kyoushi".  Both are terms used to refer to a teacher, but I had to decide which one best fit my own sense of self without bastardizing how the word is actually used.

"Sensei" is an honorific, a term of respect one uses when referring to a teacher (among other types of professionals) and is often added to a surname.  According to several sources, one should never refer to oneself as "sensei" as it would be considered arrogant and ostentatious.  If someone asked me what I did for a living, the proper term for me to use would be "kyoushi" as the word connotes a position (classroom teacher) without the additional sense of honor and respect.  I must admit I found that to be rather appealing in its simplicity and directness.

However, I also had to consider the fact that "sensei" is a term assimilated into American English, usually in the context of martial arts instruction, and carries with it a certain connotation and familiarity within my own culture.  In short, since my tattoo would most often be viewed within the context of English-speaking America, I felt it should carry at least some significance I wouldn't have to spend 10 - 15 minutes explaining, thereby risking the irony of coming across as a pompous ass by explaining how using "sensei" might make me look like a pompous ass.

And, some of you are probably wondering, "Steve, why are you even bothered by what others think?  It's your tattoo, so what?"

To that I would reply that tattoos by their very nature are forms of communication, meant to express meaning and elicit conversation.  Tattoos are meant to be seen in some situation, and so considering that others will view it and derive meaning from it should very much be part of the process.

With that in mind, the final deciding factor for me was that in Japan "sensei" is invariably the term used when a specific teacher, particularly one's own teacher, is addressed directly or referred to in the third person, as in "He is my teacher."  And, students use the term in any situation, and so sensei connotes the student/teacher relationship in way that kyoushi does not, at least to my understanding.

Since this is the reference a student would use exclusively, I am intrigued by how it shifts focus from the teacher to the student and what a teacher means in that context.  To my students, I am sensei, one who is respected and knowledgeable and seeking to impart that knowledge, even if I would never directly refer to myself as such.  And, the word that focuses on the student/teacher relationship is very appealing to me as it fits best with my own philosophy of student-centered instruction.

I also like how sensei, although having a much more complex meaning, is expressed in much simpler and more elegant kanji characters than kyoushi.

And, so that's my rationale, why I decided to get a tattoo and specifically get the Japanese kanji for sensei.  Putting it all out there in this blog has helped me regain some of my certainty.  If anything, I've been able to express that there was at least careful consideration in the process and no disrespect was intended.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Man On Fire (2004)

Tony Scott's Man On Fire (2004) is, I believe, the most poorly reviewed film I've included in my W2W Wednesday series.  For the life of me I can't think why it received such a poor critical reception.  It certainly isn't a brilliant film, but there are many good qualities that make it entertaining and well worth watching.

The main criticism I've found is that the ultra-violent second half doesn't mesh with the gentler, character-driven first half.  Personally, I think you need the first half to understand why Denzel Washington's character, John Creasy, takes such brutally violent actions later on.  The two halves compliment each other by providing an understandable motive for why Creasy does what he does.

However, I've gotten ahead of myself.

For those of you who don't know, Man On Fire (2004) is about John Creasy, a former CIA operative who is troubled by his violent past.  He is directionless, emotionally distant, and an alcoholic.  With the help of an old friend (Christopher Walken), he gets a job bodyguarding Pita Ramos, the young daughter of a wealthy Mexican business man.

The daughter, as played by Dakota Fanning, is both precocious and determined to break through Creasy's gruff exterior.  She eventually does, and Creasy slowly allows himself to care for another human being and be cared for in return.

It goes without saying that Pita gets kidnapped.  And that event is what sets Creasy off on his violent rampage, partly for revenge and partly to find out who is behind the kidnapping.

Does it get pretty violent?  Yes, the film certainly does earn its "R" rating.  But, I never did feel the disconnect that so many critics felt the need to point out.  That is because, for me, the real power in this piece is the relationship that builds between Creasy and Pita.  A father/daughter, mentor/mentee connection forms between the two, and it is deftly and believably portrayed by Washington and Fanning.  It's the belief in their deep affection that makes the second half palatable.


The Unending Joke - Examining the Over-Extended Significance of a Good Comic Book Story

It needs to be said right off the bat (no pun intended) that Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a work of superb craft...