Saturday, April 30, 2016

What Slays in Vegas: Mystery Dinner Theatre
by and for Episcopalians

Director/Author’s Note for the Program of What Slays in Vegas
Talk about gambling!  Six years ago, St. James’ Episcopal Church Women bet their biggest fund-raiser on my assurance that amateurs could create a murder – mystery – comedy from foibles in our own church and community.  It worked once, and again two years later.

But every writer fears that the lucky streak will end.  When the actors for tonight’s show met with me in August, we had little to work with, aside from  Suzanne Swann’s notion that the choir might get a gig in Las Vegas.  We had news of spats over sports arenas going up around Atlanta. We had closings of venerable theatres in Marietta.  We had an actress from Brooklyn.

That was enough.    The actors anted up, placing on the table their characters’ backgrounds, hopes, and reactions to anyone who gets in the way.   From those we built a play up to the discovery of the body.  We unanimously elected DeeGee Reisinger “victim” for the third time.  (Congratulations, DeeGee!)   In December, actors fanned out across the campus looking for clues:  during the time of the crime, who saw whom, doing what?  We figured out “whodunit” and finished the script just in time for rehearsals in March.

The ladies of the ECW have indulged our every whim, turning the Parish Hall into a casino, obtaining a sound system, getting us a great technical director in Bill Eubanks.  It’s been my pleasure to work with these characters, and with the actors who created them.  Whatever happens tonight, I know I’ve hit the jackpot.

See my photo collage of the show. 

Promotional Slides for the Show
Synopsis of What Slays in Vegas
It’s casino night at St. Martin’s-by-the-Chicken to fund the choir’s trip to Las Vegas. But an ex-chorister crashes the party to promote sale of the church to build a sports arena. Minutes later, she’s pegged through the heart with a croquet mallet. Who did it? Her resentful boy toy? His jealous ex? The diva? The socialite? The domineering Verger? The scheming former flower child? The Yankee with a sketchy past? When police are detained, it’s up to the Kindergarten teacher, with audience help, to discover whodunit!
Is there a conflict between Christian mission and doing comedies based on murder?
Links to more in-depth reflections on the previous two plays:
Church and Theatre: Laughing Matters?
Mystery Dinner Theatre for Episcopalians: Post-Mortem.

Photos by Kevin Triebsch, from top:
Trio sings "Onward Christian Soldiers" in my Las Vegas arrangement, l-r Tonya Grimmke, Mary Nimsgern, Suzanne Swann, and, barely visible, understudy Deb Kemp.

Scott Smoot as "Percival Darcy III" discovering his old 7th grade girl friend.

DeeGee Reisinger as "Gabby Krueger, real estate developer."

Mother and daughter Tonya and Emma Grimmke before the show posed in character as "Addie Haden" the choir-and-kitchen director and "Duh" the teen volunteer.  Decorations provided by the Episcopal Church Women of St. James' Marietta.

Mary Nimsgern as "Marilyn DuVain Gross," enacting a speech from her one-woman musical about Queen Elizabeth I, "Hello Raleigh."

The role of "Serena Nightingale" was created four years ago by Leslie Thompson, and reprised triumphantly on Friday.  Leslie fell ill on Saturday, and theatre student Deb Kemp took on the role with fifty minutes' notice, reading from the script and sight-singing the trio.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mahler Wins Teen Night at ASO

Whose idea was it to fill Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center with teens on a night that featured just one 90-minute long work without words, without pop tunes, without even a slide show?  Genius!

From row "C," close enough to see a violist's socks slide inches below his pants' cuff, I appreciated how Mahler tamed a restless crowd in a bad situation.  Conductor Donald Runnicles waited until the coughing died down to begin Mahler's 9th, so quiet at the start that I had to lean in to hear.   Then from the percussion corner of the orchestra arose an assertive melodic motif, played by a cross between a honky-tonk piano and a zither -- a cimbalon, maybe? -- immediately answered by low strings on the opposite side of the stage.  I might forget the tune among so much of the music that followed, but that wide-spaced dialogue of sounds, though a little different each time, held the first movement together through wide swings of mood.

In the pause before the second movement, we heard the traditional coughing, more than usual.  That begat more coughing, and giggles from the teen gallery down to the stage, where players looked up at the house and smiled and exchanged wise-cracks with the conductor.  Then Mahler threw us dance music, fast and light, interrupted by a rougher dance tune played with percussive force by violists, interrupted again by a ruder, faster dance.  This pile-up was funny and a little delirious.

I should mention that Mahler gave us a spectacle, rows of musicians bowing furiously, furrowing brows in concentration, then sitting still while a single instrument played a melody.

Again, at the end of the second movement, there were coughs; then came a louder, faster, more chaotic third movement, called "sardonic" in the program.  That shut us up:  Not a sound at its end.

The fourth movement seems to end several times, but melody arises yet again, like a sigh, from different areas of the orchestra -- the first cello's melody was especially pleasing -- until we perceive that just about every one of the hundred-plus musicians may get a solo turn. But the audience was patient:  I stayed awake, and didn't need to resort to the cough drops in my pocket.

The very quiet music faded to nothing.  Conductor Donald Runnicles held his hands up in long silence. When he dropped them, the crowd erupted in applause.

The program tells us that Mahler was haunted by death, especially in this ninth.  No argument; but "death" was not what I heard.  Having the symphony wash over us was like watching a movie, though it required more concentration.  I didn't know the story, or the characters, but I felt as though I was going to different places, experiencing extremes of emotion and drama, and, in the end, it was all beautiful.

I'm naturally reminded of another crowd pleaser, Prince.  This week of his unexpected death, many commentators referenced his SuperBowl performance in 2005 for his ability to generate excitement.  Garrison Keillor, in his tribute, told us that the producers called Prince ahead of the game to warn him, "It's raining."  Prince replied, "Can you make it rain harder?"  Yet this guy stayed largely private his whole career, while cultivating a mystique wrapped in androgyny, eroticism, religion, mixed race parentage.

Mahler's fascination with songs of death is his mystique; he knows how to tease the audience, how to build variety and contrast into his vast symphonies; and he doesn't settle for rain - he makes it rain harder.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ten Years of this Blog: Progress?

Ten years from the week when I first posted to this blog, what should I conclude from the fact that the concerns I wrote about then are the same as my concerns today?  Aren't we supposed to progress on the road of life?  Maybe that's a bad metaphor.

This blog, at first, was to be a place for spontaneous notes, like a journal.  As soon as Blogger showed me that seekers across the globe at least glanced at my stuff, I put more time into it. But then I felt guilty for the time I spent in this space, remembering that John Updike eschewed journaling because it uses up life material that should go into something productive, i.e., publishable.

Eventually, I realized:  this blog is my garden.  It's a narrow plot, where I return weekly to weed out errors and to tend to subjects of perennial interest to me:  Episcopalianism, Updike, mysteries, and Stephen Sondheim.

While I've tended this garden over ten years, much has changed:  I lost Uncle Jack Maier in 2005; leafing through the hardback collections of my blogposts, I find references to the passing of all the grown ups of my youth:  Aunt Harriet, Aunt Blanche, Uncle Jack Smoot, and Dad; only Mom and her cousin Pat remain.  In 2006, my dogs Luis and Bo were vigorous companions, now gone. In 2006, I was riding my bike nearly every day from May to August, averaging 18 m.p.h.;  last summer, I averaged something under 15 m.p.h.   

But I'm in the same house, weighing about the same, looking about the same.  My car still travels the same routes all week, from home to church (choir, worship, meetings) or to school. (Since 2012, I've added Mom's retirement community, but it lies en route.)  My salary has barely budged since 2006.  Back then, the US was enmeshed in two wars, and I'd never felt politics to be so vicious; now we're still not not enmeshed, and political discourse has reached a new low.  I'm still listening to NPR, enjoying the Atlanta Symphony and occasional plays.

In my teaching, I'd say 90% of my time with students is as fun as ever, interacting  with them over literature (historical texts, then; fiction and poetry now; scripts, always).  There's always that problematic 10%, and I'm just as surprised today as I was the first year I taught when students don't want what I offer.

And on the tenth anniversary of my first blog post, when I sat to write about a wonderful short essay that had just made me laugh and cry, it turns out that it deals with essentially the same topic as the first one ten years ago, in which I responded to a preacher who boasted that his church was true to God because he treats the Resurrection as a "fact," not a metaphor (link).

Last week, I read an essay by Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield who tells of a taxi driver, ex-stoner and gung-ho evangelical Christian, who peppers him with questions about Jesus.  When the Rabbi explains his belief that Jesus was one of history's greatest human beings and teachers, the cabby asks how the Rabbi can have such respect for Jesus without believing Jesus is God. The Rabbi surprises himself with a neat formulation: "You don't have to be wrong for me to be right."  The cabby swerves off the road in his excitement.  Then he asks what to do about his wife, a non-believer who has stuck with him through years of rehab and turmoil; his pastor has told him to leave her if she won't accept Christ.  The Rabbi essentially repeats his earlier answer: both wife and faith are a blessing; the man should not give up either one.  The story ends in a tearful bear hug.

It's a beautiful story that illustrates a quote from Rumi (via Coleman Barks) used as epigraph for an essay in My Neighbor's Faith: "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,/ there is a field. / I'll meet you there" (228). (see more about My Neighbor's Faith.)

My earliest essay in this blog looks for that field, too:  Whether Jesus's resurrection is a hard historical fact or something else, it's all in the realm of literature and imagination, now.  What we do with the story, how it colors our responses to our world: these are what matter.

So, am I stuck in a rut on the road to life?  I prefer to think that I'm like my friend Bill L., who has worked the same property for years, building a house and then tending a garden.  Flowers and shrubbery come up, some die, some overcrowd the others, and he re-works that plot.

I'm working this plot of cyber-space, responding to literature, belletristic and otherwise.  I enjoy the writing; I enjoy knowing when others have seen what I do; I enjoy weeding out awkward phrases and mistakes when I catch them in old postings; but I most of all enjoy going back to read things I wrote long ago that strike me as fresh, even now (see personal bests).

So, should I be concerned that I see repetition in my blog over ten years?  Our Episcopal Church itself arranges time in recursive events, readings, and processes.  John Updike returned to his childhood experiences from first story to last poem, always finding life in them.  Stephen Sondheim's collaborators have pushed him in very different directions, but his music for each show builds on a restricted set of motifs.  Layers of memory and intra-volume references are part of what make Wendell Berry's novels wonderful, all concerned with the denizens of one rural Kentucky town.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying perennials.

Bradley Hirschfield, "Finding Faith on the Road: Where Deep Commitment and Genuine Openness Meet."  In  My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and TransformationEdited by Jennifer Howe Peace,   Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. 

Friday, April 08, 2016

My Neighbor's Faith: NPR's Theology?

A rabbi, a preacher, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a feminist respond to a writing prompt.

It's not a joke, but the premise behind My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation, edited by Jennifer Howe Peace, Or N. Rose, and Gregory Mobley (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012).  The book is part of the curriculum for Education for Ministry (EfM) out of the School of Theology at The University of the South, Sewanee, an Episcopal seminary.  Around fifty short essays tell of faith discovered, challenged, or reinvigorated by encounters between traditions.  

The thing is, I hear stories of such encounters every day on NPR, where voices represent a wide range of religious / political / cultural views, mediated by erudite, respectful, curious correspondents.  I find myself wondering, so long as we have NPR, who needs Church? 
NPR's theology
While I settled in to read the book, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition Sunday.  In just the space of a few minutes, I heard a Republican office-holder in Wisconsin who sees "no good" in the Trump campaign, regardless of Trump's drawing voters to the party, because of the candidate's lack of respect for others.   A gay businessman in North Carolina deplored the state's new "bathroom" law for what it says to any LGBTQ fifteen-year-old, who may even hear parents approve the law; yet the businessman has determined not to follow other businesses out of the state, but to remain a sign of hope for that hypothetical kid. 

During a break in the program, we heard that NPR is sponsored in part by the Gates Foundation, its tagline a precis of this statement from the Gates website:
We seek to unlock the possibility inside every individual.  We see equal value in all lives. And so we are dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. From the education of students in Chicago, to the health of a young mother in Nigeria, we are catalysts of human promise everywhere. (
The rest of the day, I heard Gates' values resonating in programs about the arts, politics, stories of individuals with tough problems, Krista Tippett's On Being,  and Back Story's survey of the influence of local political networks on the history of the USA.  As one expects with NPR, within 24 hours, I also heard a Trump supporter, and the sponsor of Georgia's own version of North Carolina's law, who commended his interviewers for always treating him fairly. 

This bedrock assertion of every individual's equal value derives from the same stream of thought as the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and "the pursuit of happiness."  As our founding document proclaims that any government that becomes destructive to these ends must be abolished, Gates and NPR work to clear away impediments to good health, education, and fair participation in the community's economy and governance.

Of course, this secular faith in the worth of the individual derives from a thread running through the major religious traditions.  One of the essayists in My Neighbor's Faith cites the Tibetan saying that "everyone was once your mother" and the Jewish story of Adam and Eve as expressions of the same idea that we all are interconnected and worthy of respect (Kamenetz 189-190).  But the idea, self-evident, no longer needs religious scaffolding. 

So, what value does faith add?
The first half of My Neighbor's Faith is about learning to see adherents of other traditions as dignified, respectable, honorable individuals, as NPR does just in the way its hosts ask questions.  The book's second half reaches towards an answer to my question. "What does faith add?"

The closest direct answer comes in an essay by the son of Baptist preacher whose family befriended their neighbor the Rabbi and his family.   Later studying at a secular, lefty college during the secular, lefty late 60s, author S. Mark Heim found "allies" in classmates of any religious tradition: "History was choosing sides," he writes, "and we had chosen the losing one" (193).  His few curricular encounters with religious writers, regardless of tradition, were "precious evidence that intimations of transcendence and the integration of faith and reason were matters worthy to occupy the wise."  Then he writes:

On the great moral challenges of the antiwar and civil rights movements, the churches...seemed like weak and hesitant echoes to the vibrant campus consensus [but] as I struggled to make my own decisions... it was religious convictions that finally counted.... [I observed] a steadied endurance to the engagement of many religious people I knew that contrasted dramatically with antiwar passions that evaporated with a low draft number.

Heim became a student of religious pluralism, and wrote a book that "seems now embarrassingly backwards" because it "treated religions in terms of ideas" (194).  The remainder of his essay tells of a breakthrough experience of moksha or "release" from self.  "But I was not sad to see [the experience] end" and "it was not...a vision with a moral."  He concludes "that behind each tradition in principle there lies something of this same order of otherness and wonder" (196).

The "morals" and the "ideas" of religions are what overlap with NPR and all humane entities; what faith seems to add is power.   It was a staying power that Heim observed.  A Rabbi, co-author with an evangelical Protestant, writes,  "Faith for me is not a confidence that Something Really Nice will happen later, because Someone I can't see is taking care of things.  It is about finding the ability to give love now, in this life," something he and his friend have both found in taking care of severely handicapped daughters (Gottlieb and Leonard 90).

The source of power may be "a generalized sense of a meaningful and life-affirming connection to a transcendent reality" (95), writes Jeffery D. Long, a "born-again Hindu" raised Catholic (98).

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer would tell us that the faithful are empowered by an actual Spirit bestowed by that Transcendent Reality, not from a mere "sense" of connection. Some of these essays do tell of mysterious or mystical moments when the authors felt or witnessed something outside the physical world.  Besides Heim's moksha, Ruben L. F. Habito writes of a similar breakthrough in "A Christian Confronts a Zen Koan" (165); and Roger Kamenetz, an American Jew, gives us a "shaggy dog story" about his dog Taxi, so taken with the teachings of a visiting guru that he runs away after his new teacher, and, months later, follows him into death -- presumably to be reborn with him to pursue their dharma together (191).

I can see that power -- for good, and for evil -- comes from identity, the feeling that one belongs to a defined community, that one "stands" for the people of that community.  The word doesn't come up much in these essays, though Paul Raushenbush, a Christian preacher, writes of pride in his family's Jewish identity, stronger than doctrine: "To put it bluntly [about afterlife]: if I can't hang with my Jewish cousins up in heaven, then it doesn't sound much like heaven to me" (108).   A Jewish woman who has always seen herself as an outsider in US society is shocked when Black classmates see her as an insider who can "pass" for White anytime, while they "always carry their black identity with them front and center" (Boys 141).    

Narrative gives power to ideas.  While one can haggle with one's conscience over an idea -- "What exactly does justice mean in this instance?" -- it's harder to argue with the vivid parable of the Good Samaritan or the example of Jesus stepping between a woman accused of adultery and the mob intent on stoning her.  In My Neighbor's Faith, an Episcopal priest tells of a Sikh peacemaker motivated by Jesus (Gibbs 180).  A Lakota man finds a way out of hatred of Whites and his substance abuse through the story of Jesus' life, though he refuses to choose the RSV, NRSV, KJV, NIV, CEV, or NKJV, or to accept that "to become a new creation" must mean "to become white" (Twilly 161).  Two essayists give credit for life-changing decisions to Prince Arjuna's story in the Bagavad - Gita, how he hesitates to launch a battle that can have no good outcome (Long 93, Makransky 197).

One essayist sees power in the "discipline" of ritual.  This is a Muslim, familiar with the act of prostration, stunned to see Orthodox Christians bend themselves in the same way (Ziad 117).  He relates the "pain" of bodily discipline to Mary's pain in childbirth, giving us words by Rumi: "The body is like Mary. /  Each of us has a Jesus, but so long as no pain appears, our Jesus is not born."  The author continues, "all ritual is imitation," a way into prayer and unity with God.

Where My Neighbor's Faith might be seen to be blurring boundaries, our clergy may be seen as defining the lines more distinctly.   Fr. Roger Allen and Fr. Daron Vroon have led a series of talks and sermons around such questions as, "Why Christian?  Why Episcopalian?" But I don't see their teachings as rejection of other churches, only as an extension of their ideas expressed often, that there's transformative power in regular prayer and communion, living into our Baptismal covenant, living in community, all beyond the ideas of right beliefs.

During our EfM seminar meetings, we have often heard each other attest to the power of liturgy to comfort or move us, and we've told stories of how memories from these words and rites have motivated us at critical moments in our lives.

Having read most of My Neighbor's Faith, I can stand with that Protestant preacher Bill Leonard, who writes that he and his friend the Rabbi are  "both people of faith, at times coloring outside the canons of our respective Jewish and Christian traditions, but stuck with and in them nonetheless" (89).

That sounds right to me, "stuck" as I am "with and in" the traditions of the Episcopal Church.  When I doubt myself, or my path, when I'm most vulnerable, even the most reasonable voices of NPR vex me with news of strife and intractable problems.  I turn off the radio, and go to my "go to" sources -- the prayer book, the music, the writers, the Bible, the Church itself.