Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another Dozen Examples

85. Walk or bike the same route every day - take pictures, make sketches, talk to people, write down daily impressions.
86. Become a groupie for a musical group.
87. Retrace the life path of an artist, architect, writer, composer or someone else who fascinates you.
88. Build and install birdhouses.
89. Lead the beautification of some intersections in your town.
90. Make greeting cards.
91. Learn to kayak.
92. Learn a magic act.
93. Create your own Story Corps a la National Public Radio.
94. Make paper architecture models.
95. Learn a new card game and play it daily.
96. Live on an island.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Volunteer at a Community Theater

As someone once said (Irving Berlin actually), "There's no business like show business ... and no people like show people." I've acted in a couple of community theater productions over the years - and my immediate family members played roles in many more - and I can confirm the sentiment notably belted out by Ethel Merman. There's a particular kind of "high" that comes with performing before an audience, whether in the local high school gym or on Broadway - and, although I've never had the latter experience, I'm guessing that the quality of the "high" is not that different.

Happily, you can experience a similar adrenaline rush even if you are invisible to the audience. There are lots of opportunities to participate in the experience, to become engrossed in the often frantic preparations for opening night, to listen intently to the audience reactions, to laugh and drink at the cast parties (especially drink), and experience the relief and let-down when it's all over.

Many volunteer jobs don't even require special skills or unusual talents. And these theaters need lots of help, so time, energy and dedication will take you very far indeed. If you're new to a community, it's also a great way to meet friendly, committed folks who will welcome you warmly - and pile on as many assignments as you're willing to shoulder.

The good news continues - no matter where you live, there's almost certainly a community theater in your town or within easy commuting distance. According to the American Association of Community Theatre, 7,000 are spread across the country, annually involving 1.5 million volunteers with 46,000 productions performed in front of 86 million audience members. With statistics like these, anyone with a hankering to get involved can surely find an opportunity.

What roles might you play (using the word "roles" in the broadest sense)? Acting, directing, choreographing and producing are obvious ones but there are many others. In fact, for every person in front of the footlights, there are probably several more behind the scenes, literally and figuratively. (Isn't it interesting how many figures of speech we use that originated in the theater. I guess "all the world is a stage" is as true now as in Shakespeare's time.)

Here's a list of opportunities you'll find in most community theaters:
  • Box office - besides staffing the box office on performance nights, there's mailing of tickets, ticket exchanges, and maintaining the database of ticket buyers.

  • Costumes - virtually all shows require some sort of costuming other than the performers showing up in their street clothes (or in no clothes, but I would guess that's a rarety for community theater). This could involve anything from ransacking your own closets, combing the racks at thrift shops for period numbers, renting or borrowing costumes from other theaters, up to designing and creating custom-made costumes for your show.

  • Stage manager - the job description could go on for pages, but the AACT mentions these specifically: scheduling and running rehearsals, communicating the director's wishes to designers and crafts people, coordinating the work of the stage crew, calling cues and possibly actors' entrances during performance, and overseeing the entire show each time it is performed.

  • House manager - duties include assigning and supervising the ushers, coordinating with the backstage crew and the box office, resolving customer complaints regarding seating, accounting for all tickets, overseeing press passes or other special tickets and providing a count of attendees, among other duties.

  • Lighting - this could include designing the lighting for the show as well as setting lighting instruments and operating the light board during performances. The ability to walk on elevated, narrow catwalks without taking a plunge to the stage or house is a definite asset.

  • Sound - as with lighting, someone needs to design the sound and run the sound system during performances.

  • Sets - designing the sets in consultation with the producer and director (and within a too-small budget) could be a great HarvilleQuarter activity. If you're not quite that creative but can hammer nails, paint, or paper, your skills will be most appreciated.

  • Props - the shear number of props (short for "properties") required by a show can be daunting. Finding just the right props, almost certainly within a Scrooge-like budget, can be time-consuming but very rewarding when, for example, you find the perfect 1930's lamp for You Can't Take It With You at an estate sale for $2.50.

  • Stagehands - During the show's run, there is a whole backstage crew who sets the stage before every performance, changes scenery and props quickly and quietly between acts, and makes any fixes required from one night to the next.

I could go on. There are always things to do and never enough people to do them. If you're multi-talented, you may end up taking on tasks you didn't expect, and if you're not multi-talented, you probably will be by the end of the show.

The photograph was lifted from the AACT Website and shows a scene from the Tacoma Musical Playhouse's production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." (Wouldn't you love to be the costume designer for that show?)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Visit a Major Museum Every Day

The great gift of retirement is time - unstructured time you can choose to populate however you wish. If you're married or have a significant other, there are the wishes of the other person to consider, of course, but is he or she is also retired, one can hope the two of you find many HarvilleQuarters to do as a couple. As well as some to enjoy independently.

But getting back to time.... I've visited a few major museums in my life but never spent more than a day at a time in one. A few years ago my friend Doug and I toured Spain for ten days, a few of them in Madrid. We arrived one morning at the Prado, one of the world's greatest museums, just as it opened and managed to get in about ten hours there. Yet I felt I spent the last hour practically racing from room to room to get a glimpse of a few Goyas and El Grecos I'd somehow missed up to that point.

Like many museum visitors, I tend to gravitate toward the big names and well-known pieces, barely glancing at whole sections as I travel through en route to the next blockbuster. I must have overlooked a host of gems because I've been consciously allocating my limited resource - time - to the must-see art, generally defined as what other people, such as guidebook writers, tell me I should see.

I'm really looking forward to spending a whole HarvilleQuarter making daily visits to one major museum and taking time to absorb each room in its entirety. I promise to include those forms of art I perceive as less interesting or impressive - pre-Columbian pottery, native American art, tapestries, furniture and other "decorative arts," Chinese porcelains, and I could go on. I'm afraid I've been too much the typical art tourist - focusing on representational European and American paintings from about 1600 to 1900.

I'm planning to change that.

Here's my approach: I'll pick a museum with a broad collection, arrive five days a week and devote four hours daily to a different room. That could be anywhere from 10 to 40 pieces I'm going to get to know really well. I'll look at each one - really look at it, even if I don't initially find it attractive or interesting - and consider all the variables that make up the piece - its form, composition, texture, materials, color, size, subject matter, history and historical context, patterns, light - anything I can notice.

In addition, I'll think about why this item was selected for exhibit by this museum. What did the curator find compelling about it? Why is it placed in this position in this room surrounded by these particular pieces?

I will start my HarvilleQuarter by familiarizing myself with the museum in total. On the first day, I'll rent a self-guided audio tour to orient myself to the space and hear what the museum staff think about the pieces. I'll also take a guided tour with a docent to get her point of view and engage her in a conversation about her favorite rooms and works, especially those not part of the standard tour.

I'll purchase an annual membership to get free admission and access to the museum library, special exhibits, lectures and other amenities. This museum is going to be my home for three months and I want to end up feeling as "at home" here as in my own living quarters.

Each day, I'll take with me some relevant reading material. Four hours is a long time to spend on one's feet contemplating art. Most galleries have a bench or two for taking breaks. I'll read up on the artist, or genre, or historical period while surrounded by the actual art I'm reading about. After a while, I'll take another look while my new-found knowledge is fresh in my mind. I'll have a journal along for writing down my impressions, both initial and after reconsideration. Which items drew my attention on first entering the gallery? Are they the ones that I'll remember most vividly after spending an afternoon with them? Which will I return to later in the HarvilleQuarter because I've felt a strong connection with them? Which will I include in my farewell tour on the last day of the quarter?

I'll observe my fellow patrons as they walk through, noting the items that draw their interest, perhaps eavesdropping a bit on their remarks. I may even strike up a conversation with one of them who seems particularly drawn to a work to understand the source of their fascination.

By the end of three months, I'm confident I'll be looking at art - all kinds of art - with new eyes. I do believe the only way to acquire a true appreciation for art is to look at it, over and over and over. Reading about it, knowing the historical context, picking up anecdotes from the artist's life - all this color commentary will enhance the experience - but personal growth will come from simply standing and looking, and looking some more, and then looking a third time.

I'm confident I won't get bored. I anticipate that saying a farewell to "my museum" after three months will be sweet sorrow indeed.

The photograph is the St. Louis Art Museum, taken from its Website,