One Hand Clapping

ZEN MASTER - Silent Thunder Order

“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” -J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories

“I’m going to need all of you. Put your embarrassment in a box and set that box on fire, when I clap you clap.” -John Kolvenbach, Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight

The epigraph to J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is the Venerable Master Hakuin’s famous Zen Koan:

“We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

The answer?

Well, that’s entirely up to you.

Hint: Don’t worry about coming up with an answer. Just sit with it for a while. Like all koans, allow it to break through your logical thought and reasoning, both of which are responsible for attachment and subsequent suffering.

Come From Away

Apple Original Films announces filmed production for the musical “Come From  Away” - Apple TV+ Press

“Telemachos saw Athene and went straight to the forecourt, the heart within him scandalized that a guest should still be standing at the doors. He stood beside her and took her by the right hand, and relieved her of the bronze spear, and spoke to her and addressed her in winged words: ‘Welcome, stranger. You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward, when you have tasted dinner, you shall tell us what your need is.’…And he led her and seated her in a chair, with a cloth to sit on, the chair splendid and elaborate.” -Homer, The Odyssey

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” -Fred Rogers

On the cusp of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, yes we will reflect on the horrible tragedy that occurred, but we should also remember the many remarkable acts of heroism and kindness that transpired. One such act has to do with the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland. The population is roughly 10,000, but on that fateful day it nearly doubled. Why?

Gander airport marks the closest point between Europe and the U.S. and is a preferred emergency landing spot for medical and other emergencies. Tons of extra planes from nearly 100 countries, filled with anxiety-ridden passengers, landed there on 9/11. The town immediately rushed into action providing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, etc…and all kinds of comfort to the stranded passengers. You can read more about it here.

The story also became a Broadway musical, “Come From Away”, and the filmed version launches tomorrow on Apple TV. Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times wrote an insightful article about the musical which you can read here.

Give it a watch. Let me know what you think.

And on those dark days when you despair and feel there’s not much good in the world, remember Gander. Remember all the heroes of 9/11. Remember all the heroes throughout history as well as the ones working in the world today. Often behind the scenes with no fanfare or recognition. Just going about their business, being kind, being helpful, doing their job, with a quiet dignity and purpose.

Lastly, remember the advice of Marcus Aurelius…”Don’t waste time arguing what a good [person] should be. Be one.”

Closing Time?

Artwork Analysis: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper | Artsper Magazine

“So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this:
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.” -Leonard Cohen, Closing Time

“Closing time, every new beginning
Comes from some other beginning’s end.” -Semisonic, Closing Time

When is it time to close the run of a show?

Assuming this is a passion project and that you’re acting and producing it, I’d say there are two things to think about: (And take it week by week if you can.)

(1) As the ACTOR…Have I fully mined everything from this character? Have I gone as deep as I can? Am I still willing to do the necessary hard work to stay sharp each week and fully invest myself in this character and play? Do I still feel joy?

(2) As the PRODUCER…Am I still willing to do the grinding work of getting people to see the show? Am I willing to continue putting myself out there? Keep risking my emotional energy that no one shows up? Also, how does everyone in the ensemble and crew feel? Are they still excited to show up each week?

If the answer to either of these categories and questions is no, it’s time to close. You’ll know. You’ll feel it.

And one last piece of advice, it’s always better to close a little early than a little late. Go out with a bang. Not a whimper.

System Thinking

Some definitions of systems are as follows:

  1. A group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is described by its boundaries, structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.
  2. A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.
  3. A set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method.
  4. A mathematical system (𝑆, ∗) consists of a set 𝑆 with elements 𝑎, 𝑏, 𝑐, 𝑑, … together with a binary operation ∗ that combines any two elements in 𝑆 to create a new element (e.g. 𝑎 ∗ 𝑏𝑑∗𝑐,𝑏∗𝑏,etc.). Note that the set 𝑆 can be either finite or infinite.

Notice the commonality in all these definitions. “A set of” something…rules, principles, elements, etc…All organized and working together for some specified outcome.

Systems guide everything, including our own universe.

So it might make intuitive sense to employ system thinking for anything we’re trying to accomplish. Which is just thinking holistically. Thinking of causes and effects. Seeing everything as interconnected. Breaking things down into a series of manageable steps. (Re-read my post about workplans as an example of system thinking.)

Yes, goals are important. They point us in the right direction. To paraphrase Seneca, “If you don’t know which port you’re sailing to, no wind is favorable.” But goals only go so far. Without setting up a system for how we’re going to accomplish something, it won’t get done. Especially on those days when willpower and motivation are running low. Or when life doesn’t seem to be cooperating with our desired schedule.

System thinking is about process. About continually doing something because it’s part of your identity. It’s who you are. “I’m the type of person who does this.” Not for accolades, awards or achievement. Because those things fade.

But systems last forever.

P.S. – This James Clear article does a good job of breaking down system thinking over goal thinking. And provides some excellent examples.

P.P.S. – R.I.P. Michael K. Williams. A truly great actor who you never caught “acting.” I remember my dad calling me one night about about a new show “The Wire”, that I had to watch. He singled out one actor in particular as being so incredibly real. That was Michael K. Williams as “Omar Little.” Listen to this recent podcast with Marc Maron.

Labor Day

In 1942, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller was hired by the Westinghouse Company's War Production Coordinating Committee to create a series of posters for the war effort. One of these posters became the famous

“In times of national emergency, one fact is brought home to us, clearly and decisively—the fact that all of our rights are interdependent. The right of freedom of worship would mean nothing without freedom of speech. And the rights of free labor as we know them today could not survive without the rights of free enterprise. That is the indestructible bond that is between us—between all of us Americans: interdependence of interests, privileges, opportunities, responsibilities—interdependence of rights. That is what unites us—men and women of all sections, of all races, of all faiths, of all occupations, of all political beliefs….American workers, American farmers, American businessmen, American church people—all of us together—have the great responsibility and the great privilege of laboring to build a democratic world on enduring foundations. May it be said on some future Labor Day by some future President of the United States that we did our work faithfully and well.” -Excerpt from FDR’s 1941 Labor Day Radio Address

My very first blog post was a short one about the formula for artistic happiness. Here’s that formula again…

Meaningful Work + Meaningful Community = Artistic Happiness.

As we celebrate Labor Day today, let us be thankful for all those who came before us and made tremendous personal sacrifice on our behalf. For as this article shows, it was their risking, their organizing, their striking, their demanding of better working conditions, that those conditions vastly improved and that we could even have a chance at doing meaningful work. Not to mention this national holiday.

So in addition to remembering their efforts, make sure you relax, spend time with family, friends and loved ones and celebrate. Because that’s exactly what those who came before us would want us to do.

Happy Labor Day everyone!

“Why Isn’t Anyone Coming?”

Your art is good.

But your messaging isn’t.

That’s on you as a producer.

Change your message. Change your story. Keep grinding. Keep iterating. Give people a more compelling reason to show up.

And eventually they will.

P.S. – Our Vs. production of STAND UP IF YOU’RE HERE TONIGHT has extended through September. We’ve been blessed with some good houses and strong reviews. Including this lovely one from an audience member…

I thoroughly enjoyed “Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight.” Jim Ortlieb brought John Kolvenbach’s script to life so completely I was dumbstruck. Part “Godot”, part meta theatre, this production had me laughing so hard I almost cried. I was also deeply touched by the questions the narrator asked the audience. This show was delightful, unusual, and surprising. They are very COVID safe at the theater, so I’d urge you to see this masterful performance and wonderful play. Immediately afterwards I started making plans to come again.

Get your tix here before it ends. Use code “vsally” and your ticket is only $10. We’d love to see and stand up with you!

“On Writing” by Stephen King – Three Reasons

“Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.” -Stephen King, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”

(1) One of the best books ever written about the craft of writing…You get gems like this: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”…Buy it. Read it. Get writing!

(2) It takes two…We all need a co-conspirator. No one does it alone. King credits his wife Tabitha for much of his success. He tells a beautiful, inspiring story about just how poor they were, his constant rejection, how much he struggled, wanted to quit, but Tabitha wouldn’t let him. She was all in and behind him no matter what. When you get to the part where they celebrate after “Carrie” is published, you will be weeping with joy.

(3) Watch King’s 2003 National Book Award speech. It’s magnificent. (You can also read the transcript here.)…A little snippet to take us out…

My point is that Tabby always knew what I was supposed to be doing and she believed that I would succeed at it. There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there’s a time when things can go either way.

That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness rather than her more common wit and good natured sarcasm that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint. I believe that on some level of thought I was expecting to have that conversation. If she had suggested that you can’t buy a loaf of bread or a tube of toothpaste with rejection slips, I would have gone out and found a part time job.

Tabby has told me since that it never crossed her mind to have such a conversation. You had a second job, she said, in the laundry room with my typewriter.

VAL: Three Reasons

Val Kilmer Bares His Soul In Amazon Studios Upcoming 'VAL' Documentary -  Icon Vs. Icon

“Live every second. Live right on to the end. Live Wyatt. Live for me.” -Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

(Hat tip to my friend Ron for recommending this excellent documentary.)

I’ve always loved Val Kilmer as an actor. His performances as Jim Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone are in my pantheon. This dying scene has to be an all-time top five. (Not to mention “Iceman” in Top Gun and “Chris Knight” in an underrated 80’s gem, Real Genius.)

Here are three reasons you should watch VAL.

(1) Incredible Footage…Kilmer shot thousands and thousands of hours of footage throughout his life and career. The directors did a remarkable job of editing that footage down to tell this story. As a result, we the viewer get a fascinating and rare “inside baseball” look at the life of an artist.

(2) For Love Of the Art…Sandwiched between his success as a movie star, the film is bookended by footage of Val as a child making home movies with his brothers and then as an older actor, doing his one man show as Mark Twain. In those bookends, you see the absolute joy and love he has for the art.

(3) Commitment To The Craft…All throughout, we see his fierce commitment. Some of my favorite clips are the short films he makes as auditions for parts in movies he didn’t get. He set his ego aside and taped himself even though he wasn’t asked! After watching this, no actor should ever complain about having to audition for a role.

It’s also heartbreaking. Kilmer is in recovery from throat cancer and as part of the treatment, he needed a tracheostomy. At one point, Val admits: “I can’t speak without plugging this hole [in his throat].”

You can watch the movie on Amazon Prime. I look forward to hearing what you think!

Turn The Page

Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star again
There I go
Turn the page

-Bob Seger from his song, “Turn The Page”

As an Artistic Director of a theatre company, I get asked some form of this question a lot…

“What’s the most important thing you look for in a play?”

My answer is always the same…

“Make me want to keep turning pages.”