In our wonderful former town of Hillsboro, Virginia there was (and may still be) a fine tradition of having no one formally run for office. They just put out the word that they’re interested and people write them in.
One year a very interesting thing happened, but I'll let my husband, Chuck, tell the tale:
For 30 years (1997-2015) my wife and I lived in a very, very small town in Virginia: Hillsboro. It was often described as “the smallest incorporated town in Virginia” (whether or not that’s true is unclear).
It’s a small town pretty close to Harper’s Ferry WV that was founded around 1800 so it has a lot of historic houses. The incorporated town has around 30 houses and maybe 100 full-time residents.
As an incorporated town, Hillsboro elects a mayor and a town council every 2 years. When we moved there, we were told about a long-standing election tradition - nobody ever filed paperwork declaring their candidacy. If you were interested in running for office, you mentioned that fact to the old guy down at the general store (yup, we had a general store) - old Glen Roberts. Glen hung out at the store all day. He ran the store and lived in the other half of the building. So you told Glen you wanted to run for mayor, and, if Glen approved, he’d mention it to people who came into the store (because everyone hits up the store sooner or later). The word got out, you’d receive a decent number of write-in votes, and you’d be elected.
That’s how it worked.
Glen was an older fella, and he eventually passed away. But the tradition of write-ins continued. It was simply a bit more difficult to get the word out. Maybe you told a few people, maybe you mentioned it in casual conversation when chatting with your neighbors, maybe you let it drop at church. The one thing you simply did NOT do was campaign for office. Stories circulated around town about a fellow who scandalously walked around outside the polling place with a sign that said “Dick Hoff for Town Council”. The story is that he got 2 votes - his and his daughters (which means his wife didn’t vote for him… not sure what that’s about). Regardless, that story was always told as some sort of cautionary tale to let people know politically ambitious folks were not what Hillsboro wanted!
Anyway, around '90 an election was coming up, the filing deadline was fast approaching and as usual, nobody had filed to be on the ballot. But in a break with tradition, nobody was putting out the word that they were interested. The guy who’d been mayor for the last 2 terms (Tom) had publicly stated that he was not interested in running for Mayor again. So not only were there no candidates but there wasn’t even a viable write-in candidate! A political vacuum, if you will. But as it turns out, I was at an event a few months prior to the election, chatting with some of my contemporaries, and somebody said something to the effect of “since nobody is running for office we should all file to get on the ballot - we’d be elected easily!”
For some reason this sounded like a good idea. So I grabbed a bunch of the filing forms and a few days later we held a meeting at my house. There were six of us, so we were going to file for mayor and the five open town council seats. Since it was my house I was unofficially in charge. I pointed to my left and said “what office are you going to run for?” He said “I dunno but I’m not running for Mayor”. I pointed to the next guy - same answer. And on and on until it got to me. And since everyone else had said “not Mayor” I said “well, I guess I’m running for mayor!”
And that was that.
So we all filed the proper forms, and the ballots came out. Sure enough, our names were on it. Nothing to do then but wait for the election to occur and bask in the glory of being elected.
The evening of the election we had a low-key party ready to go. My wife made a cake that said “Congratulations Mr Mayor” we were going to carve into. We were sitting around waiting for the polls to close at 7 PM so we could cut the cake. At 7:01 we got a phone call from Jocelyn, a neighbor from around the corner - the one who checked your name off the voting list and who counted the votes. The first thing she said was “Chuck, I’m so sorry.” Not understanding I said “Sorry about what?” She continued “You lost the election.” My response was “To WHO? How could I lose? Nobody else was even running!”
Jocelyn said “Tom decided he would run again and he went around town telling people last weekend. You lost 17-16.” So I had lost in an unopposed race…
Now the plot thickens: I remembered that the week prior, I’d been talking to a neighbor, Josh, and he told me he’d requested an absentee ballot since he would be on travel on election day.
So I asked the Virginia official “What about absentee ballots?” She hung up... but called back an hour later to tell me that yes, there was one absentee ballot that had been cast for me and now the election was officially a tie, 17-17.
And it turns out, when an election in Virginia ends in a tie, the State Board of Elections sends an official to the local election site. They write the two candidates’ names on slips of paper, fold them in half, and drop them into a container. Then without looking, another person draws a slip of paper out of the container. For some reason, I went to work and did not attend this ceremony, but my wife and infant son were there as my witnesses. They dropped the names into a box, held the box up high, and the slip of paper pulled out had Tom’s name on it.
So I tied - but I lost the tiebreaker.
The trauma was enough to end my political career. Though I didn’t win I always like to say “I’ve never lost an election.” On a positive note, after that, my wife made me a tee-shirt that said “Don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy” that I could wear around town (I never had the guts to wear it though!).
Small-town life at its’ best!
The Washington Post wrote up the official story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1990/05/03/va-towns-go-to-the-polls/322b3ccc-a723-466d-ae94-659ae7ad3d1b/
Ever wondered what it would be like to put together a "Light Musical" in 7 short weeks. Had to be ready for Valentine's Weekend! Wondered what the trials, tribulations and triumphs of writing and directing that show might be? All right. Then how about a diary as we work with professional singers and some of the best actors in the DC area to create a comedy with gorgeous music. Great! Let's go...
Romance from Broadway to Lincoln Center began when a man deeply involved in the arts here in Loudoun County, Virginia: Chris Maré. met with Loudoun Lyric Opera President Pamela Butler to throw out an idea: interest new audiences in Opera through a review of Broadway and Opera songs, and set the show in 1966, just as the Metropolitan Opera was being relocated from 39th and Broadway to its new digs Lincoln Center. Pam knew a good idea when she heard one, brought it back to the board and the tweaking began. The common theme became "Romance", and Pam suggested having the review hosted by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald (two of my personal heroes).
Pam asked if I would I like a commission to write the script and direct the show? As these are my two favorite occupations, I jumped at the chance. And, since then, creating Romance from Broadway to Lincoln Center has been like writing a sonnet — one long, painful, curious, but ultimately satisfying sonnet.
Nelson and Jeannette soon evolved into a married couple with respective expertise in Opera and Broadway music. They'd be rehearsing a tribute presentation of romantic music, each presenting fascinating details of the songs from their respective genres. The catch: there's no money for the production, so their producer, Jackie, has wheedled the Jeanette and Nelson into letting everyone rehearse in their living room.
My "Poetic" constraints:
1. Every song had to be in the public domain, because who can afford modern works? 1966 made that a cinch, and our Music Director, Cuong Van, Pam Butler and I worked together to choose each piece.
2. Audition the best singers in the area - the ones able to perform both Broadway and opera tunes (two completely different sets of vocal training) - during the busiest time of the performance season.
3. Oh, and make certain all of them can act, because they'll all have lines.
4. Write a brilliant show. Or a great show? Or a good show. But for heaven's sake, Meredith, don't write a bad show. This last I must leave to the critics to decide... but it keeps me up at night, just the same.
Besides finding songs in the public domain, 1966 turned out to be a great choice for me for two reasons: I began life as an American historian, and it's easy for me to wanna' play in that sandbox. Secondly, I had two fabulous aunts who lived in New York City in '66. Some of my best childhood memories involve visits with my highly sophisticated Aunt Ruthie who worked for Life Magazine and lived in a posh city apartment. And even more memorable were my visits with my brilliant, enthusiastic and artsy Aunt Libba, who worked at a medical research center and happily dragged me to every favorite corner of "her city", so I could truly understand why New York City was the center of the Universe.
So, let's talk romance. All great story telling begins with strong, recognizable conflict, so of course the stars, Nelson and Jeanette, must be at odds: he's opera; she's Broadway. He's the Managing Director of the renowned Brittleupsie-Yodelthor Opera Company, and she's the Head of Broadway Musical Research at the Glockenfluder Institute of Rhythm and Lyrical Song. He thinks Broadway is fluff; she thinks opera is a snob's game. But they've both been hired by the Paleos Perdomai (Latin translation, "Old Farts") Foundation to present a history and presentation of romantic opera and Broadway music. Jackie, the producer, has worked with Nelson and Jeanette before, and when these two begin to fray at the edges, she knows how to knit things up.
WRITING and CASTING and CHANGES, OH, MY!
This... has been an unusual play in so many ways, with casting no exception. Playwrights know that having a strong sense of character helps a play along, and I prefer Neil Simon's method: he writes a new play with a certain actor in mind. I've used this technique on and off for years, depending on the work, and, if I'm lucky, the actor I have in mind is actually available for the show. I especially like to "pre-cast" in my head when I have a short amount of time to write, and my writing time for Romance was tight. When Pam Butler suggested the Nelson Eddy / Jeanette MacDonald concept - a married, musical couple looking back on their work ala Maytime - I immediately thought of Penny Hauffe and Phil Erickson, two actors with whom I've had the pleasure to work for many years in many different types of shows. Once I had those leads in my mind, I was ready to write.
As I let my mind burble, the framework for the show became a rehearsal... in the home of the couple. Oh! Suddenly, I needed a producer. No sooner had I begun to write the role of a Producer than it became Nancy Purcell's role - another fabulous local actor.
Now it was time to break into a cold sweat and call Penny, Phil and Nancy, hoping beyond hope they could all do it... Yes, they were available and willing! Huzzah!
I asked the three to come over and read the first 10 pages with me. I'm never so precious with my words that I can't appreciate one simple fact: an actor who invests hours trying to understand their character is likely to see something in a role that I couldn't while my subconscious was pouring out a play. And, for the rehearsals of a play's premiere performance, the playwright is usually right there in the rehearsal studio, because a playwright who puts a lid on the actors' process while trying to get a new work on its feet is a fool.
Same rule applies for a director who tries to bring actors "to heel" to a precise artistic vision for any play. A great production is always a group effort, a group investment, and, if done correctly, a group pleasure beyond words.
So I listened to Penny, Phil and Nancy's input, and, as I continued writing, six singers began to come to life, and their songs and stories began to naturally intertwine with the warring couple and their embattled producer. In addition to the singers, Since the "rehearsal" takes place in the couple's living room, it was natural to have a large piano there... and that meant the pianist had to become part of the show... and take some of the lines.
Well, Loudoun Lyric Opera's exceptional Music Director, Cuong Van, is a world-renowned pianist with undergraduate degrees from Saigon Conservatory and Moscow State University, and a Masters in Orchestral Conducting from Cleveland Institute of Music. Former concert engagements include Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian Institution, and in December, Cuong had been in Vietnam conducting the Ho Chi Minh City Orchestra.
But... something told me he'd be up for this. I braved the phone call, ET VOILA! Yes, Cuong was happy to play the part.
This was just getting better and better.
Next up: in order to secure the six singers needed for the show, Pam Butler sent an audition notice to her Loudoun Lyric Opera list. With the help of accompanist Nancy Prestipino, Pam and I spent two wonderful evenings meeting and listening to some of the most amazing singing talent in the area. Opera singers tend to perform with local companies like Loudoun Lyric Opera alongside professional organizations such as Washington or National Opera, so the vast majority of those auditioning were professional singers in every sense of the word. And the group I wanted to cast held both Broadway Musical and Opera experience - and were terrific actors, as well.
I felt like a kid in a candy store.
Casting came together (with only a couple bumps in the road: always hard to find enough male tenors!), and now I really can't wait to get started. This odd little hybrid holds great promise!
January 6, 2010
THE READ THROUGH
Monday night the cast and crew of "Romance from Broadway to Lincoln Center" met in a meeting room at Leesburg United Methodist Church, circled the long benches, and read through the script together for the first time. As a writer and a director, the first read -through is an adventure riddled with adrenalin rushes and moments of shear terror.
As a director, you love it when the actors start to get a feel for the show and really start to enjoy themselves. And the cast was fabulous, so stacked up to a hundred read-throughs before this one, it was a pure delight. But you're also taking notes as you go, and your heart stops a little when you realize something isnt working.
Then you spend a sleepless night thinking about how it went, mulling things over, and by morning, you know what you have to do and how to help the actor do it.
But for the playwright the reading was another kettle of fish. The gist of the show is to have the couple begin arguing and have the Producer bring them back together in the end, with the singers and pianist trapped in the middle several times.
For the audience to go along for that ride, they have to like the couple before things get out of hand. If the two begin the fight too early (and they were), the audience would spend the whole night hoping they'd shut up and get a divorce already.
Just needed to tweak things...
It was easy for me to make Jeannette more gentle, but what could I do for Nelson? He needed to love his wife, but he also had to be a true opera snob. What do I do to make the audience like him, without changing focus?
Well, Frank Capra once said, If you can't make a character good, make 'em clever. That was my next task. Make Nelson more clever.
And one more thing that needed tweaking was the tension build - the kind that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat. My ride had some bumps to smooth out.
One joy of the reading was to hear the vocalists act. The show is such an anomaly - a combo pack of Broadway and opera song - that I was once worried we wouldn't find singers who could go between the genres. And if they could sing, could they act? I shouldn't have worried. These vocalists have a broad range of experience in both opera and musicals, and most have had acting experience. In fact one, Melody Prochazka, first trained at NYU had studied at the Stella Adler Studio. Melody plays Susie, a flamboyant singer who flirts with Nelson every chance she gets. Pitch perfect at the read-through, I can't wait to see what she brings to it as we layer the work in rehearsals.
Ah, the layers.
There was a time when I was learning the basics of Director basics and I wanted everything happening at once: I'd tell the actors EVERYTHING I wanted for their character in every moment... and be surprised when they gave me a performance equivalent to a dead stare.
Thank heaven I learned.
The fellow who taught me how to slowly build a show was Tom Sweitzer (Now head of the acclaimed "A Place to Be" Music Therapy Academy in Middleburg, Virginia). As Tom worked through our play, PORCHES, I'd say, "But Tom, you haven't asked her to go further with that!" And he'd say, "She's not ready, Meredith. When she's ready, I'll ask her to go full out."
And he would, and she did, and I learned.
One thing a director also has to learn is that you 're lucky if the actors remember and apply 10% of what you're asking for. So only ask for the most important things... and then let them own it and take it from there. As I've mentioned before, one thing I really love about the rehearsal process is watching actors bring amazing things to a script... if you let them. So I start the first rehearsal with blocking (movement) and talk about some of the things I think are important to the show. And we build a show together from there.
Our first true rehearsal (last night) was only with the principal actors: Penny Hauffe (as Jeanette McAvoy), Phil Erickson (Nelson Eddington), and Nancy Purcell (Jackie, the Producer). We first talked about the characters (and the new changes I 'd made to the script).
These three actors are excellent and, in a musical, they tend to want to build from the physical out. So we started discussing their look, their demeanor, costuming - the elements that will cue them to head in the direction they want to go.
For the producer, it'll be a sophisticated - slightly artsy style. Pantsuit for a "power woman" of 1966.
For Nelson, it's a tweedy sophistication - the glasses are crucial to give him the scholar's gravitas. For Jeanette, it's embracing the "Beat Generation" culture - where hippies were soon to come from, so she hangs out a lot at the famous Caffé Cino - a great source of 1960s New York City beatnik culture, and one of the first off-off Broadway venues to explore new plays, poetry and other art forms. This is in huge contrast, of course, to Nelson's interest in opera - a conservative cultural phenomena - and there's the natural conflict between the two.
From there, we walked through the First Act with basic blocking and established what I consider the important things: the couple has to clearly love each other and the Producer has to clearly become alarmed as their relationship begins to disintegrate.
From now on, I'll shut my mouth a bit, sit back and see what the actors bring...
FOUR WEEKS OUT!
As a playwright, I'm very aware that the words of a play are living things — things that are going to be read aloud, interpreted and chucked back at you by those rare, brave beings the world calls actors, so you better be ready for it. What I love about writing plays is that you find out whether it's working right away. If the actors don't get it, you first have to ask yourself whether they should get it. And if they should, how are you going to make that aspect of the plot, or the joke, or the character clearer to them... so it'll be clear to the audience?
Hey, sometimes you want things to be subtle. When I wrote the book for Tom Sweitzer's musical, PORCHES, we wanted the audience to wonder about the paperboy and the woman with him… and let each audience member discover for themselves that the two were not, in fact, of this earth. But a romantic comedy rarely needs to be subtle.
As I've already mentioned, in every play the audience has to either love (Jeanette), admire (Nelson), or empathize (Jackie) with characters. Now they or their situation always needs to be funny.
Personally, I like to build a joke in layers (which is to say, building a character with layers, such when that person does the same ridiculous thing again, your audience becomes absolutely giddy with recognition). But then there's the Comedy Rule of Three: you can ruin any good thing if you revisit it more than thrice. This is as firm a law of physics as the Law of Entropy.
Next, for the audience to have a chance to laugh, they have to believe the conflict. Very important rule: share a private joke with the audience — something they can see but the characters can't.
Last rule: my old play writing instructor says there are no rules in comedy, so these are just my rules.
I have Actors' Rules, too. Each actor has to love their characters. Doesn't matter if they're evil or good, brilliant or dense, if they don't love who they are, the audience will sense it. It's all downhill from there. It's just physics.
As a director, one of my jobs is to help an actor invest in that character - make it their own. But as a playwright directing their own show, I can't get too nuts about whether the words are memorized perfectly. Infinitely more important to me that they understand the character and let ideas flow from there.
For example, at our last rehearsal, Kim Shahbazian brought up a great point: she plays Mary, and I wrote Mary as a vocalist who goes from shy to brazen during the play. As Kim worked on Mary, she pointed out that, if this girl was a successful vocalist, she couldn't really be shy, could she? She thought maybe neurotic would be a better starting point. Well, folks, that is even funnier, of course, and it'll be even funnier to you when you see the show.
This is exactly the sort of thing I love about rehearsals. In fact, at that last rehearsal, every actor brought something new to their character.
And when that starts happening (and I know it will keep right on happening), the rehearsal process becomes this amazing journey of discovery. As the actors throw out ideas, my creative juices begin pumping - which lead to new ideas - ways to play on a running theme - pull in a running joke - or bring together a stray piece from another part of the play. We work as a team to make the play richer, deeper, more layered.
That whole wonderful process then translates into a living, vibrant performance that will abide in audiences' memories for a very long while.
Is it any wonder I love actors? Any wonder I find directing a most noble and rewarding pursuit?
THE LAWS OF NATURE
Art loves to make room for nature, but this is ridiculous. Loudoun County, Virginia is buried under 3 feet of snow (still falling as of Saturday, Feb. 6 at 11:30 am), and our week of Technical Rehearsals (Tech Week) for Romance begins Monday.
First the good news: the show was pretty much ready a week ago, so I'm not losing sleep... yet. In fact, the cast and I were hoping to strike a balance and not wind up over-rehearsing. Well... no worries about that now!
Monday at 4 pm is the time we're supposed to load in the set to Franklin Park Performing Arts Center in Purcellville. Yes. That should be hilarious. Thankfully, this set is meant to be black box - just furniture with some standing pieces to give the set height. A truck is what we need to transport furniture, and a truck is going to be the only thing that can get around town on Monday, so that's all good!
Tuesday night is full dress rehearsal (the only night everyone can be there), and we were expecting about 100 high school drama students from Stone Bridge H.S. for audience, but... there ain't gonna' be any school on Tuesday.
Oh, and they're predicting a little more snow that day, too. So, that'll be even more fun.
But, since "hoping" worked out so well for us last time, here's one more hope: I hope everyone has cabin fever by next weekend and they all dig out of their igloos to come see Romance at Franklin Park. We'll be there if we have to get there by toboggan!
ROMANCE FROM BROADWAY TO LINCOLN CENTER was produced to critical acclaim at both Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville, Virginia and Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Virginia. Romance was sponsored by The Friends of Franklin Park Arts Center and produced by the Loudoun Lyric Opera Company.
The performances were dedicated to the memory of Christopher Maré, who, we are sad to say, passed away before rehearsals began.
Meredith Bean McMath
A note from 2010 Loudoun Lyric Opera President read at Christopher Maré's memorial service concerning the beginnings of Romance from Broadway to Lincoln Center
On rare occasions, a chance meeting or brief acquaintance can have a lifelong effect. That was my experience with Christopher Maré.
I met Chris only once, on April 24th of this year . We shared lunch at Magnolia’s while discussing Loudoun Lyric Opera’s exciting plans to move into our first theater home at Franklin Park Arts Center this fall. Chris’ knowledge of opera was extensive and he shared my great love for the art (What other venue allows one to sing, dance, act and communicate in a foreign language all at once?)
Chris & I also shared several common acquaintances in the performing arts world, from here in Loudoun County up the East Coast to New York City and the South shores of Lake Ontario. I felt immediately connected to Chris through our common interests, his wealth of knowledge and delightful persona.
During lunch Chris shared his idea for a musical revue to be presented by LLO at Franklin Park. He suggested using the title, “From Broadway to Lincoln Center” and that LLO perform songs from both musical theater and opera, as a means of acquainting new audiences to our art form. LLO ran with his idea, and our show will take place Valentine’s weekend 2010 in his memory. Our Pie Jesu from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem offered at today’s service, celebrates Chris’ life and shares his love of the combined styles of Broadway and classical compositions.
As Loudoun Lyric Opera enters its third season, I trust that Chris will somehow be watching over us. Our choice of the songs You’ll Never Walk Alone from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel and The Prayer (“I pray you’ll be our eyes and watch us where we go…”) show our faith that he will continue with us on our musical journey.
Managing a theatre company and directing shows is exhilarating,
terrifying, heartening, dreadful, thrilling, boring, edifying,
depressing, and I love them for ALL those reasons and more.
Apparently if I'm not prepared to fail hugely or succeed greatly
at any second, I can't have any fun.
- Meredith Bean McMath, 2018
I’ve worked in theatre for over 45 years. Got my start in theatre while researching Loudoun County Civil War history and serving on the Board of Directors of the Loudoun Museum. Started creating public programs and presentations and writing columns and historic fiction. Then Loudoun Museum Board Member, Joni Lynn Crane, and I agreed there were previously unknown stories that needed to be brought to life decided to create a history documentary based on a presentation I was going to give at Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg, Virginia.
I wrote the script, collected and created the costumes, prepped the living history performers and gave the talk (part of Oatland's Elizabeth Carter Lecture Series). After that, we founded Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc. and Joni took her film of the Oatlands presentation to create our first documentary, Having A Ball: Ballroom Costume Etiquette and Dance in the Midst of the Rebellion. We submitted this to The History Channel (just after Ken Burns’ Civil War Series), and they accepted it and aired it several times in 1996. Our second work, Southern Courage: Civil War Women of Loudoun County, Virginia, can be seen here.
"One passion kept leading to another. I'm deeply grateful for the talented people I've worked with and for all the opportunities I've been given, but I do wish writers and directors were paid a little more..."
So... is it time to explain that name, Run Rabbit Run?
In 1998, my friend Joni Lynn Crane and I began to create history documentaries and museum public programs. Accurate historic “pretending” was our game, and… well, we didn’t have a name.
But while we were creating that first documentary, we heard a story from the Battle of Gettysburg. A group of Confederate soldiers were hunched down along a ditch, waiting for the call to charge across the battlefield. Most knew this battle was the end of the line - for the war, and very possibly themselves. As they waited, tense and exhausted, a large hare ran swiftly along the line. Each man turned their heads as it ran past, and then everything grew silent... until an old man spoke up and quietly said: “Run, Hare, Run… If I were a hare I’d run, too".
The story struck us profoundly, and we wanted to name our production company after the tale (the tail?). So, we were going to be Run Hare Run Productions, Inc.
And right away people told us the name was too hard to remember, so we compromised and came up with Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc.
And we knew we had a lucky rabbit when our first documentary was accepted by - and aired on - The History Channel several times (This was just after Ken Burns' Civil War Series).
Then in 2010, I pulled a theatre company out of the Rabbit's hat, my musical friends Diane El-Shafey and Carma Jones Denney joined me, and Run Rabbit Run suddenly meant “Energizer Bunny”.
Our goal was to create great entertainment in Loudoun County, Virginia and the DC / Metro area with veteran actors, new performers and technical crew who were:
1. Extremely talented and creative;
2. Aimed for professional-level work;
3. Knew how to have fun doing all of the above.
As Managing Producer and Director From 2010 to 2020, I averaged 2-3 productions a year of dinner theatre shows ranging from classics to modern works, original stage plays to original musicals and adaptions, plein-air Shakespeare to two Capital Fringe Festival productions, and offered youth to adult acting classes and programs through libraries, schools and museums.
Along the way, Run Rabbit Run won awards, excellent reviews and full houses. In short, we successfully pretended for ten years
The other day a good friend asked me what my Focal Seizures are like, and it occurred to me I’ve never blogged about the experience. If you, a friend or a relative has Epilepsy, this might be worth your time. Here goes…
My Grand Mal seizures are under control through medication, but the Focal Seizures get me now and then. When they come, I feel like my conscious mind is floating away from my head. I can actually feel my thoughts detaching from my present self - flying like winged angels - and in short order, I’m won't to able to think clearly or speak clearly..
The worse one I've had was a time I blacked out, Felt my thoughts leaving and got to a cushioned chair in the nick of time. When my husband came home, my eyes were open and I spoke to him - told him about my day. He said I made no sense. I don't remember any of this, but eventually thoughts became clearer.
For all my other Focals, I’ve been awake and aware the whole time. And when I feel that detachment happening, I begin to talk to myself and take deep breaths and ask myself who I am, where I live, what day it is… that sort of thing. This helps me stay calm, but it doesn’t stop the seizure. And within a minute, I won’t be able to make sense. Eyes open, speaking... but making no sense. And then I just have to patiently wait until my brain gets back in order.
Whole process used to terrify me, but, these days, I find it interesting and try to learn as much about Epilepsy as I can.
In my particular case, Focal seizures develop in my brain’s left Frontal Lobe - the home of memory and verbal ability, among other things. My Neurologist learned this for certain after I had a 3-day EEG at Fairfax Hospital, Fairfax, Virginia.
He explained that, as my seizure begins, my brain waves become more and more agitated (see image below) which makes it more and more difficult for parts of my brain to communicate with each other. For instance, we have a place in our brain that holds words and an area that creates sentences. When the brain waves between those two go crazy (those big spikes on the EEG), I suddenly can’t make sense.
Above is a piece of art that now sits over my desk. This struck me as the perfect image of the difficulty I have finding words and forming sentences when my brain is agitated (The art piece was created by Griffin Caton, a DaVinci Art student. DaVinci is an offshoot of Arts for All - Loudoun here in Virginia. AFA has been providing theatre and art programs for people with special needs for over 33 years).
I’ve had Epilepsy for 6 years now, and am thankful I rarely have seizures any more. To avoid them I not only serious anti-seizure medications but I've also had to close my business and be very careful about taking on stressful situations. I have to be careful, because seizures - especially Grand Mals (now called Tonic-Clonics) - do serious damage to long and short-term memory. I’m thankful I’m a writer and took “notes” on my life. I have good days and bad days - days I can remember the name of my first grade teacher and days I can’t remember what I did that morning.
But back to the Focal Seizures: they don’t last long - 30 minutes to an hour, tops.
Then I try to figure out why I had them:
Next up, I get to tell my Neurologist what happened, and he decides whether to see me this time. Lastly, I get to count off 6 months on my calendar before the state of Virginia will let me drive again (Very glad we live in a walk-able neighborhood within a mile of grocery stores, restaurants and Cornwall Medical Facility).
Now, let's talk about the strange subset of my new life: memory loss.
The oddly good news is that I can enjoy things over and over again. "I love this movie!" I tell my husband. "Have I seen it before?" "Yep. Just last weekend." Grateful for his love and patience.
But I realized something else the other day... something strangely amazing: having someone tell me I’ve forgotten things does not come with the sort of sorrow I'm certain I used to feel. An example would be the normal sadness over having a good friend move away. In the old days, I would miss a friend as I thought back over all the good times, how great she was to be with, and all the things we did together that we won’t be able to do again.
Seizures have wiped clean most of those memories. So odd.
Now, over time certain memories may return in full or in part, and there are times when someone talks about an event, and pieces of it will come back to me. But when they don’t come back at all, well… I simply can’t miss what I can’t recall.
I go through old family photos and see that I’ve been to wonderful places, but in most, the details are gone – often no idea where, when or with whom they were taken. So, the photos themselves become the only memory. And the only thing I can be sad about is being told what fun we had.
But I'll add that I have to tell people this is not Alzheimer’s or Dementia. This is not a slow decay. The memory damage is done during a seizure and uncontrolled seizures will do more damage, so I stick to the medications and change doctors when they do a lousy job. And that’s why I will constantly say, “Find a good Neurologist, and do what they say, because deciding to handle Epilepsy on your own is incredibly dangerous”.
So, that’s my life, but every person with Epilepsy is completely unique and the list of reasons for seizures seem infinite (Which is why we have to be our own best advocates): examples include being born with it or developing it due to brain injuries or a tumor, having an inability to manage stress, chronic low salt (Hyponoatrermia) or having an auto-immune disease (My auto-immune disease may have been why it showed up… or it just showed up at a moment in my life when my brain suddenly decided it wouldn’t handle stress anymore).
And there are at least 15 different types of seizures, which are based on where the seizure activity occurs in the brain. After a 3-day EEG at Fairfax Hospital, my Neurologist knew mine developed in my left Frontal Lobe - which is why my memory and speech are affected.
And alllllll those pieces of the puzzle affect what medication/s work - IF the doctors can find the right med for you. The first medicine I was given stopped the Grand Mals (now called Tonic Clonic seizures, by the way), but it caused me to have severe mood swings. Second med gave me a severe rash that began to close my throat. Then came the one I’m on now. It gives me headaches and itchy rashes, but with a little Tylenol ant-itch creams, I’m set. And I’m deeply thankful this med works, because there are no other effective medications for me… at this time (Yay, for research!).
My Neurologist also suggested my memory loss and verbal ability would improve if I could lose weight back to my ideal weight (which I very nearly have) and get regular exercise (which is why I walk at least 30 minutes a day). He was absolutely right.
And, thanks to my Neurologist, the amazing people at Johns Hopkins and my friends and family, I’m still here.
PS: If you’ve gone to med school and have 20 years or more experience in Neurology with a focus on Epilepsy, happy to hear medical advice. Otherwise, Nope.
PPS: And, no, marijuana does not help my form of Epilepsy, lol…
Can’t help but laugh every time I think on an actual conversation I once had with an actual Hollywood Producer. He was a huge Civil War buff and very interested in our Loudoun County, Virginia Civil War history... but he was also a part of the System, and he just couldn’t stop giving everything “The Hollywood Spin.”
The beginning of the end of this whirlwind of a conversation came when I tried to tell him the story of the Loudoun Rangers.
I told him that "As far as anyone knows, they were the only Union troop ever formed in Virginia. Captain Samuel Means formed the troop out of the sons of Quakers and German farmers with ties in Pennsylvania. Can you imagine? Quakers were anti-slavery (with a couple exceptions), and the rest were pro-slavery - but they'd all grown up together - worked alongside other boys in local businesses. Then came the war, and they go off and join separate armies.
“Good,” he says. “Good story tension.”
“Definitely! Loudoun was a deeply divided County, but mostly Confederate and the Rangers had a horrible time. They were always getting ambushed by the 35th Battalion — another local cavalry troop.”
“Okay, so you’ve got your under-dog theme going. Who could [INSERT NAME OF HOLLYWOOD ACTION HERO] play?”
“Oh! Uh, well... probably not Captain Means. He was older and married.” I brightened with a thought. “Actually there was a Drillmaster, Charles Webster; the Rangers liked him a lot. But he’d be an anti-hero, ‘cause no one was sure where he came from or what his real sentiments were....”
“Anti-hero is good. Everyone wants anti-heroes. Now, you've gotta’ have this guy be the Loudoun Ranger in charge - not necessarily in official charge, but the one who's the real leader of the men."
“Wellll, that's real. Everybody disliked Captains Means because he was too detached - never seemed to be around for the actual fight. So Webster became the natural leader.”
"Good, good," he says. "But there's got to be even more conflict in the actual troop. Like... Means should turn out to be working for the Confederacy..."
"Uh... um. Pardon? D’you... you mean as a spy? There was only one Union troop formed in Virginia — did I say that? — and he would never ever have considered —”
“This thing has to sell,” he said. “Needs more tension.”
“More tension? More tension.... Oh, I know! Can’t forget Sgt. Beatty! Actually, [insert current good guy action hero] could play Sgt. Beatty.”
“The Loudoun Ranger that Confederate John Mobberly tried to kill. Mobberly was a boy the Confederates loved - a local legend - and he was one mean son of a gun. By the end of the war, even Confederates didn’t want anything to do with him. He shot Beatty, walked his horse over him, shot him again, then got off his horse and stole his boots.”
“Hmm. [INSERT NAME OF GOOD-GUY HOLLYWOOD ACTION HERO] might want to play Mobberly...”
“O-kay. He's playing bad guys now?”
“Oh, sure! He got tired of the good guy stuff. Boring.”
“I see. Well anyway, Beatty miraculously survived.”
“Mobberly almost killing him? And at the end of the war, he and two other Rangers and three citizens ambushed Mobberly in a barn and killed him. When Mobberly saw their faces right as they were about to shoot him, all he said was, 'Oh, Lord, I am gone.' And they blew him right off his horse. Pretty dramatic. I mean, can’t you just see that? A dark barn, a hay loft... and he sees Beatty’s face with the huge scar - the guy he’d tried so hard to kill.”
He clearly did not see it.
Then the producer says, "Now, what about the hero's love interest... Gotta have a love interest. You talked about a Quaker girl... journalist?”
I gulp. “You mean, Lida Dutton?”
“Yeah, yeah, Dutton. The one who wrote that... that thing... for Union soldiers.”
“The Waterford News?”
“Yeah. So Lida will be the love interest for this guy..."
“Beatty???” Having a hard time keeping my voice down.
"Yeah. The Captain.”
“Sergeant... Beatty?" I took a deep breath. “But.. Okay, here’s the thing: Lida and Lizzie DID fall in love and marry Union Lieutenants, but Lida married John Hutchinson of the 13th NY, and Lizzie married..."
"— Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. Y’know, we have a saying in Hollywood: Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story! Ha-ha-ha!"
"Guess I'm never gonna' make it in Hollywood,” I mumbled. But he was still talking.
“You’ve got to entertain the public, and history.... well, it’s just not that entertaining. Who’s gonna’ sit around watching the real thing crawl by?”
Then I lost it. “But what’s the point of bothering with history if it isn’t real? If you don’t know what people are actually capable of — the good and the bad — how can we learn anything? Unless we know the incredible evil we’re capable of, how can we ever hope to change? And how can we develop hope for the human condition unless we see real flesh and blood heroes?”
There was a momentary pause in the conversation, followed by hearty laughter.
And then he changed the subject. And at the end of our phone conversation, he said to be sure to send him the history of those Loudoun Rangers - What a great movie they’d make!
But the Loudoun Rangers are safe beside me in a file, and they won’t be heading for those California hills anytime soon. Hanging on to them just seems like the civil thing to do...
Meredith Bean McMath is a Civil War Historian and the former Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Theatre. Run Rabbit Run Productions. Her company has produced two Civil War documentaries... and she was kind of hoping this guy would turn out to be more of a HollyWHEN than a HollyWHAT? More on the amazing history of the Dutton sisters of Loudoun County, Virginia may be found HERE.
FOR COMEDIES OR DRAMAS Choose a one to two-minute monologue in the style of the play, and make certain it has a story arc (beginning, middle and ending) so you can show your range.
Note: Never memorize a monologue from the play being produced unless a director asks and avoid monologues requiring accents.
Practice, practice, practice... and then follow the format below. Paperwork: Whether auditioning by videotape or in-person, fill out the audition form carefully. You'd be surprised what details will catch a director's eye.
• If creating a video audition, send it in as soon as possible.
• If in-person, arrive a little early (actors can bow out and you'll be able to skip the line)
SHARPEN YOUR ACTING SKILLS LIKE A PRO EVERY DAY BY...
1. OBSERVING CHARACTERS, CHARACTERISTICS, AND SCENARIOS OF THOSE AROUND YOU - THE WAY PEOPLE WALK, SPEAK OR HAVE AFFECTATIONS, i.e an interesting walk, a voice, an odd laugh, or unusual mannerism.
2. KEEP NOTES OR A JOURNAL OF IMAGES, SOUND BYTES AND SENSORY EXPERIENCES THAT GRABBED YOUR ATTENTION.
3. A personal favorite: EVALUATE ACTORS WHEN YOU SEE A PLAY OR WATCH A FILM. ASK YOURSELF WHAT'S WORKING, WHAT ISN'T AND WHY?
We know auditions are usually an actor’s LEAST favorite activity (Second only to Tech rehearsals that run past midnight).
So much pressure and anticipation.
And that’s just the first 10 seconds in the waiting area…
But you should enjoy the audition process as much as is humanly possible!
So, after auditioning actors for more than 30 years, here’s a list of things I think you should know:
1. Directors are natural optimists, so we like you the second you walk in the door. Truth: no matter how distracted we, as Artistic Staff, may appear, we are always hoping you’re exactly what we’re looking for;
2. Auditions are more fun and a lot more successful when you come fully prepared. Really prepared. Ridiculously prepared. So learn the “Professional Audition Techniques” blog post. Follow them, and you can’t go wrong (with us or at any other company). Ignore the techniques, and you’ll spend the entire audition in an uphill battle to win our respect;
3. We look for actors who work well with others in creative collaboration. Yes, that’s unusual. We want actors to build and serve the story along with us. Input. Cooperation. Conversely, if you talk behind someone’s back or belittle someone’s idea, you’re gone;
4. If we are holding auditions, 95% of the time, no roles have been pre-cast. Exceptions occur when we are repeating a show or putting on a dinner theatre production. But, again, this is rare;
5. Probably obvious, but the more you audition, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect… and less anxious; 6. If we believe you’re right for the role, you will be cast in the role. Doesn’t matter if we’ve known you for 30 years or 3 minutes, if it’s your first audition or you had the lead in our last show. We have a reputation for high quality theatre productions for good reason;
7. And what if you don’t get a role? This has zero effect on whether you’ll be cast next time you audition. Why? See No. 3. We take casting seriously, knowing it’s one of the most mentally and emotionally demanding duties we have, and we want you to know we spend a lot of time making our final choices;
8. It’s okay to ask why. In the end, we are very clear about why we think a certain person is either right for a role or is not a good fit for a particular production, and it may help you, as an actor, to know why we made a certain choice, so feel free to ask.
So look over these notes, and ENJOY YOUR NEXT AUDITION!
"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — don't value your potential or input — for whatever reason: too young, too old, too inexperienced? I am not one of those people." If you’re an actor who’s been in one of my theatre productions, you've heard me say something like the above... on the very first day.
And as rehearsals progress, you've probably also heard my favorite mantra: "That was perfect! Now do it again." When I direct, I tend to treat young actors like they’re adults and all actors like they're professionals - each one of them with opinions and ideas that matter. And if all goes well, by the end of a production the actors own the show as much as I will... because that's when the magic happens.
Above are some of the best actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with - each an expert at developing characterization. L to R are Sue Derrow, Maddy Curtis Vencil, Garrett Milich, Christopher Saunders and Suzy Alden rehearsing a 2013 production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Craig Thoburn.
I learned how to direct from being the Producer for dozens of shows and watching our different directors use their unique techniques. Some held BA's, some Masters and some learned by the seat of their pants. Some of these directors liked to have the actors do exactly what they say. And, hey, if a director is brilliant and creative and can get actors to actually DO exactly what they say, I'm sure the show will shine (But if the director is not brilliant, well...).
Me? I want actors to do so much more than just mimic my intent or the meaning of the play. Some directors spend most of their rehearsals doing "acting exercises". And if the actor is able to fight the boredom, they''ll make it to Opening Night. I like exercises but believe should be done at home. Actors desperately need time to build the scenes themselves... together. And then some directors do all their work in casting and just expect the actors to show up with their lines memorized - ready to go. This is actually almost all professional theatre... and it only works in professional theatre. So for several years I watched all those directors apply their styles and techniques and picked three to study intently - best community-focused directors I've ever seen: Dolly Stevens, Tim Jon and Tom Sweitzer. All three start with actor respect and end with actor ownership, and I cannot see directing any other way.
Characters in A MUSICAL LITTLE WOMEN, above. Each had a personality to play out: the March sister who knows she has a prize, flanked by a scheming girl at left and a sweet, enthusiastic friend at right.
BUILDING A PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
So, about those professional actors who just show up ready? Yes. I want actors to internalize the process like professional actors do - with things they would have learned in drama school. So I'll start them off with the my Director's character concept, but then ask them to read the script and make that character their own. I encourage full character development, even if they have no lines or are a member of the Chorus.
As we go along, I'll teach Method Acting, which involves improvisation and emotional recall, and then go over how they might best learn a script: audio, visual or movement - whatever helps them get where they need to be. And as rehearsals progress, I'll start soliciting their ideas. And if their idea serves to:
1. Further the plot,
2. Reveal more about their character, or
3. Set the audience up for a pay off (in this scene or a later one), then I’m going to try to work it in.
When actors of any age approach a play this way, they start finding relationships and possibilities that as director I might have missed. And I will always want to be open to their idea, because amazing things might come of it.
BE WILLING TO KILL YOUR FABULOUS IDEAS
When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my choices to an editor - based on the same three rules above. So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph, or thought I had the most clever conversation going? If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a payoff, I had to be willing to let it die. Note: clearly this requires the director to know the play inside and out, because if you haven't prepared yourself, you're going to get defensive. Add a really tiny ego, and you just... might... SNAP.
So in my directing world, I have to come in prepared and confident... but also realize I might not have the best ideas in the room. Yes, I know I have a creative brain, but why wouldn’t I tap into a larger creative brain if I had the chance? Actors have more time to dive into these characters. Give them the space, and they're going to find things there I didn't see. And as all the actors do the same, relationships and situations things are going to happen - good things: "If she's going to react that way because of what happened earlier, as her sister I would know that, and that completely changes the way I should react..."
Above: the stellar cast of Run Rabbit Run Theatre's TAMING OF THE SHREW
And, as a result of all of the above, actors begin to take ownership - of their characters, a scene and the play itself. And this is where the magic begins. So even though this will replace the absolutely brilliant idea I had as the Director, well... gulp... let's do this instead. And the audience will thank you for it... literally.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REALLY BAD IDEAS?
Okay. What if your actor comes up with an idea that just won’t work? Is truly horrible? Makes no sense to the character's history, etc.? And they present it to everyone before I've heard it?
Then I have to thank them for the idea, say No, and tell them why. Why? Because
1. I want them to know suggestions are respected and appreciated, and the next one they have may be perfect (and often are),
2. Explaining why it won't work helps everyone understand more about the character, the plot or the scene mentioned, and
3. An explanation gives everyone in the cast a chance to further understand the setting, the character or the plot of the whole thing.
Obviously at this point a couple of things are crucial: a directors needs to love their actors enough to know how to say no diplomatically or actors won't offer ideas for fear of retribution. But directors also need to avoid wanting actors to loooove them, or they'll never know how to say no to a bad idea, and the whole cast and the whole play will suffer. But, in the end, whether a good idea or a bad one, thanks are due to actors. Because their process and commitment is how a good play becomes great.
ACTORS' INSIGHTS WITH PHIL ERICKSON AND PENNY HAUFFE - 4-minute Video (Click!)
LAY DOWN THE GROUND RULES
Lest you think rehearsals should devolve into a free-for-all “sharing time,” I'll point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process:
1. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule. Group discussion is good. And this is also a great time for the Director to underscore the story arc of the play, the scenes, and the characters.
2. Then when we begin to run scenes regularly, actors are asked to hold their ideas until the next break - and then share those ideas only with the director.
3. Crucial to the entire process: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Ever. They can certainly ask why another character does something, but... that's it. Simple reason: every actor must be entirely focused on their own character/s, their actions, feelings, backgrounds, etc.. This is the process professional actors use, and I love bringing it to community theatre, because, when actors take this process on, shows get reviews worthy of professional productions (Think I'm lying? Check out Run Rabbit Run Theatre reviews).
And when an actor is completely focused on developing their character in a scene, it often leads another actor to have a revelation about their own character.
Lastly - without exception - an actor should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way" or "try it this way". Why? Well, because that would be called directing.
WHAT WOULD MARK TWAIN DO? Advice to Actors from Mark Twain by Meredith Bean McMath (pictured below with Mark Twain in Bermuda)
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain
I was reading a column about Mark Twain's book, Seven Life Changing Lessons You Can Learn from Mark Twain (“Dumb Little Man" Column, Business Insider), and I thought, Hey, this MY life, for pity’s sake! My weird little theatre life, with its broad, odd, wholesome, creative, charitable views of the world - found all because I chose NOT to vegetate in a little corner of life. And those that join me in organized chaos have the pleasure of inhabiting dozens of people and perspectives, new worlds and old, and all sorts for magic and mayhem.
"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." - Mark Twain
Well put, sir. For the pleasure of inhabiting a completely different perspective for a time, an actor will risk self-respect and criticism, face sleep deprivation and midnight terrors. and live through some terrible things. And the things that happen to them in real life? Those feed into the actor’s art and enhance the richness of every character portrayed.
"Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first." - Mark Twain
Ah. The actor who walks into auditions wanting a particular role… then argues with the director about casting choices. Yes. That’s going to go over well; do that. And then try auditioning again… anywhere but here. Of course, Twain could also be describing life as a director. And, yes, I tell myself to get over myself... a lot, actually. And I better, because…
"When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet in his private heart no man much respects himself." - Mark Twain
I hate a bad review, but if I don’t leave room for improvement, what do I think I am, perfect? Ridiculous notion. Every really good actor I know doubts themselves, because they’re always reaching for perfection. Conversely when an actor has said (however shyly) they believe they are good, nothing good has ever come of it. And then there is Twain's great advice for getting organized:
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." - Mark Twain
Spot on, spot on. And when chaos descends — as it will, without fail, one to ten days before opening night - I remember these wise words, as well:
"When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear." - Mark Twain
Twain may not have been thinking specifically of the theatre when writing this last piece of advice, but it sure does come in handy to a thespian - it certainly does.
Meredith Bean McMath is a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian, stage director, speaker, and former Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc.