It has been 21 years since Footlights was originally conceptualized. Mom and I directed a show with our homeschool group in a local church called “Sendin Out Love” for a holiday performance. (I still remember the songs!) We would often talk about her ideas and projects she wanted to do. They all seemed to have something in common; artistic merit. As a young person with less literary and worldly knowledge, she would often suggest shows I have never heard of. We even put on a play her father, Larry Shepherd, wrote based on the life of Lottie Moon (who I had also never heard of) She always managed to pique my curiosity while also growing my knowledge base and educating me at the same time as including me. I loved that about her. She would never make you feel stupid but instead she would sell the unfamiliar to me as a new and exciting journey. I was mostly homeschooled and enjoyed hours upon hours of violin practice, reading books, writing essays, songwriting, and going places with her. Those enriching experiences shaped the person that I am.
Because of her curious nature and her adventurous spirit, I continue to find projects that challenge people while still continuing to produce familiar and popular stories as well. It is that balance of something old and something new that offers variety, growth, and familiarity in a season. There is absolutely nothing wrong with theatre companies that consistently create one genre of theatre. Some companies make a name for themselves by doing that. Always creating Shakespeare or straight plays or musicals is a great way to find your niche and stick with what you are good at. But for me as a co founder, I feel strongly that community theatre needs to strive to serve everyone in the community. I have some performers who are excellent comedians but don’t love to sing. I have some songbird performers who prefer not to participate in straight plays. I have senior citizens who enjoys the golden age of stage by participating in Rogers and Hammerstein or Cohen works and young who prefer more modern or contemporary plays.
Meanwhile, I sit here at the helm listening to all of those suggestions, looking into the licensing costs, production costs, marketability, timeline, and team needed to make it happen. Sometimes it’s hard because I won’t always make decisions that everyone agrees with. In some cases, they may not see the vision in my work. Sometimes people make suggestions without considering the practicality of it or the cost of it. Sometimes people make suggestions without realizing the production or the execution side of it. Peter Pan requires rigging to allow people to fly and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang requires a full size model of an antique car with wings!
I understand that some seasons just need good old pageants like Oz that are a celebration of the familiar but it’s important to remember that sometimes we need to grow ourselves as audience members and explore something new. So essentially I’m asking you to take a chance on me and trust that this Captain will not sail you into the Bermuda Triangle! As ABBA sang, “take a chance on me”. As The Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”
As a teacher, I see this every day. There are students who come to my school who have new backpacks every year. They wear name brand shoes and it seems they have a perpetually fresh haircut. But more often than not, I also see students who live in poverty. The backpacks they wear break within weeks of starting school (not well made). Thank goodness my school provides them with newly donated backpacks! I’m ever so grateful that we have funding to have school supplies already in the classroom. In Best Christmas Pageant, that’s what we see. We meet Alice’s family first. She has a brother Charlie, a mom (who no less has time to volunteer at church), and a dad (not a single parent household). They are a picture of privilege. Alice is visibly shocked at the Herdmans. She doesn’t make fun of them but she certainly doesn’t understand them.
She starts the whole show with, “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world! They lied, they stole things..” When we see the Herdmans, we see immediately clothes in bad repair that don’t fit and dirty. We see hair cuts that are not in style. As a director, I’m asking my young performers to walk a mile in their characters shoes. I ask questions like, “what would you do if you lived in an apartment with no washer or dryer?” or “What if you had to wear your big brother or sisters clothes as your new school clothes?” Sometimes, the wide eyed faces of the performers I ask this tell me that they’ve never had to do such things. I was one of seven children. The problem with me was, I was bigger than my older sister. This made hand me downs difficult so I got my mom’s hand me downs in some cases. I had three stair step brothers and they all ran around in the summer like wild indians in nothing but their underwear. To some degree, I know the Herdmans.
What I love about this story is that it allows the other children in the show to see them in a different light by the end of the story. It teaches us about empathy. It reminds us to not be overly judgemental about things we don’t fully understand. Towards the end of the show, Imogene has moment where she connects emotionally with the Christmas story. Suddenly, all those differences melt away and all the children stand side by side sharing that special moment. These moments, the ones where wealth and class no longer matter reminds us to remember what brings us together, not what money and class do to separate us. When we connect with Imogene in her sense of wonder at the Christmas story, we feel that sense of wonder again. I hope you will join us for a funny but also heartfelt stage performance of Barbara Robinson’s modern classic.
A central theme in directing Tulane has become, "the people we know". At first glance, Edward's owners and the people he encounters seem random; one character segmented and completely unrelated to the one that follows. Just think of it. Edward begins his journey on Egypt Street with a middle class to wealthy family. Next, he meets a fisherman and his wife. His next owner is a hobo and his dog followed by a little boy who gives Edward as a gift to his dying sister. How can one take all the scattered pearls to make a necklace? What do these people have in common?
One principle that is very important to me as an artist, a playwright, and a director is this. There is no such thing as a two dimensional character. In this show, we aren't just making sketches of people. This is in part due to my belief in the "method" which is a theory of acting that goes into the mental and emotional work of becoming a character. Let's take Bull, the homeless man in Tulane. During the first read through I asked the cast what they thought of Bull. Their answers were pretty typical. Words like "vagrant", and "careless" popped up. But then we dived deeper into this person. This story visits the great depression which left many able bodied people out of work and in dire poverty. It is a centerpiece of the chapters surrounding Bull that fellow hobos make a ritual of saying the names of the people they love to Edward.
After further inspection, we realized that these men may have been laid off from jobs such as coal mining when the steel industry no longer had such demand after the The Great War. When you humanize a person, you stop making negative assumptions. We decided that Bull did have a family waiting for him. That he was a coal miner who was suddenly laid off from his job and had become disenfranchised in looking for work where there were ten other men in line with him needing employment. Bull, in fact, is a person we know. He becomes a man we all know and love who loses a job and can't provide. A man who travels and has to be away from his family. He represents, then, a trove of individuals who for whatever reason, have to be separated from those they love.
This process continued in talking about Luther, Bryce's father. In the novel we see an angry absent father. Perhaps he is an alcoholic? Is he abusive? When we really started to dig into the circumstances, we realized that's not entirely true. Luther is a man who has lost his wife. Perhaps she died of the same disease Sarah Ruth is suffering with? This man is grieving and what's worse, he is watching his precious daughter slip away. Did Luther lose his job too? Is he spending his time trying to find day jobs to earn anything he can? Is he being crushed by the weight of guilt that he can't help his daughter? Again, the best characters are the ones that we can empathize with. These characters are the people we know. Through Edward, we see their struggles, their grief, their apathy, but most importantly we see their humanity and we connect that to the humanity inside ourselves.
I urge you not to miss this show. It is a very special work of art that I have had the privilege to adapt and direct.
A new season is approaching us as the countdown begins to the first set of auditions for 2019-2020. With our first relaunch in the bag, we are looking to a bright future with a stable venue, an expanded crew, and a variety of shows scheduled.
As our organization expands, one thing remains abundantly clear. We need all the help we can get. I realized after being the captain of our maiden voyage that I cannot truly do all the things. There were times where I felt like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins (a one man band).
We need fundraising committees, parent chaperones, thrift store gurus, seamstresses, hair stylists, and folks willing to pick up a broom or a mop to get the theater sparkling clean. As one of seven children, my mother told me "many hands make light work". I truly believe that saying. I realize that Footlights cannot be successful and continue to grow unless the we put the "community" in community theatre. I'm reaching out to ask all of you who follow this blog to think about volunteering your time to help in some way. We have sign up forms for everything from one day audition hospitality to public event coordinator. There are jobs you can do from home in your own time or one day events you can attend with nothing but a smile and a crew t shirt!
Remember that the whole is only as good as the sum of its parts and it takes mulitplicatively more hands to create theatre behind the scenes than it does to create the story on the stage. Batton down the hatches for our second journey friends and get involved today so we can make this a phantasmagorical season!
Celebrating One Year
This summer, Footlights is celebrating one year since our relaunch. We came in with a bang performing Steel Magnolias and Secret Garden. Two shows in one summer! We rounded out the season with four shows total following with Anne of Green Gables and Wizard of Oz. It’s been a giant year. I sit back and marvel at the closing of this season at just how much we have accomplished. The first accomplishment that I see is that it’s not just me anymore. I knew you were out there somewhere. Musicians, performers, singers, dancers, poets, story tellers, and worker bees. Maybe you were looking for me too? Looking for a captain with a ship to take us on some new adventures. I’ll admit, I almost gave up more than once. It was hard. We didn’t have a stable venue, our funding was low, our resources were scarce, our helpers were few, and we came across more than just a few bumps on the road in our first season but that’s the key word. Our first season. We didn’t just attempt one show and call it a day, we put on a full season of shows. As much hardship as we have overcome and as much building we have done, it’s many miles to go before I sleep. This starship enterprise mission isn’t over. I have set out to build a community of performing arts that includes a full season of shows each year with a variety of offerings including comedy, drama, and one big musical a year with ongoing performing arts education and camps in a stable venue that offers a sense of community, the creation of new art, and preservation of classic stories and literature. I am still looking for new volunteers to add to our ranks, to improve the technical aspects of our productions, to improve our performing space, and start selling season tickets this year! Footlights is growing at an exponential rate. Growth, in any form, can be painful. We outgrew some of our old venues and rehearsal spaces. We have added more team members to help deal with the demands of organizational growth. I look around me at this amazing metamorphosis in this organization and know in my heart of hearts that my mother is proud of what I’ve done. Coming back after saying I never would. Returning after quitting and making Footlights better than ever.This was her dream too and although some of you never met her, I can tell you that she was a woman who encouraged and inspired people. She believed in performers when they didn’t believe in themselves. In her eyes, failure wasn’t an option. I would be lying to you if I said this year wasn’t difficult for me. I suffered from setbacks and disappointments and felt responsible when things didn’t go the way I envisioned them. I thought at times maybe Athens wasn’t ready for this and that I was trying to make a round peg fit in a square space. I’ll never forget what an original Footlights member told me last summer that kept me going when it was most difficult. “Kristi, when you stopped directing, you left a vacuum.” It was then I realized, just as my mother had always told me, that failure wasn’t an option. That we must do this. We must keep going. Nothing worthwhile was ever easy. Thank you. Thank you all for all the time you spent setting up and breaking down chairs. Thank you for entrusting your kids to me to participate in shows. Thank you for volunteering your time to help this organization better and staying on board when things didn’t go well. This first year’s worth of performers and volunteers will always hold a special place in my heart because you believed in me when there was no earthly reason to. I had no theater. I had no resources. I did not have a full team. I had nothing and you showed up anyway. Blessed are those who have not seen and believed. I will be forever grateful to all of you who stood by me this year and helped Footlights to grow. I will never forget the sacrifices you made to help us be successful. I hope you come back for future projects. We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams. Thank you for dreaming with me.
See you in the footlights.
Admittedly, as a Community Theater, we could easily fill the coming years completely with “repertoire” classics. Producing musicals from Broadway’s golden age and dramatic literature from Thornton Wilder, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, etc. would be a delight. My argument in this blog is that all art at one time was new. I believe we must make room for new art and the message that art has to offer. It wasn’t long ago that Hamilton was new and most people who first heard some of the tracks probably scratched their heads and thought, “what is this”? In any given season, like many other directors, I try to offer a variety of performance art.
I chose The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to adapt and obtain licensing for in the interest of “new art”. I want children and their families reading more. I want to create interest in books that either have fallen off of or haven’t yet made it on the required reading lists. Edward Tulane is a fairly new book. Kate DiCamillo in her own right, already established herself as a front runner in children’s literature with her book Because of Winn Dixie.
It is my opinion that Edward Tulane represents a classic narrative known as “the hero’s journey”. This is when the main character undergoes a series of trials and often times travel. Through this struggle, the character is transformed. The twist in this hero’s journey, is that Edward is an inanimate object; a toy. The defining difference that makes Tulane so notable is that each new person he interacts with is not an obstacle to overcome, but a relationship journey in and of itself. He isn’t battling giants in Odyssean fashion but rather learning how to love with each passing owner.
The messages within its text are universal and connect with its audience. Questions like, “What’s the point of loving if I risk losing?” He asks himself this, trying to desperately to guard his heart against possible loss. He gives in to apathy at times. Edward also has fears that every child can possibly identify with. This especially shows towards the beginning when he loses his first owner. He wonders if his first owner, Abilene, will come for him. He feels abandoned, lost, and unsure of his surroundings.
Edward’s primary problem, according to Abilene’s grandmother, Pellegrina, is that he doesn’t know how to love. Her words, “You disappoint me,” echo in Edward’s thoughts throughout his journey. This overarching theme, learning how to love unconditionally, knowing full well that you can lose the one you love, and furthermore loving despite having lost before, is one of the great problems that humanity faces. Without giving away the story or spoiling the gift that this story truly is, Edward learns to believe that “someone will come for me”. We must believe that despite loving and losing; if you open your heart and believe that someone will come for you that you can find love and ultimately find your way home in the process.
I hope, through this narrative, that you can see why Tulane is worthy of dramatic performance. Why this story must be told and shared with the world. I sincerely hope that you come along for this miraculous journey.
Over the course of a production, a room full of strangers will become like family. The director begins as the best actor in the room. What, you ask? How is that? Let me explain.
When you walk into my audition room, I’m meeting many of you for the very first time. I’m auditioning too. I’m auditioning to be your director. I’m trying to see if my leadership is a good fit for your personality. I’m looking for cues that tell me that we can collaborate. From the first moment you step in to read, I’m trying to be all the things I think good directors should be. I want to be fair, impartial, open-minded, perceptive, encouraging, and most of all kind. I want to build trust. Performers must trust the director. You have to trust my judgment even when you can’t see my perspective. You have to trust that I have the best interest of you and the show at heart when I make decisions. You have to put faith in me that the show will be good and that an audience will come; that you were cast in the right role and that I didn’t play favorites.
You are auditioning as well. Do you have your heart set on a role? You may have dreamed about being that part for some time. It might be hard for you to envision yourself in any other character. You may have strengths in acting but not dancing. You might be worried about your ability to sing well in the audition room. You may feel at the end of the audition that you didn’t do as well as you could have. You might feel like the readings didn’t showcase your abilities properly. You have to take a leap of faith in me just as I have to take a leap of faith in you. Life is an audition. In the words of ABBA, take a chance on me. We at Footlights want to include everyone. If it’s your first time walking in the room, you have just as good a chance at landing a role as anyone else. There is no pre-casting and no playing favorites. Take a chance.
Show week. We all both dread and look forward to it. Actors worry that they're not totally prepared. The backstage crew is training and springing to action. Equipment, sets, special effects, lighting, makeup, and costumes are all being added. More rehearsal time is required. Yep! It's crunch time.
Most often, I get the question, "What do I need to do?" Let me answer that to the best of my ability making generalizations to encompass everyone. First, know when you're supposed to be there. Special words like, "cast call" , "house opens", and "curtain call" seem unfamiliar to the first time thespian. You would have been given a calendar that tells you when you're supposed to arrive. Stick to that schedule and be on time. Your team of directors have worked tirelessly to orchestrate many people like a well oiled machine. If an actor isn't ready for run through because they've arrived late and they're still putting on makeup, then it is very likely that there are at least 35 other people waiting on that one person. Even crew members and show time volunteers need debriefing, instructions, set up time, sound checks, lighting cues written down, etc. There isn't one person involved in the production that doesn't need to arrive early.
Secondly, be present and aware. Whether you are at the merchandise table or your'e the lead actress in the show, inattention can cost the production big mistakes. Being late on a cue or forgetting a line causes dead air and pulls out the run time to be longer. Not having concessions ready to go can cause a long wait line and for some patrons to decide they didn't want a soda that badly. Long ticket lines cause patrons to become frustrated before the play ever begins. Long scene changes likewise mark a group as "amateur" or ill prepared. This means that everyone has to be paying full attention to the production and be giving full effort to their individual tasks for a show to run smoothly. Being on the cell phone or chatting with others sets off a ripple effect of mistakes that can effect an entire performance.
Lastly, do everything you can possibly do to arrive and perform in a positive mind frame. Participate in self care where you get enough hours of sleep, eat a healthy well balanced diet, calm your mind and surround yourself with positive vibes. Talk to others who encourage you and show up to be the encourager when you're in the theater. This burst of light may be the one thing that keeps others going on a day with two performances where the energy might be running low. Don't let personal drama, egos, frustration, or a small slight get in the way of you and everyone else having a great experience that you'll never forget!
We live in a society that is in a communication crisis. When children are at school, they are often in large groups (18-22) where being quiet and listening are prized. The problem with this, is that they don’t master the ability to express themselves effectively. When they get home, they are often in front of a screen. It is reported that children spend an average of two hours on screens per day.This creates isolation. How often have you sat in a restaurant and saw two people, both on their phones during a night out? Humans need genuine human connections to each other in order to thrive. We need deep authentic bonds because it is the glue that holds our communities together. Too often emotions like happiness and excitement are celebrated but we’re not teaching kids how to deal with the big difficult ugly emotions like grief, anger, sadness, frustration, awkwardness, wonder, curiosity, confusion, and disillusionment. We need to teach the youth of our nation how to use and understand every crayon in the color box not just their primaries. How do we go about doing that?
Our society represses negative emotions. In what public space is it acceptable for a child to stomp their feet or shout without some repercussion? Raise their voice? Slam a door? Without some channel for those emotions to go, this creates an emotional bottle of soda that has been shaken with the lid closed. There is nowhere for that pressure to be released. Sometimes it can manifest itself in different places like depression, anxiety, defiant behavior, or anger. The emotions must go somewhere. The performing arts allow youth to cope with those emotions in safe fictional circumstances and gives them the vocabulary to express them in a healthy way. They are encouraged and required to be emotional beings in a creative space where they are getting human interaction away from screens with mentors to guide them and educate them. They form authentic bonds with their peers and mentors.They are required to empathize with each other which is a key element of acting according to Stanislavski's method.
The ancient Greeks understood how essential it was to have this. The name they gave it was “catharsis” which is defined as “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions”. Whether it is an audience member who experiences this through watching the action or an actor who experiences this through acting it out, the result is the same. We find ourselves refreshed and emotionally cleansed from all the mental gunk we’ve been carrying around inside our heads. The common experience draws us closer with those around us creating a support system and real sense of community.
My argument is that students need this but furthermore people need the performing arts as a channel for self expression. People need opportunities to connect with each other in a creative space. Theatre is an exercise in community building and peer bonding that no electronic game can replace. It stands alone as an interdisciplinary communal art form that brings us together. We need it more than ever. Support your local community theatre and arts programs in your schools.
All educators and directors have been there. You're working with actors and students and no matter how many times you go through it, they're still not getting it. You feel like a broken record. You see the potential in front of you and it frustrates you when your student doesn't seem to be reaching it. That's when we have to step back and remember the real goal here.
My aim doesn't lie in just getting this scene right or the song polished. I'm not just trying to get through rehearsal or this show to opening night or to even just get through the season. I am trying to grow a community of people that love, appreciate, and participate in the performing arts. I am connecting people with each other so they can experience art in a deep and personal way. Whether I have an actor participate in one show or every show, the outcome should be the same. I want them to walk away feeling like they accomplished something but more importantly that they are growing as a person through this experience. If I get them only 10 percent further along in their creative process then so be it. Learning is a continuum of degrees not steps that you climb or fall back on. This is where we have to measure success in a qualitative, not quantitative way. If the young actress who who has social anxiety decides to even try to audition for a speaking role then I have succeeded. If the little boy who mumbles all the time finally finds his own voice and projects to the audience, I have succeeded. I am not growing professional actors and actresses. I am developing a community of people who have a deep and personal relationship with art and literature.
We can't forget the big picture in our frustration and fall into a negative attitude with an individual because they're not growing at the rate we want them to. That's like being angry at a plant for not growing fast enough. How absurd would that be!
I remember my mother planted an apple tree in her front yard. She would go out religiously to water it. I asked her why she was watering it so much because it seemed excessive. Her explanation was this.
"If I water this tree for only short periods of time, the tree will not set its roots deep. Instead, in order to reach the water source, it will set its roots shallow. I have to leave the water on so that the water will seep down deep enough. That way the apple tree will be more study with deeper roots". Now think about that for a minute. If I keep supplying my students with information, inspiration, and creative opportunities, then they will set deeper roots of understanding instead of shallow ones. I have to leave the faucet on.
That's the long game here. It's not this one watering opportunity in a rehearsal that will make or break their learning. I have to keep showing up day after day, project after project, season after season to grow the creative, intuitive, well educated, lifelong lovers of performing arts.
Kristi Kargic is executive director for Footlights Community Theater based in Athens, AL. She is an elementary teacher with a lifelong love of performing arts. She strives to provide art in her home community at little to no cost to participants. Kristi is a published poet, playwright, and performing musician. Her motto is "if you build it, they will come."