Arizona knows how to teach their children what's what: With old posters.
When I thought about Arizona before my trip, I thought about Phoenix, dry heat, and scorpions. For the first few weeks of the tour, this is exactly what I saw (except instead of scorpions, I saw children, which is not entirely different). A lot of the scenery was the same: dirt, mountains, cacti, and adobe. I've been into a multitude of schools here, and these too have had similar designs and features (such as the multi-faceted gymna-cafe-torium). In Minnesota, one can assume that a school has a good auditorium since priority is placed on the arts by the state, unlike Arizona schools' lack of creative functionality. However, on this leg of the trip, things have been very different. Why?
Well, to quote The Threepenny Opera, "Art is not nice."
I don't know, it looks pretty nice to me.
It has been evidently clear to me for a while that the state of Arizona doesn't support the arts community as much as I'm used to. School programs are less funded, community events are smaller, and the only advertised tourism venues are the Grand Canyon and other pretty little natural landmarks. Nothing against the GC or anything, cuz it is pretty much OK, but it does seem like there is less interest in other areas.
Or, so I thought.
In the third week of my tour, I traveled up the mountain to the northern part of the state and spent a week in Prescott (pronounced PRES-kit. Trust me, it took far too much embarrassment to figure that out). As soon as we left Yuma and began our trek northbound, everything began to change. These stories illustrate how.
On our way to Prescott, we had one final school in the Phoenix Valley. The Coolidge school district has a performing arts center run by Corianna Lee with the help of some of her students David, Brianna, and Chandler. This was the first space we were in that was an actual auditorium, not a cafeteria or gymnasium. Not only that, but it was the first school we went to that had their own theater program. Cori teaches drama, dance, and tech to all of the students. She has a degree in dance and is working on finishing another degree in technical theater. Her students ran the sound and lights for us, including re-aiming lights off the grid to better suite our stage, running pre-show music to get the audience pumped, and being overall super-duper. Not only were her students polite and fun, but they were willing to do whatever was necessary to help us out. Cori welcomed us with open arms and they were all very glad to have us come to the school. The improv routines within our show were well-received and used as examples for how to dedicate yourself to a scene, regardless of how ridiculous is may seem (and how ugly you look dressed as someone's mother). This was a lesson for myself and for the students, because I still sometimes find myself holding back from my absurd antics. A school like this with a talented leader like Cori was astounding and began to change my perspective on the state of Arizona. Thank you, Coolidge PAC, for reminding me of the importance of theater, its powerful impact on everyday life, and the value of remaining open and fearless, regardless of funding and community value.
After our final performance in the Valley, we headed up to Peoria for a brief respite. Keith and Shirley Dines are the parents of my dear friend Krissi, and they were kind enough to open up their home to us for an evening of conversation and joy. One rarely finds familiarity while traveling in a new place, so seeing the faces and hearing the voices of two people I knew was utterly refreshing. Krissi has been a good friend and artistic cohort of mine since freshman year of college, but I have never had the privilege of going to her childhood home (although Nick and I did attend a production of Man of La Mancha at her former theater, Theater Works prior to this visit, despite any of her hidden reservations against it). When we arrived, since Krissi now lives in Minnesota, Keith and Shirley gave us a tour of their beautiful home and told us stories about each room in the house, including the living room/piano room/exercise room, Keith’s office and astounding baseball collection, and Krissi’s former room, which has become the dropbox of clothing and piles of “I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this.” Since Keith is a talented photographer, I also got to see many of his photos of the family and scenery from their travels, which was like having my own time-travel channel into someone else’s family. To be invited in this way was a special experience, but Krissi’s absence from the telling of her stories was certainly odd, and I can only imagine she’d have something spectacular/peculiar to say about each one. Spending this brief time with the Dines was invigorating for both Nick and I, as we couldn’t help but empathize with Shirley’s energetic retelling of her endeavors in Hawaii and at the Goodman Theatre. In the end, because they knew we were heading up in elevation, they gave me a fall jacket and Nick received a Cubs sweater to keep warm. Thank you, Keith and Shirley Dines, for your hospitality and invigorating conversation (and Krissi for enduring the embarrassment of parental storytelling from afar). ;)
When we finally arrived in Prescott, we were truly thankful for the new layers of clothing from the Dines, because it was 30 degrees colder and 3000 feet higher, and we were not prepared for the change. We stayed in a disheveled Super 8 for 8 super lousy days because that’s all our per diem could afford. The pool was under construction, the breakfast was frozen poop, the hallways smelt of wet dog, and the Internet was spottier than a Dalmatian during a Jackson Pollack demonstration (hence why this post is so late). Normally, these circumstances would really have gotten me down, but there was hope on the horizon. My beautiful and wonderful Ladyfriend was coming to visit.
What a bunch of hooligans.
Not only was it beyond awesome to have my companion by my side, but the scenery of the new area was really different. The plains were replaced with rolling hills, the dirt with fieldgrass, and the cacti with real trees. Green ones. It was reminiscent of home. There was also a lovely town square filled with shops, a vaudevillian festival, and the infamous “Whiskey Row,” a street loaded with the oldest saloons in Arizona (Yee-haw). During our week there, Nick and I went barhopping and met a pilot and his wife celebrating their 5 year anniversary, witnessed a mediocre performance by a former member of the Coney Island Circus, and Ladyfriend and I hiked the beautifully under-appreciated Watson Lake. Ladyfriend was also able to see a couple of our shows and travel with us to Sedona to see the gigantic red rock formations that every tourist dreams of. The time went far too quickly.
WARNING: SAP ATTACK INCOMING -->
With Ladyfriend close by, it seemed like nothing else was important, and that I had everything I ever wanted for the 3 short days we were together. It gave me hope for a bright future where my dreams of being with my best friend, creating my own art, and seeing the world could all be combined into one life; my own. The lady made my memories so vivid, that writing about it will never quite capture the happiness I felt from having the opportunity to humbly sit next to such a cool person.
SAP ATTACK SUBSIDED. RESUME NORMAL ACTIVITY.
The last two stories I’d like to share happened while Ladyfriend was back in Minneapolis.
Nick wanted to go to the distillery where the whiskey from the saloon was made. He brews his own beer and was interested in seeing the distilling process. We made our way to the Thumb Butte Distillery for a tour and a tasting. The workers greeted us happily, and as we tasted their selection of vodkas and whiskeys, we chatted them up about the process. Following this chat, the distiller himself, Jim, came over to join us, along with their social media manager, Linda (shout out to how sweet you are, Linda!) We told them our story, and they obliged us with their own. Having been a woodworker for years, Jim heard that long-upheld laws against distilleries in Arizona were being overturned, and the market was primed for mining. So, Jim taught himself the science behind brewing and distilling, and after 3 years of research, started up the Thumb Butte Distillery. That was just a year and a half ago. He taught us what it takes to make hard liquor from wheat itself, and the complicated process amazed us both. The team’s friendliness and willingness to show us how it’s done was so gracious that Nick couldn’t help but buy a bottle and some flasks for his family. TBD is also about to go national, so we’re looking forward to seeing their brand again in the future. Alcohol has never really been something that catches my fancy, but learning all about this subject was fascinating from an intellectual perspective that anyone can appreciate. Thumbs up to the Thumb Butte Distillery.
Last but certainly not least is the story of Cynthia the custodian. Cynthia was working at one of the schools where we performed. She was shutting the auditorium down after our show, and as we prepped to leave, she began to share her story. Nick and I, both having been custodians at some point, were willing to listen. Cynthia was raised in Phoenix, the oldest of 8 children, in a military family. She always felt that she needed to prove herself, even when the family would go on camping trips and compete at who could find the best shape in the clouds. She’s spent the last 13 years working in her current school district, and it’s given her a wild ride of ups and downs. Living as a single woman working a full-time job, Cynthia also cares for her 87-year-old mother. All day every day, her attention is demanded by either bickering children who disrespect her by purposefully tossing trash on the ground (and who deserve a raspberry or two) or a mother that needs physical, social, and emotional care. She’s taught kids time and time again that a janitor cleans and a custodian cleans, repairs, and refinishes anything. She could be a blacksmith, with all the things she knows how to do. One would think that a sassy, vocal, and outspoken personality such as hers would command respect at a glance, but a brief conversation with her about the trouble she’s received as "an unintelligent and uneducated woman" reveals that a person’s societal position can instantly define whether or not they have an audible voice in a cacophony of cries. Voices like Cynthia’s deserve to not only be heard and respected, but shared. If there’s one thing she wanted to say, it was this: “Empathy towards other people, even if they are strangers, can get you much farther than stepping on them as if they are beneath you… Even if they are beneath you.” Were it not for working class females like her, our society would crumble. She is important, she is valued, and she represents an entire conglomeration of underappreciated women. Thank you, Cynthia, for sticking through the muck of hard work while still maintaining an empathetic mindset for those who have hurt you.
Stories are my coffee.
These moments in my week continue to keep me going and keep me thankful for what I have and who I am. They help me to see the truth beyond what is observable. They help me to respect another place, like Arizona, for having diversity of experience in a way I never will understand. I hope to remember all these things and to someday look back at this blog and remember it all very fondly. If nothing else, I will remember the important lessons every story has taught me, even if the details become foggy and someday I end up as the old man who tells exaggerated stories differently every time. Thank God for stories.
Actor, Director, Editor, Producer