What happens when two Midwestern boys tour in the Southwest?
…Man, heck if I know.
In this week's travel log, there is much to write about. Almost too much. Much more than I expected. Let’s just talk it out. If you’re reading this, then perhaps you are already aware of my tour with the National Theatre for Children in Arizona and are wondering about what it is that I do. Well, listen close. Or rather, read close. Or, if you’re far-sighted, push the screen away and read far, that’s fine too.
On an average day, the two gentlemen wake up at the cesspool of the morning (A.K.A. before the sun rises), groggily prepare for the day without turning any lights on for fear of burning their eyes out, and then, while wearing matching and (un)flattering outfits, hope for an exciting breakfast in the lobby which ends up being mediocre waffles and expired yogurt. Full of too many carbs and not enough fruit (and zero protein), they get into their small rental car and head into the sunrise. On some days, they also have to check out of the hotel, begrudingly pack the car, and trust that the address to the next hotel doesn’t lead to the middle of the arid desert. Either way, they continue towards the first school of the day… All without having spoken a word to each other.
The day proceeds one of three ways, depending on what happens at the beginning. The drive to the first show will be anywhere from 20-60 grosser-than-gross morning minutes. If it’s 20 minutes, then the gentlemen play jammin’ pump-up music and get blasted up for an awesome show. If it’s 30-45 minutes, the gentlemen lose attention on the pump up jams by the gorgeous morning sun, and the energy starts to decline. But if it’s 60 minutes, then the gentlemen listen to soft jazz, lose hope for pump ups, and descend into the already perpetuated silence of a rough morning and a cloudy haze of sleeplessness forms over their heads. Upon the arrival to the school, the designated school checker-inner (me) puts on his happy face and spits out the gravel from the morning face-plant in order to chat and check-in with the lovely secretary who will give him a better handle on the day.
The shows are usually in some sort of gymna-cafe-torium. Nick and I are introduced to the space, to which we carry in our body-bag of props and our camping totes of set pieces. We take 15 minutes to set up all of our equipment (and if the stars are aligned correctly, then the students are NOT eating breakfast on our stage). At this point, we say our first words to each other which are usually, “Help me tie this” or “Is this a good spot for the stage?” and more recently “Is that a pickle on the floor?” For the next 15 minutes, we wait and/or talk to a variety of adults including custodians, teachers, former miners, nuns, painters, and overall cool/inspiring people. When the kids arrive, they’re either escorted politely into rows along the bleachers or chaotically sit in clumps across the floor. We chat up the kids and receive a myriad of middle-school suggestions to include in our improv: celebrities, animals, TV shows, and movies (most of which we either have never heard or have heard so many times that we’re due for a suggestion vacation to a Chicago comedy club). After placing all these suggestions on post-its inside of an “idea bucket,” the final class of students takes their seats and we start the show.
Our show is called “BrainSTEM;” four comedy sketches, each about Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math. The sketches are filled with improv moments created by the idea bucket or student interaction and have simple plots with an eclectic collection of characters, from 0-hitting baseball players and science fair geeks to a mother and daughter whose disdain for each other runs deep. It’s a grand ol’ time. By the end of it, the students and the teachers either fall in love with us or think we’re crazy embarrassing fools (8th graders also tend to think they’re above us… which they only are because they're sitting on bleachers). If the show goes well, the teachers thank us and flood us with the usual compliments: “Wow! That was wonderful! You’re so funny! Did you go to school for theater? Are you single?”
Okay, maybe not the last one, but basically.
If it doesn't go well, then we drown our sorrows in Sonic ice cream blasts.
This happens 2-4 times at 1-3 different schools per day. Usually, after our first school, we have several hours of down time, which we use up by stealing the wi-fi at Wendy’s, since it’s better than the hotel’s (plus we enjoy the tempting ads), or by playing wresting game demos at GameStop. Oh, and then we complain about how much time we wasted. After our last show of the day, stained in sweat and exhausted from the heat and cardio, we hopefully return to our hotel, have some cucumber/sausage snackies, watch the Cubs game, and talk to our loved ones. However, there are many days when we have to drive to a new hotel. Unfortunately, that means we don’t get there until the butt crack of the day, since Arizona is too big for its own sake. Thus, instead of seeing any cool local scenery or watching a familiar movie, we crash on the bed before the evening reaches double-digits, and the next day the story starts all over again.
Extreme days include scenes like this; relaxing by the poolside, eating sugar snap peas, reading books about mime and comedy. Oh, the glamor. It's been a difficult tour, but I am making the best of it. :)
But really, to me, the best part of any job is the people, and in Arizona, I meet a lot of them. Granted, it’s not for very long most of the time (usually less than a half hour), and my chances of seeing them again are slim, but their stories are what keep me interested (because after all, who tours with a children’s theatre for the children?!) This week, I met some more really awesome people. Here are their stories.
Anita has worked in the school system in Casa Grande for over 12 years. Just recently, she became a grandmother. She's been preparing for the new family member by dreaming of the days when she can watch Sunday night football with the little one. After spending 20 years of her youth in the foster system under one primary mother, she understands the importance of keeping her family close, especially after the tragedy of her foster mother winning the lottery and then abandoning her. Working in the school during the week and as a maid on the weekends, Anita's connection to Sunday night football travels beyond the familial, and into the spiritual, acting as a weekly vacation from the trials of daily life. She inspired me by revealing how perseverance can be delivered through rituals both mundane and spiritual. Including football.
The Verrado Coffee Company isn’t a person, it’s a wonderful place. A quaint and vibrant community built on the small town principles of community and authenticity, this area of the city of Buckeye is not only beautiful, but fresh and thriving. The VCC started up because, as their website says, “coffee and community go hand in hand.” The coffee company is community driven, holding a library, a town center, a children’s play area, FREE WI-FI, and an all-around inviting atmosphere. In fact, so much so, I almost bought a hat, just because. The walls were covered in graphic designs and prints by a community designer, and the coffee was—well, I can’t speak to the coffee; I don’t drink it. But my tour partner said it was great! What I loved most was how it acted as a hub for the Verrado community. People were constantly going in and out, there were pamphlets for buying a house in the area, there was a town meeting happening right next to the couch I sat on. Even the architecture was beautiful. It was inspiring to see such an innovative way to attract people to come together to live in community.
Immanuel, Maria, Karen, Cyndi, and Diana (NP) are a group of volunteer artists and students working to create a float for the upcoming Founder’s Day Parade in San Luis, AZ. Locals of San Luis, this group of people (led by Immanuel) has been trying to find creative ways to win the competition between the schools on whose part of the parade will be the best. Since the parade is around Halloween, they decided to create these giant paintings of Disney villains and attach them to a float in the shape of the monster house from Monster House. They created these paintings with styrofoam and a projector. I thought it was so cool how they were banding together to do this for the school, as a sign of pride in this small on-the-border town. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to ask them more questions about their lives, because they had a lot of work to do to prepare, and we had a show to put on.
Terry, Michael, and Genevieve are three freshmen at the University of Southern California. We met them at the top of a gigantic 100-foot rock in Joshua Tree National Park on one of our weekend excursions to Southern California. As Nick and I ascended the mountainous boulder, we suddenly heard music and then saw three people about our age hanging out in the sun. We quickly discovered that they embody the southern California chill personality, even though Michael is from Idaho and Terry is from Hawaii. They told us that the previous night, around midnight, they were talking about the stresses of starting college and Genevieve proposed that they just take a trip to Joshua Tree. So, at 2:00 AM, they drove to the park, slept in the car, and spent the whole day enjoying the beauty of nature and hoping to find a nearby In-N-Out Burger or Korean BBQ on the way home. The trio met on the Triathlon team during the beginning of the school year and have been buddies ever since. We shared stories and swapped energies for an hour together, and it was glorious. Thank you, JT friends, for reinvigorating my life with that early-college sense of wonder and excitement, and inspiring me to do a triathlon someday.
The final story I'd like to share has no pictures to go with it, but I will conclude with it nonetheless. While in Joshua Tree, Nick and I went out to eat at a place called “Pie for the People.” It was a bizarre New York style pizza place that we stumbled into just before they began a local band concert. Not only was most of the seating outside (per usual in CA), but there was a large dirt stage and a coffee roastery in the back. The experience was so magical and out of a movie that we couldn't bare to take any pictures, so instead we took in everything sensory that we could: the smells of pizza, nitro-coffee, and marijuana in the air, the sounds of pedestrian punk bands and their too-cool-for-school drummers, the dimly-lit wood and dirt walkways, and the uncomfortable metal and mesh lawn chairs. Though not the sort of atmosphere I ever would purposefully place myself in due to my disposition against the party scene, this accidental stumble into a mini-Coachella is a memory to be cherished. As one of the singers stated as she described her muse for writing a song, "Sometimes, there are places you're asked to leave even when you don't want to. Sometimes, you need to stay somewhere, even if someone or something wants you to go away."
Even though she spoke about her reasons for staying in the little tourist city we were in, I took is as a motivation for me to enjoy every moment of an abnormal circumstance. I know that I, as a human, tend to avoid the uncomfortable. Yet, as this tour is teaching me one story at a time, sometimes we just have to stay where we are in order to live the life we need.
And sometimes, you just have to sing:
"There are scary little witches in the air."
Actor, Director, Creator, Dork