My book, Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras, celebrated its one year anniversary of being published in January. I didn’t get to celebrate with too much fanfare since I was preparing for rehearsals of Peter Pan Jr., which I’m directed for the Worthingway Arts Program. I look back at my journals and see the planning of the play version of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras beginning to be created. It really is a situation of the chicken and the egg: which came first, the book or the play?
Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras began as an idea for a children’s book. You can read more about the evolution of the story of a baby duck to a book-loving girl named Penny here. My old journals have characters that were cut from the original version of the play: penguins and a giraffe. Cowgirls don’t ride penguins, they don’t want their tuxedos to get dirty. Cowgirls don’t ride giraffes, they’re too busy knitting scarves for winter. The giraffe existed somewhat to get a “winter is coming” joke in there, but also it’s ridiculous and funny to see a giraffe knitting a scarf worthy of the Fourth Doctor.
As we near the year anniversary of the CATCO is Kids production of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras (March 10), I’m proud of the 9 Theatre Roundtable Award nominations the production received! We won two for acting: Abbie Ogilbee (Jack) and Ben Tracy (Ostrich, et al). It was remarkable to see a production that was written for families and young audiences get so much recognition.
I’m working towards getting Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras its next production. The audiences had so much fun with it, I can’t wait for the next time I get to watch it with an audience!
Of course, most of my energy is focused on Neverland (Peter Pan Jr. opens April 20). And on Oz (My play The Throne of Oz opens May 4). Then, I’ll be heading back to Baker Street.
There’s always another project!
On Sunday, I saw Hamilton in Chicago. I'm not quite sure of the full extent of what I learned from the experience, but it's lingering in my mind, and it's making me think.
I've listened to Hamilton a lot. Not as much as some, but more than others. I'm a mid-grade Hamilfan. I can't sing all the lyrics of "My Shot," but I can do a good job with "You'll Be Back." For me, Hamilton has been a solitary experience, usually while wearing headphones, sometimes in the car. But theatre, by its very nature, is a communal experience. You experience it with others, with both those you know and those you don't.
Seeing Hamilton live has had a massive effect on how I see the show and has shaped the way I originally heard specific songs. Songs that I usually would skip, such as "That Would Be Enough," are now essential. My wife rested her hand on my knee at the lyric "I relish being your wife," and that did it. The song's meaning changed. It became personal. Now, it's not simply a song about Hamilton and Eliza, it's also about Chris and Rachael. It's about us. And you have to believe that Lin Manuel Miranda inserted much of himself in there as well. Moments of the show feel vulnerable, too vulnerable to not be personal.
Another observation. There was this survey going around on my Facebook about musicals. It asked people to list the musical they loved, hated, thought was overrated, thought was underrated, and more. A lot of my friends filled it out, seemingly angry that their friends would put things considered to be solely entertaining or trite or fluff. God forbid if someone were to enjoy Cats. Some friends never filled it out, afraid of someone passing judgement on their tastes or their intelligence for what they love. It's crazy, man.
What does that have to do with Hamilton? The audience on Sunday laughed a lot. And cried a lot. The show shifts on a wide, emotional spectrum. Also, the show is both low art and high art. It's entertaining and smart. It's playing in two worlds at once: hip hop and musical theatre. Those two traditions are at odds with each other at times, but they allow for something new to be created. To adapt a Hamilton lyric, theatre is wide enough for entertainment and emotion. A piece of theatre is wide enough for comedy and drama. An audience is wide enough for laughing and crying. We forget that. We forget that high art and low art don't have to be mutually exclusive.
If we make art that is not simply for ourselves, but of ourselves, then the success of something like Hamilton isn't surprising. It's not that Hamilton rewrote the rules of theatre. The rules of theatre have mostly been the same: write what you know, bare yourself onstage, be vulnerable, and tell a good story. Instead of doing things "traditionally," Lin Manuel Miranda did things his way. He was true to himself and the way that he expressed himself. It's the authenticity of expression that grabs me every time.
Be true to yourself. Be true to the way you express yourself. Don't jump on bandwagons. Express yourself with authenticity and heart. Open wounds. Give a sly smile. Put it on stage. Allow your audience to laugh. Allow them to cry. Allow yourself to laugh. Allow yourself to cry.
One more thing. An hour or so before I saw Hamilton, I saw news on Facebook that my theatre professor, steven marc weiss, had died. steven's first year at my undergraduate college was my senior year. I didn't know what to make of him at first. steven was one of the very few people who called me Christopher instead of Chris. (I’m not capitalizing his name because he wrote in all lowercase. Once he was asked why, his answer? “I’m pretentious.”)
I often spoke to steven about animation and cartoons; he spoke to me of German art films and classical music. He impressed me with his knowledge and artistic integrity. I remember going to his house for the first time and walking into a small dining room that had built in bookshelves on each wall, floor or ceiling. They were filled with CDs of classical music, organized by composer, then by conductor. He surrounded himself with what he loved. I always saw him as superior in a way, but he saw me as an equal. Me with all my low art tendencies. The world is wide enough for me and steven. And he knew that. He relished that. He supported that. He supported me. And I'm going to miss him.
Here's a portion of an email from steven that I received in 2011. I'm so grateful to him.
"you remain, for me, one of the special "elite" among coe's theatre alums, one whose dedication to his craft is virtually limitless, who cherishes ensemble and puts his work before himself. for me, you are the embodiment of stanislavsky's charge to "love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," and i shall always respect you for that!
My wife has been on a research trip since Wednesday, so I’ve been on my own with my son Jack since then. I’ve taken Jack to rehearsal on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s been really fun (and somewhat stressful to be honest) to have him there. Jack enjoys seeing the actors; he loves playing pretend. He was a little disappointed that he didn’t have his turn to pretend being an animal. Wednesday, he wanted to be a manatee. Thursday, he wanted to be a bunny. And yesterday, he was a kitty. I let him play on the stage when the actors went on a break. He’s having a difficult time understanding that the actors aren’t just taking turns pretending to be animals, they’re actually following a script! During breaks, Jack wants me to be Penny while he pretends to be an animal. It’s adorable.
As far as the play, it’s going amazingly well. Joe Bishara is a beast in the best possible sense. He drives hard and fast and expects you to keep up. And to the credit of the cast, they do. Each actor has come a long way, and they keep making new choices to further refine their characters. One thing that Joe told them yesterday is he doesn’t want talk down to the audience members. Yes, we’re creating a performance for an audience that includes children, but they deserve authenticity. It’s the same reason I like Doc McStuffins so much: they tackle emotions and situations from an authentic place. (Notice I didn’t say we’re creating a performance “for children.” I know there will be adults in the audience, too. It’s a very deliberate choice to say that I’m writing for “audiences that include children.”)
The progress of the cast was especially striking yesterday. Jack and I skipped rehearsal on Friday; the kid needed to get to bed early... And so did I quite frankly. Yesterday, there were so many moments that were solidified and strikingly different from just a single rehearsal that I missed. That’s not to say there wasn’t work to be done, but the progress was clear. The three leads have come a long way and, if they continue the hard work I saw yesterday, they’re going to rock things out on opening day this Friday!
As for me, this week is going to be fun and busy and somewhat overwhelming. Tomorrow, I’m spending most of my day at West Broad Elementary School, reading the book of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras. The students will also meet Emma Shachter who plays Penny! I have five sessions of 30 minutes a piece with a five minute break in-between. I’m excited to share the story with them and answer questions the students (or teachers) might have. Before I meet with them, I have an interview with Fox28 for a segment on Good Day Marketplace that will air on Thursday!
I’ll be at every performance of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras this weekend, so come say hi! I’ll have copies of the book with me, so you can pick up your own copy if you haven’t already gotten one. I’m very proud of the work being done by all the artists involved. I can’t wait for you to see this show!