don’t dream it, be it…

For three years in college, I played Brad Majors in an annual production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The production, mounted in a seedy bar on the edge of campus, featured full-scale musical numbers and plays host to a slew of University of Dayton-specific callbacks, Easter eggs, and references.

Contrary to what you might think, dancing in your underwear in the local dive offers plenty of life lessons.

“Look! Up in the sky… it’s a bird, it’s a plane…”

Produced by an organization called Dayton’s Annual Transylvanian Convention (a direct reference to the film), these annual performances functioned as a fundraiser for the local AIDS Resource Center, while also offering college students the opportunity for freedom of self-expression.

Functioning without the support of the local university (turns out Catholic institutions have more than a few objections to sexual freedom, alien transvestites, and orgies), DATC has always embraced the same Do-It-Yourself attitude of 1980’s hardcore. Simply put, any goal for the production was placed in the hands of the cast, crew, and production team. Everyone was responsible for everything. To my mind, this philosophy was embodied perfectly in a line from the film: “Don’t dream it, be it…”

This aesthetic manifested itself in a guerrilla approach to production, rehearsal, marketing, and performance. In my three years with the show, rehearsals where held in people’s basements and living rooms. The director embarked on many a thrift store treasure hunt in search of costumes. The chorus members hung curtains and the cast collected props. The stage was built in the producer’s backyard, assembled atop the bar’s dance floor during tech rehearsal, and then struck every night before the midnight rush, only to be reassembled prior to the next day’s show.

Every minute detail was the product of collaboration and gut-instinct. Signing up as a member of DATC required fierce energy, immense m=commitment, and a willingness to do anything and everything to take the show to the next level.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Cast and Crew circa 2013

Ultimately, DATC embodied (and continues to embody) the collision of theater, community engagement, and the freedom of creative self-expression, all filtered through a guerilla-style DIY work ethic. I guarantee, seeing this show will change you life. It did mine.

I look back fondly on the time I spent as a member of the cast and enjoy those moments every so often when I get to do the Time Warp again, but the ability to dance in high heels wasn’t my primary takeaway from DATC.

The biggest lesson was when setting goals for yourself, the most important step is transforming your intention into action.

Don’t dream it, be it…

steal around

In conversation with Brian Koppelman on The Moment, Paul Schrader talks about the elements he stole from a variety of films to make his 2018 film, First Reformed.

“The secret of stealing is that you have to steal around,” Shrader says in reference to the various sources of his material. “You can’t go back to the same 7/11 every time. They catch you. You go to the floral shop. Then you go to the gas station. Then you go to that hot dog stand that nobody goes to. And you keep grabbing this stuff and eventually somebody will think that you made it up.”

head down. mouth shut. (or “discretion if the better part of valor”)

I’ve never liked how I worded number three on my list of rules to live by. When taken by itself, the phrase “head down, mouth shut” seems to imply looking the other way in the face of atrocity (much like the German baker in Band of Brothers, who claims not to have known there was a concentration camp down the road from his bakery.)

In revising these rules, number three ought to read “Discretion is the better part of valor,” meaning know when and when not to speak.

While working at a theater company in my mid-twenties, I sat in on a rehearsal where a director was trying to block scene changes that involved a multitude of actors. In the midst the logistical difficulties, one actor continually chattered about how they could assist and make things easier. This actor took on unnecessary responsibility, stepping beyond the bounds of their assigned role and ultimately derailing the director’s concentration.

“Do me a favor,” the director finally said to the actor. “Don’t help.”

There are moments when speaking up only adds to the noise in the room. In order to be truly helpful, you have to know when you’re actually contributing.

This rule doesn’t mean “don’t speak.” It simply means, “only speak when you can add to the conversation.”

be fearless

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about how scary the world had become. One paragraph in particular went a little something like this:

The food we eat is poison, the water we drink is laced with chemicals, and the air we breath is toxic. Every day, we’re told there are foreigners coming to kill us or men in dark suits coming to take our guns. People get gunned down for their beliefs, for rejecting someone or simply because they decided to go out in public.

Our planet is dying, there’s too much radiation, the pH level of the ocean is all outta whack, there are robots in a lab someplace plotting the layout of the world’s first ever person zoo (don’t believe me?), the government is owned by corporations who buy elections–Oh, and nuclear annihilation remains a constant threat too. And those are just the basics.

Seriously, what is there to hope for? There’s so much more to be afraid of.

I wrote this in early 2016, before the American government’s turn towards fascism, before the explosion of wildfires that continue to consume the West Coast, before a global pandemic, before a seditious riot at the Capital, before Russia invaded Ukraine.

This blog post came before a lot of things. And as far as I can tell, everything on the list continues to be true. “What a time to be alive,” I hear myself say all too frequently, in a mix of awe and terror.

A friend of mine said it best though: all these things may be true, but we hope anyway. We live. We go outside. We sing. We dance. We get drunk. We laugh and cry and love each other. When we don’t, the fear wins. Our lives shrink around us until we’re smothered.

So be fearless enough to live. Sing. Dance. Get drunk. Laugh and cry and love because it’s what we’re here to do.

Yeah, it’s scary.

Do it anyway.

you are enough

I suppose there’s an irony to the fact this is first on my list of “rules to live by,” as it’s something I’ve struggled with for much of my life.

We could blame parental trauma. We could blame late-stage capitalism. We could blame debilitating insecurity, creative resistance, the desire to compete, unfaithful lovers, shitty friends–you name it. There are any number of places I could point to that feed my struggle to believe I am enough.

I’ve wrestled with an innate sense of worthlessness for much of my life, the fear that any love given to me is inherently conditional. Love has always felt like something that must be worked for, earned, won.

None of that is true.

In fiction writing, I’ve heard this referred to as a character’s “core misbelief.” It’s the wound that points to the lesson they must learn. The simple truth that I am enough is a lesson I’ve been learning again and again throughout my life. Perhaps this is why it takes the top slot on the list.

When I wrote the original list of rules, I was taking an acting class at the theater company where I worked. The first session, the teacher stormed in, plopped down in his chair, and spouted platitudes about how pretending to be a character wasn’t interesting.

You are interesting,” he said. “Not your idea of the character or who you’re supposed to be. You are enough, all on your own.”

While my relationship with this teacher proved complicated (and often counter to his own lessons), his lesson that day continues to stick with me.

You are enough.

These words aren’t an excuse for complacency, but a call to arms. No one who ever did anything remarkable was any more of a person than you are now.

You–with your all experience and scars and baggage and the little molecules that make you you–​are enough.

rules to live by

When I was twenty-four, I started working at a theater company. In an attempt to remind myself of where I’d been and everything I’d learned along the way, I made a list of twenty “Rules to Live By,” and taped it up inside my locker at work.

While some of these rules have aged well and others haven’t, I still have a copy of this same sheet taped above my desk.

“Rules to Live By,” circa 2015

Back when I was running a much earlier iteration of this same blog, I decided these rules required more examination. I began a series of posts dissecting these rules and recounting how I’d come to understand them. As was the case with much of my creative efforts back then, I never finished these blog posts, but the list remained in my periphery for quick reference.

As I prepare to transition seasons of life, I thought these rules might bear examination once again.

Here’s the list for quick reference:

  1. You are enough.
  2. Be fearless.
  3. Head down, mouth shut.
  4. Don’t dream it, be it.
  5. Ask for what you want.
  6. Do the work.
  7. Make every mistake you are meant to.
  8. There is no box.
  9. Earn your paycheck.
  10. You are doing your thing. They are doing theirs. One has nothing to do with the other.
  11. Dare to be great. (Really, I dare you…)
  12. Succeed on your own terms.
  13. Channel the disappointment back into the craft.
  14. Breathe deep.
  15. Be in love with your life.
  16. Stay awake.
  17. Don’t look forward. Don’t look back.
  18. You don’t get a life. You build a life.
  19. Leave this all better than you found it.
  20. Finish strong.

on being the portal

I’ve written about how the best art acts a portal, transporting us somewhere else entirely. Be it a story that takes us on a journey with its characters or a painting that swallows us whole, we engage with these works to get outside of ourselves.

But what if we’re the portals?

a self-portrait taken at the Contemporary Art Center in Spring 2018

I’m revisiting Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a book that was essential in shaping my path as an artist. It’s a book filled with profound wisdom for engaging with resistance, a malevolent force that will do anything to prevent the artist from completing their work.

In his assessment of a quote by William Blake, Pressfield says, “Eternity, as Blake might have told us, has opened a portal into time. And we’re it.”

Pressfield makes that argument that ideas come from a higher plane, an ethereal somewhere else that exists outside time and physical space. When we are locked into creative flow, we channel the ideas that exists there, momentarily becoming portals through which music, poetry, and art enter into the world.

The work is not our own. As artist, we’re no more than the conduit through which the current moves.

not trying hard enough

The last few days, I had this wild idea for an art piece that involved stenciling silhouettes, painted canvas, and melting crayons with a hairdryer.

However, when I went to melt the crayons, the gust of heat from the hairdryer not only didn’t melt the wax, it detached the stencils from the canvas. Safe to say, this particular project was a failure.

I woke up today with the following from Seth Godin in my inbox:

Clues that you might not be trying hard enough

  • You usually succeed
  • You rarely feel like an imposter
  • You already know what you need to know
  • You’re confident it’s going to work

Failing (and all the emotions and lessons that accompany it) is a signpost that tells us we’re headed the right direction.

finding the medium

I’m currently working on a novel high school kids in revolt and a play about comic book writers building a universe–two different stories with different characters, engaging with completely different worlds.

the office (before the great rearrange of 2022)

A friend asked this week, “how do you determine which stories are books, which ones are plays, and which one would be movies?” Great question.

It sounds trite, but when struck with an idea for a story, the story typically lends itself to a particular medium. For example, the novel about high schoolers functions as one character’s recollection of a series of events. The events of the story triggered an internal change in the narrator, a change he attempts to walk back by telling the story to the reader (a prime example of my belief that some of the most important learning we do in this life is unlearning falsities instilled within us).

Because so much of the conflict and change occurs on an internal level, brought about by the act of telling the story, this particular piece lends itself to prose. Simply put, it’s a story that wants to be a novel.

In contrast, the play about comic book writers centers on competing recollections of events. The story alternates between a comic writer’s recollection of events and the recollection of his partner, the comic artist. By offering this material on a stage, one character can narrate events to the audience while the action plays out behind him in direct contradiction to his recounting.

Presenting competing versions of events onstage allows for these two characters to step out of the action of the scenes and engage in conflict over whose recounting is accurate. This ultimately serves as the central conflict of the play, leaving the audience to play referee and decide who wins: the writer or the artist.

Ultimately, the needs of every story are different. It falls to the storyteller to determine which tools and what medium are most beneficial for telling that story as it needs to be told.