Theater for Children by Children

Maru Garcia - headshot

“The theatre,” wrote Stella Adler, “was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.” And what better time to be introduced to that remarkable journey than in childhood when imaginations are probably at their most fertile. No one knows that journey better than this week’s guest, Maru Garcia, whose love of the performing arts is matched only by her desire to pass that passion along to the next generation of actors…and playwrights!

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: A “triple threat” label in the performing arts definitely applies to your talents as an actor, a writer and a director. Let’s start with a look at what originally ignited your passion for the stage. For instance, when did you first know that the theatrical world is where you wanted to be?

A: My mother used to take my sister and me to the theater to see different kind of plays, mainly musicals. We started playing at home, singing all the songs of the musicals which we saw over and over again. At 16 I enrolled myself in an acting course and I was hooked. The decision of studying Drama was difficult as I have hip dysplasia which made it impossible for me to dance or do any physical exercise; however, with the encouragement of my dad, I decided to pursue a career in Theater. Once in college, I decided to focus on Directing.

Q: Were you in plays at school?

A:  I was not, I started acting in plays when I was 16 years old with my teacher from the acting course I was taking at night while attending high school.

Q: What’s the first play you remember seeing and what were your impressions of that experience?

A: It was “Quiero Vivir” by Alberto Del Rio and it was amazing. I still remember the songs which we sang over and over again using a tape.

Q: Was there/is there a dream role you’d love to play?

A: All roles are amazing for me. I love acting in comedies but I would love to be tested as a dramatic actress. I would love to play the role of Lucy in Sartre’s play “Mors Sans Sepulture”, although I am too old for it. A very deep character with many changes and growth within itself.

Q: Do you have a favorite play and/or favorite playwright?

A: Not really, I love all genres.

Q: So how did you first break in?

A: It was as a shepherdess in a Pastorela. It was so much fun! Although I was exhausted at school for two months straight. I remember going directly to rehearsal after school and then coming home around 10 pm to do homework.

Q: How does your approach to acting (and focusing on the role you’re playing) compare/contrast to being a director (and having to draw forth the best performance from each of your actors)?

A: As I have been a director before, as an actor I am able to concentrate on what works on stage including blocking and being aware of where are my fellow actors both emotionally and physically. On the same token, the experience as an actor helps me understand what my cast members are going through when I direct. As a director I am able to tell if the actors need support considering that each one of them undergoes a different process.

Q: Best cure for stage fright?

A; Breathing…most of the time.

Q: Which would you rather direct – a comedy or a drama?

A: Oh my goodness! Both of them have their appeal. I don’t mind the genre as long as the message is powerful and makes the audience think.

Q: You’ve directed a number of productions in your native language, Spanish. Were these originally written in Spanish or translated from English and what, if any, challenges were present (especially in comedy) in capturing cultural nuances and themes that would resonate with your audiences?

A:  I have directed both types of plays, some of them were in Spanish originally and some of them were translated. Usually the translators are good at capturing the nuances that would relate to the Spanish speaking audience. When directing, it is also important to consider the gestures and movements related to the culture.

Q: Whenever the economy gets wobbly, the first programs that tend to get axed in public schools are always the performing arts. Why is this a dangerous practice and what effect do you see it potentially having on our students?

A: That is an unfortunate reality. The school system is more concentrated in academics without understanding how the arts expand the view of the world. A child that struggles academically could be highly successful in an artistic program which in turn would help that child academically.

Q: What can today’s educators do to counter the negative effects of theater classes being reduced – or even eliminated – to trim expenses?

A:  They can read books that elicit the imagination of the child. Use dynamic approaches to education with a lot of role playing, including puppets.

Q: Every decade or so, pundits will proclaims that “theater is dead.” What’s your response to that?

A: Theater will never be dead. As an artistic experience is very appealing to all audiences, there is nothing that beats the interaction between the live actors and the audience.

Q: This leads us to the exciting reason you’re doing an interview with us – to talk about your newly released book of plays (Theater for Children by Children) that was penned by children ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade. How did this fun idea come about?

A: I have always believed children can create wonderful plays. They already have the component of imagination; they just have to be encouraged to sew the story together. That is where the adult comes in. The adult guides the children in creating a story that makes sense. Everything else is their creation: the characters, the basic plot line, the dialogues, even the costumes and the set can be created by them.

Q: Tell us about the process of getting the kids involved in the creation of plots, the development of characters and dialogue, and all the nuts and bolts of just putting a script together that could be performed.

A:  The process starts with improvisations. Depending on the age of the children, improvisation can be very simple or very complex. It’s all a game for them. After the improvisations are done, the teacher (the adult) can determine what the children are interested in. The next part is to work on the dialogue. This can easily be done by the children themselves if they are old enough to write or by the teacher asking questions and writing their answers. After that, the children choose a character.  The adult puts together all the pieces, making sure there is a beginning, middle (conflict) and end. The older the children are, the more complex the plot and the characters are.

Q: Any unanticipated hiccups?

A:  Yes, at the time of the performance, the voices of the children were not loud enough which caused the audience to miss some parts. We also had a number of absent children in some performances.

Q: Any glimmers of future actors, playwrights and directors in the book’s talent pool?

A: Yes, there were many kids that were extremely talented. I hope they can really reach their full artistic potential one day.

Q: Did the children get to perform the plays?

A:  Yes, all the plays were performed. It was amazing to see them on stage.

Q: What was the result?

A:  The productions were very simple but the students felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

Q: Can children of any age go through this process?

A:  Children starting at 5 years old can start the process. I have worked with children 3 to 5 years old but not all of them have the attention span that is needed.

Q: Where can teachers and parents purchase Theater for Children by Children?

A:  It is sold through Amazon.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Regarding writing?  I am writing a book regarding my experiences in dating from the moment I got divorced to the moment I started dating my fiancé. Regarding theater? I continue to audition for different companies. I would also like to find a producer for my “Mediumship show”, hopefully to be shown on T.V.

Q: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?

A:  This was an amazing experience. These children worked really hard in this project, it showed me what children are capable of. I hope I can repeat the experience with different groups of children all over the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare for Screenwriters

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I’ve been a fan of William Shakespeare ever since freshman high school English class and, coincidentally, our study of Hamlet. That this prolific playwright could not only stitch together so seamlessly a multitude of complex characters – and swiftly move them about in a minimalist set – but also explore timeless themes that would still resonate hundreds of years later was astonishing to me. Had he lived and worked in this century instead of his own, The Bard might have dabbled in screenwriting, a whimsical “what if” I encouraged students to explore in my writing and drama workshops back in the 70s. Shortly thereafter, these speculations gave way to new conversations with actors in my theater company (coincidentally named The Hamlett Players), a touring troupe that echoed Will’s own creative approach to “less is more.”

It was, therefore, exciting to recently meet a kindred spirit in J.M. Evenson whose new release, Shakespeare for Screenwriters, will continue to fuel the discussions about enduring plots and archetypes as well as that longstanding debate of whether he really, truly authored all those plays and sonnets himself.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start with some brief background on who you are and what you do.

A: I am both a writer and a scholar. I received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. I’ve been a writer in LA for the last 5 years. As a screenwriter, I’ve worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. In addition, I’ve kept up my scholarly work by teaching Shakespeare, composition, and film part-time at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. This book is, in fact, a perfect meeting of both my most passionate interests.

Q: How and when did you have the epiphany that a playwright who lived so long ago could impart creative wisdom to aspiring screenwriters in the 21st century?

A: I remember it clearly. One day, after finishing up with my teaching at Pepperdine, I was trying to come up with ideas for a new story. I thought to myself: if only I could write like Shakespeare! And it dawned on me: if I spent some time analyzing his works to see how he did it, or what they might call “reverse engineering” his writing, perhaps I could learn a thing or two. The idea for this book was born that day — I knew I could not be the only person who could learn a thing or two from the greatest writer who ever lived!

Q: Controversy continues to simmer among scholars regarding the true authorship of The Bard’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.  What’s your own position on the debate?

A: I believe the debate is motivated by class politics. Edward de Vere, the man most often identified as the secret writer of Shakespeare, was a cultured aristocrat. Shakespeare was, by contrast, relatively low-born. In fact, the class difference is a main part of the argument: how could such a low-born person possess such unrivalled genius? In their minds, genius is the purview of those with money. This is an argument I simply do not buy.

Q: In your book you make the point that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time. What do you believe is the secret to Will’s sustainability and modern-day popularity?

A: I think Shakespeare’s unique creative genius transcends barriers of language, culture, time, and place. He never goes for the small story. Love, family, power, war — these are the issues Shakespeare addresses. His plays touch a nerve because they are raw, human, and utterly timeless.

Q: What’s your favorite Shakespearean play?

A: I love them all, but my personal favorite is “Hamlet.” I wish I could explain why this is in terms that made sense. I can’t. It just grips me tight and holds me from the first words until the end. It’s love!

Q: What is your favorite Shakespearean speech or catch-phrase?

A: I think probably the famed “to be, or not to be” speech from “Hamlet.” I’ve read the speech a thousand times — maybe more — but I find something new every time.

Q: Numerous film adaptations have been made of Shakespeare’s work. Which one resonates the most with you?

A: I actually love many of the adaptations. Some of them are excellent all around, such as Branagh’s “Much Ado,” which literally made me fall out of my chair laughing in the theatre; some are landmark films, such as Olivier’s “Hamlet”; some are of sentimental value, such as the Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever seen; some are of special interest, such as the ultra dark version of “Macbeth” directed by Polanski right after his pregnant wife’s murder by Manson. Each one offers new insight on these amazing stories.

Q: Which do you think lend themselves better to screen adaptation – Shakespeare’s comedies or tragedies?

A: There have been dozens of remarkable adaptations of both his comedies and tragedies. I think directors like Joss Whedon, with his fabulous recent version of “Much Ado,” prove that Shakespeare’s comedies are as timely today as they were 500 years ago. Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” shows that Shakespeare’s tragedies are powerful no matter which language they are filmed in. The history plays are also marvelous — Branagh’s “Henry V” is absolutely riveting, one of my top favorites. No matter what the genre, Shakespeare’s plays continue to speak to each new generation. It’s truly amazing.

Q: Give us an example of a modern movie that demonstrates the writing principles you see in The Bard’s scripts?

A: Let’s take an example from the most famous of all Shakespeare’s heroes: Hamlet. Far from a typical hero, Hamlet is actually best known for questions and doubt. He is a psychologically complex character — smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, and possibly insane. The key to building psychological complexity into your heroes is giving them an inner conflict. Watching a hero struggle with inner conflict generates sympathy and creates psychological depth that audiences recognize as uniquely human.

For Hamlet, the struggle begins in the very first pages. He is visited by the Ghost of his father, who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, the reigning king. His father’s Ghost demands that Hamlet kill Claudius in revenge.

If Hamlet were a typical avenger, he would go do it. But Hamlet is a thinker. In a moment of pure anguish, Hamlet asks his famous question: “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” In this passage, we discover the true nature of Hamlet’s dilemma. Why do bad things happen to us? Is it better to die than to suffer? What happens to us after death? These are real questions — ones that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of time. The directive from the Ghost thrusts Hamlet into a moral quandary, and from that moment on, Hamlet is ripped apart by an agonizing internal conflict. Should he, or shouldn’t he, kill Claudius?

Audiences love watching characters be torn apart by inner conflict. Take Jim Stark (James Dean) in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955), for instance. We watch Jim battle both his inner demons and the treacherous world around him. As he tries to cope with Buzz and his gang of bullies, Jim looks to his father for help. Over and over again, Jim asks his father: “What can you do when you have to be a man?” The question becomes central in the most famous scene, when Buzz forces Jim to play a game of chicken. Jim knows it’s a dangerous game, but if he doesn’t play, how can he be a man? When Buzz’s jacket gets caught on the door handle, accidentally dragging him over the cliff to an explosive death, Jim goes into an emotional tailspin. His anguished guilt erupts when he screams out the celebrated lines: “You’re tearing me apart.”

Many screenwriting manuals will tell you to find a single motivation and make sure your hero stays on point. But what we learn from Shakespeare is that sometimes it’s better to not to limit your characters to one motivation. Let your characters struggle with their inner conflicts. Let them have flaws, and let them overcome. Above all, let them be human.

Q: How does Shakespeare’s five-act structure correlate to what we’ve been hit over the head with in three-act structure?

A: Here’s an interesting but little-known fact: there’s no such thing as a five-act structure for Shakespeare. The five-act structure is purely a construction of modern editing practices. If you look at the original works printed in the Renaissance, you will see that there aren’t divisions into acts or scenes.

I do think there is something to be said about Shakespeare and structure, however. Shakespeare wasn’t beholden to formulas. Some of his plays obeyed the set-up, rising action, falling action model; some do not. “Othello,” for instance, rises in action to (what we call) Act 3, Scene 3, when Iago convinces him that Desdemona is cheating on him. This is the turning point of the play — not unlike, say, the turning point in “The Godfather,” when Michael embraces his family (and The Family) and kills Sollozzo. Other plays, like “King Lear,” are structured like an avalanche: the play begins at a high point, with Lear happily dividing his empire, but then immediately begins an inexorable march into shocking tragedy. It ends with Learn naked and insane, holding his beloved dead child, with his empire ruined and everything lost, before he dies. It’s an unusual structure now, and it was unusual in Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare was a maverick — he was then, and will always be, unique.

Q: If you could take any of his plays that have never been adapted to the medium of film, which one would it be, how would you define the new context in order to appeal to mainstream audiences, and who’s your dream cast for it?

A: Amazingly, there are no plays from Shakespeare that haven’t been committed to film. Some of the less well-known plays have not gotten the big release treatment from Hollywood, but all of them have been filmed at some point. The BBC has been diligent!

Q: What’s the most important thing modern writers can learn from Will?

A: I think a lot of writers these days are worried about making their ideas fit into standardized formulas. They give up on their voice and everything that makes them unique in the hopes of making it.

I’d just remind them that Shakespeare was a maverick. Instead of adhering to formulas, Shakespeare made every single play exactly what it needed to be without worrying about whether or not it broke the rules. What Shakespeare ultimately teaches us is to do whatever it takes to make your story right. If you need to, break the rules of today — just as Shakespeare broke the rules of the sixteenth century.

Q: Shakespearean plays were typically light on the number of female roles in the cast (primarily, of course, because those roles were played by males). In your view, which of his works could best be adapted to a film – regardless of setting or circa – in which the cast was comprised of a majority of females?

A: I don’t necessarily believe that his works are light on female roles — or at least no more so than Hollywood today. In almost every play, there is a strong female character. In “Macbeth,” it’s Lady Macbeth; in “Lear,” it’s Cordelia; in “Antony and Cleopatra,” it’s Cleopatra. The list goes on. In some of the plays, the female characters steal the show, as is certainly the case with Lady Macbeth. Almost all of Shakespeare’s major female characters are fascinating in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are or were played by men or women!

Q: Let’s say, hypothetically, you could sit down for lunch with the world’s most prolific playwright. Where would you go and what three questions would you most like to have answers to before that meal is over?

A: This is a difficult question. I am not sure what I’d ask him. Probably the first question would be if he’d read my screenplay! (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

My first inclination is to say that I would ask him detailed questions that have been bothering us for 500 years: Why does Hamlet delay? Why does Iago do it? What drives Macbeth? But the truth is that I like the fact that we don’t have solid answers to these questions. I like the fact that there are ambiguities in the way these characters were written. Every time I read Hamlet or Lear or Othello, I see something new. The characters seem to change and grow as I change and grow as a person. It’s like the Mona Lisa: if we could change her smile, would we? She’d lose part of her charm.

Q: What’s your best advice to new writers who dream of making it big in Hollywood?

A: I had a wonderful teacher at UCLA, Professor Howard Suber, who told me that the most important determining factor in how well a writer will do in Hollywood is not their talent or their networking skills; it’s how they handle despair. It sounds depressing at first, but the hard truth is that you will encounter setbacks in this town. Everyone does! You just have to learn how to handle it. The most important skill you can have in Hollywood is persistence — never, never, never give up!

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have several projects in the hopper. First, I’m gearing up to teach an online class through ScreenwritingU on specific lessons that writers can learn from Shakespeare. Second, I’m finishing up a children’s book that I just wrote. Third, I’m almost done with the proposal for my next book on writing, about which I am very excited — stay tuned for that one!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say how delighted I am to be doing this interview here with you! Many thanks!

 

 

 

 

The Days of Song and Lilacs

Days of Song and Lilacs

When I was 10 years old, a new movie – a musical starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones – was opening at a theater in downtown Seattle. It was pouring rain (does it ever do anything else in Seattle?) but the line of filmgoers for that Saturday matinee stretched all the way around the block. Even at a young age, I knew I was about to see something really special. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of The Music Man and yet with the passage of decades, those same feelings of anticipation and joy return every time I catch it on television, pop in the well-worn DVD, or – for that matter – hear a marching band.

You can, thus, imagine my excitement when I discovered author Mary Beth Sartor Obermeyer whose path crossed early in childhood with that of Meredith Willson – the musical genius who brought River City, Professor Harold Hill, and Marian the Librarian to life. For anyone who loves nostalgia, tap dancing and being inspired by a beautiful message, The Days of Song and Lilacs is a must-buy delight.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: The Days of Song and Lilacs is a lovely title. What’s the story behind it and what inspired you to share your story with others?

A:  In Mason City, Iowa, in 1954, everyone seemed to have two things in abundance: music and lilacs.  Those nubby blossoms nodded along every alley, guarded each yard, I even think they made us dizzy!  And those marching bands practiced like mad, down most every street by day; and piano music floated through the sash of every window at night.  And live entertainment was everywhere, pre-television, served up like dessert—at Vivian’s Bridal Shower, Farmers’ Round-Up, Stunt Night in the Park.  I got to tap-dance out almost every night!  And, to boot: I lived down the street from Meredith Willson, who was composing his beloved The Music Man for Broadway, and—we had the same accompanist, the elderly Mabel Kelso.  Who could ask for anything more?   I was 12 years old.

Q: What ignited – and zealously fueled – your unabashed passion for wanting to tap-dance all the time?

A:  Because I could!  I lived in a time and a place.  And I didn’t have just a pulse; a metronome clacked inside me!

Q: Were there other tap dancers in your family tree or were you the first?

A: I was first.

Q: Are you still tap-dancing and, if I may be so bold, how old are you?

A: I am 71 and 1/2.   Just last week I shredded the little wooden stage at Subtext; A Bookstore, St. Paul, tap dancing, after a reading.  Sometimes I tap sitting down, an art form I developed when I decided to tap and play piano at the same time.  My mother always said I would never waste anything that I learned.

Q: Knowing Meredith Willson and sharing his accompanist had to be an incredibly inspiring experience for a young girl growing up in a small Iowa town. Tell us about it.

A: Mason City was the biggest town around.  It seemed normal to see artists grow up in Mason City and return as celebrities.   (Bil Baird is another star, home across my alley.  I played with his elderly mother and heard of her professional puppeteer—he did the “Lonely Goatherd” scene in The Sound of Music film.)  Mabel spanned decades, accompanied Meredith in 1917 when he played the piccolo, me mid 40’s-mid ‘50’s.  I followed his struggle to Broadway through her, his letters, calls, visits.  He was loyal and never gave up, qualities I believe were in the air in that town.

Q: There was quite an age difference between you and Mabel Kelso, your accompanist. Looking back, would you best categorize your interactions as that of a parent/child, teacher/student or friend/friend?

A:  We were a team!  She went with me for every program; we shared syncopation, stop time, the intro, the tacit.  I knew her look, an “atta girl,” tossed over her shoulder, her arms pumping away.  Actually, at that time, in small towns everywhere, children spent time with their elder neighbors.

Q: What’s your favorite Mabel story?

A: She was such a professional that everything seemed to stay stable, and so the memory is of constant music, support; she was a strong woman—treasurer of the musician’s union!  And strong yet 10 years after her stroke.  Meredith had a little piano made to roll over her bed.  He played the left hand over and over, but she didn’t respond.  He whispered, hummed, cheek-to-cheek—and didn’t she play the right hand!  And I have the photo, p. 290.  After my book was out, Patty Paul sent me photos of Mabel as a young woman, in a band with Patty’s father, for WCCO Radio, and they traveled in a van with their name on it.  The young Mabel was cute and tiny, perky, posing with the fellows, she almost danced off the page, to sit by me again.

Q: What’s your favorite story about the composer?

A:  Just when Meredith was pushed to do the new sure gangbuster hit, “Injun Joe,”—Meredith cold-called a big producer, Mr. Bloomgarden.  “Okay, come by my townhouse at midnight after my show, do a quick run-through,” he said.  After, Meredith, with wife Rini at his side, skated home on ice, to their hotel, in New York City.  Next morning the producer called them to his office.  “Meredith,” he said, “I would be honored to produce your beautiful musical.”  He would always treat Meredith and his music the way Meredith treated everyone, all of his life.  Sometimes life is fair.  Also—in 1981, when I organized the World’s Largest Marching Band, Minneapolis, Meredith came to the airport, not sure where he was, elderly, and—he bowed and kissed my hand!  Our memories of Mabel, I am sure, photo, p 295.  And that evening, when he stepped up to conduct, he paused, uncertain.  But when the band started he began to chant: “Whatta band, whatta band, whatta band!” and into full motion he went.

Q: Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Willson’s signature musical. When The Music Man first came out, what aspects of Mason City and its denizens – both good and bad – did you recognize in his fictitious “River City” backdrop?

A:  It was my town; it all seemed normal.  Newcomers did have to figure us out: “Come give Iowa a try!”  Imagine, though, the librarian and the piano teacher were the same person, about the biggest jobs in town.  I looked forward to falling in love on that bridge, but not with some shyster.  And I knew there was trouble wherever young boys gathered.  But our mayor was nothing like Mayor Shinn.  Ours was Ken Kew, nice and well-spoken, and he had a glass eye, made him unique.  When the film was re-made, now the town had all colors of people.  The Mayor’s wife wasn’t quite so silly.  (Both versions: the townspeople all, had music, and lilacs.)

Q: Were there any elements of the 1950’s that you really didn’t want to write about?  Did you leave them out or write about them anyway?

A: My mother did not tolerate divorce and so for her that eliminated a lot of people I adored, including Meredith Willson, Bil Baird, (but not his mother); Jackie Gleason (although we could watch the June Taylor dancers at the top of his TV show and then snap it off.)  So I couldn’t let Mom gush in the book when I knew she didn’t approve.  But the biggest thorn was that our big show in Mason City was “Darktown Varieties,” opened  with a minstrel line.  Unless I scissored a few blackface out of cast photos—and the occasional Al Jolson Impersonator,  p. 74—and re-named the show (that the whole town was in)—  It had to be in the story—one year I got the singing-dancing-acting lead, with Jack Johnson, we were 11 and 13.  So I went to a PR agency that specialized in African-American lore and history.  Their advice?  I’d been 12 years old, they said.  This was my opportunity to tell how it felt to jitterbug in those scenes, and in many North Iowa towns that had similar shows.  (The rest of the show wasn’t minstrelsy, only the opening.)  So I documented how and when it faded.  And now—the only African-American child in our school, front row in the cast photo, p. 134, emails me scenes for her own book-to-be. And how did she feel about the minstrelsy, nine years old?  “I didn’t think anything,” she says.  “They weren’t real.  No one looks like that.”

Q: What influence did your parents have on your young performing life?

A: During the depression, my mother worked in her brother’s movie theatre and she saw every musical 10 times.  I got the costumes!  And my dad loved big band music.  When he was at the University of Chicago, the ‘30’s, they lived in a hotel; the Lawrence Welk Band performed in the penthouse every Saturday night.  I got the music and dance lessons!

Q: How about your peer group? Were there other children “dancing out” almost every night, on programs, in the pre-television era of the 40’s and early 50’s?

A: Lots did—whistlers, entire accordion bands of children, and mimes; they played the bones, harmonica, most played an instrument, or sang.

Q: Did anyone ever tease you?

A: Yes, because I was different, perhaps I danced out more than most.  And the petticoats, costumes to kazoo.  That is what children do—find the one who is different, for any reason—and go for it.  But it was not bullying, just pick-picking, because they could. It is human nature to look down on someone.  Because I was so busy dancing I didn’t get to do things with them.  So I just avoided the cloakroom before school started.  When we were making music for school plays and shows—no problem.  Now they are the best readers!  I discovered that the man who came to the side door with fresh fruit and vegetables was really paying his doctor bill!

Q: Do you remember the first time you ever tap-danced for a public performance? What were the emotions in play for you that day?

A: My earliest memory is at four, I was the cheerleading mascot and did all the cheers, middle of the gym floor, at basketball games.  I loved the rhythms I made, the back and forth with the crowd, never got over that phenomenon, and I always knew that I earned it with hard work.  The day I got tap shoes, traded up from the white lace-up high-top baby shoes, was huge.

Q: What was/is your favorite tune to tap to?

A: When I was on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, he played “Stump the Taps” with me, live.  Butch Thompson played the piano, and I tapped, to—Clair de Lune; The Minnesota Rouser; Amazing Grace, others.  Wabash Cannonball.  If Butch Thompson plays—I can dance.  He is a premiere pianist.  Oh!  Morton Gould wrote The Tap Concerto and I did the 20-minute, four-movement piece, tap written into the score as percussion, toured with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Q: How do you feel your own music education and performing experience compares to those growing up today and those who have turned professional?

A:  It’s all music.  A crowd in any form is an audience.  I did get more live performing experience than many can get today.  Nothing stuns like standing on a stage when the curtain doesn’t open or the music doesn’t start.  No excuses.  Do it.  And I had constant music education in my school, Holy Family.  I wish music education, for all.

Q: Twice in the book is the poignant theme that music stays in the bones after much else has left; specifically, for Mabel Kelso 10 years after her stroke in Mason City and for Meredith Willson, 80, trying to guest-conduct the World’s Largest Marching Band in Minneapolis. How and why do you think this happens, that music stays until the end?

A:   I saw it happen, twice, and I have the photos.  The book, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, helped me reflect and I shared it with my doctor father.  Music changes the brain, connects to the rhythm of the body, relaxes, pulls out a different person.  Some might call it magic; others see science.

Q: Every believable main character in a story falls out of character at least once. What did you allow your character in The Days of Song and Lilacs to do offstage and what caused it?

A:  “Well.  Doesn’t that frost your tits!” she said, back seat of her parents’ car.  And that was usually reserved for Iowa cow/farm talk—but she was 12, and oh, the frustration.  She’d just tapped her heart out on the floating stage on Clear Lake, the 4th of July and—she placed second, fourth year in a row, criminy!  But it was in that moment she realized: contests are contests!  No way can judges compare whistlers to tap dancers to mimes—or one child to an adult cowboy band.  And then came fall, and another way-out day; she was craving to just be one of the kids, for once.  It was half-time of a basketball game.  So, she swung like a monkey, high on the bars over the toilet—pumped too high—and she slipped, fell into the toilet, gashing her knee.  Actually, she was out of character quite a few times.  She really did not care to tap dance with her baby sister at first, the magnetic whipper-snapper-tapper, Julie.  We did, however, tap on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, in New York City!

Q: What do you envision as the primary takeaway value for your readers when they reach the last chapter?

A: It was a time and a place, the stars crossed.  All wasn’t idyllic, then or now.  But music has the power to soften prejudice, ease economic situations, it changes the way the mind works, a case for music education for all.  And it stays in the body to the last, when much else is gone, how nice is that?

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher for your book?

A: A columnist, Barbara Flanagan, Star Tribune, reported that I had written the manuscript and “it will be published.”  After, she recommended two regional publishers.  Also, my instructor/editor at The Loft, Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Lost and Found; A Memoir of Mothers, had a good experience with her book at North Star Press.  Two weeks after my query, I was asked for the manuscript and…

Q: You have other titles out there, too. What are they and do they embrace a music theme as well?

A:  Yes.  The Biggest Dance; A Miracle on Concrete –the1,801 tap dancers I put on Hennepin Avenue, the toughest street in downtown Minneapolis, to open the newly-renovated Hennepin Center for the Arts.  Not the regular wine and cheese!  A little-engine-that-could kind of story, the scene was a grass-roots explosion of tap dancers of every size, all in tap shoes, dressed in their own red white and blue.  A lot of the arts culture of the time is in this book, 1979, Twin Cities.  (I was on the faculty of the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the time.)

The second book, Big! World Records in the Streets; Plus Tap-Dancing Galore!” tells the tale of six more large-scale people events, all went into the Guinness Book of World Records.  I had my own event/event publicity company, TA DA! Special Events for 10 years, a good use of a lifetime of dance and music and a journalism degree.

Q: What would your readers be the most surprised to know about you?

Well, it surprised me!  I needed to get my underpants to match my flapper dress, a shade of cream, not glaring white.  I was between the one rehearsal and the first performance, a solo in The Boy Friend, with the Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, with Christopher Plummer!  So.  I went home, made some tea, and dipped the pants in, concentrating: was the boiled wet color right?  It would dry lighter.   I absent-mindedly drank the tea!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I proposed a class, yesterday, “Catch the Lightning; Creative Book Marketing” to the Loft Literary Center, for January; and I finished—as though any manuscript is ever finished—a story about finding my grandfather’s medical journal of the Winter of 1918—the flu pandemic.  He became Iowa history, Iowa’s Doctor of the Year, 1953, by the Iowa State Medical Society.

 

Readers can learn more about Mary Beth – and buy her books! – at www.bethobermeyer.com.