Celebrities are People we Celebrate

Celebrities are everywhere in New York. And California for that matter. And we’ve had the whole Oscars thing happening while we’ve been here too. Our very own celebrities, though, are the people we’ve been meeting on our travels who we appreciate & celebrate, people who enhance our journey in so many ways.

Here are some of our stars – in the now-familiar 5-chunk blog post. In a busy world this seems to help both me as blogger to serve up and you as reader to digest. (And let’s just pretend – lazy snackers & grazers that we are – that five-course meals are what we eat all the time.)

1) Funny Guys & Film-Makers

Rick Conte is indisputably The Funny One in the cast of The Man Who Planted Trees, which has got to be a big part of why this show has such longevity (4 years old in May). So, few surprises perhaps that Rick’s LA-based high school buddy Eric Hunter is now a stand-up comedian. (Here’s Eric’s MySpace page). Eric and his groovy wife Michelle were great fun to hang out with on more than one occasion, most memorably taking us to TNT or Tuesday Night Thunder, an improvised comedy night in Hollywood where Michelle and her quick-witted team were performing to a full house of hooting, hollering Hollywooders.

Rick, Eric and Michelle
Rick, Eric and Michelle

Etana Jacobson, a friend of Elspeth’s from Edinburgh University days in 89-90 also joined us that night for laughs – and beers and Malibus at a warped kind of English pub on Sunset Strip called The Coach and Horses. Etana gained Man Who Planted Trees karma by filming several performances at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2007 and is working now both in films and as a writer for video games. While Rick was rollerblading in Santa Monica and Richard was reading a book at a cafe by the shore, Elspeth and Etana saw the sights at Malibu’s Zuma Beach: surfers, dolphins, hawks circling with still-twitching prey, clifftop abseilers, a stunning sunset and a beachwear (then a no-beachwear!) photoshoot.

2) Bookers & Fans

It’s fair to say that most people who book The Man Who Planted Trees do so because they are in favour of it and that most audiences who see the show leave pretty happy . But we’ve been especially impressed by the enthusiasm of certain promoters – Jason and Peg, this is for you guys, are you ready? – and there have been some folks who have come back to see the show again and again – Ethan and Leslie … we’re talking about YOU!

Jason Holland, Manager of Education Programs at Orange County Performing Arts Center and Peg Schuler Armstrong, Production General Manager at the Lincoln Center Institute both signed up their esteemed organisations to have us after they’d seen the show at the IPAY showcase in Cleveland in 2009. (Freezing, it was, freezing!) Not overlooking the many other super people we met in Ohio, there’s something really nice about hearing from Peg, “Say Hi to Jason for me” and Jason in return sending us to New York with hugs for Peg. Jason and Peg reminded us that there is an active and friendly network of clued-up people in the USA who appreciate live theatre and the need for high quality provision of arts education. Long may IPAY – and other artsy orgs – keep that aim to the fore.

Ethan and Leslie live in LA and came to see the show in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. They got in touch when they saw that we were coming to California and brought friends. And they came again for one of the weekend shows. There’s dedication! We are honoured and really grateful for your  support and enthusiasm.

Ethan and Leslie
Ethan and Leslie

3) The Music Makers

Christian Muthspiel, who we were lucky to meet at Montalvo Arts Center in California right at the start of the tour, invited us to come to hear him play in New York. And we did. And we were very glad that we did. At the Austrian Cultural Forum (an incredible modern building by the way, super slim, super high and highly noteworthy) we saw Christian led a quintet playing his recently commissioned pieces inspired by Austrian yodel tunes. Amazing! Rich swathes of muted brass suggested alpine meadows while the rhythm section carried me leaping over fences into electro-accoustic fluidity with Frank Tortiller’s vibraphones stilling the rushing waters and Christian’s sampled trombone sounds wriggling towards cymbal shimmers that came from nowhere and left the audience stimulated and delighted.

Christian Muthspiel takes a bow
Christian Muthspiel takes a bow

And the next night – treat upon treat – Christian’s performance of fur und mit ernst playing and sampling solo trombone and piano with recordings of poet Ernst Jandl reading his own work. This was for Richard and me (both performance poets with a keen interest in musical collaborations) the most exciting combination of poetry and music either of us had heard. A really thrilling performance.

At the reception following the yodel jazz, Bobby Previte the drummer and Andrea Kleine, writer and performance artisit, made sure we were aware of the culinary delights that the Upper West Side of NYC has to offer and planted the excellent idea for a road trip at the end of the tour.

Andrea and Bobby
Andrea Kleine and Bobby Previte

A very different musical highlight in New York City is The Meetles, a busking outfit who specialise in Beatles songs. They don’t wear mop top wigs. They don’t sing in pseudo-Scouse accents. There are usually a lot more than four of them. And they are Fabulous! You can see a video of them twisting and shouting subway goers into a frenzy here – and below, at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, this little girl demonstrates that All You Need is Love. And sparkly pink shoes. And permission to dance.

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4) The New Victorians

Last time we were in New York, we were playing at The New Victory, Broadway’s children’s theatre (sorry, theater) as part of their Scottish Season. It was wonderful to reconnect with their Director of Programming, Mary Rose Lloyd and her super switched-on husband, Derek who is Production Manager at the groovy East Village performance space PS122 (where they filmed scenes for Fame the movie) and their lovely puppeteer pal Danna Call. (Here is some vintage 2009 footage of Mary interviewing Dog – brave woman!)

Thanks to the uber-able Laura Hamilton, who fixed us up with tickets, we went to see The Complete Works of Shakespeare by the renowned Reduced Shakespeare Theatre Company. And thanks to the fact that Richard and Elspeth were seated right near the front, Richard was perfectly placed to be ‘invited’ on stage to help dramatise Ophelia’s dilemma vis a vis Hamlet by repeatedly running across the stage, which he did brilliantly even though being on stage and not being quite sure what you’re meant to be doing there is a performer’s irksome anxiety dream, if not nightmare.

The show was superb and we highly recommend you to see this company whenever you get the chance. And they are such nice people too. Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin from the original cast were joined for this show by the peppy Matt Rippy. It was Reed’s wife Jane Martin who I (Elspeth) was most glad to meet, however. As General Manager of the company – and cast wife – she has many of the same multifarious jobs that I do. I’m going to take her up on her offer to give her a buzz when things feel too multifarious on the road. And I might also nick her job title rather than playing switch-the-hats with Stage Manager, Production Manager and Office Manager.

5) The Lincoln Instituters

So apart from the music and the Shakespeare and multifariousness, what have we been DOING in New York? Well, shows. Twenty of them – shows number 16-26 of this tour (and number 1116-1126 in total ever – approx) at the Lincoln Center Institute, which is a centre of excellence when it comes to arts education, particularly education that encourages a meaningful and deep appreciation of live art.

Richard and Rick answer teachers' questions at the LCI
Richard and Rick answer teachers' questions at the LCI

Pupils and teachers from many New York schools have come to see The Man Who Planted Trees having worked with their teachers and Lincoln Center Institute teaching artists to consider some of the themes and artforms it involves. And following the show, they’ve carried on with their engaged explorations. The range of ages who have been doing this has been amazing – from pre-kindergarten (an age we’d normally shrink from but were sweet, well-behaved and great) to 10th grade who are huge, almost-adult inner city teenagers.

All the staff who we’ve dealt with there have been wonderful. On the production side, Eliza, Jamien, Brina, David and Keith have all been friendly, thoughtful and thoroughly professional. On the education side of things, Patty, John, Christopher and teaching artists Alexandra and Jean have shown us that this is really where it’s happening. And Peg – once more I celebrate Peg for giving me as a teaching artist myself the great opportunity to go into one of the classrooms to see exactly how it’s happening.

The High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry was set up by the Lincoln Center Institute and is right over the road in Martin Luther King High School campus. Their 9th grade class have been working with the inspiring Jean Taylor and their highly encouraging teacher Christina Procter, learning about a wide range of puppetry forms and a variety of styles of poetry. What they noticed when they saw the show has since informed their puppetry making and poetry writing and they are combining these in short films where their fictionalised puppet self dramatises one of their poems.

Ray from HSAII with his two of his puppets
Ray from HSAII with his two of his puppets

Here are a few links for those of you who’d like to find out more about the imaginative work that the Lincoln Center Institute are doing:

Aesthetic Education, Inquiry and the Imagination (PDF download)

Online courses dedicated to inquiry, imagination, and arts and education

LCI’s Imagination conversations across the USA

So, three cheers (or should that be five?) to everyone who’s helped us have an inspiring and enjoyable time on tour in California and New York City. Next stop – New Jersey, upstate New York and Vermont. See you soon!