Seems like Houston is pretty good at managing problems, but for me these last few days have been pretty problem free, actually. Thanks, Houston.
I was invited by members of the Bear Creek Stake in Houston to come spend a few days with them as they staged a youth production of an adaptation of Liken’s “Esther & the King.” It’s been awhile since I’ve received such an invitation – long enough to make me appreciate this whole experience just that much more.
I came away with a few thoughts.
- Houston loves Liken. No offense to my adopted home state, but man, I felt a love for Liken in Houston that was off the charts. So many people approached me during my three-day stay to express appreciation for all those who helped create the Liken series. It was not bad medicine for the soul.
- Everything’s bigger in Texas, including me. I ate well, thanks to my gracious hosts and their bottomless supply of killer cinnamon rolls. One of the places we went to was Texas Roadhouse, which I assumed in Texas would be called just “Roadhouse” or “Our Roadhouse.” But no. It’s Texas Roadhouse even in Texas. Some things you just can’t explain – you just have to roll with it (speaking of rolls, I’ll have another…)
Houston’s favorite Liken is not “Jonah & the Great Fish.” I confess I’m a fan of our latest Liken, Jonah. The dancing. The humor. The music. The performances. Not perfect by any stretch, but for me, it felt like it hit on more cylinders than we’d been able to hit on in the past. That said, I recognize I might be a little close to the material. Plus, it hasn’t performed as well as I had hoped. Some people here know enough about our overall body of work to be able to rank Jonah in the hierarchy of the nine Likens. And when I asked where Jonah was in that mix, it typically didn’t come close to the top spot. I probed. Most people couldn’t say, or chose not to, even though I tried to convey that I was earnestly seeking to figure out what we could learn from our Jonah outing. But one dad was not shy about saying straight out that Jonah didn’t work for him, and volunteered his hypothesis: other Likens took place in a child’s imagination. Jonah, on the other hand, took place on a theater stage. On the other side of the proscenium arch. That created a distance that wasn’t there in the other Liken episodes. It just felt different, he explained. Interesting theory. Jonah was, in fact, shot on a theater stage. The idea was that if we rehearsed over the course of weeks like we were going to be putting Jonah on stage (because we were), instead of our more customary course of scene rehearsal measured in minutes (we typically ran scenes a couple of times while we worked out the kinks, then shot it a few times and moved on), our actors would be more fully immersed in their roles, our choreography could be more elaborate, etc. And on that level, I think it worked. During the dates of the theatrical run, we shot the different scenes during the day, before the actors put on the stage version in front of an audience at night. It seemed like a very effective way to accomplish our goals, plus brought us the added benefit of having a stage run. We tried to work into the script why it took place on a stage (“the stage of Chloe’s imagination”), and I thought the mischief was managed. But it may have come at a cost of preventing our movie audience from being immersed in the story. Will have to mull that some more. Maybe there’s a way to accomplish both – do a stage run, but when the stage run is over, relocate to a sound stage and shoot the movie version properly. That was actually our original plan, if I recall correctly, but we were struggling to find a place that would work with our timeframe and our budget. So we came up with the day-shoot/night-stage version idea. Sometimes you gotta try things. If it had worked, we had a pretty cool model on our hands. But if it didn’t work, well I suppose that’s how we learn.
I did a fireside. On a Thursday night. Despite those two strikes, people came anyway. In church dress, no less (strike three). That’s Houston for you. I had been asked to speak for 45 minutes. It was going to be about six messages grown-up me would like to give teenager me if I could work out the logistics of how to deliver those messages across time. On the plane ride to Houston, I timed what I had put together. A solid 20 minutes. Yeah, nobody complains if a church meeting goes short. But some of these people were driving 30 minutes to get here. So I felt like I needed to go back to the drawing board. I came up with four more points to intersperse among the others, printed out just the new pages (I didn’t want to destroy trees unnecessarily) and headed off to the fireside. During the fireside, the old and new pages got a little mixed up, and at one point, I became lost in a flurry of paper. I even had to call out “Cut!” which the youth in attendance seemed to appreciate and which seemed to save me. Note for next time: kill the trees. Also, I totally nailed the 45-minute mark.
- I did a two-hour artists’ workshop. One minute before the workshop’s start time, three people were in the room, and I was beginning to think my PowerPoint would be awkward overkill. Ten minutes after the event started, the room was packed, and I was wishing I had had more time to prepare my PowerPoint. I presented concepts from my rough notes for a book I had started a few years ago, but had set aside because other projects kept line jumping. The central premise of the book is that not only are we allowed to seek unseen assistance (call it angels, the spirit, the muse, etc.), but if we don’t, we’re shortchanging ourselves as artists and those who might benefit from our work. As we seek to hone our artistic gifts to the best of our ability, we should likewise seek to cultivate our ability to dip our toes into the divine waters that may inspire us. It needs to be a part of our creative arsenal if we want to get nearer to our artistic potential. In other words, it’s not cheating –we’re supposed to do this. I was pleased with how the workshop went. Not perfect, but much better than I had hoped, especially since I didn’t know this workshop was happening until a week ago. Maybe the key takeaway from Houston for me is to get back on that book.
- Houston in July is a sauna. Not a news flash, I know. But it’s like if you trip over something outside, you probably have an extra five seconds or so to catch yourself on the way down, because the air is so heavy. Everywhere I went is nicely air-conditioned, which is nice, but which only goes to accentuate the shock factor when stepping outside. I made it my goal that at least once during this trip, Iwas going to go outside and not say out loud “wow” or words to that effect. I failed. But when I mentioned my goal to my gracious hosts, the Irvings (thank you, Irvings!), they consoled me by saying that while they may not always say “wow” out loud when they go outdoors, they still think it, even after all these years.
- I never had a clue where I was or where I was going in Houston. No visible landmarks on either side of the road. No mountains. But lots of water features. Lots of green belts. Lots of trees. Houston does not look like what I picture when I think of Texas. I don’t think I saw a single cowboy, for example.
- Houston looks at gas prices differently than pretty much anywhere else. While falling gas prices are a reason to rejoice most places, here falling prices are bad. It’s like having your industry’s stock price posted on every street corner, and each time it drops, that means you or a friend could be just that much closer to losing a job. Lately, it’s been down at lot. With many new-found friends in Houston, I shall seek in the future to temper my cheers when prices fall and my depression when they rise.
- The youth of the Bear Creek Stake and their leaders did an amazing job with “Esther & the King.” I ventured behind the scenes. Each room was labeled with what it was for. Tables were set up in the hallways, and each was sectioned off with masking tape that was labeled to indicate which prop went where and what scene it was for. Their costumes were elaborate and colorful. Their sets were well-crafted. The youth had all their lines memorized (and for some we’re talking a lot of lines). Their makeup room was a well-oiled machine. They had baby monitors that piped in sound from the stage to the green room and hallways. In other words, Bear Creek Stake was all in. I saw by all the work that went into the production that there was a lot of love for those youth from their leaders, and I could sense that love returned through the performance the youth gave. On opening night, the crowd was so big they had to open up the curtain at the back of the cultural hall to set up several more rows of chairs. The performance came off with barely a hitch. There were your typical sound issues, with mics not quite working as smoothly as hoped. But heart trumped the technicals for me. And there was a ton of heart in that cultural hall.
Thanks, Houston. I came with a ton of problems on my mind. I left with only one: How can we get Houston to do another Liken production?