Sunday, December 28, 2008

12 Days of Christmas: My Favorite Creators and Cultivators in 2008

If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but also beautiful cultures, it will require us to recover these two biblical postures of cultivation and creation. -- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling

Day 12: Creative Risk-Takers
Andy Palmer and Florrie Barnett serving us during Art Show on Main 2008

Sometimes I start a thing without doing the work of planning it all the way through. This series of posts is a great example. I didn't think through the twelve things I wanted to highlight before I started, didn't think through the title (12 days of Christmas has a very specific meaning that I kind of just ignored in order to get some kind of gimmick for my title), didn't think through whether I wanted to go in a certain order. It's the same trait that consistently sends me searching for a gas station with the needle below E and about $1.53 in quarters, dimes and pennies rolling around in the ashtray.

That kind of risky behavior is just plain stupid. Not really what I want to honor here in this final post of 2008. I'm thinking more about courageous risks, sacrificial risks, creative risks. So, in no particular order but with a lot of admiration I include the following creators and cultivators that have made an impression on me in 2008.

Laurel Rudd: Ellemar Designs on Etsy
Laurel and her husband Sean are friends of mine. Laurel entered her work into this year's Art Show on Main. Out of many aspiring artists in our church she took the challenge of entering her work into our first-ever juried show she showed some of the richest grace and courage. She did not know what kind of feedback she would receive and not all of her pieces made the cut. But the feedback she got from the professional artists on the jury confirmed what she had already been thinking: her hand-painted vases showed her truest artistic passion. Near that same time she opened her online shop on Etsy and began the brave task of putting her work out there for the public to critique.
I bought myself one of her elegant miniature vases with Christmas money from my grandmother. Since no two of her works are alike you can enjoy my picture and then browse Laurel's site for your own! May God establish the work of your hands, Laurel.

(The two pieces on the left are Laurel's entries that the Jury accepted into the show.

Florence and Earl Barnett:
I wish I had gotten to know these two better years ago. I mean I knew Florrie was pursuing her art education degree. I knew Earl was pursuing his theology degree. I knew they were young, married and burning life at both ends to make a living and pursue education and livelihood. I used to check in with Earl early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings when Earl would be the first customer at the college cafe where I worked. While I added a lemon slice to his black cup-of-joe-to-go (strange I know...)I'd ask how school, work and life was going. I think on one occasion or another I was able to tell him how much I admired the discipline he and his wife demonstrated as they took turns going to school full-time and working enough hours to make a paycheck.
Last year I was privileged to attend their joint opening at a local gallery. Earl's photographs and Florrie's artwork side by side on the top floor of a cool old building was the perfect environment to enjoy their work.
But this past year I got to know Florrie more over coffee at Barnes & Noble. I wanted to pick her brain about arts and artists and church. Much of those conversations showed up in subtle but significant changes we've made to our creative endeavors at church. While we met I also got to know more about the plans she and her husband were making to complete their degress. And get this -- it meant them having to live in seperate states for six months. Florrie needed to stay locally to do her student teaching with Marywood University while Earl got started with his graduate work at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. Watching them go through this last season and then saying good-bye as Florrie completed her degree and moved to Atlanta makes me feel privileged to know them. Earl and Florrie, may you both know God's favor as you pursue life together in the south. May your hard work and sacrificial risk-taking make a difference in the culture around you. I will always be one of your biggest fans.
Union Center Christian Church, Creative Arts at the Center:
We have been building -- slowly, but surely -- a place for creatives and artists at Union Center to serve their church family and community with their talents. We have worked hard to build trust with our leadership and our church family. To truly serve each other with humility and beauty. In 2008 we were given overwhelming support to pursue new ideas that would integrate art and artists into the fabric of worship and community at the Center. I was amazed at what can happen with an organic, grass roots approach; seeing what resources and ideas were simmering in our community and then adding teamwork and tons of hard work to bring the ideas to concrete reality. This felt extremely risky for each person involved INCLUDING those who attended the events and brought their friends. Imagine the courage that takes!
The following photos are just a short summary of many rich and beautiful moments together in 2008.
Good Friday and Easter
a multi-sensory experience of the stations of the cross

Art Show on Main
with special recognition to our guest artists who shared with us both their work and their expertise: Andy Palmer, Florence Barnett, Erin McMahon, Matt Kellman, Danielle Smith, Cheryl Mango and John Carter...

...and special recognition to the risk-taking artists at Union Center who entered their visual art into our first-ever juried show and who performed their original songs and spoken word for us during the Coffeehouse on Main.

I included this picture because I love so much that Bethany showed up at the coffeehouse with her crochet basket. She is one of my favorite new-found friends and creatives.

Christmas at the Center: A Terminal Christmas
I don't have pictures of the actual production, sadly, but I do have this lovely group shot after our final performance. What a crazy, hard-working, risk-taking bunch this is! (oh, yeah, and ignore the date in the's wrong!). For more about this project go here.
If you've stuck with me this far during this blog series, thank you. I look forward to spending a lot more time together in 2009. It seems fitting to end this series celebrating creators and cultivators with a benediction:
Lord, let my life be orderly, regular, temperate; let no pride or self-seeking, no covetousness or revenge, no little ends and low imaginations pollute my spirit and unhallow my words and actions. Let my body be a servant of my spirit and both my body and spirit be servants of Jesus, doing all things for your glory here. (Jeremy Taylor)
Welcome, 2009!

Monday, December 22, 2008

12 Days of Christmas: My Favorite Creators and Cultivators in 2008

If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but also beautiful cultures, it will require us to recover these two biblical postures of cultivation and creation
. -- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling

Days 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11: Brian, Andrew, Alex, Kendra and Natalie Murphy

This site has never tried to be a mommy-blog. And while I've been thinking through the list of names I'd share during this series of my favorite creators and cultivators in 2008 I did think of my family. Several times. But I was a little bit nervous that it would be kind of like cheating. Like I'd set the whole thing up to just brag on my kids. And, worse, it might run the risk of not truly affirming their hard work of creating and cultivating this year. You know how it is, compliments seem so much more weighty when someone else gives them to you. Your mom is supposed to say nice things about you, right?

But I couldn't get around it. When I thought through the qualities I was recognizing for favorites -- discipline, risk-taking, excellence of results, and my own interaction with the work -- these five names kept coming back to me. See for yourself...

Brian Murphy:

He'd be the first to tell you. He's not an artist. But, ahem, you'll notice this series does not celebrate artists in its most strict definition -- those who study and work at making artworks. It celebrates creators and cultivators. Stewards of culture -- the sphere in which they exist and experience life on a daily basis.

And creators and cultivators are marked by their difference from those individuals who have gotten paralyzed into bent-over postures from the repeated, single-motion gestures of merely condemning culture, copying culture, critiquing culture or consuming culture. As described so brilliantly by Andy Crouch in the book that inspired these posts:

What was missing, I've come to believe, were the two postures that are most characteristically biblical -- the two postures that have been least explored by Christians in the last century. They are found at the very beginning of the human story, according to Genesis: like our first parents, we are to be creators and cultivators. Or to put it more poetically, we are artists and gardners. ... after the contemplation, the artist and the gardener both adopt a posture of purposeful work. They bring their creativity and effort to their calling. ... They are acting in the image of One who spoke a world into being and stooped down to form creatures from the dust. They are creaturely creators, tending and shaping the world that original Creator made.

One of the greatest leadership lessons I've learned from my husband is about leading in context. It's about knowing the people you live with. Your context is your family, your neighborhood, your company, your school, your church. Just about anyone can enter a cultural sphere with grand ideas of what could be, but it takes an excllent leader to discern what should be. I have watched my husband stretch himself - at times to the point of near breaking -- to be this kind of excellent leader at Union Center Christian Church.

His job title is Executive Administrator -- meaning he shores up the pastors and support staff by providing the kind of nuts and bolts decision-making needed to keep ministry happening. One might consider this job to employ only black and white, no-nonsese, just-get-'er-done kind of thinking. One would be wrong. And Brian would be the first to tell you that he entered this job thinking too far on that side of the spectrum as well. What he has learned is that his job is more an art than a science. And I would agree. And, in that sense, he earns my respect as one of my favorite creators and cultivators in 2008.

In addition to making decision after decision depending on wisdom and discernment as much, if not more than, precedent and policy he has had the opportunity to develop himself in the craft of sermon preparation and delivery. In the early days of the job, he joked that he had three sermons in his queu and once they were done he'd have to start back at the beginning and keep rotating through. Over a year's time or so, those three sermons came and went with appreciation from the congregation. His natural ability to speak to a room, to tell a story, to deliver a point clearly made an impact.

But since that time, he has had the opportunity (and directive) to prepare several more messages. I have had the unique privilege to watch him do the sweaty labor of preparing those talks. To go beyond his experience and what was comfortable. To dig into topics from a fresh perspective and with the aid of the historical Christian writers. And, mostly, to depend well on Christ and his leadership community for guidance and push-back. It has been my joy to watch him lead in the context he has been given and at the same time call his church family up -- to thinking, understanding, worshipping and obeying Father, Son and Spirit. All the while paying heed not only to the biblical truths being spoken but also to the finer points of the craft of delivering that truth in an excellent method.

You can hear a couple of Brian's talks here, here and here.

Oh, yeah, and two thumbs up to Brian for stepping wayyy out of his comfort zone with a barbershop quartet performance for our Christmas musical, A Terminal Christmas. (this was just a practice session)

Andrew and Alex Murphy: Dot Rama

If you've done any research on any well-known bands -- from the Beatles to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (now you see Young, now you don't) -- you know that keeping a group of performing artists together in one unit year after year, project after project, is rare. Now consider the gazillions of teenage boys who have saved up lawn-mowing money for amps and clean out the corner of their dad's garage for a place to practice with their buddy who owns a drum set and their other buddy who's got a bass rig. What's the life span for your average garage band?

I'm guessing Dot Rama has pretty much blown up that average. For several years these highschool juniors (plus one freshman) have been hanging out to play around with melodies, guitar effects, song lyrics and show ideas. They have spent countless hours recording their tunes with the lead guitarist's big brother. They have played in freezing cold fire houses in front of a dozen people and in sticky heat in jam-packed (and smelly!) community centers. They've never had a top billing. Never sold an album. But they keep playing. Practicing. Writing. Arguing through creative differences. Experimenting with sound and personality and music style. They have no grandiose plans for their future as a band. But I believe they have learned as much about the hard work of artistry than most adult artist-hopefuls I've met. At the same time I believe they've learned as much about what it means to be an artist community -- a team of rivals, if you will -- than any adult community I know.

For their tenacity, humility and creativity I choose Dot Rama -- Andrew, Alex, Tyler and Jeremy -- as one of my favorite creators of 2008.

Creating and Cultivating in a New Culture: Andrew, Alex, Kendra and Natalie Murphy

Last May we moved from a very small town with a very small school district to a very small city with a much larger school district. It has been a hard change for our fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh grader. They had spent their whole lives in a district where everyone knows everyone. A sort of cocoon, if you will. We're very thankful for those years.

This district is probably three times larger. Now the kids have to be intentional to make their mark. To use and develop their talents. It's not a given. And Brian and I couldn't be prouder that one by one each of them is pushing past their fears and insecurities in order to participate fully in the culture that is Union-Endicott School District. While the specific experience and achievements are special, it's the character-building that we hope they will take with them for their lifetime. To audition for the highschool musical for the first time ever in front of a room full of experienced muscial veterans. To attend percussion lessons with only one other student and a teacher that is unknown and sort of odd. To continue in honors classes when the academic mark is much higher than ever before. To audition and make the show choir without any prompting from us. These are things that I am not sure I would have had the courage to do when I was in school -- or now.

I believe God is gracing Andrew, Alex, Kendra and Natalie to do things they did not know they could do in an environment in which they are not comfortable. And it's been one of the hardest things I've ever had to watch as a mother. And, probably the most beautiful.

For their courage, tenacity and excellence I have chosen my four children as favorite creators and cultivators in 2008. (And give thanks for the many, many people who surround our children with prayer, affirmation and community.)

Kendra surprised us one day after auditioning and making her middle school show choir by auditioning and earning a part in her middle school musical, Dear Edwina. (that's her in the green and white striped shirt).

Natalie wrote a creative writing essay about a Wow! moment in her life for an optional program with the PTA. She came very close to not submitting the work after several computer glitches caused her to have to re-write. She was rewarded with a first place ribbon for her creative writing about our evacuation from the flood in 2006.

Andrew was a late auditioner for the high school chorale. He is stretched with the level of the work this group peforms. We look forward to seeing him in his role in Oklahoma! in April.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

12 Days of Christmas: my favorite creators and cultivators in 2008

If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but also beautiful cultures, it will require us to recover these two biblical postures of cultivation and creation. -- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling

Days 5 & 6: Kevin Lucia and Jeffrey Overstreet

Both of these creators/cultivators are men I know little or not at all, both writers. I have not read much of what either has written. (although I look forward to doing that very soon). The reason I place them in my end of the year list, though, is because I have observed them both from a distance and have been inspired by their work ethic and discipline to their craft. Each works a "day job" while pursuing their own writing goals. Each works additional writing jobs to hone their craft and gain credibility. Each have submitted novels to publishers this year.

Jeffrey's blog updates several times a day and over the past year I have learned much from his perspective on culture...especially the world of film. In the coming year, I hope to read his book Through a Screen Darkly:Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil at the Movies. This past year I read his first novel Auralia's Colors and blogged about it here. I hope to read the next in the thread, Cyndere's Midnight, this year. And the third when it is published. And just as a piece of fun trivia I owe my love of Over the Rhine and Sam Phillips and to Jeffrey's consistent raving posts!

Kevin attends the same church that I do but I do not know him very well -- yet. I have watched his Facebook posts for the last year and consistently see his status updated at 3 AM (!) knowing that he is faithfully getting in a couple of hours writing each morning before heading out the door to teach English for the day and attend grad classes at night. And, oh yeah, he has a wife and two kiddos. Recently I sent him an email with a timid request for tips on starting to write seriously. He responded with immediate thoughtful advice and overwhelming encouragement. If I ever do make creative writing a discipline I will owe much gratitude to that reply in my inbox.

The daily labor of the artist's life as exemplified by both of these men is a model of discipline that I want to follow. And that is why I've included both of them in this list of my favorite creators and cultivators in 2008.

Godspeed to you both, Kevin and Jeffrey.

*updated note: I just read Overstreet's Christmas edition of his column, Through a Screen Darkly. I highly recommend it to you!

Monday, December 15, 2008

12 Days of Christmas: my favorite creators and cultivators in 2008

If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but also beautiful cultures, it will require us to recover these two biblical postures of cultivation and creation. -- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
Days 2, 3 & 4: David and Phaedra Taylor and the Transforming Culture Symposium

I began reading David's blog in 2006 when I was browsing the internet for help to produce an art show at our church. I found Hope Chapel in Austin, TX where David was the arts pastor. That site was a tangible lifeline to this amateur arts director. At first I was just looking for how-to's and logistical advice, but soon I discovered there were theological and liturgical perspectives of which I was completely ignorant. This led me to David's blog and I am not embarrassed to say I read every word.

Who knows how these things happen? It's not like there aren't gazillions of other blogs and book titles on this trinity of art and faith and culture. And I have read several. But there was something about the combination of intelligence and faith and humility; of respect for the Church's grand history, discernment for the Church's place in the present and sacrifice for the Church's future generations that set Taylor apart. Although I hadn't been studying for long I had already become disillusioned by so many short-sighted and shallow church "arts ministries". I discovered David Taylor's writings at the right time and I have no doubt to whom my truest gratitude is owed. (hint -- it's NOT David...)

But this year -- 2008 -- was a banner year. The leadership at Union Center approved several of us to attend the Transforming Culture Symposium that David Taylor co-founded in April. And then invited David and his wife Phaedra to visit us during the Art Show on Main in October. I confess I might have been a little bit nervous to get to know the Taylor's on a more personal level. In my life I've had far more opportunities to discover that leaders I've respected from a distance do not have much maturtity, humility, or even kindness at their foundation. And, while it would be foolish to say that I truly know the Taylors now, I do believe their lives match their words. And that is saying a lot.

As creators and cultivators David and Phaedra merge their talents and passions beautifully. [It's a good thing, too, since they are married afterall!] David's tagline at his blog describes him as an arts pastor who never wanted to be a pastor and never thought he could be an artist. And, although he has left his official post as an arts pastor to a local congregation he has not laid aside his calling to pastor artists. There is no question that his true heart is pastoral and it spills out in every conversation I've ever had with him. He is currently editing the plenary content of the Transforming Culture Symposium for a book to be published by Baker Books. He and his wife are making plans for him to do his Ph.D. work and then move back to Texas to establish an arts center in Austin.

Phaedra's work as a visual artist is the kind of work that I could only describe as beguiling. I mean that in the most charming of senses. She employs layers of whimsy and childlike wonder with poignancy, elegance and even sadness in her prints, paintings, drawings and sculptures. She is a skilled craftsmen with deep insight. And discipline. And it shows. I hope to own some of her work someday. In the meantime I enjoy your her stories of living artfully one day at a time at her blog.

Both David and Phaedra model what it is to be a disciple artist. May God continue to establish the work of their hands. And may we not just be distant observers of their work, but co-laborers with them in our own communities and callings.

I've blogged a lot of the content of the Symposium here, here, here, here, here and here. But there are a few details I don't think I've mentioned. For example, have I told you how lovely church campus was or the deep and rich the liturgical worship experience? (I had never even heard of St. Patrick's Breastplate let alone sung it!) I also am certain I haven't mentioned that I sat about six feet away from poet Luci Shaw during her breakout session. As she read her work to us, tears ran and ran and ran down my cheeks. I couldn't help myself. It was beautiful and moving and felt like a totally ordinary response to her extraordinary use of language.

I also will never, ever forget Eugene Peterson. It was not so much as what he said (although he is a master storyteller and quite convincing in his exhortation!) It was more the essence of wisdom and age and humility that he brought to an event full of great thinkers and artists. How often he answered a deep question from an attender, pleading for help with a kind of sighed "I don't know." The first time we heard him answer this we laughed. We realized soon that his heart was pure in the simple statement "I am wary of big solutions." How very, very, very refreshing! And someday I will blog a whole post about my deepest epiphany of the entire event that was sparked by this half-chuckle and half-proclamation from Peterson, "We're just so damn ordinary." How refreshing indeed.

Some pictures from the Taylor's visit:

David and Phaedra mixing it up with Union Center artists during Coffeehouse on Main.

Post-sermon conversations with new friends at Union Center.

Post-dinner Highschool Musical sing-a-long with more new friends. (hey, it's culture!)

Pastor John and Brian pray over David and Phaedra after brunch our final morning together.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

12 Days of Christmas: my favorite cultivators and creators in 2008

If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but also beautiful cultures, it will require us to recover these two biblical postures of cultivation and creation.
-- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
DAY 1: A Terminal Christmas, musical theatre

I will never in my entire life get over the thrill of the creative process. I wrote a little bit about the power this thrill has over me here. This project, A Terminal Christmas, has included just about every single element every great creative endeavor could include -- plenty of time for brainstorming, several difficult constraints (including a low budget, lack of an experience and plenty of skeptics) and tons of ingenuity, perseverance and arduous teamwork.

About a year ago the staff at Union Center Christian Church asked us to consider the statement "I hate Christmas." To consider the kinds of people who may be feeling that way at Christmas and the what some of the reasons behind those feelings may be. They asked us to brainstorm a way to put these thoughts and feelings into a story that we could experience as a community.

Every project needs a conceptual launching pad to begin shooting toward images that flesh out the concept. I Hate Christmas was that concept. Next we began talking about form. We knew drama was the direction we wanted to head. And, with this bah-humbuggy sort of statement, who wouldn't think A Christmas Carol? And, sure we could have gone that direction. After all, we knew that was a favorite story of our senior pastor. And, we knew we had the experience and talents of a good director in Jason Hill.

But in this stage of the process we began thinking about resources. What was at our disposal? What ideas had been lurking underneath the surface of previous projects? This is where Jason and Sarah Hill's commitment to the project became a driving factor. They have the ability to write scripts. Would they consider writing this project? And, if so, what kind of story would we want them to tell?

Within a few conversations we knew we wanted to include a strong musical component. We knew we had several strong possibilities of actors who could sing and singers who could act. Sarah felt strongly that she'd like to write the music. Here, Margaret Smith's expertise became crucial to the project. As a vocal director and an experienced actor and director of musical theatre, we needed her buy-in to the production.

So where were we now? (keep in mind, this is about April 2008) We knew we wanted to produce an original musical that told a story relating to the concept "I hate Christmas." We knew we had a director, script writers, music compser and vocal director. I thought that was plenty. I was wrong.

Each decision opens up a whole new world of possibilities and problems. In my ignorance I felt that the vehicle of a musical was pretty narrow -- simple to determine. I mean I'd seen The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof. I'd watched Westside Story and Mary Poppins. What more was there to know?

And this is where it got interesting. We began naming musicals that could serve as an influence for this project and not one of those titles I'd mentioned even came up. Instead names like Moulin Rouge and Once and ... Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

We quickly scheduled a movie marathon at the Hills' home to get to the bottom of this idea. By the end of the night, as we lay around on their huge comfy sectional and cuddled with their fat cats and laughed at the antics of their adorable toddler, Simon, it was decided. The musical influence for Union Center Christian Church's 2008 production would be -- ta da -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer!!

And this is exactly what I love about the creative process. It takes the most unsuspected random components, throws them together, adds hard work, lots of feedback and clear direction and churns out a brand new creation. Something that never existed before now exists in all of its newborn vulnerability and glory.

To drag on that metaphor a little bit longer, this production has felt an awful like a full-term pregnancy. We began talking in April and it's now December (well that's almost full-term). Every stage along the way has brought with it new joys and challenges. We auditioned the cast and ensemble in June and for six months they have spent hours and hours and hours rehearsing, memorizing, and blocking. In September, a carpentry crew began drawing and sawing and painting and hammering a set to match the design an area set designer drew for us. About that same time the crew expanded to include cookie-bakers and coffee-makers and costume-sewers and graphic-designers and audio-mixers.

And this is the hardest work of all. Enabling every new volunteer to bring their full expertise and energy to the project while staying in line with the original concept. Protecting the story. Encouraging excllence.

And, perhaps, what has drawn me most into this particular project is the absolute certainty that no one could do this alone. I mean, have you ever watched a group of actors figure out how to get food when they are starving? Or how to actually find a prop that represents what they've been imaging for months? This is where Debbie McCoy's commitment to the project as producer was crucial. Well, this and about one million, three-hundred-thousand and fifty-two other reasons. Her attention to detail and compassion for people kept the production schedule moving forward month after month and deadline after deadline.

The perfect example for this brand of teamwork is the sub-project of getting each of the ten original songs in the show from Sarah's mind into the hands of the vocalists and musicians who needed to perform the songs. Sarah could write and record the melody through fancy music software, but that is not enough. Songs have different personalities. How does that personality remain the same as the notation on the screen changes hands from composer to arranger to performer?

I'll tell you how. Teamwork. Conversation. Feedback. Tedious, repetitious, hair-pulling hard work, that's how. This is where Neil Allen stepped in. His labor and commitment to the task made this possible. Without him, the show couldn't have happened.

The same is true for Brandon and Bethany and Brenda and Garry and MacKenzie and Joel and Suzanne and....

See why I love this so much?!?

And the show is good. We are blessed with hard-working, intelligent and resourceful volunteers, but we are not perfect. We're actually a pretty rag-tag group. The team is made up people who are suffering all of the ordinary - and some, extraordinary -- stresses of life. Most of us have at least thought to ourselves a couple of times that, goshdarnit, we hate Christmas, too! But when I sat in the back of the sanctuary at 11:39 last night and listened to the final note of the final song of the final scene in our final rehearsal I am quite certain I was in a holy place. I am certain that our Maker was pleased.

Our goal in this project was to grow in our skill while at the same time grow up together. I hope those things are true. And, tonight, the last crucial part of the team will show up. It's the audience. Without the chance to tell them tell them the story -- to breathe and inflect and gesture and emote every last nuance of the story -- there is no birth. No baby to show for all the months of waiting and hours of labor.

I, for one, can't wait to see their faces.

One of many music rehearsals of the title song, I Hate Christmas.

The brainstorming never ends. This session happened at the end of four hours of rehearsal.

The cast and ensemble rehearsing the show finale Happy Ending.

Nancy Gesel using power tools like a pro to bring a set into existence. (in September!)

Miranda, Barb and Hope taking a break from building set.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

monday mix tape (on Tuesday again!)

i made you a mix tape of all my favorites this week!

Music: Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year

I can not find a single Over the Rhine tune that I do not love. I've tried. Last year I bought my first album of this Ohio-based husband and wife team, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, Snow Angels. Other than a few of the most Christmasy tracks I listened to the album all year long. This year I added an earlier Christmas album, The Darkest Night of the Year. From the band's website I've learned this album is their fifth and was released in 1996. 1996? Where have I been all these years? Oh, yeah, I remember now. I've been wandering up and down the claustrophobic aisles of CCM-land.
Slightly sarcastic editorial comments aside, I am in love with this album....absolutely over the moon. So far, my very favorite track is 10, a duet version of Silent Night. It's just plain gorgeous.
I'd recommend this album to anyone, but if you happen to own a fireplace that you keep well-lit in these December evenings while the sun heads sleepily toward the winter solstice, you need this beautiful music to keep you company fireside.

Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas

Do you have any idea how good it feels to actually listen to music that your teenage offspring want to borrow? I live for moments like those. Although, Andrew is the orginal Sufjan fan in our house, he did not own anything from this album -- making me queen for the day. (Don't worry, I will not let it go to my head. Anyway, they wouldn't let me. I mentioned they're teenagers, right?)

With 42 tracks, it's ridiculously long, but that is one of the things I love most about it. It's a fun and melodic mix of many of the familiar Christmas carols without leaving out some of the elegant songs that never make it onto a traditional-length album. For example, Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming is one of my absolute favorite songs in this recording. Maybe it's because I haven't heard it sung to death in every imaginable genre in my 37 Christmases.

Yet, there are some of those wrung-out song titles on here, too. And I love them in the thoughtful translation by this artist who manages to be whimsical, irreverent at times, AND delicate and beautiful.

I enjoyed Andrew Bartlett's review of this project at

Every year it's an issue: how does one stomach the onset of holiday music? With an endless stream of overplayed pop stars stirring what Sufjan Stevens calls "That Creepy Christmas Feeling," how does one navigate the sound of the season? Back in 2001, Stevens began making annual EPs of traditional carols and songs mixed with his own holiday-themed tunes. With 2006 and Volume 5, he's compiled a perfect gift for the Christmas-inclined indie rockster: all five EPs in one box, separately slipcased, plus a booklet filled with lyric sheets, chord charts, a Rick Moody essay, and more. Yes, Stevens knows that "Jingle Bells" features him playing (as he notes) "insipid piano," but he also writes gorgeous arrangements. Check out the three versions of "O Come O Come Emmanuel"; each aches. And "O Holy Night" from Volume 3 is lo-fi genius, never mind anyone's resistance to theology; it's a time-stopper. Stevens's own tunes are unmistakably his, hushed vocals highlighting a unique mix of whimsy and yearning--much like the justly-lauded Illinois and Michigan. In the end of the liner essay, Stevens writes that the Christmas story is about love, and on that note, he proclaims that these songs and the "Creepy Christmas Feeling" prompt "a transformation of the heart" for him and bring out affection and reflection. Isn't that a great holiday vibe?

Films: Homemade Hillbilly Jam

Documentary, shmocumentary -- this is just a great excuse to enjoy authentic, unpolished bluegrass music. Brian and I had a blast watching this together while I folded laundry and reminisced about the "hillbillies" in my own family tree. (hint: we're pretty much hillbilly through and through).

And while this story is about the music, it's rooted in the people who make the music. Where did the term hillbilly come from? No one's entirely certain, but somewhere it stems with Irish-Scotsmen who moved settled in the mountainous regions such as the Ozarks.

And somehow, it's inseparable from family and old-time religion. Truly, the scene depicting several generations crowding under one small roof and sharing Thanksgiving dinner together felt like every Thanksgiving I ever celebrated in my girlhood. The food, the inside jokes, the ubiquitous TV trays and folding chairs littering every spare corner.

While we didn't grow up in Missouri or Arkansas as the families in the film, every family gathering would involve my grandmother or a cousin playing hymns on the piano for us to sing along (as long as it fell in between the showings of the football games and the yearly network screening of The Wizard of Oz or Sound of Music). Or -- and more often, next -- Grandpa would bring out his banjo. It's these events that taught me the good, ol' tunes of my grandparents' generation: "We'll Build A Bungalow" and "Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up This Old Gang of Mine" and others.

Now, since watching this documentary, Brian and I have decided to embrace our inner hillbilly. Especially when we sing along to the lyrics of the Big Smith song, Backwater (which involves an oh-so-fun instrumental combination of banjo and -- tuba?!):
Well, everybody's lookin'/Searchin' for an answer./And some are gettin' gravy/And some are gettin' cancer./Well, you might go to heaven,/You might go to hell./You might go to Wal-Mart/Or maybe Taco Bell./Tear out the wires,/And throw away the sauder/You won't find the hotline to God in this backwater.
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