Interview with Matt Johnson and Joanna Underhill, Writer and Director of New, Home-Grown Musical

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While Disney’s iconic “Beauty and the Beast” is being performed on stage at Lancaster’s historic Fulton Opera House, something new and strange is being rehearsed just next door. A cast of nine actor/musicians are running the last few scenes in the new absurdist musical “Sorry Brian, You’re Derek Now!” This homegrown theatre piece tells the story of a pair of twins, Brian and Derek Prior, who live polar opposite lives. Brian is brooding and often quotes Nietzsche. Derek is the charming golden boy, adored by his community of Castor County. When the latter’s life is cut short, Brian is pressured by his direct circle of peers, family, and even local law enforcement to pick up where his twin left off by putting on Derek’s personality and even his title.

After a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in the Fulton’s education building, I was lucky enough to get an hour with two of the creators—writer Matt Johnson and director Joanna Underhill.

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Carl Bakey: What is the premise of “Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now”?

Matt Johnson: Surprisingly enough, the premise of it was supplied to me by the title. Ton-Taun wanted to do this EP release. Sending me the title was the definitive moment for me. I loved the songs, I thought they were beautiful. They’re not related thematically or conceptually in any way. The album title is an inside joke among the band. Within ten minutes of hearing the songs and the title, I structured the plot. I wanted to do something a little Kafka-esque or a little bit absurd. The title was evocative to me. Here’s this person who’s being told that they’re someone else. The premise was to make the subtle ways that society pushes you into being a role; to make that explicit, absurd, and dark. Society allows you a lot of leeway, a lot of space, so long as you’re willing to play along just a little bit. We make these compromises to be somebody in order to be who we really want to be.

Joanna Underhill: Isn’t that great, though, that so much thought goes into an hour and fifteen minute piece based on three rock songs from a band that just thought these songs would be fun to write?

CB: Joanna, how has it been different directing “SBYDN” as opposed to your other various theatre experiences?

JU: This is my favorite way to direct. I’ve always said I want to direct either students or inexperienced grown ups, so this has been perfect. They’re musicians and they’re used to having to build things together. They don’t rehearse a role in isolation. In musical theatre everybody comes in and thinks, “This is my part and I gotta make sure I do this and get my stage time.”

MJ: These are untrained actors.

JU: Well, they’re musicians!

MJ: Yeah, they’re all musicians, and when I thought about casting them, they’re all people who have a theatricality to the way they perform. I wanted that. I didn’t want a typical musical aesthetic where everybody’s overacting a little bit.

CB: So, you’re pulling in a very wide range of experiences in the sphere of art. How has your relationship as playwright and director taken shape over the rehearsal period?

JU: It’s great to have a playwright who is so flexible. First of all, who has a vision, who is flexible with that vision, but wants to contribute. Sometimes playwrights can be inflexible and then you’ve got to deal with that when they’re there—

MJ: Fortunately, I’m at every practice.

JU: Also, sometimes too they’re not as creative. Matt has directed some short films, so he’s got that eye for how things should sound and look up off the page.

CB: So, instead of saying, “Know the rules and then break them by hiring actors and trying to get them to let their hands get dirty,” you guys have decided, “Let’s have fun!”

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Joanna Underhill (director) and Matt Johnson (writer) of Sorry Brian, You’re Derek Now.

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CB: It seems like you guys are having a lot of fun creating this thing together. What are some of your favorite aspects of working with this specific group at this time?

MJ: The collaboration. It’s beautiful. It’s the only way that I think all of us have been able to survive the Trump victory.

JU: We were rehearsing the night of the election and we saw the turn start to happen. We all had our phones out.

MJ: We kind of knew at the end of rehearsal. I posted on Facebook like: “Hey, if this goes the wrong way, I would love to just entrench myself with these people and make art and beautiful things because I don’t know how else we’re going to make it together.” I don’t know, if we didn’t have this, if I would be as spirited as I am now. It’s an escape, but there’s also something meaningful about, in the face of something that you think might be Fascistic, to be just making art. Last night, I went to the best drag show I’ve ever seen. And I kept thinking, “This is the way to topple dictators: by being yourself to the Nth degree. These people will save us.”

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CB: There’s so much art happening all the time in Lancaster County. Right next door, the Fulton is putting on their most expensive production to date! How is this piece different than other theatre happening in the region?

JU: It’s an original work. It’s a homegrown original work. No one else is really doing that to this extent.

MJ: I love that no one knows what it’s about. We’ve been trying to keep it under wraps. Even my wife and other people I’m close to have no idea what they’re getting into. They’re kind of buying in because of the collaborators.

CB: That’s awesome. How have you been using that to your advantage?

MJ: We made this whole false universe where we made posters for the individual characters of the show and posted them all around. So for Nancy the mother we have “Nancy’s Scrapbooking Class” posters all around town right now and they have the little tags that you can pull off and we’ve gotten something like 120 calls to this number. It’s Nancy saying, “I’m sorry, the scrapbooking class is canceled because of the incident. But if you could come down to Tellus on December 2, 3, and 4, that’d be great!” Two nights ago we had a message on there. There’s this guy who’s like, “I love scrapbooking. Scrapbooking is cool. I hope that I’ll see you December 2 because I love scrapbooking.” We made up a fake radio show for the Bob character and we have a blog up for Brian.

JU: Laura’s Bug Club.

MJ: And if you follow it, you know what’s going on. But if you don’t, I’m cool with that.

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CB: Who is your target audience? Who should come see this show?

JU: I think there is an audience out there for this alternative to the mainstream theatre that usually happens around here. Especially because it’s a musical absurdist piece. There aren’t many of those around. In terms of those people who make theatre a habit, there’s definitely that segment who are going to think this is weird and great and fun. And it’s in a bar, and that’s even better.

MJ: The word “musical” instantly brings up a certain type of production. I’m totally fine with luring people in who think “musical” and then get what we give them. So, somebody can say “I didn’t like it,” but I don’t want them to not like it because it wasn’t what they were expecting. That’s one of my least favorite complaints about film or music. I’m sorry for you: you don’t really like theatre, you like spectacle.

JU: I also think we’re going to reach other people who just want to come see Ton-Taun and realize you can experience this music in a different way.

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CB: During rehearsal Adam Taylor, who plays the lead, came over and told me how funny he thought the script was when he first read it. Then he got to rehearsals and it really started coming to life for him because of the direction from Joanna and the energy of this group. Having only known Adam as a musician, it’s so fun to see him on this new platform.

MJ: Adam’s not just our lead. He’s responsible for everything else. He made our trailer video. He’s biting his fingernails about tech stuff because that’s what he does for a living. He’s done award shows, the US Open, all this kind of stuff. For him to give away some control as a collaborative effort is really difficult, but he loves it. I think that’s transformative for some people.

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CB: It really is so refreshing to sit in on the creation of this new piece of art! I’ve been disenchanted with local theatre just doing the shows they’re supposed to do to get people to come out and see them and keep the doors open. How do we bravely go into the storm of DIY theatre and supporting it in Lancaster?

MJ: I couldn’t imagine being a theatre producer and saying, “Here’s the twenty choices we have, which one are we going to do?” Especially to say, “Which of these is going to make the most money?”

JU: You just can’t worry about money. You’ve got to find people who have day jobs who are willing to give up some of their free time. You just have to find that passion. You have to reach out to people you wouldn’t think of. I want people who haven’t done it before who say, “I think I could do this.” They can’t all be actors. It’s the DIY thing: you’ve got to burn your fingers with the glue gun and stick yourself with a needle and sacrifice some of your time and put up some of your pocket money. I’ve been buying a fair amount of props for this.

MJ: Just with the sound people and the lighting, I mean, we have got to make some money back. But that’s the thing, none of these people are motivated by money. Everybody’s crazy busy and they will agree to three nights a week because they believe in the project. That is unheard of. When you believe in something like that it’s so much more magical. But how to make it happen more? I would just say, “Do it!” You just have to have more confidence than you do skill, and then the skill will come. If you have an idea and you think it’s worthwhile, this town will provide.

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This show is 100% Lancaster and pulls from the diverse talents of this “new Brooklyn.” I can’t think of another musical I have been more excited to see in the last several years. To spend upwards of $150 for orchestra seats in any Broadway theater, you know what you’re going to get. However, to take a chance on a piece that will most likely only be performed for one weekend by this unique cast, I won’t be caught sleeping on this. The people who walk out of Tellus360 having seen “Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now” will have experienced a smart, timely, and funny musical based on three songs written by one of Lancaster’s favorite bands. I will leave you with a glimpse of the excitement this cast has for this show: after Katie Seifarth, who plays Kerri in the show, was directed to climb in through Brian’s bedroom window and do a karate-stunt-man-inspired roll across the floor, she stood up, pumped her fists in the air and shouted, “I’ve been dreaming of this! It’s like fucking ‘Saved by the Bell!’”

“Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now” is being co-produced by Ton-Taun, Creative Works of Lancaster, and Matt Johnson. It will be performed at Tellus360 on December 2 and 3 at 8pm and December 4 at 5pm. The run time is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at Tellus360 or online at http://m.bpt.me/event/2713064

To check out Ton-Taun EP that inspired this musical, visit https://ton-taun.bandcamp.com/

Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now! from Adam Taylor on Vimeo.

Interview with DJ Ramsay, Creator of Lancaster Coloring Book

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“What’s your favorite Pantone color?” We laugh, but I’m serious, and if you don’t already know DJ, you won’t know why this is a perfectly acceptable question for me to ask.

Friends call David Ramsay Jr., “DJ.” DJ is the guy who gives me a hug everytime I see him and it’s not annoying. This is the guy who comes up with entire sticker campaigns when he’s upset about something, the guy who’s always up for the domain-name game. This is the man with a keen artistic eye, and the observant hand behind the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book. This is a glimpse of Tuesday night at the Springhouse Taproom downtown, and that means tacos. DJ and I talk about lots of things on Taco Tuesdays at the Taproom, but this night we decide to talk about coloring books.  

If you haven’t seen the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book around town here and there, then I’m not convinced you’ve been paying attention. You could have caught glimpses of of the two volumes at BUZZ, Festoon, or BohoZone, and I wanted to figure out exactly where they came from. When asked about the inspiration behind the coloring book project, DJ time travels back to 2011 during the closure of the Millersville University Library when he was asked to come up with some line-drawing mock-ups of the new facility vs. the old, dusty, well-loved Library before. The assignment triggered a newfound love of architectural illustration; “it also kind of really makes me happy because they’re full of right angles and perfect shapes…perfect for someone with OCD,” he offers. After putting the illustrations away and forgetting for a time, their rediscovery in early 2016 led to a new desire in creating, so he decided to try his hand at depicting the Lancaster Central Market. “The next thing I knew, I had, like, 30 illustrations.” Thus began the coloring book campaign.  

The first of the books focuses on the “Golden Age” of Lancastrian architecture around the city with clean, precise renderings of well-loved and recognized buildings: Central Market, City Hall, Fulton Opera House, etc. It capitalizes on the recognition of famous Lancaster landmarks and appeals to natives, transplants, and tourists alike. The second volume, more focused and nuanced, brings with it an overarching theme of “buildings that were lost to progress and saved through creative reuse,” DJ explains.  

“I was really inspired by these old photos I would see of the 100 block of North Queen where they tore down beautiful buildings to build the monstrosity that is Lancaster Square.”

I take a sip of my beer and think of all the fireworks I watched in that strangely hollow, carved out piece of city.  

“I wanted people to look at buildings differently,” he tells me. In this second coloring book, “most of the buildings were not standing anymore, so I see it more as a historical artifact.”  As a writer, I have to say that I enjoy the second book slightly more than the first as it zooms in more closely on story—buildings that once stood, just down the street from us, paired with short vignettes of facts and timeframes providing context. DJ and I swoon about some of these lost pieces, and he tells me about a few he really struggled with; namely the old insane asylum.  

“There were some buildings, like the insane asylum, that were beautiful buildings, but I didn’t want to trivialize it by saying ‘hey, let’s color the insane asylum.’” Ultimately, he decided to include it in the finished product, understanding the importance of the story the place could tell.  

Sip of beer. Circle back. PANTONE! I need to know—I need to know what color a person who (self-admittedly) could obsess over a single shade of black finds the most favored.  

“It was definitely a pantone color of the year, but it wasn’t recent,” he supplies. [SIGH] “my favorite pantone? It has to be Pantone 14-0754: ‘SUPER LEMON.’” I take another sip of my beer, and I am so glad that it’s Super Lemon.  

“Name something that you’ve learned about yourself (as an artist…as a human) since you started the project,” I ask. (Please note that I wanted to make a really great “when life gives you super lemons” pun here, but it never coalesced.)

“I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate the influence of the past in what we do and how we tend to ignore that influence. Or, instead of influence, the subtle homages to the past that you only know if you know the past.” [[Forgive me; this felt incredibly prescient, so I am going to draw attention to this statement by putting brackets around this sentence.]] “So, in Lancaster Square, there are pieces of the Northern Trust and Savings Company that were discovered by the river.”  

Seriously, you can see them when you go to Lancaster Square to watch the fireworks all of your parking tickets have paid for.  

“Or, it’s just little things, like the awareness I know have of architecture now,” DJ posed.  We talk about looking up at our city more often now, about eavesdroppers, about the number of lions on buildings here. There’s something telling about “looking at a building’s past and then looking at why it’s used the way it’s used now,” and DJ’s coloring books absolutely capture that wonder. We are surrounded by story in stone.

A friend comes in and sits down with us. We talk about wanting tacos, and we talk about how maybe we don’t need an extra 100 hotel rooms instead of useable space. We talk some more about Pantones.  

“How does the idea of the Lancaster Coloring Book contribute to story or storytelling?”

His answer is just one of the many reasons I am happy to call DJ a friend because this is where he talks about stories encompassing us. He speaks of buildings being the example of past turning present, and explains that, with something like a coloring book, we get to rewrite the way we see the world in our own ways.  

When I ask him where he thinks this project might be going, DJ tells me he has a vision of expansion through the lense of “DIY History”—an ever-evolving interaction with the past and that which surrounds us now. By coloring in (or outside of) the lines of history, we recreate it every day. He also emphasizes the importance of conversation:

“Who doesn’t color something and then want to show it to someone? I see it as a way to build conversations.”

We finished our beer and talked about ordering food before I asked him one last question:

“How can art, as writing, or painting, or coloring in a coloring book, be used for good?”

DJ didn’t pause, or blink, or sigh, or take another sip, or scratch his beard; he simply responded immediately, “fostering conversation. It’s like, it’s a way to do it without having to actually approach someone and start it. It’s just kind of like, conversations evolve naturally,” and we talk about how much more we need that in the world. We talk about buildings, and we talk about God being disappointed in us from the eaves of our houses, and we talk about our favorite colors to color with (Super Lemon), and then we order tacos.

For more information about the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book, or to purchase a few copies, go to www.lancastercoloringbook.com.

Lancaster’s Storytelling Showdown: Gearing Up for the Grand Slam

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If there ever was a more organic way to meet a total stranger (relatively, is anyone a total stranger in the internet age?) I haven’t accomplished it better than when I got together with Carla Wilson to talk about the November 22nd season finale of Lancaster Story Slam.

We both arrived at the always faithful Lancaster Dispensing Company early. We both grabbed seats at the bar sensing the oncoming dinner rush. And when I saw her e-mail saying that she had arrived early with her husband, it didn’t take more thirty seconds than to discover we were seated three seats away from one another.

Here’s what I knew about Carla before meeting her six days ago: She’s the Event Director and Co-founder of Lancaster Story Slam, an event in its second season which she elevator pitched as, “People reliving their stories for an audience with the raw and electric energy that comes from a live no notes performance.’ Besides that, she isn’t the artist-also-running-the-event type.

Carla, who we’ve interviewed before about Lancaster Story Slam’s origins, was specifically recruited by West Chester Story Slam founder Jim Breslin for her ability to coordinate and conduct events at all stages from the venue planning, marketing, to stand-by duties in case any sort of fire (metaphorical or otherwise) breaks out during the night of the event.

Given that we spoke with the finale upcoming on the Nov. 22nd I wanted to know what Carla as the event organizer considered one of the highlights of an overwhelmingly successful second season. She was quick to answer: “The unexpected success of our night themed, ‘Foreign Soil’. We were initially scared that we were going to get a lot of ‘vacation romanticizing type stories’, but the response from the local immigrant communities and their participation made it a special night, something better than we really could’ve even asked for.’

“And what would you say has been the biggest challenge?” I asked, curious to see the struggles from a behind the scenes point-of-view.

It took Carla a minute, a testament to the tight ship she runs and the savvy she exercises maintaining the open accepting energy of a great poetry event in a bar with audiences that frequently exceed one hundred people. Then she said,

“Not getting enough pre-orders! It’s hard to plan for a room you don’t know the size of, so we’ve been really encouraging people to make sure they pre-order tickets. It’s really tough to have to turn people away, and the finale sold out last year.” For those committed to going you can pre-order your tickets here.

The grand slam will feature the 11 monthly winners from the second season as they compete to be named “Best Storyteller in Lancaster” with the theme of “Rise Above.” Storytelling who will be participate include Matthew Kabik, Liz Yocom, Beth Horenkamp, Aaron Spangler, Tony Crocamo, Audrey Lopez, Jamie Beth Schindler, Bryan R. Caine, Rebecca Thatcher Murcia, David Smith, and Aaron Lewis.

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Matthew Kabik (left) poses his prized pint glass trophy after winning the January event, alongside host Cliff Lewis (right) who won the 2015 Grand Slam.

We both agreed it’s a good problem to have and talked about the future of story slam. While you’ll be seeing plenty of advertising for it, the scoop involves a late-night story slam event for the more raucous (adults only) crowd and a spring workshop to help people feel confident in telling their stories, whether on stage or in life.

A 11 month event season is lengthy to begin with, but considering the additional events on the horizon as well, I had to ask Carla how she keeps herself motivated, especially without a stake in performing. She talked about feeling renewed and re-energized by seeing an artist come out and “leave it all on stage. Each story is a surprising and emotional journey, and because it’s unscripted there’s the constant excitement of the unknown.” We both relate over feeling a revitalization of our creative energy after seeing live music or performance; a locked in engagement that opens your mind up afterward to all the different creative things you dream to do.

Before finishing our drinks I asked Carla if she had any advice for those who aspire to plan a successful literary event like hers. Here are her two big tips: “Make local in-person connections and leverage social media. You can’t take for granted how good a face-to-face is in fostering a good relationship with a venue or owner. And you need to remember to diversify your feed. Everyone engages with media differently, that makes a variety of photos, articles, videos, and content important to reaching the largest audience.”

I finished up my notes, paid my tab, and put on my jacket, thankful for the fates at play that connected a talent like Carla Wilson’s to my local literary community, and blessed us with Lancaster Story Slam.

Come out see who will be crowned “Best Storyteller in Lancaster” at the LSS Grand Slam Event, November 22nd at Tellus360. Pre-orders strongly encouraged, available here.

Recapping An Election Eve Vigil in Downtown Lancaster

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Today is November 8th. Which means that today, as you know, Americans will cast ballots for the next president, for senators, representatives, and many other elected officials.

And, let’s be honest. This past year has nearly torn us apart.

But I’m not going to opine about our divisiveness or warn you of an coming apocalypse or cast stones or shake my fist at you. That’s all been done. Right now, let’s talk about something else.

At The Triangle, we do what we do because language matters. Our behaviors and decisions, successes and failures, are dictated by the language we use and the stories we tell about ourselves and about the world. The Triangle’s mission is to foster the growth of literary artists, storytellers, poets, and performers, and try to bring people into community, because, these things matter. This is something you probably already know, but that you also probably take for granted at times. Whether we are consciously thinking about it or not, stories and language and community are busy shaping our everyday experience of reality.

This may sound quaint, but this is true both conceptually and literally.

Consider the psychological concept of self-efficacy. The basic idea is that if you see yourself capable of doing something or being something, you might fail, but you have the potential to succeed. If you only see yourself as not able to do something or be someone, you will almost always fail. You are the stories you tell yourself.

Or, we could consider a fairly recent discovery in neuroscience: mirror neurons. Put very simply, mirror neurons are brain cells that “fire” when we experience some action. The crazy thing about mirror neurons is that the exact same clusters of cells “light up” when we observe or read a story about another person’s experiences too. This means that our brains process data from both direct and indirect experiences in a highly similar way. This is why we have empathy and social learning. The stories we tell about others people matters. (Check out Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal).

Or, we could consider recent developments in neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is capable of rewiring its neural pathways throughout life as we experience new things, form new habits, expose ourselves to new ideas, unique language formations, and different stories. Evidence suggests that our physical brain structures—cell connections and the flow of electrical impulses—are alterable, able to adapt and be molded. We literally change the structure of our own brains. (Check out Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself).  

The point is, if we tell ourselves we’ve got to “Make America Great Again” over and over, we’re going to start thinking that there’s something wrong with our country, and we’re going get a bad case of Golden Age syndrome. If we tell ourselves that people that are different from ourselves are out to get us over and over, we’re going to start believing it. It’ll become your reality.

This is the depressing truth.

However, you also have a choice—and a responsibilityto tell a different story. A better story. A story that recognizes beauty and truth and goodness as much as it recognizes what we are capable of at our worst.

If we tell ourselves this story: that deep down other people are just like us, that they have similar needs, wants, fears, frustrations, we just might feel less alone, less self-righteous, and less entitled to the things we lucked into. And, if we tell ourselves that we can accomplish more and solve more problems by working together and finding common ground, we just might be able to live in a way that respects everyone’s right to peace, to love, to basic needs, to beauty, and to life itself.

Last night, in downtown Lancaster’s Penn Square I attended an “Election Eve Vigil” sponsored by the Lancaster Interfaith Coalition—a direct attempt at making a statement of unity and peace despite the state our country is in. A deliberate, willful counter narrative.

There were about 100 people standing in a circle with candles in hand. There were children and old folks and middle age folks with ties on. People of color, white people, women wearing hijabs. The point of the occasion was simple: to offer prayers and songs and words of peace for our divided nation, from many different religious traditions, philosophies, and worldviews.

We all stood around on the bricks breathing in the same brisk autumn air, the street lights blurred the view of Central Market across the street, the sound of traffic whooshing by filled the space between electric, amplified words.

Turn by turn, various people approached the mic and read prayers of peace, hope, and unity.

A Presbyterian pastor reads a Hindu prayer that hopes to move the “unreal to the real”intoning “shanti, shanti, shanti.” A priest reads a Buddhist prayer, wishing that “the powerless find power.” A woman reads a Zoroastrian prayer in Spanish. A rabbi reads a Jainist prayer which declares “no weapon can be superior to nonviolence and love.” A female pastor reads a Jewish prayer that invites us to “beat our swords into ploughshares.” A professor reads a Shinto prayer. Then there’s a Native American prayer, a Muslim prayer, a Baha’i prayer, a Sikh prayer, a Christian prayer.

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Something strange and hard to describe happened during these readings. Standing there in a crowd of strangers, listening to prayers for peace and unity, I began to feel connected, enmeshed, rooted, intertwined. I forgot, for a moment, about myself. And I was reminded that this is the point of writing and reading, of poems and stories, of living. To learn again and again how to feel less alone. To learn that we’re all in this together.

You could say that these prayers were just words. You could give in to the cynicism and the same old, ramshackle stories. But, what would that accomplish? Why would you surrender your ability to shape the world with creativity and language?

Last night at the vigil there was a sort of raw animal power in those shared words—words patiently listened to, words declaring peace, shalom, shanti—that seemed to be gently bending the world to their will.

Don’t forget this: you can always work to tell a better story than the one we’ve been given.

Review: Waiting For The Dead To Speak by Brian Fanelli

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Brian Fanelli’s most recent book of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books, September 2016) arrives at an important time. Its pages navigate many contemporary realities with a refreshingly plain-spoken, colloquial syntax that when examined closely, are also elegantly wrought. In the same way that some lyric poetry relies upon certain syllabic and phonetic architectures, Fanelli utilizes simple narrative devices such as repetition of ideas, ordering his poems in a Whitmanesque manner to create layers of meaning. He invites you with a steady whisper—here it is, this world, in all its tragic and revelatory beauty.

In an October podcast with WVIA Public Media, Fanelli, who has published two other books of poetry—Frontman (Chapbook, Big Table Publishing, 2010); All That Remains (Unbound Content, 2013)—claimed he worked the hardest on this particular book of poems, saying, “in some ways [it is] the most personal… most political.” The personal as political is a very American idea, that may have its roots as far back as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Indeed, Fanelli’s work functions much like Whitman’s—democratically, thoughtfully, pointedly.

Speaking on the Troubadours and Raconteurs podcast, Fanelli described Whitman as an obvious “pioneer in free verse,” adding, “[he] broke down traditional forms… put poetry in a very American language.” Fanelli also praises William Carlos Williams, a poet he sees as one of the first American poets to write about “common” subjectfrozen plums, red wheelbarrowsoften scribbled on loose pieces of paper between doctor visits.

If Fanelli intends to be the echo of Williams and Whitman (specifically from the last couple paragraphs of Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass)—“the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it”he is well on his way.

Fanelli does not write as a person might expect of an English professor. He has a youthful, roving, and recursive mind. There is a simple, pure, working class wisdom to his verse. He ruminates upon the past as you  might expect an older man to, but he makes frequent references to the plain artifacts of a contemporary zeitgeist: going to punk shows, Occupy Wall Street, diners, Facebook requests, Youtube, the Iraq war, teen angst, X-Men comics, The Clash, the X-Files. It is a beautiful synthesis of a self-absorbed Millennial culture and the poetic, reflective impulse that tries to  transcend that culture.

At times the collection can feel randomly structured or repetitious, but this suits Fanelli’s narrative style, which seeks out familiar conflicts and situations across contexts, looking to flip them upside down. In telling these brief stories, the reader is asked to jump across many subjects and back and forth through time while the poet assembles a patchwork experience. In Waiting for the Dead to Speak, the whole is in the pieces, the fragments, the snapshots taken from an uncertain angle.  

The title poem in the collection has been discussed in several recent interviews and reviews. And, while it is an intense poem not to be missed, there are perhaps other poems that reveal Fanelli’s poetic courage, in being willing to bear witness to collective experience, even when bearing witness is painful or difficult. For example, in “Writing the Last Word,” the speaker reflects on a journalism assignment to write about a homicide: “You don’t ask why he was shot before / four months ago, if he pushed drugs. / You write he was a family man, community man, / whatever his wife says because you know / this will be the last time his name appears in print.”

This poem has a universal human quality that is perhaps in contrast to“Waiting for the Dead to Speak,” in which the speaker seems entirely absorbed by his own grief, reflection, and subjectivity. Fanelli seems in “Writing the Last Word,” to be intentionally surrendering to that old Whitmanian echo: the collective, democratic truth that we all, in the end, have very similar wants and needs while living and dying, and that ultimately we all face the same end. It is in poems like this one where Fanelli shows he has perfected the art of poetic surrender, of surrendering to the ordinary world in a way that reveals the world as it is. Indeed, the title poem reveals such a truth: that the dead cannot speak, that loss is loss, irreversible and unaccountable. Where some might present a more softened, palatable version of reality, Fanelli struts out of the dark and speaks of the world’s darkness by name. He brings you in, opens your eyes. He doesn’t let you look away. He is asking you to carry this with you. So you carry it with you.

Brian Fanelli’s poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published in many national periodicals and journals, including The Los Angeles Time, World Literature Today and The Paterson Review. He is also a local staple. Just last week, on October 28, Fanelli was the featured poet at Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pa., and will be making rounds in November through River Reads Bookstore and Buffalo Street Books, both in New York. His next local appearance will be in York, PA at King’s Courtyard Artists’ Collective on November 18 at 7 PM.

Ken Ludwig’s Postmortem at the Belmont Theatre in York

In the newly renovated Belmont Theatre in York—complete with the smell of fresh paint and comfortable seats—Postmortem spooks its way on to the stage. The murder mystery, written in the 1980s by York native Ken Ludwig, is set over the course of a weekend in a lavish mansion in southern Connecticut. The cast is largely made up of actors performing in a Sherlock Holmes play in New York and the mansion is owned by William Gillette, the actor currently playing the title role. After a performance, the cast members make their way back to the leading man’s abode to spend a few days together. Not long after arriving, however, accusations and suspicions are thrown back and forth among the actors, conjuring up the murder of a former leading lady which took place in the mansion just one year prior.

The fact that these actors are playing actors on stage gives Postmortem an unsettling feeling: who is acting? who is telling the truth? Director Joel Persing kept the set and blocking of the action very minimal leaving the actors and their motivations to be the center of attention. The actors have plenty of room to play sharing the stage with only three small couches, a writing desk, and a drop-leaf table that doubles as the centerpiece of a seance at the climax of Act One.

Postmortem’s cast is full of actors who have appeared numerous times at the Belmont Theatre, but the young “Bobby” and “May” played by Charlie Heller and Ahmae Messersmith respectively brought a lively energy to the ensemble. Heller—though decades younger than most of his fellow actors—held his own as a dominant, hard hitting character from his first entrance all the way to the final curtain. The wise-cracking and lovable “Marion” played by Becky Wilcox cut the tension with side-splitting laughter from the audience with almost every line. This was counterbalanced with Christy Brooks playing the eerie, unstable “Louise.” Brooks’ masterful delivery of lines overflowing with hidden meaning sent chills through the theater as did her role as the medium in a dimly lit seance scene.

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Promotional poster featuring cast of the Belmont Theatre’s production of Postmortem.

As expected, the plot has its twists and turns, but unfortunately the big reveal doesn’t ring out with any sort of shock factor. I imagine this has less to do with the cast’s performance or the direction by Persing, but more with the dated social stigma that Ludwig, the award-winning writer, was trying to address at the time of its original run. I fear that the homophobic nature of the play’s conclusion will not resonate well with younger audiences. Much has changed since the mid-80s when it comes to support and justice for the LGBT community. I hope that the Belmont and its Artistic Director will continue to choose material that will challenge and gather young audiences to help theatre and the arts to continue thriving in the White Rose City. Overall, this dynamic cast handled the material exceptionally well and I look forward to seeing more work come out of this playhouse.

Postmortem runs through October 30, 2016. Tickets may be purchased online at thebelmont.org or by calling the box office at (717) 854-5715.

Review: The Old Utopia Hotel by Jeff Rath

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From the apocalypse-tinged meditations of his first collection, The Waiting Room at the End of the World (2007), to the frustrations of love dissected in his second, In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart (2009), to the more formal and cinematic engagement with darker subject matter in his third, Film Noir (2011)— Jeff Rath has carved out for himself a distinctive poetic terrain. Each of his books constructs a metaphoric landscape that allows associations to accumulate into something larger. This effect is perfected and complicated in The Old Utopia Hotel, which was published in June of 2016 by Iris G. Press. In this most recent collection, Rath inverts the idea of the apocalyptic by layering darkness with love, and working to contextual the violence, frustration, and existential confusion of ordinary people within the larger machinations of history.

The Old Utopia Hotel is undoubtedly the peak of Rath’s decade-long poetic project. The slim collection of 24 new poems realizes what Rath has been grasping for in his earlier work—it constructs a convincing analog for what happens when we trick ourselves into believing the uniquely human folly that we can, if we try hard enough, bend the world to our will. That metaphor takes shape in the last section of the book, where a series of poems describes the life cycle of an old hotel, its barroom, its coffeeshop-diner, and the voices of the disenfranchised patrons that haunt it.

The origin of the word “utopia” in English comes from Thomas More’s famous satire, Utopia (1516), which described a theoretically ideal country. But, More constructed the word for his ideal nation from the Greek roots “ou” and “topos,” literally meaning “no place.” So, the ideal place is also the place that cannot be. The Old Utopia Hotel is situated—or perhaps another word would be better (lodged, embedded, entrenched?)—within this tension between perfection and limitation, between dream and illusion. And it is precisely this positioning that makes the collection so deeply universal and so tenderly human.

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Jeff Rath reading from The Old Utopia Hotel at the Midtown Scholar Scholar Bookstore, in Harrisburg, PA. 

Rath’s powerful metaphor of decaying hospitality, is so resonant perhaps because it captures Pennsylvania’s intense sense of metaxis—of being lost in between, of being in a state of constant suspension. This sensation is one Rath knows all too well as a lifelong Pennsylvanian. But, let’s think about Pennsylvania for a moment: it is neither coast nor heartland, northern nor southern, conservative nor liberal, innovative nor stuck in the past, urban nor rural. It is a state people tend to drive through on their way to other places. It is the state that has seen its heyday and is now floating uncertainly through the aftermath. The glories of colonial Philadelphia, of being a Quaker-inspired religious sanctuary, of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s phenomenal wealth, of the anthracite coal region, and of Bethlehem and Pittsburgh steel—all boons to the rise of the modern industrial era—are simply gone. The Pennsylvania of today (as well as many other places around the United States) lacks a coherent narrative frame to help shape a regional identity, and so, many of its citizens—like the folks who frequent the Old Utopia Hotel—have no place to go other than straight through the cracks.

Jacques Derrida, in his famous lecture on the subject, stated that “The act of hospitality can only be poetic.” What he means, perhaps, is that in the postmodern, late-capitalist world, the idea of being hospitable is alien, but somehow also deeply, beautifully embedded in all of us. From a certain perspective, an increasingly post-human world means that courtesy to our fellow travelers—friendly public gatherings, collective faith, communal identity—are less and less meaningful. For Rath, poetry is a way of both navigating that loss through elegy, while also savoring the last vestiges of hospitality that we have left—a familiar place to have a beer or a cup of coffee, a place to play a Coltrane song on a juke, a place to reflect on life’s screw-ups, wrong turns, and its occasional, miraculous moments of grace. Perhaps, it is enough to assume that those who frequent such places at the Old Utopia do so for the same reasons: to wonder “How the hell did we get here?”. This question is the battered heart of The Old Utopia Hotel,  rendered firmly in the tradition of writers who are willing to explore the underbelly of American society—think Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesmen, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, or Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots.

Yet, as much this book is so tightly unified by its brooding theme, it also displays Rath’s incredible poetic range. He can handle the bureaucracies of history, as in “Company Town” and “Visionaries.” He can start a poem with a sidewalk chalk image and bend it into an uncanny spiritual jeremiad, as in “Martyr Fish.” He can be funny, as in “Desperados of the Heart,” or bitingly political as in “Psalm.” And he can, for all his serious intensity, render the tendernesses of human connection so perfectly, as in “The Way It Will Be” and “Coffee Shop Miracle.” Rath makes his talent for metaphor twist and turn and work for multiple ends within a larger vision. There are simply very few poets who can do that, let alone do it convincingly.

Rath’s body of work is a poignant mythology of love and loss, mistakes and missed chances, all imbued with a not-quite-nostalgia for some other sphere. In The Old Utopia Hotel, he takes an unflinching look at the ordinary lives of people caught up in the rise and fall of 20th century in America, giving poetic voice to the unpoetic, the lonely, the criminal, the hardscrabble workingman, and his perpetually disappointed woman. With precisely tuned language, subtly rebellious sentences, and a steady cadence, Rath achieves a gruff, pared-down, world-weary wisdom that takes absolutely nothing for granted and refreshes itself reading after reading.

***

The Old Utopia Hotel ($11.50, Iris G. Press) is available for purchase at Dogstar Books‘ physical location in Lancaster, PA as well as through their online store.