Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Swan Song

My last year at school has mostly been business as usual. I had a brief flurry of nostalgia at the beginning— "My last opening ceremony! My last staff gathering after the first day! My last second Tuesday of the month!" But it was short-lived and mostly I've gone about the day-to-day as I always have. 

Now comes the last Holiday Play I will direct at The San Francisco School. I expected this to be a bit more of a milestone, but truth be told, it also is just the next thing that needs to be done. But writing the program notes, I allowed a little wistful reflection to tiptoe in. Here they are: 

PROGRAM NOTES: THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster-— Dec. 18, 2019
   Written & directed by Sofía López-Ibor, Doug Goodkin, James Harding, Maica Folch

The Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961, five years before The San Francisco School began. It was a book that children and adults equally enjoyed and still enjoy. Like all such books, it exists on many levels. There is much whimsy and humor, memorable characters, an inner journey of transformation made palpable by an outer journey of adventure, deep metaphors intended to help heal a broken world—in short, all the qualities of great literature. 

We first performed it in 1997 and again in 2006 and here we are again all these years later. It was maddeningly difficult to decide which of the many possible stories to choose for my swan song. But this one sings more truly than many about the things that matter to me. It speaks to our school’s mission to awaken, embolden and train our most courageous, imaginative and caring selves. In an introduction to a second edition published in 1996, Maurice Sendak wrote:

“Rereading this book now, I am touched all over again by the confidence, certainty, and radiance of a book that knewit had to exist… The book treats, in fantastical terms, the dread problems of excessive specialization, lack of communication, conformity, cupidity, and all the alarming ills of our time. Things have gone from bad to worse to ugly. The dumbing down of America is proceeding apace…The Demons of Ignorance, the Gross Exaggeration (whose wicked teeth were made 'only to mangle the truth'), and the shabby Threadbare Excuse are inside the walls of the Kingdom of Wisdom, while the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, the Overbearing Know-it-all, and most especially the Triple Demons of Compromise are already established in high office all over the world. The fair princesses, Rhyme and Reason, have obviously been banished again.”

Are you astounded to read these words? Sound painfully familiar? The Demons of Ignorance are the Climate Change Deniers, the Gross Exaggeration is everywhere (“biggest inauguration crowd in history” alongside 10,000 other documented examples of mangled truth), the Gorgons of Hate and Malice showed up in Charlottesville and keep showing up here, there and everywhere, the Triple Demons of Compromise and the Threadbare Excuse are about to meet in the Senate and need I say anything about the Overbearing Know-it-all?

Of course, the kids are not thinking too deeply about these things nor should they overly obsess about them at their tender young age. They are mostly having so much fun! While still working as hard as they ever have on the innumerable details—"Stage voice! Watch your blocking! Memorize your lines! Get that rhythm! Remember your xylophone part! Sing with joy! Dance with energy! Spare time? Go make some props or paint some scenery!” The blend of story, poetry, music, dance, art is impressive—and made more so by a story about words and numbers! 

My first play at the school was in 1975 and a friend and I put on a simple story with 3rdand 4thgraders called Gunhilde’s Christmas Book. The 4thand 5thgraders wanted to write their own play and since we were in the throes of experimentation with how much and what kind of power to give to kids, we let them do it. The result was called Son of Jawsand is probably one of the most painful theatrical experiences I can remember, the kind we kids used to put on in the neighborhood to torture our parents. High on cuteness, low on artistry. 

Fast forward 45 years and my, how we’ve grown! We start a play process with group improvisations by the kids that find their way into the script, but our job as adults is to shape their instinctive impulses, to give them an artistic form that only the mature artist knows how to cultivate and develop. I fell into teaching drama without any training and without ever having been in a single play in my life (still haven’t!). But advanced studies at the University of Trial and Error has taught me much about how to merge the child’s instincts with the adult’s knowledge, how to let kids playas kids do and must, but also lead them to the kind of workthat creates something worthy of witness. How to cultivate powers of expression that connect and produce some genuine goose-bump moments. 

And so the day has arrived—my last Holiday Play at The San Francisco School. There are a thousand things to remember from these long years—and I do! The kids, the funny stories, the music, the ceremonies, the camping trips and more. But some of the most memorable moments have been these plays— the countless theaters we traveled to, the U-haul vans we rented, the times after the play ended when we were digging in our pockets for change to pay the lighting folks or strapping xylophones to our back in the rain after the van had pulled away. There were the dropped lines, the legendary wrong chords I played on The Chimes of Dunkirk, the horrific dress rehearsal blossomed to the fantastic performance— the stories go on.

But also those sublime moments when time stopped, those surprising breakthroughs of the shy child bursting into a powerful self, the sharing of the pain and joy of it all with James and Sofia and others. Thanks to The San Francisco School for their unbroken commitment to the arts and the freedom to spectacularly fail and then get better. I am blessed to have been a part of it all and I will miss it dearly. Enjoy tonight’s show! I know I will.  -Doug Goodkin

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