Just a blind squirrel

… hoping to find a nut now and then

Heading into hyperspace at the Star Wars 10K

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Welcome (or welcome back) to another installment of the Virtual Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend Blog Hop. If you missed my thrilling account of taking mile marker photos, you can find it here.

My first runDisney race was the inaugural Tinker Bell 10K (also my first 10K, period), and coincidentally, one year later, I was doing the inaugural Star Wars 10K. The Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend had taken over the January runDisney slot in Anaheim, with Tink moving to Mother’s Day Weekend. After signing up for the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon, I foolishly decided I could try to step it up a notch (or a billion) by attempting my first runDisney challenge, the inaugural Rebel Challenge. Keep in mind I had to register for all this months before I knew if it was remotely possible (spoiler alert: it was).

The 10K events are some of the most popular runDisney events. They usually feature a lot of time in the parks, but also just enough street time to allow people a little more serious run experience. It’s also easier to maintain the minimum pace and still have a chance to stop for photos.

Like all runDisney races, the Star Wars 10K starts with a “preshow” in the staging area set up in the Lilo parking lot next to the Disneyland Hotel. This is where you’ll find gEAR check, the ocean of porta-potties and the fancy stage area they use for the preshow and medal ceremonies. Note that Disney has added a security checkpoint before you can enter the zone where both the staging area and the corrals are located, so be prepared for that. For both the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend and Avengers Weekend, the security checkpoint was a breeze and did NOT require arriving by 4 freaking a.m. like the event guide claims. According to my photo timestamps, the preshow usually starts around 4:30 a.m., though.

It’s also the area you end up in after you finish, dubbed the family reunion area, where you will find the massage tent, medal engraving and bodies strewn everywhere, many buried under runDisney food boxes and banana peels.

The corrals are the next block over, and I’ve learned to check my gEAR bag just before the preshow starts, then the moment it’s about to end, head quickly toward the staging area exit to head for the corrals. It’s not hard to get to the corrals, but there’s only one small exit gate out of the staging area, so the crowd backs up a lot at that point.


That tiny little gap is where everyone has to exit to go to the corrals.

I like to work my way toward the front of the corral so I can see the race announcers and their guests.

Each corral gets it own start, complete with videoboard graphics and fireworks. It’s hard to take a photo in the dark while running, by the way.



Comparing the course map from last year to this year’s, it appears we may be getting a bit more park time, likely due to stretches of the backstage being closed for the start of constructing the Star Wars land, ironically enough. Parts of every runDisney race include going “backstage” to areas with offices, warehouses, storage, etc., and I consider that park time, since it’s more interesting to me than a city street. They usually bring out some of the parade floats and other special things for photo ops, though we fear there may be no more horse selfies since the stables are being relocated offsite.


The Star Wars 10K starts the opposite direction of the Disneyland 10K and the Avengers 10K, heading north on Disneyland Drive instead of south. After meandering around the surrounding streets for a little over a mile, runners cross the esplanade — the area between the entry gates for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure — for the first of two times. The esplanade is a lot of fun because it’s one of the areas where spectators line the course and cheer like crazy.

Running around Disneyland includes some character photo op stops available if you’re not overly concerned with finish time, and the iconic run through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. I have tragically never gotten a running-through-the-castle shot from the official race photos, so I’ve had to settle for a posed shot after running through it.


After Disneyland, runners cross back through the esplanade and into DCA. Depending on what corral you start in and how slow you are, the sun may be starting to rise by now, so there are chances for some great photos at Paradise Bay and in Cars Land. These are from other races, since I didn’t take enough time to appreciate the scenery at the Star Wars 10K.

Keep your eyes open for the official race photographers (or pick up the map of the photo locations at the MarathonFoto booth at the expo, where you can also purchase discounted gift certificates for race photos). You too can have cheesy shots like this by paying attention.

One of my favorite backstage areas is running past the rear of Cars Land, by the way. It’s trippy to see the construction that creates such a realistic setting.


Unlike last year when runners exited DCA behind Cars Land and then ran behind Paradise Pier Hotel before turning down the finish straightaway, this year, runners will head north from Paradise Bay and turn for the homestretch through Downtown Disney, running the length of it with lots of spectators and Starbucks patrons milling about. Disney does a great job with crowd control here, using ropes to merge runners from one side to the other and allowing spectators to cross the path without risk of being stampeded.

One more turn right before the sorcerer’s hat at the Disneyland Hotel, and runners make the short sprint(?) across the finish line. Characters are often on a platform just to the side of the finish or at the finish line itself, and daring folks can try to get photos or, ahem, hugs.

Cross the finish line strong, then meander through the finish area (it’s one way, so once you pass one area, you usually can’t go back) to get your medal, a heat sheet, water/Powerade, ice/biofreeze/other self-treatment items and the famous runDisney snackbox (will it include Almond Roca? the addicting white cheese dip? Skittles? gross hummus?).

finishareaThen it’s choose your own adventure time, with one corridor for those who want to take a photo with the official backdrop and one for those who don’t. (There are also photographers immediately after you get your medal as well, just without the backdrop.)


Finally, you have the option to head through gEAR check to pick up your bag or turn directly into the family reunion area, where you can also get a massage ($1 per minute in 5-minute increments up to 20 minutes, which I have now made a personal staple) or have your medal engraved (usually $20, cash only, or you can prepay at the expo and get express service).

Speaking of that medal, the 10K medal last year was a HUGE shiny Stormtrooper medal, one of my favorite medals I’ve ever gotten. This year’s is also going to be amazing — a big ol’ X-Wing.

I like to head for Starbucks to watch and cheer for the final finishers, which are often truly inspiring. For the Disneyland 10K, it was a pair of military amputees. There are also plenty of great breakfast options in Downtown Disney if that snackbox didn’t do it for you.

May the course be with you!

Virtual Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend Blog Hop Directory

Written by ChrisShut

January 3, 2016 at 6:05 pm

Posted in Running

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Killing time while trying not to die: runDisney mile markers

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Oh, hello. Excuse me while I blow the dust off my blog before welcoming you to an installment of the Virtual Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend Blog Hop. I’ll be covering race mile markers and my near-obsessive habit of documenting each one, usually with a blurry and/or goony-faced selfie.

I first started taking photos of each mile marker at the inaugural Avengers Super Heroes 5K, my second-ever runDisney race, primarily because the Mile 1 marker happened to match the shirt I was wearing for the race: the Incredible Hulk.


Surprisingly, this is one of my better mile marker selfies.

I then documented all the mile markers in the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon mostly because it was my first half marathon and it gave me an excuse to slow down and take a quick break every mile. I don’t officially use the Galloway run/walk method (where you take frequent walk breaks at timed intervals), but I do give myself walk breaks at water stations and mile markers. Or whenever I feel like it, really. I also don’t stop for a lot of character photos because of the long lines, so this gives me some kind of historical record.

The Avengers Half was infamous for the Santa Ana winds that assaulted runners and mile markers alike, so most of my mile marker photos are like these:

I didn’t run the Star Wars 5K last year, so I don’t know what those mile markers looked like, but I’m sure they were pretty neat. The downside to the 5K, at least if you’re in the earlier corrals, is that most of the race is in the dark, so getting decent photos is tough. At least there are only three …

Obviously, the 10K has twice as many mile markers as the 5K (science!). The inaugural Star Wars 10K was my first time doing a runDisney challenge, and my shirt was also annoying me, so the selfie-taking part of my brain was preoccupied with just getting through the race in good enough shape for the half marathon the next day. I was also fortunate enough to have finally worked my way out of the last two corrals and started in Corral C, meaning more of the race was in the dark, adding to the mile-marker-photo degree of difficulty.

I’m not fanatical about them needing to be a selfie — if a cast member or another runner is willing to take a photo for me, you better believe I’m doing that.

The 10K has an advantage over the 5K and the half marathon in that the final mile marker is nearly a quarter-mile from the finish, so it’s easier to get the shot. Usually it’s still within Downtown Disney, before the turn onto the finish straightaway.


That is one red face.

While the 10K mile markers are usually pretty awesome, the half marathon mile markers are traditionally all the same within each race. Other than the terribly-lit early ones, you will not see a lot of variety in this thrilling gallery. You will see, however, that my learning curve on where to look improved considerably as this race went on.

That last one is always tricky. The finish straightaway is narrow, and people are locked on to the finish line like Luke Skywalker gunning for the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port. The Mile 13 marker is usually up on the grass next to the sidewalk, though, so as long as I can resist the urge to shave 20 seconds off my finish time by skipping it, I can usually grab the shot.

In addition to giving me an excuse to walk a little, mile marker photos also help me keep my sanity once the race leaves the parks and becomes a death march along city streets. I take other photos during runDisney races, but I have none for last year’s Star Wars Half between mile markers 5 through 8 and 9 through 11, because there was NOTHING interesting to take photos of. Each marker is like a little oasis as I try not to die of boredom and/or exhaustion.

By the way, if you’re worried about being swept, the mile markers can also be a reassurance that you’re ahead of pace, even if you have no idea where the balloon ladies are. According to runDisney, pace cyclists will add an orange flag to a mile marker once runners are behind the official pace and in danger of being swept.

One note about taking mile marker photos — I am fanatical about following race etiquette. When I see a mile marker off in the distance, I begin to gradually merge over to that side of the road/path, and I’ll often start to take my phone out of the armband, unlock it and switch to selfie mode. As I get closer to the mile marker, I look over my shoulder to see if anyone is close behind, then put up an arm and loudly yell, “WALKING!” I make sure that when I stop at the marker, I’m well out of the running path, and I keep an eye out for clueless head-down runners who may be heading right for me, despite the fact that if I weren’t standing there, they would presumably be running headlong into the mile marker, Wile E. Coyote-style. (And yet, despite all this, I’ve had other runners yell at me for stopping, even though I can’t possibly be in their way unless they intended to run straight through the marker like the Kool-Aid Man.)

If you’re interested in tips for mid-run selfies (this is some advanced-level ninja fu stuff, people), check out this post from the master of the mid-run selfie over at Weight Off My Shoulders.

Check out more galactic guides for the Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend here.

Virtual Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend Blog Hop Directory

Written by ChrisShut

January 3, 2016 at 6:00 pm

Hello, Joey

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When SHN announced its 2011-12 season, I probably topped my circle of friends in my excitement about the seven titles, despite my disappointment at no “Memphis” and the inclusion of Hair, one of my least favorite shows. “Les Miserables” holds a special place in my heart as my first musical and I was unreasonably intrigued by “Bring It On,” due to its “In The Heights“/”Next to Normal” pedigree. But it was one of the two plays that most got me excited, much to the confusion of my less-theater-nerdy friends.

Joey at the Curran Theater preview event

Joey at the Curran Theater preview event

I was in New York on a theater binge when “War Horse” was in previews on Broadway, and it was already a hot ticket. Since I was in a musicals-only frame of mind, it wasn’t a big deal to skip battling for a way to see it. Or perhaps I’m psychic — less than two months later, the national tour was announced, and I fully expected San Francisco to get a stop.

At any rate, I’ve become borderline-obsessed with the show, which features a number of things that put it in my weird little wheelhouse. I’m intrigued by wars, in a scholarly way. My grandfather was a Civil War aficionado, so perhaps it’s genetic. And who doesn’t love English accents?

But first and foremost, I LOVE PUPPETS. I didn’t realize the degree to which this is true until my sister-in-law proclaimed the same thing and the world finally made sense to me. I love funny puppets, serious puppets, the Muppets (my ringtone is the Muppet chickens singing “Forget You”) — if it’s made of fur or wood or felt or paper and operated by a human, LOVE IT. (This also translates to mascots, for some equally strange reason. Stop looking at me like that.)

You don’t even have to be a puppet person to appreciate the stagecraft of “War Horse,” though. What the Handspring Puppet Company has done is astounding — trust me that it’s worth the 18 minutes to watch this TED presentation about the puppets.

OK, enough with the blather. This is just to set up how excited I was when I received an invitation for SHN subscribers to a preview event for “War Horse” that would feature Joey, the title character. As luck would have it, I was already scheduled to be off work that day, thanks to the horse puppet gods. Or something.

The Curran Theater doors were scheduled to open at 5:15, so I arrived a few minutes before 5 and found around 20 or 30 people already lined up.

Audience waiting at Curran Theater

Photo from SHN's Twitter feed

Book of MormonWhen the doors opened, I quickly picked up my tickets, got a free drink from the bar and met a disturbingly high number of SHN staff members who recognized me from Twitter or Facebook. (OK, it was two, but still …) The lobby also featured the big news from the previous day, already plastered eight feet tall (shown at left).

Despite not entering the theater for about 30 minutes after it opened, we still snagged seats in the front row — being accustomed to lottery and rush seating, we didn’t mind sitting on the side if it meant being close.

The event began with some of the beautifully haunting music from the show (check it out here), and then SHN marketing and sales VP Scott Kane introduced Finn Caldwell, the associate puppetry director and one of the puppeteers for the National Theatre production of “War Horse.”

Caldwell discusses "Tall Horse"

Caldwell discusses "Tall Horse"

Caldwell, with the most delicious South African accent, took the audience through a brief history of the Handspring Puppet Company, including an earlier show called “Tall Horse” that featured a giraffe puppet. And then he introduced the star of the show, Joey, operated by three puppeteers (Head, Heart and Hind, as they’re known — better Hind than “Horse’s Ass,” I suppose).

I already knew a lot about the amazing work the War Horse puppeteers do, thanks to a cool video diary series, available on iTunes, done by the puppeteer who plays Joey’s Hind in the West End (not going to touch that one). But to see the horse in the flesh, so to speak, was remarkable. Despite the harsh lighting, which my iPhone camera did not enjoy one bit, the puppeteers still seemed to vanish in the creature and it was barely a reach to imagine it as a living, breathing being. Indeed, the horse “breathing” is one of the movements the puppeteers use to enhance the realism.

Here’s a video I took of Joey’s entrance (with my iPhone, which does not like less-than-optimal lighting, apparently).

The event concluded with SHN’s own Carole Shorenstein Hays getting a ride on Joey (the construction allows the puppeteers to carry actors) and then a raffle for a photo opportunity with the horse. That was a prize I would have paid serious money to get, but alas, I wasn’t a winner.

Though I’d already figured I’d see “War Horse” more than once when it arrives in August, this event sealed that. In fact, I’m hoping to get a ticket for opening night, in addition to my subscriber night of Aug. 16. And hey, a third time might be in the offing, especially if I can somehow get a photo with Joey.

Written by ChrisShut

February 20, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Name that Glinda

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In preparation for finally hanging up some of my framed Wicked stuff, I took a closer look at the cast-signed poster I got in 2005 when the national tour came to San Francisco. And much to my surprise, even though Kendra Kassebaum played Glinda at that time, I can’t find what for sure is her signature on the poster.

So I’m curious: Did Kendra sign my poster? If not, which Glinda DID sign my poster? Or did NO Glinda sign it? I’m appealing to Wicked fans to help me here, since a look at lists of Glindas hasn’t helped me figure it out.

The poster image is below — click on it for a much larger version. Traditionally, Glindas sign somewhere in the area of the white-clothed witch. The signature on the sleeve near the wrist, between Paul Slade Smith (Witch’s Father) and Jenna Leigh Green (Nessa Rose), could be Kendra, but it doesn’t match up that well with the other Kendra signatures I have. (PHOTO ADDED OF THOSE BELOW.)

UPDATE: I now think the one between Paul Smith and JLG is actually Aaron Albano (ensemble). One person asked about the signature within the K in Wicked, and I think that’s K.W. Miller (ensemble).

I believe the signature on the hat might be Laura Dysarczyk (swing, and since she’s in the SF production now, I can ask her sometime), and the one on her nose could be Maria Eberline (ensemble). Beyond that, I’m kind of stumped, but I see no other signatures that could be Kendra’s. If she didn’t sign it, then presumably somewhere is the signature of a previous Glinda, but I have no clue who to look for.

I’ve also included a photo of the program’s cast listing for cross-referencing. By the way, while I realized earlier that Adam Lambert was in that cast (and signed the poster), I just now noticed Brooke Elliott also was in it. I’ll have to figure out which signature is hers, too.


Yes, it's wrapped in plastic, which I know makes it harder to read

And here’s that program (click to enlarge):

ADDED — photos of other Kendra Kassebaum signatures I have (click to enlarge):

Written by ChrisShut

July 5, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Awesome Genius Mix of shame

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One of the coolest inventions from the fine folks at Apple has to be the iTunes Genius Mix, where you select one song from your library and it automatically creates a playlist of 25 songs from your music library that eerily seem to go quite well together.

Sometimes I’ll do the equivalent of closing my eyes and picking a song at random and see what the Genius button spits out. One day, the waggling virtual finger alighted on Wham’s “I’m Your Man” (what? I was a teen girl once, you know), and the Genius Mix that popped out never fails to entertain me in a totally awesome and completely shamed way. Note that it was created when I only had my iTunes purchases loaded into that computer and not my ripped CDs, so that’s why there are so many duplicated artists, but I kind of like that.

Here’s the lineup, if you want to re-create this delight yourself (song, album, artist, because I’m too lazy to edit the iTunes listing). I dare you not to shake your tailfeathers at some point while listening to this:

1. I’m Your Man, Music from the Edge of Heaven, Wham!
2. Blame It On the Boogie, Essential Michael Jackson, The Jacksons
3. Never Can Say Goodbye (Tom Moulton Mix), The Best Of Gloria Gaynor, Gloria Gaynor
4. The One Thing, Shabooh Shoobah, INXS
5. …Baby One More Time, Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, Britney Spears
6. Leave Me Alone (I’m Lonely), I’m Not Dead, P!nk
7. Everybody (Backstreet’s Back), The Hits – Chapter One, Backstreet Boys
8. Boogie Shoes, The Best of KC & The Sunshine Band, KC & The Sunshine Band
9. I’d Really Love to See You Tonight, Rhino Hi-Five: England Dan & John Ford Coley, England Dan & John Ford Coley
10. Heartbreaker, Greatest Hits, Pat Benatar
11. Freedom, Make It Big, Wham!
12. Bad Influence, Funhouse, P!nk
13. Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), Essential Michael Jackson, The Jacksons
14. Pretty Vegas, Switch, INXS
15. Boys (Co-Ed Remix), Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, Britney Spears featuring Pharrell Williams
16. Spiderwebs, Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt
17. The Game of Love, Shaman, Santana Featuring Michelle Branch
18. I Have Seen the Rain, I’m Not Dead, P!nk featuring James T. Moore
19. Last Christmas, Music from the Edge of Heaven, Wham!
20. As Long As You Love Me, The Hits – Chapter One, Backstreet Boys
21. If I Can’t Have You, All I Ever Wanted, Kelly Clarkson
22. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, The Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates
23. Love Is Alright Tonite, Working Class Dog, Rick Springfield
24. Don’t Change, Shabooh Shoobah, INXS
25. Extraordinary, Liz Phair, Liz Phair

Just for kicks, I regenerated the Genius Mix on a library that now contains the bulk of my digital collection, including ripped CDs. It also packs in a fair amount of awesome:

1. I’m Your Man, Music from the Edge of Heaven, Wham!
2. Church Of The Poison Mind, Colour By Numbers, Culture Club
3. Thorn In My Side, Greatest Hits, Eurythmics
4. Cherish, The Immaculate Collection, Madonna
5. Never Can Say Goodbye (Tom Moulton Mix), The Best Of Gloria Gaynor, Gloria Gaynor
6. You Do Something To Me, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Paul Weller
7. I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do), The Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates
8. Blame It On the Boogie, Essential Michael Jackson, The Jacksons
9. Knock On Wood, Disco, Amii Stewart
10. Freedom, Make It Big, Wham!
11. Nobody Does It Better, Greatest Hits Live, Carly Simon
12. Too Shy, White Feathers, Kajagoogoo
13. Tell Her About It, Greatest Hits, Vol. II (1978 – 1985), Billy Joel
14. Little bird, Diva, Annie Lennox
15. Just Good Friends, Bad, Michael Jackson
16. Together Again, Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson
17. There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart), Greatest Hits, Eurythmics
18. Into the Groove, The Immaculate Collection, Madonna
19. Our Lips Are Sealed, Greatest, The Go-Go’s
20. Disco Inferno, Disco, The Trammps
21. One on One, The Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates
22. Coming Around Again, Greatest Hits Live, Carly Simon
23. True, True, Spandau Ballet
24. Sledgehammer, So, Peter Gabriel
25. Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), Essential Michael Jackson, The Jacksons

Written by ChrisShut

June 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm

In the Heights: An unexpected delight

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If it’s a Broadway show coming through San Francisco (and it doesn’t star Harvey Fierstein), I’m there, so there wasn’t any question I was going to see “In the Heights.” But I confess I wasn’t particularly excited about the show based on the description and listening to clips from the soundtrack.

A show about the Hispanic immigrant experience in New York City had little resonance for me. For one, New York is one of my least favorite cities in the world and the glorification of it irritates the life out of me. Shows about people struggling to get by also generally aren’t my cup of tea (unless it’s puppets doing the struggling); while I loved “Rent,” that’s a rare exception to the “don’t bum me out” rule I usually bring to my entertainment choices.

And while I’m the daughter of an immigrant, the German-American experience doesn’t really give me the ability to connect readily to the the subject matter of “In the Heights.”

I assumed that the accolades and praise heaped upon this show, which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2008, were in part because in somehow shook up the conventions of Broadway, brought unheard voices to the stage, opened up theater to a new audience, etc. … none of which is primarily what I’m looking for in a musical, being mostly a devotee of Sondheim and Phantom/Les Miz/Lion King-type spectacles.

So I’m very pleased to report that “In the Heights” is a wonderful show. It’s far more traditional a musical than I expected — and that, to me, is a good thing. The plot is barely there, revolving nominally around the fate of several businesses in the Washington Heights neighborhood in which it’s set, but it still feels like a show with substance.

Credit goes to the outstanding cast for giving it that heft. In particular, Kyle Beltran brings charm and appeal in the lead role of Usnavi, making you care about the life-changing decision he faces regarding the bodega he owns and operates. He also handles the challenging rap sections of the score adeptly. (Below is Corbin Bleu as Usnavi from the Broadway cast performing the opening number.)

Also memorable are Shaun Taylor-Corbett as cousin Sonny and Arielle Jacobs as struggling Stanford student Nina. Taylor-Corbett takes a purely comic-relief role and elevates it above the status of jester to something endearing. Jacobs combines the cuteness necessary for the role of a teenager with emotional heft and a beautiful voice. (The entire cast, it probably goes without saying, is ridiculously talented, both vocally and in the lively and intricate dance numbers.)

Below is not the best video, but a fantastic example of the talents of Arielle Jacobs singing “Breathe,” one of my favorite numbers from the show.

I admit to connecting with the character of Nina, who not only attends my alma mater but also is dealing with financial struggles to go there. When  I was at Stanford, I worked year-round to help afford it — my senior year, I had three jobs — and my family made great sacrifices to help foot the bill. To this day, I get particularly irritated when people mock my school as the playground of rich kids; although, yes, many who go there come from affluent families, plenty come from more modest backgrounds.

As a former techie, i also appreciated the multi-level set design and the clever use of phantom doorways that moved out from the physical storefronts to expand the acting space.

It’s hard to say exactly what it was about this show that made me appreciate it more than I ever expected to (though I’ve just spent far too many words trying to do just that). It’s genuinely entertaining, heartfelt and endearing, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it.

Written by ChrisShut

June 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Posted in Theater

Tagged with , ,

Great show, bad people

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I didn’t intend for this blog to be entirely about theater, but one of the things I miss desperately about stage managing is getting to discuss plays. Now that I’ve kicked up my theater-going, I find myself with so many things I want to share about whatever show I just saw.

Unfortunately, this one’s going to be more about the audience at the wonderful show I saw last night, Berkeley Rep‘s production of “In the Wake,” a new play by Lisa Kron.

Heidi Schreck as Ellen in Berkeley Rep’s "In the Wake" (Photo: kevinberne.com)

“In the Wake” has a lot of words, many of them coming from the mouth of main character Ellen, a feisty progressive who annoys her bemused “family” with her passionate screeds against the conservative administration and social injustice (the play begins with the disputed 2000 presidential election and uses various events during the Bush administration as the backdrop, projecting headlines onto the proscenium during scene breaks to advance the timeline).

But the core of the play is about Ellen’s life and about how her illusion of being in control of it is just that — an illusion. She finds herself caught between two relationships, one with a man and one with a woman. It’s thoughtful, engaging and very well-acted.

Which brings me to the show’s biggest problem — it’s produced by Berkeley Rep. Don’t get me wrong; Berkeley Rep is an outstanding company, putting on some incredible productions. It’s the company that brought “American Idiot” to life, for one. But it’s located in Berkeley, a place I just can’t stand.

I’ve been going to Berkeley since I was a kid, when I would take BART over there to visit a role-playing-games shop I loved (yeah, I was an RPG nerd — don’t act like you’re shocked). And I was even accepted to UC Berkeley, to which I applied as a safety school. But I’ve always been frustrated by its clash of in-your-face, do-whatever-you-want hippie-dom (and tolerance for absolute lunatics wandering the streets) with uptight, entitled snobbery.

The latter is what sat behind me during “In the Wake.” Yes, the first act is probably too long at 90 minutes. And if you have a knee-jerk objection to a perceived “liberal agenda” being pushed by the play (which I would question — more on that in a bit), that first act is going to seem EXTRA long.

At a point in the show where a teenage girl is introduced, one of the characters refers to something as “inexcusable,” to which the fellow behind me whispered, “What’s inexcusable is the acting in this play.” I was horrified and completely taken out of the moment. Later, the same man had a whispered exchange with his companion, where he exasperatedly noted the first act was an hour and a half.

When intermission hit, I turned and watched them get up. I was fuming, and part of me hoped they were leaving while another part wanted them to come back so I could give them a piece of my mind about not ruining the show for those of us who are enjoying it. I’m not a confrontational person, but I very much wanted to let them know that their behavior was selfish and reprehensible.

At the same time, the group sitting in front of me got up and I couldn’t help but overhear that they were debating whether they were going to leave or stay for the second act. I was mystified, not only that we were apparently experiencing two entirely different shows (and wondering if I had lost any ability to watch a show critically) but also that these two groups of people were so self-absorbed that they were unable to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves and just leave quietly without spreading their malcontent to those around us.

I was just exasperated, to the point where I stomped into the lobby, probably wild-eyed, trying to figure out how to defuse my anger. I ended up telling the ushers at the door that I loved the play but hated the audience and told them about the rude behavior and my intention to say something to the mouthy fellow behind me.

Heidi Schreck and Emily Donahoe as Ellen and Amy in Berkeley Rep's "In the Wake" (Photo: kevinberne.com)

It turns out the man and his companion did leave, as did the four people in front of me, which again doused some of the electricity I had experienced from the first act of what I felt was a scintillating play. As the second act opened, with Ellen and her girlfriend engaged in a makeout session (that was sexy and warm and delightful), I thought, “Well, good thing those old cranks left, because this really would have set them free!”

Thankfully, the evening was largely redeemed when the appreciative audience gave the cast a well-deserved standing ovation at the curtain call. See, I hadn’t lost my mind — this IS a fantastic show.

On the way home, I mulled over what might have made those unhappy audience members so dissatisfied, and I think there were two possible scenarios at work (possibly both at once).

As noted, the show’s main character is an outspoken progressive, and the framing device involves headlines from throughout the Bush administration, from both elections to Sept. 11 to the invasion of Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and beyond. If one is decidedly right-wing, just the suggestion that it’s an indictment of Republicans can put up the hackles, blinding them to the opposing voices presented in the play. But it’s not a show about politics, really. It’s about how events out of your control — political, economic, personal — can spin your life in all kinds of directions without your necessarily realizing it.

And though Ellen IS endearing, she’s also exasperating regardless of your political bent — and she was absolutely written to be just that. Though she has a definite world view, she’s challenged on that by the other characters, just not in a Fox News kind of way. So perhaps that’s why some audience members would feel alienated to the point of having to make a show of leaving at intermission.

But the fellow sitting behind me wasn’t indicting the show’s politics; he was slamming the acting, which dumbfounded me. My first thought was that the “liberalness” of the show was frustrating him and perhaps making him hate everything about the show, including the performances.

I did strike up a conversation with a couple sitting next to me about the rude behavior and the people who had left in front of us, and they astutely pointed out that the nature of theater is that you have to get to know the characters a bit before you can settle in with them. The character of Ellen’s boyfriend, for example, is one of those extroverted guys that cracks jokes at everything. It’s initially a little off-putting, seeming like he’s overacting, but you quickly realize that’s who this guy is. Everybody knows a guy like that, who’s a little hyper, always a bit of a show.

Andrea Frankle, Miriam F. Glover and Danielle Skraastad in Berkeley Rep's "In the Wake" (Photo: kevinberne.com)

And the teenage girl that’s introduced late in the first act is played like an actual teenage girl — awkward, unsure of her words — and she’s struggling in school. She’s not like the youths you typically see on TVs and in the movies, polished and wisecracking.

It’s an interesting dichotomy: the realness of the characters combined with the inherent artificiality of theater, watching people play out their lives in a three-sided box. I don’t know which aspect didn’t resonate with Mr. Crankypants behind me, but it’s sad that his expectations were so unrealistic that he not only hated what he was seeing but that he also couldn’t restrain himself from ruining it for those unfortunately sitting close enough to hear his complaints.

“In the Wake” certainly isn’t perfect. It could use some editing, and yes, the teenage girl does feel a little like a deus ex machina, introduced just to provide a impetus for more debate between Ellen and whomever engages her.

One of the very first things I did in my theatrical life was produce a show of three original one-act plays at Stanford. I know the exhilaration of discovering a new work, and the imperfect nature of such things — and really, nothing is ever perfect.

I’m sorry that those people weren’t able to allow themselves to connect with the discovery of new characters and new worlds, especially when produced at such a high quality as Berkeley Rep does.

So do yourself a favor — go see “In the Wake” or another Berkeley Rep production (I’m 4-for-4 in liking everything I’ve seen there in the past few months). Keep an open mind, and try not to sit near the cranky old people.

Written by ChrisShut

May 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm

When good algorithms go bad

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My mother called me and had me look up two CDs she was interested in so I could tell her what the difference was between the two. After that, this is what the Amazon homepage looked like for me — can you guess what she had me look up?:

Written by ChrisShut

March 25, 2010 at 12:47 am

Adventures at No. 20 (or is it 18? 19?)

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Last night, I saw “Wicked” for the 20th time. (Sidebar: I’m really not insane — well, maybe just in this area. I don’t know why I’ve seen it so many times, other than it’s a very special show. I’m kind of embarrassed by this one obsession, actually, so hey, let’s blog about it where I can tell the whole world what a nutbar I am!)

But if we want to get technical, it was only the 19th time I’ve seen it in English — I also saw it while vacationing in Germany. And it’s only the 18th time for this particular production. The first time I saw it was when the national tour came to town in 2005.

To further complicate the counting, No. 20 (or 18, or 19) was my third time seeing Eden Espinosa as Elphaba, but the second time in the current run (she was my first Elphaba, back in 2005).

I’m just blown away by what a powerhouse performer Eden is, both vocally and in her acting. She’s a force that commands the stage. And last night, she also displayed what a pro she is, as the show had a couple of glitches.

First, her body mike was a little finicky. During the train station scene when Fiyero (the wonderful Nicolas Dromard) says that he “thinks about that day a lot,” Elphaba replies, “So do I.” Only this time, her body mike blipped a little and it was almost a whisper. Glinda (Kendra Kassebaum) has the next line (“Me, too!”) but she must not have heard Eden because there was a pause and then Eden repeated the line louder, prompting Kendra to respond quickly and slightly flustered (which works for the character in that scene, amusingly enough).

Much more noticeable was a mike failure at the beginning of “As Long as You’re Mine.” Eden’s body mike was completely out for half of her first verse, and those of us in the front row appreciated being close enough to still hear her until it popped back to life.

What’s odd is that according to what I learned at “Behind the Emerald Curtain” (entertaingly hosted by Nicolas and fellow cast member Jonathan Ritter), Elphaba wears two body mikes, one in her hair and one kind of behind her ear (there’s also one in her witch’s hat, but she doesn’t wear the hat during “As Long As You’re Mine”). So for some reason, neither mike was working.

Interesting (to me) is I don’t think Nicolas’ mike was picking up Eden at all, which means the sound board op must keep his turned down until it’s his turn to sing. I know back when I worked in theater (where we would often have to swap body mikes between cast members during the show since we didn’t have enough for everybody to even have one), we’d use that trick when one crapped out — crank up the mike of the other person in the scene and hope they’d have the sense to lean into it. Or perhaps these are such sophisticated mikes that they don’t pick up much beyond the person who’s wearing them.

Sitting in the front row also allowed me to see a nifty bit of sleight-of-hand performed by Eden at the top of “No Good Deed.” Elphaba and a podium containing the Grimorie (her spell book) rise from under the stage at the front edge, where she sings the first part of the song. When she first emerged, I noticed she tucked something black into the folds of her dress between her knees; at first I thought it was her witch’s hat, but she doesn’t have the hat in that scene, and I didn’t think she’d mistakenly bring it with her.

After the first part of the song, Elphaba slams the Grimorie shut and steps away from the podium, which sinks with the book back under the stage. Right before she stepped away, Eden grabbed the black whatever from between her knees and quickly stuffed it into the book as she slammed the cover shut, and it sunk back into the stage. I was still curious what it was, since I knew it wasn’t big enough to be her hat, which also is too rigid to have been stuffed into the book.

Late in the song, Elphaba steps upstage to perform the end of the song in an eerie light shining up in her face, with a fan blowing that allows her to wave her “wings” around (her dress has a sort of cape, where she grabs the ends and holds them out kind of like billowing wings). But this time, there was no cape. Aha! Mystery solved — apparently her cape became detached and she hid it first between her knees and later in the book. Smooth.

Eden and me at the stage door

Post-show, I stopped by the stage door (the “Wicked” cast is unbelievably friendly and welcoming), and when Eden came out, I asked her about the cape adventure. She told me that her dresser accidentally stepped on the cape as Eden ran away, and one of the wings ripped off. She realized she didn’t want to perform the song with only one wing, so as she was being elevated, she frantically detached the other wing herself, tucked it away and then had the presence of mind to put it in the book so it would be out of her way. Quick thinking!

It’s really a stark contrast to one of the shows I stage-managed, an original play whose title totally escapes me now (that’s how much I’ve blocked out the experience). The lead actor, who proudly proclaimed that he’d been in the movie “Blackboard Jungle” as one of the students, notified the director one afternoon that he was hoarse and feared he wouldn’t be able to perform that night.

We had him arrive at the theater early and ran through a scene to assess his voice, determining that he easily could perform as long as he didn’t overproject (which he seemed to be doing to compensate for the slight degradation of his voice). We insisted that the miking and acoustics of the very small theater would allow the audience to hear him if he simply spoke normally.

Of course, being hardheaded and slightly dim, the first thing he did that night was start overprojecting, his voice breaking from time to time, but still not unacceptable.

Except in his mind. In the middle of a scene, he stopped, stepped to the front of the stage, announced to the audience that he would be unable to continue and walked off, leading his co-lead standing there stunned. I scrambled down from the booth and went to the front of house to announce we would locate the house manager and begin issuing refunds, but the audience wasn’t sure this wasn’t some bizarre part of the show. It was one of the worst nights of my theatrical career and could be partially responsible for me deciding I wasn’t going to be able to continue down that road. Imagine if his costume had been ripped by a dresser …

Anyway, back to “Wicked”: During the curtain call, when Kendra and Eden got a well-deserved standing ovation (which they ALWAYS get, at least when I’m there), after the cast saluted the orchestra — different conductor than usual, by the way — and they were waving to the audience, Nicolas spotted me in the first row, and god bless him, he winked at me and acknowledged that he recognized me, for which I am, again, slightly embarrassed. The folks sitting next to me were suitably impressed, though 😉

After the curtain call, Nicolas announced to the audience that this was a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit night, where the cast collects donations at the door and they have autographed schwag available in the lobby. I think this is the third time I’ve been to a BCEFA night — the first, oddly enough, was the first time I ever saw the show, back in 2005, and I bought a cast-signed poster that I now have framed in my house, next to my 1990 women’s Final Four poster signed by the championship Stanford team and an autographed Joe Thornton montage (I am a strange, strange girl). By the way, I realized recently that one of the signatures on the “Wicked” poster belongs to Adam Lambert — neat!

I had already decided that if the opportunity arose before the end of the run, I would get autographed photos of Nicolas and Eden, since I already have autographed photos of Kendra and the sublime Teal Wicks (previous Elphaba). Elphaba’s father sold me the photos (heh) — a really nice one of Eden near the end of “Defying Gravity” with the inscription “DEFY GRAVITY” on it and one of Nicolas in his Captain of the Guard uniform.

Although I had just dropped 50 bucks on photos, a slight surge of euphoria (possibly enhanced by pretty significant sleep deprivation of the previous two nights) caused me to drop a 20 into the donation bucket held by Boq (the adorable Etai BenShlomo), which got me a very nice thanks from Etai. Hey, I’m easy.

I hadn’t planned to visit the stage door, but I thought I’d at least thank Nicolas for recognizing me. He was beating a hasty exit, however, already starting to bike away (with helmet — safety first!). I called out my thanks to him, he reciprocated and then pedaled off quickly. Most of the cast dispersed rapidly, which is understandable on Friday nights when they have a quick turnaround for a two-show Saturday.

Jody Gelb, who plays Madame Morrible and is a total sweetheart, came out and recognized me from a previous stage-door encounter (seriously, this is embarrassing). She’s on Twitter, which I just recently started doing, and we had exchanged tweets earlier in the day, but since she had no way of knowing who I was, I made the connection for her and she seemed appreciative.

Speaking of Twitter, one of the other stage-door hangers-on was a girl I met a couple of performances ago, one of the semi-regulars named Emily. I think she’s up to around 15 times seeing the show, and she was very proud that this was her one-year anniversary of first seeing it. She’d won the “Wicked” lottery ($25 orchestra seats on the extreme sides) and I noticed that Nicolas had tweeted in the middle of the show that he had spotted her in the audience. I showed her the tweet and she was so thrillified (that’s “Wicked” speak) — it seemed to just make her night.

While waiting at the stage door, I realized that the small group standing next to me included cast member Felicia Ricci, who writes the most AMAZING blog about her experiences as a new cast member. She’s going to be the new Elphaba standby starting at the end of the month. (Both Glinda and Elphaba have a backup whose job is literally to hang out backstage in case the lead gets sick or hurt and they have to jump into action; it’s different from an understudy in that a US is also in the show, usually as part of the ensemble.)

I’d introduced myself to Felicia before (again, not a crazy stalker or groupie — she asked her blog fans to introduce ourselves to her), and when we caught sight of each other, amazingly, she remembered me, stopping her conversation to chat with me briefly. I found out when she’ll definitely be performing as Elphaba (I am SO there to see that) and we discussed the body mike and cape adventures. I also asked her about one of her ensemble hats that I dubbed the “Saturn on Crack” hat, which has a piece that hangs in front of her face; she was a hoot describing how sometimes it bops her in the face, depending on where the wig people position it.

She happened to mention that the people with her were her family, and I felt like a doofus for having interrupted her family time so much. But she was a doll about it. I know she’ll be a fantastic Elphaba.

Eden eventually came out and we had the conversation about the cape antics. I left the theater much later than I intended (knowing I was severely sleep-deprived and needed to be at the zoo at the ass-crack of dawn, I should have gone straight home and to bed), but it was well worth it. I just wonder how much of a loon I seem like for having this obsession.

I mean, it’s not like I’m easily star-struck. I’m never going to be able to claim to be something or someone’s “biggest fan” (SHN contest aside) because I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve THAT much. As noted, I was a professional stage manager, so I’ve worked closely with extraordinarily talented people (and was admired for my talents as a stage manager). And I’ve worked for Major League Baseball for the past 12 years, interacting with and interviewing professional athletes and sporting legends, from Barry Bonds to Willie Mays.

So I feel a little conflicted about my relationship with “Wicked.” On the one hand, it brings me great joy, and getting to chat with the cast allows me to get a bit closer to the show. On the other hand, I want to be respectful that these people don’t know anything about me and I’m just another in the gang of obsessives they see regularly at the stage door (and in the front row, heh). I exchange tweets with some of them, but every time, I hesitate before I click send, fearing that I’m being an obnoxious fan.

One of the things I miss most about stage managing is getting to be around people who have a passion for theater, who want to TALK about characters and stagecraft and the art of drama. I got to discuss motivations for Madame Morrible with Jody, and it was one of the most energizing conversations I’ve had in ages.

I only hope that these fine artists know my admiration for them is based in a deep appreciation for their incredible talent in bringing this marvelous show to life. I can only dream that someday I might return to that world as not just an admirer but as a collaborator.

Written by ChrisShut

March 21, 2010 at 12:13 am

Why I’m a fan of SHN

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Going to the theater always involves a bit of an emotional struggle for me. But because of SHN, I simply can’t help going, with the pain outweighed by the joy of seeing the fantastic shows they offer.

An explanation: When I was a freshman in college, I discovered my passion — theater — by both working on shows and discovering SHN’s offerings. I first became enraptured by Lily Tomlin’s “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which I would eventually see multiple times, and the show’s poster still hangs on my wall. Throughout college, as I eventually earned a degree in drama, I managed to see a number of still-memorable SHN shows, including “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The King and I” (with Rudolf Nureyev!), “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” and others.

After graduating, I became a professional stage manager. But two years, four shows and a total of less than $5,000 earned later (and being the last cut for a stage management internship at ACT), I was forced to give up what I desperately longed to do. I turned to my other degree (journalism), and my attendance at shows dropped off markedly. It was simply too painful to go, for the most part, knowing that I belonged on the other side of the proscenium.

And yet, I still found myself going to the occasional show — always to SHN shows. I couldn’t pass up seeing some of the productions I had always loved and longed to see, like “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King,” or shows that simply intrigued me too much to skip, including “Contact” and “City of Angels.” The waves of regret would subside once the lights dimmed and the performance began.

With “Wicked” in 2005, I discovered a show that would slowly bring me back to being an eager theatergoer — tonight I will see the current production for the 18th time. But it’s not just “Wicked” I adore, it’s SHN and the quality that organization represents.

Many years ago, I saw a community theater production of “South Pacific” and HATED the show. I deemed it an outdated, cornball cheesefest (or whatever county-fair-food metaphor suits your fancy) that only appealed to audiences Of A Certain Age. When I saw SHN’s last season included the Lincoln Center production, I had zero interest in seeing it, but glowing reviews intrigued me and I decided to put my faith in an SHN offering and go. However, the only day free on my schedule was the same day I already had tickets for “Rent.” I noted that it was a Wednesday, though, and — you guessed it — I opted for a doubleheader: matinee of “South Pacific” and evening performance of “Rent.” I was well-rewarded; “South Pacific” was magnificently sublime. It’s amazing what top-quality performers and productions can deliver. My day of gorging on theater was so special, I didn’t even mind that much to discover my car was locked in a closed parking lot and I’d have to go back the next morning to fetch it (and pay the overnight fees).

Don’t get me wrong — I still have enormous pangs of regret whenever I go to a show. I’ve begun to consider the possibility of chucking my successful current career and trying to start over as a stage manager. I even momentarily considered quitting my job and getting a front-of-house position with “Peter Pan,” just on the chance it might get a toe on the path back to what I was truly meant to do.

But as I said, the heartache is not enough to keep me away from the wonderful productions SHN brings to San Francisco. I will be there for “In the Heights” and “Young Frankenstein.” I won’t miss “West Side Story” or “Dreamgirls.” And I plan to take my 6-year-old niece to see “Peter Pan” as her first live theater show.

I also intend to visit New York in the near future to see some shows, but I know I won’t be seeing any shows I’ve already had the pleasure of seeing thanks to SHN. If I’ve seen them here, I’ve already truly seen the Best of Broadway.

A sampling of some of my SHN programs.

Written by ChrisShut

March 19, 2010 at 1:35 am

Posted in Theater

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