Thursday, January 28, 2010


I was a Theatre major in college. Though most people I know do know this about me at some level, it's easy to forget because I teach in the Communication field that I took my Master's degree in instead of in Theatre. But Theatre was the start - as every cheesy actor remarks at some point in their career - the first love.

Theatre is an odd thing. It's here, it's concrete, you see it, you hear it - then it's gone. TV you can go back and watch again and again - ad nauseam. Browse through the cable listings in your area and you'll find entire channels dedicated to reruns of Law and Order - just in case you missed the basic story the first 80 times they told it. And every time they re-broadcast it, it is exactly the same. Nothing changes - not a word, not a tone, not an expression. Don't get me wrong - I love the technology of TV and it has, after all, given us iconic images and experiences - including Lucy stuffing chocolates down her dress and into her mouth. No complaints there.

But Theatre is different. Theatre changes every time you see it. Even if the actors say the exact same words, they rarely say them the exact same way, with the same tone, the same expression, the same cadence. The movement changes, maybe just a fraction of an inch. The reaction of one person to another is slightly different in timing or intensity. You can go see the same production every single time it plays and never see the same show twice. Then, of course, it is gone. The actors, directors, technicians put in immense time and effort to create this experience and after 20 or 6 or 2 performances, that's it - it's done. They dismantle the sets which are repainted and become part of a new show, hang up the costumes which are tweaked to fit some new actor in some new character, and all that's left is a crinkled program, the still photos that get posted in a theatre lobby, and the memories of those who have participated.

The Theatre life is an odd one. You work insane hours, both in amount and in times. You work evenings and late into the night. You work weekends. You work holidays. You sleep late and stay up even later. When the rest of the world is getting up to start their day, you're winding down to go to bed. Because of the nature of the work, you interact with your colleagues with an intensity that you simply do not find in many other fields. It's the creativity, yes. And it's the emotion. Your job in the Theatre is to evoke an emotional response in your audience, whether you're the actor, the costumer, the director. The end goal is the audience response and everything is directed to that end - that vision.

That much emotion doesn't come without a price. That price is drama - and I mean that in every sense of the word. The point is the drama, yes - but the work becomes drama and the relationships become drama and the drama easily feeds upon itself and creates more drama. Add to the mix that you have people who have personalities that embrace drama and, in many cases, like to be the center of the drama and if there is no drama they will create some drama. If you're not careful, even in the middle of comedy you can get lost in the drama.

Luckily, though, in the midst of all this there are a few people who are sane and grounded - people who don't get lost in the drama. One of those people was Nancy Wheeler. Nancy was one of my directors in my university program, and one of the sanest, most drama-free people you could ever hope to meet. She plopped herself in the center of all of that angst and emotion and drama and became a pool of calm and sanity.

I don't want to give the wrong impression - Nancy was not, ever, boring. She laughed more than most people and had a sharp wit and a wicked sense of humor. She was the first to laugh at your joke, the first to join in the fun and was always up for a good time. She was passionate about the drama - she demanded the best and the most from her actors and her techs. Halfway, or half-assed, was not an option. Do your best - that's the standard. And that standard created some absolutely memorable work. I don't think it's possible that anyone who ever was fortunate enough to work with Nancy came away from the experience unaffected.

A story shared by one of her actors is a great example of Nancy's way of handling the drama which constantly swirls in the theatre. Jim Blanchette shares "...She was in rehearsal for Arsenic and Old Lace and I was lucky enough to be working in the theatre that day watching. An actor was discovering their inner Lawrence Olivier and needed motivation for everything they did. The actor asked for one too many justifications and Nancy answered curtly but sweetly, "Your motivation is a kick in the ass. Cross stage left..." Drama be damned - there's work to be done. I don't know who the actor was, but I'm guessing that working with Nancy was one of the best things that s/he ever experienced.

Nancy died on January 26. She leaves behind a legacy of actors, technicians, students, colleagues and friends who were forever changed for the better for having known Nancy and worked with her. On Sunday and Monday, many of us will gather together to remember her formally - and probably dramatically. We'll share stories, we'll laugh, we'll cry and we will raise a glass to one of the best human beings we've ever had the privilege to know. We'll recognize that our lives, like the Theatre, are ephemeral and that what ultimately matters is that we've done our best and that we've created something that positively impacts the people we interact with - something memorable. Even in death, Nancy remains our teacher.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I had dinner with a friend recently. We've had a hard time connecting the past few months - our schedules simply haven't been compatible and one delay led to another. We both do our share of traveling, we both work, we both have family obligations. You know how it is. So when we finally got together we had some catching up to do. As it turned out - a lot.

We started with the surface stuff, catching up on events and activities. Her life, my life - we've both had a lot going on. As we talked, the signs began to emerge. A laugh that was in an odd place, a comment that didn't quite fit, another one that seemed completely out of context. You know how you can know something in your gut before you can put an intellectual name on it? My stomach started to tense up. Something was wrong. I could feel it. And it turned out to be something big. Her husband has had an affair.

The story came out in pieces - this detail, that feeling, this comment, that reaction. The whys and the wherefores aren't important - they never are. As she said so eloquently, "the excuse doesn't matter - he chose to betray me."

Many of us (no matter our gender) have had this experience personally and, if not, we all certainly know someone who has, and more than likely, someone close to us. We know the pain, the humiliation, the complex and deep emotions, the confusion that she feels. And, probably understandably, we all have an urge to give advice.

I believe this urge to give advice stems from a couple of different places. The first is our sincere desire to help. We want to make it better. We want to alleviate pain, bring comfort. We want to help and our idea of 'help' is encouraging that person to do what we personally think would be the best thing to do. I think the second is our own discomfort. We want to say something almost as a reassurance to ourselves that we have, at the very least, an idea of what should be done in this situation as if that knowledge itself would stave off such an event happening to us. We have the urge to say the things that others have said before us, even if they weren't helpful and actually felt irritating or patronizing. There is an almost uncontrollable desire to spit out platitudes and homilies, things we've read in magazines or heard on Oprah or Dr. Phil. I felt every one of those urges as I listened. I opened my mouth and closed it. More than once. Finally, she asked me what I thought she should do. There it was - my golden opportunity. I didn't take it.

I opened my mouth to start and I stopped myself. Who am I to give advice to anyone about what they should do in such a painful circumstance? Why should I be the one to decide that what I would do is the best way for someone else to handle this? Why would I think that based upon what details have been shared with me that I could come close to understanding the intricacies of what has conspired between two others in their most intimate relationship? Why would my values be more important than hers or my instincts any better? She is the one who must make her choice. She is the one who must live with the consequences.

I didn't tell her what to do. I expressed sympathy - I am so saddened that she is going through this pain. I expressed shock (legitimate, by the way) - her husband is the last person I would have expected this out of. I expressed pain - I like her husband and I feel betrayed by his behavior. I feel taken in, as though he has lied to me about his character and has pretended to be someone he is not. I also asked questions. I asked her what she felt, what she hoped for, what she wanted. I asked her what she was afraid of and what she was worried about. I asked her what she thought her options were and how she felt about each of them. And at the end, after listening to her talk, I asked her what she was going to do.

As it turns out, she's not going to do what I would do. And that's her right. She's a bright woman and she knows what she can live with and what she can't. So as my friend moves forward, my job is to keep being her friend. I'm going to listen to her talk and vent. I'm going to remind her of the person that she is - strong, loving, courageous, and confident. I'm going to support her as she makes her decisions about moving forward and what her future will look like. I'm going to encourage her to trust her own instincts and judgments. And I'm going to reassure her, that even when her pain is the strongest, she is not alone.

And I'm going to keep my advice exactly where it belongs - to myself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti Update

As you all have read, I was in Haiti for two weeks in September. Many people have written and called asking me for updates on our connections in Haiti. I thought I would depart from my usual entries to give an update here.

We actually had a team in Haiti at the time of the quake. They were doing the same work I did when I was there in September - staying at the Mephibosheth House and working with the kids there and also working at the Sisters in the mornings. We were incredibly fortunate.

The kids at the Mephibosheth House are all safe. The staff is all safe. Thankfully, one of the team members reacted quickly and got a text message out to her husband immediately. At the time of the quake, Dio and Lionette were not at the house so we here at home spent 24 hours not knowing their condition. I spent Wednesday glued to CNN, combing street scenes looking for them. We learned Wednesday evening that they had been at the church at the time of the quake and returned home safely about 8 hours later - a tough 8 hours for the kids, staff, and team.

Our team is all safe. They moved to the Embassy on Wednesday and they got out in two trips - the first four about 4am Friday (with the clothes on their backs and a backpack) on a military transport that ended up in New Jersey and the last three on a commercial flight to Miami that got out late Friday afternoon. They were all back safe in Minneapolis by Saturday at 5pm. That may sound a bit odd to some people and you may be wondering why they didn't stay and help. I understand those thoughts, but it is a little more complicated than that. What was, and is currently, needed in Haiti is medical personnel. People without those skills are, in many ways, simply a burden. They require food and water and, as you have seen, those are in very short supply. It was also the safest move for the Haitians we serve. White people are assumed to be wealthy, and where white people are there is assumed to be money. Moving them out quickly was the best thing to do for everyone, plus it made more room at the house which turned out to be badly needed.

In terms of damages: The MH is completely intact with no damage and we suffered only a hairline crack or two in the compound wall (thankfully the house was built to code - US not Haitian) even though a massive building just outside the wall went down. The MH is about a 20 minute drive north-ish, in normal circumstances, from the airport if that gives you any context from the maps you've seen, so the house was in an area that did receive damage. The church - Ebenezer Baptist - also suffered some damage. Luckily the first floor where they hold their services is standing. The second floor was under construction and it went down, pretty understandably. The Sisters' clinic made it through but we are unsure of how much damage they suffered. At last report, we have heard they lost one baby. Steve said the sights in Port-au-Prince were pretty horrific - dead bodies and destruction. He spent much of one day out in the streets with Joe - the MH driver and general manager. They found an open gas station and stopped - 2 1/2 hours later they left with a full tank. Most people will probably never know what happened to their family members, where they died, or where they were buried.

In terms of people: The church lost 1 - a young woman who was the girlfriend of one of the young church leaders. One of the boys at the house, Evans, lost his father and his brother. One of the girls, Ruth, lost many family members, various reports go from 2 or 3 up to 35. That news is still sketchy. We haven't had detailed updates about the families of the staff but I expect one this Saturday.

Current plans: As of Monday there are an extra 30+ people staying at the house (it could be far more by now!) The house has a well and it has solar power. From reports, everyone in the church lost their homes. To help people get back on their feet they've decided to move the kids. When the roads are passable and they are able to make arrangements, they are going to move the special needs kids up to the village of Tricotte (where Dio is originally from, up in the mountains, anywhere from a 6 to 12 hour drive depending on conditions and breakdowns - when we went in '96 it took 10 hours.) That will put the children in the safety of the countryside during this unstable time and allow the MH to be used for the church people while their homes are rebuilt and things settle into the new normal. I haven't heard, but I assume that situation might last quite a long time, given what I've seen and what I know about Haiti and how things 'work.'

Thank you to all of you who have written or called, asking for information and expressing your concern. From our perspective, there is much to be thankful for. We were incredibly fortunate and there is certainly no explanation for it. Amid destruction and devastation there continues to be grace and hope.

Many of you have asked me to suggest ways to help. I would recommend a couple of options for you. First, we are collecting money at the church to be sent to Dio for earthquake relief. You can make a check out to Church of the Open Door and mark it for 'Haiti relief'.
Church of the Open Door
9060 Zanzibar Lane North
Maple Grove, MN 55311
You may also donate on line at:

For those of you who are concerned that money in these situations is often 'diverted' or misused, I would tell you this. Pastor Dio is a man of integrity (I would trust him with my life) and he will be certain that your donations go directly to helping real people in real ways - food, shelter.

For those of you who might prefer to give online or more generally, there are a couple of organizations that will, I believe, use your money well. They are World Vision - and Samaritan's Purse -

Friday, January 15, 2010


I went on a vacation last week. Now, I know those who don’t understand sabbatical are thinking that I’ve been on vacation for months now – what the heck am I talking about? But as we all know I’m working very hard on this sabbatical – this week was a true ‘vacation.’ I went out of the country for 8 days, I didn’t take students with me, I didn’t take work along, I didn’t think about work while I was away. I went to rest.

This vacation was full of lucky timing. My friend and I were able to get a great deal on the vacation so the financial cost was relatively small. The other part of the lucky timing was the calendar. We left Minneapolis with an air temperature of -18F and landed in 86F with sunny skies. A one hundred degree temperature difference is probably the very definition of ‘vacation’ during a Minnesota winter.

Our vacation was a cruise in the Caribbean. We sailed out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and visited five different islands from St. Thomas down to St. Lucia. The weather was consistently in the 80s, the sun shone every day, the water was warm, the breezes were gentle, the people were friendly. There were drinks with umbrellas, amazing meals served impeccably, excellent entertainment, and delightful company. As vacations go, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

Ironically enough, especially in retrospect, I spent much of my vacation time thinking about Haiti. I suppose it was inevitable. You compare something new to what you know the best. And since I had been there so recently and because we had another team leave for Haiti only 2 days after I left for the same area, it was at the front of my thoughts.

The comparisons were stark. Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, our first port is 485 miles due east of Port-au-Prince on the other side of the Dominican Republic. The weather is the same, they are both tropical islands, you would expect to see the same sights. But you don’t. Our stops were tourist havens. We arrived in port cities that, while not originally designed for cruise traffic, have certainly adapted themselves well to be centers of indulgence. Yes, you could find local businesses and island life if you really looked for it, but first you had to run the gamut of duty-free designers. Dozens of jewelers and liquor vendors and designer shops lined the streets and just in case you couldn’t figure it out on your own the cruise line provided you with a “shopping guide” as you were leaving the ship. Cruise ships don’t stop in Port-au-Prince. And if they did, one of the first sights that would greet them is the slums of Cite Soleil and La Celine, a far cry from Louis Vuitton and Rolex. I thought often of the difference between what I was seeing and doing, and what my friends were seeing and doing in Port-au-Prince. Two days after I returned safely home, yet another tragedy blooms in Haiti.

After being discovered by Columbus in 1492 Haiti gained its independence in 1804, becoming the oldest black republic in the world and the second oldest republic in the Western hemisphere, the US being the oldest. Because of the prevalence of voodoo in Haiti’s history, some would have you believe that this independence was attained by Haitians ‘making a deal with the devil’ and that their subsequent history of hardship, poverty, political corruption and despair is the natural result of the sins of the fathers being visited upon generations of children. Others argue that the fault for Haiti’s difficulties lays at the feet of the European settlers, first Spanish then French, who pillaged the natural resources of the country to line the streets of Paris with Haitian gold and fill its drawing rooms with mahogany furniture from Haiti’s mountains, leaving the country bereft of any substantial natural resources. Whatever ‘truth’ you might choose to believe, the reality is there is plenty of fault to go around and laying blame, particularly in circumstance such as this, is a monumental waste of time.

Yet as you watch CNN, I can imagine what some of you are thinking about this country – how sad it is, how they can’t seem to catch a break, how they must be doing something to perpetuate all these problems and difficulties, how the answer sometimes seems to be to move everyone out and go in and bulldoze the place to the ground and start fresh. I understand all those thoughts. I understand the horror you might feel as you see the lack of the most basic medical care, the lack of any public services to help aid those who are refugees, the lack of any coordinated effort to rescue those still trapped under rubble. I understand the frustration you might be feeling that they just can’t seem to make things better, and that things appear to be run with such incompetence. It may seem futile to try to help.

And yet, help is what is needed. I know that the spirit of these people is remarkable. They are loving. They are giving. They are resilient. They are strong and courageous. They care for their families. They care for their neighbors. They are worth your concern. They are worth your prayers. They are worth your compassion and your recognition that nothing but an accident of birth separates us from them. They are worth your time and they are worth your support.

I know there are dozens of ways to give in a crisis such as this. However, if you are wondering where and how, I would offer a couple of suggestions. First, you could send your gifts earmarked ‘Pastor Dio- Haiti earthquake relief’ in care of Steve Hanson, Church of the Open Door, 9060 Zanzibar Lane North, Maple Grove, MN 55311. Diogene is a man of integrity and honor and will make certain that your donations reach hurting people directly – no ‘administrative costs’ taken out. If you prefer to give online, I would suggest World Vision – This is an organization that does amazing work, also with integrity.

For those of you who are wondering, our team is safe, the children and staff of the Mephibosheth House are safe. The house and compound survived the quake intact. The Sisters unfortunately lost one baby in the quake but their clinic is still intact. Amid devastation and loss, there is much to be grateful for.