Cast and crew after the final performance: Kathryn Noser (makeup, tech understudy, president of the board at Company OnStage), James West, III (role of Bill), Jo Ann Levine (role of Dinah), Karla Brandau (role of Jeanette) Vincent Totorice (role of Neil), Shelia Johnson (stage manger) Jennifer Brown (tech booth), Neil Ellis Orts (director)Read More
Jo Ann Levine, James West III, Karla Brandau, and Vincent Totorice in rehearsal for The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson at the Company OnStage (produced by arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.Read More
What does my gayness call me to be or do in the world?
Interesting question. I’ve been thinking about how being gay has, in many ways, derailed the life I once thought I would have. Or kept me from discovering a life I might have had.
I’ll concentrate on two touchstones in my life that has shaped me.
As a kid, I knew I liked moving to music but in my rural context, there were no music classes to be had, and I probably wouldn’t have had them if there were. I experienced my first dance class as a freshman in college, a Modern Dance class for theater majors that wasn’t required but strongly encouraged. It would count toward one of the required P.E. credits. Long story short, all my P.E. credits would be fulfilled by dance classes---two semesters of Modern, on semester of Jazz, one semester of Ballet. I loved these classes and did well enough in them that at least one teacher asked if I would consider declaring a dance minor (I didn’t). No one was really there to tell me that it was a possible path for me. Everything I ever knew about dance growing up was that you had to start when you were six years old, ten at the oldest---but that’s mostly ballet. I’ve since learned that many people go on to dance careers after first taking class in college. Bill T. Jones comes to mind as a more famous example. I was content enough with my theater studies.
There is a long list of difference between me and Bill T. Jones, but one in particular was that while he fell in love with Arnie Zane in college, I was only beginning to realize I might be gay (or have “homosexual tendencies,” as I thought of it then) and resisting like crazy. It didn’t help that one semester of dance class took place as the football team was gathering for practice in the hallway to the dance studio. Walking by them in my university issued tights, hearing their snickers and occasional audible comments reinforced for me that I didn’t want to be gay, and that maybe dance was a gay thing to do.
How has this shaped me into my present self, 30-something years later? In my late 30s, after coming out and not caring if someone thought I was gay for taking dance, I found a modern class in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time. It fed me in ways I didn’t know I was hungry. A couple of people put me in “extra” roles in large dance pieces and it propelled me into an Interdisciplinary Arts graduate program, where I started making performance art pieces with lots of movement. I also began writing about dance and dancers for publication. I became a regular audience member for dance performances. I recognize all these things as, potentially, substitution activities for dancing itself.
The second touchstone would be when I was in seminary. I went to seminary to study theology, full stop. I let myself get talked into doing a Master of Divinity degree because no one seemed capable of understanding that I had a call to study theology, but not a call to ordained ministry. Just before my senior year, I decided I would finish the degree but not pursue ordination. I started thinking about the lay professional categories that my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which at the time were “Associate in Ministry” and “Diaconal Ministry.” These categories were on an official roster of church professionals, but not ordained. I could see myself doing religious work, just not pastoring.
Then, in my last semester, I started coming out. Not in my college years suspicion of “homosexual tendencies” way, but more in an acceptance of my sexuality, a reconciliation between my faith and my desires way of coming out. This derailed everything. Although the ELCA now ordains uncloseted LGBT folk, this was more than a decade before that. I wasn’t sure I was willing to remain closeted to pursue church work.
Then I started meeting LGBT clergy. It was really kind of surreal. I told a handful of people I was gay and suddenly, I was introduced to a sort of underground network of LGBT clergy and rostered church workers. I got glimpses of their closeted lives in the fishbowl of public ministry. I can be very private, but I don’t have the personality for that sort of secrecy. All the years I bottled up my sexuality was one thing---I was ashamed of it. To feel no shame and continue having to hide? No, thank you. It wasn’t for me.
After the ELCA started ordaining and rostering LGBT folk, I made another inquiry into a professional life in the church, but that was met with a brick wall or three.
Meanwhile, I also do the occasional article about religion or a religious figure. Almost all my creative work, whether as a fiction writer or performance artist, has some theological thread running through it. I feel a less sense of loss about not having a church career than I do about not having a dance career, but given all the circumstances of my life, it’s really clear that neither was ever going to happen.
People of every time and place can tell you about disappointments and dreams unfulfilled. I write none of this with any illusion that I’m in anyway different from billions of people across the millennia of human history. Being gay derailed some potential career paths, but no worse than the way prejudices and biases derail other lives. It can be reasonably argued that I’m doing fairly well anyway.
But where does that leave me today?
At this moment, I work in a university registrar’s office. I write and do theater and make performance art around a full time day job that has nothing to do with any of my education, but allows me to do all the other things I do. As I write this, I’m in rehearsal for a play I’m directing, about two heterosexual couples who lead very heteronormative lives but are going through personal tragedies. I bring my gayness and my theological education to all of these. I do not hide who I am. I am fortunate to have circumstances that do not require me to hide.
This brings me to my real vocation of the moment, what my gayness (I hesitate to use queer for myself, as that has dimensions I’m really much too mainstream to fit into) calls me to do: Be out. I do my level best to not hide. Anyone who is around me for very long will soon enough learn I’m gay. I drop it into conversations casually but purposefully. I suppose that in this way, I queer a lot of my situations, even my most mainstream ones. Being out may even continue to derail some dreams. It’s likely.
I also believe that being out is the best way to create future lives with fewer derailments. If I can continue to be visible in as many of my situations as possible, perhaps there will be fewer dancers in the future who are intimidated by the football time---or, more importantly that the football teams won’t see a need to intimidate the dancers. With more people out, perhaps there will be an easier path for the next generation of seminarians, whether they want to be ordained or not.
Beyond that, what I’m called to isn’t particularly unique. There are any number of people called to study theology and dance and performance art and theater. Maybe not all together, but still. Perhaps my little bit of queerness gives all those things their own particular flavor, but so does the fact I grew up on a farm. But because being queer in any fashion is easy to hide for many people, what I really believe my gayness calls me to is to be out.
Let the derailments continue apace.
So Happy New Year. Eventually.
I've been slowly building up this website and by 2020 or so, it should be a great place to visit.
*heavy sigh* Note to self: Vague New Year's Resolutions are the easiest to break.
I'd given up blogging last year. I'd burned out and found little to talk about. I don't know if the latter has changed, but the itch to blog has been slowly returning.
The thing about the Blogger blogs, and that site has served me well, is that I sort of accidentally fragmented myself. I tried to keep my religious self from the arts self, the art-maker from the art-commentator from the goofball . . . and then I found myself not sure what to do with some ideas that crossed those boundaries and ultimately, I confused myself.
Part of the impulse to start my own website was to bring all my disparate selves together, which when you get down to it all fall under "writer and performer" (as most of my bio notes say) but, well, what I write and perform about may still fall under a variety of headings.
But it's all me. And some of those headings are boring to some people, other headings are all people are interested in. Ultimately, though, they all fit under my skin.
And I'm trying to be better about owning it all rather than separating them for different audiences. That separation was really an apology for loving Jesus to some of my artist circle and an apology for loving performance art to my circle that maybe has a hard time seeing it as a legit form (and yeah, I'm kinda side-eyeing you, church).
So, neilellisorts dot com is an endeavor to pull it all together.
I expect it to go mostly unnoticed.
Things I'm Working On
The immediate, big item on my plate is that I'm directing The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson for the Company OnStage. It's a lovely play, full of hard circumstances. I'll be writing more about it, but we only started rehearsals this past week and I cautiously put in print: I think we have potential to create something really special, if not amazing, here. I have a great cast who are diving into the deep waters of this play and I couldn't be a happier director.
I'll say also that the auditions were pretty hard for me. I can't say I've been to a ton of auditions around here---it's been a slow return to straight theater and I just don't know many folks in the Houston theater community---but I had some really good actors show up for auditions, and only four roles to fill. It truly made me sad to turn some of them away. The final decision came down to some caprice. Gut feelings. I think I chose well, but also know there is a pool of middle aged actors that I would work with in a heartbeat.
I also have various writing projects in the works. I've been trying to develop some longer pieces and my CV will show I tend towards the shorter writings. This year, I have two bigger projects I'm really hoping to get into submittable shape. One is a novella, the central character based upon my mother. It started out as a short story and grew into a "day in the life" kind of thing. I have a very rough draft that should really be less rough by now. (I keep doing other things, like theater and arts writing and some other things I'll write about eventually.) The working title on this is simply Cora.
I also have a good start on a full length play, which I did some development on last year in Fieldwork and gave a reading of a few scenes from the first act. I had started work on it again, but will set it aside while I get Quality of Life on its feet. This play doesn't have a working title yet, but I carry the notebook around for it, though, in the event I find moments to write a few lines of dialog . . .
And I'm getting up the courage to think seriously about producing this one-act play I've written and have been sitting on for a couple of years already. It's called The City, A Desert, and is based upon the stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I recently saw a site in town that would be pretty cool for it and . . . well, we'll see. This would be late in the year, if not early next year. But, you know, looking ahead and all. Putting it out in the universe as they say.
And then, I itch to do some performance art. Somewhere, maybe more on Instagram. I had a great time with the #adventword series of video. Maybe Instagram is my platform for the things I want to do that's neither writing nor theater. Or one platform.
It's a month into 2018, and all the above is ambitious for 11 months. Some of it is spilling over from last year. Some will likely spill into next year. Stay tuned to see how it all goes . . .
PHOTO: still used for the 2017 #adventword project for the word #prepare
Here I am on a New Year's Eve with a new website and new blog. Looking back over the past year is all the rage, so I'll rage along.
A couple of notes about the end of 2016 first. The last time I did any performance art live, before an audience, was at the end of December at Notsuoh, a bar in downtown Houston, known for performance art and other oddness. I did a rare time-based piece (I usually prefer durational pieces) that I called Burning Hearts/Written in Ash. I stood on the stage in a white t-shirt, cut out Valentine style hearts in red construction paper, set them on fire, and wrote on my t-shirt with the ash. I wrote:
I was in a particular head space last year this time.
As is usual with me, it was a quiet piece, nothing "edgy" about it. I mostly note it because for a while I was doing performance art pretty regularly. Now it's been a year since I've done any (in a live venue, anyway).
Also at the end of 2016, I completed my second run of Intimacy With the World, my first-thing-in-the-morning self-portrait (or selfie, if you prefer) exercise. Another quiet, sort of durational piece, I call it my documentation of a performance of loneliness for an audience of no one. I ended it with a long essay about the experience of doing it a second time. It's still up over on Blogger. Follow the link embedded in the name above.
And with those two little projects to end 2016, I was intending to do a lot of writing in 2017. Not blogging---I burned out on blogging in 2016 and maybe I'll say more about that another time. But I joined a local Fieldwork session to start work on a full-length play. At the same time, I saw a call for work that wanted writing about illness and spirituality. I spent spring alternating between those two projects and ended up with nearly a first act of a play and an essay that I'm really quite pleased with. That essay tells the story of a mass on my pancreas and my prayer life during that ordeal. "Performance Art, My Pancreas, and a Desert Father's Prayer" is forthcoming in a book called Illness, Reslience, and Spirituality (more on that as it nears publication). The play, still without a working title, is languishing on my computer, waiting for a second act (and a lot of cleaning up of the first act). Hashtag: 2018 goals.
Also in spring, my friend Misha Penton invited me to participate in her site specific new music performance called Threshold. An abstraction and revisioning of the Demeter story central to the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries, Misha led Sherry Cheng, Michael Walsh, and me through the shadowy and echoing Silos at Sawyer Yards. It was one of those experiences that was particularly luminous (for being so dark). The day after the performance, I pondered how I treated it like any other performance gig---go to rehearsals, do the work, show up for the performance---but only in completion did I notice something really unique had taken place. Some of that came from the audience reaction, or maybe just the audience presence, but I suddenly wished I'd paid more attention. It was a reminder that nothing is "just another" and attention paid will likely pay off. You can see some really great photos from the event by clicking here. A music video---it's own event, not a document of the performance---will be released sometime in the next few weeks.
Then things got a little out of hand.
So here's the thing. I love the stories of Robin Hood. The 1950s black and white tv series starring Richard Greene delights me. So when I saw an audition notice on Facebook for an adaptation to be put on by the Company OnStage, well, I tried to resist and failed badly. I ended up at the auditions, hoping only to get cast as Friar Tuck. My history as a seminarian would have made that fun to do, not only for me but also for friends.
Alas, director Karla Brandau had other plans. She cast me in a dual role, a tiny opening-scene role of Alfred the Saxon and then the larger role as the Sheriff of Nottingham's assistant, Oswald the Unready. It was a hoot. It was a script meant to be broadly played, with much silliness among the derring-do. It had been decades since I've done that sort of acting and it was great fun. It was a lot of work, but at some point I decided it was like getting to play an extended Carol Burnett Show spoof.
But that was only the beginning. By the end of the Robin Hood run, the Company OnStage was announcing it's next season, a quite ambitious line up of evening and young audience shows for a new space they'd just acquired and would be converting into a theater. They needed directors. I put my hat in that ring. I read a script called The Quality of Life and it nearly destroyed me. "Yes, I would like to direct that, please," I said.
Meanwhile, artistic director Stacy Bakri really needed to get the first two shows of the season settled with a director. She, herself, took the first evening show, but the first young audience show, Poe! Poe! Poe! was still open. I'd read that script and said I saw possibilities. I'm not an enormous Edgar Allan Poe fan, but of course I went through a phase in junior high where I read more than a couple of his stories. The script was mostly a collection of his stories and poems and I'd worked with poetry before with my Breath & Bone/Orts Performance productions, Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis and Wringing Out Light.
So Stacy asked me to direct Poe! Poe! Poe! (or PX3 as I liked to call it). Okay, sure. Then a couple of weeks later, she offered me the play I really wanted to direct. Suddenly, I'd committed the next nine months or so to Company OnStage.
Not that I'm complaining.
Then there was that little catastrophe known as Hurricane Harvey. All the work that had gone into converting their new space (and then some) had to be ripped out. There was a week or more when we weren't sure if, pardon the pun, the Poe would go on.
But the Company OnStage has an amazing number of volunteers who set to work and rebuilt was destroyed and (and then some). We opened two weeks late and lost a weekend of performances, but yes, the Poe did go on! The PX3 cast was amazing and resilient in their work to make that show come together under chaotic circumstances---and I'm not only talking about my directing.
I'm also really grateful for the experience. Besides people saying really nice things to me about it all It built up some directing muscle. Most of what I've directed in the last 10 years or so has been performance art, which is different from theater (there's probably a few blog posts in that subject). I feel like I'm going to be a much better director for The Quality of Life because I did PX3.
And since PX3 closed, I've been back to mostly writing. I have a few things out awaiting judgment from editors and theaters.
Then there's Instagram.
For the last few years now, I've participated in the #adventword project hosted by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. They basically invite the whole world to post pictures to social media in response to one-word prompts. The idea is to create a worldwide visual advent calendar. Since it had been nearly a year since I'd last made any performance art, I was a little itchy to do so and this seemed like an opportunity. So rather than a picture, this year, I made videos for each day.
Even though these videos are all under 60 seconds (the limit for Instagram)---well, it was a challenge. It was also a good year to take ont he challenge. Since Christmas fell on a Monday, advent was the shortest it can possibly be. Still, 23 videos . . . what was I thinking?
Well, I'm glad I did it. I had a ball, really. Furthermore, because I'd used the hashtag #performanceart, I got views and likes from other performance artists around the world. Not bunches, but enough to give me some encouragement. So much of my work emerges from my faith life, and these videos were no exception. I often am slightly disappointed that I don't seem to engage many churchy folk with my work, but I've also always said that I've wanted my work, however Jesusy, to be in conversation with other contemporary art. In a micro sort of way, I feel like I accomplished that with this project.
It was also the first time I every found any use for Instagram. I think I'm finally getting the hang of it.
All in all, 2017 was a creatively satisfying year. Between the writing, the theater, and the performance art, I exercised most of my creative muscles. Looking forward to 2018, I have The Quality of LIfe to direct and a few writing projects already in progress (some spilling over from 2017 goals, but that happens to many of us, right?) On top of all that, I started a new position at my day job at the end of November and I'm hopeful about what that will make possible in the coming year, too.
I'd feel like a Pollyanna poser if I didn't also say that 2017 was hard, too. I've felt like so much inside my personal bubble has been great, but step outside the bubble and things are pretty hard. The political climate is nothing but toxic in my view and I don't have much hope for a detox anytime soon. I don't even believe our calls and letters to elected officials make much a of a difference right now (although I encourage keeping them up---we have to create the record that we didn't just go along with all this). What I do believe, however, is that our vote still matters. If you're feeling the toxicity, too, please be sure you're registered to vote and then make sure you get to the polls. Every time! And that's all I have to say about that. For tonight, anyway.
Everyone's life is different and when some are doing well, there are plenty who are not. I hope we all find strength through the hard times and also experience joyous good times.
Happy New Year, everyone!
This is a blog post. The first on my new site. I have several blogs on the Blogger site, but from now on, here's where you'll get to see me ramble on various and sundry things, mostly my projects or something I've seen or read.
Honestly, I don't know what will appear here. I can't see the future.