Friday, May 25, 2007

The Audition Vs. The Teaching Interview

Several years ago when I first began making a serious attempt to enter the entertainment business, I was told by my theatre teachers and some people who already had experience in the profession that I should prepare myself for failure and rejection. I like to read and I read dozens of books about acting, auditioning, and attempting to make a career in the business. Almost every one of the authors I read said something along the lines of “That for every 1 role you get or project you are hired for, you will have 100 that you are rejected from.” I remember reading in particular one book that said growing “rhino-skin” (an emotional toughness similar to the skin of rhinosaurous’) was a must in order to survive for any length of time in the world of entertainment. Time after time I was told that failure and rejection would become two of my closest companions and that chances for success would be very, very, very small indeed.

All of these voices were mostly correct as experience has shown me.

The entertainment business, whether you want to act, write, or direct is an incredibly difficult business to make a living in. The guy or gal working a 9-5 job behind a desk would probably be so discouraged after the first audition that they would go home crying and never come back.

One of my friends gave the following rules to me when I was first in college and for the longest time it was a mantra of sorts for me:

  1. Life is unfair.
  2. Theatre is less fair than life.
  3. Acting is the least fair part of theatre.
  4. Humans submit themselves to nothing less fair than the audition.

For many years, I thought that was completely true. I have discovered that it isn’t. I’ve discovered something that is even less fair than the audition: a teaching interview.

When you audition for a play, commercial, film or some other project there are a myriad of reasons why you might not be chosen. You might have more talent than the person cast, but you just didn’t look like the role. Perhaps you looked like the role, but you didn’t look right with the rest of the cast members already hired. Perhaps the reason you didn’t get hired was because you wouldn’t sleep with the casting director. Maybe you had some words with that creepy high schooler in front of theatre, but you didn’t know he was related to the assistant director. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re too fat. You’re too thin. You’re not muscular enough. You’re not chubby enough. You’re teeth aren’t white enough. You’re teeth aren’t yellow enough. You sneezed when you stepped into the room. The director hated the one play that you acted in and got rave reviews for. The reasons are endless. The thing is, if you want to act (or direct or write for that matter), you can’t let it get to you. That’s the nature of the business.

I thought education was different. When I felt called to teaching instead of going to film school in California, I thought I was entering a noble profession. I had several education teachers insist that was what teaching was a “noble” profession. I entered that profession because I felt led to. I also entered it because instead of working crappy jobs to support myself, I wanted to do something that was significant, meaningful, and full of purpose. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to change many lives, but I felt that I would be able to at least engage students enough that one or two might be affected in some small, positive way. Unlike many starting out in the profession, I didn’t have very many high and lofty goals. I had spent 6 months substituting in all kinds of schools in Indiana and I didn’t have any of those idealistic expectations. People told me all the time when I was in school, that I shouldn’t have any problem finding a decent job. I wish people would keep their petty b.s. comments like that to their selves because it isn’t true.

A year and a half later after I received my certificate, around 100 applications later, and 17 interviews later, I still haven’t been offered a teaching position. I’ve tried everything I can think of. I’ve been myself, I’ve told people what I thought they wanted to hear, I’ve been completely open and honest, I’ve been confident and reserved. Nothing seems to work. What’s more frustrating is that many times a principal or committee will tell you “well, we’ll let you know for sure one way or the other by such and such time” and then you never hear back from those people. You send thank you notes and sometimes even little reminders. If you’re lucky they might send you an email saying, “Thanks for contacting us about the position, but sorry, we’ve already hired someone else.” Why didn’t they tell you that three weeks ago when they said they were? Why does someone I’ve barely met and who I very much would like to work for and with lie to me? You would think that in a profession that’s supposed to be nondiscriminatory that looks, social class, and where you’ve lived will have nothing to do with you getting a job, but it’s not true. Statistics have shown time and again that more men are needed in the teaching profession. What those statistics don’t tell one, though is that if you’re a male your chances of getting a job are actually less if you’re a female. Out of all the teaching interviews I’ve had, only one went to a male. The principal there told me he was wanting to hire a male for the staff because he didn’t have many and he was true to his word, three of we four finalist candidates were male. Sometimes a committee won’t hire you when they find out where you live and grew up. Other times they might offer you an interview, but it’s really just for show because they have already decided who they are going to hire, so-and-so went to the school or so-and-so’s wife coaches cheerleading, or whatever. Education shouldn’t be political. I know it is very political, but that doesn’t mean it should be that way.

Humans submit themselves to nothing less fair than the teaching interview. Trust me, I know.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Book Review

The following is a review that was recently published in a local paper.


“Book Review of Twisted by Tom Varner

Laurie Halse Anderson is an author who has gained prominence in recent years for her powerful and engaging novels examining the frustrations, struggles, and trials facing Americans told from the perspective of teenagers. Most of Anderson’s writings so far have centered upon female protagonists, surrounded by mostly female characters. In her latest work, Twisted, Anderson has abandoned the female mindset and has written a novel told from the perspective of a typical American suburban teenage male. In facing the challenge, she has written a forceful and provocative piece of literature that is one of the best examinations of the suburban American teenage male mindset ever produced.

The story is told from the point of view of Tyler Miller. Tyler is just an average, overlooked high school student. He does well in most his classes, has an easy-going attitude, and is rather friendly. However, he doesn’t play sports, come from a wealthy family, or have a great physique and is therefore just one of many nameless faces at George Washington High School. Tired of being a nobody, at the end of his junior year he commits the Foul Deed. The Foul Deed gains him high school infamy, but also trouble with the judicial system which sentences him to a summer of community service and probation. He spends most of his summer tarring roofs and doing landscaping work. At the end of summer, he finds he’s grown to almost six feet and his flabby frame is as solid as chiseled granite.

People start noticing Tyler, including the queen bee of his high school, Bethany Miller. Bethany is Tyler’s dream girl, but there are some major obstacles that lie between them. To begin with, Tyler is middle class and Bethany is from a very wealthy family. Her father also happens to be Tyler’s Dad’s boss and her twin brother is Tyler’s arch nemesis. At first, Tyler seems capable of dealing with these issues, but events at a rowdy party after a football game leave Tyler facing a possible jail sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Dark thoughts pound his mind and the only thing he is sure about is how complicated and twisted his life is.

Though marketed as a young adult novel, Twisted is a book that cannot be pigeon-holed by genre because it examines issues that face each of us as we try to live our lives as best we can in the hyper-post-modern era. We live in a culture and society that is constantly changing. Some people would argue that these changes are for the better. To an extent, I would agree, but only to an extent because change just for the sake of change is seldom a good thing. Traditions and the status quo sometimes are a barrier to creativity and originality, but they have a place in society and culture for rational reasons, but they are unfortunately systematically being slowly erased. For example, there used to be a time when boys were boys and men were men. There was no in between phase and no one had to be explained the difference. In our current culture, boys no longer know how to become men. Physically, many boys appear to be men, but their emotions and mentality remain that of a boy. Advertising saturates us with messages that conflict with our innermost sense of self but also appeals to the most primal urges within each of us which causes old boys and young men to have a mental life full of anger, confusion, and frustration.

Then there’s the public education system itself. Anyone who doesn’t want to acknowledge that our public education system, especially at the high school level, is living in an imaginary world. In the U.S. we have attempted to do what no other country in history has ever done before by providing the same basic education to everyone regardless of ability. It’s a noble ideal. Unfortunately the ideal will never be realized if the current system remains the way it is. Extremely talented and creative children are being left behind, their gifts and talents unacknowledged and unrecognized. Instead of being the pantheons devoted to education, civic training, and morality that they were built to be, many of the public high schools in America have become little more than semi-restricted centers of social experimentation. These are just a few examples of the issues that Twisted examines.

The book is prefaced by a short warning that declares “NOTE: THIS IS NOT A BOOK FOR CHILDREN.” That warning is necessary because even though TWISTED is marketed as a young adult novel, it’s a novel not intended for children. There is some crude and foul language, there is a great deal of violence, and includes some images of sexuality. There are many teenagers will read this book and I hope that when they do they can take something positive away from it. This author hopes, however, that more adults than teenagers will read it. It is so insightful and powerful that any adult who works with teenage boys should require themselves to read it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

April 2007

Books Read
Eldest By: Christopher Paolini
*Eyewitness: Acts of the Spirit By: Robert James Luedke
*Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata By: Stephan Pastis
Twisted By: Laurie Halse Anderson
Last Child in the Woods By: Richard Louv
The Neverending Story By: Michael Ende
*Birth of a Nation By: Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Bako
A Mormon in the White House? By: Hugh Hewitt
Everything's Eventual By: Stephen King
**The Lady's Not for Burning By: Christopher Fry

Movies Viewed for the First Time
Comic Book: The Movie
Meet the Robinsons
Dark Water
Jamaica Inn
Easy Virtue
Are We Done, Yet?
The Nutty Professor (1963)
Lonesome Dove
Jesus of Montreal

Another month has come and gone. Despite having a slightly more hetic schedule than usual that included a trip to the Chicagoland suburbs for a couple of teaching interviews and a couple of weekends spent doing a medical study to earn some extra cash, April 2007 proved to be a fruitful month of reading and movie watching. If I can keep up this pace every month for the rest of the year, I will accomplish my long-time goal of having read 100 or more books in a year at least once in my life.

Of course, three of the books I read were either graphic novels or collections of comic strips. Ten years ago I probably wouldn't consider that to really be reading myself, but the graphic novel is a bona fide genre of literature now and most English students now have taken at least one course in which graphic novels are studied prominently. I enjoyed all three of those books immensely. Eyewitness is a visual re-telling of the Biblical book of Acts tied together with a relevant modern storyline. Birth of a Nation is a story that has the City of East St. Louis ceding from the Union to form their own country after most of the city's citizens are disenfranchised during a Presidential election. It's co-written by the guy who writes the comic strip Boondocks but in my opinion is a much better and more humorous story. Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata is the latest collection of Pearls Before Swine comic strips. Now that Fox Trot is no longer published daily, Pearls is the best comic strip currently in circulation; even Dilbert has recently begun ripping on some of the post-modern humor and tricks that have made Pearls such a delight.

Eldest is the second book in the "Eragon" trilogy and quite frankly was a huge disappointment. Very little action, highly derivative, and weak character development of the major protagonists. Still, it can be entertaining, but it's not as engaging as the first book.

Of all the books that I read last month, Twisted is the one that I recommend that everyone read. Especially anyone who works with pre-teen or teenage boys. For you females out there, if you've ever wondered how a teenage boy thinks, you're probably not going to find a better example. The book is disturbing at times and also illustrates how different those who don't know Jesus must live.

Last Child in the Woods has a great message about how children in America have become nature deprived and how that is affecting their behavior. At time the book slows down as it jumps from one point to another. Nevertheless, it has some highly valuable points. It's a book that I recommend anyone who has children or works with youth giving at least a surface reading to.

The Neverending Story is the novel that the movie was based upon. The book is extremely imaginative and much better than that beloved film.

A Mormon in the White House? was my attempt this past month at reading a political book. The book is about Mitt Romney, former governor of Mass. who is a 2008 Presidential candidate. If you're an independent, Republican, or conservative I suggest reading it because it basically explains everything you need to know about Romney. If you're not one of those, you probably won't want to read the book until after we know for sure who all the candidates are going to be.

Everything's Eventual is a series of 14 short stories by Stephen King. First of, I'm a big fan of King. He's a popular author and 20 years from now will be studied on a regular basis in classrooms around the country. Secondly, I love reading essays and short stories. The short story is a wonderful genre of literature, but one that is slowly dying out. It's ironic that as our collective attention spans become shortened to the size of a soundbite that the shortest form of literature (not including poetry) is on the verge of extinction. My favorite tales in the book are "The Man in the Black Suit", "In the Deathroom", "The Sisters of Eluria", "Everything's Eventual", and "Luckey Quarter". Another story in the collection, "1408" has been made into a film and will be coming soon to a movie theatre near you.

I try to read a play or screenplay at least once a month and this month's piece was The Lady's Not for Burning. The book is supposed to be a comedy written in verse similar to Shakespeare. I know there are many who love this little play by Christopher Fry. I also know that reading a play is nothing like seeing it performed on stage. Usually plays are better when seen performed, though occasionally a piece is written that reads better than when it is acted. Anyway, all I know is that I did not like this play at all. I thought the gimmick was a good one, but the overall pacing of the writing atrocious. Also, the play didn't seem very funny to me. I love Shakespeare and have acted in a couple of his plays. I was one of those weird kids in high school who became drawn to Shakespeare because of the poetic language he wrote in. However, the poetry in The Lady's Not for Burning turned me off. I found it a chore to read through the dialogue and had a difficult time of remembering which character was who.

As for movies, I had a mini-Hitchcock film fest watching three of his movies in as many days: Sabotage, Jamaica Inn, and Easy Virtue. As a hopeful future filmmaker, I have become more and more impressed by Hitchcock's master of the medium and will continue to learn more by watching his films.

Lonesome Dove is actually a 6 1/2 hour miniseries that I first saw as a kid. It's one of those things that left a definite visual impression upon my mind and I enjoyed watching it again.

The last film worth mentioning is Jesus of Montreal. The film is in French with subtitles and is about a group of Canadian actors who are hired to update a Passion play that has been performed in Montreal for many years. As the actors beginning performing, their lives begin to change and they begin reflecting their characters and the loving nature of Christ in their own day-to-day lives. It takes some time for the film to get moving and since it is a foreign picture, many people will have difficulty adjusting to that. However, it's a powerful film about redemption worth your time to watch.

That's all for now. Until next time.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Two years ago for the first time the average price of gasoline topped out at $2 per gallon. Gas had been selling for about $1.70 and then within a few hours spiked to above $2. I remember the time when it happened rather vividly because I was living in Edwardsville, IL at the time and doing my teaching observation in Bethalto. For about two weeks whenever I needed gas I would drive across the bridge in Alton, IL into Missouri so I could get gas that was still less than $2 a gallon. Once that station went over $2 a gallon I knew that I would probably never see gasoline that inexpensive ever again. The usual b.s. was spinned through the media about why things were so high. Everyone knew it was a bunch of b.s., but we couldn't do anything but complain. Talking heads and bad writers kept trying to tell everyone that we should keep things in perspective because in terms of inflation, gas really wasn't that expensive and it would have to go above $3 a gallon to reach the prices in terms of inflation of what gasoline cost in the early 1980s.

Five months later gasoline did spike above $3 a gallon after Hurricane Katrina hit. It stayed that way for a couple of weeks and then hovered around $2.80-$2.90 for the next six weeks. We were told that was just temporary, too, and that once the refineries ravaged by the hurricanes were once again fully operational prices would drop to their pre-Katrina rates. I knew that was a crock. It was and prices never did drop to their pre-Katrina levels. That hurricane was just an excuse because the oil companies had already busted the $2 a gallon bubble and were just itching to get prices above $3 a gallon. Oil companies posted recorded profits for the next two years. Not just one oil company, either. They all had record profits.

Now, those companies have gotten what they want again. Prices across the country are above $3 per gallon and the talking heads and spinning columnists are telling us that it's only going to get worse as summer approaches. In some parts of California and New York prices are already almost $4 per gallon.

For some people in the country this might not be much of an issue, but I believe those people are few and rare. Every time I pass a gas station, whether I'm driving, walking, or riding a bike, I check out the price of gas. Everyone I know does the same thing. I wish I lived in a culture and society where it wasn't necessary that one has to own a car to get around, but unfortunately I do. I don't live in a city or metropolitan area. I can't just hop on a train or ride the bus. Those things aren't an option for me and as appealing as certain aspects of a metropolitan lifestyle might be, I really don't want to live in a large city. Throughout time cities have been the downfall of civilizations. Therefore, I and millions of others like me or forced to drive places. Most people I know would take a different form of transportation or drive a vehicle that didn't run on gasoline if it was possible, but neither of those things are available. The gatekeepers don't think public transportation in rural areas is worth building and the few forms of alternative vehicles are way too expensive for poor hicks like me to afford.

What's more frustrating is that there really isn't much I can do about it. I've written some letters, but have heard nothing from them. I haven't been gifted with a mechanical mind, so I haven't been able to invent anything that I could use and even if I did I have no rich friends who would be able to fund the original production of such a revolutionary device. So all I can do is grit my teeth every time I pull up to the pump. Quite frankly, it's really pissing me off.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reflection from a Day at the Zoo

Yesterday I was able to visit the St. Louis Zoo for a few hours. I haven’t been to the St. Louis Zoo in a very long time (for those of you who don’t know, the St. Louis Zoo is free so if you ever get a chance to visit, do!). Penguins are some of my favorite creatures on Earth and a few years ago the zoo installed a new Penguin and Puffin House. For whatever reasons, I never made it to the zoo and didn’t get to see the Penguin exhibit until yesterday.

Anyway, I was walking around the zoo yesterday looking not just at the penguins, but all the animals. After having worked in the Science Center at Timber-lee last year I made it a point to spend extra time in the herpetarium (reptile house) and watching the prairie dogs. I also surprised myself by how much I enjoyed strolling through the insectarium.

As I made my way through the zoo I was reminded by how fragile the world we live in is. So many creatures are on the verge of extinction. For example, did you know that there are only about 450 Siberian tigers left alive in the wild? Siberian tigers are so few in number that there are no longer tigers left in Siberian and instead of being called Siberian tigers that species is now known as Amur tigers. It’s so tragic that such a noble, fascinating, and ferocious creature might be wiped off the Earth in the next few years. What is even more tragic is that they have been killed off for fur and teeth.

Walking through the zoo reminded me of a short trip I took last week to the Chicago suburbs. I had a couple of teaching interviews in the suburbs last week. I took advantage of the journey and visited and spent the night with a best friend that I haven’t seen in nearly two years. As I was driving from one town to the next I saw a sight that made me laugh and cry at the same time. I was driving along a highway and I passed a farm with a barn and silo and small field. Surrounding the farm on three sides were all of these cookie-cutter homes that are so expensive (about $200,000) that no one I know personally could ever afford to buy one. I laughed because that single farm looked so out of place, but I cried because if I ever drive on that road again, that farm will be gone and replaced by another subdivision of ugly cookie-cutter homes or a strip mall or convenience store.

People, come on! Do we really need another convenience store or strip mall? Do we really need any more department stores? Do we really need to be ripping up land and burning natural habitats just to try planting Westernized farms that aren’t going to grow properly because the way people farm in the Midwestern U.S. doesn’t work in South America and Asia (In case you’re unfamiliar with a rhetorical question the answer to all the three questions posed is no)?

We’re killing ourselves and we don’t even realize it. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, even though I don’t have the specifics, the Bible has given me a rough outline about how things will end. So much that I see around me affirms that. I guess that I was just shocked by how far we’ve fallen and that we are much closer to the end than I imagined.