Coming to Los Angeles: Labyrinth

The novella 'Coming to Los Angeles' continues as a serial this week.

Chapter 1: Labyrinth

IN THE FALL OF 1998, I was teaching in the North Canton City Schools in Ohio. I was following a career track that stretched out before me like a highway - at the end of which was retirement.

During the previous three summers, I had worked on my master's degree at The Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College. The finest private schools in the world vie for its alumni. In the summer of 1999, I would fly to England for a final summer of study at Oxford University. I would focus on Shakespeare - on the page and on the stage.

I was living my life within the confines of a teaching career.

HAVING GROWN UP in the Midwest, I knew that a public school teacher's career is ruled by common sense. Most get married and raise a family. Conversations in the lunch room are often dominated by retirement planning. There is little room for the dreaming artist. Teachers are a conservative lot, and that means holding onto what is tried and true.

As a teacher, I focused on helping my students achieve their dreams. I affirmed their desires. "Find out what you want to do - and do it," I told my students. "It's that simple." The students drawn to me were those on the edge - with the talent and oddities that are the marks of genius in a small town. I wrote college recommendations, furiously trying to help them grab hold of the best possible opportunities.

Something was working, because in the spring of 2001, I was nominated for Teacher of the Year and eventually selected as one of the Top Ten Teachers that year in Stark County, Ohio.

Yet I was blind to my own desires, unable to follow my own advice. I couldn't muster up the courage. I lived in a surreal world, standing by a portal of dreams, ushering students onto its stairway, fearing to climb it myself.

I was in debt. Until I learned to manage money, I told myself, I was in no position to do what I really wanted.

I didn't understand that by saying no to my most elemental ambition, I was blocking any intuition I could have about myself, skewing every insight I had, disguising my own desires from myself, slowly transforming my reality from color, to black and white, to grey.

LET ME CLARIFY. I love teaching. I love young people. I could have spent a happy life in the classroom. Leaving teaching as I did in June 2007 would have been hard - except for my discovery that I love writing more. Teaching and writing draw from the same source of energy, I decided, and to succeed, I needed to focus on one.

When I began teaching, nothing gave me more pleasure - until I discovered directing. And then ultimately, I found that analyzing fiction in the classroom was not as enjoyable as creating a story. I lose track of the world when I'm at the keyboard, shaping the way words play on paper.

Life is a progression. I'm sure I'll teach again someday. But for now, I understand the difference between doing what I love and focusing on what I love most.

IN THE FALL OF 1998, I directed over 100 students in Romeo and Juliet on Hoover's stage. The play changed my approach to directing.

The show's concept was inspired by an act of teen violence. Out of sheer boredom, several local teens helped to murder a taxi driver and his passenger in Stark County, Ohio, on June 1, 1997.

I set my Romeo and Juliet in the future, circa 2005, in an America in which the Republicans held the majority, a violent dystopia in which the police had been given permission to use extreme measures.

It was a world of random café interactions in which sword-fighting had become common and popular music dominated. On a large platform upstage, a swing band provided original music for the fight sequences and key emotional moments. The leading character was a Clown who manipulated events and put on the robes of a Catholic Friar to disguise his presence.

The show was long - but three of the four performances each packed in over 900 students and parents, perhaps because the swordfights had become too realistic. Kendrick Strauch (Romeo) and Steve Ridgway (Tybalt) began to channel their characters so cleanly that their fights had me sitting on the edge of my seat - I almost closed down the show after one of them nicked the other on the cheek with his fencing sword, just below the right eye. It drew real blood. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. More to the point, I glimpsed what I could do as an artist when I tapped my core values.

The show was also my first real chance to collaborate with the woman who would become one of my closest friends: Kimberley Melin.

I FIRST GLIMPSED KIM - pixie face, short blond hair - during Convocation Day in the fall of 1995. A recent graduate of Westminster Choir College, Kim had moved from New Jersey to take the position of assistant choral director at Hoover High School, where I was beginning my second year.

Kim was reserved - I knew instinctively that I'd have to earn her trust. We didn't talk much the first two years, but then we were thrown together during Hoover's 1997 production of the Broadway musical South Pacific, which I staged for the choir and she accompanied on piano.

Kim and I found we could depend upon each other - she was creative and charismatic with brilliant musical instincts. Like Hayward, the head of her department, she also inspired profound love in her students.

When I decided to use original swing music to stage Romeo and Juliet, Kim loved the idea. She found The Turnstile Jumpers, a band that agreed to write original music for us. Kim played keyboards for them onstage, as well, during the performances.

Our success bonded us as friends. Along the way, I got to know her husband Mike - sensibility was his middle name - and her younger sister Jill Shrewsbury, whose sparkling eyes and dark humor made sparring fun.

Kim's husband Mike "got me" as a director - and I began to turn to him for advice on the politics of directing. When Mike and Kim purchased their first home in West Akron, Mike methodically stripped and waxed the wood floors, creating a polished setting for their grand piano, a gift from Kim's great-aunt.

Genius linked the nerves of Kim's fingers, and she provided piano music during our social gatherings. Their gourmet dinners made any evening an event - I loved the time spent with them.

The authenticity of Kim's life as a musician and a performer highlighted the mediocrity of mine.

SEVERAL YEARS PREVIOUS, in order to save money, I had moved back in with my parents. They were happy to have me. My mother loved to cook for me - my father loved talking to me. I was attending a "liberal" Mennonite church.

Although my girlfriend had just broken up with me in dramatic fashion, I had been making good financial decisions, and I had a loyal circle of friends. I needed my independence.

So why at this juncture in my life - just as I was beginning to pay off my credit card debt - did I decide to buy a house, taking out a 30-year mortgage? And why did I choose to turn and re-enter the labyrinth of consumer debt a year later with a second mortgage?

Was I trying to quench my gypsy nature? Did I hope that a mortgage would turn off my dreams, nudge me into marriage, focus my relentless energy into domesticity?

Looking back now, I know that the key element in my decision was the emerging differences between my family's way of life and my own - the growing clashes were becoming more visible, unavoidable. Thus, the purchase of my first house seemed like a sensible proposition.

With the help of a friend, I found a lovely home about a half-mile from the school. In January 1999, I closed on the house. The payments were reasonable, I thought. I would rebuild my credit record, sell the house - I could make a profit in a few years that would pay off the rest of my credit card debt.

So I moved out of my parents' house and began to outfit my new quarters. Yes, it was expensive, but that's what happens with any new house - right? Since owning a house made my creditors happy, they extended more credit.

I couldn't pull back and see the big picture - realize that I was taking the wrong turns.

IN THE UNIVERSE of my life, something was askew. I didn't want to be living in small-town America. In an effort to compromise with those I loved, I had gotten lost.

Rather than taking the time to reflect on my dreams, understand what they were, I tried not to think about them. I distracted myself with consumer spending, an overload of extracurricular activities, and relationships with women whose life goals didn't match mine.

I was reading the wrong instruction manual - the one which taught that mistakes are bad. I didn't know that learning requires mistakes. A child learns to ride a bicycle by falling down.

Thus, I tried to avoid making mistakes by continuing to do what I knew I could do for sure - teach high school. I was doing a good job of following the wrong career.

SHORTLY AFTER I directed Romeo and Juliet, I was appointed drama director. I knew I was following a legend in Hayward. My style was different - more method, less fire - but he was tired, and I was willing.

Hayward knew how to love his students - they adored him, argued that he changed their lives, defended him unequivocally. Hayward was a man's man with a strong baritone voice, killer looks, and the stage presence of Rex Harrison. In the North Canton community, he was a star.

I first saw Hayward at the end of the 1988 May Fiesta, the choir's annual spring concert. Tuxedo-clad, Hayward climbed out of the orchestra pit, leaped onto the stage, put his arms around his boys stretching on either side of him, and danced the kick line with them as approximately 700 choir students surrounded them, singing "The Old Routine."

As I watched Hayward there with his students on the stage, I caught a glimpse of what a drama director could do on the high school level. Hayward was more than just a teacher - he was a father figure.

But Hayward was also a controversial figure - teachers found it impossible to be neutral regarding him. Parents and students learned not to cross him, especially when it came to casting. When Hayward encountered obstacles, his letters burned across the superintendent's desk.

I saw all that. But I also admired his passion and the quality of his work. Hayward was the role model I needed - an artist genuinely in love with his work. His heart ruled his actions. He knew who he was.

So when he invited me to perform in 1994 with the Canton Civic Opera, which was under his direction, I did. Several years later, he resigned the position of drama director and recommended me.

MY FIRST ACT as drama director was to meet with all interested students and offer them the chance to direct their own scenes - or write them.

Afterwards, John David Drake, a soft-spoken, bespectacled young man, approached me with a story idea. He called the resulting series of vignettes A Night at the Prom - they were smart, stylish, well-received. Playing off the main characters in the teen flick Cruel Intentions, two juniors commented on their prom. Moments included a boy buying flowers for his date, and limo drivers watching prom guests make fools of themselves. The audiences ate it up.

I offered John David the chance to create and produce an original musical with one of his peers, Kendrick Strauch, a promising musician and the actor who had played Romeo. Both boys signed on. And I headed off for my final summer of graduate work.

NONE OF MY family came to my graduation at Oxford University that summer. But one of my closest friends from childhood, Laban Coblentz, tall and thin, with brown hair falling to his waist, flew over to attend.

Laban had left our community in his late teens. Brokering scandal, he had fallen in love with a married woman - and she had left her husband to marry him. Excommunicated by our community, Laban had joined the Navy, moved to California, become a nuclear inspector, and was now working as a senior advisor to Shirley Anne Jackson, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Laban had embraced the possibility of making mistakes in his life, had risked everything to discover who he really was. During conversations by phone or during visits home, Laban had encouraged me to take the risks I needed to take in order to find my own path.

Now as co-president of my class, I had the honor of giving a senior address in the ancient chapel of Lincoln College. Since Laban was a speechwriter from Washington D.C., I asked him to help me tweak my speech, and he did. We work well together, I thought.

Certain moments with Laban almost made up for my family's absence: reading Ulysses in a Dublin pub as septuagenarians warbled around us, swerving around galloping sheep painted with neon colors as we tore up the Ring of Kerry, and sloshing through the Lake District while trying to find our motorcar.

The most significant moment occurred, however, during a Sunday morning conversation we had in a London pub at the end of the trip.

MY TIME WITH LABAN had given me an idea. It was a result of my own lack of self-confidence, my underdeveloped ego.

In May, the North Canton Players had hired me to produce an experimental play in September - the artistic director had seen my Romeo and Juliet. Across the summer I had toyed with the idea of exploring Oedipus Rex by framing its scenes with the music of Queen's most eclectic album: A Night at the Opera.

I knew Laban had written and staged a play in college, and I loved everything he wrote. So over bangers and tomatoes in a pub somewhere in London on a smoky Sunday morning, I asked Laban to write an original play for me to direct.

WHY DIDN'T I JUST write the play myself? As strange as it seems to me now, I had convinced myself in 1999 that directing a play which was also written by me would appear egotistical. Or maybe I didn't know who I was yet - and thus, I had nothing to say.

It seems contradictory on the surface. How could my mentor at that London talent agency, Vincent Shaw, call me pompous - a word defined as excessive self-esteem or exaggerated dignity - and yet know that I was utterly lacking in self-confidence, with an ego too weak for risk?

The answer lies within the conflict between cowboy and community.

IN THE WORLD of conservative Mennonites, the community ego dominates. Personal ego is pushed down, starved, kept hidden from sight. Gelassenheit is the goal - a yielding to the will of the community. Standing out as an individual is equated with pride. For example, my community sang only a cappella music - harmony was emphasized, not colorful, individual voices.

In Western culture, on the other hand, a person achieves maturity when he is able to take ownership of his ideas and work - and defend them. He sees his abilities and talents realistically.

The piece I wrote in April 1989 - which my mentor had reacted to so strongly - exposed the myopic vision I had of the world. He saw me as unsophisticated and naive. He must have feared that my attempts to please my insular community would only postpone my maturity.

Shaw believed that I needed to strip off my chameleon skin, which hid who I really was from the rest of the world, and more importantly, from myself. I needed to make choices without relying on community boilerplate, letting the community do my thinking for me. My actions would thus reveal to me who I was as an individual - and force me to deal with that reality. The process would chip away the parts of me that weren't me. The final result would be an individual who was genuine.

Until I was willing to own my nature, I would have nothing significant to say to the world.

EXPATRIATES OF ALL narrow-minded communities confront the same struggle. They face the world as children.

A child sees everything around her as brand new. Each idea she gets feels original, because she's never thought of it before. That picture she just colored - it's astonishing because she's never seen anything like it before. As a child matures, she locates herself within the world. She sees herself realistically.

Children are also born with a desire to please, a compliant personality. It's a survival technique - they need to please so that those who care for them won't lose interest. Young women looking for partners tend to approach men in the same way. As a child becomes an adult, however, that energy changes.

Being part of a community that decides everything for you - right down to the kind of car, the cut of clothes, the length of hair, the genre of music - discourages individuality. It perverts maturity.

In London, I was working with an immature ego. At 25, my personality should have been set, my life goals defined, my desires clear. Instead, the dogma of my community had clouded my vision - I saw the world through a glass darkly - and Mr. Shaw recognized my growing blindness.

"THOU SHALT BECOME an individual" is the first commandment of Western culture. A hero stakes a claim on the world, and then defends it against all comers. The DNA of empire pervades capitalism. Coveting is not only good - it lies at the very heart of the American Dream.

The hero in Western myth has an unstoppable desire. He acts alone. The hero's journey culminates in a place where the hero confronts the dragon, alone. The boy faces the schoolyard bully, alone. The cowboy rides off after the fight, alone.

A person with a healthy ego sees how he fits into the rest of society - and then stands apart from it. He is responsible first of all to himself.

SUCH INDIVIDUALISM IS foreign behavior within the tight-knit world of a conservative Mennonites.

When someone leaves that world, the adjustment is excruciatingly painful. Activities that feel completely normal to a modern American - dancing at a club, going to a movie theater, wearing jewelry - create culture shock.

I remember the night I first tried to dance. I stood in a club in London, wondering how to move. I felt exposed. Everyone was watching me, laughing at me. How am I supposed to act out here anyway? Is this move okay? Or that one? Everyone can tell I've never danced before.

Then I realized something. People around me were drinking, talking. The music was loud, cigarette smoke thick. People danced around me, lost in their own moves, agendas. They barely noticed my quandary.

When I arrived back at my group, I found no one had noticed anything strange about my dancing. The only thing they thought strange was the fact that I asked.

MY COMMUNITY BELIEVED that an individual must yield his rights to the community, rather than assert them. My path as an artist was in direct opposition to this demand for conformity. I was going contrary to the community principle of Gelassenheit - a yielding to the will of God as defined by the community.

I needed instead to develop a mature ego - one that could take risks, create original ideas, take credit without embarrassment, and handle the resulting criticism.

But how could I have known this back then? It's taken me years to begin to absorb the language of modern culture - movies and television shows, fads of style and language, musical hits and bands. In contrast, when I reference a biblical idea, I recognize quickly the common look of confusion in my listeners.

There are gaps in my cultural awareness that will always remain. Most people have grown up watching television, and they will reference this in passing - expecting me to get it - and I'll look confused.

"How could you NOT have seen the Brady Bunch?"

I grew up in a different culture - as nuanced and strange as Sweden or Russia or Kenya. I just happen to speak English.

Unfortunately, in the summer of 1999, a decade after I left my community, I had only begun to understand my culture shock.

LABAN AGREED to write a play for me to direct. The tight schedule must have intrigued him - rehearsals were scheduled to commence in two weeks. So we agreed upon a title for the production: The Oedipus Experiment. And with that concept firmly in hand, I returned to Ohio to begin casting a show without a script or story.

Within two weeks, Laban had written the play, which focused on a blind man named Stanislaw, who wanders into the small town of Colony, Indiana. There he meets an assortment of dreamers and struggles to fend off his own demons.

Two weeks before the show opened, as I began another school year, I faced reality: no actor was crazy enough to take on Stanislaw with such short notice. So I played it myself, just managing to memorize all the lines in time for opening night.

WHILE THAT SHOW finished its run, I began rehearsals for Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. The final product demonstrated my frantic schedule - I lacked the courage to make the necessary cuts. All the pieces were there - authentic costumes, a detailed set, jazz music, good actors, a well-oiled production team - but nothing worked.

In directing with an experienced team, I had fallen prey to the temptation that the Hollywood studio system knows too well. I had tried to direct by committee because I lacked a clear, driving vision of what I wanted.

The audience understood this - one comment at the concession stand hit me hard.

"This is just the intermission?"

I think my principal, Rick Campbell, also realized the show was too long. One reason I suspect this is because of what he said to me afterwards.

"Steve, the show was way too long."

MY FRIEND KIM taught me a great deal as I worked with her behind the scenes. I saw the clarity of her vision as a musician - she intuitively knew what she wanted from her students. Because of this, her work was excellent and her moral authority was unquestioned. Although only 5'4," Kim could silence an entire auditorium with a glance.

When Hayward retired in 1999, Kim applied for the position of Choral Director. During the interview process, she faced the prejudice that lives in any environment ruled by tradition.

She told me one day about a conversation she had had with several of the other teachers. One of the most experienced female teachers told Kim how it was going to be.

"There's no way North Canton will ever choose a woman to be Choral Director," she said. "It just won't happen."

Kim ignored them. She fought for the position. And she won.

Now at the end of her first year, Kim had begun to mark the choral program with the qualities she valued: integrity, discipline, technique.

As I watched rehearsals for May Fiesta and saw Kim conduct over 700 students - including high school, middle school, and elementary kids - I had to think back to the first time I realized that Kim would also become a legend.

IT WAS AN ICONIC moment - encapsulating Kim's approach to teaching. I was staging The Pirates of Penzance for her, and she was in the orchestra pit, conducting a dress rehearsal with the entire cast. I was working with my tech director nearby.

Kim had cast Lisa DeSantis as the ingénue, even though she was just a junior. Lisa had a fine voice and a lightness of spirit, but she was still just a 16-year-old girl leading a cast of approximately 70 choir students. Many of them were seniors. Girls being girls, she received her share of catty comments.

In addition, Lisa's voice had begun to tire during performance week, and sickness didn't make it easier. One night during rehearsal in the middle of a key choral number, Lisa stopped.

"I can't do this," she said. She turned to run offstage. I looked at Kim in the pit. It's a hard thing to face down a female diva in front of the entire cast - especially one who is crying - but Kim knew girls. And her voice cut the silence.

"Lisa, do NOT leave."

Lisa stopped, but didn't turn around. I was surprised. Most young teachers would have let Lisa run off for a good cry, working around her absence. Not Kim.

"Lisa, we don't have time - we need to finish this now."

There was steel underneath Kim's tone. I saw Lisa turn back - she was exhausted, fighting tears. She looked at her director. And she saw not an ounce of give. Though Kim cared about Lisa, she had to consider the group. We were out of time. It was important that the cast see that under pressure, Lisa could deliver. I don't know how much of this Lisa understood, but I do know that she wiped her eyes, turned back, finished the scene.

Kim impressed me with her toughness that day. But it was my friend's actions afterwards that helped me realize why her students loved her so completely. Because the minute that number ended, Kim called a break, and she was out of the pit, moving through the students, facing her student with pride shining from her own eyes, Kim's arm wrapping around Lisa now, crying with her now as she led her student offstage, words of encouragement coming honestly.

And at that moment I knew Kim had greatness in her soul. She cared passionately about achieving excellence as an artist. But she never let that get in the way of caring for the individual.

How was I to know that her world would flip on its back within a few short months, changing the direction of both our lives?

To be continued . . .

NEXT WEEK - Chapter 2: Microscope of Grief