Oct 14, 2006

The REAL Rota Tour: Day 1 "Anatomy of a Tour"

Friday, October 6, 2006

On the road with REAL. The drama team gathers for instructions during our record breaking four shows in four hours on the first day of our tour in Rota, Friday, October 6, 2006.

Herewith the first entry of several documenting REAL Christian Theater's tour to Rota last weekend.

First off, our team is deep in the red. We still owe like $1600 from last year and I think the travel agent overcharged us for our trip to Palau. I'm still workng on getting to the bottom of that. So, for this tour every member paid their own way plus contributed some money for food. This was a trip done on the cheap.

We've had about two solid weeks of overcast, rainy weather here in Saipan and during our entire time in Rota we never saw the sun. Still, it was a wonderful trip, full of beauty, miracles, and camraderie.

So, Day 1, Friday morning, October 6. My wife dropped myself, Grant aka Mr. Incredible (co-director of the team this year with me, replacing Monica from last year), and Britni (our sound, lights, and props manager, replacing John from last year) at the airport around 7:50 A.M. I was traveling light and feeling good. All my liquids, pastes, and gels were in my checked luggage, my carry ons were light and loose. I was ready!

There were some team members already there waiting and the rest arrived soon after. Most of the team members were returning actors from last season--Harry, Holly, the Vice President, CK Girl, The Man. Bono Girl and the Diva are now co-directors with Grant and I, so they are still with us. The Rock and the Gentleman would fly out to Rota the next day. We had five new members on the team though--the youngest is Bono Girl's little sister who is in the fifth grade. We will call her Little Sister. We've also added two more Chinese Korean girls to our team--both of limited English ability, which granted makes drama a bit of a challenge. But then that's how CK Girl came in and she's now one of our best actors. One of the girls is in my freshman class--she's the Treasurer who got left behind when we took the then-8th graders to Korea last March. The other girl is a sophomore at Southern High School and we'll calle her Jeane. Also new to the team is Photobug (because she took tons of pictures all weekend), a senior at Marianas High School. And finally, there's Special F/X, so named for his uncanny ability to mimic all kinds of sounds including gunshots, weedeaters, car engines, barking dogs etc. He's also a senior at Marianas High School.

Well trouble started early. The Treasurer checked in after me or tried to, and lo and behold, she couldn't check in. Again! I was horrified! No this can't be happening! Not again! I had the sickening, sinking feeling that we were about to relive the class trip all over again, with the Treasurer being turned away at the counter unable to go on a trip she planned on for a long time. The issue this time wasn't a visa--after all we weren't leaving the CNMI. No, this time, the problem was that she had no picture ID. She turned in every piece of identification she owned--her passport, her entry permit, birth certificate--to some travel agent or immigration person (I couldn't tell for sure what with her broken English). Without some form of photo ID she wasn't going anywhere. Why on earth her parents would decided to strip her of all ID right before she traveled was beyond me.

After a tense and tear filled hour or two which included my wife finding a photocopy of her passport in the school files, the Treasurer's mom was able to get the passport back from whoever had it, and disaster was averted.

Unfortunately, she was't the only one--both Jeane and Little Sister showed up at the airport without ID and had to frantically track some down.

Honestly, it's like some of these people have never traveled before!

Anyway, everyone managed to get everything together and, after a brief worship led by Grant, we boarded the plane for the short flight to Rota.

The Man and Holly on the flight to Rota

Photobug reviews her lines from the sketch "Guardian Angel" on the flight to Rota.

Rota is only about 35 minutes away by 30-passenger prop plane. It's one of the three major inhabited islands (the other two are Saipan and Tinian) which together with 11 more mostly uninhabited islands to the north of Saipan make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI). Rota is the southern most island of the CNMI, closer to Guam than Saipan, but still very close by. Yet for all it's closeness, Rota feels like it is a million miles from Saipan. It is so drastically different from Saipan. Rota is quiet, rural, pristine. By comparison Saipan is loud, crowded, blighted by garment factories, garish, poorly maintained businesses, and litter. Chamorro culture is said to be strongest and purest on Rota. The people there still speak the language and take care to preserve the traditions of the past. Being on Rota reminded me a lot of the less developed, more ethinicaly homogenous islands of other parts of the Micronesian Pacific--Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Yap. Especially Yap. Being there gave a me a nostalgic, warm feeling for those islands where I first lived in the Pacific more than 12 years ago.

The people are reknowned for their friendliness, and indeed when you drive on the roads in Rota, the driver of every single car you pass will wave at you. It is a well-known and engrained part of the island culture. They wave! The first time driving on Rota I casually, self-consciously raised my hand in salutation, and to my delight the other driver waved back. All the drivers did, whether I waved or not, they waved at me. Often no more than a few fingers lifted from the steering wheel, but a wave nonetheless. Everytime I drove during the weekend, I ended up in an American-style tizzy, always worried that someone might not wave back and then I'd feel like a fool. But of course they always waved back. I tried to gauge when to wave. Wave too soon and I'd be so far away they wouldn't see the wave. Wait too long, and I might wave as I was passing them by. In either case, I worried I would look like the rude and heartless American. And of course, occasionally, I'd forget to wave all together, and then feel horrible, certain I looked like the rudest person on the road.

We arrived in Rota at about 10:45 and hit the ground running. We went straight to our first show, at the local Catholic school. We proceeded to hurtle through four shows in four hours. Despite the hectic pace, the shows were excellent. The kids were at the top of their game and the audiences were enthusiastic. Friday was easily our best day, performance wise. Sadly Grant missed all of the performances as he was off helping unload all our stuff at the home of the Rankins (old friends of ours who used to live in Saipan.)

So perhaps you're wondering, what exactly it is we do in theses shows. What follows is the anatomy of a REAL Christian Theater show in words & pictures.

The Diva, one of our student directors this year chose the material and directed our school and church shows for the tour to Rota. Here she gives last minute instructions to the team before we begin our show at Rota High School. She's so creative, and such a great leader and did an excellent job! I'm so proud of her!

First off, for a traveling performance like this costumes and props are kept to a minimum. We wear team T-shirts (we generally get new ones each season, each with it’s own unique design, though this season due to our budget crunch only the new members got T-shirts. The rest of us used the same ones as last season) usually along a similar color scheme. This season our shirts are either “sand” or light blue. We may have a box of hand props but that’s it. Sets are usually a couple folding chairs and maybe a folding table.

Not a great photo, but a fairly good picture of the team t-shirt we're using this season. Those of you that know me (which is pretty much all of you, have probably seen me wearing my various REAL t-shirts from the different seasons).

What we generally have is a collection of about a dozen sketches that we mix and match based on our audience. For performances at public schools we stick to material that is non-religious in nature but promoting positive, life-affirming values that we believe are found in Christianity but can be appreciated by all regardless of beliefs. The show we toured the schools with last season and that we took to Rota was called “Shine” and all the sketches revolved around being yourself and being your best. For parochial schools or church groups we will do some of the same material but also add in specifically spiritually oriented material. For our show at the Catholic school in Rota and at the Seventh-day Adventist Church Friday night we used more “Jesus-oriented” material.

At the Catholic school. Our first show in Rota.

If our audience is older we do material geared towards teen audiences dealing with issues like drug use, suicide, etc.

For the High Schoolers: Holly and I perform "The Job Applicant", a sketch about a teen-age girl that applies to be an adult.

Rota Junior High School audience. This was our final school show in Rota.

If we’re performing in front an elementary school crowd we’ll go with kid-oriented sketches that deal with being friendly, saying kind words etc.

Sinapalo Elementary School kids in Rota. Aren't they cute?

We start off our shows with something energetic and lively, and when we can something that involves the audience. One of our long time favorites is a sketch called Life 101 which we did at all four schools we performed at on Rota. In the sketch a “college professor” (played by me) introduces four “experts” in the important life topic of “How To Get People to Like You.”

The four "popularity experts" in the sketch "Life 101" await their introduction, backs to the audience. They are Harry, the Vice President, Special F/X & Bono Girl.

Each of the actors try to get the audience to do silly things to get people to like them, like chanting “I am the greatest”, putting your shoes on your hands, and sniffing your shoes to get “high.”

Here, we are trying to increase our popularity by getting in to shape while Bono Girl exhorts the crowd to chant "I am the greatest!"

The sketch builds in craziness and general loudness as each expert chimes in to get the audience doing “their” thing. It ends when I interrupt to question the “experts” authenticity and to suggest that just being yourself is a much better way to get people to like you. This sketch is always a crowd pleaser, and we’ve used it successfully for year.

I interrupt the dubious experts at the end of "Life 101."

Following our opener we’ll do a couple of “message” sketches, the number depending on the amount of time we have at the venue. Most sketches are short, usually funny, with some kind of a moral or thought involved.

In this sketch called "Looks Like a Dog, Acts Like a Dog, Must Be a Dog" Special F/X plays the son of the Vice President and the Man, who are raising him as a dog.

I usually act as emcee and introduce each sketch as well as follow up with some additional commentary or explanation to bridge from one sketch to another and tie them all to the theme (since we find these sketches from many different sources—usually Christian drama skit books that I buy when I’m in the states every summer--they’re not “naturally” designed to go together. Sometimes I’ve had to stretch to make a particular sketch fit our theme!)

Me working the crowd between sketches at Rota High School

About half way through the program we’ll break for some totally hilarious and pointless skits that we call “Just For Fun.” They have no point or message and are just to make the kids laugh. These are always fun to do, and are usually very short. One classic we did a few years ago was the old Abbott & Costello routine “Who’s on First.” Another favorite that we’ve done many times, including our Rota shows, is called “The Hospital” in which a perfectly healthy patient goes to the hospital for a check up but ends up catching the sneezes, itches, and twitches of the various patients that come in and join him in the waiting room. The punchline is when a “pregnant” woman walks in and the patient runs out of the waiting room screaming in horror, certain that he’ll “catch” that too!

The hospital patient, played by the Man, has his horrifying encounter with the "pregnant" lady played by Bono Girl.

After this we do a couple more “message” sketches, often ending on a more serious note with a more dramatic sketch.

At max our shows can run up to an hour. The average length for most of our school shows is 30-40 minutes and the shortest we’ve ever done was 10 minutes at the Sinapalo Elementary School in Rota because we arrived late and they only had a few minutes before school let out.

For our Friday night show, which was a church vespers program we did comedic sketches with a spiritual point—parables if you will. These included “the Sin Chair” which illustrates the Christian concept of the enslaving power of sin and our inability to free ourselves on our own. This was illustrated by the “sin chair” which various actors get “stuck” to when they touch it.

The Man and friends stuck to the "sin chair" are reproached by CK Girl who warned them not to touch it.

Another example of this type of sketch was “Molding Jesus”, in which an actor representing the crucified Christ stands motionless with arms outstretched in the “cross” posture. Various actors enter doing various things (a fashion shoot, talking on the phone, boxing, doing a “Mr. Robot” dance).

Grant plays the role of Jesus, as CK Girl, the cell phone talker approaches.

Each discovers Jesus and molds him to match what they are doing. But when they leave Jesus always snaps back to the cross posture.

CK Girl attempts to mold Jesus into a cell phone talker just like herself.

The last actor comes out and sees Jesus, understands what He has done and molds herself to match him. At that point Jesus smiles, hugs her and they walk off stage together.

Holly and Jesus at the end of "Molding Jesus"

These sketches we learned from a traveling Youth With A Mission group that we worked with last season. Other sketches are longer and more story oriented, like “Guardian Angel” about two girls who are running away from home and meet a mysterious stranger on the way.

Another part of our performances that will often appear in religious or general community shows, is the pantomime set to music. We’ve had a long a history of doing these. They’re generally dramatic and nature and often some of the strongest audience responses have been to this emotional combination of music and story. On this tour we did a trilogy called “The Creation”, “The Fall” and “The Redemption.” (the topics of the pantomimes are self-explanatory, I think). “The Redemption” in particular is one of my all-time favorites. I created it about five years ago and it’s still gives me goose bumps every time I see it. There are so many little symbolic details in it—for example, in one part of the pantomime, Jesus raises a little a girl to life and he uses the same pantomime motions that he used in “The Creation” to give life to Adam and Eve.

On an off island tour like the one we took to Rota we’ll usually do a full weekend of performances: shows at the schools on Friday, at churches Friday night, (and at the Seventh-day Adventist Church) Saturday morning, and ending the tour with a full-length fully costumed play complete with lights, sound, and a life-size set more typical of the type of thing you might normally see a theater club produce. These plays are generally also religious in nature, but we’ve had a tradition of really pushing the envelope with these plays to reach our target audience of teens and young adults which has sometimes led to some controversy with the more conservative church people who often see the plays as well.

So that’s the shape of a typical tour for us. It’s pretty much the pattern we followed in Rota as you’ll see.

So we ended our last school show around 3:00 P.M. on Friday afternoon. The Vice-President’s family is from Rota, and so her dad took us to a local restaurant and treated us to a late lunch. At this point in the tour, the team had yet to really bond, and so the group divided along clique lines. Most of the “local” kids sitting at one table together, while the Asians sat another table with Grant, Britni, and myself. I wondered how the new Asian girls would fit in, especially with their limited English. This tour had replaced our annual beginning-of-the-season retreat (normally we don’t take an off-island tour like this until the end of the season) usually the team manages to bond by the end of the retreat, but I wondered if it would really happen this time.

Me, Britni, CK Girl, and Grant at lunch after our four shows in four hours.

After lunch we headed over to the place where we would be staying. Some good friends of ours, Ricardo and Gina Rankin and their two little girls, who used to live on Saipan, had generously opened up their home for us to stay in (they were the ones who first suggested we come to Rota) and so for the next three days they had 17 people, most of the teenagers in their home. They really are candidates for sainthood! We rehearsed in their living room for the rest of the afternoon before heading over to the SDA church for our evening performance. After that show, we came back to the Rankins, ate a late supper and relaxed a bit before bed.

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