Der Leiermann

“This is not our usual assorted program,” the e-mail read. “Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ is a long and not particularly cheerful piece.  There will be continuous music for just over an hour – no applause, no jokes.” William paused, then replied: “Perfect match for my Valentine’s Day mood.”

The holiday happened to synchronize with Ash Wednesday this year. Perhaps the better choice would have been to attend a service at his evangelical church, but Will wanted to be somewhere with real wine. He wanted to attend an Event. He wanted to have an imaginary date.

Not like an imaginary friend – a real friend – two real friends – but an imaginary date. If that explanation is incomprehensible, recall Duckie awaiting Andie at the prom near the end of Pretty in Pink. If you cannot recall that, perhaps this story is not for you. Nevertheless: in this story, Will asked a friend, Frank, to the Schubert concert. They had met at a gay celibate support group Will frequented in the recent past, before it registered that he didn’t need to be supported so much as ripped apart and rebuilt. So he switched to recovery, which, if you’re doing it right, will make you question most of what you’re doing. In this process, the subconscious often loses its sub, because you take it away, and that makes the conscious very mad, because it loves a good sub, with so many toppings you can’t see the bread.

Will texted the concert information to Frank just a day and a half beforehand, asking, “care to join?” intending to seem casual, incidental, casually incidental, even to himself, as if he didn’t care, as if he hadn’t been considering it for days. Their responses to each other were consistently two hours apart; courteous, not obsessive, but Will had already begun drawing lines, lines over lines that were already there, new lines, with chalk, so they could be erased and redrawn.

Home from work the night of the concert, Will considered changing his outfit to dress slacks and a sweater with a V neck that plunged below sea level. But that was a too obvious cross. He needed to toe the line, to keep balance: he kept on the plaid button down, but removed the undershirt; paired with low rise jeans, in certain positions, the line of his underwear would be visible. Only once or twice in the course of an evening. A modest exposure.

Will was house sitting for friends in the country, friends with money, who had filled the refrigerator and given him a credit card for the added expense of the longer commute. Also they insisted he use the new car, a brand of which Will was unaware because the company wasn’t marketing to him, obviously. He had avoided the car for a week, afraid of even walking too closely by it in the garage. But for tonight, only it would do.

“Wow, is this your ride?” Frank smiled as he lowered into the passenger’s seat. “Oh, no, it’s my friend’s,” Will said. “They keep telling me to take it for a test drive.” He gestured above the dash. “Look at all the lights and buttons…it’s like we’re in the Enterprise.”

“And you’re picking me up?”

“Well, yes…I mean, I don’t do that anymore. But yes.”

They both laughed, but instead of the laugh coming out of them, it seemed to come at them.

The concert was to be performed at a “premier retirement location where an exciting lifestyle, a proud tradition and a confident vision of the future offer a better view on life,” according to the website. Within a matter of minutes, Will was seeing the vision and ready to move in. High ceilings, constant windows, a variety of fine art and something else: a tangible sense that courtesy was valued, even expected, here. Will was mistaken about the start time so they were a half hour early, walking around the building, feeling the need to be quiet. “I wish there was a bar,” Will stage whispered, and do you know, by the end of the hall, there was.

“We’re early for the Schubert concert,” Will explained to the bartender, “are we allowed to be here?”

“Of course,” she exclaimed in reply, with a big smile, gesturing to some high backed stools. They sat. The walls were decorated with those vintage Italian posters for food and drink, which some 20 years ago were rediscovered by America and then heavily trafficked so as to now be pedestrian.

There was an older woman at one end of the bar, appearing almost horizontal, though whether that was due to her back or the wine was unclear. Frank asked for a beer. Will asked for an amaretto sour. “Oh,” said the bartender, whom, at this moment, Will realized was not a bartender: “what’s in that?” Soon another employee was called over, who confided in them, “I’m not even 21 until a week from now.” Then another employee was called over, who Googled the cocktail on their phone and methodically mixed. After it was finished, they placed it in front of Will, like cupbearers, waiting for him to take a drink. He did. “Does it taste right?” They appealed. “Yes,” Will said, because really, anything with amaretto flavoring tastes right.

From there the conversation traveled to Nicaragua, where Frank went on a mission trip as a teenager. The chaperones were college students and older adults, but the latter had to return to the states immediately upon arrival, due to some health crisis? Consequently, it was a group of high school students supervised by a couple of college students in a foreign county, which sounded to Will like a poorly made and possibly racist teen comedy. The older woman interrupted then, having eavesdropped around for the perfect entry point, and recounted her years teaching in the central city. Whenever she asked a question and none of the students answered, she would command them to “just stand up and say you don’t know.”

The woman had a limited number of subjects and expressions, like evidence tacked to a wall, that she arranged and rearranged, expecting everyone to find the links. At any moment she would stop talking and/or listening to greet a resident passing by. Will found himself wondering what the Her of Now had in common with the Her of Then? Maybe a lot. Maybe not much.

It was nearly time for Schubert, so Will paid for the amateuretto sour and the beer. Friends buy each other drinks, yes? Wasn’t Will a friend to Frank. They strode down the hall, hissing and giggling about the woman with an affection that seemed to increase with distance.

“Winterreise” was presented by a singer and pianist who had been Will’s friends since they were all in college, more than 15 years ago. It was a friendship whose history had gradually become a substitute for intimacy. But of course, history has its own intimacy.  The concert was held in the Chapel, which had a purposely mixed design, incorporating elements of Catholic, Evangelical, Colonial and Modern. It was partially hospitable and partially displacing. As promised, they performed the whole piece without a break, and Will started to study Frank from the periphery. Was he bored? Quite a bit of movement there. Frank had ADD, though. Other audience members were reading the English translation of poetry as the German was sung. But Will wouldn’t. The music was sad enough, why get specific about it? At the end of each one, the same old person would release a tremendous amount of air, as if they were sighing and scoffing simultaneously.

Frozen Tears, Backward Glance, Isolation, Last Hope, Deception…Will was just reading the titles now. Just to know how long it would last. In the silence between pieces, someone whispered, much louder than they realized, “I’m going to try to sneak out,” and Will and Frank made eye contact, which, in such moments, is the murder of composure. They shook with a seizure of suppressed laughter, feeling like kids in church. They were in church, actually, though it was within another building. Why couldn’t more churches be inside of places?

Eventually, Will would have to share all of this with his recovery group. He would say, “I wanted the Boyfriend Experience,” or, if his fructose was particularly high, “I wanted to be Queen for day.” No one would judge him. No one would need to. The act contained its own judgment: a lack of imagination, a lack of faith, a lack of the ability to follow, to put one foot in front of the other, like a model walking down the runway, fixating on one point, oblivious to everyone though they’re all watching. But they aren’t. Not always. Someone else is.

At the very end was the song Will recognized. The singer had played it late one night after they drank, coincidentally, a significant amount of amaretto. The piano melody both predicts and fulfills, its mystery tinged with certainty. Will decided to read the lyrics.

Over there beyond the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man,

and with numb fingers he plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice, he sways back and forth,

and his little plate remains ever empty.

No one wants to hear him, no one looks at him,

and the dogs growl at the old man.

And he just lets it happen, everything as it will,

plays, and his hurdy-gurdy never stands still.

Wondrous-strange old man, should I go with you?

Will you accompany my songs with your instrument?

Carrie & Lowell & Sufjan & Me

The 39-year-old boy, Sufjan Stevens, is bent over, his back almost to us. He is finding the keys and pushing them down, on a piano that looks like it came from an attic and it probably did. The band quietly assembles, accompanying him, but only in presence. The song, “Redford,”* is from an early album, Greetings from Michigan. We are in Wisconsin, which isn’t so far from Michigan, and yet, so very far.

I first listened to Michigan while I was in New York and unhappy, to which Hannah Warren would say, “nobody’s happy in New York, but they’re alive,”** although it’s unclear whether I was that, either. On streets, in head shots, through the casting office, I watched people who had sculpted and hardened and polished themselves into beauty. Inspired, I ransacked the internet for the right diet and died to it, denying myself food and repeatedly purging my system with “natural” cleansing protocols. Then I wondered why my body became a stick figure, my face a red acne bomb and my heart a lead balloon. I listened to track number 13 of Michigan, “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” over and over again, until I was crying, until I was crying and groaning, until the Spirit was groaning for me.

Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin

And so begins the next song, “Death with Dignity,” first on the album this tour is supporting, Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s parents, the former of which died three years ago. There are a series of separate panels behind him, like chapel windows, displaying home videos of a family that we know, and don’t: the mother, who battled addiction and mental illness and retreated from her family; the father, who moved to the front line of his children’s lives; the result, a crossbeam with only one support, upon which the children had to balance. But to balance you have to lean on something.

I leaned on my own understanding. After a crash landing back in Wisconsin, I was a survivor who didn’t want to survive. A mild depression dominated for a time and then was disgusted by me, so it departed. Sexual addiction arrived, committed to drug, impoverish and wreck me, ’til death do us part. I pronounce you man and man and man and man and man… you may kiss the lie.

In a bleached-white light, moving through the audience as though a search and interrogation is imminent, Sufjan’s T-shirt, branded with one word, can no longer be ignored: Hustler. His voice, an apparition of a whisper, sings “All of Me Wants All of You.”

Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used

Suddenly my eyes are memorial fountains, the water pumping from the past and splashing into the present. The teardrops are shadows on my pants. The pants are not mine. They are from a production of Oleanna in which I played Carol, a student of “doubtful sexuality” who “want[s] understanding.” I went on a gender bender shortly after birth and could not stop until a few years ago, although I had waited until legal drinking age to buy a dress at the thrift store. I packed it in a bag for a trip to Illinois to visit my friend. Upon arrival I asked her to wait in the living room so I could change into it and make an entrance. When I did, she smiled and said something no one else ever had, not even my parents: “I think the dress looks nice on you.” We drank vodka with her boyfriend and watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch and at the end he made a joke and she made a face at him and tried to make me mad at him with her and I said, “This isn’t a movie, this is my life.”

Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?

“The first funeral I attended was my great-grandmother’s,” Sufjan speaks, 45 minutes into the concert, for the first time. “She was all made up, like a homecoming queen, like Glinda the good witch of the north…I had this beautiful image of death, of my great-grandmother transcending with the angels…and so I’ve always thought of death as womanly. Maybe because, women sort of have to die to themselves to give birth.”***

Three days before, in group, I said, “I’d like to open my sharing by showing a picture of a polar bear. Isn’t this the saddest polar bear you’ve ever seen? I feel like this polar bear. I’m so sad. I’m so tired of being sad. Finally I understand why people want to end it. I’m not going to, I never could, I just mean, you get so tired of trying so hard. Of waiting so long. To be healed. But things are better, really. I’m not going on craigslist anymore, which is difficult, but good. But I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m recovering from.” Everyone was quiet. The leader nodded. He said, “keep coming back.”

Now the stage is empty, but we are standing, clapping, like schoolchildren trying to create the sound of rain; a rain dance performed by hands, to bring the reign of Sufjan back. Just as the possibility is about to become obsolete, he comes on.

The opening notes of “Chicago” have never sounded so entreating, but nevertheless Sufjan bursts into the beginning and blazes to the end. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he sings. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Behind him, the panels are hanging – still divided – but bearing images of light.

*The song inspired an entire album, Undun, by The Roots.

**From California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross.

***Thanks to Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a complete review and set list.

Running with Questions


Acacia Theatre Company has really interested me and impressed me, from what I found online. My name is Aubree Gevara,* I’m a homeschooled 18 years old and my passion is for excellence in Christian theater. I’m contacting you because I believe you exhibit aspiring characteristics and qualities. For my duel credit college final project in my Theater Appreciation Course I’m interviewing people involved with Christian theater. I would be extremely appreciative if you would take some time to answer a few questions below. Feel free to answer whatever you can even a few answers are helpful! God bless!


Thanks for contacting Acacia. You are correct in stating that I exhibit aspiring characteristics and qualities. My characteristics and qualities are wannabes and posers. Also you must invite me the next time your credits duel. Do they just throw their weight around? I can’t imagine them using weapons. How does either win? It all sounds very thrilling.

I am happy to answer your questions, but know that my opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Acacia Theatre Company. If that statement concerns you, remember it is also displayed before every episode of “The 700 Club.” Except for the “Acacia Theatre Company” part, of course. If Acacia owned “The 700 Club” it would have taken me longer to respond because we would be receiving donations all the time, like Goodwill, if Goodwill got boxes of money. And people would donate other things, too, like an advent calendar keyboard. Beneath each key would be a chocolate. It would have to be like a 3 month advent. And the keys would have to be labeled normally so you could still type. It’s not a good idea but it’s an idea that makes me feel good, probably because I’m typing and hungry and tired and Christmas is a comin’ and the egg is in the nog.**

What plays have you been involved with and in what role did you help? (director, actor, stage) Please state if they were Christian or secular.

Let’s get etymological. The word secular is from Latin – that virile patriarch who seems to have contributed DNA to every word born – specifically, the root saecularis, meaning “of a generation,” which our generation can learn from reading Wikipedia, as I did, although I am not in your generation, Aubree, since I am 30 and therefore dead by most accounts in youth culture.

Regardless, the essential purpose of the word secular is to describe activities removed from organized religion, from eating to bathing to working to playing in a Mariachi band. Yet these activities can still be, and often are, blessed by God. Applying this understanding to our lives makes everything so messy, and in our country, where 99.9% disinfecting hand sanitizer is ubiquitous, that’s upsetting, so I will try to answer as cleanly as possible.

I’ve spent a lot of time in theaters, beginning in 7th grade as Friedrich in The Sound of Music, to writing and producing my own play, Work in Progress, to assistant stage managing a show off-off-Broadway, to costarring in a controversial production of Oleanna. Most of my work has been in Christian schools or theatre companies, with some exceptions.

What is your background and training? Was it Christian or secular? What are your opinions about Christians training in secular theater? 

After giving Wisconsin Lutheran College the old college try for two years, I transferred to a secular film school – although its President was a Christian, just to stuff your noodle – where I graduated with an Associate’s Degree in film production, which basically qualifies you to get coffee for people. I did this for awhile, before being promoted to getting food for people, which I did for awhile, before being promoted to getting the phone for people, which I did for awhile, until I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Actually I had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t get up. I had to “get to gettin’,” to quote Nat King Cole, and God only knows how I got here.

As for Christians training in secular theatre, I sense that is a personal choice everyone must make. Personally, the secular theatre is a giant salt block and I am a deer – I can’t hold my licker and I’m still thirsty afterwards. Deers pant for water. I know that the plural for deer is the same as the single, Aubree, but it’s more fun to say deers. Even more fun if you were a jeweler to the animals, because then there is the possibility of one day saying, “I’ve got De Beers for the deers.”

To reference the Bible again, only with proper pluralization and context this time, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” There are so few workers with the requisite faith, talent and skill who will get down on the funny farm of secular theatre and harvest some lost souls!! I’m sorry, Aubree, that was a little Pentecostal. And metaphorical. God is the only one who can harvest souls. But he can use workers.

However one decides to be trained, what is certain to me is that you can’t follow God outside of a community of followers. You need the collective encouragement and discernment and smack upside the head – although maybe the collective shouldn’t administer the smack upside the head as that would be a lot of head trauma. The smacking upside the head should be delegated to an individual from the collective.

Have you personally ever compromised your convictions to participate or glean training in a secular forum? If so how has that affected you as you train your students or others?

To the first question, the answer must be yes, but I can’t think of a situation. Our memory is always protecting our self-image.

What is your advice to Christian college students as they pursue theater? What pitfalls could you warn students to avoid? 

I believe it was David Mamet who said something like, “if you want to do theatre, do theatre.” In my opinion, that’s the best advice. Don’t wait for a director or producer or company to discover you, go out and discover yourself. Write something, produce something, act in something. Do the Mickey Rooney Judy Garland thing and put on a show. It does help to know somebody with a barn.

Did your convictions change about what you felt you were able to participate in the more you advanced in Christian theater? 

No? Yes? It seems strange to classify it as a change in convictions; it’s more like an expanding perception. God is bigger than the Boogieman, or that mass of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific ocean, or politics, or culture. He is this really Big Love – no reference to polygamy intended, although we’re all supposed to be the bride of Christ so maybe the reference is unintentionally intended – that is constantly in pursuit of people. He is the way, the truth and the life. At the center of that is truth. All truth belongs to God. So if you look for truth, I believe you will find Him. From that place you can bear witness.

What is the biggest obstacle you face when coordinating or participating in Christian theater?

Engaging the beliefs of Christians without enraging them. Most of our subscribers are Christians and some were upset when we announced our intention to produce a play about Mother Teresa. One remembered reading an article, which they elevated to an article of faith, that Mother Teresa renounced God before her death. After reading some articles myself, I discovered a private letter from her to a spiritual director, describing a dark night of the soul so dark I suspect St. John of the Cross would refer to it as Mother Teresa’s Night of the Soul, out of respect. When someone is getting that much demonic attention, God must be living in them; such a system of measurement cannot be converted to the prosperity gospel, but it is nevertheless true.

Anyway, we met people’s opposition with our conviction that Mother Teresa was a woman of God – yes, a woman with struggles and faults and doubts – but a woman of God. Some declined to renew their season subscription because of that decision, but they still attended other shows. God has a way of bringing people together, even when they don’t believe the same things.

And I believe this answers all your questions. You’ll never have to ask one again. I hope it’s been helpful, or at the very least, entertaining. Blessings on the project, Aubree!


*Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t.

**This is from a Bing Crosby Christmas song. Listen to it here. What is with the speech bubble lyrics? Stop putting words in his mouth. Let the man rest in peace.

Grace Cathedral

“Suggested donation $10,” the box solicits through its slit of a mouth. I stuff a 10 in there, just to shut it up, and enter the sanctuary.

My mind is a mass of arrows pointing inward: I’m such a career woman in my sweater with shoulder pads! And it cushions the strap of my bag. Double-duty fashion. These pews are like Victorian British women – so stoic and stiff. I’m going to sit on one of them. Is it sacrilegious that I’m coming to this church only because Vince Guaraldi once performed here? Not nearly as sacrilegious as that gay man taking a picture of his boyfriend praying. Are they joking or serious? Am I enraged or envious?

But the arrows multiply and overlap and fade – like the opening credits of Charade – and I am silent. Silent under these canopies of stone, these glowing embers of stained glass.

Organ chords emerge, as if from the earth’s core. The choir enters. “Shield the joyous,” they sing. Every voice is a ribbon, swirling through the room, encircling hearts and suspending them. Suddenly a small crowd of tears gathers in my eyes, confused, overcome; we all look to the altar. God? What would you have me be? What would you have me do?

But I close my eyes, and the crowd disperses. Go home now. There’s nothing to see here.