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John Fancher, Musician

April 21, 2010

John Fancher (left) and Perry Marshall perform. (Photo courtesy of Jay Fancher.)

If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. –William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Everyone has a different story. Everyone has a different dream. Everyone has a different idea of heaven. Everyone has creativity inside of them that they don’t even know is there. A person can live decades and not even know a part of who she is. There are discoveries waiting to crack open that require a specific fertile environment before they can become alive. Like an ice age man frozen in a blue glacier, just waiting for some more global warming.

The most fascinating thing about artists can be how and why and when they became artists—how something clicked in their brains and they began to move forward with purpose in one specific direction—how they found some particular medium that works to express what they need to express, what they were meant to say.

I always regret that I wasn’t forced to start playing the violin at age three, because I would be so good at it now. I feel that way about a lot of things—skateboarding, surfing, piano, dance, etc. The truth is, though, that being encouraged to practice with discipline from an early age is not the way anyone becomes an artist. It helps to be exposed to things young, and if you are ever so lucky, you may become some sort of iconoclastic savant in the random activity your parents shoved you into before you were potty-trained. And obviously, if you aren’t exposed to certain things, you will never have the chance to be ridiculously successful at them. Case in point: Why aren’t there Olympic figure skaters from Central America?

For the most part, however, art is something else. It doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with years of dedication. Those artists—the ones who don’t spend agonizing years perfecting the craft, but instead unexpectedly find within themselves some strange and bewildering and beautiful something—are the most interesting. Which brings us to John Fancher.

John is–ummm–a rock star. No, a poet. No, a performer. No, a singer-songwriter. I don’t know the best word to describe him, but let’s say that his idea of heaven is performing music in front of people. And as luck (or grace) would have it, he is very good at this thing he loves, even though he has spent but a fraction of his life doing it. Did I emphasize that he is good?

All ya can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and ya do it well. –Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain”

John explains, “The only reason I ever learned guitar was to play in front of people.” Most of those opportunities did not present themselves to him until recently. The idea of only playing in order to perform seemed weird to me at first. By weird I mean egocentric. The more I think about it, though, the more self-aware of a comment it becomes. Sharing something with people through performance, exhibition, publication, or production is the most natural reason to create any sort of art: it creates human connections.

John played piano starting in the fourth grade, but he did not buy his first guitar until college. He then wrote his first song, his only song for many years, as a sophomore. He didn’t even play guitar much until after college, and he did not join a band until finishing grad school a while later. At that point, he was good friends with the members of a band with the lovely moniker Catgut, and they let him be an “auxiliary” guitar player and bassist. Part of the band, he began to write songs again, and the band would let him play lead and sing on those he wrote.

Sometime not long after that, in his mid to late twenties, John married Jay and began having kids, one thing right after the other. And around when they had their first child, a son named Dylan, and John became busy with his job and family, the guitar playing and performing fizzled out, naturally, as creating art for pleasure often does. Opportunities to perform and write songs to perform were not presenting themselves, and they became difficult activities to make time for along with his other commitments. Furthermore, the other Catgut members were not as motivated to get gigs, which was John’s primary purpose for being in a band. On top of that, much of the time they dedicated to practicing was couched in hours of hanging out, which John had limited time to do.

John’s music-making was put on hold for a decade or so, until about five or six years ago when he began to play songs at the weekly open mic nights at Fitzgerald’s. He wanted to have new material to perform at the bar, so songs again began to be conceived inside of John’s head. He explains, “When I look at my times of writing songs, it comes when I can sing in front of people.” Since beginning to play at Fitzgerald’s, he regularly journals in stream-of-consciousness until some sort of hook or chorus or melody line or little lick begins to form. He knows if he can hear a lyric in his head, it will be a decent song. If the music never comes like it should, the would-be song is a poem.

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand. Look into my heart, and you will sort of understand. –Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain”

A number of John’s songs were recently recorded with a band of musicians he respects immensely. They call themselves “Johnny and the Beloveds.” Even though John loves playing on stage, it’s not something he wants to do alone. “I don’t see myself as just myself and a guitar, I see myself as me and a band. I’ll write a song and wonder how it will sound with other people and learn things I didn’t know from them. The ideas they have make it better.”

When you listen to John perform in an appropriately noisy, old-school bar, you feel taken away. And it’s almost better when you hear him perform one of his favorite songs (covers or his own), in exactly the same rich, wild, guitar-driven style, but within a stain glass-windowed, high-ceilinged house of worship, knowing there are probably angelic hosts around you. It’s surprising that this guy has not been playing music his whole life, and it seems sublimely lucky that he has found something on earth that gives him so much unadulterated pleasure.

John’s music is full, twangy, soulful, and imaginative. It makes you feel like you are on a raft with Huck Finn, maybe taking the Des Plaines River by what is now Maywood a long time ago, hearing the strains of a troubadour and his traveling band playing through the trees and wishing you could dock and go catch the tail-end of the show. Or that you are in an old, cabin-like music hall in the lush green hills of the mountainy south somewhere where people are just enjoying life on a warm night in the backwoods. (You should be aware that Fitzgerald’s is the closest you will get to that feeling in Chicagoland, so it is only natural that that is where John performs most—location always influences things.)

Forced to put John’s music into a category, I would say it’s rock—more specifically, it falls somewhere between folk rock and alternative country. The tunes are catchy in that country way, while somehow they avoid being cheesy, not so much in that country way. His melodies stick in your head, and the band behind him is fully featured, complete with lingering honey of female back-up vocals. Each song on his album is different, but it’s not like one is good and the rest suck, the sort of album where you just listen to the first song. Each song is individual and complete, with its own melody, story, and mystery. The album is fun to listen to, but you can’t be sure you have plunged all of the richness in the layers of meaning in the lyrics even after listening many times.

In fact, John doesn’t think of himself as a great guitar player. He just knows how to rock out with his friends to the rollicking songs that come out of his head, along with fantastic covers of pretty much any Bob Dylan song you could ask for. And the joy he feels playing his favorite music in front of an audience is thick in the air—it’s palpable. “It feels good to play in front of people—nothing gives me more energy. The times I played with this band are some of the most joyful experiences of my life. When I am up there I feel like I go to this different place. I feel like there is nowhere else I’d rather be. I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing at that moment… When I play poker, I feel like I am naked. When I am on stage, I feel like everyone else is naked.”

If you know John outside of his role as a musician and if you have ever seen him perform, you have seen two different people. He is not especially outgoing off the stage. “During small talk I am worried about saying something awkward. On stage, I am not afraid of a train wreck.” In fact, he sometimes suggests to Jen, one of the members of his band, that they go attempt to have a train wreck of a performance, just to see what will happen.

And I’m still carrying the gift you gave. It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved. It’ll be with me unto the grave, and then unto eternity. –Bob Dylan, “In the Summertime”

So how did he end up at our church? John grew up in a mainline Christian church in southern Illinois. His family rarely talked about it at home, but they did pray before meals. By high school, church had become optional, and John “opted out”, choosing a more hedonistic path through college. Then, after college, John worked at an insurance agency where he met a “really nice guy,” Dick Riffle, who went to the Urbana Vineyard: “This guy talked about crazy stuff like having a disease and then praying and having it go away.” He was “not hypocritical at all. He was way more interested in you as a friend than making you into a Christian.” John even went to House Group (group Bible studies in a home) with this man, which he explained, “would have seemed bizarre if it wasn’t for him.” And this man was never judgmental, only loving, even when John went to church with him after obviously rough nights. And thus began John’s curiosity about Jesus.

John acknowledges Bob Dylan and Neil Young, among others, as inspirational, but he notes that U2, in particular, was a “huge influence musically and spiritually.” John once played U2’s song “40” as the opening song on Sunday morning at church. He explains, “I love the way they did that song… It’s called ‘40’ and not ‘Psalm 40’ and Bono mumbled the words. He sucked me in.” John explains how he listened to a live recording of Bono introducing the song and explaining it without explaining it, “It doesn’t mean 40 seconds, it doesn’t mean 40 lines…” Later, “I read in Rolling Stone that it was from Psalm 40, and I went and looked it up. I started looking for little Christian hints and they were all over the place.” John sums up the impression they left: “I didn’t know you could sing about God and it could be cool.” The uncool Christian music stereotype was probably related to some unfortunate heavy metal Christian music videos he had come across in the past.

John emphasizes, “U2 is a rock band.” John’s issue, it seems, is with people emphasizing the Christian-ness of their art before making sure it is truly art. Why would anyone want to make bad “Christian” art? Is it somehow morally superior to excellent secular art? If you know much about Bob Dylan, you know he became a Christian in the seventies, after which he recorded a few excellent gospel albums, including one of the best worship songs of all time, “I Believe in You,” and attended a Vineyard church in California. John believes the reason Dylan ended that Christian-music phase is because he didn’t want to be put in a box. John interprets what Dylan was thinking after being pigeon-holed as a Christian artist: “No, I’m not an evangelist–I’m a musician. I’m not a protest singer, folk singer, voice of a nation–I’m a musician.”

I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released. –Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Released”

In fact, John believes Dylan continues to be a Christian. Dylan just does not like being labeled. John explained, “If you want to know what Bob believes, you listen to what he sings.” According to John, there is only one lyric Dylan wrote before becoming a Christian that you couldn’t sing as a Christian–“not even Jesus would forgive what you do” [from “Masters of War”]. And John pointed out that it is meaningful that Dylan has sung that particular song only very rarely since “becoming a Christian” (including one time after the confusing tragedy and aftermath of 9/11). On the other hand, he still sings the overtly honest song about Jesus rising from the dead, “I am the Man, Thomas,” with relative regularity (check out the lyrics here), and he often even begins his sets with old hymns and gospel tunes.

Now, I still don’t know the answer to a lot of questions about John. I can’t find the perfect label for his box, so that I can shelve it in on the correct aisle in the massive warehouse of people and artists I have met in my life. I don’t know if he knew he had the capacity to write these soulful songs and put on these entertaining shows for all these years, he was just waiting, or if he would not have been as good as he is now if his talent had not been on hold until the right moment. I don’t know if he knew he had this gift the whole time, or if he was as fascinated to discover his music abilities and love of performing as I am to hear about the course his life took to lead him to now. I don’t know how John feels about his long hiatus as a musician—if he wishes he could have made music a career, or if he is totally satisfied with the way things are playing out.

However, I do know a couple things. Like Bob Dylan, John doesn’t generally write or sing “Christian songs.” I don’t think he would call himself a “Christian artist.” John is a musician, poet, song-writer, etc. But all creativity comes from the Creator. The gift of creating lyrics and melodies was written into the mitochondria of John’s cells. It is part of who he is. John’s music and poetry is honest and beautiful and it is about what he believes, faith-wise and otherwise, but, perhaps more importantly, it is an expression of his creative nature. So I know that this particular road John has taken has led him to the place where he is able to provide joy for himself and others doing something true and something that is part of the elemental foundation of his being. This intangible, creative thing—this melted-free Neanderthal man—was inside of him, and it’s come forth. And it’s crazy good.

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Laura Husmann, Designer

March 18, 2010

Laura her oldest son, Emmett, in China.

Lesson 1: Life is what it is, however you want to interpret it: a road, a journey, a story, a mystery.

“Life’s like a road that you travel on, when there’s one day here and the next day gone. Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand, sometimes you turn your back to the wind.” –Tom Cochrane, “Life is a Highway”

Let me preface this story, and I call it a story because it captures dimensions of tragedy and hope and redemption (as a good fairytale does), with a vignette Laura told me about her art school experience years ago. The teacher gave everyone five minutes to draw a sunset. They each focused on their papers, mustering all of their artistic abilities to create something beautiful. After the time was up, the teacher told all the pupils who had drawn a palm tree to move to the side of the room. This was a large chunk of the group. Then the teacher had everyone who had included a beach in their sunset scene join the first group. Again—a number of people left. After them, everyone who had drawn a mountain was removed. The exercise went on until only a very few students remained. This was the point.

The teacher wanted to emphasize that all of us usually have the same first ideas when given a topic, but that she desired for her students to push past those initial ideas in order to get to the truly unique and special discoveries that were lurking beyond, waiting to be chiseled out and breathed into life. I don’t know how to explain this eloquently, but somehow Laura’s life is like one of those ideas way, way, way back in the farthest caverns of your subconscious brain. Her story, her life, is one where the path was not anticipated, nor is it what would first come to mind if you were going to write about a wonderful life, but it is singularly rare because of that. Since we would not want to forget Batman in this discussion, Laura’s life is like that purple flower Bruce Wayne goes searching all over the foggy, green, temple-pocked mountains of China for.

Do you ever wonder what happens when you leave the path your life was supposed to take? When you don’t do what God hoped you would do? I still blame myself for making some dumb decisions in my life and getting sidetracked from what I imagine to have been “God’s original plan”. Nothing huge so far, but choices I should have thought through more carefully or thought about at all. For example, why did I go to college in this freezing, steel city when I could have been somewhere where I could have learned to surf, like San Diego? Why didn’t I take a year off before college in the first place? But the truth is that there wasn’t an ‘original plan.’ There is only your life, no other. There weren’t millions of possibilities for you to choose from or alternate universes where you made the other choices, as I like to imagine. You chose or followed the path, however you philosophically want to explain it, and that’s your life—by the time it has happened, it is time to accept it, make the best of what is behind you and what tools you have been given, and step into what lays ahead…

I imagine that Laura has had more reason to feel this way than many people. In her early twenties, she moved to Chicago straight from small-town Iowa, as a newlywed, to work in the best graphic design firm in the city. She had had a fortuitous meeting with the boss months earlier, before she had even completed her art degree. A friend had a job with the company and she had convinced Laura to bring her portfolio in for fun. That same day, Carlos, the award-winning designer and owner of the company, told Laura she had a job as soon as she was finished with school. Laura did not know of any other classmates who had jobs, or even job possibilities, and she had one waiting for her—in the far-off big city of Chicago.

And again, this job was not just any job. Laura began to realize that people would come from all over the world to work for free for 50-hours-a-week or more for this place, just for the experience. Laura explains that she learned more at the firm than she had in art school, from international, awe-inspiring designers. She learned how to push the envelope and not to be afraid. She learned how to approach problems from different dimensions than ever before. The chance opened up worlds and gave her unprecedented opportunities to learn from her peers. She describes it as “the best place I could be to learn to not be part of the machine.”

However, her colleagues at the design firm were not exactly cut from the same religious, spiritual, or cultural fabric as her. Laura explained that at the time it felt like “the most oppressive spiritual climate I have ever been in.” When her coworkers learned she was a Christian, some were amused and tried to offend the “girl from Iowa.” On one of her first days, for example, she found a magazine with people being crucified upside down on the cover, waiting for her on her desk. The pictures ended up being from a feature on the Burning Man Festival, but they were not the sort of thing Laura had seen much of before back home.

Laura often wondered in her first months why God put her there. One morning as she was coming into the building’s atrium, she thought the rapture was taking place. A voice booming, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light and no one gets to heaven but through him,” blasted stereophonically through the halls. At last she realized it was coming for the office of Sun (the business partner and wife of her boss). When Laura went in to see what was going on, she found Sun curiously listening to a Christian radio program. Sun confided in Laura that though her life was full of fame and money, she just wasn’t satisfied—something was missing. It was exactly the kind of situation kids fantasize about when they are learning about witnessing in Sunday school.

So Laura took the cue and asked the question that made the most sense to her, “Do you want to go to church with me?”

Sun studied her calendar for a minute, and then replied, “Yes. You just have to ask Carlos.”

So Laura walked to Carlos’s office. After she explained the situation, Carlos asked, “You go to church!? What do you do there?” He was genuinely intrigued.

Unable to think of any more tantalizing descriptions under the circumstances, Laura gave a simple reply that matched, if not confirmed, her reputation: “We sing songs.” After making fun of her for a while, Carlos agreed that his wife could accompany Laura to church. And thus began a pattern. Every Friday, Sun would make Laura ask Carlos if Sun could go to church with Laura, Carlos would make fun of Laura when she asked, and then Sun and Laura and Laura’s husband would all go to church together.

When she became pregnant a few short years later, Laura assumed it would only be natural to quit her job, in spite of the sacrifice she recognized it would be. She knew she would be giving up not just a great opportunity, but years of developmental knowledge and work that would lead to future design expertise, recognition, money, and likely, fame. On the other hand, her bosses took it for granted that of course she would stay on—that it would be impossible for anyone to give up such a break, much less a girl who had been blessed with the unusual favor to get the job in the first place.

But Laura went forward with her decision. She quit her job (at her farewell dinner, Carlos claimed she was a sister to him) and shortly thereafter moved out to the suburbs, first Forest Park and then to the edge—Maywood, past all the El stops and Oak Park public schools. It was hard leaving the excitement and buzz and creativity of her community in Chicago behind, especially since her husband continued to commute to the city and experience it every day, but in their minds, moving was the right choice. And for a number of reasons, such as their ideal of classical education, they decided she would homeschool their kids.

Lesson 2: You can’t control everything. Sometimes, you can’t control anything.

“And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” –John Lennon, “Let it Be”

Life continued, and Laura expressed herself through her home, church, children, and friendships, until the unimaginable unfolded. Laura’s husband left her and their big house on the edge of one of the most crime-ridden parts of Chicagoland with three boys five years and younger. Laura’s courage and faith, which almost suggest naivete to the cynical among us, have already manifested themselves in her story, as she moved from the farmlands to the big city and then quit her gift of a job to venture out to the lonely suburbs as a homemaker. But her story becomes even more fascinating at this point, because again, she did not do what was expected.

Laura’s youngest son was one and a half when her husband left and he is four and a half now. When people ask her what happened, she describes it as “a few years of hell,” but as a friend of hers during that time, I would have to say that is a pretty euphemistic interpretation. I am sure this is not the forum or even season to describe her experience then, but even as an outsider, I felt betrayed, furious, devastated, and helpless. Several other marriages were ruined during that period, and in many ways, my own faith has been off-kilter since then—I still haven’t figured out how to process the fact that good people, beloved and chosen by God, can make horribly stupid and selfish choices. I guess I still don’t know how to forgive when it really matters. And I only share my own perspective to shed light on what this must have been like for Laura and to emphasize how much God has redeemed something so wrong and unjust.

So after the fallout, Laura decided to finally send her oldest to school and then the others, but they are still living in the same beautiful house in Maywood. And her boys are doing fine. She recently had supernatural closure and forgiveness with her ex-husband, who continues to be invested in his sons’ lives, which Laura deeply appreciates. She is now “trying to figure out how to provide for a family of three sons and make space for creativity and earn money and be a good mom.”

And strangely, this is where Laura’s most recent artistic journey began. What had been put on hold indefinitely with the beginning of her family was renewed for her at a more explosive level than ever before. In her words, “God loves to throw you in the deep end.”

After her husband left, Laura went back to visit Carlos and Sun at her old design firm. She has developed a very close bond with them over the years and feels indebted to them for all they have given her. She told them both the whole story of what had happened to her marriage. Laura describes Carlos’s response: “Hearing you say everything you’ve said and stand there with the same smile makes me think there actually could be a God.”

Lesson 3: You really never know what is about to happen or what is around the next corner. Ever.

I fell in love again, all things go, all things go. Drove to Chicago, all things know, all things know. We sold our clothes to the state, I don’t mind, I don’t mind. I made a lot of mistakes in my mind, in my mind. You came to take us. All things go, all things go, to recreate us. –Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”

Laura's design of the book of a friend's (Mat Barber Kennedy) paintings of objects mentioned in the Bible.

Laura’s style, which she expresses in web design, print, logos, recently paintings, photography, and design/illustrations for a friend’s book (featured above),and most recently writing her own book, is hard to describe. It is extravagant, but crisp. It is colorful, but simple. It is words and pictures, lines and organic contours. It captures your imagination, while it engages your attention and focus. She says “communication is what I am passionate about,” but her methods of communicating are not only verbal. She captures your memory, emotions, and subconscious with her collaborations of word, shape, color, pattern and figure.

Laura continues to do freelance design work but she recently had the unusual opportunity to design website ad banners for companies. The work is both artistic and strategic—she chooses the right visuals for the right audiences (one particularly successful ad she created had Carl Sagan’s face on it) and then tweaks them to increase web traffic using strategic analysis. Though the marketing-type work is not her ideal style or field (“I did not go looking for banner ads”), she enjoys it and believes that “for the place I’m in my life where I am raising three kids and trying to be with my kids and work, it’s a blessing.” And, she explained, “This allows me to write my book.”

Laura’s book is part visual, part personal experience, and part teaching, and she believes God gave it to her: “It was like a download.” She let me read one of the first introductory pages. When I begged to see more, she said I was lucky to have looked at what I had since she hadn’t shown it to anyone else. She explained, “God doesn’t want other people’s opinions.” Again, the level of faith with which Laura talks about God is borderline bizarre, particularly after the snaggle-toothed path her life has taken. She talks about him like he is in the next room. “I feel God and I are making a way creatively, financially… I’m trying to be where I am but with anticipation for what’s to come. I won’t ever again have three small people who need me.”

One final detail. Perhaps I am the only one fascinated by gold teeth, but I had to ask Laura about hers. Yes, she has one, or at least newly-appeared gold filigree through an old filling, and she doesn’t act like it is that unusual. This is how she explains it. “I feel like God is so unexpected. He is so unpredictable. I appreciate that instead of analyzing it. It’s like the crazy things about my kids. I don’t understand why they are the way they are, but I love them.” She went on to give another angle. “I’m a recovering Pharisee. I was a religious person, comfortable when all things were under control, specifically my control. I’m now much more comfortable in freedom than in control. I have thoughts about [the mysterious gold] but I’m in a season of not trying to explain God but just enjoy him.”

I can’t stop asking gold teeth questions, so I pushed her a little more to explain why she thinks God gives them to people at all. What’s the deal? “It seems to happen where there’s a filling. There was something wrong, and that something was fixed at some point. But then he took something that was okay and goes beyond that and makes it amazing. He doesn’t just patch up the thing that’s broken, but he does something astonishing.” Again, we’re back to where we started. This sounds like it could be an analogy for what God seems to be doing with Laura’s life.

Josh Russell, Filmmaker

February 18, 2010

From left: Josh and Megan's son, Asher; Josh; and Josh

Destiny

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” –Augustine of Hippo, City of God

While trying to find out some information about Josh Russell from the scant amount available online before the interview, I learned that he apprenticed with Edward T. McDougal—a screenwriter, director, and Emmy-winning producer whose films have been distributed in over 30 countries—for ten years, beginning when he was 16. In my opinion, the idea of apprenticeship is genius and should be more common. How many hours of stressful schoolwork would you trade to have some practical knowledge of how to perform a skill you actually care about?

This apprenticeship was the first thing I wanted to ask Josh about. Though I love the idea, how does it ever happen, especially in this age, where we are forced to treadmill our way straight—as quickly and successfully as possible—through preschool and kindergarten, twelve years of grade school, four of college, and preferably, at least a couple in grad school? What makes this question compelling in Josh’s case was that: 1) he was living in Rock Falls, a tiny, rural Illinois town; 2) that the mentor was an actual, real-life, award-winning filmmaker; and 3); that the vocation in question was filmmaking. Artificial cattle insemination would have been a more predictable choice.

But Josh’s life has an inexplicable pattern of supernatural destiny that trumped all the more foreseeable outcomes. One of the first in this series of unexpected gifts was a stable, loving grandfather who believed that it was supremely important for kids to have the opportunity to discover what they love and then be able to do and enjoy whatever that activity might be. While this may seem natural, I know of grandparents and parents alike who are either not personally invested in their children or are determined to have their offspring follow a specific, chosen path. But Josh discovered that he loved making videos, and his grandfather, full of unknowing wisdom, let him borrow and play with their family’s expensive 1980s camcorders, freely. And so, at the ripe age of eight, Josh decided that he wanted to be a moviemaker and began his training with dizzying films of his brothers wrestling on the floor.

After about four years of this cultivation, a chance meeting took place when Josh was twelve. He was going to summer camp and was excited about rooming in the cabin of the cool, older son of some family friends. But Josh was blindsided when his mom requested that instead he be assigned to the cabin of a forty-something-year-old man, a filmmaker who had made a movie at the camp the year before and was serving as a counselor as a one-time favor. Josh’s mom assumed that in spite of her son’s frustration and disappointment, it would be good for him to get to know someone in the field if he was serious about it. Of course, the counselor was Edward T. McDougal, the man who would become Josh’s mentor—the man whom Josh claims “has given me everything I have.” And so it began.

McDougal had been praying for an opportunity to invest his experiences and knowledge into someone during the period before they met, and after that summer, McDougal and Josh spent the next few years in irregular but continuing correspondence. Josh explains, “I asked him, how old do you have to be to work legally?” When McDougal said he thought you could work part-time at 14, Josh replied, “Then when I am 14, I am coming to work for you.”

Beginning at the age of sixteen, Josh spent ten years in an apprenticeship, visiting and staying with McDougal and his wife for months at a time. Josh describes McDougal as an old-money Winnetka aristocrat who wears Velcro shoes, shorts, and button-up shirts. But he is the sort of person who is, “less concerned with other’s expectations, and more concerned with his ideals… He has such a commitment to his ideals, unlike I have ever witnessed in my life.”

Josh’s respect for McDougal, even as a teenager, is striking. When I asked if it was awkward to be hanging out at this man’s house, with his wife and family, night and day for weeks, Josh said no. In fact, he explains, “He could have told me to sleep on the roof, and I would have gladly done it. I would have believed he had a reason for it.”

Josh ended up as a producer for McDougal’s yet-to-be-released movie, Dog Jack, in the summer of 2006. Of course, in keeping with the theme of unpredictable coincidences, Vanessa, the editor of the movie, was from the film program at Columbia College in Chicago. She recognized that Josh was “charismatic enough to lead a class” and offered him a job as an instructor for a course on production, though he had no prior teaching experience or equivalent degree. So, Josh taught at Columbia for a year until, again, another door opened. “Then Vanessa’s husband recommended me to teach at DePaul,” which is where Josh currently works.

According to Josh, “One of the big turning points was when I got my father’s blessing.” After reading Wild at Heart, a book which explained that if you did not have an earthly father to bless your life, and in Josh’s case his art, God could be that father, Josh was moved. But when he asked God to ‘be that father,’ he felt God telling him, with absolute clarity, “I can’t give you this blessing, because your father is going to be the one to do it.” A couple months later, while Josh was home with his father for Easter, without his four siblings, that moment occurred, exactly as Josh had known it would.

Yet another fortuitous occurrence was when Josh thought of a new form of teaching screenwriting—a technique that has never been used before. It was based on a literary theory class he took in college. The professor taught him about “unpacking what happens when we read a sentence.” Josh learned about the way we interpret a sentence’s subject, project our own life experiences on it, and finally reconcile our interpretation of a sentence with the author’s version. Josh is now using this method to “unpack” the way we read stories and watch plays or movies.

The concept, which came to him—out of the blue—while he was lecturing a class, has dramatically improved his ability to teach screenwriting and write plays himself. Strangely enough, months ago, a visitor at our church who knew nothing about Josh nor his identity as a filmmaker spoke over his life, telling him, “You bring order to chaos. You have invented something people have been searching for for decades.” Josh explained that film is often described as “organized chaos,” and he described a number of other experiences during which people have given him apparently prophetic words about what God is going to do with him. “I’ve had that happen in the last few years with a frequency that’s blown me out of my socks.”

I asked Josh about his thoughts on these sorts of ‘prophetic words’ and the gold tooth phenomenon at our church, knowing he has been involved in the church leadership and assuming he would have rational perspectives. He replied that he has a “fantastic bull#$%@ detector” due to questionable past church experiences. Nevertheless, he shared, “I am making the active choice to believe that God does that…Why not err on faith? It is something to be unpacked and wrestled with like a good film.” He went on to explain, “I think the core of Christianity is to seek truth and not to seek to fool ourselves. I want the truth no matter who it is. And you know what? God is not afraid of that.”

Destiny?

Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible. –Gabriel Axel/Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast

Not surprisingly, the same mysterious hint of supernatural destiny that pervades Josh’s life story shows up in his writing. In the screenplays I read and watched, the main characters are ostensible losers at living. One is an out-of-shape wrestler whose popularity has spiraled to such a degree that he has only one naïve child fan left, another an overweight singer who wets himself during his life’s most important moments, and another a nerdy, clingy, genius kid so undesired that his parents have both rejected him, leaving him in the custody of a boarding school. But each of these fools has a providential gift that shapes their fate in spite of their own gross shortcomings.

One character, Francis Topeka—the fat singer, whose looks do not match his voice—spends his existence fantasizing about a gorgeous girl who writes him an adoring fan letter during his brief period of childhood fame. When he meets the girl decades later, numerous fluky signs lead him to believe that she too carries a torch for him, even though she does not recognize the disheveled, abrasive man he has become. This fantasy is devastated when he confronts her about the “signs” he has observed. However, their futures ultimately harmonize in spite of the lack of any authentic original feelings on her part. It is as though they are “meant to be together” even though they weren’t really fated to be together, as he had deluded himself into believing for so many years. Or were they?

In The Spectacular Brink of Life, the egotistical but clueless child genius named Wilbert is building a rocket to heaven for a middle school thesis project. A string of stressful and humorous mishaps lead to his new best friend, Florentine—who happens to also be his competitor in love, being sent on a one-way trip to space. The journey to heaven is all but abandoned due to the countless disasters, and Florentine, suffocating and alone in space, discovers an equation that disproves God. After waffling back and forth about whether to try to save Florentine or not, since the benefits of winning over the love-interest in question are great, Wilbert puts his own life and romantic relationship on the line to attempt a rescue. In doing so, they end up on a very heavenly planet. Then, in a beautiful forest on that planet, Wilbert runs into the father who disdained him. Is it a chance encounter? Maybe, maybe not.

Question Deemed Irrelevant

God needs no witness.  Neither to Himself nor against.  –Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

The uncertain line between what is meant to be and what we make happen in our lives seems to be a question intertwined with Josh’s profession, his stories, and his faith. Is his life as a filmmaker destiny or was it a course of random events that happened to allow him to do what he loves? Is God making miracles happen, is it all able to be logically explained, or is it some mystical combination of the two? Both Wilbert and Francis Topeka have encounters with shooting stars in their respective tales, and both seem to interpret them to be some sort of sign. But millions of shooting stars, or meteors, fly through the earth’s atmosphere every day. What constitutes a sign?

Josh believes things. He believes he is doing what he is meant to be doing, and he has believed in himself as a filmmaker since he was a child. I have not met many people with such a sense of certainty about who they are. In his own words, he tried to explain what he believes God is doing. “I’m living my father’s dream. He’s doing something crazy, and he’s using me to do it, and I’m the luckiest bastard in the world.” Wow. I find myself wondering if he is just optimistic. At the same time, I find myself desiring that same sense of absolute purpose. It is inspiring.

At last, Josh’s faith is necessary not just as he creates his art, but as he seeks to share it. Producing independent movies does not sound like the easiest task. Fancypants, a movie about a wrestler who has passed his prime and his lone fan, will be Josh’s directorial debut. The movie has been filmed and edited, but has yet to be released because it needs up-front funding to be shown in theaters. Though this will likely happen in the very near future, the process of convincing people to personally and financially support his dream has been part of the entire process of making the movie, and will be part of his future movies. He describes the demand for others’ trust that is required to do this: “It’s ridiculous that you’d write me a check for $5 million, but why don’t you write me a check for $5 million?” And though it is ridiculous, it is hard to imagine many people easier to put your money on—Josh’s faith makes you want to support him, his vision, and his art. Yes, we will be waiting to see how this next chapter unfolds. Anything is possible.

Jayme McGhan, Playwright

January 12, 2010


In November, I was asked to start an artists blog which would spotlight eleven Vineyard arts leaders for each month of the first year. We chose a playwright named Jayme McGhan I had not yet met for January. Before meeting him, I was given little information—Jayme is a successful, edgy playwright who teaches at Concordia University and has been going to our church since the end of the summer. I am an easily intimidated person, but I assured myself this guy couldn’t be too impressive if he goes to my church—I unfortunately subscribe to Woody Allen’s notion that I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member.

After Googling “Jayme McGhan” later that evening, I realized I was wrong. Jayme is not just a successful artist, he is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been performed all over the country and internationally. And he is only 28-years-old. I began to get nervous. My nerves were heightened when Jayme sent me three of his plays to read, and I found them to be amazing and nothing I would have expected—they were neither Christianly cheesy nor pointlessly esoteric. They are good stories that made me think, mostly about spiritual dilemmas, without doing so overtly.

My stress level continued to crescendo in the days leading up to the looming interview. Would he find my questions dumb? Would he be appalled by my lack of theater knowledge? Would he telepathically guess that I had to confirm the spelling of “playwright” before writing this blog? Most importantly, would I be a horrible interviewer since I have never interviewed anyone besides my grandmother?

The truth is that Jayme is a series of contradictions. While I fumbled around, late for the long-awaited interview, he kindly explained that the internet on his phone kept him company. He was smiley and nice. He looked athletic with a nice haircut and was perhaps preppier-looking than my preppy husband—not the brooding writer I had anticipated after reading his dark plays. If I had not already read his plays, I would have assumed he could not have been that good of a writer (which says more about me than anything). He was just too clean cut looking. But then he threw me off again when he began to express views that made him seem politically liberal, again contrary to the box I had placed him based on appearances.

Jayme grew up in Minneapolis in a nondenominational Christian family who strongly supported Union rights and fair wages. This upbringing is apparent in Jayme’s writing. One of his most well-known and widely produced plays, The Fishermen, deals with the story of two brothers who lose their airline jobs just before they are to retire with their pensions. The brothers then put a bomb on a plane carrying executives of the airline they used to work for, taking seventeen lives.  The country is then divided by people who understand what caused the brothers to react so violently and those who view them as debased terrorists. Jayme admits that the play is disturbing but declares that it is “only a matter of time before [something like this] happens.” Interestingly, the play would be performed even more widely if it were not for its abrasive attack on big corporations, some of the very corporations who sponsor the playhouses where The Fishermen would be performed.

In another play, Mother Bear, Jayme faces his own bent towards pacifism by having a pacifist named “Freely” forced into a situation where he must decide whether or not to kill a murdering, violent man who has just killed his friend and is about to kill two others, or to let him go free, as his conscious would dictate. But Freely, who is given freedom to choose, is only one of a number of characters living life by the dictates of their various, unique moral codes in the play.  For example, after hating “Mother,” the leader of a gang of truckers who uses scripture to justify his many murders and who will put his loaded gun to your head at a moment’s notice for most of the play, you end up sympathizing with him in the end.

Jayme’s plays do deal with spiritual elements, but not through the clichéd metaphors we are accustomed to seeing among many artists in the typical Christian sector. This is no This Present Darkness. In the absurdist play, The Methuselah Tree—which one critic attacked by saying it would “make Samuel Beckett run see a Neil Simon play” and then Jayme interpreted as a compliment—there is a mysterious man who lives in the house where the story takes place. You only learn about the apparition, or “the man in the attic,” indirectly: you find out that he never eats, that he watches the family’s animal-murdering son through a hole in his ceiling, telling him to “Receive the light”, and that he eventually takes off for Brazil when his presence is no longer appreciated. The main character, a scientist-father, spends the entire play working on the construction of a globe-like cylinder that is meant to be ingested (or with the larger versions, to ingest you) and cause you to disappear. Jayme reveals that the play is meant to portray the “concept of mankind trying to save themselves. It’s a scary time in history. Animals want to die.” But the play provides no clear explanations or answers for the madness. If anything, it only raises questions–about life, souls and the afterlife.

Surprising, then, is how overt Jayme is about faith when you talk to him face-to-face. He explains that his beliefs developed in line with his parents’, but that he has “narrowed down [his] spirituality.” The bottom line of Christianity for him is, “love, love, love.” He believes it is “astounding to see what happens when we get out of our shell and let God do whatever.” At “uber-liberal” Stage Left Theater in Chicago, Jayme is known to his peers as the “socialist Christian.” Though he would not label himself a socialist, he is very upfront with his colleagues and peers about what he believes. He explains that Christianity has become a series of rules meant to keep the spirit down, but that he wants to share the power and beauty of Jesus’ love. In Jayme’s words, “That’s for everyone, [it] doesn’t matter who you are.” He admits that he is an “anomaly in contemporary media” and that “it’s impossible to find a Christian in theater.” Peers often ask if he really believes “in ‘that,’” meaning Jesus, but he doesn’t let the spiritual differences keep him from being open. “What are they gonna do? Not… do my play?”

But don’t let the straightforward, loving Christianity fool you. He has a bone to pick, and it’s with corporations, and especially corporations with Christian connections and wealthy Christians who try to make money off corporatizing their faith.  He expressed this perspective in a play he wrote as an undergraduate at Southwest Minnesota State University. The play won awards through the American College Theater Festival and had five sold out shows, largely thanks to its “super-provocative” advertising poster. The poster featured Jesus Christ, dead on a cross on a hill surrounded by barbed wire, with his body covered in corporate sponsorship slogans, wearing a Nike cap, and a Britney Spears shirt. Jayme said, “If anything, I feel like my social justice is going to break the spine of corporate American Christianity,” which he feels is hypocritical, misrepresenting Christ to many who might otherwise desire to meet Him. Yes, Jayme believes it’s “time to rip the heart out of that beast.”

We need more people in the church like this—people who are fearless and unapologetic about both their art and their faith. People who are urging others to consider the value of their value systems and their souls and people who are simultaneously challenging non-Christians to consider Christ and Christians to consider how they might be representing Christ. Jayme explained that he wants “to plant the seed of the Kingdom and not have people know it’s being planted.”

What is amazing about Jayme and many artists, is his ability to create stories of multi-layered, fascinating, connected complexity out of nothing. In Mother Bear, the first play of Jayme’s I read, nothing was as it seemed, but everything made sense in the end. Where in the human mind does a story like that come from? It is supernatural. When I asked him where his plots do come from, Jayme explained that they often start with a basic idea that grows into a character. One of his plays grew from the image of a single blade of grass, growing between train tracks that was bent and crushed when a train came by, but appeared again after every train passed, time after time. The blade of grass metamorphosed into a humble character who withstood many challenges to become a hero in a play called Willy Beau Dilly. Thus, a single fleeting thought becomes flesh and blood on a stage.

Forced to pinpoint a theme in the tiny percentage of Jayme’s work I have read, I would have to say that they all deal with the soul, and more specifically, the choices of significant meaning and consequence we must make day after day. Our choices define us, even as they conflict or align with our individual concepts of right and wrong. From Freely in Mother Bear choosing to ignore his own value system to protect human lives and seek vengeance for others, to the mother, Murielle, in The Methuselah Tree allowing her son to swallow a mysterious sphere that ultimately kills him, the characters in every play are faced with choices that have repercussions of life and death. Is this true of every human? Jayme wants people to “walk out different than they walked in”, even if that means they are little angry or a little disillusioned. Jayme is currently reworking the provocative play he wrote as an undergrad—the one that was advertised with Jesus plastered in marketing slogans—into a number of mini-monologues that will be presented at different churches. According to the writer himself, this accusatory play “will piss a lot of people off.” Sounds wonderful.

Jayme’s website (http://www.jaymemcghan.com/) is currently under construction, but check it again in the future to find out more about him. In the meantime, read descriptions of some of his plays here: http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsM/mcghan-jayme.html.