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Saturday, January 30, 2016

My chickenshit Bohemian Grove adventure

I am writing from the Volti Choral Institute, where about 60 absolutely lovely and lovely-voiced Californian teenaged women are singing my three Lola Ridge pieces (they've already made me tear up in rehearsal). I'll post some video from the camp in due course, hopefully, but I have to document something very important first.

Shortly after I arrived, I was discussing with Barbara, the Executive Director of Volti, what I might do to occupy my time this afternoon, when the girls were taking workshops and classes unrelated to my compositions. "I guess I'll just explore the area."
"Have you heard of the Bohemian Club?"
"Is that ... you mean like Bohemian Grove?"
"Yes, Bohemian Grove is right here."


Sure enough, I looked at a map.

Oh my GOD. OH MY GOD. I have made jokes about going to Bohemian Grove for over a decade, probably ever since I read Jon Ronson's Them. And now I was sitting less than ten miles away from the actual site, and I had no idea. I didn't even twig when I saw that the address of the CYO Retreat was on "Bohemian Highway." I am on the same street as Bohemian Grove.

So just a few hours ago, after lunch, I jumped in my bright red Mazda rental car and set off down the road.

After a few miles, I turned right onto Bohemian Avenue. Toward the end of Bohemian Avenue, I suddenly saw the low barbed wire fence that I had read in Alex Jones's (I know) account of infiltrating Bohemian Grove back in 2003. I had to pull over, I was so excited. There were No Trespassing signs every few feet, and just past the fence was the moat I had also read about.

I got back into my car and drove a little further. Through the trees on my right, I could see kind of a clearing, the sort of place where people or employees might park their cars for a Midsummer Encampment, perhaps.

And then ... OMG OMG OMG the entrance! The gate was open! But ... there were signs on either side about prosecuting trespassers.

As I stood in the middle of the small road taking a picture of the open pathway to Moloch, a white truck pulled over about 100 feet behind me on the road. I looked back and nonchalantly got back in my car. They didn't move. I had no idea if they were suspicious residents, security of some kind, or perhaps even just a curiosity seeker like myself. Nevertheless, I turned the corner and drove away while I thought about my options.

I was totally unprepared for this endeavor. In my head, a serious venture into Bohemian Grove requires preparation. For a start, I don't look like I belong there because I do not in any way, shape, or form resemble a moneyed old white man. I guess I could maybe pretend to be a deferential female food service employee, but not at this time of year, probably.

Moreover, it was the middle of the day, a very sunny day, and my rental car is bright red. I mean, Barbara actually commented when she saw it a couple of days ago that it was the brightest red car she has ever seen. It's not exactly built for stealth or blending. And it's a Mazda 2, not exactly the car of someone who belongs at Bohemian Grove (although, again, perhaps an acceptable food service drudgeon vehicle).

Thirdly, let's say I was arrested. There were about 60 young women back at the camp who are apparently quite interested in my insights—some of them were even full-blown excited to talk to me about composing. It wouldn't be very nice of me to get myself arrested and leave them in the lurch.

And what then? I don't have a criminal defense attorney. I could be injured or even killed by an over-zealous police or security force. I'd have to ask Matt to bail me out of a small town jail. I mean, it would be messy, and possibly even dangerous.

I thought about all this as I drove around the block and found myself with my car parked once again at the gates of Bohemian Grove, this time with no mysterious white truck behind me. I got out of the car again, and stood with my toe right at the border of the property.

I took this picture.

And I got back in my car, and decided, today is not the day I see the Moloch statue in the flesh, so to speak. Another day, but not today.

Instead I drove back to Occidental, and explored the overpriced craft stores there. I was sorely tempted to buy this tchotchke, but I resisted.

Next time, Moloch, next time.

P.S. If you have no idea what I am talking about with all this, here, watch this, if you can stomach it:


Friday, January 29, 2016

Just me, the rental car, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park

This break in your regularly scheduled updates about the Hannah and my career was brought to you by a schedule snafu which gave me a few extra days to spend in the Bay Area by myself while Matt flew back to snowy Philadelphia to attend to work matters. Although I had a few very kind offers of couches to crash on, I was surprised to find myself craving solitude, and uninterrupted greenness, and frugality. "I just want to drive into a forest," I told Matt. He raised his eyebrows and laughed. "I can't believe how much you hate people."

I mean, pretty much.

So after dropping Matt off at the airport, I picked up two days' worth of supplies at Target (sourdough bread, cream cheese, snap peas, canned coffee, bananas, beef jerky, a lighter, and a $4 pillow), and like some kind of hippy, I pointed my rented red Mazda 2 hatchback at the hills west of San Jose, without even bothering to make a reservation. Basically, a mini solo replay of our nationwide 2012 Roadtrop but without any planning or equipment or a Dodge Magnum.

The first state park I reached, Henry Cowell Redwoods, looked beautiful and green and sunny, but I was turned away by the ranger at the entrance because their campsites had closed for the "winter." LOL IT IS 65 DEGREES. "Yeah, it is nice up here," agreed the ranger, but closed is closed. All I could think of was poor Matt struggling through two feet of snow in our backyard back home, and also that time we camped at Sequoia National Park when it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit and actively snowing. Instead, the ranger directed me to a park with year-round camping less than 20 miles away: Big Basin Redwoods.

I passed through the ludicrously quaint Boulder Creek, which appears to be a frontier-themed town run by granola hippies but still littered with sad alcoholics left over from the Gold Rush. Also Jonathan Franzen apparently lives there, eww. About five miles up the hill, once the road passes the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Buddhist Monastery, cellphone reception cuts out. And then the old redwoods start appearing.

The closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience was seeing the redwood trees in Sequoia National Park back in 2012, so I was very happy to be in their presence again. If there is such a thing as a soul, I could be convinced by redwood trees that plants have them too (and I would question the hierarchical organization of souls proposed by Jainism as an artificial way to make our human conscience comfortable with the fact that life necessarily feeds on life). I won't say that all my stress and tension disappeared, but I was grinning when I pulled up to the headquarters.

Camping was $35 per night, which is a lot cheaper than any hotel around here, although if you think about it, that's over $1000 per month, or nearly as much rent as our tenant was paying to live in our two-bedroom house in Downingtown. Or twice as much rent as we were paying for a one-bedroom apartment in Harrisburg ten years ago. For sleeping in a tent (or car).

Nice yard, though.

Wrinkle: despite the giant quantities of wood lying around, gathering of any firewood is prohibited at the park because they want to preserve forest floor litter. Bundles of firewood were available at park HQ for the grossly inflated price of $10.50, but I didn't feel like driving 10 miles back to Boulder Creek right away, so I paid out. Second wrinkle: the bundle of firewood I purchased turned out to be slightly damp (I guess it was the rains last weekend) and wouldn't catch easily, and kindling counts as firewood and is covered by the ban. So I ended up having to drive back to Boulder Creek anyway that afternoon to buy fire starters. I also grabbed a few handwarmers because as it turned out, Big Basin was higher up and therefore significantly colder than Henry Cowell, the park that didn't allow winter camping. Camping is always a little more expensive than you expect.

When I returned to my campsite, another car with a trio of campers had pulled into the site next to mine. We did that thing that campers at government parks do, where we ignore each other and pretend that we're each here in complete solitude, and try not to get too annoyed that there are visible people nearby.

Pretty soon, it got so dark under the towering redwoods, it was pretty easy to imagine I was completely alone with my fire and my cheese-and-bread dinner.

Around 6PM, this dark peaceful silence was interrupted very suddenly by terrifying shouts and running sounds coming from my neighbors that scared the everloving shit out of me. My suppositions were, in order:
  1. My neighbors are some kind of thrill-killers, and they are charging at my camp to slice me up with a machete, rape me, and leave me in a shallow grave in the park somewhere.
  2. Blair Witch.
  3. A mountain lion or bear is eating my neighbors, and I am next on the menu.
  4. Raccoons are stealing their food.

Surprise! Number 4 was correct. This did not really help my heart, which was thumping so hard I could hear it in my ears, but at least I wasn't about to die. The raccoons soon appeared in my campsite, and although I lunged at them, they were highly disdainful of my efforts to keep them away. Luckily my dinner was finished and my food all locked up in the bear safe, so they soon went on their way. I tried to take some video of them, but it was SO dark, all you can see is the suggestion of their eyes gleaming in my headlamp.

My neighbors told me they got away with a whole bag of chips. But at least they weren't mountain lions.

I crawled into the back seat of the Mazda not long afterward because I had a serious case of the willies after all the yelling - not an ideal solo campfire demeanor. I had no reading materials on my phone and no reception, so I spent about an hour reorganizing my data (SIX GIGS OF APP CACHE!? No wonder my phone is full. Fixed!) before dropping into a fitful, slightly cold and cramped sleep.

Dawn broke. Hike time! I had picked out the Sequoia Trail from the park map, and after breakfast of snap peas and banana and cream cheese bread rolls, I threw some jerky in my pocket, grabbed some water, and set off. Not far along, the sound of water rushing led me to the Sempervirens Falls:

I continued past Slippery Rock, where rounded holes in the stone were used as mortars by women of the Ohlone tribe, and steam rose constantly wherever the sunlight touched. At some point deep in the woods, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't seen another human being on the entire hike, and without cellphone reception, I was pretty fucked if I accidentally antagonized a rattlesnake or mountain lion, or fell and broke my ankle. But I survived.

The trail took me past the park headquarters, where I took a detour to walk the short Redwood Loop, where you can see many of the oldest trees in the park, like the 2000-year-old Father of the Forest, and Chimney Tree, a redwood that is completely hollow from bottom to top. The living parts of redwoods are in a ring around the dead heartwood, so their insides can completely disintegrate from fire and rot and the tree can continue standing and growing.

After my hike, I drove into Boulder Creek for the last time, to grab some cheaper, better firewood, and a couple of sausages to roast. The campsite next to me was empty, and I finally felt like I was hitting my woman-of-the-woods stride. I stayed up late just staring at the crackling fire, and listening to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. The sausages were goddamn delicious.

Sadly, the next day I had to return to civilization to wash the stench of campfire and jerky off before the Volti Choral Institute. Still I felt a lot better for my solo forest trip. In another life, I think I would have made a pretty happy park ranger.

I didn't think about my opera or the theater at all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Six month catch-up

It's funny how the mind works in relation to reality. I've been avoiding writing a blog entry because I honestly thought I wouldn't have anything to report. But as I sat down today and forced myself to start looking back through my calendar and photos from the last six months, the evidence suggested otherwise.

I'll talk about what's happened in non-Hannah-related life first, and then write a separate entry explaining where we're at with the theater tomorrow. Spoiler: despite some effort, there has been little material progress, which is one disappointing reason it feels like I've done nothing at all. Also, I haven't finished my opera. And it's the middle of winter. And I'm processing some childhood emotional garbage and familial grief which I'm not going to go into, but which is seriously harshing any buzz I might have the energy left to muster.

But enough whining. In the last six months, I:

Moved back to Downingtown (and built a backyard)

In August, we threw most of what we own into storage and set up temporary digs in the first house we bought and renovated. After a couple of weeks, our dreary backyard started to get on my nerves. We were so wrapped up in fixing everything inside the house nearly ten (!) years ago, we never had time to pay any attention to the yard. It's about 60 by 20 feet, which is large by my urban standards, and that's pretty much all it had going for it. Some overgrown and unplanned trees blocked the southern sunlight, and our proximity to the Brandywine Creek, along with very unremarkable clayey soil, meant nothing much grew but sickly waterlogged weeds.

I also noticed that the kid in the house behind us is no longer prepubescent, and is clearly dealing weed from out of his basement bedroom window. I don't give a shit about the weed (hell, I'd rather they do that than drink), but I did care about the constant stream of customers who would take a shortcut through our yard despite repeated requests not to trespass, and toss their goddamn litter all over my property. GET OFF MY SICKLY WATERLOGGED WEED-LAWN, YOU GODDAMN WEED-BUYING KIDS.

So we started the process of creating a backyard that wasn't a muddy shortcut to the neighborhood weed dealer by paying a couple of burly guys to cut down two of the three trees. Side note: only a few weeks later, one of the burly guys was killed. He was cutting down trees on someone else's property, and a tree fell on him. He died instantly, without knowing what hit him; because he was working a stump grinder, he couldn't hear his colleagues shouting for him to get out of the way. I never really talked to him because I was out of town in Connecticut while the bulk of the tree-cutting on our property was going on (see below), but it's still shocking and sad.

One of the unchecked feral trees, in the 50 years it had been alive (I counted the rings), had completely enveloped a metal fence that used to grace the rear of our property, so I had to cut down the last three feet of trunk myself with a Sawzall, since metal and chainsaws don't mix. It took about a day, and my arms and back hurt for about a week afterward.

Before/after my Sawzall effort
Then I built a goddamn fence to keep the goddamn kids out of my goddamn yard. I built it pretty much single-handedly because I was pissed off at the world and needed something to keep my mind off childhood emotional garbage. I dug all the 30-inch post holes myself, filled them with cement, leveled the posts, added the tension wire and top rail, stretched the chain link, constructed and hung the gates. I know everything there is to know about erecting a five-foot chain-link fence around a yard to keep out weed-buying kids. It cost about $800 in materials, which is a whole lot less than the quotes for $3,000+ I was getting from fencing contractors. This is good, because we need to save all the money we can for our real home in Philadelphia, more on that tomorrow.

Then I created a garden with a patio and a firepit, and bought a few plants because it was the warmest November/December on record. It looks like a dead winter wasteland right now, but that will hopefully change in the spring, assuming the deciduous native plants I picked out (elderberry, ninebark, witchhazel, pussywillow, dogwood) survive:

The firewood and the mulch all comes from the two trees we cut down, and there's plenty more stacked up out of sight to chip and burn in the next few months.

Performed at the National Puppetry Festival

Every June, I get to hang out at the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference (applications for composers and puppeteers open Monday) as their music director, but this year for the first time, I was invited to perform at the National Puppetry Festival, which takes place at the University of Connecticut in August. While Matt was supervising the cutting of our trees, I was on stage playing my carbon fiber viola with Maria from Sesame Street:


Does that seem weird to you? It seems weird to me. My life is pretty weird. And pretty wonderful, at times, I guess.

Made my Opera Philadelphia debut

Curiouser and curiouser. With the aid of a pick-up, I played solo amplified viola in a five-piece band in the Opera Philadelphia x Bearded Ladies production of Andy: A Popera, performing the music of Heath Allen and Dan Visconti. It was a helluva lot of fun, and not the way I ever expected to get my first paycheck from our city's premier opera company. Opera News even claimed I led the band (I most assuredly did not! Heath was the leader, I was just acting). Here's a tiny bit of it:

A video posted by Susan Crawshaw (@susancrawshaw) on

Wrote some hilarious folk-rock music for Love's Labour's Lost

Also part of the 2015 Fringe Festival was Revolution Shakespeare's Americana-themed production of Love's Labour's Lost, for which I wrote a whole bunch of folky rootsy rock songs. Not my usual compositional fare, but if there's one thing I love, it's when someone offers me a bizarre word-setting challenge, and turning various passages of Shakespeare into music influenced by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash sounds like a good time to me. Crazy enough to work, even. The cast was super game and talented (and included Doug Durlacher, who played Oberon in the 2004 Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival production of Midsummer that marked the beginning of my composition career!), and I've been adapting a couple of the songs I wrote into Up Your Cherry numbers.

I don't think there's any video publicly available, which is a shame, but here's a picture of me performing one of the songs with some members of the cast at Fringe Scratch Night:

Went to Saint Louis, where my new choir piece Alpha and Omega was premiered

I don't think I've mentioned on this blog yet that I'm the Composer-in-Residence for the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus for the next couple of years. N.B. "Residence" in this context doesn't actually mean I have to live in St. Louis, but I get to travel there at least once a year to hear them premiere a piece I've written for them. Again, I was given a fabulous word-setting challenge from their director Philip Barnes: mash up excerpts from the Book of Revelation and The Pilgrim's Progress to create a piece that reflects modern hopes for the city of St. Louis. I threw in a quote from a traditional spiritual "Oh, What a Beautiful City" which itself is a setting of the same section of Revelation, and although as I recall the labor wasn't easy, I managed to deliver a piece that I think works quite well: Alpha and Omega. At least one audience member was in tears! Rule number one for artists: measure your success in audience tears.

You can listen to me blather on about it a bit on the local NPR station, but there isn't a publicly available recording (yet) - for that, we'll have to see if Philip is generous enough to take it into the studio. The SLCC does fabulous recordings, such as their CD American Declarations which includes What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? and is the reason my name has been mentioned favorably in Gramophone Magazine, which is SO WEIRD YOU GUYS I USED TO BUY THAT MAG WHEN I WAS 15 BECAUSE OF WHAT A NERD I WAS.

The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus rehearses "Alpha and Omega"

Wrote a piece for Choral Arts Philadelphia, O Oriens

Another double bar line I reached was for a project by Choral Arts Philadelphia, who commissioned seven Philadelphia composers to set the O Antiphons. I picked the one that ... well, here, why don't I just explain it to you on camera:

O Oriens got a very nice review, and it turns out I quite like it. Here's a bit of it I recorded at rehearsal, and hopefully there will be a full recording soon. It's already had a second performance by a different choir in St. Louis, and yet another choir in Baltimore might be performing it in April, stay tuned.

SNEAKY PEEKY! Concert details here
Posted by Melissa Dunphy on Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Finished my third Lola Ridge choir piece, Different kinds of shadows

I can hardly believe I saw a *third* double bar line in this period of time in which my brain is convinced I did nothing. But no, looking at my notes, I did in fact finish another piece. 18 months ago, regular readers might recall I wrote a great vomit of a blog entry about the early 20th Century poet Lola Ridge, and a piece I composed that came very suddenly in the middle of a creative drought. Bob Geary, the conductor of Volti and also Ancora, an excellent young women's choir, dug my piece and my blog entry enough that he commissioned a couple more. Now I have three Lola Ridge SSA choir pieces under my belt: It's strange about stars..., Shadows over a cradle..., and this latest one which is so new I haven't even put it on my website yet, Different kinds of shadows. The first two have already been premiered by Ancora, but all three will be workshopped and performed this weekend at the Volti Choral Institute, and tomorrow I'll be flying out to Occidental, California, to be Resident Composer at the camp.

I enjoy that these pieces are for girl choir, because I grew up singing in girl choirs, and I sang in the women's chorus at West Chester, and writing for SSA feels very, very right to me. Also, though, I enjoy that these pieces are goth as hell. For real, I looked them all over again yesterday, and I am delighted by how dark they are. I might not dress completely in black anymore, but I guess the black is still in there, in my black, black soul.

Here's some footage of the girls singing my first Lola Ridge piece at last year's Choral Institute, with omg hilarious message-to-the-composer ending:

For Melissa Dunphy from Choral Institute! The whole thing!
Posted by Bruce Lengacher on Sunday, February 1, 2015

Incidentally, I dedicated that piece "to all the survivors," and after that performance one of the girls from the camp e-mailed me to ask why. I wrote her a very long and intense reply which went into great detail about my experience of reading Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, and my experience of reading the entire cycle of Lola Ridge's poems, and in retrospect I probably scared the heck out of her? Oops. There's one for the late-night social anxiety regret list.

Performed as the Last Remaining Scientist's Girlfriend with Zeb West

This blog entry is started to get really fucking long. Last major thing, I promise. At this year's National Puppetry Conference, I teamed up with Zeb West to contribute to his one-man puppet show, set in a post-apocalyptic future in which radioactive people-eating babies have devastated the earth. It was kind of a hit at the conference, so I was pretty happy when Zeb ordered up a couple of repeat performances in Brooklyn, first at Standard Toykraft for the Puppet Pandemic slam, then at the Bushwick Starr as part of the Puppets & Poets festival. We even added a new song.

In the show, I play the melodica, and I look like this:

Also I eat a can of Spam.
I'm trying to track down some pictures of the two of us performing, which I'll add if I get them. We'll prooooobably be doing the show again in Atlanta later this year, so if you want to see it live, which you do, stay tuned, again.

So ... I guess that's a fair amount of stuff. But as I said earlier, none of these things is finishing the theater or the opera. So the guilt-ridden parts of my brain translate all of this to: nothing has happened, nothing at all.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Hannah Callowhill Stage: Dream Brainstorm

Tripoli inspects my proscenium doodles
One of the most common questions I'm asked about the Hannah is: "What exactly are you going to do with the space once it's finished and open?" I have a lot of ideas. I don't know how many of them will end up on the cutting room floor, but maybe you'd like to know what I'm thinking.

Oh, first, I want to mention that we are now a non-profit, yeah!! I filed for 501(c)(3) status back in April, and to everyone's surprise, my application was approved by the IRS in less than a week, during tax season no less. Apparently the new streamlining of the federal tax exemption application process really works, because everybody we spoke to with non-profit experience told us it would probably take about a year before the approval came through. Not true anymore!

Anyway, back to our plans for the Hannah. Matt and I are either directly involved or good friends with people directly involved in a lot of different art forms around Philadelphia. While I often refer to the Hannah as a "theater," my choice to name it the Hannah Callowhill Stage was deliberate, because I don't want it to be thought of as just a place for traditional theater, though traditional theater is certainly welcome. I want it to be a venue for multiple forms of art. I want to bridge communities of artists, to get wildly disparate audiences together in the same space, to have artists reach beyond their usual crowds.

I'm sure it's going to be difficult (impossible) to break even for at least a couple of years, especially with all the money we are going to have to sink into upgrading and renovating the space. But I'm thinking of the Hannah kind of like a child. I'm not looking to make money; I'm looking to create and develop something amazing, something I will love and nurture that will make the world better.

So here are a few of the initiatives that have been knocking around my head.

Residency Program: Pitch Us Something Meaningful

Some time in the next year, I'll find the Hannah a logo, and then I'll design our website around it. And there will be a link on the website to an application process where artists who want to use the space for a meaningful performance project can tell us about it. We'll review, and if your idea clicks with us, we'll let you use the Hannah for a short residency without any kind of rental fee - we'll just take a small cut of the ticket price to help cover overheads.

Recital Series

Hey, big surprise: I know a lot of world-class classical musicians. I can probably fit an upright grand permanently in the space. I will throw open the doors for any of these musicians who want an intimate venue to perform. Maybe I'll even try for some kind of recital festival one day, with multiple recitals over the course of a weekend, and a season ticket that gets you into all those recitals.

New (Art) Music

Another big surprise: I know a lot of composers. Let's get some new music concerts into the space. One of my first ideas is to get some of the Penn Composers Guild concerts into the Hannah so that there's some off-campus exposure for that excellent work (and I can call it the Hannah Callowhill+Penn Series). There's also an undergraduate Penn composer group who have already asked to use the space. Maybe Network for New Music can think of something that would fit into the Hannah too.

Rock Shows

I already mentioned that we're going to introduce this puppy to the world with an Up Your Cherry show. Matt has another band, and knows a few bands and electronic outfits around town and elsewhere. I think it would be pretty awesome to host some intimate club shows at the Hannah for both local and touring bands and artists.

Shakespeare School for Kids

Years ago, I ran a theater summer camp program at a YMCA. One of the camps I introduced was a Shakespeare course, which I had stipulated should be for children aged 12 and up -- but an error in the camp brochure listing printed the age range as 7-12. I showed up on the first day of the camp with my Hamlet syllabus in hand, and found this incredibly young group of kids staring at me. I briefly wondered if I should ditch my plans, but then I thought, what the hell, let's see what happens.

It was amazing. I think we vastly underestimate kids. And I think we vastly underestimate Shakespeare.

Those kids got it. I was constantly surprised by how willing they were to dive in and learn. Over the course of a week, I took them through the entire play, acting out scenes and explaining the action, and they took to it like ducks to water. I'll never forget the day we got to the last scene of the play, because it was without a doubt the most incredible teaching experience I've ever had. The youngest student in the camp, a seven-year-old girl, was playing Gertrude. After the kids read through the scene, she raised her hand.
"Miss Melissa, I have a question."
"What's that?"
"Do you think Gertrude knew the wine was poison when she drank it?"

For real. This seven-year-old girl, with no prompting whatsoever from me, had asked one of the most central questions about Gertrude's character and journey. A question that has been debated endlessly in college classrooms, and interpreted differently by directors throughout history. I was floored.
"Well, what do you think?"
She stopped and thought, eyes on the ceiling. Then she looked right at me and said softly:
"I think she knew."

I nearly burst into tears. Wow. Wow wow wow.

So, yeah. I want to teach Shakespeare to middle school kids. I want to start a year-round Saturday morning school that culminates in a summer camp and public performances of full-length Shakespeare plays featuring kids aged 7 to 12. Aside from anything else, watching Shakespeare being performed by kids is almost as cool as watching kids learn how to perform Shakespeare. I think the performances will be a hit.

Composition School for Girls

Continuing with the teaching theme for a moment, I also want to start a composition school for girls, similar to Girls Rock, but focused on art music. This is me putting my money where my mouth is on an issue that I feel very strongly about. The school will feature classes as well as one-on-one composition lessons taught by the many composers I know in the area. For this, I'll probably need to get funding or donations for a bunch of computers (MS Surfaces, maybe), and I'm hoping that by the time this initiative gets off the ground, the new Steinberg scoring software will be released, because I'll start everyone on that. Concerts of the girls' compositions twice a year, with professional and advanced student performers. Outreach to universities and music organizations. Scholarship program so that as many openings at the school are free or subsidized as possible.

Lobby Gallery and Merch Booth for Local Crafts

The Hannah has a sizable lobby, with enough room for a merch/gift booth and a concessions stand. I am definitely planning to sell La Colombe coffee, because it is amazing, local to Philly, and I already buy their cold brew by the case for personal consumption (and they just launched a canned latte YESSSSS). I'd also like to offer counter space for local creative people to sell crafts such as jewelry and clothing and books (if their craft happens to be book-authoring). The rest of the lobby has plenty of wall space where we could host small exhibitions for visual artists who want to display or sell pieces. And hopefully also space for a Little Free Library.

Outside the lobby, I'd like to install a bike rack of some kind, if the city will allow. In general, I'm trying to go as green as we can; we're looking into LED stage lights, which will be far more expensive to buy, but cheaper and greener in the long run, and I also have my heart set on a green roof on the third floor, especially since Blondell Williams just spearheaded an increase to Philadelphia's green roof tax credit to 50% of the cost.

Puppet Shoooooooows

For the past couple of years, I've been the music director at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, so I know a lot of amazing puppeteers with incredible shows, and I think the Hannah would be the perfect space to host many of those shows. Depending on how the finances work out, I'd love to offer the one-bedroom apartment on the second floor as artist housing for out-of-town performers to crash in.


This is totally pie-in-the-sky, but when I was a kid, I loved competing in the Brisbane Eisteddfod, and we need something like that over here. At the very least, the Shakespeare school will probably have some kind of monologue festival.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There's so much more. Obviously, Ayn is going to open there, once I've finished writing the damn thing. We'll no doubt rent the place out to people who want to use it for Fringe shows. It seems a perfect fit for things like the SoLow Fest or First Person Arts. I'd love to curate a webcast lecture series. I've been talking with a local improv group about becoming their home base. Poetry slams. Film screenings. Feminist stand-up. Dance performances. Occasional event rentals such as weddings, if you're cool.

I even thought that it might be cathartic to host an all-women magic show to exorcize the creepiness of the location's past. I'm still on the fence about that, though.

I'm also open to suggestions. If you have a nifty seed of an idea that you want to plant in my brain so that it might germinate by the time this place opens, leave me a comment below...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Hannah Callowhill Stage: Long Overdue Update

It's been four months since we bought 103 Callowhill Street, aka the Hannah Callowhill Stage, and I haven't blogged too much about it, because so much has happened, but there's isn't a whole lot to physically show for it yet. I keep getting asked for updates on the proceedings, however, so here they are, all the boring details I can stand to type.

103 Callowhill cross-section from the west side
In the weeks following the purchase, most of our energy was spent trying to stem the steady damaging flow of precipitation leaking into the building via the decrepit second-floor roof. As I mentioned in the first post about the Hannah, the second-floor efficiency apartment and much of the theater lobby was in a terrible state. The next-door neighbor, who owns a scaffolding company, told us that the roof has leaked for at least the last three years, but nothing was ever done about it. Said neighbor, being a neighborly guy, had even once offered to help repair the roof free of charge if the building's previous owner bought the necessary materials—about 88 bucks worth of flat roof rubber—but previous owner inexplicably never took him up on the offer and instead let the weather do its inevitable damage, so that now the roof decking and sheathing beneath the rubber is completely rotten.

Previous owner has a proven track record of making pretty poor decisions, though.

We didn't want to waste materials and money putting on a completely new roof because our plan is to rip off the roof shortly and build a third floor. So began some experiments in temporary fixes, beginning with me clambering up there in sub-freezing temperatures with some roof cement.

A photo posted by Melissa Dunphy (@mormolyke) on

A photo posted by Melissa Dunphy (@mormolyke) on

As it turns out, the roof is just too fucked, and this patch job, valiant as it may have been, didn't work so well, because too much of the roof is porous now, and the drainage slope was so poorly done that water collects in pools all over the place. We currently manage, rather than stem, the flow with draped tarps both on top of the roof and indoors to catch any stray leakage; after every rainstorm, we go to the property to pump water out of the collected pools and empty collection buckets. We just did it yesterday afternoon, in fact, after a thunderstorm which also managed to rip some of the tarp from its moorings. It's annoying, to say the least, and we're still weighing whether this temporary fix is worth it or if it will be better to put on a cheap new roof which we will immediately rip off again when construction begins.

But back to February. Inside the building, the leaking had already flooded many areas, and because (a) the heating system is an incredibly stupid and inefficient heat pump and (b) the electricity had been shut off for months, all the collected water had frozen, and the plumbing had burst in several places; in fact, the water meter itself was cracked in half by ice. I chipped a half-inch of sheet ice off any surface capable of collecting water, ripped up all the destroyed carpet and tile (N.B. I'm convinced Hardiebacker is useless in wet applications. I think regular cementboard would have survived, but the Hardiebacker installed under the tile by the previous owner turned into mushy cardboard, and most of the tiles were cracked), demolished a lot of waterlogged drywall including the entire second-floor ceiling, and repaired the plumbing.

A photo posted by Melissa Dunphy (@mormolyke) on

A photo posted by Melissa Dunphy (@mormolyke) on

On February 15, while I was twiddling my thumbs and staring at the green room ceiling during The Cherry Orchard, I had a flash of inspiration and hastily sketched my idea so I could photograph it and send it to Matt:
103 Callowhill cross-section from the east side
The idea was to raise the ceiling of the performance space to the height of the second floor roof, giving us a lot more headspace in the theater. By doing this, we'd be able to hang a lighting grid above the stage, create a mezzanine area in the house, keep the efficiency and rent it out or use it for artist housing, and build a new single-level primary residence on the third floor (code stipulates that newly constructed storeys can only take up 70% of the area of the entire lot, so the third floor only extends back 70 feet from the street, for a total square footage of about 1100 square feet).

I was super excited about this plan because it seemed to solve so many problems, and ran squealing to our architect the next day, hoping it made sense. To my delight, he liked the idea immensely, and he and his team set to work refining it, tweaking it to pass code restrictions, turning the efficiency into a one-bedroom with a small patio located above the theater's restrooms, and developing the floor plan for our apartment, which will include a light well.

Matt used these drawings to create some pretty intense SketchUp files to give us an idea of what the end result will look like. From his notes: "I based the neighborhood off a combination of Google maps imagery, plans for 412 Luxe that were on OCFrealty, and plans for Renaissance Plaza on Alesker & Dundon's site. And here are a few detail shots from inside the model. The only one I really laid out in detail was my study, since I already had all the models from when I'd first designed it, and I'm happy to report it all fit. The rest of it's just kind of throwing in some basic placeholder stuff."

103 Callowhill from the south, looking north
103 Callowhill from the north, looking south, with the Ben Franklin Bridge in the background
103 Callowhill from the light well on the west side, looking south
103 Callowhill master bedroom, looking south
103 Callowhill kitchen and living room, looking north
103 Callowhill from living room, looking south
103 Callowhill first-floor theater
Matt went even further and created animated shade studies for January and June, to help us decide if we wanted skylights or not.

So ... that's the cool part. The somewhat less cool part is figuring out how we're going to pay for all this. This planning stage, which includes hiring structural engineers and drawing up construction documents, has cost us about $30,000 alone. For the construction, we'll need about $250,000 in the bank. It probably won't end up costing quite that much, because we're planning on doing most of the finishing ourselves, but $250,000 seems like a good amount to have in case something comes up during the construction process, which it often does.

So where will the money come from? Well, the structural engineering part of our bill so far was covered via an unusual source. I competed on a TV game show and won over $6,000. In a bizarre coincidental twist, one of the contestants I beat is a professional magician. Yeah.

My life is a fucking fever dream.

(That last link also includes approximately one second of footage of my appearance, which is all you will ever see.)

I'm lucky that I've also gotten a decent amount of non-gameshow-related paid work in the first half of this year, because practically every paycheck Matt has received since February has been immediately signed over to our architects. Meanwhile, we have been trying to get a loan for $250,000 for the construction, but this has proven difficult. Because we had to pay for 103 Callowhill Street with cash after our 203K mortgage fell through (thanks to multiple cock-ups by the lender), our credit ratings took a major hit as we maxed out our lines of credit. And after a lengthy application process last month involving way too many credit pulls, Well Fargo told us they were too conservative to play ball on a $250,000 loan, which pissed me off a great deal. A major factor in their reluctance was the $90,000 mortgage we owe on the house we live in; getting another large loan would tip our debt-to-income ratio over the edge of respectability, according to them.

Around this time, the lovely long-term tenant in our first house in Downingtown sent us an e-mail out of the blue; she had found true love and was getting married and moving out in June. My first thought was that I was super happy for her! My second thought was panic about finding a new tenant. My third thought, after thinking a while, was: AHA, THIS IS FATE. The universe was telling us what to do. Suddenly we could sell our current house and have somewhere to live, rent and mortgage free. (We own our Downingtown house outright because it only cost $80,000.) Selling our current residence would get rid of the mortgage, and leave us around $85,000 in the black. Then we'd only need to borrow around $165,000 for construction. Surely that amount would be doable, especially since our credit ratings are already bouncing back.

Once this plan was settled, we went into overdrive preparing our current residence for sale. I spent a few days researching the ludicrous art of house staging, then we set to work making our house bland, but not too bland. I finished the yard landscaping, fixed all the things that I'd been putting off for years, cleaned all the things I never bothered cleaning, patched, painted, primped, and generally attacked the problem like it was my job, which really, it was. Then we rented a wide-angle lens and took a bunch of terrific photos.

Blog exclusive! This is the first time anyone has seen these photos, because before we could even post them anywhere or create any kind of MLS listing, a couple we know offered to buy our house! Part of me is like: ayfkm, all that staging work for nothing. But having friends take this problem off our hands in a private sale is infinitely preferable. Even if these photos are good for nothing but showing off here.

Assuming all goes well, in the next couple of weeks, our house will change hands, we'll move into our Downingtown house, the mortgage will be paid in full, and I can start looking at applying for financing again, this time with zero debt and robust FICO scores. Then begins the bidding process for the first stage of construction. Then construction itself. Then we'll start working on finishing. Then we'll move into our apartment. Then we'll renovate/finish the theater space. Then we'll open the theater, hopefully sometime in 2016.

No big deal.