Leadership

The Critique Compendium Interview: Michael Melvin

michael-melvin

A lot of people like to complain about how busy they are. These people would be well advised not to say that to Michael Melvin.

Mr. Melvin wears so many hats that pretty soon he’s going to need more heads. He recently played Joey in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of Sister Act this February. In a few weeks he will be casting for Sister Act which he will direct at the Maple Shade Arts Council this summer.

During the day, Mr. Melvin works as an Eighth Grade Math and Science teacher in Edgewater Park, NJ. He concurrently works towards his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University.

In addition to performing and directing in South Jersey Community Theatre productions, he is the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council; a 501[c]3 non-profit organization. Its membership includes educators, parents, and the general public. The group provides entertaining, educational, and inspirational artistic programs and events for the community. Through the Arts Council, Mr. Melvin has had the privilege of directing the summer theatre campers, as well as directing the adults in the summer musical.

In the past Mr. Melvin served as a board member with Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, NJ. He also played the drums in musicals such as 13 and Avenue Q.

While Mr. Melvin is very passionate about the performing arts and education, his heart truly belongs to his fiancee, Nicole Traino. He anxiously awaits their wedding day in March 2018 and looks forward to spending the rest of his life with his high school sweetheart.

Despite an exceedingly busy schedule, Mr. Melvin genially agreed to be interviewed on February 22, 2017. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Critique Compendium: You’re a math teacher. So I’m sure you won’t mind taking a little test to prove how well you know your subject. What’s two plus six?

Michael Melvin: Eight.

Critique Compendium: (Long, long pause.) I’ll take your word for it.

Critique Compendium: You’ve taken on leadership roles with both Burlington County Footlighters and The Maple Shade Arts Council. You’re also working towards a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. What’s your definition of leadership?

Michael Melvin: To me, there are the people who sit behind the desk and then there are the people in the trenches. When I become a school administrator I’ll want everyone to know I’ll be there for them. I’m there to help them succeed.

I’m in the Arts Council because I want to see people achieve. My role is to help others achieve greatness.

Critique Compendium: What interested you in stepping up and taking on leadership responsibilities?

Michael Melvin: It all started when I was a young kid. I did summer theatre in Maple Shade. I wasn’t into sports. I was the type who liked to eat cheese fries in the stands! My mom said to try summer theatre. I did and got hooked. I continued doing theatre in high school. In college I focused on math.

In 2012 I got involved with Footlighters performing in the Wedding Singer through friends. At the time there was an opening on the board for a secretary. They asked me if I would be interested in doing it. Taking notes seemed like something I could handle so I said, “Okay.” After that was like a snowball effect.

Critique Compendium: You’re the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. How did you get involved with that organization?

Michael Melvin: I was in their summer theatre program through the community alliance. A friend told me that the Maple Shade Arts Council was still in existence. In 2013 the Arts Council existed under the township, but no one was running it.

Due to changes in funding and the camp no longer being able to be done in the summer, I wanted to find a way to keep the summer theatre camp as is to better accommodate our campers. I wanted to keep the program I loved and grew up doing as is.  Since then it has blossomed. It’s been a blessing.

Critique Compendium: Could you describe some of the programs the Maple Shade Arts Council sponsors?

Michael Melvin: We have the summer musical for adults, as you know. The first one we did was Urintetown. I’ll say this: it made people aware of us.

We also do cabarets. We did art workshops before and we’re looking to do them again. We’ve done a Holiday heirloom workshop. We present a teen show, too.

The new thing is the junior program for kids in Kindergarten through third grade.

We’re focused on theatrical shows, but I don’t consider the Maple Shade Arts Council a “theatre organization.” We’re hoping to branch out into other performing arts.

Critique Compendium: How does the Maple Shade Arts Council select the shows it’s going to present?

Michael Melvin: We try to pick something the community hasn’t seen before. We want to do something unique that will interest people.

For our first show we figured we needed to attract actors first. We decided on Urinetown with the: “If you build it they will come philosophy.” We wanted to create a spark in the town. We created a conflagration.

The Addams Family had wider appeal. The Drowsy Chaperone featured old style music. We like to put on shows people can relate to. We picked Sister Act because a “summer show should be a fun show.” We present happy-go-lucky, make you feel good musicals for the summer.

As the Arts Council grows we’ll add more variety.

Critique Compendium: Did you perform in the Haddonfield Plays and Players version of Sister Act to get a “practice” Sister Act under your belt?

Michael Melvin: I wasn’t in Sister Act to learn about the show. I read Phyllis Josephson’s Facebook post about the auditions. I wanted to do a show with Phyllis. I sent a video submission. (Director) Chris (McGinnis) got back to me right away. I didn’t tell anyone about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I wanted to get back to acting. I had fun diving into the role.

Now I have to delete that memory of the show. I’m working with a new production team. Darryl (S. Thompson, Jr.) is the Assistant Director. We’ll give the show a new twist.

Critique Compendium: How did the council decide to do The Drowsy Chaperone? That show was outstanding.

Michael Melvin: Thank you. It was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to direct. I asked (director) Brian Padla what he wanted to do. I knew we had a “unique space.” (Since Maple Shade High School was under renovations) we had a smaller forum (in Nolan Hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.) I had no clue about the show myself. When Brian suggested it I said let’s look into it. I liked the cool music. When I watched the Aldopho scene on youtube I loved it!

Critique Compendium: What are some of the challenges in running a small non-profit volunteer organization?

Michael Melvin: The key is the word volunteer. People’s lives are hectic. The hard part is how to strike a passion with people to put in that extra effort. I believe in the organization. Over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of parents putting in their efforts.

We’re doing something great in the community. We’re bringing people to Maple Shade.

It’s very challenging to rally the troops to see the vision and then get them to buy into the vision. When I see that happen is the best part.

Critique Compendium: What makes you interested in playing a role?

Michael Melvin: I’m a character actor. I like comedic parts. I know I’m not going to play the ingénue. When I played Joey (in Sister Act) I grew a crazy moustache. I like weird characters. I love comedies. I enjoy becoming somebody who has no similarities with myself.

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Michael Melvin: I’d say Legally Blonde. I was Professor Callahan. I’d never played a villain before. That character never changed the entire show.

When I told Jill (Starr-Renbjor, the director) I was going to try out for the part she said I was, “too nice.” When I went to the audition I dressed professorial and sang a song from the musical. I got the part.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Michael Melvin: In my senior year of high school I played Jean Valjean. To show how much I knew about theatre at the time, I’d never heard of Les Mis! I didn’t understand the nuances of theatre then. I did a lot of research for the part. Vocally it was a challenge. The role is a tenor and I’m a bass/baritone. That was hard as was being on stage the entire show and singing the entire show.

Critique Compendium: You’ve both performed as well as directed. Which do you prefer?

Michael Melvin: After being in Sister Act I prefer directing. I feel like I get more nervous when I’m on stage. Will I forget my lines? Will I forget the music? As an actor you’re concerned about yourself.

As a director you put yourself in every actor’s shoes. It gives you the opportunity to work with people. I love directing.

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

Michael Melvin: I would probably say, my senior year in Les Mis. The coolest moment was knowing it was my last show in high school. I was the last one out for curtain call. I remember the emotions that went along with that. I’d worked with these people so long. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do theatre again.

Critique Compendium: How long was it until you performed again?

Michael Melvin: I spent four or five years off stage.

I didn’t perform in college. In college theatre was for the majors. They had phenomenal talent, anyway. I was focused on math and education at the time.

Critique Compendium: You’re also a gifted singer. Who influenced you musically?

Michael Melvin: My parents brought me up listening to 60s, 70s, and 80s music; the older music. I’m not into modern music. I wasn’t influenced by one person vocally. I listen to a weird mix such as country, Hamilton (the soundtrack), and Frank Sinatra.

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you?

Michael Melvin: I like to look at actors I’m similar to. I’d say Kevin Chamberlain who played Horton in Seussical and Fester in the Addams Family. I like Broadway performer Brian D’Arcy James. I can relate to Patton Oswalt’s personality.

I tell kids to know your type, know who you are. Having a niche is helpful.

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Michael Melvin: Robin Williams because of his comedy background. You can’t figure out his mind. He keeps you on your toes. He could look at a prop and turn it into a bazillion things. He forced you to up your game or say, “I can’t keep up with this!”

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

Michael Melvin: I love watching Philly sports: the Phils, Eagles, and Sixers. I collect Funko Pop. I don’t have as much free time as I used to. It’s important for me to spend time with my fiancée.

Critique Compendium: I’ve heard that you chose a very unique way to propose to her. Could you tell us about that?

Michael Melvin: I told her they were going to do a read through at Footlighters for a script a friend of mine wrote. I let her know about it months in advance. Actually, I wrote the play. Each scene was something that happened during our relationship.

On the night of the “read through” we had heart candles all around the stage. As we went through the script she realized that all the scenes were familiar. Then I proposed to her on stage. The lights came up and there were 50 to 60 people in the audience.

We both have a passion for theatre. I feel like Footlighters helped me reconnect with friends and my high school band director, which led to me accepting a coaching job at our old high school marching band. We ended up coaching together and that ultimately led to us reconnecting and getting back together. I’m grateful BCF gave me the opportunity to propose on their stage.

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Michael Melvin: The biggest thing is: when going into auditions don’t soley focus on one role. An actor should be diverse and understand all the parts. I read through script several times. I read it from the other characters’ perspectives. I’ll write down the line before and the line after my character’s on notecards. That helps me get a better understanding.

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Michael Melvin: I bring dedication. When you work with me I’m all in. At Haddonfield Plays and Players (production of Sister Act) I was very quiet. I wanted to prove that I wanted to work hard. I didn’t mention anything about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I’ll push myself in ways I don’t normally. I’ll push through things, such as singing tenor with a bass voice, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Michael Melvin: When I do comedy: not breaking character and laughing.

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage is close to the audience. It’s difficult with that smaller space not to laugh when you see your friends laughing.

Holding that character is tough. Becoming that other character is hard, too. Not letting Mike break through is the hardest part.

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Michael Melvin: As an Arts Council leader: I hope at the end of the day people see that I love what I do. I hope they see the passion and why I do what I do. My intentions are pure and my desire to help people is evident. I want to see the kids go off and succeed. I want to see them grow.

I want other people to find that passion that I found. That’s the ultimate gift you can give someone.

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Michael Melvin: He’s a great guy. He can be slightly undiagnosed OCD. He’s slightly perfectionist, but in the nice way. He’s very open when he works with people.

Mike’s a “worker.” Mike does too much work. He needs to relax. I would have more of my hair this way. I need to relax.

The good news is that I’m self-aware of all this.

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Michael Melvin: Wide ranging or diverse. I’ve had a lot of unique experiences: Directing kids, adults, shows, stage crew, and building sets. It’s always been something different.

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Michael Melvin: Sister Act auditions for the Maple Shade Arts Council are on April 2nd and 4th. We’ve received a lot of great feedback, so far.

Music Man, Jr. takes place over the summer. We have 60 kids in the program.

I’m finishing my master’s program. I’m also getting a wedding together for next March.

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

Michael Melvin: Without a doubt take a chance. Take the most out of every opportunity. If you’re in the lead or ensemble every opportunity can build you up. Everything is meaningful and impactful. Stick with it.

You will never meet as many great people as in the arts. It’s a lifelong blessing for anybody who sticks with it.

More information about Mr. Melvin is available at his website: www.michaelanthonymelvin.com.

Advertisements

Book Review – Indispensable: Gautam Mukunda

In this “indispensable” guide to leadership, Gautam Mukunda attempted to answer a question scholars have debated for centuries. He set out to determine whether great times created great leaders or if extraordinary eras were the product of outstanding leadership. He also chose to address the question as to whether or not leaders really matter at all. An original approach to the analysis of leadership selection resulted.

 

The title derived from the infamous quotation attributed variously to Elbert Hubbard, Georges Clemenceau and Charles de Gaulle that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Muknuna presented a unique thesis that he called “Leadership Filtration Theory”, or LFT for short. In essence, he broke down leaders into two types: Filtered Modal and Unfiltered Extremes. He defined the former as the ones who passed through an extensive vetting process to make it to the top. The later he categorized as those who managed to skip a thorough period of analysis, or “filtration”, on their way to the primary job. (Curiously, he classified five of the six best and five of the six worst American Presidents as “Unfiltered Extremes”. [Page 28]) As one would expect from an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavioral Unit at the Harvard Business School, the author delivered a copious study of both types to buttress his arguments.

 

As a student of business, history and leadership this book presented a huge appeal to me and didn’t disappoint. I thought Mukunda’s selection of examples from fields diverse as politics, business, the military and medicine made his overall concept more rounded.

 

While the first part of Indispensable dealt heavily with theory, the second section provided detailed case studies of various leaders. Mukunda showed them in situations that required serious decision making. The author sedulously analyzed how they made their choices and then tied them to his thesis regarding Leadership Filtration Theory. I liked the leaders the author selected. The stories about unique personalities such as Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln and Neville Chamberlain in crisis situations enlivened the book. While charts and statistical analyses appeared in the text, the author relied more on the vignettes to advance his argument. I thought that a better choice than simply using volumes of raw data. It made the book much more accessible and, dare I write this about a work published by the Harvard Business Review Press, entertaining.

                       

I took a lot away from Indispensable, some ideas of which I found counterintuitive. The author pointed out how most leaders aren’t charismatic (Page 13), although for those who are Unfiltered Extremes it serves as an intensifier. (Page 14) As I interpret this, while the majority of Filtered Modal leaders Mukunda studied didn’t possess charisma, all of the Unfiltered Extremes did. This concept intrigued me. I figured all leaders had some degree of charisma.

 

The author provided another fascinating revelation in stating that Unfiltered Extreme Leaders often battled some form of mental illness. (Page 14) Primarily these included narcissism and paranoia. (Page 15) He acknowledged that depression also plagued some of them creating a phenomenon called “depressive realism”. (Page 18) Ironically in the right situation these traits could serve beneficial purposes. For instance, a depressed person would be more risk averse and able to understand a situation in way someone more optimistic wouldn’t. An individual suffering from paranoia would see threats not as obvious to others.

 

This revelation about many leaders having suffered from mental illness troubled me. It may cause me sleepless nights well into the foreseeable future. As the author pointed out later in the book:

We know, however, that power changes people, and that it does so in predictable ways. Groups usually give power to those who display empathy and social skills. Once people have power, though, they act more impulsively and less empathetically. Power makes those who hold it more like sociopaths and more willing to dehumanize those who lack it. (Page 231)

 

I did catch two factual mistakes in the book. One page 165 the author wrote that Winston Churchill “held (his Parliamentary Constituency) Epping for the rest of his life.” Actually Churchill left Parliament several months before his death. He chose not to stand for election in October of 1964. He passed away in January of 1965.

 

In the section on Woodrow Wilson the author wrote:

…(he) abandoned the law to enter graduate school in political science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. There he wrote his first book Congressional Government, garnering rave reviews despite the fact he never even made the short trip to Washington to observe Congress. He decided against pursuing a doctorate and went to Bryn Mawr to teach. (Page 100)

In fact, Wilson did receive a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins. The book that became Congressional Government started out as his doctoral thesis.

 

I disagreed with the author’s characterization of Neville Chamberlain. Muknunda wrote that a Filtered Modal such as Chamberlain would’ve performed well in ordinary circumstances. When faced with a situation that required extraordinary talent, he failed. (Page 154) That analysis seemed a bit glib to me. While I believe that Chamberlain’s quest to serve as the world’s peacemaker at best naïve and at worst arrogant, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame him for all the catastrophic mistakes that lead to war. 1920s and 1930s diplomacy was exclusively geared towards avoiding another World War I. (The author even noted the Kellogg-Briand Pact.) In retrospect, this led to an even greater much larger conflict. Chamberlain’s views at the time were well in-step with mainstream thinking.

 

In addition, as the author admitted, Britain wasn’t in a military position to do anything to stop the Third Reich’s territorial designs in the late 1930s. The UK did begin a military build-up under, not Churchill, but Chamberlain. The author even acknowledged that the next most likely Prime Minister at the time would’ve pursued the same policies. If Chamberlain had seen the true nature of Hitler’s designs and tried to oppose them, I think he would’ve ended up out in the wilderness with Churchill.

 

In a nut-shell, does leadership matter? The answer: it depends. The author concluded the book with the trenchant observation that “choosing a leader is about matching, not ranking.” (Page 231) In other words, management or the electorate needs to properly assess the situation before selecting the appropriate man or woman to lead it. The stakes have never been higher. As Mukunda wrote,

 

The escape from the tragedy—the potential triumph of leadership—lies in the discovery or creation of leaders who can resolve the dilemma, who can be both confident and humble as the situation requires. Holding anyone to such a standard is, by any measure, unfair. In today’s world, however, when leaders must make decisions of unimaginable complexity, whose consequences can be measured in trillions of dollars or millions of lives, holding them to any lesser standard is unthinkable. (Page 239)