John Culhane, a Rockford, Illinois-born journalist, author, and the model for the character of Mr. Snoops in the Disney animated film, The Rescuers, met his wife, Hind Rassam, a native of Baghdad, Iraq, when he reviewed her in a student performance of Antigone. John and Hind fell in love and had two sons, T. H. and Michael.
It is no surprise that the Culhane boys are born performers, a couple of very animated characters.
Once, as part of a story John did for the New York Times Magazine, he and the boys enrolled at Ringling Bros. Clown College in Sarasota, Florida, and T. H. and Michael became the youngest clowns ever to perform with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey big show.
T. H. graduated from Harvard. He taught for four years at Jefferson High School in South Central L. A., where he championed learning games like ‘Dumpster Theater’ for a science class he taught there. He and his students converted an unused dumpster sitting on campus into a stage. Dumpster Theater performances consisted of rapping about science.
With a $6,000 grant from PepBoys, T. H. and a group of mechanically gifted students at Jefferson built a hovercraft.
I once sat in on one of T. H.’s classes at Jefferson High. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what subject he was supposed to be teaching. One group of kids was in the back of the classroom silk-screening t-shirts for a small business they were running out of the high school.
He had turned a large storage closet into a computer room. Half a dozen geeks sat in there with the door closed, hacking away at code to build some kind of game or animation.
Another group of students huddled around a desk blueprinting the hovercraft. The kids who weren’t interested in participating, didn’t. Some girls gossiped and toyed with each others’ makeup, some kids put their heads on their desks and slept. T. H. ignored them. They weren’t in the scene. I didn’t realize it at the time, but T. H.’s educational methods were pure improvisation. In the improvisational model, teachers don’t ‘teach.’ They create environments and games in which learning has to occur for the players to achieve their objective. You cannot build a hovercraft, for example, without first doing your physics homework.
Today, T. H. his wife, Sybille, and their 16-week old son, Kilian, reside in Essen, Germany, the home base for their organization, Solar Cities, which helps install solar power in poor neighborhoods in Cairo (when’s the last time you saw a solar panel in a poor neighborhood in the U.S.?). T. H. spends a lot of time with the people of those Cairo neighborhoods, acting as a kind of pied piper of solar paneling. In his ‘spare time’ he’s completing a doctorate in Urban Planning from UCLA.
From 2004 to 2008, with funding from the U. S. State Dept., Sybille, T. H. and Michael toured the Middle East with Michael’s band, Circus Guy, promoting solar energy and other alternative fuels. For daytime performances, they powered their amps with solar panels. T. H. played guitar while unicycling back and forth across the stage. A documentary about their tour, Environmental Circus, directed by their friend James Dean Conklin, will premiere later this year.
There is a difference between the roles we play and our essential character as human beings. We all play many roles in our lives. The challenge is to play them through our character as human beings, through the truth of our authentic selves.
T. H. Culhane’s range of characters–circus clown, singer in the Harvard Krokodiloes, cultural anthropologist, high school teacher, Guatemalan breadnut developer (did I mention that?), alternative energy advocate, doctoral student–is plenty impressive. But that’s just a playlist. What matters is is how a player plays it.
What’s inspiring, what stirs the world around him to action, what changes the game, is the character of T. H. Culhane:
Bringer of water and happiness.